Kira Vidal is a Deadbringer. His touch brings rot, death and destruction to anything that comes into direct contact with his skin — human flesh disintegrates, metal turns to rust. Kira can also ‘summon’ death and put flesh and life back to that which is no more.
Kira’s an orphan. As is often the case in this fantasy trope, the lone wanderer seeks his past, family and the truth of his power, and has grown in a world with ‘parental ambiguity’. In Kira’s case, his father is a mystery and his mother is dead. Kira lives with his uncle Eutau in the north of Moenda, a region ruled by The Bastion. The Bastion exists in an unsteady peace with the large militaristic entity in the south known as The Ascendency — a political entity with a very cold-war-Soviet vibe.
Rookie author E.M. Markoff shows herself more than capable in cobbling together the first in her planned Ellderet series. While Markoff builds the history and mythology for her world, The Deadbringer revolves around the exploration of Kira’s backstory and power and the secrets and mysteries that insinuate themselves throughout his family.
Markoff introduces us to an ugly period in the recent past called The Purging. The Ascendency sent their specialized troops, called Sanctifiers, to destroy all Deadbringers and their Dolls, the pseudo-living beings ‘risen’ under the control of their Deadbringers.
A Deadbringer’s Doll had fake eyes that never blinked and were vacant and glassy. Their skin was lusterless, and their lower arms and hands were often discolored, as if they had been dipped in deep red dye.
During The Purging, the Bastion fought back against the Ascendancy’s offensive but was ultimately unsuccessful, and Kira appears to be the only Deadbringer still in existence. Few people know of Kira’s secret, and Kira has only elementary understanding of his skill:
I don’t want to fall in love and then wind up accidentally killing them. I’m not very skilled a controlling this ability of mine.
Kira’s powers are inadvertently exposed and The Ascendency goes on the hunt, which flushes Kira and Eutau from their home. They head south in search of a past safe haven, but also into the waiting maw of the Ascendency. The hunt is led by a rather colorful quartet of Sanctifiers. Kristoff and Marya are siblings of the Kataru race, able to form weapons from their own blood. They’re partnered with the exceedingly eccentric E’sinea, a being of shockingly violent power, but with the mentally of child. His ‘apprentice’ is the powerful Amonos. These four Sanctifiers are big, bad and hard-core. They thrive on killing Deadbringers and have experience to back up their considerable skills.
I found the first third of The Deadbringer a bit clumsy. The writing is capable and clear, and Kira and Eutau are drawn reasonably well, but the pacing and initial forays into backstory are a bit awkward. Markoff makes a significant turn shortly after the chase for Kira and Eutau begins. Like Kira drawing the dead to life, Markoff puts more flesh on her characters and her world starts to breath on its own. Starting as cold, one-dimensional killers, the four Sanctifiers quickly grow beyond the bounds of their initial introduction and carry the development of the story in equal weight with the Vidals.
Elements of well-known fantasy stories pervade The Deadbringer. Markoff has drawn her own beautiful map of the Land of Moenda, reminiscent of the vertically oriented landmass of George R.R. Martin’s Westeros. The colorful names of her world are suggestive of Tolkein’s own Middle Earth: Forged River, Winged Serpents Dirge, The God’s Spears. Markoff strives to develop a landscape that’s core to the character of the story, but is just a bit off the mark. Even so, she’s written a full world with its own history, geography, allies, factions, and creatures of all sorts. At a shade under 300 pages, though, Markoff has done a remarkable job launching a brightly colored and multi-faceted journey.