Genres: Fantasy, Secondary World Fantasy, Queer Protagonists
Representation: POC cast, asexual MC, secondary gay character
PoV: Third-person, past-tense
WINNER OF THE 2019 READERVIEWS AWARD FOR FANTASY!WINNER OF THE 2019 IPPY AWARD FOR FANTASY!
“Life is transformation. You change or you die.”
Ashamed of his past and overwhelmed by his future, Ronoah Genoveffa Elizzi-denna Pilanovani feels too small for his own name. After a graceless exit from his homeland in the Acharrioni desert, his anxiety has sabotaged every attempt at redemption. Asides from a fiery devotion to his godling, the one piece of home he brought with him, he has nothing.
That is, until he meets Reilin. Beguiling, bewildering Reilin, who whisks Ronoah up into a cross-continental pilgrimage to the most sacred place on the planet. The people they encounter on the way—children of the sea, a priestess and her band of storytellers, the lonely ghosts of monsters—are grim and whimsical in equal measure. Each has their part to play in rewriting Ronoah’s personal narrative.
One part fantasy travelogue, one part emotional underworld journey, The Heretic’s Guide to Homecoming is a sumptuous, slow-burning story about stories and the way they shape our lives.
~adventure to remake yourself
~creating new myths
~curiosity is a virtue
~find your voice
~perfect!book is perfect
What on Earth are you supposed to say in response to one of the most beautiful books you’ve ever read?
And how do I convince you all that you need to read it???
The Heretic’s Guide to Homecoming (Book One – the final instalment, Book Two: Practice, is forthcoming in just a few months!) is the kind of convention-defying, genre-fluid, unshelvable book that self- and indie-publishing exists for. It’s not neatly one thing or another; doesn’t employ common tropes or conform to a typical three-act structure; and tosses out any notion of traditional narrative conflict – all while using some of the most beautiful prose I’ve ever seen in my life.
I’d like to imagine that any literary agent or editor worth their salt would recognise this book as the exquisite masterpiece it is – but they wouldn’t have the first clue how to sell it, how to market it. It’s too far outside the trad-publishing box for them to make it fit into any neat little niche.
I’m so glad, and so relieved, that Tristen went ahead and published it anyway. The world would be a darker place without this book in it.
Ronoah is marked by the gods to be a trailblazer, an innovator, someone who is meant to change the world – in a culture that avoids conflict and change. That’s not a good mix, and it’s left its mark on him; Ronoah is crippled with anxiety and self-doubt, even as he runs as far out into the world as he can, looking for a way to be worthy of the goddess who chose him.
And runs smack into Reilin – charismatic, confusing, hypnotic Reilin, who is about to embark on a journey to the far-off, almost legendary Pilgrim State. And who invites Ronoah to come along.
Maybes as many as the stars.
Heretic’s Guide is mesmeric, a book that pours itself like stardust and jewels into the cupped hands of your heart. Every page is a poem and a paean; every word emblazons itself on the inside of your eyelids. Tristen’s prose belongs in calligraphic tattoos winding down your arms, soul-strumming quotes tucked into the insides of your wrists; you’ll find them in your dreams, gentle, gem-toned whispers that wake a sense of wonder in you you thought was lost.
This book is a promise that it was never lost at all.
The earth is an orchestra, precisely wrought and written, each animal an instrument, waiting for their turn to play; the stars are sparkling chorus lines, singing tones too low and high for human kind to hear. Gods have long been listening to this cosmic symphony–they are privy to its sheet music, may tweak it as they please. But the minds of mortals are not made to grasp it, their hands not big enough to snap the pieces into place, their eyes not quick enough to catch the calculations scrawled, divine longhand, along the whorls in the tree trunks and the spirals in the seashells and the insides of all your sisters’ elbows.
There is no villain; no quest-object or easily-defined goal; no cinematic finale. The pattern Western readers are so used to – the build-up of tension to a distinct climax in which the source of conflict is confronted and overcome – you won’t find it here. Heretic’s Guide is quiet, tender, meditative; it’s lavish wish-fulfilment; it’s exploratory and thoughtful and joyous. Sometimes that joy is small; sometimes it’s euphoric. This is a story of private revelations, of discovering (or creating) courage, of journeys – both literal and metaphorical – that begin with a single step. It’s a celebration of curiosity and a manifesto on marvels and marvelousness, wonder and awe, how to find something beautiful everywhere you look.
