It wasn’t until 2010 that I found out that one of my favourite Black Library authors, William King, had been on an extended sabbatical from writing anything for the publisher, and that he had spent time working on and developing his own original series, The Terrarch Chronicles. And it wasn’t until 2012 that I finally read the first book in the series, Death’s Angels. It was a pretty damn good and fun fantasy romp, doing a new take on the typical elf-human relationships within epic fantasy. And it was packed with all the typical William King fun that you’d expect, which was a huge bonus.
However, it wasn’t until January this year that I got around to reading the sequel, The Serpent Tower. And reading the novel made me realise just what it was that I was missing. Because the second novel is every bit as good as the first. In fact, it is quite a bit better! It avoids all the typical “mistakes” of a second novel, the so-called “sophomore slump”, and it is a fun and enjoyable novel to read from start to finish. It also helps that Bill significantly ups the ante, and explores more of this world that he built up in Death’s Angels, and showed a much more awe-inspiring side of it.
William King has always been a masterful world-builder. It is one of the most enjoyable aspects of his Black Library work, and through Death’s Angels and now The Serpent Tower, I’ve found that this is true of his original work as well. The first book in the Terrarch Chronicles series introduced me to a fantastical world called Gaeia which had been invaded by the extra-dimensional Terrarchs some centuries earlier. A race of magically-advanced elves from another world in time and space, these Terrarchs were running from a horror and they practically enslaved the indigenous peoples of Gaeia, specifically the humans. And now, the Terrarchs are the ruling class on this world, with the humans as second-class citizens at best.
All of this provides quite an interesting setting for the story of the Terrarch Chronicles to take place. Our primary protagonist is the half-elf Rik, a bastard son of unknown Terrarch lineage who is a foot soldier in the army of the ruling Terrarch Queen. And he is pitted against Lieutenant Sardec, a high-born Terrarch of an illustrious lineage who believes himself destined to great things and is often a very typical example of his kind. Together, the two of them drove much of the plot for Death’s Angels and in the second novel this continues forward.
Now, Rik is learning to control some of his powers under Lady Asea, a powerful Terrarch noble and an accomplished magician. His half-Terrarch blood has granted him some unique powers unseen by the Terrarchs in a long, long time, and this makes him a unique asset for someone as politically-oriented as Lady Asea. And on the other side, Lieutenant Sardec is slowly moving up the Terrarch noble hierarchy thanks to his association with Lady Asea and her brother, General Azaar. Together, these two subplots make The Serpent Tower a very exciting read indeed. And that is largely because of the stakes involved. One character explores a legacy denied to him by the circumstances of his birth while the other solidifies his own power, even if that is in service to someone yet higher than himself. Often times either character appears as a cliche, perhaps because of the situation he finds himself in, or because that’s just how it is in the overall picture. Regardless, Bill still infuses both of them with a particular high note when the chips are down and when it all really matters. He puts his characters through the wringer again and again, exploring their evolving motivations.
As with the previous novel, The Serpent Tower contains a ton of politicking between the Terrarchs. New characters, whether heroes or villains, are introduced and through them we see an evolving Gaiea where alliances between the Terrarchs are ever more uncertain and there are increasing threats of a massive civil war. In any fantasy novel, especially an epic fantasy such as The Serpent Tower, I think it is always important to see a slice of the political machinations that run everything and that provide the impetus for the heroes and villains to do what they do. Where this novel is concerned, Sardec and Rik are drawn into a plot to destabilise the existing Terrarch ruling structure and to deny the forces of Queen Arielle from sweeping up all the forces arrayed against them, specifically the magician Lord Ilmarec, the master of the Serpent Tower. In Death’s Angels we saw how Bill used the concept of Elder Races to provide narrative tension in the novel, and the “level boss” that Sardec and Rik defeated was a part of one of the Elder Races of Gaeia, races that are now pretty much extinct. In The Serpent Tower we see a continuation of that concept as Bill tackles the Serpent Men this time, a much more benign race than the one we briefly met in the previous novel. The Serpent Men are all extinct now, but their legacies linger, and the Serpent Tower is one such legacy, with Ilmarec busy probing its deepest and darkest secrets to oppose the heroes and, by extension, their Queen.
It all adds together by the end of the novel. The world as presented in The Serpent Tower is the same one as what we saw in Death’s Angels, but it is much more developed and much more nuanced. We see how the relationships between the various characters have developed in the months since the events of the first novel, and how they all play into the narrative of the second novel. Of particular note is the budding master-apprentice role that Asea and Rik play, and the now-cool relationship between Sardec and Rik. Where the two hated each other before, their hostilities only simmer under the surface now, instead of exploding in fits of anger every now and then. The characters, of the ones we met in the first novel, have developed over time, and it is fun to see that development. There is a clear progression of all the story arcs, which is pretty much what I wanted from this novel and what I got out of it.
And rounding up all the good stuff is that the novel is quite perfectly placed. It is a quick read, and it doesn’t ponder in any one scene at the expense of anything else. All the characters are given their fair day in the sun and the twists as and when they happen keep things lively so that the reader is never bored. I certainly wasn’t.
If there is anything lacking in the novel, it is that I wanted much more development with respect to Rik being one of the Shadowblood, master assassins and magicians from the glory days of the Terrarchs on their own world. We don’t see that much of an exploration of his relationship with Asea, although what we do get is quite significant. It is just that I wanted something more. There are a lot of subplots being juggled by Bill, so some things don’t get as much development as I would like, but in the end, it is fine I suppose. This is a series after all, and the author is still doing a lot of the groundwork for further continuation of the subplots in the next couple novels.
In the end, all I would say is that The Serpent Tower was a very fun novel indeed and that I would definitely recommend it. And do be sure to read the first novel as well, which I believe is currently free on Amazon. Never turn down a free novel! You don’t know what kind of awesomeness you can find inside. I’ve certainly lucked out.
More Terrarch Chronicles: Death’s Angels.