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The Long War by A. J. Smith – Series Review

The Long War by A. J. Smith – Series Review
4.5
Book Name: The Black Guard, The Dark Blood, The Red Prince, and The World Raven
Author: A. J. Smith
Publisher(s): Head of Zeus
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Ebook
Genre(s): Epic / Dark Fantasy
Release Date: August 1, 2013 / July 1, 2014 / August 1, 2015 / April 1, 2017

Introduction

ALTTEXTThe Long War series is an epic fantasy/dark fantasy quadrilogy which deals with courtroom intrigue, politics, magic and gods in a world similar to ours but set during the medieval period. It consists of the following books: The Black Guard, The Dark Blood, The Red Prince and The World Raven. These four books have a complexity and style that is a mix of George R.R. Martin and Steven Eriksson with a dash of H. P. Lovecraft.

The series starts off with an invasion and we find out very soon that things are not all they seem. There are some puppeteers behind the scenes that are working towards bringing back a dead god. Various sets of people, who find themselves in peril due to these events, work in their own ways, individually and collectively, to prevent it from happening or to save themselves, their families and their kingdoms. Like any good story or series, while the end goal might be clear, the journey is where it matters, and The Long War excels in this. There are numerous side-stories, backgrounds, legends and myths, great character interactions, which all come together to make this series a memorable one.

Characters

ALTTEXTThe Long War has some of the best character introductions I have seen. It is not evident from the start who is a ‘good’ guy or not—we need to read quite a bit before we understand a character. It continues this way throughout the four books by introducing a huge variety of interesting characters and developing them as the story progresses. Most characters—ranging from the heroes to the villains to the supporting ones—have something unique about them, have a decent arc and you end up caring about what happens to each and every one of them. There are surprising twists and turns and some of the ones I liked best were ones that made their appearance in the third and final book.

The best thing about the cast is that they all possess their own motivations. They are neither completely good nor completely bad but rather fall across the spectrum. As an example, there is a throwaway character who, while doing his ‘villainous’ master’s bidding, expresses his anger towards those mistreating a child and is willing to fight for her. This kind of nuance is something I have seen only occasionally. This is where the GRRM style shines through.

And since we are talking GRRM, another trait that is commonly associated with him is that characters are not safe, and this is true of The Long War as well. Even a hardened cynic as I was surprised by some of the choices made by the author. This is one of the reasons why this series retained my interest through the four voluminous books.

Worldbuilding

ALTTEXTThe worldbuilding is equally interesting with a good mix of the familiar and unique. There are three main groups of people from the three main kingdoms, each of whom worships a different deity. These are the Ro, akin to the English/French who follow a religion similar to Christianity; the Ranen, who are like the Vikings/Native Americans with their religion similar to paganism (Norse/various American myths); and the Karesians, who are like the Arabs with their version of Islam. In addition, there is a fourth group of people which do not fit in any of the previous categories and are generally despised by all.

Each of the three lands has its own mythology, culture and society. Smith uses this opportunity to highlight both the strengths and weaknesses of the real-world societies, the fictional ones are built on. The dangers of being a fanatic, regardless of whom one worships, is a recurring theme. This is not to say that there aren’t the tropes around ‘true believers get rewarded’ but these can be overlooked given the other strengths in this series. The divisions amongst the people, how some classes exploit the other, divine royalty—all of these are explored thoroughly.

ALTTEXTThe pantheons, which play a pivotal role, have some standout elements too. The details of the pantheons are given as the story progresses. And unlike the Dungeons & Dragons version, or other typical fantasy pantheons, Smith opts for a more Greek oriented one where it is the survival of the fittest. I liked reading and learning about the elements of the pantheons and this never ceased to be exciting.

It is quite difficult for me to not compare this to The Malazan Book of the Fallen, especially given the motivation to revive a chained/dead god. The Long War definitely does not have the same complex divine pantheons as the Malazan, but it does decently enough that I feel comfortable terming it as a lite version.

The actual lands where the story takes place is nothing special. It has ports, grasslands, deserts, mysterious jungles, etc. I would say it achieves the purpose but nothing more. There are maps and glossaries provided in the books, if you are into that sort of thing.

Pacing, Writing & Other Stuff

The pacing is average with none of the sections really being break-neck or slow. I never really found myself getting bored at any point in the four books. Yes, some storylines were a bit more interesting than others but generally, all the various threads were good enough to keep me interested. Also, I don’t recollect a large variation in quality across these threads either in terms of plot, dialogue or characters.

The writing is accessible (we are not talking an Umberto Eco here) but be warned, there is plenty of brutality with lots of profanity and violence.

Series Level Stuff

And now, we come to the series as a whole.

The Long War kept me engrossed throughout. Unlike a few other series, where the quality dips across books, this one manages to maintain a consistent level. The characters are great. New characters integral to the story come in whenever needed, even in the fourth book, and old characters actually develop across the books without the transition being jarring. The worldbuilding always has something unique being introduced and there are tiny bits of backstory that keep popping up. There are enough plot twists and turns to keep us guessing to a degree. All of which leads to a pragmatic albeit satisfying conclusion.

I loved how Smith has managed to bring this series to an end while keeping enough threads alive for a whole new story to be told in the same universe.

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One Comment

  1. Great review Kartik. I feel like this is the best fantasy series that nobody has ever heard about and it’s a real shame in my opinion. I try to sing its praises whenever possible because I believe it is one of the deepest, most-satifsying reads out there. I’m glad that you are also a fan.

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