A Literary Discussion of ‘Ashes of the Sun’ by Django Wexler, first book in the ‘Burningblade & Silvereye’ series

I’ve been a fan of Django Wexler’s books for a few years now, so when he published this newest, first book in a new series I instantly picked it up. This book is highly creative, with interesting magic and monsters, an excellent exploration of governments abusing their power, and 3D characters who are a riot to read.

This is definitely in the contention for being the best book I’ve read this year. It has some flaws, but this is a fun adventure which considers the ethics of government domination.

NOW THAT SAID, while I did like this I’m going to do my best to be objective. I’m going to provide some fairly harsh criticism. This isn’t to say that I hate this book, but that I’m willing to be objective about some aspects of a book I didn’t like.

NOTE: Some of the words/names I use here might be misspelled. I listened to the audiobook, so I don’t know how a lot of these things are spelled.

So let’s get this started. This discussion contains spoilers. I will be spoiling basically everything. You’ve been warned.


To begin, I am reviewing this as though I were an alpha reader, a beta reader or an editor. My advice is general.

Concept, Theme and Execution

The Concept of the book seems to be ‘siblings fighting for opposite sides in a conflict between the Jedi-knockoffs and Sith-knockoffs.’ Gyre and Maya, the two sibling protagonists, are on opposite sides of a conflict, but neither can compromise. They both think that compromise will trigger the end of the world. Both the centarchs (Maya’s faction) and the rebels (Gyre’s faction) were displayed sympathetically, with logical explanations for their belief that the other side will potentially destroy the world. Consequently I was instantly enthralled from the moment I started reading.

Execution wise, I think it was executed well, but not spectacularly well. Gyre’s rebel’s faction needed more time in the oven. More on this later.

Thematically, the theme of ‘tolerable corruption’ is well implemented.

  • The Twilight Order (Maya’s faction) is The Establishment of the setting. The apocalypse has happened, and the Order is all that is standing between civilization and mankind’s extinction. The Order props up corrupt governments, because the Order needs allies in their attempt to keep extinction at bay. The Twilight Order has to do sketchy things, like kidnapping magical children (like Maya), in the name of the greater good of keeping mankind alive. Maya isn’t happy about having to tolerate the corruption of the system, but she has no choice.
  • Gyre’s rebels hate the corruption the Order tolerates. Consequently they want to topple the Order, even if destroying the Order risks destroying the world. The rebels kill innocent town guards, they smuggle illegal (and dangerous) black magic, and it’s implied that they’re willing to make deals with gangsters who specialize in body-horror magic. Gyre, unlike Maya, is totally bought into the necessity of getting his hands dirty, and doesn’t see the hypocrisy of him blaming the Twilight Order for being evil even as he goes around stabbing people.

Plot 

The story opens with a flashback prologue, going back 12 years in the past to when the two protagonists were young. The book stars Gyre and Maya, two siblings who love one another very much. In the prologue, a Jedi-like wizard (called a centarch) shows up at Gyre and Maya’s house and takes Maya because she has magic, and only the Order can teach how to use her magic. The Order is legally allowed to take children, as the Order is the ultimate authority in the empire. Gyre views this as kidnapping his little sister, so he fights back. He loses the fight, and his eye.

This is a great conceit to start a story, instantly providing a pre-existing conflict between two protagonists who should love one another. Maya is indoctrinated from a young age to serve the Twilight Order and become a centarch, while Gyre is radicalized by her ‘kidnapping’ and wants to destroy the Twilight Order and the centarchs.

In the next two chapters we’re introduced to these two characters as adults. Maya’s now 18 and Gyre’s 20. Maya is an apprentice centarch, and in her first adult scene she’s shown to be a smart, capable, but fairly brash pyromancer devoted to fighting the eldritch horrors which infest their world. (The apocalypse I mentioned above involved eldritch horrors spreading like a plague everywhere.) Gyre, in his introductory chapter, is shown fighting back against the corrupt local government on behalf of some freedom fighters. He too is smart, capable and brash, further emphasizing the similarities between the two siblings.

In the next group of chapters, Maya is fighting monsters with her mentor Jadea… until Order politics reassigns Maya. This upsets Maya, because Maya likes fighting monsters and saving lives with Jadea. Up until this point we see the Order and the rebels as both being good. It is with the incursion of politics into Maya’s heroics, we realize that the Order might not be the Lawful Good knights they’re first presented as.

Gyre gets an invitation from a possible informant in his next chapter. At the meeting, he meets his love interest Kit- a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Kit starts a fight in enemy territory, and Kit and Gyre are forced to go on the run. This is a very dubious way to introduce a character, but it winds up being very typical of Kit.

