October 18, 2017
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Complete with a map of the land at the beginning, Godblind by Anna Stephens has everything you could expect from a fantasy war novel. Anyone who reads a lot of fantasy will know where they stand with this story from the first few chapters. It has warring religious factions, mysterious visions, blood sacrifices, sex slaves, bar brawls, plots to murder royalty, and lovable rogues who cheat at cards. But I think it uses and subverts these tropes well, creating a unique tale that doesn’t get dragged down by the common pitfalls of its genre.
Godblind tells the story of a number of characters whose lives interlock in the tense build-up to a horrific war. I really liked the way that using several narrative perspectives offered a thorough and detailed immersion in the story’s world across country, class, and gender. The characters you follow include an escaped slave, an aspiring tyrant, an advisor to the aging king, a tortured emissary to the gods, and a brilliant yet impulsive captain of the royal guard. You get a glimpse into every facet of life.
The downside to this is that it takes a little while to introduce every character and to establish their development arcs. Personally, I was about a quarter of the way through the book before it really picked up and I felt a secure connection to the primary characters. I found the book really gripping once this connection was established but, in the first few chapters, I had to make an effort to remember who was who and doing what.
The book establishes itself early on as a violent and brutal story, opening on a gruesome sacrifice to the gods and swiftly moving on to an attempted rape and a sudden murder. I think it’s probably a good thing that it immediately introduces these elements, as Godblind continues in this manner for the rest of its plot. There are many more blood sacrifices in this novel, with even more gruesome details. Violent skirmishes between enemy armies are very graphically recounted. There are chilling descriptions of men being slowly driven insane by the knowledge that they are puppets in this bloodbath.
I like that, for the most part; the graphic violence does serve a purpose in the plot, so it’s not gore just for gore’s sake. The excruciating detail in the torture scene, for instance, provides clues for the royal physician to figure out the conspiracy behind the prince’s death. At other times, it shows how the brutality of the pre-war tension has broken good men.
A lot of the characters, perhaps, have a bit of a casual attitude towards killing, especially as a good half of them aren’t soldiers. An interesting addition to the plot would have been some characters having a negative reaction to taking a life.
The main difference between societies in Godblind is religion. I liked that none of the doctrines bear too close a resemblance to any real-world ideologies, so it doesn’t feel like a clumsy metaphor for any conflicts in our time. The gods communicate directly with humans, and the gods of both sides definitely exist. I thought it was interesting that the conflict over religion wasn’t about who was right, but who was the most powerful.
At the same time, there are other real-world issues that are examined, such as sexism and homophobia. I liked the way the writer didn’t only give prejudices to the obvious villains. I also liked the way she managed to expose the flaws in such prejudices concisely. I felt like some of it seemed abrupt within the context of the story. I would’ve liked to have seen the growth of characters in this respect in more detail throughout the plot.
I think this book is very cleverly written. I love the level of detail in it. At times, even the metaphors used are based in the reality of the story’s world.
For a book with such a complex plot, spanning the perspectives of multiple characters through the chaos of politics and war in a starkly imaginative world, it’s very easy to follow once you’re into the rhythm of the story. I liked the way that very small details draw you into the moment, like a general chewing nervously on a thumbnail while a battle rages around him.
Throughout the story, you get a very real sense of the characters’ experiences. You never really lose track of whose story you’re following. Stephens always makes it relevant to the character narrating at any given time.
I really like this book. I think its most prominent flaws are not spending enough time with each character. I easily could have read a whole book of this length about each one of the primary characters. But I’m also aware that that could have messed up the pacing of what is, ultimately, an enjoyable book.
Godblind ends on the brink of a brutal war, with its many protagonists scattered across the land, some in danger, some imprisoned, some still in the midst of battle, and one mad and trembling in the rubble of his home. I liked that it didn’t negate all the tension of the past 400 pages with some unrealistic, neatly packaged happy ending. I hope Stephens has a sequel planned for the (preferably near) future.
I want to find out how this war goes. I want to know how the gods will play their roles now that the barrier between them is thinner than ever. I want to see the characters, some of whom are just coming into their own in the final chapters of Godblind, continue to fight through the heat of it all.