The Last Cleric by Layton Green: The Blackwood brothers are on their own in their new world and the danger is getting real

The Last ClericThe Last Cleric

by Layton Green
Series: The Blackwood Saga, #3

Kindle Edition, 374 pg.
Cloaked Traveler Press, 2018
Read: June 18 – 19, 2018

Urfe sometimes felt like a waking dream, the realization of both his wildest fantasies and darkest nightmares.

That’s fairly early in the book, too — I’m sure by the end of this, Will will be thinking less of his wildest fantasies, focusing on the nightmares instead. Which isn’t that surprising, it’s book three of a quintet — things aren’t supposed to be sunshine and rainbows (although things are going to get worse).

Will and some others are off on a quest to recover the Coffer of Devla — an Ark of the Covenant-esque religious relic and object of prophecy. The Revolution would profit greatly from taking it into battle with them — for psychological/propaganda’s sake, if nothing else. This quest takes Will, Yasmina, Mala, and a few others to the jungles of Mexico to find a mythic pyramid that may house the Coffer. We’re treated to an annoying amount of Will pining after Mala, Mala taking advantage of that a few times, and Will not learning anything. I do find his hangup over her annoying, but it’s about the only thing about Will’s character that is that flawed, so it’s good to stress his imperfection and naiveté, I guess. This storyline frequently felt like it escaped from a Rick Riordan Book (one scene in particular) — a series of tests, and narrow escapes leading to other tests. That said, when Percy or his friends fail and/or don’t succeed fast enough, the consequences aren’t as bad as they are for Will and his companions, which makes them far more entertaining to read than the most recent Riordans.

Caleb stays behind and fills his days with doing small acts around the city to help people, and his nights with getting as drunk as is humanly possible. He may not have had tremendous success on Earth, but he had his niche and he did okay with it. On Urfe, he didn’t even have that, so he turned to drink. Until the only person in two worlds who could possibly get him to stop — or at least consider moderation — shows up and does just that. Caleb soon goes on a mission to warn those living in the Blackwood Forrest about the danger coming from Lord Alistair and try to recruit them to the Revolution. On the whole, this story goes exactly like you expect it to — but it was probably the most effective of the three brothers’ arcs in this book. There were parts of this story you couldn’t see coming — at all — but once those events were introduced, it quickly became inevitable to see how those would flow into the overall storyline. Predictable isn’t bad — I’ve said it before, I’ll keep saying it — it really doesn’t matter how surprising or unexpected your story is, what matters is how you tell it. And Green tells this one just right.

Which leaves us with Val — things were looking pretty bad for him when we saw him last, and in the few days that have passed between then and this novel’s kick-off, things have continued in that vein. He does some pretty clever and daring things to try help his situation, and then finds an opportunity he can’t turn down. He essentially has to try to carry off a suicide mission for the Queen. If he succeeds, he’ll be set free. If not . . . well, the Queen or Congregation still won’t execute him, because he’ll be dead. He assembles a team — including faces you wouldn’t expect — and sets off. This storyline is the most inventive, least predictable and most harrowing of the three (which at times is saying something). Somehow, in the middle, it’s also the most dull. But never for long, I want to stress. The people that Val is surrounded by, their perspectives and what Val goes through are all shaping him — for the one who had the hardest time coming to terms with the world he found himself in, Val’s really taken to it in a way his brothers haven’t quite. Without noticing it, Val’s become a different person than he was when he first came to Urfe — and I’m not sure any Blackwood is going to be happy with the differences once they’re seen in light of day. I’m not saying he’s been seduced by the Dark Side or anything — bu he definitely approaches things from a different angle.

Meanwhile, Lord Alistair continues his bloodthirsty and power-hungry machinations at the top of the Congregation.

We meet a lot of new characters in each of the storylines (especially Will’s and Val’s) — there’s not a one of them that I wouldn’t want to spend more time with. Several of them we won’t see again, alas, but…the others? I hope we get a lot of. While I enjoyed it, I know that I came across as ambivalent towards Will’s quest — but the people he travels with are welcome additions to this cast and I didn’t get enough time with them for my taste. The other new characters were about as good, but I thought we got as much time and use from them as we needed.

The first book kept the brothers together — on the whole, there were times the group was split. In The Spirit Mage, Green split them up so we had Will and Caleb running around Urfe trying to stay out of trouble (and failing miserably); while Val took awhile to return and then was in a completely different kind of story. This time, Will and Caleb are split up so we get each brother doing something on his own. I get the desire for that move, and the narrative need — or usefulness, depending how you look at it — for that move, I really do. But man, I didn’t like it. I expected it was too much to ask to see the three Blackwoods reunited early in the novel, but (incredibly minor spoiler) now whenever they do reunite, I’m afraid what they’ve gone through will make it unlikely to be co-belligerents, much less allies. Again, I get why it was done, and will probably appreciate it by the end of the series — but in the moment, I don’t like it. it. The Brothers Three presented them as an interesting, if very flawed, team. Which was one of the things I appreciated most about the characters — keeping them from interacting takes a little of that away.

