I got a copy of this book to read from the publisher for the purpose of providing an honest review.
I entered this book with moderately low expectations. I’ve read the first two books of the ‘Licaneus’ trilogy by the same author. I enjoyed the books, but they weren’t genre trailblazers. Originally I wasn’t planning on reading ‘The Will of the Many,’ but the publisher reached out to me with an offer for the ARC. I changed my mind and decided to read it.
This book was great.
If you read Licaneus, you probably are familiar with the author’s writing style: a deep well of creativity and intricately plotted stories with lots of twists and turns, offset by bland prose and characters. After reading this, I am happy to report that the author has successfully improved upon his weak prose and characterization. The prose is still nothing fancy; I’d call it utilitarian a la Sanderson/McClellan. But I do think the prose has improved from Licaneus. The characters are also improved; I am emotionally invested in the relationships between the protagonist and his many and varied friends in a way I wasn’t with Licaneus.
Okay, let’s get this going.
Spoilers Below. I’m writing this review in good faith, as one author reviewing another’s book, trying to balance positives with negatives.
WHAT IS THE TARGET AUDIENCE? WHAT GENRES? WHAT MAJOR TROPES?
- Roman Fantasy
- Political Scheming, which takes many forms
- Rome vs Rebels
- Military Vs Religion vs Government
- Betrayal and betraying. You can never tell who you can trust.
- This is targeted for adults, but I think someone 15+ could read this
- High Magic. The Will drips off every page, with flying ships and uncanny lanterns and unseelie supernatural ruins left behind by a fallen civilization.
- Magic School
- Battle Royale
- You know that sequence in Red Rising, where the teenagers fight against one another? This felt like that.
- Light military fantasy
- Slow start
- Trope of: Lost civilization, and we have to reclaim their technology
- Inverts tropes
MY EMOTIONAL RESPONSE/ FUN FACTOR
Enjoyment! I’d give this 4 out of 5 stars, where I usually default to giving good books 3 stars. It certainly has it’s flaws (slow pacing to start off with/relying too heavily on intricate worldbuilding magic), but I feel that the book’s positives outweigh those negatives significantly.
To explain my rankings, I give good books 3 stars. The breakdown is 15% 5 stars, 25% 4 stars, 35% 3 stars, and 25% 2 stars.
WARNING! QUIT READING NOW UNTIL YOU FINISH READING THE BOOK! SPOILERS!
To put this review/study in proper context, you must know my starting point.
As stated earlier, I entered expecting this to be mid. I read the first two Licaneus books and thought they were forgettable fun popcorn books. ‘The Will of the Many’ exceeded my expectations, in part because I entered this with fairly low expectations and in part because it’s genuinely better than Licaneus.
SIMILAR BOOKS/OTHER BOOKS IN THE SERIES
- A Critique of ‘An Echo of Things to Come’ by James Islington
- Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera
- A Review of ‘Red Rising’ by Pierce Brown
- Sanderson’s Endowment magic system, and Farland’s ‘Runelords’ magic system
CONCEPT AND EXECUTION
The book’s concept is: a prince in hiding as a war orphan is recruited by rebels to fight the evil empire which killed the prince’s royal dynasty. The twist is that the prince must go to the evil empire’s school of magic and excel there, become so good at the enemy’s magics and methods that he is indistinguishably evil from them, a la Red Rising. The book climaxes in a Battle Royale sequence where the various students have to fight against one another to advance, a la Red Rising. Contrasting against this is a ‘stopping the return of an ancient apocalypse’ sub-plot, where the protagonist must delve into ancient dungeons to plumb ancient secrets from long forgotten tombs..
I thought this concept was well executed upon, with a few quibbles. I referenced Red Rising repeatedly because the similarities between these books are obvious. I think this book compares favorably to that one. Think of this as Red Rising meets Codex Alera.
