Category Archives: Gav Thorpe

It’s Easier to Take a Crown Than Keep it

The Crown of the Conqueror
Gav Thorpe
Angry Robot Books
432 pp., $7.99 paper, $5.99 ebook

If you haven’t read the first volume in this series, The Crown of the Blood, I’m giving you fair warning that I’m going to have at least one major spoiler in this review.

When I reviewed The Crown of the Blood, I really enjoyed it but had a few quibbles about a couple of things.  Overall, though, I thought it was a good book.  The Crown of the Conqueror, on the other hand is a very good book.  The  gripes I had about the first book, which I considered to be relatively minor, aren’t present in this one.  The pace moves at what feels like a breakneck speed, which is an impressive trick for Mr. Thorpe to pull off, considering 3 1/2 years pass from the first page to the last.

The first book ended with a real cliffhanger (this one does, too), and in the opening chapter things pick up right where they left off.  Here’s the spoiler, which is included in the sample at the end of the review.  At the end of The Crown of the Blood, when Ullsaard put the crown on his head, he hear a voice.  Askh, founder of the empire and dead for two centuries.  It seems that every king since Askh has really been…Askh.  When the new king puts on the crown, Askh takes over and the original inhabitant of the body ceases to be in control or even be aware of what’s happened.  By interrupting the line of succession, Ullsaard has messed up that process so that while he can hear Askh and carry on a conversation with him, he’s still in control.  Askh is along for the ride, experiencing everything Ullsaard does but unable to influence events.  This leads to some complications of Ullsaard’s love life. 

Ullsaard soon learns that taking the crown and wearing it are two different things, and one is much harder than the other.  He has to deal with fighting a war without a lot a support from the nobles unless they can gain a political or financial advantage.  He has to fight more than one war at once.  And he has to deal with betrayal and revenge.

The supporting characters that gave The Crown of the Blood so much of its depth are back, although some of them don’t survive until the end of the book.  In fact, that adds to the suspense.  Once I realized Thorpe would kill characters who were playing a major role in some of the subplots, the book became a lot less predictable.  To me this added to the realism, since most things in life are not resolved in a quick and easy manner.  They’re messy with lots of false starts and missed opportunities.  Something the landship owner Anglhan finds out.  The descent of his character, to me, was one of the most fascinating parts of the story.  Anglhan’s story is unresolved, something that aggravates me to no end.  That’s a compliment, not a criticism.  A good writer makes the reader want more, and I want to find out what happens to Anglhan.  Hopefully it will involve flaying and impaling.

One of the criticisms of second books in trilogies is that they are often fillers between the setup in the first book and the finale in the third.  Gav Thorpe avoids that here, something he writes about on his blog.  Others may disagree with me on this point (it’s a free country and they have a right to be wrong), but I think he succeeded admirably.  We learn more about the history of this world, and about the Brotherhood in particular.  We also learn about Askh and how he came to found the empire.  I was reminded of some of the themes of H. P. Lovecraft here, and that’s a good thing because this gives a whole new light on the events of the first two books.  I won’t spoil any of the details, but this part of the story should become more dominant in the next book, The Crown of the Usurper

Unfortunately that book isn’t due out for another year.  It’s going to be a long wait.  If you like stories of empire and conquest, particularly those modeled on the Roman Empire, then this series will probably be your cup of tea.

For your convenience, I’ve included the publisher’s sample below.  (With permission of course.)

Of Blood and Crown and Conquest

The Crown of the Blood
Gav Thorpe
Angry Robot Books
464 p., $7.99 paper, $5.99 ebook

You know any book that is dedicated to Phillip, Alexander, and Julius is going to be battle-centric.  Or perhaps I should say campaign-centric, because battles are only a small part of a campaign.  The Crown of the Blood doesn’t disappoint, although towards the end I felt the campaign was a little rushed.

Is this book worth reading?  If you like military oriented fantasy without a lot of sorcery in the middle of the battle, then you should enjoy this one.  There is some sorcery, but the battles are fought between legions and bandits, legions and those-soon-to-be-conquered, and legions and legions.  Unlike Glen Cook’s Black Company novels (which I love), sorcery has little to do with the combat.  It’s done the old fashioned way:  looking your opponent in the eye when you try to kill him, just like he’s doing to you.

The plot concerns one Ulsaard, a general in the Askhan army who has managed to work his way up the ranks and is as close to nobility as he can ever be in this society.  He’s more comfortable with his legions than he is with the intrigues of court, and this causes him to be manipulated into taking sides in a disagreement over the succession.

The Empire was founded by Askhos, and he set some pretty strict rules about how things were to be done after he was gone.  By this time Askhos is considered something of a deity.  For one thing, only those of the Blood, Askhos’ descendants, can rule.  All bastards are killed by the Brotherhood, an organization responsible for things like rule of law and collecting taxes, but which also seems to serve a religious function by stamping out any beliefs in conflict with Askhos’ teachings.  The Empire must expand by conquest until it controls the entire continent; Ulsaard thinks this one has been neglected of late.  And the succession must pass to the oldest living son, no exceptions.

What starts things off is that the heir, Kalmud, has fallen ill with some sort of lung disease that is keeping him bedridden but so far hasn’t been fatal.  His younger brother, Aalun, and also Ulsaard’s patron, finds this all very inconvenient.  Ulsaard is chomping at the bit to invade the neighboring kingdom of Salphoria.  Aalun uses this to put Ulsaard in the position of appearing to be in rebellion when he presses to be named successor.  Of course, what starts out as appearance soon turns to fact, especially after Aalun dies unexpectedly.  Ulsaard decides to continue the campaign.

Civil war follows.  One interesting thing is that Thorpe doesn’t hesitate to introduce semi-major characters and then kill them off.  This adds to the suspense as some key players don’t last as long as you expect, making you wonder who is next. 

Another thing I found interesting was that apparently when a man marries a woman, he also marries her sisters.  Depending on the sisters, this could be a sweet deal.  Or not.  In Ulsaard’s case it’s something of a mixed bag.  He loves the older sister, uses the younger sister mainly as a sex object, and barely tolerates the middle sister, who is a scheming social climber and quite adulterous.

There are different cultures shown in the book, with viewpoint characters from some of those cultures, but the main one is the (not surprisingly) Askhan culture, especially the culture of the legions.  Much of the world remains unexplored, in terms of the reader’s knowledge, although to an extent that’s true of the characters as well.  I suspect from some loose ends that we’ll be getting a closer look at some of them in later books.

This was a good book that moved well, had depth of character, and still had some surprises as it went along.  I only had two complaints with the structure of the story.  First, as I mentioned earlier, the end of the campaign seemed somewhat rushed, with several key battles skipped over.  I suspect for reasons of length.  The other was the one situation in which sorcery was used.  It was during winter, when Ulsaard’s legions are encamped, that they began to experience a series of increasingly damaging attacks, things like people getting literally deathly ill with no notice, while hearing chanting voices.  That seemed to be dropped after the most vicious attack fails.  Thorpe skips ahead to spring in the next chapter.

Those weren’t enough to spoil the book for me, though.  I’ve downloaded the sequel, The Crown of the Conqueror, and should be posting a review of it in a few weeks.  One word of warning to some of you.  The violence, sex, and language in this novel are quite graphic at times, more so than in many novels published these days, at least in the States.  Or perhaps I should say at least among the authors I’ve read over the last few years.  If you are squeamish or offended by that sort of thing, you might want to give this one a pass.  Otherwise, enjoy it.  It’s an exciting story that drags you in.