Nicholas Prata,
(Arx, 2000)

In this gruesomely brilliant work of military fantasy, Livios Rapax is the 14-year-old son of a hardworking farmer, Daedilos Rapax. Livios's mother is deceased, but Daedilos has done his best as a father, and Livios and Daedilos love and respect one another. By the way, Livios, at 14, is almost two meters tall (and the characters in the fictional one-continent world of Pangaea are regular human beings), and he is as strong as one might expect from the son of a hardworking farmer.

An older local girl, Vara, already actively building a bad reputation, begins flirting with Livios. Daedilos warns his son to avoid her, and Livious readily agrees. Vara corners Livious in the barn one day, tempts him blatantly, and he surrenders guiltily. Daedilos catches them, Vara flees, Daedilos lectures his towering son, and Livios initially cowers, then becomes enraged. He punches his beloved father once -- and Daedilos is killed. In a fit of despair and grief, Livios sets the barn ablaze, hoping to die beside his father. Livios's friend, Felix, sees the smoke, drags his near-catatonic friend to safety, and coerces and prods Livios to go on the lam.

Felix takes the dazed, grief-stricken Livios into hiding, and eventually has to kill a local sheriff to protect them both. Now, both boys are wanted men. Until they get captured by the notorious landeskneckos or Black Legion, renowned as the world's cruelest, most effective and most feared soldiers. Would Felix and Livios survive the training, where as many as 95 of every 100 "recruits" do not?

Livios, while illiterate, proves to be as bright and agile as he is big and strong, and he immediately begins impressing people, attracting rivals and even enemies. Upon graduation, Livios assumes a new name -- Kerebos, after the three-headed hound who guards the gates of Hell -- and replaces his sergeant, whom he has bested in combat.

Thus begins Livios's meteoric rise through the ranks of the Black Legion. The ingredients of his success are his size, intelligence and skill, a touch of luck and the patronage and tutelage of a brilliant officer, Lasctakos. Along the way, Kerebos makes many friends and, despite hating the brutality of the Legion's methods, he feels a sense of brotherhood and camaraderie. He also makes some enemies and, in the way traditional to the Legion, defeats them in mortal combat. He also falls in love with one of the fort's prostitutes and becomes her protector, despite her best efforts not to reciprocate his love. Kerebos learns many things related to combat and strategy, and manages to teach his comrades a few things, too.

I will divulge no more of the story, except to comment on the ending. When I read the last pages, my jaw dropped, and I re-read it twice to make sure I had read it right. I have read shocking endings before, but they usually come off as forced, artificial, unforeseeable, smacking of deus ex machina. What is truly amazing about the astounding ending of Kerebos is, once I had digested and pondered it for a few minutes, it not only made perfect sense, but was basically inevitable. I cannot now figure out how I did not foresee it. To me, the combination of being completely shocking and making perfect sense makes the ending of Kerebos perfect.

This tale, in its content, is the most unrelentingly and uncompromisingly brutal story I have ever read. Usually, the cruelty and carnage and vivid savagery of a book like this would make me put it down, even if it was delivered in small pieces. In Kerebos, the violence is pervasive, but I could not put it down. What made it tolerable?

First, this could easily have ended up as a set of caricature-like characters hacking and slashing their way through a story. It is none of that. Instead, the characters, good and evil, are three-dimensional, with flaws and strengths, dreams and hopes, and differing visions of the future. Their friendships, loves and hatreds all seem very real. Kerebos is a prime example, although many others fit that description. He becomes a brilliantly effective killing machine, but hates what he is becoming; feels trapped in his life but thrives in the traditions and the fraternity of the Black Legion; finds love while helping his girlfriend go from jadedness toward redemption.

Second, while the action is frequently gruesome, it is described perfectly. It fits together into a coherent whole. While there are few "cliffhanger" scenes, there are many sequences that move from Point A in fast -- but not rushed, and always logical -- steps toward Point B. While very detailed, the story never bogs down.

Third, the writing itself is very, very good. The author creates imagery well, and displays an excellent vocabulary, without being condescending or reveling in his own eloquence.

Fourth, many authors derive character and place names from one or two main cultural sources. J.R.R. Tolkien used Old English and Scandanavian/North German names. Christopher Paolini used names from Tolkien. I have read authors who use Irish-like names, French-like names, Latin-like names and Native American-like names. Nicholas Prata, in Kerebos, was quite eclectic and creative with names, using names that sound Greek, ancient Egyptian, Roman and Arabic. This blend added another touch of color to this excellent story.

Overall, despite the almost incredible barbarism described in Kerebos, the writer's skill (with only a very small number of minor exceptions), the riveting tale and interesting characters sufficed to make the brutality easy to tolerate, much to my surprise.

This book is the prequel to Dream of Fire, which I have not yet read. Kerebos can stand alone as a novel, but does leave the reader wondering what will become of Kerebos.

Because of the rampant violence and a few sexual scenes, I do not recommend this book for children.

review by
Chris McCallister

4 October 2008

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