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Wednesday, March 25, 2020

SPFBO Finalist: Kalanon's Rising by Darian Smith (reviewed by David Stewart, Justine Bergman, Lukasz Przywoski and Mihir Wanchoo)

Order Kalanon's Rising over HERE(USA) or HERE(UK)


AUTHOR INFORMATION: Darian Smith writes mainly speculative fiction (fantasy) and lives in Auckland, New Zealand with his wife (who also writes) and their Siamese cat (who doesn't).

He is the winner of the SpecFicNZ/Steam Press manuscript competition and has been a finalist for the Sir Julius Vogel Awards several times.

By day, he works with people who have neuromuscular conditions such as muscular dystrophy or charcot marie tooth disease. He is also a qualified counsellor/family therapist and can be seen - by those very swift with the pause button - on television shows such as Legend of the Seeker and Spartacus.

CLASSIFICATION: Dark fantasy with elements of coming-of-age.

FORMAT: Kalanon's Rising was self-published by the author in October 2016 as the first book in the Agents of Kalanon series. It's available in an e-book and paperback format. 

The book counts 424 pages and is divided into 47 numbered chapters. 

DAVID

Kalanon’s Rising is the story of a Brannon Kesh, The Bloodhawk, veteran and King’s Champion, who simply wants to be a physician - a counterbalance to his life of killing. Unfortunately for Brannon, his legend far outweighs his own desires, and it is not long into the book that he is drafted by the powers that be to solve a murder. 

I was excited to read a fantasy mystery as I can think of few books that fit that bill outside of the Dresden Files, and in fact this book does remind me of Butcher’s work in a lot of instances aside from the lack of an Urban Fantasy setting. 

Setting 

Kalanon’s backdrop is the typical medieval Europe fantasy land. There’s a King, there was a war, and the kingdom of Kalanon is still recovering from the conflict with its neighboring Nilar. The story largely takes place in the capital city for the first half of the book, and then shifts to a more rural, small village locale for the back half. This is all fine. There is nothing unique nor wrong with this setting, and it serves its purpose stoically. What is lacking here is any type of world-building. Kalanon could be nearly any kingdom in any book a fantasy reader has ever read. 

Where some world-building does happen is in the shadowy or mystical societies that Smith has populated. There is a group of nature-worshipping druid-types who can control evil spirits and turn them into slaves, in essence, through the use of the dead. There is a hidden cadre of assassins who have some relevance to the plot but seem present more to foreshadow themselves in subsequent novels than to retain any major importance in this one. These facets of the book are interesting, but again, they are not particularly unique to fantasy. Smith’s Risen, those corpses possessed by evil spirits, are novel in their origin, but that’s about it. Again, this all works fine, but never captivates. 

Plot

As Kalanon’s Rising is a mystery, the plot is the real lynchpin of the book. Mysteries can get by on weaker characterization if their central pivot is strong enough. Oddly enough, Smith reverses this typical situation because while I found his plot fairly predictable, I enjoyed his characters enough that I was willing to see it through. Obviously, this is a problem in a mystery novel, whether it’s fantasy or not. The secrets here are thinly veiled, and I wager there aren’t many who didn’t see to the heart of the book’s shadows fairly early on. It is difficult to explain just how the plot is weak without actually spoiling the entire thing, but suffice to say that point of view is incredibly key to a work like this. Smith has several different PoV characters - almost all of the central characters get a few chapters even if Brannon has the main viewpoint. I think the novel would have been better served had Smith chosen to set the entire thing in his main character’s vision. 
Even aside from the mystery, the story leaves some things to be desired. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that the eventual reveal is disappointing and petty, and had it not been a mystery, this is a story that would have been very rote and typical. 

Characters

I liked Sir Brannon Kesh quite a bit. He reminds me of a Geralt in a lot of ways - a world-weary soldier who is tired of humanity’s bullshit and just wants to do his job. He is also aged, and as I age myself I find I appreciate the older protagonists more. This may be a personal bias. The cast is rounded out by Draeson, a 300-year old mage who recently found himself a young body with all of the troubles that a new vessel brings, Ylani, the Nilar Ambassador to Kalanon whose position is about as precarious as the peace hammered out years ago, Ula, one of the aforementioned druid types who I thought would be more important to the events of the book but who I largely forgot about until she spoke up once in a while, Taran, a priest with shady talents in alchemy, and Jessamine, Brannon’s new physician apprentice. They blend fairly well, but I often found the common problem of Smith needing a character to talk every once in a while to ensure the reader that they still existed. I’m not entirely sure every character was necessary to the plot, which can be problematic. 

I also liked Ylani, and I think Smith does well in her characterization. She is the fish out of water in the story, and her customs and attire make her stand out - an attention to detail that I appreciated. There is a spark between her and Brannon, but it’s subtle and never gets in the way of the plot. It manage to fill a kind of femme fatale trope common in Noir fiction, but isn’t ridiculous in the way that that often can be. She also does not smoke an elongated cigarette. 

Parting Words

Kalanon’s Rising was a mixed bag for me, but overall I enjoyed it and I think it is one of the better finalists. It does not win the contest for me by any stretch, but the writing is well done, the plot and characters engaging enough, and it presents a good package even if the mystery is weak. I would recommend it to anyone interested in fantasy mystery, which is a shallow pool and Kalanon’s offers enough that’s different from the rest of the genre that it is worth reading. That I am even considering reading the sequel, and I am considering it, is testament enough that I liked it because that is rare for me!  

