Epic in Scope and Intimate at Heart: The Black Coast by Mike Brooks

Posted 11th February 2021 by Siavahda in Fantasy Reviews, Reviews / 1 Comment

I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

The Black Coast (The God-King Chronicles, #1) by Mike Brooks
Representation: Nonbinary PoV character, queernorm culture, nonbinary-norm culture, background M/M and F/F, NB/M
on 16th February 2021
Genres: Queer Protagonists, Epic Fantasy
Goodreads
five-stars

Epic world-building at its finest, in an upcoming author’s fantasy debut. The Black Coast is the start of an unmissable series filled with war-dragons, armoured knights, sea-faring raiders, dangerous magic and crowd-pleasing battle scenes.

When the citizens of Black Keep see ships on the horizon, terror takes them, for they know who is coming: for generations, Black Keep has been raided by the fearsome clanspeople of Iwernia. Saddling their war dragons, the Naridans rush to defend their home only to discover that the clanspeople have not come to pillage at all. Driven from their own homeland by the rise of a daemonic despot who prophesies the end of the world, they have come in search of a new home. Meanwhile the wider continent of Narida is lurching toward war. Black Keep is about to be caught in the cross-fire of the coming war for the world – if only its new mismatched society can survive.

Highlights

~dragons with FEATHERS
~what flavour of gender do you prefer, we have SIX
~vikings
~gay??? lesbian??? sorry we don’t have words for those we just call them PEOPLE
~krakens
~don’t wear the brooch unless you mean it
~vote stabby princess for queen 2021!!!

The very first thing I wrote down in my notes when I finished Black Coast was: AHHHHH I LOVED THIS SO MUCH!

This is going to make very little sense, but I’m going to say it anyway: Black Coast felt like a luxury to me, like every chapter I read was a decadent gift to myself. What other people might feel during a spa day full of pampering, I felt reading this book; like I was being catered to and indulged and spoiled absolutely rotten, because Black Coast is just jam-packed full of all the things I love.

The opening of the book is a pretty good example: the ‘prologue’ of sorts is an excerpt from a fictional book, in which a Naridan is writing about another country, a series of islands called Alaba. The writer is scandilised because Alabans recognise five or six genders ‘depending on how they are counted’.

Now, from the original blurb I saw, I was under the impression that the whole of the story was going to take place in Narida. So not only was I confused as to why we were hearing about another land entirely (I really should have cottoned on!) but I was wistfully disappointed. Why did he set the story in Narida? I want to visit Alaba! were pretty much my exact thoughts.

So you can imagine my delight when I found out that Black Coast does take the reader to Alaba! The story is definitely focussed on Narida, but fear not; we spend a fair bit of time in Alaba with all its genders (which I’ll talk about in a bit).

See? My every wish, instantly granted!

The story itself is actually pretty easy to summarise: as the blurb says, a clan of Tjakorshans (you can think of them as Vikings, more or less) has appeared on the Black Coast, not to kill and steal and raid as they always have before, but to beg sanctuary and permission to settle. The adopted son of the local lord is the one who gives that permission, and is then responsible for trying to get his people to accept the arrangement, which has him working side-by-side with Sanna, the Tjakorshan clan-chief. Meanwhile, the sister of the Naridan God-King is working to hunt down and have killed a threat to her brother’s throne, a mission which almost has her crossing paths with an Alaban street-urchin who will prove very important to the outcome of that mission…

But that description really doesn’t do Black Coast any justice at all.

Firstly, Brooks’ prose is lovely; not the dreamy poetry of Catherynne Valente and her ilk, but not the blunt hammer of…authors we won’t name, either. Brooks’ prose flows like water, with just the right balance of description and action to appeal to just about everyone, with a pacing that fits the story incredibly well. Aside from the battles, I wouldn’t call Black Coast fast-paced, but it’s not overly slow either; it feels like…like the pace of life. Which works beautifully, because a great deal of this book focuses on the day-to-day life of the characters. This is far from dull, because everyone we encounter is having an unusual time, but the pacing and focus does help to make this story feel intimate, even as we’re seeing the events of an epic fantasy.

Part of this is achieved by the multiple perspectives Brooks chooses. Daimon, the adopted lord’s son mentioned earlier, and Sanna, the clan-chief, probably get the most page-time, but we also spend time with Sanna’s daughter Zhanna; a witch of her clan; some of the villagers; Daimon’s adopted brother, Darel; several Tjakorshans from other clans, who are hunting down Sanna’s clan; Tila, the princess of Narida, sister to the God-King; and Jeya, an Alaban street-urchin and pickpocket. That might sound like too many PoV characters, but it works here, especially because Brooks is careful to balance them all in just the right proportions to the rest. It makes the epic seem real; translates the grand scope of everything going on into something human, something the reader can really feel along with the characters. It’s the difference between an epic poem and a written account from someone who was there for the adventure, and I approve immensely.

