On the strongest side of the middle book 'bridge' syndrome, Andy Remic really opens up the lives and histories of the Iron Wolves here, providing us with glimpses into who they really are, where they've come from, and what makes them tick. It's an approach that strips away some of the madcap cruelty of the first volume, humanizing the Wolves in such a manner that you can't help but sympathize with even the darkest of the lot. We heard a lot about their curse in the first book, but the story careened along at such a frantic pace, we didn't really have time to get to know them. It's only here that we begin to appreciate just how much they've suffered, and just how damaged they really are.
If the first book was General Dalgoran's tale, then this one is altogether Kiki's. It is she who now leads the Wolves, and she who provides the primary focal point for the narrative. As we learn here, her story is perhaps the darkest and most tragic of all, with the curse of the Iron Wolves paling in comparison to the curse of her birth. We get a lot more of her relationship with Dek here, but we also discover there are overlapping love/lust triangles within the Wolves, with desires both unexpressed and unrequited. It's odd, it's awkward, and it's a bit messy (especially when Zastarte starts taunting Dek with threats/promises of man-on-man lust), but it all makes a tragic sort of sense. Much to my surprise, it is actually Prince Zastarte who grows and develops the most here, with some rather pithy insights into both the human condition and the reasons behind his own cruelties. He was somebody I loved to hate in the first volume, but hated to love here.
"Ironic, that’s me, a creature of the King’s Court, a creature of lace and perfume and alcohol and oral sex; a beast of the hedonistic virtues of court and parties and afterplay; ironic that such as me would want to return to simple virtues."
As for the weaker side of the middle book syndrome, The White Towers comes across as a bridge between bigger story arcs. It begins with an underground flight from execution, with none other than King Yoon along for the ride as a prisoner/hostage. This is probably the most entertaining part of the story, with some great banter, really inventive threats, and some . . . well, troubling dialogue. As much as we have no reason to trust the madman, Yoon actually makes us question his motives, and wonder if the Wolves have saved the world from Orlana or just doomed it to something worse. I was surprised to see such doubt cast on the story, and to so successfully have such suspicions raised, but it definitely casts a new light on things.
The villains this time out aren't mud orcs but elf rats - twisted, cursed creatures with a dark affinity for the twisted, poisoned woods of their homeland. These guys are really creepy, with the ability to send out roots and tendrils that can either creep inside your head and steal your thoughts, or brutally rape your every orifice and tear you from the inside out. They're a more interesting race than the mud orcs, particularly given their sorrowful history, but it must be said their leaders cannot hold a candle to the over-the-top glory of Orlana the Changer.
"The rumour had gone round faster than a beautiful whore with syphilis. These were elf rats. Fucking elf rats. Returned to claim the land as their own; as had their ancestors; as the Dark Legends foretold, despite the words and pictures being banned from schools and libraries and museums."
It's with the elf rat story arc and the quest of the White Towers themselves that the narrative suffers some in terms of pacing and substance. There's a lot of waiting and traveling here, and despite some epic set pieces along the way (the salt plains were awesome), the climax seems somewhat rushed. In fact, if it weren't for the revelations about Mola (one of the 'lost' Iron Wolves), even the final sacrifices might have fallen a little flat - especially since I wonder how final they really are. Most frustrating of all, however, is the short epilogue in which a year-and-a-half of subsequent events are quickly summarized, with some big happenings just dropped in. I think, if the narrative had stretched to encompass that time period in the body of the novel itself, it might have felt a lot less like a middle book.
My minor quibbles about being a middle book aside, The White Towers was a heck of a lot of fun - and, in the grand scheme of things, it's probably better to come away wanting more, than feeling like the author packed in too much. The Iron Wolves are a fantastic lot, and the book doesn't suffer the slightest from the change in leadership. Once again, Remic mixes ample doses of pulp and profanity into his fantasy, with dark horrors balanced by even darker humor, creating a sequel that builds nicely on the original, and which absolutely demands a third.
Paperback, 464 pages
Expected publication: June 17th 2014 by Angry Robot