Hall of Smoke by H M Long

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Hall of Smoke by H M Long

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Category: Fantasy
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Amber Wells
Reviewed by Amber Wells
Summary: A richly imagined world full of interesting lore on deceitful gods and goddesses.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 432 Date: January 2021
Publisher: Titan Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1789094985

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Hessa is an Eangi: a powerful priestess of the Goddess of War. That is until she is banished by her high priestess for not following her one order: to kill the traveller that visits her temple. Her whole town is burnt to the ground while she is praying for forgiveness, and Hessa – now left alone – must find this traveller to atone for her weakness and win back her goddess' favour. On her journey, she encounters zealot soldiers, deceitful gods, and newly awakened demons at every turn. It is a gruelling quest, and along the way, she discovers a harrowing truth: the gods are dying, and the High Halls of the afterlife are fading. Soon Hessa's trust in her goddess weakens, and she is thrust into a battle between the gods of the Old World and the New.

Hessa is definitely a strong female character. I was honestly surprised by how much physical pain and trauma she went through at the beginning of this novel. And despite this, she would always get right back up to start fighting again – even when she was in no fit state to do so. She's a fierce warrior, but is also vulnerable at times, especially when it comes to those she feels loyal to. The flashback scenes illustrate this side to her really well, whilst also providing useful backstory for the plot.

The world building is one of this novel's biggest strengths. Villages, towns, and different parts of the world all had their own distinct cultures and belief systems, and Hessa spends a lot of time in this novel visiting these different places as part of her quest. It's a harsh world, and the Viking influences are present throughout. The most interesting part for me though was the mythologies. Each of the tribes Hessa encountered were devoted to different gods, and these gods had a big influence on what happened in the world. They protected those who were devoted to them, gave powers to a select few, and they even influenced the politics between tribes: they could order a raid on the neighbouring village (because they had their own personal disagreements with the god that village worshipped) and it would have to be done.

I liked how involved the gods were in everything. It made them feel more real and connected to the world. This was especially true when they would physically show up on Hessa's journey. They would usually try to guide her in some way, but more often than not, they would just give cryptic information about the world of the gods and would then disappear.

Although these messages from the gods were frustrating for Hessa at times – mostly because they created more questions than they answered – it was still really interesting to discover the layers of history to their world that had remained hidden until now. Hessa initially cast off any doubts they planted about the goddess she served, for her goddess had given her no reason to doubt her in the past, so why should she start now? But as more information is discovered, and more pieces of the puzzle come together, we see Hessa's devotion waver as she realises that there are much bigger, older, and more powerful beings that are starting to awaken. She is a pawn in the gods conniving ways, a tool to be used for their own advantage - that is unless she breaks free of their hold and becomes a key player herself.

The only issue I had with this novel is my struggle to connect to any of the characters. Hessa spends so much of this story travelling, that we never really spend enough time with anyone in particular to form much of an attachment to them. There was one moment when she met Ogam – the god of winter – and they spent enough time together for me to think that he would be with her for the rest of the novel. But no, he had to go off on his own mission and therefore we lost the one connection that had a lot of potential to be built upon.

Overall, Hall of Smoke was a very enjoyable read and had a lot packed into it for a standalone fantasy novel. Further recommendations would be Skullsworn by Brian Staveley, The Nightjar by Deborah Hewitt and Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

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