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The Starless Crown by James Rollins3 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsIt’s a mile wide and an inch deep, but The Starless Crown, James Rollins’ first foray into epic fantasy in about 15 years, gets the job done if all you’re looking for is pure escapism that doesn’t demand too much from your brain cells. The story takes place on a tidally locked world (and why not, those are all the rage these days), whose inhabitants live in a region they call the Crown, consisting of a few small continents along the day/night terminator. We follow the adventures of a ragtag group of heroes from disparate backgrounds, brought together under dangerous circumstances, to prevent an apocalyptic event that will see the moon itself crashing down from the sky in only a few short years.

If there were some kind of epic fantasy Costco where authors could buy discounted genre tropes by the pallet-load, Rollins would have cleaned the place out. We have our Chosen One protagonist, a child of prophecy upon whose shoulders the fate of the world rests. We have the black sheep prince who must prove himself, if only to himself. We have a disgraced knight grasping at the chance to right a past wrong. We have dark academia, thieves with hearts of gold, brother pitted against brother, deadly forests and fearsome monsters, and an ancient artifact of unknown origin that holds the key to all the mysteries. But I have to give Rollins credit, because at least he totally owns all of these choices and makes no pretense that he’s producing deathless literature. If a popcorn book it shall be, then fine. Here comes all the popcorn you could possibly eat.

Nyx was born in a swamp to a fugitive mother who was having a very bad day. Spending the first few years of her life raised by a species of giant bats, Nyx was eventually discovered and adopted by a farmer, and now, as a teenager, she’s attending the local Cloistery where she is excelling at her studies despite being poor and nearly blind. When the school bullies decide to gang up on her, she’s unexpectedly defended by one of the bats, and the venom from the attack not only restores Nyx’s sight, it gives her a terrifying vision of the impending Moonfall. News of the attack reaches the ears of the Highking, who orders Nyx captured because he fears she might be the long-lost daughter of the Forsworn Knight, Graylin. Like Lancelot, Graylin was once the king’s most loyal man-at-arms, until he betrayed his liege (in this case bedding the Highking’s favorite concubine) and fled for his life. And the child of this union has been prophesied to bring about the kingdom’s downfall.

While the Prioress of the Cloistery sends word across the sea to Graylin, notifying him that Nyx is almost certainly his daughter, Nyx herself flees her village to avoid capture by the Highking’s men. Joining her is Prince Kanthe, the Highking’s second and much disfavored son, who’s found out the hard way that his father’s disdain for him is much worse than he thought, and the scholar Frell, who helps fill in lore for the reader. Meanwhile, across the sea, a hapless thief named Rhaif, sentenced to mining labor, manages to escape in the company of the bronze sculpture of a woman that has been recovered from a deep mine shaft and brought to life through blood magic. She doesn’t say much, but she does keep mentioning this thing, “Moonfall”.

As you might have guessed by now, all of these characters will be brought together and their fates will be intertwined. As far as the story goes, the whole thing is essentially an ongoing sequence of chase scenes. Our characters run, run, run, run, trying to stay one jump ahead of the highking’s pursuing airships, whose crews include Kanthe’s relentless older brother, Prince Mikaen, who’s positively chomping at the bit to rid himself of his troublesome sibling, and the sinister Shrivers, the mages who seek possession of the bronze lady, Shiya.

Rollins hasn’t got an original idea in his head, and there’s little here you won’t find predictable unless you’ve honestly never read a fantasy novel before. But to be fair, after writing 15 books in his Sigma Force series of action thrillers, there’s no denying Rollins knows his way around action scenes. And The Starless Crown is filled all the way up to the rafters with action. The problem is, of course, that too much explody bombast eventually ends up feeling more numbing than exciting, and the endless carnage wears out its welcome after a while. And while Rollins does manage to endear us to his heroes, despite how shallowly they’re all written, the villains, without exception, remain strictly one-dimensional.

Still, this could prove to be perfectly satisfying rainy-day entertainment for readers who aren’t in the mood to ask too much of a book. One thing that struck me is that, if The Starless Crown seems like it would be a highly entertaining streaming TV series, that’s probably because it feels like Rollins has written it expressly to be adapted into one. All of its story beats and pacing feel designed to work far better in that medium than as a novel. Meaning, I suppose, that you could read this now, or wait and see if Netflix or Amazon decide to bite. Your level of satisfaction will probably be the same either way.

Followed by The Cradle of Ice.