The Crown of the Conqueror by Gav Thorpe is the second book in the Crown of the Blood series, published by Angry Robot Books. It tells the tale of Ulsaard, a general-cum-emperor who is trying to solidify his rule and expand his kingdom amid opposition from foes both natural and supernatural.
Off to a shaky start
The novel opens with a very fascinating scene that really set the bar high for enjoyment of the story to come. Ulsaard has just taken control of the Empire when he makes an incredible discovery: the imperial crown houses the soul of the first emperor. What’s more, he’s been using the crown to possess each of his heirs to further his own goals for the empire. We discover that Ulsaard has enough royal blood that he sustains the soul of the emperor, but not enough for the emperor to possess him as he did the previous emperor. So we find our victorious general with a voice in his head trying to get him to do what it wants for the betterment of the empire. What a cool concept! I wonder how they’re going to resolve it! Oh… it’s resolved by having distance weaken the connection, causing Ulsaard to travel far away for 200 pages without a single interaction with the spirit of the old emperor. I guess that’s one way to set up a great premise and then ignore it.
At no point in the story does any of this really seem to come back into the limelight either. We do have some conversations between Ulsaard and the old Emperor; they’re both involved in what seems to become a more serious underarching plot involving the mysterious Brotherhood, a religious cult of priests and administrators who have designs far greater than those of the old Emperor. Given the emphasis placed on the old Emperor in the prologue, though, and how much Ulsaard dwells on it throughout the book, the basic abandonment of the concept really rubbed me the wrong way.
A man of action and… well… more action
Though all the reviews and press on the book claim Ulsaard as a thoughtful, fully developed character, he seems to me to be a fairly simple man. He is good at killing people, so he spends a lot of his time on the way to kill people, killing people, and then coming back from killing people. While he certainly has tactical skill, his response to pretty much every threat is “crush it,” which, while it makes perfect sense for a general and an emperor to feel that way, certainly doesn’t add all that much depth to his character. He reacts to threats against his friends, against his family, and against his empire with violence.
The problem with such an action-oriented protagonist is that after the fiftieth fight scene, it starts to get stale. There’s an action scene where in the course of one page, Ulsaard manages to “plunge into the fray,” “pitch into the fight” and “wade into the mass.” While any one of these on its own is a perfectly punchy action line, seeing them all in sequence is like he’s leaping from one carefully positioned crowd to another while they stand around and wait for him to make an entrance.
For people who like that sort of thing…
Don’t get me wrong; if what you’re looking for is action, violence, gore, brutality, and sex, this is a great book. It seems as though that’s about all that happens, but it’s dealt out in spades, and it’s not poorly written. However, there’s a quote on the cover of this book from sci-fi author Andy Remic which reads, “George R. R. Martin, you’d better guard your Throne because a new usurper has arrived.” This quote was both a large part of the motivation for my buying this book, and a large part of my abject disappointment in its failure to deliver. George R. R. Martin has nothing to worry about from Gav Thorpe, not because Thorpe is a bad writer, but for the same reason Martin Scorsese doesn’t have anything to worry about from Michael Bay: they aren’t doing the same kind of thing, and they aren’t doing it for the same audience. Even if both of them were at the absolute pinnacle of their styles (and I don’t think either of them are, personally) they really aren’t in competition with each other, so this sensational quote just seems misplaced.
Why should you read this book?
There’s blood, guts, and tits, and lots of ’em all. The pacing is great, the action is everywhere, and the combat is gritty, realistic and engaging… provided you aren’t looking for much else. This is the kind of book that R. A. Salvatore fans get into before they discover Martin, Kay, or Jordan. There’s nothing wrong with that, and everybody needs escapsim now and then. However, it wasn’t what I was expecting, it wasn’t what was promised from the press, and I could have spent half the money renting Starship Troopers and had essentially the same experience.