This was a weird and wonderful story of a warrior priestess coming to realize that maybe the gods are liars, and that the most important thing is to work for the betterment and security of one’s people instead of haring off to get yourself killed for an idea of glory.
Hessa is an Eangi, one chosen by the Goddess of War herself to bear a shard of her mystic fire. When Hessa is fifteen, she’s tasked by her head priestess Svala to kill a man with mismatched eyes. Three years later, she finally meets the man but has already offered him the hospitality of Hearth Law. Loath to break one of the more binding traditions of the peoples of the north — especially since Omaskat is kind and entirely unlike any of the people she’s killed before — Hessa allows him to pass from Eang’s temple, the Hall of Smoke, unmolested. When Svala finds out, Hessa is banished from the town of Albor until the goddess forgives her. But while Hessa is doing penance, Albor is overrun by the Algatt, their neighbors to the north who worship Gadr, the God of the Mountain. The message is clear: if Hessa wants to save her people, she must track down Omaskat and kill him as she was always meant to do.
This quest sends Hessa all over the map, as she encounters unexpected allies and foes in a landscape suddenly thick with unbound gods and demons. Eang was said to have bound all who wished humanity harm when she conquered the Old Gods, but she seems to be more and more absent from the Waking World. Hessa must contend not only with loose malevolent entities but also with her shaken faith as she seeks to protect what’s left of her people, the Eangen, from what seems to be certain doom, both in this world and the next.
Hall Of Smoke is an intriguing interpretation of the traditional epic quest novel. While loosely based on European myths, HoS doesn’t model itself too closely on any one belief system, in many ways mirroring how fungible the worship of myriad deities historically was, and in the Mediterranean region particularly. The cosmology is fascinating, if occasionally confusing — for example, I don’t understand how Lathian is who he is considering what we know of religion in Arpa — but the world-building overall is sound, and covers territory little explored in modern fantasy. If anything, this reminded me a bit of Nicola Griffith’s Hild, a meticulously researched fictionalization of the early life of St Hilda of Whitby in 7th century Britain, than of more traditional sword-and-sorcery tales. It’s definitely a refreshing take on the holy quest trope.
The main drawback of HoS, however, is in the pacing, which does not lend itself to suspense. Things just sort of happen, plot twists are just revealed. There’s little narrative tension, which is a shame for a book so rich in both action and setting. As this is H. M. Long’s debut novel, this is easily forgivable, as the rest of the book holds so much promise for her future writing. Also, check out that gorgeous foil-stamped cover! Titan Books’ design team is just freaking amazing.
Hall Of Smoke by H. M. Long was published January 19th 2021 by Titan Books and is available from all good booksellers, including
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