“Fear is our most potent weapon. Time to wield it or end up wielding the sword again.” - The Hellborn King
(After-writing note… this is a long review. The longest I’ll ever likely write. My apologies to anyone who reads it in its entirety).
Reviewing a book can be a hard task when one respects/likes/befriends the author. But this is my attempt at transparency.
Before we get to the review, I want to take a moment and clarify something. Sometimes, books don’t work for readers. This can be for many reasons, but I’m specifically referring to the “right place, right time”. I am very much a mood reader, and if I’m not “feeling it”, I won’t like it. This occurred so badly that I DNF’d The Hellborn King and didn’t plan on returning. Why though? My brother and his girlfriend were visiting, and I was reading at inopportune times. I was reading and trying to make a deadline, so I could take part in a YouTube stream (shout out to the YouTube channel Steve Talks Books). The Hellborn King isn’t without its flaws, of which I’ll note in my review below; however, none of the flaws were so egregious as I made them out to be when I originally DNF’d. I’m guessing between the interruption in my normal schedule, a current level of stress I’ve been under, a wackier-than-normal sleep schedule (whereupon I’ve been exceedingly exhausted), and the repeated appearance of the complaints I have about the book, all melded together and created a much more toxic opinion than ever should have formed. But upon recognizing this, I jumped back in. And I liked it. So… to Christopher G. Brenning, I apologize. Let’s get into the actual review.
So let’s begin with the criticism (i.e. the reasons I almost DNF’d). Quick note: this is going to sound like a lot, but it really isn’t. Most people don’t have a problem with the writing in The Hellborn King (I also have plenty of good to say about it, too… just bear with me). For the first 200ish pages, it didn’t bother me. It was only during 200-450 (the time my brother was visiting) that I became super frustrated. As soon as my schedule returned to normality, everything went back to mostly enjoyment and these "issues" weren't affecting me as much. However, I still feel as if I should point a couple out.
There were a few wrong usages of words… “pouring” instead of “poring” and a couple random grammatical mistakes (these are very minor issues that affected me but I don’t think other readers are likely to notice). And filler words. A lot of the sentences were longer/wordier than necessary. I’ll cite an example of being “light of the moon” instead of “moonlight”—alone, this isn’t much of an issue, but a lot of sentences have these extended phrases and they sort of “bloat” the book.
Character thoughts/dialogue are often over-explained or state things that both characters interacting already know (and the reader also knows). A good example is early on there’s a chapter where two characters are at dinner… the dinner ends, and one of them asks the other, “do you remember when we were at dinner?” and it was two paragraphs ago. Another example: swords are almost drawn, and the narrator references how threatening this is—but this is implied in both the actions and dialogue (and this sort of implication is often used, but then directly explained). The last stylistic choice was overly dramatic statements. To explain what I mean, here’s an example: (note… these are NOT direct quotes from The Hellborn King) “it was the most wonderful thing he’d ever seen”, “she’d never been so awestruck in her entire life”, “it was the worst thing she’d ever experienced”. Was it, though? Most of the time, the answer felt like “no”.
So I’ve taken more time than I normally would to critique some writing, but I felt it was necessary to explain what was getting to me. I’d like to highlight some solid praise for Brenning’s writing now.
Despite the issues I had above, wow. I was really surprised/impressed with Brenning’s consistent fluidity with his word choice. Except for a few repeated words… “as of late” stands out, I thought Brenning could really differentiate based on what he was describing. When something was brutal, it felt brutal. When something nice was happening, it felt nice. The political sections were particularly intriguing, and I really enjoyed the Gareth sections whenever he was dealing with other politicians. Christopher excels at writing in an accessible manner. I don’t think anyone will have any trouble reading/comprehending every sentence—which is a huge plus. There’s not any purple prose or unnecessary description (aside from what I mentioned above with telling us things we [and the characters] already know).
Let’s jump into characters and the story, because I’ve rambled far too much about the writing. We follow Einarr, Cedric, Madelyn, Lucetta, Gareth, Charlotte, and Titan. That sounds like a lot, and it is at first, but it’s surprisingly not as complicated as it sounds. Several of these POVs work hand-in-hand, so it’s not like each POV is separated from the stories of the others. Gareth and Madelyn are the standout characters to me. Gareth’s archetype is one of my favorite character-types in books, the incompetent, disrespected-by-everyone-who-matters person, struggling to gain a foothold. The politics in his chapters were very interesting. Madelyn is a warrior, and I just found her story/journey to be more interesting than a lot of the others. My least favorite was easily Lucetta. I didn’t really like her and something that happens with her is… odd, sorry, avoiding spoilers here. Cedric was pretty interesting as well, and his last chapter in the book was very good. I’m being vague here, but there’s a lot to like.
Perhaps the most interesting decision in The Hellborn King is that the main villain, Damien Dreadfire, isn’t followed directly. You only see him through the POVs of other characters. Einarr is the second-in-command to Damien and through Einarr’s eyes, you see Damien complete villainous act after villainous act. I would have appreciated a Damien POV or two, just to get some of his direct thoughts. However, I think Brenning doesn’t want readers to have access to his direct thoughts… so fair enough.
Regarding the story, there are some brutal moments I really enjoyed, though I was hoping for something more in the finale which I can’t really talk about (spoilers, pesky things). More brutal moments in Wrathbringer (book two of the series), hopefully?
I’m very curious to see what’s going to happen next, particularly with ___ and ____. Also ____, because of where he ended up.
Rating. I struggled with this. Do I rate it as a 1 or 2 star for almost DNFing? No. I returned to the book and none of the aforementioned issues bothered me nearly as much as I figured they would. I waffled between 3 and 4 stars. I think the official rating will be a 3.5/5 stars, rounded up for Goodreads and Amazon, because I am buying the second book, reading it immediately, and optimistic that Brenning will greatly improve upon the first. Debut novels are tricky little devils. Overall there are way more positives than negatives to this book, and if I sounded overly critical, that wasn't my objective. It was a solid entry and I'm excited to read more.
Thanks to Christopher G. Brenning for writing an interesting read—anybody interested in grimdark/military fantasy will enjoy this series. I strongly recommend people pick it up.