There is way too much that I’m excited about in this second book. I remember this one so vividly because it had me screaming. Like, what an excellent example of a middle book that not only acts as a bridge within the trilogy, but holds its own. ICYMI, here is the review for the first book in Katy Rose Pool’s The Age of Darkness trilogy, There Will Come a Darkness, and, as before, this will contain spoilers. I don’t know how to make there not spoilers because I have too many things I want to shriek about, and the fact that the preorder incentive is an Anton chapter in Jude’s POV has just got me feeling all the feels.
Grace and Fire
I think one of the things that makes this book such an excellent middle book is that the structure of it is almost written like a first book. There are four parts to this one, and the first one is almost exactly what you’d expect out of the beginning of a first book. A really good trilogy, I think, has its biggest cliffhanger at the end of the second book. There’s a sort of cliffhanger at the end of the first, but you know that everyone is okay, for the most part, and where they’re all at. We’re on mostly steady ground, and though there’s a lot of work ahead, we’re prepared for the second book. (Fair warning, the cliffhanger for the second book is wild.). A lot of the time, though, I see the big cliffhangers happening at the end of the first book, and I think that’s a big portion of the problem with why so many middle books just don’t work. To get to a huge series cliffhanger, you’ve got to build up a lot of emotions, action-driven plot, and massive amounts of character development. There’s so much work going into that titular series cliffhanger that to stick it at the end of the first book is just setting the second book up for failure.
Instead, series like The Age of Darkness and Girls of Paper and Fire and The Shadow Game are so damn good because they treat their second books almost like an additional first book. The huge series cliffhanger is at the end of the second book, and the opening 100-200 pages are mostly exposition. We’re not quite back at the beginning, getting to know everyone, but we’re getting to know them as they stand now. We’re at a much different place in the plot, and you’re almost guaranteed to be in new locations, and there’s a whole lot of information that’s probably been dumped at the end of the first book, so allowing your readers the space to really settle back into the story, to get a feel for what all the rules are again, to dig into the foundation you’ve created and feel solid in their footing again–that’s why books like As the Shadow Rises and Girls of Storm and Shadow and King of Fools are so damn good.
One of my favorite examples of this is with Hassan. I’ll be real with you, Jude & Anton are mostly in the same headspace as they were in the first book. Jude is doubting literally everything, and his doubts are only going to grow bigger and more staggering as the book goes on, which is exactly what he needs, but we’re in familiar territory with him when it comes to that. Anton is both slowly getting stronger and just absolutely shattering to pieces, and that’s along the same vein, too. Even Ephyra and Beru–they’re both in relatively familiar mindsets, and that really works for re-grounding the reader in the story and allowing us to say, “Okay. I know where I’m at. All of this makes sense for these four characters, which gives me space to focus on what the hell is happening with Hassan.”
Pool does an excellent job of maintaining a balance in the subgenres of fantasy just overall, but especially in this first part. She could have very easily bogged everything down with the political machinations that are happening in Hassan’s section of the story, but, instead, she held that weight in line with the lore and main plot with Jude & Anton and the deep emotional struggle and question of morals with Beru & Ephyra. It’s such a rich balance of a lot of different things that while Hassan’s section has the opportunity to feel overwhelming, it’s instead really refreshing. All of these characters are in such bad places mentally in a way that makes me empathize so much for them that it’s actually really nice to have a sometimes unlikeable character.
And look, I love Hassan to pieces, I really do. I love the way that Pool has written his character arc, and I think it’s honestly masterful how she’s peeled apart his character. Because I get where he’s coming from all the damn time, but he’s also annoying as hell. I just want to shake him half the time. When he gets all kings don’t listen to the sons of lesser nobleman, I’m just like HASSAN MY DUDE FUCKING SIT DOWN, but I’m also kind of cheering. And I love that we get that on top of everything else. Part two is going to be insane as Anton & Jude’s story kicks into high gear, as we start to really dive into the emotional trauma that’s happening between Beru & Hector, as we veer off a bit into Pirates of the Caribbean vibes with Ephyra, and all of that could have easily spun out of control if it wasn’t for Hassan. Weirdly, because he’s the unknown variable in the beginning of this book–everything is uncertain for him, for his people, and for his place in the story–he becomes the ground that we’re going to need to stand on as upheaval strikes everywhere else.
