As a reader, I enjoy finishing a book and knowing that the author has done something truly innovative or that the story has somehow changed my perspec...moreAs a reader, I enjoy finishing a book and knowing that the author has done something truly innovative or that the story has somehow changed my perspective on reading. Cold Magic, the first installment of the Spirit Walker trilogy, was such a book. Kate Elliott laid a tremendous foundation to build upon in Cold Fire, but rather than playing it safe and just providing more of the same, Elliott has taken risks in her storytelling. Some readers may feel frustrated by an unexpected change of direction, but more will appreciate seeing something they haven’t seen before.
Revolution is brewing in Europa, and Catherine Hassi Barahal is caught between warring factions who believe she and her cousin Bee hold the key to the impending war. As the conflict grows in her home city of Adurnam and the forces loyal to the Cold Mages pursue her, Cat escapes through the spirit world. The journey provides Cat with answers about her heritage and purpose, but a deeper peril emerges for those she loves as the Wild Hunt chooses its prey...
Want to read more of this review? Check it out here.(less)
Cold Magic is the first book in the new Spirit Walker trilogy by Kate Elliott, established author of both the Crown of Stars and the Crossroads series. As the result of a family obligation, Catherine Hassi Barahal is forced into an arranged marriage to a young noble, an enigmatic cold mage. She is immediately torn away from her home and her education in the technology of the impending industrial age, only to find that marriage into a mage house is far from safe or secure. Cat is thrust into a world where magic and science naturally conflict, and the mysteries of her family’s past tie her to the forces of revolution.
A (surprisingly) likeable protagonist I was concerned that I wouldn’t connect with Cat, Cold Magic’s young, female protagonist. Fortunately, Elliott’s delightful storytelling effortlessly breached my cynicism. Cat is a vulnerable and conflicted heroine who is able to find the strength to endure her circumstances—she is not the typical strong female with token weaknesses. This distinction is vital because Cold Magic is essentially a coming of age story. There is uncertainty over the motives of Cat’s deceased father, and she is confused about her unusual link with the spirit world and what implications that bears upon her heritage. Cat’s growing understanding of her identity is intricately tied to the epic and world-shaping events that unfold as the story continues.
As in many fantasy tales, our heroine is initially aware of the forces that exist in her world, but is in no way enmeshed in them. After a few chapters, the scale of events and the sense of urgency in the narrative ramps up drastically, but it makes sense! Cat’s transition from student to endangered heroine happens rapidly and unpredictably, but still believably. I was hooked. Other characters display similarly genuine motivations, and relationships endure realistic complications with no convenient resolution of fractures.
A certain level of quality Cold Magic is undoubtedly a book produced by an experienced and professional author at the top of her game. Elliott makes subtle use of fantasy tropes to create red herrings which probably exist as much in the mind of the reader as on the page. The layering of the narrative is so clever that even those who feel that the story best suits young adult readers will be sucked in by the quality of the story telling. The complications that propel Cat into high stakes events frequently caught me off guard. In fact, I regularly had my expectations overturned by Cold Magic’s intertwining mysteries.
A touch of the historical Elliott effortlessly builds a detailed alternate history through the action and characters without ever resorting to tedious information dumps. The point of historical divergence is Rome’s failure to defeat the Carthaginians at Zama, coupled with a prolonged ice age. This event has genuine geo-political ramifications. The world doesn’t continue on otherwise untouched, and other events that bear similarities to our history also play out differently. The Roman Empire lasted hundreds of years longer and is still influential in Cold Magic’s 19th Century setting. There was no real Dark Age, presumably due to ongoing empire and the existence of magic. The eponymous ‘cold magic’ derives from a mysterious combination of Celtic druidism and African shamanism, brought to Europa with the refugees from a ‘ghoul plague’ in North Africa. By the time Cold Magic begins, Europa is itself recovering from an attempted revolution led by the general Camjiata.
Taking steampunk to the next level One of the major themes of Cold Magic is the clash of industry and magic. Technological advancement, theoretically irrelevant in a world with magic, exists because the cold mages aren’t particularly eager to share their gift. In fact, the Mage Houses lord it over the people. The cold mages actively seek to cripple and hold back industrial revolution. Elliott brilliantly sets these forces up as diametric opposites – cold mages literally extinguish fires, including those of industrial furnaces, by their mere presence. The imagery is simple but powerful.
Why should you read this book? Cold Magic is a fun and engaging tale from a great storyteller. As a teacher, I would happily recommend Cold Magic to my school librarian. I would also recommend it to my 30 year old friends with equal confidence. With the book available in paperback and the sequel due in weeks, treat yourself to a delightful tale.(less)
This review contains potential spoilers for all previous volumes in A Song of Ice and Fire.
A Feast for Crows is widely, and perhaps unfairly, regarded as the weakest entry to date in George R. R. Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire. Much of the criticism it has drawn relates to Martin’s decision to split one intended volume (which would have been A Dance with Dragons) into two books, resulting in not only a publishing delay but more importantly the complete absence in this volume of several characters beloved by fans, and thus no development of the plot as it concerns their stories. Removed from the context of the wait endured by fans, however, A Feast for Crows can be read as the deep breath following A Storm of Swords and a beautifully written bridge to the imminent A Dance with Dragons.
In the context of its time I first read A Feast for Crows in late 2005, and I recall being disappointed. I waited a long time to see the fate of my favorite characters (especially after the insanity of A Storm of Swords) and then I didn’t get to see those characters at all. The experience is much different when the release of A Dance with Dragons is literally days away. The impatience to see movement in key plot lines is tempered by the certainty that very soon I will, and it becomes easier to appreciate the book on its merits, rather than criticize it for what it lacks. I’m not suggesting that the context should have been ignored by earlier reviewers (I’m certain that my review of A Dance with Dragons won’t ignore such context), but now it is possible to set those issues aside.
The War of the Five Kings is at an end, with contenders for the throne dead or isolated from the center of power at King’s Landing. Tommen Baratheon, Joffrey’s younger brother, now rules effectively unopposed under the influence of his mother, Queen Regent Cersei Lannister. Having acquired the power she has schemed to obtain, Cersei struggles with the reality of government as well as the distrust of Margaery Tyrell, Tommen’s wife. Cersei’s growing paranoia is not wholly misplaced, as the powerful Martells initiate their plan for revenge against the Lannisters. Yet Cersei cannot rely on her brother and ex-lover Jaime, the Kingslayer, who is reconsidering his loyalties and the value of his honor.
Meanwhile, Arya Stark has taken passage across the Narrow Sea and started training with an enigmatic group of assassins known as the Faceless Men. Her sister Sansa remains hidden at the Eyrie under the “protection” of Petyr Baelish, who may be the most ruthless player in the game of thrones. She is hunted by Brienne of Tarth, who has promised Catelyn Stark the safe return of her daughters.
The problem with setting a high standard A Storm of Swords was always going to be a tough act to follow. The intensity and drama of the conclusion to that book simply cannot be maintained. Indeed there is a need for the story to take a breath. As a result there aren’t any heart-rending and game-changing sequences like Tyrion’s escape, the Red Wedding, or the revelations at the Eyrie in A Feast for Crows. It is fair to say there is a lull in the action, but there are several powerful dramatic beats, and a central conflict (involving the Lannister siblings) that reaches a somewhat surprising resolution.
If you would go west, you must go east It is impossible to ignore, however, the fact that the broader struggles of A Song of Ice and Fire, and what most would view as its central plot line, are put on hold. An installment in a series can’t really afford to set aside the major conflict, even if it is a split volume. Martin is fortunate that the quality of his work generates sufficient goodwill for readers to push through, and he clearly needed some space to maneuver several of his main players into the emotional and physical places he needs them to be. A Feast for Crows is a necessary bridge to the rest of the series. Consider especially the time that is needed for Arya and Sansa’s “training” before they can become effective players in the remainder of A Song of Ice and Fire.
