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Thursday, April 23, 2020

SPFBO Finalist: Blood of Heirs by Alicia Wanstall-Burke (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski, David Stewart, Justine Bergman and Mihir Wanchoo)




Official Author Website
Order Blood of Heirs over HERE (USA) & HERE (UK)



OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Living in Central Queensland, Australia, surrounded by coal mines, snakes, marsupials and a wide blue sky, Alicia is a writer, a mum and a cat-herder. There are rumours she may in fact be a quokka in disguise, but these are not to be believed.

She began writing in her teens and never grew out of the phase, working in her spare time until the birth of her son allowed her to focus on writing full time.

She has also dabbled in editing and blogging while completing a Bachelor of Education and studying a Post Graduate Certificate in Ancient History.

FORMAT/INFO: Blood of Heirs is 323 pages long divided over 43 numbered chapters and is the first book in The Coraidic Sagas series. The author self-published it in October 2018. Cover art by Pen Astridge.


DAVID


Intro

Blood of Heirs is an illustration as to why self-publishing is so important. This is a book that based on its description alone probably would not reach out and grab a reader’s attention. Rising above the pack in fantasy these days almost takes an SPFBO-like contest to realize. Blood of Heirs deserves to rise because it is incredibly well-written, engaging, and manages to bring new elements to fantasy that I’ve not seen much of in my time reading about magical worlds. 
Strengths

Blood of Heirs tells the parallel stories of Lidan and Ranoth, two teenagers from different nations whose experiences contrast immensely. Lidan’s home is tribal, almost prehistoric in its use of stone tools and hunter/gatherer methods of food production. Ran’s nation is medieval in tone, with castles and steel weapons, Empire’s invading and the like. The closest approximation of this dynamic I can think of is the Aiel in The Wheel of Time compared to the rest of that world. It is not something often seen in fantasy, in my experience, and it is well done in Blood of Heirs. 

I like this notion of parallel stories, and it’s something that seems to be happening more of late in the genre. Lidan’s story is particularly powerful largely due to the dynamics of her family. Wanstall-Burke has written very human characters, flawed to an extreme, parents that have a fierce type of love for their children but are also quite abusive in different ways. Ran’s dynamic is similar, though his abuse comes from a father where Lidan’s is mainly from her mother. This further enhances the dichotomy of these two characters journeying on separate tracks. We can begin to form connections between two people who have never met largely due to their experiences, and this is deft storytelling. 

Weaknesses

While it is a strength, that dual narrative also comes off as a problem at points. This is wrapped up in several criticisms of Blood of Heirs, so let me start with the structure as a whole. My biggest issue with Blood of Heirs, and it might be one unique to me, is that it does not tell a contained story. For me, series need to be a collection of books with an overarching narrative while also each telling their own beginning-middle-and-end stories. Blood of Heirs does not do this, and it makes the dual journey of its protagonists feel almost meaningless. This is obviously a book designed to be part of a series, and maybe if it were somewhere in the middle of that series I could forgive the lack of any conclusion or even real ending, but it is the first book. I think it needs something to make it feel complete. I’ve said this before in reviews, but books are not television shows. They should not end as though they were in the middle of the story arc. Other readers may feel differently about this, particularly those that tend to read through an entire series without breaking for a different book. 

My other issue with the book is the age of its characters. We could call this the Game of Thrones problem. Ran is 15 in the book, and Lidon is 13. I have no problem reading a book about children, even in a dark world such as that depicted in Blood of Heirs. However, I need a reason for them to be portrayed this young. Game of Thrones: HBO had to age its characters because the notion of children getting married and going through such darkness would not have played on screen. I think the same works for the page for the most part. Lidan does things that I don’t even think a 13 year old girl or boy could do - like killing a full-grown warrior or crushing the skull of a slavering beast just by stamping down on it with a boot. These are things that might be difficult for a full grown man to do, let alone a 13-year old child. This is a tricky criticism because I realize that there is always going to be a main character exceptionalism at work in fantasy novels, but there is a point where suspension of disbelief falls through. I don’t think there is a good reason for these two characters to be so young. 

If You Liked

From a narrative perspective, I think that Blood of Heirs most reminds me of two books - Kings of Paradise and We Ride the Storm (both incidentally SPFBO contestants last year). These books all have a similar track where they follow multiple protagonists down different paths, with the assumption that these characters will all converge at some point. I like this structure, and I think it works well for the most part in these stories. There are also certainly echoes of The Wheel of Time and even James Islington’s Licanius series - this is largely illustrated in the journeys of these young people into worlds that they never imagined (Ran in particular due to his magical nature). 


I also found myself thinking of several video games while reading through Blood of Heirs. Lidan’s tribe and environment reminded me of Horizon: Zero Dawn, a game about a young woman trying to prove herself to a society that doesn’t see her worth. It also gave me some big Bloodborne vibes in its use of malformed humans - people crafted into monsters through magic’s dark side. 

