Overview (No Spoilers)
It’s June 1st, 2020. I’ve been working from home since mid-March, going to the grocery store once a month, watching the pandemic and, more recently, the protests on TV. I start reading Godless Lands, both because I’m part of a team of judges for SPFBO 2020 and this book is on my list, and because I need a break from the news. The prologue describes a city dealing with a terrible epidemic, burning their dead on the street because they can’t do anything else with the bodies. One of the characters can “hear the rioters on the other side of the city”, where the food is stored. Maybe this book won’t give me a break from reality…
Godless Lands is the medieval version of a post-apocalyptic novel. It takes place in a world ravaged by the Blight, a plague that not only decimated the population, but also killed the majority of the animals and crops. Those who survived live in havens, small enclaves ruled by violent leaders. We don’t get much information about the havens, but it isn’t hard to fill in the blanks: a ruling class that hoards the money and resources; the military, ready to do their bidding, enjoying some small privileges as a consequence; and the populace, halfway to starvation. The outside, known as the “Godless Lands”, is dangerous and relatively unexplored. And that is precisely where the story unfolds.
Writing this, I realize that it makes the book sound rather tropey: We’ve all read a similar premise before. Crow, however, creates a believable world and an interesting set of characters, and the story doesn’t feel like a rehash at all. This is an exciting read on its own merits.
In a way, this is a story of men, of warriors and knights: most of the action scenes are centered around them. It may come as a surprise, then, how wonderful the female characters are. They are not commonplace, and they kick ass, each in their own way. Even the one who would fit in the “damsel in distress” category is not helpless at all. These are women who’ve been through a lot, but haven’t just sat by and watched the world crumble around them.
The characters are complex enough to be believable: even the “bad guys” have feelings, which makes them more human. We are given some backstory for the main villain, which doesn’t justify his actions, but gives us a glimpse into how terrible circumstances can push someone over the edge. I think this is part of what makes him so terrifying.
Godless Lands is a story of survival, of hope, and redemption. It’s a fast-paced book that doesn’t feel rushed. I very much enjoyed reading this book, got invested in the characters and their stories (more on that in the spoiler-ridden section), and even cried a couple of times.
While this hasn’t affected my rating of the book, I have to mention the editing, because it needs work. For the most part, it isn’t too distracting, but I think I would have enjoyed this book even more if editing hadn’t been an issue. There were several sentences that were missing a connector or some other word, and made little sense as a result. There are also numerous typos. And there are lots of commas missing; few of them affect the meaning, but it gets tiresome. Admittedly, years in academia have made me very picky when it comes to editing, so I probably notice these things more than most. Many of the reviews I’ve read for this book say nothing about this, so maybe other people weren’t bothered by it. If you are an editor wannabe, this might get on your nerves.
Additional Insight (Spoilers Abound)
- The lack of magic in this book is noteworthy. Traditionally, Mother Annabel would be the sorceress/witch, but she is a physician instead. More than that: she’s a researcher. Actually, let’s talk about Mother Annabel. Her story is fascinating, and, sadly, sounds like the stories of many female scientists throughout history. I loved this character, and definitely identified with her a couple of times. I have to say, however, that her highly scientific approach felt a bit too modern for the book at times.
- Probably my biggest beef with this book is Ferris telling Katrina that his hands are magic. I get it, he wants to help her cope with all the things going on around her, but it just felt like adults telling kids about Santa, and I don’t think it added anything to the story. The relationship between Ferris and Katrina was precious regardless.
- My other beef (borderline pun here) is the scene when The Butcher reflects upon the consequences of eating the brains of the humans he kills. That “my father researched the Mad Cow Disease but didn’t get to name it that” moment felt out of place and didn’t add to the story.
- I think I saw a review suggesting that The Butcher is a fantastic creature. I have to disagree: yes, he is larger than any of the other characters, and he’s called a giant a handful of times. But he only seems to be as tall as a man on a horse, so it could be just a matter of genetics gone a bit haywire. And then, he’s a cannibal, but you don’t need any magic or fantasy for that. As I said before, the fact that you can sort of see how he got to this point, that there’s nothing too fantastic about him, makes him even more terrifying.
- This book is full of violence. I’m not talking about the battles (or maybe I’m just desensitized to those?), but about the cold violence of many of the characters’ actions. Danny’s fate is terrible to read about. We barely get to see how he gets to that state, and yet, reading what he looks like right before Igs kills him is… rough. And what we learn about Baron Taegis and Katrina is disturbing, to say the least; those short passages made me very uncomfortable.
- Rigby’s death made me cry quite a bit. His calm resolve to make his death count, to save Igs, and give the Farm a chance really got to me. And after all that ordeal, Igs went back for him and carried his body to the Farm! My heart can only handle so much.
- I think Ferris deserved better. I can see why his character had to die, but I feel that his death wasn’t as well-written as Rigby’s, or even Sir Arlo’s. Towards the end he seems to be on the path to redemption, or at least to get some closure. I would have liked to see some more of that.