Darger and Surplus are con men who have lied there way onto a caravan carrying a gift of immense value from the Caliph of Baghdad to the Duke of Moscovy. But there are obstacles in the way of getting the gift to the Duke, which embroils the characters in political schemes, the agendas of religious zealots, drug rings and so forth. So yes, this is our earth. But the difference is in the details—and there are a lot of details.
A world both familiar and alien The most important aspect of this book for me was the worldbuilding. Swanwick has created a masterpiece in this book. While some novels with an alternate earth coast by and change a few things here and there, often just lifting a Feudal or Victorian era society and tweaking it, Swanwick has made a world so detailed and unique that it grabs you by the throat and screams, “Be interested.”
The back-story is something I won’t go into details about to avoid spoilers, but I will say that this is a future earth, despite its deficiencies and advances in science. Electric wizards and gene manipulators, Neanderthals from the gene vats of the new Byzantium Empire and part man, part bear hybrids are just a fraction of the new society. While this book is classified as steampunk, it is more science fiction, since genetic manipulation is the biggest scientific advancement of this world.
The small, often frivolous things that people create with technology are overlooked by many authors, who focus instead on the story-changing ideas that, while important, make the world quite shallow, only existing in the epic dimension. In Dancing with Bears, however, inventions such as alcohol with nanoprogrammers that teach poetry and language when drunk or bioluminescent fungi for non-flammable lighting give the book an air of reality and firmness that few authors pull off.
A dizzying but slightly disappointing story When I picked this book up, I was expecting a story similar to the Gentlemen Bastards series by Scott Lynch. I imagined a daring tale of thievery and intricate plans that ends in glory or defeat.
Dancing with Bears takes a more intricate route, though. It builds a story with over half a dozen viewpoint characters that jump around faster than you can turn pages. It grows, keeping you guessing, revealing new twists and information with each chapter to keep you interested. Despite this, I felt a tad disappointed; it lacked much of the action and actual conning that I expected until the last quarter of the novel.
This story is extremely layered. We have the protagonists’ attempt to gain the audience with the Duke of Moscovy, the religious zealots with a hedonistic philosophy spreading drugs around the city’s gentry, and the underground of shady figures dealing in large transactions that relate to the land above as well as below. It all mixes and crosses over in a way that is best appreciated in a second read.
Characters that are interesting yet relatable The characters of Dancing with Bears are generally complex. Considering that there are at least eight recurring point of views in the story, you have to keep track of who is who and what are they doing. But the characters are all unique and different enough from one another that there is little confusion.
However, I felt that the titled characters, Darger and Surplus, may have not had enough page time to warrant them being the key characters of Dancing with Bears. While Darger was my favourite character with his subtle and sophisticated humor, he did perhaps the least of any of the viewpoint characters story-wise.
Surplus was interesting, as he was not human but a genetically altered dog from America. He was much more heavily integral in the story and had an air of affable solidity that made him a very relatable character.
Why should you read this book? If you are looking for a book that doesn’t feel full of stale tropes and clichés, then this is for you. It has some amazing worldbuilding and characters. If you enjoy a complex story that will keep you guessing, you will definitely enjoy Dancing with Bears.(less)
The Golden Compass (also known as The Northern Lights) tells the tale of Lyra Belacqua, a character who by no means could be described as dull, meek,...moreThe Golden Compass (also known as The Northern Lights) tells the tale of Lyra Belacqua, a character who by no means could be described as dull, meek, uninteresting or timid. She’s a young girl who lives in a facsimile of our own world. However, in this world, every human being has a daemon, a shape-shifting animal that is a part of you. When you hit a certain age, it stops changing and picks a single form.
A multifaceted story From the beginning, Lyra becomes enmeshed in political intrigue. Unseen movements from a dozen sides are pulling her this way and that, yet throughout the mess, she remains independent and strong-willed, the sort of character that you cheer on despite her faults. She is often looked down on for her age and her uncouthness—which rankles her as much as it would any person, but she is also intelligent and a talented liar. At times, she drives the story forward by sheer dominance and slyness. The pacing that Lyra assists is also great, with several clearly defined parts to the story.
Other characters also help keep the story interesting—Mrs. Coulter, Iorek, Pantalaimon, Lee Scoresby, and a dozen more, each unique and complex in their motivations and pasts.
