Author: Mariely Lares
Series: Sun of Blood and Ruin (Book 1)
Released: 2023-09-28
Publisher: Harper Voyager

I want this review to be fair, so I’ll say that Lares is a good writer. Why any editor would do her so wrong and let her release this book as-is, though, is beyond me. This should have been two books…not for length, but for content. The first and second halves are wildly different stories and shouldn’t even be in the same series.

Enter the concept of the “Absurdity Point,” which is the established level of disbelief an audience needs to suspend to comfortably engage with a novel. This means how magical your world is, how bulletproof your spy is, or how unfathomably advanced your technology is. Readers decide your book’s Absurdity Point early on, based on the world you build in the first few chapters, and use it to build a framework of your story as it progresses. This is the ruler they use to theorize what will happen, or to decide whether they feel your character is truly in danger and worth the tension.

If you want an explosively mystical final battle, you need to either have a suitably magical beginning or to start with a not-very magical beginning and constantly push up the Absurdity Point with incremental magical growth. You can’t have a sort-of mystical first half then end with a massive magical revelation with no build-up, or you risk having an ending that feels like it came out of nowhere and doesn’t resonate.

Whether intentional or not, the first half of Sun of Blood and Ruin reads like a historical fiction with some magical realism. The protagonist spends a lot of time engaged in politics and courtly romance, and it’s many pages of history lessons as tensions build between the conquering Spaniards and the indigenous peoples. This in and of itself should have been its own story.

Lares paints a very vivid picture of the struggles native people suffered under Spanish rule, and the mounting tensions between her brother the Viceroy and her own mother’s indigenous people is engaging. While there are some technical problems, the world she paints is lush and vibrant. Had she stopped there and put much more of a focus on the protagonist’s alter ego as the masked Pantera, perhaps finishing off with an epic sword battle with the nefarious Captain Nabarres, this would have been a 4.5 star story (with only 1/2 star taken off for readability, which I’ll touch on later).

Although billed as a female Zorro reimagining, the book fails to deliver on its main promise. Leonora’s outings as the masked hero Pantera are few and far between, leaving a drier historical fiction. Some reviews reflect that readers felt lied to, and so they didn’t finish the book.

The second half of the book switches from mild magical realism to a full-on fantasy world, in a jarring shift that’s unpleasant rather than fascinating. Again, Lares creates a world of myth and magic that would stand on its own, but this extremely fantastical ending is much more fitting for a suitably fantastical first half.

The ultimate problem with shoehorning two different stories into one book is that there’s not enough real estate to properly tell them both, and so Lares doesn’t properly tell either. Some interactions, which ostensibly should have taken at least a few pages and possibly been plot points of their own, are barely summed up in a few paragraphs and feel like the reader is being rushed along. Not enough time is dedicated to the third act setting or characters that usher Leonora toward the ending, leaving very few reasons for a reader to be invested. There’s also the writing itself…in some places, Lares paints a picture with lovely prose. In others, readers are treated to pages of history or pages of dialogue, and rarely are the two neatly mixed.

To be honest, I only finished because I insisted on powering through, certain the wonderful book I’d spent 200+ pages immersed in would end with Pantera defeating Nabarres. Instead, I got a fumbled rush of one nonsensical event after another that left a bad taste in my mouth. I’m giving Sun of Blood and Ruin three stars for the beginning 3/5 of the book that were good, although sorely lacking in its female Zorro promise.

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