When Disney took over Lucasfilm and continued the Star Wars movies, they made the controversial but understandable decision to relegate all of the old Expanded Universe books to non-canon Legends and establish a new body of canonical fiction. Suddenly, all those wonderful stories, many of which were set in the turbulent time after The Return of the Jedi, were gone and a new canon was to be established.
With Star Wars: Aftermath, Chuck Wendig has the honor of writing the establishment of the New Republic. Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy once started this same period after The Return of the Jedi, and there are certainly parallels between Zahn's trilogy and Wendig's Aftermath. Yet, where Zahn only had the original trilogy to go on and emulated their tone, I can't help but dislike the influence the prequels have on this reboot—and the lack of influence from any Legends material. For example, to a fan of the old books, Mon Mothma starting her reign as chancellor with emergency military powers comparable to those of Palpatine in the prequels simply feels wrong. Yes, the choice makes sense in this new canon, but it’s not something the previously established Mon Mothma would ever agree to.
Replacing Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy with a new canonical trilogy, featuring anew the struggles between the freshly created New Republic and the remnants of the Empire, is a steep uphill battle for Chuck Wendig to fight. The Thrawn Trilogy introduced many beloved characters like Thrawn, Mara Jade, and Talon Karrde. The absence of these characters, now non-canonical legends, stings. However, Wendig does a decent job fighting this battle. The story of Aftermath is an interesting one, with new character Imperial Admiral Sloan attempting to unite the remaining factions of the Empire that still hold parts of the galaxy firmly in their grip, while the Rebellion is celebrating their destruction of the second death star and defeat of Emperor Palpatine. Tension across the galaxy is palpable and the stakes are high in the ongoing war between the struggling Empire and the newly victorious Rebellion. Through intriguing viewpoints across the galaxy, Wendig sets the stage for the rising New Republic. Aftermath succeeds in portraying a galaxy in disarray and presenting a gripping backdrop for its original story.
Despite this, I didn't feel fully engaged. I think this was caused by two related problems. First, there is an overload of viewpoints. In just the first third of the book, I counted nearly a dozen viewpoints, ranging from well-known characters like Ackbar, Mon Mothma, and Wedge Antilles to random New Republic pilots and drunk guys in a bar. Slowly, the reader gets acquainted with these new characters, but their introduction is slow and often seemingly random. The number of viewpoints can easily overwhelm. While I eventually felt some measure of interest in their various stories, the main characters were initially difficult to relate to.
The second and bigger problem I had was that most of the book is written in sentence fragments. This was a conscious stylistic choice on Wendig’s part—which he defends in this blog post—and it's certainly not a grammatically invalid one. For a Star Wars book, however, one with a heavy role in establishing the new canon even, I disagree with the choice. This is is a world populated with familiar characters, yet through the fragmented writing and choppy style, they feel estranged. Worse yet, the new characters Wendig introduces all feel the same, as they all speak and think in this same choppy language. I would personally love to read a different story written in this style, but for a Star Wars book, it prevented immersion into the world I love so much.
Chuck Wendig's Aftermath does do a great job setting the scene for a new Star Wars canon and whetting our collective appetite for more Star Wars stories. Yet, the execution could have been better; different stylistic choices may have created a much more engaging and immersive experience. If you’re a long-time fan of the Star Wars Extended Universe like me, it might be difficult to give Wendig the benefit of the doubt. It might not quite live up to some of the Star Wars Legends, but by the time Aftermath ended, it definitely had me hooked. I’m interested in the story of these new characters—especially that of Admiral Sloane—and will definitely read the rest of Wendig’s trilogy....more
A collaborative effort between film director Guillermo del Toro (known for films such as Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy) and author Chuck Hogan, The Strain was originally conceived as a series for television; it is now the first in a trilogy of vampire novels.
The Strain has a relatively simple premise: a plane touches down in New York City, and all but four of the people on board are dead. Of course, given that this is a vampire novel, you can probably guess what happened. The Strain then proceeds to follow primarily the scientist Ephraim Goodweather, but also a multitude of characters who are caught in the path of the supernatural infection that begins to spread across New York City.
Vampires that are actually scary (thank goodness) We all know that vampires have become incredibly romanticized in recent years, and I’m not going to go into a lengthy tirade on the subject. Suffice to say: it’s not too often that we get vampire fiction which features vampires that are actually scary, and so I find it immensely refreshing when we do. The Strain is one of those stories that goes for the all-out scary vampires, and it does it right. These are vicious, bloodsucking creatures that share a lot of similarities with traditional vampires; however, there are some interesting new twists as well. Del Toro and Hogan take the elements of vampire mythology we’ve seen countless times before and weave them into something fresh and re-contextualized for the modern world. This approach, the meshing of new and old elements into something all its own, works surprisingly well.
A scientific approach While maintaining elements of traditional vampire mythology, The Strain takes a very scientific approach to its subject matter. It’s no mistake that the book’s primary protagonist is a scientist: every aspect of the vampires is dissected and analyzed from a scientific perspective. Instead of just magically infecting people by biting them, the vampires strike with a fleshy “stinger”; this stinger injects victims with parasitic worms that spread the infection. This is only one aspect of how these vampires function, however, and much of the book is devoted to unraveling the scientific rationale behind their anatomy. I’ve never seen vampires approached in this way, and I really enjoyed it; by explaining seemingly supernatural characteristics through science, these modern-day vampires feel credible in a way that most others don’t.
A well-rounded cast of characters The Strain features a surprising number of viewpoint characters, and the book’s perspective jumps frequently between them. This can be jarring and sometimes frustrating as the frequent perspective shifts don’t feel completely necessary, but it’s not a major detriment to the book. With characters only being presented in short snippets, I was pleasantly surprised at the depth of characterization. Most of The Strain’s characters are complex and flawed, and one of my favorite aspects of the book was getting to see how they perceive each other differently. The Strain may not need as many point-of-view characters as it has, but for the most part, the relatively large cast works well.
Setting up the story The Strain is not a stand-alone story; it is very clearly the first section of a larger arc. This works both for and against the book. On the one hand, most of the book is just setting up the conflict that is to come in the trilogy’s next two entries, The Fall and The Night Eternal. The vampires themselves don’t really start appearing until about halfway through the book; if you’re reading The Strain, you’re obviously reading it for the vampires, so it is worth noting that this aspect of the story doesn’t become prevalent until a couple hundred pages in. On the other hand, despite focusing on such extensive buildup, this book is not boring. Del Toro and Hogan ratchet up the tension for a long, long, long time, and so when the action finally lets loose in the second half of the book, it hits hard.
Why should you read this book? The Strain isn’t without its flaws, but most of them are relatively minor. It’s an incredibly effective vampire novel, and while it focuses mainly on exposition and setting the stage for the next two books in the trilogy, the engaging cast of characters and high levels of tension still make it an engaging read. For fans of vampire fiction (vampire horror, that is), The Strain is definitely a book you’ll want to check out....more
I’d be lying if I said that Jason M. Hough hit the ground running with his debut novel. Because he didn’t.
First, he jumped out of the freaking plane, then he hit the ground running.
Darwin, Australia. Humanity’s last beacon of hope and the last remaining human city on Earth. An alien plague has conquered the world, turning the majority of the population into mindless savages. Those who remain have flocked to Darwin, site of the only thing keeping the plague at bay: a space elevator constructed by the same architects of this apocalypse—an alien race known only as the Builders.
Then the Elevator begins to malfunction.
Enter Skyler Luiken. One of the very few with an immunity to the plague, Skyler is captain of a ship that makes scavenging runs outside the Elevator’s protective aura—with a crew completely comprised of fellow “immunes.” When the Elevator starts malfunctioning, Skyler is brought in to help solve the mystery of failing alien tech…
…and to save humanity, if he can.
Fresh-faced apocalypse One of the most attractive things about The Darwin Elevator was the conceit. Sure, I’ve read apocalypse novels, and I’ve read alien novels, and I’ve read alien apocalypse novels, but there was nothing quite like this. The aliens kick off the apocalypse—but give humanity one safe harbor—and then up and LEAVE? Weird.
Now, the plague that turns humanity into savage killing machines? Not the most original thing in the world—it screams Reavers and Firefly and Serenity at me. But it’s a nice homage, and is a tried and true story element that has worked in the past and that works again here.
Subtle worldbuilding There’s a notion that many debut authors don’t grasp right away, and it’s the idea of making the author’s presence as invisible as possible. It’s the difference between telling the reader what’s happening and showing what’s happening. With a new story and a new world, some authors are tempted to give us the history of the world with a prologue or something similar at the outset of the novel. But, see, here’s the thing: a prologue in fiction? Backstory. It can be plopped down almost anywhere in the midst of the novel—preferably somewhere that makes sense, of course, but it needn’t (and usually shouldn’t) be at the very beginning of the novel.
And I am very happy to report that Hough has learned this lesson, and learned it well.
Throughout the novel, we get little explanations, stories, and flashbacks which help bring the reader up to speed on the history of Hough’s world. None of these instances are too much or too long. On top of that, they’re very well spaced, coming at appropriate moments over the course of novel, keeping the reader’s attention while at the same time feeding their sense of curiosity.
Very human characters…mostly Another of The Darwin Elevator‘s strongest aspects lies in Hough’s character work. Our primary protagonists, Skyler Luiken and Dr. Tania Sharma, are full of depth and human emotion, especially Skyler. He goes from being the tentative captain to being forced to trust his instincts and go balls-to-the-wall for those he cares about. Tania gets a similar treatment, but not quite as thorough (which was a tiny disappointment, but here’s looking forward to book two).
There is a downside to this amount of character development, however. When there are those who have obviously been grown to be very human characters, any recurring characters who don’t have as much development stick out. And stick out, they do. Of Skyler’s crew, about half have been decently developed while the other half remain relatively two-dimensional. Considering that not all of the crew makes it through to the end of the novel, the lack of a more thorough character development means the fatalities don’t hit the reader as hard as they might.
Overall, though, Hough’s character work is very solid. This is further exemplified by his story’s antagonists. The Darwin Elevator is interesting in the idea that there isn’t really one entity functioning as the primary force working against our heroes. There’s no evil Empire, no Alliance striving to force civilization upon people, no single dictator. Instead, Hough has split up various functions of an antagonist among a few different characters. Once you’ve been introduced to the characters, it’s not difficult to figure out, but it’s a trick that works exceptionally well. There are the characters out to further their own ambition, those out to thwart everyone else, etc.
Not to mention the mastermind behind the entire story.
Yep, it’s there. And handled quite deftly. I saw the twist coming, but was still pleasantly surprised at the details.
All told, very good work for a debuting author.
Why should you read this book? The Darwin Elevator is a fantastically strong first novel. Hough handles most of the novel with the precision of an author with a few books under his belt. If you’re not a big fan of space opera or hard sci-fi but are looking for that sci-fi fix, I highly recommend you give this book a try. If you’re a fan of fantasy, you’ll get a kick out of this book, too. Through a combination of strong characters, an intriguing premise, and a heaping dose of tension, Jason Hough has crafted a captivating story that doesn’t just have you following it into hell to finish—you’re bloody well sprinting.
Garrett received a review copy of this book courtesy of TLC Book Tours....more
Clockwork Princess is the third book in Cassandra Clare’s The Infernal Devices trilogy, which is a prequel to The Mortal Instruments series (originally a trilogy, Clare has signed for an additional three titles). Clockwork Princess follows Clockwork Angel and Clockwork Prince.
Tessa Gray is an American girl lured to London by the dark magical forces of Mortmain. She escapes their clutches with the help of two Shadowhunters, Will and Jem. With the help of Will, Jem, and their allies, she sets out to find out why she has been targeted and to stop Mortmain from destroying the Shadowhunters.
No real surprises If there is a young adult author out there who gets nearly as much flack as Stephanie Meyer, it’s Clare. She’s been dogged by plagiarism accusations (to my knowledge these have never been backed by litigation) since her fan fiction days under the name Cassandra Claire. Since then, she’s come under attack for writing the same story three times. While I can’t speak for The Mortal Instruments, I will say that I’ve been struck by The Infernal Devices’ similarity to her fan fiction. I’ve read in several places that these same similarities can be seen in The Mortal Instruments. Further, this is a young adult novel and follows several standard tropes, most spectacularly the love triangle.
