Let's start off with a bit of information for anyone who hasn’t heard of this book or series yet. The Path of Flames is the first book in The Chronicles of the Black Gate series by Phil Tucker that also won the second place in the SPFBO (Self Published Fantasy Blog Off) of 2016 held by Mark Lawrence; that’s second place out of three hundred books which is not an easy feat to do. I hereby agree that it earned its runner-up trophy for many good reasons.
If you’re a fan of epic fantasy with some old-school fantasy elements in it, this will most likely be a hit for you. The main plot of the book focuses on the war that engulfed the Ascendant Empire and it seems like the entire series will revolve around this war. The book immediately started off with a war sequence and one of the main character, Asho, is in the middle of all the chaos. Right from the start, we get to see magic, superior beings, multi race, and great action sequence; at the same time letting readers know what kind of book they're getting into.
Throughout the entire book—and most likely series, judging from the covers—we follow six different perspectives and all of them are imbued with distinct and unique personalities. They may not be the most original characters out there in the fantasy market but Tucker has a way of giving each one of them a compelling and engaging narrative to read. I also have high praises towards the two main female characters, Kethe and Iskra; both of them are characters that felt realistic and I enjoyed reading their struggle and determination.
“We women have within us a depth, a capacity for striving, that men for all their swords and wars don't comprehend. We can endure where they are brittle, we can persevere where they snap. It is our unique form of grace. And we will endure. We will persevere.”
This of course doesn’t mean that the female characters are the only noteworthy one. I found that out of the six main characters, five of them are truly delightful to read. This is proven by the fact that although the book reached 250k words (bigger than any installment in the Mistborn saga by Brandon Sanderson), I was almost never bored reading their journey with a few minor exceptions.
The minor cons I have on this book are Tharok’s POV and in some cases, a bit too many actions for the first book of a series. Tharok’s storyline weren’t bad or boring intrinsically, in fact, it was well written. However, his story—with the exception of his last chapter in the book—felt completely disjointed from all the other five characters. This made me feel like I was reading a different book and this caused me to feel impatient during his POV as I kept on looking forward to getting back to all the other five characters perspective. I have a feeling Tucker did this for the sequels so there’s a still chance that this might pay off big in the future.
As for the actions part, this is purely my preferences and there’s nothing really wrong or bad with putting a lot of actions. However, for the first book of a series, I always prefer more characterizations than actions. Tucker did a great job with both his characterizations and action sequences but in my opinion, the book would’ve benefit even more if he sacrificed some action scenes for even more characters development. Putting a lot of action scenes in the first book of a series most of the time failed to engage me completely due to two reasons. One, I haven’t connected with the characters enough to truly care about their fates. Two, unless you’re George R.R. Martin, I highly doubt any of the main characters will die or suffer greatly in the first book of a series. This means that to me, putting a lot of action scenes doesn’t help in giving me the intensity that I’m looking for, even when they’re well written. That said, both of these are just minor cons and they didn’t affect my enjoyment that much.
Other than those two, I really don’t have any more criticisms. The world-building is quite unique and gradually introduced without being info dumpy and at the same time also leaving plenty of things to look forward to in the sequels. The world of the Ascendant Empire that Phil has created reminds me of RPG such as Dragon Age series or WoW and I love getting this kind of 'familiar' feeling from another medium I've experienced in the book I read. Plus, Phil’s prose was engaging, simple, sometimes wonderfully theological, but most of all, it was a joy to read. There were a few typos and grammatical errors but like I always said, typos almost never bothered me unless it's on every page; for an indie book, The Path of Flames is very well-polished and almost didn't feel like it was self-published.
“The wheel of fortune lifts us up and brings us down. You must free your happiness from its vagaries. Expect nothing, and everything is a gift.”
Overall, The Path of Flames is a wonderful start to a series. It became the runner up of last year SPFBO for many good reasons that I've already stated above. In my opinion, The Path of Flames is better than the majority of indie books out there and I can’t wait to devour the sequels immediately after this, especially after hearing from my trusted friend that the series only gets better from here on out.