|Cover by John di Giovanni|
S C Flynn
The Hive, 25 November 2017
e-book, print length 403pp
I'm grateful to the author for providing an e-copy of this book for review.
Every five hundred years or so, the Face of the Akhen is unmasked. Each Unmasking raises a new Empire, making the ruler of whichever land the Akhen favours wealthy, powerful and strong.
And allowing it to eclipse those who benefitted from previous Unmaskings.
The Fifth Unmasking is now overdue, and Calvo, the Emperor of Faustia, which was raised to dominance by the fourth, waits to see what will happen next. But others want to control and manipulate the Unmasking.
Against this background, The Hidden Face follows Dayraven, a young man returned bitter from years of exile as a hostage in far (and alien) Magia, and Sunniva, a warrior trying to find her father who has disappeared.
The result is something like Raiders of the Lost Ark meets I, Claudius. Dayraven and Sunniva find they've been set a series of puzzles - puzzles they have literally been brought up to solve. At first it's about discovering who murdered the old scholar Halakh and finding Sunniva's father - but as layers and layers of meaning are peeled away we begin to see enemies gather, and the two are forced onto the run as they discover that much more is at risk.
This is fantasy of a very definite stamp - fantasy boiled down, you might say, not a 1000 page tome with a cast of thousands but a spare and focussed story. What we don't get here is the saga of a great journey in which our protagonists change beyond all recognition. The landscape sketched in the map at the beginning of the book is broad (based I think on a North Western Europe where the land bridge to Britain is still in place) but we don't explore much of it in this book; the quest described is a very particular and localised one and Dayraven and Sunniva dash from one encounter to the next.
It's very cinematic in that respect, concentrating on the essentials of the plot. You'll like it if you found yourself muttering "get on with it" at the Tom Bombadil interlude in Lord of the Rings. (Some other readers may wish, for example, that we heard a little more about how, the journey on the boat was managed or that Sunniva had to fend more for herself more. That said, the Twister - who helps her out with supplies - is a magnificent character; an outcast, deformed in the eyes of his society, freed from prison by a High Priest for mysterious ends but very much his own man and, to be honest, a bit of a thorn in everyone's side. I want to hear more about the Twister, and also about the dangerous and seductive Malombra.
Overall, a rattling good story with strong central characters and a well realised setting. (I'm not sure I can remember a fantasy that made a key point of a character who was an architect and built things, rather than a warrior who destroyed them). I could perhaps have wished that in places the story was left to breathe a bit more, but the relentless action is compelling and hooks the reader in right from the start.
To read more about The Hidden face, see the author's website here or follow him on Twitter
The book is available on Amazon and its Goodreads is here.