Publication Date: July 6th, 2021
Hardcover. 672 pages.
I read Master Assassins, the first book in the Fire Sacraments trilogy, as an eARC from NetGalley back in 2018 and I immediately fell in love with Redick’s prose, characters, setting–pretty much everything about that book. It has remained one of my favorite books and I’d been counting down the days until we got the sequel, Sidewinders, ever since I put it down. I didn’t mind that wait at all because the end result was even better than I could have imagined. As a quick note, this review will not contain spoilers for Sidewinders, and I will do my best to stay away from major spoilers from Master Assassins, but since this is a review for the sequel, there will probably be minor spoilers for Master Assassins.
Sidewinders picks up pretty much right where we left in Master Assassins with our two beloved brothers making their way through the death-filled desert of Urrath on their journey to Kasralys to deliver a potentially world-altering document. Of course, this trip is nearly constantly beset by hordes of various entities wanting to kill them and it takes a level of determination and bravery (or perhaps simply desperation, if we're being honest) that I can hardly fathom for them to continue on with their journey.
The Fire Sacraments trilogy has plot bursting from its seems, as well as plenty of action and world-building to accompany, but it remains an incredibly character driven story. All of the characters shine so much in their own unique ways and it’s the smallest mannerisms and behavioral traits that really bring them to life. These characters are all very flawed as well, and I love that Redick really seems to call attention to that. For instance, the men are rather problematic at times in how they treat women, something that Redick has discussed before, and within the story those actions are challenged, especially actions that have been ingrained as firm notions in their heads regarding many of their previously held perceptions and ideas. Redick also works with these ideas in regards to how characters interact with those different from themselves and the world around them.
We once again follow a main POV from Kandri, and he remains a character that I find endlessly compelling. Kandri is the more stable of the two brothers and is technically the one I’d consider more logical and, well, not so crazy (although that could definitely be up for debate at more than a few moments). He is relatable in ways both positive and negative, the former because we can see where his struggles and motivations come from and are able to understand those, but also bad because of some less positive actions he undertakes or ways in which he treats his brother at times, and I think those are some darker elements we can all see in ourselves when we are feeling desperate and at our wit’s end. The way Redick conveys Kandri's emotion was so visceral, as well–I could feel his exasperation with his brother, Mektu, his deep, raw, unexplainable terror at the sheer thought and sight of the white child following him, and I could feel his sense of complete and utter despair at what to do at times and knowing that his options for survival were so limited and brutal.
Then there’s Mektu, who remains the same enigmatic, annoying, and frustratingly compelling figure that he was in Master Assassins. He is, at times, reprehensible, repugnant, bull-(and thick-)headed, always saying the exact wrong things.. but there’s also something about him that invokes a sense of.. compassion, perhaps? There are times when I want to reach through these pages and strangle him, but there are also times when he does something insanely genius and I want to hug him or regard him with a bit more respect than I previously did (before he does something stupid to make me regret that feeling). I am not sure exactly where or how Redick is going to conclude Mektu’s story or in what capacity it will take place, but I am helplessly invested in it and can’t wait to find out.
In addition to Kandri and Mektu, we are joined by a stunning cast of characters that add so much flavor and depth to this world. There’s Chindilan, my favorite uncle, Eshett, Talupeke, the elusive memory of Ariquina, and a ton of new characters that we meet as Kandri and Mektu join a new caravan to get through the desert, which is also often joined or interrupted by a variety of new and interesting characters. And because we have so many different groups interacting with the caravan and elsewhere, we get interesting dynamics across the characters and groups. Some may hate each other and want to kill each other, some hate and tolerate, some don’t care at all, etc., but the common thread is that everyone is simply unfailingly human–that, and the ever-present feeling that you can’t really trust anyone in this book to do what you might expect.
