WE RIDE THE STORM by Devin Madson (Book Review)
‘We are the swords that hunt so your hands may stay clean. We are the swords that kill so your soul may be light. We are the swords that die so you may live.’
If you follow the buzz around books on Twitter then you may have been hearing quite a bit about We Ride the Storm by Devin Madson. Originally self-published and becoming a finalist in the SPFBO 4 competition back in 2018, Madson has been on quite the journey with this book. Now, I’d had my eye on this novel for quite a while, but never actually got around to getting myself a copy. So when Orbit announced they had acquired it for publication, with brand new (gorgeous) cover art by Neco Delort, I was thrilled and very much anticipating its release.
Before I go on to review We Ride the Storm, I feel I ought to make it clear here, this book is most definitely grimdark. Now I very much enjoy this sub-genre, if you look at my bio on The Fantasy Hive, you’ll find it says that I enjoy books where ‘heads are rolling, and guts are spilling.’ Well, Devin Madson delivers on this score tenfold, and I thoroughly loved it! However, if you’re triggered by rape scenes there is one fairly early on in the novel, which I felt perhaps didn;t necessarily need to be included. It is an extremely brief scene though, and isn’t graphic, so personally my enjoyment of the book was not hindered. This is not just a grimdark novel either, this is an intricately layered story of political warfare, the play for power and vengeance, and a journey riddled with much bloodshed and twists along the way.
Our story revolves around three main protagonists, and each POV is written in first person. I’ll be upfront here, I didn’t think this would work, I assumed there would be much confusion, that the characters would not be distinguished enough. Madson proved me wrong. She crafts each idiolect to be so unique, they become memorable, compelling and impactful characters. Usually when there are multiple POV’s I’m more drawn to certain characters’ narratives than I am to others, but in this book, I was invested in all of them. I often found myself eagerly turning through pages to see where each one’s story led.
The lands of Kisia and Chiltae are at war. Upon the Crimson Throne in Kisia sits Emperor Kin – burnt, scarred, and in poor health, he clings to power as the pressure for him to announce his heir grows. You see Emperor Kin does have two children, twins Miko and Tanaka, and so to the people of Kisia, the son Tanaka should rightfully be named his heir. However, in secret these twins are only his step-children, and furthermore, they are in fact the offspring of an alleged traitor to Kisia. This doesn’t deter Tanaka from vocally expressing his desire for the throne though, but thankfully his more level-headed sister Miko, who shares her brother’s notion to rule, knows how to play a more subtle game. But can she reign her brother’s brashness in? Can she really overcome the tyranny of the Emperor?
‘Better to die than be exiled alone, but I clung to life as I clung to the blades that had never let me down.’
The second character is Rah, Captain of the Second Sword of Torin, he and his men are Levanti warriors but are more affectionately known as a herd. The Levanti race are primarily farmers who live by a strict code of honour, the purpose of the warrior is solely to protect their own people, and perhaps equally as important, to care for their horses, as the animals are almost godlike to each of them. I think the most striking aspect of their culture resides in their belief that every person who dies, be it enemy or ally, must have their soul set free. The method of doing this? Decapitation! Remember I mentioned earlier about heads rolling?! However, now forced into exile, the Levanti become nothing but downtrodden slaves. As Rah continuously witnesses the brutality of their captors, as he sees and foretells the slow eradication of their culture and way of life, his resolve to fight back ever increases.
‘Lesson five, never beg forgiveness. Gods are never wrong. And to rule an empire you have to be a god.’
The last POV is Cassandra Marius – a prostitute and assassin with a penchant for being, let me put this frankly, quite stabby stabby. There is also something else that lurks behind Cassandra’s facade, something which she would do absolutely anything to be free from. A voice lives inside her head. So, together, Cassandra and the entity within her mind must take on one of the most dangerous hits they’ve ever been contracted to do. One that could bring a maelstrom of war upon the two nations of Kisia and Chiltae. But with the promise of seeing a Witchdoctor to cure her predicament, this is a hit she can’t refuse.
There were an abundance of traits I loved about each character – from Miko’s stubbornness to Rah’s strong moral compass and earnestness; these characters are ones that feel very much alive and who’s plight I became consumed by. Yet, if I were to choose a favourite, it would be my beloved Cassandra. Darkly humorous, damaged, quick tempered, there was never a dull moment when Cassandra entered the scene. Her inner monologues made for many laugh out loud moments, and her foul-mouthed quips delighted me no end! Madson most definitely shines in her characterisation, I cannot wait to see the shape these characters take as the series progresses.
‘It would have been easier to slit his throat than to talk to him.’
In terms of world building, Madson delivers a stellar job. The setting is that of ancient feudal Japan, and with the current release of more Asian-inspired fantasy novels, this is fast becoming one of my favourite settings. We see that Madson pays much attention to detail as she encompasses the Levanti race with deeply rich and unique culture. I loved their devotion to their horses, and the rituals they had to undertake before becoming fully fledged warriors. The magic system is very subtle in this first instalment; we are not given much explanation, particularly when concerning the powers of the priest’s son, Leo, and Cassandra’s inner voice; but nevertheless I enjoyed the mystery of it. Then as the novel progressed, I felt there were very clever turns of events which were skilfully weaved into the plot to connect the three POV’s together, and to deliver a cracking ending.
Political warfare, thrilling action scenes, endearing characters and a twisty twisty plot, this ticked all the right boxes for me. Devin Madson is certainly an author to keep your eye on, this book was a little more than addictive to read. We Ride the Storm, nah, We Revere the Storm!
ARC provided by Orbit UK in exchange for an honest review. Thank you for the copy! We Ride the Storm is out now!