A Case of Plot-Related Whiplash, In a Good Way – A Review of The Providence of Fire by Brian Staveley

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Every now and then, a book gives me a case of “plot whiplash”: that feeling that I’ve been wrenched, twisted, and spun around in a roller-coaster ride of a story, when I can’t tell what’s going to happen next, or when things do not go the way I think they will go. This sort of thing can be a good thing, or a bad thing, of course: sometimes I get plot whiplash from a story that can’t seem to decide on what to do with itself, twisting and turning with no real purpose. This generally happens when a story has a confusing, overly-wrought, overly-convoluted plot that tries to be “crafty” and “clever” even when it doesn’t have to be, or in a way that just makes things even more confusing than they ought to be (example: the TV show Lost).

But every now and again, one encounters a story that delivers plot whiplash, but in a very, very good way: the twists are well-executed, and are done to push the story forward, as well as emphasise a specific concept or idea. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire has its moments for this, as does Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards series. However, the space between twists is relatively large, and the reader has time to breathe—or rather, to believe that everything and everyone is safe, and then the twists comes from out of nowhere and slams one in the gut, taking one when one leasts expects it.

Brian Staveley’s The Providence of Fire, however, is something else entirely. The twists came hard, and fast, and there was barely any breathing room before the next one came pelting out of that one specific corner one didn’t expect it to come from. And this, I think, was a very good thing indeed.

The Providence of Fire is the second novel in Staveley’s Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne series, and continues almost right from where the first novel, The Emperor’s Blades, left off. Valyn and Kaden, who have both survived assassination attempts on their lives, and have also managed to uncover the source of those attempts, now need to decide what to do next. Kaden wants to find the Ishien, a group of warrior-monks who, like the Shin, have found a way to use the kenta, a network of gates that can only be used by those who have mastered the vaniate, a trance that wipes away all of one’s emotions for as long as the trance holds. Valyn, on the other hand, wants to get Kaden to Annur as quickly as possible, as well as strike back against Ran il Tornja, the man behind the plot to wipe out the entire Malkeenian line.

In the meantime, in Annur, Adare is trying to find a way to strike back at Ran, whom she now knows is responsible for her father’s death. She’s not entirely sure whom she can trust—except, perhaps, the people whom she has just made into her enemies: the Sons of Light, the militant arm of Intarra’s faith. However, she knows that winning them to her cause will be difficult, because it was she who crippled them in the first place when she executed High Priest Uinian, and then issued a set of laws that basically hobbled the Sons of Light and the entire religious infrastructure for Intarra’s worship in the first place. But the enemy of her enemy is likely her friend, and so she decides to go to escape from the Dawn Palace, to leave her life as a princess behind, and ask for the help of those whom she so recently cut down.

In my review for the first novel, I stated that there was not a lot going on, and it was quite true: The Emperor’s Blades was devoted, primarily, to character development and to setting the stage. In that book, the reader is encouraged to really get to know the characters, to really get into their heads and understand why they do the things they do, and act the way they act. It also firmly establishes that the Malkeenian siblings, unlike many other noble, royal, or imperial siblings in other fantasy novels, are most assuredly not out to kill each other for the throne. For reasons of their own (a combination of sibling love and duty, for the most part), they all decide that only one person (Kaden) may rightfully sit the Unhewn Throne, and the others (Adare and Valyn) will do whatever they can to make sure that Kaden does just that. It was this devotion to each other, and to their duty, that made me fall in love with the siblings and really want to know what happened to them further down the line.

But this happy equilibrium cannot last, no matter how much wishing and crossing of fingers I or any reader may do in the hopes that, come hell or high water, the Malkeenians come out of this whole mess with their regard for each other intact. It was already quite clear in the first novel that Staveley had something very big planned, and The Providence of Fire proves that he’s very much up to the task of turning his series into something absolutely explosive, and absolutely heartbreaking.

The first proof of this is how the world in which the novel is set appears to grow, with more and more details about the world as a whole coming to the fore. For example, in the previous novel Adare’s chapters (such as they were) were limited to the premises of the Dawn Palace; in this novel, the reader gets a glimpse of the rest of the city—specifically, the slums and poorer quarters that were completely absent in the first novel. The Providence of Fire gives Annur the feel of a proper, living, breathing city—something that was absent in The Emperor’s Blades. More non-Annurians also make an appearance: the Urghul, for instance, become prominent actors in this novel, as do the Ishien. As for the Csestriim, they, too, become exceedingly important in this novel, though how that is I will not say.

Another clear indication of how Staveley is ramping up the plot is how he’s started to chart the individual stories of his three protagonists. I said in the first novel that Sanlitun was wise to raise his children as he did, but in this novel, it becomes clear that though there was wisdom in his actions, it wasn’t completely foolproof, either. Adare, in particular, is a great example of this (which I find especially interesting, since it’s obvious that, of the three siblings, she was the one who spent the most time with Sanlitun). I really like how Staveley has taken the time to really, truly develop Adare in this novel, to really flesh her out and make her into a character worth reading about, and more than worth getting attached to. I especially like how she realises that she’s made a mistake—several mistakes—and is determined to fix them as best as she can. In order to do this she takes a great many risks, second-guessing herself at every turn, and all the time wondering if she’s done the right thing, if she’s made the right decision—but not for herself, no, never for herself. She’s always wondering if what she’s doing is what’s best for the empire, because if there is one thing Adare wants to be, it is worthy of her father and his legacy, and I love how Staveley hinges so much upon that particular motivation, which is, really, what’s defined Adare from the very beginning of the series.

As for Kaden and Valyn, it’s not an easy journey for them, either. Valyn must come to grips with the fact that he’s no longer as human as he used to be (because of certain events that take place in the first novel), and that he might not be as great a Kettral as he assumed he would be. As for Kaden, he’s under a lot of pressure to master the vaniate, because without it he cannot use the kenta efficiently,

The one thing that all three of them must learn, though, is that they are leaders, but also human. This means they are going to make mistakes, and they must learn to live with the consequences of those mistakes. It is here that the characters really shine as characters (if not necessarily as people): they make decisions thinking it is the right one, only to learn later on that their decisions were the wrong ones, and try their very best to correct them. But all three are united in their conviction that what they do, they do for the benefit of their people—a conviction which leads to some very heartbreaking moments in the latter third of the novel, when the reader is forced to accept that the Malkeenian siblings’ regard for one another cannot withstand the greater events of the world around them.

And those events are mind-blowing, to say the least. The plot of this novel is such that events happen very, very quickly, one right after the other, but for all that everything in the story seems to happen at breakneck speed, Staveley manages to ensure that most of them don’t feel implausible. When certain spectacular revelations are made (and they are truly spectacular; they’re the reason I got plot-related whiplash in the first place), it’s easy to look back a few pages, or even to think back to the first novel, and realise that the groundwork’s already been laid for such surprises. It’s become such that one cannot take a single detail in any of the novels for granted, because one never knows if they will become vital to something very big further down the line.

Overall, The Providence of Fire fulfilled every expectation promised in The Emperor’s Blades, and, moreover, built up on those expectations and made them even bigger. With the reader almost certainly invested in the fate of the Malkeenian siblings and certain other characters (such as the members of Valyn’s Wing; or Pyrre Lakatur, the Skullsworn assassin), Staveley takes the reader on a wild ride that twists and turns and makes promises for something bigger, something grander, further down the line. Since Staveley has proven he’s capable of delivering on his promises, I’m very much looking forward to the next book in the series. 2016 can’t come soon enough.

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