ARC provided by the publisher—Saga Press—in exchange for an honest review.
The Will of the Many by James Islington
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Series: Hierarchy (Book #1)
Genre: Fantasy, High Fantasy, Epic Fantasy, Science Fantasy
Pages: 640 pages (Hardcover edition)
Word Count: 240,000 words
Published: 23rd May 2023 by Saga Press
This is not an exaggeration. The Will of the Many by James Islington is the best fantasy book with a magical school trope I’ve ever read since The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.
“The power to protect is the highest of responsibilities… When a man is given it, his duty is not only to the people he thinks are worthy.”
James Islington instantly became one of my favorite authors with The Licanius Trilogy. Since then, I knew I would need to read every new book written by him, and that’s why The Will of the Many, together with Light Bringer by Pierce Brown and the four secret novels by Brandon Sanderson, reached the top of my most anticipated releases of this year. It’s not a good habit to have high expectations toward any book as that makes us prone to disappointment. But I couldn’t resist it here. I didn’t know what the story in The Will of the Many would be, and I still entered it with very high expectations because I loved how satisfying Islington completed the complexity of The Licanius Trilogy. And luckily, Islington managed to exceed my unreasonably high expectations with The Will of the Many, the first book in the Hierarchy series. As far as the first book of a series goes, this one tops over The Shadow of What Was Lost in every possible way, and I think many of you know how much I enjoyed The Licanius Trilogy by now. To be more precise, The Will of the Many is Islington’s best novel so far in his career. It is, at the very least, even though it is a different kind of book, up there with the quality produced in The Light of All That Falls. This is a contender for the best book of 2023. By the end of this year, the competition is fierce, but I will be shocked if The Will of the Many did not—at least—end up in my top 5 books of the year. And I will tell you why in this review.
“That’s the power of the Hierarchy— we do, because there is no standing apart. You fight the tyranny of the many, or you are one of them… Silence is a statement… Inaction picks a side. And when those lead to personal benefit, they are complicity.”
The Catenan Republic—the Hierarchy—may rule the world now, but they do not know everything. He tells them his name is Vis Telimus. He tells them he was orphaned after a tragic accident three years ago, and good fortune alone gives him a chance to enter their most prestigious school: The Catenan Academy. He tells them that once he graduates, he will gladly join the rest of civilized society in allowing his strength, drive, and focus—what they call Will—to be leeched away and added to the power of those above him, as millions already do. As all must eventually do. Vis tells them that he belongs, and they believe him. But the truth is that Vis has been sent to enter the Catenan Academy to find answers. To solve a murder. To search for an ancient weapon. To uncover secrets that may tear the Republic apart. And that he will never, ever cede his Will to the empire that executed his family. To survive, though, Vis will have to rise through the Academy’s ranks. He will have to smile, make friends, pretend to be one of them and win. If he fails, then those who want to control him, who know his real name, will no longer have any use for him. And if the Hierarchy ever finds out who Vis truly is, they will kill him.
“Stronger together. It’s the great lie of the Hierarchy, proclaimed generation after generation by an ever-growing mob in thrall to the concept. Part of me understands why. There’s a power to the phrase, an allure. It promises inclusion. Protection. Comradery. Common purpose. Belonging. But you never have to look far to see its hypocrisy laid bare.”
This is the blurb for The Will of the Many. If you’re familiar with Pierce Brown’s sci-fi series Red Rising Saga, you might notice the similarities in the premise. For context, in Red Rising, Darrow is a Red, the lowest rank in the hierarchy of labor within the color-coded society of the series. The Gold is the ruler of humanity, and they have done irrevocable actions to Darrow and the Red for many years. So Darrow has to masquerade as a Gold and increase his fame and prestige through the rank of Gold to fulfill his revenge. Red Rising Saga is one of my favorite series of all time, and yes, the similarities with Red Rising can definitely be spotted in The Will of the Many. Even more so because Vis has a personality that is quick to anger like Darrow, and the world-building of these two series is heavily Roman-inspired as well; more on this later. But more importantly, the premise and the Roman-inspired world-building are where the similarities end.
“A man is nothing if he does not honour his debts.”
