Anthony Ryan delivers another bloody, engaging volume in the second book of his Covenant of Steel series in The Martyr. It has been a couple of years since the first book in this series, The Pariah, so Ryan gives not only a character list but a short precis of the preceding book (although from a point of view not particularly enamoured of its protagonist). And after a short reintroduction to the characters he is right back into the intense medieval fantasy action.
Alwyn Scribe, narrator and key figure in the narrative he is writing, is now one of the key advisors to the Risen Martyr Evadine. Only he and one other know that Evadine was not spared by the grace of the gods (known as the Seraphile) but due to Alwyn’s intervention and the forbidden spells of a foreign magic user, the mysterious Sack Witch. Evadine is now on a mission but does not have a large enough power base, so she makes a deal with the king to go to a neighbouring vassal state and deal with those who have broken away from the Covenant. While this is supposed to be a trap set by the king that is likely to see her killed, Alwyn once again uses his guile to fashion Evadine a victory. The narrative follows not only Evadine’s rise, but also Alwyn’s on her coat tails although along the way he learns more about the mysteries surrounding both Evadine and himself, knowledge that just gives rise to more questions.
The Martyr is a perfect second book. While The Pariah was a coming of age story, The Martyr sees Alwyn fully in control of his powers and influence. He is much less a pawn of fate (for the most part, a middle section throws him back into this role) and he knows when he is doing the wrong thing for the right reasons but does them anyway. Ryan answers some questions but actually spends most of his time setting up bigger questions about the world in which Alwyn lives and the mystical world to which it seems to be connected. he does this while also delivering the things that make this series so strong – a post-Game of Thrones bloody, muddy and often desperate view of medieval politics, conflict and warfare.
The Covenant of Steel series is perfect for fans of horse and sword filled medieval fantasy with a touch of magic. Ryan has shown not only in this series but in his dragon-filled steampunk Draconis Memoria series and others his ability to deliver engaging and page turning fantasy narratives full of grey characters and plenty of cliffhangers. And The Martyr is no exception, with a propulsive set up and last sentence cliffhanger setting things up for the third and final volume of a series where there is plenty to be resolved.