The Arrival (Ascension Book 1) is a fantasy epic by Dakota Kemp, and is the winner of the Full Moon Awards 2014 Fantasy Prize.
The book tells the story of several figures in the world of Vrold, where war has begun to tear its peoples apart when brutal attacks spring out and turn up tensions and open old wounds between city-states.
As battle rears its ugly head, heroes – likely and not – begin to answer their individual calls to action across the land, their fates intertwined through a web of secrets: the young officer Kelvar Alexandros who finds himself doubting the cause he has trained to lead the fight and prepared to die for at the edge of his awaited glory; the wily sorceress Telaine Le Fay whose efforts to solve conflicts with negotiation and investigation prove a far deeper well to tap than first imagined; the unconventional mind of Master Jax comes across a secret and a conspiracy that could put everything at risk, if he can prove it, as much as he wishes not to; the village boy Tor who lives a simple life, until Jarwulf – leader of a fearless company of warriors – shows him a fire inside that must take him away from home and into untold dangers. Together the true purpose of these conflicts is revealed, and only when fully realized can hope stand a chance.
While falling into many tropes of the fantasy genre (complete with a plot thread focusing on a farm boy with a warrior’s heart going on an adventure away from home), Arrival has in its favor a vibrant cast that remain distinct from their stereotypes and an excellent style of writing to set it apart. While familiar in form, borrowing a lot of cultural aesthetic and naming conventions from ancient civilization and a lot of usual fantasy concepts, the originality and the altogether craftsmanship of the finished writing really shines out and engages from the start. Though the prologue chapter, which sets the book up as more of a violent fantasy with shape-shifting and murder as a mainstay, is perhaps not the strongest writing of the piece, it provides a decent hook for the reader to question as we get to the real meat of the read: the characters, and their world.
The book is focused mostly on the characters, their ordeals, their emotions, their development. The war is mostly a stage for the players to act on, until later on, and this is an excellent choice in focus over the battles themselves. What would otherwise be a cut-out stereotype for most of the main characters actually feels real, with a real personality and a history that affects their thoughts and their actions in a visible way. Only occasionally do they feel like a vehicle for plot purposes in the whole 435 page volume, with chunks of background and story falling out of their mouths without as much lead up as might be desired. No real mistakes are really made, but taking into account the bulky size of the book and some unnecessary repetitions here and there, the book could have benefited from some small alterations in places that would have made an considerable, if still rather minor, improvement to the book.
These issues aside, The Arrival is one of the best fantasy novels I’ve read this year, harking back to the likes of Christopher Paolini’s Eragon (et al of Inheritance Cycle) and George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. While lofty comparisons, it has the same timeless feel with its own rich world and palpable characterization with familiar aspects that makes it unique and wonderful but easy to read.
There are constant gray areas of morality and seeds of doubt sowed from the very beginning in subtle ways, both of which are recognized and questioned by characters with their own knowledge and deduction that makes you feel better connected and believe in their ability to handle themselves. It all comes to a head when the real conspiracy of the situation is discovered, and suddenly any gray seems much whiter in comparison.
It’s a brilliantly spun tale and worth the time to sit down with it if the aforementioned styles appeal to you. The tale does live up to the title of an “epic” as time goes on, but is much more a journey than a simple accomplishment, starting at the foot of a great hill of tension, and is much greater for it in the end.