For so long I’ve been wanting to read something by Barb and J.C. Hendee, and with The Dead Seekers being the first of a new series, I figured there’s no better time and place to jump onboard! Better yet, later I was even more excited to learn that the book is set in the same world that was made well-known by the authors’ popular Noble Dead Saga.
Things kick off with a prologue which introduces readers to the story’s two protagonists. What should have been a happy time instead turned to sorrow as Tris, the baron’s only son and heir, was born without breath. But even when the baby was revived, the disturbing circumstances around his apparent miraculous recovery only causes more fear and unease. Thirteen years later in another time and another place, young Mari was in the woods with her family making camp after a long day of travel when they were suddenly ambushed by violent spirits. Being a shapeshifter, Mari was able to take her cat form and escape, but everyone else was killed. Ever since that day, she has been searching for the one she believes is responsible for her murdered family—the mysterious figure known as the Dead’s Man who is said to have the ability to command spirits.
When the main story starts in earnest, both Tris and Mari have grown to adulthood and are living very different lives, though without knowing it, the two are linked by their tragic pasts. Tris had experienced something very similar to what Mari saw in the woods all those years ago, and now he travels to wherever he is called, banishing spirits for a living. While a close encounter with a spirit would usually mean death to any normal person, Tris however possesses a remarkable power enabling him to touch ghosts and destroy them. It is this ability that initially makes Mari suspect that Tris may be the Dead’s Man she is looking for, though at their first meeting she has to admit he is nothing like she expected. Wanting to make sure she has found the right mark before killing him, Mari decides to stick around and observe Tris as he makes his way to his next assignment to banish a particularly troublesome spirit.
The Dead Seekers is perhaps best described as a mystery in three distinct parts. First Tris and Mari travel to a small village, where the ghost of a girl who died under peculiar circumstances has been coming back to haunt the people she knew. But this humble intro soon leads our protagonists to uncover an even bigger conspiracy in the middle section, requiring them to travel to a border garrison where they realize their spirit problem isn’t so simple anymore. The last third of the book is the resolution where everything ties together and ends in a satisfyingly explosive way. As plotlines go, it’s a pretty straightforward and “on-rails” experience even if the story is no less enjoyable because of it. However, this also meant the authors had to rely mainly on flashbacks and memory sequences to explain anything that took place in the past, and these weren’t always integrated very smoothly.
This also might not be a terribly deep or sophisticated fantasy novel, but it will hit the spot if you’re simply looking for a light and fun read. Most notably, I found the book weaker in the areas of world-building, though to be fair I am a newcomer to the Hendees’ work and the bulk of this novel’s audience will probably know the world already from the authors’ previous series. That said, I don’t want to make is sound like world-building aspects are completely lacking though, because I definitely saw enough to make me care and want to know more. I also loved the characters. Mari and Tris are fascinating and memorable, and so easy to root for. I’m really enjoying their dynamic so far (they are a good example of an amazing non-romantic male/female team-up!) and the story even leaves plenty of room for their alliance to grow.
The Dead Seekers is a great introduction to a new series that’s all about ghostbusting, fantasy-style. What the story lacks in impact, it makes up for with pure, fantastic fun. There’s an addictive quality to it that will make you want to pick up the next book and dive straight back into this world to spend time with Tris and Mari. Already I’m looking forward to see what our protagonists will be up to next....more
I’m deeply ashamed to admit this, but I had not actually read anything by Ursula K. Le Guin before picking up this anthology. From the moment I saw The Found and the Lost though, I knew it would be the perfect chance for me to rectify the situation. For the first time ever, every novella published by this renowned fantasy and science fiction icon can be found in one place, together at last in this gorgeous hardcover collection.
Here’s the full list of the stories, and what I thought of them:
Vaster than Empires and More Slow – A group of scientists journey to a distant planet on a mission of exploration and research, bringing along with them an empath whose role is to detect the presence of intelligent life once they arrive. However, his sensitivity to his co-workers’ emotions makes him an ornery crewmate to be around, causing much tension among the team. What a great opening story to grab the reader’s attention and kick off this anthology. It is intensely gripping and atmospheric. Fear plays a huge role in this story—fear of the unknown and of what we don’t understand. It’s a subject that carries through well, ultimately culminating into a somewhat abrupt but unexpectedly poignant ending.
Buffalo Gals, Won’t You Come Out Tonight – Inspired by the magic of animals and their relationship with humans, this story tells of a young girl who becomes lost in the desert of the American Southwest. She is rescued by Coyote and brought to a community of animal characters who are effectively like people—a perspective I found both fascinating and a bit difficult to wrap my head around. Drawing heavily from Native American folklore, Le Guin creates a world that blends reality with mysticism, and the results are quite often surreal but also breathtakingly beautiful.
Hernes – “Hernes” is not among my favorites in this anthology, but it is nonetheless intriguing and thought provoking. Covering the lives of four generations of women, the story weaves together multiple tales of love, ambition, heartbreak, and self-discovery. It can be somewhat confusing at first to see how all the threads tie together, but I loved the author’s empathetic treatment of her characters’ struggles as well as her portrayal of the mother-daughter relationships by alluding to the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone.
A Matter of Seggri – Seggri is a world where the number of females is six times greater than the number of males. For the most part the two sexes live completely separate lives, with the women making their homes in medieval-style villages while the men dwell in castles. While this story pulls us back into science fiction territory, it also features the author’s none-too-subtle endeavor to explore the nature of gender roles. At first, it may seem that the men on Seggri have it all—they compete in sports games to entertain themselves, later basking in the adoration of the females who want them to sire their children. As it soon turns out, however, the situation is much more complicated. This story wasn’t among my favorites either, but there are certain elements that I think will hit hard emotionally.
Another Story or A Fisherman of the Inland Sea – Hideo grew up listening to his mother tell him the legend about the fisherman who was seduced by a sea-princess only to return home afterwards to discover that centuries have passed. When Hideo later on becomes a physicist, he has the opportunity to embark on a journey that involves faster-than-light travel, and thus the connections between the fairy tale and the main character’s own life are revealed. The concept of time dilation or time warping often provides interesting twists in these kinds of stories, and I suppose this one is no exception, though after reading it I couldn’t shake this feeling that something was missing. Later on, I discovered this was supposed to be a companion story to a couple others that were published in another anthology. While I enjoyed this one well enough, I wonder if I would have liked it more if I had gotten the context from the other stories.
Forgiveness Day – Speaking of interconnected stories, I believe these next three were all first published together in an anthology called Four Ways to Forgiveness. They have several themes in common, namely those that surround the subjects of slavery and freedom, suppression and liberation, order and rebellion. I loved “Forgiveness Day”, which tells of an envoy named Solly who travels to another world and is assigned a bodyguard named Teyeo. The two of them are water and oil from the start, though as the story progresses we are given an opportunity to see the situation from both points of view. I liked this one’s message about individual biases and how personal histories are shaped by experience. To sympathize with others we first must change our own way of thinking, and that starts with looking within ourselves.
A Man of the People – The narrator in this story spent his childhood growing up in the rural and sheltered community before heading out to discover all there is in the wider world. This is a tale featuring themes of freedom but also highlights the idea that we should never forget our pasts. I liked how much this one added to the discourse about the importance of empathy and involvement.
A Woman’s Liberation – This story has strong ties to the last, and really should be considered together. Both feature protagonists who have complicated histories and struggle with their individual identities, questioning who they are and what they want. I liked this one a little more, however, due to the voice of the main character—a woman who is born an “asset”, or a slave—as well as her point of view on the issues that were covered in these last three stories.
