Seven Forges has left me confused after finishing it, more so than any other book I've read this year. Why? Well, Seven Forges has so many elements going for it: the world-building is great, the characters are interesting, snappy dialogue, interesting plot. Yet for some reason, the elements didn't gel together smoothly and so the book made for an uneven read. And I'm having a hard time putting my finger on why exactly I found it to be so.
What initially drew my attention to Seven Forges and what somewhat set it apart for me was the world building. Moore sets his story in a world where the largest desolate and harsh environment isn't your usual desert, no he chooses to set it in an icy landscape that is bleak and dark and completely inhospitable. He also hints throughout the story that there is more to this world, that the geography of it is unreliable as it's seemingly changing in unexpected ways: distances getting shorter and features of the landscape, such as mountains and islands, moving or disappearing. I found the world our protagonists travel through fascinating, from the sea shores of Roathes, the political intrigue at the castle in Tyrne, the bleakness of the Blasted Lands, to the majestic, but cold, splendour of the The Seven Forges, they all held my interest.
Similarly, Moore does a good job with his characters. While there are numerous points of view throughout the book, about thirteen if I remember them all, the main viewpoints are shared between Merros, Andover, Desh, and Drask. Merros is a likeable sort, who gets drawn back into the Empire's service after having retired as Captain. I liked his sense of responsibility, especially towards those under his command. He isn't afraid to fight and knows death and loss is part of that, but he hates losing men on his watch regardless. I loved his bond with his second-in-command, Wollis. They had an easy-going bond that comes from long association and I really liked the banter between them. In contrast, Andover is a youth who is just growing into being an adult. While I found his story arc immediately engaging, he's a typical teenager and as such not always very sympathetic. But he was well-written and there is a lot of potential there. Desh is a quite human character, despite being a centuries-old sorcerer and I quite liked his snide sense of humour. His exchanges with Emperor Pathra had me sniggering quite a few times.
Drask is the first Sa'ba Taalor the Empire, and the reader encounters and as such he's an important figure. He sets the tone of what we can expect from the Sa'ba Taalor, or does he? I found this new race the Empire encountered completely compelling. I really liked the mythology and religion Moore has crafted for them and the way they have adapted to the harsh living conditions they were forced into by the fall of Kowra and the creation of the Blasted Lands. They are a warrior culture, trained in battle from the moment they can stand, regardless of their sex or their standing in the community. While we learn a lot about them, a lot remains hidden - most notably the way they look, as they wear veils at all times in the book - and there are a lot of additional hints at more mysteries towards the end of the book.
I loved that especially among the Sa'ba Taalor men and women are equal and the women have just as much agency as the men. Unfortunately, however much agency the women have, they are all written through a heavy male gaze and this was the one giant drawback for me. Time and again we are told how stunningly beautiful Tega, the Sisters, and Princesses Lanaie and Nachia are, and how strangely alluring the female Sa'ba Taalor are with their blend of physical prowess and unapologetic feminine curves. I could have excused this in Andover's case, because he's a hormonal, love-struck teen, but he's not the only one to look at the women in this way. All of the characters do it, except perhaps Drask and Tusk, the Sa'ba Taalor leaders. I don't mind all the female characters being gorgeous or attractive, not at all, but after the first time it's been observed, I don't have to be told over and over again. Especially in the case of the three Sisters that assist Desh, the emphasis on their beauty and the implied use of their physical attributes to get done what they need to get done, became grating.
The writing and pacing of the book felt somewhat uneven, with quite obvious tonal differences between passages and a rather slow build-up leading into a lightening ending. I had a hard time for about the first 100 pages of the book. Seven Forges seemed like it should be a quick read, but I found myself being easily distracted from it during that first third of the story and it was only once I passed the halfway point that I found I was really invested. While this may have been due to me being tired, I think that part of it is that this is clearly the first book in a series and there is a lot of setting up for the rest of the story. However, Moore is great at snappy dialogue and banter and his characters had me laughing out loud several times.
Seven Forges didn't knock my socks off, but it's hooked me enough to make sure I'll be back for the next instalment. After the explosive plot twist in the last chapters of the book, how could I not be? I'm hoping we'll see lots more of the Sa'ba Taalor and their society and of Merros. Moore has set off some bombs in the final pages of his story and it'll be interesting to see how his characters deal with the fall out in the next book.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.