An extremely rich and complex world was created for The Horn of Dawn, wonderfully written and full of almost endless creativity. Balancing out a large cast with thankless and dangerous tasks, we begin on the deck of the Kajak, under the command of Captain Dorav (of a respected knight brotherhood known as the Ashuri) and on its way to the fortress known as Shipbreaker Sharn. Aside from his crew it carries a band of five warriors known as the Blades of Mepsia, there to assist in the invasion of the fortress, and who are hybrids of humans and a race called xials.
There's some excellent conflict in the first scene on the Kajak, sparking off the uncertainty of the relationship between the humans and the xials, that comes to a fairly nasty conclusion later on the in the book. Dorav himself is a good mediator of the two opposing sides, a firm but respectable character in most aspects, but his Lieutenant, Kartecus, cannot be given the same accolade - he hates xials with a passion, but is loyal to Dorav and so forces his tolerance. It's a great introduction to the world, and one of my favourite parts of the scene was the passing by of the Kajak of a ship broken on the rocks whose dead passengers are still there, crying out for help. Creepy AF.
We're also introduced to the inhabitants of a small town called Kaira, where we meet Caige, David, Ashen and others, who mine the mountains in search for the precious resource shinn. Their mundane life of digging for their fortune comes to an end once they discover a hidden, and eventually dangerous, world beyond the mines with the shinn motherload. Problem is, whatever was hidden there just got out, and once Dorav and his men arrive at Kaira in force the unworldly creatures, seemingly woken up by the miners, attack the whole town, exploding the authority of Dorav and his troops, and leaving him as prisoner to the miners. All except Caige, who disappears after swallowing some shiny and expensive-looking gem from some old horn in the hidden world (nudge nudge), to ensure Dorav's men don't find it. That doesn't go so well...
As above, this story is complex, and has a lot of characters, history and arcs going on. The storylines of the xials were probably my favourite, and the author introduced us to an incredibly detailed and well thought out background for these elusive creatures, whose abilities are mixed. From being supreme warriors and creatures of the night, some fly, and all hold and intense connection to the heartbeat of the land and nature in general, after their race emerged from a history of slavery to attempt to find peace with the humans (or anthrops as they call them). Though we don't see Helicartia, their homeland, I imagine it's somewhere to be visited in the future of the series, and something I'm looking forward to. The relationships between the xial was fascinating to follow, and the taboo of inter-tribal partnering raised in Escara and Buio's journey together was another excellent narrative. Nihengale was just brilliant. The balance between spiritual creature of the earth and ruthless killer made him a great character to follow, and his ultimate task came as a surprise. Murciel and Rairi's arc also held some harrowing surprises, and all these characters pushed the boundary of the story to keep it fascinating and endearing.
I really enjoyed Caige's journey, as he got the brunt of the unnatural happenings after the attack of Kaira. Split off from his friends, he is drawn into the strange world of the Horn of Dawn proper where he is haunted by his past and the death of his lover. His journey also ties into the xials nicely, though in a strange and otherworldly way at first, and his character takes a heartbreaking journey of realisation, ultimately showing us the root cause of this current madness and how it began. David, too, had a great arc, and revealed himself to be another someone hiding from his past, which eventually works in his favour. Kind of. The conflict with young Ashen, who was to marry Nianah, who David was also in love with, gave their travel to Nevine some grit, as he tried to find out how Nianah had died back in Kaira. He eventually discovers the truth about Nianah and Ashen, which was another nice (or not so nice) surprise and his arc gets rounded off brilliantly.
I really enjoyed Dorav and Kartecus' journey (including Ser Isa and her dislike of the xials to a terrible conclusion) and eventual kidnap, and their characters were strong and set-up as primary. It was unfortunate, however, that though Kartecus gets his own arc with Sinitel in Nevine that rides out horrifically, Dorav seems to get forgotten for a fair amount of the story. He is on a secret journey, and in his final scene where we discover the truth about him from his own lips, he does get waylaid in the prior narrative after being taken prisoner and we only hear about him and his mission from other people. I get why, but it's a shame he fell a little shorter in POV scene development and we didn't get to know him in the present as much as the others. His final scene also seems to show him as a little petulant, and I'm unsure of why that was because he was always confident and stubborn enough over the course of his arc, despite his unfortunate history.
And so, the slightly less positive highlights. This is an intense, dark and rich story with a cascade of interesting and complex characters which, when it gripped me, it really gripped me. Its problem is that it's a bit too rich in places, and has a few too many characters. The reason I took so well to the xials is because the majority of the story is focussed on them. Their history and culture is so well forged, and their characters so intricately woven, that I feel I knew them. Sometimes, however, there are so many facets or words of their culture introduced they just become unable to absorb and I just skimmed trying to assess their meaning to carry on with the story. The miners all had their draw, and their world was a bit easier to digest, and pulling back a little on the xial excess might have helped even this out. Yes, I have noted in previous reviews I am a greedy reader, but even I can come across more than I can chew.
Other problems I found in my overall enjoyment and attention were some characters who had points of view but no completed arc. I understand this is a series, however, characters whose introduction was much later, and had scenes where they interacted with established characters – or an entirely different arc which had no seeming connection to the main story - had me wondering what the point was of introducing them (especially from their point of view), as their storyline don’t evolve. Tiliash and the miners could certainly have been from the latter’s POV, and her secret affair storyline didn't seem necessary or intriguing as I had no idea who she was and wanted to return to the characters I knew. Xandrane and Wykith were interesting (and I did see some breadcrumbs in there), but their story went nowhere in this book, and it felt like a setup for another book, and so unnecessary for this one. There were a few other points that seemed to not be as developed in the latter part of the book, but not enough to be entirely distracting, though knowing a bit more about the ultimate reason for the crazy giant insects would have been interesting. These added arcs got in the way of an already full story that didn't need to be expanded anymore (in my humble opinion), as it had more than enough to keep my interest, and so the finale of the book kind of petered out in some arcs, and didn't give me the big bang ending I might have expected.
All in all, though, The Horn of Dawn is a superb dark fantasy, whose direction I had no clue about so it kept me guessing and I enjoyed it immensely. The writing is fantastic, harrowing and not for the faint-hearted, and the world pure escapism and left me wanting to learn more. Hadder Martinez is clearly not short of ideas, and knows his way around world-building exquisitely, which bodes well for the future. This is well worth the read, and I sincerely hope there is a second book in the making.