There is an air of mystery about the story and the driving elements that keep you guessing. Among them are the Alethiometer and the elusive ‘dust’. The world is rather pseudo-Victorian, taking a classical steampunk approach to worldbuilding. You have the recognizable blimps and rifles mixed with intelligent mercenary bears that forge their own armor. It’s strange but intoxicating and a lot of fun to read.
Daemons, not demons—difference noted The facet of the daemons, who are a part of a person as deeply as anything could be, are one of the most intriguing aspects of The Golden Compass. As with many series, there is a variety in the fantastical element. In the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson, fans could deliberate over what kind of allomancer they would be. In the Harry Potter books, people considered what house they would belong to and what their Patronus would be. While it is not as driving to the story, the form of one’s daemon after it stops changing is good for idle speculation, however short.
Warning, there be themes ahead! The author Pullman once said, “There are some themes, some subjects, too large for adult fiction; they can only be dealt with adequately in a children’s book.” While these are not fully realized within The Golden Compass, they are pointed at and definitely set up for. With two more books in the trilogy, it gives Pullman time to fully flesh out the ideas.
However he also stated that “[His Dark Materials is] a story, not a treatise, not a sermon or a work of philosophy. I’m telling a story, I’m showing various characters whom I’ve invented saying things and doing things and acting out beliefs which they have, and not necessarily which I have. The tendency of the whole thing might be this or it might be that, but what I’m doing is telling a story, not preaching a sermon.”
The themes of the series have been called antireligious by many of faith, and praised widely by secularists. So if such things do offend you, or you wish to avoid such topics, this may not be the book for you.
Why should you read this book? This book is energetic and fun. It is a children’s book, but that hardly detracts from the level of storytelling that Pullman displays in The Golden Compass. It is an interesting world with elements both new and old, great characters and an interesting plot.(less)
The Subtle Knife is the second installment in Philip Pullman’s critically acclaimed, controversial His Dark Materials series. Lord Asriel has begun to prepare for war, Lyra Silvertongue is hunting for answers into the nature of Dust, and other characters from the first book are all off trying to keep the situation all together. While the first book only had Lyra is its primary point of view character, The Subtle Knife incorporates many more characters like Lee Scoresby and Serafina Pekkola as well as including new characters altogether.
Will Parry is twelve years old and has just killed a man, his mother might be insane, and he has discovered another world. He enters this world and finds himself in the city of Cittàgazze where he meets a young girl called Lyra, who is hunting for something called Dust and the secrets it holds. So begins their adventure in the world Will is from and the strange city of Cittàgazze.
While this book only takes place over the space of a week, it is jam packed with story. The timelines that run in the many worlds of the story are woven together to create a story that is easy to follow, yet has a lot of depth to explore if you dig beneath the surface.
Dramatic character development The characters of Will and Lyra progress dramatically over that short period, learning much about themselves and the worlds around them. They are fully embroiled in prophecy and intrigue that reach from Will’s world to Lyra’s and every space in between.
But Will and Lyra are not the only viewpoint characters. Lee Scoresby, the American aeronaut, is off searching for Stanislaus Grumman up north while Serrafina Pekkola and the other witches search for Lyra to protect her. Lee becomes almost a fatherly figure without ever talking to Lyra in this book. He dedicates his being and his purpose to helping her. Serrafina flies back and forth, trying to coordinate the witches while helping the various parties they are allied with. She is a character of fantasy, wild and powerful yet both old and sad for the things she has seen and done.
Interesting worlds-building The world in which Cittàgazze is situated is interestingly built. It is full of creatures called Wraiths, which suck the souls out of people—only adults, for some reason. Its history is most interesting, that which revolves around the titular subtle knife and the gateways between the worlds.
The rest of Lyra and Will’s tale is spent in his world. I can presume that it is our world, or at least a near identical version of it. The story revolves around the parallel Oxford and the characters that live there. It is interesting to see the contrasts between the two different cities that are both the same city as well.
The angels of the series are the most interesting creatures; they are constructs of intellect and emotion that do the bidding of The Authority. But as the story goes, many were cast from heaven for their rebellion. The reader sees several of them in book, but I expect that the third instalment will show more of them in both importance and quantity.
