Wow, this is an odd book and I'm still coming to terms with how odd it is. I enjoyed it from its opening chapter to its closing chapter, but it constantly felt wrong to me and, only after it's over, can I start to quantify some of the reasons for that.
Let's start with the fact that the title is highly appropriate. This is the first book in what I believe is a trilogy called 'Bound Gods'. Everyone in the book absolutely lives in the shadow of the gods, because they're believed to be real, with some validation, and there's been a schism.
As the story goes, in the beginning there were two gods, Metherra and Patharro, mother and father. They created the world and everything in it, as you might expect. They had twin children, Fratarro and Sororra, brother and sister, who did a whole lot more but, in doing so, royally pissed off their parents, who then stripped their powers away and cast them down, Fratarro breaking into many pieces that were spread over the world, and what's left of the pair being bound somewhere underground.
The gods are now absent but they cast a long shadow. Most people in Fiatera worship the Parents, the Divine Mother and the Almighty Father, but are worried about the return of the Twins, so they drown all twins at birth, as a matter of course. However, there are some, who live in the tunnels inside Mount Raturo, who worship the Twins and actually plan to find them and free them, so that they'll overthrow their Parents and reclaim their power.
So far, so good. That's a great backdrop to what I'd categorise as grimdark epic fantasy, a world where the gods are apparently real, albeit absent, and, if the Preachers of the Long Night are correct, they may well war amongst themselves in this trilogy. I'm on board for that. The problem is how we get to that point, because I'm not sure that Rachel Dunne had quite figured it out one book in, which seems odd to me because, usually, when book one hits the shelves, book two is proofed and ready to go and book three may well be written. Certainly nothing else seems to have happened in this world since the Fall of the Twins, though it's surely about to.
While reading this first book, I struggled to figure out who the major players were and even whether some of them were the same as others. The back cover blurb told me who they were, but that wasn't being mirrored within the pages for the longest time and one of the most crucial ones was left out of that blurb entirely, leading me to assume that he was a minor character who happened to get a lot of word count, when he's really pivotal to the whole thing.
The first character we meet is certainly one of the most crucial. He's Joros, a priest of the Twins who spends the opening chapter leading a number of people up Mount Raturo. Only one of them turns out to be important, a lady named Verteira who's pregnant with twins, but even she quickly vanishes from the story, because she's only there to give birth; it's her children who are likely to be important, when and if we get to that point. They're Avorra and Etarro, though they are not also Rora and Aro, who are a completely different set of twins. Those aren't nicknames to hide who they are, though they do use Sparrow and Falcon to do that. Rora and Aro, that is, not Avorra and Etarro. I think I figured out that there are two distinct sets of twins hereabout three hundred pages, which is not good.
That back cover blurb suggests that this opening volume is going to be about Joros gathering a team of disparate fighters over eight years in order to ensure that the right team wins in the upcoming war of Gods vs. Gods. That's really misleading, because that process doesn't really begin until this book is almost over. 'In the Shadow of the Gods' runs just shy of four hundred pages, but he gains a first team member on page 94, as a gift, and the second not until page 277, when he hires another in an inn. The blurb is honest, but it's a single paragraph summary for book two of what has happened so far rather than a non-spoiler synopsis of book one.
In many ways, this isn't at all an opening volume of a trilogy at all. It's more like a prequel, written at a time after the entire trilogy became well known, so that the author could delve deeply into the back stories of her characters, mostly in complete isolation, and eventually get round to manoeuvering her cast into the same place at the same time so that the trilogy could begin.
So we learn about Joros's life in the tunnels of Mount Raturo, moving up the twenty positions of the Ventallo, only to eventually realise that everything for which he's going to be important goes diametrically against everything we've read. We learn about Rora and Aro, twins struggling to eke out an existence in the Canals, while pretending not to be twins, until they can't hide anymore and they have to leave. We learn a little about Anddyr, a drug-addled mage who is gifted to Joros by a colleague and possible former lover, but not a lot.
And we especially learn about Scal, a boy from the North whose position in the world changes greatly as moves through what he calls different lives. He's a lost child being raised by a priest in a town called Aardenel, so he's already on his second life. Then the Northmen come, massacre everyone and kidnap him to be with his people, which is his third. He grows up and leaves, finding a fourth life on his own as a bodyguard or mercenary for hire. And so we watch him grow through four distinct phases of life before he even meets Joros and starts a fifth under his employment.
And that's a good way to look at this book, because even Joros has lived a number of different lives at the point that the team of disparate fighters comes together. Scal is on his fifth. Rora and Aro are on at least their fourth. Who knows which Anddyr is on and we don't know enough about Vatri, a scarred priestess of the Parents who's been tagging along with Scal since his fourth life, even though he kind of doesn't want her to. How much are these different lives going to matter in this trilogy or should we only really care about the last few chapters of this book? That's an odd question to ask a third of the way into a trilogy.
And, ironically given that any framework I've been able to figure out for this book is sourced from the back cover spoiler blurb, I should point out that the only character who has a really clear place in the story thus far is the one who isn't even mentioned. He's Keiro, who is a distinct character from Kerrus, and he spends the entire novel walking. He's a Preacher of the Long Night too, the name stemming in some way from the Twins' promise to black out the sun or some such, but he was kicked out of Mount Raturo when he only shoved an icicle into one of his eyes rather than both of them, because he saw a pair of twins in the cavern and realised his mission had changed. That made for a brutal chapter.
Anyway, Keiro walks and walks and walks, sometimes with a companion and sometimes not, until he's found by a tribe of people that he's been looking for all along without ever realising it. Like all these characters, he's kind of on a quest but he doesn't know what for or why and only when he reaches his destination does he realise what he's actually doing. Each of them has a purpose for being and none of them knows what it is, except perhaps Joros, who knew what his was but he flipped it anyway into being the exact opposite. Because, why not.
As you might imagine, I struggled with this a lot and I continue to struggle with it, even now I'm all the way through. However, I should emphasise that I enjoyed it. Even if these sound like archetypes, they aren't. They're all interesting characters and I look forward to learning more about them as they find a way through the remaining couple of books. I enjoyed their backgrounds and their stories and those different lives they go through. I enjoyed everything here. I merely wonder if none of what I enjoyed will have any relevance at all to what's to come and that's a really odd feeling. Maybe I like this as the character study I think it really is, a lot more than as the first volume of a trilogy that it thinks it is. ~~ Hal C F Astell