KALANON’S RISING by Darian Smith (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.
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And if you have no idea what’s going on here, go ahead and check out our introduction to round 1!
Here’s our fourth finalist review: Kalanon’s Rising (Agents of Kalanon #1) by Darian Smith.
Solve the murder. Stop the war. Save the world.
Sir Brannon Kesh spent years building a new life as a physician, leaving the name Bloodhawk and the war that spawned it behind. But when the King’s cousin is murdered, duty calls him back. The crime scene suggests dark magic and the evidence points to the ambassador of Nilar, an alluring woman with secrets of her own, who sees Bloodhawk as little more than a war criminal.
As bodies pile up and political ramifications escalate, Brannon must join forces with a vain mage, a socially awkward priest, and a corpse animating shaman to solve the murders and prevent another war. But who can he trust when the phases of a bigger plan take shape?
The Risen are the greatest danger Brannon has ever faced. If he and his team cannot stop the killer then all of Kalanon – and the world – will descend into darkness.
(The cover? Production value? Prose? Editing?)
I like the cover, it hints at the key elements of slightly grizzled warrior and a shrouded body – which fit with the “old soldier and friends investigate murder(s)” theme. Production values are good in that I can’t recall the jar of any typos. The prose can be a little clunky in places, but is on the whole unobtrusive and efficient and also has some pleasing turns of phrase. There are times where the story loses a little sharpness with an indulgence of character dialogue rather than moving the action along and some bits of action choreography that don’t quite fit – the kind of thing that could be smoothed out with robust editing to make a tighter story. On the whole though, a confident opening and an easy and enjoyable read.
I would never have picked this up on my own. I didn’t really like the start too much as the prose felt a bit off at times. In a medieval-style fantasy world it was really jarring to read words like “Night manager” or “VIP area” especially early on.
I agree Julia, some of the language used often broke that sense of immersion! As well as the ones you mention, ‘ponytail’ also did it for me, and the name Tomildan shortened to ‘Tommy.’ Oh! And later there’s a Bunsen burner in the lab!
I liked the cover, it didn’t wow me, but like Theo said it gives you a clear indication of what the book will entail.
The prose overall needed a bit of work. I agree with both Theo and Julia, there were certainly a few passages that felt clunky, and the use of modern phrases in a medieval setting was jarring. These didn’t bother me as much as the dialogue did, as it felt like the dialogue had far too much ‘telling’ and often just stated the obvious.
I started reading this one from the Kindle sample before we were sent the finalists, and those opening chapters really made a great impression on me. The story opens in a bit of a cringy manner, with Privileged Guy taking Giggly Girl to a posh place for what you assume is an affair; so when it becomes clear that there’s something else going on, the mystery really grabbed me. We’re then introduced to one of the main protagonists – the King’s Champion who sidelines as a physician, and uses his medical knowledge in order to incapacitate rather than kill when dispensing the King’s justice. Again, I wanted to know more about what was going on here. Other than the points above about language, I didn’t really pick up on any issues with the writing or the dialogue at the start, as I was swept up in the building drama and the world.
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?)
There are a wealth of characters and all suitably flawed. This is, at its heart, a murder mystery. In order to maintain a large number of suspects, and feed quite a few named characters into the murder machine, while still having an eclectic mix of people in the “team” of investigators it does accumulate quite a large cast.
The main character, King’s Champion Sir Brannon, turning to a second career as physician/healer makes for an engaging dichotomy, not least when we find him after succeeding in a trial by combat admitting he had sterilised his sword to reduce the risk of infection for his wounded opponent.
Smith has a good range of interesting female characters taking centre stage. I liked Ula, the Djinn cleric from a land where the dead are routinely reanimated as “Risen” and harnessed to serve the needs of the living in a process that is somewhere between George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. I also enjoyed the investigative pairing of Latricia – widow of one victim – and Ylani ambassador of a foreign power and potential suspect. I would have liked to see that developed more.
Draeson the four hundred year old Wizard (he insists on being called Mage but to be honest he deserves every bit of needling the other characters give him) having given himself a rejuvenated young body spends some crucial parts of the book pratting about like a randy pansexual Gandalf. In some stories people sometimes slumber through major disturbances, but to have this guy not simply sleep, but shag his way through tumultuous upheavals?! I guess it’s a case of “was that the boat/earth moving for you my dear partner or has something bad just happened?”
I absolutely agree with you about Draeson! He was such a frustrating character. I could kind of just about grasp the excuse that he didn’t get to have a lot of fun the first time he was young, but only just. It was a stretch to believe he’d have ignored hundreds of years’ worth of experience for the sake of getting laid.
