The story begins in a prologue where we meet the Spider-Witch, her husband and an elf named Adan. We don’t get to see them again until the epilogue. They serve to bracket the story and hint at deeper the goings on.

The main character seems to be the Dragon Knight, Sir Clark Pendragon, a man of honour and loyalty. He has served the Queen, Minerva Roselock of Amernia, since the death of her husband. It is this character we follow the most throughout the story though there are others players and points of view.

There are chapters and scenes from the Queen’s point of view during which she schemes, plans and attempts to keep her country together. Shrike, the Queen’s spymaster, has much to say and do throughout the book, as does the sorcerer Calcifer. Many of the characters are interesting and complex, though there are times when their motivations are unclear, even to themselves. I’m not entirely sure why Pendragon turns against the Queen and joins the Wild Hunt, and then doesn’t.

It is clear that the author, the strangely named Plague Jack, has spent a considerable amount of time on the worldbuilding. There are a raft of other races, elves and dwarves included, but also some more esoteric races. You could take the view that a lot of the subtext of the book is about racism. Those not human are sub-human and used for work, for sex and slavery. There are those that view the other races in this way and many who do not. It is from this that much of the tension derives.

The magic in this fantasy world is god given. There seems no need for academies, schools or years of training. The gods choose those who they deem deserve a second chance, or just plain and simple revenge, and gift them magical powers. Should they draw too much power, too much magic, they become Hellions, demon featured, ultra-powerful creatures of magic. The idea of Hellions is certainly one of the more interesting aspects of the magic.

The noxious gas which poisons the land, a weapon used in the last war between the humans and every other sentient creature in the land is reminiscent of the Mistwraith, or the Mustard Gas used on the battlefields of World War I. And there are strong aspects of science and technology in this world, mostly hinted at but then suddenly launched upon at the end. The first gun used appears to be a repeating rifle; no flintlocks, no muskets or slow evolution of firearms. It also echoes the ending of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai – technology is going to kill the old world.

The storyline is clear and simple; two sides are battling over control of the land. There are twists and turns; some signposted and some that could catch the reader by surprise.

It is not a happy story. Everything is very grim and very dark. For instance, small humanlike creatures are surgically altered to make them look like children for the ‘pleasure’ of some of the guards, soldiers and humans. There is a tortured sexual relationship between brother and sister. And there is physical torture too. The small amount of humour provided comes from Shrike, the spymaster.

It all sounds like someone’s cup of tea, even it wasn’t totally mine. And that’s the thing, it is clear from the whole of the SPFBO process, it is down to those personal tastes, just like it is with agents and publishing houses. This book will appeal to some people, it has a target market. I’m not it.

There are some downsides, to my taste, to my perception. The whole book begins well, once you’re past the prologue and realise that these characters aren’t going to reappear till much, much later. Pendragon is a world-weary knight, carrying a whole world of shame and guilt on his shoulders. His battle to do the right thing is interesting, even if I could not grasp the whole of his motivations.

Then we hit Act 2, the difficult middle of a book, and it all gets a little confused and bogged down. Nothing moves quite as fast as I would like, and the writing here didn’t keep my interest as much as the beginning did. There are moments of real interest, but I was very rarely sure who exactly I should be rooting for, who I wanted to win. The Queen becomes a lot softer and caring. It adds complexity, takes her away from the scheming, cold hearted, driven woman we are encouraged to think of her as in the beginning, but the change robs her of being the ‘bad guy’.

The world is unrelentingly grim. There are murders, rapes, acts of wanton cruelty that cement the feeling that his world is ‘not a nice place’ to live, but also make it ‘not a nice place’ to read about. I was hoping at some points for a hint of light, of hope in the world, but it was not to be. The ending does set up the next book(s) in the series. However, so dark is the ending that it is very clear that many of the characters will not be appearing in book two. Those that will make it through? Well, I don’t particularly care about, nor have any sympathy for, them. The thing with ‘grimdark’ (if such a term, sub-genre exists) books is, in my opinion and that’s all it can be, that there should always be a character you care about, whom you want to win and whose story you want to follow. I didn’t find one in this book. Well, not one that survived anyway.

I got this book from Kindle Unlimited, so it is the bona fide Amazon/Kindle copy. Which is annoying, for the author and the reader, as the formatting is in need of a revisit. In one chapter, the type size seems to grow and then shrink again for no apparent reason. I did wonder whether it had been done to add emphasis, but concluded that it hadn’t. It is not a difficult fix, but was very off-putting.

For the majority of the book though the copy-editing and proof-reading seem to be good. There are a few minor things; a space here, lack of one here, an added bit of punctuation, but only one that truly leaped out and caused me to re-read the same line a few times just to be sure I’d seen it.

This book has a lot of imagination, a storyline that can be viewed simply or with subtext, and, being totally fair, some great descriptive writing. It is set, however, in an exceedingly, unrelentingly dark and depressing world that the author has clearly spent a lot of time thinking about and constructing. The characters are well drawn, but I couldn’t find my way to really caring what happened to them.

This is a book which will, I think, divide opinion. Some will quite enjoy the darkness of this world, but sadly, I didn’t. I do, however, appreciate the imagination that created it.


By Geoff Matthews

G. R. Matthews began reading in the cot. His mother, at her wits end with the constant noise and unceasing activity, would plop him down on the soft mattress with an encyclopaedia full of pictures then quietly slip from the room. Growing up, he spent Sunday afternoons on the sofa watching westerns and Bond movies after suffering the dual horror of the sounds of ABBA and the hoover (Vacuum cleaner) drifting up the stairs to wake him in the morning. When not watching the six-gun heroes or spies being out-acted by their own eyebrows he devoured books like a hungry wolf in the dead of winter. Beginning with Patrick Moore and Arthur C Clarke he soon moved on to Isaac Asimov. However, one wet afternoon in a book shop in his hometown, not far from the standing stones of Avebury, he picked up the Pawn of Prophecy and started to read - and now he writes fantasy! Seven Deaths of an Empire coming from Solaris Books, June 2021. Agent: Jamie Cowen, Ampersand Agency. You can follow him on twitter @G_R_Matthews or visit his website at

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