Review: The Burning Isle by Will Panzo
Published by Ace on November 1st 2016
A powerful and gripping debut grimdark fantasy novel, set in a world of criminals, pirates, assassins, and magic…
“A man has only three reasons for being anywhere: to right a wrong, to earn a coin, or because he is lost.”
Cassius is not lost…
The mage Cassius has just arrived on the island of Scipio. Five miles of slum on the edge of fifty miles of jungle, Scipio is a lawless haven for criminals, pirates, and exiles. The city is split in two, each half ruled by a corrupt feudal lord. Both of them answer to a mysterious general who lives deep in the jungle with his army, but they still constantly battle for power. If a man knows how to turn their discord to his advantage, he might also turn a profit…
But trained on the Isle of Twelve, Cassius is no ordinary spellcaster, and his goal is not simply money. This a treacherous island where the native gods are restless, and anything can happen…
The Burning Isle is a book that captivated me from the very beginning. It’s fun, fast paced and I immediately felt connected to the protagonist, Cassius. I found myself both rooting for him and also growing more curious about him with each page. The story is told from his POV, and has a series of interspersed flash back chapters that help you piece together both his history and his motivation.
In the start of the book, Cassius has arrived in the island of Scipio, a place where the dregs of society find themselves when they have no where else to go. Lawless and ruthless, this is not a destination of choice. “Five miles of slum on the edge of fifty miles of jungle” is how it’s described in the blurb. While it may generally be lawless, there are powerful people there that have control. The city/slum is divided, each side being ruled rival leaders with the feel of a mob or gang type atmosphere. You know, that fun criminal underground setting that everyone loves to read. But the ultimate power on the island belongs to an elusive general who lives with his soldiers at a fort in the forest. The atmosphere Panzo created here was great. The place is as rotten as the people in it. There is a good amount of infighting and underhandedness.
When Cassius comes to the city, and you know he has an agenda, one that seems to be motivated by vengeance, though you don’t quite know what that agenda is or the reason he feels compelled to follow through with it. In many ways, he can be incredibly ruthless, but at the same time, you get glimpses of a softer side of him. And Cassius does make a couple of ‘friends’ (I use this term quite loosely. Maybe allies?) that let you see that different side of him. He is a character obsessed with doing the “right thing” and making sure the “bad guy” pays for the wrongs he has caused, even if the cost of making the “bad guy” pay can really make him seem like a type of bad guy himself.
Cassius is also presented almost like a mystery for the reader to unravel. Just how powerful is he and where did he come from? From the very beginning these are questions that you want to know the answers to. I am not sure if the author’s intention was for certain aspects about Cassius to be a surprise reveal late in the book, or if he intended for readers to have accurate speculation from the beginning. I found I had very strong suspicions about his character quite early on, but at the same time, I also enjoyed the way confirmation was delayed until the end.
As for the magic in this book, there is lots of it. Some aspects I found more interesting than others. In order to practice magic, spellcasters must wear gauntlets. The gauntlets have jewels that contain spells, so they can cast specific spells only. What is interesting, is that it renders a spellcaster powerless if he/she is not wearing them (I say he/she, but I can not specifically remember any female spellcasters in this book). One thing that didn’t work quite as well for me was the battles that spellcasters would have with each other. They would conjure live animals, and then the animals would battle. I mean, I didn’t dislike it, but something about it just didn’t work as well for me as I would have hoped. I also found some of the action towards the end of the book went on a little longer than I would have preferred. But overall, these were just small aspects of the book, so not even close to a deal breaker.
I am enjoying Panzo’s writing style. According to his bio, he has experience as an editor for Marvel. I really think there are aspects of The Burning Isle that fit that comic book style. I have seen this book referred to as grimdark, and for the first half of the book, I was really unclear why. In the second half of the book, I could understand the label much more, but I am still not certain it quite fits that tone of book for me. Personally, I would say it is more like Brent Weeks’ Night Angel trilogy, which can be dark and bloody, but its just not quite grimdark. Either way, it’s not a big deal. It’s just a label and people always disagree when you try to put labels on things.
The important thing is that overall I enjoyed reading The Burning Isle. I found it to be a very easy read that moved at a decent pace and I look forward to checking out what Panzo has in store next.
Review originally posted on The Speculative Herald.