I first heard of Alec Hutson when I returned to the world of fantasy after a years-long sabbatical. At the time, The Crimson Queen was topping the charts, neck-and-neck with The White Tower by Michael Wiseheart. I watched Hutson win the coveted Readers’ Favorite Award for Epic Fantasy and become a Finalist in SPBFO. So, basically, I came to know of Alec Hutson as a truly successful independent author, the kind I aspired to be.
It wasn’t until just this year that I actually read his novels. I commenced a COVID-inspired gardening project over the summer and picked up Hutson’s The Raveling audio bundle to listen to as I worked in the yard. I soon found myself totally consumed with it, yard work be damned. It was everything I ever wanted in a fantasy series: absolutely epic with a sprawling world of such depth and nuance that it left me breathless. Hutson had the most tangible, well-researched world I’ve ever read outside of Erikson. He is a true wordsmith whose prose is elegant and lyrical. To say I became an Alec Hutson fan was an understatement.
So of course I jumped at a chance to read an Advanced Copy of The Shadows of Dust.
I admit, after reading the first chapter, I was shook.
This was not the Alec Hutson novel I was expecting. The Shadows of Dust is a radical departure from The Crimson Queen and, indeed, from classic epic fantasy in general. It'd go so far as to say it's an entirely different genre. The novel takes place in space, but it’s not really science fiction either. The spaceship is basically a space-swimming turtle that harkens back to Pratchet’s Diskworld novels. There’s tons of magic and alien races and so many other REALLY COOL amazing things…
…and I still don’t know what genre this book fits into.
All I know is that it works. It works really, really well.
This wasn’t the Alec Hutson I was used to or expecting. But once I got over my initial shock and started reading, I found myself truly absorbed.
So, let’s talk about it.
Basically, the story is about a streamsurfer, Kerin thon Talisien, who plies the stellar tributaries on his telepathic starbeast, a giant, space-faring turtle named Drifter. They pick up some passengers, most notably a young slave girl who had served several years as a pain conduit in a temple. Yeah. That sounds bad. It is. Anyway, stuff hits the fan in a very big way when they run into giant, space-lurking lich-dragons, elder races, powerful artifacts of long-vanished societies, resistance forces fighting an evil empire, potent wizards, and mysterious, long-lost acquaintances with shadowy pasts. That’s a pretty heady mixture, and it makes for a very potent plot.
Even though The Shadows of Dust is a dramatic departure from Hutson’s previous work, it still shines for the same reasons. The worldbuilding is breathtaking. The Streams, the ancient alien civilizations that chose to ascend, the artifacts they left behind, ghostly spacefaring liches imbued with tremendous alien power, temples, empires… it goes on and on. Hutson’s universe has a pretty tremendous scope. I really hope this becomes a series because the universe simply seems too sprawling, too well thought-out to be contained in just one novel.
As in The Raveling, Hutson’s characters are easy to care about. I became instantly attached to Drifter the starbeast-turtle. I mean, who wouldn’t love such a thing? Kerin, the protagonist, is telepathically bonded to Drifter the same way Anne McCaffrey’s dragons were bonded to their riders. His companion, Nala, is of a race of cat-like people that remind me of the khajiit of The Elder Scrolls. And, of course, she’s a battlemage. A cat-woman battlemage is, in my book, pretty badass. Then there is Sep, the poor waif that is a former pain-conduit. You really can’t find a more sympathetic character than that. And she winds up in trouble right away, with an ancient alien artifact-weapon grafted to her.
There’s a ton of magic in this book, so you really can’t call this a science fiction novel, which is why I’m leaning toward science fantasy. Other works that do this kind of blend well that come to mind are Dune and, of course, Star Wars (not many people think of the Force as fantasy magic, but it is, and the Jedi are basically sorcerers). But this goes even more into the fantastical then either of those, so it’s hard to peg as science fiction. I think I’ll leave pinning this novel to a specific genre up to greater minds than me.
The action sequences—and they’re a ton of them—are exciting and well-written. They never drag, never get too detailed or bogged down in description. They kept me engaged, the pages flying through my hands. This book really had so many cool things going for it, I could probably go on for another three or four pages, but this review has already gotten pretty long, so I think I should probably wrap it up.
As you can probably tell, I loved the book. I thought it was a truly amazing and unique piece of fantastical science fiction, and I urge you to read it. I bet you’ll love it too. It has so many elements that come from so many diverse subgenres…. In the hands of anyone but an expert storycrafter, this work could have easily turned into a Frankensteined disaster. But in the hands of Alec Hutson, The Shadows of Dust stands apart as a monument to what is possible within the realms of speculative fiction.