elemental ruinsRating: 4.25 stars
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Length: Novel

 

The Elemental Ruins is the second book in Sam Burns’ Circle the Square duology and the story follows immediately after the first book, The Elemental Keyes. The stories must be read in order and this review will spoil some of the events of the first book, particularly the ending. This is a really fun and engaging pair of books and definitely worth your time, particularly if you enjoy contemporary and fantasy hybrids. Check out my review of the first book for a spoiler-free review to get you started.

River Keyes was prepared to let the world be destroyed when he thought his brother, Blaze, was going to die anyway. But when River saw his chance to be the sacrifice instead, he took it. Now, River has found himself traveling through a portal and ending up in the world of Halana. He has landed in the throne room of a palace where he sees a child king, a dark and terrifying looking general… and his long-lost father, Tojan.

River knew growing up his father wasn’t to be trusted, but he has only recently learned that his and Blaze’s whole lives were designed for them to serve as pawns in his father’s schemes. So River is not encouraged to find his father not only alive in Halana, but to learn that he is a priest with incredible power and influence. What’s worse, Tojan is remorseless in making lives miserable for the poor of Halana in order to gain strength for his fellow mages and has no qualms about jailing or sentencing to death anyone who gets in his way.

With River unwilling to fall in line, Tojan would happily see him dead. However, River has unexpected allies in both the young king, Artyom, as well as the brooding but ever so sexy general, Lasya Zarani. When the king assigns Lasya to protect River, the men get a chance to spend time together. River learns there is much more to Lasya that most of the public realizes, and he is working to do good for the people of Halana. Unfortunately, fighting back against Tojan is not easy and he seems to have reach everywhere. Lasya and River are determined to do whatever they can to restore prosperity to the poor and struggling of Halana, even if it means taking on Tojan — as long as he doesn’t kill them before they get the chance.

This story is a great follow up to the first book in the set and I loved getting a book from River’s perspective. He is a snarky troublemaker who deep down has a kind heart and I found him a lot of fun in the first story. I kind of wondered how he would carry his own book, as he is sort of a sassy foil in The Elemental Keyes, but Burns totally makes it work. River doesn’t lose his edge here at all, and he still deflects with a lot of attitude when things get tense. But we also get to see a more mature side of him and watch him not just open his heart to Lasya, but to the young king and many of the other citizens of Halana.

I liked the way this story gives us the other side of the coin, bringing a human into the elven world this time. We spent just a little time in Halana in The Elemental Keyes, so I enjoyed seeing it first hand here. River may be a fish out of water to some degree, but he is also a powerful seer and knows a lot about the land from Elethen, so he finds his footing pretty quickly. He and Lasya make a great pair, and River is totally hot for the huge, scary, hulking elf. They are a good fit, as they are both men who others may perceive as “bad guys” but who, in actuality, have kind hearts and a determination to do what is right.

As with the first book, my small issues center mostly around the world building not providing quite enough clarity. Tojan is a priest (presumably the head priest), but for some reason he wields incredible power over everything. He makes laws and has people jailed and no one seems to be able to stop him. The king clearly hates him, and Tojan is obviously biding his time until he can kill the king. So I couldn’t understand why he was given this much power to make all of these laws, decide who gets food etc. If there is some sort of law or regulation requiring Artyom to keep Tojan around, we never hear of it. We never see or hear about any kind of council or noble court or whatever that may be forcing him to keep Tojan in a position of power. We also never see anyone who seems to have authority or guardianship over the king, despite the fact that he is a child. So I was never clear what role Tojan actually serves and why it involves so much authority that the king can’t get rid of him. Also, the priests in general seem to be this weird sort of police force and that didn’t make much sense to me. They were arresting people and having them jailed or even killed and I never really understood why they would have this authority.

Over time, we learn that Tojan has very strong magic, so even Lasya isn’t sure he can defeat him in a fight. Which made me wonder how Lasya and his guards are successfully protecting Artyom from Tojan (and his guards/henchmen) if he is stronger than all of them. Also, if Tojan has all this power and can defeat anyone, why does he even listen to the king at all? There is this sort of back and forth where sometimes Tojan seems to be able to do what he wants with no repercussions, but other times he has to listen the king. For example, Tojan jails people and fabricates crimes and even arbitrarily has people killed on all sorts of fake charges, and the king is aware of all this but apparently can’t stop him. But then when Tojan and his priests are chasing after someone to have them arrested (aka killed), the story notes the priests are avoiding the king so he can’t tell them to stop, implying that they have to listen to him. And I guess I am wondering if Tojan has all this power that the king is forced to keep him around and let him destroy the country and kill people, why would Tojan possibly care about listening to the king in this instance? It just felt like things were vaguely defined here in a way that seemed inconsistent. Normally I wouldn’t make such a stink about all these details, but Tojan’s unstoppable power is the central conflict on which the entire story is built, so I needed it to be developed more clearly for it to really work for me.

Despite wanting to see some more world building in these areas, I did like the way the conflict here nicely ties in with the first book and things circle back around to connect some of the dots between stories. We get a satisfying conclusion for both River and Blaze (as well as for Halana) and one I didn’t fully see coming. I found these two books made a really great set and liked the way we experience both worlds, but it still felt like one big story. I really enjoyed this duology and think Burns did a great job creating two distinct and interesting relationships and tying them together with the overarching story. This was a really entertaining set of books and one I can definitely recommend, particularly if you enjoy contemporary fantasy.

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