That said, Green did a great job balancing the various stories — watching each brother get a little closer to their goal, and then slipping in a reminder of what Alistair’s up to. Almost as if he’s saying, it really doesn’t matter how the Blackwoods do against these tasks, the Big Bad is out there waiting, and they’re not reading for him. There’s good character development, some good plot progression — and you can feel things going worse for the brothers, and that it’ll continue in that fashion for a while — until sometime in book 5, is my guess. Now it’s just a matter of hoping that the three of them — and as many of their friends as possible – make it through to the finale.

I had a blast reading this — there’s really little about this series that I don’t enjoy (and those aspects are all just matters of taste, really). Volume 4 is on the top of my “Waiting impatiently for” list — just under Jim Butcher and Patrick Rothfuss. It’s a great series and The Last Cleric just served as another piece of evidence for that. I really recommend all of them.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of this novel by the author — which I greatly appreciate, even if it took me a few months to get to it. This gift did not influence my opinion beyond giving me something to have an opinion on.


4 Stars

The Spirit Mage by Layton Green

The Spirit MageThe Spirit Mage

by Layton Green
Series: The Blackwood Saga, #2

eARC, 386 pg.
Cloaked Traveler Press, 2017

Read: September 9 – 12, 2017

Picking up so soon after the end of The Brothers Three that it might as well just be the next chapter, The Spirit Mage continues the story of The Blackwood brothers and their companions (most of them, anyway).

There are essentially four storylines at work in these pages. There’s one focusing on the villains here — the wizards running the campaign against the rebels, the Romani, the “common born” who aren’t content to stay that way — and a spirit creature invoked to find the sword that Will’s been carrying.

Speaking of Will, he and Caleb find themselves — and Caleb’s ex, Yasmina — in the necromancer’s castle. Will and Caleb are set on returning to New Victoria to try to find a way home. Meanwhile, they have to convince Yasmina that this very strange dream is real. Soon after they set out, they are captured by slavers and are headed towards mines that no one has ever escaped from.

Meanwhile, their brother Val was escorted back to Urfe where things got immediately interesting — just in case the reader might be tempted to think that his story was going to be a repeat of The Brothers Three, Green establishes right off that such will not be the case. Anyway, the only way that Val can determine to find his brothers is to actually figure out how to use the magic he’s been trying to master. So he enrolls in the Abbey — a wizarding training college. He befriends a few wizards, gets involved in some pretty serious extra-curricular activities.

Mala disappeared during their party’s assault on the castle with a majitsu — her story is easily the least predictable, and hardest to summarize without spoiling. It’s not as interesting on the whole (primarily because we’re used to focusing on the brothers), but man, when it gets weird, it gets weird.

The Brothers Three was your basic Portal Fantasy — a little different, because most of those feature much younger characters (or at least most that I’ve read). This book was more of your typical fantasy novel — wizard in training, heroes on a quest that goes awry. It’s that the central characters don’t belong in the world. I didn’t like Val as much has his brothers last time out, but I really enjoyed his story (as stupid as he frequently was). Will and Caleb I enjoyed as much as before — maybe more. I thought Yasmina was a great addition to the series, and the way she fits into the world was a big plus.

Mala’s story didn’t end the way I thought it would, but really it had to end the way it did. The same could be said for Val’s, actually. Will and Caleb’s ended like I expected (phew! I’m one for three). Thankfully, they were all brought to satisfying points — in one case, as satisfying as a cliffhanger can be. At this point I’m pretty sure I know how things will end up, but I have no clue how Green will pull it off. I can’t wait to see, though.

It’s hard to think of this as a separate book than The Brothers Three, really. By the time book 3 comes out, I’m not sure I’ll be able to tell you the difference between the two (okay, that’s not totally true — but it seems like it). Which makes it a little difficult to evaluate differently than its predecessor. Basically, if you liked the first book in the series, you’ll like this one. If not, well, this won’t change your mind. If you haven’t read The Brothers Three, you really should.

