Warning: this is the fourth book in a five-book series, and for anyone who hasn't read all the previous books, there will be spoile...moreFantasy Review Barn
Warning: this is the fourth book in a five-book series, and for anyone who hasn't read all the previous books, there will be spoilers ahead, so read at your own risk.
When I first saw the title of this book, I deduced that the widow was Clara, whose husband Dawson was executed as a traitor in a previous book. Clara had a walk-on part in the first book, and her own chapters thereafter, but now she finally takes centre-stage, not necessarily as a player in her own right (although to some extent she is), but more specifically as the mother of sons involved in different ways in the ongoing war. So, the widow's house: not a physical house, but house as in family.
Clara is one of four point of view characters, to cover the full scale of the war that's been gradually building since book one. The four are: Geder, the Regent and spider-priest-motivated driving force behind it; Cithrin, the banker opposed to him for personal as well as ideological reasons; Marcus the soldier with a long, battle-scarred history; and Clara herself. The book follows the Game of Thrones principle, where chapters from different characters rotate, although here the rotation is quite regular. This has the usual disadvantage: a cliff-hanger at the end of a chapter can't be resolved until that character's turn comes round again, usually four chapters later. Authors, please don't do this, it's very annoying. At its best, the plot flows seamlessly from one character's point of view to the next, but mostly there's that little hiccup of adjustment when you flip to a new chapter, that where-were-we? moment.
When Abraham pitched this series, he offered either a three book version or this, the five book version. This is the first point at which I'm tempted to say: three might have been better. The actual events of this book could be written on half an A4 sheet of paper, and not using an abnormally small font, either. The story doesn't sprawl in the way that some other, very expansive, series do (George R R Martin, I'm looking at you...), but it isn't tightly written, either. Now, in the hands of a master wordsmith like Abraham, this isn't a problem. A chapter curls around you like smoke, warm and comforting (like Clara’s pipe, if you want the full analogy), and it's only afterwards that you think: nothing very much happened there. This is particularly obvious with Clara's thread, since she's thrown into the role of an observer of the war and not much else. I like Clara, but her plotline was stretched very thin here.
The author's great strength (OK, one of his many great strengths - can you tell I'm a fan?) is the depth of characterisation and so it is here. All the characters feel fully rounded and as real as anyone you could meet in real life. Even Geder, or perhaps especially Geder. In many ways he’s a villain of the first order, but also a deeply insecure and uncertain man. And some of his moments with Prince Aster, the heir to the throne, show him as a caring, even compassionate man, with a certain wisdom. His care for the pregnant wife of his best friend (and possibly only friend) is both moving and slightly creepy in its intensity. The previous books were littered with horrifying 'Geder moments' like the burning of Vanai, or the summary execution of his closest advisers, with the result that you tiptoe through Geder’s chapters wondering when he’s going to explode. He still has no sense of perspective, and puts far too much trust in the spider priests who have an agenda of their own. The most worrying aspect of Geder, for me, is that I actually like him, or, I suppose, pity and sympathise with him. He's done some terrible things, but he's also an enormously tragic character, and part of me desperately wants him to find a happy ending, to settle down somewhere to a quiet, obscure life with his books.
Cithrin, on the other hand, irritates me. She always has, although her juvenile behaviour in the early books was at least understandable by virtue of her age and social inexperience. Her sole function seems to be to do incredibly stupid things for most of the book, or to lounge around in a drunken depression, getting into trouble and being rescued by everyone else, and then pull a rabbit out of a hat at the last minute and have everyone proclaim her a genius. Two cities have fallen solely because of her stupidity, and she's not done yet. Pah. Marcus I like a lot, although he's typical of the stoical, worldly-wise, slightly cynical warrior type, whose experience keeps him out of a lot of trouble. And keeps others out of trouble too. But then I have a soft spot for stoical, slightly cynical warrior types. And I do like sidekick Yardem. Especially his ears. It was nice to find out a little more of their dramatic history, and highly entertaining when the pair of them turned up at Carse to have everyone say: ‘Yeah, yeah, sure you’re Marcus Wester and Yardem Hale… Whoa!’
While we're on the subject of characters, I’m a big fan of Vincen Coe, Clara’s servant-turned-lover, but please, Mr Abraham, will you stop beating him up? However, my absolute favourite in this book has to be Inys (and if you don't know who Inys is, go back and reread book three, last chapter). Everything he says and does is entirely believable, given his history and his nature. Plus he has some of the best moments in the book. Him and the pirates. I mean, pirates and a dragon - what are you waiting for, folks? Go out and buy this book immediately.
There are a few minor grumbles. The cunning men (sorcerers, basically) become even more useful in this book, but there’s no explanation of what they do or how it works. Much of their capability is dismissed as mere trickery, put on to impress people, yet their talent for healing seems to be quite real and rather useful. A little more detail about them would be nice. And a surprising grumble: my Kindle version had an astonishing number of typos in it, far more than I would expect in a major release like this (and this wasn’t an ARC copy, it was the actual day-of-release version).
This book feels far more like a transition than the previous ones in the series. Everything is being put in place for the final confrontation, but there were no huge out-of-nowhere moments, just some nice little twists that made me smile. And somehow it felt repetitious, both in phraseology (fingers were repeatedly laced together, cotton was fresh from the boll), but also in plot terms - the Cithrin plan, the dramatic escapes, the out-of-nowhere attacks, yet I never felt that the main characters were seriously at risk. Even Geder was milder this time round, still creepy as hell, especially over Cithrin, but perhaps less likely to explode at any moment, channelling his energies into his best friend’s wife and baby, and a clever little piece of engineering research. However, the important factor in this book was the shift in attitude. From being an unstoppable force, Geder and the spider priests now have vulnerabilities, and the opposition have plans and weapons. And a dragon. Inys wasn't the get-out-of-jail-free card that might have been expected, but he's still a wild card. I have no idea how this is going to end, but I can't wait to find out. Four stars.(less)
If I’d known going in that this was the twenty-fourth book in this particular series, perhaps I might have expected some problems. But it was a book g...moreIf I’d known going in that this was the twenty-fourth book in this particular series, perhaps I might have expected some problems. But it was a book group read, recommended by one of the members, and it seemed to be right up my alley – a murder mystery set in Victorian times. Well, that sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Something light and entertaining, but with a more interesting background than the usual inner-city fare or the Marple-esque twee rural village beloved of the writers of cosy mysteries.
But all that backstory inevitably cast a pall over proceedings. This is not the sort of series where everything resets at the end of each book. It’s clear that there have been years (perhaps decades) of interaction between most of the principle characters. To say they have history doesn’t begin to cover it. To be fair, the author fills in the details pretty well, and it wasn’t too confusing. The problem was that the earlier events sounded so much more interesting than this book. The lead character’s wife, Charlotte, for instance, and her sister Emily, who are nothing more than domestic goddesses in this book, appear in some earlier existence to have done a great deal of sleuthing on their own account. Now that’s a book I would willingly read.
Then there was the subject matter of this particular story, which revolves around anarchists, corruption in the police force and a plan to introduce laws to allow the police to be armed and to have greater powers in their investigations. Since it’s well known that the British police are not routinely armed to this day, there’s no dramatic tension in that particular plot line. It seems to be merely a platform for the author to express her own views through the characters, who hold endless worried conversations about how dreadful such a step would be, and blah blah blah. Yes, yes, but it gets old very quickly.
None of this would have mattered if the plot had ripped along or the dialogue sparkled or the characters were lively, but sadly, it was not so. After the initial excitement of bombings and shootings (where our hero Pitt repeatedly displays his over-sensitive horror at such dreadful goings on in England), the plot settles into a rather dull political affair. The writing style is loosely in the manner of Victorian novelists, although with intrusive diversions to explain subtleties of social propriety which the reader is (presumably) too stupid to understand otherwise. None of the characters really came alive for me, but perhaps they were constrained by the formality of the era. There were moments where the author captured the atmosphere of London in a truly evocative way – the scenes beside the river, for instance – but mostly the writing was workmanlike rather than compelling.
I suspect that the earlier books in the series were much more readable. This felt like a tired effort, where the author had run out of ideas and possibly even interest in the series, but was soldiering on in the interests of fan satisfaction. No doubt those who’ve read the preceding 23 books will love this one, but it wasn’t for me. I got to 30% before I gave up on it. One star for a DNF.(less)
I bought this for all the wrong reasons. It’s not my usual genre (paranormal urban fantasy) in any way, but... it’s set in Liverpoo...moreFantasy Review Barn
I bought this for all the wrong reasons. It’s not my usual genre (paranormal urban fantasy) in any way, but... it’s set in Liverpool, and that was a huge attraction. There’s a special buzz in reading a book where the action takes place in Lime Street station, the Mersey ferry, Edge Hill, Sefton Park and even Bidston Hill, all places I know well. So I was prepared to take a punt on this, and step outside my comfort zone for a while. And it almost worked.
Lily McCain is a young woman with a secret: when she touches anyone, skin on skin, she gets a vision of their future. And however horrible it is, she can’t do anything to prevent it. No wonder she avoids contact with anyone, not easy given her chosen profession of music reporter for the local paper, which requires her to spend her time in packed clubs. But then one day a mysterious stranger turns up, tells her that she’s really, really special, so special she’s destined to save the world (or at least be his mate and have his babies), whereupon various other mysterious strangers start trying to kill her. And there’s a bunch about the Otherworld and the High King, and Ireland comes into it somewhere, and... OK, I got all fuzzy about the plot at this point. And really, it doesn’t much matter. There are good guys and bad guys, all right? And all Lily has to do is work out which is which.
There’s a lot to enjoy about this (besides Sefton Park having some kind of magic portal in it, which amused me no end). It’s an easy read, with some great humour, and Lily and her amusing sidekick Carmel are true feisty Scouse birds (when not curled up in wardrobes crying, that is). There are a few quibbles, though.
