Saturday 26 October 2013

'The Heresy Within' - surprisingly good dark fantasy

[This is a review of The Heresy Within, a novel by Rob J Hayes]

Let's get the basic criticisms out of the way first. This book is under-edited; it's under proof-read. There are few actual spelling errors but a lot of homonym errors, and (for me) that's irritating.

This is fantasy without a lot of magic and without a lot of monsters: fantasy, in fact, about human beings and how they interact. Which is to say, frankly, fantasy as I like it. But it's nevertheless extremely dystopian fantasy. The civilised empire (in which the narrative spends very little time) is a theocracy where orthodoxy is policed by an all powerful inquisition; what precisely constitutes heresy isn't clear, at least from this book, but it has to do with the use of magic. Which is odd, because the inquisition are, for most of the narrative, the only people with the power to use magic. The principle protagonist is an officer of this inquisition.

The bulk of the narrative, however, is set in 'the wild', a very large area of lawless steppe nominally ruled by nine aristocratic families. In this lawless, chaotic and wartorn region, outlawry is rife. The novel follows a band of outlaws who ally with the protagonist to help him complete his quest - they have a contract to assassinate the aristocrat whom he has been sent to question.

Most first books of new trilogies spend a lot of time world building. In this book the world building is done very lightly, in the course of the narrative, never interrupting the flow; and it's done by showing, not telling. We learn only broad brushstrokes about parts of the world this narrative doesn't visit, and we learn them en passant; the parts the narrative does visit we see as the protagonists encounter them, through their eyes and from their viewpoint.

Characters are strongly drawn, and, despite the fact that all the key characters have profound moral flaws, are interesting and engaging; as a reader it's not hard to engage with them, ride with them, root for them. The magical physics are well explained and consistent, and although there is a mild Deus ex Machina moment, it is consistent with magical physics which has already been established.

All in all this is definitely writing on a par with authors like, for example, Joe Abercrombie, who have been much more extensively promoted. I recommend it!

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