Winter blankets the land, and more than just hope has died. Prevented from invading the Fhrey homeland by the tower of Avempartha, the western army seeks a way across the Nidwalden River before the fane obtains the secret of dragons. As time runs out for both humanity and the mystic Suri, the only chance for the living rests with the dead. Having made their fateful choice, can a handful of misfits do the impossible, or are they forever lost to an inescapable grave? Do gods truly exist? Is it possible to know the future? And what lies beyond the veil of death? In the tradition of Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Milton’s Paradise Lost, the most epic of tales transcend the world of the living. It’s time to see what lies in Elan’s Age of Death.
This has been a difficult review for me to write.
When the kickstarter for this book launched, I jumped on the chance to get the ebook ASAP. (I must have been one of the last ones to get it at the lower price, it was “sold out” when I finished my payment.) I did the same thing for Age of Legend and, despite my “low” rating for Age of Death, I don’t regret my decision.
I’ll start out with a confession: in my haste to start the book, I misread the author warning about the ending. For some reason, my brain decided it said there wasn’t a cliffhanger; you can imagine my surprise when I got to 85% of the way through and nothing was resolved. That was my bad.
Now that I’ve had some time to digest my thoughts and get over the cliffhanger disappointment, I’ve been able to development some (hopefully) cohesive thoughts. We’ll start with the positives and some musings on how this installment fits in with the rest of the series.
As with all the Legends of the First Empire books, Age of Death is a solid, well-written book. I’ve said it before and it’s still true – reading this series feels like coming home. The characters are comfortingly familiar and their struggles and conflicts feel like they’re my own. When I see other characters’ nefarious conversations, I just want to shake them and yell their lies from the mountaintops. And when someone dies, I feel a small piece of my heart die with them. I truly wasn’t sure if we would get our seven back after the end of Age of Legend, but I’m so glad that we did, even if they were immediately put into danger again.
Worldbuilding is another strong element in AoD. Sullivan’s imagining of Elan’s afterlife and the history of the gods is unique compared to other fantasy/sci-fi books I’ve read. Most of the gods of Elan want to work together in the beginning, though (of course) one chooses to take a more selfish path and ruin the world for everyone else. Rather than join forces against this rogue god, the others split off and form their own factions/followings. Each has their own view of how to handle the traitor and because of this, nothing really gets accomplished. The First Empire seems more akin to Greek mythology than the stereotypical “God vs. The Devil” conflict we normally see. In fact, it’s hard to tell which gods are evil/neutral/good in AoD. Most seem to be a mixture of the three, which makes them seem surprisingly human. It’s especially evident with the first realm/god the seven meet. I won’t give too much detail on this as it gets a little spoiler-y, but it’s certainly food for thought when you compare what we find out against the hints and stories we’ve gotten in the other books. Age of Empyre will hopefully give us even more interaction with other members of the pantheon and help clear up some of the missing links in Elan’s history.
I also really enjoyed the “door to another afterlife” concept, and especially that those doors could be opened or closed by the ruling god. We didn’t get to see/hear too much of the logic behind the decisions either way, but I suspect we’ll hear more about that in the next installment. I do wonder how rigid these “afterlife assignments” are, though – for example, if someone’s life was spent fighting and they originally travel on to Nifrel, if they were to get tired of fighting and want to settle down, so to speak, do they have the option to go back to Rel? It sounds as though they wouldn’t, but maybe that’s largely because personal development essentially freezes once you’ve gone to the afterlife. The delegation of “final resting places” seems a little too clean as well. Do the less violent, but still feisty people get sent to Rel? What about those with equal parts of both? Or someone who doesn’t fit cleanly into either, but isn’t necessarily evil? We may never get solid answers on questions like this, but it’s interesting to ponder.
Now on to the not-so-good things.
