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January 7, 2024

The Four Pillars by H.M. Long ~ a Series Review

by MK French

Do love binge-reading a series in the run-up to a new release? If so, or if you haven't read this series yet, now is the time to get started as the fourth book comes out in a little over a week.

Amazon affiliate links are used on this site. Free books were provided for an honest review.

Book one: Hall of Smoke

book cover of fantasy novel Hall of Smoke by H.M. Long
January 2021; Titan Books; 978-1789094985
audio, ebook, print (432 pages); fantasy

Hessa is an Eangi: a warrior priestess of the Goddess of War, with the power to turn an enemy's bones to dust with a scream. Banished for disobeying her goddess's command to murder a traveler, she prays for forgiveness alone on a mountainside. This leaves her the only survivor when her village is destroyed, and she discovers that the older gods are starting to wake up.

Previously reviewed here, this book gives the realization that there is a war between the Old Gods and the New and that there were forces even older than they were. People are playthings, chess pieces to move about and discard when no longer needed. Gods possess people, alter them, or punish them on a whim. This leaves people dispossessed of family and lands, with many tribes revisiting that horror upon others; this is the devastation that Hessa sees in the beginning of the novel. She's caught up in a quest to earn the respect of her goddess and learns that the stories she was brought up with aren't quite true. The Arpa Empire is massive and fears the Old Gods. Hessa's not concerned with the origins of her world, but they're laid out here in passing conversation:  the Four Pillars of Creation are Thvynder, Eiohe, Imilidese, and the Weaver. The other gods, primeval creatures, and seasons came afterward. The magic of the gods is dangerous to wield, and there are always humans willing to claw a measure of power to get ahead. The same is true of the gods themselves, with the Old Ones waking and killing the New. 

This gradually becomes more important, as well as the survival tactics of her goddess Eang and her son with the god of Winter. The gods battle for the fate of the world and for the worship of the humans left in the world, and Hessa is caught in the very center of it all, fated to be part of that final battle. Even survivors of her village are caught in it, with one becoming the mother of Winter's child in order to save her son's life. The final battle is complicated and involves both humans and gods. A new equilibrium is eventually reached, but it's not the end of Hessa's story.

Buy Hall of Smoke at Amazon

Book two: Temple of No God

book cover of fantasy novel Temple  of No God by H.M. Long
February 2022; Titan Books; 978-1789095562
audio, ebook, print (368 pages); fantasy

Hessa brought peace to her home, but the remnants of the Arpa Empire are now at war. To protect her people, Hessa must lead an army of Algatt and Eangen warriors into the Empire. But aside from warring Arpa factions, a sinister new cult is on the rise, one that sucks the life from everything it touches.

Hessa is once again at the center of a war between the gods eight years after the first one. New tribes of Arpa are intent on slaughtering people for the sake of their god, and as the High Priestess of Thvynder Hessa is tasked to defeat the cult of Laru as three contenders vie for the throne in the south. Her husband is Imnir, the High Priest of the Algatt, and their union didn't quite unify the people who follow them. Both are leery of the potential Arpa candidates for Emperor in the South. Only one can rise as Emperor, and power from the Temple of Lathian is used during the Ascension ceremony. Lathian is dead, leaving unclaimed power in the Temple of No God. Working together, Hessa and Imnir plan to bind the candidates in exchange for raiding privileges and freeing one of the counties that had been in Arpa's thrall for eight years.

There is so much unrest and doubt between everyone as they all move south toward the temple and the Arpa kingdom. Three cousins jockey for power, and the new god with the power to extract life from plants, animals, and mortals carries a power that Hessa isn't familiar with. The same ability to slip into the otherworld where gods live and the dead go to is still present here, though these new ones are not able to do it the way Hessa does. Her old allies are scattered and may have their own agendas, but it all still comes down to the gods. The old ones who created the world aren't interested in battle, but the new ones are still looking for fragments of power to overthrow them and rule. Old rivalries still fester, even among the gods, and it all comes to a head at the end in the temple of the dead god. It's a tense battle, one that kept me turning pages long after I should have stopped to recharge my laptop!

