In Naomi Novik’s marvelous alternative history Temeraire series, the British armies fight the French warmonger Napoleon Bonaparte—and both armies possess an air force of dragons. It’s a concept that merges everything that’s good about fantasy, combining an imaginative, meticulously detailed historical setting with dragons, swords, battleships, and gunpowder. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the Temeraire series is one of my favorite ongoing works of fantasy.
Unfortunately, after five wonderful novels, the sixth installment, Tongues of Serpents, proved lackluster and in want of forward movement. In fact, I would almost propose simply skipping it, as it adds nothing to the series. Fortunately, the seventh volume—Crucible of Gold, which came out last summer—brings a change in pace and a small step back in the right direction. Crucible of Gold once again thrusts readers into a nineteenth century filled with war, political intrigue, and seafaring. However, it continues to exhibit the general lack of direction that plagued Tongues of Serpents.
Spoilers for the previous novels in the Temeraire series ahead.
South American adventure After Temeraire and his captain, William Laurence, were convicted of treason and departed to the Australian penitentiary colony, they have slowly started to get used to life again—that is, until an old friend appears and offers them a general pardon in exchange for their diplomatic assistance. Napoleon has struck a bargain with the Tswana dragons and shipped them to Brazil to retrieve their people, who were enslaved by the Portuguese. It is important for the continued campaign against the French invaders that the African dragons are stopped. Thus, Temeraire and Laurence, joined by old friends, embark once more on an adventure—an adventure that, this time, takes them to South America.
Their adventure, however, doesn’t go as planned. Soon enough, it becomes evident that this novel is by no means about the war against France, nor about the battles between African and Portuguese dragons. Instead, Crucible of Gold is driven by political intrigue and themes of slavery and inequality—themes that have been addressed throughout all of Novik’s books but which are amplified in this latest installment.
A matter of equality In the Temeraire series, we have become acquainted with many different cultures and their varying relationships between man and dragon, each of them skillfully and intricately crafted. The British treat their dragons as nothing more than weapons, tools, and property. In contrast, the Chinese and their dragons live together in equality. Then there are the Tswana dragons who are worshiped as the reptilian reincarnations of deceased tribal elders. Now we meet the Incan Empire in Crucible of Gold, a culture in which dragons are the masters and humans are their property. These dragons and their people add a whole new dynamic to the themes already introduced in Novik’s previous novels and create new problems for the British dragons and their crews to deal with. Suddenly, they are facing other dragons trying to steal their crew members, and soon the British dragons must learn to perceive their captains differently.
Then there is the question of the African dragons reclaiming their people. Through the eyes of the book’s characters, we face the ancient question: is it morally okay for one man to possess another? These are the questions that shift Crucible of Gold’s focus away from action and towards human (and dragon) relationships, and even a hint of romance here and there. However, while these themes sound plenty compelling, the execution felt mechanical rather than emotionally engaging. Some characters, like Iskierka, do get some much-needed moments to shine and develop, but, in general, the events in Crucible of Gold lack any impact on the overall direction of the characters and story.
Why should you read this book? In the end, this new direction for the Temeraire series doesn’t work for me. I long for the story to return to where I believe its strengths lie: the war against Napoleon and the battles waged both at sea and in the air, in which dragons and gunpowder are artfully combined. If you’ve come this far in the series, you’ll probably want to read Crucible of Gold as well, if only for the character development and the amazing South American world building. And of course, Novik’s prose and dialogue, which feels at the same time modern and befitting the early nineteenth century, remains astounding as always. I just hope that Blood of Tyrants, which comes out in August 2013, will bring us back to Europe and the true action of the war.(less)
When I first got my hands on A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoire by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan, I expected a book brimful of, well, dragons. Instead, the focus was on the “memoire” part of the title. Fortunately, I didn’t mind at all. Brennan’s latest work, first in a planned series, offers the rich and engaging story of a thoroughly believable character dealing with the problems and mysteries of a unique fantasy world with marvelous parallels of Victorian Europe.
Lady Isabella Camherst That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any dragons. There are plenty of them; and our protagonist, Lady Isabella, has loved them for as long as she remembers. Her only problem is that she is a Scirlandian noblewoman and, as such, is not expected to be interested in science. Fortunately, she marries Jacob Camherst, a young baronet whose only interest seems to be science. Through the uncompromising narration of an older Isabella, A Natural History of Dragons is the story of the misadventures of her first scientific expedition.
From there on, this memoire takes an unexpected but realistic turn. Isabella’s love of dragons seeps through the pages from her early childhood—when she collected sparklings, little animals that seem to be a cross between butterflies and dragons—through her painful adventures with a dangerous wolfdrake when she was fourteen, to her expedition to the cold mountains of Vystrana to study the indigenous rock-wyrms. Yet, hardly anything is known about dragons in Isabella’s time, and they are both dangerous and difficult to reach. Because of that, A Natural History of Dragons doesn’t focus so much on the dragons themselves as on the humans’ often futile attempts to learn more about them. All of this is laden with a riveting dose of mystery when it turns out that the dragons are attacking humans, something they don’t usually do. Isabella takes it upon herself to find out why.
Realistic characters Through its realism, A Natural History of Dragons isn’t simply another book about dragons, but an honest and utterly natural exploration of science and the endeavor of normal people to come to deeper insights. Its absorbing voice can be either clinical or emotional, to suit the moment. Lady Isabella is a thoroughly flawed and gratingly self-important and haughty woman who, in her hunt for both dragons and academic recognition, displays a fallacious worldview that goes through significant development throughout the story. She is astutely self-aware, however, and not above admitting she’s wrong when she realizes it. Her voice is rich and humorous, and sparkles with wit and spirit. Brennan’s narration, through Isabella, is gorgeously skillful and grounded in the vivid details of the dragons, the people, and the world around them. Through the comprehensive scientific observations as well as the stunningly beautiful and very well-placed illustrations by Todd Lockwood, I almost started to believe dragons truly exist.
A Victorian world The world, too, is enthralling and vividly detailed. While this story is obviously narrated to an audience living in and familiar with this world, A Natural History of Dragons gives exactly the right amount of information. The biggest strength of Brennan’s world is its astounding balance between the obviously Victorian English elements and the unique and original fantasy spin given to it. Through hints dropped here and there, it becomes apparent that there is a lot more to this world than meets the eye—both in the world itself and in its history—and I look forward to exploring other parts of it in future installments in the series.
The problems A Natural History of Dragons and the people therein face in their world are realistically rooted in our own world as well, while still feeling original and actually giving meat to the story. The Scirlandians are educated and cultured, and they believe themselves above the heathen peasants of backwater mountain villages. Throughout the book, they have to learn to treat these people as human beings just like themselves, and to deal with their elitist mindsets before it means the end of their expedition. Another question asked throughout the story is whether it is right to kill a dragon for scientific purposes, or even as a trophy.
More women, please! Unfortunately, while Lady Isabella is a wonderfully written and incredibly strong female character, possibly one of the best I’ve ever encountered in fantasy, she seems to be the only one in her world. The other members of her expedition—all of them male—are equally well-written and interesting to read about, especially from the perspective of Isabella herself. All other women in A Natural History of Dragons, however, seem to range from annoyingly stubborn and headstrong to plain and shallow gossipers. In a novel so strongly built around a strong female lead and her believable and often touching adventures, the absence of other interesting women is a huge shortcoming.
Why should you read this book? If you are looking for a book filled with dragons, A Natural History of Dragons may not actually be the right book. It is, however, an honest, fascinating, and absorbingly touching story of genuine human beings and the pursuit of science at all cost. If you are looking for a grown-up version of How to Train Your Dragon, with some Jane Austen mixed in, I would definitely suggest picking up A Natural History of Dragons. It is an extraordinarily well-written and tremendously gripping tale filled with mystery, humor, discovery, and originality.
Stephan received a review copy of A Natural History of Dragons courtesy of Tor.(less)
Last year, Myke Cole’s magical US Army took the world by storm in Control Point. This February, its sequel in the Shadow Ops series, Fortress Frontier, raises the bar by adding more magic, American politics, and the Indian Army to the mix. It is an amazing combination of military fantasy, epic worldbuilding, and superhero influences, with action that sweeps you in from the very first page and may lead to sleepless nights trying to finish the book as quickly as possible.
What a geek wants Fortress Frontier does everything right that geek culture ever did wrong. It is like Heroes without the cop-out of a supernatural senator. It is like X-Men, but with a realistic government. It is like Stargate Atlantis without all the clichés, and Stargate Universe without all the drama. It is Dungeons and Dragons without mediocre worldbuilding. Heck, it even reminds me of 24 without the too-perfect, badass agent saving the world in a day. Now, you may not understand all these references, as not every one of our readers will have seen each of those shows. Suffice to say, Fortress Frontier is everything this particular speculative fiction geek loves, but better.
No more whiny little pansies? Where the main character was Control Point’s prime weakness, it is Fortress Frontier’s certain strength. Events don’t pick up where they left off in the first book. Instead, we see Cole’s magical version of our world through a new pair of eyes. Bookbinder is an administrative colonel who has never really seen any action—that is, until he becomes Latent, at which point his life is changed forever. All of a sudden, he finds himself in the Source—the parallel universe linked to our own plane, where goblins and magical creatures reign—trying to figure out how his magic works while dealing with a completely new chain of command.
To be honest, after reading Control Point, I was convinced Cole was unable to write good characters. Oscar Britton, the main character, changed his mind as quickly as an octopus may change its colors and was more emo than any teenager I’ve ever met. In what little we see of Britton in Fortress Frontier, he’s still his old annoying self. Bookbinder, on the other hand, is a strong and morally stable character. He has his weaknesses and insecurities, but despite those, he stays loyal to himself and his country. Basically, he’s everything you’d expect from an all-American patriot, except more realistic. In hindsight, Britton being a whiny little boy wasn’t bad writing; Fortress Frontier makes it look like writing that character the way he did was a conscious choice Cole made. A choice that, to me, detracted from Control Point, but actually strengthens Fortress Frontier.
Magical viewpoint With Bookbinder’s new set of eyes, the magic of Fortress Frontier takes a big step up as well. The magic in the world Cole created is one of the biggest strengths of Control Point. It is captivating in its simplicity, yet delightfully creative in its application; the Latent can develop one of a possible nine abilities, four of which are prohibited, and each ability comes with a series of skills that can be used towards endless goals. Fortress Frontier also adds a new ability to the mix. This ability is more creative than the all other abilities combined, and the applications are unending and wonderfully imaginative. The battle scenes in Fortress Frontier are even more mind-blowing—and not just because of the new magic, but it certainly helps.
Straight from the Source Not only does the magic get a facelift, but the Source is expanded upon and further explored. This is aided in no small part by the fantastic map by Priscilla Spencer. Much like the magic, the Source is a wellspring of creative conduit for Cole, and it shows in the writing. The obstacles faced by Bookbinder and company throughout the book are intriguing and captivating, and left me wanting a whole lot more—something that Cole is almost certain to deliver in future installments.
Flaws? Nah! No book is perfect, however, so I asked myself: is there absolutely nothing wrong with Fortress Frontier? I suppose I could mention the fact that some of the characters are a little too trusting—Dude, Britton, I saw that was a trap the moment you first walked into the room! Why did it have take you a whole chapter to figure it out?—or that it is a little farfetched for a whole army division to commit to fighting a war at the word of a colonel without checking with superiors first. Those things are merely minor problems, though; they definitely don’t detract from the reading pleasure that this amazing novel offers.
Revolution! Fortress Frontier is a force of nature. It is a breath-taking rollercoaster ride. It is an artistic tour de force. Cole’s no-nonsense prose pulls you in and takes you for a ride through high-paced action and astonishing conflicts both military and political. In this book, Cole asks us a question relevant to all generations: if you are different than others, does that make you less human? This story questions loyalties and motives, and, while we don’t live in a magical world—though Cole’s magic system makes me wish we did—the philosophies behind Fortress Frontier are still relevant to us today. The “us against them” parts of the story—the sections that pitch the Latent against the US government—are extraordinarily well-written and portray a realistic revolution, one without the easy solutions you so often find in stories like these.
Why should you read this book? Fortress Frontier is even better than Control Point, and we gave that one a 4¾-star review. If you like superheroes, ancient mythology, military fantasy, comics, epic fantasy, TV shows like Stargate, Heroes, and The 4400, or really if you are geeky in any possible way at all, I cannot recommend Cole’s Shadow Ops series to you highly enough. If you haven’t picked it up yet, go get a copy of Control Point right now. You’ll love it—I daresay that’s a promise.(less)
If you’re familiar with my reviews, you probably suspect that epic fantasy is my favorite genre. I call myself a Wheel of Time fanboy; I travel fifty miles to get Brandon Sanderson’s newest books on their release day, and I love me some Peter V. Brett. Give me traditional fantasy and I’m a happy man. And though I prefer the more original epics of the aforementioned authors, I’ll even enjoy the kind of epic fantasy that’s filled with all the overused tropes the genre has to offer. Lately, though, I have found myself looking for more—for that little extra something that makes a good novel great. I want new takes on the old stereotypes. I want strong female characters and interesting new settings. I want realistic action and character development, including moral ambiguity.
Traditional problems Does that mean I appreciate the old traditional favorites less? Definitely not, though I do look at them through different eyes. I still spend my time counting down the days until Robert Jordan’s A Memory of Light, by him and Brandon Sanderson, is released (in only five days at the time of this writing!), and I was still as happy as a child on Christmas morning when I received an early review copy of The Blinding Knife by Brent Weeks in the mail this summer.
Weeks’s books have always been the epitome of traditional high fantasy to me. They are fast-paced, intriguingly magical novels filled with thorough worldbuilding, grandiose battles, and a healthy dose of mystery. While he is one of my favorite authors, his work has always missed that final touch. The Night Angel trilogy suffered from a seeming lack of foresight—the books are very much standalone stories, each dealing with their own set of problems—and The Black Prism, the first novel in the Lightbringer series, was slowed down by excessive worldbuilding. While I knew I’d devour every word of The Blinding Knife, sequel to The Black Prism, I feared it would be plagued by these same problems. I was wrong.