Quibble number one: vampires, because... no, actually, I don’t need a ‘because’. Just vampires. Ok, they’re background characters, and they have a goth band, naturally, which mitigates the effect, but really – vampires. It’s a testament to the strength of the writing that I didn’t toss the book (I’m SO allergic to the blood-sucking undead).
Quibble number two: scorching hot blokes (and some of the women too). Apart from Lily and Carmel, everyone seems to be impossibly hot and fit and awesomely honed. Which is kind of tedious. I like a bit more realism than that.
Quibble number three: logic failures. Now, I read a lot of fantasy, so I’m perfectly capable of believing six impossible things before breakfast, but the internal logic has to be consistent. And I just can’t accept that Gabriel (the aforementioned High King and Lily’s designated mate) would dump her at age six with one of the least sensible carers in the known universe. That makes no sense. And then only turn up again when there's a crisis looming only days away. She's in her twenties, for goodness sake, surely you could have dropped in a little sooner with the 'By the way, there's something you ought to know...' speech? And then there’s Lily herself. I lost count of the number of times someone said to her: whatever you do, don’t do X. And what’s the first thing she does? Of course it is. It’s a wonder she survived past chapter three.
Now, to be fair, these are all personal gripes of mine, and I’m sure the vast majority of the intended audience doesn’t care about a bit of wobbly logic. The writing is a little uneven – the scene where Lily returns to her nan’s house and emotes all over it goes on way too long, for instance. Plus there are numerous moments where the story felt contrived in order to squeeze in another famous Liverpool location (did we really need the entire history of the Cavern?). Those few quibbles aside, though, the story’s an entertaining read, with some great humour (only occasionally veering off into silliness), with an ending which avoided the easy options. An enjoyable three stars. Recommended for fans of vampires, hot blokes and Liverpool.(less)
This is the second book the Alchemancer series, following on from ‘The Five Elements’. Like that one, this starts with a bang, lite...moreFantasy Review Barn
This is the second book the Alchemancer series, following on from ‘The Five Elements’. Like that one, this starts with a bang, literally, a mysterious underground explosion in the city of Brighton, just as our heroes from the first book, Aaron, Serena and Ensel Rhe, arrive there, followed almost immediately by demon houndmaster Krosus and his evil pack. In dealing with the hounds, Aaron and Serena manage to get themselves arrested and tossed into the dungeon. It has to be said, the author knows how to drop straight into the action.
After this, the pace lets up just a little, and branches out into multiple point of view threads to ensure that the plot is nicely stirred. There’s the airship which featured in the first book, newly arrived for repairs; there’s a King’s Patroller, whose function I’m not sure about, but he seems to be a good guy; there’s a disgruntled pyromancer; there’s a dwarf underworld boss with a beautiful daughter; there’s an old enemy of Ensel Rhe’s; and there’s a nest of rats-on-steroids under the city, who wear clothes and wield swords and are definitely bad guys. Well, they eat people. Oh, and there’s a machine, the Nullification Engine of the title, which is seriously cool and I can’t wait for the movie to be made to see exactly what it looks like.
Of the characters, Ensel Rhe is the most interesting, with his mysterious past and his super-ninja skills. In the first book, he was rather lightly sketched in, more plot device than rounded character, but here he gets a lot more screen-time and a chance to shine. Every scene he was in sizzled with tension. We learn quite a bit more about him here, which only serves to make him more intriguing. Aaron, the prodigy applying logic and science to largely magical artifacts, is also fun, and I loved the way he cracked the code. Serena worked less well for me. Her conventional upper-class family setting did nothing to make her interesting (to me), and there were times when she simply acted in ways that had me rolling my eyes. Speaking up at the funeral, for instance, and only realising afterwards that it might be a Bad Idea. And when her former mentor tells her to stay away from a device, what is the very first thing she does? Doh.
Of the other characters, they’re nicely drawn and work very well. I particularly liked the newly introduced Jakinda, a nice fiery character. I’m very much looking forward to seeing her in action in the next book. The dwarves were huge fun, too, although why is it dwarves are always the comic relief? I blame Peter Jackson. But the star character for me (if I can describe it this way) was the Nullification Engine itself, which stole the show in every scene it was in, and was a wonderfully unpredictable and fascinating device.
As with the first book, the plot rattles along at a breath-taking pace, with an unpredictable twist in almost every chapter. If I had a beer for every time I muttered ‘Didn’t see THAT coming’ I’d be blind drunk under the table by now. My only complaint is that I had trouble remembering everything that had happened in the first book, so I was flummoxed for a while when certain characters turned up again. A summary would have helped, although to be perfectly fair, I’m very bad at remembering plots in general, so I have the same trouble with every series. In other words, my fault, not the author’s. There’s a list of characters at the front and some good maps, too, as well as a sprinkle of reminders throughout the story, so I got past the confusion stage in the end. There was one plot-thread that I didn’t fully understand, involving Krosus the demon houndmaster and Ursool the witch; I’m still not sure just how things ended up there, but again, I suspect it’s just me not paying attention, since everything else was tied up beautifully, with neat little bows on top.
Another fun read, very entertaining, with a great ending setting everything up nicely for the next book. Highly recommended. Four stars. (less)
I think I must be losing my tolerance for books written to a theme, rather than the author’s burning desire to tell a story. This one is about Raj orp...moreI think I must be losing my tolerance for books written to a theme, rather than the author’s burning desire to tell a story. This one is about Raj orphans, those children of parents busily engaged on the work of the British Empire in India or various parts of the Far East. While their parents swanned around the British Clubs and drank their gins and tonics and suffered from repeated bouts of malaria, the children were brought up by local ayahs or nannies, shipped home to relatives or foster parents at school age and shunted through boarding schools and Oxbridge until they, too, were old enough to be useful to the establishment.
And I’m sure it’s all deeply worthy and symbolic and all the rest of it. Parts of it are unexpectedly glorious, like little stars of perceptiveness in a velvet-black sky of nothingness. Trouble is, the whole wobbly edifice rests on the characters, and, frankly, I never cared about any of them. I like my fiction to tell a story, not be a collection of vignettes of eccentricity. Then there are outbreaks of unforgiveably pretentious writing: "...the train swayed insolently through Clapham Junction." I mean, good grief. I got through fifty percent before giving up. But it’s sold by the shed-load, and the most popular shelf on Goodreads is ‘book club’ so clearly it works for a lot of people. Just not for me. One star for a DNF.(less)
There's always a worry with an author's follow-up to a spectacular debut. Whether you loved or hated the Broken Empire trilogy (Pri...moreFantasy Review Barn
There's always a worry with an author's follow-up to a spectacular debut. Whether you loved or hated the Broken Empire trilogy (Prince/King/Emperor of Thorns), it was hard to ignore and for a while it seemed as if the entire book reading world was in a frenzy about gloriously bad boy, Jorg. So how do you follow something like that? Not with a sequel, that's for sure, because Emperor of Thorns rounded off the story with an unequivocal 'The End'.
So here we are with - not quite a prequel, either. A sort of concurrentquel, if you like. Set in the same world as Broken Empire, but a different part of it with different characters and an independent story, but interweaving to some extent with events of that story. And even the title follows the same pattern; after 'Prince of Fools', will there be a 'King of Fools' and an 'Emperor of Fools' as well? This isn't a good sign, and indeed the book is littered with encounters with the Broken Empire characters. Frankly, I wasn’t so enamoured of most of them that I’m going to be squeeing with delight at meeting them again (although the encounter with Brother Emmer was very funny). Then there are the knowing references to the previous trilogy, like this: Dropping into a thorn bush can lead to no end of grief. Oh, how terribly droll.
So, how does this work out? First big problem is that we already know a great deal about the world and its history. The background that was so deliciously revealed, drop by drop, over the previous three volumes is now out in the open, so the thrill of discovery is lost. It's not that there's nothing new to find out, but (to my mind) once a setting is revealed as just our own world, tenuously placed a thousand years after a major catastrophe, it loses some of its charm. The more real world the setting, the less interesting it is. And some of the customs and quirks which which have (apparently) survived intact after a millennium of anarchy are surprising. The Catholic Church, for instance. And Vikings? Really? Complete with horned helmets? Fantasy requires more suspension of disbelief than most genres, but that stretches my credulity beyond its snapping point.
But never mind the setting, what about the characters? Jorg was such a towering personality it would be impossible to repeat, and the two main characters here are very different. Sadly, they're far from unique. Jalan is fantasy archetype number 27, the dissolute playboy prince, without a serious thought in his head. He's also archetype number 43, the accidental hero, who distinguishes himself in a crisis by running away/falling over and thereby quite inadvertantly managing to kill or capture the bad guy, or otherwise save the day. And the second main character, Snorri the Viking, is archetype number 7, the big, muscular, warrior type, who lays about with an axe and destroys armies single handed.
Now, don't get me wrong, I like archetypes as much as the next reader, and Snorri in particular is quite awesome (Snorri and the bear... oh boy, a highlight of the year; I do so love it when a book surprises me). Jalan, however, isn't quite as successful, mainly because although his charm was much talked about (by him, naturally), it didn't come across too well on the page. Mostly I just found him tedious and whiny, although he does have a way with witty one-liners.
Another issue is the female characters. Tolkien defines three of the four principle archetypes in fantasy; the unattainable princess (Arwen), the warrior babe (Eowyn) and the scary witchy lady (Galadriel). Recent custom has added the whore to the collection. Lawrence has two scary witchy ladies, the Red Queen, who's admittedly more scary and cryptic (in an overpowering, hectoring, schoolmistressy way) than witchy, and the Silent Sister, who's pure undiluted scary witchy, the stuff of nightmares. Necromancer Chella merits a mention, too, and she’s also pretty scary. Then there are a few women who bounce in and out of Jalan's life, without ever being more than sex objects (which is in character for him, so let that pass). However, the elephant rider deserves an honourable mention for being more than an archetype.
