Grudgebearer by J.F. Lewis. ★★
Grudgebearer is the start to an epic fantasy trilogy. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to my tastes. If I weren’t reading it for review, I wouldn’t have finished.
Grudgebearer is set in a world with a wide array of species, some of whom are immortal. Kholster is the first of the immortal Aern, a wolf-like, carnivorous warrior species with no qualms about eating other sentient beings. They were created as slaves for the Eldrennai but gained freedom six hundred years ago. Every hundred years the peace between the Eldrennai and the Aern must be reforged at the Grand Conjunction. But an Eldrennai prince has moved the armor the Aern left hostage, and if he’s going to follow his oath, Kholster must destroy them all. And if he doesn’t follow his oath, then he will no longer be an Aern.
To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what happened with Grudgebearer‘s plot. I simplified things a lot in my summary. There’s also a race of sentient lizard people who are attacking. Then there’s an entire pantheon of gods who are meddling in the affairs of the mortal world, playing some game which I don’t think is ever quite explained. There’s also something about portals into other dimensions and demons? I spent a lot of time confused and pretty much gave up on understanding near the end.
The author clearly put a lot of work into world building, but it never worked for me. Maybe because there was just so much going on. There were steampunk elements with the dwarfs, the aforementioned pantheon of gods, thousands of years of backstory… However most of the world building elements were fairly familiar fantasy elements in one way or the other. Dwarfs, elves, dragons, dryads/nymphs, ect. Names with apostrophes in them for no apparent reason. That sort of thing. Even with all this effort clearly put into creating the world, I always felt like I was skimming on the surface of the story, not truly immersed in it. It’s hard for me to explain why – I’ve read books with completely inhuman casts and alien worlds and enjoyed them more than Grudgebearer. Possibly narrowing the cast of POV characters and focusing on showing the world through the viewpoints of only a few would have helped. I would also have found an appendix useful at points.
I find the presence of female characters with agency important in every book I read, and the back blurb’s mention of Kholster’s daughter Rae’en as his heir factored into my decision to read Grudgebearer. Like the world building, effort is clearly put into the female characters, but it never quite works. There’s three significant female characters in the book – Rae’en, Kholster’s daughter; Wylant, Kholster’s ex-wife, and Yavi, a diplomat from a plant-like species, the Vael, which are reminiscent of nymphs. All three characters had significant page time devoted to them, and I actually found Yavi’s sections the most preferable parts of the book due to her lighthearted personality. But while there were these three among the main cast, female characters were noticeably lacking in the supporting cast. There’s one human women who briefly appeared, a little girl who was in one scene, the queen of the Vael, and a handful of goddesses. We never saw an Aern besides Rae’en who was female or an Eldrennai besides Wylant. The vast majority of characters who appear in this world are male.
There’s other problems with the female characters. Both Rae’en and Wylant feel defined by their relationships with Kholster, and while Yavi is a bit more independent, her narrative still largely revolves around him. The Vael were created to be all female “companions” for the all male Aern. They apparently cannot help but be attracted to the Aern, especially Kholster. And in turn males of other species (primarily the Eldrennai) find the Vael supernaturally attractive and have trouble controlling themselves around them. As a result the Vael usually wear veils when traveling among the Eldrennai. While it’s possible that this was an attempt to undermine tropes, women having to cover themselves so that men “can control themselves” doesn’t sit right with me when we live in a world where women are told to do this so frequently. The female characters were also all attractive, and at times I felt like they were being described through the male gaze:
“Moonlight touched the smooth, attractive lines of Wylant’s face, revealing red, puffy eyes and chapped lips. Her coverlet lay cast aside on the floor, exposing her nakedness to no one but the gods.”
I got through Grudgebearer by assigning myself a certain number of pages to read each day. That’s generally not a good sign for how much I’m enjoying a book. While I’m glad that I was able to finish this one and write a review for it, I am not planning on reading the sequels.
Disclaimer: I received a free copy from Pyr in exchange for an honest review.