Trigger Warning: The book reviewed contains scenes of violence and gore as extreme as dismemberment. Sex scenes are also depicted, though not in great detail. Brief discussions of sex-related human trafficking occur and slavery serves a pivotal role in the plot. If you’ve had bad experiences with any of the above or otherwise take offense to these topics, proceed with caution.
Epic fantasy fans may want to check this one out, especially if you like your fantasy with a side of romance, mystery, and a touch of gore. Today I’m going to review Sister of Echo: The Making of a Villain (Part One) by Ameel Koro.
Set in Dacia during the time of the Roman Empire, The Making of a Villain (Part One) follows a convoy of merchants, their slaves, and the guards guiding them to Panonni. One night the convoy runs into a problem: a young woman, muddy and naked save for her horrific-smelling cloak, has been found sleeping on the side of the road. Dardanos, the leader of the guards, has a bad feeling about her and wants to leave her. Cotiso, a kind-hearted merchant, refuses to abandon her in the woods on a cold winter’s night, and so offers to buy her as a slave. Dardanos agrees but on the condition that she remain locked in the wagon in which she will travel.
As their travels continue, people warm up to the girl, Alina, with the exception of Dardanos. Unfortunately for the soldier-turned-guard, the one whom warms up most to her is one of his own men, nineteen-year-old Sinna. The young man can’t keep his eyes off of this beautiful woman, and the feeling is mutual.
What unfolds over the entire 237 pages is a whirlwind of romance, mystery, gore, and a splash of revenge. The biggest question on everyone’s mind (including the reader’s): who—or what—is Alina?
The plot interested me and the setting grabbed my attention immediately. I typically enjoy books which take place around the time of the Roman Empire (Black Horses for the King is one of my favorite books) and the mystery of Alina’s identity kept me on my toes. Even when it seemed that part of her secret had been exposed, Koro approached it in such a manner that I questioned if it was the truth—at the least I knew it could not be the whole truth.
However, the use of setting disappointed me. I did not feel truly immersed in the time or place until they arrive at Artucia. Names of places, gods, and cultural groups are used but I never got a real feel for the location or the time. The forest, the village, and the first mansio feel as though they could have been anywhere; only the weather gives the reader a real idea of geographical setting beyond the names used. More should have been pursued in the cultural and religious aspects of the setting. Koro explores some of the cultural views of slavery and the characters repeatedly refer to a god named Zalmoxis but beyond that the story very well could have taken place in a parallel world or the modern day (if technology were added).
In fact, the dialogue and the terminology throughout the narrative seems far too modern for a book set in Roman times. The characters frequently use the word “yeah” and the narration includes words such as “boyfriend” and “pimp,” neither of which would’ve been in use back then. (“Pimp” did not enter colloquial English until at least 1607.) I can usually suspend disbelief in this regard because it would be impossible to account for all of the differences caused by time. In this case, however, it really bothered me that the writing had such a modern feel to it. I expect a far different kind of writing with historic fiction, even historic fantasy, and I felt as though I could have found this sort of writing in something like Harry Potter.
The behavior of the characters strained my ability to suspend disbelief as well. I appreciate the strong women in this narrative; in fact, I love them. Still, the dynamic among the slaves and the freed men did not match the social hierarchy and accompanying mannerisms of that time. Slavery in Roman times did follow different rules than Europe’s African slave trade we learn about in the Western World, but I doubt that the slaves would have been allowed to speak quite as informally with freed men as these characters do. I understand why Corina and Tati act the way they do and I would not expect any different from fatherly Cotiso. I also think that Sinna and Alina’s interactions could have carried on the way they do as well. The other interactions, such as Maria shouting at a guard like Sinna, seem unrealistic.
A diverse cast of characters populate this historic—yet fantastical—world: Cotiso, a kind-hearted, fatherly merchant; Tati, a skirt-chasing merchant in Cotiso’s convoy; Corina, Tati’s sassy, sexual, and jealous (perhaps even insecure) female slave; Maria, Cotiso’s tough and practical but mischievous and dirty-minded slave and Alina’s mentor; and Dardanos, the military-roughened guard with nothing but suspicions, orders, and a temper. Of course, we also have Sinna, the sweet but rather naïve and romantic (yet also, clearly, hormone-driven) guard, and Alina, the quiet and obedient mystery woman whom no one can figure out.
Even with such a wide range of personalities, I felt that the characters left something to be desired and that many do not reach their full potential. Several are stereotypes, such as Corina and Tati, and others do not really develop into realistic people at all, like Tsiru. Besides following Tati around because he himself is bad at business, Tsiru is a blank slate which Koro could use to his advantage in future installments. Tati and Corina, while a fun dynamic to watch and certainly revolutionary given the setting, fall under stereotypes that I have seen many times before: the man who should be in charge and his woman who is actually in charge.
Despite Alina and Sinna being the center of the plot, I am more interested in Cotiso. He is a very kind man, even to his slaves, and refuses to become a slave merchant. However, he also has no qualms with entering Maria and Alina into a slave contest in Artucia. If he’s fine with the idea of them being degraded in a slave contest, is Cotiso truly driven by kindness? Or by greed? He proves not be entirely pure-hearted by the end of the novel, which I think Koro pulled off well. After all, every human has the ability to commit some mean act against another human, no matter how good they seem, especially to get information that they want.
Speaking of the slave contest, the twist involved in that event—which I will not discuss in detail to avoid spoilers—humored me initially. It was too much like a plot twist in a sitcom to fully fit my tastes. As it continued, however, my blood pounded and then my heart broke. I loved seeing more of Alina’s abilities revealed—and, thus, more of her identity exposed—but the sacrifice behind it saddened me, which is the mark of a good scene. I think the slave contest revealed more about the main characters and more masterfully handled the action and Alina’s secret than any other part of the novel.
Sinna and Alina’s relationship, while sweet and playful, had me thinking much like Cotiso. Sinna is so young, how could he take of her? He thinks he loves her now because she is so beautiful, but does he truly love her beyond her beauty? This doubt caused me to not root for the relationship very strongly. At the same time, I liked Alina and felt that she had been through too much already, so I found myself hoping the relationship would last so that she would not have to experience more heartache.
On a more technical side, there are several proofreading errors, but not so often as to be too distracting. The overuse of exclamation marks, the word “intoned,” the word “nagged,” and comparisons to children, on the other hand, annoyed me. These issues can easily be fixed with more editing and feedback.
Overall, The Making of a Villain (Part One) has a lot of potential: the plot is engaging, the setting piqued my interest, the character interactions are fun to observe, and the mystery and magic behind it all compelled me to read to the very end. I want to see where the next book takes the series but I am hesitant because of the pitfalls in the writing. I just don’t think that the writing matches the setting and should have been workshopped and refined more before publication.
As usual, don’t take my word for it. Check Koro’s book out for yourself by following the ad below.
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