And then there are zombies. Now, if you’re the sort of reader who wakes up at this point, thinking: ‘Wait, there are zombies in this? Great, I’m in!’, then you’re probably not going to agree with me here, but honestly, folks, zombies are just so dull and uninteresting and unoriginal and plain naff. Their only purpose is to provide a horde of mindless things who are trying to kill Our Heroes, and who are virtually impossible to kill themselves. It ramps up the tension artificially, but naturally, we all know that Our Heroes will prevail in the end. I can see the point in a video game, but in a novel? Puh-lease.
Shall I mention the plot? Better had. This is a quest/road trip/male bonding/coming of age adventure. Only with lots and lots of ice-bound wilderness and snow. And zombies. That’s probably all anyone needs to know about the plot. You’ll pick it up as you go along.
This seems like a lot of negatives, doesn't it? What saves it is that Lawrence can write. Every sentence is a carefully crafted work of art, and there are occasional phrases and even single perfectly-judged words, which light up the page like shafts of sunshine peeking from between the clouds. And it's funny, too, the same laugh-out-loud humour which shone through even Jorg's most despicable acts. Despite the world being known and the archetypes and the unoriginal plot and the wretched zombies and the endless snow, the thing is always compellingly readable.
The ending is good fun in an over the top, just one more even badder thing to defeat, sort of way, heaping one impossible-to-survive disaster on another. It was kind of exciting, but I was never convinced that Jalan and pals were totally screwed (it's a trilogy, hint, hint), and some of the twists were blindingly obvious (although fortunately not all, or it would have been very dull). I confess I got a little tired of the we're-safe-oh-no-we're-not repetition, combined with the sheer volume of blood and guts and dismemberment and the whole undead unpleasantness. This is definitely more on the horror end of the spectrum.
Is it as good as the Broken Empire books? For my money, no, it doesn’t quite have that breath-taking brilliance that blew me away. But in many ways it’s a more conventional book, and for a lot of readers who struggled with Jorg, that will make it a more enjoyable exercise. For me, for whom Jorg was a revelation, this was a very slightly disappointing come down. Three stars. Although... Snorri and the bear merit another half a star, at least, so let’s round up to four stars.(less)
It's a strange thing, but I had 'Prince of Thorns' sitting on my Kindle for a full year before I got round to reading it. I'd read...moreFantasy Review Barn
It's a strange thing, but I had 'Prince of Thorns' sitting on my Kindle for a full year before I got round to reading it. I'd read the reviews, I knew something of what it was about, I knew it would be good, but I kept putting it off. Part of me felt: well, it's probably not as good as the rumours have it, I'll only be disappointed so no point in rushing. Eventually, when not just the second but the third book in the trilogy was imminent, I grudgingly made the time for it. And it blew me away. The second part, 'King of Thorns', was a spottier affair with some creakiness, but I loved it despite those weaknesses. And here I am with the final part of the story, and I already know it really is final. The author has said there will be no more.
A brief recap, with spoilers for books 1 and 2: Jorg is still king of the tiny mountain kingdom of Renar, but since his defeat of the Prince of Arrow, he's acquired several more kingdoms. He's married to Miana, an alliance which secured the help of his maternal kin in the battle against Arrow. This book has moved on a year or two, and Miana is now pregnant. The primary timeline is the journey to Vyene, the seat of the emperor, for the four-yearly congression where the petty kings and their ever-shifting allegiances try to agree on a new emperor. To vote on the matter, no less. I really like the idea of electing an emperor in a world of swords and castles and constant border wars. You’d think it would be settled on the battlefield, and to some extent it is (that’s how Jorg acquired some of his votes, after all), but in the end everyone gets together and negotiates. The secondary timeline carries on with the flashback sequence from book 2, with Jorg ambling about at the behest of the 'ghost in the machine', Fexler Brews (is that an anagram?), and grubbing around in the almost-but-not-quite-functional left-overs of the long-ago Builders’ world. There are other occasional flashbacks tossed out here and there, as appropriate. And instead of the strained device of Katherine's diary, we get the journey of Chella, the necromancer.
For almost half the book, I was just a little disappointed. Many of the complaints I had about the second book are here again: the disjointed timeline that hops about, the seemingly random traveling through the landscape. The writing is not exactly lacklustre, the author is too adept for that, but it's very repetitious in places. I'd like a pound for everyone who spat, or for every time giving birth was described as squeezing out a baby. Meh. But then suddenly everything cranks up a gear and we're back with lots of glorious Jorgness and all's right with the world again.
Jorg is a much more mature person now, although still prone to outbreaks of kill-everything temper. But he's beginning to think more carefully about the consequences of his actions, and when he goes walkabout, he takes care to leave the rest of the crew behind out of harm's way. When he does kill he has a reason for it (although yes, sometimes it's pure revenge), and he takes care to leave the minimum of blameworthy mess behind him. He has more than just himself and his fellow road-brothers to consider - there's the imminent arrival of his firstborn, and that’s an interesting challenge for him and no mistake. How will Jorg take to fatherhood, given his dire relationship with his own father?
None of the other characters quite rise to three-dimensional roundedness. He still has his sidekicks, Makin, Rike, Marten and so on, who have developed a solidity through familiarity, and a variety of lesser characters pass through his life, but they are no more than momentary glimpses. That's appropriate, however, since this is entirely Jorg's story, told in the first person, so we see these people as he sees them and when he moves on, they're gone. This being our world in some future time (a thousand or more years in the future), it's disappointing how much cultural baggage seems to have been carried along. The Catholic church, the African man who was an ex-slave, the Muslim Arab world - given the enormity of the 'Day of a Thousand Suns', the apocalyptic event a thousand or so years ago, and the number of people who must have died, and the turmoil since, it's astonishing that any cultural norms survived unscathed. A thousand years is a very long time.
A word about women in Jorg's world. It's striking that all the dynamic characters are men. Men run most of the petty kingdoms, and beyond that there are few women even mentioned. Just occasionally a woman turns up where a man might be expected (a female Pope? Really? Even a thousand years from now? Did hell freeze over in the interim?), but generally speaking the female characters are an insignificant part of the plot. The men run kingdoms or wave swords about, but the women, not so much. Miana, a truly strong, proactive female, is only there as a single strike get-out-of-jail-free card in book 2, and to produce the son and heir in book 3. There is a moment at the very end where Miana is the blindingly obvious choice for one specific role, but no, Makin is chosen instead. Disappointing. Katherine does better, at least having an agenda of her own (even if I wasn’t always clear why she did certain things), but she is also sexual fantasy and motivation for Jorg, and her magic, cool as it is, is not much more than a convenient plot device. I would have loved her to do something truly worthwhile in the big finale, but no, she seems to have just as little purpose in this book as in book 2. And Chella? More sexual fantasy and plot device. As for the female Pope, I'm not sure whether that was a random gender-neutral choice, or whether Lawrence is actually making a point about organised religion here, but whatever the reason for it, I loved how Jorg dealt with her. Way to go, Jorg!
There are various aspects of the plot which come together beautifully as the book develops. One is the straightforward political story - the fractured empire with the unremitting squabbling for supremacy amongst those who see themselves as entitled to claim the emperor’s throne. Then there is the slowly revealed world left behind by the Builders, with their high-tech gizmos, some of which have survived intact, even though their original functions may have been long forgotten. There’s a cool game observant readers can play - spotting which modern device is actually masquerading as an unfathomably mysterious Builder artifact. Finally, there is magic - inadvertently released into the world by a Builder-created catastrophe and over time spinning increasingly out of control, so that even the dead walk again, led by the mysterious Dead King.
Then there’s the ending. There are several shifts before things come to a final stop, and some are as expected, and some are predictable in one way or another, and some are moments where I thought: ah, yes, I see where this is going. Except that it didn't. And then a final switch that I didn't see coming at all, but it is utterly brilliant and entirely fitting. Ever since I finished reading, the story has been swirling round in my head. I go to sleep thinking about it. I wake up thinking about it. It’s rare for a book to get under my skin quite so much. Partly that’s due to the towering personality of Jorg himself, both boy and man. Whether you love him or hate him, he’s totally unforgettable. Partly, too, it’s the unusual combination of medieval-style fantasy plus magic, with the still fuctioning technology of the Builders playing a very active role in events. And partly, of course, it’s the author’s spare writing style and uncompromising approach to telling the story. It may have offended some readers, but it is entirely in keeping with Jorg’s personality.
I'm not going to attempt to describe what these books are 'about'. Everyone who reads them will have a different take on it. For me, it was Jorg's sheer bloody-mindedness which struck a chord. If someone told him he couldn't do something, his usual response was: just watch me. Something in me just loves that about him. Yes, he was a mess, an evil bastard who slaughtered his way to the top without remorse. Yet there were occasional hints about the normal well-meaning person he might have been if life had treated him better. There’s a flashback to a point when he’s about ten or so, and to earn the respect of his road brothers he volunteers to spy out the thieving possibilities of an abbey by joining as an orphan. He’s set to work with the other orphans:
“It turns out there’s a certain satisfaction in digging. Levering your dinner from the ground, lifting the soil and pulling fine hard potatoes from it, thinking of them roasted, mashed, fried in oil, it’s all good. Especially if it wasn’t you who had to tend and weed the field for the previous six months. Labour like that empties the mind and lets new thoughts wander in from unsuspected corners. And in the moments of rest, when we orphans faced each other, mud-cheeked, leaning on our forks, there’s a camaraderie that builds without you knowing it. By the end of the day I think the big lad, David, could have called me an idiot a second time and survived.”
I don’t think it gives away too much to say that Jorg’s time at the abbey doesn’t end well (it’s a flashback, after all), but for me this scene is the most poignant in the whole trilogy.
