This is a cautionary tale about not judging a book by its blurb… I wasn’t sure I was going to like The Black Coast, as it sounded very macho and warlike, but it ended up shooting straight onto my favourites list!
Book: The Black Coast by Mike Brooks
Publication date: 18th February 2021
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Orbit Books. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: violence, injury and death; misogyny (condemned on page); homophobia (condemned on page, but large subplot around a character working to overcome it, so it’s quite present).
The Black Coast is the start of a series filled with war-dragons, armoured knights, sea-faring raiders, dangerous magic and battle scenes.
When the citizens of Black Keep see ships on the horizon, terror takes them, for they know who is coming: for generations, Black Keep has been raided by the fearsome clanspeople of Iwernia. Saddling their war dragons, the Naridans rush to defend their home only to discover that the clanspeople have not come to pillage at all. Driven from their own homeland by the rise of a daemonic despot who prophesies the end of the world, they have come in search of a new home. Meanwhile the wider continent of Narida is lurching toward war. Black Keep is about to be caught in the cross-fire of the coming war for the world – if only its new mismatched society can survive.ru
I don’t always include the official blurb in my reviews, as I figure that if you’re interested you can look it up yourself, but I wanted to make a point of doing so here, as I honestly think it does such a disservice to the book! There’s way less war than it leads you to expect, and it doesn’t touch on any of the aspects that made The Black Coast feel so unique to me. This is a book about two enemy communities learning to live in a tentative, fragile peace, where they clash over everything from language difficulties to gender roles to the best way to bring the harvest in or treat a wound; it’s a book about the difficulties, and the rewards, of learning to work together with people you previously thought were evil, but are starting to realise are just, well, people. There’s plenty of high-energy action, so don’t fear this is at all boring, but it’s a hopeful and noble book – I never thought of epic fantasy as something that could be cosy, but if anything achieves it, The Black Coast is it.
The Black Coast is a multiple viewpoint fantasy that juggles a few plotlines, but the main parts of the story take place in two areas: the Black Keep, a Naridan coastal fort, and Kiburu ce Alaba, ‘the City of Islands’, which is a place where many cultures have melted into one. We have two viewpoints that show the people of Black Keep having to learn to share space with a clan of Tjakorsha refugees under an uneasy truce – the Tjakorsha are known as fearsome raiders, not settlers, and the Naridans have a long history of hating them, so when the two leaders, Saana and Daimon, ally themselves, there’s a lot of work to be done before they can live peacefully. In Kiburu ce Alaba, we have two main plots, one focused on Jeya, a young street thief, and one on the Naridan princess, Tila, who’s secretly pulling the strings behind the patriarchy and has a secret identity as the most influential crime boss around. Usually for me with this kind of fantasy there’s a viewpoint I’m less interested in, but although it took me the longest to warm up to Jeya, as her story is at first less connected to the others, I was eager to continue all the viewpoints and rarely sighed on a chapter change. I also can’t decide on a favourite – I mean, how do you choose between a terribly proper but also terribly badass knife-wielding princess, and a strong and dangerous clan leader who’s also the loving mother of a teenage girl warrior? This is a book that really lets its female characters, particularly the older ones, shine – I genuinely stopped reading at one point to look up if Mike Brooks was a pen name for a woman (it isn’t!), because the portrayals are just so good.
I absolutely loved the way this book handled questions of gender and sexuality. While there’s definitely a large place in my heart for a queernorm world where these things are just not an issue, what I loved here was how Brooks managed to build such variety into the different cultures: with such diverse societies shown in all other aspects, of course they have different opinions on what’s acceptable! There’s all kinds of possibilities here, and they’re so beautifully nuanced that it never feels like ‘oh the good woke countries are queernorm and the bad ones are restrictive and homophobic’, which can happen in fantasy occasionally. The culture of Kiburu ce Alaba, has a language based on gender presentation, with pronouns being given different tones depending on which of five genders you imbue them with, but whatever you choose (and whether you choose to display a gender at all) is entirely up to you; this seems very alien to the Naridans, who hold to very strict gender presentations, but there are some wonderful scenes where Naridan characters pretty much say ‘I don’t understand this, but I’m still going to respect the hell out of it’, which is delightful! One of the things the Tjakorsha and the Naridans clash over in Black Keep is that both sides have flawed takes on gender and sexuality: the Tjakorsha have equality between men and women, but believe queer relationships are wrong, while the Naridans are accepting of queer relationships but see women as lesser. But again, this is generalising about the societies, which the whole book tries to get us to avoid – it’s made very clear that there are individuals who reject these ideas on both sides, and part of the merging of the two groups is a slow realisation that they’ve been denying some of their own members. I feel like I’m not explaining it well, but the point I want to make is that even though there is misogyny and homophobia present on page, the trend as a whole is towards acceptance of everyone, and it’s extremely nuanced and well done.
I want to call back to the brief point I made about pronouns in Kiburu ce Alaba, and say a little more about how utterly fantastic the linguistics in this book are. If you’re interested in language and what it says about cultures, or the difficulties of accurate translation, or even how two people from different places can be separated by a common language, this is going to be a glorious geek out for you. I had an absolute whale of a time. I love how the Naridan language finds it disrespectful to say ‘I’ – it feels clunky for a few pages to have people constantly refer to themselves in the third person, but once you get used to it, you realise it gives you SO MUCH insight into their psychology. Their terms of self-referral are used to position themselves in an intricate web of loyalties and ranks, so a sister addressing her brother might say ‘your sister feels…’, but if her brother is also the king, she might say ‘your subject feels…’, and there is a world of difference in which she chooses – the familiar or the formal – and why. I’ve seen some reviews saying they couldn’t get on with the style, but honestly it overjoyed me, and I found it flowed very well – those with experience in languages where your relationship to the speaker matters will probably find the same, too. It also lets the dialogue do even more heavy lifting, and leads to some fabulous realisations later in the book if you’re paying attention. The other big issue is of course how communication works in Black Keep, when not everyone can speak both languages – this is perhaps a little more expected as a theme, but it’s pulled off beautifully.
I haven’t mentioned the dinosaur-based dragons, which add a lot of fun and drama, nor even touched on the plot, really. Suffice to say that if you’re usually a fan of epic fantasy, this will more than satisfy you on that front, and if I didn’t have so much else to geek out about I could spend a whole review raving about how good the actual plot is. But what stands out to me here is not only the stunning character work, but also the sheer scale and intricacy of the worldbuilding. Each character is so clearly the product of their upbringing, and for us to be able to know that speaks volumes about how well this world is depicted. No one element can be unpicked from the rest, and I’m in awe of how seamlessly the whole thing hangs together.
This is a hot contender for book of the year. I can’t wait to tuck into book two, The Splinter King, which is currently on my bedside table. If you’ve made it to the end of all this raving, well done, and go and buy this book! It’s fantastic, unique stuff, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Ten out of five cats!