Avantae: Rise of Rouhn, the first book of the Avantae trilogy by Joel Kelly, is an epic coming-of-age fantasy about a mysterious orphan named Devin, who goes on an adventure and discovers why he's special even though he seems like an ordinary person destined for a life of hard work in the clay mines. In his quest, he is accompanied by his close friend John, the knight known as Sir Borc, a spirit-summoning wizard named Nazterrack, and the staff-wielding fighter, Felina. There are also other supporting characters but they're forgettable. Nonetheless, Kelly is good at expressing his characters' voices well in his dialogues. Their emotions resonate on the page well enough for the readers to distinguish their motivations.
Avantae opens up with a prologue that reminds me of Neil Gaiman's American Gods but the fast-paced plot feels more like a strange combination of the popular anime Fullmetal Alchemist, a dash of The Hobbit, and Christopher Paolini's Eragon series. The book also reminds me of Lev Grossman's The Magicians because of the complexity of its magic system but without the school setting.
While the opening chapters may feel slow because of its lack of action, the story quickly picks up by the first 100 pages or so. The Festival of Lights, a major event for Devin, is when the conflict kicks off and apparently, there's something special about Devin but Kelly takes several chapters to develop the mystery, and the various perspectives leading to the main conflict expand our look at the world of Avantae. It seems that the author has a clear sense of the world's geography and history as he paints concrete descriptions of Avantae's settings such as this:
"Winds from the northern peaks of Feldeon brought a crisp, cool breeze to Glottenham Hold as the first snowflakes of winter gently drifted to earth. Massive towers made of granite dotted the landscape as narrow high walls snaked their way along ridge lines, and encircled districts of irregular shapes and sizes. The city that had stood for thousands of years was once a simple keep, but now spread across the land in all directions. Wars over the years brought walls, and soon the city outgrew those walls; so more walls were made to encircle more districts, which in turn outgrew those walls as well."
Throughout the novel, Devin and company travel a lot and the journey feels like a drag in some parts, and some action scenes didn't give me a sense of where the characters are though they are often exciting to read because of how the tension escalates, especially during the major battles against the book's main villain, Rouhn.
Kelly has created a memorable monster with the titular villain. Rouhn is a terrifying and relentless blood monster and it's epic seeing Devin and company fight the monster that reminds me of the Slakemoth from China Mieville's Perdido Street Station. I'm not a big fan of how the villain was formed, however, but the concepts of Memory Stone and runes are intriguing.
Another strength of Avantae is its magic system. The way Kelly explains the various aspects of spells that the protagonist needs to master is logical and fascinating as if the author has a clear idea of how magic actually functions in his world. There's a sphere of inspiration and creativity, an attribute for light and healing, and another for lightning and storms, and one that mimics things. Often times, the magical spells and supernatural abilities feel effortless. For instance, Nazterrack is able to summon spirits at will and they don't seem to have limitations for magic. After all, the Avantae is said to require no expense when using magic but somehow, you can still feel Devin's vulnerability. Nazterrack becomes a Gandalf-like figure and Devin becomes his apprentice when it comes to magic but Sir Borc is his master when it comes to physical combat. However, Devin's lack of character development makes the training parts in the middle of the book feel pointless. Avantae, to me, feels more like Rouhn's story than Devin's. Sure, Devin is the central part of the novel but since he doesn't seem to have a personal motivation to do his quest, it feels like he was just dragged to an adventure.
What's more interesting about Devin is how he realizes that he is powerless to control the choices available to him. There are hard choices that Devin must make but he has no freedom to make his own choice. The strange supernatural "balance" decides for him anyway, and it makes the novel feel more like an inevitable war of the gods that Devin can't do anything about. The choices develop his character in a way but it feels like we've only seen a glimpse of that in this book. Perhaps, the sequels will show more of his side, and how he learns from using magic. Even Nazterrack's words near the end ring true: "Devin, my friend, sometimes magic isn't about being correct. Sometimes, it's about being the best version of wrong."
Overall, Avantae: Rise of Rouhn is an adventurous fantasy novel with epic battles, a sophisticated magic system, and a horrifying villain that drives its plot-driven story. The first book of Avantae may have answered some mysteries by its last chapter but there are clearly more unsolved ones that the sequels will most likely answer. Kelly knows how to craft an action-packed tale, build his fantasy world, and create his magic system so we know that the author has a strong vision for the entire trilogy, so if you enjoy reading fantasy novels like Eragon or Harry Potter, you'll probably enjoy Avantae: Rise of Rouhn.