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Wednesday, March 10, 2021

We Lie With Death by Devin Madson (reviewed by Lukasz Przywoski & Caitlin Grieve)


Official Author Website
Order the book HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s review of We Ride The Storm

OFFICIAL AUTHOR WEBSITE: Devin Madson
is an Aurealis Award-winning fantasy author from Australia. After some sucky teenage years, she gave up reality and is now a dual-wielding rogue who works through every tiny side-quest and always ends up too over-powered for the final boss. Anything but zen, Devin subsists on tea and chocolate and so much fried zucchini she ought to have turned into one by now. Her fantasy novels come in all shades of grey and are populated with characters of questionable morals and a liking for witty banter.

OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Into Kisia's conquered north, a Levanti empire is born.

Loyal to the new emperor, Dishiva e'Jaroven must tread the line between building a new life and clinging to the old. Only Gideon can lead them, but when he allies himself with a man returned from the dead it will challenge all she thinks she knows and everything she wants to believe.

Now empress of nothing, Miko is more determined than ever to fight for her people, yet with her hunt for allies increasingly desperate, she may learn too late that power lies not in names but in people.

Rah refused to bow to the Levanti emperor, but now abandoned by the Second Swords he must choose whether to fight for his people, or his soul. Will honor be his salvation, or lead to his destruction?

Sold to the Witchdoctor, Cassandra's only chance of freedom is in his hands, but when her fate becomes inextricably linked to Empress Hana, her true nature could condemn them both.

There is no calm after the storm.

FORMAT/INFO:
We Lie With Death was published on January 12th, 2021 by Orbit Books. It is 520 pages split over 29 chapters. It is told in first person from the POVs of Miko, Rah, Dishiva and Cassandra. It is available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook formats.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (CAITLIN): The Kisian empire has fallen. Empress Miko has fled, and the capitol is under the enemy control of the Levanti. But the fate of land is far from decided. The new rulers have a tenuous grasp on their new territory at best, and former enemies may prove to be the only allies available. Empress Miko certainly finds that when it becomes clear that some of her former advisors view her only as a bargaining chip, putting her on the run from friend and foe alike. Levanti warrior Rah is on a mission to return to his Emperor Gideon to warn him of a betrayal. Meanwhile Dishiva tries to protect Emperor Gideon as he establishes his rule, but finds herself trying to fight an enemy who is always one step ahead. And the assassin Cassandra tries to find a cure for her mysterious abilities at the hands of a man known simply as the Witchdoctor – but the answers she finds about her illness may have ramifications for every nation on the continent.

There’s an inherent tendency when reviewing sequels to compare them to the book(s) that came before. Did it make me feel the same? Was it just as exciting? Less exciting? Sometimes those are easy asks. And sometimes, books are a bit apples and oranges. Such is the case of WE LIE WITH DEATH, sequel to WE RIDE THE STORM. Whereas the first book felt like a grand game of large moving forces, with multiple nations moving troops and going to war, WE LIE WITH DEATH, is about what happens after. When one side appears to win and has to try and hold that power, not through force, but through diplomacy and leveraging political power. After the devastating events at the end of WE RIDE THE STORM, the various countries are trying to cling to what power they have, frozen in a state of seeming inactivity while scrabbling to grab the few pieces left on the board that haven’t been claimed. Pieces like Empress Miko, who could add “legitimacy” to a power base through marriage or through her execution.

As such, there was a different energy to this book. It wasn’t so much about driving towards an inevitable clash as it was about people slowly moving pieces in a giant game of chicken. It was still a read I thoroughly enjoyed, but there were fewer edge-of-your-seat moments than were in book one. Your mileage may vary on how much you enjoy this next outing, but it’s best to go into it with the right frame of mind.

While the nations might be in a bit of a deadlock, our main protagonists are running about doing the best they can to shake things up. WE LIE WITH DEATH starts bringing some of the disparate plot threads by forcing together some characters who never interacted in the first book. This makes for some delightfully odd pairings, especially when the characters are from two different cultures, offering two different perspectives on the conflict as POV chapters switch off. This can be particularly interesting because very few of the POV characters speak the same language, leaving them sometimes at a loss as to what their new partner is thinking. The POVs come from multiple sides of the conflict, allowing both Kisians and Levanti alike to have their moments of being the “speaking” culture and not understanding what the other is staying, avoiding the unintentional trope of having one culture appear more “backwards” because they don’t speak the “dominant” language of the book.

Ironically, it’s new POV character Dishiva who has the most plot momentum, despite traveling the least of the four main characters. Dishiva is a Levanti in the court of newly-crowned Levanti emperor Gideon. She’s juggling a lot: loyalty to Gideon, Kisian customs that are encroaching on the Levanti way of life, an inability to speak the language of those who might be threats to her emperor, and a strong suspicion that Leo Villius is the threat that nobody (including Gideon) sees. Her chapters were by far the most interesting for me and was a welcome addition to the story.

