Guilt cuts sharper than the deadliest of blades.
Welcome to one of the March 31st stops on the blog tour for Memories of Blood and Shadow by Aaron S. Jones with Escapist Book Tours (#EscapistBookTours | Twitter | Instagram.) Look for others participating in this tour for more great content, and don’t forget to enter the giveaway! More on that at the end of this post.
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About the Book
Memories of Blood and Shadow
by Aaron S. Jones
Published 7 April 2022
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Page Count: 644
Add it to your Goodreads TBR!
Guilt cuts sharper than the deadliest of blades. Tavar Farwan lives alone past the Undying Sands. During a violent storm, he is attacked by two young warriors claiming a need for vengeance for pain from ages past. Tavar defends himself, killing one of the intruders and leaving the other to bleed on the floor. Weary and filled with regret, Tavar offers to tell the young man his story: a story of how, in a world of Naviqings, Leviathans, and Shadow Warriors; a poor, nomadic orphan rose to inspire a kingdom, and kill a God.
CW: Alcohol dependency, Slavery, Gratuitous Violence, Suicide, Vomiting, Gore, Beatings, Child harm, Child slavery
Putting all thoughts of his own safety to one side, Tavar jumped into the shadows, forcing his sword into the back of the closest soldier. The soldier arched his shoulders back with a surprised grunt and fell to his knees, dropping his spear. Both Adnan and Qassim’s faces lit up as Adam cried and swung his blade across the neck of the next soldier who had turned at the sound of his ally’s death.
The element of surprise gone, the two of the remaining soldiers spun and attacked with abandon. Qassim and Adnan leapt into the fight, reenergised with the hope of victory. The largest of the four swung a mighty hammer, slow but powerful. Tavar pulled up his shield and blocked the blow but the force knocked it from his grip, sending the shield flying into the wooden building and leaving Tavar with only his sword and a throbbing hand, possibly broken.
The hammer rose in the air again but this time Tavar was ready for it. He dived low, ducking beneath the strike and coming out of a roll with his sword thrust straight up, straight through his opponent’s stomach. The body fell onto the sword and gravity did the rest. The hammer fell with a deep thud before Tavar pushed his boot against the now motionless body and pulled his sword free. With no time to lose, he looked up to see Adnan slamming his shield on the back of the head of a soldier looming over a fallen Qassim. The soldier fell next to Qassim and turned onto his back, just in time to meet Adnan’s blade with his throat.
A moment’s peace fell in the alleyway as Tavar searched for the next enemy. There were none left.
Adam leant against the wall, helmet forgotten on the floor and his left eye half closed as his chest rose and fell with heavy breaths. Tavar walked over to Qassim and offered a hand. There was hesitation at first, as though Qassim was waiting for some trick. But there was no trick, no deception. Finally, he took Tavar’s hand and welcomed the help to his feet, wincing and pulling his limp arm in tight to his chest. He wouldn’t be much use for the rest of the battle, that was certain.
“Thank you,” Qassim said, inclining his head ever so slightly but keeping his eyes fixed on Tavar.
“We would be meat for the worms had you not arrived when you did. You have my thanks,” Adnan said, crouching low over one of the bodies and cursing.
Adam did the same before jumping up and shaking his head at Tavar. “Two of these men are Alfaran soldiers. Traitors.”
“Shit,” Adnan spat. “It’s a civil war. We’re not putting down a rebellion anymore. We’re fighting for survival. Eyes everywhere, trust no one. We need to break through to the Hall of Justice. It’s in the centre of the city. It’s where the so-called King of Hartovan will be. If we cut the head off the snake, the rest will fall. Most of the citizens have left anyway, escaping across the sea to the Arrow Islands according to our spies. That means if anyone stands in your way, don’t think twice. No matter what colour they are wearing, we take them down.” He wiped his sword against his sleeve and turned to Qassim, his eyes landing on his useless arm. “You gonna be okay?”
“I can still fight,” Qassim argued, a bit too much fight in his voice, as though he was trying to convince himself more than anyone else.
“You’ll have a chance to prove it. Let’s go.”
