Review: HOPE & RED by Jon Skovron (Orbit)

SkovronJ-1-HopeAndRedAn entertaining new fantasy series

In a fracturing empire spread across savage seas, two people will find a common cause.

Hope, the lone survivor when her village is massacred by the emperor’s forces is secretly trained by a master Vinchen warrior as an instrument of vengeance.

Red, an orphan adopted by a notorious matriarch of the criminal underworld, learns to be an expert thief and con artist.

TOGETHER THEY WILL TAKE DOWN AN EMPIRE.

There’s a lot to like in Hope & Red: the characters are interesting, often fun and they get caught up in a lot of action. The world is well-crafted and appropriately fleshed-out, but also leaves plenty still to be explored. While there were a couple of flaws, Hope & Red is entertaining, fast-paced and quite gripping. I enjoyed it.

To begin with, we get the obligatory origin-stories for Hope and Red. I much preferred Hope’s story: found as a stowaway after her village was massacred, she is then taken to the Vinchen temple and secretly trained to become a warrior. All the while, her thirst for vengeance grows, tempered by the Grandmaster, given direction. It wasn’t over-done or drawn-out, which I very much appreciated. It reminded me a bit of one of the story-threads from Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades.

Red’s first few chapters weren’t bad, I just preferred Hope’s story. After the death of his parents, Red is raised not be a “notorious matriarch” as the synopsis suggests — I got the exact opposite impression of Sadie, in fact. But, over time and after collecting a decent crew, they all manage to do rather well for themselves. (Yes, I’m keeping things vague, so there’s a point in you reading the novel.) What Skovron did do very well, though, was write the growing bond between these new parent-figures — both Hope and Red find surrogates for their parents, and later on in the novel the author did a great job of showing us just how much they mean to our protagonists. When Hope and Red finally meet up (later than expected), I enjoyed the former’s shock and surprise at life in the city, New Laven — it was often quite funny.

There are plenty of nods to progressive and contemporary political and social issues. The place of women in society, for example: they aren’t allowed to be Vinchen or biomancers, despite being just as capable (or more so, in the case of the latter). Sometimes, it’s a bit clunky, but for the main it’s well woven into the story. There is also some commentary on economic equality, the importance of community. Brigga Lin is also a fascinating character, someone I wish had played a bigger part for the duration of the novel.

This brings me to the things that didn’t work for me. First, and the lesser of the two: the main characters never seem to fail at anything. They are hyper-competent, almost flawless in what they do. And quickly, too — they learn new skills so fast. Sometimes, an obstacle was present to them and… ta-da! Solved in a couple of paragraphs. Or at least, that’s how it felt. Generally, though, I think this was fine — it certainly didn’t stop me reading, or lessen my eagerness to pick it back up again in the morning or after work. After years of grimdark, beaten-down protagonists, etc., it was quite nice to read a novel about (effectively) fantasy super-heroes. Don’t get me wrong, though: this is not a sanitized novel. Bad stuff happens to good people, and while it’s not graphically presented, fights aren’t “fisticuffs”, and the biomancers can and do horrific things.

The slang. This is obviously very important to the author. This is fine. And again, I should point out that I kept eagerly reading despite the issues I had with this aspect of the novel. It is also something I frequently have problems with across the fantasy genre. First, the overuse of the word “wag(s)” to mean friend, person, folks, and seemingly every other word in that area (except for woman and man, which was “molly” and “tom”). “Wag” appeared so very often, it started to irritate. In real life, few people have only one collective word for people/friend/etc. It was like Peter V. Brett’s ever-increasing use of the word “ent”, which in The Skull Throne was bordering on Tourettes. It was never difficult to follow Red and his crew’s speech and slang, but given the long glossary at the end, a handful of words dominated. Which was oddly unimaginative. Also, using the phrase “cunt-droppings” does not an “adult fantasy” make. This felt jarring and anachronistic. Anyway, enough about the slang — it didn’t work for me, but it wasn’t bad enough to ruin the novel. Just… obvious.

The novel’s final third brings Revelations and Portents which bode very well for the rest of the series. There are shades of the Chosen One, but with a very interesting twist.

If you’re looking for a fast-paced, substantial and entertaining fantasy novel, then you should really check out Hope & Red. The first in a series, I think this is going to be very popular — and deservedly so, despite the slang… I turned the last page eager to get my hands on the second book, Bane & Shadow. An entertaining fantasy, pulling the genre back just a bit from the grimdark precipice.

Recommended.

*

Hope & Red is published by Orbit Books in the UK and US, and is out on June 28th.

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