Skip to main content

Nathan’s review of The Will of the Many by James Islington.

The Will of the Many is a fun, compulsively readable, and action-packed Roman inspired epic fantasy that had me staying up way past my bedtime. It is a wonderful addition to the “magical academy” subgenre (with all of your favorite tropes!) as well as being a carefully nuanced critique of colonialism and the project of empire. Whether you are in the mood for something fun and breezy or something deeper and more contemplative, Islington has you covered.

The Will of the Many tells the story of Vis, a young orphan who is adopted by one of the sociopolitical elites of the Hierarchy. Vis is tasked with entering a prestigious magical academy with one goal – ascend the ranks, figure out what the other major branches of the government are doing, and report back. However, that isn’t quite as easy as Vis or anyone else thought it was going to be…

I really enjoyed Islington’s worldbuilding. It’s actually shocking we don’t have more fantasy books set in a Roman-esque setting, and Islington uses the setting to its full potential. The main thrust of the world is the Hierarchy itself, a powerful, colonizing empire that has pretty much wiped every other independent nation out. The Hierarchy is socially divided…hierarchically. Most people are at the bottom with fewer people at the top, and the people at the top can pull magical energy from the lower people. What results is essentially the magical equivalent of a pyramid scheme – each Rank 4 person has a few Rank 5 people they pull from, the Rank 5 people pull from Rank 6 people, etc. etc. This gives most people access to some kind of magic, while the people at the top can do the most powerful stuff because they are drawing magical energy from the most people.

This magical energy, the Will, is not only a cool magic system to explore, but it has social and thematic resonance as well. Islington’s magic system is a condemnation of both his fictional Hierarchy and the world that we live into today. While the people in the Hierarchy are deprived of their magical energies, in our world people are deprived of their money, health, and happiness to those at the top of the social hierarchy; those that take and never give. I always love when magic systems are thought out in this way. I am always down for a magic system that is cool just because it’s cool, but when a magic system is so nicely integrated into the book’s setting and theme like The Will is, it makes it all the better.

More than anything else what I loved about Islington’s worldbuilding is that he has carefully thought about how magic would actually impact the world. While it is definitely Roman inspired, Islington’s world doesn’t look exactly like Ancient Rome. For example, flying trains and mass transit are common in this world because of course it does. Magic makes it really easy to transport objects and people, so why wouldn’t an efficiently run empire have this? I don’t see this kind of thinking enough in epic fantasy, and I loved how it was used here.

The book is compulsively consumable and readable. I didn’t even realize the book was nearly 700 pages long because I flew through it. Islington’s writing style is a bit more interesting than say, Sanderson’s prose (this is not a hit against Sanderson, his prose is just utilitarian), but still fades into the background as you race through the pages. The story also moves. I thought that a chonky first book in a series would be a lot of set up, but Islington keeps the story progressing at a fine pace. And while there are definitely reveals to come in future books, he also gives the readers a lot of information so it doesn’t feel like this book only exists for the set up.

There isn’t a magical academy, coming of age, epic fantasy trope that Islington doesn’t put on display here. I’m not sure this is necessarily a criticism, but my feelings about the tropiness of the story did vacillate frequently as I was working my way through the book. Vis is a low class kid placed in magical academy to aid in the resistance (although the resistance here is another branch of the government rather than the resistance movement). There is a love triangle between Vis, one of the upper-class classmates, and one of the resistance fighters. There is a cruel professor and a professor that supports Vis. A lot of the worldbuilding is done through class lectures and grand speeches. There is a dangerous game (that isn’t really a death game, but death is possible) that all of the students need to participate in. I could keep listing them, but my point is that if you are looking for something that revels in these tropes, The Will of the Many has them all. However, if you hate these tropes you might want to look elsewhere.

No matter how many tropes Islington engaged in, I will say that he did them really well.

Between the prose style and the tropiness, this book sits nicely between YA and adult fantasy. Fans of either genre will feel right at home here. The young protagonists, magical school, and first-person present narration will appeal to YA fans, while the complex magic system, critiques of colonialism/power, and the political maneuvering will keep fans of adult fantasy interested. I’m not sure if I have read a book that so seamlessly draws in both audiences without alienating one or the other at some point!

One trope that Islington avoided that I really enjoyed was how he portrayed the villains. It often feel like authors want the readers to know how evil the antagonists are, and thus go out of their way to have the villains do the most heinous things. They are vile, arrogant, and cruel in all of the most horrifying ways. The villains in The Will of the Many aren’t like this. They act like normal people. Some are jerks, most are rather nice. Unlike most fish-out-of-water magical academy stories, Vis’ classmates are no nicer or meaner than what you would expect at any kind of normal school. Sure, there are bullies but Vis isn’t some kind of social pariah.

What is so brilliant about this is that these characters feel all the more natural, real, and human because Islington doesn’t feel like he needs to up the teen angst. To be clear, these people are vile colonizers. But the thing is that they have already won. The Hierarchy is the victor, its citizens are comfortable. There is no need for the characters to act out their villainy. This makes Islington’s villains all the more heinous; they are normal people, having normal conversations, and doing normal things all the while casually discussing how to perpetuate their colonizing ways. As I worked my way through The Will of the Many I was achingly uncomfortable (in a good way!) because I was being endeared to these people that…are not great.

Having said that, Islington does run into a bit of the problem that many similar stories run into, and that is that he does want some of the colonizers to be heroes. He doesn’t have them fully unpack their own complicity in the pain of others (including Vis’ family), but there will be plenty of time to hopefully do so in later books.

And speaking of villainy, I won’t say too much to avoid spoilers but I did really like that (outside of Vis) Islington does add some gray layers and nuance to all sides of the colonizer/colonized issue. He recognizes that simple binaries don’t work in the creation of and the resistance to empires. Good/bad and colonizer/colonized don’t always operate in those overly simplistic and binary ways. I wouldn’t but this book anywhere near the grimdark genre, mostly because Vis is such an example of a classic good-guy protagonist, but the world around Vis is much more complicated than your standard “heroic” fantasy epic.

The end of The Will of the Many sets up so many exciting directions for the series, for both heroes and villains, and I am definitely on board for wherever Islington takes me next.

Concluding Thoughts: The Will of the Many is an exciting start to a new fantasy series, full of political intrigue, magical academies, insurgence, death games and more. No matter what kind of epic fantasy you usually gravitate towards, you will definitely find something in Islington’s Roman-inspired world. Simultaneously a breezy, fun beach read and a deeper, more searing condemnation of colonialism and social inequalities, I could not put this book down and I am anxiously awaiting the sequel.

 

Thank you for reading my review of The Will of the Many!

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!

Leave a Reply