[Note: the publisher has reformatted the book into two volumes, Book 1: Chained, and Book 2: Quest. This review refers to the original combined edition. Book 2 has an additional Prologue and Epilogue.]
It's always a pleasure to come across a richly imagined secondary world, and the author has produced a terrific example here. There are whole continents, mountains, islands with realistic climates and distances worked out; there are humans with clearly differentiated races; there are cities and keeps and ports with distinctive characteristics; there are details of languages and religions and clothes and food and customs. There is a long list of intriguing sentient non-human races - the hermaphrodite Galvorians, for instance, and the avian Netreptans who live in cloud cities. Oh, and mer-people. There are knights who fly on griffons. There are numerous different nations, a multitude of alliances and a several thousand year history. All of these combine to create a wonderfully textured and nuanced backdrop to the story. And there are maps - lots of maps, very detailed, and a list of characters and a glossary and a timeline. This is great stuff, and I love it.
The magic system is not well defined yet, although mages are aligned with the four elementals of earth, air, fire and water, there are wild mages and dark mages and rebel mages, and there have been mage wars, suggesting a turbulent history. And the prisms of the series title are clearly an important part of things. There are also clear limits to what is possible with magic, and costs involved, which I like to see. Nothing is as dull as a character with virtually unlimited powers.
With so much detailed background, it does mean that the early part of the book is littered with references to people, places, events which are a mystery, but this is traditional in fantasy and it isn't hard to keep up. Besides, the reader is drawn in by the other great strength of the book - its characters, who all feel like real, well-rounded people. And if the early focus, the slightly naive Emelia, is not particularly interesting yet, there are others who are - Jem and Hunor, for instance, and the shape-shifting Marthir and her pals. I like the female knight, as well - nice to see women in non-traditional roles, doing their own thing, not simply there as motivation for the blokes.
I do have one quibble about Emelia. For an otherwise meek and sensible person, she shows a reckless tendency to listen at doors or chase after people she shouldn't. It's like those cheap horror films when the hero(ine) hears noises in the basement at night... Sometimes you should just run the other way. To be fair, the author establishes this aspect of her personality right from the start, but still it seemed a slightly implausible way to get her to overhear or see things. But I like the way she takes control of her own destiny, and isn't simply pushed around as a victim. There are times when she seems quite passive, following the others' lead, but it isn't unreasonable, given her age and experience.
The plot is nothing very original. There's a servant girl who has innate powers which make her special, which she has to learn to control. There appears to be an evil mage with a dastardly plot to enhance his abilities and make himself super-powerful. There are political machinations going on. There are some clichés around - the dreams, for instance, although this is part of the title, and actually I think they work rather well. Some of the plot devices are a little threadbare - the debauched son of the house, the I-don't-know-what-came-over-me blackouts, the mysterious stranger in the graveyard and so on. Once the story gets properly under way, however, there's plenty of action going on, with sword-fighting and mage battles and the like, and we get to travel around this wonderful world too, which is great fun. I very much liked the ruined or changed cities which dramatically paint in the historical background, far more effectively than the mini info-dumps, or characters explaining it.
Some minor issues. The author's writing style is nicely evocative without being overblown, but there are a few typos, especially with names, and there are numerous sound-alike spelling howlers and a grammatical error or two which had my inner pedant screaming. This is not uncommon in self-published works, but it does detract from an otherwise well-written book. However, the series has recently been picked up by a publisher, so hopefully these problems will be fixed.
The middle sections sagged a little in places, but mainly because I was so invested in the two threesomes (Emelia, Hunor, Jem; and Marthir, Ygris and, um, the other one) that any digressions from their stories seemed annoying to me. I'm not sure that we really needed to see the bad guys up close anyway, busily pursuing their evil sorcery, with a little recreational dismemberment thrown in. This can work to explain their motivation, but (unless I missed something) the objective seemed to be the usual thing: power, global domination, yada yada, without much more underlying it than irredeemable evil. But these episodes did serve to fill in some of the backstory. There is a whole heap of backstory to fill in, it has to be said, and the author seems keen to ensure the reader knows every last drop of it.
What I liked: the wonderful characters and their interactions; the world and everything about it (the detail here is incredible); Emelia's 'inner voice', who even has her own name - Emebaka (is she really a separate entity, or just a part of Emelia? this had me guessing all the way through); the complexity of characters' motivations and actions (Orla's rigid knightly code versus Hunor's pragmatism, for instance, and the difficulty of knowing who is on who's side). There's also some very nice thinking in the different cultures: the Goldorians have a repressive religion which keeps women well wrapped up and burns mages at the stake yet is very liberal with the workers, while the Eerians have slavery and a knightly code of honour. It's terrific to find such thoughtful details in the background. I also liked the romantic tension between the main characters, which was extremely subtle and nicely done.
What worked less well for me: there's lots of action (which is fine), but all too often it was hard to see a logical reason for it and every journey seemed fraught with bad guys and various monsters leaping out of nowhere; and then it was surprising how often someone quite unexpected would come to the rescue at the last moment. To be honest, the numerous skirmishes got a little repetitive after a while. I'm not a big fan of fight scenes, so I tend to let them just wash over me, but they all seemed to be pretty well thought through and moderately realistic, as far as I could tell. There was a certain amount of beheading and dismembering, and blood gushing and so forth, but it never got too gross. The backstory just got too complicated sometimes (too many empires and wars and magely goings on to keep track of). I also lost track of some of the characters from time to time, so I was mystified when they turned up out of the blue (Livor, for instance, or Torm). Happily, my Kindle makes it easy to check back to previous appearances.
The ending seemed a little disjointed. The various characters split up into numerous subgroups each with its own action, and sometimes I had trouble keeping up with who was where and who was fighting whom. One big climactic battle would have been more satisfying, somehow. I was left puzzled by a couple of things - where did the wolf-like thingy come from? and where exactly was the crystal? But I assumed that was just me not paying attention - I was racing through it at the end, desperate to see how it all turned out. On the whole, despite a few minor quibbles, this is an excellent start to the trilogy - richly imagined, well written and thoroughly absorbing. I loved all the main characters, with their quirks and complexities and quarrels and insecurities, and I loved this beautifully detailed world, which feels completely real. A very enjoyable read, and I look forward to the rest of the series. Four stars.