Review of The Rise of Nazil: Secret of the Seven
The Rise of Nazil: Secret of the Seven by Aaron-Michael Hall is an epic fantasy novel and the first of series books that so far include Rise, Seed of Scorn, and the recently released Piercing the Darkness. With a large number of characters and locations in an elaborate world, this is fantasy for fantasy enthusiasts. It is fantasy due to the setting, it is not until 400+ pages in we see any “magic” and it’s pretty brief. Aside from the “seven” nobody else seems to have powers, although there is some oracular visions and some mind-touching. The stylized dialogue hearkens me back to older more operatically styled works (Tanith Lee comes to mind). However, the depicted character relations and violence are more in tune with current-day tolerances in the genre. (On that note, a caveat to potential readers, there are some scenes of brutality and sexual violence definitely not for the faint of heart.) The depictions of the depraved Nazilians reminded me somewhat of the Melniboneans from Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champions mythos. Of course, only the protagonist Elric has white hair. My first impression of the world of Faélondul was something akin to John Norman’s Gor or Sharon Green’s early fantasy works.
The novel opens with the awakening of the seven Guardian demi-gods (avatars?). Author Hall foreshadows on a vast canvas but it all boils down to setting up the framework of the events that are going to be portrayed. Unfortunately, it gives away a more-than-a-quibbling number of details of events that are going to be depicted. This forces the reader to erase that stuff so that tension won’t be diminished.
Spinning back the time dial, the story opens with Brahanu Ravenot an attractive young lady lakaar-in-training from the village of Cazaal. While collecting herbs near the border of Nazil-held territory, she gets caught in a storm and a stroke of lightning spooks her mount. She is partially unmounted, dragged, injured and left disoriented in the storm. She wanders to the first sign of habitation she sees and right onto the doorstep of the less-than-friendly slaver Nazil.
As fate and author Hall would have it, her first encounter is with Pentanimir Benoist, a first chosen and way-gooder-than-your-average nazilian. It’s forbidden love at first sight and an unexpected pregnancy just to sweeten deal. Of course, accomplished nice-guy Pentanimir is the crown-jewel in the political machinations of the nazilian Olgiarchy, and the romantic target of cruel femme Denotra. With nazilian xenophobic hatred and cruelty and their murderous intent toward hybrids, it’s clear from the start our human / nazilian couple is in for a hard row upstream. Add to that Pentanimir’s younger brother Danimore shares his elder sibling’s soft spot for human damsels in distress. To their uncle’s vast consternation, taking diminutive innocent and largely pregnant Zeta as a house servant.
Brahanu and Pentianimir are drawn apart, each facing their own particular trials with trying to fulfill their obligations. Danimore and Zeta face difficulties and cruelty at the hands of Oxilon Benoist (the uncle of the two brothers).
Thematically speaking, this work hits all around the circle on race hatred, acceptance, and the value of people. It highlights the color-blindness of benevolence and how love can burgeon at the most unlikely of times. So regardless of the story’s Machiavellian maneuverings, romance (three or four actually) are the central glue holding things together. There’s some side thrusts on identity and heritage, and a family reunion that I won’t spoil. There’s a destiny-child as well.
The wrap up in this twisty-turny narrative is neither short nor simple with everything resolving to fated roles that will play into the next volume in the series. I found myself quite exhausted by it all. There was nothing surprising but it was satisfying none-the-less.
Execution : 3.85 — Let me say up front that omniscient viewpoint makes me break out in a rash. This is my own particular peeve and there are readers completely unbothered by it. It bugs me even when it’s done well. In Rise, the viewpoint is not egregiously violated but it does jump around and drain some of the closeness I might have otherwise felt for the characters. Another of my allergies is when the omniscient author tells me the outcome of the story which happens in the novel prelude. Those things said, this is a smooth (if a bit complicated) read. There’s a lot of peripheral scenes that I question the necessity of. If I had my druthers, I would have preferred that word count go into descriptive framing of the setting and the characters. At several points when I do get a character detail it is a surprise to me… like Itai being like giant blonde norseman. This all goes to setting expectations and laying down rules as a part of the world building which I’ll address in my setting notes.
One place where Rise differentiates itself from other fantasy I’ve recently read, is dialogue. Author Hall has adopted an pseudo-shakespearean kind of old-school diction for the characters (for the most part). For simplicity we’ll call it fancy-speak. In contrast, the townies in Cazaal speak in a drawled dialect (well some). I mention this because main character Brahanu (who hails from Cazaal), has fancy-speak dialogue. She shares this in common with all the Nazilian characters. I actually like the archaic cadence structure, it pushes the story out of the here-and-now and gives this an out-of-time feel. The problem is the structure imposes limits on variation. It made differentiating characters apart difficult, especially without adequate tags. I found that Brahanu, Pentanimir, and Danimore all sound pretty close to each other. I suppose the brothers sounding alike is natural but shouldn’t townie Brahanu have spoken in dialect or at least have something distinctive in her speech pattern?
Setting : 3.4-4.1 — I have both laudits and misgivings about the setting. I laud that we are not dragged down by huge blocks of reader-feeder and pedantic useless historical detail. Author Hall presents a great canvas authoritatively, and is clear in the prose she well knows her world. The issue is she is a bit stingy with broader details. There seemed to be room in the story for a lot of non-plot sidetalk, but little of any words accommodating Faélondul’s breadth or the immediate conflict. Questions like: why do the Nazil have power in the first place? Is there anything special about them aside from coloring? Nothing special is depicted. What advantage did they have besides being ruthless? Except for the part with the Guardians, the white-haired albino guys could just as easily be the devil Europeans invading central Asia and the racial melting pot of the Silk Road.
The laws and limitations of Faélondul are vague and the larger world is unreferenced. We are shown death’s door (gateway?) that is watched over by the seven. Another quibble is the map. If you look at where Bandari is on the map, it doesn’t make much sense for Pentanimir to take Brahanu there as it is about as far in the wrong direction as he could possibly take her (and still be in the known world). The last bit is time references. I kept wavering over what was meant– turns of the moon were days and cycles of the moon months? The ambiguity caused me some distress.
Last is just scene setups in general needed more visual framing context. I often was left wanting some details of the environments.
Character : 3.9 — The omniscient viewpoint and head-hopping made it tough on me. I thought the primary characters were well drawn, but their secondary characteristics and history could have used more attention. Also, more framing descriptions and tags would have helped, especially in light of the huge cast. I am a fantasy veteran and I still got overwhelmed in spots. The operatic diction and angst made me think of Shakespeare in a couple spots, but at times it walked a fine line between melodrama and farce.
Villains. Practically every Nazilian in this narrative aside from the protagonists are villains. Uncle Oxilan is the worst kind of cowardly jerkface imaginable. In fact, there’s so MUCH villainy it begins to dilute and slosh over into melodrama. For myself, I prefer the bad guys to have one or two redeeming traits or to have some driving catalyst for their callous natures and scabrous activities. When Oxilan meets his end it is over WAY too fast.
Overall : 4.0 — I quibbled with a lot in this book, but it remains a solid work of fiction. I have to say that I am a fairly open-minded reader, but there are those who will be taken aback by the number of sex scenes. The depictions are not overly gratuitous, but leave no doubt, it is adult fiction. I myself didn’t take off any points for that, but factor it into your purchase. Having read this volume, I’m not really sure what’s left to challenge the cast in the next book. I guess I will have to read it to find out. If you’re looking for something in the vein of Tanith Lee and John Norman, with operatic drama and stylings. Look no further, here is something to dive into.