The Black Coast

Book cover: The Black Coast - Mike Brooks (Orbit UK cover)The God-King of Narida has no heir. His sister can assassinate his rivals, but she is powerless to silence prophecies of a reborn God. Across the ocean, a deathless warrior is uniting the fierce Tjakorshi clans. The Brown Eagle clan has fled to Narida to make peace with townsfolk they have raided for generations – but how long can peace last?

The Black Coast is one of the titles that feels like it has been on my TBR forever, having pushed back from last summer (and the US paperback has just been delayed another month, sorry folks). But my word it’s worth the wait…

On the surface, this looks like a traditional epic fantasy, promising clashing nations, dragon riders and the rise of a demonic foe who threatens the world. There are familiar narrative tropes in play: a playboy king; a capable royal sibling secretly running the government; an exiled rival whose son has just come of age; and a history of witch-queens and god-kings with prophecies that herald their return. The blurb even promises war dragons (yes, well done, you spotted why I picked it up).

Scratch that surface, though, and Mike Brooks’s fantasy debut gets a whole lot more interesting. Don’t get me wrong, I generally enjoy a well-executed epic fantasy, but The Black Coast was one of those delightful reading experiences where you feel like an author is shamelessly pandering to you, because while Brooks has adopted epic narrative tropes, he adds twists to his world-building that deliver intriguing nuances. Crucially, this isn’t a one-truth fantasy world; it leans into law vs chaos over good vs evil, letting the reader draw their own conclusions about who to support.

Narida is a highly structured patriarchy, so obsessed with hierarchy that it has no first person pronouns – you must define yourself in relation to the person you’re talking to. It’s also a man’s world, where gender is as strictly defined as rank and women are barred from holding authority or weapons. This hasn’t stopped Tila, the God-King’s ruthless sister, from seizing control of the capital’s underworld under an assumed identity, ensuring she’s as feared on the streets as she is at court (what’s better than a political princess? A political princess who always has one more knife up her sleeve).

On the other hand, Narida is sexually liberal: anyone can sleep with whoever they choose – unless they’re married, in which case it better be their spouse – and there’s no barrier to same-sex weddings (although I have some lingering world-building questions about property rights and earning money in all-female households). The current God-King is strictly interested in men, posing dynastic problems for a throne passed down the male bloodline; ironically, the God-King is the only Naridan not entirely free in his sexual preferences, required – at least occasionally – to bed women.

To the north, the island cities of Alaba are a bewildering outrage in Naridan eyes. For one thing, they shelter the Splinter King – whose family’s claim to the Naridan throne started a civil war back in the day – but more importantly, they recognise 5 genders and none of them are your business (or clarify your relative status, shocker). Their tonally-inflected language is gender-neutral by default, with everyone generally keeping their gender identity private except the Splinter King (once a Naridan, always a Naridan).

While I loved the concept, I admit I floundered in the diacritics until I bookmarked the definitions to check at need (I read an ARC; there may be more contextual support in the final edition) – but honestly? I didn’t need to. The whole point is that gender is irrelevant in Alaba; the only person who remotely cares is Tila, in town to arrange the assassination of the Splinter King and his family before someone decides they’re a better bet to a secure Naridan throne than the heirless God-King.

Across the oceans are the raiders of Tjakorsha, independent clans as egalitarian as they are ferocious. It’s not so much that anyone may wield a weapon as that everyone is expected to: status is achieved by spilling blood. Consequently, their harbinger crows and sharp-edged obsidian weapons are feared along Narida’s Black Coast, although they’re mostly no match for a well-armed lord on dragonback. But now a demon-possessed warlord is stamping his authority on the clans, forcing them to submit to his rule or die. Determined to live free, the Brown Eagle clan under stubborn chief Saana have sailed to the Black Coast to try and persuade their erstwhile victims they can live in peace together.

Sounds like a lot of set up? Arguably, The Black Coast is all set up for what promises to be a brilliant new series. In this first instalment, demonlords, prophecies and dynastic succession take a back seat to the cultural challenges of two antagonistic peoples trying to bury the hatchet (mostly figuratively, although not everyone is keen to try peace). Those looking for epic battles and dire prophecies may need to exercise patience until the final act, but I was riveted by the social drama.

