Warning: this post contains spoilers for Will Wight’s Unsouled.
Funny story: I accidentally read the seventh volume in this series, first. Why? Well, that has to do with how I came to discover this fascinating fantasy series in the first place.
There are a handful of authors that I follow consistently, and will read just about anything they come out with: Brandon Sanderson, Brent Weeks, Orson Scott Card, Terry Brooks, Patrick Rothfuss, to name a few. Unfortunately, a lot of my favorite authors are, for various reasons, no longer publishing (Terry Pratchett, Robert Jordan, JRR Tolkien, Lloyd Alexander (no relation), Isaac Asimov, HG Wells, Jules Verne, Charles Dickens…I think you get the idea). Inevitably, therefore, there are desert periods where I have no go-to source for new books. I can always dig into authors’ archives and find an overlooked gem there, but sometimes, that requires more effort than I’d care to put forth. I can always read one of my “productive” books: philosophy, astrophysics, biographies, that sort of thing. Those require more thought, though, and oftentimes I’m reading to escape.
One way of finding new book recommendations is from what authors I like are recommending (that’s how I came to read A Natural History of Dragons). More risky, but sometimes more exciting, is just picking up a book. Thankfully, in this modern age, it’s fairly easy to try a sample of a book for free before committing paying for the whole novel. That’s what happened with the Cradle series. I was browsing for a new book, and came across Uncrowned (the seventh book in the series). I think I was halfway through the book before I realized that a) I had found a great new book, and b) that it wasn’t even the first book in the series. Oops. So while I’ll be posting a review for Uncrowned in a few weeks, I did go back and read the rest of the series, so we’ll start our reviews where it makes the most sense, at the beginning (I don’t recommend jumping in at the end, although it was an interesting comparison between reading it in isolation and reading it with the rest of the series backing it up).
Unsouled, and the Cradle series as a whole, is described as something called martial arts fantasy. The magic system has defined levels of skill, with each skill level gaining distinct abilities and possessing unique attributes. It’s not a design that I generally prefer, but it worked well in Unsouled. Which matters, because Unsouled is not necessarily the kind of book that you read for the compelling characters or political drama. You read it for the vivid magical fights.
Those vivid magical fights were certainly impressive, but what really drew me through the story was the philosophy of Will Wight’s world. Unsouled seemed to start like a classic underdog story, but almost immediately begins taking unexpected turns. For one thing, the main character doesn’t behave like a typical underdog. For another, the entire world is set up around power. Whoever has the most power can pretty much go unquestioned, and the main character is determined that, if he can’t have power by conventional means, he’ll find it some other way, including by cheating. I like an underdog who will cheat to get ahead, instead of just doing what he’s told until the sage old wizard decides to drop a magic sword in his lap.
So the main character (Lindon) figures out a way to get ahead, including by cheating, and then somebody goes and changes the rules on him. He’s determined to fight anyway, and…winds up dead. The end. No wait, there’s an even more powerful being from beyond the planet that can restore him to life. Now, I don’t usually go for resurrections in books, but this one worked. It was just a tiny hint of a much larger drama playing out in the background, one that is continued throughout the series, and is, for the most part, really well done (we’ll talk in more detail about it when we get to Uncrowned, where we learn a little more about what’s going on).
The end of Unsouled is, essentially, Lindon finding out that he’s not quite as powerless as everyone thought…but also that the people everyone thought were powerful really aren’t that powerful, after all. It’s a glimpse into a much larger world, and was more than enough to pull me into the next book.
These are not Wheel of Time books. Unsouled, and the whole series, is fast paced, action-packed, bouncing from conflict to conflict and from challenge to challenge, with each book being only a few hundred pages. The writing is fast, too, not careful like some books. It means that these aren’t near-lyrical masterpieces like some books I’ve read, but they tell a good story, and the writing style works for the world Mr. Wight has created. If you’re looking for something new to read, I recommend checking out Unsouled. Oh, and start with the first one, not the last one. Usually good advice.