Review: Cry of the Newborn
James Barclay. You know the name. You know that his Raven novels made him one of my favorite authors. If you live in the US, finally getting his novels has been a welcome breath of fresh air. That’s all great and dandy, but there is something we in the US are missing that our UK buddies still have exclusive.
The Ascendants of Estorea.
You see, James Barclay, being the ambitious writer that he is, decided he wanted to write something that could be used not only for the pleasure of reading, but also for weight-lifting. CRY OF THE NEWBORN is a huge novel, both in size (a trade paperback of 800+ pages), and scope (covers 15 years of time). This isn’t the flashy, up-close-and-personal Raven series. No, this is a tale of the Estorean Conquord, a religious empire that has stood for 850 years. It feels very much like the Roman Empire. There are two main stories going on here, spread across numerous PoVs.
The first story is of the Conquord itself as it does what all huge empires do: expand. There comes a point in an empire’s life that in order to survive, it has to continually expand. This idea has been illustrated in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt series, and is presented to us with amazing clarity here in CRY OF THE NEWBORN. The thing is, the bigger an empire becomes, the easier it is to become complacent, over-confidant, and foolish. It lends to disaster. The first half of the novel is showing the pride before the fall. The second half of the novel is of everything going wrong.
The second main story follows four children from birth until the age of fourteen. They are the first pure Ascendants. They have control over all the elements, and can shape them to do their bidding (read: magic). Some see them as salvation. Most everyone else sees them as an affront to God. Blasphemy incarnate.
I could go on for pages about the setting, the characters, and the story. There is an amazing level of detail and world-building in this novel, all of it executed with care and precision. This world feels alive. Rich. Vibrant. The first half of the novel is very slow due to all of the set-up, but its payoff is truly incredible.
None of the setting, or any of the time and effort put into the history of this world would be worth two pennies if the characters weren’t solid. But this is James Barclay. Character is what makes his Raven novels work, and it is what makes CRY OF THE NEWBORN live. The four children Ascendants are great—a nice mixture of childishness and beyond-their-years maturity. Paul Jhered, a tax collector for the Conquord, was my personal favorite. Seeing his attitude change over the course of the novel was once of the best parts. Then of course there are the dozens of other PoVs, all of which are interesting and unique. I loved some characters, hated others, and felt a bit of both towards others still. Loved it.
There is a lot of war in this novel. Sieges, open-field battles, and naval warfare. Where Barclay’s Raven novels tend to focus on the few of the Raven taking on other small groups attacking them, CRY OF THE NEWBORN showcases big, epic battles. There’s no flash to them, just hard, brutal fighting and carnage. As a reader, you will truly feel the devastation war brings. There is a particularly poignant section towards the very end of the novel where an army begins a battle-chant about how they understand that each side of the conflict is made up of singular people who want nothing more than to survive and return to their families…but death will prevent that. The battles in this novel will cause your heart to pound in your chest, and no one is truly safe.
The only thing, in my mind, that keeps this novel from being absolutely perfect is how long it takes to get going. But once it does, CRY OF THE NEWBORN is a prime example of incredible Epic Fantasy. Hey, it has a Steven Erikson cover quote on it. CRY OF THE NEWBORN is epic, ambitious, thrilling, and horrifying all at the same time. It is one of the finest novels I have read in quite some time. Now I know first-hand what all you UK readers have known for ages; The Ascendants of Estorea is freaking incredible.
And I still get to read the second half of the series, SHOUT FOR THE DEAD. Folks, this is why I read books. You should totally import this. Now.
Recommended Age: 17 and up.
Language: Very, very sparse.
Violence: This book is FULL of war and violence. You feel the horrific devastation, but you never feel it was just thrown in.
Sex: One very brutal scene that was handled as well as I have ever read.
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