The interactions of the characters are enlivened by a few love triangles (or love polygons in the case of Draeson), but Smith adds a degree of depth to all of them, haunted by secrets from their past.
Theo has gone quite into detail already, so I’ll be brief. I did like the characters, but they sometimes felt a bit rough around the edges – especially the dialogue wasn’t always as smooth and sometimes it didn’t fit their role. It got better the longer I read and I did care about what would happen to them – at least most of them.
The 400 year mage for example felt just a tad too horny teenager to feel realistic to me, and even more so the lackadaisical reaction of the rest of the crew.
Or the apprentice who seems to be so wise for her years and quite confident who somehow needs rescuing quite a lot.
I liked the varied mix of characters initially, but as the book went on, a few began to grate on me, and began to feel unrealistic.
I liked Brannon – I found the concept of a warrior turned physician turned detective, so unique and that’s what drew me into the story.
There were a whole host of side characters, and my favourites were Ula, Taran and Ylani. I would have loved some more depth and backstory to these as they were so interesting.
Latricia, the widow, was one I initially really liked, but by the end her actions annoyed me no end. She played the damsel in distress far too much and became a caricature. Although I agree with Theo and Julia, the horny mage, Draeson, was quite annoying with his sexual habits, however there were aspects of him I still really liked. I loved his dragon tattoo that gave him the most awesome powers, and I also liked how you could never quite tell whose side he was on.
As I said the dialogue was my biggest issue. Certain interactions between characters just made me cringe.
One thing I will say about the characters is that they were all really distinct from each other. There isn’t anyone whose name I kept forgetting, or a connection I kept getting confused by. I felt they each had a distinct personality, which was good going when there were so many of them. I didn’t necessarily like all those personalities mind, like my fellow judges have said, Draeson and Latricia were annoying, as was Jessamine.
But, sorry Nils, I disagree with you a little, I thought all the characters in the main investigative team had quite a lot of depth. I loved the little notes of her differing culture that came through with Ylani, and that wire she was treading between the shifting politics.
Something I really disliked though was Ula’s broken down speech. I loved that chapter at the start in her perspective, when she in her homeland. The difference between her narrative voice, how observant it was, and the focus she had on her environment and the senses as compared to the previous perspectives we’d had, was brilliant. So when she later returned to the story, I was a little disappointed that more of that didn’t come through. Going back to her broken down speech, it made me feel a little uncomfortable, like it was sometimes a bit caricaturist, and it wasn’t consistent. If she had a lot to say, or something complicated to explain, suddenly her speech was much clearer.
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?)
It’s a murder mystery and sweeps itself along with an appropriate array of twists and turns, some more obvious than others. The final twist was one I had noted as likely at about halfway through the book, but it was still entertainingly delivered. The bodies do start to tumble at an alarming rate, literally raining down on our protagonist at one point, and there are places where events feel they have been somewhat forced so as to fit the plot. The part where one character happened to observe some contraband being delivered through a study window at night did feel a little famous-fiveish.
But the short chapters and the variety of points of view certainly aid in the page turning and I went from 33% done to finished in an enjoyable 3 hours or so.
The overall pace worked quite well for me, and aside from a reading slump that wasn’t the book’s fault, I was definitely engaged with the story.
The twists were quite predictable to me, but then I read a ton of fantasy and quite some crime… The clues / foreshadowing was a bit too heavy handed. So instead of the “AHA!” moment when you go “Oh, NOW I see, I should have noticed that…” I was more annoyed at the characters to not see what was right in front of their noses.
I’m afraid I saw some of the twists coming too – as Julia points out, the foreshadowing and the hints were just too obvious. Around the 40% mark I began to suspect a particular character and it just became more and more obvious that they were involved. Like Julia, I was so frustrated that our main protagonist couldn’t seem to put two and two together. Although, having said that, I guess you could argue that it was a similar shortsightedness that they were also applying to their friend – too trusting and loyal to ever suspect being betrayed. But this is a bit of a leap. On the whole, it was frustrating – the characters would ask themselves questions about what things could mean and I found myself shouting aloud the answers at my kindle. Not a great look.
I was engaged with the story throughout, although it’s not as action packed as my usual reads are, I really enjoyed the sword and sorcery meets murder mystery aspect. Like Theo and Julia, I saw the twist early on, which irritated me, but in the end I enjoyed it nonetheless. Especially chapter 46, as I loved the darker change in the character who was revealed as the villain.
Mostly the pacing worked for me, but the very last chapter felt too rushed.
I think up until the point the characters travelled, there was a good balance between action and murder inquiry. The release of information felt controlled, it wasn’t overwhelming, just enough to keep us ticking along and interested, and yet it read naturally to me, not constructed, although Theo seems to disagree!
