Life has been rough for Nika. As a young boy, a disaster tore his dysfunctional family apart and left him in foster care. As a young man, another disaster struck the oil rig where he worked—one that plunged him figuratively and literally into the dark. When Nika wakens, he discovers he can remember nothing about who he is or where he came from. All he knows is that the people and places he encounters are in no way familiar and the cat that befriends him can speak to him telepathically. The cat offers to lead Nika to a university run by monks, a place where Nika may find answers to his questions.
Upon arriving at the university, however, Nika discovers help comes with conditions attached. The monks will try to help Nika recover his lost memories and return to his homeland if Nika agrees to deliver a critical message to the ruler of a nearby kingdom. With no other prospects, Nika agrees. Little does he know that this is the start of an epic journey rather than a mere errand. In truth, Nika’s appearance in this world triggers a centuries-old prophecy. Suddenly, long dormant powers are awakening, some of which manifest in Nika himself as he learns to access the energy of other realms. With the help of a former monk named Freyne and a small escort, Nika and his new friends try to unravel the prophecy. Freyne offers critical help as Nika learns to master his ability to channel the power of the realms. Their shared magical abilities bring them closer together and soon, an undeniable spark of attraction flares between them.
All the while, Nika and Freyne all grow increasingly aware of the dangers of failure to see the prophecy come to fruition. There is also a well-organized group of mercenaries and other godless people who will stop at nothing to thwart Nika and Freyne in their task. As Nika and Freyne draw closer to their goal, they find themselves facing myriad perils…and the growing realization that their deepening love may not survive the prophecy.
The Lowest Realm incorporates a lot of tantalizing elements/tropes. For example, Nika covers “stranger in a strange land” and “out for you” tropes. The prophecy and Freyne’s centuries of service as a monk touch on religious themes. The world building calls to mind medieval imagery (to me, at least), but we learn this story actually takes place some two thousand years in the future, so this could be a unique take on a “dystopian” future. There’s the chosen one trope, along with the road trip trope (albeit on foot, horseback, and ship).
With all these myriad themes, The Lowest Realm surely includes something for everyone. That said, I found a lot of these elements felt like flashy veneer of an otherwise very basic save-the-world story. For example, when a king entrusts Nika and Freyne with seeing the prophecy through, the king sends his daughter to act as witness and assigns a few companions for her for the journey. To be sure, these side characters participate in various events in the story and are constantly padding the scenes. But if you cut these characters entirely out of the story, not much would change for our two main characters. Adding to my annoyance were the constant reminders of some of the activities these superfluous side characters engaged in. Notably, the princess and her maid were often described as doing such asinine things as braiding each other’s hair and picking flowers. In another scene, the princess gets jealous of her bodyguard merely talking to another woman and erupts with a shouted “I hate you.” Suffice to say, I didn’t care about these extra characters and some of the behavior they depict was distasteful.
One of the biggest drawbacks to the story for me was how haphazard the planning of the events felt. Time and time again, I got the impression that many things about this world were included ad hoc and not substantially incorporated into the fabric of the story. For example, as Nika is learning to access the different realms, he overdoes it and falls sick. Campbell goes so far as to name this phenomenon “realm sickness,” but it only ever occurs once and is never spoken of again. Similarly, it’s clear that kind of magic Nika and Freyne can use is considered somewhat dangerous and users must be registered. Nika and Freyne don’t seem to be registered and nothing ever comes of this, despite some fantastic displays of magic on Nika’s part. In fact, the one time the MCs run into trouble with the law, it’s because Nika and Freyne are boning each other, not because they are unregistered magic users. Finally, this epic journey Nika and Freyne embark upon sends them over hill and dale. However, it never seemed clear to me how either of them knew where they needed to go or what they needed to do. It seemed more like dumb luck that they acquired the necessary scrolls and key and whatnot to help them fulfill the prophecy.
Overall, I don’t think the action/adventure parts of the story hold up to scrutiny very well. That said, the blind trust Nika and the others put in seeing this prophecy through provides just enough coherency to allow a casual reader to set all that aside. The “realm sickness” scene, for example, created a delightful hurt/comfort exchange between Nika and Freyne. Readers who enjoy watching characters warm up to each other will appreciate how Nika and Freyne shift from travel companions to something more. There are several intimate scenes that reinforce their bond and serve to heighten the dramatic effect when one or the other falls victim to an attack. The ending gets a bit anticlimactic and touch predictable. It also sets up the characters for future possible stories and the series title indicates there are to be more stories in this world. To that end, I’d say The Lowest Realm manages to avoid an out and out cliffhanger ending, but still leaves huge question marks about this prophecy Nika and Freyne are supposed to fulfill.