A shallow and ultimately disappointing end to a trilogy that promised a lot but failed to deliver so much of it. However, there are shadows of promise that prevent it from falling in to the realms of true failure.
The Last Mortal Bond is the third and final book in Brian Staveley’s Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne.
To start off, I just want to tell you that it took me three attempts to write this review. My first attempt was immediately after I finished reading the book and, to put it politely, I was rather unkind. The second came a couple of days later when I had a bit of time to think it all over, assess it with a mind that wasn’t fogged by the utter disappointment that I felt. I read it back and still felt that it was a tad too subjective for me to actually publish. Finally, today, a full 10 days after I have finished the novel, I think I am now in the right frame of mind to give an unbiased (as much as possible) perspective of this book.
You may be asking yourself why it took three attempts. Well, the answer to that is simple. I loved the first book for what it promised for the series, but admonished it for some pretty simple and, unforgivingly, fundamental flaws with characters and depiction of the antagonists. Then came the sequel, which made some decent bounds in rectifying many of the issues. So, with that upward trend, surely that meant Brian Staveley had set himself up for a bounding, energised, and satisfying climax. Unfortunately not. This series had so much promise, but in the end delivered so little of it, sadly resorting to many already established tropes and building something that is utterly predictable and clichéd.
The Last Mortal Bond does not take place immediately after its precursor, as Providence of Fire does. Instead it has allowed nearly a year to pass. A year where apparently quite a lot has happened. Adare has given birth to a son, fathered by the immortal Csestriim, Ran il Tornja. Kaden’s republic has proven to be a massive failure and is teetering on collapse. Triste has been captive the whole time, drugged up to prevent her leach powers from being unleashed. And the war is still ongoing with the Urghul, with the Urghul finally managing to oust even Ran il Tornja’s unflinching understanding of battle.
I don’t want to go in to too much detail about the story because, if I dissected it beat for beat, this review would go on for far too long. Instead I will go in to, what I consider to be, the biggest strengths and weaknesses of this novel. And I’m sad to say that the weaknesses far outweigh the strengths. Even now, with a clearer mind, that much is apparent.
Firstly, let us start with some of the characters that were so strong in the Providence of Fire. Kaden is very much the same as when we left him, detached from the reality of the world and embracing the Vaniate with comforting arms and secluded reprieve. Only now he has far more control and is dangerously close to becoming more like the Csestriim that he has sworn to protect his people against. Gone is much of his fear, replaced with an enviable nothingness that allows him to view things as they are. There is a depth to his character that is both endearing and relatable. He wants to protect his people, but he is wholly unprepared for such a task. He grasps to that emptiness that permits him to allow the fear, the hatred, the anger, the burden, to wash around leaving him leaving him utterly untouched by its taint. But on the flip side he teeters on the edge of a precipice that, if he falls in to, will leave him removed from humanity forever. Staveley masterfully handles the subtleties of this turmoil. Kaden is nuanced and his arc is guided by emotions that are very much human, and his ignorance by something that we would all hold on to if we had that power. It is somewhat of an injustice to him that the final steps of his journey are so entirely predictable. After reading less than a hundred pages I saw that this was exactly where his journey would end, and this left me empty and somewhat bitter that Staveley didn’t try to make this more intense and surprising. We will always judge each aspect of the story by the final beats of its drum, and it’s just a shame that more justice wasn’t bestowed on Kaden’s otherwise excellent development.
Even though Kaden’s character stumbles through the final scenes, other characters make it to the end unscathed. Gwenna is as reliably compelling as she was in the latter half of the Providence of Fire, with her headstrong leadership and powerful presence making her perspective an utter joy to read. She is flawed, and wholly aware of these flaws, moulding them to suit the situations around her. At the same time she has also been forcibly shaped in to something that this story is crying out for; an intriguing and wholesome anchor to keep our interest piqued. Pyrre, missing for much of the story, arrives with fervour and much needed heroism, even if it is something tainted by the darkness of the death that she serves, making her more anti-hero than stand out good guy (or gal for those pc lot of you). Nira is given a meaty role in the story, with a bitter introduction and a powerful build up. However, much the same as Kaden, all the good work put in to her development is utterly decimated by her somewhat fleeting and off-page final act. She finds herself to be yet another character done a disservice by, what appears to be, Staveley’s poor planning.
So far I have only really mentioned one of the triumvirate of main characters and there is good reason for that. Kaden is the only one of them that is not a complete failure. For those who have read my previous reviews I make it quite clear that my favourite character in the series in Valyn. I have always had a soft spot for the unforgiving hero, twisted and bent by circumstance until forced to carry out acts that are against their intrinsic better nature, all the while doing so for the ultimate good. I am a fan of the anti-hero in any story, and Valyn embodies this in every sense. In the Last Mortal Bond he is no different. He is fierce and boundless. His arc is a joy to read and witnessing him explode on the enemies is thrilling. So you must be wondering why I have such a massive issue with him. My issue is not with the character of Valyn, or necessarily his actions, but rather with the way his story is written. He is nothing more than a construct of coincidence. In the previous novels it was easier to overlook this because these coincidences were far less contrived. But now, the amalgamation of each and every coincidence is unforgivable, from him finding the special black Slarn egg to his blinding, and they are so much in abundance in the Last Mortal Bond that I simply could no longer overlook it. I do not want to ruin the story or reveal any massive spoilers, so I won’t go in to detail, but if you have read this book, or when you do read it, they are so clear that you will easily pick up on them. Every definitive push that moves Valyn’s story forward is such an incalculable coincidence that it diminishes his whole worth. For me coincidence is no different than Deus Ex Machina. It is a cheap method for an author who has not properly planned. By doing this Staveley crippled the impact of my favourite character, and this is the main reason it took me so longer to write an unbiased review.
