by Alec Hutson
A thousand years ago the Heart of the World was shattered, its fragments scattered across the lands.
In the chaos that followed, martial orders arose to gather the shards, for it was found that great powers were granted when these pieces were bonded to the flesh of the chosen. These are the Sharded Few, warriors imbued with the divine energies that once coursed through the Heart, driven to absorb enough fragments to claim godhood.
Deryn has known nothing in his life except suffering. Orphaned at the edge of the realms, indentured to a cruel slaver, he has little hope of escaping his circumstances. But elsewhere, ancient powers are stirring, new alliances threaten the peace of the old order, and against all odds, Deryn will find himself a player in a game unlike anything he could have imagined.
SPFBO8 – Our Reviews
The worldbuilding is terrific, Hutson makes sure the different cultures and sects of the Sharded Few have definition and distinctness. Hutson gives us enough legend and history to steep the characters and the world in, giving a nice depth to the story. I enjoyed the class system, there is an interesting social system of slaves and indentured within the lower class, whilst the wealthy and powerful attempt to control not only their people but the land around for resources. I loved all the different races, we have humans and non-humans, bringing a great diversity to the world of Albia. The lizard folk, the zemani, were a particular favourite of mine. We don’t get much of them in this first novel, so I am hoping for more in future books.
The magic system is particularly Sanderson-esque, though this isn’t necessarily a criticism as I really enjoyed the processes and abilities. The Sharded Few are beings in the world of Albia that have a proclivity to a certain kind of shard, magical crystals that were formed thousands of years ago. There is an elemental aspect to what type of shard and abilities one has, so, fire, water, wind etc. But there is also ability to manipulate, pass through and combine with shadow, which is what our main protagonist has a predisposition for, which I found fascinating. Hutson has created some really cool and dynamic abilities, all given cool names, as they would in a computer game, which gives this book its progressive sub-genre tag. If you aren’t a fan of progressive fantasy, a large portion of this book may not be for you.
We have three POVs throughout the story and Hutson manages to give each POV their own voice and identity. Deryn, a young indentured, has a rag to riches, coming-of-age story that will be well recognisable to a fantasy reader. Heth has the opposite journey to Deryn and starts off as a privileged son of a wealthy merchant and soon learns what its like to be a slave. The third POV is a mysterious girl called Alia and she is very much the connecting glue between the two boys. She has the least number of pages, but her role is nonetheless prominent in the story. Hutson obviously has some big plans for their fates, several signposts appear throughout the story, giving us clues as to their possible futures.
The pacing is a quite slow at the beginning, but again, this is epic fantasy, and the first book in a series, there will always be that introductory phase, establishing character and world. I do feel there is a little too much exposition dump at the front of the book, but there are some complex mechanisms to the social structure of Sharded Few and many different names and titles of abilities and Sharded hierarchy, so I get that Hutson has to lay a lot of foundation down early on before we get into the nitty gritty of the story.
I really enjoyed Hutson’s writing, his battle scenes were thrilling and well presented, loads of cool abilities and magic made it feel like an MCU film at times, but again, not necessarily a bad thing, but we have seen it before. His characterisation is well crafted and it was fun seeing these protagonists grow.
But herein lies my main issue with Umbral Storm. It all feels a little too familiar, as though I have come across this story once too often. Tropes are recycled and reused all the time, but it needs that new twist, or that intriguing modern twist to elevate it from good to brilliant. And for me, as much as I thoroughly enjoyed Umbral Storm, it didn’t make me stop and go, “Oooh that’s new! That’s a fascinating twist on this trope”. If you have read Sanderson, Gemmell or Jordan, I think you will recognise many of the story elements, tropes, and mechanisms those authors have used. Umbral Storm is a great homage to those authors. It was a super fun read, don’t get me wrong, and I shall certainly read the next book. But the standard of finalists in this year’s SPFBO is brutally high and, for me, this book doesn’t stand out enough to elevate it from the crowd.