I received this novel from Orbit Books through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.
My appreciation of Brian McClellan’s storytelling started as something of a slow burn, as I read and liked Promise of Blood but did not feel greatly compelled to move forward with the series – at least not until I had the opportunity to read the first book of this new series, Sins of Empire, and found myself totally engaged with the story and characters, to the point that I went back to the Powder Mage trilogy and started retracing my steps. Wrath of Empire is not only a worthy sequel to its predecessor, it’s also a huge game changer in the overall narrative sequence and the kind of story that consumes the reader with the sheer need to know what happens next.
Starting straight where Sins of Empire left, this second book of the Gods of Blood and Powder series takes us once again to the continent of Fatrasta, now in the throes of the Dynize invasion: as the attackers try to consolidate their hold on the capital of Landfall, they are also searching for the godstones, the powerful artifacts that will help them resurrect a god as a means of uniting their peoples once more. Clearly they have not learned anything from the past mistakes of others…. Two of the godstones might be found at the farthest corners of the territory, so our heroes are compelled to divide their forces in the attempt of finding and possibly destroying the artifacts before the Dynize can acquire them: Vlora and her Riflejacks, together with Taniel, head north toward the secluded valleys where gold mining operations are underway, having to balance the need for speed with the secrecy surrounding their mission, which makes things all the more difficult considering the natural suspicion of the miners concerning their claims and profits. Mad Ben Styke and the Lancers, with the addition of Ka-poel, travel in the opposite direction, constantly fighting with the encroaching Dynize army, while Ben tries to carry on his personal vendetta against the former comrades who betrayed him and sent him to the labor camps. And lastly, Michel Bravis, former Blackhat and Taniel’s fifth column in Landfall, must remain in the occupied city trying to find one of Taniel’s informants and bring her to safety before she’s discovered.
The three separate narrative threads are interwoven with such skill that the novel quickly becomes a compulsive reading with never a moment of respite, and pervaded with a mounting sense of urgency and dread as the clues pile up and we are made privy to the invaders’ plans and witness the defenders’ apparently impossible task in the face of such odds. At the same time we see more of Fatrasta: where Sins of Empire, with its focus on the city of Landfall, might have felt more cramped, so to speak, here our knowledge of the land and its history expands as the characters travel through it – and of course the characters are those who get the lion’s share of the narrative, taking on more facets and depth as the story goes on.
Ben Styke is the one who undergoes the greater changes: we first knew him as a mountain of a man gifted with enormous aggressive potential and the kind of physical stamina that made him appear almost invincible, more berserker than simply fearless. His interactions with Celine, the orphan child he befriended in the camps and became his ward, have changed him however, because he finds himself thinking more and more about what consequences his eventual death might have for his young ward. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg: apart from the delightful exchanges between the two of them, where the interaction of grizzled warrior and not-quite-innocent child gives way to several amusing passages, it’s Ben’s quest for vengeance on the men who betrayed him that transforms him and, more importantly, forces him to think about himself and his motivations. There is something approaching inner pain in Ben’s musings when he considers how his past actions have shaped both his personality and his “legend”, and it’s only in the acceptance of his failings as an individual, and the acknowledgement of old age, that he gets closer to his own long-lost humanity.
The other character who gains more interesting facets is Michel Bravis, who infiltrated the Blackhats for Taniel, playing a dangerous double game in which he was forced to compartmentalize his mind to work more efficiently in his role. Asked to remain in occupied Landfall, he’s walking on a razor’s edge as he works with his former colleagues to smuggle the families of other Blackhats out of the grasp of the Dynize, while trying to keep those same colleagues from learning that he was a traitor. This difficult balancing act is rendered even more dangerous by Taniel’s request to extract a precious informant about which Michel has very little information: forced to align himself with the Dynize, poor Michel finds his loyalties sorely tested once he realizes that not all of the invaders are bad people and that among them he can find the kind of human connection that his previous work always denied him. This is a man who had to keep to himself as much as possible so as not to blow his cover, and it’s here that we see his profound loneliness and the strong need to belong: if I found this character interesting before, it was this book that made me sympathize with him quite deeply.
Last but not least, Taniel and Vlora enjoy their own limelight as they engage in a spying mission without the support of the Riflejacks: there is something that reminded me of classic westerns as I followed their progress in the isolated mining community near the hiding place of one of the godstones, and if I still have some reservations about Taniel (he started out as a somewhat whiny young man with big daddy issues to morph into an inscrutable person with uncanny powers, who has no qualms about using others to attain his goals), I greatly enjoyed the focus on Vlora as her courage and capacity for self-sacrifice were showcased in the latter part of the story. I might have had some complaints about the author’s treatment of female characters at the beginning of the Powder Mage trilogy, but I acknowledge that he changed course as the story unfolded and made me completely forget those early objections.
Add to all of that a few momentous revelations (and no, I’m not telling you about whom, it would be quite unfair to even hint anything!) and a final section that literally took my breath away as I feared for the survival of some of the characters, and you will understand why I used the phrase ‘consumed by the need to know’ at the beginning of this review. The scene is all set for what promises to be a spectacular conclusion to this trilogy, one I will wait for with barely contained impatience.
Well done indeed…