Monday, September 19, 2016

Review: "The Path of Flames" by Phil Tucker

I remember a time, not so incredibly long ago, when I wouldn’t even accept a self-published book for review consideration because I’d seen so many awful ones. But, as Dylan famously sang, the times, they are a-changin’.

Over the course of the last year or so, I’ve discovered a string of fantastic self-published books, the latest being Phil Tucker’s “The Path of Flames,” a finalist in the second edition of Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off.

I read a number of the finalists in last year’s contest and found some great books and writers, so I decided to get started with them a little earlier this year, and my first foray did not disappoint.

Asho is a Bythian, the lowest rank on the scale of Ascendancy, the major religion of Tucker’s world. After each lifetime, the belief is, that the people are judged for their actions and either sent up or down in class based on them, until they pass through either the White Gate to join the Ascendant or the Black Gate for their punishment.

Asho and his sister, now lost to him, came to live with Lord Kyferin of the Ennoian warrior class after he visited Bythos. In a cruel joke, Kyferin made him a page, but through determination, Asho has risen to squire, though he has no real hope of ever being knighted. Until, that is, the army of the Ascendant meets the heretical Agerastians, who have re-discovered the ancient forbidden art of Sin-Casting. Lord Kyferin is killed in the battle, but for his valor, Asho is knighted by no less than the Grace himself, the highest ranking official of the Ascendancy.

While the Grace offers Asho a place in his service, the Bythian refuses, choosing to return and serve the Lady Kyferin, for whom he has a great respect, and her daughter, Kethe. Far from making his life easier, though, Asho’s knighthood sets him on a path that may make his time under the thumb of Lord Kyferin seem easy.

While Asho gives us our first window into Tucker’s tale, there’s much more at play here that’s difficult to weave into a simple summary. The viewpoint soon spreads to a number of characters, each with just as interesting a tale as the Bythian knight in what promises to be a sweeping epic of a story.

That opening battle scene does a fantastic job, though, of pulling us completely into the story. We’re immersed in a chaotic melee and introduced to an unlikely hero that, somehow, we immediately like and throw our support behind. It's amazing how quickly Tucker gets you fully invested in his story.

I began the read thinking that it would be the familiar tale of the rise of a low-born hero to greatness, but by the time the “The Path of Flames” was over, I'd gotten so much more.

As the story unfolds, the world around the characters grows more depth and mystery. I’m fascinated by the idea of the Ascendancy, the yin and yang of Sin-Casting that we discover and the darker secrets that are certainly hidden behind the Black and White gates, wherever they may lead. Ultimately, Tucker does what any good epic fantasy author must do, and that is provide a world that I want to explore fully, filled with mysteries that I want to unravel.

I’m left at the end of “The Path of Flames” with a lot of questions and possibilities rattling around in my head, and a strong desire to plow on into the next portion of the story to see what surprises await. And what more can you really ask for from a great read?

The first book of Tucker’s Chronicles of the Black Gate can stand toe-to-toe with any epic coming out of the big publishing houses and surpasses some of them. It’s immersive, intriguing and sometimes surprising, and I can’t wait to learn more about the Ascendant Empire.

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