I have to tell you, kind reader, I am kinda over Arthurian retellings – or at least those that don’t have anything new to offer. There is an absolute butt-load (technical term) of books that tell the story of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Personally, when it comes to classic iterations of this tale as old as time, I think you can just read The Once and Future King by T. H. White and call it a day. I just think that the classic iteration of Arthur is kinda boring and we don’t need 45 books about how he yanked a sword out of a rock by virtue of cosmic destiny. But, interesting new takes on the Arthur legend with big spins, well now I might be game.
By Force Alone by Lavie Tidhar, as the astute of you will have guessed from the title, is a grimdark retelling of the legend of Arthur with a focus on brute force being how he earned and kept his throne, not the divine right to rule. I suspect/hope I don’t need to give you a rundown of the plot of the book, By Force Alone follows the lore of Arthur more or less but with a couple of fun twists along the way. Where Force differs from other books in the genre is its focus on Merlin and Uther as the primary points of view. From this position, it serves as a major critique on divine right, stating that force alone and a tyrant’s willingness to use it secures the power of kings.
A focus on Merlin isn’t revolutionary in Arthurian tales, but this Merlin is certainly different. Tidhar paints Merlin as an “eldritch parasite” and I honestly could not come up with a more fitting description. Instead of your usual wise older teacher, this Merlin is young, shifty, manipulative, and obviously self-centered. He feels less like a mentor and more like that advisor character in Disney movies that is clearly the actual villain. When I started By Force Alone I was concerned that it might just be another grim-washed clone with hollow characters and I am happy to say that the cast has great depth. Merlin is an awful human, but he has layers of mystery and complexity that make him a fascinating POV to ride with. Merlins segments were by far the best and it felt like reading a new book whenever he took center stage.
The other character who steals the show is Uther, Arthur’s bombastic father who is often not talked about. Arthur actually doesn’t show up until a good way into the story and we begin our tale under the iron grip of his father. Uther is an awful tyrant to his core and builds the foundation upon which Arthurs criminal empire of knights will rise from. Uther doesn’t quite have the complexity of Merlin, but his POV is something I really haven’t had much time with when it comes to Camelot stories and it did definitely add a new dimension that I enjoyed.
As to the themes, I like them but I don’t think they are particularly poignant. I approve of the idea that the divine right of kings is bullshit and that history likely has painted conquerors with a golden brush when their legacy is actually stained by blood – but it’s not exactly a revolutionary take. While it’s fun to explore the idea of Arthur as a tyrant I don’t know if I needed a 400-page book making a detailed argument I think a lot of people would already agree with in this day and age.
Arthur himself, as always, is pretty boring as sin. In this instance I think that was the point, demonstrating that Arthur is nothing more than an idiot that was put on a pedestal, but that doesn’t actually make a very compelling character to follow. I don’t derive a lot of pleasure from seeing awful people bring about their own undoing with no outside agency, but that is a personal preference and I am sure that many will enjoy watching Arthur own himself.
In the end, By Force Alone does a great job distinguishing itself from other Arthurian tales through great characterization and original themes. But, the book didn’t give me a lot to think about or contemplate and that made it end up feeling a little shallow at the end. Still, if you are looking for a fresh take on the Knights of the Round Table then this could definitely be up your alley. It is probably worth reading for Tidhar’s brilliant Merlin character alone, but I am a hard sell on yet more stories about the jackass who yanked some metal out of a rock.
I’m not usually the guy on here to write about fantasy, though I do love it. If you went through my history, you’d see I tend to talk more about science fiction. But once in awhile, some fantasy books come along that I have to talk about. As you can probably guess from the title, The Sacred Throne trilogy by Myke Cole is one such set of books. This story is an ambitious grimdark fantasy that succeeds on multiple levels through Cole’s loyalty to his characters and immersive worldbuilding. While I would like to hype it up more before diving in, the review is quite a long one, so we should just get started.
