Originally published by Orbit in 2018, epic fantasy The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn by Tyler Whitesides has received a shiny new cover! The second and third books will also be available by the end of the year – great news for you binge readers out there.
While the new illustrations by Ben Zweifel are absolutely stunning and on-trend, part of me prefers the original image, which seems more representative of the story. It makes sense to use a character design for a novel named after its protagonist, rather than a cityscape. I also would have been interested to see Tommy Arnold’s work for book two and three. Regardless, they’re an attractive set of books!
The Thousand Deaths kicks off with a brilliant bang, introducing Ardor Benn, the titular swindler and thief (he prefers ruse artist extraordinaire, thank you very much) as he makes a narrow escape following his latest scheme.
While Ard has a flair for style, showmanship and manipulation, his sidekick Raekon keeps them out of trouble by dealing with the practicalities of Ard’s elaborate plans.
The main story begins when Ard is approached by a Wayfarist priest who proposes what would be Ard’s crowning achievement: stealing the King’s regalia (the ‘crowning’ pun was a happy accident). As required by the priest, Ard accepts the job in a cloud of memory grit and so can’t remember his reasons for taking on the ruse, only that he’ll earn one million ashings… and something about saving the world.
I was immediately drawn in by Ard and Raek’s sarcastic banter, and the unique fantasy setting, which has traditional medieval influences, as well as flintlock fantasy and perhaps some Ol’ West vibes.
If you love a good ruse, this book is absolutely for you, with almost half the novel describing how Ard and his crew attempt to steal the King’s regalia. The plan is entirely over the top, involving new identities and some costly services, but very entertaining.
The other major appeal of this novel is the intricate magic system, which is based around grit, a flammable powder that has an array of effects depending on the source material used to make it. The concept brings to mind Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, but with added dragon poop.
Which brings me to, in my mind, the stars of the show. While dragons aren’t heavily featured in the scales, I love Whitesides’ take. His dragon scenes are injected with adrenaline, painting them as truly violent and fearsome creatures. For me, this was definitely the highlight of the story.
With several exciting elements, I would recommend this book if you are looking for a fun, easy to follow and immersive fantasy.
For me, this book wasn’t quite the sum of its parts and could have benefited from further editing. Some of the ideas felt slightly far-fetched even for a fantasy novel, which I think came down to delivery. I also don’t think the page count is justified for a story that is quite linear, regardless of any Big Reveals. The singular storyline is progressed with the help of multiple POVs, though most of these are so closely linked that more than once it took me a few pages to realise it wasn’t written from Ard’s perspective.
I definitely enjoyed Ard’s rusing and elaborate plots, but the number of conveniences, and dramatic inconveniences, required to make them work gave the book a constructed feel.
The Thousand Deaths wasn’t anything exciting in terms of representation and diversity, which is understandably (and rightly), something that many readers now expect authors to consider. The depiction of racism seems more focused on worldbuilding than any meaningful social commentary. Representation of women is also questionable, with one key character actually thanking Ard for “helping me find my place” a few chapters after she realises she has lost her independence as a person and relies more on Ard to make decisions. Yikes!
All in all, I’m glad to have finally read this book, which could have been made great with heavier editing. While I probably won’t continue the rest of the series, I can see why many people will enjoy it.
Thanks to Orbit and Netgalley for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
Trigger warnings: None
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