Clare also hasn’t grown as much as a writer as I could hope for in Clockwork Princess. Everything was foreshadowed so thoroughly that nothing was deeply surprising. At no point was I on the edge of my seat wondering how it was all going to work out. The only plot twist I didn’t predict was the exact form of the deus ex machina at the end because I didn’t have enough information from earlier in the trilogy to make the connection (hence the deus). Had I been familiar with The Mortal Instruments, I may have seen it coming. However, I knew some form of deus ex machina was coming because there’s a whole lot of sameness in this book.
No, I don’t hate the book Clare has always had skills as a writer. She’s very good at making conflicted yet sympathetic characters whom readers can invest in. Her Shadowhunter world in The Infernal Devices is well built, with a lot of places she can explore in future books. All of the pieces that first attracted me to Clare’s work are still in Clockwork Princess; I just expected more from this book than what I got. It feels like Clare is resting on the accomplishments she’s already made instead of moving forward to seek new ones and grow as a writer. Granted, with how well her books are selling, I don’t know how motivated I would be to push myself were I in her shoes.
Why should you read this book? The Infernal Devices is an entertaining young adult steampunk fantasy. There aren’t a lot of those, which makes the series worth reading just based on that. Clare is a talented storyteller, and her tales do stick with you in a good way after you set the books down. However, this is a young adult series, and does suffer somewhat from the constraints of its target audience and publisher enforced restrictions. It is a simple, quick read that may not satisfy lovers of door-stopping tree killers. And it is ridiculously similar to Clare’s other works, which bored me. Had the trilogy been longer, I don’t know that I would have stuck it out....more
Cinder, Marissa Meyer’s debut, is a science fiction romance that is both clearly inspired by the tale of Cinderella and clearly for teenage readers. In this future world, androids are as common as pets, while cyborgs are ostracized and loathed. The descendants of the humans who colonized the Moon have evolved into Lunars with their own culture, their own leadership, and their own magic powers. While a plague ravages Earth and tensions mount between the Eastern Commonwealth and the Lunars, Crown Prince Kaito urgently seeks out a mechanic to repair his broken android. The best mechanic in New Beijing is the sixteen-year-old Lihn Cinder, a cyborg.
Predictably clichéd Any book that uses one of the most well-known fairy tales of all time as inspiration does risk being predictable. The reader expects that Cinder will be forced to live a life of drudgery by her despicable stepmother yet somehow fall in love with the prince and escape to his ball in the end. I didn’t read it to find out if she’d make it to the ball; that was pretty much given. It’s the unique spin this type of book gives to the familiar tale that keeps me reading. Unfortunately, even in its unique spin, I found Cinder to be pretty predictable. The big reveal at the very end of the book was so heavily foreshadowed that I predicted it after reading about a quarter of the book.
Many of the problems Cinder faces feel very common to teenage romance, to the point of being cliché. (I hesitate to call it young adult romance, because that suggests a level of maturity. Cinder does not act like an adult, even a young one.) She has predictably low self-esteem—moping to herself about her “metal monstrosities” and “mousy hair”—and a skewed sense of interpersonal ethics. He won’t like me if he knows the truth, so I’ll just lie to him. Yeah, that always turns out great.
Unexciting characters Prince Kai is the cookie cutter Prince Charming. He’s nice, likable, and, of course, rich and powerful. Unfortunately, there isn’t much more to him. He’s a flat character, there to fill the role of Cinder’s love interest. As for Cinder… well, she’s more pitiable than likable, and it’s difficult even to have much sympathy for a protagonist who behaves as stupidly as she does. Many of the challenges Cinder has to face as the plot thickens are problems she herself causes with her foolish behavior or, even more frustratingly, nonexistent problems that she only imagines.
Beyond these two, there aren’t any characters of significance. Cinder has her horrid stepmother and two stepsisters, one horrid and one nice. She also has a cute, occasionally clever android. Prince Kai has an adviser. There’s a doctor around who’s trying to research a cure for the plague, and the Lunar Queen shows up to force the Emperor into a marriage treaty. None of these characters, however, receive more than minimal development or characterization; they’re simply props to fill the background.
A fun read Despite my complaints, I really did enjoy reading Cinder. I breezed through it quickly; it’s neither a long nor deep book by any means. I’ve read a number of Cinderella-based stories over the years—it’s always been my favorite fairy tale—and this one was certainly unique. I don’t think I’ve ever read another science fiction Cinderella, and I’ve definitely never read one where the oppressed heroine is a cyborg. The novelty of that alone was enough to carry me through the book, and I had a lot of fun reading it. I might not read the rest of the series, though. It was the lure of my favorite fairy tale, retold, that pulled me in, but while the series continues to follow Cinder, each book is based on a different tale. Scarlet is based on Red Riding Hood. Cress, expected in 2014, is inspired by the tale of Rapunzel, and Winter (2015) will feature Snow White.
Why should you read this book? If the familiar tropes commonly found in young adult books don’t bother you or you have a particular taste for science fiction flavored teenage romance, you’d likely enjoy Cinder—especially if fairy tale inspired books are your thing. Otherwise, only pick up this book if you’re looking for a cotton candy read. It’s not very intelligent, but it is quick and fun....more
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....more
Gameboard of the Gods (Age of X #1) is the first book in a new series by Richelle Mead. It takes place in a dystopian future and mainly follows the lives of Justin March, a disgraced former Servitor for RUNA, and Mae Koskinen, the quintessential badass soldier who is assigned to protect him. Together they must work to solve a string of ritualistic, and possibly supernatural, murders that have been taking place during the full moon. Oh, and there are gods in there, too. The characters, though, are the driving force of this novel, whereas the worldbuilding left much to be desired.
So let’s get that worldbuilding rant out of the way first I’ll bet you’re wondering what the hell “RUNA” is and why I didn’t bother to define that acronym in my introduction. Now imagine how you would feel if you had to read over 70 pages—with “RUNA” typed onto at least half of them—without an explanation. Seventy-nine pages. Seventy nine pages before Mead lets you know that “RUNA,” the main setting of the damn story, stands for “Republic of United North America.” This is just one of many, many examples in which Mead does a little too much showing and not enough telling. There are certain aspects of a world or story that simply need to be explained; you can’t just throw term after term at your readers and expect them to know what all of them mean. To be quite honest, I had to do research before writing this review because I am still rather confused about many aspects of this world.
I suppose I should provide a brief explanation of the (poorly-constructed) world in which this book takes place. A virus ravaged the world years ago and as a result RUNA and the EA (Eastern Alliance) swapped populations to try to mix up the gene pool and create resistance to the virus. Religious heretics also apparently had something to do with the restructuring of society (yet another element left unexplained), and Servitors now closely monitor all religious groups. Anyway, those who didn’t want to come to the gene-mixing-religion-regulating party were either imprisoned or fled to the outer provinces. This brings me to my next gripe with the worldbuilding: the provinces. Crime runs rampant, sexism is back in full force, technology is woefully behind that of RUNA and the EA, and women have to be accompanied by a chaperone in public. A chaperone? Is that a joke? What is this, the 18th century? For a book that is supposed to take place in a futuristic society, this makes no logical sense; why would society, even the outskirts of it, devolve so dramatically? Maybe I’m just being nit-picky, but the reasoning behind this (if there even was any) made little sense to me.
I will say, I think this world has a lot of potential, but Mead reached a little too far. It’s certainly an interesting world, but the confusion resulting from poor exposition often distracts from the plot itself.
Whoa lady, calm down there. What about the characters? Worldbuilding aside, I did very much enjoy the characters in this book. Justin March is a former Servitor who was exiled to the provinces, but RUNA calls him in to help investigate the string of ritualistic murders taking place during the full moon; they believe that a man of his particular skills might be able to crack the case. He is a womanizer, a drunk, a druggie, and my favorite character. He’s highly observant, somewhat reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes, actually, and he is particularly talented at reading people. Justin’s witty dialogue and sharp retorts were some of my favorite parts of the book, and his introduction is a particularly enjoyable scene. There’s also Mae Koskinen. Mae is a praetorian, an elite group of soldiers with special enhancement chips implanted in them, and she’s one of the best. However, after an unfortunate outburst at her former lover’s funeral, she is assigned to guard Justin as punishment (bodyguard-ing is apparently far beneath praetorians). Mae is also very likeable, though at times she feels a bit too much like the stereotypical “badass” as opposed to an actual person. Justin and Mae also have great chemistry and sexual tension, and their interactions were some of my favorite scenes.
Oh, we also get perspective chapters from Tessa, the sixteen-year-old girl whom Justin brings back to RUNA from the provinces (in a protective, brotherly way, not in a dirty perverted way). Tessa’s likeable enough, but pretty pointless. Tessa’s a smart little lady and Mead must have plans for her later in the series, but Tessa’s main purpose in this book was to serve as exposition; seeing RUNA from her point of view was certainly helpful to the lackluster worldbuilding. Aside from her fresh perspective on RUNA, though, I was left wondering why Tessa was even included. There’s no foreshadowing in regard to her, and even just a hint to the purpose that she will later serve—hell, just acknowledging that she will serve a future purpose—would have been appreciated. As it is, Tessa’s chapters feel pointless.
Wait, where are the gods? Isn’t this their gameboard or something? Oh, right, the gods. Much like this subsection, the gods feel like a bit of an afterthought. We’re mainly reminded of their presence since Justin hears the voices of two ravens in his mind, both claiming to be speaking to him at the service of a god (and the source of many comical conversations). There are also rare hints here and there about gods surrounding Mae, but for a book titled Gameboard of the Gods, the gods played what seemed like a fairly minimal role until the last 100 or so pages of the book. Even then, their motives remain a mystery, but the mystery here is left so vague that it’s more frustrating than enticing.
Why should you read this book? Well, despite my multiple criticisms of this book, I honestly liked it enough that I couldn’t put it down at certain points. The action is well-done, and this book is a fairly quick read. The lackluster worldbuilding is a flaw that I was generally able to overlook because I enjoyed the characters and the dialogue so thoroughly. I also believe that this world, as well as this series, have the potential to be quite good, and will be reading the next book in the Age of X series based mainly on this potential.
Marnie received a review copy of Gameboard of the Gods courtesy of Penguin Books....more
At the opening of The King’s Blood, we find ourselves back in the remains of the Dragon Empire and the world of the Thirteen Races of Humanity. Geder Palliako is suddenly an important figure in the Antean Court, with the mysterious Spider Priests at his side. Kalliam Dawson, a noble of the old order, works to maintain the tradition of the court while Cithrin bel Sacour struggles to hold on to her branch of the Medean Bank, and Captain Marcus Wester, haunted by his past, works to redeem himself through his protection of the young banker. Intrigue, magic, and blood follow in the second installment of The Dagger and The Coin series.
Like a flower, blooming The Dragon’s Path was such a success because Abraham, in his skill and knowledge of the genre, took his time in revealing his world to us. He began in medias res, and as the novel grew, so did our understanding of the world. Much like that deliberate pace and reveal, The King’s Blood continues this slow gift of information as, chapter by chapter, our understanding of this world grows. Don’t expect an answer to every mystery, but know that some light will be shed on The Dragon Empire, The Spider Goddess, and more.
Pulling no punches Personally, one of the biggest strengths I find in The Dagger and the Coin series is how Abraham is not afraid of posing big questions or challenges to his characters and therefore to his readers. He never presents an easy road for either party, and half the enjoyment of the book is in watching the characters navigate the tangle of larger-than-life questions. Is truth subjective? When is it right to go to war, if it ever is? When do you give up and when do you fight? Abraham throws these questions and more at his characters. Watching how they react will not only fascinate you, it will make you think as well.