An unfair reputation A Feast for Crows has worn the mantle of the weakest entry in A Song of Ice and Fire. It certainly has been the most disappointing for fans, particularly at the time of its release. Yet this is the book that truly sees the transformation of fan favorite Jaime Lannister into a character that readers can enjoy and sympathize with. It is the book that sees Littlefinger outed as a very dangerous player in the game of thrones. It is the book that brings into focus the role of the dominant religion in the Seven Kingdoms.
Why should you read this book? As I’ve said, A Feast for Crows is the necessary bridge into what remains of A Song of Ice and Fire. It is the calm both after and (undoubtedly) before the storm that brings much of Martin’s purpose into focus.(less)
This review contains potential spoilers for all previous volumes in A Song of Ice and Fire.
Has there ever been a more anticipated fantasy release than A Dance with Dragons, the fifth instalment of A Song of Ice and Fire? Fans of Jordan, Erikson and others may argue, but it’s hard to ignore the sheer number of books that George R. R. Martin has sold, recently spurred on by HBO’s Game of Thrones. Fifteen years since its original release, A Game of Thrones (the first book of Martin’s series) is on the New York Times Bestseller list, and it’s hard to imagine that A Dance with Dragons won’t enjoy that level of success. In fact, many reviewers have described the book as ‘review-proof.’
Six years is a long time to wait... Everything that is written in this review has to be read in the context of the six year wait for the book. I began reading A Song of Ice and Fire in 2001. I waited four years for A Feast for Crows. I waited six for A Dance with Dragons. I have followed Martin’s blog, met him at a convention and more recently tremendously enjoyed the television adaptation of his work. My expectations for this book were immense. There are characters I have waited for a decade to read about. Did A Dance with Dragons ever stand a chance of meeting these expectations?
Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons, has been gathering her strength in the east with little contact from the Seven Kingdoms. However, key players are now converging upon her tenuous seat of power at Meereen. Tyrion Lannister is fleeing from Queen Cersei’s wrath after murdering their father, heading east regardless of his wishes. The Martells of Dorne, loyal to the Targaryens, are sending their own envoy to win Daeny’s favour while a new player emerges, whose claim to the throne changes the game as we know it. Yet Daeny’s attention is fixed on freeing the slaves of the (poorly named) Free Cities and making sure they remain free, and alive, while her growing dragons are becoming restless.
King Stannis Baratheon has delivered the Seven Kingdoms from a wildling horde and now prepares to consolidate his power in the north, while Jon Snow, Commander of the Night’s Watch, tries to bring the broken wildings behind the Wall and recruit them to the defence against the Others. Jon must find a way to balance his oaths of service and neutrality with Stannis’s demands, and calm the outraged veterans of the Watch.
“This one is for my fans” Thus begins Martin’s dedication for A Dance with Dragons, and it is appropriate as the focus returns to some of A Song of Ice and Fire’s more beloved characters. Significant time is spent with Jon, Daenerys and Tyrion (perhaps Martin’s finest individual creation), though given the book’s sprawling nature there are very few plotlines that don’t receive some advancement. Viewpoint characters come and go as they are needed, including some additions which become necessary as the geography becomes increasingly complicated. Martin has taken the time to ensure that his sprawl never becomes a confused mess, and by the end of the book each of his plots are essentially matched in time.
Throughout the book Martin gives his fans what they long for, namely the unadulterated realism that makes his fantasy so accessible. Even with dragons, magic and the intervention of gods, characters are faced with the very real problems of disease and starvation. They have to cope with infected wounds and frostbitten limbs. Winter has come, and most lords of the Seven Kingdoms were too busy fighting to look to their harvests. Those in power are forced to tread incredibly lightly in their decision making, lest they pay a blood price for their mistakes. And of course, nobody is safe from the often unforgivable (even if understandable) actions of their fickle, human cohorts. Nobody.
Unsatisfying developments One of the greatest challenges for epic fantasy writers will always be the middle volumes of the saga. It is readily apparent how difficult it is to provide satisfying plot and character developments without complete resolutions. After A Storm of Swords (and to a lesser extent A Feast for Crows) blew the story wide open, it felt like A Dance with Dragons needed to start pulling the threads together. In order to help do so, Martin seems to have created an entirely new plotline which, while consistent with the story, feels plucked from nowhere. It is difficult to accept yet another contender for the Iron Throne when there are so many existing threads still dangling.
Martin’s series has always been dark, but the theme that seems to pervade A Dance with Dragons is failure. At the risk of minor spoilers, it is disappointing to see so many events ebb and flow around Daeny while she remains surprisingly indecisive. It almost feels that this is not the same Daenerys Stormborn, Khaleesi, Mother of Dragons. In general the plot chugs along, but some of the arcs are not especially fulfilling and Martin gives the reader some serious, serious cliffhangers. You certainly expect such hooks in the middle of a big series. Normally they are forgivable if not genuinely exciting. Unfortunately, the wait many readers have endured will make these cliffhangers hard to accept for some, and particularly in Martin’s case it is difficult for a reviewer (and fan) to separate this issue from discussion of the book’s quality.
Editing issues On a related note, it is known that A Dance with Dragons was unavoidably rushed through the editing process. It was probably very late in the piece that the editors had a full manuscript to work with. Martin has been criticized in the past for repetition of certain phrases, and this issue was apparent during my read, particularly as I read the book in two mammoth sittings. The idea that “words are wind” was obviously one of the themes of A Dance with Dragons, and it was certainly rammed home. I also found myself saying “Enough with dudes taking a piss” out loud at one point, fortunately while reading at home.
There are so many sections that display the tremendous writing Martin is capable of, I can’t help but feel that more time taken for editing would have overcome this gripe (but more time may have resulted in Martin being lynched – a classic lose-lose scenario).
Still the modern master The disappointment reflected in this review is simply because you expect the absolute best from the best. A Song of Ice and Fire continues to be one of the most exciting and challenging reads fantasy has to offer. Martin’s grasp of complex characters, his detailed and (generally) efficient world building and scenes of beautiful prose are all on display in A Dance with Dragons. The prologue is a particularly poetic delight in which Martin clearly revelled. While Daeny struggles with stagnation that frustrates the reader, it is believable for a leader clearly caught between a rock and hard place. Martin’s full prowess is also on display in Jon’s immensely satisfying storyline. He has grown into leadership, able to face tremendous challenges but experiencing both success and failure. Like a young man he is bold, but often struggles to read people. His arc is near perfection.
Why should you read this book? Let’s face it, you won’t be reading A Dance with Dragons to check out this George Martin guy you’ve been hearing so much about. By this stage you’re hooked, and you’ll read A Dance with Dragons because you must know what happens next.(less)
This review contains spoilers for A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings, Books 1 and 2 in A Song of Ice and Fire.
George R. R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire did much to reinvigorate the epic fantasy genre through its first two volumes. Fans became ‘comfortable’ with its inescapable realism, moral ambiguity, and the idea that no character is safe. Apparently not satisfied with his readers merely squirming, Martin drops A Storm of Swords like a ton of bricks, forcing us to re-evaluate everything we thought we knew. A Storm of Swords is a game-changer.
The throne of King Joffrey has been temporarily secured through his victory in the Battle of the Blackwater and a new alliance between houses Lannister and Tyrell. Joffrey is compelled to cast aside Sansa Stark and marry Margaery Tyrell, but the Tyrells have planned their own moves in the game of thrones. Robb Stark, King in the North and the major remaining threat to Joffrey, has to face the consequences of a broken marriage pact and his mother’s decision to release Jaime Lannister.
On the Wall, the remnants of the Night’s Watch have retreated from an onslaught of Others and wait at Castle Black for the massed forces of Mance Rayder, the King-beyond-the-Wall. Meanwhile, across the Narrow Sea, Daenerys Targaryen plans to build an army capable of taking the Iron Throne.
