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Shadowhawk reviews one of Tor Books’ latest releases, a debut novel first published by Jo Fletcher last year.
“With some in-depth world-building and a range of interesting characters, Evie Manieri has turned out a fairly solid start to a brand-new fantasy series.” ~The Founding Fields
I always approach hefty novels like Blood’s Pride with a bit of trepidation. The page-length of such books represents a significant time investment even though I’m a fairly quick reader. I haven’t read all that many such big books, but they make me wary. Something in me keeps nagging at the back of my mind, telling me that there is going to be too much packed into the novel and that it will be difficult to keep track of it all. And that does happen in actuality. Not often, but enough times that I approach big books like Blood’s Pride with a bit of caution.
As the book is a debut novel, I kept myself open to being impressed, and wowed, hoping that I would be treated to something different, something that would make the book stand out in my mind from its contemporaries.
And I was.
Usually I start the meat of my reviews by discussing characters and then moving on to the world-building elements. This time, I want to switch it around because talking about the characters requires talking about the world in Blood’s Pride as well, and it is important for me to frame the characters in the context of their different cultures.
There are three main cultures in the novel: the Shadari, the Norlanders, and the Nomas. The Shadar is a small city-state in the middle of nowhere. The people live a very basic life of agriculture and fishing, and they are content to live their lives as they do, worshipping their gods and doing their daily work as is their wont. But then, all of a sudden, the Shadar is attacked by a fleet of Norlander military ships, who have come to claim the mines that lie at the heart of the Shadar. The Norlanders, being an expansionist and militaristic culture enslave the defenceless Shadari and force them to work in the mines to gather the ore that is used to make the fabled Imperial swords that are famous throughout the lands. And then there are the Nomas, a nomadic culture that is divided by gender: the women spend most of the year on the high seas and the men do the same across the plains and deserts. They are a culture of traders and merchants which forms one part of the tripod that holds the world of Blood’s Pride together. The Nomas remained neutral in the one-sided war between the Shadari and the Norlanders, and for this, the former have come to detest and despise them, considering them weak and ineffectual.
It is in this complex mix of cultures that Evie Manieri’s novel takes place, and the narrative is centred around several characters who are flawed and likeable in equal measure. Through them, we see how the Shadari finally begin the revolution against their Norlander masters and how the Nomas fit into all of it.
If I had to pick two characters who I really liked in the book, I would pick Isa and Daryan, two characters who are very different from each other in their cultural backstory, but are still very similar. Isa is the younger daughter of the Governor of Shadar, and sister to Eofar, who is also a point of view character in the novel. The novel is as much about her coming of age and taking charge of her own future as it is about her brother coming to terms with his own frailties and his weaknesses. But it is Isa I give the shout-out to because she is a much more sympathetic character. Unlike Eofar, or her elder sister, it is Isa who has to rise above being the “little girl” and being ignored and bullied all the time. It is she who has to come to terms with the circumstances under which their mother died several years ago and the horrible truths that are exposed from those dark days. She is a character I could identify with, and in her, Evie Manieri has a really good, solid character that I would love to read more about.
The same applies to Daryan, who is the daimon (king) of the Shadari, although this is kept a secret by his people since he is the last of their ruling bloodline and his people have pinned the hopes of their successful revolution on him. Daryan is a man caught between two worlds and throughout the novel he has to find a way to keep them in balance as much as he can. As a slave in the Governor’s household, he is privy to a lot of things that the rest of his people are not, and you could even say that he is under cover of sorts. Evie Manieri took his character and hammered him again and again with some really tough choices throughout the novel. Seeing him rise above his challenges, although not always in the ways that he or the reader expected, was really fun and rewarding. I’m hoping that he becomes a major character in the sequel.
