‘Infernal’ is the intriguing start of a new fantasy series packed with magic, dry humour, and mystery. It has an old-school fantasy feel, yet the twists – especially the finale – feel fresh and unpredictable. For a debut author, de Jager is incredibly assured, taking risks which initially made me doubtful but which work brilliantly, adding an air of cloaking and uncertainty without detracting from the story.
Stratus wakes up alone. He knows very little except that the body he is in is not his own, and that he doesn’t seem to be its only occupant. Determined to find some answers, he sets off in search – only to stumble into a conspiracy of war, religion, and magic, with everyone convinced he’s on the other side. He isn’t helped by his complete lack of knowledge of human nature – or by his body’s companion, a being of pure rage which occasionally seizes control.
Mark de Jager’s decision to tell an epic fantasy story with a single POV is unusual enough, but when that character also has near-total amnesia it becomes an even bigger risk. Stratus doesn’t understand the world, humanity, or even himself. This empathy barrier means each character except Stratus feels two-dimensional, yet it works – partly because Stratus himself is so intriguing, and partly because Stratus’s attempts to understand them are often darkly hilarious. De Jager straddles the line between mystery and confusion expertly, revealing just enough at key moments to keep things engaging, but also making the final reveal a total – yet believable – shock.
Stratus doesn’t know what he is, but everyone else is convinced he’s some sort of demon – and gradually, throughout the book, this affects how he views himself too. He doesn’t share most human morals – quite happy to kill without compunction, take whatever he needs, and manipulate others with his sorcery – but he does respect and appreciate kindness and have a certain degree of loyalty. For a character who does pretty much a terrible thing per page, he’s a surprisingly likeable protagonist, making you root for him even when you’re not sure you should.
The world building is minimal – mostly because Stratus is more focused on who and what he is than what’s going on around him – but the magic system is fully fleshed out and developed. As systems go, it’s very conventional, but I love the descriptions of the Songlines and what it feels like to use them. It also has clear rules and limitations, meaning no character is ever over-powered.
Overall, this is an excellent debut, one that takes risks but ensures they pay off. Recommended for fans of non-human protagonists, dry and dark humour, and fantasy-mysteries.
Thanks to Rebellion and NetGalley for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review
Published by Rebellion
eBook: 24th November 2020