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Nathan’s review of The Bitter Crown by Justin Lee Anderson.

New to the Eidyn Saga? Check out my review of The Lost War, the first book in the series.

Justin Lee Anderson’s The Lost War ended in one of the best executed and jaw dropping twists in epic fantasy. It completely up ended everything that I thought I knew about the book, this world, and these characters. I still remember exactly where I was (waiting in a way too long layover at the Las Vegas airport) when I closed The Lost War, kicking at myself for not seeing the twist coming and cheering Anderson for dropping SO MANY HINTS and yet still pulling the wool over my eyes. I’m going to continue to rest of this review assuming that you have already read The Lost War and know the big twist. So, if you haven’t read The Lost War go pick it up immediately, and then come back here for my thoughts on The Bitter Crown.

SPOILERS FOR THE LOST WAR FROM HERE ON OUT

Whether it is a book, tv show, or movie, there is nothing I love better than a good cliffhanger. I don’t binge book series because I love reeling from a big twist, anticipating the next volume, and letting the shock and awe marinate in my head. Whether the next book in the series is already published or I’m intentionally holding off reading an already published sequel, cliffhangers and big twists work best when you know that you won’t get a resolution in the near future. And oh boy did The Lost War deliver on those fronts. Everything we knew about the world of The Lost War was wrong – the bad guy was good and the good guy was bad. What seemed like established character relationships were…not so established and everyone actually occupied a different role. These characters we spent a chunky book getting to know were not who they really were….and then the book essentially smashed to black.

Luckily Orbit books didn’t wait TOO long to get The Bitter Crown into our hands. The roughly 7 month wait between the books was absolutely perfect; enough time for me to build up the anticipation but not so long that I stopped caring.

But as the publication date for The Bitter Crown arrived I starte to feel a bit of anxiety. I loved the twist in The Lost War so much; would I be dissapointed here? As a self-described “stan” of cliffhanger endings, I am intimately aware that while cliffhangers are often wonderful, their resolutions are often less that satisfactory. Authors pull great cliffhangers to get you to come back to the next book, but then don’t know how to move on from there. Cliffhangers are often world, plot, and/or character breaking in a way that risks destroying the story. Many authors spend sequels (often in the dreaded “middle book syndrome”) twisting, contorting, resetting, or explaining away a giant twist in order to re-establish the status quo. To get back to the comfortable world and characters that the author has built up.

I couldn’t help but wonder, would Anderson do the same thing here? Would Anderson simply hand-wave away the twist? Would he avoid dealing with the consequences of changing nearly everything that The Lost War had to offer?

I can tell you that all of my fears and worries were unecessary, and that Anderson absolutely nails rolling into the twist, and dealing with all of the ramifications, in a beautiful, nuanced, and complex way.

You can, of course, expect everything that you loved in The Lost War. This is an action packed, DnD style adventure with a diverse cast of characters in a Scottish-inspired fantasy world. You can expect more dark creatures, battle sequences, plenty of magical powers, and more. If you were on board with The Lost War for these elements, just know that you will be eating GOOD with The Bitter Crown. Despite its length, this book absolutely flies by because everything just flies along as we dig deeper and deeper into the darkness that permeates this world.

I don’t have much more to say about those elements that I already didn’t say in my review of The Lost War, so what I want to focus on here is what I believe to be The Bitter Crown’s biggest strengths – the character development.

Twists like those from The Lost War are often traumatic experiences, and Anderson deeply and deftly explores this trauma. What happens when your morals and ethics in your “fake” life directly contradcit your “real” life? What happens when you thought you were a monk, but you are really a warrior? What happens when the perosn you thought was the love of your life was “just” a friend? Is it ethical to pursue those feelings, and how do you build a relationship when you still have memories of a false reality? How do you pick up the pieces of a double life?

Anderson doesn’t let his chaaracter off easy. Amidst the battles and action, his characters quietly contemplate their place in life. They meditate on who they were, are, and who they want to be. Defining one’s personal idenetity is a difficult yet important process; we all seek to know who we “are” (and thus our cultural obsession with labels), but the characters in The Bitter Crown have to mediate between two sets of memories and identities. On one hand who they were in The Lost War was completely false, and on the other hand those experiences were in fact REAL. They lived those lives, fostered those relationships, and embodied those lives. Undoing a memory spell doesn’t just undo those things. As much as they know the events of The Lost War (and many events prior) were fake, they still endured and experienced them.

Many readers have been celebrating the DnD style adventuring in The Bitter Crown, but I think the true magic of this book is what happens beneath the fantasy adventuring. It is not just that the twist in The Lost War introduced a new external to be thwarted. It is the internal struggle, the human struggle, of having your very identity brought into question that is the real marvel here.

The Lost War proved that Anderson is a master of building a plot, and The Bitter Crown, despite lacking a world changing twist, doesn’t take the easy path either and moves in many story direections I wasn’t expecting. What The Bitter Crown shows is Anderson’s nuanced handling of complex character emotions. The humanity shines here over the fantasy, and The Bitter Crown is so much better for it.

Concluding Thoughts: A masterful follow up to The Lost War, The Bitter Crown doesn’t shy away from the trauma of the previous book’s world-shattering twist. Still full of DnD style adventures, dark magic, and exciting battles, Anderson also finds a lot of time to slow down and sit with the ramifications of what the characters have endured. This makes The Bitter Crown a deeper book, a more mature book, and an overall better book than its predecessor. The Lost War was famous for its big twist, but The Bitter Crown sets up this saga to be heralded as a masterwork of epic fantasy storytelling. Bring on the next book.

 

Thank you for reading my review of The Bitter Crown!

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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