Sunday, July 10, 2011

Of Blood and Crown and Conquest

The Crown of the Blood
Gav Thorpe
Angry Robot Books
464 p., $7.99 paper, $5.99 ebook

You know any book that is dedicated to Phillip, Alexander, and Julius is going to be battle-centric.  Or perhaps I should say campaign-centric, because battles are only a small part of a campaign.  The Crown of the Blood doesn't disappoint, although towards the end I felt the campaign was a little rushed.

Is this book worth reading?  If you like military oriented fantasy without a lot of sorcery in the middle of the battle, then you should enjoy this one.  There is some sorcery, but the battles are fought between legions and bandits, legions and those-soon-to-be-conquered, and legions and legions.  Unlike Glen Cook's Black Company novels (which I love), sorcery has little to do with the combat.  It's done the old fashioned way:  looking your opponent in the eye when you try to kill him, just like he's doing to you.

The plot concerns one Ulsaard, a general in the Askhan army who has managed to work his way up the ranks and is as close to nobility as he can ever be in this society.  He's more comfortable with his legions than he is with the intrigues of court, and this causes him to be manipulated into taking sides in a disagreement over the succession.

The Empire was founded by Askhos, and he set some pretty strict rules about how things were to be done after he was gone.  By this time Askhos is considered something of a deity.  For one thing, only those of the Blood, Askhos' descendants, can rule.  All bastards are killed by the Brotherhood, an organization responsible for things like rule of law and collecting taxes, but which also seems to serve a religious function by stamping out any beliefs in conflict with Askhos' teachings.  The Empire must expand by conquest until it controls the entire continent; Ulsaard thinks this one has been neglected of late.  And the succession must pass to the oldest living son, no exceptions.

What starts things off is that the heir, Kalmud, has fallen ill with some sort of lung disease that is keeping him bedridden but so far hasn't been fatal.  His younger brother, Aalun, and also Ulsaard's patron, finds this all very inconvenient.  Ulsaard is chomping at the bit to invade the neighboring kingdom of Salphoria.  Aalun uses this to put Ulsaard in the position of appearing to be in rebellion when he presses to be named successor.  Of course, what starts out as appearance soon turns to fact, especially after Aalun dies unexpectedly.  Ulsaard decides to continue the campaign.

Civil war follows.  One interesting thing is that Thorpe doesn't hesitate to introduce semi-major characters and then kill them off.  This adds to the suspense as some key players don't last as long as you expect, making you wonder who is next. 

Another thing I found interesting was that apparently when a man marries a woman, he also marries her sisters.  Depending on the sisters, this could be a sweet deal.  Or not.  In Ulsaard's case it's something of a mixed bag.  He loves the older sister, uses the younger sister mainly as a sex object, and barely tolerates the middle sister, who is a scheming social climber and quite adulterous.

There are different cultures shown in the book, with viewpoint characters from some of those cultures, but the main one is the (not surprisingly) Askhan culture, especially the culture of the legions.  Much of the world remains unexplored, in terms of the reader's knowledge, although to an extent that's true of the characters as well.  I suspect from some loose ends that we'll be getting a closer look at some of them in later books.

This was a good book that moved well, had depth of character, and still had some surprises as it went along.  I only had two complaints with the structure of the story.  First, as I mentioned earlier, the end of the campaign seemed somewhat rushed, with several key battles skipped over.  I suspect for reasons of length.  The other was the one situation in which sorcery was used.  It was during winter, when Ulsaard's legions are encamped, that they began to experience a series of increasingly damaging attacks, things like people getting literally deathly ill with no notice, while hearing chanting voices.  That seemed to be dropped after the most vicious attack fails.  Thorpe skips ahead to spring in the next chapter.

Those weren't enough to spoil the book for me, though.  I've downloaded the sequel, The Crown of the Conqueror, and should be posting a review of it in a few weeks.  One word of warning to some of you.  The violence, sex, and language in this novel are quite graphic at times, more so than in many novels published these days, at least in the States.  Or perhaps I should say at least among the authors I've read over the last few years.  If you are squeamish or offended by that sort of thing, you might want to give this one a pass.  Otherwise, enjoy it.  It's an exciting story that drags you in.

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