"'You’ve been wondering why the School has kept things like Talents and Babylonian Text away from common knowledge, isn’t that right?'"

At face value, Riley Kincrest and Arthish Lilith couldn’t be more different despite their similar ages. Riley is the only son of a lord and spends all of his time studying academics, combat, and the arts in order to take over his father’s lands one day and keep the family name in good standing. Arthish lives alone with his mother out beyond the city walls, providing simply for the two of them as a hunter after his blacksmith father passes away. Underneath the surface, though, each of these two young men has hard decisions thrust upon them that will change their lives forever. Riley’s family and teachers beat him mercilessly, looking for any opportunity to provide corporal punishment and never showing an ounce of affection. Arthish’s mother is brutally murdered while he is away, and he seeks revenge on the mysterious man that carried out the nefarious act.

Their paths remain diverged as Riley is urged to escape by the one person in the Kincrest estate that shows him any kindness—the groundskeeper, Freal. Trying to put as much distance between himself and his home as he can, things become complicated as his father puts a bounty on his safe return, leading potential friends to betray him so they can improve their lot. Arthish’s abandonment leads him to live ferally with a pack of nightwolves, track down his mother’s killer, and finally find a home in a traveling circus with others who share an even darker background. Eventually, Riley and Arthish meet en route to The School: a mysterious academic institution where bounties are outlawed, and where Arthish is told he can learn more about a superpower he holds that is bubbling to the surface. But this is just the beginning of a long adventure for these two young men who seemingly have little in the world save each other.

For a story that features two young adults as its protagonists and later puts an emphasis on what essentially amounts to university life, this is a tale that is often graphically violent and features cruel intentions and behaviors up to the very last pages. As a fantasy novel, it masterfully blends medieval-style locations and lifestyles with the class struggle of nobility and commoners, a burgeoning culture of music and art, and later the introduction of the supernatural in the form of Talents. The story is never content to rest on its laurels, growing and evolving multiple times throughout just this first book. Chapters are either told from the perspective of Riley or Arthish. As they eventually meet and begin a friendship, this dual narration offers differing views on common events. At times a narrator will provide insight on things happening beyond their purview or introducing characters that will prove important later.

The first chapters are probably the most difficult hurdle for a reader to cross, as things are very bleak, and the treatment of the two boys crosses a lot of boundaries over ethics, a theme that is revisited later in the form of a twisted noble who purchases and abuses child slaves. Further into the book, though, the world and the mythology are so engrossing that readers will press on to see the story’s conclusion. The payoff is definitely worth sticking around for as dozens of colorful, interesting characters provide levity and complexity to the story—from the colorful vagabonds of the circus to a family of ruthless bounty hunters, which has ascended to power through sheer might alone. The darker moments are ultimately necessary to set up who these young men are and why they are motivated to do the things they do. Through the best and worst of times, this book is a captivating introduction to a world that will let imaginations run wild and encourage further reading and exploration, making a perfect introduction to what is hopefully a long and creative series of stories.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

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