Publisher: Orbit/Hachette Audio (Audiobook – 28 June 2022)
Series: The Covenant of Steel – Book Two
Length: 19 hours and 42 minutes
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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The always impressive Anthony Ryan continues his outstanding Covenant of Steel series with The Martyr, which was hands down one of the best fantasy novels of 2022.
Anthony Ryan is an extremely talented author who has been one of the leading authors of fantasy fiction for the last decade, producing several intriguing and major series. Best known for his Raven’s Shadow trilogy (which was followed on by the Raven’s Blade duology), Slab City Blues, The Draconis Memoria and Seven Swords series, Ryan has a substantial catalogue of fantasy works to his name, most of which sound pretty damn epic. However, I have so far only read the books from his latest series, The Covenant of Steel series, which has proven to be exceptional. The first book in The Covenant of Steel was last year’s deeply compelling release, The Pariah, an excellent novel that set up a deeply intriguing and highly addictive character-driven tale of adventure, conspiracy and war.
The Pariah told the adventure of Alwyn Scribe, a young outlaw who was raised by brutal bandit chief. However, his time as a member of a notorious band of villains came to a bloody end when his entire gang is brutally killed by the crown and his mentor is executed. Imprisoned in a mine, Alwyn finds a new mentor in an imprisoned religious figure, who teaches him to be a talented scribe, and he is eventually able to escape. Chance and self-preservation lead him to join the Covenant Company of Lady Evadine Courlain, a pious woman whose religious visions, sermons and sheer faith allow her to bring together a band of dedicated soldiers. Swiftly growing loyal to her, Alwyn becomes one of her key followers, and saves her from certain death several times as they fight across the Kingdom of Albermaine. I deeply enjoyed the elaborate and extremely addictive narrative contained within The Pariah, and this ended up being one of my absolute favourite books and audiobooks of 2021 (as well as being one of my favourite new-to-me authors of the year as well). As such, I was extremely happy to receive a copy of The Martyr a little while ago, although I held out reading it until I could get a copy of the audiobook version as well.
The Martyr takes places shortly after the bloody conclusion to The Pariah and sees Alwyn Scribe now firmly in the service of Lady Evadine Courlain, whose apparent resurrection has led to her being proclaimed a living martyr of the Covenant church. However, this and the fanatical devotion of the faithful of Albermaine have placed her in the crosshairs of both the Crown and the Covenant, both of whom see her as a dangerous pretender to their power. Unable to kill her without starting a religious rebellion, the king decides to use Evadine for his own purposes.
Sent south to the Duchy of Alundia to put down a rebellion and stop a series of religious attacks upon the Covenant faithful, Alwyn, Evadine and the Covenant Company take up residence in a small, dilapidated castle, which soon draws the attention of the Alundian nobility. Besieged by a massive army, Alwyn and his companions must survive the onslaught if they are to pass on Evadine’s message for the future. However, not everything is as it seems. Dark forces are in play and Alwyn soon finds himself in the middle of treacheries, both new and old, as he desperately stands beside his mistress. Forced to dive into the secret past of the land, Alwyn soon discovers that many of the things that Evadine preaches are true, including the legend of the Scourge that destroyed the world and threatens to re-emerge. But is Alwyn fully prepared for all the heartache, betrayal and bloodshed his quest is about to unleash?
Anthony Ryan is on fire once again with his second book in The Covenant of Steel series. The Martyr is an epic and deeply addictive read that perfectly follows on from Ryan’s previous book and in some ways surpasses it with its impressive storytelling and amazing characters. Thanks to its incredible story and cool expansion of Ryan’s fantasy universe, I had an outstanding time getting through The Martyr, and it receives an easy five-star rating from me.
I had such an outstanding time with the epic story that Ryan pulled together for The Martyr, especially as it cleverly expands on the narrative from the first book, while also taking the characters in some awesome new directions. The book has a very strong start to it, which follows on from a useful, and slightly humorous, summary of the events of The Pariah. From there, we quickly see the fallout from the last book, with the protagonist Alwyn and his comrades forced to engage in the politics of the realm to ensure that living martyr Evadine is allowed to continue her work. The narrative is still told from Alwyn’s perspective as he recounts the events in chronicle form, so I was quickly hooked, and I liked the immediate dive into fantastic political intrigue and compelling universe building. However, the story only gets even more awesome from there, as the protagonist and his company are deployed to a war setting, which turns out to be particularly epic as they are soon caught up in some outstanding siege scenarios.