I could keep rambling along this same line of thought for several paragraphs, so I’m going to try to cut myself off here, but the tl;dr of it is that this book is such an outstanding middle book because it takes its time in the beginning.
Blood and Mercy
This is it, y’all. This section is what makes this book such a perfect middle book. Although Pool has really stretched out the world building and character development to make this an excellent middle book, she’s done something even more wonderful in this section. Most fantasy series stop before they get to this kind of in-depth world building, which is why most trilogies make me want to pull my hair out. It’s all surface level, and it works well for a solid story, but it doesn’t get much beyond that, and it oftentimes means that trilogies are difficult to actually make worth it. But this section?
Not only does Pool crack open characters like Hassan and set them off on a path that was not at all expected, she takes the world building that’s already been created around Anton & Jude’s roles as Prophet & Keeper of the Word, and she’s expanded them even more. And it’s not just unnecessary expansion for the sake of making a trilogy worth it. The lore that she weaves into their story is lore that’s been hinted at throughout the first book and that now makes sense in the second book. Of course the Nameless Woman is going to show up again. You don’t just introduce a character like that and sprinkle her throughout prophecies, even if we didn’t know it yet, without utilizing that in a big way. Of course Anton has to go home. Which! Oh! My! Gosh! Let’s talk about that for a hot minute.
When we’re first introduced to Anton, he is our collective YA dreamboat. He’s soft and scared, he clings to self deprecation and humor, he really would just like to take a nap and be left alone, and he’s got some heavy af trauma. He’s been avoiding his Grace for so long because to dive into it means reliving the awful nightmare of his childhood. For years, he’s been running from the false memory of his brother drowning him in a lake, and Pool could have stopped there. We all would have loved that and went on our way. Instead, she starts to hint that it might be false until, finally, Anton is forced to confront his Grace and the prophecy that he’s been running from, that he created a false memory around so that he could survive the trauma of what happened to him. And now, as we get closer to the end of this second book, it’s to find that not only was it a false memory and something to hide the Last Prophecy, it’s even bigger than that. Because of course we need to dig into where Graces come from and why they’re so deeply interwoven with the Last Prophecy and the current political climate. And of course that’s going to need to connect with what the Last Prophet has been running from for his entire life.
It’s just superb storytelling. I would be zero percent surprised to find that Pool had written the entire trilogy before publishing the first one because it’s so well put together that she had to know where she was going before she let see readers see where it began.
I would be remiss, of course, if I didn’t also take a moment to shrilly shriek about the beauty that is Anton & Jude, but y’all know. I live for them. Pool just posted truly the most relatable content the other day, and–
Faith and Lies
DON’T EVEN START WITH ME. I love this section so much. We’re finally getting to the good stuff, and everything is starting to chaotic and wonderful. There’s so much good about this section–Anton going back home, Hassan being just the absolute worst, Ephyra going off the deep end, Beru deciding she’s ready to die just in time for another round of holy shit what, and Jude just being Jude because see above.
Ephyra & Beru are probably my favorite in this part because they’re really the big players here. Everything that happens to Anton & Jude makes sense and follows a path that we’re hoping for. They’re getting closer emotionally, there’s some physical tension, Anton’s starting to gain a little confidence in himself, and Jude is finally confronting his doubts and taking what he wants from the world rather than just letting it take, take, take from him. But Ephyra & Beru are on a crash collision toward the end, and they’re what’s going to drive us toward the insane cliffhanger that’s coming up, and I love that. Pool takes so much time to dive into each of her main characters throughout the books, and though we’re always checking in with each of them, one or two are always going to take the main stage for a bit. And it’s the perfect time for Ephyra & Beru because everyone else is in a place that feels expected–we’ll get to Hassan in a minute–and it’s almost starting to feel calm now, so let’s shake things up a bit.