Character is king What makes this one of the strongest secondary world fantasies being published today, though, is not the immensity of its worldbuilding or its fascination with big questions, but rather the complexity of its characters. Abraham has created wonderful, strong, incredibly flawed characters, and watching them evolve through this second book is certainly one of the highlights. He allows them to be, well, human. Even the most noble of characters, Kalliam Dawson, is not immune to spite or fear. Watching and hoping a character will make the right choice is all the more devastating when they do not. Feelings such as pain, spite, greed, and fear color the characters beyond simple shades of gray and create characters who, despite scales or wings or pelts, make for some of the most human characters out there.
Why you should read this The King’s Blood is a triumph of secondary world fantasy, continuing to reveal a complex world with amazing, three-dimensional characters. Daniel Abraham is not afraid to push his characters or his readers to the edge, and even when he rewards you, it may still be bittersweet. If you enjoyed the first book, or if you’re looking for a new fantasy series to get into, The King’s Blood and The Dagger and the Coin are well worth your time....more
A Discourse in Steel is the second book in Paul S. Kemp’s new sword and sorcery series, Tales of Egil and Nix. In this book, our intrepid heroes try once again to retire, and fail once again to avoid falling headlong into crazy adventures and deadly peril.
Building on previous successes Second books are always tough. There’s a bit of a push to try and do new things, to stretch boundaries and grow your characters or your setting or your world. There’s also a bit of a pull the opposite way, to stick with what works and play it safe. It’s considered rare enough for a second book/movie/album to be better than the first that it’s a very common topic of discussion in forum communities or conversations with friends and fellow nerds.
In A Discourse in Steel, Kemp finds a very strong balance between those two directions. It is similar enough to the first book, The Hammer and the Blade, that you feel like you’re just picking up and carrying on right where you left off. At the same time, it does expand our knowledge of the characters and their setting enough to not seem repetitious. Given that the events of this new book take place only a few months after the earlier volume, it really does feel like a next installment of what we should almost consider one big long story, and the growth of the world around them is keeping that same pace.
I drew attention in my review for The Hammer and the Blade to the distinction between this being the tale of Egil and Nix or, as it says on the cover of both books, a tale of Egil and Nix. The tone and style of the stories feel like we’re sitting around the tavern, legs propped up on the table with a flagon, while Egil and Nix recount the story for us.
What the fak is this? One thing that did sort of bug me in this book was the presence of the word “fak” and all of the usual extensions of the word. Long time readers of my work (so basically, my family and the other staff of the website *grin*) might remember that I wrote a piece way back when about things that bugged me about fantasy novels. One of my entries was the use of alternate spellings for words we all already know and have in our lexicon. I feel like either you can create a new language for your world or you should just use ours. I feel we gain nothing from putting milk from our kau into our kava. If it looks like a cow, and it functions like a cow, just call it a cow. It isn’t going to kill our immersion. I promise.
I feel the same way about cursing. I can’t help but feel when I see people saying darn instead of damn, or shoot, frick, or dang that they’re actually being a little insulting. I know what you’re thinking, I know what you mean, and you aren’t fooling anybody by manually replacing the word with a tamer one. It’s okay; books don’t have ratings from the ESRB, and nobody reading it is going to see “fak” and not know what you mean. Just say “fuck.” Please.
Hooray for quibbles Honestly, when the substitute of a swear word for a more mild alternative is the only thing I have to complain about, you know this is an excellent book. Egil and Nix are great characters, and Kemp writes them exceptionally well. I really feel like we’re witnessing the reinvention of sword and sorcery. The genre is coming back, and coming back strong.
This is the sea change that was needed to bring back this style of high-action, fast-paced, character-driven story: an ability to still include deeper, more engaging characters that aren’t just machines of death. That’s entertaining for 14-year-olds, but it quickly grows stale as one’s tastes mature. When a character’s primary conflict is, “Shall I kill fifty enemies today without getting a scratch on me, or go for the full seventy-five?” I just lose interest.
Egil and Nix survive these adventures through equal parts experience, cunning, and blind luck. They get beaten, they get knocked out, they actually risk death every time they go into action, and it is so much more engaging because of it. Because they are allowed to grow and develop, have flaws, suffer for their flaws, have virtues, and suffer for those too, they just feel so much more complete. I don’t think we needed Drizzt 2.0, and it’s great to see we didn’t get it.
Why should you read this book? As always with sequels, you should read this book because you read and enjoyed the first book. The reason you should read both is exactly as I’ve detailed above. These are great action-packed adventure stories without all the horrible, flawless Mary Sue characters staying perfect and unchanged through “character development” that almost never challenges the character or the reader. Kemp excels at making the characters feel genuine. You identify with them. I want to buy Nix a drink. Probably scotch....more
Romulus Buckle & the City of the Founders is the debut novel by Richard Ellis Preston Jr., and it is a thoroughgoing steampunk tale of high adventure and action in a future dystopian United States.
Don't let your settings grow up to be cowboys A common problem I've found with a lot of steampunk is the way that the setting completely takes over the entire process of your story. I know that steampunk is more than just a genre. There's fashion, music, lingo. For the fans of steampunk, it is as much a movement or a life choice as a mere setting. But seriously. I have never read so much otherwise pointless description of how many gears and pipes and crap are stuck to someone's hat. This book clocked in at 456 pages, and I honestly feel like a solid 100 could have been cut just reducing direct description of steampunk elements.
I know it's a debut novel, and I know that the setting is not the traditional Victorian England that the majority of steampunk is set in, so a certain degree of over-narration is inevitable, but there was way too much telling and not nearly enough showing going on. Speaking of the setting, Romulus Buckle & the City of the Founders takes place in a future Earth, after what I generally presumed to be a nuclear apocalypse (at least, they're soundly in nuclear winter, though some plot elements suggest the apocalyptic event was chemical in nature rather than nuclear. It's never spelled out). That on its own is pretty cool. However, there are a lot of strange disconnects in information supply. The protagonist is given cause at one point to wonder "What's a subway?" when he hears another character use the word. Yet then they know exactly what a locomotive is when one is menacing them. Given that this is the future, subways would have been used much more recently in their timeline, and locomotives brought back and put into use after the disaster. On more than a few occasions I found it a little off-putting what we're expected to believe survived and what didn't.
You do the debut that you do All of this, however, is really to be expected for a debut novel. It can take a long time for an author to settle into a new setting even when they're an experienced writer generally. A lot of exposition needed to get crammed into not a lot of space, and I think that Preston Jr. is still finding his voice and settling into his groove. The world we saw, if a little disjointed, is still quite interesting. I was engaged, and enjoyed my trip through this grand adventure. There was a certain 1940s serial adventure vibe to it. A sort of Rocketeer meets Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow with a pinch of Raiders of the Lost Ark for flavor.
I'm willing to grant Preston Jr. some slack for this being the first entry out of the gate. The whole story was basically built to give baseline world knowledge and point squarely at a sequel, and I'm definitely willing to give the next novel, Romulus Buckle & The Engines of War (releasing November 2013), a try, as well. I'd just like to see a little less Basil Exposition, less emphasis on pointing out how steampunk everything is, a little more showing by doing, and more depth into the action elements. We had a few fights that were really excellent to read, and the gadgetry is cool and flashy and exactly what steampunk is supposed to be.
Why should you read this book? You should read this book because it has a lot of potential. It has some flaws, but they're all understandable as growing pains for a very complicated setting in a new world in a new book by a new author. As a post-apocalyptic world goes, I quite like it, and I'm excited to see more. I'm not the biggest fan of steampunk, and it does get laid on a little thick, but it still makes for an entertaining adventure story.
Dan received an advanced reader copy of Romulus Buckle & The City of the Founders courtesy of 47North....more
Catherynne M. Valente is currently best known for her young adult Fairyland Series, but she’s also won awards for her adult novels The Orphan’s Tales:Catherynne M. Valente is currently best known for her young adult Fairyland Series, but she’s also won awards for her adult novels The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden and Palimpset. Her writing is utterly unique from concept to style and always a treat. So we here at The Ranting Dragon were really excited to hear about her latest release, a novella entitled Six-Gun Snow White. Released back in January, it’s proved to be a difficult commodity to come across. Subterranean is a specialty publisher, and many of its titles are only available in print for a limited run. The 1,000 signed and numbered limited edition print copies of Six-Gun Snow White have long since sold out directly from the publisher, though e-book copies are still available and print copies are available from specialty dealers.
You all know the tale of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” if not directly from The Brothers Grimm than from Disney and other children’s movies. Valente takes this classic tale and moves it to the American Old West. Snow White is the daughter of a wealthy white man and a Crow woman. When her father remarries a white woman, she finds herself neither white nor Indian in a world that prefers you to be either one or the other.
Incredible authorial voice When I say that Valente doesn’t write like anyone else, I mean it. Sometimes she can even figure out how to not write quite like herself, either. Half of the novella is told as a narration from Snow White, telling how she came to be and the events of her early childhood. Snow White’s language is a fantastic achievement and feels very authentic to someone living on the west coast of the United States in the late nineteenth century. Moreover, she doesn’t speak with an upper crust vocabulary, but with the drawl of someone from the working classes. Her speech is full of old sayings and flowery metaphors common to older forms of English, and I found it a delight to read.
Around the half-way point, Snow White decides that telling the whole story herself is too much of a burden and turns everything over to a third-person narrator. The language shifts, but rather than changing to a modern narration style, Valente shifts deeper into a traditional storytelling style that’s more often encountered from aural storytellers than written ones. Valente draws you deep into the tale and doesn’t let you go easily.
Intriguing changes, but no real surprises What I disliked most about this book is actually what initially drew me to it: the fact that it is a retelling of “Snow White.” I know this story inside out and backwards. I’ve read and seen a lot of iterations of the tale. While Valente makes some changes that are interesting, I wasn’t floored by them. They didn’t illicit new emotional responses to the tale from me. The farther I got into the book, the more I was reminded of Jane Yolen’s Snow in Summer, also a retelling of “Snow White,” even though the retellings have little to do with each other. In short, this is still a fairly basic retelling of “Snow White” with no attempts to disguise it. By the time I got to the real twists at the end, I had lost deep interest in the tale sometime before.
Why you should read this book Anything by Valente is a treat as she’s one of fantasy’s foremost modern authors. If you enjoy her work, are a connoisseur of re-told fairy tales like I am, or like more literary fantasy that uses instances of indirect storytelling, you’ll find something to like here. However, if you only like reading print editions of books, this may be an expensive investment as used copies are currently available from $40. And this is a novella, so even if you read rather slowly it’s a quick read....more
When the daughter of one of Boston's wealthiest is murdered with no apparent cause of death, her family goes to the only person they can: Ethan Kaille, conjurer. Upon investigation, it is readily apparent to Ethan that the girl was murdered with magic. However, he has competition that doesn't appreciate his being hired for this particular job.
Throw in two opposing factions, rising tensions both political and personal, a murderous antagonist so far out of Ethan's league that he's the next city over, and you've got the basics for a pretty typical kickass urban fantasy.
Except Thieftaker isn't your typical urban fantasy. I've got two words for you:
You say you want a revolution… I'm not typically a fan of period works. When I am, they're usually infused with elements that put the historical aspects on the back burner. A prime example of this is Namoi Novik's Temeraire novels. Sure, it's the Napoleonic war, but with dragons. Dragons. 'Nuff said. Another example is Devon Monk's Age of Steam, a steampunk-slash-magic-slash-werewolf tale set in expansionary America. Again, the time period takes a back seat to everything else.
Thieftaker is different than both of those. The magic is subtle enough that you don't get pulled out of the setting. Not only that, but the reminders of the period are nuanced enough that they impart information, add to the story, and are a character in their own right—all while keeping the reader aware that this is not a recent time period. This is due in part to the style of prose Jackson writes. While he could have gone overboard and delved into the English syntax of the time, he didn't—at least, not for descriptions and narration. It's this combination of modern language patterns and period authenticity that really allowed me to stay enraptured.
