Review: The Hierophant’s Daughter (The Disgraced Martyr #1) by MF Sullivan

This was an unusual book, and any attempt on my part to summarise it (futuristic cannibal family drama thriller? The feel of an old western but with razor-edged social commentary, and sci-fi touches? Weird but good?) makes it sound more ‘wacky’1 than interesting, so I’ll leave you with the actual blurb.


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I’m not a fan of the cover, it’s bland and doesn’t accurately reflect the tone or events of the novel or any of its characters


By 4042 CE, the Hierophant and his Church have risen to political dominance with his cannibalistic army of genetically modified humans: martyrs. In an era when mankind’s intergenerational cold wars against their long-lived predators seem close to running hot, the Holy Family is poised on the verge of complete planetary control. It will take a miracle to save humanity from extinction.

It will also take a miracle to resurrect the wife of 331-year-old General Dominia di Mephitoli, who defects during martyr year 1997 AL in search of Lazarus, the one man rumored to bring life to the dead. With the Hierophant’s Project Black Sun looming over her head, she has little choice but to believe this Lazarus is really all her new friends say he is–assuming he exists at all–and that these companions of hers are really able to help her. From the foulmouthed Japanese prostitute with a few secrets of her own to the outright sapient dog who seems to judge every move, they don’t inspire a lot of confidence, but the General has to take the help she can get.

After all, Dominia is no ordinary martyr. She is THE HIEROPHANT’S DAUGHTER, and her Father won’t let her switch sides without a fight. Not when she still has so much to learn.

I enjoyed this book, and Dominia’s character was refreshing: a lesbian war veteran who still loves her family, but refuses to compromise her own goals or values for them any longer. The Hierophant’s Daughter includes blunt opinions on some very timely themes—chief among them the almost inevitable slide from keeping people in camps, to genocide². It doesn’t stop there, however, with the book also examining sexism, homophobia, class and race divides and the long-term impact of military and childhood trauma. Yeah, this book does a lot. It also has a scene that is the most effective inclusion of graphic violence that I’ve ever read. If it wasn’t obvious, that was a compliment. I’m not a fan of violence without narrative cause, but this book makes sure to use outlandish violence to reinforce character motivation and world-build, all at the same time.

While the book was generally entertaining and effective, several of the more outlandish details built into the world (cannibalism and teleportation, to be specific) at times distracted me from the well-built, entertaining futuristic world and society. The timeline included at the end of the novel highlighted one of the few flaws of the book, with the seemingly unnecessary renaming of key cities, countries or regions, for the seeming sole purpose of differentiating the world in which The Hierophant’s Daughter is set from our own. That being said, I’m sure a timeline of real history would show very frequent re-namings also, so maybe I’m just being fussy.

I really enjoyed the well fleshed out idea of robotic limbs and prosthetics in the novel, and the all-too likely intrusion of advertising in day to day life. The representation of gender and sexual minorities in this book was likewise a great addition.

The male-domination of the novel (despite the female lead) is probably my biggest problem with the novel. A lot of the men in Dominia’s life hold more sway over her decisions than I would like, and despite having a storied military career and her own (independently developed) morality and goals, Dominia still ends up following their lead the majority of the time. Dominia is capable and sympathetic, haunted by her past, but not rendered useless by this guilt. She is a strong character, and I only wish we had a better cast of female characters for her to interact and contrast with.

Her only true female companion in the novel (Cassandra being a memory), Miki, is a far more entertaining foil than the multitude of men in Dominia’s life, and I wish we had seen more of her. I fully expect the next novel in the series though to have more hints at Miki’s life and motivations, and hopefully there will also be more learnt about the Red Market, and the mysterious Lady.

Basil was definitely a great addition to this novel, and the comic relief provided by him (and various other characters in this book) truly helped the book shine, allowing for serious matters to be addressed without the whole book feeling overly heavy or serious.

Lavinia is an interesting character, if somewhat two-dimensional, and her mysterious origin has, I think, almost too-obvious an explanation. I could be wrong however; I’d have to read any further novels in the series to be sure, something I would absolutely enjoy doing because despite my complaints I did enjoy The Hierophant’s Daughter quite a bit. Overabundance of pushy men aside, Dominia was an interesting and fully-formed character, and one I would enjoy reading more about. The world created in this novel was interesting, with ample room for social commentary and that all-important factor in sci-fi: the ability to draw believable but exaggerated conclusions about the future and/or human nature.

I only wish that the antagonists in this book were as well-developed as Dominia and her allies, because at several points in the novel I felt that the antagonists lacked sufficient motivation for their actions. The Hierophant, Cicero and the Lamb make a nigh-invincible trinity (in some not at all accidental or subtle imagery, if you’re religious and easily offended, despite the differentiation between the Christian faith and the characters in the novel, chances are you’ll still be offended); yet a lot of tension the book relies upon is hampered when this fact becomes apparent. The Hierophant—the clear villain of the piece—pops in to visit Dominia along her way, and it really didn’t help the pacing of the novel.

There are several points where information that had been included previous is abruptly forgotten by characters, a few eye-roll inducing scenes where characters possess a too-convenient power, and a couple of threats that crop up and are dealt with too quickly to really feel their impact, but other than these few teething issues, the book is solidly written and interesting. The ending of this book was abrupt, and I was surprised that a key character was cut out of the conclusion pretty abruptly. There was no clear ending for this novel, and the conclusion that I had assumed the book would have did not eventuate, suggesting (to me) that this may be the end point for the series, rather than the novel as I had originally assumed.

All in all, the well-written, sympathetic characters; entertaining and believable family dynamics and unique, interesting world make The Hierophant’s Daughter a book well worth the read, despite the surface-level issues I had with it. The Hierophant’s Daughter was too unique to truly remind me of any other series, but there were slight similarities to NK Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms series, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy and even a little bit of VE Schwab’s Shades of Magic and Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire books. I’d suggest this book to anyone who enjoys character-driven science fiction, and who doesn’t shy away from political and religious commentary in their fiction.

 

1I share Terry Pratchett’s sentiments on the word, ie, that it is not a compliment

²America take note

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