As any long-time reader knows, I love fantasy. It is a genre that holds a near-infinite variety of flavors on its spice rack, capable of combinations as varied as your imagination. Today’s pick from the pantry is from the ‘Dark Fantasy’ racks, promising blood, deceit, intrigue, and all the sharp flavors that genre entails. Is Otto Black as black as its title suggests or does it simply leave you feeling ‘meh’?
Before we dig deeper, let us recite the Starving Review creed:
- I attempt to rate every book from the perspective of a fan of the genre
- I attempt to make every review as spoiler-free as possible
Otto Black does indeed live up to its name in terms of the darkness of its themes and tone. The fantasy world it evokes is a dirty, gritty one, filled with racism, religious fanatics, manipulative rulers, hapless peasants, and all manner of foul deed and dirty trick. This is not a book for the young and could be probably have its black icing accented with a bright red ‘TRIGGER WARNING’ scrawl across it. This dark fantasy is evoked in a surprisingly realistic way, fortunately, taking notes from our own dark history, which saves it from diving into the cartoonish.
All that dark, bitter cake should be balanced by some sweetness and that is one of Black‘s flaws. There is no hint of sweetness, no brief moment of delight, no hint of happiness in this dark world. Again, it isn’t unrealistic … the events of the plot and the characters weave together in a way that this much sorrow, deceit, and treachery is just the logical result of things. Still, that unrelenting grimness hammers at you as you read it, leaving the reader in a vague malaise by the time he eats the last bite, the only part which leaves a glimmer of hope for the second book of the series.
As you may have noticed during these past few paragraphs, the plot, as it weaves its dark flavors and spices, is well-written, utterly logical in its bleakness. Each intrigue and betrayal makes perfect sense and interlocks with the rest, while a larger, mostly-unknown conspiracy plays out in the background, only revealed by cryptic hints and foreshadowing as we progress. The pacing, likewise, is overall solid, only suffering from the necessary burden of having to introduce key elements of this fantasy world and its society. If I have any criticism of this setup, it is simply that there are time where I think perhaps the reader is stuffed with more informative bites than is needed at one sitting, leading to a few clunky parts. Still, for a book needing to introduce so much, Mr. Pavru does a fair job overall.
Characterization is something of a mixed bag. The major players, especially the protagonist, are well-fleshed out. If I have a complaint, it is again the almost universal darkness of the cast. Redeeming qualities are few and far between, especially with any character in a position of power, which again, considering the overall moral climate of the world, may not be wholely unrealistic. It still seems a bit much, leaving me coughing from the bitterness of the recipe. Minor characters are fairly weak, but there are far more major characters than in many books, so it is not something often noticed.
There is one more point that made stretches of Black a hard read aside from the unrelenting darkness and that is the very uneven editing. Now, I am not what you would call a strict grammarian. Typos happen and even the best editor can let one slip through, so I almost never mention them. Unfortunately, Otto has more than its fair share of typos and stylistic twitches. It is never enough to make me want to push the meal away, but it certainly forced me at times to sit a moment to chew through the typo gristle to get back to the meat of it all. Most distracting past the typos would be instances of a forest of pronouns without proper agreement with nouns, leading me to trying to untangle a series of statements and actions to regain the flow of a scene.
Overall, Otto Black is an ambitious dark-fantasy cake that is close to greatness, hampered by editing issues and unrelenting bitterness. If it were fully edited, especially if its bout of pronoun issues were cleared up, this would be a solid recommendation if you love dark fantasy (definitely it would add a star). Even in its current state, it’s a worthwhile read for a dark fantasy fan, but be prepared to run into those editing issues. If you want even a hint of brightness in your fantasy, you should stay far away … you won’t find it here.
FINAL VERDICT: *** (An ambitious dark-fantasy cake that is close to greatness, hampered by editing issues and unrelenting bitterness!)