Review – The Immortal Throne (2016)

First of all, the TL;DR: The Immortal Throne is the strong and satisfying sequel to The City (2013) which substantially improves upon the original, adding greater depth and answering many questions and loose threads left behind at the end of previous book. Together, the two books contain a broad and sweeping narrative telling the tale of the City and the Serafim, its otherworldly overlords. 8/10.

The Review [Warning: May contain spoilers for The Immortal Throne and for The City]:

Stella Gemmell’s second book, The Immortal Throne, is a strong sequel of the best sort – one which answers the questions left behind and ties together loose threads of the story into a satisfying whole. I personally found The City itself to be of middling quality, and I think that is because much of the story’s payoff is in The Immortal Throne.

Both books are complicated political novels punctuated by scenes of nearly-gratuitous violence. Above all else, though, is a fascinating setting. The titular City of the first novel is the size of a nation in its own right, and controls wide lands beyond its walls. Ruled by the otherworldly and mysterious Serafim, it has been a constant and mighty power for over a thousand years. The City falls to invaders (with a good bit of inside help, including one of the Serafim) at the end of the first book. However, the first events of The Immortal Throne occur during the narrative of The City, but from the perspective of different characters. Only a handful of the viewpoint characters of The Immortal Throne have lingered on from The City.

It’s worth noting that Gemmell writes in third person omniscient. This took a bit of time for me to really pick up on in The City, but knowing that going into The Immortal Throne helped me better gauge what to expect. In some ways, Gemmell’s two novels of the City don’t quite have a protagonist. My take has instead been that the City itself is the main character, and that we’re reading about what happens to it, its rulers, its people, and its many, many enemies.

The many fractious factions of the City’s politics still remain in The Immortal Throne. The lines between who are heroes and who are villains have been more clearly painted. In a large part, this is because the competing factions of the first book are eventually forced to respond to an external threat led by an exiled Serafim. This makes the characters less ambiguous, and in turn helps to tighten the narrative. Where the story of The City felt a bit too broad and drifting – it takes place over the course of about a decade – The Immortal Throne is much more cleanly woven as it fills in the gaps left, and then covers the consequential events of the City’s fall.

In particular, the narrative loosely settles upon Rubin, the brother of Indaro – who was one of the primary viewpoint characters of The City, but is absent entirely from The Immortal Throne – who was presumed dead during the prior book. Instead, he has been working covertly for Marcellus, one of the Serafim overlords of the City. He returns to the City shortly before the flood in which it is invaded by foreign armies at the climax of The City. The narrative continues with the great flood’s aftermath and the political consequences of the deals made by Archange – Serafim and newly crowned empress – at the end of the first book.

All events across the two novels come back to the machinations of the Serafim as experienced from human perspectives. Gemmell will rarely writes from the viewpoint of one of these supernatural beings. Usually, a passage from the view of one of the Serafim will not be from a member of the first generation (and most magically powerful generation), but from the viewpoint of one of their children. This helps to enhance their mystery and wonder of these powerful beings. After all, comprehending the thoughts and decision-making process of creatures who measure their age in centuries would be difficult or impossible.

The Serafim are fascinating, and their powers and motives generate curiosity and questions. Unlike in The City, most of these questions are answered by the end of The Immortal Throne; who the Serafim are, where they have come from, and their goals and ideas. It’s done cleverly, in a climax which is breathtaking, horrifying and intriguing. The ending itself is a little sanitized in comparison to the extraordinary violence otherwise present in the plot – guy finds the lead girl and saves her from bleeding out – but I found the end of The Immortal Throne less vapid than the ending of The City, where the lead guy and lead girl run off to live together on an island. The decisions of the viewpoint characters in The Immortal Throne feel like they matter more, and have more import.

I believe that The City and The Immortal Throne are best evaluated as one work. I recognize that I’ve been doing that here, slightly. This feeling is heavily emphasized by the fact that it takes over 150 pages to reach events taking place beyond the timeline of the first book. However, this long recap didn’t feel boring, or useless, or like a long, long info-dump to me. It was told by different characters, and shed light on extra (or sometimes hidden) events which led to the climax of The City having a different meaning, and which foreshadowed the following story.

Recommendation: Read The City and The Immortal Throne. They’re quite good, but really need to be regarded as a pair. The City‘s ending is rather weak, but I’m fairly sure that someone reading The Immortal Throne alone would have difficulty following the plot. The setting of the City is rich and interesting, and the final revelations of the novel are quite surprising.

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