Displaying his versatility, Kevin Hearne turns his pen to epic fantasy in A Plague of Giants (2017), the first novel in his SEVEN KENNINGS series. It follows a large cast of characters who live in different kingdoms on a continent that has just been invaded by a race of strange-looking people who are tall, thin and white-skinned. These Bone Giants, as they come to be called, came from across the water in ships and landed in several seaside towns. Except for the one place where they were mostly destroyed by a woman whose “kenning” allowed her to control the river and prevent the landing, the Bone Giants have sacked the towns and killed all the people who lived there. They speak a different language and seem uninterested in peaceful coexistence. Why have they come and what do they want?
Meanwhile, another race of giants has also arrived on the continent as refugees after a volcano erupted on their island. The leaders of these giants have a kenning that gives them power over fire, making them extremely dangerous. They are aggressive and tricky, but pretending to be peaceful while they establish a foothold on the continent. How should they be treated?
A Plague of Giants has an unusual structure. There’s a frame story set about a year after these invasions occur. Fintan, a bard from one of the kingdoms, has come to another kingdom to tell a town full of refugees (fleeing from giants) about all the events that have occurred up to this point. His kenning gives him perfect recall and a magic device transforms him into the image of the person whose point of view he’s speaking from. In this way we are introduced to a large cast who take turns telling the invasion stories from their point of view. Some of these characters are:
- Dervan, a widowed historian who is hired to befriend the bard and write down his story. He’s a boyhood friend of his king who suspects that the bard may be a spy.
- Abhi, a young man whose family expects him to marry a young woman and become a great hunter. Abhi isn’t interested in doing either of those things, but he’s afraid to tell his family about his preferences.
- Tallynd, the widowed woman who thwarted the landing of the Bone Giants in her country.
- Gorin Mogen, the leader of the fire giants who invaded after the volcano eruption.
- Gondel Vedd, an elderly linguist with a penchant for mustard who is hired by his queen to learn to speak and read the language of the Bone Giants.
- Melischev Lohmet, the clever and sadistic viceroy of the kingdom invaded by the fire giants.
- Nel, a young woman with the plant kenning (a “greensleeve”) who is tracking and trying to thwart the fire giants.
- Kallindra, a 17-year-old merchant’s daughter who’s writing a diary.
- Meara, a stone cutter who is asked to use her magical gift to save her village.
- Culland, a man who’s lost everything and is seeking the water kenning.
The crowd of refugees and townsfolk gathers every day to hear the bard’s tale. They know some of the heroes and villains of the story only by name but, as the days go by, they learn the personal stories behind each of the character’s actions and become attached. The crowd has favorites, cheering for Abhi, especially. Abhi was one of my favorites, too, along with Gondel Vedd. (I always love an academic hero.)
Kevin Hearne’s magic system is interesting. There are seven kennings but only six are known (power over fire, earth, water, air, plants, and animals). Only a minority of people can acquire a kenning and, to do so, they have to go through a trial that they can’t prepare for. Because most people die when seeking a kenning, it’s usually people who have lost everything or who never had anything to lose that seek one.
But heavy use of the gift has a cost; those who do something spectacular with the kenning (such as controlling a river to stop an invasion) have years taken off their lives and visibly age. Not only do they give up years or decades of life, but this change has a social cost, too. Imagine a young wife who suddenly becomes an elderly woman. Some users knowingly sacrifice themselves to the kenning in service to their country. We see this happen a few times during A Plague of Giants.
A Plague of Giants is nothing like Hearne’s IRON DRUID CHRONICLES other than the inclusion of an explicit appreciation for bacon which, I think, may be a Hearne fan in-joke. A Plague of Giants is epic fantasy set in a medieval-style world, but with a modern sensibility. Men and women have similar roles, the cast is racially and sexually diverse, and nobody talks like they’re reading the King James Bible.
The plot of A Plague of Giants is episodic and some readers may feel that it doesn’t flow well because it’s being told by so many characters in a story framed by the bard’s performances. I wouldn’t disagree with this complaint, and I think fewer point-of-view characters would have improved the flow, but I admired the unique structural choices that Hearne made. I’m looking forward to finding out what happens next in book two, A Blight of Blackwings.
I’m listening to the audio versions of the SEVEN KENNINGS series which are produced by Random House Audio and read by Luke Daniels (male parts) and Xe Sands (female parts). I love both of these narrators and they do a great job, as always. While writing this review, I consulted the Kindle version (using the Amazon “Look Inside” feature) so I’d know how to spell the characters’ names and I noticed that it’s equipped with a very helpful map and a Dramatis Personae that includes drawings of the main characters. I wish I had known this because it would have been helpful when listening to my review copy of the audiobook. I checked Audible and, fortunately, found a note that there’s a pdf of this material when you purchase the audiobook there. Excellent. A Plague of Giants is 22 hours long.