Book Review: An Echo Of Things To Come by James Islington

echo of things to comeFormat:  hard cover, first edition, 2017

Pages:  716

Reading Time:  about 18 hours

One Sentence Synopsis:  Wirr must deal with the fallout of repealing the laws against gifted and Augers; Caeden begins to regain his memories and struggles to deal with them; Asha investigates the disappearance of Shadows and discovers a greater threat; and Davian runs into problems at the Tol while his instincts urge him to get to the failing Boundary as soon as possible.

 

In my review of James Islington’s The Shadow Of What Was Lost, the first book in the Licanius trilogy, I praised his worldbuilding and character development, but I was concerned that 3 books would not be sufficient to effectively wrap up the plot. I really loved the first book, so did that carry over to An Echo Of Things To Come, or did it suffer from “middle book syndrome”? Read on to find out, and beware of spoilers for this book and the previous one, but first a few guest reviews collected from other sites…

James Tivendale of Fantasy Book Review says: “The narrative starts slowly and takes a few 100-pages to really get going. A fair amount of new characters are introduced or expanded on from the shorter almost cameo roles they had in the previous book. Andyn, Wirr’s witty and mysterious bodyguard was a personal favourite. Certain side characters never feel as fully fleshed as I would have liked though and more often act as devices to point the main characters in a certain plot direction. The magic scheme is still enhanced and pretty glorious though and through Caeden’s flashbacks we are given views of the phenomenal potential it can have as well as the history surrounding it and it’s past users…The magic-system, world-building, and character-development are sublime. The pacing was slightly off for me here very occasionally…The final third sees everything speed up and previous complexities seem to make sense. There are a few tragic moments, unexpected deaths, and brief torture scenes. All the story arcs conclude in an intense and exciting fashion…

The Quill To Live explains: “Book two however, is where the plot starts to really become clear. The Licanius series is all about time in many senses. While the magic of the world surrounds manipulating time’s flow, the themes that are explored by the cast also revolve around time. Some characters have lost their past and are working hard to discover who they are and what happened to them. Some characters are trapped in a terrible present that they want to escape, and are searching for anyway to rewrite the past or find a future with hope. And some characters have seen an echo of things to come and must prepare and plan to deal with what they know is inevitable…While it might be unfair to both series, I can’t help but think that Licanius is shaping up to be a better version of The Wheel of Time. It has all the things that made that classic great; a diverse cast, a sweeping epic world, an unambiguous evil to fight against, and a protagonist rising from nothing to greatness. But it also shores up a lot of the issues I have with Wheel (such as its pacing issues); however, no book is perfect. One of the POV’s in the story is a man recovering his memories. His segments are often used to give you insight into the backstory and history of the world as the character and reader discover his past together. This can unfortunately result in some confusing sections as following conversations with people he used to know can be difficult. On the other hand, if you can put up with being a little in the dark you will eventually have enough puzzle pieces to understand who everyone is and what is happening – and the payoff is definitely worth it.

The Eloquent Page states: “The thing I like most about this book is that each character’s narrative thread weaves seamlessly into the story as a whole. Take Caeden for example. As he uncovers more and more about his murky past, he has to confront the fact that he has done things he isn’t proud of. The question that looms ever greater in his mind. If push comes to shove, would Caeden choose his friends over the greater good? An Echo of Things to Come reinforces the idea that the author has hinted at before; there is no such thing as entirely good or entirely evil there are just endless shades of grey. Character perspective is key when it comes to events unfolding. Due to the gaps in his memory, Caeden is the character ideally suited for seeing both sides of the conflict. Islington does a great job of subtly exploring the nature of this dichotomy while ensuring his observations always enhance the plot…When it comes to epic fantasy I guess you’re going to expect a large cast of characters. I think a story’s ultimate success or failure is dependent on how well the author is able to flip between multiple different perspectives. George R R Martin is a master at this, and James Islington displays similar skill. A shocking admission I know, but in other epic fantasy novels I have skipped whole chapters whenever I realise it is a specific character that is being followed. Fortunately, I never felt the desire to do that in this case…Book two of The Licanius Trilogy achieves exactly what I had hoped for. Not only does it build successfully on the solid groundwork James Islington crafted in book one it also allows the characters to evolve. The second part of a trilogy needs to act as a bridge between the beginning and end of a story. All signs suggest that this latest release does exactly that. Like a massive fantastical boulder, An Echo of Things to Come gathers momentum as it hurtles towards its conclusion. There is little doubt that reading, never mind writing, this series is a massive undertaking but it is entirely worth it. Great characters, a plot that captivates and some first-class world building are coming together to create something quite special. If you like your vistas endless and your narratives legendary then look no further.

 

Character development continues to be one of Islington’s greatest strengths. His characters speak and act believable, with emotional depth, and their interaction, especially between Caeden and the immortals, is wonderful. If Islington’s characters lack anything, it is perhaps an absence of personality quirks that would make them more individualistic. Each of the main characters are capable of showing fear, bravery, determination and empathy, but they all feel just a little too “same”, for lack of a better word. They need a few odd quirks or mannerisms that set them apart from each other. Asha is still my favorite character, and she has some tense scenes in the catacombs that are riveting. Davian also has some compelling moments, particularly in sequence at the Tol where he and other augers are confronted, and the resolution is smartly written and satisfying. Wirr has been a wasted character to me, but the scenes in which he confronts his mother create a lot of tension and are well done.

