Hidden Gems: Monsters with Pretty Faces

So, after going back before Tolkien (!) for last week’s Gem, I’ve got something more contemporary to rave about this week. Not liking Jacobean prose will no longer be an excuse, though, unfortunately, living in America may be. (No, you can’t blame Trump for this one – but I’d import a copy before the wall goes up.)

This a series (two books so far, third on the way) is flying under a lot of people’s radar, despite some rave reviews, and I think it definitely qualifies as a Hidden Gem even in its relatively young life. Many books probably deserve more attention than they get, but with a lot of them, I can see some reason the mainstream wouldn’t embrace them, despite their brilliance. Not so with Rebecca Levene’s Hollow Gods.

Today’s genre, for better or worse, is full of the grim and the gritty, the dark and the even darker – and fans seem to love it. Of course, there’s always been darkness in fantasy, and probably a lot more grit than people choose to remember, but if everything isn’t crap in a modern fantasy story, then it just isn’t real enough for today’s connoisseur. Strange that it would bother so many fans of a genre that regularly features magic, wizards, gods, monsters, elves, and stews cooked round the campfire…

Of course, today’s genre headliners often have very little of the fantastic in them, sticking to humanity in the main, and the worst of it, at that. Levene’s Hollow Gods certainly delivers in this regard – from page one – but unlike a lot of contemporary “grimdark” works, there’s also a huge dose of imaginative fantasy as well. We’ve got golden cities and mirror towns and travelling fairs…and they are all, to borrow a phrase, wretched hives of scum and villainy.

smilersfair_visual1The series is full of the unexpected, and brilliantly so, defying expectations from the cover onward. Things go wrong, people suffer, moments of triumph misfire, and the only law is that of unintended consequences. I don’t think that’s a spoiler, but hopefully fair warning. Because the cover doesn’t give you any…

Don’t get me wrong, the covers are gorgeous, but they don’t exactly prepare you for what lies within (unless you like your clues incredibly subtle). I do wonder if half the reason this is a hidden gem and not a breakout success are these beautiful covers, which – if they were to match the interior of the books – would be a bit bloodier and weaponised, like many of those contemporaries I alluded to earlier. A shame, perhaps, but there we are.

(To be honest, there’s probably a strong argument that it would sell better with a guy’s name on the cover. Such is the grimdark world we live in.)

Strangely enough, I may not have read it had it been suitably advertised – I’m not always a fan of the overtly grimdark. It didn’t take me long to figure out what I had in my hands (as I said before, first page of the prologue), but by then I was hooked. It also has a pretty wide cast of characters spread across a continent – again, not usually my bag – but these characters defy expectations as well. Yes, there’s a outcast warrior and a homicidal maniac, but there’s also a farmboy straight out of your classic epic – and therefore way out of his depth. And there’s a young prostitute with a heart of gold trying to make good – only this time, he’s gay.

bff-hunterskindAnd then there’s the world, a mix of the familiar and the utterly alien. I wasn’t sure if the presence of some of the Earth-analogues cultures and languages were just useful shortcuts or some deeper worldbuilding enigma, but there is so much else going on that these questions fade into the background. From the fact that nobody can make a permanent settlement due to the threat of the underground worm men, to the brilliantly topical Brotherband, to the fact that the gods and the epic war fought many generations ago aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, the first book keeps you on your toes. The second book, however, blows the socks right off them.

It should be no surprise that an apparent debut series is so confident and competently written, as Levene is apparently an experienced pro with lots of industry credentials. With this series, however, she shatters the shackles of writing other people’s characters and worlds in spectacular fashion. If you want something grim and dark, but also epic and spectacular, get your hands on this gorgeous monster of a series.

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