JUSTINE

Kalanon's Rising by Darian Smith is a gripping and unique whodunit murder mystery laced with the arcane and political intrigue. At its heart, it highlights the ideal that in order to build a brighter future one must let go of the dark pain of the past, and that people can, in fact, change for the better. Within its pages we investigate a string of perplexing murders, following a grisly trail of blood that leads to several truly shattering truths. While the answers to the mysteries are a bit predictable, the twists and turns to get there are both unexpected and executed exceptionally well. I thoroughly enjoyed following the path of breadcrumbs Smith carefully placed on my journey for truth.

Readers are immediately dropped into a world on the mend from a devastating war, where relationships between nations are tenuous and strained, and simmering prejudices are very prominent. Smith offers just enough to immerse without overwhelming with copious amounts of unnecessary details; the subtlety of the worldbuilding is both excellent and engaging. There are hints of dangerous factions working from the shadows, back alley deals for international trade, and strange magics that bring the dead back to life as "Risen", which all left me curious for more as I made my way through this engrossing story.

Smith uses his delicately crafted characters to narrate this tale through an almost visual storytelling by jumping from point-of-view to point-of-view, showcasing every side of the story. At the lead of the cast is Sir Brannon Kesh, a former soldier and current King's Champion, who is deeply haunted by his past. By his side is Magus Draeson, a crotchety, old mage, embracing and enjoying his newly acquired young body. They're joined by Ula, a powerful Djin shaman, Brother Taran, a priest with an unusual aptitude for poisons, Jessamine, a young and eager physician's apprentice, and Ylani, a charismatic ambassador from an enemy nation. A well-rounded party, each individual with their designated role, with their own distinct voice creates stunning dynamics as they venture to find solve the multiple mysteries presented to them.

Simple prose and steady pacing create highly effective suspense and tension in this generally intimate and cozy tale. Choosing to focus more on the potentially catastrophic effects of the multiple mysteries weaved throughout its pages, rather than forcing superfluous action was a brilliant decision, which again added to the sincerity of the book. Smith does, however, use some questionable mechanics to move this story along; the most jarring being the conclusion itself, which I felt was terribly rushed and carried out in an unappealing way. I hit the final chapter expecting one of the plot lines to carry over to the next book, but was wrapped up in a matter of pages, unpolished unlike the rest of the book.

Kalanon's Rising is entertaining read of puzzling and thrilling riddles with the lives of all hanging in the balance. With a perfect balance of striking intrigue and gruesome action, it's easy to understand how it secured its place in the SPFBO finals. While this particular story concludes, there's a nice segue into the potential future adventures of Sir Brannon, and I'm excited to see where Smith takes us next. If you're looking for a more personal murder mystery steeped in the fantastical, I suggest you give this one a try. I highly recommend.

LUKASZ 


Murder mystery? Dark Magic? Mayhem?



Yes, please.



Plot & Structure



Kalanon’s Rising follows Brannon Kesh, an ex-soldier turned healer, investigating a grisly murder of the King’s cousin. He has to solve the case before things escalate and he needs to hurry - corpses start to pile up. Political repercussions of the crime could restart the war. Nobody wants that. 

Helped by a vain mage, a socially awkward priest, and a corpse animating shaman, he tries to solve the case.

Characters 

Smith has created an interesting team of misfit magical experts.

Brannon, a war hero, tries to build a new life as a physician. He wants to break with his past, but can’t. This adds a nice layer of internal conflict to the narrative. His companions are diverse and each has a story to tell. Like most readers, I find Ula, a badass Djin shaman with purple skin, dreadlocks, and tattoos covering her body, most intriguing. Not only does she come from a bizarre and unique culture, but she also knows how to create “Raised” (dead bodies revived and controlled by demon spirits knows as Kaluki). 

Characters demonstrate good dynamics. Each has the skills necessary to move the plot forward and solve the mystery. Unfortunately, they also tend to get out of character to move the plot and the story forward. Ultra-competent characters suddenly become incompetent (example: preternaturally agile fighter suddenly unable to catch a boy) to create tension. I found the inconsistencies jarring.

Point of view

Hmm. Smith gave POV chapters and POV scenes to a lot of characters. Too many to my liking. Some of them were necessary, while others less so. I understand it allows to create a more cinematic view of the scenes, but I prefer a more focused narrative.

Other than that, the author handles POV well, giving each of characters a distinct feel and voice. It gets tricky with Ula’s POV written in a “broken” English that requires some adaptation time from a reader.

Setting

We don’t get pages upon pages describing the detailed nuances of the world, but we learn enough without being bored. The author provides a clear sense of place, its history, customs, and culture. I enjoyed descriptions of dark magic, the runes, or tattoos used by Djin shamans to both adorn their bodies and “counteract” the forces of evil. We also get an old wizard who enjoys his brand new (and young) body and has a mysterious dragon tattoo that changes its placement.

Intriguing.

Voice/tone 

It’s not dark or nihilistic but it doesn’t shy away from showing violence and gore. I would describe the tone as suspenseful, although Smith overuses a plot device I find particularly irking - his characters describe potential murderer/suspect as HIM, never using his name (as in they see him or think they saw him and they know who this person is but don't share it with the reader). If it’s supposed to build tension, it fails miserably. I find it frustrating.

Also, the bad guy. Why on earth does he deliver a cheap boss speech near the end? Just so that our protagonists have time to figure out how to defeat him?

Timing/pacing

Kalanon’s Rising has steady pacing. It rarely moves at a breakneck pace but thanks to short chapters it reads fast.

In closing

The overall concept is intriguing, and Kalanon’s Rising offers plenty of compelling action. I had an issue with inconsistent characterization, irritating plot devices, and the ending, but I will read the sequel. I like bands of misfits solving magical crimes, and Smith has created an intriguing world in which exciting things happen.

Official SPFBO rating




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