“How easily we make sure our allies and enemies are saved or sacrificed shows who we really are”.
In Rise Red Kingdom we return to the fantastic fantasy world of vying kingdoms and vivid contrasting elemental magic created by Kerstin Espinosa Rosero. I thought the first book, Burn Red Skies, was a brilliant debut, so I’d been looking forward to reading the sequel for some time. If you haven’t read that book already, I urge you to remedy that right away, especially as this review contains some major spoilers for Burn Red Skies.
This novel immediately follows on from the concluding action scenes of Burn Red Skies, after which the plot moves swiftly, and our characters are soon spread out in several different locations. It was a little while since I’d read the first book but there was enough organic recap to bring me up to speed again in no time, and I was soon drawn back into Rosero’s world.
Although this is a straight continuation of the tale there were some big differences from the first book. The main plot is more focussed, primarily centred on the developing relationship between Valerya and Dove following the sudden shift in the power balance at the end of Burn Red Skies. At times the scale of the world and the number of separate viewpoints made it difficult to understand what was happening and why in the first novel. Rosero has dealt with that issue in Rise Red Kingdom, keeping the story moving forward at pace.
Rosero also develops the magical elements of the story, as this time we get to explore the Otherworld, the realm of dragons. Her take on dragons is unique and makes this story so distinctive, since the dragon spirits can only cross from the Otherworld into the world of the living with the aid of their summoner. Now that Dove has been revealed to be a summoner we get to find out what this means first hand. Dove needs to bond with her dragon, Rhysar, and the choice of putting these two companions together is interesting. Dove is voiceless whilst Rhysar is blind, and thus their nature and characteristics complement each other. The relationship is a strange one – more a melding of spirits than one being able to command the other. As the story progresses it becomes clear that there is always a price to be paid for being a summoner, with ominous hints at what is to come.
Dove begins this story in a rather helpless position, but as the tale progresses we see her begin to change as a result of her new status. I’m intrigued to see whether this is ultimately going to be for the better or worse for Dove and the kingdom as a whole. The development of Valerya’s character is also handled well. She’s one of the most memorable people in this series, perfectly capturing our contradictory nature, and trying to work out her agenda is fascinating.
Although Dove and Valerya take centre stage, Rosero still uses her ensemble cast to progress the plot, primarily through Bard and Decker. In addition to these fan favourites from book one, there’s the new character of Pierce, a spellcaster for the Red Spears, fighting against the Firelands and King Morian’s empire. Young and full of worries and anxiety, he’s a distinctive character and the impact of Pierce’s actions on his sister, Danea, are powerful.
In contrast, some of my other favourites barely featured in this novel, most notably Dancer, or drift in and out of the action, such as Gryff and Morian. I understand this decision, as Rosero is only using the characters she needs to tell this story and maintain her focus, so it’s a tricky balance. However, Morian’s absence in particular means this isn’t a straightforward tale with a clear antagonist. Instead, it’s much more about the development of the central characters. In that sense, Rise Red Kingdom feels like the slightly calmer middle section of a three-part act, very much setting the scene for book three.
Another distinctive aspect of Rise Red Kingdom is its use of alternate timelines, which gives us more insight into the previous famous summoners Baley the Kind and Bastyan the Cruel. This is done through clever use of magic and flashbacks as Rosero further expands her world, which I enjoyed. However, the overall backstory to many of the characters remains frustratingly elusive at times. There were occasions when I felt we could have lifted the curtain just a little more, especially when characters were reflecting on past events, only to turn away from the actual point at the last possible moment.
Tantalising questions for me are what really happened to Valk’s brother Lucien and his wife and children, and why? Valk’s true relationship to Dove is also intriguing. Overall, in this series it’s always hard to tell who is working to which agenda, an aspect I like but which might madden some readers who are looking for a more straightforward tale. There are plenty of hints that several major secrets are going to be revealed in book three, and I for one can’t wait to discover how it all works out.
Rosero is an extremely gifted writer with an innate storytelling voice. She writes in a way which always makes you want to know what happens next as you keep turning the pages. She has this vivid style which effortlessly conjures images in your mind:
“Faint clouds clung to the sky like memories that refused to fade, and even the stars had abandoned them.”
If you’re looking for beautifully written imaginative fantasy by an author equally comfortable with thrilling action scenes and intimate character work, and don’t mind being kept in suspense, then the Burn Red Skies series is for you. I’m eagerly looking forward to the concluding instalment.