The Path of Flames has had solid enough reviews, but I had to give it a read to learn just what manner of book knocked Senlin Ascends out of the 2016 Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. For those who aren’t familiar with it, the SPFBO is a really fun annual competition that shines a light on some highly deserving self-published fantasy, and Senlin Ascends may be the biggest success story its history, garnering a glowing first-round review, gaining traction online, and ultimately getting picked up by Orbit on a four-book deal. And all that without making the final round, after falling in the semi-finals to Phil Tucker and The Path of Flames.
So how good is The Path of Flames? Well, it’s not Senlin Ascends, which has been one of my favorite reads of 2020 so far. But there are a lot of things it does very well, and it is absolutely worth the attention it got as a finalist. Tucker presents a typical medievalish fantasy world in many ways—lords and ladies, knights and castles—but it’s all subsumed within a strict caste system where people advance by living lives worthy of reincarnation into a higher class. What’s more, the various castes are born into worlds that are physically separated, with travel between them only by a limited system of magical gates.
So the world already provides some intriguing differences from the older fantasy tropes, and the story starts us in the middle of a war between those who uphold the caste-centric religion and a rebellious band of heretics. In the disarray following the battle, we’re introduced to some of the archetypes—the lower-caste squire wishing to be a knight, the widow seeking to hold onto her lands, the daughter who likes swords more than men, the disgraced knight with a good heart, the intelligent but timid scholar. Plus a kragh (read: orc), whose story doesn’t merge with the other five in this book, but presumably will in the sequels. After their lord dies in the early going, the first five suddenly have a keep to protect and not enough military might do it, putting them under pressure from the get-go.
The characters are believable enough, although I wouldn’t call them a real strength—the narrative always feels a little bit removed, as if the reader is listening to a rationalization of their thoughts and actions rather than being in their head as they think and act. Each has plausible motivations, but the author’s voices tends to wash out some of the differences. But the plot is where this one really shines. There’s the immediate crisis of having a castle and not enough might to defend it, but as the story begins to unravel more of the metaphysics behind the world and the gates, we get new places to explore and new and interesting dangers to face.
The ability to keep the tension high is The Path of Flames’ biggest strengths. There’s always another danger lurking or another mystery needing resolution. Merely keeping the reader’s attention seems like it should be the bare minimum, but it’s not every book that can keep me excitedly turning 500 pages—it’s easier said than done. And even when I wasn’t fully onboard with the characters, I still really wanted to know what happened. And, while this book did resolve a major plot thread, there are enough still hanging that I still want to know what happens. It’s a fascinating world, and I imagine I’m likelier to pick up book two of The Chronicles of the Black Gate than I am to continue other series that I might rate slightly higher.
One risk with self-published books is that the polish that comes from professional editing can be diminished, and that is the case here. It’s obviously had a lot of work done to make it shine, but there are a few scattered typos and grammatical mistakes, a few instances where the same word is used too many times in quick succession, and one of the major characters described as 11, 15, and “17 or 18” years-old within the space of a week in-story. The prose is otherwise serviceable, and I don’t consider the mistakes to be significant enough to drop my rating, but this is a book that stands out with its world and plot, not the polish of the prose. Overall, while I don’t think it quite lived up to the hype, I see where the hype is coming from—it’s a promising opener, and I really enjoyed it.
Recommended if you like: fast-paced, plot-driven stories with epic scale, interesting worlds with those in power keeping secrets.
Overall rating: 14 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.