REVIEW: A SHADE OF MADNESS (ASHES OF AVARIN #2)

Madness and magic...


After enjoying A TOUCH OF LIGHT for what it was, I've been curious to continue into the second book in the series, especially since the first book ended so abruptly. 

HOW I RATED IT 
4/5  Although I enjoyed this a lot more than the first book in the series and found myself getting invested much more quickly, there are still a couple of key elements that hold this back from being a perfect fit for me. 

NOTE: While this review does not contain spoilers for A SHADE OF MADNESS, it does mention specific things about A TOUCH OF LIGHT that could be considered as such.  

CHARACTERS
Adrian, Nasha, and Lynn all return as main characters and their stories continue pretty much right from the moments that we last left them in A TOUCH OF LIGHT. A fourth POV character is added to the roster this time in the form of Kadmus. Initially, I was a bit thrown off by his sudden inclusion in the chapter rotation and I wasn't quite sure what to make of him given his rather cold and calculating demeanor. He quickly turned into one of my favorite characters to follow though and I think he played possibly the biggest role in the story's main source of conflict out of everyone (other than maybe Adrian). I also enjoyed the side characters that were a part of his narrative thread, which helped with making his chapters some of the more enjoyable ones for me. His arc also crosses over with Nasha's quite a bit in different capacities, with the two characters actually meeting near the book's end. I will say that it still bothers me somewhat that none of the other main characters meet each other, but I'll get to that more in a bit. Overall, Nasha is still my least favorite of the bunch. The voices that Kemp gives to her and her protege, Shy, are just kind of whiny and grating, though I will say that this sort of fits their personalities rather well. Nasha, like many of the other characters, is incredibly self-serving. What makes her so annoying to me is how indignant she gets whenever someone wrongs her. The world that Abdalla has constructed is a brutal one indeed, but for this character to bemoan that fact while she doesn't do much to be less awful than everyone else just comes off as hypocritical. She does kind of become a bit more heroic towards the end of this book though, so I'm curious to see if I will see her more favorably in the third installment. Adrian remains the most compelling character for me and his storyline feels the most pivotal. It was really interesting to see him come into his own power, but then also rather horrifying to watch him descend into the darkness of it all at such a rapid pace. I wouldn't say that I "like" him so much as I'm just engaged in his journey and very curious to see what will happen with him next. Lynn's story was a bit easier to get into this time around. There's also substantially more griffins than there was in the first book. There's a lot going on in her chapters from delving into some of her personal baggage, to further building out the religious structure of this world, to unraveling a political conspiracy. I felt like I got a much better read on her as a character this time, but it's still the stuff that's happening around her that I found most intriguing. 

PLOT/TONE
If you thought that A TOUCH OF LIGHT was a touch too dark for your tastes, then you may want to be warned that A SHADE OF MADNESS really doubles down on the more twisted elements of this world. Adrian's plotline in particular is brimming with some super disturbing content and his character seems to be on a possibly tragic trajectory. Lynn contends with a brutality that lies buried beneath the pious veneer of her church while also having to confront the horrors that she's committed in her past, all in the name of her duty. She's faced with some very heavy choices and while I think she navigates those admirably, the story seems set on corralling her into a rather dark destiny as well. Surprisingly, most of the more hopeful notes come from Nasha and Kadmus with them both making some progress toward unraveling the mystery of the Madness in the hopes of finding a possible cure for it. There are a lot more battle scenes in this book than there were in the predecessor, at least in terms of larger-scale conflicts. While that might sound like a good thing, I actually found some of these a little hard to follow. Some of that could just be the nature of consuming this on audio, but I also think that the way some of Adrian's military campaign scenes were depicted were just genuinely missing a certain level of clarity and/or detail. It probably doesn't help that certain things like sky gates and airships aren't really described with much (if any) visual detail. I can certainly imagine what they might look like, but filling in some of these blanks may have distracted me from the action itself. As I mentioned before, I am still not a huge fan of how there are almost three different books that are spliced up into one, in the sense that the main characters are all just doing their own thing, almost entirely separate from one another. As with the first book, they are thematically tied, with book one exploring the theme of death from their different perspectives, while book two has them largely focused on the Madness that is sweeping across their realm. I can appreciate what the book is going for, but it still feels weird to me for there to not be some more tangible overlapping elements to tie things together. Another thing that doesn't fully work for me is how both books in this series don't really have an ending, they simply stop. There is certainly some sense of resolution in that all the characters typically have a big moment that fulfils a certain aspect of their arc, but the way things are cut, it still feels as though there should be another chapter that follows. I imagine this might be a really neat artistic choice once the series is complete because it seems like it will continue with one book just flowing right into the next, but that, frankly, has left me feeling somewhat unfulfilled. It doesn't bother me as much as a true cliffhanger, but I think this decision puts a ton of pressure on the conclusion to the final book in the series to really deliver something mind-blowing, otherwise there will almost certainly be some folks who feel cheated by the finale. 

