Review: When the Goddess Wakes by Howard Andrew Jones

Review: When the Goddess Wakes by Howard Andrew JonesWhen the Goddess Wakes (The Ring-Sworn Trilogy, #3) by Howard Andrew Jones
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Ring-Sworn Trilogy #3
Pages: 336
Published by St. Martin's Press on August 24, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In When the Goddess Wakes, the final book of the Ring-Sworn trilogy, Howard Andrew Jones returns to the five realms of the Dendressi to conclude his heroic, adventure-filled epic fantasy trilogy.
The Naor hordes have been driven from the walls, but the Dendressi forces are scattered and fragmented, and their gravest threat lies before them. For their queen has slain the ruling council and fled with the magical artifacts known as the hearthstones, and she is only a few days from turning them to her mad ends.
The Altenerai corps has suffered grievous casualties, and Elenai's hearthstone and her source of sorcerous power has been shattered. She and her friends have no choice but to join with the most unlikely of allies.
Their goal: to find the queen's hiding place and somehow stop her before she wakes the goddess who will destroy them all...
Praised for his ability to write modern epic fantasy that engrosses and entertains, Howard Andrews Jones delivers a finale to his trilogy that reveals the dark secrets and resolves the mysteries and conflicts introduced in the first two books of this series.

My Review:

“When last we left our heroes…” Seriously. When we last left the heroes of the Ring-Sworn Trilogy at the end of Upon the Flight of the Queen it was in the pause, stock taking and toting up of the butcher’s bill after the end of another epic battle to retake another city of the Realms by the remaining loyal corps of the legendary Altenerai.

In other words, the ending of Upon the Flight of the Queen is not all that different from the ending of the first book in the series, For the Killing of Kings, as it also ends in that same pause at the end of an epic battle after retaking a different city of the Realms.

In other words, if you enjoy really meaty epic fantasy, the place to start this series is with the first book, For the Killing of Kings. Which itself begins a bit in the middle of a story that has already been rotting the Realms from within. But by starting there, you have the opportunity to discover what’s gone wrong and who the real enemies are along with our heroes.

The titles of this series are surprisingly relevant to the story – if just a bit long-winded. For the Killing of Kings is all about the discovery that the legendary sword of the same name is NOT hanging safely on the walls of the Altenerai compound. That a fake has been mounted in its place. It’s the first signal that something is rotten, not in the state of Denmark, but in the state of the Five Realms of which Darassus is the seat of power.

The action in Upon the Flight of the Queen takes place, quite literally, as the result of the flight of Queen Leonara from Darassus to a formerly mythical paradise world where she plans to resurrect a goddess. In fact “THE Goddess” whose awakening is the key event in this final book in the series.

The Queen plans to wake the goddess believing that she has promised them a paradise. Our heroes hope to stop her, because any paradise that’s been built on as many lies as Queen Leonara has been telling is bound to be anything but.

But this has been, from the very beginning, a story of unlikely allies and unexpected betrayals.

The enemy of my enemy may not exactly be my friend, but when my enemy plans to destroy the entire world including both the enemy of my enemy and myself – and every other person, animal, place and thing in that entire world, the enemy of my enemy and I – or in this case the Altenerai, and the Naor, are more or less united in the face of the alternative.

But there is someone waiting in the wings, hoping to take advantage of the chaos that will ensue when the goddess wakes. And there’s a literal God of Chaos, waiting to have a few words with the Goddess who betrayed him at the beginning of the world – before she makes an end of it.

Escape Rating A: At the beginning, this series reminded me more than a bit of A Chorus of Dragons. That both series began with books named for swords prophesied to kill kings (The Ruin of Kings for A Chorus of Dragons) did kind of hit that resemblance on the nose a bit. That both series are ultimately about the neverending battle between order and chaos, and that the gods in both series are not exactly what anyone thought they were does keep that resemblance going.

And even though A Chorus of Dragons hits heights that the Ring-Sworn Trilogy never quite reaches, if you like this you’ll love that and vice versa. Particularly if you’re looking for an epic fantasy that isn’t quite as epically long and is already complete.

This story has a huge cast, but the many main characters have become distinct enough that it’s relatively easy to follow along and stay in touch with each of them as they move the action towards the conclusion. After a bit of a rocky start the audio narrator managed to get past her earlier mispronunciations and malapropisms to deliver a solid performance that does a good job of differentiating between the voices of the main characters. It also helps that by the point of this third volume, the story’s focus has shifted so that many of the points of view are female, and that the former squire Elenai has become a leader of the Altenerai and possibly the future Queen.

