The story is quite a classic fantasy trope with a young boy, who while beset by the town bully, discovers his magic powers. Good for our young hero, less good for one of the bullies who dies of the magical blast. Jillan, our unfortunate young mage, is absolutely terrified by the event. Not so much because of the death of the bully, it was self defense after all, but by his use of blasphemous pagan magic.
While the basic story might be familiar to most readers A. J. Dalton's world building is fresh with new ideas. The People, as they are called, are all part of the Geas – the source of life and magic – which makes them all mages and witches. The Geas is what attracted the attention of the Saviours, aliens lies its godlike powers, who broke the gods of the People, and installed themselves as the new religion. It's a brutal regime, where the People are treated more like cattle, living in walled cities guarded by Heroes. The children are in their early teens then drained of their power, doomed to live a dull life in fear of their cruel masters.
A.J. Dalton does a great job here, and I only scratched the surface of the world he has built for our pleasure. There is so much to discover in Empire of the Saviours, and the mystery of the Saviours themselves is just one small part of the whole. The exposition of the world I'd cleverly woven into the narrative, always adding to the whole without slowing down the story. You will meet living legends, broken – but not forgotten – gods and the outcast Pagans who refuses to bow to the Saviours.
Jillan is up for a difficult journey ahead. He is clearly a chosen one, and whether he likes it or not he will have to bear a heavier burden than someone his age should ever have to. He is in constant conflict with him selves over his powers, they cause him great shame and self doubt. He is convinced he is corrupted by the powers of chaos, the indoctrination he suffered is very powerful.
If Empire of the Saviours has a weakness it is that it suffers from being the first part in a series. There is only so many pages in a book and Jillan, along with his supporting characters, feel a little bit unsure of themselves and why they are together. It happened too quickly, and too easy, never giving them a real reason to all travel together.
Luckily, it's all balanced by some other fantastic supporting characters. In a lot of fantasy book there is a wise old man, or another agent of the gods, think Fizban, Zifnab or Kruppe. A. J. Dalton has a naked crazy old man, who is an absolute delight to read. It gets even better when he is paired up with one of the antagonists, a zealous priest of the Saviours. The two really don't get along, and the conversations that follow are both great fun and food for thought.
All in all I'm very happy with Empire of the Saviours, which had new fresh ideas on world building, and was simply a fascinating read. A.J. Dalton is the one to look out for in 2012. If you are a fan of fantasy you don't want to miss Empire of the Saviours.
Empire of the Saviours weighs in at 448 pages, and is published by Gollancz. It is scheduled to be released in May 2012.