SPFBO Status: Cut
Overview (No Spoilers):
‘The world is in change though I do not believe for the better.’
Dreyah is the product of an elven father and a human mother, the second crossling known to exist. When the prophecy concerning the first one came to pass, a world-wide war ensued, resulting in countless casualties and finally ending with the separation of elves and humans, and with humans forsaking magic. So, just imagine what that same prophecy has in store for Dreyah as she grapples with where she truly belongs. The story also features Kennason, a woman chosen to steward a people in a land that she doesn’t call home. Sparked by loneliness, she embarks on a journey that forces her to face past hardships and reveals unexpected truths about her family. At the same time, things have been stirring in the north recently, an area that’s been deserted since the first war…
Published in December 2016, The Steel Road by Edie James is the first book in The Ardent Halo series. Its accolades include being an honorable mention winner in the Fiction – Magic/Wizardry section of the 2018 Readers’ Favorite Book Award Contest (and bonus fact, Book II of the series was also a finalist in the 2019 competition). As much as I enjoyed the other SPFBO entrants to grace my kindle app, I was looking forward to something darker, where I wasn’t sure if the main character(s) would live to fight another day. And considering this comes with maps and an Appendix to explain the complex character relationships, The Steel Road is definitely meatier as well, earning its place in epic fantasy. In fact, it jumps right in with name dropping that had me turning to the Appendix, wondering if a name reflected a person or a weather phenomenon (i.e. Ahnara’s winds). The prose is also a more formal style that, once you’ve grown accustomed to it, fits well with the high fantasy setting (that also manages to effectively mix in steam engines and electricity).
Interestingly, some things are given names that one may not automatically attribute to them. They are clever, but the reader is left to parse out what it actually refers to sometimes or wait until it becomes apparent and relevant later on (e.g. cloud and nightflier both refer to a bat). In general, information tends to be offered after the fact to make sense of what has already happened. Not only are we following characters in different places, but events are being explained out of sequence. And I love that! I like it when a story doesn’t follow a linear path, where the next steps aren’t straightforward or expected. However, it is also a style that can be confusing as all get-out if you’re not paying close enough attention as the puzzle unfolds. Fortunately, James expertly weaves past and present moments together to complete the complex picture of how all of these characters fit together. I should also mention that the characters of the Arizware Expanse are crafted in such a way that they don’t fit neatly into the binary boxes of good versus bad.
A criticism would be that it felt like a large portion of the book is spent waiting for the weather to change. To be fair, during that time, many connections are established and plot holes are filled; I was just excited for folks to venture to new settings and continue their mission! I especially enjoyed their investigation of the now uninhabited areas, uncovering past messages and civilizations that time forgot. Although there are quite a few minor errors, making this novel a contender for another round of editing, they don’t diminish the extensive world that the reader explores and the detailed relationships that James has penned. In fact, there were a number of times when I stopped to highlight great quotes within this body of work. I also appreciated the connection between the chapter titles and the chapter content. If an epic fantasy featuring magic, captivating, multi-dimensional characters, and looming conflict sounds like something you’d be interested in, be sure to check out The Steel Road!
Additional Insight (Spoilers Abound):
- Aside from what exists in the Old World, south of the Ardent Halo, it seems to me that the East and West maps of the Arizware Expanse represent only a portion of the actual world. Where are Weris, Pais, and the Onam continent located? Do these places also have passages connecting to the Old World?
- Did any of the Udian elves ever go through the passage in Serle’s Crown, traveling to the place that humans escaped from? If it’s in their nature to remediate the land, would that include the Southern Hemisphere? If they wanted to close the passage but found that they could only block it from the Arizware Expanse side, why not travel to the Old World to close it permanently? What happens next for Brenom?
- If ‘powers near exhaustion’ are enhanced near passageways to the Old World, where else had folks seen enhanced magic before the Udian War? How many passages are there between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres? How many portals have been closed or blocked? Was the same kind of passage used by humans to reach the Andanes? If so, are any of the ‘monsters’ found throughout the Andanes arriving from the Old World?
