Underlord, Volume 6 in the Cradle series, begins the rising arc of the Uncrowned King Tournament, a contest between the most talented sacred artists in a series of Mortal Kombat-style duels where winners advance, though losers are spared actual death. This event dominates the narrative of the next three books in Cradle. It is more than a chance for the powerful sacred artists to test themselves and earn glory, it is about power and control, and in this particular iteration, the fate of millions of lives might hand in the balance. Before the protagonists can reach the prestigious tournament, they must advance to the rank of Underlord, a task mighty in its own right.
Underlord had everything I had hoped for in a book setting up a significant arc that covers several books. The book begins with the main characters reconvening after the events of Ghostwater and having to work together towards a common goal. There are individual challenges and obstacles, as well as those on a greater scale than any single character. The stakes are slowly revealed, with the understanding that because of the unusual circumstances of the Uncrowned King Tournament, the ramifications for the people of the Blackflame Empire will be higher, creating an additional sense of urgency for the main characters. The story has a good, contained progression that narratively flows well as it sets up the tournament and creates a story that clearly points to the next book, but at the same time it has its own strong plot and development, as well as introduces new characters, both as allies to the protagonists and as adversaries and rivals.
The Uncrowned King Tournament is another convenient progression, albeit a more significant development in the Cradle series, with a wider-reaching impact than just serving as a stepping stone for Lindon’s advancement. In the beginning, the Blackflame Empire is granted access to the Night Wheel Valley, a place where sacred artists are able to advance and progress far more rapidly than usual. There, the rivalry between the Blackflame Empire and the neighboring Seishen Kingdom is put on display, all at the pleasure of the Akura clan who gave permission to both to make use of the valley. Lindon, Yerin, Mercy, and Eithan to some extent, all have to contend with the sons of King Dakata, the Seishen Kingdom sovereign, Daji and Kiro, along with Meira, a mysterious but powerful sacred artist loyal to Kiro. There is a race to rapidly attain advancement for as many sacred artists as possible, with the most talented to be chosen to represent the Akura clan territories and holdings in the Uncrowned King Tournament. Akura Charity has her own purpose in opening the Night Wheel Valley, to see if the Seishen Kingdom’s ambition might render some punishment towards Lindon, whom she blames for the fate of Akura Harmony, who perished in Ghostwater as it collapsed.
Underlord has good character interactions and progression, surpassing that of previous books. It brings Eithan back more into the story, his role within the politics of the Blackflame Empire more exposed, and his more expansive understanding of things beyond his immediate purview is given special attention. The dynamics of clans and politics, family legacies, and more all serve to expand the intricacies of what the Blackflame Empire being drawn into the tournament actually means.
The story ends on another setup for a bitter rival for Lindon in the prince of the Seishen Kingdom, which feels more thorough than his rivalry with Jai Long, but only by so much. It was clearly written to have more potential, but as I read it I found it difficult to put much stock into there being a satisfying payoff based on how quickly and simply Jai Long was dismissed as an antagonist or adversary. Will Wight only seems to keep his big villains constant, and any other antagonistic characters quickly accomplish their short term purpose before being dismissed from the narrative. The possibility of the Seishen prince being a long term rival would again be interesting and offer a unique dynamic, but seems unlikely based on how Wight uses supporting characters and antagonists.
As much as I enjoyed Underlord, it was hard to disregard the convenient means through which Lindon, and to some extent Yerin, continue to be able to rapidly advance as sacred artists through means granted to them by some outside force or power. Because of the events that took place in Ghostwater, events that progressed and were completely out of the control of the characters, they are not granted access to power in order to advance for the sole purpose of competing in the Mortal Kombat-style tournament. Not to mention that the tournament has historically had precedent for the Blackflame Empire to compete in, and even less so for sacred artists such as Lindon and Yerin to hope to participate. So once again, it seems only by lucky coincidence that they are able to participate, and then only by external favors are they potentially able to be in a position to actually compete. In the scope of the full story of Cradle, the tournament is a pivotal development, but in the progression of the various means by which Lindon is able to rapidly advance, it feels too convenient again.
Underlord balances the preparation for the Uncrowned King Tournament well with its own narrative. The different players in the world of Cradle are coming more into view, with more especially about the Akura clan becoming clear through the developments of Underlord. The rivalry of the Seishen Kingdom and the Blackflame Empire is a good plot device to create tension and challenge in the book, even as it is setting the stage for a much larger event. The character interactions and growth are good, and it was a welcome return to seeing Lindon, Yerin, Mercy, and Eithan all together in many of the same situations and circumstances, while each being able to shine and contribute in their own ways. While the Uncrowned King Tournament is the dominant event that overarches the next few books in Cradle, Underlord prepares the story and narrative for it well, as well as contributing subtle hints and hooks regarding other aspects of the story Will Wight is trying to tell without being completely overt.
Underlord is written by Will Wight, and is published by Hidden Gnome Publishing.
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