Demon Gate by Mike Cannon

A compelling tale with just the right amount of period detail.
Demon Gate book cover

Review by Gary W Olson

Mike Cannon's debut novel, Demon Gate - Book 1 of the Grey King Saga, boasts a setting that many readers of supernatural fantasy fiction may find unusual: tenth century Japan, against the backdrop of the battles waged between two powerful samurai clans. As the author explains in the afterword, it was a time when the newly-shaped shogun class emerged as a power, and the image of Japan that would fascinate the Western mind was born. It was also a time when people believed that demons were as real as anything else in nature. It is fertile ground for an epic fantasy not rooted in the usual European medieval tropes, and what grows from it is a compelling tale with just the right amount of period detail, with a flawed hero at its center.

The book's protagonist, Hikaru, is a highly-skilled swordsman, but also has gained a reputation for irresponsible behavior, including drinking and gambling.  Even when doing something heroic, such as saving a potential future Empress from being assaulted in a back alley, he seems to cause more problems than he solves, thanks to the tense political situation. The intricacies of late-Heian-era courtly politics are pretty well presented here, without getting bogged down in infodumps, and we feel for Hikaru's frustrations and embarrassments. But when the demons invade, he is forced to contend not only with them, but with his own nature as a warrior, and lives turn on the outcome. Without laying it on too thick, the author does a good job of pushing Hikaru to the breaking point, forcing him to a decision and change he could not have before imagined.

Magic is present as a force in the novel, but is used subtly, avoiding uses that would jar readers out of their immersion in the period. Even the supernatural aspects are well-handled, as the general acceptance of the existence of demons and other creatures feels woven into the fabric of the book. It's not quite 'magic realism,' but it's certainly closer to it than 'Lord of the Rings'.  The nature of the demons is only tangentially explored, however - likely we will get more detail in future volumes of the series, as well as more about the Grey King from which the series' name derives.

This is not to say there weren't a few nits to pick. The battle scenes were well-handled, though it was not always clear in some passages what was happening, or to whom. The principal non-demonic antagonist, Shoya, also had a 'stock character' feel, despite scenes late in the book that gave him some additional dimension. Also, there were times when the author's period details grew a bit too lush, sapping the pace of the story. Despite these minor issues, Demon Gate proved to be an involving and entertaining start to a fantasy series with memorable characters and locales - a promising start to an unusual new series.

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