ARC received from the publisher, Gollancz, in exchange for an honest review.
Master of Sorrows was a remarkable debut which I simply cannot put down.
This book recalled so much about what I loved about classic epic fantasy and yet felt modern. The author has quoted David Eddings as his earliest favourite. Having read and loved Eddings’ works myself, I can definitely see the influences from The Belgariad in this book; a prophecy, Gods and a coming-of-age tale of a young man destined for greatness. Except, in this case, that greatness may lie in the path of darkness instead of light.
As if those three elements above weren’t enough to make me love Master of Sorrows, we also have the school trope in this story. You know the drill. A talented main protagonist trying to advance, but was constantly thwarted by his equally talented enemies, or bullies. School bullies will never go out of fashion – in books, television, movies or the real world. As a reader or spectator, it is always so satisfying when the victim overcomes the abuse, and it is especially gratifying to see the antagonists receiving their comeuppance. I believe that this satisfaction stems from its underlying message, which is one of hope, perseverance and karma.
Overused standard tropes, one might say, though I maintained that tropes existed for a reason; once upon a time, readers enjoyed reading them. The distinction lies in how well-written the story is and how well these fantasy plot devices serve to tell the story. Admittedly, originality is also usually not the first thing that I look for in a book anyway. This doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate originality, I absolutely do and it does count when it comes to my overall reading enjoyment. Ultimately though, I gravitate towards compelling and empathetic storytelling. A story that can capture and retain my attention, as my mind takes flight and wanders into the imaginary world with its characters. Master of Sorrows gave me that experience as I devoured the novel in just two days.
Save for the Prologue and Epilogue, the story was told solely from the perspective of Annev, an orphan who was brought up by a priest and mentor, Sodar in the hidden village of Chaenbalu. Annev was an Acolyte of Faith in training to be an Avatar of Judgment of the Academy. These avatars are entrusted by the Academy to retrieve magical artifacts and bring them back for safekeeping. It is for this reason that the village is kept hidden by magic and its existence is practically unknown to most people outside. The hierarchy of the Academy goes up the ranks of Master Avatar, Ancients and the Eldest of Ancients. And all of them will kill Annev without hesitation should his deformity, the mark of the Fallen God, come to light.
The coming-of-age characterisation of Annev was quite excellent in my opinion. His apprenticeship under his mentor, Sodar, had instilled within him moral values which are at odds with those of the Academy that will help him pass the Test of Judgment and become an avatar. As only one acolyte can pass each Test, he may need to betray his friends to do so. His determination to pass the Test was further inflamed by his love for Myjun, the daughter of the Eldest of Ancients. Ah yes, the stupidity that accompanies the flush of young love. I do sometimes feel like shaking Annev for being idiotic when it comes to Myjun. However, even though I typically don’t like romance in my books and how silly characters can get when in thrall to romantic love, it is a wholly realistic part of growing up. With that perspective, I think the author did a great job in handling this tricky aspect of Annev’s character development.
As much as I disliked the Annev-Myjun love story, I absolutely loved the Sodar-Annev mentor-apprentice, surrogate father-son relationship. This relationship between Annev and his mentor formed the emotional backbone of his story as far as I’m concerned. Without which, I would not have been half as invested in these characters as I was shortly into the book. Annev’s arc on friendship, loyalty and kindness also played a significant role in his character development, and is especially crucial given the dark legacy for which he is supposedly destined.
I have earlier mentioned about the Fallen God. The worldbuilding in Silent Gods was based on the lore of three Gods – Odar, Lumea and Keos – their elements and creations. The elements of the world, quaire or skywater, lumea or lightfire, and t’rasang or earthblood, were each represented by these Gods (in that order). The magic system was then divided into different forms as dictated by the elemental power behind it. Throughout the book, several interludes recounted the story of the Gods and how Keos became the fallen one. These interludes helped provide history and context without having the characters going into info-dumping monologues.
There were also many unfamiliar terms which have been introduced, but not yet explained in this instalment. What I did get out of a specific narrative somewhere in the middle of the book was that The Silent God series will reach epic fantasy proportions. And when there was a Fallen God, there will be monsters. Witches, feurogs and shadow assassins were just a taste of what is in store. The woods that kept Chaenbalu hidden and safe were also strange as shadow-magic can stretch and lengthen the paths to confound travellers. The worldbuilding was fascinating, but at this early stage of the series, its intricacy still quite opaque. Hopefully, throughout this tetralogy, the intriguing complexity will give way to enlightened wonder.
Call’s writing style is unembellished and non-distracting, which makes the story easy to read and digest. For a book which was so hard to put down, I also loved the relatively short chapters as it helped me squeeze in lots of reading time throughout the day. The pacing was executed quite superbly, with gripping action scenes, showcasing both the agility and fighting skills of the trained avatars as well as the magic of the artifacts.
The climactic sequence was intense, edge-of-the-sear material;it ended on a grim and poignant note, and even with a few rather shocking surprises. The first arc of this coming-of-age tale was wrapped up, but Annev’s fateful journey had barely started. Master of Sorrows is a brilliant and riveting tale of having the courage to find and choose one’s path, and it left me wanting more.
I recommend this book for lovers of classic epic fantasy looking for a modern voice.