HALL OF BONES by Tim Hardie (SPFBO 7 Finalist Review)
And so to the second of our final month finalist reviews, a gripping Nordic tale with much to recommend it, even if it didn’t reach a top three position with our judges.
In the remote land of Laskar the seven ruling clans have vied with each other for power for over a century. The son of the Reavesburg Clan Chief, Rothgar, has been groomed all his life for a role supporting his elder brother, Jorik, in leading their kingdom when their father’s time finally comes to an end.
However, the rulers of their greatest rivals, the Vorund Clan, are in the grip of something older and far darker. They have been conquered by evil, a remnant from the time when the gods warred with one another and the world of Amuran collapsed into the Fallen Age.
Everything is about to change …
The first book in The Brotherhood of the Eagle series, Hall of Bones begins a tale of epic fantasy, magic and intrigue.
I’m not convinced by the cover. Although I get the elements of the story that are bleeding into the cover, the very dark lower half of the book – with a silhouetted hall – makes it feel like a combination of separate pictures rather than a coherent single image. Editing is sound, so my eye didn’t snag on any typos. The prose is effective without ever quite soaring for me. There’s a touch of the David Copperfield style of a man narrating his own life story which – at times gives it a bit of distance. The framing story of our protagonist hung out to dry in a cage and reflecting on the events that led him to this fate posits a certain mystery, but Hardie is also fond of mini-time-jumps within chapters, opening with a dramatic moment and then filling in the events that led to this event. It’s an interesting structural choice, on the one hand kick starting a chapter, on the other meaning the reported event lacks tension because we know where it builds up to.
Like Theo, I’m not a huge fan of the cover. The addition of the shield makes it a little busy, and takes away from the hall and fire – which is already a little difficult to make out under the title. I also wasn’t sold on the structure, and think it could have been a stronger book if the main POV was different.
The cover of this novel stands out to me in many ways. I found the elements used in creating this cover with the Hall of Bones burning in the forefront, the mountains as the backdrop, and the Viking shield hovering above it all symbolic about what is to come in the story. The color choice of the pink sky reflects the burning landscape on the ground and the spine of the novel looks superb! I venture to say a different colored theme for each subsequent cover in the series would create a nice set of spines on the shelf for display. If I would change one thing, it’d be the font size of the synopsis on the back of the book. It seems a bit too large in my opinion.
The situational beginning comes around full circle to close the loop of this Norse tale with a satisfying ending, and the utilized timelines and flashbacks scattered throughout were enjoyable components. Though I found the novel predictable initially, I became more and more invested as the story went on, and unexpected plot developments furthered the attention. The prose and storytelling gained flow and strength after the first initial chapters, and the edit was overall clean.
I think this cover works on a number of levels. As Scarlett already mentioned, it’s easy to see elements of the story in the cover, and I think the cover does well at communicating the overall feel of the novel. It certainly grabbed my attention enough that I was interested in reading it. On the other hand, Viking settings often don’t work well for me–they just aren’t my thing–so that may also have played into my first impressions.
The editing and prose were fine, I wasn’t distracted by any major typos or other editing issues. As Scarlett mentions, I did find the early going in the novel fairly predictable which made things feel like a bit of a slog, even though the novel isn’t super long. By the time the plot was picking up, I think I had already formed my first impressions. Again, I don’t normally connect with Viking-inspired settings, so this was going to be a hard sell for me in the best of circumstances.
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
There are a lot of characters. The cast list at the end runs to thirteen pages in my kindle, but I found it quite an immersive rather than bewildering experience. The plot rattles along reasonably briskly and story events clarify the who’s who – as well as thinning the list somewhat.
We stay mainly in the first person point of view of Rothgar Kolfinnarson, second son of Clan chief Kolfinnar, but for various plot reasons we do get to dip into a few other people’s heads. Rothgar is quite a likable lead character, facing the usual challenges of finding a role for himself when never destined to succeed his father. The personal and political struggles that he faced came across well as he balanced the tensions between assumed allies and erstwhile foes trying to impress on them the greater threat they all face. The early part of the book is full of bluff Nordic warriors who slowly resolve into distinct characters. I also liked the character of Nuna – Rothgar’s sister – who has to fulfil a role and exert an influence without recourse to force of arms or kick ass ninja tactics.
There is a rather large cast in this book, but luckily considerably fewer POV characters. The different POVs give a balanced view of the various plot aspects, which was very helpful in keeping up with everything.
I did not find Rothgar to be a particularly likable or compelling main character. I felt he was a little on the whiny side, and while that is somewhat justifiable considering all the things he experienced, it did not make for enjoyable reading for me. I really struggled with the complete lack of agency he had – the plot happened at him, without giving him many opportunities to have influence, and side-lined him for the majority of the book.
