Tyler Whitesides has a background in writing for children, but The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn is his first novel for adults and his first epic-type fantasy. At 780 pages in the paperback, it’s certainly epic in length; and with a promise of a sequel to come… well, the days of the epic doorstopper have not yet, it seems, come to an end.
Ardor Benn, the titular character, is a confidence man. He styles himself a “ruse artist,” and we’re first introduced to him as he’s pulling off the final stages of a thieving scheme—a scheme that, it turns out, was unnecessarily overcomplicated. In the course of his escape, alongside his partner/accomplice/long-time friend Raek, we’re given a first glimpse at the magical technology that’s one of the elements which distinguishes Whitesides’s setting from those of comparative works: Grit. Grit comes in many kinds and has many uses: Drift Grit for floating, Blast Grit for exploding, Barrier Grit for shielding, and so on. It’s a royal monopoly, produced by feeding various substances to the (dangerous as hell) dragons that live on an island somewhere in the archipelago that is the whole of our characters’ world—and recovering the result from dragonshit.
No one can stay on that island on the night of the full moon. When the moon is full, people get Moonsick—an illness that progresses from madness to death. According to the dominant religion of the archipelago, the rest of the islands are only protected from Moonsickness during the Moon Passing (the full moon) because the religious personnel gather to light a Holy Torch on every island. But one of these religious personnel—Halavend is his name, an elderly man—has discovered that this may not be the case. Along with a colleague—whom he meets in secret, since she’s from a non-human race who’re marginally accepted in the archipelago—he decides to recruit Ardor Benn to pull off a heist in order to secure the future of every sentient being on the islands.
But in order to protect his secrets, he asks Ardor Benn to hear out his proposition while under the influence of a form of Grit that means Benn won’t remember the details. This means that both Benn and the reader are in the dark about why Halavend wants Benn to steal the royal regalia and render it into a form of very special, very rare Grit. But in the course of the novel, both Benn and the reader will discover the truth—in the midst of conspiracies, disguises, dangerous chases, betrayals both actual and potential, and gruesome deaths.
Benn and Halavend are two of the novel’s three point of view characters. Benn’s a self-confident shyster with (maybe) a heart of gold, to whom everything is an opportunity and whose major regret is that the woman he loved a long time ago was a straight arrow who thinks he’s dead—he never revealed to her that he faked his death to get away with his first score. Halavend is a determined scholarly type, in over his head and trying to find a way through a morass, both moral and political: his is a character type that appeals to me more than Benn’s flamboyant self-interest.
Quarrah Khai is the novel’s third point of view character. She’s a skilled thief, and Benn recruits her to join his heist team. She’s very confident in her own realm, but not at all sure about the acting-a-part that her role in Benn’s plan will require. Her professional pride and roleplaying insecurity are very relatable.
This is a fast, fun novel, with interesting quirks of worldbuilding. The real danger played by the Moon Passing, and the ecological role of the dragons, are pretty cool variants on the standard fantasy furniture. In heist-story terms, The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn is less absorbing and accomplished than comparable titles such as Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora or Red Seas Under Red Skies—Lynch is a better prose artist, and better at characterisation, as well as the moving pieces of heist plot—but it’s recognisably part of the same subgenre, with a sideline in epic fantasy stakes.
In terms of the other things I look for in a novel—representative inclusion or reasons for its absence, and so on—The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn is a little disappointing. This is a very straight novel, to all appearances, and if you are supposed to read any of the characters as people of colour, I’m hard-pressed to tell. Also, while there are a number of female characters in the book, the two most-developed are romantically linked to Ardor Benn, and no friendships or independent relationships between women are depicted or even mentioned in passing.
And I have the niggling feeling that Benn is a little bit of a Mary Sue. Things seem to come together easily for him, even when there’s good reason that they shouldn’t work out. I’m not saying I always want more angst and suffering in my reading—just that in this case, a less charmed life might make for a more engaging novel.
On the whole, though, The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn is a pleasant diverting and playful piece of work. I read it in a couple of hours in one sitting, and I don’t want those hours of my life back.
The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn is available from Orbit.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It’s a Locus Award finalist as well as nominated for a Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.