“He wasn’t exactly hideous, but his face looked like two hawks had crashed into each other in midair.”
“We Break Immortals” is a book with a lot of buzz in the writing circles I travel in. It’s reputation? A masterpiece of worldbuilding, and a true tome, at nominally double the size of most epic fantasy books which already lean towards the voluminous. I had also heard that it read fast, despite its girth. I just had to see for myself what the hype was about, so onto the TBR it went. I was not disappointed at all by this first installment into author Thomas Howard Riley’s “Advent Lumina Cycle.” It was a fabulous book!
The story’s protagonists are a fascinating trio.
Drug-addicted Aren is a minor nobleman, and also what is known as a “glasseye”. Glasseyes are a combination of magic detectives and hunters, who use a monocle (hence the glasseye nickname) to assist them in tracking down rogue magic users. Aren is guilty about his dependency, mourning the death of a beloved mentor, and drowning his sorrows in women and the Malagayne he is addicted to. But he is intelligent – in fact he is more scholar than fighter – and has a streak of decency that shines through an otherwise complicated character.
Devil-may-care mercenary Coren is an expert swordsman, who is a killing machine, but only if the price is high enough. Coren has few loyalties, and is all about his next job, his next profit, his next courtesan, and his next drink. Fortunately for Aren, one of those few loyalties includes Coren’s friendship with the glasseye. Because Coren’s swagger and stab-first, ask-questions-later attitude is going to come in handy, as his friend faces overwhelming odds in his mission to track down the lunatic sorcerer.
Finally Kelumen is perhaps the most damaged of all three main characters. She is clever, passionate, and brave, but also obstinate, cantankerous, and frequently turns off and pushes away even those who care about her most. But she’s also quite skilled and powerful in the magic arts, and also determined to track down the same mad sorcerer who Aren has in his sights. She is just as obsessive as Aren to succeed, with the added incentive of protecting her dear friends and husband who will be part of the sorcerer hunt.
When the three storylines become confluent, things get explosive! What unites the three is their determination to hunt down the greatest threat to humankind the world has ever seen. But due to confusion, animosity and mistrust, will they kill each other first before they can unite to battle their common foe? And with the seemingly unbeatable powers of that foe, who will end up hunting who?
The three main characters were a complete hot mess and you will love them! Aren’s addiction, his obsessive desire to get the bad guy, his arrogance, being haunted by his past, combined with his prodigious mastery of the studies of magic, and its use, make him extremely interesting. He’s got a huge fear of failure, because he’s never failed in his previous assignments. Now he’s literally got the fate of the world on his shoulders, and despite his innate goodness and fortitude, he’s cracking at the seams just a bit.
Kelumen is perhaps the most damaged of the group. She too is a rogue magic user, but has joined a group hunting down other rogue magic users. She comes from a hard knocks background, is very acerbic, hot-headed, vengeful, and not always reasonable. She is only accepted initially by the group because she’s married to the group’s leader.
Roughish Coren is more of a caricature of your favourite rake who is great at fighting and clever enough to keep himself alive, with plenty of humour, charm, and panache. But he’s friendship and devotion to Aren brings out his best qualities, and he is not short on courage. The surrounding cast are also well-drawn, and the big baddie is appropriately terrifying. Overall, kudos to Riley on the vivid characters he has created.
When an author can combine exemplary character work with compelling themes, a book is already at a four star grade. But Riley exceeds this. The themes in this book were fantastic. Love, loss, grieving, torture, trauma, addiction, greed, suspicion, government sanctioned assassination, and more, there was plenty that was compelling about what Riley touches upon in the book.
This book is a lot darker than I initially realized, and as I continued to turn the pages, I was trying to classify it. Was it “grimdark”, or merely “dark”? Regardless, there are action scenes aplenty, some very disturbing ones included, and there are times things are quite frenetic, and there is plenty of blood spilled in gruesome ways. The results of the visceral battles, which include lots of magic being wielded, especially in the second half of the book, can be very heart-rending. Don’t get attached to any particular character, is my counsel, because Riley has no misgivings whatsoever to kill off darlings. If you want to have a great death scene as a character, ask Riley to write you in!
As noted in the latter stages of the book the action is virtually unabated. Riley can write great fight scenes, with huge stakes. Truly exhilarating!
I loved the lust, sex, and romance in the book, which was very intense, and extremely well done. The heat factor definitely added to the book for me in a good way!
Finally, break out the REAL superlatives! As I must give some very, very high praise here regarding the magic system. “We Break Immortals” simply has the most detailed, thorough, and most complete hard magic system I have EVER read thus far in a fantasy novel. The achievement here is gargantuan!
There is a comprehensive appendix specifically to explain the magic system, and it is needed! While my personal preference is definitely soft magic, I must bow to the imagination, intricacy and skill on display by the author in this regard. Wow!
In addition, the various realms, histories, and cultures, and oh boy those gorgeous maps of Riley’s world, and a great cover, make this the kind of epic fantasy that looks incredible on your shelf. I know this is an aesthetic thing that has nothing to do with the writing, but I can’t help gush about it.
Don’t be intimidated by the 1000 plus page-count! This book has plenty of moments where it reads like a sleek 300-pager as opposed to the absolute chonker that it is. Overall, it is very fast paced.
My only quibble is that at times the prose was a bit off for me at certain junctures of the book (mixing the more classic/formal style with slangs), but once more, personal preference seemingly is the issue, not the author’s writing. Overall the book is very well written, with some great humour, philosophical lines that will stay with you, and plenty of heart and poignancy.
“We Break Immortals” is a prodigious achievement, full of action, incredible magic, passion, and bloodshed! I am eager to see more of where Riley takes his “Advent Lumina Cycle”. Five bright stars!
*Thomas Howard Riley is part of the BWGB writing team, this in no way influenced the review of his novel.