Rating: 4/5 stars
DISCLOSURE: I received an e-book copy from the author, in exchange for an honest review. My opinions are my own.
Complacency is the greatest foe of peace. Once the things our forebears have struggled and died for become as much a fixture in life as sleeping and waking, we take them for granted. Peace is something we have to strive for each and every day.
German born independent author, Ulff Lehmann, has crafted an impressive epic, grimdark fantasy novel, and through his prose, it soon became clear that he painstakingly set out to write a story he’d want to read, for his personal enjoyment. I believe he succeeded. On many levels, Shattered Dreams achieved that, whether it’s on dense, developmentally complex level; or on a level concerning its well-rounded, albeit large, cast of colorful characters. And let’s not forget its intentional slow burning pace and plot, among many ongoing subplots. Was it perfect? No, of course. But its virtues far outweighed its flaws.
For instance, a comprehensive glossary with name pronunciation would have gone a long way. In fairness, there is a glossary, but it’s minimalistic, and lacks proper pronunciation. Breaks in between scene changes, if only for ease of understanding, would have also been beneficial, though personally, it wasn’t really a big deal. I acclimated quickly, and learned to pay closer attention. A word to the wise: you really need to pay extra attention to everything taking place in the story. Plus, as most fantasy aficionados know, detailed maps can be very helpful. Having said that, I struggled (particularly early on,) to visualize some of the reference points in between northern (Chanastardh) and southern (Dunthiochagh) Danastaer.
On a related note, I had a sense of disjointedness throughout about half of the book, as though the setting, characters, and plots were connected, but not necessarily to a degree that the average reader would prefer. Put another way: what if a lot of the elements were connected, but in ways more similar to a short story collection, where they’re interconnected by means of character inferences, the mention of certain events, locales, et al. Of course, it’s entirely possible that I missed or overlooked some vital cues. Either way, these critiques aren’t necessarily bad things. They’re just subjective. Regardless, I’d like to believe that the sense of disconnect was deliberate. It makes sense, too, retrospectively, due to the ensuing chaos and uncertainly of life, and of war.
Amidst said chaos was Drangar Ralgon, an admittedly broken man. In many ways, he and his story were the heart of the novel. It’s not hyperbolic to say his anguish. and the increasingly intricate details of his journey, moved me in very powerful and unpredictable ways. Drangar’s journey endearing, unique, and downright creative. I’ve never read anything to compare it to, and I doubt I ever will.
I could say so much more about him and the extent that his hope coupled unevenly with despair, as his narrative went forward. Truly, I could go on for pages. I could also attempt to convey how his chapters tugged fiercely on my heartstrings. Yet I won’t. Drangar’s sojourn is genuinely one to be felt, to be experienced. I think every fantasy reader, especially grimdark fans, should experience Shattered Dreams for themselves. There are reasons why it was a strong contender for Mark Lawrence’s SPFBO in 2017.
Learning about the supporting characters was quite the wild ride, as well. Individuals like the Chosen, Kildanor. And Ealisaid, the witch; the cryptic entity known as Lightbringer. And Lloreanthoran, the elven mage and Anneijhan of House Cirrain. Every character, in fact, brought something a little different to the whole. Lehmann brought many quirks and creativity to them, and that helped inform the reader, not just about their experiences, opinions, and dispositions, but of the world surrounding them. Danastaer was fascinating.
Be that as it may, I think it suffered on one, maybe two, levels. To an extent, at least. Either A.) the cast was too large, which is entirely possible, though I’m inclined to disagree, or B.) the characters were unevenly developed. For example, individuals such as Drangar, Lloreanthoran, and Kildanor were done well. Especially Drangar. Some of the others, however, could’ve significantly informed us of Danastaer’s various idiosyncrasies through their eyes. The cultural and political aspects specifically. Implementing those additional details could’ve brought a stronger cohesiveness to the overall work, and thus an even more engaging narrative.
Please keep in mind: I’m in no way opposed to a heavily populated story. I like them very much. And with a novel as complex and interesting as Shattered Dreams, the multiple perspectives were needed. I can’t imagine it another way.
