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Wraith Knight and Wraith Lord by C. T. Phipps – Double Book Review

Wraith Knight and Wraith Lord by C. T. Phipps – Double Book Review
3.5
Book Name: Wraith Lord
Author: C. T. Phipps
Publisher(s): Mystique Press
Formatt: Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy
Release Date: November 15, 2018

Wraith Knight (rating)

Spoiler Warning: This review contains spoilers for book one of the series. Please read with caution if you have yet to finish Wraith Knight.

When Wraith Lord, the sequel to C. T. Phipps’ outstanding Wraith Knight, opens, protagonist Jacob Riverson has a few problems:

1. He has two wives, and they’re mad at each other.
2. His ex wants to destroy him.
3. He’s dead.

To Jacob, the least remarkable of these three troubles is not being alive, because he’s been dead for several centuries. When we first meet him, in Wraith Knight, he awakens on a mountainside and realizes he has spent the last several hundred years as a corporeal ghost and slave of his world’s resident dark lord, the King Below. The forces of Light have just succeeded in killing this evil god, and Jacob’s will has been set free.

From there, Jacob sets out to restore his living body and resume his life, which he believes he can do with a particular magic item found in the King Below’s palace. Along the way, he befriends the paladin Regina and the dark mage Serah, who are besties despite their D&D alignments falling on opposite sides of the spectrum. He also makes enemies out of Empress Morwen and her Nine Heroes—the group of superpowered mage-warriors who teamed up to defeat the King Below.

Jassamine, Jacob’s first love, isn’t too keen on his survival either. An ultra-high-powered mage who has lived for centuries as the chosen one of the King Above (aka, the god of Light and the King Below’s opposite number), she’s a wee bit annoyed that Jacob knows all her dark secrets and is no longer inclined to keep them. Although history and convention have designated Jassamine, Morwen, and the Nine as the “good guys,” they all gladly employ torture and mass murder to achieve their ends.

Meanwhile, Jacob and Serah want to use their skills with black magic to bring justice and fairness into the world. Regina, a true paladin who is wholly committed to righting wrongs, abandons the forces of Light and teams up with Jacob and Serah. Jacob ends up failing in his quest to restore his living body. Instead, he assumes the King Below’s throne and rulership of the Shadowkind, becoming in essence, a god. Jacob also shares his new powers with Regina and Serah, elevating them to godhood as well.

Wraith Lord picks up the story six years later. The Triumvirate, as Jacob, Regina, and Serah are now known, have been busy stabilizing their governance over the Shadowkind, a tall order because Jacob released every orc, dark elf, troll, and other creature of darkness from thralldom. While trying to build a free, just, and peaceful society among peoples who have known only oppression and conflict, they’ve also been preparing for war with the Lawgiver’s side.

The first salvo comes by way of dragon, as Fel Hellsword, one of the Nine Heroes, pursues a rebel into Jacob’s territory. After an airborne battle, Hellsword’s forces retreat, and Jacob discovers the rebel dragonrider is Regina’s cousin Ketra. She begs Jacob’s aid in a brewing rebellion against Morwen’s tyranny, and they travel to the city of Kerifas, a bubbling cauldron of oppression, bigotry, and scapegoating. There, they uncover a false flag plot by the Nine that is designed to crush the rebellion and secure the allegiance of other city states within Morwen’s dominion. Faced with the prospect of thousands of innocents dying as collateral damage, the Triumvirate debates what to do:

“In politics, you are always either the player or the piece,” Regina echoed my thoughts. “Do we have much time until the city explodes into violence?”

“No,” Serah said. “The question is now whether this meeting should still take place given we know it’s just a set up for the Nine to eliminate their enemies.”

“Never overestimate your enemies any more than you underestimate them,” I said, rubbing my chin. “I sincerely doubt they expected the actual King Below to get involved in their plot. We’re also assuming a great deal. I wouldn’t be surprised if the plans of the Nine are less…evil.”

“Now who’s overestimating them?” Serah said, sighing. “We need to decide what our next move is.”

“It seems obvious to me,” Regina said. “Save the city from destruction.”

After that, all hell breaks loose.

There is so much to love in this series, which begins with the premise, what if a Ringwraith survived Sauron’s defeat in LOTR? Phipps runs with that idea into a philosophical exploration of good vs evil and means vs ends, and he puts fantasy’s most sympathetic dark lord at the center of the action. Jacob is an everyman whose desire to do the right thing is both his greatest strength and weakness (he would nail that job interview question!). His heart is always in the right place, and he’s more willing than anyone around him to grant his enemies mercy and forgiveness. But…he’s also a lifeless being of darkness who relies on necromancy to maintain his corporeal form and perform his godly feats.

