|This chick. I can't stand this chick.|
The story begins as Prince Marcus and his friends in the Royal Watch enter the rebellious province of Kydona and march on the army gathered by tsaritsa Nadiya. The Watch is much better trained and equipped than the enemy, but they're vastly outnumbered. It's up to Marcus to use his intelligence and skill at arms to find ways to counteract them. As he proves himself, he rises through the ranks. But the Kydonians just keep coming, and soon Marcus is captured by the enemy. He resorts to extremes to escape, accumulating in a thrilling nighttime chase through a dark and foreign forest, as he tries to destroy his country's greatest weapon so that it won't fall into enemy hands.
This is the best part of the book. Krug's descriptions of combat are easy to visualize and haunting. The vast empty plains and the fear of his characters stick with you. Marcus, his best friend Vernon, and the overbearing but courageous Roberte de Auffay are all entertaining, realistic characters, though in many places the scene is stolen by Chaplain Stallings, a priest of the war god who quotes lines from scripture as he charges into battle, wearing a skull shaped helmet and wielding a giant mace. By the time they faced their inevitable defeat, I was on the edge of my seat and eager to see what comes next.
But when a captive Marcus is dragged back to the Kydonian court, all the life is sucked out of the book by the Kydonian leader Nadiya. She intrigued me when she was mentioned in the first book--a young woman thought dead for many years, who had returned to claim her crown and win her kingdom's independence. I thought she would make a good counterpart for Marcus, who's lead a relatively privileged life, to meet a royal woman who had to fight for everything she had.
Unfortunately, Nadiya turned out to be a huge disappointment. She's beautiful, hates violence, argues about the values of democracy (which felt so out of place in this alternate universe), and is so compassionate everyone who meets her thinks she's an angel. While her personal flaws are mentioned--like an over-fondness of alcohol--they never impact her in a negative manner. Despite being alone in the world from a very young age, she needs Marcus to protect her. Everyone goes out of their way to say how much they love her and anyone who doesn't love her is probably a villain. Marcus, even though he's a great warrior and leader, can also be very judgmental and rude.
The inevitable love affair between the two feels so forced. Marcus goes from an irresponsible playboy in the first book to a devoted husband on the turn of a dime. There's no development there. The scenes between him and Nadiya are so gushy they feel fake. Aside from a few misunderstandings at the beginning of their courtship, there's no tension between them at all, and real relationships aren't like that. I'm not saying that the author made Nadiya a Relationship Sue on purpose, but his attempts at giving her flaws are weak, especially since her two flaws (an overactive libido and a drinking problem) either benefit Marcus or don't negatively impact her in a major way (for example, she drunkenly cheats on him). Every other page, we're constantly reminded of how much they love each other.
At the start of the book, I thought I could read five more books easily set in this world. Krug writes great conflict, and this book is worth reading if only for the first part alone. But for a story to be truly believable, all aspects have to be up to par, and bungling the main romance story line is an excellent way to screw up your plot for good.
My rating? As epic fantasy, three and a half stars. As a novel, three.
You can find Kydona: From Ashes here. You can also find my book, Iceclaw, here.