In an age where trilogies, tetralogies, and beyond are the name of the epic fantasy game, there's something refreshing about a novel which fulfills all the promise of the genre in a tidy, standalone package. With The Heretic Land, Tim Lebbon manages to introduce a rich world that is at once familiar and fantastic, develop a cast of intriguing characters, and spin a sprawling yarn filled with adventure, horror, and wonder, all in less than five hundred pages. As is somewhat obligatory these days, the very fate of the world is on the line by the end, yet even at its comparatively modest length the tale never feels rushed; on the contrary, Lebbon takes his time, twisting the plot, building tension, and raising the stakes with a master's skill.
The story opens on a transport ship delivering prisoners from Alderia, the unnamed world's "civilized" continent, to Skythe, a massive, savage island where the condemned men and women will live out the rest of their lives in exile. These lives may be brief indeed, as the ships never actually dock on the island, instead forcing the prisoners to swim for shore through shallows teeming with vicious sea creatures. Worse yet than the aquatic predators are the Slayers, humanoid monstrosities that wait on the shore of Skythe for certain prisoners. The Slayers do exactly what one might expect, their unfortunate targets assigned by the powers that be back in Alderia. Said ruling elite are known as the Ald, and since capital punishment is officially proscribed in Alderia, the Slayers eliminate those prisoners whom the Ald would prefer dead rather than merely exiled. One such doomed man is Bon Ugane, from whose tight third person perspective we begin our journey to Skythe. Lebbon quickly establishes both Bon's character and the world he occupies through the introduction of Lechmy Borle, a fellow prisoner, though a non-human one:
He had not felt truly comfortable in a woman's presence since his wife's death. . . . Maybe it was [Lechmy's] straightforward manner, her easy way of talking. Or perhaps it was the hint of exoticism that all amphys held for him, and had done ever since his parents had first welcomed an amphy friend into their home thirty years before. Many people hated them because they were different, or more graceful than most, or often simply because hating came easy to some. (p. 5)
Following the enigmatic suicide of his wife and the disappearance of his teenaged son, Bon is banished to Skythe for the heretical crime of studying forbidden technology, an interest he acquired from Venden, his missing boy. The Alderians use sundry steam-powered devices, ranging from rifles to much more complex machines, but the technology Bon is caught examining came from Skythe itself, and is thus forbidden. Bon suspects that Venden is dead, murdered by the Ald for illegally investigating the history of Skythe and its forgotten culture, but clings to the faint hope that he may be alive . . . which would mean exile on Skythe, just like his father.
Rather than always being the wild, dangerous prison island it has become, Skythe was once home to a people very bit as advanced as the Alderians, but war between the two nations led to Skythe's downfall and literal devolution. Generations after the war, the land itself is poisoned, and those Skythians who survived the conflict have seemingly regressed into a more primitive state as well. This war was a holy one—the Alderians worshiped (and continue to worship) a pantheon of deities known collectively as the Fade, and the Skythians worshiped Aeon, the so-called living god. The war between the two factions culminated with the Alderians employing doomsday devices called Engines to destroy Aeon—what exactly happened next is the mystery around which the novel unfolds, but the point all theories agree on is that Aeon was killed, and Skythe itself reduced to a toxic, dying land. According to the Ald, the death of Aeon was proof that the being was never actually divine, for what god can die? As the novel grows beyond its prison-break beginnings, however, the question of just how dead Aeon actually is becomes one of the utmost urgency.
