REVIEW: The Way of Unity by Sarah K. Balstrup

Religion and politics collide in The Way of Unity, the dark fantasy debut from Sarah K. Balstrup and a semi-finalist in Mark Lawrence’s ninth Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO9).

The Way of UnityA psychic priesthood known as the Intercessors oversees blood rites and spiritual purity in the Seven Lands of Velspar. The Intercessor priests can probe individual minds, leveling harsh punishment against those with sinful “red” thoughts. The unchallenged religious authority of the Intercessors leads to their heightened political influence, which puts them on a collision course with the elite Skalen families who rule Velspar.

The Way of Unity is built around a central event known as the Fire, a fateful attack by the Intercessors that leaves Skalen Sybilla of Vaelnyr as its sole survivor. Sybilla rises to power in the painful aftermath of the Fire, intent on religious reform and pursuing justice against the Intercessors. However, a rogue Intercessor is bent on Sybilla’s own destruction.

The Way of Unity is told from multiple points of view, but Sybilla steals the show as the most compelling and well-developed character in the book. She is emotionally complex and may be either lionized as Velspar’s great reformer or vilified as its worst heretic.

Sarah K. Balstrup excels in her nuanced worldbuilding. Of particular note is the Meridian, a magical headband that prevents intrusion into one’s thoughts and also hampers the wearer’s psychic vision and sensory perception. The Meridian is also used as a symbol of personal autonomy.

Balstrup’s prose is beautiful and well-polished, conveying a sense of gloomy mysticism throughout the story. Although The Way of Unity emphasizes religion as its main theme, there is also a touch of romance, which is tastefully done and helps in the development of Sybilla as a character.

On the downside, The Way of Unity is marred by overly stiff dialogue and a disjointed flow, with sudden jumps in time between chapters that make the plot confusing to follow in places. The book would benefit from devoting more time to exposition and building smoother transitions between chapters. Notwithstanding these shortcomings, The Way of Unity offers grimdark readers much to love, especially with its dark worldbuilding and morally gray protagonist.

Overall, Sarah K. Balstrup shows great promise with The Way of Unity, a melancholic tale that explores the darker side of organized religion and its impact on the individual psyche. The series will continue with Balstrup’s second book, A Trail of Stars.

I originally reviewed The Way of Unity as part of the Before We Go Blog team for SPFBO9.

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John Mauro

John Mauro

John Mauro lives in a world of glass amongst the hills of central Pennsylvania. When not indulging in his passion for literature or enjoying time with family, John is training the next generation of materials scientists at Penn State University, where he teaches glass science and materials kinetics. John also loves cooking international cuisine and kayaking the beautiful Finger Lakes region of upstate New York.