I have to say that I am impressed by the structure of Islington’s writing and plot. This book (and series) is less a question about good and evil, and more so about destiny versus free will. Think about all the fantasy books you’ve read where events all just happily line up to get the story and characters where they need to go. Most of the time it’s actually far too unbelievable and convenient. Lucky breaks, timely assistance, alignment of multiple factors…most stories don’t even acknowledge how the plot elements perfectly fall into place in order to achieve the writer’s desired outcome. In An Echo Of Things To Come, Islington has made a conscious choice to bring the concept out in the open and explain why things happen. There are two opposing forces, or gods, in the story. One god represents chaos and destruction, and is initially depicted as evil. The other god, or “the good one”, manages to contain the evil one by creating a world of predestination, or fate, where every action has already been predetermined.

Where Islington’s story becomes intriguing lies in the question of whether the roles of the god might be reversed, and those fighting for predestination may be on the wrong side. It is something Caeden struggled with so greatly that he turned on his fellow immortals to follow the path of “evil”. This struggle is conveyed, as Caeden travels to a series of pre-determined locations, through a series of flashbacks that restore small bits of Caeden’s memory, with each location triggering a flashback through its familiarity to him. While this is totally fascinating, as The Quill To Live states above, it also serves as the main problem with the book: the flashbacks often cause confusion, because we don’t know the ancient peoples, cultures, and settings in which these flashbacks take place. By design, Islington has hidden much of the worldbuilding and brings it out little by little. For the reader, being given small pieces of information in the overall puzzle often isn’t enough to make sense of what is happening. Several characters have more than one name, which only adds to the confusion. I think an immediate re-read would help immensely, as I found myself skimming back to previous pages in order to put things together. It probably all makes sense in Islington’s head, but for me it was sometimes a struggle to maintain clarity. It’s no secret that I despise flashbacks as an over-used plot device in print or television, and this simply adds fuel to that fire.

With regard to pacing, aside from the flashbacks the book moves along at a decent pace. Davian’s story is naturally compelling as his race to the barrier is impeded. Caeden’s story is just as compelling as he unlocks the mystery behind his past. Asha and Wirr’s narratives should bog the story down, but Islington solves this through the tense scenes I described above. I hated to put the book down, and each time I couldn’t wait to get back to it.

The worldbuilding also continues to be sublime. Although Caeden’s flashbacks are a problem, as the story got closer to the end, I felt I finally had enough information to start putting the pieces together. As I begin to understand more and more of Islington’s world, I am impressed by the thought and scope he has put into its past. The concept of the barrier is nothing new; many books have barriers that fall and release an evil entity. But some of the concepts that Islington employs, such as how the barrier is powered, and how it can be crossed, is pretty unique.

In conclusion I was enthralled with this book, despite my concerns over the confusing flashbacks. The characters and worldbuilding, as well as some of the plot piece reveals and Islington’s ability to maintain tension, continue to support the excellence that began with the previous entry. To me, An Echo Of Things To Come never feels like a middle book or suffers from “middle book syndrome”, despite that being the book’s ultimate purpose. I’m still not convinced Islington is going to wrap up this series to my satisfaction in one more book; it’s more likely that much of the past will remain in the past and largely remain a mystery, unless Islington decides to write some prequels. I also don’t see how the plot will reach the point where Davian time travels to the present day from the future. I’m looking forward to the next book, but I’m a bit sad that the series is coming to end when it deserves a Wheel of Time‘s worth of material. So far, this is the best book I’ve read that was published in 2017, and seems like it’s part of a “golden age of fantasy” where the quality of material that has been recently released is unprecedented…

Advertisements

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!

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…

Book Review: Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft

arm of sphinxFormat:  oversized paperback, first trade paperback edition, 2018

Pages:  398

Reading Time:  about 9 hours

One sentence synopsis: Thomas Senlin and his crew look for a safe place to hole up as Senlin moves closer to finding his wife, but danger soon throws them into the path of the mysterious and god-like figure known as the Sphinx.

 

Last year, Josiah Bancroft’s Senlin Ascends blew me away…his imaginative world dripped with fantastic imagery and elegant prose that in my mind made it a literary classic, and was one of my favorite stories of all time. I approached this sequel with a mix of excitement and trepidation: the bar had been set high by the first book…could Arm of the Sphinx possibly live up to my lofty expectations? Read on to find out, but first here’s a look at some other reviews from around cyberspace…

 

