ILLBORN by Daniel T Jackson (SPFBO 7 Semi-finalist Review)
Two books to go – which will be our finalist?
Just two of our six excellent semi-finalists are left in the running for our SPFBO-7 Finalist nomination.
Illborn by Daniel T. Jackson and
Shadows of Ivory by T.L. Greylock and Bryce O’Connor
Today we will start by posting separate reviews for both books (Shadows of Ivory at 3.00 pm BST Illborn at 3.15 pm BST) so that they both get their moment in the spotlight.
Then, at 4.00 pm BST today we will post the announcement of which one we selected as our finalist. It was close.
In the meantime though, please enjoy the judges’ thoughts on Illborn.
Daniel T. Jackson
Long ago, The Lord Aiduel emerged from the deserts of the Holy Land, possessed with divine powers. He used these to forcibly unite the peoples of Angall, before His ascension to heaven.
Over eight hundred years later, in a medieval world which is threatened by war and religious persecution, four young men and women begin to develop supernatural abilities. These forbidden and secret powers will shatter the lives that they have known, and will force each of them to confront the mystery of the ethereal Gate which haunts their dreams. What does the dream mean, and how is it connected to their burgeoning abilities?
As they experience conflict, love, lust and betrayal, in lands which are being overtaken by war, they must try to stay ahead of and to survive the sinister forces which are now pursuing them. For they are being hunted…
ILLBORN is Daniel T. Jackson’s powerful and gritty debut novel, and is the thrilling opening chapter in the epic fantasy story of The Illborn Saga.
The cover is eye-catching in its design and execution, with the sword hilt threaded through the ‘O’ of Illborn and the trail of glittering dust weaving a connecting path around title and symbol.
The prologue with its sharp twist gives the book a strong and engaging opening. However, this long book is a story driven by its innovative premise more than its prose. There were some elaborately constructed sentences where words could have been omitted or reordered to deliver the same information more economically. For example in the line ”By this time [her] fever had reduced significantly from the heights it had ascended to…” the qualifying phrase from the heights it had ascended to is unnecessary, the word significantly pretty much has that covered.
My other issue with the prose is in its use of omniscient third person point of view to deliver montages that cover training and other extended passages of time. Rather than being right in the characters’ heads we get a kind of drone’s eye view of their doings. For example, with the line “During this period of time, Leanna was also devoting many of her remaining free hours to her role as an assistant at the hospital.” Some of these chronicle style narratives go on for several paragraphs even pages. From an author’s perspective they may appeal as a way to deliver a lot of information quickly, but the risk with them is that they take the reader away from the characters. It feels like the reader is reading a history textbook or biography about the people, rather than living their lives alongside them. This throws the burden of sustaining interest onto the plot and the characters (which I guess is what history books and biographies rely on).
Illborn had me hooked pretty quickly, and despite some of the montages going on for quite some time, as Theo mentioned, it kept my interest the whole way through. It is one of the rare chonkers that doesn’t feel like a chonker while reading, although I’m sure I’d feel differently if I was reading a physical copy!
Illborn is a little door stopper! Kept slightly shorter than average in height, it comes in with approximately 700 pages and a sturdy feel, not on the floppy side. The shiny, mostly black cover has a sort of elegant look to it, as the sword pokes through the title of the book kept in gold with magical sparkles swirling said sword. I enjoy this cover front and back. It isn’t too loud, but still catches a reader’s attention via an aura of mystery. There’s a map in the front of the book, always a plus and it begins with a gripping prologue. The font could be larger in my opinion, but so could the height of the book itself be.
I enjoyed the prose of this novel very much and it was edited well. There was a small spelling error I found in reading but it wasn’t a great deal to me. The novel is divided into two Interludes and tells the story of “Before Ascension” and “After Ascension” throughout the chapters. I love the historical feel of this story and how Jackson set the hook right at the beginning.
For me, the cover feels more generic than anything else. It isn’t poorly done, it’s just…lots of fantasy covers feature a sword of some sort as the centerpiece of the cover. Having said that, the quality is good and the cover does feel professional.
What grabbed me about the book was the prologue. It starts out in a way that will be very familiar to those who have read classic epic fantasy, but it quickly subverts expectations and goes in a very different direction than I was expecting. I really loved that and, after finishing the prologue, I was pretty sure this was going to be a difficult book for me to put down. That proved true.
Like others, I did find the prose throughout to be more verbose than was necessary, strictly speaking. There were also times where the dialog, for me, felt a touch unnatural–either too formal or too informal, in alternating turns.
