Book Review: God of Broken Things by Cameron Johnston

God of Broken Things

Format:  paperback, first edition, 2019

Pages:  312

Reading Time:  about 8 hours

One Sentence Synopsis: Edrin Walker has survived a battle with gods and monsters and saved his city, only to find out that he must lead a suicide mission to his birthplace to fight off Skallgrim invaders, powerful creatures of horror…and his grandmother.

 

Cameron Johnston’s The Traitor God was tied for my top read of 2018, and absolute thrill ride that earns a spot in my all-time favorites. God of Broken Things is the sequel, in which Johnston promised that he would be “dialing up the monsters and magic to 12“. So was he successful? Read on to find out, but expect to encounter some spoilers, as well as several for The Traitor God, which I recommend you read before reading this review. For a good synopsis of the story, check out Mark Everett Stone’s review over at new york journal of books. Now, on to the guest reviews from cyberspace…

 

Dr. Dann Lewis of Grimdark Magazine says: “Johnston’s way with words is another thing that I must mention. The base description within the generic grimdark story revolves around “action, blood, sex, magic, monsters, more action, blood, and more sex”. At times there is little to no nuisance, and this is where Johnston excels above his luminaries. To read passages such as: ‘The Scarrabus shrieked in rage…as their god-beast fell to earth, burning and unconscious, its vast mind a fragmented thing drained of all magic…they slammed through the skin of the world and its fiery blood spewed into the sky’ and ‘flesh burst in a welter of blood and from his insides a god came forth…my guts churned and my Gift burned as if I stood too close to an inferno’, not only depict the world as gritty and dark, but as magical, volatile, and bleak. Broken Things is filled to the brim with such little details that build upon Johnston’s already wonderful world…Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed Broken Things, there were some parts that detracted from Johnston’s novel. The language itself was a little derivative and while his description and worldbuilding was spot on, the characters’ vernacular and narration was, at times, tedious. This was disappointing and distracted me considerably as, more often than not, wonderful tidbits of detail was placed next to lines such as ‘Oh. Fucking. Shite. I suddenly needed to piss. Badly.’. The wittiness and banter does add a layer of levity much needed in Broken Things, but there were many instances where the levity took on a life of its own. The swearing did also border on being quite juvenile and not befitting such a fantasy realm, but that may in fact be a personal qualm of mine. The characters were, unfortunately, mostly forgettable, though that might be the fault of being in the shoes of Edrin Walker. As a first-person novel, the reader is beholden to whatever the protagonist wants to see, feel, taste, and describe, and this in no exception in Broken Things.

Nick T. Borrelli of Out Of This World SFF Reviews states: “Where the first book was more of a slow-burn that focused on Edrin in somewhat of a detective role trying to uncover the identity of the murderer of his best friend, GOD OF BROKEN THINGS puts a boot on your throat from page one and never lets up. It’s very rare that you get a second book that actually has even more action and thrills than the first, but this fits that bill. Normally second books are methodical and used as a setup for the breathtaking and riveting final book finish. Yeah, not so much here…Johnston has just gotten better and better as a storyteller and his characters continue to have incredible depth and personality that you don’t see in many fantasy books these days. Yes, Edrin is still a wiseguy who believes he can get out of any situation, but he also has a vulnerability that makes him sympathetic and endearing. ..The ruined city of Setharis is described in such amazing detail as we get to see and feel the devastation that led to its fall and the subsequent aftermath. Yet we also get a sense that it may rise again one day and here is where Johnston hints at a bit of hope in the midst of enormous hopelessness. I can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed this book.

Finally, T. Eric Bakutis of The Fantasy Hive opines: “On the surface, God of Broken Things is a war story, and the ways Johnston leverages his already interesting magic system into the punches and counterpunches of a running magical military battle is one of the most entertaining parts of the book. If there’s one thing Walker’s good at, it’s coming up with nasty tricks and traps to slay his enemies, yet this time, the enemy is just as devious and clever as he is. Worse yet, Walker has traitors within his ranks waiting to backstab him the moment they get the chance. The running battles of the book are a highlight that showcase Johnston’s cool magic system. However, Johnston’s book is much more than a series of riveting battles and explosions. As Walker’s situation gets more desperate, we gain further insight into the events that shaped him into the dickish yet sympathetic jerk he’s become. We also (finally!) learn the true origin of Walker’s demon dagger and his history with his witchy brethren, and watch him move beyond vengeance to truly caring about people outside of his circle of friends. He grows both as a person and a leader. By the time the book careens toward its close, the stakes have risen beyond even Walker’s worse fears. The final clash between Walker and the leader of the opposing army is as epic as the flesh kaiju battle from the first book, and just as satisfying. And as is typical for Walker, the choices he makes in the end leave almost everyone incredibly pissed off, which is just the way he’d want it…If you enjoy bloody, highly tactical magic battles, a slow burn demonic history reveal, and a grumpy and relatable jerk who you can’t help but root for despite his flaws, God of Broken Things is your jam.

