Friday, May 16, 2014

“The Crimson Campaign” by Brian McClellan (Orbit)

McClellanB-PM2-CrimsonCampaignAn excellent middle book – slightly shaky start, but awesome second half & ending

“The hounds at our heels will soon know we are lions.”

Tamas’s invasion of Kez ends in disaster when a Kez counter-offensive leaves him cut off behind enemy lines with only a fraction of his army, no supplies, and no hope of reinforcements. Drastically outnumbered and pursued by the enemy’s best, he must lead his men on a reckless march through northern Kez to safety, and back over the mountains so that he can defend his country from an angry god.

In Adro, Inspector Adamat only wants to rescue his wife. To do so he must track down and confront the evil Lord Vetas. He has questions for Vetas concerning his enigmatic master, but the answers might come too quickly.

With Tamas and his powder cabal presumed dead, Taniel Two-shot finds himself alongside the god-chef Mihali as the last line of defence against Kresimir’s advancing army. Tamas’s generals bicker among themselves, the brigades lose ground every day beneath the Kez onslaught, and Kresimir wants the head of the man who shot him in the eye.

I really enjoyed McClellan’s debut novel, Promise of Blood, and also the short stories he has released set in the same world. I was, therefore, extremely happy to get my hands on an ARC of The Crimson Campaign. Perhaps as a result of reading the handful of short stories (all of which were expertly crafted), I found this novel a bit slow going to begin with. However, after the story settled in, I blitzed through it, and read it well into the wee hours of the morning, unable to put it down. McClellan, I believe, is going to have a long, successful career.

The publisher’s synopsis (above) really does tell you all you need to know. Any more detail would just spoil things, really. To begin with, I found it difficult to sink into the story – I am not, however, sure if that’s because of my own mood at the time, or the novel itself. This was the first big fantasy I’ve read in what feels like months, so it might have been the last vestiges of my Fantasy Fatigue. Nevertheless, there were a couple of story elements and plot developments that seemed to lurch forward quite suddenly, which also had an impact on how easily I sank into the narrative. This is my only real issue with the novel, and it took place in the first third – this left two thirds of the hefty book that were near-blemish free. Things really took a turn for the fantastic around the 30%-mark (thank you, Kindle), and I became absolutely hooked.

The three main storylines were all good, although I found Adamat’s the least compelling. By the end of the novel, it became clear that his storyline was some kind of holding-pattern, for I think he’s going to play a much bigger and more-important role in the third novel. That’s not to say his scenes weren’t engaging or interesting, they just didn’t grab me as much as Tamas’s and Taniel’s. There were some excellent action scenes, though, later on that Adamat was connected to. His is a more investigative storyline, and it is through him that we learn more of the factions in Adro.

Tamas’s story in The Crimson Campaign begins at Budwiel, as he and his army are trying to hold back the million-strong army of Kez. It is also when one of the aforementioned narrative lurches takes place. The rest of the novel follows him and his cohorts (two regiments) dodging the Kez forces sent to hunt them down. It’s a slog through unfamiliar terrain, and the slow attrition of his forces takes a toll on his and his companions’ psyches as well as their fighting force and readiness. I really liked what we learn about Tamas’s motivations in this novel. Really like them, actually. McClellan has not written a one-dimensional leader at all – true, he is a master tactician and warrior, but his motives turn out to be entirely selfish and not particularly praiseworthy, given the deaths his actions have caused and the upheaval he set in motion.

This leaves Taniel’s story, which is my favourite of the novel. He is Tamas’s son, and starts off having just come out of a come, following the brutal, massive battle at the end of Promise of Blood. He’s not doing so well, is suffering from a kind of PTSD and attempting to find oblivion in this world’s opium-analog. He eventually re-joins the war effort, after a brief brush with local politics, and is joined by the best character in the series, Ka-poel – his “savage” ward, and voodoo-esque-magician. She’s just awesome on so many levels in this novel. Their relationship develops, too, and the two of them constantly find themselves dodging attempts to kill, imprison, or harm them in any number of ways. They uncover the existence of a traitor and war profiteering, but have difficulty uncovering the details. Most interestingly of all, however, is the fact that Taniel has been… changed by his ordeal at the end of the previous book. There were some moments in his story that reminded me of the best bits of Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels (only, with added magic).

True, it is the middle-book of a trilogy, so there are a couple of frustrating threads left untied at the end. Despite the slightly-shaky beginning, I became hooked and immersed in the story. There were a couple of Hollywood-worthy moments of schmaltz, which felt a tad forced – but were fleeting and therefore didn’t put me off.

To sum up, then, this was a very good second novel. McClellan’s writing is excellent and well-composed; his characters remain interesting and well-drawn, and all develop over the course of the novel. The novel is both faithful to fantasy conventions while reinventing some of them in interesting ways and keep everything feeling fresh and original. Those who thought it wasn’t as diverse in the first book as it could/should have been will be pleased to know that is addressed very well in this novel. There are interesting and game-changing revelations and happenings. I can’t wait for the final book in the series, The Autumn Republic (February 2015 is a long way off…).


The Crimson Campaign is out now, published by Orbit Books in the UK and US

Also on CR: Interview with Brian McClellan; Guest Posts – My Favourite Novel and Protagonist Ages in Epic Fantasy; Reviews of Promise of Blood, The Girl of Hrusch Avenue, Hope’s End, Forsworn, The Face in the Window


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