- In the Andanes, how are new priests appointed? And are all of the priests advised by the Four on who to select as the next steward, or only the one whose element is up in the sequence? I liked how the elements for the Four are represented in the dawning ceremony for Herran’s appointment as the next lord steward. What action would be used to represent water if he hadn’t been born of it?
- At one point, Ahnara mentions that there are ‘questions unanswered by our young scrolls…riddles Mrayon’s texts cannot solve. I too seek truths.’ What is she searching for? Sounds like she needs the elder scrolls, but what happened to them? What do they have to say about the elves’ beginning?
- In the young scrolls, the prophecy for Dreyah states that ‘…upon death, two bloods will fall and ignite the Expanse in flame.’ Does this fire refer to Kennason? What will happen when Dreyah’s blood is mixed with sorcerer’s blood? Will the Brotherhood of the Black Flame need Kennason’s blood or did Norem do something to Clara’s twins? Speaking of Clara, does she survive the birth of her twins?
- Kennason and Ericsson’s parents were betrayed as they travelled to the Seat, but why would they believe that an elf would serve as the messenger for the King of Cambria? Wouldn’t Jaimison have verified the information with the first wizard in the City of Thrones? And although it was a Highland elf (perhaps Herric?) who’d come to talk with Jaimison, is it possible that his death (and those of the ten other soldiers) was not at the hands of said elf? Was Magenne a dormant sorceress and an attack triggered her? Could Magenne still be alive since she was never found?
- Since we’re told that the magic of a sorcerer can be activated out of fear, what situation caused Kennason to produce fire the first time? And what did Uressa see that she couldn’t share with Kennason before? What will Kennason learn from Vay about her powers and her history?
- If mages need to mate with a wizard for magic to be passed down, how is Aeryn a wizard if Emeric is not? Is Merrit actually the father? And why did Cambria choose to enslave wizards when all other humans shunned them and did away with all things magic?
- I thought water talking was an interesting way to communicate between wizards, especially how the listener needs to orient themselves in the direction of the talker. I do have questions about how it works though: How do wizards know when someone is calling? Is it just at the same time every day? Is it planned in advance?
- After playing into the prophecy and murdering Serle, Herric claims that smelling his son on Carra’s scorched body is evidence that he’d been killed, but was he? He’d be around 300 years old by now, but as a crossling that might be possible. Is Norem the first crossling? If not, did Beris have to die twice? Where will Herric show up next?
- Why are the hollow men expected to head toward Cambria? Why not <also> toward Mrayon and that side of the Arizware Expanse? Are they going to be drawn toward the wizards (and the Boroes tower)? What is Norem’s game plan? How and what does he know about the Old World?
To make this list less dense, I have chosen to omit many of the words that were unfamiliar to me related to flora, fauna, structural components, armor, and weaponry.
Abjure: to reject solemnly
Abrade: to wear down in spirit
Aver: to allege or assert in pleading
Cafard: severe depression or apathy – used especially of white people in the tropics
Callow: lacking adult sophistication; immature
Cerise: a moderate red
Dapple: any of numerous usually cloudy and rounded spots or patches of a color or shade different from their background
Demesne: the land attached to a mansion
Gainsay: contradict, oppose
Hoary: extremely old; ancient
Intelligencer: a secret agent; spy
Jape: to say or do something jokingly or mockingly
Jounce: to move in an up-and-down manner; bounce
Lassitude: a condition of weariness or debility; fatigue
Mottle: a colored spot
Perspicacious: of acute mental vision or discernment; keen
Prevaricate: to deviate from the truth; equivocate
Purloin: to appropriate wrongfully and often by a breach of trust
Redolent: evocative, suggestive
Riposte: a retaliatory verbal sally; retort
Sable: the color black
Somnolent: inclined to or heavy with sleep; drowsy
Upbraid: to reproach severely; scold vehemently
Virago: a loud overbearing woman; termagant
Whicker: neigh, whinny