Title: Hall of Smoke
Author: H.M. Long
Hessa is an Eangi, a warrior priestess of Eang, the goddess of war. Exiled from her temple for failing to kill a man as instructed by her goddess, she is trying to atone for her sin when her village is razed by the enemy. As the last priestess alive she vows to protect her people while they are taken into slavery, and win back her goddess’s favour, so that she can be reunited with her loved ones in the High Halls after death.
But the only way to do that is to find the man she was supposed to kill and complete the task the goddess has assigned to her.
Travelling in a world torn by invaders to the south and refugees from the north, she navigates unlikely friends and deceitful deities, old gods and new ones, all vying for power. With her faith wavering, Hessa will realise that far more than her place in the High Halls is at stake; ancient beings are stirring, ready to walk the earth once more.
A closer look
If you like standalone fantasy novels, viking-inspired settings, meddling gods and ancient lore, this book is for you.
I went into it blind, not even sure if it was a YA or an adult novel, the first in a series or a standalone, and I was gripped from the first page.
The story begins with Hessa, the protagonist, praying in a small temple on the mountain, in an attempt to gain forgiveness for failing to kill the man her goddess had instructed her to kill. But enemies from the north sweep the village, killing every warrior and capturing the remaining people. As she is carried away with the rest of them, she meets the man she was supposed to kill in the midst of the enemy camp. Even wounded and grieving, she tries to fulfil her Eang’s order, but he overpowers her and leaves her behind.
She then turns south for help, hoping to find allies in the land of a god allied with Eang, so that she can recover and start looking for her prey again.
She meets new friends and unexpected allies on the way, and while her faith wavers with every unanswered prayer, she pushes on in the hopes of being able to join her loved ones after her death.
The plot is never predictable; yes, you can guess where the story will carry the protagonist, but there are many twists and turns, character reveals, and every new bit of information about the history and the gods makes it a bit harder to fully predict what will happen next.
The descriptions are well balanced, so that they are informative but not overlong, and manage to depict an interesting world. In this viking-inspired setting, gods are really present in the lives of their people; they appear to them, give them tiny bits of power, nurture and protect them, but they also demand obedience. I really liked the details surrounding the rituals and little things the people did for or believed about their deities, and how we discover new bits of information here and there throughout the story.
There are new gods, which are the ones the protagonist is most familiar with, but as we follow her along we come to the realisation that the old gods are still alive and threaten to come back, and that even older and more powerful creatures exist. So the stakes become higher and higher: it’s not only Hessa and her own people, but now the gods themselves are on the brink of war, and we discover everything together with the protagonist, in bits and pieces, trying to figure out what is really going on behind everything.
The novel is written in first person from Hessa’s perspective, and even though she doesn’t spend too much time exploring the world, the author manages to sprinkle just enough details into her thoughts and conversation so that the reader is never left in the dark, but at the same time the explanations don’t sound forced.
She is a well-developed, strong character, but undergoes moments of weakness as well; her family and fellow warriors have been eradicated and grief and desperation hit her in waves. At the same time she still holds some hope of saving the rest of her people and a desire to fight for them, if only to escape her guilt.
Even the way she relates to the characters she meets along the way is realistic. She feels she cannot trust anyone, but at the same time she is always aware of how important it is to hide her true thoughts in the presence of strangers; she thinks things through most of the times, and comes off as a careful and intelligent woman.
The other characters are really interesting as well. All of them are three-dimensional and no one is entirely good or bad, strong or weak. Some of them are introduced as friends and turn out to be enemies; some others look like enemies at first but become allies by the end, and none of it is as obvious as it might sound.
One character in particular confused me; I liked him and wanted to believe he was on the protagonist’s side, so even when some of his actions didn’t add up I just brushed it aside. Until he came up and openly revealed that he was working with the bad guys.
I guess that goes to show either that the author knew what she was doing all along, or that I’m really bad at reading people. You pick.
All in all, I really enjoyed this book, both in terms of story and writing.
Do I think it’s perfect? Well, no. But it’s a good story, well paced, with characters you can root for and an interesting world. And considering that this is a debut novel, I’ll be sure to check out anything else this author writes in the future.