Old Music and the Slave Women – This one shines a spotlight on Old Music, a character who appeared briefly in one of the previous stories. Here he gets to tell his own tale about slavery, courage, and revolution. While it was nice being able to revisit this character again, truthfully it was hard to get into the narrative because of the slower pacing and muddled presentation of ideas.
The Finder – This one will probably hold more significance for fans of Earthsea since it takes place long ago in that world, chronicling the life of a young shipbuilder boy who manifests magical abilities. Like the other stories, the prose here is richly detailed and evocative, though my attention started waning as we drew closer to the end. It’s a shame because this story has a lot going for it, but it might have dragged on for a little too long.
On the High Marsh – Another tale from Earthsea, I had a hard time getting into this one as well because of a lack of connection I felt to the main character Ged (who I later learned was an Archmage of the Roke magic school, the origins of which were covered in “The Finder”). That said, I don’t often do well with side stories like this that focus on characters or events from the main books of a series.
Dragonfly – After struggling a little with the last few stories, “Dragonfly” was one that swept me off my feet. This third Earthsea story also appears tie into the main series; more specifically, I hear it’s sometimes been called a “postscript” to Tehanu, and again I wonder if I would have gotten even more out of it had I read the book first. I loved the eponymous main character, an earnest girl who is also a bit rough around the edges from being raised by an angry, alcoholic father. Through sheer persistence and courage though, she manages to gain entry into Roke, an all-male magic school. Overall, I really enjoyed this story’s themes, especially its message about the power of women’s magic and how a little determination can go a long way.
Paradises Lost – This one is about a generation ship and explores what it means for the people who are born and raised aboard during the long voyage. These are the generations descended from the original pilgrims, but it is their own descendants that will reach the final destination, not them. Le Guin speculates how this would affect the travelers both emotionally and spiritually, and the kind of society they might create. I love stories about generation ships and colonization, and this is perhaps one of the more philosophical ones I’ve read. There’s compassion and realism in it too as Le Guin gets right down to the issues that really matter to the people in that situation, and asks the questions that many other authors don’t address.
For Le Guin fans, this anthology is a must. But for new readers too, there is a lot to love. It’s true that some of the stories are better than others, and there are even a few that, when taken out of their original context, might be a little confusing especially if you’re unfamiliar with the author’s different worlds and cycles, but overall it serves as a great introduction to her style and the themes she writes about.
More importantly, the stories in here are an excellent showcase of the author’s astounding talent and deepness of thought, proving why her work has remained so beloved throughout the decades. Reading this was an absolute gift....more
Over the years I’ve had a bit of a love/hate relationship with Richard A. Knaak. No stranger to his tie-in fiction, I have tried most of his novels for the World of Warcraft franchise, a couple of which were pretty solid, but just as many have been utter disappointments. But still, I was intrigued when I first learned about Reaper’s Eye. While the Pathfinder Tales series comprises the official stories based on the Pathfinder RPG, I also think authors might be less restricted when it comes to exploring their own characters, settings, and aspects of the various peoples and cultures in this world—which often leads to more interesting storytelling compared to other books based on a media property.
Reaper’s Eye follows a team of adventurers on a quest to a lost temple to stop an ancient threat from being released. One of our main characters is Daryus Gaunt, a former crusader who deserted his unit after disagreeing with a battlefield decision. He has been on the run ever since, constantly keeping an eye over his shoulder lest his past catch up with him. However, old habits die hard, and one night he finds himself charging into the thick of battle in response to a cry for help, only to discover later that the victim he rescued is a strange talking weasel named Toy. Taking the little animal at face value, Daryus takes it home and listens to Toy’s disturbing tale of an evil witch with a scheme to unleash disaster upon the world.
Meanwhile, our other protagonist Shiera Tristane is an ambitious archaeologist working on a plan to win herself the glory she feels she deserves. Her hopes are finally answered when she uncovers a mysterious artifact marked with some curious symbols, but translating them only brings more questions. She is soon commissioned to go on an expedition to find out more, and one of her first tasks is to find a bodyguard for the journey, which is how Shiera ends up hiring Daryus. Desperate to get out of the city, Daryus isn’t too interested in the specifics of the mission, happy enough to collect his fee and take himself and Toy onto the road.
Perhaps having several Pathfinder Tales novels under my belt now has made me a lot pickier about them, but Reaper’s Eye was probably one of the weaker ones I’ve read. It also didn’t help that this one followed the incredible Shy Knives by Sam Sykes, which is bar none the best Pathfinder book I’ve read thus far. Knaak’s characters simply didn’t capture my attention the same way. Daryus and Shiera were decent characters, but neither of them achieved greatness as both their backstories and personalities were relatively uninspired. The protagonists’ motivations were also hardly explored, so we only get the surface-level understanding of why they’re doing the things they claim are important to them. Ditto for the villain. In fact, the only one that really interested me was Toy, and let’s just say there’s something seriously wrong when your most engaging character is a talking weasel.
To Knaak’s credit though, he’s incredibly skilled when it comes to writing action scenes, which are good enough to carry the story. The plot itself isn’t overly complex, but it works for providing simple popcorn entertainment. Now also might be a good time for me to clarify that I don’t think this is a bad book—it is fun and it delivers what I think the audience expects—but it’s clear that the newer, better, and more inspiring crop of tie-in novels that have been released in recent years are leaving books like Reaper’s Eye behind. The bar has been raised, and readers like me are expecting a lot more now.
Simply put, if you’ve never read anything in the Pathfinder Tales sequence, this isn’t bad, but compared to some of the other really good ones I’ve read, it falls only in the mediocre range. In sum, I would recommend reading Reaper’s Eye if you’re a fan of the series or the author, but probably not if you’re new to the world of Pathfinder fiction and are curious to pick up your first Pathfinder Tales novel. Since most of the books are written as standalones, you aren’t going to be limited to any kind of strict reading order, and in my opinion there are better ones out there that will make a better and more enjoyable starting point....more
The Mirror’s Truth is a sequel that builds upon everything that made the first book so great and all-consuming, featuring storylines and characters that are grittier, twistier, and even more insane. In other words, it’s even more fucked up than Beyond Redemption…and I loved it.
“War isn’t insanity, it’s the base state for all reality. Plants war for sunlight. Animals war for food and water. Wolves battle to decide who leads the pack. All life is struggle.
Peace, now that is insanity.”
You didn’t actually think it was over for our protagonists, did you? In the world of Manifest Delusions, death is only the beginning. Bedeckt, Stehlen, and Wichtig are back, following the complete and utter bloodbath that was the end of the first book. Only now, they’ve emerged even more brutal, bloodthirsty and psychotic than ever before.
It all started when the old and wretched Bedeckt, filled with the sudden horror of his actions, decided that he could not go through with the plans he had made. Now he must undo the damage caused by his weakness and do whatever it takes to stop Morgan, the mad child who has become a god. And if it takes abandoning his companions to the eternal greyness of the Afterdeath, then so be it.
Not surprisingly, Stehlen and Wichtig react none too kindly to that idea. Livid at being left behind, the murderous Kleptic and the self-styled Best Swordsman in the World decide to make clandestine deals of their own, returning to the world of the living in order track down Bedeckt and make him pay—slowly and painfully.
With friends like these, who needs enemies? At the same time though, it would be a mistake to dismiss these characters so casually. They may be insane, but they are deep. Beyond Redemption would not have been such a wildly successful book in my eyes if our protagonists had merely been the vile, monstrous degenerates they appeared to be on the surface. Instead, Michael R. Fletcher drew me in with the complexity of their personalities and relationships, and I was glad he continued to build upon these in the sequel. While Bedeckt, Stehlen, and Wichtig spend much of this book apart, we are still treated to the fascinating inner workings of their deep, dark scary minds.
