REVIEW: Melokai by Rosalyn Kelly

Blood. Mutilation. Sex. Politicking. And all of it coalesces into one meaty tale of love, betrayal, and death in Melokai, the first novel in Rosalyn Kelly’s In the Heart of the Mountains series.

Although the plot is centred around the legendary warrior Ramya, the Melokai (ruler) of Peqkya, Kelly weaves in a bevy of intriguing characters such as the peon, Ferraz, a spurned courtesan yearning to be with his son; Darrio, a father wolf that has recently joined a new pack; and Jessima, the Queen of Fertilian who is in love with her husband’s brother, Toby. There are far more character POV chapters than I can list here, but Kelly does a wonderful job of making them each feel unique. This is important since Kelly wants us to imbibe her various characters and cultures as we pore through their lives.

Kelly’s worldbuilding adds to this rich tapestry of characters and is lovely to devour. Peqkya, Drome, Fertilian, each of these realms is richly depicted within the text, full of lore, history, and myths. Kelly’s lovely prose really brings the inhabitants to life.

Now, I promised you blood, sex, and politicking, and Melokai does not disappoint. At times the action feels sparse and the sex and politicking too much, but overall, these elements are well balanced, and readers should enjoy the complexity of culture Kelly has depicted on the page.

When the action in Melokai hits it stride, the novel quickly becomes a visceral bloodbath. Although it is a lavish spectacle primarily kept for the final conflict, the battle between the humans of Peqkya and Darrio’s wolf pack (which is around the midpoint of the novel) is as brutal as one would expect a battle between humans and wolves would be. Limbs torn apart, spears thrust into wolf bodies, and the snapping of necks. It is ferocious and ugly, but then again, this is war and it shouldn’t be any other way.

Although the politicking can be a bit too much, especially during the Ammad chapters, it is still enjoyable to observe the subterfuge occur between characters. This is prominent in the Ferraz chapters whereby the peon is swayed to rebel against Ramya to see his son again. The very idea of rebellion is tough as those caught even thinking about such things would be met with the customary ‘death sentence’, which includes “your cock cut off, stuffed in your mouth and you are rammed on a pole in the marketplace and left there to bleed, die and rot in shame”. The internal conflict feels real, and though the plots within plots unravels at a slow pace, Kelly sows enough seeds of discontent throughout her world that it is enjoyable to watch the political scene explode towards the end of the novel.

The sexual content is perhaps the darkest aspect of this novel and something Kelly tends to depict in detail. This isn’t necessarily a problem as it further soaks the world in another layer of grittiness, but can cause some discomfort when reading lines like, “All and every person who so fancies can then rape that man by poking sticks or poles or knives or anything they choose up his backside”. This is a common theme throughout the story and one that is successful in further developing this brutal world. It might be a bit much for some readers, but Kelly’s use of such imagery perfectly renders this world as unwelcoming and frightening.

Although there are many positive aspects to list, some aspects of the novel are less effective. Like other novels that feature a variety of different POV characters (George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, for example), I tended to favour only a handful. The Ramya and Darrio chapters are enjoyable as they provided a unique contrast to one another. The Darrio chapters are especially compelling due to the grittiness of the internal animal politicking.

However, I felt myself speed reading through some characters’ POV chapters. The Ammad and Jessima chapters seemed too distant and were mostly absent from the main bulk of the action of the novel. There were also some characters that I could not understand or even understand as to why Kelly chose a specific route for their development.

For example, Gwrlain, exiled from Troglo, is forced to be Ramya’s mate far too early in the novel to make sense. After a brief bout of oral sex, they are both soulmates. This would have worked better if Kelly gave the readers a chapter or two examining the mindset of Gwrlain earning the trust of Ramya. Maybe he helps her hunting or saves her from wolf attacks. Something better than the “quick fix” Hollywood gives its audience.

Having said that, Rosalyn Kelly’s Melokai is undoubtedly an interesting read. The world is lavish, consistent, and full of intrigue that only authenticates the reality of this environment. The tone, whilst dark and at times, provocative, wonderfully adds to grittiness of Kelly’s writing. The story itself is well structured as the chapters flow well one after the other, eventually culminating into a literal bloody cliffhanger.

I look forward to the next instalment of Kelly’s In the Heart of the Mountains and strongly urge readers to check it out as well.

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Dr Dann Lewis

An Australian expat, Dr Dann Lewis writes poetry, prose, and fiction specialising in blending speculative fiction and the Gothic genre. Lewis’ interests intersect between creative writing/literary studies and psychoanalytical theory. Lewis has been previously published in Aurealis and Phase 2 science fiction magazines and is a frequent contributor to the cyberpunk blog, Neon Dystopia. When not writing, Lewis finds himself painting or jacked into his rig.