Book Review: The Wrath of Heroes by David Benem

wrath of heroesFormat:  paperback, first edition (signed by author), 2017

Pages:  520

Reading Time:  about 12 hours

One Sentence Synopsis:  As the Spider King and his allies and minions seek to increase their power while General Fane seems to be deliberately losing the war, it’s up to Lannick, Bale, and Gamghast to stand against them, while Fencress despairs over the changes that have transformed Karnag into something out of nightmares.

 

Author David Benem provided me with a signed copy of The Wrath of Heroes last year, free of charge. While that was quite generous and I appreciate the gesture, that in no way influences my review. I didn’t ask for a free copy, and as a reader I look for unbiased reviews when choosing to spend my money on a book, so there’s no way I’m going to dupe someone else in the hope of getting more free books and lose all credibility. This review will also be unique in the fact that I didn’t find any guest reviews to spotlight.

The first thing I noticed about the book on receiving it was the sheer meatiness. Weighing in at 520 pages, it is noticeably thicker than the 396 pages of the previous entry. This lends some serious consideration to the notion that this is a book to be taken seriously and promises more depth than the first book. So with that said, I’ll proceed with my thoughts, and try to point out spoilers ahead of time. There may also be spoilers for What Remains of Heroes here, so enter with caution.

In my review of the previous book in the series, What Remains of Heroes, I stated that the action was a bit lacking, but that I had heard that the sequel was better in that regard. This is absolutely true. Those 520 pages that I mentioned above are packed with tense travels through hostile areas, the infiltration of a Necrist stronghold, and an all-out battle for the town of Riverweave, as well as showdowns between multiple characters and their nemeses. The Wrath of Heroes exceeded my expectations in regard to action sequences. While not a thrill ride like Cameron Johnston’s The Traitor God, there is more than enough action here to satisfy the reader. That Benem manages to do this while developing both his main and supporting characters is an impressive feat. I did struggle a couple of times to envision how some of the sequences were playing out, so I think Benem can improve on his descriptions of spacial relationship between characters as well as between them and the environment in which the sequence takes place. I also think that because of the heightened focus on more action and character development, the worldbuilding has lessened – there isn’t quite as much to be found here as there is in the first book – but that is a minor quibble. Benem did such a good job with it in the first book, that what is found in The Wrath of Heroes suffices. Between Bale and Gamghast’s discoveries, the Necrist Tower, The Spider King, and the revelation of two more Sentinels, plus the evolution of Karnag’s character, I feel that there’s plenty of material that indirectly supports the worldbuilding aspect.

The characters continue to be a mixed bag. It’s okay for characters to have flaws, but the degree to which Lannick and Bale struggle is at times frustrating. Benem is really walking a tightrope here. Lannick and Bale are so weak, their struggles are so great, that it often seems like they succeed in spite of themselves, not because of talent or noble character. While these flaws do serve to humanize them and helps them avoid falling into stereotypical tropes, it also makes them less compelling and the end effect is that the supporting characters are far more interesting. This results in disappointment, because instead of reading about those more interesting characters, I’m stuck focusing on ones that I don’t care as much about. Characters like The Spider King, Lorra, Alisa, Wil, and Queen Reyis all deserve more page time.

In an interesting twist that started back in the middle of What Remains of Heroes, Fencress and Karnag have switched places, where Fencress has become a main character and Karnag a supporting one. This is a good choice, too, as Fencress continues to be one of the best, if not the best, characters in the story. The villains of the story like Fain, Alamis, and the dread Necrists are easy to root against. Karnag remains a puzzle to solve, and I have no idea where is character arc is headed, while Fencriss slowly loses hope that she can save him. That unpredictability is a good thing! It’s also worth noting that I didn’t feel as detached from the characters as I did in the first book. Lannick’s emotional instability is still often frustrating, but at least his path to redemption has taken a step forward and he is not as much of a drag on the story this time around. Bale is probably my least favorite character now, and his whining, crying, and constant terror at anything that moves is pretty annoying, but fortunately there are plenty of other characters that lessen his personality’s effect on the story. For what it’s worth, Bale’s part in the story is important, as the Sentinels will surely have a big part to play in the future.