It’s honestly a little frustrating to me that I can’t think of much to say about this — but it’s so consistent with the last book that I’m going to sum things up in this post the same way I did with the other book: The Spirit Mageis well-written, skillfully structured, and well-paced — there are some nice turns of phrase throughout the novel, too. Green is the real thing, giving the readers a good story, great characters, an interesting world (or pair of them), in a well-written package. After these two books, I think I can say that this is going to turn out to be one of my favorite fantasy series in a while.

Disclaimer: I was provided with this copy for an honest review by the author.


4 Stars

The Brothers Three by Layton Green

The Brothers ThreeThe Brothers Three

by Layton Green
Series: The Blackwood Saga, #1

Kindle Edition, 332 pg.
Cloaked Traveler Press, 2017

Read: August 4 – 8, 2017

Ever since Edmund, Lucy and Eustace got sucked into that tacky painting and into the sea in Narnia, I’ve been a sucker for a good portal fantasy*. Which is exactly what Layton Green has given us here.

Will Blackwood works for a general contractor, with the occasional shift at a medieval-themed family restaurant where he will engage in stage fighting, and spends a lot of time reading fantasy novels. He’s suffered from panic attacks since childhood and that’s kept him from much more. His buddy, Lance, a New Orleans police officer will occasionally take him on ride-alongs, but he’s just not up for much more excitement. His older brother Caleb, is a bartender and perpetual adolescent (given time and opportunity, I’d have liked to see that explored more, because I suspect there’s more to it than meets the eye). The oldest, Val, is a corporate lawyer in New York who has served as self-appointed guardian to his brothers since their father’s death while they were children.

Until one day, things get a little strange: Will and Lance run into a zombie Rottweiler and the weird guy who controls it. Lance explains it away, but Will can’t. He knows what he saw, and apparently has a willingness to be flexible with his presuppositions about what may be real. Not long after this, the Blackwood’s godfather shows up, tells them that their father was a wizard, gives them some magical weapons and then gets kidnapped by the guy who had the Rottweiler (it was a pretty eventful conversation). Before they can wrap their minds around this, a stranger claiming to be a wizard shows up and talks to Will, telling him that Zedock is the name of the man who kidnapped Charlie — he’s a necromancer from a parallel universe where magic rules, not science.

Not only that, he’s arranged for the brothers to go to that parallel universe to learn a little about magic, their weapons and maybe find a way to defeat Zedock. Will is game, but he knows that he’s not going to be able to convince his brothers that this is a possibility. They’ve managed to convince themselves that they didn’t see anything magical and that there’s a reasonable explanation for everything going on (except Charlie’s statements) — they’re not quite at the level of the explanations that Tommy Lee Jones uses in Men in Black, but they’re close. So Will tricks them into triggering the portal to the other world with him (and Lance gets sucked through it, too).

Even in a world clearly not our reality — with swords, magical creatures, and different looking streets in New Orleans — it takes time for those who aren’t Will to accept what’s going on. But they eventually do, and hire some locals to help them get to a fortress where they should be able to find something they can use to challenge Zedock. I seem to be talking about the willingness of Val, Caleb and Lance to accept what they’ve seen and experience — but that’s a pretty big plot point. I like the way they struggle with this, unlike what goes on with kids in portal fantasies who seem to swallow the whole concept in seconds

The travel isn’t easy — it’s not long before all of them get to learn how to fight with pre-modern weapons. Val shows some signs of magical ability and begins training in its use, while Will learns how to use a sword in a fight that doesn’t happen on a stage, and Caleb picks up a trick or two from a thief. They don’t just train and travel — they see and fight creatures straight out of a D & D manual. A lot more happens, of course, but I don’t want to give it all away — so I’ll just sum up by talking about how the adventurers they travel with are a great collection of characters, pretty compelling, and just what’s needed to keep the story move forward and acclimate the dimension-jumpers to this world.

There is real peril — as demonstrated by enough deaths to satisfy the grimdark fans while not really being a grimdark world. Sure, there were a couple of Red Shirt deaths (Red Tunic deaths?), but characters you assume are safe turn out not to be after all. I read one paragraph a few times just to convince myself that I read about the gruesome death of a major character actually happened. Even without that, the way this story is told isn’t what you expect — there are secrets, ulterior motives, and barrels of denial everywhere. It’s very compellingly and interestingly put together.

The Brothers Three is well-written, skillfully structured, and well-paced — there are some nice turns of phrase throughout the novel, too. Green is the real thing, giving the readers a good story, great characters, an interesting world (or pair of them), in a well-written package. Book 2 comes out next month and it’s on my TBR. I’m resisting the impulse to move it higher, but it’s not easy.

* Yeah, I read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader first — I read series out of order in my childhood. As a kid, I was practically feral, it seems.

Disclaimer: I was provided with this copy for an honest review by the author.


4 Stars