a.k.a my first finished read of the year (although I started it in December)
Also, the first post in the new category, Book Selection! From time to time, I will write about a book I loved, recently or just in general, and tell you why I think you should check it out. And then maybe you will go “hmm, okay, sounds good to me!” in your head, and then follow the links that pop up in these posts and acquire said books for yourself. That would be swell!
I do write my personal little critiques about almost all my reads on Goodreads, but here, I will try to form my thoughts into a proper recommendation, as spoiler free as possible (and indicating whenever I’m getting into spoiler territory). Still, be careful, even non-spoilers can tell you a lot about the novel, since I will certainly discuss how the story made me feel and such matters. I’ve never done this before, so bear with me (and let me know what you think!) but it should be fun.
Right, let’s get on with it! I guess, *light spoilers throughout*, but it’s not like I’m discussing any plot points directly.
Welcome to the kingdom of Aunios, a land of dragons and dwarves, shapeshifting and sorcery.
The half-dwarf daughter of a human king, Branwen struggles to find her place in a world that sees hybrids as abominations. When an allied land unexpectedly declares war, experimenting with dark magic seems the best way to save Branwen’s kingdom and gain her father’s approval — but she’ll have to compromise her morals to do it.
As she delves deeper into the practice of dark magic, the line between right and wrong begins to blur, leaving her to wonder if the ends really do justify the means.
I first encountered this novel on Wattpad, but at the time I didn’t manage to start reading it due to lack of time, although I was very much interested. Some weeks later however, I saw that it was released in paperback form, and I promptly decided to get a physical copy. Support your local authors, people! (and what does “local” even mean in the age of the internet, eh?)
At a first glance, I couldn’t exactly tell what it was going to be about, although the words “dark magic” and “half-dwarf” promised something, well, moody, not cliché, and interesting. To be honest, even after getting into it, for a long while, I wasn’t able to tell what it was going to be about.
I loved the setup, and the main character, Branwen, seemed like a unique person to read about on her road of figuring out magic and how to use it to save her kingdom from ruin (you know, the land full of people that hate her for what she is). But I wasn’t sure whether this was going to be an adventure story, or a war novel, or a hero’s journey, or a character development study, and that bothered me. However, in the meantime, there was much to enjoy, from the tidbits of world-building I wished there was much more of (about god-like Guardians, elemental dragons, and closed-off dwarven kingdoms under the earth) to the introduced relationships (between Branwen and her warm-hearted elven maid Eydis or her brothers, the lovely Brioc and the aloof Faolan and her father, the always dignified King Niall). Eydis was like a breath of fresh air among all the unfriendly people around Branwen, and I was truly happy to see a kind and gentle sibling-relationship between our main character and Brioc. There were even signs for a small romantic subplot, which was cute, and showed Branwen in another light. The dry, sarcastic humor shining through the dialogues occasionally was also a nice touch, and gave more personality to her.
The story even seemed a bit lighthearted at first, for a dark fantasy, with a straight-forward but descriptive style and some thrown-in, pleasant scenes like a visit at the beach or horseback-riding out in the wild. Behind all of this, there always loomed the suffering of the encroaching war, but the book went in all kinds of directions at first, giving it a somewhat strange pacing that could be disorienting. I really wished there was more of basically everything that I have mentioned before (especially knowing the ending of the novel); I feel like this could have been a much longer and more detailed story while retaining the same effect that it succeeds at now.
I also loved the shapeshifting ability that was introduced, and was a bit sad about that it didn’t play a more important role later. But Branwen’s bond to animals (especially horses and her crow form) was obvious all through the story and it was a cool little detail that I enjoyed very much.
Nevertheless, not much after the halfway point, I think, the novel settles and plunges itself down into the void towards the bitter end. And it is bitter. And then you realize what this story really is.
It’s nothing else than a tragedy.
*some references to the end of the book ahead*
I have to say, I was a bit shocked. I felt, obviously, that what happened was unfair, that it was too much, and what is this supposed to mean, everything we fought for was for nothing? But I think that’s exactly the feelings I was supposed to have, and it’s not like it wasn’t foreshadowed. It’s just that Branwen started out being so naive that these horrible outcomes sort of crept up on me, and her. This book hurt me like everyone inside it hurt Branwen, with their lies and deceptions and with their subtle and not-that-subtle manipulations (some of the villains became almost cartoonishly evil, but others were more down-to-earth and, let’s say, human). From a certain point onward, it was like watching a train-crash and not being able to do anything to stop it. And since it is obvious (not just from the subtitle on the book cover, but from threads left dangling all over the place or cut so abruptly that I can’t believe they are done like that… like for example the real reason behind the war) that it is not finished, the feeling of resolution or justice doesn’t appear at the end.
It all made me crave for more instantly, and I had the story playing out in my head many times after I finished the actual book. I think it will stay with me for a long while. It really is not your usual fantasy story structure, but I think even with the imbalances and pacing strangeness, it works out. And I think it will work out even more if we get a little bit of relief with the next book (or the one after… or the one after?)
I only wish I could see into the author’s head to know what she’s planning for our poor half-dwarven gal and why. If this first part is any indication, I suspect it is going to be a long and difficult road. But one that is worth to follow.