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Review of The War Eternal by Rob J. Hayes

I recently had the pleasure of finishing the fifth and final book in Rob J. Hayes’ dark fantasy series The War Eternal. For many of you, Rob J. Hayes needs no introduction. He is an independent author taking the world by storm with his epic fantasy and sci-fi novels. I read (and reviewed) the first book in the series, Along The Razor’s Edge, last year, and it was compelling enough to entice me to read the next book in the sequence. Initially, I wanted to review each book as I read along, but given the number of fantasy series that are either unfinished or don’t stick the landing, I decided to restrain that impulse and read through to the very end, then write a review of the whole thing.

Suffice to say, Rob J. Hayes absolutely sticks the landing. The War Eternal is epic not just in the modern sense of a loose genre-cleping, but in the true, original meaning of the word. As a diehard fantasy fan, The War Eternal reminded my slightly cynical older self exactly why I had fallen in love with the genre in the first place, and showed just how powerful the genre can be in the hands of someone prepared to push its limits.

There are a few key aspects of this series that make it really special. One of which is character. Good novels and great ones are often separated by two major factors in my humble view: structure and character. We’ll come onto the structure of The War Eternal in a little bit, but for now I want to zoom in on the characters, who are truly this series’ strength. Rob J. Hayes has a bit of a magical way with getting you to like his characters, even when they behave like idiots, or worse when they behave despicably.

First and foremost, there’s our first person point of view narrator, the protagonist, Eskara Helsene. Eskara is an amazing protagonist for a number of reasons. She is incredibly powerful, which opens up a huge range of possibility for a storyteller (though it can also be daunting, and in the wrong hands the power takes away the tension of the novel). Eskara is full of those little hypocrisies (or some people prefer to call them idiosyncrasies) that make people who they truly are. My favourite example of this is to be found in Sherlock Holmes. Modern adaptations of Sherlock Holmes totally miss the point of the character by making him an atheist. Turning Holmes into a ranting Dawkins-esque killjoy makes his character mono-dimensional and rather less interesting than having him stand at the absolute pinnacle of logical intelligence yet also hold room in his heart for the idea of a higher power, which is how he is presented in the original Arthur Conan-Doyle stories (it’s actually good-natured Watson, the surgeon, who has doubts).

Eskara is similar to Holmes, in this regard, only she is the other way around. Eskara is not only continually confronted with living proof of the gods, the afterlife (or at least that the soul exists after the body is gone), demonic entities, and other worlds, she even wields necromantic power connected with these realms, so has experienced them more fully and cogently than, say, an ordinary person without magical attunement. Yet, she refuses point blank to “believe” in anything more than the body. She is a creature of the flesh, without a religious bone in her, and time and again she chooses the flesh over the spirit, the body over the heart, despite being a sort of epicentre for the conflux of these energies and spiritual forces. Put another way, The War Eternal feels like the tale of Joan of Arc if Joan constantly denied the spiritual forces at play in her life. This might sound frustrating, and one or two times it is, but it’s also funny, perceptive, and a wonderfully original way to explore a fantasy world. The eyes of a complete rationalist render a lot of the fantastical elements—the creatures and places, the magic-system and metallurgies—concrete. Ovaeris feels like a place you can touch, taste, smell, hear—a place that really exists because of this logical consistency.

But we are not done with hypocrisies and paradoxes. Eskara, despite her rationalism, is also a creature of wild rage and overwhelming emotion. At times, she is prepared to make the ultimate, logical sacrifices for the greater good. At other times, she is willing to throw away a planet to meet her emotional needs. She wars (and note carefully that choice of words) with depression and anger throughout the story. Louise Hay once said that “Depression is anger you do not feel you have a right to have.” Rob J. Hayes absolutely nails the psychological reality of this. Everything we are told about Eskara (or maybe it should be said: that she tells us about herself), leads us to believe the things she has endured would have shaped her in this way. There is a logic even to her illogical actions. She, too, feels totally real.

And one last thing to say about Eskara, and this tying into the world-building. Not only is the world Rob J. Hayes has created a unique fantasy world that yet incorporates enough of the great tropes you love (deserts full of bustling cities, portals to other worlds, taverns full of horny bards, and multiple gibbous moons) to give you those feel-good chills, but it is also a mirror of Eskara, our protagonist. In other words, the outer world mirrors the inner world. The shifting landscape of Ovaeris is, in many respects, reflective of the shifting landscape within Eskara, and as the threat to this world mounts and increases in power, we begin to realise just what this threat allegorically embodies, and just what is really going on inside Eskara.