It works better for me if the reader’s voice matches the main character’s voice no matter how many other characters there are. This just was not true in the first book but became true in the second and is very clear and well done in this one.

The entire trilogy has been an “out of the frying pan into the fire” “things are always darkest just before they turn completely black” kind of story, and that’s still true in this book up until the nearly bitter end. And I did tear up a bit at some of the darkest and bitterest points. This is a story of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, only to have that victory stolen in its turn by the epic betrayals that fuel so much of the action.

But it’s also a tense, gripping tale about unlikely heroes banding together in spite of all their differences and prior enmities. And it’s a story of companionship and found family found in the most unexpected of places.

In the end, the Ring-Sworn Trilogy’s epic conclusion is one of the rare occasions when what appears to be a deus ex machina ending not only involves very real dei, but that their involvement turns out to be the right way to bring the whole thing home, with an ending that manages to mix just the right touch of bitter into the sweet hurrah.

Review: Upon the Flight of the Queen by Howard Andrew Jones

Review: Upon the Flight of the Queen by Howard Andrew JonesUpon the Flight of the Queen (The Ring-Sworn Trilogy, #2) by Howard Andrew Jones
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Ring-Sworn Trilogy #2
Pages: 432
Published by St. Martin's Press on November 19, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

"A fast-paced adventure combined with an engrossing mystery, all set in a unique and original fantasy world. I can't wait to find out what happens next!" --Martha Wells, Hugo Award-winning author on For the Killing of Kings

In this sequel to For the Killing of Kings, Howard Andrew Jones returns to the ring-sworn champions of the Altenerai in Upon the Flight of the Queen to continue this thrilling, imaginative and immersive epic fantasy trilogy.

While the savage Naor clans prepare to march on the heart of the Allied Realms, Rylin infiltrates the highest of the enemy ranks to learn their secrets and free hundreds of doomed prisoners. His ailing mentor Varama leads the ever-dwindling Altenerai corps in a series of desperate strikes to cripple the Naor occupiers, hoping for a relief force that may not come in time to save what's left of the city and her charges.

Elenai, Kyrkenall, and the kobalin Ortok ride through the storm-wracked Shifting Lands to rekindle an alliance with the ko'aye, the only possible counter to the terrible Naor dragons. Even if they survive the hazardous trek deep through kobalin territory to find the winged lizards, though, the three are unlikely to get a warm reception, for the queen of the five realms refused to aid the ko'aye when their homelands were attacked, and the creatures have long memories.

While the Altenerai fight impossible odds to save the realms, their queen delves further and deeper into the magic of the mysterious hearthstones in a frantic attempt to unlock secrets that might just destroy them all.

Praised for his skills in drafting modern epic fantasy that engrosses and entertains, Howard Andrew Jones delivers a sequel that expands the amazing world, relationships, and adventure introduced in the first book of this series.

My Review:

It’s ironically fascinating that Upon the Flight of the Queen ends in exactly the same way that the first book in this series, For the Killing of Kings, did. Both stories end with our heroes saving another city from the hands, and hordes, of the marauding Naor. And in both cases that recovery comes within a knife edge of disaster, but neither represent the end of anything larger than the immediate battle. As each entry in the series closes, it is obvious to the reader that the endpoint is merely a pause between battles, and that more bloodshed and heartbreak are yet to come.

For the Killing of Kings felt like it began in medias res – translated as “into the middle of things” -, that the story had already begun at some point in the past and the reader was just dropped into the middle of it. As Elenai and Kyrkenall delve deeper into the secrets and lies that have set them on the run from their former compatriots, that situation becomes the real truth. They are already in the middle of the story – they just didn’t know it at first.

This second book begins in medias of the res that happened in the first book. Which means that you cannot start here. The story in Upon the Flight of the Queen only makes sense if you’ve read For the Killing of Kings. But if you love epic fantasy this is a story well worth diving into.

As this second story opens, Rylin and Varama, the ring-sworn warriors of the Altenerai Corps (and of the series title) have just saved one city of the Allied Realms from an army of savage Naor set on conquest, enslavement and destruction of their enemies – who just so happen to be the heroes of our story.

As this entry in the series progresses, the focus shifts among the Altenerai as this small band of warriors and mages tries to be everywhere at once, to defend as much as they can in as many places as they can from their would-be conquerors, while at the same time attempting to figure out why their order and their country has been betrayed from within – and just how much the Queen has to do with the rot at the heart of the kingdom.

