Book cover: Godblind - Anna StephensThe Red Gods were defeated, their followers banished to the mountains to eke out a violent subsistence in the rocky heights. But their time is coming. The Blessed One of the Mireces is determined to open the door for the return of the Dark Lady and the Blood God. Is the kingdom of Rilpor ready to be tested?

I don’t read much grimdark these days. There was a time when I appreciated its determination to show the gritty, blood-soaked horror that was implied but often masked in mainstream fantasy – the true cost of all those epic battles, the dirtier side of a medieval life. Its open-eyed cynicism made for a very different reading experience.

But it didn’t take long for me to tire of its relentless conviction that ‘truth’ meant greed, rape, racism and homophobia (don’t get me started on R Scott Bakker). It’s a very narrow lens, and one I found delivering decreasing returns.

So I approached Godblind with a bundle of trepidation and a great deal of reluctance. And the opening pages did little to persuade me that I’d been avoiding grimdark for the wrong reasons: it starts with the Blessed One sacrificing a queen to the Gods in a move as political as it is religious. It’s an in-story fridging – explicitly intended to punish and motivate, committed by a woman with rare power in a warrior society because she’s Not Like Other Girls. The king’s immediate response is to drag a slave back to his quarters to assuage his wrath (grief? what grief?) with a rapey evening in.

Honestly, I nearly stopped right there. How many grimdark stereotypes could you cram into one chapter?

But Godblind isn’t quite what I expected. Sure, it’s grimdark – very very very grim; expect lashings of bodily fluids, ultraviolence and explicit torture – but it’s written by an author who knows the conventions and who sets about subverting them. While rape is an implicit element of the world-building, we only see it being punished. The king doesn’t survive the opening chapters; his slave Rillirin murders him rather than be raped. When a Mireces raider pauses to attempt a spot of mid-battle rape later on, he too dies badly.

In a horrific scene at the pivot of the narrative, Stephens goes one further, flipping the target of sexualised (not sexual) assault as the Blessed One tortures a man to death to further her Goddess’s aims. The infamous hammer sacrifice seems designed specifically to make male readers as uncomfortable as a woman trudging through the umpteenth explicit rape scene.

On the other hand, the way in which Anna Stephens sets about defying conventions does see them fully observed first. And it’s convincing enough that Godblind is unlikely to be upheld (or shunned) as feminist fiction, although I could make the case for it (but not today; I’m keeping my powder dry to see how things evolve in Darksoul). Both Mireces and Rilporin societies are awash with misogyny (as is more than one POV; aside from the limited roles available to them, women are routinely whores or cunts, which set my teeth on edge). Homophobia also intermittently rears its ugly head (illegal in Rilpor, with the kindest adjective applied being ‘crooked’) – but in the final act, characters confront their prejudices and accept their feelings, delivering a m/m romance which is both more compelling and better constructed than the predictable Dom/Rillirin hook-up.

The tide turns once we meet the Wolves – a tribe of fiercely independent, egalitarian frontier folk – a society I could actually root for. The Wolves have no clear gender roles; their women are fierce warriors (and a delight: Dalli <3) and everyone contributes equally. They’ve got no hang-ups about who you sleep with, and they make the West Rank look like a well-armed bunch of amateurs in terms of sheer ferocity on the battlefield. The buffer between Mireces the Rilpor, it’s obvious they’re going to get caught in the meat grinder as war sweeps down out of the mountains, and it was their fate that sucked me into the narrative.

The final act is hardcore military fantasy as the Mireces invade: while I enjoyed some of the cat and mouse, I inevitably grew weary of the protracted battles (I’ve read the Aeneid and the Iliad, okay? I am done with X hit Y with his Big Sword, and telling me that his stinking guts splattered across his feet does nothing to increase my interest) so I skimmed in places, although the claustrophobic tunnel sequence is excellent and nerve-shredding (ARGH).

I recommend Godblind to those with a strong stomach, who can clench their teeth through the social tropes as they wait for the pay-off. It feels like a grimdark fantasy that will please traditional fans of the genre and which can tempt back those who don’t mind a blood-soaked, hope-crushing epic.

After a rocky start, I found plenty to like although it’s hardly a relaxing or pleasant read. I was intrigued by the different aspects of Crys’s personality and how his character evolved; I found Rillirin’s transformation satisfying, if under-written (I could have done with one or two additional scenes showing her shed her past / reforging herself); and I was predictably fond of Major Tara (only woman in the Rilporin military), her commander Mace and his father Durdil – honourable men of a sort we see too little of. I also adored the physician Hallos; I’m probably still more curious about his experiments that we hear about in random asides than in much of the major plot (sorry not sorry; give me more fantasy scientists).

…I’m even intrigued by the Dark Lady herself, because I’ve had a lifelong love of evil goddesses.

I didn’t expect to say this when I started out, but I’ll be back for Darksoul when it comes out later this year to see how the conflict evolves.

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