The Crimson Campaign by Brian McClellan
|Book Name:||The Crimson Campaign|
|Formatt:||Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / eBook|
|Release Date:||May 6, 2014|
The second book in Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage Trilogy, The Crimson Campaign, is graced by a cover – and quote – that swaggers onto the scene with a unique blend of machismo and world-weariness. Designed by Lauren Panepinto, the cover depicts Tamas, one of four primary point-of-view characters in the series, in the midst of a corpse-strewn battlefield, leaning heavily against his musket, blood still dripping from the bayonet. His gaze lingers on the bodies around him in what appears to be a moment of quiet contemplation (possibly even regret?), while the reader can’t miss the words lingering in the background: The hounds at our heels…will soon know we are lions.
The first book in the series, Promise of Blood, has an equally compelling cover, but the story was understandably less gripping out of the gates – after all, McClellan had to introduce our primary protagonists, explain the politics that quickly play a key role in the action and lay the foundation for the magical system. As McClellan delved deeper into the world and its characters, the story became far more gripping by the page, so much so that Promise of Blood won the Morningstar Award for best fantasy newcomer of 2013.
In an April 2014 interview, McClellan said he struggled to write The Crimson Campaign, eventually scrapping the outline he initially provided his editor and creating a new plot. The final version shows no such hesitation.
Much like the characters who ingest gunpowder to fuel their magic, the action immediately came into focus. Tamas begins his war against the Kez but is trapped behind enemy lines and presumed dead, while Adamat’s quest to reunite his family brings an urgency to his chapters that wasn’t as obvious when he was simply an investigator working on behalf of Tamas. Taniel Two-Shot, arguably the standout character in the series to this point, plays an even larger role in the action, struggling to hold Tamas’s army together in his absence even as it loses ground daily beneath the Kez onslaught.
As in almost all great fantasy series, the second book provides us additional insights into characters we already felt as though we knew. Tamas was already established as a beloved leader and gifted strategist with a long-established reputation as one of the great military minds of his generation, but The Crimson Campaign also shows the cracks within his facade. Early in the book, he’s outfoxed and caught behind enemy lines. Later, we see him uncertain in handling his personal relationships, especially as he deals with his brother-in-law and his son’s former fiancé.
With Tamas presumed dead, Taniel must carve out a new role in an army that varies wildly in its opinion of him. While some care little for his input now that his father is out of the picture, others recognize him as a valuable warrior and a man others look to for leadership. Even as Taniel tries to find his place in an army that has been rocked by his father’s absence, he struggles to make sense of his relationship with Ka-Poel, the mysterious, mute savage who has been by his side throughout the series and seems to be far more dangerous than her small stature would indicate.
Nila, a one-time seamstress, serves as the final point-of-view character, but her story still doesn’t have the focus or depth as the other characters’ focal chapters. It’s a curious weakness, as one of McClellan’s greatest strengths throughout the series is his ability to create interesting, three-dimensional characters that manage the trick of being instantly likeable even without much time on the page.
Olem’s steady presence was one of the best parts of Promise of Blood, and he’s enjoyable here as well. Other characters such as Mihali, Ka-Poel, Bo, Fell and Vlora really help to flesh out the world. The interaction between Taniel and Ka-Poel is especially interesting, as Ka-Poel never speaks and only communicates through gestures. Despite this, McClellan manages to make her a compelling, nuanced character even as she remains largely mysterious due to her foreign ways and her perpetual silence.
McClellan’s interest and skill in fleshing out his supporting characters not only gives his novels a sense of depth, but has also allowed him to publish popular successful short stories and novellas such as “Hope’s End,” “The Girl of Hrusch Avenue,” “Forsworn” and “Servant of the Crown.”
The magical system remains interesting, though McClellan doesn’t go into much depth into how it works or how the Adrans’ magical system differs from the Kez, taking a different approach than Brandon Sanderson, who actually taught McClellan at Brigham Young University. Ka-Poel’s magic is clearly very different from the other systems and the Kez seem to have their own brand of magic as well, but if you’re looking for a deep analysis of the magical system, you’ve come to the wrong place. McClellan’s decision to show us the magic at work without analyzing the rules is likely for the better, but some readers may find themselves wanting more.
In all, The Crimson Campaign is the rare middle book of a trilogy that actually kicks its pace up a notch. Both books in the series so far have been packed with action, but the real key to McClellan’s success is the depth he gives his characters. Amazingly, he manages to add even more nuance to the characters we met in Promise of Blood, giving us new insights to their pasts and their present while building intrigue for the third and final installment. It’s an amazing work, and has the series well-situated for an outstanding finale in The Autumn Republic due out next year.