History played a big part in the world-building. Using both subtle and explanatory text, Lehmann demonstrated the results of the Heir War as well as the Demon War; an impact which was seen and felt in numerous ways, the relative peace notwithstanding. The biggest change was magic itself, and how the masses grew to fear it, courtesy of the Heir—alternately dubbed the Wizard War. The lasting impact of was quite devastating. Yet, it never felt like a history lesson. If anything, the scars of the past grew to feel very natural, almost like mere extensions of Danastaer itself.
The polarizing nature of religion was another means of developing his world. Primarily, Lesganagh and Eanaigh. Once united, history splintered their coupling, driving them into opposing factions, and with them, the deity’s devout followers. The end result was cataclysmic. The religious elements were much more spiritual than faith-based, which shouldn’t be too surprising, given the author’s atheism. What did astound me was how prevalent it was throughout, and more than anything, the deft hand with which Lehmann crafted them.
There were also many different types of realms featured throughout the book, all of which were very cool and uniquely and significantly impacted the sequences of events. Sometimes referred to as the Veil of Dreams, and in other places called the spiritworld ( Drangar, Ealisaid, and Lloreanthoran, primarily,) the development of said realms allowed Lehmann to navigate territory he might not otherwise have pursued. I really must stress it: the way he described them was so cool and vibrant and refreshing. I’d never read anything quite like them. I can’t put into words the sense of wide-eyed wonder they invoked, or the mystery surrounding the realms. Their intricacies weren’t one and done, either, but rather gradual revelations. Those details, in themselves, were dazzling, yet he wasn’t done yet. Unlike a lot of stories, Lehmann didn’t provide solutions in a readily and easily remedied fashion. He makes the characters—and his audience—really work for the answers.
That wasn’t just the case with his realms ( countless in number, I believe, according to the elven mage,) but in general. He rarely spelled anything out for you, and I cannot tell you how relieving that was, and how much I respect him for it. As a result, there were many scenes where upon reading them, I was utterly flummoxed. I had no idea what was going on, where, or even why. A couple times, the characters in question weren’t even identified until later.
As if that wasn’t enough, splayed aesthetically across the pages were sufficient political intrigue, coupled with personal betrayal, espionage, ulterior motives, malfeasance, manipulation, and in the thick of other factors, backstabbing aplenty. Does that remind you of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire ? If so, I’d agree that the Game of Thrones books were highly influential to him. However, I think Lehmann’s take was much more subtle, his foreshadowing clear only upon deep reflection. It’s just not glaringly obvious. The author obviously put a lot of time and thought (probably years and years,) into the history and how the wars would impact Danastaer; the structure of the magic system, which was awesome and, also unlike a lot of fantasy, in abundance. The character’s actions were also incredibly strategic, instead of being happenstance or products of mere convenience.
His prose was clear and succinct, and made all the more impressive since that English wasn’t his native tongue. The ease of it felt very natural and seamless. It was pure joy to behold his unique vison, and to watch it unfold with the utmost brevity.
I mentioned it being a slow burn, and I’d feel almost remiss not to emphasize it. In the interest of transparency, things didn’t really intensify until about the halfway point. Once they did, there was also a sense of urgency to the pace. That did not let up until the penultimate chapter, centering around Drangar. Having said that, the chapters were never filler. Everything served a purpose. Reading Shattered Dreams was a lot of fun. It was never dull or boring. I was consistently fascinated by these characters (wondering what they’d do next and why,) and their world. The final chapter ventured back to Lloreanthoran and the details of his personal journey. Going forward, it promises to home in on the enigmatic Sons of Traksor. I’m very excited for that. But If there was one relatively disappointing chapter, it would be this one. Not because it’s bad, but because I expected something more engaging or shocking to wrap up this tome. Actually, the chapter featured some of my favorite passages and insights. You learn a lot about him in unexpected ways. It served as a great start to the next leg of his journey. Perhaps it would’ve worked better if placed a chapter of two earlier. If it had then culminated in an epic return to the war, I probably would’ve given it five stars. I just wanted—expected—it to end on a high note, not necessarily with a cliffhanger, but some method of raising the already high stakes in a wholly earned way. You know? Either way, I loved it overall, and hereby award it four solid stars.
*Eagerly awaiting book II, Shattered Hopes.
Thank you, Ulff, for being so awesome and understanding.