Maya is partnered with a fellow apprentice centarch Tanax, and they’re sent to go look into reports of monsters and missing children in a far away town. Maya is a Pragmatic centarch, while Tanax is a Dogmatic centarch. Pragmatics and Dogmatics are the two main political parties of the Twilight Order.

  • I like the difference between the Pragmatics and Dogmatics. Pragmatics use subtlety (bribes, small talk, disguises) in their investigations, while the Dogmatics make the world around them bend to their wills.
  • In this first book it’s more or less presented as Dogmatics=bad and Pragmatics=good. I hope that in future books we see that maybe the Dogmatics are right occasionally.

Maya, following her gut, follows up a lead into the missing children they’re meant to find. Tanax, who’s a stick in the mud, think she’s foolish. There follows a nice fight scene, where Maya singlehandedly fights several eldritch monsters. Bek saving Maya was the cherry on top of a good fight scene. I liked the vibe of zerg/Frankenstein Sith vs Roman legionnaire Jedi, and profane magic vs Divine magic. The monsters in this story are gross, and that’s AWESOME.

Tanax is initially introduced as an a prick. He’s a complete stick in the mud, disrespecting Maya because she tries to use soft power (bribes/being polite/disguises) to accomplish their goals as opposed to Tanax who uses hard power (demanding compliance with his orders or else he’ll kill you and destroy your village). By the end of the book he has a mild change of heart, but not so great a change of heart as to be unrealistic. I actually enjoyed his character arc quite a bit.

  • At this point the author began foreshadowing Maya and Tanax being played for stooges in a political game between the Pragmatics and Dogmatics. It was subtle enough to leave me guessing as I read it, but in retrospect I liked this subtlety.

Kit leads Gyre’s crew deep underground to get McGuffin A, to a lost Ghoul ruin. The Ghoul ruin is literally still ‘alive’ after so many centuries- it’s an organic structure, containing organic walls and furniture. They steal McGuffin A out of the ruins, but not before the ruins come alive and kill the side character Harrow.

  • The Ghouls are the ancient enemy of the Twilight Order, and are believed to be long-dead after the Chosen wiped them out (The Chosen are the also dead faction which established the Twilight Order). The Chosen/Twilight Order use divine magic (think classical sorcery- fire and teleportation and wind and the like), while the Ghouls use biomagic (think living computers, living battleships, living mecha machines). If the Order are equal to the Jedi, then the Ghouls are Sith.
  • After this, Gyre meets Kit’s backers. Kit is working for Ghouls (Ghouls are presented as sort-of cybernetically enhanced yetis). It’s revealed that the Ghouls needed McGuffin A to get McGuffin B, the real goal of the story. Gyre feels dubious about working for Ghouls, but he’s willing to go along with it for the pay and for the chance at revenge against the Twilight Order.

While Gyre is off meeting the Ghouls, Maya attacks Gyre’s rebels.

  • This was my favorite section of the story.
  • It begins when Maya and Bek go to the bazaar for Dark magic, looking for leads on McGuffin B. They draw too much attention to themselves, and Gyre’s friends attack them for even knowing about the existence of McGuffin B. This attack by Gyre’s friends on Maya and Bek really drove home both Maya and Bek’s naivete… but even so their plan worked. Maya got the information she wanted about McGuffin B. Good plot development.
    • Also I liked the side development of Bek and Maya’s romance in that scene, nice and subtle work there.
  • Following this, there is a second fight scene, where Maya fights Gyre’s squad again. Maya, Tanax and several corrupt soldiers working for the Dux attack and kill several named rebels from Gyre’s section of the story.
    • Maya’s job, as a centarch of the Twilight Order, is to protect the status quo even if the status quo is corrupt. The corrupt Dux of Deepfire City is the status quo. Gyre is rebelling against the corrupt Dux, because he’s corrupt.
    • This fight begins when Maya/Tanax confront Gyre’s rebels.
    • Maya tries to talk Gyre’s squad into surrendering. She nearly succeeds in talking them into surrendering, but the Dux’s corrupt men start a fight. Maya and Tanax are forced to kill Gyre’s friends.
    • This is a good plot twist in the abstract, having important characters die in order to up the stakes of the plot… however I was not emotionally invested in any of the dead characters. None of them were important to me. I didn’t care that they died. These characters felt expendable to me, like redshirts included in a cast in order to be killed later. I’ll talk about this more later.

The book climaxes in a midpoint conflict where Maya and Gyre fight, each trying to get McGuffin B.

