|Cover by Julia Lloyd|
Titan Books, 19 January 2021
Available as: PB, 415pp, audio, e
Source: Advance PB copy
I'm grateful to Titan Books for an advance paperback copy of Hall of Smoke to consider for review.
The term "mountain top experience" is often used in a religious context to describe an encounter between believers and their god (think Moses being given the Commandments). You climb up the mountain, away from mundane matters, into a liminal space, encounter the Deity, and return with a message or a mission (or perhaps simply changed).
At the start of Hall of Smoke, the warrior priestess Hessa is seeking such an experience. She has climbed the mountain and made a sacrifice (of her own blood) but hears nothing from Eang, Goddess of War, to whom Hessa is devoted - and who Hessa has offended by not killing the stranger Omaskat who took refuge in her village as she was ordered.
But Hessa receives no reply, only dust and ashes as her home, and the sacred Hall of the title, are destroyed by raiders from the North. It is clear what her duty is: to chase Omaskat down and kill him as she should have done in the first place. Thus begins a frenetic hunt across the Norse-tinged lands of Eangen and Algatt and the somewhat Roman seeming territory of Arpa - not forgetting trespass on the heavenly High Halls of the Otherworld themselves. The High Halls are where the dead of this world go for eternity, and loss of Eang's favour risks Hessa's place there. So she must deal with Omaskat, whatever her feelings, regardless of the laws of hospitality, heedless of the cost.
Hessa is well suited to the task, however. She's not just a priestess but a warrior priestess, trained from childhood to fight, and equipped by her goddess with a magical fire that can heal her own wounds and destroy her enemies. One of the joys - albeit a brutal joy - of this book is to see the formidable Hessa taking on her enemies, whether using weapons or her divine gifts. Another is her general determination and courage. Hessa has actually lost a lot, her family and way of life having been shattered, but with her quest in view and much more at stake - including the life and soul of a baby committed to her care - she presses on, despite growing doubts and suspicions that Eang has been hess than honest.
What follows is a fast-paced, complex and desperate chase. Hessa finds unexpected allies, and deadly enemies, but she also finds that what she's been told about her world, its gods and its history is rather partial, that the truth is complicated and that powers she knew nothing of are in motion. The story really documents her growing-up, both in her understanding of the world and her place in it and in knowing and choosing to whom, and to what, she gives service. Fighting fiercely is good, but fighting knowingly is better, and perhaps the world is less clearly drawn than it seems.
I hope that doesn't sound too sober and preachy. It really isn't Hall of Smoke is first and foremost a rollicking, combat-rich, fantasy adventure in the very best tradition, infused with a sense of active, interfering divinity redolent of the Norse or Greek mythologies. These are gods and goddesses with plans and schemes, who can be bargained with, tricked and even scared but who are also utterly amoral. In a real sense they don't deserve the service of someone like Hessa but equally, she has to live in the world as she finds it, protect what is precious to her, and prevent even worse things from emerging. What can you do? That's the dilemma at the core of Hall of Smoke, giving the book moral complexity and depth.
Great fun, always engaging, and strongly recommended.
For more information about Hall of Smoke, see the publisher's website here.