A.M. Justice's Reviews > The Blighted City

The Blighted City by Scott Kaelen
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it was amazing
bookshelves: spfbo

4.5 stars

Blighted City begins with a quest and ends with a beautiful contemplation of filial love, loyalty, duty, and grief in a story that blazes a trail out of standard epic fantasy into a really fresh, original science fantasy narrative. We begin with an old woman who hires some mercenaries to retrieve a family heirloom from a tomb. Journeymen swordsmen and lifelong friends Dagra and Oriken follow Jalis, their blademistress, into the wilds, where they encounter hostile monsters and challenging terrain on the trip to the tomb's location in Lachyla, a long-abandoned city. Dagra, a pious man, fears the outcome of the journey, because legend says Lachyla was cursed some three hundred years previously. Athiest Oriken dismisses his friend's worries and anticipates an easy mission in an empty city. Jalis' main interest is in completing the job and continuing the training of her two charges.

At first, everything follows a fairly standard epic fantasy narrative: After some harrowing adventures, the trio reach the tomb and retrieve the heirloom. As they're leaving, the dead rise from their graves, and they have to fight their way out of the graveyard. The action to this point is well done, but not terribly original. Then, early the next morning, Dagra leaves his friends and goes alone into the city. Confused and worried, Jalis and Oriken follow and discover their friend has fallen victim to the curse plaguing the city—he's been infected with a fungus that revives dead cells, rendering living humans immortal and turning deceased humans into zombies. The city is populated with the immortals, who struggle with deep regrets and severe ennui. The Freeblades' presence serves as a catalyst that jolts the Lachylans out of their inertia, as well as initiating a conflict between the city and a near-by village where live the tradition-bound descendants of people who escaped the Lachylan plague.

Kaelen's prose flows smoothly and beautifully frames some stark contrasts between the dark and often vividly gruesome nature of the Lachylans' plight and the honor and decency of his main characters, all of whom act out of duty to their families and/or communities. One passage captures the essence of this:

"You know," he said quietly, "for all the horrors of this world, for all the senseless losses and atrocities, the firmament above us is a painting of innocence. The stars and the moons—all those lights are untouchable, unknowable. Sometimes I imagine myself soaring like a dawnhawk through that celestial sphere. For every horror down here, be it corpse or cravant, monster or man, there's a twinkling beauty out of reach up there."

Contrasts between characters' core beliefs also lend depth and weight to the story. Philosophical exchanges on the nature of life and existence frequently crop up between action sequences and form the heart of the book. Some characters are pious and adhere fervently to their belief in the gods—and their wrath—while others investigate the mechanics of reality, wanting to know the how of things as much as or even more than the why. A third class of characters is primarily interested in earthly concerns—duty, love, and loyalty. All of these individual philosophies are presented with sympathy and respect.

The only faults I would cite are an over-reliance on expository dialogue to provide world-building and backstory information, which I found a little tiresome in the beginning of the novel, and the use of too many point-of-view characters, which include all three Freeblades, the leader of their guild, and several villagers descended from Lachylan refugees. As the story went on, the exposition was better integrated into the narrative—a good example is a very moving story about why Oriken is so attached to his hat (in this zombie-occupied landscape, Oriken's headgear is strongly reminiscent of Rick Grimes' sheriff's hat). While multiple POVs were necessary to show everything happening during a major battle occurring at the midway point in the book, the narrative would have been more compelling if told only through the eyes of characters with a story arc. It was hard to become invested in characters whose POV appeared in only a few scenes, and there were a few single-scene POVs that could have been left out. I would have preferred those characters' fates to be left as mysteries to be solved in future volumes (and if they're not important enough to revisit in future volumes, one wonders why they were important enough to include in this one).

All in all, this was one of those books that took a while to capture my full attention, but once it did, I was locked in and anxious to learn everyone's fate. There were plenty of surprises, and a few tears along the journey, and all in all I'll be looking with great enthusiasm for the next volume in this story.
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Reading Progress

September 20, 2018 – Started Reading
September 20, 2018 – Shelved
November 25, 2018 – Shelved as: spfbo
November 25, 2018 – Finished Reading

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