Brilliantly convoluted plotting With each book Martin has increased the scope of A Song of Ice and Fire, wisely introducing one additional major faction one per book. He is not afraid to tread all over reader expectations and change the game, particularly by inserting new players who had been operating behind the scenes. Having met the Tyrells in A Clash of Kings, we are introduced to the Martells, a powerful house with long memories and strong ties to the Targaryens. The number of pieces Martin has on the board and the skill of his maneuvers is a testament to his incredible talent. He patiently builds the story to an incredible climax, and the build up is as engrossing as the payoff. With one of the final scenes, Martin stomps all over our assumptions about who has been pulling the strings since A Game of Thrones. The revelations he skilfully weaves into the story are breathtaking.
So rich you can smell it The amount of information Martin fills the page with can be overwhelming, but at the same time it serves to give an immense solidity to his world. The pivotal scene in the book (you’ll know it when you read it) is a sensory assault. The atmosphere that Martin creates with his prose draws the reader in so completely that you just don’t see the knife he’s about to drive into your gut with one of the most memorable twists in modern fantasy. Lest we forget, Martin can also write scenes of heartrending beauty, such as the wonderfully serene moments when Sansa Stark, having been thoroughly abused, plays innocently in the snow of the Eyrie.
Not yet complex enough, apparently Having praised Martin’s world building so fervently, it is saying something that the characters remain the crowning glory of A Song of Ice and Fire. Martin has absolutely outdone himself in bringing to us the viewpoint of Jaime Lannister, the despised Kingslayer. Without alteration or excuse for a moment of what has come before, the reader comes to understand the difficult decisions Jaime has had to make, which paint his past actions in a very different light. By the end of A Storm of Swords, Jaime is almost a character to cheer for. It was certainly to the advantage of this transformation that Martin gave very little time to Jaime in A Clash of Kings, though his one appearance was characteristically repulsive, in keeping with the impression we get of the man from the perspective of those who hate and fear him. You can’t help but applaud Martin for the depth and complexity each of his characters possesses.
Not afraid to use a trope The human drama is still central to the narrative, but Martin continues his trend of building our exposure to the fantastic with each book. In particular, A Storm of Swords introduces a significant prophecy that seems to be known right across Westeros and has obvious implications for the outcome of the conflicts in A Song of Ice and Fire. By the time we come into contact with the denizens from across the Wall, there can be no doubt that we aren’t in Kansas anymore (you know, if the dragons didn’t give it away).
Why should you read this book? A Storm of Swords contains incredible payoffs for both the dedicated fan and the casual reader. Although A Storm of Swords is longer than the earlier volumes in the series, your perseverance will be rewarded because it is even better as well.(less)
This review contains spoilers for A Game of Thrones, Book 1 in A Song of Ice and Fire.
As the second book in A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, A Clash of Kings may need the briefest of introductions since, unlike its predecessor, it has not (yet) been made into a ridiculously popular television show. Like A Game of Thrones, though, A Clash of Kings has been written about and discussed for years. That won’t stop me from weighing in with my own opinion, however.
Warning: In order for this summary to make any sense there will be spoilers from A Game of Thrones. If you haven’t read it yet, you should.
Suffice it to say that kings certainly do clash. King Stannis Baratheon, Robert’s oldest surviving brother, has gathered his power at Dragonstone and sets out to reclaim the Iron Throne from King Joffrey, whom he sees as nothing but an abomination born of incest. Renly Baratheon, the younger of the brothers, has also declared himself King, supported by House Tyrell, and marshals his forces at Storm’s End, the impenetrable fortress Robert gave him. Stannis demands that Renly pay homage to him as the elder brother, and their conflict must be resolved before either can march on Joffrey. Meanwhile, Robb Stark has been crowned King in the North and succeeded in protecting his lands from the carnage south of Riverrun. His only mistake is in sending Theon Greyjoy home to rally the Iron Islands to the cause of the North. Theon’s interest is in reasserting himself as his father’s heir, particularly as Balon Greyjoy has declared himself King of the Iron Islands and sets out to conquer the undefended far North, including the Stark seat of Winterfell. More kings, anyone?
A slow start Martin is brilliant at switching viewpoints and immediately immersing the reader in the mind of each new protagonist; however, A Clash of Kings requires the introduction of some new major characters that take some getting used to. There is also a significant amount of geographical positioning of characters that needs to take place before the action really heats up. When it does, Martin proves to be an excellent writer of battle in all its grisly horror, surpassing his own portrayal of war in A Game of Thrones, particularly when he is showing it through the eyes and shrewdly poetic mind of Tyrion Lannister.
This is fantasy Amid the backdrop of human conflicts, magic is slowly returning to the world (presumably with some connection to the birth of Daenerys’s dragons). It is still rare, and most of its iterations are presented negatively. Melisandre, the red priestess who supports Stannis Baratheon, is an object of fear and loathing for Davos Seaworth, the major viewpoint character through whom we follow Stannis. Daeny’s visit to the Warlocks of Qarth provides her with cryptic knowledge at an almost terrible cost. Jaqen H’Ghar’s mysterious power is used to do murder, even if it is at the behest of Arya Stark. The people of Martin’s world fear magic and hold those who use it in great suspicion. Daeny’s dragons seem to be the only supernatural creatures that generate any positivity.
The master of shades of grey Martin makes masterful use of this sentiment to maintain incredible complexity in the motivations and personalities of his characters. The reader should probably favor Stannis, yet his association with the creepy red priestess creates uncertainty about his claim. We want to see Tyrion succeed in his efforts, but that means defending the crown for the universally hated Joffrey. It is clear that Stannis is the legitimate heir to Robert’s throne, but we never want him to attain it. Martin brings this conflict to an incredible climax in which the reader won’t even know what they want to see happen, let alone what actually transpires.
A sense of dread Perhaps because of this uncertainty there is an oppressive weight hanging over A Clash of Kings. Maybe that is an unfair description, and I should instead say that the story is atmospheric and appropriately tense. If the possible outcome of this clash of kings is a choice of one evil over another, there can be no happy ending, particularly as soldiers and resources needed to face the true threats growing outside the Seven Kingdoms are wasted.
Why should you read this book? It’s the sequel to A Game of Thrones which you read and loved. The obvious point to make is that if A Game of Thrones wasn’t to your taste, there isn’t a great twist or stylistic change that will make you think better of A Clash of Kings. Yet in spite of my gripes about pacing and the suffering meted out to Martin’s characters, fantasy doesn’t get any better than this.(less)
A Game of Thrones barely needs an introduction. It is the first book in A Song of Ice and Fire by master writer George R. R. Martin, who has been praised for this series as ‘the American Tolkien.’ A Game of Thrones is a novel that almost transcends criticism. Its impact on the fantasy landscape (including television) is undeniable.
In a land where seasons have been thrown out of balance, and winters can last years, Ned Stark is summoned by his old friend, King Robert Baratheon, to serve as the Hand of the King. Compelled by his honor, Ned is forced to set aside his responsibilities as Warden of the North and travel south to King’s Landing to rule the kingdom Robert has neglected in favour of drinking and whoring.
Ned quickly finds himself caught up in the investigation of his predecessor’s suspicious death, which may be linked with his son Bran’s unlikely fall from a tower and may even prove to threaten his own life. Ned sets himself at odds with Robert over how they address the looming threat posed by Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen, the last surviving heirs of the royal house which ruled the Seven Kingdoms for a thousand years. Due to this conflict, Ned cannot seek the King’s help or protection in his investigation.
This is fantasy, right? Martin’s approach to fantasy invites two obvious responses. Firstly, there will be readers demanding to know where the magic is. They will feel like Martin made promises in the prologue that weren’t kept in the main narrative. The otherworldly threat beyond the Wall doesn’t materialise in any significant way in this first entry in the series.