The evolution of an author Continuing the story from The Black Prism, The Blinding Knife is in every way a huge step forward for Brent Weeks. With it, I believe he has moved beyond being simply another incredibly entertaining traditional author, and has become one of those rare masters who can create truly marvelous and ambitious pieces of tremendous scope with engaging characters and a fascinating thematic undercurrent.
Unlike his previous trilogy, where Weeks had to introduce new problems and new elements of his world with every novel, The Blinding Knife is a direct continuation of The Black Prism in every aspect. The world remains exactly the same, the magic is unchanged, and the challenges that the characters struggle with here were introduced in the first novel as well. This means that the narrative of The Blinding Knife doesn’t decelerate in favor of worldbuilding or other information supply. Instead, Weeks assumes his reader knows the ins and outs of this Mediterranean-influenced world and its magic, and shifts his focus to the characters and their endeavors to overcome their own shortcomings while they face an overwhelming enemy—and perhaps even the end of the world as they know it. Thus, The Blinding Knife becomes a relentlessly-paced story—only ever slowed down by incredibly random viewpoints that aren’t explained until the very end and never contribute to the scope they were seemingly intended to create.
Strong men This theme of overcoming shortcomings is what sets The Blinding Knife apart from traditional epics, including Weeks’s previous novels. While the traditional elements are still present, they are laden with the development of the characters that live through them. One of the oldest tropes, for example, is the young apprentice hero who is pulled away right before finishing his training. Just think of Star Wars, The Wheel of Time, or countless other works. This same trope is heavily featured in the Lightbringer series as young Kip learns that he is a powerful magician, the son of the political leader of the world, and perhaps even the answer to ancient prophecies—and has to train to master his talents. In The Black Prism, Kip was the comic relief: an awkward, fat, and incompetent kid who was more of a burden than an asset. In The Blinding Knife, Kip has to learn to look beyond his own insecurities and discover his inner strengths so that he can use them to his advantage. Kip isn’t a strong man, but he is a smart boy, and to follow his journey to discover how to use his intelligence is highly entertaining. These sequences, complete with witty dialog and an incredibly realistic and unique character, are exquisitely well-written.
And strong women Equally exceptional are the female characters. Where previously Weeks was known for writing weak, stereotypical females whose only purpose was to be sexy, the women in The Blinding Knife are independent and strong. They have their own flaws and conflicts to overcome and do so in believable fashion. In fact, it becomes even more apparent in The Blinding Knife than in The Black Prism that women are at a magical advantage in the world of the Lightbringer series.
Why should you read this novel? Brent Weeks has always been a great author, but he has stepped up his game with The Blinding Knife. In fact, in many ways, this book does to the author exactly what it does to his characters. Overcoming the weaknesses of his own writing, Weeks has evolved from a good author to a great author. The Blinding Knife is a wonderful work of high fantasy with engaging characters facing the perfect antagonists, set in a creatively-wrought and increasingly chaotic world brimful of imaginative magic and interesting politics. Weeks holds fast to the traditions of his genre while adding a compelling new flavor.(less)
Are we heading into a new age of comic book popularity, much like the Golden Age of Comics? Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy and Marvel’s Cinematic Universe seem to have dissolved the barrier between comic geeks and… well, everyone else. With films like Man of Steel, The Wolverine, Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, and Kick-Ass 2, next year seems poised to continue that trend. Meanwhile, DC has rebooted all of its comics, and Marvel is doing a similar thing with Marvel Now. It’s a time of increasing diversity—with superheroes we know and love being adapted to a new day and age. In popularity and the sheer amount of superheroes, it’s starting to look like the 1940s and ’50s—the Golden Age of Comics—are repeating themselves with a new and modern twist.
An age of comic literature In this time of heightened popularity of comics, speculative literature seems to be following suit. Some of the most popular fantasy series, like The Wheel of Time, The Dresden Files, and A Song of Ice and Fire, have their own graphic novel adaptations. On top of that, there seems to be a new trend. One might say that 2012 was the year of superhero literature. Books like Paul Tobin’s Prepare to Die, Tom King’s A Once Crowded Sky, and Christopher L. Bennett’s Only Superhuman adapt comics to books. These are superhero novels that read very much like comics.
The new mindset Unfortunately, as Justin Landon accurately points out here, many of these books also have the same problem comics still have: they over-sexualize women. We’re settling into a place where the general concept of comic book is no longer tied inextricably to teenage boy, and where serious, mature adults can read Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter without getting funny looks. It would seem that this new place should have no room for scantily clad superwomen. Perhaps the true new age of comics will arrive when, like their film adaptions, comics comply with this egalitarian mindset of our generation?
One book that definitely does embrace this mindset of our generation is Adam Christopher’s Seven Wonders. It is his second superhero novel of the year; his debut novel, Empire State (reviewed here), was published in January. Seven Wonders does exactly what it set out to do: this tour de force novel reads like a wonderful superhero comic, with strong characters both male and female. Its fusion of astonishing comic-book-style storytelling and literary fiction creates a new version of our near-future populated with superheroes. It is, in and of itself, an ode to the Golden Age of Comics, and is most comparable to Watchmen.
Good or evil? Like Watchmen, Seven Wonders is set after a Golden Age of Superheroes. Nearly all supervillains have been defeated, and all the superheroes of old have retired. Except for the Seven Wonders, who continue to protect the fictional Californian shining city of San Ventura from the last living supermenace, The Cowl. When Tony, a normal dude, suddenly wakes up one morning with superpowers and decides to take The Cowl down, he discovers that things aren’t quite as they seem.
Seven Wonders follows the trend of many modern superhero depictions. Its moral ambiguity is evident from the very start. The characters in this novel are neither good nor evil. They have their own ambitions and convictions. The Cowl may be a supervillain, but he truly believes that he is doing the world a favor and that the end justifies the means. The Seven Wonders may be superheroes, yet they let evil exist simply because to defeat evil is to defeat their own purpose in the world. And Tony… well, Tony is simply an angry teenager with super strength, super speed, and super everything. Christopher has an incredible talent for creating these versatile, multidimensional characters.
Themes and setting While the themes in Christopher’s novel are dark and most of its characters are questionable, Seven Wonders doesn’t quite reach the gritty darkness of modern age comics. Yet its world and background have more depth than many of today’s comics. In fact, I would say that Seven Wonders proves that novels are the new comic books. While reading, I constantly found myself imagining the story of this superhero novel on the pages of a comic book, the art appearing before my mind’s eye. The action scenes, especially, are marvelously well-written.
The city of San Ventura, meanwhile, is exactly what you would expect from a modern comic book setting. It lives and breathes, and has a character of its own. Through the viewpoint of Tony, but also that of two SVPD detectives, this city is incredibly well-fleshed-out. With this setting, Christopher creates something out of a comic, yet gives it more depth than a comic ever could. However, he doesn’t shy away from breaking it all down before your very eyes when the story calls for it.
Exceeding comics If Adam Christopher meant to write a book that reads exactly like a comic novel, yet exceeds comics on every level, he succeeded. We may well be headed for a new age of comics, and if that age is shaped like Seven Wonders, I can hardly wait. For me, this novel nailed everything I want in a comic. It has amazing action, characters with depth, realistic themes, a lot of superheroes with a lot of innovative super powers, and an impressively devised foe that is perfectly balanced between comic book cliché and ingenious originality. Its only problem is that Seven Wonders—much like comics—is quite predictable. More than anything else, though, this novel is one heck of a lot of fun!
Why should you read this book? If you are a fan of comic books and superheroes, Seven Wonders may well be your perfect read. Its grand scale and impressive prose will definitely appeal to anyone who enjoys comics. Its flamboyant action and incredible characters will entertain you for hours. I dare say that—if done well—this may make one of the best film adaptations ever. I would love to see Christopher Nolan or Joss Whedon take a swing at this.(less)
The Rise of Ransom City is a sequel of sorts, following Felix Gilman’s The Half-Made World—a wonderful, genre-bending novel released some two years ago. That book concluded with a satisfying ending, but the story definitely didn’t end there. In The Rise of Ransom City, Gilman returns to the half-made world from a completely new perspective. In a stroke of mad-genius brilliance, Gilman has created a story that far surpasses its predecessor in writing and scope, and that is in nearly every way a standalone novel while still wrapping up the events of The Half-Made World.
The autobiography Harry Ransom is an inventor with an unhealthy drive for adventure, a self-conceit that brings him way too much trouble, and a naive worldview. When his father dies, he decides to venture out in pursuit of fame and glory. Throughout his adventures, he writes pieces of his autobiography and sends them randomly out into the world. Years later, a journalist collects all the pieces, and together, those comprise The Rise of Ransom City.
This autobiographic narration from an utterly flawed yet extremely likeable character works extremely well. The story jumps all over the place as Harry Ransom relates his new adventures—the ones he is having while writing—and his old adventures, while constantly interrupting himself to portray a picture of the world he walked in and the people he met. Due to the nature of this story, it is easy to compare it with that other autobiographic fantasy series, Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle—and indeed, there are many similarities. Like The Name of the Wind, The Rise of Ransom City is a chaotic character study that conveys the story of an extraordinary life. Mundane elements, like struggling with poverty and trying to find true love, are captivatingly conveyed. Gilman may lack Rothfuss’s knack for beautiful, near-poetic prose, but in return, he has significantly more story-telling skills. Where The Name of the Wind really doesn’t have much substance in the way of story, the autobiography of Harry Ransom is brimful of action and suspense.
Scope in perspective What sets this story apart from other novels, including The Half-Made World, is its scope. In The Rise of Ransom City, Gilman expands this uniquely flavored world with a rich history. More importantly, while reading, there is this sense of looking in while the history is being written. From the get-go, Ransom addresses his audience as a people who know their recent history. When he mentions that things were different before “the battle of Jasper City,” he clearly assumes you know what this battle was. Obviously, his audience is fictional, and we don’t know what that battle was, but we know immediately that it was something big and that we’ll simply have to continue reading to find out. This method of storytelling creates a significant amount of the suspense of The Rise of Ransom City, and the execution on Gilman’s part is utterly brilliant.
The American Dream The world in which Ransom’s autobiography takes place further deepens the scope of The Rise of Ransom City. It is a rural wild west, still largely unmade. When man brought technology to the unmade lands, the spirits of the land seized the opportunity. A steam locomotive, for example, suddenly became the vessel of an old god, and its creators became the god’s slaves. Through man-made technology, the old gods battle each other, and the creators of said technology are the unending war’s greatest victims. Yet, the wild west is also a place of opportunity where dreams can still come true and a poor man can become rich through hard work and dedication. This world paints a picture of The American Dream in which actions clearly have consequences and the modernization of the world leads to its destruction. It’s an endless cycle that, in Gilman’s voice, can only be perceived as deeply ironic.
After The Half-Made World—which had some serious pacing problems—The Rise of Ransom City is a fresh breath of wonderful story telling. It is a genre-bending story of a mundane man trying to seize any opportunity to make a name for himself. This is the study of a flawed character whose tendency to boast leads to trouble and tragedy. There are still some parts in which the pacing doesn’t work quite as well as Gilman intended, but the narration solves this problem adequately. The Rise of Random City never grows dull.
Why should you read this book? Whether or not you’ve read The Half-Made World, you should give its sequel a chance. The Rise of Ransom City is a unique story from a fresh perspective. This book is for anyone who enjoys the American pioneering history, westerns, steampunk novels, or contemporary fantasy. The epic wars and wonderful world building will even appeal to fans of high fantasy. This is an unparalleled and deep example of what happens when the lines between fantasy and literature start blurring, and, in writing it, Felix Gilman has established his literary craftsmanship once and for all.(less)
I’m generally not in the habit of spoiling earlier books in a series. However, Stephen Deas’s latest dragon novel is something of an exception. While it is set in the same world as his A Memory of Flames trilogy, and is thus highly influenced by the events therein, it is a stand-alone novel in most ways. If you’re thinking of jumping into Deas’s dragon stories, The Black Mausoleum makes a great starting point with all its sheer epicness and wonderfully grim moral ambiguity. But if you’re planning to read his trilogy first, you might want to stop reading this review, as it’s impossible to look at The Black Mausoleum without discussing the events that led to this story.
A devastated new beginning In many ways, The Black Mausoleum is a turning point in Deas’s dragon series. The events in A Memory of Flames have devastated the world. Where dragons were commanded by men in The Adamantine Palace, the first book in the trilogy, they are now on the loose, out for vengeance against the very men who have controlled them for so long. This changes everything. The Black Mausoleum is no longer a story filled with political intrigue. Nations have crumbled, and who cares about politics in a world filled with bloodthirsty dragons, right? Instead, this is a story of survival. It paints a dark picture of mankind at its worst when, faced with complete annihilation, every man fights for himself. Cities we knew in A Memory of Flames are reduced to ashes, and few characters have survived.
Some things stay the same, however. Like its predecessors, The Black Mausoleum is a bloody and gritty tale that reflects on humanity with dark, sinister realism. Stephen Deas has an almost frightening talent for creating characters to both hate and identify with. When faced with terrifying dragons, his characters don’t stick together. Instead, they turn against each other. Everyone blames everyone else for the escape of the dragons, and no one is truly trying to fight the dragons.
Classical journey with a twist Except, I suppose, Kataros, one of the main characters, who embarks upon a crazy journey to find a mythological weapon that may be capable of defeating the dragons. She is assisted by Skjorl, an Adamantine Man, trained from birth to fight dragons. Their journey forms the heart of The Black Mausoleum. Deas flirts with the Sword and Sorcery genre, but with much higher stakes; the very world is threatened. It is almost a classic epical journey, but with plenty of twists to make it interesting—after all, traveling through a world filled with deadly dragons isn’t quite that easy. The relationship between Kataros and Skjorl adds another interesting element; Kataros is actually using her blood magic to force Skjorl to help her out against his will.
