The Sceptre of Fire is an old school fantasy romp: it’s got elves, dwarves, orcs, necromancers, and a campy mage. But there’s a twist—a pretty big one. The orcs? They’re not really the bad guys. The necromancer? Yeah, he’s got history. And the knights in shining armour aren’t always noble…
The necromancer was once a pretty decent guy: he killed pirates on the high seas and did his duty as an Empire subject. But he loved another man, and for that, he had to be punished. Now driven by an insatiable thirst for revenge, he has turned to dark magic—and enlisted the help of orcs. The orcs have their own, very good reasons to hate the Empire. Driven out from the Empire lands and into a freezing, inhospitable land, the orcs know that hunger is a stronger motivator than most.
Opposing him are Radu, a mad mage with a penchant for boys and fashion, along with Haraldur—a talented dwarven mage smith. At first they care little for a distant conflict, but things escalate once the necromancer, in desperation, makes a pact with an ancient entity…
There was much about this book that didn’t work for me, but I ultimately DNF’d at 72% through. At that point, a woman was raped and it felt like the whole reason this happens from a story perspective is so that her husband would be angry enough to join the side of the necromancer. Kahina, an enslaved woman from a native tribe, was gang raped by a group of men who lined up to violate her; she endured this and imprisonment, the death of her tribespeople, and various other pains and humiliations. Her husband had many other reasons to join the necromancer’s army, such as his kingdom being attacked and his people being murdered, enslaved, and forced to work in mines, with himself tortured by the mining camp’s mages. It feels like the story is using rape for no other purpose that I can see other than to motivate a man to be want revenge. Then two characters are seemingly over the rape in the scene following, even having a dance party. The rape wasn’t necessary, and isn’t treated like the horrible event it is. It’s just feels like a plot device.
There’s another scene that also stood out for all the wrong reasons. Hadrianus, the Emperor of Byzantium, is in a relationship with a man and a woman. During a conversation about politics, Aelia, his female lover, acknowledges that men are superior to women, and then during the sex scene, it’s made clear that first Antinous, his male lover, climaxes and then Hadrianus, but no mention of if their female partner did. Just a comment of how she’s passive in bed, and that, as a woman, she’s the more devious of his lovers. All in all, it left me feeling rather nonplussed.
This book takes place on an alternate Earth where Byzanteum, Britannia, Carthage, the elves in their Great Forest, and the Dwarves in their underground Kingdom exist with the Union across the sea and Teutonia to the north, and mentions of a the Great Desert to the South. There are also quite a few POVs, from dwarf to orc to elf, good human mage, evil human mage, archbishop, emperor, necromancer, and all of them have the same voice — or rather, the same lack of voice. Every character feels like it exists to represent an idea or a culture, not to be a person. They feel there to give exposition, to talk economics, to explain politics or cultural differences. But they do not feel, in and of themselves, like characters.
The world building is a magpie nest of … everything. There are fourth wall breaks, author asides and modern slang; there is a mix of technology levels, with the dwarves having factories, machines, robots, and lasers, while the upper world is still using medieval weapons and the occasional shruiken. There is a dwarven communist party, evil Christianity, Byzanteum, necromancers and dragons, elves and goblins and orcs, and so, so much more. I have no feel for this world as a whole, just a vague image of the dwarven city something like an underground New York, with trains, elevators, and late night diners, while above them, orcs and the undead conquer generic fantasy cities.
At nearly three quarters of the way into the book, I was able to get the gist of the plot, but the pieces weren’t well set up. There was so much telling, so much info dumping, so much expositioning, and the overall tone of the book read as dry and flat. There were no emotional moments for me to connect to the characters, and even the Kahina’s gang rape was a throw away line and she herself seemed to have no reaction to it until it came time to tell her husband. This is a solid pass for me.