ARC was provided by the publisher—Leadstart—in exchange for an honest review.
Cover art illustrated by: Micaela Alcaino
Sons of Darkness by Gourav Mohanty
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Series: The Raag of Rta (Book #1)
Genre: Fantasy, Epic fantasy, Grimdark Fantasy, Historical Fantasy
Pages: 668 pages (Paperback)
Published: 3rd June 2022 by Leadstart
Mahabharata imbued with A Song of Ice and Fire, The First Law, & Malazan Book of the Fallen, Sons of Darkness is the best fantasy debut of 2022.
‘Whenever men found it hard to justify success, they inevitably fell back on luck as the reason. And if the success was completely unimaginable to their feeble minds, they called it magic.’
I need to first mention this. Since I finished The Wisdom of Crowds by Joe Abercrombie last September, I haven’t read any grimdark novel before this month. Yes, it’s almost a year. It has been hard to put my feet back into the grimdark sub-genre. Not because I disliked The Wisdom of Crowds or grimdark. It’s the other way around. Grimdark is one of my favorite subgenres to read, even though I don’t like the term itself; I prefer calling it dark fantasy, but oh well. Anyway, I loved The Wisdom of Crowds so much that I fell into a grimdark subgenre hangover. Since then, it seemed like I had no interest in reading any book that certifies itself as grimdark. Until I saw the reveal and interview of Sons of Darkness by Gourav Mohanty three months ago.
‘They are all fascinating. They have talked to Gods, loved like animals, and written songs that would make Sister Mercy cry. Though we will never leave these hallowed walls to see them in person, yet through their tales, we will be their companions. You can look through any of our journals; access is not denied to any Matron. You are one of us now. Treat them with care, for it is your gift, child. Your welcome to the Ballad of the Fallen.’
The super stunning cover art by Micaela Alcaino caught my attention, and everything the author said in his interview with Fantasy Book Critic finalized my decision to read this book. Sons of Darkness, the first Indian Epic Grimdark Fantasy novel (published in India), is the first installment in The Raag of Rta series. It is practically a smorgasbord of Mahabharata, A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, The First Law by Joe Abercrombie, Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson, and The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. All of these (except Mahabharata that I haven’t read) are some of my favorite series/books of all time, and there is no way I am not reading this. And now that I’ve finished reading Sons of Darkness, I can vouch that these series’ respective influences are embedded with justice. Mohanty deserves praise for his creativity in blending every one of them into one unforgettably stunning and distinct debut novel. And believe me, once you’ve read this novel, the hidden symbolism behind the cover art will shine through. Let’s begin this review with a brilliant line from the novel:
“‘What do you call an angry sheep and an angry cow?’ Draupadi laughed, shaking her head. ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Baaa… aaad moooo… ooood.’”
The passage above should be enough to make you read this novel, right? No? Seriously? I love that kind of joke! Alright, I will begin with a quote from the prologue instead.
‘For a Hero of Light, he reckoned he cast a rather grim shadow. Hero. The word slithered nastily in his mind. An honour bestowed upon you when you had killed all those who would have called you a mass murderer.’
If you want to know the premise of Sons of Darkness, I highly recommend you check the official blurb on the back of the book instead. The blurb did a great job in telling the premise without going into spoiler-territory. As for this review, let me start by saying Sons of Darkness has one of the best prologues I’ve ever read. I have always found myself dumbfounded by the argument that prologues shouldn’t exist anymore in the fantasy genre. I disagree with this. A prologue in a fantasy novel can do many things, one of the most important things being the chance to give readers something to look forward to later on. This is what Mohanty did in his 16 pages prologue. It was brutal, it immediately exhibited the darkness of the story, and I knew Muchuk Und’s story and the elements introduced here would come back to enhance the narrative eventually. And it did.
‘You have your sword, I have my mind. And a mind can be sharper than any Assyrian blade. We play with the gifts the Gods bestow upon us. And who are they to us? Either carpets to our thrones or casualties on the way.’
With the sprawling scope of the series and the many varying cast of characters, Mohanty is burdened with a challenge that many epic fantasy authors encounter. To write a compelling slow-burn first half before exploding the narrative into an unstoppable thrilling reading experience in the second half. This is normal in a sprawling epic fantasy like A Song of Ice and Fire and many more. Personally, I tend to love a relatively slow-paced narrative, especially in the early section of the first volume of an epic fantasy series. Mohanty needed to introduce the characters and the world-building of Sons of Darkness to make the readers invested in their journey and the world first, and from my experience, that is what he precisely did in the first half of the novel. Your patience with the relatively slow section will be returned tenfold. Patience is a virtue.
‘But Krishna liked that about her. It had made her… realistic about things. She laughed with the knowledge that it wasn’t meant to last, and cried with the self assurance that it was futile. She was like a glacier, relentless and implacable. But eyeing the letter from Panchal, he reckoned that sometimes even a vast glacier could crack into crevasses under deer hooves.’