Magic and world building In that blood magic lies one of the biggest differences between The Black Mausoleum and the three novels in A Memory of Flames. One of the most prominent of my observations throughout those novels is the lack of world building. This is not a bad thing; it’s just something Deas seems to do differently from other epic authors. He doesn’t force-feed you a world in bite-size pieces. Through the eyes of his characters, you slowly learn more of the world he’s created, and there are plenty of hints at more mystery and epicness—but it’s never quite enough. Though the trilogy’s conclusion, The Order of the Scales, already had some great world building, it takes a significant step forward in The Black Mausoleum. While staying true to his own marvelous style, Deas shows the world through new eyes. Magic starts playing a much more prominent role. What was only mentioned in passing in previous novels now turns into an interestingly authentic and creative magic system. Furthermore, this slow journey—from deserted wastelands to underground waterways lit by magic, and from rivers filled with huge worms to encounters with man-eating lizards in the forest—showcases Deas’s world in astonishing detail.
There be dragons… obviously While listing these differences, I should also mention the biggest constant in Deas’s dragon novels: the actual dragons. He restores dragons to their rightful positions as horribly terrifying, overwhelmingly imposing, awesome rulers of men. These dragons are awe-inspiringly intelligent monsters that regard humans as nothing but a nuisance. That is, until humans enslaved them for centuries. Now, they want revenge… and with these dragons, you’d better run away. This is how “real” dragons are supposed to be. Not those cute, childlike creatures in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series. Not those refined, loving dragons in Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle. No—fierce, wonderful, truly frightening monsters, the way they were in mythology, and the way Tolkien wrote about them—except, you know, there are thousands of them roaming the land.
Why should you read this book? The Black Mausoleum is a good starting point if you always wanted to check out the works of Stephen Deas. It summarizes the events in his A Memory of Flames trilogy, and sets the scene for his next trilogy that begins with Dragon Queen, which comes out in May. Deas has a knack for writing dark and morally ambiguous characters that even George R.R. Martin should envy. Most of all, though, his novels are pure, high-speed whirls of action, suspense, and drama, written with formidable, horrifyingly vivid prose. The Black Mausoleum is no exception to this and with its intriguing timeline—events are not told chronologically—and epic world building, it may even be better than most of Deas’s books. If you enjoy reading about dragons, you should definitely give it a try. My only problem is with its sudden and unsatisfying ending, and the next book may well make up for that, though. I certainly can’t wait!(less)
One of my favorite reads of last year was Mazarkis Williams’s epic debut The Emperor’s Knife. Needless to say, when I was offered a review copy of Knife Sworn, I jumped at the opportunity. Knife Sworn continues the story of Sarmin, who had been locked up in a tower by his brother, the Emperor, for most of his life, and of Mesema, once a young foreign girl, brought to Nooria to marry Sarmin against her will. Like Williams’s writing, these characters have matured. Knife Sworn is everything that The Emperor’s Knife was—stunningly mysterious, original, and magically epic—but grown up, with higher stakes and an increased dose of intrigue and mystery.
An unspoken promise The Emperor’s Knife is in many ways a standalone novel. While it is the first book in the Tower and Knife trilogy, it tells a contained story and builds its own complete world. Williams definitely left enough room for fleshing out this world, however. In a way, she made a promise to the readers of The Emperor’s Knife: “Look, here’s an awesome world with awesome magic, but I’m only telling you what you need to know; if you want more, you’ll simply have to come back for it.”
It’s this unspoken promise that Knife Sworn seems to focus on. For a brief moment, we leave the Arabian-influenced Cerani desert empire behind and travel to mountains and forest lands, where we meet a new culture, and more importantly, a new religion. This new religion plays a pivotal part in the plot of Knife Sworn. It doesn’t come entirely out of nowhere; the Mogyrk religion gracefully reticulates with the mysterious magic system established in The Emperor’s Knife. This magic system was one of the most significant strengths of the first book and continues to be so in Knife Sworn. Sarmin has come a long way in understanding the magic since the start of the trilogy, but his grasp of it was intuitive at best. When he is faced with the new challenges and complications of a magic he hardly understands, he often faces frustrations and repeatedly makes mistakes. Williams has chosen to go a different way than most epic fantasy authors in allowing her characters to take their time to develop magically, and she does it well. Sarmin’s abstract, almost philosophical endeavor to comprehend his world’s magic generates some of the best scenes in modern fantasy.
Stories old and new As I said, The Emperor’s Knife told a contained story; Knife Sworn continues this. Yet, Williams does not in the least forget the events that came before. More than anything, this sequel deals with the aftermath of its predecessor. The empire has been left scarred by the final events of The Emperor’s Knife, and everyone in the city can feel consequences of the actions that were taken. This may be a contained story in many ways, but none of it would be relevant if not for what happened before. Everyone was changed, especially the main characters, and the way they deal with this change is what makes Knife Sworn a more mature revolution of The Emperor’s Knife. Williams has written a beautiful and intriguing character study chronicling the effects of her first novel, while still telling a new story that is equally bold and engrossing. In fact, she raises the stakes by introducing a new—and worse—thread to morally ambiguous characters who are already struggling.
Untapped potential While its healthy dose of realism makes Knife Sworn a character-driven story worth reading, this also slows it down at times. Just like the first book, this is definitely not a page-turner. The well fleshed out characters, political intrigue, and magical mystery ensure it never becomes monotonous, but Knife Sworn does lack progression at times. Too much time is spent establishing the various political stances of characters and laying out the problems they are facing before a climax is reached.
Additionally, once things start moving again in a marvelously orchestrated grand finale in which many threads of the plot are skillfully brought together, the execution lacks oomph. The ending comes all too soon and some stories are left untold. Frankly, after Williams took so much care to set higher stakes and lead the characters into such an explosive situation—which she truly does better than most any fantasy authors I’ve read—the pay-off is underwhelming at best. The rushed ending left a lot of Knife Sworn’s potential untapped. I can only hope that Williams intends to revisit some of these storylines in future novels in the Tower and Knife trilogy.
Why should you read this book? Knife Sworn is a solid sequel in a marvelous trilogy of high fantasy. Unfortunately, it isn’t as good as The Emperor’s Knife, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. Williams is a wonderful author and fans of epic fantasy will love this magical, character-driven trilogy. If you haven’t picked up The Emperor’s Knife yet, I recommend you do so—especially if you’re a fan of Brandon Sanderson’s school of original magic systems and well-wrought new worlds.(less)
Brandon Sanderson has had a meteoric and well-deserved rise in the fantasy genre within the last decade. He has published more than a dozen novels, was chosen to finish Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series—and did that well!—and hosts the Hugo Award-winning podcast Writing Excuses. Sanderson’s trademark innovative magic systems, strong characters, and unique plot twists have gained him legions of fans. Though a novella, The Emperor’s Soul still has all of these aspects. It is a brief ode to unique magic packaged as an intriguing character-driven tale.
Shai is caught stealing an ancient artifact from the Emperor’s palace. She expects execution, but instead she is conscripted because of her unique magic. Emperor Ashravan’s soul has been damaged in an assassination attempt, and Shai may be the only one who can save him. To do this, she needs to use her magic to write him a new soul, something she’s never done before, which should probably take years—but Shai only has a hundred days until people will start suspecting something is wrong with the emperor. A hundred days in which she not only needs to write him a new soul, but devise a plan to escape the empire as well.
Flawless forgery It is impossible to discuss this novella without exploring Sanderson’s newest brilliant magic system, called Forging. We all know Brandon Sanderson is a genius when it comes to devising original magic systems, but in The Emperor’s Soul, he went overboard—in a good way. Essentially, this novella is a study of magic. No other author can manage to fill three quarters of a book with information and world building and do it well. Through the eyes of Shai, we slowly learn about her magic. Being educated as a reader is half the fun of The Emperor’s Soul. As Shai’s work progresses, we become masters of Forging ourselves, and the only question we want answered—which forms the other half of the reading pleasure—is, “Will she succeed?”
Of course, a significant portion of Sanderson’s success lies in the artistically innovate magic systems he creates. With such wonderful magic, why would we not want to spend a whole novella being educated? The diehard fans of his work are especially in for a treat: this novella takes place in the world of Elantris, and it’s interesting to see the connections between Forging in this book and the magic in his debut novel. More than that, though, The Emperor’s Soul is a study of good epic fantasy writing. It is marvelous to notice all the inventive ways in which Sanderson feeds his reader info dumps throughout the narrative, without writing a dull story. He is truly a master of resourceful world building—perhaps the master.
Strong women… and men Another of Sanderson’s skills has always been writing strong female characters, and he continues this tradition in The Emperor’s Soul. These women aren’t necessarily physically strong, but they are pleasantly and realistically characterized. Yes, Shai is female, but Sanderson does not focus on femininity the way other authors so often do. The other characters in The Emperor’s Soul treat Shai for what she is: an accomplished Forger and thus a threat. This is a breath of fresh air in a genre that often characterizes women as walking romantic—or sexual—plot points, or absurd stereotypes. Sanderson strikes a nearly flawless balance between these two extremes.
The other character The Emperor’s Soul focuses on is Gaotona, the emperor’s councilor and former best friend. While this is a short book and thus focuses mostly on Shai, it is intriguing to see Sanderson manage to flesh him out quite adequately. Gaotona is a realistic character, complete with flaws—he’s overbearing at times, for example—and strengths. His genuine inquisitiveness and abundance of honor despite his high governmental position make him disarmingly likeable.
The religious tapestry Although it is not mentioned much, even by his fans, Sanderson does a superb job of handling religion in his novels, and especially in The Emperor’s Soul. For example, most people in the novella find Forging repulsive but will resort to using it for the greater good or to maintain their political power. This near-philosophical strive to balance the ends justifying the means gives this novella weight and meaning. Another moral question is raised by considering the actual soul of the emperor. If someone were to gain a new soul, would they still be the person they once were? Sanderson injects such religious questions into his writing without beating the reader over the head with it. Whether you are religious or not, seeing these moral and philosophical questions play a role in such a short novel is intriguing and adds substance to The Emperor’s Soul.
Nights and days The only minor criticism I have for this amazing novella concerns Sanderson’s noted refusal to swear, while authors like Scott Lynch and George R.R. Martin bathe in profanities. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate his choice not to curse, and usually even like it. In his other works, part of Sanderson’s world building is establishing fictional cultures and religions—and creating alternative curses that are part of that, complementing the epicness of his works. After all, why would a completely fictional culture use our curses? In The Emperor’s Soul, however, Sanderson has not taken the time to define these cultures—and rightly so, considering the size of this story. He uses words like “Nights!” and “Days!” as profanities, but these words lack cultural context. Such invented expletives can unfortunately serve to break some readers’ immersion. Other readers may find the tantalizing hints of more depth in these characters and cultures to hold significant promise for future novels in the world of Elantris.
Why should you read this book? The Emperor’s Soul has everything that Sanderson is known for: brilliant magic system, moral issues, strong characters, and an action-packed conclusion. It’s fairly short and easy to pick up, yet it is mind-blowing to see how much Sanderson manages to cram into it. What have you got to lose? If you have been afraid to start reading Sanderson’s works because most of his books are large or part of a series, this slim novella is perfect for you. The Sanderson legion eagerly awaits your membership.(less)
Every now and then, I encounter a book that haunts me, but I just don’t have the time to read. Lamentation is such a book. The very moment I encountered a review for it, I ran to the store and bought it. An epic series filled with political intrigue, religion, action, and manipulation—that must be good! Added to that is the premise of a great and powerful city destroyed by an ancient artifact long thought to be nothing but a myth. It felt like a modern version of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, but from an author who manages to publish a big volume every year.
However, I was reading other books at the time, thus the book merely sat on my bookshelf for over a year. Then came the day I finally picked it up for Ranting Dragon’s book club… And was intensely disappointed. Lamentation is a decent work of epic fantasy, written by an author who clearly has a way with words, but both the story and characters are lacking.
Destruction? Where?! This is evident from the very start of the novel, when the city of Windwir—a technological and cultural capital of the world—is destroyed. This is an event of epic magnitude, of similar proportions to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. While that event propelled the world into the Cold War, Lamentation‘s event—as seen through the eyes of the five viewpoint characters Rudolfo, Neb, Jin Li, Sethbert, and Petronas—lacks in emotional impact. The characters hardly seem to care at all, continuing with their lives of manipulation and intrigue almost immediately.
The alternating viewpoints of the main characters—nearly every chapter contains each character’s point of view, varying in length from a single paragraph to several pages—made it easy for me to get absorbed into the story of Lamentation. However, the characters soon reveal themselves as shallow, flat, and stereotyped, with a consistent flawlessness to their respective personalities. The good guys are too good, and the bad guy is both too evil—he doesn’t seem to have any higher motivation for his acts—and too stupid to play a genuinely meaningful role in the story, increasing the lack of impact Lamentation had on me.
Prelude to the Psalms Where Scholes truly lost my interest, however, was when he decided to insert prophesies and meaningful dreams into the narrative. These elements appear completely out of the blue, and their contribution to the story is one of convenience, clearly added by the author to create direction for his story.
These prophesies, along with the absence of a believable antagonist, reveal both the biggest strength and biggest flaw of Lamentation because, like so many authors of epic series’, Scholes has fallen into a familiar trap. Lamentation is the first book in The Psalms of Isaak, a series that was intended from the start to have five books. Because of this, there is little incentive for the opening novel to tell its own contained story. Instead, Lamentation reads more like a prelude to the rest of the series. Gradually, Scholes uses a smaller plot to establish a much bigger plot—a plot that never comes to fruition in this book. Instead of being the author of a great epic in Lamentation, Scholes becomes a chess player, moving all his pieces into their necessary positions for the rest of the series. He certainly does this with graceful skill, feeding his readers subtle—and not-so-subtle—foreshadowing and creating a world where every character, good or bad, is seemingly manipulated by a greater force at work. In this lies significant potential for future books in The Psalms of Isaak—of which the next two volumes, Canticle and Antiphon, have already been released. Unfortunately, this potential doesn’t do Lamentation any good. The stakes are too low, the story too meaningless.
