Malice is a debut novel from John Gwynne that travels a more traditional path than many novels in recent years. It’s a debut fantasy that reminds me v...moreMalice is a debut novel from John Gwynne that travels a more traditional path than many novels in recent years. It’s a debut fantasy that reminds me very much of lazy summer days as a teen barricaded in my parent’s air conditioned home while pouring over the latest dictionary sized fantasy novel. Malice, in a way similar to Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World, is a novel that seems written to bridge the gap between teens and adults. As a result Malice’s prose walks a middle ground as it tries to appeal to both teens and adults. Much of Malice is about set up as Gwynne details the signs and portents of a world teetering on the edge of a great (and mysterious) conflict. Ancient stone alters bleed and strange creatures stir in the dark places of the world. It actually takes a bit of time before a prophecy is revealed predicting an ancient struggle between the force of light, lead by the Bright Star, and the forces of darkness, lead by the Black Sun. Thrown into the mix of two diametrically opposed prophesied individuals are a number of magical objects, crafted in ancient times, which will be sought after by the Dark Sun and his forces.
The novel’s main protagonist is the teen Corban who suffers all the indignities of young adult life; primarily bullies and a deep longing to begin combat training alongside the older teens of his community in . Corban is a traditional fantasy hero archetype seen in countless fantasy series before: a humble youth from a commoner family with a noble heart and burgeoning skill at arms. It also isn’t long before Corban’s demonstrates that he is also somehow connected to something else, seen during Malice as strange dreams and visions, though Gwynne holds off on fully explaining that mystery.
On the other hand Gwynne offers the ambitious Prince Naithar as the more morally complex counterpoint to the obviously heroic Corban. Naithar is an interesting figure a natural leader but one whose vision is very much black and white; you are either with him or against him. Naithar puts into practice the notion that every villain is the hero of their own story. Even knowing that Naithar is being propped up as the bad guy there is still something compelling about him, a feeling that his ambitions and a genuine desire to do something great with his life is being manipulated. Naithar is guarded by Veradis, a fiercely loyal warrior who is both honest and trustworthy. Loyal to the Prince, his perspective makes watching Naithar’s slide into darkness more interesting.
The other “main” character in Malice is Kastell a warrior whose family was killed long ago. Kastell is accompanied by his bondsman Maquin and the two are searching for somewhere they belong. Kastell and Maquin could easily be the stars of their own novel and I found myself enjoying their chapters the best. There is a sort of wandering warrior vibe and following Kastell and Maquin on their adventures was something I definitely wanted to see more of. However, of the primary narrative viewpoints in the novel Kastell’s seem to be the least connected to the main story. Veradis, as Naithar’s right hand, offers us insight into Naithar’s characters. Corban, as the novels heroic lead, fits into things nicely. However, Kastell doesn’t quite fit and the roll he has to play in the greater story unfolding in Malice isn’t quite as clear as the rest.
Malice has a very traditional feel and eschews the “grim and gritty” tone that marks much of today’s “adult” oriented fantasy. As a result the novel does tend feel a bit more juvenile, particularly given that the hero is young teenager himself. The novel has an uneven opening and I found that Corban’s perspective, while both familiar and comfortable, was the least interesting of the novel. Indeed, Malice improves considerably as the focus expands to include other characters across the landscape. Regardless of this initial stumbling Malice is a strong debut and despite the somewhat familiar ground Gwynne has done an excellent job of piquing my interest in discovering where this story goes next.(less)
The Emperor’s Blades is the tale of two brothers (and a sister, but I’ll get into that later), the sons of the Emperor of Annur. Kaden, the heir to th...moreThe Emperor’s Blades is the tale of two brothers (and a sister, but I’ll get into that later), the sons of the Emperor of Annur. Kaden, the heir to the throne, was sent to a remote monastery to learn the teachings of the Blank God while his younger brother Valyn was sent to join the Kettral, the Empire’s elite military unit. When the Emperor is murdered from within both suddenly find themselves facing more than a little bit of trouble. While Kaden and Valyn face their own threats their sister Adare does her best to hold the Empire together from within its ruling council. The basic structure of The Emperor’s Blades, particularly in how it deals with a geographically scattered ruling family looking to hold their Empire together reminded me a bit of David Anthony Durham’s splendid Acacia series.
Staveley has a keen eye for action and a willingness to delve into the dark and grim that makes The Emperor’s Blades an absolute blast to read. Where Kaden’s parts of the story remind me of traditional epic fantasy, Valyn’s trials in training to join the Kettral reads like excellent military fantasy. Staveley strikes a wonderful balance between these two sections using the visceral excitement of Valyn’s martial challenges to play a wonderful counter beat to the more cerebral nature of Kaden’s narrative. There is a fantastic and engaging dichotomy between those two narratives that really makes the pages fly by.
