Genre: Fantasy – Grimdark
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Ace (November 1, 2016)
Length: 432 pages
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.
The Burning Isle is a grimdark fantasy heavy on mystery and magic with an intricate plot filled with schemes, lies, and brutal deaths. In other words, it is everything a grim lover looks for in their next reading fix.
Cassius is a stranger in the decrepit, savage city of Scipio, which lies on the edge of an untamed jungle. His presence in the unimportant frontier city raising no eyebrows, as smugglers, cutthroats, and slavers from across the world come and go in its seedy environment. But Cassius is different. Not only does he appear to be a half-breed, he also carries the magical gauntlets of a spellcaster on his belt, branding him as a trained killer; his hidden motives and shadowy past causing most to wonder what is his true story.
Quickly, our stranger makes a name for himself in a prize fight to the death. This leads to employment with one of the two crime lords who run Scipio for General Quintus, the Republican Governor. Yet even though he is now part of the ruling segment of society, Cassius continues to play his own games, spreading deception and death everywhere he goes, not even his supposed “friends” safe from the consequences of his duplicitous conduct. Each lie, each double-cross, each murder leading our mysterious spellcaster one step closer to his real reason for coming to Scipio: Justice!
Without a doubt, the mysterious motives and shadowy past of our protagonist Cassius is what kept me turning pages here. The “why” of all his scheming propelling the plot forward. His constantly changing behaviors raising never ending speculations in my mind regarding who and what he is. The brief interludes where our young spellcaster’s past is partially revealed only helping to feed the fires of my suspicions. All of it leading to a stunning reveal at the end, one which did take me by surprise.
The other success of The Burning Isle is the very cool magical system. No, Will Panzo does not reinvent magic like Brandon Sanderson always seem to do do with every new book, but what he does is create a clever mixture of traditional magical elements which mess together perfectly and complement the atmosphere and mood of this environment. The Rune system with its magical gauntlets and spell stones turning the numerous duels into emotional affairs, where spellcasters go mano e mano against one another to the death.
The only criticism I have of this novel is that, at times, the plot was a little too transparent. Cassius’s next move too easy to guess; his adversaries too eager to overlook his duplicitous conduct and include him in their inner circle. Many times our villains behavior just not feeling realistic enough; such experienced, clever criminals appearing very naive or very foolish to keep falling for our young spellcaster’s ploys time after time. All of it difficult for me to swallow after a while. But, then again, maybe I’m just not a very trusting person.
Having read more than a few grimdarks at this point, I believed I had pretty much seem them all. My mind fairly well tuned to recognize and instantly categorize each story by variety: blood and gore, ultra-realistic, doom and gloom, insanity, et cetera. Well, Will Panzo’s The Burning Isle didn’t completely fit into any of those categories, since it relied so heavily on a new ingredient which was completely fresh and unique in the world of grimdark, and so I am hereby creating a new category for this book: western grim!
Yeah, you read that right. Western grim. (Yes, I am going to copyright the term.) This novel clearly showing Will Panzo was inspired and influenced by Westerners. You know, the Clint Eastwood variety where a mysterious stranger shows up in some frontier town tooting six shooters on his hips, hiding a hidden agenda to right wrongs in his heart, and with a plan to deal out vengeance on villains, who don’t even recall wronging him. That description perfectly fitting our hero Cassius. So if you love stories where you can imagine yourself a lone, avenging hero in the wilderness, fighting evil and injustice wherever you find it before riding off into the sunset, then The Burning Isle is a grimdark you will absolutely adore.
I received an advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. I’d like to thank them for allowing me to receive this review copy and inform everyone that the review you have read is my opinion alone.