Stars: 5 out of 5
I don’t usually like grim dark as a genre, because most books are too grim and too dark for me (and yes, the pun is totally intended). What I mean is that most authors dish out gore and violence for the sake of it instead of integrating it into the plot. So after the gazillionth gruesome murder or ignoble rape, I as a reader become unsensitized to it. Plus, if horrible things (including death) can happen to any of the characters, you get less attached to them, so when bad things happen, you just shrug and move on.
That’s why I was pleasantly surprised by this book. Yes, it’s dark. Yes, it’s violent. But both of those things are integral to the story and the worldbuilding, not just written for shock value. So while I was squeamish in some parts of the book, and didn’t agree with a lot of the decisions the protagonist made, those were never out of character.
Now let’s talk about the two aspects that make or break a book for me: the worldbuilding and the characters.
The worldbuilding here is wonderful! You can feel the weight of history in the description of the cities and villages the protagonist is traveling through. We know that thousands of years ago, there was a vast and powerful empire that was ruled by the Demon Emperor. The empire was prosperous, but that prosperity came at the price of countless sacrificed souls that were fed to the demons who built and operated the cities, maintained the roads and made sure the vast imperial machine functioned properly.
We don’t know what happened, but there was a horrible war that scarred the face of the earth and overthrew that demon empire, leaving empty cities that were still perfectly preserved and maintained by bound demons, but stepping into them meant death for simple mortals, because the wizards, who emerged victorious from this war, had eliminated all demonologists. Nobody was left to talk to demons.
It the world better or worse after the war? That would be for the reader to decide. Sure, no more innocent souls are sacrificed to the demons, but what’s left of humanity now lives in the equivalent of our Dark Ages. Poverty, disease, huge disparity in living conditions between the wizards and nobles and the rest of the populace. And this society is stagnant. The wizards are happy to keep the status quo. There had been no progress, no innovation, no effort to improve the living conditions in a thousand years since the Demon Empire fell. So you bet you this place is violent and dark.
Now let’s consider our protagonist. He is a blank slate at the beginning of the book. He literally emerges from the ground with no memories of who he was. But his willingness to kill and commit violence is there from the start. I would say that he doesn’t even bat an eyelash at his first 2 murders. He has some questions about his third one, the young boy, but it’s more in the vein of Was the old me really someone who could kill so easily, than in the vein of OMG what did I just do? I could have incapacitated and bound him. I didn’t have to kill him.
The more we learn about Khraen’s past, the more we realize that he isn’t much better than the Demon Emperor he used to be, no matter if he keeps telling himself that he will be a better person. He is just as selfish, prone to anger, and ready to commit the worst of atrocities then justify them afterwards. I had to murder that woman because my undead girlfriend needed body part. And since she was already dead anyway, why not collect her soul to feed to a demon later? That sort of things.
And the further in the story we go, the worst Khraen gets. No matter what justifications he invents in his mind for the horrible things he does, he is slowly become the same monster he sees in his shattered memories. Only the Demon Emperor committed his atrocities to serve his god and to preserve and empire, the new Khraen just wants revenge on all the wizards who, in his eyes, betrayed him and took what’s his. Neither justification is valid, in my point of view.
Yet despite the violence and the increasingly unlikable protagonist, this book grabs you and keeps you hooked. I want to know what happened to the old Demon Emperor to make all of his allies turn against him. I want to know who shattered his obsidian heart. I want to know which necromancer has Henka’s heart or if she lied about it. I want to know what happens next, so I will definitely be buying the next book in the series.