Apocalyptic fiction can be a tricky story format to get right, and it usually falls into two broad categories. Post-apocalypse stories are actually very common, for a variety of reasons, where the apocalypse has already happened and we spend our time following characters surviving or rebuilding after the fact. The tone of these can range wildly, from hopeless in the face of a terrible world, or hopeful as rebuilding is underway. Conversely, there are also stop-the-apocalypse stories, where the heroes of the story work to avoid the end of the world, either preventing or reversing the oncoming apocalypse. Much rarer are stories where the apocalypse seems inevitable, but has not happened yet. Where readers, and sometimes even the characters, know that the end of the world is going to happen, but the characters struggle anyways. Conventional wisdom tells us that if a character wants something enough, then the audience will want them to achieve it. But how does a story avoid disappointing readers when it seems like the protagonists will not get what they want?
Destiny of the Dead by Kel Kade is the follow up to 2019’s Fate of the Fallen and the second book in The Shroud of Prophecy series. The series is set in a fantasy world where a pantheon of gods, similar to the pantheon of ancient Greece, influences the lives of its inhabitants. In another similarity to the Greek pantheon, the gods of this world are not perfect beings. They squabble and argue amongst themselves, vying for power and influence and demanding what they think is due. The plot setup involves the gods of death and war, Axus and Trostili, forming an alliance to destroy the world. Axus believes that he is due much more death than he has received, and Trostili desires a great war to command. To that end, they have blessed an enormous empire and released them against the rest of the world. However, the gods are not the main characters. That honor belongs to the humans still alive trying to stop this oncoming apocalypse, including the forester Aaslo. Aaslo is an unlikely hero, and is portrayed as the type of character who would normally be a companion. However, early on in Fate of the Fallen, the chosen one, the only person who could have stopped the end of the world, is killed. Aaslo is left to find allies on his own and try to fill the role as best he can, even as all prophecies point to his failure.
Destiny of the Dead picks up shortly after the conclusion on the previous novel, where Aaslo raised an army of undead in order to destroy a supernatural blight that was wreaking havoc on the region of a noble friendly to the cause of resistance. The power had come as a surprise to everyone, Aaslo included, and seemed to herald a change in tone for the story. That change of tone does occur here, as the situation seems even more dire than before. Aaslo quickly reunites with the rest of his companions from the first book, including Teza, a magical healer who was expelled from the magic school, and Ijen, a prophet with a book containing all branches of the prophecy. The opening of Destiny of the Dead can be a little daunting, especially when it has been several years since the previous book. While a summary or “previously on” could have been helpful, the book’s momentum quickly catapults us back into the plot, and Kade does a good job of keeping returning readers hooked on the new events as they occur. While Aaslo and his companions continue their search for new allies and a way to prevent the end of the world—or at least soften the end, as Ijen continually reminds everyone that the world is doomed—Aaslo continuously grows in power, at the apparent cost of more of his humanity. He may still see himself as little more than a man, but the other characters may not agree.
Aaslo himself is not your typical protagonist. He begins his story in the first book as a friend and companion to the true chosen one, Matthias, supposedly the only person who could have actually saved the world. However, Matthias’ death early in that book left the world-saving duties to Aaslo. The surly forester is terrible with people, impersonable, and more than a little insane. Throughout both books, he carries Matthias’ head in a sack and continually hears his voice, which he responds to frequently, confusing anyone he’s around. He should not be the type of person that others follow. And yet, her is dedicated and persistent. More than anyone else, he will not stop in his efforts to stop the apocalypse, futile as it may be. By this point in the story, Aaslo is also a power in his own right. In the previous novel, to save his life, Teza grated the arm of a dragon onto him, and Destiny of the Dead shows that he is gaining more and more of the dragon’s abilities. Separate from that, a deal with a fae creature granted him access to the same kind of magic as the other sorcerers and wizards of the world. A third, separate power, controls his ability to steal souls and raise the dead. This type of necromantic power is typically reserved for villains, and it is striking to see something like this in the hands of a heroic figure.
Aaslo is not the only major hero in this story. His companions, Teza and Ijen, are with him throughout the story, and another point-of-view character from Fate of the Fallen returns in the form of Myropa, or Myra. Myra is a reaper, a psychopomp of this world tasked with guiding souls to either the afterlife or the void. A servant of the gods, she is forced to do their bidding as well, and is frequently used as a messenger. However, Myra finds that she has a strange affection for Aaslo, and frequently steps beyond her duties to assist him, acting as a double agent within the realm of the gods. Scenes with her help flesh out the greater world of the book, and offer insight to things happening outside of the main characters, allowing readers to always have a sense of the bigger picture. Ijen is also interesting in his own right, mainly due to how dedicated he is to the prophecy and not letting it guide anyone’s actions. He only reveals information after he is certain that it will not affect Aaslo’s decisions, and despite the fact that the prophecy always ends in doom, he actively works with Aaslo and goes along with his plans. Meanwhile, Teza is the more firebrand traveling companion, as well as healer, of Aaslo’s resistance. In a seemingly perfect match for Aaslo, she also does not mind experimenting with the profane to further their cause. However, she is loyal to him and apparently attracted to him, even if it takes Aaslo a long time to realize it. Romance, however, is not the focus of this book, even if Teza’s attraction to him does become a bit of a plot point and lead to some very funny scenes.
Destiny of the Dead also introduces a new point-of-view character in the form of Cherri. Starting her journey completely separate from Aaslo and the resistance, Cherri is a breath of fresh air for the story and helps readers see another side of the conflict and Aaslo. We meet Cherri after her entire clan, as well as her two babies, have been murdered by the invading empire and their monsters. While laying them to rest, Cherri is blessed by her clan’s patron spirit with tremendous power in order to enact vengeance. By this point in the story, we have already met all the gods and learned about other supernatural powers, but Cherri’s power is something new to everyone. It leads to some very vivid and engaging battle scenes where her new pyrokinetic abilities lend themselves to some very cinematic writing, but Cherri’s main theme is grief and people handle it different ways. She embraces the focused rage that can come along with it, while Aaslo seems to compartmentalize. Through Cherri, we also see a different view of Aaslo. While we normally occupy his or Myra’s heads as each of them sees him as a heroic figure, or at least trying to act like one, Cherri and her followers see him as a monster. A half dragon with terrible powers. Through her, Kade reminds us that, even if Aaslo wants to stop the apocalypse, his methods may only make things worse in the end.
Overall, Destiny of the Dead is an excellent follow up to Fate of the Fallen, raising the stakes and propelling the plot while still allowing the characters to grow. Even some of the more static characters, such as Teza or Ijen, change slightly throughout the course of the story, and their interactions with Aaslo are always engaging and entertaining. Along with the other new characters introduced in the story, as well as Myra and her interactions with the gods, Destiny of the Dead is not short on character moments even as the plot vies for center stage. Without major spoilers, the book also ends on an intriguing escalation promising an even bigger sequel where the consequences of Aaslo’s decisions will be even more dire. After all, the apocalypse has already begun.
Destiny of the Dead can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold
Total Read Time: 12 days
Next on the List: Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor, by Xiran Jay Zhao