reviews

The Maleficent Seven by Cameron Johnston - Book Review

Write on: Mon, 09 Aug 2021 by  in Gary's Reviews Read 636

Rating 4.5/5

A bloody brilliant standalone and a wonderful dark fantasy homage to Kurosawa.

There’s no real need to set the premise of The Maleficent Seven since it’s in the title. Most people will be at least familiar with the seven samurai trope (unless they have been living under a rock the last seventy years). What makes Johnston’s take on one of storytelling’s most compelling tropes so good and work so well is that his seven heroes are the vilest, most twisted and downright evilest crew of bastards you can imagine. Like some fantasy Suicide Squad

Characterisation is integral to a good story and I’m delighted to say that Johnston nailed it here. Each character felt multi-faceted and unique, including their villainous tendencies, inner conflicts, perceptions of things (and people), and even the way they literally speak. Black Herran is a worthy successor to the wise strategist Kambei and gun-slinging Chris Adams (I can just imagine them giving her that famous Robert Redford nod). A natural fear-inducing leader with an eye for the long game, her goal of stopping the fanatical fire-wielding Lucent Empire may seem suicidal but the old demonologist has a few tricks (and demons) up her sleeve. 

If I were to pick a favourite character, I’d be doing the book a disservice since they are all appealing in their own way. Lorimer is a scary guy that makes even the bravest of souls piss themselves. He may have a habit of eating people but he is an absolute gentleman, with a very honourable code. Amogg is a big orc with a big axe and a very big tendency to cut straight to the point. She feels like a distant cousin to Warhammer’s Grimgor Ironhide, and even has a Grimgor moment that had me cheering and laughing my arse off. Tiarnach is just plain hilarious and the heart and soul of the party, stealing the show whenever he appears on page. Maeven is perhaps the most conflicting of characters and I was constantly torn between rooting for her and wanting someone to do her in. Either way, I was still completely invested in her personal story. Then there is Jerak. I developed a weird admiration for the mad alchemist's creativity but at the same time developed such a deep passionate hatred for him. Each character triggered a strong reaction from me, which shows how good Johnston is at characterisation. 

The Maleficent Seven follows a similar three act structure to that of the source of its inspiration. Johnston wastes no time in getting the ball rolling, setting the stakes early on and sending readers off to round up the old gang. Part of the fun is meeting each character for the first time and seeing how they react to each other. There is an awful lot of bad blood between them but two things quickly become clear: Black Herran is still the boss and everyone hates Jerak. The second act involves preparing the defences and the vanguard assault, with the third act delivering an explosive and satisfying finale. It is a simple but very effective structure and Johnston has plenty of surprises in store of readers. I read the book in three sittings across three days. 

I do have a couple of criticisms, the primary one being Johnston’s decision to use a mix of third person limited and omniscient. Personally, I prefer the former over the latter. Most of the head-hopping happens during the action, which is fine, but I believe a consistent focus on a single character would have served these scenes better. Also, some of the humour felt a little forced, making the dialogue for a number of scenes early on seem wooden. One particular scene that comes to mind is when we first meet Amogg. Out of all the character introductions, hers had the least natural flow. 

Minor criticisms aside, The Maleficent Seven was such a fun read which I recommend to any reader looking for a standalone dark fantasy story full of humour, fast-paced action and horrible heroes. It is a wonderful homage to Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and John Sturges’ Magnificent Seven, so if you are a fan of them, then you will enjoy this. I am aware that Johnston has no current plan to write a sequel and I am OK with that. Nonetheless, I would happily read an origin story or two if he ever decided he wanted to expand this world. I will be on a look out for what Johnston has planned next and intend to check out some of his previous work too. 

I received an approved ARC from the publisher, Angry Robot Books, through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. 

Gary

Gary is a small town Irishman with a love for all things historical and fantastical. He works as an English and History teacher at post-primary where he endeavours to instil and nurture a love for reading and writing in students. Tea is his weakness. Reading is his passion. His one goal in life is to buy a castle when he retires.