For those who hated the first book because of the way Jorg is - his propensity to kill, rape and otherwise cause havoc wherever he goes - you might like to know that this book puts his behaviour in a different perspective. Yes, he's done some terrible things, and he does a few more in this book, but in the end his willingness to cross lines and think the unthinkable, his determination, his inability to compromise and his desire to put himself on the emperor's throne whatever the cost are exactly what's needed to take the final step to mend the Broken Empire. It had to be done, and it took a long time for the right person to come along. If Jorg is an extreme example of humankind, it's because he needed to be.
This book, indeed the whole series, isn’t perfect. Nothing is. It is lumpy in places, and slow in others, and sometimes Jorg is too over-the-top for words. But it’s also sharply funny and slyly clever, and written in an incisive, focused style that makes a refreshing change from a lot of rambling fantasy. And that’s another question - is it even fantasy at all, since it veers so close to science fiction? To my mind, it transcends genre classifications altogether, and enters the realm of greatness. Whatever you call it, it’s a masterpiece of in-depth character analysis, with an ingeniously interwoven setting and a mind-blowing and absolutely right ending. A fine piece of writing. Five stars.(less)
Ah, that difficult middle book of the trilogy! The one that carries all the baggage of the first without the freshness, while also...moreFantasy Review Barn
Ah, that difficult middle book of the trilogy! The one that carries all the baggage of the first without the freshness, while also setting up the climax of the third without being able to resolve the big questions. All too often it feels like drifting - there’s motion of a sort, but it’s slow or undirected. There’s an element of that here. What seems like the main plot, the massive army of the Prince of Arrows camped at Jorg’s gate, seems to play second fiddle to the flashback story which feels like nothing so much as a road trip. If it had a magic gizmo to be found or a Big Bad to defeat, we could call it a quest, but actually it just feels like ambling through the scenery. Look, a circus. And some Vikings. Here’s a swamp, and some ghosts, and ooh! zombies! And now let’s visit the family. Wait, now we’ve got a sort of murder mystery. It’s all a bit choppy. Of course, even a road trip is brilliant fun with Jorg.
To recap: the fourteen-year-old who grabbed a throne as part of his revenge plot in book 1 is now eighteen, getting married and simultaneously facing up to the massive army of the would-be emperor, the Prince of Arrows. Interspersed with that are flashbacks starting four years earlier, filling in some of the missing four years. As if that wasn’t enough, there are also snippets from the journal of Katherine, Jorg’s step-aunt, for whom he has the hots, which are also flashbacks and also reveal crucial information just when the author wants to. And on top of all that is possibly the most outrageous device ever for witholding information from the reader - the memory box. This is an ingenious twist on the old bump on the head amnesia trick; Jorg has done something so terrible that the memory of it has been taken from his mind and put into a box. So we get little reveals trickled out over the whole course of the book as Jorg almost-but-not-quite opens the box.
I have to be honest and say that I found these different threads confusing. In ‘Prince of Thorns’, there was a now plot and a four-years-ago plot, and the two wove together very well. Here, the multiple timelines meant that more than once I had a wait-I-thought-he-was-dead moment, and had to think quite carefully to work it out. It’s very disconcerting to grieve over the death of a character one moment only to have him appear alive and well a few pages later. Sometimes it felt like there was a page or three missing. At one point, Katherine turns up with the Brothers - why? How did that happen? And the calculated dribbling of those reveals felt quite contrived, especially the big one at the end, which borders on cheating.
The background to this world continues to open up in intriguing ways. When I read 'Prince', there was still room for a tiny sliver of doubt about this post-apocalyptic world, that perhaps it might be some parallel but freakishly similar world to our own, almost the same but not quite. Not any longer. Even in a universe of infinite possibilities, there can surely only be one world which has 'American Pie' in it. We get to see some of the Builders’ devices, and find out what the Tall Tower really is (or was, perhaps). I have to say, I’m not sure that I buy into the idea that such things could last a thousand years unscathed. I assume the Builders’ heyday was a little after our own, with technology just a bit more advanced.
Jorg has matured somewhat, which is hardly surprising. In the earlier parts, when he’s still around fourteen or so, he still has his let’s-just-do-this attitude, where he listens carefully to advice (“This is a bad idea, Jorg”) and then cheerfully ignores it. He’s still reckless and careless of his own (or anyone else’s) welfare. But by the latest time shown here (when he’s eighteen), he is definitely on top of his game, showing an astonishing degree of forward planning, and becoming quite philosophical to boot. He deals unexpectedly gently with his bride, Miana, and while he’s never exactly sentimental, he’s certainly less cavalier with his friends.
I have to say that Miana is one of my all time favourite fantasy princesses. She smart and resourceful and apparently just as likely to take the spectacular one-shot chance as Jorg, and she probably has the funniest lines in the book. Katherine, on the other hand - not sure what to make of her. I’m not at all sure what Jorg sees in her, except that she’s unattainable and therefore he’s determined to get her. Meh. The rest of the characters - I have to confess that I found the Brothers fairly undistinguishable. It’s not that they don’t have differences, it’s more that I can never remember which one is which. Plus Jorg sheds them like dandruff; no point getting attached to a character that could be dead two pages further on. Of the others, I liked Uncle Robert and Makin and Gog and the big guy (Gorgoth?). And the Vikings - gotta love the Vikings.
With book 1, I had very little to grumble about, and this review seems like a catalogue of complaints by contrast. Doesn’t matter. Jorg’s wild journey to the emperor’s throne is as compelling as ever. Lawrence has a wonderfully vivid writing style which makes even the craziest moments pop out into stark 3D relief, so that images linger unforgettably. In the cave with Ferrakind and Gog. The ghost in the basement. Miana and the ruby. The swamp. And the dog - ye gods, the dog. I’m sitting here trying not to cry just thinking about it. I rarely find books that have such emotional depth, and there’s also an intellectual depth, if I could only tear myself away from the racing story for a second to ponder it. I like Lawrence’s economical way with words, too; he never uses twenty or even ten words where four will do, but every one chosen with surgical precision.
I know not everyone approves of Jorg’s style. He’s basically a villain, a lying, cheating scumbag, and there’s a wonderful contrast here with the heroic Prince Orrin of Arrow, the honourable selfless leader that everyone likes. His meeting with Jorg early in the book is heart-rending. But this is not a story of heroes, and I loved watching Jorg’s progress. Yes, he cheats, he’s prepared to do whatever it takes to win, but he’s smart, he’s endlessly creative, he’s wickedly funny and he never hesitates to put his own life on the line. This book isn’t quite as smooth as the first book, but it’s still an astonishing performance. Five stars. And now on to ‘Emperor’...(less)
Such a tricky one to categorise: a real genre-bender. There are shades of sci-fi, but it’s a flimsy connection - no squids in space...moreFantasy Review Barn
Such a tricky one to categorise: a real genre-bender. There are shades of sci-fi, but it’s a flimsy connection - no squids in space and it’s (more or less) present day. It might be called fantasy, but there are no truly fantastical elements like magic or dragons or demons. It’s sorta, kinda paranormal - yes, let’s go with that. A paranormal police procedural action thriller...
This is a fascinating premise: certain people have the ability to revive the recently dead and talk to them. The effects only last a short time, but it's enough to allow loved ones the opportunity to say goodbye, or to allow a murder victim to name their killer. The hero here, Jonah, is one such reviver, working with the police to catch villains or, in some cases, to exonerate the most likely suspect. It sounds all good, right? But of course, there's a catch. The act of revival takes a toll, mentally and physically, on those performing it, and sometimes strange things happen. Cue dramatic music...
This is a real curate's egg of a book. Some parts, especially the actual revivals, are absolutely terrific - emotionally engaging, dramatic and oh so spooky, and quite unpredictable (to me, anyway). Other parts I found a total drag. After a great opening chapter, the author feels the need to dump the entire backstory of revivals, and various characters, on our heads. This means, sometimes, entire chapters of dry exposition. Sorry, but I just don't need to know that much, and definitely not all in one go. If parts of the backstory are relevant to the here and now, then dribble it out in small quantities at an appropriate time.
The characters - well, the author has tried his damnedest to give everyone a suitably affecting background so as to make them sympathetic, and to some extent that works because it's relevant to the story. Jonah's history, for instance, led directly to his becoming a reviver, and moreover a certain type of reviver which becomes crucial later in the story (not wanting to give too much away here), so I can accept that. But somehow it never quite worked for me. I never really cared much about any of them. The main problem, though, is way too many characters. There must be dozens of named characters here, and I just can't keep that many straight in my head. Towards the end, several dramatic reappearances were spoiled for me because I was saying: who?
Towards the end, the plot devolves into standard formulaic thriller territory. You know the sort of thing: people suddenly turn up waving weapons of one sort or another, or behaving in increasingly extreme ways, culminating in the giant oh-my-god-we're-all-going-to-die palaver that goes on and on, getting increasingly over the top. And of course, people inevitably stop to explain things to each other, or rush back into the burning building/line of fire/whatever to rescue people they don't even like very much. Unbelievably silly, in fact. I know it's pretty much what everyone expects from this kind of story, but personally I'd much rather the characters behaved sensibly and stayed within their realm of expertise.
Overall, an intriguing premise ripe with possibilities which the author explores quite thoroughly, let down by too much exposition and a way too melodramatic and long-drawn-out finale for my taste. Recommended for fans of all-action high-adrenalin summer-blockbuster-style drama, with a little horror thrown in. Four stars for the spine-chilling revivals, two stars for the info-dumps and three stars for the ending, averaging out at three stars.(less)
This is a break away from fantasy for the author, but not very far. It’s technically science fiction - a guy builds a time machine...moreFantasy Review Barn
This is a break away from fantasy for the author, but not very far. It’s technically science fiction - a guy builds a time machine in his Detroit garage, and after a diagnosis of terminal cancer he decides he has nothing to lose by trying it out. He sets things up for a jump two hundred years into the future, where, if he’s really lucky and survives the jump at all, there may be a cure. But - oops, slight miscalculation, and here we are two thousand years on. There’s a certain amount of arm-waving about quantum this and that, but the sciencey bits are not what this is all about. To be honest, it felt a lot like a portal story, where an ordinary joe from the present day finds himself in - well, alternate universe, past, future, whatever. So I’d say it’s as much fantasy as science fiction.
