Master of Sorrows by Justin Call

Master of Sorrows book cover
Rating 9.1/10
A balanced mix of palpable action, inventive revelations, and flawed characters. It is respectful of the reader’s intelligence and is impressive as it is ambitious.

A lot can happen in a few days. Just ask Ainnevog (just call him Annev), a deacon acolyte in the tiny, remote village of Chaenbalu. One minute, Annev is juggling duties at the Church with his mentor while training for his final shot at passing the grueling Avatar test. The next minute, he discovers he’s being hunted by a fallen evil god bent on destroying his entire bloodline. Annev learns that he is doomed to stay hidden in his village or he and everyone he knows will be annihilated. And if he somehow happens to survive for long enough, it is prophesized that he will eventually break the world. For some reason, this doesn’t have a positive effect on his love life. Poor kid. These predicaments are but a ripple in the tsunami of a story known as Master of Sorrows, Justin Call’s first book of his Silent Gods saga.

Annev is a struggling teenager with no family, raised by an old priest who has mentored him from birth. He excels at his physical challenges while training with the other boys in the town’s Academy, but his altruism is holding him back from advancement. Annev has both friends and enemies, both of which make his life difficult, but this week is his last chance to take a mysterious Avatar test before he graduates. One must be an Avatar to do anything with their life, including court and marry a woman, become gainfully employed, or even leave town. The boys who fail the test become stewards and remain that way for life.

Although there are only three or four days that pass during this book, there are an absurd number of events jam-packed in the story that allows for Annev to evolve and mature in ways that feel earned instead of rushed. Early on, Annev’s cleverness and physical prowess leads to cockiness and immaturity, but as major events are revealed, and he learns more about his place in the world, he starts to struggle with his own morality and loss of control. Some of the strongest scenes in the story are seeing how he teeters between acts of strong leadership and acts of pure malice.

One highlight to note is how Call resolves situations when many of his characters are at odds, and they formulate plans to outsmart each other. But all of Call’s characters are intelligent, so they usually guess their opponent’s intentions quickly, no matter how clever, and it’s gratifying to see that the author gives as much mental acumen to his antagonists as he does to his central characters. This also applies to all major and minor characters in the story; each are treated with care and respect, each are fully developed and fleshed out, and it’s another testament to Call’s meticulous dedication to breathing life and lore into this world where it feels like no area was neglected, and each component of its construction was thoroughly developed.

The lore that supports this story is nothing short of outstanding and echoes Sanderson’s Cosmere universe in terms of history and complexity. Not bad for a book that takes place almost entirely within a small village and its surrounding forest.  Call has mentioned that he spends hours on the phone every other weekend with his map illustrator, talking about the layout of his world, discussing the environment, the history of the continent, and the geographic plans for future volumes of the next three to potentially eleven books. I get the sense that Call has written more background history and behind-the-scenes world-building material than the published book we hold in our hands. As this series gains more traction in the years ahead, I could easily see wiki pages, dedicated subreddits, glyph interpretations, and many other fan-created discussion boards attempting to theorize and disseminate all of its mysteries.

Reading Master of Sorrows is instantly entertaining, but it also lays the groundwork for something massively rewarding in the years ahead. It is a balanced mix of palpable action, inventive revelations, and flawed characters. It is respectful of the reader’s intelligence and is impressive as it is ambitious. This is the start of a truly epic dark fantasy saga that is well worth jumping into on the ground floor.   9.3 / 10  

--Adam Weller

I received an uncorrected proof copy of Master of Sorrows in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to Justin Call and Gollancz. 

The narrative begins as we are introduced to the 17-year-old acolyte Annev. He is aiming to progress to the desired status of an Avatar of Judgement in this educational environment. The atmosphere he lives within, the classes he frequents and seminars he attends are to help him achieve this, whilst also being aided by the influence of his guardian Sodar and a varied group of teachers. The issue is that to achieve the status of an Avatar of Judgement, a trainee needs to pass a test simply known as a judgement (or testing day). Annev is yet to pass, although his skills, knowledge and intellect outweigh his peers'. Tomorrow is his last chance. Annev and his two best friends, Titus and Therin normally work together but this hasn't aided any of our trio so far. This is the last chance to become an Avatar. One position remains plus many individuals who already own that status do not wish for Annev or his pals to achieve that sort of recognition. Still... the one final position remains. If unsuccessful these characters will become stewards (little more than servants) to the masters and the avatars and their rights as members of the academy are reduced sevenfold. The fact that Annev will not be allowed to marry his sweetheart is just one example. 

In similar fashion to The Name of the Wind, The Magician's Guild and The Poppy War, we have a sort of hero of destiny, an educational establishment, bullies, colourful tutors, and character-defining hardship environmental experiences. Unlike the magic schools of the aforementioned, this is an anti-magic college. The students are trained as warriors (a' la Blood Song) taught swordsmanship, stealth, lockpicking, and other arts of infiltration. Individuals, as an avatar or a master of Chaenbalu, well, their main goal is to find magical artefacts. Taking them from evil individuals who would use them for nefarious purposes or to recoup them from others who are bewildered and unaware of the effects of said rods or magical adornments.