  • Maya, frustrated by the Dux’s corrupt soldiers starting the last fight and forcing her to kill surrendering rebels, takes her rage out on the Dux. She follows up her lead from earlier and goes to get McGuffin B, which is in the Dux’s storehouse.
  • She gets there at the same time as Gyre. They fight, and Maya easily wins. It’s a neat fight scene, if a lopsided fight given how easily she won. (This fight is mirrored at the climax, when they fight again. Gyre wins that fight, showing how much he’s grown over the course of the novel.)
  • Maya’s about to arrest Gyre, when she realizes he’s her brother. She knows that if she takes him in he’ll be killed by corrupt soldiers. So she lets him go, but she keeps McGuffin B to herself.

Because Maya attacked the Dux’s storehouse, Tanax takes Maya prisoner.

  • Maya was captured by Tanax and sent to prison.
  • It’s revealed that Maya’s mentor Jadea (who Maya was unwillingly separated from at the beginning of the book) has gone nuts and is now attacking outlying Twilight Order outposts. Maya refuses to believe this is true.
  • Maya is blackmailed by Tanax’s mentor, because he wants Maya to betray her mentor Jadea. Maya refuses, and is stuck in prison as a result.
  • To escape prison, Maya challenges Tanax to a duel. If she wins, she gets to go free.
  • She wins the duel and goes free. (Cool, high-stakes fight btw.)
  • Maya’s about to expose Tanax’s mentor for blackmailing her, but he runs away, chasing down Jadea himself.
  • Bek and Maya declare their love for one another.
  • Maya decides to go after her mentor, and Tanax tags along with her because wants to capture his mentor for the crime of blackmail. (I’m oversimplifying this plot point a bit, but let’s move on).

Okay, let’s take a moment to talk about ^this group of scenes. I really enjoyed these scenes for what they were: politics heavy, with an emphasis on trial-by-combat. But I have to say that adding them at this part of the story slowed down the pacing a fair deal. Maya just exposed the Dux’s corruption, but instead of getting resolution to that plotline Maya spends several chapters in jail fighting for her freedom. This group of scenes advanced the plot, but bogged down the pacing.

While Maya is stuck in prison, Gyre and Kit go speak with their Ghoul employers in the mountains.

  • They have to hike through some winter mountain wastelands, and avoid being killed by monsters.
  • When they arrive, the Ghoul gives Kit some cybernetic upgrades.
  • We learn the Ghoul’s perspective on the apocalyptic war between the Chosen and the Ghouls. I thought this a compelling story… but given the fact that a ghoul told us this story I’m inclined to be skeptical about just how accurate it is. Who were the Chosen? I want more information about the war between the Chosen and the Ghouls. Now I want the Chosen’s perspective on the war. Who really started the war, and why?
  • Using Gyre’s new cybernetic upgrades, Gyre and Kit steal McGuffin B from the Order.
  • Finally, we learn that after Maya got McGuffin B at the midpoint climax, the corrupt Dux was exposed as being too corrupt and was kicked out by the Twilight Order.
    • I liked this development. Deepfire City (the city where Gyre’s story mostly takes place) is freed from it’s corrupt ruler (the Dux) by Maya. The corrupt ruler has to go on the run, and the Twilight Order frees all of the ruler’s political prisoners (which is why Gyre’s surviving rebel friends are free). This story beat had so much potential, but I feel as though it didn’t live up to it’s potential.
      • You know how above I said that Maya’s last section was bogged down by pacing? I wanted Maya to explore rooting out the corruption in Deepfire City. I wanted this story beat to happen on-screen, as opposed to happening off-screen. I wish Maya personally freed Deepfire City from the control of the corrupt faction. I wish Maya personally freed the political prisoners, such as Gyre’s rebel friends.
    • I wanted Maya to personally free Sara. That would have been a character building moment for Maya. And when Gyre learns this his sister personally freed Sara, he might have changed his mind about destroying the Twilight Order.
    • Having Maya and not Gyre defeat the Dux possesses an unexpected elegance about it. HOWEVER, Maya defeating the Dux leaves a lot of Gyre’s plotlines revolving around the Dux and Deepfire’s urban poor left dangling and not resolved.
  • Possible plothole: earlier in the story it’s stated that the main reason the rebels of Deepfire are rebelling is because the poor people of Deepfire will starve in the coming winter.
    • The main reason why they agree to work for Kit’s employers is because they’re rich and they can give the rebels money to buy food for the poor in winter.
    • At this point, Kit and Gyre return to Deepfire rich. The could buy food for the poor, but they don’t. This is a loose plot thread… unless I remember this section of the book poorly and they do actually buy food.

Maya, Tanax and Bek pursue their traitorous mentors to the city of Grace. Grace was once a flying Chosen airship, but it crashed and was turned into a city. Maya rescues one of Maya’s friends from being killed by the traitors, and learn where their mentors are heading- Leviathan. They pursue their mentors to Leviathan.

