Title: The Light of Kerrindryr
Series: The War of Memory Cycle #1
Author: H. Anthe Davis
Published: 11 May 2013
Source: review copy from author
Genre: epic fantasy
Cob is a 17-year-old slave doing physical labour for the Crimson Army of the Phoenix Empire. He’s been a slave since the age of 8, as a consequence of his parents’ heretical belief in Dark faith. The idea is that punishing the children of such heretics is an effective conversion tool, and this strategy worked perfectly with Cob. He converted to the faith of the Imperial Light, and his devotion means that his tenure as a slave will end when he turns 18 in 5 months time.
Unfortunately, Cob is robbed of that freedom when his friend Darilan, a freesoldier, frames him for murder and chases him from the army camp. Cob finds himself doubly condemned, both for murder and running away.
Alone in the wide world for the first time, Cob turns out to be hopelessly ignorant. He’s illiterate. He grew up on a strict diet of Imperialist propaganda that he swallowed whole. He travelled with the Crimson Army, but he viewed every new place through an Imperialist perspective and doesn’t understand the nuances of people’s beliefs and cultures. Almost every time he speaks to someone he finds his beliefs challenged. People hate the Phoenix Empire and its Imperial Light religion and for good reason. The Light is not what he’s been told it is. The Dark is not the evil he believes it to be.
Cob doesn’t want to hear it, but the people who tell him these things are also the ones who help him because they oppose the Empire. He toys with the idea of returning to the Crimson Army and trying to set things straight, but then Darilan is sent to hunt him down with a contingent of soldiers. Darilan’s motives are a mystery – first he chased Cob away, then chases after him with terrifying zeal. Because of course, Cob is not just an ordinary slave. There’s something about him that the Empire wants under its control, and as a result, Darilan will chase him across the world.
First off, I’d like to mention that this is one of the best quality self-published novels I’ve read. Whenever I pick one up I brace myself for errors, weaknesses, and the kind of overall confused weirdness that typically characterises books that haven’t had enough critical readers, haven’t had a thorough scrubbing from a good editor, or should never have left the author’s brain.
The Light of Kerrindryr is not like that. It’s got some errors, but nothing major. It has the feel of a serious, structured endeavour rather than an early draft, and it doesn’t turn into an increasingly random mess as has been the case with some indie and self-published novels. There are two things in particular that I want to talk about – Cob, and the worldbuilding.
Cob’s character goes through a standard kind of hero’s journey – orphan turns out to be a chosen one with special powers – but mostly I was interested in the psychology of his character even though I didn’t like him because he’s a daft, self-righteous little git. He starts out being rigidly religious. Even though the Empire killed his father, imprisoned his mother and made him a slave, he believes wholeheartedly in the Imperial religion, blaming his father for his ‘Dark’ beliefs rather than the Empire for its intolerance. He’s proud to be an Imperialist, grateful that the Empire saved him. He accepts slavery the same way that other people accept having to go to high school. He says he wouldn’t hesitate to turn in his fellow slaves if they acted against the Imperial Light. He doesn’t mind that the Imperials mages routinely brainwash people to keep them controlled. When a woman offers him food an shelter he accepts it reluctantly, thinking guiltily that he should instead kill her cat and burn her books because she’s obviously witchfolk. The Empire offers Cob nothing but slavery and death, but he sees it as offering purification and salvation.
He knows very little about the world so people are always explaining things to him (a useful way of explaining things to the reader too) and he scoffs whenever their information contradicts what the Imperials told him. It’s not surprising that he reacts with hostility or even violence when his beliefs are challenged, although I feel particularly unsympathetic to him when he’s hostile toward the people who help him, often at great risk to themselves.
So yeah, Cob can be a stupid asshole, but that’s alright. I’m not the kind of reader who needs to like the main character; I just need to understand them. What I like about the way Davis wrote Cob is that you know why he does what he does even when you want to slap him, but he’s not so vile that he makes the book unpleasant.