In ADHYAYA (Sanskrit for chapter) I: WINTER OF DISCORD, Mohanty introduced and developed the pairing of Krishna and Satyabhama from Mathura. And also Shisuphal from Magahd. The characterizations for the characters in Sons of Darkness were superbly written. It was difficult for me to choose which character was my utmost favorite. I actually cannot choose just one. But I can certainly say that Satyabhama and her band of Silver Wolves (Storm and Rain were my favorites of the Wolves) were some of my favorite characters in Sons of Darkness. Their unflinching bravery, loyalty, and their admirable determination to fight against prejudice and control their own destiny as women were nothing short of inspiring. I mean. Due to the sprawling narrative, Satyabhama didn’t even appear again after ADHYAYA I for approximately 50% of the book. However, I guarantee you this. Once you’re done with the book, Satyabhama and the Silver Wolves will become some of your favorite characters. Their presence was irreplaceable.
‘Women are cursed to suffer, thought Draupadi. None can change that… not with complaints, or prayers, or revolution. But one can spit at life and dare it to hurt you more. Draupadi pondered over the likes of Satyabhama, Storm and the other Silver Wolves. Women who had taken charge of their destinies, women fighting their fate. A losing battle perhaps, but a fight nonetheless.’
It goes without saying that Satyabhama and the Silver Wolves weren’t the characters worth highlighting here. In ADHYAYA II: ALL THAT GLITTERS, Mohanty focused the plot on Mati from Kalinga and Karna from Hastina. Karna was a character I felt a bit lukewarm at first, but this opinion instantly vanished after I read the first out of two sets of convergence chapters: SWAYAMVAR PART I and PART II, which I will talk about soon. Mati did not have much of an appearance in Sons of Darkness, but Karna somehow transformed into one of my favorite characters in the book, just like Satyabhama and the Silver Wolves I just talked about. Karna earned so much of my empathy. Though kind-hearted and mighty with his bow, he’s frequently ridiculed, hated, and prejudiced simply due to his birth. As I said, being patient is so worth it with this novel. Once you reach the convergence chapters, you will reap the first sequence of rewards.
‘Most ballads say that Luck is a Lady, naked and shapely, reserving her blessings for the most valiant and dashing of heroes. Perhaps this was so as the bards were usually Namins. If Karna had been asked to give his luck a shape, it would have been a female praying mantis, the creature that made love to its mate, then decapitated him and devoured his body for dinner.’
The geopolitical dramas in Sons of Darkness were evidently inspired by A Song of Ice and Fire. But the first and the most dominant evidence of The First Law inspiration can be seen in the master of spies from Hastina, Shakuni, and the name of the chapter that he appeared, which is ADHYAYA III: BEST SERVED COLD. Shakuni is a former tortured prisoner of war that turned into a crippled torturer. Yes, you’re right. Shakuni is undoubtedly Glokta-inspired. Initially, I was taken aback by how similar they were. However, after researching Shakuni’s background in Mahabharata, I think it is smart to emulate Glokta’s style of inner monologues for this character. And as I progressed further into the book, fortunately, their story turned out more and more differently. I love how the author included his main inspirations to Sons of Darkness clearly, and still, he successfully transformed the novel into something that is definitely his own. For example, take a look at the next quote I’m going to show you.
‘It is said that the greatest gift the Gods can give you is to forget about you. And Shishupal wanted nothing more than to spend his life unnoticed by the Gods. A life unnoticed by the Gods is boring and unimaginative, but a happy and long one. And he worked hard to make his life precisely thus.’
If you’ve read the prologue of Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson, you will notice it came from there. And speaking of inspirations, it is time to talk about the main spotlights of the novel. Exactly. It is time to discuss the epic convergences in THE SWAYAMVAR and THE BATTLE OF MATHURA. The SWAYAMVAR: PART I and THE SWAYAMVAR: PART II take place halfway through the book. This is the first instance of Mohanty’s incredible action sequences. But have no fear. It shall not be the last. This storytelling structure of including two big epic convergences sequences reminded me of reading a book in Malazan Book of the Fallen. A good example of this is Memories of Ice. In that book, we have Siege of Capustan and Siege of Coral in one big book. THE SWAYAMVAR and THE BATTLE OF MATHURA are what we readers get here, and the results were absolutely pulse-pounding.
‘I know what I said of hate… But vengeance is a sword with a hilt made of jagged glass. You will bleed when you swing this sword. All those kings and their families that I butchered, brought me no peace. No happiness. No satisfaction. Take it from one who has suffered girl, do not walk that path.
I thought the weapons of precise chaos unleashed in THE SWAYAMVAR were destined to be the peak of the novel. I am gratified to be proven wrong by this. Remember this as you read it. If you love THE SWAYAMVAR chapters, what ensues in the ultraviolent BATTLE OF MATHURA will blow your mind away. It definitely did for me. War is coming with merciless malice. Everyone involved in the war has to stop being a lamb and be a wolf instead. As I write this review, I am still not over the intense carnage I read in THE BATTLE OF MATHURA. And just like the other best battle scenes I’ve read, I don’t think I will ever be over it. It was, unquestionably, one of the best war sequences I’ve ever read in fantasy.