The Will of the Many is a different kind of book compared to Red Rising. This is not like the controversial case that The First Binding by R. R. Virdi has with The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. This 240,000 words long novel never felt derivative to me. It’s the other way around; with more pages read in The Will of the Many, especially after the insane ending, the more I feel The Will of the Many as a whole package, as expected of Islington, is another incredibly distinct, ambitious, and mind-blowing work of art. From my assessment, it would be more exact to say if you love the premise and world-building portrayed in Red Rising Saga, it’s very possible you will end up loving The Will of the Many. Especially if you love the magical school or academy setting and trope too.
“There comes a point in every man’s life where he can rail against the unfairness of the world until he loses, or he can do his best in it. Remain a victim, or become a survivor… Submitting was a burden, but never one I would trade for the alternative. I have thirty years more of memories, many of them fond. I live well, surrounded by luxury and with the trust and respect of a family I love.”
If you’ve read The Licanius Trilogy, you will know that plotting is one of the finest aspects of the trilogy. I’m pleased to mention Islington’s strength as a mostly planner storyteller (I believe every writer is a mix of both) returns powerfully in The Will of the Many. My mind is still reeling as I write this review. I cannot stop thinking about all the events that transpired in this novel and their crazy implications for the rest of the series. Only a special fantasy series can make me feel this effect right after reading the first—out of the planned three or four—installments. I predict The Hierarchy will be more than a trilogy, but that remains to be seen. I am not comparing which is better here as a storyteller: a pantser or a planner. Both have their merits. However, I believe Islington has showcased the best aspects of being a—mostly—planner type of storyteller in The Licanius Trilogy with his meticulous story structure and well-placed revelations, and I can already see these factors being implemented magnificently here. This is all splendidly realized without any sacrifice in pacing. The pacing was engrossing from cover to cover for me.
“That’s the problem with people, though, isn’t it? They always think that other people are the problem… You want to remove the Princeps? The senators? You’ll just become them, sooner or later. If all you’re trying to do is change who’s in control, then you don’t really want to change anything.”
The blurb and I have mentioned the enrollment into the prestigious Catenan Academy. I do not think of this as a spoiler; similar to readers talking about Kvothe entering The University in The Kingkiller Chronicle or Harry Potter entering Hogwarts, just a few examples. Both series take place in a magical school setting, the same as The Will of the Many. But to set expectations accordingly, let me be clear that Vis’ tale in the Catenan Academy did not start until we reached Part II of the book: Deus Nolens Exituus. (Get Results Whether God likes it or not.) That’s 35% into the book, and by approximation, I think about 50% of the story actually takes place in The Catenan Academy. Part I of the story, Imperium Sine Fine (An Empire without an End), was the setup and foundation. This is the introductory section, and it depicts Vis’ merciless training montage and preparation under the tutelage of Lanistia before he enters the Academy. Additionally, the foundational stage and the training montage were never uneventful. Islington efficaciously made the three parts of the narrative here have their own overarching story arc (beginning, middle section, and concluding chapters) while being seamlessly connected to one another. If you already have a great time reading Part I, you will be gripped with the rest of the book. This, of course, comes with a caveat that the magical school or academy trope and setting is one of your favorites.
“I chose you because I expected there to be obstacles. That is what separates us, Vis. There are those who see what should be, and complain that they do not get their due. And then there are those who see what is, and figure out how to use it to their advantage. Or at the least, overcome it.”
The Will of the Many is a book about ambition, justice, greed, vengeance, friendship, leadership, loyalty, knowledge, and family. And although these were on some level established since Part I, they were extensively integrated into the narrative in Part II and Part III: In Cauda Venenum (The Poison is in the Tail); once Vis is in The Catenan Academy, an academy that rewards greed and victory above all else. A magic school setting in fantasy is constantly irresistible to me. I have no idea when I will be over this trope, but it is not anytime soon. I am confident in that. I cannot help it, okay? Whether in novels, manga, or video games, I have many of my favorite adult fantasy stories centers or starts in a magical or battle school setting. It is one of my favorite tropes of all time. There is something about training montages, learning new abilities and skills, overcoming challenges, and defeating bullies or horrible teachers while forming friendships that always feel satisfying and relatable. These factors in fantasy novels, paired with the magical school trope, and a main character that earned my investment, have a good chance of becoming one of my favorite books. They are some of my favorite escapism. Assuming they are done right, of course, and The Will of the Many is a good example where all of these were infused incredibly well.
