Jeff Saylards Bloodsounder’s Arc comes to a close in Chains of the Heretic an entertaining and exciting final entry in series that hearkens back to SwJeff Saylards Bloodsounder’s Arc comes to a close in Chains of the Heretic an entertaining and exciting final entry in series that hearkens back to Sword and Sorcery stories of yesterday. The action in Chains of the Heretics picks up mere moments after the previous book so if you haven’t read any novels in this series watch out for spoilers. Betrayed and on the run Captain Killcoin, Arki, and the soldiers of Jackal Tower must resort to desperate measures in order to make a rendezvous with emperor-in-exile Thumaar. Unfortunately, with the Emperor Cynead’s forces hot on their heels getting away alive isn’t going to be easy. Dire straits lead to dangerous decisions and Captain Killcoin and his Syldoon soldiers have to face a variety of threats, both expected and unexpected, over the course of their journey.
Chains of the Heretic hammers home the role that memory and the past plays in the series. Memory has been an important conceit throughout this series through the presence of the flail Bloodsounder (which burdens its wielder with the memories of those it slays) and a variety of memory witches (Lloi in Scourge of the Betrayer and the Memoridons moving forward from there). The series’ point-of-view character Arki is a custodian of the past. He is a trained scholar hired not only to dig through ancient documents (i.e. the past) for information on Bloodsounder and memory witches but also to document the actions of Captain Killcoin and his company (i.e. record history). In contrast to the burden memory places on our heroes, particularly Captain Killcoin, there has been startlingly little revealed about the world’s past or the motivations that have moved Captain Killcoin to action. There is a certain amount of impenetrability to the past throughout the series; history is a massive shadowy weight that presses the characters forward without ever truly revealing itself.
Influenced by Arki’s findings certain actions taken by Captain Killcoin see the company taking a big leap of faith into uncharted territory. While those actions save the company from pursuit they also reveal the dangers of an unknown past; particularly how time can warp the meaning of events in strange sometimes dangerous ways. Here they mystery of the past throws a dark shadow over the present. The dangers of the past are hammered home as the company finally comes face to face with the deposed Emperor Thumaar. As Captain Killcoin is told just prior to meeting him “the years…have not been generous.” It’s a wonderful twist that I don’t want to completely spoil but one not wholly unsurprising when you lean heavily on the memory of a person rather than the person themselves.
Arki’s growth over the series is fully realized in Chains of the Heretic. An outsider at the start of the series he has slowly gained the acceptance of the Syldoon even as his original naiveté has slowly dwindled away. While he never seems to evince the hardened practicality (or outright cynicism) of the Syldoon he seems to comes to terms with it in a believable manner. Other characters shine throughout the series and particularly in Chains of the Heretic. The addition of the monstrously tall Azmorgan plays counterpoint to the wracked Mulldoos and their constant verbal sparring is always entertaining while Vendurro’s folkish wisdom and love of eggs continues to provide both insight and levity. Captain Killcoin, gruff and jaded, has continuously shown hidden depths below the bedrock of loyalty to his Tower a characterization which is continued here. Despite the animosity between the Captain and his sister their scenes together are typically enjoyable; Soffjian’s wry humor is another welcome addition despite her tendency to obfuscate her own goals.
If you’ve skipped out on reading any of this series you are seriously missing out. The novels in Bloodsounder’s Arc are typically lumped into the category of grimdark fantasy. I think the notion of grimdark is fairly reductive in nature and in Salyard’s work I’ve found that his attention to detail when building both characters and the world they live in a trait that far eclipses any amount of grit and violence (of which there is no small amount). Perhaps more than any other novels in the series Chains of the Heretic underscores some of the nobler aspects of its characters and somehow manages to do so while still staying true to those same characters’ hardcore, badassed natures. It’s an interesting, near contradictory aspect of Salyards’ work that really elevates the story to another level. These were characters that I actually cared about and when the last page finally rolled around I was both satisfied with their growth over three novels and disappointed to see them go. Salyards is an author to watch and I can’t wait to see what he does next....more
Space fantasy is a bizarre and wonderful little sub-genre that isn’t as prolific as it should be (particularly given that certain a series from a galaSpace fantasy is a bizarre and wonderful little sub-genre that isn’t as prolific as it should be (particularly given that certain a series from a galaxy far far away is essentially space fantasy). So, coming across the description of Stewart’s Starship’s Mage: Omnibus, in which jump mages are the essential component to interstellar travel I was rather intrigued. The series of novellas follows the exploits of the recently graduated Jump Mage Damien Montgomery as he takes a position upon the merchant ship the Blue Jay. The Omnibus edition I listened combines them all seamlessly however there are some odd repetitive quirks, typically summarizing events that just occurred, leftover from the book’s original format.