The second group will read the chilling prologue, beautifully crafted by one of the genre’s most accomplished writers, and feel the shadow that it casts over the novel and the series as a whole. As the human drama unfolds within the Seven Kingdoms, the reader is constantly aware that there is a supernatural threat looming over the petty squabbles that occupy the minds of men. If the danger was made spectacularly apparent it would lose its power. The people would turn their attention to fight it. As matters stand, the reader can see tragedy looming as the people of Westeros continue politicking, thoroughly unprepared for what is coming.
Furthermore, Martin’s subtle use of magic serves to make the fantastical elements of the story all the more fantastic. The conclusion to the novel is thoroughly foreshadowed and yet utterly striking precisely because Martin has withheld magic from the reader.
Utterly, painfully human In keeping with his believable world, Martin has populated his story with flawed and unpredictable humans (and plenty of them). A Game of Thrones is a tale of political intrigue and betrayal. Chivalry and honour are a cloak nobles use to cover their machinations. Heroic knights have almost entirely passed into legend. The most interesting and effective characters are those like Tyrion Lannister who recognise the inconsistencies of the world they live in and readily face its harsh realities.
In spite of the many shades of grey that colour the characters, there is bound to be one character with whom every reader will identify or sympathize. Unfortunately, you may then feel cheated that there wasn’t enough time dedicated to your favorite character. Or you may be upset that your favorite character died. Martin is famous for twisting knives in the guts of his readers. It is constantly made clear that no character is safe, which allows Martin to crank up the tension to excruciating levels. And the release of this tension is rarely cathartic. A Game of Thrones offers a bumpy emotional ride.
A rich, detailed world Once again, the incredible depth of Martin’s world-building will split readers into two camps. Many will adore the detail and the epic scope, but there will be readers who feel frustrated by what they perceive as excessive levels of detail. The history of the country and the heraldry of the noble houses can be overwhelming at times, and the fact that Martin goes to pains to avoid dumping information makes it harder for a first-time reader to keep up, but it’s ultimately for the good of the story.
Anyone who has already read A Game of Thrones recognizes the inadequacy of the plot summary above as far as capturing the many plot threads and relationships that exist in the story. The reality is that in a world of such size there would be numerous significant players vying for power. In A Game of Thrones, Martin is just getting started on introducing the key players in the Seven Kingdoms, so if you find yourself struggling desperately to keep track of the existing characters, this may not be the series for you.
Adult content warning A Game of Thrones was not the first novel to push fantasy to a gritty, mature place, but it was certainly the most significant. There are elements of the story that will disturb many readers, though it can be argued that Martin keeps his themes consistent with the quasi-historical medieval setting. These elements exist because the story is realistic. Characters become sexually active and get married at a very young age. Battles are fought with heavy, edged weapons, causing devastating wounds that often fester. Incest occurs, though once more it is to Martin’s credit that the incestuous relationship at the heart of the story makes romantic sense to the characters involved. They aren’t simply set up to be mocked as an abomination, in spite of the reader’s feelings on the subject.
The treatment of women in A Game of Thrones is also consistent with Martin’s setting, and is therefore likely to frustrate some readers. Women are predominantly powerless and passive, with even the prominent female characters forced into political marriages and patronized by males as having ‘women’s weaknesses.’
Why should you read this book? It’s A Game of Thrones. Fantasy doesn’t get any bigger than this. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I recommend finding out if it suits yours by reading it.(less)
Red Seas Under Red Skies is the second entry in The Gentlemen Bastards Sequence by American author Scott Lynch. I’m going to address this point up front—it isn’t as strong as its predecessor, The Lies of Locke Lamora. Comparison is unavoidable. Yet this isn’t a major criticism, because The Lies of Locke Lamora is one of the most enjoyable fantasy novels that I have ever read. That’s a lot to live up to.
Red Seas Under Red Skies begins with surviving Gentlemen Bastards Locke and Jean running cons in Tal Verrar. Unsurprisingly they have set their sights on the unbreakable vault at the Sinspire, Tal Verrar’s major casino and entertainment venue. The events of The Lies of Locke Lamora (from which they are fleeing) still dog them, though the impact is felt more in character than in plot. Unfortunately Locke and Jean’s plans, literally years in the making, are interrupted by the Archon of Tal Verrar. The Archon would prefer the Gentlemen Bastards turn their talents to piracy in an effort to scare the citizens of Tal Verrar into renewing their support for the Archon’s navy.
(Re)building the world As Lynch moves the narrative away from Locke and Jean’s home city of Camorr, more world building is required. While the setting is not quite as vivid as the lovingly constructed Camorr of The Lies of Locke Lamora, there is a certain believable quality to the new places Lynch presents to the reader. We see what it means for people to live in the ruins of an ancient civilization. It is intriguing to see how each city and culture is shaped by the surviving Elderglass structures on which it is built.
It isn’t simply the physical setting that Lynch has expanded and developed. The narrative sets aside much of the detached levity that characterised the first book. In some sections this works for the better, as the emotional weight of relationships is magnified. In others … well, suffice it to say that I’m glad Locke’s self-pitying, self-destructive phase didn’t last any longer. Frustrating as elements of this adjustment to the tone were, they were clearly made in favour of realistic character development. Locke shouldn’t skip merrily away from the death of his friends and life in Camorr. He doesn’t. Neither should Jean be satisfied to live his entire life in Locke’s shadow. He isn’t.
Redefining non-linear narrative One of the most commendable aspects of Red Seas Under Red Skies is the development of Locke and Jean’s friendship. The Locke and Jean of The Lies and Locke Lamora shared an utterly unbreakable trust. Red Seas Under Red Skies opens with Locke betrayed and held at crossbow point by Jean. Neither Locke nor the reader can believe that Jean would turn on him. Lynch takes the story back in time to show us precisely how their friendship could be stretched to its limit.
The heavily layered, non-linear narrative can be initially confusing as the story jumps back and forth through time, but it allows Lynch to fill the story with the wonderful irony that delighted me in The Lies of Locke Lamora. Even as you laugh at the implausibility of Locke and Jean’s pratfalls, you recognize that it was all foreshadowed, and events that had you scratching your head return with tremendous significance. Perhaps the opening act is unnecessarily drawn out, taking longer than needed for the story to head out to sea, yet Lynch maintains the rollicking feel with witty (expletive-laden) dialogue and Venetian flair.
Those incorrigible rogues In spite of their clashes, Locke and Jean are still very much Locke and Jean, and still tremendous, vividly drawn characters. Lynch takes the Gentlemen Bastards out of their comfort zone and makes the reader feel it, but their irrepressible charisma remains intact. They are hilariously relentless in their scheming even when faced with enormous odds, double and triple crosses, and the challenges of keeping their multiple identities in order. They are no longer ‘smarter and richer than everybody else,’ but they are still too smart for their own good.
Why should you read this book? Red Seas Under Red Skies is a very enjoyable sequel to The Lies of Locke Lamora and is a no-brainer for fans of the original. The only reservation I feel in recommending the series is that Lynch’s difficult personal circumstances have put the next installment in the series on hold (much like another fantasy author who shall remain nameless). Red Seas Under Red Skies was released in mid-2007, and four years later there is no fixed release date for Republic of Thieves. However, at the very least there are two fantastic books available for you to read right now.(less)
Elantris is the debut novel from Ranting Dragon favorite Brandon Sanderson. Published in 2005, way back before Sanderson took over The Wheel of Time and became (by many people’s estimation) an overnight success, Elantris is a testament to the hard work that preceded his explosion into popular awareness. Elantris is where the publishing career of one of today’s most prominent writers began.
