I was drawn to this book by the stunning cover – it didn’t end up being quite what I’d hoped, but it’s very much a case of my dislike for gritty fantasy getting in the way again!
Book: Son of the Storm by Suyi Davies Okungbowa
Publication date: 13th May 2021
Ownership: Proof copy sent free of charge by Orbit Books. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: violence, injury and death, including death of parent and grief; miscarriage and discussion of abortion; fantasy racism, including abuse of albino people.
From one of the most exciting new storytellers in epic fantasy, Son of the Storm is a sweeping tale of violent conquest and forgotten magic set in a world inspired by the pre-colonial empires of West Africa.
In the ancient city of Bassa, Danso is a clever scholar on the cusp of achieving greatness—only he doesn’t want it. Instead, he prefers to chase forbidden stories about what lies outside the city walls. The Bassai elite claim there is nothing of interest. The city’s immigrants are sworn to secrecy.
But when Danso stumbles across a warrior wielding magic that shouldn’t exist, he’s put on a collision course with Bassa’s darkest secrets. Drawn into the city’s hidden history, he sets out on a journey beyond its borders. And the chaos left in the wake of his discovery threatens to destroy the empire.
The beginning of this book had me desperate to read more. I loved the world that was introduced, with a strictly stratified society, a scholarly hero on the hunt for forbidden knowledge, an engagement between the two leads that seemed to be all politics, and a university setting. Unfortunately for me, the book moved away from all the elements I was excited about quite quickly, turning into a grittier adventure story, and losing some of the scholarly/political elements I was looking forward to. That being said, I can see this winning a lot of hearts: it’s well written, and feels very much like it suits what’s popular in fantasy at the moment. So don’t take my word for it, if that’s what suits you!
The world is brilliantly described and easy to visualise – I really felt like I could see every scene, particularly those in Bassa. The narrative is quite slow and detailed, so it should satisfy those who love a lot of worldbuilding, and the physical setting and its history are well-woven together, creating a very vivid world. Some people may find it slow, but that depth of detail was one of the things that felt the strongest to me, and I noticed when it wasn’t there. I would have loved more depth to the Breathing Forest, a wild and dangerous place outside of Bassa that’s filled with dangerous beasts and strange plants – Danso’s trek through the forest is one of the paciest bits of the book, when I could have read so much more about it! The history of Bassa is complex and twisted, and it informs the characters’ actions really well – they really couldn’t have grown up anywhere else, which is high praise for how well the history and societal issues are woven into every part of the book.
I will admit I struggled with the characters, and I’m chalking this one up to my own specific taste; I expect many of you will read this paragraph and immediately put this book on your list! The book world at the moment seems to be all over powerful but horrible women, and I’m coming to the realisation that this just isn’t my cup of tea, so I spent most of Esheme’s chapters frustrated by how selfish and nasty she was. Danso is also very selfish, but in a very male, young adult way; his curiosity is all well and good, but he never thinks about the consequences of his actions on himself or others. Whenever something bad happened to him, I really just thought ‘you deserve that’! Again, it’s an interesting take on a character, and one that I can see the cleverness of, it’s just not the experience I prefer in my fiction. I liked Lilong, but even her storyline is filled with grief and anger, so though I was interested in her story the most, it wasn’t exactly a relief from the heavier storylines. I’d hesitate to call Son of the Storm grimdark, but it’s certainly on the bleaker end of things. As a final note, it also hit a current dislike of mine in fiction; I’m a lot more sensitive to pregnancy issues, miscarriage, and cruelty to babies in fiction since having a child. I appreciate that in a darker story like this, they’re not inappropriate, and the way that they are used here is, objectively, fascinating (no spoilers, but it’s not something I’ve seen before) but it just hit a squick button for me that means I’m probably not going to continue with this series, as it seems like it’s going to be a major plot point.
This is another case where I was caught up in the hype and requested a book that fell outside my genre preferences, I think; all my criticisms are very much ‘it’s not you, it’s me’. Those who enjoy grittier fantasy full of selfish, morally grey characters will find so much to love here. At the end of the book, there are so many interesting plot threads open, and I think those who enjoy ruthless female protagonists particularly are going to be desperate to find out what happens to Esheme! Three and a half out of five cats.