Review copy provided by the author in exchange for an honest review.
ILLBORN by Daniel T. Jackson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Series: The Illborn Saga (Book #1 of 4)
Genre: Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, High Fantasy
Pages: 714 pages (Paperback Edition)
Published: 19th March 2021 by Troubador Publishing (Indie)
By the Lord, this was amazing. Illborn is an absolutely compelling character-driven epic fantasy debut.
Before I begin my review, I would like to say that I think Illborn needs a better cover art. The current cover art is alright, but it’s not representative of the quality of the captivating story Jackson has crafted in his debut. Frankly, if it wasn’t due to the highly positive word-of-mouth circulating on Bookstagram and Twitter, I doubt I would give Illborn, the first book in The Illborn Saga by Daniel T. Jackson, a try. Fortunately, I did give it a read despite my feelings on the cover art, and I’m truly grateful I did. It’s so surprising that this is a debut, a ridiculously underrated one. At the time of writing this review, there are only 160 ratings on Goodreads, and that’s unacceptable. Illborn deserves a much bigger audience. If I had read Illborn in 2021 instead of 2022, it would’ve won my best fantasy debut of 2021. It would overtake The Hand of the Sun King by J.T. Greathouse, which I loved so much. I know that sounds crazy, but that’s just how good this debut is. Illborn is another example of why I love searching for underrated fantasy books. Finding hidden gems like this brings me joy.
“Aiduel reminds us that he who does not search shall never find.”
More than eight hundred years ago, the Lord Aiduel emerged from the deserts of the Holy Land. Aiduel used his divine powers to forcibly unite the peoples of Angall before His ascension to heaven. Now, in the year 767AA where the main story takes place in a medieval world threatened by war and religious persecution, four young men and women of the same age (18 years old) begin to develop supernatural abilities. These forbidden and secret powers will shatter the lives that they have known. Each of them has to confront the mystery of the ethereal Gate, which haunts their dreams, and find out how it’s connected to their burgeoning abilities? These four characters will experience conflicts, love, lust, and betrayal, and unbeknownst to them, they must also try to stay ahead of the sinister forces pursuing them.
As you can probably guess from the premise, Illborn is an incredibly character-driven story with a heavy focus on faith, religions, responsibility, survival, love, friendship, and leadership. Character-driven epic fantasy novels have always been my favorite type of fantasy book to read, and I do believe Jackson has created something special here. If you need a small proof of Jackson’s storytelling skill, I strongly suggest you check out the superb prologue. The prologue in Illborn is one of the best prologues I’ve ever read, and reading it will be more convincing than reading my review. Immediately, you’ll know whether you’ll be interested enough to continue or not from it. And let me assure you, the brilliant immersion and tension of the prologue remains consistent throughout the entire novel; in my opinion, it gets better and better with each page. And it’s all thanks to Jackson’s absolute control over his characters and characterizations. I genuinely can’t decide which one I love to read more between Alanna, Corin, Arion, and Leanna.
“How does the opportunity ever arise for one person to alter the destiny of a world?”
Each main character’s story arc has themes that revolve around three words. Lust, power, and domination are Alanna’s. From my assessment, I think it’s safe to say that Alanna will be the most divisive character among the readers of Illborn. Growing up as a daughter of a courtesan, Alanna has lived a hard life. And destiny won’t give her a break at all. Things only get worse for her since she acquired her power, but I think her determination to survive—whether you agree with her or not—is astounding. Alanna is ruthless, she prioritizes survival at all costs, lies, and she’s also self-righteous. All of these traits made Alanna a morally grey and unlikable character. However, there’s something impressive about her plot. Despite my feelings towards Alanna, I never felt bored reading her narration. It felt like I was reading a well-written origin story of a self-righteous villain. That’s Alanna’s story arc for me.
