PROS: Great monsters which evoke fear and horror, an extremely well-developed secondary world.
CONS: Secondary characters difficult to differentiate from each other, a “dramatis personae” would have greatly helped.
BOTTOM LINE: Akers provides a very strong foundation in his first foray into Epic Fantasy territory
Tim Akers has been penning well-received Steampunk novels for the last half decade or so. In The Pagan Night he turns his hand to Epic Fantasy with a Dark/Middle Ages feel. The world is on the cusp of change; belief systems are challenged as the Celestial Church is in the process of removing the pagan ways of the land. Humanity lives in a world where demons and monsters still roam the landscape terrorizing people. In addition to bringing people of the land under the belief system and what it preaches of its god, the Church hunts down these monsters. The character at the center of the novel is Maclolm Blakely, who is charged with bringing peace between Northern and Southern lands fighting each other amidst all of this chaos. Blakely also has some challenges with his own son, Ian, who wants to become man with his own identity rather than just a Hero’s Son. In short, Malcolm has a lot on his proverbial plate.
Considerable care and detail are laid down in setting a foundation for the world during the early stages of the novel. Once the plot begins rolling and the stage is set, The Pagan Night goes full throttle into Epic storytelling mode, revealing the layers of conflict that fuel the characters and their motivations. The novel is steeped in history, and that early table-setting for the milieu of this world paid off since there is a very authentic feel to the world.
With the historical feel grounding the backdrop of the novel, the darker elements – the demonic monsters known as gheists – come across as all the more terrifying and gruesome. Historical fantasies featuring strange creatures aren’t necessarily new, but the gheists are a fresh and innovative addition to the canon of Fantasy Creatures. Not the run-of-the-mill monsters one might expect, not your werewolves or trolls, but something uniquely terrifying with an appreciable Lovecraftian bent.
One hurdle to potentially enjoying the novel was how the secondary characters didn’t stand out from each other. Epic Fantasy readers are accustomed to a large cast of characters; however, aside from the primary characters of Malcom, his son Ian, and Gwen, the secondary cast melded together. Additionally, the evil creatures are called both gheists and demons within the same conversation between two characters, which could be confusing at times. It wasn’t immediately clear if demons and gheists were one in the same, if a demon was a more “advanced” form gheist, or the two were separate creatures entirely.
I happened to start watching the television show Vikings during the same time I was reading The Pagan Night. While the locale and evoked in The Pagan Night doesn’t match up exactly with Vikings, there was ample resonance in terms of the harshness of the land and the threats to life which everyday life seemed to bring. Parallels can also be drawn between the world introduced in The Pagan Night and the world in which Joe Abercrombie’s First Law novels are set, even if the stories are quite different.
Two of the strongest and related elements in this novel are these unique creatures and the reaction they evoke in the humans who encounter them: a reaction of guttural horror to perceiving the grotesque. Despite the secondary characters sometimes blurring, the dialogue in the novel came across quite naturally and conveyed the backdrop against which the novel and the series is set.
The Pagan Night is a more than substantial foundation for the trilogy it launches (The Hallowed War) and provides all the ingredients readers of Epic Fantasy hope to see. In a sense, one might say this novel is a good example of that ever important axiom readers use to determine what they want to read: “Some of the same, but different.” The conclusion of the novel, as is par for the course in the first novel of a trilogy, ends with a promising conflict to come in the second volume, due out a year from now.