Cry of the Newborn is a huge yarn. Weighing in at 819 pages in hardback, it's a veritable doorstopper fantasy novel. And yet, short chapters quicken the pace considerably, keeping you turning those pages and going on for one more chapter. I have seldom encountered a book of this size with such a fluid rhythm throughout.
I found the worldbuilding quite interesting. Instead of the traditional medieval setting, Barclay's backdrop resembles the Roman Empire. The Estorean Conquord has stood for over 850 years and it continues to expand. Yet when the Advocate sends her forces to conquer the Kingdom of Tsard, unexpected developments might bring the empire to ruin.
The characterization is an aspect which is at time satisfactory, but which leaves a little to be desired in some instances. For a tale of such proportions, James Barclay elected to tell his story through the eyes of a relatively small cast of characters. The upside of that is that it allows him to keep a tight rein on how everything unfolds. Barclay also deserves kudos for making a taxman one of the most engaging characters of all! Characters like Paul Jhered, Roberto Del Aglios, Ardol and Genna Kessian are particularly well-done, while the Advocate, Chancellor Koroyan and Thomal Yuran could have used a little more depth. As for the Ascendants, I found Arducius and Ossacer to be more three-dimensional than their two counterparts. Mirron was too emotional (there's only so much weeping one can take) and a bit on the lame side. As expected, readers can immediately tell that Gorian will turn to the dark side. You can feel it coming from a mile away. But Barclay demonstrates that he has more than a few tricks up his sleeves, and he took me by complete surprise when the time came.
All in all, I found the various storylines refreshing. The setting alone sets The Ascendants of Estorea apart from the slew of formulaic fantasy series on the market today. Barclay intrigued me from the start with the Ascendency Echelon -- a secret breeding program not unlike that of the Bene Gesserit aspiring to create human beings capable of manipulating the elements and do God's work on earth. But the very notion is considered heresy by the Order of the Omniscient, and everyone in Westfallen would burn at the stake should the religious order ever discover what has been transpiring in that small town for generations.
The Tsardon campaign engenders enough military battles to satisfy even the most demanding action fans. Personally, I thought there was a bit too much action at the end, yet I must admit that it makes for an explosive climax.
James Barclay's Cry of the Newborn is an ambitious and well-executed work of epic fantasy. And the best thing is that it's available in paperback. Even better, its sequel and the final volume of this duology, Shout for the Dead, is already available (in hardback and trade paperback), so you don't have to wait for years to discover how it all ends!
Cry of the Newborn makes a fine addition to any fantasy collection. James Barclay is on par with writers such as Joe Abercrombie, Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss, and not far behind Scott Lynch.
To learn more about the author and his novels: http://www.jamesbarclay.com/ and http://www.theascendants.co.uk/.
The final verdict: 7.5/10