This review may contain some very minor spoilers, but I'm not giving away the ending or anything.
The Black God's War (Splendor and Ruin #1) is a lyrical, unusual, and engrossing book with similarities to The Iliad. You can read more thorough synopses elsewhere, but one side of the war in the book believes in gods and receives their assistance (as in Greek myth); the other, a Buddhist-like culture, believes in karma and uses sages as their soldiers. Elements of each side are mirrored in the other, and this is also the case with the fascinating and relatable characters. The battle scenes are beautifully done and reminded me a little of the Punic Wars and Hannibal (along with, obviously, Homer). Not one of the battle scenes is too long; the novel has good pacing and balance. It is also well-written and well-edited, with moments of dry humor that made me laugh -- and has a lovely note to the reader at the end that should not be missed. The Black God's War deserves attention and readers, and I eagerly anticipate Siregar's follow-up.
One of my two favorite characters, Rao, is the prince for the karma side of the war -- the one that believes that the "natural balancing in the universe is far more powerful than any wordily army." As a sage, Rao has been trained to understand that his mind is the master of the physical world, and his particular task has been to contemplate the interconnectedness of all things (something Siregar writes into the situations and characters). The sages have near-superpowers of traveling to other planes of consciousness, becoming invisible, and even making others invisible. But Rao isn't a perfect sage: he struggles with uncontrolled emotions, inner turmoil, and attaching his ego to outcomes.
There are resonant themes of duty to and the sins of the fathers. A healer named Narayani tells Rao, "You care about your ambition. You're trying to make your father love you." The theme of duty (or trying in vain to please your father), is evident in Caio and his own uncompromising father, who tells his son, "If you control your emotions, you will not lose." (Notice also that Rao's struggle with controlling his own emotions is echoed with Caio -- the interconnectedness of all things!). Here is a dryly funny exchange between Caio and his father:
"You will speak to me with respect!"
"I will not! You are fortunate we are related."
The truculent and emotional Lucia is a wonderful protagonist. At the end, she is forced to make a near-impossible decision that will determine the fates of two men she loves -- and the fates of the two kingdoms, in a perfect example of a dig deep down moment in which the character has to make a difficult, seemingly impossible choice. The karma-based kingdom and the theme of the father are woven in here, too, when the black god Lord Danato tells Lucia that she has had to process her father's karma. You could argue that fathers as a whole are the villain of the book.
I also loved the romance between Lucia and Ilario. There is another touching Romeo-and-Juliet-like bookend romance between Caio and Narayani, a hostage from the karma side. Both romances show the vulnerability and emotion of the characters, and I was impressed with how Siregar handled the development and resolution. It's not easy to do that well, and I thought the romantic element in this book was strong.
Here are some of my favorite lines from Lucia:
"It's the most recent worst day of my life," she said. "Thank you for asking."
"This is the kind of thing I have no interest in. You might as well be talking to yourself right now."
"My goddess's own lightning nearly killed me. Caio's frst attempt at military leadership went nowhere. Everything is horrid in my world and and you are the most foul presence in it."
"Lord Danato is a perverse figure. I've given up trying to understand him."
Her soul felt tender and gnawed through. (Lucia's thought)
This sentence is representative of the thought and detail Siregar put into TBGW:
"She had carried all of her medicinal herbs and tinctures in the same sack as her clothes and jewelry, which was why she was only able to bring eight changes of dress. The glass vials clinked together as she dug through them looking for the ashwa."
There are many vivid similes; here are some of my favorites:
The branches were razor-sharp, curling around in wild circles like an assassin spinning with curved swords.
From this height, the boulders and shrubs of the canyon were like objects in the field of a child's imagination.
The desert spun around him, soft blue skies stretching into forever, red canyon walls soaring like giants.
HIs mind had been like a monkey stung by bees since the tragedy two nights ago.
The air filled with the ominous whispers of arrows, filling the sky like a swarm of black birds gliding off a peak.