  • This story beat (Maya, Tanax and Bek going to the city of Grace) felt a bit… random. This story beat felt like narrative fat, like it could have been cut from the novel with little being lost. Maya, Tanax and Bek could have pursued the mentors straight to Leviathan without stopping off someplace random first.
  • Second, where’s Varro? I know he was re-assigned, but him not being there at the climax felt weird. I missed him.

Gyre, Kit and their Ghoul employer go to Leviathan.

  • We learn that McGuffin B is the key to turn on Leviathan- a massive Ghoul superweapon designed to destroy the Twilight Order, the Chosen, and end all opposition to the Ghouls once and for all.
  • Gyre, Kit and Ghoul fight plaguespawn.
  • Gyre, Kit and the Ghoul enter the Leviathan and start repairing it, preparing to turn it on.

Maya, Tanax and Bek fight their mentors.

  • We learn that the Chosen (maybe) survived their genocide at the hands of the Ghouls.
  • We learn that Maya’s weird chest crystal is some sort of dhaka experiment. (BTW Maya has a weird chest crystal. It was a repeated plot point throughout the novel, but I never mentioned it in this critique.)

And then the real climax of the novel.

  • Gyre and Maya have a rematch. Gyre is helping turn on the Leviathan, while Maya is struggling to destroy Leviathan. It’s a more-or-less equal match, but ultimately Gyre wins when Kit backstabs Maya.
  • Maya survives, barely, by chugging healing potions. She’s unable to stop the Leviathan from destroying the Twilight Order.
  • Kit betrays the Ghoul, seeing that she stands to make more money if she controls the Leviathan herself. The Ghoul fatally wounds Kit. Gyre kills the Ghoul in revenge.
  • Gyre, being the only person left standing, chooses to destroy the Leviathan. Maya and Gyre make up, then split up to go their different ways.
  • Kit survives her fatal wound by having her brain downloaded into synthetic ghoul bio-robots.
  • There’s no denouement, and I’m kinda salty about that.

As climaxes go, I was reasonably satisfied by this climax. Here’s what I liked about it.

  • The good part about this ending are the two fight scenes. The fight where Maya and Tanax fought the mentors, and the fight where Maya/Tanax fought Gyre/Kit. These were emotionally engaging because we wanted them to NOT fight.
    • In the first fight scene we wanted the mentors to surrender because it was clear they were being mind controlled, but they refused to surrender because they were mind controlled. When the mentors died, it packed an emotional punch.
    • In the second fight, we wanted both sides to just quit fighting because both sides were the protagonists and we like the protagonists.
  • These fights were emotionally engaging and carried both plot and emotional consequences.
    • You remember how I complained that at the midpoint climax fight, I didn’t care that Gyre’s friends were killed? That’s because Gyre’s friends felt like redshirts, deliberately added to the plot just to die. That is not the case here.
    • Killing the mentors came with it enormous revelations of a) the Chosen still being alive and b) Maya’s chest arcana crystal might be a secret dhaka plot to infiltrate the Twilight Order.
    • Additionally the mentors had important roles in the story besides just being redshirts, added just to die. Jadea had her own life going around helping people and fighting eldritch monsters. Her death will have negative consequences for the rest of the setting.
      • Also, the mentors were better characterized than the redshirts in Gyre’s crew, so their deaths carried emotional resonance.
    • The fight between Maya and Gyre was even more emotionally resonant than the fight against the mentors, as we really didn’t want either Maya or Gyre to get hurt. When Kit backstabbed Maya (and seemed so blasé about killing her boyfriend’s sister), it really made me utterly despise Kit even more, which is another form of emotional resonance.
  • Also, the fight against the mentors and the dual protagonist fight were both really well choreographed. I’m a sucker for well-choreographed magic duels. So yeah, A+ fight scenes.

Here’s what I didn’t like about the climax.

After defeating the Ghoul, Gyre has a choice: use the Leviathan (a Ghoul superweapon) to destroy the Twilight Order, Senate, Republic, causing untold devastation/take untold innocent lives in the process, or destroy Leviathan so no one can use it. He destroys the Leviathan. I dislike this conclusion. Here’s why.

  • Even from the beginning, Gyre is depicted as a fundamentally good person who would never activate a horrifying superweapon which would kill millions of innocent lives. Yes, he killed dozens of random innocent enemy soldiers, but he’d never harm innocent bystanders.
  • Well, if Gyre is always depicted with a desire of never harming bystanders, then there’s no chance he’d ever deploy the superweapon which would kill millions of innocent bystanders. And there lies the problem: I knew Gyre would never push the big red button. There was no tension in his final choice, because there’s no chance he’d make that choice.
  • A climax without tension is a lame climax.
  • The reason why there’s no tension is because Gyre is depicted as a fundamentally good person throughout the book. If he were willing to occasionally kill innocent bystanders, then the climax of ‘will Gyre use the superweapon to destroy the Twilight Order, even if it kills innocent bystanders?’ would have tension because we would think, ‘Hey, Gyre kills innocents all the time. Will he kill A LOT of innocents in order to take out the Order? Now’s his chance…’
  • More on this later.

