Savage Messiah (The Destinies Of Blood And Stone volume 1) by Robert Newcomb (book review).

Savage Messiah’ is the fourth book by Robert Newcomb with the previous three forming ‘The Chronicles Of Blood And Stone’. ‘Savage Messiah’ also forms the first part of his new series, ‘The Destinies Of Blood And Stone’ back in 2005. This newer volume carries on from the previous series after what seems like only a short break. After a short prologue in which a lethal assassin is hired by characters who we will find out to be the villains, the book starts with a friendly lecture by the wizard Wigg for various wizardly acolytes, with our hero, Prince Tristan, watching on in idle fashion. Hmmm, Prince Tristan…that seems to ring a bell, maybe something by Neil Gaiman?

In short order, another character, being the almighty powerful wizard Faegan, bursts onto the scene holding a badly burnt boy and announces the terrible disaster just outside the palace. Tristan, Wigg and his companions are instantly thrown into the action and this only takes six pages from the start of the book! Indeed, the average length of a chapter in this volume is about six pages and to say that the story moves along at breakneck pace would be an understatement.

Starting at this volume presents the reader with something of an issue. It becomes quite obvious that `What Has Gone Before’TM is a significant amount of plot including various odd magical time issues (Prince Tristan had to kill his evil but adult son in a previous volume, despite Tristan still being relatively young) with lots of sorceresses and, in particular, Tristan’s evil half-brother Wulfgar who is now assumed perished at the end of volume three. If any book could do with a synopsis of the previous volumes, this is it. Alas, there is no such help.

Instead, we get a fleeting introduction to characters who are presumably detailed in previous books. As well as Tristan, Wigg and Faegan, we have Princess Shailiha (Tristan’s twin sister), Wigg’s daughter Celeste who is Tristan’s beloved, Abby who is Wigg’s longtime love, Tyranny the former pilot turned admiral, Adrian who is a young acolyte, the warrior Traax and the dwarf Geldon. I might as well have used quotation marks there, as this about all the description we get of them and then it is diving straight into the plot.

Anyway, the book carries on at this speed and as such Newcomb can cram a pretty decent amount of plot into the book’s 570 pages. This is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it took me quite a while to really feel like I was engaging with the text. The description is so scant and the text lurches from scene to scene and from revelation to revelation so quickly, it is hard to find your feet. But when you do start to make head or tails of it, then it becomes quite gripping. Indeed, after about 250 pages, I realised I was starting to properly enjoy it and the book became a real pager-tuner.

Before long, the characters get split up into groups each with their own quests. This is helpful as each character starts to get six-page chapters entirely focussed on them. Through their actions and dialogue, we start to learn a bit more about them. Particularly the wizards, Shailiha, Celeste and Tyranny start to become more three-dimensional. Indeed, Celeste gets one of the best arcs in the book and gives Tristan most of his pathos.

Magic is never far from the narrative. Most of the plot revolves around wizards, with half the main characters being able to do magic. Indeed, Tristan himself has done magic without training and it has inflicted upon him a curios blood condition which prevents him from being trained to use magic further. The non-magic using characters are at a distinct disadvantage, although some show a good degree of initiative to make this up. If you don’t like a lot of magic in your fantasy worlds then this series may not be for you, but if you want little else then look no further!

One thing Newcomb does seem to get right is that he is not averse to killing off seemingly important characters. This increases the threat and makes the heroes seem vulnerable. Unfortunately, the characters killed, who might have been important in previous volumes, get almost no investment in this volume and so their loss didn’t really feel like it was significant to this reader. Ho hum.

During the twists and turns of the plot, the antagonist Wulfgar, who naturally survived the previous volume but is horribly scarred and vindictively vengeful, seems to go from strength to strength building up a seemingly insurmountable advantage in undead minions, flying ships and monstrous beasts. Meanwhile, Tristan seems stymied at every turn and hardly seems to make progress towards his goals. This didn’t bother me particularly as this is clearly the first book of a series and you have to establish a credible threat, the likes of which it is not essential to overcome in the first book. Otherwise, what do you have left for late volumes? However, I really doubted the hero’s ability to survive, never mind prevail. In the end, the volume’s pace picks up even further and the end feels like quite an unexpected, yet satisfying, twist. There are certainly worse ways to end your novel.

In conclusion, I am not actually sure I can recommend this book wholeheartedly. Certainly fans of Newcomb’s work will, I’m sure, find more to their liking here and, eventually, I did find the reckless speed to be quite refreshing and enjoyable but this tends to sacrifice atmosphere and verisimilitude. For example, there is a nice map at the start of the volume, but most places are not used and those that are tend to be barely described. If this sounds like a difficulty for you, then I cannot recommend this. If it sounds like something you might like then it is probably best to start with ‘The Fifth Sorceress’, which is the first book of the first series. Don’t start here if you want something comprehensible.

Dave Corby

July 2023

(pub: Del Rey/Ballantine, 2005. 574 page hardback. Price: $26.95 (US), $37.95 (CAN). ISBN: 0-345-47707-3)

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