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Book Review: Servant of a Dark God by John Brown

# Genre: Epic/High Fantasy
# Hardcover: 448 pages
# Publisher: Tor Books
# Publication Date: October 13, 2009
# ISBN-10: 0765322358
# ISBN-13: 978-0765322357

In Servant of a Dark God, by debut author John Brown, a panoply of characters move through an epic fantasy world that is vast and complicated. Brown has created an ambitious story for someone with so few published credits. But though the writing is sometimes rocky, occasionally confusing, Servant of a Dark God is still a novel that leapt to life as I turned each page.

The first in a planned trilogy, Servant of a Dark God follows a group of individuals known as the Order as they plot rebellion against the magical Divines, an oligarchy of leaders that rules in the name of the Glory of Mokad. (Observant readers will notice shades of Star Wars in that plot line.) Though few in number, the Divines rule with absolute power, subjugating their own people, the Mokadians, and the original Koramite inhabitants of the New Lands. But there is a rogue element that has recently entered the fray, sending its inhuman servant out to seek the users of magic for its own nefarious purposes.

The story is primarily centered on ideas about magic and its use. The Order wants to wrest magic from out of the hands of the few Divines and give it into the hands of the people. Magic users operating in secret, the Order has kept hold of old traditions and lore that speak of times before the current government, which controls magic very tightly – labeling all non-sanctioned magic users a Sleth, a sort of demon or witch that has given themselves over to the destruction of the world. Magic itself is made of three sources, Fire (also known as spirit), Soul and Body. In order to increase their strength, magic users can draw Fire from others either forcibly or with consent. In the method of Fire extraction lays the greatest difference between the Divines and the Order as the former prefers force, whereas the latter prefers the latter or not to use others’ Fire at all. Either method usually leaves the giver of Fire bereft of a part of themselves, even resulting in death. John Brown’s magic system is extremely intricate and complex, and although consistent has so many bits and pieces it can result in some difficulty in following the story, as the greater part of a reader’s brain power is given over to understanding the system. It has a lot in common with David Farland’s system in The Runelords series in scope, complexity, and detail.

The novel also shares a lot in common with another epic fantasist, Robert Jordan. Like Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, this tale is a group tale, not focusing on any individual, but rather a large group of people who are not always with the other. Although the tale begins with Talen (in a rather hilarious pants incident that drew me in right from the start) his entire family gets involved, including his brother and sister Ke and River, his father Hogan, his uncle and cousin Argoth and Nettle, the Creek Widow, Sugar and Legs – two children labeled as Sleth, and several others both villain and hero. Though the primary perspectives are Talen, Argoth, and Sugar’s there are also some chapters given over to Hunger, servant of the rogue element of the story, and a couple non-essential characters. Brown has chosen to let none of these characters be simple throwaways, here and gone again, so there are many histories and personalities in the tale, further adding the complexity of the story. This multiplicity of developed characters can be difficult to keep straight in the mind, but readers will appreciate that Brown creates characters, even minor ones, which the reader can invest in. Although Brown’s character development is not as clear-cut as George R. R. Martin’s (who devotes each chapter to certain characters, helping the reader keep them straight) it is full of just as many fully realized characters, though fewer perspectives are used to tell the story.

There were times inServant of a Dark God where it was not clear if the story was serving the world or the world serving the story. My own preference is always for the latter, as it is for story that I buy any novel. Even as late as the last few chapters, Brown was developing his world, and that lack of a mostly full understanding of the structure of the politics, culture, and magic system of the novel in the first hundred pages of the book detracted a great deal from my full enjoyment of the story. I could not get comfortable with the world, always wondering when Brown was going to throw in some new bit of history or piece of magic. Each addition was usually a new piece of the puzzle of the world, rather than a building on what had come before. For instance, although never foreshadowed anywhere in the story before, two new members of the Order crop up out of nowhere late in the novel. I’m not even sure why the topic is brought up, as they play no role in the story later.

Thanks to a glossary, I was not distracted by terminology so much as the interaction between the disparate elements within the world, from characters, to history, to government; to the ways magic could be used. In the acknowledgments to the book, John Brown says that “writing is about going out to find that which is cool, thrilling or moving and bringing it back for others to enjoy.” While this is noble idea, there is a point at which a novel can have too much “which is cool”. It was as if, while Brown was writing the story, he would come across some new idea and throw it in to the story. At that point, he would find a way to make it work within the story, rather than really questioning whether that new cool thing really added to the story, or simply added one more element, character, or piece of setting that the reader had to keep straight.

Although I applaud John Brown’s ambition in Servant of a Dark God his lack of writing experience made this sweeping and massive story a bit too much for him to handle. Although his characters are interesting, the magic system intriguing, and the world somewhat unique, I think that the tale is a bit too complicated and rather difficult to follow.

Though I will gladly read more stories in the series, I was disappointed that the story was so utterly complex that as a reader I had a hard time keeping all the details straight. Brown has written a highly entertaining, unique epic fantasy, but one which is problematic to read and may turn off potential readers. To be painfully honest, I am conflicted about this book. I want desperately to say it was a great novel, really enjoyable and a fun read. But I also recognize it has certain imperfections that detracted from its potential greatness. So I’ll leave you with this as was suggested to me when I cried out to the internet about my conflict. Servant of a Dark God “isn’t half bad”…so it is also half good.