I’m just going to say it: Anthony Ryan has upped Brandon Sanderson at his own game. Which is a lot to say, for a sworn Sanderson fan and avid follower of his books, podcasts, and lectures. But consider: in Sanderson’s latest (and of course wildly-good-selling) Mistborn series he takes on an 18th-century sort of steamship (not to say punk) era of technology, with burgeoning corporations and wild outlands and all that. Plus, the patented clever and surprise-laden Sandersonian magic system.
The Waking Fire does all these things better. Set in a similar time period, Ryan deepens the economic ties between rival corporations and slow-crumbling empires, ties the magic more believably to the economy, and creates a more interesting outland populated with subhumans and failed expeditions and magic-blooded drakes that justify the danger of going out there (rather than proving oneself or anathema for civilization, which are Sanderson’s outlanders).
Of course we cannot compare others to Sanderson without comparing magic systems, and Ryan’s is devilishly clever. A select few of the world can digest the drake’s blood that is corrosive to regular people, and depending on the color of dragon, use it to do different things. The blood is rare, the drakes dangerous, and their value in the global economy as the power for steamships, fuel for intercontinental communication, and sundry other things (let’s not forget spying, assassination, and war!) makes it an integral part of the world—rather than just a cool one. And though Sanderson may still go deeper into the inner workings of his magic, Ryan does hint in this first of a duology that there are types and uses of drake’s blood yet to be seen.
Both authors are top-notch at writing page-turners. The Waking Fire drew me in from page one with clever action scenes, intrigue that actually feels tense, and the kind of snappy dialogue only a Brit could write. Where Ryan suffers a little, and Sanderson too, is the way the characters end up secondary to plot—of Ryan’s three main characters, only one has any real awakening or change of heart, and this comes early in the book. The other two are fun and driven but don’t end up offering us any deeper perspectives on human life—a thing Sanderson often struggles to do (or does in heavy-handed God Is Talking fashion). Maybe that’s a sacrifice you make for fast-paced engaging action, but there those (see Pierce Brown) who pull off both.
All this to say The Waking Fire is a gem, worth all the attention fantasy’s best-selling books get, though it has yet to join that list. The time period is unique and well-imagined, the stories fun and twisting, the action intense and the magic system clever. Though the action can get heavy-handed for those who skim fight scenes, Ryan’s quest for the White Drake is a literary nod to Moby Dick, and the setting in a fantastical Australia is something we don’t see often (not since Sean McMullen). Anthony Ryan is one to watch, and The Waking Fire comes highly recommended—if you can bear waiting for the sequel.