Unfortunately, where things fall apart is with Adare and the political aspects of the novel which don’t quite hold up to the rest. In truth, Adare, who has an important post in the government but is denied the regency due to being a woman, feels a bit tacked on. Adare’s perspective feels like a wasted opportunity. I don’t have any actual statistics to back this up but it certainly feels like Kaden and Valyn’s narrative take up a larger percentage of The Emperor’s Blades than Adare’s do. The style and pacing of Adare’s perspective mean that switching from either of her brothers to her perspective is jarring and makes her chapters feel like a chore. Adare’s chapters are particularly trying since her character doesn’t seem to be nearly as well-rounded as that of her brothers. She holds the prominent financial position in the Empire’s ruling council but we don’t ever really seem to see her do her job. Where both Kaden and Valyn have opportunities to aptly demonstrate the things they have learned during their respective training Adare doesn’t seem to do more than seethe at her fathers death and plot revenge.
Stavely has created an interesting world in The Emperor’s Blades. I was particularly enamored with the customs and practices of the Kettral and sort of Eastern-themed philosophy of the Blank God was also fascinating. Given the remote locations of both Kaden and Valyn this leaves comparatively little place to actually explore the Empire that Kaden is set to inherit. This is where Adare’s chapters are likely intended to help and while they do reveal some details of the Annur Empire particularly the tension between the entrenched nobility and the religious elite (who primarily hold sway over the common folk). Intentionally or not Adare’s chapters, and some of Kaden’s, reveal that the Annur Empire is not the most benevolent of kingdoms a notion that sort of deadens the reader’s support for Kaden and Valyn. However, Stavely takes pains to demonstrate the characters of of both Kaden and Valyn and at the very least both seem less dedicated to the notion of empire than they do towards their love of one another. Of course there is more to the Annur throne than simply political power and Kaden’s education by the monks of the Blank God reveal deeper and more troubling machinations from outside the bounds of Empire.
The Emperor’s Blades is an excellent debut novel that while familiar in some respects and stumbling in others makes up for its shortcomings with a blistering narrative and keen sense of both action and wonder. While I was disappointed in Adare’s narrative and characterization I maintain a hope (particularly given the revelations later in the novel) that we will see those elements improve. Stavely barely scratches the surface on the more magical elements of his world and while it is somewhat intrinisic to the nature of his world he doesn’t lay out the details too neatly. There is more to be discovered; a sentiment that I think is a worthwhile accomplishment not only in a debut novel but in the first novel of a series. Brian Stavely is one to watch and if you enjoy epic fantasy I think that The Emperor’s Blades is definitely worth checking out.(less)
I seriously enjoyed Victoria Schwab’s The Archived so I decided to give her adult novel Vicious a spin. At its most superficial Vicious is a novel abo...moreI seriously enjoyed Victoria Schwab’s The Archived so I decided to give her adult novel Vicious a spin. At its most superficial Vicious is a novel about people with superpowers and how those power affect their lives. Upon close inspection Vicious is in truth a deconstruction of a superhero mythos wrapped up in a careful psychological character study of two very similar men. The comic book fan in me can’t help but note the similarities in Vicious’ story to the history between the Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards and his own arch-nemesis Victor Von Doom. While Vicious’ Eli and Victor are friends at the start of the novel their is a toxicity and volatility to their relationship that makes their eventual conflict feel almost inevitable.
Vicious‘ plot unfold across multiple time periods ranging from 10 years earlier to the months, weeks, and days leading up to the present. Victor is the protagonist of Vicious and Schwab does a splendid job of giving reader a glimpse inside his head. It is readily apparent, early in the in novel the Victor Vale (nice nod to the funny books with the alliteration) is a sociopath with some severe family issues. I loved the little touches to Victor’s personality particular his art: defacing the works of his self-help author parents with a sharpie to change the meaning of their words. There is some wonderful synergy to Victor’s seeming compulsion to deface his parent’s work that speaks to the malleability of perspective that belies the immutability of the written word. Victor’s college roommate, Eli is also something of a sociopath however Schwab never lets readers in his head the same way she does with Victor. Once readers are finally given a glimpse inside Eli’s mind it has already grown too difficult to separate the truth from Victor’s previous observations. Given the psyche of both the lead characters Schwab does a fantastic job of make both Victor and Eli’s perspectives on the world equally viable versions of the truth.
There is really no “heroism” in Vicious both Victor and Eli are men whose own needs supersede anything even remotely resembling the greater good. Schwab examines how deeply flawed individuals may react to the sudden manifestation of power. She places that power in the hands of men to whom altruism is a seemingly foreign concept and then takes that idea to its logical, and bloody, conclusion. Despite the seemingly simple premise of Vicious, Schwab has created a complex and engaging novel. Victor is an astoundingly complex character who despite his seeming lack of empathy remains easy to root for. That being said Vicious is a bleak novel. By and large the characters, plot and tone of the novel do not help engender feelings of goodwill towards man and the questions it raises resonate with a discomforting atonal quality. I think that speaks in Vicious’ favor.
