Hidden Treasures: Los Nefilim by T. Frohock
|Book Name:||Los Nefilim|
|Publisher(s):||harper Voyager Impulse|
|Release Date:||Trilogy collected from April 2016 (individually out now!)|
Part of a series that reviews small press and digital first fantasy works.
“Time stood still and soft, like the moments embedded in midnight’s silence.”
Frohock’s trilogy of Los Nefilim novellas has gained a small but enthusiastic following that was enough to get the first volume, In Midnight’s Silence, voted onto Fantasy-Faction’s Best of 2015 list. Not only that, but the series comes recommended by none other than the Prince of Grimdark himself, Mark Lawrence. So you might argue that Los Nefilim are more of an emerging treasure than a hidden one; but since Frohock has never yet been reviewed on Fantasy-Faction, and since I was lucky enough to get hold of an early review copy of the final novella in the trilogy, it seemed like an appropriate way to kick off the Hidden Treasures series.
The novella as a form has undergone a resurgence in recent years, no doubt due to the rise of the ebook. Novellas are hard to sell in print. And I have to admit, I used to be the kind of reader who wouldn’t buy them, because I like fantasy and fantasy is LONG, dammit. Why pay £3.99 for 30,000 words when you can pay £7.99 for 100,000+ words?
Man, I hate my past self sometimes.
Anyway, these days I’m pushed for time and although I still like an epic, it’s nice to be able to consume an entire story in a single sitting sometimes. And it’s nice, too, to get straight to the point. A novella doesn’t have room to spend 10 pages describing every building the hooded man passes on his way from tavern A to tavern B. It doesn’t have room for subplots that go nowhere or pages of dialogue that do nothing except provide an incredibly small amount of extra insight into the protagonist’s mind. A novella, my friends, has no room for filler.
Of course, the flipside of that is the danger that the setting will come across as flat, or the characters as one-dimensional. In the wrong hands, a novella could turn into an unfinished chunk of some mysterious and never-explained larger story, rather than being a complete little entity in itself. A good novella writer needs to have the skill to create as much richness of atmosphere and depth of character as you’d get in a well-written full-length novel, only with far fewer words.
And I’m happy to report that T. Frohock is a very good novella writer.
The Los Nefilim novellas are set in 1930s Barcelona, which in itself makes a refreshing change as a fantasy setting. It’s also an apt one: Spain at the time was on the verge of civil war, with a world war looming beyond that, throwing it into an atmosphere of unrest that provides the perfect mirror for a struggle between angels and daimons. Los Nefilim, the half-angelic forces who watch over the daimons and obey the angels on Earth, are beginning to question some of the orders they’ve received. And in the middle of this, Diago Alvarez – who carries the blood of both angel and daimon in his veins – strives to remain neutral. Both angels and daimons would like to recruit him to their cause, because his hybrid nature gives him access to a different kind of magic than either side can achieve alone, but all Diago wants is to be left alone to play music and enjoy life with his Nefil partner, Miquel.
If you’re thinking yeah, that’s not going to happen, you’d be right.
What I really enjoyed about Frohock’s mythology is that right from the start, it’s clear that the angels aren’t necessarily any better than the daimons. My description might suggest a clear-cut tale of good versus evil, but the angels in these books are often cold-hearted and treacherous, willing to use any means to achieve the greater good – and not only that, but they often disagree about what that greater good entails. Angels may be at war with daimons, but they are also at war with each other. So on the one hand we have a group of beings who love death and destruction and do everything they can to set mortals at each other’s throats, and on the other hand we have another group who think it’s perfectly acceptable to sacrifice a child for the sake of knowledge, and are willing to kill each other for the right to say what is ‘right’. Either way, it’s not looking good for the mortals – and it’s only Los Nefilim who come close to being human enough to take that into consideration.
The plot kicks off when Diago’s partner Miquel goes missing. He’s been captured by an angel, who wants to use him to force Diago into a gruesome bargain with a daimon: a secret weapon that will bring a quicker end to the coming war, in exchange for the son Diago didn’t know he had. And from that point onwards, across the trilogy, the stakes only get higher and the action more intense. Frohock cleverly reveals the secondary characters in bits and pieces, uncovering their motivations a layer at a time, never making it obvious who can be trusted. At the same time, she widens and deepens her narrative so we learn more about the past lives of the characters and how the conflicts of the supernatural realm – between angel and daimon, between angel and angel, between different groups of Los Nefilim – directly affect what is happening in the mortal realm. I really love the way these novellas tie their history to our own, providing glimpses of how key events in the world we know might have been influenced by forces beyond our understanding.
Yet although the backdrop may be grand and bloody, the real heart of these books – and their greatest success for me – lies in the personal. Diago’s relationships with his lover Miquel, his son Rafael and his friend Guillermo are what drive the narrative forward, investing it with emotion and soul. The second novella, Without Light or Guide, particularly excels in this respect, offering some of the most touching moments in the entire series and providing a much-needed respite between the first book’s race against time and the third book’s high-body-count finale. Through flawed, troubled Diago, the author touches on some serious issues – including male rape, as well as the toll it takes on a person to conceal their sexuality – while never letting them overshadow the main action. At its very core, though, the trilogy is about parenthood and family: what those things mean, how they can transform us, and whether it’s ever possible to break away from the legacy of a terrible parent and do better by our own children.
This may all sound rather heavy, but fear not! All the emotional stuff is drawn in with a light touch and a skilful hand, and packed around it is plenty of action. There’s a fascinating magic system based on music, which gives us some of the best descriptive lines in the series: Notes of a black song inched across the wallpaper. Like the sound of rain, or of stars sighing in the night. The words fell like shivers in the air. As you might expect in a tale that involves daimons, there are some truly dark and creepy scenes and a touch of gore. There’s a heart-stopping fight or two. And running through it all, there’s a silver thread of humour. Supernatural beings who have lived alongside each other through hundreds of years and multiple incarnations have had time to develop some good banter.
If I have one minor proviso – and it is very minor – it is that although I said a good novella should be a complete little entity in itself, these aren’t … quite. Each one does have a main story arc that concludes within the individual novella, but volumes 1 and 2 also include a fair amount of setting up for what’s to come next. Even The Second Death, which is the final volume in the trilogy, leaves a few loose threads to tease us alongside its largely satisfying ending. (I’ve got my fingers crossed this is because Frohock is planning to write a sequel – maybe a full-length novel this time. We can but hope.)
As I said, this is a minor proviso. But when you go into In Midnight’s Silence, you need to be aware that you won’t quite get a full story out of it. These novellas were conceived as a triptych, not as individually self-sufficient works. Happily, the quality of Frohock’s writing is such that you’re unlikely to mind. Indeed, if anything, I think each book improves on the last – so if you try In Midnight’s Silence (and why wouldn’t you, at only 85p?) and find you like it, you shouldn’t have any hesitation at all in adding Without Light or Guide and The Second Death to your collection.
Frohock’s Los Nefilim novellas are published in ebook format by Harper Voyager Impulse. The first two are out now and the third will be released on 29 March. The trilogy will be collected into a single volume in April.