The Starship’s Mage Omnibus does an excellent job a laying the groundwork of the world that Stewart has created wherein the powerful Mage King of Mars has united a multitude of planets under his rule. Bound to the authority of the Mage King the magic-users of these worlds enjoy a privileged position. The book delves a little deeper as it explores the bureaucracy of Mage’s Guild and its treatment of unregulated magic; a fact that is particularly vexing for Damien as his actions early in the series see him on the outs with the Guild. Damien’s outcast status is sort of inherited by the rest of the crew of the Blue Jay and their exile’s journey takes them to hardscrabble worlds who have rejected the rule of mages.
This is a light a breezy book that tends to focus harder on action and adventure over characterization. Most of the heavy lifting in the characterization arena falls on Damien himself and readers will learn quite a bit about the young man’s personality. The rest of the characters don’t get quite as well-rounded a treatment. While Damien often struggles with the feats he pulls off in order to survive there were times when things felt a bit too easy. While there are certainly losses amongst the crew of the Blue Jay during its journey there is little direct loss that seems to impact Damien himself. It would have been nice to see a bit more hardship for our hero.
Starship’s Mage: Omnibus shows a lot of promise and many of its shortcomings can be attributed to Stewart’s relative inexperience and quirks of the novellas original release schedule. It is still an enjoyable read that blends familiar tropes from both science fiction and heroic fantasy into a cohesive whole. Thankfully, Glynn Stewart has expanded on his world with the recent release of Hand of Mars set 3 years after the events of the Starship’s Mage: Omnibus. The audiobook version, procuded by Tantor Media and narrated by Jeffrey Kafer, is quite excellent with a quality performance and top notch production quality. If you are look for a fantasy book that is a little different I high recommend you give Glynn Stewart’s Starship’s Mage Omnibus a chance....more
The Pax Arcana series by Elliott James is one my favorite recent additions to the urban fantasy scene. Fearless, is the third novel in the series andThe Pax Arcana series by Elliott James is one my favorite recent additions to the urban fantasy scene. Fearless, is the third novel in the series and continues the series excellence. One of the things that I find interesting about this series over some other urban fantasies is that its setting is particularly unmoored. John Charming’s past, particularly his having been on the run for so long, means that sense of place that for me is a strong part of the urban fantasy genre is instead refocused onto John himself and the home creates (or is trying to create) with the people he surrounds himself with. While Fearless and the Pax Arcana series buys into many of the familiar tropes of its subgenre the laser-like focus on John himself, and his peculiar brand of self-awareness, lend the series a surprisingly different feel. The uniqueness of the series is further enhanced by the menagerie of supernatural creatures that James includes throughout the series. Fearless, in particular introduces a whole new cast of creatures both terrifying and surprisingly normal from a variety of cultural backgrounds with a strong focus in Japanese mythology.
