“How does the opportunity ever arise for one person to alter the destiny of a world?”
Illborn by Daniel T. Jackson has potential but makes a lot of missteps on its way to attaining the epic, dark feel that it chases. The book reminds me of a fantasy soap opera that hasn’t aged well. It’s written in the same episodic style, with alternating chapters from different perspectives that each serve to introduce one plot twist or event. Also like an old soap opera, Illborn has one objectified character who gave me a persistent uncomfortable feeling from start to end.
This book follows four young adults in a grim medieval world who all dream of the same Gate and a hand that beckons them forward, into the golden light. Thereafter, they gain mysterious abilities of healing, warfare, seduction, and mind control. Although these new abilities bring them addictive power, they also catch the eye of the church, whose military force has only one goal: executing anyone labeled a heretic.
Having four points of view is a great way to show off your writing skills, especially by giving each of the four main characters unique voices to match their different stories. However, this opportunity was missed in Illborn. Allana, Arion, Leanna, and Corin all receive the same style of narration. They also speak the same way and use the same mannerisms (or lack thereof), which makes their perspectives feel nearly identical even though they are quite different from each other in terms of mood and plot.
The writing is not emotional enough in key moments considering the enormity and horror of everything happening to the characters. Feelings are consistently told instead of shown. Because each chapter has roughly the same pace, moments when readers should feel content and peaceful are rushed. The development of relationships among characters are revealed almost like in a Wikipedia article, for example: “By the time that several weeks had passed in the Academy, Arion had become close friends with his roommates.” Because of this, I could not grow attached to any of the side characters. Additionally, there is very little attempt to build the atmosphere of the different settings or to make the world feel lived-in and immersive. I think just a bit of this could have gone a long way. Every location feels transitory right now. On the positive side, the episodic nature of the chapters means the pacing is very good. It’s easy to keep reading this book. There is no extreme learning curve or overwhelming exposition.
Here we get into the characters… and one in particular who gave me the ick.
Allana is an eighteen-year-old whose supernatural power is lust, which plays out just as uncomfortably as you might expect. I’m not saying the author wrote her this way only as wish fulfillment or fan service. But I am saying this should have been thought through more. There were ways to make this not feel like objectification. Allana is not a great person herself, but villains aren’t interesting if they’re just archetypes, and villains can be objectified too even if they also do terrible things to other people.
Allana and her victims weren’t given enough respect from writer to character to pull off such a deeply uncomfortable plot. Allana’s motivation of survival is not written with enough complexity, emotion, or consideration to make a compelling character. She clearly has some internal conflict between wanting to survive and feeling bad at least momentarily about violating men’s autonomy, so why was this glossed over every time? The most promising part about Allana’s chapters was the question of morality in the face of self-preservation: how far can you go to save yourself, how many people can you hurt and abandon along the way until you’re in the wrong? There’s so much potential there, and I don’t think it was explored as deeply as it should have been. The book doesn’t have to apologize to the reader for discussing disturbing scenarios, but it should probably spend more time on the meat of the story—this internal conflict—and less on the seduction. That way Illborn would actually explore the character instead of peering at her from some remote, detached place occupied by the readers and writer. She’s never allowed to be more than this shallow depiction. Even when other characters have an emotional moment about her, it always comes back to how she looks, for example, “Her perfect physical form had been cut and bloodied.” The way she defeats her pursuers at the end is so ridiculous and compounds every other objectifying scene that preceded it. Imagine the most cringe-inducing scene you can based on the other information that I’ve given you about her character. That will probably be pretty close to what actually happens.
Another female character whom I was unsatisfied with was Agbeth, who is the wife of Corin, another POV character. His path has not yet connected with the paths of Arion, Allana, or Leanna, so I don’t know what role he will play in the larger plot yet. Corin is the “runt” in a remote clan eternally at war with another clan. It’s never explained why they keep battling each other. This is part of the point—why engage in senseless killing if no one ever gains anything?—but it’s also hard to believe that entire clans would wholeheartedly consent to slaughtering each other when there’s no convincing reason to keep doing so. Throughout Corin’s journey of exile and coming into his powers, Agbeth stays by his side. It’s difficult to articulate exactly what unsatisfied me about her character. She doesn’t have enough of her own personality; we never see that there is anything else going through her head except concern for Corin. Consequently, I thought she read as a wife who gets fridged repeatedly so he can rescue her and come into his full power. There’s nothing wrong with a person taking care of another person, but the complete lack of focus on any of Agbeth’s individuality makes it lean too close to fridging for my enjoyment. Her story is always used to push Corin to do something.
There isn’t much to say about Arion, the fourth POV character. He was the only main character who wasn’t strongly associated with a theme of the book. I was excited for his scenes at the military academy, because I love schools in fantasy, but that was summarized with as little detail as possible. He fought in a battle that took me by surprise because I wasn’t sure why it was happening.
I thought Leanna’s chapters were the most compelling out of the four main characters. I really liked reading about her—she didn’t rely on any of the gray morality that I thought was too shallow with Allana and Arion. If I read the sequel to Illborn, it will only be for Leanna. The final full chapter, which was written from her perspective, was probably the best chapter of the book. It managed to give me chills.
Leanna is the most well-adjusted of the four. She is kind, thoughtful, and trustworthy. She is the only one who’s achieved inner peace. Leanna is training to be a priestess, along with her best friend and tentative love interest Amyss. I wish their relationship had been developed by the author more. We aren’t shown much about Leanna’s feelings for Amyss, so the progression of their relationship honestly shocked me. I thought Leanna had no romantic interest in Amyss because that was never something she thought about. I actually felt a bit uneasy whenever Amyss tried to start something with Leanna because I thought Leanna hadn’t consented, which was heavily implied in the first scene of that kind.
Throughout the book, there’s a lot of fear and dread in Leanna’s chapters. This is especially effective because the first few chapters are so simple and pleasant. Later on, she has to confront the religious fanatics known as Aiduel’s Guards who pervade cities across the fantasy world, seeking heretics to burn and driving even the devout into timidity. They are the law: since they were purportedly chosen by Aiduel to purify heretics, anyone who opposes their tyrannical rule is automatically a heretic themselves.
For a book that focuses so much on religion, I wish more details were given about beliefs. The religion of Illborn is essentially medieval Christianity, and the novel relies on the reader’s possible familiarity with Christianity to fill in the blanks. I thought this backfired. The religion is not specific enough to be a nuanced commentary on medieval Christianity (warfare, zealotry, beliefs, control over society). However, since it isn’t distinguished enough from that religion, it fails to be convincing creatively either. Since the sequel is called Aiduel’s Sin, I anticipate that the author will address this issue and differentiate the world’s religion from Christianity more. Additionally, the larger plot centers around Aiduel, but readers know very little about the god, so it’s impossible to make educated predictions to guess where the series is going. There are very few hints for a book of this size about the question of why when it comes to the characters’ powers.
Unfortunately, I did not enjoy reading Daniel T. Jackson’s Illborn. It was not immersive or thrilling enough for me, especially since the characters stayed at arm’s length and the world felt only roughly sketched.