They kept to the backstreets, sneaking past much of the bloodshed and keeping out of sight of the archers perched on the roofs across the city. Adnan led with Qassim close behind. Tavar brought up the rear, constantly checking that they weren’t being followed as he kept close to Adam’s heels.
The tight streets amplified the clang of swords and the last screams of dying men and women. Tavar tried to block it all out, scanning for any sign of Carver. The four of them weaved in and out of the narrow streets, trusting that Adnan remembered the correct path to the Hall of Justice. Thankfully, the city had been designed in such a way it was difficult to get lost.
“Get down,” Adnan warned, crouching and pulling his body tight against a door swinging off its hinge. The road ahead was wider than the previous ones. Flags waved from tall buildings either side leading to a huge structure at the end of the road. The building had six marble columns at the front and a tall iron door closed shut. In front of it, the battle was fierce. There was no way around. They would have to go straight through. Tavar looked at the cluster of warriors and wondered if Carver was there, amongst all the blood and chaos.
“There’s no hiding now,” Adnan said, watching the battle, the light of flames flickering in his brown eyes. “God be with you. Shields up.”
Tavar looked to his left and right, at the soldiers on either side. One a best friend, the other someone who he had viewed more as an enemy up until moments ago. Now he was willing to put his life on the line for him. Funny that. How things can change when the blood was flowing. They nodded to each other, knowing this could be the end and placed their shields up high, building a shield wall and advancing forward.
As they neared the mess of a melee, soldiers in red spotted them and broke from the chaos to rush their way, screaming into the night and holding their weapons high. From either side, warriors in blue turned as Adnan blew into his war horn, calling for support. They cheered and joined the line, shields connecting as one as they continued the march, meeting the attack head on.
Tavar braced as the first wave of red crunched into the shields. He pulled his sword back and lunged over the barrier, feeling his blade connect with the nearest enemy. The wall slowed but kept advancing, stepping over the dead. More warriors joined as Adnan continued to blow the horn, knowing they were near the target as the Hall of Justice loomed large in front of them. The next wave was almost too much. The door of the hall opened and another hundred soldiers poured out, fresh and ready for battle with painted faces and spears gleaming in the torch light.
“There’s too many of them to hold!” Adnan roared. “On my signal, break.”
“Stay behind me,” Tavar turned to Qassim.
“Stay behind me. You can’t fight with one hand.”
Qassim scowled but only grunted in response. Not wanted to answer properly. Tavar knew that he understood. Every move looked painful for him. He’d done well to last this far.
The Alfaran soldiers spread out on the signal, confusing the rushing attackers. Tavar slipped inside a thrust of the blade and swung his own weapon out, knocking an enemy’s shield to the side. Qassim finished the unbalanced soldier off, his blade stabbing through his eye. Tavar had no time to admire the work. He raced forward into the cluster of enemies, sword dancing wildly, deflecting attacks with his shield and stabbing at any opening offered.
The bodies piled up and soon, his arms began to ache. He struggled to keep his weapon up, barely blocking the attacks of the fresher soldiers who had stormed out from the hall. He roared, calling for a last burst of energy, willing himself forward. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted the flash of a blade and swiped wildly with his own to meet it.
“You’ve improved. Much faster. I’m impressed.”
“Carver…” Tavar sighed in relief, almost hugging her before realising where he was. Both of her sleeves were frayed and bore scorch marks. Her dark hair stuck to her head, glued with dried blood and her eyes were bloodshot. “You look a mess.”
“Not looking so hot yourself,” she said with a wink. “Come on. Whilst they’re fighting.” She pointed to the open door leading into the Hall of Justice.
“Is he in there? Marcus’s brother?” Tavar asked, eager to finish his mission.
“You saw him earlier. Calls himself Sett now. The Voice of the Lion. He’ll be in there.”
Tavar frowned and pulled some wax from a ringing ear. “Sett…” The Voice of the Lion was Marcus’s brother and the man who King Uhlad had loved. The man Tavar needed to pass his message to. He checked his pocket for the scroll and was relieved to feel that it was untainted by the battle. “Let’s go.” He followed Carver, pausing only for a moment to look for Qassim and Adam but they were lost amongst the madness.
