There is a huge difference between a battle and a war. You can lose one, but still be victorious in the other. Or indeed win a battle, but overall be on the losing side. Brian McClellan’s latest trilogy set in the Powder Mage universe shows that even in a fantasy setting, war is hell. Whilst in Sins of Empire our heroes successful fought off the enemy forces, by Wrath of Empire a far superior enemy force has arrived and driven the battle wearer Mad Lancers from the capital. Can Lady Flint, Michel and Ben Styke survive long enough to even consider winning another skirmish, never mind the war?
Trapped on the plains of Fatrasta the mercenary army of Lady Flint is on the run. Her victory has only placed a price on her head that the enemy are eager to collect. Meanwhile, she has an uneasy ally in the form of Ben Styke and his Mad Lancers, what are Ben’s motivations? To save the country or enact his own bloody revenge on those that wronged him. Back in the smoking ruins of Landfall, Michel finds himself once more undercover as he is tasked with infiltrating the invaders and evacuating a mysterious woman.
As part two of a trilogy Wrath has the very real possibility of being a filler novel between the series two bookends, but this is not the case. McClellan has managed to create an identity for Wrath that is separate from the initial Sins. Gone is the compact story set in Landfall with the various characters interacting, by now they are spread to the wind. This book has all the gory fighting of the last, but there is the sense of desperation. If part one had the characters feeling on sure footing, part two is about retreat.
With the majority of the characters in Wrath being on the back foot it gives McClellan the opportunity to test their mettle. The likes of Flint and Styke are almost superhuman (and in one case actually superhuman) in the way they win battles, but here the odds are stacked so poorly against them that even they may falter. The reader gets to see a more unsteady version of our heroes and we learn a lot about them by their fears, or lack of.
Like with so many fantasy novels, Wrath has multiple narratives. The book flits between the three characters. Unlike many other fantasy books, all three are as good as one another. Michel’s tale is noticeably different from the other two and offers a slice of political intrigue in a book that would otherwise potentially lapse into military fantasy.
This outing highlights an author who is increasingly comfortable with the world that he has built. One of the most entertaining things about the Powder Mage books has always been how the various magical factions clash. The traditional Privileged against the gunpowder hungry Mages. There are some scenes like this still, but McClellan has moved on from concentrating on them too much. He understand that the readers have moved on as well and are delighted with the world he conceived. We know enough about the surroundings that the story can delve deeper into the characters and we learn more about them in Wrath than ever before.
For all the wonderfully realised world and great characters Wrath works brilliantly because it is just great, fun fantasy. This is a world of alternative grim dark that takes an open wound and rubs gunpowder into it. For any reader that love the fantasy genre, but is a little jaded with dragons then this series is for them. Wrath offers all the punch of a fantasy novel, but set in a world that you would not have witnessed before.
Written on 28th February 2019 by Sam Tyler.
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