I remember picking up the first book of this series, Hope and Red, at Supanova in 2016 and reading it shortly after. I came back to it recently, though, because my friends and I were talking about our favourite fantasy novels and I fondly remembered it from those few years ago. After a quick search, I found out that the whole series had been released; which obviously meant that I went out and splurge-bought the other two books to re-enter this world of pirates, assassins and light-hearted adventurist tones. It definitely wasn’t the book I remembered it to be.
However, this wasn’t a bad thing. It starts out really rocky; with a whole bunch of time-skips used to inform the reader of the tumultuous pasts of the two main characters. Once the timeline stabilises, though, it becomes a fast-paced rollercoaster of a thief out for the laughs and a ninja out for revenge that doesn’t relent until the very end. And that’s what I really love about this series – it’s like reading an action movie, set on the high seas.
And I think that the role of setting plays an important part of the enjoyability of this series. It’s set out, mostly, on open water; and sea-based fantasy has almost all dried up of late – if we’re going exploring we’re going to space, and if we’re going on an adventure we’re crossing deserts and mountains and forests. The sea is only glancingly represented in modern fantasy fiction, and the fact that the Empire of Storms is set on the seas adds a whole bunch of aspects into the story’s monsters, its plotlines and its politics. They’re an empire scared of being conquered because they’re so small and interspersed across all these islands, it would only take one blow from the apparent continent to the north to conquer it. And this anxiety of being conquered drives the plot; which is by far one of the most interesting political plot lines I’ve read – I would caution to say – ever.
In addition to this, the characters exhibit noticeable growth and progression over the three books; and there is no want for diversity. The rugged thief comes from a high-class background and has to reconnect with this from the second book onwards. The vendetta-inspired ninja becomes a pirate and assumes a life opposite to what her grand teacher has told her, and eventually has to come to terms with accepting the best of both worlds. One of the “side characters” ends up becoming a gang lord in the original setting of the first book – Paradise Circle. And she’s a lesbian. Someone forcefully transitions from male to female in order to unlock greater magical powers. The goddamn best friend of everyone is gay, and that isn’t even his defining feature. He’s defined by his reliability and stalwartness. There’s an old lady pirate as a guide. The cast is phenomenal (except Old Yammy, who I wrote a whole other post about), and they’re properly layered so it doesn’t feel like an oversized Bechdel test where the author is just checking off diversity traits.
However, it isn’t without faults. You can tell that this is the author’s first time writing adult-themed fiction because he seems to lull as the action does. Of course, some of the less tense moments really let the characters shine through, but they’re written almost dully. Additionally, a lot of the description feels just like what Margaret Atwood describes a lot of George Orwell’s writing as – touring the garbage disposal plant. The exposition from Skovron subsists “we had a prophecy tell us this” and “this is how it has always been done”, which while justifying a lot of the storyline also becomes a little monotonous. In some parts, it becomes so obvious that not even the cast can help it be bearable, which is really unfortunate.
Overall, though, I would definitely recommend it. Especially if you’re a fantasy reader who’s looking for something that isn’t so kiddish; because this one is so adult even the kids are drinking and stabbing people. It’s definitely an enjoyable read, and it’s a wild ride from start to finish.
If you want to read the series, you can find it here.