James Tivendale of Fantasy Book Review states: “There are a larger number of point of view perspectives in the Arm of the Sphinx than in the previous entry. Written in the 3rd person, the characters we follow in addition to Senlin are the one-armed and trustworthy first mate Edith, the inquisitive and adventurous Voleta, her engineer and perhaps untrustworthy brother Adam, and finally, Iren who previously acted as a bouncer/bodyguard within one of the Ringdom’s seedy criminal underworld. The character development is excellent and the above-mentioned members of The Stone Cloud really grow and shine and they are no longer merely side characters in “The Thomas Senlin Show.” We are introduced to these characters’ personal thoughts and feelings which adds heightened affinity and I truly cared about each of these very different individuals. Bancroft writes an exquisite mix of fantasy and steampunk. As further mysteries of the Tower unfold science-fiction elements are introduced and merge seamlessly. The world-building is brilliant and totally unique. The grandiose and labyrinthine Tower is arguably the main character in this series and in this novel new Ringdom’s are introduced for the first time including the Silk Gardens. Each of the Tower’s many Ringdom’s is the size of a city and they all have great differences aesthetically, socially and politically. The only common denominator is that they can all present an extreme degree of danger.

Writer Dan from Elitist Book Reviews opines: “There were two aspects of the novel, however, that significantly detracted from the goodness of the book. The first you might have already guessed: point of view. Instead of the focused, driven, single (overwhelmingly) perspective of Tom Senlin we got in SENLIN ASCENDS, nearly every secondary character that calls Tom a friend got POV time, and there were even a few others that never even met the man. The main difficulty with this is that none of these various characters had anywhere near the motivation, drive, or persona of Tom Senlin, and so this diluted the story significantly. Additionally, there were egregious examples of head-jumping, which I just can’t abide…The second issue that really made me lose some of my steam for the book was the ending. With the title of the book being “Arm of the Sphinx” I fully expected that Edith would be a focus of the story, and she was. In my opinion, her POV was the only one that was justified though, and she should have gotten considerably more attention in the story. All of the others but Tom could have been removed, and it would have made the books much the better. With all the resulting dilution of the story, however, the ending really kind of fizzled for me, and it ended up feeling very much like the second book in a trilogy, or more directly: a setup novel for the final book. Granted, it was only the ending that made me feel this way. So much of the adventure of the entire book was exactly what I’d been looking for. With a lot more focus and energy, this book could have been just as good as its predecessor.

Finally, Dorian Hart of dorianhart.com writes: “First, the sentence-crafting is every bit as good as in Senlin Ascends. Bancroft’s sublime artistry with imagery and metaphors is on full display, making the story a joy to read on its lowest level. I found myself stopping to take notes on particularly lovely turns of phrase, which is not something I typically do while reading…It did feel to me like the author couldn’t quite bring himself to commit either to 3rd-person limited or true 3rd-person omniscient narration, and I did find the head-hopping to be distracting at times. Changes in POV sometimes felt haphazard and unexpected. But the story’s willingness to break its single-lead-character shackles was more a strength than a weakness; it allowed the author to treat us a tale of wider scope and at the same time give us wonderfully detailed characterizations. Of all the types of virtuosity on display in Arm of the Sphinx, my favorite was the author’s ability to present complex physical action with an almost uncanny clarity. I am reminded of a particular scene where [very minor spoiler] a character is trapped in a submerged boat by a monster, and the action could have been extremely confusing to follow in the hands of a less savvy author. But Bancroft made it so easy to follow the complexities of the scene, I never had to pause to reorient myself. All of his action sequences are like that – complex but clear. It’s a rare skill.

 

As the other reviewers have explained above, Arm of the Sphinx is very different from its predecessor. Where Senlin Ascends focused on Thomas Senlin’s point of view, his dogged, straight-line pursuit in search of his wife, and introducing the setting that is the weird and wonderful Tower, in contrast the sequel presents multiple points of view, drifts a bit and at times lacks clear direction, and instead of focusing on the setting of the Tower, instead begins to reveal some of the secrets behind it, much like the curtain being pulled back in The Wizard of Oz to reveal the true nature of the Wizard. In essence, it almost feels as though Bancroft abandoned his original plot and viewpoint to explore other ideas. At times, Arm of the Sphinx is better for it; at others, it suffers because of it.

The analogous phrasing that I loved so much from the first book is more subdued here, but the prose and descriptions are still absolutely stellar. At the beginning of each chapter, Bancroft presents sayings captured from books or other accounts that related to people or events in the tower. It offers a glimpse into the Tower’s past, which is expanded upon by the musings of the Sphinx, a mythical, god-like creature which is part of the mystery revealed as I highlighted above.

Whether or not the differing viewpoints are a benefit or detraction is a matter of personal taste. I enjoyed learning more about Edith, Adam and Voleta…their perspectives allow for a much wider look at the Tower and its denizens than what the single-minded Senlin provides. On the other hand, Senlin’s undaunted purpose, his influence on others, and his cleverness, which drove the first book to incredible heights, are largely absent here. When added to an unintended bout with a chemical substance, as well as Senlin’s wife Marya (who I loved in the first book) being largely portrayed as a negative element rather than a positive due to a plot twist, these things in my opinion cause Arm of the Sphinx to pale in comparison to Senlin Ascends. For most authors that would be a death sentence, but Bancroft is so talented that the story is still a delight in spite of this.

