Review copy provided by the author
Justin Allen’s second novel, Year of the Horse, just came out in October.
I remember hearing about Slaves of the Shinar back when I first started Fantasy Debut, and although I saw fine reviews for it everywhere, I did not read it at the time. Over the summer, the Justin Allen contacted me with a question and after an email conversation, he offered to send me a copy.
Slaves of the Shinar is billed as an epic fantasy of the ancient world. It’s hard to find a better blend of ingredients that are sure to hook me. It takes place in an unspecified location somewhere in Africa. There are two main characters, a black man named Urik and a white man named Ander. Urik is trying to escape his destiny — literally. He is on the run from a prophesy, one that makes him a tragic and engaging character right from the start. And no, no, no, this is not the sort of prophesy you are thinking about. It’s a very personal prophesy — not one in which Urik fights a dark god or saves the world.
Ander is a slave of the Niphilim who is determined not only to escape, but to get revenge on his cruel captors. And he’s willing to use anyone to achieve this goal.
Both Ander and Urik are grown men. Stick a pin in me, why don’t you? A fantasy novel about grown men! It’s almost eek-worthy! (For those of you who are new here, I have long lamented about the over-abundance of young boys in fantasy novels.)
On his flight from destiny, Urik encounters a dog, which becomes his most faithful companion. He pulls off a daring theft early on in the story that reminded me me of Conan the Barbarian. The jewel he steals enables him to trade for a special sword — one made of iron rather than bronze.
For the Bronze Age is rapidly coming to an end. The Niphilim have the secret of steel (again, a Conan moment, but I want to be clear, it was for me, not Mr. Allen. He NEVER referred to it that way, and it was actually iron, not steel) and they are using it to conquer the Shinar. They are white, but are also referred to as giant-like. One of the reasons Urik stands out is because is is as big as a Niphilim. Those of you who are conversant in The Bible will recognize the term niphilim. The Nephilim were descendants of fallen angels. There is no indication in Slaves of the Shinar of any angelic origin. The resemble the Biblical Nephilim in their name, their stature and their superhuman strength. The religion in this novel are gods and goddesses — some of them with recognizable names, like Baal — and they don’t have any direct influence on the characters’ lives.
The Niphilim and another tribe simply referred to as the savages are the only outright fantasy elements in this novel. I’m not really sure what the savages are, but it is clear that they aren’t entirely human. Perhaps they are Australopithecines, but Mr. Allen doesn’t say. Whatever they are, they are terrifying and pity-inspiring all at once because the Niphilim use them as shock troops, driving them into battle with whips.
A great deal of this novel is about battles. Ander proves to be a charasmatic leader, and after helping a town unsuccessfully fight the Niphilim, he recruits a couple of priests to help him form an army. Ander and Urik never actually meet, and if they did, they probably wouldn’t like each other. But they are both ultimately after the same goal.
I just have a few critiques. For Ander’s scenes, the point-of-view was almost someone other than himself. This allowed the reader to see him from the viewpoint of other people, but it did mean that the point-of-view switched often. When there is one point-of-view per scene, this is fine, and for the most part, Mr. Allen kept us high and tight inside one person’s head. But there were several scenes where the point-of-view roved about confusingly, and in one scene between Urik and a woman he rescued, Adah, the point-of-view switches from sentence to sentence. However, this didn’t happen very often.
This is a brutal novel, but I was not overwhelmed by blood and gore. There is no sex and only a hint of romance. I found the quality of writing literary, yet the pacing equal to more commercial fiction. Most of the major characters are men, but Mr. Allen makes up for this by making the major villain an absolutely kick-ass Niphilim woman, and we even get to spend some time in her head. Adah comes into the mix rather late in the novel, but I liked her a great deal. My favorite character was Urik and the scene where he meets his destiny was especially heart-wrenching.
In an epilogue, Mr. Allen attempts to tie some of the characters to The Bible and a Babylonian epic poem, Gilgamesh and Enkidu, which I am certainly now going to reread. I’m not sure if Mr. Allen was entirely successful, for it made me think that there is a sequel to come, and perhaps, one day, there will be.
Slaves of the Shinar is a keeper for the reread shelf. If you like blends of ancient history and fantasy, this is something you are going to enjoy. I can recommend it highly.