I’m always in the mood for interesting new fantasy, but somehow I missed Soulkeeper when it first came out. With the sequel, Ravencaller, just out in March, Orbit were kind enough to send me over copies of both so I could catch up – and I’m glad they did, because Soulkeeper is a huge amount of fun!
Book: Soulkeeper by David Dalglish
Read before: No
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Orbit Books. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: Gore/body horror; discussion of sex slavery (major character was previously a sex slave, though not during course of book).
I was really worried at the beginning of this book. The first few chapters are the kind of dark, fighty, violent fantasy that I tend to struggle with – a cynical, morally grey protagonist in a gritty, “realistic” medieval world, beating up horrible magical creatures and getting beaten up in return. I thought I’d let myself in for 600+ pages of hyper-masculine grimdark. BUT. I’m pleased to report that that was not the case at all! Yes, when we first meet Devin Eveson, Soulkeeper, he’s an itinerant priest helping your standard fantasy villagers with your standard gross magical plague, and grumbling about how his life has taken a turn for the rubbish, but that set up is swiftly knocked down and toyed with. The balance of the world shifts, with magic returning and divine beings showing up hell-bent on destroying the unworthy, and Devin ends up gathering a motley family (some related to him, some decidedly not) and trying to save the day in a city beset by eldritch horrors. The change is smooth, and makes total sense, but allows Devin (and the plot) to do some much more interesting things, in my opinion, than the grimdark opening would indicate.
Once Devin gets to the city, the book completely blossoms, turning into a pacey, witty, and much more fun adventure! We get other viewpoint chapters, including Devin’s sister Adria, who is a very different sort of priest, and who ended up being one of my favourite characters. While I liked Devin’s narration very much, I think the world-building really benefited from the different views of the world that were presented, as we have quite an array of characters who really help highlight how intricate the society is. The voices are all really well distinguished, too, and even the minor characters have noticeable development throughout the book. Crynn as a city is a vibrant and realistic place, from its debauched rich to its far more numerous poor – I enjoyed the depiction of the Church, as multiple characters wrangled with their thoughts on its teachings around the divine and magic. There’s a little bit of romance (including a major gay character whose awkward flirting was adorable), a lot of personal subplots, and plenty of believable bickering that really made the main cast feel like a family.
I liked the concept of the Soulless, people who are literally born without souls and so who are literally incapable of making decisions for themselves – they reminded me of the Tranquil from Dragon Age or the concept of ‘gentling’ in The Lies of Locke Lamora, but somehow even creepier again. Attitudes towards them vary, from those who try to help them to live semi-independently, to those who take advantage of them – and here is where the book did the one thing that made me dock it from a five star read. A large sub-plot involves a character trying to get revenge on the owner of a sex-slavery ring involving the Soulless – it’s an interesting concept, and it is pretty well-handled, with nothing graphic on page, but I was so enjoying reading a fantasy book without any sexual abuse in it (it’s sadly unusual, and will apparently remain so). That being said, there is no random sexual abuse for ‘local colour’ or to raise plot tension, and it’s never used as a threat against any of the characters regardless of gender – on the whole, the book is pretty free of misogyny, which was a pleasant surprise.
Soulkeeper does tend more towards the horror end of things at times. The central villain is a truly irredeemable and wildly over-powered psycho, and his obsession with creating ‘art’ from the bodies of his victims makes for some gory and gross scenes. I’m rather a wuss and didn’t find them too bad, but if you’re sensitive to blood and guts, or elaborate ways to mess with corpses, then this might not be the book for you. The narration doesn’t linger on things unnecessarily, though – actually, this is true of the book as a whole, which is very fast-paced, despite the length. The juxtaposition of these dark bits with the softer bits involving our main cast went a long way to keeping the book from being too grim for me.
It’s weird to say, but despite the horror and the darker aspects of the book, this is actually quite a cosy and fun read. The characters we follow are all actually pretty likeable people, the kind you actively root for, and I found myself very invested in their happiness, let alone their attempts to save the day. With the found(/rediscovered) family aspect of the book, and the various subplots focusing on each character’s background, plus the general humour, this felt quite a lot like a good RPG. There’s one scene in particular, towards the end of the book, which really had the feel of a dramatic video game cutscene; an elaborate and visually impressive set which makes you take a breath and think, “oh, shit, we’ve reached the epic bit”.
I’m not sure how a grimdark opening and a narrative filled with body horror manages to come together into a fun and heartwarming read, but it just kind of does. I thoroughly enjoyed Soulkeeper, and I can’t wait to read the next book! Four and a half out of five stars.