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Very rarely do I get a book, especially a fantasy book, that I really enjoy and for that, if no other reason, I can highly recommend Hope and Red (2016. 478 pages) by Jon Skovron.
The setting is a little bit of a mixture of eighteenth century ships and pirates with a smattering of more modern technology, warrior women, guns which do not require reloading between shots, served up with a side order of biological manipulation, which might be considered either fantasy or advanced science.
The world, in which the story takes place, is The Empire of Storms. The Empire consists of forty-eight islands and there is a handy map at the beginning of the book to show you their relative positions, so you can follow the plot.
The map, itself, makes little sense. If it were intended for the reader, then you will be looking at an impossible place. At least one of the islands size is described and there is a sub map showing the town where most of the action takes place. If the sizes are accurate then the planet on which the story unfolds is only about fifty mile across, which is at odd with the voyages and their duration described in the book.
There is another explanation and that is that the map was not produced for the reader, rather it is an artefact of the Empire of Storms and although the relative locations are correct whoever made the map has exaggerated the scale of the empire to make it seem more grandiose.
The novel tells the story of two children who grow up in difficult circumstances; it’s not really a spoiler to say that at some part of the novel their journeys meet.
Red has grown up on the island of New Lavern. His mother was an artist and rejected by her family and his father was a whore. Sickness takes both his parents at a very young age and he is lucky to be taken in by Sadie, an act which saves the boy’s life. His determination in life is to grow to be the most renowned thief, an ambition he ably fulfils.
Hope hails from the southern isles, a slightly more wild area of the empire and far enough away not to be bothered by either the emperor or his imperial soldiers, or so they believe. On a day when she is away from her village an imperial Biomancer, with soldiers, arrive, by the time they leave only Hope is left alive and she stows away on a ship.
Both of the main characters, as well as a lot of the ancillary characters, are extremely well drawn and developed throughout the novel. Being the first part of a series of books the novel acts as an introduction to the characters for which the author would like us to impart out empathy/sympathy and in truth this is very easy.
Red is a lovable rogue. Although he comes from a privileged position he lost all of that when his parents died. With Sadie he must blend in with the poorest that the empire have to offer. Poor they may be, but they are also proudly fierce and fond of their home. Blending in for Red often means hiding who he truly is.
In this way Hope is very similar to Red. Although she is able to sneak aboard a passing ship, she cannot stay and so Captain Sin Toa takes her to the Vinchen monastery to seek employment as a maid. Here she meets Hurlo, who is able to help her down the road to getting vengeance on the Biomancer who killed her village.
The map aside, which may be Empire propaganda, the book is a fast paced adventure mixing street fights with sea voyages, clashing armies with a truly touching story of two lost souls trying to find completion.
The book does contain a lot of slang, but it’s easy to follow and if you’re unsure there is a glossary at the back.