The Sacred Throne trilogy is made up of the books The Armored Saint (previously reviewed by Andrew here), The Queen of Crows, and finally, the soon to be released The Killing Light. The story is centered on Heloise, whose life is thrown into turmoil when the Order arrives in search of a sorcerer. The Order is a group of religious fanatics who serve a Godlike Emperor. Their job is to make sure that demons do not take hold within the mortal realm, which happens when someone uses magic to any degree. The Order’s methods for keeping their world demon free would make the Spanish Inquisition squeal with glee. Heloise’s life starts to break down as she refuses to take part in an Order-commanded Knitting, a village-wide witch hunt, effectively refusing the Emperor’s decree. When the Order demands retribution for Heloise and her father’s actions, the town rallies around them in a small revolt. Heloise joins the fight and dons the Palatine armor, an armor reserved for those chosen by the Emperor himself, and helps to temporarily defeat the Order.
The Queen of Crows takes place immediately following the events of the first book. Heloise is recovering from her wounds from the battle with the Order to find out that the Palatine armor (think of it as a steampunk mechanical suit) she had been wearing was left behind in order to save her life. Heloise and her village are taken in by the Travelling people (known to the villagers as the Kipti, or homeless), who promise to safeguard them within their roving caravan. The surviving brothers of the Order are regrouping while the village determines what to do next. The obvious choice is to invade another small village, recruit them to their cause, and prepare to be besieged by a larger army. I want to avoid too much plot detail, because Cole did such an amazing job with the pacing by slowly upping the ante with each battle and each book. There is a deliberate and realistic escalation with each conflict that hooked me everytime. A grimness infiltrated every aspect of the story, and created an atmosphere that filled each calm before the storm with dread. I’m not usually one for pop culture references, but the trilogy felt like the Battle for Helm’s Deep stacked on itself three times.
To be a little more honest, I’ll say that the plot itself is a pretty standard “rebel against the current status quo” affair. Highlighting it, to me, doesn’t necessarily do the book a disservice, but I will say it’s not what hooked me into this trilogy. I’ll always be on board with “war against the crown” stories, but it takes a little pizzazz to make it feel new and fulfilling. That said, I think Cole did something special with The Sacred Throne. He built a fairly realized world within a short amount of time. He filled it with characters that felt so natural to their setting, it felt like reading a myth about a historical event. The brutality on display is stark and unforgiving, but Cole does a very good job not revelling in it. It’s a fact of life, and the characters who take it to the extremes see it as a duty, not a luxury, but it’s also inexcusable to people within the story. So I wanted to do a more thorough dive into what Cole does so uniquely within The Sacred Throne. I’ve tried to remain as spoiler-free as I can, but be aware that the events of The Armored Saint and The Queen of Crows will be discussed.
The setting feels like the foundation for the rest of what I want to dig into. Cole has built a small but expanding world that is bleak as hell, but incredibly compelling. The drudgery of medieval life is apparent from the first page of The Armored Saint. He makes the dreadful mundanity feel real, as if everyone has their purpose ordained and that’s all they have to live for, especially amongst the peasants. On top of all that, though, Cole built a hierarchical society that feels suited to the world he has created. The power of the Emperor infests every interaction between his subjects and the Order. The language Cole uses throughout the series to define the different relationships between characters and how they view the world is meticulous and deliberate, heightening the divide between the people that populate the land. There is a maliciousness to the ideology that feels apparent from the beginning, wherein the people respect the power and good deeds of their godlike Emperor, but hate the Order, known as the Emperor’s right hand, for taking liberties to enforce his Writ. They rely on their interpretations of the Emperor’s words to bear the burden of the Order’s boot heel on their back, creating an inescapable cycle of violence. This is not only seen in the narrative but reinforced by sections of the Writ, and the journals of Samson Factor, Heloise’s father, that preface each chapter.
Where the setting really begins to pull weight, though, is when the rebellion begins. I cannot stress enough how much I love Cole’s portrayal of a peasant revolt. It feels unplanned, frightening, and as though it could collapse at any moment. Everything I listed before worms its way into how Heloise, and the people who follow her, battle against the Order. There is a subtle and distinct way the townspeople and Heloise differ in their perspectives. Heloise knows, and does not hesitate to mention, that they are actively fighting against the Order, regardless of how the Emperor may be influencing them. However, there are a lot of townsfolk– her father included– who believe that the Emperor’s light shines upon them, and if they can just prove that by fighting the Order, things could go back to the way they used to be. They continue to fight, but only because their faith is placed in the very man whose laws have sentenced them to death. This is evident in the townsfolk’s language surrounding their fight, about how they revere Heloise as an instrument of the Emperor, and how the Order is a perversion of the Writ. This is not a rebellion to most of them, but a testament to their Emperor’s commands and their need to serve him to the fullest.