Most of the characters in Age of Death are the same ones we followed in Age of Legend, with much more focus on the group in the afterlife than those above-ground. Persephone’s voice was still missing from this book, which was a disappointment/complain in Age of Legend as well. Nyphron is barely mentioned in AoD and Suri is even worse, despite getting more page time. For most of Age of Legend (and, frankly, Age of War), one of the main concerns for the team has been preventing Suri’s capture and keeping the secrets of the dragons from the Fhrey. Continued with spoilers in the next paragraph:
**SPOILERS HERE** At the end of Age of Legend, Suri was captured by the Fhrey while on a peace mission in an attempt to stop the war. After her torturous trip, she makes it to the city with her kidnappers (Mawyndule included), where she is taken to a holding cell and interrogated over the course of several days. Mawyndule goes off into the city while Papa Fhrey has a chat with Suri. Despite knowing the consequences, she spills the beans with relatively little prompting and tells him how to make the dragons. He has a few false starts, then at the end of the AoD, we see a dragon making it ways out of the city. The amount of effort they put in to get this information out of Suri seemed minimal and inconsequential – yes, she is briefly tortured in her confined space during the trip to the city, but she quickly comes to peace with that and falls asleep. She is also treated relatively well in her “holding cell” and even gets to meet Arion’s mother. Eventually, she decides to just tell the Fhrey how to make dragons based on the assumption that A) it will hurt them to learn the truth; and B) they would just convince her to tell them later anyway. It basically comes out of nowhere and really doesn’t line up with Suri’s usual stubbornness or blunt logic. The justification of her betrayal just isn’t there. **END SPOILERS**
I had a few more problems with the characterization in this book. As in Age of Legend, we get more varied interactions in the small group traveling through the afterlife, but again, as in Age of Legend, these interactions feel stilted and forced. Maybe it’s because these characters aren’t as fleshed out as our former main cast, but the dialogue in the more recent books doesn’t feel natural at all. It makes it difficult to relate to the group or form any kind of connection with them. Earlier in the series, I was a pretty big fan of Brin, but in Age of Death, she became more like a flat stereotype than a real person (more on this later).
I also took issue with how Gifford describes himself in the afterlife and how he refers to his “living self.” This has been somewhat of a common thread throughout the series, but it escalated in AoD. When Gifford entered the afterlife with the rest of the group, his lifelong disabilities and birth defects disappeared and he no longer felt “broken.” This is so problematic, especially as the book goes on. Throughout AoD, Gifford seems fixated on this idea that he is now whole and worthy in the afterlife, whereas his living body was broken and useless to the point where he has himself convinced that he’d be better off staying dead. It’s honestly appalling how much AoD (and the Legends series as a whole) treats Gifford like a pariah and an inconvenience because of his birth defects. I was hoping this would change after his heroic horseback ride earlier in the series, but if anything, it’s gotten worse.
Last but not least, we have Brin and her “character arc.” In the afterlife, Brin seems to thrive compared to the more troubled members of her group – she is quick, energetic, and (quite literally) very bright. As they get closer to their goal at the “end” of the afterlife, Brin begins to shine like a beacon and her running gets faster and faster. Moya notices the change and asks (redacted because spoilers) what might cause this. (Redacted) observes that Brin is “innocent. The most innocent you could possibly be, I would guess.” Of course, this must mean Brin is a virgin, which Moya immediately calls her out on. Because, of course, a young woman who’s had sex is no longer innocent or pure and would necessarily be “less than” her other compatriots. I’m sorry, I thought this was 2019, not 1950. Are you kidding me? The idea that someone still believes something like this and would make it a trope in their book is just mind-boggling, especially for someone as successful as Michael Sullivan. Not to mention, (redacted) is actually supposed to have been younger than Brin when she died and isn’t nearly as “innocent” as Brin. Seriously messed up.
There are a few other issues with pacing, action scenes, and a lack of real danger to the characters, but in the interest of brevity, I’ll end my review here. In summation, Age of Death has some very problematic elements, but it did move the story forward which is all I really ask of the fifth book in a series. I’ll still be buying Age of Empyre when the kickstarter launches, but it will be with less enthusiasm than the last campaign.