The members of the race called the Eldrennai have pointed ears and live a long time. They created a race of warrior slaves called the Aren and then they crafted a plant-like race called the Vael, who were designed to appeal to the Aren. The main reason behind the creation of the Arens was to defeat a race of magically resistant lizard people named the Zur. The Eldrennai held the Aren captive for thousands of years, forcing them by oath and magical compulsion to serve their whims and fight their battles for them. All this was just fine for the Eldrennai until the Sundering, when the Aren rose up and fought for their freedom.
Now, after the Sundering, all three races meet every century for the Grand Conjunction to renew their peace treaty. This novel takes place six hundred years after the Sundering. Kholster the Aren is still the first of the original one hundred Aren created and still the leader of his people. He has not forgotten the shackles of slavery placed on him by the Eldrennai and has vowed an oath to kill every Eldrennai who was alive during the Aren enslavement. Kholster has also vowed to attend the Grand Conjunction to listen to the peace overtures of the Eldrennai. This conjunction is different since an Eldrennai prince has broken the treaty by unearthing sentient suits of Arenese armor that were sealed away as terms of the treaty. With yet another oath broken by the Eldrennai, Kholster must find a way to protect his people and fulfill his own oaths, even if it costs him everything.
Pyr Publishing was really smart to add J. F. Lewis to their already impressive stable of authors. With Grudgebearer, he has created a world that is fresh and new, yet it has some of the elements of fantasy and even video games that readers can use as a foundation to get to know this world. The relationships in this world are complex, and Lewis immerses the reader into them from the get-go. The history of the world is a running update that, while confusing at first, creates a sense of wishing to know. As complex and confusing as the relationships and history can be, the book is still written well and not a difficult read.
Kholster is the focus of this book, and his almost perfect weaponized shoulders can bear this rather heavy load. Kholster is one of those characters who are hard not to like but very difficult to love. He is the undisputed leader of his people, and his ethos serves as the roadmap for Aren society. As is to be expected, Kholster does more than just kick ass and chew on the dead flesh of his enemies—he is emotionally complicated, but those emotions are often expressed in very simple almost base terms, but his complexity is never in question for the reader. Kholster’s love for his people is only trumped by his physical need to keep the oaths that he has made, and that alone creates a delicious tension that made this book a great read. Lewis didn’t get caught in the conventional thinking trap. Very often authors who write stories about long-lived races tend to still have their characters think like they have regular human lifespans, or they swing them so far to the other side that their long view becomes confusing. By making the Aren nigh immortal but battle focused, their thoughts and attitudes were geared toward the big picture/long view but maintained the practicality that is required to win battles and wars. This book isn’t just about Kholster—it is about his people and how they interact with the world and the other races who occupy that world.
The relations among all the races in this book would have become very confusing if a lesser author had attempted to tell this story. I quickly learned that the enslavement by the Eldrennai was the main cause of the tension between the Aren and Eldrennai, but toward the end of the book, Lewis reveals some of the more horrendous acts and explains the oft-alluded to battle of “As you Please.” This is a strange name for a battle, but it makes sense once it is explained. I would have appreciated more explanations as the book progressed. I feel this would have built the tension before the Grand Conjunction to the levels that Lewis was trying to achieve. When the conjunction occurred, there was plenty of tension, but to that point the reader was not well enough informed to completely empathize with the emotions and reactions that some of the characters experienced. Because of being bred for battle, the Aren have some video-game-like qualities that added a very fresh dimension to this story.
As I write this, I still find it hard to believe that Lewis incorporated some popular video game features into the Aren that didn’t feel out of place. The Aren are linked telepathically, and some of the Aren are known as overwatchers. Generally, an important Aren like Kholster has a group of four of them who act as his long-range eyes and ears. Because of their abilities, an Aren can see and hear what his overwatch team sees and hears. To convey this in a nonsensory overload manner, most overwatchers convey the information they are seeing and gathering as a real time map that the receiving Aren can “see.” With this map, the receiving Aren can see their positions relative to the other Aren around them and even “zoom out” to get better situational awareness. As the Aren and their overwatch team work together, they become so attuned that the overwatchers can anticipate what Kholster needs before they even ask. If you are not tracking, it works exactly like that little map you see in the corner of your favorite MMORPG or even in most first-person shooters. This might sound like a gimmick, but it really did increase the fighting effectiveness and situational awareness of the Aren in charge. I would have never thought of including that, but I’m glad Lewis did.
This book has tons of additional aspects that I haven’t explored, and I will recommend you read it to find out. Additionally, up until the end of the book, there was no use of the word elf. Yes, the Eldrennai really are elves, but they were always called Eldrennai or Oathbreakers; it almost felt like they started out as elves in early drafts, then were changed to Eldrennai, but a few “elf” elements slipped in there. It isn’t a big deal, but I did notice, and Pyr Publishing doesn’t normally make mistakes like that.
This is the first book in a trilogy, and I’m thankful for that—I finished this book wanting to know what happened next. If this had been the only book, I would have been a bit disappointed at the end, but because there is more to follow, I don’t have to deal with that disappointment. There were a few murky transitions during the course of the story that felt like someone had hit the fast forward button, but it was easy to pick up on where and what was going on. Lewis is on to something, and with a few tweaks, he will be seen as one of the fantasy authors to pay attention to. I’d love to see some maps, too—I’m not saying this world would be a great setting for an RPG…. Okay, that is EXACTLY what I’m saying.