Review: Servant of a Dark God by John Brown

Servant of a Dark God by John Brown
Servant of a Dark God by John Brown

Servant of a Dark God
John Brown
Tor, 2009

John Brown’s debut, and the first in a new series, is a blend of both classic fantasy tropes and more modern themes.  With its unassuming boy hero it might be easy to write this off as a return to the farm hands and kitchen help of fantasy’s yesteryear but Brown, through delicate crafting of his world manages to avoid this potential pitfall creating something that, while it hearkens back the roots of classic fantasy, manages to become something slightly different.

The world of Servant of a Dark one is ruled by the mysterious and powerful Divines who ask for and wield the “fire” or life energy of their subjects in order to power their magic.  We learn over the course of the novel that the Divines weren’t the only ones in charge and a multitude of conquered people are not necessarily satisfied with their rule.  One such people, the Koramites, are a subjugated minority, servants to the powerful Mokkaddians who, in turn, serve the Divines.  Tossed into this mix is a magical abomination and the machinations of unknown powers that plunge one small corner of this world into near chaos.

Read on for more, though some minor spoilers may occur….

If the background of Brown’s world sounds a bit confusion then you’ll likely hit upon one of the novel’s slight weaknesses.  The relationships between the various clans and peoples: Koramite, Mokkadian, Shoka, and Fir Noy is never quite clear (excepting the lesser place of Koramites of course) and even the glossary is not always helpful in this regard.  Regardless a tenuous grasp of the various interrelationships between clans and people is certainly possible and even that much is enough to spot the tensions between these groups particularly the hatred and distrust the Fir Noy sow with regards to the Koramites.

The novel’s other main problem comes with pacing.  Part of the trouble here lies with the number of characters who, while all interesting, make for a narrative that is spread rather thin by a desperate juggle of world-building and plot.  Save for a few minor stumbles here and there Brown manages to pull this off quite nicely and, while the plot certainly stalls in some sections, such as Argoth’s encounter with the Divine skir master which, while interesting, did little to serve the novel’s main conflict (at least initially), there is always something interesting and exciting going on.

Then again despite a large number of character viewpoints to follow along with each manages to create a sympathetic and well-drawn character.  The sections from the monster Hunger’s point of view I found particularly enjoyable and it was great to get inside a villain’s head; even if he was something of a henchman.  Brown’s attention to character is the novel’s strongest quality.  The novel is rife with wonderful character moments right from the very beginning where Talen, sitting sans pants calmly eating breakfast and waiting to enact revenge on the siblings who he believes stole his pants.   This is followed by a madcap scene that reveals, with excitement, humor, and action precisely the kind of relationship this family has.   That, as far as I’m concerned, is some excellent storytelling.  While the split perspectives mean we never have a clear protagonist.  At the very least Talen comes closest to the role of traditional fantasy hero though both Sugar and Argoth fill this role nicely as well.  Brown is careful to give his characters notable flaws.   In particular we learn early on that the way in which Talen perceives the world is not precisely correct and that he is even somewhat ignorant.  While the reader comes around rather quickly to another way of thinking Talen’s glacial move towards that same point of view, while frustrating, is wholly believable.

Servant of a Dark God is, at times, a serious novel.  It is a story full of heartbreak and sadness but it isn’t all doom and gloom.  Brown manages to inject seeds of hope into much of his narrative, even in Hunger’s point of view, and frequently leaven’s the darkness with dashes of genuine humor that never feels forced.  While it does take a while getting there Servant of a Dark God comes to a stellar conclusion with a climatic battle that, in the best possible way, leaves the reader and the characters with as many questions as answers.  Servant of a Dark God’s flaws are slight and easily overlooked for what amounts to an exciting and well-realized debut novel that fans of fantasy are sure to enjoy.  I will definitely be looking forward to future work by Mr. Brown.

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