EDIT: As you probably saw in our SPFBO Finalist Announcement post, we nominated The Umbral Storm as our SSN – meaning any of the other blogs could pick it up as their finalist. Which, Fantasy Book Critic did and thus, Alec Hutson‘s novel is now an SPFBO 8 Finalist! Our reviews and score remained unchanged.
Welcome to the Semi-Finals stage of SPFBO 8! As you know, we already cut 25 books from our batch of 30 and announced our semi-finalists. Check out our SPFBO 8 Phase 1 page for more info!
Our 5th SPFBO 8 semi-finalist review is The Umbral Storm by Alec Hutson. The order of the reviews within a post will be the following: first will be the person who picked the book as a semi-finalist, and then the others in alphabetical order.
So, without further ado, let’s take a closer look at our 5th semi-finalist!
|Series: The Sharded Few #1
|Date of Publishing: May 20, 2022
A thousand years ago the Heart of the World was shattered, its fragments scattered across the lands.
In the chaos that followed, martial orders arose to gather the shards, for it was found that great powers were granted when these pieces were bonded to the flesh of the chosen. These are the Sharded Few, warriors imbued with the divine energies that once coursed through the Heart, driven to absorb enough fragments to claim godhood.
Deryn has known nothing in his life except suffering. Orphaned at the edge of the realms, indentured to a cruel slaver, he has little hope of escaping his circumstances. But elsewhere, ancient powers are stirring, new alliances threaten the peace of the old order, and against all odds, Deryn will find himself a player in a game unlike anything he could have imagined.
The Umbral Storm was initially my favorite book of the batch but it’s not without some major flaws. It set a high bar for other books in the way it flawlessly tells its story: the plot thickens with each page, most main characters showcase progression (wanted or not), and the world is a delicious amalgamation of classic fantasy tropes and elements that will hit the right mark for every age-long fantasy lover.
The worldbuilding caters to the deep nostalgia within that audience while still introducing enough original twists to widen beyond it. It bends the “magical academy” trope a bit, has an interesting magic system grounded on the essence of dead gods, and the writing evokes the wonder of the world.
Like Harry Potter splashed with Game of Thrones, it’s dark, at times ruthless, surprising, and peppered with delicious foreshadowing. Yet, while it borrows heavily from the best of classic fantasy, it doesn’t succeed in avoiding its biggest pitfalls.
As it attempts to blend a myriad of cultures into its telling, it echoes stereotypes grounded on the foundings of white imagination, so ingrained in the genre. Some of them make sense (arguably) within the framing of the POV character we’re reading. But others (such as the “Magical Negro” figure right at the beginning), perpetuate a long-standing harmful trope.
At the end, it wraps up with a handful of mysteries and plenty of questions for the next instalment. It didn’t quite succeed in handling them: major plot twists are either spoken quickly and rushed over or happening off-page. I felt like powerful character moments were building up at some point and then the climax never came. Or went by without me experiencing them.
Still, as the curtain closes, it widens the world, the threat to our characters, and ramps up the excitement for what might come next.
I often swallow a book a day and couldn’t figure out why The Umbral Storm was taking me so long. It’s a well-written, well-paced, perfectly competent book. The magic system is unusual and interesting, both for me and the MCs, Heth and Deryn. While I never connected with either of them, the sudden hierarchy swap has given the author lots of possibilities, and he explored them well. I liked the side characters enough, especially Killian’s cute glee when he acquired his second talent and Alia breaking out from her damsel-in-distress mode to command the rather confused boys. I found the plot somewhat predictable, but attributed it to the genre – progression fantasy gonna progress. So… what was my problem?
‘“Dis all we get?” grumbled Xiv, the hairless Ashasai slave who could scurry up these trees better than any of them. His blade-sharp, copper-colored face was staring down at his empty bowl in disdain.’ The overseer mentioned in the next sentence was ‘fat’ – enough said. That was just the first page. Soon afterwards Xiv’s black eyes blazed like coals in a hearth (so… glowed red?) as he instructed Deryn to “be careful, boyo, up dat high it’s always damp.” The quirky, copper-faced, Irish-accented slave said ‘boyo’ 20 times, thus pulling me out of the book 20 times, before he got killed off at 10% as motivation for Deryn. I’ve never been a fan of that particular trope, but at least there were no more boyos. I kept reading, until…
‘It was always a little difficult to tell those people apart, since all of them were hairless and most had similarly sharp features.’
‘Those’ were the copper-faced, sharp-featured, black-eyed people. The non-white ones. I closed the book. The problem was my wokeness.
Heth’s face was pale, Alia’s hair was blonde, Deryn’s mother had red curls. Their skin colour was obvious, unlike the Ashasai (variations on ‘copper-skinned’ and ‘copper-faced’ appear 15 times throughout the book, and yes, I checked). Kaliss, Deryn’s grumpy custodian – when Deryn followed her, I thought she’d be found with a lover, not in the library – has a ‘copper head’. Heth’s surprise at Azil’s ‘blackness’ made sense – he has never encountered a Salahi person. When he found it ‘difficult to tell those people apart’, though, I found it so difficult to keep reading that I DNFed the book at 43%.
Five years ago I might have missed that. I’d notice ‘kill-your-gays’ but not ‘kill-your-PoC’. Like many (most?) others I automatically expected fantasy MCs to be white, cis, straight, and mostly male, unless explicitly stated otherwise. Had it not been for the repetition of the word ‘copper’ I might have still missed it the rest until that one sentence punched me in the face. If only Heth used ‘copper’ and Deryn didn’t – or if that sentence opened with ‘Heth always found it a little difficult…’ – or Xiv lived long and prospered – or…
I may be completely off the mark here. Who knows? (Everyone who finished the book.) Perhaps Heth, the son of a cruel slaver, was taught to see ‘those people’ this way and learned later on. Copper-headed Kaliss might have become the most powerful of the Sharded. Daryn might have become interesting. Alia might have rescued the boys a few more times, instead of them rescuing her. The Ashasai might have acquired names. You’d have to force me, though, to continue reading and find out.