Against The Authority The controversial antireligious themes that the series has often been known for come into full swing in this book. It points out a church that has a strong parallel to that of our own world’s history. Additionally, Lord Asriel is building a republic while gathering the greatest army ever amassed to fight The Authority, who is the monotheistic god of the series in a a not-so-subtle facsimile of the Judaeo-Christian God. I cannot go into it in more detail without spoiling it, but this book covers issues that have put many a reader off.
The Subtle Knife is an excellent continuation from The Golden Compass, ramping up the storytelling, characterization and thematic exploration that the first one introduced us to. It is a story of growing up and identity that manages to feel fresh and new as Pullman breathes life into it.(less)
This review contains minor spoilers for Red-Headed Stepchild and Mage in Black.
You know that family member everyone has, the sociopathic vampire grandmother who will manipulate and kill everything that stands in her way? No? Well then you might not relate completely to the smart-mouthed, vicious and oh-so-badass Sabina Kane. She has the unlucky (or lucky, if you happen to be clinically insane) heritage that makes her half-mage and half-vampire—this in a world on the brink of an all out war, where prejudice reigns between the differing breeds.
Then Sabina finds out she has a twin sister that her aforementioned grandmother has recently kidnapped. There also happens to be an organization manipulating everyone behind the scenes. A mischievous demon, a mage, a shaman and a drag queen are thrown in and topped with a serving of werewolves, making this a rather hectic book.
Not original at surface value but with some redeeming details While the series doesn’t exactly play the original card with its basic worldbuilding, since all the supernatural creatures are straight out of folklore and have been done to death (get it?), the details are still rather enjoyable. The red hair of a vampire and the lore of Lilith and Cain, the whole applewood stakes and the smell of copper that exudes from every vampiric pore—details like these make the series far more enjoyable and immersive than sticking with the most basic idea of a vampire or any other supernatural for that matter. With each book, Wells reveals more supernatural creatures and practitioners to keep the characters and the readers on their literary toes.
A fun but predictable plot The story itself is good, if a tad predictable. As with the first two books, there is a new primary city where the story takes place. New Orleans is a city that oozes a sort of magic of its own, Wells’ prose making the city feel alive. It’s a predictable tale where Sabina chases after clues to save her sister and defeat her evil grandmother Lavina with the clock ticking down.
Interesting characters with some great dialogue Sabina herself grows as a character throughout the books. She has had immense trust issues, having lived a rather non-vanilla lifestyle. The whole ruthless assassin persona still pervades her general character but she is starting to love people and create actual bonds. While the books are short and not that demanding, it is still somewhat rewarding to see a character grow.
The supporting cast of the Sabina Kane series is quite well written. From Gighul, the absurdly funny mischief demon, to Adam Lazarus, the mage and romantic interest of Sabina, the characters come off as affable at times and determined at others. The characters aren’t all that varied but are well-written and the dialogue is certainly worth your time.
Why should you read this book? All in all, Green-Eyed Demon is a great read for when you have an empty day or two. It’s short, fast and rather fun but doesn’t move far out of its comfort zone. The characters are fun and the fight scenes well-written.(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)
Contemporary fantasy often becomes urban fantasy, to the exclusion of all other forms. A few stories fall outside the urban subgenre barriers, such as American Gods by Neil Gaiman, and fall well. The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe is set in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee and would best be described as rural fantasy. Owing to the less hectic feel of the backwater area, it comes off as much more intimate than most contemporary fantasy.
Well written and balanced characters Bronwyn Hyatt returns home from Iraq wounded in more ways than one. She’s called a war hero by some and a troublemaker by others. In a way, she has given up the danger of the field for another danger altogether. Portents of death and duty balance her wild and rebellious nature that has been suppressed and tempered during her time away. It emphasizes a tale of family, tradition and duty in an original and emotional way that makes her character so complex and well layered that it is hard to fault the book. Her life could be identified into three parts that blend and overlay constantly, mingling into a fluid and dynamic character that feels altogether organic.
The various other characters of The Hum and the Shiver are just as well written as Bronwyn Hyatt. From her family and her ex-boyfriend to the journalist and the reverend, they all are individuals and are contrasted well against one another. Characters identify smoothly as the story progresses and they evolve at a great pace.
