Book Review: Hall of Smoke by H.M. Long
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: Book 1 of Hall of Smoke
Publisher: Titan (January 19, 2021)
Length: 432 pages
Maybe it’s all the time I’ve spent playing Norse mythology inspired video games in the past few years, like the latest iteration of God of War series or more recently the new Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, but I found Hall of Smoke to be quite enjoyable, probably because it scratched so many of the same itches. The story opens on the fictional world of the Arpa Empire, following a young warrior priestess named Hessa who is sworn to Eang, the Goddess of War. One day, our protagonist receives a message from her patron deity commanding her to kill a lone stranger traveling through their village. Caught off guard by the man’s kindness, however, Hessa ends up failing to carry out the task, and thus is banished from the sacred Hall of Smoke as punishment for her disobedience.
This is how Hessa finds herself alone on the mountain, about to supplicate herself before her goddess, when the attack on her village comes. But by the time she hears the sounds of battle coming from below, it is too late. She rushes home to find everything razed to the ground and everyone dead. Filled with grief and a desire for revenge, Hessa sets off on a journey to hunt down the man she was supposed to kill, her devotion to Eang still as strong as ever. Hoping to fulfill her goddess’ destiny for her and get back in her good graces, Hessa is determined not to hesitate this time, though nothing could have prepared her for the many challenges ahead, some of which will test her resolve and make her question everything she thought she knew about life, death, and the nature of the gods.
Ahh, this book was such a wonderful and refreshing treat for fans of mythological fantasy and gorgeously crafted worlds! It is also an adventure about the lives of heroic mortals and the gods that seek to influence them. Author H.M. Long has created a rich and lushly detailed world full of magic and monsters, and we are treated to vivid descriptions of the exotic locales around the Empire everywhere Hessa goes.
Hall of Smoke is also an in-depth character study of our protagonist, who Long puts through the wringer. Right from the start, Hessa’s journey has been marked by pain and hardship, being punished simply for the crime of showing compassion, and that’s even before she ends up losing everyone she’s ever loved. Although she has a good heart and is strong-willed, she is not without her flaws, namely a single-mindedness that frequently leads her astray. She also wants vengeance for the slain as well as forgiveness from her goddess, but her limited experiences have left her helpless when faced with problems that make her question her devotion to Eang, not to mention moments where it feels as if Hessa’s beliefs are all-consuming and color every aspect of her life, making it quite difficult to connect with her at times.
Story-wise, the plot is mostly engaging, helped by the strength of the author’s flowing prose. I do like how Hessa travels to different places, keeping the adventure narrative fresh, though the pacing does suffer slightly once things got a little repetitive. Granted, the mystery of the gods was what kept me reading, especially those little snippets where we got to see Hessa interact with Eang, but overall I did feel that the story might have teased us for too long which made me lose some of my interest. And while I understood that this was strictly Hessa’s tale, I also couldn’t help but feel regret for the transience of many of her relationships with the people she meets. It seemed a shame that very few of them, some of whom were actually quite fascinating, were able to stick around to play a more significant role in her life.
Still, overall, despite some bumps along the road, I did enjoy Hall of Smoke. It’s a bold take on a “gods among us” type Viking-inspired fantasy which I would love to see more of, hence my joy at discovering that a follow-up novel is in the works. I plan on checking it out.