Buy Temple of No God at Amazon

Book three: Barrow of Winter

book cover of fantasy novel Barrow of Winter by H.M. Long
January 2023; Titan Books; 978-1803360027
audio, ebook, print (352 pages); fantasy

Thray is the Last Daughter of Winter, visiting the northern land of Duamel where her demi-god siblings rule. The land is perpetually dark, with strange animals and terrible storms as well as people ready for violence. Thray's siblings don't trust her and want to move south. She must discover her own power and decide where her loyalties lie.

We know the circumstances of her parents getting together in the first book, and we saw Thray in the village before Hessa left. She feels alone in the village, being the daughter of treacherous Ogam, and is not like the other mortals. She doesn't know if she's immortal, though she doesn't die easily when hunting, can talk to her grandfather Winter and other immortals, and even her half-brother has responsibilities that don't involve her. Though she grew up among mortals, she doesn't truly feel like one of them, which drives her to meet Ogam's other children in the far north, where Winter truly reigns. He's standoffish at best, as the season generally is, so Ogam's children are generally left to themselves. When we begin this book, Thray is twenty-five, a priestess of Thvynder, and engaged to be married, but curious about her own nature. When one of her half-sisters arrives from the far north, she takes the opportunity to accompany Siru back and find out more about herself.

Thray's eagerness for family and ignorance of the ways of the North puts her at a distinct disadvantage. There are hard-won secrets she had learned as a priestess, as well as the history of the gods, but these are the immortal children of Ogam that he left behind just as he had been abandoned by his mother Eang. Just as in the south, there are stirrings of unrest, this time in the form of the Sleepers, a cult that tries to enter the High Halls of the afterlife through their visions. As with the earlier books in the series, there is treachery underneath the surface, and Thray must figure out what she truly values. She hopes to save everyone and doesn't want to be emotionally hurt, but it's an impossible task unless she keeps herself so removed she doesn't interact with anyone. She has a hard task ahead of her, trying to balance a life with those she cares about along with the promises she made along the way. 

I found this book a much more melancholy one, as there are more obvious threads of family and longing than simply bids to save the world from the actions of gods on the move. Bored immortal beings are dangerous, and play a long game. Thray is caught up in it, and as the youngest has less pull over them. Seeing her journey gives me hope that she will find a place in the world.

Buy Barrow of Winter at Amazon

Book four: Pillar of Ash

book cover of fantasy novel Pillar of Ash by H.M. Long
January 2024; Titan Books; 978-1803360041
audio, ebook, print (336 pages); fantasy

Hessa's daughter Yske is a healer and her twin brother Berin gathers warriors to investigate the Unmade – shadows in the darkness at the end of the world. More interested in healing than violence, Yske grudgingly earns the respect of the warriors and tries to find a place for mercy in the world. Yske and Berin are part of the final war with the gods, and the fate of creation is about to be decided.

Hessa is still alive and well, and working with the gods and Miri alike. Beyond the High Halls and the Waking World of mortals is the Unmade, and odd things were noted in the Unmade. There's talk of a great tree and the Great Bear, so Berin would rather try to track them down when his wife asks him to leave. He also wants to make a name for himself the way Hessa had before he was born, and the peace with the southern empire and tribes means that there are no great battles for him to look forward to. Instead, he looks to the east that even the Miri don't explore. Disasters start from the first day, and there are dangers that the mortals must fight past.

While we had heard of the Four Pillars before, this is where the story really comes to a head. Four gods that created this world, one with the power to unmake it. Like a child with Legos, it's this goddess that wants to take everything apart and remake it anew because of the way they were treated by Miri and mortals. Finding out who to trust and why it happened brings the saga together, and we see heroes from earlier volumes as well. The history posed here is one that the twins must contend with as well, for the stories of their parents (particularly Hessa) precedes them. Both twins grow up on the journey, becoming who they were meant to be. Fate likely has more in store for them; as Yske says many times, history and fate are very involved in their bloodline. This is unlikely to change, and we'll be here to read those tales if they come.

Buy Pillar of Ash at Amazon

Born and raised in New York City, M.K. French started writing stories when very young, dreaming of different worlds and places to visit. She always had an interest in folklore, fairy tales, and the macabre, which has definitely influenced her work. She currently lives in the Midwest with her husband, three young children, and a golden retriever.

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