A focus on music Music has a beautiful emphasis in The Hum and the Shiver. The title itself, The Hum and the Shiver, is my favorite of the year in its avoidance of clichés and its forceful vibrancy. The Tufa are a very musical people; it drives them and defines them, setting them apart as well as acting as a gauge for the reader. The detached nature of the Tufa easily translates to a subtle arcane overlay that hinges on music.
Beautifully mysterious The story is shrouded in smoke and mirrors the entire time. Revelations are drawn out with precision and are often unpredictable but entirely satisfactory. The Tufa above all are the greatest cause of mystery and illusion for the reader, as Bledsoe doesn’t reveal the story’s secrets cheaply.
Bledsoe’s prose is deftly placed and allows the scenes to flow smoothly from one to the other. The dialogue never feels forced or stilted and has all the humorous overtones of real conversations. Familial relations and more provocative ones exude familiarity and let the reader slip into the characters’ shoes.
Devoid of clichés The plot is thankfully devoid of clichés, something very hard to achieve in fiction. This may owe to the setting and subgenre in part but Bledsoe is inevitable the source. It spans a relatively short period of time with a lush amount of detail and emotion, progressing at a rapid pace.
Why should you read this book? The Hum and the Shiver is a striking and subtly crafted story with interesting characters, a unique story and lush prose. It is a must read for anyone who is seeking interesting and unique fantasy or who want to branch out from the more common genres.(less)
This review contains spoilers for Red-Headed Stepchild, Mage in Black and Green-Eyed Demon.
Sabina and company have returned from the city of New Orleans after the final showdown with her grandmother. Maisie hasn’t fared well after the nightmarish ordeal and Sabina is having problems dealing with her place in mage society. Various other characters are all having their own little emotional problems. While this in itself might make for a somewhat decent drama, it is in no way conducive to the general style of the series.
In a series predominated by a half-vampire, half-mage ex-assassin, action is the key point. Sabina is a warrior: vicious and funny in her own cynical way. In previous books, she has reveled in that, suppressed it and so on, with each story bringing something unique to her character. Silver-Tongued Devil, however, provides no addition to her character or the plot or setting for the majority of the book.
Not a new city The first three books each showed a new locale, but this book repeats the setting of Mage in Black, New York City. It removes that interesting experience in which we get to experience how the magical element of the world affects the mundane layers of a new city. Even New York doesn’t seem as detailed as it was written before.
Characters gone sour The characters that traded back humorous insults and quips in the earlier books spend the majority of Silver-Tongued Devil in a state of constant complaining, fighting, getting emotional and lying to each other that feels like a cheesy soap opera.
Almost non-existent plot with no danger What is worst about this book, however, is the plot. It focuses on a simple element of a couple of murders right before a peace treaty. That pretty much sums the first three-quarters of the novel. With prior books, Sabina was in danger, whether on the run from vicious vampire assassins or trying to immerse herself in mage society or so on. But in Silver-Tongued Devil, there is almost no sense of urgency, alarm or pathos for the characters when their biggest problem is external and when they focus more on their own petty squabbles and romantic turmoil than on the treaty signing.
The first three-quarters of the novel could probably have been compressed into half its size and left the actual meat of the novel intact. Nonetheless, the last quarter of the book was enjoyable. It had danger, progression, character growth, humor and all the other signature features that made the first three books so much fun to read.
Why should you read this book? Overall, Silver-Tongued Devil read more like some contractual drama that avoided the series’ major arc for the most part and barely progressed the characters until the last stretch. While I would recommend the first three novels, which fill out a nice trilogy in themselves, I cannot say with certainty that fans of the first three would enjoy this book. However, I have high hopes for the next installment, based on the end of Silver-Tongued Devil.(less)
This review contains spoilers for The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife.
The Amber Spyglass is the final novel in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. It tells the tale of Lyra Silvertongue and Will Parry as they come of age. While the first book solely focused on Lyra, the second and third branch out to a range of characters that are intended to convey a range of themes to the reader.
With Lyra captured by her mother and Will’s father dead, the pieces are drawing to their climactic points in which the series reaches its conclusion. New species of sentient races are introduced as the many-worlds element is further explored. The story seems to converge, then split, as Will and Lyra stop at certain points and then move on.
