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: 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.

The Black Shriving (damaged) Giveaway

As I mentioned in a previous post, my copy of The Black Shriving (Book 2 in the Chronicles of the Black Gate series) arrived damaged, with a crease across the front cover of the oversized paperback. Amazon sent me a replacement, so I thought I’d see if anyone would like the damaged copy for free. I’ll even pay for shipping! It will be shipped via USPS media mail so it won’t arrive quickly, but c’mon, it’s free! Leave a comment in this post if you wish to enter the contest. If I receive more than one entry I will use the RandomPicker website to determine the winner. The contest is open to continental U.S. residents only, and will end Sunday the 18th. The winner will be published either that day or on the 19th.

Here are some photos of the damage…

crease2

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Book Review: The Path of Flames by Phil Tucker

path of flames

Format:  oversized paperback, 1st Edition, 2016

Pages:  495

Reading Time:  about 12.25 hours

 

I picked up The Path of Flames after discovering that it was runner-up in the Self Published Fantasy Blog Off in 2016 held by Mark Lawrence. It received accolades from many readers, and I don’t think it is by accident that the cover is something one might see on an Elric novel. Not that The Path of Flames has anything in common with Elric, only that it sure couldn’t hurt sales to invoke such imagery. Other reviews of The Path of Flames:

Elitist Book Reviews

Booknest.eu

Fantasy Faction #1

Fantasy Faction #2

Vanessa at Elitist Book Reviews says the magic system isn’t explained well enough, the world-building seemed unfinished, and the plot has holes, but yet the story delivers on tension and the need to know the answers to many questions. Petrik at Booknest.eu is impressed by the strength of the female protagonists, but feels there was too much action and not enough character development, that Tharok’s point of view was disjointed, and is reminded of RPGs such as Dragon Age or World of Warcraft. Geoff at Fantasy Faction stated that the magic and religion reminded him of Dragonlance, feels all the trope boxes are checked, but that the story is enjoyable and the world and magic are interesting. Geoff’s counterpart at Fantasy Faction, J.C. Kang, felt that the strength of the story was in the excellent world-building and character POVs, points to a “Hindu-like progression (or regression) of reincarnation, that establishes a race- and location-based caste system“, and feels that the narrative prose is good but not as elegant as the world-building.

These are all excellent observations – I suppose I could stop right there and say “that’s a wrap!” But I feel like I have a few more things to add, so I’ll move on to discuss said things now, and if you’ve been reading my reviews, you know the drill – I’m going to spoil the story a little bit; however, no major plot points will be revealed here.

As the story began, I found the prose a bit choppy and jarring. Having read a lot of smooth-flowing prose recently (Devon Monk and Alec Hutson for example), it was glaringly evident that Tucker had a good story to tell but was having difficulty in trying to establish a smooth and consistent narration. As the story progressed, however, Tucker seemed to find a rhythm and the prose only occasionally interfered with the story. And what a story it was. I found myself swept up in events…from the opening large scale battle to a small tournament, then to the occupation of a ruined keep, a hunt for a demon, and a climactic battle – Tucker moves the story along briskly, with events unfolding in a believable manner, and often characters are faced with situations that give them no good choices. It’s compelling to follow these characters through their struggles, and I really had no idea where the story was going most of the time, which was a good thing – it wasn’t predictable.

I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with J.C. Kang: the world-building is top notch. Gate travel, floating worlds, frozen heroes and dragons, the Age of Wonders that predates the main religion (Ascension), the suggestion that Ascension is very likely not what it seems, ruined castles, 18 feet tall faceless demons, albinos living in caves near “hell”, seven “Virtues” (knights with magical powers)…it all creates an interesting world that I want to learn more about. Unfortunately, in this first book, some answers that are brought forth serve to only create more questions. The title itself refers to a a thin black book within the story that reveals The Path of Flames is “seeking the greatest good at the cost of the least corruption”, otherwise known as Sin Casting. However, the book is only briefly looked at, giving us nothing but hints as to why Tucker’s debut novel bears the same name. I also agree with J.C. about the Hindu elements, and I would add that the concept of karma makes an appearance as well, as doing bad things (as defined by Ascension) will get an individual reincarnated in a land closer to the Black Gate, while performing acts in the service of Ascension will move an individual closer to the White Gate and the afterlife.

I found all the characters were interesting and have a major part to play. Six POVs is a little bit much, and often takes the reader away from a POV that they find more interesting…Tucker could have stuck with four and that would have been sufficient. Although many reviewers felt that the story of Tharok feels like a separate novel, in his final chapter there is a reveal that puts him squarely in line with the other POVs. Did I see the reveal coming? Well yes, but that didn’t make it any less important – the events that got Tharok to the exact place and time that he needed to be, so that he will interact with the other POV characters later, I’m certain will be important in the next book. My favorite character was one that did not have a POV and possessed no magical abilities nor wielded a magic sword: that would be Wyland, knight and last of the order of the Black Wolves. Wyland is noble, level-headed, and full of positive energy despite the struggles he becomes embroiled in. Readers could be forgiven for thinking that this virtuous knight doesn’t quite fit in a story where darkness is everywhere and even the highest members of the Ascension have questionable motivations, but in a tale so full of religious zealotry, cynicism, and racism, Wyland is a breath of fresh air. There is a scene near the end between Wyland and Asho that is fantastic and hit home for me…sometimes all you need is for one person to believe in you in order to become something greater. I loved it.

There are a few problem areas in the story. Characters often experience sudden changes in emotions that aren’t believable – sometimes within subsequent sentences…it happens far too frequently to be able to ignore. The magic system does not seem to be well-defined yet, but I suspect it will be fleshed out in later books. A couple of the protagonists seem to have almost limitless powers from out of nowhere, and some powerful magic items are introduced, relegating the ending to one deus ex machina effect after another. In the later part of the story, as some of the characters are hunting a demon, the character with the POV at the time, Kethe, gets separated from the others, and the narrative follows her actions. When Kethe meets up with her mother later, the characters she was separated from just “pop” back into the story unexpectedly, with no explanation as to what happened to them after the separation…it almost felt like there was a chapter missing, and with only 10 pages per chapter, it wouldn’t have hurt Tucker to insert one here to tidy up things a bit. Finally, there are a few typos and some punctuation issues, but nothing too glaring that disrupted the story…actually, for a self-published novel, there were fewer than I expected.

In summary, from my perspective, the strong world-building and characterization win out over the deus ex machina devices, occasional stumbles with prose and the other issues I mentioned above. I can see the Dragon Age/World of Warcraft comparisons, but there are enough unique ideas here that have me intrigued, and with a plot that careens from one difficult situation to another without being predictable, I was thoroughly entertained and want more answers, especially about what Ascension really is. I have ordered the next book in the series, The Black Shriving, and will be tackling it, I hope, later this year…