I liked Mitchell Hogan's first book, 'A Crucible of Souls' (click here for review,) which began his 'Sorcery Ascendant Sequence,' even if it felt more like a prologue than a first chapter. This book is that first chapter and it continues on very much as the series began, slowly but surely in a confidently crafted world.
That first book ended with the Indryallan army successfully invading the city of Anasoma, where we spent the majority of that book, in a blitzkrieg attack. They slaughter all the sorcerers and Protectors they can find, so removing all likely obstacles to their invasion. A majority of the most important characters in Anasoma, to whom we were introduced over the substantial page count, finally meet during the finale, ready for the story proper to begin.
And it's not quite what we expect. If book one was to establish a city and its people and have them taken over by an invading force, then surely book two is for those people to take back that city and kick out that invading force. Well, that is the beginning of one subplot here but it's only one of a few and it isn't even the most important one at that. These subplots are divvied up across three sets of characters.
Caldan is the leader of the first set. He made it out of the city at the end of book one but he doesn't turn round to fight for it. He begins this second volume a few hours into his journey to the nearby city of Riversedge to bring news of the invasion to the authorities there. He brings with him not only the sword that he's been tasked to deliver to the Riversedge Protectors, but a few of those other characters, too, in a small travelling band.
There's Miranda, his would-be girlfriend, who needs constant attention as her mind has been scrambled by forbidden sorcery. Caldan hopes that the Riversedge Protectors will be able to unscramble it but it's a slim hope because the Indryallans are apparently way ahead of the Mahruse Empire in sorcery.
There's Elpidia the physiker, who cares for Miranda on the journey and experiments with Caldan's special blood for her own purposes and perhaps for the benefit of others. We may well believe her when she says she wants to help the world but we know that she needs to help herself because she's dying and, thus far, only Caldan's blood has offered a potential way to survive.
There's Amerdan, the mysterious shopkeeper, who is clearly much more than that to us, though his companions take their sweet time in realising it too. He tags along for reasons that he refuses to explain to anyone, but there's clearly a purpose behind his choice to stay with this group.
And there's Bells, the surviving Indryallan sorcerer from the skirmish at the end of the first book, whose brother, now dead, is the one who scrambled Miranda's mind. Bells is now the group's prisoner and, while Caldan does plan to hand her over to the authorities in Riversedge, he also wants to learn about her forbidden sorcery on the way there.
Back in Anasoma, life is returning to normal, merely under new management, as it were. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. However, a second set of characters constitute a resistance of sorts, revolving around the mysterious Five Oceans Mercantile Concern and their equally mysterious First Deliverer, Gazija. Lady Felicienne has survived the rout of the Emperor's powerful in the city and is working inside the walls to aid them.
Travelling from the latter set of characters to the former is a third set, led by Aidan, tasked by the Emperor of Mahruse to fight evil wherever it is found, something he never thought he'd find in his boss, Lady Caitlyn, whom he killed in the previous book. The rest of that band is intact, including Anshul cel Rau, a powerful swordsman from the Steppes, and Chalayan, a sorcerer struggling to find meaning now that he's seen far more powerful sorcery than he could ever have imagined. Joining them is Vasile, the Anasoma magistrate with the uncanny ability to ascertain whether he's being told the truth or a lie.
In many ways, this follows the template of the first book, with three strands of plot gradually connecting, but it's a little more complex this time around. These strands split up and join each other at various points in the story, as if the characters are being moved around a Dominion board. Some gain power, some lose their lives. It would appear that nobody is safe from the pen of Mitchell Hogan, though it would seem surprising to find anyone but Caldan as the chief protagonist of the entire series.
He was by far the deepest character in the previous volume and he grows substantially here, both in power and depth. Hogan doesn't draw simple characters; he wants them all to be shades of grey, even if they might think in terms of black and white. He also continues to tell his story from multiple perspectives, seeing it and sharing a common experience through many eyes. Caldan is a good man, or at least he believes he is. However, his quest to learn and to find a cure for Miranda takes him into sorcerous forms that are forbidden within the Mahruse empire. It means that he's often doing illegal things for moral reasons, a nice way to entrap an ethical lead character into quandaries.
With exploration of Miranda's motivations effectively on hold until her mind can be unscrambled, we focus on characters like Amerdan and Vasile. The former was the most mysterious in the first book and we learn a lot more about him here, though not enough to preclude just as much growth in book three. Vasile would seem to be a major player in the series too but we're not quite sure how he's going to fit into the big picture as he's still apparently in search of his place. He feels lost for much of this book, but he's surely moving towards where he's going to have meaning.
If the first book generated a host of questions, this second is happy to provide us with some, but certainly not all, of the answers. We're given more background to the characters, their powers and the world they live in; not to mention the art of sorcery and how it has been used and restricted since the mysterious Shattering so many years ago. Hogan escalates almost everything, not just generally, but in details too. Our understanding of this world expands along with the understanding of characters like Caldan. What he saw early in the first book as strong became weak by the end of it as the next level is revealed; we work through that cycle a few more times here, eventually reaching a finale that applies orders of magnitude to the concept.
Having read these first two books in two months, I'm eager for book three but will surely have to wait a lot longer before I can discover the next level again. ~~ Hal C F Astell