The Uncrowned King

Let me begin by saying that I'm almost done with the third installment, The Shining Court, and that I'm in awe of Michelle West's The Sun Sword. Few SFF series are as good and I still can't explain why it remains what is probably the genre's best-kept secret. Think of the worldbuilding of Steven Erikson and R. Scott Bakker, with the superior characterization of Robin Hobb, George R. R. Martin, and Jacqueline Carey. Yes, it's that damn good!

And while The Broken Crown worked as a vast introduction to a decidedly multilayered tale, The Uncrowned King turned out to be a more self-contained novel. Not as sprawling as its predecessor, which by necessity needed to lay the groundwork for the rest of the series and spanned several years of timeline, this second volume focuses on the King's Challenge and its repercussions, and hence only covers a couple of weeks. This tighter focus makes for an easier and more streamlined reading experience. As was the case with Erikson's The Malazan Book of the Fallen, it appears that The Broken Crown is West's own Gardens of the Moon and not the easiest starting point for a complex and utterly satisfying fantasy saga. For a lot of Malazan fans, Deadhouse Gates was where it all began to make more sense and when the series became impossible to put down. In many respects, I feel that The Uncrowned King will work much the same way the second Malazan volume did for legions of readers. So if you were a bit put off by the first installment but still liked it, I suggest that you read the sequel before deciding whether or not Michelle West is for you. Because by the time you reach the last page of The Uncrowned King, either you'll be foaming at the mouth and begging to discover what happens next, or else The Sun Sword simply isn't for you.

Needless to say, I am now a huge fan of Michelle West. I'm at a total loss to explain how this amazing series could have fallen through the cracks over the last two decades. Even worse, I actually bought these books as they came out and never read them. Can't quite believe how much of a fool I am. Had this series found its way into the hands of all the Wheel of Time, the A Song of Ice and Fire, the Malazan Book of the Fallen, the Realm of the Elderlings, and the Kushiel aficionados, just to name a few, these novels would have been bestsellers. Shockingly, for some unfathomable reason, they remained criminally unread over the years. Hopefully I can help get the ball rolling and make sure to raise awareness in what appears to be one of the very best fantasy series ever written.

Here's the blurb:

The second novel of the acclaimed Sun Sword series returns to a war-torn world of noble houses divided and demon lords unleashed…

The King’s Challenge—it was a proving ground for warriors in the Essalieyan Empire, the hallowed contest that made legends of men. And for Valedan, last survivor of the ruling family of the Dominion, it was a declaration of his right to claim the throne stolen from the Leonne clan by treachery and assassination.

Failure to earn the title of King’s Champion would not deprive Valedan of either his Dominion or Essalieyan allies, but winning would announce to the world that he was no callow boy, no mere pawn in the games of power. And the games of power were indeed being played—not only in the Empire and Dominion, but in the far more dangerous realm of the Lord of Night.

As the time of the Challenge neared, Valedan and all those who guarded him would be hard-pressed to survive long enough for him to enter the competition. For the demon kin had been set to hunt him down and destroy him. They had failed before though many innocents had paid for the price. They must not fail again, for slaying Valedan was but the opening gambit in a war that would free the Lord of Night to reign over all the mortal world…

The worldbuilding continues to be remarkable. In my review of The Broken Crown, I mentioned that West had an eye for detail and that the imagery she creates leaps off the page at every turn. It sure looks as though this will be one of the author's trademarks moving forward because it's the same with this second volume. There is a depth to her universe that is seldom achieved in the fantasy genre, and so far only Tolkien, Erikson, and Bakker surpass her in that regard. Having said that, with yet more layers added with each new installment, there's no telling just how good Michelle West truly is. While the first volume alternated between the Dominion and the Essalieyan Empire, which I found jarring at times, the bulk of The Uncrowned King takes place in the Empire, in and around the city of Averalaan. Yes, West continues to be repetitive and some readers might feel like it's overdone, but I guess I got used to this quirk of hers and it doesn't really bother me. West has created a world that lives and breathes, and this time she gives life to the imperial capital in a way that I found captivating. And though political intrigue remains an important part of this novel/series, there are a lot more action sequences in this sequel. Still, don't expect any bells and whistles à la Brandon Sanderson or R. A. Salvatore. As I said before, this is adult fantasy in its truest form. With each new page, each new chapter, each new book, Michelle West weaves a tapestry that is as convoluted as it is breathtaking.

Structurally, The Uncrowned King is easier to follow than its predecessor. Focusing almost entirely on the King's Challenge taking place in Averalaan, it does reduce the Malazan-length Dramatis Personae of The Broken Crown to something that is easier to navigate through. Being away from the Dominion means that Serra Teresa and Serra Diora, who are at the very heart of the tale told in the first volume, aren't an active part of the story and their absence is felt deeply. After playing such a pivotal role in the first book, it felt odd to read a sequel whose spotlight was on a different set of protagonists. And even though you never truly forget about them, with a deft human touch and new plotlines and characters that capture your imagination West makes Valedan's tale hard to put down. A part of your mind wants to go back to the Dominion to find out what happens next, but your heart is firmly held in place by Valedan's plight. Born in the South but raised in the North, he must somehow find a way to prove himself worthy of both the Dominion and the Essalieyan Empire in order to claim his birthright.

Once again, the characterization is top notch, proving that The Broken Crown was no fluke. As a matter of course, Valedan takes center stage throughout the novel and I love the way he has grown as a protagonist. And yet, it's the supporting cast that makes The Uncrowned King such a memorable read. Some familiar faces such as Kiriel, Princess Mirialyn, the Ospreys, and Ramiro kai di'Callesta return and become even more important in the greater scheme of things. Revelations about Kallandras, Jewel, Avandar, Meralonne APhaniel, and Sigurne Mellifas offer tantalizing hints of buried pasts and powers that will probably change the course of this series. And last but not least, Ser Anton di'Guivera, whose past and whose current relationship with the boy Aidan will both break your heart and make him your favorite villain-turned-hero since Jaime Lannister.

Given the number of quotes from this book I posted on the Hotlist, it's obvious that Michelle West's beautiful prose has made quite an impression on me. It continues to be reminiscent of that of Guy Gavriel Kay and Jacqueline Carey. However, the author remains quite verbose and too many portions of The Uncrowned King were overwritten. As I mentioned before, I understand that it's a question of style, but regardless of how beautifully written it turned out to be, bloat remains bloat. Still, it's not as bad as it was with The Broken Crown. Which means that, even though it weighs in at 687 pages, this sequel doesn't suffer from pacing issues as much as its predecessor. It's not fast-paced by any stretch of the imagination, but the tighter focus on the narrative makes for a compulsive reading experience.

Say what you will of Michelle West, there's no denying that she knows how to weave the various threads of her story together and make them come together to form an exciting endgame. And for the second time now, she caps it all off with the sort of panache that hits you like a punch in the gut and leaves you breathless. God knows I'm happy not to have to wait a year or more to read the next volume!

I was told that the third installment, The Shining Court, was next level, and it is indeed an enthralling read. Bringing together the plotlines from both The Broken Crown and The Uncrowned King, West ups her game and elevates The Sun Sword to new heights. This series deserves the highest possible recommendation.

The final verdict: 9/10

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