How do you describe Steve McKinnon’s Wrath of Storms, the sequel to FantasyBookReview’s SPFBO4 finalist Symphony of the Wind? I’ve tried comparing it to everything from “a fantasy Die Hard” to “Indiana Jones with airships, siege battles, and psychic powers,” and all the comparisons I use end up sounding reductive and leaving out so many interesting aspects to this story. I’ve settled on calling it a high-octane, action-fantasy adventure laced with dry humor, a diverse cast of heroes and villains, and an infectious case of ‘just-one-more-chapter’ syndrome.
Five weeks have passed since the events at the end of Symphony of the Wind. Dalthea is struggling under its new government, and the Raincatchers have split up. Damien has elected to face his inner demons, while Gallows and Serena use their newly acquired knowledge to attempt a journey to a place that can help Serena with her gifts. But the chaos sown by rebels and warring kingdoms poses dangers from above and below. New threats emerge, old enemies rear their ugly heads, and unlikely heroes are forced into the spotlight. McKinnon deftly juggles the already-large cast from book one and somehow adds several more wrinkles to the mix in book two, but it never feels like too much of a burden to follow. I recommend reading the refresher page on the author's web site before starting Wrath to catch yourself up.
One of the greatest strengths of these books are how well the large action set pieces are described in so few words. They help me conjure easy visualizations without the need to bog us down with every detail. and help the pages fly by at an incredibly brisk pace. McKinnon also has a knack for making each scene feel fresh (although you figure that Gallows is going to be thrown through a window or kicked off a mountain every chapter or two, because, Gallows.) Everything else about the set pieces feel unpredictable, like the tide could turn at any moment. And it usually does.
After reading Wrath, I’m convinced McKinnon would be a great candidate to write a screenplay for an action film. He understands pacing, movement, working with a large cast, visualization, and evoking emotional change while being economical with the word count. All these traits combine to make this series pure fun; I didn’t want it to end. If anything mentioned above sounds the least bit appealing to your tastes, you owe it to yourself to pick up this series.
Adam Weller, 8.8/10
‘Myths. Stories. Everything has a history; the whole world’s a secret waiting to be uncovered.’
If anything gives a sense of what Steven McKinnon has created, it’s these words. This is a place layered with complexity, full of possibility. Whenever one question is answered, another twenty rush to take its place. It's worldbuilding done on a grand scale and in this second book, there’s even more room to explore. There’s travel into unknown lands, a glimpse of hidden mysteries, and an opportunity to know people that much better. Again and again, the past reaches out to shape the present, its hand offering wonder or destruction in turns. Each of the main characters, Serena, Gallows, and Damien, all look to their histories for something, and what they find may change them forever.
The whole book is a whirlwind. Like real life, it’s marked by the unexpected. If you think you know where a scene is going, just be prepared… because that’s the point right before you get bamboozled. One moment it’s a merry adventure, then it’s all blood spatter and screaming. To say that it’s action packed is a warning dangerously understated. Ancient magic and psychic powers, aerial and ground battles, terrorism and government conspiracy, genetically altered humans/monsters, pirates… McKinnon lets his imagination run wild and it makes for a genuine good time. Well, it certainly does for the readers, if not for the poor souls dying in horribly creative ways. This time round the plotting is tighter, much more focused. The reader was given a comprehensive education in the first book, with copious amounts of information and background for the world and the interwoven storylines, and the reward in Wrath of Storms is twofold. Primarily it means that its foundations are rock solid, from politics to people, everything is built on what came before. It might mean a quick refresh is needed if, like me, you read Symphony of the Wind some time ago, but there’s a handy recap guide on the author’s website so I recommend you make use of it. More gratifying is the excitement of feeling everything come together in clever or unexpected ways, threads constructed to make a pattern even better than you hoped. It's visible in the way that things only hinted about before become fully developed (Serena’s power, Damien’s past….!!!!), the ways people show who they really are, and how history offers up its own revelations. Whether by violence, guile, or accident, this uncovering of secrets is hard to resist. I had to force myself to make it last. And failed, as always.
‘Can you fight?’
Gallows struggled to stand. ‘Reckon I’d be more useful shouting words of encouragement as you run around kicking people in the face. Don’t suppose you got a gun?’
For characters, it’s all about change and growth. Everyone except Gallows, who is reassuringly himself. Not that he doesn’t have his moments of self-reflection and understanding, just that those don’t outweigh his tendency to get thrown out of windows. Ah, Gallows. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Most importantly, he doesn’t know when to shut up. Or he does, but doesn’t care. He’s the kind of guy who gets himself into a fight with odds far from in his favour and still makes time to snark about it. Pretty much every time I laugh out loud reading these books, it’s because of him. McKinnon does dialogue exactly right, with an assuredness that allows him to move from threat to humour to emotion with ease. And he’s especially good at the perfect attitudey comeback. So much so, in fact, that you really gotta wonder about him… Of course, Gallows is only one of the many great characters in the book. There are lots of old friends in attendance, with one in particular having a narrative arc so surprising I'm stunned it actually worked (but it did in spades), and some new faces too. I gotta say, when it comes to people, McKinnon doesn't do boring. While there's nuance in morality and motivation for most of them, he's also not afraid to offer pure villainy-a monster who does monstrous with relish. Damn, it's fun.
This is a more than worthy sequel to Symphony of the Wind, as fast and deadly as wildfire, full of heart and humour. All of us loved the first book at Fantasy Book Review choosing it as our finalist in the last SPFBO competition, and this is getting just as much enthusiasm. If you haven’t read the first book, I urge you to do so. It wasn’t just one of the best self-pub books I read last year, it was one of my favourites of 2018. And Wrath of Storms has easily made to on to my Best Books of 2019 list. Safe to say that I’m seriously excited for what comes next.
Emma Davis, 9/10
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