Book Review: Haelend’s Ballad by Ian V. Conrey

This book review of Haelend’s Ballad by Ian V. Conrey is much delayed, but I want it to do the book justice. Haelend’s Ballad is a hefty book, one that took me a while to finish. (Not only because of its length, though). Despite that, the time spent with every character was more than worth it. I will certainly miss many of them and let me tell you; I can’t believe this is Conrey’s debut novel. Haelend’s Ballad is truly good. It wouldn’t surprise me if it ended up being a fantasy classic some decades from now.

(Review contains spoilers.)

Book review of Haelend's Ballad by Ian V. Conrey

Haelend's Ballad 3D Mockup
Haelend’s Ballad official cover art

Summary: Arnon joins the resistance forming against the Daecish government in a region called Sunder. That’s where he meets Adelyne, a girl with a haunting past of abuse who is trying to do what’s right among the militia. But in Daecland, a young mother loses her child… and he’s nothing but what the ballads call “Sunder’s Bane.” His judgment will know no borders and no distinctions based on beliefs, gender, or factions.

Genre: Steampunk/Grimdark Fantasy

Audience: Adult

Themes/potential trigger warnings: gore, violence, abuse, mentions of rape, child neglect

Rating Breakdown

I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review. Thank you, Ian, for this opportunity!

Rating breakdown:

  • World-building: 1★
  • Characters (cast & development): 0.5★
  • Plot (pacing, stakes, and execution): 1★
  • Themes: 0.5★
  • Prose: 1★

Final rating: 4

The World-Building

With fantasy books, it’s pretty common to lament a certain slow pace at the beginning. But I don’t feel like Haelend’s Ballad contained too much exposure. The beginning of the book will describe places and characters, the machinery and the knowledge found in Daecland. This is necessary as the country is far ahead, compared to Sunder, which they control despite the differences in culture and people’s looks. I thought the world-building was clever in the sense that the author doesn’t go through lengthy paragraphs to talk about the trees and whatnot. He will mention lenses or steam or scientific progress when a character is not used to it… or afraid of it!

The world of Haelend’s Ballad reminded me of Piltover for those of you who have watched Arcane, but with a clear Victorian feel, mixed with elements found in Victor Hugo’s novels.

The Characters

What I loved about this book was the multi-POV. It’s a turnoff for many readers nowadays, but I reckon fans of classic fantasy will love it. Conrey’s cast is so huge that it’s impossible for you not to find someone you truly enjoy following in their adventures. I absolutely loved Eilívur, Hrunting, Geirleif (or at least his antics), to name a few. Every character talks in their own way, has their own mannerisms and obsessions. Even those I couldn’t connect with, such as Eirún, had their good moments. The cast of this book is fully three-dimensional, and I think it’s fantastic how they all come from different places but end up in the same web of events.

Now, there are a few things I didn’t enjoy about some characters. It’s important to note that in Haelend’s Ballad‘s world, gender roles are predominant. The men lead, kill, and get killed. The women take care of other women or children, and they’re always the victims of some abuse. I’m surprised there’s not one character that sticks out and doesn’t follow that pattern. At first, I thought Adelyne would be that character because she was really active for the Dark Horses. But once she completed her task, she joined the other women and moped for the rest of the book.

Gender roles or not, there’s one thing men and women have in common, and it’s just how easily they succumb to either depression or suicide ideation. Whether it’s about something important or trivial, the characters are extremely dramatic, no matter how old they are. For example, I saw a pattern with Arnon, Adelyne, and Eirún. The moment things could look grim, they don’t have any problem thinking that maybe dying would be better. And I can understand that everyone’s got their fair share of trauma, but all three protagonists with a similar train of thoughts?

The Plot

Summarizing Haelend’s Ballad‘s plot can be tricky. This is a story featuring so many POVs that one could put more emphasis on the conflict between Daecland and Sunder or on the prophecy about Sunder’s Bane. But I think what’s truly at stake here is how the characters, who either believe in a cause or a god, can see past that. How they can remain true to themselves. I knew from the beginning that this wouldn’t end prettily because it’s impossible for them to see the bigger picture among so much chaos. However, the ride was entertaining.

In fact, I didn’t know what would happen to Eirún until the very end. There are twists I didn’t see coming, such as Hrunting’s capture or what Egbert did to his caretaker. While this novel is long, I think it works. There’s one promise at the beginning, and it’s Haelend’s Ballad coming to life. And it does.

The Themes

This book is very religion-driven, but not in a way that makes you push it away. As a non-religious person, I had no problem reading it. Some characters are very much into it and will explain in great detail why they are. However, it happens within a clear context that serves the plot.

I think what I like, although it also upsets me, is the trauma depiction. In particular, Adelyne’s. Her father was a complete waste of space who raped her when she was small. And later on, she finds the same form of abuse around Fletcher, another waste of space who makes money out of prostitutes. Adelyne is the definition of the whole: “victims always find abusers because it’s all they know.” But I think what upset me the most was that Adelyne was so adamant in thinking she loved Arnon, and she spends so much time around Sarah, who is the only pool of common sense in this book sometimes, and yet… She can’t trust either of them.

Adelyne doesn’t take Sarah’s advice. She cannot trust the son of a hunter to bring her food. She can’t even wait for him for two weeks in times of war. I felt her relapses into prostitution were too fast, too back-to-back, and instead of making me feel bad for her, it made me eye-roll.

The Prose

Ian V. Conrey’s writing style is mature and poised, but also accessible. There’s a tendency to use the passive voice in action scenes, which I appreciated. Often, authors think a scene is more gripping and immersive in the active voice, but the passive one puts a lot more emphasis on the action instead of the person performing that action. Sometimes, the author repeats an idea or a feeling he already mentioned in a previous paragraph, but I noticed it happened mostly in Arnon’s POV or Adelyne’s. Considering they’re both very young, it makes sense for them to be repetitive.

The writing flowed very well overall, and it astounds me to know that this is Conrey’s debut. He writes like someone who’s been publishing for years now.

Haelend’s Ballad is a book I definitely recommend to fans of classic fantasy.