Fantasy Novel Review: Navola by Paolo Bacigalupi

This review is based on an eARC (Advance Reading Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Navola will be released on July 9, 2024.

Paolo Bacigalupi is an author that hit big while I was in a reading hiatus. I missed the boat, but I’ve been meaning to circle back around and try his stuff. And while I don’t read quite as many big, fat fantasies as I used to, I still have a soft spot for them. So when I saw he was releasing an intricate historical fantasy with plenty of backstabbing and politics, I thought Navola was a great opportunity to give his work a try. 

Navola takes place in a heavily Italian-inspired fantasy world and follows the son of a powerful banking family as he struggles to live up to the cunning intelligence of his father and grandfather. It’s a slow build, following the lead from childhood into adolescence and early adulthood, and though the dragon eye on the cover is more than just window dressing, the story leans much more to the historical fantasy than to the magical. This is without a doubt a book for fans of politics and scheming. 

As perhaps should be unsurprising, Navola starts laying the groundwork for the political plots very quickly, but it takes a long time for the lead or the reader to really grasp the shape of things. The lead is long on empathy and short on ambition, and though he tries to be a dutiful son, none of the political maneuvering really comes naturally. And so we see his adolescence—the lessons, the friendships, the horniness, the doubts about his chosen path, all of it. And while it may not be clear exactly where the story is going during that time, it’s clear enough that it is indeed going somewhere, and the quality of the prose is high enough that reading never feels like a chore, even when the plot is opaque. 

And when the big seeds of plotting come due, they do so in a rush of blood and thunder that makes the book almost impossible to put down. There are times where the reader may see twists coming before the naive narrator does, but not so early that it spoils the tension or prevents those big moments from being utterly engrossing. 

For readers in search of sympathetic characters, there aren’t many. The lead’s empathy makes him one of the likeliest, but his adolescence shows off as much or more self-centeredness as you’d expect from a teenager, and the world is desperate to shape him into a manipulator who trusts no one and loves no one outside his own family. Make no mistake, this is a book written for those seeking a tale that’s short on goodness and trust and long on manipulation and violence. It gets dark—there’s backstabbing, torture, sexual violence—but it’s certainly entertaining always waiting to see which twist is happening next. 

Navola also isn’t an end to the story. In many ways, this is a book focused on shaping the main character to be what he needs to be for the rest of the series. A lot happens from a plot perspective, but it’s not a book that ends on a hero having accomplished his primary goal. There are significant character and plot arcs that more than justify Navola being its own book and not a mere piece of another book, but it’s absolutely designed as a series-starter. 

So should you read this book? Well, it depends on what you’re after. Thematically, it has plenty to say on how the hunger for power and wealth creates a world of violence and mistrust, but those aren’t exactly observations you can’t find explored just as well elsewhere. Really, this depends on what kind of fantasy you enjoy. If you’re a fan of dark, gritty political fantasy and don’t mind buckling up for a slow-building series of doorstoppers, step right up. That’s what Bacigalupi is going for, and his writing quality is on full display. But if that isn’t your style, this probably isn’t a book that’s going to change your mind. It does an excellent job of being what it wants to be, but it’s not out to transform a subgenre. Perhaps there’s a shift with the sequels–it certainly wouldn’t be the first series that started playing firmly within the existing expectations and branched out as the series progressed–but Navola as a novel is one for the fans of darkness and intrigue. 

Recommended if you like: historical fantasy, schemes and politics, books with no clear heroes. 

Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Disability, and it’s also very obviously meant to be First in a Series, plus it’s Published in 2024, contains Dreams, Reference Materials, and a segment Under the Surface. 

Overall rating: 17 of Tar Vol’s 20. Five stars on Goodreads. 

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