In fact, with the chapters basically alternating between their POVs, each of the three are essentially given their own storyline thus giving way to a lot more character development on an individual level. The Bedeckt we used to know has become transformed, no longer just an old jaded thief looking to end his financial troubles once and for all with the score of a lifetime. Now he is a man wracked with guilt and grief, struggling to keep what morals (and sanity) he has left. We also get to see a softer side of Stehlen—and if you’ve read the first book, you’ll understand why I just burst into incredulous giggles while typing that—but believe it or not, it is true; the psycho kleptomaniac woman actually has feelings that go beyond wanting to slit your throat and steal your shit. And finally, there’s Wichtig, perhaps the most complicated of them all. Of the three protagonists, he’s the only one whose past is explored in depth, and I also find the story surrounding his delusion of being the world’s best swordsman to be extremely compelling.
And of course, I am once again floored by the originality and excellence in the world-building. People always complain about the same tired old tropes in fantasy and the lack of fresh ideas when it comes to magic systems and powers. To them I say, “Take some Manifest Delusions and call me in the morning.” Fletcher has done an incredible job creating this world where magic is madness, and those who are the most powerful are also the most unhinged. It’s a premise ripe for all kinds of ruckus and mayhem, and this sequel pushes the envelope even further.
Plot-wise, The Mirror’s Truth is simpler in some ways, but it is also stranger, bloodier, and more violent. The conclusion, however, was the best part. With that ending, Michael R. Fletcher might have just single-handedly redefined the word “insane”. Seriously.
I think it’s safe to say those who enjoyed Beyond Redemption will also love this sequel, and after all this waiting and uncertainty, I’m glad that The Mirror’s Truth has finally found its way into readers’ hands. Manifest Delusions is not so much a hidden gem, but rather an absolute treasure trove of a series to fans of grimdark. By the end of this one you will be begging for more....more
Children of the Different is the fantasy debut from author S.C. Flynn that has been making some waves around the blogosphere, and I was delighted when I discovered that it was also available in audiobook format. The reality of the busy fall season means these days I find myself with less time to curl up with book; it’s much more likely that I’m bustling around listening to one in my ear, rather than actually sitting down turning the pages. Needless to say I immediately leapt upon the opportunity to review this one, especially since I’ve been curious about it for a while.
The first thing that struck me was the uniqueness of the setting. Post-apocalyptic novels are a big trend these days—especially in the Young Adult genre—but Children of the Different manages to avoid clichés and stand out with its offbeat approach. First, I really like that the book takes place in south-western Australia, in a forest where our protagonists live. Arika and her twin brother Narrah were born after “The Great Madness”, a catastrophic event that happened nineteen years ago, unleashing a brain disease that decimated the earth’s population. Curiously though, many of the survivors were those who had brain diseases or mental conditions from the world before, and came out of the Great Madness miraculously cured. Others, unfortunately, were transformed into cannibalistic zombie-like monsters called “Ferals”.
And now, children born into this new reality are at risk. At the start of their adolescence, all of them must experience a trance called the “The Changing”, a process which sends their consciousness into a dreamscape. At the end of that journey, they either emerge endowed with a special mental power…or they become Feral. After the intro of this book, both Arika and Narrah have come out of their Changings, thankfully with their minds intact, but the things they saw in the Changeland have shaken them, terrified them. A malicious force known as the Echidna, or the anteater, has fixated its attention on the twins. In order to survive, the siblings will have to rely on their newfound powers, and their love for each other, to face and defeat this nebulous new threat.
I’ll admit, because so much of the beginning dealt with the Changing and what our characters experienced in the Changeland, it took me a while to find my bearings and get a feel for this story. I don’t always do well with metaphysical themes in fantasy, and many of the scenes described during the dreamscape sections came dangerously close to being too weird for me to handle.
My initial confusion ebbed, however, once we got past the introduction and into the meat of the story. I liked how the author linked the concept of the Great Madness and the Changing to the post-apocalyptic world, creating a premise which feels at once familiar and but also very fresh. It’s a nice blend of many genres, with themes from both sci-fi and fantasy mingling happily together, and hey, why not throw in some elements from the zombie horror genre as well, or even some survival suspense-thriller?
And no doubt about it, a huge part of the book’s appeal also comes from its atmosphere. I have not been back to Australia in many years, but I still have fond memories of my visit to its cities and wilderness. While the version of Australia in Children of the Different may be a crumbling, lawless place and civilization is virtually nonexistent after the devastation of The Great Madness, S.C. Flynn still retains some of the setting’s charm in the diversity of the landscape, wildlife, and culture of the survivors.
It’s worth noting as well that, even though the book’s description makes no statement whether this is an adult or YA novel, I think it would work well for both audiences. It’s true that this book stars teenage protagonists and has strong coming-of-age vibes, but for readers who are open to those themes, I think this story would have good crossover appeal.
Finally, because I reviewed the audiobook, I just want to end with some comments about the narration. I’m really glad I got to experience the novel in this format, because I the narrator Stephen Briggs was absolutely fantastic. He does amazing accents for the characters, giving readers that extra layer of immersion with his performance. The production team could not have chosen a better reader for this novel, and if you are curious about checking out Children of the Different, I would highly recommend the audio edition....more
Penric and the Shaman is another bite-sized adventure starring Lord Penric and Desdemona, though four years have passed since that fateful day the two “met” on the road. Our eponymous protagonist has become a full-fledged sorcerer and a divine of the Bastard’s Order, having earned his braids. Now working in the court of the Princess-Archdivine, Penric is content with as a temple scholar spending his days poring over books and scrolls.
However, the peace is broken one day when a Locator of the Father’s Order named Oswyl shows up, hot on the trail of a murder suspect. The wanted man is also purported to be a shaman who has stolen the soul of his slain victim, preventing the dead man’s ghost from being claimed by one of the five gods. After appealing to the Princess-Archdivine for the services of a sorcerer, Oswyl gets assigned Penric, and together with a small group of guards they travel into the mountains in search of the fugitive.
As we soon discover though, nothing is as it seems. This book is told from the points-of-view of three characters: Penric, Oswyl, and Inglis. This last perspective is from the titular shaman himself, the alleged murderer who actually turns out to be a lot more than he appears. When we first meet him early on in the story, his desperation feels different from what you would expect from a truly guilty man.
The three threads here provide a larger picture than what we got from the first novella, which mainly focused on the developing relationship between Penric and Desdemona. This does mean the demon has a smaller role, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly disappointed by her diminished presence. As usual though, Bujold’s characters are her forte, and this book is stronger because of the fascinating dynamics resulting from the increased number of POVs. Penric’s cheeriness, for example, was nicely juxtaposed by Oswyl’s dour and mirthless demeanor. Pen can’t help being the happy-go-lucky nice guy that he is, and half the fun was watching how easily he could push the Locator’s buttons.
Even more groundbreaking were the revelations presented here about shamans and sorcerers, implying strongly that Inglis’ powers may be the flip side of the same coin to Penric’s. We’re also reminded that Penric is more than just a sorcerer; he’s also a divine, and now he’s about to go up against a challenge that will take all his learned skills and abilities. As a sequel, Penric and the Shaman does a first-rate job growing our protagonist and expanding upon his unique role.
Bottom line, this series is a must-read for fans of Bujold’s fantasy, and the best part is, you can even read these two books by themselves, completely separate from the Chalion series. If you’re curious about the World of the Five Gods, this could also be a fine place to start. These charming little novellas feature everything I love about the author’s writing, and don’t underestimate their short length because these compact tales can still pack a lot of punch....more
It’s always a pleasure to return to Lois McMaster Bujold’s World of the Five Gods, which is also the setting of her books like The Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls—two of my favorite novels of all time. There’s just so much to love about this world, not least of all the phenomenal world-building featuring some of the richest lore and history I’ve ever encountered in the fantasy genre. One thing of note is the major role that religion plays in this universe. Fate and free will are often recurring themes in the stories set in this world, as well as the question of divine intervention.
