SPOILERS FOR A THRONE OF BONES
See, the conundrum I’m facing trying to review this is a strange one. It’s not the entire book. A Sea of Skulls, as you can purchase it, is only half the entire story. The entire thing will be published in May. And by half a book, I don’t think it’s just been cut lengthwise into two. I think a few perspective characters have been removed entirely. And that in itself, makes for some interesting problems.
A Sea of Skulls is a sequel to A Throne of Bones, the only Christian fantasy novel written in this century that I’ve really enjoyed. The author would be loath to describe it as such, though. I distinctly remember Beale referring to it as an epic fantasy novel written by a Christian. However, it was initially published by the Hinterlands imprint of what was erstwhile known as Marcher Lord Press, the folks responsible for giving us Steve Rzasa, Kerry Nietz and Just B. Jordan and then a whole slew of very mediocre fantasy novels. It has now become entirely unexperimental now, or so I have heard but this place was responsible for Amish Vampires in Space. Yes. Subversive does not begin to describe it.
A Throne of Bones fit in very well there, though. It was set in the same universe as Summa Elvetica which is a sort of theological fantasy adventure about a young cleric-in-training trying to discover whether elves have souls. It also had PG-13 swear words and a sex scene. Indeed, many bonnets were set aflame.
The first book was written as a literary rebuke to GRRM’s ASOIAF and it’s denigration into nonsense over the past two books. While it did not match the prosaic beauty of any of Martin’s work, it did a lot of things very very right. It had a tremendously tight grasp on the multi-POV mechanic, especially when it came to tension and pace. It had an diverse band of characters with sufficiently fleshed out story arcs. And it also had an intriguing mystery at it’s core. Who killed the Pope? And why?
I was obviously very excited for the sequel and purchased it as soon as I was able. I immediately ran into a few problems.
Valerius Corvus, the primary protagonist of sorts of the first book is dead. That leaves us with a similar predicament to what happened in a Clash of Kings after Eddard Stark died. Martin replaced him with Tyrion, a fan favourite, and everything went on just famously. The reason that replacement was possible was because Martin and his readers understood quickly enough that King’s Landing was a sort of political nexus for the world he built and therefore a centre-point for the story. The primary actor in King’s Landing became a sort of prime-protagonist among POV characters. The new hand after Eddard was Tyrion and so we had someone to fill in the gap. Something to focus on. The capital of Amorr was the nexus for A Throne of Bones. Corvus was placed in the center of the political struggle that was going on there, a struggle which affected the story arcs of some other key POV characters (Severa, Aulan and Marcus) in important ways. In ASOS, there is no replacement. The focus is taken off Amorr almost entirely.
And that focus is now placed on the orcs. The orcs were a sort of personality-free horde of green slime that the well-realized Legions of the Amorran army could annihilate mercilessly in the first book. Here, they are the focus. They are the central mystery. Well, kind of. Nobody really seems to care about the Whys here. Why are all these orcs marching on the land of elves and men? The elves don’t know. The dwarves don’t know. The men don’t know. Even the bloody orcs don’t really know. They’re just marching ceaselessly through Selenoth, resisted by the Savondese (a sort of medieval France analogue) with a little help from Marcus Valerius’ legion which managed to retreat from Magnus’ forces going through caves in the last book and also by a dwindling supply of elves.
One of my problems with ATOB was a lack of diversity in the magical species department. What was the point of setting your story in Roman Middle Earth if you focus only on the men. That, at least, has been addressed here. We have POVs from the elves, dwarves, men and even orcs. The problem now is the lack of diversity of roles. They’re almost all male characters in the military until finally a female character pops up and even she’s in the military. The beautiful balance between action and drama that ATOB got so right goes not so right over here. Day has always been excellent at staging battle sequences, showing not only a keen awareness of tactics and strategy but also a lot of skill at translating complex maneuvers for even the stupidest of readers (read me) to understand. And the battle sequences in this book outdo those of the last book. By several notches.
The only problem is that this book consists almost entirely of battle sequences. Contrast this to ATOB where you had some military action from Marcus, political intrigue from Corvus, a very different sort of political intrigue from Theuderic and Fjotra, a sort of cross between cult worship and teen drama from Severa, a peek into Magnus’ side from Aulan and some classic Hobbit-esque questing from Lodi the dwarf (the only non man). Here, Marcus is fighting skirmishes with the orcs in Savonder. Theuderic is also fighting skirmishes with the orcs in Savonder. Lodi is either fighting (I won’t tell you with whom) or engaging in uncharacteristically poorly written drama with some other dwarves. Aulan is involved in some of the scant politics that actually takes place here but only shows up for a couple of chapters, one of which is more fighting. Fjotra is gone and is replaced by Skuli Skullsmasher who’s sailing and also by Steinethor (I’m pretty sure I spelled that wrong) who’s smashing Aalvarg skulls. We have an orc POV character called Lugbol who is either escaping fights, is planing more fights or is fighting. Severa has a token chapter where she does nothing other than discuss politics. The only real female character is an elfess called Bereth. Who is also fighting all the time.
I don’t know if this is even valid criticism. I sincerely hope some POV characters have been shaved off for this version. I do hope there are some people here doing something other than beating the living shit out of each other. We’ll find out in May, I suppose.
Another problem is the prose. Prose has never been Day’s strong suit (read the Eternal Warriors series) but he did genuinely write fairly consistent, good prose for A Throne of Bones. And there was some clever dialogue in that book as well. I’m horrible paraphrasing this but:
“Can you hit that orc?”
“Can you hit the ground with your shit, sir?”
-An actual conversation between a general and an onerer from A Throne of Bones.
It’s all out of whack in this book. The prose is workaday for the most part, sometimes impressive and other times cringe-worthy. I have a feeling the book was edited by the author himself, which is never a good thing. I think every book should go through at least one professional edit before it’s out the door. ATOB was edited by Jeff Gerke, a man who’s editorial compass I trust entirely and I have a feeling that’s the difference here. I can’t be sure, though.
General response to this book has been positive and it has been said to be an improvement on ATOB in every way. So I’m definitely in the minority here with my less-than-favourable review. But I would give it a 1/2.5 . I’m genuinely hoping things turn around when the rest of the book rolls out in May. This is honestly a series with a lot of potential. The characters are very well fleshed out. The worldview is hopeful and Christian and drastically different from the nihilism that has come to permeate fantasy fiction today. It celebrates virtues like matrimonial love, honour, bravery, respect, sacrifice and rewards good with good, despite not turning itself into an unrealistic utopia like a lot of Christian fantasy fiction.
But if you aren’t a superfan, I’d wait for the whole thing.
You can purchase A Sea of Skulls here .