Too many subplots and characters ruin the solidity of the plot The characters are notably less fun in this book, owing more to the fact that the setting is darker and more urgent, but the character development is superb. The reader watches as Lyra and Will go from the confident braggadocio of childhood to the awkwardness of the teenage years. The condensed storyline speeds up this process. Pullman handles it deftly at first, but it falls into an entropic state as the plot progresses.
The fact that there are so many characters, both supporting and viewpoint, spreads Pullman’s writing thin. As with many series that balance a range of viewpoint characters, there are some you love, some you hate, and others that you find completely uninteresting.
This spread-out feeling gave a lot of the story an inconsistent and sometimes frivolous nature. In a series that should convey an epic storyline, the conclusion must be as riveting as possible. But the loose subplots that seemed almost scattered throughout this novel ruined the experience for me.
Dr. Mary Mallone, the nun-turned-physicist, was one of the most interesting characters in the story. Her story was somewhat out of the way from the main arc for the majority of the story while somehow remaining both relevant and interesting to the worlds at large. Her backstory and drive put the scope of the novel in focus.
An underwhelming final battle While combat was never the focus of the series, I cannot help but feel that the final battle that the series has been leading towards is very disappointing. It was short and rather vague in most aspects. The convening elements that had been prepping for war clashed in such a short space that it was underwhelming, to say the least.
A shakily written conclusion The ending of His Dark Materials is shakily written. It packs all the emotion, growth and thematic power of the series into a staggering conclusion full of convenient and unexplored ideas. The Amber Spyglass is an enjoyable book at face value but is in no way as well written or as rich as the first two novels.
Why should you read this book? If you enjoyed the first two books, The Amber Spyglass will provide closure, if shakily rendered, to the series. Nonetheless, it is still an interesting book that continues many of the things that were great about the first two books.(less)
The plot synopsis claims that leading a mercenary company takes “all the advantages of birth, training, and the luck of the devil to do it,” and that “the Red Knight has all three.” So, too, does The Red Knight have three elements of a good fantasy novel. It has an interesting plot, engaging characters, and fantastical aspects that are plot-relevant. But somehow, Miles Cameron’s debut novel falls short for me.
A promising but ultimately disappointing debut I liked The Red Knight, I really did. Cameron’s writing is detailed, but detailed to the point where his pacing flags. His characters are memorable, but many of them feel undeveloped. The plot is well thought out and has left me excited for the next book, which I believe is titled either The Green Squire or The Fell Sword, but I can’t help but feel he overcomplicated the plot to the point where bits of it just felt tangentially important. One of the most important parts of writing big fantasy, in terms of both scope and page count, is learning how to not show your entire hand. Where certain events could have been summed up in the ensuing conversations, I felt like he wanted to write out every single movement of his cast, right up until the point where there’s minimal cohesion to his writing style. It becomes laborious, even drudging, for parts of the book where you eagerly anticipate returning to the tighter narratives of more important characters.
This isn’t helped by the fact that he writes large chapters with asymmetrically split sub-chapters, each of which can be as short as a paragraph, or as long as a regular chapter. Each sub-chapter has the name of the viewpoint character and their location, which certainly helps keep the rapid perspective shifts from blurring into one. But the problem with jumping so regularly is there is little time to develop an individual character’s voice before the view is moved to another. The way a character intakes and processes the story unfolding should make a book interesting to read; it throws you into a new perspective, rather than making you feel like a bystander. Through The Red Knight, I felt like a bystander, only really slipping in to a character’s head long enough to get thrown into another.
Poor editing lies at the heart of The Red Knight‘s faults My last major issue was one of editing. The Red Knight has a plethora of awkward sentences, misspellings, and grammatical stumbles. It’s a minor issue when the concentration of errors are minor, but it comes to a point where its nothing short of jarring. This is something I hope that the publishers will either remedy for the US release or, at the very least, in the sequel to The Red Knight.
Excellent combat and a well thought out plot Miles Cameron is a reenactor, war-historian, and veteran. His fights are brutal, well-written, and technical while still remaining accessible to anyone who can Google the finer points of medieval armor. While there isn’t as much flair to his writing, he does add a lot of realism to fighting wyverns and boglins—ironic in comparison to how unrealistic some non-fantasy fights I’ve read about were.
The book takes a single event, then spreads itself around that event, taking in multiple storylines that are tied to said event. He reels them in, sucking his wide-spread cast into the major story thread at Lissen Carack. The sprawling plot hurts as much as it helps, but nonetheless it could set the stage for a much bigger story, something that Cameron hints at on his website.
