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Monday, May 16, 2022

The Umbral Storm (The Sharded Few #1) by Alec Hutson (reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)


Official Author Website
Pre-order The Umbral Storm over HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Crimson Queen
Read Fantasy Book Critic's interview with Alec Hutson
AUTHOR INFORMATION: Alec Hutson was born in the north-eastern part of the United States and from an early age was inculcated with a love of reading fantasy. He was the Spirit Award winner for Carleton College at the 2002 Ultimate Frisbee College National Championships. He has watched the sun set over the dead city of Bagan and rise over the living ruins of Angkor Wat. He grew up in a geodesic dome and a bookstore, and currently lives in Shanghai, China.
OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: A thousand years ago the Heart of the World was shattered, its fragments scattered across the lands. In the chaos that followed, martial orders arose to gather these shards, for it was found that great powers were granted when these pieces were bonded to the flesh of the chosen. These are the Sharded Few, warriors imbued with the divine energies that once coursed through the Heart, and driven to absorb enough fragments to claim godhood.

Deryn has known nothing in his life except suffering. Orphaned at the edge of the realms, indentured to a cruel slaver, he can see little chance of escaping his circumstances. But elsewhere in the world ancient powers are stirring, new alliances threaten the peace of the old order, and in the cataclysms that are coming a slave will become a hero.

CLASSIFICATION: The Umbral Storm is a unique mix of The Way of Kings and Blood Song as it provides the epic world & magic system of Brandon Sanderson’s magnum opus while also providing the character rich story found in Anthony Ryan’s debut.
FORMAT/INFO: The Umbral Storm is 656 pages long divided over forty-six POV titled chapters with a an epilogue. Narration is in the third person via Deryn, Heth Su Canaav, and Alia. This is the first volume of the Sharded Few series.
May 20th, 2022 will mark the e-book & paperback publication of The Umbral Storm and it will be self-published by the author. Cover art is by YAM (Mansik Yang) and design-typography by Shawn T. King.
OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: The Umbral Storm was one of my most anticipated books when I heard its description from the author last year. Since then my anticipation was only increased and when I first saw the fantastic cover, I could only count the days until I got my hands on the ARC.

However once I did get it, I was a tad apprehensive way as to how the book would overcome the amount of anticipation I had built up in my head. There was also the element of Progression fantasy as the author had mentioned that this was his attempt at writing progression fantasy. I am new to this sub-genre and I’ve had my share of hits and misses with it. One thing however was a given, IMHO Alec Hutson’s writing is one of the best to be found in epic fantasy and he really standouts with his characters and world building. Hence, I dove in with apprehension and anticipation but still sure that it would be a worthwhile read, boy was I wrong about that!

The Umbral Storm begins with Deryn, a late adolescent sold for indentured labour by his mother to a noble. He’s forced to climb Skyspear trees wherein a certain crab like creatures inhabit and capture them for their precious meat. On one of these arboreal sojourns, he comes across a strange girl whom he takes pity on and acquiesces to her request. His noble overlord however takes him to task for his momentary kindness. It is at this point he meets the second protagonist Heth Su Canaav. This is all that I can reveal without getting into spoilers and so I’ll stop here.

If I had to capture my feelings about this in one word, the only word that comes to my mind is MAGNIFICENT! This story is magnificent, the characterization is magnificent, the world building & magic system doubly so!!

This is why I was so wrong about this title being a worthwhile read. It simply is much more than that. Firstly, this book is just over 190K words and the main thing is that almost all of them flew by so quickly that I could not believe it was such a lengthy book. The second incredible thing about this book is its incredible world and magic system. The world is a very eclectic one and the author has a lot going on with an inter-dimensional rift, para-dimensional creatures and a hidden world history that just is manna for worldbuilding aficionados like myself.