History has its ghosts However, I bet you weren't thinking of ghosts like these—for the ghosts in Jackson's alternative Boston seem to be the central part of magical power in the world. Whenever Ethan conjures magic, a ghostly spectre dressed in the garb of a knight appears to… help things along, I suppose. In this, the audience is limited by how much the protagonist knows, which isn't much more than expressed here. In my opinion, that's a smart move—I want to learn more about the magic in this world, now. However, the ghosts aren't the source of magical power, necessarily. Many things may be used to fuel a conjuring, from grass to herbs to blood, and we get to see Ethan experiment with all of these throughout the novel.
The primary antagonist of the novel is a big-league conjurer, someone way out of Ethan's depth. It's intriguing to see just how much more potent this conjurer's spells are than Ethan's. In turn, this forces Ethan to play smarter, not just harder—though that in and of itself is no guarantee of survival. All in all, Jackson has made some smart choices, but I was left wondering where else this world could go in terms of antagonists. Honestly, I don't know that there's really anything to top that sort of conflict, so I'm interested (and a little worried) to see what happens in a sequel.
So real, you could touch it Thieftaker exhibits one of the most "real" environments I've ever experienced in a book. While partially due to the fact that I am fairly familiar with Revolutionary-era Boston because I actually paid attention in school (and am an American), I believe this is due mostly to Jackson's command of his craft. Most of the characters seem, well, like actual people. Shocking, I know. Yet even those who got very little screen time read as very vibrant people with whom I could actually see myself having conversations, were I in this particular world. This isn't just for characters of Jackson's creation—this is 1765 Boston, after all, and major players of American history are basically required to make appearances.
I love Samuel Adams. That is all.
On another note, Thieftaker features a cast with a decent portion of female players. Now, not all of these characters are strong, brook-no-nonsense women—because, let's face it, that didn't happen a lot in the eighteenth century. However, I will give Jackson this: he has a very accurate mix of personalities in his characters. There is the tough-as-nails innkeeper, who is absolutely brilliant, but then there is Ethan's ex, who is a more timid, stay-at-home-don't-ask-questions kind of woman, but is equally perfectly portrayed in her own right.
And then there's my favorite: the woman essentially in charge of Boston from the shadows. You know, devious, malicious, and utterly without many morals. If you've read Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files, she's akin to how Marcone would be if he were female and in 1765 Boston.
Why should you read this book? There's a lot of good in Thieftaker with only a little bit of not-as-good to mix things up. If you're a fan of urban fantasy looking for something a little different, read this book. If you're a fan of mystery looking for something a little different, read this book. Heck, if you're a fan of fantasy in general looking for something a little different, read this book. With solid worldbuilding, magic system, and characters, Thieftaker is an engaging and intriguing blend of history, fantasy, and mystery that pulls you in and immerses you in its environment until you can't put it down. I eagerly look forward to the sequel, Thieves' Quarry, out on July 2, 2013 from Tor Books....more
The Hammer and the Blade is a series-debuting novel by New York Times bestseller Paul S. Kemp. It introduces us to the adventuring duo of Egil, a warrior-priest, and his erstwhile companion Nix, a sneak, rogue, thief, and general ne’er-do-well, as they loot tombs, quaff ale, and generally get in over their heads. Hilarity ensues.
A Tale of Egil and Nix The above little bit of subtext appears on the cover of The Hammer and the Blade and represents something I really like and would really enjoy seeing done more often: it drops us into the middle of a world instead of on the edge of one. Us SFF readers, we’re clever people. I trust us to be able to collectively pick up on a story. Many fantasy novels these days (especially those with aspirations of becoming a long series) seem to feel that they must start at the beginning; we need to introduce the characters from scratch, give lots of back story, and work our way into the plot line. We don’t actually need any of that.
We’ll learn about the characters from their actions, and their dialogue. I learned more about Egil and Nix from the opening vignette of their robbing a tomb together than I learned about Rand Al’Thor from three books of prologue. This isn’t “the” tale of Egil and Nix, it’s just “a” tale. There are more where that tale came from, and there are more to come. There’s no promise that the next book picks up where this one left off, and I don’t think we need one. Egil and Nix are already such complete characters to me that I am happy jumping all over their timeline and just enjoying their antics. A bit of the ease with which you settle into their characters is that they are fairly tropey: Egil, the stoic, calm voice of reason… until you piss him off, then he starts smashing alongside Nix, the sarcastic, witty rogue with an eye for the ladies. There’s at least a little bit of Han and Chewbacca influence, as well as some Perrin and Mat. But that’s not a bad thing, either.
To me, Paul Kemp has always been about the development of characters through story. The characters are very real, they evolve, they grow, but they do that through the lens of the events that happen around and to them. We can start simple and fill it in as we go along. It gives the reader a sense of ownership over the characters that is really engaging. If you learn about them in bits and pieces as you go, instead of having this elaborate character study jammed down your throat, it feels more like they are your version of the characters.
Sword and Sorcery back in vogue? After the recent obsession in fantasy with massive sweeping epic storylines (see the burst of popularity for A Song of Ice and Fire around the HBO release of Game of Thrones, the ongoing popularity of the Wheel of Time, etc.) it was refreshing to get back to basics. I’ve been noticing a resurgence in the episodic, plot driven fantasy of my childhood and adolescence creeping onto the bookshelves, slightly disheveled as if they’ve just come in from the pub. The problems facing Egil and Nix aren’t the types that involve the world hanging in the balance. They robbed a tomb and pissed off a guy who is now causing problems for them. Once this problem is resolved one way or the other, one assumes they’re just going to go back to what they were doing before.
It’s nice to not have to be constantly aware of the wider ranging consequences of a storyline. I don’t have fifty things to keep straight, I don’t have to refer back to the prophecy in the foreword of the book, and I don’t need to try and memorize every character we saw who didn’t die in case they become important later on. I just get to read and enjoy a great story about some cool guys doing cool things. While I appreciate fantasy as high literature as much as (or possibly more) than the next guy, I do feel a little like our zeal to demonstrate to literature snobs that fantasy is a means of deep literary expression that is just as valid as any Oprah Book Club book caused us to stray from the fact that we’re also a genre built around action-packed adventure. Sometimes a longsword is just a longsword.
Why should you read this book? I found The Hammer and the Blade to be an excellent balance of solid worldbuilding and compelling characters with great action, snappy dialogue, and an emphasis on pacing. I’m hoping the next book in the series, A Discourse in Steel (Released by Angry Robot June 25th 2013), carries this on. I had a lot of fun with this book, and anybody who enjoys that sort of “odd couple” adventure watching great personalities clash around an action-packed episodic style storyline will have fun, too.
Egil and Nix are characters I’m hoping to see a lot more of in the coming years....more
Kitty Rocks the House by Carrie Vaughn is the eleventh chapter in the Kitty Norville series. The urban fantasy series follows title character Kitty, a werewolf public radio DJ that shocks the world by becoming the first paranormal celebrity. As you might imagine, there are folks who aren’t too happy with her for shining lights into their darkness.
Kitty’s back in Denver from the scientific conference in London where she warned the world about the vampire Roman’s Long Game. She and the vampire Master of Denver, Rick, are busy receiving envoys from potential allies against Roman when a strange wolf appears and attempts to join the pack. Kitty has her hands full defending her position as Alpha while Rick mysteriously disappears.
A focus on characters rather than action Urban fantasy books can be frustrating for a reader because they feature a ton of action in a relatively small 350 or so page book. Books typically open right before trouble starts, and finish as soon as it’s ended. One of the strengths of the Kitty books is that Kitty herself is so outspoken that the reader has no trouble following her personal growth through each book. However, it’s been a while since Kitty’s had the space to sit down and reassess who she is and why she does what she does. The challenge of bringing newcomer Darren into the pack provides Kitty with a chance to reaffirm her beliefs.
Kitty Rocks the House also lets us see more of a few old characters, as well as some new ones. Spending a lot of book time around the pack lets us see them for the first time since book number eight, Kitty Goes to War. Cormac and Amelia are really starting to jell as a team, and Detective Hardin is back.
Not the highlight of the series The really good long running urban fantasy series all seem to experience peaks and valleys in terms of books that leave you on the edge of your seat, and ones that are quieter reads. Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files does it; Patricia Brigg’s Mercedes Thompson series also does it to a lesser extent. Kitty Rocks the House is certainly one of the lulls in action for the Kitty series. This is not a bad thing, as the slower pace and lower stakes let Kitty re-ground herself and deepen her character for the reader. However, it did not leave me reaching the end of the book dying for book twelve to find out what happens next.
Why should you read this book? Kitty Rocks the House is not one of the highlights of this series. At book number eleven, with twelve (Kitty in the Underground) due out at the end of July 2013, it’s also not a good place to jump in having never read any previous titles in the series. That being said, it’s also not a good book to skip. Kitty does a lot of growing here, and there are some major revelations about vampire culture that will be important in future books. And while I wouldn’t list this as one of my favorite books in the series, it was an enjoyable and worthwhile afternoon read....more
The Dead of Winter is the début novel by American author Lee Collins, and billed as "True Grit meets True Blood," it's a paranormal western action mystery (I know right!?). It pits the investigating gunfighters Cora and her husband Ben Oglesby against vampires and other supernatural enemies in the silver mining town of Leadville, Colorado.
Certainly a novel concept It seems so tempting these days to slap the suffix "-punk" onto every genre that already exists. It seems especially common when we get to the Old West: that desire to start gluing gears onto every flat surface and making giant robotic contraptions to menace everybody. So it's actually quite refreshing to see a western that is just a western. Sure, there might be vampires and hellhounds alongside the more usual bandits and sheriffs, but the supernatural elements are a lot easier to wrap your head around when you aren't also trying to deal with technology that is both a lot more complicated and too advanced for the era. There's just something visceral and wonderful about matching a Colt .45 against a vampire.
Collins' integration of the supernatural elements of the story is also fabulously well done. The reason legends like these exist in the first place is that scientific understanding of the past wasn't advanced enough to explain what we've later discovered to be natural phenomena. What we now deride as foolish parochial superstition was perfectly reasonable and logical to people of earlier times. It was not a large suspension of disbelief at all to go from, "People didn't know any better, so they thought a dog with some phosphorous on it was a hellhound" to, "It's actually a hellhound, it's just nobody hangs around or lives long enough to know that's what it is."
Introducing Cora Oglesby The protagonist of this tale is one Cora Oglesby, a sass-talking, whisky-drinking, ass-kicking hunter. In this age of fantasy, covers featuring lower back tattoos, bare midriffs, and increasingly awkward poses, Cora's appearance on the cover of The Dead of Winter was a breath of fresh air. Cowboy boots, Buffalo leather trench-coat, checkered flannel shirt, rifle slung over one shoulder, and rosary clenched in her other fist. Fantastic stuff. She is actually dressed for the work she plans to do, which she does with skill and determination because this is what she's chosen to do.
I'm brought to mind of some combination of all three of the main characters from the Western classic The Good, The Bad and the Ugly alongside Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer. From Sergio Leone, Cora gets Clint Eastwood's dedication to doing the right thing. She is religious, and she feels ridding the world of the forces of darkness is doing God's work. We also see some of Lee Van Cleef's interest in the pay. Cora really doesn't care too much about the people in the town of Leadville. She's offering her help for a fair price, and if they don't want to listen to her, they can go hang. From Eli Wallach, she picks up a certain element of the outlaw. She's a vigilante, and the law doesn't much appreciate her swooping into town, guns blazing, causing trouble. From Whedon's vampire slayer, aside from the vampire slaying, you start to get the feeling that Cora has been called to this work. It feels like it's some degree of destiny for her since she seems to find herself involved in the supernatural whether she wants to or not.
Why should you read this book? I really enjoyed this book. Collins has a really gritty style that makes it feel like a western. The dialogue is in the vernacular, but not so far that you have trouble understanding it. The pacing is absolutely perfect, and it doesn't miss a beat throughout. The action is definitely straight out of the Spaghetti Westerns. All of these great pause moments where the characters eye each other across the square, then a sudden flurry of action, and the dust settles. Brilliant.
