Master of Sorrows, Justin Call

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Every master has an apprenticeship

Among the Academy’s warrior-thieves, Annev de Breth is an outlier. Unlike his classmates who were stolen as infants from the capital city, Annev was born in the small village of Chaenbalu, was believed to be executed, and then unknowingly raised by his parents’ killers. Seventeen years later, Annev struggles with the burdens of a forbidden magic, a forgotten heritage, and a secret deformity.

* *
2 / 5

The premise of Master of Sorrows was intriguing: a boy missing an arm in a world where those with physical scars and “deformities” are presumed to be worshipers of the dark god, with forbidden magic and a secret quest. But mostly I picked it up because I read a review that compared it to The Poppy War. The Poppy War was a dark, compelling, haunting and disturbing masterpiece. It literally haunts me sometimes. Master of Sorrows was nothing like The Poppy War.

Why had he gambled the certainty of his future happiness on the faint chance that Tosun would allow all three of them to pass?

Far from being a dark, sordid tale of a descent into dark magics and a walk along the confusing and tormenting line of morality, Master of Sorrows reads like a “dark book” for a much younger reader. The main character, Annev, is very driven by friendship and loyalty and love to an extent that it is kind of comical. Annev belongs to an order of religious Masters who live in secrecy and are devoted to stealing and sealing away magical artefacts, which they consider to be tools of the dark god.

Annev’s dream is to become a Master and to do so he must pass a trial. There has been one trial a month for the past year, and he has failed every single one. Not out of lack of skill, but because he deliberately sabotages his own attempts to help his friends (even though only one person can pass each trial!!). One of his friends has no desire at all to become a Master and the other is devoid of any of the necessary skills. Yet Annev deliberately sabotages his own dream to “help” his friends. It’s absurd! It’s infuriating! It reads like a child’s morality tale and it made me want to throw the book (not literally, I listened to the audiobook) out the window.

Great mischief comes from giving gifts

I had zero sympathy for Annev. He refuses to play by the rules and then cries when it turns out he hasn’t found a clever loophole. He rejects the cautions of his mentor, an elderly and wise priest, because Annev knows best and Annev wants to be a Master even though they will literally stone him to death if they find out he has a magic prosthetic arm. Annev wants to marry a girl who literally spews hate about “cripples” and is surprised (Pikachu face) when she is disgusted by him. This boy is a literal moron. Zero sympathy for all his crying fests.

Beyond my inability to find a single thing to like about the protagonist, the plot itself is weird and slow moving. The chapters are interspersed with long, boring recants of myths and sermons. It’s like the author has created a genuinely interesting and cool world and wants to tell you every single thing about it and so crams it all in and thus the book is way longer than necessary and reads very slowly.

I liked some aspects of the book. I enjoyed reading about the trials and the interesting challenges the boys were set – it was like reading a mishmash of some of my favourite childhood books (like Ranger’s Apprentice!) when I really wanted to be a knight or a dragon rider or something. I liked Annev’s friend, Titus, and I was intrigued by the whole purpose and structure of the town of Chaenbalu. But mostly I was just bored and annoyed.

Master of Sorrows could make, with a toning down of violence and a removal of a lot of the excess writing, a great book aimed at ten to twelve year olds. I am surprised to see so many high ratings on Goodreads, but I am glad that others have enjoyed it even when I have not.

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