Accompany these two are several other notable POV characters. Isa has her brother Eofar, a man struggling with his own identity, his worth to his people, and his love for a Shadari woman. He was perhaps one of the most conflicted characters in the book, and I would have liked to see more of him, but we don’t get that chance often. He does feature in some great set piece battles, and those, I have to say, were extremely enjoyable. Aerial duels on winged mounts? I am all over that! Then there is Harotha, the Shadari woman whom Eofar loves, and her twin brother Faroth who are both leaders of the Shadari revolution and who give us some of the really interesting scenes in the novel. The ideological differences between the twins were not explored to my satisfaction, a consequence of there being such a large cast no doubt, so I’m not entirely satisfied on that account, but this did form a very important element of the narrative and helped flesh out the Shadari culture as well. Rho, an Imperial soldier in service to the Norlander Governor of Shadar, was a weird character. I was never quite sure of what is intentions were, and at times it seemed like he flip-flopped in his beliefs, which made for some odd reading whenever his scenes came up.
Finally, there is King Jachad of the Nomas, who is contracted by the Shadari to bring to them the Mongrel, the greatest mercenary the world has ever known, a woman that the Shadari believe will help them in overthrowing their Norlander masters. The relationship that Jachad shares with many of the characters in the novel, such as Daryan, the Mongrel, Harotha and others, is incredibly complex, owing quite a bit to the fact that we never actually get to see him in detail. He remains one of the most enigmatic and mysterious character in the novel. Which is interesting in and of itself, but did not make for a complete experience for me. More than any other character, it is him I would have liked to see a lot more of.
Throughout the novel, keeping track of so many characters and the complex, inter-layered plots involving them, was not easy. At times, I was confused as to where some of the characters were, especially since a couple of minor characters seemed to be all over the place, and not where they were supposed to be. The pacing of the novel also suffers in a few places because of this, moving between the highs and lows either too fast or too slow.
And as I said earlier, some parts of the novel did feel… filler. Evie Manieri’s world-building is very intense, but at times it felt like too much, and I think some parts could have trimmed down, and some of the minor characters merged so as to give a much more cohesive whole. Regardless, what I did like a lot was how deep Evie Manieri went into each of the characters. All three cultures: Shadari, Norlander, Nomas, felt alive and realistic within the framework of the novel. The interplay between the Shadari and the Norlanders was especially interesting because of the physiological differences between them. The Norlanders are referred to throughout the novel as the Dead Ones by the Shadari. This is because the Norlanders’ skin is pale (almost grey-ish IIRC) and they are very sensitive to sunlight, so they must by needs always keep themselves covered while out and about in the mornings and afternoons. Physical contact between the Norlanders and the Shadari is (almost) forbidden as a result because of another fact: if a Shadari touches the exposed skin of a Norlander, the latter’s skin will burn and scar. In light of this, the romance between Eofar and Harotha, plus the romance between Isa and Daryan, seems a bit of an impossibility and was one of the glaring plot-holes in the novel. But all the same, the differences in the two societies/cultures are exploited to great dramatic effect. There is, in fact, a very key scene involving Isa, Daryan and a Shadari slave in the middle of the novel that explores this.
The role that the priests of the Shadari, the ashas, in the narrative is one of the keystone elements of the novel, and while we are treated to only bits and pieces of this aspect of the Shadari culture, it explodes into a major driving element by the end. And some very important revelations result because of this.
One thing I’ve glossed over so far is the role that the Mongrel plays into the novel. The cover art for the novel shows her front and center and the blurb hints that she is a major POV character, but the reality in the narrative is a bit different. Yes, she is a very important character in the novel, but we see her from the perspectives of the others. I found this rather odd since I was expecting the narrative to focus on her, but as the novel went on, I realised why this was as it was: she is the one character who connects everyone else together, in some way or another, and she is one of the mystery elements of the novel that the reader should learn to trust and distrust in equal measure. She is a vehicle for a lot of the mysteries that are exposed over the course of the narrative, and by the end, I think the author did right by the character in not giving us her direct perspective. As it turned out, seeing the Mongrel through the eyes of the other characters ended up being a rather rewarding experience.
In effect, while the novel starts off slowly and it is almost a chore to keep track of the multitude of characters in the beginning, there are some great payoffs by the end. Not everything is explained fully (or properly in some cases) and so the ending is a bit frustrating, I would say that the Shattered Kingdoms series has started off well enough. A fair few flaws, but there is a lot of potential here for some great story-telling, potential that I hope the author picks up on for the sequels.
(Note: the eARC was provided by Tor through NetGalley)