The highly-anticipated conclusion to the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne trilogy
DEATH IS NEAR, ARMIES ARE GATHERED, AND THE FUTURE RESTS ON A KNIFE-EDGE
The Annurian Empire is losing a war on two fronts — and it’s unclear who’s in command. Adare is stationed in the thick of battle, calling herself Emperor. However, she can’t hold back the nomadic Urghul forces forever. She needs her brilliant general, Ran il Tornja, but will he betray her again?
Adare’s brother Kaden is the true heir, yet he’ll accept a republic to save his divided people. And he faces something more terrible than war. He’s unmasked Ran il Tornja as a remnant of an ancient race, one that attempted to destroy mankind. The general now plans to finish what they started. Kaden has also discovered that capricious gods walk the earth in human guise — and their agendas may seal the fates of all.
In early 2014, I finally got around to reading Brian Staveley’s first two novels, The Emperor’s Blades and The Providence of Fire. I was blown away — I read them back-to-back, which is something I haven’t done with a fantasy series since Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies, and Peter V. Brett’s The Desert Spear and The Daylight War. Staveley’s writing, his characters, and the fantastically composed and paced narrative just pulled me through. I was hooked. I still think the two novels are a fantastic example of what modern fantasy can be. (Seriously, go read them.) I had a rather different reaction to The Last Mortal Bond…
It is with much sadness that I report that I didn’t love The Last Mortal Bond. First of all, it took me a long time to read The Last Mortal Bond. It was a long wait between reading the first two and eventually getting my hands on the third novel. As a result, I had forgotten a fair bit of the story’s specifics. (Thankfully, Staveley has some very handy, detailed synopses of the two novels on his website.) They helped tremendously. It also threw me a little that this novel jumped forward a year, and took some time to fill out events. This left me feeling a little lost and disconnected from the events therein. It was nice to be back with some of these engaging characters, though.
Now, it is also true that, for some reason, I just didn’t seem to be in the mood for fantasy fiction in 2016. This is obviously not Staveley’s fault. However, it meant that it took me three tries to get into The Last Mortal Bond. When I eventually did, I was reminded of his excellent prose and good characters. However, there were a couple of things that felt dramatically different to what I remembered from the first two novels. I’ll deal with each individually.
First, I disliked Adare this time around. I don’t remember disliking her in the first two books, but in The Last Mortal Bond she came across naïve and frequently petulant (one scene in particular I found baffling — it involves a meeting hall and fire). Every chapter she featured in, my enthusiasm dipped. Considering she is the one who had the most political exposure, experience and training, she seems utterly incapable of keeping her emotions in check, and seemed to have regressed to an adolescent state. It was irritating and felt out of character. She also swears constantly. In fact, throughout the novel, only two characters curse frequently enough to notice — Adare and Gwenna. I welcomed Gwenna’s more central role (she’s an interesting POV character). It felt very much like a short-cut to showing us that these two were Strong Female Characters. Swearing constantly does not a Strong Character make. The fact that I picked up on this should tell you just how obvious it was (I often miss this kind of thing). In fact, I only picked up on one other instance of a character swearing. That’s how rare it was for others.
Secondly, the narrative’s structure. There was so much time spent getting to places (walking, flying, swimming, what have you). The book felt (at best) like 80% set-up and 20% resolution, action, adventure. This… didn’t really work for me. After two long novels, I’d hoped that this would be a more-focused conclusion. But it felt loose and bloated by details and later exposition that probably didn’t need to be there. Also, many important events that could have packed an incredible emotional punch happened completely off-screen. (Unfortunately, stating which ones would spoil quite a bit.) This, too, is why the amount of journeying (not all of it physical, some of it was emotional) felt excessive and imbalanced. Kaden spends most of the novel running away from others and navel-gazing. There was, I think, only one instance when this distance from a major plot point worked well.
That’s not to say that I completely disliked the novel. That would be an unfair characterization, despite how long I’ve spent on what didn’t work for me. There were times when I was sucked into the story, and I read well into the wee hours of the morning at least twice. Pyrre is a fantastic character, so I was glad that she made an appearance. (I am also, therefore, very much looking forward to Skullsworn.) I liked Staveley’s ambition for the series and this novel, and he manages to pack a lot into it — but this book could have been shorter, which would have improved its impact. The prison-break was excellent. There are some moments of great humour. Some of the side characters were really interesting and well-presented. (Many of them were far more interesting and engaging than Adare.) The Kettral are a fantastic creation, and the final scenes in the novel featuring the various Wings are great. (I got the impression that these characters might also be the author’s favourites, but I have no proof of this.) The way Staveley handled and developed Valyn’s blindness and battle-sight was really interesting. The level of invention and creativity is impressive.
My disappointment no doubt was somewhat a result of my heightened expectations and anticipation for the novel. I may have built it up too much. It may also be a case that reading the three novels in quick(er) succession would have suited me better — that way, events would have still been fresh and I would have been less likely to feel lost. Maybe not.
Do I still recommend the series? Absolutely. I also intend to re-read the three novels in the not-too-distant future, to see if I would like this more when the previous novels are fresher in my memory. I am also looking forward to more novels by Staveley. Not only Skullsworn, but whatever he writes after that. As it stands, though, I found The Last Mortal Bond to be an anticlimax.
Also on CR: Reviews of The Emperor’s Blades and The Providence of Fire; Excerpt from The Providence of Fire; Guest Post on “Fire Lookout, Monk, Water-Skier, Teacher: The Best Profession for a Writer”