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, 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.
Hall of Smoke is a Viking-inspired fantasy, where the Gods are real.
I admittedly haven’t read a lot of Viking literature, but this book feels like a fresh take on the genre for a first reasons. Firstly, while I wouldn’t necessarily call this a ‘feminist’ story, it’s nice to read a take on pre-medieval societies featuring a well-rounded female MC, who has a wide array of hopes, dreams and fears unrelated to her gender. In Eang, men and women are equal out of necessity (in a case of all hands on deck), and Hessa is both a religious acolyte, part of the mysterious Eangi priesthood, as well as a skilled fighter. Additionally, while Hessa receives help from many men on her journey, she also proves herself their equal – and there are rarely, if ever, romantic undertones in their meetings.
Secondly, I really enjoyed Long’s take on the gods of Hessa’s world. This book does some really deft things with the various gods and the concept of religion more generally: the Gods are real, but who the true gods are and how they should be worshipped is a matter of cultural perspective. Hessa is devoted to Eang, but when the Goddess fails to answer her calls for help, she starts to question exactly who it is she serves. The Gods themselves are also all very different in personality; some are tricksters, some are violent; others just want to go home and forget about human concerns. It genuinely does feel like a pantheon of gods, reminiscent of the Vikings and other cultures like the Greeks.
As for the rest of the story: the quality of the prose is excellent, and really evokes an otherworldly feel. This is a world similar to our history, but also a world full of mysteries Hessa is only just being to understand. However, the plot – my main issue with this book – is painfully slow-moving at points. Much of the middle of this book is Hessa simply moving from one village to another, and replaying the same crises of faith in her mind, and it gets a little repetitive. I also didn’t get a good sense of the other human characters in this book. Much of Hessa’s journey is about revenge and justice for her family, and to protect those she loves who are still in hiding, but the problem is that we simply don’t know enough about these characters to really feel the depths of Hessa’s motivations or love for them. However, the action does build nicely at the end, and I was satisfied with the payoff; always a good sign for a standalone book.
Overall, Hall of Smoke hits a lot of the same beats as other epic fantasy novels, but also contains enough to differentiate it from the crowd. I’m looking forward to seeing what Long writes next.
Note: I received an ARC from Titan Books in exchange for a review. Hall of Smoke will be released on 19 January 2021.