DISCLAIMER: IF YOU HAVE NOT READ THE FIRST BOOK IN THE SHADOW SWORD SERIES: 19th Bladesman there will be spoilers for that book, only. If you would like to read my review of 19th Bladesman for context: Review Link Both Books in the Shadow Sword Series are currently available on Amazon (Linked)
Truth be told I have written two different reviews for The Last Seer King (Shadow Sword Series Book #2) by SJ Hartland -official website (our interview with SJ Hartland). If you really want to nitpick, I also mashed the two together and so maybe three, which is what you are getting here, for the most part. Does that make four? Ok. Either way. Blame Ms. Hartland, but of course. But why? I’m glad you asked.
Thank you to SJ Hartland for a copy of Last Seer King in exchange for a fair review.
The first reason should be obvious. Kaell and Val Arques. Not only does their torture from 19th Bladesman continue, (although, in all honesty, it is still Kaell I want to take home protect with my life and never let leave my apartment because somehow, I think Val Arques will be just fine) but Hartland doubles down on Kaell. Oh, yes! She has the most innovative and abhorrent ways to torture him since Ramsay Bolton got ahold of… well anyone.
“If you think this has a happy ending? You haven’t been paying attention”- Ramsay Bolton
Let’s see… when we left Kaell he had been captured by those he’d sworn as a bonded warrior to kill, Ghouls, and now had been forced to take their blood, while promising allegiance to their God Archanin.
Now slowly turning into that which he was sworn to kill, Kaell finds help in another prisoner, Azenor (captured by the Ghouls in the first book while on her way to be wed and believed to be dead… but not so much). Together they plan their escape. Kaell not realizing that she has pledged fealty to the Last Seer King, Roaran. Roaran needs Kaell in order to bring down Archanin. But wait for it… because we aren’t to that treachery just yet.
Kaell and Azenor do escape Archanin’s kingdom and go in search of Val Arques. Kaell believes his lord will do the right thing and put him down before he turns into a full-blown Ghoul. During this time Azenor does everything in her power to keep Kaell beguiled by her womanly wilds, loving heart and motherly concern and <ahem> other fetching qualities.
Upon finding his lord, Val Arques does agree to do the right thing but delays due to the pain it is causing him. He delays too long and all hell breaks loose when Ghouls come to track Kaell down and take him back to Archanin.
After many plots, twists, turns, and multiple people come back from the supposed dead, Azenor’s plan comes to fruition and Kaell is sentenced to death by pyre when found out to have Ghoul blood.
Except at the last moment, for once (thank the three) Kaell is spared that death when another “dead” friend comes shows up to help. And he almost did. But this is Kaell and so of course <insert the Ramsay Bolton quote from above> instead of death by the pyre, as Roaran had planned Kaell awakens… trapped in Azenor’s body.
Roaran intended this. Roaran had planned for this. There are three bloodlines needed to bring Archanin down and Kaell now bonded with Azenor, has two of them. I won’t go further. But… just. Poor Kaell. What I will say is that before that is even revealed to him? He gets hit on (no not by a weapon.. I mean yes that too… but I mean HIT ON…), attacked by multiple groups from different kingdoms. He gets drugged I don’t know how many times (truthfully, I don’t even know why he keeps drinking wine) and has his skull crushed to the point that I’m shocked doesn’t actually believe he is Azenor … and this whole entire time? He thinks Val Arques is DEAD. Why do you ask? GOOD! Let me go back in time a bit…
While Kaell was busy being trapped in Azenor… Val Arques is captured while trying to help find Azenor (yes that Azenor because he doesn’t know that Kaell is in Azenor and is trying to help her brother who saved his life and then find Kaell and they were together lest he knew) by Heath Damadar. Her brother (also back from being supposedly very dead) had set him up because he really thought Azenor was with Heath (and she was- but it was Kaell, of course- but he escaped) … almost one hella reunion there.
Quick side note- Heath is an incredibly complex character and best written character across the series, so far. Quick witted, funny, arrogant and a brilliant swordsman. He is easy to hate but at the same time you want to like him and over the course of the second book him and his sister Judith begin to win you over. Playing their part in the shadows for most of the 19th Bladesman, they really come to the forefront in Last Seer King. With their characters fleshed out, they truly get the chance to grip readers attention and thrive.
But at this point, Heath sets a scene of carnage making sure everyone, Kaell included will believe Val Arques and Aric are dead… again. The Damadars will then be able to imprison them so that any sibling can do as they choose with him, Myranthe, a powerful sorceress to the Gods, included.
Unfortunately for Val Arques, even he is no match for her mind, body and soul magic. Thus, his torturous journey begins and continues throughout the story- unravelling many secrets from 19th Bladesman, while leaving his sanity in the balance.
Underneath all of this is that all of them- those you hate, love and love to hate- are all pawns for Roaran. And that is where everything is woven together. Hartland shines most when the chess board comes to the forefront of the plot. The intricacies of watching the chess pieces move is spectacular but knowing who the puppet masters are that move the chess pieces along are what make the series riveting.
You expect the devious and villainous to cast spells and control others against their will- and oh believe me, they do. They don’t disappoint. And it is in these moments that so many juicy secrets we’ve been waiting for are revealed (yet so many are still yet to come).
However, there is a challenge for readers lying among those fighting for good.
Roaran means to do well. He wants, at the end, to take down Archanin before Ghouls overrun the lands for centuries to come. It is a noble goal. However, he is playing with lives and moving people around without regard for anyone. The question becomes, even if you mean well, at what point does the price become too steep?
Ultimately, this is a story that makes you question the heroes. Again, and again Roaran makes decisions for everyone around him without telling them. Initially he tells many that they have a choice. He won’t choose for them. You hear him say to those around him “what if I can’t convince him,” but ultimately, he begins to make choices for everyone. I can’t say what choices because it would give too much away.
However, it is when those we trusted this whole time, those we were waiting to show up and save the day, those we rooted for, even if it is in the name of heroic actions start acting like villains? It is at these times that we, as readers are challenged and forced to make uncomfortable choices about what we believe is right and wrong. What actions are will willing to allow our heroes to make before questioning that they are heroes at all?
It begins to put not just the characters on an arc to change over time, but the readers as well. That is- if they choose to do so.