Thousands of knights, the finest in the land, are pelting madly up a hill. For added excitement, they're preceded by a wave of half-tame ogrish monsters, their shock troops. The defenders, dark wizards amongst them, rain black fire down on their attackers. The attacking line breaks, and the battle dissolves into chaos and slaughter.
Caught in the middle? Asho, a humble squire, who, over the course of a few (very) busy pages suddenly finds himself back-to-back with some of the most decorated knights in the realm. His heroism in the first few chapters brings him unexpected rewards - and exposes him to dangerous secrets.
Asho's is merely one point of view in this cinderblock-sized epic. He returns from the front to Kyferin Castle, to serve the widow of his fallen lord. Iskra's relationship with her belligerent (and now deceased) husband was always strained, but ruling the Castle and its lands is a hefty challenge. The other, rapacious lords are circling, and with the war in the background, Iskra is left with nowhere to turn for help.
Nor is Iskra's daughter, Kethe, making things any easier. Kethe adored her gruff father, and has been secretly training as a knight in his absence. Although this sort of thing is very much not done, the chaos of Lord Kyferin's death is an opportunity for Kethe to step up - in his name - and become the warrior she dreams of being. Of course, other, greater powers may have plans for this brave and talented young woman...
Other characters include Audsley, Kyferin Castle's resident sage and Tiron, a knight with a dark past and divided loyalties. This unlikely band - featuring misfit heroes from a variety of scorned and dubious backgrounds - is all that stands behind Iskra, her people, and total disaster. And that's just the start of it. As well as the known threats to Kyferin Castle and our heroes, there are others looming both on and beyond the horizon: portals to demon lands, heretic armies, soul-devouring sorcerers and much, much more. What begins as Asho's simple bid for survival rapidly snowballs into something much, much bigger; an adventure that threatens to topple empires... and perhaps even the gods themselves.
Sexy, eh? Well that's just the start. Let's get to the criteria...
Is it entertaining? Oh hell yes. The Path of Flames is perfectly-orchestrated, hooking the reader from the first pulse-pounding pages. The book juggles its multiple POV characters perfectly, shifting smoothly between quieter, more introspective, moments and deliciously tense action scenes. Nor is it ever predictable: Audsley, the muddling sage, could be researching in one scene, and then crawling through shadowy, monster-infested corridors in the next. Tiron may be hacking apart enemy knights in one chapter, then quietly thinking about the horrors of his past in the next. As a result, The Path of Flames is well-balanced both across characters and within them, delivering the full range of experiences.
And, beyond the structural craft of the book, The Path of Flames is just... really damn fun. This is an enormously epic fantasy that includes (and is not limited to): tournaments, sieges, flying castles, magically infused knights, gates to unknown dimensions, dramatic last stands, feisty speeches that make you chair-dance, underdog triumphs, shocking betrayals, cold-hearted villainy, and explosive magical twists.
Is it immersive? Yup. Another emphatic yes. The overarching conceit of The Path of Flames is, at first glimpse, one of those ridiculously-improbable high fantasy ideas that populate the genre. The world is structured around the idea of Ascension. You 'start' at the Black Gate, and ascend through seven different stages - via reincarnation - until your soul is pure, and you leave through the White Gate. A simple religious concept, but, thanks to the magic of secondary world settings, executed literally. Each of the seven stages is a race - from the Bythians (like Asho) through the Agerastians and the Ennoians, all the way up. And the gates are actual, physical places - with the Black Gate an actual portal to unknown, hellish horrors. Society is structured around racial roles as well, with the Bythians as slaves - knowing that disobedience could condemn them to hell in the next life. Or the Ennoians as warriors, striving for the honour and glory that will promote them to the next life.
Superficially, this is just good fun - exactly the sort of system-friendly, deterministic concept that's made for best-selling fantasy fodder from Eddings to Sanderson. And, if that were all,... The Path of Flames would be, well, totally fine. Imagine a sort of quasi-RPG, complete with racial bonuses, experience points, specialist classes, etc. All Ennoians get +2 to STR, that sort of thing.
Except, and this is where The Path of Flames makes that rare leap from 'good' to 'great'... it might all be complete bullshit. Society takes the road to Ascension at face value, and social roles are well-indoctrinated. But, very quickly, Path sows the seed of doubt. What if these aren't the laws of the universe, but merely cultural indoctrination? With this one 'small' twist, The Path of Flames goes from conventional to subversive, and makes a conventionally-fun world into an utterly fascinating one.