The main focus of Fearless is on John, Sig, Molly and Choo are tipped off by the estranged Tedd Cahill (now a sheriff in New York) to investigate a mysterious death. Over the course of the investigation the crew discover that someone or something is looking to take out a young man named Kevin Kichida. As the team follows the trail through Kevin Kichida’s life they uncover secrets about the young man’s past, and the nature of his adversary, that find them in an underground monster fight club in New York. The mystery of Kichida’s pursuer doesn’t last too long and the team’s plan to stop him is what takes up the bulk of the novel. Fearless represents the first time that John is really working with other people and the strain of having to work as a group is noticeable throughout the novel. John’s relationship with Sig also plays an important role throughout the novel. While it never takes center stage it is constantly in the background and actually provides a wonderfully stable base from which to explore the personalities of both John and Sig. In fact Elliott manages to depict the struggles of each of the novel’s core characters rather poignantly. Choo struggles with operating in the magical world while desperately trying to claw a space out for some sort of normal life with his estranged wife. Cahill embraces his new nature while trying to rebuild the trust destroyed by that same nature; facts further compounded by the antagonistic relationship between him and John. Molly has her own struggles with her own faith and particularly with some of the methods employed throughout their quest to uncover the nature of Kevin Kichida’s enemy. Molly is by far my favorite character in the series so I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more time spent with her here however her small character arc in Fearless was still surprisingly satisfying.
As in the past novel there are hints of a grander problem brewing in the background but there are still scant details and is not the primary focus of Fearless. The audiobook version of Fearless is once again narrated by Roger Wayne. Wayne’s pitch perfect delivery is at its best when it comes to John’s trademark wit but doesn’t falter even during the novel’s more serious moments. I haven’t read any of the Pax Arcana novels, only listened, and I can’t even imagining switching now. My sincere hope is that the folks at Tantor keep Roger Wayne at the helm of this series.
Fearless continues the trend in an already excellent series. Elliott is working hard at writing characters that grow and change over time in believable ways. While I could wish for more world-building, particularly in terms of the hints at a larger trouble yet to be fully revealed, the catch-all supernatural world of the Pax Arcana series continues to remain both engaging and entertaining. Elliott definitely dropped some interesting seeds about the history of the Charming name that I hope to see bear fruit at a later date. If you’re a fan of urban fantasy in the vein of Kevin Hearne or Jim Butcher than I highly recommend you give Elliott James Pax Arcana series a try. I look forward to the next novel, In Shining Armor, due out in April....more
Erika Johansen’s debut novel, Queen of the Tearling, is a sure-handed and accomplished start to a new series. The novel opens as a cadre of Queen’s GuErika Johansen’s debut novel, Queen of the Tearling, is a sure-handed and accomplished start to a new series. The novel opens as a cadre of Queen’s Guards arrive at a humble little cabin in the woods to retrieve Kelsea Raleigh. The young heir to Tearling throne was smuggled away as a baby and raised in secret. With the Regent’s (her uncle) assassins closing Kelsea must face what may be the shortest reign any monarch has seen. On her journey to New London she meets an enigmatic bandit known only as the Fetch and begins her true education in regards to the devil’s bargain her mother made after the invasion from Mort burned its way to the walls of the palace. Once in New London Kelsea moves to right the wrongs of her mother’s reign while doing her best to stay alive long enough to usher in true change.
Queen of the Tearling features a young, teenaged protagonist yet manages to walk a fine line between marketing towards adults and teens. Equally, appealing to either demographic some of the more mature content and adult themes might not appeal to younger teens. With a novel like this it is often the main protagonist that makes or breaks things. I am happy to report that Kelsea is a joy of a protagonist. Johansen has crafted a delightfully complicated young woman whose insecurities are rounded out by her grit and determination. Kelsea isn’t defined by her fears and despite the fantastical settings her insecurities, particularly her body image issues, are normal. Johansen takes things a step further by surrounding Kelsea with a cast of characters who accentuate her qualities and whose own personalities, while not always as well rounded as Kelsea’s, make for an interesting shift in perspective. The best-rounded secondary character is Sir Lazarus of the Mace, a Queen Guard whose steady presence and no-nonsense attitude provides a firm grounding for Kelsea as she wades into dangerous waters. Lazarus, is a bit of a mysterious character in the beginning of the novel. While his past remains in the dark his actions serve to define a man of utmost loyalty and honor with a willingness to employ scrupulous violence in service to his Queen; even when she might not necessarily want him to. I doubt that Queen of the Tearling would work nearly without the dynamic between Kelsea and Lazarus.
