Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Providence Of Fire - Brain Staveley

Providence of Fire is the second in Brian Staveley’s “Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne” series. It follows directly from the first, which means it has a fair amount to live up to.

The world of Providence of Fire is hopefully familiar from the first novel. A sprawling Empire, tied together by a shared culture across uncommon geography, with an Imperial family that purports to carry a spark of the divine. That they also tend to have glowing eyes to back this claim up is rather helpful. In any event, at the close of the first book, the Emperor had been murdered, and his three children were all trying to deal with this in their own way. We do get to see a bit more of the Empire this time – actually, we get to see a fair bit more of the capital city and the surrounding countryside.
Staveley manages to make the Imperial city feel like a baroque dream, filled with towering spires and open boulevards – and then confounds expectations by taking us into the poorer quarters, the sewer runs, the slums and garrets of the lower classes. The urban underclass here feel appropriately misused, seething with vitality and distrust of authority.  They’re contrasted with a military which is shown as disciplined and effective, but ultimately supine in the hands of the authority that they serve. 
There’s a theme of strong personalities here – not just the three Imperial children, whose efforts to gain control of their lives and those around them are ministered by divine right, but generals, spiritual figures, tribal leaders. These personalities shape the world around them, and Staveley shows the driving power of those personalities, and their effect on their followers, very effectively.

Speaking of powerful personalities – we also get a view of some of the enemies of the Empire. In particular, we see an array of horsemen, plains tribes, brought together by one strong leader. The horsemen of the steppes are a staple of fantasy – Staveley’s happen to worship a divinity who requires suffering. They see pain as sacrament, for both themselves and their enemies. We don’t get to see enough of their social structures here – they serve as a brooding external threat for most of the characters. Where they do interact with one of our viewpoint characters, those interactions are either verbally scathing or brutally violent. That said, those interactions are executed perfectly – the focus of the tribes, their need for ‘hardening’, the rather unpleasant games that they play – all are entirely believable in the moment. It’s a shame though, that we don’t have time to delve deeper into the tribes, as something apart from antagonists.

Character-wise, our key views are once again the three children of the Emperor.  We do spend more time with the daughter in this novel, which is excellent. She served as an excellent view on the politics of the Empire in the first book, but wasn’t really given enough to do In this volume, there’s a rather larger share of politics – and she takes up a rather larger share of the text. There’s some interesting shifts in character as she gradually convinces those around her that she may be divinely inspired – and we get to see the mental contortions she goes through in trying to convince herself to take the Imperial throne, unaware of whether either of her brothers are still alive.

One of her brothers is, to be fair, very much alive, and leading a wing of Kettral – a sort of special forces team, which uses a giant bird as both transport and tactical assault platform (the Kettral were always a fun read in the first volume, and they maintain that streak here). The change to our protagonist as he becomes used to the burdens – and costs – of command is striking. The decisions he’s forced to make – whether to murder hostile civilians to cover the team’s tracks, whether to assist members of the team or focus on a high value target – leave both him and us morally wrung out. It’s a fascinating rendition of the effects of high stress on an individual, somewhat reminiscent of Heart of Darkness,  and Staveley keeps us mired in the mental morass alongside our viewpoint – evoking sympathy, anger and horror in equal measure.

That leaves the heir to the throne, who has the capacity to pass between various magical gates, after years of training in how to enter the requisite mental state. From a character standpoint, he’s forged further here as well. There’s issues around the cost of his actions, and whether it’s right to sacrifice another person for your goals. Whether the world is ready for what you’re trying to do, and whether, as always, the ends justify the means. It’s all wrapped up in the plot here, rather than what felt like the more intimate character study of the Kettral, but the character work slides in neatly alongside the narrative, making a cohesive, wonderfully readable whole.

I won’t get into the plot, except to say that there’s…rather a lot of it. There’s a great many pivot points in this book, where things can fall out one way or another and have grand impact on what the first volume described as the status quo. The pacing’s solid, the lead up and smaller crises were more than enough to keep me reading – and then occasionally, there’d be an absolute game changer, with ripples felt throughout the rest of the text. Staveley isn’t playing around – this is high stakes politics, epic battles, and real, lasting consequences felt in the narrative as a result.

Is it worth reading? Assuming you’ve read the first volume, absolutely. It’s dialled  everything up to eleven, and you’ll be feeling the effects of Providence of Fire long after you’re done reading it. 

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