Wrath of Empire – The Best Kind Of Identity Crisis

This week I have returned to Brian McClellan’s series, Gods of Blood and Powder, to talk about the soon to be released second book – Wrath of Empire. The numeration of the series is starting to feel a little confusing, as this is the second book in the second series and the fifth book overall. However, the important thing to know is that Wrath of Empire continues both the story from, Sins of Empire right where it left off and continues to pull in the story of the original Powder Mage Trilogy. If you are unfamiliar with either the original books, or Sins of Empire, than this review is not for you and I am about to immediately launch into spoilers – but you can check out my reviews for both in the links. I moved the picture lower this week to specifically to keep you from reading spoilers in the next paragraph. For those of you who are still here, let’s talk about the war for Fatrasta.

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So, we left off in Sins with the Dynize empire rolling into town in force, our protagonists Vlora and Ben on the run to find the godstones, and Michel hiding in a hole hoping he doesn’t get murdered by his fellow blackhats. With the twist of Taniel’s return out in the open McClellen felt like he had a lot more freedom to kick up the plot development and things get moving fast. Michel is stuck inside Fatrasta with absolutely no back up, being hunted by every possible side. Vlora is on the move with Ben and a train of refugees and two different armies on her tail – both bigger in size. And Ben Styke… well Ben is a psychopath who just wants to murder people. That is where we pick up the plot and it takes off like a gunshot and never slows down. Michel quickly meets up with Taniel and agrees to try and sabatoge the Dynize invades from within, while Vlora and Ben split up to go after the two remaining godstones. The book continues to pull in old friends from the previous series to my extreme joy and I can’t wait to see who shows up next.

Pretty much everything I like from book one is still here in force. In the first review I mentioned the similarities between inspector Adamat in the first series and Michel in the latter, but the more I spend with Michel the more I reject that comparison and have come to love him. In the landscape of gods, generals, and warriors shaping the world around them – he is just a man trying to survive and help his people with his limited talents, and he is easily the most empathetic character in the story. It also helps that he feels like he is on every side in the conflict, leading a voice to all the players no matter how small. In Wrath of Empire, his infiltration to the Dynize brings them to life and shows an incredibly complex and interesting culture. His voice in the book is the driving force in moving the conflict from black and white to grey and he has steadily become my favorite character in the series.

That doesn’t mean that Ben and Vlora aren’t seeing their own growth. Ben spends a large portion of Wrath reconciling who he was with who he has become, and where his ideal person is in that range. He starts a revenge quest for people who betrayed him in the middle of the book, and I was honestly surprised and moved with the way it turned out. His inner journey is very well done and I found myself looking inwards as well as he contemplated who he wanted to be. On the other hand, Vlora knows who she wants to be but finds herself having trouble stepping up into that role. Her growth as a character is much more subtle than the other two, but no less important as she slowly decides how she feels about her adoptive father and brother and becomes a better leader. Overall, Wrath of Empire is about people figuring out who they are at a time in their lives where different external factors demand them to be different people. It is a really good piece of self identity while also having all the kick ass plot and action that I have come to expect of Brian McClellen.

In terms of negative, there was really only one complaint I had about Wrath of Empire. An important but difficult thing to do in books is to make sure that you create events that steer the plot in the direction you need without making it look like you are steering. Events in a book should feel like they happened naturally, not because an author needed to set up plot points. When you can see the “author’s hand” it breaks immersion and can be really jarring. While I have had this problem with Brian’s writing occasionally in the past, it never showed up once in Sins of Empire. Unfortunately, that is less true in Wrath with a couple scenes being egregious offenders. The worst I can think of is a moment that Taniel and Vlora arrive in a town together to hunt a godstone. Due to Taniel’s immense power at this point in the series, I suspected that Brian would need to find a way to “occupy” him while Vlora hunted for the stone – because Taniel’s strength would make solving most problems trivial which doesn’t make for good writing. What I didn’t expect was Taniel to “accidentally murder” two people within the first five minutes of being in the town, and then get thrown in jail for the exact amount of time they had to search for the stone. It was just a little too transparent. There were a couple moments like this in Wrath that sucked me out of the story, but overall they didn’t even dent my enjoyment of book two.

