A Handful of Souls (The Split Sea #1) by Stephen Rice
Mud, gold and lies. That’s all you get in Branera.
OH HECK YES THIS BOOK. DARK, BRUTAL, FAMILY-FOCUSED FANTASY.
Okay, to properly ramble about this book, there might be spoilers from here on out. So, SPOILER WARNING.
This is my first read by Stephen Rice and I must say I’m in awe of the prose. So many well spun lines! Like, I just really adored the descriptions and details. So many were so visceral (which is a compliment for a dark fantasy book in my opinion, but my goodness the BLOODY TEETH and the YELLOW GLOWING GUNK and aught else. I won’t clarify further, lmao. This is a fantasy book that doesn’t shy away from the brutal and rough). Despite how grimy and grim the setting was, I could so clearly envision the world and sank into the story easily. The writing is never info-dumpy, nor did it ever get in the way of the plot, but it twists and dives, offering wonderful turns of phrase. Rice’s prose is very descriptive, almost lyrical, even when describing the horrors of the dark world he’s laying out for the reader to devour.
Branera was the proudest, richest city in the Northlands, even if half of it was buried in rivers of mud and shit. The buildings that rose high enough were blessed by the greatest of the northern aristocracy, with boarded paths threading between these affluent peaks and reserved for the exclusive use of the fantastically well-off.
The story follows multiple POVs, but all centred around the Kale-Tollworth family. You follow Husker, Lily, Lark, Rose, Josef, Dren and Crone through the dark and twisting roads of Branera, to the Split Sea, and beyond. The cities and lands have as much life and character as the cast.
That said, Lily stood out to me from the start and her chapters swept me up into the narrative. While she might not look like Max from Black Sails, I couldn’t help but imagine her thus in my head. Can’t explain it!
She was magnificent. Half-baroness, half-beggar. A bit of everything he had ever wanted.
I loved Lily’s character instantly. She was prickly and opiniated and hard-headed, but loyal and determined and I just really rooted for her throughout. Rose, her sister, I was a little bit hesitant about, but following her chapters was very interesting and she juxtaposed Lily nicely. And, I must say, she grew on me and I was rooting hard for the sisters to sort things out.
POOR LARK, though. (Their brother.) Like, poor all of them really, but POOR LARK. I just felt so bad for him. Like, all the time. PROTECT LARK AT ALL COSTS. I don’t think it’s a big spoiler to say Lark dies (it’s on the back cover), and bless his little heart, he just has a rough go of things from start to finish. I really appreciated the final scene cos bless his wee little heart.
Husker and Dren I also felt bad for. Honestly, I just spent pretty much the entire story feeling bad for all the characters and the hardships that they have to, somehow, surmount. I felt SO BAD for some of them at the end, so I really can’t wait to see how it shapes up in the next book and how all the trauma is resolved and the relationships mended.
Despite the grimdark nature of the book, the writing is never too heavy or the moments too bleak for it to be overwhelming. I felt a spark of hope throughout and this wasn’t diminished by the ending (HUZZAH!). I just kept wanting to know what was going to happen to everyone and if they could possibly be all reunited and healed
after all the gunk. So much gunk.
Something I found really quite cool about this story was how unlike so many other fantasy reads it is. Like, it’s grimdark family drama in a world that brought to mind everything from Westeros to Ketterdam. Now that I think about it, I reckon this book would nicely suit fans of A Song of Ice and Fire and The Bone Season. I have also barely dipped my toes in The Wheel of Time and Shadow and Bone book series at this point, but I did enjoy the shows, and I think fans of those would enjoy this! There’s a motely cast of characters and you care for them all despite their edges, and the family relationships are so wonderfully threaded together.
Excited to see where book two takes the Kale-Tollworth family!
Thank you to the author for a review copy.