Book Review: Snakewood by Adrian Selby

A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

SnakewoodSnakewood by Adrian Selby

Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Series: Book 1 / Stand Alone

Publisher: Orbit (March 15, 2016)

Length: 432 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

It has been ten years since the mercenary group known as Kailen’s Twenty broke up and went their separate ways. But now, some of its members are rallying to their leader again, drawn together by an assassin who has been methodically hunting each and every one of them down. Always, a black coin is found somewhere on the murdered corpse—a symbol of betrayal.

As Gant and Shale race to warn the others, neither of them have an idea of why a killer might be after them. Goodness knows Kailen’s Twenty has done some terrible things in their time, but they have always honored a contract. So what could have precipitated this sudden string of vengeance and violence? The answer lies somewhere in the past, as the pieces of the puzzle fall into the place to reveal the truth behind a mysterious event that happened all those years ago, in a place called Snakewood.

I’ll give Snakewood this: it has a very unique premise and one of the coolest like-magic-but-not-really-magic systems I’ve ever seen, which I’ll most definitely rave more about in a bit. That said, I feel like I have a lot of good things I want to say about this book, but almost all of them come with caveats. For example, as much as I love being thrown straight into the action, there were also sections of the book (especially in the beginning) that proved very confusing and difficult to follow, and while the good news is that the confusion eventually lifts, I also fear it may come too late for some.

Part of the issue stems from the structure of the story, which is made up of a series of accounts gathered by a chronicler named Goran. As a result, the narrative is non-linear, told retrospectively, and also subject to frequent point-of-view switching. It’s an interesting style of storytelling, which in turn has its downsides, namely a disorganized introduction and uneven pacing. For instance, we kick things off with an account by Gant, one of the surviving mercenaries of Kailen’s Twenty. His narrative is told from the perspective of someone who clearly assumes that whoever is reading this book already knows all the terminology, people, and places he’s talking about. His way of speaking is also very rough, peppered with brew jargon and grammatical errors, which in itself is a double-edged sword, making Gant’s voice seem very genuine and “in character” while also making it hard to tease out what he’s trying to say.

It makes me think that Snakewood would have been well served with a glossary. A handy list of brews, plants, and their effects would have been helpful as well, given the mercenaries’ heavy reliance on them. One of the biggest problems I had with the beginning was how jumbled everything felt simply because so much was given to me without context or explanation, and keeping track of the large number of different characters also made getting through the intro difficult. Things didn’t smooth out until well after the quarter way mark, which works out to more than a hundred pages.

Fact of the matter is, the experience improves by leaps and bounds after this point, but a fair amount of investment is required, and that may be a deal breaker for some readers. Personally, I’m happy I decided to stick it out, because once I got into the meat of the story, I found I started to enjoy it more and more. One of POVs ultimately emerged as my favorite, and surprisingly, it was that of the mysterious assassin. “Sand”, as he is first called, captivated me because of the depth of his character. He is by no means a good person, being a sadistic killer and alchemical master who gives no thought to the victims of his experiments. And yet, there’s also something to be admired about his commitment and loyalty to those he has sworn to protect. Some part of me also rooted for him because of the underhanded way he was betrayed, and it was sickening the horrors he had to live through because of that betrayal. This is definitely a story in which the antagonist—if that is indeed what Sand is—beats out everyone else for being most fleshed out and fascinating.

Finally, I loved the concept of fight brews. It looks and sounds a lot like magic, but in truth, it’s chemistry. Snakewood takes place in a world that values plants and reagents because of their effects, with new recipes always high in demand and those who can create them held in reverence. Alchemical mixtures can come in many forms, like powders, pastes, potions, vapors, and more. They can also be used to heal or to harm. Mercenaries employ brews as weapons, incapacitating their enemies with hallucinogens, or killing them outright with poisons. They also use brews to enhance their abilities, like a certain kind of leaf dissolved under the eyelids might give one eagle-sight, or a quaff of a potion might make you stronger, faster and more agile. However, there’s also a terrible physiological cost to using brews, called “paying the color”. Some mercenaries are literally marked for life, their skin color or texture permanently altered by whatever they ingested. And like a drug, coming off the high from a brew can also give you one hell of a crash, and some brews are so addictive that those who use them become trapped in this vicious cycle, leading to ugly results.