A lot of things I loved about the first book – the steampunk elements, figuring out how the Tower works (I was right on all counts as confirmed by this book), the unique settings, and wondrous moments – there’s still plenty of that to be found here. While the plot fairly bogs down and stagnates as Senlin becomes something of a joke and a side note, thanks to the other viewpoint characters (and Byron!) step up and the mysteries of the Tower and the Sphinx are revealed, I still did not want to put the book down. Another thing I appreciate is that it’s always easy to find a good stopping point when you only are able to sneak in quick batches of reading. And I loved how Bancroft, a self-admitted poet, paid homage to another poet by naming a character Byron.

The section of the book devoted to exploring The Zoo was perhaps for me the highlight of the book. This part of the story most closely resembles Senlin Ascends, with adventure, danger, intrigue, a touch of cleverness on the part of Senlin’s crew, and fair amounts of well-described action. I’ll not reveal too much here for fear of spoiling the plot…I’ll just say that it appears that The Hod King will return to this setting, and with a renewed focus on finding Senlin’s wife, I find that very intriguing.

Despite a host of problems, Arm of the Sphinx is still an exceptional story, told by a gifted writer. If I have one concern moving forward, it’s that Bancroft may have telegraphed his plot for The Hod King a bit too much. Hopefully the author surprises me with some twists and turns along the way, and I’ll be happy to be proven wrong. So I’m looking forward to The Hod King to see if it wraps up the series or if there will be more books, in order to see how it all turn out in the end…

Book Review: The Bonehunters by Steven Erikson

bonehunters

Format:  hard cover, first American edition, 2006

Pages:  984 (not counting a glossary)

Reading Time: about 25 hours

I’ll admit that I was a little worried about skipping Steven Erikson’s Midnight Tides in order to tackle The Bonehunters. My reasoning was that Midnight Tides was essentially a prequel, and I didn’t really want to move backward just to move forward. Would it create confusion and impact my enjoyment of The Bonehunters? Only one way to find out! But first, some guest reviews from some other sites:

 

Strakul’s Thoughts thinks: “This is yet another fine addition to the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. By now, the story is well in place and the characters are all familiar. As in every other book, the plot is epic and overwhelming. It is satisfying to see many threads connecting, but the sheer scope of it is vast. The author, unfortunately, tries to grasp everything at once and it requires a very dedicated reader to follow along…The story feels like it’s all over the place and far less focused than some of the prior novels. This is very strongly a middle book in that the characters are all known and are just positioning themselves (and making discoveries along the way) for the final confrontation. While there are clear climaxes or turning points in the novel, most of it feels like it’s jumping around trying to follow the diverse set of characters…As I have previously mentioned in prior reviews of the Malazan series, words of wisdom can be found among many of the characters, even ones of “lower” status. This is very much evident here and, in my opinion, have made the story a bit heavy. It is not surprising to start a chapter with a character undergoing deep reflections on the nature of life, gods, duty, love, etc. Sometimes interesting aspects of the world are revealed in such reflections, but more often than not these only add to our knowledge of the character. What is surprising is the frequency with which it happens and how it comes from characters we don’t expect. Soldiers or officers in an active army, I would expect, would be more focused on their tasks rather than, for example, wondering the nature of the gods. Some of these discussions feel a little out of place and can make the story drag a little.

Matt Hilliard of Yet There Are Statues says: “More so than previous books in the series, Bonehunters gets off to a distinctly slow start. The first third of the novel reintroduces dozens of characters from previous books and sets them in motion. Characters are traveling every which way on the Seven Cities continent, and since mapmaking is apparently a popular pastime for the series’ hardcore fans, it would be interesting to see an animation of the various characters and groups of characters criss-crossing the continent with their journeys. Much of the content of these traveling scenes takes the form of introspection, as characters think about where they’ve been (probably to help readers who didn’t recently read the previous books), where they are now, and what they hope to be doing in the future. It would be easy to overstate the problem here. It’s not boring, exactly. Erikson’s characters are thoughtful and have interesting observations. But in a series this long, for someone like myself who has been reading these books in a relatively short time period, it’s inevitable there’s some repetition…Perhaps my biggest problem with the introspect moments is they tend to emphasize one of my least favorite elements of the series, namely the way the characters so often seem weakly motivated. Why do Apsalar and Cutter work for Cotillion? Why is Fiddler still in the army? What is Kalam doing with his life now that he’s out of it? Where is Karsa Orlong going? The characters themselves wonder about these questions to varying extents, which is never a good sign…People like Quick Ben and Ganoes Paran are living in a high fantasy story as they struggle against the Crippled God and his allies. The soldiers of the Fourteenth Army, many of whom are colorfully fleshed out in the early parts of the novel, are in a low fantasy story about a military campaign. This allows us to view some of the same events from two very different angles, but it does make it that much more difficult for the myriad viewpoints to coalesce in the reader’s mind. The high fantasy characters tend to have strong motivations and clear goals, but they do their best to hide them from others, including the reader. The low fantasy characters are caught up in their machinations and wondering if they should be trying to free themselves, but they know even less than the reader about what’s going on.

