The Last Blade PriestW. P. Wiles (Angry Robot 978-0-85766-982-7, $15.99, 400pp, bp) July 2022.
Over the past two years, I’ve noticed a trend: literary writers are turning to epic fantasy. It all started – in my humble opinion – with Marlon James, best known for his award-winning novel Man Booker A brief history of seven murderswho, in 2019, wrote Black leopard, red wolflabeled as the ”African game of thrones.” A year later saw the release of Alex Pheby’s mordewan incredibly imaginative secondary-world fantasy novel from an author whose previous book, Lucy, was an experimental masterpiece about James Joyce’s daughter. This year saw the publication of Ottessa Moshfegh’s book Lapvone, which, while technically not an epic fantasy, has all the sinister qualities of the genre with its fictional medieval stronghold seething with violence, debauchery and magic. And now we have WP Wiles, who, when writing as Will Wiles, is known for dark, edgy, literary books like Parquet maintenance and The path inn who play in a liminal, speculative space. In contrast, his latest novel, The Last Blade Priestthe first book in a planned series, unabashedly embraces the tropes of epic fantasy – the political shenanigans, complex magical systems and enigmatic ancient gods – that make the genre so fun to read.
The Last Blade Priest centered on two protagonists, Inar and Anton. Inar is a master builder whose father – the chief builder – betrayed the Kingdom of Mishig-Tenh to the League of Free Nations, providing information on the weakest points in the capital’s defenses. Against his better judgment, but with little influence on the matter, Inar and his apprentice Lott find themselves in the service of the League, specifically a party led by Surveyor General Anzola Stiyitta, the deserved who broke into the city walls. In his role as a spy, Inar must report the activities of the League to the obnoxious Lord Chancellor of Mishig-Tenh. In his role as a guide, he and Lott will help the deserved walking the pilgrim route to Edith-Tenh, also known as the Hidden Land. It is the home of the Tzanate, a once powerful religious order that worships the Mountain and its bird-like demigod guardians. Edith-Tenh is also where we find our second protagonist Anton. He is a ver-tzan, one of two Blade Priests chosen at the age of eight to rip out the hearts of sacrificial victims and donate the bloody organs to the Custodians. Unlike his “sister”, Elecy, who relishes the practice – and is angered when the Custodians decide they have no appetite for human hearts anymore – Anton has always felt ill-suited to the role, confused as to why he was chosen to be a Blade Priest in the first place. His fate, however, is highlighted when the leader of the Tzanate, somewhat surprisingly, chooses Anton to replace him.
The success of an epic-fantasy novel relies heavily on world-building. Those who do it wrong tend to overwhelm the reader with dense historical detail, a blizzard of strange names and places, and a detailed diagram of the world’s magical system. WP Wiles does not make this mistake. Building on his day job – where he is a freelance journalist who writes about modern design and architecture – Wiles elegantly constructs his secondary world. For example, the quiet opening of the novel, where Inar and his crew repair the walls demolished by the League, and which includes Inar’s first encounter with the deserved and her ward Duna, foreshadows (although we don’t know it at the time) the chaos to come, the utter destruction of long-standing buildings and institutions. (This is a book covered in a layer of dust, sand and gravel.) Anton’s introduction is also handled with a level of foresight and sophistication. We are thrown into the middle of a conclave, an assembly of priests, without understanding the meaning of the event or why Anton wears the mask of a bird with a razor-sharp beak. Wiles refuses to interrupt the scene as it unfolds, withholding an explanation of the Tzanate, their rituals, and the growing schism between the chief acolyte and the man supposed to replace him. When a massive bird with sharp talons appears, much to the horror of the temple priests, we are told it is a guardian and no one is left the wiser. As strange as the scene is, Wiles leaves no doubt that Anton is deeply uncomfortable with his role as the blade priest. All of this is not to say that the world-building is opaque or takes a back seat, but rather an appreciation of how well it fits into the structure of the novel.
As the plot heats up, the death toll rises, and Anton and Inar’s paths cross, the originality of the world Wiles created, a world he hoped would pay homage to the adventures he read in his childhood, shines through. While the magic system is not particularly radical or subversive (what we see is essentially the manipulation of matter on a subatomic level), the fact that magic users are considered abominations (they are called plagues), coupled with the revelation that Duna, Anzola’s prickly young ward, is a scourge of ruin, adds a level of tension and drama that is as much about the characters (especially Inar’s reaction to Duna’s identity) how magic works. I also loved Wiles’ delightful twist on the traditional elf, the novel’s antagonists. Kept off-screen for much of the story, when they do appear, they’re as violent and unstoppable as they’re meant to be. That’s not what makes Elves so cool, though. The reveal of their true nature – which I wouldn’t dare spoil – is both brilliant and something I’ve never seen done before.
Because there is so much to read, I tend not to pick the second book in a series (regardless of genre). But that won’t be a problem here. Although Wiles doesn’t end the first volume on a cliff-hanger, the climax, which opens up several tantalizing possibilities, promises a sequel that’s likely to be as cleverly structured and elegant as The Last Blade Priest
Ian Mond likes to talk about books. For eight years, he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently, he relaunched his blog, The hysterical hamster, and again publishes mostly vulgar reviews of an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at [email protected]
This review and others like it in the July 2022 issue of Venue.
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