I received this novel from the publisher, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
Fantasy stories tend to gravitate toward a number of “classic” themes like the quest and the hero’s journey and in this Blood of an Exile is no exception, but experience taught me that what truly matters is the way that journey or quest is told, and how the characters can reach out to the readers and make them care: Brian Naslund’s debut novel accomplished this goal by creating an intriguing background that stems from the usual fantasy elements, then enriches them with some unexpected angles, and by shaping equally intriguing characters that grow on you slowly but surely, their flaws more captivating than their strengths.
In Almira, one of the kingdoms of Terra, criminals are punished by being charged with the slaying of dragons, and Silas Bershad – once an Almiran noble now fallen in disgrace – was so sentenced: life expectancy for dragon slayers is quite short, not surprising in consideration of their deadly prey, but Bershad has been enduring his sentence for fourteen years, slaying dozens of dragons and becoming something of a folk hero. Still, he’s an outcast, marked by the infamy tattoos on his face and easily recognizable by the symbols of those killings that are branded on his arms. He’s offered a chance for redemption though: king Malgrave, the man who condemned him and the father of his former lover, princess Ashlyn, offers him a full pardon if he will travel to the neighboring realm of Balaria to rescue the king’s younger daughter Kira, who was kidnapped, and also kill the Balarian ruler.
After some initial reluctance, Bershad agrees to the mission and leaves with a small group of people: his faithful companion Rowan and the inseparable donkey Alfonso; a noble from the Almiran court who’s there to expedite passage through the land; Vera, a widow, i.e. a female warrior trained in the most fierce of martial arts, and condemned thief Felgor, whose sneaky ways will prove invaluable once they reach their destination. The journey is of course fraught with perils, double dealings and revelations, and while the group is en route to Balaria the situation in Almira becomes quite complicated as political intrigues and long-standing plots finally come to fruition, offering an interesting counterpoint to the disparate travelers’ mission and expanding the readers’ knowledge of the land and its history, as the tension escalates toward its edge-of-the seat ending and promises more to come in the following books.
On the surface, Blood of an Exile might appear like your run of the mill fantasy novel, but there are some elements that set it apart from its brethren, and the story’s background is one of them, particularly when you take into account the dichotomy between Almira and Balaria: the former offers the standard medieval context of a primitive land with basic living conditions, where ignorance and superstition rules – the inhabitants’ response to any problem or ailment is to shape mud statues as an offering to the gods, and princess Ashlyn’s interest for natural studies is considered odd and tainted by witchcraft – while the latter is more technologically oriented in what looks like a steampunk society, and the capital city is shaped like a clockwork-driven mechanism requiring great quantities of dragon oil to function.
Linked to that is a very intriguing – and new to the genre – angle on environment and the way its delicate balance can be upset by inconsiderate choices: Ashlyn’s studies have brought her to understand that kind of balance and how it’s all linked to the dragons – how decimating them, either to assuage the people’s fears or to obtain their precious oil, is causing some of their natural preys to overbreed and in turn lead to crop failures or widespread disease. There is a thought-provoking passage in which the Balarian ruler offers a deaf ear to Ashlyn’s warnings about the fragility of the whole system, saying he’s not afraid to go against the “natural order of things” as long as he can keep his people comfortable and happy: it’s a very contemporary, very widespread attitude, that of thinking only about the present and not caring about the future….
As far as the characters go, the chosen theme of throwing together a mismatched band of people to accomplish a given task is one that always intrigues me, because it helps showcasing their characters and makes for a compelling narrative, especially when danger starts rearing up its ugly head and everyone is forced to abandon the mask they present to the world at large. Along the journey I became quite fond of some of these characters and in the end it proved a mixed blessing, because here I must warn you not to become too attached to anyone, since there is no certainty of survival for all of them – that was one of the most devastating surprises in a story that is certainly filled with violence and hardship, but also proved unexpectedly cruel to some of its players.
Of course Bershad takes the lion’s share of the story, and if at first he’s the epitome of the anti-hero, moving from one dragon slaying to another and drowning himself in wine between assignments, his past is revealed bit by bit and we understand how guilt for his actions and resentment for his fate have come into play, while the uncanny way in which he heals from the wounds sustained in his craft seems to go against what I could see as nothing else but a death wish – unexpressed, but clearly latent. This narrative element will come to present a compelling angle in the overall story and it’s clear it will be at the roots of its continuation: I for one am looking forward to see the direction it will take in the future installments.