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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Great Hearts by David A. Oliver (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Information
Order The Great Hearts HERE

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: David A. Oliver was born in the British Isles and currently lives in England with his lovely partner. David was introduced to fantasy at quite a young age thanks to the Redwall books by Brian Jacques. After an extended, multi-year fantasy binge David decided to write a book and The Great Hearts is his debut novel. A fantasy novel that takes the reader on a whirlwind adventure featuring monsters and mayhem. He hopes any new reader enjoys it as much as he liked writing it!

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Imperator. A word synonymous with fear, pain, loathing and, for a chosen few, the sharp end of a blade. The voice of the Emperor, an Imperator is the perfect weapon, skilled in combat, politics and strategy and moulded by years of punishing training. They are the hidden assassins, the enforcers of the Emperor’s will.

They are the hunters of the unknown.

Calidan Darkheart is an Imperator, a self-professed killer and an adept hunter of the creatures that most citizens of the Empire do not realise exist. Together with his hulking companion Cassius, he hunts those that slaughtered their home village.

Pity those who find themselves in their path.

Calidan and Cassius were bright young boys, living peaceful, happy lives in a remote mountain village, until the day everything changed. Once the screams have subsided, and with the horrors they have seen embedded in their minds, they embark on a journey of survival, fraught with danger, strange magic and dark deeds. Unbowing and undaunted they push forward, striving for power, making lifelong friendships along the way, and above all else, discovering the truth behind the magnificent, mythical Great Hearts.

Young Calidan is a boy full of hope and courage, driven by the past but not ruled by it. Old Calidan is a bitter and twisted killer of monsters and men, his past haunting his dreams.

This is his story.

FORMAT/INFO: The Great Hearts is 324 pages long divided over thirty one titled chapters (spread into three sections), a prologue, an epilogue, and three “present day” interludes. Narration is in first person solely via Calidan Darkheart in both timelines. This is the first book in the Great Hearts series.

May 16 2017 marked the e-book and paperback publication of The Great Hearts and it was self-published by the author. Covert art and design is done by J. Caleb Clark.

CLASSIFICATION: Combining Sword & Sorcery elements with a hefty dose of Grimdark, The Great Hearts is very much in the vein of Blood Song with a solid dose of Indiana Jones-esque action adventure and topped off with some fantastic SF elements.

OVERVIEW ANALYSIS: I discovered this book thanks to Amazon's cool algorithms. The cover and the blurb are what drew me in and the excerpt I read convinced me that this was another gem in the rough. The book is currently a part of the SPFBO 2018 contest (The Qwillery's group) but I had bought a copy of it months ago and was able to read it slowly. This book left me with many conflicting feelings but overall it’s a debut that left me wanting more of David Oliver’s work. Also a key aspect about this book, it’s a whole lot of fun.

The Great Hearts has a dual timeline plot and is narrated by Calidan Darkheart in both of those timelines. The first one is wherein we meet him and his giant friend Cassius who reveal themselves to be Imperators, the secret police/hunter/spies of the emperor. Calidan is a person who abhors his role, curses his emperor but yet sticks to his tasks for reasons not yet revealed.

In the second timeline, we go back in the past and meet Calidan & Cassius as young boys playing and being silly as young children can be. The readers find out how remote and simplistic their village life was and specifically what catastrophic event ruined their sanguine life. This event is the main thing that spurs both Cassius and Calidan to become Imperators and fight against what ruined their lives. This timeline takes up the major chunk (nearly 95% of the book) and it is the main timeline of this book. Both boys are forced to travel beyond their high mountains and towards the capital of the Anderal Empire. Amidst their travels, the readers will get to see how they meet someone that will embody the title of this debut as well learn how Calidan and Cassius get selected to be entered into the Imperator training school.

With a mix of his self-deprecating as well as self-loathing narration,  we see Calidan’s growth both physically and mentally as he learns what it truly means to be a soldier for the empire. The readers get a solid view into how brutal the training regime is set up to be, not just physically but psychologically as well. Thankfully the author manages to spare us the farmboy hero /hero academy trope (to a solid degree but not entirely) and showcases Calidan to be a normal student who gets extra help (RAFO). The story then very quickly veers into action adventure setups and then ends on an action-packed climax which reveals a lot about the world. I'm being very vague here as I don't want to spoil the book's main plot.

The characterization is the biggest plus point of the story as we get to see the world from Calidan’s POV and in this regard, the story reminded me a lot of Kvothe in The Name Of The Wind and Vaelin in Blood Song. As it combined the orphan nature of Kvothe’s existence as well the militaristic training of Vaelin’s upbringing. The characterization is not on the same level as either The Name Of The Wind or Blood Song however it's still competent enough that the readers won't feel bored. Mainly we get to see why and how Calidan gains entrance to the Imperator training school and that truly is the biggest surprise of the story. Even though this is a single person POV story, we are introduced top other characters who go beyond the two-dimensional mold. I suspect though there’s a sequence during the training school which will raise the ire of certain readers but I feel the author handles the scene and its follow-up soundly.

The action is truly one of the better things about the book as throughout the story, the author continuously amps up the action sequences and towards the end we get to see  a terrific climax. The world settings are enticing as in the start it seems like any other secondary fantasy world but the way the author reveals the final twist, it really puts the entire story in a whole new light. I enjoyed this aspect of the story and I love how the whole reveal just raises more questions. This story is all about mysteries and the biggest one is the title of the story and the mystery about the world (again being vague for spoiler reasons).

I've to give kudos to the author where it's due as this being a debut book, it was fun and engrossing to read. The action is interspersed nicely and the story is solidly grimdark. There's some horrific things which happen in the book and the author does his best in explaining the events. I understood the author's approach but there's might be some readers who might not be able to stomach it. Nonetheless the main characters refuse to be bogged down by their circumstances and I relished reading about them in that regard. Lastly the way the author ends the story, makes me want to the sequel ASAP. The story also ends on a cliffhanger and therefore some readers might not enjoy that part as well. I wasn’t too thrilled either and I hope that the sequel explains a lot.

Going onto the things that didn't quite work for me, the characterization while fun also leaves a few things lacking. While we get a solitary first-person POV from Calidan, I definitely felt that this story would have benefited from the multi-POV approach IMO. The final reveal about the world was really, really good but I wish the author had done some better build up to the climatic twist which would have helped rather than springing it all out of the blue (you’ll understand when you read it). Also the titular character's history and background is never expounded upon beyond a few sentences and I hope the sequel rectifies that.

CONCLUSION: The Great Hearts is an intriguing mix of dark fantasy, SF and something else that is spoilerific. I loved how David A. Oliver sets up the story and then springs some crucial surprises to knock down our expectations. This book is a whole lot of fun to read and I believe the author wanted the readers to experience it as such. The Great Hearts is a debut that has me excited to follow David’s upcoming works. I sincerely hope he builds up on the elements introduced in this book and delivers a cracking sequel.


Dawn said...

Very detailed and excellent review. I was on the fence about getting it but now I really am interested in reading it so I’m off to one-click it.


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