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Rising From Dust is first time fantasy novel by Martine Carlsson. While the novel is technically fantasy, it doubles down as an adult gay romance novel with strong M/M themes.
Plot-wise, Rising From Dust follows your typical medieval fantasy tale: there’s a kingdom at war and two heroes — one a skilled swordsman, the other an academic — who are drawn together and thrust into a vicious war. There’s a third hero as well, though his role is a little less defined in the story.
If it sounds like your typical fantasy tale, well it mostly is. But Rising From Dust tries to separate itself from other typical indie fantasy works by having gay heroes set in a mostly homophobic world. The story mostly focuses on the relationship between the two gay heroes finding their role within the army they lead, the people they come to protect, and each other. And yes, this is solidly a romance novel with a lot of kink.
Overall, it’s a decent attempt by the author to create a romance in a fantasy setting, though it does suffer shortcomings. It’s a novel about love, war, and the shitty things people do when there are no rules. But mostly, when everything else is stripped away, it’s about love.
I felt the author does a decent job at building a fairly detailed world and setting. You get the sense that it’s a world full of people just trying to survive, people who will do anything to survive, including some pretty nasty things. And there’s a lot of nasty things going on in the book.
The three main characters all attempt to solve the problems they encounter in their own disparate ways, which do not always align. This creates some of the emotional conflict between the main characters and adds more dimension to an otherwise one dimensional novel. As such, the book tries at more than just being another war-driven fantasy/romance tale. It also tries to be one about how war — and choices — affect those who are tasked with the winning and ending of it.
The kingdom of Trevalden is a gritty and unpleasant place to be, and this feeling mostly comes off successfully in the prose. The author fleshes the gritty medieval setting out quite well, and for the most part, you get a strong picture of the setting, landscape, and the people within. Though this is solidly a gay romance novel, it tries to also be fantasy novel at the same time. The author puts a good deal of narrative energy to build up a credible story and setting. There are some vaguely familiar Tolkienesque trappings such as Orcs, though the bad guys are never more than one dimensional bad guys.
The author’s level of prose is good enough to tell the tale; when compared to your typical indie fantasy, it’s better written (especially with the general descriptions of the world).
The prose is neither good enough to bowl you over with beautiful, witty descriptions, and a lasting impression, nor bad enough such that the narrative flow is broken. There were definitely some very rough patches of description in the book and the character dialogue, frankly, doesn’t always come off as realistic or plausible with how the characters say things, but the prose is readable.
Another element I thought the author did well was in her attempt to inject an additional layer to the story; that is, the attempt to explore social issues regarding homophobia. As such, the story and the characters’ struggles are elevated to something a bit more complex than you find in the simple fantasy romance story.
When looking at this novel as a fantasy tale and treating it as such, I found there were some serious problems that undermined the novel.
As much as the story tries to find complexity in the relationships between the characters, the actual fantasy elements are mostly stereotypical — you have the standard medieval setting, you have mysterious magic, you have a gritty war between kingdoms, you have an implacable and unrepentant evil foe in the form of Orcs (and even a Dragon), you have bad men and violence they perpetuate on the innocent. I can’t fault the author for building a typical fantasy world, but nothing about the setting particularly stand out as impressive or unique.
Yes, the novel does a decent job at drawing an interesting fantasy world smeared by war and tribulation, but I felt the world building was mostly just there to facilitate (and as a foil) the relationship between the two heroes.
The setting and the story told is pretty much standard fantasy fare at this point, ignoring the fact that the two leads are gay heroes in charge of an army that’s mostly anti-gay which does, I admit, add some complexity.
The antagonists of the novel were completely one dimensional. The fantasy creatures (Orcs, Dragons, etc), were one-dimensional evil. Mostly these baddies just spouted off a few cheesy evil one liners before being dramatically killed by the heroes.
The actual magic system is pretty haphazardly created with little emphasis on imbuing any overall system or structure. Magic, when it happens, just happens as part of the story with no explanation or underlying foundation. This significantly undermines the strength of the world building, especially as the novel tries to pass itself off as fantasy.
It’s an approach to magic that borrows from the Magic Realism subgenre of fantasy; but as the entire novel aims at being a more standard fantasy tale in format and tone, well, adopting a magic realism approach to the magic simply does not work here.
