SPFBO Review: We Ride the Storm by Devin Madsen

The SPFBO contest is over and done, but I still have quite a number of finalists to read and review. Good thing I wasn’t affiliated with the contest or I’d be quite late! The latest finalist that I read, We Ride the Storm by Devin Madsen, ended up tied for second, which was well deserved in my opinion. I have not yet read the winner — I’ve been reading the finalists in the reverse order of the placements as they stood when, on a whim, I decided to do these reviews — but I would not have been surprised if We Ride the Storm had ended up taking home the grand prize. Storm is an incredibly professional and well-crafted story, worthy of all the praise it has gotten so far.

I suppose I should add the disclaimer that I have interacted with Devin a lot online and think she is an awesome person. I still want to be objective as possible when writing this review, but I admit it was a fear of mine — what if I read the book and didn’t like it? I’ve heard it described as grimdark, not necessarily my preferred genre. And yes, there is a lot of violence and tragedy in this book. In fact, the opening paragraphs depict a graphic description of a beheading, setting the tone for precisely what kind of book we can expect here. But I need not have worried about not liking it. This book kept me thoroughly engrossed from page one.

We Ride the Storm switches between the first-person POVs of three main characters. Rah e’Torin is an exiled member of a nomadic culture, simply trying to do the right thing for his people. Cassandra is a prostitute-turned-con-artist-assassin who longs to be free of the mysterious (and often annoying) voice in her head. And Princess Miko is the possibly-illegitimate daughter of a possibly-illegitimate emperor who wishes both to clam the power denied her by socity’s strict gender roles and also protect her country from the brink of war.

These points of view seem disparate at first, but they all come together in ways that are beautiful and tragic. We Ride the Storm is not a happy story, and all of the main characters suffer greatly throughout the course of the novel. But Madsen does an excellent job making me care about them, making me root desperately for them to find some measure of happiness despite the odds.

What few complaints I did have about this book were extremely minor. I raised my eyebrows, just a little, at the fact that Fantasy Italy, Fantasy Japan, and Fantasy Mongolia are all apparently right next to each other. Not saying it’s not possible, but I’m curious as to the cultural and geographical happenstance that led to that outcome. Also, this is absolutely just a personal preference thing, but I generally prefer more fantasy in my fantasy. This read far more like alternate history or historical fiction, albeit playing fast and loose with actual history. The only things I can think of that were actually fantastical were Cassandra’s “demon” and the fact that in Rah’s homeland, apparently, there are two moons, while in the rest of the world there is only one. I would have very much liked to read more about the “why” of either of these things, but as they are not the main point of the story, they are never really explored.

Cassandra’s demon is an interesting character/phenomenon I would have liked to learn more about. Sometimes, in her POVs, I got the impression I was reading about the demon complaining about Cassandra and not the other way around. Which one is the “real” Cassandra? It’s an interesting idea and I hope the sequels explore it more. I might have almost thought that Cassandra suffered from a more mundane mental illness like schizophrenia or multiple personality disorder, except that the demon really is tied to supernatural happenings later on. But, as River from Doctor Who is fond of saying, spoilers!

Overall I really enjoyed this book and eagerly await the sequel. However, fortunately for Devin but unfortunately for us impatient fans, Storm and the sequels have been picked up by a traditional publisher, meaning we might have to wait a bit for the next one. However, I have no doubt that the final product will be well worth the wait.

People who will like this book:

  • Fans of character-driven fantasy
  • Those who like complicated political scheming
  • Grimdark fans who are unafraid to read about violence and gore

People who may wish to look elsewhere:

  • Those in the mood for a feelgood comfort read
  • People who prefer more magic in their fantasy

R/Fantasy Bingo Squares

  • Self-Published (debatable. Storm has been picked up by a traditional publisher but is not out yet. I am not Bingo God, however, I argue if you read the self-published version, it should count for this square.)
  • Australian author (hard mode, but with the above caveat)
  • Twins