Brian Niemeier sure knows how to start a story off with a bang.
What begins as a mission for survivors of the galaxy-shattering cataclysm turns into a battle against the forces of the Void intent on remaking the world in its image.
If you watched Star Wars and thought, "Not enough magic or monsters"; if you're into horror and ask yourself, "Where are the spaceships?"; and if you're into Dune and keep wondering "Where are all the good books?", then the Soul Cycle series is right in your wheelhouse.
Teg isn't the only returning character from the first book here, and allies and enemies from Book II also feature prominently. And of course, new friends and foes appear and make their impact felt. To say anymore would spoil things, but just let's say that the interaction between these disparate personalities is great.
It also helps that Brian can write, keeping the action fast-paced, keeping the danger right at the protagonists' heels, and giving few respites from the (almost exhausting) breakneck pace.
Oh, and we get to see more cool planets.
As I try to do in my book reviews, let's highlight a few key things that really made The Secret Kings work, and discuss why.
Characters and Conflict:
It's great seeing characters like Teg and Xander, Astlin and Nakvin, and Jaren and Tefler cross paths…and deal with villains like Kelgrun, Fallon, and Vaun Mordechai.
These interactions feel natural, and friendships and friction created when they all meet is completely in-character; nothing seems out of place. Brian gives the sense that, were these characters real and sitting in a room together, this is how they would act.
The newcomers, like Izlaril, Lykaon, Gein, Anris, the Anomians, and Celwen are welcome additions to the cast.
And the conflict! Not always armed hostility, but even the good guys don't always get along.
In screenwriting, there's a principle that also applies to novels, that every scene needs conflict, or at least a goal. You can broadly call this a reason for existing: Does it further the story? Does it reveal something about a character? Could you cut it out and lose nothing of the story?
This is where I think Brian excels. When I wrote in my Souldancer review that his writing was "economical," this is what I mean: No wasted words, no overly florid language, and each scene has a point. This tension among the characters helps lend every scene both heft and a purpose.
When we think of twists, we think of the unexpected. But plot twists can't just be there for shock value–they need to make sense. If they come out of the blue, they tend to land with a thud.
"But don't all twists come out of the blue?" you may ask. Good question! And my answer is: kind of.
You see, writing is like being a magician. When the twist comes, you want it to be a surprise, but you want the reader to think back to the breadcrumb trail you laid out and say "How could I not have seen this coming?!"
And of course, you want it to have relevance to the plot.
Otherwise, your twist will be nothing more than a junk scare, or worse, the kind of ludicrous abuse of logic that has turned the once-promising filmmaking career of M. Night Shyamalan into a cautionary tale.
So how does The Secret Kings fare in the twist department? Without giving it away, it fares pretty damn well! One big twist worked by misdirection, making me think "Wait a minute…?" and then, "Oh, okay, I can see that…I guess I was wrong at first…" to "Holy cow I knew it!"
In other words, Brian fooled me. Perfect.
And the other…the other I kind of saw coming…it wasn't that surprising…but I wasn't expecting it to be so…unsettling.
If I have nitpicks with The Secret Kings it's that, like the series as a whole, the pacing is perhaps too quick. I would have liked more exploration of the cool worlds and interesting places Brian shows us (the Stone Stratum–what a fascinating concept) and spent more time with certain characters (what's up Celwen and Anris!). And some of the action, especially near the end, felt rushed.
I also, as with Nethereal and Souldancer, found some of the world's mythology and theology hard to follow, even with the glossary in the back. But maybe that's just me.
All told, The Secret Kings is a triumph. Read the Soul Cycle, and get ready for the fourth installment, previewed at the end of The Secret Kings, which Brian is working on as we speak. The series starts off at, let's say, an 8-out-of-10 and then by Book II cranks things up to 11.
It's fun, it's exciting, and it's got a bit of everything: Gunplay and sword-fights coexist with magic and monsters; there are spaceships, telepaths, other dimensions and strange god and demons. And there's romance! Heroism! All that good stuff.
Final Verdict: Everything Star Wars should be trying to do, but isn't.
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