So here I’m reviewing a pretty well known and widely read series, The Chronicles of the Black Gate by Phil Tucker. In particular, I bought the eBook ‘box-set’ featuring books 1-3 of 5, which the author offers for an incredibly competitive price and is therefore a great introduction to the series. Having finished Book 3 I am therefore half way through the series, but I thought I would drop a review at this point. I may do a follow up post when I complete the series. The short story is, this is a great series with a wide appeal.
We follow the point of view of a number of characters throughout the series, with a chapter devoted to each one, reminiscent of A Song of Ice and Fire. Asho, depicted on the cover of the first book, The Path of Flames, is a Bythian, a white haired slave race. He has left his underground homeland to become a knight, but does not fit in, is treated with disrespect and has an XL size chip on his shoulder. Kethe is the daughter of the baron Asho serves, who wants to break with social convention and train as a warrior; Iskra is Kethe’s mother. Audsley is the unathletic, studious ‘magister’ who works at the same castle. Indeed, all of the main characters are already quite well intertwined at the beginning of the story, all except for Tharok. He is a kragh, an orc/ogre type creature, with ambitions to unite his race and take on the humans.
There is a real blend and variety of characters here, Tucker does a great job of getting the reader inside their heads early on. You have warriors and non-warriors, older and younger, male and female, different classes etc. It’s great for readers like me who enjoy the variety, and even if you don’t, I would expect most readers to find at least one character they root for. Some of the backstory is quite dark, and I would certainly define the series as epic fantasy with grimdark elements.
All in all I liked the characters, the author does a good job of developing personality while also allowing the plot and action to develop at a nice pace. Personally, I enjoyed the Tharok chapters, perhaps because they were a bit different, but also because his storyline is separate for so long, it felt like a nice change of pace/scenery when he came along.
Tucker really knows his genre and he does a good job of fitting all the pieces together, not a straightforward task when you write fantasy. The world he creates is highly original. The different parts of the world are connected by magical gates – aka solar or lunar portals. My understanding is that these gates are required to travel from one region to another, though I never quite got a grip on the geography so I could be wrong. The humans are therefore divided into different regions, and each has a different role to play in the Ascendant Empire – Bythians are slave labour, Ennoians are the warriors, Aletheians the elite, Noussians scholars etc. Not only that, but there is an important religious element to this structure too, so that when you die you pass from one stage to another – a higher stage if you have lived your life well, a lower one if not, i.e. some form of reincarnation. An interesting aspect to this is the reader is never clear how true this really is – is this belief system purely fictional, half true or not.
Magic is linked to this worldbuilding, so that some characters appear able to use magic because they are connected to the White Gate (think: heaven), the top of the structure, others because they are connected to the Black Gate (think: hell). Once a character has this magic they become pretty awesome overnight – their swords light with fire, they can do 20 somersaulting back flips in a row etc etc. During the book some of the characters transform in this way into ‘superheroes’, far superior to ordinary humans.
Magic and religion are therefore central themes, and the series has a distinctive setting. As a reader I was left with slightly mixed feelings – the setting was memorable, but I wasn’t always able to fully suspend my disbelief.
Circumstances force Iskra on a collision course with the rulers of the Ascendant Empire. She is supported by her knights (such as Asho and Kethe) and other allies, though they face overwhelming odds. Audsley begins to learn the secrets of the portals, and finds out that there is a corruption at the heart of the Empire. Meanwhile, Tharok finds an iron circlet that gives him the ability to plan a strategic course of action that could unite the kragh under his leadership. Should that be allowed to happen, the Empire will face a far greater threat than Iskra’s small band of rebels.
Each character ends up being given a distinct challenge or storyline, which sees them working alone or together at different points in the series, and in different locations. Tucker does a great job of linking all these storylines together, like a juggler – he never drops a ball, and thus weaves a truly impressive fantasy tapestry together. There are moments, I think almost inevitable if you are going to write something on this scale, when you would like things to move a bit faster. But at the end of Book 3, it all comes together with a climactic crash.
Overall, as I’ve suggested, this series ticks most fantasy readers’ boxes – epic in scale, though certainly not hard to get through; an original setting, with a hint of mystery; and engaging characters. I would thoroughly recommend!