Outside of the characters, this book also opens up the world in a large way, one of which being an introduction to new POV characters, one featuring someone in Kasralys itself, preparing for an imminent invasion of the city. The second POV is from a retired general who is the one preparing to invade Kasralys. I loved these two new perspectives for a variety of reasons, the largest one being that it opened the world and allowed us to catch a glimpse of what life is like for those outside of Kandri and Mektu’s experiences. The other reason I appreciated these two character POVs in particular is because it allowed us to see both sides of a brewing conflict and understand what exactly may be happening and why, and also to make us feel more unsure about how to feel about everything. I loved the way that Redick incorporated these two new perspectives so seamlessly, as I felt a little unsure at first about being dragged away from Kandri’s narrative, but soon found myself enjoying these new chapters and the insights and expanded world-building that they brought.
Redick maintains the use of a very literary fantasy style, which, outside of the plot, characters, etc., is what I find the most captivating thing about these books. The writing is beautiful and effortless, providing plenty of description and narrative about what’s happening, but also withholding just enough so as not to overwhelm and to set up a framework that allows for the reader to make their own thoughts and explore the world and story in their own way. Redick utilizes plenty of classic tropes, but in such a way that I almost don’t recognize them at first or where they're played with in such a unique way that they are fresh and exciting.
He also employs plenty of dry humor and irony, both of which are things that I think have really cemented my personal ties to this book; when things are horrible and times are difficult, it’s sometimes the most morbid thoughts or words that bring this weird relief int he sense that this is still our life and we are in this together, even though we may have gut-churning anxiety or dread at what is happening around us and what may be to come. Does that make sense? Similarly, some of the things that Mektu does are absolutely absurd and truly not at all funny...but they still sometimes act as this sort of weird comic relief in a comic horror sense where all the characters know he’s awful, but they (and us readers!) can connect over that and just think, “ah, yes, that’s Mektu for you,” and continue on.
Much of Sidewinders continues the seemingly endless desert travel as in Master Assassins, but if you think traveling in a desert sounds boring, trust me when I say that there’s plenty of action going on in this desert to keep you busy. Desert settings are some of my favorite, so I appreciated that we got to spend more time on this journey, especially since we got to see so many more new lands and people to continue expanding the world. I think one of my favorite components of a kind is how the desert and the caravan act as two singular forces, where the desert is the overarching enemy that everyone must battle and make it through, regardless of their means or motivation, and the caravan itself carries many people from different walks of life that don’t always share the same viewpoints or motivations, which naturally leads to distrust, discord, and a lot of unpredictable actions.
This desert is honestly just like a huge sandbox of horror with
horrifying creatures and hostile enemies that seem to be waiting for our
characters at every corner. I find myself constantly struggling to see
how the characters will navigate some of the most dangerous or
terrifying obstacles and horrible things that come across them, but
Redick writes and plots in such a masterful way that I don’t know why I
ever worry or try to figure things out myself. The twists are endless,
but done so in a way that feels purposeful for the plot and not just
included for some shock value, and I really love being able to read a
book and genuinely be unsure about what’s next–there’s just something
really exciting and comforting and terrifying about that, and I love it.
The war themes that I mentioned being present in Master Assassins are also present in this book, as well as so many more. I think Sidewinders
really added to the established themes and focused in on ideas of sanity and insanity and mental health in
some forms, such as being unsure if you can really trust your own mind
or the minds of others, and this fit so well with the general theme and
nature of this book.
As I've mentioned, the world and plot of the Fire Sacraments trilogy continues to expand in Sidewinders in momentous ways that I could never have predicted. You might think you might have an idea of what the plot is or where it’s going, but no, trust me: you don’t. There’s always more to this world and these characters, as well as side journeys and obstacle that pop up and change the course in irreversible ways. You will want to speed through this and keep turning the pages, but this book is full of so much nuance and careful writing that you can’t really speed through it; it requires thought and a need to savor the story and prose. But rest assured, this is not a hard book to read and you’ll finish it before you know it (and then be sad that it’s over).
Overall, I probably don't need to say this, but I've given Sidewinders a well-deserved 5+++ stars. I cannot wait for the final book in the trilogy, but I am also sad to think that it will be over so I'll sit and wait patiently for as long as needed because I know that it will be an incredible ending. I already want to re-read Sidewinders so I can soak everything up more.