Book Review: The Crimson Campaign by Brian McClellan (spoilers)

Well it’s about time I got to reviewing this book. I’ve actually read it twice now; the first was more than half a year ago, but I never got around to writing a review. As the time passed, and I picked up my copy of the third book in the Powder Mage Trilogy, The Autumn Republic, I realized that I still wanted to write up a review, but it had been so long. So I reread it a few weeks ago (and I am now speeding through The Autumn Republic.) I don’t tend to reread books that often, mainly because there’s always something new to read, but rereading can be fun in its own way, and I thoroughly enjoyed rereading The Crimson Campaign, and I can properly write up a review now, in my usual style, though as this is the second in a series, it’ll be a little different (as I will try to avoid repeating things said in the review of the first book.)

Setting: I said a lot about the setting of this series in my review of the first book, so I won’t repeat too much here. Suffice to say, I really enjoy this setting, both for the level of technology, as most epic fantasies (my own included, so far) tend to be set in a very low-tech world, while the Powder Mage Trilogy is set at a technological level I’d place as roughly analogous to Earth’s 1700s or 1800s (maybe a little earlier), and McClellan doesn’t just stop at the technology, but also brings with it a level of social change that changes the world in a different way, also mirroring shifts that happened in our world, while still remaining purely fictional with some other cultural aspects (such as men and women having pretty much equal standing in the military, something we do not see in our world to this day, with an increasing number of exceptions.)

I also very much liked the fact that McClellan seemed to draw both inspiration and character names from more of a central & eastern European base than most similar books, which generally draw on primarily western Europe.

As for The Crimson Campaign itself, while we don’t see a huge amount more of the world (though we do get to see a Deliv city, and delve deeper into Adopest, arguably the central location of the story, we do spend a lot of time with the Adran army, which itself is its own setting, complete with politics, personal agendas, and its own organization and culture. It’s also good to continue to see the aftereffects of Tamas’s revolution way back at the start of Promise of Blood.

Characters: In The Crimson Campaign, we have the same cast of viewpoint characters as before, but they fluctuate in importance/how much focus is placed on them this time as both their stories and the overall plot progresses.

As before, we’ll start of with Field Marshall Tamas, who was arguably the main character of the last book, but takes somewhat of a back seat as his plotline leads him away from all the other major characters. This time, after being betrayed by his own (unbeknownst to him at the time), is trapped behind enemy lines with only two brigades of his own men–a hopeless situation, it would seem, but Tamas is not a man who lets the odds get to him. Complicating matters, however, is his worry over the status of his son Taniel, who, last he heard, was in a coma after the climax of Promise of Blood, and Tamas also struggles to reconcile with Vlora, one of his best powder mages and Taniel’s ex-betrothed. While last book we saw Tamas in a position unfamiliar to him, leading a revolution and dealing with its aftermath, we now see him fully in his element, and it’s a pleasure to see him thrive in it even as other things weigh on his mind, particularly as things become more complicated near the end of the story.

Next we have Adamat, who, as with last time, has more of a mystery/thriller type plotline as opposed to the more ‘epic’ plots going on with some of the other viewpoints. But in exchange, we see how personal things have become for him, with his family having been threatened and kidnapped. Fortunately, we get a bit of a breather when most of his family is rescued early on, but Adamat’s wife and eldest son remain hostages of the mysterious and sinister Lord Vetas, who himself is merely a piece (if a major one) in a much bigger scheme. We’re kept quite on edge for much of this, and we get to see Adamat at his most desperate, and how far he is willing to go to save his family. It’s also thanks to this plotline that the very fun side character Privileged Borbador re-enters the story, which also later on connects to Taniel’s story.

Speaking of Taniel, he’s not exactly in the best place mentally at the start of this book, due to the traumatic events of the end of Promise of Blood. After he gets over his PTSD and an addiction to mala, an opium-like drug, he finds out that he is essentially the last powder mage in the country (and the army, the rest having gone with Tamas on his behind enemy lines mission and presumed dead along with him.) His return to the army along with his companion (and as time goes on his love interest) Ka-Poel, however, is not what he expected. With Tamas gone, things have begun to crumble, and Taniel’s issues with authority land both him and Ka-Poel in serious trouble with one of the officers in charge now, General Ket. His plotline, therefore, in some ways becomes the most frustrating as well as, in my opinion, the most compelling from a reader’s perspective, in large part because we are privy to more information than the characters, and thus can yell at them for being shortsighted. Eventually, Taniel finds himself essentially single-handedly keeping the army in the fight, while simultaneously fighting the top brass, who he begins ti suspect is not operating with Adro’s best interests in mind.

