Trade paperback, $16
I liked this book a lot, and for a number of reasons, not the least of which it was short. I realize that sounds like a slam, but it's not. In an age of Book Bloat; four, five, or more volume "trilogies"; and series where readers are literally kept waiting years for the next installment (Are you listening George R. R. Martin?), it is refreshing to find a fantasy that can be told in one volume. That this fantasy not only ties up all the loose ends, which is not the same as answering all the questions, and does so with style, characcterization, multiple viewpoints, and plenty of action, is very much a breath of fresh air.
This is a first novel, which makes it even more impressive. The story starts out with Caim, a hired assassin, carrying out a contract on a ruler in another kingdom. He's assisted in this endeavor by Kit, a young "woman" who can only be seen and heard by him and has the ability to walk through walls. You can probably see how useful a companion like this would be to an assassin. Can you say "spy"?
Unfortuantely Kit has a habit of disappearing for long periods of time. Considering Caim can only see and hear her but not touch her, this seems to make any romance doomed from the start. There is no doubt love exists between them, although not necesssarily (or at least enitrely) of the romantic sort.
Upon returning to the city of Othir, Caim decides to take some time off, but his broker Mathias convices him to take one more job. Reluctantly, Caim agrees. When he tells Kit about, she's not enthused and encourages him to back out. Beliving he is going to assassinate a retired general responsible for atrocities and the death of innocents, Caim arrives to find his target already dead, in a very messy manner. Before he can decide what to do next, the victim's daughter Josey shows up. She's soon followed by a group of soldiers with orders to see that Caim is killed trying to escape. They also have orders to kill Josey and make it look like she was an additional victim. Caim manages to escape, taking Josey with him.
And from there his life goes rapdily downhill. We learn throughout the course of the story that Caim is an orphan who watched his father murdered before his eyes as a young boy. His mother was carried off by the same men who killed his father. He has been on his own since his teens and has powers no one else has, powers he doesn't understand and therefore fears. At some point in his past, Kit showed up, alledgedly looking for a little brother and found him. Sprunk implies this takes place before his parents are killed, but I don't recall that ever being explicitly stated. Exactly who or what Kit is, or where she comes from, Caim doesn't know. And Kit isn't saying.
The action is fast and furious, the fight scenes well coreographed, and the character development good. This novel has one of the more interesting love triangles I've seen in quite a while. Also, while Caim is the primary viewpoint character, and Josey the secondary, Sprunk also lets us see things from the views of some of the other characters, not all of whom survive until the end of the book. Not only does he show us the good guys, the villains, and there are quite a few, also get their moments in the spotlight.
Like I said, I liked this book for a lot of reasons. That doesn't mean I think it's perfect. It's a first novel, and that shows at times. The two things that grated on my suspension of disbelief the most were Caim catching a crossbow bolt in the side, a great deal being made about how much pain he was in, then climbing walls and fighting two days later. In a related scene, Caim sneaks back into the house where he found his victim already dead, and Sprunk mentions the lawn has become overgrown. In two days? I used to mow lawns. I don't think so. Even with the rain and heat of east Texas, grass doesn't grow that fast.
My other gripes are minor. I would have liked to know a little more about the geography of Sprunk's world. The brief author bio at the end of the book says he's working on the sequel. I suspect we'll learn a lot more then. I also would have liked to know a little more about the Church (not the Catholic Church or from what information given even a Christian one) and how it took over the empire.
But none of these things spoiled the story for me. The book was fun, entertaining, and held my interest. Sprunk does an admirable job in making his characters real people and shows them changing and growing. For example, Caim is a killer, no doubt about it, but he wasn't always that way, and the possiblity of changing is before him. Sprunk could have written Caim's powers to make him a superman. Instead he shows us Caim's fear and confusion regarding them, and makes his hero more human, and in the process more heroic because of that. Caim, Josey, Kit, and a number of other characters, both major and minor make choices and live with the consequences. I cared what happened to the characters, even the villains. Of course with most of the villains, I cared how bloody an end they met. Sprunk made me hate them that much without turning them into cardboard cutouts. All the major villains got at least one viewpoint scene.
I said earlier that wrapping up all the loose ends isn't the same as answering all the questions. In the end, there is a sense of closure but not finality. We don't know everything at the end of the book. There are enough unanswered questions and situations in the greater world that aren't addressed that Sprunk should be able to get at least one good sequel out of this book. Caim is just now beginning to figure out who he really is, as is Josey. What we do know is how the characters, both those who survive and those who don't, grow and change as they face adversity.
That's what makes good fiction, and that's what makes fantastic fiction realistic. Characters who are real people the reader cares about. I'm looking forward to the sequel.