Top positive review
I think this is the author I've been waiting for
Reviewed in the United States on November 13, 2014
You know what I remarked - out loud to the cat, if we're insisting on complete transparency - when I was about 1/5 of the way through this book? "Holy [cow], this is an honest-to-god epic! Not one of those "epics" that are only called that because the author doesn't know how to write a book without throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the plot, but a real one! Parallel story lines that tie together in the end! New interesting magic in a new interesting world! This is AMBITIOUS!"
(For anyone who's wondering, the cat made a strange little growly noise and left the room. I'm fairly sure that his reaction was unrelated to the topic of conversation.)
I'm hesitant to say it - I do hate being wrong - but I think I just stumbled across another author with bestseller potential. From very early on, I thought - internally this time - this book kind of tastes like Sanderson. Later on, I picked up some Robert Jordan textures too. At one point, I headed over to the author's Goodreads profile and, lo and behold, there under his biggest influences are Sanderson and Jordan. And since I wasn't done with the book yet, I was a bit skeptical. I mean, those are some pretty big shoes to fill, and though I'm sure lots of people try, lots of people just end up sounding like they're trying to sound like Sanderson and Jordan (or whoever) rather than finding their own voice. I was liking the story so far, and I found myself hoping that Islington wouldn't be influenced by these other authors so much that the story suffered. I mean, ambitious is good, but TOO ambitious is just going to fail.
I needn't have worried. This story is a great one, and it's great not because it sounds a bit like a Sanderson fantasy, it's great because James Islington has some real chops.
I wouldn't call it perfect. Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this is the amount of world building. Understand, there are no info dumps, and there's enough world building that, for the most part, we're able to follow along without being totally confused, and we can trust that our questions about what X means will be answered eventually. However, I spent a fair amount of time in the first half of the book wishing I understood the background a bit more than I did. How the magic works. How society is structured. What the history was. Where all these countries are. (Perhaps part of the problem stems from the naming conventions, which were foreign enough that all the weird words were running together without getting saved in my brain with an identification.) The amount of exposition included was a very valid artistic decision, and it could very well have been a better choice than the alternative, but...maybe just a bit more balance would have been nice.
If well-used plots bother you, you may not care for this. The story itself is the epic fantasy standard: world on the brink of disaster, ancient evil escaping its prison, nobody believes me, etc. Some of the specifics were pretty familiar too. They're being chased, their only chance is an ancient abandoned city with an evil of its own because the bad guys won't follow...now, where have I heard that before? I personally don't mind revisiting a trope if it's done well, but some people really do. In any case, I think that even though I was reminded of other works at various points in the story, the book is fresh enough and well-written enough that just about everyone will be happy with how it all turned out.
Oh, what else? The book is meaty enough to support its sweeping scope. The characters were above average, I think; nuanced and likeable, realistic, with their own unique voices, though none of them particularly blew me away. The dialogue was well-written. The editing was good. Not quite perfect, but still good (and better than most!). The magic was involved and interesting without being overpowered. Islington avoided the 100% good vs. 100% evil thing; the book was full of gray areas. And there were a handful of surprises.
I have a feeling James Islington is going to have a spot on my shelves alongside the other epic authors of this generation - Brandon Sanderson, Pat Rothfuss, Brent Weeks... If you're a fan of epic fantasy, I strongly suggest this book. So many fantasies try to be epic, think they're epic, but so few actually pull it off. This one does.