The Path of Flames by Phil Tucker, the first installment of the Chronicles of the Exile, is a self-published book that’s been doing well recently in Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-off. It’s a fun, escapist read that harkens back to traditional epic fantasy, while still providing subversive elements that move the genre forward.
The Path of Flames begins with a visceral cavalry charge from the perspective of a young squire, Asho, a member of the enslaved albino race known as ‘Bythians’. The world-shaking results of the charge give Asho hints that all may not be as it seems in his world of rigidly segregated races, floating cities and ancient magic. Asho journeys back home to Kyferin Castle and joins a rich cast of characters battling for survival in a world that’s been turned upside down. All the much-loved staples of traditional fantasy are present, such as tournaments, monsters and magic swords. Parallel to this is the story of Tharok, an orc-like creature called a kragh, and his struggle for dominance over his tribes. This plot doesn’t link in to the main story until the end, but it promises to become increasingly relevant over the next books. Overall, The Path of Flames is a fun read that presents classic epic fantasy reminiscent of David Eddings or Raymond E. Feist, in sleek modern packaging with subversive new elements. It may not be overtly grimdark, but it’s an enjoyable escapist read.
Not being grimdark doesn’t mean that The Path of Flames isn’t enjoyable to a grimdark fan. Many readers who appreciate grimdark fiction can also enjoy more traditional fantasy when it’s done well, and The Path of Flames is definitely an example where it is. It harkens back to more traditional fantasy with relatively clear ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’, with a few notable exceptions, in a high-magic yet subversive fantasy world. The fight scenes are visceral and gritty and several of the characters grapple with dark themes.
The two most central point-of-view characters are Asho and Kethe. Asho struggles with is background as a slave and bitterness over how he was mistreated in the past, and attempts to become a respected warrior despite prejudice. Kethe is his opposite, she’s the noble daughter of Kyferin Castle’s lord, with everything handed to her on a platter, yet she pours all her energy into becoming a warrior herself, while grappling with her mixed feelings about her murderous father. The progression and interaction of these two characters as the book progresses is just so damn cool. It’s the classic case of plucky youths discovering inner power and a magical destiny, but for Asho and Kethe it never feels derivative, and when they finally come into their own it feels earned. Both characters have light and shade to them, and succeed in feeling like real people. The other point-of-view characters all fulfil standard fantasy tropes, but manage to transcend them by being three-dimensional human beings. There’s Iskra, the troubled yet caring lady of the castle; Ser Tiron, the brutal knight with a dark past; Audsley, the bumbling yet well-meaning scholar, and Tharok, the noble yet brutal kragh. For grimdark fans, the standout will most likely be Ser Tiron, since he’s the darkest and most morally ambiguous character. Tharok’s cerebral, Machiavellian take on kragh politics is interesting, and something rare to fantasy ‘orcs’. A standout secondary character is Ser Wyland, the strong, charming epitome of chivalry and virtue. Such a character should rankle with a dedicated grimdark fan, yet I found myself liking him despite his seemingly clichéd knightly characteristics, and he genuinely feels like a real, nuanced person. Ser Wyland is the perfect example of how Phil Tucker has managed to take fantasy clichés and breathe new life into them.
The world of The Path of Flames seems, at first glance, to be a simplistic fantasy realm where one’s race and city of birth dictates status and basic characteristics. It’s reminiscent of The Lord of The Rings or something like Eddings’ Belgariad, where being born as part of the ‘evil’ race makes you evil, or being part of the ‘warrior’ race makes you strong. It follows the rules of ‘Ascendance’ where leading a good life means that you move up the chain towards the ‘better’ races, and vice versa. The interesting part about The Path of Flames, however, is that this racial system seems to be entirely fabricated by the ruling powers to more easily control the masses. This clever subversion of a fantasy trope adds an extra layer of complexity to the core narrative of the book, and makes the drip-fed discoveries as to the true nature and history of the world extremely interesting. The book also strikes a clever balance between high and low magic, and manages to reap the benefits of both with none of the detriments. Magic is common in the world, with portals, monsters, and ancient curses, but the characters know nearly nothing about how these almost commonplace things actually work, meaning that they retain their air of mystery. The frequent appearance of these magical elements brings an excitement and colour to the story. This world-building is always anchored to the characters and plot, and rarely becomes boring or superfluous.
The few times where the pace does slow down a bit too much come in the first third of the book, when the denizens of Kyferin Castle are being introduced. I found that a few of these chapters took too long and didn’t advance the plot much, such as the one where Audsley spends a great deal of time documenting a floating island of rock that is never mentioned again in the book. However, these chapters do introduce characters who become critical later on in the plot, and once the short period of character introductions is over, the pace picks right up again. Some readers do enjoy slower character-driven chapters, however, so their presence isn’t necessarily a detrimental factor. Conversely, there are several superb action scenes, such as a nail-biting chase with a demon. By the end of the book, nearly all of the characters, plot threads, and bits of lore that have been peppered throughout the story come together neatly, and Phil Tucker has done a great job of managing a relatively large cast as they operate in a world filled with complex lore. The end of a book can be the most important part, and by the end of The Path of Flames, you’ll be both satisfied with the story so far, and desperately hungry for the promised conflicts of the second book, ‘The Black Shriving’, which is already available on Amazon.
The writing style is the standard one would expect from most modern epic fantasy novels, with a limited third-person point-of-view that switches characters from chapter to chapter. The battle-scenes are a wonderful combination between tactically engaging and brutally visceral, for example: ‘Ser Hankel’s helm burst into molten metal and brains as a bolt caught him straight across the brow.’ Slower more emotional scenes filled with introspection are also well-written. There are a few minor spelling or formatting mistakes that can jolt the reader out of the story, but it doesn’t take much to be sucked back in again, and they’re not frequent enough to be an issue. Excluding this, the quality is great for a self-published novel, and it’s fantastic value for $5 AUD, a third or less of the price of a traditionally published fantasy novel.
If you want a magical story that brings you back to older fantasy while still adding to the genre, The Path of Flames by Phil Tucker is for you. If you’re still ravenous for stories that are as dark, gritty and morally ambiguous as it can get, then it’s probably not. If you’re like many grimdark fans and can appreciate both, try it out, chances are you’ll have a fun ride.