It occurs to me that Literary OR might not be the most appropriate name for this series of reviews. We’re not so much mending stories as we are cutting into them to see the wriggly bits. They aren’t patients so much as cadavers, lovingly given up to the gods of education, to further the science of telling a tale.
A better name might be Literary Med School, or Literary Freshman Biology Class, or Literary Creepy Gary with a Rusted Van Down by the Creek. But I digress.
In any event, we’ve been gifted with another tome, R.A. Salvatore’s Child of a Mad God. So, it’s time to start dicing. Wipe the bloodied letters on your pants leg and flick the stray fragments of punctuation on the floor, let’s cut.
Salvatore needs little introduction. He’s only been a rock star of the fantasy genre for going on three decades. Even those with only a passing familiarity with the genre will recognize his name and, likely, his most famous character, the Dark Elf Drizzt Do'Urden.
With Child of a Mad God, Salvatore returns to the world of Corona, the setting of his seven-book DemonWars Saga, for a new series entitled The Coven. While the book does take place in an established world, the events are only tangentially related, with thin references to characters and locations. Though a familiarity with DemonWars might help to color the environment, it is not necessary.
Our story begins with Talmage, a lone wanderer drifting from village to village, gathering things to trade for what he needs, and avoiding the kingdom of Honce-the-Bear. His family was taken by a plague when he was young, every one of them killed, himself, the only survivor. It makes Talmage reticent and unwilling, or unable, to establish meaningful relationships. He travels the world alone, spending as much time as possible in his favorite villages on the edge of Loch Beag, running from the monsters (both human and otherwise) that haunt its shores, and his ghosts.
Elsewhere in Corona The Fossa, a demon cat made of teeth and stone and hate, with a tail that cuts like a sword, seeks refuge from the magic song bearing down on it from the mountain it calls home. It seeks, every time the moon is red, to kill any person or animal who crosses its path but most especially those singers of magic who heighten the song, and its pain.
Meanwhile, young Aoleyn, an orphan girl of the Usgar, must learn her place among her tribe. Despite the near immeasurable power the Usgar women possess, a result of their close relationship with the crystal they worship as a god, they live lives of subjugation under the cruel hands of the Usgar men.
As the story progresses, Talmage finds a way to open himself up to friends and close relations but he might pay dearly for opening the gates of his heart. Aoleyn matures and greets her destiny upon the peak of Fireache Speur, her mountain home. She finds the capacity inside herself to accomplish wonderful and terrible things, to change the very face of not just her own life, but the lives of her tribe, and the lives of the other tribes of Loch Beag, including the slaves her tribesmen have captured, raped, and destroyed. And the Fossa hunts and hungers and aches and hates and promises to devour the world.
Salvatore paints the world of Corona so vividly, so full of engaging characters, it immediately feels real, immediately becomes a place you want to spend time. And he so deftly splits the time between the tales he’s weaving that every time the point of view changes, there is a simultaneous sense of loss at and excitement. The characters are multidimensional, with goals and pain that are easy to understand and sympathize with. One can grasp entirely why Talmage wants, needs, to be alone. So, there is a sense of victory when finally allows someone in and a sense of dread at what that might mean out on the dangerous wild lands of Corona.
Aoleyn, a child of loss, both parents dead before the age of three, sees the actions of her tribe through unique eyes, literally and figuratively (her eyes are dark, almost black, while her peers are light and full of fire). It’s clear to the reader from the outset that the actions of the Usgar are repugnant. They raid the neighboring villages, wielding the power of crystal tipped daggers imbued with the magic of their faith. They kill without regard, they capture children and a pregnant woman, elated at the treasure in her womb. The perfect slave. But Aoleyn alone among the Usgar sees the wickedness. And she alone has the power to stand against it.
It’s a testament to the world of Corona and the characters Salvatore has invented that, at the end of nearly 500 pages, you’ll want nothing more than to keep going. Some may struggle with the fact that the book lacks what might be considered a traditional story arc. Characters grow, there are gains and losses and huge, monumental shifts in power structures. But there’s no concrete resolution.
It’s clear this is the first in an ongoing series. You’ll find no resolution within the pages of Child of a Mad God, aside from the resolution of a child, now a grown woman, to throw off the shackles of the imprisonment that comes with her privilege, the destroy the system that perpetrates what she sees as cruelty and pain. And the resolution of a man, hollowed out by pain and tormented by the ghosts of his past, finding a way to widen his story, finding a way not just to survive with his pain, but to live.
One character in the book philosophizes that we aren’t characters in a tale being told about us but instead are the authors of our own stories and it is up to us to decide what they will be. There’s something to that, I think and, this time at least, Salvatore has told a good one.
I give it four stitches, from a possible five, scalpels down.
Child of a Mad God, from Tor Books, hits bookshelves February 6, 2018.
Child of a Mad God was generously provided for review by Booked on 25th, a local, independent bookseller. The contents of the book (for good or ill) and this review do not represent Booked on 25th or anyone associated. You can visit them on Historic 25th Street in Ogden, Utah or online at their website for all your novel needs.