The novella Penric’s Demon is a good example of this, following the misadventures of a hapless mortal caught up in the drama of the gods. Lord Penric, our protagonist, is on his way to his own wedding when he suddenly chances upon a halted traveling party on the road. An elderly woman had fallen ill, and like good citizen, Penric decides to lend a hand.
Turns out though, the woman is a Temple divine pledged to The Bastard, one of the five gods in the Quintarian theology, the others being the Mother of Summer, Father of Winter, Son of Autumn, and the Daughter of Spring. As you can imagine, The Bastard is often regarded as the odd one out; His is the domain of all disasters out of season, and though his presence is accepted as a requirement for balance, in some religions he’s even considered to be a demon.
And speaking of demons, the old lady also ends up being a Learned Sorceress—one of those rare individuals who carry within them a sentient spirit with the ability to grant their hosts special powers. These spirits are referred to as “demons” despite them not being inherently evil, though sometimes they can be mischievous and hard to control. The divine ultimately succumbs to her illness and dies in Penric’s arms, but not before bequeathing him her demon, an act that changes the young lord’s life forever.
I admit, my feelings can be real fickle when it comes to novellas. I often find myself disappointed with them because I feel the short format is too limiting, and not enough time is given to the development of the story or characters. However, this one was an absolute pleasure to read. Bujold is a master when it comes to characterization and world-building, and these duo strengths really made this book stand out.
Not only does it offer a closer look at the lore of this world, I also greatly enjoyed the interplay between Penric and Desdemona, the name he decides to give to his new demon. Penric himself is a fantastic protagonist, a kind-hearted and considerate man who realizes he has been given a sacred gift. He also knows he is lucky not to have been destroyed by the entity now riding in his body, because not everyone has what it takes to host a demon. Despite being in way over his head, Penric still tries to do the right thing, striving to learn how to control his powers. His status as an outsider also gives him a unique point of view. For example, even after being with almost two dozen hosts, Desdemona remarks how not a single one of them had thought to give her a name until Penric came along. Their early days together are a source of constant humor and unexpected surprises. The story completely sucked me in, and the ending left me smiling and feeling excited for the next adventure....more
I have to say this series is really starting to grow on me. While it’s still true that the books are more about the entertainment factor over the substance—not that there’s anything wrong with that, I might add—there’s no denying how great it feels to watch a series evolve over time. I for one can always go for a bit of fluffy fun, but I’m also enjoying how the story and characters have all come such a long way, making The Burning Page my favorite book in The Invisible Library sequence so far.
Last time we saw Irene and Kai, our two secret librarian agents have managed to survive a harrowing foray into the worlds of dragons and Fae, even if it’s only by the skin of their teeth. There have been repercussions, however. The higher-ups have placed Irene on probation, relegating her back to grunt work like simple fetch-and-retrieve missions for the great interdimensional library. Everything seems to be falling back into a routine—that is until one day Irene and Kai find themselves stymied when, after completing their latest assignment in an alternate world, their way back home inexplicably goes up in flames. It seems someone has been deliberately sabotaging the portals that lead in and out of the Library, and Irene has a good idea who that person might be.
If you have not read the first two books, I recommend now that you skip to the end of this review to avoid possible spoilers. Still, even from the beginning we’ve been hearing about Alberich, the mysterious arch nemesis of our protagonist. Back then, he may have been nothing more than a “bogeyman” myth used to frighten young librarian agents-in-training, but he has since grown more powerful, becoming a very real and very dangerous threat to the Library. Alberich has been playing the long game, patiently carrying out plans that have been laid down long ago right underneath the librarians’ noses. Now the time has finally come for him to reveal himself, and he will not stop until the Library is destroyed.
All throughout this book I wanted to cheer and shout, “Now we’re getting somewhere!” Genevieve Cogman has been teasing the Alberich angle for the last two books, and The Burning Page is where we finally get to have some answers. I also like how we’re seeing more threads come together. Instead of being presented with more throwaway scenarios, the story here actually builds upon events that came before so that the series as a whole is feeling a lot more cohesive and complete. Cogman is throwing out plenty of twists and surprises as well, definitely raising the stakes. For a “middle book” of a series, this one is surprisingly full of new and thrilling plot developments.
I also felt more invested in this book than the two that came before, and I’m sure character growth had a lot to do with it. While it’s clear Irene, Kai and Vale are still based on literary ideas, they’re gradually filling out their personalities and becoming more than just their archetypes. And it’s not just the characters either. Overall there are steady improvements in every area, including world-building. In my reviews of both The Invisible Library and The Masked City I talked about the lack in the role of the Library itself. Not that I didn’t enjoy zipping to and from all these different, interesting worlds with our librarian protagonists, but at the end of the day I would have liked to learn more about the inner workings of their headquarters. The Burning Page offered a lot more on that front, giving readers a look at the hierarchy and politics within.
All told I’m glad I’ve decided to continue with this series, as it’s only getting better and better. Not gonna lie; being a book lover, I might have initially jumped on board for the cool premise about a secret library and its network of universe-hopping librarian spies, but now I’m staying for the excitement and the awesome characters. It’s a very addicting series, and I can’t be more pleased to hear there are at least two more installments incoming.
Audiobook Comments: Acting on the recommendations of a few audiophile friends, I decided that for this installment to also give the audiobook edition a try. I’ve heard some amazing things about narrator Susan Duerden, and it wasn’t until afterwards that I realized I’ve actually listened to her work before (for the audio of Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook). In my opinion she does an even better job as the narrator for this book because her voice is just so perfect for Irene, and when she reads her dialogue I can even picture the character’s mannerisms in my head. If you get the chance to listen to this series in audio, I can’t recommend it highly enough....more
Edit: Holy crap. HOLEEE CRAP. The following review was based on the ARC, but I just got my finished copy from the publisher, and I just saw the little "note" that was added at the end of the final hardcover. My original rating stands because I still feel the same way for the most part, but I'm not going to lie, this does change things somewhat. I'm feeling a lot more positive about the ending now. Read it, and you will see.
Well, I’ve just finished this book, and now I have to ask, what is up with all your evil series endings, Mr. Sanderson?! This isn’t the first time I’ve had mixed feelings about the way one of his series ended; first it was the original Mistborn trilogy and earlier this year it was the Reckoners. To be fair, the difference is that Alcatraz has been warning about this moment for years—the books have repeatedly told us what a liar, a coward, and all around bad person Alcatraz is, and he’s no hero—so don’t be surprised if he leaves you with an ending that makes you want to SCREAM!
Ahem, my point is, this was still a great book, but hopefully you have been heeding our protagonist’s foreshadowing. You have been warned…
The Dark Talent picks up where things left off in book four, The Shattered Lens, which was originally published almost six years ago, so this concluding volume was a long time coming. Alcatraz Smedry and the gang have just fought off a whole army of Evil Librarians and saved the Free Kingdom nation of Mokia. However, that victory came at a very high price. Mokia now lies in ruins, with many of its warriors in a coma after falling victim to a chemical weapon developed by the Librarians. Among them is Alcatraz’s good friend Bastille, the young knight of Crystallia who pledged to protect him. Even worse, at the end of the last book, Alcatraz did something that left all of his family members’ talents inactive. Yes, he actually managed to break all the Smedry talents with his Smedry breaking talent.
Meanwhile, they still have to track down Alcatraz’s father who is determined to carry out a brilliant plan that, while good intentioned, could still have the potential to ruin the world. They know that he has gone to Washington DC, home of the Library of Congress—or the “Highbrary”, which is what Librarians call their main headquarters. Once again, Alcatraz and his family and friends find themselves preparing to infiltrate a library, but this time the stakes are much, much higher.
