The Black Coast, by Mike Brooks, is the hardest type of book to read and review. There are a variety of different aspects of this fantasy story that I like greatly, but many of them are hampered by noticeable problems with the writing. The book was compelling enough that I absolutely wanted to finish it, but not engaging enough that it was smooth sailing. I found myself sitting down repeatedly for short twenty-page sessions when I got burned out due to frustrations with the text. But, I kept coming back because I wanted to find out what happened. It’s got some great messages that I agree with, but it delivers them in a hamfisted method that is about as subtle as a brick to the face. The Black Coast, the first book of The God-King Chronicles, is all over the place.
The premise of The Black Coast, at least, is promising and remains captivating from start to finish. What we have here is a good old-fashioned culture clash, with some new twists. The story takes place in a coastal empire that is often plagued by raiders from pirate-infested islands in the sea. These pirates have always been an unorganized pile of backstabbing marauders, but when an undead drauger starts to unite them by force under its banner, one of the pirate clans decides they’re uninterested in slavery with extra steps. They flee their island homeland and head to the only place they can imagine is safe – the shores of their longtime enemies and raiding targets. The reception they receive is anything but warm, but seeing as the raiders’ alternative is to go back and be enslaved – and the coastals (which is what I am referring to the people from the mainland empire going forward) choices are ‘get along or die by raiders’ – they are determined to find a way to make it work. And that IS what this book is primarily about, two long-standing peoples who hate one another committed to working together. The pirate horde led by an undying battle champion is very obviously shelved on a very high ledge with foreshadowingly pointy edges for the second book, and we are left to watch a sort of slice of life fantasy where Vikings and coastal British must find a way to coexist.
There are clear positive and negative elements of this culture clash. Positive: the cultures of the two people are set up in an interesting and dynamic way that feels like it fosters natural animosity that doesn’t paint either as the good or evil party. And the cultures themselves are pretty fascinating. They have some complex ideas about things like honor and purpose that are fun to discover. The entire story is painted in broad streaks of grey and it manages to often be clever in how it kaleidoscopically shifts between who could be right or wrong at any given moment – but not always. Negative: sometimes the groups have awkward issues that feel way too heavy-handed. For example, one of the two nations is extremely sexist and the other is extremely homophobic. It doesn’t even feel slightly nuanced and it functions as a very lazy fulcrum by which to elevate the idea that ‘all people have problems, and if we just sat down and talked we could fix everything’. The Black Coast is performing best when it is coming up with savvy ways to connect cultural differences. Sweeping these lazy boulder-sized problems just get swept under the rug with minimal effort is problematic to the immersion.
Similarly, the characters are a mixed bag. The leads are all fun and complex enough to keep me interested. Daimon, head of the coastals, is struggling with the fact that he betrayed his adoptive family. When the raiders arrived, he took control of the situation and kept everyone from getting killed. He provides a refreshing perspective from an adoptive child with a great internal struggle, and I enjoyed his practicality and clear-headed thinking greatly. Saana, head of the raiders, is struggling with the fact that her people just want to… well, raid, and she seems to be the only one who can tell that that is not a good long-term strategy. She feels like the only student who did the homework in an unruly class who is trying to keep everyone out of trouble. I didn’t know “Viking Mom” was going to be a trope that I loved, but I am here for it.
However, there are additional POVs that caused a dissonance while reading and didn’t feel as enmeshed in the themes I’ve mentioned. These narratives are told by the sister to a king and a poor thief. The sister’s story feels wildly disconnected from what is happening with the culture clash, and the thief’s story falls off a cliff and isn’t heard from again two-thirds of the way through the book. On top of this, some of the supporting cast, like Saana’s close friends in the clan and Daimon’s brother, are well developed, but others are looking to set records in lack of character depth. Daimon’s father is a fairly pivotal character to the story and has a number of scenes with dialogue. Yet in all of them, all of them, he only says one thing, “my adoptive son has no honor and needs to die.” It is exhausting and really starts to drag on you after a while. Many of these characters simply exist to push the narrative in the direction Brooks needed it to go and it is easy to see the author’s agenda behind the choices thanks to his heavy hand. It absolutely shatters the immersion of a book for me when you can see the author forcing the story to go in certain directions.
The best thing I can say about The Black Coast is that it is different and original enough that it kept me interested from start to finish. The premise is interesting, and the execution is reasonably well done. Yet, the book is held back due to the heavy hand the author has in pushing the story along and would have benefited from a much lighter touch. I still recommend you check it out if the premise appeals to you, but know that you will have to take the good with the bad.
Rating: The Black Coast – 6.5/10