No crusades in this one After all my criticism, it must be said that there was one element I truly enjoyed in Lamentation: its world’s philosophy is truly a marvel. Fundamentally, this is a religious story, but this world’s religion differs from our world’s—and especially religion in our history in its peacefulness. Instead of wanting to bring the light to unbelievers, the religious folks of The Named Lands, Scholes’ world, want to guard it. This way of thinking seems almost alien to that of humans on earth, yet it made sense. At some deep level, this philosophy connected with me. That, if nothing else, proves that Ken Scholes is a genuinely talented writer!
Why should you read this book? Lamentation is only for the most patient fans of epic fantasy. Ultimately, the question might not be whether or not Lamentation itself is worth picking up, but whether the continuation of The Psalms of Isaak warrants the investment of hours reading what seems a mere prelude to the series at large. This question, I cannot answer. I may well give Canticle a try, but if I do, it will probably take me another year, if not longer, to get to it.(less)
There’s this relatively new rage in fantasy, and I’ve never been a fan of it. Authors—like Daniel Abraham and Joe Abercrombie—create a rich world with a lot of history, but zoom in on only one aspect of their world’s story in each book. Unlike the stories told in traditional fantasy, these are tales of characters instead of events. Think of it as the siege of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings, told solely from the viewpoints of a rider in the army of Rohan and an Orc under Sauron’s command.
Another author from the school of Abraham and Abercrombie—or perhaps the master of said school—is K.J. Parker. I have always been afraid to give Parker’s work a chance. However, when Parker’s latest work, Sharps, came across my path, I couldn’t resist giving it a try—a decision I don’t regret. While characters of other books in this subgenre—might I call it micro-fantasy?—were a turnoff for me, Parker’s characters are wonderfully unique and wholly engrossing. Where I could never really get into the stories of those other two authors, Parker pulled me in from the get-go and didn’t release me until long after I finished the last page.
Ambiguous bastards Now, before you judge my opinion based on my dislike of the aforementioned authors, let me set something straight: both Abraham and Abercrombie are incredibly skilled writers, and their popularity testifies to that. The fault is entirely mine. You see, I am quite particular about my fantasy: I need a conflict of good versus evil. Sharps has that conflict. Sure, the evil isn’t quite as traditional; and the characters… well, the characters are each of them skillfully written, morally ambiguous bastards. But these bastards—a murderer, a drunk, the son of a war criminal (or hero, depending on which side you stand), a whiny girl, and a mysterious soldier—have been united against their will with a common goal in mind: to make sure that the uneasy peace between the rivaling nations of Scheria and Permia is maintained. This goal seems noble enough, as Parker makes abundantly clear through various random viewpoints just how high the economic and cultural stakes really are.
Sabotage and intrigue From the very start, it is unclear who pulls the strings of this team of characters, or what motives are behind it, but the characters themselves—all “regular” Scherian citizens—wish only to do what they came to Permia to do: fence for sport in order to extend an olive branch in this cold war that succeeded a long and bloody conflict—and, if at all possible, make it back home safely despite their fencing tour seemingly being sabotaged at every corner.
This simple premise makes Sharps a marvelous read. Through Parker’s witty narration and intense eye for psychological detail, I immediately cared for the characters. When they were thrust into a dangerous world of political intrigue before too long, I was on the edge of my seat, flipping the pages as fast as I could. The relentless pace with which the characters are sent from one deadly situation to another, without ever truly being in control of their own fates, is breathtaking. The web of political factions and their conflicting motives is perplexing—in the best way possible. Throughout Sharps, only one question burned in my mind: how are these protagonists ever going to make it out of this alive?
Fencing with sharps The best thing about Sharps, however, isn’t the complex scheming and plotting, nor the terrific ambiguous characters. No, the best thing about Sharps is the fencing. The characters were put together for a fencing tour through their rival nation’s cities, and thus, fencing is the unifying theme throughout this novel. Parker’s magnificent prose exalts these fencing matches to a form of art. A deadly art, for while our Scherian protagonists expected to be fighting with blunted instruments, their Permian opponents are using sharps—real weapons that inflict very real wounds. Add to that the fact that Scherian fencing is about grace and elegance, but Permian fencing is about brutally and efficiently drawing first blood, and the protagonists’ objective to stay alive without killing any Permians is suddenly given a very tangible meaning. Perhaps the only fault in Sharps is the fact that there aren’t nearly enough of these high-paced, awe-inspiring, astonishing fencing scenes.
Why should you read this book? As a newbie reader of Parker’s works, I cannot compare Sharps to his or her various previous works. I have heard other reviewers say that this novel is his or her first more commercially viable work. The validity of that statement—which may be the reason why I loved it so much—is something I intend to find out for myself; Sharps has inspired me to read more of Parker’s books. It is an incredible story of realistically wrought characters, facing a world of intrigue, with a political complexity matching our own world, where the stakes are intensely high. As a reader, though, I simply wanted the protagonists to make it through the story in one piece. And frankly, that very fact made this novel simply mind-blowing.(less)
It will hopefully be obvious to anyone who has read the Inheritance trilogy—or read our reviews of The Hundred-Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, and The Kingdom of Gods—that N.K. Jemisin is an exemplary innovator of the fantasy genre. Her fresh take on epic fantasy pushes the boundaries of imagination, and her work might well be destined to become a literary classic one day, with its ingenious new settings, themes, viewpoints, character dynamics, and magic.
With The Killing Moon, first in the Dreamblood duology, Jemisin continues this trend. While The Killing Moon is her first more mainstream novel, using viewpoints and themes that fans of epic fantasy are better used to, it remains refreshing with its non-western setting, strong female protagonist, interesting character dynamics, and wonderful magic system. Jemisin does this like only she can, successfully blending traditional high fantasy with contemporary literature and creating a masterwork that further underlines Jemisin’s rise to genre stardom.
Questions of culture The riveting setting of The Killing Moon is the ancient city-state of Gujaareh, which is modeled after ancient Egypt. When you think of a setting modeled after Egypt, you might expect gods with the heads of crocodiles and dogs, pyramids, and pharaohs. Nothing is further from the truth. Instead of looking at the superficial elements of ancient Egypt, Jemisin dedicated herself to building a fictional culture based on the ancient Egyptian culture. Don’t expect stereotypes here; the worldbuilding in The Killing Moon runs much deeper and is, because of it, much more brilliant.
This cultural model forms the foundation of the novel’s themes. While, as I stated above, the themes of The Killing Moon are more mainstream than other elements of this story—The Killing Moon is an epic about a war between two nations—Jemisin wouldn’t be Jemisin if these themes didn’t run deeper than they appear at first glance. Magic is the defining trait of Gujaareh’s culture. Gatherers harvest their magic from the dreams of others. Their duty is to kill those judged corrupt, leading them into a blissful dream world of their own creation and gathering their magic in the process. This magic creates a moral rift between Gujaareh and its neighboring nations, who are appalled by the Gatherers’ practices.
Driven by character The Killing Moon is the story of Ehiru, a Gatherer, his apprentice Nijiri, and Sinandi, an emissary from a neighboring culture. These characters are each of them unique and well-written. The dynamic between them is astounding. There is the relationship between the old and lackluster Ehiru and his faithful, loving, and energetic apprentice—and it is extraordinary how casually Jemisin writes about homosexuality, making it an integral part of her characters yet never drawing attention to it directly. In stark contrast stands the relationship between the strong and headstrong Sinandi and Ehiru, which is driven by Sinandi’s culturally defined hatred of the practices of the Gatherer combined with her growing respect of the type of man he is. On their own, each of these characters discovers a deep-running corruption at the heart of Gujaareh—a corruption that may lead to a war between Sinandi’s nation and the powerful city-state. They find themselves working together to save both of their nations from imminent doom.
Minor pacing problems While the elements described above are sufficient to make The Killing Moon one of the year’s best books, I did have some problems with its pacing and the way high fantasy tropes were blended with contemporary themes. This composition of tropes and themes creates a book that reads much like a traditional epic, yet slows down at times to establish focus on cultural and moral themes. At some instances during the first half of the book, the pacing of The Killing Moon took me off guard because of that. Fortunately, the pace picks up for the second half—the breath-taking conclusion, especially, sets a frenetic pace. Despite these problems, Jemisin’s gorgeous prose and the depth of her narration ensure that The Killing Moon never had a completely dull moment.
Why should you read this book? Jemisin’s innovative blend of high and contemporary fantasy elements should appeal to anyone who enjoys reading traditional epics, as well as those tired of reading the same recycled tropes over and over again. The Killing Moon is an honest and gorgeously wrought work of art, driven by strong characters and unique cultural and moral dilemmas. Its inventive worldbuilding and creative magic make this novel a true jewel of epic fantasy. If you’ve always wanted to check out Jemisin’s work but haven’t gotten around to it yet, The Killing Moon provides the perfect place to start. It will hopefully establish her much deserved position as a giant of fantasy with a more mainstream following.(less)
The Avengers has made Black Widow quite popular, so it comes as no surprise that Black Widow has recently received her own three issue story arc, titled Black Widow Strikes. The events in Black Widow Strikes take place between Iron Man 2 and The Avengers, when Black Widow returns home to Moscow on an undercover S.H.I.E.L.D. mission to retrieve stolen Stark technology.
While the story of Black Widow Strikes is definitely a good read, it doesn’t do much with Black Widow’s character beyond what the film had already established. That just isn’t enough for me. In my opinion, one of the biggest (and only) shortcomings of The Avengers was the way Black Widow was presented—it felt like she was there for her looks, and was hardly given any personality or backstory.
The same is true for Black Widow Strikes: too many shots of Black Widow in her underwear, and hardly any focus on her personality. In fact, the only thing Black Widow Strikes establishes is that she feels very sorry for herself.
Don’t get me wrong; Black Widow Strikes is still highly entertaining, especially for fans of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Coulson or those who want to see more of the organization behind The Avengers. The art is wonderful and the story is enjoyable. Just don’t expect to be wowed by Black Widow’s amazing personality.(less)
“With great power comes great responsibility.” The Spider-Man films turned that line into a cliché. Marvel’s new comic series, Scarlet Spider, gives a twist to the infamous line: “All the power, none of the responsibility.” It’s the best way to describe Kaine Parker and his alter ego, Scarlet Spider.
Scarlet Spider was first introduced in Spider Island as a flawed clone of Peter Parker, created by one of his enemies to kill Spider-Man. Parker fixed him, however, and now he’s been given a second chance. True to his tagline, Scarlet Spider feels little of Spider-Man’s responsibility. Yet, the Peter Parker is strong in him and, despite his attempts at pretending not to care, he soon becomes Houston’s very first superhero. This struggle between seeking for personal gain and helping those in need forms the core of Scarlet Spider and is intriguing to witness.
An interesting series with beautiful artwork, Scarlet Spider more than lives up to the expectations created in Marvel’s Point One. This captivating story combines all the good things of Spider-Man—breathtaking action, likeable characters, humor, and creative villains—with an intriguing, no-nonsense, morally ambiguous main character. I’ll definitely continue buying these issues, and I can very much recommend Scarlet Spider to all fans of Spider-Man.(less)
Fury’s Big Week is essentially the introduction to The Avengers. This 96 page comic, combining eight volumes and released in trade paperback on May 16, ties all the films in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe together. The common threads in this story are Nick Fury and his S.H.I.E.L.D. organization. From their viewpoint, we see the things that went on behind the scenes of The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and the ending of Captain America.
While the story of Fury’s Big Week isn’t particularly special on its own, it’s this connecting of all films that makes the comic a must read for all fans of The Avengers. Suddenly, it turns out that the events in The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, and Thor all took place in the same week. What’s more, Fury’s Big Week uses hints already present in the films to make it happen. One could say this prelude forms the blueprint to the entire first part of Marvel’s big, epic storyline.
The art of Fury’s Big Week is great, though some characters, like Hawkeye and Coulson, are a little hard to recognize. They don’t look much like their big screen versions. Their personalities, though, are much like that in the movies, making this Avengers prelude a treat for every fan. In fact, Hawkeye and Black Widow are actually given the personality they so lacked in The Avengers.(less)
A couple months ago, someone gave me the first six issues of the Game of Thrones comics. It took me a while to start reading them, but once I did, I realized once again how awesome the person who gifted them really is. This comic, adapted from the George R.R. Martin story by Daniel Abraham—known for his Long Price Quartet and, more recently, The Dragon’s Path—with art by Tommy Patterson, is quite the read. Simply put: it made me devour the pages and left me wanting more.
One of the amazing things about A Game of Thrones: The Graphic Novel is the art. It’s beautiful and fits the world perfectly. In particular, the White Walkers in the first issue were wonderfully created. One problem I did have with the art, however, is that Patterson seems incapable of drawing women of varying ages. I found myself puzzled about who was who on several occasions. For example, Catelyn Stark—mother of five—looks like she’s in her twenties, with a perfect figure.
The story in this Game of Thrones comic adaption is quite wonderful, too. It stays surprisingly true to the novels, yet is a lot more accessible, and it reads as effortlessly as watching an episode of the HBO show—but without the ridiculous amounts of additional sex scenes. I was also pleasantly surprised by the way some characters, like Theon Greyjon, are depicted. All in all, everyone who loves A Song of Ice and Fire or HBO’s Game of Thrones should definitely check out these comics.(less)
Being a beginner in the world of reading comics is difficult. Seriously, sometimes I think comic publishers make resources hard to find on purpose. One can spend hours searching the internet to find out where to start. DC made it easier for us with their New 52, but what I really wanted was to read Marvel comics without having to read thousands of pages of backstory.
Solving my problem—and that of many others with me—Marvel introduced something new last year: Point One. Point One (or .1 for short) comics are starting points within the continuity of comics. Basically, when a Point One comic comes out, Marvel is saying, “Hey look, newbies, here starts a new story for our superhero, buy this comic!” It’s a great concept, possibly better than the complete reboot DC did. After all, it provides a jumping off point within the continuity, instead of rebooting the entire continuity.
To launch their Point One issues, as well as to lay a foundation for their 2012 stories, Marvel released a 64-page issue, also titled Point One, in September 2011. Promising to be a starting point and must-have for new readers, this issue contains six small stories that hint at things to come. Those stories are bound together with the story of a Watcher that sees the past, present, and future. The story of the Watcher, however, felt forced, incomplete, and unnecessary.