On the whole, this book was fantastic, following in the same footsteps as the previous volumes when it comes to the off-the-wall humor and wackiness. Sanderson falls effortlessly back into the tone of this series, and the snark is stronger than ever! Another development is that Alcatraz has discovered footnotes, and has been using (abusing?) them like it’s going out of style, the little scamp. The action is also alive and well as our heroes venture into the great labyrinthine Highbrary to retrieve Alcatraz’s father, and the many twists and turns—both figurative and literal—will keep you on the edge of your seat.
However, I also feel this is the darkest book of the series. The last few chapters or so really drove it home for me, though I suppose looking back, the darkness might have been building up for a while already, as Alcatraz gradually matured and grew as a character. He’s still the boy we first met in Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians, but in many ways he’s also…not. I’ve written in my reviews for the previous books that beneath all the humor and quirkiness, there’s a deeper level to this series. I guess in The Dark Talent, some of that is finally coming to the surface.
Which brings me to the ending. I didn’t really like it, as painful as it is for me to admit. But I had known something like it might be coming, and if you’ve also read all the books, you might be expecting it as well. It was all very sudden, brutally candid and to-the-point, and even a little unpleasant, almost like Sanderson wasn’t sure how to end the book so he just wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible. That’s the best way I can describe it. I still love this series to bits, but ugh, that ending still makes me feel like someone hit me over the head with a frying pan.
It’s all done now, though; the Alcatraz series has come to an end. I’m really glad I got to read all of the books this year, as they’ve been on my reading list for a long time. The re-issues of books 1-4 by Starscape finally presented me with the perfect opportunity to catch up, and I’m already looking forward to rereading them with my kids once they’re old enough to appreciate the stories. Until then, I’m going to miss this series, and all the wonderful characters—Alcatraz, Bastille, Draulin, Kaz, Australia, Folsom, Himalaya, even Shasta, and most of all, Grandpa Smedry. What a wild ride it has been. Highly recommended....more
I didn’t really expect much from Iron Cast. It’s one of those books where its cover caught my eye while browsing Goodreads one day, and the description sounded interesting enough that it led me to add it to my to-watch list. Afterwards though, I must admit it’d pretty much flown out of my mind— that is, until one day I read a very positive review from Kaja whose blog I follow, and her praise was enough to put this book on my radar again. When the opportunity to review the Iron Cast audiobook came along, I jumped on it, and I am very glad I did.
The story is a historical fantasy that takes place in Boston. The year is 1919 and the city’s club scene is full of life, even as the country teeters on the cusp of the Prohibition Era. In underground venues all over, hemopaths entertain patrons on stage. They are the “blood afflicted” ones, gifted—or cursed, depending on your point of view—with the ability to create illusions and affect emotions through art. Best friends Corinne and Ada are two such talented individuals, employed at Johnny Dervish’s Cast Iron Club. By night, Corinne recites beautiful poetry while Ada plays mesmerizing tunes on her violin, but by day, the two young women work their magic as con artists.
Our protagonists aren’t exactly proud of what they do, but it’s a rough world out there for hemopaths and they have to take certain measures to keep themselves and their families safe. Ada and Corinne rationalize that they are cheating and stealing only from the people who deserve it, using the funds to hide the secret of their abilities and what they do for Johnny Dervish. Hemopaths using their abilities is illegal, and those captured are taken to institutions where inhumane experiments take place on prisoners under the pretense of rehabilitating them and making them “fit” to enter society again. One day after a botched job, Ada finds herself thrown into one such place, the nightmare that is Haversham Asylum. Corinne manages to break her out, but upon returning to the Cast Iron, the two of them discover to their horror that even worse misfortunes have befallen their friends at their beloved club.
In many ways, this book reminded me of a lot of Lee Kelly’s A Criminal Magic, another novel I read this year about illegal sorcery as a form of entertainment in clandestine nightclubs, which also takes place around this historical time period. While I enjoyed that one quite a bit, I do think Iron Cast managed to handle several elements with a lot more flair and energy. First of all, the setting: Destiny Soria really captured the essence of 1919 Boston in her descriptions of the people and places, from the poor and downtrodden in the urban tenements to the glitz and glamour of the city’s elite. It’s also an era of tumultuous politics, which is subtly but unmistakably reflected in the social climate portrayed in the story. The nature and soul of the time and place is so important for me when it comes to historical fiction, and in my opinion, the author nailed it. As I listened to the audio, I could practically feel the atmosphere oozing from every word.
Second, I adored Soria’s approach to the theme of female friendship. I know that’s a term that gets thrown around a lot, especially in YA where perhaps more readers are seeking out stories that feature strong friendships as a counterbalance to the genre’s heavy emphasis on romance. I’ve been drawn to books before that claim “female friendship” only to be disappointed the moment a guy steps in and overshadows that relationship (Truthwitch is an example that immediately comes to mind) so you can understand why I went into this one with no small amount of skepticism. Thankfully, those turned out to be unfounded. Corinne and Ada are indeed the best of friends and the strength of their bond was apparent from the get go. The two of them come from very different worlds—Corinne’s parents are prominent and wealthy members of the Boston elite and her brother is running for political office, while Ada is the daughter of two hardworking but impoverished immigrants and her father has been jailed for a crime he did not commit.
It may seem like a cliché for two girls from such different walks of life to bond over their shared hemopathy, but there’s so much more to their friendship than that. Corinne and Ada provide each other comfort and support, but each character also shows time and time again that she is willing to put the other’s safety and happiness above her own. That unconditional love means that they are aware of each other’s foibles and they even joke about how they drive each other up the wall—but all it does is make that loyalty stronger.
All told, I thought this was a great novel and a rather happy surprise. The audiobook was a great way to experience the story, with Christine Marshall’s narration bringing to life all the beauty and magic of Boston in the post-WWI era. I enjoyed her accents and intonations for the various characters and the way her smooth reading kept even the slower, more understated parts of the story moving along at a smart pace. A fantastic debut and highly recommended....more
The Warlock and the Wolf is a historical fantasy set in mid-17th century Netherlands, in the South Holland city of The Hague. The story begins with the hanging of a woman, accused of being a witch. It was a quiet affair in the woods, but news of it soon spread to our protagonist, a young naturalist apprentice named Mina who spends much of her time in the wilderness studying the fauna and flora. One day, Mina is suddenly set upon by a strange creature—something with the body of an owl but the face of a human woman—and its talons rake and injure her. Fortunately for Mina though, she is saved from further harm thanks to the timely arrival of a talking wolf, who chases the creature back into the woods.
Wait, a talking wolf? Mina is sure that she imagined it all, or that the strange owl creature’s talons must have infected her with a disease and somehow made her hear and see things that weren’t there. Being a woman of science, she is ready to dismiss the whole thing, and certainly she’s not about to tell her mentor, the great Pieter Moll who serves as chief naturalist to Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange. Mina has hopes of succeeding Pieter one day, and it would do her no good to talk of anything related to the occult or supernatural.
Still, when Mina hears the details of the witch’s hanging from her aunt, she grows unsettled. The supposed witch’s name was Leonara, and as the story goes, the woman did have some magical power, which she was using to keep a murderer named Gregor from escaping his prison cell. And as Gregor was the man who killed Mina’s parents when she was little, the story was understandably of interest to her. Sure enough, the news comes that Gregor is now on the loose. Worse, he’s reputed to be a powerful warlock, and it may seem he still has unfinished business with Mina and her family.
With a premise like that, it’s no wonder we here at The BiblioSanctum were intrigued by this SPFBO entry. Within the first five chapters, we were introduced to a historically rich setting, a fascinating young heroine, and talking animals. I have to admit, it was this last point that really sealed the deal for me and made me decide to nominate it for our shortlist. There’s nothing I enjoy more than a quirky little hook like that to make me want to know more about what’s going on.
