In McDemott’s (Inspection, 2013, etc.) latest fantasy novel, an embittered warrior leads a revolt against an ethereal enemy enslaving his people and finds himself in a fight for his own soul.
In the lands north of the Black Mountains, there are no free men—only slaves of the overlord Belenus, one of a race of immortals known as the Fay. He taxes the people of Dokrait into poverty, and when they fall short, he demands their children as payment. Although the hard-nosed, single-minded Keiran commands Belenus’ army, he’s no freer than anyone else; his body still has scars from floggings he received during a youth spent in the Fay’s mines. So, with his deputy and only friend, Caél, he plots a rebellion in order to lead his people out of bondage—through the country of their lifelong enemies, the Alamiri, to the Wildheath, an unsettled land that will become their new home. When Belenus pursues the refugees with an army of hobgoblins, Keiran must confront how his impulse toward expediency, rather than justice or mercy, makes him more like his foe than he cares to admit. The leader of a mysterious band of Fay known as the Others soon tells him that the only way forward is by embracing the Eternal One. The plot’s biblical echoes, with its themes of slavery, freedom, obedience and revolt, are no coincidence. McDermott (Inspection, 2013, etc.) bills the novel as both fantasy and Christian fiction, but like C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, the religious undertones are subtle enough to still engage a secular audience (although the epigraph, drawn from the Gospel of Matthew, does tip the author’s hand). No divine fire ignites the plot, but the characters are real enough, with realistic conflicts; Caél, for example, is torn between his duty to his family and to his people, and an Alamiri prisoner, Jarmith, weighs his desire to escape against his responsibility to prevent a murder. The prose also frequently achieves a gentle cleverness, as when a character quips, “I think if I throw myself on Belenus’ mercy, there will be nothing to break my fall.”
A solid fantasy that wears its spirituality lightly yet effectively.