The future the author draws for the reader is an interesting one. Humans have abandoned the surface of the planet altogether after a series of ecological disasters destabilised everything, and now live in the Hollow World of the title, giant caverns using advanced technology to recreate a pseudo-earth environment. Given the ability to create pretty much everything they need, people fill their days with art, or entertainment, travelling through portals or - well, whatever they want to do. They are also immortal, and virtually everyone is build to a universal genderless pattern, the only way to distinguish one individual from another being a chip embedded in one shoulder. Again, there’s a certain amount of arm-waving over the science, but it worked perfectly well for me.
If the science isn’t a big part of the story, the author brings his traditional strengths to bear - compelling characters and an action-packed roller-coaster of a ride that leaves you on the edge of your seat. There are murders and mysterious people who are trying to kill our hero, a renegade setting himself up as a cult leader, a conspiracy and finally a big world-ending threat that has to be tackled head on because the clock is ticking... There were moments when I had to put the book down momentarily to remind myself to breathe.
As for the characters, there’s only one who matters - Pax, the genderless future-person, one of millions of identical people, who nevertheless turns out to be very much an individual. You wouldn’t think it possible for a clone (and that’s essentially what he is) to be differentiated from his/her/its compatriots, but Pax is one of those characters who just leaps off the page, larger than life and quite unforgettable. Because he’s neither male nor female, almost everything he does, or rather the way he does it, calls into question our own attitudes to the two genders. Just writing this paragraph underlines the difficulty - I’ve resorted to called Pax ‘he’ by default, and he Pax isn’t either he or she. It’s a testament to Mr Sullivan’s writing skill that he (definitely a he! even without the famous moustache, now sadly consigned to history) side-steps the issue so deftly. I don’t think he ever uses a gendered pronoun for any of the Hollow World residents. I’ll admit to not being too sure about Pax to start with (we do like to put everyone in boxes, and you just can’t with Pax), but by the mid-point Pax was definitely my favourite character.
The rest of the characters, even our time travelling hero himself, Ellis, seem a bit grey and dull by comparison. His pal Warren is something of a caricature, his wife Peggy never gets a chance to shine, and few of the Hollow World residents stand out (Sol, maybe, and the AI vox Alva, with an honourable mention for the Geomancers - I loved their yay! a crisis! attitude). It’s not at all that they’re poorly drawn (they’re mostly great characters and in other circumstances I’d be raving about them), they only seem slightly flat by comparison with Pax, who is the true hero star of the show.
The real joy of ‘Hollow World’ is the many themes that weave through every page of it. Themes like gender, the purpose of religion, what God is, traditionalism versus modernism, immortality, individualism, the nature of insanity, the meaning of love and a thousand more. It may sound churlish to complain, because too much SFF writing these days is lightweight, but in some ways there are almost too many layers of meaning here, too many themes crammed in. Then there were points where a character would declaim at some length about a certain philosophy, which is perhaps an unsubtle approach. But the author never beats us over the head with his own take on it. He simply allows his characters to express their own point of view and leaves it up to the reader to make up his/her (aargh!) mind.
This is a clever and thought-provoking story, with loads of interesting ideas, some adrenalin-pumping action and plenty of humour. It took a little while to get going (the real world is always duller than an imaginary one), and some of Warren’s diatribes sagged a bit, but overall an entertaining read with Pax being one of my favourite characters of the year. A good four stars.(less)
Not the world’s most original premise - Daniel Howard discovers that by some quirk of fate, he’s the last great hope for mankind and must undertake a...moreNot the world’s most original premise - Daniel Howard discovers that by some quirk of fate, he’s the last great hope for mankind and must undertake a dangerous quest... and so on and so forth. But then the plot isn’t really the point. There are masses of ideas in here, all jostling for position, strugging to get themselves noticed in the crowd. Every page is filled with amusingly quirky talking animals or scenery, squirrels rushing about with post-it notes and the like, or corridors full of vine-covered forest, or tables made of ice, while our hero stands around gawking and doing the what-the-*&^%’s-going-on role. And there are some laugh-out-loud moments, it’s true. But comedy is difficult to do well, and a character who ends every third sentence with ‘Oh crap!’ gets tedious pretty fast. I think there’s a good story in here, but the author is trying too hard to be clever and amusing. For anyone looking for a light-hearted and irreverent piece of fantasy with the world’s most unlikely hero, this might be just the job, but for me it just doesn’t work. One star for a DNF. [But I did like the talking lift!](less)
This was the author’s first published work, but shortly after its appearance in 1999 the publisher sank, and the book with it. Now...moreFantasy Review Barn
This was the author’s first published work, but shortly after its appearance in 1999 the publisher sank, and the book with it. Now the author has self-published it (hurray for the digital age). Not only is it available once more, it has been picked up by a traditional publisher too. A result whichever way you look at it.
The story has one of the most original settings I’ve encountered. A cataclysmic event tore the world apart, spreading chaos everywhere apart from a few islands of stability which are kept that way by rigorous adherence to a religion-based system of rules. Travel between these islands is made possible by accurate mapping of the chaotic patches between them. Main character Keris is the daughter of a mapmaker who dies under mysterious circumstances in the unstable lands between islands, and she is forced away from her home as a result. And that doesn’t begin to describe the complexities of this world.
There’s no easy entry here. The reader is dropped into this complicated background without a parachute, so the early chapters are riddled with jargon and references to unexplained events, places, people. It isn’t long, however, before explanations begin to appear, and although it took me a long time to work out the differences between tainted, unbound, excluded, unstablers, ley-lit and the like, things do become clearer. The ley lines are the most significant element; these are the ever shifting rivers of chaotic energy which criss-cross the landscape, the source of power for Carasma, the lord of chaos and his minions.
Keris is accompanied on her journey into the unstable world between the eight stabilities by a motley collection of people - a priest following orders, a high-ranking man making a pilgrimage alone, a brothel-keeper repenting of her sins, a timid man trying to impress his father and so on. The guide, Davron, and his tainted assistant, Scow, seem almost normal by comparison. And then there's the mysterious Meldor, who is blind but surprisingly adept for all that. All of them feel like real, fully rounded people, and if they aren’t exactly people you would meet down the pub (Scow is described thus: ‘His head was built on a grand scale, perhaps twice normal size, and his outsized face was circled by an animal’s mane. The hair—fur?—of it cascaded down on to his shoulders, hiding his neck.’), they all have their own secrets and tragedies. The tainted, in particular (those caught out while crossing a ley-line and transformed in some way) are very tragic figures, unable to return to the stabilities, unable even to touch other people. Davron is particularly tragic, and the way he and Keris gradually come to understand one another, and the development of their slowly unfurling love story, undeniable and yet impossible, is masterfully done.
The story is intriguing right from the first page, and quickly builds to a fast paced and dramatic adventure. The consequence of a world infused with chaos is that anything can happen at any moment, creating a tale which crackles with tension and (I’ll be honest) fear; some of those tainted and wild creatures were pretty horrifying. And yet there was always humour, too, especially from Corrian, the pipe-smoking former brothel-keeper with her down-to-earth attitude and appetite for life, and the timid Quirk, who takes to life in the unstable world with surprising nonchalance.
The religion of this world is not, at first sight, much different from any other hierarchical, rigid, dogmatic religion, but beneath the surface it’s unusual. For one thing, it’s an integral part of the division between stable and unstable areas. The stable zones are maintained by the continuous application of kinesis (a kind of gesture) around the borders and rigorous adherence to exhaustively detailed rules within the boundaries, which prescribe what may be grown where, what colours and styles of clothing may be worn, how many children may be born and what jobs they can do. All of this is intended to minimise the number of changes occurring and thus maintain order, a kind of stultifying stasis. Inevitably, this leads to some painfully inhumane results. Babies surplus to the permitted two are removed at birth and brought up in the religious order. Those who are deformed or who defy authority are thrown out of the stabilities altogether, left to survive as best they can. Inevitably, such a system has its share of the secretly defiant, the petty tale-tellers and the corrupt, who will bend the rules or turn a blind eye for a consideration. I wasn’t sure whether the author was making a general point about organised religion, but I found it very thought-provoking.
This book is awesome. It has all the characteristics I look for in fantasy: an original, well thought out world, a simple but powerful magic system, compelling characters who behave realistically, and a plot which never lets up for a moment. It’s emotionally engaging, too; I always cared about the characters and there were moments that reduced me to tears. Keris the map-maker’s daughter is a fantastic heroine, and the ending - well, the ending was perfect, I can’t describe it any other way. A truly wonderful story. Five stars.(less)
The second part of the Riyria prequels. The first part, ‘The Crown Tower’, was such riotously good entertainment that I gave it fiv...moreFantasy Review Barn
The second part of the Riyria prequels. The first part, ‘The Crown Tower’, was such riotously good entertainment that I gave it five stars. This one... well, it starts badly. It’s nice finding out about Hilfrid, a minor character with an important role in the main Riyria series, but really, our introduction to him is a total cliché-a-thon. Hilfrid gets bullied by the local youths. Hilfrid can’t defend himself. Hilfrid is low-born. Hilfrid’s dad’s a drunk. Hilfrid is a bastard (oh, pur-lease, as if anyone cared about that in the middle ages; and for anyone who argues this is an alternative version of the middle ages, why impose certain modern values on it?). Then there’s our lovely princess, the thirteen year old Arista, already the wilfully spirited and rebellious young lady we’ll come to know and love later (or not, in my case). And, a credibility crisis; Arista is riding around the countryside in a purple silk gown, the silk imported all the way from exotic Calis and given to her as a birthday present. Really? Seriously?
