In this fantasy novel, Kessler (Gables Court, 2018) tells a story of an unpleasant world that’s only getting worse.
Mikkel lives a privileged life as the son of Deputy to the Secretary of the Party Otto. However, his dark complexion and aversion to killing pigs make him more like a despised group called Burners than the tall, blond members of the “master race,” led by a man called the Butcher. Mikkel has visions of creating a new civilization that doesn’t depend on pig slaughter or the subjugation of sun-worshipping Burners and other non-elites. At the same time, he also tries to fit into the existing system, rejecting lower-ranked friends and embracing, for a time, the cruelty of Ludolf, leader of the brutal Scouts. As Mikkel begins to break with the Butcher’s ways, flashback chapters reveal more of his backstory and how the persecution of the Burners began. Eventually, Otto and Mikkel decide that a plan to kill all Burners is a step too far, and Mikkel finds his place as a leader. This story can be confusing at times, and the similarity of Ludolf’s and Rudolf’s names doesn’t help matters. Familiar fantasy tropes abound, from an overabundance of capitalized nouns to Mikkel’s role as a chosen one. The Butcher is also given to highly dramatic pronouncements: “Burner death through Party innovation gives the faithful a glimpse of the purged world to come.” However, Kessler’s prose is generally strong, with occasional moments of dry humor amid the bleakness of the narrative. The heavy violence will not appeal to all readers, but some will find this book as a whole to be an enjoyable, multilayered fantasy. Its allusions are rarely subtle, though; Burners are trapped in a stockade and have numbers written on their arms, the Butcher calls them “diseased creatures more animal than human,” and the Secretary of the Party suggests disposing of them in “a large oven.”
An intriguing but uneven tale with heavy-handed references to Nazism and the Holocaust.