Everyone writing fantasy is living in the shadow of George R. R. Martin these days given the global success of Game of Thrones, and Hangman’s Gate—second in the War of the Archons trilogy—is no exception.
For some writers this could work to the detriment of their product but not R. S. Ford, who seems to have learned a valuable lesson from Martin across this and previous novel in the series, A Demon in Silver – allow your characters to be sarcastic, gritty and almost a touch self-aware they’re in the middle of a broad, fantastical world. Hangman’s Gate continues a series which has all the trappings of traditional fantasy – magic, heroes, kings, mystical lands etc… but, like Martin, his characters are earthy, relatable despite their setting, and often massively out of their depth. In short, they’re frequently very fun to hang out with, which helps the series find its footing.
Hangman’s Gate isn’t afraid to throw new characters into the mix and peel away different layers of the world Ford has created, a world rapidly coming apart.
A Demon in Silver was a rollicking good read, detailing the story of disgraced knight Josten Cade and local villager Livia, who both become embroiled in a cosmic, heavenly war between returning Gods, including the titular Silver.
Hangman’s Gate positions the events of A Demon in Silver in the background, at least at first, after the first novel ended with a particularly huge cliffhanger in terms of where the series might be heading. Ford does give us some time with Josten, picking up on him joining a crew of sea pirates and having some ocean bound adventures, before veering off and focusing on all-new characters in different parts of his universe – specifically Ctenka, a quite venal soldier, ekeing out an existence in the far flung corners of the world in a forgotten garrison; and also Laigon, the respected commander of a unit in the Shengen Empire whose life steadily begins to fall apart as he joins Ctenka on a dangerous mission to safeguard all of their lands.
There is a sharper, more direct threat in Hangman’s Gate who focuses the action in the Iron Tusk, a hulking, demonic warrior who uses a level of hypnotic power to seize control of the Shengen Empire and begin a crusade of conquest. He becomes one of the end of level bosses you have no idea how men like Laigon & Ctenka can possibly best but Ford takes them on a fast-moving, continent spanning journey which steadily unfurls more characters, more connections and tethers engagingly back toward A Demon in Silver with greater clarity. Ford’s writing has real punch – he never hangs around in a scene and his characters are always moving, on the move, or developing across his narrative.
As a result, Hangman’s Gate is just as entertaining as A Demon in Silver, even if it has a slightly less straightforward tempo. There is a little more cross cutting between different parts of the map, particularly toward the beginning, but once Ford begins pulling all of his threads together—and the broader situation of the returning Gods and the other realms involved becomes clearer—Hangman’s Gate barrels toward and exciting conclusion with characters who are very different from how they begin, and some who don’t make it at all. By the end, the scene is set for at least one more book in this saga, if not more, given the expansive universe Ford has constructed which—like Martin’s Westeros—very much parallels the development of our own medieval history.
Even with a broad base of fantasy out there to read, R. S. Ford’s War of the Archons series is standing out as a confident slice of world-building which, especially with Hangman’s Gate, tells an engaging and hugely enjoyable story. It’s a saga worth taking the time to explore.