And next, we have Corin. Fear, control, and order determine Corin’s life. Unlike Alanna, it was easy for me to care for Corin. He and Agbeth—Corin’s lover—are kind-hearted characters living in Viking inspired society where might, pillaging, and bravery are at the center of their lifestyle. But Corin is not a warrior, while Agbeth is physically disabled; conflicts arise from these. In a similar fashion (but also different) to Alanna, Corin and Agbeth’s story is about survival. Out of all the main characters in Illborn, Corin is more separated from the other three main characters. But this doesn’t mean Corin’s story was ever lacking in impact and emotions. It was super engaging to read Corin and Agbeth’s story of survival, and hey, there’s even an “animal” companion in his story. I’ll leave it at that for you to find out for yourself. But there were many intense and satisfying moments and scenes in Corin’s story that I loved.
Before we get to the last character, I need to talk about Leanna. Devotion, sacrifice, and salvation guide her path, and Leanna is definitely the most surprising character for me. As I mentioned earlier, faith is a dominant theme in the narrative. Many deadly conflicts in Illborn occurred because of religions and misguided beliefs. Leanna’s story started relatively peaceful and simple; on first impression, her story was the one that felt like it wouldn’t go anywhere too far. And I couldn’t be more wrong on this. Leanna’s story is crucial to the series, and seeing the destruction caused by the corruption of faith was infuriating—in a good way because it’s so understandable—and tension-packed. The topic of brutality and discord invoked by blind fanaticism isn’t something new in literature, and it’s in Leanna’s POV chapters where Jackson managed to showcase the finest kind of unputdownable story on this topic. I can’t get enough of it, and the last chapters of her story (or all the characters, really) were totally stunning.
Lastly, the fourth and final main character of Illborn: Arion. As I said, I found all four main characters’ narration equally compelling. However, if I have to choose only one favorite POV character in Illborn to read, it will probably be Arion. Why? Arion Sepian’s story reminded me of Vaelin al Sorna from Blood Song by Anthony Ryan. Not in the way it’s told, but due to the familiar elements and tropes embedded in Arion’s POV chapters. Arion’s story starts with his dominant father forcing him to become a priest because he’s the third son in the family. And somehow, this was so captivating already. I loved reading his brotherhood with Gerrion and Delrin, but that’s not all; Arion’s POV featured the battle school trope. Yes, one of my favorite tropes in fantasy is in Arion’s POV chapters, and I immensely enjoyed reading Arion’s continuous friendship with Sendar Pavil and rivalry with Berun. Jackson executed this trope wonderfully to its maximum effect. Filled with a storyline that centers around strength, victory, and glory, Arion’s storyline displayed carnage, battle frenzy, glorious power, bloody slaughter, and the grim nature of humanity and war. And if you’re worried that Arion is a Gary Stu, rest assured that he’s not perfect. He made questionable decisions, and I loved every moment of reading his POV chapters.
“When greatness is surrounded by mediocrity, it always finds a way to rise to the surface.”
Look, this review is long enough already, and I feel like I just scratched the surface of the greatness of this book. There are so many things to love in Illborn. So many chapters ended on a cliffhanger that made me eagerly look forward to their next chapter, and it went on for the entire novel. The world-building felt intricate, and I lost many sleeping hours absorbed in Illborn. Every moment I was free, I used it to steal-read a chapter or two. The story in Illborn ranges from 767AA to 769AA, and within two years, the development that the characters endured was utterly astonishing. I seriously cannot wait to read the next book in the series as soon as possible. “With The Illborn Saga, he hopes to create the next classic fantasy series” is written on the first page of the book, and if Jackson can keep this excellence up—or improve upon it, no idea how—for the rest of the series, he will succeed at it. Illborn is one of the most magnificent epic fantasy debuts I’ve ever read. Brimming with pulse-pounding stakes, vivid actions, and believable moral dilemmas, character-driven epic fantasy readers will instantaneously love Illborn. From the beginning to the end, Illborn provides an incredibly absorbing story about well-realized characters doing their best to survive in a brutal world ravaged by violence, injustice, and religious oppression. The year 2022 has just begun, but I have no doubt Illborn will remain in one of my top 10 reads of the year by the end of it. Read this awesome debut, and you can thank me later.
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