Book Review: The Providence of Fire
If you ever read this, Brian Staveley - thank you. Thank you for turning it up to 11 in The Providence of Fire.
You may recall in my review of The Emperor's Blades, book one of the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, that I wanted to love the book but just wasn't able to get past a few major flaws. I'm happy to say that I do love The Providence of Fire, book two in the series, and that it is a much better outing than its predecessor.
The Providence of Fire picks up where The Emperor's Blades left off. Kaden and Valyn are reunited but on the run, and the two soon split again, Valyn taking the Skullsworn assassin and his wing into Urghul territory. Kaden and Rampuri Tan undertake a mission to learn more about the Csetriim by visiting the order Tan left, and it doesn't go as planned. And Adare finds unlikely allies in the Sons of Flame, a religious army that she banished from Annur, as she works her way toward stopping the man who killed her father: Ran il Tornja, who is not what he appears. All of it culminates in one massive battle, a desperate gambit and an earth-shattering revelation.
First of all, let me address the complaints I had against the first book, because it's worth mentioning how much better this book is on all fronts. I was majorly disappointed by the lack of Adare chapters in The Emperor's Blades, but I'm pleased to say that Adare is front and center here. Her story is again the most interesting of the three (though a bit more narrowly this time), and we finally get to appreciate Adare as more than just the princess. She struggles with maintaining her alliances, she seizes the throne even though it's traditionally male, and she makes a lot of hard decisions (including many wrong ones, in my opinion). But we actually get to see her on an even par with her brothers.
I was also right to pin my hopes on Gwenna - about halfway through the book, she becomes a point-of-view character. I've seen a lot of complaining about that in various reviews online, but I think it needed to happen; there was a lot of story that couldn't otherwise be told due to the characters breaking into smaller groups. She too comes into her own as a leader in this book, and together with Pyrre and Annick manages to prevent the climactic battle from being lost before it begins. She is probably the most heroic of the characters in this novel, even if it is unwilling, because she is genuinely good-hearted and not out for vengeance or any other dark motive. Pyrre and Annick make great secondary characters in her plot (Pyrre in particular with her quips and general devil-may-care attitude). Honestly, I could have a story that was just Gwenna, Annick and Pyrre traveling and I'd be happy.
Then there's Nira. Oh boy. As new characters go, she's one of my two favorites. The revelation of who she really is comes quite early, but it had to (and this book is so stacked with big revelations that Staveley had to start somewhere). She's an unconventional character, and she'll be the one you remember long after you finish the novel. I won't say any more because I don't want to spoil her - she's that good.
Saying all that to say - Staveley has largely fixed his female agency problem. The women in this novel are much stronger, more independent and act on their own desires.*
Also unlike his first book - this one moves. It marches steadily from revelation to revelation, setpiece to setpiece, always pushing forward. The Emperor's Blades took me a solid week and a half to get through (an awfully long time, for me) due to dragging plotlines; I burned through The Providence of Fire in about two days total. There's hardly a boring moment to be found, because when we're not watching a thrilling escape or an epic battle, we're seeing a huge character reveal or trying to puzzle out what the hell is going on with Triste.
Most of all, I want to thank Brian Staveley for his world. THIS was what I wanted from his first book, what I want from all fantasy novels that I read. Here were the details on the various religious sects, the history of the Csetriim and humans, the politics of modern-day Annur. This time, it was more than just the odd curse word - the world had weight to it. Part of that came from how much this book travels, but I think part of it was simply that the world was better woven into the story. When the book opened with the ruins of Assare, the first human city, I fist-pumped, I was so excited. And the introduction of a Csetriim character, Kiel, adds even more depth to the world. Kiel ranked highly on my list of favorite things about this novel.
There's a few things I still didn't care for - I found Valyn to be overly dramatic and grew to dislike him somewhat over the course of the novel, and I wanted to tear my hair out over some of Adare's poor decisions, but on the whole this is a much much MUCH better book than The Emperor's Blades. Just like Pierce Brown with Golden Son, Staveley manages to avoid middle book syndrome and then some - and I couldn't be happier!
I've already been to Barnes & Noble multiple times looking for The Last Mortal Bond (would you believe they aren't stocking it here? Criminal!). But it's going first on my to-read list as soon as I order a copy.
*Triste is a bit of an exception to this, since she exists mainly as a puzzle for Kaden to solve. Overall, Kaden's storyline remains the most problematic in this regard (lest we forget Triste's mother who exists solely to shelter and then betray Kaden and her daughter). But I'm willing to forgive this storyline for the excellence of the others.