Review: Dreams of Chaos by Allen Stroud

I’m not much of a professional book reviewer.* Though I do read a lot and try to pinpoint what it is I like or don’t like about a book, I often don’t make it public. It’s more like training for me. Practice. Anyway, here goes – my first pro book review. *Clears throat*

Dreams of Chaos, book one of the Death of Gods trilogy, is “an epic fantasy story of alternative history that tells how that world is broken” and lays a foundation for a book series that aims to explain how the influence of magic and powermongering wizards makes the world anew, namely into that of the computer game Chaos Reborn by Snapshot Games and Julian Gollop. This intrigued me, as I have a fondness for narrative in games, and see the medium as something to keep an eye on. I should say I’ve never actually played Chaos – I was too young at the time (yes, even in 1990), nor have I played the new turnbased tactical game Chaos Reborn (although the artwork is stunning, see above). But this is about the book anyway …

Here’s the blurb taken from Amazon:

“It is the 14th century. Since time began, wizards have walked amongst us. They wield magic and live across the centuries, seeking to transcend mortality by acquiring our faith and devotion. Their manipulations lie at the heart of our religions, they promise heaven so that they might become eternal gods and rule over us forever.

– Twin girls, Galina and Katya, flee their Bogomil village for a new life in Vidin. Little do they know, the fate of the world rests of their shoulders.
– In Avignon, France, Piers Gaveston has been exiled from England and seeks the support of the Knights Templar to restore him to King Edward II’s side. The price he must pay for their aid is revealed in a blasphemous ritual, where they seek to converse with the Christian God.
– In Japan, Hino Suketomo is betrayed and imprisoned by the Emperor’s enemies. He escapes, but the cost is to abandon his old life and learn the true mysteries of the coming apocalypse.”

Dreams of Chaos Cover

The novel is structured around the story arcs for each of the characters, with interludes consisting of timelines and slightly altered quotes of historical persons (which I really, really liked, history teacher that I am). The narration switches between the different storylines, and you get the feeling that eventually the plot strands will come together at some point – though they have not done so at the end of this book. It’s a short read, made very dynamic through the numerous viewpoints.

In short, I’ll review it like Hemingway did for F. Scott Fitzgerald. “I liked it and I didn’t like it.”

Liked: The prose was very good. Stroud knows how to tell a story and weaves words skillfully to make an enjoyable read. The premise is fascinating, and the multicultural impact of the magic world on that alternate history, ranging from Japan, over the Aztecs, to medieval Europe is shown through the various plotlines. I find this is far too often not the case in epic fantasy, where most writers (myself included) stick to generic fantasy medieval Europe by default. It was great to see that differentiated here.

But –

Didn’t like: The epic scope is also the novel’s kryptonite. Because there are so many people of interest, it’s hard to really get into the story. I have this same problem with GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire. It seems to be the thing today in fantasy to write from multiple viewpoints, with converging plotlines. I’m not sure I know why. Too many POV characters can be confusing (they’re not in this book, though), and you tend to enjoy one storyline with a certain character more than others, so that this one becomes the focal point. The problem with that is, you start impatiently skimming pages of the storylines that don’t matter as much to you, and so might miss important pieces of information.

Here I had few main characters I rooted for (Galina and Piers). However, my favourites ended up being the supporting cast: Eleanor of Aquitaine (totally geeked out over her inclusion as a powerful mage) and the mischief maker Faim who appears in several plotstrands as a twisted kind of mentor with an agenda of his own.

The problem with book to game, or game to book adaptations is always the question of who you’re writing for: for the gamers who want to dig deeper into the lore and history of their game’s world (I think this is what Stroud is doing here), or to attract readers to the game. So I’m not sure who to recommend Dreams of Chaos to.

If you like book series that have as a premise alternate fantastical histories, or have played Chaos Reborn, this might be the book for you. It’s definitely well written and will make for an entertaining read.

*Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the author himself in exchange for an honest review.

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