Review: The Blazing Chief + Changing of the Guards

I’m long overdue on this review of The Blazing Chief, the third and final book in Matt Spencer’s Deschembine trilogy. Awhile back, Matt sent me review copies of some of his stuff, and apparently some of our review was glowing enough to be included in the ‘praise’ section for this volume! You can check out those reviews here and here.

I’ll also note that Matt Spencer has a Deschembine gaiden story that was published in our 2020 Fall Special.

The most important question about any final book in a series is, did it stick the landing? Was it a satisfying conclusion to the story being told and did the loose threads get tied up?

I’d say, for the most part, yes.

One of the things that I noted when reading The Night and the Land was how, despite being an almost complete monster, by the end of the book you felt for Sheldon and even if you didn’t want him to succeed, you were kind of glad he survived his encounter with Rob. As the trilogy unfolds, Spencer leans into this, and while you can’t really call him the protagonist in a book with so many shifting view points, by the end of book 3, he’s something of “the hero, ackshually,” particularly as the focus shifts away from Rob as a person and more a force or nature.

I’ll admit that one of the plot twists part way through this final installment was something of a gut-punch that makes a big chuck of the story something of a shoot-the-shaggy-dog. Spencer is generally pretty liberal with his character deaths, but they’re usually secondary characters. This one was almost as surprising as when Tomino killed off Amuro halfway through the last Gundam novel (though admittedly Spencer handled this one better.)

In a way, it serves to remind that in times of crises, it’s not just one person’s story, and everyone else’s stories still go on without them, but it’s a risky choice to make in a fictional story.

Where The Blazing Chief succeeds best, I think, is its transition from modern fantasy [it’s hard to call it Urban Fantasy, when so much of it takes place in small towns and rural backwaters] to mythic fantasy. Readers who are waiting to finally get a glimpse of Deschemb will not be disappointed.

Overall, I’d say The Blazing Chief delivers a satisfying ending to series. Given the “deep lore” nature of this trilogy, I think it’s even worth it to go back and reread the whole series after finishing this one.

I also received a copy of Changing of the Guards, which is a prequel/sidestory that takes place in Old Deschemb that was written while the rights to trilogy were in limbo with a past publisher. I actually read this before The Blazing Chief, but I hadn’t had a chance to review it.

Changing of the Guards is an action-packed grimdark fantasy with lots of brutality, blood and guts, etc. It’s all right for what it is, but I think it lacks some of the spark and mystery of the main Deschembine books. While Spencer was able to craft an incredibly deep and mythic setting on earth with aeons of a hidden secret war occurring beneath the noses of mankind [until everything blows up] with the Deschembine Trilogy, Deschemb itself in Changing of the Guards feels a bit flat. I think the biggest weakness in Changing of the Guards is the anachronistic dialog–the sort of speech that worked well in the Deschembine Trilogy, which mostly took place on contemporary earth, felt strange in the mouths of fantasyland characters. Most notably, I’d say, “glowstick” as a pejorative for Spirelights makes sense in a contemporary setting, but not in a fantasy world that ostensibly never had a candy-raver scene.

Also, some of the violence and brutality was a bit too callous for my taste. While the Deschembine Trilogy featured a pretty rough cast, and most of the characters had done some really bad thing at some point or another, you still got the feeling that some of them were good people trying to do good in some rough and rotten circumstances. You don’t really get that in Changing of the Guards, where the characters are all almost irredeemably and unapologetically evil, with the only saving grace being that their machinations are aimed at individuals even more corrupt and evil than themselves.

That said, it was still an intriguing read and worth checking out if you can’t get enough of Deschemb.

Review – Matt Spencer’s The Trail of the Beast

A while back, Matt Spencer sent me a copy of the second edition of his contemporary quasi-urban fantasy novel, The Night and the Land. A review for it can be found here.

Earlier this year, he sent us the next book in the sequence, The Trail of the Beast.

Let me tell you: it’s fantastic.

I think that the best thing Spencer does in his writing is create a mystery story, where the world and its history are the mystery to be solved. The characters we follow all have small pieces of the puzzle [though some are larger than others]: what is the Old World? What is Deschemb? Who, or what, are the Spirelights, Schomites, and Crimbone really?

There is a hidden secondary world, which some characters are in on from the beginning to some degree, while other characters come to learn more about it, themselves, and their relationship to it as the story unfolds. Individuals who only have a small inkling of the true nature of the world and the conflict they are a part of are trying to come to terms with a possible mass-cosmological shift while still discovering the nature of the old cosmology that had been kept hidden.

Okay, it maybe sounds confusing when it’s put that way…

On the surface, there a sort of Hatfield and McCoy blood-feud between two races that originate from an alternate earth. This conflict has spilled onto our world as the races have colonized and either remained hidden or tried to blend in with human society.

