Review of Burning Bright, Lost Gods Book 2 by Megan Derr

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Rating: 5 stars

Nine hundred years ago in the land of Pozhar, Zhar Ptitsa, god of souls and rebirth, nearly destroyed all his people in a fit of rage.  To stop him, a mage broke him into 1,000 pieces and scattered them into the souls of people present and not yet born throughout the land.  Now the world is dying. For some the only way to save it is to resurrect the Lost Gods.  For others, they would sacrifice everything, including themselves, to make sure that never happens.

The Sacred Texts call those whose souls carry  pieces of the god  Vessels. The  people of Pozhar so fear the rebirth of Zhar Ptitsa, that they have systematically hunted down and sacrificed the Vessels through the years.  As one Vessel is thrown on the flames, another is called into awareness by magical means. One by one, nine hundred and ninety eight Vessels have been sacrificed on the alter of fire and rebirth.  Now only two Vessels remain unaware that their souls contain pieces of a god.

Raz and Pechal are two of the best thieves in the Kingdom. When Ailill, a White Beast of Verde hires Ivan and his a band of mercenaries called the Wolves of Pozhar to steal back a piece of sacred jewelry, there are only two thieves capable of such a high profile theft.  For the jeweled  comb is in the hands of the Minister of Magic who lives within the castle and only Pachal has been successful in entering without rousing the guards. Raz has been looking for that retirement job, one where his fee is so high that he and Peshal can buy a small farm and become honest again.  He worries constantly about his best friend who is much younger than he is and so fragile. This theft will see an end to their life of constant hunger, rags for clothes and fear of constant imprisonment.  He agrees to take this mission and join the diverse gang of mercs, thieves and noblemen.

As the small band prepares to steal back the jewels,the hunt resumes with fervor to identify, capture and sacrifice the last two Vessels on the alter inside the Cathedral of Sacred Fires.  For the king, Tsar Zarya, is dying, the snowfall is earlier and heavier than ever before, and the people grow weary of the killing of innocents.  Dym, the High Priest of Pozhar, is desperate to finish the sacrifices  and set in motion his long held plans.  But the best thieves are hard to catch.  What will happen when they realize they are the last Vessels of Pozhar?

The Lost Gods is turning into such a stunning series, diverse in content and emotional flavor, complicated plots populated with complex, sympathetic, all too human characters that will make you laugh and weep, sometimes on the same page.  Treasure was a rousing adventure on the high seas, with dragons, princes, mermaids and hidden agendas. For all its title, Burning Bright heads in another direction, more localized in geographical area and deeper in content while still continuing with the overall theme of sacrifice and predestination.  Pozhar is a kingdom of fire and rebirth.  It’s citizens eyes and hair carry the colors of fire, from the deepest of reds to red hot oranges and yellows.  They greet each other with “May the fires warm and greet you.” Their epithets use adjectives such as scorching idiot , to the affectionate “little sparks” to shutting someone up with an abrupt “douse it” – fire and ash are always with them.  Yet now the snows come early and often, and the formerly hearty and gregarious people are losing their well known warmth as the constant killing, squabbling, and conflict takes its toll on the population. Through the eyes of each character, you get a real feel of a nation falling apart from the ground up.

The story is told from the  POV of several of the main characters.  In other books I’ve read this technique sometimes renders the story disorientating.  Here it gives us immediate access into the thoughts and emotions of each character which is crucial when showing the impact the sacrifice of the Vessels has on each of them.  The death of innocents is an explosive emotional theme and it is essential to our ability to empathize with the characters to grasp what this means to them. Especially the High Priest Dym who personally  attends to each Vessel before he sees them to their death in the flames. He is tormented by doubt, wavering between his belief that the sacrifices are necessary to achieve his goal and the actuality of being the one to watch each and every one die consumed by flames, burned alive before his eyes. Dym would be so easy to hate if you were unable to feel what this has cost him, his unrelieved pain and anguish hidden behind his calm resolve.