The first story is titled Nova: Harbringer. It is designed to tease at the big crossover event of Avengers vs. X-Men, a separate comic series which started last month. While I did not enjoy the manga-style art, nor the writing—for example, after a planet is blown up, the main character simply says “Epic fail.”—the story somehow intrigued me. A two-page spread showed exactly what will be at stake in AvX.
The second story was a lot more epic than the first. Age of Apocalypse: The Myth of Man gives us a preview of a future earth where mutants have destroyed humans. This story will return for one issue in The Uncanny X-Force #19.1, and from there, it will get its own comic, titled Age of Apocalypse. The writing is great, and the story is intriguing.
The best of the six stories in my opinion was the third, Scarlet Spider: The Scarlet Thread. Where the other two stories left a lot to be guessed by readers, Scarlet Spider actually gives a great introduction to this new character who gets a new series of his own. I am definitely interested in this series, and can’t wait to find out more about the character of Scarlet Spider, who was first introduced during the Spider Island event.
From there, Point One went downhill rapidly, starting with the fourth story, Yin and Yang: a cliché tale of conjoined twins who can, between them, manipulate fire and ice. While this story still had something interesting, the cut-off felt merely annoying to me. This annoyance was amplified when, no matter how much time I spent on Google, I had no clue where these characters would pop up next. All readers really know is that it will have something to do with The Avengers.
The low point of Point One was reached with Doctor Strange: The Shaman of Greenwich Village—a weird, random story of incomprehensible events that happen within both the waking world and a character’s dreams. The problem is that there is no way of telling the two apart. Doctor Strange will return in a new series called Defenders. This is one comic I will stay far away from.
Last comes the story of Avengers: Age of Ultron, teasing a new dystopian type event. In this story, we meet a future Spiderman and Hawkeye, on the run from weird robots. This story was intriguing, good-looking, and pretty cool. It’s definitely too short, but based on the event it hints at, The Age of Ultron already seems like it will be a must-read series.
In the end, Marvel’s Point One is really just one big trailer to their new season of comics. It may add some cool teases for fans of these comics, but it absolutely doesn’t do what it promises for new readers. Sure, I’m intrigued about some of these comics and events, but in hindsight, I would rather just have started reading at the beginning of those stories. If this issue is aimed towards new readers, it fails completely. It took me way too much effort to even find out where these stories continue.(less)
Blue Remembered Earth, Alastair Reynolds’ latest novel, is everything its mesmerizing title and equally captivating cover promises: a utopian science fiction novel showcasing an optimistic daydream of our future one hundred and fifty years from now, where our grandchildren have battled global warming head on and turned the world into a better place for all.
Exorbitant daydreaming I say daydream because, ultimately, that is what Blue Remembered Earth is: Reynolds’ daydream of a future where Africa has become the dominant power, and crime, war, disease, poverty, and violence are a thing of the past. It is a future where our planet, now rendered more blue by the changing climate, is fading away on the horizon as mankind gradually explores new territories in outer space. In this fantasy of a brighter future, Reynolds holds nothing back. The reader is taken from one impossibly unrealistic place to another, from super slow robot wars on the dark side of the moon—seriously, who would be interested in robots fighting slower than the eye can see?—to underwater cities back on earth, where humans have genetically engineered themselves into mermaids and full-sized whales.
At the background of this exorbitant fantasy—almost as an excuse to write a book about his wildest dreams—Reynolds’ Blue Remembered Earth is about the African Akinya family and their hunt for truth. After the death of Eunice, his grandmother and the founder of the family dynasty, Geoffrey Akinya is reluctantly sent on a mission by his cousins—the new family patriarchs—to retrieve a mysterious box from the moon. What follows is a quest from Earth to the moon, to Mars, and back to Earth and the moon again to discover a vague and mysterious secret Eunice left behind, a secret that may change the world forever.
Treasure hunt Don’t expect a wild and epic quest, though. While this quest could have been very interesting, the execution is poor at best. Think of Blue Remembered Earth as a Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code) thriller without the thrill. As in Brown’s books, Geoffrey’s quest leads him and his sister from one clue to the other, following a trail his deceased grandmother left behind. Unlike in Brown’s books, however, this quest is lacking in suspense and backbone, has some serious pacing issues—I put the book away many times because it was just too slow—and doesn’t offer anything in the way of pay-off. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of twists along the way, but a more perceptive reader will probably see each of them coming from miles away. The ending, too, is rather underwhelming.
This adventure is shown through the eyes of two incredibly well fleshed out but intensely annoying characters: Geoffrey Akinya and his sister Sunday. In them, Reynolds has created truly believable, ambiguous characters who are completely unfit for the action they are thrown into. Unfortunately, the realism of these characters is evidenced in a series of irking traits and the ability to make the worst decisions imaginable. If you are looking for heroes to root for and emotionally invest in, Blue Rememered Earth might not be the right book for you.
A marvelous world Blue Remembered Earth isn’t all bad, though. Reynolds clearly had a singular reason for writing this book—showing an optimistic future—and he does that well. While I had personally hoped for more substance, I cannot deny that the utopian picture painted here is an intriguing one. I don’t think I have ever seen a book that put this much effort into world building, and the world revealed throughout the book is a world I would gladly live in. There are no holds barred in the detail with which this utopian future is laid out before us. This eye for detail, combined with some wonderful prose, makes a reader feel like he’s living in Reynolds’ future.
When all is said and done, Blue Remembered Earth holds plenty of promise but doesn’t cash in on most of it. It so obviously strives to be a philosophic exploration of a utopian future with themes of broadening horizons and the repercussions of technological advancement. Instead, these themes are lost in the underdeveloped story and poor narration, driven by the author’s own interventions to make a contrived, unrealistic treasure hunt seem realistic.
Why should you read this book? If you wish to immerse yourself into a well-developed, brighter future, Blue Remembered Earth should be your next read. However, don’t read this book when you are looking for a good and entertaining story. Blue Remembered Earth is a slow quest with irritating characters, set in a marvelous future version of our world. I can only hope that Reynolds puts more thought into the story of the next volumes of the Poseidon’s Children trilogy. If that’s the case, I might even consider picking them up.(less)
Our favorite debut of last year was unquestionably Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns, a dark, brutally captivating tale of epic fantasy—or low; opinions on that were divided. This August will bring us King of Thorns, the second volume in The Broken Empire and sequel to Prince of Thorns. What he started in his debut, Lawrence expands in King of Thorns. Again, this is a breathtaking, captivating, and violent venture into a wonderful world filled with morally ambiguous characters and compelling world-building.
Little Jorg, all grown up Four years after the events in Prince of Thorns, Jorg is all grown up. He’s no longer a prince, but the king of the Renar Highlands. With an invading army at his doorstep, the King of Thorns is about to marry the daughter of an ally. King Jorg is a new person, smarter and more tranquil, yet still his old, cruel self. Lawrence did an amazing job bridging four years and bringing us a new character that still retains so much of who he was before. Of course, the way this story is told provides aid in reconciling the old and new Jorg. It is again from the viewpoint of Jorg, but with shifting timelines—facilitated by flashbacks to the four years between then and now and by pages from the diary of his love interest.
No man is born evil This is no fairy tale filled with cheesy fantasy tropes; it is instead a dark type of realism. A character isn’t just evil, but evil for a reason. That element was present in Prince of Thorns, but with a dash of sympathy, it is perfected in King of Thorns. Where Prince Jorg was mostly just a morally ambiguous, cold-blooded murderer, King Jorg is growing up and his brutality has become more reflective. In King of Thorns, we get acquainted with Jorg’s backstory, which is no longer limited to the repulsive kind of violence we saw in Prince of Thorns, but instead the kind that makes you want to shout out and end the injustice done to the young prince. All of a sudden, it becomes very clear that Jorg wasn’t simply born the warped boy he was in Prince of Thorns, but he became who he is today by his own poor choices and the evil acts of others.
An example of this is a flashback scene at the beginning of the book, where young Jorg’s father, the king, has noticed the boy loves his dog—ironically named Justice. Jorg is forced to harm the animal or watch it die at the hands of his father. When Jorg chooses the first, it isn’t enough for his father, who then murders the helpless dog in front of Jorg. The injustice done to Justice is heartbreaking and the prose in this scene is both compelling and repellent. Scenes like these will haunt you long after finishing King of Thorns, proving once more why Mark Lawrence was last year’s best debuting author.
Darn it, Lawrence, I don’t want to love this guy! Somewhere through all that, in the story of a boy that lost everything he ever cared for—the dog he once loved, his family murdered before his eyes, friends lost, the woman he loves hating him—I began to identify with Jorg Ancrath.
Actually, in an unnerving way, Jorg was always relatable. Throughout King of Thorns however, I didn’t just relate to him; I began to care for him as well. He is still the horribly evil boy he was in Prince of Thorns, the focus of so many concerned reviews. Yet, this time, there is another side to him. He is a human being who’s been through worse things than any man deserves. I both pity and admire him. More than that, I admire Lawrence for writing a character both so awful and lovable whom I wish to hate with all my heart but have come to love instead. This sympathetic angle is a brave step away from the successful formula of Prince of Thorns, but Lawrence pulls it off brilliantly.
Science fiction-esque fantasy Another step onward from his debut is Lawrence’s world-building. In Prince of Thorns, he started dropping hints about the origin of his world. The attentive reader could soon come to realize that the fictional world of Prince of Thorns was rooted in our own. King of Thorns goes above and beyond mere hints. If it were debatable whether Prince of Thorns was low or epic fantasy, I don’t think anyone will disagree that King of Thorns is most definitely epic fantasy of the very best kind. The world, unfamiliar last time, is fully fleshed out now. The Broken Empire is a post-apocalyptic version of earth, where science has breached the veil between magic and reality and a nuclear holocaust has brought us back to the dark middle ages. Somewhere underneath the soot and dirt of this fantasy is an entire world of science fiction, and King of Thorns shows us the tip of the iceberg. Somehow, Lawrence gives me the impression that the backstory isn’t just intriguing—I really hope he will write it someday—but has a lot to do with where the story is now, and where it is headed.
This science fiction-esque approach to fantasy world-building gives King of Thorns a unique flavor. Magic—of which we see a lot more than in the first book—isn’t what it seems. Somehow, there is a scientific foundation to it, hidden behind the lack of understanding by the characters. Tools left behind by The Builders—the more developed former civilization on earth—twist and spin this story around. With such elements at Lawrence’s disposal, the obvious trap would be to use them as a deus ex machina, but proper foreshadowing serves us explosive battles in a surprising yet inevitable style. There is just one exception, a key element of the story’s shifting timelines—a magical box in which Jorg’s most horrible memories are locked away—that feels like a cheap narrative resource to add suspense. However, while I feel Lawrence could have handled this better, it never subtracted from the reading experience.
Why should you read this book? King of Thorns reads like a landslide rolling down a cliff. Undiscriminating, it carries everything in its path along a trail of destruction, taking the lives of innocent bystanders and reducing whole villages to rubble. There is no stopping this landslide. All you can do is follow it on its set course until the spectacular ending and the silent void that follows. Like that landslide, this savage, vicious, and dark story rushes onward with a pace that takes a reader’s breath away. If you haven’t read Prince of Thorns, I suggest you do so soon, because this sequel comes out this summer, and it’s even better than the first part! After the horribly amazing ending that changed everything, I am left stunned, panting, begging Lawrence for more.(less)
Every Sanderson novel has all you ever need from a fantasy story. They have perfect, feel-good stories with characters to love and identify with. They offer mysteries to be solved and lots of subtle hints and foreshadowing to involve the readers. They have creative magic systems and intriguing worlds. And they have healthy doses of action and suspense with hints of romance.
A new story, three hundred years later The Alloy of Law: A Mistborn Novel is no exception to this. The fourth book set on Scadrial, the world previously seen in the bestselling Mistborn trilogy, The Alloy of Law is set several hundred years after the climactic events of The Hero of Ages, in a reborn world where the original cast have become almost mythological and their deeds legendary. In a way, they have become something akin to caricatures of what they once were, time decaying their memory into stories. Names like Ironeyes, Ascendant Warrior, Last Emperor, Survivor, and Harmony have become titles both reverent and religious to many.
Waxilium Ladrian, affectionately known as Wax, is a rare Twinborn—someone who wields both a Feruchemical and Allomantic power—and he can Push on metals with his Allomancy and use Feruchemy to become lighter or heavier at will. After spending twenty years as a lawkeeper in the Roughs, the Scadrial equivalent of the Wild West, Wax is called back to the metropolis of Elendel to take his deceased uncle’s place as head of House Ladrian. Though Waxillium is trying to put away his guns and lead a respectable life, a group of criminals is robbing Elendel’s elite and kidnapping noble women, and the reluctant Wax, helped by his friend Wayne and the young Lady Marasi, seems to be the only one who can stop them.
A cleverly reinvented world There is one thing that The Alloy of Law lacks that all of Sanderson’s other works have, and in my opinion, this very lack makes this one of Sanderson’s best novels. Don’t get me wrong, I love Sanderson’s worldbuilding and his creative ways of introducing readers to a world, but with The Alloy of Law taking place in an already existing world, with the magic system previously established, there is a lot less worldbuilding in this story. Yet, I believe readers who haven’t read the Mistborn trilogy will still be able to thoroughly enjoy The Alloy of Law. Sanderson gives just the right amount of background needed for the story and doesn’t bother explaining the rest of the world in detail. Instead, this is a fairly straightforward novel with more attention for the story and the character dynamic.
Brandon Sanderson did something rather remarkable with Alloy of Law. He took the strict social and magical rules that governed the old series and let them mingle. This has allowed many of the mechanics to change both subtly and violently, allowing enormous new possibilities for his writing. The world has changed, and so has the way people perceive the magic of Scadrial. Technology has mingled with the magic, leading to amazing magical gunfights and other extraordinary feats.