 

The Bonehunters can, in my opinion, be divided into three acts. Act 1 follows a few characters around and culminates with the siege of Y’Ghatan. Act 2 follows the army as it leaves Y’Ghatan and attempts to rendezvous with the Malazan fleet, while at the same time following the actions of Ganoes Paran, the Master of the Deck of Dragons. Act 3 wraps up the story with a portrayal of civil unrest on Malaz Island, as well as a battle for the First Throne. So I’ll talk about each of these 3 acts, and then conclude with my overall impressions.

In his review above, Matt states that story gets off to a slow start, and I would wholeheartedly agree with that…for me, The Bonehunters starts out glacially slow in Act 1. This inhibits pace and any kind of momentum building. In this early part of the story a creature called a T’rolbharahl is released by the mysterious Nameless Ones. At first we only know that the Nameless Ones unleash this terrible entity in order to target a victim, but who that victim is remains a mystery; later, however, it becomes clear that the Nameless Ones intend this evil to kill Mappo and remove his influence over Icarium. Meanwhile the Malazan army is pursuing the remnants of Leoman’s forces across the desert until they reach Y’Ghatan.

One of Erikson’s writing traits that has been difficult to embrace is jumping around from viewpoint to viewpoint, with multiple viewpoint jumps within a chapter. It adds confusion, affects continuity and investiture, and definitely has an impact on pacing. I understand why this is done, and that’s due to the sheer number of characters that share their perspective. My question, then: is this really necessary? Think about what Matt has said above regarding character motivations, and then ask yourself if shedding a few viewpoints, especially when the character motivations are questionable, would make a more coherent, flowing story. My answer is undoubtedly yes. The siege of Y’Ghatan is a perfect example of this. Although there is viewpoint jumping during the siege, the viewpoints are among characters involved in the siege, and because the story focuses exclusively on this event, the payoff in continuity and coherence is evident.

Another Erikson writing trait that has been problematic is prose…specifically (and I’ll use the siege of Y’Ghatan as an example here), Erikson is not great at “painting a picture” with his words. He has great mastery of language and executes his action sequences effectively; however there are many times during his narration that I have to “fill in the blanks”, because the setting is lacking in detail. It’s stunning, actually, to say that about a nearly 1000 page book, but it’s true. Most of the prose is spent on character interaction, retrospection, and movement from one place to another, while very little time is spent on physical descriptions of the characters, or on places like Y’Ghatan, where I’m forced to draw on other stories I’ve read to picture what the city might actually look like. All that aside, the siege of Y’Ghatan is a great example of how much easier Erikson’s writing is to follow when focused on a specific event rather than jumping all over the world (and into warrens as well). The lasting effect of the siege of Y’Ghatan is that it ends the military campaigning on Raraku, and provides a replacement for the legendary Bridgeburner regiment – and that replacement is The Bonehunters.

Act 2 seems like it should slow down in pace, but I did not find this to the case. In fact, Erikson does a great job in building tension over this section of the book. What will be the fate of The Bonehunters? What is Ganoes Paran doing with Bridgeburner ghosts? Where are Icarium and Karsa Orlong traveling to? What havoc will the T’rolbharahl unleash? How do Cotillion and Shadowthrone show up everywhere? Why are they the only gods that seem to be personally influencing events? Who are the mysterious Perish? Although we don’t get answers to all these questions, it feels like the story is building up to something big.

If you’re looking to avoid spoilers, this next section involving Act 3 is that “something big”, and it is going to contain some major spoilers. It is the culmination of events that build throughout the story, and also some of the previous novels. In essence, it shows the folly of an empire that overstepped in pursuit of conquest. There is a price to be paid for war. Most often that price is blood, but there is also an economic cost, a social cost and a political cost. What I mean by that is that war is never popular within a civilized population. A society may believe they have good reasons for entering into war, such as possession of resources, to defend itself, or simply to subjugate other cultures. However, there will always be those within society that are opposed to war on moral or economic reasons; there will be soldiers within the ranks that do not believe in the orders they have been given or the competence of their leaders; and there will be allies that may decide the cost is too high and decide to sit the war out. During a war, the poor are the ones most likely to pay with their lives. Those remaining behind may feel the need to assign blame as the war strains resources and becomes increasingly unpopular.

So why the exposé? The Malazan Empire has been at war for many years, with campaigns recently being fought on two fronts. All the costs I mentioned above are becoming quite high. The Bridgeburners are lost, and the war on Raraku has stretched on for what feels like ages. The citizens of the Empire have had enough, and are looking for someone to blame. Empress Lassen could restore order by force, but that move would be unpopular and could lead to being overthrown. Instead, she decides it will be better to blame and sacrifice a group of people in order to satiate the bloodlust of the people and calm the unrest. I found this part of the book absolutely riveting…in fact, I will boldly state that these tension-filled scenes are the finest writing Erikson has executed to date. There are some eye-rolling moments, such as how a couple of villains from Raraku are now the top advisers of the Empress (without any explanation as to how that occurred), or the superhuman fighting by Kalam that is pretty much unbelievable. Still, these quibbles don’t detract from a fascinating depiction of the Empire fracturing in the course of one night.