Pacing and Structure

Looking through some other people’s reviews, there are some complaints about it being slowly paced at the beginning. I fundamentally disagree. The beginning of this book establishes the setting in a low-tension state, only raising the tension as more and more of the story goes on. Slow pacing is required to establish a low-tension state. The pacing was perfectly functional for the story the author was trying to tell.

The author structured this book around a very major Midpoint Climax, where Gyre and Maya fought one another over McGuffin B. That fight really demarcates the border between first half of the book, and the second half. The first half of the book mainly takes place in Deepfire, while the second half is more of a travelogue all over the place. This 2-part structure made the book feel like two stories glued together, but it worked.

If I were the person who wrote this, I would have structured it slightly differently. If I am going to nitpick, I’ll say that a lot of Gyre’s story beats and some of Maya’s story beats felt like narrative fluff and pointless. Here are some examples:

  • Why did Maya and Tanax go to that village at the beginning of the book for all of two minutes before they were reassigned a moment later?
    • Going to that village was not important to the plot after they left the village. There were no revisited characters. They never went back to that village. This sequence felt self-contained and irrelevant to the plot which came after.
    • A lot of this scene retread the first chapter of the book, when Jadea and Maya attacked the dhaka cultists. We learn that the Twilight Order fights eldritch horrors in the first chapter, we don’t need to see them fight them again.
    • Maya and Tanax could have just been assigned straight to Deepfire right away, saving wordcount.
  • Why did Gyre and Kit and the crew go down to that random Ghoul ruin at the beginning to get McGuffin A?
    • Getting a McGuffin to unlock another McGuffin feels narrative-wise like treading water. In other words, slow pacing with minimal payoff.
  • Did Maya and Tanax really have to go to Grace to look for Jadea (I think that’s the mentor’s name)?
    • They could have gotten the information that Jadea was going to Leviathan when they were at the Forge, and gone straight from the Forge to the Leviathan.
    • Maybe Jadea’s other apprentice could have returned to the Forge beaten up and nearly dead, saying that Jadea betrayed him and that Jadea went to the Leviathan. That way we bypass the whole ‘going to Grace’ sequence altogether, saving time and wordcount.
  • Why did Gyre and Kit get in that random barroom brawl when they first met?
    • SUUUPER pointless. It never became important in the story again.

I think you get the point. There were multiple fluffy, fatty scenes which I felt could have been cut to make the book shorter and tighter.


Characterization

And here we go. Before I get into the bulk of my criticisms, for the record I liked this book and almost all the characters. I even liked Gyre, even though I’m about to criticize him a lot here. Finally, MY OPINIONS ARE ONLY MY OPINIONS. I might be wrong.

I’ll start with what I liked.

Maya’s great. She’s probably one of my favorite fantasy protagonists of all time. She’s smart, she thinks on her feet, she’s very fallible, she’s earnest, she’s prone to recklessness, but she’s never angry or mean. She’s both likable and compelling. She’s so head over heels in love with Bek as to be almost obnoxious.

I like the conversational dynamics between Bek, Maya, Tanax and Varro. The friendly tension between Bek and Maya, Varro’s dour-yet-funny color commentary, and Tanax being a wet blanket really works well together. Together, they’re one of the best fantasy protagonist groups I’ve read in a while. I think it’s on par with the heroes of ‘Range of Ghosts’ by Elizabeth Bear, my favorite Epic Fantasy trilogy. I must say that Bek, Maya, Tanax and Varro bounce off of one another in a much more entertaining fashion. They might be my favorite adventure group of all time.

Time for the not-so-good.

Let’s start with Kit. Kit’s a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