But the second chapter is the short story (‘The Viscount and the Witch’) which the author made available some time back, here slotted into its rightful sequence in events, wherein Royce and Hadrian, everybody's favourite thieves, make their appearance, and from then on things look up. I'm still not much enamoured of the Hilfrid story, or the dull infighting between the nobles, but the rest of it is fun, although with a darker edge at times. Anyone who’s familiar with the author’s work knows what to expect - action all the way as our heroes face up to crisis after crisis. Mr Sullivan is a master of intricate plotting, and even though this is a relatively quick, easy read, there’s enough going on to keep the reader enthralled and the pages turning.
This book doesn't work quite as well as 'The Crown Tower'. It's tedious when the main point of tension is that a character has been beaten up. Sure, these are violent times, but it would be nice to have a little variety (fortunately, the events surrounding Rose are much more creative). There's a problem here, too, for those who've read the original Riyria series: much of what happens and the reasons for it are already known. This removes a great deal of the what-will-happen tension. With Hilfrid, for example, as soon as it's obvious who he is, we know exactly what the main crisis of the plot will be and how it will turn out. The political subplot holds no surprises either, although there's some nicely drawn irony. And - the biggest problem - the focus is frequently off the two main characters. Royce and Hadrian are the stars of the Riyria show, and the banter between them lights up the whole book, so it's a disappointment to find so little of the two of them, and that somewhat darker than might be expected.
I enjoyed this, on the whole. For über-fans, there’s a lot of fun in seeing Arista, Alric, Mauvin and Fanen as children, in seeing the whole royal family as they once were, and in seeing the roots of the later machinations against the throne. For newcomers - the book undoubtedly works as a stand-alone, but there’s a whole lot of subtext that will just whizz by, which is a pity. My real concern is that there are some ten more years to fill in before the start of events in the main series, and undoubtedly there will be pressure from fans for Mr Sullivan to sit down and write all those books. It would be so easy; the characters already exist, much of the plot already exists, the setting is there, so all he has to do is weave his unique brand of magic and rustle up more entertaining Riyria tales, and away you go. Lots of happy fans, and an income for life.
I hope he doesn’t do that. Much as I enjoy reading about Royce and Hadrian, I also enjoyed the author’s foray into sci-fi, ‘Hollow World’, a much edgier and more interesting work, if a little uneven. So I know his imagination is capable of writing about far more than a pair of rogues. So maybe another Royce/Hadrian episode every few years, and in between - something more challenging, please, Mr Sullivan. Four stars.(less)
Many works of fantasy tell epic tales without a single non-human character in them. Most have largely human casts with a sprinklin...moreFantasy Review Barn
Many works of fantasy tell epic tales without a single non-human character in them. Most have largely human casts with a sprinkling of non-humans thrown in for effect - a few elves or dwarves or demons. But here we have a world, it seems, with no humans in it at all. The main character, Moon, is a Raksura, a shapeshifter - a humanoid in one form, and a somewhat reptilian winged creature in the other. His family was killed long ago, leaving him to survive amongst the ‘groundlings’, a variety of humanoid species (or races, perhaps), by hiding what he is, and in fact not even knowing exactly what he is, until he finally meets up with other Raksura. How he adapts to his new way of life forms the body of the story.
It's not easy to create a whole new species which feels believably 'other', and yet at the same time has enough recognisable human characteristics to be likeable, but the author does a brilliant job of it here. The Raksura are a social species, like ants or wasps, building colonies around a fertile queen, and with various different castes to fulfil the various roles. Queens, their consorts (fertile males) and warriors have wings, while the Arbora (drones or workers) are smaller and wingless. Yet in many ways a Raksura colony is very like hua man village. They bake bread and cook their vegetables, wear clothes and jewelry, fall in love and have sex at will, read and write, and so on. They also have mentors - historians and archivists who also have shamanistic powers.
The other species are just as well thought out, with an array of sentient beings of various shapes and sizes and temperaments, the Fell being the bad guys in the neighbourhood, being set, it appears at first sight, on destroying pretty much every settlement they can get their hands (or claws) on. They too are winged reptilian beasties and the Raksura can take them on, en masse, but the Fell currently have the upper hand. Wells doesn't go into much unnecessary detail with the world she has created, simply describing this valley or that range of hills or lake as needed, but there are numerous ruins scattered about which tell of civilisations long gone. I don't know whether these become important later in the series, but in this book they are simply there, structures and decorations crumbling into the forgotten black hole of unrecorded history. There are current civilisations, too, sometimes created in the ruins of the old, or in one case literally on top of it, where a species of sentient winged beetles has built a hive above a disintegrating city. I also loved the idea of floating islands, chunks of land which simply drift along on the air currents.
For all their non-humanness, the characters are incredibly real. Moon, in particular, is a wonderful mixture of shyness and suspicion and aggression, perfectly in line with his nature and upbringing, or lack of it. I was intrigued by the behaviours that came to him by instinct - his hostility when challenged, for instance, and the willingness to fight, which was common to all the Raksura, from the queens downwards. Despite the Raksura way of life, which necessitates a large number of characters, there were many whose individual personalities made them stand out - Chime, Stone, Flower, Pearl and Jade, for instance. The names sound odd, perhaps, but then it must be difficult to dream up names for all the children when they arrive in clutches of five at a time. It was hard to keep all the Raksura straight, though, especially the numerous warriors, hunters, teachers and so on, which made it more difficult to care when one was injured. And the Fell, despite the bestial nature of some of their castes, which seemed to do little beyond killing and eating pretty much anything, were given depth and reasons for some, at least, of their behaviour. It's always good to find villains whose objectives are purposeful and reasoned, rather than simply being evil for the sake of it.
This is not a book of epic scope, involving vast armies and the future of empires, but those who enjoy action will find plenty to satisfy here. The problems at Indigo Cloud Court, their pursuit by the Fell and their attempts to escape and form a new, safer colony provide numerous conflicts, both aerial and grounded. It's hard to describe aerial combat well and I occasionally got lost in the details, but it didn't matter. I liked that both the Raksura and the Fell turned to ingenious and creative methods to attack and defeat their enemies, rather than simple brute force or magic. There is magic in this world, but it's innate and low-key rather than dramatic, and it felt completely right to me. The ending leaves open enough loose threads for future books in the series, while tidying up this one nicely and bringing Moon's relationship with Jade to a very satisfactory point with a perfectly judged moment (which I won't spoil by describing).
I loved this book, absolutely loved it to pieces. It has all the characteristics I look for in my fantasy - characters I really care about who behave credibly, world-building that's original and well thought out, subtle magic and a plot which derives from these factors. There are themes of real depth for those of us who look for more than action in fantasy - about how you come to terms with who you are, for instance, and about fitting in, even when you're different. I found Moon's transition from outsider to someone who belongs, and his awkwardly prickly relationship with the Raksura, to be endlessly fascinating. The book was a real page turner right from the start, and as Moon and his fellow Raksura are hounded and attacked relentlessly and the pace picks up, I found it hard to put down. A great read. Five stars. And now I'm terrified to read the next book in the series; it can't possibly be as good, can it?(less)
This is the third volume of the Dagger and Coin Quintet, the difficult middle book - the one that drags the weight of two books’ wo...moreFantasy Review Barn
This is the third volume of the Dagger and Coin Quintet, the difficult middle book - the one that drags the weight of two books’ worth of previous history, that also has to begin arranging all the pieces for the endgame and still has to make sense by itself. It should be an impossible task, an experience as dense and heavy and glutinous as treacle. Yet it flows like cream, tastes like chocolate and slips down just as easily. Abraham’s prose is a joy to read, elegant and spare, every word in its proper place.
As before, the cast of point of view characters is limited - Clara is finding her feet amongst the nobodies of Camnipol after her noble husband was executed for treason; Cithrin is in another new city learning more about banking; Geder the unstable Regent of Antea is making war again, aided by his spider-goddess priest; and Marcus the former soldier is hiking through the southern jungles with escaped spider-goddess man Kit looking for a magic sword. And as before, the story jumps about from one to another, but the individual plotlines are not independent, so one chapter will show the events of that character is close-up, while also revealing something of events elsewhere, glimpsed from afar in rumour and hearsay. This is done very cleverly, so the overall plot flows beautifully from chapter to chapter.
This is industrial-strength fantasy, so Geder's war is spilling across the whole northern continent, and is seemingly unstoppable. This is the third campaign to feature in the story. The first book centred on the fall of the city of Vanai. In the second, Antea conquered neighbouring Asterilhold. This time, Geder (or rather, his spider-priest adviser) has his sights set on Sarakal. There is inevitably some sense of repetition in all this, but Abraham gives the events a new perspective to keep things fresh. This time, Geder's capabilities are well understood, and there are no illusions about the consequences.
The series is called The Dagger and the Coin, and is presumably intended to contrast the two powerful forces of conquest, by armed force, or by economics. Geder's military ambitions continue to roll onwards, but for the first time there are signs that the financial clout of the bank can have an impact. There are hints about the difficulties of maintaining long supply lines, and getting the staple crops planted and harvested when so many men are tied up in the war. There are hints, too, that the bank can help indirectly with the refugee and resettlement problem, and more directly, in supporting covert acts of rebellion. However, it’s still not obvious how economics will bring a real direct challenge to bear against military might. Perhaps this isn’t Abraham’s intention, but if not, the whole banking plot becomes marginalised.
Abraham has a nice way of subverting the tropes of the genre. Most fantasy is (in the broadest sense) about swords and sorcery, so that all problems are eventually disposed of by one or other of these elements (or occasionally both). The evil villain is bent on global domination for vague reasons, and the hero (or occasionally a heroine) tools up with a magic sword or else learns to use the magic powers they’ve mysteriously been endowed with. Here, the evil villain is sort of bent on global domination, but it’s a role he more or less reversed into accidentally, and all with the very best of intentions. What could be so malign about spreading the spider-goddess’s message of truth across the world? Meanwhile, Marcus and Kit go on a traditional fantasy quest to track down the magic sword which will kill the goddess, but (without giving too much away) that doesn’t go quite as they expected. As for magic, there’s very little around at all. Proponents are called ‘cunning men’ and have minor roles as showmen and healers.