Magic in all its forms Sanderson handles the Twinborn perfectly; he creatively harnesses the dual abilities to turn them into something unique for each character. The main character, Wax, manipulates his powers to handle situations in ways unexpected for the reader, adding a lot of fun to The Alloy of Law. Bendalloy is used frequently in this book, adding temporal elements to many scenes. Sanderson shows his true creative powers in designing magical combinations and possibilities that a reader can’t even predict. This was a definite strong point for The Alloy of Law, letting it feel like a Mistborn novel, yet bestowing on it a sense of individuality and vibrancy.
A bold and enigmatic set of characters While Sanderson’s characters have always been likable, their flatness and flawlessness have often been a weakness in his writing. With The Way of Kings, he already proved he was getting better, and with The Alloy of Law, Sanderson continues to demonstrate improvement. The characters of The Alloy of Law are each bold and enigmatic and very memorable. In most books, there are major characters that just fail to evoke a lasting image, but Sanderson has crafted each of these characters brilliantly. Wayne is an obvious standout, with all of his quirks and accents; he develops as a character that brings a new perspective to the term “multifaceted.” Wax, the primary protagonist, is almost like a superhero when viewed externally, but becomes grounded and relatable when observed from within his mind.
The females of The Alloy of Law are intriguing, handling the pressures of society and social stigma in differing ways. They are never just a flat part of the plot, like so many female fictional characters have been written throughout the course of fantasy as a genre. One of the most interesting pieces of feminism in The Alloy of Law was the academic course on the Ascendant Warrior as a powerful woman at the University of Elendel.
Core themes that shift slightly While the story mostly takes place in the city of Elendel, there are scenes outside the great city, adding contrast and a layer of socioeconomic and judicial philosophy to the story, themes that the original Mistborn series centered around. The protagonists are all lawkeepers or have a direct relationship to such a career and it shapes their view of the world, with subtly different shadings between each point of view. For the first time, Sanderson has truly mastered the morally ambiguous antagonist: a bad guy who believes he is doing the right thing and has believable motivations to do what he does.
Why should you read this novel? The Alloy of Law is a short novel, but never flagging. It starts slowly, but quickly becomes intense and detailed as the action picks up and the story fully grabs you. Despite some predictable twists, there are still moments where it takes you places you didn’t expect. The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson is a riveting, action-packed story that reinvents the world of Mistborn with a bold new set of characters, witty dialogue and a revolutionized setting. This is a novel any fantasy fan should read. Whether you are a fan of the epic, the urban, or steampunk, The Alloy of Law has it all. Please give us a sequel, Mr. Sanderson!(less)
When the graphic novel adaption of New Spring, the prequel to the epic Wheel of Time series, was released on January 18th, it was well received here at the Ranting Dragon. Having loved that, we’re even more thrilled to be able to review the first volume of The Eye of the World Graphic Novel, the comic adaption of the first novel in The Wheel of Time series.
An aesthetic beauty This absolutely stunning hardcover does The Eye of the World justice. The characters shown on the front—Rand, Mat and Perrin—are only part of a full scene that can be fully viewed when you unfold the dust-jacket and see Nynaeve, Egwene, Tam, Moiraine, Thom and Lan as well. It’s a truly amazing piece of art—one worthy of framing on any wall. Underneath the dust jacket, you’ll find a relief of the Wheel of Time symbol—the Wheel and the serpent biting its own tail—which is a very nice touch.
Doing the novel justice We opened the book with very high hopes, and we weren’t disappointed. This first volume in The Eye of the World Graphic Novel opens with the Ravens prologue found in the young adult version of The Eye of the World and not released in the adult version, which was a very nice surprise. With the additional prologue, as well as an introduction to The Wheel of Time series from Robert Jordan himself—written before his death—new readers to the series won’t feel as lost as they might have starting The Eye of the World novel.
Absolutely no scene, no matter how inconsequential, is left out, from Mat and Rand taking the caskets of wine into the basement of the Inn, to seeing a raven that appears to be spying on them and Moiraine subsequently showing up, to the attack on Rand and Tam’s farm—where Narg, the talking trolloc, makes an appearance. Even Moiraine’s telling of Manetheren’s history was given due attention. In the grand scheme of things, this scene plays such a minor role; yet it is a fan favorite, and one of our favorite scenes in the entire series. This part actually works out rather well in the comic, and Robert Jordan would likely have appreciated how true to the original story this graphic novel remains, not leaving any bit out, no matter how hard to translate the images may have been.
A small warning! One thing for fans of The Wheel of Time to keep in mind before reading the graphic novel, however, is that this is the first time that the characters have ever been drawn to be mass-marketed in the twenty-one years since The Eye of the World was first released. Unfortunately, some of these drawings might not live up to the pictures in your head. However, they are drawn consistently, and an exquisite amount of detail is rendered in these pages, so we might as well cut the artist, Chase Conley, some slack, especially considering that he had the absolute approval of The Jordan Estate.
Obviously, we had our preferences as well. For example, Thom looks like a fragile and grumpy hippie. We have always pictured him with longer hair, and while his attitude seems completely spot on, the drawings just don’t match up with how we pictured him for so many years. The style in which Moiraine is drawn provided a big problem for us as well. She doesn’t seem to embody the Aes Sedai presence that she so clearly possesses in the novels. Her height, while accurate, was depicted in such a way that made her seem small and submissive, contrary to the novels. Some of her facial expressions were so very unlike Moiraine and a tad demeaning to the character. Tam, on the other hand, was absolutely amazingly drawn. He seemed very well-represented—the perfect image of a grizzled war veteran who has now settled down to life as a shepherd.
An improvement upon New Spring Unlike the art of New Spring, which was for the most part lively and colorful, The Eye of the World is dark, perfectly capturing the atmosphere of the story. Some minor details were missing for die-hard fans like myself, such as the heron marks on Rand’s sword when it’s first introduced, even though it’s discussed later on. That doesn’t diminish the masterful skill with which this story was drawn onto the pages, however. This is further enhanced by the fact that the same artists worked on the entire graphic novel. Where New Spring had characters that were drawn in a different style every other chapter, the art in The Eye of the World provides us with continuity and consistency.
Epic bonus materials The bonus materials at the end of this volume are simply amazing. Chase Conley’s sketchbook features a lot of characters that we won’t see for another volume or two—if not longer—but the initial sketches being included here further increases the anticipation for future volumes. It is definitely hard to pick out a favorite from the twenty-six character sketches, but it was impressive to see how many were included. The second part of the bonus materials—the cover gallery—is also absolutely stunning. You get to view every cover that was released for the individual issues, and they’re all impressive. These images don’t come directly from the story, but are nonetheless stunning – just take a look at the example on the right.
Why should you read this novel? Overall, The Eye of the World Graphic Novel absolutely did the first part of the book justice. The characters are literally brought to life right in front of you, and the script doesn’t detract from Jordan’s marvelous storytelling. This comic comes together perfectly, from the surprising prologue to the marvelous cut-off at the end, complete with cliffhanger. This comic adaption of The Wheel of Time is a great addition to the collection of any fan of the series, as well as a decent starting point for those that wish to start the series in a lighter way. We definitely cannot wait for the next volume, which is coming in June 2012.(less)
Many fantasy fans loved N. K. Jemisin’s The Hundred-Thousand Kingdoms. Yet, a lot of these readers were put off by The Broken Kingdoms being set a decade later with an entirely new protagonist. Indeed, The Broken Kingdoms almost seemed like a stand-alone novel set in the same world. Fortunately, it wasn’t so. The story in The Broken Kingdoms was spun forth from the events of The Hundred-Thousand Kingdoms, and while offering a new perspective, it couldn’t exist without the first.
Much the same can be said about Jemisin’s latest novel, The Kingdom of Gods. This intriguing ending to The Inheritance Trilogy is set some hundred years after The Broken Kingdoms, but unites both stories in spectacular fashion. The viewpoint is that of Sieh, the trickster child godling who appeared in both previous books. After successfully writing the viewpoint of a magical blind woman, Jemisin now proves that she can also pull off a convincing first person perspective of a god.
Divine perspective Jemisin’s trilogy seems to be shaped after Greek epics—with seemingly separate stories telling one big, epic, overall arc—and Jemisin’s gods seem to share their nature with those from Greek mythology. There are a great many of them, all related in one way or another. They hate each other and they love each other. They wage war on each other and work together when it suits them. From the perspective of Sieh, we get a deeper insight into these divine relationships. These gods aren’t human. Humans were created in their image, definitely, but there is something very different about the gods, each with their own aspects from which they derive their power. For Sieh, this is the nature of a child and trickster, and he grows powerful as he does childish things but weakens as he is forced to deal with maturity—an interesting dynamic that receives all the attention it deserves.
With the skill of an artist, Jemisin relays these aspects, turning The Kingdom of Gods into an exploration of the divine. It is an almost reflective, philosophical journey into the many elements of the immortal and mortal realms alike. For gods, time does not pass the way it does for us, and this shows in The Kingdom of Gods, making years pass in the blink of an eye while mere moments last minutes or even hours when enough happens. This is no shallow story, but an introspection of the way us humans deal with war, stress, love, and treason; thus I felt like I could relate more to the narration of Sieh than that of Oree or Yeine before him.
An evolution of sorts Of course, The Kingdom of Gods again utilizes those elements that made its prequels such wonderful reads. Honestly, I’m a slow reader. An average novel usually takes me a couple weeks to read. When I finished The Hundred-Thousand Kingdoms in under four days, I was surprised. It was only after reading the last page that I realized what a page turner it truly was. Though The Kingdom of Gods is a much larger novel—at 575 pages, it is Jemisin’s longest story to date—I again read it in mere days. These books aren’t page turners because of their extreme suspense, though there definitely is some of that. Instead, it is the easygoing focus on characters combined with the marvelous, almost poetic prose that make these such easy, engrossing reads.
The Kingdom of Gods is an evolution of its predecessors in other ways as well. As already mentioned, there are the deep and multifaceted characters, both human and divine. The atmosphere and setting in this third volume are equally as brilliant and colorful as those in The Hundred-Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms. Lovers of magic, too, can rejoice, for while the previous books introduced us to an interesting and creative magic system, The Kingdom of Gods finally truly explores this magic in all its forms and glory.
Genre-bending fantasy Don’t expect a story as well-paced as The Broken Kingdoms, however. The Kingdom of Gods is much like Jemisin’s debut, a story of a character thrust into an unlikely situation against his—or her, in the case of The Hundred-Thousand Kingdoms—will, where he is faced with dilemma, mystery and deathly secrets, the outcome remaining uncertain until the very end of the novel. No worries, though; near the end, the pacing truly picks up when a series of exciting events lead to a thrilling conclusion. With that knowledge, I would say The Kingdom of Gods is better than Jemisin’s debut, and almost as good as The Broken Kingdoms. It is definitely a masterpiece that exceeds the fantasy genre and enters literary fiction with genre-bending and artistic creativity. I often got the impression that every word Jemisin writes serves a higher purpose, and all events throughout her story have meaning. The only exception, perhaps, is the exorbitant foreshadowing toward a certain revelation.
Why should you read this book? The Kingdom of Gods corroborates what those who read its predecessors already surmised: N. K. Jemisin is a true superstar of fantasy literature. The Inheritance Trilogy may well be the single most intriguing fantasy series I have ever read, and I cannot wait to see what Jemisin has in store for us in her future novels. If you were let down by the change in viewpoints between books, I urge you to give The Broken Kingdoms a chance anyway. If you haven’t read The Hundred-Thousand Kingdoms yet, you should probably run off to the bookstore or library right now. And if you have read these books, The Kingdom of Gods will simply be all that you expect it to be: an amazing reading experience that will leave you yearning for more. Oh, and don’t forget to check the glossary at the back when you’re done. It is hilarious!(less)
The Emperor’s Knife is Mazarkis Williams’ stunning debut and the first book in the Tower and Knife series. This stunning tale of magic and political scheming is published by new UK publisher Jo Fletcher in October and will be published in the US on December 1st by Night Shade Books.
Dying empire A work of high fantasy in every way, The Emperor’s Knife takes us to the Cerani Empire—an empire that’s dying from the inside out. A disease, or perhaps an old magic long lost, is threatening the Cerani. Those that get mysteriously “marked” will either die or become Carriers—human vessels for some divine power to use as he pleases. This has been going on for decades, but now the Emperor, Beyon, is marked… and that’s a serious problem.
The Emperor’s Knife follows the tales of Sarmin, the brother and only heir of the emperor, who was locked up in a tower during the succession years ago, and Eyul, the Emperor’s Knife, appointed assassin by the emperor and the only one allowed to slay royals by using his magical knife. We also follow Tuvaini, a noble trying to scheme his way to the throne, and Mesema, a young foreign girl who is taken to Nooria, the empire’s capital, to marry Sarmin against her will.
Unfleshed As their story unfolds and perspectives seamlessly overlap, it becomes clear that unlike other high fantasy authors, Williams’ talent is in not fleshing out his world and magic. Yes, you read that right: Williams tends to keep a lot of open threads. While it becomes clear from the start that there is a lot to this Arabian-influenced desert world, we only see little pieces of it as they become relevant to the story. Furthermore, there are two very original magic systems in The Emperor’s Knife, but both keep an air of mystique. This never reaches the point of confusion, however. A reader is simply eased into the story by the characters that drive it.
Magic, mystique, and ambiguity More than anything, The Emperor’s Knife reminded me of works by Brandon Sanderson like Elantris, Warbreaker, and Mistborn. Like those stories, this is a tale of unlikely and sometimes naive people, thrust into a situation of political schemes where they have to save the world by solving a magical mystery. While Sanderson’s novels often have a magician protagonist who is slowly educated in the ways of the magic system, Williams’ protagonists are regular folk, having to deal with an entirely alien magic, the origins of which remain unknown for the better part of The Emperor’s Knife. Their fumbling around with magic they are unfamiliar with only adds to the air of mystique in this novel.
