Seeds of War by João F. Silva: A Review
Pace, story, characters, magic, fun, twists: you want it, you got it in this ambitious debut
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I’m not in the habit of starting my reviews with an apology, but this time it has to be done. João F. Silva, I’m sorry.
I’m sorry for the fact that the main word that comes to mind to describe Seeds of War, book 1 in your epic fantasy trilogy The Smokesmiths, is fun. The problem with the word fun is that it can also sometimes denote lightweight. Insubstantial. Unserious. But Seeds of War is none of these things; deep, original characterisation mixes with very serious themes and very substantial worldbuilding. But also, oh my word is it fun, the fantasy equivalent of downing tequila while unwrapping the latest games console. On a party yacht. Made of trampolines. There is none of this slow build-up we are used to in fantasy debuts. Before you have reached the first half you will have read of at least three battles, multiple assassination attempts, court upheaval, and a duel to the death. And, oh, that magic system. But before I get carried away with the F word, I’ll try and describe this rollicking, lightning-fast story.
The world we’re in is a fairly recognisable epic fantasy medieval style land; the ‘known world’ contains a range of hot and cold kingdoms all in various stages of conflict with one another. Given that we see muskets and even cannons at one point, it’s safe to stay we’re on the verge of the flintlock fantasy era. Ten year previous, the Crimson Wars, monsters versus humans, were won in favour of the humans, at which point a new continent arose from the sea (shades of Terry Pratchett’s Jingo?), the conquering of which is the focus of many of the storylines. This world is also filled with smokesmiths, dangerously powerful magic users who inhale herbs which give them crazy powers and also destroy the lungs (sort of like if Hulk had to smoke Marlboros to turn green, I guess). The novel focuses primarily on three characters’ POVs.
First, Gimlore is a single mother, war veteran and orphan who grew up learning to fight and steal but has swapped this all to become a sort of crime boss meets community leader, heading a new city on the new continent, a free city where refugees, exiles and bandits have come to together to make a life for themselves and also make some money from the elixir Gimlore is selling to the armies of the main continent.
Rednow is the old, grizzled leader of legendary mercenaries-for-hire the Leeth, who will fight the battles of kings in return for gold. He’s also a smokesmith who turns into notorious warrior the Blood Collector.
Our final main POV is Orberesis, a seeming deity; an ex-peasant who used a strange red orb to send the beasts back in the Crimson Wars and in doing so became a god to the people of his country.
The first thing to say about this book is how good the characterisation is here; not just good but original. In some senses we are firmly in a Grimdark world; that is to say a bad world where bad things happen and death comes thick and fast and straight in the neck. Normally in such fantasy landscapes we get amoral, or at best morally dubious characters. No heroes here. But what Silva has done here – at least it seems to me – is invert the norm; because these characters are, as far as I can tell, just solidly decent types. Rednow might be a mercenary who kills for money, but he’s doing it to protect his people, a ragtag bunch of orphans who he trains into skilled fighters. At all points he makes the right decision of who to fight for. Gimlore, meanwhile, might be a crime boss with a high kill count (is there anyone who isn’t in fantasy?) but she’s doing the best by her people and clearly fighting for the underdog. Even Orberesis, who has a darker character arc, starts off with the best intentions of wanting people not to have the rough peasant life had.
This unusual mix of heroic and grimdark is on purpose; it seems Silva is making it his aim to focus on the dispossessed, the downtrodden and the underdog. I found this very refreshing; so often in these dark fantasy worlds it seems everyone is a bastard, but of course in reality you would get these endangered communities. Where are the commune leaders and those who would in our world be heading the Red Cross or something? Here, apparently, and I loved how refreshing this felt.
At this point I also have to say just how much I loved the Gimlore storyline. Like, really loved, in the way a puppy loves a ten-inch stick. This set up, the new city of rebels and exiles trying to make its way and defend itself against all comers, with the crime boss with the heart of gold who’s forced to ally with a sterner, more pious lawman (anyone who’s seen HBO’s legendary series Deadwood will sit up at this) is, I have discovered thanks to this book, one of my favourite tropes, and it is just enormously fun. The Gimlore “I will make this town work, dammit!” storyline is one of the most compelling arcs you will read this year in fantasy. It is SO good.
Next we have to praise the magic system. There is a pure sense of joy in wandering what super-power a character is going to reveal after they’ve huffed on some potent weed. And some of the battles it leads to are epic, in a Marvel-style Thor fights Thanos kind of way. There’s also some very dark details about how you become a smokesmith, which lend a morbid Witcher-style air to proceedings.
Prose-wise, I confess I wasn’t sure at first. This is easy-reading, fast flowing prose, in the vein of Brandon Sanderson. I’m normally a fan of more detailed, complex prose – here a man will be stabbed in the neck and that’s it, but in a John Gwynne book, for example, we’ll read exactly where that blood spray is going and how deep the wound is. But I quickly learnt to love it, because it does what this prose style is meant to do at it best – allowing the fantastic story to flow fast and shine a light on the excellent characters. In this sense it reminded me of another fantasy with a simple prose style, last year’s Illborn by Daniel T. Jackson. That was one of my favourite fantasies of the year. So maybe sometimes simpler is best. That said, when I say simple, I do not mean less detailed. Silva sprinkles worldbuilding lovingly throughout; of note is the fantastically thought out bestiary of creatures in this world (beautifully illustrated at the start of the book; definitely a candidate for bestiary of the year).
Finally, I have to praise the pace. This is a rollicking story. As I alluded to earlier, debut fantasies tend to the slowness of pace, as characters slowly crawl across a continent to get to their objective point while the worldbuilding is painstakingly introduced. Not so here. This is a wind machine in a hurricane, and it’s joyous to experience.
This pace goes supernova in the last quarter/fifth, as all the characters’ storylines converge and we get one huge battle, or at least a series of small battles as part of the overall big one, where all the main players have to contend against each other. It’s an enormously impressive feat to pull off this storyline convergence in such a narratively satisfying way; for Silva to do it in his debut is frankly astonishing. And I haven’t even mentioned the ambitious twists at the end, which, like all the best twists, completely change our perspective on the whole story that’s gone before.
Overall, the scale of the achievement here in this indie debut is frankly mind blowing. Silva has attempted to construct a world full of original, deft compelling characterisations and ridiculously addictive storylines while defying the slow pacing of epic fantasy debuts and, somehow, he’s done it. It remains to be seen if I will be as impressed by any debut this year the way I am with this one. This is a series you have to read, even if it means dropping the F-bomb. Fun, that is.