The first book in this series, Master of Sorrows, was a smart and entertainingly fresh take on academy fantasy – you can check out my review here for my thoughts on it as a whole, but I loved it! So when Justin offered me the chance to read an extra-early ARC, I almost snapped his hand off… but then I ended up having a bit of a brain-crash and it took me forever to have the energy to actually read it. Finally, though, I managed to get back to it, and it more than lived up to my expectations!
Book: Master Artificer by Justin Call
Read before: No
Publication date: 18th May 2021
Ownership: E-ARC sent free of charge by author. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: ableism, including use of the word ‘cripple’ – the ableism is shown negatively in the text, but it is often present on page; fantasy-race racism; violence and injury including torture and gore; murder and death.
I’ll start with my usual caveat: turn back here if you don’t want spoilers for book one, because it’s almost impossible to write a review of a sequel without at least revealing who’s still alive! I’ll do my best to keep things fairly spoiler-free, but I make no guarantees, so if you read on it’s at your own peril…
So, we pick up more or less where things left off in book one, but wow, is this a very different kind of fantasy! No longer are we looking at a simple coming-of-age academy fantasy or the classic tale of a Chosen One – things start to get very twisted and dark, and far more complicated. Where Master of Sorrows was tightly limited to Annev’s perspective, Master Artificer broadens out to encompass multiple points of view. At the beginning of the book, we still have that fairly tight narrative as we continue from the aftermath of book one, but by the mid-point of the book the story has split into very separate threads, and begins to feel much more epic in scale. Annev and his friends are still travelling together to seek help with removing the Hand of Keos, but we also get to see chapters from the perspective of Kenton, Annev’s sometime rival, and Myjun, Annev’s former girlfriend, among others new and old. This is a much more intricate and complex book than its predecessor – it feels like there are a lot of pieces moving into play to set up for future climaxes, which can mean there’s a lot to take in at times, but which I think will be very rewarding in future books.
I’m so impressed with how deftly this book expands the world outside of the Academy. The “main crew”, as it were, have lived such sheltered lives in the Academy, hidden away from the rest of the world in a bubble that only reinforced their prejudices, and it’s absolutely brilliant to see them encounter more and more of the world outside, learning as the reader does. The boys have some funny observations about the size of towns and cities, and I very much enjoyed watching them adapt to the idea that their upbringings were so wrong! They all have different reactions to their newfound freedom, particularly Fyn, the former bully with whom Annev has established a tentative friendship – he elects to stay in one of the big cities and sets up a gang of his own. Fyn’s sections feel slightly like they belong to a different kind of fantasy novel, with his talented but criminally-inclined crew, but it’s interesting to see that there are some things in the world that don’t revolve around Annev, and I have every confidence that this plotline will be woven back in in important ways in future books. Some plotlines, however, though they are equally as expansive in scope, tie very intricately into Annev’s. Both Kenton and Myjun have been vastly and irreversibly changed – some might say cursed – by the events at the climax of Master of Sorrows, physically bound to the magic that they had always been taught was evil, and both have sworn to kill Annev for destroying their lives. Their journeys are in some ways parallel to each other, and to Annev, which makes for some fascinating comparisons in how they handle their respective corruption.
Really, Annev can’t move for people who want to kill him, either because of his prophesied role, or for personal vengeance! Though the story explodes in size, Annev firmly remains the main character, pulled this way and that by everyone around him. His journey is mostly psychological, as he realises that he ultimately has to choose whether to be a tool for someone else’s cause, or to follow his own path – and wow, does this make for some fascinating character development. In Master of Sorrows, Annev was a fairly idealistic, perhaps even heroic character, but in the back of your mind the whole time was the idea that this was the origin story of a Dark Lord. It was hard to believe it of sweet, naive Annev before, but he’s forced to make so many difficult decisions in this book that even just choosing the lesser evils stacks up into quite a pile of depravity. Some of these actions are understandable, sympathetic even, but it’s a slippery slope as he becomes ever more ruthless in the name of ‘necessity’. It’s chilling, and it’s dark, and it’s utterly compelling.
It’s not all darkness, though! For those of you who loved the training academy parts of Master of Sorrows, you’ll be amply served by Annev, Titus, and Therin’s time with the Order of Dionachs while they investigate a way for Annev to remove the golden Hand of Keos. There’s even another series of dramatic tests, which are great fun! There were points at which I had to accept that I was never going to understand all the technicalities of the magic system (there are hundreds of combinations of talents, all seemingly genetic, and each one has its own descriptive name – plus a lot going on with different planes of existence!), but there is an appendix that will make things easier to read – this might be one you want to get hold of in a physical format so you can flip back and forth. Even if the magic system got a little bit hardcore for me in this book, one element of it that I loved was Annev’s experiments with making and adapting magical artifacts to suit his needs and make up for his weaknesses – I find this kind of practical magic super interesting.
I mentioned in my last review that although the setting and limited perspective meant the cast needed to be predominantly male, I had high hopes for there to be more interesting women as the story progressed. And I’m pleased to report that there are! We get to delve far further into the characters of Myjun, as I mentioned above, the mysterious spy Sodja Rocas, glimpsed in one of the pivotal moments of the last book, and Witmistress Kiara, who played only a small part in Annev’s life at the Academy, and there is also an array of new characters, from powerful smith Dolyn, to seductive diplomat Phoeba Anabo, to talented and kind Stormcaller Misty. I would still like to see a few more women whom the narrative doesn’t push into relationships with male characters, but you can rest assured that the gender imbalance of the first book was indeed plot-related, not a problem overall.
I wondered if the direction that Myjun’s story was going in this book might make her more likeable, but I actually found that I disliked her even more! In Master of Sorrows she was shallow and prejudiced, and she definitely moves away from that here (hard not to when your life becomes reliant on the magic you despised!), but she doesn’t get any less self-centred. Her story is effectively a training montage, as she learns to harness the brutal and bloody power of the magical Mask she is forced to wear, and at times I found her refusal to focus on anything except killing Annev frustrating – she’s granted nearly unlimited power, and she refuses to see it as an opportunity for the longest time! But I think it’s important to note that you can find a character deeply dislikeable, and still compelling from a story point of view, which is very much what I found to be going on here. Actually, there are very few characters in this book who could be considered morally good, or even nice people, and you will love to hate some of them. I honestly don’t even know who I should be rooting for any more, but I know I’m absolutely hooked to see where they end up.
This review is already getting longer than I’d like, and there’s still so much I can’t discuss for fear of spoiling some of the cleverest parts! Suffice it to say that if you like your fantasy smart, dark, and totally unexpected, this series is a must-read. Master Artificer takes everything you thought you knew in Master of Sorrows and burns it to the ground in order to bring forth something new and glittering from its ashes. It perfectly balances dramatically expanding its world while remaining deeply focused on some of the most delicious character development in modern fantasy. Just call him Master of Sequels. Five out of five cats!