I hope you all had a wonderful festive weekend! Today I am delighted to be reviewing Death’s Beating Heart by Rob J. Hayes, the fifth and final book in the War Eternal which is out in the wild TODAY!
You can find my reviews of the previous books in the series here:
Disclaimer – I received a copy in exchange for an honest review, all thoughts are my own.
Sirileth has broken the world. The ground bleeds, the seas rage, the skies are torn asunder.
Eska will not let her daughter face the consequences alone, but can she help without donning the mantle of the Corpse Queen once more? And will the people of Ovaeris accept help from a monster?
They might not have a choice as a stable portal to the Other World is now open, and the Beating Heart of Sevorai is ever ravenous.
“She was trying to do good, even knowing that the method would be evil.”
NOW THIS IS AN ENDING.
I’ve long since learned that whatever I expect this series will take that and twist it, and surprise me at every turn, and have my heart racing as it does. Death’s Beating Heart did not disappoint, there were elements that we’d seen built up over the previous books that were turned on their head. Truths that had been fundamental to the characters’ beliefs, that were revealed to be lies and misdirection. Fate and choices uncovered for what they really were. Secrets laid bare.
After the events of the previous book, and with the rocky path that Eska has always followed, this book was always going to have a lot of ground to cover and paths to pull together, and not only did it do that, but it went hard – expanding on the worldbuilding, the characters and everything we thought we knew about the world, the War Eternal and the characters. And it does it against the backdrop of a cataclysm and a battle to save not just one world but two, with stakes that are both world-encompassing and intensely personal, and it brings it all together masterfully in a conclusion that bears the weight of everything that has come before, while also showing just how far Eska has come,
‘I was going to make it pay. Make it suffer. She was going to burn, and I would strike the match. She would bleed, and I would stab the knife. She would fear me if I had to crack the world in two and bring down the fucking sky.’
Sins of the Mother had taken the series in a new direction. In Death’s Beating Heart, we see it’s also taken the War Eternal in a different direction, but this book is also a crossroads, where the paths taken in all the previous books are brought back together, leaving Eska of the past and the present to come together and decide how to shape the future. Not just for herself and her children, but for Ovaeris and all it’s lands and people, and for Sevorai too.
Death’s Beating Heart is a powerful book in so many ways, because it cuts to the heart of everything. But it is through Eska that it strikes the deepest chords. Eska has always been a complex character, a girl and then a woman who is as likely to make you want to throttle her as to cheer her on, she has never been simple, even when every step she took seemed fuelled by anger, by hate and fear. Here, though we see that early ice-cold fire of emotions melding with the mellowing that we saw in the fourth book, the impact of living in a kind of peace and accepting what has become of her with the impact her sourceries and choices. We get to see a glimpse of who Eska could have been if she hadn’t been Queen, if she had stayed with her children – but with the caveat, that it was too late, that she is stepping into that position while everything crumbles.
We also see her at her lowest.
“You can’t win a fight against yourself. No matter which way the victory falls, you still lose.”
Eska has always had that shadow in her, whether literally when she shared her body with Ssserakis, but even before and after that. A gaping void of the darkest emotions, of guilt and doubt and self-loathing. Here we learn the truth behind its origin (and wasn’t that a devastating revelation!), but that would be too simplistic a view, because no matter how it starts, Eska has fed it for years. For all her faults (and there are many, as much as I love her as a character), she has born the weight of those choices, and those failings, and everything in between, it rounds out the image that she presents to the world. The mantle of The Corpse Queen that she adopts for the sake of the world.
Here we get to see the cost of that, and Hayes portrayal of those moments of crushing darkness and weakness are both heart-rending and powerful, and regardless of how you may feel about Eska, you can’t help but feel for her in these moments. Especially when you see Ssserakis’ reactions to those moments, that this darkness can strike fear into the Lord of Fear adds an additional depth to what Eska is going through.
And Eska survives it. It can lay her low, wound her deeply, even risk everything and everyone around her, and each time she comes back and keeps fighting, for them, for her shadow. There was already plenty to admire about Eska, she has survived so much, achieved so much (even if a lot of it is in the worst possible way), but her strength in this book is something different.
In Sins of the Mother she had started coming into her own, settling into her own skin. Here, with developments that give her back precious time and, in many ways, reset the clock, I think we see her fully become who she was meant to be. This is the book where we truly see her as the mother she wanted to be, as the Queen she could have been, and the legend she has become.
