It’s hard to believe because his earlier work is so strong, but Steven Montano has upped his game with Crown of Ash, the fourth book in the Blood Skies series. Montano (@Daezarkian) writes exceptionally vivid prose, painting pictures with words that allow the reader to fully experience the wonderfully dark dystopian world he’s created. (My review of Black Scars (Blood Skies Book 2)).
Picking up shortly after the closing events of the previous entry, Crown of Ash has everything we’ve come to expect from this series: exciting fantasy/sci-fi/military action, nasty villains including vampires and zombies as well other various undead and alien creatures, and some truly unexpected plot twists.
Threads of the overarching story that runs through this series are unraveled a bit further with plenty of references to key events from the previous books, and the actions of various characters during those events have consequences which are realized in Crown of Ash. The Black, the cataclysmic event where worlds and realities were violently fused together, introduced undead and alien creatures to our planet, and most of the remaining humans have banded together under the flag of the Southern Claw.
For much of the book, three separate storylines are in play and Montano balances each superbly. Soldier-turned-mercenary Eric Cross, a human and fallen warlock who has lost the joined spirit that allowed him to perform magic, has been separated from his body and his consciousness wanders the shadowy realm known as the Whisperlands. Time runs differently in the Whisperlands and the longer living creatures stay there the less “real” and more like a shadow they become.
As I previously wrote in my review of Soulrazor (Blood Skies Book 3), no other author puts me so completely into the story as Montano. In this example from Crown of Ash, Cross wanders the Whisperlands:
He moves across plains of dusk, through petrified black forests and up shattered hills. The taste of metal sticks to the inside of his mouth. He breathes air that smells of coal and brimstone. He is so covered in dirt he can no longer recall the feel of his own skin.
He crosses bone bridges and walks through hollow and abandoned cities. He sees the skeletons of sailing ships. Toppled statues of strange human-reptile hybrids litter the landscape.
Black clouds converge like stains. Trees, bone thin and sharp, prod the sky like knives. He walks through fields of blood and oil.
Dark nectar drips from skeletal branches. The spines of heavy brambles twist like daggers from the ground.
He walks until his legs are numb and his throat is raw. Shadows seep down to his pores. He drifts like a lost leaf, carried by a wind that smells of age and death.
— Montano, Steven (2012-08-18). Crown of Ash (Blood Skies, Book 4) (Kindle Locations 1249-1269). Darker Sunset Press. Kindle Edition.
Meanwhile, Cross’ body is in the care of his teammates, former prison warden Danica Black and ex-prisoner Mike Kane, who desperately try to get their unconscious friend and themselves back to the relative safety of Southern Claw territory. To get there will involve fighting the vampires of the Ebon Cities, mercenary groups formed by both human and undead renegades, and marauding creatures from the blasted and frozen wastelands left behind after The Black.
I can’t say much more without spoiling the plot, but I’ll close by saying I’m diving right into Book 5, The Witch’s Eye. For more on Mr. Montano and this great series, visit his website, Blood Skies.