It’s been a while since I’ve posted a book review on this site, and I’m pleased to get back to it with this review of Jesse Teller’s Wrath of Madness. My first foray into Jesse Teller’s world of Perilisc was Onslaught of Madness (reviewed here), which was a brilliant novel about the commander of a conquering army and the ragtag assortment of heroes who rally to stop him. A stellar example of grimdark epic fantasy, Onslaught offered heart-pounding action and heartbreaking pathos, and it made me a Jesse Teller fan. (Disclosure: Jesse and I are friends, and I received an ARC of Wrath of Madness in exchange for an honest review. The following are my unbiased thoughts on the book.)
Teller’s work is truly epic in the manner of Steven Erikson’s Malazan. The Perilisc tapestry is complex and sweeping, with deep world building and a broad range of novels, novellas, and short stories that range over several centuries (a helpful timeline appears on Teller’s website). All the of the Perilisc books are inter-related, and characters from one book frequently make appearances in others. For instance in the Madness Wars, Aaron the Marked is a troubled thirteen-year-old boy, but readers of the Manhunters series (released 2017-2018) will know Aaron as an adult warrior.
The Madness Wars is a quartet of novels covering the invasion of one nation (Tienne) by another (Drine). Two novels are available, and the next two—Plight of Madness and Fate of Madness—will be released consecutively in October 2020 and April 2021, respectively. Because this is really one long story, I recommend beginning with Onslaught.
Aaron the Marked is the primary protagonist of the first two Madness books, and he’s a great anchor for the series. Beset by internal demons of self-doubt and jealousy, Aaron constantly struggles against the specter of his dead father, who lives in his head, constantly spewing invective against Aaron’s friends, playing upon his insecurities, and urging him toward betrayal and murder. Aaron’s only bulwark against his father’s evil influence is his friend Peter, a brilliant and charismatic leader who, although only ten years of age, has the wisdom and intellect of a full-grown man and who appears to be the one with the best chance of stopping Rextur, aka Madness, the titular invading general.
I fell in love with Rextur in Onslaught, wherein we get deep insight into the secret desires and hopes of this merciless commander who is hell bent on conquering and enslaving the nation of Tienne. In Wrath, some setbacks leave him petulant and bitter, and his struggles to get back his mojo soured my affection into contempt. This is a common aspect of Teller’s storytelling. He likes to share the unsavory aspects of his characters in an honest and unflinching way, and he frequently challenges readers by giving us protagonists who have no redeeming qualities. In Rextur’s case, there is a lot to like, but we see a lot less of it in Wrath.
The prize for the most hateful character in the second book goes to Tarana, a crime lord’s daughter with delusions of grandeur. An attempt to marry into the nobility drove her intended to forsake his title and go live off the land with a group of warriors who have subsequently begun fighting a guerilla war against Rextur’s forces. Determined to gain what she sees as her due, Tarana finds another way to claw her way into the noble ranks of Tienne, a vile journey marked by delusion and entitlement.
Fortunately, several characters counterbalance the darkness we find in Rextur’s and Tarana’s storylines. Strick is a soldier in Rextur’s army, given the mission of infiltrating the capital of Tienne and setting the stage for Rextur’s conquest. I loved the band of brothers aspect of Strick’s storyline. He and his fellow infiltrators may be the bad guys, but their loyalty and affection for each other mirrors Aaron’s relationship with Peter. Strick and his crew are earnest and very skilled at their jobs, and you can’t help but cheer each step they take toward accomplishing their mission, even while hoping something or someone will stop them.
Another ray of light is Cursed, the wife of Rextur’s best friend, Treason. Through Cursed’s eyes, we gain insight into the harsh society of Drine, where she, Treason, and Rextur were reared. In contrast to most of Drine’s people, Cursed is gentle, empathetic, and kind. She also has an iron will that enables her to withstand horrific torments, suffering that leads to revelations about her inner strengths and untapped potential. Her ordeal is vividly and explicitly told (fair warning to sensitive readers), but it was also beautiful and uplifting, and it was the best part of the book for me.
My sole disappointment was Vianne. In Onslaught, this sorceress grew from a shallow, somewhat selfish young noblewoman to a stalwart defender of her people while fighting an evil mage and contending with a power-hungry schemer in her drunken brother’s entourage. These conflicts extend through Wrath, but unfortunately, in the second book, Vianne’s decisions were underdeveloped and seemed very much driven by plot convenience; in particular, an important frenemy relationship rapidly oscillates between hostility and affection without a solid emotional foundation or narrative rationale for the frequent changes in feeling. In contrast, the emotional turmoil driving Vianne’s actions was exquisitely described in Onslaught, and I wish the same attention had been given to her storyline in Wrath.
Overall, I highly recommend Wrath of Madness as an essential continuation of the Madness Wars and as an example of Teller’s work in general. As an author, he excels at balancing nail-biting suspense and action with lyrical meditations on love, dedication, and loyalty. All of his characters are fully fleshed out, flawed gems, even if some of them are irredeemable. Yet none of them are forgettable.