The world is dominated by clans who are in turn dominated by Divines, magical and long-lived humans who feed off of the lives of their subjects and strictly control access to their magical heritage. Whitecliff is a colony of clans removed from the main civilizations of the world struggling to survive in the face of invasions and divided by the clan wars far abroad. Talen is a boy on the verge of manhood and a member of the oppressed Koramite clan. His family comes under suspicion of ‘slethery’ (soul-eating) – the unauthorized and evil use of magic and Talen finds himself thrust into a world more complicated than he imagined and far more dangerous.
I found Servant of a Dark God to be somewhat uneven – especially in the first two-thirds of the book. The beginning gets overly bogged down by reliance on terminology that’s unfamiliar – it’s always a neat trick to balance clumsy over-description and infodumping with creating an interesting and mysterious world that is slowly revealed to the reader. Brown errs on the side of being overly mysterious and stingy in showing the reader his world. While the slow start isn’t all that surprising since this is a new book in a new world and everything needs to be introduced and set-up, it was slow enough that I considered not continuing with the book.
Compounding the slow start are Brown’s characters. Not only is the central plot yet another obscure young boy-man bound for greatness, but Brown chooses to tell the story through multiple points of view, with Talen getting the lion’s share. This results in the reader to not being invested in any single character and is made worse with Talen being simply unlikable, invoking little sympathy for the majority of the book. The secondary characters proved much more interesting but had their screen time sacrificed for the sake of Talen. The torment developed within these secondary characters as they fight, struggle, make sacrifices, and ultimately yield is at times gut-wrenching.
Balancing these negatives are positives that include the world with its potential and pacing. As I said above, Servant of a Dark God is uneven, but when it’s on, it’s really on. Particularly near the end, the suspense is notched up and the book becomes thoroughly engrossing and near impossible to put down.
The other great positive is the world that Brown creates. The setting feels fresh and the magic of the land is just unique enough. The culture of the people is also quite fascinating – Brown’s take on oppressed peoples feels real enough at times to make me genuinely angry. The significance of the hierarchy of society and the Divines who literally feed on the people they rule grows to a peak at the end. The end result is that I want to keep reading about this land – I want to know what happens. I’ve used the word already, but I’ll use it again – there is great potential.
Servant of a Dark God is the debut novel from John Brown, a new voice in fantasy that I expect I’ll hear more from. As the way of many debuts, Servant of a Dark God is a complete story-arc that can stand on its own, but it screams for the sequels to come. The Dark Gods series is currently planned as a trilogy with Curse of a Dark God expected in late 2010 and Dark God’s Glory in 2011. While uneven, the good dominates in the end I’m left anxiously awaiting what John Brown has for us next. 7/10