Legacy of the Brightwash (the first book in the Tainted Dominion series) is an extraordinary debut fantasy novel by the talented author Krystle Matar. A book that defies easy classification, this gaslamp fantasy is set in a world reminiscent of North America around the 1880s. This is a rapidly changing world with railways, trams, guns and industry, powered using the magical abilities of the ‘Talented’ (or ‘Tainted’ as those in power prefer to call them). The Dominion has harnessed the powers of the Talented to build their new country, regulating these people through strict laws to control their lives. The status quo seems to be working for everybody, until the mutilated body of a tattooed young girl washes up on the banks of the Brightwash.
When reading Legacy I found myself thinking of ‘slice of life’ type books. It would be wrong to say there isn’t a plot but this is primarily a character driven tale. These people, with all their flaws, take centre stage as we gradually learn more about them though their day to day lives. There are several point of view characters but the majority of Legacy concentrates on Tashué Blackwood, a loyal Regulation Officer working for the National Tainted Registration Authority in the city of Yaelsmuir. The Authority control the Tainted in the Dominion and Tashué finds himself questioning his chosen profession as he learns more about his employer.
Tashué’s perspective changes partly as a result of his slow burn romance with Stella Whiterock, his duties to monitor her as someone who is Talented coming into conflict with their growing feelings for each other. It would be an understatement to say this aspect of the book builds slowly. In fact, if you look up the words ‘longing’ and ‘yearning’ in the Oxford English Dictionary, you’ll find Legacy is the first example quoted. The romantic elements are a cornerstone of this book, skilfully written and a welcome counterbalance to Legacy’s darker themes.
The world building is excellent. Despite this being a 650 page novel I actually wanted more of this in the story. There’s a detailed history to the formation of the Dominion, giving the novel a powerful sense of place, although we only get glimpses of how this nation came into being. The world is further cemented in the reader’s imagination through careful attention to detail – how people dress, what they like to eat, the various cultures living together in Yaelsmuir and in the wider Dominion. All of this is brought to life with Matar’s beautiful prose, drawing you in and painting this picture in your mind. This is a real labour of love.
Despite its obvious strengths, and there are many, this book won’t be for everybody. The pacing is slow, Matar deliberately taking her time with each of these wonderful characters. The dark subject matter, whilst deftly handled, will also be an issue for some. In no particular order we are faced with violence and murder (including scenes where this is inflicted upon children), the oppression and ill-treatment of people of different cultures, the eradication of cultural identity and institutionalised rape. Unsurprisingly, there are places where this novel is a tough read. This is where Matar’s characters shine as they battle to survive in what is ultimately a horrifying dystopian world. It’s those wonderfully crafted themes of love, friendship and family running through Legacy which give the reader something to really care about.
Legacy perfectly captures how often humanity demonstrates the best and worst of itself at the same time. As we learn more about the treatment of the Talented, I was reminded how history is full of examples where those who are different are oppressed. From that perspective, Legacy is an uneasy read, at times feeling all too plausible despite its fantasy setting.
I was also frustrated at how slow Tashué was to realise all was not well in the Dominion (he’s been working for the Authority for nineteen years (nineteen years!)). Even when the laws he holds so dear put his own son in prison he’s still convinced he’s done the right thing. However, there’s truth in how this aspect is handled by Matar. So often we only see what we want to see and we’re adept at ignoring inconvenient truths, until they’re thrust right in our faces. Or wash up on the banks of the Brightwash.
I don’t normally mention whether I’m reviewing an indie or trad book. However, in this case I think it’s relevant because I don’t believe Legacy would ever have emerged from the traditional publication route, at least not in its current format. It’s a complex and rewarding novel that’s comfortable in its own skin, combining elements of modern fantasy, westerns, gaslamp, steampunk, film noir, romance and grimdark. I can think of no comparable title and that’s the wonder of indie publishing.
Tashué and his companions stay with you, long after you’ve turned the final page, which for me is always the ultimate test of a good book. Trust me when I say Legacy of the Brightwash is a fantastic novel and you should pick up a copy without delay.