A little later than planned, but here is my first review for Self-Published Fantasy Month, and it’s not even one that was on my TBR, but one that I discovered while browsing through kindle books and immediately fell in love with the cover (I love black and white colours with just a flash of colour, and this one is particularly striking).
The Grand Alliance has failed, its armies destroyed on the battlefield by the monstrous Ulokan horde. But the Ulokans have been defeated in turn by the forces of the sorcerer-lord Skraka Gorn. As ancient evils rise once more and new threats emerge, Gorn holds himself out as the only hope for the survival of humankind.
Tamurac, lord of the Halyas, has disappeared in the battle. Now his teenage son Danalar must accept responsibility and become the warrior and leader he has trained his whole life to be. Meanwhile, until he comes of age it falls to Charymylle, Lady Halyas, to lead the clan through this time of change – if the wardens and warband will follow a woman.
When a survivor returns with suspicions of Gorn’s treachery, the Halyas must make a fateful choice. They could choose safety and give up their free heritage to support Gorn’s imperial ambitions. Or dare to resist his expanding empire and face his devastating sorceries in a new kind of war.
Their decision leads to an adventure greater and more terrible than Danalar ever imagined.
This was one of those books that caught me by surprise. For the first couple of chapters, I wasn’t pulled into the narrative, and there was a couple of places where I felt as though I might abandon it – whether this was my mood, or because of the book, I’m still not sure, although it did have a slow build-up at the start. Then all of a sudden I was hooked, and I couldn’t put this book down, to the point where at the ending I was holding my breath as events unfolded because I was so caught by the story. As mentioned above, this is a book I stumbled across was initially drawn to by the cover, and then the premise was promising. Interestingly on Amazon, this one was marked as for 13-18-year olds, but it didn’t feel particularly YA for me even though some of the main characters are in that age range, and I think that it would appeal to older fantasy fans.
Aside from that slow beginning, this book has many strong points. I think its main selling point has to be the worldbuilding, especially the magic system. Although much of the action happened within the Anchor Isles, with brief interludes to the Wilderness, the broader world is woven throughout the narrative through the characters and the history, and for the most part, such exposition felt natural or carried the plot forward. For the Anchor Isles itself, there is a much more material sense of the past, within the fort at Lledon Dun and at the Beacon, there is tangible evidence of the past, of the Ilion who are as much legend as history and it brought a vibrancy to the world. All in all, O’Leary has laid a very strong foundation for his world, and I look forward to seeing it fleshed out, and exploring the areas that we know less about – the Wilderness that we have only seen in brief chapters, and the Crescent Coast – as well as learning more about the Empire, and the lands it has taken.
There are still a lot of questions about the magic systems, especially the limits of those working for the Gorn Empire who have broken the ban against hurting human life. I enjoyed the explanation of the Essence, through the High Mage Andromor, although the ‘full’ explanation of how his magic differed to the enemies came rather late in the book, and could possibly have served better coming earlier in the narrative, once the differences had been established. However, that does not detract from my love of the magic system in this book because the scenes involving magic, whether the darker, brutal magic of the Sorceress and Demon Summoner working for the Empire, the more natural magic of Adromor, or the older magic imbued in the weapons and landscape of the Anchor Isles, are some of the most beautifully written scenes in the book. Particularly in the last couple of chapters, where the imagery was so vivid that I felt as though it was right there in front of me.
In a similar way, O’Leary writes fight scenes incredibly well, crafting believable, well-paced and action-packed fight scenes – from sparring, to skirmishes and a full-on assault on a fortified position, with considerations for tactics and supplies. I appreciated all the little details in that part of the book, from sending women out to collect arrows in teams, with one shielding the other, to the fact that messengers had to be sent out and would take time.
For the most part, I found the characters well written and interesting. I would have liked to have seen more development for Tamurac, although we spent less time with him because there was a disconnect between the impression given by his family and what we saw of him in his chapters. While that could have been put down to his situation, it would have been nice to see a bit more of who he really was although the epilogue gives me hope that we will see more of that in the future books. In a similar vein, the Ulokans who are responsible for his capture, and the reason for the creation of the Empire, are not thoroughly explored in this book. And while we are given enough to know they are a terrifying enemy, and a substantial threat, again it is glimpses to build the foundation for more, and I look forward to seeing that ‘more’ in future books.
Danalar was very believable as a teen/young man struggling with having essentially lost his father, facing adulthood, his duty to his clan and his future role, and wanting to be young and free during a time of war, and while I wanted to shake him a couple of times at the start, he grew on me. However, my favourites were Lady Charymylle who was that perfect blend of a strong, female leader without losing sight of the fact that she was a mother, and a wife whose husband was captive if not dead, and who had been forced to lead their people in his stead. Also, the High Mage Adromor, although I would like to learn more of how he came to reside with the Halyas family in the Anchor Isles, I particularly enjoyed his scenes, and I liked the balance between the somewhat crotchety older man, wise advisor and powerful mage and I had more than one heart-stopping moment over him.
I found the writing style to be the perfect blend of action and description all the way through, and there were some truly beautiful descriptions in this book. In terms of pacing, while it had a slow beginning, this book soon found its flow, and while there were a few quieter moments, it was action-packed. However, I found it well-balanced, particularly between the build-up for the battle, and the actual assault itself, although I was thrown a little when the POV changed from that of those inside the fort to Danalar and his friends outside in the forest because there was a different sense of urgency in those chapters. Although, a lot was introduced towards the end of the book particularly within the last few chapters with the introduction of Gods into the narrative, but while it could have felt a little rushed instead it left me wanting more (next book, when?).
I was not expecting to love the Hand of Fire as much as I did, but I’m glad that I gave it a chance and I can’t wait to see where the author will take it next. I would absolutely recommend this book!
The Hand of Fire – Roland J O’Leary (Published June 2020) – **** 4/5 Stars
If you’ve read it, or read it in the future, please feel free to shout at me about this fantastic book.