Format: oversized paperback, first edition, 2013
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.