The final occurrence in Act 3 is the unleashing of Icarium. We’ve been told what a danger it is to keep him from fighting, but here we finally see what the fuss was all about as he becomes a force that destroys everyone around him in the battle for the First Throne. This part of the book is where I regret having not read Midnight Tides, as there are multiple references to events and characters in that novel that affect The Bonehunters.

In conclusion, despite some pacing issues, viewpoint hopping, and a detachment due to a lack of detail, The Bonehunters is Erikson’s finest Malazan novel I have read to date. It is the brilliant conclusion on Malaz Island that really pulls everything from the previous books together and leaves me dying to know what happens next. I have high expectations for Reaper’s Gale

Book Review: The Death of Dulgath by Michael J. Sullivan

death of dulgath

Format:  oversized paperback, first edition, 2015

Pages:  392 (not counting author notes and preview material at the end of the book)

Reading Time:  about 10 hours

One Sentence Synopsis:  Royce and Hadrian take a consulting job on how best to perform an assassination (in order to prevent one), but like any good mystery, things are not as they might seem.

 

To this point I’ve really enjoyed reading the Riyria Chronicles, the prequels to the Riyria Revelations series, especially the previous book The Rose and the Thorn. As the thickest book in the series so far, and being the longest read, would that trend continue? Read on to find out, with some minor spoilers appearing, but first it’s time to host a couple of guest reviews from around the Internet…

 

Sarah of Bookworm Blues says: “The mystery of Death of Dulgath was rather straightforward, and didn’t overwhelm me overly much. What I truly enjoyed about this novel was the growth, the developing relationship between Royce and Hadrian, and the history of various cultures and peoples that Sullivan liberally splashed throughout the novel. Royce and Hadrian are obviously at their early years as a partnership, and Sullivan has a lot of fun showing just how trying and rewarding that early relationship truly was. He had me laughing quite a bit at certain moments, and feeling deep, powerful emotions at others. These two characters are so real they practically leap off the page. The world itself grows quite a bit as Royce and Hadrian end up traveling elsewhere on a job. Elsewhere ends up being a rather interesting place, with a medieval feeling culture that has quite a few surprises thrown in to keep things interesting. With a powerful religious influence, and an elevated lady who is absolutely her own woman. Thrown in with this are some fantastic dollops of magic and very ancient history. It’s quite ambitious when you consider just how much Sullivan packed into this novel, but it never lost its fun vibe or intense emotions. It’s hard not to love this novel. It really is a lot of fun, but it’s also quite educational and informative, and gives me a new perspective regarding some aspects of the rest of Sullivan’s novels set in this world. However, what always impresses me with Sullivan’s work is just how real it all is…He managed to make this book fun, and quite compelling at the same time. There are plenty of twists and turns, a good number of surprises, and a lot of pleasant intensity, but Death of Dulgath shines because I can tell that the author really loved what he was doing, and I felt that in the book.

Total Inability To Connect states: “The novel itself is, frankly, exactly what we’ve come to know from Riyria novels – somewhat complicated plots that the duo have to unravel, intense action scenes that showcase the strengths and weaknesses of the pair, interpersonal relationship conflicts between Royce, Hadrian, and the people around them. There are, however, some glaring differences between this novel and the previous two in the Riyria Chronicles series. The first, and biggest, difference being that this novel contains a MASSIVE spoiler for the Riyria Revelations trilogy. The kind of spoiler that completely takes the ‘oomph’ out of one of the main storylines in the entire series…The writing as the Revelations series goes on improves with each book, and I felt that reading the prequel books first put the reader in the right mindset for the series, and made the writing quality of the first book a bit more of a moot point, as the focus would be on the story and characters. However, that plan of attack is completely tossed out by Death of Dulgath, as it all but ensures that you must read the Riyria Revelations trilogy first, unless you want it to be spoiled by the revelation (sorry) in this novel…Sullivan handled many parts of this particular story very well – Royce and Hadrian’s interactions in this novel were quite interesting, still in the ‘feeling out’ process of knowing each other a little bit, and some more background was revealed about the pair of them. It also featured Royce and Hadrian in some of their weakest and most vulnerable states at any time in the series as a whole – both physically and emotionally. Both had their internal working stripped bare at times, exposing them, leaving them vulnerable and weak, and forcing them to overcome those lapses in strength…The writing in the books is what we’ve come to expect from later Sullivan – crisp and without excess, incredibly approachable for people of all reading levels, not lacking in sophistication but also not wowing you with the prose and structure. Sullivan makes his living as a storyteller, one with very easy-to-read works that appeal to a large audience, and he certainly has that part of things down. It works with Royce and Hadrian, and he is able to drop lore bombs, have impactful scenes, intense battles, and plot twists and turns, but without encumbering the reader…Unfortunately, I personally found The Death of Dulgath to be his most predictable work – I am fully self-aware that, as a reader, I am not always the most intelligent or active person when it comes to deciphering plot twists, diagnosing the story elements, or using my skill in soothsaying to predict upcoming events or endings. However, in this book I found myself easily predicting upcoming events, including the ‘main’ story twists.

