Editor’s Note: This review is for the original version of Servant which was, back in 2009, titled Servant of a Dark God.
CLASSIFICATION: Servant of a Dark God is a mostly traditional epic fantasy novel in the vein of David Farland, Greg Keyes, and James Clemens, with elements of Brandon Sanderson, David Keck, and Kate Elliott.
FORMAT/INFO: Page count is 448 pages divided over 49 titled chapters, a map of the Clan Lands of Whitecliff, and a short glossary. Narration is in the third person via Talen, Sugar, Hunger, Argoth and various minor characters including the Skir Master Rubaloth. Servant of a Dark God is somewhat self-contained coming to a satisfactory stopping point, but is the first book in a series that will see at least two sequels: Curse of a Dark God and Dark God’s Glory. October 13, 2009 marks the North American Hardcover publication of Servant of a Dark God via Tor. Cover art provided by Raymond Swanland.
ANALYSIS: I love starting fantasy series, especially those written by brand new authors. Visiting a whole new secondary world; learning about new magic systems, religions, and cultures; getting to know new characters… I find it very exciting, and in this regard John Brown’s debut novel delivers. In particular, I was enthralled by the world Mr. Brown had created — a world full of strange and dark magic (Weaves, Divines, Sleth, Dreadmen, Victors, Skir, Ravelers), mysterious secrets (Grove of the Hismays, Mother), and compelling racial tensions between Mokkaddians and the slave-like Koramites. There’s a lot of information to process though, so the first half of the book can be a bit hard to follow (even with the glossary), while the frequent info-dumping sometimes affects the pacing. Creatively, the magic system possesses more than a few similarities to David Farland’s Runelords concept, but Brown introduces enough of his own ideas to keep it fresh and interesting.
As far as the writing, John Brown delivers a solid effort. The prose is a bit dry and workmanlike, but flows with a nice rhythm and pace. Characters, both the main players and the supporting ones, are well-developed for the most part and likeable — my favorite was Hunger, a sort of anti-hero comprised of the souls and personalities of different people. The narrative voices do tend to sound the same though, and Mr. Brown has a tendency to stay with one character longer than necessary before switching viewpoints. Dialogue, however, is terrific, especially the banter between characters — even if the banter sometimes occurs at inappropriate moments — and I loved the simple names (Purity, Crab, Legs, River, Leaf, Serenity, etc). One thing I really noticed about Brown is that he’s much better at writing actions scenes than emotional ones.
Story-wise, Servant of a Dark God is a fairly traditional epic fantasy setup with youthful protagonists, undiscovered abilities, characters who are not what they seem, ancient powers, forces of good and evil, and so forth. Fortunately, Brown shakes things up a bit with the Mokkaddian/Koramite dynamic, Sleth prejudice, the blurry line between good and evil, and the idea that all humans are nothing more than cattle — livestock serving higher beings. Personally, I thought the first half of the novel was excellent, with its sense of mystery, engaging world-building, and the drama faced by the characters. However, after the plot advances, secrets are revealed, and the characters converge, the story starts to falter and becomes a less interesting generic adventure tale, although the book does pick up at the end with an explosive climax and a touching epilogue.
CONCLUSION: Overall, John Brown’s Servant of a Dark God is a better-than-average entry in the field of epic fantasy, with its own set of problems and promise. Happily, the good outweighs the bad, and with improvement, John Brown could become a fantasy author to watch…