Wrath of Empire has flawlessly completes the baton pass of excellence from Sins of Empire and has helped Gods of Blood and Powder eclipse the already stellar Powder Mage Trilogy. The action is exciting, the plot is gripping, and the themes are deep and thought provoking. You can’t ask much more of Wrath of Empire, and it is going to be one of the strongest books of 2018.

Rating: Wrath of Empire – 9.0/10
-Andrew

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The Infernal Battallion – A Devilish Delight

Happy publication day Django Wexler, and congrats on finishing The Shadow Campaigns with your fifth and final installment, The Infernal Battalion. To celebrate I thought I would write a review (possibly thanks to the lovely advanced copy I got from netgalley in exchange for an honest review). The Shadow Campaigns has been a very difficult series for me to holistically rate. It has had both intense highs (with every action scene gripping my heart) and unfortunate lows (I don’t care how realistic it is, the logistics of moving an army through winter is not exciting). It is a series that seems to take two steps forward, one step back, for me and has alternated books I love with books I am neutral on. I wasn’t crazy about the fourth book in the series, The Guns of Empire, but The Infernal Battalion has reignited my love for this series like a demonic manifestation in an oil reservoir. If you are unfamiliar with The Shadow Campaigns, you should go pick up a copy of the first book, The Thousand Names, and come back to this once you have read the first four books. The following will have some mild spoilers, so turn back now.

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For those of you still around, let’s talk. I have worried since the end of book one that the finale of this series might be a let down. I feel like almost all protagonists who have a magic power that “cancels other magic” have the same ending – everyone buys time to give them a window to punch the magic villain who is overpowered as all hell. Winter certainly felt like she was going to fall into that category going into The Infernal Battalion, especially given how strong The Beast is. I am happy to say that while there is a little bit of the trope in Battalion, Wexler knew how to make things feel fresh and new. The strength of this series has always been more on its character development and action than its plot, but the ending of the story certainly wasn’t bad.

Speaking of great character development, Battalion completes the character arcs of every character in wonderfully fulfilling ways. The large and colorful cast all get interesting, unexpected, and satisfying endings. I was so worried how Jane’s story was going to end, because I assumed it had to go a certain way, and Wexler subverted my expectations completely and I loved it. Janus’s story is finally revealed in Battalion, and it lived up to my enormous expectations. All the love interests of the various cast panned out in satisfactory ways, and I got to the final pages and just wanted to pull everyone in for a massive team hug.

Additionally, the action in Battalion (something that has always been steller in the series) continues to meet the lofty bar established in The Thousand Names, with some really exciting solo fights as well. Wexler has a real talent for magical combat and one of my major complaints for the series is that there wasn’t more of it because the small snippets had me cheering aloud as I read them. Wexler’s dedication to historical accuracy of large battles is much more fun in a book like Battalion where there are large scale conflicts every few pages, compared to The Guns of Empire – a book that felt like it was mostly about the logistics of not dying to winter. I am super curious to see what Wexler will do next, because with his action scene skills I feel like just writing a story of a giant magical battle tournament would be incredible.

All in all, The Infernal Battalion ends The Shadow Campaigns on a really high note. It is a series with amazing characters and great action that will keep you up at night. While there were occasional pacing problems that really hurt the flow of the series, overall I think it is a fantastic read. Wexler clearly has an incredible talent for writing and historical accuracy, and I cannot wait to see where he goes next.

