One of the most exhilarating aspects of experiencing the fantasy genre is to immerse oneself in a new environment that is unique to an author’s vision. The possibilities for design are only limited by the scope of one’s imagination. Even so, a substantial percentage of fantasy novels are set in a quasi-medieval European countryside, or perhaps a desert kingdom, or a dystopian wasteland. I get excited when I come across a less common fantasy setting that feels rich and full of wonder; a world that can bend and surprise and charm and scare. This type of setting is on full display in Jeffrey Hall’s The City of a Thousand Faces, book one of his Welkin duology. The majority of the story sets the characters traversing through an imaginative, well-developed jungle full of anthropomorphic animals, monstrous creatures, and other murderous flora and fauna. Although I had a couple of minor issues with it, this book was a wonderful read, and made me ask: why aren’t there more fantasy books out there that utilize a jungle environment?
The story focuses primarily on a teenage girl named Irtha and her younger brother Soli who live in extreme poverty on a riverbank outside the walled city of Mohii. Orphaned, starving, and homeless, Irtha spends her days hunting for river beads under a bridge that the city folk have wished away, like pennies in a fountain, and trades these beads in town for paltry food rations for her and her brother. Irtha faces two hard daily truths: first, she is extremely protective of Soli, who was born a Welkin: a rare human that can magically control and shape elemental stone and rock. Welkin are not only feared, but illegal; their king has been known to eliminate them on sight. As if keeping herself and Soli alive isn’t difficult enough, Irtha is also addicted to a drug called motherseed, and spends a healthy percentage of their meager coin on drugs instead of saving up to buy a real house, or simply buying more food. The seed’s effect is intriguing: after it is consumed, the user’s mind will temporarily leave their body and share a consciousness with a nearby jungle animal for the duration of the night. Irtha uses the seed as a temporary escape from the difficult hand that life has dealt her, but suffers dangerous, animal-like side effects from overuse of the drug.
A royal wedding is about to befall the city, and in preparation for its events, Irtha and Soli – as inseparable as “earth and soil” – suddenly find themselves in dire straits, as heroes are wont to do. A surprising and exciting event forces the siblings out of the city, with a couple of new companions in tow. This group, now hunted fugitives, set off through the jungle on a long journey to start new lives in the titular City of a Thousand Faces.
The journey itself represents some of the best and worst parts of the book. Hall shines in his creativity to fully flesh out a world of unique botany and human/animal hybrid creatures that are hidden around every tree trunk. I quite enjoyed Irtha’s realistic struggles with her addiction while on the journey, but I felt that the pacing of the dangerous events came too fast and furious for the majority of the trip. The early threats were constant and relentless, and the characters (and reader) could barely catch their breath before launching directly into a new life-threatening ordeal. Perhaps Hall’s intent is to convince the reader that no one is safe for even a moment, but the consistently narrow escapes in the face of death began to grow a bit tiresome. At one point, the unbelievable luck of being saved from violent death time and again is even addressed by one of the characters. It seemed like this streak of luck would be somehow baked into the story, perhaps a side-effect of being a Welkin, because why address the idea of being too lucky and then drop the subject entirely? I’ll hold out hope that this will be revisited in the sequel, but all in all, a minor complaint.
Also of note: due to the high volume of action scenes in the early part of the story, the character development felt lacking. Thankfully, that all changed for the better once our group arrives at one of their destinations. The longest chapter of the book is saved for this point in the story, and is dedicated to slowing things down and giving ample time for our party to breathe, talk, emote, and react, without having to skirt around deadly vines or flay cats or bounty hunters. This lone chapter could have been pulled from the book and served as a wonderful little short story that stands on its own. Seeing these fugitives teeter between hope and despair while discovering a new world of opportunities and threats was the most attached I’ve felt to the book. These final chapters helped showcase Hall’s talents in bringing dimension and depth to his cast, though I wish this was apparent a little sooner.
However, the book finishes on a strong note. Although an ending twist may have been telegraphed a bit too loudly, the series of events that puts our heroes at the midpoint of the duology is a high-adrenaline read that leaves as many questions as it does answers. Hall’s strength in creating lush environments, interesting characters, and difficult choices propels this tale into one of the more unique stories I’ve read in recent years. I’ve already started the concluding book to the series, and I’m eager to find out how this journey concludes. I recommend this story to anyone who loves a good road story with a fresh setting, inventive creations, and characters struggling with demons, both tangible and personal.
Review by Adam Weller
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