I felt the second half of the book could really do with a strong edit. I began to feel what Nils has been saying about the dialogue, it began to read forced and cliched. Although I had worked out who was involved, I’d guessed their motive wrong, I thought perhaps Draeson was going to be the object of the villain’s ire. Perhaps tidying up the threads as they come together will help make that final section of the story read more satisfying.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
(Does it have a magic system? How immersed do you feel in the world? Does it feel original? Why?)
Ula and the Djinn with their “risen” felt most original. As I said, blending orthodox zombies with Steven King’s Pet Sematary approach. The warrior who wants to be a doctor (and turns out having to be a detective) also made a useful plot engine. Aside from that the worldbuilding felt more straightforward, two antagonistic nations recovering from a ruinous war, one a producer of incomparable steel (a bit like the iron age meets bronze age clash) and silk, the other with a wealth of gold. Extended royal families with a lot of illegitimate offspring are also integral to the world and the plot. Before the prologue is done, one character has already described his father as a “prize stallion” and seems set to follow his father’s example.
A point I struggled with (and it seems to be an issue for me this year) is when the travellers were on a boat sailing down what must have been a very wide river. As in other SPFBO entrants the failure to use nautical terms threw me out of the story a bit as Brannon clambers up via ropeloops (Ratlines) to get out on a crossbeam (yardarm?) while his opponent is cutting rope loops and swinging on sail ropes (stays, sheets). While Smith might claim the excuse that Brannon was not a sailor, I still felt a little bit of googling of sailing boat images and names could have made that part feel more authentic.
I have to admit, the nautical terms don’t tend to bother me as much as they seem to Theo, as I don’t know them anyway! I feel somewhat heretical admitting that.
I really enjoyed the Djinn, and I loved the dragon tattoo on our mage! Some of the world could have been a bit more fleshed out and felt like the old painted still backgrounds for movies, instead of feeling like a full world. The history of the war was well enough done, but the gold and silk trade felt a bit too convenient and shallow. I would have wanted a bit more depth to it.
I didn’t mind the non nautical jargon in this one, as the characters were not pirates or sailors but just people on the boat. It annoys me a lot in stories that mostly take part on ships with it being a main part of the story, but if the characters don’t know, I don’t mind it.
I loved the magic, this was definitely my favourite aspect of the book. I agree with Julia, I also loved the dragon tattoo, and the way we slowly learned more about it as the book went on.
I loved the Djinn and their use of ‘Risen’, ‘Kaluki’ and earth spirits.
I liked the medieval world, it felt quite simplistically done, so I do think more descriptive depth was needed. Also when the characters would use modern phrases or terminology then it would pull me out of the story.
There was something a little strange going on with the worldbuilding. I felt there were aspects of the history of the nations I understood, and I liked the little flashes of culture (such Ylani wearing a hat to give the gods something beautiful to look down upon). However, the only part of the world I felt I could truly visualise was Ula’s island. And yet, each new location or character was described physically, to the point where these descriptions and their regularity felt a little like an English class writing exercise. I didn’t get a wider sense of the world and its emotional impact on the characters (except Ula, who perhaps seemed more attuned to these kinds of things than the other characters?)
QUOTATIONS that amused/resonated with you
There were quite a few lines to smile at, including these centring on Brannon’s physician/warrior divide. First trying to kill his opponent in trial by combat:
“His muscles remembered even when he would rather not.”
And later trying not to die when cornered by the murderer:
“Possible fractures,” whispered the physician part of his mind. “Move! Screamed the rest.”
Also hinting at the underlying racial tensions/dislike of foreigners that give this book a contemporary resonance, there is this line:
“He was a likeable man, but his walls were high when it came to her people.”
Or this suspicious open door:
“It shifted ever so slightly in a draft, pulling a low protest from the hinges, like an old horse made to plow.”
A sound mystery romp seasoned with facets of interesting world building a varied cast and a complex plot.
I did enjoy this overall, but think with a good edit to smooth out some of the flaws it could have been a full on awesome book. As is, it is still a fun and entertaining story.
Overall this was a really entertaining read, with some lovely unique aspects. I think Smith really shines in his use of magic, and engaging plot. With a bit more editing and polishing on the dialogue I believe this could be fantastic.
Despite its flaws, I really enjoyed this one. The plot and the mystery kept me turning the pages (or at least the desire to have my assumption about the mystery confirmed!). There was plenty of drama and betrayal, and I found myself really caring about the characters. I also loved the message of needing to sometimes forgive ourselves and heal. All in all, I thought this was a great story!