The other POV characters (Miko, Rah, and Cassandra) all had some good moments, but felt a little bit like they were running in place, even as they were running all over the map. Rah in particular seems to be fixated on saving people who don’t want to be saved, and warning them of threats they’re already aware of. It’s an ineffective hero complex that made him a little hard to root for, despite him being a favorite character in the last book. Cassandra’s chapters continue to be intriguing as she is the only POV character with magic (something so rare it is almost dismissed as superstitious nonsense in this world), and her time with the Witchdoctor begins providing some much needed answers about the bigger plot.

Frustrations about plot momentum aside, this is still a series very much rooted in character, and that’s what kept me picking up this book every time I had a free moment. Overall, these are well-written characters I love to spend time with, and I am definitely invested to see these character journeys through until the (highly likely) bitter end.

Even with some plot threads treading water, the book continues to feel like a pressure cooker, thanks to the slowly rising tensions brought about by the charismatic cockroach that is Leo Villius. Leo will not die, he gets into everything despite best attempts by other characters to keep him out, and he ruins everything with a smile on his face as he watches characters fail at removing him. Leo is insidiously frightening, not because he wields any kind explosive power (he does not) but because he somehow always manages to be where he needs to be to turn things to his advantage. His relentlessness starts to feel you with dread after a while, because what can anyone do against someone who seems to foresee anything that might threaten him? The other nations might be sniping at one another and think they’re vying for power, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that Leo plans to be standing on the ashes when all is said and done.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (LUKASZ): With a richly immersive setting and complex characters, second book in The Reborn Empire series wraps readers in a dark and gritty tale. As far as dark epic fantasy goes, We Lie with Death checks all the boxes. It presents readers with a world so vivid and featuring complex religious and racial divides, it will satisfy genre’s most discriminate enthusiasts. I don’t count myself as one and yet I felt utterly engrossed in the events.

We Lie with Death expands and deepens the world Madson created. Where We Ride the Storm focused closely on three protagonists, the sequel introduces a new character’s point of view, adding another dimension to the events. I needed time to warm up to Dishiva e’Jaroven, Captain of the Second Swords of Jaroven, but once I did her chapters kept me glued to the pages. Not only does she have an interesting backstory and engaging voice, but she also sheds some light on Dom Leo’s dark secrets and Gideon’s machinations.

Leo’s presence added a lot of colour and dark humour to the pages of We Ride The Storm and most readers took him for a charming, if slightly creepy and eccentric character. It turns out he has a nefarious agenda and he will stop at nothing to make it happen. New reveals surprised me and moved the story in an exciting direction. Prepare for clever twists that will make your jaw drop and nod in appreciation of Madson’s plotting skills.

Rah and Miko’s arcs intertwine as they spend a significant part of the book together. Their thorny relation changes and turns into something interesting, but not cheaply predictable. They come from radically different cultures and the clash is inevitable as showed in scenes where Rah tries to honour deceased by cutting their heads. Miko doesn’t appreciate it - where Rah sees his duty, she sees barbarity. And yet, forced by the events they have to learn to trust each other despite their differences and language barrier.

Ultimately though, it’s Cassandra Marius’ arc I find most exciting. Madson explains her unique talents and explores them in a darkly humorous way. Let’s just say the unfortunate turn of events will force Cassandra and Empress Han to form an unlikely alliance and their caustic head-to-head lightens dark themes their chapters explore. Cassandra remains my favourite character and I doubt it’ll change.

Along with her remarkable world building, Madson introduces rich supporting characters that are deftly drawn into both the battles and the layered political intrigue. She packs plenty of twists into the story. Though some revelations are predictable, most reveals and unique “magic” system elevate the story above most contemporary dark fantasy. Another great strength of the Reborn Empire series is its exploration of faith, religion, and how those in power adhere and abuse both.

If it stumbles somewhere, it is only with pacing. While I admire writers able to create complex mythology and detailed world as a reader, I prefer creative minimalism and don’t enjoy all the details. I could live without them. And I would have even more fun.

The last thing that needs mentioning is the quality of the ebook production. Just look at the cover and the font - it looks spectacular. And it doesn’t end here. Each character has its own sigil printed in the beginning of his/her chapter. The book opens with the list of characters and a summary of the key events of the first book allowing the reader to refresh the memories.

I think We Lie with Death is a brilliant sequel. I recommend it to fantasy fans seeking their next dark epic fantasy fix.

CONCLUSION (Caitlin): THE REBORN EMPIRE is proving to be one of those series that has a much larger game afoot than readers initially realized. While the threats the nations pose to each other is very real, events are in motion in the background that may make all of that meaningless. Much of WE LIE WITH DEATH involves characters licking their wounds and regrouping, but it’s poised the story to move in a real direction when the next installment comes out.

NOTE: Caitlin's review was originally posted on her blog Realms Of My Mind.

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