Master of Sorrows by Justin Call (Book Review)
The Good: Destiny and dark magic, a fresh take on time-honoured tropes, a world brimming with history, belief and ideals, action sequences that dare to be different, and a plot filled with secrets and surprises.
The Bad: Bit of a slow burner at the start, and some of the early dialogues felt a bit like exposition (albeit necessary when covering this much world-building), but both are worth the pay off.
The Ugly Truth: A modern take on the classic coming of age fantasies that embraces its roots amongst the likes of Eddings, Sanderson, Canavan and Weeks, and dares to reach for the stars and carve out its own destiny. A fantastic debut in a promising series.
When I first laid eyes on ‘Master of Sorrows’ I knew that I had to read it. It’s the type of book that made me instantly mark it ‘want to read’ on Goodreads, follow the author on Twitter, and request an ARC from the publisher (hey Stevie! Thanks for hooking me up!). From the gorgeous cover, to the tag line ‘what if you were destined to be a villain?’ I was sold. The blurb sounded fantastic, and with comparisons to Brandon Sanderson and Brent Weeks (both of which have heavily informed my reading in the past) I was the embodiment of the ‘shut up and take my money’ meme.
But was it worth the price of admission?
The book starts with a one-page prophecy of sorts (an excerpt from a larger tome), then a prologue set in the recent past, then a lore lesson on the world (excerpts from another tome) and THEN the story begins in the ‘present’. This might sound like a lot – and I realise it is, now that I type this – but they are brilliant! Additionally, whilst this seems like a lot of ‘intro’, in my opinion it introduces the rich and rewarding world-building up front, allowing the reader to get much of the epic scope out of the way (i.e. the history, beliefs and how these have shaped the world) so that the focus can be on the story.
The world-building, for me, was fantastic. I picked up on a number of potential real-world influences including Ancient Greece, Christianity, Vikings and China. And despite this being ‘dark’ (the prologue sets the tone, as does the ‘villain’ tagline) for me this was more epic fantasy than grimdark.
With the opening sections out of the way, the reader is introduced to Annev. Annev is a young man with a secret that could get him killed (‘coming of age’). He attends the Academy in Chaenbalu (‘magic school’) which teaches its many students (all male – a problem for me that I will touch upon later) in the arts of magic and artefacts, which it guards from misuse by others. The most skilled students go on to become Avatars – warriors thieves charged with retrieving the magical artefacts before they can be used to do harm.
Annev is an interesting character, and an easy one to get inside the head of. He’s your typical promised one ‘outsider’, the plucky yet reluctant hero. He’s not the strongest, the smartest, nor the fastest, but he is determined. And, most importantly, he sees the world differently. Not forgetting the fact he has magic… something which would mark him as an enemy to the Academy, if only they knew his secret. Annev was born with one arm (it finishes at the elbow) and this alone marks him as an agent of the dark god Keos, a crime in this world, the sentence for which is death. Annev’s priestly mentor, Sodar, saved him from this fate (see: prologue) and provides him with a magical prosthetic arm to hide the disfigurement.
As a student, secure in the Academy (albeit in disguise), Annev’s predicament reminded me of the adage ‘keep your friends close but your enemies closer’, except for the fact that he might not be hiding from the Academy and its Masters and Avatars, but from an even greater enemy…
There’s plenty going on in the first ‘part’ (the book is 180k~ long, and part one of four is around a third of that) but I did feel that it was a little bit of a slow burn. That is in part due to the sections devoted to discussions between Annev and Sodar, his mentor, who question the status quo that the Academy upholds, and explores the possibilities of the forbidden magic that the two of them can wield (or in Annev’s case is learning to wield). Some of these sections feel a bit like exposition, but they are necessary to truly appreciate the depth of world-building and how this impacts on the story and the plot. At the end of part one (and between the subsequent parts) the reader is run through another ‘excerpt’ of lore, before being launched into the much faster-paced parts two, three and four. This is when the story really took off for me, and like with the pre-chapter one sections, the building at the beginning really helped the story set up so that when it got going, it really got going.
However, this does bring me to my one and only major reservation – the presence of female characters. Hiu Gregg has already raised this in his review, and I agree with his thoughts and sentiments. There is only one (and I am stealing Hiu’s words here because I can’t put it any better) ‘recurring female character’ amongst a main cast of males. Don’t get me wrong, the women in the supporting cast are written well, and the recurring character I speak of, Myjun, is well-rounded; but she is also Annev’s romantic interest, which overshadowed her somewhat.
The reason for the apparent lack of female presence is explained in the setting as the Academy’s students are all male. Women do feature in the story, and, specifically, the witwomen are incredibly skilled and strong in their own right, with a very interesting and important purpose separate but joined to the Academy. Yet, I can’t help but think that there should be more women taking centre stage in the story. Especially in part one (a good third of the book), the males get a lot of page time in the Academy, but apart from a chapter or two in which they are joined by the witwomen trainees, the only female to stand out is Myjun, and that is because Annev is infatuated with her.
I have to stress that this reservation isn’t a slight or ‘shade’/’salt’ (why do all these words begin with S?) on an otherwise well-rounded and promising debut; but for those hoping to see more female characters in fantasy fiction, myself included, you might be disappointed in this initial outing. It is key to note that representation of women does improve throughout the book, and there are signs that the author will be tackling this representation in the rest of the series. On this, I for one am more than willing to go with the in-world flow and see where it takes us.
The back-cover states this will be perfect for fans of Brandon Sanderson, Trudi Canavan, Brent Weeks and the Maze Runner. Whilst I agree with all of these, especially Sanderson (Mistborn for prophecy/destiny and Way of Kings for artefacts), Weeks and The Maze Runner, I would additionally liken this to The Faithful and the Fallen series by John Gwynne for his twisted tropes and the purpose of prophecy, and The Poppy War by Rebecca Kuang (R F Kuang), for multiple aspects, including the coming of age / magic school plot, and the dark fantasy vibes.
To answer my earlier question – yes, this book is well worth buying into. As others have pointed out, it’s a classic epic fantasy filled with time honoured tropes, told in a modern voice. Part of me wanted more ‘hero destined to be a villain’ as per the tag line, but I am more than impressed with the way this story unfolded. I’m reminded of ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ and how different the world can be depending on your birth (i.e. where you are born, what you look like, who your parents are etc.), and I really appreciated how these were explored.
Master of Sorrows is an EPIC start to a series with plenty of promise. It’s a nostalgic romp of classic fantasy in a brave new world, which I have high hopes for in the future.