I think I am completely in love. Blackflame is an amazingly fantastic continuation of the Cradle series.
Integrating the fascinating Eastern-inspired worldbuilding and magic-martial arts system with better characterisation, Blackflame was easily the best book in the series so far. Even though I’m still not wild about the main protagonist, Wei Shi Lindon, I was growing more invested in what his future may bring. At the end of Soulsmith, Lindon found himself being given one year to train and advance in his sacred arts in order to fight an opponent that is way more powerful. Lindon seemed to be the typical underdog character who kept defying the odds through a combination of sheer drive, ambition and a bit of providence. Notwithstanding, one can’t help but be curious to see how his story will pan out.
“Sometimes the game is rigged against you, and your only option is to flip the board.”
Yerin, a key supporting character in Lindon’s journey, was one whom I have not mentioned in my earlier reviews. She first appeared towards the end of Unsouled, and started having her own POV in the sequel, Soulsmith. As an apprentice to the Sword Sage, her fight scenes were amazing, but I wasn’t feeling her character all that much until now. Yerin was just simply badass and her fortitude harder than steel. It would be interesting to learn more about her past, which I hoped will be revealed in future books.
“If you don’t feel like you’re going to die when you’re training, then you’re doing it wrong.”
Jai Long’s story, on the other hand, faltered a bit in my opinion. And they were all overshadowed by the mysterious, insufferable and irrepressible Eithan. While his methods may not bode well with most (except himself, to be exact), Lindon and Yerin would not have had the required growth – in character development and power advancement – without his intervention.
“There is an old saying about asking forgiveness rather than permission, but the essence of it is, ‘I’m going to do what I want.'”
I absolutely delighted in reading every scene where Eithan made an appearance. Even though these scenes were rarely written in his perspective, they were always the most entertaining and fascinating to read. As Lindon and Yerin were undertaking a gruelling test that was only surmountable by a team of Highgolds, a backdrop of political manoeuvring within the Empire was taking place to topple the Aurelius clan. This culminated in an epic showdown scene. I’ve never thought that such a scene could make me laugh so much, but somehow Eithan managed to do it. He even reminded me of another favourite character of mine from one of my favourite series, Bob Heartstriker. The revelations about Eithan towards the end of the book only served to make him even more intriguing.
I will now like to talk a bit about the magic-martial arts system. Cradle is a world where vital aura exists in everything. Sacred beasts and sacred artists are the wildlife and humans who can control and use the aura through what is called madra (in my mind this is like internal energy or power within the soul). The higher the capacity and strength of one’s madra, the more powerful the sacred artist can be. The levelling up on strength in this system is highly reminiscent of RPGs. The deployment of such powers can be also categorised into different battle techniques – Enforcer, Striker, and Ruler. These techniques manifest in different ways for different Paths; a Path takes the form of an aspect of aura that the sacred artist is most proficient at controlling with his or her madra.
It took me three books to grasp and appreciate how all these components come together. Even then, there were times when I was still struggling to keep up with complexities of auras, madras, techniques, Paths, etc. There is a 4th technique, Forger, which shapes madra into a spiritual weapon, and is also a term used by Soulsmiths in harnessing vital aura from Remnants into constructs. I have mentioned how incredible the powers are in my earlier review. Well, it was even more breathtaking in this book, as we finally get to see what the Underlords were capable of. It was just amazeballs and so darn fun to read. And we haven’t even fully touched upon the even more astounding galactic powers, which at this point only appeared in snippets.
As the series progressed, the worldbuilding also gradually expanded in scope. We first saw the Sacred Valley and its sheltered people in Unsouled. Then, in the sequel, there was the Desolate Wilds and its corrupted beasts. In this third instalment, we learnt more about the Blackflame Empire as the narrative moved its location to Serpent’s Grave; a most appropriate name which was related to why the Empire was called Blackflame. The world of Cradle itself was named quite literally for its role and significance in the cosmos. We also get brief interludes which provided a glimpse of other planets, or what the galactic entities call Iterations. All in all, I get the feeling that the author has formed an ambitious foundation of worldbuilding from which multiple stories can be told.
Blackflame was only the third out of six known books in the series, with five self-published so far. Nonetheless, this third instalment was so good that I’m going ahead to recommend this series to lovers of fantasy; especially for those looking for Eastern-inspired ones. If you are a fan of anime and manga as well, I’m sure that it will work out even better for you.
Review originally written on 2 January 2019.
You can purchase the book from Amazon US.