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“Elissa’s scars shone various shades of red through to silver – a map of her life, of the sharpness of life in Dragonsbreath.”

For me, some authors’ writing grows on me over time, while others immediately make me an instant fan of their work. J.E. Hannaford falls into the latter category. I was so enthused after reading the masterpiece that is the Black Hinds Duology – the first two of Hannaford’s books – to read more by this brilliant writer.

So it was not even a question that I would leap at the chance to receive an ARC of Hannaford’s new epic fantasy/sci-fi entitled “Gates of Hope”, from the author herself. Thus I have provided an honest review below of this great book, which falls squarely within the ambit of my current top ten Indie SFF books of the year.

In the novel, Book One of “Aulirean Gates”, Hannaford takes us to the Aulirean planetary system, specifically the world of Lieus and the continent of Caldera, and to Lieus’ satellite, Tebein.

The non-human sorcerous Awldruin inhabit Tebein. There they subjugate any humans on that moon, and destroy any humans who show signs of being able to harness magic. Their human counterparts and long-time enemies, the So’Dal, live on Caldera.

The So’Dal seem to have been reduced in power following centuries-long warfare against the Awldruin. There were once portal gates connecting Lieus to Tebein. But the conflict between the Awldruin and the So’Dal drew the attention of fearsome dragons.

One dragon in particular called the Watcher elected to interfere, and in an attempt to end the war, severed the portals between the two planetary bodies.

This left some humans stranded on Tebein, living a harsh existence, and subservient to the oppressive alien Awldruin, as thralls. The humans on Tebein operate bellows inside a mountain to generate warmth for the Awldruin, who are cold-blooded. Does Tebein sound ominous? That’s because it definitely is.

Of the three main characters we follow – Darin, Suriin and Elissa – it is the first two who dare to climb out of the craters where they live to the locale of Red Pike.

Darin and Suriin aspire to be So’Dal magic-wielders, and journey to Red Pike’s version of Hogwarts called the Black Palace.

Specifically, Darin wants to become a ‘Howler’, one who bonds with the telepathic Moonhounds. This seems promising in that regard, as the moonhound Staramine seems inclined to cleave to Darin. There are a lot of high expectations on Darin, because the Howlers are rare, the current crop are aging, dwindling, and Darin the first potential Howler to emerge in many years. Darin is even more exceptional because typically female humans bond with moonhounds, not males.

Meanwhile, Suriin, enroute to try and fulfill her destiny as a So’Dal, has to fend off the attack of a vicious monster known as an xotryl. In this attack, her father is wounded. Desperate to save her father, Suriin is led to encounter those whose powers are beyond her understanding, and will use Suriin to achieve their own ends. Suriin will tread a dark road, but what awaits at the end? Salvation or destruction?

Finally, Elissa is one of those under the tyrannical domain of the Awldruin. Struggling to survive on Tebein, hiding her lilac hair which would betray her as a magic-user – and condemn her to certain death at the hands of the Awldruin, she is nevertheless determined to free her enslaved people. But first she must figure out how to use the latent power within her, if she wishes to free her fellow humans from the yolk of oppression.

Is there anyone who can help her harness the magic she needs to save her people?

This is a wonderful character-driven novel, full of intrepid, noble, and worthwhile young people in the leads. As a coming-of-age tale, we see the three main characters face all sorts of challenges, strive to overcome them, and bond with those around them in meaningful ways.

The tie that grows between Darin and Suriin is especially heartwarming.

Elissa’s tenacity and courage is incredible, and she is surely a character readers will root for. Yet my favourite character (and I’m betting yours will be too) is Staramine!! You’re going to this incredible canine!! Who doesn’t pine for an amazing furbaby / animal friend in a book! But Staramine is so much more than that!

Very few authors I’ve read have the level of accomplished and extremely polished worldbuilding that Hannaford displays. Yes, that is high praise, considering I am a true fan of immersive worldbuilding and count luminaries such as Wurts, Tolkien, Donaldson, Erikson, and Bakker among the best worldbuilders I have ever read. I repeat – Hannaford’s worldbuilding is astounding, and definitely the novel’s crowning glory.

From the monster-filled Edgelands, portal jumping, telepathic communication, aliens, (dragons!!!), other scary creatures like the reptilian xotryl, the perilous travelling between – living in – craters, miraculous flora and fauna and a brilliantly conceived ecosystem, crystals, and song all linked to the enchanting magic system…you get the idea. You will absolutely lose yourself in this spectacular universe. On the whole, the world Hannaford has created is an exciting, breathtaking, setting.

Of special note, it gave me chills watching how Caldera must be carefully navigated during the climbs, because it is full of craters. So, so well done by Hannaford.

SO many compelling themes to unpack in this book. Love, grief, loss, loyalty, found family, oppression, desperation, prejudice, and more, all adroitly handled by the author.

If you’ve read my reviews you know how I feel about prose. Here, once more, Hannaford is in the upper tiers. Here’s some of my favourite lines of many favourite lines:

“The land was dotted with fallen debris, some old and moss covered while others had not been free of the cliffs long enough for their angry, angular edges to have softened.”

Absolutely enamoured by Hannaford’s writing style. There are some modern colloquialisms, but overall this book has a great classic fantasy feel that I adore.

The pace is slow-burn, which is just fine with me, as Hannaford takes her time creating character-attachment, painting the beautiful worldbuilding like a maestro, and setting the stage for some surprising, even stunning outcomes. There is plenty of action, and though it seems muted somewhat amidst the wondrous worldbuilding and considerable character work; yet when it pops, it really pops.

There are dark moments in this book, but as the title implies, there is a very optimistic side to this book that feels very uplifting.

A strong candidate for my Indie Book-Of-The-Year (and will be up against the likes of other books by Hannaford including “The Skin” and “The Pact”), with “Gates of Hope”, Hannaford has leaped in remarkable fashion into the ranks of my favourite Indie SFF authors.

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