Benem’s plot winds tightly through the book, and I had no idea where it was going. There were several times when I thought I knew what was going to happen, and Benem took the story in a different direction or just flat out surprised me. This unpredictability also adds to the compelling nature of the book. Benem’s not averse to killing off characters, even evil ones, earlier than I expected, in order to advance the plot. It is rather refreshing. The editing seems a little better this time around and nothing stood out to me as a problem…not that it was a big issue in the first book. The writing just seems to be incredibly polished for a self-published novel. The cover art is good and the map at the front of the book is appreciated, although I didn’t really refer to it since I had looked at it previously on Benem’s blog. I should also mention that there are some grimdark elements in the book, so if swearing, severed limbs and torture bother you, best to look elsewhere. It really didn’t bother me at all.

SPOILER ALERT! There are a couple of scenes in the book that I found really compelling. One involved Lannick’s confinement and transport in a coffin, and the moment where hope of escape arrives had me on the edge of my seat. I also enjoyed Bale, Lorra and Alisa moving through the Spider King’s tower and their subsequent showdown with the Necrists. Perhaps the best sequence in the book involves Karnag facing off against the Spider King. All of those moments were memorable long after the pages of the book had closed.

In conclusion, Benem has crafted an action-packed tale that is better than the first book, showing that his writing has improved from the first book to the second. While the main characters are at times a chore to follow, and the worldbuilding has been dialed back a bit, the action, pace, and compelling scenes more than make up for it. When I look at other books I’ve reviewed from 2017 so far, I’d say The Wrath of Heroes is as good as Battle Mage, which I really enjoyed, and far above Forsaken Kingdom. With the increase in self-publishing currently in play that has opened the doors for authors like Benem, this book is proof that such self-published books can offer just as much enjoyment as a published one, but this is entirely dependent on the skill of the author. In The Wrath of Heroes, Benem shows he has that skill. This sets the bar high for The Ruin of Heroes, the third and final book in the series, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed…if Benem can make the leap between his second and third books that he did between the first and second books, I expect The Ruin of Heroes to be outstanding. No pressure, Mr. Benem!

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Status Update 6-25-19

Yesterday I completed Cameron Johnston’s God Of Broken Things. The Pages Read Count for the year is now 6436. I’ve started on Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance, the epic second volume in The Stormlight Archive series. At over 1000 pages, this may take me the entire month of July to read!

I was also about 50% complete on my review for The Wrath of Heroes, but some recent health issues forced this to the sidelines. I’m now targeting the end of this week for completion *if* I start feeling better. No promises… 😉

Status Update 6-12-19

A couple of days ago I finished Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Quest. The word “finished” might be a little too underwhelming – I absolutely devoured this book. The Pages Read Count for the year is now 6124. Amazon told me that Cameron Johnston’s God Of Broken Things would be delivered by the 12th (today), and since I wanted to get started on it I decided to take a break for a couple of days from reading instead of starting and stopping something else. Instead, I finally managed to finish my review of The Siege of Abythos, and I’m getting started on the review for The Wrath of Heroes, which I hope to complete by early next week…

Book Review: The Siege of Abythos by Phil Tucker

siege of abythos

Format: oversized paperback, self-published first edition, 2016

Pages: 719

Reading Time: about 17 hours

One Sentence Synopsis: As a war is fought on two fronts, Asho, Kethe, Iskra, Audsley, Tiron, and Tharok cross paths when the Empire struggles against corruption within, and also against from Tharok’s forces that lay siege in an epic attempt to seize of the fortress of Abythos.

 

At the conclusion of The Black Shriving, Phil Tucker’s previous entry in the Chronicles of the Black Gate, I thought that The Siege of Abythos could be outstanding if Tucker managed to maintain tension, reveal secrets, and develop characters while avoiding plot predictability. So was Tucker able to accomplish this in The Siege of Abythos? Read on to find out, but be prepared for spoilers for this book as well as the previous entries. First, here are a couple of guest reviews from cyberspace…

 

