“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.
I read An Altar on the Village Green in 2021, so as you can rightly tell, this review is well overdue. The first in The Chained God series, An Altar on the Village Green by Nathan Hall is heavily inspired by the Dark Souls franchise of video games. If you’ve not heard of them, these are action RPGs set in a grimdark world with monsters, even bigger monsters, and other horrors beyond your comprehension. The Dark Souls series inspired a whole genre of difficult games which certainly don’t hold your hand. Due to this reputation of them being the hardest video games ever (and also super scary), I avoided them for a while. In fact, I hadn’t played a single one by the time I’d finished reading An Altar. However, this didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book.
You don’t need to have played the Dark Souls games to enjoy this book, though even as a gamer, I could appreciate the references to video game mechanics. It’s not a gamelit book, and I’d say the Dark Souls inspiration is subtle enough that many non-gamers probably wouldn’t notice. However, one thing this book did for me, and for many other readers, was to inspire us to visit these games. I played, completed, and absolutely enjoyed the hell (pun intended) out of Elden Ring, the latest release by Souls developer From Software. Thanks to my experience with Elden Ring, I could reflect on my time with An Altar and recognise and appreciate the details that went into it.
So then, An Altar on the Village Green is set in a rather grim world where horrors can take over towns and other places where humans gather. These horrors come in various monstrous forms, seemingly with an intelligence of the horror they inflict. Not only do they take over towns and kill, torture, or control the residents, but these horrors also trap their victims in an endless loop of suffering where they live out their destruction over and over again. Sounds pretty hopeless!
And that’s where the church of the Chained God steps in. They provide aid, refuge, and hope to those afflicted by the horrors, and also train warriors known as Lance’s to deal with them. While serving their god, each Lance can ‘anchor’ themselves to an altar and return from the dead should they fail. What this means is a ‘Live, Die, Repeat’ scenario where each Lance could potentially die many times while trying to stop a horror, and thus learn from their mistakes so that next time, they might not die so easily.
Dying over and over while battling actual horror would drive anyone mad. And that’s only one pain our Lance must contend with!
What I’ll whine about:
As a fantasy book, there is plenty of action in An Altar, but there’s also quite a thick amount of description that can make the book feel slower paced. It’s certainly a story to savour and enjoy at night with a good drink. And of course, this being a dark fantasy, it’s also as violent and bloody as you’d expect! In fact, this is one of the few books where the intricate details of gore got a bit too much for me and I had to put it down for a moment! It’s not for the feint of heart!
What I’ll gush about:
The world of An Altar on the Village Green is a dark and terrifying one that is beautifully described. Hall has a talent for building atmosphere and creating that kind of unsettling feeling you’d get from a horror movie. There’s a lot of epic fighting in this book as the Lance faces down various foes on his way to breaking the curse of the village, but there’s also a lot of somber reflection as well.
My favourite aspect of the book is when the Lance dies. Yes, I know, I’m cheerful. After each death, he returns to his anchor. His actions reset, though he retains his memories so that he can try again. This is fascinating on its own, and explores the gaming trope of respawning. With each death, each failure, the Lance must readjust his tactics and make decisions on who he can save along the way and who he must sacrifice for the greater goal. These failures come with a cost of his growing madness, which is reflected in his doubts. Can he do the job and outwit the monster? Or will he fail and become trapped in this horror forever, doomed to repeat his suffering along those he’s trying to save?
But also at each death, the Lance receives a memory of a prior Lance and their solution to dealing with a different horror. These are like side stories which follow the different Lances whether they succeed or fail. Each is designed to teach our Lance a lesson to help him, but they’re also a unique way to open up and explore the world Hall has devised.
An Altar on the Village Green is like a twisted love letter to the Souls games. If you’re a fan of those, or dark fantasy in general, then this is a special journey you don’t want to miss.