“Nervousness means there’s a fear to be faced ahead… The man who is never nervous, never does anything hard. The man who is never nervous, never grows… Do all you can to think of it as an opportunity. A blessing. No matter how it makes you feel in here.”
A few comments have stated they did not feel connected to the main characters of The Licanius Trilogy due to its heavily plot-focused storyline, except for Caeden. Although I do not fully agree with this notion, because I liked Davian, Wirr, Asha, and many characters in the trilogy enough, I certainly agree Caeden is the best character in The Licanius Trilogy; Caeden IS one of my favorite characters in the fantasy genre. It is with a heart full of happiness I say it is very likely Vis will become a character I love as much as Caeden in the future. Try not to misinterpret what I said as a criticism toward The Licanius Trilogy. The Licanius Trilogy is one of my favorite trilogies. My point is that Islington has developed further as a storyteller; with more books in the series available in the future, the potential for Hierarchy series to be better than The Licanius Trilogy is strongly evident. If I am already this compelled and invested in Vis and his story just from reading The Will of the Many, what would be the outcome after reading the sequels? I am excited to find out.
“Whether the obstacles to our advancement arise from our ties or our actions, we need to learn to overcome them ourselves. It’s not fair, but nor is the world.”
I found Vis to be a character reminiscent of Kvothe or Darrow. Forged by his brutal past, the rigorous physical and mental training he partakes from a young age has acted as an eternal fire of motivation that transformed him into a skillful fighter, intelligent, resourceful, a quick learner, and a jack of all trades. In other words, Vis is great at many things. However, he is not flawless. Vis lies a lot for survival and is often blinded by rage. This uncontrollable crimson veil of wrath often leads him toward conflicts or iconic moments, depending on how you look at the situation. His capacity for violence and fury is a weakness he needs to tame, and he soon realizes he cannot do everything by himself. This is why the unlikely friendship he forms in the Academy, especially with Callidus and Eidhin, gives him solace and hope amidst all the loneliness, dangers, and life-threatening allegiances he’s juggling. Moments of virtue, loyalty, and solidarity were relatively rare and hard-earned, but the warmth of each one of these occurrences felt palpable; they radiated from the pages. All of these, along with Vis’ inspiring courage, determination, and compassion, reinforce the unputdownable narrative for me.
“Necessity has made me into a convincing actor, over the past few years. The trick, I’ve decided, is to make myself believe what I’m saying is true. Not just tell a lie, but envisage the circumstances in my head. Imagine how I’d feel, what I would have done. Erase the truth of my past and replace it with a false one, not simply layer it over the top.”
Islington’s improved prose was responsible for my immersion and connection with the novel. Islington successfully nailed Vis’ personality and voice so damn well. In science fiction & fantasy novels, it is frequently crucial for me to truly feel like the POV character is telling their story, not the author. The narrative has to completely enthrall me in the POV character’s narration and inner thoughts. The best kind of SFF authors can do this. Here are some examples of an SFF series with excellent first-person POV narration. Fitz in The Realm of the Elderlings by Robin Hobb, Kvothe in The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss, Darrow in Red Rising Saga by Pierce Brown, and Tomas Piety in War for the Rose Throne by Peter McLean with Tomas Piety. These four characters’ narration felt like the author became the messenger with a mission to write and deliver their tales. And that, precisely, is what has been accomplished in The Will of the Many. Islington’s writing style has the ability to conjure vivid imagery in my mind and an engaging reading experience effectively. And these praises are not exclusive to Vis. The entire story is told from the first-person POV narration (in present tense) of Vis, and yet, I still feel like I got to know the supporting characters’ motivations and personalities almost as well as Vis. They are all unique with their own qualities.
“You would be surprised at how far a combination of coin and favour can go toward silencing whole families.”
