So, this is a bit of a weird review: I know I posted a review of this book when I initially read it in January 2019, but when I went looking for the link to put into my review of book two, I can’t find it anywhere! So this is something of a re-review, slightly cobbled together with some thoughts from my original notes, and some from the reread I just did to prepare for reading the sequel. I’m baffled… but anyway, don’t let that distract from how much I loved Master of Sorrows!
Book: Master of Sorrows by Justin Call
Read before: Yes
Publication date: 21st February 2019
Ownership: E-ARC and physical ARC sent free of charge by Gollancz; I purchased my own hardback copy on publication. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: ableism, including use of the word ‘cripple’ – the ableism is shown negatively in the text, but it is often present on page; violence and injury; murder and death, including major character death.
Master of Sorrows was one of my top fantasy reads of 2019. It’s a fresh take on the training school tropes of fantasy, asking: what happens when the training school is teaching all the wrong things? We follow Annev, a young man training at the hidden Academy of Chaenbalu. All he wants is to pass the Test of Judgement, become an Avatar who tracks down dangerous magical artefacts, and marry his sweetheart Myjun – but the Academy’s teachings are corrupt. They see all magic as inherently evil, and see physical disability or injury as signs that a person is touched by the evil god Keos. Annev’s mentor and adoptive father Sodar tries to get him to question these teachings, but Annev is desperate to be accepted into the ranks of the Avatars, even though if they knew he’d been born with only one hand, they’d kill him. As the Test of Judgement approaches, the wheels of fate begin to turn and Annev’s life is about to be knocked way off course…
This book is so much my cup of tea. I love an academy story, and the first parts of Master of Sorrows serve up a really great take on the tropes of the genre. We have traditional classes that fill us in on aspects of the world-building, and also some really entertaining training exercises – the scene that sold me on the book is an extended stealth exercise that is enormously fun to read. There’s also a giant, deadly obstacle course, for goodness’ sake, like some kind of evil version of CBBC’s Raven (perhaps a niche reference. I don’t care)! There’s a great sense of dramatic irony as you see Annev struggle with his classes because he can’t accept that all magic is evil, and I very much enjoyed the juxtaposition of these classes and Annev’s quieter conversations with Sodar – although there’s a ton of action (more on this in a bit), this is actually a fairly introspective book.
The world as a whole has a David Eddings or Robert Jordan vibe, dark and dangerous but not too grim, which makes it the perfect setting for a magic-filled adventure in the classic tradition. The magic system is a real strength of the book, being just “hard” enough for my taste! Though it’s a large book, the pace is maintained really well – the chapters are short and there are big set-pieces every so often that really keep the tension up. Things really ramp up in the final section of the book, with one of the coolest assassin action sequences I’ve read, and a whole lot of questions raised. My content warnings above note the ableism that is featured a lot, and it is worth bearing in mind if it’s something you’re sensitive to – it’s very clear while reading that the Academy is in the wrong in teaching that disability is evil, and the narrative never condones it, but several characters discuss it and outright state ableist views. Part of Annev’s journey is overcoming what he’s been taught about himself, so go carefully if it’s an issue for you – but I felt that he himself was a positive depiction of a disabled hero (though of course, please seek out own voices reviews), and I think the series has a lot of opportunity to build on this book’s condemnation of the Academy’s views.
Annev himself is a great, relatable main character, and one whom I’m really excited to follow on his journey. I’m not often a fan of a teenage boy protagonist in fantasy fiction, but Annev is a believable and surprisingly likeable one. It’s fun to see him mature and start to realise how the world works – he has his moments of being a teenage idiot, but it never gets too annoying, because the story moves along at a real clip. Sodar was one of my favourite characters (I’m a sucker for a kind mentor with a mysterious past), and there were plenty of people I loved to hate among the staff and students of the Academy. The one minor critique I could make is that this world seems very heavily male, but that is due in part to the boys-school setting of the Academy (because of course, as well as ableism and elitism, they’re into boys and girls learning different skills…). There’s a slight tendency to default to male on side characters, but as the series moves away from the Academy, I think this should improve, as the women we do see are very interesting – I’m actually most excited to see how Myjun develops, after spending most of the book deeply disliking her!
This is very much the first book in a series – I have a feeling it’s almost a prologue to Annev’s true story. But if you like training school stories, or want a fresh, clever take on a classic fantasy style, this is well worth a read! I think the next book will also allow the story to really leap forward in terms of character depth – getting outside of the Academy’s small world should give much more opportunity for female characters to shine, and I honestly have no idea where Annev’s story is going to go next. I’m so lucky to have an extra early ARC of Master Artificer as I’m so impatient to see what happens! Five out of five cats!