Gladiator Meets Game of Thrones
In the dying city of Yddinas, hemmed in by sea, mountains, and enchantments, champion and contracted combatant of the arena, Cael Brenion, kills to provide for his little brother. His avarice, rapid rise, and the peculiar stone in his weapon's pommel gain the attention of Valeina, the chancelloress and most powerful woman in the city, which consequently attracts the eye of sadistic Chancellor Orik.
Cael discovers physical prowess means nothing in the psychological games of throne and politics, where he and his brother are nothing but pawns on a board.
Meanwhile, Agenayus, high priest and a disguised member of another race, struggles to keep the city's ambitions within the borders of the mystical barrier that protects the human race from the harmful magic beyond.
Ambitions clash, and the fate of a city and civilization will be decided by the outcome.
Right from the start, Ellis grabs his audience with visceral descriptions of gory combat, depicting Cael as an experienced, merciless warrior who subscribes to a rigorous code of conduct and honor. Unfortunately, Ellis never fully explores the underpinnings of this society or the larger world, leaving the reader with many questions. The existence of a non-human race actively influencing Yddinas through religion is left somewhat nebulous, clearly setting up plotlines for future installments.
Despite the epic scope of this story, it suffers from slow pacing and a lack of a clear plot in the early chapters as scenes from multiple perspectives set numerous elements into motion. Orik is so over the top with his sadism and brutality that he’s almost a caricature: he routinely beats his wife, indulges in cannibalism, and forces others to commit sexual assault. Ellis skillfully draws Cael into a morass of hard choices and hopeless situations, but Orik’s ludicrous excesses make it hard for readers to be fully immersed in the story. Though uneven, this grimdark tale will engage readers looking for a reluctant hero and plenty of splashy violence.
Takeaway: This adventure will appeal to readers seeking a mixture of bloody violence and courtly intrigue.
Great for fans of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, Matthew Woodring Stover’s Acts of Caine series.
Design and typography: B
Marketing copy: B-
"Thrilling, mystical, stunningly done page turner."
"...delicious acts of evil are consistently riveting, and an intriguing, world-expanding finale makes the sequel unmissable. A layered and emotional epic fantasy opener."