Kevin Hearne’s A Plague of Giants

cover artThe author of the best-selling urban fantasy series The Iron Druid Chronicles has begun a new series that promises to be, well, huge. Kevin Hearne’s new The Seven Kennings series begins with A Plague of Giants. It’s a hefty tome at just about 600 pages for the readers’ galley I have, but it’s a real page-turner and the story flew by too quickly.

It’s set on a landmass known as Teldwen on an unnamed planet, and tells of a war involving the six nations that dwell there plus some invaders from unknown lands across the sea, the Eculans, also known as Bone Giants.

Five of the six peoples in Teldwen have a kenning or mystical power that is linked to them as a people, and to the place where they live, and perhaps to the spirit or god of that place. A Plague of Giants, in addition to being the story of the war sparked by the giants’ invasion, is also the story of the discovery of the sixth kenning.

One thing I hope Hearne addresses as this series goes forward is the problematical way in which a person discovers they have the kenning. See, only a small percentage of the population has the kenning, and to get it they basically have to commit suicide. And only a small percentage of those who offer up their lives actually receive the kenning – the others are just sacrificed to the gods or animating spirits.

Another philosophical point, which comes up with the discovery of the sixth kenning, is that those with the kenning almost all end up being used by the government. That’s not necessarily bad, but it can be, if the people with that kenning have an innately violent culture or if their leaders are unscrupulous. I expect we’ll hear a lot more about this in future installments.

The first of the kennings is power over fire, and it’s held by the giants called Hathrim. As with all of the kennings, the holders have various levels of power, but in general they can’t be harmed by that element, and their culture is built around the characteristics of that element. Hathrim with the kenning are called Lavaborn – I assume because you have to jump into lava to find out if you have it, although we’re not explicitly told that.

The Hathrim live mostly in the islands of Hathrir off the southern coast of the land mass. The whole of Teldwen is shaped roughly like a crab, with the continent forming its body and southern island archipelagos its claws, surrounding what’s called the Rift Ocean, about which I think we’ll learn more in future books. Hathrir is the western claw, and Kauria the eastern. You’ll find a map on Hearn’s Facebook page.

Kauria’s kenning is over the air. They can fly and manipulate the wind. Forn’s kenning is an affinity with all plants; they communicate with and through their forest called The Canopy, and can manipulate living plantlife. Rael’s kenning is for the earth; they can move rapidly over the earth and manipulate dirt and stone. And Brynlon’s kenning is for water; they can move in it like a fish and can manipulate it as well.

The folks of Ghurana Nent, the Nentians, are best known as hunters and raisers of animals. They don’t have a kenning of their own, until young Abhinava “Abhi” Khose makes a startling discovery.

The plot here is at root pretty simple. A volcano on one of the islands of Hathrir explodes violently. The leader (“Hearthfire”) of the Hathrim clans that live there uses this as an excuse to do something he has long planned, invade and gain a foothold in Ghurana Nent. And at roughly the same time, an armada of ships carrying these mysterious Bone Giants lands in Brynlon and starts killing everyone in every village, town and city they come to. They’re called Bone Giants because they are clad only in loincloths and rough armor made of human bones.

The device that Hearne has chosen to tell this portion of the tale is well considered and skillfully done. He’s adapted the ancient motif of Scheherezade, by putting the telling of the tale into the mouth of a Raelech bard named Fintan. He spins his yarn, with characters from each of the six peoples, on successive evenings in the great plaza at Pelemyn, the Brynt capital near where the war with the Bone Giants began. As a bard, he has one aspect of the kenning, the ability to project his voice throughout the town with ease; and he uses some mystical stones to in effect shape-shift and take on the form of the various characters.

Hearne could have simply told the story as an omniscient narrator through the voices of the several characters, but having the bard tell them is a nice touch. It provides an overarching narrative (plus a little intrigue – is the bard a Raelech spy as well?) and allows the author to demonstrate, rather than telling, certain subtle aspects of the various kennings. He does a pretty good job of delineating the different voices of the characters, which is only one of several ways he is fleshing out this odd fantastic world as the tale proceeds.

Be warned that there are several graphic scenes of battle and torture involving the creative use of the various kennings or simply inventive cruelty. I didn’t find them gratuitous, but rather illustrative of the story and the inner lives of the characters involved.

I’m not a huge fan of fantasy, but as you can tell I very much enjoyed A Plague of Giants. I’m eagerly looking forward to the second installment A Blight of Blackwings.

(Del Rey, 2017)

About Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.