Published in 2017, I thought Dark Oak by Jacob Sannox was an amazing achievement as his debut novel. The initial premise centres on what happens when the Dark Lord, Awgren, is defeated after ruling his subjects for a thousand years. This gives Sannox the opportunity to tell a story set in the confusing and chaotic aftermath of Awgren’s fall. Dark Oak initially focusses on the alliance of nobles who conquered Awgren, led by Queen Cathryn. No longer united by a common enemy, their conflicting personal ambitions soon come to the fore, risking plunging their land into war once more.
The character of Morrick, his wife Rowan and their children show the terrible impact of this conflict on ordinary people. Conscripted to fight for Awgren, Morrick finds himself an outcast, branded a traitor by the conquering nobles and unable to trust Awgren’s surviving forces either.
All this would be interesting enough but, for much of the book, Sannox seems to be telling two tales. Deep in the forest the Dryads, the living spirits of trees, rule their own domain. Sannox does a great job of telling their story from the perspective of their king, Riark, establishing them as being completely different from the human race, even though there is a connection between the two.
Alongside the Dryads we encounter Naiads, Sylphs and Oreads (spirits of the water, air and earth respectively). This realm of nature is brilliantly brought to life and is one of the things that makes this work so distinctive. This other world is slowly brought into conflict with the squabbles of Cathryn’s nobles, triggering a chain of events that drives the narrative in the second half of the book.
Although the world Sannox conjures is well-constructed and fascinating, the story itself is a dark one. We see human nature at its worst and the characters find themselves put in impossible positions, where there are only bad choices. Not all the characters are likeable, particularly the flawed (and often drunk) Queen Cathryn, who is very different to the public image she likes to portray to her people. Rowan similarly has weaknesses, making Morrick’s love for her infuriating and believable in equal measure.
Sannox doesn’t flinch from hurting his characters and the madness and irrationality of grief is a theme he builds on as the novel progresses. The unequal struggle between mankind and nature is another important aspect, shining a light on how we’re treating our own world.
There are times when you can tell this is a debut novel and if I have one criticism it’s the pacing, particularly at the beginning where a lot time is spent establishing the characters and the situation they are in. The chaos of Awgren’s fall seems to be replicated in the early plot, making it hard for the reader to tell at first what is going on and what the story is about.
To his credit, Sannox doesn’t shy away from realism and difficult themes, avoiding the temptation to present us with a conveniently plotted tale. Instead, he keeps his readers on their toes and I found the premise and setting were so fascinating I always wanted to read more. Sannox’s voice as an author grows stronger and more confident as Dark Oak unfolds. The way he describes scenes and the imagery created by his prose are real highlights. The final quarter is brilliant, taking the story in a direction I could never have predicted. I wish I could say more about the breathtaking twists and turns in this book but that would get us into spoiler territory, and you really don’t want me to ruin the ending for you.
You know it’s a good book when you can’t put it down because you need to know how it ends and it stays with you long after you’ve finished. Although not without its shortcomings, the good qualities of Dark Oak far outweigh any weaknesses and with its epic scope, unique world-building, thought-provoking themes and masterclass ending, this was a solid five star read for me. Thoroughly recommended.