This character growth is by no means limited to Eska. Hayes has always been fantastic with his characterisation, and here we see it at it’s best, as we see the changes in Eska mirrored and reflected in those around her. We get to see here children becoming who they might have been with the support of their mother, we get to see Sirileth for who she really is – not as someone intent on breaking the world to save it, for wanting to fix the world, to make up for her mistakes even at the cost of her life, and a child who had grown up to fast, who loved puzzles and working out how the various worlds worked and how to open them up. We get to see Kento forging her own path and relationships between the two opposing forces that are her mothers, and her family in general, and in some ways she was the most impressive, a quiet force that reflected both sides and in many ways brought a stable aspect to this chaotic family. And Tris (it will take a while to get over his arc) growing to realise that there is more than vengeance, that he had been chasing a hollow goal, and also settling into this place in this family.
And at its core, for all the scale of the stakes and the end of the world looming, this book is very much about family.
Eska’s drive and much of her weakness comes from her family, whether blood or adopted, or found. I loved that her relationship with Hardt was still the stabilising forces it had always been, and that it had extended to her children too. The bond with Tamura, that even as far as she had come, he was the one still to show her the way – and his ending had me smiling the most. Josef…that was a relationship and a mirror that caught me massively by surprise in this book, and made so much sense and added so much to the journey that had brought them to this point.
And then there was Ssserakis.
I cannot tell you how overjoyed I was to have the horror back, and to have him and Eska back together. Their partnership was always one of my favourite elements of this series, and as with so many things, it feels like Hayes took that to a different level in this book. I think the aspect that struck me the most was just how two-way this relationship was, and I loved the flashbacks where we got to see the impact that being bonded with Eska had on the ancient Horror. To see him struggling to adapt to human emotions and concerns, to see him care not just for her, but also her family – their family – and weighing that with his very nature, his purpose and the weight of what had to be done. It takes a special kind of author to make you want to give a horror that feeds on fear a massive hug at multiple points in the story, but that is what happened here.
‘Belmorose said that history is made by unsung heroes but is written by braggarts. I used to laugh at that, but now I see the truth behind it.’
With the return of Ssserakis we are also given the key to a whole new world, one that we are familiar with from the previous books, but which we have never seen in light. The worldbuilding in The War Eternal has always been one of the strongest aspects of this series, and with all the threads coming to a conclusion it would have been easy to rest on the foundation that had already been built, instead Hayes breaks open Sevorai and delves into this other world – to the balance that had been so carefully kept, the society built on dominance and submission and conflict, and the ever present threat that had been born of The War Eternal. This is the underworld, a world of horror and conflict, and yet we end up utterly invested in its survival – even though we know what it might cost to save it, even as we see what Eska and Ssserakis are doing to build up the power they need to save Sevorai.
However, the expansion of the worldbuilding is not limited to Sevorai. As mentioned at the beginning, this book digs down to the truth of so many things, and we get to learn more about Sourcery and it’s long-term effects, more about what the Iron Legion had done to Eska and Josef and others, and more about The War Eternal and the auguries. It’s fitting really, that as everything teeters on the razor edge of cataclysm that the lies and half truths are stripped away, and that what lies underneath is not always what you want or expect to be revealed.
“Nothing like a surprise Corpse Queen to ruin someone’s day.”
This is a relentless book. It forges onwards from the first page to the very last, because this is The War Eternal, and its story and Eska’s is one that stretches beyond the limits of the pages. Hayes has a way of creating a book that flows irresistibly towards the conclusion, yet delivers rich emotional moments, both quiet, personal moments and high stake, public moments that hit like a gut punch. With rich description, balanced alongside dry, truth-wielding statements, and epic, chaotic battle scenes that pull you in so fully that it feels like you could reach out and touch the horrors, and feel the static in the air.
Death’s Beating Heart is an epic and truly fitting ending to a series that has been phenomenal from start to finish, and I’ve already read it several times just trying to drink in all the details. We get payoff for everything that has happened in the first four books, along with the gift of so much more, as Hayes broke the worlds open for us to savour in all their glory. And we get to see the crowning glory of the character development that has featured so strongly throughout out, and I don’t think there was a single aspect of this conclusion, or a character thread, that wasn’t satisfying, no matter how brutal or abrupt or devastating the end was. This was the only way The War Eternal could end, and yet it was so much more than anything I could have anticipated, and I loved every second spent with this book.
I cannot stress strongly enough just how amazing this series is, or how much I love Eska as a character, and if you haven’t picked up The War Eternal yet, what are you waiting for.
READ THE WAR ETERNAL.
LOVE AND HATE ESKA.
‘I am the fire and the flood.
The earthquake and the hurricane.
I am pestilence and war. Famine and ill omen.
I am the shadow come in the night to steal children from their beds.
I am Eskara Helsene. The Corpse Queen. Mother of nightmares and Lord of the Underworld.
I am Death.’
If you’ve read it, or read it in the future, please feel free to shout at me about this fantastic book.