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
Besides our prologue character, we have four protagonists, Allana, Leanna, Corin and Arion – all young people living some 750 years after the time of a great prophet/deity called Aiduel and the book’s chapters flick between each person’s point of view. There are also a few intriguing interludes harking back to a few decades before the time of Aiduel’s ascension following five escaping slaves.
The length of the book means that each of the four protagonists gets plenty of decent page time and for most of the book they read like separate but interleaved stories. Three of the protagonists don’t meet up until quite late in the book and one is still left isolated at the book’s ending, which I guess is by way of saying – long as this book is – it’s still only a beginning. However, the common threads of religion and geography do bind at least three of the characters together as events carry them bobbing into each other’s spheres of influence and association.
The characters all share similar dreams and, in moments of crisis – discover latent powers are being awakened within them. The manifestation of the powers, which seem to have minor and major aspects, are signposted by capitalised, emboldened and character specific trigger words appearing in the text – for example LUST. POWER, DOMINATION. Contemporary UK politics has rather put me off three word slogans – although this example does look like it could be a rare honest government mantra.
It is interesting how the characters’ stories play out in response to their emerging powers of prescience, influence and action. The tropes they inhabit of warrior, priestess, harlot and barbarian do feel a little stereotypical. The training/life experience montages that they go through feel a little more like accumulation of experience than development of character – but that is perhaps a consequence of the distance that third person omniscient Point of View places between reader and character.
Corin is probably my favourite because his is the greatest journey and his starting point the most pleasingly subversive – in that we have the cowardly barbarian who we meet literally shitting himself with fear at the prospect of his first raiding trip.
I was least comfortable with Allana because her power is around seduction and controlling men/breaking their will by having them lust after her body. History has its instances of sex being used as a weapon of espionage and war – such as Mata Hari or the Dutch resistance women who lured Nazis to their death with promises of sex These Dutch girls seduced Nazis — and lured them to their deaths (nypost.com). Although it is admittedly a matter of survival and necessity, I did find it a little jarring the way Allana follows through on her developing carnal powers and desires.
I really liked all of the characters, and exploring how their paths are similar as they seek to understand their new gifts and the consequences of using them. While each has a very different life and experience, ranging from poor farmer through to a duke’s son, they all grapple with the various ways power and influence can manifest, and all struggle to work out their place in this new, gifted world.
They each had distinct personalities, and as a result it wasn’t difficult to keep track of the different POVs, which can be a risk with a book of this size. Luckily I was equally invested in each character, so any disappointment when a chapter ended was quickly alleviated by wanting to know what happens to the next character. I look forward to seeing how their paths converge (further) in future books.
So many good characters! Yikes! The story is told in alternating ways between the four main characters Allana, Corin, Leanna, and Arion. Each of them share a commonality in age as well as being plagued by visions and the development of special gifts, mainly in the form of senses and power over others. These however are forbidden, and without really understanding why at first, they make unique use of their individual and innate talents, mainly to do better for themselves. We follow each character’s path from a time of an important event in their lives, to their recognition of powers and the ultimate culmination of their gifts. Each character’s narrative is distinct and given ample time and depth to become invested in as a reader.
Allana flees her life and childhood home after the death of her mother and a tragic event that takes place in her home. Her calling begins with the words LUST. POWER. DOMINATION.
Corin leaves a life behind as a farmhand, being the weakling of 5 total brothers in his family and banished from his hometown. With his companion Agbeth, he sets out on a treacherous path till he finds his calling that begins with the words FEAR. CONTROL. ORDER.
Leanna experiences a holy epiphany a week after her eighteenth birthday that leads her to forgo a marriage her family would have been happy about, but she decides to devote her life to the deity of Aiduel. Her calling begins with DEVOTION. SACRIFICE. SALVATION.
Arion is the youngest son of the Duke Conran Sepian and for reasons of power and influence, chosen to go into priesthood. His calling begins with STRENGTH. VICTORY. GLORY.
I enjoyed each of the characters immensely, albeit Allana’s and Corin’s stories were simply the best to me. Page turning intricacies for Allana and the requirements to reinvent herself after leaving everything behind and the harrowing hardships and brutal landscapes visited by Corin and his companion Agbeth were fascinating and engrossing.
Arion was my least favorite of the lot, because his story always led to the politics of the plot, and I enjoyed it but didn’t love it. I know the necessity and appreciate all the different walks of life chosen for this novel, even Leanna’s who turns out to be just remarkable of a character.
