I was intrigued by the premise of this book from the get-go. Which is why Will Panzo's The Burning Isle immediately went to the top of my "books to read" pile when it showed up in my mailbox. My last two grimdark reads left something to be desired, so I was hoping that this would be the novel that would scratch that itch and make me appreciate this subgenre again the way I used to.
Perhaps my expectations were too high for this fantasy debut. After all, it was a work that had yet to garner any reviews when I first set out to read it. There were some pretty cool sequences that demonstrate that the author can be brilliant at times. But in the end, the plot and the characterization suffer from too many shortcomings to make this one a satisfying read.
Here's the blurb:
A powerful and gripping debut grimdark fantasy novel, set in a world of criminals, pirates, assassins, and magic… “A man has only three reasons for being anywhere: to right a wrong, to earn a coin, or because he is lost.” Cassius is not lost… The mage Cassius has just arrived on the island of Scipio. Five miles of slum on the edge of fifty miles of jungle, Scipio is a lawless haven for criminals, pirates, and exiles. The city is split in two, each half ruled by a corrupt feudal lord. Both of them answer to a mysterious general who lives deep in the jungle with his army, but they still constantly battle for power. If a man knows how to turn their discord to his advantage, he might also turn a profit… But trained on the Isle of Twelve, Cassius is no ordinary spellcaster, and his goal is not simply money. This is a treacherous island where the native gods are restless and anything can happen…
One of the aspects that interested me the most was the worldbuilding. Panzo eschews the traditional European medieval fantasy setting for an environment that is an analog to the Roman Empire. I was hoping for something akin to what Alan Smale has done with his series. Alas, other than the presence of legionnaires, centurions, and mentions of the Senate and other imperial provinces/territories, that piece of worldbuilding doesn't play much of a role in the greater scheme of things. Hence, the historical backdrop remains in the background and doesn't intrude much on the tale itself.
The other plot point that felt as though it would be fascinating was the Isle of Twelve itself, where the cruel Masters train the most powerful spellcasters in the world. But though a few flashback scenes revisit Cassius' formative years on the island, we learn very little about that mysterious order of wizards. Magic plays an important role in this novel and several sequences exist only to showcase another magical showdown. Still, as spectacular as some of those battles turned out to be, I would have liked to learn more about Rune magic and what it can do other than in a fight. As I mentioned, a good chunk of The Burning Isle focuses on spellcasters blowing shit up and little else. I loved how Panzo turned things around and made wizards killers instead of the clichéd weak-bodied but super smart nerds. But to turn them into generic badass gladiator-like figures that have nothing else to offer was disappointing.
Lastly, the island of Scipio, with its savage natives and local gods, was meant to be a mystical and secretive place. Unfortunately, that particular facet is never properly explored and has very little bearing on the plot. Overall, Will Panzo introduces some interesting concepts throughout this novel. Yet he fails to elaborate and flesh out most of them, which means that we end up with a work that shows a lot of promise but fails to deliver.
Another problem would have to be the characterization. Cassius is the main protagonist, with inexplicable motives and a shadowy past. A number of flashback scenes provide clues that allow readers to gradually puzzle out the young man's past. The revelation of Cassius' true identity toward the end was fantastic and forces you to look back on everything that has occurred with new eyes. Having said that, there is no denying that Cassius simply isn't engaging enough to carry this story on his shoulders. The supporting cast features some interesting characters, chief among them Lucian and Sulla, and Vorenicus. But Cassius takes center stage throughout and, try as I might, I can't recall a less sympathetic protagonist in a speculative fiction work. For some reason, he left me totally indifferent. Cassius is not a character you root for, nor is he the type of protagonist you love to hate. I just couldn't bring myself to care, one way or the other.
The structure of The Burning Isle is similar to that of Scott Lynch's The Lies of Locke Lamora. The better part of he book takes place in the present, while various flashback scenes are meant to flesh out Cassius by showing him at different stages of his life growing up. The novel starts with a bang and at first the mystery keeps you interested and turning those pages. But for a while, things don't make a whole lot of sense and the bad guys are too easily fooled by Cassius' transparent attempts to foment chaos and play one against the other. Add to that several scenes that serve no other purpose than to have Cassius get into another magical battle with other spellcasters and you end up with a plot that rapidly goes down the crapper. It takes way too long for the endgame to begin, and when it does it's a case of too little, too late.
Sadly, having everyone else fall for Cassius' ploys makes the last portion of the book decidedly predictable and robs the end of any impact it was meant to have. Which means that, regardless of what it had going for it early on, The Burning Isle can be nothing but a disappointment. . .