Darien is the start of a new series by C.F. Iggulden. Iggulden is perhaps better known for writing several series of well received historical fiction, but this is his first foray into fantasy.
Darien is a feudal city-state in a low-magic world. That world seems to share a certain amount of history with our own – there’s the occasional mention of Romans, for example. But there was a divergence – a grand empire, the Empire of Salt, formed and fell – and Darien is one of its successor states. Most of the world-building is focused on the contemporary, though there’s scattered mentions and inferences one can make about the history of Darien to this point. Currently, however, Darien is an unequal society. It’s ruled by twelve noble families, each with their own heritage and rivalries. They sit beneath a monarch – in this case, a relatively tractable one. The people are a swirling morass, trying to get through their day to day without notice from their social superiors. There’s evidence of a slowly burgeoning middle-class though – merchants thriving in the main streets of Darien, and those with the wages to purchase their wares.
It feels like an insular society, one which holds on to old feuds and older grudges. At the same time, it has a familiarity to it – the twisting alleys of Darien evoke those of the medieval period. Darien and its outlying environs do have some differences though – mostly in their magic. There’s old sorcery sitting with vicious quiet in ancient tombs, and powerful artifacts horded by families. Some people seem to have knacks, as well – peculiar skills and talents which may exceed or defy the norm.
I wanted to see more of Darien – of the people in it, f the customs and habits which defined them, and of the strange and familiar world in which they find themselves. What’s there is intriguing, suggestive, and builds a solid foundation, but left me hungry for more.
The characters – well, this is a narrative from multiple points of view. So we range from hunters to thieves, from martial troubleshooters to troubled duellists. The main cast get enough elbow room to differentiate themselves, though as with the world, I ended up wanting more. Standouts include Elias Post – a hunter, he begins the story as an unremarkable and pleasant man. As matters progress, though, he is offered some exceedingly difficult choices. The text doesn’t back away from this; in fact it embraces it, which is marvellous. Post grows quickly, and in different directions than we might otherwise have expected. There’s echoes of Monte Cristo there, as Post struggles to fulfil his overriding purpose, with no regard to the cost to himself – or what the struggle to reach his goals will turn him into.
I also thoroughly enjoyed following Tellius. An old soldier, and not from Darien, he has a sharp intelligence which made following his thoughts enjoyable and a wry cynicism which made me chuckle more than once. Tellius is a pragmatist, with some moral constraints. He’s learned to look out for number one, but struggles against that lesson. Tellius’ dry wit and focus made walking alongside him amusing. The hints of a complex past that were thrown out, and his own efforts to be something better, despite himself, made the journey a pleasure.
There were other points of view here for example the vulpine Vic Deeds, the ultimate guiltless problem solver, is charming and ruthless in equal measure, I won’t approach the others, for fear of spoilers – but I will say that even if I wanted more time with these characters, I still felt they had sufficient depth to encourage emotional investment, and to keep me turning pages alongside them.
The plot – well, there’s certainly a lot going on. There’s assassination attempts, some very fast-paced and visceral duels, and even a battle or two. Those are choreographed masterfully, and Iggulden brings the movements of large masses of troops, and the dangers and chaos which they face, to life brilliantly. In between the murders, the politicking and the struggles for the life of the city, there’s some touchingly genuine emotional moments as well. It’s epic fantasy at its most literal – the fate of empires settled with fire, sword and pistol shot. In this case, there’s some rather explosive magic thrown in as well.
Is it any good though? I’d say so. It approaches the form of epic fantasy with care, and constructs a story which kept me interested and unwilling to put the book down. I want to see more of the world and the people in it, but that’s less a criticism than a hope for future instalments. If you’re looking for something new to fill your next epic fantasy fix, then this will see you right.