Every time a trilogy’s Book Two is better than its Book One, an angel gets its wings. One of my early posts on this blog was a somewhat scientific (and pretentious, but hey, that’s what most of my early posts seem to sound like) study of what I called Second Book Syndrome, the curse that afflicts sequels and mid-point novels in trilogies that makes them… just not great comparatively, for a variety of reasons to do with both author heebie-jeebies and narrative structure. Well, my younger self would be pleasantly surprised to learn that I’ve found a series where Book Two is both better constructed and more enjoyable than Book One. It’s a Christmas miracle! It’s a rollicking fantasy action adventure! It’s Rogues of the Republic: The Prophecy Con!
If this sounds intriguing but you haven’t read my review of Book One and/or Book One itself, I would do that first—this review will naturally contain a few spoilers for its predecessor, since discussing the plot of The Prophecy Con will naturally involve discussing what happens in and after The Palace Job. Honestly, this book does a wonderful job both following on from the previous book and feeling like its own individual, fresh story, and perhaps it’s striking this delicate balance that helps it avoid Second Book Syndrome. It’s also a big improvement in terms of craft: the chaotic nature of the writing itself that threw me off about The Palace Job has mostly been ironed out, and the plot is much cleaner-cut into arcs that make a Three Act Structure more discernible. The prose on a page-to-page level, as well as the plot itself, are much easier to follow, and you get swept up in the adventure and intrigue with even more vigour than before. Also, this is the book where things get gay. Consider these your vague, non-spoiler recommendations, and proceed from here if you want more details.
The stakes are naturally raised as the journey continues: as a result of the events at the end of The Palace Job (juicy, juicy direct continuity!), the threat of war is looming between the neighbouring countries of The Empire and The Republic. Having been heavily involved in the final fight that saw a giant magical laser beam strike the earth from Heaven’s Spire, our hero Loch is summoned to negotiations. Except, of course, part of the negotiation agreement is that Loch herself will be handed over to The Empire as a prisoner in return for a promise of peace… not that anyone told Loch that.
And so we open with yet another wonderful action sequence, with Loch escaping by the skin of her teeth and managing to make new enemies along the way. She returns to Heaven’s Spire to enquire how she can help the anti-war effort without becoming a political prisoner doomed for torture and execution. She is helpfully told to steal a book of elven poems. Yes, the exact same book of elven poems she was after in The Palace Job, which she successfully stole and then sold to an elven ambassador. Though Loch is understandably frustrated, as a reader I have to say this Macguffin re-use surprisingly didn’t make the plot feel repetitive. The shenanigans take a different shape to those of the previous novel, and the elven book itself draws our attention to new and intriguing aspects of worldbuilding that weren’t present before (but which become very important the further we go along).
In any case, it’s time to get the band back together, and what a joy it is reuniting the group and following them on their continued adventures. The characters are far and away still the best part of this series, and there are some great personal arcs that blossom out of the carnage of the previous book. Some of which raise and address some fascinating questions that have some fun playing around with fantasy tropes: like, what do you do when you’ve completed the grand destiny you were gifted by the gods, and have to return to normal life without that sense of purpose? What happens if you realise that you actually kind of liked your brush with Dark Powers, but only once they’re gone and you feel a bit useless and helpless without them? How would going through something like demonic mind control affect your sense of self and agency in your everyday life?
This continuation of the adventure also sees the team split up into sub-groups; a very sensible narrative decision since it lightens the load in terms of how many people the reader has to keep track of in a scene, and paves the way for exploration of some dynamics we didn’t see much of in the previous book. The team also gains plus-one in the form of Pyvic, formerly the fantasy-FBI agent hunting Loch down, and now her unofficial partner in crime and official partner in romance. Wonder of wonders, couples that were established at the end of Book One continue to be explored as actual relationships in Book Two without unnecessary drama. Hessler the wizard and Tern the alchemist have some issues to straighten out, but for the most part they’re a delightfully functional pair, with the bonus fun that their respective approaches to magic make them a sort of symbolic marriage of arts and sciences.
