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Monday, February 1, 2010

"City of Torment" by Bruce R. Cordell (Reviewed by David Craddock)

Visit Bruce R. Cordell's website.
Order City of Torment from Amazon.
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Abolethic Sovereignty Book I: Plague of Spells

While the first book in a fantasy series is traditionally used to establish plot and introduce characters, subsequent books often start out just as slowly, with the first several chapters painstakingly recapping previous happenings. Bruce R. Cordell's City of Torment, the second book in the Abolethic Sovereignty trilogy, suffers from no such exposition affliction: the story immediately surges from zero to 60, confident that readers would rather move forward with the story and cast of characters.

There is, of course, a drawback to this strategy. Given the nine-month gap between the release of Plague of Spells--the first book of the series--and City of Torment, not everyone will be able to remember every event of consequence in the preceding book. Fortunately, mentions of past events are scattered conservatively throughout City of Torment, injected only where they can be logically used to further establish the context of events occurring in the present.

Having firmly set the overall direction of the series in Plague of Spells, Cordell is free to use City of Torment to explore his cast of characters. This he does, and does superbly. Protagonist Raidon Kane returns, as does the warlock Japheth, his love interest Anusha, ship captain Thoster, and the wizard Seren. Cordell is able to devote plenty of time to all these major players, meticulously fleshing out individual motivations so that all actions and reactions are deemed understandable by readers. In the end, all stories are elegantly woven together and make for a captivating conclusion that sets the stage for the next book.

Particularly absorbing were the plights of Raidon and Japheth, who struggle to avoid that pesky condition which eventually catches up to us all: reality. Still mourning the death of his daughter, Raidon chooses to forego emotion in favor of reason or logic, a choice that pleases his sentient blade Angul, whose sole focus is eradicating evil, but often makes his allies feel expendable. In parallel is Japheth's struggle to evade the consequences of his addiction to traveler's dust, a potent drug that inexorably leads to horrific death. As the story unfolds, Raidon works hard to bury feelings and emotion even as the cunning Japheth wheels and deals with powers beyond his comprehension -- not only to save himself from a grisly end, but his paramour Anusha as well. It is inevitable that Raidon and Japheth will inevitably collide with past and vice, respectively. But it is the veracity of doing everything possible to avoid reality that makes both human, and thus relatable.

Disappointingly, some interesting secondary characters, such as the Lord of Bats and Malyanna, are only featured sporadically. In fairness, this appears to be Cordell's intention, as the ending of City of Torment suggests that the aforementioned duo appear primed to become major players in the series' conclusion.

Learning about the characters and watching them grow wouldn't be possible without an intriguing story and a steady pace. Cordell ably provides both. Like Raidon's martial arts, Cordell's prose is without any wasted movement. Readers are given enough to paint a picture without having to slog through pages bloated from embellished description. The plot unfolds at a gradually accelerating pace and is told with a voice that feels fresh. This freshness is perhaps the book's most important aspect: as venerable as the Forgotten Realms setting is, it is important for new voices to keep it vibrant and lively.

With City of Torment, Cordell cements himself as one of fantasy's most compelling authors and a boon to the continued allure and lore of the Realms. His voice is fresh, his prose is quick and sharp, and his characters able to feel realized while still leaving a few layers to peel away as the saga hurtles toward its conclusion -- one this reader is eagerly anticipating.


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