I really enjoyed the first book of the Powder Mage trilogy, and was, in many ways, even more impressed by the second. After the ending of the first bo..Show More »ok, I was a bit worried that this novel would represent the typical weak middle of a fantasy trilogy, especially a trilogy by a new writer, but McClellan does a great job of both upping the stakes and the action, as well as providing many twists without punching too many holes in the plot. In short, if you liked the first book, this one has more magic, more detective work, and more Napoleonic battles, and is generally better in every way.
Except... There were a few annoyances that crept into this novel. The first was purely stylistic. McClellan really likes cutting between his characters, leaving them at cliff-hanger moments to jump to the next POV. While this can sometimes build excitement and suspense, it starts to get a little tiring, as plots are interrupted at key moments, and sometimes only returned to after the action is complete. It isn't terrible, but it did bother me at particular points.
The second problem is a bit deeper. McClellan is not particularly good at writing about relationships. He tells us that people love each other, but it is usually completely unconvincing. For example, the ex-fiancee of one of the main characters is someone we are apparently supposed to care a lot about, but she remains a cypher, as does the relationships between most of the other couples in the novel. Some time is spent on her motivations, but it is hard to really get invested in it, given how little personality or back story she has.
At the root of this, the problem really seems to be that McClellan has trouble writing women, a not altogether unheard-of problem in fantasy. His main female characters are all rather odd and one-dimensional, ranging from mute women to venial generals to the strangely maternal and sketchily-written laundress. With one exception, there really is no overt issue here, it isn't like the author seems to have a problem with women or placing them in positions of authority or power, more that he doesn't feel comfortable using them as characters, which results in some oddness in the novel, especially in relationships. (The exception, by the way, is that in this novel McClellan uses rape, and the threat of rape, quite a bit in ways that seemed unnecessary and uncomfortable).
Don't let these criticisms turn you away from the series, which really is quite good, and better than most epic fantasy. The worldbuilding is terrific, the action is great, and the reading is superb. I am already downloading the next one as I write this review.
A testament to the Powder Mage Trilogy: I listened to all three books, over 50 hours of it, in a row. While I had issues with some of the series (esp..Show More »ecially the middle book), it ends on a high note, as The Autumn Republic has many fewer issues -- especially with plotting, token women, and well-rounded relationships -- than either of the former novels. Further, the action remains excellent, the characters get more interesting, and the pace only increases.
It also works well as a final book. In what was a bit of a surprise given the sprawling world-building, almost all of the loose ends of the novels are wrapped up satisfactorily, and the many twists in the novel turn out to evolve naturally from hints laid down in the earlier books. Even better, after a rather grim second book, McClellan finally decides that, despite the low-magic world and constant warfare, he is not really writing grimdark fantasy, but rather the kind of novel where everything works out in satisfying and mostly unambiguous ways. There may be other novels about the powder mages, but this trilogy is a complete work on its own.
This means that, if you haven't read the series, you should. Despite occasional issues, it is engaging trilogy, and one of the best new voices in fantasy in the last couple years. And very well read, as well!