Full disclosure: an Advanced Reading Copy (ARC) of this book was provided to me by the author in exchange for an honest review, which I have provided below.
Please be advised re: spoilers for “Illborn”, I will be touching upon events from the first installment of this series in this review.
I chose Book One of the “Illborn Saga: – “Illborn”, a Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO 7) semi-finalist – as my personal #1 favourite Indie fantasy book of the year.
This novel made a LOT of other readers’ / bloggers’ Indie best lists, since it was published in 2021, and has become one the darlings of the Indie fantasy circuit.
So one can imagine just how enthusiastic I was to read Book Two of the “Illborn Saga”, entitled “Aiduel’s Sin”. When the incredible author, Daniel T. Jackson, offered up the ARC, I couldn’t type “yes” to accept, fast enough.
So, how does this sequel measure up to the lofty heights reached by its predecessor?
The appropriate word to be used here, I believe, would be “surpassed”.
In “Aiduel’s Sin”, we return to Jackson’s medieval-style world of Angall, which seems on the brink of explosion into major conflict. In this backdrop, taking place approximately four months following the conclusion of events in “Illborn”, the storylines of our four main POV characters, the Illborn, are an interesting contradiction. For as the Illborn grow in power, prestige, and acclaim, their lives become more complex, dangerous, and even terrifying, as they move inevitably towards whatever their eventual destinies are.
And the Illborn can summon magic that they do not completely understand, nor are they sure they can completely control.
Fate seems destined to separate Allana and Arion, almost as punishment for their shared fixation with each other.
Allana is drawing closer and closer to Duke Jarrett, Arion’s mortal enemy. Trying to position herself to become more than just Jarrett’s mistress, the ambitious Allana still has her eyes on any man in her orbit who might give her the safety, security, and life of privilege she seeks, including Jarrett’s social betters.
But Jarrett’s mother has no love for Allana, and Allana will have to use all her wits to prevent her plans from falling to catastrophe. She still dreams, however, of being with Arion, who she believes is her soulmate, the man she cannot forget. What will she risk to reunite with the married Arion, and reestablish their connection, that seems undeniable?
Allana will use her cunning, and exploit her considerable beauty and powers of seduction, to get what she wants out of life. But to what depths of darkness is she willing to go to achieve her ends, in terms of wielding the dread magical power of the Illborn? For Allana’s words are: LUST, POWER, DOMINATION.
Arion revels in his new reputation as a war hero, but that has come at a cost. His guilty, secret obsession with Allana has driven a wedge between him and his wife, he’s turned to drinking and carousing. His brother, the new Duke, is also disappointed in his performance as a noble, and husband. Moreover, as much as he is a hero in his own lands, he’s a hated foe to his enemies, and it seems his enemies are determined to assassinate him.
Arion is also haunted by visions of certain doom, involving powerful friends. Arion is determined to continue to be a hero, and bring honour and glory to his family name. But despite his formidable powers, is he strong enough to survive? And will his obsession for Allana be his ultimate downfall? Arion must rise above temptation, in order to triumph, and to fulfill his words of: “STRENGTH, VICTORY, GLORY”.
Once sacrificed to the stake, to be burned as a witch, Leanna is now revered as a saint and miracle-worker. But far from being able to live in the protection of the Holy Church, there are elements within the church who want her destroyed. Her unlikely protector becomes none other than Caddin, the hulking, dangerous fanatic who was at the centre of the shocking prologue in the first book.
Leanna is entirely devout, kind, stalwart in her faith and devotion to duty and doing right, but will she be compelled to do wrong, to protect those she cares about? And now knowing other Illborn exist, will she strive to align with them, or will she be forced to become their enemies, to save them from harming others? Leanna must remember her words are: “DEVOTION, SACRIFICE, SALVATION”.
Finally, Corin has emerged as a demi-god like figure, and a unifying force for the clans of his region. Outside forces seek to challenge his rule, but Corin is seeking to expand his reach and influence, to unite ALL the tribes, for the sake of survival, and to ensure his people can truly thrive.
With the formidable Blackpaw beside him, Corin has a plan to attain his ends. Still, his priority is the love of his life, his wife Agbeth, who is seemingly afflicted by a life-threatening condition. Corbin decides to embark on a perilous quest to save her, that will reveal more truths about his place as an Illborn, and of the origins of his faithful companion, the fearsome beast, Blackpaw, where his powers will be severely tested. He must live up to his words of: “FEAR, CONTROL, ORDER”.
Amidst all this, a leader of the church has declared those who have disobeyed his edicts, and formed a splinter church, and those who follow them, apostates. A religious war erupts. All the main characters are caught up in the conflict, and forced to choose sides. This war has MAJOR implications for the characters coming into one another’s orbit, and the results will be simply explosive.
Meanwhile, the rise to power of the man-god, the Christ-like Lord Aiduel, is seen, stunning, tragic, glorious, and portentous. Is Aiduel himself drawing all four Illborn together, to destroy the world? Or save it? And who, if any, of the four Illborn will survive?
Jackson continues to provide exemplary character-driven fantasy, centered on the development of four complex protagonists, with their four distinct narrative voices. Building on the first book of the series, even though at least two of the main characters – Arion and Allana – are arguably highly flawed, even unlikable, Jackson makes the reader empathize with them, and care deeply about their fates, beyond just how those two relate to the other primary players.
Even the more likable Corin and Allana, are subject to questionable decision making at times, and even hubris that endangers themselves and those around them.
