Nathan’s review of Curse of the Fallen by HC Newell
The Curse of the Fallen has been previously lauded as the “next Tolkien” or as the next big book in grimdark. These are apt descriptions, but I don’t think they accurately reflect my experience with Newell’s debut novel. The Curse of the Fallen represents something a bit different to me that is neither a harken back to old school fantasy nor grimdark. Rather, Newell carves her own path forward, with obvious inspirations, and perhaps gives us a glance of what the future of fantasy, in part, will entail.
The Curse of the Fallen, the first book in the Fallen Light series, follows Nerana, a young woman who has been deemed a cursed witch due to her magical abilities. The all-powerful and tryannical Order have damned her to a life on the run, and they can sense whenever she can use magic. Nerana finds a magical item that will remove the Order’s ability to track her, but in order to use the item she must survive the Trials. With her best friend and a group of “Elves” (a derogatory term in this world) she attempts to find the magic trials, lift the curse the Order has placed on her, and exact her revenge.
Newell’s book is brilliant because she eschews all of the rules of “modern” fantasy. Since the rise of George RR Martin and Joe Abercrombie there has been a hunger for “low magic” and gritty fantasy; fantasy that raises the emotional stakes by zapping their worlds of magic and wonder. Much of what we call grimdark has emerged out of this trend; worlds are bleak because the magic is lost, the bad guys have won, and there is no changing the status quo. Newell is obviously inspired by the darker and grittier arm of fantasy. Her world is ruled by a corrupt and discriminatory organization that is hell-bent on the destruction of anyone them deem “different”. This is a world with a very recent history of inter-species warfare, genocide, and forced migrations out of ancestral homeland. There is danger around every corner and quite scary monsters and villains at every turn. Many of the characters have complex movitvations and allegiences, and they feel the tension of supporting their friends while also trying to accomplish their own selfish goals. Newell never goes too far with this, and she never introduces elements just to feel “edgy”, but this is definitely a world I would never literally want to spend time in (although I cannot wait to dive back into it as a reader, safe and cozy on my couch!).
Despite the darkness and grittiness, what wowed me was that Newell’s book is a world of pure magic. This where a lot of the Tolkien comparisons are coming from. Newell’s description of her world transports you to a place that is unlike our own. Newell isn’t afraid to imbue the fantastical and impossible into every turn, behind every rock, and up every tree. As the reader you can feel the magic emanating off the page. Newell’s world is not just medieval Britain with dragons, but feels like like pure fantasy. While there are clear historical analogues to Newell’s world and story, I never once fogot while reading that I was dwelling in a magical world. A lot of the fantasy I’ve been reading lately has complex characters and explosive plots, but the worlds just felt so…generic. You won’t get that here. This is a world of deep history, religion, culture and lore. This is one of the reasons I love fantasy, and Newell reminded me of what I think I’ve been missing!
Newell populates her book with copious footnotes (I read on Kindle, and they were super convient to use!) that allows her to give the more “encyclopaedic” elements of her book out of the way without awkward in-universe conversation. More authors should consider doing this because it allowed Newell’s prose and story to keep moving without the dreaded “info-dumps” (while also being 100% info-dumps!).
If I had any criticisms of the world it is that I wanted more! I don’t need Tolkien-levels of tree descriptions, but I would have loved more descriptions. When Newell would stop and let her world breathe, her descriptions were lush, colorful, and imaginative. They beautifully gave texture to this brand new (to us) world that obviously has a deep history. However, the story moves along so quickly that I would like to stop and smell the trees more often. I fell in love with this world so much and so quickly that I wanted to spend more time just existing and exploring it. Of course there are (I think) five more books to go in the series and several more novellas, so there is plenty of time to explore!
I also have to emphasize again that the plot of this book moves. Don’t let some of the comps to Tolkien and others make you think this is an old-school fantasy that wades around before it gets to the point. Newell throws Nerana and her readers quickly into the conflict. And things don’t let up from there. Evil creatures, battles, new characters, romances, betrayals and more come flying at you until you are dizzy with elation. Newell burns through so much plot that I was suprised when I found out this is only the first book in a planned long series. Most authors would have spent an entire book getting to where Curse of the Fallen begins. I read this book at an aiport and on the plane, and the hours quickly whisked by because Newell never gave me a chance to look up.
What also elevates this book is the fearless way that Newell is unafraid to critique and call out social injustices in her book. If we are going to call this book the “next big thing in grimdark”, it isn’t because it is what grimdark has been doing (feigned nihilism) but because it represents where grimdark is going. In addition to authors like Krystle Matar and James Lloyd Dulin (the latter of whom might hate that I’m kind of calling his book grimdark?), Newell’s book is a condemnation of xenophobia, genocide, and forced movements of people. She isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, to talk about how in times of injustice, morality isn’t going to be “clean”. Solving injustices doesn’t mean conforming to politeness or what we might think of as ethical in some thought experiment. As I mentioned before, Newell’s characters will do things that will make you frustrated, but at the same time you will always understand why they are doing those things.
Speaking on the book’s politics, I will say that one thing that fantasy authors have to be a bit wary of is their use of biological races (like elves) in their fantasy stories about xenophobia. The points are always noble – don’t hate people because of who they physically are in ways they cannot control. But when fantasy quite literally makes the “Other” another species (humans vs. elves vs. dwarves or whatever), it changes the critique of these systems. In the real world the point is that we are all human and that racial differences are purely social and never biological. The nuance of this critique gets a bit lost when you introduce new biological races. This is not necessarily a critique of this book individually, but just something I was thinking about while reading.
So, getting of my soapbox, I finished this book much too quickly becuase I wanted there to be at least another 200 pages for me to dive into. Luckily, the next two books are already released along with a novella. If you are looking for a dark world, but one that is absolutely overflowing with magic, along with some grey moral, but not edge lords, pick up Curse of the Fallen. It isn’t really Tolkien-esque nor grimdark, although elements of those are in there, but something that is pushing the genre forward.
Concluding Thoughts: HC Newell transports readers to a new world that is filled with magic at every turn. The world feels complete and lived in, with an extensive history and lore that gives depth and texture to everything that happens. However, the worldbuilding, even as exquisite as it is, never takes away from the propolsive plot and complex characters that inhabit it. This is a book that isn’t afraid to be as high fantasy as high fantasy goes, while also tackling some quite massive ethical quandries. The characters aren’t always going to do what you want them to do, but you’ll never want to jump off this ride. Make this your next epic and high fantasy read.