The Butcher in the Night: Crooked Empires Vol. 2
Charles X Cross
I’m just going to start this review by saying that if you are the author of a fantasy or sci-fi series that is over about 350-400 pages, and you include a summary of the previous novel in the series at the start of your latest title, then you are Officially A Good Person. I don’t make the rules, you understand, that’s just an objective fact. It’s a good thing for readers, but it’s positively a boon for reviewers like me: I read hundreds of books each year, only a fraction of which I actually review, and they tend to blur together after a certain point, regardless of genre. So having a summary I can use to refresh my memory, rather than cobbling something together from my review and a scan of the back cover blurb for the previous title, is an absolute God-send. In this case, the summary has been provided by author Charles X Cross for his first novel, The Man-Butcher Prize, which I considered to be one of the most original, imaginative and engaging fantasy novels that I have read in the genre in a very long time. The summary resides at the start of the sequel, The Butcher in the Night, and helpfully reminds us that protagonist William is an amateur assassin who has had, it is fair to say, both a checkered career and some very bad luck; most recently, his victory in the Man-Butcher Prize contest, to become a renowned assassin, was voided as a result of a pure technicality and he lost almost everything he had gained during that contest. Embittered by his experiences, he joined up with loveable rogue Goldin and decided to go on holiday. As the back-cover blurb for The Butcher in the Night describes us, however, William’s hope for a peaceful time in his life has not gone to plan. I couldn’t wait to see what Charles X Cross had in store for William, and so I drove right into the novel.
The Butcher in the Night begins with a Prologue that indicates that William Beechsworth – the arrogant assassin who won the Man-Butcher Prize on a technicality and denied protagonist William of Fairshore his rightful prize – may not quite be up to the standards expected of his legendary title. He’s under the tutelage of Walter, the Mayor of Blackbile – the town where the Man-Butcher Prize takes place – who is becoming increasingly concerned that the prize winner is little more than an arrogant fop with only relatively decent skills as an assassin. His concerns are only amplified by clashes with the Committee of the Guild of Assassins, and a visit from the Guild’s Chief Poisoner leads Walter to fear that he is going to be eliminated and replaced, to allow for the Man-Butcher to finally be released to undertake contracts he likely cannot fulfill. By contrast, William of Fairshore is taking what pleasure he can from life having been thwarted in assuming the title of Man-Butcher, and is journeying between taverns in the company of his friend, the affable rogue Goldin. Having put some distance between them and the Guild of Assassins, William is uncertain whether he wants to continue being an assassin and instead considers more reputable careers – like thievery. But before long an encounter with a group of assassins from the Guild demonstrates that William cannot outrun his past no matter his current intentions, particularly when an immense amount of gold has been declared as the reward for his head. Battered, bruised and badly injured, it seems like his only choice is to accept an incredibly dangerous contract to assassinate a senior politician, given to him by a group so untrustworthy that William cannot be certain of anything except his own skills and Goldin as his only friend. Simultaneously we also follow the story of Claude as he becomes Lord Beechworth four decades prior to William’s story, chapters from each timeline interweaving as we witness his background and the events that would make the man William eventually fought in the events of the first novel. It’s a fascinating and long-awaited look at the political and cultural structure of the Empire that the novels are set in, as Claude navigates both the complex politics of the Empire and also his personal mission to locate the man who assassinated his father. Eventually, both timelines come together into one cohesive narrative towards the end of the novel, as Cross delivers a thunderous climax and epic battle that sets the stage for far more to come in William’s world.
There’s a great deal more worldbuilding in The Butcher in the Night than in its predecessor, to the great benefit of the overarching narrative; having established the characters and their motivations in the first novel, Cross is now free to expand on the political and cultural background of the world in which the Man-Butcher Prize exists, doing much to contextualize the Man-Butcher Prize and its associated contest, the existence of the Guild of Assassins, and the nature of the Vitulan Empire that the stories are set in. As the narrative progresses, it becomes clear that Cross is deftly presenting us with two interlinked stories – the low-level adventures of William, and the high-level history of the Vitulan Empire, its constituent nations, and their external and internal conflicts as seen through the eyes of Claude (and other characters I won’t name for fear of spoilers). It’s an incredibly difficult thing to pull off successfully, but Cross does it marvelously and without fault, ensuring that the two narrative strands complement each other and eventually interweave together for the last third of the novel in some incredibly engaging and intriguing ways. And while I’ll only briefly mention it due to its spoiler-ish nature, I also enjoyed the rather unusual magical system that Cross introduces about half-way through the novel; it’s presented with a light touch, its effects often hinted at rather than openly demonstrated, but it adds another dimension to both the narrative and the world-building, and I’m genuinely curious to see what Cross does with it in the next book in the series.
I was also pleased to see that the same richness and complexity of characterization seen in The Man-Butcher Prize is once again replicated in The Butcher in the Night, with Cross both expanding nicely on some of the existing characters, while also introducing new ones that are just as interesting. William of Fairshore continues to be a sympathetic and engaging protagonist, cruelly denied the rightful title of Man-Butcher and now with little aim in life apart from resorting to a less dangerous – and politically complex – career than being an assassin; but also soon discovering that the politics of an Empire can readily ensnare a single man regardless of his wishes and intentions. His existing companion Goldin is still a roguish delight, offering a more light-hearted attitude towards their misadventures and causing no end of problems himself, and new companion Gwyneth has both an unusual backstory relating to her family and its often terrifying level of influence on the development of the Vitulan Empire, and an amusingly cynical view on life as she fights against the opposing forces of familial obligation and trying to remain independent and hide her own deadly secrets. It was also nice to get some backstory for Claude, the future Lord Beechsworth, and see events from his point of view. Many of his chapters are set several decades prior to the main story, with Claude taking over as Junior Senator for the nation of Garlish after his father is assassinated and thrust into the heart of Empire and complex political machinations in order to find his father’s killer and possibly prevent a conflict that could tear the Empire apart. Cross provides us with a multifaceted character study, as young Claude goes from pampered son of a senior Senator in the Empire, to a young politician investigating his father’s death, to an increasingly skilled but disillusioned politician learning the grim realities of how the Vitulan Empire is managed. Vengeance takes him some dubious and incredibly dangerous paths, and despite his actions in the first novel, it becomes strangely easy to empathize with Claude now that we know his background and ambitions, and his growing skills as an assassin
The Butcher in the Night is another superb achievement by author Charles X Cross and demonstrates that his initial success with The Man-Butcher Prize was no mere fluke; it can be incredibly difficult for authors to create a sequel that is the equal of the first book they produce, but Cross has vaulted that barrier with tremendous ease and produced something that exceeds The Man-Butcher Prize. Far more complex and multi-layered than its predecessor, with a fast-paced plot. fascinating worldbuilding, and populated with a cast of likeable and engaging characters, The Butcher in the Night is a deeply enjoyable and self-assured piece of fantasy fiction that I do not hesitate to call one of the finest fantasy novels I have ever read. Cross is fast becoming one of the most impressive authors in the fantasy genre I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing, and I’m deeply curious to see what he will produce yet – whether it be the next book in the Crooked Empire series, or another independent work. Whatever it is, I’ll echo my previous review of The Man-Butcher Prize and state once again that I’ll be there, ready to read and review whatever he next produces.