It kind of has a ‘werewolves and vampires’ vibe to it, but the superhuman races don’t really line up with either of those, so the results are very uncanny.

Five years have passed since the events of The Night and the Land–Rob and Sally have tried to make their own place where they can hide out from the conflict between the Spirelights and the Schomites. Sally’s little brother Sheldon is stuck dealing with the repercussions of his fight with Rob and the experiments his own people have done on him to try and figure out how Rob’s blades changed him. We also get more of Jesse and Zane, who’d been sort of failed would-be mentors to Rob in the first book, trying to solve the mysteries of what the heck the Schomites did to Sally when she was in New Orleans that kicked off the whole crazy series of events.

A Spirelight bounty hunter manages to abscond with Sally, sending Rob on a spree to look for her, as he goes uniting packs of Crimbone, upsetting the Schomite earth order, and slaughtering Spirelights, bringing the hidden war into the open in a way that neither the Earth nor the Deschembine authorities can ignore or bring to a halt.

Spencer does a fantastic job balancing the tale told from a number of perspectives. It’s an exciting and unpredictable story, both beautiful and savage.

Like The Night and the Land, The Trail of the Beast is an incredibly grisly and graphic tale; it’s definitely not for everyone. In the questionable cosmology, good and evil are not well defined, perhaps largely because the truth about its nature is so hidden–instead, you have a world where gut instinct must be trusted, because that is the only truth that can be counted on. As such, you have very few, if any, characters you can point to as ‘good guys’, though with a few exceptions of the truly perverse villains, all of the characters are somewhat sympathetic, and even relatable, despite often being at odds [at best] or being monsters [at worst].

When I reviewed The Night and the Land, one of the things I mentioned was how, despite everything that happens and despite everything that he did, I found myself almost cheering for Sheldon by the end of the book. Trail of the Beast, in a lot of ways, is Sheldon’s book–here, he is able to fight for redemption and really earn some of that sympathy. Rob becomes less of a character and more a force of nature that the other characters must survive in spite of.

I would’ve liked to see more of Puttergong… He’s around, and still an important mover, but we don’t really get anything from his perspective in this book. I mostly bring that up because, despite my normal tastes and the fact that it shouldn’t work at all, Matt Spencer actually wrote Puttergong’s perspective sections in a 1st person present tense [the rest is all 3rd person past] and he made it work! So, I actually kind of missed those bits.

Anyway, I mentioned that a big part of what makes Spencer’s world so fascinating is the mystery behind the hidden secondary world. We’re incredibly thrilled that one of the short stories that will help shed some light on the mysteries of Spirelights’ and Schomites’ past will be featured in our Fall issue! Be sure to stay tuned for details on how you can get your hands on it.

Until then, be sure to grab a copy of the Summer issue, out the first week of August!

Review: The Night and the Land by Matt Spencer

The Night and the LandA while back, I was sent a copy of Matt Spencer’s The Night and the Land, the first book of the Deschembine Trilogy. While it was a very entertaining book, I find even now that it is difficult to write about because of how different it is. And trust me, that’s a good thing.

The Night and the Land is not an easy work to pin down; it upends a lot of the tropes that would make it fit neatly in this or that category.

On the face of it, The Night and the Land is a story about a young man with a supernatural birthright coming into his powers, meeting and falling in love with a runaway girl from another supernatural clan at odds with his and whose parents and siblings are trying to bring her back into the fold.

The “coming of age” plot has certain hallmarks of the YA trend, but the book itself is a savage and brutal affair, even in its romance, that might appeal much more to male readers than modern YA’s target market demographic of women 18-35. It is Not Safe For Cool Wine Aunts.

The Night and the Land is “Urban Fantasy”, but the “Urban” is very small-town and New England Gothic. The setting is intimate and picturesque, and the town of Brattleboro, Vermont is as much a character as anyone else in the story.

What could easily have been framed as a simple “Vampires and Werewolves don’t mix” type story is actually rife with mysteries and depth of setting that prevents readers from settling into assumptions and cozy stereotypes of the archetypical modern urban fantasy. [The monsters are certainly not vampires and not exactly werewolves; which makes them that much more uncanny].

One of the most fascinating things about Spencer’s tale is that while the characters, both the “heroes” and the “villains”, are almost unforgivably vicious, and sometimes even cruel and murderous, I found myself deeply empathizing with them—even torn at the end as the story built towards its final showdown, hoping for a “draw” that would give everyone a chance down the road for redemption and reconciliation.

Any recommendation I might make for this can’t be given without some reservations: it’s not for the faint of heart—some folks may find the strong language and visceral imagery off-putting. And the violence is EXTREME [like Fist of the North Star meets Uzumaki extreme]. But The Night and the Land was absolutely one of the most enthralling books I’ve read this year.