But Eskara, whilst the undisputed star of the show, is not the only phenomenal actor in this series. As with any great fantasy story, we need a cast of mad adventurers to accompany our protagonist on their journey. There’s Tamura, a crazy old martial-artist who only speaks in riddles. Hardt, a gentle giant with a dark past. Imiko, a thief who becomes a little sister to Eskara. Later on, we meet Eskara’s daughters, one of whom becomes the focal point of book 4: Sins of the Mother. These are fairly major characters, however. Rob J. Hayes also understands that the minor characters need their moments to shine too, whether they be smooth-talking merchants, Polasian sword-masters, or garn battle-masters. I haven’t told you about the garn yet. They are awesome. Absolutely fucking awesome. That’s about all I can say without writing an essay on them.

There is one character I have left out, a quite major omission, and that is Ssserakis. There is not too much I can say about Ssserakis without giving away major spoilers. In ludicrous summary we might say that he is the yang to Eskara’s yin, the certainty to her doubt, the wrath to her emotional weakness, the pride to her cripplingly low self-esteem, a constant, beautiful foil for our protagonist who really embodies the Jungian idea of a “shadow self”, a version of us composed of all the facets we have rejected. Without Ssserakis, the story would still be good but not reach the heights of greatness that it does. Suffice to say, the way Ssserakis and Eskara’s characters develop together, their fates entwined, is truly a masterpiece of storytelling that evokes the brilliance of Tolkien’s trio: Frodo, Sam, and Gollum.

Speaking of fate, and character arcs, brings us to structure. Overall, The War Eternal is pretty watertight, though it’s quite clear that the story was originally planned as a trilogy, for the first three books form an arc that is relatively complete in and of itself. There is a time jump at the start of book 4 of several decades, and the Eskara Helsene we meet at this point has changed considerably, at the very least on the outside, but perhaps a little on the inside too. This time jump means that certain characters have moved more to the background of the story, which may displease some fans, and I admit I was sorry to see a couple of my favourites relegated. However, this relegation is in service to the true heart of the story, which we discover—and is explored most fully—in the final book, aptly named Death’s Beating Heart.

Because you see, The War Eternal has meaning on many levels. Yes, there is a literal “War Eternal” in the story that is being fought between rival factions of petty gods. But that is really just scratching the surface. The true War Eternal is being fought within. At this point, I have to admit that I cannot truly review this series in an unbiased way.

In 2017, I became suicidally depressed, though in truth it had probably been building towards this point in my life for a while. I knew, for the sake of my wonderful partner (now wife), for the sake of my family and friends, I had to fight against this depression, and fight I did. But the thing about depression is it cannot be killed. It is not an external foe who can be slain with a sword or hammer. It can only be kept at bay with a titanic effort of will and daily vigilance. Of course, these days, I am happier than I have ever been. I have a wonderful daughter who fills my life with pure, unadulterated magic. I have the best wife in the world. My mother and father are living angels (they even bought me book 5 of Rob J Hayes’s series as a 30th birthday present, so it feels even more right to mention them here!). I am surrounded by the most crazy and amazing friends anyone could wish for (and who make for the perfect inspiration for a band of fantasy adventurers). So depression feels very, very far away.

But…

I am not so arrogant as to relax my vigilance—not for one second. I am not telling you this to make you feel sorry for me, but simply to convey what it is like, and also to explain that whether Rob J. Hayes had experienced depression himself, I do not know, but he writes about depression with tremendous compassion and insight. And the ending of this series reaches a truly sublime apogee in which all the struggles I have just discussed are intertwined with the epic fantasy narrative, with the world-building and magic-system and the lore, in such a startling and symbolic way that, I freely admit, I broke down and wept.

The War Eternal isn’t perfect. Nothing is. I could put my editor hat on and nitpick diction here or structure there. But these are pointless, pernickety niggles. The beating heart of The War Eternal is what matters, and it is a powerful heart indeed, a heart that cannot fail to move you, whether with humorous aphoristic insight, with roiling emotional drama, or with what approaches a spiritual synthesis at the end. The War Eternal is a book written by a burgeoning master-storyteller who really has something to say about psychology, religion, life and loss, and about who we are as human beings fighting the War Eternal for the salvation of our own souls.

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You can check out Rob J. Hayes’s War Eternal series on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0CHS34BX5

Rob J. Hayes is also running a Kickstarter for phase 1 of his new 9-book sequence The God-Eater Saga, which I highly recommend you back: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/godeater-phase1/3-epic-fantasy-novels-the-god-eater-saga-phase-1