Digging once more into my impressive Angry Robot subscription backlog, I come upon this frustrating gem of a fantasy novel. Seven Forges has many of the hallmarks I like about epic fantasy: political conniving, a cool setting, and varied characters who speak honestly and make mistakes. James A. Moore’s writing is, for the most part, clever and even fun. However, I have some reservations about the portrayal of women and the male gaze—read on to find out.
The title of this book comes from a series of volcanoes far to the north of the principal empire, Fellein, where most of the story takes place. The Seven Forges are separated from Fellein by the Blasted Lands, nearly uninhabited wilderness created by a cataclysm centuries ago that fell one empire and lay the seeds for Fellein and other civilizations to rise. Captain Merros Dulver (retired), employed by a sorcerer on behalf of the empire, successfully makes it through the Blasted Lands, only to find that there are people happily living in valleys near the volcanoes. After making first contact and escorting delegates of this people back to the heart of the empire, Merros finds himself in a position of some prominence. The usual political intrigue and shenanigans occur, assassinations happen, yada yada, and soon we’re on the brink of war! Also there are magical silver hands and lots of talk of gods and duty.
It felt like this book took forever to get to the good bits! (By which I mean the stabbing, assassinationy-type twists and intrigue.) It’s not that I disliked the early parts of this book or that they were in any way bad; they absolutely weren’t. There was just too much of it. I was impatient and kept wondering when the real story would start, and then of course Moore does the old “ending the first book of the series on a cliffhanger so you have to read the next one” trick. So, upfront warning: this book ends on a cliffhanger. It reminds me a lot of Acacia: The War with the Mein, both in terms of plot but also its overwrought structure.
Fortunately, there is plenty of good stuff that kept me interested. I really like the way in which Moore distinguishes the Sa'ba Taalor from the people of Fellein. He clearly put thought and effort into developing a unique culture; it is a gross oversimplification to write the Sa'ba Taalor off simply as a “warrior people”. That might be the archetype from which Moore started, but there’s a more intricate culture going on in the background here. Not everything gets revealed or explained (as it should be). The interactions between Merros and the various members of the Sa'ba Taalor were probably my favourite parts.
The characterization in general was pretty good too. Although Moore seems to lean towards sarcasm and dry humour with several of the principal characters, they are still rather varied in their personalities. However, there was one glaring area in which the characterization is lacking: the portrayal of, and attitudes towards, female characters.
The first time it happened, it was with the soldier characters. So, I dismissed it as a ham-fisted way of portraying these dudes as a little uncouth. Then it happened again. And again. It kept happening, to the point where you’ve got this centuries-old sorcerer practically undressing women and rating their attractiveness, and I’m just like … uh, no thanks. Like, when one or two characters do this, you can have a pass (sometimes) because, yeah, some characters are sexist dipshits. When pretty much every male character does this to pretty much every woman he meets, this is called a massive intrusion of the male gaze on my book, and I’m not here for it.
I feel like I should also point out, for the sake of completeness and content warnings, that it’s implied the male emperor is interested in guys (either in lieu of or in addition to women, it isn’t really specified), but it is also implied that this is considered deviant.
I was almost ready to just mention this in passing in my review but otherwise give this book three stars. Then we got to a point where one character looks at his male friend for a moment and can tell the dude has just had (apparently really good) sex … and I’m just like … nope? I mean, honestly, maybe this is a thing that happens between people or whatever, and I just can’t pick up on it. But the way it’s written and the way I read it was just kind of … gross.
Real talk, authors: when you write fantasy, you have the opportunity to create a society that doesn’t exist. That means you can create a society where queer characters are normal and #notallmen actually applies. This in no way is going to diminish the existential threat of the clash of two cultures like we’ve got here in Seven Forges. There is no justification these days for fantasy authors not taking the opportunity to portray different, more inclusive societies. You can portray oppression in other ways.
So, to sum up: Seven Forges is a good fantasy novel in the sense that it hits a lot of the best epic fantasy tropes in some interesting ways. The writing is a little uneven, and I really didn’t enjoy the heavy presence of the male gaze in the narration. The story was interesting enough that I will probably read book 2—we’ll see if I can stomach it. Your mileage will vary heavily here. I genuinely enjoyed this book, but I like to critique stuff, particularly if I enjoy it. How else are we going to make literature better?