Book Review: The Burning Isle by Will Panzo
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Ace (November 1, 2016)
Length: 432 pages
One never knows what to expect when diving into a debut, especially when the book in question comes with the ambitious label of “grimdark”. Because this happens to be one of my favorite subgenres, I can be quite demanding—not to mention I also have very particular tastes. The Burning Isle, however, exceeded expectations even when it didn’t turn out like anything I had in mind. In its own way, this novel was intensely entertaining and satisfying, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it will continue making waves in the fantasy fiction world long into the future.
The story introduces us to its protagonist Cassius, a young spellcaster newly arrived on a savage, lawless island that serves as home to those who can’t find welcome anywhere else. Scipio is made up of a slum situated on the edge of a jungle, but while the city itself is ruled by two warring crime lords, the real power resides with the enigmatic general who oversees everything with a vast army from his stronghold deep in the wilderness.
It is Cassius’ goal to shake this system up, but first he has to make a name for himself. He quickly manages this in spectacular fashion, defeating a rival spellcaster in a very public prize fight on the very first day. Immediately, he uses the notoriety gained from his win to insinuate himself into one of the crime bosses’ employ, kicking off the first step of his carefully formulated plans to overthrow the status quo and change Scipio from within.
But to what end? Will he stand to gain anything from the downfall of the corrupted leaders of the island? And while we’re asking these tough questions, who is Cassius anyway, and why might an outsider be so invested in the future of the city? Will he ultimately be a force for good or evil in the coming war?
From the very start, Will Panzo surrounds his main character with an aura of mystery and magic, making the reader wonder about his endgame. However shrouded his true intentions are though, Cassius has an earnestness about him that makes his personality easy to like. He is powerful in the ways of spellcasting, and yet he would remark upon others’ harsh language or blush at the slightest flirtations from an attractive woman, leading one to guess he must have led a pretty sheltered life. And yet, there’s still the strong sense that he’s far from innocent or naïve, and everything he does is calculated and for a reason.
The Burning Isle is essentially the story of who our protagonist is and why he is on this particular mission to turn Scipio upside down on its head. The author has succeeded in telling a dramatic tale, a large part of which I feel is a coming-of-age character study. Aside from a few instances of info-dumping in the beginning chapters, I also thought that the gradual reveal of Cassius’ past was nicely handled, though readers who have been paying extra attention might be able to guess his purposes and motivations well before the end of the book.
The writing is also solid. I love Panzo’s style, which is impressively detailed but the prose still comes across smooth and light on the eyes. In addition he has a great talent for writing dialogue; every time we had two or more characters interacting on a page, I found myself completely drawn into the scene.
This being a debut though, there were a few areas that could have used some polish. The magic system is one aspect I would have liked to see better developed, because while all the spell-slinging and magical duels may look and sound impressive on paper, I have a hard time wrapping my head around how it all works. I also have mixed feelings about the various interludes that pepper the narrative. While they are significant in providing background information, the author should have been more subtle and taken care not to show his hand too early. Some of these sections were also inserted in places that hindered the overall flow of the story, tempting me to skim.
Apart from those minor points though, there’s nothing truly negative I can say about this book. I really enjoyed it, even if it didn’t perfectly line up with my impressions of grimdark. One can argue the circumstances surrounding Scipio are oversimplified, the protagonist and antagonists’ motivations too superficial and exaggerated to fit the mold of grim realism, but on the other hand, Panzo has created something that’s all together something else, something that’s more sentimental but also filled with darkness and brutality. I was taken with the story, and though this reads like a standalone, I do hope the author will continue to write more books. If he does, I will be eagerly wanting to read them.