  • She’s a total manic-pixie-dream-girl (or at least the audiobook narrator presents her to be that way). She’s wild and reckless and I think she got Harrow killed as a result (also, why didn’t anyone call her out on that?). She’s a walking trope, personality wise.
  • Kit’s personality completely overwhelms the other characters in Halfmask’s (aka Gyre’s) section of the plot. Gyre, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to have as much personality going on as Kit, so he’s basically playing second fiddle to her antics in his sections of the story.
  • Kit’s a bit like Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad: everyone remembers Harley, but because she’s so sparkly the readers ignore the other characters. As long as Kit’s in a scene, the scene is all about her. She’s a narrative drama queen.
  • At moments I really like Kit. When she’s close to despair, knowing death is close, she loses her ridiculous manic pixie dream girl nonsense and becomes probably the second most compelling character in this book, after Maya. But as soon as her hope is restored, she goes back to being annoying.
  • At the end of the book, Kit stabbed Maya in the back. Up until that point I was just annoyed by Kit. But when she stabbed Maya, I went from annoyance to downright despising Kit.
    • I think part of my problem with this scene is tonal whiplash. After stabbing Maya, Kit told a joke to Gyre/tried to make light of her stabbing Maya. Looking at this moment objectively, my problem was that Kit was light and bubbly when she should have been somber and apologetic. Kit literally just (tried to) killed Gyre’s sister in front of Gyre, and then she told a joke to Gyre. I mean, WTF. Of course I’m going to dislike Kit after that.
  • In the end, she was a cliché manic pixie dream girl. Kit needed more characterization. At times I thought she had more going on underneath the surface. But in the end she returned to being a cliché. I liked her cheerfulness at first, but after a few scenes with her she started to grate on me.

Who knows. This is just my opinion. Someone else might love Kit. I might be wrong.

Next, Gyre himself. Buckle up, here we go.

  • Truth be told, Gyre isn’t as bad a character as a ton of Fantasy protagonists I’ve read. Gyre isn’t bad. Gyre isn’t even bland. He has good wordplay and dialog, he never makes an idiot decision in the name of the plot. My main problem with Gyre is missed potential.
  • William Faulkner said “the only thing worth writing about is the human heart at war with itself.” By and large I agree with this theory of character writing. And here is Gyre’s problem: he’s not at war with himself.
  • Gyre could have been a rebel torn between how he was raised (to be a good boy who respects the Twilight Order and wants to farm just like his father before him), and who his life choices inspire him to be (rebelling against the Twilight Order because they kidnapped his sister and allow corruption like the Dux in Deepfire to take root).
  • Mr. Wexler could have used Gyre’s perspective as a vessel to explore the conflict between the Twilight Order and the rebellion against the Twilight Order. The reader, via the medium of Gyre’s perspective, could have come to a fuller understanding of the Twilight Order’s shortcomings.
  • But Gyre isn’t torn between two poles. From the first moment he’s introduced to the end of the book, he only wants to destroy the Twilight Order. And that’s a problem.
  • Gyre has plenty of reasons to hate the Twilight Order: they kidnapped and brainwashed his sister; they gouged out his eye; they tolerate corruption; their mere existence serves to hold the world in state of decay beholden to dead gods, preventing something new from growing in the rubble left behind after the apocalypse. And, as of the midpoint conflict, the Twilight Order killed his friends.
  • But Gyre also has reasons to want to make sure the Twilight Order is not destroyed. We see in Maya’s sections that the Centarchs hunt down and kill eldritch monsters; they fight crime like human trafficking; they are at least on paper beholden to help make the world a better place on general principle. And as of the 3/4 mark, the Twilight Order threw out the corrupt Dux and is now trying to find a non-corrupt bureaucrat to replace him.
  • And there lies the problem. Gyre is so focused on the bad parts of the Twilight Order that he ignores the good.
    • At the beginning of the book Gyre’s objective was to cause enough of a ruckus in Deepfire that that the Senate/Republic/Twilight Order is forced to step in and kick out Deepfire’s corrupt Dux.
    • Gyre got what he wanted. The Dux got kicked out by the Twilight Order- thanks to Maya no less. Gyre got what he wanted, but he doesn’t even take a moment to reflect upon this. Gyre doesn’t think ‘hey, maybe the Twlight Order/Senate/Republic isn’t so bad.’
    • I wanted that moment of self-reflection, of Gyre thinking better of the Order.
  • I get what the author was going for. Maya is a radicalized Twilight Order partisan devoted to her cause. Gyre is a radicalized rebel partisan devoted to his cause. Nothing can sway either of them. And there lies the problem. If the only thing worth writing about is a heart in conflict with itself, then the fact that neither of them have any doubts is a really bad narrative problem.
  • Mr. Wexler does a better job writing Maya in this regard. After she’s forced to kill Gyre’s co-conspirators, she repeatedly feels guilt for incinerating them. Gyre, on the other hand, kills multiple nameless goons employed by the Dux and doesn’t have any second thoughts about it. Those people had families. And Gyre feels no guilt in killing them.
  • Consequently Gyre feels like an automaton. Gyre never changes.
    • After the Dux is kicked out of Deepfire by the Twilight Order, he doesn’t change.
    • After he fails his mission to get the McGuffin from the Dux’s vault, he doesn’t change.
    • After his friends are killed by the Dux’s men, he doesn’t change.
    • After Harrow is killed by a Ghoul servant, he doesn’t change.
    • All of these are emotionally traumatic events, but they roll off Gyre like water. That emotional stability in the face of so much trauma makes Gyre feel fake.
  • As I mentioned, Gyre is well-written. He’s witty, at times charming, earnest to a fault, clearly hopelessly in love with Kit. But underneath it all his personality is locked in stone. His heart is not at war with itself.

