Darksoul: darkest before the dawn

Book cover: Darksoul - Anna Stephens (a howling wolf silhouetted against the moon on a field of blue)The King is dying. Loyal General Durdil Koridam is determined to hold Rilporin in defiance of the enemy, but the capital is besieged and his relief has their own problems. With the Red Gods close at hand, it will be a miracle if any mere mortal can survive…

And that’s as close to a spoiler-free summary as I can get, honestly. Darksoul is the sequel to Godblind, and this is not a trilogy to jump into the middle of: this review will be chock full of spoilers for book one.

Bleak, bloody, and violent, the Godblind trilogy sits in a niche I rarely explore and am never comfortable with, but Anna Stephens delivered enough twists on the tropes in Godblind that I found myself willing to come back to more. She’s not shy about letting you know what you’re letting yourself in for: Darksoul starts with a graphic description of a suppurating wound, then proceeds to detail a hopeless siege where death in battle is a blessing.

Given my often-repeated distaste for grimdark and for military fiction, this is a long way out of my comfort zone. Our cast is dominated by the self-interested, the cowardly and the ambitious. The societies portrayed – for we see precious little of my beloved Wolves here – are predominantly misogynistic and homophobic. Oh, and one of them is given to ritual torture and mass slaughter.

On the bright side, Anna Stephens doesn’t make everyone a terrible person. Some of our heroes may be irretrievably compromised (and honestly, I’m still not sure how I feel about Dom. Let’s not talk about Dom), but others are beacons of heroism. Whilst this is an ultraviolent and frequently unpleasant read, it creates space for its heroes to shine. It builds up secondary characters with vignettes of loyalty and humanity before slashing them to tiny pieces. It prizes self-sacrifice. It’s unshamedly a war novel, in which a brave, betrayed few stand against a ravening horde. Darksoul is more than happy to engage with high tragedy: it’s clear who our heroes are, but impossible to see how any of them will survive.

Expect plenty of named character deaths, is what I’m saying.

The interesting thing for me is how deftly Stephens portrays the enemy Mireces. They are indisputably the Bad Guys – they have neither sympathy nor empathy, and are completely committed to torturing and killing as many as it takes to reclaim the land for their gods.

And yet Stephens manages to make them human, even at the peak of their inhumanity. I almost admire Lanta. I am angry on her account for the way in which Corvus undermines her (although yes, he’s probably right). I can’t help but be impressed by how quickly she rolls with the metaphorical punches. She’s politically astute, cold-bloodedly controlling, and she responds to a horrific change in fortunes without missing a beat. Say one thing for Lanta: say she’s the genuine article. Sure, she may be ambitious too – but she’s no fraud. She believes. As does Corvus himself, who is an epic warrior and an astute general. And I… respect them for that, in spite of myself.

Prince Rivil and Galtas, on the other hand, continue to be pantomime villains, although I reflected that my faith in the sons of influential men has been shaken to the point (in reality, forget fiction) that I don’t actually disbelieve in them or think them overblown caricatures. I just despise them.

A narrative focused on a relatively short space of time allows little room for character development, but plenty of room for shading in details. Mace and Gilda benefit most in this regard – and provide an excellent mirror to Lanta and Corvus outside the wall. The warriors are smart and given to leading from the front; the priestesses are locked in a more personal combat.

Gilda’s empathy and insight allow her to see things Lanta would prefer hidden; I was fascinated by the undercurrent of respect untarnished by any softening of their mutual hatred. It’s a brilliant dynamic and one I’d like to see more of, making the point that understanding – even sympathy – doesn’t have to go hand in hand with forgiveness or excusing a person’s choices.

I also loved Gilda’s chosen forms of resistance – especially the scenes in which she extends grace to mortally injured East Rankers. She is a badass of compassion – an older woman who may not wield conventional weapons on the battlefield, but whose forgiveness is as sharp as knives and who never stops fighting for her cause.

Yes, folks, I got me a new favourite character.

This balanced my dismay with Rillirin’s role in Darksoul. If I felt she was underserved in Godblind but at least given a great arc, Darksoul left her high and dry. I have Thoughts, but a) spoilers and b) having heard Anna Stephens hold forth on related tropes at Worldcon I have some small hope that the third book (Bloodchild, out in September) will confound expectations, making this apparent set-up an elaborate fake-out.

But this is a first trilogy, so I don’t know Stephens well enough to trust where she’s going. This was driven home at a key plot development at the 40% mark that almost had me DNF in disgust. SPOILER (mouse over to read) But friends, Anna S does not bury her gays (yet). Having got past that wrinkle, I can hope.

Because if there’s one thing this series has consistently done, it’s surprise me. This is dark and blood-soaked fantasy, but however hopeless the situations it sets up, it refuses to give up on hope (or perhaps it’s all stubbornness; but that works for me too). And for all the treachery and hideous slaughter, there’s a through-line of compassion – from Gilda’s forgiveness to Crys’s unexpected, conflicted actions in the final act – and an alluring promise of redemption.

Anna Stephens remains hard to read, but one to watch. I for one have no idea what to expect from the final book next month.


I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest (if rather belated) review. (Sorry) The final instalment, Bloodchild, is released in the UK on September 5th.