Alright, so I might have made a miscalculation. Back in (and I had to check my calendar to verify this because time has become meaningless) the distant year of 2018, I read a book called The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn, by Tyler Whitesides. I thought it was decent and showed promise, but I was not overwhelmingly enthused. As a result, I slept on the sequel, The Shattered Realms Of Ardor Benn, for months despite having a lovely ARC from Orbit, thinking to myself it will be there when I get to it. Now having actually read the second installment I am confronted with the fact that I really liked book two and might have done a disservice to the first book. Now, before you get your pitchforks, I want to caveat that this isn’t entirely my fault. After some reflection, I have isolated that a large portion of my dissatisfaction comes from the fact that despite being marketed as a heist story, the series isn’t a very good one. However, what it is, is a very good adventure hiding behind a heist story. Let me explain.
So why do the Kingdom of Grit books not work as heist novels? For two key reasons. The first is that the world, plot, and magic of the story are way too complicated for what usually works for a heist novel. There are too many moving pieces, too much information the reader needs to ingest, and too much leg work that needs to be done to make the twists feel gripping. There is just so much going on in these novels that any time there was a major reveal my reaction was less “gasp, that’s amazing” and more “okay, I am confused, please explain to me how that worked.” Not all heist stories need to be simple, but often the best ones revolve around clear foreshadowing, high reader buy-in, and a protagonist that always feels one step ahead. This brings me to reason number two: I don’t buy Ardor Benn as a genius crew master.
Now don’t get me wrong, I like Benn as a character plenty. I just have a hard time seeing him as the incredible mastermind. Whitesides does not show me enough evidence that Benn has his act together. Most of the justification of Benn’s brilliance is through his arguably unearned reputation and Whitesides just telling the reader ‘he is really clever.’ Every person in the world talks about how they’ve heard of Benn’s incredible exploits, and Whitesides constantly tells us how clever Benn was in a situation without actually showing us. All of this made the series as a heist a hard sell for me, but, when we flip the paradigm upside down and look at the series as an adventure story, I would argue it works fabulously.
Here is a list of things I really like about this series that didn’t fit into my original expectations of what the story was:
- It feels like an epic fantasy. The stakes are world ending, the cast is enormous, the world is well-realized, and the action is extremely exciting.
- The world is super interesting. All the different factions, races, and historical events weave a veritable tapestry that you can use like a warm, heavy blanket. This is particularly true in the second book, The Shattered Realms Of Ardor Benn, where the pacing was much improved and I found myself gliding through a panoply of interesting developments.
- I constantly hungered to learn more about the magic. A huge portion of the second book revolves around a team of scientists developing new magical spells to change the world and investigating the implications. It was awesome.
- The expanded cast is fantastic, and it is great to take the emphasis away from Benn for the aforementioned reasons.
- I am extremely invested in the greater plot, and so are the characters. What is interesting about my points and book two is a major portion of the story is about Benn realizing there is more to the world than cons and starting to try to change the world for the better. This theme resonated with me enormously, as you can hopefully see mirrored in this review.
All of this goodness splashes together to form a really enjoyable book with minor heist elements. When I came out of The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn I gave the book a decent score, said it was a promising debut, and went on my way. When I came out of The Shattered Realms Of Ardor Benn I sat down to brainstorm how to write a review that is a thinly veiled request to Orbit publishing to forgive me and send me a copy of book three, which is already out because Whitesides apparently writes an 800-page book every few months. It’s very rare I am this excited about the second book in a trilogy; this is worth your time.
Rating: The Shattered Realms Of Ardor Benn – 8.5/10
P.S. A slight aside. Orbit also seems to have updated the cover art from the version I have for my ARC, and I am a huge fan of the new art of the series.