Book Review: The Black Shriving by Phil Tucker

black shrivingFormat:  oversized paperback, self-published first edition, 2016

Pages:  499

Reading Time:  about 12 hours

One Sentence Synopsis: Asho and Kethe seek the truth behind the second Black Gate and the Black Shriving, Audsley struggles to learn the secrets of the Sin Casters, Iskra seeks help from heretics, and Tharok’s plans take a surprising turn.

In my review of Phil Tucker’s The Path of Flames, I enjoyed it quite a bit and ordered the sequel, The Black Shriving. Interestingly enough, although I found several reviews of The Path of Flames, I only found one review of The Black Shriving (other than Goodreads, Amazon or a forum). My own review follows, and beware of spoilers not only for this book, but also for The Path of Flames.

 

J.C Kang of Fantasy Faction, who also reviewed The Path of Flames, had this to say about The Black Shriving: “In The Black Shriving, we adventure deeper into the supernatural side of the world. We learn about the connection between the demons and magic, and how they are related to some of the concepts introduced in The Path of Flames. If you were curious as to why Asho’s and Tharok’s swords were so similar, well, we can make new guesses now. We visit new, magical places like Starkadr and The Black Gate…We also get to travel to Agerastos, which has its own culture and a religion based on the worship of Medusas – coincidentally, or perhaps not so coincidentally, the same object of idolatry by the ancient Kragh…The mechanics of sincasting is further explained, as is the relationship between The Black Gate and gate stone, or as the Kragh call it, shaman stone. It feels as if the connections that were hinted at in book one are built upon in book two, like the physical cost of sincasting, and how it can be transferred to someone else or abated by gate stone; and how someone’s connection to the White Gate causes them to burn out, yet can be balanced by the black potion seen in the opening scene of The Path of Flames…Just as in The Path of Flames, the core driver of conflict is not love triangles and the quest for popularity, but rather, religious dogma. It takes the form of internal cultural struggle like the Kragh torn between the old worship of the Sky God and the more ancient reverence of medusas; or individual internal struggle with the validity of Ascension; or the cross-cultural wars between Ascension and Agerastos.”

 

In the first book, I was impressed by the careening, unpredictable nature of the story, the epic world-building, and the nobility of Wyland’s character. In The Black Shriving, the story careens less and becomes more predictable, as the plot is laid out from the very beginning, and there aren’t any major surprises (from a plot standpoint) along the way, except for Tharok’s story. The epic world building becomes, dare I say, even more epic, as the source of much of the magic power in the world is revealed in jaw-dropping fashion. And Wyland’s character? Let’s just say that blind devotion to his religion had me switching my allegiance to other characters. So in that respect, it sounds like I consider The Black Shriving as being the exact opposite of The Path of Flames.

And although I enjoyed The Path of Flames a bit more, The Black Shriving still has a lot to offer. The highlight of the book involves Audsley’s character. His discoveries regarding the secrets of the sincasters, the source of much of the magic in the world, and the powers he develops are pretty amazing. Also, Tharok’s character takes the story in a surprising direction that has me very intrigued. His story arc in the first book was a bit disjointed from the others, but in The Black Shriving we begin to see how his story will tie in to the rest, and how dangerous he is about to become. It’s also possible to speculate where the power behind the circlet comes from, and why his shaman is very adamant against using it, as well as being opposed to a new power which Tharok discovers from a chance meeting with human (who I suspect is more than he seems).

One of the problems I had with The Path of Flames – sudden and frequent changes in emotion is no longer noticeable. The nebulous magic system becomes suddenly a lot clearer now, but there is still a problem that I struggled with, mainly that the powers of Asho and Kethe are at times ridiculous. It takes the action sequences and monsters from The Path of Flames and, to borrow a phrase from Cameron Johnston, turns them up to 11. Some of the fight scenes remind me of over-the-top action movies and video games like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, or perhaps God of War. It’s still entertaining, but these sequences are so unbelievable that Tucker will have the difficult task of topping each previous sequence as his story progresses. One positive way that Tucker is handling this involves the consequences of using such copious amounts of magic. (Spoiler Alert!) By the end of the story, Kethe and Asho are physically in bad shape, even dying, due to the cost of using their magical abilities.

If I have one other minor criticism of the book, it is the punishment that the heroes take but still persevere. From hidden reserves of strength to being in shock, from life-threatening wounds to enduring high levels of pain, the heroes manage to have just enough to get them through. It is unbelievable and a bit too much at times, but Tucker manages to (mostly) make it work because of the tension he creates, the wild action sequences, and because he makes you care about the characters and you want to find out what happens them, which is hard to do if they are unconscious or dead! And depth of character is where Tucker is really hitting his stride in this second book. Kethe and Asho form a bond that was somewhat unexpected based on Kethe’s beliefs and upbringing. Like every other viewpoint character in the book, she undergoes life-altering changes. How would you feel if you knew your entire belief system, the one that drives your entire society, was a lie? Kethe comes to see Asho not as a low class Bythian slave, but as an equal, and even develops an affection towards him. She starts to see that it is better to judge someone on their merits rather than their on their appearance or where they were born. It is a change of tremendous growth.

Her mother Iskra goes through the same change in beliefs, and is willing to overthrow an empire to right injustices. In fact, Iskra might be the single most important character in this series. Her standing and upbringing help her in the negotiations with the Agerasterians, and her ability to overcome the damage her former husband wrought while bending people and events to her path with nothing but her will is some damn fine writing. I greatly admire her character, despite a moment of weakness when she believes she might be able to right the wrongs done to her while clinging to that old belief system. It nearly costs her life to do so, and her naivete only makes her more human. After that costly mistake she leaves those beliefs behind and sets up some intriguing possibilities in the next book. Tiron, her on-again, off-again love interest, also manages to impress me, and as Wyland’s character recedes, I turned my allegiance to Tiron. Finally, I’ve already mentioned above some of the changes to Audsley and Tharok, which I found the most compelling. Tucker has really nailed his characterizations, and that feat is worthy of high praise. The final point I’d like to mention is that a few minor new characters enter the story, but The Black Shriving is almost exclusively hero-driven, in a way much like a Terry Brooks story is. I also should mention that there is a little more gore and vulgarity compared to the previous book,  if you find that sort of thing offensive.

By the end of The Black Shriving, there are many unanswered questions…we still don’t know much more about the second black gate, why Asho is drawn to it, or what is physically happening to Kethe and Audsley. Why does the Black Shriving only come once a year? What other secrets will the legendary Starkadr reveal? How will Iskra and the Agerasterians topple the Empire, and how will Tharok impact this? I really enjoyed the story despite the minor flaws, and Tucker has done a great job of maintaining tension, revealing secrets, and developing characters. With more of the same and some unpredictability in the plot, the next book in the series, The Siege of Abythos, could be outstanding. I’m looking forward to ordering it and adding it to the queue.

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