Based on the part I have read The Umbral Storm is a solid, if not life-changing, book with definite mainstream appeal. Tropes may be scattered around, but they aren’t inherently bad; they exist, because readers like them – here, and in The Song of Ice and Fire or The Wheel of Time that The Umbral Storm is often compared to. My final score takes the quality of the book into account.
Few books leave me thinking for a long time. This is one of them. What I keep thinking about, however, is my own wokeness, white saviourism, and why I was drawn to indie fantasy in the first place.
This is how you do progression fantasy! Worldbuilding of the highest order, characters who make you feel something (whether it be hate, admiration, anger, love), a compelling story that keeps the reader engaged with a superb magic system. I mean, this book ticked off almost every single box that makes me swoon when talking about a fantastic fantasy read. Slightly dark at times, which I must admit that I also enjoy on occasion. The only slight criticism I have is that it has that “coming of age” trope that I am kind of over at this point. But with progression fantasy you kind of have to expect that. That’s really the only thing that kept this from being a perfect book for me because everything else blew me away. Hutson has definitely kicked it up a notch from his previous series and I was so impressed with how his writing has gotten a lot more complexity to it with this one. There’s so much going on and he weaves each thread beautifully in my opinion. The bad guys are also incredibly evil and that always makes my investment in the story that much deeper. In the end I mostly loved The Umbral Storm and based on this opening entry I’m so excited to continue on with the forthcoming books in this series. I can’t say enough good things about it and ultimately when all was said and done, this ended up being my favorite read out of all of our semi-finalist picks.
The Umbral Storm was a fantastic read and possibly my favourite of all the books I’ve read so far in SPFBO; it felt the most polished, complete, and epic in terms of scope and ambition.
Given this praise, it may sound odd, but The Umbral Storm doesn’t do anything particularly new, it has the bone structure of traditional high/heroic fantasy and employs a number of timeless tropes such as youthful protagonists, rags to riches transformations, hints of prophecy, and a tinge of the chosen one. What sets Alec Hutson’s novel apart is the dazzling skin that those bones wear and just how well-crafted everything is.
The world itself is an absolute highlight, tremendously expansive, and with so much history and lore behind it. Prime amongst this are the various factions, known as holds, who are the power in the world and its magic users. Each hold has a specific focus that anchors its members and defines their abilities and outlooks, think of the different schools of magic in D&D, for example, but they are far more focused and elemental in nature.
For the most part, I really enjoyed each of the characters, they complement one another nicely and have a good amount of agency, enough that they can tell their own story in interesting and engaging ways. Deryn seems to receive the most attention throughout the book and, if I’m honest, is a little too good at everything, I’d quite like to have seen him fail once or twice. In the later books, I’d love to see more of Heth and Alia as I think they have a lot more to give, and the potential to be far more impactful.
Progression Fantasy is a new one for me, but from what little I know, I’d say The Umbral Storm is a great example of the subgenre. The different holds have an ‘RPG Class’ feel, particularly Dusk (Darkness) Hold, which is very roguish, and the deliberate tiered progression feels like levelling up. When characters process a new shard and look to increase their power, there was a real sense of excitement as to what that would be.
The Umbral Storm nestles triumphantly at the confluence of several subgenres and excels at every single one. It’s a delight to get so much to chew on in just the first book and I have no doubt this is going to be a colossal series.
If you’re a fantasy reader, I think you’re going to love this one.
The Umbral Storm was the first semi-finalist I read (after mine, of course), partly because its length, and partly because I wanted to be over it as epic fantasy is not my favorite subgenre. As it turns out, this year I learned that progression fantasy isn’t my favorite either. Oh well. The good news is, I did read The Umbral Strom from start to end, so at least there is that. I wouldn’t say I’m familiar with Hutson’s work, I believe I read a short story in an anthology from him a couple of years back. All in all, I went in with expectations between low and zero.
Some of my early impressions were confusing because on one hand, it was easy to read and it was clear that Hutson is a talented writer. On the other hand, I either didn’t like or didn’t care about any of the characters. Some of them kinda redeemed themselves, and some interesting side characters got introduced along the way, but one of my biggest complaints about this book is definitely the characters. To me, that was the weakest point of the novel, although I did like what Hutson did with some of their story arcs. Especially Heth’s. And while I became okay with Heth by the end, Deryn pissed me off more than not. I just wish the more likeable and relatable characters (like Alia) got much more spotlight than these two.
The Umbral Storm builds on familiar tropes which gives a cozy feeling to the reader and thus definitely will appeal to a broader audience, but it also made me think that I read this book before. For me, it didn’t bring anything new to the table. Which is not necessarily a criticism, it’s just that I tend to look for books that surprise me. I found this one quite predictable, and even though the last 20% or so – which was by far the most interesting – made up for it, it still ended up being rushed and underwhelming. A shame as it had the potential to be something great.
The Umbral Storm surely will appeal to an audience who likes epic fantasy built on familiar tropes, but for me, it felt more like a generic book that tried to check boxes – and didn’t always do well, as my fellow judges explained above. It was entertaining and kept me engaged, but ultimately not enough to make me want to return to this world.
For more SPFBO content, please visit our SPFBO 8 Phase 1 page!