If westerns have ever seemed too boring or dull for you, this is about as unlike that as you can get while still wearing spurs on your boots. If you enjoy westerns but want to dabble in fantasy, you won't be disappointed either....more
Shadowdale was first published in 1989 as the leading novel in The Avatar Trilogy, arguably one of the most significant series of Realms novels in terms of their effect on the setting. It was written under the pseudonym Richard Awlinson, which I always believed was to protect the actual authors (Troy Denning and Scott Ciencin) from the ensuing fallout. Shadowdale begins the tale of the fall of the Gods of the Realms. Chaos, destruction, and death abound as the Gods themselves walk the earth in mortal shells.
Even the Gods have Gods The premise of the story is this: the Gods and Goddesses of the Forgotten Realms themselves answer to an over-being called Ao. Ao summons all of the deities into his presence and informs them that the Tablets of Fate (which define and describe the individual duties of each deity) have been stolen, and their juvenile jockeying for power, instead of managing the world as they should have, has disappointed their master. As punishment, Ao forces them all into human bodies and casts them down to the Realms to, I guess, learn humility or something.
Naturally, they just continue their juvenile scheming and jockeying for power. This leads to a number of, frankly, ridiculous changes to the existing structure of Forgotten Realms geography, religion, magic, you name it. We’re talking dead Gods, mortals elevated to Godhood, the introduction of “dead” and “wild” magic zones in the world, earthquakes, floods, and all the good bible stuff. It’s such a fundamental change to so many things, done so early in the life of the setting that it makes one wonder just what TSR was thinking.
Some compelling characters Major plot element aside, here’s the actual meat of this story: the adventures of a very typical D&D party (composed of a fighter, cleric, mage, and thief, exactly how D&D was designed) are actually quite good. As much as I may disagree in isolation about the changes that were made to the Realms in this book, watching these characters deal with something as significant as Gods walking the earth was very engaging. They all have their own problems going on, were thrust together more by circumstance than choice, and experience plenty of conflicts among themselves; all this combined made for some really great storytelling.
One of the two most interesting characters is the party fighter, Kelemvor Lyonsbane, who suffers from one of the most original curses I’ve seen in a long time. Some early ancestor of his was a greedy jerk who fell afoul of some gypsies (as you do) who cursed him (as they do) such that he could only ever engage in selfless acts without any desire for compensation or reward. If he ever did something for his own profit, he would transform into a werebeast and kill people. However, somewhere down the line, the terms of the curse flipped around. Kelemvor can ONLY do things for his own personal selfish benefit. He needs to put a price on everything, and do nothing for the sake of the act. It makes for some really amazing scenes when the group is basically trying to save the world, and he’s trying to negotiate a price for it.
The other great character is the party thief Cyric. He’s the best kind of burgeoning villain. Pragmatic rather than malevolent, he believes what he sees and not much else. He’s cynical, suspicious, and rational. One of the early introductory bits of history about Cyric involves him directly facing the Goddess Tymora, to whom he did not tithe a proper amount of gold. When asked whether or not he believes in her, and whether that is why he would not sacrifice to her, the response is basically, “If you’re not a goddess, you don’t deserve my gold; if you are a goddess you have no need for it, so why bother?” In a world like the Realms where the supernatural is so commonplace, the logic and rationality is actually quite refreshing. Cyric becomes a much larger fixture in the history of the Realms as a result of actions that occur during this trilogy, and giving him such a relateable grounding helps establish him later in the series.
Some strong opinions The Avatar Trilogy turned out to be something of a polarizer for fans of the Forgotten Realms. It was once suggested to me by a source who will remain nameless that many of the changes these books made to the setting were done without much consulting with the other authors; a few works in progress had to be changed if not all but scrapped to account for the new state of things. This is where my almost certainly false idea about why the book was published under a pseudonym originates. It was also the catalyst for plenty of questions for various authors and other TSR staff at conventions for a few years following the publication of the series.
As a lifelong reader of the Forgotten Realms, I don’t like a lot of what happened in this book and this trilogy. It just pushed so much existing lore out the window and replaced it for evidently no necessary reason. This is a lot like retconning a series to make a future mistake into truth. Instead they seem to be suggesting that they’d screwed up somewhere in earlier works and wanted to reset the world more to their liking, but the changes they went with remain very strange to me.
Why should you read this book? If you enjoy epic fantasy without necessarily having to slog through 10+ books and thousands of pages, this is a great book for you. The whole trilogy is only about 1000 pages end to end and all done in the classic action-oriented realms style that made it so popular. Not to mention, you have Gods battling over cities, magic going awry throughout the world, and an intrepid band of heroes facing impossible odds to try and save the world from utter destruction.
It also serves as one of the more integral “realms history” books in the catalogue. So much changes with how the Realms function as a result of this series that in order to really understand a lot of events of later works, you need to understand what happened during this time. Many elements are referenced only obliquely from here on out, and if you don’t read it here, you might find certain things confusing or hard to follow down the road.
Whether you like, dislike or don’t care about the changes these books made to the setting, they are inarguably among the most important and impacting entries in the Forgotten Realms bibliography....more
What if you could simply stop aging? This is the question that lies at the heart of Drew Magary’s debut novel, The Postmortal. Told through what is essentially a series of electronic diary entries written by a man named John Farrell, The Postmortal chronicles the near-future where a cure for aging has been discovered and humanity has taken its first tentative steps toward immortality.
Living forever—that’s great, right? Maybe not. The cure for aging that sparks the world of The Postmortal guarantees that its recipients will never get any older; they won’t feel any older, they won’t look any older, and they won’t be able to die of natural causes. It might seem great in concept, but it’s not as wonderful as you might believe; The Postmortal addresses the consequences of eternal life head-on. One character points out that retirement is no longer an option. A young woman suddenly realizes that she is always going to get her period. As the doctor who gives John Farrell the cure says, not being able to die a natural death only ensures some other form—starvation, disease, perhaps a knife to the heart in some dark alley. The Postmortal takes a serious look at what it would mean to never age, and it’s rarely a positive look.
It’s not post-apocalyptic, it’s pre-apocalyptic The Postmortal is a curious book in that it’s certainly an apocalyptic story, but it’s not post-apocalyptic. Rather, this is the story of humanity rushing straight into an apocalypse—and in a way, that makes it even darker and more depressing than the typical grim tones of post-apocalyptic settings. In The Postmortal, the future promises only to be ever-worse than the present, and there’s no way to stop its inevitable coming. It’s not cynicism, it’s just reality—a very, very unpleasant reality.
While The Postmortal certainly has a satirical edge—and even a few funny moments scattered throughout—I wouldn’t describe it as a light or comedic book by any stretch of the imagination. This book is very, very dark, and it is not a fun read. It even feels like Magary is trying to channel George R.R. Martin at some points; whenever the characters get a little taste of happiness, something has to come along and ruin their lives. I don’t mean any of this as a complaint, however, because Magary handles this aspect of The Postmortal spectacularly. He has a talent for creating emotionally engaging characters very quickly, so it hurts to see them continually and unfairly beaten down by the world. There was one scene in particular that hit me very hard; I had to put the book down, and I spent the rest of the day in a foul mood. Only one other book has ever been able to punch me in the gut with that much force, so I commend Magary for being able to pull it off.
Stumbling over the finish line For all its strengths, there was one aspect of The Postmortal that just didn’t click with me. There is a particular plot thread that is introduced late in the book, and I found it both uninteresting and unbelievable—which was made all the more prominent in comparison to how grounded and genuine the rest of the book felt. Rather than stay consistent to the very last page, The Postmortal devolves into something that comes across as cheesy and very “marketable.” While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a betrayal of the rest of the book, it just does not mesh with what came before, and it taints an otherwise incredible reading experience. As someone who is often disappointed by endings, this would normally hurt my opinion of the book significantly; however, since the rest of The Postmortal is just that good, it wasn’t a dealbreaker for me.
Why should you read this book? Bothersome plot thread aside, The Postmortal is an absolutely amazing book. While I was making my way through the first three hundred pages or so, I was fairly convinced that it would rank amongst the best books I’ve ever read, and although the final section of the book knocked it down from that potential status, those first three hundred pages remain stellar literature. If you like books that challenge you, disturb you, and sweep you into terrifying fictional worlds that feel all-too-real, then The Postmortal is for you. If you like books with complex characters, razor-sharp writing, and fresh ideas, then The Postmortal is for you. I guess what I’m trying to say is: if you like great books, then The Postmortal is for you. Go read it....more
While not the first book published in the Forgotten Realms by American author R.A. Salvatore, Homeland takes place first chronologically, and it reveals much of the history of one of the most famous characters of the Forgotten Realms, the Dark Elf Drizzt Do’Urden. As the first book of The Dark Elf Trilogy, it provides back story to Drizzt who appeared pretty much fully-formed and complete in the novel The Crystal Shard. Starting with Homeland and proceeding through Exile and Sojourn, this trilogy details the life of Drizzt from birth to just before the events of The Crystal Shard.
A troubled life Drizzt Do’Urden suffers from a strange affliction: he isn’t evil. While we are no strangers to morality and shades of grey here on Earth, fantasy settings with their roots in gaming have a slightly different outlook: namely that monster sheets have a blank that says “alignment” on it. While it may be difficult to envision a race or society (or even a single town, for that matter) where everybody in it is evil, it is a necessary tool when you’re building a world for a role-playing game. You can’t handle goblins attacking the town by stopping to decide if maybe a few of the goblins are simply following orders and are really just nice guys. Goblins are evil, says so in the book, it’s okay for my good character to kill goblins. It’s a necessary sacrifice in the name of game design, and it bleeds into the fiction with pretty much no issues.
This is why Drizzt is presented as such a compelling and sympathetic character. He’s not evil, he doesn’t want to be evil or do evil things, but he exists in a culture where everybody is evil. Families advance in the hierarchy of the city by exterminating the family above them. Sons and daughters in the family advance the same way. Drow Elven society is presented as a culture of paranoid opportunists who will do anything to get ahead. He knows that if the wrong people discovered his true thoughts, they would simply kill him out of hand, and that sure-fire knowledge provides the driving force of his character.
A life of trials The problem with the above scenario, however, is that it is completely impossible. If we forget for a moment the absurdity surrounding the idea that a whole race of people are evil, and the equal absurdity that in that situation, someone could be born who is instinctively good (this also says a lot of things about nature vs. nurture that are awkward to consider in this context), the issue is that there is no way he would have survived to adolescence, let alone adulthood. It might be easy to pretend to believe a certain way and to talk a good game, but there would have come a moment, many moments, where he was called to act in a way in keeping with his society, and he would have balked. The sheer volume of second chances Drizzt gets growing up completely contradicts the cut-throat and pragmatic culture we’re being asked to accept.
Drizzt, of course, has one way to deal with the issue of his beliefs in the face of those of his culture: be better at everything than everyone. The primary characteristic of Drizzt, beyond not being evil, is his incredible fighting skill. He goes to the academy where the males are trained in warfare, almost immediately trusts someone, gets stabbed in the back (nearly literally), decides to just go it alone from then on, and dominates everybody in every competition forever. He falls victim to that same heroic gene that Legolas and Aragorn have in The Lord of the Rings; you know, the one that makes them basically invulnerable and immune to any harm? It really doesn’t serve to make him a realistic character at all.
His saving grace The one thing that saves this review from actually being overall negative (this in spite of my Drizzt obsession while I was a young teen) is the action. If you’re going to write a character who is basically a machine of death, the best thing you can do is keep putting him in fights and letting him loose. R.A. Salvatore is renowned for his combat writing, and for very good reason. The fights between Drizzt and his various recurring and one-time enemies are incredible. In the original trilogy, Drizzt gets himself a proper nemesis, the assassin Artemis Enterei, with whom he fights dozens of times in over a dozen novels, and each and every one of those fights is solid gold.
You won’t find any deep philosophy in the Drizzt Saga (unless you think “it’s so hard being good when everyone thinks you’ll be evil” is deep), though you can witness at least some superficial dialogue on prejudice and racism from the way most people treat him. What you will find is some of the best action fantasy ever written, with an eye on detail and description of maneuvers that create the fight right in your mind’s eye. I’m flabbergasted that none of these books have been tapped to be made into movies, especially with the popularity of Drizzt among readers who are now in their late 20s and early 30s. They are just -begging- for some fight choreographer to go to town on them.
