I have to admit, I groaned a little bit upon opening the envelope with my ARC of Brian Staveley’s The Providence of Fire. “Six hundred pages? Really, man?” might have slipped out as well. I liked the first in the series (The Emperor’s Blades) though I thought it had some flaws, giving it a solid three-star rating. But I had some serious doubts about a six-hundred page follow-up. Well, apologies to Mr. Staveley. The Providence of Fire earned every one of its six hundred pages and then some, showing itself in all ways an improvement on book one. After The Emperor’s Blades, I was interested in what followed but after The Providence of Fire I’m excited and impatiently awaiting book three.
In the first book, the emperor was murdered and his three children (Kaden, Adare, Valyn), scattered across the empire. They were all set upon, albeit in different ways. Each managed to survive and in book two each tries to go on the offensive and regain the throne: Adare from within, Valyn from without, and Kaden from a mix of the two. What had seemed a relatively simple palace conspiracy/coup however, is greatly complicated by the reappearance of an ancient and implacable enemy of mankind and then by a series of revelations (which I will not detail) that repeatedly throw into question what the characters and the readers thought they knew/know. Throw in the lack of long-distance communication (something I’d say too many books just ignore or hand-wave away), and these characters are moving almost entirely blindly. This constantly shifting ground, the eye-opening revelations, the lack of surety and clarity — not only with regard to events, but to characters and motivations, was one of my favorite aspects of the novel. Alliances are fluid, foes become friends and vice versa and vice vice versa, trust is given and withheld and betrayed. As a reader, you’re never quite sure whom to root for, never sure if certain actions are for good or ill in the long run. As one of the characters says:
She envied the Aedolian his ability to stay true to his convictions, and more, she envied him the convictions themselves. She had had convictions once, beliefs about justice and honor, right and wrong, but the slow turning of the world, like a mill wheel over grain, had ground them down to flour so fine that it slipped softly and silently between her fingers.
That was Adare, and one of my complaints in book one was how little we saw of her character in relation to her brothers. That balance is greatly rectified in The Providence of Fire. In fact, one of the benefits of the greater length is how much time we get to spend with each of the siblings, whose stories are equally intense and compelling, and nicely differentiated as well as varied, involving a mix of politics and violence. The time also lets the characters slowly develop as actions and revelations have their impact. As characters change, so do the readers’ views of the characters, another strong facet. In fact, Staveley takes a risk with the changing views and with how focus slips a bit from one of the major characters, though I think the risk turned out to be worth it.
These characters deepen as the book goes on, showing different faces to the reader — some good, some bad — and I found myself captivated by their predicaments and their decisions, their plans and their fears. Even better, this strength of characterization extends far beyond the main characters into many of the secondary characters.
In my review of the first book, I pointed out that several of the characters and plot points seemed a bit stock, and one could argue the same here. If you’ve read much fantasy after all, I’m sure you’ve come across your fair share of sharp-tongued crones, uber-loyal guardsmen, barbaric horse lords, and the like. My issue with The Emperor’s Blades wasn’t so much that Staveley was employing well-worn tropes but that the execution wasn’t there to make them more than that. This was a weakness in The Emperor’s Blades, but here these secondary characters are complicated by a unique twist or are simply given a sense of individuality and humanity.
Each of the siblings is part of a group whose other elements therefore become just as interesting (or even more so). This includes a general who may or may not have murdered the Emperor, and who may or may not be the Empire’s only hope against a possible Mongol-like invasion; the leader of said Mongol-like tribesfolk, who may or may not be invading; and an old crone (sharp-tongued, naturally) and her feeble-minded brother, neither of whom are what they seem. Meanwhile, minor characters from the first book come much more fully into their own, especially several of the female characters, another improvement over the first book.
Beyond characterization, pacing is spot on, the prose is smooth, and the action fast moving, all adding up to a book that feels far shorter than its six hundred pages. I finished The Providence of Fire in two sittings and had I not started it at night I would have kept going and done it in one. It’s been a while since I’ve read a book whose plotting was such a constant stimulating pleasure and a series whose second book was such an improvement on the first. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens with book three. Highly recommended.
Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne — (2014-2016) Publisher: The emperor of Annur is dead, slain by enemies unknown. His daughter and two sons, scattered across the world, do what they must to stay alive and unmask the assassins. But each of them also has a life-path on which their father set them, destinies entangled with both ancient enemies and inscrutable gods. Kaden, the heir to the Unhewn Throne, has spent eight years sequestered in a remote mountain monastery, learning the enigmatic discipline of monks devoted to the Blank God. Their rituals hold the key to an ancient power he must master before it’s too late. An ocean away, Valyn endures the brutal training of the Kettral, elite soldiers who fly into battle on gigantic black hawks. But before he can set out to save Kaden, Valyn must survive one horrific final test. At the heart of the empire, Minister Adare, elevated to her station by one of the emperor’s final acts, is determined to prove herself to her people. But Adare also believes she knows who murdered her father, and she will stop at nothing — and risk everything — to see that justice is meted out.