Review: WE LIE WITH DEATH by Devin Madson

Publisher: Orbit Books
Page Count: 520
Release Date: January 12th, 2021
Rating: 3.75/5 Stars – Liked It!

Note: I was provided a free copy of the book by the publisher in exchange for my fair and honest review.

Warning: Potential spoilers for the first book in the series. Haven’t read it? You can find a review here: WE RIDE THE STORM

The Kisian empire has fallen. Empress Miko has fled, and the capitol is under the enemy control of the Levanti. But the fate of land is far from decided. The new rulers have a tenuous grasp on their new territory at best, and former enemies may prove to be the only allies available. Empress Miko certainly finds that when it becomes clear that some of her former advisors view her only as a bargaining chip, putting her on the run from friend and foe alike. Levanti warrior Rah is on a mission to return to his Emperor Gideon to warn him of a betrayal. Meanwhile Dishiva tries to protect Emperor Gideon as he establishes his rule, but finds herself trying to fight an enemy who is always one step ahead. And the assassin Cassandra tries to find a cure for her mysterious abilities at the hands of a man known simply as the Witchdoctor – but the answers she finds about her illness may have ramifications for every nation on the continent.

There’s an inherent tendency when reviewing sequels to compare them to the book(s) that came before. Did it make me feel the same? Was it just as exciting? Less exciting? Sometimes those are easy asks. And sometimes, books are a bit apples and oranges. Such is the case of WE LIE WITH DEATH, sequel to WE RIDE THE STORM. Whereas the first book felt like a grand game of large moving forces, with multiple nations moving troops and going to war, WE LIE WITH DEATH, is about what happens after. When one side appears to win and has to try and hold that power, not through force, but through diplomacy and leveraging political power. After the devastating events at the end of WE RIDE THE STORM, the various countries are trying to cling to what power they have, frozen in a state of seeming inactivity while scrabbling to grab the few pieces left on the board that haven’t been claimed. Pieces like Empress Miko, who could add “legitimacy” to a power base through marriage or through her execution.

As such, there was a different energy to this book. It wasn’t so much about driving towards an inevitable clash as it was about people slowly moving pieces in a giant game of chicken. It was still a read I thoroughly enjoyed, but there were fewer edge-of-your-seat moments than were in book one. Your mileage may vary on how much you enjoy this next outing, but it’s best to go into it with the right frame of mind.

While the nations might be in a bit of a deadlock, our main protagonists are running about doing the best they can to shake things up. WE LIE WITH DEATH starts bringing some of the disparate plot threads by forcing together some characters who never interacted in the first book. This makes for some delightfully odd pairings, especially when the characters are from two different cultures, offering two different perspectives on the conflict as POV chapters switch off. This can be particularly interesting because very few of the POV characters speak the same language, leaving them sometimes at a loss as to what their new partner is thinking. The POVs come from multiple sides of the conflict, allowing both Kisians and Levanti alike to have their moments of being the “speaking” culture and not understanding what the other is staying, avoiding the unintentional trope of having one culture appear more “backwards” because they don’t speak the “dominant” language of the book.

Ironically, it’s new POV character Dishiva who has the most plot momentum, despite traveling the least of the four main characters. Dishiva is a Levanti in the court of newly-crowned Levanti emperor Gideon. She’s juggling a lot: loyalty to Gideon, Kisian customs that are encroaching on the Levanti way of life, an inability to speak the language of those who might be threats to her emperor, and a strong suspicion that Leo Villius is the threat that nobody (including Gideon) sees. Her chapters were by far the most interesting for me and was a welcome addition to the story.

The other POV characters (Miko, Rah, and Cassandra) all had some good moments, but felt a little bit like they were running in place, even as they were running all over the map. Rah in particular seems to be fixated on saving people who don’t want to be saved, and warning them of threats they’re already aware of. It’s an ineffective hero complex that made him a little hard to root for, despite him being a favorite character in the last book. Cassandra’s chapters continue to be intriguing as she is the only POV character with magic (something so rare it is almost dismissed as superstitious nonsense in this world), and her time with the Witchdoctor begins providing some much needed answers about the bigger plot.

Frustrations about plot momentum aside, this is still a series very much rooted in character, and that’s what kept me picking up this book every time I had a free moment. Overall, these are well-written characters I love to spend time with, and I am definitely invested to see these character journeys through until the (highly likely) bitter end.

Even with some plot threads treading water, the book continues to feel like a pressure cooker, thanks to the slowly rising tensions brought about by the charismatic cockroach that is Leo Villius. Leo will not die, he gets into everything despite best attempts by other characters to keep him out, and he ruins everything with a smile on his face as he watches characters fail at removing him. Leo is insidiously frightening, not because he wields any kind explosive power (he does not) but because he somehow always manages to be where he needs to be to turn things to his advantage. His relentlessness starts to feel you with dread after a while, because what can anyone do against someone who seems to foresee anything that might threaten him? The other nations might be sniping at one another and think they’re vying for power, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that Leo plans to be standing on the ashes when all is said and done.

THE REBORN EMPIRE is proving to be one of those series that has a much larger game afoot than readers initially realized. While the threats the nations pose to each other is very real, events are in motion in the background that may make all of that meaningless. Much of WE LIE WITH DEATH involves characters licking their wounds and regrouping, but it’s poised the story to move in a real direction when the next installment comes out.

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