Shadowhawk reviews his first ever steampunk-fantasy read and comes away with an interest in reading more.
“Relatively fast paced with some really vivid world-building, this is a novel with a compelling complexity to it that just makes you want to go on reading and not stop.” ~The Founding Fields
The Horns of Ruin is the second novel published by Pyr Books that I’ve read this year and another one that I quite enjoyed reading. When I requested review copies from them, I mostly went by the cover art of their titles and I really liked Benjamin Carre’s illustration for The Horns of Ruin: it depicts a no-nonsense female protagonist wearing a sheer-cut dress with a sword in one hand and a pistol in another with a couple rocketing bad guys in the background. What’s not to love?
This was a great novel to end my March reading with given how the entire narrative unfolds. Tim Akers was never on my radar before this, but now he most certainly is!
What I really enjoyed, and had great fun reading was the novel’s female protagonist, Eva Forge, the last living Paladin of Morgan, a champion of her god. And the world’s magic system which, hand-in-hand with Eva, really drew me in. Eva is one of the strongest female characters I’ve read ever, such as Arista Essendon from Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations novels, or Jane Carver from Nathan Long’s Jane Carver of Waar. She has a really tough, admirable edge to her and we get to see it aplenty throughout the novel. Perhaps being raised from birth to be a warrior has something to do with it, but in the final count, Eva is as Eva is. She can certainly give the others a run for their money when things get down and dirty and that’s one deathmatch I’d love to see! Sometimes however, she appears a little too masculine for my liking but those parts are very few and far in between. Her boundless energy, and her faith in herself makes her stand apart from the rest of the characters that populate the aptly-named city of Ash.
In terms of characterisation, there aren’t very many memorable characters, although I did like Barnabas who is the Fratriarch of Morgan, and Owen, a Justicar of Alexander who is the only remaining sibling of the three brothers Morgan, Amon and himself. They were both fairly strong in their own ways, with Barnabas being the aged mentor to Eva and Owen being one of her trusted (fairly) allies who learns the truth of things alongside her. But most of the characters did indeed suffer from not being distinct enough from each other. While I enjoyed the novel overall, the characterisation did leave me wanting more because it was one of the weaknesses of it. Good strong protagonists can only take a novel so far before the minor characters have to stand either on their own or support them.
The magic-system that Tim Akers employs is, as far as I know, extremely unique in written fiction. It involves characters such as Eva, Barnabas and the others speaking words or phrases that echo the teachings of their god, one of the three aforementioned brothers, or their histories and then buffing themselves up. I really, really liked that part of the novel. It was like I was playing an RPG while reading a novel! A very unique experience indeed. And Tim keeps it very varied from fight to fight, scene to scene. There are incantations for a lot of different situations for a lot of different purposes. With Morgan being very akin to a war-god, Eva’s buffs were certainly a treat to read and experience. They added a real depth to her scenes whenever she is fighting against the bad guys.
Speaking of action scenes, there was a good variety in them too. No two scenes were alike in that Eva, and her allies when she fights alongside them, are always shown fighting in different environments and against an assortment of foes, many of which are quite deadly and very easily the match for her. They are also described in great detail, which made for a great change of pace from most other novels I’ve read this year. The brutality of those scenes was not ignored either and some of the scenes are really “forceful”. Jane Carver should take not!
The pacing of the novel felt very natural to me. The narrative starts off on a high note and then continues to build upon itself as the narrative progresses. Time also never pulls any punches as he keeps throwing his characters into one debacle and life-and-death situation after another. And to be fair, The Horns of Ruin is a novel that deserves to be so fast-paced and relentless; it just wouldn’t be the same otherwise. The ramping up of the tensions in the novel, whether it is Eva having to struggle against her own Elders, or come into conflict with either the Amonites or the Alexians or her mysterious attackers from early on in the novel, means that there is never a dull moment. Not that I wanted any letup at all. I like fast-paced novels, especially when they are set in really vivid worlds.
And that brings me to Tim Akers’ world-building, which I found to be layered, nuanced, compelling, varied and highly enjoyable. This is the first steampunk novel I have ever read, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect from it when I started reading it. To be honest, I was rather daunted by that fact. I need not have worried though since The Horns of Ruin doesn’t hammer at you with its nature. Its steampunk features are fairly subtle at times and even when they are in force, they don’t overwhelm the reader. The city of Ash itself is a perfect example since although a lot of the action takes place above-ground, beneath that surface exterior is a city that is quite literally built on a lake of Ash and is supported by various steampunk concepts, at least what I would say are steampunk concepts. You’ll have to forgive me for not elaborating on that as its been a while since I read the novel and the details are a little hazy. However, imagine a steampunk version of Venice and you wouldn’t be too far off the mark!
However, the world isn’t just limited to Ash and its surrounding environs. The sense of history that permeates the novel is also very strong. The three brothers fought against inhuman creatures to establish the Fraterdom and the repercussions of that war filter down in Eva’s time. So how this history unfolds and how it affects the current time was also nice to see. The hints can sometimes be a little too tantalising and not much is made of them really, which was a bit of a downer. But understandable all the same since the novel is very much focused on Eva herself as she struggles to find out what happened to Barnabas and what nefarious schemes the Amonites are up to and just what role the Alexians are playing in everything.
Religion in the novel is a funky thing when all is said and done. There isn’t worship as such shown by the Amonites, Alexians, or the Morganites, but there is a very real case of faith and belief here. The pantheon of the Fraterdom, the society established by the three brothers, is a sundered brotherhood as two of the brothers are dead and only one remains. In that respect, Tim Akers raises some quite interesting issues of faith and belief, issues where the characters, especially Eva and Owen are really challenged about them. When everything around them is built upon deceit and misdirection, faith will be and should be challenged for the protagonists. Tim Akers certainly didn’t shy away from exploring the concept.
So overall, I quite enjoyed reading The Horns of Ruin and would certainly like to have a sequel to it since while the novel doesn’t exactly end on a cliffhanger, there is a lot of potential there for a sequel to happen. The world has significantly changed since the first pages of the novel and the whole social order in the Fraterdom is being affected, so seeing how the fallout is dealt with by its people, especially given the rumours of a big war on the horizon against the inhuman enemies that the three brothers once fought against, would make for a very engaging narrative. I certainly hope that Tim Akers picks it up one day and writes it!