CHARACTERS, CHARACTERIZATION AND DIALOG
I’ll start with the necessary pre-amble. When discussing Licaneus, a lot of reviewers mention that they found the characters to be a bit stiff and tropey. I feel as though the author heard the message from those reviews and worked hard to advance his characterization in ‘The Will of the Many.’ The characters here all have distinct personalities and speech patterns, with unique drives and motivations. I personally found them to be emotionally investing in a way I didn’t with Licaneus.
I’ll start out with the protagonist Diago. At first I didn’t love him. From the outset, he appears to be a fairly generic trope: the secret farmboy prince, on the run from the Dark Lord who cast him out from his kingdom. But the trope develops nuance. There is no Dark Lord; the empire is a Republic, so the protagonist can’t avenge himself by simply cutting off the head of the snake a la ‘Sword of Shannara’ or ‘The Belgariad.’ Instead the protagonist must integrate himself into the system, become a senator, and try to destroy the system from within.
Diago was written to be hyper-competent. Looking at it from a certain perspective, he was a power fantasy. He was the best swordsman in the book, the best fighter, spoke multiple languages, great at chess, great at magic… everything he turned his hand to, he excelled. Let’s address this in two ways. From the watsonian analysis, Diago was great at everything because he was once a prince, so as a child he trained with lots of tutors. This makes sense. From a doylist perspective, the author didn’t want to bother including montage sequences of the protagonist becoming good at everything, so the excuse of ‘a former prince with lots of tutors’ served as a good narrative shorthand to speed along the plot. If you want to read a book about a zero-to-hero protagonist, you’ll be disappointed, but if you want a power fantasy, this is a good novel.
Finally, I enjoyed Diago when he was put out of his element. As stated, Diago excelled as a student in school, so seeing him removed from school and sent back to his oppressed kingdom was really interesting to see. Going home to Suus, Diago suddenly became unsure of himself, and he remembered that he should hate his nobleman friends he was making in school because they were the enemy. Further, he began to hate himself. In order for Diago to infiltrate and destroy the Hierarchy, he has to become the Hierarchy. Naturally going home and finding his home laid waste by the empire would make him hate the empire he now had within himself.
Net total, I enjoyed Diago. If I were to add a caveat, his character arc feels incomplete. I need more books to tell.
I enjoyed Diagos friends Callidus and Eidhin. Callidus was a super smart slacker archetype, going to school just to make his family happy even though he had no passion for it himself.
Eidhin was a ‘noble savage’ going to school to prove his people aren’t barbarians. The Hierarchy empire is book is Roman coded. Eidhin and Diago are both Celtic coded. Eidhin is Irish Celtic, whereas Diago is Celtibarian. I liked how Eidhin and Diago stuck together and became friends due to the shared discrimination they both faced at the hands of their Roman overlords. I liked how you could feel that Eidhin and Diago were from different ethnic groups in the way they interacted with one another, and again how Diago/Eidhin were different from the mainstream Hierarchy ethnicity just based on how they reacted to different things. The author did a good job of giving them subtly different sets of social mores depending on their national origin.
And finally, about the other students. I liked that as Diago climbed the social ladder of the school, his opposing students started less educated but got smarter and cleverer the higher he climbed. It added brilliant texture and tension to the book because it let the reader feel that Diago’s quest was harder and harder the more successful he was. This is good storytelling.
Finally, this book has two sets of antagonists. The evil Hierarchy empire, and the Anguis rebelling against them. The Anguis are righteous in their cause, but take it too far, killing innocent people to achieve their aims… except they are failing. Up until the beginning of the book, they’re just killing people without successfully advancing the cause of freedom. This makes them seem despicable, because they’re just murdering for no cause.
I liked the Anguis as antagonists. They are using Diago as a pawn. They’re the ones who got him placed in the academy, and they’re willing to do ANYTHING to see him become a senator. Staging a murder as suicide or killing thousands of innocent men, women and children so Diago looks like a hero… they’ll do it with a song on their lips. Further, they’re hypocrites. The Hierarchy used the Will based magic system to conquer the world, and the Will is (to summarize) morally dubious at best. The Anguis hate the Will like they hate the Hierarchy, but they’ve started using the Will because they see it as the only way to win. When Diago points out their hypocrisy, they don’t disagree with him.
