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Nathan’s review of Spark of the Divine by Louise Holland

The tl;dr: Inspired by DnD but my no means restricted by TTRPG storytelling tropes, Spark of the Divine is a marvellous and magical debut epic fantasy by Australian author Lousie Holland. Prepare to be swept away by dark magical threats, a quirky and loveable band of partying adventures, twists and turns, and emotional character moments that serve quite the mental wallop. Holland introduces us to a diverse party who actually feel like a group working together – sometimes they bicker and fight, but you also feel the genuine warmth between them. If you like to go on epic quests, but you also want to emotionally connect with characters, than you cannot really do better than Spark of the Divine. The book ends with some tantalizing cliffhangers, but in general the main arcs are wrapped up in a way that will leave you satisfied as you await the next book. Highly, highly recommended.

Spark of the Divine

 

My Full Review:

I’m always hesistant when an author markets their book as “like DnD” or “based on a DnD campaign”. These books are always focused on the worldbuilding, and the plots/characters are always thinly drawn to some quest for a lame macguffin. These books can also be alienating to non-DnD readers (and, to be clear, here I am not talking about the official DnD branded books) because they use creatures, spells, classes, races, etc. common to the DnD universe without much explanation or description. Therefore I was a bit hesistant walking into Spark of the Divine; I was really trusting the reviewers who were championing this book, but ready to give some mega side eye.

I left out a BIG sigh of relief when I realized that Spark of the Divine is an epic, heartfelt, love letter to quest fantasies and quirky parties of adventurers. The DNA of DnD is very much present, but it never overwhelms the narrative and you never feel like you are reading a “real play” podcast. This is a fully realized fantasy world, and it is as much fun as it is tense and nervewracking.

The biggest strength of Spark of the Divine is Holland’s character work. This is a party you actually want to spend the entire adventure with, especially as the characters become deeper and more well-realized along the adventure. The characters in the book are so freaking good that I will say two things that I pretty much never say: (1) I would have loved for this book to be even longer than its already 600+ page count and (2) I wanted more POV characters! Most of the adventurers get their time to shine, and I wanted more time with even characters like pompous noble Camden. What drug did Holland inject into these characters that I wanted to a POV chapter from the most annoying character because I wanted to know more about what made him “tick”? I was so invested in each of these characters that I was swept away by a character giving a lengthy narrative of their past. This was essentially an info-dump, but it was so beautifully written and emotionally resonant that I was lost in Holland’s prose and character work.

Part of what makes Holland’s party of adventurers so endearing is their diversity. Whether it is by species (a goblin, kitsune, humans, godly-inspired beings, etc.) and just personality. Holland expertly avoids the lure of making everyone one of her characters a quip-machine. They most definitely make jokes, and you can see how this group has come to genuinely enjoy each other, but they also have their frictions, and the complicated nature of any group dynamics becomes clear throughout the book. This party felt real, and this only gets more complicated by the magical and political machinations of the plot.

Holland’s characters are so strong that I honestly forgot about the plot half of the time. On the surface, it’s fairly standard epic fantasy fare. A party of adventureres have to stop the bad magical organization from resurrecting a god that will destroy the world. However, it is the way in which Holland tells the story that gives it that extra bit of spark and makes it feel so fresh and original. Like HC Newell, Louise Holland’s storytelling simultaneously feels like the fantasy-reading equivelent of returning home while also breathing new life into a genre that has been all but abandoned by traditional publishing. There are all of the familiar trappings and tropes that fans of quest fantasy are thirsting for, but at no point in the book did I feel like I had read this story before. Holland’s world is dark yet vibrant, and while the worldbuilding won’t knock your socks off, what she does with this world (and the characters that she occupies it with!) will absolutely keep you riveted across this chonky first book.

Spark of the Divine is the first book in The Kalaraak Chronicles, and some delicious twists in the final pages set up exciting developments for the future. At the same time, Holland wraps up many of the plot and character arcs by the final chapter. Readers will be left clamoring for more, while also feeling satisfied with the experience of reading this single book. I find there is this trend, especially in self-published fantasy where books “stop” rather than “end”. I’m not sure if there is pressure to divide books up into as many chunks as possible for more sales, or to just to stop writing and get the book out in the world, but many books today feel like half of a book. Holland doesn’t deal with that, and instead she brings the train back to the station while also teasing some tantalizing plot arcs to continue. She respects this book, its characters, its themes, and its plot, while also planting all kinds of plot-seeds to hopefully bloom later in the series. For me this always makes for the best reading experience!

In general, this is a stellar epic fantasy debut that will delight fans of DnD, quest fantasies, and big epic stories with a focus on characters. And again don’t worry if you know nothing about DnD. I’ve only played one short session in my entire life and still felt welcomed into Holland’s magical storytelling!

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!

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