 I’ve compared it to The Way Of Kings (Stormlight Archive) and here’s why:
- The author has come up with an incredible world history wherein in long lost past, an incredibly violent imperial ouster occurred and that has lead to the world being changed forever.
- That event has given rise to a type of magic that depends on the bodily assimilation of a certain type of stone.
- These stones have led to the rise of several marital orders, which have become nation-states in the current day. The bearers of these stones and the powers they ascribe to are called as the Sharded Few and they are the superhumans of this world.

Possessing a wild variety of powers, these Sharded warriors are rightly feared and they have done great good and some evil as well. The author really gives us an incredible world wherein everything has been shaped by these stones. It is easily apparent that he has given great thought to it and developed these powers.  We are shown the absolute different types of shards & the powers they grant (Shadow, Wind, Flame, Storm, Wave, Blood, Sand, Soul, etc.) It is a phenomenally inventive magic system and in this regards, Alec Hutson can proudly rub shoulders with the worldbuilding titan that is Brandon Sanderson. 

Going on to the next spectacular aspect of this story, the characters. A fantastic world and magic system can only enchant a reader for so long. Solid characters are the lifeblood of any good story so considering this is an Alec Hutson story this is not surprising. But here’s the kicker, we only get three POVs in this huge story and it is to the author’s credit that all three of them are complex, endearing and very exciting to read about:
- Deryn with his rags to (spoilers) story,
- Alia with her mysterious past and her pacifist approach
- Heth learning all about his noble ways and re-learning what it means to be a better human

These three characters power the story and keep the plot from stagnating. Each of them comes from a particular background and it helps that all of them are very charismatic. The blurb focuses only on Deryn and while he has the majority of the POV chapters. Heth and Alia are no less vital, enticing the readers with their mysteries and providing a rich counterfoil to Deryn’s ones.

I believe the author clearly has grand plans for all three of them and I can’t wait to read what their futures hold. But here’s the other kicker, there are a few non-POV characters who are incredibly charismatic as well. For me Rhenna, Initiate Kaliss and lord Kilian were all fine examples of the author bringing his A-game to the secondary character cast. There is also a cameo by someone called the Elowyn and I’m very curious as to who they might be.

Lastly, the plot is a straightforward one as it follows the progression fantasy module however with the author’s epic fantasy infusion; we get a unique combination of progression and epic sub-genres. This leads to a multi-dimensional story where there are many things going on. The author bring the plot threads begun in this story to a good conclusion while leaving tantalizing bits for the sequels. For those progression fantasy fans, there's a proper magic school system and there's all the magic levels (Sardor, Kenang, Famdhar, etc.) based on the number of shards one can assimilate and the powers developed. This book deals all about the Shadow shards and I can't wait to see the other Sharded powers that might be explored in future volumes. 

The story also has some superb action sequences and the way the magic system is intertwined with the action is incredibly fascinating to read. I loved a certain action sequence that very much reminded me of Elric of Melnibone. Also that gorgeous cover is just one of the best I’ve seen in the S-P era and at this point, highlights how good self-published books have come to be. Seriously that cover can proudly stand with some of the fabulous stuff from Orbit, Tor & Gollancz.

I always do my best to point out deficiencies in every book that I review. But I had next to no complaints with this series starter. If I really have to stretch myself, I would say that one of the POV characters can feel like a Gary Stu (to a partial degree), but not always. In addition, while the characters ages aren’t really clarified, you get the sense that they are in their late teens. Hence, we have to stretch our imaginations at their antics but this is fantasy after all.  I really thought long and hard and yet I could not contemplate anything else that might even come close to a drawback. So make of that what you will.

CONCLUSION: The Umbral Storm is a stunning epic fantasy story that opens up an incredible world and magic system that is sure to become an absolute future classic. For me, it combined the epic world feel of The Way Of Kings while also providing the superb character rich story of Blood Song. Alec Hutson has written a magnificent story and in my mind, this is the best book of 2022 that other titles will have to overcome to win the top spot in our year-end lists.



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