Along the Razor's Edge by Rob J Hayes (The War Eternal: Book 1)

"Are we all just monsters waiting for the opportunity to show it?"

This book is going to make you mad. And that’s a good thing.

Meet Eskara Helsene. Ripped from her family as a toddler, educated through torture, conscripted for war, and forced to murder, all before the age of fifteen. And then the real horrors begin. Because Eska becomes a prisoner of war when her kingdom ends up on the losing side of a battle, and so is sent into The Pit, an underground mining prison, buried under thousands of feet of rock. And that’s where our story begins.

"There is pleasure in being numb, in retreating from the world and feeling nothing. It is matched only by the agony of emotion returning."

Eska is a fighter that doesn’t break and won’t quit. This is one of her best assets, but also her most frustrating. She’s been pushed around and hurt for her entire life, so she fights tooth and nail for every inch she can, regardless of whatever odds are stacked against her. But her anger and hatred at the world, and herself, lands her in worse and worse situations. She is prideful, and she is a teenager, and she doesn’t think logically. She is filled with so much rage and seething fury that she will avoid the easy path so as not to show her opponents any sign of weakness. As a reader, it is terribly frustrating. But it is also brilliantly written, as you see the world through her perspective and can understand, if not agree, why she continues her path of troubling decisions.

In another author’s hands, I might have found Eska’s story too grim or too maddening to finish. But Hayes has pulled out all the stops and has created something truly magnificent with this story; I’m a fan of much of his previous work and I can say without hesitation that this is his best book to date.

Why do I think so? Let’s get into it.

"We cling to things, familiar things, not because they are good for us, but because we are scared that the unknown might be worse."

The story structure is set up similarly to Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, in that Eska is an older woman, narrating the story of her youth. We know that Eska survives and overcomes the harrowing tests she faces, but Hayes takes advantage of choosing this type of storytelling because he’s able to pull off quite a few tricks. First, he can have Eska tell about her life in The Pit, but he can also intercut that part of her life with her early years of how she grew up and came to be one of the most powerful Sourcerers in her kingdom. As the book progresses, Hayes ties the lessons learned from Eska’s schooling and human interactions with how she deals with her current state of affairs in the prison. As a result, we gain a better sense of where she is coming from, and why she does the things she does.

"I have always found it strange that people equate having testicles with courage. Threatening a man's balls is often the fastest way to make him cower."

But even more thrilling is the egregious tantalizing that Hayes instills throughout the story. Since Eska is an old woman, she’ll occasionally drop hints of how things will turn out, long before they happen. And there are some jaw-dropping reveals that are snuck in there every chapter or two. For example—and this isn’t real, but it’s of a similar delivery—Eska would narrate, “That morning I was more exhausted than I’ve ever felt… but not as tired as the time I invented time travel with the Mongoose King while doing the Thriller dance. But I’m getting ahead of myself.” Wait, whaaa---?? There are many, many needle-scratch moments that allude to some incredible events down the road. Some happen in this book, but others are only foreshadowed and hopefully addressed in books two and three. There are so many explosive reveals that I don’t know how Hayes is going to pull all these promised story threads together over the next two books, but if he somehow addresses them all, well… color me excited. And all these tidbits and reveals, with a brilliantly written lead and an engaging story overall, show that this is a book that demands to be read in as few sessions as possible.

"Lust is a flame that burns everything it comes in contact with. It consumes until there is nothing left to feed it, and then all that's left behind is ashes and scars on all those it touched."

There are so many aspects of this story that impressed me: fascinating, believable, and deeply flawed characters; a versatile style of storytelling that allows the author to reveal both the past and future to strengthen the present; quotable wisdom and insights that stand on their own; one of the most powerful narrative voices this side of Tomas Piety; a slow-burn method of world-building that reveals unexpected depth; and a white-hot desire to discover what will happen next.

Along the Razor’s Edge will make you mad. It will make you hold your breath, pump your fist, pause and reflect, and swear at 2am. It will do all these things and more, because it is one hell of a great story. For me, it was more than just reading a book. It was an experience.

10/10 Along the Razor’s Edge will make you mad. It will make you hold your breath, pump your fist, pause and reflect, and swear at 2am. It will do all these things and more, because it is one hell of a great story.

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