Stories of one special man bearing the weight of the world are so common in fantasy, it can be hard to find a new angle to make the story unique. In Blood of an Exile, debut author Brian Naslund manages to embrace the old tropes while also presenting a world where its species are connected, and the death of dragons could undo the ecosystems that allow the world to thrive. That environmental spin, and the larger view of how a world’s apex predator is a key species, breathe some new life into the usual fantasy fare of sword-slinging anti-heroes and witch queens.
Of course, the sword-slinging and lightning magic is a lot of fun, too.
The story opens with Silas Bershad, an exile now known as the Flawless Bershad, fighting yet another dragon. In the backward nation of Almira, where people are more likely to build a mud totem to cure a disease than consult an alchemist who makes medicine, those who betray the king are named exiles, tattooed with blue bars across their cheeks, and given a new profession: dragon slaying. Few dragon slayers survive their first few fights, but Bershad has fought and killed more than sixty dragons. The commoners see him as a savior. He doesn’t see himself as much of anything, moving from one fight to the next with no larger goals, and no hope of redemption.
When he’s summoned to receive that offer of redemption, he nearly spits in its face. He’s looked forward to killing King Malgrave, who executed his father and exiled him, for years. But he can’t do it in front of Princess Ashlyn Malgrave, his former betrothed and lover, who asks him to carry out two tasks: rescue her kidnapped sister and kill the emperor of Balaria, the nation to the north.
Bershad isn’t interested in the political reasons, but when Ashlyn gets him alone to explain that Balaria is about to cause a mass-extinction event among dragons, his old love for the creatures (and Ashlyn) awakens. He takes on the quest, alongside his loyal companion Rowan, his beloved donkey Alfonso, a fierce female warrior named Vera, an obnoxious noble loyal to the king (who is thankfully eliminated fairly early on), and a Balarian thief, Felgor, whose job is to get them into the Balarian palace.
The quest and framework of the novel hearken back to the Gemmellian heroic fantasy novels of the eighties and nineties, although the violence and sex has been amped up to hang out on the bookshelves with the Game of Thrones novels. The familiar tropes are all there: supernaturally gifted warrior (Bershad heals ridiculously quickly, and he doesn’t yet know why), kick ass women who have agency but also serve to make sure the male protagonist gets enough sex, a cunning thief with a loyal heart, and even a smiling assassin who finds a bit of compassion. There’s even what feels like an homage to the torture room in The Princess Bride late in the novel.
Though both have a distinct Eurocentric-fantasy feel, the two primary nations, Almira and Balaria, are opposites on the technological scale. Balarians have used dragons and dragon oil to accomplish amazing things, and their city is driven on gears, with oil lamps at every corner and a health system where nine out of ten infants survive their first two years. Progress is vital to their society.
As the emperor says, “I refuse to hunch down beneath the yoke of human plight and misery because I am afraid of disrupting the natural order of things.” The world can go to hell, in other words, so long as Balarians are kept fed and happy. But their way of life isn’t sustainable, especially when eliminating a key species is causing famine and creating desert from one fertile soil. The emperor, of course, doesn’t care about that, certain that his progress will eliminate the need to depend on things as silly as ecosystems.
Almira, on the other hand, has no respect for learning of any kind. Ashlyn is a naturalist; she has studied dragons from her childhood, and her passion for the creatures led her to realize their importance to the world. Her system of passenger pigeons and spies in several nations has allowed her to track environmental catastrophes and trace them back to places where unusual numbers of dragons were killed.
This brands Ashlyn as odd by the Almirans, who already believe she’s half a witch. When she discovers properties of dragon thread that allow her to call lightning to her fingertips, it’s only a matter of time before her witchy reputation is solidified. With mud roads that wash out, little hygiene, and alchemists who pass of their knowledge as more magical than scientific, Almira needs a lot of work to become a stronger nation, but the squabbling lords keep any progress from happening.
The conflict between those two nations drives the book even more than Bershad’s internal development or the mysteries about his special powers, and the tension Naslund builds between the two philosophies, neither of them admirable, sets up plenty of potential for future world-building. References to the jungle nations indicate that there are some non-European-based cultures in the world (it’s strange that Almira, which contains jungles, has as much of a feudal-European a culture as it does), and as the book concludes Bershad’s first story, a final chapter indicates that there is much more world to see.
Fans of old-school fantasy who like the grit and grim flavor of darker novels are definitely the target audience for Nasulnd���s debut. But for readers bored of the old tropes, the struggle between progress and ignorance, and the goal of finding a middle ground the includes wildlife conservation, offers a new twist.
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