Book Review : The Sapphire Altar

I received this book for free from Orbit Books in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Book Review : The Sapphire AltarThe Sapphire Altar by David Dalglish
Published by Orbit on January 10th 2023
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy, Epic
Pages: 544
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Source: Orbit Books

In this epic fantasy from a bestselling author, an usurped prince must master the magic of shadows in order to reclaim his kingdom and his people.
Cyrus wants out. Trained to be an assassin in order to oust the invading Empire from his kingdom, Cyrus is now worried the price of his vengeance is too high. His old master has been keeping too many secrets to be trusted. And the mask he wears to hide his true identity and become the legendary "Vagrant" has started whispering to him in the dark. But the fight isn't over and the Empire has sent its full force to bear upon Cyrus's floundering revolution. He'll have to decide once and for all whether to become the thing he fears or lose the country he loves.

The Sapphire Altar is a triumphant return to the world of Thanet, a small island nation rebelling against the evil Everlorn Empire. With their gods and all but one member of the royal family murdered, the stakes are almost insurmountably high for Cyrus, the heir to Thanet’s throne. With its focus on character development and religious themes, The Sapphire Altar is even more compelling than its predecessor, The Bladed Faith. 


I was thrilled at the complex character development in The Sapphire Altar because I really found myself unable to connect with the characters in The Bladed Faith, despite liking the idea of them. In this previous entry in the series, I felt that each character had a mere one or two defining character traits, but that is not at all the case in The Sapphire Altar. All of the characters in this novel were struggling, whether with a crisis of fate, of purpose, or of faith. At last, I felt the characters were more than their battle prowess, magical powers, and religions—they finally had depth, complexity, and nuance. Characters I had not felt much toward in the previous installment, I grew to love in The Sapphire Altar.


For instance, readers learned much more about Arn’s past and what drove him to give up his role as a loyal Paragon of the Everlorn Empire. His flashbacks were truly moving and had me choking up. Before The Sapphire Altar, I was very much indifferent to his character, who I thought was more of a plot device than anything else, but with this installment, he absolutely became one of my favorite characters. Likewise, Sinshei, who was a moderately interesting, but rather simple villain in The Bladed Faith, shared the events that shaped her into becoming such an ambitious woman and ambiguously evil adversary. I couldn’t help but to root for her, even though she was most certainly a Bad Guy. It was truly exciting to see more sides of all of these characters, whether or not they played a huge role in the story. There were also new characters joining the fray in The Sapphire Altar, such as Sinshei’s despicable older brother, a charismatic priest of the fallen god Lycaena turning to darker methods of worship, and Arn’s older brother as well. 


“‘I’m all right with being needed,’ Cyrus said, ‘I do not feel right being worshipped. Is it possible to deny it? Can a god exist without worship?’”


Running underneath all of the truly titillating character development was the theme of “what makes a god?” Many characters, especially Cyrus and Arn, grappled with the meaning of gods and pondered whether gods created humans or humans actually brought gods into existence with their sheer need for them. Other characters drew comparisons between the power of the Everlorn Emperor’s self-made God-Incarnate and how his abilities (and those of his followers), differed from the powers of their own gods. The Sapphire Altar explored all of these aspects of faith through its diverse cast of characters, many of whom worship different gods, or who had vastly different upbringings and experiences. Every single one of the cast of characters was perfectly positioned to share their differing beliefs and to offer a divergent opinion. 


At the center of all the religious chaos was Keles, who finds that her crisis of faith is less over than she thought it was, and Cyrus, who bitterly finds himself becoming more and more like a god every day. These two clashed over their opposing perspectives and it was exciting to watch. I only wished that the two had stayed on their conflicting paths longer because I felt it could have been even more emotional than it already was if it had been drawn out. Unfortunately, I have never cared much for Keles as a character, and I did have a hard time believing that she was a suitable person for the role she ended up taking in The Sapphire Altar, as she consistently made one ill-advised, grief-stricken choice after another and was easily manipulated by those who did not have her best interests in mind.


What didn’t help Keles’s credibility was that she didn’t seem to have the background or knowledge for this role and it’s hard to think she’d be better at it than anyone else. I don’t want to say too much about her role because of spoilers, but I found myself wishing once again that readers had been able to see first hand (or in flashbacks), her time as the golden child of the Paladins and Lycaena, dubbed the Light of Vallesau. It’s one thing to be told again and again she was the best up and coming Paladin, with amazing faith and battle capabilities to match, and another thing to actually witness it. Similarly, I also thought seeing her back when she was initially forced to renounce her goddess in order to live, an extremely painful and public ceremony, would have made her a more sympathetic character to me and rendered her choices in The Sapphire Altar more understandable and heart-rending. Instead, it felt like her arc, as it was, was stunted by those narrative choices and remained primarily unrealized potential. 


