A magic system to die for and a lot of people who die
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Grimdark fantasy is a curious label. No one really agrees on what constitutes it – is it a brutal world? Amoral characters? Unhappy ending? Lots of death? All of the above? Some authors get labelled it and deny it, others happily embrace the label themselves.
One of the second kind is new fantasy kid on the block John Palladino, whose debut novel the Trials of Ashmount, the first in a trilogy, is a self-described grimdark fantasy in the style of Joe Abercrombie (grim but witty, essentially). If you’re wondering how much Palladino is leaning into the death count side of grimdark, then allow me to inform you that his list of characters at the front is headed “People who may die”.
With such a witty aside it’s hard to tell if the vast body count that follows is tongue-in-cheek or warranted, but I have a lot of time for grimdark and I have a lot of time for this book, not just for the entertaining variety of deaths in it but because it is, frankly, a brilliant debut which combines astute worldbuilding, pacy, addictive storytelling and, as we’ll see later, a frankly superb magic system which could elevate this trilogy to potentially great fantasy heights.
The setting is the world of Cedain, which is five countries spread over three continents. These are fairly standard epic fantasy environs: a cold north, a desert south, and some prosperous fertile middlelands which are an interesting mix of medieval and roman influences. Palladino does a good job of quickly making these lands comes alive; I was particularly intrigued by Cyrok, the North, who build their military around bird references (the vultures, the hawks, the falcons, etc.)
The plot essentially centres around two classic themes: the build up of war and (the corruption of) magic. The central country Calrym is agitating for war against its northern and eastern neighbours, while desert clans threaten from the South. Meanwhile in the East we have the University of Ashmount, a sort of incredibly dangerous Hogwarts which exists in a protective bubble next to a volcano. Here the magic professors dictate which of the students have “the trace” (ability to do magic) and then, after a series of frankly sadistic tests, some of them are inducted into the university. However, it becomes increasingly clear that the university might have its own corrupt agenda.
Into this world of war and magic we follow five POVS of characters spread across the five countries. The classic question of equally spaced multiple POVs is do they all work? And mostly here the answer is yes. Demri Slarn is an immediate standout; a powerful and morally dubious magicus who is also crippled and on a brutal revenge quest to find the one responsible. His quest is confusing at first, but once I discovered his fantastic backstory, he quickly became the stand out for me. Kelden Stoole is another satisfying POV; a student at the aforementioned university, he must get through a series of insane dangerous trials to be accepted wherein Palladino gets to rack up his body count to enjoyably obscene levels. Not all the POVs worked for me – the desert nomad’s storyline has a lot of promise but never really got going – but overall the general consistency of them meant I was never annoyed to move on to another character, a sure-fire sign of a strong story.
Speaking of story, this is a clear, simple, vanilla writing style that is about story over florid prose, and in this sense it reminded me of recent (and stunningly good) indie fantasy Illborn. The story never stops; that’s not to say there aren’t effective descriptions where there need to be, but this is a fantasy comfortable in breakneck pace and story over style, and when the story is this great I am completely fine with that. Palladino has a talent for making you engrossed in his world, and I found myself absolutely addicted at every twist and turn (and boy are there some great twists to be found here).
But let’s move on to the biggest selling point of this book, that magic system. And what a magic system. There are so many of these in epic fantasy these days that it’s tough to really make a standout one. But with this, Palladino hits the target and then brutally eviscerates said target. If you want to go in completely blind, then skip the paragraph to come and simply be assured it is amazing; but otherwise…
There are five kinds of magic. The essential genius is, first, the brutal nature of several of these kinds. An enforcer is the brute magic type, who has access to power thanks to soul glyphs inscribed on his body. Only problem? As the name suggests, using these glyphs ages the wearer unnaturally. Use too many and you’ll be old before your years. Then there’s the healers, who get it even worse; they heal people but the worse the wound the more they age, and a life-saving healing can age them decades. It's such a gloriously brutal system that creates so many dilemmas and moral choices that Palladino exploits to the max. The second genius idea is the interlinked nature of the magic types. Collectors can take magic out of people (killing them in the process) offering an intriguing alternative for enforcers rather than using their own body – but it’s a pricy market economy as you can imagine. The glyphists are the ones who inscribe the soul glyphs on enforcers – they have no power themselves but they offer the gift of power and thus can make a fortune. With this magic system Palladino deserves all the attention and praise I hope he’ll receive.
Not everything works, however. What is so far missing from this debut is the kind of standout, strong character that fans can rave about. Palladino himself references Joe Abercrombie as an influence, so it’s appropriate to say there’s as yet no applause-worthy character like Abercrombie fan-favourite Sand dan Glokta (although Demi Slarm comes closest, not least because they share a lot of characteristics). There is sometimes a feeling that the excellent storyline is going on around characters who don’t feel that deeply developed and are following standard character tropes (revenge, desire for power, protecting family etc.)
However, this wasn’t a major problem for me as this is only the first book of the trilogy and there’s plenty of time for this to be addressed and there is certainly enough potential for some of these characters to grow. Frankly I’ve never read a debut fantasy trilogy that doesn’t leap forward in bounds as it goes on due to the author growing in confidence, and so I fully expect given how much I enjoyed this novel that some of these characters will come into their own as the trilogy goes on. If they survive it, that is.
Overall, this debut offers that great feeling as a fantasy reader: seeing a new author come up with a great new world and finding yourself absolutely engrossed in it. I was seriously addicted to this book and the fast-paced rollicking, blood-soaked story. Palladino deserves major success for the barnstormingly creative magic system alone, but he’s got a cracking world and storyline to boot and I for one am firmly on board this corpse-strewn journey wherever it may be headed.