BEGGAR’S REBELLION by Levi Jacobs (SPFBO Finalist Review)
Phase 2 of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off is drawing to a close at the end of this month! Keep track of the finalists’ scoreboard here.
If you’re following SPFBO 5, let us know about any entries that have caught your fancy! Join the discussion on social media (there’s a Facebook group here) and weigh in on Twitter using the hashtag #SPFBO.
And if you have no idea what’s going on here, go ahead and check out our introduction to round 1!
What with the current state of the world and the shorter time period allocated to this round (five months instead of the usual six), we’re a little behind with our SPFBO reviews. Apologies to those who’re waiting with bated breath, but rest assured: we’ll have them all published by the end of the month!
For now, here’s our third finalist review: Beggar’s Rebellion (Resonant Saga #1) by Levi Jacobs.
The Councilate controls everything except the truth. I have nothing save my discovery—but with this shall I destroy an empire.
Tai Kulga lost the rebellion and his best friend on the same day, stripping him of his will to live even as a strange power flooded his bones. When the friend returns as a spirit guide, it feels like a second chance—but his friend is not who he was, and the Councilate is not done oppressing his people. When trouble with lawkeepers lands Tai’s surviving friends in a prison camp, he must go underground to find the last of the rebels and convince them to break his friends free.
Along the way he meets Ellumia Aygla, runaway Councilate daughter posing as an accountant to escape her family and the avarice of the capital. Curious about the link between spirit guides and magic, her insights earn her a place among the rebels, and along with Tai’s power help turn the tide against the colonialists.
But as the rebels begin to repeat the Councilate’s mistakes, Tai and Ellumia must confront their own pasts and prejudices, before the brewing war turns them into the monsters they fight.
(The cover? Production value? Prose? Editing?)
Possibly I should look at the cover before I read the book, coming to it afterwards means one’s impressions are coloured by knowing what the book is about. That said, I don’t feel that the cover conveys the distinctive features of the book and there are some quite creative bits of world building that might appear here. For example, several characters have the ability to “waft” (a kind of levitation or magically powered flight), there are distinct races differentiated by hair colour, and there are some striking buildings and battles. All/any of those on the cover might have sparked curiosity more than this one does.
So I suppose, my reflection on covers is – if your book has a good reader-hooking USP make the cover show it.
The editing is OK, but I did spot a few typos and slip-ups. Paragraphs starting without an indent, that kind of thing. Not enough to throw me out of the story, but little things that you notice.
The prose works effectively – unobtrusively even – without necessarily wowing me with those lines of especial elegance or beauty.
My initial impressions of this one were very good. I loved the artwork of the cover, the style and mysterious figure. However, having finished the story, I have to agree with Theo – it barely represents the story at all. There is a forest hideout, but it doesn’t feature until we’re quite far into the story, and it’s not as integral as other aspects – not enough to warrant a cover dedicated to it. It gives off the whole Robin Hood vibe, elements of which the story reflects, but the book is a little more complex than that.
I was expecting Robin Hood-style outlaws too, but in fact the majority of the book takes place in a city. It’s a very eye-catching and professional cover, though. The style is reminiscent of the US editions of the Witcher books:
Of course, this again is a tad misleading (though I’m sure it wasn’t deliberate), since the content and characters are very different!
Again, my first impressions of characters and plot were also favourable. I loved the introductions to Ella and Tai; however, I think the start of the book has been polished a great deal more than the rest of it…
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
(Do you have a favourite? Is the main character sympathetic? How’s the dialogue? Are the protagonists believable? Do we care about their plight?)
As I said above, I was very interested in our two protagonists to begin with. I loved the idea of a woman in fantasy working at something as mundane as accountancy in order to escape her mysterious past life (her backstory, which still retained some mystery by the end, was very interesting!). I found it a little more difficult to connect with Tai; I struggled to picture him as clearly as I could Ella – he seemed both young and old, both capable and incapable.
Out of the numerous secondary characters, there wasn’t anyone who especially stood out for me. The children, in particular, felt like expendable plot points to make Tai more relatable. They were his driving motivation, but their names kept changing – if the author doesn’t care enough about them to get their names straight, why am I going to?
I agree, Beth – the notion of a female protagonist who wielded power as an accountant made for an interesting digression from the usual conception of kick-ass female. It did surprise me, though, quite how much demand there was for accountancy services in this world and I felt at times Ella was desperately in need of a good spreadsheet.
Ha! Good point Theo, accountants were surprisingly popular!
