I received this book as an author review request a few months before SPFBO4 was official. I really don’t this review to be taken as anything other than my own personal opinion, and I definitely do not mean to step on the toes of other judges this year in any way.
The first line in the book is describing the difficulties of severing a head with a knife and how it’s more difficult than many people think. It sets up the readers to anticipate a darker book with a lot of violence – which is absolutely what you should expect from the rest of it. If you’re not a fan of grimdark, this book will likely not be to your taste.
So, it’s one of the main character, Rah, severing the head at the beginning of the book. He wasn’t doing it to be barbaric, he was doing it because his culture believes that the soul resides in the head, and if a head is left on a body after death it traps the soul inside. The head must be severed and brought to a priest so the soul can be released. He was actually spending all that time on the enemy’s head even though his followers didn’t see the point. He’s a deeply devout person who holds his honor above everything else. However, his unbreakable will to do the right thing lands him in a lot of trouble. Instead of surrendering and bending the knee, he chose exile for himself and his riders which is making waves among his own people. He gets challenged for his leadership position and ends up killing the challenger who was a lifelong friend of his. He didn’t want to do it, and he was begging the man to surrender when it was clear he would lose, but he didn’t and so then he ended up carrying his head along with the others in search of a temple. During their search for a city to rest in, they end up being outnumbered and forced into servitude bearing incredible hardship and violation.
Miko is a princess, around 14-16 years old and her mother has decided its time for her to get married, she’s extremely reluctant about it but does try to see the logic in it. The man she’s supposed to marry is the son of someone very important, he’s said to be kind and gentle and good looking – all in all her mother could have chosen much worse for her. Her mother and her father have a very distant and strained relationship, it’s almost an open secret that neither her or her brother are the Usurper Emperor’s children. Something I really loved about this book was how everyone dealt with that situation, the shit that goes down was really exciting and it showed really great dynamics between the characters also leading to some unexpected turns. It did get a little repetitive in the beginning that Miko was being told frequently that she should have been born a boy. She’s smart and calculating, much more so than a typical 16-year-old kid which kept her chapters interesting for me as I tend to gravitate towards mature characters versus impulsive and immature characters fu’l of angst.
Cass is both a prostitute and assassin ( “whoresassin” lolol) she’s known in her circle for first fucking, then killing her targets. She also has an “inner voice” that plagues her, although it’s clearly a separate entity she only acknowledges as “She” or “Her”. “She” works as a conscience Cass doesn’t want anything to do with. Cass herself is fairly remorseless showing no sympathy or hesitation about her targets or the unfortunate people who may witness it. She works for a woman named Mama Hera who sets up all of her deals, or at least she usually does. A man breaks protocol by approaching her directly with an important job, they want her to take care of someone who’s leaving on an envoy with a destination out of the country. She’s to accompany the wagon as a prostitute and strike when they are far away from the city after they’ve crossed the border. She won’t be paid in money, instead, the employer is offering information, specifically where to find someone called the Witchdoctor who may be able to rid Cass of her eternal invisible passenger for good. Cass also has a rather nasty addiction to something called Stiff, at first I thought it was alcohol, but it’s so expensive that just 6 quarts of the stuff is the equivalent cost of buying room and board for 3-4 months. She spends almost all she earns on it and always has her flask on hand.
I really liked the world building in this, it’s actually a little out of my typical style since there isn’t a ton of magic in this. Really great characters and plot will make me forget all about the fact there’s no orcs or mages flinging fire balls at everything that pisses them off. The Levanti culture that Rah (the beheader) belongs to was really fascinating, and although I’ve seen horsemen/nomadic cultures a few times before their religion and value system was very different than say the Dothraki.
The writing for this one was a stand out for me as well, I only took off for a bit of exposition via dialogue when a couple characters met and one of them knew the entire life story of the other one and decided to narrate to them to prove a point that he knows exactly who she is. The dialogue outside of that was really solid, nothing felt forced or stiff or over the top and each character had their own distinct voice. The writing itself was not as straightforward as I’m accustomed to seeing lately, there was more nuance to it and more similes and metaphors than I’ve read in a while and it created great visuals of the world.
The pacing was pretty even, every once in a while it would feel like it got a while to round back to another character since you’re waiting through two POV’s to get back to the one you may be most interested in. However, it didn’t feel uneven and was more due to myself being more invested in one character.
I liked this one a lot and I hope it does well in the SPFBO competition, I hope whoever gets it is a fan of grimdark because man this one is darker than what I usually read. It worked out for me though since the last few books I’ve read have been on the lighter side of things. I was impressed by the writing, the plotting, and the character development and depth. I will definitely be reading more of Devin Madsons work. If I were to give any detractions it would be that there were a few iffy scenes – one of which is when Cass is possessed by her inner passenger and she goes fight club on herself, beating herself up trying to gain control of her body and force out the entity. Other than a few scenes were maybe things went a little over the top, this was an extremely solid book.
For people who like:
- Multi POV
- First person narration
- Female POV
- Assassin POV
- Nomadic Horsemen
Not for people who won’t like:
- Sexual assault
- Graphic violence
- very bleak tone
- Plot: 12/15
- Characters: 12.5/15
- World Building: 12.5/15
- Writing: 13.25/15
- Pacing: 12/15
- Originality: 12/15
- Personal Enjoyment: 8.5/10
Final Score: 82.75/100