REVIEW: Godblind by Anna Stephens

Godblind is the hard-hitting debut by Anna Stephens and the first volume in the Godblind Trilogy. The novel is a medieval epic fantasy set in the small land-locked kingdom of Rilpor and its antagonistic western neighbours, the Mireces. The geography is small, but the cast is large, with ten point-of-view characters. All are variously traumatized, and none escape with clean hands. The rigorous pace and savage fight scenes make it compelling reading.

The bloodthirsty Red Gods used to hold sway over the region, but almost a thousand years ago some kinder, gentler gods exiled the Red Gods and their followers, the Mireces, from Rilpor. The cruel Mireces are holed-up in the Gilgoras Mountains from which they make occasional raids into pastoral Rilpor and hold the mother of all grudges. The story begins with the Mireces making a gruesome sacrifice and planning a major invasion into Rilpor. But when one of their slaves takes exception to her treatment, she escapes the Mireces taking her knowledge of the invasion with her. The desire of the Mireces and their Red Gods to conquer Rilpor and their Gods of Light forms the major conflict of the novel.

The kingdom of Rilpor is effectively a city-state with Rilporin as its capital. Rilporin is the city you’ve read about in countless fantasy novels. Situated at the confluence of two rivers, Rilporin is surrounded by impressive walls and has neighbourhoods that get progressively more upscale the closer you get to the palace. The palace is a large administrative complex where the affairs of the kingdom are managed. Of course, this being a fantasy novel the first we see of the city is the inside of a low tavern, so we can check that off the list, too.

Ever since the Gods of Light kicked the Red Gods out of the area, Rilpor seems to have thrived. It’s not exactly the Shire, but outside of the city it’s bucolic. The king is called “Rastoth the Kind,” though whether that is acclamation or propaganda is uncertain. However, there are hints at troubles. There are regular raids from the Mireces in the west and the Dead Legion (an ominous name) in the north. Though the level of technology is medieval; the military structure is more modern, with a standing army, centralized command structure, and garrisons at each border. Also, at that tavern in our first encounter with Rilporin, a group of angry patrons are close to violence over the inequities of rich nobles taking advantage of working people. So Rilpor isn’t a utopia, but it isn’t a hopelessly grim setting, either.

Although there are ten POV characters, we can narrow down the list of main protagonists to three. Rillirin is the escaped slave who is being pursued by the Mireces. She was originally a free Rilporian who had been captured by the Mireces years before in a raid. Her time in captivity has left her physically and mentally traumatized. When she encounters the rugged people of the Rilporian frontier, she struggles to trust them and they her. Rillirin’s story explores themes of trauma, recovery, and trust.

Dom is one of those Rilporian frontier people. They call themselves “Watchers” with their warriors called “Wolves.” Dom is the “calestar,” a Watcher who gets visions from the gods. Although some consider these visions a gift, the painful seizures that accompany them make it as much a curse as a gift. One of these visions leads Dom to find Rillirin, and he rescues her from a pursuing band of Mireces. Dom is outwardly altruistic, but he has darkness in his past. This darkness, along with his seizures, makes him vulnerable to the attention of the Red Gods. In Dom’s story we see the theme of the double-edged sword. His greatest gift is also his greatest curse.

The third main character is Crys. Crys is a captain in the Rilporian army and a bit of a scoundrel. He has been promoted several times, yet he always finds himself demoted again. Still, he is a decent, if not a model officer. Crys is a charismatic leader, but his off-duty carousing and gambling have sabotaged his career. Lately, his carousing has led to a friendship with Prince Rivil, the king’s younger son, and an opportunity to prove himself as commander of the honour guard for the two princes’ tour of the West Rank.

Stephens’ narration uses third-person limited point-of-view, with each chapter following one character. The ten POV characters are spread throughout 105 chapters plus an epilogue. Each chapter is very brief, consisting mostly of one or two scenes. Stephens’ language is impressively economical, focusing on the major action while still conveying the nuances of each character. The entire setup and inciting incident are conveyed in the eight-page first chapter. By employing short, focused chapters Stephens maintains a relentlessly fast pace and non-stop action throughout several months of narrative.

I have a little confession to make. I often glaze over during fight scenes in books. I don’t skip them, I just don’t retain all of the details. I’ll get to the end of a scene and realize that one character is injured and maybe killed another character, but even though I just read it, I don’t remember exactly how it went down. The fight scenes in Godblind, however, are highly visual and memorable.

We should note here that Anna Stephens is a second Dan black belt in Shotokan Karate. Why should we note it? Well, for one, it means that she has a whole lot of discipline and can kick a whole lot of ass. But also, it influences her writing. Tom Smith interviewed Stephens in Grimdark Magazine Issue #13, and asked how her martial arts impacts her fight scenes:

“I try my best to write very visual fight scenes, describing each duck and pivot and strike, to draw in my audience. In order to best effect that, I have a tendency to walk through the fights from both points of view and write exactly how my body moves… it enables me to envision exactly how a fight will pan out for both antagonists.”

Stephens impressively uses her martial arts knowledge and experience to diffuse narrative tension with an abundance of savage fight scenes. I tend to like my gritty fantasy with a heavy dose of snarky humour employed as bathos. That is, the humour relieves the tension that has been building up in the narrative, keeping it from becoming overly melodramatic. Stephens doesn’t use much humour, instead her fight scenes serve as mini-climaxes throughout the story. Rather than ratcheting up the tension until the climactic battle, Stephens’ fights allow the reader to step away from the larger conflicts and focus narrowly on the immediate combat and the relief of survival. They are not filled with overwrought emotions about the epicness of their struggle. There is no grand orchestral score by James Horner playing in the background. The fights are ferocious, immersive, and cathartic, relieving enough narrative tension to allow it to build back up for the next fight.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that there is a particularly brutal scene of human sacrifice in the book. I was in a coffee shop while reading that scene, and I winced and curled my face up like I had bitten into a sour lemon. I must have made some low mewling sounds, too, because folks nearby started shooting concerned looks my way. The straightforward clinical description of what’s happening in that scene creates an enormous impact. Other books include torture and brutality that could rival or exceed this, but the way those books describe it doesn’t quite pack the same punch. My point? Be careful when reading Godblind in public.

One last point. This novel sets clear sides of “Good Guys” and “Bad Guys.” Yes, all of the characters are morally complicated, but only one side has gods that require torturous human sacrifices. However, there are two more books in this series, and it feels like there is another shoe left to drop. I have a feeling that good and evil aren’t quite as cut-and-dried as the first book would have us believe, and more fronts may open on this conflict in the second and third books.

Godblind is a fast-paced and merciless tale. If you like multiple POV characters and good fight scenes, and you have a solid constitution, you’ll enjoy this book.

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