SPFBO Semifinalist Review: Gunmetal Gods & Norylska Groans (reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)
Order Gunmetal Gods over HERE
OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Gunmetal Gods is Zamil Akhtar’s grimdark debut and one that certainly doesn’t shy away from any facets of grimdark fantasy. As my colleague, Jonathan mentioned in his review with trigger warnings “All Of Them”.
The story begins with two warriors, Micah the Metaland Kevah the janissary legend. They both have their ideals and their causes. Micahis tasked by his superior Imperator Heraclius to conquer the fabled holy city of Kostany and he lands alongside fifty thousand paladins. All of them fanatically biased and frothing at their mouths at the chance of making religious history. Kevah on the other hand is a mage-killing legend who has been recalled by the Shah with a specific task in mind. Kevah however is definitely not the warrior he was ten years ago and since his wife has gone missing; his days are spent more amongst smoking hashish.
Things are taking a turn for the worse as both sides appear to be set on a conflict, which while seemingly unavoidable, is orchestrated, by people, things and events on a cosmic level. The main story is about conflict and the author does not shy away from showcasing conflict on a grand scale as well as the personal. The author really excels at the action sequences and boy do we a variety of them. The author does not shy away from brutalizing his main characters as well as the side character cast. Around the 25% mark, we get a sequence that puts the red wedding to shame. This and more is what especially needs to be highlighted and in this regards Jonathan is absolutely spot-on with this thoughts “Gunmetal Gods features limb amputations, violence to animals, mass infanticide, slavery, incest and attempted rape, and genocide. Some of these things occur on page, in vivid detail. Readers take note.”
Jonathan also highlights these facets: “This is a fast-paced book that never lets up. Given the somewhat-rapid start, I was expecting a slow-down in the middle but if anything the pace accelerated and the last third went at breakneck speed. The prose flows well enough and the while the world-building is not the deepest I’ve seen, it’s more than sufficient for the tale. The plot is clever and features a number of twists, some of which I never saw coming. There are definitely (favorable) comparisons to draw to the Cthulu mythos and I thought the “gods” were suitably weird and menacing.”
Another versatile factor for Gunmetal Gods is its incredible pace and how the story never lets up. From the moment, both the main POV characters are introduced. Events are set into motion and things are dialed up to eleven. There is also the worldbuilding which I want to highlight as on paper is a simplistic crusade scenario but the author really explores both sides and gives some fascinating insights. If I had to guess, I would say that the author’s own cultural background would have helped and then there’s also the question of the gods. The conflict arises, as one faction believes in an eleven winged Archangel and the other in a singular goddess called Lat. Both these monotheistic cultures do the othering while not really exploring the need for nuance and the similarities within them. In this regard, Zamil Akhtar draws from the same inspirational place from where R. Scott Bakker drew his. But he does with more aplomb and makes his work more accessible, less philosophically dense and definitely with a lot less sexual abuse.
Yes there is some sexual abuse but it’s more off the pages and certainly not vehemently in your face and as constantly occurring as in the Bakker books. This isn’t a competition but I do wish to clarify for those who keep an eye out for trigger warnings. This is a GD (capital) fantasy and one that does not shy away from the brutality of a medieval landscape. While this is a secondary fantasy world, it definitely holds a mirror to our own and in that it makes no apologies. Any brutality inflicted by man, any horror created by mankind and every painful feeling experienced. All of such horrors are encased within these pages as characters inflict pain, and other things on each other. Not all of this is for everyone but again it is not done without cause. The story demands a certain reality and the magic system is one that really highlight this.
Talking about the magic system, it is pretty cool and the world mythos is incredibly complex. I loved how in the end, the revelations pretty much promised a bigger epic at hand and there’s a mix of Eldritch horror and epic SF. These new revelations certainly puts the events of the book in a whole new light and I for one can’t wait to see where the sequel takes the story.
CONCLUSION: Gunmetal Gods is a fast, dark read with an excellent plot and set in a compelling world. Any fan of grimdark should check this one out. I’ll be checking out the sequel Conqueror’s Blood as soon as I can.
Order Norylska Groans over HERE
OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Norylska Groans as far as titles go is one of the more unusual ones that I have come across all realms of speculative fiction. Norylska Groans is also the first time collaboration between Clayton Snyder and Michael R. Fletcher.
The story focuses on two characters only, Genndy Antonov and Katyusha Leonova. They live in the northern city called Norylska and as it’s an icy shithole. There’s not much money to go around and there’s a lot of poverty. The rich folks live ensconced within their city quarters and life for everyone is definitely on the rougher side. Both Genndy & Katyusha are pawns who are caught in their profession (meat packer) and home life (fiancée of a lawyer). Both of them are caught up in their everyday lives and can’t seem to escape their fates. But things are taking a turn, Genndy gets let go and then has to take up enforcing. Katyusha is part of a new revolution wherein females are now asked join the force and she’s asked to be the first female militsioner.
Both these characters are what keep the story going as we get a very typical crime noir story set in a low fantasy world. I LOVED this feature of the story as these dueling POV threads give us a fascinating story one from a criminal’s perspective and the other from the police. While this is something old within the crime genre. For the fantasy genre it’s refreshing and mixed in a world that’s set in a pseudo-Russian world, it blew my mind away.
I loved how besides the main POV characters, even the minor characters are so solidly etched. This was a huge plus and a solid kudos to Messrs. Fletcher and Snyder for making this collaboration work. If this is their first collaboration, it heralds a spectacular future for them both should they choose to continue in this world and their partnership. Another thing I wish to highlight is that for the first few chapters, I wasn’t able to figure out which author had written which POV. That is a testament to the authors and how well-edited this book is.
I also wish to make a special mention of the setting, the authors have utilized quite a few Russian words and while I can’t ascertain their authenticity. I’ve no doubt that the authors would have either utilized actual Russian or base it really closely. Case in point Norylska itself, which is, modelled on Norilsk an actual place in Russian. Such instances as well as the author’s cheeky mention about the book being alternate historical fantasy makes it even more complexing (though I’m not entirely sure if the author was entirely being facetious).
There’s also the characteristic humour that’s very much present within the story. Be it a serious interrogation scene or just randomly calling out a librarian for a book. In this regards, both Fletcher and Snyder are stalwarts in such snarky talk. The book also has some vicious torture scenes and this isn’t for the faint of the stomach. There’s one scene with a character who’s named after a famous indie fantasy author and that one really made hair stand. It is a dark book after all but there are certain scenes of brutality that would do any Mortal Kombat fan proud.
However this book is not entirely action-packed, there’s a cerebral approach to the main mystery and in this I would give top marks to the authors as on a reread it becomes very clear how the clues are interspersed within.
If I have to complain about it, I’ve a couple firstly then ending is one that is a bit light compared to the way the book started and in the middle as the plot threads started really coalescing. This is entirely subjective and for me, it ended with a bit of small not-quite bang whereas I expected a bloodbath akin to the Godfather.
Secondly I like to apologize for the authors for this but I groaned when I saw the cover. That cover just doesn’t fit how good the book is. Remembering the maxim about not judging a book, this is absolutely true with this because the cover seems like a half-baked effort. In this era of spectacular indie covers, I wonder how this one missed the mark so much.
CONCLUSION: Norylska Groans is an absolute stunner of a crime-noir-fantasy mashup. It’s a book, that won’t win over those who don’t want experimentation in their fantasy. But for those who yearn for something different, this standalone will fulfill all your wishes and then some.