One nice aspect is that we have two interesting female characters taking strong leadership roles in the fight against Geder the war-making Regent. Clara is now released from the stifling conformity of court rules and taking advantage of her freedom to plot and scheme in Camnipol, as well as enjoying a degree of personal freedom. I very much like Clara, her subtlety, her cleverness and her determination. It makes a nice counterpoint to her husband’s more ham-fisted efforts in the previous books. Even though things don’t always go quite as anticipated (what ever does in an Abraham book?), she always makes well-considered decisions.
In contrast, Cithrin... Look, I’m going to have a bit of a rant about Cithrin, so feel free to skip ahead to the next paragraph if you want. Cithrin, you stupid, stupid woman. When will you ever learn? Your entire character arc has been defined by short-sightedness and downright bad decision-making. You find yourself stuck in the wrong city with the bank’s wealth? Why not forge a few papers to set yourself up as a pretend bank? After all, it would be too simple just to write to the bank’s head and await instructions, wouldn’t it? And if you find yourself trapped during an uprising with a powerful but totally unstable character who wants sex? Well, why not? This book is quite a good explanation of why not, actually. And then, given a one-time opportunity to get close to the Regent, to influence the events of history and do some good, could you actually, just once in your life, do something sensible? Course not. Gah. Stupid woman. I mean, what exactly does she think Geder is going to do now? Smile sweetly and forget all about her? He already burned one city because he felt slighted.
Geder himself is a fascinating character. Of course he makes dumb decisions as well, but in his case his motives are entirely understandable and believable, and it’s possible to feel very sympathetic towards him, and appalled at the same time. Being the focus of everyone’s amusement is dispiriting and annoying, and being the patsy for other people’s political games would get anyone riled. His response to the Vanai problem, although it was more a fit of petulance than a rational decision, was not an unusual way to deal with a recalcitrant conquest. Even when he’s behaving very badly, it’s easy to see exactly how and why it happened. He’s a social incompetent, who would be very much at home in the modern world, head buried in his iPad or harmlessly slaughtering orcs in World of Warcraft. It’s only in his fantasy setting that he is the tyrant of the title.
Marcus - meh. I like the banter, and the low-key cynicism which sometimes borders on suicidal fatalism, but it’s not an original character trait, and the whole tragic wife and child history is a bit over-used. I like Yardem a lot better, in fact, because although he has baggage (why did he leave the priesthood, exactly?) he doesn’t let it define him. Although that may simply be an artefact of not being a point of view character; because we never get inside Yardem’s head, we never see how tortured his soul is. Or it may just be the ears. Gotta love a character with such speaking ears.
This is not a high-action book. Even though there’s a war going on, and a new religion spreading like a stain from Camnipol, and the whole continent is in turmoil, it still feels like an intimate, close-up portrait of the characters before all else. A whole chapter may feature nothing but Clara walking about Camnipol, Clara taking tea with a friend, Clara going home again, but this gives the characters the space to breathe, to live, to think, to feel. Between paces, Clara can contemplate a great many subjects without it becoming heavy philosophising. Abraham doesn’t ever tell his readers what to think about anything (religion, war, slavery, inherited monarchies), and those who want can simply enjoy the story and the author’s exquisite prose, but the deeper themes are there to be explored by those who wish, usually by the contrast of one approach with another. For example, Kit and Basrahip are both spider-infested; one is using that to control people so that he can take over the world in the spider-goddess’s name, while the other goes to great lengths not to control people at all, and is trying to find a way to end the spider regime altogether. Is it evil to remove lies from the world and impose honesty? Good question.
The ending? Awesome. A great big bowl of awesomeness, with lashings of awesome sauce on top. The first two books I had some settling down reservations about, but this one, none at all. It’s a quieter book than the previous ones, but in my view it’s all the better for that. Perhaps the series is just getting into its stride, or the characters have grown into their roles (even Cithrin, maybe, possibly), or perhaps it’s just that, after a lot of circling round, we’re getting to know something about the dragons at last. Dragons make everything better. So unquestionably five stars. And now the long wait until the next book...(less)
Prequels are difficult. Fans already know everything that happens down the line, so it’s hard to create enough tension and uncertai...moreFantasy Review Barn
Prequels are difficult. Fans already know everything that happens down the line, so it’s hard to create enough tension and uncertainty (It’s a battle! Will they survive??? Um, sure they will. Oh.). The characters are established, but there has to be enough information for new readers to follow along without boring the fans witless. It’s a tricky balancing act, but Mr Sullivan pulls it off magnificently. I loved this book to pieces, almost more than the original books (The Riyria Revelations), if that isn’t too sacrilegious. It’s a fun, easy to read, exciting romp, with the bonus of characters that have already had the benefit of several books to become beautifully well-rounded.
The plot, in brief: our heroes, Royce the cold-blooded assassin/thief, and Hadrian the highly trained soldier weary of killing, are brought together by eccentric academic Arcadius for one seemingly impossible job. They have to steal a journal from the top of the Crown Tower, home of the main religious leader, and bring it to Arcadius to read. And the sticking point is that, even though Royce can do the job single-handed, they both have to go. The meat of the story lies in their mutual dislike and disrespect, and how they gradually learn to overcome both and reach a somewhat more amicable working relationship. This part of the book, as they undertake their impossible mission, sniping at each other every step of the way, is full of dramatic adventures, with an unexpected twist at every turn, but it is also sharply funny, and I loved every single minute of it. We get point of view chapters from both Hadrian and Royce, which adds to the tension, as we see clearly just how deeply they each dislike the other. It’s very cleverly done.
There is also a parallel story featuring Gwen, a downtrodden prostitute at the town of Medford. After one of the other girls is killed by a client who then simply pays off the brothel owner and the law, Gwen decides to set up her own brothel, with better working conditions. I’ve always liked Gwen, but she was a background character in the Revelations trilogy, albeit an important one, and I wished I knew more about her. Finding out something about her history and her ‘gift’ was interesting. However, at first I wondered just how exciting it was going to be reading about how she sets up her new business. Gwen goes shopping. Gwen deals with a smoking chimney. Gwen gets some carpentry done. Gwen applies for a permit. Hmm. But Gwen is a smart and resourceful lady, and I loved her clever ways of getting things done. I enjoyed finding out more about her gift, as well, and even though it sometimes felt a bit too convenient for the plot, there were some nicely chilling moments. In the end, the two parallel and seemingly disconnected stories (Royce/Hadrian and Gwen) collided in the most satisfying way imaginable, and even after that there’s a neat little twist at the end, which was fun.
I recently read the author’s venture into science fiction, ‘Hollow World’, which is a very different animal. There’s the same pacy action and array of fascinating characters, but there are also a thousand different ideas jumping up and down for attention, making it a deeply thought-provoking work. ‘The Crown Tower’ is pure entertainment and not ideas-driven, although there are some sharp asides tossed out along the way for those who notice them to savour, but what both share is the author’s trademark attention to detail in plot and character which make him such a joy to read. This is a perfectly judged story which works fine for newcomers, but also supplies some delightful moments for fans of the main series too. Mr Sullivan is a master story-teller writing at the top of his game. I enjoyed this so much I can’t possibly give it anything less than five stars.(less)
The author describes this as a bildungsroman (I had to look that up; it's a posh word for a coming of age story). As such, it's a very common theme in...moreThe author describes this as a bildungsroman (I had to look that up; it's a posh word for a coming of age story). As such, it's a very common theme in fantasy, but that doesn't make it uninteresting, and there's always scope for a retelling of the old stories, if the author can add an original twist or two. Here, the young man coming of age is Val, who sets off with his friend Uriel and a gnome called Maryl on a Lifequest, the test all young men and women have to undergo in order to be recognised as adult. They are, however, allowed to choose the objective of the Lifequest themselves, and Val chooses a near-impossible one - to find a cure for an illness which afflicts members of his village, and which is ultimately fatal. There's also a restriction (and a fairly arbitrary one, it has to be said), which is that the person on a Lifequest isn't allowed to kill another human.
The three questers make rather a nice group. Val is the idealistic one who's also a fine warrior and discovers magical abilities within himself, Uriel is the cynical one with hard-to-control magical abilities, and Maryl the gnome is an empath who sees the emotions in all sentient beings, and can manipulate them. They have a nice jokey relationship, in between battles. The other characters are less interesting and tend to fall into tropes: the beautiful warrior babe (a couple of those), the roguish thief turned revolutionary, and so on. The people of Val's village are introduced at great length early on, and some of them are interesting and I would have liked to know more about them and the village.
The plot - well, there's a quest which allows our three intrepid heroes to wander around the landscape, and there's a series of set-piece battles, which actually have nothing at all to do with the quest, and more to do with the idealistic Val being distracted by every captured slave and mistreated farmer's daughter and oppressed town he comes across, and deciding he has to save them. Despite some spectacular failures along the way and Uriel pointing out repeatedly that he can't save everybody (good advice, Val!), he keeps on doing it, and dragging his friends along too. Considering Val is honour bound not to kill any humans at all, the body count is quite alarmingly high, and I found it hard to believe he could be quite so naive as to get involved time after time. The fights are very well choreographed, however, and even I could follow them easily (this is a compliment - my eyes usually glaze over at these blow-by-blow accounts).
The world-building is sketchy, to say the least. There seems to be an assumption that the landscape is too ordinary to need description - there are woods and farms and so forth - but I would have liked a bit more detail. ‘The trip through the dwarven tunnels was uneventful’ doesn’t exactly set my sense of wonder on fire. The underground city is dismissed with ‘Dwarven wrought buildings towered hundreds of feet into the air, as did statues and monuments’. One setting (which is introduced as a city, quickly becomes a town, and then is a mere village) merits no description at all. Surely Val, from his nameless village on the frontier, would notice whether the buildings were similar to those of home or very different (bigger, perhaps, or stone-built, or more ornate). What are the streets like, do people dress differently, is the food any different here? But sadly we never find out. And there's no map (every fantasy story that steps outside a single location needs a map, in my opinion). However, there is a fabulous array of strange creatures, some just tossed in as background to a scene or turning up at a battle. I particularly liked the giant insect thingy, used for riding, and the burrowing land-shark - very ingenious.
