I picked up these books last year, at FantasyCon (I think) and having read them I thought I'd throw a review together. Let's get on with it shall we?
Gav Thorpe's Crown of the Blood is a big, swords and sandals style epic with a sword and sorcery feel to it. It tracks the rebellion of a general from a big Roman style empire that has grown to dominate most of the continent its on. The protagonist, Ullsaard has risen through the ranks from a mere legionary to be one of the most gifted generals the empire has and feels that he's being slighted by an assignment to conquer a desert backwater. He colludes with another, similarly disgruntled character, the second in line to the throne who, despite the fact his elder brother is sick and may not live much longer is being told by his father that he cannot inherit the throne. Together the two men hatch a plan to rebel against the King (quite why the empire has a King and not an Emperor or a Caesar is one of the things that bugs me about the book). The rebellion goes ahead well enough, but at the last moment they're forced to flee, heading north to an obvious Britain analogue which is Ullsaard's home.
I liked the book up to about that point, or at least I liked the main plot line. It seemed original and the world building was good. It's a shame that after a strong opening Thorpe seemed to blunder into cliché, with it being revealed that (dun dun durr) our hero is in fact the bastard son of the current King, who had been saved from the evil machinations of the empire's priesthood by the man who he sees as a father figure. I honestly believe that the story would have been stronger if Ullsaard had had no blood ties to the royal family at all and it would have made the twist at the end less obvious (where we learn why the royal family is so obsessed with the bloodline and primogeniture).
The other thing I disliked was the secondary plot, which explores the rise to power of another man, Anglhan, a slave trader (or debt guardian as the book refers to him as) out in the barbarian territories that for some reason the Empire has not yet conquered - something that Thorpe doesn't explain, but seems to be saving for the next book. Whilst it serves as an interesting parallel to Ullsaard's rise to power, his being forged on victory on the battlefield and via the loyalty of his men and family; whilst Anglhan's is based on guile and just generally being untrustworthy but too useful to ignore or kill, it also makes the story feel bogged down and heavy, and generally longer than it should be.
In general, despite the alternative trappings this still feels very much like a traditional fantasy story, there's nothing very new here which is a shame because I feel the ancient world style setting should perhaps have allowed for some sort of innovation in terms of plot (for instance there was no need for Ullsaard to be related to the royal family, he could just as easily been a general who usurps the throne and founds his own dynasty and the story would have worked). In many ways it feels like there were many missed opportunities and the book could have been so much more.
Turning to Juliet McKenna's Dangerous Waters we find almost the reverse situation. This is a novel that is trying to do something different, which seems to be Ms McKenna's shtick a lot of the time, her previous series, the Lescari Revolution which has inveigled its way onto my reading list on the basis of Dangerous Waters and her appearances on the Fantasy panels at FantasyCon, tracks the rebellion in a fantasy world, with the common people finally growing sick and tired of the way their country is run.
Here the attempt to look at things differently comes in the form of the question "why shouldn't wizards go to war?" and the opening is quite confusing. It starts off referencing things from another series, probably the Lescari Revolution as our heroine, Jilseth, goes hunting for a rogue mage, Minilas, who has broken the wizard isle's famous oath of non-intervention and betrayed his employer to a group of corsairs who have been harrying the coast of, Caladhria, one of the world's kingdoms. What makes it slightly frustrating is that she never finds him, he dies in another book as far as I can tell, which makes me wonder slightly what the point of including him at all is, to be honest.
That aside, this establishes an interesting situation, where the mages are trying to hide the crime from the outside world, to prevent Minilas being used a weapon to blackmail them into intervening elsewhere, whilst at the same time being petitioned by the various barons and feeling like they have a debt to discharge to a noblewoman Lady Zurenne, who Minilas left widowed and traumatised by his behaviour.
Throw in two more strands, one where a disgraced soldier, Corrain, enslaved as an oarsman on a corsair ship, swears vengeance and escapes with the twin determination to spread the word of Minilas' betrayal and bring a wizard to defeat the corsairs, and another where a captured slave starts to prove his worth to the corsairs, and you end up with a situation that feels interesting, even if the politics of the wizard's island, Hadrumal, drag a little no matter how much back biting and skullduggery seems to go on. I suspect that the later volumes of the trilogy will bring this into sharper focus and make it feel more relevant than a simple argument about how far the mages should go to fit into the world.
I won't spoil how the novel ends, apart from to say that it's clear that the novel's conclusion will throw the question of whether wizards should go to war more firmly into the light. The interesting to me, is that the book is shorter than Crown of the Blood and yet feels like more is achieved during the pages and like nothing is wasted. Perhaps its because the events feel more concise and you can see how events contribute to the books denouement on all sides.
What unites these novels for me is there treatment of female characters, Crown of the Blood explicitly casts women into role of second class citizens (there seems to be a convention where one man can marry several women, as long as they're sisters and part of Ullsaard's interaction with one of his wives comes across as effectively being a form of rape). Their only path to power seems to be through manipulating men. Whilst this realistic, I suppose, it also left a bad taste in my mouth and it feels like an opportunity lost. What's worse is that this is just the accepted status quo, whilst Dangerous Waters takes a different tack, much to my relief.
Here, again, we find that women are second class citizens (though to be fair its suggested the Caladhria is a little backward in this regard), but because the protagonists are for the most part women we can feel how restricted their world is, how they are bound by conventions and traditions in the place of Lady Zurenne and by the feeling of indebtedness to male superiors (and perhaps a desire to please the archmage) in Jilseth's personal plotline. The difference is that by the end of the book you feel that things are starting to change for the characters, which was a relief as I really found the powerlessness of the women very hard to take, especially when it came things like Lady Zurenne not knowing how to defend her own home, which seemed rather ahistorical to me (but its been a while since I studied medieval history so perhaps I'm daydreaming the stuff about women running sieges during the Stephen and Matilda war).
Over all I felt that Dangerous Waters was the stronger novel, it seemed tighter and like there was less waste. Crown of the Blood felt like it had regurgitated old plot points, chiefly for the sake of it.