Warning: this post contains spoilers for Soulsmith, as well as the preceding book in the Cradle series, Unsouled.
At the end of Unsouled, we just begin to get a feel for how hopelessly behind Lindon is with respect to, well, everything. Compared to the rest of the world, the most powerful people in his valley home were simply average, and it is in Soulsmith that we begin to see just why that is. More importantly, Soulsmith serves as the major exposition piece of the whole series thus far. There is exposition woven into the whole series, of course, but Will Wight does a huge amount of magic system building in this second installment.
Sequels are notoriously hard, at least in part because now there are expectations. Whatever the first book delivered, everyone will now expect the second one to fulfill on the same promises, while being better in every way. This, of course, is impossible, since everyone wants something different out of a book, and everyone gets something different out of a book. So even if an author wanted to spend their entire time writing sequels that way, they wouldn’t be able to do it. So, inevitably, sequels tend not to be as good as the original…with a few key exceptions. Soulsmith is such an exception.
Although Cradle‘s magic system is primarily martial arts magic (we talked some about that in our review of Unsouled), in Soulsmith we are exposed to some of the complexities of the magic system, and the other things for which it is useful, besides fighting. This significantly fleshes out the world’s framework, and makes the whole fabric stronger. Magic, at its heart, is another tool for the people in your world to use. Depending on who has most access to it, it will be used for different things, but any time magic is really prevalent, it should have as many tangential applications to the mundane acts of day to day life as it does to whatever is needed for your main story line. Soulsmith helps the Cradle series capture this aspect that would otherwise be blatantly missing.
We also get a better idea in Soulsmith for just how pronounced the power dynamics are in this world’s society. There is a strong element of social Darwinism at play; you can get away with anything, so long as you’re strong enough to back it up. With how clearly stratified the power levels are, that means it’s almost unheard of for someone of a lower power level to defeat someone of a higher power level, to the point that it is part of the society’s peculiar honor system that someone fighting another at a power level lower than they are is considered reprehensible and dishonorable. That last detail is key to making the world believable; otherwise, no one would ever have a chance to achieve a higher level before they were killed by someone else.
It really is a fascinating social structure, and it is that, more than anything, that makes Soulsmith such a strong novel. Its writing, like Unsouled, is only average: fast paced, straight forward, and to the point, but not eloquent or really remarkable. Its magic system is large and varied, but relatively straightforward (at least for this book…). It’s the civilization that the reader gets to experience with Lindon for the first time that makes this book such a strong sequel.
Not to mention that it sets up a clear conflict for the next book, Blackflame. We’ll review that one next week.