This week, I’m reviewing the opening to a new fantasy trilogy from Mike Brooks. War dragons, undead monsters and political intrigue might imply that The Black Coast is your standard fantasy fare, but check your expectations – there’s plenty more going on here. This fair and unbiased review was conducted with gratitude for the free electronic copy of the book which I received from the publisher, Orbit.
This review contains an affiliate link to Bookshop.org, which will earn me a commission if used, and will help to support independent bookshops.
In the land of Narida, honour is everything. The people are ruled over by thanes and noble sars – dragon riding warriors who exemplify martial prowess as they wield their deadly longblades. The small Naridan town of Black Keep has stood against the savage, fur-clad raiders of Tjakorsha before, but when the Brown Eagle clan arrive on their shores in overwhelming numbers, the odds seem insurmountable. Much to their surprise, however, it emerges that the clan have fled their homeland, and mean to settle peacefully. Can the two sides forgive each other and learn to work together? And have the Tjakorshi managed to outrun their destruction at the hands of a deadly new enemy?
Opening with a meeting between the current God-King of Narida and his long-suffering sister Tila, it’s immediately obvious that Brooks has a knack for writing excellent dialogue. Conversations throughout The Black Coast are consistently entertaining to read, while also establishing key facts about the cultures of the different characters and moving the plot on – sometimes all at once. But these conversations have an extra layer of significance, as it’s important to note not just what is being said, but how the characters are saying it. Modes of speech vary between the three peoples represented here; though the Tjakorshi language doesn’t seem to have any particularly unusual concepts to grasp, Naridans refer to themselves in the third person – “This man is tired” instead of “I am tired,” for example – while Alabans represent their gender through different diacritics over conventional pronouns (me, mé, mē, mê, mè and më being the first example given).
This might seem like a lot to take in, or that it could make the prose difficult to read, but actually it’s not only elegant, it’s eminently logical and an extremely intelligent piece of worldbuilding. Much of The Black Coast is concerned with the idea of cultures clashing as opposed to armies; there are misunderstandings, faux-pas, quarrels and compromises as the Tjakorshi attempt to make a new home for themselves among their former enemies. The language barrier is a constant problem for them, and by making each language seem completely distinct, the cultural identity of everyone is constantly reinforced whilst simultaneously emphasising how alien the different nations find each other. It really is inspired.
Much of the actual work of forming an alliance falls on the shoulders of Saana Sattistutar – chief of the Brown Eagle clan – and Daimon Blackcreek, sar of Black Keep. The relationship between them feels believably strained, as they struggle to overcome their differences and prevent their people erupting into violence. There is a very strong sense that both of them are constantly wrestling with years of their own traditions, their laws, their cultures, even their very way of being in an attempt to broker peace. This process is not rushed – the kind of differences and bad blood these two nations have can’t be resolved over dinner or with a hastily drawn up treaty – and for every step forward they take it seems as if they then take two back. Their discussions, disagreements and careful negotiations feel utterly believable.
The Black Coast certainly isn’t all talk though. Blood is spilled by the bucketload, with decapitations, slashed throats and severed limbs spraying a plentiful amount of claret across the pages. One on one fights are guaranteed to set hearts racing, and are written with what feels almost like a fight choreographer’s eye for spectacle in terms of stances and moves. Larger scale engagements are visceral and atmospheric, chases are desperate and exciting – when Brooks decides that it’s time for action, he certainly doesn’t disappoint. Even the dragons, that fantasy stalwart, have a distinct flair to them; their varying breeds and temperaments, along with their feathery plumage, make them seem both more realistic and more unique than many of the numerous other examples out there.
Outside the relatively small setting of Black Keep, Tila undertakes a scheme of her own, in an attempt to rid her and her brother of the longstanding irritation of a rival claim to the throne emanating from Alaba. Oblivious to the machinations of those in power, young Jeya is meanwhile on the lookout for easy marks to lift purses from, crossing paths with a wealthy young nobleman and quickly finding her simple life of crime becoming complicated. These are entertaining threads to follow, particularly Tila’s, with huge implications for the direction the story could take in the future. By the end of The Black Coast, you will be both thoroughly satisfied yet desperate to know more – the perfect state to leave a reader in at the beginning of a series.
Combining extensive, anthropologically tinged worldbuilding to rival that of Becky Chambers with explosive and dynamic action scenes, Mike Brooks has really crafted something special here. Tongues wag as heads roll, bonds are forged as bones are broken. This man approves.
The Black Coast is published by Orbit, and releases in the UK on the 18th of February. You can order a copy through this affiliate link.