“Nothing is just what it’s made of (…) Everything is more than its parts.”
Jesse Teller’s “Song,” book one of the Manhunters series, has all the ingredients of an exciting, dark fantasy epic: ancient and powerful mages, deadly and vengeful enemies, familial strife, malevolent politicking, and jailbroken criminals hell-bent on revenge. Yet the story also suffers from confusing character decisions, underdeveloped relationships, and perhaps a bit too much magic.
The story switches between two POVs: Rayph, a 10,000-year-old court wizard, and Konnon, a mercenary trying to raise enough money to prevent a disease from slowly killing his young daughter. As the story begins, we learn that a magical prison that Rayph has designed to detain some of the worst criminals in the Empire has been attacked, and its criminals have been released. A powerful enemy called Black Cowl is responsible for the jailbreak, and Rayph is left to assemble a team of potent heroes to discover Black Cowl’s plans and bring the fugitives back to justice. Meanwhile, Konnon, a talented swordsman, is desperate to take any job that will earn him enough gold to pay for medicine to keep his daughter Bree’s disease at bay. Konnon is hired as a guard for a merchant train, and both Rayph’s team and Konnon’s route are fated to intersect in the city of Song, just in time for its seasonal festival celebration.
Many characters are introduced quickly and their histories are explained without much detail, which works as both an advantage and a detriment to the story. There is a reoccurring theme of scenes feeling underwritten throughout the entire book. Time and again, Teller will skim through a meeting between two important characters without filling in what their relationship is based on. Hints are dropped, but full explanations are rarely given. In most circumstances, I enjoyed having these mysteries to solve, as I didn’t quite know who to trust. In other cases, I was questioning why Rayph or Konnon would so easily pair up with new companions, even though their lives were constantly in danger. Towards the end of the book, most of the puzzle pieces revealed themselves, but the puzzle picture wasn’t completely clear. We are given just enough information over time to gain a broad perspective of our main characters, their sense of justice, and the various relationships they’ve built along the way. Yet some of their decisions seemed to lean more towards dramatic effect rather than rationality, as I found myself questioning why certain situations played out as they did, when other choices felt more obvious and efficient.
Action scenes were plentiful, but the battles seemed way too easy for Konnon, who I had to remind myself was only human. There was one chapter where Konnon and his companion take on an entire settlement of outlaws. Even though they had the element of surprise on their side, they defeated their enemies while outnumbered at least ten to one. Furthermore, they chose to fight in a style that caused their enemies at much pain and punishment as possible before killing them. Every outlaw arrow missed, while every strike our heroes threw scored a debilitating or lethal hit. I can understand that the author was trying to convey how skilled and deadly our heroes can be, but I had trouble digesting how deeply one-sided this scene played out. There didn’t seem to be any risk of harm to Konnon, and the tension was removed from the battle altogether.
Magic is one of the greatest variables in the story: there are no set rules or limitations for what the most powerful magicians are capable of. It was both exciting and frustrating to follow how Rayph and his enemies utilized their magical skills to achieve their goals. At one point in the story, Rayph becomes a fugitive and is on the run from every bounty hunter in the nation. He cleverly changes his outward appearance but doesn’t bother to raise any other defense. He falls victim to a surprise attack, is severely injured by several arrow strikes, and barely escapes with his life. A short time later, we witness Rayph cast a spell that turns his friend’s skin into steel, leaving his friend impervious to attacks. It would seem like a 10,000-year old mage would act with a bit more competency and use that steel-skin spell on himself, considering he’s the most wanted man in the Empire. Rayph consistently places himself in more danger than is necessary, which seems odd for someone so powerful and ancient. I found it difficult to relate to his character after so many situations where he needlessly and recklessly puts himself in mortal danger, which is far from what I’d expect from someone who has lived to be a hundred centuries old.
I’ve spent much of this review pointing out some issues I’ve had with the story, but I want to emphasize that I enjoyed much of the book regardless of what was stated above. Teller is building this story with a great number of moving parts; the world-building is specific as it is far-reaching. There are many gears in play, and though this chapter of the saga is over, there are many plot lines that I foresee will become more interesting as they develop further. Teller genuinely surprised me with some of the reveals towards the end of the story, and his dialogue and descriptions are so carefully worded, they might slip by undetected unless you pay full attention to what’s being said, and more importantly what is not said. I believe “Song” to be an interesting start of a series that may improve in hindsight after further books are published.
Thank you to Rebekah Teller for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
Review by Adam Weller
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