Now, I frankly had no idea how Ryan was going to improve on the outstanding story from The Pariah, but having a siege storyline was a pretty good way to go about it. I love sieges, and Ryan featured an incredible example here, as a large amount part of the book revolves around two amazing battles between attackers and castle defenders. The first of these sees the protagonists trapped inside a dilapidated fortress facing off against a larger army, which proved to be a lot of fun. The author really captures the chaos and drama of an impromptu siege with this earlier one, and the carnage comes quick and fast as the characters are forced to bring the attackers to battle before repelling them, using their wits and limited resources. The action here is pretty intense and shown in excellent detail, as Ryan does not hold back on the brutality and the complexities of a siege. I had such a great time with this first siege, and words cannot describe how ecstatic I was that he followed it up with a second siege, with the protagonists now acting as besiegers, in a more traditional siege, with artillery, sapping and even a deadly storm of the breach with the point-of-view character in the front. These two sieges were pretty damn exceptional and have some of the best and most bloody action scenes in the entire book. I particularly liked how well the author contrasted the differing experiences that the protagonist experienced as both a defender and an attacker, and it was fascinating and very fun to see him on both sides of the wall, especially as he learns from his experiences to become a better invader. However, it is not all about the action, as you have some compelling political considerations going on here, as well as some great character development and the protagonist gets closer to some of the other characters during the heat of combat.
Following the sieges, the story goes in some interesting and unique directions, as Ryan continues the epic of Alwyn Scribe by expanding the universe around him. This includes a visit to a dangerous foreign land, where he learns some harsh and surprising truths about the universe he lives in and his place within it. This results in some trippy but deeply fascinating scenes, especially as there are some interesting reveals and some great hints for the future. Ryan also once again dives into the political intrigue, as the protagonists are involved in some great fights for the future of the realm. Watching the protagonists fight both on and off the battlefield is pretty cool, and the sheer threats growing around them in the last quarter of the book bode well for the future of the series. There are some interesting reveals towards the end of The Martyr, and Ryan also works to tie up a few loose ends from the previous book, which I was very happy to have closure on. Everything ends on a very intriguing note, as Ryan leaves behind a great little cliff-hanger reveal that will be very thought-provoking in the lead-up to the next book. I had such a great time with this story, and it really drew me in with its fantastic moments and complex, overarching storylines.
I am a pretty big fan of how The Martyr’s story came together, and Ryan has a great writing style that really enhanced the whole experience. I absolutely loved the chronicle style that he uses to detail the plot. Told completely from the protagonist’s perspective as he writes down all he experiences, you get a unique view of the events occurring, especially as the protagonist writes in funny or insightful comments that show his opinions of the events in hindsight. At the same time, they allow the protagonist to air his many regrets, and you get a certain sense of foreboding for some of the events that are to come, either in this book or in the rest of the series. I was pretty consistently entertained by this style of writing, and I think that it also added in some extra humour to a somewhat darker fantasy story, especially as the protagonist is quite a funny and unconventional figure. The Martyr’s story has an amazing blend of different elements, and while I lavished my love above on the great action, especially during the siege sequences, most of the book is about the development of the protagonist and his attempts to keep Evadine alive. This results in a brilliant combination of politics, intrigue, great interactions between figures, and some awesome character development, which works to produce quite an addictive read. Watching Alwyn trying to come to grips with the many dangers threating his friends, while also unpicking the multitude of mysteries and secrets surrounding him is just great, and Ryan keeps adding in new secrets and supporting storylines to keep the reader interested. While there is a lot going on within The Martyr, the pace is pretty fast and consistently exciting, and at no point was I not immensely entertained, either by the powerful action or fascinating world building. Due to the amount of lore and history featured in the first book, I would strongly suggest that interested readers get through The Pariah before trying out The Martyr, and fans of the first book will really enjoy where this second book goes and how Ryan effectively tells the story.