Then there is Lord Nikolai Krasny, Duke of Alkaev and Advisor to the Tsar.  He was introduced in Treasure and his promise as a fascinating character there is fulfilled here in Burning Bright.  Brilliant in demeanor and mind, cold in character, his vision is large in scope.  He’s very aware of  the conflict within his nation, court intrigue is a mere game compared to the losses he has already endured, his sister was a Vessel and the only man he has ever loved refuted him and now lies dying.  His remote, sarcastic voice is a needed contrast to those characters grounded in obligation and quiet suffering.  Also reappearing from Treasure, is the wonderfully slutty and adventuresome White Beast of Verde, Ailill.  The noble shapeshifter brings a much needed levity and sexuality with him.  I adored the brief glimpse of him onboard the Kumita and was thrilled to see how heavily involved he is here (and in future books).  Ivan and his band of mercenaries, the Wolves of Pozhar, form a sort of outlaw Greek chorus.  They don’t care much for religion, and see no reason for the sacrifices.  Loyalty to each other and their own flexible set of morals/rules is what guides them.  Finally, there is Raz and Pachal, the little sparks and our endearing young thieves.  They become the heart and heartbreak of this story.  You will quickly come to love them, as do all the denizens of the markets, brothels, and poor of the city.  Megan Derr has almost done too well a job with these two because you care for them so deeply and root for them with all your heart.  I am not sure I have forgiven her yet for some of the events here but forgiveness also seems to be a common thread throughout the Lost Gods saga so I am waiting to see how it all plays out.

Each book centers on one Kingdom and its Lost God.  In Treasure it was Kundou and the Three Dragons of the Storm.  Burning Bright is the  story of Poshar and it’s Lost God, Zhar Ptitsa.  Book 3 is called  Stone Rose and the kingdom of Pierdre with its Lost God, the Basilisk, to be followed by the books Poison and Chaos. Slowly, each convoluted puzzle piece falls into place as the tale of the Lost Gods is painstakingly assembled.  Like a Rubric’s Cube, each story has the same intricate structure.  Each character plays multiple rolls, each supposed dead end reveals a hidden passage, a character of seeming little consequence later reappears much changed in status and power.  Death and rebirth are constant companions.  Little things that bothered me in Treasure are resolved (somewhat) here but the final solutions and answers to all our questions won’t come until the very end of the last book in the Lost Gods series.

Can one love a book when you find no joyfulness in reading it?  For me the answer is yes. I gloried in the tale even as I had the taste of ash in my mouth. In fact I will reread this one and will probably hold the entire series close.  This is not a tale of romance, although love plays its part. Megan Derr is giving us an incredible epic, spanning the ages, continents and even death.  Each book should be read in succession and as a part of the series to get the full impact and role each kingdom and its people will play in the final battle for the Lost Gods.  You will both love and hate Burning Bright.  Have several boxes of tissue handy.  I did and still do.  I cannot wait for Stone Rose to come out and the epic of the Lost Gods to continue.  Kudos to Megan Derr for giving us two remarkable books in what promises to be one of the most extraordinary fantasy series in recent memory.

Cover: Art work by London Burden.  The covers are growing on me.  Each cover is a map of the kingdom involved, done in a way to resemble parchment.  The color choice carries over from the colors of the people of each kingdom.  Treasure has a blue cover to go with a kingdom by the sea and its people with hair and eyes the color of the sea.  Burning Bright has an orange or burnt cover perfect for citizens of Pozhar with hair and eyes the color of fire.  A simple concept for a cover of a book complex in story and character.

Available from Less Than Three Press.

Treasure (The Lost Gods Book 1) by Megan Derr

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Rating: 4.75 stars

One night in a deserted warehouse in Kundou, two lonely boys on the run meet and entwine their fates forever.  One wishes to become a ship’s captain. One seeks just one night of safety and refuge from beatings at home.  They exchange gifts and make a promise to each other.  One will buy a ship and come for the other.  And one will wait for him and they will run off together to find the greatest treasure in the world.   It will take years before they see each other again.

Nine hundred years ago the Dragons of the Three Storms, Gods of chaos went insane and tried to destroy the land of Kundou. But King Taiseiyou rose up, killed the dragons and stole their powers for himself. The cost the royal family pays to retain those magical powers? A sacrifice of a member of the royal family every hundred years and that time is almost here.

Now the  world is in trouble, cracks appearing in the political governments everywhere, food supplies are threatened, and even the supremacy of the seas that Kundou has always held is shaken by constant attacks by mermaids who kill entire crews, discard the cargo, and sink the ships. Prince Nankyokukai and Taka, his friend and royal secretary have a secret mission, or rather Prince Kyo does.  Taka doesn’t know the meaning of the errands that Prince Kyo is sending him on, only that they are the utmost importance to his only friend,  and that is all that matters to Taka.  The prince’s family, always so cold and distant towards it’s youngest son, has been taking more interest in his affairs of late and the heir to the throne has been more obnoxious and overbearing, if that is possible.  In secret, Prince Kyo and Taka head to  the city docks and a meeting with the city’s wealthiest merchant, Master Shimano Raiden. Huge in statue and personality, flamboyant in attire, sure and arrogant in attitude, Shimano Raiden is everything  Taka finds disdainful yet Kyo seems determined to do business with him.  Taka is astounded to learn that the reason behind Prince Kyo’s meeting is to arrange for clandestine passage out of Kundou, immediately. And only one ship’s captain and one ship will do, Captain Kindan Ningyo of the Kumiko.