The entrance way was in pristine condition, in contrast to the rest of the fallen city. A cavernous room was flanked with two sets of stairs leading up to a balcony on which hung a huge painting of a black-skinned woman dressed in the traditional clothing of the western islands, the same place where many of the citizens of Hartovan had been dragged from over a generation ago. Marble busts lined the room standing on small columns. Tavar read the plaque on the nearest one:
Hassan Bast – First blood of the true Hartovan people. Killed standing up for his brother and sister by Alfaran soldier.
The next one had a similar, sad tale written beneath it:
Zuri Emem: Last Queen of the Western Isles. Died with her family under a rain of Alfaran arrows. Her death shall not be forgotten.
“Come on,” Carver said, pulling on Tavar’s sleeve to drag him away. “We don’t have much time.”
They followed a red carpet spotted with black and entered an even larger room. Tavar cursed and bent over, retching. Hanging from the ceiling around a chandelier were ten lifeless bodies stripped naked, the cuts and bruises a patchwork of evidence of the abuse they had suffered before being hung as ornaments in the grand room. He tore his eyes from the decaying bodies and followed the marble columns lining either side of the room as they ran up along a golden floor to a simple, black throne with a carved black lion looking to leap from the head of the seat. On the throne sat the Voice of the Lion.
Sett’s shoulders slumped. He no longer looked like the dignified man who had mocked an entire army at the gates of the city. He looked defeated. Still, Tavar had to give him credit as he smiled as Tavar and Carver walked towards him, blades drawn and ready.
“Two victors carrying blades of destiny,” Sett said, sitting up in the throne and shaking away the defeated attitude. Once again he had that aura of authority, of control. “It is fitting. Like in the old stories. Two young warriors working against adversity to rise to a challenge, a foe that must be defeated. I love the poetry of it. The drama. Reminds me of the plays I used to watch in Alfara as a young boy. Seems like a lifetime ago,” he sighed. “So, what are the names of my angels of death come to take me down the red river of the boatman?”
“We’re no angels of death,” Tavar said, stopping at the stone steps leading up to the throne. “Just two soldiers. With a message.”
“Where is the king?” Carver asked, looking around the empty room.
Sett leaned back and laughed, a true, honest laugh that echoed around the room. “No one speaks for the lion but the lion himself. You are looking at the King of Hartovan.” He stood and gave a dramatic bow, spinning his hands in the air to the side before falling back onto his throne. “The people of Hartovan came to trust me after I deserted the army. I am one of them, a lost soul looking for their place in the world. Alfara is right, there is a place for everyone They are just often wrong about the correct place. I learned that after being torn from my rightful place in Alfara by old men who knew nothing about life.”
“Your rightful place? Alongside Uhlad?” Tavar pressed, remembering what the king had told him.
“At first. Yes,” Sett replied, not missing a beat. “Once that was taken from me, I tried to start a new life. I had a child who was taken from me. So I fled, living in the wilderness before finding my place here.”
“But you’ve caused the death of so many. The citizens of Hartovan will curse your name,” Tavar argued, thinking of how few people he had seen in the city and the villages outside the gates.
“The people of Hartovan have escaped. I will not tell you where. They have freedom. They are able to find their place, to choose their destiny. There is no one left to tell them what to do or when to do it. Their heart shall decide, as it should be.”
“This is why you’ve been goading Alfara,” Carver said, smiling at the brilliance. “Distracting them whilst your people fled to the mountains or the islands nearby.
Sett grinned at his own wisdom. “Took some convincing. They didn’t want to leave me. I had many volunteers to die in the city but I couldn’t allow too many. Then it would have been pointless. I needed my people to start a new life. Begin their own journeys. Not end them. Uhlad knew what I was planning, of course. I’ve had people in his court ever since I left…”
“Your brother tried to kill Uhlad,” Tavar said, confused. “Why?”
