The Last Blade Priest by WP Wiles
Angry Robot Books, pb, £9.99.
Reviewed by Steven Poore
In a dark and forbidding temple, deep in a high and inaccessible land, the Blade Priests spill blood for the Custodians of the Mountain, just as they have done for centuries. But change is coming to the Mountain – new ways and old sins too…
Will Wiles is better known outside the genre for novels like Care of Wooden Floors (Harper, 2012) and Plume (4th Estate, 2019), but as contributions to the likes of An Unreliable Guide to London (Influx, 2016) demonstrate – alongside Nikesh Shukla and M John Harrison – he’s not averse to working in a more speculative aspect. The Last Blade Priest is a full-blown epic fantasy, the first volume of a longer story, and a fascinatingly-constructed tale from an author who plainly knows what he’s doing.
Told in the main from the alternated perspectives of compromised builder Inar, who has wound up on the losing side of a war against the rising power of the League of Free Cities, and reluctant Blade Priest Anton, who has no desire to spill any blood at all, the story follows the League’s mission to send emissaries to the hidden land of Elith-Tenh, to sign a treaty with the priests of the Mountain against their enemies in Miroline. Inar is enlisted as a guide to the Merite Anzola and her ward, a young girl named Duna, and accompanies them on their dangerous climb into the mountains. Meanwhile, Anton receives an unexpected and wholly unwanted promotion when the leader of his temple is murdered and quickly finds himself on the run as a faction opposed to Anzola’s deal takes control of Elith-Tenh. Now both Inar and Anton must struggle against enemies, the very landscape itself, and old and dangerous magic on each side. To make matters worse, the elves are attacking as well.
Wiles writes with a direct but immersive style, drawing the reader into the problems faced by Inar and Anton, slowly excavating the layers under their skins. Revelations about other characters and their own motivations come as a shock as much to the reader as to Anton and Inar themselves. There’s the kind of straightforward narrative logic that I’ve long admired in Juliet E McKenna’s writing – you can fully believe in the world and the history that Wiles has written. There are enough literary flourishes, as well, to brighten up the prose.
Though Wiles does trip a little on one of fantasy’s biggest bugbears, the problem of made-up place names, it’s certainly not enough to undercut the book’s rock-solid foundations. And leading on from that pun, I can look at one of the main themes behind the book: from the stones and strata of the landscapes, the fragile mountainside paths and the old roads of Elith-Tenh and the walls surrounding Anton’s temple and Inar’s home town of Stull, to the old religion of the Tzanate itself, everything is under pressure and fractured. The magic that Inar and Duna wield can break apart solid stone and pull whole towers apart; the factions within the Tzanate are doing the same to themselves, and there are factions within the League forces as well. Wiles looks for the weak points in everything, applying pressure to see what – and who – will break first.
While the landscape of the world – and the towers and steadfasts on either side of the mountains – is the bedrock of the book, there’s magic too. And The Last Blade Priest doesn’t disappoint there either. Inar and Duna climb into their abilities, and Wiles takes the time to show that progression while still keeping the magic free of “hard magic system” limitations. The magic feels dangerous and unpredictable, all the more so when wielded by Anton’s collaborative Custodian. Birdlike, bestial, very slightly analogous to RJ Barker’s gullaime (if the gullaime was a seven-foot-tall crow with a beak-like a broadsword and a penchant for blood), the presence of the Custodian is matched only by that of Wiles’s elves, who are really vicious little buggers who inspire their followers to cut their ears into points in imitation of them.
Wiles saves a neat twist for the climax of the book, proving at the same time that he’s got the plot well worked out and isn’t afraid to play a few games to misdirect the reader. The Last Blade Priest isn’t “grimdark” per se, though there are enough bloody elements and gruesome deaths for it to stand close to it, but it is a deft and intelligent, immaculately constructed epic fantasy with characters as human as the Mountain is cold. Absolutely recommended.