Nathan’s review of Elegy of a Fragmented Vineyard by Kaden Love
Fans of Brandon Sanderson will utterly devour this new, debut fantasy epic. If you find the wait for the fifth Stormlight Archive novel feels just a bit too far away, consider picking up this book full of competing nations, morally grey characters, unique magic, magical creatures, and epic battles. You will not want to put this book down once you get started!
Elegy is set a world where some children are born with an extra intestine that gives them magical powers – magical powers that those in power quickly realize can transplanted into adults, and thereby transferring those magical powers. This results in the death of the child, which has caused an international debate on the ethics and legality of this practice. The various royal/political courts are in an uneasy peace, allied along their ideological lines of this horrific form of infanticide. The peace is shattered when the ruler of one of the anti-infanticide Courts decides to recieve a magical transplant, causing a continent-wide war to erupt. Elegy follows three primary POV characters, a medical doctor forced to perform these procedures, a young diplomat, and a high ranking government official – as they navigate political and military strategies to change the future of magic forever.
There is so much to love about this book. Love doesn’t hestiate to throw readers in a continent-wide moral conflict in which Love’s personal perspective is clear, but the characters are conflicted between their personal, cultural, and political perspectives and goals. This is not a grimdark book in the sense that “everyone sucks and is immoral”, but rather confronts, head-on, the insanity of politicizing everything to the point where people will do actively immoral things against their better judgement. Love has no problem putting his readers in the heads of people who hold immoral beliefs and support backwards practices (like the murdering of children) not to justify these practices and beliefs, but to help readers better understand all sides of the conflict.
In many ways Elegy reminds of a slightly less heroic Elantris. We rotate (primarily) between three POV characters, of which at least one of them could be deemed the “villain” of the story (although Love’s book here is a bit more murky and complicated than that). Like Elantris it tells a pretty big story will global import, but makes sure to keep the story contained enough that we don’t lose the humanity of the efforts impacts of the characters and plot. Essentially if you take Elantris and fold over the house politics of A Song of Ice and Fire you’d get something that quite closely resembes Elegy of a Fragmented Vineyard.
Brandon Sanderson in general is an obvious inspiration for Love. There isn’t any kind of “plagiarism masquerading as inspiration” because Love’s story is wholly unique (who else has read a book about transplanted magical intentestines?), but in addition to the aforementioned rotation of three POV characters (which Sanderson didn’t invent, nor has exclusive domain over), there are Interludes with an additional POV character, and Love’s writing is reminiscent of Sanderson’s prose. It is engaging and clear without being purple, and it serves the purpose of moving the plot along deftly and swiftly.
And despite the big, political world that Love has created, the plot moves quite quickly. Characters ascend (or descend) into new positions quite rapidly, major plot developments abound around every turn, and conflicts heighten at an almost absurd degree. I finished this book in less than two days because I couldn’t put it down. There never seemed to be a lull in the plotting that was a good point to say “I’ll pick this up later”. Elegy hooks its claws into and doesn’t let you go; it demands your full attention on every page until your eyes land on the final one. This is another book where I’m interested to see how the series develops because Love burns through so much plot in these 400ish pages.
There in an undeniable care and passion that Love injects into every element of this book. The characters are well-drawn, the world is complex, and the morality is grey without descending into nihilism.
There are a few lingering issues that I think come about because this is Love’s debut book. As much as I loved how fast the plot moved along, I think the plot, characters, and, especially, the worldbuilding needed a bit of time to breathe. While reading I could feel Love’s excitement for the story he was telling, but at times I think he was just a bit too eager to get to the next major plot development. Love’s world here is massive, with many competing Courts, various political hierarchies, and overlapping competing factions. I love this level of political intricacy and attention to detail, but the plot moved so quickly that I couldn’t quite latch onto everything. There were a lot of words, characters, and concepts that I couldn’t stick in my brain because there was so much coming all at once. I applaud Love for not making me sit through was it essentially a 500 page prologue to the plot (other fantasy authors take note!), but big complex worlds with lots of politics (like A Song of Ice and Fire, one of Love’s quoted inspirations) work because those authors take the time to introduce concepts slowly and allow readers to adjust to the worldbuilding before getting to the major plot developments.
This had the result of working against Love’s immense work to worldbuilding because everything became a bit flattened and monochromatic. Character and plots arcs raced along, which didn’t give enough space for each of the Courts and their cultures to feel unique. I really liked the concept of the Courts, and how each had a different deity, cosmology, set of ethics, and more. Much of this detail is given in the front matter for interested in readres, but in the actual “meat” of the novel itself the Courts essentially distilled down into a cultural binary – those for the extraction of the magical intestines and those against them. I persoanlly really liked to be immersed in fantasy worlds, and this debut book felt a bit more like the characters and plots were happening on top of a 2D map rather than dwelling in a three-dimensional landscape.
I am genuinely saying that these were pretty minor problems, and didn’t inhibit my enjoyment of Elegy of a Fragmented Vineyard. These were not problems that killed or destroyed the book for me. Rather, they only took away a little bit from the book’s overall potential, moving this book from a five star read to a four star one. If anything, it has made me more eager from Love’s announced prequel novella (which is hopefully coming soon, and will be, I believe, free to his newsletter subscribers) and eventual sequel because we will be able to spend more time in this world. The end of the book, albeit a bit muted, does set up some interesting personal and political conflicts to come, and I am more than anticipating where the story goes (especially as Love becomes an even better author!).
Elegy of a Fragmented Vineyard is very much worth your time is you like big, epic political fantasies with unique magic systems that don’t overly dwell on violent or sexualized imagery. I am expecting that Love is going to be one of the big new things not only just in indie fantasy, but in the epic fantasy community more broadly. Jump in on the ground floor now; this book is going to be big and bigger things are definitely coming.
Concluding Thoughts: Elegy of a Fragmented Vineyard tells the story of a continent at war over the practice of harvesting magical organs from infants. Love doesn’t shy away from the moral horrors of this practice without wading around the dim imagery, instead leading readers in a world a politics, military strategy, and overlapping alliances. Betrayals, major plot developments, and action (both of the “courtly political” and “military” varieties) come at the reader hard and fast. Sometimes the fast moving plot comes at the expense of the worldbuilding, which is a bit too complex to hold the fast moving plot, but fants of Brandon Sanderson will be delighted to have another epic fantasy to put on their radar. I finished this book in less than two days because I couldn’t put it down, and it is definitely looking like one of the next big things in fantasy. Don’t be left out.