In YA fantasy circles, there are few authors with the kind of immediate name recognition as Kendare Blake. The celebrated author is the pen behind successful series such as the Two Dark Crowns tomes, the ongoing Buffy: In Every Generation books, and standalone tales such as All These Bodies and Sleepwalk Society.
This time around, Blake has leant fully into the swords-and-sandals trend (following recent releases such as Annalise Avery’s The Immortal Games or Sara Raasch & Kristen Simmons’ Set Fire to the Gods), crafting Champion of Fate, the Ancient Grecian-inspired story of Reed, a recently-orphaned village girl who finds herself selected to become a protégé to the mysterious Aristene.
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Tonally it’s perhaps most similar to Blake’s Goddess War books that pitted goddess against goddess (hence the title) with humans caught in the middle; in Goddess War‘s case it was the unlucky Cassandra, and this time around in the Heromarker duology it’s Reed and the other Aristene, divinely-chosen warriors that feel like a blend between the Amazonians of Themyscira, Dune’s Bene Gesserit, and the sidekicks of Sky High (trust this analogy, dear reader).
The Aristene are not the heroes of legend themselves – rather they operate from the shadows, assigned heroes to guide, mentor, and protect, without claiming any glory or recognition for themselves. The premise is indeed solid, and Blake’s time and tenure within the YA fantasy genre means that, while pacing issues do persist, particularly in the near-500 page book’s first half, the plot rattles along nicely, giving the reader the chance to explore the gender dynamics inherent within the premise, as well as the well-worn and well-loved beats and tropes they’ve come to expect. Loyal best friends? Check. Hint of a love triangle? Check. Hint of a bigger, secret destiny that our heroine is unaware of? Check. There’s some decent characterisation here, even if poor Reed feels a little too much like a cookie-cutter heroine, and even if it pales in comparison to Blake’s real skillset: building worlds and writing battles.
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Blake is no stranger to an action set piece or two, and there are several very enjoyable ones scattered throughout Champion of Fate to slake the desire of any particularly bloodthirsty readers (even though she’s not writing horror this time around, Blake is very comfortable in piling up the bodies), with the final battle a key highlight. In addition, there’s plenty of well-planned worldbuilding, whether that’s rival kingdoms, muddy training camps, or the gleaming Citadel that houses the Aristene’s key cabal, that help fill out this Grecian-inspired fantasy world and give it the feeling of having once existed.
While it’s far from perfect, and a touch too slow and overlong, there’s no denying Kendare Blake’s success in Champion of Fate in crafting a thrilling new world, replete with a premise and lore well worth investigating for the discerning YA reader. Combine this with an ending that – no spoilers of course – leaves things incredibly open-ended and satisfyingly ambiguous, and there’s little doubt that those who enjoy Champion of Fate will be clamouring for Blake to put that well-used pen to paper, and start writing the sequel, this reviewer amongst them.
Champion of Fate is out on 21st September from Rock the Boat.