When the Goddess Wakes by Howard Andrew Jones

When the Goddess Wakes by Howard Andrew Jones

When comes my numbered day, I will meet it smiling. For I’ll have kept this oath.

I shall use my arms to shield the weak.

I shall use my lips to speak the truth, and my eyes to seek it.

I shall use my hand to mete justice to high and to low, and I will weigh all things with heart and mind.

Where I walk the laws will follow, for I am the sword of my people and the shepherd of their lands.

When I fall, I will rise through my brothers and my sisters, for I am eternal.

Pledge of the Altenerai

 

And with When the Goddess Wakes, Howard Andrew Jones’s Ring-Sworn Trilogy comes to a rousing conclusion. Perhaps the series’ greatest asset is its completion. In one two-and-a-half-year span — complete with a plague — all three books have appeared and that’s it, there ain’t no more. I waited six years between installments of Glen Cook’s Black Company, and millions of people have been waiting ten years for the next volume of A Song of Ice and Fire (good luck with that). Jones got in and got out, producing three tightly-plotted and -paced novels. For that alone, as a reader I say, “Thank you!” But there’s more to it than that.

The first book, For the Killing of Kings (2019) introduces the Altenerai, a corps of superior warriors complete with magical talents. They are dedicated to protecting the five realms of the Dendressi from forces magical and mundane. Just as it is discovered that a kingdom-destabilizing conspiracy leads right to the Queen, the five realms are invaded by the Naor, a brutal barbarian horde. Less than a decade earlier the Naor were almost victorious. This time around, most of the greatest Altenerai are missing or dead, and it seems as though only a pair of young Altenerai and a few veterans are ready to stand against the Dendressi’s enemies. That book ends grimly, with death and destruction and what seems certain victory of both the Naor and the Queen.

Upon the Flight of the Queen (2019) {That’s two books in one year, folks! It can be done.} begins right where the previous book left off, with death and destruction continuing apace. The Naor march on the capital, Darassus, and the Queen’s plot to resurrect a long lost goddess in order to create a utopia is revealed. Each promises destruction for the Dendressi. Both are thwarted, but the Queen escapes with every intention of carrying out her plan.

As with Queen, When the Goddess Wakes (2021) begins right where the last book ended. And that’s all I have to say about the plot. It’s a concluding volume, wherein all the riddles are solved, all the questions answered, and all the survivors go home. Anything I tell you at this stage will only detract from the enjoyment inherent in those things. And there’s enjoyment to be had.

I haven’t read much new fantasy in the past two years. Truth be told, the new stuff I’ve read is Jones’s Kings and Queens. Perhaps from overexposure, perhaps from repetitive recycled stories, I’ve mostly lost my taste for it. Nonetheless, Goddess worked splendidly for me.

In my review of For the Killing of Kings, I wrote “Heroes are a too often forgotten commodity in fantasy these days, but not here.” Jones is a scholar of heroic fantasy as well as one of its most adept current creators. He knows that heroism is a large part of why people read this genre. Oh, he knows the world isn’t always black and white, and he’s created assorted antagonists, especially the Naor ruler Vannek, that are multi-dimensional villains, though he doesn’t need to lean into the grimdark tropes in order to make this clear. Still, his central characters, whatever their flaws might be, know right from wrong. They willingly make themselves the bulwark between life and destruction no matter the risk to their own lives and happiness. From the green Rylin and unsure Elenai to the cynical Kyrkenall and jovial Ortok, Howard has created a cast of characters worthy of my loyalty. I’m not giving any textual examples, lest I let any cats out of their bags. Let me just say, everyone gets his and her grand moment (or two) and proves himself worthy of it.

Those grand moments, as well as several other big action bits, are extremely well written. Jones never fails to let you know exactly what’s happening and where. These scenes are choreographed perfectly without losing their pulse-pounding edge-of-the-seat qualities. There’s a calm mastery on display throughout When the Goddess Wakes that makes up for a lot of stories I’ve read over the years. There are also loads of spells being blasted and swords and axes swinging and clanging. The monsters — like the one portrayed on the cover — are awesome. This book is packed with what I like to call the good stuff. Lots of good stuff.

Jones’s world-building is a thing of joy and wonder. Joyous because he knows how to give the reader just enough to make the lands of the Dendressi strange and original. There really isn’t a need for endless chapters exploring the geography of distant lands no character will ever visit, politics that extend beyond the demands of the story, or the ingredients of an eight-course dinner that will soon be eaten and forgotten. Instead, he uses the colors needed to flesh out the narrative and lend texture to the characters. When a god suddenly appears, the narrative groundwork’s been laid so it doesn’t knock a hole in the story.

Wondrous because he eschews the generic Northern European feudal trappings endemic to too much fantasy. It’s an original setting, an interesting society reflecting some of our own contemporary concerns believably and unforced. And wondrous because Jones’s narrative flows cohesively through the explanatory and descriptive bits, never leaving his reader trying to figure out or remember what’s going on.

Finally, there’s Jones’s style. He writes cleanly and crisply, and I sped through all three of these books. His prose has a contemporary feel without giving up all the archaicisms common to fantasy. Again, there’s to be no example in order to prevent any spoilers to your enjoyment. He’s incredibly accomplished at keeping the reader fully aware of where and when everyone is. As various characters and parties set about wrangling together the myriad strands of the plot this becomes very important. Rylin, Elenai, and Vannek all end up scattered across the world for different reasons. At the same time, plots are fermenting in a traitor’s fortress. From chapter to chapter, moving in graceful transitions, the story switches from one character’s perspective to another’s without ever allowing the reader to lose sight of the greater story and how the individual parts relate to it. Keeping the whole book to a reasonable length (336 pages) and the chapters fairly concise is a big part of making that work (I’m looking at several endless series right now with angry eyes).

Can you tell I like When the Goddess Wakes? It tells a satisfying story, and equally important, it’s a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. For it to make any sense, of course, you need to read the previous two books, For the Killing of Kings and Upon the Flight of the Queen, but then you’ve done that already, haven’t you?

If I’m going to dedicate my reading time to contemporary fantasy beyond the short story length, Howard Andrew Jones is someone I’ve come to depend on to not disappoint me. With the Ring-Sworn Trilogy, we have a series that’s actually finished and doesn’t weigh fifty pounds. There’s a time and a place for reprobate protagonists and anti-heroes, but not to the exclusion of everything else. Jones gives me heroes, warts and all, but still heroes. That’s a valuable thing to have, even if they’re only ink on paper. Even those sorts of heroes can provide a little inspiration in times like these.


Fletcher Vredenburgh writes a column each first Friday of the month at Black Gate, mostly about older books he hasn’t read before. He also posts at his own site, Stuff I Like when his muse hits him.

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John Hocking

Man, what a fine review.

I was already going to read the book, but this blast of eloquence makes it seem like I need to drop what I’m doing, turn off the phone and start reading right now.

C. S. E. Cooney

I am so excited to read this! I’ve read the first two, and I’ve been WAITING! I have it in my TBR stack!

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