[Review] A Tribute at the Gates – CJ Aaron

A Tribute at the Gates - CJ Aaron

Well, well.  Something different yet again?

One of the things that I think a lot of people don’t really ‘get’ is exactly how important reviews are, especially to independent authors!  If a book has no reviews, regardless of how many sales that author has made, that book will be viewed poorly. As such, one of the goals that I’ve made for the new year/the future is to start seeking out books from independent authors or small publishers, which have few reviews to their name, and dig into them 🙂

If you have suggestions as to candidates, of course, please let me know!  I won’t be accepting titles from people I know, or from contests I’ve been involved in, for the sake of neutrality.  Just as a disclaimer!

Now!  With this in mind, this morning I read the first book for this goal, and so here’s my first entry into this.

Note: I’m going to do my damndest to avoid spoilers, for any of you who may want to read this – and I do recommend it, it was a fun, engaging read!

A Tribute at the Gates – by CJ Aaron

Tribute at the Gates starts readers off with a dark, foreboding premise.  Certain individuals carry a compound in their blood, alexen, which can be distilled down through an unknown process – implied at the cost of the person’s life – and made into an elixir which grants longevity to the drinker.  The kingdom in question issued a decree stating that all children are to be tested, and the children found with this compound are separated from their families, the rights to their blood auctioned off to a noble family, and are raised as slave labor until they’ve matured enough for the ‘Harvest’.

The book follows Ryl, a young man whose blood contains a particularly special compound.  Where other ‘Tributes’ contain passive quantities of alexen, his is ‘active’. This is something which hasn’t been seen in ages, and makes him quite rare.  In fact, the researchers for the nation know little to nothing about his particular blend of alexen and how it will behave.

The premise of the book, then, is fairly straightforward.  With his Harvest impending, Ryl slowly begins to awaken to his own powers and come into his own, all while the brutality of their captors ramps up and tensions between the guards and him increases.  With his newfound powers in hand, albeit covertly, Ryl sets out to find a way for him and his fellows to escape the Harvest – and survive the situation they’re in.

I have a bit of a hard time reading, of late, partially because I’ve spent so long proofreading and critiquing people’s stories around the community.  As such, I’ve found I really have a difficult time getting into a book if there’s too much wrong grammar-wise for me to stumble over.

I was pleasantly surprised, then, that Tribute flowed very nicely, and was by and large very well structured for an independent novel.  It wasn’t perfect – I think that some of the dialogue could have been touched up with some added commas, and there were many instances of using commas where question marks would have been more appropriate, but it wasn’t an imposition to me reading!  So, that was immediately a huge mark in this book’s favor.

Now.  There were a few things that I thought this book did really, really well.

Ryl as a character was very relatable to me, and behaved by and large very understandably.  I enjoyed the relationships that he had with the other tributes, and I thought that his motivations were one of the stronger parts of the story.  The will to survive is always going to be strong, and the author did a very nice job of making the reader feel constrained, closed in by a fate out of the character’s control.  It was pretty clear that Ryl was going to be the ‘Chosen One’ of this novel/series, given the setup, but I’d say that there’s definitely still a line of interest there for the reader to find out what happens to him and his friends.

Possibly the thing I liked best about this book, though, was the ability that the author had to create tension and strain on the reader.  It’s a sign that I’m well-immersed in a book when I’m getting physically anxious reading it, and that was something that definitely held true here.  Aaron did an excellent job of carrying the line of tension throughout the book, building upon it to heighten the moods around even of the book’s events and action scenes.  The immersion and emotions in this book were done very well, which is huge for me 🙂

With that said, there were some areas that could be worked on and improved upon, in my opinion.  In particular, there were three main areas that I’ll discuss here.

Starting at about 15-20% of the way through the book, and running to about 30-35% of the way through the book, there was a lengthy scene of exposition and conversation between Ryl and a side character, where the magic system and history of the world was rather matter-of-factly laid out.  This side character then leaves, not to be seen again in this book, and most of what is discussed isn’t really…relevant. At least, not in the content covered in the first book. I can see its importance, in that it establishes where Ryl’s powers are progressing to, but I feel it was clumsily handled.  I found myself skimming, to the point I nearly DNF’d the book, but decided to keep going and see if the story picked back up. It did, and I’m glad I kept going, but that was a substantial issue in my eyes.

The second issue that I had is much, much more minor.  There were a few sections where characters would behave inconsistently – Ryl asked the aforementioned side character why he was sitting by and letting the tribute system stand, for example, upon which the character exploded on him to not accuse him of complacency.  The next paragraph, the side character informed Ryl that with powers like theirs, they had to be careful to always remain in control of their emotions. With no apparent signs he was aware of the irony.

There were a few other cases, like Ryl commenting he was glad to be going to a different village because it would be less brutal than being under their Master’s thumb – only to be savagely beaten upon entering.  Much, much later, he asked another tribute what was happening, since the village was supposedly more friendly to them, but up until that point, he never expressed shock or surprise that things weren’t as he’d previously expected.  So on and so forth.

Overall, these inconsistencies were just a passing matter, and unimportant to the actual story.  Simply something that stood out to me, and was a bit jarring while I was reading!

The third issue is something rather more worrisome for me, and does have some impact on how I feel about the first book, even while it doesn’t have any impact on the main storyline.

Through the first book, one of the main antagonists is the master of the compound.  He’s taken a grudge against Ryl in particular, in large part because of the negative attentions from the royalty that have been brought down on the tribute system due to actions Ryl takes.  He seems to blame Ryl personally for this watchful eye being placed on him, and responds with increased violence against Ryl, up to and including assassination attempts.

To me, this frankly didn’t make a lot of sense.  Harming Ryl, as one of the most potent bearers of alexen in the kingdom, would be a death sentence – this is explicitly stated, in fact.  And yet, the Master seemingly doesn’t care? His soldiers are overheard saying to “make it seem like an accident”, sure, but that doesn’t seem like it’d hold water for long.  By and large, this character seemed like a caricature of a villain, without proper development given to motivations.

Now – like I said, in the end, that character really doesn’t affect the main storyline.  It’s more of a passing thing, especially given how the end of the book plays out. It did make me withdraw from the story at points, where something seemed particularly unreasonable, but it didn’t ruin the story as a whole.

So, where does this leave us?

On the whole, I found Tribute to be a fun, engaging read.  Be forewarned. It’s a very, very dark book.  There are some fairly explicit scenes of abuse and violence, and it includes sensitive matters like rape, although not as explicitly depicted.  The characters are young, and it’s definitely a coming of age novel, but it’s not a young adult novel in my eyes.

With that said – I know I’ve listed off flaws here, and it might seem like I’m piling on, but I was serious when I said there were things that this book did really well!  I found the storyline to be a fun, interesting take on an old, familiar storyline. I don’t think it broke out of the mold, but it did a very solid job of telling the story in a way that was enjoyable and catching.  This is only the first book in a series, and the story feeds directly into a hook for book 2. Be aware of that!

Would I recommend this story to you:  Yes, to those of you who enjoy dark fantasy novels.

Will I be reading the next book in the series:  Yes!  My comments on flaws aside, I found the world to be an interesting one, and I’m very interested in seeing where the author takes it.

My overall rating: 3.5/5

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