In The Bladed Faith, book one of David Dalglish’s Vagrant Gods series, a young Prince Cyrus sees his peaceful island kingdom of Thanet invaded by the Everlorn Empire and its monstrous, superhuman Paragon soldiers. At the age of twelve, he is faced with his parents being executed, his throne usurped, and the living, incarnate gods who once protected the people being slaughtered or driven into hiding. As the years pass and Cyrus is kept as a prisoner in his own home, he finally encounters a group of secretive revolutionaries. Seeing the fallen (and supposedly dead) prince as the perfect figurehead to inspire his people and strike terror into his foes, the group trains Cyrus in the arts of stealth, swordplay, and politics, and he dons the persona and grinning skull mask of the Vagrant in his quest for revenge.
The Bladed Faith is a third-person, multi-POV story that switches between viewpoint characters every chapter or two. Cyrus himself acts as the main protagonist, and much of the narrative is devoted to his transformation from deposed monarch to terrifying vigilante. Two other prominent POV characters are the sisters Stasia and Mari Ahlai. Stasia, nicknamed the Ax of Lahareed for her signature weapon, is a savage brawler and one of Cyrus’s primary trainers. Having fought a losing battle against the Empire since her youth, she chafes at the idea of abandoning another nation to its fate and leaving the people she cares about behind—even as she realizes the cost holding her ground might demand. By contrast, Mari is shorter, softer, and kinder than her sister, but these attributes only make her more frightening when she uses her abilities as a god-whisperer to take on the powers of slain divinities. On Thanet, she embraces the fallen lion god Endarius and hunts the empire’s soldiers as a bone-armored feline predator. Readers also get a few chapters from the viewpoints of allies like the aging paladin Rayan, and enemies such as the brutal conquering general, Magus of Eldrid and the Everlorn god-emperor’s own daughter.
Dalglish’s plotting and pacing are top-notch. Outmatched as the revolutionaries are, this book maintains steady tension and exceedingly well-written action. If swordplay and training montages are your cup of tea, the novel has a great one as Cyrus learns the assassin’s trade over course of the story’s first act. On a larger scale, there’s a mythic-level conflict between the polytheistic kingdoms of the land and the monotheistic Empire in a setting where gods take to the battlefield themselves and grant their followers magical abilities. Woven in amongst the bloodshed and divine sorcery, though, there’s also a slower and subtler theme of found family amongst the characters that adds a lot to the narrative and builds a cool dynamic between them that’s very gratifying to follow.
I found the first fifty percent or so of the book to be an enjoyable, if not slightly straightforward, conflict of good vs. evil, but the latter half shakes things up a lot with skillful plot twists and sticks the landing with a top-notch ending. Even if this book isn’t quite Grimdark, it’s a conclusion I still suspect GDM readers in particular will enjoy. In the same manner, the magic system comes into its own in later chapters as Dalglish takes the established rules and implications of his god-centric sorcery and goes in a really cool and interesting direction with them.
While I did enjoy elements of moral ambiguity that came into play later in the book, if I had one small complaint, it would be that there weren’t more of these themes throughout the story. Sometimes, the ethicality of Cyrus and company feels a little glossed over as they fight a guerrilla war against an empire. In one scene, for instance, the rebels need to create a distraction to get out of a desperate situation and set a large number of houses on fire. The houses are empty, but there’s still no question of what will happen if the flames get out of control, who they’ll be leaving destitute, etc.
If I had to sum up The Bladed Faith, this book is Arkane Studio’s Dishonored meets D&D’s divine magic. Reading this novel took me back to my college years—a time when I was studying English and buried alive in assigned reading. Even after a long week of textbooks and classic literature, though, I could always count on one of Dalglish’s Shadowdance books to pull me out of a slump and keep me turning pages all weekend. They were simply that readable, and Bladed Faith has the same quality (refined, if anything by the passage of time since then). The author has stated that this book feels like something of a “homecoming” to him, combining many of the best aspects of his previous works (the religious conflict and magic of Paladins, the assassins and found family of Shadowdance, etc.), and I’m inclined to agree. In all, I would give Bladed Faith a 4.5-star rating. In the meantime, I think I’ll take on a level of priest or paladin and hope that the higher powers in publishing answer my prayers for an early release of book two.
Read The Bladed Faith by David Dalglish