The Great Hearts by David Oliver is the first book I read for TBRindr, the indie author and reviewer matching service hosted by The Weatherwax Report. If you are interested in reviewing and thus supporting indie authors, definitely check out this service!
First of all, look at this stunning cover! It immediately sets the mood for the story and made me want to pick up the book asap!
This book is categorized as grimdark and thus contains topics such as rape, cannibalism and mutilation. Keep that in mind if you are easily triggered by these topics.
The story follows the Calidan Darkheart, Imperator of the Empire, and tells the story of how he became the Emperor’s pawn. Calidan and his childhood friend Cassius have to flee when savage raiders invade their small village nestled in the mountains and sacrifice almost everyone to an otherworldly demon. On his journey to revenge, he meets a mystical beast, joins the military, finds friends, trains as part of the Emperor’s elite and embarks on a dangerous quest that reveals much about the past of the known world.
Without revealing too much about the world, the concept reminded me of the world in Markswoman by Rati Mehrotra or even The Tearling trilogy by Erika Johansen. However, the element I’m referring to plays only a minor role in this story and would spoil some of the revelations later on.
This is a coming-of-age story and thus training, first in the military and later in the Emperor’s Academy, plays a big part in the story, but that’s not what made me fall in love with the story. There are break chapters of Imperator Calidan Darkheart and Cassius in between Calidan’s narration of his past that are just purely action-packed and entertaining. This concept is so well-elaborated because it made me so curious about how the two of them became the hard-hearted killers they seem to be now.
The world itself is a typical fantasy setting with only a small amount of magic. Especially during his time at the Emperor’s Academy, Calidan meets a lot of people who are able to wield magic in battle. Some can even bond to magic-infused weapons via tattoos on their arms, which is a pretty cool concept. One of my favourite aspects of the book was definitely Calidan’s bond with a huge panther called Seylantha. She is ancient, very intelligent and Calidan can communicate with her mentally. Additionally, she enhances his abilities and even trains him and Cassius in stealth and combat.
It’s always great to meet new, interesting creatures in fantasy worlds and Oliver managed to include even a lot of them. First and foremost, I want to mention Seylantha, the Great Heart. I love animal companions in books and she is not only huge and intelligent, but there is also a mystery surrounding her origin that keeps your interest peaked throughout the book. Then there are vile creatures such as Thyrkan who are humanoid creatures with scaled flesh and red eyes that don’t have a mind of their own but rely on a kind of officer to coordinate their actions. Another very fascinating concept is that the Emperor seems to fuse people with dangerous creatures to enhance their abilities but makes them prone to loose their mind and fall into a kind of uncontrolled frenzy.
I didn’t give this book a full 5-star rating in part due to its improvable characterization and character interaction. I had the feeling that there wasn’t a clear enough distinction between Calidan and his friends and people of higher rank such as the military general Kyle or even the Emperor.
Since the origin story is told by Calidan himself, we don’t get an unbiased view of him. He and Cassius both loose their parents during the raid on their village and he witnesses how the villagers are getting tortured and slaughtered, which is surely not easy to come to terms with for an eleven-year-old, but isn’t very prominent further on. He is very curious, which leads in the end to his bond with Seylantha, and doesn’t shy from the things that need to be done.
Cassius on the other hand is a very charismatic, bright and friendly child with a distinct sense of injustice. At the beginning of the novel we meet the adult Cassius who is a mute giant and doesn’t seem to be in his right mind anymore. Who wouldn’t want to know how exactly this stark change in character came from?
This is David Oliver’s debut novel, which makes it even more impressive in my eyes. There are a lot of sentences at the end of chapters that are heavy with meaning and supposed to foreshadow certain events that were used a bit too much in my opinion, but apart from that I liked the overall writing. With under 400 pages, it’s rather short for a fantasy book and I immediately wanted to know what happens next in Calidan’s story. If you like grimdark, military fantasy with a coming-of-age story, giant animal companions and great fighting scenes, definitely do yourself a favour and check out The Great Hearts!
Thank you to David Oliver for providing me with a copy of his book. All opinions are my own.