A bit, HA! Gosh, it’s about to get wild. For the entirety of the first book, Ephyra has struggled with what she might become if she ever lost Beru, and while they did split at the end of the first book, Ephyra was still focused solely on saving her sister for much of the second book. And though we know that Beru is alive, Ephyra doesn’t yet, and the way she’s just utterly spiraled out of control in this section makes so much sense. When she kills the Daughters of Mercy, it’s horrific and terrible and monstrous, and it fits so well with her character arc. This is what she’s been afraid of for the whole story. This is exactly what she’s been trying to avoid. Because without Beru, who is she? It feels like an impossible, awful question to consider, but now that she’s faced to consider it, we finally get to see Ephyra truly self-destructing. And it’s fitting because of who Ephyra is and how often she’s walked this line between morally questionable and just downright abominable. Her opening line is literally about her killing a priest. There was no way that she was going to come out of this smelling like roses, and I’m glad that Pool let her go this far.
Beru is such an important character to check in with right now, too, not just because we’re going to get a lot of lore and shocking twists from her, but because she’s constantly being referred to in Anton’s sections, and, at the end of the day, he really is the core of this story. His Prophecy is what everything else rests on, but we’ve gotten so little of Beru that now that everything else is starting to come together and our characters are getting closer & closer to actually being in the same space as each other, we need to see more of Beru, and it’s so good. Of course she & Ephyra nearly cross paths. Of course Beru ends up at the mercy of the Necromancer King. Of course Hector’s life is threaded deeply with hers. Of course she’s going to be the one to bring about the Age of Darkness. Everything is pointing toward Beru, and the amount of emotional character development that we get in this section with her is excellent.
And oh, Hassan. I love Hassan so much. He’s easily one of the most unlikeable characters out there, and the way that Pool has written him is just perfect. The trajectory of his character arc is not something I think I’ve seen often in YA fantasy when it comes to princes trying to become kings–it’s usually a pretty vanilla story with a highly redeemable or beloved prince–and I love him so much because of how complicated his character is. There are very often times that I don’t want him to succeed, or that I’m angry with his decisions, and yet, I completely understand why he’s doing what he’s doing, and that’s what makes it so good. Hassan is unlikeable because he makes decisions that we would probably make in those circumstances. They’re usually a bit selfish, but also wrapped in good intentions, and they hurt because he hasn’t given them enough thought because he’s feeling rushed and overwhelmed. Hassan is us. He’s so very human, and humans are often so very unlikeable.
Death and Rising
THAT ENDING, THOUGH. I love that it’s kind of a cliffhanger, but also not? It’s not in the sense that we know where everyone is, and we know that they’re all alive, but it is because what the hell do we do now. The setup here is just perfect for a second book. Not only has Pool worked her way through a successful middle book, she’s left enough of the lore & plot to still be solved in a third book, and it makes sense where we are at the end of the second book in the overall arc of a trilogy.
But that ending. It reminds me of the episode in season two of Sense8 when all of the cluster finally gets to be onscreen together in the same country. Like, what an honestly mind-boggling experience it was to finally see these eight people flying and driving toward one another, and this had that same kind of energy. Knowing that Hassan was being dragged there by the Hierophant as Hector was stumbling across Ephyra again and drawing her into the fold as Anton was being led there by his prophecy, and then to have all of it culminate in Beru truly being the harbinger of the Age of Darkness and the Nameless Woman another lost prophet??
I am here, and I am ready. I could go on and on for paragraphs again, as I have done above, overexcited and freaking out, but the third book has officially arrived at my house, and I need to wrap up my current reads real fast so I can finally dive into this ending.