"Cradle" (books 1-10) review
Author: Will Wight
Subgenre: Progression fantasy
2021 Bingo squares: Various books in the series fill: Genre guide, found family, Published in 2021, Cat squasher, Self-published
Recommend: Yes! And give it more than the first book
Many reviews on the internet talk about how wonderful Cradle is. I’m going to try and convince you to give it more than the first book by talking about how much I didn’t like the first book yet still loved the entire series, and why you should suffer through the pain that is Unsouled and continue on with this gorgeous progression fantasy epic.
Cradle is unapologetically progression fantasy, and the magic system involves sacred artists progressing in the sacred arts from copper to iron to jade; then from lowgold to highgold to truegold; then from underlord to overlord to archlord (or lady); and then beyond. The progression fantasy elements are at the forefront of every single bit of the plot. In Unsouled, it’s suffocating. For the rest of the series, it’s still there, still the most important thing in the world (in fact, if anything, the progression elements become more important), and yet somehow, it becomes nearly invisible and just part of an intricate world full of political factions with alliances dating back generations and a backdrop of a conflict spanning the entire universe.
The RPG-like “perform task, get reward, advance” formula is always prominent, but there are two things that make it seem to fade away as we go deeper into the series: first, the conflict grows at a pace even more satisfying than the progression of the main characters, and the characters spend almost no time engaging in non-plot-advancing activities. Instead, we’re left with distilled advancement of the plot, to which the characters' advancement becomes secondary, despite the in-universe prevalence of the attitude that individual advancement is the most important thing to care about. (Also points.)
The second thing is the characters themselves and their relationships. Once again, beneath the surface of progression fantasy, Will Wight has created a beautiful found family with strong ties to each other who support each other and work together. It’s a very human story abut internal drive, struggle, love, friendship, honor, and learning magic to achieve god-like powers.
The thing is, literally none of this is present in Unsouled. The rest of the review is about Unsouled and contains major spoilers for this novel.
In Unsouled, we are introduced to Wei Shi Lindon and his family. Later on, we’re also introduced to Yerin. These are the only two characters who stick around, and we haven’t even heard the names of most of the characters who will soon form the rest of their group. Lindon’s going to leave Sacred Valley and not look back (actually he’ll think about it a lot, it’s a deeply important part of his identity and character development, but that sounded better).
The first question on Goodreads asks,
The first chapter read like a fantasy ripoff of the Divergent series, and I put it down. There are so many good revs that I thought I would give it another shot. Is there any original content here from any other readers of the Divergent series?
The answer dismisses the question completely:
I don’t mean to be rude but if you think this is a rip off of Divergent I hate to tell you, that book did not originate the separating people into factions shtick. That aside Divergent was at best a rough romance novel with hokey sci-fi plot points.
I’m gonna take the side of the asker though. The opening pages read EXACTLY like a fantasy ripoff of the Divergent series. I would’ve closed it and given up if it weren’t for the hype the series regularly receives on /r/fantasy. (I won’t talk about why it reads exaclty like a fantasy ripoff of Divergent specifically as to avoid spoiling that series.) But in general, the vibe of the first book is “Oh no, Lindon has no powers, he must have some other virtue, like CHEATING. Let’s all feel SUPER BAD for him. Time to watch him CHEAT a bunch. Now yay look he got a bunch of magical quest items. Yay!” It’s pretty bad. Plus then there are all these divine-entity info dumps, which felt like a pretty cheesy way to do worldbuilding (those stick around by the way, but they decrease in frequency and actually become really cool for multiple reasons).
The first novel really just is not very good. But it’s also not at all representative of the entire series. Give it at least two full books, if you’re not at least intrigued by the end of book 2 you can put it down. I was ambivalent by the end of Soulsmith (book 2), intrigued by the end of Blackflame (book 3), and by the end of Skysworn (book 4) I could not put it down, and it took me under a week to read all ten published volumes. Trust me, it’s worth it.
The subreddit is called /r/Iteration110Cradle, by the way.