I was very impressed with all the cool ways that Ryan expanded the series’ setting in The Martyr, as he adds in some great additional history, expands on some of the mysterious religious and mystical aspects of the first, while also showing off some fascinating new lands. This additional context around parts of the nation of Albermaine proves to be pretty damn intriguing, and you learn a lot more about it, while also seeing a lot more about its internal politics and rule, especially as the characters are forced to deal with the royalty and the church. The inclusion of the Duchy of Alundia, where much of the plot takes place, was also pretty excellent, especially as Ryan portrays it as a more rugged and dangerous locale, whose unique take on the Covenant religion leads to a veritable holy war when Evadine and her company arrive. However, the most captivating new part of the book has to involve the protagonist’s journey to the Caerith Wastes. Alwyn has been haunted by members of the mysterious Caerith race since the start of The Pariah, and their strange ways and powerful magics have been both a boon and a curse to him. As such, a journey to their homeland was always inevitable, and Ryan ensures that there are many surprises, mysteries and some interesting reveals for the protagonist when he finally arrives. Ryan did a really good job introducing this new race of people in the story, and there are some great scenes where Alwyn attempts to learn more of them, while using his own personal history to stay alive with them. The subsequent reveals about some of their powers and how it has been impacting Alwyn are pretty amazing. One reveal, which illuminates the origins of Alwyn’s historical chronicle that the entire series is based on, was particularly compelling, and it sheds a whole new light on everything you have been reading. Overall, Ryan did a fantastic job expanding his fantasy realm in The Martyr, and I look forward to seeing what cool inclusions he features in the next book.
Easily one of the best things about The Martyr was the outstanding and complex characters that were such a key part of the book. Ryan expands on many of the great characters from the first book and takes their unique narratives in some amazing new directions. The compelling and dramatic interactions that occur between these figures results in some powerful moments and I deeply enjoyed seeing the outstanding ways their tales and lives evolved in this second book.
The character who naturally gets the most focus is central protagonist and sole point-of-view character, Alwyn Scribe. A former bandit who, thanks to a series of influential leaders and friends, became first a talented scribe and then a soldier, Alwyn is a man with a past and a fast mind who now finds himself in the centre of his nation’s crisis. Dedicated to the Lady Evadine, Alwyn spends much of this book advancing her cause, while also evolving further as a character. While he still primarily considers himself to be a scribe, Alwyn ends up taking on more and more different roles as he finds himself thrust into Evadine’s adventures, including being a knight, a military commander, a politician and a spymaster. As such, you see him go through some major leaps and developments as he tries to reconcile what he is with what he needs to be to keep those around him alive. This proves to be quite fascinating, and I loved the various unique situations he finds himself in, especially as he begins to realise some of the mystical mysteries the world contains and his place in them. Alwyn continues to be an excellent main character for this series, and I loved his depictions of how the events of the book unfold, especially as his later insights from when he chronicles his adventures add both weight and humour to the current story. His unique background as a criminal and a scribe continues to serve him well in The Martyr, and he has some very inventive ways of solving problems that often rely on his criminal or academic past. I also deeply enjoyed seeing him take on a role as a teacher and mentor to several younger characters in this book, and it was a nice to see Alwyn come full circle after all the mentorship he received in the first book. I had a great time seeing how he grew into the new roles in this book, and it will be fascinating to see what different positions he takes on in the future, especially as he becomes more and more devoted to Evadine, not matter how crazy their adventures become.
