Recently the Self-Published Fantasy Month Team posted a list of some self-published fantasy recs for those who have not read much self-published fantasy and don’t know where to start with finding a good book to read. Our hope was to offer up a few suggestions each while admitting the list would leave out a bunch of great books and authors. I hate leaving out great stories so I decided to re-post the reviews of all the self-published fantasy books I’ve really enjoyed over the last few years. Over the coming days and weeks I’ll be re-posting them here in the lead up to Self-Published Fantasy Month. My hope is you might find one that catches your interest for September!
Today’s installment is Chasing Graves by Ben Galley. I reviewed Chasing Graves back in June of 2019 as part of a massive blog tour with TheWriteReads.
Chasing Graves is a dark and gritty introduction to what I’m sure will be a must read series for all grimdark fantasy fans. I was hooked on this story from its opening pages. In an empire built upon the backs of bound shades, Galley brings the dead to life in a thrilling and suspenseful fantasy page turner that will end before you’re ready and will keep you wanting more.
“Meet Caltro Basalt. He’s a master locksmith, a selfish bastard, and as of his first night in Araxes, stone cold dead.
They call it the City of Countless Souls, the colossal jewel of the Arctian Empire, and all it takes to be its ruler is to own more ghosts than any other. For in Araxes, the dead do not rest in peace in the afterlife, but live on as slaves for the rich.
While Caltro struggles to survive, those around him strive for the emperor’s throne in Araxes’ cutthroat game of power. The dead gods whisper from corpses, a soulstealer seeks to make a name for himself with the help of an ancient cult, a princess plots to purge the emperor from his armoured Sanctuary, and a murderer drags a body across the desert, intent on reaching Araxes no matter the cost.
Only one thing is certain in Araxes: death is just the beginning.” – Goodreads blurb
“Tenets Of The Bound Dead
They must die in turmoil.
They must be bound with copper half-coin and water of the Nyx.
They must be bound within forty days.
They shall be bound to whomever holds their coin.
They are slaved to their masters’s bidding.
They must bring their masters no harm.
They shall not express opinions nor own property.
They shall never know freedom unless it is gifted to them.”
Characters And POV
Chasing Graves is told from four different points of view. The first we encounter is that of Nilith, a woman trudging through a wasted land on foot, dragging a corpse behind her. The corpse just happens to be the body of her husband Farazar who she recently tracked down and murdered. But she’s not alone because Farazar’s ghost (referred to as a shade) is with her every step of the way. Nilith is trying to reach the city of Araxes where she plans to bind Farazar’s shade to her. Only Farazar isn’t the most compliant shade yet and doesn’t look forward to a future bound in servitude to a wife he despises. Nilith will have to battle her husband’s unwillingness to be indentured, the brutal landscape, and violent brigands in her quest to reach Araxes in time. Hers is a story of sheer determination, how it keeps her going and alive, leaving the reader wondering what is behind it all.
Caltro Basalt is a locksmith (thief), perhaps the best locksmith around, who is down on his luck and nearly broke. Upon receiving a mysterious summons to come to Araxes and meet a potential new client residing in The Cloudpiercer (residence of the royal family and seat of government in Araxes) Caltro sets sail to on a journey that will change his life forever. Caltro is murdered by a band of soulstealers immediately after disembarking, bound as a shade, and sold off in the soul market. Caltro must adjust to his new lot in life as a bound shade while simultaneously trying figure out how to bring his case before the Chamber of The Code and perhaps win his freedom. In the meantime he is caught up in the schemes of dead gods who won’t stop speaking to him and who have a mission for him, and those of his new master who is up to something strange beneath her pyramid home.
Boran Temsa is an underworld boss, a tavern owner, and a soul trader with a copper plated prosthetic leg. Temsa is out to expand his shady little empire and is involved in some dangerous business. The question is how far is he willing to go to further his interests?
Empress-In-Waiting Sisine Talin Renala the 37th is tired of waiting. Her father the Emperor has holed himself away in his inner sanctuary within the Cloudpiercer and hasn’t been out in years. Her mother has recently disappeared and now it is left to Sisine to relay the dictates of her father, given to her through a small door to his sanctuary, to the various ruling elites of the empire. She has plans to draw him out one way or the other and has eyes on the throne for herself.