I also took to the main character right away. Most of all, I liked how quickly the book established a complex picture of Mina, presenting a number of conflicts which immediately made her an interesting protagonist. One of the main themes of the story is Science versus Magic, and Mina frequently finds herself in the middle, torn between her family history and her desire to be a master naturalist. She also endeared herself to me with her determination to make it in the scientific community despite the field being dominated by men. To be named her Pieter’s successor is all she has ever wanted, and she will fight her detractors to the end in order to fulfill her dreams. However, if it comes down to a battle between being true to herself versus pursuing her aspirations, what will she do then?
The story also has a “folklore” feel to it that I enjoyed, with a nice mix of fantasy and history. Mina’s newfound ability to speak with animals made for some humorous scenarios as well, and the author has a knack for writing conversations and giving each creature their individual personalities. Perhaps it is no surprise then that the character who stole the show was not even a person but an animal, the titular wolf Basa. He was the absolute greatest, and I liked him more than many of the human characters in this book.
Despite a solid beginning though, I thought the book’s momentum started flagging towards the middle and the story didn’t end as strongly as it started. Mainly, I think it was because no other characters besides Mina really stood out for me. There’s some build-up to a possible romance, but I felt disconnected to it because the love interest came across as somewhat clichéd. The villain also didn’t affect me much, as no compelling reason was really given to explain his motivations. Mina’s actions also become inconsistent towards the end, and often I found myself frustrated with her impulsiveness every time she ran headlong into danger, having learned nothing from her past mistakes.
As followers of my reviews will know, I’m also big on atmosphere when it comes to historical fiction. This was something I struggled with while reading this book, but I really think it would work better for readers familiar with the context of the setting. One thing to know is that the last execution of a witch in the Dutch Republic was probably in the early 1600s, which sort of explains the “in between” nature of belief for the people in this story as the populace moves towards an age of scientific enlightenment while some still hang on to superstitions. Admittedly, not being too well-versed in the history of the time and place left me confused and feeling untethered to the world at times, and I wanted more context to go with the historical facts and figures. The writing was also sparse in description, and I think some fleshing out of the setting would have helped in making this story feel more immersive.
My verdict: The Warlock and the Wolf captured my attention right away with its intriguing premise and complex heroine. While the momentum gained by the strong intro didn’t carry through as far as I would have liked, I still think it’s a great read, which I would recommend especially for fans of historical fiction and magical stories. There’s lots to like, and plenty of potential for more....more
In order to choose one finalist from the pool of 30 books in our SPFBO batch this year, The BiblioSanctum had decided to read partials (approximately five chapters or 20-25% of each entry) to help narrow down our choice and determine a handful of five or six titles that we would want to put forward to the next phase. When I picked up Claire Frank’s Assassin’s Charge though, I didn’t need five chapters to know it was special. I was hooked after only the first few pages, gripped by the author’s smoothly polished and enticing writing style, but more importantly, I knew right away this was a book I wanted to spend more time with because I found myself irresistibly drawn by its enigmatic heroine.
Rhisia Sen is the best at what she does. Known throughout the land as the Reaper’s Bride, she is one of the most notorious and highest paid assassins in the Empire. She’s efficient and disciplined, and the caution she takes while choosing her contracts is a way to guarantee that she will never miss a mark. That kind of dependability is what earned Rhis her success and reputation.
However, all that is about to come crashing down around her. For her latest job, Rhis is only given the name of her target—Asher—as well as where she’ll find him, in a village located in a far-flung corner of the empire. It is a lucrative contract, which originated from the palace, and Rhis has reason to suspect that it came all the way from the Emperor himself. Still, believing this to be an assassination order like any other, Rhis sets off on a long journey across the ocean only to arrive at the designated rural village and discover that this assignment is like nothing she has ever gotten before. Asher turns out to a dark haired, silver-eyed foreigner who lives on a farm. And he is also just a little boy.
Even the most hardened assassins have a line they will not cross, and for Rhis, she draws it at killing a child. This was NOT what she signed up for, and why would the Emperor order a hit on a harmless farmboy anyway? But before she can wrap her head around these bizarre circumstances, Rhis discovers to her horror that she has become a target of the Empire herself. Clearly, someone doesn’t want any loose ends, and now Rhis’ only shot at survival is to take Asher on the run and hopefully convince a few of her old allies to help the two of them stay alive.
From this point onwards it’s a non-stop race around the Empire to avoid Imperial guards, Guild magicians, and even a merciless metal-armed bounty hunter. As enemy forces chase our protagonists across oceans and over mountain ranges, the pacing of this novel never lets up. And even though this cat-and-mouse pattern of events will continue to repeat itself over the course of the story, Claire Frank does a fine job keeping things interesting with plenty of action and mystery. Like, who is Asher and why is he so important? I confess, at first I thought I had the answers all figured out, but as it turned out, I underestimated the story’s potential. While it’s true that for the most part, Assassin’s Charge is an uncomplicated action and adventure oriented novel, I was still delighted to discover it had a few surprises tucked up its sleeves.
But of course, my favorite thing about this book is what drew me in the first place: the characters. Rhis is a wonderful protagonist, complex and well-written. I found her personality and mannerisms very genuine, and in particular her obsession with routine and counting really resonated with me because I experience a similar compulsion, and I remember when the moment of understanding hit me during the beginning chapters when Rhis first showed this behavior. Though she comes off as harsh and aloof in the intro, Rhis has a good heart within her and that gradually becomes apparent as the story unfolds. I liked how that the transformation felt natural, as opposed to a swift and abrupt change in her personality. Her relationship with Asher is similarly written in a way that feels just right, with wariness eventually giving way to trust. And let’s face it: a lot of times, fictional partnerships where one of the characters is a child can potentially be really annoying, depending on said child’s personality and maturity levels in the book. Thankfully, I found Asher very likeable. He reads realistically like a young boy, but he also makes a great team with Rhis.
As for criticisms, there’s the aforementioned issue with the repetitive nature of the story, and I think it’s more noticeable because the action and suspenseful scenes are spaced so closely together. There’s also a romance between Rhis and her old smuggling buddy Rickson (who’s like a roguish, charming piratey kind of character) which I thought was sweet, but could be better developed. Even though the two have known each other for a while, their relationship seemed to go from a spark to a wildfire in almost no time at all. Finally, I thought the ending was left rather open-ended. A couple major conflicts were resolved somewhat conveniently, and even then there were some important questions I felt weren’t answered in full. I’m not sure if Frank intends a follow-up novel about these characters, but I think this was meant to be a stand alone and yet I do get a sense of unfinished business.
I also wouldn’t have minded more world-building and detail about all the exotic places we visit in the book; given the characters’ travel times, I imagine this must be a huge world. However, it wasn’t until after I finished reading this that I learned Assassin’s Charge is actually a separate tale that takes place in world that Frank had already established in a series called Echoes of Imara, so perhaps more background information and history can be found there. What’s certain for now is that I’ve just added those books to my reading list, because Claire Frank is definitely an author that I would read again. I really enjoyed Assassin’s Charge so thank you SPFBO for putting this book on my radar....more
In my review of Twelve Kings in Sharakhai by Bradley P. Beaulieu, I called the book’s main character one of the best female protagonists I have encountered in years. Needless to say, I was thrilled when I learned later that there was also a prequel novella in the works, and that Çeda will once again be the focus of this tale.
