Book Review: Blackthorne by Stina Leicht

2 Aug

 

Eledore has fallen! In the wake of the near-genocidal attack on the already plague-ridden kingdom, the remnants and survivors of the attack by the Acrasian Empire have several pressing problems. First, the Acrasians, now that they have smashed the Kingdom, consider the flinders to be easy pickings. Kainen hunted for sport, territory conquered, a proud kingdom ruined. Worse, the remaining Kainen polities, like the Waterborne Nations, and Ytlain, have to deal with this new political reality, and Eledore’s fallen status means that its people must often go cap in hand to their brethren, and suffer and bargain for what they once could ask for freely. Even more of a problem is the problem that Eledore has stood athwart for centuries and no longer can: The otherdimensional, eldritch problem of the malorum. Now that the gates are opening and malorum are coming through, the survivors of Eledore are under literal siege from this threat.

Not that the Acrasians are as well off as they might be. Yes, the great victory against the Eledorean menace has occurred. But in the wake of that victory, the local and resident nonhuman population, overt and covert, have been restive. Some have even been seeking escape from the Regnum, to get beyond the borders of a state slowly and inexorably tightening into Caesarism. Besides the high level political problems, seen only at a distance and remove, the street-level problems of life in the Regnum are multiplying. The malorum are now a looming threat on the streets of Novus Salernum itself.

Stina Leicht’s Blackthorne follows on her first foray into epic flintlock fantasy, Cold Iron.

The strongest of the point of view characters is, no surprise, the titular Blackthorne himself. The “man inside” who has to get out is a classic story, and Blackthorne provides a thread of connection between events in the Regnum and events in the shattered remnants of Eledore. Far above and beyond a plot device, he is also given some surprises and his character and mettle are tested more than once. He bears the name of the novel well. The remainder of the POVs, old and new, are extremely good as well. I particularly liked the short and relatively brief POV from one of the Acrasians, Captain Drake, a Watch Captain, but all of the characters resonated and sang to me.

The style of rotating POVs with varying chapter lengths is a really strong way to organize an epic fantasy novel if handled right, and the author manages, with efficient and fast paced writing, to keep a lot of balls juggling in the air and never let the reader get bogged down too much with one area of the world, or one character. The points of view are immersive even on a textual level and a head level. Nels, for example, the former Prince of Eledore, is also Captain Hännenen. Blackthorne, however, in scenes where he is the POV, never calls or thinks of him as Nels, and always as Captain Hännenen, even if the reader knows full well one is the other. Even the dating in points of view show a Regnum or Eleadorean method of reckoning depending on whose chapter it is.

I really enjoyed the minor characters, too, who did not get chapters and POV of their own. There are plenty of non-POV characters who come onto the stage of the book, grab attention, and then continue on with their lives, problems, fears, and joys. I daresay given the structure and nature of the book, some of them could have carried POVs of their own. But that way lies madness for a writer, and I was glad of their company. From Captain Julia to Sergeant Benbow, the care in how the writer evokes these minor players in the story is a testament to her skill. And there are plenty of references and easter eggs to be found in these characters and places.

And there are plenty of action beats. Malorum attacks, chases, derring-do and much more. There’s plenty of quiet character moments, and then sudden and well executed falls into violence and action that keep the motor of the book humming. Whether you want conflict at sea against storms, fights against malorum, or action on the mean streets of Nova Salerum, the author has got all the bases covered in the novel. My attention never had the opportunity to flag, a joy in a long epic novel of this scope and length. There was always a drive to turn the page in Leicht’s novel.

The novel is a second book in an ongoing series, and so while there is not a lot of resolution of threads and plots, there is complication of threads, development of threads and deepening of the world as we see it. We get more set in the fascinating Waterborne Nations for instance, and a peek at an intriguing and potent sea goddess with an agenda all of her own for her would-be chosen. The malorum, the overarching threat of the entire series (if the title of the series, the Malorum Gates is any judge) get a heck of a lot of development here. And I particularly like our in deep view of the Acrasian Imperium. The Acrasians are definitely based on the Roman Republic model, complete with consuls and gens, but of course, with an aversion to magic, gunpowder weapons, and more importantly a hinted-at-backstory of being natural disaster refugees from another continent. All sorts of visions of what the Acrasian homeland was like dance in my head, and my gears whir at working out what this exile did to the base culture. (I am reminded of John Maddox Roberts Hannibal’s Children, which has a Rome-in-exile-after-defeat up in Germany). In fact, the novel starts off a with brand new Acrasian POV right within Acrasia itself. I devoured the Acrasian detail with a spoon and was glad the author focused on the city as she did.

I could have wished for a character list, and perhaps just a little more folded-in detail about the events of the first novel into the text. It’s been a while since I read it, and I had to stop, remember and look at my copy of Cold Iron to orient myself once the action went back to the Eledoreans after the “Acrasian open”.  But this is a flaw and problem that goes to the form, and not the author. In short order, I was immersed again in the author’s world, and happily so through to the other side. I eagerly await developments, characters old and new, and what the author has next for Vastmarke, the kingdoms, Regnums and characters of her world. You will want to start with Cold Iron, but I daresay you will enjoy Blackthorne perhaps even more than that worthy book.

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