How would I fix the problem of Gyre’s emotional stasis?

  • Make Gyre doubt and second guess himself. Have Gyre personally witness a Twilight Order centarch fight some monsters, so Gyre’s forced to admit that they’re not all bad. This is so that when he finally makes the choice to fight his sister at the climax of the story it carries both a narrative and character weight to it. He knows his sister does good, but he’s going to kill her anyway because he thinks himself rightous.
  • Do the same for Maya. Force her to confront the less-than-ethical side of what the Twilight Order does so she’ll begin to wonder whether or not it’s a good thing that she was kidnapped as a child and made to serve them.
  • Additionally, I’d have Gyre debate with himself about whether or not being a rebel is the right thing or not. I’d have Gyre make hard choices as a rebel/terrorist fighting his corrupt government. I’d have him make hard choices which result in innocent bystanders getting killed.
    • For example, when he sets a bomb in a grocery cart, he makes sure no innocent bystanders are killed. Instead, he should do it when people are around, so innocent people die. Gyre’s a rebel-terrorist. Play up the terrorist angle, using ‘ends justify the means’ logic. (Maybe Gyre was against killing bystanders, but his fellow rebels pressured him into killing bystanders.)
  • Then, after Gyre kills innocent people, I’d have him debate whether or not it was the right thing to do. I want Gyre to have inner conflict. I want him to wonder if his rebel faction is in the right.
  • Gyre can go into book two trying to redeem himself for his terrorist ways, even as he tries to both destroy the Twilight Order and replace it with something better.

Reflecting back upon this book, I fundamentally disagree with the direction the author took with Gyre’s character arc. Gyre was both too much and not enough of a terrorist. He was too willing to think badly of the Twilight Order, and not willing enough to take innocent lives/do dark deeds to advance his agenda. To my eyes at least, I’m inclined to think that Gyre doesn’t live up to his potential.

I’ll repeat, this is just my opinion and you might disagree with me. And it’s fine if you disagree with me. Form your own opinion! That’s what makes discussing books fun.

And my final character problem was with Gyre’s crew.

You know how I just said I liked Maya’s group of adventurers? I don’t like Gyre’s squad. They’re weren’t bad. They’re just bland to the point of being emotionally invisible to me. I am very meh about them.

  • I think the problem I had is that there’s too many people in Gyre’s squad. Reflecting back on his squad right now, I can’t even remember how many people were in Gyre’s rebel squad, let alone their names. They all blend into one another. That’s a really bad thing that I’m struggling to remember something I was reading ten minutes ago.
    • Let me count them: There’s Gyre, the old man, the gay soldier, the skeptical woman who’s the daughter of a rebel, Sara, the excitable alchemist, Kit, and Harrow. And I think there might be more.
    • That’s eight characters at least. Eight is way too many characters to describe in depth, especially with Maya’s crew also taking up narrative description time.
    • In contrast, I liked Maya’s team. There are four members of her team, and they all are described in depth. Tanax has a stick up his ass but it’s obvious from the start that he gets redeemed, Varro is a morose funny gay guy, Bek is the cute scholar girl (she needed more characterization, but I like Bek), and Maya is our adorable badass protagonist.
    • Django as an author can handle a crew of four characters well, but a crew of eight (or more) characters is pushing his skills beyond the breaking point.
  • Okay, time for the editor in me to speculate: I think Gyre’s group has so many redundant, bland characters is because they’re expendable. I can’t name them, and the author didn’t describe them in depth, because they were included in the book precisely to get killed. If this is the author’s intended vision, I can say that (for me at least) this isn’t working from a storytelling perspective.
    • These bland characters are too bland for me to be emotionally invested in their deaths.
    • When you kill characters, it’s the quality of character deaths which matters, not the quantity. You can kill a million bland side characters, but if your reader doesn’t care about any of them then what’s the point? Or you can kill one or two emotionally investing characters, and your reader will care because you just killed a character they are emotionally invested in.
    • I think Mr. Wexler overplayed his hand in a body count direction. Instead of having a crew of eight+ people, Gyre should have had a crew of three people (Kit, Gyre and one more). Then at the midpoint climax, Maya kills the (one more), so all that was left are Kit and Gyre. Killing one fully fleshed out character will ALWAYS carry more emotional depth than killing five or six barely described characters.
      • Imagine if all the time the author spent vaguely characterizing Harrow, Sara, the old man, the daughter of the dead rebel, the gay soldier father and the rest were spent building up and characterizing ONE person. So when Maya kills that one, built up person at the midpoint, that death carries WEIGHT. Their death IS A BIG DEAL.
    • Rule Number 1 in editing is ‘Kill your darlings.’ These unimportant side characters are darlings who needed to be killed in the editing process.

