Tim Lebbon’s name keeps cropping up in chats with speculative fiction fans, so when I saw this book on the shelves, I decided it would be worth a read.
Kel Boon thinks he has managed to escape his past as an agent in the secret organisation the Core, protecting the blissfully unaware Noreelans from the threat of the lizard-like Strangers – creatures from beyond the known world capable of untold destruction. In the sleepy fishing village of Pavmouth Breaks, Kel has become a woodcarver, leaving fighting behind and forming a tentative relationship with trainee witch Namior. But a storm is brewing and at its centre the witches sense something dark and deadly. What follows the wake of the storm threatens the Noreelans’ very way of life. With the people and land he loves in terrible danger, Kel quickly realises that he cannot escape his past.
Yes… I know it sounds fairly run of the mill – but it isn’t. For starters, Lebbon is excellent at delivering tension-filled fear without slowing down the action – partly because he is an extremely competent writer who keeps all the action centred around Kel and Namior. The terrible storm and the havoc it wreaks on the fishing community is very well portrayed as the villagers struggle to come to terms with the devastating waves that sweep away their homes, families and livelihoods. Kel is conscious that he doesn’t belong as he watches everyone around him grapple with the enormity of the disaster – and it is that sense of detachment, along with his Core training, that has him already alert for any possible threats. That and the inexplicable disappearance of magic… This tale is a real genre mash-up – dark fantasy, swords and sorcery and steampunk. I have seen claims that it qualifies as science fiction, but I personally think that there would need to be more emphasis on the technology to tick that box. Not that it really matters – it doesn’t stop this being a cracking read. While Lebbon has written other books set in this world, he has ensured that it is a standalone novel, so no one will find their enjoyment blunted by picking up this book before visiting any of the other Noreela books.
Kel’s character leaps off the page right from the start and his hopes, personal demons and increasing concern at what is happening was, for me, the reason to keep turning the pages. Namior, his lover and young witch who has been born and raised in the small community all her life, wasn’t quite as strong. She certainly suffers in comparison to O’Peeria, Kel’s former Core partner. Although we only learn about O’Peeria in flashbacks through Kel’s point of view, the gutsy, foul-mouthed fighter immediately engaged my attention and loyalty in a way that Namior didn’t until much further into the book. However, this is a minor niggle and didn’t stop me staying up way into the night to discover what would happen next.
Lebbon can definitely weave an engrossing tale, full of menace and punctuated by bursts of sudden violence. I enjoyed the fact that though Kel is a trained killer, the fight scenes are less about swashing buckles and much more about the gritted business of surviving any encounter without major injury or death. The world-building is exceptional and I loved the descriptions of the island and the stricken fishing village, which were depicted with cinematic clarity. Overall, this is an outstanding tale. Now knowing why Lebbon is regarded with such respect by committed speculative fiction fans, I will be looking for his other work.