As we pick up with our heroes from Cold Iron, the first installment of Stina Leicht’s exciting flintlock fantasy series the Malorum Gates, they are in a wee bit of a jam. The country of Eledore has fallen. The king is dead, his scheming brother’s coup has failed, and Acrasia, a neighboring state that fears and hates the Eledoreans’ magic, has overrun the country and left it in ruins. The Acrasian army is currently tracking down and killing as many of the magical ruling kainen as they can get their hands on (and allowing wealthy citizens to pay for a “hunting license” to help them do it). But for the protection of Queen Suvi’s best friend, the Waterborne magician Dylan and his clan, the royal twins of Eledore would be dead as well.
As Blackthorne begins, the twins and their saviors are in hiding, bargaining with whomever they can, for whatever they can, to survive. The protection of the Waterborne, driven by contracts and necessity, will not last forever. And in the meantime, there are so many to protect—more refugees arrive every day. As ever, survival makes for strange bedfellows—including the cooperation of men they might have once considered enemies. Men like Blackthorne, a former Warden of Acrasia, tasked with tracking down and killing kainen in his own country, who instead helps them escape from Acrasia’s clutches. But why are he, and others like him, willing to fight alongside the very people their country has fought for generations? It’s a question his new allies would like an answer to. But it’s an answer no one may be truly ready to hear.
Meanwhile, the malorum gates, which keep out the shadowy creatures that rule the darkness and consume everything in their path, still loom large. Nels, Suvi and the healer Ilta completed the ritual to close the gates once, but the malorum seem to have a powerful new source of help to open them once more. It seems the entire continent of Vastmarke, not just the Eledoreans, may need to fear for its survival….
Cold Iron provided an action-packed beginning to this flintlock-and-sorcery series, and Blackthorne carries on at the same blood-pumping pace. This time, however, the action focuses on narrow escapes from creepy back alleys, the menace of lonely wildernesses, the coin-flip of whether a country cop is going to find the priest’s hole under your kitchen rug, the shocking betrayal. When you’re cornered, and have limited resources, open warfare is not a luxury that you can afford, and this installment is filled with the nail-biting thrills of the hunt—when the prey is human lives, and the stakes are extinction. The malorum are great scary villains, a mix of Doctor Who‘s Weeping Angels and George R.R. Martin’s White Walkers, and like that latter series, many citizens don’t understand the real danger they’re in, beyond the petty infighting they’re currently engaged in.
Blackthorne introduces us to the countries and peoples of the relatively sheltered Eledorean upper classes. Leicht places a lot of emphasis on showcasing the diversity of cultures her world encompasses, and the story is all the more interesting because of it. (I love seeing her fill out the world of Waterborne magic in particular, and the glimpses into the secrets workings of Acrasian society, which shed some light on what’s been a somewhat mysterious enemy up until now.)
And it’s great to spend time with these protagonists again: Queen Suvi, Ilta the healer, Nels, Dylan and his adorably wonderful love Dar. Nels in particular has made a bit of progress since the first novel, where his teenage boy-isms could be a trifle wearing; he’s definitely not perfect here, but I appreciate the author showing us an imperfect protagonist with a lot to learn. Most of the time, countries are led by people with major flaws, and the most you can hope for is that they want to get better. Our cast has that in spades, starting with Nels, but including Ilta, facing her fears of mental illness, and Suvi, lashing out at her burdens.
Human weakness and choice are also a running theme with the the new characters introduced here. Our major new protagonist, Andrew Blackthorne, is a man who has failed in so many ways, and done things many find unforgivable. He is a man whose very existence forces everyone who deals with him to clarify their position on one of the book’s major questions: how far gone must a person be deemed irredeemable? Can any amount of repentance be enough? Many of the other new Acrasian characters—the freshly minted but observant Warden Caius, the tough survivor Watch Captain Emily Drake, the professor-turned–councillor James Slate—find themselves having to make these hard decisions, and surprising themselves with their choices. It’s a fitting theme for a book set amid a war, when the only options are terrible ones.
Leicht strikes a solid balance between grimdark reality and the hope that people will choose, against all odds, to be their better selves. Like the first, this second installment ends with a bang, and a lot hanging in the balance. I definitely want to find out what happens next, and you will too.