Sett frowned and looked down at his bare feet. “I love my brother. But from time to time, we have… disagreements. My relationship with Uhlad strained things with us. I had to flee the kingdom ad Marcus always blamed Uhlad. He felt the king was too weak and that he should have done more. Marcus always knew how this would play out, unless Uhlad was killed, of course.”
“And how was it going to play out?”
“With my death, of course. It is the only way Uhlad will ever have the strength to kill the vermin who control him.”
Tavar rubbed his fingers over the scroll before pulling it out and holding it before Sett. The man’s eyes fell on the scroll and flashed with recognition.
“Uhlad wanted you to have this.”
Sett’s fingers shook as they clutched at the scroll. He stared at it in silence for a while, unmoving. Then in a quick motion, he twisted the gold clasps and unrolled the message. Tears welled in his eyes as he chuckled to himself, raising a hand over his parted lips and laughing as the parchment burst into flames.
“Thank you for the message, angels. In another life, we may have been good friends. Alas, life doesn’t always work out the way we would have liked. Still, Hartovan lives on. My child is safe and I can take my place in the gardens of my ancestors. When you see my brother, tell him I forgive him.”
Tavar caught the flash of a blade as Sett drew a dagger from his waist and slashed it across his throat. Crimson blood poured from the wound and soaked his purple robe. He crashed forward from the throne and fell down the steps, falling at Tavar’s feet in a pool of his own blood.
My Rating: 5 Stars
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I was granted complimentary eARC access to Memories of Blood and Shadow by Aaron S. Jones as part of my participation in a blog tour for this title with Escapist Book Tours. Thank you to all involved in affording me this opportunity! My thoughts are my own and my review is honest.
I was introduced to Aaron S. Jones through Flames of Rebellion, the first book in his The Broken Gods series, and somehow missed the second and third when they also went on tour. When Twitter decided to let me see his tweet announcing this book, I thought it was a new Broken Gods title. Whoops! When I heard it was a stand-alone, I knew I had to keep my eyes peeled for a review opportunity, and lo and behold, it’s on tour! Gimme this book…
I absolutely love the way Jones writes fantasy set in worlds that look mostly like our own, with people that could blend in here on Earth, but make it magic. There’s just enough fantasy to make it fantasy but not so much that it spends a third of its page count just trying to set up a nod to classic high fantasy worlds or something like that. This book and the Broken Gods world build a magical world on top of the Earth framework already in the reader’s mind and moves straight into action and character development, and I’m here for it.
Memories of Blood and Shadow is in part a coming of age story for protagonist Tavar, but told through the lens of older Tavar called back to action. It’s an interesting way to present this kind of story, and the framing vaguely reminded me of Stephen Aryan’s The Coward, though Tavar is absolutely not the reluctant hero archetype that Kell is.
I loved the clear middle eastern influence in this story and world. I tend to get drawn into a lot of YA books purely based on promises of djinn, and those all either have the exact same cookie-cutter Agraba pseudo-middle east sort of thing going on or they completely explant the cultural inspiration to the USA. This world is fresh, it’s full of very vibrantly visual details, and it feels like a real place that fits with the story being told.
Now, I know this book self-claims the genre designation of “epic” fantasy, and anyone going into something called epic fantasy should expect to be in for a long ride, but I really do think this one could have been split. It’s nearly 650 pages with three very distinct, separate parts. I can see why it wasn’t split as a trilogy because that would require adding material and I don’t think it needs that, but I wonder if there might have been a way to find a natural break for a duology. The three parts really did feel like three shorter books, and as this is a stand-alone and not part of a bigger, established series, it’s going to be a natural starting place for new Jones readers. That page count might look scary. I promise it’s worth it!
About the Author
Born in the area of Birmingham that helped inspire Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Aaron S. Jones is the author of The Broken Gods trilogy. He is Head of English at a school in Kent, UK and when he is not tearing his hair out at students struggling with their, they’re, and there, he is tearing his hair out as he dies for the thousandth time on Demon’s Souls. You can find him on Twitter @HereticASjones where he is most likely procrastinating for hours at a time instead of focusing on his Orc murder mystery.
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