Godblind by Anna Stephens
THE GOOD: Gods meddling in mortal affairs, royal court-conspiracies, brimming with betrayals, battles and bloodlust, told via a distinct and diverse range of PoV characters.
THE BAD: The 2017 debuts are making me think this year – it’s tricky to pick anything ‘bad’ about them. If I had to say one thing, it’d be that if you prefer an ‘easy, light and bright read’ this isn’t for you. The multiple PoV approach can be a bit jarring at first, the plot at times complex, is grim, dark… to coin a phrase, grimdark? (I kid).
THE UGLY TRUTH: Godblind doesn’t pull its punches – it comes out swinging with a gut-buster of an opener, keeps on swinging, and after that KO of an ending, I feel like I’ve gone 12 rounds with a grimdark heavyweight, not a debut tyro. I hurt, I’m tired, I’m scared, I want a hug – but I want more!
In the author’s own words, if you could sum up Godblind is one sentence, it would be described as: ‘a gritty epic fantasy about a religious war conducted on the back of an invasion and the people – lords, commoners, warriors – who get caught up in the maelstrom and are forced to kill and die to protect what’s most precious to them.’
This is not a story for the faint of heart. It’s grim, dark…and bloody.
I want to make that clear from the very beginning – which Godblind does in its very first chapter. And it only gets better from there! From treason to torture, sacrifice to sacrilege, bloodlust to a bat-shit crazy fanatic with a hammer and nails…this has everything you would want out of a grimdark book. And more.
Nor is it a story for fans of simple, straightforward, ‘a to b’ quest fantasy. Plot twists aplenty, scheming and machinations to make the current real-world political landscape seem like a playground – but somehow, Godblind brings itself to life. The story and the world is real, oh so very real.
There are multiple POVs, some which you will enjoy more than others – and yes, there are a lot of POVs (think GRRM and John Gwynne), and that might even put some readers off, but they are done brilliantly, not just in terms of characterisation but also as a means to a page-burning pace. Not only that, but key with a story of betrayal, each PoV brings a different perspective to the proceedings. As the saying goes: one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.
And on that note, of ‘man’, I’d like to highlight something here. Yes, this is a fantasy world in which there are elements of sexism, and yes, there is a rape plot-point of sorts (and we all know what kind of controversy this can stir up, especially on the interwebz). But they’re incredibly well-executed in terms of writing style and delivery. Not only that, because of their presence they define elements of the story and its characters.
On the note of the POVs and the characters, I would like to commend Anna Stephens for her strong female characters, both supporting and main. Yes, it’s easy to flame almost any author for treating a character (any character, be it a minority or otherwise) with prejudice or write with one of the many ‘isms’ (pick your poison), but at least for me, Anna strikes a bold balance in having characters (both male and female) who are heroes/heroines, and damsels/dudes in distress (I wanted to say dudettes, but let’s stick with damsels).
But this is a story for those that want something different – something new, something special. Something that will excite you and keep you coming back for more.
If I had to compare it to anything else, yes, as the publisher recommends, I’d agree with Abercrombie, Lynch and Lawrence. But you know what? I’d actually pitch it as the bastard whelp of John Gwynne’s ‘Faithful and the Fallen’ series, and Brian Staveley’s ‘Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne’, if said spawn was then raised by GRRM and Kameron Hurley.
CONCLUSION: Every once in a while a book comes along that takes everything you have come to know and like, and doesn’t just raise the bar, it takes a step to the side and puts up its own bar. Sure, in a way it’s still everything you know and like, but for other reasons, you actually don’t know it, and you love it for it. Why? Because it’s going in a different direction, despite starting with similar ingredients.
Anna Stephens’ Godblind is that book, and I cannot wait to see where she takes us – not just for the destination, but for the journey, too. In her own words: ‘My feet are on the path.’
* This review first appeared on Fantasy Book Critic.