What happens when the great antagonist, the villainous figure bent on destroying the world, is the divine? The Last Sacrifice, the first book in James A. Moore’s Tides of War series, places that conflict at its core. And while it’s an interesting question—what if the gods themselves are the enemy—the book invests a great deal of time in worldbuilding and stage setting, leaving the “meat” of the plot on the back burner while hopping between points of view.
The Last Sacrifice is Grimdark, which is to say it’s brutal and gory, and deals with some of the darker aspects of human behavior. The inciting incident of the story, which pits the protagonist against the gods, asks about the lengths to which anyone would go to get revenge for losing their entire family for nebulous reasons. It’s a familiar concept—man loses wife and children, becomes enraged, goes on a rampage to avenge his family’s killers. Rinse, repeat. But the execution in The Last Sacrifice breaks that trope open, making the revenge itself a secondary incident which ignites the entire world. The scope of consequences changes, and the man’s blind rage doesn’t get quenched in a vacuum. I really appreciated that exploration, because oftentimes our media that glorifies righteous violence and revenge doesn’t address the fallout of those actions—it lets the protagonist win, and washes its hands of the brutal reality that such violence visits on the world around it. But it’s revenge atop revenge in The Last Sacrifice. In getting his revenge, Brogan McTyre enrages the gods, who want to punish the entire world in revenge for their monthly sacrifices being interrupted by Brogan’s actions. Predictably, chaos ensues.
Structurally, The Last Sacrifice jumps between characters and locations, building a large secondary world complete with features that are to be expected in this kind of fantasy: slavers, wretched towns, groups of kingdoms, mysterious geological phenomena, strange humanoid creatures that represent the gods, kilts, guilds, etcetera. It’s no more or less inventive than other fantasy in the same vein, but it’s well executed and feels complete.
I liked The Last Sacrifice, especially as an audiobook (as always, many thanks to Audible for providing the review copy), but I became so hung up on one detail that I couldn’t get really into the book. Let me set the scene.
The world in which Brogan McTyre lives has been sacrificing four humans every season to appease the gods. The sacrifices are (seemingly) arbitrarily chosen, and exchanged for valuable coins that act as reparations for the humans who lost loved ones. This sacrifice has been taking place multiple times every year since time began. Presumably, people would be used to the idea, wouldn’t they? Granted, the Grakhul (the humanoid divine servants who make the sacrifices) took Brogan’s entire family, an unusual event to be sure, but this has been happening literally forever. Brogan and everyone he knows have been raised to accept this sacrifice as part of life, yet when his own family is taken he goes ballistic, rounds up his mercenary friends, and exacts bloody revenge on the messengers of the gods. Throughout the book, characters flout the conventions that the world’s been accepting for its entire existence. Though there are mentions of past lapses in appeasement of the gods on the humans’ part, I kept getting hung up on the idea that so many people would be somewhat blaze about disregarding deeply-held beliefs regarding a global phenomenon that is as old as the world itself.
So when Brogan confronted the king of his country and asked what the King would do in his shoes, I’d expect the king to say he’d tow the line. When Brogan ropes his sellsword friends into the revenge, I’d expect a little less enthusiastic following of the rash actions that lead to the impending destruction of the world. Instead, everyone’s pretty much on board with the revenge plan. And when Brogan decides to sell the remaining Grakhul he hasn’t killed, the women and children, into slavery—a thing they all despise—the group goes along with that too. There’s some recalcitrance, but I always expected some internal conflict among the sellswords, which never fully coalesced. I expected more pushback from those who feel that “this is just how the world works” is a sufficient explanation for Brogan’s loss. There wasn’t much of that, though.
Those issues aren’t digs at the book, per se. Maybe it’s just me inserting my own writing voice into the story. Decisions I’d have made if I were telling the story. The Last Sacrifice will tickle the fancy of any fans of Grimdark fantasy, with its large cast of characters and earth-shattering consequences. The narrator, Adam Sims, does a great job of bringing intensity to the story, and at just under 10 hours, the book is easy to consume in a week of here-and-there listening sessions. Grimdark isn’t for everyone, but if you like it, pick up The Last Sacrifice. You’ll enjoy it.
The Last Sacrifice is available on Audible.
Also published on Medium.