“On the eventide of their escape from the slave pits, the Five Warrior Angels gathered in a grove, their hearts open to glory. Angels descended in their midst, bearing five stones and five mighty gifts: a red stone and a sword for the Princess, a white stone and a pearl-colored shield for the Thief, a black stone and a black crossbow for the Assassin, a green stone and a war helm for the Gladiator, and lastly, a blue stone and a battle-ax for the King of Slaves.” –The Way and Truth of Laijon.”
I have to ponder, after reading it: why is this book and series is not more hyped?
An impeccably character-driven, grimdark story, that seems horribly underrated, “The Forgetting Moon” (The Five Warrior Angels Book #1) by Brian Lee Durfee was, in my opinion, an exceptional book. It’s so good that it could potentially figure in the discussion for my list of top SFF books for 2023.
In “The Forgetting Moon”, the world of the Five Isles erupts into a conflict for the ages: a holy war. The numerous contradictory prophecies surrounding the faiths that centre their worship on the mythical Christ-like figure of deceased Raijael, seem poised to either come to fruition or be exposed as fraud. The ominous, brutal, powerful warlord Aeros Raijael, dubbed the “Angel Prince”, Prince of Sør Sevier, descended of Raijael, believes his bloodline, and prophecy, makes him the heir to Raiijel’s legacy, and bound to rule the world.
To accomplish this, Aeros plans to bring everyone under his heel and united under the “true” religion, with Aeros as its focal point.
Aeros will stop at nothing to accomplish his ends, and embarks on a crusade, rampaging through the Five Iles with his unstoppable armies, leaving a wake of utter destruction, cruelty, and pain in his wake.
Gault is one of Aeros’ personal bodyguard, a member of the celebrated Knights Archaic, one of Sør Sevier’s most seasoned and deadliest fighters, and a world and war-weary man deemed imminently dutiful to his prince, and the holy war which has brought blood, steel, and fire to the Five Isles. But Gault tires of all the bloodshed and barbarism, and his devotion to Aeros begins to crumble, and a man as important as Gault could help sway the tide of battle against Aeros.
IF Gault is willing to risk a horrible death by betraying his master.
Most of the remainder of the Five Isles quickly fall to Aeros, powerless to resist. All save the realm of Gul Kana, who will stubbornly hold out against the marauding armies of Aeros.
King Jovan of Gul Kana himself might be as mercurial, brutish, and merciless as Aeros, and thus a fitting opponent for the pitiless Angel Prince. Living in the shadow of his beloved hero father, from whom he has inherited the throne, Jovan must deal with disloyalty among those who believe him unfit to rule, various conspiracies, and assassination attempts on the noble family, and perhaps his own growing madness.
Caught between fealty to their lord and brother (while concerned about his fitness to reign), and the growing storm as Aeros fixes his sadistic gaze on Gul Kana, the king’s two beautiful, brave, and resourceful sisters, Princesses Jondralyn and Tala, navigate treacherous plots, court intrigue, and family loyalty versus remaining steadfast to friends who may turn against the king, while deciding their own futures. Jondralyn aspires to be a warrior, and Tala’s main goal is to protect her family members, especially those that are weak and vulnerable. But the peril they confront emanating from inside Gul Kana may be worse of that which comes from outside.
Meanwhile, a young common boy named Nail, doomed to be seen as an outsider by those he lives among, resides in an isolated little fishing village in Gul Kana, raised by a dour and mysterious mentor, performing menial work, but dreaming of a bigger and better life, one of adventure and glory. Nail has no idea just how adventurous, or how dangerous, his life is about to become.
Wonderful characterization firmly pilots this story. While Nail, Gault, Jondralyn and Tala are the main POVs, we are treated to perspectives from several more minor characters who are still integral to the overall plot. What I adored about these characters is that all are typically flawed, morally ambiguous at a minimum (save a scant number of more straightforward, innocent, noble-hearted ones), downright dastardly at the utmost end of the scale, complicated, very messy!
Many are unjust, sadistic, perverse, twisted, with some faint glimmers of humanity, but barely. Even the more noble ones show a lot of pettiness, self-absorption, and other negative character traits that may grate on some readers nerves, and BOY do they make a bunch of really questionable, outright foolish decisions!
There are going to be some players you’re going to love to hate, who you’ll laugh at or squirm at their gaffes, mourn over their misfortune that is not of their own making. Sometimes the characters will outright befuddle you with their actions, and keep you guessing as to which side they are truly on.