PACING AND STRUCTURE
Pacing wise, this book has a slow start. This is a magic school book, and the magic school doesn’t start til the 35% mark. There were a few interesting scenes in that 35%, (in particular, the naumacia was breathtaking), but a lot of it felt like set-up. I feel like a lot of that set-up could have been done away with. The narrative was willing to handwave away a lot of plot holes with ‘I had tutors growing up,’ I don’t see why more of this set-up could have been handwaved away for the same reason. We didn’t need a montage sequence for Diago learning to fight; we didn’t need a montage for Diago learning how to use the labyrinth.
After that, though, I felt the book was paced just right. It was really fast, but slowed down just enough at moments to add nuance and characterization. The fight scenes were spaced in such a way to make the story fun to tell, but without overbearing the plot with lopsided amounts.
I feel that this book is structured into five acts.
- Before school
- I felt that the first two or three chapters were the slowest paced. In short, we’re introduced to the protagonist in two settings. First, at his job as a prison warden and again at a fight scene in an arena.
- After his adult adoption into a noble family, Diago goes on a date with Aequa to a festival called the naumachia. It’s a mock boat fight in a flooded combat arena, between two navies. It goes horribly wrong when the Anguis attacks.
- Diago saves the day, and is injured. He goes to the academy for the first time.
- School starts
- Diago is placed in the lowest rank at school, Grade 7. He makes friends. He progresses upwards to 6 by being a good student.
- He’s immediately punished, forced to clean the stables.
- The middle grades
- Diago deserves to be in Grade 5, but his teacher is racist against Diago.
- To open up a slot for Diago to progress, the Anguis kill a student above him.
- To progress into the open slot, Diago beats up another student in ritual combat. He graduates to Grade 5.
- Diago’s adoptive father demands Diago investigates an ancient ruin to find Caeror. Spooky magic.
- Diago briefs his adoptive father on the contents of the ancient ruin. He demands more results.
- Diago meets with the Anguis. Finds out about their treachery and double-dealing. Mention of a ‘boat,’ set up for later.
- Aequa stabs him in the back, by setting up a test to ambush him in a back alley. Diago passes the test. Aequa is relegated, and Diago moves up to 4.
- Diago plunders the depths of the true labyrinth to find Caeror, fails. He saves a dog.
- Diago wins a game of chess against his nemesis to advance up to 3.
- Under cover as a student of the Academy, Diago returns to his homeland of Suus. He’s very sad to see it run down after it’s conquest.
- He saves Emissa’s life from a riptide. They date.
- He meets with Fadrique and the locals
- He eavesdrops on the meeting of the Military taking place there. Mention of a ‘boat,’ pay off from earlier. Discovers that the Anguis and the Military are in an alliance.
- The Ending
- The final exam is a Battle Royale against all the other 3 students, winner gets a plumb position in the government. He allies with Callidus and and Aequa, even though Aequa betrayed him.
- Diago’s team is beaten by his nemesis… temporarily. Aequa does a double-backstab and saves their team.
- The heroes team up to steal a magic tablet from the instructors, to use to beat the other students. They split up.
- Under his dad’s orders, he enters the real labyrinth again. He runs the trial and passes it. While running the maze, he discovers his nemesis’ body in there; she ran and failed the trial. At the end of the trial, he discovers… an empty room. He frees lots of robot zombies though.
- Robot zombie combat, with his pet dot.
- Diago reunites with his Aequa and Callidus. They discover a pile of dead bodies. All the instructors, and some of the students, have been killed by the anguis.
- They save as many students as possible… except Diago’s girlfriend Emissa. Diago goes to save her from the Anguis.
- Surprise! Emissa stabs Diago in an attempt to with the Battle Royale. Diago falls to his death… again (first time happened when his dynasty was overthrown).
