The Way Into Chaos is the first volume in a trilogy that apparently was funded via Kickstarter with a working title something like “Epic Fantasy without the Boring Bits”. One might disagree as to whether the “boring bits” (which presumably means infodumps on world building and extensive descriptions of clothes, scenery and customs) have to always be that (personally, I’d say it largely depends on the way they’re done), but I think everyone who has read past the first twenty or so pages of this novel will agree that The Way Into Chaos in any case is not boring at all.
This clearly is Epic Fantasy however, that is another thing about which there is no doubt – there might not be any Swineherd of Mysterious Descent and instead of a Chosen One we get a middle-aged, shortsighted soldier and an inexperienced noble’s daughter as protagonists, but Connolly does not shirk utilizing well-used tropes: there is a pseudo-medieval feudal society which is threatened by a mysterious army of evil, there are fireball-hurling wizards and all kinds of exotic races, and, most importantly, the story is basically told as one very long travelogue, with our heroes constantly on the road in pursuit of some plot token or other. In short, Connolly does not attempt to re-invent the genre, but to streamline it, trimming off fat but leaving the basic shape intact.
Depending on your preferences that might be a good or a bad thing – if you have issues with Epic Fantasy per se, roll your eyes at quasi-European feudal societies and heroes battling evil, then The Great Way (the name of the trilogy) will not be for you. If, on the other hand, you’ve enjoyed your Tolkien and think you might have liked Jordan if he’d just had some focus, then you might like The Great Way, too – you’ll recognise most of the elements, but will find that they are unusually condensed, resulting in a gripping, rousing tale that breaks into a brisk narrative speed from the get-go and doesn’t really let off until the end of this first volume. There are just two point of view characters, the soldier and the noble’s daughter (who also is a magician) mentioned above. I did not keep count but had the impression that chapters were spread out fairly evenly between the two of them, and Connolly does a good job distinguishing between their voices and their ways to perceive the world – they both emerge as credible characters, plausibly heroic but also with their deep-seated flaws, and like all good travelogues their journey is also one of growth and self-discovery.
In spite of the ubiquitous magic, this is mostly realistic Fantasy – there are no impossible feats, and our protagonists get tired and dirty, and cranky when they’re in a bad mood. It does not, however, fall into the “Grimdark” category – while the characters are not without the occasional selfish trait, their main motivation and driving force is to do good. They might at time have difficulties figuring out what exactly “good” consists of (both our protagonists are developing increasing doubts as to the benevolent nature of the Empire they originally set out to restore, for example) but there is never really a question about them placing the common good above their own. And seeing how Connolly has placed them in a very harsh world indeed, things certainly aren’t easy for them – the novel ends on a double cliffhanger, with Treygar (the soldier) having his body broken and Cazia (the magician) stripped of her magic. Thankfully, the volumes of the trilogy are scheduled to be released within a month of each other (Kickstarter backers even got them all at once), so the wait for the next installment won’t be very long (in fact, the second volume has already been released and been read by me as I’m writing this, so watch out for a follow-up post soon).