First of all, a bit of a disclaimer: I consider the author a good friend and have worked with her on several anthologies. That said, she wouldn’t be happy if I simply wrote some fluff piece and wasn’t 100% honest about my experience reading this book.
That said, let’s get to it!
Fantasy Academia – what’s the first thing that comes to mind whenever you think of this genre? I can virtually guarantee that a lot of people will jump straight for a certain series of books about a wizard school, written by a bit of an arsehole. And yes, those books most certainly have dominated not just the Fantasy Academia genre, but a huge chunk of fiction full stop for a couple of decades now. You simply can’t move for whimsically named castles, constant weird retcons and a really underwhelming villain with a stupid laugh.
But what if a bright new light were to illuminate the darkness? a Fantasy Academia novel aimed at adults (many already read/watch the aforementioned wizard stories anyway) and looking to not just provide a good story, but also delve into the many religions and belief systems of the world and drop it all into a magical version of Jacksonville, Florida?
Well praise be because ARK Horton (The Telverin Trilogy) has penned just that in Heroes & Harbingers: Secrets of Pantheons, which was released in June of 2022.
Heroes & Harbingers follows Pavlina Sirin, a teacher at Annie Lyttle High School, an academy that teaches magic alongside all of the other subjects one would expect to find in a non-magical school. Pavlina is not a human, however, but a sirin – a birdlike harbinger of death from Russian folklore. In her class is Bree, a bright young student who just wants to get the most out her education and care for her sick sister.
The gods have other ideas, however. The Council of Pantheons (who rule the world from atop Mount Olympus) decree that Bree is to be the new Chosen One, a decision that Bree herself has no choice in and would rather have nothing to do with. As if all of that wasn’t bad enough, Bree is dragged into a conspiracy against her will. with shady characters looking to use her new Chosen One status for their own agendas. Will Miss Sirin be able to save her student? Will new teacher and Irish immortal warrior Mr. Finn be able to work his community service in one piece?
Well… read it and find out!
Heroes & Harbingers was a really refreshing read for me. There wasn’t a weak character in the bunch (even side characters like Pavlina’s Mamushka and Bree’s sister Liz had plenty of substance to them), though special kudos do go to the will-they-won’t-they Pavlina and Finn, whose relationship evolves naturally and is both believable and satisfying – I really rooted for them by the last chapter and wished I could reach through the pages and give Finn’s head a shake once or twice!
I won’t say too much about the villain here, suffice to say that they are brilliantly slimy and I couldn’t wait for them to get their comeuppance! I’ll also add that ARK introduced a truly foul villain in her other novel, Struggling With the Current, Brilsen you horrible man! Though as good as all these heroes, harbingers and villains are, one of the strongest presences is that of Jacksonville, Florida itself. My only trip to the USA was to New York City, so I’m very limited on what I know about Florida, except what the movies tell us. (Hot, alligators, weird new stories about Florida Men, terrifying politics) yet reading Heroes & Harbingers really painted a vivid picture of the place for me. Sure, our Florida doesn’t have river monsters or magical book markets, but the broad strokes remain the same and now it feels, at least a little bit, like I’ve been there myself.
Honestly, I could ramble on all day about this book, so let me wrap it up here by suggesting you give it a read if you think the only good fantasy set in a school that’s any good involves a scabby bloke with no nose trying to kill an annoying kid. This book is better than all that… a lot better.