The second act of a fantasy trilogy is the one a series lives or dies by. A first impression is important, but following up on the promises the opening of a series makes…well, many a novel has faltered there. The Lessons Never Learned, however, does an admirable job of following up on the threads first set up by Along the Razor’s Edge. This novel offers explosive sourcerous action, a richly emotional arc for series protagonist Eskara, and explores an imaginative world full of peril and scarred by war. It’s a hell of a read, but it does have something of a problem, to start with.
I had a rough go of the first third of The Lessons Never Learned. This story is framed as being told by an older, far more experienced Eska (the protagonist of the series), and this version of the character is not always the finest storyteller. She’s prone to going on tangents, on heavy foreshadowing that edges on the theatrical, and some of the paragraph-long sections of her commentary would make most villains’ cheeks turn red at the sheer amount of megalomania at display. I found that beyond charming – this type of foreshadowing is something Gene Wolfe does, with great success, in the Book of the New Sun. In the opening third of Never Learned, however, I found myself a little too exhausted by the digressions Eskara goes into time and again. The storytelling suffered somewhat, and I had a hard time getting through some of these first several chapters.
Don’t get me wrong, a number of these chapters are the usual thrilling thoroughfare I’ve come to expect from Hayes’ writing, but there’s too many a tangent that makes of the opening of this sequel a slow burner that did not suck me in the way the opening of Razor’s Edge did. When you get past that first third, however…the sky’s the limit for this one. Eskara battles gods and faces her inner demons in more ways than one, makes mistakes and pays the ultimate price for them – and not in the way you might think.
The thrills, the action, the twists and turns and betrayals compounded by yet further betrayals. Gods, but this book covers a lot of ground, and it does so with expertise.
The magic system is further developed, in ways that were very cool and never contradicted the set-up in the previous installment of the series. Allow me to catch you up: “A cool, imaginative twist on the schools of magic you might be familiar with, the magic in this world is internally consistent and what I’d call “hard” magic. Powered by Source stones the Sourcerer must swallow, each stone has a different magical affinity.” Never Learned offers a number of revelations as to the origins of the Source stones, the relationship of the Source with the god-like Djinn and Rend, and some fascinating developments on all fronts.
So, too, with the worldbuilding, which has elements ranging from the fascinating to the downright eldritch. The first book in the War Eternal series nailed the sense of containing a bigger world outside of the Pit that the vast majority of the action took place in, and one of the greatest successes of this sequel is that Lessons delivers on that promise, and then some. One description, in particular, I won’t soon forget:
In Polasia, deep within the desert, there is an oasis where the waters run red and the trees grow purple. Above that oasis the sky is cracked open, and through the jagged scar above a great eye stares down on the world.
Hell of an image, and one I’d love to one day render into a visual medium.
The characters are even more appealing than they were the first time around; new additions include Sylva, an Aspect of the Rand whose connection with Eska was hinted at in the previous novel. The nature of these two characters’ relationship is a large part of the emotional backbone of the novel, and Lessons’ climax rests on it entirely. Eskara herself shows a great deal more emotional depth here than she did in the first novel. Where anger was often followed by fury and fear in equal measure in Eskara’s time in the Pit, life outside the dreaded prison allows the scarred young woman to embrace and experience love in all its aspects.
For all that, her flaws remain – and we have them to thank for some exceptional action scenes and plenty of exciting new revelations. But some of my favourite paragraphs are of those quiet moments of reflection when the older Eskara takes stock of her experiences with observations rich in both clarity and wisdom:
Both Hardt and Tamura looked at me. Hardt has always followed me, ever since our time in the Pit. I have often wondered why, what I did to earn the trust and loyalty of such a man. I have no answer. I’m as much a monster as the creatures that inhabit the Other World, perhaps even worse, for most of them are mindless and don’t understand what they do. But Hardt is a good man. He would be a good man if not for the things I’ve made him do over the years. Tamura, too, followed my lead and accepted my decisions, but for him I know why. He saw power in me, the potential to be part of something great or terrible. I think I ended up being both. And I don’t think it mattered to him either way.
If I had a year to wait for the release of From Cold Ashes Risen, I would have rebelled at the cliff-hanger The Lessons Never Learned closes at; fortunate for all, Hayes decided to release every book of this trilogy a month apart from one another, which means that as you’re reading this review, I’m likely digging into the conclusion to what continues to be one of my favourite series of 2020.
My score for The Lessons Never Learned? 4.5/5 on Goodreads!