The Book Carousel: Prayers in Steel by Michael McClung

I am a wheel whose edge is death.

This is the mantra that Andines are taught from their first day as novices. Their swords are their souls, and their patron saint, Andos, was the living embodiment of their tenets – Protect the helpless. Obey the emperor in Axumwiste. Pray for guidance in times of peace, and pray with steel in times of strife.

A time of strife has come once more.

Brother Caida is sent on a quest to rescue a princess kidnapped by bandits en route to her wedding. Armed with a great sword and armored in his faith, Caida soon finds both tested beyond endurance – for nothing is as it seems, and it is the world that needs to be rescued from the princess, not the princess from anything or any one. And waiting in the darkness, behind stolen faces, are the skin walkers – an ancient evil long thought banished from the world of men…

Prayers in Steel was a book recommended to me by a mystery blogmate as part of our Book Carousel reading challenge. I was only vaguely aware of the book beforehand, but was familiar with the author. For those of you who don’t know, Michael McClung is also the author of The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids, which was the winner of the first ever Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off.

McClung is also a member of Sigil Independent, which is guild of self-published writers which happen to run in the same social-media circles as the folks in this blog. I’ve had a couple of interactions with him on Twitter. He’s cool.

This book starts out with a bang.

A princess is found by a mercenary captain, standing in the blood of a hundred slaughtered soldiers. Worse, the blood has ruined her slippers. This princess is a sorceress. She is cruel, she is powerful, and she is utterly ambitious. She is also the axle on which the wheel of this story turns.

Anya is the princess of Roumney, a nation which has long been in conflict with their neighbours, Ardesh. In order to broker peace, Anya is to be transported over a strip of disputed land between the two nations, such that she will reach Ardesh and be married. Anya is not happy with this prospect.

And so her entourage is reduced to a pair of bloody slippers.

Brother Caida is a monk who was born in the aforementioned disputed lands. He is an excellent swordsman who lives his life by the laws of his religion. When one of Anya’s ex-courtiers takes out a contract with the monastery to locate the “captured” princess, Caida is the monk that is sent.

What follows is a curious and interesting relationship which offers a twist on a common trope.

We’ve all read one of those stories that involves one or more rough-and-tumble dudes on the road with a princess or noblewoman who is out of her depth. Usually the male characters feel the need to “protect the innocence” of their woman companion. They don’t want to “corrupt” her.

Here, it’s sorta the other way about.

Caida is a naive, sheltered, and innocent sort, who blindly follows his religion with unquestioning loyalty. Anya, on the other hand, has seen some shit, and seems to worry about corrupting Caida whilst she manipulates him for use in her plots. These two are like two twisting magnets: sometimes attracted and sometimes repelled, but with each always exerting a force on the other.

On the subject of forces, there are some major magical players in this game. There is the old magic, which can only be wielded by sorcerers of immense power. Every time a sorcerer casts a spell with the old magic, they gamble their life. Therefore, only the most freakishly powerful sorcerers survive past their first spell.

Then there are the Imperial Mages. While they might not have the raw power of those who use the old magic, they don’t really need to. Every Magus carries a book allowing them to cast spells which require a fraction of the power demanded by the old magic.

In a world where hundreds of people can die with a single spell… that’s significant.

I don’t want to give away too many details about this story, as it’s only around 200 pages long. Suffice it to say that it’s a tale about a woman rebelling against her place in a male-dominated world, and a man trying to find his place. It’s about the grasping of power, and the consequences that follow.

It’s about how terrible deeds are often performed under the excuse of “good reasons”.

Prayers in Steel is an enjoyable read, probably best suited for when you need a quick palate-cleanser between other books. It has an interesting setting, digestible prose, and the characters are explored as much as they can be in 200 pages. I do think that sometimes the dialogue was a bit laboured, with the impact of the words blunted by the round-about way of saying things, but that’s a small criticism.

The story wraps up well, though the ending clearly leads into the next book in the series. An Unclean Strength releases on May 9th, and I’m invested enough in this story that I’ll be pre-ordering that when I get the chance.

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