Contrast this, to say, Sanderson's Stormlight Archives or Weis and Hickman's Dragonlance - two wonderfully compelling settings where objective morality exists, and 'progression' is directly linked to - for lack of a better term - alignment. Red Robes can cast certain spells. Obeying a specific code gives you access to certain Stormy powers. Settings like these are terrifically fun, but they rely on the conflation of moral codes with universal laws (at least, in these fictional universes). These are settings that have objective, demonstrable religions, where morality has a measurable impact. That's the privilege of fantasy: we get to explore worlds that work in this simplistic, but rewarding, way. But they are simplistic. The Path of Flames sets up this structure - and a fun one - but then challenges it; that subversive thinking makes it not only unusual, but absolutely fascinating. We're no longer levelling-up within a structured setting, we're challenging it - our heroes aren't predestined, they're rebels.
It it emotionally engaging? For the sake of equanimity, mostly. There are a lot of point of view characters, and some didn't land as well as others. Asho and Kethe, interestingly enough, were my least favourite - possibly because they are the most conventional. Both progress from underdog to champion, and find their inner power, etc. etc. They're neither dull nor dislikable, but nor are they particularly easy to connect with; always a problem with any hero or heroine possessed of mysterious supernatural powers.
However, both our main characters are most interesting through the eyes of other, more empathetic, secondary perspectives - folks like Tiron or Iskra, who are 'normal'. From their perspective, we can see how strange Asho and Kethe are, and what the revolutionary impact is of their presence. Similarly, Tiron and Iskra are ordinary people in extraordinary situations, trying to do their best without the help of divine (or infernal?) intervention. They have challenges - personal and external - to overcome, and doing so without flaming swords makes them all the more interesting. Other, minor, characters, such as the goofy Audsley, are just a joy - the sort of fumbling scholar archetype that's always a blast to read.
There's also Tharok - a major point of view, but one that's outside of the core narrative. Our kragh (sort of... rock troll/orc-monster) character is a blast, but he's off in his own story; one that never intersects with those of the other characters. Tharok faces some of the book's most precarious physical challenges as well as a supremely insidious bit of emotional turmoil. That said, he is very much doing his own thing. His early chapters, when he's wandering in the wilderness (literally and metaphorically) are a little slow, and, his late chapters - although dramatic - are disconnected with the events at Kyferin Castle. Thematically, Tharok is facing many of the same subversive struggles as the other characters, but he feels - so far - tangential. He's likeable, but digressive, and, as The Path of Flames goes on, he's increasingly distracting. A pleasant distraction, but a distraction nonetheless.
Is it different? Sure. I'm stretching this, but I really like the subversive element - the fact that the book establishes a high fantasy status quo, but then undermines it. It is familiar enough to be compelling and entertaining (i.e. all the stuff we love about fantasy), but contains the capacity to surprise. That's what places The Path of Flames alongside, say, Smiler's Fair, A Crown for Cold Silver or (dare I say it) A Game of Thrones.
Is it embarrassing? Nope. And, frankly, that's damn impressive given the setting's core concept. A world predicated on racial stereotypes and traditional gender roles should be a dumpster fire. But, again, by undercutting those assumptions - proving that they're imposed, not objective - The Path of Flames turns the problem back on itself. It also helps that our pair of chosen ones - Asho and Kethe - are both 'diverse' (in the setting's sense), and have frank, educational and passionate discussions about how their background poses challenges and gives them a unique point of view. Sneaky-good, Path. Well-played.
In a nutshell... This book is in the wrong competition. The Path of Flames should be winning the David Gemmell Legend Award. It should also be on the best-seller lists, thumping many, many far inferior fantasy series. This is the type of big doorstop fantasy epic that reminds you why big doorstop fantasy epics became so popular to begin with: ceaselessly entertaining, packed with creative world-building and populated by compelling characters. All that tasty commercial goodness, cleverly delivered, and tied together with a thematically-cunning subversive twist. This book is, by no means, 'literary fantasy' (but I've got one of those for you here), rather, it is it is a crowd-pleasing romp that contains all the stuff we love to love, and hidden depths besides. Read it, fantasy fans. And rejoice.
For fans of... Brian Staveley, Elspeth Cooper, Erin Lindsey; plus the comparisons noted above - especially Brandon Sanderson and the Weis/Hickman dream team.