Summary: In the ultimate battle of wits and strength, only the most ruthless will survive.
Every six years, the noble teenagers of Arcandis compete in the harrowing contest of The Narrowing Path, forced to prove themselves worthy to continue their family line—or perish trying. Bowe Bellanger, younger and weaker than the rest, is expected to die on the very first day. However, Bowe isn‘t interested in just surviving, he wants to save his friends—which goes against everything the society stands for.
This is the first book in The Narrowing Path trilogy. Within a medieval fantasy setting, this series takes the reader to an exciting but brutal world full of intrigue where each character is larger than life and death is around every corner. Fans of The Hunger Games and Maze Runner are sure to love it.
Review: It’s hard to read the first 1/3 of this book and not make Hunger Games comparisons. A group of teenagers pitted against each other in a monitored and timed brutal competition, and the survivor(s) are assured prestige and a place in the world to come. These days, it’s hard to write a story with those elements appearing at any point without people drawing those comparisons, thanks to the popularity of The Hunger Games. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if that’s what the author’s going for, and if that’s what readers want to read.
But happily, there’s far more to this novel than something that just feels like it’s trying to ride the coattails of a popular franchise. The Narrowing Path follows the story of Bowe, last of the Bellanger family, at an age where he can begin on the Green Path and force his way to salvation by eliminating competitors. This isn’t just some brutal scheme to keep people in line or control the population. Bowe is fighting to become an ascor, one of society’s elite, and earn his place in the Refuge so that he can survive the approaching heat of the Infernam. If he doesn’t, then the only option is death. But Bowe isn’t happy with the Path before him, and he seeks to change it, subvert it, and forge a new Path for himself and those close to him.
Normoyle’s writing is pretty good, and he can paint a clear word-picture of what’s going on. The characters he writes are fairly distinct, though the increasing cast of characters toward the end sometimes made it tricky to keep track of who’s doing what and why. Once or twice characters were introduced who really added nothing to the story, leaving me with another name to keep track of and nothing more. Perhaps they become more important later on in the series, I’m not sure, but at least here, they don’t do much besides have their name known and be part of what Bowe is trying to accomplish.
The society set up in Arcandis is an interesting one. It’s highly stratified, with ascor being the elite of society and escay being the bottom ranks. Escay can rise through the ranks by becoming marshals (your basic law enforcers), and then getting raised to ascor for loyal service, but it’s rare. Ascor look down on escay, seeing themselves as far above the concerns of the rabble. It’s not an uncommon society to play with in novels like this, really, but what I found most interesting about it was the way society was shaped by the Infernam, which is the period of intense heat that comes every six years.
However, it’s not perfect, and there are some discrepancies that don’t quite add up for me. It’s Ascor who typically end up with guaranteed or near-guaranteed places within the Refuge, but a Green’s rise to ascor is, well, along a narrow path. Very few of Bowe’s peers typically become ascor and get to survive. The rest get killed. The majority of escay die by just not being able to afford Refuge. But the population sizes don’t really reflect that. Yes, ascor men typically have multiple wives and there’s probably a whole lot of breeding going on, but the ascor should very quickly outnumber the escay, and most escay would likely be ones in direct service to ascor (who could thus get into the Refuge more easily) and any children under 6, who haven’t experienced the Infernam yet. You’re likely end up with no escay not being in service to ascor, and their families having been in service for generations. And that doesn’t seem to really be the case as presented by the book. Not unless the people we see in The Narrowing Path represent about half the entire population of either group.
I find population problems to be a common one with dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, and they don’t seem to bother most readers, so I may be the exception here that actually finds this somewhat irritating. I also admit that this discrepancy could well be something addressed in a later novel. There are plenty of hints dropped along the way that indicate far more going on that just what’s on the surface, and while some of them get only a passing mention that seems disproportionate to their potential impact, it does leave things wide open for a greater exploration of some ideas in the future.
Similarly, the issue of food doesn’t really get addressed either. Food-producing farms are mentioned, and it’s logical to think that 6 years of growing seasons could result in a surplus to stockpile if you get lucky and control things well enough, but if the world becomes too hot for humans to survive in without either dying or going deep underground, that’s going to take a toll on the world’s ability to produce crops. I can’t imagine people emerging from the underground caves and going right back to planting and plowing. It would take time for things to cool down again, for the land to recover enough for crops to be grown once more. And yet this seems to be enough of a non-issue that Bowe find people selling carved trinkets at an escay market, which indicates the leisure time to throw into decorative items.
So while the issue of the Infernam is definitely one that is shown to shape society at large, there are a lot of holes in the story when it comes to practicalities.
I’m a bit on the fence about gender presentation in this book, I admit. On one hand, the story is told from the perspective of a teenage boy in a tough situation, in a society where gender roles are pretty rigidly enforced, so it’s not like I expected Bowe’s group to have a whole load of women in it. But from what I recall, there were a total of 4 women with names in this entire novel: 1 who killed herself, 1 who did nothing but glare from a distance, 1 who helped Bowe and whom Bowe had a thing for but felt horrible about it because of class differences, and 1 whose biggest role was to regret that she was too ugly to get a husband and so would probably not get into the Refuge. That’s it. It’s not exactly overflowing with positive tropes; even Iyra, arguably the most interesting and involved female character, was primarily there to further Bowe’s goals and be a romantic interest. That’s not good.
It’s easy to argue that this kind of gender presentation is fitting with the society that was being written about, and that’s true. It was. But more and more I’m agreeing with people when they say that’s not an excuse; the author is the one who creates the society, and thus the author is the one who bears the responsibility for what casts of characters like this imply. You don’t have to have every female character be a kick-ass superheroine, but when the character who does the most is mostly there to confuse Bowe’s sexual morals, it doesn’t come across very well.
I do, however, have to give Normoyle some points for inverting the “being thin is the only way to be beautiful” stereotype for women. Here, girls who are well fed and have some curves to them are considered more attractive than ones who are thinner. Makes sense, considering the ascor’s abundance, and I did like to see that aspect being dealt with.
Another sticking point, and one that felt prevalent throughout The Narrowing Path was, for me, the fact that Bowe does not act at all like the 13 year old that he is. If he was 16 or 17, I might believe it. His patterns of speech, his behaviour, his ability to see and manipulate complex patterns, the way people follow him and his ideals, none of it comes off like a person who only relatively recently hit a double-digit age. It’s difficult to see people a few years older take him as seriously as they did (especially in a cut-throat competition), let alone the adults who so easily bowed to his logic and grasp of politics. It just wasn’t something I could believe. Not without Bowe having shown ridiculous amounts of promise early on, which clearly wasn’t the case since everybody, including Bowe himself, expected to die on the first day. He comes across as far older than he actually is, and the only way for me to make it seem less incongruent was to mentally picture him as being in his late teens rather than his very early teens.
So in the end, The Narrowing Path was a decent beginning to a series that’s definitely more YA than adult, though it does have some darker themes running through it and it doesn’t shy away from blood and violence and despair. It has its strengths, and a lot of the flaws that I mentioned are ones that I don’t notice so much while reading as I notice them in retrospect, when examining the novel specifically for review and critique; it’s easy to fall into the story and ignore the little bits that don’t get addressed or don’t make sense because Normoyle’s writing is, as I said earlier, pretty good. But that doesn’t mean the problems aren’t still there. I can recommend this to people who are fans of YA dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, because it is a fun read and it is still good; for the genre and the intended audience, I’d say it’s on par with a lot of other offerings out there, and so is probably worth taking a look at if you have the chance.