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Shadowhawk reviews the second novel in the Dragon Apocalypse trilogy from Solaris Books.
“James Maxey is a freaking genius. I want more. Hush is a perfect sequel to Greatshadow and it has one hell of a cliffhanger ending.” ~Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields
Greatshadow happens to be another top-rated read of mine from last year. It was epic fantasy with a twist, quite unlike most other epic fantasies I’ve read to date. James Maxey created a really vibrant and engaging world in the book, populated with nuanced and colourful characters who were a joy to read. And much as with books like Helen Lowe’s The Gathering of the Lost to The Heir of Night or Jean Johnson’s An Officer’s Duty to A Soldier’s Duty, Hush is a mind-bending sequel to Greatshadow, one in which the stakes are raised ever higher and the scope of everything – the characters, the world, the story, etc – is that much grander.
In my experience, books like The Heir of Night, Greatshadow, and A Soldier’s Duty are really tough acts to follow. A lot of that has to do with the charm of reading and experiencing the novel and the setting and the characters for the first time. That first moment of immersion into this brand-new world. First novels often set a high bar and the follow-ups can often be quite disappointing, which is where the “second book slump” phrase comes from, especially when applied to trilogies.
I’ve read a fair few series where that happens, and it is one of the most disappointing of experiences, since the promise of the first book goes unfulfilled and the writer becomes a one-hit wonder of sorts.
However, as Helen and Jean do, or other authors I’ve had the pleasure of following on through with second (or even third books as it happens), James Maxey delivers a wonderful, snappy epic fantasy story with Hush, featuring two of my favourite fiction characters ever: Stagger and Infidel, a most mismatched romantic couple if there ever was one.
In the previous book, we saw Stagger, Infidel and their companions take on a mission to destroy Greatshadow, a primal dragon who rules over fire in all its forms. In Hush, things aren’t quite as straightforward and ultimately the surviving companions become involved in a conspiracy involving Hush, the primal dragon with a broken heart who rules over ice, and even Glorious, the primal dragon who makes the sun go round and round and round. In essence, what Hush is about is a love triangle between three dragons and a resolution of sorts of this triangle. Stagger, Infidel and the other characters act out their roles in this entire drama, and the entire story as it develops is incredibly fascinating.
Especially when the companions leave their world behind and journey on to meet Glorious, with Hush hot on their heels roaring for her vengeance.
The novel picks up on a lot of plot-lines from the previous one, such as Infidel and her powers, Stagger being a ghost bound to a knife, Hush’s vengeance against Glorious and Greatshadow, Black Swan’s own preemptive vengeance against all the primal dragons, and so on. Each thread carried over from Greatshadow is given room to develop further, and we learn a lot more about the world this time around, which was exactly what I wanted to see here. The unearthly relationship between Infidel and Stagger is once again a highlight, and in many ways, the story is about sacrifice rather than mere survival and a mission fulfilled. James Maxey doesn’t exactly write a romance novel or anything, but he still makes their relationship a gut-wrenching and heart-breaking story.
Of course, James also returns with his trademark variety of humour, in all its forms, whether dark or morbid or otherwise. There’s something about a Paladin-esque Infidel quipping at Hush to her face and calling her names that I found quite charming. Or Stagger’s often colourful commentary about the weirdest situations he finds himself in, such as being chased across a glacier by an ogre champion riding a flying whale. Some of the moments in Hush are absolutely hilarious and James handles it all brilliantly, never letting the reader lose sight of the ongoing chain of events, or where everything is leading towards.
Speaking of which, the entire final act of the novel is one long, grand adventure of the type I remember reading in Raymond E. Feist’s various Riftwar novels. Forays into space, the “great beyond”, the “nether”, with dragons on all sides, and a people howling for blood and vengeance, with two unremarkable heroes doing what they can to save the world and everything they hold dear. Not exactly something unique as a concept, but James Maxey makes it so, and he does it all in style.
As much as I love the entire novel until that point, the final act took things several steps further and the climax was, unreservedly, mind-bending. The way things… changed, and the way that the author brought back another character from the previous novel to teach and make Stagger aware of his new predicament, it was just fantastic. I really shouldn’t have been surprised with the way that he ends the novel, since I expected a totally twisted-around ending, but even then, I wasn’t prepared for just how far off James would go.
If anything, the ending makes me even more excited for Witchbreaker, the third and final novel of the series, and which I received in the mail a few days ago.
One of the other things that stood out for me in the novel was a new character, Sorrow, a mage of sorts who is looking to discover the secrets of a long-lost magic that will ultimately help her to bring a balance to the world where women have as much authority and power as the men and where they can all be equals. She was both creepy and cheerful at the same time, and there are moments where its almost as if she is the antagonist and a villain, but she is far more nuanced than that. Her character is about empowerment through direct action, and sacrifice. And in that, she is completely different than Infidel, and together, the two of them very complimentary and positive portrayals of women in fiction.
All that said, there is a darker bent to Hush than Greatshadow did. James Maxey increased the scope of everything, and he made everything darker as well, since this novel is, down to its core, a novel about bloody vengeance, and those kind of stories often turn out to be rather dark and morbid. Doubly so when the novel features Rott, the primal dragon of entropy and decay. Essentially, death. The dragon himself doesn’t feature much, less than Glorious in fact, but he has a very profound effect on the characters nevertheless. Along with Sorrow herself, Captain Romer of the Freewind and her familial crew are deeply effected by Rott in a very fundamental way that bleeds into how Stagger himself is affected, being a ghost and all.
So yeah, there’s plenty of really cool stuff in the novel and James Maxey portrays everything with an eye to detail and nuance so that nothing is ever one-dimensional. That would have been an easy pitfall to slip into, given the kind of story and characters that he is writing, but he is able to tackle the challenge head-on and win through.
In the end, it all comes down to this: Hush is a fantastic, and perfect sequel to Greatshadow, far better than I expected in fact since I was continually surprised by the decisions that James Maxey made with respect to both the narrative and the characters. I would expect him to take things in a particular way but when that moment came, he would do something completely different. And the epilogue ending is definitely one such moment, where he astounded me the most.
Frankly, I can’t wait to read Witchbreaker!