A healer forced to become a killer for an empire that would grind his country to dust.
Kehlem, the sickly son of a widowed physician, has devoted his life to learning his father’s craft. Wanting to finally step out of his father’s shadow, he embarks on a project of his own, seeking out the help of Themia, the town’s newly arrived Alchemist and a rare wielder of magic.
But Themia has secrets of her own, secrets carried from the heart of the empire itself, secrets that would steal Kehlem away from his home and into the empire’s Academy for magic users.
The Isale Academy beckons, but can Kehlem survive the academy and its brutal regime? And if so, what would he have to become?
At just over 300 pages, this book is relatively short compared to other epic fantasies currently on the market, and perhaps that is what initially drew me in *takes a long look at my incredibly intimidating TBR pile and sighs apprehensively* . Knowing very little about this, I decided a shorter story could be a nice break between the tomes on my shelves.
The story follows Kehlem, a boy with a crippling disability, who has lived a relatively sheltered life under the watchful eye of his caring father. However, everything changes when we discover Kehlem is an Aspector: one who is able to access energies from the Aspect. Following this discovery, Kehlem is packed up and sent to the Academy to learn the craft.
The plot is heavy with tropes, but rather than feeling tired or copycat, I could feel the inspiration from other popular novels and I found it incredibly comforting and nostalgic.
Without a shadow of a doubt, my favourite thing about this story was the Academy setting. Perhaps magic schools have been done to death, and I admit I do get tired of them at times, but the areas of this school were done so well I’ve packed my bags to go! We are treated to cosy common rooms, waterfalls surrounding the school, a giant lake, a mysterious forest to get lost in, libraries that go on forever with small reading nooks and taverns to play card games over tankards of ale in. If you are thinking it sounds rather familiar, then perhaps you’ll also feel the nostalgic similarities to those-books-who-must-not-be-named. The world-building isn’t enormous in this story, with most of it residing at the Academy, but it was done so well, I will be sad to leave when it comes to it!
I also really enjoyed the simple but effective magic system. The Aspect is a spiritual world that overlaps with energy that can be found in everything and everyone. An Aspector is able to reach into this realm to harness the energy and, by drawing patterns, can convert it. You may notice some similarities here with the concept of Dust from His Dark Materials, and it also followed some similar themes of religion from the childhood favourites.
I loved the references to religion throughout this story, (even if it did lead to pretty intense and deep discussions between me and my partner at midnight when we needed to go to sleep!) It was really interesting exploring how science and spirituality can overlap to create a new religion and was especially thought-provoking to my inner agnostic.
For a relatively short story I enjoyed the characters Holloway created, particularly the friendships created at the Academy. I think Thain with his wholesome, innocence and openness was perhaps my favourite, but I also adored his relationship with Broch, who was another fun character to add into the found-family dynamic.
I would say that this is a story in 3-parts: the first being the opening, with Kehlem and his family in his village. This wasn’t my favourite as I found the character dynamics to be too friendly which I felt was borderline cheesy, but reflected the sheltered life of Kehlem, and gave a nice contrast as his character grew. This leads on to part-2 at the Academy, which whilst is still cosy, definitely grew with the character arc, before finally leading on to part-3 where the tone shifts drastically sending the reader on an unexpected emotional rollercoaster.
I absolutely loved this book and it has been my favourite read this year so far. If you are looking for something completely original, then I’m not sure this book is for you. However if you are looking for a comforting read* reminiscent of childhood favourites, then I think you might enjoy this.
I’m really excited for the release of book #2 later this year, particularly as I think there are a lot of directions where the story could go. I would love to see the segregation between Vins and Cassereans explored more, and I also can’t wait to read more about Kehlem’s love interest and what she has been busy with whilst they were separated.
*Whilst this is a comforting read for the most part, there are some particularly graphic scenes to be aware of prior to going in.