Last year, we really dug Brian Staveley's debut fantasy epic, The Emperor's Blades. The trilogy's second volume picks up from the first, and Staveley delivers a solid and suitably epic adventure that ratchets up the action and muddies the waters, all while completely throwing all expectations out the window.
Staveley's Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne trilogy is set in the Annurian Empire, a wonderfully immersive fantasy world that was rocked with the death of its Emperor. In the first volume, the Emperor's three children, Kaden, Valyn and Adare, scattered throughout the empire, were forced to come to terms with his death and confront the massive conspiracy that lead to his assassination.
The second volume continues this already outstanding series, with a thrilling fantasy adventure that blends together politics, action and magic that continues an already outstanding series.
Some spoilers ahead...
The Providence of Fire picks up immediately following the dramatic, climactic events of The Emperor's Blades. Kaden and Valyn have been reunited following an attempt on Kaden's life, and work to flee from their pursuers. Adare, who had discovered that her leading general was enmeshed in the conspiracy, flees the Dawn Palace to assemble an army to challenge a mounting coup. Kaden and his teacher, Rampuri Tan and Triste are separated from Kaden and his Wing when they're attacked by the Flea and his Kettral Wing (a giant bird-based special forces team). Karen and company find themselves across the Empire where they're trapped by a fanatical group aiming to fight the Csestrimm. Meanwhile, Valyn and his wing flee to the North, intending to escape and regroup in Annur later on. Things get complicated from there.
Attending to what appears to be a military coup in the Empire would be enough to fill a book in and of itself, and to be honest, The Providence of Fire would have worked well being split into a pair of novels. The first half feels as though it's largely maneuvering to get the characters into place for a dramatic finish, which takes a bit of time to get going. However, Staveley does better with his latest than his first, as his numerous female characters are given a considerable amount of more page-time, particularly Adare, who plays a pivotal role throughout the novel. But, the book feels awkwardly paced at points with a slow start, and it could have used a bit more streamlining to make it flow better. That being said, it's a difficult book to put down once the action picks up, and it's easy to forgive Staveley on the numerous small detours that outline some of the character's surroundings.
This is a complicated book, following three characters across vast geographic distances. Staveley has more in mind than a simple coup story, and the storytelling unfolds in dramatic fashion as one reads deeper into the novel. Adare has been given new prominence here, and she becomes a major figure as she seeks out and ultimately raises an army to maintain her family's hold on the Unhewn Throne. As she does so, we learn that her father's assassination isn't entirely what it seems. Meanwhile, Kaden and his Wing find themselves captured by a warlord with a massive army whose existence threatens the stability of the Empire. While this is all happening, Valyn undergoes his own trials, meeting and accompanying one of the few remaining Csestriim left in the world, all the while trying to figure out who – and what – Triste is. Each of this disparate storylines contribute to a much greater whole, and the end result is a wonderfully machined novel that simultaneously plays out a more immediate storyline and its place in a much larger story.
One of the best things about this book is the deep sense of history that becomes readily apparent throughout. The Empire has its own history, and the characters frequently stop by ancient ruins and cities that continue to play a role into the present. There's a bit of indulgence here, but this all adds to the overarching plot, as several very ancient factions are found to be continuing to influence events in the present. In many ways, I was reminded of the sense of history displayed in J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin's fantasy epics.
In The Emperor's Blades, Staveley set up a number of pieces on the board: Csestriim are the evil, sociopathic race bent on destroying the human race. Leaches are akin to magicians and are maligned but helpful. The Emperor was a good man, with a stable Empire. Staveley upends all expectations in this book, as the three children embark on their own separate quests. We learn about some of the world's history through Adare from a pair of long-lost rulers who are on a quest of their own, while Kaden learns from the Csestriim historian Kiel about the centuries-long game that's being played by the remaining Csestriim. Valyn's path gives us a bit more of the current geopolitical maneuverings. With the pieces set up in the first book, Staveley takes different directions, upsetting expectations and sending us into a new and exciting direction that I never would have predicted.
These new directions really challenge the characters throughout the books. Like Martin, Staveley is willing to extract all new levels of pain and suffering from his cast of characters (which is significantly depleted by the end of this book). Where The Emperor's Blades focused primarily on training and preparation for hard times, The Providence of Fire is all about endurance in the lead-up of what is sure to be difficult times for all involved.
In the first book, we noted that there's a real Lovecraftian feel to some of the ancient horrors that we saw. This is accurate, but not in the sense of horrors from beyond the realm of understanding: what we get is a sense of long history that has been influenced by an ancient and rather terrifying race. As the this novel plays out its current human drama and warfare, Staveley shows that there's greater stakes lurking behind the curtains: the fate of the entire human race and the world as the characters know it are in true jeopardy, with the risk of complete and utter destruction.
The stakes are incredibly high, and with it, quite a bit of action as each of the three parties race across the map, assembling armies, escaping from harm, and headed to the midst of battles. The pace only picks up throughout The Providence of Fire, leading us to a surprising ending that leaves us hanging on for the next installment of the trilogy. Already, we can't wait to see what happens next.