– goodreads –
There’s one very simple and shallow reason I picked up this book: I wanted antelope familiars, pets, or mounts in my fantasy (mostly thanks to a certain livecam I’ve been enjoying this year). This sounded the best out of the few recs I got, it works for the Set in Africa Bingo square and as a bonus, the antelopes mentioned were kudu. Unfortunately, even though it really is a pretty good book and definitely one fans of epic fantasy would enjoy a lot, I didn’t count on my inability to handle big multi-POV epics.
Magic is considered women’s work and fighting men’s, but Salo wants nothing more than to become a mystic despite the stigma. When his wish comes true, he is sent on a journey north to gather information for his queen. His story is entwined with that of Ilapara, a female warrior looking for work, and Isa, a young princess.
If you like epic fantasy, especially the kind with magic systems, Scarlet Odyssey will be just up your alley. It has quite a few of the standard elements – a boy with a secret talent, a bunch of misfits on a quest, scheming antagonists who want to send the world to war (maybe?) – with a somewhat darker, bloodier twist, especially to the magic. Not overly so, the protagonists remain very sympathetic so far, but there’s a lot of fairly brutal deaths and likely more to come.
The main star of the book and what I was really interested in is definitely the worldbuilding. It’s strongly southern African-inspired, which I absolutely loved, with magical technology and people riding half-animal half-metal antelopes (sable antelope is mentioned in addition to kudu, if anyone else but me cares) or okapi or zebroids instead of horses. Even if there wasn’t quite enough of the antelopes for my taste until fairly late in the book, I’m glad that they were there at all (and I know that’s my obsession-du-jour talking but fantasy should have more of that – did you know that unicorns may be based on oryx?). There are also hints of a larger world outside of the region the book takes place in and I couldn’t help but be intrigued by that too.
The magic is one of those types that are kind of like programming. If you like magic systems, there you go. The strength of each magic user depends on the kind of supernatural-approved IDE, so to speak, they manage to build when they start out (Salo, of course, has the best one there is), but it was mercifully light enough on technical descriptions of what’s going on and retained enough of the mystery to keep me from being bored and annoyed.
However: I have a really hard time with epic fantasy currently and this was no exception. I was struggling, I never felt emotionally connected to the story or the characters, and it took me a lot longer than it should. There are a lot of POVs and it takes a long time for Salo to leave his village, and even more for all the POVs to become relevant to each other. And since all the antagonists and other higher powers like Salo’s queen are all being quite cryptic and our protagonists aren’t aware of anything except what’s right in front of their noses, the stakes and the overall plot of the series also aren’t clear, even by the end.
Despite all of that, I still kind of want to read the sequels. I’m not sure when will I manage and I know I’ll struggle too, but I still want more of the world, still want to see where the story goes. So take this however you will.
Recommended to: epic fantasy fans, those who like magic systems, anyone looking for good worldbuilding and African SFF
Not recommended to: those bothered by slow pacing with lots of POVs or violence
Content warnings: some gruesome torture, deaths of children, overall rather gory