“I've heard people talk about hell as though is it some place that awaits them when they die. A land of eternal torture for those who have committed the worst of atrocities. They're wrong. Life is hell. Living is hell. And there is no greater torment than the ones we fashion for ourselves.”
This was the 3rd Hayes novel I’ve read (Never Die and Along the Razor’s Edge are the other two). Hayes has always had a gift for characters. Complex, morally ambiguous, and usually just so dang fun - there’s plenty of his excellent characterisation in The Lessons Never Learned. Hayes is a ‘pantser,’ an author who writes without an outline, letting the story take him where it wants to go. This approach can lead to great characters that drive the story, but can result in lacklustre plots and flimsy endings. The plotting in Hayes’ other books (at least the ones I’ve read), isn’t bad, per se, but it’s not the thing I enjoyed the most about those books, and I always felt that it was a slight weak point.
“Any fight is a trade. The combat is merely the act of haggling for how many lives are lost.”
Then came this novel. Perhaps the biggest reason why I liked The Lessons Never Learned was because he finally fused his incredible characters with an equally tight, well-structured, and highly suspenseful plot. It’s original, too. I’ve read hundreds of fantasy books, and there were beats in here that I’d never seen before, but made perfect sense and were wonderfully executed. (Pun intended)
“Strange how you can accept an apology for a thing, but never accept the wrong done in order to require one.”
In book 1, you got all kinds of hints about a vivid fantasy world, but they stayed like that: hints, and nothing more. Book 2 pays off all of these setups, carrying the reader through an incredibly realised fantasy world with rich backstories, lore, and plenty of secrets.
“The truth locks you in, determines a set way of thinking, of feeling, of believing. The truth is the opposite of freedom. Lies, on the other hand, can be whatever we want them to be.”
When I reviewed book 1, I commented that the first half felt slow. There’s no worry of that with The Lessons Never Learned. We’re kept constantly moving, propelled from one mystery about the world to another. At the same time, there’s no sense of rushing, no sense of desperately trying to keep us entertained. What we see is a master storyteller at work, weaving compelling characters, an innovative plot, and an incredibly original world into a gripping knife-blade of a novel. And that knife cuts deep ... Amongst the intense fight scenes (which involve Sourcery*, one of my favourite magic systems I’ve ever read), there’s plenty of tender moments. These do a wonderful job of humanising Eska, whose strange mixture of ruthless greed and a deep desire for affection are synergised perfectly, eliciting way more sympathy than you’d expect for an antihero.
"Opinions are like children. Those who have them want them to be special, rarely realising they are just as dumb and ugly as all the others."
(*And not, that’s not spelled wrong. It’s like that because magicians swallow Sources - little crystal orbs of power. These Sources can let magicians summon fire, open portals, even bring monsters into this world from another realm. But there is a great cost to using them. Sourcerers are only attuned to some Sources, and swallowing the wrong ones will kill you within minutes. Even if you are attuned to a Source, it will slowly kill you over time. This makes magic less of a ‘get out of jail free card’ - which I detest - and more of a ‘yay, I’m out of jail, but now the mobster bosses can kill me.’ Much better.)
“And that is the ultimate truth of playing a hand of blame. Regardless of who you drag into the hand with you, you always end up playing against yourself.”
I recently interview Rob for my podcast. When we did the interview, I was 80% through The Lessons Never Learned, and reeling from all the twists. I told this to him. He smiled and said, “Wait until the end.” And holy cow, was he right. The climax of this book is epic and heart wrenching, making you feel torn between looking away and also not wanting to blink, because so much cool stuff is happening. The ending took me by shock. If you’ve read it, you’ll know what I’m saying. That might sound like a bad thing, but it’s fantastic, and has me desperate to dive into the final book in the trilogy, From Cold Ashes Risen. Luckily, I only have to wait another two and a bit weeks. It releases May 26th. The corpse queen comes ...
“Only those with something to hide tell you their secrets do not matter.”
5/5. An explosive and captivating grimdark fantasy adventure, merging compelling, flawed characters with an intense, twisting plot. Highly recommended.