Our final viewpoint character, Nila, has a more significant part to play this time around. Now she finds herself in the employ/captured by the same Lord Vetas who Adamat is after, which puts her in close connection to Adamat’s wife as well as the young noble she has been keeping safe since last book. While her circumstances are far from ideal, and there is little active resistance she can mount, Nila gradually moves closer to that point, and by the end finally takes some action against Vetas. Her role here is still on the smaller side, but things point to her having a bigger role to come (and, as I’m over halfway through the third book in this series, I can safely say that she does.)

The side characters continue to shine through very strongly, and serve both to keep things fun and to deepen the world, from gods (Mihali), to the already mentioned Borbador, to people very much involved in day to day activities and the larger plots (Ricard, Olem, Vlora, and Fell), to those with major roles, such as Ka-Poel, who McClellan manages to make stand out despite the fact that she never speaks. None of these side characters feel tacked on or one-note, and it’s fun when they link multiple plotlines (such as Ricard with Taniel and Adamat).

Plot: I covered some of the plot already with the characters, and this is already running long, so I’ll try and keep this brief. Last time around I compared McClellan’s writing, and his plot unfolding/pacing to that of Brandon Sanderson, who he studied under, though McClellan definitely had his own unique voice. I would say that he differentiated himself further in Crimson Campaign, but without losing anything from the storytelling. The pacing remains superb, and McClellan consistently picks the best places to end a chapter and switch viewpoints. I think the best praise I can give, however, is to say that as much as I want to see what happens next in someone’s plotline, I’m just as happy to return to someone else’s. The middle book in trilogies notoriously lag a bit and often feel more like a bridge to the climax in book 3, but here I did not get that feeling. Even rereading it, when I remembered most of what was going to happen, I couldn’t put it down, and I very much enjoyed returning to these characters. And the way things end only serve to heighten the tension and stakes for the third installment. (As much as I warn my reviews contain spoilers, I really don’t want to give things away unless I feel it necessary.)

Magic: My traditional final category of analysis actually has a bit going on this time, where usually in series there is less to discuss in later books as we already know how things work, more or less, at least as far a the powder mages and privileged go (though they’re not as fully explained in detail as, for instance, Brandon Sanderson’s magic systems are (another difference between the two), though we understand both systems well enough for the magic to be used to get our heroes out of trouble without things being contrived.

In The Crimson Campaign, we also get to see more of the even less defined magic systems, such as that of the gods Kresimir and Adom, as well as Ka-Poel’s powerful and mysterious abilities, all of which fit nicely into the story and the world, thought I would hope to learn more about Ka-Poel’s magic in the future (and we do definitely get at least some more info in the following book.)

I suppose the last magical addition to this book are the black powder wardens. We saw wardens, the magically twisted and enhanced men in Promise of Blood, but now the antagonistic forces have started turning powder mages into warden, which makes them resistant to black powder attacks and general more difficult for powder mages to take down. It’s implied that this is tied somehow to Kresimir, but not fully explained. And of course, the Knacked, people who don’t have obvious magic but have some sort of enhanced skill, such as Olem not needing to sleep at all or Adamat having a perfect memory, are still present. All in all, a solid progression of the magic. While there aren’t really huge new revelations, there’s enough new and enough mystery left to keep it intriguing and still a viable way of solving problems.

I think that’s about it for now, and I should cut myself off before this review balloons further (and I really should start packing for my 12 hour flight back to New York). Suffice to say, I very much enjoyed this, both on first read and reread, and it’s a stellar middle book of the trilogy. I’d say I’m looking forward to the next one, but I’m already over halfway through it, so expect my thoughts on it soon (I hope.)

So until next time, keep on reading, and writing! I know I’ll be.

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