Heroes of the Ward: A Review of Realm Breaker, by Victoria Aveyard

Stopping, or surviving, the end of the world has become standard fare in fiction, from novels to movies, that it is essentially its own trope now.  A quick and easy way to set enormous stakes and justify any action set piece one could think of.  However, despite the proliferation of this plot building block, or maybe because of it, the end of the world is actually a rather difficult plot to pull off and keep your audience invested.  As seen in many movies, once the stakes become too big, too large scale, it can be hard to empathize with the widespread destruction seen on screen.  This trend is not even unique to fiction.  It is more difficult for humans to empathize with large-scale tragedies simply because they are too big to make sense of.  However, just like in real world news coverage, there is a way to keep people interested and invested when plotting and end of the world story; make it personal.

Realm Breaker is the latest novel from Victoria Aveyard, and the start of a brand-new fantasy epic tale.  The care and imagination Aveyard has pumped into this new story is readily apparent from the first page, and continues throughout the story.  Every character is intricate, with motivations and interests that make sense for them, and remain consistent while also allowing room for growth.  To match the characters, Aveyard has created a supremely interesting world to get lost in.  For anyone familiar with her work, unlike me when I first started reading, it should come as no surprise that she has crafted yet another good story.  Before Realm Breaker, Aveyard is most likely known for her best-selling Red Queen series, a four-novel saga with an upcoming television adaptation.  Beyond that, Aveyard is also an accomplished screenwriter, showing experience with crafting cinematic stories, a feature Realm Breaker certainly demonstrates.  In short, Aveyard continues to prove that she is an excellent author.

Realm Breaker is set in the land of Allward, or The Ward for short.  Rather than another standard medieval European influenced setting, Allward is instead a microcosm combining a wide swath of lands and cultures.  There is the medieval Europe equivalent to be sure, but there is also a Mediterranean locale inspired by the south of Italy and Greece, across a sea from an Arabian inspired kingdom.  In the north, there is the clear Scandinavian analogue, but also an area of the fantasy map that appears equivalent to the steppes of Mongolia with a corresponding culture.  It is clear that Aveyard has put a tremendous amount of thought into her world and her world-building.  Each kingdom or nation has a very different culture, a diverse people, its own language and culture, and all of the intricacies that both connect and set places apart.  In a lot of fantasy fiction, locations and cultures other than where the main character is from can often be one-note.  However, Aveyard appears to have side-stepped this pitfall, seeding the world masterfully.  It also helps that she tells the story from the third-person point-of-view of multiple different characters from varying backgrounds, ensuring that we see the world from varying perspectives.

The basic plot of Realm Breaker involves trying to stop the end of the world, but it so much more than that.  Many times, when stories try to tackle this line of plot, the result is one of two things; either the plot and stakes become so large that we stop being interested in the characters, or the stakes and plot become peripheral to just spending time with the characters.  Aveyard manages to strike a balance between these two extremes.  The overall plot involves magic Spindles, portals to other dimensions and realms, which the main villain wants to tear forcefully tear open, no matter which nightmare dimension they might lead to.  The party of main characters, meanwhile, seek to close these tears before the damage becomes too great.  The novel never loses sight of exactly what is at stake, but the plot is kept immensely personal to the main characters so that we are able to watch them grow and invest in them while also maintaining interest in the impending apocalypse.  It helps that the apocalypse in this book is slow.  It takes time for the characters, both heroic and villainous alike, to get anywhere, and no one is all powerful.  There is also a bit of a chose one narrative, as only the main heroine and main villain are able to interact with the Spindles due to their lineage, but the book makes it clear that anyone in their lineage can.  Our main character is not special, she is simply the only one available.

While Realm Breaker features an ensemble cast, with each chapter being told from the perspective of one of five main characters, the main protagonist is ostensibly Corayne an-Amarat.  When we first meet Corayne, she has not idea that she is about to be drawn into a battle to save the world.  In fact, word has not even spread that there is a threat to the Ward.  Corayne is the teenage daughter of a fearsome, and overprotective, pirate captain who steadfastly refuses to tell her who her father really is.  She is stuck in her hometown; her pirate mother having forbidden her from leaving.  This could be seen as overprotective parenting, or simply because Corayne is still seventeen, barely more than a child, despite her maturity.  While she stays at home, managing the ship’s finances, connections, and smuggling operation, Corayne deals with an immense restless.  A sense of wanderlust the comes to define her character, even before she learns the reason behind it.  In any other novel, someone like Corayne might be a supporting character, but Aveyard wisely centers the narrative around her.  Accompanying her are a diverse cast of characters who each bring a very different aspect to the story, all of whom are interesting in their own right, never stealing the spotlight away from any of the others. 

To combat Corayne’s party of heroes, Aveyard introduces several antagonists into the fold.  The man set up as the main villain, Taristan, is revealed early on to be Corayne’s uncle, killing her father in the opening chapter.  Descended from the royalty of a nation which no longer exits, akin to ancient Rome, Taristan’s actual motivations are not fully revealed during this first novel.  There is an element of revenge against a world that turned it back on him, as well as the reveal that he is working for some higher, dark power intent on conquering the Ward.  In many ways, Taristan is a willing pawn of his compatriot, Ronin, a priest and sorcerer dedicated to the dark entity.  Ronin is the one who found Taristan, the one who informed him of his heritage, and the one that set him down this path.  However, despite these two villains, they are quickly upstaged by an unlikely third, helped along by the fact that some chapters are told from her perspective.  Erida, the queen of the kingdom of Galland, is initially introduced as a friend of one of the main characters and a potential ally.  However, her main concern is not the end of the world, but her own kingdom and reclaiming lost glory.  To that end, she accepts a proposal from Taristan and the two set off on the path of conquest.  Erida is a fascinatingly complex character because her actions come from a place of responsibility to her kingdom and her throne above all else.  Only time will tell if her hunger for power will continue to drive her forward in future books.

Overall, Realm Breaker is an excellent start to a new fantasy series with the potential to last many, many books.  It all depends on Aveyard’s imagination, but I believe she has proven to be more than up for the challenge.  Every character we meet in this book is interesting in their own way, with none of them being unlikeable or boring.  There are unlikely heroes alongside the ones you would expect, and villains who understand that they cannot enact their villainous plan on their own.  Thankfully, Aveyard has already confirmed that a sequel is in the works, titled Blade Breaker, and I for one cannot wait to read it.

Realm Breaker can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold

Total Read Time: 26 days

Next on the List: Capture the Crown, by Jennifer Estep

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