A War in Crimson Embers by Alex Marshall fantasy book reviewsA War in Crimson Embers by Alex Marshall epic fantasy book reviewsA War in Crimson Embers by Alex Marshall

Fair warning: if you haven’t read the previous two novels in Alex Marshall’s CRIMSON EMPIRE trilogy, A Crown for Cold Silver and A Blade of Black Steel, you aren’t going to have any understanding for what’s happening in A War in Crimson Embers (2017). It’s vitally important that these books are read in order!

At the close of A Blade of Black Steel, the members of the new Cobalt Company were, largely, scattered to the four winds. Sullen of the Horned Wolf Clan, Princess-turned-General Ji-hyeon’s former Virtue Guard Keun-ju, and Maroto’s former compatriots Purna and Pasha Diggleby had been looking for Maroto, and ended up finding Sullen’s mother, Best, along with former Villain Hoartrap and his onetime-apprentice Nemi. They all briefly band together, then split up in A War in Crimson Embers, with Sullen, Nemi, and Diggleby heading back toward the Crimson capital city of Diadem in an effort to rejoin Ji-hyeon’s forces (and, secretly, fulfill Sullen’s goddess-given command to kill Cobalt Zosia). Best, Purna, Keun-ju, and Hoartrap head off toward the previously-Sunken Kingdom of Jex Toth, continuing to follow Maroto’s trail and discovering unimaginable horrors along the way. Maroto, himself, remains in the clutches of those horrors, and his desperation to stay alive just a little longer brings him to unknown depths of betrayal and cowardice, putting the entirety of the Star at risk of destruction.



General Ji-hyeon and her armies marched to Othean, the capital of the Immaculate Isles, believing themselves to be on their way to a diplomatic discussion with Empress Ryuki. But Ryuki proved treacherous, and in order to spare her own life, Ji-hyeon dived straight into a Gate, sending herself and her demon Fellwing into the First Dark — where she spends most of A War in Crimson Embers, fighting all manner of terrifying creatures and formulating plans for her return, as well as her eventual revenge. Meanwhile, Zosia and her demon Choplicker arrived in Diadem as the vanguard for Ji-hyeon’s armies, only to discover the city had been abandoned by the Burnished Chain and Indsorith nearly tortured to death in the dungeons. When Ji-hyeon’s armies don’t arrive as planned, Zosia works as hard as she can to keep herself and Indsorith safe, despite the best efforts of the warring factions who have flourished in the power vacuum consuming Diadem. And Pope Y’Homa III’s role in all of this is finally revealed, along with the terrifying extent of her delusions of grandeur.

So a lot is going on here — and I’ve only scratched the surface of what’s at stake and who’s involved. Marshall keeps all of these parts moving like a Swiss watch, though, and balances everything in such a way that he embraces the conventions of the epic fantasy genre while defying them at the same time. It’s truly an impressive feat, and I don’t know how he managed to create such a huge cast of characters while still keeping them discrete, or how he kept all of the plot-threads from tangling since the first book onward, or how he brought everything together for a stunning and truly hopeful conclusion, but he did. There are deaths, ranging from ignoble to well-deserved to tear-jerking, but not nearly so many as I had feared. There’s also a lot of hope: for reconciliation, for salvation, and for progress toward a new and exciting future.

I haven’t written much about the actual plot, and that’s a deliberate omission on my part: most of what happens here was set in motion way back in A Crown of Cold Silver, and to thoroughly recap and discuss this novel would mean unavoidable spoilers for the entire trilogy. A War in Crimson Embers requires many characters to engage in a lot of dialogue, a lot of self-reflection, and either stand around or march steadily toward the all-important fate-of-the-world battle waiting for them. While that may not sound exciting, Marshall makes good use of the page-space, and all of it becomes essential to understanding why and how he’s trying to do things differently.

A War in Crimson Embers and, indeed, the entirety of THE CRIMSON EMPIRE, has been about breaking cycles, about seeing the mistakes of those who came before and trying to do things differently enough that the same mistakes aren’t repeated. (Which is not to say that mistakes won’t be made, but it’s the effort to do better that counts.) Whether it’s Ji-hyeon refusing to follow the kill-and-replace-the-monarch pattern Zosia and Indsorith fell into, or Sullen’s desire to abandon the dictates of the Horned Wolf clan so that he can sing songs and bring joy to his loved ones rather than continually stain his hands with blood, or Alex Marshall’s own insistence that epic fantasy novels can be and do something new and interesting, their risks deserve to be taken. Luckily for Marshall, and fans of the genre, he’s succeeded. Highly recommended.

Published December 5, 2017. The final book in the Crimson Empire trilogy, a game-changing fantasy epic featuring an unforgettable warrior. Former warrior queen and now pariah, Cold Zosia wakes in the ashes of a burning city. Her vengeance has brought her to this – her heroic reputation in tatters, her allies scattered far and wide, and her world on the cusp of ruin. General Ji-Hyeon has vanished into the legendary First Dark, leaving her lover Sullen alone to carry out the grim commands of a dead goddess. The barbarian Maroto is held captive by a demonic army hell-bent on the extermination of the Crimson Empire, and only his protégé Purna believes he can be saved. Zosia must rally her comrades and old enemies one last time, for what will prove the greatest battle of her many legends…if anyone lives to tell it. FIVE HEROES. NO HOPE. A WAR AGAINST DEVILS.


  • Jana Nyman

    JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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