Infernal by Mark de Jager
Stratus wakes in an unfamiliar place, with nothing but the knowledge that he is not human, with no memories of his past but possessing great strength, a powerful sorcery and the burning instinct to survive at any cost.
Embarking on a journey of self-discovery, he sets out across a landscape torn apart by the ten year war between the Kingdoms of Krandin and Penullin, now reaching new levels of savagery as a dark magic drives the world to the brink of destruction.
As his personality grows with each step he slowly uncovers the truth of what he has become and the unquenchable thirst for vengeance that has led him there.
Over the last few years there have been some cracking new fantasy writers published in the UK. Jen Williams gave us The Copper Cat trilogy, Edward Cox unleashed The Relic Guild, Peter Newman brought us The Vagrant and I’d be entirely remiss if I didn’t mention Liz de Jager and the wonderful Blackheart Legacy. All these authors, and their work, have reignited my love of the fantasy genre. So much so that now I am always actively on the lookout for more talent to add to this list. The latest name to join these authors is Mark de Jager with his debut novel, Infernal.
Stratus, the central character, remains a bit of a mystery throughout. Now don’t panic, de Jager does a fine job slowly drip feed the reader snippets of our protagonist’s back story. Exactly who or what Stratus is remains tantalisingly just out of reach for the most part, but rest assured the ultimate payoff is entirely worth it. It works for me. You can’t beat a bit of the old ‘mysterious stranger’ can you? Stratus has powers and abilities, and an innate skill at wielding them, but exactly why are there huge blanks in his memory? He feels as though he is somehow intrinsically wrong, that there is a malevolent presence deep in his soul. That entity is baying for blood, but what exactly is it? Is Stratus a hero, villain or perhaps something else entirely?
There are a couple of things that I think set this novel above your standard run of the mill, paint by numbers fantasy. First is the way Stratus interacts with others. We’re talking about a man who has woken up with no memories and no idea of who or what he is. Every conversation is a learning opportunity. It also gives Stratus the chance to highlight the inconsistencies that human society is forever falling into. It’s hardly a surprise that he is constantly bemused by people’s reaction to the things that he does. He is blissfully ignorant when it comes to social niceties or conventions. If nobody has ever explained the rules to you they shouldn’t be massively surprised when you break them.
Apart from Stratus, the other standout character is a hard as nails royal bodyguard called Tatyana. She seems to be about the only person who can stomach Stratus and his uncomplicated approach to life. As their relationship develops, I got to the point where I could almost picture every exasperated sigh to issue from Tatyana lips whenever she reacted to Stratus. The back and forth between these two is great fun. I think I could happily read a novel just featuring Tatyana kicking ass and destroying her enemies.
The other thing that really works well is the development of the magic system that Stratus has access to. I love the idea that wizards and sorcerers are two different things. They tap into the same forces but use them differently. Wizards learn to wield magic by practice and education while sorcerers have more of an inherent ability.
As a backdrop to Stratus’ journey of discovery there are two warring nations trying to completely annihilate one another. More through luck than judgement, Stratus finds himself at the heart of this conflict. The big question – what part does Stratus play in this confrontation? Is he just in the wrong place at the wrong time or is there a more sinister reason for his arrival?
de Jager’s debut novel is extremely satisfying, delivering on every level. It has an old school fantasy feel but delivers some nice modern twists. There is plenty of intrigue, bucket loads of action and some EPICALLY nasty worms that are sure to upset anyone with a delicate constitution. If you like your fantasy with just a hint of dark horror, then look no further, Infernal is the book for you.
I’ll be keeping an eye out for more from Mr de Jager now that he has successfully captured my attention. This first book is the perfect fantastical aperitif, it sets the scene. Now I want more- more battles, more mayhem, more Tatyana and definitely more Stratus.
Infernal is published by Del Rey and is available now.