Skip to main content

Nathan’s review of The Sapphire Altar by David Dalglish

The tl;dr: I know we all hate being told “It gets better in book 2!”. Well, this is a situation where it ACTUALLY gets better in book 2! The Bladed Faith was a middling, average read for me that was mired by its lengthy training montages, thinly drawn characters, and shallow plot. The Sapphire Altar is anything BUT those things. Dalglish finds the heart of the story and the emotional core of the characters here, imbuing this series with the depth that it has so rightly deserved. Combine that with some badass action sequences involving a bunch of gods, and you’ve got a sequel that is definitely worth your time. Epic fantasy readers should add this to their TBRs ASAP.

My full review:

If there has been a bigger glow up between a first and second book of a series, I don’t know about it.

I was a bit critical in my review of The Bladed Faith, noting that the book was building an interesting (and violent) of gods, heroes, villains, and everything in between. However, I felt that the violence almost felt gratuitous in the way that that David Dalglish was using colonialism as a kind of window dressing to a standard, action-packed epic fantasy rather than truly digging into what colonialism actually is and how it operates. I debated whether I really even wanted to continue the series, but the reveal at the end of The Bladed Faith piqued my interest just enough (and peeled back some layers of depth that the book hadn’t highlighted before) to keep me reading in The Sapphire Altar.

And I am so freaking excited that I did.

The Sapphire Altar belongs in lists of the best epic fantasy of the 2020s, and its only fault is that readers will have to endure The Bladed Faith to get to it. Everything I disliked about the first book – the endless training montages, the abundance of violent scenes that messed up the pace, shallow characters, and a superficial plot – are magically fixed here as Dalglish finds the groove of what this story should be.

There is no middle book syndrome here. The story moves, it develops, and it SOARS.

The Sapphire Altar picks up after just a small time jump, which gives many of the characters time to reflect on the events of The Bladed Faith. This allows for a couple of things that were sorely lacking in that first book. First, it provides space for the characters to contemplate on all of the terrible stuff they have had to go through and do in the name of justice. While Dalglish doesn’t wade into the murky ethical waters in the way other authors writing similar stories do, he starts to show the impact and drag that all of this is having on his characters. This leads into the second major improvement – the character depth. The characters were thinly drawn in the first book, feeling more like pawns that existed only to advance the plot. The action and plot were cool, but I felt no emotional connection to the characters. Here, the characters jump off the page as three-dimensional and well drawn people. I cheered for them, cried for them, and sometimes (depending on the POV) despised them. Dalglish gives each of them unique personalities, needs, wants, and lived-in, embodied existences that were more than just how many redshirts could they tear down. Dalglish finds a true emotional core in this volume, whether it is the love between Stasia and Clarissa, Mari’s battle with her own identity, Arn’s troubled fraternal relationships, or Keles’ troubled relationship with her own faith.

It might be that last one – Keles’ complex personal, political, and religious journey – that was my favorite throughout the book. I could tell in The Bladed Faith that Dalglish wanted to say something about faith, but those themes never seemed to materialize. Exploration of the gods and faith are in full swing here. Remember that opening sequence in The Bladed Faith where the evil empire killed the lion and butterfly gods? There are so many cool sequences with the gods here, and the epic potential of Dalglish’s drawing of the gods is put to full effect (I will say, however, that the godly cliffhanger at the end of book 1 doesn’t really go anywhere, which was just a touch disappointing). There are so many just awesome god vs. god sequences that are awe-inspiring in just how freaking cool they are.

At the same time, Dalglish also doesn’t just use the gods as cool pawns for this action set pieces. The Sapphire Altar also dives into issues of faith. What is faith? At what point can faith be broken? How much can we permit our faith to be tested, and is it faith if it is not tested? Dalglish’s characters are met with a lot of religious and spiritual quandaries in this book as readers are confronted with the differing perspectives and self-interests of characters like Keles, the priest-figure Eshiel, the god-whisperer Mari, and more. This is a book about individual religious faith, but also the larger social functions and implications of faith – what happens when a nation becomes united by a faith? What happens when a culture loses its religious identity? What is the role of faith in both political control and political resistance? Without losing its intense pace or “cool” factor, The Sapphire Altar finds times to explore these issues as the social and political situation of this series becomes ever more complex.

If you were a bigger fan of The Bladed Faith than I was, you also have nothing to worry about. While the action sequences are less numerous here, there is still PLENTY of action to be had. Better yet, they aren’t trapped up in endless training sequences as the characters and the plot are allowed to run at full sprint.

The Sapphire Altar ends with an intriguing cliffhanger involving one of my favorite characters from the book, and I cannot wait to dive into The Slain Divine to see how Dalglish brings this all home. If he can maintain the depth and quality of The Sapphire Altar, it will for sure be a finale for the ages (and imagine if he can raise the stakes again!). If you are the type of person who doesn’t mind making your way through an ok book to get to an amazing one, add this absolutely epic series to your TBR.

Nathan

Nathan is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology where he specializes in death rituals of the Ice Age in Europe and queer theory. Originally from Ohio, he currently lives in Kansas where he teaches college anthropology, watches too much TV, and attempts to make the perfect macarons in a humid climate. He is also the co-host of The Dragonfire podcast with James Lloyd Dulin. He reads widely in fantasy and sci-fi and is always looking for new favorites!

Leave a Reply