Book: “Age of War” by Michael J. Sullivan
Publishing Info: Del Rey, July 2018
Where Did I Get this Book: audiobook from the library
Book Description: The alliance of humans and renegade Fhrey is fragile—and about to be tested as never before. Persephone keeps the human clans from turning on one another through her iron will and a compassionate heart. The arrogant Fhrey are barely held in check by their leader, Nyphron, who seeks to advance his own nefarious agenda through a loveless marriage that will result in the betrayal of the person Persephone loves most: Raithe, the God Killer.
As the Fhrey overlords marshal their army and sorcerers to crush the rebellion, old loyalties will be challenged while fresh conspiracies will threaten to undo all that Persephone has accomplished. In the darkest hour, when hope is all but lost, new heroes will rise . . . but at what terrible cost?
Review: I’ve been loving this series ever since I discovered it. I read most every type of fantasy there is (urban, YA, contemporary, etc.), but I always have a soft spot for epic fantasy, especially well-constructed series that feature a well-rounded ensemble cast. With every book I read in this series, my appreciation for what Sullivan is crafting grows.
The war between humans and Fhrey is coming to a head. The battle lines are drawn and each side is shoring up their resources. While Persephone and her people hold a great fortress and have numbers on their side, the powers of the Fhrey are still unimaginable, especially against the only two magic users that humans have. Even if this battle is won, Persephone knows that wars last years and peace is always preferable to conquest. In this light, she struggles with the decision to marry a Fhrey, connecting their two peoples forever, knowing that she will give up her chance at love with Raithe. Suri, Brin, Roan, Gifford and so many others all have their own paths to walk and important roles to play if the humans are to survive this all.
If I’m picking, I often prefer stories that feature one, strong protagonist at the heart of it all. I enjoy getting to know the motivations, strengths, and weaknesses of an individual and follow their story through all of its outward action and inward character development. It’s not that I don’t like an ensemble cast; I just think it’s terribly hard to pull off and more often than not, one or more characters are short-shifted, thus weakening the story as a whole. Better to play it safe and stick to the one, well-drawn character. With all of that in mind, it’s a true pleasure when I find an author who knows how to properly develop and maintain an ensemble cast through a series of books. Sullivan is a master at this, so far.
His true strength seems to be understanding whose story needs to rise to the top in each book. Early in the series, we focused largely on Raithe and Persephone, but here, as the events grow greater and new challenges unfold, we see other characters come into their own and are thus given more page time. And, since even the first books still put in the work to develop these characters, when the story switches over to emphasizing their roles more, it is an easy adjustment. I don’t mourn the loss of time with Raithe and Persephone because I’ve become invested in Brin and Gifford already as well. And as certain characters’ stories begin to wane into the background, we’re slowly given a few new characters here and there.
I typically try to read and review books in a sort of vacuum from the other media forms I’m consuming. But given the raging debate and upheaval after the last season of GOT, it was almost impossible to read such a similar book without making comparisons. I won’t go into an entire rant about my feelings on GOT, but there are a few points of similarity between these two epic fantasies that can’t help but be connected.
The first one has to do, again, with the creation and use of an ensemble cast. “Game of Thrones,” be it book or tv series, is by no means the first of its kind to feature a large cast of characters. Almost all epic fantasy series do. In light of the character arcs we saw in “Game of Thrones,” Sullivan’s own powers of character building were only highlighted all the more. His characters, too, face complicated moral decisions. But when they reach decision points, whether we agree with their actions or not, we understand why they do what they do. The chapters and time that are given to each character reveal necessary information, either for the plot of the book or for the development of the character. Things are introduced for a reason and readers can feel confident that, while they may not be able to piece it all together now, we are working towards something.
And that works to my second point of comparison and it has to do surprising the audience and subverting expectations. It’s been clear from the very start that GOT has prided itself on surprising audiences and subverting typical story beats. And there’s a reason for that: it’s pretty entertaining! But what they seemed to lose along the way was the fact that audiences can still be surprised while making believable, slowly built arcs for stories.
Joffrey was a monster, so while we were surprised that he killed Ned and our expectations that the hero of the story would prevail were subverted, after the fact, it all made sense. Events leading up to it were built in along the way and were easy to trace for even the most casual consumer. But while GOT seems to have lost this process with the last few seasons, and most especially the last half of the last season, Sullivan has managed to do the same thing, without sacrificing the credibility of his story. There are legitimate surprises in this book and expectations of certain characters’ arcs are definitely subverted. This story gets dark and similar to GOT, not everyone is safe. But, like early seasons of the show/book, after the fact, everything that happens feels earned. Satisfying endings don’t require that they be happy, they require consistency and thoughtful construction. Sullivan has both, and it’s on display in this book especially.
There have been a lot of lists floating around since the end of GOT about what fantasy series to read next. I haven’t seen Sullivan’s “The Legends of the First Empire” on any of them, and it’s a real shame. At its most basic level, we know that the author has already finished the series so not only do we know that an end is coming, we know that the author built the entire series with clearly established plot lines for all of his characters in mind. And, given the darker nature of this book as compared to the first two, it’s definitely earning its stripes as an epic fantasy series.
Rating 9: Frankly, it was a relief to have this on hand as proof that ensemble casts and subverted expectations in fantasy fiction CAN be done well.
“Age of War” isn’t on many relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be “Popular Ensemble Cast Books.”
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