I suppose in Victorian times, lacking the miracle of photocopiers, there was a lot of clerical work for people skilled at copying legal documents, and this is perhaps analogous. But it was just a bit of a head-scratcher how everyone Ella met seemed to be in need of her clerical services.
Ella started off as my favourite protagonist. However, I grew frustrated with how illogically she dealt with any problems that came her way. Initially she was presented as someone calm, rational, who’s made her way in the world using her cunning and intelligence (a bit like Cithrin in Daniel Abraham’s Dagger & Coin series). I really admired her. But then (unlike savvy Cithrin) she signed herself into indentured servitude without even reading the contract (?!) and reacted to her successive misfortunes by basically banging her head against them. She reverted back to Smart Ella soon after escaping, but by that point I’d grown far more attached to Tai.
Ella’s situation reminded me of my sister who, a long time ago in pre-internet days, put an advert in the newsagents window offering to do typing services, thinking to earn some money to augment her student grant. She got just one call from a man who said – with a nod and a wink you could detect over the phone line – “Do you offer French typing?” at which point she abandoned her misconstrued business venture. Some of Ella’s clients seemed to labour under a similar misapprehension that French accountancy was available.
Tai had his moments, ex-rebel, street tough, trying to hold his family together. He has the interesting element of man afraid of the monster within him, that has seasoned many stories from Jekyll and Hyde to The Incredible Hulk. But again, I agree with Beth that the secondary characters did feel a bit limited – there to illuminate Tai’s plot arc, rather than pursue their own.
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
(Slow start? Hard to keep up? Does the author use flashbacks/POV shifts? Do these work well or not? Did each chapter keep you turning the pages?)
The plot starts from an interesting set up but then strays towards the end…
This is where the book really fell apart for me sorry! There was a great deal of potential here, most notably in Worldbuilding (see below), but I loved the race and class struggles, the colonists fighting back against their oppressors. The economically-driven motivations of the ruling class and their politics. However, it felt like as the story progressed, the structure completely unravelled. There was a lot of toing and froing, questionable decisions on the parts of certain characters, and it was never clear how much time was passing – so it seemed like there were large, unexplained jumps in the growth of the rebellion.
I mentioned above how much I liked that we had an accountant for a protagonist, and she was relying on this in order to get by and survive. However, this admiration was shattered somewhat by quite a big slip on page 399 when her former workplace is referred to as a ‘pleasure house’ instead of a counting house. I’m relieved the author took a different approach, but there’s still the aftertaste of what the original intention was and it’s unpleasant.
I missed that slip, Beth, and went back to check. I’m not sure I thought it that big a slip – Ella’s odious employer clearly had a desire for something more than accountancy if he could have got it. However, I didn’t see in that an implication that any early draft of the story was about a riverboat prostitute and a house of sex slaves.
Reading back over the quote, perhaps it is quite slight to make that basis upon, I’m not sure:
“Ella considered going to Tunla’s, seeing if they might be able to help her, but the risk of meeting a soldier or lawkeeper there was too great. The arbitration had connected her to the pleasure house, and Sablo could easily have sent men there on her escape.”
Judging by my notes, it’s around pg 125 that the inconsistencies and mistakes become quite noticeable; at this point, it’s little things, like Tai learning to waft when he’s already established he can. Ella telling us she still needs to find her thief, when she’s already established who it is. But they build to characters being in two different places at one time, names changing, and new resonances turning up at convenient points very far into the story. By the end, it became a very frustrating read. It needs a lot of tightening up!
I also noticed some of those inconsistencies, Beth, and it was quite jarring for me too. Especially typos that rendered certain lines nonsensical (such as “If an elk had gills it could breed underwater”) and interchangeable character names (like Ping and Pang). There are other instances too; for example, where Curly is “tagging along behind” Tai and Aelya, who, further down that very same page, then notice Curly sparring with soldiers ahead of them.
These errors definitely grew more pronounced the further I read.
Structurally I was intrigued by one point where we see exactly the same scene, retold a short while later, with identical dialogue, but from the perspective of the other protagonist. It’s a motif that almost recurs on another couple of occasions and this playing with timelines is interesting – the story is not told entirely chronologically as each protagonist’s scenes overlap the other.
The tension between pursuing political solutions or armed rebellion creates an interesting dynamic. Ella and Tai at times try to work out not just who should win and how, but what the winner should do with their victory, and how to avoid simply setting up a different kind of exploitative tyranny.