Finally, before I close this long-enough review, I want to elaborate on the world-building of the series. When I read The Will of the Many, it hit me that I haven’t read as much Roman-inspired epic fantasy series as I thought. I think this is a factor that increased my reading enjoyment. There is Codex Alera by Jim Butcher, a popular Roman-inspired fantasy series. But, in my opinion, The Will of the Many is multiple times superior. The world-building feels relatively fresh. Many aspects of the world-building in The Will of the Many are deeply rooted in its Roman inspiration. The names, clothing, beautiful vistas, settings, in-world game, and more. Every aspect of the Roman-inspired world and Islington’s crafted fantasy lore were delivered in detail gradually. I did not feel overwhelmed by the terminologies, there is a character list and glossary at the back of the book every time I need to remind myself of something, and it did not take long for me to feel immersed in this Roman-inspired epic fantasy series. And I loved it. The gladiatorial bouts, the naumachia, the Catenan rankings, and how the magic system (Will, which I’m sure we will see even more of its usage in future sequels) is interweaved into the story. Everything felt so natural to the plotlines. Plus, there is, of course, Islington’s own creation in the manifestation of the mystery of the ancient weaponry and Cataclysm, a world-spanning disaster three centuries ago that left less than five people in every hundred alive. Maybe it is more accurate to call The Will of the Many, and the series, an epic science fantasy series due to how the high fantasy aspect and scientific technologies merged and enhanced the narrative. And I, as a fan of having more sci-fi elements in epic fantasy, am totally pleased by all of these combinations.
“Greed is by definition the moral ruler of the Hierarchy… All decisions are based upon it. It is not the strong who benefit in their system, no matter what they say—it is the weak. It is the ones willing to do anything, sacrifice anything, to rise. It rewards avarice and is so steeped in a wrong way of thinking that those within it cannot even see it… There is no form of government that is immune from mistakes or from corruption— but it is the Hierarchy’s foundation, Son. Never forget that.”
The characters’ development, in-depth lore, technologies, and history established in The Will of the Many have provided possibilities for the Will and mysteries of the Cataclysm and more to be explored further in the next installments. This is also a darker novel than I expected. Explosions, massacres, shredded flesh and blood, and obsidian eyes and blades; the action scenes—the big action sequences, Labyrinth runs, or duels—were all tension-packed. Islington displayed the immense terror every second can bring in the lurking presence of disintegration and chaos. Violence begets grief, and grief begets violence. Is it a mistake, or is it righteous, to repay the sorrow caused by the heinous sins of the past with more violence of the present? The Will of the Many closed the magical/battle school/dark academia portion of the series, and that alone was already super satisfying. But oh my god… the mysteries and implications raised after the final chapters were groundbreaking, to say the least. Without spoilers, what Islington did in the epilogue, Ex Uno Plures (Out of One, Many), was nothing short of outstanding. In one chapter, Islington escalated the scintillating novel into something even more extraordinary.
“You think an Octavus who gives his Will is somehow less responsible than the Sextus who kills with it? The weak and poor endure in the Hierarchy because the alternatives are harder, not because there are none. They know the system is wrong, but they choose not to think or speak up or act because they ultimately hope that in their silence, they will gain. Or at the very least not have to give more than they have already given. They are driven by myopic self-interest and greed just as much as the senators and knights… The decision may have been made by the few… but it’s the Will of the many that killed your family.”
My emotional attachment to the characters and events of this book is undeniable. The Will of the Many by James Islington is a phenomenal achievement. Islington has flourishingly crafted a Roman-inspired science fantasy world with brilliant plotlines that feel believable through the perspective of a talented and flawed main character imbued with a superbly distinct voice. I absolutely loved it. It IS one of the best books I’ve ever read, and it is also one of the rare books where, upon finishing it, I immediately wanted to reread from the beginning. And I know I will do that when the sequel, The Strength of the Few, is near. The waiting time for the sequel will be one of the worst waiting times I need to endure. How could it not be after the intense and insane culmination of the book? But until then… I will be patient. Audi (Hear). Vide (See). Tace (Be Silent). And read The Will of the Many as soon as possible. A new exceptional science fantasy series destined to become a classic is here. The Will of the Many has everything I love in an epic science fantasy novel, and many scenes here will become eternal moments in my mind.
“The Academy isn’t just about telling you how to use Will; it is meant to prepare you for the experience of wielding it. And that means leadership. Will is ceded, but that does not always mean it is cheerfully given. Pyramids are not built on friendships. We are stronger together, but every block in a pyramid is still an individual. One with its own opinions. Its own goals and desires. Loyalty is only given to those who can convince the ones lifting them up that they will succeed.”
The quotes in this review were taken from an ARC and are subject to change upon publication.
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