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Wednesday, December 14, 2022

Book review: Illborn by Daniel T. Jackson (reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)


Official Author Goodreads Profile
Order Illborn over HERE
OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Daniel T. Jackson is a fantasy enthusiast, with a love for fantastical worlds and epic adventures. After 25 years of creating stories for friends and family, he finally escaped from his day job to fulfil his lifelong ambition of writing The Illborn Saga. Daniel is married with four children, and lives in the United Kingdom. He also loves hiking, cycling and piano, and volunteers for a number of good causes. Illborn is his first published novel.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Long ago, The Lord Aiduel emerged from the deserts of the Holy Land, possessed with divine powers. He used these to forcibly unite the peoples of Angall, before His ascension to heaven.

Over eight hundred years later, in a medieval world which is threatened by war and religious persecution, four young men and women begin to develop supernatural abilities. These forbidden and secret powers will shatter the lives that they have known, and will force each of them to confront the mystery of the ethereal Gate, which haunts their dreams. What does the dream mean, and how is it connected to their burgeoning abilities?

As they experience conflict, love, lust and betrayal, in lands which are being overtaken by war, they must try to stay ahead of and to survive the sinister forces which are now pursuing them. For they are being hunted…

FORMAT/INFO: Illborn is 713 pages long divided over forty chapters, a prologue, two epilogues & two interludes. Narration is in the third-person, via Corin, Leanna Cooper, Allana dei Monis, Arion Sepian, and Caddin Sendromm. This is the first volume of The Illborn saga.

March 19, 2021 marked the paperback and e-book publication of Illborn and it is self-published by the author.
OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Illborn by Daniel T. Jackson came highly recommended, it has gotten quite a lot of praise and had some plot points that I thought were intriguing. It was also a SPFBO semifinalist so that was another positive in its favour. In my review, I’ll be discussing some spoiler aspects of the plot as I’ve to explain why I enjoyed those aspects of the book.

The first thing which I enjoyed was that the prologue which began in a very, very typical epic fantasy fashion, however the way it ends, immediately let me know that the author isn’t just trying to tread a typical story and I was in for something quite dark and different. The story begins with the four young people Allana, Corin, Leanna & Arion as they are all about 17-18 years old. Each of them has an interesting background and we get third person POVs for all them. Allana dei Monis is a daughter of a courtesan living in Sen Aiduel (the capital of Dei Magnus). Corin is a young lad who is coming of age within his tribe in the village called Karn in the land of Bergen. Leanna Cooper is a nearly eighteen year old who is to be married to her sweetheart living in the city of Arliss within the Elannis Empire. Arion Sepian the third son of Duke Conran Sepian, is forced to join the holy church as a priest but all he wants to be is a warrior and support his house in a marital way. This is how the readers are introduced to these four innocent souls in four different lands. However, fate & something else has some horrid plans for them and they all experience the same vivid dream. That is how things become very, very interesting/horrifying for each and every one of them.

There are four combinations of words that each of the main characters experience:

Each of them is put through a wringer of sorts, some of it physical, quite a lot of it mental and it is definitely not for the faint of heart. I really enjoyed how the author focused the story through these four young characters. They are decent people who are thrust into situations that they are emotionally not mature to handle (some definitely more so than others). Plus these scenarios often have life or death outcomes attached to them thereby making it high stakes for three out of the four POVs.

In this scenario, I very much enjoyed Allana and Corin’s chapters wherein they faced rather difficult and potentially insurmountable situations. Leanna and Arion both faced tricky scenarios that show some excellent character growth too. The author certainly polished up his debut story and it shows with each of the characters. In this regards, his skill reminded me a lot of Tad Williams, Jennifer Fallon & Robin Hobb. Each of these authors have written stories from younger characters’ perspectives and elevated the stories from being labelled as YA. This is a hard endeavor and Daniel is in excellent company here.