Why should you read this book? Drizzt Do’Urden is one of the most famous characters in fantasy. Just as you should know at least a little about the origins of Superman, Gandalf the Grey, and Rand Al’Thor, you can’t really claim to have a properly broad appreciation for fantasy without knowing about Drizzt. While his action-packed stories are perhaps a little lacking in deep character development, the sheer quality of the action more than makes up for it. These books are quick, fun escapism distilled down to its essence. You’ll burn through them quickly, and you’ll have a ton of fun doing it....more
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....more
Azure Bonds, written by Kate Novak and Jeff Grubb, was published in 1988 and tells the story of a sell-sword named Alias who awakens one morning to find a mysterious tattoo on her arm with no memory of how it came to be there. Her quest to uncover information about the symbols inscribed thereon leads to battles against powerful magic users, assassins, undead Liches, and even a God, all of which leaves her questioning her very existence.
You awake in a tavern... All right. I know I’ve mentioned before that a lot of Forgotten Realms novels read like Dungeons and Dragons modules, but this one is a little out of hand. Not only was this another Realms novel written by authors who started off creating game modules for TSR, it has pretty much the exact arc that a gaming module would. The party leader has a mystery that needs solving, so she assembles a party, sets out to overcome obstacles one by one until the final encounter is met, and afterwards everything pretty much just ends. Heck, a character even levels up in this book, about as explicitly as you could portray it without the Final Fantasy victory music playing in the background.
It’s no coincidence that shortly after this book was published, the PC game Curse of the Azure Bonds was released, and it basically follows the plot of the book. The ease with which it does this goes to demonstrate just how like a gaming module the story turned out to be.
Of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing Don’t get me wrong, this was still a great book for the exact reasons it sounds like I’m criticizing above. The thing about gaming modules is that they are exciting! They are fun! They keep you engaged! The reason you play Dungeons and Dragons isn’t for the Mountain Dew, it’s to put yourself in the middle of incredible events and get through them. You can feel the level progression throughout the story as they work their way through the weaker minions of the forces of evil, have a boss fight or two along the way, and fight a final epic battle full of cutscenes. And it’s awesome.
There is and always will be something to be said for some good old-fashioned ass kicking, complete with villains monologuing, “you’ll never take me alive”-ing, and all those great tropes of storytelling. Sometimes that’s exactly what you want in a story, and Azure Bonds delivers in spades. It’s actually quite gratifying to see respectable authors publish respectable fiction that is basically the same kind of stories you told yourself with action figures in your bedroom on a Sunday afternoon.
Continuing to set the stage An obviously recurring theme in most of these event reviews is that these early works helped to pave the way for future fantasy (and not just Forgotten Realms fantasy). They helped to bring a lot of things into the mainstream that weren’t previously considered “valid” fiction by a lot of people. While most of the characters and settings in Azure Bonds don’t actually go on to impact much of future Forgotten Realms fiction, it did later grow into a trilogy, which also spawned several connected novels afterwards that were among some of my personal favorites in the Realms.
The conversion of the story into the PC game also went a long way toward bringing PC RPGs into the wider public eye. The “Gold Box” Dungeons and Dragons games (starting with Pool of Radiance, just before Curse of the Azure Bonds) had a huge impact on the future of RPG gaming. These games led to arguably the best PC RPG ever made, Baldur’s Gate from Black Isle Studios. Its emphasis on storytelling, dialogue trees, nested options, and alignment/reputation systems could be easily suggested to have inspired the entire Mass Effect generation of RPGs, actually adding the same role-playing you would have done around the dining room table into a single-player experience.
Why should you read this book? You should read this book because it tells a great, engaging story of struggle and overcoming odds. You should read it because it is an early instance of fantasy that has a strong female protagonist who solves her own problems and don’t take no crap from no one. You should read it because it laid the foundation for some of the best things fantasy literature and gaming have done in the past 30 years. You should read it because it has a lizard man who smells like freshly baked bread when he’s angry (no I’m not kidding).
Most of all, you should read it because it’s an excellent story, and learning about it by playing the PC game would be murderous. I mean, those graphics have NOT aged well at all! But in all seriousness, as a child and early teen, I must have read this book a dozen times, and the action and pacing keep it engaging every time, even when you know how it ends....more
Elminster Enraged is the third book in Ed Greenwood’s Sage of Shadowdale series. It follows the arch wizard Elminster’s experiences after the death of the Goddess of Magic, Mystra, and the spread of the Spellplague, which renders magic a dangerous and unreliable force. Though no fourth book appears to have been announced yet, the story is such that I imagine another is forthcoming.
This guy just can’t catch a break Given that the two previous books in this series are called Elminster Must Die and Bury Elminster Deep, and that prior to this he’s also featured in Elminster In Hell, it is no surprise that he’s pretty pissed off at this point. For standard sword & sorcery fantasy, we’ve actually hit a pretty dark place in the story. For those who aren’t familiar with Elminster, he is a Chosen of the Mystra. He’s hundreds of years old at this point, and he has dedicated essentially his entire life to spreading the use of magic in the world and protecting people from the abuses of the powers of evil in the Realms.
When we join him in Elminster Enraged, his Goddess is dead, magic is highly unreliable and dangerous, and those who can use it are viewed with even more suspicion than usual in fantasy. Add to that the fact that the only real legitimate force of magic in the world right now (The War Wizards of Cormyr) basically thinks he’s a fake pretending to be Elminster to steal magic items and generally be a nuisance. All this combines to create an Elminster who is very different than that of the earlier books who could basically go anywhere, do anything, and meet with nothing but awed respect.
But where’s the rage? It’s titular even! For a book called Elminster Enraged, he really doesn’t get angry all that much. He keeps up the “long-suffering mage” routine pretty well, and he has a few moments of “oh why me” throughout, but serious rage is severely lacking here. Honestly, I know it’s supposed to be a testament to his loyalty to his Goddess that in spite of all the bullshit, he continues doing the job, but it’s getting so unrealistic as to be completely ridiculous. It takes massive amounts of patience and dedication to try to do the right thing when it seems like every single person around you is dead set on screwing themselves over and ignoring your advice. That is hard enough to do for ten minutes; Elminster appears to have been doing it for centuries.
Assuming there’s a next book that picks up exactly where this one leaves off, -it- is the one I’d have called Elminster Enraged. I think I’d have called this one Elminster Trucks Along or Elminster Starts to get Cheesed and really set him loose in the next book. Having watched him get crapped on for the past several books, I was really looking forward to seeing him give in and get a little Dark Side on us, but I was left disappointed.
Why should you read this book? This was still a great book, despite the fact that the rage made little more than a brief cameo. Elminster is an excellent character, and Greenwood writes him very well and very consistently (a feat, considering he first appeared in print twenty-five years ago). As a story, it was quite enjoyable. It is a little tough, as somebody who spent so much time in the main chronology of the Forgotten Realms, to keep track of everything happening now nearly 100 years later in Realms time, but it was worth it.
Elminster really is a character for the ages. At once serious and absurd, stoic and passionate, he struggles to do what he knows he should, even when nobody around him understands. He’s also one of the most completely written characters in history, with thousands of pages dedicated to him from a young man up to now, 1200 years later....more
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....more
Elfshadow, the first of Elaine Cunningham’s forays into the Forgotten Realms, is both the second book in the multi-author, open-ended The Harpers series as well as the first book in Cunningham’s smaller Songs & Swords series. The latter series follows the characters of Arilyn Moonblade and Danilo Thann, who are introduced in this work. Elfshadow tells the story of a mysterious assassin who is murdering Harpers, a semi-secret force for “good” in the Realms, and the trail of clues that leads Arilyn to a confrontation with the killer. It also builds up the general depth of the Forgotten Realms setting through connections to the city of Waterdeep and the well-known characters who dwell there.
The foundation of the Realms Published in 1991, Elfshadow was written while the the base canon and lore of the Realms were still being established. There were a lot of areas on the map and in the history books that had only a sentence or two to describe them. The Harpers series did a great job filling in a lot of those gaps. Creating a loosely organized series of over fifteen novels—set in wide ranging areas, with many original sets of characters tied together in The Harpers—allowed a number of authors to contribute their ideas simultaneously without worrying about stepping on one another’s toes.
Elfshadow specifically helped establish a lot of the elven lore that was somewhat lacking in the early, Dales-centric works by Ed Greenwood. The often stormy relationship between humans and elves in the Realms has become a very common feature of both the lore and fantasy settings in general. The threat present throughout this work—that Arilyn could inadvertently bring about the revelation of a portal to Evermeet from the mainland, thus allowing the presumed greedy and rapacious humans free reign—really helped set the stage for future Forgotten Realms novels and settings, including Cunningham’s later work, Evermeet: Island of the Elves.
One of my most favorite characters This novel also introduced a character that remains one of my favorites in all of fantasy fiction, not just Realms lore: Danilo Thann. Although this scion of a noble Waterdeep family appears to be a worthless fop who drinks, wenches, spends his way through a lazy effete lifestyle, and wastes his time with frivolous nonsense, all of that is actually a front. He is an agent of his uncle, the archmage Khelben “Blackstaff” Arunsun, and a surprisingly accomplished mage and bard in his own right. He uses the cover of his birthright to keep people’s suspicions at bay, make them underestimate him, and allow him access to the salons and clubs where information can be gathered discreetly.
The dual nature of Danilo’s character has always appealed to me. It gives a level of depth to a character who would be superficial if either side of him was the only one we saw. Watching him struggle with playing the fool when he would rather be serious brings him to life in a way that a lot of Realms characters do not. Even when he is playing the fool, he does it with a biting wit and some phenomenal dialogue that is a credit to Cunningham.
Moonblades Among the primary foci of this story are the ancient Elven artifacts, Moonblades. They are magical weapons, passed down through a family line, becoming stronger and stronger with each generation, and burning to a crisp any unworthy member of the family who tries to wield one. Arilyn possesses one—takes her name from one, even—which, as she is a half-elf, caused no small amount of scandal among the quite insular elven people. Each Moonblade is unique, gaining powers based upon the needs of the wielders. For a wizard, it might enhance arcane powers or help protect from more mundane attacks, whereas for a scout, it might confer temporary invisibility or magically obscure tracks. They are quite compelling both as a concept for a fictional narrative device, as well as for their place in the underlying gaming concepts as used in Dungeons and Dragons.
I always find it helpful to consider the effects that Dungeons and Dragons had on the Forgotten Realms as a fictional setting, and vice versa. So many of the Forgotten Realms authors, early and current, began their careers designing game modules that the influences the two sides had on each other is intrinsic to how the setting developed. The creation, description and execution of these ancestral weapons in the lore really helped support both sides of that equation. Plus, I’m just a sucker for really cool magical swords. Who isn’t?
Why should you read this book? As with all of the books being reviewed as part of this article series, it is important to establish yourself in the grounding of a setting before you try to engage with the later works built on that setting. For that reason alone, Elfshadow is a must-read for anybody looking to get into the Forgotten Realms. That aside, however, Cunningham has also created several excellent characters with this and with the later books based upon it. With Arilyn and the elf Eliath Craulnober, there some great insights into the interrelation of elves and humans and the various sub-races of elves with one another. With Danilo, you get a surprisingly deep and clever semi-hero that keeps you engaged. And Cunningham’s work with Khelben Arunsun is really second only to Greenwood’s treatment of the character as one of the more powerful figures in Realms lore.
Outside the contributions to the setting, Elfshadow is also just a great book. It’s really a murder mystery, and it builds suspense and tension quite well as the victims begin piling up. The reveal, if not incredibly original in murder mystery fiction, is very well executed and played to the hilt. For fans of mystery who want to get into fantasy and vice versa, this is a great place to dip your toe in. Plus, nowhere else in the Forgotten Realms lore will you find a mage casting Snilloc’s Cream Pie....more
Hell to Pay is the third book in the To Hell and Back series by British-Canadian author Matthew Hughes. It continues the story of Chesney Arnstruther and his superhero alter-ego, The Actionary, as he tries to do some good in the world, even if his powers come directly from the pits of Hell.