None of these characters are good. This is grimdark after all. Even when you find yourself rooting for Caltro you’re reminded he’s a thief; he’s not really a good guy. He’s just better by comparison to the others. Even with Nilith and Farazar there’s something not right. I mean she tracks him down, kills him, and wants to bind him. She might be pissed, but making him a slave for eternity is, well perhaps a little overkill. Yet I couldn’t help but find myself pulling for her the whole way.
Writing And Pacing
As I noted above, Galley tells the story through four character viewpoints. All four add something interesting and unique to the book. What’s really interesting is that three (Nilith, Temsa, and Sisine) are told from a third person point of view while one (Caltro) is told from a first person point of view. I don’t know that I’ve come across a book with a mix POV like this before and I’m not totally sure what I think. It implies that Caltro is the main character, but he doesn’t necessarily get the most page space. It’s also a little strange shifting from first person to third and back again throughout the book but I think I know the reason for it.
What I really love about Caltro’s story line is it is where the reader gets much of the background behind what it means to be a shade, and how the process works. Galley manages to do it without making it feel like you’re getting an info dump. I think the first person narrative plays into this. Through him the reader experiences the fear of being hunted down and killed, the process of becoming a bound shade, and what life is like on the other side. It’s through Caltro the reader discovers how shades exist and interact with the living world, and how they can still experience pain and suffering. Galley does a great job of exploring the despair and misery of life as a ghost in this uncaring world he has created.
Even though Caltro seems like he’s the main character because his narrative is told in the first person my favorite story line is that of Nilith and Farazar. There’s was not a happy marriage and it is evident in their interactions and not just because she murdered him. What I loved about them is the way their story is told and drawn out throughout the book. The back and forth, and the hostility, and then they are forced at times to still work together. It makes for an interesting and tense contrast and relationship when all along you know she’s dragging him and his dead body to Araxes in order to bind him to her. There’s a lot of danger and action in their story and it keeps you on the edge of your seat wondering what will happen and if they will survive.
Temsa and Sisine along with those they encounter are used to flesh out the two extremes of life in Araxes. Temsa that of the crime ridden streets of the capital, and Sisine that of the royal court. What becomes evident is how much their worlds are alike even if they don’t interact together much. Both worlds are built upon the backs of the bound dead, and wealth is based not on how much silver you have but on how many half-coins you possess, those artifacts that bound a shade to service with a master.
Galley shifts between points of view quickly enough that you don’t ever get bored with one story line while simultaneously making you wish he’d stayed longer with one character or the other because things were really getting good. This kept me swiping pages because I couldn’t wait to see what happened next.
Galley’s writing style really hooked me from the beginning with the way he gives you just enough information to get you interested and keep wondering what’s going on, but not so much that you figure everything out. He managed to do this without having tons of action in the story. Much of Chasing Graves is character development and back-door maneuvering with a few tense fight scenes played out here and there. The tension just continues to increase at a steady pace right up to the climax and then it ends on one hell of a cliffhanger. There’s a surprise at the end I didn’t see coming until it was smacking me in the face and I loved it. I’m sitting here now wondering if I can buy the next installment and work it into my reading schedule anytime soon because I need to know what happens next.
Galley’s world building shines in Chasing Graves. Set within an empire based on ancient Egyptian influences, the Arc as it’s known, is mysterious and different (at least to this western reader). A city of obelisks and pyramids, dead gods and non-western characters, the setting is one I really enjoyed. Add to that the whole bound dead thing and I was really hooked.
This new take on the undead in a fantasy setting was what really made the story. In this world ghosts still have some form, can be touched, can hold things and wear clothing and armor, can speak, can feel pain (if inflicted by copper instruments), and can know misery and despair. Add to that the fact that most shades are slaves, many murdered for profit, including young children who will serve one master or another for eternity. All of this gives the story it’s grimdark element and it’s through the way Galley depicts life as a shade and their experiences that some of the strongest emotions are evoked in the reader. While many books featuring the undead touch upon how much it would suck to exist for an eternity in that state, Chasing Graves really brings the misery of it home and makes you think about it.
In Chasing Graves Galley offers up a thrilling new grimdark narrative sure to excite even those fantasy readers who don’t normally like the genre. Dark, thrilling, and mysterious, it will keep you wondering what’s coming around the corner, and on the edge of your seat with anticipation. I can’t wait to see where the narrative goes and eagerly anticipate reading book two, Grim Solace.
4 of 5 Stars
Author: Ben Galley
Series: The Chasing Graves Trilogy #1
Publication Date: December 7, 2018
Print Length: 391 pages