Epic fantasy storytelling done so well you might have to go into hibernation until the next one drops
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The author’s bio for Illborn declares that with it, Daniel T. Jackson hopes to create the next classic fantasy series. It’s an ambitious statement, and this ambition continues with the size of Jackson’s debut, a meaty 700 pages that offers up Illborn for alternative uses should you not like it, such as clubbing burglars, a paperweight for a giant, and a spare brick in your garden wall.
Luckily, not only did I like it, but I have to agree with Jackson’s statement: it’s early days, but this series could be massive, it could be brilliant; it could be one of the best of the decade, perhaps ever. It really is that good.
Illborn is in many ways an old-fashioned fantasy, with a Wheel of Time/Tolkien feel to it, rinsed though with a little bit more modern George RR Martin-style political grimdark and flashes of delicious and shocking brutality. Our setting is a medieval one; a continent whose countries are bound together by a Holy Church which worships the Lord Aiduel, a man blessed with divine powers who united the peoples of Angall almost a millennium ago. Since then, the Church has launched multiple crusades in the Holy Lands, affirming to us very clearly that we are in “medieval Catholicism” territory, and it quickly becomes clear that, like medieval Catholicism, these are (mostly) not the good guys.
Into this religious-political milieu we have four characters, all gifted with remarkable powers, who share strange dreams about a figure and a gate. As these four navigate their lives in a world whose tenuous peace is beginning to collapse, they will discover that the Holy Church considers them heretics and that they are being hunted.
As should be clear from the above, this is a book that combines the more gritty political/religious machinations of grimdark fantasy with the larger spiritual mystery of where these powers come from while following the individual journeys of these characters. It’s a tricky balance, and Jackson does it incredibly well. The political world he paints – essentially the evil Holy Church wants more powers to burn heretics and has aligned itself with a land-grabbing country with eyes on conquering the rest – is not the most complicated one ever compared to, say, the intricacies of many political/grimdark fantasies, but it’s an object lesson in how to make a world come alive, the political deliberations when they are discussed being both fascinating and realistic.
Then there’s the decision to follow all four characters’ POVs one chapter at a time, in a continuous four-chapter cycle. This is a bold move, which would have fallen flatter on its feet than a concrete-toed high jumper had only some of the characters worked. But all four have appeal, and though I had two strong favourites at the start, by half way through all had developed satisfyingly so there was none of that coasting through one POV to get to the other one you sometimes get in lesser books.
The characterisation is also brilliant; though at first all are sympathetic, little by little they start to make difficult choices that make the reader question them. This ties in nicely with the mystery behind their powers – are they from the Lord Aiduel, the novel’s Jesus figure, or are they the work of something more sinister? You’re never really sure, and you can read into their journeys either a realistic levelling out of their heroism as reality kicks in, or a slow descent into the darkness. It’s fascinating, meaty character work that pays off in spades by the time you reach the various shocking denouements.
We should also note Jackson’s remarkable ability to end almost every POV on a tantalising cliff-hanger. This makes reading this weighty tome less of a slog and more of an emotional obstacle race as you speed though sections desperate to find out what happened only to encounter another cliff-hanger that starts the whole process again. The broader events that befall the characters are not massively original – leading his family’s army into battle, a journey from weakling to clan leader, an attempt to survive on the run – but they are told with such a confident command of storytelling that they feel thrilling and absorbing even as they tread familiar ground. The use of the powers also gives these classic narratives a brilliant twist; at first we don’t know what the powers are, which makes them fascinating, then we get to see how they are used, and then they develop further and things get really interesting.
The worldbuilding is also done well. At times I did want more snippets of information on the lands we never see – I was particularly intrigued by the country “Angloss” which has intriguingly British sounding-vibes to it compared to the central European ones – and so the worldbuilding in this sense could be criticised. But this isn’t really the endless-backstory type of fantasy; it’s one that sometimes paints in broader strokes, but in a climate of fantasies that tend to throw backstory at you until you’re dripping with it, I actually found this refreshing.
The themes here are meaty too; the focus is on religion but we also get questions of how far you should go to protect the ones you love and what kind of person this leaves you afterwards. I also have a feeling that Jackson is going for an ”organised religion bad, individual piety good” vibe but I could be wrong; it will be interesting to see what messages, if any, he has going forward in this respect.
Overall, there is just something about this book that made it, frankly, one of the most enjoyable fantasies I’ve ever read. Yes, the characterisation is great, yes the story is a narrative rollercoaster, but ultimately I think it’s just that Jackson is an instinctively good writer. He’s not a showy one – his language and sentences rarely leap off the page and his characters aren’t pushing any boundaries – but he just tells a story so remarkably well that putting the book down feels like torture until the time comes when you can jump back into it.
Jackson has performed magic here almost worthy of the characters in his book – he’s turned a 700-page behemoth into a fast-paced novella that is over far too soon. This is one of the best fantasies I’ve ever read, and if he keeps this is up we’re going to see something remarkable spun out before our eyes.