Book review: The Judas Blossom by Stephen Aryan (reviewed by Lukasz P. & Mihir Wanchoo)

 

Book links: Amazon, Goodreads

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Stephen Aryan is the author of The Coward and The Warrior (the Quest for Heroes Duology), as well as the Age of Darkness and Age of Dread trilogies. His first novel, Battlemage, was a finalist for the David Gemmell Morningstar Award for best debut fantasy novel. It also won the inaugural Hellfest Inferno Award in France. He has previously written a comic book column and reviews for Tor.com. In addition, he has self-published and kickstarted his own comics. You can find out more about Stephen and his books on his website: Stephen-Aryan.com

Publisher: Angry Robot (July 11, 2023) Print length: 432 pages Formats: ebook, paperback, audiobook

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (LUKASZ): The Judas Blossom blends political intrigue and historical fantasy, with an emphasis on politics and family drama rather than magic. It’s set during the turbulent time of the Mongol Empire’s invasion of Persia. 

Hulagu Khan, the ruler of the Ilkhanate, tries to dominate the world through brute force. His conquests and violence attract many adversaries who are actively scheming against him. Like his newest concubine, Kokochin, also known as the Blue Princess. She finds purpose in honing her self-defense skills and becoming part of an underground resistance group to destroy the Ilkhanate from within.

She’s not alone in her goals; the defeated Persian general, Kaivon, joins Hulagu to gain insider knowledge and destroy the empire and its cruel ruler. Their arcs thrive on the tension and inner conflict between keeping appearances and taming hate towards oppressors.

Hulagu’s youngest son, Temujin, possesses magical powers (control of the Eternal Flame) he learns to control and understand throughout the story. With time, he discovers his true lineage and his potential to reshape the world. I liked his and Kokochin’s arcs most. 

Temujin’s transformation, from a cowardly figure to his ultimate self (I won’t spoil it), is profoundly heart-wrenching. He changes so drastically that he becomes almost unrecognizable (physically and mentally), a result of a realistic progression, adhering to the world’s inherent rules. 

Aryan’s writing style is vivid and engaging. His rich descriptions appeal to the senses, allowing the reader to imagine the scenes and relate to the characters’ feelings. I also liked how he uses dialog to clarify the characters’ personalities and relationships.

The Judas Blossom weaves a compelling tale of power, love, and treachery. It captivated me and I can’t wait to read the sequel.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS
(MIHIR):
The Judas Bloom isn’t my first taste of Stephen Aryan’s works but
it is by far his strongest work IMHO. This historical fantasy focuses upon a geographical
location and nations that almost have never been utilized in this subgenre.

The story begins in the 13th century after the
Mongols invaded and brutally conquered most of Persia (Iran) and now have begun
their conquest further west towards the Levant and all the riches that lie
amidst the historical grandeur of Baghdad, Damascus, etc. Mixing real life
personas with fictional characters, the author mines his heritage and ancestral
history to give us a story that has magic, grand battles and political
intrigue. All of this along with a pacey plot and a lean approach with prose
makes this trilogy starter an absolute blast to read.

The story is set in over various months between 1260 and
1261, it features four major POVs featuring Hulagu Khan, the ruler of the
Ilkhanate (the Mongol Kingdom set in Persia), Kaivon a Persian warrior who is
all out of options and forced to join his enemy. Temujin Khan, a younger son of Hulagu is forced to act against his personal beliefs as his father wants
him to become a better warrior. Kokochin of the Bayaut tribe is a new wife to Hulagu
and is literally a stranger in a strange land. Forced to come to terms with her
life, she tries to find a purpose other than just being a silly young girl as
most expect her to be.

This is the excellent set up of the story that mirrors what
happened historically as the Mongol empire looked to expand in the southwest
part of Asia. The author also takes a page out of GRRM’s works and sneaks in
some magic (though at a much larger rate, but no less mysterious) and makes the
story jump from being historical fiction into the fantasy side. This was a move
that I’m glad that the author chose as it makes things much more intriguing and
I’m curious to see whether Stephen Aryan can emulate Tim Powers in retelling
historical tales with the addition of magic & without altering the actual
events/timeline.

The author’s characterization is his biggest strength as are
the world settings. Beginning with Hulagu, and Kaivon who are the major two
characters who are striving to achieve their goals. Temujin and Kokochin are
both a bit subdued in the first half of the story but blossom spectacularly in
the latter half. Hulagu Khan is perhaps the strongest character here and his
shadow is felt by almost all the other characters (POV & otherwise). I thoroughly
enjoyed how Stephen Aryan brilliantly showcased him to be a complex individual
who experiences love, loyalty and honour but doesn’t hesitate in showcasing his
brutality, mercilessness and cruelty in furthering the Mongol empire by
whatever means necessary. This is brilliantly done by the author and was a very
hard task to accomplish nevertheless. Secondly with Kaivon, Temujin and
Kokochin
, the author is able to showcase how common people are forced to do
challenging things just to retain their humanity. Plus another intriguing factor
is how lengthy Hulagu’s ambition is and how Kaivon, Temujin and Kokochin’s
actions counter the march of Hulagu’s plans.


Next the world settings and the geo-political angle of the
story is a fantastic breath of fresh air amidst the fantasy genre. Unless you
have a basic understanding of the Mongol empire, its growth, breadth will be
astonishing, and here the author demonstrates several of their siege tactics
& brutal methods they utilized to subdue greater armies and populous
countries. Fantasy readers have read many a variations about the crusades but
almost next to nothing of the Mongol conquest of the Persian Empire and their dealings
with the European monarchies. I’m no expert on Mongol history besides a cursory
understanding but I still enjoyed how the author showcased the geo-political
upheaval in the region. 


The political intrigue was another special feather within this story’s cap. We get to know a group of ladies known as the Twelve who lead most of the chaos. But there’s a special kind of focus on how there are various factions within Hulagu‘s court and even within his wives. Not to mention the whole scenario within the Mongol empire itself. Every character is forced to take some risks and dirty their hands. There are good guys and people with good intentions but there are no easy scenarios. There are only bloody and bloodier options and I enjoyed how the author highlighted this dichotomy for all of our main characters.

Lastly the prose is of a kind that was favoured by David
Gemmell
, no surprise here considering how much of a fan of the big man Stephen
Aryan
is. The prose being straightforward helps in making sure that every scene
serves a purpose.  For me this story didn’t
have any drawbacks besides the fact that the magic system introduced has a
Highlander-like concept to it and very little of it is explained. I hope the
sequels do dwell upon the magical aspect in a lot more depth.

CONCLUSION: The
Judas Blossom
is a fantastic approach to a part of history that quite many
folks know almost next to nothing about. Starting with a Bernard Conrwell like-approach
towards history and combining it with George R.R. Martin’s love for political
fantasy, Stephen Aryan creates a fabulous start to The Nightingale And The
Falcon series
that’s sure to captivate many a readers. The Judas Blossom needs
to be your next read if you love battles, political intrigue mixed in with a
charisma
tic cast of heroes, marauders and magical beings.
 

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