Ridiculously simplified summary: A prince joins a monastery to serve the god Eidon, and to hide from his responsibility to the kingdom. But Abramm is sold into slavery, forced to compete in deadly games for the entertainment of others. Can Abramm find Eidon amidst the carnage of the arena?
Content: This is a Christian fantasy, so you know the hero will come to a knowledge of this world's version of Jesus. It is interesting that His followers are basically given the ability to do light-based magic.
First--and this didn't hit me until a couple weeks after reading--there's an interesting allegory/possible explanation for the fact that in our world, many of the people who claim to be Christians are jerks. Most fantasies I've read (which tend towards children's fiction, granted), the Christians are great and the non-Christians are evil, so it's a realistic take. (Though darker than I like to see...frankly, it was darker than most secular books I've read, which surprised me.)
As reviews have stated, the main character (called Abramm through most of the book) has premarital sex. I wasn't offended by a young man probably in his late teens being interested in women, but I was shocked he went through with it. I don't think the act is glorified, but I didn't see it condemned here. In fact, Abramm marks it off as the last vow of the Order that he's broken (two others being a vow not to eat meat and a vow not to use weapons). Breaking these other "arbitrary" vows turned out to be Eidon's will, so I don't feel like it was "bad" to break the last vow. Admittedly, reviews indicate the guilt comes up in later books, but I didn't see it in this one.
Finally, as some reviews have said, there is some sexism. I believe there are only three female characters (one very minor)--two love interests for our hero, and then his sister, who has several scenes in her point of view. I don't like how any of them were treated in the book.
It was a bit disturbing to me that the dark-skinned desert dwellers keep slaves, veil their women and treat them as chattel, live in filthy cities, and (per Abramm's sister) eat disgusting food. The Erushites reminded me of the Telmarines of Narnia's The Horse and His Boy, except this book was published in 2003, not 1954. Not all Erushites are bad, but their whole culture is evil, in contrast with the white-skinned heroes'.
(And speaking of sexism and violence, the Erushites are unfailingly hospitable--so much so that when a man comes to visit, he's welcome to sleep with the master's daughters, wives, or slaves (!).)
Compelling: 8 out of 10. The book started slow with a lot of exposition pertaining to a sect that is barely relevant for the rest of the book, though it could come up in the rest of the series. What kept me reading initially was the mystery of why the Terstans--the book's Evangelicals--are plagued with madness and eye diseases.
Things pick up as the book progresses. The battles in the arena were overall brilliant--the fights as shows and entertainment, complete with costumes, reminded me of "The Hunger Games," though Hancock's book predates it by several years. Once the Games were done, I lost some interest but had no trouble finishing.
Characters: 6 out of 10. Abramm has a knack for ignoring the obvious, which can be frustrating. Abramm's sister makes almost exclusively poor decisions. Though I know Abramm is the change character, I would have much rather read from the point of view of almost any other characters besides him and his sister.
Shettai, the woman Abramm falls in love with, is an interesting mystery who I felt was never explained. I feel like she was in place almost exclusively to affect Abramm's emotions. Overall, I wanted to see more of the minor characters and less of the main ones.
Writing/editing: 9 out of 10. Technically, the book was quite well-written. Some of the descriptions were over-detailed, but that's standard for fantasy. There are some good lines, such as "An only slightly exaggerated rendition of the latest trends in Kiriathan fashion, it was so copiously trimmed with ribbons and lace he felt like a cloth merchant's notions rack."
Unfortunately, the Kindle version had occasional misplaced dashes in-between words. The chapter advance function did not function properly on my copy, which made reviewing difficult.
Plausibility/believability: 4 out of 5. The plot twists at the end felt kind of rushed, and I thought there were too many of them. Some of the trainers for the Games were bizarrely evil, attacking even those who succeeded in their battles.
However, the world was richly detailed. (Even though I would never want to visit it. Probably not even if I were a man!) There was a lot of thought put into this book.
Positive: 2 out of 5. Yes, Eidon has a plan for the world--or at least for Abramm. But as I mentioned above, this is a dark book. Some of the scenes were terrifying and/or disgusting. Giant flying monsters decapitating people are some of the milder terrors. Also, many who bore the Terstan shield on their chest had terrifying insanity and/or nauseating eye conditions. The book was earthier than I expected, too--within the first five chapters Abramm wets himself, and he spends a good deal of the book either naked or in a loincloth.
Gut reaction: 2 out of 5. It was a compelling read, but I felt a little dirty reading it. Some of the terrifying details haunted me for days. The treatment of women also rankles me, though I know that's not abnormal for fantasy. And it was hard to get into the characters when the ones I liked best were glossed over.
Bonus points: 5 out of 5.
Recommended for: Fans of secular, adult epic fantasy novels who don't mind Christian allegory.
Probably not good for: Catholics (anti-Church content); young teens (too violent); people who admit to enjoying Christian romance novels (the romance is not at all satisfying by Christian romance criteria).
Total Rating: 3.6 out of 5 stars
(Disclaimer: I received this book for free on Amazon.com)