Intensely emotional, with lying gods, and uncertain enemies, Hall of Smoke by H.M. Long is an extraordinary adventure with a badass female main character tasked with completing a seemingly impossible mission while still mourning the loss of her people.
Graphic: violence, death, grief. Moderate: animal death, genocide, rape. Minor: slavery. See the full list here.
Hessa is an Eangi: a warrior priestess of the Goddess of War, with the power to turn an enemy's bones to dust with a scream. Banished for disobeying her goddess's command to murder a traveller, she prays for forgiveness alone on a mountainside.
While she is gone, raiders raze her village and obliterate the Eangi priesthood. Grieving and alone, Hessa - the last Eangi - must find the traveller and atone for her weakness and secure her place with her loved ones in the High Halls. As clans from the north and legionaries from the south tear through her homeland, slaughtering everyone in their path Hessa strives to win back her goddess' favour.
Beset by zealot soldiers, deceitful gods, and newly-awakened demons at every turn, Hessa burns her path towards redemption and revenge. But her journey reveals a harrowing truth: the gods are dying and the High Halls of the afterlife are fading. Soon Hessa's trust in her goddess weakens with every unheeded prayer.
Thrust into a battle between the gods of the Old World and the New, Hessa realizes there is far more on the line than securing a life beyond her own death. Bigger, older powers slumber beneath the surface of her world. And they're about to wake up. (Source)
When a main character is as skilled and as powerful as Hessa, it can be difficult to build in flaws and faults. It's something I struggle with when writing my own characters. If she's the best, who can best her?
But author Hannah Long has taken the worldview that Hessa holds and spun it on it's head. She believes herself to be part of the strongest warriors in her world - and this is true - until she learns how big the world truly is. She is a main character that loses everything she's ever loved, is then tasked with a mission she doesn't understand, and is left to navigate a world that was larger than she ever imagined. Hessa is a complex, unique individual that demonstrates an honest representation of humanity: she is not without faults, she knows joy and grief, loyalty and betrayal, she only knows what she knows, and cannot know what she doesn't.
Long is not the first author to accomplish this, of course, but she is the first one I've seen that's tackled the inner workings of what makes a character real and succeeded beyond expectations in a debut novel.
Friends and Enemies
One of the most interesting pieces of this story is Hessa's somewhat unreliable narration. Hall of Smoke left me guessing who Hessa could really trust all the way to the end of the book. Hessa encounters many people on her journey and just as she questions who she can really trust, I, as a reader, was questioning everyone's motives along with her. This is a story where nothing is as it seems.
Magic and Religion
Reading anything inspired by mythology, whether that be Greek, or Norse, like Hall of Smoke, I find the choices and actions of the Gods are written off or downplayed. Long, however, took the absurdity and jealousy of the gods and ran with it.
The Gods of the New World have human forms and can, in fact, die. The Gods of the Old World do not. Eang - Hessa's goddess - only ever succeeded in trapping the Old Gods. Of course, this is where the story unfolds and chaos ensues. However, I think Long's portrayal of magic and how interconnected it is with religion and worship is fascinating and rather believable for a fantasy novel. I don't want to give too much away as reading this book is quite the experience, but I adored how all the little pieces started slotting together by the end, how past choices influenced present events, and present choices were foreshadowed to influence future events for the second book.
Like many fantasy novels, the first third to half of the book can be slow and difficult to get into, but it is more than worth the wait. I also have no idea when I will get to the sequel, Temple of No God, but it is definitely on the TBR list. Either way, Hall of Smoke, lives up to the hype and I will always support fellow Canadian writers.