“To escape the burden of his family’s past, Whym accepts an apprenticeship with a master his parents fear and revile. He soon finds himself entangled in a web of treachery and on a perilous journey to locate a creature of myth and magic-a journey that will transform Whym and shape the future of the realm.
Meanwhile, Quint, the son of a powerful religious leader, abandons his faith to join the fight against a corrupt council. As the adviser to a remote tribe, he must find in himself the wisdom and fortitude to save the people from the invading army-and their own leaders.
Civil war looms, defeated foes plot revenge, and an ancient deity schemes to destroy them all. While navigating the shifting sands of truth, the two young men must distill what they believe, and decide on whose side they will stand in the coming conflict.”
Thanks given to the author J. Kyle McNeal for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
I heard about Birthrights (Revisions to the Truth, Book One) through social media some time ago, but I just never got around to reading it. So it was a welcome surprise when the author J. Kyle McNeal contacted me to review it.
As outlined in the blurb, Birthrights primarily follows the protagonists Whym and Quint. Although they walk different paths, the story charts both of their journeys growing up and finding their place in the world. They are repeatedly forced to challenge their own notions of morality and truth as they try to stay alive and do what they think is right. And all against the backdrop of a fantasy world where magic is thought extinct, and where war between the Council of Truth and various frontier tribes dominates the cultural landscape.
The book is marketed as epic fantasy, and it is, but I’d also argue that there’s more than a touch of grimdark to it. There aren’t any climactic battles or god-like feats of magic (though such things are referred to in the story’s past), and magic is largely absent from the first two thirds of the novel, but it seems to set up a more “epic” narrative going into the second book. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. McNeal keeps the focus on the characters and their struggles in this first instalment, giving the story a visceral, earthy quality. This is emphasised by the brutality of the world – there’s slavery, rape, human sacrifice and mutilation to name a few things. For the most part these things did serve the narrative and reflect the societies and cultures they took place in, but I couldn’t help feeling that two of the more central female characters were done a particular disservice overall, and I often found these atrocities difficult to stomach.
The story is well-written and moves at a steady pace, jumping ahead sometimes months at a time to keep things moving while also allowing time for events to unfold believably – something which can often be missing from epic fantasy. There are a host of other characters who we get POV chapters from, giving us further insight into the expanding conflict between the Council of Truth and the frontier tribes – and the web of intrigue and politicking that occurs within each faction. All of this works well, except I didn’t feel connected to either Whym or Quint. I don’t attribute this to the way either character was written necessarily, but both of their narratives are woven so deeply into McNeal’s world and the cultures within that I think the worldbuilding plays a huge role in connecting with these characters.
Unfortunately for me, I didn’t take easily to this fantasy world or its cultures. That’s not to say they aren’t well-written or fully imaged and realised – they are – but I never felt that sense of wonder that I crave from a fantasy world. I think the reason for this is partly because magic is “missing” from most of the novel, and I felt the absence like a missing tooth, but also because this story is message-driven in many ways – revolving, as you might have guessed from the series title, around the concept of truth.
At times I felt as though the world, its cultures, and the story grew from the desire to explore this concept, rather than the concept emerging as a theme from the story and characters. This may work for many readers, but I personally thought that it constrained the story and the worldbuilding and made it seem a tad contrived. However, the history of this world is there in every page, and for readers who take to this world, there’s a lot to mine and enjoy. This is helped by the addition of fragments of history, poetry, songs and religious texts at the beginning of each chapter. Admittedly, some of these were hit and miss for me – for example, the poetry felt forced in places – but it certainly adds a layer of depth to the narrative, expanding and giving insight into the world and its cultures.
Overall, I give Birthrights three out of five stars. It’s enjoyable and well-constructed, but I personally struggled to connect with the world or characters. I do think readers craving epic fantasy with a dose of grimdark will find a lot to like in Birthrights, and there’s a lot of set up for what may be a more epic-in-scope sequel. I’ll keep an eye out for the second book Broken Oaths and see where McNeal takes this story from here.