Parting Thoughts 

This is not my favorite book in this year’s contest, but I liked it immensely. I can see it winning, and I have every intention of reading more of Alicia Wanstall-Burke’s Coraidic Sagas. In technical ways, this book is perfect. I can think of very few books, even in traditional publishing, where I didn’t find some error at some point. Blood of Heirs had none. I read this book quickly, which is not something I do with books too often in these quarantine days (having a plethora of time to savor my entertainment). I think Wanstall-Burke could be a force in fantasy in the years to come if she continues to write this well. 
  
JUSTINE


‘We all have ghosts who walk in our shadows, Ran. Just happens some are louder than others.’

Blood of Heirs is Alicia Wanstall-Burke’s stunning Dark Epic Fantasy debut brimming with warring nations and abhorrent horrors lurking beneath the dense forest canopy. At its heart, it’s a tale of the everlasting battle between duty and forging your own path, set in a rich world where tradition and obligation take precedence. Following the lives of two young protagonists, readers are swept away on a journey drenched in destructive magic, dangerous mysteries, and lots and lots of grisly bloodshed. I went into this book with high expectations, all of which were not only met, but exceeded. There’s something special in the making here, and I’m excited to witness it unfurl.

This is the epitome of a character-driven tale, which transforms this sprawling epic into a highly personal coming-of-age story. We’re introduced to Lidan Tolak, the eldest daughter and heir of the Daari of the Tolak clan, and Ranoth Olseta, son and heir of Duke Ronart, through the use of alternating points of view. Where many stories risk falling flat using this technique, Blood of Heirs excels, presenting three to five chapter chunks dedicated to each at one time, allowing for better understanding and deeper connection to these finely crafted characters. Motivations and desires are clearly introduced, then carefully built upon as the story progresses, allowing readers to witness their evolution as their surroundings affect them. With how dark of a tale this is, it’s too easy to feel the strain of the hardships placed upon their young shoulders, things no child should ever be forced to endure.

‘People fear what they don’t understand and hate what they can’t control.’

Readers are transported into a world of unrest, with enigmatic foes breaching borders and superstitions that define the very fabric of society. The two threads of this story are not apparently connected, but there’s always a feeling that there’s an underlying something that will cause them to converge. This book is an exquisite introduction into the universe the author has created, portraying different nations and the specific issues they face, giving readers a glimpse of what’s to come, and leaving the curious craving more. We’re not overwhelmed with an abundance of details, but instead presented with bits and pieces of a rich history along with the young leads. I thoroughly appreciated this, as I always find the learning curve of a new series a bit daunting, wallowing in my ignorance. This pilgrimage for the truth alongside Lidan and Ran was among my favorite aspects of this story.

Let’s talk about the writing itself for a moment. I’m still finding it difficult to believe this is a debut novel. Polished prose and well-thought plotting make this story a treat to read. I will admit I had a tough time initially getting into the narrative, waiting for the over-arching plot to reveal itself, but when it happens…it happens with a bang. Dripping with delicious tension–war, horrors, family dynamics, uncertainty, self-doubt–the pages kept swiftly turning just so I could see what would happen next. I was so engulfed in this superbly penned story that I read this book in two sittings. Palpable, visceral action scenes, and highly emotional moments of utter despair bring this dark tale to life in ways one would expect to witness from seasoned authors. If this is just the beginning, I’m very much looking forward to what the future holds for Wanstall-Burke.


Blood of Heirs has been on my radar for quite some time, and I’m thrilled I’ve finally gotten a chance to give it a read. A devastatingly beautiful debut, Wanstall-Burke is chiseling her way into the literary world with a story that’s unafraid to venture into the darkest corners of fantasy. It comes to a satisfying end, leaving readers teetering on the precipice of something extraordinary, and I cannot wait to discover what that something is. I highly recommend.

ŁUKASZ

Blood of Heirs follows the parallel tales of Lidan Tolak and Ranoth Olseta, two teenagers whose lives don’t go as planned.

Lidan, the eldest of her father’s ten daughters, should become an heir. The only problem - she lives in a patriarchal society that disregards women. Lidan’s father wants a son, and one of his wives may finally fulfill his wish. Lidan’s mother is a maniac willing to do whatever she has to preserve her daughter’s position.

Ranoth wants to impress his father, the duke, but everything ends in disaster. When his latent magical abilities are triggered, his dad has no choice but to sentence him to death. Ran escapes his home with unexpected help, but his father’s soldiers pursue him wherever he runs.

It took me some time to relate to the characters. Lidan is confident, but she struggles with anxiety and self-doubt. Ran is scared and lonely, and he’s doing his best not to die. Both are naïve and angsty, and these character traits tend to tire me. Ran and Lidan don’t lack complexity, but I don’t find them particularly interesting.

The pacing feels uneven, but it never drags. Near the end, it becomes relentless. The ending is strong and opens many possibilities for the sequel.

With its strong sense of character, solid world-building, and many plot twists and turns, Blood of Heirs should satisfy most dark fantasy fans. The well-developed cast of characters is an obvious strength; all are involved in their own respective journeys of self-discovery. While the book didn’t leave a lasting impression on me, it’s definitely expertly written and worth reading.


SPFBO Final Score




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