In the Company of the Dead by Ciara Ballintyne
(Fantasy, Epic; Evolved Publishing, 2016)
The convoluted politics of men and gods traps a lone-wolf priestess of death and an exiled nobleman in a remote castle during a siege. Alliances are forged and broken in this springboard to an intriguing series.
**WARNING: Some content below is more spoilery than I’d prefer, but I can’t do justice to the book’s strengths without it. I don’t reveal actual plot points, but if you want to be taken for the full ride, skip to “Editor-Brain”**
Writer-Brain: 4/5 Stars. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the pacing, and I had some struggle with getting a sense for structure that might have helped pull things along, but Ballintyne did two things that took this book up a whole star.
First, she pulls Ellaeva back from the Inevitable Ledge of Mary Suedom. Ellaeva is the goddess of death’s Battle Priestess, the Left-Hand of Death, and she’s reasonably young and attractive and effective; the ledge is not hard to miss with that kind of character. It’s not a full yank backwards, and I’m sure some readers might disagree, but I think it’s reasonable to say she’s at least in a gray area by the end of the book. What happens in the sequel(s) will certainly affect the final verdict. In any case, Ellaeva doesn’t come off as so perfect a specimen that you secretly hate her for her goodness and glory and agency. Lyram, too, escapes Marty Studom and isn’t just there to make us worship Ellaeva; he’s got his own hangups and faults and he faces a few consequences that keep him in the clear.
Second, Ballintyne lies–to the readers and her characters. It happens once, early, and big. It’s not easy to do in this kind of fantasy without it feeling totally like a cop-out, easy-answer. When the lie was revealed, though, I realized that I was more interested to see where things would go. My note in the ebook was “so this is where Book 2 starts.” So somewhere, amid the things that slowed me down and kept me thinking too hard to really fly effortlessly through the read, Bellintyne had me hooked. If she hadn’t, the big reveal might have sent me running.
Editor-Brain: 3/5 Stars. There were a few places where dialogue and/or exposition just wasn’t as tight as I’d have liked. This is the problem with being an editor who reads (or a reader who edits): I get caught up in details that affect the telling of the story and not the story itself. This runs from saying the same thing two different ways in a few paragraphs to words or sentences that could be cut entirely without changing meaning. Will this disturb most readers? Likely no. But it caught me often enough that I couldn’t say nothing.
Reader-Brain: 4/5 Stars. So I’m just going to say that I requested this book knowing that I’m not the biggest fan of books set amid an ongoing war/battle with little to no plot relief. I chose it because I’ve never read a siege book before and wanted to see how I felt about it. And I think it was a good discovery. Not so much fighting or going on about troop positioning or maneuvers: the characters had to be resourceful, swift, and strategic. There were consequences to losing people, no matter how little they mattered to the plot, something I’d argue didn’t happen in some other war-centric epic fantasies I’ve read. And, as I said above, Ballintyne threw me for a loop I enjoyed; I’m putting book 2 on my reading list for 2017.
Disclaimer: I recieved a free digital ARC of this title from Evolved via NetGalley.