The great city of Elantris has fallen into decay; its god-like inhabitants, created from mortals in a transformation called the Shaod, were altered in an unexplainable event known as the Reod. Since the Reod, their magic is gone – they cannot die, nor can their bodies heal. The pain of accumulated injuries and insatiable hunger eventually drives them insane. Raoden, the prince of Arelon, is taken by the Shaod and is forced into the city to suffer with the other Elantrians, effectively dead to those outside the mysterious city. Meanwhile Sarene, Raoden’s fiancée by arrangement, has arrived in Arelon to find herself a widow bound to a dead prince she never met by an unconventional marriage contract. She quickly finds herself at odds with the nobility of Arelon and with Hrathen, a Derethi priest who has come to the city to convert or destroy it.
A stand-alone novel Elantris is unusual in that it tells a fully contained story in one volume when a trilogy is usually the minimum for epic fantasy. Yet Elantris doesn’t feel underdeveloped. The world feels small compared to the setting of multi-volume epics, but it is certainly built sufficiently to provide for characterization through differentiated cultures. Similarly, Sanderson reveals enough about the world for the reader to feel the threat that faces it. That’s right; in spite of a strong focus on the fate of his individual characters, in typical epic fashion, the fate of the whole world is at stake.
Creative use of a rigid structure Sanderson deliberately adopted a triad structure for his story. The three major characters, Raoden, Sarene and Hrathen, each have a viewpoint chapter in turn, essentially covering the same time period. The order never changes as the structure repeats throughout the book. Sanderson uses some interesting twists and devices to bring the characters into each other’s stories, both overtly and subtly. It allows him to insert interactions between his characters that will have their significance magnified or revealed in the following chapter. Very early in the story, for example, Sarene casually notices a man being taken into Elantris, not realizing that she is seeing the husband she presumes dead.
Sanderson does a good job of juggling and weaving together the separate storylines, ramping up the tension and expanding the scope of the story as the characters begin to look beyond themselves and their own goals.
Hits and misses For such a strongly character-driven story it is unfortunate that only Hrathen felt truly compelling. He has an engaging back story and demonstrates genuine growth while Raoden and Sarene are just a bit too perfect and contrived. Their predicaments are equally original, one essentially a sentient zombie, the other considered married to a dead man, but they both seem so capable that there is no need for growth, just a bit of problem solving.
Similarly, while it is thoroughly foreshadowed and consistent, the resolution to the focal mystery concerning the fate of Elantris was disappointing, lacking the wow factor of similar revelations in epic fantasy tales. Nonetheless, the resolution of Hrathen’s plot was sophisticated and genuinely surprising (so much so that it overwhelmed the central plot). His story adds some brilliance to an otherwise solid, enjoyable book.
Why should you read this book? Elantris is a good book, especially for those seeking a story contained in a single volume, but there is no doubt that his first novel isn’t Sanderson’s best. Fans can see where he began exploring the major themes and innovative magics that dominate his later works, and get a real sense of where his journey began, but readers new to his work might do better to look at the Mistborn trilogy.(less)
Blood of Ambrose is the debut novel from James Enge. Enge published numerous sword and sorcery short stories in Black Gate (a magazine which features...moreBlood of Ambrose is the debut novel from James Enge. Enge published numerous sword and sorcery short stories in Black Gate (a magazine which features adventure fantasy), focused on his central character Morlock Ambrosius, before producing this novel-length work. Blood of Ambrose attracted critical recognition and was nominated for the World Fantasy Award in 2010.
Nothing epic to see here Blood of Ambrose opens with a very contained and superficially derivative story. Boy-king Lathmar, whose parents died under suspicious circumstances, is dominated by his ambitious uncle, the poorly named Protector of the Realm. The Protector is scheming to rid the nation of its royal family, the Ambrosii. Lathmar’s true protector and guardian, his incredibly ancient great grandmother Ambrosia, runs afoul of the Protector and exhorts Lathmar to summon their potential deliverer, the infamous Morlock Ambrosius. The opening act is dominated by this intimate royal squabble. The story initially focuses on a very small cast of characters and the impact of their conflict reaches only as far as the personal threat to Lathmar’s life and position.
Good, old-fashioned sword and sorcery If the intimacy of the conflict wasn’t enough, the arrival of primary protagonist Morlock grounds the story firmly in the sword and sorcery tradition. He is deliberately constructed as an unsympathetic character who is not nearly as concerned with Lathmar’s plight as he is with being drunk. He appears to deserve the fear and contempt in which he is held by the people of Lathmar’s realm. There is no saviour of the world to be found in Morlock, nor does the story call for one.
It’s a family affair The brilliance of the plotting in Blood of Ambrose is that the Ambrosius family drama forces the story to expand and take on more of an epic scope. In the space of one new viewpoint paragraph in the second act the reader’s perception takes a sudden turn as the stakes are raised—the enemy is revealed to be more powerful and frightening than previously realized, and other forces join the fight. Revelations of Morlock’s past provide a sense of both his enduring pain and truly tremendous capabilities. At the same point, Lathmar displays significant growth (and thankfully stops being annoying) after the traumatic loss of a friend. As irritating and unimpressive as the characters were at first, credit must go to Enge for creating real people with believable flaws. After slowly working up to this turning point through a few sessions of reading I devoured the remainder of the book in a few short hours.
A certain point of view The subtle quality of Enge’s writing is easy to overlook. One of the more interesting areas in which he experiments is in the use of viewpoint. The narrative feels like the current standard third person limited approach, but Enge actually applies an omniscient perspective, which is brave in today’s fantasy market. Interestingly this viewpoint actually helps to mask Morlock’s qualities behind myth and rumour for the entire first act, as every character seems to share the opinion that he is a worthless wretch.
Enge also delivers one of the best hooks that I have come across for his future instalments without resorting to a cheap cliffhanger. His conclusion implies a greater power behind the events of Blood of Ambrose with a very human motive at work in his superhuman planning and actions.
Lashings of Steampunk To add one last bit of flavour to his story, Enge plays with some elements of Steampunk. As well as being a magic user of sorts, Morlock seems to be at the forefront of an impending industrial revolution as the ‘Master Maker.’ The ‘magic’ that strikes fear into the common people is usually just creative (and somewhat reckless) application of his world’s scientific principles.
Why should you read this book? You have to admire the brashness of an author who dares to call his main character Morlock (whose father is Merlin, incidentally) and imply a real world setting for his story by casually dropping in references to Ancient Rome and Britain. Sword and sorcery is making a comeback in modern fantasy, and Enge is in the vanguard.(less)
The Claw of the Conciliator is the second entry in Gene Wolfe’s masterpiece series, The Book of the New Sun. Like the preceding volume, The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator was critically acclaimed, receiving the Nebula Award for best novel in 1981 and the Locus Award in 1982.
Narrator and protagonist Severian continues his meandering journey towards Thrax. Time skips ahead from the conclusion of The Shadow of the Torturer and Severian finds himself in the town of Saltus, performing the execution of a servant of Vodalus (the revolutionary leader glimpsed in the first book). Severian’s duties bring him into contact with Agia, whose brother he killed in The Shadow of the Torturer. Agia uses the memory of Thecla (the prisoner Severian fell for) to manipulate him into a trap. After escaping and witnessing the healing power of the titular Claw, Severian is captured by Vodalus and his loyalties are powerfully tested.
The meandering continues Suffice it to say that this doesn’t begin to capture the twists of Wolfe’s unfocused plot. Attempting to write a meaningful plot summary was the most challenging element of this review, and I don’t know that I succeeded. I’m also not sure that it matters. In The Claw of the Conciliator the plot certainly progresses, with meetings and events of apparent significance taking place. However, it is difficult for a first time reader to recognize why they are important. There is no sense of a goal that Severian is working towards; hence there is no clear measure of success or failure. It is hard to shake the feeling that characters and conversations that appear to be significant may mean nothing.
It is equally hard to shake the feeling that you are reading something special.
