Book Review: “Beltamar’s War (Malmaxa)” by C.G. Ayling

I was really thrilled to have the opportunity to read and review BELTAMAR’S WAR by C. G. Ayling, a writer who I met and communicated with on Twitter and with whose writing I was impressed. I’m always a little nervous when I agree to read and review self-published books – I’ve read a fair few that have not merited the effort to finish the first few chapters, and have resulted in a waste of my time as well as a waste of the author’s. (I’ve also read a book or two by authors with whom I was initially impressed, and then when I opened the pages I was disappointed.) But there are gems out there – you just have to search for them. Imran Siddiq was one of them. (If you haven’t read my review of his Disconnect, please do, and follow him on Twitter.) Now, I have the pleasure of adding C.G. Ayling to the list of gems I have had the good fortune to find via Twitter.

C.G. Ayling’s epic fantasy novel BELTAMAR’S WAR is set in the world of Malmaxa, and it’s clear that worldbuilding is one of Ayling’s strengths. Malmaxa is a fascinating place, and I enjoyed every little piece of new information I learned about the world. The Seizen, as the humans who inhabit this world are called, have a series of strange and fascinating rituals and magical abilities that were beautifully crafted and described. From the Chukras, the gems that give the Seizen their strength and skills, to the “marks” (aka tattoos) that define them as individuals and decorate their arms in deference to their ancestors, to the rules of the Gods that define their lives, Ayling’s world is vivid, complex, and mysterious.

There are two stories that are told simultaneously. One is set in a peaceful village as the villagers prepare for the annual Convocation, which is the time of the year when all Seizen gather in the capital city to give new adults their Chukra, find a match (aka get married), and (presumably) worship the Gods. This plot line essentially follows one family as they prepare for the Convocation. The other half of the story is set with Ripkira, a battalion commander who faces off against a horde of groth, also known as the Ancient Enemy – vicious hounds who will rend the Seizen limb for limb and hunt them ruthlessly, unless the Seizen armies can hold them at bay.

Ayling’s characters are his second great strength. As we follow these dual storylines, each character is well-developed and complex, as though Ayling knows them personally and summoned their strange and exotic souls to appear before us on paper (or the magnetic lighting of a Kindle, in my case). The only thing that could be said of them is that they are, perhaps, a little too perfect – though Ayling is careful to give them each a set of interesting, tangible flaws, rarely do any of them make the wrong decision, and if they do, they are contrite and honest about their failings. Their nobility and goodness is honorable – perhaps a little too much so. In fact, there is only one character in the book with anything resembling an evil streak. I’d like to see more of him in Book 2 – I’d like also to see his past and character deepened, so that we understand where his evil originates.

And of course, there is the strength of the writing itself. I only caught two typos in the whole book – an impressive feat for an indie. Ayling’s writing is strong and charismatic, almost Biblical, as though it carries the weight of both mythology and history wrapped into one. There’s one scene, about two thirds of the way through, that entranced me: one of the younger characters, Rethga, embarks on what’s called a Vision Quest, which is basically a hallucinogen-inspired dream. The scene that follows is written like something out of Homer’s Odyssey. It brings symbolism, fantasy, and discovery equally to fruit as Rethga searches for his true identity, and the narrative style is magnificent.

In fact, there’s only one real problem with the book (though it might be, to some, a large and glaring problem): Nothing really happens. Throughout the whole book. There’s one battle, which is a fairly climactic scene, but it doesn’t really lead anywhere and nothing ultimately comes of it. The plot meanders, by which I mean to say that things happen to the characters, and they interact in meaningful ways, but nothing really significant happens in terms of developing the plot or pushing the conflict along. We never really find out what the major conflict is, actually – is it the Seizen versus their Ancient Enemy, the groth? Is it the Seizen versus the Gods, as they struggle to control their fate? Is it Seizen versus Seizen as they fight to control evil in their midst? Early on, it seems as though the whole book is building towards some climactic confrontation, some war, or something grand that will happen at the Convocation – but it never comes. Nothing major ever happens. Where is the conflict? What are we building to, and what can we expect in the sequels?

Now, please understand – all this really means is that I will be eagerly anticipating the sequel. Despite the rather bizarre lack of a driving plot, the book’s positive features, which I’ve outlined above, are enough to keep me interested – and more. I know there’s something big coming in the world of Malmaxa, and honestly, I can’t wait to find out what that is.

Overall, a well-written, character-driven book that’s left me thirsting for more. I’m fudging on the rating on this one – I’m giving it 3.5 / 5 stars. Normally the lack of major plot action would be a big enough issue to drop it down to a three, but I so enjoyed the world, the characters, and the writing that I can’t bear to do that. So, 3.5 will have to suffice.

Recommended for fans of Lord of the Rings, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, fantastical worlds, and creativity. Link to the Amazon purchase site is here.