My review of 'Reckless Ambitions' (review here), the first book by local author John Paul Ried, in his 'Medford Family Chronicles' fantasy series, was an awkward one to craft because Ried wrote a thoroughly enjoyable novel while falling into many of the pitfalls that lie in wait for wannabe writers. It won out because of his clear passion for his characters and the world they inhabit, but it was still riddled with plot conveniences, wild leaps and crazy inconsistencies. I wanted to read more but have to admit that I was wary, too.
I'm happy to say that 'Capricious Deities', the second volume in this series, is much better written than its predecessor and without most of that book's problems. In fact, it's a much better book in every way I can think of.
I believe that Ried, who conjured these novels out of a long-running AD&D campaign, wanted so badly to take a world that he created for gaming (and which many had clearly enjoyed) and give it a second life in fiction,that he shoehorned far too much into that first volume. I'd argue that he cared a great deal more about the world of the Palamaran Empire than he did about framing a coherent story within it. It was an introduction to a broad swathe of characters, races and locations, many of whom have their own stories that were merely hinted at as asides. The title of that book could easily refer to the reckless abandon with which Ried threw himself into that project.
'Capricious Deities', on the other hand, calms things down a great deal. Instead of the beginnings of many stories, some of which we'll never hear, which unfold on the sidelines while we wait for Thomas Medford to get round to taking the only option really available to him, namely to claim the Ruby Throne and rule the Palamaran Empire himself, Ried focuses in almost entirely on a single story, namely the civil war that erupted after the death of Emperor John Cardillion III, Thomas's predecessor and the father of four idiots with more balls than brains.
One of those four sons died in the first book. Two more have combined forces and plan to march north to sack Paladon City and seize the throne. The fourth is mostly absent. And so, if the first book was an AD&D game of thrones, this second is a wargame, with two vast armies moving towards each other for an inevitable scrap. And, for all the mistakes that Ried made in his first book, he nails a more difficult challenge in the second, which is to let a big story unfold on its own while personifying it through the little stories of people caught up in it. Many authors have come a cropper on that one and Ried doesn't join their company.
Some of the characters continue on from 'Reckless Ambitions', the most obvious being Nicholas Armand, an able soldier whose rank I'll avoid mentioning because it changes every dozen pages. He's thrown right in at the deep end by Emperor Thomas, who has finally discovered that Nick has been carrying on with his daughter, Lady Christina Medford. So, off to war he goes, initially unaware that the army's commander has been ordered by the emperor to ensure his glorious death in battle. That commander is another prominent character from book one, Paul Tenisal, an Earl and now a Field Marshal, who has other secrets to share too.
On the other side, there are two of the former emperor's four sons, Prince Philip Canalon and Arch Cleric Samalek, the thief and the cleric. One of the reasons that we never doubt which side is going to win this war is that these two are given much less development than their opposite numbers. They're cardboard cutout villains, merely of different villainous archetypes, while we gain some real insight into Armand and Tenisal. In fact, they're not even the people to fear, that role going to the Fire God Zemelon, who does show up here in person to wreak his havoc on the battlefield. I loved those scenes and respect Ried not just for writing them but for writing them in the way that he did.
Other characters we know pop in and out, especially during the bookends that set up the war and follow it, such as Oliver Wendell Enalan, professor at the Gamemasters University and obvious avatar for Ried himself. As before, he's a heck of a lot of fun, but he's growing so quickly and so strongly that we do wonder how much room he's got to continue on that path. Given that this book involves a number of gods, I'm half expecting him to join their number sooner rather than later.
Many characters are new, though, and I appreciated that. I also appreciated that they mostly weren't folk invested in one side or other of the war which threatens to engulf their home of Grabinth Hollow. Instead, they're folk who got caught up in the war only because it threatens to engulf their town and them along with it. This is a fantastic approach and Ried handles it well before, during and after the bloodshed.
Even where Ried includes subplots that don't pertain directly to the war, their inclusion makes sense, in another improvement from the first book where Ried threw everything he could at the wall to see what would stick; here he knows what to throw and he targets it all much better. So, we set up some conflict between Emperor Thomas and his daughter Christina, which is well played even if it's never as tense as Ried wants it to be. We set the stage for book three with the arrival of new races in Palamar City in the form of a gargoyle ambassador, Gargameleche, and his ogre crew, looking for the elves whom we met in book one. We even identify a fiancé for young hero Neshal who shares his massive potential.
So, much of the success of this book revolves around Ried ditching all the things that didn't work in the previous one, while focusing in on a single story and telling it well. The rest of its success lies on the one thing that he didn't ditch from the first book, which is its life. Ried lives for this stuff and I'm convinced that if he could wave a wand and transport himself to Palamar, he would. He cares about this world and everything in it, from its people to its politics. He expounds on everything about it with a passion that is palpable.
What's more, that passion is refreshing not only for its depth but for its breadth. Ried's stories are told with glee, even when they revolve around murder, torture and deicide; many of the good guys, right up to Emperor Thomas, are not good guys in the slightest; they're just clearly a better choice than the bad guys. And, while this never delves into erotica, let alone pornography, it has a naughty side to it that is ever present and somewhat refreshing.
As Ried explains in his afterword, he grew up reading Tolkien but got fed up with the lack of sex in his work. 'If I were a wizard and could cast real spells then would I not want to bedazzle some supermodels, magically acquire plenty of gold and create my own kingdom?' he asks.
And, really, that's exactly what he's done with the Medford Family Chronicles. Bring on book three! ~~ Hal C F Astell