My Thoughts on Elder Epoch
Full disclosure: I received an ARC of this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review, which I have provided below.
A eldritch cloud of blood, monstrous, Lovecraftian cosmic horrors in the form of angels and gods, the eerie trans-temporal movement of 70,000 troops, whisked forward seven centuries into the future, and a plague involving red tulips would provide enough insane action in any novel for most fantasy writers.
Author Zamil Akhtar seems to smirk and say, “Not enough”.
Instead, Akhtar ups the ante, adding unmitigated ambition and political intrigue, thrilling, absolutely brutal battles, religious zealotry, jins, devs, and more to all I’ve already mentioned, in the third installment of the “Gunmetal Gods” series entitled “Elder Epoch”.
Wow, what a ride!
In “Elder Epoch”, as in the first book in the series (“Gunmetal Gods”), the siege of a holy city is the focal point. This time, it’s the holy city of Zelthiria, and three main factions vie for its rule.
The first of these factions is led by the Magus Kevah, POV character from “Gunmetal Gods”, who plays a smaller but still pivotal role in Book Two “Conqueror’s Blood”.
Wielding the power of three dead Magi, in the form of their masks, Kevah remains – seemingly fruitlessly after the events in “Conqueror’s Blood” – a devotee of Lat.
Haunted by his past decisions – such as imploring the gods to resurrect his love, rather than destroy Cyra – Kevah is single-mindedly focussed now on Cyra’s as enemy number one, and he will stop at nothing until she’s dead. With faithful Kinn – the impish and delightful jinn – by his side, Kevah have to will face his worst fears, and become those worst fears, if he wishes to triumph.
The wily and ruthless Cyra, former ally of Kevah, now his sworn enemy, leads the second faction trying to take control of Zelthiria. Cyra is now the ruler of Qandbajar. But one never rests easy with a crown on one’s head in Akhtar’s books, especially one like Cyra who has continually betrayed and slaughtered her way to the top, including murdering gods.
Cyra’s starwriting abilities have caused the blood plague, by summoning the monstrosity known as Hawwa the Dreamer. Hawwa, who engineered the destruction of two very powerful gods in the previous book in the series, may be the most devious, despicable and destructive of all the gods seen so far (that’s saying something).
But Cyra is only bent on survival and completely vanquishing her mortal enemies, and she hopes to avoid Hawwa, who as a capricious and evil god, could easily turn against her.
One of those enemies Cyra is looking to overcome is Kyars, who was once betrothed to Cyra. Kyars has fled to the supposed sanctuary of Zelthiria. Cyra wants to roust Kyars and annihilate him, but she also has to contend with Kevah, who is relentlessly hunting her, and the third, and most unexpected faction wanting the city for themselves.
The third faction is led by the renowned Crucian conqueror Imperator Basil, also prophesized as “The Opener”, who was said to have vanished a long time ago under mysterious circumstances. Basil seemed poised on the cusp of his greatest victory, when…
“That day, blood drenched the sky. At first, the cloud seemed like a strange thing in the distance, just a blotch of red drawn onto heaven’s canvas by an angel. As it approached, the screams from within shook my ironed heart. The unholy blood cloud drifted down from the northeast, over us, and toward the desert depths. Herakon said he witnessed arms and legs and heads poking out of it. The priest, Yohan, swore he saw a giant human eye open in its folds. My tactician, Markos, was adamant that tentacles, bubbling with yet more eyes, grabbed at the sparrow passing by. But all I beheld was blood, coursing through the bulbous cloud as if through veins in a wrestler’s arm.”
Brilliant characterization will always be part of the “Gunmetal Gods” series, and “Elder Epoch” continues that trend.
Akhtar has a real knack for putting not only extremely flawed, conflicted and often thoroughly unlikable characters into play, and making the reader care about them, but also pitting those unlikable characters against one another, and making us care about all their fates.
