(I am a Harper Voyager Super reader: the publishing house HarperVoyager gives me free advance copies of upcoming science-fiction and fantasy titles, and in return I write honest reviews. This is my first such review for Sequart. It is spoiler-free.)
Blood of the Four will hit bookstore shelves in early March, and it will make a sizeable splash. (You heard it here first!) Fantasy fans will definitely be talking about it, and it would make a pretty exciting movie. Why? First, it proceeds at a blistering pace, crammed full of action—as opposed to the slowly accumulating atmosphere and character development that are now the epic-fantasy norm. It’s almost more accurate to call it an action novel that happens to involve magic. There’s not much character development, but then, complex character development really isn’t the point here, so its absence isn’t a weakness. Second, Blood of the Four was written by two veteran fantasy writers with solid sales records. Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon are like a two-man Dream Team. Between them they’ve created dozens of novels, a couple of comic book series (Baltimore and Joe Golem: Occult Detective), and several movies. Finally, this novel manages to create a compelling, complex-yet-comprehensible world in just this one standalone volume of fewer than 500 pages.
The island kingdom of Quandis provides the story’s setting. Around Quandis lie concentric circles of islands under Quandian control called the Ring. The Four from the title invoke both the Quandian royalty’s chosenness and the world’s magic system. Ages ago, Quandis had five gods, each devoted to an element and a facet of life—for example, Anselom, god of earth and love. One god rebelled and separated from the others, and was thereafter known as the Pent Angel. To worship the Pent Angel in Quandis is equivalent to worshipping Lucifer in our world. The four remaining gods died—an apparent contradiction that is never directly addressed—and their bodies are entombed deep in inaccessible, sanctified, booby-trapped caves below the Quandian church’s ancient buildings. Quandians believe that their royalty literally and directly descends from those Four. The Blood of the Four, then, runs through the veins of the current widowed Queen, her son Prince Aris, and Princesses Phela and Myrinne. The Four’s godly powers continue on as, effectively, magic powers. Somehow, royalty don’t inherit these powers; only elite, experienced priests of the state religion acquire them—in secret, very gradually, and they keep them hidden. Most ordinary Quandians aren’t even sure this magic exists.
But it most definitely does, and as the story begins, widowed Queen Lysandra wants it. All of it. This first scene begins a book-long procession of—well, call them “familiar fantasy tropes,” or “thefts from Game of Thrones,” or just “echoes,” depending on how strictly you insist upon true originality in your fantasy. Not incidentally, how well you like the book will correlate to your attitude on this issue: sticklers for newness may find Blood of the Four derivative, whereas if, like me, you take the approach that there’s not much new to be invented under the sun, the familiarity won’t significantly cut into your enjoyment. Using Goodreads’s rating system, I would give it 4 of 5 stars, meaning “I really liked it.” (Despite the somewhat drawn-out final battle, which seemed about 50% too long.)
In the first pages, we’re treated to some very GoT-like sexposition: Princess Phela, hidden and listening through the Queen’s bedroom ceiling, while the Queen has wild, loud sex with a married man, then discusses with him how she can acquire forbidden magic powers. Other “echoes” or what-you-will: a public show trial of an important character, a la Eddard Stark, pretty early on; an Arya Stark-like super-capable boy named Tollivar, who keeps on coming through for the good guys against all odds. An apparently Wheel of Time-inspired problem—everyone who knows about magic’s existence wants to guzzle it down immediately, but learning/using magic too quickly destroys/burns out its human vessels. A “Chosen One” figure (Blane, a beginning priesthood trainee) with an obscure, lower-than-low background. He is a Bajuman, one of a race of slaves in Quandis (despite some indications that in ages past the Bajuman were powerful aristocrats and magic-users), and he is on an obsessive quest to avenge and save his people. Overall, a decidedly GoT-like situation prevails with the religions: the historically recent religion (GoT’s “the Seven”) dominates the citizenry, and enjoys quite considerable power in state affairs; however, many still whisper of the “old gods”—here, “the Numberless Gods”—which not only exist but apparently still possess great power. The Bajuman have their own god, too, and certain events seem to corroborate his potency. As in GoT, many religious systems compete and, as far as we can tell, work—all, of course, in addition to the inestimable power of the Four’s magic.
Blood of the Four is all about power and its pursuit, often via magic. Queen Lysandra, craves magic, all of it, like she craves the addictive drug “spiza” she imbibes. Princess Phela wants to consume all the magic and become the “Eternal Queen,” untouchably powerful both temporally and magically. Admiral Daria Hallarte, head of Quandis’s powerful navy, wants to restore and protect her kingdom against all threats, within and without. Demos Kallistrate, warrior scion of an aristocratic family and fiancé to Princess Myrinne, strives to reinstate his family’s honor and position, and to achieve a calm married life with Myrinne. Blane seeks magic in order to become the legendary “Kij’tal,” messiah and redeemer of the Bajuman. These are the forces competing for control of the power of the Four and the rule of Quandis. In March, you can root for your favorites and see who wins!