Calvin Park of Fantasy Book Review writes: “The world building in this series continues to be unique and intriguing in multiple ways. The way that the religious system interweaves with the concrete functioning of the world is believable and absolutely fascinating. In this third book in the series, we get more clarity around the magic system (though also plenty that has yet to be revealed) and we get to see even more of the world itself. To me, it felt like plot, characters, and setting all really coalesced in this novel. We’re definitely in the thick of things now in terms of plot and Tucker has done a stupendous job of keeping the plot fast moving while constantly developing new threats and new twists. The sense of development here is nearly off the charts. Every character is different at the end of the novel compared to the beginning. Every plot thread has been moved forward or wrapped up in a way that actually shifts things and moves another thread forward…There was, however, one aspect of the novel that just did not hit for me. Kethe’s arc felt very out of character, in a lot of ways. To begin, she spends the vast majority of the novel being reactive and doing exactly what she’s told to do with little defiance. This just felt so unlike Kethe from the previous novels. I believe we’re meant to understand that she had some sort of a spiritual experience which leads to this, but it didn’t seem that way to me. It felt like our defiant, fiercely driven Kethe was inexplicably compliant and going through the motions. The brief glimpses we received of the old Kethe were primarily instances where she was just being mean because other people weren’t as compliant as she was…The Siege of Abythos is filled with fast moving, twisting plots and loyalties with an amazing cast of characters. Tucker’s Chronicles of the Black Gate is quickly becoming one of my absolute favorite epic fantasy series.

J. C. Kang of Fantasy Faction states: “So, now back to the original premise of my review, which is that the dogma of Ascendency is just a tool for control. Of course, just three books in, this is only my reader theory; but our favorite Kragh Warlord, Tharok, pretty much lays out how religion can be used to manipulate followers, and even goes about creating his own to those ends. Tharok isn’t the only fictional L. Ron Hubbard, either. As with the previous two books, the worldbuilding in this installment is deliciously detailed, and we start The Siege of Abythos at polar opposites: the slave mines of Bythos, and the stone cloud of Aletheia. As our heroes go about their individual missions, we are steeped deeper into the culture that Ascendancy propagates, and learn just how deeply it is ingrained, even in those it subjugates. The contrast of these two societies at the opposite end of ascension is marvelous. The black market and crime syndicates that operate within the enslaved population of Bythos is reminiscent of mafia and triads that subjugated but also supported immigrant communities in America; and we experience it through the eyes of Asho, now an outsider to his own people, as he navigates this minefield, all the while being torn between his loyalty to Iskra and his love for his sister Shaya. Magister Audsley is no stranger to being a fish out of water, the awkward scholar always fought to fit in among the knights and warriors; but in book three, he must face a new challenge in the pretentious upper class of Alathea. A reader cannot help but to hold Tucker’s creation of this society in awe: from the subtle symbolism of colors in the layers of robes someone wears, to the metaphorical language reminiscent of Chinese proverbs (real ones, not the kind you get in fortune cookies), and poetry duels that put epic rap battles in downtown L.A. to shame. If you saw Sokka’s haiku fight in the Last Airbender, yeah, it’s that awesome. These societies, as well as Agerastos, serve as a stage for our beloved characters. Many of us watched with bated breaths as romantic couples formed by the end of The Black Shriving: Iskra and Tiron, and Asho and Kethe. Yet, with three books to go, they could not yet enjoy a Happily Ever After ending. Instead, duty tears both couples apart, but with that comes new strength of character and power.

 

The Siege of Abythos is not only the middle book in the series – a total of 5 books comprise The Chronicles of the Black Gate, and The Siege of Abythos is the third book – but it also “feels” like a middle book. It’s not surprising, then, that it suffers a bit from “middle book syndrome”. It is certainly the thickest book of the series, coming in at 719 pages, and while this affects pacing a bit, it’s not too detrimental to the story. It does help move the plot from a place where all the characters were off doing their own thing, to the decisive siege that brings Tharok into contact with some of the others, neatly tying formerly disparate storylines together in a tidy package.

In The Black Shriving, there was a big emphasis on world building and character growth, while the plot was a bit predictable, and there were many unanswered questions about the way things work, specifically Ascension, the Black Shriving, and the Black Gate. In The Siege of Abythos, none of those questions are really answered, there still aren’t many plot twists, and the characters at times seem to be spinning their wheels while they wait for events to affect them rather than driving the action themselves. The exception is Tharok, who has gotten himself trapped between a rock and hard place, trying to placate his people while playing to the medusa’s ego as she consolidates power in an attempt to subjugate his entire race. It goes without saying that any success that Tharok enjoys feels like it will be short-lived. He begins to not only physical suffer from the effects of the circlet, but also his people are now suffering from the callous decisions he makes while wearing it. Yet he doesn’t dare remove it for any length of time, lest all of his plans fall apart and the medusa enslaves all of the Kragh.

