Admittedly, I've come late to this party. Winterbirth, Book 1 of The Godless World Trilogy, was released at the end of 2006 and picked up some good press that put Ruckley firmly in the 'new wave' of epic fantasy writers alongside the likes of Abercrombie, Lynch, Rothfuss and Durham. With the second volume, Bloodheir, due in May, it seemed like a good time to catch up and see if this book warrants the acclaim.
The setting is the northern valleys of a continent riven by war. Centuries ago, the gods abandoned the world after a bloody war between two of the dominant races, the Huanin (humans) and Kyrinin (elves, with a few twists), and a third, the Wherinin (shapeshifters). The civilised human nations of the north-west fell apart in the aftermath of the war and the Bloods, tribes of warriors, arose in their stead. Among the Bloods a heresy took root, the Black Road, which states that the gods are merely awaiting for all of humankind to be united under the faith before they return. For their heresy, the Bloods of the Black Road were pushed back beyond the northern mountains and a guard set upon their return. But, after several centuries, the watch has grown lax and the Black Road has found new allies...
The set-up is pretty traditional for an epic fantasy. The Bloods of the Black Road, as perhaps can be predicted, launch a devastating invasion of the lands of the True Bloods, starting with the northern tribe of the Lannis-Haig. This family is almost wiped out save two members, Orisin and his sister Anyara, and their flight from the invasion over a towering mountain range is the principal driving force behind the narrative. Around this are an intriguing array of subplots revealing dissent within the Black Road, the political machinations of the most powerful True Blood warlord which is as great a threat to the Lannis-Haigs as their northern enemies; and the emergence of Aeglyss, the most powerful sorcerer seen in centuries.
The writing is pretty lean - Ruckley's writing is not as rich as Rothfuss nor as immediately striking as Abercrombie and Lynch - and Ruckley succeeds in transmitting a lot of information to the reader fairly quickly. There is a lot of groundwork to establish and unfortunately this requires moments of heavy-handed exposition or info-dumping, but once these are out of the way the story proceeds satisfyingly. None of the characters are particularly original, with Orisian falling into the 'young man doubtful of his ability who comes good in the end' archetype a little too predictably. On the other hand, Aeglyss is a very interesting antagonist and I suspect he will come to dominate the future volumes as a threatening force far greater than that of the Black Road. Winterbirth works well, with its action-adventure story forming a decent spine around which the political intrigue among and between the True Bloods and the Black Road is established and explored. On the other hand, it could be argued that the central narrative is rather slight for the book's length and the narrative is slowed by the groundwork being laid for future volumes. Also, the characters' names are very similar to one another, causing momentary confusion (and occasional flicking to the character list, which is never a good sign).
Winterbirth (***) is a solid, enjoyable debut novel which left me interested enough to pick up the sequel, Bloodheir, when it is published in May. The book is available now from Orbit in the UK and USA.