Their choices may be dubious, but everything they do is highly plausible, given their unique personalities and circumstances. In the end, these characters are impeccably drawn, and highly relatable, and they are the crown jewels in this amazing novel.
Because of its characters, how one will not be able to rest, will need to keep reading, to find out what happens to them, and what they do next, combined with the fabulous pacing of the book, this is an unputdownable novel.
Jackson put his primary characters through hell, and makes those around them suffer even worse because of the choices those primary characters make. This book is dark fantasy at its best, where the characters you will be drawn to are a mess, and the consequences of what they do will be invariably messy. And you won’t be able to pull your eyes away from the impending train wreck.
Moreover, the character journey in “Aiduel’s Sin”, now the main premise has been set out in “Illborn,” takes on amazing new dimensions. As the protagonists begin to truly acclimate to their newfound power, while nervous and wary about the few others they share that kind of power with, how they should interact with them, what the others’ agenda is, there is a feeling of complete uncertainty, angst, and dread.
The Illborn were originally bound together by a mutual, mysterious dream. Now another common dream haunts them. This dream or vision prophesied their lives will take a very disturbing turn in the future. With this hanging over their heads, along with all the deadly situations they face in the present, the tension in this novel is ratcheted up several rungs from “Illborn”, and you’ll love it!
In terms of worldbuilding, like “Illborn”, “Aiduel’s Sin”, the setting is inspired by medieval Europe. Readers will find elements that deem drawn from historical elements of the English Reformation, the Spanish Inquisition, the Knights Templar, the Crusades, and other aspects from the eras when those events and organizations were vividly alive.
There were two amazing twists involving one of my favourite characters, the felrin, Blackpaw, as part of the worldbuilding in this novel, concerning Blackpaw’s origins. I can’t spoil it, but suffice to say, Blackpaw’s origins will give you chills, for what it means for the rest of the series, and the powers the Illborn have a their disposal.
A great book for me has enthralling themes, and “Aiduel’s Sin” has so many. Evil, depravity, love, lust, manipulation, religious fanaticism, persecution, murder, and obsession, to name a few. However, the religious themes in “Aiduel’s Sin”, as in “Illborn”, deserve special notation. They are incredibly engrossing. Jackson will surely provoke thought with how he handles matters of religion and faith in this series.
Some of the questions Jackson seems to pose in “Aiduel’s Sin”: Should the religious hierarchy be expected to rule over secular matters that unduly affect those following the faith, and influencing the geo-political landscape? Who determines what heresy is, the church, the state, or the individual? Is a person who experiences visions and can perform miracles a saint, or an apostate and witch? Is religion and faith worth dying for, and worth killing for? How devout is “devout enough”?
Jackon’s prose has also improved from his first book. Not that there were any glaring deficiencies AT ALL in the writing for ILLBORN, which was very well-written. The author’s writing is effortless, clear, and accessible, just as in the first book, but with even more passages written so evocatively that the reader will be mesmerized.
Everything about this book appealed to me. The fluid prose, the amazing characterization, the spellbinding action and compelling human drama, the fascinating storylines of each POV character.
The passionate obsession and longing, and simultaneous loathing and shame; the haunting and tragic dreams foreshadowing the characters’ fates; the religious and political machinations surrounding the holy war, religious conservatism, dogma, and zealotry; the tribal strife; the riveting fight scenes; the sex, lust, love, and romance; the struggle against one’s deepest fears, the conflicted loyalties – it was all delicious, expertly written, and just had me salivating for more.
Only about 50 pages shorter than “Illborn”, “Aiduel’s Sin” will reverberate in the reader’s mind long after the last page is turned, and because it was just SO good, once more, I was left with the feeling I could read another 700-ish pages of this book, and not feel it was too long. It takes consummate skill with pacing to write long epic fantasy novels that don’t lag at all: Jackson certainly possesses that skill.
Finally, Jackson seamlessly weaves and spins the four main POVs, keeping the reader centered on their main stories, while never letting us forget there is an overarching plot that will finally bring all their individual arcs and irrevocably tie them together. It’s masterful storytelling, and I can’t help but be deeply impressed with how Jackson manages this, like a veteran writer, rather than one who’s published only his second novel.
Once more, 2023 has got off to a raucous start in terms of my reads so far. Amongst some fantastic Indie books, “Aiduel’s Sin” is certainly occupying the top spot at the moment, very very early in my 2023 rankings. Of course, it is quite possible, this novel ends up being my favourite Indie SFF read in 2022.
The sequel to “Illborn” is highly, highly recommended, just like book one, stars off the rating scale. I understand this series will be a quadrilogy. I will read the final books in this four-book series as soon as they are available, without question.
If you love your series dark and wonderfully character-driven, with plenty of action, immersive, but fast-paced, where no character is safe, the world gets grimmer as the series progresses, and you’ve enjoyed “A Song of Ice and Fire”, “Prince of Nothing”, and “Gunmetal Gods”, the “Illborn Saga” is for you.
Like those other series mentioned, be warned, there is plenty of grimness here, as the stakes have been raised from the first book, actions become more desperate and depraved, and our main characters struggle constantly against their own sense of morality, faith, and even sanity.
The accomplishment of making the sequel to “Illborn” even BETTER was no small feat, but the author delivered. “Aiduel’s Sin” has cemented Daniel T. Jackson as, very quickly, becoming one of the most exciting writers in Indie dark fantasy