(Map image courtesy of the author)

I wish to commend the author in this situation for he doesn’t take the easy route with each of his characters. He puts them in serious scenarios and being the young adolescents they are, they don’t always make the right choice. But even more tricky is the fact that there isn’t exactly a right choice in many of these plot scenarios. The world is a medieval one and rife with religious, gender & socio-political violence. It brings to mind an environment of 14th-15th century Europe wherein religion held a strong hold on every aspect of one’s life. In this world, the royal church holds its Prophet Aiduel in utmost highest regards. One crucial distinction is that this religion is less than 800 years old but has a virulent hold on the main continent where the nations of Andar, Elannis, Dei Magnus and Angloss are carved.

In this aspect, the religious strife is very much something that we have read in multiple other epic fantasy books before. There is even a religious crusade going on in the background of the main story in the holy land which is southwest to the main continent. Plus a crucial aspect to the magic espoused within the tale is that all the main characters keep dreaming of a hill that they must ascend and meet someone. The holy church of Aiduel is relatively new and there’s a viciousness to some within it who adhere strictly to its tenets. This religion mirrors the Catholic Church with its Archlaw (Pope) and having its own military army called Aiduel’s Guards. The author explores their vicious attitudes but also gives us a view from normally religious & less religious folks who view the church’s piety as being dangerous & not to be trifled with.

Lastly I have to highlight how the author took a slightly difficult route with his POV characters (particularly Allana). I think he’s going to get some readers who will offended by the progression of her storyline. The author has done a brave thing here, sure not every person will get it but at least he is focusing on doing something atypical. Similarly with Leanna, Corin & Arion, one of them has a very pious attitude and it can irk certain readers too. Another character follows a typical fantasy hero route and I hope the author displays his skills in upending his life in the future volumes. One thing I wish certain readers would stop doing is associating behaviours to authors based on the characters they create (this post by Mark Lawrence is on point about this). 

There’s also the aspect of a female character using her sexuality and using it in a way that’s tied into the supernatural abilities that she possesses. I thought this was a very interesting move by the author & while he might get some brickbats about it. It sets up the stage for an interesting exploration of the femme fatale trope. Plus the character is often actively trying to NOT do any harm but has to take the least harmful route. It will be interesting to see what happens in the future as she’s once more a stranger in a strange land. I believe the author is drawing up a contrast with both the female characters with their life scenarios and outlooks being polar opposites (while still facing danger equivalently). Similar to the male protagonists, they are more physical opposites in their statures but not their drive to better the lives of their family & loved ones.

IMHO authors should be allowed to test boundaries, they should be able to write about characters who do wrong or morally wrong things in the face of danger to one’s life. The main characters here are young and in an incredibly violent world. Their powers don’t come with a manual and they do things that make sense to them. In some cases, it remains to be seen if the characters were truly in control or were being controlled by their burgeoning power. I know most certainly this is going to be an unpopular opinion with certain readers but coming from a country where so much literature was banned, subdued & silenced. I am always enraptured by writers who try to do something different and DTJ definitely has an exciting plan with this story.

I enjoyed how the author made each chapter exciting and often would end on a cliffhanger of sorts. Plus the author broke up the story with a couple of interludes which promise a lot more exciting truths for the future literally & figuratively.

For negatives, I can think of a couple, primarily because this is such a character focused story, the pace is definitely on the slower side. Plus with the story being set over a two year time period, we get a story that offers thrills but at its own pace. Definitely some readers won’t be happy with it. Secondly the worldbuilding borrows a lot from the European middle ages and yes the author set the story here on purpose, but in this day and age wherein a lot more cultures are being explored. This world doesn’t feel new at all. Lastly this is book one of four and the author leaves a lot of the background details to be explored in the sequels. So again, this will confound quite a few readers.

One last thing I have to mention is that this was a SPFBO semifinalist and Mark Lawrence has often mentioned that SPFBO tries but it can NOT always catch the best books. This is an excellent example and I can’t imagine how this title would have done in the finals.

CONCLUSION: Illborn is a polished and well-written debut by Daniel T. Jackson but that’s not why you should give it a shot. This debut is perhaps the start of a story that will have you questioning morality, religion & why people behave the way they do. For me, such stories are rare and need to be celebrated. Daniel T. Jackson has marked himself as an author to watch out for. Give Illborn a try and see why so many reviewers are raving about it.



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