An exciting, action packed sequel that goes some ways to rectifying the flaws of the first novel. However, it still grasps to some annoying habits that prevent it from becoming a fantasy classic.
The Providence of Fire is the second book in Brian Staveley’s Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne.
With the Emperor’s Blades, Brian Staveley managed to entice me in to his deftly crafted plot of betrayal and subterfuge, creating a bold epilogue that the memory refused to abandon. This epilogue, carrying only smoky tendrils of significance throughout the rest of the tale, made me want to continue reading the series with absolutely no reprieve. And so that is what I did. Again I was drawn in to the plight of Kaden and Valyn. And again I cursed the name Adare every time I had to endure one of her nonsensical machinations.
The story carries on directly from the massacre of the Shin monks and the escape of the two brothers. Kaden and Valyn’s violent reconnection is short lived as they are so torturously torn asunder once again. This time Kaden seeks aid from the Ishien, a group known by very few who hunt down the last remaining Csestriims that roam the world, while Valyn and his Wing get caught amongst the savage politics of the Urghul army that are camped on the outskirts of Annur. Back in Annur, after learning of Ran il Tornja’s treachery, Adare seeks shelter amongst her former enemies, the Sons of the Flame, and tries to convince them to use their military might against her father’s true murderer.
The novel begins in the same mysticism that Staveley so well mastered in his opening prologue of The Emperor’s Blades, and to almost equal success. Valyn and Kaden reach the first Human city, the dead and deserted Assare. Immediately the enigmatic nature of both the city, and its new temporary inhabitants, comes to the fore. Corpses are littered amongst the buildings, brutalised and long decomposed, the nature of their demise ruthless yet ominous as Rampuri Tan finally elucidates on the nature of the series main villains, the Csestriim. Kaden’s would-be lure, Triste, soon reveals some impossible notions about her own character, proving her to be far more than what we originally saw. In these opening chapters the pace is slow, but deservedly so. Staveley is finally delivering on the promise he gave us in his incredible prologue. The Csestriim are built up to be something formidable, ruthless, and thoroughly worthy of the time that we have devoted to their myth. We see what they are capable of through the brutal and concise prose of their long dead crimes. We are also treated to some subtle horror as our protagonists navigate the grim depths of the dead city, treated to some subtle indication that they are being stalked, as presented through Valyn’s attuned senses.
Even when the brothers are violently separated once again, we are treated to two excellent perspectives all the way through the novel. Valyn driven by vengeance for his murdered father and loyalty to the brother he barely knows, and Kaden pushed forward by his desire to save the land that he is duty bound to rule. Valyn’s is far more volatile, jarring and brutal as we are introduced to the Urghul and their beliefs of suffering and trial-by-fire attitude towards life. Here we are introduced to some compelling new characters, stomach churning events and the reintroduction of a well-developed enemy. Then we are enticed in to a showdown that is long anticipated and heart-breaking in equal measures. It does not disappoint, but it may leave you cursing nonetheless.
Whereas Valyn’s story is violent and often fast-paced, Kaden’s is just as intense, but on a more subdued level. The Ishien are not what I expected. To be honest I wasn’t sure what to expect of them, their myth being only fleeting presented to us. But when we are faced with their brutality we see something very hollow, almost soul destroying, when we learn what they have given up in their war against the Csestriim. To destroy the beings intent and ridding the world of humanity, they have actual destroyed their own humanity in the process. What is left is something cruel, single-minded and crassly psychotic. And for the first time Staveley has provided us with villains (if you can really call them that) who have purpose, history and genuine reason for doing the things they do. The whole arc turns what we are lead to believe directly on its head for, in their captivity, is a Csestriim with decidedly, from what we are led to believe, more honourable intent.
One of my biggest criticisms of the previous novel, and one that appeared quite prominently with many other reviews that I read, was the lacklustre depiction of women. In fact it wasn’t merely lacklustre, but bordering occasionally on the offensive. I’m happy to say that, to an extent, Staveley has made efforts to rectify this. Triste, who had all but a cameo in the previous book, is fleshed out considerably here. She carries with her panic and fear that is adequate to the occasion, and behind her all too human emotions there is a depth and a mystery that entices you further through the story. It was incredible to see that Gwenna received some well written chapters from her perspective. In these she carries her innate personality as well as the nurtured hardness developed by her training amongst the Kettral. She is without a doubt the strongest female character in this book, and carries many of the attributes that would hold her high amongst the echelons of characters in any other high quality fantasy novel you are likely to read. Then we have Pyrre, one of the shining lights of the later chapters of the Emperor’s Blades, brought through the transition and carrying her role with that same arrogance and thorough determination that we expect of her. As well as those women we have already been introduced to, there are two new characters who start off with powerful depths, and hold that strength right the way through. Nira and Huutsuu are decisive women, with vivid histories that set foundations on which their developed characters are introduced in full stride.
As I have already alluded, things are not perfect with this book. Staveley has done a lot to make amends for many of the issues with his first book. Unfortunately, what he has not managed to do is fix the biggest issue of them all; Adare. I struggle to say much more than what I have already said about her. I’m pretty sure that she is supposed to be a main protagonist, yet all of her actions suggest otherwise. Now I don’t think that she is antagonistic by intent, but rather out of ignorance. In spite of supposedly gaining years of tutelage under her politically savvy father, she constantly makes the wrong decisions. If there was reasoning behind this then I could forgive it, but when you look at her actions, she expressly deviates from the logical path no matter how obvious it seems. I really hope there is more to this character than her being simply idiotic. If it ends with a massive twist is that she is actually one of the main antagonists then I could end up eating my words, but alas, as so much of the narrative is given to her thought processes I really doubt this is going to be the case.
There are a few other minor issues that start to present themselves later in the novel. These are issues mainly with how the story develops once Kaden makes his inevitable return to Annur, and how a new arc is seemingly introduced from absolutely nowhere, but this doesn’t distract too much from the quality of the overall narrative.
Overall, Providence of Fire is an improvement over The Emperor’s Blades. However, there is one major issue that means that this book can still, on occasion, be a difficult read. Nearly every chapter with Adare in can be a slog, and often I found that I was genuinely angry with the way she behaved and the decisions she made. Apart from this, Staveley has managed to draw out an intriguing continuation to his first entry, and develop many of the characters in an excellent way. If the series continues on this trend of an upward climb, there is still time for it to become a classic.