Book Review: Blood of an Exile by Brian Naslund

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Sentenced to die. Impossible to kill.
Bershad was supposed to die. When he was caught attempting to assassinate a fellow noble, he was given the harshest sentence: a command to slay dragons, so his death might serve the kingdom. Yet for some reason he never lost a fight and is now the most successful dragon-slayer in history. However, as a doomed man Bershad is still shunned by his peers and his countrymen. But that could all change.
The king who sentenced Bershad has just given him a way out: kill a foreign monarch and walk free forever. His problem is that Bershad couldn’t care less about the fates of kingdoms – until the dragon-slayer discovers he could save an innocent child in the process.
His mission might also save every creature in Terra.

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As someone who reads adult fantasy very rarely, I usually only pick up books which my friends have already loved and are sure I would too. But this is a book I didn’t see anyone within my small group talk about but since the first time I saw it mentioned in a booktube video, I was totally fascinated and I knew I had to take a chance. And I’m so so happy that I stuck to my instincts because I was completely engrossed from start to finish.

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The world building in this book is just perfect. As you can guess from the series title (Dragons or Terra), this is a world which has lots and lots of dragons, all different kinds with their own characteristics and habits and strengths. Almira is the main kingdom we follow which is bogged down by its issues like infighting between the various lords for more power, people who are very superstitious and  would rather depend on their totems and prayers than go to an alchemist who can solve their problems, and there are multiple areas in the kingdom which are affected by some sort of plague for which no solution has been found. On the other hand, Balaria is the enemy kingdom which has made a fortune by killing off most of its dragons and using the oil to build a technologically advanced city. I loved this dichotomy of a medieval and steampunk like kingdoms existing in the same world. And the travel between these two kingdoms takes us through various kinds of landscapes and I loved the descriptions of the mountains, rivers, barges, dragon warrens etc.

The best part of the world for me was how the environment and ecology was described. Through discussions between characters ( and not info dumps), we come to realize how important each living creature is to the overall health of the land, including the super predators like the dragons. And while killing dragons for oil can provide for short term prosperity, it’s long term consequences like drought and famine and other devastation to the ecology is never considered except the few  people who care but are dismissed. I think this is a great parallel to our world and how we exploit the nature and resources we have in the name of capitalism and development without realizing what we are doing to our future.

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I’m always scared when I start an adult fantasy that it might be too complicated, or the language very lyrical/metaphorical for me. I like my books to be straightforward which is what I love the most about YA fantasy novels. Thankfully, this book was exactly how I wanted it to be. The third person multiple POV writing style was very easy to follow, and the author did such a brilliant job of being able to distinguish between the characters’ voices that I never got confused who we were following. It did get gory at times which I’m not used to, and some scenes were just brutal to get through. The feeling of dread when a dragon attacks or the adrenaline pumping action sequences are written excellently as well and I really enjoyed reading them.

Among all these action sequences, we also get a journey and this whole year has been me discovering my love for fictional journeys, and this was no different. The author uses the journey and the conversations that happen during it to develop the relationships between the characters and give us more insight into their motivations, and that was amazing. However, this also leads to the pace of the story being a bit on the slower side, which didn’t affect my enjoyment at all. This is also not a very twists and turns kinda book, but does have a few mysteries and betrayals that the characters are trying to unravel, and I had so much fun figuring them out correctly just before the actual revelation happened. But there was one thing which I didn’t see coming at all and that left me very bereft and in tears. The author also ends the book in such a way that there are enough plotlines resolved to work as a standalone, while also leaving us with so many exciting possibilities in a sequel.

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While I keep harping on about the excellent world and writing, it’s still the characters who are the strength of this book. Silas Bershad, the Flawless and the acclaimed dragon slayer of the land is an exile who is just going through his life with lots of regrets, always prepared to die. Fourteen years of slaughtering has changed him a lot and he doesn’t think he deserves any good things, but deep down he is so compassionate and will do anything for the ones he loves (who are very very few). His shield is Rowan who has followed him since the beginning and their loyalty to each other is just beautiful. They may bicker and admonish each other, but ultimately it’s a deep friendship and I was so glad they had each other. But the third entity in their trio is their donkey Alfonso, and I promise you I don’t remember ever seeing a donkey in a book before but I loved him. These three are just awesome and the way Silas and Rowan care for Alfonso is heartwarming.

Felgor the thief, and Vera the bodyguard who lost her charge are the other two people who make up the group which goes on the journey from Almira to Balaria for their task. They are all basically outlaws who have nobody, and there is a lot of friction initially, but as they face dangerous situations and fight them together, they all form a bond and I was thoroughly impressed by the way the author developed these relationships in a believable manner. It’s very hard not to get attached to them all.

Ashelyn is the princess crowned Queen of Almira and I thought it was so refreshing to see a very scientific ruler on the throne, who loves conducting her research into how everything is connected in nature and take steps to ensure that her world is not destroyed due to poor short term decisions. We also have an assassin who is hell bent on creating chaos in her kingdom, an apprentice alchemist who just wants to conduct his experiments and many others who will do anything to harness the power in this world.

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To conclude, I just want to say that if you love to read about a world full of dragons, you should totally pick this book up. If you enjoy books with equal parts extensive world building and excellent plotting, this is perfect. And if like me, you are a fan of a very unlikely group of flawed people coming together for a quest and start caring for each other, I highly recommend this book. The author has written a great debut fantasy balancing all the elements perfectly, full of thrilling and emotional moments and characters you can’t help but fall in love; and in the process setup a great sequel which promises to be full of more dragons and definitely a lot more magic. I already can’t wait for Sorcery of a Queen.

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