The Brass God: McKinley’s big series expands even more

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The Brass God by K.M. McKinleyThe Brass God by K.M. McKinleyThe Brass God by K.M. McKinley

The Brass God (2018) is the third installment in K.M. McKinley’s THE GATES OF THE WORLD series begun with The Iron Ship and continued in City of Ice. By now, readers should be accustomed to the slow pace and sprawling structure, and The Brass God offers more of the same, though it’s better paced than its predecessor. I’m not sure everyone will have the patience for this series, but if you can muster it up, I remain convinced it’s well worth it.

The Brass God picks up pretty much right after City of Ice and continues the story of the siblings at the core of the narrative (though we’re down one sibling and no, I’m not saying which), each having their own plot strand. While the siblings, and the other major characters, are all familiar by now, McKinley brings in a few new ones as well, adding to an already large cast. Given that this is the third book, there will be some spoilers for the previous two (for instance, you’ll be able to figure out which sibling didn’t make it out of The City of Ice alive).

In the arctic, the survivors of the expedition to the fabled city try to stay alive in spite of the harsh conditions and despite being pursued by magical creations from the city. It doesn’t help that the survivors are a mesh of two different expeditions that met violently — tempers are high, suspicion runs rampant, and egotism and sexism raise their heads as further obstacles. Meanwhile, aboard the ship that could possibly come to their rescue there’s the threat of further violence and mutiny.

In the, um, polar opposite of the arctic setting, out in Black Sands — the great desert beyond the edge of human civilization — Rel is carried along by a group of Modalmen — gigantic four-armed humanoids — off to a “moot” to debate whether or not to invade the human kingdoms. Luckily for Rel, “his” Modalmen are not the ones who eat humans. That group is ferrying another set of humans to the moot, though that caravan is more of a moving buffet as the Modalmen periodically pick out a few humans to munch on. It’s at the moot that Rel will come face to face with the titular character, the Brass God, a meeting that will change his life and possible the entire planet’s future.

Meanwhile (a lot of “meanwhiles” in The Brass God), the ongoing arc of the old gods trying to return continues, with machinations a-plenty involving Aarin, acting as a Guider and a conduit to one of those gods, and Guis, possessed by a servant of the gods. Their sister, Katriona, is all the while continuing her attempt to convince other merchants/ industrialists to treat their workers better in a storyline involving murder, Tyn magic, hit men, and a young girl whose background makes her an important pawn in the big game.

There’s more going on (I did say it was sprawling), but that’s much of the major story. McKinley handles the many POV/setting shifts smoothly and deftly. The novel is well-paced, and we move in and out of the various plot strands at well-chosen times, often as a means of increasing suspense/tension. The Brass God, like the other books in the series, is lengthy, but unlike its predecessor The City of Ice, it didn’t feel overly long or as if it bogged down in places. And while there’s no resolution here, the plot strands are starting to overlap more directly (or at least come nearer each other) and so they all feel part of a whole, unlike some strands in earlier books that felt too disconnected.

The world-building remains fascinating, and while McKinley takes her time with it, I questioned fewer of the details in this one in terms of how necessary they were in comparison to earlier books. Even better (though I can see how some might differ on this), the world continues to expand outward. We learn so much more about the Modalmen, for instance, here, whereas before they were just rumors and fearsome monsters. I also continue to love the interplay of science, technology, and magic here, and how we’re witnessing a world on the cusp of an Industrial Revolution deal with some of the “less sexy” aspects, such as labor laws, environmental destruction, and the like. And woven throughout are other important issues of bigotry and sexism in the scenes with Katriona, but also with the wonderful “Hag of Mogawn,” a character I absolutely adore for her astronomer’s bent and fierce independence.

McKinley offers up a richness and a variety — of setting, of character, of theme — that I find myself reveling in, happy at how she’s not rushing me through any of it. Some readers, I’ll grant, will be disappointed there is no resolution in The Brass God, having already devoted so much time to reading so many pages of THE GATES OF THE WORLD. But I’m willing to follow McKinley through at least once more, eager to find out what happens to these vibrant, fully-fleshed out characters in this absolutely fascinating world she’s created.

Published in March 2018. War is coming to Ruthnia. As ancient, inhuman powers move against one another, Rel Kressind finds himself in the company of the fabled modalmen – giants who regard themselves as the true keepers of humanity’s legacy. Far out in the blasted, magical wastelands of the Black Sands where no man of the Hundred has ever set foot before, Rel comes face to face with the modalman’s deity, the Brass God. What Rel learns in the Brass God’s broken halls will shake his understanding of reality forever. Magic and technology combine in an epic fantasy like no other, where lost science, giant tides and jealous gods shape the fate of two worlds, and the actions of six siblings may save a universe, or damn it.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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6 comments

  1. Paul Connelly /

    If Steven Erikson had been forced to limit his Malazan series to only chapters about the Beddict brothers (and maybe a Beddict sister or other sibling we never learned about), it might have come out somewhat like McKinley’s series. It’s very family-focused, but has some of the same bizarre and arguably confusing world-building. Lacks the sly humor in Erikson’s works though.

    • It sounds similar to the MALAZAN series — in scope, at least.

    • kah-thurak /

      I think it also lacks the suspension and the urgency most of Eriksons books develop in the second half / last third. I have only read The Iron Ship and The City of Ice yet though.

      • Paul Connelly /

        I think you’re right–that sense of urgency isn’t really there in this series. If you like the Malazan books, which not everyone does, things get pretty awesome as you hurtle to the conclusion of one. Through some sleight of hand Erikson gets you emotionally invested in these almost comic book characters with goofy names, and that delivers some real angst when things turn out badly, and some jump up and cheer moments when they go right (like Icarium coming to the rescue of the K’Chain Che’Malle, or the FINAL final battle with the shouted “Sergeant Hellian–I LOVE YOU!”). This series is interesting enough to keep me looking for the next installment, but it doesn’t have those emotional lows and highs. Yet.

        • I’d agree with the lack of urgency or growing tension, though I’m curious if those will pick up as we near the end. It’s also a different prism. Erikson’s characters are very often ground-level grunts, while here the family is more upper class–a merchant/industrialist, a priest, etc. So we miss the inherent “root for the underdog” we get in Erikson

  2. GreatMagic and technology combine in an epic fantasy like no other, where lost science, giant tides and jealous gods shape the fate of two worlds, and the actions of six siblings may save a universe. Great!

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