That leads nicely to the other major character I wanted to highlight, Lady Evadine Courlain. Evadine is a fascinating figure in this series, a pious and devote noblewoman who has been receiving prophetic visions all her life. Believing these visions to be from the Seraphile (the divine focus of the Covenant religion), Evadine created her own military company in the hopes of averting the Second Scourge (an apocalyptic calamity). After miraculously recovering from a fatal wound, Evadine has now been declared a Risen Martyr, and believes herself to have been raised up by the Seraphile, despite it actually being caused by a magical bargain struck by Alwyn. Now a major religious figure, Evadine has become a threat to both the church and the crown and must deal with their attempts to destroy her while she attempts to achieve her mysterious goals. I deeply enjoy Evadine as a character, particularly as there is such an inherent mystery behind her, as you have no idea whether she is actually divinely blessed or just crazy. Ryan portrays her as both at times, and while it is easy to assume the latter, she keeps coming up with knowledge and insights that should be impossible to achieve. Watching her continue to evolve as a religious figure in The Martyr is both fascinating, and a little concerning, as you really have no idea where her story is going to go, or what insanity or divine revelation may come from her next. Evadine serves as a quite a good foil to the more cynical character of Alwyn, and they become quite an intriguing team in The Martyr, with Alwyn providing the means to many of her successes, while strongly disbelieving her divine status. There is also a certain growing instability in Evadine that underlies much of the book and adds to the general tension between her an Alwyn. This, as well as a few intriguing reveals, makes Evadine one of the most compelling and unique figures in the series and it is clear that Ryan has some very, very interesting plans for her future.
Aside from Alwyn and Evadine, The Martyr is loaded with a ton of great supporting characters who add a substantial amount to the overall narrative. Many of these characters carry over from the first book, and there are some intriguing and dramatic developments that occur in The Martyr that prove to be quite shocking and fun in places. Great examples of this include the disgraced knight Wilhum Dornmahl, who is a major figure in the Covenant Company’s ranks, Ayin a murderous young girl Alwyn takes under his wing and teaches, and the mysterious Sack Witch, who haunts the character, despite barely appearing in the book. In addition, Ryan introduces many new great characters in the second book, or else finally introduces and expands on characters mentioned in The Pariah. Two minor characters from the first book who really stood out to me in the sequel were Princess Leannor, the king’s sister, who serves as a canny and complex political adversary to Alwyn; and Ehkbert Bauldry, a legendary knight who Alwyn bears a grudge against, but who also proves to be an interesting ally. Both have some intriguing interactions with Alwyn, especially as they know he has some substantial dirt on them that makes him quite a threat. I also must highlight outstanding new characters like Juhlina, better known as a The Widow, a deadly Covenant Company soldier with a tragic backstory and unstoppable rage, and Lilat, another new mentee for Alywn. These characters were all extremely fun and compelling, and I loved how Ryan fit them into the story and made them shine.
As I mentioned above, I did receive a psychical copy of The Martyr a little while ago, however, I held off reading it until the audiobook version came out. While I did regret not diving into the story as soon as I got it, I think it was more than worth it as the audiobook format of The Martyr was pretty damn exceptional. Coming in with a run time of just under 20 hours, The Martyr has a decent length to it, although I found myself getting through it in just a week, mainly because I was just so addicted to Ryan’s outstanding story. The audiobook format really helped with my enjoyment of this book, and I really found myself getting drawn into the elaborate narrative through the narration. I definitely absorb more narrative detail when I listen to a book, and this was particularly noticeable with The Martyr audiobook, as I found all the cool story elements, details about the setting, intriguing characters and epic action popped more into my head through this format. I also really need to highlight the exceptional voice work of actor Steven Brand (who I best know as the villain from The Scorpion King) who has lent his voice to the audiobook versions of all of Ryan’s works. Brand is an extremely talented audiobook narrator who deftly captures the many characters contained with The Martyr and gives them distinctive and compelling voices that really fit the character and showcase their emotions. I particularly liked the way in which he portrays protagonist and narrator Alwyn Scribe, and you really get a sense of the character’s emotional state, as well as the sense of weariness the chronicle format conveys through Brand’s voice. This ended up being a pretty awesome audiobook and it was definitely my preferred way to enjoy The Martyr. As such, this format is highly recommended, and when I get around to reading the rest of Ryan’s books, I will be grabbing their audiobook versions.
After all the gushing above, I think it is fair to say that I deeply enjoyed Anthony Ryan’s latest book. The Martyr was an exceptional and deeply addictive read that I felt perfectly continued the amazing groundwork he established in The Pariah. This second entry in The Covenant of Steel series was something special, and I had such an epic time seeing what unique and captivating adventures and battles the great protagonists found themselves in. The Martyr was such an outstanding fantasy read, and I can’t wait to see how Ryan continues this awesome series in the future. A truly incredible read!
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