ARC Review: Heirs of the Demon King: Uprising by Sarah Cawkwell

18775286eARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for fair review

Summary:

Epic fantasy meets alternate history in a sweeping saga that crosses the medieval world. Matthias Eynon must escape the clutches the Witchhunters and locate the masters of the four magic arts to overthrow the tyrannical Demon King, descendant of the twisted Richard III.

Mathias Eynon“s dreams were small. A dabbler in magic, and son of a magician, he expected to live in obscurity in his home in the Welsh hills, quietly conducting his experiments and hoping not to draw too much attention to himself.

But fate has other plans for him. It is the Year of Our Lord Fifteen-Ninety, and a revolution is quietly brewing, here and further abroad. Richard V has overstayed his rule, some say; others whisper that the whole line of Demon Kings must be burned out. Mathias son of a man executed for the practice of magic, forbidden by the paranoid king is set to become a symbol, and a leader.

And to do that, he needs champions. A wise woman sends him to the corners of the known world to the frozen lands of the Danes, to the pirate-haunted ports of Spain, to the mountains of the German Empire, to the burning sands of the Holy Land to bring back masters of the four magic arts. With the best and brightest of Richard’s Witch Hunters on his heels, he sets out to gather his allies.

Review:

Historical fantasy is an under-used sub-genre of fantasy. Most recently I’ve seen it appearing in Young Adult, where the use of particular places in time are used as a backdrop of a story that, while it generally makes good use of the time period, has little to do with the actual time period itself. Heirs of the Demon King though, is a bit more unique in that it presents us with an alternate history, something more commonly found in other forms of historical fiction. The premise of this is fantastic: Richard I (the Lionhearted) comes back from the Crusades bearing the gift of magic. Magic spreads throughout Europe and everything is flourishing. But back in England, nobles worried about losing their power over the people demand that an end be put to magic, and so his successors do just that. When Henry Tudor challenges Richard III for the throne, Richard III makes a final desperate bid: a compact with the Demon Melusine to defeat Henry Tudor, and in exchange a future descendent will become Melusine’s vessel to walk the earth.

Fast forward a few generations and we now have Richard V. The Plantagenet kings continue to scorn magic in preference of science (the cause of the rift between England and Rome, which in this book has fully embraced magic) and his Inquisitors (the Witch Hunters of the summary) scour the lands to destroy any remaining practitioners. Our protagonist Mathias loses all the family he’s ever had to these Inquisitors, and it is his adoptive father’s magic that sends him on the quest of the book.

It’s an enjoyable read. But it a book that I think could have used a little more depth.

First off, we have the magic. It feels like a mish-mash. We see villages in France where the plows plow and bread pans depan loafs of bread, but there are no humans around to aid in the process (kind of like The Sorcerer’s apprentice). All the mages we meet, however, have elemental powers. There are Druidic influences on this book, and then of course there are demons. Some ground rules would have been nice because it has that feel of “a little of this” and a “little of that” which doesn’t really for this kind of thing.

More importantly though, characters all feel sketched, and so feel flat.

Charles Weaver, the Inquisitor who spends the book chasing our protagonist feels robotic in the way that he chases after Mathias. You can almost hear him saying Must. Kill. Magi. as he rides. He has zero qualms about burning down a church filled to the brim with the population of Troyes, France and never shows any sign of remorse about what he is doing. And yet he has no words, nor thought, nor deeds to suggest that he is religious and he never wonders if maybe this isn’t right. While we do ultimately get a (good) explanation for the behavior, it literally comes in the last pages of the book, so we’re basically left with a one note Evil villain. His parts are easily the weakest of the story.

The protagonists doesn’t seem much better here. Mathias is a Good Kid with a Kind Heart. Tagan is Loyal and Loves Her Betrothed. The Shapeshifter is taciturn. The Pirate King is flamboyant almost to the point of ridicule and so on. While you like the protagonists, there is no real depth beyond their trope. Even though there is a weariness with Mathias at the books end, it almost comes off more as petulance (because he’s accepted that he’ll never get to just marry Tagan and live a quiet life) than true weariness born of what he has seen and what lies ahead. The closest we get to growth is actually Richard V who decides he really doesn’t like this deal that Richard III made, but the ending almost feels like too much of a 180 in the other direction to be fully believable.

Don’t get me wrong: I liked this book, and the parts with the magic users were easily the best (actually, I’d love a book centered around the Pirate King. I’d totally read a book based around his adventures) even if the characters themselves felt a bit tropey. It’s just true alternate history fantasy is kind of rare these days so I wanted to really be able to praise it fully and I just couldn’t.

Still, if you like historical fantasy or the premise, it’s definitely worth a look.

Verdict: a strong Borrow It

Available: May 27th

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2 thoughts on “ARC Review: Heirs of the Demon King: Uprising by Sarah Cawkwell

  1. Times like this, I feel happy when I pass on an ARC and then read a review confirming my instinct of dodging it. I’m so strapped for reading time these days I really don’t want to spend it on books that seem like just okay reads :/ It means I’ll miss out on some great books along the way, sure, but at the same time I end up absolutely loving about 90% of what I read.

    • I completely understand how you feel. I read more than most, but it’s not like I want to be reading 24/7 so I do try and pick out the books that I have the best chance of loving. This one made some good strides for sure, but it just lacked that spark that it needed to go from good to great. I’d say it’d be worth picking up if you do find more time to read, but you certainly aren’t missing out on the best of 2014 either.

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