The history of the Gods, in a series known as The Silent Gods, is interesting. It is predominantly presented in a prologue bible-esque fashion at the start of each 'part'. I am normally bored and honestly riled at the nonsense of these sections in fantasy but they worked exquisitely well here. We're introduced to three Gods who were a family. One of which was a hero in how he cared for his family but is criminalised to the world in a sense that is arguably not his fault. Who is the real villain? This ARC had the status "What if you were destined to be the villain" as Jen Lyons' debut similarly stated, "What if you weren't the hero." I dislike taglines like this in both books. So misleading and I guess trying to appeal to the grimdark era of fantasy.

Anyway, one of the finest aspects of this novel is the amazing characters however, my statements about all are not glowing as you will see. Annev is a brilliant protagonist. Sodar is amazing and confusingly mysteriously mentor that a hero of generations really needs. I can happily say that there are about 15-20 brilliantly constructed creations here. Two issues, however. I did not care about anything to do with Annev's love and I believe that is only a tool to see what happens in the next book... and Fyn, although a stunning character, who I liked a lot, and one I can't wait to follow next, his progression did not seem organic. It seemed a bit too neat and tidy to help the narrative's progression. 

SPOILER UNTIL I SAY OTHERWISE...

Annev reminded me about one of my favourite characters in fantasy over the last 3 years, Girton Club-Foot (Age of Assassins). Both are disabled. Both are probably by far the best at what they do but are looked down upon. Especially in this novel, anybody with a disability is known as a son a Keos - who in my mind, is a God who did everything right, but it criminalised. I guess we'll find out more about this in the next two novels.

END...

Master of Shadows - in our world where everyone is scared about where the next read is coming from and when, and hoping we don't have to wait a decade for the next book - works perfectly as a standalone. Yes, I do want to read the next entry and there are about three loose threads that I can't wait to grip onto in #2.

This novel features tragic and sad deaths, utter betrayals, twisty-turny-twisty-turns, phenomenal weapons, and well depicted disabled individuals. The world is gigantic but in this entry, we are mainly focused on Chaenelau and the neighbouring forest. There are many books that this is similar to but in my mind, this is so much better than The Name of The Wind. This is phenomenal. Exquisite. It shows other novels how tropes should be worked to appear new and better than what has come before. James Tivendale 9.4/10

This is a very strong dark fantasy debut that will appeal directly to fans of The Poppy War and The Name of the Wind. It’s intense, mystical and brutal. 

The novel is Asian inspired, depicting a fighting academy that has an eastern quality to it. The masters who rule there and teach their ways despise the use of magic and hoard it in their secret vault to protect the world from its effects. They hunt and kill magic users and will gladly slay an infant at birth if they bare the taint of magic. They are an order that appears benevolent but have many dark secrets they hide from the boys they claim to train for the benefit of humanity. 

Driving the plot is a strong undercurrent of destiny and dark magic. Our hero (Annev) is being hunted by dark forces. Dark gods want him; they want to use him for the power he can channel. He lives in secret at the academy training to become an avatar of the order. The masters have no idea that one of their enemies is in plain sight. And this made the novel quite tense in points, there were several close moments when Annev’s identity was almost revealed. Such a thing would mean his banishment from the place he calls home. The story took several unexpected directions, so I was certain this reveal could happen at any time. 

Fans of The Poppy War will, undoubtedly, really appreciate this one. Both novels begin in a training academy, but slowly burst out into the real world as death approaches quickly. I really do recommend trying this if you like R.F Kuang’s writing. Justin Travis Calls’ novel is much darker from the outset, though he uses the school trope just as effectively. And I really liked how quickly the book moved forward, it didn’t mess around as the story constantly developed as more elements were added in. It also contains a very dark and dramatic prologue, which I couldn’t wait to find more about. And when the reveals came, I wasn’t disappointed. 

As a protagonist, Annev is the archetypal reluctant hero. He is unaware of his potential. His greatest strength is his ability to question and to think independently aside from the brainwashing that occurs at the academy (similar to Kvothe’s ingenuity.) This allows him to succeed time and time again where he would potentially fail because he has not yet fully come to trust his own physical abilities. It also makes the action quite interesting as the characters begin to work together as a unit rather than as independent warriors. And I think as friendships and trust will grow across books, this could become much stronger. He is quite a compelling character, genuine and honest, so it becomes hard not to root for him. It will be intriguing to see what the dark magic he possesses does to his personality as it begins to manifest itself more strongly. 

For now, though this is the beginnings of a new and exciting fantasy series that kept throwing surprises my way - ARC provided in exchange for an honest review.  – a solid 8.5/10.  - Sean Barrs

This Master of Sorrows book review was written by and James Tivendale and Sean Barrs

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