Let’s talk about narrative expectations for a second. Earlier this month, I watched director Takashi Miike’s 2015 film Yakuza Apocalypse. The opening 20 minutes are, in some ways, about what you’d expect from a crime drama focusing on a young gangster and his mentor, a beloved crime boss who faces an existential threat. Except that in Miike’s film, the crime boss is also a vampire, and ends up passing that condition off to his young protege.
Suddenly, the familiar narrative beats no longer applied, and the story was free to go off in its own direction. (That direction also involves a villain clad in an absurd frog costume—and even that isn’t the strangest thing about the film.) What this film demonstrates memorably is the value of taking a sharp turn into the unexpected. That, too, is something Kel Kade is exploring in their The Shroud of Prophecy series, of which Destiny of the Dead is the second book—a work that both embraces and upends certain genre tropes. And sometimes, like the aforementioned Miike film, it heads off on its own strange path—which makes for the book’s most memorable sequences.
Spoilers for Fate of the Fallen, the first book in the series, follow.
We’re introduced to Aaslo and Mathias, two friends living in a small rural town. Mathias learns that he is the full-on Chosen One, destined to save the world, and literally the only one foretold to have the ability to do so. Unfortunately, Mathias’s first foray into heroism ends with his death, and it’s left to Aaslo—whose own path is that of a forester, a reclusive profession—to carry on with his friend’s task. That he does so while toting around Mathias’s severed and preserved head—which may or may not be communicating with him—is one of several indications that this is carving out its own space within the genre.
Destiny of the Dead begins—as did Fate of the Fallen—with a short introduction framing this story as something told by an as-yet-unnamed narrator at some point in this world’s future. The introduction to Fate of the Fallen found that narrator speaking of a massive change in the world, wherein the dead began to rise and battled in something known as “the Grave War.” By the end of Fate of the Fallen, it’s made fairly clear that Aaslo has something to do with this—he’s been given the ability to raise the dead, and he’s also had one of his arms replaced with that of a dragon. (Side note: I truly hope this is an homage to the 1998 film The Storm Riders, where one of the heroes winds up having something known as the Fire Beast Arm grafted onto his body.)
If Fate of the Fallen introduced readers to this fictional world and Kade’s subversive take on Chosen One narratives, Destiny of the Dead offers a grander sense of just what the apocalyptic event facing the world is. The bulk of it involves Aaslo and Teza, the magician responsible for saving his life, seeking to stop or slow an invasion of the world by demonic beings.
Running in parallel to this plotline is one centered around Cherrí, a warrior whose family is lost in the chaos and whose path eventually converges with Aaslo’s. Myra, a reaper with the job of collecting souls of the fallen, acts as an intermediary between several human characters and this world’s pantheon of gods. Here, Kade has made sure that these all-powerful beings are as capricious and prone to feuding as any of their mortal counterparts; one of the running mysteries of the series remains the true nature of the conflict among gods, and what their shifting allegiances might mean.
At the heart of Destiny of the Dead is a fascinating concept: that of a hero whose best effort to save the world might instead change it in ways they couldn’t have imagined. This novel does a good job of fleshing out plot threads from its predecessor; at the same time, Cherrí never makes quite as much of an impression as some of her more established counterparts. But the visceral ways Aaslo transforms over the course of the book (and the series) is one of several places where the stranger aspects of the plot make things that much more compelling.
Destiny of the Dead is published by Tor Books.