A Lion's Pride by PL Stuart, The Drowned Kingdom Saga, Book #4 The cover features a golden heraldic lion on a blue background.

A Lion’s Pride by PL Stuart

“being a king is a cruel honour.”

I’ll start by saying that reviewing this book without spoilers is not going to be easy. This novel is all about the plot, and it’s a huge turning point for the series. Unusually, the impact of A Lion’s Pride ripples back through the first three books in this saga, and will doubtless be pivotal in the final three instalments as well. Please note this review therefore contains spoilers for the first three books in the series.

The prologue and what follows in A Lion’s Pride is a complete game changer, as PL Stuart whips out the rug from under your feet and makes you reassess everything you read and assumed up until now in the Drowned Kingdom Saga. The novel then continues in this vein, with the first two chapters focussing on Mag the Mighty and the warrior Rupaa, the illegitimate daughter of one of his earls, far to the north in Norsoon. Stuart has always written with a vast fantasy world in mind, and whilst the reader’s focus has been on Othrun’s exploits in Eastrealm for almost all of this series, it is soon clear that the other characters in this tale have not been idle.

When the story turns back to Othrun we find a more isolated figure. He is on bad terms with his once unstintingly loyal cousin Uthlen, following the events which led to Apolt’s death. Uncle Yedwol has passed away and Yedwol the Ready has been executed for high treason. Only his cousin Prince Glathan remains as wise and dependable as ever.

Stuart always uses a three-part structure in his novels, and this is particularly noticeable in this instalment. A Lion’s Pride is very similar to how the first novel, A Drowned Kingdom, was approached, in that the first part of the story is virtually a standalone tale, albeit one with huge repercussions for what happens next.

When we return to Othrun in Part One he is wrestling with how to approach the inevitable conflict between the religions of the Single God and Eltnia’s Elemental Goddesses. Othrun wants the magical power of the Elementals, but his religious inflexibility in cleaving to the Single God places Sila, a mage and his bride to be, in mortal danger. The other mages are outraged when Othrun asks Sila to renounce her faith in the Elemental Goddesses in order to marry him and a coven has been called by their leader, Nulthe, to pass judgement upon her.

Othrun finds himself taking counsel from his ally Lysi on how to approach matters at the coven. As ever, Othrun and Lysi’s relationship is complicated and at times bordering on toxic due to their simmering yet unfulfilled romantic attraction to each other, which their conflicting loyalties and political agendas have made impossible to consummate.

The contrasting nature of the women in Othrun’s life is a fascinating part of this saga, and the female characters become much more prominent in this novel. Lysi’s thirst for power is clear in the advice she gives to Othrun:

“You are a usurper. Embrace it. You stole a throne. That means you’re a king. That’s what matters.”

Othrun finds himself comparing this to the words of his late wife Aliaz:

“I had once asked Aliaz if I was a good man. She couldn’t tell me that I was. But what she could say to me was I was a great king.”

It seems that Lysi has the better measure of Othrun, as his words to Prince Centi reveal:

“It takes true courage to betray someone who rules by right but has no right to be ruling.”

Similarly, Othrun’s relationship with Sila, Lysi’s sister, is intriguing. Can they set aside the past and build a future together despite the shadow cast by Aliaz’s death? Sila appears to have genuine feelings for Othrun but his heart really belongs to Lysi, suggesting a difficult road ahead. The mage Lady Viwa also emerges from the shadows as an interesting character in this novel.

What Othrun subsequently discovers when he eventually confronts the mages and Nulthe at their coven changes everything. It leaves Othrun questioning his faith, as he struggles to deal with all that he has learned. I don’t want to spoil the surprise by giving any further details away, but I will say that the final line of Part One is absolutely chilling. The growing sense of foreboding Stuart has been gradually building with each book continues in A Lion’s Pride.

The novel moves into different territory in Part Two. Time has passed, and Othrun’s kingdom expands as he enters middle age and his family grows, meaning he has much more to lose. He is proud of his three sons, Othrun the Younger, Second Prince Arclan and Third Prince Atalan the Early, and no longer hungry for war.