And then there’s the careful mixing of cultures and the baby dragon runt that needs saving and this thread of surprising mischief and humour woven throughout, and I could probably go on forever, okay?

But folx. FOLX. I have to talk about the worldbuilding!!!

Because Brooks is a freaking master. Like all the best worldbuilders, he’s introduced one or two seemingly small things and then followed the ripple effects those things would have on the cultures they’re in. Naridan, for example, is a language without words for ‘I’ or ‘me’; every time you refer to yourself is different depending on the social status of the person you’re talking to, and your relationship with them! I just want to SHRIEK with how cool this is! But don’t panic; Brooks hasn’t introduced hundreds of fantasy words for ‘I’ that you have to remember. It’s all written as if the reader were a native speaker – thank goodness! – so, for example, Daimon usually refers to himself as ‘this lord’ where an English speaker would say ‘I’, or ‘this lord’s’ when he’s talking about something that belongs to him. If that sounds strange, don’t worry; it’s actually very easy to read, and you get the hang of it very quickly.

What stands out with Alaba also revolves around linguisitics. The Alabans recognise multiple genders, but again, Brooks has hit on a brilliant way to keep things simple for his readers. I’m agender with half a dozen nonbinary friends, and I still have trouble keeping track of some of the nonbinary pronouns English is experimenting with, so it’s a huge relief to me that the Alabans denote gender…through diacritics!!!

Diatrics are the little symbols various languages use to indicate pronunciation of a letter. If you’ve ever studied French or German, you’ve run into diatrics like à and ü. Brooks uses them to indicate Alaban gender. So, basically, the different genders are

Hè/hìm – high masculine
Hê/hîm – low masculine
Shē/hēr – high feminine
Shé/hér – low feminine
Thëy/thëm – agender, genderless
They/them – gender-neutral formal

EXCUSE ME WHILE I SHRIEK MY WORLDBUILDING-ADDICT HEART OUT

Again, this is a system that looks intimidatingly complicated at a glance, but in practice, it’s so clear and easy! I will admit that I wasn’t sure how to pronounce everything while I was reading, but as a reader, it’s so easy to keep the different genders straight because the signifiers are visual while you read! Folx, this is so freaking clever! You don’t need to memorise entirely new words, pronouns that are unfamiliar to you; you just need to keep track of the diatrics on she/he/they, and that’s so much easier than you might think. After a few paragraphs of Alaban PoV, I had a handle on it just fine.

The whole thing makes me just want to swoon. This is the kind of worldbuilding I live for! And this is without getting into the freaking DRAGONS, or how Naridan culture doesn’t have words for being gay, lesbian, or bisexual, because those things are just considered normal. This is without writing an ESSAY on the differences between Alaban and Naridan religion – and Tjakorshan, for that matter.

And the thing is, absolutely none of this is info-dumped on the reader. Brooks doesn’t drown you under a ton of strange new information at once. It’s all introduced naturally, and switching between PoVs helps because we get to be in the head of a character who is encountering the New Thing for the first time, just as the reader is. So you’re never left feeling stupid or confused or overwhelmed. It’s all done so deftly that you almost don’t notice that you’re learning something new about this world Brooks has created.

So we’ve established that, if you’re looking for great worldbuilding, Black Coast has it in spades. But it also has a fabulous cast, all of whom just feel so human, even when they’re coming from a culture very different to the reader’s. Daimon is shy but determined to do what he thinks is right, even when everything he’s grown up with demands he do otherwise; Sanna is driven to protect her people, but she’s also a mother who worries about her daughter; Tila is a princess with so many knives. They’re all trying to survive, to take care of what’s theirs and safeguard the future, and even the ostensible villains are compelling as hell.

Brooks also lays the foundations for even bigger challenges to come, dropping hints that click together in your head to form eye-widening theories. Bits of history and mythology from the different cultures seem interconnected, and there’s both magical and political unrest gathering not-quite out of sight, but it’s hard to consider that properly when the immediate stakes are so damned high!

TL; DR: This is a fabulous novel that opens what promises to be an extremely epic series, and if you haven’t pre-ordered it already, you need to.

It’s out on Tuesday, so there’s still time!

Now, if you don’t mind, I’m just going to lie here and pine for book two for a bit.

READ THIS BOOK SO I HAVE PEOPLE TO YELL ABOUT IT WITH, OKAY???

five-stars

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