Hey, everyone! Sorry for being rather absent for the last week and a half. I’ve been super busy preparing for a neuroscience conference and it’s been kind of a mentally taxing endeavour. But I’ll be back on Monday to catch up on posts and comments! Meanwhile, enjoy this slightly overdue review!
Title: A Labyrinth of Scions of Sorcery (The Risen Kingdoms 2)
Author: Curtis Craddock
Publisher: Tor Books
Release Date: January 22nd, 2019
Genre(s): Fantasy, Steampunk
Subjects and Themes: Court Intrigue, Family Drama
Page Count: 416 (hardback)
Isabelle des Zephyrs has always been underestimated throughout her life, but after discovering the well of hidden magic within her, unveiling a centuries-long conspiracy, and stopping a war between rival nations, she has gained a newfound respect amongst the cutthroat court.
All that is quickly taken away when Isabelle is unfairly convicted of breaking the treaty she helped write and has her political rank and status taken away. Now bereft, she nevertheless finds herself drawn into mystery when her faithful musketeer Jean-Claude uncovers a series of gruesome murders by someone calling themselves the Harvest King.
As panic swells, the capital descends into chaos, when the emperor is usurped from the throne by a rival noble. Betrayed by their allies and hunted by assassins, Isabelle and Jean-Claude alone must thwart the coup, but not before it changes l’Empire forever.
(Note: If it’s been over a year since you last read Book 1, you might benefit from a reread because holy hell, I couldn’t remember who 70% of the characters were.)
As the sequel to Craddock’s wholly underrated debut An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors, which was one of my favourite reads of 2017, I had pretty high expectations for it. And while I can’t say the book met them, there’s still a lot to like about it. So let’s get the good bits first!
The worldbuilding is as delightful to read about as it was in Book 1. For those who are new to the series, the books take place in a steampunk fantasy version of Renaissance France and Spain (if Renaissance France and Spain had been floating sky nations, that is). We also get airships, sorcerers who can make use of shadows and mirrors, dashing musketeers, and feathered people-creatures who retain all the memories of their ancestors. It’s brilliantly imaginative and somewhat reminiscent of Jules Verne, and I’ve not found anything quite like it in fantasy.
So obviously the book will appeal to fantasy readers who are tired of medieval settings and want to see some sky high swashbuckling action, but I think it’ll also hold appeal to all you genealogy buffs out there because so much of the story is about tracing family history and heritable traits.
The writing also continues to delight. Craddock’s prose holds such an effortless charm that makes it an absolute joy to read, and it shines most brightly when it comes to Jean Claude, our protagonist’s bodyguard, who is one of the sassiest, most loyal protector one could wish for. And his protectee Isabelle is as clever and wonderfully independent as I remember.
My disappointment mainly comes from two things: plot and love interest.
As much as I liked exploring this world more, I wasn’t super invested in the main plot. It’s got a lot of intrigue and mystery revolving around family ancestry, which had also been present in the first book, but while book 1 had tension and a sense of immediacy that I found compelling, the storyline in Labyrinth is rather meandering and had me wondering what it was all leading up to or why it mattered.
The second point is what frustrates me the most because it’s a matter of squandered potential. The end of book 1 had more or less set up Prince Julio of Aragoth (fantasy Spain) to be Isabelle’s love interest in Labyrinth. And though we didn’t get an in-depth look at him then, I definitely liked what I saw and was very much looking forward to seeing how their relationship would develop in the sequel.
Instead, he gets shoved to the wayside in favour of a new love interest, a man called Bitterlich, and he and Isabelle are…pleasant, sure, but bland and their romance too quickly developed.
And okay, yes, Julio is admittedly a little vanilla, especially compared to Bitterlich who’s a shapeshifter. He’s also very proper and reserved and tightly-wound and harbours a not insignificant hero worship for his dead father. And for some strange infuriating reason, fantasy characters with those traits usually get saddled with one of three roles: martyr, cannon fodder, or just plain chopped liver. Hardly ever long-term love interests.
But you know what would have been interesting to see? Julio and Isabelle actually interacting and figuring out how their personalities mesh when outside of life-threatening situations. We get none of that here and it ends up feeling like a waste of a perfectly set up character.
At the end of the day, though, this is the kind of book that I feel good about reading, even when the plot and characters don’t quite meet my expectations, and that has everything to do with the charm and the heart of Craddock’s writing. And that is really what makes this series stand out from others.
I’m very excited to see what adventures the author will take these characters next (hint: there will be airships).