By Will Wight
This review includes information about books one, two and three of the Cradle series.
I picked up Unsouled with a bit of trepidation, as my only other encounter with Will Wight’s writing (try saying that 3 times fast!) came via his Traveler’s Gate trilogy, which I started but didn’t finish. The Cradle series, like the Traveler’s Gate trilogy, leans heavily on that hoary old fantasy trope of a seemingly unremarkable young person, who ends up being a future ubermensch, etc. etc. As I’ve written before, I don’t mind the trope- some authors use it at a jumping off point for a compelling story, while other times the story never really transcends the trope. For me, the question becomes whether the characters develop in interesting ways, and whether the world broadens out in a satisfying way. I didn’t get that feeling from Wight’s House of Blades, though perhaps I’ll need to give it another try, because I did end up enjoying Unsouled quite a bit.
The “unsouled” in question is Wei Shi Lindon, born into a community where young people typically manifest one of four specific “soul talents,” which allow them to gain greater power, provide greater utility to their people, and to assume greater social status. Lindon, however, appears to be “unsouled,” meaning that his path to making something of himself appears to be cut off before it begins. However, as a canny reader may guess, fate intervenes (in the form of an incredibly advanced celestial being), leading Lindon to leave his village and begin his transformation into something far beyond his original dreams or expectations.
Again, as a premise, you’ve probably heard this before, and there are plenty of pitfalls for Wight to navigate. I developed a quick fondness for Lindon, but was less interested in the specifics of the four schools of talents, so was relieved that Wight didn’t spend large chunks of the book belaboring the magic system. And while this review is specific to book one of the series, in the interest of full disclosure I’ll note that I’m currently finishing up book three, and have been encouraged by how the story continues to adapt in the subsequent books.
To sum up: Unsouled is a classic fantasy bildungsroman. It’s heavy on plot, and relatively light on character development (Lindon gets good treatment, but most of the other characters end up being pretty two dimensional). It’s a relatively simple and quick read, so would make good beach reading fodder. It also has the advantage of being free on the Kindle library (if that’s your reading method of choice), and one can speed-read it with confidence knowing that books two and three are available for future consumption. High literature, this isn’t, but it’s a satisfying portion for a fantasy glutton like me.
Rating: 2- Recommended with Reservations
Books Two and Three
I’ve noticed a strange phenomena since transitioning from reading hardcopy books to reading mostly via my Kindle, which is that:
A) I’m less apt to remember the names of the books I’m reading (presumably because I don’t look at the book cover every time I open it up), and
B) when I read multiple books in a series one after another, the books tend to merge together, whereas with hardcopy books, the delineations between books seemed much more stark.
With that in mind, I just inhaled books two and three of Will Wight’s “Cradle” series without taking much of a breath, and so it seems to make more sense to just review them together, rather than attempting to tease them apart. Reader’s of last week’s review of book one, Unsouled, will recall that the series follows Wei Shi Lindon, a young man who initially seemed handicapped by his lack of a “soul,” but who (of course) turns out to far more capable than anyone ever dreamed, the chosen one, etc. etc. It’s a hackneyed premise, but Wight’s opening novel kept my attention, and the story only improves over books two and three.
As book two opens, Lindon has left the relative safety of his ancestral community, and travels with his newfound companion and (sort of) mentor, the talented but terse sword artist Yerin. Faced with the wider world, Lindon quickly realizes how myopic his home community’s perspective is (both on the topics of “soul abilities,” and in other respects). With his new perspective comes new goals, as Lindon continually pushes to develop himself and embrace the destiny that was (partly) revealed to him in book one. Along the way, Lindon and Yerin accumulate antagonists and friends, the most memorable of whom is the mysterious Eithan, whose humor and confidence quickly endear himself to the reader.
When he’s not writing books, Will Wight is also a creator of board games, and the Cradle series owes a lot of its appeal to the notion of “character progression” codified in both board game and video game lore. Much of the series’ (if not all of it, frankly) is driven by Lindon’s quest for continuous improvement, and the most satisfying passages in the books typically revolve around Lindon “leveling up” (in video game parlance) at crucial times. If that sort of “character development” appeals to you, you’ll likely enjoy the series quite a bit. If that concept turns you off, Cradle may not be for you.
By the end of book three, the story arc continues to develop in interesting ways, and I’m eager to see what book four holds. The danger with this sort of story is that by continuing to raise the bar on what is possible (and how powerful any given individual can be), the author backs themselves into a corner, as the only way to challenge a super-humanly powerful protagonist is by introducing a villain who is somehow even more capable (but not so much that the hero can’t figure out some clever way to defeat them!). We haven’t seen that villain yet, though Wight has sketched out some possibilities that will no doubt be revealed in future books.
To sum up: the Cradle series is standard fantasy fare, with a heavy dollop of video-game like character progression mixed in. The books are quick, easy reads- perfect for a summer day at the beach, mountains, or what have you. This isn’t high literature, and Wight tends to gloss over anything that might distract from the core of the story (there are something like 6 significant characters by the end of book three). With that said, these are satisfying reads, and I’ll download book four as soon as it comes out.
Rating: 2 – Recommended with Reservations