Forged by their upbringing or circumstances, as they endure some horrific events, and many problems of their own making, or simply being caught up in the horror of the holy war, these characters are complicated, highly realistic, well fleshed out, and compelling. There is plenty valor, altruism, compassion, and camaraderie, but it is offset mostly by the ruthless ambition, narcissism, downright cruelty and avarice of most of the players.
Like fantasy giants such as Tad Williams, Durfee devotes a lot of time to building the characters, so the reader has a more fulsome idea of personalities, motivations, idiosyncrasies, feelings, thought processes, strengths and weaknesses.
The conflicted, Gault was my favourite POV, and I am fascinated to see what turn his character arc will take in this series.
Nail’s tale within the tale, is very coming-of-age, as he experiences young infatuation, tries to forge a path for himself and become a man, and come to terms with what is predestined for him.
If you are well-read in the fantasy genre, you’ve likely encountered the tropes in “The Forgetting Moon” before. Yet there is a fair amount of subversion of the well-tried devices, and they are done expertly. The chosen one who has been hidden away, who does not know their true worth or power; the gruff protector; the cynical burnt-out soldier; found family; and many more familiar concepts, can be found in the novel. The religious war takes centre stage in terms of themes; that and the flimsiness of prophecies, and how they can be misinterpreted, gnarled, manipulated, and be confusing, fickle, and incongruous.
The reprehensible practice of using particular prophecies as the focal point of one’s religion and justification for bigotry and hatred against other versions of those prophecies and the religions that spring from those other prophecies, engendering persecution, slaughter, torture, subjugation, genocide, plays huge here.
Religious zealotry inflames people against one another, as because of the schism of belief, ordinary people, warlords, and rulers try to help see the prophecy they believe in to fruition, caught up in their fervour, no matter the cost to others who believe something different.
There is tons of dismissive brutality, and collateral damage, but perhaps what is often the most damaged is faith and one’ s own humanity when atrocities are committed in the name of religion.
So clearly, this is a grimdark book, based on the aforementioned aspect alone. There are plenty of bloody duels, assassination attempts, viscerally bloody battles, gruesome torture scenes, and squeamish moments that many a grimdark fan will delight in. With the nihilism in the book, and dubiousness of the prophecies, and few seemingly morally upright characters, one has to wonder if there is any possibility for a “happy” ending for this series (I doubt it), but I will definitely be reading to find out! Caution: there are a lot of bad things that happen in this book that may make you cringe. Durfee does not pull a lot of punches when it comes to in particular abuse and torture.
The worldbuilding is intricate, and obviously inspired by Medieval Europe, and Christianity. Filled with the religion and prophecy spoken about above, mythology, lore, history, backstory, variety of nations, royal lineages, the world Durfee crafts is also filled with magical creatures, such as absolutely terrifying mermaids, mysterious and powerful elves, formidable dwarves, gigantic rayken (whales), and savage saber-tooth cats. The five great divine magical weapons referred to in the book, of which the eponymous Forgetting Moon (supposedly Laijon’s axe) is one, are fascinating, and the quest to possess these talismans of immense power, it seems, will shape the fate of the Five Isles.
One feature that I really enjoyed were the epigraphs that started each chapter, providing samples of the religious teachings from the texts upon which the faiths are based, and from whence the prophecies sprung.
The prose is excellent, and as per above, the epigraphs showcased the author’s ability to put passages in the minds of the readers that would stick with them.
‘“In this embattled world, man held faith in invisible forces and hostile spirits, oftimes doing the bidding of the wraiths that fed in his soul. To appease the winged demons who ruled with fiery death, man erected altars of sacrifice. It was a time of selective loyalties, a time of great betrayal. A time of celestial divinations that one holy and pure and strong of mind would be born by the sea, blessed with the Mark of the Cross.”—The Moon Scrolls of Mia.’”
Now mind you, this is a tome, in the mold of the BIG epic fantasies like Wurts, Jordan, Martin, coming in at around 200k words, and 800 pages for the version I own. Don’t fret…it doesn’t skimp on the details, but the outstanding action sequences, sinuous political intrigue, romance, love, and lusty parts, and fight for survival by many of the characters as they try to stay alive by any means necessary in the face of Aeros’ savage rampage, will keep you glued to the pages.
The author has noted some of his influences are Tad Williams and G.R.R.M., and I could definitely see those writers’ imprint on Durfee’s work, which surely is a great thing.
A very dark, bloody, immersive and engaging tale, with fascinating characters, about capricious prophecies, a holy war, destiny, magic, with familiar tropes done well, book one of the “Five Warrior Angels” for me is a very under-recognized fantasy book that deserves to be read more widely. I will definitely be proceeding with the rest of this intriguing series, with book two “The Blackest Heart” ready to go!