A poor young man strives to rise above his station in a rigid society stratified into strict castes in this debut fantasy novel, the first in The Runes of Issalia series.
In Brock Talenz’s world, how much control people have over their lives is determined by whether they are granted a rune at a young age, defining them as one of the upper classes. Unfortunately for Brock, he belongs to the Unchosen, namely the lowest level of society, with no hope for upward mobility. After his beloved aunt dies of an illness the same day he was finally able to get her a doctor by stealing enough money to pay for the visit, Brock decides he has had enough. He goes to a man who gives him a counterfeit rune and then sets off with his best friend, Tipper, and a few others on the long journey to the Academy, where all of the upper echelons of this realm are trained. Along the way, Brock discovers he possesses strange powers when a banshee kills one of his companions and he manages to temporarily revive the corpse. Once Brock finally arrives at the Academy, he begins his education and discovers some buried truths that could threaten to unravel the Empire. Brock is by far the strongest element of Kohanek’s novel. Sharply drawn, natural, and sympathetic, the protagonist grounds the narrative, even amid its fantasy trappings. Neither the plot nor the world he inhabits is the genre’s most original, but both are solid, initially promising a sturdy foundation for a series. But at the same time, an overabundance of exposition weighs down this first installment, particularly once Brock reaches the school. What was a fairly exciting quest story suddenly gets bogged down in classroom minutiae, like Hogwarts without the whimsy, fun, and true sense of danger. After all of that, the book ends abruptly, revealing itself to have simply been a setup for sequels, with no emotional resolution or payoff.
While it shows potential, this tale lays the groundwork for future installments instead of delivering a rousing adventure.