And sometimes I really felt for him. He might have chosen the Empire over his parents, but he describes them as quasi-hermits who never spoke much so they probably didn’t have a strong bond. They seemed to fail him while the Empire seemed to save and support him. His whole world falls apart when Darilan betrays him, and while he might seem stupid for wanting to go back to being a slave in the camp, you can also understand that he wants to return to a familiar, structured world. I want him to be smarter and more open to different beliefs, but you can’t demand that a character fit your desires and most people find it difficult to change their beliefs, especially so suddenly and drastically. And Cob is forced to go through all this because he’s being used and manipulated. The poor boy has very little agency and no one really seems to care about him (not that he ever helps matters).
The one thing I admired about him was his friendship with Darilan. And it is a friendship, despite Darilan’s betrayal. For years, Darilan was a kind companion to Cob in an otherwise lonely life, and when Cob was severely injured by a wraith arrow, Darilan sat at his bedside until he recovered. Cob isn’t so stupid as to go running into Darilan’s arms when the man starts hunting him, but he never forgets that Darilan was good to him. Darilan himself turns out to be an interesting character, although it would spoil things for me to say why.
Let me get on to the worldbuilding. It’s pretty extensive, and keeps going throughout the book. There are loads of locations, descriptions of sociopolitical relations between those locations, Imperial politics, religion, myth, magic, culture, etc. What I need to admit though, is that a lot of this goes in one ear and out the other with me. I don’t read a lot of epic fantasy specifically because it’s extremely detailed in ways I don’t necessarily enjoy or even care about. Two major exceptions are The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin and the Gentleman Bastard series by Scott Lynch. I devoured the worldbuilding in those books because it’s particularly vivid and unusual but I get the impression that these series are unique in the genre. I like A Song of Ice and Fire, but I find the amount of detail in those books increasingly tedious and too easily forgotten. I don’t ever want to read Tolkien again.
But I know epic fantasy fans love long books with lots of detail. And this is a long, detailed book – it’s listed as being 446 pages on Goodreads, but my Kindle shows over 10 000 locations, which puts it something more like 800 pages. This is not something I appreciate, but I feel bad because I get the sense that the author put in a lot of effort and yet I’m never going to remember how the architecture of one town differs from another or the specifics of the creation myth.
That said, I liked was the novel’s ability to surprise and impress me with its worldbuilding and plot. The world just keeps growing, opening itself up to you. Several times when I thought it was becoming a bit too conventional or dull, something new and interesting would be revealed. The characters will be riding along on their horses, which turn out to be weird breeds – Tasgard horses are powerful lion-tailed omnivores with sharp canines; Ten-Sky horses have striped coats, short spiral horns and split-hooves. I thought all the people were human until suddenly ogres, goblins and other creatures popped up. Cob is not the only character who is more than he appears to be. And in among the fantasy are elements that feel more like sci fi, giving the book a more interesting feel.
However, there are things in which I wish the author had more surprises and nuances to reveal. Like in the Phoenix Empire, which is irredeemably evil. I don’t like this; I prefer the moral complications of grey areas, and the Empire… well. Under Imperial rule, cats are killed because they’re believed to be witchbeasts who spy for the Dark. It’s illegal for commoners to own books. Mages brainwash people as a matter of routine. The Empire is a fanatically religious, propagandising, cat-killing, slave-owning, book-burning, brainwashing monster. There’s no hope here.
I would also have preferred more female characters. There are a few, most notably a 21-year-old woman named Lark who teaches Cob about the Shadow world, a parallel realm in which she is a kind of business person/diplomat. But Lark is one of very few women and the only one with a major role. As seems the norm in epic fantasy, this is a sexist world and the female characters are scattered. On the plus side, there are plenty of POC characters because this is an openly multicultural world, and that’s worth a lot in this genre.
I haven’t said much about the plot, but it’s similar to the worldbuilding in that it’s long and detailed (sometimes overwhelmingly so), but it has twists and surprises that I liked. Lots of different elements are brought into play, preparing the stage for an even more expansive and thrilling sequel. I’m not sure if I’ll read the next book, but that’s because I think this book just isn’t for me. I have to admire it as a self-published novel though, one that I’d definitely recommend to epic fantasy fans.