Score: 94/100 (9.4 out of 10)
Welcome to the Land of Wilted Roses, a godless, steampunk wasteland in which nothing grows and in which dark beings and deathly creatures wander. This hellish “land of horrors” is inhabited by the Tenebris and their Priestess-Queen, Malkira, a cult-like figure who robs the lands of the living to fill her temple with sacrifices for the sins of the dead.
With this background, we join Volentus, a nefarious necromancer who is serving a long prison sentence for his evil. Volentus is a villain in his own right, not much better than Malkira. His abilities include the ability to raise entire armies of the dead to do his bidding. He would assume the role of the evil sorcerer in most other fantasy tales, but not here.
Ultimately, Volentus landed in prison due to the heroic actions of his arch-nemesis, Alicent. And herein lies the crux of the plot: the only way to gain his freedom is to do the one thing he vehemently pledged not to do: thwart Malkira by helping Alicent, the person he despises more than life itself!
Joining him on this journey is the psychic vampire, Dragan Cellis, who is determined to save the woman he loves, a woman who just so happens to be Alicent Vale.
Dragan Cellis wields the phenomenal blade, Revanant, which he pledges to use on Volentus if the necromancer ever betrays him. This is an early consideration for “Best Weapon” as it receives quite a bit of action and build throughout the book. Other considerations are Volentus's tuning blades which pulsate with magnificent power and colors when they interact with him. They even serve as torches or lamps at times. They reminded us a lot of the soul blades in the Jaralii Chronicles series. Then there's Shadowmaker, the weapon of a Wraith Lord, another powerful weapon that has a lore of its own.
Rounding out the cast is the zombified/undead Lucretia, an old friend of the heroes and a tragic victim of Malkira's cult. She serves as both a warning of the ultimate consequences of Malkira's evil and as a tragic character in her own right. Lucretia is a sympathetic character who, unfortunately, seemed sidelined early in the story. However, we were happy that she continued to be mentioned and even play a role at times long after her introduction.
Going back to Dragan... Dragan is a very cool character, reminding us a lot of Vincent Valentine from Final Fantasy VII. Come to think of it, Vincent Valentine was also a vampire and who also had a friendship with a girl named Lucretia that ended tragically. He got into a conflict with an evil, mad scientist named Dr. Hojo, who may or may not be the direct inspiration for Dr. Hundo in this book.
Well, this might be an example of greatness acknowledging greatness, a sort of homage.
Volentus is a very compelling character, as you might expect from an antihero with a questionable moral compass. He is the perfect foil for Malkira, the villain, who also serves as a mirror to him. Malkira is irredeemably wicked and unapologetically evil, torturing and killing countless innocents. In comparison, Volentus, despite his dark past, realizes the wrongs he has done and is doing what he needs to do to ensure a better life for himself—a life not only free from chains and cages but also of guilt. Well, ok, he still wants power and world domination (or something like that), but that's a discussion for another time.
Volentus gradually develops as he realizes the pain and suffering that his enemy, Alicent, has experienced. It is quite heartwarming to see a dark character show a range of emotions including empathy and compassion. Upon finding her in an unrecognizable state, he gasps: “What have they done with you? They had no right. This is not my opponent... Not my adversary. You deserved far better than this.”
This is obviously a very interesting dynamic to have two former adversaries working together like they're Rocky & Apollo Creed or Tom & Jerry.
It reminded us of the ending of Last of Us II, when Ellie rescued (though later fought) her emaciated arch-nemesis, Abby, from a kill-crazy cult; or Berserk, in which Guts and company rescued Griffin from years of torture in the king's dungeon despite him being the person who essentially manipulated and controlled all of them.
Those are some great works to have yours compared to.
Mammina, as always, showers readers with compelling characters, an interesting plot, and great world-building. Now, this book is a bit more complex and confusing than some of the author's other books, practically all of which are top-notch. It may take a few readings to get a hang of what's really going on. It's complex and nuanced, which is typical of fantasy books.
Another thing that may be bothersome is that the magic in the book can seem inconsistent. There are times when characters can use their magic to accomplish what needs to be accomplished, and there are times when they're tied down by the need for the plot to happen. One such example is the simple fact that Malkira is conveniently immune to the abilities of the protagonists, nullifying them.
This may be an example of really good book that's actually better in concept than in execution. There seemed to be a few things missing that could've really elevated this book to all-time greatness. For Example, did Alicent really have to be Dragan's lover? Why not have it be her former arch-enemy, Volentus? Wouldn't that be more interesting? Could you imagine if the former enemies became lovers?
Secondly, does Dragan really even need a lover? He seemed like someone who would do better as a bad ass loner who shows up every now and then. Could you imagine if Vincent Valentine had wanted to date Tifa and Aerith in Final Fantasy VII? Doesn't that just seem wrong? Doesn't that just seem distracting? Yes, Vincent is a cool character like Dragan, but he's not the focus of the story, and he shouldn't be drawing attention away from the central characters. This problem is especially apparent in the final act of the book which seems to linger on Dragan and his life after the conflict. All the while, what we really wanted to know was more about Volentus. Well, thankfully, we get that, but the author made us wait an awful long time to get back to the character we really cared about.
Speaking about wanting to know more about Volentus, this book arguably starts in the wrong part of the story. It starts in medes res, which is awesome... if you're planning to have the narrator explain years or decades of events to the queen of Carthage. However, in the context of this book, it left us confused and with a lot less context than we should have had. It almost feels like a sequel, a sequel which has no predecessor (that we know of) to refer to.
So, there are a lot of assumptions we have to make in order to accept the beginning of this book. For example, we have to accept that Volentus was a bad guy, albeit a misunderstood one. We also have to accept that he had a heated feud with Alicent, who was a good gal. However, wouldn't it have been more effective to begin the story by showing the two individuals working against each other? Or maybe show them working together, then one betrays the other. The relationship between Volentus and Alicent seems like it should be the center of the entire book, yet the opportunity to capitalize on this seems a little wasted. It would be like if Revenge of the Sith started with Obi-Wan and Anakin fighting to the death without any build or explanation for why these two allies (from the previous two films) are suddenly fighting. Then, we have to just accept that Anakin did some bad things off-screen.
One last thing we want to say about Volentus is that we really admired something about his personality: the desire to be himself. This is encapsulated in his determination to choose “death or Volentus.” Essentially, he is saying, “I'm not me if I'm not me.” That sounds strange, but there's a power to that.
Something truly great about this book is that it captures of the spirit of a fantasy RPG that we think we've sorely missed: a group of misfits join together on an adventure to battle a great evil. In addition, similar to Angels of Resistance, we loved that this book was ultimately about saving people from deplorable situations. The drive to rescue and protect people who are vulnerable or in distress is a naturally human inclination. For some reason, so many writers simply ignore that, chalking it up as some sort of tired, old trope. Rescuing people may be an old trope, but it will never become tiresome. This is largely why people become police officers, firefighters, or members of the National Guard. People will always need saving.
Mammina once again captures the fun, adventurous spirit of an RPG.
Check it out on Amazon!