the Little Red Reviewer

Servant of a Dark God, by John Brown

Posted on: February 15, 2012

Servant of a Dark God by John Brown

published in 2009

Where I got it: Library

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In this traditional yet edgy fantasy world, Talen lives with his father and his brother and sister, and all they want is to live their lives in peace.  It’s an endearing opening scene in which we meet Talen’s family. They are kind people and interesting characters, it’s too bad they are Koramites.  Treated as second class citizens by the majority Mokaddians,  Talen and his family learn to keep their heads down and silently take the insults and beatings.  Although the racism gets pretty heavy handed, not every Mokaddian is an ignorant racist fool.

I wish Brown had explained the magic system a little better. There is a short glossary in the back, and I wish it had been longer, or that it had been in the beginning of the book. When it comes to priests and magical items, there is quite a bit of infodumping at the beginning of the book regarding who these people are and how these magical items work.  So many opportunities to show me, and instead, Brown just tells me in a almost technical writing type of way.

The most common magical items are something called weaves.  Often, but not always, woven of gold or silver or vines or even hair, weaves can only be bestowed by priests, known as Divines.  Weaves allow the wearer incredible strength, or the power to control elementals, sometimes even the power to multiply themselves. But it costs fire (the years of your life) and sometimes soul to use the magical weaves. To be caught with a weave that was not given to you by a Divine is to invite Death. The Divines know their hold on power over the people is tenuous, so they will do anything to keep that power. Including scapegoating an entire race. The monsters known as Sleth eat human souls, yet can pass for one of us.


Young Talen can’t understand what is happening with his family.  First, his older siblings insist that they protect some children suspected of Slethery, and when his father is finally arrested, the man doesn’t even resist!  Talen knows the law of the city, and he knows he can increase his standing with the Mokaddians if he turns in the Sleth, dead or alive.  With the help of his cousin Nettle, Talen gets far more than he bargained for.

Meanwhile, there is a magic afoot that no human could even suspect. In the ruins of the hills lives a witch named The Mother. She’s not the only one of her kind, and as she fashions her children, she creates a homunculus named Hunger. Aptly named, he yearns to eat the souls of humans, and with every soul he eats, he gains that person’s memories.  The only thing that burns brighter than his hunger is his hatred for The Mother.

But ignorance and racism prevail, as the Mokkadians insist the Koramites are the roots of their problems. The populace refuses to believe they could have been misled by their religious rulers.

With a crazed monster on his tail, untrusting townspeople surrounding him, and  hints about a secret society, Talen needs time and information. Too bad he’ll get little of either.

As far as traditional fantasies go, Servant of a Dark God is not an overly long book.  The end is pretty intense, so it feels even shorter. That said, I was surprised at what Brown chose to spend his pages on.  I felt the world building was done in odd ways – as characters travel around we get a lot of details about what animals and trees and plants are present, even the types of clothing people are wearing.  But then when I was craving information about the magical system, the cultures, and the history of what might really be going on, Brown didn’t seem to deliver.

There are a few shining moments in this book, and trust me, they do shine. A magnificent, heart wrenching scene with Nettle and his father Argoth. A moment near the end when Talen gets an inkling of what is happening to him.  How I wish these scenes had come a little earlier! They were perfect hooks to keep me interested in a book that was becoming put-down-able.

What Servant of a Dark God suffers most from is being the first in an unfinished series. This first book is jumbled and clunky, with more questions than answers, and more confusion than closure. If I knew there were a handful more books for the story to unfold in, I’d have been much more forgiving of this first one.  Rumor has it book two is currently being held up in editing, and that’s good news, because that means there is a second book, and hopefully a third and a fourth and a fifth.

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11 Responses to "Servant of a Dark God, by John Brown"

Reading the first book in a series can be a let down sometimes since so much is built up and not much is resolved. Good thing the next book is in the works.

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If I could dive right into book 2 right now, I’d be a happy camper!! Sometimes first books in series have enough closure at the end that they can be an almost stand alone. This wasn’t one of those.

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I loved that scene with Nettle. Whenever I want to remind myself what good, emotional, writing looks like, I go back to that for some quick inspiration. I need to give this a re-read this year just to remind myself what it’s all about. I really want this series to succeed, because I see a lot of potential here for great stuff. Cool ideas, interesting magic, some solid emotional writing. I just need more of it!

I do agree about feeling like some background was missing, and other background wasn’t provided in the best way. I’m feeling the same way about Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria stuff right now, though I think Brown’s book is superior to the Riyria stuff I’ve read so far.

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omg, that scene with Nettle had me crying my eyes out! That scene proves to me that Brown has oodles and buckets of potential, he just needs to polish up the pacing a bit.

I haven’t read any Sullivan. . where is a good place to start?

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I must admit it’s never clear to me what the word “edgy” as used in your opening sentence really means. I have the same problem with the word gritty in similar usage. I know they are popular words, used frequently in book and film reviews, but I’ve never seen an actual definition of meaning as they are so used. Can you shed some light on this for me?

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Sorry about that Richard, I should have been clearer, and you’re completely right “edgy” and “gritty” are so overused these days that they have little meaning. the author took what I felt was a traditional fantasy set up. . . and then took some risks. There is a lot of blatant cultural racism in this world, and for me, that gave the story a sharper, edgier feel. Not just a fun fantasy world where some kids and their parents have a fun safe adventure. . . but a world in which even if they succeed, even if they save the city, they will still be seen as second class citizens with no rights.

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Interesting. I find it curious that he spends so much time showing and doing the Tolkien descripto-porn thing, because I’ve been meaning to read this since I came across Brown’s “The Key Conditions for Reader Suspense” series on the SFWA website. I personally found the articles to be pretty helpful in trying to come up with some focus in my own writing. I’ll still read it when I can get my hands on it.

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“Tolkein descripto-porn thing”?? What the heck is that? There’s no porn in the Tolkein books.

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I’m curious about that as well. and yes, Brown goes into buckets and buckets of descriptive detail, I just felt very little of that detail was interesting or suspenseful.

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Was just being colorful, certainly not literal, don’t mind me. All I had meant was that the tendency to write reams of detail is no longer really the trend, and it almost seems strange when a contemporary author does it. It’s been a long time since I have read any Tolkien, actually.

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I have never even of this series before… I think I will wait and see where the rest of the series goes before making any decisions.

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