- Except he survives. He tracks down Callidus, finds him dying. The Anguis got him.
- Diago returns to school and wins the Battle Royale.
- Twist ending: the empty room isn’t empty. It was really a cloning chamber. A copy of him appeared in a distant land. He finds Caeror.
Overall, I thought this was well structured. I personally felt that the first half of act 1 was the least compelling of the 5, but overall this worked well.
PLOT, STAKES AND TENSION
Okay, this is what the author does really well. I thought the plot was the best part of Licaneus, and it’s good here too. I think the author is unusually talented at writing twisting and turning plots. Part of the reason why I enjoyed the characters more in this book is because they seemed to be active participants in the plotpoints, cunningly scheming against one another.
There was some roughness around the edges of the plotting. I thought the integration between the ‘dungeon diver’ plotline and the ‘friends cooperating to climb the social ladder’ plotlines should have been more integrated. As an example, I would have enjoyed if Callidus or Eidhin cooperated with Diago in either of the two ruin dives. But overall, this is a quibble and not a big deal.
I think this book could have stood to increase the stakes, sooner. When the characters went to Suus, we saw first hand just how bad the Hierarchy is for normal people. That happed at the 60% mark. I feel like this should have happened sooner. Additionally, I think the narrative could have explained the Cataclysm more. Why should we care about a new Cataclysm? The word ‘Cataclysm’ sounds bad, but it’s never explained what a ‘cataclysm’ is exactly.
The book’s tension was good. As stated, the book became more and more tense as the story went on as the protagonist’s competition became more and more competent, as the stakes rose higher and higher.
AUTHORIAL VOICE (TONE, PROSE AND THEME)
This book’s tone struck me as slightly less dour than ‘Red Rising,’ but more serious than ‘Codex Alera,’ the two books which are most similar to this one.
The author’s prose was unexciting, but it worked. I think the prose as improved from ‘Licaneus.’ I’d compare it to Sanderson or McClellan or Butcher in it’s simplicity. If you disliked Licaneus for it’s simplistic prose, but you don’t mind mainstream authors like Sanderson, I’d say give this a go if you’re curious.
The book had a very, very obvious theme of deception and betrayal. Suus was betrayed from within by Fadrique. Diago betrays Suus by studying at the Academy. The Anguis betray the Hierarchy by rebelling. Emissa betrays Diago. Aequa betrays Diago. Belli betrays Callidus. Sedotia betrays Ulciscor. And the final test of the book is about trust and friendship in the Battle Royale. This was well done.
SETTING, WORLDBUILDING AND ORIGINALITY
This is what I really love about this book.
The author had the genius idea of combining Roman Slavery, Brandon Sanderson’s Endowment system, and the Runelord’s Endowment system. Ancient Rome was a MASSIVE slave state. This book had the clever idea of combining the feel of that highly-stratified society with a form of magic where poor people are compelled to spiritually enslave themselves to the aristocracy. The aristocracy becomes magically immensely strong, while the peasantry become weaker and stupider. This history-and-magic integration deeply added to the texture of the story, making it feel that much more believable. It also adds a tension to the story because the magic system is on it’s very face deeply unjust and unethical.
The politics of ancient Rome are explored in another way, when the topic of military expansionism comes up. In short, Ancient Rome got rich and powerful by being constantly expanding, conquering surrounding lands. When the Roman empire got too large from all that conquest, it had constant barbarian invasions across it’s many borders which it couldn’t defend because of the Black Death/Plague of Justinian/Antonine plague. The Empire got too large, the middle couldn’t hold, and the Empire imploded.
The Hierarchy has expanded to the point that it can’t expand any further. The magic system encourages constant conquest and enslaving foreign lands, because the more octavii (aka peasants/serfs/slaves) under an aristocrat’s control, the more magically powerful the aristocrat becomes. So what happens when all foreign lands are conquered? Simply put, all the forces which drove the Hierarchy to conquer distant lands are now pointed inwards at the Hierarchy itself. If an ambitious aristocrat wants to move up in the highly stratified Hierarchy society, the only way to grow stronger is to attack your fellow aristocrats and steal their peasants. Civil war becomes an inevitability, with factions like the Military sponsoring terrorist Anguis being the result. The middle can’t hold, so the Hierarchy will implode.