‘A day may come when the courage of men fails… but it is not THIS day.’—Tolkien, Lord of the Rings
With glimpses of The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie in its battles structure, the memorable duel and the battle frenzy in the climax sequence of Sons of Darkness should deservedly be entered into the hall of fame of some of the best battles in fantasy. Seriously, reading the powerfully inspiring battle spirits, the massive detonation of the bellower (similar to Moranth munitions in Malazan Book of the Fallen), and the relentless symphony of blood songs in THE BATTLE OF MATHURA was all-consumingly immersive. Due to the ever-growing quantity of fantasy books I read, it’s getting harder for me to feel absolutely riveted in a war sequence within a fantasy novel. But trust me on this. Epic fantasy readers will want to WITNESS this fiery conflagration of emotions. It is truly a breathtaking culmination to Sons of Darkness.
‘The battle fever that had coursed through his body earlier paled in comparison to the rage he felt now. He felt reckless, mad. A faint voice of caution struggled to be heard. But he was past caring, past all consequences. There are few things more dangerous than a man who has nothing to lose.’
Before I end this review, I need to mention a few important things. The author has forewarned this in the author’s note. Sons of Darkness is an epic grimdark fantasy novel. The novel is certainly not for the faint of heart. The characters are morally grey. None of them are protagonists or antagonists; they are characters trying their best to survive and do what’s right according to them. They do questionable things. Although never endlessly bleak and depressing, brutal and violent scenes are evident in the text; pretty much all the harrowing actions you can expect in wars.
‘The end justifies the means… Any end achieved through violence ends in a pit of despair. It is not a destination to aspire to, my friend.’
I’ve mentioned in this review constantly that this is an epic grimdark fantasy novel. But it is worth remembering that the story in Sons of Darkness, as shown in the colored map drawn by the author at the front of the book, takes place in Ancient India. Mathura, Magadh, Hastina, Panchal, Kalinga, and more settings in this book exists in our world. It is more precise to call Sons of Darkness a historical epic grimdark fantasy novel. Many words and terminologies such as ADHYAYA, SWAYAMVAR, chakras, and mandalas can be researched to enhance reading enjoyment. This counts deities and demigods in Indian mythology like Daevas from Deva, Rakshasa, and mounts like Airavata and Garuda. I can’t emphasize this highly enough. All of these, plus the inspirations implementation I explained earlier and the manipulation of the dark prophecy gave Sons of Darkness extra extensive reason why it should be read by historical/grimdark fantasy enthusiasts.
‘Know this, the coming of the Son of Darkness is the singlemost calamitous thing that could happen to the realm. He is the Evil that was Promised. The one prophesized a millennia ago, to dig open the evils our ancient heroes buried in the past. If he is released, he will make the stars bleed, the world kneel, and children everywhere will weep tears of blood as Aryavrat is pushed into the Age of Darkness.’
With seven key characters and other well-written supporting characters in 206,000 words, there is a LOT to unpack in Sons of Darkness. I highlighted so many quotes. And I still left out tons of amazing things from the novel in this review. You can’t experience the full glory of it through my (or any) review. You have to read this for yourself. The unbreached bastion for grimdark fantasy literature in India has been breached with Mohanty as the lead, and nothing can stop the novel from encompassing the entire world now. Some ballads are inked in blood, and the blood ink in Sons of Darkness has left a permanent mark in the fantasy genre. Valorously retelling Mahabharata by infusing influences from some of the most magnificent epic grimdark fantasy series in the world elevated Sons of Darkness into becoming the new scintillating hidden gem in epic grimdark fantasy. With engaging duel, an exceptional war sequence, lovable and despicable characters, heroic stunts, dark prophecies, meddling gods, and many more, Sons of Darkness is filled with all the makings of a tremendous epic grimdark fantasy. It has reignited my passion for reading grimdark again after a one-year break from it. And to think this is only the first installment! I, and Choco Boy, love being engrossed in this tale from Ancient India, and we can’t wait to read the sequel, Dance of Shadows, as soon as possible. Bravo, Gourav Mohanty, for this excellent debut.
‘A man is not known by the promises he makes but by those he keeps.’
I want to say thank you so much to Gourav Mohanty and Leadstart for sending me a physical copy and for doing a great job in publishing Sons of Darkness. It is floppy. The cover art is super stunning. It also comes with a fully colored frontispiece and map. I heard Indian readers who read my reviews or watch my YouTube channel convinced the author and publisher to send me Sons of Darkness, and I would like to thank all of you who did that. Not only has Sons of Darkness become one of my favorite books, but it is also a gorgeously produced paperback. Leadstart, if you’re reading this, time to create a hardcover of Sons of Darkness. Everything about it is too good to stay exclusively as a paperback.
Picture: Frontispiece of Sons of Darkness by Jennifer Bruce
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