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Tuesday, January 22, 2019

SPFBO FINALIST: The Gods Of Men by Barbara Kloss (reviewed by D. C. Stewart & Lukasz Przywoski)

Official Author Website
Order The Gods Of Men over HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: As a child, Barbara Kloss loved adventures and reading. As an adult she continues to be a thrill seeker via reading, writing, trekking through the wilderness, and gaming (video games. RPGs, specifically). She previously was a clinical laboratory scientist before she ventured in to writing and publishing her debut series titled The Pandoran Saga.

She currently lives in Northern California with her family. The Gods Of Men is her first foray into high fantasy.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Sable hated the gods. She hated what men did in their name.

Magic is forbidden throughout the Five Provinces; those born with it are hunted and killed. Sable doesn't know her music holds power over souls--not until, at age nine, she plays her flute before the desert court and accidentally stops her baby sister's heart, killing her. Horrified by what she's done and fearing for her life, she flees north, out of Provincial jurisdiction and into the frigid land of exiles and thieves, known as The Wilds. There, Sable lives in hiding, burdened by guilt, and survives as a healer. But now, ten years later, someone--or something--is hunting her.

On the run again, Sable's best chance for survival is Jos, a lethal man from the Five Provinces, who claims to need her skills as a healer to save his dying father, and she needs the large sum of money he's offered. There's something about him Sable doesn't trust, but she doesn't have many options. A spirit of the dead is hunting her, summoned by a mysterious necromancer, and it's getting closer.

Sable soon discovers she's just the start of the necromancer's plan to take over the Five Provinces, and she's the only one with the power to stop it. But harnessing her forbidden power means revealing it to the world, and the dangerous Provincial, Jos, she's beginning to fall for.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (David): The Gods of Men is not the type of book to which I am drawn. It’s categorized on some websites as Young Adult and Romance, two sub-genres I usually avoid. After reading through it, I would place it in neither and simply call it a great fantasy read. There is nothing young adult about it, and the romance, while there, is understated and meaningful. Perhaps the most credit I can give to it, in a way, is to say that Barbara Kloss not only stirred my flame for good fantasy, but also rekindled one for good romance that I had forgotten I had.

The book focuses on a young woman named Sable and a warrior prince named Jeric. It is no secret from the start, given their descriptions, that something steamy might occur between the two, but thankfully for readers the story is not so much about bodice-ripping as it is about power and the ability to overcome extreme obstacles while staying true to onself. Sable, who begins the book as Imari, has a power that she does not understand and one that, early on, kills someone whom she dearly loves. In the aftermath of this tragedy, she flees the courtly desert life she has always known and takes up residence as a poverty-stricken healer in a remote village of The Wilds. How people live, and choose to live, in The Wilds is a potential narrative gap without a satisfactory explanation. The Wilds are a terrible place, woods full of nasty shades and dark overlords who demand tribute lest villagers be put to the sword. It’s like if humans had chosen to live in Mordor.

Jeric, on the other end of the spectrum, is second in line to the Corinthian throne, but has made a reputation for himself as the greatest warrior in the world. He earns this acclaim by his relentless slaughter of a people known as Sol Velorians, a group similar to Sable’s countrymen but with a darker history. His racial genocide earns him the love of his own people and the hate of anyone with darker skin. If this makes Jeric sound like a villain, rest assured that Kloss makes every effort to emphasize the good and bad about each side in this national conflict. In his own eyes, Jeric is a holy warrior, and his cause is right. This view is, of course, shaken up when he meets Sable in The Wilds where they begin a journey that will inexorably change them both.

The narrative of Gods of Men is a familiar tale of what happens when two people of disparate backgrounds come together to find common ground. That they also happen to be extremely attracted to one another only helps with this foundation. It’s Beauty and the Beast, except Jeric looks like Gaston and his transformation is drawn out over the course of an entire book. Sable, like many a Disney princess, is a clueless young woman who denies her own power throughout the entire story. I have mixed feelings about this notion of denying one’s power. It is made very clear that she fears the power that took from her someone she loved, but it has always felt, when reading this type of story, that the protagonists should seek to understand such ability rather than deny it. Pushing down our feelings or emotions, we are often taught, is the best way to see them explode later on in ways we do not want.

From a storytelling standpoint, this works for Kloss because she can’t very well have her protagonist be an all-powerful killing machine for the entire tale. She already has Jeric for that, which leads me to an issue with the book in that it has an invincible protagonist. Jeric is to combat what peanut butter is to jelly. He is a force, and even when thrown up against supernatural forces beyond the scope of a normal man, he somehow is quicker and stronger than anything he faces. That’s not to say he doesn’t face his fair share of danger, and Kloss is smart to kick him around as much as she does, but his sheer talent at killing is at times a little frustrating. Perhaps I seek too much realism in my fantasy, but fighting one opponent is difficult enough for most people. Jeric seems to take on armies like a character straight out of a Dynasty Warriors game.

What Kloss does very right with The Gods of Men is to provide two characters who are able to grow into one another in believable and natural ways. Despite an initial attraction that might see protagonists of other books jumping into a passionate embrace, Kloss dances around the smoulder that burns between Jeric and Sable, even going so far as to throw them together and then away from one another again. Their relationship is the best part of this book, and the Montague/Capulet dynamic between them, as tried and true as it is, feels fresh in Kloss’ able hands. I could even appreciate the way the tale ends, without spoiling it of course, because it is not what one might expect at the end of what could be called a fantasy romance.

Kloss also builds an interesting world, replete with lore and mysterious forces that hold history and potential within themselves. I was genuinely interested in the Sol Velorian wars that took place hundreds of years ago, and intrigued by the collection of nation-states that remained in the aftermath. The world that The Gods of Men presents is not overly complicated, nor is it large, but it succeeds in providing an interesting and engaging background for these two characters to dance around on. The supernatural forces that she weaves into this world, and that are intimately bound up in its history, are equalling fascinating. I also love that Kloss is able to weave music into her magic system, even if it is very limited.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (Lukasz): Navigating through unknown spaces of the indie publishing scene gives me a lot of fun. It makes me feel like an explorer on the verge of a great discovery. Here’s another worthy pick. While it didn't deliver a full package of delight, I enjoyed it..

Sable’s music holds power over souls. It can enchant, but also kill. Because of a tragic accident, Sable flees her Kingdom into the frigid land of exiles and thieves, known as The Wilds. She lives in hiding, burdened by guilt, and survives as a healer.

Soon, she finds herself on the run again.

The story, told in third-person limited, follows two distinct POVs - Sable and Jeric. Jeric, the second son of a king, spends his life tracking down and killing ‘threats’ to the country. Sable will have to trust him to survive even though she despises him at the beginning.

With time, things change, and they develop feelings toward each other. Happily, nothing feels rushed or unnatural. Quite the opposite. Sable and Jeric are flawed individuals who struggle to find their place in a world. When they story arcs meet, things start to gel. Slowly but inevitably leading to striking realizations.

The cast of side characters is nicely mixed and likeable. Good work.

Kloss’ clean prose, brisk pacing and clear structure keep the narrative engrossing from beginning to the end. Her novel never becomes confusing or unconvincing.

Flaws? Even though both main characters feel distinct and real, I didn’t care much for them. But it’s strictly subjective. The plot was interesting enough to make me finish the book and I appreciate final twists and reveals.

I would say this book deserves more attention.

CONCLUSION (David): In all, The Gods of Men is one of my favorite finalists in the SPFBO contest, and I will be eagerly awaiting Kloss’ next entry into the series. She manages to wrap up this particular story, while also leaving room for so much more in this world she has built, and with these characters. This is definitely one to watch.



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