SOLACE LOST by Michael Sliter (Book Review)
‘Each man seemed lost in their own thoughts. Perhaps they thought of the battle in the morning, or perhaps the mystery of the compound. Or, maybe they were lost in memories of their own personal ghosts; gazing into a fire in the darkness tended to force a person to reflect on their past.’
Solace Lost by Michael Sliter is the first book in the Pandemonium Rising series. I’ll start by saying this novel is grimdark to its core, and covers a lot of dark themes. So fair warning, if grimdark is not your scene then this book isn’t for you. However, this is a tale of holding on to hope in a hopeless world, of keeping faith when all else seems desolate, and fundamentally it is a tale of finding strength, courage and the will to fight back.
The book begins by hitting the reader with some very vivid world building. The land of Ardia is on the edge of an all-out civil war. Famine, illness and despair thrive. A Duke rivals for power, but underneath the surface a more powerful malevolent being pulls the strings, seeking to control the nation and bend it to its will. We see this world is gritty, deadly, and downright filthy. I mean literally filthy. Sliter really exploits your senses here; from the filthy muck-ridden streets, filled with shit and waste, to the gore-filled brawls, we are presented with an abundance of savagery and depression.
‘A feeling of confident brutality filled the room. These beings were men who would rather kill each other over some loot than share. These were men who would visit violence on an enemy without trying to talk out their issues first. These men were killers.’
I think it’s fair to say Solace Lost is predominately a character-driven story. For much of the novel, Sliter focuses on building up the main protagonists; Merigold, Fenrir, Emma and Hafgan, whose lives entwine together as they each play a part in the oncoming war. The events they experience significantly work to shape the course of their lives, and provide plausible motivation for every action they take, no matter how morally grey those actions may be. Personally, I felt this made the first half of the novel a touch too slow for my preference, and perhaps we were given too much information, but on the other hand I did see the value of the in-depth characterisation by the end. So, I’ll now delve into a bit more about these characters.
At the beginning of the book we see that Merigold lives an extremely sheltered life. She resides and works in her father’s tavern, and is constantly restricted and protected by him. She is portrayed as naive; you could rightly say she sees the world through rose-tinted glasses. She has unrealistic notions of love and truly believes her desires will pan out exactly how she imagines them, because if you are a devout follower of the divine Yetra, then how could they not? Now, our poor sweet Merigold goes through a traumatic, harrowing experience fairly early on in the book. This event is by far the most darkest of the narratives, so if anyone wishes to know more please do ask me. However, it’s important to know that this scene is not included just to establish this book as grimdark, personally I loathe books that do that. Instead Sliter uses this event not only to raise the philosophical question of ‘why does a God let good people suffer?’ but he also uses it as a catalyst for Merigold’s violent and vengeful path. She transforms into a determined, powerful woman who refuses to allow anyone to dominate her ever again. She learns about her innate magical abilities, and as she attempts to master them she realises the consequences of having such unimaginable power. I wholeheartedly loved Merigold, she’s a character that I’ll never quite forget.
Then we had the somewhat morally grey Fenrir, working for the criminal organisation called The House. To be honest I found Fenrir to be mostly unlikeable; he’s brash, quite arrogant, he believes he’s handsome, well endowed, and basically god’s gift to women. I found the way he referred to and interacted with women was often cringe-worthy and made for some eye-rolling moments! I realise that Sliter meant him to be portrayed in this light, and that we are meant to see that underneath the surface, Fenrir is actually insecure and is always seeking approval and recognition, as he knows he’s incompetent at many things. This did provoke some sympathy for his character, but I still felt his supposed egotism overshadowed all else. I did, however, really enjoy that Fenrir had a phantom self that could detach from his body and watch over his deeds. This was a great ability to explore. I also liked the humour that Fenrir brought to the table, it was much needed in a world which was predominantly bleak.
‘“If we’re going to die, we might as well be a little drunk. Here, it’ll take the edge off.”
Tilner Pick slapped the flask away from Fenrir, sending the container whirling into the trees, sloshing flecks of liquid onto several men along the way.
“Hey, that was the good stuff!” said Fenrir with mock anger.’
I’ll briefly mention the remaining protagonists; Emma and Hafgan, who were both pivotal in bringing to light issues of prejudice. Emma was often disgraced and seen as a lesser person, not only because she was handmaiden to Lady Escamilla and she actively participated in her war councils, which given her status was frowned upon, but also because of her maimed hand. In Ardia, having four fingers or less, was a mark of the criminal House, which meant you were not a respectable citizen. Therefore Emma was often shunned. Hafgan too suffered much ridicule, simply for being a Wasmer; an almost human creature, with heighten strength and speed, and sharp fangs. He desperately wanted to fit in with the humans; to earn the soldiers respect and to be treated as an equal amongst them, his solution to doing precisely that was to master their language. I found myself really rooting for his character, and hope to see his character arc developed in future books.
Overall I felt Solace Lost was a strong debut for what is set to be a darkly thrilling series. Judging by the fantastic epilogue that Sliter leaves us with, there is a whole lot more shadiness to come in the sequel Wisdom Lost.
Review copy of Solace Lost provided by the author, Michael Sliter, in exchange for an honest review. Thank you!