The more I get into Indie fiction, the more fantasy I find myself reading. And there are some great fantasy writers out there–not the least of which is David Alastair Hayden. I previously reviewed Hayden’s Who Walks in Flame, and praised it for its uniqueness. As I was writing that review, I was reading Chains of a Dark Goddess–it’s past time to visit that book!
Chains opens with a delicious premise: Breskaro Varenni, Knight Champion of the goddess Seshalla, hero of crusades and greatest warrior of the age, is betrayed by his trusted allies and murdered. Then, he’s brought back from the dead to exact revenge at the behest of an evil goddess. Sounds like a great antihero type story, right?
Well it is, and it would be a perfectly enjoyable read if Hayden stopped there–but he doesn’t. As the protagonist, the reader is immediately set up to sympathise with Breskaro—but this actions through the book make it difficult. This is a good choice, as it eschews the tired cliché of the antihero. Breskaro is evil, no doubt about it, and driven in part by bare revenge as he is, his motives are questionable. But there are good things about him too, and every once in a while he drops his guard to show a tender side that suits him well. There’s a running implication that he’s as evil as he is because of what he endured in death, but I think he was a bit of a prick in life, too. He’s certainly not a man to admire, but that’s what makes him such a great character. As a nice counterpoint to Breskaro the character of Esha is a delight. She has a youthful exuberance that infects everyone around her, even our undead warrior—and in that, she gives him one of his few shreds of humanity. There’s something special about her that’s not addressed until the end of the book, and I have to say I was surprised at it.
The use of a death mask to cover Breskaro’s decaying features seems like an obvious choice—but is no less awesome for it. It’s a terrifying image, but it also does well to give some pathos to his character; he knows he’s repellent, and though he never says it, seems almost ashamed at his appearance. At the same time, this action gives him depth—he fully intends to use his frightening visage to manipulate others. He’s not a cut and dried superhero, and has faults like anyone else.
The world of Pawan Kor–as mentioned in my other review–is vibrant and creative. It’s one of those fantasy settings that seems like a place you could actually visit; it’s real enough without losing the elements that make it fantastical. There’s a detailed history, though a lot of it is implied or described in other books. I’d have liked to see more of that history explored, but there is a sense of mystery about the world because it isn’t…and enough of it is that it keeps you intrigued.
The way Hayden describes how magic works is especially fascinating. It is based on the power of an ancient race of wizards how have ascended to beings of energy, locking themselves in crystals called qavra. These crystals can be used by their descendants to wield powerful magic, resulting in almost a possession by the ancients. Those who are not direct descendants can still call on that power, though it’s weaker. Effectively, the crystals become an implement and a source of magic. It’s a clear and elegant explanation with an old school pulp fantasy flair that also explains why magic is uncommon.
The thing I like most about this book is the way it explores religion. Hayden treats this subject very well; he doesn’t beat you over the head with it, and it’s not even (really) the theme of the book. Instead it’s an undercurrent that sweeps the reader along, almost without them knowing it; if you pay attention to it, it adds an important dimension to the narrative, but if you don’t, the plot stands on its own.
The main idea here is that faith is different from dogma, though the two are seldom separated. The Church of Seshalla has completed three crusades and is about to start the fourth, all in the name of “converting the heathens,” and the devotees of the church follow the edicts of the Matriarch (leader of the church) blindly and absolutely. At the same time, it’s made clear that the dogma instituted by the Church—however well intentioned—isn’t necessarily in line with the teachings of their Goddess. It makes for an intriguing subplot that, as mentioned, hovers just enough below notice that if you disregard it, you lose nothing. Which is a prudent decision on the author’s part, religion being the inflammatory subject it often is.
On the other side of things, we spend most of the time in the book among the heathens, and they’re portrayed as such—liars, thieves, assassins and sorcerers. This is another masterful stroke of Hayden’s; by making the “bad guys” unpalatable, they, like our protagonist, are harder to sympathize with. But with the way the plot is set up, we can’t cheer for the Church either. The result is a complicated mess of grey—there’s no good guy or bad guy at all, just people with different interpretations of the truth.
Such a complex moral question can’t be answered—or, at least, you’ll get as many different answers as people you ask—which makes it somewhat universal. A reader can pick up on what they want in this book, and while we’re certainly meant to root for Breskaro against the Church, the Matriarch and those who wronged him, those antagonists are just as likable and even sympathetic in their own way. And that is the trick to creating great conflict, and a great story.
You can find Chains of a Dark Goddess at Amazon and Kobo. Also look for David Alastair Hayden on Twitter, Goodreads, or at his website. Hayden has several other books set in the world of Pawan Kor–be sure to check them out!