Nathan’s review of Sons of Darkness by Gourav Mohanty, a debut grimdark epic fantasy has already earned its place in the fantasy canon.
A brilliantly imaginative talent makes his exciting debut with this epic grimdark fantasy saga inspired by ancient Indian epic Mahabharata and filled with treachery, war and vengeance, in the tradition of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen Series and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire Series.
SOME BALLADS ARE INKED IN BLOOD.
Bled dry by violent confrontations with the Magadhan Empire, the Mathuran Republic simmers on the brink of oblivion. Krishna and Satyabhama have put their plans in motion within and beyond the Republic’s blood-soaked borders to protect it from annihilation. But they will soon discover that neither gold nor alliances last forever. They are however not alone in this game.
Mati, Pirate-Princess of Kalinga, has decided to mend her ways to be a good wife. But old habits die hard, especially when one habitually uses murder to settle old scores.
Brooding but beautiful Karna hopes to bury his brutal past but finds that destiny is a miser when it comes to giving second chances.
The crippled hero-turned-torturer Shakuni limps through the path of daggers that is politics only to find his foes multiply, leaving little time for vengeance.
Their lives are about to become very difficult for a cast of sinister queens, naive kings, pious assassins and ravenous priests are converging where the Son of Darkness is prophesied to rise, even as forgotten Gods prepare to play their hand.
Review of Sons of Darkness
It has become all too common in fantasy book marketing to describe a book as “random thing” meets Game of Thrones. It is so prevalent that the marketing ploy has become meaningless; saying that your book is like Game of Thrones could mean that it is grimdark or political or multi-POV or epic fantasy or low magic or one of any myriad other small pieces of George RR Martin’s work that can be co-opted to get readers to check out a new book.
So, I have to admit that I gave quite the bombastic side-eye to Sons of Darkness when it was described as an Indian-inspired Game of Thrones, and another when the author spent the author’s note talking about all of the inspiration he took from Martin.
But oh boy did I judge too quickly. Sons of Darkness is exactly what you are looking for if you want that Game of Thrones feeling again. Sons of Darkness absolutely crackles with kinetic energy that throws you into the personal and political games in a South Asian fantasy world, a world that enters your ears or eyes and envelopes you in a way that few other epic fantasy books are capable of. This is the closest thing that I have ever read that feels like an heir apparent to the Song of Ice and Fire throne, all while introducing a world that feels fresh and unexplored.
In drawing inspiration from Martin, Mohanty is also able to sidestep several of the problems that plagued (and still plague) A Song of Ice and Fire. While still being a big, sprawling, multi-POV epic, Sons of Darkness is much more contained and directed piece of fiction. The world still feels massive and the politics of still complexly nuanced, but Mohanty ensures that his characters are both physically and mentally in each other’s orbits. As the reader I was never left thinking “but how does this contribute to the central conflict?”, which made for a tighter reading experience that felt more immediately satisfying. The beginning of the books moves a bit slowly as Mohanty establishes his world, but then he wastes no time in bringing his disparate POV characters together, which was so refreshing after reading numerous epic fantasies that seem only want to drive their characters apart. While Sons of Darkness definitely promises more to come, I never once felt like I was just reading a 700 page prologue to the actual story that Mohanty wanted to tell. He jumps in and never lets go.
In addition to A Song of Ice and Fire, Mohanty does not hide that Sons of Darkness is directly inspired the ancient Indian epic poem, the Mahabharata. I am assuming that many Western readers are like me, and have little to no experience with the Mahabharata; I had no idea about the characters, plot, etc. that Mohanty was deriving this work from. While I am sure that I missed some of the cultural nuance because I didn’t have this background, and likely missing out on some of Mohanty’s commentary and criticism that I am sure adds nuance and layers to the story, I can assuage readers that the story works entirely on its own merits. I am assuming it is kind of like reading Song of Achilles without knowing anything about Greek mythology; you’d miss Miller’s queer commentary, but it is still a beautifully tragic gay love story. Despite having no previous experience with these characters or the broad outlines of the story, Mohanty’s writing transports you to a grimdark fantasy world full of action, politics, and magic.