The book explores other aspects of Roman culture. For example, do you know that Rome would flood the Colosseum and hold mock naval battles to entertain people? That happens here. Also, the culture of the Hierarchy are obsessed with lineage just like Rome, with a focus on adoption of adult children and performing rituals to placate the patronymic lares. Armed horsemen in this are cataphracts, just like Rome. I could keep going.
When I read a book inspired by history, THIS is exactly what I want to see. I like reading books where authors use diverse historical settings to tell a fun story, but too often the ‘history’ is little more than set dressing, a change of clothing. Or (even worse) they get the history wrong in such a way that the actual message is lost. Not here. This book is so deeply informed by history that you can’t go two sentences without an echo of actual history singing off the page.
HOWEVER, it’s not perfect. The Hierarchy is a pyramid with three sides: the Government, the Military, and Religion. These three separate institutions control the empire. They are rivals to institutional power, and push and pull against one another for control. Neat concept, and totally ahistorical.
In actual Rome the relationship between Government, military and religion were very fluid. Before Julius Caeser was a Consul (government) and general(military), he was a priest of Jupiter (religion). To climb the social ladder in Rome, you’d often advance sideways by going from a priesthood to the military to the government, clawing your way higher and higher the entire time. Often Roman priesthoods, government offices and military posts were the same thing. The Vestal Virgin priesthood played an important role in maintaining and guarding important government documents. Roman judges were priests of the gods of justice.
And you know what? It’s fine this book got it wrong. The book failed in the nitty-gritty of this aspect of Roman culture, but it succeeded in showing the highly competitive nature of Roman government. If it takes creative liberties around the edges, I’m willing to forgive it.
Finally, this book does something really cool. This book has as a theme of ‘ancient civilization destroyed and we have to reclaim their technology.’ Fun fact, this trope is a Western cultural relic left behind by the destruction of the Western Roman Empire. Seeing actual Romans playing around with this trope is a bit hilarious. You got the cart before the horse! I loved reading it, it was a great inversion of tropes. (Also this trope is false, the technology never was lost after the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Dark Ages, but that’s an entirely different story.)
As an author, I want to improve my own writing/editing skills. To that end, I like to learn lessons from every story I read. Here’s what I learned from this story:
- Fully integrate the magic system with the theme of the book. In this case, the Roman Slavery theme is extrapolated into a magic system where aristocrats gain magic by enslaving people.
- This book does a good job of integrated ethnicity into the story. Not just because the aristocrats at the academy were prejudiced against Diago, but also when Diago and Eidhin were initially prejudiced against one another but later became friends, when it was revealed that they were from similar, but not the same, ethnicity.
- When you adapt a setting, try to honor it. I feel this book did a great job of bringing Roman life to the page.
- People often say ‘I want more non-medieval European fantasy.’ They’re right! But that doesn’t just translate to peeling the skin off of a medieval European fantasy novel and slapping on a skin of some other setting.
- You need to actually go into the day-to-day life of that other setting, understand the mechanics of their society and government, and portray it reasonably faithfully. Remember that your book might be the only exposure your audience gets to that setting. Try to be a good historian and do a decent job of showing what life was actually like so your reader comes away with a reasonably accurate understanding. You are allowed to make changes, but make those changes carefully.
Here’s a link to all the lessons I’ve previously learned.
This is a great book. I’d start reading book 2 right now were it available. I think this is in contention for the best book I’ll read this year.
Did you like this critique/review? Here are some more: The Rest of My In Depth Reviews
On a personal note, I’m open to editing books. I don’t like putting myself out here like this, but I’ve been told I should. Check my blog for details if interested.