Welcome to Araxes, where getting murdered is just the start of your problems.
Although I haven’t read many works by Ben Galley, his previous SPFBO entry Heart of Stone is one of my favorite standalone novels I’ve read this year. It presented a world ravaged by war, with an enslaved golem bound to serve and massacre under various generals throughout the centuries. The story offered an intriguing take on enslavement and the sacrifices made when one’s fate is trapped and bound to another. Galley explores similar themes of enslavement in his latest novel, Chasing Graves, book one of the eponymous Chasing Graves trilogy. Whereas Heart of Stone offered an introspective look at one person’s struggle to find meaning in his enslavement, Chasing Graves focuses on its effects on society at large.
When I first opened the cover, I quickly realized how much time and effort Galley spent creating this detailed world. I was immediately reminded of Steve Rodgers’ City of Shards in its scope and world-building. We are treated to multiple maps of the truly massive City of Araxes and the surrounding country. In addition to a tone-setting prologue, we are also privy to pre-chapter quotes from the lore of the realm -- some pertinent, some humorous. But most importantly, we are taught the Tenets of the Bound Dead, which is the foundation that the story and its society is built upon. “… the soul of a body that dies in turmoil – whether through accident or unnatural causes – will naturally rise several days later. The shade has the chance to turn its body to the Nyx [an underground body of water] should no other claim it first. In cases of the latter, only once said shade is bound can the master own all the soul’s belongings and estates.” This tenet was put into place centuries ago by the old gods as a “parting gift,” and in doing so has birthed a world where organized murder is commonplace. Not only can you get killed for your possessions, but you can also be enslaved and bound to your murderer for untold centuries of labor. The more ‘shades’ that someone owns, the more land and power and political sway one has. It’s a disturbing premise not unlike parts of our own world history when slavery was legal and rampant.
One of the more interesting aspects to the story is how far into this premise Galley has explored. The majority of the story takes place in the gargantuan city of Araxes, home to millions of humans and shades, a coastal city separating a harsh desert and the ocean. The port of the city extended hundreds of miles in both directions, with races and sects from all over the world. Greek and Egyptian influences in architecture and religion dot the landscape. The ruling political party is housed in a centralized structure called Cloudpiercer, a tower that spans half a mile thick at the base, and over a mile high. But this isn’t the only tall structure: there are elevated roads suspended between rooftops and towering pyramids, hundreds of feet off the ground. High society is a literal description. In a city where organized gangs can attain power, land, and riches through the murder and binding of souls, those in power must protect themselves from nearly everyone. Paranoia runs rampant among the elite, and certain high-ranking officials are so fearful of being slain, they lock themselves into seclusion for years at a time. Oppression threatens from all directions, and it sets a captivating precedent for character motivations.
There are several shifting points of view that switch with each new chapter. We start the story from a first-person POV, and slide into other third-person POVs that include a gangster boss, a queen-in-waiting, and a desert warrior on a desperate mission. The first-person POV, Caltro Basalt, is a lockpicker who arrives in Araxes by boat, summoned to the Cloudpiercer for an unknown mission. To say that things don’t go according to plan is an understatement, and the opening chapter is one of the more exciting hooks I’ve read to start any book. We also spend time with Boss Temsa, a one-legged gang leader with a copper-and-gold eagle claw prosthetic. His slow and menacing gait, ruthless attitude, and dangerous charisma allows Temsa to climb the ranks of society with an ever-increasing army of shades, but his enemies and allies might be too powerful to manage. The story also jumps south to the vast and endless desert, where a warrior nomad named Nilith is dragging the body of her ex-husband (along with its undead shade) up through the arid wasteland to Araxes, with the intention of binding him inside the city. This plot thread was shrouded in mystery, as we don’t know who these people are in relation to anyone else in the book. There is a reveal towards the end of the story that had been lightly hinted at, but it just opens the floodgate of more questions before the book ends.
This story has a great many elements I enjoyed. The world-building and societal rules were first and foremost the biggest draws for me. The “bound shades” element feels like a hybrid mix of Michael Fletcher’s Manifest Delusions universe combined with elements of the Greek underworld and afterlife. Galley is a very talented writer, lacing his pages with dark humor, clever metaphors, and philosophical speculation. There’s enough mystery and action that pulses throughout the story to keep the chapters flying by, and I appreciated how the reader is allowed perspective from the low the high, from the rich to the poor, the living and the dead. The book is relatively short for something that covers so much ground, but the table is set for some exciting events down the road.
There were a couple of areas of the book that I felt could have been improved. While the characters we spend time with are in interesting situations, I didn’t find the characters themselves as compelling as I had hoped. This is partially due to a lack of character histories; we don’t learn much about the background of nearly every character in the story. In some cases, this is done by choice, with a greater purpose in mind. But in other circumstances, such as with Caltro, arguably our main protagonist, we don’t learn much of anything of his life prior to him landing in Araxes. While we still gain a sense of what kind of person Caltro is over time, it still made it difficult to connect with his fate or feel invested in his decisions. He is likeable, funny, and arrogant, but I felt it difficult to really connect with him without knowing what roads he traveled before landing at the port.