Putting yourself in the author’s hands There were several points in The Shadow of the Torturer at which I felt like a trick was being played on me. Reading The Claw of the Conciliator I began to understand why this is such a highly lauded series. There is a lot of subtlety in Wolfe’s writing, some of which plays off the expectations of fantasy readers. In the mind of the reader it seems obvious that Severian is to become a man of tremendous importance (possibly of religious significance, considering Wolfe’s imagery), but as the narrator he gives nothing away in that regard. The fact that there is no prophecy to fulfill or evil force to overthrow conceals any likely future (or plot direction) from the reader. Severian seems much more fascinated by the minutiae of his existence than driven by deep conviction or carried along by a very tightly constructed plot. He seems painfully real.
Style and substance It is in getting inside Severian’s head that Wolfe displays his genius. By the time you’ve made it into The Claw of the Conciliator, if not before, it is abundantly clear that Severian is an extremely unreliable narrator—his claim of a perfect memory is simply unbelievable. It is not clear whether Severian is deliberately lying to his audience, and what motivation he might have for doing so, or his recollection is simply clouded. This ambiguity makes Severian an intriguingly frustrating protagonist. Wolfe delivers a first-person narrative that makes expert use of all of the strengths of the structure.
Why should you read this book? The short answer is because you read The Shadow of the Torturer and you are intrigued or at the very least willing to trust that the author is trying for something brilliant. I certainly plan to follow through and finish The Book of the New Sun and, after The Claw of the Conciliator, I am confident that I will be rewarded.(less)
Eona is the long-awaited sequel to award-winning novel Eon: Dragoneye Reborn from Australian author Alison Goodman. Eona is a true sequel in every sense; while a preface explaining the events of the first book will be provided with Eona, new readers should pick up Eon: Dragoneye Reborn first (and stop reading this review – you’ve been warned).
Ido, the visible and personal evil of Eon: Dragoneye Reborn, has been defeated and Sethon, the somewhat faceless power depicted in the first book, has taken over. Eona and the true emperor Kygo are in hiding from the usurper. Eona is learning more about the nature of her power and heritage, guiding her to a course of action at the same time as explosions of her ability make it impossible to remain in hiding. Eona and Kygo are forced to enlist Ido’s aid in confronting Sethon, with no certainty of success and no true understanding of how to bring about victory.
Eona is woman, hear her (dragon) roar Unsurprisingly the depth and maturity of the themes has increased. Eona has (very quickly) embraced both womanhood and her role as the Mirror Dragoneye. Love, trust and issues of free will have taken over from Eon: Dragoneye Reborn’s journey of self-discovery and exploration of gender politics. Sex is on the table, so to speak, and though Goodman never writes explicitly, there are moments of intensity that may have some readers loosening their collars.
Goodman has set Eona up with two potential interests, one who represents humility and another who asks her to embrace all of the power available to her. It is never obvious which path Eona will take, as unavoidable choices pull her back and forth and demand that she keep secrets from her closest friends.
I liked her better as a boy Having cast off her underdog status, Eona is less likable. This is not necessarily an indictment of the book; Goodman is able to rely on the sympathy established for her characters in Eon: Dragoneye Reborn, so she has no need to pull punches in Eona. Eona is faced with a seemingly endless series of ethical conflicts and her choices will not always be the ‘right’ ones in the mind of the reader, but they are always Eona’s choices.
A small step up from the typical young adult novel? Goodman seems to have anticipated the maturation of her audience. This is reflected in both the themes and structure of the book. In comparison to Eon: Dragoneye Reborn, events in Eona have slowed down dramatically. An apparent time-bomb is established at the beginning (Kygo has seven days to reclaim the throne or Sethon becomes the legitimate ruler) but never followed through. The final revelations about the true nature of the pearls and dragon magic are drawn out – although the wait is worth it.
Similarly, Goodman avoids easy, ‘black and white’ moralising, particularly through Eona’s difficult decision-making and the re-introduction of Ido. Ido maintains a disturbing ‘grey area’ presence to be contrasted with Sethon’s obvious (and occasionally overblown) evil.
Why should you read this book? The simple answer is because you read Eon: Dragoneye Reborn. Eona provides a satisfying conclusion to the series that brings the characters and their story to a fitting conclusion yet avoids retreading the same ground.(less)
Redemption in Indigo is the debut novel from Barbadian writer Karen Lord (I did have to Google how to refer to someone from Barbados). It has won several literary awards that are unfamiliar to me, including the Crawford Award for best fantasy novel by a new writer. Redemption in Indigo was also chosen as one of Amazon’s Top 10 science fiction and fantasy books of 2010 and has been nominated for the Locus Award.
I feel woefully unqualified to review this book, but … I was (and honestly remain) completely ignorant of the folkloric tradition in which Lord is writing, so I feel utterly unable to comment on Redemption in Indigo’s place in that tradition. Nor will I comment on the tale’s advertised African, specifically Senegalese, flavor because I am admittedly the whitest man alive. I also know next to nothing about the author. I chose to read the book on the strength of numerous recommendations. I came in cold, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing—high expectations but zero preconceptions.
The story begins as the simple tale of Paama who is trying to escape her buffoonish husband, Ansige. Ansige’s foolishness derives from his absolutely insatiable appetite. He goes to bewildering lengths in order to remain well-fed, ironically driving Paama away in spite of her love of cooking. The scale of the story escalates as Paama’s journey brings her into contact with the djombi, spirits of a sort, who entrust her with the power of chaos in the form of a stirring stick. There is another force who seeks the rod, the indigo djombi, who has become detached from humankind and confronts Paama with the realities of human nature and the responsibilities of great power.
Sometimes people say ‘interesting’ or ‘different’ when they mean ‘bad’ Redemption in Indigo is not the sort of book I typically read. I knew I was in for something different from the usual fantasy fare the moment I picked up the book without straining any muscles. There are certainly fantastic elements, such as the self-conscious fairy tale beginning “Once upon a time …” and Paama’s interaction with spirits, but the content and style are unique in my limited experience. I might step out on a limb and describe Redemption in Indigo as a mashup of fantasy, folk legend, and science-fiction. Far from being put off by Lord’s new (yet somehow traditional) approach, I found it intriguing.
Everything old is new again Lord’s storytelling fits nicely in the oral tradition. The narrator’s voice recreates the intimate experience of sitting around a campfire listening to a tale filled with anecdote, brief narratorial intrusion, opinion, and sentiment. Thus an already humorous and enchanting tale becomes even more charming. There is a mischievous joy in Lord’s writing, evident in chapter titles such as “Ansige eats lamb and murders a peacock.” Yet there is distinct warmth, particularly played out in the character of Paama, who strives to protect Ansige even in her immense exasperation.
The story is tightly paced, which many fantasy readers may find refreshing. Redemption in Indigo will probably be the shortest novel I read this year. The narrator’s sense of humor also serves to keep matters brisk and entertaining even as deeper, difficult issues are explored; however, the levity didn’t always work for me.
Why should you read this book? Fantasy readers will enjoy a delightful and unique reading experience which they will find brisk if nothing else. To put it bluntly, like myself many will benefit from expanding their horizons beyond doorstop fantasy written by white males.(less)
The Shadow of the Torturer is the first installment of The Book of the New Sun series by Gene Wolfe. It won the World Fantasy Award in 1981 and was nominated for several other awards, including the Nebula, and is an unchallenged classic from one of the genre’s most awarded authors.
Severian is the book’s narrator and the torturer in the title. He has been raised in the Guild of Torturers, whose members unquestioningly perform their duties for the Autarch. After forming an attachment to one of his prisoners, Severian is expelled from the Citadel and, bearing the sword Terminus Est, he is sent to take up the post of executioner in a town called Thrax. Suffice it to say that by the end of this first volume Severian has not made it anywhere near Thrax. He is sidetracked and, among other occurrences, finds himself performing in a play and partaking in an unorthodox duel.
