The Academy of Chaenbalu has stood against magic for centuries.
Hidden from the world, acting from the shadows, it trains its students to detect and retrieve magic artifacts, which it jealously guards from the misuse of others. Because magic is dangerous: something that heals can also harm, and a power that aids one person may destroy another.
Of the Academy’s many students, only the most skilled can become Avatars – warrior thieves, capable of infiltrating the most heavily guarded vaults – and only the most determined can be trusted to resist the lure of magic.
More than anything, Annev de Breth wants to become one of them.
I’ve had my eye on Master of Sorrows for quite a while. The whole concept of a hero destined to become the villain, and the struggle of fighting against that “destiny”… that’s the sort of thing that speaks to me.
But y’know, for a book about a boy destined to become The Great Evil, this is a remarkably relaxing read. There’s a lot of stuff in here that feels familiar, as though it’s pulling from or influenced by classic epic fantasies. And yet it feels fresh. It’s just familiar enough to get you comfortable and just original enough to be enjoyable.
The world is fascinating, and though the book is a little info-dumpy in places, I can imagine a lot of readers will enjoy losing themselves in discussion and speculation about the lore. To simplify things a bit (a lot), there were two gods who cast down a third god named Keos. Through various faux-biblical interludes, we learn that in this world (or at least in the secluded village of Chaenbalu) those who are disfigured or disabled are considered “cursed”, and therefore agents of Keos.
This prejudice runs to the extent that in the prologue, a baby born with no arm past his elbow is sentenced to death. Along with his parents. The baby survives and becomes our protagonist — Annev.
Annev is a very idealistic character. Adopted and brought up by the local priest, Sodar, he divides his time between serving as Sodar’s deacon and training to become a warrior thief — an “avatar” — at Chaenbalu’s academy. He is forced to keep his arm a secret through the use of a magical prosthetic, and in turn forced to keep that a secret because, well… magic is evil. Actually, that seems to be the purpose of the Academy: to hunt down and bring back magical artifacts to be locked up.
But where the Academy encourages individual achievement and almost vilifies friendship (along with everything else, it seems), Annev believes otherwise. Throughout the book, Annev’s sense of right and wrong is challenged, and he has to do some real soul-searching to decide whether to follow his own moral compass or that of his society. The looming threat of his supposedly evil destiny lends a certain gravity to these scenes, and adds an interesting twist to an otherwise familiar coming-of-age tale.
This story is a slow burner. While it is laden with promises of an epic scale, it takes its time getting to that point. We spend a lot of time exploring just what kind of person Annev is, and that pays off with a more satisfying character-arc. The characters as a whole are a bit more Sanderson than Hobb, leaning more to the simple-yet-relatable side rather than more complex and flawed.
In terms of writing, Call’s style is quite relaxed and digestible. It’s very easy to fly through the pages, and honestly I devoured this book in far fewer sittings than I was expecting.
I do have one pretty major criticism, though. While there is a good core of supporting characters, there’s really only one important, recurring character in this book that’s a woman, and she’s Annev’s love interest. Now, there is some in-world justification for this: Annev spends his days either training under Sodar or at the all-boys Academy, so he isn’t really going to run into many women all that often… But that explanation only stretches so far, and does nothing for the readers who expect to see women in their fiction. There is some indication that this won’t be the case in future books, so hopefully this will improve in the sequels.
But looking beyond that, I really did enjoy this book as a whole. I found it to be a wonderful mix of the old and the new, and the ending had me begging for just one… more… chapter. I’m very impressed with Justin Call’s debut, and I’m looking forward to seeing where this series goes.
If you’re a fan of coming-of-age stories, magic schools, and the idea of what’s right and what’s wrong, then Master of Sorrows is the book for you.
Master of Sorrows will release on the 21st of February 2019 in the UK.
Thanks to Gollancz, who provided an advanced copy of this book in return for a fair and honest review.