Vicious is a clever, enthralling story that while somewhat familiar to those rooted in the world of the comics manages to tell a story in an original manner. Schwab’s ability to craft believable characters is integral to the novel’s plot and while the novel’s protagonist might not be the most noble of individuals there is a certain entrancing charm to his personality that pulls readers in. The audiobook edition of Vicious is quite excellent and narrator Noah Michael Levine definitely elevates the narrative with his distinct portrayals of both Victor and Eli. Schwab, a relatively new author, has an accomplished voice all her own and she is definitely someone to keep an eye on.(less)
The internet, in all it’s messy democratic glory, has opened up the door for not only the exploration of new formats of storytelling but also to once...moreThe internet, in all it’s messy democratic glory, has opened up the door for not only the exploration of new formats of storytelling but also to once explore formats of old. The notion of the “serial” is nothing new from Dickens,to radio, to television, to comics it is a long lived means of telling a story. In the 21st century the proliferation of the internet, and particularly its mobility, have opened the floodgates for the serial’s return. Sean Platt and David W. Wright are the founders of Collective Inkwell where they have focused on telling serialized stories. Recently, the duo signed a deal with Amazon’s 47North which is how I came to stumble upon the audiobook version of Yesterday’s Gone: Season 1.
I love postapocalyptic fiction, I have ever since I first read The Stand in my teens, so I decided to give Yesterday’s Gone a shot. The novel has an interesting premise: several people wake up one day to find that most everybody else in the world is gone. Each of the individuals who wake up seem to come from different walks of life with seemingly no rhyme or reason as to how they survived. As they begin to explore this new, empty world they begin to encounter strange scenes and horrifying creatures. Season One introduces readers to a variety of characters and, if truth be told, perhaps a few too many characters.
Four characters stand out as the most interesting: Luca, Edward, Charlie, and Boricio. Edward, an escaped fugitive at the start of the novel gets more and more interesting as the novel progresses. This culminates in a final and fascinating twist at the end of the novel. Luca, a young boy with strange powers is fascinating and the author’s really manage to capture the personality of a child quite well. Charlie, the son of a single mother with an abusive step-father, is an almost cookie cutter example of a geeky outsider whose anger at being ostracized by his peers and abused by his step-father leave him ripe for suggestion from a charismatic figure. Enter Boricio, a character who readers quickly learn is a serial killer but one with a wit and wisdom that makes his chapters tolerable, though it does not make him any more likable. These four characters form. While these characters to get the bulk of narrative Season One would have felt like a more focued narrative had it focused on a smaller cast of characters rather than the larger cast it does focus. Instead, while the novel opens strong the plot slows to a crawl in the middle third before taking off again as it heads towards its conclusion.
Season One of Yesterday’s Gone doesn’t offer a lot of answers about the central mysteries it introduces. It adds many complications and not a few twists and the author’s excel at pushing the boundaries of violence a bit towards the novel’s end. There is a moment in a bathroom towards the end of the novel that had me squirming in my seat. The fact the novel offers more questions than it does answers doesn’t really bother me. The mostly excellent pacing and fascinating premise push the novel forward. This is aided by a fascinating and diverse voice cast who by and large do an almost universally fantastic job at bring the book to life. While the book doesn’t bring any of the “big name” narrators out there, the folks at Podium Publishing have brought together a talented cast and produced a professional and exciting audiobook.
Now, I enjoyed the plot of Yesterday’s Gone and by and large I found the characters interesting and engaging. But Yesterday’s Gone: Season 1 has a major problem with the female perspective which by and large seems to be almost non-existent with some exceptions. Women in Yesterday’s Gone seem to be there to be rescued or protected, with very little variance. Mary Olson seems to be there only to defer to mysteriously sexy neighbor and to fret over her daughter’s well being. The closest Season 1 gets to a female protagonist is Mary’s daughter Paola but there is very little time spent with her; not nearly enough for to get a definitive bead on her character. While it happens “off screen” there is at least one rape in the novel. Charlie, who witnesses the GHB-induced rape, misinterprets the scene as consensual and runs off in a huff. So this rape serves as a “turning point” for Charlie and to solidify another character as a villain a fact which was already glaringly obvious. It’s stupid, unnecessary and serves nothing beyond shock value. [Note: I always turn to Jim C. Hines two-part post on writing about rape when I encounter it in fiction. I can't think of any other resource that talks about it. Part 1 and Part 2]
Given the above I don’t know if I can honestly recommend Yesterday’s Gone: Season 1. I was definitely intrigued by the mysteries and engaged by some of the characters but there is an unevenness to the prose and a reliance on shock-value that seems a by-product of the form. Platt and Wright arent’s exactly veterans so there is a chance things improve as the series progresses but given the author’s include a “Warning” in the publisher’s summary I don’t think my major complaints will be addressed. However, if you a junkie for postapocayptic fiction that I think you can safely give Season 1 shot.(less)