Rating: The Infernal Battalion – 8.0/10
Rating: The Shadow Campaigns – 7.5/10

-Andrew

Sins Of Empire – Feels Like A Sequel

28811016We have something called the “20% rule” here at The Quill to Live. We believe that a sizable number of authors simply don’t know how to start a book. It is the single most common issue we find with novels; authors have great ideas and prose but just don’t know how to get the story moving from page one. This birthed the “20% rule”, we never give up on a book until we have read at least 20%, as many books take off after the initial build up. This rule sparks a lot of discussion with the team on what I would consider a GOOD introduction for a comparison point, and whenever I am asked this I always say “anything by Brian McClellen”. This long winded introduction is simply to bring up that Brian McClellen is one of the punchiest, exciting, and fun writers I have read – and his recently concluded Powder Mage Trilogy is a real bang (reviewed here). This year Brian has launched a brand new spin off series in a different part of the world, but it isn’t a sequel…

… or so he says but I am actually going to disagree. Brian if it look, talks, and feels like a sequel, it is probably a sequel. Brian’s first book in his new trilogy, Sins of Empire, is a new chapter on a new continent with a newish cast – but for those of you looking for more of the story from the first trilogy you will definitely get your fill. The first trilogy ends at the culmination of a major war that almost destroyed the country of Adro. Tired of a war that spanned multiple books, the side characters Vlora and Odem from the first trilogy decide to take a mercenary army and travel to the frontier of civilization to seek employment. Once there they quickly become embroiled in local politics and revealing anymore would be spoilery.

Sins of Empire is a really interesting book to review, because McClellen has both grown as an author tremendously – but also feels like he should get a little more out of his comfort zone. First the bad: the POV structure of Sins of Empire is identical to The Powder Mage Trilogy (three POVs – a general, a warrior, and a spy). I would have liked to see Brian mix up his cast a little more, but despite retreading old ground he has shown enormous improvement. Brian’s first trilogy had an incredible plot, but it showed clear signs of being made up as he went. The books had this lingering feeling that Brian thought of amazing plot elements he wanted to incorporate, but always thought of them a little too late. This resulted in some confusing pacing of the plot and a few aggressive advancements of character development to catch them up to the rest of the cast. Brian clearly learned a lot from this because Sins of Empire has none of these issues. The book has some of the best pacing I have ever read (and he still knows how to start a novel with a bang), and the intrigue surrounding what is going on almost resulted in me finishing the book in one sitting. Sins is one of the most exciting books I have read this year and the ending left me begging for more.

While I made negative comments about Brian not expanding the cast a bit, I actually love his new trio. Vlora, the adoptive daughter of Tamas from the first series, has been wonderfully fleshed out and is a joy to read about. Likewise, Michel and Styke both bring a lot of fresh perspective to their roles and it took me about 30 pages to get attached to all of them. The location for the book is a place previously talked about in the first trilogy. The world building in Sins does a great job both giving you more information on past books while also bringing an entire new location to life. The city of Landfall where most of the story takes place is a captivating place with a very cool culture. I was a big fan of the roses that demarcate rank in the government roles as well as Brian’s inventive ghettos in the Greenfire Depths. Sins is the perfect blend of old and new, quenching my thirst for more of the plot from books 1-3 and building an entirely new platform to launch a new story from.

Sins of Empire blew my expectations out of the water and I am so excited to see Brian fix issues I had with his first series. The Powder Mage Trilogy is one of my favorite series despite its narrative and pacing problems, but Sins is on an entirely different level. If you enjoyed his first trilogy, if you want to check out a great flintlock fantasy, if you just enjoy great books it would be an…empire-sized sin…for you to miss this new series from Brian McClellan.

Rating: Sins of Empire – 10/10

The Legion Of Flame – A Battalion Of Hotness

Let me save you some time. The Legion of Flame, by Anthony Ryan, is great. You should absolutely go pick it up and read it (preferably after reading the initial installment The Waking Fire). Great, now we can get into the actual review.

