This week, I’m reviewing The Moonsteel Crown, book one of a new fantasy trilogy from Stephen Deas. This fair and unbiased review was provided with gratitude for the free electronic copy of the book which I received from the publisher, Angry Robot.
This review contains an affiliate link to Bookshop.org, which will earn me a commission if used, and will help to support independent bookshops.
The Moonsteel Crown follows three perpetually down on their luck miscreants – Seth, Fings and Myla – as they become tangled up in intrigue, plots and grudges in the wake of a job they’ve pulled. Working on behalf of their vicious employer, Blackhand, and under the command of the colourfully nicknamed “Murdering Bastard,” a simple bit of burglary turns out to have potentially far-reaching ramifications for the trio, who have more than their fair share of secrets and traumas as it is. With rival gang members, sell-swords and mages all tracking them through the twisting, snow-covered streets of Varr, it will take cunning, guile, and more than a little luck if the three are to get away clean.
Myla, Seth and Fings all get a reasonable share of the spotlight here, with Myla and Seth in particular having plenty in the way of backstory too. To be honest, it’s probably a bit too much backstory, as – particularly later on – it becomes increasingly difficult to follow who is on who’s side, and what everyone’s motivations are. Things get rather complex, with flashbacks and references to prior events weaving around the main storyline – the fallout caused by what the gang have stolen – which itself has a multiple viewpoint narrative that occasionally skips back and forth. The characters often have somewhat protracted internal monologues in which they circle round possible outcomes and debate plans of action too, which can also make things difficult to follow. All in all, it’s quite a lot to keep track of.
Thankfully, The Moonsteel Crown is generally a fairly breezy read, so you won’t be having to keep track of things for too long. The dialogue crackles often, with the characters sparking off each other well, particularly old friends Seth and Fings. Action scenes are also very crunchy and well written, and easily the highlight of the book. Myla, a disgraced former sword-priest, is responsible for much of these more visceral scenes, snapping bones and separating heads from their owners with style. It’s revealed very early on that she’s running from someone, doing jobs for Blackhand and his Unrulys in an attempt to lie low. It’s unfortunate that we don’t see more of her pursuers earlier on though, as the eventual reveal behind the reason for her flight is slightly underwhelming after all its build-up.
The more comedic moments often come courtesy of Fings, a light-fingered master thief with a superstitious streak a mile wide. His willingness to spend his frequently ill-gotten gains on trinkets and knick-knacks to ward off potential witnesses to his crimes and protect against mages is a running gag throughout, making him easily the most charming of the three. His comic relief does seem slightly at odds with some of the darker elements of the story though, be it the surprisingly graphic torture and the cold-blooded murders, or the darker aspects of Seth’s arc. Tonally, things can be a little uneven – some more comic banter really wouldn’t go amiss, as the dialogue and the action are the big selling points here. Those bleaker acts of violence feel more awkward than shocking, their moral ambivalence coming across as a slightly unsubtle way to add gritty darkness to a story that doesn’t particularly benefit from it.
Things sometimes fall a little flat between the entertaining fights, with quite a lot of exposition and some slightly patchy lore which doesn’t enlighten as much as one might hope. There’s talk of three different gods, royal intrigue, unholy secrets and more besides, but the deliberate move to make the main characters largely apathetic to the motivations of the ruling class means much of the detail regarding the central plot isn’t delivered terribly organically. It’s a shame, as the world building here is interesting enough (if a little safe), but struggles to prove its relevance. The pacing also suffers thanks to frequent backtracking and gap filling, both of which are only necessary because of the strangely convoluted order Deas has chosen to tell this story in. The interluding chapters for example – mainly flashbacks detailing Seth’s life in the priesthood before his fall from grace – feel like they would have been better served as a prologue or a part one. There are plenty of nice individual pieces to this puzzle; they just aren’t always fitted together in the most satisfying fashion.
Happily, The Moonsteel Crown has a strong finish, with the pace picking up again and the biggest fights saved until last, as well as plenty of groundwork being laid for future books. Fantasy fans are likely to find plenty to enjoy here, in what is ultimately a reasonably diverting and fun read despite some pacing issues and odd storytelling choices.
The Moonsteel Crown is published by Angry Robot, and releases on the 9th of February. You can order your own copy at this affiliate link.