The Mireces have conquered Rilpor, but their victory cost them an unbearable loss. As the defeated Rilporians scramble for allies to push back the invaders, the Blessed One must appease her God and find a way to raise the dead…
If you’d told me two years ago that by the end of the Godblind trilogy I would be sobbing on an aeroplane thanks to ALL THE FEELINGS, I would likely have given you A Look and gone back to my cup of tea. Even at the end of the remarkably unpleasant yet undeniably fascinating Godblind, I would have laughed at you.
More fool me.
Over the course of three gruelling volumes, Anna Stephens has hammered out a place for herself in the league of dark fantasy authors and reminded me not to take anything for granted. From a first volume that embraced its grimdark tropes only to subvert them, this trilogy has built up a remarkable cast of female and gay protagonists; explored the space between redemption and forgiveness; and made the case that its all ultimately about who – and how – we choose to love and the choices that helps us make.
Not so grimdark after all?
Well, except for being unflinching in depictions of horror that left me reeling…
But Bloodchild begins by taking a step back from the remorseless slaughter of Darksoul to regroup. It’s a much-needed pause for breath – for the reader as much as for the beleaguered cast – and an opportunity to indulge in some world re-building.
One of Mace Koridam’s first acts on arriving at the (temporarily) safe haven of the South Rank – after they challenge him to abandon his reservations about arming civilians – is to force them to swallow their sexism and get over their hang-ups about women with weapons. Even more reassuringly (I had Concerns about her being reduced to the Bearer of the Chosen One), Rillirin signs the fuck up because she’s not about to let a little case of pregnancy stop her stabbing a few more Mireces.
Convinced he must die to save the world (gee thanks Dom), Crys abandons all attempts to keep his relationship with Ash out of the public eye and nobody bats an eye. Sure, it’s easy to argue that even the most homophobic Ranker might think twice about baiting the only god on their side, but every army has its share of fuckwits. But not this time.
Slowly but surely – thanks to good examples being set – attitudes are a-changing. We’ve come a very long way from the narrow-minded Rilporian society that had me tearing my hair out in Godblind.
There’s some world expansion along with the re-architecture, as Crys and Ash travel to Krike to win Mace the allies he sorely needs. Krike has its own problems they must solve first: the new Seer-Mother has dismantled their traditional religious practices and centred herself as the only one who can intervene with the gods. Needless to say, she’s not too happy when a foreigner shows up claiming to be the Fox God incarnate.
Back in Rilpor, enslaved Tara delivers our first proper look at life under Mireces rule: harsh, cruel, but occasionally surprising. By assigning her to Corvus’s Second, Valan, Anna Stephens (initially) pulls the punch. Being Valan’s slave gives Tara a level of protection and a measure of freedom to pursue assassination and a slave uprising. But she knows she’s walking a knife edge – and the horror inflicted on the captured Rankers underlines how unusual her situation is.
With her pieces in play, Anna Stephens builds the tension back up agonisingly slowly before diving back into full-frontal, no-holds-barred conflict. The protracted final act was largely very satisfying: unafraid to take heads, conscious of consequences, relentless in its retribution. And. So. Damn. Many. Feelings.
This is due largely to Stephens success in building up her large cast and in fleshing them out. Every book has added intriguing new characters whilst shading in depth to survivors from previous volumes, giving all of them compelling motivations and challenges to overcome.
Valan, for example, is a fascinating study in contrasts: devoted to his absent wife, a caring father, a considerate man – and admiring of Tara, who he is convinced will make someone else an excellent consort when – not if – she converts (tut, Valan. A woman can aspire to more, and this one can stab you). He is a brilliant villain – confounding stereotypes whilst being undeniably Mireces to the core. In a culture largely represented by unapologetic monsters, it was a delight to meet a nuanced Mireces, teasing the question of whether one could ever stray from the Path back to the Light.
I also delighted in the barbed exchanges between Corvus and Lanta. In seeing their squabbles from both perspectives, we understand where frustrations are being vented and where boundaries pushed. Their vicious bickering is their only safe space, neither quite willing to openly cross the final line to bring the other down before the Mireces victory is complete. When Rillirin enters the fray as a proxy for Corvus, I loved that she was neither pawn nor helpless mother-to-be. Her fierce disdain and determination in extremis reconciled me to her storyline (see also: stabbing. Stab away, darling). Even Dom earned an ounce of empathy from me in his epic confrontation with Gilda, whose tough love is as ruthless as ever.
I have a few quibbles (because of course I do). Villains or no, there are some fates I wouldn’t wish on anyone (and honestly, I have All The Unanswered Questions about the Afterlife). I remain uncomfortable with the death of wives as a motivator for bereft husbands. I was even less comfortable with the increased prominence of sexual assault in this final volume.
But on the whole, Bloodchild delivers a strong end to a remarkable trilogy. For all its grimdark trappings, this is a tale as interested in compassion and redemption as it is in gut-spilling warfare. Never an easy read (for me, at least), it has turned out to be an enormously emotionally rewarding one.
Hats off to Anna Stephens – she’ll make me consider reading more grimdark in future. At least if it’s written by her.
I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
MAJOR SPOILER (does Anna Stephens bury her gays?) I don’t usually do this, but this was a MASSIVE point of trepidation for me. That Scene With Ash in Darksoul almost saw me hurl my Kindle across the room in a fit of How Very Dare You, I Trusted You, so I want to address the Big Question there for those like me for whom it matters and then some.
No, she doesn’t. But oh my poor, battered heart, she convinced me she had. Stick with it, and cry anyway. Twice. It’s okay.