Asho was born into a race of slaves, but by sheer force of will has become the squire of the warrior Lord Kyferin, and in the opening pages of THE PATH OF FLAMES by Phil Tucker, our young hero finds himself on the field of battle. Unfortunately, his side loses, his lord is killed, and he must return home to face Lady Kyferin.
Kethe Kyferin, the daughter of the now-dead lord, wants more than anything to be a knight, even going so far as to make her own chain mail and take secret lessons from one of the castle guards. But she’s only a teenage girl, and there’s no guarantee that even though her mother is desperate for more knights, the question is if a girl will be accepted as one of them.
Tharok, a highland kragh (kinda like an orc), is on the run from the clan that wiped out his clan and killed his father. He heads deep into the mountains to make a last stand. He unexpectedly survives, and stumbles onto the remains of a kragh legend that will give him the means for his revenge.
Their worlds are about to change completely.
THE PATH OF FLAMES was an entry in Mark Lawrence’s 2016 Blog Off that made it to the final round. Last year I couldn’t bring myself to finish any of the finalist books (other than ours, the one that won), so I was pleasantly surprised to find something that grabbed my attention in the final round, and I still have 7 more books to wade through. Maybe I’ll be lucky and lightning will strike twice. (…wishful thinking?)
Anyway. TPOF is your typical high fantasy set in a medieval world with castles, lords, ladies, knights, a fictional religion, slaves, magic swords, girls who want to fight, magic, yadda yadda. The basic elements are all there, we’ve seen all this stuff before, so what sets this story apart to make it worth your money and time? It’s entertaining, certainly, and I don’t necessarily want to steer you away from it. I do need to mention that the book is far from perfect–but it has the potential to be really good, which means that I hope Phil Tucker does well with this series and grows as a writer, because I’d be interested to see what he does next.
The novel has multiple PoV characters, which makes sense since it’s a big story that promises future big installments. There’s Asho, Kethe, and Tharok, but there’s also the widowed Lady Kyferin, whose marriage to Lord Kyferin wasn’t exactly a love match and she must somehow protect her lands and people now that the most of the knights died in battle with their lord. Tiron, a former knight whose stint in the dungeons at the hand of Lord Kyferion has left him a wreck of a man. And the resident magister Audsley, a bumbling scholar who is mostly useful for the occasional backstory information. However, this is probably more PoVs than the story really needs, because the result, while the characterization starts off well, is that development is slow to invest us in these characters. Sure they’re likable enough, but it’s hard to really manage so many character arcs at once and provide the depth for serious growth. I guess we’ll see how they continue in the sequels and what Tucker has in store for all these PoVs. The secondary characters are recognizable, although I question some of the quirks (such as the strangely modern glibness of the witch Maeve).
The setting and culture holds some interest (and we aren’t slammed in the face with the setting like another Blog-Off finalist entry OUTPOST–seriously, that prologue gave me a headache), and Tucker gives us information without being infodumpy. But there could be more, and it lacks enough to sustain the full interest of the readers as the story progresses. We don’t understand enough about how the magic works–especially when main characters start using it, which is exactly when we need to be getting more information, but we don’t. Of most interest are the Lunar Gates and their sundry cousins that interconnect across the map. Gates play an important role in this world. The Black Gate is the theological/imaginary gate that leads to hell for those who’ve lived sinful lives; of course there’s an opposite for the virtuous. The Lunar Gate in the Kyferin castle leads to a hold in the mountains that has since been abandoned. What is the Hold’s purpose? Why is it cursed? There’s also the magic folk, the Sin Casters, who must syphon life from the living to fuel their magic, and who as a result of their very nature are destined to hell via the Black Gate. Where does their magic come from? Why is magic considered evil? Why do the gates exist? There are so many questions left at the end of the book that it felt like Tucker spent so much energy on the movement of said characters and the plot that some of the world-building was left unfinished.
The plot is serviceable, although it could use a bit of reworking because it gets a little unwieldy. There are plot holes here and there, and the movement from character-to-character and chapter-to-chapter occasionally caused confusion and/or frustration only to discover later in an aside how a previous event concluded. It’s a big book, and clearly he had an encompassing plan to get everything squished into the story he could, but the result adversely affects the story’s flow. Another big problem with the novel was that Tharok’s story, while interesting, never intersects the main plotline. This is a problem because readers expect that this parallel plotline set-up will eventually resolve into a purpose, but that never materializes–then his story just stops. The whole thing could have been integrated better. Like the plot, the prose is serviceable, but could use tightening to provide better fluidity of character (such as the occasional monologue) and story movement.
Despite these flaws, TPOF does tension really well. Every freakin’ thing goes wrong. In fact this is the saving grace of the novel because while you may start to lose interest in the characters, or the world-building has enough clichés to border on boring (without quite making you yawn), by a quarter of the way into the story you start to really need to know what’s going to happen to these people. How are they ever going to recover from the death of Lord Kyferin? Will Tharok get revenge for his father’s death? How are they going to survive the Hold’s curse? And many other questions. You will demand to know, and it may just keep you reading through the sequel.
Recommended Age: 15+
Language: A handful
Violence: Several battle scenes, but rarely gruesome or gratuitous
Sex: Nothing on screen; a past rape is referenced
Find the start of The Chronicles of the Black Gate here:
THE PATH OF FLAMES – Amazon