Blood’s Pride by Evie Manieri starts stronger than any first fantasy in recent memory, with the devastation of an entire civilisation, richly rendered from the perspective of an ill-fated fisherman who lingers too long on the shores of Shadar.
As the fisherman looked at the magenta sky, he saw a black splotch like a stain on the horizon, a shadow forming over the sea which spread and grew larger and until he saw not shadows but black shapes: great flying creatures. The fisherman recognised them at once as dereshadi, the beasts that carry the souls of evildoers down into the depths of the earth after death. Phantoms swarmed from the bowels of the ships, crawling across the decks and into the landing boats and mounting their flying beasts.
The phantoms were giants to the Shadari. Their pale skin was the colour of death, marred by oozing purple sores; grim matted their seafoam-white hair. They had the hollowed cheeks and gangly limbs of the starving, but they held aloft great, gleaming swords.
These beings who appeared like walking dead, like living corpses, descended upon the Shadari like the wrath of hell, killing indiscriminately, splashing the town with red Shadari blood. They spoke not one word, made not one sound, as they moved in perfect tandem like a school of flesh-eating fish. Those Shadari who managed to inflict wounds saw their adversaries’ blood flow the silver-blue of a shark’s fin, but not for long, for the invaders thrust their swords into the fires and seared their wounds closed, and all the while they kept on fighting.
This arresting opening does a great deal to endear Manieri’s debut to readers—in point of fact, the unadulterated horror of it alone almost enlivens a flat first act—but at a certain stage, one wonders whether Blood’s Pride has much more to offer beyond the near-extinction event with which it begins… a doubt I dare say the meandering melodrama which follows does little to discourage.
After the Norlanders’ surprise attack, and the subsequent suicide of Shadari’s magical ashas en masse, “sleepy Shadar, with its crooked rows and circles of gold-tinged white houses” is no more. Almost immediately, the occupying people—colloquially known as Dead Ones because of their translucent skin and absolute aversion to sunlight—press the Shadari survivors into slavery. Some are put to work in the mines, extracting from the earth an element the Norlanders need; others are made to wait on the new, nocturnal nobles and their supporting force.
Coming of age amongst that misbegotten latter lot a full generation later, in a time when rebellion is on the tip of everyone’s tongues, is Daryan, aka Daimon: a young Shadari who may hold the key to the emancipation of his people. Firstly, he has fostered a friendship with Eofar, a powerful Norlander who could finally tip the balance in favour of the slaves… however, Daryan has also gone and fallen for Eofar’s little sister.
Isa is a princess of sorts in bitter competition with her wicked sibling over the almighty maguffin Manieri has named her first novel for, but however much the apple of Daryan’s eye hungers after the family sword, cold, calculating Frea is first in line to inherit it—and there is no love lost between the two. Blood, one senses, will be spilled before this matter can be concluded. And we all know what comes before a fall.
Meanwhile, deep in the desert surrounding Shadar, the Nomas roam: a fascinating race of traders whose women sail the distant oceans while their men make camp in the sand. Foremost amongst the Nomas, the trader Jachad, who makes a deal with Eofar at the outset, and the Mongrel: a mysterious mercenary who swears to aid the Shadari in their quest to unseat the monstrous Norlanders… albeit at a cost that she refuses to clarify until the battle forthcoming is ultimately won.
If all of the above seems like a lot to handle, that’s because it is: getting to grips with Manieri’s vast cast of characters is a challenging task, made doubly difficult by some frankly forgettable naming conventions and a dire lack of differentiation at the outset of the text. Later on, a few start to stand out from the crowd—Isa’s adversarial relationship with her sister is a specific saving grace—and by the end of Blood’s Pride, most have developed to a certain extent.
Most… if not all. Notably, though the Mongrel plays a pivotal role in the plot—indeed, this debut is at its best when she’s about—we hear from her so rarely that her enigmatic nature becomes an annoyance as opposed to a draw. On the whole, then, I found Manieri’s characterisation rather lacking, and at times the array of peripheral perspectives the author opts to offer drove yours truly to distraction.
And this isn’t the only impediment to a real appreciation of Blood’s Pride, considering that the pace proves problematic, and the plot, too, is confused. But never mind, for the moment, the politics; the unending intrigue; the accumulation of little white lies and deep, dark deceits. And don’t be terribly troubled by the talking heads determined to debate all and sundry subjects at cross purposes. Let’s put these aspects of the entire behind us, because in truth they all improve over the course of Manieri’s first fantasy.
Complexity, however, is one thing—necessary, even, in a series such as The Shattered Kingdoms—but when every single plot thread is subject to frequent upheaval, the ground beneath one’s feet begins to feel fleeting. Thus, there will be those who find traversing this slippery slope treacherous, and with no notion of what lies beyond it, why bother?
But bring the right equipment—I want to call it the Ice Pick of +1 Perseverance—and you’ll find solid footing soon, because Blood’s Pride gets better in almost every respect after a disappointing first third. Characters solidify before our eyes, whilst the story finally hits its stride… and even at its least appealing, the quasi-Medieval Mediterranean setting of Blood’s Pride struck me as superb. Indeed, Manieri’s worldbuilding is so very well implemented that I would gladly spend a little longer in the Shattered Kingdoms, despite this debut’s other issues.
Beyond a powerful prologue, I’m sorry to say Blood’s Pride does not put its best foot forward. I only wish Evie Manieri had gotten to the characters that matter and the more interesting plot points significantly quicker that she does, because once the by-the-numbers introductions are done, hers proves a promising and distinctive debut. Simultaneously sweeping and small-scale, and equal parts tragic romance and slow-burn insurgency, Blood’s Pride lacks that vital spark for long enough that I can’t recommend it wholeheartedly… all the same, bring on Fortune’s Blight.
Blood’s Pride is published by Tor Books. It is available February 19.
Niall Alexander is an erstwhile English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com, where he keeps a weekly column concerned with news and new releases in the UK called the British Genre Fiction Focus, and co-curates the Short Fiction Spotlight. On rare occasion he’s been seen to tweet about books, too.