Nathan’s review of No Safe Haven by James Lloyd Dulin.
*Disclaimer: I co-host a podcast with James Dulin.
If you are new to the Malitu series, make sure to check out my review of No Heart for a Thief, Book One in the Malitu series!
James Lloyd Dulin returns to the Malitu with No Safe Haven, giving a deeper and harsher look at the colonial struggle as Kaylo and Tayen encounter new friends, enemies, and everything in between. There is no middle book syndrome here as this sequel only continues to add depth to its characters, world, and themes.
No Safe Haven picks up right where No Heart for a Thief left off, with Kaylo and Tayen taken by the rebel army. At first this seems like a clear benefit to our main characters, but in reality there are many more powerful forces and messy allegiences that they must navigate if they hope to survive and enact their vengeance.
In general, if you were a fan of No Heart for a Thief you’ll instantly fall in love with No Safe Haven. Dulin provides an extensive and detailed recap of that previous book and so readers are ready to be immediately thrust into the action as we continue to follow Kaylo and Tayen’s fraught and dangerous journey. If you are anything like me than you’ll not only fall in love with No Safe Haven, but you will immediately find yourself finding so much more to connect with here than in No Heart. The plotting, characters, and writing are much more assured in this book. No Heart for a Thief was an astonishing debut novel, and yet No Safe Haven finds a way to be better in everywhere. Dulin is clearly more comfortable in this world, and the book rolls along much more smoothly for it.
Most notably Dulin’s use of two different timelines operates much better in this book. I know this was one of the most common critiques of No Heart for a Thief. It worked much better for me than most other readers. In the first book I really liked the juxtaposition we got between Kaylo and Tayen’s stories; as we saw Kaylo’s mistakes in the past, we grew anxious that Tayen was following into all of those same traps. However, I do see how other reviewer’s felt that the flipping between past and present timelines slowed down the pacing of the narrative. There are not even crumbs of those earlier problems present here in No Safe Haven. The plot continues to move, even in its most contemplative moments. I think the multiple timelines of the story work here is because Dulin’s use of POV is much improved here. Not only does he expand the number of POVs (with one new major POV and one new minor POV character), ultimately making the jumping timelines feel a bit less jarring. It also helps that what is happening in Kaylo’s recollection of his past and what is happening in the “present” of the story is much more varied this time around. Again, I personally enjoyed how the two timelines mirrored one another in No Heart for a Thief, but it did make the book feel very “same-y”. Dulin keeps No Safe Haven moving at an insane pace without sacrificing characterization or the development of his prescient and relevant themes.
Dulin’s characters continue to be among the best in all of fantasy, with Kaylo remaining of the most complex and human characters in fantasy. I am continually astonished by the way in which young Kaylo and “old” Kaylo (old is in heavy scare-quotes here because he is around 35) are clearly the same person, but also entirely different. You can still find elements of young Kaylo in the present storyline, and young Kaylo also starts to predict traits he will have when he is older. Few other authors can make someone feel so alive and three-dimensional on the page. It is also not just Kaylo, but all of Dulin’s characters that immediately come alive. Characters who play only bit roles will worm their way into your head and heart, and then tear you apart as those characters often meet terrible ends (and yes, there are a lot of characters who die – harden your heart before you venture in!).
What sets No Safe Haven apart from similar dark fantasy books is Dulin’s empathy towards his characters and his complex interrogation of colonial forces. In doing so he easily invalidates the entire stereotypical arm of the grimdark genre. These books (and I am not talking about all grimdark books here) pride themselves on their realism via direct physical harm to their protagonist’s bodies. These books are full of sexual assault, mutilation, torture, and more. Dulin doesn’t let his individual characters off easily, but his stories illustrate that the horrors of colonialism over the long duree are not about direct violence against individual bodies. Colonizers inflict violence through the elimination of culture, killing traditional languages, and separating culture from land. Colonialism is not about how visually and physically gross it can be; colonialism works because its processes are more subtle and nefarious. Kaylo and Dulin’s other characters are most harmed by losing access to their traditional lands and ways of life, it is their culture that is ultimately destroyed. This is the more visceral “grim” and “dark” elements of empire and cultural imperialism. Dulin’s examination of these forces to me felt grittier and more “real” than many of the more slimy and icky books that are often upheld as the pinnacle of the grimdark genre.
Through all of this, Dulin doesn’t minimize his characters in any way. He allows them to be angry. He allows them to make bad, emotionally charged forces. And he allows them to have hope. Krystle Matar defined grimdark as being about seemingly insurmountable structural inequalities. However, this doesn’t mean that the characters cannot have aspirations for a more just world. What makes No Safe Haven so emotionally charged is not a sense of apathy or social ennui, but its direct condemnation of Western history using a fantasy pastiche. Dulin’s world has a clear ethic; even when characters have to make tough, morally grey choices there is no question to whom the victims and aggressors in this world, or any colonial situation, truly are.
Read No Safe Haven because its a great book and a tour de force in the epic fantasy genre. Read it because it is brimming with amazing characters that feel real, read it because the elemental magic system and worldbuilding only keep getting deeper, and read it because its plot is full of twists, turns, battles, and more. But more importantly read it because it is among a growing body of work that is correcting the harm that the fantasy genre has done. No Safe Haven (along with its Malitu siblings) is a part of a corpus of books that are ending the celebration of empire, are critiquing racist notions of the “Other”, and overly simplistic and harmful depections of historical forces. No Safe Haven deserves to be read, discussed, dissected, and ruminated upon. Don’t deny yourself this journey.
Concluding Thoughts: Dulin triumphantly returns to the Malitu series with one of the best sequels in recent memory. Kaylo, Tayen, and the entire cast of characters are given more depth and texture, and the twists and action come hard and fast. Above all, this book is an emotionally visceral condemnation of the horrors of colonialism; it is a stark and charged examination of how people are denied their culture, land, lives, and humanity in the global quest for power. We need more fantasy with this level of historical and cultural depth and complexity.