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Review Round-up: Sworn in Steel and The Elements of Sorcery

Two recent books of high fantasy. First up, the sequel to Douglas Hulick's Among Thieves. Then, a collection of serialised sorcery and and derring-do, with Christopher Kellen's The Elements of Sorcery.

Sworn in SteelDouglas Hulick's Sworn in Steel (2014) is the second Tale of the Kin, and the much-anticipated sequel to Among ThievesThieves was a finalist for the Kitschies Golden Tentacle (one of the few epic fantasies to receive a 'nod' from the prize) and Sworn in Steel is, in my eyes, equally successful. A tightly plotted narrative about an ambitious rogue who is more lucky than good, Sworn in Steel perfectly balances the high-magical weirdness of the background setting with more personal character drama.

When we last saw Drothe, he had bucked the criminal underworld of Ildrecca and made a leap from street thief (a common 'Nose') to a Gray Prince (one of the city's secret elite). In the process, he'd betrayed his best friend, contravened the wishes of an immortal Emperor, and really pissed off a lot of important people. Sworn in Steel begins with Drothe 'enjoying' his new position: that is, immediately betrayed and on the run. It seems that leadership - especially of a fraternity of shamelessly unscrupulous 'kin' - is fun than it might seem. Fortunately (kinda), Drothe is railroaded out of town. In the Despotate, the Empire's not-so-friendly neighbours, there are rumors of ex-BFF, Bronze Dugan, and some Kin business, and maybe a chance to avoid daggers, and another, irritated Dugan will kill Drothe if he doesn't go. So for all those reasons, Drothe hits the road.

Sworn is a pleasant embiggenment over its predecessor, but rather than immediately going full-on epic, it maintains the intimacy. Certainly Drothe stumbles on a vast conspiracy and the fate of nations and the secret of secrets, but that's almost incidental: his real problem is that he's come up in the world, and he needs to take responsibility for himself and for others. Being a Gray Prince isn't a magical position - he hasn't been supernaturally blessed with the ability to do his job. He has a title, and now he has to figure out how to do the job. 

A terrific sequel to one of my favourite fantasy debuts: a brilliant world, terrific action and fun, intelligent characters.

For fans of... The Tales of the Kin series is actually cursed by Scott Lynch's Gentlemen Bastards (many of which I've made, and will continue to make). Certainly, this won't help - after a delay in the publication of both Sworn in Steel and Republic of Thieves, they still wound up appearing at nearly at the same time - and both featuring crime-lords hiding in a troupe of actor travelling to a hostile city with the twin plot of finding an old, beloved comrade and avoiding the fallout from pissing off a mysterious order of immortal illuminati. Argh. Still, these are the two series for clever, thoughtful, roguish scamps (with occasional feelz) and I'd definitely recommend one to fans of the other, and vice versa.

Elements of SorceryChristopher Kellen's The Elements of Sorcery (2014) is a compilation of the five 'Sorcerer's' novellettes. This, in turn, forms a sort of prequel to Kellen's other series, the Arbiter Codex. Elements tracks the ascent of the sorceror Edar Moncrief from an academic to, well, something altogether different.

In the first book - and perhaps the best - Moncrief really is a deliciously nebbish nobody. He's doing research into the fundamental nature of manna (the magical go-juice), which makes him something of a high fantasy quantum physicist: stuck in with some very abstract stuff. His seemingly-musty life is interrupted when he stumbles over a dead body. Bodies aren't totally unusual in his seedy town, but in this case the deceased is unusual: an Arbiter, the better-than-mortal warrior monks that beat the poop out of bad wizards. 

Moncrief loots the body of rare Arbiter Artifacts and then sneaks off to do research. But then, much to his chagrin, a second Arbiter shows up - and Moncrief is made to play investigator. The story sets up a pattern that's then replicated over the next few novelettes in the series: a somewhat selfish Moncrief is guilted/hooked/conned into playing a hero, he eventually susses out bad guys (invariably a fusion of human motivation and supernatural evil), and then he thumps on them with his ever-escalating magical powers. This is a very high fantasy sort of high fantasy, and Moncrief rapidly transforms from a bumbling figure to a secretly-very-competent wizard to something transcendent and thoroughly Chosen.

Although the stories are, by nature, episodic, they do fit together neatly, with the aforementioned escalating powers as the theme. Moncrief's 'accidental' encounter with the Arbiter grows into something far more. Certainly his levelling-up makes for entertaining boss fights, but the more interesting facet is how the rest of the world responds to his growing badassitude. Moncrief goes from a no one to pretending to be a someone to someone to being mistaken for a serious someone to actually being a serious someone. He oscillates from being mistaken for power to pretending to be power, to, well, eventually being a proper power. How Moncrief reacts to these situations is the best part: from pretending to be an Arbiter lord to doing his best to hide in the wilderness. Both completely understandable.  There's a theme of Moncrief's growing sense of responsibility as well, although it is less 'explored' than simply taken for granted. Still, the character has a quirky sense of humour that makes him more empathetic than a magic-shooting demigod has any right to be.

Where Elements is less satisfying is how it fuels Moncrief's ascent. In many cases, what seem to be complete accidents, or simply unrelated side-quests, all turn out to be elaborate conspiracies, predicated on the fact that Moncrief is oh so interesting. The adventures are more interesting (see - the second and fourth books) when they're not all about him. And, as is the nature of all epic-level adventures, the higher level the mage, the less interesting the magical action. The third and fifth books especially feel like the 'fight' scenes from Superman Returns - not the Zod ones, but the ones where Superman triumphs over evil by flying at it really hard. You know something really impressive is happening because you're explicitly told so, but it isn't actually translated into words. Energy. Fire. Screaming. Etc.

Overall, Elements of Sorcery is entertaining, if uneven. There's something nice and reassuring about a classic "mage levels, gets more spells" narrative, and Moncrief himself isn't a bad character to hang a hat on. Where it is let down is in the plotting: things seem to happen, either for no reason at all or because there's an over-complicated conspiracy all about the man. Perhaps these inconsistencies are a matter of the format, and were less glaring in the original, serialised form. 

For fans of... Simon Green's Hawk and Fisher. Green's series is also structured around episodic high fantasy adventures that start with 'some fairly unremarkable people' and, one bite-sized adventure at a time, build to a clash of cosmic titans. Tonally, those books also strike the same note: weary, slightly amoral adventurers with snarky humour that are secretly self-sacrificing champions of the people. Simon Green's tendency towards 'let's find an even bigger gun' level-ending boss fights is also paralleled here. Basically, if you like your books more-ish, quick, punchy and slightly video-game-y, here's one for you.