Souldancer is shorter than the fist book in the series, Nethereal, but it still presents the reader with a heavy, 510-pages (including glossaries, epilogues, and a preview) challenge.
Given its size, I have decided to split my general impressions into two parts. This one, the first, will be for chapters 1-24, which are almost half the book.
First things first: a comparison. How does this book (at least, the first half) hold up compared to the previous one? Well, I think I like Souldancer more, which is something uncommon for a sequel. And strange as that may sound, you can actually read this book without having read the previous one.
Sure, they are closely connected, and there is an encyclopedic level of world-building behind, but almost everything you need to know is explained, hinted, or suggested in one way or another, and sometimes not knowing the specific details (e.g. what caused the Cataclysm) makes the story more intriguing, mysterious, and -in my opinion- better. Speaking of which, burning almost all your fictional setting in a firestorm of divine retribution has some perks, which brings me to what I first noticed about Souldancer –the scope of the story.
Although the setting and the story are part of the same universe, Souldancer starts on a much smaller scale, something that makes the story and the characters more relatable and interesting. A problem, to me anyway, with the previous entry in the Soul Cycle saga was that the universe Brian Niemeier had created was too... crowded, almost ready to burst (it did actually burst, to be fair.) It was so crowded that the story proper started with the promise of finding new worlds but in another dimension (i.e. Hell.) For the same reasons, that made that Universe feel oddly small.
There is no reason to assume that has changed, but starting the story after a universal cataclysm, following the -at first- quite "low-level" adventures of a young exiled nomad from a tribal society, gives the setting some space to breath and that sense of mysterious wonder that too much exposition or a high-powered quest can easily shatter. After a few bizarre events and a close encounter with some shape-shifting freaks, we find the protagonists searching the ruins of a secret Guild base/lab, an episode that allows for a powerful contrast between the old and the new and scarred world. That part and similar others are also, I presume, what justified including Souldancer as a Horror Novel in the Dragon Awards (which it won, by the way,) although I probably wouldn't classify the book as "horror."
After that, the story quickly ramps up the action and its scope, but it still manages to be somewhat personal since, at least in this first half, it's hinted that the narrative will revolve around a love story. Sure, it's between two weirdos with the ability to alter reality at will (an even higher form of "magic" than the one we saw in Nethereal,) pitted against a Demon Prince and a power-crazy (and utterly ugly) "wizard" with God delusions, but eh... couples need shared hobbies, I guess. By the way, while I'm on it, I greatly enjoyed the "telepathic" episode. Usually, "it was a psychic dream all along" sequences fall flat or make me feel as if I have been cheated, but this one is finely crafted and, in retrospect, necessary to better appreciate the setting and the protagonists.
I cannot comment on how the story continues, but the plot already revealed (which involves the fragmented soul of a goddess whose return has dangerous eschatological implications,) and even the name of the next book in the series, tell me that the story will progressively become more vast and epic in scale. Nonetheless, I believe it was an intelligent decision to start small and new (with new protagonists.)
Speaking of epicness, Nethereal's profulgently pyrotechnic descriptions of action and combat are still in this sequel, but I have noticed a somewhat more down-to-earth tone or style. It may be a trick of my memory, but Souldancer's action scenes seem a bit more... visceral, deadly, and straight to the point? The protagonists still have that anime hero ability to withstand extreme punishment, but it feels more subdued this time.