I also imagine that the stopping point to this volume might be a point of contention for some readers. Many character goals and motivations start to slip into place, yet there’s a bit of a lack of urgency in some plot threads before the book cuts off. It didn’t feel as if the book had a true ending, or cumulative event that took us into the home stretch. It felt more of a temporary stop-gap until the next book is written. We are left with some cliffhangers, but they felt more of the ‘chapter variety,’ instead of the ‘book-ending’ variety. The story clocks in at 275 pages, a bit on the shorter side of dark fantasy, so perhaps there will be ample time to flesh some areas out in future entries.
In short, Galley has created a fascinating world that feels rife with stories that could be mined across multiple series. Its history is rich with detail and there’s so many avenues to be explored. The opening volume provides more than enough twists and thrills to have me excited for the sequels, though I do hope for a bit more reason to care about what happens to our cast. One of my favorite quotes from the book occurs early in the story, and it resonated in my head as I finished the book. “All things lie in all directions, if you’re committed to walking far enough.” I think this serves as a good metaphor for Chasing Graves: I’m confident that Galley has some great plans for this story and world, and I’m excited at its limitless potential. We just have a little further to walk until we get there.
7.5/10 - Adam Weller
Here lies Araxes, City of Countless Souls, where death is the pretty shitty beginning of a whole new ‘life’, comprised immediately and forevermore of servitude and toil. No perks. No escape. No food. For newly dead Caltro Basalt, this means being late for a very important date, a mysterious appointment in the Cloudpiercer. Instead, his murder takes him on another path, no less dangerous, with stakes higher than life or death and deadly enough to topple more than kings. Power over souls may be everything, but in this cutthroat business, where high politics is more knife in the back than honeyed words, the dead have their own role to play, especially when the gods come calling.
People say a story is a window into another mind, another world. I believe they are more mirrors than windows. In them, we glimpse ourselves dressed up as characters. And like any reflection, the truth we see can be hard to swallow.
If this reflection shows us anything, it’s that greed lies at the heart of the human experience. The author’s depiction of a corrupt, covetous, and unscrupulous society, one which has created a comprehensive money and power making industry around the enslavement of the dead, feels depressingly real. It’s a detail rich, thoroughly thought out creation, with potential threaded through every layer and more than enough to say about the nature of slave societies to ground it in real life. Cleverly adding to the veracity of this overwhelmingly unpleasant place is the ‘primary’ material at the opening of each chapter, including excerpts of the extensive bureaucracy surrounding the trade and sources or ‘documents’ detailing important historical, political, or legal points relating to the business of shades. Ranging from funny to pointedly relevant, these snippets are effective ways of getting a real feel for both the wider world and how things are supposed to run in Araxes. But in a place where death is ever present and people are pretty quick to chose murder as a means of getting ahead, even the king himself is so afraid of being killed that he’s apparently locked himself away in a vault, passing his orders on little notes through a tiny letterbox. Of course, the criminal underworld have found a way to make it all work. Such is the inefficacy of the system of government that, at one point, the soul stealers mention how they can rely on its cumbersome nature to protect them from the consequences of their methodological slaughter - it takes years to get things done, so even if a victim complains, it’s a problem for another time. Anyone who’s had to deal with government departments for anything important will nod their heads in grim understanding. For shades such as Caltro, this means nobody’s coming to help- he’s going to have to get himself out of this mess. And he’s going to complain about it as loudly and frequently as possible while doing so.
The problem is that nobody else in the book is even close to as interesting as Caltro. And he is interesting. Bit selfish, bit whiny, but brilliant with it. I can really get behind his ‘seriously I just came here for an appointment and now i’m dead and you want me to save the damn world’ bad attitude. I feel that, I really do. He dominated the story to such an extent that I didn’t want to spend time with anyone else, but the limitations of having a main character as a ghost slave mostly stuck within the confines of one place means that alternative pov chapters are necessary. Other characters are colourful enough, such as local crime Boss, Boran Temsa, the heir to the throne, Sisine, and Nilith, a mysterious woman dragging the body of her dead husband and its attached shade across the desert. They all have their moments, and I loved some of Temsa’s crew, especially Miss Ani Jexebel, who is quite the woman, but there wasn’t enough depth there to really, truly grab me. With some characters, the author’s choice to provide less information was plot driven but even then the end payoff wasn’t worth the feeling of why-is-this-here disconnection while reading their sections. On the other hand, you've got Caltro who, amongst other things, is being murdered right after arriving in town, shut in a sarcophagus for snooping where he shouldn’t, and chatting to a god in the body of a reanimated cat (massive props for getting a talking cat into the story). He is living the not-living dream. I genuinely can’t wait to see what happens next, his bad luck is already impressive, I have no doubt it’s going to be legendary.
This feels to me like a series which still has the opportunity to grow into itself. Like the abrupt ending, there’s a sense that there should be that little bit more. The incredible worldbuilding and fun hook give it rock solid foundations, but the variation in character appeal means that it doesn’t yet make impact it should. There’s serious grounds here for building something spectacular, but it’s just going to take a little longer to get there. And I certainly don’t have any problem waiting, i’ll be there for whatever comes next.
ARC via author for fantasybookreview.co.uk
7/10 - Emma Davis
What are your three all-time favorite novels?Man, only three? That’s tough, but let’s go for it. In no particular order: American Gods, The Book Thief and Lord of the Rings, the book that kickstarted my entire wri [...]
7.3/10 from 1 reviews
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