The magic system is extremely carefully thought out, and very well described when it happens. I find it a little too powerful for my taste, especially since absolutely everybody has some innate ability (varying from race to race) but that's a personal preference and not a criticism. There is always a price to pay when it's used, and it's often not quite enough to win the battle, so it's not quite the get-out-of-jail-free card it could be. I very much liked Maryl's empathy magic, and one of his battles, where he fights a hive-mind of wolf-like beasts within his own mindscape, is brilliantly done and very evocative. The healing powers are a little too convenient, but again, that’s just me.
A minor quibble: humans are called 'humes' in this world, and magic is called 'magick'. The former seems fairly arbitrary to me. The latter is, according to the author, a convention to distinguish it from the sleight of hand card tricks and so on performed by entertainer magicians. I can't see myself that there would be any confusion. Within a fantasy story, the use of magic is so commonplace, it surely needs no special measures to explain it. Besides, the ways magic occur in the book's world make it very clear that it has nothing to do with trickery.
And a major quibble: the story may be great, but the writing needs a very thorough edit. There are few spelling mistakes, but there are some grammatical errors that had my inner pedant, head in hands, screaming. The worst are things like 'he had ran' and 'he had tore'. Apart from that, the writing is merely heavy-handed at times. There are places where the point of view head-hops alarmingly, which is disorientating. Then there are pacing issues. In order to get to the action more quickly, presumably, a lot of setup is skipped over. For example, in the hostile city/town/village, Maryl uses his empath's magic to get them into the boss's house, by manipulating the servants' minds, but we never see this, it's simply mentioned in passing, and we jump straight from entering the town to breaking into the house. A paragraph or two describing how he does this would have been nice. There are occasional infodumps, places where an ability or a piece of history is simply explained, as if in the classroom, and a few places where modern terminology intrudes: 'it sucks' for example, or ‘flying by the seat of his pants’, and a rather eloquent and introspective section where Val is musing on his willingness to kill ends with talk of endorphins, andrenaline and hormones. Now, it's not impossible that they would have known and used such terms, but it stopped me in my tracks and spoiled a very nice moment. However, the writing improves noticeably as the book goes on.
There's a nice little story here. There are some very original and creative creatures, the magic system is well done, even if it’s a little too powerful for my taste, the battles are believably choreographed and the characters are interesting, especially the complex Uriel. Val’s journey from ordinary villager to war hero to legend is realistically detailed, and although he’s inclined to rush in overconfidently, he often pauses to reflect on the consequences afterwards. There are moments of real depth in these introspective interludes. Unfortunately, the plot is just too flimsy and episodic, there's a lack of description and the writing issues interfered with my enjoyment. For those who like lots of action with an array of weird beasties and a hero who always manages to rise to the occasion and aren't bothered by the rest, you'll love this book, and a good edit would give it the professional polish it currently lacks. Unfortunately, the negatives kept it to three stars for me. (less)
This is a meandering tale that weaves together numerous strands of personal stories with the last fifty years of Scottish history, both political and...moreThis is a meandering tale that weaves together numerous strands of personal stories with the last fifty years of Scottish history, both political and social. The first character we meet, Mike, is a photographer and the son of a famous (and rather better) photographer, and his story I found interesting. He’s a fairly passive person, almost seeming to be an outsider in his own life sometimes, and surprisingly mature in his early years. When he discovers that he is gay, there is none of the angst or shock or even horror that might be expected in the early seventies. He simply accepts it, and expects everyone else to accept it too. The minor characters pop up at significant moments is his life, or to underscore the political events of the day, and therefore feel fairly contrived. Jean, in particular, seems almost unreal, a semi-mystical figure acting as a catalyst both for Mike’s personal life (such as introducing him to a boyfriend) and also in the political spectrum, the focus for debate. Everyone seemed to gather around Jean, and her legendary, almost mythical, stories.
The second character, Don, is a Mr Everyman, a survivor of the war living a quiet life with his wife, whose sole purpose seems to be to illuminate aspects of the life of Jack, an odd character who survived the Japanese prisoner of war camps physically intact but mentally scarred.
Then we get to Peter (also Jimmy) Bond, Jack's nephew, recruited into the intelligence service to (essentially) spy on the nationalists. Peter is more interesting, perhaps, because we see him at a point in his life where neglectful alcoholism is catching up with him, and he's only barely connected with reality. But there's a macabre humour to it - when he starts having hallucinations, he's relieved to realise that one of them must be a ghost, and therefore there's no need to politely offer a drink.
Then it’s on to Ellen, growing up in a mining village in the fifties. Every time we switch character, I lose heart. This book is long, it’s largely about politics which to be fair has some interest, but not at this length, and frankly it’s unfocused and rambling. Any one part of the book, telling the story of one character in depth, would have made a good book and illuminated a shadowy part of recent history, but trying to do too much makes it feel as though it ought to be a textbook, not a work of fiction. I struggled on, as the story threads became more and more intertwined, or perhaps tangled is a better word for it. All these many characters are somehow mixed up together, in a way that only grandiose fiction can get away with.
This is not a bad book. Rather, it’s over-ambitious, and it commits the cardinal sin of an author who’s done a great deal of meticulous research - he wants to get every last bit of it into the book, every major political event, every well-loved TV program or film, every disaster, every social change. It almost felt as if he had a checklist and was ticking off events. There are at least half a dozen terrific stories in here if the author could have brought his eyes down from the stars and focused instead on just a few of these characters at a time. That way, they would have become memorable, fully-rounded people instead of mere ciphers, stand-ins for this or that aspect of the changing face of Scotland. This is non-fiction with a thin veneer of rambling storytelling. And yes, I get the point about the story never ending, trust the story and all that. Still it would have been nice to feel there actually was a proper, novel-sized story in here, something with a beginning, a middle and an end, rather than a series of vignettes. On the plus side, it’s well written and there’s some interesting detail about the Scottish political scene which I enjoyed learning about. So three stars for effort.(less)
The beauty of fantasy is that you just never know what you’re going to get. Even when it sounds like a conventional plot theme, an accomplished author...moreThe beauty of fantasy is that you just never know what you’re going to get. Even when it sounds like a conventional plot theme, an accomplished author can put a new spin on it and produce something special. I was nervous about this one - a war between Angels and Demons, waged with the help of humans? It sounded trite - but as I read on, it turned into an absorbing study of magic, and an unexpectedly thought-provoking analysis of war.
The central character is Darius, a wizard who has built an elite troop of soldiers around him, a sort of special-ops with magic. There are numerous other characters in his world - his fellow wizards in the city of Bastion, some of his soldiers, and, on the opposing side, the warlord and his sorcerors. And a few angels and demons put in an appearance, too. Although Darius is the main point of view character, several other characters have point of view chapters too, partly to fill in details of events in other places and partly to fill in background. Of course, this also serves to give them more depth. I’m very much a fan of this way of writing which is nicely fluid and works well to keep the action moving. Having a single POV protagonist is very restrictive, and having equal rights always feels artificial to me.
The world-building is rather well done. The field of conflict between the two warring sides seems rather small and empty - a city or two, some fortresses and not much else. But it becomes clear that there’s a reason for this, and there are other settlements and cultures existing around the fringes and beyond the immediate range, and in the past there were more. The history of this war, in fact, is very much a central part of the story and the author draws out the strands of the past very elegantly. And then there’s the magic. The real meat of the story, for me, is the growing realisation (on both sides) that magic is not just a static ability, it can grow and be developed in all sorts of new and ingenious ways. The way that Balkan, for instance, researches and then experiments with new forms of magic, and even a sort of magical technology, is fascinating to watch. Even wizards, it seems, must adapt and change with the times.
Ultimately Darius is forced to face up to the consequences of the current war and its escalation, and decide whether having the angels on your side is sufficient reward for the constant battles and deaths caused by the demon-supported enemy. This is a fascinating train of thought - is it really such a great idea to have angels bringing you healing and other gifts, or are you better off on your own? I don’t think I’ve ever encountered this argument before, or at least not so explicitly. And so, eventually, the story reaches its own answer to the question, or at least sets events in train for it to be discovered (in a future book, presumably). The final conflict is huge, an earth-shattering experience which changes everything. It should be an emotional overload, but somehow it just - isn’t. If I have one complaint about the book, it’s that somehow there isn’t enough emotional engagement with the characters and their respective fates. Even when named characters died, I didn’t feel it. The author sets everything in place and pushes all the right buttons, but for me it simply didn’t work. I don’t know why that should be, it’s a complete mystery to me, and I can only assume it’s just a matter of mood.
I had some minor quibbles along the way. I felt there were too many important new characters introduced late in the day. Sometimes the attempts to humanise characters were a little clunky (the family lives of Balkan and Pendrick in particular). I would also have liked to have Traigan, the enemy warlord, make an appearance at the end, since he had been such an important part of the plot, and I wondered what happened to the thralls at the end. I’m not mad keen on angels and demons in fantasy, since inherently good or evil characters are a bit dull, but in this case the author showed a much more complicated and interesting side of the angels, at least (the demons were - well, just demons, on the whole). But on the plus side, the characters all behaved sensibly and intelligently, and I very much liked the way that Arric (the council leader) and Darius overcame their initial hostility and reached a working accommodation. In fact, the whole story simply oozes intelligence, and easily overcame the modest amount of clunkiness here and there in the writing, or the very small number of typos. An enjoyable and thought-provoking story, notable for the well-developed world-building and constantly evolving magic system. And a map - always extra brownie points for a map. Four stars. (less)