The first book in the new Children of Bane series by New Zealander Dan Rabarts, Brothers of the Knife throws you head first into its world with a bloody and intriguing cold open that had me gripped. A mysterious warrior is tortured and tried by a shady coalition who don’t seem too keen on newcomers to the ranks. Who is she? Will she complete her quest? These questions are put on hold when the focus shifts to an extremely different and entirely unexpected main character.
The shape of the novel follows the classic format of a quest that changes the quester along the way. It’s similar to a bildungsroman except the main character isn’t some untried teen chosen by fate - instead it’s a Hornung cook who’s locked himself away in the kitchens and spent years taking shit and refusing to bet on himself. Akmenos (the aforementioned cook) comes from a long line of magically gifted Hornung, which, if you couldn’t guess from the name, are a horned race of creatures who live in and control the Hornung Empire. While this empire does stretch across an array of disparate lands and contain a multitude of creatures, the story is not particularly concerned with the intricacies of alliances and government of such a land. The politics of the book are lightly sketched in favour of a focus on magic, survival and the battle between good and evil.
Akmenos is a cook turned reluctant hero. The character grew on me as the story progressed. He’s like an overlarge horned and horny hobbit. And speaking as someone who absolutely loves any time food is mentioned in books, I couldn’t get enough of the cook aspect of his character. I love feasts, I love fireside repasts, if anyone sets a simple stew onto the stove I am hooked. So when a character who people are actively trying to murder refuses to give up his condiments and spices I feel a definite sense of kinship. Akmenos is also the source of a lot of good comedy in the book. There’s a bit of slapstick with him not being entirely in control of his body and his movements. Add in some witty asides and passion for proper food preparation and you’ve got grab bag of comedy gold.
Re the narrative itself, there’s a lot to unpack with the tone, setting and mythology. The story seems to shift between a few different things as it progresses. The beginning is pretty much an old school fantasy set up with swords and sorcery, castles and feasts. But then, once Akmenos flees and begins his wanderings, the use of portals and alternate planes of existence, like large upside-down deserts, gives me more of a Star Wars sci-fi feel.
Each place Akmenos ends up in feels so different as to constitute another world, not just another part of the same world. Eventually when complex machinery and air balloons appeared, right after ancient texts were translated and magical keys became important, the story morphed into something like a steampunk Indiana Jones adventure. And I am certainly not complaining about this. It was a hell of a ride and I enjoyed the twists and turns. I was just slightly discombobulated trying to keep up.
While the cold open of the book teases an all-powerful shadow organisation, the rest of the narrative gives a sense that nobody is ever entirely in control. Even if think they are. The sense of organised chaos that this creates is intriguing and breathless; the movement of the book feels like Akmenos tripping and falling down a hill, bumping into people and places as he rolls out of control. And then at the bottom of the hill there’s a great cliffhanger. Enough to make me pretty keen to see what happens next. I get the sense that the character work and world building of this first novel will definitely pay off in subsequent sequels.
Purchase a copy of Brothers of the Knife from Omnium Gatherum and Amazon
Hannah White is a screenwriter, script consultant and book reader from Melbourne, Australia. Her short film Blood Sisters has played at over 15 festivals worldwide. She likes pizza and genre fiction.