Originally posted on my writing blog which was active from 2010 to 2018.
I finished Servant of a Dark God by John Brown the other day, and I thought it was a pretty good epic fantasy. It is the first in a series of books (as is the unspoken requirement for “epic fantasy”), but it was still very self-contained. Ie. the book had a satisfactory ending, and I didn’t feel like I was being coerced into rushing out to get the next book. (Don’t get me wrong, there were many questions left unanswered, but answering them would begin a new story.)
So in the spirit of “critical reading,” I’m going to list out what I thought worked and what I thought didn’t work. That is, things I might want to emulate, and things I might not. Thing number one is that the novel was self-contained. If I ever get around to writing a trilogy or whatnot, I’d like to do the same thing.
The “feel” of Brown’s writing seemed unusual for epic fantasy. I think mainly because the sentences were short and uncomplicated throughout. But it didn’t feel condescending, it actually felt right for the most part. Perhaps Brown was trying to emulate how young commoners might speak. I liked it, but I think for my own “epic” writing I want to retain a more “educated” tone (which is what I’ve been doing so far), unless maybe I’m specifically writing from the POV of a child or under-educated person.
The “structure” of the book remains elusive to me. Most stories are supposed to have a 3-act structure, or a 7-point plot, but I’m having a hard time applying those to Brown’s story. (It’s entirely possible that I’m terrible at that, though.) I’m not sure what the “inciting incident” was. I guess for Sugar it was her parents getting attacked. But what about Talen? His everyday world didn’t change until the latter half of the book, when River revealed all the magic stuff to him. As a matter of fact, halfway through the book I remember wondering who the main character even was (there were I think four main POVs, and they all seemed to be on parallel courses for quite some time). It was only near the end that I was sure that Talen was the main character and not Sugar. I think. (I still enjoyed the story, I just couldn’t fit it into a neat little box, which is probably a good thing.)
I thought switching to Hunger’s POV in certain places was brilliant. By doing so, Brown was able to really communicate how indestructible he/it was. From Hunger’s perspective, people attacking him were so ineffective that they barely warranted mentioning. He tossed them away without a thought. Describing the same scene from the attacker’s POV would have required tons and tons of superlative language about how strong the monster was, and I don’t think it would have conveyed its strength as well. So that’s definitely something to keep in mind. I also liked how the monster became more “humanized” and almost remorseful every time it ate someone’s soul.
On the less good side, I noticed a lot of explanations between spoken dialog. For example, a character would say, “We better get the magic widget,” and then there would be a paragraph of explanation about what the magic widget was. Then another character would reply, “That won’t do any good, we need the iron whatnot,” and then there would be another paragraph of explanation about the iron whatnot. When I notice it, I find it a little annoying and it distracts me from the story (because sometimes the explanation is so long you can’t remember what the character is replying to). Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin do this too. And I’m sure I will as well, but I definitely want to minimize those situations. If nothing else, I’ll try to keep the explanations really brief so that it doesn’t interrupt the conversation. Or save the explanations until after the conversation ends.
The chapter with the most emotional impact for me, hands down, was Chapter 34 “Sacrifice.” Saying goodbye to the wife and kids, Nettle volunteering his Fire, and Argoth struggling within himself over using the filtering rod. Great, soul-wrenching conflict-y stuff.
Anyway, all told, an enjoyable book and a fairly quick read. Good world design, good realism, very few tropes (ie. no ninja elves or grumpy dwarves). A good one I think if you like your epic fantasy in small, bite-sized chunks. I can definitely see myself reading more John Brown in the future.