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Nathan’s review of The Crimson Court by Brendan Noble

 

The tl;drThe Crimson Court is a fast-paced, multi-POV epic with feuding noble Houses and looming supernatural threats. If you like your epic fantasies full of politics, warring empires, and  cool elemental(ish) magic systems, this is the book for you. This is the modern, flintlock, Eastern European-flavored A Game of Thrones, but with a much tighter focus, less sprawling and wheel-spinning, a bit less of the moral greyness. The Crimson Court has a lot of moving parts and is a complex book, but never feels overwhelming or gratuitously world-built, giving the plot a lot of “oomph” and forward momentum. I loved this book and cannot wait for the sequel.

My full review:

Do you ever read a book and just think “This book was written just for me”? The Crimson Court is that book. Court politics? Nobles gossiping? Cool magic? Empires at war? An Eastern European inspired flintlock world? Interdimensional supernatural threats? A spirit plague? A crystal dragon? A multi-POV epic that doesn’t feel bogged down? Yes, yes, and yes again.

The Crimson Court is an absolute winner – a book that is both reminiscent of epic fantasies like A Song of Ice and Fire or The Wheel of Time, but also feels wholly new and unique, with an updated veneer that doesn’t stumble into many of the same problems as those epics. This had everything that I wanted from a book and more, and it was one of the few books I’ve read that I was disappointed to be reading an ARC because the sequel wasn’t immediately available to me.

Like most multi-POV epics, the plot is a bit hard to quickly summarize. The main plot follows a young woman named Kasia who is on a revenge quest to take down The Crimson Court (an elusive and secret group of nobles) who had assassinated her father when she was young. Kasia has a rare magical ability – she is a Death Reacher who can steal the life force of others. Magic is common in this world, but Death magic is outlawed. When the book begins, Kasia is the head of her House, and she travels to the capital to enact her plot on the Crimson Court. While there, she stumbles into political plots and schemes both intimately human and otherworldly.

The Crimson Court is a book where any summary is going to sound shallow and cannot fully capture the scope of what is going on. Along with Kasia’s storyline, the book follows a Glassblade warrior, a group of people who defend the realm from malevolent and malignant spirits, the granddaughter to the king, an illegitimate and physically disabled noble, and a non-binary “street rat” who is trying to find a cure for their partner’s illness. There are a lot of moving parts in The Crimson Court, and readers who like their worlds to feel complex will find a lot to sink their teeth into here.

What I was continually wowed by more than anything else was Noble’s ability to throw all of these plot balls into the air, and yet the pacing felt breezy and effortless. Even the most hardcore fans of big, chunky epic fantasies probably have sections of their favorite books that bore them a bit, or that they might skip on a re-read. Noble contains all of the worldbuilding, plot, and character elements in the perfect way – a way that keeps the plot moving along and never feeling like it is spinning its wheels. Things happen; the plot moves. At first it seems like this is going to be another of those multi-POV epics where the characters pretty much exist in their own storylines that only marginally intersect, but Noble quickly brings all of the POV characters together. They frequently bump into each other before being sent away from each other before coming back together. It is clear from reading that this is an intricate and detailed world, but Noble doesn’t dwell on unnecessary worldbuilding. Everything in the book is tight and finely tuned. The cast of characters is large but not unruly, the magic system is complex without being impenetrable, and the plot is deep without being incoherent. This is a tough balancing act, and Noble does it nearly flawlessly.

Noble not only knows how to write a swift plot, but his use of plot momentum is masterful. While there are peaks and valleys to the pacing, the book is nearly relentless as it builds and builds. It all leads to a throne-room climax that had me holding my breath and glued to the page. Did I already mention that I need the sequel, say, yesterday?

The climax (and the rest of the book) only works because Noble populates his book with characters you genuinely want to root for, and villains that you love to hate. I don’t want to say that The Crimson Court is some morally pure heroic fantasy, but it also doesn’t revel in moral greyness either. The characters have a clear moral compass (although conflict arises when what is moral/ethical is contradictory), and as the reader you want to root for them despite their flaws and personality imperfections. Kasia might be the most morally grey of the main POV characters since revenge quests are never morally straight-forward, but she never comes across as purely unlikeable or edge-lordy, and Noble smartly surrounds here with more immediately likeable characters. The villains are also a whole heck of a lot of fun, whether they are just the court gossips (I genuinely believe that being a 16/17th century minor noble who just gossips all day about court was my true calling, and I was just born in the wrong country, century, and class position) or the supernatural big bads who set some incredible stuff into motion. The characters are vivid and larger than life in a way that doesn’t lead to soap opera/melodrama, but does role into the fun of competing Houses and court politics.

I think the only major complaint I had about the book is that there is some awkward info-dumps early on. Noble is trying to catch readers up on things so quickly, and his solution is just to jam the information into the narration. This isn’t seamless, and it doesn’t read quite as smoothly as I would like. However, as the book progresses readers are given information in a much more natural way. While the info-dumping definitely “read funny” and is jarring, it isn’t so bad that it took me out of the story and the world. If you are a reader who hates info-dumps and that immediately turns you off, you might struggle with the first 50 pages or so here. For me, I would rather have some iffy-introduction of worldbuilding rather than spending the rest of the book confused about what the heck issupposed to be going on here. The story here is just too good to be confused about what a Reacher is or how/why kings are elected in this kingdom.

The Crimson Court is a perfect book for readers looking for their next “Noble Houses bickering while a greater supernatural threat looms” epic fantasy. It hearkens back to similar books in the genre (I know A Game of Thrones is going to be thrown around a lot as a comp, especially since some of the elements are inspired by Martin’s works), but feels fresh and new. A prequel novella is coming soon, and that will have to satiate my appetite for this world and these characters while I impatiently wait for the next full book!

 

Thank you for reading my review of The Crimson Court!

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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