I think Theo and others have covered the characters pretty well. What I’ll add is that I think, to some extent, this entire novel is really a character story. The focus is very much on the characters, their exploits and troubles as they discover themselves and their blossoming power, and the consequences of those discoveries. This is actually the aspect of the novel that shines the most. I love coming of age tales, and in Illborn we read four different, interwoven coming of age tales. There are definitely ethical concerns in terms of how some of the characters use their power, and yet–given each of their backgrounds and the situations they find themselves in–all of it feels very natural and true to character. I think the author has done a really good job of crafting believable and consistent characters and I’m curious to know where things will go in subsequent novels.
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
The plot progresses and – in this opening volume – is mostly about the characters discovering themselves and their powers against a backdrop of increasingly intolerant religion veering towards fanaticism. The international politics of the situation throws peril and adventures in their paths.
I did like the politicking part and how Arion’s father’s role as an advisor came across in discussions about diplomacy and managing international tensions and pressures. Corin facing the consequences of his cowardice and his own battle for survival brought out some of the book’s best action sequences. While the other characters followed their own paths at times, again with those passages of omniscient third person POV, the plot presented as a sequence of events simply carrying the characters to where they needed to be, rather than scenes each seasoned with their own kind of conflict.
Nonetheless, the central novum of these four individuals acquiring, developing and mastering their very different “divine” powers is a compelling one that sustains the story well.
The plot is well placed and engaging, and I found it to be quite an easy read.
One of the themes I enjoyed was around the religion, and the ways in which people can manipulate it to achieve their own goals, and in Illborn we see the consequences of this from a range of perspectives. It can be a sensitive and challenging topic, but I think it’s handled quite well.
The pacing was great to me. The prologue started with a ka-pow and from there proceeded steadily in building the characters and giving slow hints of past events via dialogue and interspersed stories of the time “Before Ascension”. There are parallels to history in terms of religion, crusades, struggles of power and unexplained phenomena. The setting felt historical as well and I enjoyed that each character was given ample time to develop, and the story felt to naturally unfold. From personal vendettas, to bad luck, lust, love, loss, family feuds and battle scenes, there is plenty to keep the pages turning in anticipation for what was to come. I did not want to stop reading this novel.
I think the plot is generally well paced and avoids too many slow downs. I will say, as others have pointed out, that there are sequences where we get third-omniscient narration that feels a bit like it’s just trying to get details out of the way. That was a little off-putting at times, especially when I think the characters were interesting enough that this could have been handled in other ways. Because we are reading four separate but interwoven stories (well, really three separate but interwoven stories and one story set in a different geographic location) things never really bogged down. There are a variety of styles of action, from battle sequences to politicking to religious and martial training to flights for survival. I suppose one might accuse this one of starting slow, but I think that it’s more a build up and–at least for me–there was enough happening in the early going to keep my attention.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
I enjoy finding the fantasy resonances that are inspired by history, they are my favourite kind of easter eggs and Illborn is full of them. A religion based on a god who was “nailed to a tree” seems to draw on Douglas Adams’ pithy observation about Christianity “two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change.”
Aiduel’s guards feel like a cross between the knights Templar and the Spanish Inquisition. Arion’s brother’s crusade towards a holy city in a distant land draws as sharply on the real crusades as another of our batch The Burial did – and the notion of beleaguered crusader states feels like the very real Outremer realm described in Susannah Rowntree’s SPFBO entry last year Wind From The Wilderness. The fact that an infidel leader named Baladris (Saladin anyone?!) is threatening the fragile states of the one true faith strengthens the resonances even further. The notion that a king might split from the one true church presided over by a global leader the Archlaw (aka pope?!) and set himself up as head of the faith in his own country – and all for domestic political reasons – sounds so very like the English Reformation of Henry VIII that I’d almost fear for the king’s wife.
On the whole Jackson’s worldbuilding is effective, aided by a helpful map, but like the prose the world is more a vehicle to deliver the story than a star in itself.
I enjoyed the worldbuilding, and found that the shorthand provided by the allusions to real world history meant that the characters could shine, and focus could be given to specific parts of history, without having to spend too much time catching the reader up on all of the historical context that has brought us to the current point in time. There isn’t much new going on here, but it wasn’t something that bothered me.
