A sense of impending doom undergirds the action in A Tale of Infidels, the first installment in Erik A. Otto’s sprawling and ambitious fantasy trilogy series of the same name.
Before introducing the main characters, the author offers an ominous countdown: “87 days until the Day of Ascendancy; 187 days until the Third Internecion,” proclaims the first chapter’s subtitle. “The Day of Ascendancy” is a prophesized cataclysm that will see the known world turn upside down, and the “Third Internecion” is the period of chaos, conflict and upheaval that will follow. Similar subtitles head every subsequent chapter.
The novel’s setting—the vast realm called Matteo’s Lands—includes a wide range of cultures, realms and kingdoms, but all boast shared religious roots. Three main characters (the titular infidels) face distinct challenges as the prophesized events near and an epic conflict looms.
Sebastian, “The Truthseeker,” is an acolyte intent on a path of quiet religious study in the monastic stronghold of the Old Keep; those plans are derailed after the discovery of ancient ruins, a living gargoyle and an archival copy of a religious text revealing disturbing truths about the fate of Matteo’s Lands. Hella, “The Traitor,” is a Pomerian princess who must reassess her own biases when she’s assigned duty as a diplomat to the faraway land of Jawhar, even as she struggles against sexism and cultural bigotry in a foreign setting. Darian, “The Imbecile,” is a recently conscripted soldier training to become a great warrior while seeking to properly understand a condition that gives him special powers to mimic and mirror others.
All of these characters face their own crises as the prophesized Day of Ascendancy approaches. The author juggles their separate stories well, creating a compelling, immersive narrative arc for each. Simultaneously, Otto delivers a vivid world filled with mystery, mysticism and monsters. Its very richness underscores one of novel’s few flaws: no glossary or index to spell out details of the imagined world; readers must glean the all-important sense of context as the action unrolls.
Happily, though, Otto is a strong enough writer to bridge those gaps fairly rapidly. Readers will quickly find themselves on board for the journey of these three-dimensional characters as they barrel toward a genuinely intriguing and exciting cliffhanger that paves a proper way for the next two books.