Today I am delighted to be reviewing ‘An Altar on the Village Green’ by Nathan Hall, which was released on Monday. I do not have the words for how much I enjoyed every moment of this book, and I am so glad that it is the first book in the Chained God series because I need more.
“If one suffers, I suffer. If one is chained, I am chained.”
My faith called me to become a Lance. My compassion drew me into one of the fallen lands. Through my connection with the Chained God, I alone can find and destroy the Horror that stains the land.
Death can no longer chain me.
But I couldn’t have imagined the madness waiting for me in this village. I’m not sure my faith can withstand the secrets I’ll uncover. Or that my compassion can survive the violence to come. This Horror may swallow me whole.
Death can no longer free me.
A creature stalks in the dark. Buildings burn. People die. An altar has been built on the village green.
I LOVED THIS BOOK.
This was one of those books that I hit pre-order on as soon as I’d heard about it. I’m only peripherally aware of Dark Souls which is a large inspiration for this book (although now I’ve finished the book, I’m tempted to find a playthrough), but between the blurb, seeing the author talk about it and share snippets, and that wonderful cover art, I wanted this book. I also had the joy of realising it came out sooner than I was expecting, and I was counting down the days, and oh boy I was not disappointed.
This was a hard review to write for several reasons. One of those is that Hall takes a unique approach to so many aspects of his storytelling, that An Altar on the Village Green cannot and should not be pigeon-holed – this is also one of the things I loved most about this book because it felt so different. There are familiar aspects of fantasy and horror, signposts to keep you on the path, but this is not a direct march to the city gates but rather the scenic route on unfamiliar and dangerous paths, where the slightest stumble could be the death of you… or leave you adrift because it should be noted that this is a book that demands your attention. Needs it as much as our main character needs the God’s Ichor because there are so many details, and threads, that if you lose focus for even a minute you will miss something vital.
Another reason and one of the main reasons that An Altar on the Village Green is challenging to review is that it is hard to truly get to the heart of everything that this book is, especially without spoilers. And I would not want to spoil this book for anyone, because this book was an EXPERIENCE and one that I could never do justice to with a review. You need to read An Altar on the Village Green to truly be able to appreciate what Hall has created within these pages, to lose yourself in the Horror alongside the characters, to hold your breath when the darkness and tension are drawn to a knifepoint, to question…well everything that makes us human. As much as this book demands your attention on what is happening in the pages, it also makes you think, makes you question…
…and makes you realise that sometimes there are no easy answers. No good choices.
There was so much to love about this book. I have to start with the writing though. An Altar on the Village Green practically oozes with atmosphere, the darkness, the danger, the possibility of everything crumbling away is there in every moment – a shadow in the background even in the moments where hope and human connection of are a flickering candle flame trying to keep it at bay. It lurks. A constant awareness, that has you on the edge of your seat and holding your breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop. The writing is exquisite, from the vivid descriptions that left it feeling as though you were there with the Lance, feeling the flames against your skin, the burn of injuries, as though your mind was on the edge of falling apart, to the sheer emotion in the quieter moments, in the memories. Against the menacing atmosphere, and the horror of the world, this was an incredibly poignant, human story and Hall allows us to feel it all.
The pacing was somewhat unique with this book, and it is one of those choices that is perfect for this book and in Hall’s hands but would not work in so many cases. This was a story, that was rooted in experience, rather than time or place and that meant pacing was almost fluid – because it wasn’t about the passing of time, or getting from one place to another as you might expect in a ‘typical’ fantasy. It was about finding answers, about failing and failing again to learn more, about the Horror and about the Lance (and yourself). There is no clear goal – in fact, our Lance does not know what they have to do until right near the very end, and there was often the feeling of one step forward and two step forwards, and that might frustrate some readers. However, Hall knows exactly what he is doing, and so much of what is gained and learned, is in the details, and beneath the surface, in the questions asked and the emotional fallout, and it’s like the slow, steady erosion of rock beneath waves and it’s just beautiful to experience.
That isn’t to say that there isn’t a lot of action, because there is. So much of the conflict within this book is emotional, mental and moral, but the very real, physical danger is just as present. There are very few moments where something isn’t happening, from fighting – and the variety of the fights, and the fluidness of events through the Lance’s choices meant that it was always different and that you could never trust that you knew what was coming next. There were the choices, which were a different but often more potent form of conflict, even if it was largely internal, because Hall’s world is dark, and the choices were never easy, never kind – and they were the kind of choices that force you to question everything about yourself. And there was the dying…and all of it was just so exquisitely crafted.
This was also true of the world-building. While we are given a sense of the scale of the world, and the threat the Horrors pose to it in the first few chapters, however, it is through the visions that the Lance receives after dying that truly let us delve into the true depths of what the Horrors can be, as well as see more of this world that Hall has created. The variety of those locations and Horrors was breathtaking, and I was in awe of Halls imagination and ability to bring them to life in relatively short flashes – and some of those visions are truly chill-inducing, and it didn’t matter if you were still reeling from what had happened to our main POV, you were instantly caught in each individual Horror. The idea of the Horrors themselves was fascinating, and I liked that we don’t know everything about them, it adds to how terrifying they are, these scenarios that trap everything and everyone in a singular place or time, to be repeated over and over until the solution can be found. Here again, is where those details and the need to focus are so important because it’s not the time and the place that are important, it’s the tragedy within the horror, it’s the choices to be made – both wrong and right, moral.. and so grey, that it sometimes feels like it should be shades of black – that truly brings all the aspects of this book together.
Another aspect I like is that our Lance is never given a name or even a gender, and yet they are our POV for the most part. It’s their heartbeat that drums in our ears, their terror and pain that sets worms churning in the pit of our stomach. We don’t know what to call them beyond their calling and rank as a Lance, and yet we as the reader are so deeply in their thoughts and emotions, that it feels that we know them inside and out, and I’m not sure I’ve ever been so deeply struck by a character before which is a testament to Hall’s skill.
An Altar on the Village Green was an absolutely fantastic read, even when I put it down to work on other things it was there in the back of my mind, begging me to pick it up again to find out what happened next. It was as though I had been as sucked into the world of the Horror as surely as the Lance was, and I have to say I had very little resistance to picking this book back up to finish devouring it. I loved every dark, skin-crawling, thought-provoking moment of this book, and I cannot recommend An Altar on the Village Green highly enough.
If you’ve read it, or read it in the future, please feel free to shout at me about this fantastic book.