Balam is a sleepy town on the eastern coast of Atlua, surrounded by forest and sea. It's a village where nothing happens and everybody knows each other. But now, people are dying.
School is out for the spring, and schoolteacher Theodore Saen is ready to spend the next few months relaxing with his family. But when the town's resident white mage falls ill and several townspeople begin to show similar symptoms, they must call on a new mage. Aava has freshly graduated from the nearby mage academy when she is swiftly hired to deduce the cause of the unknown illness and craft a cure before the entire town is afflicted. Aiding her is an ex-mercenary named Ryckert who keeps to himself but has grown bored with retirement and is itching for a new investigation when a suspicious young man appears in the local pub the same night the sickness begins to spread.
On top of it all, whatever is causing the sickness seems to be attracting strange insectoid creatures from the surrounding woods, desecrating the bodies of the victims and tearing through anyone unlucky enough to cross their path. Theo, Aava, and Ryckert must come together to discover the cause of the illness and put a stop to it before there is nobody left alive in Balam.
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Murder in Stardew Valley
I recommend this book to anyone that likes slice of life, light mysteries, or just want a refreshing lemonade of a fantasy book. Or as an in the know recommendation: If you love the game Stardew Valley, this book could almost be called A Murder in Stardew Valley. And now for the review:
This. This is the book I’ve been search for these past few years. So maybe I’ll seem a little biased in my review, but the point will remain that this is an objectively good book that does new things subtly and with skill.
What we have here is a small town or village that could very easily exist in any era. In it are the families that have lived there their whole life, transplants from the city, a former mercenary of a fantasy beastman race, and a new white mage fresh out of school. Sounds pretty normal except for those last two, yeah? Well that’s what makes the characters work so well. Each is seamlessly placed in the titular town in such a way that it is all completely believable. Instead of a doctor, we have a healing mage that acts like any insecure individual just out of medical school. The former mercenary, too, doesn’t seem out of place, he’s just that somewhat loner of a man that lives down by the beach. As for the others? Yep, they can be found everywhere: the overzealous mayor, the couple that have no interest in kids, the perky waitress, all of them could be real people you know.
Now, what happens when the town white mage suddenly and mysteriously dies? How would the town react, how would these people react? That’s the story of Balam, Spring. The story stands on its own, but the characters are what make it. Then there is the fantasy aspect which is like a subtly sweet lavender icing atop a vanilla poundcake muffin. It isn’t a priority, it’s not emphasized in anyway, it just is and it just accentuates everything else.
A slice of fantasy life!
This was an interesting setting for a start. Balam is a small town in the land of Atlua. It is unique (to me) in that it doesn’t necessarily feel like a fantasy land – the town has a diner, high school, and clinic – but it also definitely, absolutely does – it also has a blacksmith, a white mage, and a POV character that I could only really visualize as a sort of beastman. A wolfman, he seemed to me.
In the calm, sleepy town of Balam, it is springtime. This spring is rather more eventful than others, because the town’s white mage suddenly dies, seemingly by suffocation, right in front of Theo Saen, a teacher at the high school. A new white mage named Aava is brought in, as every town needs one, and she determines that there was poison involved. Meanwhile, the retired mercenary Ryckert has taken it upon himself to investigate what’s happening, because some shady people have shown up in town recently. Shenanigans are going down, and the three of them will have to come together to find out what exactly is happening!
I quite enjoyed my time with this audiobook. It’s well written and it tells a very unique and interesting story, for a start. The mystery was well plotted, and I didn’t solve the mystery before the mystery was becoming clear to the characters, which is always good. It has a fairly slow pace, but as I was listening while performing other tasks, I found that I didn’t mind so much. It never seemed so slow that it was boring. It probably helped quite a bit that I really liked the setting, as I mentioned before. I thought the whole… real-world-adjacent-ish town of Balam was a really interesting place to try and visualize myself in. In my brainspace, it ended up being a slightly more fantasy-esque Storybrook from Once Upon A Time. Or, perhaps a much, much smaller Fabletown from Fables. With Ryckert as Bigby and a whole bunch of Final Fantasy mages romping over the place.
Look, I never said I was good at imagining anything. >.>
It does call up a lot of Final Fantasy imagery, with White Mages and Black Mages, and Blue Mages, and yes, Red Mages. I appreciated that my people were represented (albeit in a slightly different way than is usual). *tips my giant, ridiculously feathered red hat*
The narrator, Mary Hildebrandt, did a fantastic job here, in my opinion. She has a pleasant sounding voice for one, but narrates in a way that you can hear the smile in her voice at times when it’s appropriate, and she made each character unique. There are also parts of this book that are legitimately feels-inducing, and she definitely induced those feels in me. There is a character who is manic AF and talks a mile a minute, and she narrated him just wonderfully. All told, she made it very easy to just turn the book on and listen to it for hours at a time.
So, all told, I quite liked this one. It was a lovely way to give myself some focus to finish the work week. I managed to gobble it all up in less than a day. That should say a lot for it! 4.5/5 stars!
This review is based on a review copy. Thanks to the author for the review copy.