The rebellion gets even more interesting as it becomes more of a coalition between Heloise’s village, the Travelling People, and eventually the army of the Red Lords. The ragtag rebellion slowly becomes a Revolution, with the different parties vying for a similar goal, but not the same one. Cole manages to make the bickering of these different parties not only realistic, but interesting and conflicted. There is an incredible sense of urgency; decisions have to be made on the fly, and some people may suffer for it. Issues were left unresolved at points because they did not have the time, or even the ability, to solve them. What I enjoyed so much about these councils and interactions is the characters’ individual and community biases were front and center. The language hinted at what individuals thought of each other based on the groups they were from, and how they could use each other to achieve their goals. The Revolution’s success was a ticking clock, but the parties involved could not relieve all their internal tensions prior to the big battle. However, there was a give and take, along with a slow and very unsteady recognition of each other’s humanity and purpose. It was a succinct snapshot of what an unplanned revolution might look like, amongst people who do not have the terminology to understand their needs, let alone the time.
I’ve refrained from talking about Heloise through most of the piece up until this point because to be honest, she feels set apart from everything I have discussed. She starts with an innate distaste for the Order that is stronger than the ambient mistrust her village shares. She is more openly defiant in front of them, and the Writ seems to hold no sway over her. She does not seem to harbor negative feelings towards the Emperor, but neither does she praise him in the ways her father and the others do. She talks about her deeds as things she has done, or actions the armor allows her to take, instead of as divine acts from the Emperor himself. I say all this because it feels a little dissonant, until you realize she does not belong in this world. There is no vocabulary in the book that describes it, but simply put, Heloise is a lesbian, something the Writ forbids. Thankfully, Cole is not subtle about it, but neither is he indulgent in ways other authors might be. It’s simply a part of her; it feels important to her but also incredibly dangerous to let others know her secret. It’s integral to her worldview in that even if she were able to get the Order off the village’s back and the status quo restored, her existence would be still be dreadful, so she fights with everything she can.
Heloise has a similar, if more complex, relationship with her village as well as with the rebellion. In some ways, she helps to foster the rebellion with her open acts of defiance, but she does not force the village into it. They hide her family from the Order of their own volition. Only when she emerges from the tinker’s shop inside the Palatine armor does the village begin to subconsciously alienate her. Her community instantly and reverently otherizes her as soon as she is able to use the armor. The way they talk about her is different, no matter how many times she tries to downplay her role. How they listen to her also changes, as her opinion becomes the will of the Emperor in their eyes. She becomes a symbol out of the desperation that she and her fellow villagers all feel. Meanwhile, her encounters with the Travelling People and eventually the Red Lords are vastly different from each other. They allow her to feel a sense of responsibility and all the good and bad that comes with it. In return, she engages with the communities on their own terms, learns their world views, and attempts to reconcile differences between them in order to maintain the alliance. Her otherness becomes a larger part of who she is, allowing her to navigate the space between.
Within that navigation, Heloise starts to grow and become an adult. Her relationship with herself is easily one of the more rewarding aspects of the book, as Cole really dives into introspection. Given that the books are on the shorter side, I imagine it’s pretty tough to fit in small moments for Heloise to think about who she is. Cole puts a lot of effort into relaying how Heloise really feels about everything around her, making these moments seamless with the rest of the story. The interactions she has with nearly every character feel important and have a heightened quality to them. Her inner voice is incredibly apparent, especially when dealing with her father and other villagers who consistently place her on a pedestal. Over time, this inner voice becomes more resonant with how she talks out loud, forming a more coherent whole. It feels like Heloise is literally reaching out through the armor she wears, testing people’s reactions to her ever more radical feelings. This is nicely paired with the fact that the armor does not protect her from everything. She is consistently wounded, and sometimes even maimed operating the machine in battle. As I said previously, Cole does not delight in this mayhem, making Heloise’s injuries feel doubly important as if to say, you cannot hide from the world no matter how powerful your armor. Over the course of the three books, Heloise takes this lesson to heart, and it’s incredibly heart wrenching.
