The Last Blade Priest, W.P. Wiles (Angry Robot 978-0-85766-982-7, $15.99, 400pp, pb) July 2022.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve noticed a trend: literary authors turning their hand to epic fantasy. It began – in my humble opinion – with Marlon James, better known for his Man Booker award-winning novel A Brief History of Seven Killings, who, in 2019, penned Black Leopard, Red Wolf, labelled as the ‘‘African Game of Thrones.’’ A year later saw the release of Alex Pheby’s Mordew, an incredibly imaginative secondary-world fantasy novel from an author whose previous book, Lucia, was an experimental masterpiece about James Joyce’s daughter. This year has seen the publication of Ottessa Moshfegh’s Lapvona, which, while technically not an epic fantasy, has all the grimdark qualities of the genre with its fictional medieval fiefdom simmering with violence, debauchery, and magic. And now we have W.P. Wiles, who, when writing as Will Wiles, is known for his dark, edgy, literary books like Care of Wooden Floors and The Way Inn that play in a liminal, speculative space. In complete contrast, his latest novel, The Last Blade Priest, the first book in a planned series, unashamedly embraces the tropes of epic fantasy – the political shenanigans, complex magic systems, and ancient, enigmatic Gods – that make the genre so much fun to read.
The Last Blade Priest centres 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, supplying intel on the weakest points in the capital city’s defences. Against his better judgement, but with little say in the matter, Inar and his apprentice Lott find themselves in service to the League, specifically a party led by Surveyor General Anzola Stiyitta, the merite who breached the walls of the city. In his role as spy, Inar is to report the League’s activities back to Mishig-Tenh’s odious Lord Chancellor. In his role as guide, he and Lott will aid the merite in surveying the pilgrim route into Edith-Tenh, also known as the Hidden Land. It’s the home of the Tzanate, a once-powerful religious order that worships the Mountain and its demigod, bird-like Custodians. 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 tear out the hearts of sacrificial victims and feed the bloody organs to the Custodians. Unlike his ‘‘sister,’’ Elecy, who revels in the practice – and is angered when the Custodians decide they no longer have an appetite for human hearts – 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 destiny, however, is brought into sharp relief when the head of the Tzanate, somewhat surprisingly, chooses Anton as his replacement.
The success of an epic-fantasy novel rests heavily on world-building. Those who do it poorly tend to overwhelm the reader with dense historical detail, a blizzard of weird names and places and a detailed schematic of the world’s magic system. W.P. Wiles does not make this mistake. Drawing on his day job – where he’s a freelance journalist who writes about modern design and architecture – Wiles elegantly constructs his secondary world. For example, the novel’s sedate opening, where Inar and his crew are repairing the walls demolished by the League, and which includes Inar’s first encounter with the merite and her ward Duna, foreshadows (though we don’t know it at the time) the chaos that’s to come, the utter destruction of long-standing buildings and institutions. (This is a book blanketed in a coating of dust, sand, and gravel.) Anton’s introduction is similarly handled with a level of forethought and sophistication. We’re thrown into the middle of a Conclave, an assembly of priests, with little understanding of the event’s significance or why Anton is wearing the mask of a bird with a razor-sharp beak. Wiles refuses to interrupt the scene as it unfolds, holding back an explanation of the Tzanate, their rituals, and the growing schism between the head acolyte and the man expected to replace him. When a massive bird with slashing talons appears, to the horror of the priests in the temple, we’re told it’s a Custodian and left none the wiser. As strange as the scene is, Wiles leaves us in no doubt that Anton is deeply uncomfortable with his role as a blade priest. All this isn’t to say that the world-building is opaque or takes a back seat, but rather, an appreciation of how well integrated it is into the novel’s structure.
As the plot heats up, as the death toll mounts, and as Anton and Inar’s paths cross, the originality of the world Wiles’s has created, a world he hoped would pay homage to the adventures he read as a child, shines through. While the magic system is not especially radical or subversive (what we see is essentially the manipulation of matter at a sub-atomic level), the fact that magic-users are considered abominations (they’re called scourges), coupled with the revelation that Duna, Anzola’s young, prickly ward, is a ruin scourge, adds a level of tension and drama that’s as much about the characters (especially Inar’s reaction to Duna’s identity) as it is about how the magic functions. I also loved Wiles’s delicious twist on the traditional Elf, the novel’s antagonists. Kept off-screen for a large portion of the story, when they do appear, they’re as violent and unstoppable as they’re hyped up to be. That’s not what makes the Elves so cool, though. The revelation of their true nature – which I wouldn’t dare spoil – is both brilliant and something I’ve never seen done before.
Because there’s so much to read, I’m prone to not picking up the second book in a series (whatever the genre). But that won’t be a problem here. While Wiles doesn’t end the first volume on a cliff-hanger, the climax, which opens up several tantalising possibilities, promises a sequel that’s likely to be as cleverly structured and stylish as The Last Blade Priest
Ian Mond loves to talk about books. For eight years he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently he has revived his blog, The Hysterical Hamster, and is again posting mostly vulgar reviews on an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at email@example.com.
This review and more like it in the July 2022 issue of Locus.
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