Zamil Akhtar’s dark and brutal Middle Eastern fantasy excites, horrifies and captivates in equal measure; a real triumph.
Author – Zamil Akhtar
Pages – 475
Publishing Information – Self Published
Gunmetal Gods initially intrigued me with its striking cover art, and I looked into the author’s work. I signed up to his newsletter and downloaded his free novella – Death Rider – set in the same world and an earlier timeline to the events of Gunmetal Gods.
Death Rider was a real page turner and I was hooked by the combination of Crusades-inspired fantasy mixed with creepy, unnerving horror elements.
Gunmetal Gods showcases a similar conflict between the Crucians and Sirmians, focusing less on the horror and more on the world building, although there are examples of the author’s skills in this department; the brilliantly grotesque Labrynthos – an underground passageway network and the gateway to hell, where demons lurk and from which any being who leaves is never quite the same.
Our two POV characters (save for a small but interesting divergence later on) are Micah and Kevah. They both play prominent roles within their opposing sides and as the book goes on the majority of readers will likely sympathise more with Kevah, as I certainly did. Despite this, I enjoyed Micah’s chapters more simply because there was more drama and shocking moments. I always gravitate towards characters with more villainous traits and within the first four chapters or so there can’t be any doubt in this respect. Before this point, you might spend your time wondering which of these two protagonists you like the most (or dislike the least.)
Despite on a personal level one character being more likeable than the other, there is a full cast of characters and within any realistic conflict, there are the moral & just and the cruel & selfish on both sides. This means when you take a step back, picking a side isn’t so straightforward. Each country believes their cause to be validated by their God and the conquest of the city of Kostany (the main point of conflict in the book) their divine right. It’s been held by the Sirmians for 300 years, but for 700 before that, it was Crucian territory.
It raises thought provoking questions for how we view real history – what makes a territory belong to a people, a religion or culture? How many people have lost their lives through theirs or others’ interpretation of their God’s wishes?
Loosely, the Sirmians are based around the Middle Eastern Islamic powers of the middle ages whilst the Crucians have more in common with the Holy Roman Empire and Western Christian crusaders. Their Gods and many of their beliefs however are completely different and this alongside the fantasy elements make it feel unique. Like a history book though, we don’t have to ‘pick a side’ – we can just enjoy the storytelling as an observer and an interest into how the conflict plays out.
There are mages, mysterious Gods and dark powers at work and I feel like the author really gets the balance right in sprinkling in those fantasy elements in amongst a really engaging and interesting conflict. To me that’s a strength of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series and Akhtar too uses his own historical knowledge as a strong foundation to create an intriguing world with believable cultures, characters and power grabs that is perfectly complemented by a bit of extra sparkle in the form of Gods and magic. The only time I felt this didn’t really work was with the introduction of a friendly Jinn named Kinn, who provides a slice of comedy that I didn’t feel really fit in with the rest of the story. Some however will enjoy him and that’s only my personal opinion – it isn’t enough to affect my overall enjoyment of the book and he does serve a purpose to advance the plot.
Where Gunmetal Gods differs from a series such as ASOIAF is in the complexity. It isn’t a book in which many overarching storylines, foreshadowing coming to fruition or obviously planned and nurtured twists are all coming together; the main plot pulls you through without making things overly complicated. Some readers might feel there could be more depth, but the book is already almost 500 pages and I think it works well as it is.
There is an intelligence and subtle commentary on a number of topics here – belief and faith being one of them – that you could pick apart academically if so inclined. If you were reading this as a buddy read or in a book club for example, there’d be a lot of topics and conversation starters you could talk for hours on. Personally I chose to just enjoy the book without many of my own reflections because it also has that exciting quality to it when the pages fly by without you realising, and the majority of the book is paced so well I’m shocked this is a debut novel.
The prose, pacing and characters are fantastically written and it’s a book in which the side characters and the cultures and religions involved are actually really interesting too, so that you want to learn more and more.
Fortunately – there is more. Conqueror’s Blood (the next book) is now available and I’ve already bought it ready to read. It was a real pleasure to read this book and I can’t wait to continue!
They took his daughter, so Micah comes to take their kingdom. Fifty thousand gun-toting paladins march behind him, all baptized in angel blood, thirsty to burn unbelievers.
Only the janissaries can stand against them. Their living legend, Kevah, once beheaded a magus amid a hail of ice daggers. But ever since his wife disappeared, he spends his days in a haze of hashish and poetry.
To save the kingdom, Kevah must conquer his grief and become the legend he once was. But Micah writes his own legend in blood, and his righteous conquest will stop at nothing.
When the gods choose sides, a legend will be etched upon the stars.