“Enjoy what remains of your childhood, because tomorrow will rob us of the things we take for granted today.”
Synopsis: Ainnevog (Annev to his friends and family) is many things: a deacon in the small, secret village of Chaenbalu; an acolyte Avatar, who will be tasked with retrieval of dangerous artifacts scattered across the continent; and most importantly, heir to a prophecy that will break the world. Are we born good or evil, or do we have autonomy over our fate? Annev will have to find out, and the fate of everyone he knows and loves depends on the answers he finds.
I’ll come clean: I’ve actually had a copy of this book since the UK release. The problem is, the copy I received was so beautiful, I didn’t want to risk damaging it in any way! Take a look at this:
Thanks again Anderida Books! I’d had my eye on this one for some time leading up to its release, as 1) I like to support new writers, 2) the premise seemed interesting, and 3) LOOK at this gorgeous thing! My problem in these circumstances is that as a collector, I am hesitant to damage any such copies. Yes, books are there to be read, but the ones who generally give this advice probably won’t be bending the spines of their prize pieces, right? My policy therefore has typically been to wait for a paperback and buy that too so I can actually read it. As one can imagine, this requires a fair amount of patience (which I do not always have). I’ve recently rediscovered my Kindle Paper-white (e-reader), and this allows me to snag digital copies from Amazon or, as is the case here, an ARC copy from Netgalley for review purposes. Huzzah! Since this title will be having its US release on February 25/2020, I shifted my schedule around to make sure this review hits first.
Thematically, Master of Sorrows makes use of a few very well-known fantasy tropes: the “Wizarding School” and the “Chosen One“; contrary to what is usually seen, however, Call manages to inverse both of these tropes. Rather than a Harry Potter-esque school of wonders, those enrolled as acolytes to become Avatars are instead taught all manner of combat and skullduggery. One could call this an “anti-wizarding school”, as the entire purpose of the organization is to rid the world of magical artifacts (which are deemed to be unequivocally evil). There is certainly a fair amount of underlying criticism directed towards blind faith, and much of Annev’s internal struggle revolves around his innate desire for autonomy and truth wrestling with a desire to fit in, which would require he compromise his principles. I feel Call did a great job of summarizing that internal struggle which plagues each and every one of us at some point in our young lives (hell, even later in our careers!).
The inversion of the “Chosen One” trope is also interesting, as it brings up some “nature vs nurture” discussion, and even questions the idea of Agency. The typical use of the trope is for a protagonist who is fated to bring everything to a desirable resolution; everything revolves around them, and nobody else can solve the problem. Call’s inversion is that our protagonist is prophesied to be the opposite: a blight on the planet who will end all, unless they are squashed with all due haste. What makes Annev intriguing is his refusal to simply accept his role in this; his struggles with his worst feelings and desires is refreshing when compared to the stereotypical paragons of virtue one often sees in fantasy protagonists. Another trope which Call subverts quite effectively is that of the grand adventure. In such stories, the protagonist has lived in a small village all their lives, and wants nothing more than to leave it on an adventure, to get out and see the world. Brilliantly, Annev wants absolutely nothing to with any of this! He would rather stay in his little town, settle down with his sweetheart, and never leave.
Call has done an amazing job with his world-building. The setting is rich and detailed, and it is clear that he is still holding on to much, much more than he presented to us in his debut novel, and I am looking forward to learning more in the sequels. That said, I feel as though the pacing of the story was a bit awkward; the entire text takes place within the span of only a few days, and the reader is introduced to an enormous amount of lore in this short period of time. I absolutely do not mind being dragged along blind for a bit when reading a story; part of the joy is in the gradual discovery! That said, it can be a bit much at times, and a little bit more explanation of these critical elements would be welcome. The Academy gets more screen time than it merits, in my opinion. Also, while this may have been entirely intentional, I found many of the characters there to be wholly unlikable. The entire concept of how the Academy is run is ludicrous; why must a failed acolyte become a steward, specifically? Additionally, why in the world is everyone so cruel to them? One would think that if this Academy is such an honorable and important place, then even the stewards would be treated with a fair amount of respect. I suspect this was a way of introducing stakes beyond “disappointment”, but it was something I struggled with. To be clear: I found the text highly enjoyable, and this was my sole sticking point!
Once one gets through the slower first part of the text, things pick up quite rapidly, and the true narrative comes barreling in. Secrets are slowly revealed, and the excellent development of our protagonist begins to come through. I thoroughly enjoyed the mythology of the story, with its tales of gods and the implied bad turn which was done to Keos. I’ve always been a lover of myths from all cultures, and Call has introduced a wonderful one in this series. It is rich in detail, and does an excellent job of explaining the world we are reading about: why things are structured as they are, why deformities are so stigmatized, why the village is kept secret at all… everything fits neatly in this framework. There is a great deal of flavor in this setting, and I am sincerely looking forward to getting more of it.
Overall, Call has done a great job with his debut novel. While there are some (in my opinion ) pacing issues, I feel like he truly sticks the landing. It’s a fantasy story leaning towards the “grim-dark” side of things, but without all the things I am used to seeing in that genre. It’s a complete subversion of many tropes, and a refreshing new story for one to become engrossed in. Justin Call is an author to watch, and I strongly suspect that the sequel (Master Artificer) will smooth out those rough patches quite well. Make sure to give it a try (click the link below for Amazon)!