One of the great and laudable hallmarks of the human condition is our willingness to place trust in others.
It is rarely an entirely rational act, fuelled as much by gut instinct and hope as it is by dispassionate weighing of the facts, and underpinned always by the need to feel that another human being is worthy of being treated an insider, a confidante.
Much of the time this act of trust pays off but there are times, and they are scattered aplenty through the imaginative expansiveness of Shrouded Loyalties by Reese Hogan, when it is either does you harm, quite literally it seems, or is the source of great and abiding disappointment.
Mila Blackwood, a Belzen soldier who sits at the heart of the fast-moving but emotionally resonant narrative of Shrouded Loyalties, is caught up, like so many of her fellow citizens in a bloody war with the ever-acquisitive Dhavnak Empire, a misogynistic, authoritarian empire that wants to gobble her country and move on until the entire continent on which it sits is under its sway.
Like any war, the endlessly fighting between Belzen and Dhavnak is awash in half-truths, betrayal and lies but Mila, Chief Sea Officer on a Belzen submarine, believes she can trust those under her command, including newly-arrived Apprentice Deckman Holland, who keeps turning up in places he shouldn’t but who appears to otherwise be a loyal and eager to learn new recruit.
“Blackwood sighed. Holland hadn’t even been on her roster. It had originally been some fellow named Jeremiah Magnus. But Magnus hadn’t shown up the morning of the mission, so Holland had been sent running from the academy practically as the gangway was rising. Blackwood was just glad to have gotten a replacement for her fifth torpedomate in time. A body fighting Dhavnakir was a body fighting Dhavnakir. Even if he was undertrained. Even if he was as skittish as a weerbat in the daylight. Even if he was always awake when Blackwood left the compartment for the half-light watch, eyes staring into the bunk above as his lips moved in some silent comfort to himself.” (P. 3)
He, like so everyone else onboard the submarine, is the holder of a great secret that must be kept from the Dhavnaks at all costs – that Belzen has a groundbreaking technology known as shrouding that allows it to traverse great distances on the planet in seconds using a mysterious realm of which little is known.
Anecdotal evidence points to monstrous life in this alien, strange world but all anyone like Mila cares about is that it gives them a competitive advantage over the overwhelming might of the Dhavnak Empire, allowing them to strike hard and hot with no warning and maximum destructive effectiveness.
Like anyone caught up in war, Mila has a great deal of trauma to process on a given day, but finds it ameliorated somewhat by the unexpected bond she forms with Holland and by her somewhat estranged closeness with her younger brother Andrew, with whom she has not spent nearly enough since their scientist parents untimely death some years before.
It is these two relationships that bind her often fractured, and anger-driven life together, and it is precisely these two enduring bonds that are sorely tested when a breach while going through the realm means that Blackwood and Holland emerge with strange powers that could play a key role in the end of hostilities.
But nothing, of course, is ever fair, or more importantly straightforward in love and war, and after Blackwood and Holland find themselves in the hands of military scientists whose only real goal is finding out what these abilities could mean for the Belzen war effort, choices have to be made and assumptions about who you can and cannot trust come wildly and entertainingly into play.
Much of what drives the enthralling, bristling, highly original energy of Shrouded Loyalties is a rumination on who you can and cannot place your trust in a world that has upended any sense of where true loyalty should lie.
On the surface, if you’re a Belzene, the demarcation is clear – Belzen is good, Dhavnak is not; but as this intriguing, breathlessly good world building-based story progresses, it becomes patently, and times for Mila, painfully clear that any concept of black and white when it comes to unfettered allegiance pretty much has to go out the window.
It is, as you might imagine, a terrifyingly intense and deeply personal journey for everyone involved.
Blackwood is certainly the one faced with the greatest dilemmas when it becomes clear that her ideas about how the world operates – is science the only arbiter of truth or does mythology also play a part? – are set upon some very shaky and all too trusting ground, but Andrew and Holland too must wrestle with their own demons of betrayal as the story races to a thrilling conclusion that is satisfying in itself but also begging for an equally well-though and engrossingly told sequel.
It’s this marriage of military action and raw, aching, broken humanity, all set against a propulsive narrative that still finds time for thoughtfulness and introspective engagement, that imbues Shrouded Loyalties with a brilliantly meaningful readability.
“Andrew had barely spoken a word since they disembarked. The strange creatures called from every side, their guttural cries echoing through the rocks and distant crags, but none were visible. Blackwood did her best to keep a sweeping vigil as she ran, though her eyes caught on that wide band of light behind them every time her head turned. She carried the bag of notes with her again, and its weight slowed her. She’d thought about leaving it, especially since Andrew had all the information in his head, but she knew she couldn’t depend on him. Even if she could keep him beside her, there were no guarantees about what he chose to share.” (P. 193)
Time and again as you are enthralled by Hogan’s ability to come up with jaw-droppingly exciting new ideas and possibilities, the kind that prove inventive, original storytelling is far from dead in robustly muscular modern fantasy storytelling, you come face-to-face with the great chasm into which seemingly simple human impulses can disappear.
Blackwood wants to believe in so many clearcut, black-and-white things about the world she inhabits but she finds just about all her assumptions tested with fire and brutal human fallibility over and over, and it’s her all too human reactions to some key developments in Shrouded Loyalties that give the novel such a richly affecting air.
Hogan knows, and lives it in every single word she puts onto the page, that action without humanity is spectacularly empty, a loud and epic tableau that will eventually land with a thud and a sudden loss of arresting interest because what is there to hang onto when the adrenaline-fuelled moment has passed?
In the case of this wondrously alive novel, there is a plenty to keep you interested, both during and after each and every action-packed scene because the author remembers that you can have all the narrative momentum and stunning worldbuilding you want but can lose it all if there is a vibrantly dark and troubling, and possibly redemptive, humanity, at its heart.
Rife with imagination, humanity and a brilliant ability to go beyond the obvious and ask the questions no one usually wants answered if they want their peace of mind to stay intact, Shrouded Loyalties is a stunningly good book, one that takes wildly inventive new fantasy tropes and weaves into them some big ideas about the human condition and experience, so profoundly well that long after the dust of the strange realm and the real world have settled, youa re still in awe of the dazzling complexity of people and how what might seem simple and straightforward on the surface, turns out eventually to be anything but.