On a more specific note, I also couldn’t help but to feel that much of Keles’s dilemmas, both moral and religious, could have been easily and swiftly resolved if only Mari had used her powers as a God Whisper to allow Keles to speak with her deceased goddess, Lycaena. Mari allowed Keles’s uncle Rayan to speak to the fallen goddess, but never Keles, who arguably needed to speak more to her goddess than the unflappable and ardently faithful Rayan. Mari frequently granted others, even their enemies, the use of her abilities to commune with the gods multiple times in this novel alone, with seemingly very little cost to her person or to her presently chosen god, Endarius. So I couldn’t help but to see this as a win-win, no-brainer solution to Keles’s turmoil. The fact that this incredibly obvious solution was never offered, let alone even thought of to help Keles, seemed like a huge, glaring plot hole to me, especially when so many people were supposedly worried about her.


‘These crimes of the past, I would make them right if I could,’ he told her.

‘Even as a king, it is beyond your abilities,’ she said, ‘I did not choose this battle, Cyrus, but I will end it.’”


Regardless of this unbelievable and alarming lack of consideration, it was entertaining to see a very hurt Keles embrace other means of powers and to fight for what she believes is the best course of action. It was also interesting to see how this relates to Cyrus and his own beliefs and goals and the means he was willing to use to achieve them. I really wasn’t expecting the two to become anything more than love interests, but instead, they’ve veered off into foil territory, which is something far more captivating. The Sapphire Altar showed the emotions of their exchanges and made each of their viewpoints seem feasible and even reasonable, which heightened the situation. However, to this conflict as well, it seemed there was yet another very simple and easily apparent solution, which I won’t name here due to massive spoilers. But again, no one seemed to even consider such a straightforward, common, and accessible remedy to a huge problem, which was once more rather hard to believe in people who were supposedly desperately seeking a solution.


On top of the character development, another thing that truly shone in The Sapphire Altar was the fight scenes. I am someone who does not really care much for fight scenes in novels, as I find them difficult to follow, to imagine, and honestly, to be a bit boring. (I know, it’s a character flaw.) But author Dalglish made his blow-by-blow depictions of battles easy to picture, even for me, and kept the tension racketed high in every single one. Fans of any form of combat will truly delight in this series. It was more a testament to my taste than the author’s abilities that I wished there were fewer fight scenes. Obviously, in a trilogy about a rebellion at war with an entire empire, there’s going to be all kinds of skirmishes, and it would not be believable otherwise.


I was also very pleased to see that the rampant “telling” writing style of The Bladed Faith had been largely left behind in the dust in this entry of the trilogy. Still, certain scenes lacked the impact they should as a result of this habit. For instance, at two separate points in the story, a character finally decided to divulge a pivotal secret to another. This should be a very shocking revelation to each listener, but it was instead dampened by a wall of exposition, which greatly lessened its impact. Readers weren’t privy to the exact words chosen in this delicate, shocking conversation or the reaction of the listeners. It was a letdown to not experience these conversations firsthand and to just be told that Person A told Person B, and later Person C, what huge thing had happened. 


“When he did tell the story to Rayan, it went nothing like those rehearsed imaginings. He told it haltingly, his sentences short, his voice cold and distant.”


And again:


“Cyrus told the tale, best as he remembered it, sparing no detail.”


Though there remain frustrating instances of this type of exposition in this novel, they are thankfully, fewer and farther apart, and The Sapphire Altar did a much better job of showing important events through flashbacks. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for a lot of the expressions in the novel, which remain very over-the-top and fairly constant. To me, it felt like these phrases were trying a bit too hard to be epic, quotable, or to merely attempt to disguise the telling in prettier language. It didn’t help that this more flowery language stuck out from the rest of the novel, which in turn, drew even more attention to the fact that the novel wasn’t giving visual or internal clues and was just providing more exposition in grandiloquent dressings. I much preferred when The Sapphire Altar kept things quieter and more straightforward, without the metaphors or the grandstanding, which allowed for truly touching and more naturally poignant moments. 


As a whole, I was surprised by a lot of turns that The Sapphire Altar took. Though I loved reading this novel and never wanted to put it down, I felt the series made an extensive change of direction with this entry, whether planned or not. Up until now, the story was one of personal vengeance—Cyrus becoming an assassin to win back his rightful throne from an usurper—but with The Sapphire Altar, it’s much more of a story of broken people and their gods on opposing sides of a costly war trying to put themselves together. Though I really do love stories of people rebelling against an evil empire (lifelong Star Wars fan here), and complex villains with redeeming qualities, I couldn’t help but to feel a little saddened at this movement away from Cyrus’s personal vengeance. Instead of being primarily Cyrus’s tale, The Sapphire Altar became more of an ensemble story, which was not a bad thing—especially when characters were receiving so much great development—it was just different from my own original idea of how the trilogy was going to play out. 


Regardless of the story’s focus of The Sapphire Altar, I was still very much invested in the novel and its characters. I would not be surprised if there were even more twists and turns ahead in the final entry in The Vagrant Gods trilogy. I am super excited to see the next steps these characters, whom I love now more than ever, take in their journeys and to find out how everything concludes. The next book in the series will definitely be a day one read for me. 


Book Review : The Sapphire Altar - Blogging with Dragons

Posted February 1, 2023 in ARCS, Book Reviews, Fantasy

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