SETTING/WORLD
While much of this world feels defined by it's politics and it's people, I think there was some a solid expansion on the world itself this time around as well. For one, we get to learn a lot more about the famous griffins. I was a bit underwhelmed by their role in the first book, but thankfully I now understand what all the fuss is about when it comes to how much people rant and rave about them in this series. It was also nice to get a better understanding of how Lynn's bond with her griffin works exactly since we mostly had to piece those details together before. We get to spend a bit more time in the nation that Adrian travels to at the end of A TOUCH OF LIGHT which seems to be a sort of Middle-Eastern-inspired locale. The brutal politics of this domain were fascinating , though I did find myself feeling like it wasn't THAT much more cutthroat than the kingdoms of the Domain despite how Adrian paints it as being extra savage. Adrian is probably the character who covers the most ground with him travelling to different settlements and battlefronts over the course of his campaign. Nasha's story takes her to a new tribe of people and also delves a bit more into the magical mysticism that she attributes her volatile powers to. Magic in general is greatly expanded upon in some ways that I did not expect. Seeing Adrian develop as some sort of blood mage was both fascinating and grotesque. It was also interesting to see how much of it all seemed to somehow tie back to the source of the Madness. I have to wonder where that will all go in future books. 

I've mentioned this before, but I'll state again that it would have been nice to have some more physicals descriptions of certain towns, artifacts, and technology. When left to imagine what certain towns/forts looked like, I typically defaulted to generic fantasy faire while imagining things like sky gates as some sort of stone Star Gate situation and airships as blimp-like contraptions (when perhaps they were meant to look more like actual boats). While I'm capable of filling in those details and perhaps I was meant to imagine these generic images, I would argue that this was a missed opportunity to make these things more unique and distinct through spending a little more time on what they actually look like. Kadmus's shop is one example of where the setting and atmosphere was handled a bit better. Consuming this on Audio also continued to make it hard for me to understand the geography of this world. I'm not sure if a map is included in the visual editions of these books, but since it's not really described where one location sits in relation to another, I feel like having that type of reference would really help keep track of where everyone is. One final gripe I have is that I don't always love the way that religion and faith are handled. I wouldn't say that it feels as though the book is necessarily attacking religion and I actually have no idea if Abdalla himself is religious, but the way that it is represented in the context of the story leans very heavily into the cliché that religions exist solely to control the masses. It also just ultimately reads like it is written by someone who doesn't really understand what it means to live a life of faith. Again, I have no idea whether the author is devout in a particular faith or as nihilistic as his characters, my points here are strictly about the role his made-up religion(s) plays within the story itself and how it ultimately doesn't speak to me in any real way. 

THE AUDIOBOOK
This was, once again, masterfully narrated and voiced by Kevin Kemp. All of the characters sound distinct and the voices chosen for them really fit how I expected these characters to sound. As much as I found the voices for Nasha and Shy to be annoying, I think that still fit their characters well. I was particularly impressed when Kemp voiced a character who was being tortured. I felt like I was there in that scene as much as I would be if I was watching a film/TV adaptation of this. It was harrowing and raw and it really spoke to just how talented this guy is. Despite my complaints over how some of the bigger-scale fights were handled, I think the prose here is all masterfully recited. This is as crisp and engaging of a read as anyone could really ask for.  

CONCLUSION
If you enjoyed the first book, then I think you should absolutely continue with A SHADE OF MADNESS. If you felt as though it was maybe a little darker than you would have liked, then I would pump the brakes on continuing as this only gets darker and more demented. 

(+) Kadmus was a fantastic addition to the main roster that contributed in some surprising ways to the story overall.
(+) I liked that Kadmus and Nasha had crossover between their arcs. 
(+) Adrien's story continues to be deeply engrossing.
(+) Another outstanding audio production by Kevin Kemp.
(+) Deeper expansion into the magic of this world as well as the dire consequences of using it
(+) Some expanded worldbuilding and lore.
(-) Keeping the main POVs so separate is still not my favorite thing.
(-) This book ended as abruptly and unceremoniously as the first. 
(-) Some of the battles and visuals felt a little fuzzy to me, leaving me to fill in a lot of blanks instead of paying attention to the action.

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