I don’t think I even knew about this book until about a month ago. I think stumbled upon it by accident in someone’s blogpost about upcoming Asian inspired fantasy releases, and I was immediately fascinated. And while it took me a bit to immerse myself in it, I am so glad to have discovered this book and gotten hold of the ARC.
The world building is one aspect that impressed me a lot. As the author is Filipino-American, I was expecting some inspiration from his country and their culture, but I was pleasantly surprised to realize that each of the kingdom present in this book is drawn from a different Asian country, and it’s developed so well that we are able to distinguish them pretty well. I particularly loved that one of them was based on India but it’s also the one kingdom which is least talked about in the book, so I kept wishing for more.
The other interesting aspect of this world is the pacting (or their version of magic). The people of Sanbuna and Shang are capable of shadepacting with animals – which is like forming a soul bond with an animal’s shade and then being able to call upon their familiar to fight alongside them. The Tomodanese on the other hand pact with metals, which helps them in controlling their weapons or using it to power their vehicles. The people of Dahal use their power internally to enhance their personal capabilities. Jeongsonese are the oppressed minority who are capable of pacting but have always been denied the right to gain the knowledge to do so. This distinction between the use of magic across various kingdoms is very helpful in developing differing motivations for each of them, letting us as readers experience varying perspectives and probably finding our own favorites.
The writing style of this novel was also slightly different from what I’m used to but I’m unable to articulate exactly how that was. It is very introspective and we are subjected to many inner monologues of the characters – which I really enjoyed for the most part and helped me understand them better and invest in their development – but it also got long winded at times and may have contributed to the size of the book. I’m usually not a fan of dense writing, so the descriptive writing style should have put me off but I kinda enjoyed it and it made the settings feel more real. The main theme of the book is colonialism but despite the dark themes, there is also a very humorous undertone in the writing.
The pacing is also a little slow throughout but it is relentless, with things changing quickly and the characters having to adapt and evolve all the time. This is also essentially a quest/ journey novel and those seem to be my thing this year, so it’s not a surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed this journey with the characters. And the best part was that the author managed to give very distinct voices to each of them, so we are never confused about whose POV we are reading. I’m currently unsure if this is a standalone or a series, but the author did a wonderful job ending it very satisfactorily, so I’m happy if this the actual end; but there are also multiple threads that can be pursued to further this story and I would be delighted to jump into this world all over again.
The characters are definitely the best and my most favorite part of this book, but I don’t wanna talk about them much. I think the beauty of this book is in discovering the various layers of each character and realizing what lays at the core of them. One thing common between all the POV characters is that they are real, flawed, pretty morally grey, not immune from being prejudiced and treating those different from them in a vile manner – but all of them go through a journey of unlearning all the wrong things, understanding others’ perspectives and building relationships with unlikely people. I felt very invested in knowing where the characters were going and what they might do next, so I never wanted to put the book down even though it was all a bit slow going. The characters do fall into familiar fantasy tropes like a grumpy soldier, an arrogant prince, a Sherlock inspired detective type character and a petty thief who gets roped into working for the other side – so it can feel a little predictable, but I enjoyed this slight predictability but also felt highly satisfied with the way things turned out for each of them.
Though the author chose not to be very subtle in discussing some important themes, it didn’t in anyway lessen the impact of what was being told through the story. The impact of colonialism is very brutally described, along with the blatant disingenuous reasons that power hungry nations can come up with to colonize and occupy another country. It’s very evident that whatever noble the initial intentions may have been, the reality of occupation is always ugly. But the most important point that I think the author tried to make was that even if the colonizer is defeated by a revolution, war always brings out worst impulses and it doesn’t take much for the oppressed to turn into an oppressor. The nature of war and it’s impact on soldiers, and the utter lack of direction and purpose that they might feel during peace time is also deftly talked about.
I also loved how the author decided to give equal weight to all kinds of relationships. The importance of family and sibling bonds, and how losing them can have far reaching consequences forms an important part of the character’s choices and the kind of people they turn out to be. I also enjoyed the way human/animal bonds are shown – while some people can truly treat their familiars as slaves and impose their will upon them, others form bonds based on mutual respect and it was wonderful of the author to show us both perspectives. The book is also very queer and I loved how normalized it was in this world. It was lovely to see lesbian, gay, bi and trans characters all be able to be their true selves without any judgement.
I guess I’ve gone on long enough in this review. Basically, all I want to say is I really really enjoyed this book a lot and I’m glad I got this opportunity to discover a new to me Asian author. As it has been marketed, if you like anime or Pokémon or are a fan of Fullmetal Alchemist, then this book might be for you, but I can’t vouch for it because I know nothing about them. However, if you do love reading about an ensemble cast of characters going on a physical (as well as metaphorical) journey to discover some hard truths about the world and find themselves changing accordingly, then this might be the perfect book for you. It also works very well as a standalone, so you should definitely give this a try if you aren’t ready to invest your time in a new series.
PS: Thank you to Del Ray Books and Netgalley for providing me with this advance copy. All opinions expressed here are unbiased and solely mine.