*This review contains spoilers*
This book was assigned to me for SPFBO7. I purposefully did no research before starting it, so I had no idea what it was even about. The cover is compelling, so I was excited to dig in.
This story is told from several POVs. First there is Arden, a teenager being raised in the Borderlands, a harsh, snow-filled land that’s perpetually at war. The tribes of the Borderlands - a Norse-like culture - keep the barbarians at bay, who are even farther north. I really enjoyed Arden’s story. He’s got the golden eyes of the mages, but doesn’t seem able to wield magic. It marks him as different, and generally people in this world view mages as dangerous. Arden has somehow become part of a particular group of Borderland warriors, making a name for himself as an archer. As time progresses, it becomes clear he is more than what he seems.
The next POV is that of Katerina Kane, an Inspector in the southern city of Archania. This is the capital city, whose King is ailing and soon to be replaced by his eldest, stuck-up son. Kane is a bit older, which I liked, and has spent most of her life solving crimes and putting the criminals in the dungeon. She has recently lost a lover, a Borderland warrior named Braego. He was murdered, and she is determined to find out who did it. In the process, she becomes enmeshed with the Doctors, a group of people who keep their identities unknown, and who are working to set the kingdom aright. Archania has two distinct groups of people: those with money and power who live in the Upper City, and the dregs of society, the poor and working man, in the Lower City. It is clear in Kane’s POV that the unrest in the Lower City is causing problems. The world is breaking, so to speak. There are earthquakes, and the city is gradually being overtaken by an Empire, whose religious leader has started to gain influence in the Upper City. The religious leader - Mason - is stirring up religious fervor, particularly against the mages, hunting them down and burning them in the name of the One God. The Lower City is still following the Four Gods, and isn’t taking this new Empiric religion very well. The city is reaching a boiling point, and the book builds the tension quite nicely.
Another POV is that of Sly, a Borderland warrior who is tasked with joining Raven Redbeard, a tribal leader, whose brother was the murdered Braego. They are heading towards Archania to find out what happened, along with two other warriors. They are of another tribe, and the tension between these two tribes is also building.
Then there is Cypher, a true sociopath. He is a torturer in the dungeons of Archania, who is pulled into the Doctors’ plots of rebellion against the King. He switches sides for various reasons, but is after only one thing: satisfying himself by killing as many people as possible.
Lastly, there is Aliester. He’s a sellsword who finds his way back to Archania after several years in the company of his sister and good friend. He finds the city much changed - rebellion is in the air, and he’s trying to find out why.
In general, this was a well-written book. There are several grammatical mistakes, such as missing words or quotation marks, or commas where there should be periods, and vice versa. There is also one scene where the names of two female characters are switched. It could have used another editing pass. However, I really did enjoy reading it. The pacing is good, the plot is thought out, and the characters, although sometimes a bit overdone, are interesting. The best part, in my opinion, is the politics. The clash of religions, the way the Upper City and the Lower City are dealing with it, and the various groups fomenting rebellion was outstanding.
Perhaps my biggest peeve was the modern vernacular thrown in. It really jerked me from the world to read terms like “testosterone-filled” or “you almost gave me a heart attack!” among several other phrases that just didn’t fit the setting. However, this being a debut novel, such things can be forgiven. You really get a sense that the author put a lot of work into making this a complex, interesting story. The various characters come together in a seamless, breathtaking ending that was quite satisfying. Kudos to the author for weaving a compelling tale of what happens when the poor and downtrodden finally rise up to take their place in a society that is committed to maintaining the status quo.