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Thursday, September 30, 2010

"The Crown of the Blood" by Gav Thorpe (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Gav Thorpe Website
Order "The Crown of the Blood" HERE

INTRODUCTION: "He had brought his master’s Empire to the furthest reaches of the world. All had fallen before him. Now he longs for home. But home isn’t what it was. Could it be that everything he’s fought for all those years has been a lie?"

When "The Crown of the Blood" was announced, I did not know more about it than the short blurb above; I had vaguely heard that the author is an experienced tie-in-writer and this was his original fantasy debut but somehow the blurb and cover sent "positive vibes" to me and they turned out to be justified.

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: "The Crown of the Blood" stands at about 460 pages divided into chapters headed by date and location. There is a prologue whose meaning becomes clearer later, while the novel ends with "A Guide to Greater Askhor, its Peoples, and Enemies" and Glossaries of People/Places/Creatures.

Narrated in third person with several POV's noted below, "The Crown of the Blood" is a trilogy debut that stands very well on its own though of course the story is to be continued. "The Crown of the Blood" starts as military fantasy, but later it goes beyond the subgenre into more complex stuff, so I would call it a military/epic story.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: "The Crown of the Blood" is set into a world that mixes Roman-style armies with middle-Eastern - from the Assyrian or Babylonian Empires of yore - customs and attitudes and with some magic. The legions and style of fighting resemble the Roman armies, but the Greater Askhos Empire's provinces resemble oriental satrapies rather than Roman provinces as do customs like a special brand of polygamy - the high nobles marry all the sisters from another noble family, custom that is quite important in the structure of the novel. The way the imperial power is structured resembles also the middle-Eastern experience as are the naming conventions.

The main character is Ullsaard, a General of the Greater Askhos Empire who raised himself from the provincial ranks with the patronage of General Cosuas his current co-commander of the legions sent to subdue a desert people and of Aalun, younger son of the old king Lutaar. Aalun is more or less in charge of the empire nowadays at least as an executive leader with Lutaar taking only crucial strategic decisions; the thorny issue is that since its founding 200 years ago by the legendary Askhos, the Empire's Crown of Blood - which may be linked to magic - has always passed to the oldest son, and the current elder prince is very sick, while his son who works as a staff officer for Ullsaard is both inexperienced and not really cut to be a leader.

Alluan sends Noran - a high noble of Askhos origin, friend of Ullsaard and "court herald" - to recall Ullsaard for "consultations"; Ullsaard has three sister wives which are quite different - beautiful, scheming, smart- and three grown sons, one from each: an officer in some provincial governor's standing legion, another - the eldest and the son of the middle scheming wife, a merchant/wheeler-dealer and the youngest a law student in the capital...

Despite the king's frailty and his acknowledgment of his eldest son' sickness and of his grandson' inaptness, the succession laws are not to be changed in favor of better suited Alluan, so Ullsaard and Noran for that matter are caught in the middle...

In a secondary thread that becomes important as the novel goes on, Anglhan is a "debt slaver" in the important but decentralized country of Salphoria who sits on the border of the Empire but so far has been protected by a treaty. While Askhos does not allow debt-slavery, this custom is cherished by the disunited clans of Salphoria; recently there have been risings of the poor against the rich and the nobility, so Anglhan has to tread softly.

"The Crown of the Blood" is another novel which has raised into my appreciation in the 2 1/2 months since I read it. The beginning and end of the novel are strongly mil-fantasy and at first they overshadowed a bit the character development and world building in the middle of the novel that takes it beyond the constraints of the military fantasy - "band of brothers", "blood and guts",..." subgenre.

So yes, it is still mostly men in arms, but there is intrigue too and the devious Anghlan steals the show in the second part while the several women that appear are developed somewhat beyond the stereotypes mentioned above. The book has also great narrative energy that keeps you turning the pages, while the world building has clearly been a labor of love for the author as the several appendixes at the end show.

As military fantasy "The Crown of the Blood" is at the top of the game with battles, personal combat, strategic decisions, logistic considerations and explicit gore, so all the elements we expect, while the story is reasonably straightforward though there is a fundamental twist I did not really see.

"The Crown of the Blood" (A+) shows how to expand a straight-up military fantasy novel beyond the constraints of the subgenre and make it richer and more complex, while delivering a reasonably self-contained story with an ending that makes one wish to have the next installment soon to see where the story goes.


David said...

Nice review. I need to pick this one up.

Liviu said...

Thank you for your kind words.


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