Friday, 1 September 2017

Heart of Mist

In a realm where toxic mist sweeps the lands and magic is forbidden, all Bleak wants is a cure for her power.

Still grieving the death of her guardian and dangerously self-medicating with alcohol, Bleak is snatched from her home by the Commander of the King’s Army, and summoned to the capital.

But the king isn’t the only one interested in Bleak’s powers.

The leader of an infamous society of warriors, the Valia Kindred, lays claim to her as well, and Bleak finds herself in the middle of a much bigger battle than she anticipated.

Heart of Mist is the gripping first book in The Oremere Chronicles, a fantasy series of epic proportions.

Disclaimer; I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I love YA fantasy tropes, but just like too much of a good thing can make you sick, too many can bore the hell out of me when I'm reading a book (like Frostblood, for example). At first glance, I was a bit worried that Heart of Mist was going to go the same way; orphan girl with reluctant special powers that are a threat to the evil monarch. The salt of the earth, childhood friend love interest and the swoon worthy opposite. True, Heart of Mist isn't free of cliches, but it subverts them as often as it plays on them.

Heart of Mist takes no prisoners. The plot kicks off pretty much from the very first page, telling you what you need to know and not a whole lot more. It grabs you from the very first page and pretty much doesn't let you go to catch your breath until a good few chapters in. As someone who's not a fan of pages atop pages that set up an elaborate backstory and complex word at the expense of pacing, this scores big points with me! Rarely does a book, much less the first one in a series, have the nerve to branch into so many povs so early on. It's breath-takingly exciting; fast-paced and never boring.

Yes, there's lots of information to take in when it's delivered - names and places and gods are thrown at you thick and fast - but because it's done as the story progresses and not dumped in the intro, the story flows so well. It's a rich, vibrant world I didn't want to leave, populated by characters that stayed with me long after I'd closed the pages.

Speaking of characters, can I talk about how much I loved Bleak? In less capable hands, she could have been a mess of the most irritating YA protagonist cliches; arrogance mistaken for confidence, appalling social skills mistaken for sass, and a tendency to commit physical assault mistaken for badassery. However Helen Scheuerer manages to create a sympathetic, flawed character. Bleak is an ashai - someone who possesses magic, in this case a Mind Whisperer. Alone in a land where this power could lead to her execution via marching at sword-point into a deadly mist that's encroaching at the edges of the land, she turns to alcohol to silence the voices in her head. She's far from perfect, and there were a good few times I wanted to reach into the pages and give her a good slap, but she felt real. Every action was believable, and every decision she made - while not always sensible - made sense for the character. The author doesn't gloss over her addiction to alcohol either, nor just make it a token character attribute that gets mentioned once in a while. There's no glamour or attempting to sugar-coat Bleak's debilitating condition, and it's refreshing to see a YA author who's not afraid to present the harsh and unpretty reality of Bleak being the town drunk.

I have to say though, I wasn't a fan of the constant threats of sexual violence against Bleak early on. Sure, it becomes a plot point when the rebel matriarchy - the Valia Kindred - lay their claim to Bleak, but, after reading about the village sleaze having to be pulled off Bleak on multiple occasions (complete with an attempted rape as his final in-book act), I then had to read pretty much the exact same behaviour from a member of the King's Guard sent to retrieve her. With another attempted rape in as many chapters. I understand that rape is often a threat for female characters in fantasy worlds, but so much misogyny and two rape attempts with the first few chapters didn't sit well with me.

The supporting characters were some of the best I've read in a long time! I utterly loved the girl power (once the male characters had been sent packing) and sexual diversity! The twist of the mysterious rebel Henri being female was great, and very welcomed after the earlier male oppression of the protagonist. King's commander Swinton, his deputy Fiorre and Henri's second-in-command/occasional lover Athene were stand outs for me. I didn't like the weak love interest subplot with Bleak and her friend Bren though. It didn't pack any heat and felt repetitive. He thinks he wants her, she reads his thoughts, she thinks he's better off without her and storms off. This happens at least three times. I had no idea why he kept stumbling after her (seriously, he gets himself captured twice. By two different groups. This boy has no sense of self preservation!). Maybe there's a prequel in there somewhere, but it just felt undercooked here. Thankfully, Bleak's frienships with the Valia Kindred, especially fellow warrior-in-training Luka, fared much better. The "upstairs downstairs" hierarchy of the Kindred and their brutal, take-no-prisoners attitude was suitably harsh for a forest-based rebellion who needed brute strength and skill to survive, and it made the quietly sweet relationships between the women all the more special.

Minor quibbles with the odd character and plot point aside though, Heart of Mist is a truly brilliant book. Helen Scheuerer's writing style is absolutely wonderful, creating a rich world steeped in history and populated by a fantastic cast of characters. She walks the fine line between showing and telling perfectly, letting the reader know enough to keep them hooked but leaving plenty of secrets in a vast world that begs to be explored. At first, I thought the ending was going to be a let-down - the strange-eyed street orphan is actually a super-powerful inhabitant of a long-forgotten land with ties to a king who wants her dead, confronted by the true name she was trying to flee - skirted dangerously close to a lot of other fantasy YA novels. I was so sure I'd read this twist before that I wrote this whole review calling Bleak the long lost princess, before I checked back a saw there was actually no mention of this. I'd just assumed, because I've read this twist so often before. But, like so many of the YA fantasy tropes that the author presents in the book, it's taken beyond what many readers are used to seeing. The actual ending is fantastic! Without giving too much away, the stage is set perfectly for the next book. There's so much left to explore, so many questions that need answering. This is truly a world to get lost in.

I had a few nitpicks with some elements of the story, but they're minor issues in an otherwise incredible book. Heart of Mist is a brave, unflinching story, with some of the most beautiful and ambitious storytelling I've ever seen from the first novel in a series. It's intense and intriguing, brought to life in a vibrant world by wonderful characters. Seriously, I need book two in my life, right now!

Heart of Mist is available now from Amazon UK for just £0.99, and Amazon US for the equivalent in dollars. You can also check out my Q&A with author Helen Scheuerer here.

1 comment:

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