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Book: “Hall of Smoke” by H.M. Long
Publishing Info: Titan Books, January 2021
Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library!
Book Description: Hessa is an Eangi: a warrior priestess of the Goddess of War, with the power to turn an enemy’s bones to dust with a scream. Banished for disobeying her goddess’s command to murder a traveler, she prays for forgiveness alone on a mountainside.
While she is gone, raiders raze her village and obliterate the Eangi priesthood. Grieving and alone, Hessa – the last Eangi – must find the traveller, atone for her weakness and secure her place with her loved ones in the High Halls. As clans from the north and legionaries from the south tear through her homeland, slaughtering everyone in their path, Hessa strives to win back her goddess’ favour.
Beset by zealot soldiers, deceitful gods, and newly-awakened demons at every turn, Hessa burns her path towards redemption and revenge. But her journey reveals a harrowing truth: the gods are dying and the High Halls of the afterlife are fading. Soon Hessa’s trust in her goddess weakens with every unheeded prayer.
Thrust into a battle between the gods of the Old World and the New, Hessa realizes there is far more on the line than securing a life beyond her own death. Bigger, older powers slumber beneath the surface of her world. And they’re about to wake up.
Review: I heard great things about this book last year when it came out. I diligently researched it on Goodreads and quickly added it to my TBR list. And then….I waited over a year to read it. Sometimes this works out well for me, and this was one of those instances! If you wait long enough, sometimes your local library will acquire the audiobook. And sometimes that audiobook will have an excellent narrator. And sometimes all of the procrastination pays off with having a great book to listen to throughout the week while you clean the house and care for kids!
Hessa’s entire life she has been centered around a task set her by her priestess and her goddess: she must kill a particular man when the signs align. But when that time comes, Hessa is swayed by mercy and stalls her hand. Now banished by her goddess and with her village razed, Hessa struggles to re-organize a world that has gone mad. Gods are fighting and dying. Strange beings are rising and claiming that these gods are not even gods at all. And an entire history and world order that Hessa thought she knew is beginning to crumble before her. What’s more, it seems the role that she and the man she spared will play is much bigger than she could ever have imagined.
There were many things to like about this book. Hessa herself goes on an incredible journey of both understanding herself and understanding her world. She starts off as a priestess who, while currently out of grace, still understands who she is and who she serves: her warrior goddess Eang. Throughout time, the goddess’s priestesses have fought and served her, and in return she has given them her blessing and abilities to quell their enemies with a magical scream. But as the story continues, Hessa begins to question Eang and her entire world order.
Unlike many other fantasy books that include a sprawling pantheon of new gods, this one is unique in the fact that the gods themselves are very much characters in their own right. They walk the land, fight amongst themselves, and interact with their followers. It was such a unique take to have these gods present in this way. Like Hessa, we see Eang and her fellow gods and begin to question the stories they tell about themselves and the roles they play for their followers. Eang, of course, is central, and her coolness and cruelty towards Hessa immediately raises eyebrows. But an entire lived experience and history of one’s own people is not easy to dismiss, so Hessa’s journey towards self-discovery and her decision to take the reigns of her own choices is slowly earned over time.
Beyond the sprawling history of gods (there is Eang and her fellow gods, a set of gods that she and the new gods defeated, another set of gods who may have come before those, and then another god making his own way onto the scene, to the dismay of Eang and her brethren), the world itself is quite large and peopled by a variety of cultures with their won practices and gods. I believe there is a map in the physical book, so this was definitely a struggle with the audiobook. I really enjoyed the narrator, so on that front, it was a complete win. But with such a big world with so many lands and peoples, I had a hard time keeping track of where exactly Hessa was on the map and where she was headed.
The story is also very narrowly focused on Hessa and her own personal experiences. There are a few side characters who play important roles, but no side-kick, no love interest, and no quirky best friends. Her world is burned down on the first page, and the story doesn’t shy away from the very unbalanced individual that is Hessa after this fact. While I always enjoy love interests and friendships, Hessa’s story was also completely satisfying on its own.
Readers who enjoy sprawling epic fantasy where you’re plopped down in a completely new world with very little initial explanation, this is definitely a book for you! It’s a nice balance of focused character work and grand-scale storytelling.
Rating 8: With a world equally peopled by its gods as its human characters, this is epic fantasy at some of its best.