 

Sullivan’s prose continues to be very approachable and smooth, getting better with each outing as Total Inability To Connect states above. In fact, the section of the review that states “crisp and without excess, incredibly approachable for people of all reading levels, not lacking in sophistication but also not wowing you with the prose and structure. Sullivan makes his living as a storyteller, one with very easy-to-read works that appeal to a large audience”…all of that is incredible insightful and right on the money as to how I felt about Sullivan’s writing here. After having recently read several average or disappointing efforts in my TBR pile, I was looking for something to “raise the bar”, so to speak. The Death of Dulgath comes close to satisfying that requirement, though it is not without flaws. Still, it was an enjoyable read that I gladly welcomed.

I was disappointed to find out about the “MASSIVE spoiler” in that review. I thought I was being clever by reading the prequels first, only to find out that this prequel ends up spoiling what comes later…c’mon Sullivan, it should be the other way around! Will this remove some of the mystery of the Riyria Revelations? I hope not, but sounds like that is very possible. I’m pretty sure I already know what that spoiler is, so it will be interesting to find out what the impact on me will be as a work through the original series.

The characters presented here are the strongest element in a mostly successful story. Royce and Hadrian continue to forge a strong partnership…so much so, that there are scenes in the story where each is dismayed that the other might have died. We know that isn’t the case, because, well, Riyria Revelations, but it’s still fun to watch the relationship develop. We get to learn a bit more about Royce’s backstory, as well as how he and Hadrian have become more comfortable together despite their different outlooks. I enjoyed the introduction of two strong female characters in Scarlet Dodge and Lady Dulgath…as I have mentioned in the past, Sullivan’s reliance on prostitutes as his main female characters has been a detriment. Here, however, are a couple of wonderful exceptions. Scarlet Dodge, a former criminal that is now living the placid life of a villager, and Lady Dulgath, who is eccentric and mysterious, are both welcome additions to the story. The other characters don’t stand out quite as much and are a bit predictable.

Which leads to one of the main problems with the book: the plot just isn’t very compelling. Mysteries are fine themes, and can offer some unexpected twists and turns to keep the reader guessing. Sullivan does that here to an extent, but thanks to some telegraphing – whether intentional or unintentional, I’m not sure – it’s not hard to figure out where the story is going. In addition, it takes the book a bit of time to build up some momentum as the groundwork for the mystery is established. The reviewers above use the words “straightforward”, “didn’t overwhelm” and “easily predicting”, and I would agree with that. The Death of Dulgath directly contrasts what I experienced in reading The Rose and the Thorn, where multiple possibilities really kept me guessing about what direction the plot would take.

Otherwise, the book had me turning pages, and I can’t really say I was ever bored, so Sullivan did a fine job of holding my interest in spite of what I wrote above. The action sequences are well done, there are some underlying currents that set the royalty and church on opposite sides, and magic is more prevalent than it has been in previous outings. There are some nods to the distant past (tying in to Sullivan’s Age of Myth series I’m sure), and other questions are raised, especially regarding Royce’s heritage and how he got interred in the salt mines, with only a brief explanation of how he escaped. I will say that so far the books are slanted heavily in favor of Royce when it comes to character growth. What I mean by that is with each story, Royce appears to be changing…swiftly in some ways (such as when Gwen is around) and slower in others, but there’s still progress found in stretching the character’s boundaries. Hadrian, on the other hand, seems mired in naivete and misguided intentions. While there is some growth found in his grudging acceptance of performing unlawful acts when needed, his personality doesn’t seem to be allowing room for him to change and really become more than he was at the beginning of the first book.

In conclusion, The Death of Dulgath is a fine story. Not quite up to the standards Sullivan set with the previous book, but still better than other material I have read lately. It is really the developing relationship between Royce and Hadrian that holds the story together and ultimately makes it satisfying. At some point I will get to the original series, but with the release of The Death of Winter’s Daughter last year, which is the next book in the Riyria Chronicles, it seems that the Riyria Revelations while have to wait a little bit longer…

Book Review: The Crimson Vault by Will Wight

crimson vault

Format:  oversized paperback, first edition, 2013

Pages:  380

Reading time:  about 9.5 hours

One sentence synopsis: As the Incarnations of the Territories begin to break free, and war breaks out between Enosh and Damasca, Simon and his friends find their allegiances shifting as they struggle to determine who their enemy truly is.

I was pretty impressed by Will Wight’s House of Blades – so much so that I purchased The Crimson Vault and City of Light in order to continue following the story. The Crimson Vault is the middle book in the series…does it suffer from middle book syndrome (existing only to bridge the gap between the first and third books), or does it exceed the first story (a tall order)? Read on to find out, and I’ve actually managed to keep spoilers to a minimum this time. First, however, we turn to some other reviews online. I was a bit concerned as I had trouble finding reviews from sites other than Goodreads or Amazon, which can be a bad sign, but I was finally able to settle on a couple thoughtful reviews.