On the other hand, Etta was a really interesting character to me, and I think it could have been a much stronger story if she had been the primary POV, as not only did she clearly have much more influence over what was going on, but the hints dropped about her past and experience were more compelling than any aspect of Rothgar’s story.
The story is in part a coming-of-age tale of two brothers and their sister in the Raevesburg Clan. They are the main characters, though the story boasts a good cast of influential others. Rothgar, the main protagonist and POV, also the younger son of the Clan Chief, is to be groomed to support his older brother Jorik to lead the Kingdom one day after their father’s demise. Without a mother and a little sister to look after, their growing years are sped up by defined roles, and the two brothers could not be more different from one another. It’s that classic tale of the characters not doing well in their respective areas and that felt a bit predictable. I did enjoy Rothgar’s relationship with his sister and the way Nuna grows up rather quickly in terms of maturity. The focus on family dynamic was a big part of this novel and it’s something I appreciate, though the reach from point A to B where the story changes after a twist was a bit long of a stretch. I liked Etta the town’s elder and chief counselor who has been at Ulfkell’s Keep for generations. Her mysterious story is intriguing and interesting albeit not an original idea. Yet, alas, I’m a sucker for council elders with magical abilities! There is a conflict between the clans and some of those characters keep showing up along the way multiple times. Some lessons are learned by Rothgar and he goes through immense growing pains. I really enjoyed following his journey and I can’t wait to find out how his story continues.
The main character in this one is Rothgar and because we experience the story mainly from his perspective I think it’s natural for him to be a likable character. Having said that, some of his decisions–or maybe the lack thereof–didn’t work for me. There are a long list of secondary and tertiary characters as well. I didn’t personally find the number to be overwhelming, and I think important characters were introduced well and had personalities of their own that didn’t simply blend into a sort of amorphous mass of background characters–something that easily could have happened with a story of this scope!
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
I finished this book in about four days, it’s not a chonker in length and Hardie rattles along at a brisk pace even if in places the story is delivered with a few chunks of exposition. The tension does build as Rothgar’s expectations for his own future are more and more subverted by events. There are elements of the plot that appear to draw their inspiration from other fantasies, the ghosts of Tolkein’s Theoden and G.R.R.Martin’s Stark dynasty and Abercrombie’s Mother Gundring (from his Shattered Sea Trilogy) haunting the pages. However, within that familiarity of plot and setting Hardie does deliver some surprising twists and manages to take his story in a fresh and intriguing direction. There is a point of intrigue, the twist that puts Rothgar in the cage in which we first meet him, that felt a bit contrived at first reading. However, it settled on me better as the ramifications and underlying conspiracy unfolded in subsequent pages.
As is to be expected in the opening instalment of an intended series the villains don’t all get their comeuppance, indeed the major bad guy doesn’t even make a personal appearance, while several plot threads are left hanging. Looking back at the map, having finished the story, I was struck by how much of the world’s geography, like its story, remained unexplored and untold.
I really struggled to read this book. I found the beginning to be really slow, and the second half felt like an entirely different book. There are some interesting plot points, and I would have liked to know more about the magic system (especially as there was a lot of talking about it, but very little seeing it in action), but it wasn’t enough to overcome the problems I had with Rothgar.
I enjoyed this novel quite a bit. The prologue was gripping and caught my attention well. The story starts at a different point in time, so the protagonist tells the tale leading up to that prologue situation. The first half of the book reads slightly different from the ladder. A good amount of time was spent on establishing the characters and family dynamics first…some parts are on the slower tempo interspersed by the political action that parallels the storyline. Once that other half of the book begins after a major twist though, it changes a lot of the dynamics. Tension and swiftness gain momentum to keep those pages turning. The setting was up my alley and captivating and Etta’s storyline grew more and more important to me.
It’s always interesting to see how different readers experience the same story. My experience is almost a reverse mirror to Scarlett’s. I found the early portions of the book to be slow and not that interesting. There was a lot of setup and world building going on, and that’s obviously really necessary for this sort of a story. But, once again, I think because I’m not a fan of Viking-inspired settings, I didn’t find those elements of this story to be very attractive or interesting. The second half of the story definitely feels different, to the point that I actually found it rather jarring. There is a lot more tension and fast pacing in the second half and, rather than feel like it was a natural building of the plot, for me it felt more like it was disjointed from the first half. I’m also a huge fan of magic, and it felt like we heard about magic more than we actually saw it, especially in the early part of the novel.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
There is that familiarity of setting – Norse clans in a patriarchal society, served by Jarls and named for familial relationships. Johan Jorgensward (ward of Jorgen), Rothgar Kolfinnarson, Nuna Kolfinnardottir (daughter of Kolfinnar) and so on. Hardie has invested time in devising a history and mythology to his world that bleeds into the story, sometimes a little obtrusively, but generally in a way that adds depth and texture. I did like the way the story switched from being about big guys thumping each other with swords to something more subtle woven around dark magic. The key conceit of the magic system is one that appeals to me – though I won’t say too much for fear of spoilers. However, as all my reading these days is through a lens of contemporary politics, I did find a particular resonance in that sense of a country stolen from you.
