I don’t normally read fantasy fiction but with a terrific cast of characters and great writing, this is the kind of book that could change anyone’s mind.
Danil is a scavenger in the deadlands (barren for centuries after a widespread scorching event that ended the Great War) that separate the kingdoms of Roldaer and Amas. Danil and his fellow humans live in Roldaer under the rule of King Liam and his numerous magi, powerful sorcerers. Amas is the land of shapeshifters. Born into human form, they gradually discover their true form, basically their spirit animals, and then can transform at will and back again.
Danil is one of few who can survive in the deadlands – many have died there – so he searches for the mage-crystals that the magi crave so that he can stay in their favour. But shapeshifters patrolling the deadlands like Hafryn, a wolf, usually steal the ones he does find to keep them out of magi hands. Returning from a search one evening, Danil finds his whole village has been evacuated as two powerful magi, Brianna and Ronan, and their soldiers prepare for war against Amas. The treaty has held for a long time and Danil is suspicious of their intentions, especially when they lock him up and even more so when he overhears his captors talking about the sedative they have slipped into his water. Luckily, he hasn’t drunk it yet.
When he breaks out of his cell and stumbles across a book encased in a magical ice spell that seems to be guiding the magi, he decides to steal it in an attempt to prevent the new war. Now he is what they seek. And when Danil comes across Hafryn as he hides in the deadlands, he accepts the shapeshifter’s offer of help to survive the game of cat and mouse. Danil knows he’s the mouse. But are the Amasian shapeshifters cats as much as the magi are?
Messenger contains all the traditional fantasy elements – weird names, shapeshifters, magic, crystals, warring kingdoms, ordinary people drawn into the conflict and ending up being pivotal – and the plot seems typical – an outsider, a great loss, a great quest, evil authoritarians seeking more and more power, good people faced with hard choices – but in Ness’s hands, it doesn’t come off as typical. And I think that ultimately comes down to the cast of characters she has developed. Instead of having a couple of well-developed main ones and a lot of under-developed minor ones, she has put real thought into making them all potential main characters. Considering this is the first book in a series, it’s easy to see how the stories of all the other characters could be explored. They’re interesting enough and strong enough to support their own books.
I sometimes struggle with the weird names in fantasy fiction (if I can’t figure out how to pronounce it, I spend a lot of time wrestling with the combination of letters in my head and it detracts from my ability to concentrate on the story itself). It’s not a problem here – the names were weird enough that they made sense in the genre without being distracting at all.
The one area that I thought could have been improved for that extra star was the romance between Danil and Hafryn. When we’re introduced to them, they already know each other reasonably well and so we’re prevented from seeing those first moments of butterflies and beating hearts, if indeed that’s what happened. In fact, it seems like Hafryn’s been in love (or in lust, it’s a little hard to tell) with Danil for a while. And Danil doesn’t seem to understand how Hafryn feels even though he’s been fairly obvious – in the first scene in the book, a naked Hafryn sits on Danil. It’s a romance that could have done with extra depth and feels more like attraction than real feeling. If the relationship had been developed a little further and a little deeper, the intensity of the story could have been even greater.
At 41,000 words, Messenger isn’t a novel, it’s a novella and I was a little concerned when I was buying it that its main classifications seemed to be “gay fiction”, “gay & lesbian fiction” and “lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgender fiction” when the blurb clearly described a story that easily falls into the fantasy genre. Maybe my concern was because so much fiction classified in that way turns out to be erotic fiction. But it’s only because the main character and his love interest are both male. In fact, it was so subtle that I wondered if the “gay fiction” classification might put off some conservative readers when it really shouldn’t. More a marketing consideration than anything to do with the story itself.
KK Ness once read one of my unpublished books and offered some great advice so this is an opportunity for me to repay her. However, that acquaintance hasn’t impacted my review – she’s earned every single one of the four stars I’ve given this book.
*First published on Goodreads 9 April 2017