At first, though, Bon's narrative involves an extended, exhilarating chase across the mutated landscape of Skythe, during which Bon's interest in the history of the island, Aeon, and the conflicting faiths seems to exist for the purpose of delivering worldbuilding details rather than pivotal plot points. When the narrative focus shifts to Milian Mu, a woman who carries the last shard of Aeon's spirit within her, we begin to realize that Lebbon's set-up of the ancient conflict is far more than window-dressing and backdrop. Paralleling Milian's internal contact with the primeval entity, and adding rich layers of tension to Bon's presence on the island, is the revelation that Venden is alive, on Skythe, and also working to build a connection to Aeon. While Milian is guided by unknowable, possibly divine impulses to travel to Alderia, Venden scours Skythe for the physical remains of the fallen god, assembling the relics to a purpose not even he is sure of:
He did not question what he was doing, or why. He did not try to project forward. This was simply his meaning, and the task that fate had set him. This was what he had come to Skythe to do, whether or not he had known it at the time. (p. 227)
It is in these sections where we get the perspectives of Venden and Milian that Lebbon carefully addresses one of the text's more interesting wrinkles: how can a mundane woman or man possibly be sure that the apparently divine being they are directly interacting with is actually a god, and not simply another form of natural life, albeit one alien beyond comprehension? Faith is the obvious answer, but can there be a greater test of faith than the proof that a power you thought to be omnipotent has been laid low by the weapons of mere mortals? Lebbon keeps the air of mystery thick as the entire cast become entwined in the inscrutable machinations of Aeon and even less understood powers, and to his credit never gets heavy-handed with his themes. No small feat, considering the inherently fraught subject matter Lebbon is tackling, and the conflation of religion with magic that emerges later in the text.
Bon eventually learns that Venden is alive and on the island with him, and before the end Lebbon skillfully weaves all three of these threads together in occasionally startling ways. The reunion of father and son signals an end to the small-scale chase sequence of the novel, and ushers in the epic phase that Lebbon's been meticulously constructing on the sly. Loyalties are tested, secrets revealed, and the being that many think to be a god is reborn. Bon loses his son as soon as he finds him, and while the Slayers are no longer a threat, there is the question of whether the reborn Aeon will seek vengeance for the crimes perpetrated against it and Skythe. And even if it doesn't, the Ald has been secretly monitoring the situation, and has warships en route to the beleaguered island, ships carrying improved versions of the Engines that previously put down Aeon and brought devastation to an entire land and its people.
It's all very fast-paced and exciting, and the action in the novel's latter half escalates to include hordes of Skythians facing off against the Spike, the Ald's military elite. That Lebbon is able to cram so much into a single work is, as mentioned above, quite impressive in its own right, but the seeming ease with which he expands the scope of the text is what really sets it above its peers.
When I speak of scope, I'm not just talking of the scale of combat—though a late-game naval battle with a giant sea monster is excitingly well rendered—but also the themes of family, faith, and fealty that have been shining through from the very beginning. The strengths of such virtues are often championed in high fantasy, but here Lebbon deftly flips the latter two on their collective ear, demonstrating that few things are more dangerous than an absolute certainty that one is acting from a place of moral superiority, be it a sense of religious conviction or nationalism. In The Heretic Land, only those individuals willing to be changed by the events unfolding before their eyes have any hope of in turn changing their world for the better; those who cling to their beliefs regardless of what they themselves experience are doomed to repeat the mistakes of their ancestors.
For a novel dealing so overtly with the idea that one people's true faith is another's dangerous heresy, Lebbon never gets preachy with his story. As with the action and world-building, the undertones of the novel are lean yet rich. The eco element is especially well done, with the brutally high cost that the self-righteous, self-centered actions of humans have had on their environment written on almost every page, yet again, Lebbon wisely lets the reader draw their own conclusions, obvious as such things may be. With so much going on, there are the inevitable bits where the reader wishes they could slow down and catch their breath, but rarely if ever does this detract from the experience—on the contrary, it's a rare treat to be swept along on such a grand yet grim adventure, especially one that demands only the commitment to a single tome.
Jesse Bullington is the author of the novels The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, The Enterprise of Death, and the recently released The Folly of the World. His short fiction, articles, and reviews have appeared in numerous publications, and he can be found online at www.jessebullington.com, as well as similarly disreputable locales.