Format: oversized paperback, first edition, 2016
Reading Time: about 7 hours
Alec Hutson’s The Crimson Queen was added to my queue after reading a review of the book over at Fantasy Book Critic, where it was a Booknest Fantasy Award semi-finalist for 2017. A followup post, which contained an interview with the author, piqued my interest even more as Hutson talked about his path through self-publishing. I ordered a copy of The Crimson Queen from Amazon, and moved it to the front of the queue when I decided to mix in some new releases to queue. I was a little disappointed that it was not available in hard cover, but that is to be expected for a self-published novel. With the final whispers of the story still echoing through my mind, my review follows, complete with minor spoilers.
First things first – head over to Fantasy Book Critic and check out the plot and review summary from Mihir Wanchoo. The story is described by Mihir as “the best of Robert Jordan’s worldbuilding skills, laced with Terry Brooks’ fluid characterization and topped off with a pinch of David Gemmell’s heroic fantasy escapades.”
I completely agree with Mihir’s first assessment: there are some very strong Wheel of Time influences found here, but with Middle Eastern and Asian influences, two rival factions of sorcerers (both past and present), paladins of light, and thousands of years of history, Hutson has created an incredibly diverse and layered world. Some of that history is delivered to the reader through tales of lore, and some is delivered through characters’ discovery of books and exploration of ruins, but the biggest reveal comes through flashbacks of the immortals who were actually there, in the past, and are still walking the world in present day.
Hutson’s characters are well-developed and their motives and actions are believable. The story is told through the eyes of Keilan Ferrisorn, a fisherman’s son; Janus Balensor, a wakened immortal; Alyanna, a courtesan; Holy emperor Gerixes; Xin, a warrior-slave; Senacus, a paladin; Wen Xenxing, the Black Vizier; and Cein d’Kara, the Crimson Queen (thanks to Mihir for this list of names). Each chapter lists the name of the character whose story will be told in that section. There are many other characters that make appearances, but do not have a part in the narrative. I never felt like characters had the same voice, and some have quirky traits that make them unique. Speaking of unique, the author also creates some imaginative creatures – Genthyaki, Wraiths (different from Tolkien’s Ringwraiths), and Deep Ones – while having creatures we are familiar with such as spiders, herons and horses.
The pace is perfect, never bogging down in the details, or under pages and pages of angst. Hutson’s prose is flowing and easy to read. There were a few minor issues I had with the story. First, it’s not entirely clear how much power each sorcerer has (it varies), or even how magic works. It comes from something called the void, but that isn’t explained very well. Also, I did notice a number of grammatical mistakes – then vs. than, a dropped pronoun, and a few other mistakes that a spellcheck wouldn’t catch. In addition, there are occasionally moments where I would be reading about two male characters, then Hutson refers to “he” when some action occurred. It’s not always clear which “he” is being referred to. These grammatical issues are a byproduct of self-publishing and not having an editor, however, they are few and far between, and did not affect my enjoyment of the story. I did appreciate the breaks within the chapters, which made it very easy to find a stopping point when necessary.
I was very enthralled in the magic of Hutson’s story. The world-building, the characters, the mystery, gods, demon hunters, immortals, sorcery, ruins, shadowy assassins – there is a lot of material crammed in this book and Hutson pulls it off. Not everything is original…a coming of age story lies at the heart, the antagonist finds hidden reserves of power to force the plot where it needs to go, and some elements were predictable (I knew who one mysterious character was immediately). But I hated to put the book down. I couldn’t wait to learn more about the world’s history and the Crimson Queen, to see which characters (and creatures) would intersect, and to follow young Keilan’s adventure. The ending comes fast and furious, and features copious amounts of action in the form of sorcery and sword fights. As the pieces of the past slide into place and much of the mystery is revealed, I was even more impressed at not only Hutson’s world building, but also in the way that events of the past connect to the present.
In summary, The Crimson Queen is the best book I’ve read in a long time. It’s inconceivable to me how this was not a finalist, much less a winner, of the Booknest Fantasy Awards. I’m looking forward to the sequel with great anticipation. Highly recommended to those who love epic fantasy, magic and adventure, and imaginative world-building.