The Wraith books hint at a larger cosmos outside the World Between, and Phipps has confirmed that The Wraith, Lucifer’s Star, and Agent G novels all take place in the same universe. In all his novels, Phipps addresses bigotry, intolerance, and injustice by featuring protagonists who would be the villains in a conventional fantasy (or science fiction). Yet Jacob is not an antihero, even if he occasionally does evil (such as killing some prisoners of war in order to use their life force to heal a mortally wounded friend). He is fully cognizant of the wrongs he has committed, both before and after his death, and his driving motivation is atonement. Nevertheless, it’s a difficult road for a conventionally heroic personality stuck in an avatar of evil’s form.

At first, things are a little easier. Jacob’s moral choices are relatively clear cut in Wraith Knight, where his goals are to find a cure for himself and, eventually, win security and freedom for an oppressed population. But in Wraith Lord, the crown weighs heavily as Jacob, Regina, and Serah have to make some ugly decisions about what, and whom, they’ll sacrifice to bring peace and justice to the world.

True to his usual form, Phipps writes in first person and litters the narratives with literary and pop culture references while he lovingly upends the high fantasy tropes we learned from Tolkien’s work and the Dragonlance novels. Wraith Knight, the stronger of the two books, is Phipps at his finest. The story is expertly crafted with vivid, often moving imagery and character development, and a narrative that superbly balances exposition, dialogue, and action. It is a frothy fantasy chocolate mousse loaded with nostalgia chocolate chips, but strong storytelling and philosophical ruminations give it substance, making for an eminently satisfying read.

As often happens with sequels, Wraith Lord suffers in comparison. There’s more telling than showing, and the balance between dialogue and action isn’t as finely wrought as it is in Wraith Knight. Nevertheless, Jacob’s struggle to sort out his personal and societal priorities continues to be moving, especially as he begins to reckon with the unique and independent powers of Regina and Serah.

Phipps has told me that the three characters are a “Freudian trio”: representations of the ego (Jacob, naturally), the superego (Serah), and the id (Regina). This insight fits with everything Phipps is trying to say about the nature of good and evil. Normally we equate the superego with the conscience and the id with our baser instincts. The superego is “good,” the id “evil.” But dark mage Serah, who values knowledge over morality, is not only the rational decision-maker of the group but the one most willing to put the “needs of the many ahead of the needs of the few, or the one” (to quote Star Trek).

Meanwhile paladin Regina acts almost entirely on her emotions. She is wholly committed to doing right, but her decisions are often wrong, which puts the team, and their goals, at risk. Jacob spends most of Wraith Lord in a fairly hapless state, torn between the impulses of his intellect (Serah) and his passions (Regina). This dilemma is part of his everyman appeal, but I hope in Wraith King, the next book in the series, Jacob strikes the balance and takes charge of himself and his world, because if he fails, he’ll lose, and this is one dark lord I’d like to see win the day.

Disclosure: I know the author and received an ARC of Wraith Lord in exchange for an honest review. I purchased my copy of Wraith Knight (originally reviewed on Goodreads in January 2018).

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4 Comments

  1. kile says:

    Oh, I read Cthulhu Armageddon and The Tower of Zhaal about half a year ago along with writing my assignment. After your review, I think I should try Wraith Knight. Dear A. M. Justice I would be pleased if you can tell me more good Fantasy books. Sometimes it hard to find the book what can hook you from the beginning.

    • Jennie Ivins Jennie Ivins says:

      Until she chimes in herself, this is a list of all the books AM has reviewed on this site so far. 🙂

      http://fantasy-faction.com/author/a-m-justice

    • A.M. Justice says:

      If you like Phipps’ style, he has a wide range of titles to choose from, including his Weredeer, Vampire, Supervillainy, Lucifer’s Star, and Agent G series. As I mentioned, Lucifer’s Star and Agent G are set in the same universe with the Wraith books, although Lucifer is space opera and Agent G is cyberpunk spy. The Weredeer and Vampire books are set in an alternate contemporary earth and feature regular folks with regular jobs who also happen to be shifters or vampires (eg, Jane Doe, the protagonist of the Weredeer series, works as a waitress and goes to community college, while Peter Stone, the main vampire character of his series, works as a clerk in a convenience store in Detroit).

      I’ve been reading a lot of indie books the past few years and authors I’ve liked include CC Aune, EP Clark, ML Spencer, Megan Mackie, and Rob Hayes. For indie authors, I recommend you follow the Self-published Fantasy Blog Off. Fantasy Faction is a participating judge and you can look at the books they’ve reviewed so far as well as go to Mark Lawrence’s blog to find the whole list. And of course I also recommend you keep reading reviews here on Fantasy Faction and pick up the books that strike your fancy. Happy reading!

  2. C.T. Phipps says:

    Awesome review. Thank you very much, Amanda!

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