 

Benjamin Espen of With Both Hands states: “There really are few comic book villains or heroes in the Traveler’s Gate trilogy. Almost everyone has a reasonable motivation somewhere along the line. Simon, son of Kalman, is moderately introspective, but neither talkative nor gifted in seeing into other men’s souls. Thus, Simon does not often stop to inquire why the people he is bludgeoning or stabbing would do the things that they do. Fortunately for us, there are a number of other characters in the book more interested in these things, and more adept at drawing them out, so we get to see a remarkable amount of moral complexity. We also see conniving, backstabbing, greed for power, and pride in ample measures. Then there are miscommunications, judgments made from partial information, and motives that while otherwise just, simply work at cross-purposes with what someone else wants. When evil is done, it is not uncommonly because inflamed passions, or personality defects combined with a surfeit of power, run away with someone…Every Territory is like that: an embodiment of a virtue that has gone so far in a quest for perfection that you literally cannot see any of the other virtues from where you find yourself…All of the Territories tend to just embody their respective virtues turned up to 11. This excess of virtue is bad enough on its own, but when you mix them all up together without anything to put them in order, bad things happen.

Wizard’s Blog says: “Compared with the first book in the series, this one has a lot more point of view characters. I think this is an improvement, because one of my complaints about the first book was not understanding some of the main characters because we spent very little time with them, but it does make it harder to keep track of what’s going on… I do still feel like the author should have spent some more time with some of the main characters so that the choices they make seem less arbitrary – with Alin in particular I feel like I’ve been told what he’s done and why he did it rather than experiencing it with him and empathising with his choices…It does have a plot arc, but (unsurprisingly for the middle book in a trilogy) it leaves a lot of things for the third book to resolve. Overall it’s better than the first one but not perfect.

 

The Crimson Vault is a much different book than House of Blades. At first they seem similar, as something bad happens in the beginning and then the rest of the story centers around the fallout from that event. The plot of House of Blades could be boiled down to “young man trains to become a hero then goes on a mission of revenge”. Conversely, The Crimson Vault focuses on a large scale battle, shifting allegiances, and as Benjamin calls it, “moral complexity”. The plot is much more chaotic than the straight and narrow line its predecessor walks, and although some plot points are revealed, they don’t really have the same impact of those in the first book, which were more intricate – those “a-ha!” moments, and had me drawing comparisons to Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn. The Crimson Vault didn’t really have the same effect.

Though Simon is still the focus, more time is spent on developing the other main characters, Alin and Leah, which is of much benefit to the story. Leah’s development in particular was one of great interest to me. The “succession”, or those siblings of Leah’s who want to take her father’s place, has taken a toll on her and pushed her towards a destiny she never saw coming. I was also able to empathize more with her character as she struggled between that destiny and the empathy she felt from her time spent in Simon’s village. She seems particularly focused on “the greater good”, where some must die in order to save multitudes. Simon and Alin don’t quite grasp or agree with this concept. It is a perfect contrast between the outlook of the ruling class and the working/villager class.

The Crimson Vault suffers from the same issue that I felt afflicted House of Blades: it simply isn’t long enough. Although it is 100 pages longer than the first book, some of the scenes in The Crimson Vault suffer due to brevity, in particular the large scale battle I mentioned above. There is no page time devoted to the actual siege of Enosh by the Damascan army; the layout of Leah’s war camp is not described well, and the battle with the Incarnation had me wondering where everyone was in relation to each other – what were the soldiers doing? How did some people just disappear from the battlefield? Were some characters simply bystanders? A lot of detail that would have been very helpful to “paint a picture” or “set the scene” is missing. As a result, I felt greatly detached from what is perhaps the most important sequence in the story. Finally, although I admire Wight’s effort to try something fairly groundbreaking, I felt that the sheer amount of changes and chaos, combined with the lack of detail mentioned above, gave the story a feeling of being “all over the place” and lacking focus.

There are a few other problems, such as how Simon was able to use a very dangerous artifact for so long without becoming an Incarnation himself, and although Wight’s writing has improved in this second book, there’s some modern phrasing used that is distracting and out of place…it felt more like I was reading subtext in a Final Fantasy video game than a fantasy novel. Which in turn reminds of another problem, the “leveling up” of the characters, particularly Simon…it’s almost like I’m reading about a video game being played as Simon and Alin get more and more abilities and items as they gain experience. And speaking of Alin, his character was inconsistent with regard to the portrayal of abilities in House of Blades. In that story, he seemed to have almost endless reserves of power when battling the Overlord. Yet here, he seems barely able to get past less (or equal) opposition, and in a couple of cases is forced to retreat. It felt like he was actually weaker when he should have been stronger.

In conclusion, I feel a bit isolated in saying that I actually enjoyed House of Blades more. That does not seem to be the case for most other reviewers, who on Goodreads and Amazon proclaim that they liked The Crimson Vault better. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that this sequel is a bad story, and I enjoyed the improved characterization of Leah and Alin…the plot just didn’t grip me and have the same payoffs at the end that the first book did, which is typical of “middle book syndrome”. I’m still quite interested in finding out how things will turn out in the final book of the series, City of Light.