must-read for anyone who enjoys character-driven fantasy, complex and psychological interrogations of religion, the fallibility of humans, and propulsive, well-written narrative.
Illborn is a chonky 700 page book is brimming full of compelling character-driven fantasy, intriguing religious concepts, unique geographical and cultural diversity, and a prologue that will absolutely leave your jaw on the floor.
Daniel T Jackson’s debut novel is an assured and confident start to the Illborn saga. Following four young men and women who start to exhibit strange supernatural powers, Illborn takes us through their journeys of discovery. They have to contend not only with what is happening within themselves emotionally, spiritually, and mentally, but also with all the external factors around them. How their family and friends might react, and how the religious establishment of the Holy Church of the Lord Aiduel will see them. Are they prophets? Angels? Heretics? What do each of the four individuals’ unique powers mean and what is their purpose? The author tells four disparate stories of young men and women divided by class, culture and geography, all linked together in one shared dream that they must learn to understand.
Illborn is set in a medieval world, ruled by the established Holy Church of Lord Aiduel who, 800 years ago, united all the peoples of Angall before ascending to heaven. Make no mistake, the church is an overbearing presence throughout this book, something that not all readers may get along with. But, being someone who finds the history of the crusades fascinating, I really enjoyed this aspect of the world. This book’s approach to religion really reminded me of the crusades and the conflict in the middle east at that time. Daniel T. Jackson definitely explores the concepts of faith and the establishment, how those two are vastly different, how the establishment is a human construction prone and vulnerable to corruption, self-service and the festering of dark secrets. Always it is human fallibility that taints the faith, not the religion itself.
The world-building here is tremendous, Jackson presents a living, breathing world, each separate country has its own class system, its relationship to the church, if any at all, and its own army and culture. The approach to the magic system, though not completely understood even at the end of the book, is a really fascinating concept, very much internal and of the mind. Linking it with a possibly connection to a religious figure very much had me wanting more information.
Let’s talk about the four-character povs that we follow. We have Arion son of Duke Conran Sepian, the third greatest noble house in Andar, who has a complicated relationship with his father and who dreams of joining the Royal Academy of Knights against his father’s wishes. Next, we have Allana who, after committing murder, is on the run. Her morality and limits dissolves as her motives become darker and more selfish. Leanna is the most devout to the Holy Church and swearing an oath, against her parent’s wishes, joins the Holy Church as a sister. After experiencing a vision, her faith becomes stronger, but she soon learns of corruption within the establishment. Lastly we have Corin, the youngest son of Akob who belong to the people of Karn, a clan in a far off continent to the other three. After being expelled from the clan for being a coward, he soon learns to survive in the wild, and through his growing power, becomes a different man.
Each of these stories were so different and unique, all of them had compelling arcs, even though I found a couple of the characters quite unlikeable. Allana, who I initially liked, who underwent trauma from a sexual assault, soon becomes a manipulative and selfish character who’s motivations and actions I found difficult to sympathise or agree with. But the beauty of Jackson’s writing is I needed to know what happened next in her story. His ability to end every chapter, of each pov character, on a cliff-hanger, made for an exciting, propulsive read. As mentioned, its 700 pages, but I flew through this in a week. The pacing is near pitch-perfect throughout. Leanna’s internal thoughts and prayers were constant and sometimes overbearing, but I understood why she was written that way. Her devout, almost blind faith in the Holy Church is at once a blessing and a crux to her character.
Corin’s story felt very different from the other three, as it took place on a different continent, far from the Holy Churches influence. The culture and social structure was reminiscent of Norse social structures and I really got into Corin’s story. I felt for him the most being outcast and ridiculed for not wanting to be what his society expected him to be. Physically and psychologically he is very different from the rest of his family and clan and what he goes through and his fascinating character growth, I found really compelling.
Daniel T. Jackson’s Illborn is a must read for anyone who enjoys character-driven fantasy, complex and psychological interrogations of religion, the fallibility of humans and propulsive, well-written narrative. I am really looking forward to his next book and revisiting these four characters, to see how their powers evolve and the true meaning behind their shared dream.
This is a strong 4/5 for me.