I really hope Anthony Ryan reads this review because if there is one thing I want to accomplish with the following pile of text, it is to thank Ryan for finally adding a recap of the previous book to the start of one of his enormous novels. I cannot express how much better this made my reading experience of The Martyr, and I would have bumped my score of this book by an entire point if that wasn’t a mathematical impossibility due to how good it is. As you might have already picked up, The Martyr is the second book in Ryan’s new series The Covenant of Steel, and the sequel to The Pariah.
When I read The Pariah, I thought it was good, but it felt more like a setup book without its own clear identity. It turns out I was correct as The Pariah tells the story of how our protagonist Alwyn Scribe bounces around the world from role to role searching for his place. The book feels like gathering resources and laying foundations so that Ryan could build a house, and The Martyr is the actual building of that fantastic house.
At the end of The Pariah, Alwyn has become the right-hand man of a reborn martyr and an agent of a literal crusade. Trapped in his role due to lies told and a sword of Damocles waiting for him outside the army, he is forced to “make it work” or die trying. But as this crusade gets up and running, Alwyn must deal with the fact that he is the only one who knows his martyr/prophet is a fake (even the martyr herself doesn’t know). As such, Alwyn knows that their fight is not blessed by god, nor is it preordained to victory. He finds himself in between a thousand rocks and hard places and then must scramble to make everything work out despite continuous insane and unfavorable circumstances.
There is an aura of tension and unease that just exudes from The Martyr. This is one of the best examples of a house of cards I have ever read, and there are so many breezes that threaten to knock it down. Alwyn’s frantic desperate energy is infectious and made me extremely agitated in a deeply unpleasant yet incredibly impressive manner. No one is safe, everything is a lie, and the name of the game is constant extreme stress.
I love how The Martyr takes all the pieces put on the table by The Pariah and starts fitting them together. Ryan loves to take traditional military fantasy campaigns and then infuse them with undercurrents of mystery and magic. This has had some mixed results in previous series but it is executed perfectly in The Covenant of Steel. The military strategy and mystical undertones both work fabulously alone, but combine into something that is better than the sum of its parts. I really enjoyed how the book always keeps you from gaining balance. There is always some urgent emergency that distracts your attention and keeps you from putting it all together. It is both engrossing and immersive.
Alwyn is a character that grew on me constantly in book one and has fully come into his own in book two. His actions in The Martyr are much more decisive and conscious, and it feels like his identity has finally coalesced. The book, unsurprisingly, has an interesting and complicated relationship with religion as being both a source of good/power and a corrupting/evil influence. Ryan uses Alwyn’s eyes to tell a very nuanced story about the world’s church that feels more complicated than the usual fantasy church = bad. As an atheist myself, I enjoyed the refreshing shades of grey on the subject.
As always, Ryan’s prose and action scenes are a cut above. There are many battles and fights in The Martyr, and all of them stand out as some of the best kicking, punching, and stabbing of the year. Awlyn’s identity as a thinker, not a fighter, was an unconventional one for Ryan to pursue, but I definitely think it worked out in his favor.
Taking a step back and looking at The Martyr as a whole, I cannot help but declare it a stunning success. On top of being one of the most polished and atmospheric books that Ryan has ever written, it also uses the great foundation set by The Pariah to build a story of staggering heights. As the mysteries of The Covenant of Steel continue to unravel, I find myself further and further obsessed with its secrets. The book is fabulous and has raised my recommendation of the series from good to a must-read.
Rating: The Martyr – 10/10
I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. The thoughts on this story are my own.