Where Book 1 of the Powder Mage trilogy piqued my interest for its novel take on a fantasy setting, Book 2 literally swept me away transforming me from interested spectator to invested fan of this amazing story that certainly has many surprises still in store for me.
The Crimson Campaign opens just a short while after the events of Promise of Blood, and mostly follows the path of the same three main characters, Field Marshal Tamas, his son Taniel, and Inspector Adamat, but with enormously raised stakes and no time to enjoy the brief respite in the war with Kez brought on by Taniel’s apparent killing of the summoned god Kremisir.
Undaunted by their first defeat, the Kez are mounting a new assault on Adro’s borders and the staggering numbers amassing at the foot of the Adran stronghold at Budwiel convince Tamas that he needs to stage a surprise attack at the enemy’s rear guard. To that end, he moves into their territory, through an underground passage, with two of his best divisions, only to discover himself stranded on hostile ground with no supply train and with the Kez army hot on his heels.
Taniel and his companion Ka-poel, the savage girl gifted with extraordinary magical abilities, lie in a coma after playing their vital part in the vanquishing of Kresimir, and when they finally come out of it, Taniel is much the worse for wear, suffering from the equivalent of PTSD and trying to drown the recurring memories of the encounter with Kresimir through the smoking of mala, this world’s opium-like substance. Only the news of his father’s failed stratagem and the possibility of his death – a notion that many seem to take for certain – manage to snap him out of drug addiction and despondency, and bring him to the front line where he will find himself fighting not only the Kez, but the blind hostility of his superiors and the possibility of a traitor in their midst.
Inspector Adamat, for his part, is desperately trying to free his family, that was taken hostage by the craftily cruel Lord Vetas, and he spares himself no danger or injury to reach that goal, gathering some surprising allies along the way and showing us more of Adran society and the way it works as he desperately seeks to break Vetas’ web of evil, whose ramifications seem to go wider and deeper than the mere search for personal power. This time around I managed to connect better with Adamat’s character, who I previously found interesting but for some reason not very likable: his focus on the frantic search for his loved ones finally shows the man under the policeman’s coat, so to speak, and the lengths he’s ready to go to save them help bring him into sharper focus. This is a man who gave himself fully to his work, and only through grief and loss has discovered what really matters in life, and that he’s ready to pay any price to keep it – even coming to terms with his until-now unbreakable integrity.
As fascinating as Adamat’s journey is, still the narrative threads concerning Tamas and Taniel remained the most appealing ones for me, although I must acknowledge that this time around I found pacing and plot more evenly balanced and felt no hurry to read through a less-engaging POV to reach the ones I cared most about, since the flow of the story was such that I did not want to rush over anything for fear of missing some important clue. In this respect, and not this alone, The Crimson Campaign shows a definite improvement over its predecessor and a qualitative boost in all its elements.
In the first installment of this trilogy, Field Marshal Tamas quickly became my favorite character: at times harsh and abrasive, his real nature came into focus through the deep respect and admiration of his subordinates and troops. I could see that he was a man of deep passions that were fiercely curbed by the needs of his position, and what I further learned about him, from the short prequel stories I managed to read, just reinforced my liking of this character. In this second book, however, we see a somewhat different Tamas: he’s still a capable and daring leader, and there is no doubt that the dangerous march through enemy territory would have seen far higher losses without his keen strategic sense, but here we see him besieged by doubts, and by the awareness of impending old age that is not just impairing his physical strength but might also be dulling his ability to react. If outwardly he’s still the same hard and uncompromising soldier, the one whose name is enough to strike fear in his enemies, Tamas cannot avoid second-guessing himself and wondering if he’s reached the end of his road, and instead of diminishing him, these doubts make him more human and approachable, and in the end an even more enjoyable character.
Taniel is however the one exhibiting the most remarkable changes: in Promise of Blood, where he came across as something of a whiner afflicted by too many daddy issues, I did not like him very much even though I understood where his problems came from. Having someone like Field Marshal Tamas for a father meant that young Taniel had a difficult model to follow and one whose approval he constantly sought without really getting what he wanted, so the relationship between father and son was often strained and resulted in Taniel developing a strong streak of mulish stubbornness. Here Taniel starts on that same note – worse, he chooses to wallow in a sea of self-pity and despondency that even Ka-poel seems unable to drag him out of, and it takes the news of Tamas’ failed plan and probable death to clear the fog he’s drowning into. Faced with the unexplainable behavior of the army’s leaders, who keep retreating before the Kez onslaught at the cost of uncountable lives, he tries almost single-handedly to bolster the troops’ courage and his example seems to be working – that is, until he’s arrested and tried for insubordination. This was one of the most interesting and at the same time frustrating narrative threads of this book, and it helped me to finally look beyond Taniel’s willfulness and to see his determination and capacity for self-sacrifice, something that was previously obscured by other less savory aspects of his character. I also loved how he kept the faith about Tamas’ survival chances, refusing to believe that someone as larger than life as his father could be killed, the prospect of Tamas’ demise having apparently removed any self-imposed deception on Taniel’s feelings, allowing him to acknowledge love and admiration for his father.
Apart from these central figures, others had the chance to grow and gain in depth and detail in The Crimson Campaign, particularly Ka-poel and, in a smaller measure, Vlora. The former manages to shine despite her inability to speak – or maybe because of it, since she seems to command the reader’s attention every time she’s mentioned – and her strength and determination, tempered by a subtle veneer of humor that the author was able to convey quite clearly, make her stand out despite the relatively small narrative space she enjoys. Vlora, on the other hand, still moves on the sidelines, and I acknowledge that my desire to see more or her comes from my enjoyment of her role in Sins of Empire, so I can bide my time and wait for better opportunities to get to know her. And last but not least, I need to mention Olem, Tamas’ bodyguard (another character I greatly appreciated in Sins of Empire and who moves his first steps in this trilogy): I love his laid-back attitude and the kind of relationship he established with Tamas – respectful but not awed, and at times bordering on the kind of insolence that Tamas publicly scoffs at but seems to secretly appreciate.
Do I have any complaints about this book? Yes, that like its predecessor it ended with several narrative threads still hanging and waiting for their resolution in the third and final book of the series – but it’s a relatively small complaint, because I can move to The Autumn Republic as soon as I want, and learn all that I need to know. Having come late to this series does indeed have its advantages…