I’m late to the party on this book, but forgive me – there’s a lot to discuss in the second instalment of the A Chorus of Dragons series…
Book: The Name of All Things by Jenn Lyons
Read before: No
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Tor Books. All opinions my own.
Phew… Where to begin on this book?! I suppose the first thing to say is that this is the sequel to The Ruin of Kings, and you 100%, definitely, no excuses, need to read the first book to have even the tiniest inkling of what is going on here! I reviewed The Ruin of Kings back in February last year, and I was blown away by the epic twistiness of it, so I was expecting good things from the sequel. I wish I’d reread the first book before starting this, as I was floundering for quite a while as I tried to remember all the twists and turns of the previous book (we discover that pretty much no one is who we thought they were, and it was tricky to keep track even at the time), but I eventually caught up, making good use of the appendices at the back. There is a recap of sorts at the beginning, which will get you up to speed with the plot, but obviously it couldn’t cover all the dozens of tiny but world-changing secrets revealed. You’d be well-advised to reread or find a very spoilery recap before you go in – but when you do, it’ll be so worth it! And if you were expecting the twists to let up in this second book, you have another think coming, because boy are there some new and world-shattering revelations here, as well as the quieter fleshing-out of the story.
This book introduces some characters whom we have only heard about up to this point. I will try to keep things un-spoilery if I can! A large part of the book focuses on the recent doings of Janel Theranon, whose story is told in part by her in first-person, and in part by her companion Brother Qown, who tells it as a third-person history as he’s been writing it down for posterity. Both these characters are great additions to the cast, and have fun narrative voices that are really easy to slip into. Janel in particular became a favourite, with her strict moral code, capable nature, and bucketloads of attitude.
Most of the story is also set in locations we haven’t visited before, and it’s fascinating to see how Janel’s upbringing in Jorat has influenced her. The depth of the world-building is really one of the most amazing things about this book – every place is genuinely unique, even taking into account the differences from village to village (ie, all Joratese people are not the same! There are regional differences!). This is so immersive and wonderful to read, and also allows the author to play with so many different concepts of society. Jorat, for example, has very different gender and sex politics to Quur, where Kihrin grew up, so there are some brilliant conversations between him and Janel when they realise their assumptions don’t match up. It’s such a rich and detailed world – I mentioned in the review of the previous book that I feel like this is only one of the possible stories in this world, and it’s even truer here. You get the sense that every single aspect of this world has a life of its own.
There’s so much else I want to talk about, but I fear would be too spoilery, so if anyone wants to yell about this after they’ve read it, come find me on Twitter! It’s just genuinely an extraordinary work, with SO much content that you’ll be amazed. For all it added new and interesting wrinkles to my forehead, I have to say that I just loved it, and truly think this series is going to be a masterpiece overall.
Things get a little bit meta, with some thoughts about narrative structure and the state of the genre in the next part, so you can skip to the final paragraph if you just want a basic review!
I will say that I was a little bit underwhelmed with the construction of the narrative, but only in a minor way. Some people complained in their reviews about the dual narrative of The Ruin of Kings, which I loved (it started with two narrators, telling the same story simultaneously, in alternating chapters, from the beginning to the middle and from the middle to the end) – I saw people saying this was confusing, but for me it really helped to keep things fresh. However, I think that the narrative trick used in this book didn’t work for me nearly as well. The book opens directly after the events of the first book, with Kihrin arriving at a tavern where he meets Janel, a character we the reader have not met before. She and her companion then take turns retelling *their* story, which happened more-or-less concurrently with the events of the first book, and at the end of each of their storytelling sessions, we pop back to the bar for some discussion with Kihrin about what he’s just been told. For me, this didn’t work for two reasons: firstly, I was invested in Janel and Qown’s story, and the interruptions made it hard to stay immersed in that story; and secondly, it meant that Kihrin’s plotline lost a lot of urgency. He’s supposed to be on this super important quest, and he spends hundreds of pages sitting in a bar.
HOWEVER. I’ve been thinking about how I would have done this differently – bringing Kihrin and the reader up to speed on the important happenings of the other important characters – and I think the only way to do it would have been to lose Kihrin altogether for a while, and just have Janel and Brother Qown tell their story in alternating chapters, then bring Kihrin in when they got to the same point in time and do a quick handwave of ‘they told him their tale’. I don’t think this would work in the current fantasy genre. I think it would be a smoother read for this single book, but I think it would annoy people who were invested in Kihrin’s story and expecting a continuation of it. I get the feeling that if this book had been published 20 or 30 years ago, and was an already completed series, the audience might have been more tolerant about heading off on a tangent for the second book, and then having the characters of the first and second books meet in the third to carry on together, but with the fast-consuming culture of today, I feel like people are much more likely to give up on series without seeing them through if they don’t like something. George RR Martin did something like what I’m thinking with A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons (two books covering the same time period with different characters), but this was a) further through the series, so people were already attached to both sets of characters, and b) in my friendship group at least, not received well (I liked it as a concept but disliked the technicalities of the split as all my favourite viewpoints were in one book and my least in the other). So, I’m not sure if a character split would have benefited this series in the long run, however much I think it might have fixed my problem with this particular book. This is an epic series that reminds me of nothing so much as the Wheel of Time books – I think once it’s completed, the full work will have so much brilliance going on that slight weaknesses like this will be totally negligible.
With all that being said, I am still going to give this four and a half out of five cats. I have my issues with it, but I don’t see how they could have been solved, and I think it’s a vital and compelling volume in a fantastic series. I await the third with bated breath (and a reread planned in advance!)