Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Last Mortal Bond - Brian Staveley

The Last Mortal Bond is the third and final book in Brian Staveley’s Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne series. It brings fire, blood and iron to a series not short on any of the above. There’s some interesting discussions around morality and the nature of humanity, some truly explosive magic, and characters that are convincing in their humanity – or otherwise. 

There’s a lot of great stuff here. Adare, an Empress who had already shown her ability to make tough decisions in the previous book, is raked over the coals again in this one. She spends most of the book scheming, in one fashion or other, either to take or maintain control over the various factions of her riven Empire, whilst trying to deal with external threats as well. We’ve been watching Adare maturing into the role that she seized for herself, and her presence and ruthless skill at politics is a pleasure to watch. This hardening of character comes alongside a slow loss of certainty – she’s more cynical about acting as a prophet and religious icon, and seems to be searching for some certainty in her faith. Both of these shifts are drawn well, and she feels like a fully rounded, highly conflicted person – especially dealing with the fallout from her actions at the close of the second book. It’s to Staveley’s credit that we can feel these flaws and her struggles with them, a character given emotional resonance by conflict. 

We also spend quite a lot of time with Kaden; his time with the Shin monks having left him able to drop into and out of a state of emotionless logic, he starts off this book involved in politics and trying to protect those closest to him. But over the course of the text, he spends a lot of time exploring the idea of the gods – what makes someone a god, what their responsibilities are, or may be, and what the responsibility of a worshipper is. He also explores the role of the Csestrim, the predecessors of humanity, who lived without any emotion of their own. Kaden struggles with the question of whether life with emotions is actually better than a life without them, and struggles to define exactly what keeps him human. Kaden’s journey seems more internalised than Adare’s, more contemplative – though it’s paired with some action sequences that help shape the channel of his thoughts nicely. I’ve always enjoyed following Kaden’s travails, and this is no exception. 

There's also time with Gwenna, the leader of the survivors from Valyn’s wing of Kettral, the special forces of the Empire, experts in covert operations, launched into battle from the talons of giant birds. Gwenna was always acerbic and hard edged, with an eye for small unit tactics, a talent for sarcasm, and a firm focus on the mission. She’s an absolute joy to pick up as a character here, and really, I wanted to spend more time with her and her Wing. A leader who doubts her decisions, but is prepared to stand by them, willing to cut a few throats when necessary, with a curious kind of abrasive charm, and a strong attachment to her team – these all make Gwenna a thoroughly intriguing read, and it certainly doesn’t hurt that she kicks some serious arse over the course of the narrative. 

Speaking of which – the plot. I’ll try not to provide spoilers here. But I will say that the bright promise of the first two books in the series has been met by their conclusion. There’s betrayal and counter-betrayal here. Fraught misunderstandings leading to disasters and triumphs. There’s certainly no shortage of bloody battles, wound tight with tension and incredibly high stakes. The prose soars throughout, drawing the reader into the world, wrapping them in the conceits, deceits and convoluted scheming of the world, investing them in the lives of the characters, making us feel their trials – agonise over their defeats and celebrate their victories. The world, already crafted with care and precision over the previous two books, is epic in scope, filled with wonderful detail inside a sprawling and evocative landscape. 

Is this one worth reading? As ever, if you haven’t read the other instalments in the series, I’d suggest going back to the beginning. This might be rather impenetrable as a standalone. But as the closing segment of a trilogy, it’s a masterclass in how to do character-focused fantasy, whilst still maintaining a beautiful and complex world, and a gripping page-turner of a plot. As such, it’s thoroughly, entirely recommended. 

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