Top critical review
The series transitions from Mark Lawrence to Alex Rivers/CN Crawford
8 March 2019
Great first novel, and worth 5*. The writing is gripping, and the excuse for rebooting a superhuman who is 1000's of years old while still giving him room to evolve is entirely credible. This first book works like a dream, and you will immediately want to launch into the second. It is fresh, and brilliantly combines magic and physical mayhem.
So, why 2*?
Because the author starts to get lazy in subsequent episodes. We are introduced to characters who start to take centre stage, and the books gradually descend into the sort of writing more typical of Alex Rivers or CN Crawford, albeit with a bit more blood and gore. You start not to worry about the little coterie surrounding the Hellequin, because you know they can't die, while recurring baddies gradually turn out to be good guys, and the main baddie is telegraphed almost from Book 1 (not necessarily Merlin). And towards the end of the series, there is some truly intolerable 'rubber-banding' (where the powers of an individual are dumbed down/enhanced to match those of their opponent).
On the wokeness question, there is not much evidence of this being a primary focus in the first book, with any issues being handled sensitively. No-one wants to see casual discrimination, bias or unnecessary stereotypes, and volume 1 keeps the balance well. Unfortunately, subsequent volumes up the ante, with social justice issues becoming increasingly prevalent. An assassin with a conscience is a standard trope, but when he is centuries old, it feels slightly off, and is not helped by the portrayal of all of the female protagonists, of whatever persuasion, being superior in all respects to their male equivalents. It is not that this is objectionable per se, but it feels contrived, and is ultimately trite and unworthy, feeling like a male fantasy rather than being a salute to female emancipation. As such, it creates a sense of imbalance and interrupts the flow, thereby damaging the reader’s immersion in the plot. While the issues addressed are valid, the way in which they are handled is clumsy. The best authors can get their message across without distracting from the storyline, and without making it feel like an add-on.
I shall admit to reading the last two of the seven because I wanted to see how Hellequin's story arc ends. If this is your only reason for wanting to read all seven books, then don't, because you will scream in frustration. This series does not actually finish at seven, despite what the blurb says. McHugh has obviously sussed that this universe is a money-spinner, so has sacrificed principle on the altar of Mammon, and if you want a conclusion, it may be somewhere in Book 20, while he experiments with the storylines of teenage werewolves.
By all means, read this and a couple more, but three or four books would have done it.