Review: The Heresy Within by Rob J. Hayes

“As any warrior will tell you; even the best swordsman is one bad day away from a corpse. It’s a lesson Blademaster Jezzet Vel’urn isn’t keen to learn. Chased into the Wilds by a vengeful warlord, Jezzet makes it to the free city of Chade. But instead of sanctuary all she finds is more enemies from her past.

Arbiter Thanquil Darkheart is a witch hunter for the Inquisition on a holy crusade to rid the world of heresy. He’s also something else; expendable. When the God Emperor himself gives Thanquil an impossible task, he knows he has no choice but to venture deep into the Wilds to hunt down a fallen Arbiter.

The Black Thorn is a cheat, a thief, a murderer and worse. He’s best known for the killing of several Arbiters and every town in the Wilds has a WANTED poster with his name on it. Thorn knows it’s often best to lie low and let the dust settle, but some jobs pay too well to pass up.

As their fates converge, Jezzet, Thanquil, and the Black Thorn will need to forge an uneasy alliance in order to face their common enemy.”

The Heresy Within is Rob J. Hayes’ debut novel and the first instalment in the (now completed) The Ties That Bind trilogy – the first thing I’ve read by this author. It’s an epic fantasy, set in a world where magic-using witch hunters loom large, ferreting out “heresy” on behalf of their god-emperor.

The story follows three point-of-view characters: Thanquil (the witch hunter), Jezzet (the blademaster) and Betrim (the rogue). I think the story benefits from sticking to these three point-of-views, devoting alternating chapters to each character throughout. Considering this is an overt epic fantasy, this approach keeps things focused, and Hayes deftly weaves the separate narrative strands together. As the characters’ paths start to cross, the narrative picks up some needed momentum to balance out the novel’s length. I do think the story could have been condensed to capitalise on this momentum, but everything included does contribute toward character development or the plot so this could be more of a personal preference.

On the flip side of this, because there are only three point-of-views, a lot of time is devoted to developing each character. This means more time for charting each character’s arc or journey, but I personally felt there was a problem with the consistency of the characterisation. This was most apparent with Jez the blademaster who spends most of her time flitting between not caring what others think of her and caring, between deadly skill and crippling self-doubt; at times she is shameless, and at other times deeply ashamed. It undermined her character and kept disconnecting me from the narrative. That’s not to say this kind of duality doesn’t work – it can be incredibly fertile inner conflict – but in this novel it did not come across as a justifiable character trait. But Hayes does give a certain charm to his characters – much like Joe Abercrombie’s characters in his First Law trilogy – only it never quite manages to establish them as likeable or memorable. For example, Betrim won’t live on in my mind like Abercrombie’s Bloody Nine does.

This leads on to the worldbuilding. The world isn’t given enough substance to make it truly live and breathe. It would be unfair to put this down to a lack of detail or exposition, as Hayes does provide this, but perhaps the details and the way he sketched the world just didn’t work for me; despite the details, things seem somewhat undefined. For example, in following Thanquil the witch hunter we learn about the Inquisition and their god-emperor, their central duty, but we never feel the impact of a god-emperor out in the larger world. This may be something that becomes more fleshed out in the next two books, however this first introduction to this world lacked the wonder and interest I look for in a fantasy setting.

The magic system was perhaps the most firmly established element of this world. It was handled well and given enough scope to keep things interesting and open up further possibilities for the next two books. And the tone of the book was firmly skewed toward grimdark – tough characters doing morally questionable things in a cut-throat world. Hayes does this well, and doesn’t shy away from violence, but I found the attention given to sex to be more than a little off-putting. This aspect is always framed as a product of the characters and the world they live in, but there’s such a devotion to the description of sex and the sexualisation of near enough every female in the book that I think this tipped over into being unnecessary and I did feel slightly uncomfortable reading it.

I also think The Heresy Within would benefit from another close edit to tighten the prose. The novel is written with an almost breathless enthusiasm which does bleed through into the narrative, drawing you in the more you read, but I did have to look past a number of mistakes and awkward prose at times.

Overall, I give this two out of five stars. The plot was solid and the three point-of-views deftly woven together, but I didn’t feel this was enough to compensate for the inconsistent characterisation and indistinct worldbuilding. With some more attention to the prose, another edit and less focus on sex and the sexist attitudes of some of the characters, I think I’d give this three stars. I do take into consideration that this was the author’s debut novel, and so although I won’t continue with this trilogy I’ll keep an eye out for Hayes’ future works.

Okay, but with significant detracting factors.

You can learn more about Rob J. Hayes here, and The Heresy Within is available from Amazon.co.uk here. I read the UK Kindle edition.

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