The Emperor’s Blades was one of my favorite debut novels in recent years. A fast-paced narrative and fantastic characterization (for most of the characters) made the pages fly by. The novel had a few issues particularly that the world-building was a little bit light and the only female character felt like a secondary consideration. Thankfully those issues are resolved with the release of the second book in the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, The Providence of Fire. Picking up just after the conclusion of the first novel it follows Kaden as he is escorted by Valyn and his Kettral wing on a mission to hopefully get more information on the Csestriim threat that has suddenly rematerialized. Meanwhile, Adare comes to terms with the snake who engineered her father’s downfall and seeks new allies in a dangerous bid to secure her family’s imperial position.
My biggest complaint in the previous novel was Adare’s lackluster characterization is, to my great relief, forcefully addressed in The Providence of Fire. The Adare seen here is independent, passionate, if at times stubborn and a bit rash. You see her struggling with the truth of her family’s ruling, and dealing with the repercussions of decisions made not only during her father’s reign but also during the ongoing interregnum. Adare has a wonderful turning point in the novel as she forced to make a difficult decision regarding her personal bodyguards. Staveley plays the events that transpire very close to her vest leaving you wondering if the events spawned by Adare’s decision are really the result of divine intervention or merely freak coincidence. Of all the characters in The Providence of Fire Valyn seems to have things the hardest as the repercussion of his actions in the previous novel and his decisions in this novel see him on a very dark path. Staveley also manages to create a vibrant cast of secondary characters who shine more here than they did in previous novels. The courtesan Triste, the Skullsown assassin Pyrre, the cantankerous Nira, and all of Valyn’s Kettral wing are drawn vividly. Of all the secondary characters seen I enjoyed Pyrre the most; sworn to the goddess of death she manages to maintain an intriguing aura of mystery while displaying a disturbing level of competence with her abilities. Pyrre is a character who cries out for a little more attention and I’d love to see her in a short story of some kind in the future. However, Nira was by and large my favorite character introduced in this novel. The sharp-tongued, razor-witted wise old woman is not a character new to fantasy but it is one that I consistently manage to find enjoyable. In the case of Nira the enjoyment only grows as your learn more about her.
The combination of Adare’s perspective, Valyn’s miraculous change in The Emperor’s Blades, the Urghul chieftain Long Fist, and the character of Triste that start to really sketch out the scope of what Staveley is building. Staveley is unfolding the plot at a very deliberate pace even as the action never seems to slow down. Learning more about Ishien was a fascinating part of The Providence of Fire and seeing the fanatical martial counterparts to the meditative Shin was a disturbing experience. It would have been so easy for the Ishien to be a simple order of monastic warriors who take in the “chosen one” Kaden; it’s exactly what I expected. However, that couldn’t be further from the truth presented in the novel and I love how that works out. The effect that truth has on Kaden is impressive and his moves, cold and calculating as he improves his proficiency in the vaniate, show a child quickly coming into his own as an adult. Staveley’s handling of Kaden, Valyn, and Adare in The Providence of Fire defies the expectation I had after the previous novel; and it has me desperately excited to see how things are going to play our next.
The Providence of Fire ups the ante in every conceivable way. The familiar elements present in The Emperor’s Blades aid Staveley in a clever bit of legerdemain as he reveals a story with a greater degree of complexity and a grander scope than expected. For all its blistering action The Providence of Fire serves to line up the pieces for the next volume. For all the revelations within Providence of Fire it remains uncertain which revelations are truths and which are misdirects. All of this precludes the fact that the true scope of the threat isn’t entirely clear. I can’t wait for the next volume.