In the end, the weakest part of the book is the actual romance; the book gets sidetracked with forcing a romance between the two heroes Louis and Selen which never comes off more than simplistic and with no emotional tension. Given the novel bills itself as a romance novel as well as a fantasy novel, then the romance needs be good. Alas, I did not feel this was the case. There is little romantic buildup and the romance is mostly consists of romantic escapades every few pages and over-the-top romantic effusions uttered by one character to the other.
I was also unsure about the purpose and role of one of the characters; while there are three main heroes to the story, but the narrative focuses mostly on Louis and Selen with little time or narrative energy given to the third Lissandro. As a result, his importance, at least in this book, comes off as almost trivial to the story.
The novel, when events are concluded and the plot threads tied up, kind of just drifts on and on afterwards for a significant length. The last segment, I felt, had no really import on overall story and just sort of lingered on in the world with the characters.
I applaud the book’s attempt at a social critique in the form of the homophobia present in the world, as faced by the two gay leads. This does show the author tries at adding a layer of complexity that most pure romance novels lack. However, for the average reader who just wants to enjoy a good story, this critique and focus detracts from the overall movement of the story. Is the novel a social justice movement or is the focus on telling a strong story with strong characters. I felt it was more focused on the former, than the later.
Looking at the book as a romance novel, the romantic elements themselves were pretty weak with the romance between the characters completely unconvincing. The two characters come together almost immediately without any build up and their relationship is overly simplistic, mostly consisting of graphic sex scenes interspersed with effervescent romantic platitude uttered from character to the other. This constituted the ‘romance’ of the novel.
And the pacing is thrown off because the story vacillates between action and kinky romance every few pages, to the point that it affects the story pacing.
There’s more than a few fantasy stories with bad romances, but if the book is a romance novel, then at least the romantic parts of the story needs be at least competent– and Rising From Dust was disappointing there.
Should you read it? This depends on your tastes in fiction, fantasy, and romance. Keep in mind that this is indie fantasy, so you have to cut the book some slack. And it’s not particularly just a fantasy novel — is as much or MORE a romance novel than it is a fantasy.
Overall, Rising From Dust is not a bad read and some parts are even pretty good. But this makes the reading experience somewhat uneven.
I also found the rather insipid one-dimensional villains and no real explainable system of magic hamstrung the ‘fantasy’ of the novel and, frankly, made it hard to push through to the end.
Despite the failings made towards creating a strong fantasy-style tale and the rather mediocre romance plot, the novel itself does a pretty good job at building a complex web of struggling character relationships amidst a war-torn landscape, showing in good detail the internal and external conflicts of the key characters who must face and make the hard choices required of them. This part of the novel is mostly well done and the strong point of the reading. It’s just the other stuff, outside of this, that fall through.
Should you read it? Well, straight out, the average fantasy reader probably won’t enjoy this type of novel, given that it’s billed as an M/M gay romance, which is a fairly specific niche type of read. And the fantasy aspects are not well done enough to make me recommend it as a solid fantasy novel read — there are much better, more exciting indie fantasy tales to choose over this one.
IF, however, you are looking for an adult romance novel with strong gay themes and erotic encounters, and one that explores social issues from within the standard fantasy trope, then you’ll probably find Rising From Dust does this successfully.
Sharakhai, the great city of the desert, center of commerce and culture, has been ruled from time immemorial by twelve kings -- cruel, ruthless, powerful, and immortal. With their army of Silver Spears, their elite company of Blade Maidens and their holy defenders, the terrifying asirim, the Kings uphold their positions as undisputed, invincible lords of the desert. There is no hope of freedom for any under their rule.
Or so it seems, until Çeda, a brave young woman from the west end slums, defies the Kings' laws by going outside on the holy night of Beht Zha'ir. What she learns that night sets her on a path that winds through both the terrible truths of the Kings' mysterious history and the hidden riddles of her own heritage. Together, these secrets could finally break the iron grip of the Kings' power...if the nigh-omnipotent Kings don't find her first.
Blog editor, admin and founder of BestFantasyBooks.comYou'll find me on the BestFantasyBook forums and spending my spare time reading fantasy books and writing lists for this site. In fact, I have no spare time -- running this site IS my spare time!