Unlike the characters in Sanderson’s debut, however, Williams’ characters are among the most intriguing in the epic fantasy genre. These are no flat goodie-two-shoes but morally ambiguous protagonists, each with their own hopes, dreams, and fears. What’s more, these characters truly develop. For example, Eyul, the Emperor’s Knife, was chosen for his blind loyalty, but throughout the story, he faces situations in which he is forced to make his own decisions. In these events, and through dialogue, he showcases the ability to reflect upon his choices and a wish to better himself. The development of this character and many others alike felt real and genuine.
A game of chess The Emperor’s Knife isn’t, however, a page turner. While the story always intrigues and entertains, the movement of characters—it often feels like they are chess pieces on Williams’ board—to get them in position for the ending grew a bit dull and tedious in the middle part of the book. While slow, these movements definitely seemed necessary for the story to continue. I just wish Williams would have given each movement a little more attention. For example, there were multi-day breaks between scenes, and the events during those days are never explained and don’t make much sense. The resulting story is still a good one, though, and this movement of chess pieces adds to the intelligence of The Emperor’s Knife. Don’t expect a thriller, but rather a real, grown-up and utterly, brilliantly well-wrought epic fantasy.
Why should you read this book? The Emperor’s Knife has everything a fan of epic and high fantasy may need. It has mystery, intrigue, amazing characters both to love and to hate, and original magic systems. Fans of Brandon Sanderson or Robert Jordan will love this, but it also holds similarities to talented authors like Stephen Deas and Mark Lawrence. Beyond that, the large amount of open threads promises a great deal for future installments. Mazarkis Williams is a debuting author to keep an eye on.(less)
Curtis Jobling, the author of Wereworld: Rise of the Wolf, is also the brains behind Bob the Builder. A book combining Bob the Builder with such a title might not sound very promising to you. In fact, you might note that the very title Wereworld: Rise of the Wolf sounds as corny as you always imagined Bob the Builder to be. Well, if that’s the case, you are spot on.
Much epicness in this one The first thirty pages introduce us to Drew, a sheepherder who lives in a backwater town in the middle of nowhere. You know the kind—a town that is defenseless against any orc, trolloc, or wererat—yes, really, I just said “wererat”—attack, with the nearest payphone hundreds of miles away. Drew has a father who hates him and a brother who is completely different from him. His mother loves him, though, as do his sheep. Except this full moon, they seem frightened of him. No matter, we shall move on, not dwelling on the subtle foreshadowing.
One night, all hell breaks loose. Drew’s father and brother are conveniently out of town as his mother is telling him that he is indeed very different, because… KABAM! A monstrous creature storms in. Drew is feeling a bit weak after staring at the full moon, so he is powerless—guilt is perfect for future force-fed character development!—to stop the monster from brutally ripping his mom’s throat out. Not before she yells some ridiculously obvious things for foreshadowing purposes, though. Suddenly, Drew changes into a monster too—too much moonlight is very bad for your health!—and fights the other monster.
No cliché spared In the epic journey that follows, Drew discovers he is the chosen one: the last living werewolf among heaps of other werecreatures such as werebears, wereboars (please, Jobling, no more piggy and fatty jokes!), werebadgers, werelizards (also known as the evil lizardmen), weresharks, and other types of werefish. He is destined to battle the evil dark lord King Leopard the werelion; very vague prophesies say so.
As you can tell, no trope or cliché of the epic fantasy genre is spared. Though slightly entertaining at first, this becomes annoying very quickly, an annoyance that is only further underlined by the extreme predictability of the story. Anyone who has previously read fantasy novels will be able to guess what happens next at any point in Rise of the Wolf. The foreshadowing, as already mentioned in my little summary, is obvious and blatant.
Significant lack of werecockroaches Another nuisance is Jobling’s habit of ending chapters on cliffhangers, only to start the next chapter with an entirely random “alternative” viewpoint. A good example is the chapter where Drew is jailed. Instead of starting the next chapter watching Drew in his cell, we follow a cockroach as it scuttles across the floor of the cell to eat some discarded bread, only to be attacked by a rat. Only then, after wasting two perfectly good pages, do we see Drew watching the vermin run away. It wasn’t even a werecockroach, either.
This takes its toll in the overall pacing of the story, which was already slow to begin with. As with many a poorly written epic journey, a lot is underway, but nothing really seems to contribute to the main story. As such, it is very easy to lay the book down. Suspense is almost nonexistent. Admittedly, though, the last thirty pages were different. The final battle—you probably already saw a final battle coming—was in fact quite exciting to read, with thrilling fighting sequences and a fairly interesting, albeit predictable, solution.
Morally monotonous Don’t read Rise of the Wolf for its characterizations, either. Jobling’s characters are stereotyped and morally monotonous. Oftentimes, I wondered how main characters such as Drew and his friends Hector and Gretchen could be so extremely perfect. Sure, there was some force-fed character development (“Oh no, I killed a man! No matter that he was about to stab me through the heart, I will feel awful about this for weeks!”), but overall, these characters always seemed to make the right choices without question. On the opposite side stand thoroughly corrupt nobles and a petty, truly evil, dark king. The only interesting character was that of Vala the wereshark, whose motives were not entirely clear for a while. In the end, though, even he fell perfectly into a stereotyped role.
Why should you read this book? You might have guessed, but I honestly believe you shouldn’t read Wereworld: Rise of the Wolf. Perhaps you could buy this YA novel for your eight-year-old kid, if you want to familiarize them with all the popular tropes of fantasy in only 450 pages. Otherwise, however, I advise you to keep a clear berth. Of course, that’s just my opinion, so just to balance it a bit, here is a review from someone who did enjoy Rise of the Wolf.
No (were)animals were harmed while writing this review.(less)
Next to my keyboard lies the book I just finished: Queen of Kings, the debut novel from Maria Dahvana Headley, author of The Year of Yes (a memoir of the year she spent saying yes to anyone who asked her out). Staring at me from the cover is a striking image of the Queen of Kings, Cleopatra, ruler of ancient Egypt.
All of you have likely heard of Cleopatra, and many of you will probably love her like I do. Hers is a story that speaks to our imagination. It is the story of a queen and Pharaoh of Egypt, loved by her people. First the mistress of Roman Emperor Julius Caesar, Cleopatra later married Mark Antony, indirectly leading to a war with Rome. When Octavian—who later became Emperor Augustus—invaded Egypt and Antony’s armies deserted, Cleopatra killed herself by inducing an asp to bite her.
A different Cleopatra But what if the story didn’t end there? What if there were more to the asp bite than history has recorded? After all, rumors say the asp was never found…
These are the questions explored in Queen of Kings. And let me tell you, the research behind the answers is absolutely extraordinary. While this is a work of alternate history, every part of the amazing story told in Queen of Kings fits within the known history of Cleopatra. This time, she wasn’t bitten by an asp. Instead, in a desperate attempt to stop Egypt’s inevitable defeat at the hands of the Roman Empire, Cleopatra resorts to the ancient gods of Egypt. But meddling with gods is not to be done lightly. In an ultimate gamble, Cleopatra sacrifices herself to Sekhmet and is transformed into a shape-shifting vessel of a deity bent on the destruction of the world, craving the blood of mortals. And then there is Cleopatra’s own desire for revenge against Rome and its emperor.
Subtly-wrought characters While the idea of a shape-shifting and divine vampire might sound a bit blunt, one of Headley’s greatest talents is her subtlety. Queen of Kings isn’t your regular alternative vampire story. Sure, Cleopatra—or rather the goddess in her—has a particular craving for blood, but this is hardly the defining feat of this new and immortal Cleopatra. Instead, the attention is on her struggles with the evil deity within her. Cleopatra isn’t a killer. All she wanted was to be with Mark Antony. All she still wants is to die and join him in the afterlife, but she isn’t herself anymore. This conflict has been perfectly captured by the prose of Headley, who at times seems like a poet of old, writing a legendary tragedy the likes of which the world has never read before.
The characters beyond our beloved Cleopatra have been carefully crafted, too. Headley’s masterful subtlety shows in all her characters. It shows in Augustus, Emperor of Rome, who, in mortal terror of the undead queen haunting him, meddles with powers he knows nothing about. It shows in Selene, the daughter of Cleopatra and Antony, who struggles with both feelings of betrayal and loyalty towards her parents, and is left to fend for herself in a hostile world. And then we have Agrippa, loyal general of Augustus, who believes his emperor and friend is going mad, but feels obligated to stand by him nonetheless.
Alternating eyes All of these characters and many more are thoroughly explored in a variety of viewpoints. In accordance with Headley’s prose—which seems at times very broad compared to that of other genre works—these viewpoints are explored in a way I haven’t encountered before. Firstly, a multitude of major and minor points of view, each with their own small chapter, enhances the perspective of the story, giving it a very epic feel for a book in the paranormal and alternate history genres. Secondly, the viewpoints in the more monumental scenes, like battles, tend to switch continuously. On one page, you might see a scene through three different sets of eyes. For me, this peculiar style took some getting used to, but I definitely appreciated it in the end. The multiple small chapters and varying viewpoints therein, however, reduced the pacing of Queen of Kings significantly, especially in the middle part of the story.
Mythology, folklore, paganism, legend I have already mentioned that Queen of Kings fits nicely into the paranormal and alternate history genres. More than those, however, this is a mythological fantasy. Headley has managed to weave many different cultures together in a book that contains elements from Greek legend, Egyptian and Roman mythology, Norse paganism, and North African folklore. Egyptian and Roman gods are seemingly effortlessly combined and lend the basis for some very interesting magic abilities. In this, Queen of Kings has left me with a bit of a philosophical feeling—I found myself contemplating how different mythologies would have coexisted in the world at the time of Cleopatra.
Why should you read this book? After being thoroughly and unexpectedly—hey, don’t blame me for staying for away from anything with vampires!—blown away by Queen of Kings, I know one thing: Headley is a master storyteller. Queen of Kings is a legend and a tragedy. It is a sexy read and a comprehensively researched book. It is at once a paranormal love story, an epic, and a fast-paced thriller. I recommend Queen of Kings to anyone who enjoys reading fantasy and loves the many myths of our past. A truly wonderful debut from an author worth keeping an eye on. Good thing this is just the first in a trilogy, too!(less)
Prince of Thorns is the spectacular debut novel of talented new British author, Mark Lawrence. The first installment in the Broken Empire trilogy, it promises to be one of the most exciting releases of 2011. Dark, captivating, relentless and haunting, this brilliant epic fantasy more than delivers in all regards.
Imagine the earth as a desolate wasteland. The dead rest uneasily and hundreds of claimants battle for various thrones across the Broken Empire. Now you’re getting close to the world portrayed in Prince of Thorns. The story revolves around Jorg Ancrath, the warped 14-year-old heir to the kingdom of Ancrath. When he was just ten he was forced to watch, held fast in a hook briar, as his beloved mother and younger brother were brutally murdered at the behest of a rival lord. When his father, the king, chose political gain over retribution, the injustice drove Jorg to abandon his place and pursue vengeance as an outlaw. Since that fateful day something inside Jorg has been broken. He watches and perpetrates acts of violence with cold indifference and lives by a simple philosophy, “Care about no one and you have no weaknesses.” Surrounded by his deadly band of Brothers, survival is merely a game to the young Prince, and one he intends to win by any means necessary.
Fast paced, exhilarating and absorbing Lawrence’s fast paced and relentless narrative wastes no time on introductions, plunging the reader headfirst into the aftermath of Jorg and his brother’s latest bloodthirsty foray. Readers will soon decide whether they can stomach the graphic violence and dark humor that define the novel, and those that can are in for an exhilarating ride. Prince of Thorns shares many qualities with the thorns for which its prince was named. By the end of the first chapter it had well and truly sunk its hooks into me and I was in for the long haul whether I liked it or not. I had more than one night of lost sleep which I blame entirely on Mark Lawrence. In addition, like the scars covering Jorg’s body, the echos of the story remained with me long after I turned the last page.
A warped yet relatable protagonist Prince of Thorns is narrated in the first person and thus we watch events unfold through the eyes of Jorg himself. This offers a unique and somewhat disturbing perspective, as Jorg sees human life as expendable and lacks empathy for those around him. He considers anyone he may grow to care about as a liability that must be removed before it can be used against him. Despite these sociopathic tendencies, and the fact that he is responsible for almost innumerable atrocities, Jorg is decidedly charming and remains unnervingly relatable. This must be considered a remarkable feat by Lawrence as he makes his audience feel sympathy for a character so morally ambiguous it verges on flat-out evil. A significant reason for this is Jorg’s very realistically wrought background. While a reader may not always relate to the choices he makes or the person he has become, the emotions that lie behind Jorg’s decisions and the events in his life can be identified with.
The secondary characters are also very well developed, from the stoic Nuban to the rather despicable Rike. All have their own distinctive flavor, perform their own roles and feel believable in the context of Lawrence’s world. Most importantly, while most of the characters of Prince of Thorns may be labeled as “bad,” they are never stereotyped. These are real people with realistic emotions who have come to where they are now through events and decisions we can all relate to.
A gritty tale for a broken world This captivating tale plays out against a haunting, vividly realized backdrop: the desiccated corpse of a once technologically advanced civilization. Lawrence excels in creating an intense and oppressive atmosphere, enveloping the readers and drawing them further into his world with each new revelation. Magic and science are interwoven, becoming almost indistinguishable in many cases, such as the origins and powers of the monstrous leucrota. This desolate landscape, coupled with the cruelty of the narrator, makes Prince of Thorns a captivating yet undeniably gritty and confronting experience. Some readers may be disturbed by the way it plunges mercilessly into the darkest corners of the mind. Others will revel in the depravity and delight in this exploration of the most sinister aspects of the human experience.
These dark elements, however, are never explored more than necessary. Rather than overloading the narrative with excessive explanation, Lawrence proves very skilled in dropping hints throughout the narrative, showing us the world through Jorg’s eyes and allowing us to piece the puzzle together ourselves. This adds a whole new dimension to Prince of Thorns, enhanced even further by seemingly effortless intermingling of familiar elements with the distinctly foreign.
