Enter the gods...

After having a somewhat lukewarm reaction to THE WRITTEN, I was not really sure if I would continue the series. Thanks to some encouragement from people in the Discord read along, I decided to give the second book a series a try. 

4/5 PALE KINGS improves upon its predecessor in pretty much every way and I am very happy to have continued with this series. I am also glad that I read some of this visually, versus solely consuming the story via audio. 

Once again, the world that Galley depicts is one of the strongest elements of the series. This time around, we also get to see some much more interesting corners of it. The story kicks off in a sandy, desert nation filled with strange creatures, customs, and foods. Seeing Farden navigate this realm in a fish-out-of-water fashion was greatly entertaining and it was in this particular location that the fantasy world felt truly set apart from others. The unusual mashup of fantastical creatures is even more diverse than before thanks to the myriad of desert-dwelling beings, a deeper exploration of nefalim lore, and the inclusion of mythological beings in the form of gods and daemons (and yes, there is also a gryphon, but more on that later). The role that the gods had to play this time around felt far more substantial and I finally started to see why this is marketed as a Norse-Inspired Fantasy. The exploration of these deities and the deeper lore of the world really brought things to life for me. I'd kind of felt like these elements were merely window dressing in THE WRITTEN, so I found myself quite pleased to have them take on actual meaning and substance. Overall, I felt so much more invested in this world and its people than I did in the first book and I left feeling curious to know more about the aspects of it that are still yet to be discovered. 

Farden, Durnus, and Elessi all return for this new adventure. Although we see the three of them joined up at the end of the first book, they have actually all gone in separate directions when this one begins. We see Farden on a quest to find his long lost uncle, while Durnus joins up with the siren, Eryum, to assess the situation in Krauslung, and Elessi struggles to find her place in a world that is changing around her. Farden is still not a main character that I connect with particularly well, but I did find him to be a little more entertaining this time around. This might be for a couple of key reasons: 1) he has shaken his drug addiction, 2) the perspective shifts between other characters, giving us welcome breaks from his brooding, and 3) the voice I have for him in my head is much better than the one the narrator uses for him. I still didn't quite understand his obsession with Cheska, but that is probably because I was never bought into his relationship with her. Both her and Elessi also just did not come off super strong for me, nor did really any of the female characters. I wouldn't say that there is anything sexist here or anything, but for some reason the women annoyed me and didn't feel like they held meaningful roles, despite how many of them factored in heavily to the plot. Durnus and Eryum, however, absolutely stole the show for me. There are a couple of Sirens and Dragon characters that fell a little flat, but overall, these characters are still some of the best. I also found Tyrfing to be a rather interesting fellow and was glad that some of the potential plot holes around his actions (or lack there of) were proactively addressed. Mordren also plays a much more consequential role in this story whereas I had previously found him to be a somewhat lackluster and forgettable character. 

As the cover gives away, this story also heavily features a gryphon character. I don't know if I was as head over heels for him as other participants in the Discord Read Along, but I definitely found him to be an adorable animal companion and a great addition to the cast, even if Farfallen is still my favorite character by a longshot. We even get to know some of the gods a little bit and I thought it was interesting to see original characters like Evernia mingle with figures from real-world mythology like Heimdall. Overall, I think the side cast is much more impressive this time around and that help prop up Farden's character a bit as well.

Right from the beginning, this story has a much stronger sense of direction, even though there are a number of different narrative threads that we follow in parallel for a time. The hunt for Farden's uncle and the mystery about why he's been in hiding for so long was a lot of fun as was Vice's scheming. Seeing the deterioration of Krauslung was rather devastating in spite of the city not standing out in any particular way to me during THE WRITTEN. The juxtaposition between the city's desperate state and the exotic reaches of the desert nation that Farden explores offered some nice variety in the earlier chapters. There are also some great moments where the heroes have to wander ancient forests or convene in the frigid halls of Nelska. The general plot felt a lot more political and strategic this time around too. There are multiple moving parts as well as numerous narrative turns that kept things feeling fresh. The time spent on building out the mythology and lore caught me by surprise and I was delighted that we finally got some of this background. Even though there are far less bombastic action scenes this time around, I actually felt like PALE KINGS read at a much faster pace. When fights did break out, they felt even more special and the stakes seemed a lot higher since the scale of the conflicts were generally greater as well. Though there is a very clear lead-in to the next book and another slightly annoying cliffhanger ending, I found the book's resolution to be much more satisfying than the way that book one ended.  

Unlike last time, I actually read this partly on Kindle, but eventually switched over to hybrid read it on Audio as well, in the interest of making sure I finished this in sync with the read along. Now that I have tried reading this visually, I can definitely say that I much prefer consuming the story that way than via the audiobook. There isn't anything objectively wrong with the way that the narrator tells the story, but there is something about the performance that just does not work super well for me. The prose is a pleasure to read with my eyes, but perhaps there is something about it that doesn't translate well to audio because I found it hard not to let my mind wander while listening. I also think the voices I have in my head for the characters work a lot better than the way that they are vocalized by the narrator, with Farden and Tyrfing being particular standouts in this regard. I have absolutely no idea what was going on with Tyrfing's voice, but I pretty much hated it and I still think that Farden is performed like a dollar store Geralt (from The Witcher). Is that a bit harsh? Probably. The audio may very well work a lot better for others than it did for me and with these books being as long as they are, it might be hard to get through them, without listening to at least part of it. So, while the audio is serviceable, I would say that it is best to read as much of this story visually as possible. 

PALE KINGS is one of those sequels that greatly improves upon the book that came before it and has largely shifted my opinion of the series overall. I'm still a little undecided on if I want to continue with the read along or shift to reading this series on my own timeline, but I will definitely be continuing with it either way. 

(+) Vivid descriptions of the landscapes.
(+) Farfallen is STILL an the best character
(+) I was much more immersed in the world and the different fantastical creatures that dwell within it
(+) Flashy action scenes with cool magic that are less frequent, but grander in scale
(+) The supporting cast is greatly improved
(+) The mythological aspects were outstanding
(+) Following different POV characters gave welcome breaks from Farden's moody perspective
( ) I didn't mind Farden as much this time, but still wouldn't consider him to be a particularly compelling lead
(-) The female characters didn't really work for me. 
(-) There is something about the audio version that definitely does not work super well for me
(-) Another cliffhanger-y ending, though one that did not irk me as much as the first book


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