SPFBO Review: Sins of a Sovereignty, by Plague Jack

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Rating – 6.5/10
Author’s website
Publication date – June 12, 2014

Summary: From their prisons, the old gods watch, and wait.

Calcifer, the arrogant and obtuse sorcerer turned monster hunter, wants nothing more than to bleed his country of its gold, and return to his lover. When she is assaulted and her mind is left in tatters, Calcifer seeks vengeance by any means necessary.

Sir Clark Pendragon has murdered more men than he cares to remember. Tired and battle scarred, the old knight just wants to live out his last days in peace. When he is needed to stop an assassination, Pendragon is ripped from his retirement and sent north to save his country one final time.

Shrike, keeper of Amernia’s secrets, spends his days combing through letters in search of blackmail. Cunning, and with a mind sharper than a blade, Shrike’s luck is slowly running out, as sinister shadows conspire against him.

War is coming to Amernia, and the Blood Queen stands at the heart of the chaos. A wave of hatred ripples across her country, and she maintains order with fire and fear. The rift between rich and poor, human and nonhuman, divides the kingdom more everyday, as a spectral rider streaks across the sky, heralding the death of kings.

The fates of Calcifer, Pendragon, Shrike, and the Blood Queen are hopelessly intertwined, and new alliances will be forged and broken as war threatens to tear Amernia asunder.

Thoughts: Just because a war has ended doesn’t mean that those who fought on one side or the other have lost their reason to fight. Nor does it mean that everyone fighting on a certain side fully believed or believes in the cause. War is a complicated thing, whether it came before or is coming soon, and Sins of a Sovereignty delves into those complexities on both a personal and political level.

Minerva Roselock, known as the Blood Queen, won the last war, and with that victory came the subjugation of elves, dwarves, faelings, and all manner of sentient non-human life now more commonly and cruelly referred to as subhumans. Second-class citizens at best, non-humans don’t take kindly to this treatment, especially in a land that was once theirs and was taken from them, and fighting on their behalf is a group known as the Wild Hunt, vigilantes and strikers-from-the-shadows and all of them with the goal of beating back human dominance and recovering what was once theirs.

This is a book that should have worked for me. Unfortunately, it didn’t.

I’m not sure if the reason it didn’t work for me was because of timing, and this just not being the kind of book I wanted to read when I was trying to read it, or whether the problems I had would have been there no matter when I read it. It can be hard to tell just what type of subjectivity is occurring at times like this, and sometimes I can’t pin it down better than anyone else could.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot to enjoy about Sins of a Sovereignty. The author clearly put plenty of effort into worldbuilding, and there’s plenty of hints at a fairly robust system of deities, magic, culture, all of the hallmarks of a good and developed fantasy world. Much of the culture seemed derived from standard European-influenced fantasy, along with the descriptions of various non-human races (elves with pointy ears, dwarves who deal with mining and weapons), but there were some layers that added interest, such as the way uncontrolled magic could overload a person and begin their mutation into a hellion, a sentient demonic race.

I think it was the characters, largely, that kept me from getting as into the story as I’d hoped. There was a decent cast of characters, but only a few of them really got much in the way of development. Clark Pendragon, knight and favourite of Queen Roselock, joins the Wild Hunt because… actually, you know, I was never entirely clear what he was doing half the time. Sometimes it seemed like he was playing double agent, sometimes like he’d been banished, sometimes like a large but unmarked time had passed and everyone else assumed he was dead but he didn’t know that… The motives for his actions throughout the entire book were an utter mystery to me. Maybe I missed something early on that made it all make sense, I don’t know. It did take me a while to realize that the copy I have ended up poorly formatted (a result of me having to convert it from .mobi to .epub, I suspect), so abrupt scene changes that I had to put out of my head early on because they made little sense were likely due to that. Chalk this one up as a lesson to new writers, I suppose: poor formatting can kill a reader’s understanding of what’s going on, so always check to make sure it’s formatted properly for multiple devices.

(I want to stress that this wasn’t a problem caused by the author’s inattention to detail. It just resulted in some problems for me that influenced my overall opinion of the book, especially until I figured out what was happening.)

Shrike, the Queen’s banished spymaster turned agent for the Wild Hunt was the character who got the most development, I’d say. And I didn’t find him to be that interesting either. On the surface, I could see a gruff somewhat foul-mouthed dwarf with a grudge against Roselock, and ample motivation to end her reign. And it would be easy to say that underneath he’s more than that, because of course he is, but I felt like I had too little context to understand what lay underneath, where it came from and how it related to the rest of what I see of him. Calcifer, an elf with an uncommon and painful past, an elf gifted by a god and given the power to contain hellions in a magical tankard, was fascinating and I felt like I understood him best of all, but more attention seemed given to Shrike and Pendragon than to Calcifer.

Different things can make or break a novel in different ways for different people. That this book didn’t sit well with me shouldn’t be taken to mean that it’s a bad book, or that it’s poor quality. On the contrary; Plague Jack’s writing is the best I’ve read so far in the SPFBO challenge, and the story told between two warring sides, neither of whom are wholly good or bad or without their moral ambiguities (grey–and-grey morality is the order of the day in Sins of a Sovereignty), and that aspect of it is fascinating. But a story is carried by its characters, and when I have a hard time sussing them out, it’s similarly difficult to let the story, no matter how good, pull me in and draw me along. The writing is good, the story is fairly well nuanced, and I’m always a fan of books where the lines between good and bad are blurred, which is exactly what this novel is all about. It just wasn’t a book that resonated well with me, so I can’t say that I really enjoyed reading it.

But taking into account the fact that my opinions may well be coloured by irreproducable circumstances, if you enjoy dark fantasy and want something that dips into the shadier sides or morality, then Sins of a Sovereignty might well scratch that itch for you.

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