Kvothe’s evil little brother While many may compare Prince of Thorns to other gritty and epic works like Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy or George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire—and be quite right in that comparison as well—I’d like to compare it with Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind. Although Jorg doesn’t fill his autobiography with stories of how he charms the ladies or lament the fact that he has extreme superpowers he can’t use, both books are coming of age biographies of extraordinary boys far too wise for their age, and the hardships of their lives.
Why should you read this book? Dazzling in its brilliance, Prince of Thorns is a must read for any fan of gritty, epic fantasy that delves into the darkest depths of humanity. I was left feeling slightly bereft and a little shell shocked when it ended. Luckily, this is only the first in the trilogy so there’s two more books to come. It may quite possibly turn out to be the debut of 2011, and Mark Lawrence is definitely a name to watch in the future. While I could easily write another few pages on how much I loved this book, I’d much prefer you go out, grab a copy, and read it for yourself. You can thank me later.(less)
I’ve only been reading fantasy for about five years now. I did read all of Tolkien’s works and The Chronicles of Narnia when I was younger, but it was...moreI’ve only been reading fantasy for about five years now. I did read all of Tolkien’s works and The Chronicles of Narnia when I was younger, but it wasn’t until I read Christopher Paolini’s Eragon that I got into the genre. Then I read books like Naomi Novik’s Temeraire, Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, James Clemens’ Banned and Banished, and Raymond E. Feist’s Riftwar. Very different titles, yet all of them have two things in common: they are all epic stories, and all have a very clear division of good and evil with straightforward protagonists to love and identify with.
Conventional fantasy It’s been a while since I last read one of this type of book I used to love so very much. Until I came across Elspeth Cooper’s debut Songs of the Earth, first in a trilogy titled The Wild Hunt, that is. The premise promises an interesting and original novel about a young man named Gair who lives in a Holy City and hears music with magic power. Because of this, the church calls him a witch and he is sentenced to death. When his situation seems hopeless, he hears of a secret order of magicians who may take him in… If only he can manage to escape his execution.
While I wouldn’t call this premise inaccurate, Songs of the Earth soon takes a turn to the conventional epic fantasy genre. The promised hopeless execution never happens. Instead, Gair is banished early in the story and meets a mysterious man, Alderan, who takes him on a journey to the secretive order called the Guardians of the Veil. From there, the story evolves in a predictable fashion. The Veil that the order guards is a magic wall holding back a nation of evil creatures, and Gair is nothing less than a super magician who will need to learn how to use his magic in order to save the world.
Lack of substance As I said, I used to love books like Songs of the Earth. I used to marvel in the conventions of the epic genre, loving a good prophesied hero who would save his world from certain doom and would challenge the evil gods themselves. I still do like those kinds of stories, and Songs of the Earth was a particularly easy read. Cooper’s style of writing is very compelling and her prose is of high quality. However, I found myself longing for more depth. If anything, Songs of the Earth is a shallow book, lacking substance.
This lack of substance is evident in all aspects of the story, but it is most poignant in Cooper’s world building. Or rather, in the lack thereof. From the very start, with the introduction of the church, it is clear that we are dealing with an organization highly inspired by medieval Catholics, and Cooper does nothing to lead us away from this. Places visited on Gair and Alderan’s journey are described but lack the detail to set them apart from each other, and with the lack of other types of world building, I was left with the impression that this world is nothing but medieval Europe with different names and magic.
Undefined magic With the lack of world building, this magic is the only interesting element of Cooper’s world. It also seems to be a promising and original magic system: music that comes from the earth itself and can be used to perform magic. Unfortunately, it soon turns out that the magic is just your regular power or force, and the music is nothing but a way for magicians to perceive that force. What’s more, though the magic at first seems like a more scientific system like that of Robert Jordan or Brandon Sanderson, I had the distinct feeling that Cooper didn’t want her magic to be subject to any rules. In the middle of the book, as Gair’s abilities are tested, he suddenly shape shifts into a bird and flies away. These scenes of flying were some of the best written scenes in the book — along with the amazing swords-fighting scenes — but that use of the magic came as a complete surprise and makes no sense whatsoever compared to anything Cooper previously established about the magic. While I understand that the surprise of it might add to the appeal of the story, to me it displays a lack of foreshadowing and direction. That’s unfortunate, because a musical force of nature magic system holds great potential.
Stereotyped and awkward Another element that had much potential but was poorly executed are the characters in Songs of the Earth. Articles on writing good characters often mention that your characters should be very identifiable individuals, but should do something unexpected and out-of-character every now and then. I’m quite certain Cooper has read these articles as well. Her characters are stereotyped to the point that they become dull. Of course, if you put a bunch of different stereotypes together, they are all quite unique. However, they lack anything to make them interesting. The out-of-character things that I mentioned were very blatant. For example, Gair would spend the entire journey hating the church for what they did to him, but then he would suddenly and randomly quote scripture to Alderan. On top of that, the dialogue in Songs of the Earth felt stiff and awkward.
Why should you read this book? With Songs of the Earth, Cooper has proven she knows her way around words. The action scenes and pacing were extraordinarily good. Unfortunately, Songs of the Earth lacks the substance to set it apart. This book shows promise, but I found it lacking in most areas. I expect fans of Christopher Paolini or Terry Goodkind might enjoy this read, but fans of George R.R. Martin, Steven Erikson and Joe Abercrombie probably won’t.(less)
I don’t usually read urban fantasy, especially not the trashy, fallen angel type (obviously, “trashy” is my own opinion — a wrong one at that, as this review will prove). So even though I heard good things about Stina Leicht’s Of Blood and Honey, I vowed never to read it. Of course, I did read it in the end… and I blame Leicht for that. She abused a Twitter conversation in order to convince me. “It has car chases,” she promised. Considering no book from Night Shade Publishers has ever let me down (they are quickly turning into my favorite publisher; you should check them out, if you haven’t already!) I decided to buy Leicht’s debut novel. It’s urban fantasy with fallen angels, and I loved it… Where did I go wrong?
Cars, races and characters As promised, there were car chases. In fact, there was even a rally race. The way these scenes are written is exhilarating. I’m a fan of all things motor racing, and Leicht perfectly captures everything I love about the sport. I hear she even rally raced as part of her research… Isn’t she cool?
Don’t let the cars and the racing mislead you, though. This isn’t a novelization of The Fast and the Furious. Of Blood and Honey focuses on its characters — their love, their struggles, their pain, and their tragedy. Against the backdrop of the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in 1970s’ Ireland, we follow Liam, a regular Catholic boy, as he falls in love, gets married, and joins the IRA. What he doesn’t know, however, is that he isn’t so regular after all. While the world thinks his father was a Protestant Marine, Liam is actually the son of a Fey soldier, a shape shifter. And these Fey — a group of faeries and the original inhabitants of Ireland — are fighting an ancient war against fallen angels.
Of Blood and Honey explores the struggles of a boy who is half man, half something else, as he is forced to deal with the monster inside himself. This tragic tale unfolds in a very believable way. Leicht’s characters might even be better than her rally races and car chases. Often in fantasy, characters seem to get over life changing revelations rather easily. That isn’t the case for Liam, and the result is a story that had me going through the pages as fast as I could, on the edge of my seat. It isn’t that a lot happens plot-wise, especially not in the first half of the book, but Leicht’s characters are so well-constructed, so believable and realistic, that I just had to know what would happen next. I fell in love with Mary Kate, Liam’s love interest, when he did; I hated the British soldiers when Liam did; I felt betrayed when Liam was betrayed.
I don’t like fallen angels, but I love roller coasters Yet, when it felt like the tragedy in Liam’s life couldn’t be more unbearable, and when the story became so overwhelming and exciting that I wanted to take a break but couldn’t bring myself to put the book down, Of Blood and Honey took a turn like a roller coaster ride, events unfolding one after another at breakneck speed.
Atmospheric nemesis All of this takes place against a very well-researched historical background. I have never been very interested in the British/Irish conflicts of the seventies, but after finishing Of Blood and Honey, I found myself spending an hour on Wikipedia, reading up on the events portrayed in the story. Leicht has created a very edgy and dark atmosphere, exactly how I imagine Ireland must have been at the time. In a way, this very atmosphere feels like a character in the book. There are so many British and Protestant institutions and soldiers, they are bound to become a big blur to a reader — they did to me, anyway — yet, because of the darkness of this version of Ireland, they are an entity, a nemesis. At every turn, a BA (British Army soldier) tends to show up, and no character in Of Blood and Honey is safe at any time.
Why should you read this book? This alternate history/urban fantasy novel is for every fan of the fantasy genre, really. Just look at me — I usually don’t like this sort of book, and I loved it. Leicht has a way with words and characters that makes every single one of the book’s nearly three hundred pages interesting. The pacing and atmosphere of Of Blood and Honey are truly phenomenal, making it a contender for 2011’s best debut.(less)
In general, there seem to be two types of modern epic fantasy series: One the one hand, there are writers such as Joe Abercrombie and George R. R. Martin, who try to reinvent the genre by discarding the known epic tropes and strive to create a more “realistic” type of fantasy (by completely erasing the distinction between right and wrong); on the other hand, there are authors who try to improve the genre, like Brandon Sanderson. Peter Orullian is without a doubt part of the latter type. His debut novel, The Unremembered, is the first installment of his new Vault of Heaven series and stays true to the tropes of the genre while attempting to ramp up the epicness of the story. Like Sanderson’s works, Orullian’s debut is set in a more colorful world than can be found in many of the traditional epic series. This world has a richer history than most of the epics before him and the scope of Orullian’s story is greater than that of most any traditional work before him.
Asset and flaw While, as a fan of the genre, I can certainly appreciate what Orullian is attempting, one might suggest he’s biting off more than he can chew. Its scope is not only the biggest asset for The Unremembered, it is also one of its few flaws, resulting in a story that is sometimes hard to follow. For example, regardless of how much I love the diversity of dark creatures serving Orullian’s version of the traditional evil overlord, when four kinds of them are introduced almost simultaneously without any background, it’s rather hard to tell them apart.
To rip off or not to rip off The Unremembered tells the story of a world, Aeshau Vaal, where one of the gods, Quietus, joined the dark side during creation. He was locked away with all his evil monstrosities, a magic veil separating this vault of heaven from the rest of the world. That veil, however, is weakening, and the evil of legend is roaming the lands freely. It is at this time that a mysterious magician, the Sheason Vendanj, enters a small town known as the Hollows and rescues Tahn and his sister Wendra from these creatures, taking them and their friends Braethen and Sutter on a journey to save the world.
Many, including Patrick from Pat’s Fantasy Hitlist, have pointed out the similarities between The Unremembered and The Eye of the World, first volume in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series — even going as far as calling it “The Eye of the World with different names for characters, places, and monsters.” While I agree that there are indeed similarities, I wholeheartedly disagree that The Unremembered is a Wheel of Time rip-off. The truth is that these similarities are in fact tropes many years older than most of us, appearing in works ranging from The Lord of the Rings to the Star Wars movies.
Longing for originality Instead of being The Eye of the World with different names, I felt that The Unremembered worked with these tropes rather well, even deviating from them here and there — though certainly not often enough. The world, people and events in Orullian’s work are quite original and always fresh and surprising. However, don’t expect anything you haven’t seen before; this is still traditional epic fantasy in its truest sense, and I was, at times, longing for some original plots.
Masterful world building Fortunately, Orullian’s prose, characters, and masterful world building made up for much of this lack of originality. The world building in particular impressed me a great deal. This isn’t some small world with ten nations, but a large, rich world with dozens and dozens of countries and peoples, the few of them that have already been introduced coming with hints of an expansive background and history. The political atmosphere is intriguing and holds great promise for future novels.
Equally impressive was the magic in The Unremembered. Magic in the world of Aeshau Vaal reminded me of ‘The Force’ in the Star Wars universe. In Orullian’s work, it is called The Will and can be “rendered” to create or destroy in numerous ways. For example, the Sheason — and their evil counterpart the Velle — can render it through The Gift, which is passed on from one Sheason to the next, and the Decant musicians can render by channeling their emotions through songs. This type of magic has a universal feel to it, as it is the energy that binds the world together. There is also potential for many different ways of rendering, simply because the magic hasn’t yet been fully explained in The Unremembered. The fact that this rendering of The Will is outlawed makes it all the more interesting.
A darker edge Despite the obvious use of the conventions of the epic genre in The Unremembered — leading to a book that isn’t set apart by the originality of the story, but by the world in which it takes place — there is a distinct darkness to The Vault of Heaven that I haven’t experienced in any other epic series. This darkness goes beyond the simple outlawing of magic, touching all aspects of life in the world of Aeshau Vaal. This is a place where no one is safe. Women are robbed of their freedom and children are taken from their parents. The Bar’dyn — soldiers of the enemy — aren’t dumb beasts like Tolkien’s Orcs or Jordan’s Trollocs, but have a mind of their own, giving some scenes a more horrifying feel than you would expect to find in the traditional half of the epic genre. What’s more, there is this nagging feeling that right and wrong may not be as conventional as they seem, and there might be more to this ancient war than the surface suggests.
Cliffhangers and interludes While The Unremembered is always intriguing and often surprising, it isn’t a page turner. It probably could have been, if not for the very flaw — the scope of Orullian’s writing — that I mentioned earlier. There were many interludes — short chapters that deviate from the main story line and bring us several viewpoints from characters not formally introduced — in the first two hundred pages of the book, making the book very hard to get into. When the story finally gets underway after the main characters separate — another one of those overused tropes you could see coming from miles away — the pacing is thrown off by chapters constantly ending on a cliffhanger, followed by a chapter from a different viewpoint. While this served to keep a reader interested — in a rather cheap way, I might add — it became very annoying very quickly.
Why should you read this book? If you are, like me, a fan of traditional epic fantasy like The Lord of the Rings and The Wheel of Time, you will definitely enjoy The Unremembered. While this book has a great many flaws, it is certainly a worthy read. It is conventional material with a dark and promising edge. I look forward to its sequel, which I hope will surprise me with twists and turns, leading away from the somewhat obvious tropes and into original territory. While it is far from the best book I’ve read, the many layers of The Unremembered make The Vault of Heaven one of the most promising series I’ve encountered.(less)