The Path of Flames by Phil Tucker
|Book Name:||The Path of Flames|
|Formatt:||Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook|
|Release Date:||April 5, 2016|
Just when I thought I wouldn’t soon read an indie fantasy book as beautifully crafted as Alec Hutson’s Crimson Queen, I was pleasantly surprised by Phil Tucker’s The Path of Flames. I’d known about The Path of Flames since its release, and had followed Tucker’s meteoric fantasy debut and subsequent releases; but, like my experience with Crimson Queen, I had a hard time getting into it. The Path of Flames starts with a brilliantly experiential epic battle—an orgy of beautiful writing that makes it feel as real as watching Saving Private Ryan. However, I had no reason to care about the viewpoint character at the start, and therefore had no stakes in this glorious battle. It wasn’t until I listened to the audiobook that I really got hooked.
I’m glad I did.
To me, the dual strengths of The Path of Flames lie in its elegant worldbuilding, and the memorable viewpoint characters. Tucker is brilliant in his creation of the path of ascension: a Hindu-like progression (or regression) of reincarnation, that establishes a race- and location-based caste system. Slaves, warriors, and scholars all come from different social classes, determined by location of birth. It feels so real in how this unique set of beliefs frames the characters’ understanding of their place in the world, as they strive toward the White Gate and Ascension, and try to avoid being cast through the Black Gate toward damnation.
As a reader of fantasy, I, like the characters, assumed Ascension to be the absolute metaphysical canon for this world. It was a fact, a part of the mechanics of the back story. However, as the narrative progresses, Tucker subversively introduces us to different interpretations of gods and death, both through history he establishes in tales, and also through a seemingly unrelated arc. By the end, I was questioning whether there really was an afterlife in this world, and whether or not the dogma he meticulously created was just a means of social control. It is delicious how opposing religious beliefs set up cross-cultural conflicts that help drive the story, and I wait with bated breath to see how it plays out.
Tucker’s imagination goes beyond constructing religions, to the creation of believable histories and wondrous places. His world is old, with a vibrant past that dictates how things are in the story’s present. Magnificent cities around which the individual castes live are all unique in design, from floating stone clouds of the wealthy, close to ascension; to towers rising out of the sea, where the learned scholars live; to underground caverns of the albino slave race.
Where The Path of Flames really shines is the characters. The novel is told through the eyes of Asho, Kethe, Iskra, Tiron, Audsley, and Tharok. All but the last are connected to the monolithic Lord Kipheron, and his death in the opening chapter set in motion a magnificently plotted story of political maneuvering and demons. They feel real in their hopes and fears, which are tempered to the religious tenets of Ascension.
Despite the sheer number of viewpoint characters, enough time was spent in their heads that I came to care and root for them – even if their goals sometimes conflicted with each other. Comic relief characters like the scholar, Audsley, lovable not just for his bumbling actions and monologues about lore and history, but also because he of his genuine nature.
The outlier with relation to Lord Kipheron is Tharok, who belongs to an orc-like race known as the Kragh. In fantasy fiction, we typically assume creatures such as the Kragh are the enemy to men at worst; and mercenaries working toward nefarious goals at best. Indeed, it looks like the Kragh fit the mold in the The Path of Flames. Even so, I found Tharok’s story to be the most compelling of all the viewpoint characters, as a magical object he finds opens his eyes and mind to great possibilities. I will be rooting for him as I delve deeper into the series.
The narrative prose is good, but not as elegant as the worldbuilding. I felt the internal voices of the viewpoint characters were different enough to distinguish, but the narrator’s voice still feels subtly omnipresent. With the unforgettable characters and creative, thorough worldbuilding, I would rate The Path of Flames a 10 out of 10. However, there is a minor but memorable location described as the Heart of Gold—basically a warlord’s tent in a shantytown—and there is only ONE Heart of Gold that belongs to speculative fiction, which resides in the iconic Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe. Because of this blasphemy on Tucker’s part, may he be thrown through the Black Gate! Thus, I can only rate The Path of Flames a 9.98.