Just as I was getting tired of magical school stories, I found myself presented with possibly the best one yet. Some years it is difficult to know which books will be in your top picks and other years you get standout paragons of excellence, like James Islington’s The Will of the Many. Islington already rates highly in my standing for his brilliant fantasy series about time travel, The Licanius Trilogy. Yet, I find myself already liking The Will of the Many more as it manages to take everything amazing about his first series and expand on it. As the first book of The Hierarchy series, it is brilliantly self-contained and a perfect gateway to a larger narrative. It focuses on a sort of senatorial magic, where lifeforce is stolen in a pyramid of people who sit above you. Amongst its themes is the examination of societal frustrations around how elected officials don’t actually represent you and just hoard power for themselves–an idea that will resonate with many currently. And it features a complicated protagonist that adds layers to the “orphan on a vengeance quest” trope.
Speaking of, our story centers around the first-person perspective of Vis. Vis is the last living member of an island royal family that was brutally colonized by The Catenan Republic, also known as The Hierarchy. He escaped by fleeing to the streets and living as an orphan and is trying to make ends meet without being discovered. But, when a senator of the Republic, Telimus, discovers him and notices his surprisingly robust education and physical stamina (courtesy of growing up a wealthy prince) he is stolen from the streets for an insane scheme. Telimus wants Vis to infiltrate the elite school of the Republic. The Republic is split into multiple wings (military, government, and religion) and despite their willingness to work together when eating up foreigners, they hate one another. Thus, Vis is forced to sneak into the most heavily scrutinized institution in the Republic, the training grounds of the children of the Catenan elite. Vis must balance a plethora of identities, and numerous patrons with different agendas, all while pursuing his own plans of vengeance against the people who ripped his family and homeland apart.
Vis presents a fascinating protagonist with a wealth of depth and complicated motivations. His initial driving force is simply a desire to survive but this bends and flexes into more complicated goals as he faces challenges both externally (through his many patrons and their demands) and internally (as he learns more about the world and himself and finds lines he will not cross). His upbringing as a privileged noble of land that got colonized makes him more than just a victim and the implications of the story are more nuanced than a pure innocent getting back at the bad guys. His antagonists are also fabulous as Vis is truly a man alone at sea. His adoptive parents, his friends at the school, and the teachers also represent potential allies and enemies in this complicated game of subterfuge. He never knows who he can trust, but this is a world built on the bonds of men and women, so trusting no one is absolutely not an option. It makes every choice Vis makes feel like a game of Russian roulette and I was stressed the entire book.
The magic system is also fascinating and adds to the themes of the story. Every person in the Republic “cedes their will” to someone above them in the power structure, giving them half of their life force. Those at the bottom of the pyramid simply lose half of their life force. Those one step up gain the life force of 8 people below them, but then cede half their life force to the level above leaving them with a life force of 4.5 people. This chain counts upward concentrating power more and more. As you gain more will you are endowed with the strength and endurance of multiple people and you can use your will to animate and control objects around you. It is an interesting magic that has real-world allegories to how our political system works, and just like in the real world, I look forward to a hero burning it down because it is hopelessly corrupt. At age 18 all individuals are forced into the bottom tier to start working their way up (which spoiler, doesn’t happen in any meaningful way). Vis has managed to avoid ceding his will via the foreigner street urchin tactic, but hiding this factor is a constant problem as he begins his life as a spy.
The Will of the Many bursts at the seams with positives. It is a story with a fascinating protagonist, stressful drama, a rich world with a magic system that enlarges the story, relevance to current societal frustrations, clever themes, a trench of depth hiding beneath the surface, and catalyzes a much bigger story in its wake. I finished an ARC of this book two months before it comes out, and I wanted to find where Islington lives so I could hold knock on his door and beg for the rest of the series. This is one of the easiest perfect scores I have given in a while, I cannot shut up about telling people to read it, an absolute must-read of 2023.
Rating: The Will of the Many – 10/10
An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.