Mohanty immerses his characters and readers in a beautifully constructed South Asian world marinated in the cosmologies and worldviews Hinduism and Indian cultures. It wears these more philosophical inspirations a bit less explicitly than Kritika Rao’s The Surviving Sky, but like that Hindu-inspired science fantasy, Sons of Darkness feels both familiar (in some of its tropes and its grimdark setting) while also feeling fresh and original as it completely avoids overplayed settings and magic systems. It often feels weird to celebrate an author for writing a non-European inspired fantasy because diverse settings and stories should be the norm, but it is wonderful to see so many South Asian inspired fantasies coming out this summer that are rooted in specifically non-Western views of the world around us.
I was also intrigued by the way that Mohanty constructed Sons of Darkness. The book is divided into discrete sections that are further divided into chapters, which are of the traditional “named after the POV character” variety made famous by A Game of Thrones. However, Mohanty doesn’t bounce between all of his POV characters at first; each section only jumps between 2-3 POV characters before a later section bounces between all of them (when all of the character are physically in the same place). This gave the narrative and character arcs sufficient time to breathe and grow before the reader is expected to meet even more characters, both major and minor. This again allowed the book to have that epic feeling without feeling so overwhelming in its characters and worldbuilding.
The entirety of Sons of Darkness is so polished and so confidently built, despite being a chonky epic with a lot of moving pieces, that I was actually surprised that this was a debut novel. As the reader I always felt like I was in good hands and, despite just too small quibbles I have (I’ll get to those in just a second), this may be the absolute best epic, political fantasy that I have read this year!
If I had to identify any minor flaws, I would point to two:
The first is that this is a very “man-forward” book. There is really only one significant POV from a woman in the novel, and she has less agency that I think that some readers would like to see. There are several other women in positions of power, but they are narratively and politically on the margins. Mohanty writes his women characters well, but I definitely wanted to see more have bigger and more central roles in the actual story itself. Readers looking for several women to populate the world might want to look elsewhere. In addition, this is a grimdark book, but Mohanty never crosses the line in terms of sexual assault, violence, etc. These are all very much present in the book, and are often alluded to throughout, but Mohanty keeps in all from feeling salacious just for the shock value.
The second (very minor) flaw in Sons of Darkness is one that impacts most epic fantasies – the characters don’t quite “pop” as much as they could. At times the characters feel like chess pieces on a board, being moved around in order to serve the larger political narrative rather than feeling like real, three-dimensional people. Not to keep drawing the comparison (but, hey, the author invited it!), if Martin’s characters in A Game of Thrones worked for you, you’ll find Mohanty is just a bit less effective at building character than Martin. I want to give a special shoutout to Shakuni, by new favorite devious character who is like the ideal mashup of Littlefinger and Joe Abercrombie’s San dan Glotka! In sum, Mohanty demonstrates a real knack for building character, especially his side characters, and I can only expect that his characters will get even stronger as he becomes a more experienced writer.
If you are a fan of big, epic, political fantasies, but maybe have become a bit disillusioned by how “same-y” or underdeveloped the subgenre has become, give Sons of Darkness a glance. Not only will it draw you into its political games of power and ambition, but it will reignite a flame within you; it will remind you why you loved epic political fantasies in the first place, and it will leave you eagerly anticipating more.
Concluding Thoughts: An epic political fantasy directly inspired by the Mahabharata and A Song of Ice and Fire, Sons of Darkness is an exciting new fantasy from a debut author that has already earned its place in the epic grimdark fantasy canon. Brilliantly constructed with some new sure to be fan favorite characters (though there could be more women!) will draw you out of any reading slump and reignite your passion for dark, political, epics. Pick this one up immediately!