Perhaps it’s just me (I think not, I think Akhtar made that subtle change to how Kevah is written), but Kevah is a bit more nasty in this book, certainly more dogged and obstinate in his pursuit of death and vengeance and clinging to Lat, and more obsessive with ending Cyra, and accomplishing his goals.
It might be his additional Magus powers that are giving him an even darker slant. Regardless, like most of the characters, Kevah has fallen into the mold of the only “right” side can be their side.
As such, the enthusiasm of their bloodlust for their opponents, the depths to which they are willing to sink to accomplish their ends knows no bounds, and the (occasional) reluctant admittance that they’ve maybe gone a bit over the top, showing of a bit of remorse, becomes something the readers should get used to when it comes to these characters.
Ultimately, the characters in Akhtar’s novels seem to refuse to acknowledge they are peons in the grand scheme of things, and that horrific existential threats lurk that are toying with mortals like them, for their own purposes. Even when confronted with irrefutable evidence of this, players like Kevah and Cyra still seem to thing they can scheme and outmaneuver enough to forge their own destiny.
This is also what I found to be a central theme in the novel. Does anything mortals do matter when compared against the omnipotence of gods, and their larger designs? Is not our paltry mortal existence, and all we fight for and fret about, naught but futility, in the end? That is what Kevah seems to comment on, in the novel:
“No one will remember what happened in this world. Not our names, nor the glories of our nations. Not our virtues and sins. We will simply become a drop within a far greater creation. One that will also, one day, be forgotten. And on and on it goes – forever meaningless.”
Yet, he keeps fighting, as do the other main characters, striving for victory, at all costs.
As usual, Akhtar’s Eastern-inspired worldbuilding is rich, fully realized, fabulous. Moreover, as the cosmic horror element is raised, so too does the reader learn more about all the deities and angels and magical beings that inhabit the world, enhancing the worldbuilding even more.
I must comment overall, on the feature of the blood plague. Written by Akhtar to creepy perfection, it’s the contagion from hell, that will eventually convert all water and living tissue into blood. Gross, macabre, and fascinating!
The prose is smooth, very accomplished, and at times poetic. I am a huge fan of Akhtar’s writing, which effortlessly transports me into the setting, and makes me feel like I’m charging alongside the janissaries into battle, or riding in a carriage to the Sand Palace, or enjoying the simple pleasure of ice water on a hot day in the desert.
And oh, speaking of those jaw-dropping battle scenes:
“I rushed forward and swiped at his neck; he fell and spat blood. Then a deafening pop-pop-pop burst through the air around me. The legionaries at my back screamed. Something zipped by my ears at thunderous speed. Like a firefly, it left a fiery trail of light through the haze. It was as if they were loosing fire arrows faster than we could see…Legionaries charged through the haze and into the cave depths. Metal screamed at metal, shrieks erupted from dying throats, and blood and innards flew, though I could scarcely see who we were fighting.”
This book is definitely grimdark, uber-violent, set in a brutal, yet beautiful world. The following passage is a sample of how pitiless that world can be:
“The palace’s mahogany wall must’ve been rebricked, judging by its freshness. What wasn’t so fresh were the bodies attached to the poles lining it. Some had withered to skeletons; others till dripped blood. They’d been impaled upside down, the poles running from their mouths and out their anuses. I could only assume these were Seluqal loyalists, and the sultan wanted to send a message. Seeing such horror, I felt less ashamed. I’d committed barbarities, but I’d never impaled anyone. Qandbajar was the pearl of the universe, and I couldn’t imagine sullying its beauty like this.”
The “Gunmetal Gods” series is epic grimdark fantasy, set in a fantastic Eastern-inspired world, blended seamlessly with cosmic horror at its finest. With this series, Akhtar has become one of my favourite Indie authors.
“Elder Epoch” is amazing, and I won’t even pretend to imagine how Akhtar is going to wind up this highly imaginative, unpredictable series, after reading this last stunning installment. Yet, rest assured, I’ll keep reading to find out!
Read The Full Series