Reviews: The Border Keeper & The Phantom Forest – Two Underworld Stories, One Good, One Ehh

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Title: The Border Keeper
Author: Kerstin Hall
Publisher: Tor.com
Release Date: July 16th, 2019
Genre(s): Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: Underworld, Gods, Demons
Page Count: 240 (ebook)

Rating: 7.0/10

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Vasethe, a man with a troubled past, comes to seek a favor from a woman who is not what she seems, and must enter the nine hundred and ninety-nine realms of Mkalis, the world of spirits, where gods and demons wage endless war.

The Border Keeper spins wonders both epic―the Byzantine bureaucracy of hundreds of demon realms, impossible oceans, hidden fortresses―and devastatingly personal―a spear flung straight, the profound terror and power of motherhood. What Vasethe discovers in Mkalis threatens to bring his own secrets into light and throw both worlds into chaos.

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She had been called the destroyer of empires. Mistress of the dead, the whispers went. But those few who knew better gave her the title of ya Wenzta, the border keeper.

This isn’t quite the romp through a fantastical underworld I had in mind (as in, not as fast-paced or rich in detail as I’d imagined), but you know when you read or watch or play something that gives you this inexplicable yet pleasant vibe and it just kind of sticks with you for the rest of the day? Yeah, that’s this book.

The worldbuilding is really where the story shines–a mix of weird horror and your typical fantasy fare. You get demon-god politics, crab children, and horrific and imaginative consequences for breaking Mkalis rules (the most important one being “always tell the truth”) and there’s an incredible quietness to it all that I loved and found to be strangely addictive. It’s reminiscent of the Souls games, the way everything feels forlorn without being grisly, and expansive without being crammed to the walls with details and metaphors. And the wistful tone meshes really well with the story’s theme of death and rebirth. It’s one of those worlds that feels subdued but still creative, and I think that’s a quality that’s underappreciated in fantasy.

I wasn’t as enamoured with the characters, unfortunately. While the history of the Eris’s role as the border keeper and her relationship with the gods and demons of Mkalis is fascinating, I wasn’t interested in Eris as a person. Same with Vasethe, who was weirdly bland and non-present throughout the whole story, except for maybe near the end.

Overall, though, this is a lovely debut and I’d love to see more stories set in the same world.

 


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Title: The Phantom Forest
Author: Liz Kerin
Publisher: Inkshares
Release Date: July 16th, 2019
Genre(s): YA Fantasy, Dystopian
Subjects and Themes: Underworld, Demons
Page Count: 336 (paperback)

Rating: 5.0/10

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Every tree in the sacred Forest of Laida houses a soul. And each of those souls will return to the mortal world for many future lives. But not all of them deserve to.

Seycia’s father told her this story as a child―a story of the most holy place in the Underworld, the Forest of Laida, where all souls go to rest before embarking on a new life. But Seycia’s father is dead now, and his killer has put a target on her back.

After she is chosen for her village’s human sacrifice ritual, Seycia is transported to the Underworld and must join forces with Haben, the demon to whom she was sacrificed. Together, they journey to the forest in the Underworld where all souls grow in a quest to destroy the tree of the man who killed her.

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This mashup of a post-apocalyptic world with an underworld was really intriguing at first, and I was invested in maybe…the first 1/4 of it, but sadly the main characters ended up falling flat and I couldn’t find myself being invested in any of their journey. Haben, the human-turned-demon boy, was probably the most interesting of the three protagonists and even then it still felt like his personality only went skin-deep.

The worldbuilding is definitely its biggest asset; the various details of the underworld are vivid and often genuinely creepy, and I wished that the entirety of the story was set there (the idea of underworld soul trees is fantastic).

And the two villains–one human, the other a demon–overshadow Sychia, Miko, and Haben as the stars of the story. They’re magnetic in a way that the protagonists aren’t, and while I’ll always love despicable baddies that I can sink my teeth into, if I’m rooting for them over the heroes for no reason other than that they actually feel more three dimensional than the latter, that’s kind of a big problem.

Overall, the story didn’t do much for me, but the good news is that I’m 1000% in the minority and many other readers did love it, so if you’re into underworld stories then it wouldn’t hurt to try this one out.