There is a very confusing forward to Sidewinders, the second book of The Fire Sacraments by Robert V.S. Redick. In it, Redick very helpfully recaps the major events of book one (which I would have been lost without) and then goes on to say that he sees Sidewinders as something between a sequel and a standalone. He claims that the book continues the story from Master Assassins, but it also serves as a totally new chunk of the story. I will level with you right here, I do not agree. If there is a single failing of Sidewinders it is that it feels like it lacks a unique identity beyond “the sequel to Master Assassins.” Putting that small flaw aside, I find myself with a rather perfect epic fantasy.
Sidewinders, and The Fire Sacraments in general, tells a slow-burn epic fantasy odyssey about two brothers, Kandri and Mektu, on the run for their lives with a world-changing delivery across a hostile continent. The first book details the numerous events that led them to be misidentified as master assassins and sees them on the run towards the continental capital of Kasralys. There, they plan to deliver a package that could free their world from bondage…if they can survive the journey. Sidewinders details the trip starting at the entrance of an insanely hostile desert and ending at the aforementioned Kasralys. The book still focuses most of its time on Kandri and Mektu (much like book one), but now also introduces a number of new perspectives of key individuals interested in the city of Kasralys. This results in an excellent bridge book with a lot of personality and a brilliant setup for a showdown in the capital in subsequent books.
The things that jump out immediately in Sidewinders are its incredible prose and complex characters. Redick’s authorial voice, vocabulary, use of language, and natural dialogue all do a top-notch job of bringing this world and its inhabitants to life. I read most of this enormous book on a plane next to another QTL reviewer, and I kept stopping to constantly show him brilliant interactions, poetic verse, and clever phrasing. Redick’s analogies and contextual comedy feel levels above his competition and the pure wonder of the writing helped make this slow burn never feel like it was dragging.
Coupled with this is Redick’s wide cast of characters. I was surprised that Redick decided to add as many mini voices as he did to the brother’s story, but I ended up wishing this massive tome was even longer so I could just get more time with everyone. All of his character creations have these wonderful flaws that add to, rather than detract from, his characters. It is a rare skill for an author to include terrible qualities about a person that make me like the characters more. Nowhere does this continue to be more apparent than with Kandri and Mektu, one of the most emblematic duos of sibling relationships I have ever read. Both Kandri and Mektu have issues, Mektu more than Kandri (though that might be my inner older sibling speaking). Yet, I found myself enormously invested and protective of them despite their flaws and constantly sympathetic to their setbacks. These are some of the best-realized characters I have read this year.
For some, the pacing of Sidewinders might feel a little slow. The core of this book is cataloging the slow and steady trial by the desert that the brothers face. It eschews large exciting set pieces in favor of slowly wearing the characters down like a rock sheered by sand over time. But, I never really felt like I was moving slowly because Redick’s world was so interesting to explore. It is a setting that has secrets under every rock and with a number of cool features that I will be straight up stealing for a future Dungeons and Dragons campaign. Redick takes a barren lifeless desert that damns all who enter to death and turns it into a paradise of life and exploration.
I had a great time with Sidewinders. It is definitely in my top picks for the best prose I have read this year and one of my favorite desert stories ever. Redick has one of the best depictions of sibling relationships in the genre, and this giant bridge book did its job in the series perfectly. I cannot wait for the third book in this series; check them all out when you can.
Rating: Sidewinders – 9.5/10