I had never read any of Myke Cole’s work before, and before reading this Andrew told me “Cole never does anything by halves.” I have to say, I have never heard more succinct or accurate description of an author, and The Sacred Throne highlights it brilliantly. Everything in the series feels honed to precision from the setting, to the character work, to the themes. It’s clear that a lot of work and love went into these books, and it doesn’t feel like a miracle that it paid off. Even weeks after reading them, I can’t stop thinking about them. My mind feels like a crow picking at a beautiful bounty of a corpse, always finding fresh little morsels to satiate my curiosity. So if you would, please come take part of this feast and enjoy all that The Sacred Throne has to offer.
Ratings: The Armored Saint – 7.5/10 The Queen of Crows – 8.5/10 The Killing Light – 9.0/10 -Alex
It has been a case study in character development for me to read The Raven’s Mark series, by Ed McDonald. Here we are at Crowfall, the final book in the trilogy, and we finally have a protagonist I can get behind. If you haven’t read any of my reviews on the first two books, Blackwing and Ravencry, you can find them in the links. However, to save you time the jist of my reviews is that I really wanted to love both these books, but a boring protagonist slowed me down. Our leading man, Ryhalt, was like a piece of coal sitting in the center of a beautiful crown in book one, dragging down the worldbuilding and plot noticeably. In book two, there were some signs that a beautiful gem might lay underneath if we just gave him a bath. In book three, Ryhalt finally feels like a shining diamond that improves, rather than detracts from, the beauty of Crowfall.
If you are unfamiliar with the plot of this grimdark epic, it roughly goes as follows. The Raven’s Mark tells the story of a land with two sets of gods: The Deep Kings and the Nameless. The Deep Kings want to consume everything around them and remake it in their image. The Nameless want to avoid death, so they consume everything around them in the name of murdering The Deep Kings – but aren’t as effective as they want to be. When faced with two sides of the same “die horribly” coin, the general populace of the world throws in with The Nameless as they stand a single step higher on a morality ladder that is descending straight into hell. Some of these people sign on as captains to The Nameless in order to better be able to fight. One of these individuals is Ryhalt, captain to The Nameless named Crowfoot (yes I see the irony). Our story follows Ryhalt as he tries to stop the world from ending repeatedly. Oh, and the series heavily features a magical wasteland called “The Misery” that is like a magical Chernobyl that is both sentient and malicious.
McDonald has a real talent for worldbuilding and plot. His universe is a horrible place to live, with most people living hard lives that often result in brutal deaths. However, there is a clear undercurrent of hope and struggle that runs through all three books that keep you coming back. His gods and villains are capital C ‘Cool’ and their machinations are weird, imaginative, horrifying, and engrossing to read about. As mentioned above, the real Achilles heel for me in the series has been Ryhalt. Despite being Crowfoot’s captain, Ryhalt always seemed out of his class when it came to the villains he struggled against. In the first book, it could definitely feel like the only element he was bringing to the table was ‘plot armor’ and it would pull me out of the story. This issue was partially alleviated in book two but is straight up destroyed in Crowfall.
Without giving too much away, Crowfall’s plot revolves around a bar-none-battle-royale for the world. The Deep Kings, the Nameless, and some independent agents have all spent the last of their power to compete for a magical McGuffin that will place one person at the top of the food chain. The action, subterfuge, and climaxes are edge-of-your-seat captivating, and Ryhalt finally feels like he is bringing the appropriate amount of thunder. I really enjoyed this book. It has all of the strengths of the previous two: epic plot, creative magic, love-to-hate villains, and a world dripping in atmosphere and lore that I didn’t feel ready to leave. But, it has also turned its principal weakness into another ace in the hole: Ryhalt is finally awesome.
Recommending grimdark series can be hard, as they are not to everyone’s taste. However, after reading Crowfall I can honestly say that I think almost all fantasy readers should enjoy The Raven’s Mark if they follow it through all the way. It has flaws, but the end result is a diamond that shines brightly in the fantasy landscape and Crowfall is one of the best series conclusions I have read in a while. Ed McDonald should be lauded for what he has created and I look forward to seeing where his creative imagination takes us next.
Today I have a review on one of 2017’s big debuts, Blackwing by Ed McDonald. This is the first book of the Raven’s Mark series and it has been getting a lot of praise, and a little disdain, from a good deal of people in the reviewing business. As such, I was very excited to sink my teeth in and form my own opinion. What I found was I agree with some points on both sides of the fence and that Blackwing is an exciting debut to a new series with a talented author, but it could use a little bit of polish.