Christopher Moore meets Kevin Smith Throughout Hell to Pay, I found myself making many comparisons in my mind to the comedic style of Christopher Moore. Hughes has a certain irreverence and cleverness that I find absolutely wonderful, and it kept me reading with a smile and a chuckle. There’s a certain balance between humor and sincerity that is really difficult to maintain; presenting something as funny but then landing on the side of serious makes it stilted, whereas crossing too far into funny makes it farcical. The number of authors who can nail that balance is very low, and I’m happy to add Matthew Hughes to a list that previously only included Christopher Moore, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, and Spider Robinson.
The other work that kept coming to mind as I read this book was Kevin Smith’s great movie Dogma. I hold the title of ‘staff philosopher’ with Ranting Dragon, so I’m a sucker for books that offer an original treatment of religious and philosophical themes, and this book provides one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. Both thought provoking and hilarious, it manages to somehow trigger “That’s crazy,” and “That’s just crazy enough to be true,” at the same time. There’s nothing quite like reading a book for pure entertainment and coming away from it with something to think about, too.
A very special episode of Ranting Dragon I haven’t read either of the first two books in this series (yet!), so I don’t know how Hughes portrays this story element, but one thing that really stands out for me is Chesney’s autism and the way it is described. As someone with an Autism Spectrum Disorder myself, I found the descriptions present in this book to actually be very effective; Hughes described the feeling of being in social situations with autism better than I’ve ever been able to find the words for myself.
It really serves to apply a dash of realism to what is otherwise a fairly out-there story and plot. It makes Chesney more sympathetic and human, which goes a really long way toward maintaining that balance between comedy and sincerity I described above. I don’t know if Hughes himself has any first-hand experience with the spectrum, but if he does, it speaks to his bravery and self-awareness to write about them in this way. If he doesn’t, it speaks to his ability as a writer to describe it so well. Either way, it’s very well done.
Why should you read this book? Well, if you aren’t an unobservant git like me, you would probably read this book because you’d already read the first two books in the series, so you already know if you like them or not. But if you are an unobservant git like me and want to pick up a book without bothering to find out that it’s a book three, it’s still very much worth it.
I didn’t feel like I missed something so vital I couldn’t follow what was happening in this book by not having read the previous ones. And as a stand-alone, it’s still a great story. It’s funny, witty, interesting, the characters are very real (even the fake ones), and the pacing is great.
For fans of Moore’s rational silliness, Pratchett’s amusing slapstick, Robinson’s clever wordplay, and Adams’ surprising deepness, this is a book and author you need to check out....more
Jim Butcher is best known for his bestselling urban fantasy series, The Dresden Files. In 2005, Butcher decided to expand his writing tool belt and released the first book of the epic fantasy Codex Alera series, Furies of Calderon.
Furies of Calderon takes place in a land known as Alera, ruled by the First Lord (emperor) and his various underlings. What makes the denizens of Alera unique is the fact that they have access to a magic known as fury-crafting, which allows them to control earth, fire, air, and water. Tavi, a sheepherder, strives to come to terms with his lack of fury-crafting. While Tavi deals with his lack of fury-crafting, a rebel army is being raised to wrestle Alera from the First Lord.
A twist on traditional magic As any long time fantasy reader knows, many authors use some form of the standard earth, fire, water, and air magic formula. Furies of Calderon uses this formula in a truly novel way. As noted earlier, Alerans use a form of magic known as fury-crafting, which means they can control various creatures, similar to Pokémon, to augment their powers. For example, one character has a fury that controls the wind, allowing her to fly.
The most fascinating part of the magic system is that each element gives the user a secondary effect: water users can feel people’s emotions, earth users can increase other people’s emotions, etc. Fury-crafting spices up every portion of the book, especially the battles. In every battle, generals have to take in a litany of information regarding various fury-crafters, and the bouts are extremely dynamic and unpredictable. This was best shown when a character uses air-crafting to fling back a few pots with flammable material. Butcher’s magic system may not be as interesting as some of Brandon Sanderson’s, but it definitely should not be ignored.
A Roman inspired world From the use of spears, armors, and helmets, it is clear the Furies of Calderon was based heavily on Roman mythos. Since this is the first book in a series, the reader is not introduced to that much, but it is enough to be sated. The most interesting bit of world building is the “barbarians”—I use that word in the loosest sense—known as the marats. The marats have some standard barbarian characteristics, such as honor based killing, but do not let that first impression fool you. The defining feature of the marats is their infectious humor that will have you chuckling a fair amount.
The furyless main character The cast of Furies of Calderon is fleshed out decently, but there is one character that stands out: Tavi. As noted earlier, Tavi is a young sheepherder who cannot use fury-crafting. His lack of fury-crafting compels people to take pity on him or call him sort of freak. Although Tavi does not have fury-crafting, he is courageous and is willing to go to great lengths to save those close to him. It is fascinating to see a clever twist on the farm boy story. Instead of being an all-powerful farm boy, Tavi just has his wit, which is a weapon in itself.
Two dimensional characters If I had to find one fault in Furies of Calderon, it would be in how good or evil the characters are. The characters on the good side are extraordinarily good to the point of nausea, while the bad characters are malignant at times. One of the only exceptions to this rule is a character known as Fidelias who has a bit of a Machiavellian flair about him. I am certain that this dearth of moral ambiguity will be fixed as the series progresses, but it was a bit grating in this book.
Why should you read this book? I have already heaped quite a bit of praise on Furies of Calderon, and what follows is a summation of this praise. If you are looking for a novel with a clever magic system, a well thought out world, and a courageous main character, you should read Furies of Calderon. I personally cannot wait to read the second entry in this series....more
A few spoilers from the previous novel, Magician: Apprentice, are scattered throughout this review
Magician: Master is the second novel in Raymond Feist’s best-selling Riftwar Saga. In my previous review, I gave Magician: Apprentice quite a hard time for staying so close to the standard Tolkien-esque tropes (dwarves, elves, etc.). I was not particularly eager to read Magician: Master; I already had a copy on my bookshelf, though, so I dove in. Luckily, Magician: Master ended up being an extraordinary novel, and it is the best follow up novel I have read in years.
When we last saw Pug, he was being held captive by the rift warriors known as the Tsurani. While captive, Pug’s magic is discovered, and the mysterious Tsurani mages take him captive. It is with these magi that Pug obtains a new name and truly unleashes his hidden power. Let us not forget Pug’s best friend, Thomas, who continues to hear whispers from the golden armor he found in the previous novel, nor Prince Arutha who is valiantly trying to gain reinforcements by sneaking into the famed city of Krondor. Of course, many other characters also enlist to stave off the Tsurani threat. While the two sides war with each other, a greater threat lies quietly in wait.
Culture clash Feist does a brilliant thing in Magician: Master: he allows us to see the Tsurani home world through the eyes of Pug. It is fascinating to see the divide between the Midkemians and the Tsurani. We saw a bit of this culture clash in the first novel when the Tsurani were deathly afraid of horses. The difference between the two cultures is especially apparent when Pug sees that the Tsurani revel in arena combat, which is unheard of in Pug’s culture. It is these small details that really lend the book a sense of grandeur and importance. Cross-cultural studies have never been this interesting in the real world.
A bit of a side note: the most interesting aspect of this culture clash comes from each culture’s attitude toward wizards. As shown many times in Magician: Apprentice, wizards are not held in high regard by the majority of the Midkemians. This could not be further from the truth for the Tsuranis, who seem to afford the wizards a sort of deity-like reverence. It is always refreshing to see how one’s culture can color their views on all things mystical.
A fleshed out cast I did not expect that Feist would develop the cast of Magician: Master as much as he did. The most drastic change, of course, is evident in Pug, mainly due to his time with the Tsurani wizards. Gone is the naïve boy from the first novel, and in his place comes a man of great wisdom and honor. Arutha, a personal favorite of mine, gets a bigger role. Throughout the novel, Arutha shows his bravery time and time again, but what is most interesting is his new lease on life and his carefree attitude. Many other characters are more fleshed out, as well; Carline, for instance, is far wiser, and Thomas seems to have developed a case of battle lust. If you enjoy good characters in a classical fantasy setting, I implore you to read this book.
A bit abrupt My main complaint involves some of the ending scenes, though I will not go into great detail in order to avoid spoilers. Although the ending does wrap up this volume, it is unfortunately wrapped in a mangy bow. Many of the plot threads are resolved, but too quickly, and some of the moments that should have been emotionally taxing left a hollow thud because of their brevity. This abruptness appears to stem from the fact that Feist simply did not have enough pages to flesh everything out. The ending is not all doom and gloom, but it still left a sour taste after the delicious bits while I was reading it.
Why should you read this book? I still hold the opinion that Magician: Apprentice was a bit too cliché, but Magician: Master exceeded my expectations in every possible way. The culture clash between the Tsurani and Midkemians presents a sense of anthropological delight that is lacking in my university classes. Almost the entire cast has been greatly fleshed out and improved upon. As noted, my only issue with the book is how abruptly some of the plot lines ended or began, but it does not detract from the novel much. Magician: Master is easily one of the best entries in classical fantasy. You must pick up this gem. Well, of course, after you finish reading Magician: Apprentice....more
Joanne Bertin’s debut book, The Last Dragonlord, was published back in 1998. Two years later, the sequel, Dragon and Phoenix, was released and those of us who’d read them eagerly awaited more. And waited. And waited. And eventually I gave up hope of ever getting my hands on the third book that was promised when Dragon and Phoenix was released. Imagine my shock and glee this past November when I saw on the coming releases list a little-heralded title by an author many people have forgotten about, but whom I remembered very fondly. Finally, twelve years after I had read the previous book, I could have the next adventure!
Bard’s Oath is the third book in the Dragonlord series, and opens about a year after the end of Dragon and Phoenix. Linden, Maurynna, Shima, Otter, and Raven are planning to meet up at a large horse fair, the first time they’ve all been in one place since their last adventure. But what fun would it be for us readers if something didn’t go horribly wrong? Raven is framed for murder by someone wielding dark magic, and it’s up to his friends to clear his name and catch the true murderer before he’s handed over to the hangman.
A captivating world Bertin, even after her hiatus, is still a fantastic worldbuilder. The Five Kingdoms are richly detailed with a host of original characters and differing cultural values. The Dragonlords are a small group of were-dragons, and because of their magical abilities (including incredibly long lives), Dragonlords are considered to be a rank above royalty and serve as international arbiters in the Five Kingdoms. After all, who wants to argue with someone who can change into a dragon and eat you if you piss them off? Much of the action in this book takes place in a kingdom called Cassori, which is a hyper-rank-obsessed realm. So you can imagine how handy it is to have a trio of Dragonlords on your side when you’re a common man in legal trouble like Raven. More so than in previous books, Bertin takes some time to fill out the social mores and obligations surrounding the official rank of Bard in the Five Kingdoms, which was nice to see.
Writing is not like riding a bike! There are some issues with Bard’s Oath that I don’t recall being there in the first two books. At this point in the series, Bertin has a large cast of characters, and there are many points of view. For a book that’s 430 pages long, having eight or more characters who get point of view at least once is overboard (at least for me). As there was in Dragon and Phoenix, there’s a separate storyline in Bard’s Oath that only connects with the main plot fairly late in the book. However, where in Dragon and Phoenix the secondary plot was essentially a separate book that just happened to be bound in between episodes of the main plot, here the secondary plot is not terribly compelling. Its tie-in to the main plot line is fleeting and a thing of convenience, and for that level of convenience I’d say that you could have skipped the entire second plot and been just as content. The first half of both Bertin’s previous books tend to drag a bit as she sets things up in small pieces here and there. Bard’s Oath drags more than that. However, I will say that the second half of the book was tightly paced and well done. I’ll blame the initial clutter of the novel on the fact that it took twelve years to write. There are passages which are nice and fun but don’t really add to the plot. This is something I’d expect out of fan fiction, but when there’s such a gap between books, I can’t entirely fault the original author for doing it.
