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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.

***

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

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BEST IN SHOW: THE TOP FANTASY & HORROR WRITERS OF OUR TIME

There are lots of articles ranking the very best books in a particular genre, and there are also lists ranking the best writers and books of all time. Whilst a sense of hierarchy (this thing is more perfectly executed than that thing) is important in criticism, it should never come at the sacrifice of palette. The old-fashioned saying “Different horses for different courses” rings true: we go to certain genres and writers for specific experiences, whether we know this consciously or not. And so, I wanted this ranking list to work a little differently to most. Instead of saying who is the “best” (because of course we will all have different definitions of what constitutes “the best”), I wanted to showcase writers who excel at delivering particular experiences. Picture it like this: rather than looking at who is sitting on the biggest pile of gold, I instead wanted to point you towards the writers who possess very niche, gleaming treasures… I also exclusively wanted to feature living writers. I love the classics, but there are so many hugely talented authors working today.

Of course, this list—like all lists—is entirely subjective, but it might just help you to find the right writer to scratch a particular itch, a particular artefact you’ve long sought in the paradoxical desert of over-saturation. In addition, there are a good number of phenomenal authors who did not make this list, authors like John Durgin, Richard Thomas, Iseult Murphy, Brian Barr, Eric LaRocca, Anna Smith Spark, and more... The reason they did not make this list is no aspersion upon their literary abilities, and simply a reflection on the aesthetic focus of this article and the limitation of space!

So, without further ado, here are the best in show, my choice fantasy and horror writers and the particular delights they offer up. They have such sights to show you!

The best to make me believe in the supernatural… Lee Mountford

I had the privilege of meeting Lee Mountford in 2022 at the Self Publishing Show in London, a conference for independent authors run by Mark Dawson and James Blatch. He is one of the most kind-hearted and humble souls writing today. However, not only that, but his fiction is truly unique. He has taken the “haunted house” formula to another level of intensity, combining gothic verisimilitude with supernatural intensity. Lee Mountford’s Perron Manor, which is part of his Haunted series, will immerse you in the dark history of the eponymous house, a history so intricately interwoven with real history that you will find yourself Googling “Perron Manor” to see if such a place really exists. The mantle of reality cloaking Mountford’s work is, quite frankly, terrifying. With a torturer’s artistry, he makes you believe one small thing after another, until finally we reach a crescendo and come face to face with supernatural horror in its purest form—and are forced to believe that too.

It is shocking to see how quickly esteem can turn into infamy.”

Inside: Perron Manor

The best to make me care about f*cked up people… Christa Wojciechowski

Christa Wojciechowski is one of the most original writers working today. Her work is equal parts psychological horror, erotic thriller, and something altogether more mythopoeic. There were therefore a number of reasons to include Christa Wojciechowski on this list, from her startling and dark eroticism (which is so much more than pornographic, but almost spiritually harrowing) to her scalpel-sharp command of prose, but ultimately I settled on what may be her greatest gift: making me care about objectively awful people. Christa Wojciechowski has a unique gift for creating characters of rich psychological depth, and rendering those psychological interiors in ways that don’t feel expositional. Her characters are often broken, wrestling with addiction and vice, and many of them do terrible things in the name of love or in an attempt to survive, but somehow we still love them, forgive them, and care about them. Christa Wojciechowski has made me weep for abominable people, people who—were I in my right mind—I might wish were locked up. This is her dark genius, and I hope more people get to experience it.

If he only knew how good I was at tapping into veins, every one except the one of truth.”

Oblivion Black

The best to make me peer into the abyss… S. C. Mendes

I first encountered S. C. Mendes by chance. I was a big fan of the publisher Blood Bound Books and therefore monitored the books they released. They had put put a novel entitled The City, authored by Mendes. I confess, I did not pay it much attention at first, but then I heard online rumours in the form of cryptic reviews, rumours that the novel was not entirely what it appeared to be. One rumour used the phrase “lizard people”. Needless to say, my curiosity got the better of me. Nothing could have prepared me for The City. It is elegantly written and terrifyingly brutal, a vision of total horror that yet conceals in its gory excrescences a pearl of wondrous hope. It is a book of psychological layers, of Dantean ingenuity and spirituality, and not for the faint of heart. In short, The City was and is a totally life-changing book. There are many “extreme” horror authors out there, but I find much of their work lacks the spiritual power that a true hell descent mandates. Mendes will make you peer into the abyss, but not because he is a fetishist or likes violence or depraved sexuality, he will make you peer into the abyss because he has been to hell and returned to the land of the living to share with us its dark lessons.

The City seemed cold this time, but it no longer felt foreign. The carnival atmosphere was like a discarded lover: the terrain was familiar, but its company was unwanted.”

