My taste in fantasy is catholic, ranging from the classic fantasy of Lord of The Rings to the surreality of China Mieville. Among others, I have devoured the works of Roger Zelazny, Steven Erikson, Joe Abercrombie, Robin Hobb and Patrick Rothfuss, savored Le Guin's Wizard of Earthsea, wondered what the fuss is about regarding Locke Lamora, failed to understand Scott Bakker, fallen in and out of love with Martin's Songs of Ice and Fire, and left Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time to grind inexorably onward without me.
Regardless of the type of fantasy, however, I have always sought out stories that engender `a sense of wonder' and The Heretic Land provides that in spades, even if the senses are a little dulled by the dark and macabre nature of the author's vision.
The story is set against the backdrop of a war between the nations of Alderia and Skythe which culminated in the annihilation of the latter six hundred years in the past. During that brief and one sided war, Alderia scoured the island of Skythe with magic `engines' that twisted the land, warped the human inhabitants and created bizarre beings. To add insult to injury, the Alderians have since been using Skythe as a dumping ground for criminals, heretics and other undesirables.
As the novel opens, Bon (the protagonist and a heretic) is aboard a ship en route to exile on Skythe in the company of fellow political prisoners. Skythe is considered so dangerous that the prison transport ships do not make landfall and the jailors throw the exiles into the inimical sea some way from shore. Fortunately, during the brief voyage, Bon befriends an amphibious woman, Leki, and she shepherds him through the horrifying dangers of the sea until they are rescued by Juda, an Alderian living on Skythe, for his own purposes.
The stories of Bon, Leki, Judan and others you meet along the way are fascinating and intricate, but to my mind, secondary to the underlying theme. Literally, (but not immediately obvious) the story is about a struggle between two ancient beings (gods?) represented by Skythe and Alderia, and the actions of the protagonist, fellow travelers and antagonists are almost irrelevant to the tragedy that plays out.
But don't let that put you off. Although the story is dark, visceral, and in some cases, macabre, Tim Lebbon is a gifted author and his world building is several rungs above most fantasists. For instance, during Bon's short voyage to Skythe and his subsequent frantic swim to shore, Lebbon artfully reveals his world, furnishing glimpses of the bizarre and fantastic creatures that inhabit it.
If you like China Mieville, and perhaps more pertinently, Alan Campbell's Sea of Ghosts, give The Heretic Land a go. If you like happy endings or a story that ties everything up neatly, avoid this novel.
Finally, I refrained from rating this novel five stars because, despite the literate nature of the work and the abundance of wonder, I failed to connect with any of the characters. Whether this is a failing on my part, or the result of the irrelevance of the characters to the underlying story, I leave to future readers to discover.