The Crown of The Conqueror by Gav Thorpe – Book Review [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews the second novel in Gav Thorpe’s swords-and-sandal fantasy series from Angry Robot Books.
“A solid and thrilling read from start to finish with lots of great twists and turns that builds on all the successes of the first book and none of the disappointments. This one is just as much a must read as The Crown of The Blood .” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields
The Crown of the Blood, the first book in this swords-and-sandal series, ended on one of the most powerful and moving cliffhangers I’ve read in a novel to date. As should be the case with such an ending, it was completely shocking and completely unexpected, and set up a certain potential to be fulfilled that I was really hoping The Crown of The Conqueror would be able to fulfill. I’ve long been a fan of Gav’s work, and he is one of those few authors that I’d follow from series to series without question. I’ve already read one other novel from him this year, Legacy of Caliban #1: Ravenwing and that was a solid read so this book had to match the exhilarating experience provided by that one as well. Much to my delight, Gav doesn’t disappoint at all. He is true to form and delivers an exciting, action-packed second novel that plays up to his strengths as a superb world-builder and a writer who can really, really get into the heads of his characters.
In the last novel, we saw that Ullsaard had achieved his goal of becoming the ruler of the Askhan Empire, but as things stand now, his grip on the Empire is tenuous, and he has taken on more headaches than he can deal with, especially after banishing the Brotherhood from all over the Empire. Previously, we saw that the Brotherhood acted as administrators, quartermasters, priests of a sort, etc all in one. In the words of a certain dead king, the Brotherhood is the glue that held the Empire together, and with Ullsaard having taken that away, things are close to a breaking point. So the stage is set for another war of conquest, one where the new King has to solidify his power and bring all the recalcitrants to heel and secure his border.
Things are rarely, if ever, that easy. Especially for the hero, for whom life is a constant struggle. And that is as it should be yes, right?
Gav gives every character in the novel the fight of their life, whether literal or figurative. There are no easy scrapes to get out of, or simple solutions to complex problems. Each character has to fight to the death to win through, whether it is to simple safeguard their family or keep their ambitions and hopes alive. In that sense, Ullsaard gets the shortest end of the stick because he gets dealt the worst cards and yet he has to win through as if he is holding a royal flush. Gav plays to the character’s strengths as a tactician, a skilled fighter, and a man who would go to the ends of the world and back to keep his family safe. And when his family comes under threat, he is worse than a caged lion and his frustrations and his limitations shine through. He was a complex character in the previous novel and he is a complex character here as well. It would have been easy to portray him as the stubborn sort of hero who listens to none but himself and therefore appears limited in the character development department, but Gav steers clear of that simplicity and he shows throughout how Ullsaard keeps evolving. Violence is not the solution to every problem and this is a bitter lesson for him.
Secondary characters like Ullsaard’s wives, his sons, his friend Noran, the displaced Prince Erlaan, Anglhan and others also get their day in the sun. Erlaan particularly becomes quite an important character since he is of the Blood, and as we see throughout the novel, being of the Blood is a very, very important matter. Its not just about ruling the Askhan Empire, but something far, far more, and this is a concept that Gav explores in much greater depth in this novel than the one before, which was very magic-lite. With Noran and Erlaan, we see the supernatural and magical side of Gav’s setting come to the fore, building on all the little bits and cameos that got a passing mention last time. Some of it was a bit cheesy, I will admit, and even predictable to a degree, but I enjoyed those scenes.
With Anglhan, his relationship with the people around him became a major focus of the novel as far as his character arc is concerned. He is a duplicitous bastard and he never disappoints since he always stays true to his nature. It is always easy to dislike, even hate, a character like him because such self-serving, pompous fools always do the most predictable thing and they do it in the most distasteful style.
Ullsaard’s wives, we get to learn a lot more about this time. We see them as characters with much-needed agency, however brief, and this in turn helps to flesh out the role of women in Askhan society, and also make it a setting where the women aren’t just the typical powers behind the throne. In the third and final novel of the trilogy, I would love to see them gain more importance. I should be getting to it before the year’s done, so I’m definitely looking forward to seeing how Gav improves upon everything.
If there is one thing that defines The Crown of The Conqueror, it is the concept that everything is cyclical and in need of balance. Whether we talk of ancient kings or ancient empires, everything seeks to return to a balance, even Ullsaard’s chaos-ridden Askhan Empire. And magic plays a huge part in all of those, which is where Noran and Erlaan and the Brotherhood come in. Quite frankly, if we talk about just the world-creation and exploration aspects of the novel in comparison to its predecessor, then I’d say that Conqueror is at least at par with Blood. And this in turn is quite surprising since first novels usually tend to frontload that aspect quite a bit. The world-building in Blood was ace and it is ace here as well. So Gav definitely wins out in that regard.
If I have any criticisms of the novel they’d be that I wanted to see much more detailed battle scenes. Gav has a great amount of experience in writing large-scale battles, given how he has done similar scenes in the past for his Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40,000 novels, so he’s no stranger to complicated battle setups and their resolutions. But, I was still left wanting more. It was as if all the battles we see in the novel are just teasers. A bit weird I know.
Another thing, I wish more had been done with the cliffhanger ending from the previous book. We get to see a lot of follow-up to it, yes, but it wasn’t enough. Mostly because this subplot was seemingly ignored for quite a bit of the middle portion of the novel. Gav offers a consolation of sorts with the ending, which is another unexpected twist in the grand tale, but all the same, I wish this particular relationship that results with Ullsaard becoming king had been explored more. It is a fantastic concept and something that I was really, really looking forward to reading.
All in all, a great effort and a must-read novel.