My biggest problem with Queen of the Tearling are the villains of the story. While Johansen manages to show, to some extent, that the Regent is a product of his upbringing less is done to flesh out the country of Mort and particularly its Queen; as the nominal “big bad” Johansen does very little to illustrate their motives. We know that Mort is more advanced when it comes to medicine and technology and that they have a great need for manpower. It’s the “why” of that manpower that is the true mystery and while the question of Mort’s need for manpower is mentioned there are very few hints as to the answer. Even the nobility of Tear are shown to be greedy, venal, and self-interested with only slight variations in how much they exhibit those traits. Arlen Thorne, master of the census, is perhaps the most fascinating villain in the novel, if only due to his cunning, but again outside of greed readers are left with very little information regarding his ultimate goal. Johansen does perhaps too good of a job in illustrating how “evil” the villains are but their lack of definition beyond their horribleness leaves them feeling a bit bland and boring.
The setting of Queen of the Tearling is also rather fascinating. The novel takes place sometime in humanity’s future where a group of humanity (perhaps all of humanity) has left what I presume to be Earth to found a new society. The rigors of the Crossing, as it is referred to in the novel, left these new settlers with some major issues not the least of which was the loss of most of the scientists who made the journey. The world takes many of its cues from pre-industrial history but knowledge regarding the technology of old still exists even if the keys to its manufacture are lost. As a result the “magic” of the novel is likely something else entirely, though a scene towards the end of the novel, makes me question even that. It’s an interesting aspect of the novel and gives readers some familiar footing as Kelsea begins to make changes to her kingdom based on our shared past.
Queen of the Tearling is a novel carried by the strength of its protagonist. Kelsea is an interesting character whose growth over the novel from the scared girl hiding in the trees on page one to the woman standing on the balcony before the adoring masses is a joy to read. While the villains often simple feel evil for evil’s sake I remain hopeful that there will be more nuance explored in further novels. The world of Queen of the Tearling is also fascinating and the mystery behind why these people came to be where they are is one I look forward to reading about. Thankfully, Invasion of the Tearling is out now so I won’t have to wait long to find out what happens next....more
Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds and Blue Blazes are excellent novels with vibrant worlds and complicated heroes. Needless to say that I was pretty excited tChuck Wendig’s Blackbirds and Blue Blazes are excellent novels with vibrant worlds and complicated heroes. Needless to say that I was pretty excited to hear that Chuck Wendig was scheduled to be the man in the pilot’s seat for the first post-Return of the Jedi Star Wars novel in the new canon. When early samples of Aftermath were released ahead of the novel’s publication my excitement was somewhat dampened by Wendig’s chosen style. The present tense narration, coupled with the short quick sentence structure was completely off putting for me and I was immediately nervous that I wouldn’t be able to get past the narrative style. Thankfully, while Disney and Lucasfilm, have in a sense “abandoned” previous canon they have not abandoned Star Wars audiobook narrator Marc Thompson. Thompson’s skill as a narrator combined with some rather insane production quality (official sound effects and music) meant that, like with the previous Fate of the Jedi novels, I was definitely going for the Aftermath audiobook experience.
Aftermath opens in the time following the destruction of the second Death Star. While the decisive Rebel victory has prodded many systems to action, the former-Rebels now struggle to consolidate their power and transform a military-based rebellion into a full-fledged political body. Meanwhile the Empire, while grievously wounded, is still around lashing out against those who dare join the Rebels and trying to desperately to consolidate their forces in the face overwhelming support for change from much of the general public.
