Shadowhawk reviews Helen Lowe’s debut novel that won her the David Gemmell Morningstar award this year, Heir of Night, the first in the Wall of Night series by Orbit Books.
“A fantasy novel written as a grand mythology epic, Heir of Night hits all the right buttons and is another must-read of the (last) year.” ~The Founding Fields
Read lots of different stuff this year, I thought back in January. Step out of my comfort zone, I thought. Honestly, nothing could have prepared me for Helen Lowe’s debut novel from last year, Heir of Night. What usually sets fantasy novels apart from one another is usually the setting or the type of characters being talked about or how gritty or soft or adult or simplistic they are. Rarely does an author focuses on how to tell that story itself, by which I don’t mean the choice of tense or flashbacks or anything like that. I mean the style of the narrative, the mood it creates, if that makes sense. What Helen does with her novel is something entirely different from any other fantasy novels I’ve ever read, except for those by a particular author: Tolkien.
And if that’s not a clue enough, then, simply put, Helen doesn’t just tell the story of a young girl on the run from the forces of darkness that want to utterly annihilate her people and her struggles to deny that future, she tells the saga of the same, an epic. She evokes the wonder of Tolkien’s style and the mood of his most popular works and yet stamps her ownership and influence all over the novel. To use one of my oft-used phrases, she writes an epic fantasy story in a truly epic way. I could easily have been reading a Norse saga or a Greek myth.
That’s what defines Heir of Night for me and what sets it apart from all its contemporaries and its peers.
The first in the Wall of Night series, Helen’s debut is about a young noble girl Malian who is forced to confront one harsh truth after another about her race’s arrival on the world of Haarth and the terrible enemy the Derai have brought with themselves. It’s a coming-of-age story, of innocence slowly forgotten in the face of reality and a toughening-up of character to become the leader the Derai need and yet do not know of it. The protagonist is neither a thief nor an assassin, a long-suffering noble or a disillusioned common man. The protagonist and her supporting cast are neither superfluous nor stupid, they are all logical and realistic beings, if often susceptible to their emotions. First and foremost that is why I liked Heir of Night.
As the novel is not in first person limited to the POV of the protagonist, we see the world of Haarth, the Derai and the various native races in detail. Haarth is not a place where I’d want to live by any means but all the same, it is a world where I’d love to go at least once! The flight of the Derai from their homeworld to Haarth eons ago, their settling on their new world, their interactions with the natives, the Derai culture, their history, it all makes Helen’s world complex yet simple in a genre that is increasingly being burdened with too much of the former and not enough of the latter. The author has found the right mix of these and has stayed consistent all the way to the end.
As the Derai culture and society is the one we see most off, I can say that the Derai were richly portrayed and come across as multi-faceted and realistic in and of themselves, rather than being caricatures of any “real-world” culture or society. They are certainly original, but they are also something much more. Their formalities, their titles, their codes of conduct, their histories, it is almost as if Heir of Night is not just a fantasy novel kicking off a series, but also a deep and insightful study into that very culture.
My appetite has really been whetted for the sequel, Gathering of the Lost.
The characters struck a chord with me. By having her protagonist and her closest companion both be teenagers, and set in the mythological setting of the Derai/Haarth, Helen evokes every kid’s desire to slay monsters and become heroes. It is also fitting that both of them, Malian and Kalan, hold the great hero Yorindesarinen in high esteem, she of the House of Stars who slew the great Worm of Chaos and in death, became the greatest legend of the Derai. How Helen approaches this particular topic adds even more layers to her saga-like mythological world.
When I was reading the novel last month, I asked one question of myself after every chapter: what’s NOT to like about this novel? The answer I kept coming up with was: I like everything about it.
There’s a great sense of mystery and intrigue in the novel, mixed in with a sense of wonderment as Helen’s world unfolds and the characters begin to act within the macrocosm of that world. The relationships between the Derai and their eternal enemy, the Swarm; their relationships with the native peoples of Haarth, the sense of destiny and fate that permeates the narrative. I loved it all. Like I said earlier, Heir of Night is Tolkien-esque and yet unique. It doesn’t ape the style of his novels but it is reminiscent of and faithful to it.
The pacing of the novel is also great. It flounders slightly in the beginning but the pick-up is quick and then the pace keeps getting…. pacey…. as the narrative unfolds and we begin to see so much of Haarth and the Derai. The character POV switches I found to happen at all the right moments, as did the power levels of the characters involved. The stakes get higher with each chapter and Helen does a great job of conveying that to the reader. There is a very real feeling of tension throughout the novel because even when you think that the characters have just gotten rid of one problem then another one rears its ugly head, meaner and bigger than before.
And each problem, and its solution, is unique because Helen knows how vary things along. Each action is fresh, and it does something that the ones before it didn’t, whether it is an “awakening of powers” or “dream-state” sequences or what have you. Whether it is Asantir, commander of the Earl of Night’s (Malian’s father) personal guard, or Malian and Kalan themselves, or Haimyr the native poet-warrior, or the Heralds Tarathan and Jehane Mor, they are all shown to be capable and resourceful individuals.
The magic of the Derai and Haarth is contrasted well, the former being something refined and restricted, the latter a force of nature and with a mind of its own. My comment doesn’t quite capture the feel of it, but it is an experience that is best handled personally. I don’t really have the words to do that justice.
As a complete package, Heir of Night is one of the best novels I’ve ever read, and even parts of it are still capable of holding on their own. All I can say is that, in retrospective,Heir of Night definitely deserves the Morningstar award title. It was an appropriate win as it is a novel that is true to both the spirit and the “letter” of the genre it is set in.
Where I’m concerned, this is an absolute must-read and a top recommendation.