At the end of this volume, the “band” has mostly gotten back together from their separate epic journeys, just in time to defeat the onrushing horde – while losing any hope of stopping the mad queen who has set these terrible events into motion.

The battle is won, but the war is not yet over. Our heroes pause as readers gasp in shock as they wait to see what will happen next.

Escape Rating A: While I had a whole dragonload of mixed feelings about the first book in this series, I have absolutely none about this second entry. I loved Upon the Flight of the Queen, in spite of some issues with the audio narration that I’ll get to in a minute.

I don’t know whether it was because this was just the right time for me to get into a meaty epic fantasy, whether I liked this one more because I had a better grasp of the characters and the world, or whether this second book was just better than the first – this was an awesome story and I loved every minute of it.

Unlike my listen to the first book, this time I felt compelled to see what happened next – what new fire our heroes jumped into after escaping their most recent frying pan. I found myself listening to the story when I had time in the car or on the treadmill and then switching to the ebook when I didn’t – because I couldn’t put this one down.

That being said, there were issues with the narration – and they were the same issues I noted in my review of the previous book. The reader conflated cavalry with Calvary – a common issue in everyday life but jarring in a professional reader. Early in the story the word “loll” was read as “lull” repeatedly, to the point where I was temporarily confused about what was happening. My personal “favorite” malaprop was the reading of “brazier” – a container for fire, as “brassiere” – the older word for a woman’s undergarment now known as a “bra”. Just the thought of mistaking the one for the other is, quite literally, painful to contemplate. Seriously, OUCH!

But the story is definitely not an ouch, although the characters in it certainly experience plenty of painful circumstances that generate a lot more than a mere “ouch”. This is a story with a very large cast of characters and a lot of conflicting motivations – something that got a bit bogged down in the first book as we had to learn who all these people were and what was pushing them forward – or pulling them back. That the characters we were following were in the midst of discovering that they had been betrayed and were themselves uncertain of anyone’s motives made that a bit more difficult.

By this point, however, we’ve got a handle on who is who – and our heroes know who is with them and who is against them. The tension however, is ramped up by the Naor incursions. The Queen’s inattention to the good of her realm has provided these long-time enemies with an opportunity to strike at their heart believing that no one can oppose them. And they are very nearly right.

At the same time, one of the tighter focuses in the story is on the guerrilla warfare being waged in one city that is ostensibly under Naor occupation. The plight of the tiny band of warriors led by Alten Varama, a group that watches as their numbers whittled down while their commander lays the groundwork for a rescue that may not come is heartbreakingly terrible and terribly heartbreaking.

Meanwhile, in other parts of this wide-ranging narrative, we watch a legendary commander literally rise from the dead – as he in turn watches a young man and woman from the Corps he led rise to meet the challenges of this new and terrible day.

The ending of Upon the Flight of the Queen is rife with those epic “Riders of Rohan” moments that are the hallmark of the best of epic fantasy – as this certainly is.

There was only one thing that marred my enjoyment of this epic tale. It ends, just as For the Killing of Kings ended, in the pause after an epic battle, a point where the characters and the reader have a chance to take a breath but know that there is more yet to come. When the first book ended, the publication date for this second book was already announced, and was actually imminent.

The title and publication date of the final book in the Ring-Sworn Trilogy have yet to be announced. I’m anxiously waiting for that horn call – and I’m certain that I’m far from alone in my impatience to discover which of our heroes will survive to win the day.

Review: For the Killing of Kings by Howard Andrew Jones

Review: For the Killing of Kings by Howard Andrew JonesFor the Killing of Kings (The Ring-Sworn Trilogy, #1) by Howard Andrew Jones
Format: audiobook
Source: purchased from Audible
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy
Series: Ring-Sworn Trilogy #1
Pages: 368
Published by St. Martin's Press on February 19, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A cross between Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber and The Three Musketeers, For the Killing of Kings is the first in a new fantasy trilogy by Howard Andrew Jones.

Their peace was a fragile thing, but it had endured for seven years, mostly because the people of Darassus and the king of the Naor hordes believed his doom was foretold upon the edge of the great sword hung in the hall of champions. Unruly Naor clans might raid across the border, but the king himself would never lead his people to war so long as the blade remained in the hands of his enemies.