The setting has fairly standard Norse vibes, and the society and culture were well thought out. It’s not a setting I read a lot of, but this felt well crafted, and I had a good grasp of the geography based purely on the content of the story. What little we learned of the magic system was interesting, but aspects felt derivative of other books and that put me off a little.
This is a Norse-inspired tale in The land of Laskar in Northern Valistria, which is divided by the great Redfars Sea and flanked by peninsulas on either side. Five clans on the left, and the other, opposite the Sea, there are two. Told from the perspective of the Raevesburg Clan’s family who lives about midway high on the left peninsula by a great inlet, and way north of the Vorund Clan, their greatest rivals for some time. In a story as such, alliances are key to peaceful trade and living, though it wouldn’t be a good one if there wasn’t betrayal and some darker history. Rothgar connects with certain magic he doesn’t understand yet, and I can’t spoil here what or how…but there are forces at work, and Etta seems to hold a key to many of the questions.
Hardie does a good job of crafting what feels like an authentic, grim world. The political situation when the novel begins makes sense and feels real. The geography of the world works and doesn’t have any glaring issues. As for the magic, we do eventually learn more about it, but I would have liked even more detail in this regard. I’ll also say that, while the world building largely worked for me, it was disappointing to see a dearth of female characters with agency. While that may be accurate to the Viking inspiration for the setting, I much prefer secondary world settings that are more egalitarian.
Quotations that resonated with you
The prose is more brisk and effective than illuminated with flashes of brilliance. But there were still images that I liked – like ‘fragments of a soul’ and ‘papery mass’ in these descriptions of Rothgar’s mother’s funeral, and of his father’s aged advisor Etta.
“I imagined the sparks rising from the pyre were fragments of her soul, bound for Navan’s Halls.”
“Age had bent her back, so that she walked with a stick, and her face was a papery mass of whiskers and wrinkles.”
Or looking down at a river from high up a mountain
“the waters snaking like beaten silver.”
I have to admit there wasn’t much in the prose that really stood out to me – while the writing style isn’t bad, nothing specific stuck with me.
I loved many passages here and the strong language that permeated such a Norse feel.
“I said, you have a knack of choosing powerful enemies. Tyfingr Blackeyes, Gautarr Falrufson, and now Nereth, not to mention all those in Raevesburg, Kalamar, and Norlhast who think of you as a turncoat for brokering Nuna’s marriage to Karas. No mean feat during your scant sixteen years.”
“The idea that one day I might be jarl of Ulfkell’s Keep in Finnvidor’s place, serving my brother as chief, was hard to imagine. Our father seemed so strong, he would surely live for many long years and his people loved him. No one would dare challenge him by calling a clan moot, I reasoned. No one less could ever take his place. “ I still prefer the sword to the slate, Etta. Darri never sings great ballads about the men who know all their letters.”
“Power is a fickle thing – hard to get and slippery to hold onto.”
I didn’t have a ton of quotes that stood out to me, however, I had also highlighted Scarlett’s favorite. That quote about power feels not only very true, but also sort of dire in terms of the story and the role power plays.
I liked this book more as it went on, the second half twisting away from some of the trope-ish or more familiar features that adorned the first half. Despite the complexity of its vast cast list, it was still a story that was easy to get into and follow with characters generally making sensible decisions that nonetheless rebounded on them unfavourably.
As I have said earlier, I really struggled to make it through this one. I think there is a lot of potential in the story, but it didn’t work for me, especially with the vast difference between the first and second halves.
I enjoyed this book and have already mentioned the differences between the first and second halves of the novel. I like a good mix of slow and fast paced passages, though I will say that the second half captivated me more. The setting was so different and gruelling in ways…I just had to know what happens. I think a good amount of groundwork was done by the end of this book to spring into the next novel with more room to unfold. It certainly has captured my curiosity for the continuation.
While this book didn’t knock it out of the park for me, I think that was largely down to the setting just not being one of my favorite tropes. The book does a good job of setting up a much larger story to be revealed later in the series, and I think fans of Viking-inspired fantasy that maintains what we might call historical accuracy within a secondary world will find a lot to like.
And the All Important Scores
|Rounded to the nearest half mark for Mark||6|