“You are under arrest by order of the Flaming Eminence. Under the authority of the Radiant Guard, you will be transported to Askat for trial, found guilty of crimes against life, and executed. Do not resist.”
So much for a quick getaway. Kel is a wanted criminal, accused of — and, let’s be honest, guilty of — murdering five men with dark magic. But those five men had pushed Ekaitza to the ground and were looking to hurt her, or worse. Kel could no more control the magic that killed those men than he could the anger he felt when he saw what they intended. And now they’re prisoners of the Radiant Guard. He, Ekaitza, and Raff (Riff). All hope seems lost until Yamara herself, goddess of birth, appears and declares Kel her champion, commanding the Radiant Guard to take him to Isamk where he will be advised by the High Pearl, Yamara’s highest and most powerful mortal avatar.
If it weren’t for Azko, a pious guard, Kel and the others wold still be on that ship. In chains. Heading off to their execution. Instead, the four of them are on the run, trying to keep one step ahead of the guard and desperate to find the missing piece of the Wheel, a weapon with which they can stop the return of the Ilun, God of Death itself.
Ilun, though, like the Yamara and Somira — Goddess of Life — has taken an interest in Kel. He appears in Kel’s dreams, smirking, handsome, and offering help, encouraging Kel to embrace his dark powers, and admit that he is a Bone, a powerful and evil mage whose path leads him down a dark road to Ilun’s service. No matter how many times Kel says no, no matter how hard he tries to put the god from his mind, there’s something about Ilun that makes Kel feel safe. Powerful. Protected. And it’s a dangerous feeling.
For all that this book is, ostensibly, about Kel, I feel like I have more connection to Azko, Ekaitza, Txaran, and RIff (Raff) than I do to Kel. Azko is a Flame, a mage whose powers are limited to his physical body. He can manipulate his strength and his stamina, and isn’t afraid to be hurt in the pursuit of justice or the protection of his friends. Ekaitza has always been afraid of being powerless and asks Azko to teach her the sword. Not so she can fight the guard, but because she, too, wants to protect the ones she loves and to make certain Kel never has to use his magic to harm anyone ever again, not if she can help it. Raff — or Riff — is a genderfluid character who moves between Raff, who is male, and Riff, who is female. She’s charming, clever, cunning, and more than willing to lie and cheat if it helps her friends. She’s also kind, caring, and quick to break the tension with a joke or a comedic display. (She’s Riff more often than she’s Raff in this book, so I chose to use female pronouns while talking about this character.)
And then there’s Txaran, a Bone. Where Pearls control the elements of earth, air, fire, and water, and Flames control their bodies, the powers of a Bone are different. They have the ability to take power from others in a siphoning effect, causing a loss of magic or even life. They also have the power to heal, giving energy back. But due to the War of the Faithful, when the mages of Somira rose up against the mages of Ilun, Bones have been thought to be gone forever. But Txaran’s mother knew what her daughter was and abandoned her in the woods for her own safety. (And if you believe that, I have a bridge in my pocket you might be interested in …) She found a library of Ilun’s follower’s writings, of their history and philosophy, and it’s Txaran who tries to help Kel understand his position as the Battlefield.
Kel, though, he’s a bit generic. He’s a good guy, but he spends more time thinking about magic, about his friends, and about the situation that he’s in than anything else. I don’t know what he likes or dislikes, but I know he likes his friends. I know he wants to do the right thing, but other than that surface goodness, I don’t feel like I know Kel at all. However, at the point where I felt my interest in the story starting to drop, Ilun showed up and won me over. In the course of one chapter, I went from having no investment in this story to wanting to see more Ilun.
Just look at him:
“Yes,” Ilun said wryly, “even I know that formless void is not an appropriate eye color for a human.”
“I’ve never been accused of being bad at something before. Bad, yes, but not bad at something.”
“Ah, yes. My devious plot to destroy all humanity. And why am I doing that, again?”
Beyond the engaging side characters, the world building in this book is detailed, thought out, and honestly so very well done. There are discussions of philosophy, history, political propaganda, and hints at a much more complex world around the characters than they’re aware of. Kel’s own limited experience — with he and Ekaitza coming from a fairly small town — help sell this as the reader learns along with the characters the truth behind the stories, and you can feel the shape of the all of it coming together with skillful foreshadowing. Knowledge is parceled out bit by bit, in organic conversations and scenes with very few exposition dumps.
And the magic … too often magic is a wave of a hand, something that the character does but doesn’t understand. There’s often very little awareness or effort to make it feel real because magic is magic. But the author put as much thought and care into the magic of this world as they did the history and the world building.
“Your magic responds to your feelings, it is a part of you. Without understanding, it will lash out, trying to please you. That is why it’s so important to know yourself. You cannot lie to your magic, so it is the manifestation of your true will. Until you are able to wield and control it, it reflects only your basest instincts. Right now you are not afraid, so it is not afraid.”
The writing is decent, though it reads a bit on the YA side, with characters accepting things with minimal explanation and the core group falling together into an easy rapport with nothing more than a name and a handshake between them. Even so, there’s more than enough good about this book to recommend it, and I’m very much looking forward to the next book in the Turning Wheel series.