I am back from Europe where I bought way too many heavy books that I had to carry home. While on my trip I managed to read a number of books that I am excited to talk about, starting with The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn, by Tyler Whitesides. The book actually comes out today, and since I haven’t seen a lot of people talking about it, I thought I would do my duty to bring it to your attention.
Ardor Benn is a massive (~800 pages) heist novel that I have had my eye on for awhile. It is Tyler’s debut work and is extremely impressive in size and scope for a first book. The story follows the aforementioned Ardor Benn, ruse artist extraordinaire, as he steals from the rich and gives to himself across the archipelago in which the story takes place. The world and plot that Tyler has created in this book is definitely its best quality, and is one of the most interesting settings I have come across. Ardor, known for his con talents, is sought out by a priest who hires him for a multi-stage heist to save the world. The heist part of this heist novel is excellent with each stage being complicated, exciting, and engrossing as you watch Ardor and his crew work through a series of roadblocks on the way to their prize. The pacing is mostly good, with the book moving quickly despite its massive size, but there were a few moments where it felt like the plot was dragging its feet as it went through the minutiae of planning various ruses. In the end though, the plot kept me deeply invested until the last page despite a couple of issues becoming apparent the deeper I got into the novel. However, before I talk about the bad, let’s talk about more of the great: the worldbuilding.
The world of Ardor Benn is fascinating, deep, and well written with a complicated nation laid out for you over the course of the novel. You slowly learn about the backstory, government, religion, and economy of the islands, and Tyler has made an original and interesting world that I want to be in. In addition, there is a “magic system” that revolves around a substance called “grit” – material that has been fed to, and pooped out of, dragons for processing. Depending on the material fed to the dragons, different kinds of explosive grit can be made to do a number of different things such as: make orbs of light, cancel gravity, create explosions, or form barriers. The book heavily revolves around grit, and it is a cool idea for a weapon that results in tons of weird fights where people are using the various effects to gain an upper hand.
Although I loved the world and the plot, Ardon Benn was not flawless and as I got further and further into the book, a number of small issues started to snowball. First, the characters. A key issue with this heist novel is that despite the book having multiple POV, more than one antagonist, and a number of side characters, there is really only one character of import in the story – Ardor Benn. Ardor is a great character himself, but the more time that you spend with his supporting cast, the more you realize that they have no depth and are only there to make Ardor look good. Take Ardor’s partner in crime and oldest friend, Raek. I was super excited to get to know Raek, a goliath of a man who is great at math, because his introduction was awesome. However, as the book progressed, Raek would disappear for hundreds of pages at a time – only to return when Ardor needed a cool tool or gadget that only Raek could make. Then there was the thief that Ardor partners with for this massive ruse, Quarrah. Quarrah was clearly meant to be a major part of the narrative, even being one of the POV’s through which the book was narrated. But at the end of the day, Quarrah’s story really only consists of her having internal monologues about one of two things – how her skills as a thief have left her woefully unprepared to be a con artist (which while true, got super old after 400 pages of it) and how Ardor Benn was the greatest person she has ever met in every possible way. Both Raek and Quarrah has no depth at all, and I found myself very unmoved when they revealed their backstories later in the novel. I am slightly exaggerating when I say the only character was Ardor; both the priest who hires them for the job and the King they are trying to rob (spoilers) are interesting and fun – but it doesn’t do enough to make up for the fact that 80% of the book revolves around Ardor. The book is simply too long to spend that much time talking about one person.
The one additional problem that Ardor Benn has, besides some of it cast, is Tyler tends to over explain what is happening in the book sometimes. There was one instance in particular that is burned into my mind, where one character threatened another (very obviously) and Tyler wrote what felt like a paragraph of internal monologue of the threatened character saying “this guy is threatening me”. A big part of the fun in heist novels is the balance of understanding what is going on, and the mystery of guessing at what you don’t get. Tyler leaned a little to much into giving the reader full understanding and it turned a few passages that might have been thrilling into dull exposition.
Despite ragging on it for two paragraphs, I want to stress that the plot and world of this book are one of a kind and I definitely still recommend it and will be continuing on with the series myself. This is a very impressive debut and Tyler Whitesides is clearly a talented writer with a lot of potential. However, there are still a few kinks in his writing and this book desperately needs some more leads to share the narrative load. All in all, it was an original and thrilling read, and if you can get past some issues I am sure you will love The Thousand Deaths Of Ardor Benn.
Rating: The Thousand Deaths Of Ardor Benn – 7.0/10