This week I get to do one of my absolute favorite things, talk about a new dark horse on the 2017 release list. I love magic systems, and today’s book has not one, not two, but three original magical systems to sink your teeth into. Soul of the World is a debut novel by David Mealing that has taken me completely by surprise. I had heard almost nothing about this book until someone handed me an advanced copy, and I was blown away by how much I enjoyed it. As such, I am making it my miniature mission to shout to all of you how much fun it is because while you may not have heard of it, it is definitely worth checking out.
They say when you write your first book you should start small, which is apparently a saying that Mealing did not care about. Soul of the World is a huge epic fantasy and just the opening chapter of a complicated and interesting world. The book is set in a semi-alternate history American revolutionary war, except that the English and the French have switched places in the story. The book is initially very confusing with regards as to what is going on, but it is still a blast to read as you try to get your feet on solid ground. Our plot follows three protagonists, each a paragon of one of the three magic systems and a window into three different factions in our story. What is actually happening in the book is a bit of a spoiler, and a mystery I greatly enjoyed unraveling, so instead I am going to focus on the character and magic for this review. Strap in, it’s going to be much longer that usual but I promise you this is worth your time.
First, we have Sarine, a street artist living in the ghettos of the new world using her unique magical talents to survive and scrape out a living. I immediately fell in love with her as a lead and always looked forward to her chapters. Sarine’s magic revolves around a Kaas, a snake/basilisk-like familiar that allows her to manipulate the emotions of those around her. Usually I am not a fan of ‘mind control’ magic as it can make conflict resolution too easy, but Mealing’s take on the concept is much more up my alley. Sarine’s Kaas familiar can influence others, but only by broadcasting things like anger to incite riots, or emanating tranquility to calm a crowd. It is a much less precise form of emotional control than I have seen before – and Mealing uses it to create some interesting situations. Sarine is a solitary, and rather sad, character who spends most of her time talking with her familiar. Her sweet nature and strong moral code won my heart quickly and I enjoyed her story through the entire book.
Second we have Arak’Jur, a tribesman who functions as a Native American surrogate. Originally Arak’Jur was my least favorite lead, but by the end of the book he was easily my favorite. A large part of the book revolves around huge and dangerous magical beasts that roam the continent our characters inhabit. While the English/French live behind a giant magical barrier that keeps the beasts out, the natives have human guardians who protect their tribes by killing the beasts. When a beast is killed, the guardian may beseech the spirit of the animal to give them a boon if the animal was impressed with the guardian’s prowess. These boons allow the guardian to channel some aspect of the beast for a short period of time. I. Love. This. Magic. I cannot begin to express how invested I got in Arak’Jur’s story once I got to see how his magic worked. Mealing is incredibly inventive with his magical beasts, and every time I opened to one of Arak’Jur’s chapters I was bouncing in my chair with excitement to see the next creature that Mealing had made, and what new amazing power that Arak’Jur might get. My original problem with Arak’Jur was he seemed to be a cliche depiction of a Native American and I was going to lambast Mealing for not making him more complex. However, as I spent more time with this stoic and stubborn man I found his personality to be deeper than I originally gave him credit for, and I grew to be more attached to him than anyone else. He can feel like a stick in the mud sometimes, but if you stick with him he will blossom.
The third and final lead is Erris, and I ended up liking her the least despite her having probably the most original of all the magic systems. My problem with Erris was less with her as a character, and more with the fact that she is a high ranking officer in the French military and as a result her chapters highly revolve around military strategy. I am a fan of strategy and tactics, but I felt that a decent number of Erris’s passages could drag as they were bogged down by logistical minutia. However, her magic is called binding and is based on territorial control – which is awesome. Binders are born with access to a few of the many ley lines running throughout the world – and each country in the story has access to a number of leylines equal to the size of their territorial control. This creates this weird and awesome need to keep expanding the size of your country and made conflict constantly feel natural and inevitable. Binders can sense pockets of power around them that gather when the corresponding emotion or aspect is concentrated in that location. The easiest example of this is if a lot of people die someone, Death binders will find a pocket of ‘Death’ to fuel their magic. I am not doing this system enough justice with this paragraph, trust me it is cool.
On top of having just a ridiculous number (3) of magic systems, our characters gain an insane number of powers as the book progresses. In most fantasy novels I have read, you might have a protagonist find one or two new powers in a story and then spend the entire book contemplating how it changes their lives. I kept a counter next to me as I read Soul of the World, and by the halfway mark the protagonists had collectively gained over twenty new powers. If you had asked me what I thought of characters gaining that many new powers before reading this, I would have said I bet the story devolves into an incoherent mess. But, while Soul of the World certainly gets messy, it is a mess that is fun to roll around in that has a clear underlying cohesion that runs through it. Things get really exciting when characters start combining their powers, adding endless freshness to the combat, and when some characters start mixing the different magic systems I was clawing at the pages with unbridled joy.
While I have just given you a truck load of reasons to go out and buy this debut immediately, I would be remiss if I didn’t also do my job and talk about its flaws. The combat is thrilling, but the general prose of the book could definitely use some polish. As I was reading Soul of the World I could definitely tell that this was Mealing’s first book and some of his word choice, phrasing, and dialogue could be improved a little bit. However, this is very typical of a first novel in my experience and I am sure that as he continues to churn out more awesome books his authorial voice will only get better.
Soul of the World is a magical book, almost overflowing with originality. The few problems I had with the narrative were vastly outweighed by the fascinating world, fun characters, and captivating magic that pervade the story. I have no doubt that this book will be considered a hidden gem for the next few months, but I hope that with help from myself and others, enough people will pick this up to give it the attention it deserves. The Quill to Live definitely recommends you give David Mealing, and Soul of the World, a chance.
Rating: Soul of the World – 8.5/10