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The Blighted City by Scott Kaelen

The Blighted City by Scott Kaelen
4.25
Book Name: The Blighted City
Author: Scott Kaelen
Publisher(s): Self-Published
Formatt: Paperback / Ebook
Genre(s): Dark Fantasy / Horror
Release Date: January 6, 2018

The Blighted City begins with a quest and ends with a beautiful contemplation of filial love, loyalty, duty, and grief in a story that blazes a trail out of standard epic fantasy into a really fresh, original science fantasy narrative. The novel starts with an engaging first chapter in which Maros, a retired mercenary and the head of his local Freeblades guild chapter, arrives at an old woman’s house. She wants a family heirloom retrieved from an ancestral tomb and offers a lot of money for the job. The catch? The tomb is in Lachyla, the titular Blighted City.

Nobody remembers what actually happened there, but every map has deaths heads plastered over the surrounding countryside. Spooky stuff, but this is exactly the sort of work professional mercenaries do, right? Maros takes the job and assigns it to his best team, journeymen Dagra and Oriken and the blademistress Jalis. Dagra is a pious, gods-fearing man, who initially refuses to go on the quest because Lachyla was cursed some three hundred years previously. His best friend Oriken, an avowed atheist, is eager to take the job and anticipates an easy mission in an abandoned city. Sensible Jalis, the agnostic of the threesome, is wary of potential dangers but feels up to the challenge, and sees it as good training for the two journeymen. Dagra finally agrees to come along so he can watch his friends’ backs. The trio trek into the wild, where they battle a few monsters and traverse a vast marshland before finding the ancient, walled graveyard, wherein lies the mission objective.

The early chapters also introduce us to the descendants of Lachylans who managed to escape the city before the curse took hold and who now live in a nearby city. Isolated from the rest of humanity, the villagers have a strict no-stranger policy, along with a tree decorated with the skeletons of the last group of adventurers who tried to explore Lachyla.

The opening half of the novel follows a fairly standard epic fantasy narrative and reads like a D&D quest as the friends enter the cemetery, retrieve the heirloom, and then are attacked by ghouls risen from the surrounding graves. After a harrowing escape, the narrative takes a left turn into fresh, original territory. Dagra comes down with a strange illness and wanders alone into the forbidden city. Confused and worried, Jalis and Oriken follow him and discover he has been infected with a fungus that revives dead cells. This is the mysterious curse: the fungus renders the living immortal and turns the dead into zombies. The city isn’t abandoned but rather is populated with people who have been in limbo for three hundred years. Like vampires, they do not grow or age—children who were infected still have their immature bodies—but they can learn and feel. After so much time, most of what they feel consists of regret and ennui. These people are really bored and really depressed.

The Freeblades’ presence jolts the Lachylans out of their inertia—their fresh faces are hottest ticket in town. Unfortunately, the villagers learn of their mission and decide to hunt them down, which kicks off a major battle involving the immortals, the Freeblades, the villagers, and an army of ghouls from the graveyard. This comes at about the two-thirds point, and the narrative continues getting better from there. While I dig classic epic fantasy where the magic is mystical, I love low fantasies, especially those that bring a little science fiction into the mix—seeing a biological explanation for immortal beings and reanimated corpses hits the bullseye of sweet spots for my fantasy reading.

Kaelen’s prose hits another sweet spot. It’s strong, vivid, and full of nice concrete details that flesh out his characters. The action sequences are well staged and strike a good balance between fight choreography, sensations, and emotion. But it’s the characters that really shine in this book, particularly Oriken, Maros, and Dagra. This is dark fantasy with some vividly gruesome depictions of the Lachylans (particularly the dead ones), but nearly all the characters have a strong sense of decency and honor, including the villagers with the hanging tree. (There’s a really good reason why they won’t let strangers take home any Lachylan souvenirs.) Kaelen elegantly captures the contrast between the dark and often nasty work of everyday living, and the higher purpose of a life well led. One passage illustrates the essence of this:

“You know,” he said quietly, “for all the horrors of this world, for all the senseless losses and atrocities, the firmament above us is a painting of innocence. The stars and the moons—all those lights are untouchable, unknowable. Sometimes I imagine myself soaring like a dawnhawk through that celestial sphere. For every horror down here, be it corpse or cravant, monster or man, there’s a twinkling beauty out of reach up there.”

Other contrasts between characters’ core beliefs lend depth and weight to the story. Philosophical exchanges on the nature of life and existence frequently crop up between action sequences and form the heart of the book. Some characters are pious and fervently worship the gods, while others investigate the mechanics of reality, wanting to know the how of things as much as or even more than the why. A third class of characters is primarily interested in earthly concerns—duty, love, and loyalty. All of these individual philosophies are presented with sympathy and respect.

Respect is also a keystone element of Kaelen’s worldbuilding. There are plenty of unsavory characters on the fringes of this tale—it’s a realistic world where greed, hubris, lust, chicanery, and selfishness abound, but the main characters are all really likeable, sympathetic people who place a high value on generosity and kindness. Kaelen’s worldbuilding also offers us a gender-neutral society, where women routinely hold positions of action, influence, and power. Rather than the token female warrior, about half the mercenaries are women, as are the village leaders and a key Lachylan immortal. None of these power-holding women are presented as remarkable—an aspirational view I always enjoy in fantasy.

The pacing is excellent from about the one-third mark forward, but the early chapters do become bogged down with a lot of expository dialogue that awkwardly provides worldbuilding and backstory. As the story progresses, Kaelen hits his stride in terms of integrating backstory into the present action—a terrific and moving example is the story about why Oriken cares so much about his hat (in this zombie-occupied landscape, Oriken’s headgear is strongly reminiscent of Rick Grimes’s sheriff’s hat). Another small complaint is the large number of point of view characters. Many bring little to the story, particularly several single-scene viewpoints, where I wish the storytelling had been rejiggered to show those events through one of the main character’s eyes.

Aside from these few quibbles, it was easy to see why Kaelen’s novel captured a semi-finalist spot in the SPFBO this year. Strong prose, compelling and likeable characters, and a fresh take on immortals and zombies made for a really good read. Kaelen is currently working on sequels which will follow the Freeblades through more adventures in new lands, but The Blighted City is a complete story that can be read as a stand-alone.

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