 

The city of Setharsis as a setting appears as a fraction of the story this time around, as Edrin Walker heads out to the mountains of the Clanholds to do battle with the invading Skallgrim. I found this slightly disappointing, as the open terrain is an inferior setting compared to that of Walker’s hometown, which I absolutely loved in the first book. Also, in a setting of this magnitude, it’s impossible to maintain the insane pace of the first book, since there is much more traveling and strategic battle planning involved. Still, I applaud Johnston for trying something different from his first plot. Equivalent in many ways to our own Celt society, the Clanfolk seemed to be more than just barbarians despite their primitive beliefs and simple lifestyle. While there, we get a glimpse into Walker’s past (he grew up in the Clanholds), including the sadistic grandmother that caused so much damage to him when he was younger.

Walker travels with a group of misfit mages to aid him in his mission. This was possibly the least believable aspect of the story, as Walker’s quest is billed as a desperate attempt to stall the Scarrabus parasites, and yet the Arcanum gives him little assistance to get the job done, asking for volunteers to accompany him instead of assigning them. The volunteers that step forward are flawed just like Walker is, but their skills are complimentary to one another and the group ends up being greater than the sum of its parts. To add a bit of a twist and some mystery, an unknown member of the group is very likely a traitor, which is a problem that must be solved in the midst of trying to stop the Skallgrim invasion.

The supporting characters are fleshed out just enough to make you care about them, although each deserves a little more page time to explore their personality and past. In his review, Dr. Dann points out:

The characters were, unfortunately, mostly forgettable, though that might be the fault of being in the shoes of Edrin Walker. As a first-person novel, the reader is beholden to whatever the protagonist wants to see, feel, taste, and describe, and this in no exception in Broken Things.

This is a really great observation. When a supporting character in the story was lost, I had a feeling of disappointment, but not really grief, as I didn’t really bond as strongly to them as I would have with more development involved. One way that Johnston could have overcome this is through more interaction between Walker and his coterie. Through direct dialog, more of each character’s personality would come through, we’d learn more about their background and what makes them tick. Maybe we’re not supposed to care about them – Walker certainly doesn’t (for the most part) – but dammit, just because Walker doesn’t, that shouldn’t mean that I don’t. I wanted to feel the loss of these people, for their lives to matter more. I do want to thank Johnston for bringing back a prominent character that I really enjoyed in the first book, and one that I did care about…Johnston did well with that character, and no I won’t spoil it.

While the pacing is fine and the battle strategies and large scale combat taking place on open terrain are interesting, as I mentioned above the pacing isn’t as thrilling as that of the first book, and the plot is not as tight. In fact, there are several diversionary scenes, including interacting with gods and powerful beings on other planes of existence that take the story on an odd tangent. Combined with the downtime of traveling (since the landscape isn’t really anything groundbreaking), the book drags a bit more than The Traitor God.

Walker himself is still the snarky, self-preserving arse that he was in the first book, but you don’t go through what he did without some changes happening. Always the reluctant hero, he is a bit more willing to embrace the role this time around, and actually displays some leadership skills in running his band of misfits on their suicide mission. The ability to “think outside the box” and come up with clever solutions to problems while still maintaining his self-preservation motivation is quite the balancing act, and Johnston manages to pull it off, which is no simple feat.

The trio of enemies – Skallgrim, Scarrabus and Elder Tyrant – work well as a foil to Walker. And Walker’s meet up with his grandmother is satisfying as well. The ending was a bit predictable to me, and there’s something that I thought didn’t make sense. Here I will post a SPOILER ALERT – YOU SHOULD SKIP TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH! After the battle, when Walker’s mind inhabits a new body, that body just vanishes from the battlefield, only to reappear later somewhere far away. I’m not really clear as to how this was possible, but maybe I just missed something?

In conclusion, I’d have to say that I really liked God of Broken Things. While I don’t think that Johnston was quite able to dial the magic and monsters up to 12, and that The Traitor God was a bit better, I still enjoyed this new story immensely. I know Johnston values honest critiques and I offer up some minor ones here to build him up, not tear him down. Walker is a dark and yet likable hero and narrator, and God of Broken Things could still end up being my favorite release in 2019. I’ve heard some people say they can’t wait for the next one, while others are stating that Edrin Walker’s tale ends here. On his blog (see the “Cameron Writes” link in my sidebar), Johnston drops some hints that this might indeed be the end. I would be disappointed by that, but I also think Johnston would never say never, and at some point he’ll have a new idea rolling around in his head while he’s smithing swords, drinking ale or walking among ruins. He did state on my site in the interview we did (prior to the release of The Traitor God) that “if only The Traitor God does well enough to get a book 2 & 3“, which means book 3 *is* possible. I hope that’s the case because I’d love to see more of Edrin Walker and Setharis in the future…

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