Format: oversized paperback, 1st Edition, 2016
Reading Time: about 12.25 hours
I picked up The Path of Flames after discovering that it was runner-up in the Self Published Fantasy Blog Off in 2016 held by Mark Lawrence. It received accolades from many readers, and I don’t think it is by accident that the cover is something one might see on an Elric novel. Not that The Path of Flames has anything in common with Elric, only that it sure couldn’t hurt sales to invoke such imagery. Other reviews of The Path of Flames:
Vanessa at Elitist Book Reviews says the magic system isn’t explained well enough, the world-building seemed unfinished, and the plot has holes, but yet the story delivers on tension and the need to know the answers to many questions. Petrik at Booknest.eu is impressed by the strength of the female protagonists, but feels there was too much action and not enough character development, that Tharok’s point of view was disjointed, and is reminded of RPGs such as Dragon Age or World of Warcraft. Geoff at Fantasy Faction stated that the magic and religion reminded him of Dragonlance, feels all the trope boxes are checked, but that the story is enjoyable and the world and magic are interesting. Geoff’s counterpart at Fantasy Faction, J.C. Kang, felt that the strength of the story was in the excellent world-building and character POVs, points to a “Hindu-like progression (or regression) of reincarnation, that establishes a race- and location-based caste system“, and feels that the narrative prose is good but not as elegant as the world-building.
These are all excellent observations – I suppose I could stop right there and say “that’s a wrap!” But I feel like I have a few more things to add, so I’ll move on to discuss said things now, and if you’ve been reading my reviews, you know the drill – I’m going to spoil the story a little bit; however, no major plot points will be revealed here.
As the story began, I found the prose a bit choppy and jarring. Having read a lot of smooth-flowing prose recently (Devon Monk and Alec Hutson for example), it was glaringly evident that Tucker had a good story to tell but was having difficulty in trying to establish a smooth and consistent narration. As the story progressed, however, Tucker seemed to find a rhythm and the prose only occasionally interfered with the story. And what a story it was. I found myself swept up in events…from the opening large scale battle to a small tournament, then to the occupation of a ruined keep, a hunt for a demon, and a climactic battle – Tucker moves the story along briskly, with events unfolding in a believable manner, and often characters are faced with situations that give them no good choices. It’s compelling to follow these characters through their struggles, and I really had no idea where the story was going most of the time, which was a good thing – it wasn’t predictable.
I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with J.C. Kang: the world-building is top notch. Gate travel, floating worlds, frozen heroes and dragons, the Age of Wonders that predates the main religion (Ascension), the suggestion that Ascension is very likely not what it seems, ruined castles, 18 feet tall faceless demons, albinos living in caves near “hell”, seven “Virtues” (knights with magical powers)…it all creates an interesting world that I want to learn more about. Unfortunately, in this first book, some answers that are brought forth serve to only create more questions. The title itself refers to a a thin black book within the story that reveals The Path of Flames is “seeking the greatest good at the cost of the least corruption”, otherwise known as Sin Casting. However, the book is only briefly looked at, giving us nothing but hints as to why Tucker’s debut novel bears the same name. I also agree with J.C. about the Hindu elements, and I would add that the concept of karma makes an appearance as well, as doing bad things (as defined by Ascension) will get an individual reincarnated in a land closer to the Black Gate, while performing acts in the service of Ascension will move an individual closer to the White Gate and the afterlife.
I found all the characters were interesting and have a major part to play. Six POVs is a little bit much, and often takes the reader away from a POV that they find more interesting…Tucker could have stuck with four and that would have been sufficient. Although many reviewers felt that the story of Tharok feels like a separate novel, in his final chapter there is a reveal that puts him squarely in line with the other POVs. Did I see the reveal coming? Well yes, but that didn’t make it any less important – the events that got Tharok to the exact place and time that he needed to be, so that he will interact with the other POV characters later, I’m certain will be important in the next book. My favorite character was one that did not have a POV and possessed no magical abilities nor wielded a magic sword: that would be Wyland, knight and last of the order of the Black Wolves. Wyland is noble, level-headed, and full of positive energy despite the struggles he becomes embroiled in. Readers could be forgiven for thinking that this virtuous knight doesn’t quite fit in a story where darkness is everywhere and even the highest members of the Ascension have questionable motivations, but in a tale so full of religious zealotry, cynicism, and racism, Wyland is a breath of fresh air. There is a scene near the end between Wyland and Asho that is fantastic and hit home for me…sometimes all you need is for one person to believe in you in order to become something greater. I loved it.
There are a few problem areas in the story. Characters often experience sudden changes in emotions that aren’t believable – sometimes within subsequent sentences…it happens far too frequently to be able to ignore. The magic system does not seem to be well-defined yet, but I suspect it will be fleshed out in later books. A couple of the protagonists seem to have almost limitless powers from out of nowhere, and some powerful magic items are introduced, relegating the ending to one deus ex machina effect after another. In the later part of the story, as some of the characters are hunting a demon, the character with the POV at the time, Kethe, gets separated from the others, and the narrative follows her actions. When Kethe meets up with her mother later, the characters she was separated from just “pop” back into the story unexpectedly, with no explanation as to what happened to them after the separation…it almost felt like there was a chapter missing, and with only 10 pages per chapter, it wouldn’t have hurt Tucker to insert one here to tidy up things a bit. Finally, there are a few typos and some punctuation issues, but nothing too glaring that disrupted the story…actually, for a self-published novel, there were fewer than I expected.
In summary, from my perspective, the strong world-building and characterization win out over the deus ex machina devices, occasional stumbles with prose and the other issues I mentioned above. I can see the Dragon Age/World of Warcraft comparisons, but there are enough unique ideas here that have me intrigued, and with a plot that careens from one difficult situation to another without being predictable, I was thoroughly entertained and want more answers, especially about what Ascension really is. I have ordered the next book in the series, The Black Shriving, and will be tackling it, I hope, later this year…