Why should you read this book? This is not a good book to pick up on its own. Bertin doesn’t go back and connect the dots or do any explaining for potential newcomers. Why can Linden shape shift into a dragon? What’s a Llysanyin? Without reading the first two books, you will never figure these things out. However, since the first two books are worthwhile reads, this is hardly a chore. For those of us who have read the first two books (albeit a few years ago) Bard’s Oath is a fun return to a well-loved world (at least, I love it well). While it’s not the masterwork I had hoped for after twelve years’ wait, it has certainly whet my appetite for more! Let’s just hope the fourth book doesn’t take another twelve years. But even if it does, I’ll still happily read it....more
World War Z could perhaps be considered the definitive zombie novel of the last decade; you’d be hard-pressed to find another stand-alone zombie story that comes more readily to the minds of modern readers. After finally reading it myself, I was happy to discover that is has, for a number of reasons, more than earned this revered status.
An unorthodox format The subtitle of World War Z is “An Oral History of the Zombie War,” and that’s exactly what this book is. It isn’t told in the conventional format of a novel as there isn’t a protagonist or even a group of characters that the book follows. Instead, it is broken up into a series of many, many interviews (supposedly conducted by the author, Max Brooks), in which survivors of “World War Z” tell their stories. These stories are arranged in a roughly chronological format so as to follow the arc of the Zombie War from its inception to its conclusion, which, in its own way, makes the Zombie War itself the protagonist of the novel.
The format of World War Z may not sound like the recipe for engaging novel, but Max Brooks presents these interviews with such confidence that you simply cannot help but continue to turn the pages. With perhaps a few minor exceptions, every survivor’s story is crafted with such attention to detail that you’ll want to keep reading just to absorb all the meticulously drawn facets of the Zombie War. Unfortunately, the voice of each interviewee isn’t quite distinct enough to make any of them memorable beyond the actual content of their stories. They do begin to run together in a continuous stream that sounds more like conventional prose than the natural voices of separate people, but this is a relatively minor trade-off that detracts very little from the book as a whole.
Spectacular worldbuilding If Brooks deserves to be commended for one aspect of World War Z above all others, it has to be the worldbuilding. By the time I finished the book, I felt as if I was actually a reader in the future who had flipped through the chronicle of a legitimate period in human history. Every detail of the Zombie War is colored with such real-world truth that they’ve been seared into my mind with an incredible vividness; I keep having to remind myself that the people and events that defined the Zombie War—Yonkers, Redeker, the Honolulu Conference—are all fictional.
Even more remarkable than this worldbuilding is that Brooks never resorts to heavy exposition, and that is perhaps the primary reason why World War Z is as engaging as it is. Instead of falling back on basic info dumping, Brooks uses a very clever technique to fill his readers in on these people and events: he splits them up into tiny bits of relevant information, and then strategically places that information within the interviews. Slowly, over the course of many interviews, you will be able to piece together the chronology of the Zombie War—and there is something immensely satisfying in being able to put everything together on your own, rather than simply being told what happened.
Captivating stories Although the individual interviewees in World War Z aren’t quite as distinct as I would have liked, many of their stories are astounding snapshots of high-quality writing. You might think that a novel told in the format of World War Z would fail to present thunderous action sequences or the moments of sheer, adrenaline-pumping terror that you’d naturally associate with a story about a “Zombie War,” but you’d be wrong. The interview format allows Brooks to give us both stories of the defining moments in the Zombie War through the perspectives of first-hand accounts and intensely personal stories of endurance and survival from the rest of the world’s populace. World War Z features massive, jaw-dropping battles between the military and the undead, heart-pounding escapes from zombie hordes, and even quiet, simple stories of people trying to find their place in a world where humanity is on the brink of annihilation. Some stories are straightforward and climatic, while others contain clever psychological twists. The variety between them all will keep you turning pages to find out what Brooks is going to throw at you next.
Why should you read this book? There is a reason why World War Z is considered to be such a definitive zombie novel; it has everything you could want from this kind of story, and the refreshing interview format spices things up enough that the book is able to dodge the potentially dangerous pitfalls of not having a protagonist or any consistent characters to invest in throughout the course of the novel. Is it perfect? Certainly not. Even still, I had a blast with this book. I finished it feeling anything but disappointed, and the vivid (and often horrific) imagery still haunts me in the best way possible. World War Z is an absolute must-read for any fan of zombie stories or even speculative fiction in general, and I don’t hesitate at all in giving it my highest recommendation....more
Twilight Falling is the second novel by American fantasy author and lawyer Paul S. Kemp. It is the first book of The Erevis Cale trilogy, centered on the character Kemp introduced in the excellent group series writing project Sembia, and set in the Forgotten Realms fantasy setting.
Take a setting and make it your own I’ve been a Forgotten Realms reader pretty much since I was able to read. I’d estimate I’ve probably read about 70% of all Forgotten Realms fiction that exists, and I’ve played Dungeons and Dragons in campaigns set in the Forgotten Realms. In my erstwhile youth, I even wrote some (terrible) fan fiction set in that world. The source for Kemp’s character, Erevis Cale, was a group writing project about the lives of a family of wealthy merchants, the Stormweathers, set in the city of Sembia. It was a series of seven books. First, a collection of short stories about each member of the family, then a full-length novel focusing on each in turn, and all written by different authors.
It was a fantastic series, and I remember thinking right after finishing it, “Man, you know who was the best character in that series? The butler! I wish I could read more about that guy!” That same year, Paul Kemp released this novel, followed by two more to close out his tale. This re-read I’m doing for an article project on The Forgotten Realms is at least the fourth or fifth time I’ve read this book, and Cale is still one of my favorite Forgotten Realms characters.
A more realistic number of shades of grey One of the most intriguing aspects about Cale is the moral grey area in which he operates. He has a very dark past, but seems to be on a path of redemption when, in typical mobster movie fashion, he wants to get out but they pull him back in. His closest associates essentially function as his shoulder-angel and shoulder-devil, and he is as confident in his abilities as he is afraid of them. It makes for a very compelling character, especially for the Forgotten Realms, where the heroes and villains tend towards the extremes of alignment.
If you aren’t going to balance a Forgotten Realms novel around the massive end-of-the-world epic fantasy storyline, you really have to make sure your characters can pick up that slack, and Kemp crafts some truly compelling characters. You can see them develop, struggle, come to terms with and move on from tragedy and loss. A living world like the Forgotten Realms needs as many living characters as possible, and I’ll take Cale over Drizzt Do’Urden any day of the week.
Why should you read this book? The Forgotten Realms has always trended towards a more young adult audience. The themes are fairly trope-y, the characters are fairly simple. Very high fantasy save-the-world stuff, lots of super heroes who never seem to get hurt, or doubt themselves, or risk failure stomping their way through the legions of evil. Twilight Falling and the later two books Dawn of Night and Midnight’s Mask provide a much more developed, mature take on the Forgotten Realms setting, and really give a great fantasy experience in a familiar setting.
Obviously, for me, the characters are the primary reason I recommend this book, but the mechanics of the writing are also solid. The pacing is great, the plot is interesting. Those who’ve read other reviews of mine will be aware of the fact that I’ve been given the title of Ranting Dragon’s official philosopher, and when you read this series and encounter the villain of the piece, you’ll understand yet another reason why I love this trilogy. Read them. You won’t be disappointed even (and possibly especially) if you aren’t generally a Forgotten Realms fan....more
Spellfire by Ed Greenwood is one of the very first novels published in the Forgotten Realms fantasy setting, and the first by the creator. It set the stage for what would become dozens upon dozens of books in one of the largest shared-world fictions ever made.
An introduction to the Realms Being the very first major setting novel to be published in the Realms, which was originally picked up as a game setting rather than a fiction setting, Spellfire seems hell-bent on introducing as many characters, places, and concepts as possible. This makes the book a little hectic in places, with very few pauses for breath. However, it also does the job it was intended to do: show as much of the setting as possible in a few hundred pages. Various interviews and statements from Ed Greenwood have suggested that the original book was even longer, and that if he’d included everything he’d wanted to, that book alone would have been better served as a trilogy.
This is an interesting case for how first books introducing new worlds ought to be. I think if you are intending to share the fiction, as the creator, you owe it to your own artistic vision to claim as many pieces of proverbial turf as you can in your debut. With Spellfire, Greenwood sets out hard rules for how magic works, sets up multiple major heroes and villains, and establishes a significant number of rules in regard to religion and politics. He drops enough hints scattered around the world to enable him to come back to them at any time without any future authors doing anything that would make them impossible. I think though, that if you’ve created a large world you aren’t intending to share with other authors, something like Spellfire would have seemed uncomfortably busy and fast-paced to the point of creating comprehensibility problems. It felt like it was trying very hard to grab and hold your attention as strongly as possible, which leads into my next point.
Definitely a world for gaming As a lifelong player of Dungeons and Dragons (2nd edition AD&D through 4th edition) and many other tabletop roleplaying games, I was struck throughout this book by how much it felt like the narrative of a game of D&D. The pacing was extremely quick, and the action felt like prepared set-pieces. Even a lot of the dialogue during action and combat felt like what you’d hear around a gaming table. If you’ll forgive some gaming jargon, I’m pretty sure we even saw several skill checks, saving throws, and critical hits. This isn’t exactly a criticism of the book, but it causes it to feel less like a novel and more like a gaming module. This might have been the point given the situation at the time it was written, but it still serves as a caution if you aren’t looking for blow-by-blow action and plenty of it.
Spellfire‘s use of this style to communicate the game elements set the stage for a lot of the early TSR publication in the Realms. Plenty of the early 90s authors in the Forgotten Realms started off designing game modules for TSR and D&D, and it shows in a lot of the fiction. It wasn’t until later years (in and around the Wizards of the Coast buyout of TSR) that we started to see more traditionally styled fiction in the Realms, but I feel it never truly lost that gaming element that was built into it.
Therefore, a great deal of structure For readers who like their fantasy worlds to still be logically structured, Spellfire and the Forgotten Realms are a setting for you. At times, you can see the dice rolling in the background, and the rules help avoid a lot of the really frustrating fantasy tropes. No wizard in the Forgotten Realms has ever been out of magic, but at the dire final moment finds the strength for one last attack to save the day. When these guys are out of spells, they look around for rocks to throw, and it’s actually quite refreshing.
It’s really nice to see a world where the authors can concentrate on actually telling the story they want with the characters they want, and not have to worry about whether something ‘can be done’ or not. The rules are already there, there are sourcebooks for it, and while that may sometimes seem constraining, I would imagine that it is also very liberating to be able to go in knowing that if you follow those rules, you’re not going to accidentally mess up something important for all the other authors sharing the world.
Why should you read this book? I believe Douglas Niles’ Darkwalker on Moonshae was published a few months before Spellfire, but the Moonshaes were really not used much in the overall fiction (which is a pity as I do love Celt-inspired settings). Spellfire needs to be read for the same reason you need to read Dragons of Autumn Twilight by Weis and Hickman, or The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett. There is always value in reading the first book of a long-running series. For that reason alone, every fantasy reader needs to pick up this book.
But beyond that, Ed is absolutely hilarious. I’ve had the pleasure of playing D&D with him on a few occasions, and he’s actually toning it down for his books, which are still pretty wild for Sword & Sorcery fantasy. His dialogue is snappy, witty, and contains just enough jargon and vernacular to make you know you’re in another world, but in a way that allows tone and context to communicate the meaning exactly. (Stlarn it!) His pacing in this book might be a little break-neck compared to other authors, but it certainly keeps you engaged. He also has this strange knack for just sliding in lines here and there in first-person for the more minor characters; these brief lines give you enough of a snap-insight into their character to make you identify with them a little bit more. The Forgotten Realms is one of the most successful fiction universes ever created, and Spellfire will give you a very good idea why....more