In Bloodlight, Edward Nile’s debut novel, the city of Delstad hangs on the brink of civil war. While humans and lightbloods (a race of pale-haired albinos with glowing blood and a latent gift for illegal magic) reluctantly coexist within its boundaries, its squalid slums are a powder keg of poverty, crime, and racial violence, ready to explode at the slightest spark. Although the two races are engaged in open combat on the lawless frontiers, Delstad’s human-run government has reduced the resident lightbloods to poverty and confined them to the decaying ghetto of Crow’s Quarter. Everything changes, however, when a struggling lightblood thief “awakens” into a powerful mage and uses his newfound sorcery to stir a rebellion. The city devolves into a battlefield, and the novel chronicles the luminescent bloodbath that ensues.
The majority of the conflict is experienced through a trio of third-person POV characters: Drük, Riuna, and Ludin. Drük, Delstad’s resident Magehunter, is judge, jury, and executioner in all matters of illegal magic, and carries out his edicts with a sorcery-proof coat and a pair of smoking revolvers. While his professional duties and a deeply personal hatred of magic drive him to spend his days hunting wizards, his feelings toward his assistant, Riuna, complicate matters. Riuna, a lightblood and a mage herself, was raised in captivity by Delstad’s government and trained to track down others of her kind. Although she and Drük are the closest thing either has to a friend or family member, he’s also legally obligated to kill her if she makes the slightest misstep. On the other side of the struggle, Ludin, the aforementioned lightblood thief-turned-mage, leads his race in a mounting rebellion through raw arcane talent and a pragmatically ruthless mindset. While Ludin doesn’t particularly enjoy violence, he also doesn’t hesitate to use his prodigious magical gifts to protect himself and remove any who stand in his way.
After spending some time with Bloodlight’s protagonists, I came to enjoy and appreciate the way Nile used little quirks and details to lend his characters a subtle sense of depth and humanity. Drük, for example, spends his spare time drinking whisky and devouring pulpy adventure fiction, all the while yearning to join his fellow Magehunters on the frontier. The deeply lonely Riuna crafts diminutive clockwork animals that wander around her quarters and keep her company. Ludin habitually rubs at the old silver coin his mother gave him before she left him on the streets, and he refuses to spend it even when starvation is the alternative.
With regard to the plot, I think the author chose his primary characters well. With Drük on one side, Ludin on the other, and Riuna caught between the two, the reader can view the full complexity and moral ambiguity of Delstad’s conflict from every angle. As in all good grimdark, matters are rarely simple enough for any one character to claim the ethical high ground. Drük, for example, witnesses his fellow humans robbing, raping, and killing lightbloods more than once. While he doesn’t participate (and finds their actions abhorrent), he rarely intervenes on the other race’s behalf—despite his soft spot for Riuna. On the other side of the citywide war, Ludin’s own rebels treat the humans they capture just as cruelly, enslaving and killing men, women, and children without hesitation or mercy. In Bloodlight, characters attempt to do good things with bad results, and do bad things for good reasons, and the sense of brutal realism this lends the novel is excellent.
In terms of pacing, the plot flowed smoothly and swiftly, and the perpetually rising stakes and worsening circumstances the characters faced lent the book a compelling sense of urgency. I sat down for more than one would-be thirty-minute reading break that lengthened into an hour or longer. While Bloodlight isn’t a novel with an abundance of twists and turns, its thriller-esque pacing had a way of keeping me up long past my self-imposed bedtime.
If I had a handful of small complaints with an otherwise strong debut, the majority of them would concern elements of the worldbuilding I felt were a little sparse. The titular magic system itself, Bloodlight, is used to heal, harm, track, read emotions and psychic impressions, make people implode from the inside, conjure fire and lightning, and steal/transfer magical power from others at various points in the novel. While this particular brand of sorcery created some truly epic and cinematic action scenes, I never felt like its workings and limitations were made completely clear. For me, this robbed some scenes of tension as the two mage-protagonist characters solved their problems with a previously unseen spell or power.
On a similar note, I would have liked to see a little more of Delstad’s people and society. Minus a few enjoyable fantasy racial slurs (‘dimmy bastard’ being a personal favorite) and a cool assortment of technology that married the industrial grit of dieselpunk with arcanepunk’s glowing crystals, the city doesn’t always feel that different from a place like 20th-century London. While I’d expect a certain amount of ethnic integration in a town where humans and lightbloods have cohabitated for so long, I also felt a noticeable lack of cultural differences between the two. I would have enjoyed a chance to delve deeper than the races’ physical differences and compare and explore the traditions, habits, and values of the people who inhabit a world so unlike our own.
All in all, however, my reading experience of this book was overwhelmingly positive. Between the novel’s thought-provoking moral ambiguity, its cast of compellingly flawed characters, and the buckets of luminescent gore it spills, Bloodlight offers lots to love for any fan of grimdark. I would rate this book 4/5 stars in total, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Nile has in store next.