A brilliant, imaginative setting Discovering the setting is one of the joys of The Shadow of the Torturer. Coming to terms with the status of Severian’s dying world and how it relates to the past is immensely satisfying. The way Wolfe inserts references that ground the world’s history is simply genius. I won’t say any more for fear of detracting from a new reader’s enjoyment of the discovery.
The Shadow of the Torturer is about as far from ‘popcorn’ fantasy as you will find. Wolfe has raised the bar for the genre, telling a story with literary credibility. It’s a smart fantasy for adults that bears the hallmark self-awareness of post-modern fiction, while still allowing the reader to become lost in the story.
Am I missing something? The book’s high quality is why I feel bad (and kind of stupid) that I didn’t really get it – certainly not at first. It is undeniably an impressive book, but taken as a whole I didn’t love it. As I was reading the story, well aware of its acclaim, I couldn’t help but think that I must be missing something. After putting the book down and reflecting upon it, I find that I appreciated the intellectual, thought-provoking experience much more than Severian’s story itself.
I hope you’re paying attention Gene Wolfe doesn’t patronize his reader—in fact, he expects a lot of you. You must be patient to get your payoff and give particular attention to detail. Wolfe’s descriptions and imagery are never filler or linguistic “showing off.” It feels like every phrase has layers of meaning as the apparently naïve protagonist explores and reveals the world that is new to him. You have to concentrate or the language is overwhelming, particularly the made-up terms that the fictional translator of the story acknowledges as approximations. It can be exhausting and yet… to describe the pace of the plot as leisurely would be generous.
A leisurely stroll from beginning to end The brilliance of The Shadow of the Torturer will be the problem for many readers, including myself. Wolfe masterfully creates the feeling that there is a real person narrating his own story. Like a real person, Severian sets off on tangents that don’t seem immediately relevant. He delivers ‘truth’ with the brutal honesty and calm that he applies as a torturer. He overwhelms with detail then leaves gaps in his explanations.
As a result the events can feel disconnected, even if they are drawn together in the conclusion. There is no climactic ending; the story just meanders to a pause and Severian warns the reader that they may wish to travel with him no further, for it is no easy road. I decided to read on (only partly because I bought the omnibus version).
Why should you read this book? The Shadow of the Torturer is ideal for readers who want to be challenged. It seemed I wasn’t ready for the challenge while reading this book, but I am glad that I persisted. It is no easy read, but there is reward for the dedicated reader. Just don’t bring popcorn—perhaps a beverage with plenty of caffeine instead.(less)
Best Served Cold is a standalone novel from Joe Abercrombie, set in the world of his debut series, The First Law Trilogy. While Abercrombie stays within his Circle of the World setting, he moves the action to Styria, a land barely referenced in the original trilogy. Styria is a land of constant conflict, and springtime is a time for war… and vengeance.
That’s going to leave a mark Monzcarro Mercatto is the infamous Snake of Talins, a successful mercenary commander assisting her employer Grand Duke Orso to conquer and unite Styria. After yet another victory, Monza expects the Duke’s gratitude and a reasonable reward. Instead Duke Orso has Monza’s brother, Benna, killed, and throws Monza out of a tower window.
Monza survives by luck. Barely. Given the bloodbath that follows, perhaps describing her survival as a cruel twist of fate is more appropriate. Crippled, scarred, and friendless, and not to mention drug addicted, Monza begins her quest for vengeance against the seven men who betrayed her.
The more things change, the more they stay the same Abercrombie has been accused of providing a relentlessly dark vision of humankind. While I find that observation excessive, Best Served Cold is not the evidence I would use in Abercrombie’s defense. His style is best described by Logen Ninefingers, a character from Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy: “You’ve got to be realistic.” Being realistic, in the case of Best Served Cold, is to demonstrate that an obsession with revenge creates a whirlpool of darkness around you that inevitably sucks others in. This may seem like a sound moral lesson, but Abercrombie gleefully revels in the teaching of it.
Thus we see characters who, trying to better themselves, end worse than they were before. We see characters come close to conquering their demons only to happily embrace them later. A moment of breathless reflection at the conclusion of the story will show that even the ‘winners’ might have been better off losing. Their journeys are painful yet inevitable – characters are unable to escape the pasts which continue to define them.
Unfortunately what accompanies this downward spiral is a growing loss of sympathy for some key characters and a descent into caricature for others. It is telling that one of the characters I felt the most for was, in fact, an enemy of Monza’s, utterly distraught that events had forced him to betray his own character and even his name: Faithful.
There’s a souvenir for a lucky fan Although Abercrombie focuses on a new cast, there are significant and often hilarious reappearances of characters from The First Law Trilogy – some sinister, some appropriately ridiculous, and one sublime. The reintroduction and elevation of irascible mercenary Nicomo Cosca is brilliant. He is undoubtedly my favourite character in Best Served Cold and manages to create many of the story’s most enjoyable and heartrending moments. Where Monza is compelling and corrupted, Nicomo seems to be moving toward some sort of redemption. Yet even Nicomo, like the other characters, is a product of and slave to Abercrombie’s dark world.
I never thought I would feel this way Nestled in with the brutality of Monza’s quest, there are genuinely touching instances of friendship and sacrifice which contrast starkly with the majority of the book. The relationship between Cosca and the appropriately named Friendly is a particular highlight. The characters are flawed, providing almost unlimited humour through ironies and contradictions. Even as the characters appall, (some of) the bleaker ones still draw the reader into their journey. You feel the characters’ hopelessness as strongly as their passion. The dialogue crackles with color and humor, such that the story always remains entertaining even if as a guilty pleasure.
Warning: Adult Content There are no punches pulled in Best Served Cold. I personally felt repulsed in the early stages of the story, but fought through to reach the heart of it, which puts the violence and vileness in context. The gritty depictions of sex and violence increase the narrative’s realism in the same way that the self-absorbed characters do. Abercrombie pushes the envelope with some of the characters’ perverse desires: Monza’s relationship with her brother, for example, seems to have been rather… complicated. The squeamish will squirm, and some readers will inevitably be offended.
Why should you read this book? Abercrombie fills the page with damaged characters, adult themes, and more death than the Rambo movies combined, but he does it with tongue firmly in cheek and just so much damn class. Even when Best Served Cold disgusted me, it entertained. I’m not sure what this says about me, but I’m not the subject under review. In spite of the humour, Abercrombie maintains a tense and unrelenting atmosphere that really does transport the reader to Styria. As a final aside, I didn’t predict the key twist in the plot. I usually do. You win this time, Mr. Abercrombie.(less)
Eon: Dragoneye Reborn is the first book of Alison Goodman’s Eon duology. Interestingly, Eon: Dragoneye Reborn has been published under different titles in each of the major English speaking markets, including Eon: Rise of the Dragoneye and The Two Pearls of Wisdom (the original title, under which it received the 2008 Aurealis Award for best fantasy novel and was an honor book in the 2008 James Tiptree Jr. Award).
Under the strict tutelage of a retired Dragoneye, Eon is training in the hope of being chosen as a Dragoneye apprentice. The Dragoneyes are the protectors of the land, who draw upon the power of the dragons to control the elements. Centuries of tradition dictate that only males can ascend to the position of Dragoneye, and Eon hides a deadly secret – “he” is really Eona, a young woman with unusual powers that drew the attention of her master. As Eon, she will be pulled into the treacherous struggle for the imperial throne.
A deliberately constructed protagonist? On the surface, Eon: Dragoneye Reborn is one of those stories about a young hero thrust into the centre of great and terrible events, a hero who seems to have been very thoughtfully imagined by the author. Eon is a girl who thinks and acts like a boy as the result of both training and necessity, yet she is undeniably a young woman. Accordingly Eon will appeal to young male and female readers alike. It is to Goodman’s credit that Eon fits so comfortably in the story that it is not obvious whether this was a deliberate construction to increase readership or, as I believe, to explore the book’s primary theme.
