The Providence of Fire – Book Review

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Providence of Fire, by Brian Staveley. Published by Tor. Cover art by Richard Anderson.

I have to admit, I entered Providence of Fire with no small amount of trepidation. It is the second book in The Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne trilogy by Brian Staveley. I had been excited for the first book, The Emperor’s Blades, when I heard about it and purchased a signed copy at an event featuring the author at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in New York City. I was excited because I’d heard the book blended Eastern and Buddhist philosophies/mythologies into a unique fantasy setting filled with bird-riding warriors, gods, and cruel, emotionless immortals. My friend was the author’s publicist at the time and she introduced me to him. He was very nice and down-to-earth, and I was excited to read his book. Working in publishing gives me a unique problem: I have WAY too many books to read at any given time, and it took me a year to finally get around to reading The Emperor’s Blades. While I found the setting rich and detailed, the history fascinating, and the characters interesting, I was disappointed by the slow pacing as well as the fact that, while impending disaster loomed over the characters, it was never really clear what that disaster would be or where it would come from when it came. But most importantly, it never gave the reader a reason to care whether or not the characters prevented the approaching calamity. So when The Emperor’s Blades concluded with a cryptic statement, no doubt intended to fill readers with a sense of anticipation for Providence of Fire, all I could really do was shrug my shoulders. The Emperor’s Blades did have enough going for it to convince me to take a crack at the sequel, but I did so with the mindset that if I didn’t like what I found in the first 100-200 pages, I would abandon the trilogy. But I’m sure glad I stuck with it because Providence of Fire is a major improvement over its predecessor, and a great work of fantasy literature.

Providence of Fire begins shortly after the conclusion of The Emperor’s Blades. Valyn and his kettral wing successfully, if luckily, foiled the attempt on his brother Kaden’s life, but are now being hunted by their fellow kettral for disobeying their commander’s orders. Kaden, though uncrowned as the emperor of the Annurian Empire, has successfully achieved the emotionless trance known as the vaniate and is ready to continue his training and seek the help of the Ishien monks in combating the return of humanity’s ancient enemy, the emotionless csestriim. Meanwhile, Adare, (Kaden and Valyn’s sister) has discovered the true identity of their father’s murderer and hatches a plot to depose him. Their separate paths will lead them across hundreds of miles, through torture and imprisonment, and defeat and triumph as they each try to hold the Annurian Empire’s enemies at bay while also unraveling the riddle of the csestriim. Yet the world they live in is far more complex than they could ever have realized; a world where every positive action could have lasting, negative consequences. And in order to keep chaos at bay all three will need to learn to trust others as well as themselves.

Right from the first page, Providence of Fire addresses one of my main issues with The Emperor’s Blades: the pacing. Where the first book in the trilogy plodded along interminably before anything noteworthy happened, this entry leaps through several hundred pages at a breakneck speed from the beginning. The characters travel hundreds of miles, make startling and unexpected alliances, and see themselves through tremendous threats. With the exception of maybe Valyn, whose major character growth comes at the very end, the characters all develop believably and accordingly to the circumstances in which they find themselves and do their best to rise to the physical, mental, emotional and even spiritual challenges they face. Even when they don’t succeed, they learn from the experience and mistakes, and move on to face the next challenge with renewed determination and strength.

But really, what stuck out most to me in Providence of Fire are the complex questions and issues the characters must all face. There are no right or wrong answers to these challenges, and the characters openly admit they may be making a mistake when they choose a certain path over another knowing that they’ll have to live with the consequences whatever they may be. Yet they know they can’t dilly-dally, or hem and haw over a tough situation endlessly. Their world requires action and decisiveness, not unlike our own, and they often step forward, not because they know a solution, but because they have to step forward. It is this aspect of Providence of Fire which, I think, makes it a transcendent work of fantasy in our own very complex world. Like Providence of Fire, we must often trust to hope, faith, and chance to tackle the challenges in our life. The results may not always be pretty or what we want, but they’re what we have. And, as Kaden learns through the course of his journey, what we have is the present.

In short, if you enjoyed The Emperor’s Blades, you’ll love Providence of Fire. If you didn’t like The Emperor’s Blades, or if you were on the fence about it like I was, I’d still recommend giving Providence of Fire a shot. Not only is it a vast improvement over its predecessor, it is everything a good fantasy novel should be. Let’s hope Brian Staveley can keep it up for the final entry in the trilogy, The Last Mortal Bond, which goes on sale in March.