Brian Staveley won my heart with his fantastic debut last year, The Emperor’s Blades. It helped that the massive marketing engines of large publishing houses worked overtime to ensure that the book got up front and close to us readers even before it released. But one thing was certain – even as I closed the last page of book-1 – that Brian was just getting started. The scope of book-one was more personal – the fates of three royal children after their father, the Emperor on the Unhewn Throne, is murdered and how the lines of fate circle around each – never entangling except towards the fag end when Valyn gets to team up with Kaden – and as book one ended, we knew the stakes were getting much higher. There were forces involved here that went far beyond the courts politics of Annur and the Dawn Palace. And perhaps Kaden, the one undergoing training at the hands of the Shin monks, would be key to understanding the perils of this harsh brutal world – where the storm-clouds were beginning to signal a war that was going to cost not just the throne but perhaps something more.
Book-two expands – nay – explodes the scope to beyond epic. And in such a mind-blowing fashion that it took me a few days to come to grips with the ending of book-two. The ending just ripped away any reservations I may have had earlier about this series – A lot of them say Unhewn Chronicles doesn’t add anything to the genre, that it is a play on existing tropes, a story we probably have seen before of royal siblings finding their groove after the Emperor is assassinated. And to all of them I say – Stop! Read Book-two before you make your proclamations.
The last two-thirds of the book raises the level of writing and the depth of political intrigue in an epic fantasy novel to hitherto unknown levels – stratospheric to say the least. And it’s so immersive and engrossing that you might ignore the fact that this tome is probably much bigger than book-one – and easily just forget everything about your normal daily life to be sucked into this frantic whirlpool of epic fantasy goodness. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the sign of a good book. And of greatness still to come. For where book-two ends, the stage is set for some heart-rending face-offs, explosive and terrible at the same time.
Providence of Fire picks up exactly where The Emperor’s Blades ended – Valyn and Kaden, brothers finally joining hands and together on the run after the “incidents” at the Shin Monastery. I braced myself for some warm “brotherly” scenes but Brian clearly doesn’t believe in “soapy mushy” stuff. After all with the fate of the Empire still hanging in balance, there is clearly no time to engage in some nice brotherly “reliving” the memories of running around playing at swords in the corridors of the Dawn Palace. Nope. Both Kaden and Valyn are guarded – bristly like two porcupines facing off. I wasn’t fully convinced of this take from Brian yet – but somehow it works. In an ungainly manner to spur the story forwards by leaps. While Kaden is still confused about his role and clearly not adjusted to the fact that he is now perhaps, The Emperor – Valyn struggles with the haunting memories of his “Kettral graduation” and he is still coming to terms with his leadership under pressure of his Wing now branded a “traitor” by the rest of the Kettrals and the imperial troops.
Just as we’re settling down, sighing with relief that maybe now Kaden is safe – with the battle-hardened Valyn to guard his back - Kaden splits off with his umial, the mysterious Rampuri Tan to find answers to the larger plot of the return of the Csestriim – with Tan’s older comrades in arms, the Ishien. Meanwhile, a disgruntled Valyn runs into troubles with the native horse-riding savages, the Urghuls on the swampy borders of the Empire.
And just as we’re gasping for breath – recovering from this adrenaline-pumping chapters of both Kaden and Valyn, we rush back to the Capital. Adare – who sadly in book-one was more of a show-piece rather than active participant in the conspiracy theories at the heart of the web – decides to finally take things into her own hands. She flees the Capital – away from the regent and her lover, General Ran il Tornja whose bloodied hands are behind the assassination. Adare – who had the slimmest slice of the three perspectives from book-one, am happy to say, comes into her own in this book and is clearly one of the brightest spark of the whole story. Her character development arc is the best developed in book-two. Through her POV, the plot is driven firmly forwards and the largest wheel that is now spinning around the mysterious General Tornja is being clearly driven by Adare. Though yes – after a momentous meeting between the two, she again sometimes gets relegated to being a side-player and we feel that she is yet again a helpless royal bauble, being led by the charming General with his own ulterior motives.
Kaden is inheriting his father’s skills at negotiating and bringing people together for a cause. But with no formal training and apparently foes like a General he’s never met and a sister he doesn’t know, things aren’t a walk in the park. His encounters with “the Ishien” and then his later adventures within the Capital makes for some choppy and tense reading – fulfilling in terms of character-development (Kaden - He is fast learning new skills as a political heir should!) and the final few chapters and the ‘revelations’ about his companions ups the ante big time. Brian cleverly introduces a new POV – through the eyes of Gwenna – the demolitions expert on Valyn’s wing, stuck behind in the Urghul camp with sharpshooter Annick and the assassin Pyrre. I thought this was a great move – coming in perhaps a tad too late but definitely a welcome one – as Gwenna forms the perfect foil and lens to watch the epic confrontational battle unfold - between the amassed Urghul and a small set of defenders on this tiny choke-point village at the border. Pyrre gives us the only “light” moments in this whole grim brutal story – her quips are to die for.
Coming to Valyn – In book-one, he was clearly the whole glue behind the separated narratives of Adare and Kaden. The “star” POV for me. And in Book-two, in going after expansion of the plot and the world in conflict, Brian has unfortunately short-changed Valyn. A slow start followed by a scattershot confused narrative, he is a spectator to the events rolling by and doesn’t have much to do. [Until the final teaser moment where Brian flips everything in this series on its head. Shh…no spoilers] But rest assured as things come to a head in book-three, the three siblings are going to have a hard time reconciling with each other. This one’s going to be a crackling confrontation!
While Book one was about getting introduced to zen-cool vaniate or the super-cool Winged Avengers on their Kettrals and the whole pagoda of Gods – old and new, Book-Two builds up on the magic, the whole Kent-Kissing Universe gets a shot in the arm expanding beyond to encompass the marauding Urghuls at the borders and ultimately, the Csestriim finally get a face and conspiracies are crumbling while the factions are gathering, picking their sides for the final battle to follow.
The way this series is headed, I want to be in for a ring-side view of the explosive finale ( As Gwenna would have said it, ‘a Kent-Kissing Goat Fuck’ is on the cards, fellas!). A second book in a series, Providence of Fire isn’t bogged down by being a “bridge” to the final instalment. I have said this earlier, 2015 seems to be the Year of Second Books that challenge and trump over a triumphant first book. This one firmly takes the cake. Bigger, bolder and unequivocally EPIC, this book is like the stuff that got me into reading Epic Fantasy. It’s a refined version – suited to modern reader sentiments – being suitably grim and dark and full of explosive action yes but built on the foundations of an intriguing and well-built secondary world and a plot that keeps getting twistier than a dark chocolate pretzel and thus better. It builds up and showcases Brian Staveley’s immense talent and imagination – and for me, personally was a winner on all fronts. Worth every single line of blog-geekery and promo-buzz it has elicited!
This thundering series of political intrigue cross hatched with epic ‘Godly’ plotlines that dazzle and tantalize by turns, seasoned with a splash of magic should be on your MUST_READ_SERIES_EVER shelves. Go read it. NOW!!