House of Open Wounds

By Adrian Tchaikovsky

There are authors that you love because you can pick up one of their books and know what you are going to get, like putting on your favourite pair of comfortable slippers again. There is also that rarer breed of author that you love, maybe even a little bit more. Those authors that will not be pigeonholed into writing the same book every year. Adrian Tchaikovsky writes across both science fiction and fantasy but goes even further. House of Open Wounds is the second in The Tyrant Philosophers series, a book that itself has a different feel to the first book. An author who continues to adapt and surprise. 

After the events of City of Last Chances things could have not got much worse for former Priest Yasnic than to be drafted into the Palleseen army. Death seems like the worst option, but being constantly pestered by God, who only Yasnic can see, feels like the poorer deal. Yasnic can do no violence so should be thankful to have been put in the medical unit, itself full of unorthodox characters with unorthodox powers. Can Yasnic survive the war and stop God from converting all the army? 

I enjoyed City, it felt like an experimental style of fantasy with an ensemble cast that also included locations as characters. The city itself was the star, but the put upon Priest Yasnic also stood out. In House, Tchaikovsky returns to a more traditional style, focussing on a few characters. For me, it makes for the best of both worlds; taming some of the bold experimentation to mix it with great fantasy writing. 

House is a book all about balance. The balance between the experimental and the conventional, but also humour and grim realism, and high and low fantasy. This book is all these things and more. It is a low fantasy novel that does not shy away from the viscera of the hospital tent. The lead medical staff member is known as The Butcher and that says it all. However, there is also a potent magic system in the book, several in fact. The Pals spend their time crushing the magic and religion of the people they conquer or twisting it to feed their war machine.  

The various methods of experimental medicine are one of the highlights of the book. Each member of the medical unit has a different skill; alchemy, asking God, taking the injuries on themselves, and more. Seeing how the Pals start to reuse the skills for their own means is dark, but also forces those in the unit to realise it is us against them and this pushes the story forwards. 

For a book with dark moments; reanimating of corpses, harvesting of prisoner’s souls etc., there are great moments of humour. This is because Tchaikovsky creates rounded characters who need some lightness in their grim existence, from a cheeky joke to clueless mishaps. It is a novel that feels like Terry Pratchett and Joe Abercrombie at the same time. Two of my all-time favourites, so great company to be in. 

I congratulate Tchaikovsky on writing one of the best pieces of fantasy fiction I have read in recent years. By simplifying the style of the first book and focusing it on a group of characters over a linear timeline, the story and characters can breathe. We learn much about the people and the world so that when the twists come, they have impact. I would recommend this title to any fantasy fan; it is a gem in the genre and a great start to 2024. 

Written on 23rd January 2024 by .

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