His extensive responsibilities as a ruler make it difficult for him as a father. Othrun also has wards, like the Anibian Prince Ingersa, godchildren such as Hiris, and illegitimate children too. However, he is unable to spend time with them as he would ideally wish. As a result, many of these relationships have become very complicated. Othrun also faces another difficult challenge in how to reconcile his faith with the fact his eldest son is gay, and in love with Glathan’s son, Athen. Once again, Stuart asks the reader to consider the consequences of religious intolerance and inflexibility, and the High Prelate Fridlyr is a great character as he wisely counsels Othrun on such matters.

All this plays out in the background as Part Two switches the focus of the tale to military action in the kingdom of Ipithyia. Stuart ably describes the fear, chaos and confusion of war, where a lack of military intelligence forces Othrun into a battle he cannot win against his old foe, Tarlis. Tarlis proves a cunning enemy and in Part Three of the novel events in Ipythia soon spill over into Yaden, one of the kingdoms loyal to Othrun.

The plot in A Lion’s Pride is definitely the most complex of the novels in this series so far. In the scenes in the coven and the war that follows in Parts Two and Three there are a myriad of conflicting loyalties, political agendas and various claims to kingship and queendom through convoluted bloodlines and history. There is a lot to keep track of, which makes a degree of recap and summarisation necessary to help readers keep everything straight. Mostly the reminders are welcome and introduced in a natural way, the facts told in a style which reflects the overall tone of the book. I liken this approach to an elderly Othrun recounting his story to his grandchildren as they listen to him late at night, wide-eyed, many years after the events took place. The style is both old-fashioned epic fantasy but at the same time it still has a modern feel, the story clearly drawing from our own history and real-life experiences.

My main issue with this book is in Part Two, when we have about half a dozen kingdoms all vying for power, where I felt the extensive recap actually began to get in the way of the story. For me, there was simply too much restatement of key facts and the current position, achieved through the narrative device of Othrun’s over febrile imagination, as he continually reappraises his tactics and tries to second guess the next move of his opponents. In that respect, the tone of Part Two was very similar to Part One of A Drowned Kingdom. It read more like historical fiction, whereas by Part Three things changed again, the storytelling becoming much more immediate and dynamic.

Stuart also has the opportunity to give readers a chance to experience more of his fantasy world in A Lion’s Pride. The city of Greentree is a wonderful fantasy creation, the capital of Ipythia drawing parallels with many fantasy classics. In contrast, the city of Induby in the vassal state of Yaden is inspired by the Middle East as Stuart’s expansive world continues to grow. Although there is plenty of action to enjoy throughout the novel, the battle of Induby and its aftermath is both stunning and brutal, and easily the best yet in a long line of incredible action scenes written by Stuart.

Throughout A Lion’s Pride Stuart plays with the form and structure in his three-part novel and I think readers will enjoy different aspects of this book depending on their preferences. I loved how the passage of time was handled and the way the consequences of events in the past had a bearing as the novel progressed. Part One is mostly an extensive dialogue scene, which was elevated by the twists, turns and revelations that put the first three books into an entirely new light, especially with its haunting final words. Despite being a bit slow at times, Part Two remained compulsive reading, building on that platform and then going in a totally unexpected direction. Part Three was my favourite section of the novel, the stakes rising further with each risky venture. The concluding chapters, where we step outside Othrun’s viewpoint once more, showcases some of Stuart’s best writing to date.

In this book the true scale of PL Stuart’s literary ambition becomes clear. There’s a reason why this saga needs seven books, and readers who enjoy classic epic fantasy storytelling will love this series. Stuart weaves a complex tale yet everything has its purpose, often only revealed in subsequent books. This series is so ambitious and so well planned in that regard.

The brilliant ending leaves everything poised for an explosive fifth book. A Pack of Wolves is due for release in 2025 and I can’t wait to find out what happens next.

I received an advance reader copy of this book. This did not influence my review and my views and opinions are my own.

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Author: Tim Hardie

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