Review of The Fifth Vertex by Kevin Hoffman
Urus is a young man living in the culture that values warriors above all else…and he’s about to be culled, turned into the biggest pariah in his society. If you want to know what the phrase ‘start where the action begins’ means, read the beginning of this book; Urus starts the novel ready to commit suicide because he considers himself worthless and a failure at the one goal he wanted his entire life (his uncle and best friend are elite warriors, so it does make sense from a personal angle that he’d want to join their ranks).
One of the initial things that drew me to this book is that Urus is deaf; this is used as a genuine character struggle for him in the story. I get annoyed at characters in fantasy that are given cheap struggles; writing organic struggles for a character is difficult, and Urus’s struggles feel very personal, very real. The other main character, Calix (she gets a second name that never ends up mattering) has a unique voice, but comes across as too generic of a spunky heroine (she’s orphaned, she’s a bit sassy, she’s a fighter). Goodwyn is the best-friend and skilled at a special style of fighting; he’s initially used as a foil of success to Urus’s failure, but the beauty of this story is that, like all worthwhile fantasy, it evolves beyond its initial premise. No character embodies is more than Goodwyn and his arc.
Urus, Calix, and Goodwyn each get their own personal backstory reveals, and what struck me was how surprising they were simply because the author didn’t foreshadow them too heavily. There’s so much going on in this novel that I did slip over the clues planted in the text, and the flashback scenes literally happen right before the moment when they’re important. The final part II reveal for Urus is something you might be able to guess because it comes late enough in the novel, but Goodwyn and Calix had two out-of-left-field reveals. Calix’s reveal isn’t particularly inventive (I did say I thought she was the regrettably weakest of the main POV characters), but Goodwyn’s deepens his character and is genuinely heartwarming.
This novel has loads of world building, but it manages the often difficult task of not feeling derivative. There’s a lot of repetition about Kestian culture I really could’ve done without; there’s a few ‘as you know, Bob…’ moments sprinkled throughout the novel as well, but you’re reading high fantasy. This is a genre that’s more about world building crack than any other, and if that’s your thing, this book is your jam. The Waldron, Kestian, and briene cultures are fully fleshed out, and there are characters who have different jobs and different goals, even within the same culture. Urus, after being made an out-sider to Kestian culture, goes from parroting its values, to questioning them, and finally rejects them. (Seriously, this is a well-done fantasy hero.) The last culture of island farmers introduced were a disappoint, though, because they felt like stock character Fantasy Peasants; they’re simple, they like to live humbly, they’re open to strangers…it was the least believable culture in the novel (and I’m including an extinct Atlantis style civilization in that category, too. Seriously, a culture you don’t even meet is more fleshed out than those peasants).
The fantasy elements are in-your-face; there’s no tip-toeing around the magic in this novel. There are sigilords who can draw sigils, a powerful and rare ability, but they’re all supposed to be dead. There are blood mages, which are the most exciting magic users in the story because they fully utilize their powers in all kinds of gory and surprising ways. The arbiters are the third, mysterious force in the novel, but the character that’s an arbiter is fairly easy to spot, and that reveal wasn’t surprising for me. There’s even some steampunk thrown in for fun because the briene are dwarf like engineers, and the Waldron people have their own special fighting style that’s enjoyable to imagine.
The end of the book did make me want to scream at the page, and if the ending had broken a certain way, I really wouldn’t have given this book 4 stars. Something happens that threatened to undo so much goodness that was present in the novel up until that point, but there’s a convenient loophole used that made everything work out in a satisfying way. This is a novel that grabs your attention and keeps the focus on the characters, even when it is bathing you in world building.
- It’s initially a bit difficult to tell if Urus is deaf or not. I had to double check to make sure he was deaf at the *start* of the novel. Don’t let this throw you because he begins the novel deaf.
- The blood mages use a lot of blood. Often, it’s Evil Dead level of gore, so just ignore how little of the human body is *actually* made up of blood. Just…pretend they puree the organs or something. I did love how disgusting their magic was, even if I didn’t find Calix herself incredibly interesting.
- The world ‘quantum’ is used several times to explain the sigilord’s magic—I loathed every mention of it because the explanation doesn’t go any deeper than New Age word salad. The magic system could’ve easily stood on its own without using quantum as a prop.
Read if: You want something that harkens back to older fantasy, but one that doesn’t feel like a rehash of stale worlds. The world building is a delight, and it weaves in with who the characters are in a way that comes off as organic.
Beware if: Ye Olde English bothers you; the dialogue isn’t terrible, but it’s not the shining star of the novel (and the characters are developed well even with sub-par dialogue in some parts). None of the characters in this novel are there for character relief, either, and it’s a pretty heavy novel from beginning to end.
My rating: 4 for world building and a main character that was heroic while struggling and being genuinely flawed