The worldbuilding was at a great pace for me and I enjoyed it. As Theo has mentioned Knights Templar and the Spanish Inquisition, make complete sense here and with history being one of my favorite mesh-ups with fantasy, I thought it was done well. Not in a way that I was bored because history repeats itself, but aided with individual dramas and personal stories it felt parallel, yet palpable. Given that each of the main characters has a calling, it made for a superb meet-cute with a bite when the story culminated at the end. There were a few fantastical pieces here as well and I was very pleased with it.
I think the worldbuilding was one of the weaker aspects of this novel, unfortunately. It isn’t historical fantasy–or even pseudo-historical fantasy in an alternate world, something like Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan–but it feels very much like we are in an alternative version of medieval Europe. Including a religious organization very obviously modeled on the Catholic church, with a prophet figure very transparently modeled on Christ, and a military organization obviously modeled on the templars and the crusades. I tend to like my fantasy worlds unique, or at least not modeled on medieval Europe which we’ve seen so often before.
What’s interesting with my take though is that it’s almost the opposite of Theo’s. That just goes to show that what’s a weakness or repetitive for one person is interesting “resonances” for another. That’s one of the things that makes reading and reviewing novels so much fun, actually. Even with my general dislike of the generic feel of the world building, I still enjoyed this novel quite a bit!
Quotations that resonated with you
Well – I did enjoy this unusual way of meeting a new protagonist
“Corin squatted over the cesspit at the edge of the village, his bowels again betraying his fears over the upcoming raid.”
One scene that has stuck with me is when Corin discovers how to control one aspect of his powers:
He ignored her, staring directly at the felrin, his face on a level with its snout as it was hunched forwards . Still it could not move, but its malevolent gaze was fixed upon him. He stared into the beast’s eyes.
Fear. Control. Order.
The words whispered seductively into his mind, and he knew with absolute conviction that the invisible connection was still locked into place, enforcing his will upon the creature.
I liked so many lines, and here are a few I enjoyed:
“And it’s bloodlust, the latter echoing what he had felt inside himself in those manic moments when he had charged towards the creature.”
“Gambling would be sinful if the amounts involved started to matter, which they don’t here.”
“All of her fears in fleeing from the Guards had been concentrated onto the final horror which they might inflict upon her; that of being burned alive.”
There is a regular dream that plays a role in the plot, and I found the descriptions to be rather well put,
“She is walking now, walking with her silent companions, inescapably ascending the winding mountain path. She knows that she cannot stop this climb even if she wants to, and she realizes that she does not want to.”
Illborn has a very strong central premise of these four gifted individuals coming to terms with their situations and their talents. Also, the idea of a religion that has lost its way, betrayed the principles of its founder, and become jealous of its own power and authority has a great deal of contemporary relevance. As President Jimmy Carter said “Evangelical Christianity has been hijacked by individuals who would have given Jesus himself the boot if he had knocked on their door.” Jackson takes astute aim at the hypocrisy of those espousing a religion who have twisted its theology and its morality to their own venal ends. That makes a great backdrop for epic fantasy. That said, the book could be more polished in several key areas, with some villains feeling a little pantomime-ish while further editing could sharpen the writing’s focus. I found quite a few places which were easy to skim-read and while that certainly helped in reading a long book, it suggests the prose is not gripping the reader as hard as it could or should.
Illborn is a really solid fantasy. As I said earlier, it’s not doing much new with regards to setting or the basic structure of the plot, but the way in which the story is constructed and the characters keep everything interesting. Despite its size, it’s a quick and easy read, and I definitely recommend reading it.
Well, I was eating this up and loved it. The patience and thoughtfulness that went into developing these characters was neither boring or required more fleshing out. I did enjoy the setting, though I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea to read another medieval Euro style novel. I personally don’t tire of them. I also thought the connections between the characters and the political/religious tension kept rising to fit all pieces together in the end and made for a grand tale to tell. This is a “recommend” on my part and I’m only one of many already garnered fans out there. To not give this novel a try would be a miss for fantasy readers.
I loved the character work in this story. It’s very well done and each of the characters stand out as unique and interesting even while facing a very similar central question/dilema. For me, the world building was less impressive, though this was entirely because I prefer worlds that are not so strongly based on medieval Europe. The prose was also a little clunky at points. However, the characters and their difficulties were more than enough to pull me into the story and keep me fully invested as I turned the pages. It’s a great read and easily recommended.
So Illborn delivers a powerful start to an epic tale, with a diverse cast of point of view characters, a world convulsed by conflict and prejudice, and an enigmatic link to past peoples and events.