Review | An Altar on the Village Green – Nathan Hall

About the Book

“If one suffers, I suffer. If one is chained, I am chained.”

My faith called me to become a Lance. My compassion drew me into one of the fallen lands. Through my connection with the Chained God, I alone can find and destroy the Horror that stains the land.

Death can no longer chain me.

But I couldn’t have imagined the madness waiting for me in this village. I’m not sure my faith can withstand the secrets I’ll uncover. Or that my compassion can survive the violence to come. This Horror may swallow me whole.

Death can no longer free me.

A creature stalks in the dark. Buildings burn. People die. An altar has been built on the village green.

Published on July 5, 2021
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I edited this book. 

To be honest, I’ve put off writing this review. I know that’s a terrible way to start anything like this, but it’s true. I’ve put it off. Why, might you ask? Because in some ways I don’t feel like I have the required experience I need to fully appreciate the story being told.

Let me elaborate.

I’m not a video gamer, and I think that’s where I’m having the biggest problems here. I’m just not. In fact, I actively avoid them. It’s not even because I don’t like them. Some of them have really cool stories (my husband is a big gamer and he often fills me in on that), but I can’t even watch someone play them because they make me intensely motion sick (I’m weird). So, when I say I don’t like games, I mean, they make me physically ill. Something about the motion on the screen just flips my switch and I end up vomitus. So here’s a book based on a video game, and I am a person who literally hasn’t even SEEN a video game in so many years, it’s ridiculous. 

There’s a lot of elements in An Altar on the Village Green that, while I was editing, Nathan sort of educated me about how they tied into Dark Souls, the game this is largely inspired by. I think maybe if I had even a passing familiarity with the fact that Dark Souls is a thing that existed in the world, I would have probably appreciated some of these elements more. For example, the protagonist, Lance, is never physically described or given a gender or name. He told me the reason why he did this was influenced by how characters are presented in games. I had no clue. Zero. And I really thought how he crafted Lance in that way was really, really well done and pure artistry. I just absolutely never would have picked up on it unless he told me.

What I’m saying here, is a lot of the reviews for this book in the future will probably wax poetic about gamer inspiration and how various plot points were a twist on (insert thing here) and you won’t get that with me. The entire aspect of this book that marries fantasy storytelling with videogame elements is going to be completely missing. There is an art in how Hall paired those two, and I’m sorry that those aspects of the book flew right past me. 

So, while we have now examined what I lack, let’s talk about the book itself, shall we? 

This isn’t your typical fantasy book. The pacing isn’t what you’d expect, and neither is the plot. Hall doesn’t follow typical markers for storytelling, and instead blazes his own trail. There are elements of expected epic fantasy here, like the world in peril, but that’s about where any similarities ends. 

In fact, let’s talk a bit about the world being in peril, shall we? 

Most epic fantasy I read involves empires, either the rising or collapsing of them. Hall takes the concept of a world in peril and makes it his own. Out there, beyond the city where the book starts, are Horrors, which, in my mind, sort of operated like an infection. The Church’s job was to send out specially trained Lances to go and battle these horrors, cleanse areas of them, and purify them so the people trapped in this cycle of Horror could finally pass on to whatever comes after. They are essentially battling for souls, and for the world itself, one place, one person, one village at a time.

Lances didn’t work as armies, but in solitary numbers, or sometimes two would run into each other. It was a horrible, dangerous task to do this, because each time you die, and the longer you spend out there, the more the Horror infects you. Names of Lances who have battled Horrors are celebrated. They become heroes, but you don’t really see the truth of the (often dark) truth of these stories until our Lance dies, and relives them before rebirth.

The Church, however, hasn’t had a functioning Lance in years and years, and the Horror is spreading. So, our protagonist, who starts out as Page, turns into Lance in the first few chapters of the book, becoming the last lance in the church, the only one left, is sent out into the world, toward this one town, to go battle the Horror there. Instantly readers understand not just how much is riding on Lance’s shoulders, but how this church is a crumbling edifice, and how they are losing the battle against the encroaching Horror.

Part of Lance’s story is a mystery. In order to defeat this Horror, Lance has to learn what it is (it manifests differently everywhere). However, each time Lance dies, they get a little more infected by the madness, and by the visions of previous lances battling their own Horrors, until slowly, as Lance’s sanity is slipping, this dream world experienced between rebirths becomes nearly a real and vivid as Lance’s own reality. Reality, in Nathan Hall’s hands, is just as slippery as morality.

A lot of this book is spent dealing with incremental steps forward, followed by crushing defeats, towards an end goal Lance doesn’t even really understand until pretty close to the end of the book. There is an altar in the center of this village, where Lance’s god’s blood (ichor) is pooled. It’s this ichor that allows Lance to heal from injuries (which is agonizing), and it is also the point where Lance’s rebirths happen. 

I will say, this book is heavy on the details and nuance. You can’t read it with partial attention. It demands your entire focus, or I guarantee you will miss things. And the pacing is unique to this book. While it works, and it works well, I think some readers who are more into sweeping story arcs and obvious signs of forward momentum toward a clear goal will likely find this book frustrating. So much of what happens here is below the surface, and while that sort of thing really gets me going, I know it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, so be aware of that before going in.

The worldbuilding is done well, but like the rest of the book, choices were made in how it was done that cause it to be one of those aspects that is unique to this story alone. A lot of the worldbuilding happens in these flashes, these visions Lance has after a death. These visions are woven throughout the book like short stories, and while they show what other Horrors in other parts of this world are like (some are absolutely bone chilling), they also show what being a lance was like for others and allows reader to see the wider world in fits and starts. Furthermore, there are lessons in these visions that Lance uses almost like touchstones throughout the book to bring them further to the ultimate end goal. 

In some ways, An Altar on the Village Green reminded me a bit of those closed-room books, where some big murder or mystery happens, and everyone is locked in this room together, so you have to figure out who done it. The Horror isolates these infected places from the rest of the world, and from time itself, so everything that happens there happens on a loop, and time and place, fundamental details, lose all meaning. As Lance starts putting the pieces of what is happening together, I really began to realize how well Hall was playing with how to tell a story. By liberating these Horrors from the root of time and place, he gives his book more freedom to expand in its own unique ways, cutting it off entirely from how things are typically done. This gifts him with the liberty to explore his own storytelling art, unfettered, while he sinks deep into the mire of this one smaller catastrophe lost in a world of tragedy.

There is a lot of action in this book. There’s hardly a moment where Lance isn’t battling something, or making impossible, hard choices, or doing improbable things… or dying. It’s a dark book, epic fantasy in the fact that the battle is epic involving the world itself, and souls, and all that, but also horrific due to some of the creatures, moments, themes, decisions therein. Morality, and the decisions that define morality, play heavily in this book. And yet, Hall’s prose brings you through it with ease, painting vivid pictures of poignant moments, and making them matter. He never once loses that menacing undertone that threads the book, or the tension that seems to overshadow everything, or the religious, ardent zeal of Lance to save.

An Altar on the Village Green is an ambitious debut novel, full of layers and meaning, depth and texture, dark moments, and moral quandaries, all poised perfectly on a knife’s edge of grace. 

This is unlike any fantasy you’ve ever read before. 

5/5 stars