The City

The best to make me care about a relationship under duress… Dan Soule

Dan Soule is the literary James Herbert you did not know you needed in your life. His books take classic horror concepts, such as a mummy or an alien invasion, and transform them into heartfelt, modern, and epic narratives. His greatest talent, however, is his ability to describe relationships—whether a friendship, family relationship, or a romantic entanglement—that you immediately become invested in. Dan Soule understands that “no man is an island” and every individual is bidirectionally entangled in a network of relationships that continuously modify and define them. Balancing Dan Soule’s elegant relationship work, however, is the horror itself, which often threatens to tear the relationship apart, or else to warp it so out of shape that it is no longer recognisable or wholesome. The stakes of Dan Soule’s books are therefore always higher than high because we care so much about a particular bond. Dan Soule uses this tension to grip his readers by the throat. 

Dawn was still a distant shore for all those souls cast adrift on the night.”

Savage

The best to make me afraid of the woods… Steve Stred

I’ve been a fan of Steve Stred for a long time. There are so many things I love about his work, from his brutal, direct prose-craft, to his grounded and believable characters, to his interesting takes on religious and occult themes. However, there is one thing Steve Stred is becoming known for above all others, and with good reason: making people shit-scared of the woods. Many of his stories take place in the forests and wilds, yet the theme never seems worn out. As a competent outdoorsman, Steve Stred knows his way through the wilds, and he uses that knowledge to create terrifyingly believable works of horror that make me never want to see a tree or go for a night-stroll through the forest ever again. I may sound like I am being flippant, here, but we all know it takes consummate skill to imbue a familiar and beloved location with a sense of dread. Spielberg’s iconic film Jaws made an entire generation of people, multiple generations in fact, terrified of the water, and is rightly praised for this incredible feat to this day. Steve Stred is to the forest what Spielberg is to the sea, a maestro who can tap into our deepest fears.

His dreams that night were filled with visions of the trees swaying in the wind.”

The Stranger

The best at world-building… Carlton Mellick III

This might seem like a highly controversial choice. Surely, the title of best world-builder should belong to a classic fantasy author or someone writing alternative history novels. To my mind, however, Carlton Mellick III is simply untouchable when it comes to creating a world that is internally consistent and believable, yet also fantastical and totally surprising. Whether he is exploring the internal anatomy of a fallen kaiju (The Big Meat), a world of modern conveniences and metropolises populated by faeries, elves, and nymphs (Full Metal Octopus), or else a futuristic universe in which the population crisis has been solved by “combining” people (Biomelt), Mellick always delivers. His skill is in making the world-building an integrated part of the storytelling. There are no info-dumps: characters and their actions reveal the world’s mechanics organically. His concepts are outlandish—they don’t call the genre bizarro for nothing—and yet he makes them feel more grounded and realistic than the most pedestrian literary fiction novel. We believe not only that such a place could exist, but that all the people living in it are real too, and are products of this unique (and sometimes disturbing) world. Mellick has so many talents as a writer. He remains one of the only writers capable of making me cry when reading what is ostensibly tentacle porn. Yet, his world-building methodology is worthy of attention for anyone looking to write their own fiction and learn from a master.

At least his wings haven’t been clipped. At least he’s still beautiful, even if his beauty is only allowed to shine when he’s safe behind closed doors.”

Full Metal Octopus

The best to take me on a dark adventure… Rob J. Hayes

Rob J. Hayes is swiftly becoming a favourite author. I bought the first book of his War Eternal series based on the cover alone, but what I found within surprised and delighted me: a compelling, unique fantasy narrative that manages to hit all the fantasy tropes I love so well whilst making them new. The War Eternal is a five-part series (I am currently on the final book) that follows Eskara Helsene, a sourcerer (the spelling is significant) who is imprisoned for being on the losing side of a war. There are so many things to praise about this series: the narrative voice is astounding, the world-building is fascinating and well-handled, and the dialogue between its rogue’s gallery of characters will put a smile on your face and strike to the heart in equal measure. But, what I love most about The War Eternal is the story vivifies a feeling I had not experienced for a long time reading fantasy: that I was on a mythical, dark, but wondrous adventure. Whether we are journeying to the site of a terrible war between magicians, through an underground city of the Djinn, or to the floating city of the Rand, or to the bustling, phantasmagorical cities of Polasia, Rob J. Hayes’s story instills that sense of wonder and adventure that so enchanted me as a child reading every fantasy book I could get my hands on. In my view, this sense of adventure is sorely lacking from so much of fantasy these days, which tends to focus more on battles and politics (for those who enjoy these, however, there is plenty to be found in War Eternal). So, if you’re ready for an adventure, I highly recommend his masterful series.