A less dark dark fantasy The book is classified as dark fantasy, and while I can certainly agree that it has a much more cynical edge than classical high fantasy, it’s a far cry less grim than the works of Abercrombie and Martin. It strikes an even balance, but all in all exudes an air of martial fantasy rather than light or dark. The moderate, sometimes beige feel of the novel will more than likely alienate some readers, but attract others that favor a drier tone. It’s not inherently bad, but the poor editing makes it feel awkward at times, rather than subdued.
Strong characters keep the book from sinking The characters and their names are two of the book’s strong points, as well as the ensuing dialogue. The characters are a mixed group, some good, some bad, most neither. The heroes are antiheroes, and the villains, for the most part, “antivillains.” It fits in Cameron’s very moderate fantasy of dualities and war. Names like Wilful Murder, Bad Tom, and the eponymous Red Knight all have their own tale to tell, and can help in quickly shaping a character.
Why should you read this book? Miles Cameron’s The Red Knight is a promising historical fantasy debut featuring an expansive cast, an engaging plot, and a detailed eye for combat. Fans of Glen Cook’s The Black Company and Daniel Abraham’s The Dagger and Coin series will find an enjoyable read, provided they can get past the poor editing and burdensome pacing.(less)
Blackbirds, Chuck Wendig’s fantastical debut, opened with a scene that made my eyes go wide and then stick to the pages like a starved dog with a side of meat. It pulled me along, chapter by hectic chapter, leaving me panting and glad that I had found out about his books when he had already published a sequel. Mockingbird also opens with a bang, albeit an understated one compared to the shock value that Blackbirds achieves. That’s the thing about giving your protagonist such a limited power in an urban fantasy series and building your story on it. Whereas Harry Dresden and Atticus O’Sullivan have a versatile skill set, a varied pantheon of enemies, and oodles of lore to draw on, Wendig is crafting a fairly unique fantasy. Keeping it from becoming routine or formulaic is a huge obstacle that Mockingbird faces, but it manages to dodge it, all the while improving on the strong pacing, dialogue, and atmosphere of the first novel. He does, however, draw from folklore and common mythological images of birds, lending the series its own unique tone that distinguishes itself from the slew of detective stories that the genre is known for.
The basic premise of the series is that Miriam Black, the protagonist, can see when and how one dies with a simple skin-on-skin touch. ”See” may suggest more distance than touch, but Miriam experiences each each death viscerally, in brutal and colorful ways. Every clogged artery, bloated lung, and frying brain cell runs rampant across the page, drawing the reader not further from the last moments, but closer. Death is inevitable, as Miriam has learned that time and time again. She’s seen people die who ignored her or die because they paid attention, but this time, she has an edge and is out to keep death from taking its due.
A genre-busting and profane ride Calling Mockingbird urban fantasy, however, is not entirely accurate. The series blends urban fantasy (though it doesn’t spend much time in big cities) with horror, comedy (albeit extremely dark comedy), and even touches of romance and happiness—only touches, as the series doles out genuinely happy moments with all the generosity of Ebenezer Scrooge. Then there is the slew of black humor that makes you laugh and feel a little guilty about laughing (which makes it a backhanded happy moment in hindsight). Blackbirds itself was messed up in all the best ways, but Mockingbird takes it up to eleven. Much about the book is reminiscent of the first, only bigger, bloodier, and bawdier. Chuck Wendig is not just a writer, he’s a cursesmith. This was addressed in Ranting Dragon’s review of Blackbirds, but the sentiment remains. The characters, Miriam in particular, curse with such prolixity that they could shame sailors and make rappers weep. It’s something that I mention because, while I find it an enhancing factor, others do not always share my opinion on creative profanity as a prospective academic field.
A plot that reveals its depths bit by bit The plot has a straightforward progression for a sequel. Protagonist is living the after-effects of first novel. Protagonist gets put back into an exciting situation. Twists. Action. More twists. More horrifying action. Conclusion. This is by no means a criticism within the context of the story as a whole. The bones of the plot let the reader keep up with the blinding pace of the book, letting the details and the meat of the story sell it rather than the tropes themselves.