Possibly my favourite moment is the early overthrow of hereditary nobility by a common-born adopted son. Some implications were painted large: by virtue of surrendering to the Brown Eagle (sort of), Daimon Blackcreek is a traitor and a coward who has betrayed his honour – if only to save his people, who were taken by surprise and horribly outnumbered. That’s won’t excuse him once the local Marshal hears about it, and undercuts his new authority with the townsfolk he now rules.

Other implications sank in more slowly. For all Narida is obsessed with rank and privilege, the Naridans make no distinction between adopted (or ‘law’) vs natural kin (unless you’re a God-King). Daimon only has honour to betray because he is now a(n adopted) Blackcreek sar, expected to live – and die – by their code. Further implications play out in the dynamite final act (which I won’t spoil, because I screamed the whole way through it), casting more light on the intricacies of Naridan society. I love this sort of thing, and Mike Brooks works it for all it’s worth, constantly examining the nature of honour and duty and holding it up to different lenses.

Another joy was in watching Daimon Blackcreek and Chief Saana of the Brown Eagle clan try to keep the peace. Naridan xenophobia and Tjakorshi tempers make for a volatile mix – add in language barriers and generations of bad blood, and the odds are very much stacked against them (not least when Daimon challenges Saana’s best friend to a duel on the very first night). The truce can hold only so long as the leaders are prepared to bite back their anger and keep talking, demonstrating their commitment to peace with their determination not to stab each other in the face.

It’s not just history that stands in the way. Almost every aspect of these two cultures are in opposition, from their views on giving women positions of authority (Saana only ever refers to herself as ‘this man’ when speaking Naridan, to underline that she considers herself the equal of any man in the room) to same-sex relationships (a rare area in which the homophobic Tjakorshi are the more conservative) to whether you should burn down a house that has had plague under its roof (awkward in an urban environment) and – hilariously – how to negotiate a marriage. Brooks does a magnificent job of not only creating conflicts but exploring their roots, allowing characters to pick a way through them by achieving mutual understanding.

It warmed the cockles of this cold-blooded reader’s heart.

…which brings me to the dragons. Dragons are a favourite here for obvious reasons, and a big part of why I picked up The Black Coast in the first place. So let’s get two things clear: firstly, these dragons are dinosaurs (yes, they have feathers); and secondly, I loved them because of course I did. We get multiple varieties – from ceratopsid war-dragons to hunting raptors and mosasaur-like sea monsters – and Naridan society is familiar with training and handling most of them. A subplot in which Saana’s hostage daughter shocks the Naridans by fully domesticating a hunting breed was pure delight, as was the brief, terrifying glance of the krayk at sea. But if Brooks wants me to call them dragons, I’ll call them dragons. It’s his world, he gets to make the rules; I’ll just be over here clapping my hands in glee.

Perhaps my only beefs with The Black Coast would be that it starts off in a storm of context over character and that it has rather too many POV characters. However, this is a 600+ page novel; once the set-up is in place, much of that length is given over to developing the characters and their relationships, so this isn’t really an issue. As for points of view, I have an almost irrational dislike of scenes in which antagonists lay out their actions (almost as much as ‘previously, on’ recaps, which I feel show a lack of faith in your audience to keep up). Do we need to see Darkspur or the Black Keep conspirators to know that Daimon is on borrowed time? Not really. However, this is a minor – and highly subjective – gripe that did little to detract from how invested I was in the outcome.

The Black Coast is a rollercoaster, swinging from one crisis to the next on the Black Coast with occasional diversions to Alaba and Tjakorsha to put pieces in place for future books. While the broad strokes of the plot are largely predictable, I took huge satisfaction in the detail of how they played out – and in how often Brooks confounded my expectations along the way, even if he did kill my favourite character. I can’t wait to read The Splinter King later this year to see just how many of the supposed facts turn out to be misdirection – given how many clues have been dropped already about the manipulation of history by the victors…

I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. I’ll be adding the paperback to my shelf because hell yes I want this and its sequels on my physical shelf.

The Black Coast is released on February 16th in ebook from Orbit (UK & US); and will be available in paperback from February 18th (Orbit UK) / March 16th (Solaris US).