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  • Writer's pictureE L Crocker

Gates of Hope by J E Hannaford: A Review

Your new favourite epic fantasy series begins.

Note: I received this ARC from the author in exchange for an honest review. This review is also posted on Goodreads and Amazon. If you like the book, consider doing so too as this really helps authors.

I have awaited Gates of Hope, Book 1 of J. E. Hannaford’s new epic fantasy trilogy Aulirean Gates, with the kind of relish reserved for a cheeseburger after completing a marathon that followed a fast. The reason for this is simple: her previous duology, The Black Hind’s Wake, was one of my favourite fantasy series of recent times, combining truly original worldbuilding (an enticing mix of marine folklore with deep sea biology) with one of the most memorable species voices in recent history (Selkies, the definitive take on) and an excellent example of the power of found family in fantasy. But, as the author herself has made clear, Gates of Hope is not the same thing rehashed: it’s less dark, more epic. This is old school fantasy with a modern touch; the start of a series for those who want large-scale adventures that remind you of why you fell in love with epic fantasy in the first place. And, as we shall see, it is really rather brilliant.

First, the plot. The action takes place across two worlds: a planet, Caldera, and one if its moons, Tebein. The planets were once connected by magical gates; but the beings who controlled the gates (space dragons! Which is as cool as it sounds) have shattered them to end a dangerously escalating war between the non-human awldruin who live on Tebein and the magic users, the So’Dal, who live on Caldera. Now, centuries later, the So’Dal are less powerful shadows of their former selves, modest and mysterious, and it is into their ranks that two of the three main characters seek to join: Darin, a young man with magic potential, and Suriin, a teenager discovering the realities of the world. Meanwhile, on Tebein, a young woman called Elissa, also with magic potential, has to hide her tell-tale lilac hair from the Awldruin, who have enslaved the humans there and kill anyone who shows signs of magic. Oh, and there’s a scary-sounding area called the Edgelands on Caldera full of massive monsters who are starting to get ideas about roaming beyond its borders.

As the above indicates, there is a lot of backstory here; just like her previous work, Hannaford loves a world slightly gone to seed after an apocalyptic event in the past. But in a brilliant move, Hannaford doesn’t bombard us with the history of it, at least at first. There are no massive infodumps here, something that often plagues modern fantasy. Instead, Hannaford gives us subtle hints at what exactly happened to cut off the worlds, and trusts the reader to wait. Her worldbuilding approach is to make the world feel real, specifically through the descriptions of fauna and flora (another trick taken from her previous duology) as well as the magic system. This worldbuilding approach – subtle, small details, beautiful care in the smallest of things, is frankly a breath of fresh air, and I’d even go so far as to bet it will be the best worldbuilding you’ll see all year.

Take the plant descriptions for starters. Plants are key to the magic system, and appear in great detail. My favourite comes early on, with the magnificently named and described Love-lies-weeping, with heart-shaped leaves and teardrop flowers. Then there’s the creatures; the concept of The Edgelands, essentially the King Kong island full of monsters, is a great one for monster fans, and Hannaford, who has one of the best senses of a fictional ecosystem you’ll see in fantasy writing, takes great care to make these creatures fit into the world as well as be, in some cases, absolutely terrifying.

Then there's the magic system. Oh man, the magic system. The key word here is subtle. But don’t mistake subtle for boring. Honestly, I could read entire quintologies of just Hannaford describing how the magic works here. Essentially, the magic is divided between men and women: the men basically use singing magic (people who murder songs in the shower would not fare well in this world) which controls light and heat, as well as the use of plants to heal and grow. Complex singing notes, or wefts, can do anything from create a ball of flame to finish off a carefully crafted healing potion. I know this makes no sense now but part of the joy is slowly learning how it works, so I won’t explain more here, other than to note that it is so gloriously subtle that the subtlety is actually a plot point: the true power of the So'Dal is hidden, and many often see their magic as simply great herbology. As for the women, they have crystals, which they bond with, and control emotions, and they walk in dreams and… ok so I’m not completely sure on these points, but I like it and I’m happy to wait until book 2 to learn more.

What makes this magic system truly brilliant though aside from its magnificent random detail and refreshing subtlety is that Hannaford has grasped two of the main things that make a magic system addictive in epic fantasy: the idea of somehow recovering great long lost powers (The So’Dal used to level mountains apparently, which seems a far cry at the moment given that we’re on singing-into-a-lamp level for most of the book) and the idea of a gifted character discovering new cool ways to use the magic and level themselves up. For me, Darin's musings on how he could use his singing ability to combine with his moonhound abilities (oh did I forget to mention he’s bonded with a dog – a very good boy - that talks to him in his head through pictures? I did. It’s very cool) were some of my favourite parts of the book.

What of the characterisation? Suriin is a compelling character, clearly drawn down the path of dangerous choices for good reasons, leading her to one of the more darker plot paths by the end. I felt very engaged with her quest to find the magic to save her father. Elissa is a brilliant character, her quest to save her enslaved people, avoid the creepy moon alien overlords, and discover the potential of her magic made all the more enjoyable by her bravery and determination. But it was Darin’s character I was most drawn to, as here we see another classic Hannaford trait – found family. When he joins a secret society called the Howlers, whose job it is to protect the land from the Edgeland monsters, we are suddenly introduced to a group that has enormously fun potential, and you really feel his desire to fit in and make something of himself. Is there a character so far that has replicated how I felt about the memorable Selkies of her previous duology? Not quite yet; but these are early days in the trilogy.

Pace wise, this is an interesting Book 1. It is quite slow, but intentionally slow. Hannaford takes a lot of time introducing the magic system, the world and its characters. It does get a lot quicker and exciting at the end, and Hannaford leaves us with a fantastic set-up going into Book 2 for all three characters, but this is very much a setting-the-scene approach to book 1 of a trilogy. For those who crave immediate action this might be frustrating, but I have to say I think it was an inspired decision, because when the worldbuilding and magic system is so good, who needs arbitrary action scenes to keep the pace going? This is an author confident in her narrative approach, and it shows. By the end of this book, this world felt compellingly real to me, and Hannaford has earned the right to give us the promised high stakes in book 2 and 3.

Overall, then, this is exactly what I hoped for and more: classic epic fantasy adventure that got you into the genre in the first place, embellished with some of the best worldbuilding you’re likely to see this side of the decade and an innovative, subtle magic system that you will fall in love with and a story that will sink its claws into you. I am really, really excited about this trilogy, and we haven’t even properly met the space dragons yet. Magnificent stuff.

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