LitStack Review: The Providence of Fire by Brian Staveley

by S.B.

The Providence of FireThe Providence of Fire
Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, Book II
Brian Staveley
Tor Books
Release Date:  December 8, 2015
ISBN 978-0-7653-3641-5

Brian Staveley seems like such a nice young man.  Former teacher, editor at a small press specializing in poetry, he lives in Vermont and “divides his time between running trails, splitting wood, writing, and baby-wrangling.”

It makes one wonder:  just where does he come up with all the ideas to create such a massive, intricate, compelling, and yes, bloody epic fantasy tale as the “Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne”?  The first of the series, 2014’s The Emperor’s Blades, clocked in at just under 500 pages; the second book in the series, The Providence of Fire, is over 600 pages.  (The Last Mortal Bond, the third and final book, will be out later this month, and is purported to be over 650 pages.)  And these pages – they are thick, full of intrigue and manipulation, loyalty and discipline, gods and monsters, brutality, betrayal, and sovereign responsibility.  Sure, we’ve seen this before, but these books don’t follow storylines across generations.  They follow three siblings, and save for back story, barely span a year, let alone decades.

Fire-eyed Adare, Kaden and Valyn hui’Malkeenian are the children of Emperor Sanlitun.  The siblings are now grown but separated, each training in their own way to be the pinnacle of service to the Empire of Annur.  Eldest Adare, being female, will never inherit the throne, but her father keeps her close to his side, teaching her the business of running an empire.  Kaden, the heir, has been sequestered for years with the Shin monks in their remote mountain compound, learning acute disciplines of mind and body.  Valyn, the youngest, has become an elite warrior, leading a squadron of Kettral – fighters of legend who swoop in and attack from massive birds of prey.

In the first book, the three siblings’ lives are thrown into turmoil when their powerful father is suddenly murdered.  Adare staves off a religious uprising that she believes to be at the root of the treason, and Valyn and his “Wing”, already investigating atrocities surrounding their own outfit, defy orders and set off to find Kaden, who, isolated in the remote mountains, is unaware that treachery is afoot.  But Adare discovers that the emperor’s murderer is someone much closer to the throne than was suspected, while Kaden barely escapes the guards he thought had come to escort him back to the Dawn Palace but who instead attempt a swift and brutal end to the Malkeenian line.  Valyn, already declared a traitor to the Kettral, finds Kaden but not in time to do more than aid in his flight.  But where do they go?  Danger awaits at every turn.

In The Providence of Fire, the stakes get even higher.  Each of the siblings must flee their circumstances, yet each does so with a vow to avenge their father, and to vouchsafe the legacy of the Unhewn Throne.  Each believes they move in the best interests of their people, but separately they only see part of the ever-widening, complex puzzle of rule and conquest.  It does not help that gods are masquerading as men, and that an ancient, powerful civilization, long thought to have been scattered, might again be exerting undue influence on the world.  As Kaden, Adare and Valyn each move to keep their family and Empire from fragmenting – including staving off the threat of a horde of bloodthirsty barbarians, who for the first time in living memory have had their various tribes united under one brutal leader – they find that none of them are equipped to handle the powerful forces at play, or are even sure of whom to trust – including each other.

Be warned:  The Providence of Fire is a bloody book, full of punishment meted out in pain, of unmitigated killing, of horrific actions of men during wartime, and of the callous mindset of those who torture, maim and kill in order to evoke terror and obedience.  The narrative does not turn a blind eye to such things, but neither does it revel in it.  While the novel’s moral compass may of necessity waver, suffering is rarely, if ever, considered a solution to even the harshest of problems – and yet suffering abounds.  Middle books in a trilogy often are mired in despair, meant to end in a bleak place so the audience is left to wonder if it is at all possible to triumph in the end, and this book certainly holds true to that ethos.

But oh, my… it is so full of beautiful writing, that one is compelled to keep reading, even when what looms promises horror.  For example, here is a description of the cruel leader of the barbaric Urghul:  “Unlike most extremely tall men, however, who tended to move in a series of gangly lurches, as though all their ligaments had gone slack, Long Fist carried himself with the languid grace of a cat, every motion of his approach a coiling or uncoiling, as though the deliberation with which he moved were a soft pelt sliding over sinew.”  Or this realization of Adare’s, as she stands at the precipice of war:  “She had had convictions once, beliefs about justice and honor, right and wrong, but the slow turning of the world, like a mill wheel over grain, had ground them down to flour so fine that it slipped softly and silently between her fingers.

Beautiful stuff, and worth reading.  While the scope of author Brian Staveley’s imagination might be alarming (in both good and terrifying ways), he certainly has a poetic way with words.  Let’s just hope he also believes in redemption, because by the end of The Providence of Fire, I was desperately hoping there would be some in his next book.  But you better believe I’ll be first in line to read it, regardless.

~ Sharon Browning

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