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