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Nathan’s review of Engines of Chaos by RS Ford

Well, this was a bit disappointing.

Engines of Chaos is in no way a bad book, and in most ways it is even a serviceable multi-POV epic fantasy. But it in no way lives up to the potential of its predecessor, Engines of Empire.

I initially read Engines of Empire when it first came out on the recommendation of Elliot Brooks from Booktube. I didn’t fall in love with it the same way that she did, but I saw a lot of promise in the world and story that was being built up there. RS Ford was building this cool steampunk world full of battling families, an autocratic religious authority, and some larger magical power brewing in the background. I think it was the closest thing for readers looking for the next A Song of Ice and Fire. While Engines of Empire didn’t really live up to the full potential of was Ford was building (mostly, he built up this really cool steampunk city with lots of cool politics and then put most of the POV characters outside of that cool city), I anticipated a really awesome sequel that would finally deliver.

However, I am disappointed to say, it did not.

Warning: Spoilers for Engines of Empire. This review is spoiler free for Engines of Chaos.

Engines of Chaos picks up right where Engines of Empire left off. The Hawkspur family is in shambles after the Archlegate Sanctan has assassinated the emperor. Rosomon, the matriarch, is trying to cobble together some kind of army in which to unite the Guilds and fight back against Sanctan; Fulren and Connall are both presumed dead after the climatic events of the last book; and Tyreta is returning to Torwyn after discovering magical abilities in herself. Readers should be aware that Ford does no hand-holding in catching readers back up, so it might be a good idea to refresh yourself on Engines of Empire first!

When reading Engines of Empire, I loved the Hawskspur family. I read a lot of books in a year, and these are characters that immediately came back to me. However, in this book everyone felt a lot more muted. Now, this could just be the case that everyone is pretty beat up in this book after the wallops they had taken in the first book but I think it is more than that. Ford seems to have lost the spark of what made the Hawkspurs so engaging and interesting. Many of the characters no longer felt like people, but rather just pieces on a board being moved around so that the political machinations could happen. Everyone was one-dimensional compared to who they were in the first book. Theses were definitely not the characters I remember and fell in love with.

(Side note: I recommend not looking at the table of contents if you don’t want spoilers. You will quickly find out who survived and who died at the end of Engines of Empire just by seeing who does or does not have POV chapters!)

The most interesting POV characters are the ones not part of the Hawkspur family – Keara and Ansell. Both of them are much more lively than the hapless Hawkspurs (who in this book resemble budget Starks). They are complex people with conflicting allegiances and contradictory goals. I really enjoyed seeing them try to navigate the increasingly messy political waters of Torwyn as they tried to achieve their goals. I think Ansell especially, who had a relatively minor role in the first book, will become a fan favorite in this book.

Because so many of the character didn’t feel like real people, nor did they feel all that different from one another, meant that all of the Guild families and various political factions all just felt the same. The names of different families and battalions kept being thrown around, and I couldn’t differentiate them. This made for shallow political games, as everyone felt like faceless pawns on the board rather than a fully realized lived in world with history and culture.

Plotwise, Engines of Empire suffers from middle-book-syndrome. Not a lot happens until about 3/4 of the way through the novel, and then everything happens so quickly that it is hard to follow the nuances of all of the plotting, scheming, and backstabbing. It really felt that for two or three of the POV characters spent most of the book travelling from one place to another.

This impacted the pacing of the novel, which felt like it came in spurts and stops. Because of this, a lot of the plot and character moments that should have wowed me fell flat. There is a climatic battle scene that all of the plot threads are building to throughout the book that comes out of nowhere. Everyone was still getting the troops together, and then the battle just hits. It took me way too long to get my bearings to enjoy the battle that I had been anticipating; this was exacerbated by the fact that the battle jumps between the POV of multiple minor characters that I had no emotional investment in.

Overall, the book just felt a bit cold and distant.

Having said all of that, there is still stuff to like in this book. As much as I just outlined everything I didn’t like, I still finished it and at no point was I seriously considering DNFing it. Readers looking for an epic fantasy with dueling families, armies, and religious conflict will find a lot to enjoy here. What Ford does really well is give us all of the tropes of epic fantasy while just tweaking them enough where the book still feels fresh. This book will scratch the epic fantasy itch while serving up some fun conflicts, a couple of great characters (looking at you Ansell and Keara!), a unique spin on magical elements.

As much as there was stuff in this book that didn’t work for me, I am still ready to jump into the next book and see how this entire thing plays out. The end of Engines of Chaos once again alludes to the bigger thread hinted at in the beginning of Engines of Empire, and I really want to see what it is all about!

Concluding Thoughts: Disappointingly, this book does not build on the promise of Engines of Empire, but still serves up a fun fantasy read. Readers looking for warring families, religious threats, interesting magic, and multiple POV characters should definitely look for this series. Readers looking for wonderfully complex characters should probably look elsewhere.

Thank you for reading my review of Engines of Chaos!

Nathan

Nathan is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology where he specializes in death rituals of the Ice Age in Europe and queer theory. Originally from Ohio, he currently lives in Kansas where he teaches college anthropology, watches too much TV, and attempts to make the perfect macarons in a humid climate. He is also the co-host of The Dragonfire podcast with James Lloyd Dulin. He reads widely in fantasy and sci-fi and is always looking for new favorites!

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