The Last Page is the fantasy debut novel of Anthony Huso, a video game designer who finally got published. This is the first book of a duology, finishing with The Black Bottle, currently in revision but without a release date. Simply put, this is clearly the best fantasy debut this year for your host.
The young Caliph Howl will be the new High King of the duchy of Stonehold. Having just finished his years of study at the university of Desdae, he's now running away from his duties to search for Sena, his new-found love when he is taken back to Isca by agents of his own government. The Howl heir's rule will start with a nation shattering civil war, where he will have to learn quickly how to lead a country. Meanwhile, his missing love, a Shradnae Witch, will resurface with a single purpose in mind, opening the mythical Cisrym Ta, a book containing glyphs with power beyond that of a god. She will challenge their relationship in order to accomplish the sacrifices needed.
How can I define the genre in which The Last Page would feel at home? From what I have read before, it's been labeled as a mixed influence of steampunk, new weird, dark fantasy and more... I would summarize this list by stating that the book is Chemiostaticpunk-fantasy. Alright, that's not helping much but since chemiostatic energy is one source of power in the world created by Huso, it's a small pun as good as any of those epithets. In conclusion, suffice to say that The Last Page is quite unique.
The book is the tale of two unlikely lovers, initially enticed to each other by feelings which are not mutually corresponding, excluding the carnal pleasure. They can't really stay together neither can they live without each other. As two genuinely different protagonists, I loved both sides of the coin. Caliph is an insecure young man taking his task at heart. He manages to rule with sincerity while not being afraid to undertake difficult projects. Surrounded by betrayal, he will harden to the role step by step. That's the kind of character growth I usually hunger for.
His counterpart (and the other main PoV) is more of a straightforward strong woman without much inhibition. She's focused on her goals and will do everything that is needed to achieve it, creating emotional scenes and making me empathic to their passionate conflict. In this instance again, I think Huso nailed it right. Throughout the tale, Sena stays true to this.
However some of Caliph surrounding cast personalities stir slightly toward being stereotypical. His war counselor, butler and spymaster fit in this category but that last one is still one hell of a personage. This insignificant fault is erased by a plenitude of imaginative presences, from ghosts to jealous witches.
Aside from a character driven story with every element you would hope for, I have to praise Huso's writing. This is probably the aspect of the novel that makes it stand over the crowd. In connection with the enriched world building comes a complete new set of creative and complex vocabulary elements and pronunciations and a brilliant technique in term of prose. The author writing is precise with short paragraphs full of clever adjectives and metaphors. A feast for the fan of stylistic devices.
I appreciated mostly the short inspired descriptions during the moments of contemplation and the more active pieces. Some passage are also memories recounted in some sort of "screenplay-third-person" way. Those are somewhat a bit harder to follow but they separate the past moments effectively.
The skies can be traveled by zeppelins and chemiostatic power replace steam but there's more to it than steampunk clichés. A quantity of delightful weirdness is apparent in a doppelgangers race, witches than can summon some kind of god creating an eerie vastness of parallel universe and in the new soul base energy source stolen from another civilization. The author world is also full of distinct cultures of the past and the present. Even though we only get some glimpse of territories outside of Stonehold and more precisely Isca, I could feel the richness of the people history, myths and technological evolution. My immersion in this amalgam of imaginativeness was complete.
I have one tiny reserve about one situation toward the end of the novel (don't worry, I won't spoil anything). One of the characters eventually uses magic in a kind of omnipotent way. While the evolution of that person in that field was handled perfectly so far, in an instant, it felt too much convenient. However I have to admit that help from some weird spirit was delivered but it wasn't really justified in my opinion.
I have not found a novel to which I could compare The Last Page. This is certainly a very good conclusion. The novel stands at 430 pages, with as I'm sure you'll agree, a beautiful cover art (by Phil Holland) and two nice maps of the duchy of Stonehold and the city of Isca.
Let's finish with an insightful quote from the book that could almost be metaphorically applied to our own society :
Rather, the newest religion in the north was a revival of monotheism: the worship of self. There was no guarantee of purchasing friends or love or fame or happiness but hawkers sold facsimiles at a fairly going clip. As a result in the city, varietal masturbation sold far, far better than sex.The Last Page review score :
Characterization............. 9 /10
World building............... 9.5 / 10
Magic system................. 9 /10
Story.............................. 9 / 10
Writing........................... 10 / 10
Overall (not an average) 9 / 10
Anthony Huso page