But when squire Elenai's aging mentor uncovers evidence that the sword in their hall is a forgery, she's forced to flee Darassus for her life, her only ally the reckless, disillusioned Kyrkenall the archer. Framed for murder and treason, pursued by the greatest heroes of the realm, they race to recover the real sword, only to stumble into a conspiracy that leads all the way back to the Darassan queen and her secretive advisers. They must find a way to clear their names and set things right, all while dodging friends determined to kill them - and the Naor hordes, invading at last with a new and deadly weapon.

Howard Andrew Jones' powerful world-building brings this epic fantasy to life in this first book of his new adventure-filled trilogy.

My Review:

Fair warning – this is definitely going to be one of those mixed feelings reviews.

This is a story about betrayal. Over and over and over again. Every time our heroes think they have things figured out, yet another enemy crawls out of the woodwork and they are on the run, again, even when they aren’t quite sure who, or what, they are running from.

It makes for a fine story in true epic fantasy fashion, of the “out of the frying pan into the fire” tradition. Which definitely makes for page-turning adventure.

One of the interesting things about this story is that the heroes are never quite sure who their enemy is, or why their enemy is their enemy, or, and perhaps even more important for this series opener, just how long their enemy has been plotting in the background.

This is one of those stories where nothing is as it seems. And the fish has already long rotted from the head down. Discovering the rot drives the action, and drives it hard, from the tip of the iceberg beginning to the “things are always darkest just before they turn completely black” ending.

That isn’t really an ending. The story continues. And does it ever need to!

Escape Rating B: This is one of the rare books that I listened to all the way through. I have the eARC, and I thought I would switch to it a few times, but I never actually did. For some reason, this one worked better for me in audio – in spite of some serious problems that I’ll get to in a minute.

In the end, I think that while I was enjoying the story more than enough to finish – I didn’t feel compelled to read faster. I enjoyed the journey more than the destination. (Also, I didn’t have anything set for my next listen that felt like it was calling my name.)

About the audio. On the one hand, it felt like the choice was made to use a female narrator in an attempt to make the squire Elenai the central character, so that this would read as a heroine’s journey. And Elenai is one of the central characters. But she is the only central character who is female, at least so far, and most of the point of view characters or prominent characters are male. One of whom, in particular, exhibits an awful lot of blatant “male gaze”. In the end, Elenai is a point of view but far from the only or predominant one.

The real problem with the audio is that the narrator mispronounces quite a bit. The most glaring mispronunciation was the substitution of “calvary” for “cavalry”. It jarred me every single time and was not the only one. The word “ebullience” was another. But the calvary/cavalry switch was just SO WRONG. While people do this all the time in real life, I expect better from a professional narrator. Epic fail.

Ironically, the story is not an epic fail, but it certainly is the start of an epic. There are a lot of epic fantasies that begin with an aging hero training the future hero. Eventually that aging hero is killed or incapacitated in the course of the story (Merlin, Dumbledore, Obi-Wan, etc., etc., etc.) It’s a fine tradition, but it gets turned on its head a bit in this particular epic.

The story here seems to be about the failing and falling of an entire generation of older heroes who either rested on their laurels or exiled themselves when their kingdom fell away from their ideals, leaving the training of the next generation to those who remained behind, the corrupt and the incompetent – but mostly the corrupt.

This turns out to be a story about finding the rot, cutting it out, and returning to the ideals that once kept their kingdom strong – even if the old guard doesn’t manage to live to see it.

So this first book in the series features two of that younger generation, one who has not finished training and has not yet been corrupted (Elenai) and one who thought that the new way was the right way, but has been redeemed before he got too far down that path (Rylin).

Their perspectives are quite different. Elenai was still in the hero-worshiping stage of her training, and it’s been eye-opening for her to discover that her heroes are flawed but still trying – and that she is now one of them. Rylin, on the other hand, began looking for glory, and in finding it has discovered that it is empty. And that honor and duty are what truly matters.

In the end, I enjoyed the story, but was left with the strong impression that it was a lesser version of the marvelous The Ruin of Kings. For the Killing of Kings, like The Ruin of Kings, isn’t just the title of the book. It’s the name of a sword – and a sword with an obviously very similar purpose and destiny at that. But The Ruin of Kings was such an awesome book that even a lesser version of it is well worth reading.

Another fair warning, For the Killing of Kings, while it doesn’t exactly end on a cliffhanger, it does end on a brief pause between battles. If you get caught up in this story, as I did, you’ll be on tenterhooks for the next book in the Ring-Sworn Trilogy, Upon the Flight of the Queen, due out in November 2019.