Middle books are difficult things. They have to keep an established story moving at a brisk pace while giving readers just enough tantalizing new plot or character developments to keep them interested without answering all their questions or spoiling the series ending. After all, middle books are technically the part of the series that doesn’t really have a definitive beginning or end. (And in the world of fantasy, that means they almost always end in a cliffhanger.) It’s a challenging balance to strike and novels that are “in the middle of things” in this way can often be unfairly criticized for external narrative factors that aren’t entirely within the scope of the stories they’re telling
Author Victoria Aveyard is no stranger to writing doorstopper fantasy: her Red Queen series spans a quartet of five hundred plus page tomes and balances a trio of major POV characters. Her work is known for its intricate plotting, lush worldbuilding, compelling romances, and utter willingness to break with many of the traditional expectations of this genre. (And whether you loved or hated the ending of its final novel War Storm, you have to hand it to her for her willinness to take risks.)
Her new Realm Breaker series feels like a natural evolution for Aveyard as a writer—as a whole, it’s a generally more mature story with a massive cast of characters, a setting with its own complicated history and geopolitical problems, and a forthright adventure/quest premise that nevertheless leaves room for plenty of shades of gray within its lines.
Second installment Blade Breaker is very much an in the middle of things sort of book: Readers are immediately dropped back into the events that concluded the first novel with little to no exposition or catch-up, and the stakes simply keep rising from the story’s first page to its last. Having successfully closed one of the Spindles (a magical portal to another realm) that is threatening to destabilize and destroy the Allward, Coryane al Amarat, descendent of Old Cor, must pick up her magical sword (known as a Spindleblade), gather her loyal Companions (an immortal, an assassin, a squire, a warrior, a forger, and a witch) and begin the search for the rest of the portals. A hero’s work is never done, after all.
The bulk of Blade Breaker follows Coryane and friends on an extensive journey to the far corners of the Allward, as they search for Spindles and fight to close them. The book’s sweeping scope takes our heroes from the scorching sands of desert kingdom Ibal to the wild snows of the Jydi mountains to the north and the story’s propulsive feel and steadily rising tension make the simple act from walking from one town to another more interesting than it has any right to be.
The perspectives continue to rotate through the the main quartet of Companions, as Coryane slowly begins to come into her own as a woman and a leader, immortal Domacridhan learns to both care and grieve, and both assassin Sorasa and squire Andry grapple with letting go of the loaylties they left behind when they are faced with pieces from their previous lives. Sorasa’s arc is particularly rich and satisfying as she attempts to figure out who she is if she is not only no longer Amhara, but no is no longer sure she wants to be, and she is certainly the character who is asked to sever that previous connection the most dramatically. And while the sweet fliration between Coryane and Andry seems ready to blossom into something more, the book smartly keeps most of its romances simmering on the backburner, and none of the hinted-at potential relationships detract from the larger story its telling.
Elsewhere, Queen Erida of Galland aims to use her new husband Tarristan’s deadly powers —earned in service to a demon god from another realm— along with the skeleton corpse army he’s summoned from a desolate world known as the Ashlands to conquer the entirety of the Allward and essentially name herself Empress for Life.
Strangely, Erida remains this series’ most interesting and compelling character, a young woman who’s been underestimated all her life and forced to perform quiet obedience for the misogynistic men around her who is now willing to essentially commit genocide to force the world to bend to her will. Her decision to invade a neighboring kingdom is only the first pebble in an avalanche of horrifying and horrific choices over the course of this novel, though there are certainly moments where Aveyard allows you to wonder how harshly she would be judged for many of these choices if she were a man.
Aveyard’s decision to make the story’s villain (or, at least one of its villains) a POV character pays off primarily because she doesn’t attempt to make Erida or Tarristan terribly sympathetic, and simply allows them to be human instead. (Yes, even Tarristan gets a few moments of semi-openness as we learn more about his background.) And the dark attraction that appears to have developed between the the two is intriguing, as it highlights how desperately each has always simply wanted to be seen and appreciated for themselves. (Do I ship it? Yeah, I do.)
With Blade Breaker, Aveyard has crafted a conflict with real emotional stakes for every major character—and some supporting ones as well: Dom’s cousin Ridha gets plenty to do here—and created moments in which they are frequently forced to make seemingly impossible choices from a plethora of bad and worse options. There are complex, nearly overwhelming battle scenes and plenty of moments of genuine horror (most of which involve the aforementioned skeleton corpse army).
And, yes, the cliffhanger we were all expecting is here, a nail-biting climax that leaves every major member of the story in a drastically changed place, that will leave readers furiously refreshing Goodreads trying to find out when we’ll get to see the sequel. Not soon enough, if you ask me.
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Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.