THE THOUSAND DEATHS OF ARDOR BENN by Tyler Whitesides (BOOK REVIEW)
Ardor Benn is no ordinary thief. Rakish, ambitious, and master of wildly complex heists, he styles himself a ruse artist extraordinaire. When he gets hired for his most daring ruse yet, Ardor knows he’ll need more than quick wit and sleight of hand. Assembling a dream team of forgers, disguisers, schemers and thieves. He sets out to steal from the most powerful king the realm has ever known. But it soon becomes clear there’s much more at stake than fame and glory – Ard and his team might just be the last hope for human civilization.
Wow. This is one of the best times I’ve ever had whilst reading a book. It is fun, absolutely crammed with adventure, wit and cleverness, features loveable and intriguing characters, and demonstrates so many schemes within schemes that Ardor Benn makes Locke Lamora look like a rank amatuer. Believe me, I don’t make the last statement lightly; but after years of seeing Scott Lynch’s book recommended as THE must read of the grifter/long-con sub genre it’s a nice surprise to find a fully finished series that so far, in my opinion, is superior.
Ardor Benn is hired to steal the King’s Regalia, ceremonial clothing that was made out of the shell of a dragon egg, so they can process it into a very rare Grit that can summon a holy warrior of such immense power that a single word or glance can destroy entire armies. It is a weapon desired by a rogue priest who has discovered a new doctrine that throws the history of the Chain Islands into disarray and casts a shadow of doubt over the ruling monarchy and the holy order.
Ardor is a ruse artist extraordinaire and is the face and inspiration of his two man team of grifters. He is supported at all times by his childhood friend and partner Raek, a heavy and also a mathematical genius when it comes to using and mixing and applying Grit. Adror is our protagonist but we also get a pov from Quarrah who on face value is his antithesis. She’s a highly skilled thief who prefers the shadows to the limelight and has a problem not saying exactly what’s on her mind. She has always worked alone with personal relationships remaining a mystery to her and therefore so to the art of the ruse. What she does share with Ardor is her insatiable appetite for a challenging mark and her desire to be the best at what she does.
One of the most original aspects of the book is its magic system that revolves around the use of Grit and its use of dragons. In the Greater Chain dragons live on the island of Pekal. After a dragon eats something it naturally takes a dump, which, also naturally, smells quite rank. Now dragons are a fastidious creature so to eliminate the foul odor of said dump they fire it turning it into ‘slagstone’, a hardened rock like substance that contains within it the undigested chunks of the original meal. Those chunks are then ground down into a substance known as ‘Grit’ and depending on their original form are used to perform certain types of magic. Dragons eat anything so many types of grit have been discovered including ones that affect temperature, weight, memory and available light as well as those that create impenetrable barriers and others that can increase the effects of Grits in terms of strength and length of time they last.
Something else I appreciated about this book was the complete lack of bait and switch. I know this may sound odd for a book about pulling out many a ruse but it’s more in terms of the reader than the story. There’s no “We are going to do this impossible job, just kidding we are actually doing a different job that is really easy….fooled you”. It’s the difference between Ocean’s 11 and Ocean’s 12. In one movie we get an elaborate and satisfying plot whilst in the other one we get a bunch of distractions and it turns out they stole the thing before the movie even started. Instead it is made clear that the ‘impossible job’ is only the first part of the plan and every setback will require improvisation and scheming on a level most can only dream about. The result is a book with a pace that is breakneck with a surprise or revelation around every corner.
There is also a lightness to this book that I very much enjoyed in this age of grimdark. It’s often funny and cheeky and there is a nice familiar banter between the characters. Sure there are plenty of small scale fights and moments of violence involving dragons but they are often tempered, either being seen from a distance, the utterly deserved fate for the victim or mercifully free of anything gratuitous like boobs or balls being cut off, children being torn in half or rape. It made the whole book easy to read and absolutely one of my favourites of 2020.
Note : I’m not sure I’ve been more pleasantly surprised by a book in a long time, I’d never heard of the author or the series before I was lucky enough to be offered a review copy and now I have no doubt I will be reading the second book as soon as I can get my hands on it.