61u8borhpml-_sx329_bo1204203200_Competition has been harsh this summer. As we pass through June and July, I have seen so many strong releases that it is getting increasingly hard to stand out from the pack. Or so I thought, until I got my hands on Anthony Ryan’s next installment of The Draconis Memoria, The Legion of Flame. Continuing the story of Lizanne Lethridge, Clayton Torcreek, and Captain Corrick Hilemore as they attempt to stave off a reptilian apocalypse, Legion picks up almost exactly where The Waking Fire, book one in the series, left off. The White has awoken and is gathering an army of dragons and Spoiled, and doom is coming. Cue our heroes rushing around to a variety of places to try to save the world. The cast has been expanded again, but telling you about the new POV and characters are direct spoilers, so you will have to settle with trusting me that they are excellent additions to an already great group of people.

One of my few complaints with the first book in the series was that while the story and world were inventive and fun, it felt like a lot of the finer details were glossed over in favor of the action. Why do the Corvantine Empire and the Ironship Protectorate hate each other so much? Who even is the Blood Cadre? Why didn’t Hilemore get more screen time? Luckily for us, The Legion of Flame explores more of the world and politics, giving us a much better understanding of why these conflicts exist and who the major players involved in them are. Liz is given a mission to go to the Corvantine Empire to attempt to negotiate a treaty between the Empire and the Ironship Protectorate in the face of the impending attack from the White and his legion of flame (see what I did there?). While we don’t spend a lot of time in Corvus proper, the time we do spend there is rich in detail and gives a much better understanding of the empire and its ruling class. While this is going on, Clay and Hilemore begin a voyage to the South Pole, in an attempt to fulfill the vision Clay saw when he got some white dragon blood in his mouth (gross).

Here we come upon another complaint of mine from book one that is remedied. Hilemore felt like an awesome, but unnecessary, addition in The Waking Fire, with Clay and Liz given a significantly larger portion of screen time. While he still has less chapters than the two of them, he is greatly expanded upon in a way that I felt was beneficial and added a measure of naval fun to a story that had mostly revolved around “Magic Indiana Jones” and “Magic Girl James Bond”.

Speaking of “Magic Girl James Bond”, Liz’s mission takes her to Scorazin, a prison city in the Corvantine Empire that “no one ever escapes from”. I loved this. While it did expand upon the unfortunate and unnecessary (in my opinion) romance between Arberus and Liz, the time she spends within its walls was fast-paced, full of intrigue, and action packed. There were twists aplenty and I was constantly waiting for her next chapter so I could continue the excitement. Liz continues to claw her way up the ranks of my favorite characters with her brilliant competence, interesting mix of cold secret agent mentality and strong moral compass, and asskicking prowess. Character growth is something that I have given Ryan a hard time for in the past, but watching Liz change as she is put through trial after trial is one of my favorite parts of this series.

Touching back on the romance, it seemed like it was a little forced, and only existed to add some unnecessary tension to Lizanne’s story line. Additionally, Liz’s motivations and drives become a little cloudy and hard to understand around the two thirds point in the book and I had a bit of trouble following the logic of her actions for a few chapters. However, this lack of clarity only lasts a short while and soon the book returns to the streamlined and exciting plot that pervades this entire series.

While it continues the overall story, and sets up book three with an absolutely tantalizing cliffhanger (the suspense is actually killing me), The Legion of Flame contains a remarkably tight story arc of its own, expanding many of the existing plotlines and spinning a whole tapestry of new ones that captivated and astounded me. I spent a ridiculous amount of my time reading this book having absolutely no idea where it was going. The characters are grasping at straws as they try to come up with ways to combat the White, and the narrative structure mimics this beautifully. I was worried that the reveals and twists at the end of the book would not live up to the build up and I was extremely happy to be proven wrong. I am barely able to contain my excitement for the next installment in the series, and continue to be impressed by Ryan’s growth as an author with each of his novels.

If you’re looking for an end of the world driven by dragons, great characters, and a fast-paced but intricate story look no farther than The Legion of Flame. The Quill to Live heartily recommends this book and series.

Rating: The Legion of Flame – 9.0/10