Mockingbird, as I mentioned, has more than a touch of horror to it. The antagonists aren’t just villains, they’re plain bug-out creepy. Chuck Wendig ramps up the darkness from Blackbirds, all the while retaining his mad sense of humor that is nothing short of spectacular. It balances the two tones perfectly, or as near to it as I can tell.
A unique urban fantasy with minimal fantastical elements The fantastical world building of Blackbirds was sparse, showing us Miriam and her singular magical ability while hinting at more. In Mockingbird we get more, but not much more. Things get a lot weirder a lot faster, but the fantasy elements are very much in the cracks and shadows of this world, rather than blasting holes in buildings and draining homeless people of their blood in alleyways. Wendig slips back and forth between settings smoothly, never wasting time but always keeping the reader clear as to what is happening, where it’s happening, and who is in the scene.
Gripping and nuanced characters The book doesn’t skimp on the raw emotion and character development that can often get lost in urban fantasy. First person novels, by and large the staple of the subgenre, are typically focused outwards, whereas third person novels, such as Mockingbird, can unflinchingly focus inwards. Miriam grows as a character, though whether it is for better or worse is mostly left up to the reader to decide.
Miriam might be one of my favorite protagonists I’ve ever read. She’s vulgar, somewhat masochistic, completely irreverent, and has a propensity for turning a situation on its head. She’s not really a badass in the sense that wizards, warriors, and werewolves are, but she’s got grit and a determination that fuels the book’s pacing and plot.
Why should you read this book? Chuck Wendig’s Mockingbird is a fast-paced and horrific urban fantasy with sharp dialogue, nuanced characters, and an original voice in a glutted genre. Wendig grabs you by the collar then throws you down a set of literary stairs and leaves you begging for more. It’s the kind of story that looks almost familiar on the face of it, but the details and quality of Wendig’s writing sets it apart.(less)
This review contains spoilers for all previous Harry Potter books.
A lot happens in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Instead of the usual pattern from the other books with a before school introduction followed by the school year and subsequent shenanigans as the conclusion, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows takes a very different route.
A change Most notable is the change of pace when our two heroes and one heroine face their adventure outside of the walls of Hogwarts. While it is no more dangerous than the tumultuous times of the first six books, the stakes are higher than ever as the trio race around, trying to stop Voldemort from doing the classic big bad and taking over the world.
Wrapping it up The writing in itself is beautiful, tying all the elements of the series that seemed so disparate at times into one perfectly linked pattern. It balances the heavier themes of the later books as well as the darker mood with the classic camaraderie and wide appeal.
Everything is on the line With the government infiltrated and in shambles, Dumbledore dead by Snape’s hand, our three main characters on the run, Death Eaters in positions of power and everything else that could be going wrong doing just that, the story moves at a tremendous pace with the unstoppable momentum of a train at full speed. It would be very easy for the series to derail and at times it admittedly gets close. However, Rowling successfully carries the series to the end.
Impact of emotion The emotion of the last books is something to be mentioned. With the last two books each resulting in increasingly emotional deaths of beloved characters, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows could be no less painful or risk becoming anticlimactic. Twists and turns reveal hidden truths; people die and stories draw to a close. It is a sign of impact when such emotion is invested so broadly in a franchise, and Harry Potter is no exception. Its fan base, the self-proclaimed Potterheads, made their depth of emotion widely known.
Predictable combat The action and battles that occur in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows are well written, if predictable in that Harry Potter uses his default spell, the infamous ‘Expelliarmus’. It may be symbolic of Harry’s choice not to be a ruthless killer like Voldemort, but after numerous books in which he rarely breaks from using it against other wizards, it becomes a tad trite. While other characters are fighting in often creative and unique ways, Harry sees fit to throw his straight punch every single fight.
The boy who lived has grown up The characters are now grown up. They started out as children, thrust into this world which they barely grasped, staying ahead by little more than luck. Now they are grown up, dealing with the tail end of adolescence and all its baggage. Harry thankfully tones down the angst as the series winds down, coming to accept his fate with more elegance than he had mustered in previous books.
Why you should read this book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a spectacular conclusion to a monumental series. Characters blossom into their full potential and stories wrap themselves up to form a cohesive picture. J. K. Rowling finishes the series with a masterful flourish and an almost serene epilogue that does the Harry Potter immense justice.(less)