And so I read Of Sand and Malice Made, despite my usual disinclination to pick up novellas and short-form fiction, because that’s just how much I adore Çeda. The book opens with an introduction to her as a young teen, but already she has made a name for herself as the indomitable White Wolf in the fighting pits of Sharakhai. Around this time, Çeda also begins her smuggling work for Osman, running contraband for him to earn some extra wages. Life goes on, until one day a problem with a previous delivery comes back to haunt her, landing her in hot water with a wealthy client.
However, there’s more than meets the eye about this client, as she turns out to be the ehrekh known as Rümayesh, a malicious magical creature made long ago by the god of chaos. The ehrekh likes to toy with its victims, possessing their bodies and forcing them to do its bidding. And unfortunately, this demon has fixated her attentions on Çeda, targeting our unsuspecting protagonist with her nasty minions and dark magic. Now it’s clear that Rümayesh is out to take away everything Çeda has ever cared for, including her friends, her secret identity, and her very soul.
Of Sand and Malice Made is structured so that its three distinct parts form a larger narrative detailing Çeda’s encounter with Rümayesh, and even includes some gorgeous illustrations between each section. For a book that’s already on the shorter side though, I wasn’t quite sold on this format which further breaks the story down into even smaller parts, and I think any issues I had with pacing stems from this issue. Still, I liked how each section had its own unique feel, and because of this style we also got to see several sides of Çeda. Taken as a whole, this book does a pretty decent job showing us who she is and, more importantly, what makes her tick.
This novella also serves as a good introduction to the magic-steeped world of the series, showcasing the wonders of the magnificent desert city of Sharakhai. The world-building blew me away when I read Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, and it felt great returning to this setting for another adventure, one that explored a darker and more mythological side of the lore. The story itself is satisfying, and manages to pack a whole lot of action, intrigue, and emotion in this small package.
Still, I can’t stay this one hit me on the same level as the novel, but then again, that was to be expected. Obviously, it would not be fair to compare the content of a novella to what you can get from a full-length 600 page novel like Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, but if you want to start your journey with The Song of the Shattered Sands series, this could be the perfect jumping-off point to get your feet wet. And if you like what you see, do consider picking up the full novel; Twelve Kings was a masterpiece in epic fantasy world-craft and characterization, and if you haven’t read it yet, you should do it as soon as possible. Now I’m waiting on pins and needles for the sequel, and even though Of Sand and Malice Made wasn’t that book, reading it sure sated my hunger a little and made the wait slightly easier to bear....more
Huge Brandon Sanderson fan that I am, I try to read everything he writes, but especially the works that take place in his fictional universe of the Cosmere. But while I have read all the novels, somehow many of the novellas seem to have slipped through the cracks. When a lot of the stories have only appeared online or in other anthologies, it can make tracking down every single one a challenge.
Enter Arcanum Unbounded: The Cosmere Collection. It feels like I have been waiting my whole life for this. Collecting eight previously published short stories and novellas plus one new never-before-seen tale that takes place in the world of The Stormlight Archive, this anthology is a must-have for every Cosmere geek.
The Emperor’s Soul
The Emperor’s Soul is the only story I’ve read previously before coming into Arcanum Unbounded. It remains one of my favorites of all time, the only novella I’ve ever rated a full five stars and I was ecstatic to see that it was the first story in this collection. Taking place in the world of Elantris, it follows a thief and forger named Shai who is captured by agents in a foreign land and made to craft a new soul for their emperor. Re-reading this story reminded me all over again why I loved it the first time; clocking in at just over one hundred pages, it manages to encompass everything I would expect from a full-length novel—intricate world-building and incredible character development, with a unique magic system to boot. Few authors can manage a feat like this, but Sanderson captures my imagination whether he’s penning short fiction or thousand-page epic fantasy tomes. Certainly The Emperor’s Soul shows he is not only a writer but an artist, or at least someone who understands how making art feels, based on his excellent characterization of Shai. This is a brilliant novella with a touching and powerful message.
The Hope of Elantris
This short and sweet tale was meant to fill a gap in the plot of Elantris, giving readers some backstory into the book as well as a brief look at what happened after its climax. It would have very little impact and meaning if you have not read Elantris yet, and the author’s note even recommends not reading this until you have finished the novel in case of spoilers. As it was not meant to be any more than just a quick filler story, I was not surprised to find it somewhat lacking in substance. For the purpose it was meant to serve, however, it succeeded marvelously, and I also liked it more once I read the nice postscript that explained how the idea for The Hope of Elantris came about.
The Eleventh Metal
This was a story written specifically for the Mistborn tabletop RPG, so it was no surprise that it read very much like an introductory primer to the world, magic, and characters of the series. It also takes us back to a much younger Kelsier, so those who are interested in his past will likely enjoy this look at his training days with his mentor Gemmel. Fans of the original Mistborn books will probably like this more than readers unfamiliar with the trilogy, despite it being very short and containing more exposition than your typical short story.
Allomancer Jak and the Pits of Eltania, Episodes 28 through 30
If you’ve ever read his Alcatraz series, then you know that Brandon Sanderson has an interesting sense of humor. It definitely comes out again here in this second short story written for the Mistborn RPG, except this one takes a much different tack. Chronicling the adventures of Allomancer Jak with helpful (and hilarious) footnotes provided by his faithful Terris steward Handerwym, this story is Sanderson’s tribute to the classic pulp tradition. Jak reads like an over-the-top, satirical version of Wax from the later Mistborn novels, which was apparently the author’s intent. A delightful and entertaining read complete with a dash of unique humor, giving this one considerably more “personality” than The Eleventh Metal.
Mistborn: Secret History
This was perhaps my most highly anticipated story of this collection, and it did not disappoint. Intended to be a companion novella to the original Mistborn trilogy, this shouldn’t be read until you complete those first three books or else you will be utterly confused, not to mention the presence of major spoilers. Also, you won’t be able to fully appreciate what a touching, emotional tale this is. Secret History tells the story of what happened to Kelsier after his death at the hands of the Lord Ruler, and as such, it features strong mystical themes dealing with fate and the afterlife. I’ve never made it a secret how I feel about The Hero of Ages and how it ended (it was a punch in the gut) which has always soured me somewhat on the entire trilogy. I have to admit though, this novella changes things. The void I have felt inside of me for so long has been filled in a bit, and my appreciation and understanding of the series has increased. No question about it, Secret History is a must-read for Mistborn fans.
An eighteen-page excerpt of the White Sand graphic novel is included with this collection, followed by the written draft which formed the basis of the comic adaptation. It follows Kenton, the youngest son of a Sand Master but shows weak affinity for the magic himself. This is an older story, and as such you can some of the roughness around the edges, and the magic system is a lot more straightforward relative to Sanderson’s later work. However, I did like that we got to read about a character who had little magic power; much fun was had watching Kenton come up with creative ways to overcome challenges and defy the masters. This was also a highly action-oriented tale.
Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell
Originally published in the Dangerous Women anthology, this story features an innkeeper named Silence who shelters travelers passing through the gloomy, haunted forest. Revenge is the name of the game as we follow our protagonist and her daughter into the wild to track down and kill bad folk. There’s also a strong sense of frontier lawlessness to the setting, which is crawling with bounty hunters, corrupt enforcers, and vengeful ghosts. This was admittedly not my favorite of Sanderson’s novellas, but it does show a darker side to his storytelling that we don’t get to see often.
Sixth of the Dusk
Again, I did not find this novella to be among Sanderson’s best, but many of the ideas in here are very interesting. It follows a Tracker whose main trade are magical birds found only on the sacred islands of the Archipelago, with his life being increasingly disrupted by the gradual encroachment of society and technology. I love the setting established in this story as well as the mysteries surrounding the Aviar, though I wish there had been more time spent on the birds’ special link with their owners. I didn’t feel like I had enough time to get to know the characters either; all told, this story could have afforded to be a little longer but I enjoyed it for what it is.