Multiple environments in the worldbuilding are explored, from the heights that Kethe and Audsley are embroiled in (with poetry wars and gladiator-like combat), to the mines and city of Bythos, where we get a peek into Asho’s roots, to the walled fortress of Abythos where a massive battle takes place. Tucker’s worldbuilding continues to be the most outstanding feature of the series. The map at the front of the book is less than helpful, though, as it doesn’t really give a good impression of Tharok’s lands and its relation to Abythos, nor where Abythos is in relation to Bythos.

Meanwhile, Asho struggles to free his people, many of whom are content to entrust their fate to Tharok. Asho’s sister Shaya becomes a fleshed-out character (in the past she was only in Asho’s memories). Iskra struggles to maintain power in the fragile Agerasterian society, making sacrifices that are distasteful and tragic. For poor Tiron, who has been through so much torment already, this feels like a death-blow. But he ends up moving on to a new purpose, and his storyline becomes, dare I say, second only to Audsley’s when it comes to being compelling. Wyland, who was once such an important character to me, continues his slide into oblivion, a victim of religious dogma that turns him into something despicable. And speaking of Audsley, he continues to have the most compelling and wonderfully written pages devoted to his efforts. When he fails, he fails badly, but still somehow manages to find solutions that overcome his problems. Finally, I agree with Calvin above that Kethe becomes a bit boring and she becomes the least-compelling character.

Early on we get a glimpse of the White Gate through Kethe’s eyes. What is this mysterious white light? And how do the multitude of demons near the White Gate manage to not be destroyed by its presence and power? And what the heck is Ascension, really…is it a lie as Iskra believes, or is it true and has been corrupted by the actions of a select few, or perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between? There are many more questions raised than answers given, which is surprising for a book of this size. I’m willing to push those answers out a bit further, but when combined with answers still pending from previous books, I’m concerned that they might never be revealed. I guess I’ll have to take a “wait and see” attitude until I get through the final 2 books.

The battle scenes are done fairly well as compared to previous books, and the siege itself is pretty awe-inspiring in regards to its scale, although I did struggle at times to picture the layout of the fortress accurately…a little more description of aspects of the layout in relation to other aspects is sorely needed at times. Another question I had that was quite puzzling to me was that in Bythos and Abythos, the Black Gate is fairly close. In the previous story it was established that Asho draws his power from the Black Gate, but he is practically powerless despite his constant proximity to it. I found this plot point convenient for the sake of the plot. Perhaps it was explained somewhere why this was the case, but I’m afraid I missed it somehow.

In conclusion, despite suffering from middle book syndrome, in The Siege of Abythos Tucker continues to offer up intrigue and compelling characters, along with excellent worldbuilding, that carry the series forward. I’m really hoping all my questions get answered in the next two books, and until then I’ll give Tucker a pass on keeping me in the dark. While the plot is a bit predictable, the characters often end up far from where they started, and that is a good thing. I really enjoyed The Siege of Abythos and hope Tucker can continue to build the momentum established, answer some of the burning questions I have, and throw in some plot twists to keep me guessing…

Status Update 6-4-19

Last week I completed reading James Islington’s An Echo Of Things To Come. The Pages Read Count for the year is now 5370. I’m now well into Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Quest, another doorstopper at 754 pages. Next up will be Cameron Johnston’s God Of Broken Things, which Amazon states is 432 pages. This will be a welcome respite from a bevy of massive tomes, because queued up after that is Brandon Sanderson’s Words of Radiance, which is over 1000 pages.

I had originally thought that reading The Siege of AbythosThe Wrath of HeroesAn Echo of Things to ComeFool’s Quest, and Words of Radiance would take me until the end of August to read; despite the fact that God Of Broken Things has been added in as well, I’m a bit more optimistic now that I might finish by the end of July, a month earlier than expected, which would be fantastic. If only I could keep up with the reviews!