The Umbral Storm is a classic epic fantasy full of action and magic. It delivers a set of likeable and interesting characters who keep us rooting for them throughout the twists and turns of an inventive and surprising story. It’s got a clearly articulated magic system replete with hints of progression fantasy, and solid worldbuilding that feels organic and like it has more beneath the surface.
Deryn lives a bleak existence. Orphaned, and virtually a slave, he subsists in a remote woodland camp, hunting tree crabs for a cruel master. But all of that changes when he encounters a mysterious girl in the forest. Soon, he will come face to face with members of the Sharded Few, demigod-like people who have absorbed fragments of mystical gems that imbue them with superhuman strength and magical abilities.
The Sharded Few are those rare and special individuals capable of absorbing a fragment of the Heart of the World. The different types of shards, and the different number absorbed, and the various abilities they grant form the basis for an fun magic system that highlights the acquisition of new powers. Like progression fantasy or Academy tropes, a fair portion of this narrative is devoted to learning about the shards and developing new and more powerful abilities. And it is done well. If you enjoy any sort of magical training tropes, you will enjoy this aspect of the book. But this central magic system is grounded in the history of the world, and beyond it, there are hints of other magic, and of complications and uniqueness that breaks the mold of the Sharded system.
I found myself rooting for each of the POVs, my pathos deftly transferred from one to the next by good characterization. There were, however, a few minor things that felt mildly off in this regard. For instance, Heth’s POV is heavy enough at the beginning, in terms of page count, that it felt like perhaps he was supposed to be the “main” character. I’m not exactly sure why that matters, but I did find myself earlier noting how much time our perspective had spent away from Deryn, the protagonist. Also Alia, the novel’s female POV, felt a little light on agency through a big portion of the book. Her chapters weren’t boring, but it still felt like her passages weren’t influencing the plot much. Toward the end, there was also one inexplicable event that felt a little like the author nudging pieces around to make them fit. I came up with an explanation for the event, in theory, but it wasn’t on the page, and that put me off balance as I headed into the finale. I kept expecting the explanation to be forthcoming, and to tie-in to loyalty reversals that didn’t happen. Still, the narrative recovered nicely, and once it moved on, I let it go.
Let’s talk about action. This book has a lot of great fight scenes. Honestly, I’m normally not big on a lot of lengthy battles. Hutson does a great job of keeping fights fresh and pithy. There are a lot of different battles but each is unique and engaging, featuring new creatures, new baddies, or new magic. Some of the battles in this book are friggin amazing. There is one in particulary that struck me as EPIC— all caps. If you love magical badasses flinging powerful spells and taking on mythical beasts, read this book!
I enjoyed The Umbral Storm quite a bit. Alec Hutson has the epic fantasy genre dialed in. Multiple POVs, layers of intrigue and cascading conflicts, along with big set pieces, and dynamic fight scenes. The pace was compelling, as was the levelling up aspect of the Sharded’s training. The story was just really solid and immediately intriguing. The pages flew by and I stayed up past my bedtime more than once to find out what would happen next. And really, that’s what I want when I pick up a book. I want to have trouble putting it down.
SPFBO Score: 8.0