My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is the second volume in the Wells of Sorcery trilogy. While I sometimes hesitate to recommend the second book in a series, due to the not unreasonable assumption that you often can't understand the second if you haven't read the first, I'm going to make an exception here. Not only because I think there's just enough exposition and recapping to catch readers up to speed, but because this is a really excellent book that tops the first.
The main reason for this is the inclusion of a second POV and storyline: Tori, the younger sister of Isoka, the protagonist of the first volume. The first book, Ship of Smoke and Steel, started out as a bit of a cliche: Isoka, the magic-powered older sister of the Gelmei family, is working as a "ward boss" (read: mob enforcer) in the city of Kahnzoka. She is taking on the burden of supporting her younger sister Tori, who she has set up as a noblewoman and stashed in the privileged Second Ward. Tori is not supposed to know anything about the dastardly deeds Isoka performs in her name, because Tori is gentle and innocent and a good person, everything Isoka isn't.
Gah. I know, right? That's what's delightful about this book: the author takes this trope and turns it inside out, simply by giving Tori her own storyline. Tori is neither gentle nor innocent, and she knew what Isoka was doing all along. And while she's "good" in one way, spending her nights helping her fellow citizens in an Eleventh Ward hospital, we come to find out in another way she's...not. (In fact, Tori's magical powers--her "well" is Kindre, the Well of Mind--are a lot more sinister than anything Isoka comes up with, despite the latter's ruthlessness. Tori makes several questionable decisions in this book about how to use her powers, and one in particular towards the end is just...let's just say she lives up to the label, monster, she gives herself. This is something that definitely needs to be dealt with in the third book.) Tori foments a rebellion in the city of Kahnzoka that ends up burning most of it down at the story's climax.
Meanwhile, Isoka's story from the first book is continued: when she is outed as a mage, she is kidnapped and blackmailed into bringing back the mythical ship Soliton to use in service to the Emperor, the threat being Tori's safety and life. Soliton and its passengers, including the exiled princess Meroe, Isoka's love, reach their destination at the bottom of the world: an island enclosed by a magic-generated dome. Isoka, Meroe and the rest must unravel the mystery of Harbor and defeat its ruler, the Prime Eddicant, and they must do it in time to allow Isoka to return to Kahnzoka with Soliton before Tori's time runs out.
These two storylines are well paced, and the sisters' voices are clear and easily told apart. Both Isoka and Tori are nicely characterized. Isoka, in particular, learns the meaning of friendship and leadership, the latter of which can be summed up in the theme to her story: To command is to sacrifice. (Tori has her own theme, We do what we can with what we have, which leads her to some very dark places.) At the end of the book, Isoka is ready to return to Kahnzoka--where she is going to find everything has changed.
I haven't heard when the third book is going to come out, but it will be quite a ride. I'm looking forward to it.
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