Christopher Ruz weaves a rich, multi-layered epic in The Ragged Lord: Century of Sand 2, continuing the journey of Richard and his half-wild daughter Ana as they flee across the wastes from the seemingly unstoppable Magician and his pet creature, the Culling. In addition to a rotating cast of two-faced desert dwellers, Richard and Ana are joined by the Kabbah, a tribal warlord with a sword in his hand and wry commentary always on his lips.
With the exception of G. R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, I don’t think I’ve ever been as captivated by a series as I am with this one. I’m anticipating the next book maybe as much as I am Winds of Winter, if not more. Martin’s story has become so convoluted and he’s killed off so many characters I’m not entirely sure why I should keep paying attention—there are almost no antagonists left to drive ASOIAF’s story and if he keeps killing heroes, he won’t have any payoff left. Meanwhile, Century of Sand keeps surprising me with a never-ending inventiveness and top-notch quality that puts some of the best to shame.
I’ve already voiced my feelings about the dreamy Australian indie-drama style of Century of Sand in my review of the first book, so I won’t repeat myself here. But suffice it to say Ruz’s writing has only gotten better, more focused, and more fantastical, and this sequel builds on and towers over all of the original.
Like Martin, Ruz’s writing style is economic and sensible, propelling you through the narrative at a breakneck pace while still slipping you enough descriptive hints to build a believable visual. He crafts living, breathing characters so realistic you might just think of them as your own friends—halfway through the book I found myself in the loo in the middle of the night, fantasizing about a tense situation between Richard and the Kabbah I feel like I could have solved with a brotherly hug.
Richard himself remains a complex everyman, the metaphorical descendant of Roland Deschain and Indiana Jones, stoic enough to stand up to danger, but wise enough to flee in terror in the face of overwhelming odds.
Ruz manages to keep building a huge world while maintaining what’s turning out to be his signature, a feverishly intimate style straight out of the mid-20th century. In the first book, Richard explains the catalyzing events leading up to Century by telling his daughter a decades-old story about Parkin, a soldier enlisted to accompany the Magician to a faraway obelisk known as the Ant Tower.
In Ragged Lord, Richard pencils in his own past by telling Ana about his childhood and how he and Parkin met during the Magician’s rebellion against the King.
This leapfrog technique goes a long way toward elevating suspense in the present, but in the past, the details of the larger world remain cloudy and storybook-like. It allows Ruz to greatly expand his setting without sacrificing his tight scope and the reader’s feeling of discovery, as Richard forges through foreign cities and bizarre badlands, struggling through one revelation after another. The final twist is extremely well-done—I was completely taken off guard, yet at the same time I thought, “Duh, that makes total sense.”
My only real issue was a frustrating detour two thirds of the way through the book that seemed tonally out of sync with the rest of the series, a pit stop that turns into a bit of an Agatha Christie whodunit. But honestly the rest of the book was so good--especially the bizarre Laboratory of Capir and the climactic battle--that I didn't mind the breather.
Century of Sand doesn’t deserve to be relegated to the back-alleys of indie publishing. Not only is Ruz a hell of a good dude (I tracked him down on Twitter to fanboy at him after I started reading his work), but he’s a teacher and he supplements his income with his novels and novellas.
Help me convince him he’s got the talent to be a literary rock-star—if you consider yourself a fantasy fan, pick up the first book, then come back here and grab this one. Then you can come find me and we’ll go fanboy at him together.