Book Reviews

Huge empires and sprawling worldbuilding: James Islington’s We Are Together

The title of James Islington’s new book, The Will of Many, is more than just a political metaphor. In the Catalan Republic, those at the bottom of the hierarchy give their power and energy—their will—to those above them, granting them physical and magical powers. The eight Octavius give half of their will to Septimus above them, the seven Septimies give half of their common will to Sextus above them, and so on. One enters the pyramid through Quintus, Quartus, Tertius, Dimidius, and Princeps.

Wes, a former prince of the kingdom of Sous that was conquered by Katainan three years ago, wanted nothing to do with this system. He hid in an orphanage in a frontier town, raising funds through prison work and boxing rings. Although his actions earned him contempt and left whip scars on his back, he refused to go to the Aurora Pillar, a strange relic that could make a man begin to forsake his will. It’s a precarious, unsustainable life—until Magnus Quintus Ursisco Terimus calls and enrolls Wes in Catenan’s most prestigious academy.

Of course, this comes at a price. Ursisco’s brother died mysteriously in the academy many years ago, and the only witness is the current president of the academy, Veridius. The island of Solivargos, where the Academy is located, is home to more unearthed ruins filled with unknown powers waiting to be captured—something the Academy and its political supporters refuse to let anyone investigate. With Weiss now enrolled at the academy, this is Ursisco’s perfect opportunity to discover the truth. Wes’s aristocratic upbringing meant he wasn’t quite out of his depth among the children of statesmen and generals, and his status as an orphan with a hidden past meant he couldn’t reject Ursisto and get along with the senior senator as an enemy. Plus, the Academy is the only place in Katainan that explicitly forbids the use of Will, in order to level the playing field; a respite for Weiss.

Conflicting motives and factions (perhaps the will of many?) are the thread of the book. Weiss himself wants to stay as far away from Catenan as possible instead of working for his government; Ursisco needs him for spy work; and Wes is pressured by threats to reveal his secret.

Of course, the Academy is just a microcosm of the political machinations of the Republic, with its own hierarchy. In order to meet Ursisco’s demands without incurring his wrath, Weiss had to move from the lowest-ranked seventh class to the single-digit elite ranks of the third class. He also had to choose, sometimes poorly, where to form alliances and where to make enemies, given that all students were widely connected. But Weiss has a soft spot for underdogs—and anger issues, and a knack for spotting trouble—so he forms an indissoluble bond with the likes of Callidus Erichus, the S. Ericius is a brilliant but discredited student who confines himself to class seven. But Calidus might be the rarest thing in the academy: a friend.

Underlying all of this are broader questions about how the world works. What is will? What can it do if it has enough energy? What are the limits, if any, to its power? The ability to manipulate Will predates the Republic of Catalan, the mysterious Cataclysm that wiped out most of the world’s population, and everything Catalan has achieved so far is a shadow of what the Empire could do before the Cataclysm.

In many ways, the world-building is reminiscent of Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside, and even draws cultural inspiration from the same geographic region (though not from the same period): Bennett’s Tevani is inspired by Renaissance Italy. Based on a powerful merchant family, Catainan is entirely Roman. Both societies are built on the magic of an older, more powerful society, playing with its remains while searching for the ancient, lost, divine powers of their predecessors. Both writing and will have the ability to breathe some kind of life into an inanimate object, move or track someone, or imitate an opponent with similar animation.

But Sancia of Foundryside immerses herself deeply and viscerally in the magic of characterization, working alongside researchers and artisans who have dedicated their lives to understanding its secrets. Even as the old rules start to be broken, Sancia and her team aren’t far behind in understanding, or at least theorizing, how it works. Weiss stays far from the specifics of the will—he never uses it—while Islington glosses over the more technical aspects of his education, such as lectures on “how to combine leisure and subharmonic wave infusions combined to reduce willpower” discussions. Needing to operate complex machinery, some disturbing and gripping scenes reveal a deeper force at work…but, at least in the first book, we don’t get any closerto understanding it.

Ultimately, The Will of Many is the first book in the series, and it feels that way. Islington is well aware of the vast, intricate, layered world he created, Catenan and all of its history, and reveals only a fraction of it in this book. A dozen plot arcs are kicked off, only getting trickier as the story progresses, and only a few are resolved in the end. A lot happens, and when I finally closed the book, I didn’t feel like I’d finished a story, but rather that I’d just begun a bigger one. That might be a good thing for a series, but it also means there’s going to be a long wait for the second book.

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