Book Review: The Last Mortal Bond
I actually finished this book several months ago, but I've been so behind that it's taken me this long to review it. Which is a shame, because wow - this was such a good conclusion to The Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne series. Slow clap for Mr. Brian Staveley.
Picking up where The Providence of Fire left off, The Last Mortal Bond follows the emperor's children as they struggle to thwart the Csetriim plot to rid the land of the new gods and, in so doing, "cure" and/or purge humanity from the earth. Kaden has set up his republic, but it goes ill, and he cannot convince Triste to do what she must to save everyone. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, as Adare finds out. Her general is losing to the sadistic Urghul (thanks to the leach Balendin), and she must make amends with her brother to save her kingdom. Valyn is lost in the wilderness, blind but not blind, and full of rage and desire for revenge. And Gwenna and the remnants of Valyn's Wing return to the islands to salvage what's left of the Kettral.
That sounds like a lot - and it is. This book is a doorstopper in size to deal with it too. Yet daunting as it may look, the story breezes by. There's so much that has to happen, so the plot never drags, and you'll find yourself at the end of it before you know it.
Though the main plot deals with the Csetriim, Ran il Tornja isn't the only bad guy that has to be dealt with. I was more than a bit surprised to discover that Balendin is actually much more of an immediate threat, and a large portion of the book is devoted to plans to stop the invading Urghul he leads. This gives The Last Mortal Bond a nice balance as it bounces between dealing with a very metaphysical, intangible threat and a very in-your-face, here-and-now problem.
This is also far and away the best book for Staveley's characters. Each and every one of them has to confront a problem and rise to the occasion, so we see much more growth here. Adare has to swallow her pride and find ways to compromise to do right by her people (and actually make good choices instead of poor ones). Valyn struggles with his new abilities and the dark feelings they've awoken inside him. Kaden finds himself forced to deal with emotions he hasn't truly felt in years as he seeks out Meshkent, god of pain, to thwart Ran. And Gwenna's budding leadership skills are put to the test as she struggles to reform the Kettral.
I like plots that hinge on religions or something to do with divinities, so the central plot here had strong appeal for me now that it was out in the open. Staveley handles it well, revealing just enough about how divinities work in his world, and creating some memorable characters and moments. Kaden finally came into his own here, and toward the end of the book, I finally found myself liking him for the first time.
The big showdown on Intarra's Spear is exceedingly well-written and enjoyable - it's possibly the best moment of Staveley's prose in all three books. And I appreciate that Staveley didn't pull any punches. The ending has a very real, bittersweet feel to it, without being overly grimdark; there was a cost to pay, yes, but there is hope for the future too.
A lot of other reviewers have found Gwenna's story to be largely tangential, and it's true that the book probably could have been thinned out by omitting it without too much damage to the central plot. But Gwenna's story was most interesting, for me, and I found myself speeding through chapters to get back to her. Staveley's created a real gem in her, because she's a very compelling read. I found myself strongly identifying with her, and she has some of the most exciting passages of the book, with the retaking of the islands and the Kettral assault on Balendin.
The Last Mortal Bond also takes us to some exciting new places, including Rassambur, home of the Skullsworn, where we meet Pyrre again. I love the Skullsworn as a concept, so this was a welcome stop. As I did with The Providence of Fire, I have to commend Staveley on his world. It was on full display again here, much to my great satisfaction. In fact, there was very little for me to nitpick on this book, other than a few character decisions I didn't fully understand here and there.
To sum, I've come full circle on this series. I found The Emperor's Blades somewhat lacking, but with books two and three, Staveley really turned it up to 11, and I expect The Last Mortal Bond will rank on my list of favorite books from 2016.
On a related note, I'm excited to hear he's writing some standalones, and I'm glad he's starting with Pyrre because I missed her for much of this novel. Can we have one for Gwenna next?