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Joseph Burgo
A Grim Light Rising
Joseph Burgo, author
Young Devianna must flee her village before anyone discovers she is Vacillian, a freak of nature who unpredictably shifts back and forth between sexes. The civilization of Messano was long ago decimated by a plague which left most people void of "fellow feeling" while dooming a few rare mutants such as Devianna to pariah status. If they find her out, the villagers will stone her to death. Devianna soon crosses paths with the itinerant bard Madino, part of a secret order of hyper-empaths that has been striving for centuries to heal Messano and return it to its former glory. The ancient chronicle he declaims at Castle Inario, about the wise Soltans who once ruled the entire world, inspires King Nical with visions of unlimited power. When Nical's idiot-savant brother Tavi teaches himself to read and resurrects the lost art of forging iron, Nical sees a way to build himself an unstoppable army. He hasn't yet realized that he has ceased aging or that he owes his enduring youth to the servant girls who fall in love with him, only to wither away and die. Arran - Nical and Tavi's other brother - swings back and forth between hopeless despair and giddy joy. Under the influence of foria smoke, a stimulant that elates him, he one day discovers that he can fly like an eagle and read currents within time unfolding. Soon he becomes a prophet-like figure to disaffected youth across Estneva, calling thousands of men and boys to enlist in Nical's new army. The three brothers join forces to conquer all of wide Messano, unaware that the slaver Silvana has for years been training a secret army of her own to usurp the throne.
Burgo (Grim) ambitiously juggles dozens of players in this epic fantasy tale coursing with psychological undercurrents. In the world of Messano, in the aftermath of a magical plague that robs people of their capacity for empathy (or “fellow-feeling”), the rich and powerful are consumed by their ambitions. Immortal king Nical chooses to conquer the world, a mysterious woman named Silvana builds a personal army with disturbing methods, and dark secrets threaten death and destruction. Yet it is a humble village boy who is sometimes a girl, known as Devian and Devianna, who will change the course of nations, all while forming an earnest, sisterly friendship with a runaway princess.

Fantasy fans will wallow in Burgo’s gritty and bleak world filled with unsettling attitudes—particularly around sexuality and gender— where consent is dubious and intimacy is callous. The story boasts a multitude of characters but a tightly woven plot, as the many narrative arcs regularly intersect, with the backstories of the many attention-grabbing personalities taking precedence over personal quests. The sprawling narrative’s occasional redundancy, and the lengthy monologues on medieval technology, are offset by plenty of sex and intense character passages, although discomfort tinges the sensuality more often than joy. With not one, but two, instances of magical gender change, the author quietly endeavors for gender inclusivity while shying away from directly acknowledging queer identities.

Burgo’s background as a psychologist informs his nuanced treatment of the ways magic would affect people. Narcissists (“Narsicans”), for example, literally drain away the life force of those around them. A Grim Light Rising plays rough as its cast vies ruthlessly for power, with brutal consequences facing those who fall prey to King Nical’s desires. But classic themes of courage and heroism leaven the darker elements in a satisfyingly unresolved ending, setting the stage for the follow up to this an appealing (albeit disquieting) epic.

Takeaway: Lovers of dark, character-driven fantasy will enjoy this epic’s intricate plotting and unique magic system.

Great for fans of: Brent Weeks's Night Angel Trilogy, Lois McMaster Bujold's World of the Five Gods series.

Production grades
Cover: B
Design and typography: B
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: B
Marketing copy: B