So, what if Gandalf was evil? This has been a topic which has been touched upon by a number of books. The First Law Trilogy managed to do it in a delightfully interesting way. However, Valley of Embers isn't a Medieval fantasy story nor does it bear anything but a superficial resemblance to the Lord of the Rings. Instead, it actually reminds me more of Princess Mononoke with a dash of The Legend of Zelda and Avatar: The Last Airbender. It's the story of a protagonist who bitterly resents (actually outright hates) the wise old wizard who protects his people as well as the cosmic struggle he tries to involve his people in.
The Valley is a place full of individuals called Embers who possess the power of natural fire magic. They're not alone among elemental magicians but rule as well as hold the strongest position because, well, fire is a damn useful talent for warriors. The Valley is protected by the White Crest Sage who keeps them ostensibly safe from the Eastern Dark. New monsters have invaded, though, and Kole's group goes to seek the mysteriously absent White Crest. However, while most wish to recruit the ancient wizard, Kole harbors a different desire: to kill the man he blames for his mother's death.
If I were to put my literary criticism hat on, the book has a lot of metaphor which can be summarized as a discussion of religion. The White Cresh is a figure who is attributed much benevolence and trust but many terrible things happen despite his supposed protection. Rationalizations are made for the figure even as others stew in what they see as oppression brought about in his name. Kole's anger at times seems justifiable but the book doesn't provide easy answers as many of his beliefs about the Sage are driven by his own desire to have someone to blame for his problems--much the same as others try to attribute good to the Sage.
Valley of Embers is full of action from start to finish with many encounters with the dark-tainted forces. These foes are, for the most part, about as one-dimensional evil as Tolkien orcs or zombies. However, that doesn't mean the book is lacking in moral ambiguity. Indeed, much of the book's "point" is that people who see the world in Black and White are not only wrong from egregiously so. This is the kind of lesson I could see more of in fantasy. Taking the typical conflict and expanding on it so things are more complex was a welcome element for sure.
Kole is a somewhat likable hero but there's also times I wanted to slap him across the face. His determination to kill the White Crest is built around the most specious and self-serving of reasons but he also displays great courage in the many battles his people have against the Dark. I look forward to seeing how his character matures as he does get several good reality checks. The fact a lot of his beliefs are as unquestioned as the other Valley people's beliefs are in the Sage is also a bit of hypocrisy which doesn't go noticed by the author. I'm pleased to say despite Kole's troublesome nature that there are other characters who have really entertaining personalities.
My favorite scene from the book is a quiet one in-between the fighting where a veteran Ember talks about why he doesn't use his fire powers to make his camp fires. It's a rather touching and horrifying story which shows the author has a more mature grasp of war than those who just throw endless hordes of fantasy communists at the protagonists ala Terry Goodkind. There's also quite a bit of world-building for the setting despite it taking in a small contained valley.
In conclusion, Valley of Embers is a great little fantasy novel. Lots of action, some interesting characters, and actually an interesting theme about both elevating humans to gods as well as unquestioned obedience. The book is occasionally a bit slow but these parts are soon interrupted by action and twists so, yes, I recommend it with two thumbs up.