I have to hand it to Staveley in that he has been consistent with one character, and that is Adare. It’s just a shame that he has been consistent only in creating a character that has been unflinchingly odious throughout the series. I was holding out hope that maybe she was being built to be some sort of antagonist, for whatever reason would she do all that she has previously done, but unfortunately that is not the case. Apparently that would have been too clever a twist for a story that is encased by such formulaic obviousness. Instead she is simply an idiot. And a selfish, short sighted one at that. She makes egotistical decisions that lead to the deaths of so many innocents, simply because she believes that she is better than anyone else. She is not better than any of them. She is worse…maybe even THE worst. More so than Ran il Tornja, and the Ishien, and the Urghul, and even the despicable councillors who are seated on the republic of Annur. She is worse than them all, and yet Staveley still pushes her on us as if she is some beacon of light for us to really empathise with. From the first page right until the last I hated Adare, and for me she ruined this story even more than Valyn’s contrivances.
In pushing Adare through the story so prominently, Staveley has neglected many other great characters; ones that he built up throughout the Emperor’s Blades and the Providence of Fire. In the last book we were introduced to Gabril the Red, who assisted Kaden in building his Republic. This man was given a lot of time, his history and legacy presented to us in decent fashion, and along with that he was presented as an incredible warrior nearly unparalleled amongst those who lived in Annur. And what did this lead to; literally nothing. He is given no role in the Last Mortal Bond. We spent all that time getting to know him for absolutely no reason. Not even a perfunctory mention. This is simply irritating. Then we have Kiel who was probably the most intriguing of all the new characters last time around. He too gets barely a mention here, which is perplexing considering how big a presence he is. He is Csestriim after all, but apparently that rather considerable fact has little consequence. And finally, the last character whose importance is utterly destroyed in this book is the previously excellent Rampuri Tan. Tan… who was so amazingly enigmatic that his mystery was enough to will the reader on. Not anymore. Tan is supposed to be a man that prides himself on his unbiased logic, being able to see things from outside the spectrum of emotion and view them for what they truly are, and in the previous novels he did this. Now, however, he overlooks logic and the only reason for this is to put doubt in the readers mind. If this was handled better then it could have worked, but the conclusions that Tan comes up with are anything but logical and he becomes antagonistic in the very way that he defies Kaden’s deductions. It is insulting to the reader that Staveley believes they will not immediately see through such a forced plot device.
Already this review has become the longest that I have written (at this present time) and if I was to give a full detailed critique of this novel then it could very well turn in to a thesis longer than the book itself. With the majority of the main criticisms already covered I will spend just a minimal amount of time on the more personal bugbears. There are really only two that I would like to cover here and the first, and more serious, is the way Staveley handles the antagonists. The Ishien, who were so great in the Providence of Fire, played nothing more than a fleeting cameo here. Oshi had the potential to be a real threat, but was rarely seen, which is a real shame when you consider his power should technically be on par with Balendin. And speaking of Balendin, he is still nothing more than a one dimensional villain who is simply there to prove an obstacle to our protagonists. He holds no real depth of character, no ingrained purpose for his actions, and apparently never before mentioned powers that he is able to conjure in order to act as a plot device for Staveley.
The second criticism is probably one that I hold for myself; one which many others will have no issue with. I guess you could say it is more of a personal irritant than a true criticism. When I think of a well written novel, I think of prose perfectly threaded throughout the narrative, with synonyms chosen specifically and carefully to create a beautifully flowing sentence. I found, reading the whole series, that Staveley struggled with this a little. He seemed to have go-to words that present the illusion of good writing, but really only succeed in breaking up the flow of the sentence. These are words such as genuflection and preternatural, that are used in abundance throughout the novel – so much so that every time I read them I let out an audible sigh. The words are jarring and harsh, they break up the sentence and the flow of the story, which is quite impressive for a single word. Personally, I think that with the number of synonyms pertaining to their meaning, Staveley could have added a bit of variety to his prose, and chosen something that was more befitting to the flow. As I have said, this is only a personal frustration, and I imagine the majority of readers will not have any issue with this.
I have finally managed to get my thoughts down for you all to read, and it may seem that I am being overly harsh on this book. However, with the amount of fantasy novels being released every year, it takes something special to really stand out in the crowd. The Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne had the potential to do this, and the fact that it fell at the final hurdle just makes it all the more disappointing. For me this was the weakest novel in the series, but saying that I still think it is worth a read. The series as a whole offers intrigue and excitement, along with some really interesting characters. It is just a shame that it fails to reach the echelons that it promised and, in the end, became a series that barely stretched above average.