Boys are from Mars, girls are from Venus With a character ripe for some serious confusion it isn’t surprising that gender roles and the treatment of women in a patriarchal society are key issues addressed in Eon: Dragoneye Reborn. Goodman wisely uses her setting to blur the black and white distinction between the sexes, introducing eunuchs and the book’s most colourful character, the contraire Lady Dela. The shades of grey elevate the story well beyond an attack on the sort of society that would view a female Dragoneye as an abomination. Goodman creates a philosophical distinction between male and female (sun and moon) energy without asserting the superiority of either. Both simply are.
Goodman’s exploration of gender is hardly subtle but it feels organic. Unfortunately some of the related ideas lack that same quality. In a throw-away comment the antagonist Ido and the imperial family member he represents are penned as bigots, despising what Dela represents, bearing hatred for foreigners and holding the emperor in contempt for supporting them. But this is, after all, young adult fantasy, and to Goodman’s credit Ido’s motives become increasingly complex as the conflict escalates.
Playing with the tropes of young adult fiction Eon: Dragoneye Reborn ultimately becomes a tale of self-acceptance. Eon fights long and hard against her true nature before recognising that she was chosen because of who she is. Fortunately Goodman provides her story with an Oriental backdrop, which remains an original setting in young adult literature, and sets Eon’s struggle in the midst of the type of political intrigue which works for any reader.
Why should you read this book? Eon: Dragoneye Reborn is a fast paced story which most readers will charge through, only to pause at the end and realise just how much thematic ground has been covered. Although the book stopped short of fully drawing me in, Goodman does a fine job of creating mystery and generating tension throughout. Be aware, you’re going to need to read the sequel.(less)
Legend is considered a classic in the modern fantasy genre. It is the novel that launched the career of bestselling author David Gemmell and the first volume of his famous Drenai Saga. The series is composed of a series of related, standalone novels which build upon or fill in the history of Legend. To affirm the book’s place in the fantasy canon, one need only look to the posthumously named David Gemmell Legend Award.
The blurb tells the story The once-great Drenai Empire has fallen into decadence and has become ill-prepared to fight off the massed assault of the Nadir horde. Only the great fortress of Dros Delnoch stands against the invaders, and even it has become run down and undermanned. The only hope for the defenders is for Druss, the titular legend, to lead the desperate defense and face death one last time.
The plot is simple. As even this blurb promises, there is little hope for the fortress to hold out against the barbarian horde. Gemmell tells a story of men (and one woman) fighting a heroic last stand to give the Drenai hope. He question is never “Will they win?” but “How long can they hold off defeat?” There is no promise of a Hollywood happy ending.
Sorry, what material was her dress made of? Many will find Gemmell’s action driven narrative refreshing, particularly those frustrated with epic fantasies in which the author seems contractually obliged to describe exactly what everyone in a given scene is wearing, what it’s made of and what the cultural significance of the outfit might be. Lovers of the rich depth of such epics will likely be disappointed. Yet you won’t have time to lament the roses you didn’t stop to smell, because Gemmell’s narrative has charged ahead, dragging you (willingly or not) along with it. Gemmell seems to realize that writing action scenes is his strength and he delivers intense, high quality action in spades.
Cupid strikes Sadly it is in the pursuit of this relentless pace that the narrative actually loses momentum. Modern readers are likely to be jerked out of the story by the unbelievably rushed development of relationships. Early in the story two major characters become in love. This unwieldy phrase, “become in love,” is entirely appropriate. They do not fall in love in the pages of the novel; the reader is essentially informed that they are now in love, and their relationship suddenly bears the maturity of a twenty year marriage. Cupid struck hard in the form of the author.
Easing the tension To be fair to Legend (and in an effort not to sound like a jerk), I should recognize that it predates many of the “rules” of modern fantasy. Gemmell adopts the third-person limited narrative familiar to any seasoned reader; but viewpoint switches are frequent and too often occur in the middle of scenes, deflating the tension substantially. There is no intrigue or mystery in the motivations of characters, not even with the antagonists, as the reader spends some time in everybody’s head at some point. This may be a legitimate narrative convention pioneered by Gemmell, which can be seen elsewhere, but it adds predictability to an already basic plot.
Empty promises Let me be blunt. The twists in the conclusion betray the promise of the story. Some may read a satisfying conclusion to an otherwise exhausting story. I literally threw the book across the room in frustration. Of the twists, one is improbable and can only be explained by saying, “it’s magic.” The second just felt cheap.
Why should you read this book? Legend undoubtedly earned its place in the canon, and thus deserves to be read by those interested in the development of the genre, but it is dated. It lacks the sophistication that experienced readers of modern fantasy tend to demand. It has potential as an entry point for new readers who would be scared off by typical epic “doorstop” tomes. The story is enjoyable if generic, but I have never seen an ending kill a book like this.(less)
Sabriel is the first novel in Garth Nix’s young adult Old Kingdom series (Abhorsen Trilogy in North America). Nix was Guest of Honor at the 2009 World Fantasy Convention and was invited to emcee the Hugo Awards ceremony at Aussiecon4 in 2010. He is obviously no slouch in the fantasy publishing community, but it is worth noting that his bibliography is almost exclusively young adult. . Strong beginnings Sabriel opens with a gripping flashback sequence in which a mysterious magical figure known only as the Abhorsen enters Death, saving a child from the creature Kerrigor and ordering that she be named Sabriel. Eighteen years later the Abhorsen disappears, and Sabriel is forced to leave behind her comfortable school life to assume the mantle of the Abhorsen and cross the Wall in search of him. This crossing takes her from modern Ancelstierre into the Old Kingdom, where the rule of Charter magic is under threat.
A unique concept of magic Like many novels, Sabriel toys with the clash of magic and technology—and magic is where Sabriel shines. Nix takes the well-worn trope of necromancy and inverts it—Charter necromancers use their powers to bind the dead away from the living. Charter spellcraft involves common elements of magic like words and hand movements, but Nix has built in a wonderfully realized application of bells. The most evocative and well-written passages in the novel involve Sabriel’s use of magic, particularly the ringing of bells with their unique properties and “voices.”
Similarly, the most interesting element of Sabriel’s world is the realm of Death. The dead, when they arise, are appropriately creepy and provide the peak moments of the story. Nix’s world-building in general is intriguing, but opportunities for development seem limited by the scope of the novel.
Can a concept sustain a story? Sabriel is driven by plot devices; Sabriel herself is not a particularly interesting character. She is dragged along by the story rather than showing initiative of her own. It would be inaccurate to describe her as a damsel in distress, but she is too often placed in situations that far exceed her own ability to cope. While there is some level of sympathy between reader and character, there is no deeper connection.
It should be a concern if one of the secondary characters is far more intriguing than the protagonist. Not simply more humorous, because of course there will be characters used for comic relief, but genuinely more conflicted and more interesting. In Sabriel that character is Mogget (who is designed to be the knowledgeable foil to the youthfully ignorant Sabriel) because he is the mysterious and complicated one. I now understand why many people I know have a cat called Mogget.
Appropriate for the target audience To be fair, many elements that I perceive as weaknesses in Sabriel can be attributed to the book’s intended audience. The prose is occasionally simplistic, particularly the imagery. The characters are flat. In a story rich in magic and plot perhaps characters of intensity and depth would be too overwhelming. I’m giving Sabriel the benefit of the doubt.
Why should you read this book? I read and reviewed this book as a 28-year-old male, but I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book to teenagers—teenage girls in particular. Any parent who wants their daughter to read stories with (what I assume is) a relatable heroine and no vampires would do well to pick up Sabriel. There are moments for adult readers to enjoy, and the plot pulls together nicely, but I felt that there were too many weak points to go through to reach the payoff.(less)