However, I agree with Beth that the plot tends to accumulate inconsistencies and illogicalities as we go on. At one level I could say that the to and fro of rebellion felt both realistically frustrating and frustratingly realistic. War is a messy business often filled with stupid mistakes, but recreating that messiness in a book is a bit like having dialogue that includes all the errs and umms and broken sentences of real speech. However, at another level it just got untidy with foolish strategising and Tai at one point complaining the rebels had too many people in their camp and then in almost the next sentence saying they needed to recruit more people.
I also agree with Beth that the magic of resonances developed rather abruptly at the end and risked being something of a Deus ex Machina. There was also a one armed woman who turned out to be surprisingly adept at using a pair of crutches, in a way that made her disability feel like it might almost have been added on as an afterthought.
For me though, the plot point that grated most was Tai’s fondness for breaking through glass ceilings, glass walls, glass anything in fact. Huge sheets of jagged glass sundered by his resonance-propelled form, yet he never seemed to be cut or injured in the impact.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
(Does it have a magic system? How immersed do you feel in the world? Does it feel original? Why?)
This is the book’s strongest point for me. Quite creative in both the magic systems, the political dynamics, and the races although hair colour and texture is perhaps an unsubtle analogue for skin colour.
I agree with Theo, the worldbuilding was very strong. I liked the little epigraphs that expanded your understanding of the world. There’s clearly a lot of thought been put into the socio-political workings of this world.
There were elements of the magic system that were creative and clever, for example the plant that allowed people to access their magic, and the fact that this was fuelling the war – the mystery behind whether some people could perform their magic without needing the plant. However, the actual use of the magic itself, particularly Tai’s pushing and pulling about as he wafts, reminded me a great deal of Sanderson’s magic system in Mistborn. It felt a little too close to it to be homage.
What I did love, however, were the voices of the ancestors. I shan’t delve too deeply here, but it was an element of the story that I really enjoyed.
I didn’t think it was too similar to Mistborn at all. However, I did have minor issues with the term ‘wafters’. I just feel like it sounds… daft? There are brawlers and timeslips and mosstongues, all of which are really good descriptive terms, but surely there could have been a better term than ‘wafters’ for people who can FLY.
I also thought it was a bit weird that people carried yura around with them but not winterfoods.
I did also like a lot of in-world terms and expletives, fish scat and elk meck to name but two, which added a certain local colour to the character interactions. And also some in-world phrases like “I was not born under a false star.”
Don’t you think they were a bit overused, though? I liked that they added local colour, as you say, and appreciate that not everyone in all parts of the world/society would use the same expletives (though ‘shit’ and ‘fuck’ are pretty universal in our own), but after a while, the terms ‘meck’ and ‘prophets’ grew repetitive and a bit annoying (as would the overuse of any swear word).
Little niggles aside, I definitely agree that the worldbuilding is the book’s strongest point. It’s actually pretty phenomenal in its originality and complexity, particularly the many different aspects of its magic system. The themes it deals with (economic expansion, cultural erasure, rebellion and inequality) put me in mind of Malazan, while Ella’s resolution to change the system from within was reminiscent of Mara in the Empire trilogy. It’s definitely ambitious, and I admire that.
QUOTATIONS that amused/resonated with you
There is, as I said, something of a moral debate about the ultimate purpose of rebellion running through the book and it is summed up best in this line:
“Revenge is for you,” she said at last. It was a LeTwi quote. “Justice is for everyone.”
Beggar’s Rebellion is a solid finalist, based on the strength of its worldbuilding and the way it deals with complex moral and social issues. I particularly appreciated how the author explores the nuances of the society he’s created, and emphasises that rebellion – however desirable and desperately needed it may be – is not as simple as it seems. At times, though, it felt to me as though parts of the story were rushed, as though the explanations of (for example) resonances and voices had been retconned in a bit of a hurry. As I mentioned above, there were also an increasing number of errors and inconsistencies that unfortunately jarred my enjoyment of what might otherwise have been a strong contender for the top three.
Despite the brilliant worldbuilding and complex society, the inconsistencies were just too confusing and frustrating for me to truly be able to enjoy the story. Towards the end, it felt like the story was running away from the author – which was such a shame, as it started with such promise.
I think Beth put it very well. A lovely complex world with intriguing political, economic and social dilemmas. Shades of the colonialism of the British Empire, where the militarised commercial interests of organisations like the East India company paved the way for more overt political domination and exploitation of indigenous people. And Ella certainly made for an interesting protagonist. However, for all his Yura-loaded wafting ability, Tai’s arc couldn’t carry the story premise as high as it deserved.