Honestly, I could give Brian Naslund’s Sorcery of a Queen (2020) a four just for the following jail-break exchange:
“Stay exactly two paces behind me at all times … Stop when I stop, move when I move.”
“So, your plan doesn’t involve putting on pants?”
“Could we maybe restrategize so that it does?”
I got to that bit of dialogue around three a.m. and let out a “Hah!” loud enough that I immediately cowered in expectation that my wife, asleep in the room next door, was about to offer up a none-too-happy commentary on my waking her three hours before work. Luckily, she slept through my outburst, which meant I got to keep my marriage intact and also keep reading. Which was a good thing, since while I could give the novel a four based on the above scene, there was a lot more to enjoy in Naslund’s sequel to Blood of an Exile (for which there will be some inevitable spoilers to follow, so fair warning).
The story opens with, as a hapless guard puts it, “a stranger who claims to be a witch queen. An emperor-killing exile. And a notorious thief.” That would be Ashlyn, the queen in exile from her homeland Almira; Bershad, the seemingly unkillable dragonslayer; and Felgor, thief and debauchee extraordinaire. The three are sailing to the country of Papyria to regroup after escaping the first novel’s big climatic battle, which was, as we’re told in the opening line of this one, “a goatfuck.” After a dragon attack and a meeting with the Papyrian Empress, they’re all off on another quest, this one to a mythical island filled with monsters. Or pirates. Or demons. Or maybe piratical, monstrous demons. That’s the problem with myth; it’s seldom precise.
The island is supposedly where brilliant-but-psychopathic Osyrus Ward (the main villain of the series) did the research that led to the technology he’s been employing to create repeating crossbows, flying ships, and other weapons that have allowed the Emperor of Balaria to wage its wars of conquest. The goal, therefore, is to find his lab and notes and hopefully figure out a way to stop him. Things, as one might imagine, don’t go smoothly.
Meanwhile, Ashlyn’s sister Kira, new wife to said Emperor of Balaria (Ganon) is fighting to gain some power over the country’s workings, aided by her elite warrior-bodyguard Vera and, reluctantly on Kira’s part, Osyrus Ward, who finds common cause in her attempt to undermine the power of Actus Thorn, Ganon’s appointed Prime Magnate (basically Ganon has abdicated all decision-making to Thorn). And finally, back in Almira, young alchemist Jolan finds himself caught up with a small group of soldiers fighting against the man who usurped Ashlyn’s throne.
As one often hopes for a sequel, both the scope and the stakes of Sorcery of a Queen are greater than its predecessor. Stakes have risen past the local concerns of book one and we see more of this world as we travel to the island, Papyria, several cities in Belaria and Almira, in addition to references to other lands.
We also see both characters and the relationships between them growing and changing. The lover’s relationship between Ashlyn and Bershad is wonderfully drawn, each of them strong, mature individuals in their own right albeit stronger together, and they play off each other with utter equality and respect. Jolan’s tale, meanwhile, thanks to his youth, is more of a coming-of-age storyline, but one that is nicely constructed in how it is almost in conflicting harmony (how’s that for an oxymoron) with itself, with him more assured and confident in one aspect of his growing responsibilities (as a medic) and utterly at sea and hesitant in another side of his changing life (his love life). Naslund does a great job as well with non-romantic bonds, whether it’s the bantering bond between Bershad and Felgor, the band-of-brothers bond amongst Jolan and his new-found comrades in arms, or the mutual respect born out of competency between Kira and Vera.
That last despite the fact that Kira’s storyline is probably the most perfunctory of the multiple strands. Or maybe perfunctory isn’t the right word, but there’s a calculation to Kira’s plotting that, for me at least, was somewhat distancing. Jolan’s story, meanwhile, was moving on multiple levels. And the main trio’s strand was rich with a host of strengths: suspense, humor, science (I love me some science in my fantasy), humor, body horror, humor. While some of the book’s near-500 pages could have been trimmed, when it felt a little bogged down it was never for long, and I happily breezed through it in a single sitting. It didn’t hurt that Naslund throws in some well-timed twists in the latter fifth or so of the book as well.
Sorcery of a Queen is also thematically strong. Whereas book one spent a lot of time exploring environmental/ecological themes, here Naslund puts particular focus on technological change, for good and for ill. As one old soldier notes,
The world is changing … For a long stretch, war was about training men to fight … Now we’re chasing flying ships made from dragon bones … This is the problem with living too long.
Technology is a powerful tool in this world, but like all tools, it can be horribly misused, and so we see its potential beneficence but also, we see in stark, vividly grim detail the havoc it can wreak. On that note, I should add that Naslund is not shy about being graphically detailed, whether describing corpses, detailing the horrid effect of weapons, or coming up with some creatively vulgar taunts. Not a book for those who easily blush or who prefer their horror implied rather than illustrated in painstaking detail.
As I said in my review of Blood of an Exile, I hadn’t expected much when I picked it up based on the description and cover, and I was therefore pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Here, my expectations were higher, and so I can’t say I was surprised, but I was happy to see that Sorcery of a Queen kept to that high standard and didn’t suffer from the dreaded MBS (Middle Book Syndrome). I’m looking forward to the third in the DRAGONS OF TERRA series, though I’ll make sure to keep the door tightly shut when I read it late into the night. Better for my marriage that way.