A tale of three riders...

Ever since ASCENDANT really impressed me, I've been looking forward to continuing with this trilogy, so I began the second book last month and finished it up in this new year. 

3/5 Even though I did not enjoy UNBOUND quite as much as I did ASCENDANT, I still think that this is a worthy follow up to the original story and one that sets up some interesting plot points for the final book in the trilogy. 

NOTE: While this review does not contain spoilers for UNBOUND, it does mention specific things about ASCENDANT that could be considered as such.  

The cast expands in this new adventure, both in terms of the POV and Non-POV characters. Whereas ASCENDANT was primarily told from Holt's perspective with some chapters following Talia towards the book's climax, UNBOUND's story is told across three points of view. Holt and Talia both return as main characters and since their separation at the end of the first book, their narratives remain fairly separate for most of the novel. Joining them is Talia's uncle Osrick who was an unexpected addition to say the least. Holt and his dragon, Ash journey across the realm in an effort to complete their mission given by the Life Elder. With Broad no longer around and Talia and Pyra remaining in their kingdom, the pair find themselves in a rather desperate position where they have to learn to make it on their own. It was really interesting to see them handle survival in the wilderness and altercations with other dragon riders, some of whom appear to be serving Sovereign. They also make some new allies along the way with Rake rejoining them and introducing them to some new dragon characters as well as a new rider. I really enjoyed the dynamic between Holt, Ash, and Rake, who becomes a different sort of mentor to the young dragon and rider. I also really liked the scientist dragon who offered some decent comic relief as well as some important advancements to Holt and Ash's growth. Other companions were much less distinct and memorable. Their motivations and personalities were unique enough, they just didn't really do a whole lot for me. 

Whereas Holt and Ash continue with the sort of adventure-quest style of story that was established in the first book, Talia and Pyra find themselves in more of a political and military fantasy type of situation. Talia's acceptance of the crown may have forestalled certain doom for her homeland, but it also brought a host of brand new problems to their doorstep, not the least of which is a critical request from the Life Elder to make a move on The Scourge which could change the tide of the conflict. In between military campaigns against this threat, Talia reunites with her mother, establishes relationships with members of her council, and enters into marriage negotiations with a Viking-like nation of people. Although there are a lot of players in Talia's side of the story, I found myself enjoying them a lot more than I did members of Holt's adventuring party. Each felt really complex and nuanced despite their limited page time and I particularly enjoyed her relationship with her Master of War as well as that of a certain Bard whom she meets partway through the book. For reasons I can't really figure out, I will say that I liked Talia a little less than I did in ACENDANT. I don't know why, there was just something about her that didn't fully work for me, especially earlier on in the story.

Osrick's side of the story was not one that I expected we'd be getting, however it ended up being a welcome addition. Through his perspective, we get to see the inner workings of Sovereign's plans as well as the cult that follows him. The hateful relationship between Osrick and Sovereign was fascinating and their interactions with their allies were all rather unsettling. Osrick himself wasn't a character that made any particular impression upon me in the first book, so I was quite pleasantly surprised that he had as much depth here as he did. I'm also very curious to what the third book will have in store for him. 

While the various plot threads were all well done, I think the biggest drawback was that the sense of momentum I loved so much in the first book is essentially gone here. There are always pros and cons of juggling multiple POVs. While one obvious positive was that each of the main characters really get their time to shine and we get to see different parts/aspects of the world, the downside was that none of it moved along all too quickly. Fans of bigger character-driven fantasy stories will likely have the opposite reaction to me in that this may be much more in line with what they enjoy. For me though, I think that not having that more focused narrative really brought my overall enjoyment down a bit. While Holt and Osrick's stories had quite a bit of overlap, Talia's arc felt like it almost could have been it's own book given how little crossover she has with the other characters (like a Book 2.5 novella or something). I will say that there wasn't anything in particular that felt like it should have been cut though. Every scene contains purposeful character development, plot advancements, or important world building moments that will likely have consequences in the final book. For me, it was really all an issue of pacing. One moment we're deep into world affairs with Talia, the next chapter, we're watching Holt and Ash learn to grow their bond and resolve internal conflicts, then we catch up with the evil schemes that Osrick is party to. There are also quite a lot of battle scenes throughout the book. Although I liked the action scenes in ASCENDANT, I found myself a lot less enthused with them here. It's possible that the larger scale of the conflicts is what made me feel less engaged with them. It can definitely be tougher to clearly depict big battles and I think it's possible that this is where the book struggled even though there were some individual moments within them that definitely hit the right notes for me. 

Even though the narrative momentum suffered somewhat due to the head-hopping, one aspect of the book that was actually enhanced for me was the world building. Due to the nature of each of the main characters having mostly separate storylines, we get to see several different parts of the world at once. Holt is the character who probably covers the most ground still, given that he is on a journey whereas Talia and Osrick are mainly tied down to their respective locations, though both of them do make trips outside the confines of their kingdoms/forts as well. Holt sees some expansive forests, trains in a dark cave, meets the wild Mystic Dragons, and  enters into various settlements/forts as him and Ash pursue their quest. Along the way, we also get some deeper exploration into the magic system as the pair train and get stronger. On Osrick's side of things, we are introduced to some brand new types of dragons as Sovereign's obsession with Ash has led him to try hatching eggs that would have otherwise been discarded. We also get a little more insight into the world of the wild dragons through Sovereign's backstory, though I suspect there's a lot more here to tell, especially since we only got to meet one more tribe of wild dragons. Things really expand when considering Talia's side of the story. Not only does she head north to meet this world's version of Norsemen, but we also get a ton of information about other neighboring countries as her and her advisors navigate the delicate political situations that Talia's queenship has caused. Even though all of this felt very separate from the conflict between Holt and Osrick's sides, I really did enjoy learning more about the inner workings of this world. One thing that didn't work quite as well for me was the heavy emphasis that was placed on a sort of magical sword smithing practice. I didn't dislike it or anything, but I think I was supposed to be much more invested in those scenes than I ended up being. 

This is another high-quality audio performance from the same narrator who did the first book. I will say that I didn't find myself quite as impressed with the performance this time around though. There wasn't anything that was necessarily bad about it. The prose was still expertly recited and the dialogue was delivered with care, but I think my problems with some of the side characters and battle scenes made their way into the audio experience itself. Some of the side characters sounded sort of similar to me. I think they were just less distinct in terms of characterization in general, but that also led to them literally sounding the same in some cases (or perhaps it was just an issue that I forgot what they sounded like due to them not having all that much to say). I regularly found myself drifting off during the battle scenes, which may have been partly to do with the narration, but I really do think a lot of it just didn't translate well from the writing itself. Overall, I would still promote this edition as a great way to enjoy the story and will be finishing the trilogy in this format. 

If you enjoyed the first book, then you definitely need to continue with this sequel. If you enjoyed the momentum of book one, then you may also find yourself enjoying this one a little bit less, but if you prefer slower, more expansive and character focused stories, then this may work even better for you than the original. 

(+) Holt, Talia, and Osrick all had compelling individual arcs. 
(+) The world building got some significant development this time around.
(+) There were some interesting additions to the magic system, even if the sword smithing wasn't as interesting to me as it was supposed to be.
(+) Learning more about Rake was great 
(+) Some great moments between Holt and Ash
(+) I'm very interested to see how this trilogy will end
(-) Telling the story across several perspectives hurt the overall momentum
(-) Some of the side characters (particularly on Holt's side) didn't do much for me
(-) I didn't like Talia as much for some reason
(-) Certain aspects of the audio performance didn't impress me quite as much as that of the first book


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