Ultimately, I’m glad that I read Snakewood. Granted, the first quarter of it was rough going, but I liked the rest of it a lot, and if there’s a sequel I would pick it up in a heartbeat. The non-linear, “jumping around” style of the storytelling and inconsistent pacing are the book’s main weaknesses, along with the difficult-to-read narrative. But if you can make it past the intro and get used to the unconventional voice used by some of the characters, you might just find plenty to admire about this uniquely dark and gritty fantasy. An intriguing debut.

3stars

Mogsy 2

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28 Comments on “Book Review: Snakewood by Adrian Selby

  1. I agree with everything you said, I am about a third of the way through and the first 20% were a bit of a struggle to get through. I am enjoying much more now but still, I don’t think that it is going to end one my list of favorite books of the year 😛
    Sand is a guy?! :O So far I thought that he was a she. Oh well.

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  2. The rough start there has me a bit worried BUT I’ve never been one to give up on books easily so I think I could stick through the complications and it sounds like it’d be worth it! I love the sound of the magic-that-isn’t-really-magic and I do love my assassins 😉 I might just check this one out Mogsy^^

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    • I hate DNFing too, because there’s always that question of “what if it gets better?” lingering in the back of my mind. I have to say, this one did get better, after a rocky intro. The concept of fight brews is amazing, I love that. I can understand too why this wouldn’t work though, it’s very confusing at the beginning!

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  3. Non-linear stories and switches in POV are not a problem for me, but a confused beginning might prove a difficult obstacle for me, nevertheless I’ve had my eyes on this book since it started popping up here and there and… well, I’m receiving some good “book vibes” so only time will tell 🙂
    Thanks for sharing!

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  4. I started off confused I confess (and as you know!). Then I decided I needed to shut myself away quietly to read and by about 30% – yeah, I can say that it was under my skin. The start feels very disjointed. There’s a lot to pick up on, the vernacular writing style felt a bit difficult to get used to and there are lot’s of terms that are new to this story. But, I noticed the chapters for each person then seem to lengthen and so you’re able to sink a little bit more into the story rather than jumping around. About 50% in – it’s definitely not a fast reading experience but I hope it ends well and I would say that I’m enjoying it at the moment. Pity about the tricky start which certainly seems to be putting some people off.
    Lynn 😀

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    • Hooray to hear that you are enjoying it, even though it took 50%, lol. For me, it definitely started picking up around the 25-30% mark. The vernacular writing never really lets up, but I did get into the rhythm of the non linear storytelling. Looking forward to you full review 🙂

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  5. I have this one on my TBR list, mostly because the description reminded me of a few other books that sounded like they may or may not be my thing but I ended up really enjoying them, so I figured it’d be worth it to give this one a shot, too. Definitely appreciate the heads-up about being thrown into the action and the confusing lack of context. That might make it easier for me to plow through if I find myself frustrated when I read it.

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  6. I loved the idea of the fight brews, but sadly, I didn’t get far enough into the story to learn more about them; the one Sand chapter I did read, I thought was the best chapter I read in the book, and I really wanted to learn more about that mystery assassin, but sadly, again, I didn’t get far enough in the book to learn more about them. It is super cool to hear that Sand ends up being that mystery assassin (I knew that Sand character would have a good twist to it).

    I understand that with some books, you just have to get through the begging for it to get good. I read plenty of books like that, and say that about plenty of books too. The thing is, most of those book, it is more of waiting for the “plot” to get good. I’ve also read books that had a bad plot, or boring characters, or even prose I didn’t like. The one thing is, all those books, that was the ONE bad thing it had, with the other aspects of the story I did enjoy. With Snakewood, there wasn’t anything to hold on to that I was enjoying for me to wait until things got good.

    I did think about maybe going back, and trying to finish it, but for how much I was already displeased with it up 40% and what I was not liking about it (I liked the plot, and the prose certainly weren’t going to improve), I couldn’t justify putting in the effort. If I give a book’s first half a 1/5 star, how much could it really improve for to say, at the end, I actually enjoyed reading it (3/5 star)? Plus, the next two book I picked up was Arena (a very fun read, with simple prose), and now Providence of Fire (and we all know my love for Staveley’s writing).

    So maybe oneway it comes on sale in audio, I’ll give it a shot, but I’m happy with my decision for now.

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  7. Pingback: Mogsy’s Bookshelf Roundup: Stacking the Shelves & Recent Reads | The BiblioSanctum

  8. Pingback: Sankewood by Adrian Selby – Review | Powder & Page

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