Category: Dark Fantasy


I’ve got a review written this week, and it’s even on time! This one’s thanks to the awesome folks at Tor, here is R. S. Belcher’s The Night Dahlia. Enjoy!

The Night Dahlia cover

Caern Ankou has been missing for several years. All the trails are cold and have been for quite some time. In desperation, her father brings in Laytham Ballard the only former Nightwise in the organization’s history. It’s simple, find the girl, save the soul of his lost love. Thing is, if Ballard wants to find Caern, he’s going to have to chase her across the world to do so. He’ll have to face former friends, old enemies, even the case that’s left him haunted ever since. Nothing to it.

The Night Dahlia is an interesting book in that it earned its way up from a one star read to a three star read and then back down to a two. There were cool ideas, yes, some of the ideas here were really cool. Some of the scenes were cool, but for every cool or impactful scene there are three that nullify anything that could have worked with them.

In a lot of ways, The Night Dahlia doesn’t feel confident. There’s this feeling like Belcher wasn’t comfortable with the emotive weight of key scenes and felt the need to hammer them home shortly after to make sure that the reader gets it. That lack of confidence killed a lot of moments for me, especially towards the end where the story hit a lot of what should have been big character moments only to fritter them away. It all winds up being a bit too neat considering how much of a mess the protagonist is supposed to be.

Laytham Ballard himself is also a big part of why a lot of scenes didn’t work. His whole deal is that he’s a bad man, a fallen hero driven rogue by one bad case. But then he spends enough of his time drunk or high or generally running away from himself and the plot that I could believe that he’s washed up, as so many minor characters tell him, but I have a hard time seeing him as more than that. He can come across as the creepy guy at the occult shop, insisting that he just knows a girl is a sensual creature just by looking and describing nearly every woman he runs into’s breasts. He can come across as slimy for the same reasons, plus his constant dodging of the rules of his contract. But Ballard doesn’t come across as the wicked fallen hero that he seems to want to be. There’s a scene that shows what could have been, where he’s legitimately kind of frightening and inflicts a pretty awful curse on a number of people because one of them annoyed him, but that’s once.

That actually feeds into a lot of my issues with The Night Dahlia and Laytham Ballard in particular.  It might be due to missing some of the set up in Nightwise, but a lot of the book just doesn’t land for me. Ballard makes a big point of talking about how his magic style is a mutt thrown together with stuff that works best for him, that could be really cool. But then, when he uses magic, his big thing is using his chakras and pushing energy through them. He uses the specific names of the chakras he’s using but then doesn’t generally explain what that means and the magic isn’t given sensory detail often beyond boiling or bubbling up through whichever chakra he’s using, so it winds up feeling lazy and a little disorienting.  Things just sort of pop up that could have been interesting concepts but either aren’t gone into or just feel too out there. Like Ballard having a random musical interlude at a bar while out looking for clues, he just sort of gets pulled into playing a set with some local band. Everyone there knows his old band and is just super pumped for this random guy to jump on with the band they actually came to see. A lot of it feels like is exists in service to Laytham Ballard rather than the plot.

There’s this really great bit about half way through that shows us a younger Ballard on the big life ruining case. It contextualizes him, gives a foundation to a lot of the things he does in the present day of the story. There’s still messy bits to the writing itself, but it does a lot to make me care about that version of Ballard. But then we jump back to the present and a Ballard who is still in the middle of his bad decisions and is still more about doing things his way than getting to the bottom of things. There’s a character arc here, but it’s done in a way that feels sort of fractured. Like I mentioned about, scenes that should have emotional impact happen but either only sort of land or don’t feel like they have any consequences.  Of course things not landing makes everything feel less impactful.

That’s where I’m left with The Night Dahlia. It had some nifty ideas, some moments that could have been super solid, and some just odd stuff. But it never landed right. It’s a book that felt like it had earned a single star up to around the half way mark and then nearly earned its way back down. It sort of always felt like I was just a touch out of the loop or hadn’t done my homework. The Night Dahlia gets a two out of five.

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Thank you all for being patient with me this week. It’s been kind of a rough one, but I think I’ve got a hold on it again. This week’s book is from the folks at Tor.com. This is Myke Cole’s The Armored Saint. Enjoy!

The Armored Saint cover

The Writ teaches that wizardry is foul in the eyes of the Emperor, that it reaches to hell itself to give its user profane powers not meant for mortal man. The Writ teaches that a wizard must be stoned to prevent them tearing a portal open and allowing devils into the world once more. The Order is to be called if wizardry is suspected, to protect the people and knit the damage before it can be worsened. This, Heloise knows by heart. The Order demands obedience, subservience, a bended knee from the villagers who serve it more than it serves them. Heloise had never realized this until a brother of the Order abused her father’s tools and materials, wasting valuable paper just because he could. She had never had reason to question until the Order rounded up her village to help knit the neighboring town, a slaughter worse than any brigands could have visited. The Writ says that the Order is to be trusted and relied upon, they have proven that they cannot be.

Myke Cole’s The Armored Saint is a dark fantasy novella that, in a number of ways, I really wish had been expanded on more.  The world building is fairly solid, though I feel like it could have been worked in more. I largely enjoyed the characters and would have wanted to see more of them outside of the main story conflict.

So, let’s start with the world building. We get a fair amount about the religion of the setting and about the Order and how much of a threat they are, particularly to small out of the way villages like the one Heloise lives in. The Order as a threat and as corrupt is shown fantastically well right from the beginning. There’s enough on the day to day workings of the village and the expectations people live with under the Writ that the society feels functional if also very much like the fantasy novel version of things. Wizardry though, wizardry doesn’t get dug into much given that it is a dangerous forbidden thing and, at least theoretically, the entire reason the Order is hanging around. There are a number of reasons I’d have like to see more with it. It feels like wizardry should play a fairly large role in the rest of the trilogy and setting it up here would make sense. Wizardry also serves more as a thing that we are told more about than shown though, so I’m a little frustrated there. As a side note, more time could have been given to how Heloise’s actions affect other characters or other characters reactions to her going against the Order.

I have similar feelings with the characters. There’s this really well worked out little knot of people who get a fair amount of work and Heloise gets a good amount of development. But then we have the antagonist who exists to be antagonistic and does nothing to suggest he is anything but a flat villain. Since the antagonist is also our face character for the Order that means that the entire group is cast in a flat light of villainy. It wouldn’t be an easy fix, but having an eye towards what people outside of our little knot of characters thinks could have been great. The ranger could have been great for filling in more of the world and allowed the reader to see more of what people think regarding outsiders.

There is a really interesting thing in The Armored Saint, world building wise. While the Order is show as flatly antagonistic and more out to pursue their own wants than actually protecting the people the Writ itself is shown repeatedly as a source of comfort for a number of characters. It sort of keeps the whole thing from sliding into “religion is evil” territory by allowing the common folk to keep their faith in the face of an obviously corrupt and morally bankrupt church militia. It makes for an interesting sort of situational foil.

Related to a lot of this, I wasn’t a fan of the ending. It felt poorly supported and sort of out of nowhere. More page space as a generality would have been helpful leading up to it, particularly given that a lot of it could easily have been more lead into early on. This feels more than anything like a set up book with the ending tacked on because it needed one and the stakes needed to be higher for the next book. The set up itself is good, the world building generally works really well. I’m invested in finding out more about the setting and I want to see where this goes from here. But the end feels like it should have been done sometime during the next book and given time to percolate and build.

At the end of the day it does come down to the fact that I do really look forward to reading the second book. The Armored Saint was solid but ultimately affected by its nature as a novella instead of a full on novel. So, I feel like it earned a four out of five.