And finally, if I were an editor, here’s my advice on what to change:

  • Option 1: edit out these unimportant side characters, or condense them into just one or two characters. Fewer, better characters are better than numerous, worse characters.
  • Option 2: restructure the story slightly.
    • In the original story the chain of events are         
      • Maya kills Gyre’s friends-> Gyre fails to get the McGuffin out of the vault->Kit almost gives up->Kit and Gyre recommit to getting the McGuffin
    • Change that to
      • Gyre fails to get the McGuffin out of the vault.-> Kit and Gyre give up because the rebellion kills too many innocent people. ->Maya kills Gyre’s friends-> Kit and Gyre recommit to getting the McGuffin and getting revenge against the Twilight Order
    • What’s good about this change? It’s good because it makes it so that Gyre’s internal character arc is affected by the death and capture of his friends.
      • In my version, Gyre gives up his quest for revenge after he fails to get the McGuffin. Why? Two reasons.
        • Gyre grows frustrated with the rebellion killing innocent people in their attempts to undermine the Dux.
        • Gyre discovers that Maya is a Twilight Order Centarch, so he no longer wants revenge against the Order because his sister is alive and well.
      • After he gives up the rebellion, his friends still in the rebellion are killed by Maya and Tanax (exactly as they are in the original version of the book). Their deaths cause Gyre to change his mind about abandoning his quest for revenge against the Twilight Order, and redouble his efforts to get the McGuffin. He swears revenge against his sister in particular.
    • This version has the side benefit of driving a personal wedge between Maya and Gyre. Gyre blames Maya for killing his friends, driving them farther apart than ever. And this is a benefit, because interpersonal conflict is enthralling to read.

Prose, Setting and Worldbuilding

I had no complaints about the prose. I listened to the audiobook and it’s hard to really ‘see’ the prose of a novel in audio format. I will say that the narrator did a splendid job of bringing the story to life. That said, I think the prose was quite pleasant.

I loved the setting and worldbuilding. Everything from the gross biological magic to the whole Jedi Order reinterpretation really tickled my fancy. The dichotomy between dhaka and the divine magic was neat too- it’s clear that the ‘good’ guys view dhaka as being evil not because it is actually evil, but because dhaka is the magic the villains use. Good guys could in theory use dhaka too, but they don’t because of tradition. (I think it’s spelled dhaka, I’m going off of the audiobook pronunciation.)

(Also, I’m not sure how Dux is spelled. It might be Doux, the Byzantine version of the word duke)


Final Critiques/What I Want in the Next Book

The book is good, but I had problems with it.

As mentioned, my biggest problem was a lack of a character arc for Gyre. He started the book hating the Twilight Order, and he ended the book hating the Twilight Order. In the next book I want much more of a focus on Gyre’s character arc.

I had MAJOR problems with Kit in this book. For 90% of the book I found her to be annoying but tolerable. But for the last 10% I found her downright despicable (especially after she stabbed Maya in the back and Kit followed that up by telling a joke about stabbing Maya in the back). I’m reasonably confident the author did not intend for me to find Kit despicable, so if the author wants me to not hate her as a character it’ll need some work.

Additionally, in the next book I want some answers. What is the arcana embedded in Maya’s chest? Who or what was the bug parasite? Are the Chosen alive or not? What really happened to cause the Ghouls and Chosen to war?

I am open to having more POV characters. Just saying, a Tanax viewpoint would be sweet. I want to see from a Dogmatic perspective why Dogmatism is a valid viewpoint. Dogmatism is displayed as being either evil or stupid in this book, but everyone’s the hero of their own story. If Tanax is a hero, why does Tanax view Dogmatism as being good? And no, I don’t want the cop out of Tanax becoming a Pragmatist. We’ve established that this is a setting where both sides of a conflict can be intellectually valid. Why is Dogmatism equally valid compared to Pragmatism?

Finally, I want Gyre to learn Ghoul dhaka magic. I want one of our protagonists to learn dhaka. As I’m a trained biologist, biological based magic is especially fascinating for me.


And that’s that. I very much so enjoyed this book. While I had a fair number of small critiques for this book, overall I am looking forward to reading more in this series. If by some chance the author reads this, I want to say thank you. I had a great time reading this and very much want to read more.

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