Winter comes, and three communities come together to make an army of the people, as Heloise, the Queen of Crows, the Armored Saint, seeks change everything about the world she lives in. Tragedy after tragedy, bittersweet victory after tremendous loss, she finally finds herself at the head of a group of people all seeking to put an end to the death grip the tyrannical Order holds on the world. Part foreign army seeking to put down aggressors, part traveling community seeking peace, and part citizens sick of falling prey to the terror and oppression of those in power, each in their own way look to Heloise to lead them. Some see her as a holy figure, a Palantine, a saint sent by the Emperor to guide them. Others see a revolutionary who stood up for them, so that they may stand for her. And others still a weak, scared young woman in a war machine, barely holding it together. As the Sacred Throne trilogy ends, Heloise will find out exactly who she is, and what it is she is meant to do. If she can survive what the world throws at her.
In this final volume of his epic fantasy trilogy, Cole brings us a story that simultaneously celebrates the elements of grimdark fiction that were a staple of fantasy in the early 2000s, while also working to interrogate them rigorously.
This world, Cole is fond of reminding us, is brutal. A tyranny of religious zealots holds the world by the throat, and oppresses those who threaten that status quo. Extraplanar devils wait to spring through into our world, intent on slaughtering those who would tamper with forces beyond them. And many people once seen as noble or just, have just as much a temptation towards weakness as any other person faced with a seemingly insurmountable challenge. And yet, in the writing of this grim world, Cole makes an effort to bring nuance to these well-trod tropes, and explore what sort of happiness or bravery or success can be found in challenging them. In confronting a religious order with their own hypocrisy. In uniting with those around you to rise up against the devils intent on your death. And digging deep to find those positive emotions, to remind yourself of the things to live for, especially in the face of the weakness of other’s hearts.
The person who can do all three of those things is, of course, Heloise. Traumatized, injured, struggling with enormous PTSD and guilt, our heroine has more on her plate than anyone in the novel, and finds herself again and again the only person who can push through and do the right thing. Literally trapped in the mechanized war machine she has made her own, Heloise marches toward the capital intent on finding the Emperor and presenting evidence of the corruption of his Order. Her army on the verge of falling apart, her forces beset by new allegiances and challenges, Cole continues to prove that Heloise, despite her own ideas of herself, is a true leader. She continues on, even at its most difficult, and one of the major questions of the book is, when faced with larger and larger responsibility, can Heloise take one more step? If it is for the good of all, can she find the strength to take one last step? The answer to that marks the book’s climax, and in many ways, the message of it rings true not just in all times, but especially in this one. May we all find the courage to take just one more step, and do that which is hard, if it is that which will make things right. And as much as Heloise is a symbol and a heroine, she is also human, and to my relief, Cole does manage to find some joy for her in this novel.
The Killing Light is a tremendous story that packs action, bloodshed, and dire stakes right up alongside in-depth discussion of war tactics, philosophy, faith, and other moral quandaries. It is to Cole’s credit and talent that each of those sections is just as enthralling as the other, and that there is still mystery afoot even in this final novel. More of the Order and the history of the Emperor is explored, as well as some more on the devils, and their hierarchy. This world is rich and deep, and yet Cole doesn’t tell us everything, but let’s us live along with his characters. If they wouldn’t know something, well, we won’t either.
But that’s okay. What I do know about The Killing Light is that Myke Cole has delivered a nuanced, complex, fast-paced, brutal and yet tender epic fantasy about standing up for what’s right, and working together for the improvement of all, against a system put in place to ensure neither in the first place. Cole has always been a strong writer, but this trilogy has pushed him into new territory, and it has been a joy to watch him evolve, grow, and meet the challenges of this series head-on. The Sacred Throne trilogy is complete, and with The Killing Light, Cole cements himself and his series as a nuanced answer to the ultra-grim fantasy of the early 21st century, and shows you can explore dark, complicated aspects of life, while still remembering to celebrate the goodness in this world, and those things worth fighting for: love, family, joy, and so much more.
Martin Cahill is a contributor to Tor.com, as well as Book Riot and Strange Horizons. He has fiction forthcoming at Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. You can follow his musings on Twitter @McflyCahill90.