In the opening scenes of Aftermath readers a treated with a glimpse of some of the actions that resulted from the Rebel victory, as dissidents tear down a statue of the Emperor, as well as the Imperial reactions, as those dissidents are viciously attacked by Imperial Security. Aftermath paints a very chaotic situation for the Rebel Alliance. One of the actions of the Rebels after the victory near Endor was to send out scout units to various systems. One such scouts, fan favorite Wedge Antilles, enters the Akiva system only fall into the clutches of Imperial forces gathering there for some sort of meeting. Wedge manages to get out a distress call which catches the attention of Nora Wexley, another Rebel pilot who just happens to be on Akiva in order to reconnect with her son Temmin. Readers are also introduced to Sinjir a former Imperial Loyalty Office and perhaps my favorite new character. A dry-witted drunkard Sinjir is laying low on Akiva after having stolen the clothes off a dead Rebel’s back during the Battle of Endor. Our motely team of heroes is rounded out by Jas Emari, a lone-wolf Zabrak bounty hunter on Akiva to take out a high-level Imperial target. The tightening grip of the Empire on Akiva draws these four characters together over the course of the novel.
Aftermath has a huge job ahead of it. Not only does it have to tell an interesting and entertaining story but it also has to lay out the state of the Star Wars universe at large while simultaneously being attractive for new readers and the notoriously cantankerous entrenched fandom (who are already frustrated over the loss of their beloved canon). As such Aftermath definitely struggles a bit in trying to tell a tight, constrained story about a rag-tag group of heroes while bouncing around the universe to give readers glimpses of what is going on around the universe. The interludes which often feature familiar characters such as Han Solo, Mon Mothma, and Admiral Ackbar definitely provide fascinating insight in to the Star Wars landscape. However, as entertaining and enlightening as they are I found that they felt more like a barrier to telling the story of the events on Akiva than anything else. Aftermath desperately wants to be both epic in scope and an intimate look at the effect of the Empire on the Rebellion on individual lives and I often felt that those two goals were at cross-purposes.
While I found the novel’s narrative voice distracting in the beginning I adjusted as the novel progressed. Once the main plot of the novel kicks into high gear my problems with narrative voice faded into the background. Like I mentioned in the opening paragraph above I chose to listen to the audiobook version of Aftermath and I can’t say for sure how easily I’d be able to shake my feelings regarding the narrative without the aid of Marc Thompson and the production crew at Random House Audio. It is really just a top-notch production and I highly recommend that reluctant readers give the audiobook a shot. I will note that Thompson’s Wookie sounds were a bit off, but that’s my only complete regarding his performance.
I really wish the characters of Aftermath were given a little bit more breathing room. Of our four heroes Nora feels the least developed though Wendig’s description of her PTSD worked quite well. Similarly, her son Temmin could have used a little more work as both characters feel to explicitly defined by their relationship to one another with little room to explore who each is absent of that part of their identity. Sinjir was definitely my favorite and his rapport with Jas was entertaining in the highest; I’d love to see adventures with just these too characters. Sinjir and Jas certainly felt like the most developed characters and their growth over the course of Aftermath felt more natural than either Temmin or Nora. I should send a shout out to Mr. Bones. I never thought a battle droid could be terrifying. But this one is.
While it’s almost inevitable I’m not sure comparisons are entirely to Heir to the Empire are entirely fair. Star Wars fans were in a completely different emotional and mental state in 1991 as compared to now. With no new Star War sequels in sight it was easy for Zahn to focus on the main characters of the Original Trilogy and it’s difficult to say how much reader’s initial emotional investment in Han, Luke, Leia, Chewie, and the rest of the gang influenced their response to Heir to the Empire. To place things in further perspective between 1977 and 2014 while only 6 “main” movies were filmed there were over 300 Star Wars books published (in 2007 alone Del Rey/LucasBooks printed 1.5 million copies of Star Wars books). With the vast majority of those novels no longer official canon it’s easy to see the mountain of material that Chuck Wendig and Aftermath is essentially competing with. I’m not even sure his work would have a chance when it comes to the reader who picked up Heir the Empire in 1991 and spent the better part of a quarter century following his or her favorite characters. How can you compete against that? The easy answer is: you don’t. Aftermath has the unenvious moving Star Wars forward into a new era underneath the shadow of a veritable mountain of printed work. With such an immense burden placed upon this book and it isn’t a surprise that bows under the pressure. Aftermath is an entertaining Star Wars novel that sets up a new era of adventure in a universe that while familiar may not be exactly same one that many fans remember. I for one look forward to seeing where things go next....more