Book Review: Child of a Mad God

Birthed from the mind of legendary fantasy author R. A. Salvatore, Child of a Mad God kicks off a brand new series of novels set in the fictional world of Corona, made famous by the DemonWars Saga. Admittedly, my Salvatore experience up to now has been limited to his Forgotten Realms works, so this book marks my first trip to Corona. Going in blind and coming out the other side 496 pages later, I never would have known that this was a part of an existing universe. I’m sure there are periphery connections readers of the previous Corona-based novels will be able to make, but from what I understand the book takes place in a previously unknown area, and stands on its own as a story. I never got a sense that something was going over my head or not being fully explained, as if the author expected me to have prior knowledge of the world.

Child of a Mad God reads like epic fantasy, but the story is confined to the more intimate setting of a lake and its surrounding areas. Called Loch Beag, the lake’s depths are home to a terrifying monster and other creatures that make navigation treacherous and often deadly. The shores of Loch Beag are inhabited by seven tribal societies, plus the Usgar, an eighth tribe of barbaric warriors and witches who come down in raids from the nearby Fireach Speuer mountain, to pillage and terrorize the other tribes, killing their men, raping their women, and capturing their children to work as slaves. Pregnant women are the only people treated with care. Not out of kindness, but to preserve their unborn babies, to raise as perfect slaves.

One of two antagonistic forces throughout the story, the Usgar is a patriarchal tribe in which a woman’s only place is to be given orders. Usgar men claim and tame the women they desire as nothing more than pieces of property and sex objects, forcing them to obey or beating them into submission through rape and other forms of abuse. Of course the great irony of the Usgar is that the male warriors are protected by a Coven of thirteen witches, who harness the power of magical crystals and imbue the men with blessed weaponry and abilities when they go on their raids. Hence the reason why the other tribes view the Usgar as gods or demons. With different types of crystals, the witches are able to conjure elements like lightning and fire, make objects or beings (including themselves) float, or use other telekinetic powers such as far-sight, far-walking, and even possession.

Child of a Mad God introduces us to Aoleyn, a girl of the Usgar whose parents died before she ever knew them. Beginning in God’s Year 839, when she is but three years old, and unfolding in time jumps over four parts, ending in God’s Year 857, the story chronicles Aoleyn’s rise from child to adulthood as she loses her innocence and dreams of breaking free from the brutal traditions of the tribe, and one day seeing the world beyond the mountain. Upon seeing the fear in the eyes of captured children, Aoleyn, as a child herself, feels a common bond and shared sense of humanity and compassion with the slaves, and as she matures she finds the Usgar way increasingly evil and oppressive.

Showing tremendous potential with the Song of Usgar, the crystal magic serving as the tribe’s source of power, Aoleyn trains to become a witch of the Coven and eventually use her power to fight back against the tribe’s old traditions and, one day, attain the freedom she longs for. However, Aoleyn’s strength and defiance make her a target for Tay Aillig, a fierce and conniving Usgar warlord who will stop at nothing to assert his dominance over the whole tribe, as well as the fossa, a demonic, cat-like creature with a scythe-like bone-blade for a tail. Due to an affliction caused by the Song of Usgar, only on a Blood Moon is the fossa able to come out of its bone-filled den of death to hunt and unleash its insatiable hatred of magic.

From a gamer’s perspective, I found myself especially drawn to Child of a Mad God for the many commonalities it shares with Guerrilla Games’ PS4 title Horizon: Zero Dawn. Beyond sharing settings based around primitive tribalism, Aoleyn and Horizon‘s Aloy have similar character arcs as strong female protagonists who grow up not knowing their origins and rise up as young, rebellious outcasts of their tribes fighting against the status quo. I only just started sinking into Horizon after getting the Complete Edition that came out over the holidays, and my interest level has waned back and forth. Somehow reading this book has had the mutual benefit of making me want to finally dig deeper into Horizon. One of the great perks of being both a gamer geek and fantasy novel nerd.

Despite what the book’s dust jacket will have you believe, Child of a Mad God actually is a dual-protagonist narrative. Every bit as integral to the storyline as Aoleyn, Talmadge is an honorable, thoughtful frontiersman who makes a living on Loch Beag, traveling between the villages and trading furs and pearls with the different tribespeople. Haunted by a tragic past, as well as other more recent betrayals and regrets, Talmadge chooses to hide from everyone, his memories, and his pain, alone in Loch Beag. Whereas the demons Aoleyn faces are more tangible, Talmadge’s demons are more internal. His half of the story deals heavily in themes of confronting one’s fears, fighting against becoming a prisoner to grief and regret, and getting out into the world to write your own story, to live a full life.

With Child of a Mad God, R. A. Salvatore once more proves his skill at crafting enthralling fantasy fiction through descriptive, nuanced world building and characterization. The little details are what bring the world and its characters to life. For example, one small detail that attracted me to Talmadge was Salvatore’s description of the man keeping a thin braid of hair tied by his left ear and over his left shoulder, to flip up and chew on as a reminder to always be on alert for any sign of a threat. This quirk is only pointed out early on, but as the story develops your mind automatically imagines him contemplatively gnawing at his braid whenever a situation arises. Details like this give you an immediate sense of Talmadge’s personality and how he thinks, and adds depth to the character’s internal struggle. Salvatore’s creatures are also descriptively compelling, from man-size frogs capable of eating children whole and huge, fiery orange lizards that flap wings of skin on their necks and spit acidic goo, to goblins that look as if someone grabbed and pulled them by the nose, “shrinking the thing’s head into a tiny, wrinkled mess, and leaving the nose and ears absurdly long and crooked.”

As the first entry in what will be an ongoing series, Child of a Mad God effectively follows through to a satisfying, albeit predictable, resolution while at the same time leaving key story threads un-pulled, efficiently introducing side characters likely to play more prominent roles later on down the road, and properly setting the stage for grander, more harrowing events yet to come. Confronted by similar moral choices that manifest in different ways, the two main characters are both instantly sympathetic and relatable. The story successfully weaves traditional elements of sword and sorcery action together with prehistoric tribal culture and modern social themes, particularly issues pertaining to women’s rights. The dark and unforgiving new region of Corona is rich with an omnipresent sense of dread and danger, Salvatore pulling no punches in his depictions of rape, abuse, forced abortion, and other violent imagery. Yet there is an atmospheric allure and beauty to Loch Beag and its surroundings that provides enough contrast to keep the world from becoming overbearingly depraved and depressing. This first Tale of the Coven will definitely leave you in anticipation to see where the stories of Aoleyn and Talmadge go next.

Buy From: Amazon or Macmillan Publishers for $25.99.

Source: An advanced reader copy of Child of a Mad God was provided to VGBlogger.com for review consideration by Tor Books.

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!