This review is part of my judging effort for SPSFC2. For a little intro to the whole thing and an explanation of my judging style, see this practice review.
Today’s review is for Lightblade, A Progression Fantasy Epic, Book 1 of the Lightblade Saga by Zamil Akhtar. There was some question as to whether this was a science-fiction book or a fantasy one, but I can assure you up front – it is definitely sci-fi. And fantasy. And – look, let’s just get to the review.
Having seen at least one progression fantasy before in my life, I sort of knew what I was getting into here. Your classic progression fantasy involves a protagonist who levels up through the story and faces off against the antagonists and … well, this is that. And then some. And then some more!
The story launches straight into action. Our hero, Jyosh, is languishing in a prison camp after the latest round of horrible wars of dominance across the nations of his world has gone badly for him. He and his fellow inmates are forced to run machines by … hold on, this gets wild. The machinists extract green light from the solar spectrum using crystals they install in their chests and then use the light to power the machines. That’s the
magic techno system – different crystals enhance different light wavelengths, that can be used for different stuff. There’s also purple for healing, orange for dreams, and red for combat. Those are the main ones. Especially the dream one. I think I got the colours right.
I was immediately hooked by the premise, the characters, the tone. It really was like nothing I’d read before. The set-up was complete fantasy but the language was sci-fi. There was a psychedelic weirdness about it that I loved. With every page, it seemed like there was a new complexity, a new strangeness to the world, a new twist, and we’re dropped right into the middle of it.
Jyosh’s initially Spartacus-esque quest for vengeance results in him getting his dream crystal – cheap ones are given to all the inmates to keep them docile, as four hours of sleep equals four days of fun times with your basic sexy-dream – hacked to teach him how to become a warrior. This plan almost immediately begins crumbling into multi-layered wackiness as Jyosh, his training program, even the world itself is revealed to be nothing like what we initially assumed. And I initially assumed it was pretty fucking weird.
I can’t adequately describe the facets and levels to this story (and that’s not even meant to be a dream crystal pun, but it is one and I couldn’t be more pleased) without just going through the narrative event by event and describing each one, so I won’t do that. But if you like your science-fiction on the colourful and surreal side, and you got a kick out of Inception and the Matrix movies but thought they were just a bit too impressed with themselves and could have done even more with their premises, look no further.
I loved the idea of a world so utterly overshadowed by the aeons of dreams its inhabitants have been having that it is indistinguishable from them. I don’t think I’m giving away much when I say that once you have that kind of background condition in your worldbuilding, the nature of reality is going to be called into question and that becomes the central idea that the reader, and the characters, grapple with.
The progression element, the training and grinding and powering-up, is all done really well. I’m not a big one for training and fight sequences but these were good – and they were kind of the point. It worked. The references to the world’s state, the ever-dusk and the rest of it, are just peppered through the story in an extremely balanced and well-crafted way. Never an info-dump (not that I’d mind), never a gap into which confusion can form. Although don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of confusion. Of the best sort.
From the large scale, down to the individual and scene level, each element of the story is as finely crafted as if it were made by a crystal modder in the underworld of wherever. The glitching dream crystal and that perfect merging of consciousness, magic and technology, is so gloriously disorienting I would actually find myself blinking around at the room after I put the book down. And the confusion and fear of a warzone is so palpable and well done, the helplessness and chaos of it. Gut-churning and most impressive.
The whole dream-training and dream-life thing was interesting and baffling to me. Even before we get into the deep layers where billions of years are passing, it seemed to me like it would be a way more prevalent and understood part of the world, people would go to sleep and suddenly wake up good at stuff and hardly consider the real world to be real, but … okay, a lot of this can be assumed due to the deep-end start we get, and the rest … let’s just accept it and move on. Seems to me like there would be prison dream crystals too. But maybe I missed stuff. There is a lot going on in this story.
A lot going on, maybe, but not much sex. We get some genteel sexy-times references, and obviously the prison camp wet dream crystals are a thing that cannot be overlooked. Kaur was amusingly squeamish about not wanting to feel Jyosh’s wing wang while spooning. Or, specifically, not saying it. Considering how crude she is, that was funny. I’ll give it a Jyosh’s make-believe mummy thing out of a possible Bad Boy Bubby.
We’re treated to a good dose of gore here, with some brutal fight scenes and an ongoing terrible multi-sided war. Three flesh-gobbets out of a possible five.
Now this is where the book really shines. Yes sir, we have hit a rich vein of WTF here. The Nightscape, the Dayworld, the dream layers and the Song. The entire cosmology and setting here is fascinating. I’m giving it an hour-in-layer-ten-duration game of Monopoly using psychedelia-causing playing pieces out of a possible hour-in-layer-one-duration game of Kimble with missing pieces.
My Final Verdict
What a fun read! This is another one that makes me happy to be a reviewer, and very glad I didn’t dismiss it as straight-up fantasy. I’m going to go ahead and give this weird-arse journey of mind-blowery and occasional dragons four stars on the Amazon / Goodreads scale.