While we’re on the topic of the wizard and the alchemist, I want to take some time to appreciate the worldbuilding in these books. As I mentioned last time, the setting is far from the Medieval Europe-esque landscape that high fantasy is most associated with; in fact there are some aspects of this world that are downright Industrial, all thanks to a fascinating fusion of magic and tech. Manipulation of magical crystals gives us the floating city, advanced security for Loch and her thieves to hack through, something akin to a telegram system, and even trains, which run along silver tracks that magnetically repel the magical crystals in the carriages and create a hovercar effect (and allow one arc of this story to go full Baccano! with a high-speed train robbery).
This world has also harnessed the power of elemental creatures called daemons, using them to power their engines and airships… which works fine until they escape, and then you have a crashing airship and an angry monster to deal with. All these aspects of technology are introduced and integrated seamlessly into the story, with enough magic-logic attached that they make sense and don’t feel contrived (my favourite example being the magnetic effect of the silver and the crystals that creates the hovering train system. Seriously, that’s just so neat). I’m always a fan of innovative magic systems and combinations of magic and science, and this delivers in droves. It also makes the truly ancient and wild magic of the gods and the elves—not contained nicely in helpful crystal tech—stand out with a distinct and decidedly ominous flavour of their own.
Much more than The Palace Job, The Prophecy Con gears up for a bigger future conflict (perhaps because The Palace Job was originally planned as a standalone). Again, though, while the big hook it contains might make it more obviously a Book Two, that Second Book Curse doesn’t kick in and the ending still feels fulfilling in its own right. Plot and character arcs established over the novel wrap up nicely by the end, while, naturally, still leaving room for advancement in the final instalment. The book almost ends on a monstrous cliffhanger, but, true to its cinematic feel, pulls the equivalent of an after-credits scene by putting an epilogue after the acknowledgements section. I was thrown for a loop and filled with genuine stress for a moment there—which, once again, just proves how successfully Weekes got me attached to these characters he’s created. I would fight for Isafesira “Loch” de Lochenville any day.
Before I go, I did mention that this book got gay, so I ought to elaborate on that. And it is my favourite type of fantasy-genre gay: the kind that is just there no questions asked or hackles raised, establishing that this is a world where such things simply aren’t a big deal. Desidora returns to her duties as a priestess to the goddess of love and helps pair up various couples across the book, some heterosexual and some queer. Ululenia the shapeshifting unicorn takes a female sexual partner in this book, where previously she had shown interest mostly in male ones. Nobody bats an eyelid at this, and, if the flirting is clear enough, nobody seems to presume that anyone else is straight.
Most interestingly, at the end of The Palace Job it seemed neatly set up that heroically-destined farm boy Dairy would sleep with Ululenia, but here it’s revealed that he ended up rejecting her because “it just didn’t feel right”. I liked this twist for two reasons: firstly, while part of me appreciated Ululenia’s unambiguous horniness and the tropes it subverted, I was a bit uncomfortable with her so plainly lusting after Dairy when he seemed oblivious to her intentions. Secondly, from the other side of things, Dairy saving the world then getting laid could have easily played into the noxious trope of the “boy becoming a man” by completing his quest then receiving sexual attention from a (literally) magically beautiful woman. But that’s not the way it went, and this is something the plot repeatedly comes back to, sometimes as a running joke, sometimes as something more exploratory and heartfelt. “Well,” I thought to myself, not actually expecting anything to come of it. “Obviously Dairy’s just gay, or even ace.”
Lo and behold, Dairy gets a boyfriend at the end of the book. And everyone is very happy for him (though Ululenia is a tiny bit jealous).
I’m enjoying the heck out of these books, is the major takeaway here. I’m invested in the characters, fascinated by the world, and intrigued to see where the adventure goes once the ante is upped yet again for Book Three. A heist caper has evolved into a tangle of gods and mortals, but it has (so far) retained enough of a human emotional core to sustain the shift and keep things from becoming too convoluted. Once more, I can’t wait to find out what happens, but once more, we can come back to that next time.