Hand of Chaos by J. Hamlet

Anna Wei, a mage, works for the NSA division that handles magical incidents. The forces of Hell sponsor the CIA, the forces of Heaven sponsor the DoD, and the NSA is caught in the middle, serving Chaos and making sure neither side prevails. What’s already a complicated situation gets worse when a rogue necromancer sponsored by Plague goes on a killing spree as part of a catastrophic ritual.

This setting covers familiar ground, but the author does a good job of putting a spin on it that makes for an engaging world. None of the factions are caricatures, the component-based magic is interesting, and the story arc is spot on. That said, the author spent too much time explaining the world, and individual scenes fell victim to an excess of flowery language. Even so, the book was a much better ride than I expected.

Angels, demons, and wars between them have been overdone, but this book thankfully puts an entertaining spin on things that held my attention. In this, the forces of Hell are as often disenfranchised outsiders as psychopaths, and the forces of Heaven tend to be too sure of themselves, even when that leads to atrocities. The people serving Chaos comprise a somewhat sane middle ground.

More importantly, it’s a cold war. There have been eras when one side or the other was riding high, but neither has ultimately prevailed. The fact that things never become an all-out war does a lot to keep the setting interesting. In addition, the members of all three factions have good reasons for doing what they are. I never felt a character was evil just to be evil. Everyone has, if not good reasons, then at least understandable ones for what they do. The main antagonist is almost a sympathetic character, even though he’s also a ruthless killer.

The magic system was a pleasure to read. First, it’s component based, but the author really understood how to communicate that system in an enjoyable manner. I haven’t read a magic system that I could feel running through my fingertips like this one in a while. Second, each school of magic requires certain mental states to be cast. Light magic requires overbearing confidence, fire requires rage, earth requires Zen-like calm and patience. Together, this makes for well-textured magical battles.

The story arc never surprised me, but it was a well-oiled machine that did what it needed to. It’s a pretty straightforward thriller that shifts between the villain and the people trying to stop him, but each rise in the action happened exactly when it needed to, and the conclusion neatly wrapped up all of the threads. It made sense. And, most importantly, the author resisted the urge to cut off in the middle of things and promise the conclusion in another book. In the land of self-publishing, a decent number of books don’t contain an entire plot, just the first half or third of it. Thankfully, this author understands how to finish a story well and set up the next one.

All of that said, the strength of the setting is also a weakness. The author spends a lot of time going into details about the world that, although interesting, aren’t necessary to the plot and clutter up the book. I’d find myself getting tired halfway through a chapter because of these asides, although they were interesting enough to keep me from going into full on skim mode.

The author also has a bad habit of using too much flowery language to describe things. Any given page might have a wonderful description, but there would be two others that, when taken together, made the whole thing a bit over the top. In addition, there were scenes were too much time got spent describing each part of the action at length, which bogged down what was otherwise a well-paced brawl.

Both of these problems are solvable, but if the author doesn’t address them in future books, the series will rapidly wear out its welcome. For this first novel, though, these issues didn’t take away too much from my enjoyment. I didn’t expect to enjoy this novel nearly as much as I did, which was quite the pleasant surprise.

If you want a good fantasy thriller/suspense novel with an interest take on what could have been overused themes, this is one for you. I give it a 4/5.

You can pick up a copy from Amazon.