“Loving something fiercely enough to die for it. It doesn’t have to be a boy or a girl–could be a city, a melody, an idea. Some say the boy isn’t even a boy; he’s a metaphor, a maxim. ‘Find what you love, and let it kill you.’”
Without a big bad, is it boring? No! Tristen introduces us to different lands and cultures, philosophies and religions, and most of all stories; stories meant to entertain, stories with morals, stories with different perspectives depending on who’s telling them. Everyone who loves stories (and what are you doing here if you don’t?) will adore the Tellers, a caravan of professional storytellers who embrace the unfamiliar and examine each new story that comes their way like a goldsmith with a gemstone, jeweler’s glass to their eye. Worldbuilding fans will swoon at the effortlessly organic weight of the fictional history of Ronoah’s world, the details of dress and hospitality and belief, the mysteries of the extinct (or are they?) shalledrim who once ruled the planet. There are people to meet, new lands to explore, tales to exchange. How could that be dull?
I’ll admit, this isn’t the book for anyone who wants fast-paced action. Heretic’s Guide is pretty much the exact opposite of that. But if you want sugared silk and starlight, comfort and tenderness and wondrous strangeness? Then this is exactly what you’re looking for.
“A lie uses true details to encircle an untrue essence,” he said, chin in hand. “Stories take fictional details to depict an essential truth.”
And to be clear, there is plenty of conflict – it’s just not the kind we’re used to seeing. Ronoah has crippling anxiety and struggles with self-loathing – and I’ve seen reviews from readers who got fed up with the knots and nooses his thoughts kept tying themselves in. All I can say to that is, as someone who takes meds every morning for clinical anxiety, the depiction here is spot-on, and immensely sympathetic. Heretic’s Guide is very much a story of – I don’t really want to call it self-discovery, when it feels much more like a deliberate effort at self-metamorphosis, -transmutation, -alchemization. Ronoah’s arc is one of unlearning all the beliefs and habits that are strangling him, learning to be open instead – to his own desires, to other people, to the world. I loved that this is shown (accurately!) as something he had to deliberately choose, over and over; that it’s not enough to be brave or bold once, you have to keep at it. And it’s heartbreakingly difficult – the toxic voices in your head don’t go away quickly, if ever.
I feel like that’s the kind of character growth we don’t see very often; usually growth is presented as a natural reaction to the events of the story, whereas here, Ronoah sets out with the intent of becoming a braver, bolder, better person, and fights to accomplish that. (It’s only natural that there are hiccups and stumbling blocks; of course he needs help sometimes. All of us do.) It’s something very special.
We are moulded by the mistakes of those we will never know.
Ronoah is a sweet cinnamon role with a deeply repressed reservoir of passion inside him – sympathetic but not perfect, heart-warming and heart-breaking and very, very huggable. But the other character who dominates each page he’s on is Reilin, who is…honestly like no character (or person!) I’ve ever come across before. I want to call him arrogant, and merciless, but that feels unjust; he’s also incredibly kind and thoughtful and delights in others’ delight. Tristen clearly set out to write a character larger-than-life, and very much succeeded; Reilin is vivid, super-saturated, bright and brilliant. Nice? Not always – I didn’t always love how he handled Ronoah’s anxiety – but he’s deep. Realer-than-real. A mystery I was hungry to unravel.
a constellation of curiosity
Put it this way: Tristen is as skilled at creating characters as they are at crafting prose and worldbuilding – ie, unequalled at all three.
Everyone who’s ever experienced crippling anxiety will find themselves in these pages. But so will those who love words, and those who love stories, and those who want adventure. Heretic’s Guide was a beautiful bright spot when I was caught in a depressive episode; it’s one of those books that washes your eyes and heart clean so you can again see how wonderful the world is. It’s very much a book I’d put in the hands of anyone feeling sad and dispirited and hopeless, especially if they were feeling that way about themselves.
At its heart, this is a book about stories, and the nature of stories, and the meaning of stories, and the stories we tell about ourselves. And how to change our self-story into something new, something we more want it to be.
This is a book I will treasure forever, and never forget.