Matthew Cook's impressive debut, Blood Magic, mixes old fantasy concepts, folklore, and horror in an evocative tale. Blood Magic follows two timelines: the first is
the present, written in present tense, and the second tells the main character's
past in imperfect every other chapter. Both are in first-person point-of-view,
and this technique works very well.
The main character, Kirin, is a scout in the Imperial army leading a group of soldiers who are the few survivors of a bloody battle between the Imperial Army and their supernatural foes, the Mor. Kirin is also a practitioner of blood magic
- other beings' blood gives her preternatural strength and healing - and a necromancer. Necromancers are feared and hated by the people, and the priests of the new goddess Shanira think that they are abominations to be killed. However, because of the war, some of Kirin's soldier companions grudgingly accept her powers and assistance.
Kirin tries her best to lead the troop, which includes her lover, Jazen Tor. Unfortunately, even her powers are not enough
when he dies in her arms. She leads the troop forward, but the commander of the troop wants to mount a desperate defense against the Mor. She tries just as desperately to talk him out of it without success. Just as she feared, she is the only one to survive, and only because she is rescued by elementalist mage Lia Cho and her guardian, Brother Daedalius Ato. Despite the priest's deep mistrust, it is better to travel together.
Before Kirin became a scout, she had a twin sister who dominated the timid Kirin. Her sister was the one who decided that Kirin should marry her sister's fiancée's best friend so that the sisters could live close together. Unfortunately, the marriages were unhappy; first the husbands started cheating on their wives, then they started to abuse the sisters. While Kirin's twin
just tried to deny this, Kirin herself found solace in the company of an old Wise Woman and magic user who lived nearby. From the old woman's books, Kirin learned herbalism, healing and magic, including blood magic and necromancy.
Then her sister's husband killed Kirin's twin in a drunken rage; driven by bloody hatred Kirin, took revenge. However, she could not live without her sister, so she used her necromantic knowledge to bring back her sister's spirit and anchor it in her mind.
Her sister can now speak to Kirin, but nobody else can hear her. Kirin took her sister's name as
her own and left to seek out some peace, but she was plagued by people's fears and superstitions even before the Mor started the war.
Even though the tale is set against the background of war, it is a deeply intimate one and always seen from Kirin point-of-view. There are no large-scale battles, even though there
is blood and gore. The war is mostly seen from the point-of-view of the refugees and the women and children after the soldiers have fallen in battle.
Cook plays with quite a few familiar elements, but he manages to give them original twists. For example, while Kirin's necromancy requires fresh human corpses, she doesn't make the corpses move. Instead a smallish, undead creature is born from the remains, and it is devoted to Kirin;
she calls them her sweetlings. Also, Kirin's twin does not always agree with her.
Indeed, most of her speech is barbed against Kirin and sometimes near madness. Kirin also
has "a secret eye" with which she can see the souls of the dead. Despite her destructive powers Kirin, shows genuine compassion toward people – as long as they do not try to harm her. She uses her healing skills to help people as best she can.
Cook's world has a medieval feel to it, lacking technology more complex than horse-drawn carts. There are a few references to six-legged creatures, but they are only glimpsed briefly. The people can be superstitious and even violent, but on the other hand they can also be compassionate. The Mor are huge four-armed creatures with "stone-grey armor and leathery flesh." They can make their weapons hot enough to burn and are very difficult to kill. The characters know nothing about the Mor's motives or culture.
The pace of Blood Magic is quick, yet the characterizations are excellent and the descriptions vivid.
Though it is the first book in a new series, it works as a standalone novel as
well, its mood a unique one
- horror and desperation tempered by hope for the future.