“But the truth was, he had a burning desire to incinerate her right then and there.”
John Palladino takes his craft to new heights in Buzzard’s Bowl, the second volume of his grimdark fantasy series, The Tragedy of Cedain. I am delighted to see how Palladino has grown as a writer since publishing his first novel, The Trials of Ashmount. Palladino already showed great promise with his debut, and he has made all the right moves with Buzzard’s Bowl.
As with The Trials of Ashmount, Buzzard’s Bowl is told as a third-person narrative from the perspectives of five main protagonists. Palladino has improved upon his already strong character development skills, building layers of complexity and strong emotional connections to each of the lead protagonists. Palladino cites Joe Abercrombie as a key influence, and I can definitely see that inspiration in his outstanding character work. The protagonists of Buzzard’s Bowl are all profoundly broken in different ways; yet each of them is sympathetic and relatable.
First up is Edelbrock Brendis, formerly a minor nobleman who, through his own strategic missteps, finds himself as an enslaved gladiator fighting in the Buzzard’s Bowl arena. Edelbrock is a deeply pathetic and tragic figure, drawing equal parts sympathy and repugnance. Edelbrock grows a lot throughout Buzzard’s Bowl while oscillating between depth and shallowness of character.
My favorite protagonist from The Trials of Ashmount, Demri Slarn, returns in Buzzard’s Bowl with even more emotional baggage than in the first book. Demri is clearly inspired by Sand dan Glokta, Joe Abercrombie’s greatest creation first introduced in The Blade Itself. Like Glokta, Demri is simultaneously a despicable and sympathetic character who experiences tremendous emotional and physical suffering. Like Edelbrock, Demri occupies the full spectrum of gray morality, keeping the reader guessing as to his intentions and actions.
Next is Sera Wintlock, a bird-farming girl who rises to heroism as her family and village are slaughtered. In my previous review of The Trials of Ashmount, I noted the lack of a strong emotional connection with Sera, despite the tragic situations that she endures. This is no longer an issue in Buzzard’s Bowl, as Sera experiences one of the best character arcs in the book, growing as a leader while the emotional trauma from her past finally catches up with her.
Another character who fell strangely flat for me in The Trials of Ashmount was Villic the Imbuer, a nomadic warrior from the Camel Clans who is haunted by a mysterious voice in his mind which he calls Speaker. Villic is a revelation in Buzzard’s Bowl. His inner monologue with Speaker is by turns hilarious and tragic. The suffering that Villic endures in Buzzard’s Bowl and his ensuing character growth make him one of the most endearing characters in this second volume of the series.
Palladino also introduces a new point-of-view character with Ashen, a former street urchin who masquerades as Lady Hyrel to gain access to the inner circle of a particularly despicable noble. I was immediately drawn to Ashen’s character from the moment she was introduced. She reminds me of Vin from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, but with a more grimdark storyline.
Buzzard’s Bowl is fast-paced and full of surprises for each of the main characters, especially when their storylines converge. Palladino shines in writing pulse-pounding action sequences. My favorite is the scene captured on the outstanding cover designed by Dusan Markovic, which depicts a flooded Buzzard’s Bowl arena with battling gladiator ships electrified by levitating Magicai wizards. This is one of several epic action sequences in the book.
Although I’ve already mentioned Joe Abercrombie, I’d argue that George R.R. Martin has an even greater influence on Buzzard’s Bowl. Like the first three volumes of Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, Palladino manages a sprawling scope and depth of worldbuilding with excellent pacing and a character-driven focus. As with both Abercrombie and Martin, Palladino doesn’t shy away from the raw brutality of his grimdark world.
Getting Sarah Chorn on board as editor was also a wise decision, as she has helped bring out the best in Palladino’s writing. In his most impactful moments, Palladino’s prose reminds me of Anna Smith Spark at her most emotionally devastating. This emotional wreckage is balanced by Palladino’s wicked sense of humor, which recalls Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora and had me laughing out loud several times.
Overall, John Palladino gleefully embraces the best of grimdark fantasy in Buzzard’s Bowl, which reads in many ways like an irreverent version of A Game of Thrones. Palladino shares Joe Abercombie’s talent at developing broken, morally complex characters, George R.R. Martin’s epic worldbuilding and well-paced story arcs, Scott Lynch’s incisive humor, and the raw emotional impact of Anna Smith Spark. Buzzard’s Bowl firmly establishes John Palladino as one of the most exciting new voices in the grimdark fantasy community. I eagerly await the next volume of his Tragedy of Cedain series.
Review originally published at Grimdark Magazine.