The plot is a little complicated, so bare with me – I promise it is worth it. Blackwing is a harrowing grimdark novel that follows the story of Ryhalt Galharrow (get it because I said the book was harrowing earlier? Please don’t unsubscribe) as he makes his way in a dystopia torn by devastating war. In McDonald’s world two sets of god like beings, The Nameless and The Deep Kings, have been fighting each other for millennia. Ryhalt fights for the side of The Nameless, the mildly more sympathetic side who aren’t actively trying to kill every human – unlike The Deep Kings. However, though the Nameless are the only thing that keeps humanity from being destroyed by The Deep Kings, they certainly are not benevolent and kind rulers. The magics of both sides have warped and destroyed people and land alike. In particular, one of the Nameless set off a bomb to drive back a Deep King invasion that turned a huge portion of the continent into a wasteland called The Misery – killing a huge chunk of the population at the same time. While it is implied that there were once a large group of Nameless, at the start of our story there are only about four left. Ryhalt works for one in particular, Crowfoot, and is one of his Blackwings – apostles that feel something like park rangers that patrol the Misery against possible incursions. While the Misery is a hellscape one wouldn’t want to enter willingly, what actually keeps humanity safe from the Kings is a colossal weapon designed by another of the Nameless called ‘Nall’s Engine’ – basically the universe’s largest set of artillery cannons aimed at the Misery. Humanity must constantly gather magic and shove it into the engine to keep it primed, a task that leaves any who have the talent chained to the engine powering it until it cripples them. Our story begins with Ryhalt getting a message from Crowfoot that the engine might not be running quite as well as everyone expects, and to investigate.
I know that the plot seems like a convoluted mouthful, but McDonald has a real talent for worldbuilding. The world, culture, power structure, magic, and infrastructure of his setting are all extremely detailed and well fleshed out. Blackwing has a strong sense of identity that makes it feel like you are reading about a real functioning world – not a fantasy construct. It can feel messy, but messy by design not through lack of effort. Additionally, the magic of the book is both original and exciting to read. Humanity has sorcerers who gather light and turn it into energy. This is used both to power cities and Nall’s Engine, as well as in combat in a form of pyromancy. On The Deep King’s side, the minions we meet have a huge variety of powers straight out of a horror novel – most of which revolve around corrupting others. It makes for some edge of your seat action sequences that I really enjoyed.
On top of the world, McDonald has a great cast of interesting characters that I was very invested in. We meet members from all areas and walks of life that show us all the big and small jobs that keep humanity from succumbing to The Deep Kings. Speaking of which, The Nameless and Deep Kings had more depth than I was expecting and I really enjoyed learning more about them, in particular when a few get time in the spotlight. However, there is one exception to this praise about the cast, and it is really my one big issue with Blackwing – I really didn’t care about Ryhalt.
It isn’t as though I hated the protagonist, it is just that I really never felt attached to Ryhalt in any meaningful way. I believe a lot of that comes from the fact that he seemed to have little to no agency himself. A lot of our time with Ryhalt is spent watching other characters react to his personality, reputation, or rank as a Blackwing. In a large number of interactions between Ryhalt and his support cast involve them reacting to him being a Blackwing and whether or not they should respect him more. This lead to a lot of the supporting cast getting some deep characterization but leaving Ryhalt out in the cold a little bit. By the end of the book I was stuck with two conflicting feelings: the most important part of Ryhalt’s identity is that he is a Blackwing and that I cannot understand for the life of me the point or benefit to being one. It allows him access to insider information about The Nameless, gives him a rank above most soldiers (which in a military dictatorship is a pretty good perk), and helps him make the world a better place (sorta?) but I don’t really get why Ryhalt wants any of these things based on other aspects you learn about his personality. It was a speedbump on an otherwise fantastic novel, and I am hoping that Ryhalt’s character will see more development in the sequels.
With the exception of a slightly forgettable protagonist, Blackwing is an amazing debut that I greatly enjoyed. McDonald’s attention to detail and wild imagination has made a world and story worth reading about. It is definitely one of the more promising new series and I will be picking up the sequel as soon as it is available. The Quill to Live recommends Blackwing for anyone looking for a great dystopian fantasy/horror mashup.