Top critical review
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Ok or bad?
on 9 March 2014
I had a number of problems with this book, and one of the main ones was to make up my mind as to whether I liked it or not. I also took longer than usual to finish it, which is never a very good sign. The main reason for this is that the book contains a number of features that worked rather well for me, but also almost as many that did not.
Starting with one the later ones, I generally dislike it when the author makes it too obvious that the book is just the first volume of a series. In other terms, this is not a stand-alone book and it ends rather abruptly. Having mentioned this, the author did manage to create a strong sense of suspense throughout the book and it is mainly because of this that I finished it, despite everything else.
Another issue is that the basic plot is not exactly original: leader (here the Emperor, in other books, some kind of King, or Duke - pick your choice!) is killed, falling victim to a bunch of powerful conspirators who then move to hunt down and take out his two sons who are of course far away when the murder happens. This feature has a strong sense of "déjà vu" and appears in numerous other fantasy novels. Also largely "déjà vu" is the reference to half-legendary cruel non-human races who used to dominate the earth and are allegedly extinct but whose heritage remains after a few thousands of years.
While it is not necessarily a problem in itself, it is compounded by the fact that the two sons were sent some eight years before at the two ends of the Empire - one to become a "Ketral", a member of the Empire's equivalent to modern "special forces", and the other, the heir to the throne, to a very remote monastery high up in the mountains, also to learn some special skills. The author tries to explain this by mentioning at some point a kidnapping of the two boys when they were only four years old. The explanation is somewhat unconvincing. If their security is so much at stake, sending them off on their one to places thousands of leagues away from their father to learn some arcane skills that supposedly cannot be thought in the capital seems like a rather strange way to guarantee it.
Then there are the trainings themselves. In both cases, I found them rather unbelievable, with the respective ordeals that the boys go through being quite excessive. Regardless of whether any princes would realistically be treated in such - highly unlikely - ways, some of the treatments seemed designed to kill the pupils, or at least make them fail, more than anything else. I will not go into details to avoid spoilers, but the Ketral training seemed particularly "over the top" at times while burying the heir to the throne and leaving him in his hole for days without food or water seemed somewhat unnecessary.
The treatment of the female characters was also somewhat odd and inconsistent. While I am not quite sure I agree with another reviewer who found that the book expressed misogyny and sadistic features, it is a bit strange to note that the Emperor felt obliged to exile his two sons far away so that they would acquire "special skills" but did not bother doing the same with his daughter and kept her at his side. It is also rather unlikely that any of the courtiers or any of the high priests would have dared treat an imperial princess with the kind of lack of respect shown in the book.
Another bit that was somewhat inconsistent was about the Aedolan Guard. These are the Emperor's elite bodyguards, yet they seem to die a bit too easily both at the beginning of the book, where one of the sons finds a boat full of corpses, and at the end, when they get killed by the dozen, although by ultra-skilled enemies. Another potentially inconsistent feature is the absence of any qualms when they are tasked with murdering the Imperial family, especially coming from those who are supposed to be the most loyal.
A final disappointment was that there was not much "world-building" in this volume. To be fair, however, a remote monastery up in the mountain and a no less remote base on an archipelago of far-away islands do not lend themselves very well to this. Despite this, the author could have, for instance, shown us much more of Annur, the imperial capital and the palace, through the eyes of Adare, the Emperor's daughter.
I hesitated between two and three stars, but will finally settle for a somewhat generous three stars, mainly because there is some suspense to the story and because, despite all of my misgivings, the author has managed to make me want to read his second instalment. I hope I will like it more than this one...