In Brimstone Angels, a pair of tiefling twins and their dragonborn foster father stumble into a devilish plot in Neverwinter, a city still reeling in the aftermath of major cataclysm. There’s jealousy, unbidden powers, forbidden lust, and not a magic Macguffin in sight. This isn’t your typical fantasy novel.
[Note: I've discussed this novel at length with Evans, including some of my criticisms of it. It's certainly not typical of a reviewer to run things by an author before publishing the review, and while I don't think this renders my praises or criticisms of the novel invalid, I did want to mention this fact in the interest of full disclosure.]
The tiefling twins, Farideh and Havilar, live with their dragonborn “father,” Mehen, who was cast out of his dragonborn clan some years ago. No one really trusts tieflings, assuming they’re all in league with devils or demons. When Farideh does make a connection with a devil named Lorcan, and her new pact grants her powers beyond her control, the three are forced to take to the road seeking work as bountyhunters.
All this happens within the first chapter or two, and leads right to one of my chief complaints about the novel — the plot drifts a bit aimlessly at first. Of course, Mehen and the twins are drifting aimlessly at this point as well. Once they reach Neverwinter, things pick up, but to some extent major plot points are driven by raw coincidence. The protagonists’ involvement in the plots of some seriously evil devils occurs when they blunder into each other while meandering the streets. That the devils are related to Farideh’s not-so-friendly devil Lorcan is another element of coincidence that strained my suspension of disbelief a bit.
Of course, most fantasy novels are known for being plot-driven — get the ring to Mordor and so forth — and I did say that this is not a typical fantasy novel. The characters in Brimstone Angels aren’t driven relentlessly from plot point to plot point. They argue, brood and simmer with resentment. They question themselves, are wracked with doubt, and lose control of their emotions (and their fiery devil-pact powers). So when the novel occasionally loses pace, it’s forgivable to the extent that Evans is trying to do something different than just gussying up the same old fantasy tropes. Add in her plainspoken prose, which eschews flowery descriptions for raw emotion (and is perfect for action scenes), and the overall effect is highly enjoyable.
If Brimstone Angels isn’t primarily plot-driven, that leaves us with the characters to latch onto. Luckily, they’re awesome characters, ones that I can’t wait to read more about. Farideh has complicated relationships with: her twin sister, who was always more extroverted, but now seems jealous of Farideh’s new powers; Mehen, who is her father, but not really (he isn’t even the same species); and Lorcan, whom she feels unfairly bound to, yet undeniably drawn to. In fact, her relationship with Lorcan is very deep and complex, touching on issues of abusive relationships and the foolishness of teenage love. Yet it isn’t as simple as an after school special on mean boyfriends, because they’re both dynamic characters who change themselves, and relative to each other, over the course of the novel.
Havilar takes several turns as the point of view character, and she becomes a glaive-wielding badass in her own right. Once the twins finally figure out what’s going on in Neverwinter, there’s plenty of devil-stabbing, cult-busting action. As the devils’ plots unwind, a bizarre horror is unleashed upon Neverwinter. If you’ve ever wondered what it looks like when a succubus goes insane, well, now you’ve got that to look forward to.
Brimstone Angels is the first in a series, with the sequel, Lesser Evils, due some time in late 2012. This, unfortunately, brings up another problem — as part of a series, the character’s story arcs feel incomplete. They are incomplete, of course, since that’s the nature of a series. It certainly does nothing to diminish my general apathy toward the incessant deluge of fantasy trilogies, septologies and dodecahedrologies being foisted upon fantasy readers, but that’s just the nature of the beast, I suppose. Also keep in mind that the plot of this novel had to line up not only with its own sequels, but also the Neverwinter Campaign Guide, which describes many of the plots afoot in the shattered city, and R.A. Salvatore’s novel set in the same general area of the Forgotten Realms. If the plot seems superfluously convoluted at times, that may explain why.
Despite some misgivings, I really am looking forward to the further adventures of Farideh and company. Their weird little family and trove of unusual problems has a real emotional resonance, and if Farideh’s ongoing quest to deal with her powers is a lot more Jean Grey than Frodo Baggins, consider that a good thing.