This novel is one of those rare and wonderful occasions when the sequel of a top-drawer fantasy epic matches and at times exceeds its predecessor. Suffice to say that The Shadow Casket, follow-up to Chris Wooding’s epic and stellar fantasy debut The Ember Blade, must be one of the best sequels I’ve picked up in a while. This is no mean feat, particularly when one considers the rave reviews that The Ember Blade picked up around the traps following its release. To my mind The Ember Blade remains the most vivid and pulsating fantasy novel I’ve ever read.
By way of further background: The Ember Blade recounts how an Ossian boy, Aren, finds himself the unwitting member of a fellowship seeking to throw off the yoke of Ossia’s coloniser and oppressor: the Krodan Empire. This fellowship comes together through a series of unlikely and highly dangerous episodes, and consists of some unforgettable characters in epic fantasy, including the fanatical freedom fighter and never say die rebel Garric, leader of an ancient brotherhood (or something like that) sworn to defend Ossia, called the Dawn Wardens; then there’s also the heavily tattooed Grub: an unnerving but increasingly hilarious cutthroat, pickpocket and street urchin, a brilliant character who pertains to an interesting race called the Skalds. Other members of note include Aren’s childhood friend the lowborn Cade, as well as the enigmatic druidess Vika and the tearaway archer and Aren’s growing heartthrob Fen, among other highly interesting and beautifully realised characters.
The Ember Blade culminates in a daring and extremely tense attempt by Aren and his fellows to steal the ember blade, long regarded as a symbol of Ossia, from the Krodan Empire. There are unforeseen and devastating consequences to their attempt to steal off with the blade, although most members of the fellowship survive the ordeal and subsequently declare themselves the Dawn Wardens.
The Shadow Casket, the long-awaited sequel, picks up three years after the blade is reclaimed for Ossia by the Dawn Wardens, with Aren and his comrades still eluding the Krodan Empire yet unable to spark off any meaningful revolt in lowland Ossia. Their stealing of the blade (which caused the death of the Krodan Emperor’s son) also renders the Krodan oppression of Ossia far more brutal, although the Krodans are stretched, chiefly because of their ventures in other countries beyond Ossia. The Dawn Wardens decide to venture north of Ossia to a highland region called The Reaches, in a desperate and seemingly impossible attempt to unite the country’s highland tribes in rebellion against the Krodans, while also securing a foothold in their country which they are seeking to liberate.
The plotline might at first seem linear and straightforward enough, however nothing could be further from the truth. Wooding is a boss when it comes to keeping the reader guessing, while also throwing in unexpected plot twists when you least expect them. The book also contains a stronger Grimdark element than the last outing, since the characters are faced with starker choices and greater odds. This development goes hand in hand with the main three characters Aren, Cade and Fen being older than they were in the first instalment, so that you have three evolving bildungsromans enmeshed in a liberation struggle that grows more tense and desperate with each page turned, making the novel a stunning sequel to The Ember Blade.
The development of older characters like Vika, Harod, Mara and Klyssen is also simply sublime, as breathtaking as the world described by Wooding. Another great feature is that Wooding emulates and at times even exceeds the likes of GRR Martin when pulling the rug out from beneath the reader’s feet, since certain characters meet their demise when you least expect it. The extreme danger and levels of sheer terror in this second instalment somehow exceed that contained in its predecessor and is all too painfully real.
As happened while I read The Ember Blade, I found myself swiftly immersed in the second instalment of The Darkwater Legacy, with the characters’ motivations always plausible, the writing phenomenal and the stakes growing with each page turned. Readers who enjoyed the first instalment will also take great delight in the new, compelling characters introduced in the sequel, which is on par with anything created by the master of characterisation, Joe Abercrombie, as well as the expansive world-building which matches and at times exceeds (in my view) the classic and genre-defining work of JRR Tolkien.
This is a work which further consolidates Wooding’s growing reputation as a master of the craft. A shout out also goes to Simon Bubb for yet another fantastic reading on the audio version, which provided me with many exciting evenings while walking the dog. My rating is five on five stars for the second instalment of what has a pretty good chance of being one of the best – if not the best – fantasy series of all time.