When alchemist’s apprentice Jolan “Flawless” Silas Bershad, a former noble heir and the most successful dragonslayer in Almira, the legendary and unkillable warrior is passed out drunk. In the remainder of Blood of an Exile’s first chapter, Bershad adds another dragon to his tally, but not without surviving what should have been fatal wounds. He is then commanded by his old nemesis Hertzog Malgrave, king of Almira, to return to the capital.
Once there, the king gives the warrior a proposal: infiltrate the impenetrable border of the Balarian Empire, assassinate the Emperor and rescue the king’s kidnapped daughter, in exchange for a pardon. The final incentive? Hertzog’s eldest daughter Ashlyn, once Bershad’s betrothed, supports the plan. Meanwhile, a mysterious man named Garrett makes his way through the Almiran countryside, leaving chaos in his wake. Following in the tradition of grimdark fantasy, Bershad’s quest is littered with moral ambiguity and viscera, and neither his survival nor the survival of his homeland is at all assured.
Brian Naslund’s thoroughly enjoyable debut could easily be yet another entry in the rapidly growing canon of gritty fantasy, but it distinguishes itself by the depth of its environment. In fact, this fantasy epic features a war over the ecological impacts of dragon hunting and includes a compendium of the various species of dragon as an appendix. Naslund displays equal fluency when crafting vivid battles and compelling, slightly wonkish academic disputes. And to his credit, although he doesn’t shy away from sex or gore, he doesn’t rely on them to carry the novel either and instead relies on the tension of his plot.
The one possible weakness in Blood of an Exile, at least for fans of darker fantasy novels, is the occasional softening of its adherence to grimdark plot devices. Unlike similar authors Abercrombie or Cook, the moral ambiguity of Naslund’s protagonists can seem a little forced. However, the story is compelling all the same. This is a hybrid of grimdark and high fantasy, with a fairly typical quest to save the world seasoned with descriptive grit and an incredibly thorough, well-designed world.
Blood of an Exile is a perfect choice for readers who want an intelligent, well-crafted fantasy novel that draws on the grimdark aesthetic but prefer their stories without any extra helpings of hopelessness.