Summary: Khale the Wanderer: dark warrior of legend, a reaver with a demon’s soul.
King Alosse: ruler of Colm, willing to risk everything to save his city and its people.
Princess Milanda: an innocent, kept pure since birth, unknowing of her fate.
Neprokhodymh: the cursed city of sorcerers where Khale must make a choice that will scar him for life, or fall into darkness forever.
Thoughts: Under a Colder Sun is one that I thought I might not really enjoy in the beginning. It starts off with people seeking out a fierce warrior with a reputation for darkness and violence, on behalf of their king Alosse , because the kingdom is in trouble and Alosse thinks that Khale can turn the tide of war. It started out dark, and while I have no problem with dark fantasy, it seemed in the first few chapters to be a book likely to go grimdark for grimdark’s sake. A wartorn country, soldiers entering a bandit camp seeking a man with a lousy reputation who might be the kingdom’s last desperate mixed-blessing hope. The tone set by the first few chapters didn’t make me feel downtrodden, it just made me feel like I didn’t really want to read another crapsack world.
But I pushed through, and pretty much once the first couple of awkward chapters are out of the way, the story picks up very quickly, and the true quality of the book begins to show.
Alosse tells Khale to kidnap his daughter Milanda and take her to Neprokhodymh, as a sort of sacrificial offering for the power to save his kingdom. Khale and Alosse have a history together, one that was kept secret, and as a last request from one friend to another, Alosse tells Khale to kill him. Naturally the dead king’s loyal soldier, Leste, takes exception to this and vows to take revenge on Khale for the murder. Milanda isn’t exactly happy about being kidnapped or the death of her father and she’s stuck in the awkward position of despising Khale for his actions while needing him for safety in a dying world she’s never really set foot in before.
The world that James sets up is a fascinating one. The gods that people worship are gods of death and decay, each of them having their spheres of influence as gods do, and the world around them is corrupt and rotting, full of darkness that grows. You don’t get to see the full effect of all of this, because the story is relatively short, but in a way I found that to be satisfying in its realism. To explain more than had been explained would have required some info-dumps that likely would have been quite out of place, but the world still feels complete enough to have more stories told in it. Things aren’t always what you expect, good people can do bad things, and vice versa, and there’s enough of all of this to keep you reading, wondering what the next reveal will be.
The book’s shortness is its downfall, though aside from what seems like a really interest corrupt world, much of the rest of a story’s scaffolding goes underdeveloped. The characters felt to me as though they had little motivation to do half the things they did, beyond the story needing them to. They didn’t feel very fleshed out, though the seeds of some amazing characters were definitely there. Khale was the most developed of them all, which makes sense given that it’s really his story, but there were enough other characters around that had such potential that I wish they’d been given the same treatment.
That and the ending, I suppose, which has a huge reveal thrown at the reader with pretty much no lead-up or explanation. I don’t want to go into too much detail for fear of spoiling a lot of the story for interested readers, but it felt both over-the-top and anticlimactic at the same time, giving the impression that it was a rushed ending and detail was left out that possibly the author didn’t realize. I understand that can be a tricky thing to manage in writing, since what makes perfect sense to the one telling the story who is aware of all the details might not come across very well to a reader who doesn’t really have access to the author’s brain. It may just be me, I may have missed something along the way that made the ending make more sense, but from a personal standpoint, it just came out of left field and was a bit of a wtf-moment.
But really, for such a short book, and after a lackluster beginning, I ended up pleasantly surprised. If dark fantasy is your thing, then you’ll probably enjoy your time spent with Under a Colder Sun, which contains the main novella plus two short stories. Khale is a man with a dark and legendary past who is interesting to read about, the writing is pretty good (and contains a Skyrim reference that made me chuckle aloud), and overall it was a pretty decent short book.