A schism in the faith...

After reading and loving the first book in Meredith's NEEDLE AND LEAF series, I was curious to check out the first book in his KALLATIAN SAGA and was able to fit it in on audio. 

4/5 In spite of how I tend to struggle with the "epic fantasy" subgenre, the remarkable characters, creative setting, and intricate world building all captured my attention and left me wanting to know what will come next in this series.

This first entry into THE KALLATIAN SAGA features three main POVs and four main characters (two of them share their POV chapters), though brief interludes will sometimes tell part of the story from another character's perspective. In the interest of not burying the lede, I think DEATHLESS BEAST's cast of characters is the biggest reason why this book is so special. Hanen and Rallia try to make a living as part of the mercenary group known as the Black Sentinels. A Paladin named Jined follows a calling to pursue a deeper faith. Katiam struggles with finding a balance between managing her duties and the desire to chose her own destiny. Each of these characters as well as the various members of the supporting cast are interesting because, in many ways, they are just ordinary people. There aren't any chosen ones, or heroes of legend, or even a motley crew of extraordinary people being sent on a seemingly impossible quest. Instead the missions that these characters go on are of a much more personal nature and none of the characters are particularly exceptional in the ways that you might expect them to be. That's not to say they are at all boring though. Instead, I found each of them to be alarmingly relatable in their own way and found myself deeply invested in both the physical and metaphorical journeys that they go on. The sibling dynamic between Hanen and Rallia, the depth of Jined's knowledge of scripture, and Katiam's dedication to her Matriarch as well as her role as a physician were such memorable elements of their characterizations. As the story progressed, I loved being able to discover the little nuances and histories for each of them. Jined in particular offered some nice surprises.

The plot of this novel is one that's kind of tricky to talk about. I would say that first and foremost, this is a character-driven story. The draw is less about some epic quest or looming threat that drives all the action, and more about the individual journeys of each of our main characters. It wasn't even clear to me until almost the end of the book how the "Deathless Beast" title would come into play. That's not to say that this story is entirely without purpose though. In fact, everything secretly moves toward something rather climactic, that just won't be evident until near the end. As someone who prefers tight, focused narratives, I will admit that I struggled a tiny bit with my perceived lack of direction with the story. For the most part, the character work and almost-cozy quality to Meredith's writing is what kept me going. I say "almost-cozy" because although the story is generally wholesome and devoid of most "rated-R" content, there are some exciting and rather violent action scenes sprinkled in throughout. I thought these battles were brilliantly done and helped to break up the slower/quieter character moments while also leaving hints to what would come in during the final chapters. One thing I really appreciated about Meredith's approach to this kind of storytelling is that there is a gradual escalation to the finish line where little reveals, the outcomes of certain conflicts, and even the characters' backstories all contribute to something that is much bigger than the sum of it's parts. As much as I love a good "Sanderlanche," that type of narrative structure led me to feeling like Sanderson's THE WAY OF KINGS didn't really start until the end of the book and while in some ways that's not super fair, I think in others that sentiment rings true. Even though DEATHLESS BEAST's ending is also very much a lead-in to the next book, I found myself not feeling cheated as I often do at the end of the first entry in an epic fantasy series. The progression felt more organic, the ending more deserved, and overall, my experience was just much more satisfying than it usually is in this subgenre.

The world of THE KALLATION SAGA is another huge draw to this series in that it is an interesting blend of a fairly typical medieval fantasy setting with something a bit more alien mixed in. The best way I can describe it is that it falls somewhere between Tolkien's Middle Earth and Sanderson's Roshar. There aren't any non-human races that you might expect to see in this type of story like elves or dwarves. Instead, you get the bird-like hrelgren and amphibious qavls. Vül take the place or goblins/orcs and even animal life is substituted for something more fantastical with horses being absent and people riding six-legged sleipnir in their stead. This is something I really appreciated about the way the worldbuilding was handled. As much as I may love Tolkienian races, I tend to be much more impressed when something brand new is brought to the table in a fantasy setting. At the same time, specific human nations seem to be reminiscent of real European countries with names and accents seeming to indicate that one place might be the equivalent of England, another France, and so on. This kind of familiarity helped ground the world for me and served as an interesting contrast to it's more alien elements. As I was consuming this story on audiobook, I didn't have a map to reference, but I will say that I felt pretty clear on the geography of the world even if I wasn't always aware of the full picture of where everything is.

Another aspect of the world that I really appreciated was the way that mythology and faith play such an important role in the stories. While I imagine there is still much about the pantheon of mysterious gods and goddesses that the series has yet to explore, I loved learning about the legends of these immortal beings and was pleasantly surprised when a couple of them actually played a tangible role in the narrative itself. Although the beliefs described in the stories are purely fictional, I loved the way that faith and religion are portrayed in the context of this world. It is clear that the author truly understands what it is to not only live according to a set of teachings, but also what it is like to sometimes question those beliefs and/or seek a deeper sort of faith as Jined aims to do. Aside from Sanderson's work, I often find the representation of religious characters in fantasy books to be hollow, if not downright toxic, and so it is always refreshig to see this part of many people's human experience play out in such an empathetic and well-roundned way.

One of the most impressive aspects of the audio edition of this book is that it was actually narrated by the author himself. Now, you would certainly be forgiven if that gives you pause, but Andrew D. Meredith does such an incredible job of delivering both the dialogue and the prose. It is clear that he has some kind of background in performing arts since every character felt distinctly portrayed and I honestly thought this was of a higher quality than many traditionally published audiobooks.

If you already like slow-burn, character-driven epic fantasies, then you absolutely have to pick this up. Even if you are like me and have had some mixed results with this type of storytelling in the past, then I think you should still give it a shot as there is an awful lot to love here for different types of readers.

(+) Characters that felt real, but also really likeable and endearing (proving that "realistic" characters doesn't always have to mean that your characters or horrid human beings)
(+) Fantastic representation of faith and what living life according to a set of religious teachings is really like even though this is all done in a fantastical context
(+) Some exciting action sequences to break up the more character-centric moments
(+) Fascinating mythology and lore that has tangible impacts on the characters and plot
(+) An ending packed with huge revelations that will likely have some fun impacts on the next book(s)
(+) A unique fantasy setting that contains wholly original non-human races as well as otherworldly animals
(-) I think I mostly just have a strong preference towards narratives that are a bit for linear/focused
(-) I missed a couple of key details early on about some of the non-human characters and that threw me off a little bit for a time


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