They had always intended me to be a weapon used against the Terrelan Empire, but what if I was more? What if could be more? What if, instead of being a weapon used by one empire against another, I was a weapon to be used against a God?”

The Lessons Never Learned (Book 2 of The War Eternal)

The best to surprise me… Brian Bowyer

As a student of the five act structure, an editor, and someone who has spent a lifetime working with narrative and fiction, I find that I am rarely surprised these days. This isn’t as bleak a picture as it sounds, as I find a great deal more pleasure in the journey of a story as a result of my studies. For example, if the identity of a killer is going to be revealed, I usually find I’ve worked out who it’s going to be, so instead of focusing on the “surprise” of the reveal, I tend to focus on how the reveal is executed. It’s a different mindset, but yields just as much enjoyment. However, as you've probably gathered, everything I’ve just said gets thrown totally out of the window when we discuss the work of Brian Bowyer. When reading a novel by Brian Bowyer, I can safely say at no point do I ever know what is going to happen in the next paragraph, let alone in the next chapter. This isn’t because his books are full of random and meaningless events. His stories have a dreadful, inexorable logic to them, pulling you towards some moment of revelation or horror—or sometimes even heroism—that is totally unexpected yet hair-raisingly cathartic. Perhaps the greatest example of this is his novel Flesh Rehearsal, where a character on a dark and twisted arc suddenly arrives at a moment of transcendental redemption almost too epic to put into words. Bowyer surprises his readers at every turn—and yet you sense that he is not trying to surprise you. His work isn’t strained, or preposterous, or conceited, simply totally and utterly alive. Be warned, if you want to read Bowyer’s work, you are going to be faced with horror so demented and twisted it will turn the stomach of even a hardened veteran, but the horror is often worth it for the—here’s that word again—surprising glimpses of hope, love, and faith that emerge from the darkness.

They spoke of him on the radio again—he who was currently between names—and he didn’t like it. He turned the radio off. Much better. Now, the only sounds in his car were the rumble of the engine and the music of his tires on the road… He drove out of the hills into the city. With a couple of hours to kill, he decided to look for someone to sacrifice to the ancient gods of death.”

Flesh Rehearsal

The best to make me afraid of having sex… Nikki Noir

Nikki Noir is a truly original voice in dark fiction, combining eroticism, the occult, cosmic horror, and more besides. Her Black Planet series is a powerful coming of age story that plunges us into the depths of human depravity and supernatural evil, a tale of innocence in the face of cataclysmic corruption. One of the most brilliant aspects of her writing is the way she uses the erotic elements of her stories to cloak the dagger she is about to drive into your heart. She lulls us expertly into a false sense of security, titillating us with scenarios that are all too believable perhaps because they mirror the darkest human yearnings, only to then ambush us with scenes so horrifying they seem to have leapt from a John Carpenter movie. Nikki Noir is the sadomasochistic seductress of the written word who has frankly traumatised me into periods of abstinence.

Riley rose from Jordan’s crotch, letting the gore drip from her mouth, still praying to the dark quarters of the universe. Hopefully, the watchers were as satisfied as she was.”

Black Planet

The best to make me feel awe… Clive Barker

Most of the authors on this list are independently published. That’s because I genuinely read more independently published fiction these days. I find indie fiction is where the really interesting writing is happening, where authors are experimenting, taking risks, and painting unique landscapes upon the canvas of the human mind. However, that is not to say I only read independently published fiction, and credit has to be given where credit is due, such as to the great master Clive Barker. For many horror and fantasy writers, Clive Barker is where a love of the genre began, and it’s easy to see why: his prose is angelic, his imagination one of the most fecund to have ever found expression via the pen, and his ability to challenge preconceived notions of desire, morality, and beauty are frankly, to quote the great man himself, “legendary even in hell”. However, if I had to pick one faculty of Barker’s writing which most draws me to him, I would say it is his capacity to instil awe. In our modern world of cynicism, scepticism, and desensitisation, awe is a rare and beautiful thing. Yet, Clive Barker’s stories, whether short or long, almost unfailing evoke it. Barker writes like one who has tasted the magic of the world, fully imbibing it, so that it has become a part of his very being. Reading his work, we can taste a little bit of this magic too.

All his adult life, he’d asked why. Why God? Why meaning? Why love? Now he realized his error. The question was not why; it was why not?”

Everville

Thank you for taking the time to read this (very lengthy) article! I hope you enjoyed reading about these amazing writers, and that it played havoc with your TBR pile. Please do share this so others can discover the amazing work these writers are doing, and maybe find their new favourite author in the process! And lastly, if you have a particular author who offers up a particularly rare gem of experience you would like to suggest, please do leave a comment and let everyone know!