Captain Kindan Ningyo and all aboard the Kumiko have had a rough voyage this trip and are looking forward to a few days to relax in the harbor before Raiden sends them out again.  The mermaid attacks are increasing and his ship is a favorite target.  Only a very few know the reason behind the ferocity and number of attacks on his ship, that he is half merman and hated by the sea bitches for his very existence.  His dual nature would also bring him trouble on land if known but Raiden keeps his secret.  But Kindan has another more hidden reason that he returns to Kundou’s harbor, he has a promise to keep.  Between a secret mission and a promise rests the fate of the world and the destiny of two boys turned men looking for that greatest treasure of all – love.

This book took me back to the years of reading with a flashlight under the covers.  Alone in my “cave” I visited alien worlds, met otherworldly beings and rode on the backs of dragons.  It was magical.  Everything seemed possible and real.  And Treasure brought all that back in one fell swoop.  Well, except for the sex of course but still a wondrous  time.  And with the worlds and characters she has created here, Megan Derr has given me an old fashioned tale of adventure and fantasy,  so satisfying a page turner that I was finishing it at 2am this morning and yelling for more.  Really! My dogs were quite upset at the racket!

There is so much to this story I don’t know where to start.  There is the seaside kingdom of Kundou, the sea power of the world with merchants and markets to match the cargo the ships bring in. So real is this world that you can feel the ships creak at their moorings, hear the gulls cry overhead, and listen to the shouts of merchants hawking their wares.  The palace itself is another wonder whose descriptions made me want a magic amulet the better to see the Shark Room with its mystical floor and lethal inhabitants. A perfect place for palace intrigue and mystery. Megan Derr doesn’t stop with Kundou.  She brings us the White Beasts of Verdun with their two skins, and  Pozhar peopled with beings with hearts and souls of fire. Layer upon fantastical layer, the worlds of Treasure emerge and solidify before our eyes.

Let’s not forget the characters because they are unforgettable.  You can tell if someone is from Kundou as they carry the colors of the sea in their eyes and hair, from the deepest blue through all the greens and back again. If you come from Pozhar, your hair and eyes display the pigments of fire. And the characters are as colorful as their physical descriptions.  Prince Kyo is beautiful, ruthless and cunning.  A priest as well as prince, he is an intriguing combination of religion, royal obligation, and romance  wrapped into one.  His willingness to sacrifice everything for the good of his people drives the voyage and the story forward.  Captain Kindan Ningyo is a wonderful creation, a mix of  seafaring Captain and fanged merman at war with his kin, white of skin and hair but black in his choice of garb.  As he and his crew fought back waves of mermaids, decks heaved, sprays of salt water rained over the men as blood flowed and the reader was in the middle of it all, feeling each hit, reeling with each slash of the knife. And then there is Taka and Master Raiden, they may actually be my favorites here.  Taka is full of surprises, a little prickly but quick to forgive, a trait that will be of utmost importance before the story is over.  He is fire where Kyo is ice,  he is loyalty personified and sensitive as to his position in life.  I just loved him.  Master Shimano Raiden is larger than life right down to the colorful robes and jewels he wears but he is a shrewd businessman and a complicated personality to match the multicolored layers of  clothes he is so fond of.  Each character beautifully detailed, so alive as to reach out from the page, grab you and pull you into the adventure with them.

Treasure so enchanted me that at the end I was shocked it was over, the tale a little unfinished.  The voyage had come to a satisfactory and surprising end with a twist I relished, but I wasn’t quite sure what came next for all those characters I had come to know and love. And it is that uncertainty that gives this tale a 4.5 instead of a 5.  The sequel, Burning Bright, is out there waiting to be read.  While I am not sure those of the sea fit into a story of flames, but I can always hope.  A tip of a cup full of wine of the dead to a tale well told and to another voyage on the horizon.

Cover:  Artist Le Burden Design. The cost looks like a seafaring map but I would have wished for a little more embellishment to go with a story of Lost Gods and dragons.

Available from Less Than Three Press.