|Design by Lauren Panepinto, |
illustration by Karla Ortiz
The Fires of Vengeance (The Burning, Book 2)
Orbit, 12 November 2020
Available as: HB, 528pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy
I'm grateful to Nazia at Orbit for an advance e-copy of The Fires of Vengeance to consider for review. I also have a spare copy of the hardback which I'll send to one randomly chosen sharer of this review - see below for details.
CW warning for descriptions of the effects of torture.
Sequel to The Rage of Dragons, The Fires of Vengeance delivers the same gut-wrenching mix of extreme combat, peril and - I honestly don't know how to describe this - a sort of reckless, nihilistic battle-fury.
Except it's all dialled up to 11, or more. Whatever The Rage of Dragons was, this is it with the gloves off, with real blades not training ones, with the safety disabled.
Tau, who we met in the earlier book, basically fought all the way through it. Despairing of his goal - joining the military and winning the right to challenge the man who murdered his father - he found a way to fight, and die, hundreds of times a day, to practice, to become better, a perfect warrior for the Omehi. Always driven by revenge, yet also retaining a loyalty to his people, Tau also found himself embroiled in politics and diplomacy, defending the young Queen Tsiora against a coup at the same time as an invasion.
In The Fires of Vengeance things get even more complicated. This is a very hierarchical world, a world of Lessers and Nobles, both part of the Omehi society which, fleeing the enemy known as the Cull, colonised the land of Xidda, expelling its natives who wage constant war to regain their homeland. Tau is a Lesser, despised by the Nobles and by all the others above him in the hierarchy: being named Queen's Champion, an unheard of development for a Lesser, puts him outside the normal structures of his society and earns fresh enemies - for him and the Queen. There's an irony here in Tau's swearing to defend the Queen who presides over the structures that oppress him and those like him, more irony in his discovery that the "Guardians" - the fierce and beautiful dragons who guard his people - are themselves enslaved.
This is a world of endless moral complexity. Largely told from Tau's viewpoint, we see his physical suffering, the sheer mental cost to him of battling the demons of Isihogo nightly, its toll on his sense of reality. In one horrific passage we see the aftermath of torture for which he blames himself (this is a particularly visceral passage which I found very hard - but I felt it was absolutely justified in context), heaping guilt on physical pain and fear for the future.
There are only a couple of short interruptions to Tau's perspective, where we see things from another's point of view - and each time, it's someone who has good reason to fear and hate Tau. Even our hero, then, may justifiably be seen differently, and that's even without factoring in whether he is allowing himself simply to be a mighty fist for the Empire that's oppressed him.
Winter doesn't offer any easy answers or platitudes in response to this - there is a since in which Tau does his best in circumstances not of his choosing, always though with revenge as his goal, and as you might expect, this does lead to him inflicting real harm and accumulating divided loyalties: it's not clear for example how far his support for the Queen is simply because his enemy is her enemy, and how long this can last in the complicated politics of the Omehi. There's almost no rest in this story, as Tau runs from one, apparently hopeless battle, to another, enemies rising hydra-like at every turn, plans torn to shreds, always a haste, a need to hurry, to improvise. (I say runs, but he does now have use of a rare and precious beast, a horse, and watching him learn to ride is in e of the funnier parts of the story).
Through it all we - slowly - learn more about the origin of the Omehi, and about the magic with which they're bound. The threat, it becomes clear, is even greater(!) than Rage of Dragons let on and it is one which all the martial prowess of the Ihashe, the Indlovu, the Ingonyama and the learning and courage of the Gifted, may not be able to overcome. As so many of Tau's sword-brethren fell in the battle at the end of Rage, so it seems his entire world may be burned away, mere swords and spears useless against the heat and rage that has been set loose.
The writing here is compulsive and apocalyptic but nevertheless, often beautiful and moving. It can also be funny: the great Champion Tau Solarin may be an accomplished warrior but there's a lot about life which he doesn't know and as he moves further and further from the known, the familiar, his baffled reaction to the ways of the world can make the reader smile, understanding more of what's going on than he does.
In brief: Winter tackles that difficult task, the second book in a series, with aplomb, creating something that will satisfy both the reader who wants more of that Rage of Dragons thing and the one who wants to go further and deeper. There no sign of things flagging, even if one rather wished they would slow down a bit so Tau can get some sleep!
Recommended to those who loved Rage and to those who haven't read it yet (though this is one of those cases where you really do need to read the first book first).
If you would like a hardback copy of the book then share this review - tagging me in @bluebookballoon - and I will choose one person at random on Sunday 15th November. (Can only send to GB or Ireland, I'm afraid).
For more information about The Fires of Vengeance, see the publisher's website here.
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