After having briefly stepped away from the sword-swinging comfort of the humongous epic fantasy genre, I’m back in it, with a vengeance. I can’t pinpoint the catalyst, though I’m sure George R.R. Martin may have had something to do with it. Maybe it’s the explosive growth of the whole grimdark thing—bookshelves are certainly packed with no shortage of gritty, nihilistic, action-packed fantasy tales filled with amoral characters and gloomy locales.
Yes, it’s a good time to have a taste for bleak and violent fantasy, and with The Last Sacrifice, James A. Moore launches what promises to be a clash-worthy series, ominously known as The Tides Of War. Moore’s earlier Seven Forges books breathed a blast of shock-and-awe into the fantasy realm, doling out unexpected twists and a gaggle of memorable characters, all within a dire-yet-oddly-welcoming world. Readers could almost feel the heft of a well-worn axe-handle.
In The Last Sacrifice, life in the sprawling Five Kingdoms seems to be moving along as well as can be expected (this is epic fantasy, so you can expect things to be a bit rough around the edges). That is, if you can overlook the periodic sacrifices made by the mysterious and shadowy Grakhul. It is looked upon as a necessary evil: every once in a while, they will swoop down from their rugged mountain fortress to snatch up a few unsuspecting locals, leaving a hefty gold coin in their place. The common belief is the sacrifices are necessary to appease the gods and maintain the status quo, which is all well and good until it’s your family on the altar.
On the night the Grakhul slip away with his entire family, rugged Brogan McTyre is hardly mollified by the handful of gold coins behind. Brogan, a rough and tumble mercenary type, recruits a ragtag band of locals to head into the mountains to get back his family. The problem is, it’s difficult to stop predetermined sacrifices once the Grakhul get ahold of you, and if Brogan’s horde arrives a smidge too late, that doesn’t mean he isn’t going to try and even the score. The shock value of the situation is compounded when Brogan learns the once-feared Grakhul are merely the worker bees for the even more mysterious and dangerous entities, the Undying.
Are they gods? Are they monsters? All I know for certain is that they are angry, and that doesn’t bode well for anyone.
If we’ve learned anything from the Final Destination movies, it is that when Death has a plan, it doesn’t do any good to try to and change fate. Brogan’s lopsided efforts to kidnap a large group of Grakhul women and children only serves to bring the wrath of the Undying down upon the Five Kingdoms, primarily in the form of a massive storm that threatens the entire land—to say nothing of the Undying’s savage attacks on whomever gets in their way. What follows is the setup for a high stakes battle of human-versus-gods proportions, as alliances are forged, battles are fought, axes are swung—and grief-stricken Brogan becomes the most wanted man in the kingdom.
Moore frames the actions of the black-cloaked Undying through the wide eyes of the fearful locals, who view them as gods who don’t much appreciate having their regular sacrifices interrupted,. It’s no big leap to see not-so-vague parallels to organized religion here on slightly-less-terrifying Earth. It doesn’t matter if anyone knows what The Undying really want or why they want it; the bigger issue is what should be done when someone refuses to accept things the way they’ve always been done. Brogan certainly does his share of upsetting the moralistic apple cart of the denizens of the Five Kingdoms, and that leads to much character discussion of what is right, wrong, or somewhere in-between.
In this first book, Moore has laid the groundwork for a trilogy that promises to be loaded with terrifically grim fantasy storytelling. I might even call it epic. There is a lot of swift, merciless violence in this book, mingled with an undercurrent of very welcome, if very dark, humor. All of it together takes me back to what made me giddy about epic fantasy way back when. I’d say I’m happy to be back, but I’m not sure that’s quite the right word for a book packed with this much violent incident. Let’s say instead that I’m bloody satisfied.