“The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn” Review

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“Rusing was a craft. An art form. Like the rich folks’ orchestral music – some movements slow, some movements swift and thrilling, but Ard was always the conductor.”

This was such a fun fantasy heist story, and it did a great job at occupying the currently vacant space in my heart left by Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards series (at least until November 2019, which seriously can’t come soon enough). The story follows an infamous, dashing and devilishly clever ruse artist for hire named Ardor Benn, who works within a kingdom comprised of a series of islands called the “Greater Chain” with his partner and life-long friend Raekon Dorrel. Together they use their wit, resourcefulness and in many cases dumb luck to scam and manipulate those around them to get their next paycheck… that is until they are approached by an old priest who hires them to pull off their most difficult ruse yet: stealing the king’s dragon-shell armor. With the promise of a massive amount of money on the line, the duo hires a skilled thief named Quarrah Khai to assist them for this job, and with the additional help of a series of memorable side-characters, the team works together to infiltrate the palace and claim their riches without losing their heads. What follows is a gripping adventure full of action, comedy, disguises, romance and magic, and while it did suffer from some issues in its’ pacing and characterization, I still thought it was an extremely immersive and entertaining read!

This book had a really enjoyable cast of characters, with my favorite probably being our titular hero, Ardor (referred to as “Ard” throughout most of the novel). In a lot of ways he was your standard charming rogue with a heart of gold, but that didn’t make him any less engaging to me. He was funny, charismatic, emotional and a master manipulator, which when coupled with his effortless intelligence made him a true force to be reckoned with. He certainly had a knack for getting himself into terrible situations, but the question was rarely if he would get himself out of said situations, but rather how, as you knew he would find some ingenious way using any variables at his disposal. He doesn’t experience an especially dramatic character arc, but his story still has several interesting elements, from his struggles with trust and selfishness to even explorations of his spirituality. I also really enjoyed his right-hand man Raek, who was a consistently snarky, reliable and warm presence in the story. He’s a large and rather imposing figure upon first glance, but he’s also an ingenious mathematician and lover of pastries when not providing some much needed muscle, and their strong friendship and reliance on one-another was one of my favorite aspects of the novel. Their characterizations and dynamic were very similar to that of Locke and Jean respectively from the aforementioned Gentlemen Bastards series, and I apologize if I’m alienating anyone by again drawing said comparison, but to anyone who has read Scott Lynch’s series the similarities may be very noticeable. Some people may take issue with this, and I have no clue if Tyler Whitesides has even read those books, but for me it wasn’t an issue, as it was more just giving me the type of characters and strong platonic relationships that I love in my fiction, plus the situations they were placed in were different enough to still feel very fresh! Quarrah was a bit more hit-or-miss for me though, especially in the first half of the story. Her thieving was really cool and impressive, and I appreciated how she was less “stoic bad-ass battle chick” and more “socially awkward girl who isn’t used to having to work with a team”, but there were times when she really annoyed me with how oblivious she seemed in anything pertaining to running a ruse despite already operating in criminal circles. However, this became much less of an issue as the novel went on and she learned to open up to her new comrades without, for lack of a better term, taking any of Ard’s shit, and I ended up quite liking her. You can see the romance between them coming from a mile away (which I hope you don’t consider a spoiler), and at times it felt very cheesy and predictable, but I was surprised by how invested in it I had become by the end of the book.

I also loved the magic system in this story, as it was really unlike anything I had ever read in any other fantasy novel. It’s based around a substance called “grit”, which is a powder stored in small portable pots which, when ignited, has a vast amount of abilities depending on what the powder is comprised of. These include creating magical barriers, explosions, loss of memory, resistance to gravity, deafening noise and creating illusions just to name a few, and the creative ways that Whitesides implements and combines these abilities was so fun and interesting. I also think its worth noting the method with which grit is formed, because oh man it is wacky. First you take the substances you want infused into your grit, sew them into the carcass of an animal, feed it to a dragon, track said dragon until it…um… relieves itself, the dragon torches its droppings until they are rock solid, at which point that material is ground into a fine powder and is ready for use. It was nothing if not unique! At first the whole magic system of grit was a bit confusing, but Whitesides was kind enough to provide a detailed record to all types of grit and their properties, cast-times and abilities at the back of the novel… which I did not realize existed until I finished the book. Whoops. But either way, as a reader you get the hang of how it works pretty quickly and I loved it!

Clocking in at about 730 pages this book was a bit of a beast, and in a novel that size I would be shocked if it didn’t run into a few pacing issues. I found that this was particularly evident earlier on in the novel as the ruse was initially being formulated, and it wasn’t until about 150 pages in that things really picked up. In the grand scheme of a book this large that is still relatively early on, but I can see why for many readers that is too large of a portion to have to initially get through, but once I did I couldn’t put this book down. There were also some chapters scattered through-out the novel that followed Isle Halevand (the priest who hired Ard) and an associate of his as they uncover hidden secrets about this world’s kingdom and history, and while the information they uncover is important, the method in which they tell it was such a slog to get through. Most of the time they were just giant dumps of uninteresting exposition and they made everything come to a grinding halt. These chapters were pretty few and far between but I was always happy to move on once they were finished.

Despite these criticisms I had such a fun time reading this book. It was energetic, had great dialogue, fascinating magic and plenty of interesting characters and plot twists. I can not wait for the next entry in the series! 4/5

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