Fiction Reviews

Smoke in the Glass

(2019) Chris Humphreys, Gollancz, £16.99, trdpbk, 334pp, ISBN 978-0-857-82682-4


This is one of those reviews where I have to remember it’s a review and not a critique, because otherwise this could get very long. Suffice to say that this was not entirely to my taste. Still, it’s high fantasy, and for some authors that comes with a certain writing style that to people who normally read other things (like me) can seem stilted, overly formal and stuffed with (often unnecessary) flashbacks and backstory. Personally, I prefer great characterisation and a gripping plot, but there is definitely an audience for this kind of thing, so I’ll concentrate on the premise and plot setup.

Basically, this is a second world fantasy with mediaeval levels of technology and a feudal society.  Most of the inhabitants think the world is carved into three ‘realms’ but there’s secretly a fourth realm seeking global domination. Each known realm has ‘immortals’ that live forever unless someone decapitates them. Immortals are born randomly and infrequently, and only know they are immortal when they visibly stop ageing or when they should be dead – but aren’t. The immortals spring from ancient ‘visitor who fell from the sky or who came from the ocean’, and in each of the three known realms the immortals also have superpowers – different ones for each realm. In one realm immortals could possess other people; in another only animals. In the third, though, one immortal killed all the others so the nature of the possession gift wasn’t known. Immortals, inevitably, set themselves up as gods and dominate the normal human population. The fourth realm is called the Land of Joy (!) and has no immortals – only ‘hope’.

There are three main character leads – Ferros, a soldier killed in battle who wakes up, alive, with an arrow stuck in his eye; Luck, an immortal with a club-foot who discovers all the gods are being systematically killed; and Atisha, the mother of a child of indeterminate gender, born to King Initepe, who sets himself up as a ‘sun god’ and is so terrified by a prophecy that he’ll be killed by his son that he kills all his male children. Also because Atisha’s child has male and female genitals it is, potentially, The One, which in a different prophecy is said will bring about the end of the age of immortals and begin the ‘dominion of man’. So, naturally, mother and child are in great danger…

The world-building is very intricate, and a solid plot threads all the various pieces of the story together, but there are a lot of characters (often quite similar) for readers to get their heads around and the style takes some getting used to. Chris Humpreys normally writes historical novels and has an impressive back catalogue which suggests Smoke in the Glass will find an audience. It is the first in a series, too, so his complex world-building will hopefully pay off in future instalments. Maybe his track record is what prompted Gollancz to go for this one – I’ll leave others to judge whether he’s managed the transition from historical fiction to high fantasy well.

Mark Bilsborough


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