Of the entire collection, Edgedancer is the story Cosmere fans will be mostly likely talking about. For starters, it’s completely new, and it’s also from the world of the Stormlight Archive. Sanderson shines the spotlight on Lift, the scrappy young urchin with a special gift who first appeared in Words of Radiance. We plunge headfirst into adventure with Lift and her spren Wyndle in this sort-of origin story, though she’s also not the only familiar face to turn up within these pages. We’re given a closer look into her life and personality, and you can tell she’s definitely being built up for a larger role in the main series. I also really enjoyed getting a more detailed picture of Tashikk and its culture. This final story will make you smile, and if Lift hadn’t made an impression on you before, well then she sure will win your heart here.
Closing Thoughts: Arcanum Unbounded is a must-read for every Brandon Sanderon fan, though for best results it is recommended that you have already completed Elantris, the Mistborn series, and the Stormlight Archive series in order to enjoy the full impact of this anthology. But even if you are a reader who simply enjoys spending time in Sanderson’s worlds without being all that concerned with how they fit together, you will be amazed by the all-encompassing and in-depth quality of this collection. The stories themselves are fantastic of course, but you are also guaranteed to walk away from this with a better understanding of the immense and epic macrocosm that is the Cosmere. Arcanum Unbounded is now one of the most treasured books on my bookshelf....more
The Masked City is another fantastic adventure chronicling the exploits of Irene Winters, a secret agent for an interdimensional library. I literally cannot find anything to dislike about the last part of that sentence. In fact, the only reason I’m not rating this higher is because of the reduced time we get to spend within the said interdimensional library, as well as some of the supporting characters (and if you recall, those were the elements I had wanted get more of out of the previous volume as well). Still, it meant we got to see our protagonist grow into her role and develop further as a character, and I was happy to see this sequel tap into the same fun adventurous vein which provided the drive for The Invisible Library.
When the story begins, Irene is a Librarian-in-Residence, having earned her position as an agent in the alternate version of London that we saw from the first book. She is in the middle of working on an assignment when all of a sudden, her apprentice Kai is kidnapped. With the help of her detective friend Vale, Irene is determined to uncover the mystery of who took Kai and why, unaware of the dangerous path this will set them on.
For time immemorial, forces of Order and Chaos have remained locked in conflict. The mighty dragons representing the former are always at odds with the Fae which represent the latter, fighting for control over the many worlds that exist in the multiverse. However, some worlds are inherently high in Order or Chaos, naturally predisposing them to one faction or the other. Irene has reason to suspect that Kai has been taken by Fae to one of their worlds, which would mean disastrous consequences for her apprentice if he is not recovered soon. To save Kai, she’ll have to go undercover and infiltrate an alternate Venice, reputed to be the masked city because every day is the Carnival there and the party never ends.
Deep in the heart of Fae territory where Chaos is so thick that even the great Library cannot help her, Irene has only her own skills to rely on to find and rescue Kai. In The Masked City, our heroine goes full-on secret Library spy, using all her knowledge of Language and subterfuge to survive a cutthroat world where the Fae are manipulative and merciless. We get to see her gain confidence and set aside the doubts that plagued her in the first book, where she constantly worried about her competition or questioned whether she deserved such a high profile assignment when she was only a junior Libarian. For one thing, this is Irene’s mission and her mission alone; Kai is not only her apprentice but her responsibility, and that’s not something she takes lightly—even if it means she will receive no help, and failure could cost her everything.
The story continues to be fast-paced and entertaining. The books in this series make for light, fun popcorn reads, and this sequel once again delivered exactly what was promised. Cogman further develops the world, expanding upon the role of the Library. She also fleshes out the conflict between the Dragons and Fae, and delves deeper into the lore of both sides. More importantly, we get to learn more about the motivations of these factions, whereas we only got to scratch the surface in the first book. Some questions are answered, and more mysteries are also introduced. I love how this series is full of potential, and we’re just starting to explore the many possibilities. Our characters’ journey to this book’s astonishing version of Venice is a prime example.
That said, my only regret is that we didn’t get to see much of the Library itself. Also, Kai spends the bulk of this book kidnapped and imprisoned, so we didn’t get to see much of him in action at all, which is a shame because he was my favorite character from the first book (for reasons I can’t go into in this review, because if you haven’t read The Invisible Library yet, it would be a spoiler!) However, these are just minor issues based on my personal preferences; beyond them, it was difficult to find much fault with this sequel.
Once more, I am happy to recommend this series to all bibliophiles and fans of “books about books”. As a book lover, I also saw a lot of myself in Irene, who just can’t help but feel an affinity to all things literary and bookish! I really enjoy the characters, the story, and the concepts. I’m really looking forward to the next book, The Burning Page....more
I was surprised how much I enjoyed this one. Last year’s Court of Fives and I didn’t hit it off very well, despite my excitement to read Kate Elliott’s first Young Adult novel. Happily though, this sequel improves upon almost every single issue I had, and I was really glad I decided to give the series another try.
In this world, the Fives is a popular game involving an intricate obstacle course: each adversary moves through through four challenges before tackling the final moving tower puzzle, which must be successfully scaled in order to claim the victory flag at the top. Our protagonist, a young woman of mixed background named Jessamy has achieved her dream of competing in the Fives and is now a Challenger, moving up the ranks and gaining tons of fans. Sadly though, it meant saying good bye to Lord Kalliarkos, the boy she befriended and fell in love with. The young Patron prince is being sent off to war, along with Jes’ father the great General Esladas.
Jes herself is traveling the countryside on tour with her Fives team, earning the money required to support her mother and siblings in secret after helping them escape imprisonment. Her family’s enemies are still out there though, so Jes has to be extra careful not to rouse suspicion, even if it means sneaking off when she’s not supposed to. However, war threatens to unravel all her plans as her traveling party and the fighting meet on a collision path.
I think it would be simplest just to run through all the improvements I felt were made by this sequel, matching them to the criticisms I had with Court of Fives. First, the world-building: I feel like we get a much better grasp of what’s going on in Poisoned Blade. At the end of the last book, the author introduced several elements hinting at a secret history and suggesting that there’s a lot more behind the lore of the Fives. The ideas are further developed here, and we’re also starting to see a lot more connections forming.
Second, the story: maybe it’s because I never found the concept of Fives to be all that interesting, but I was so glad the story in Poisoned Blade started to move away from the game. Instead, the book’s plot focuses more on the bigger picture of what’s happening around the kingdom—war, politics, and the power struggle between all sides. All the backstabbing and conflicts within the royal family are complicated enough to make my head spin, but it makes for a much more compelling story.
Third, the characters: In Court of Fives, Jes was one of the most frustrating protagonists I had ever met. She waffled constantly, which also resulted in a very confusing picture of General Esladas, because it seemed she could never make up her mind whether she admired her father or hated his guts. In my eyes, she also played Kalliarkos mercilessly, persuading him to help her out by goading him or poking at his weak spots. Fortunately, the romance was toned down a lot in this sequel, so there were fewer awkward moments between Jes and Kal. I’ve also come to appreciate General Esladas’ character a little bit more, now that his love for his family is starting to come through and Jes has decided that he’s a good man who is just as trapped as she is.
Furthermore, there are a number of general developments that make this book a better read overall. Jes’ experience of being the daughter of a Patron man and a Commoner woman was explored a lot more, like how growing up in the middle of two worlds has affected her, especially since her heritage is clearly written on her physical features. No matter how successful she is as a Fives Challenger, people still judge her by her sex and color of her skin. Going deeper into the social and cultural issues of this world also makes it feel a lot more real and immersive. I’m interested as well in the relationships between Jes and her siblings. There are quite a few shocking twists revealed in this book when it comes to her twin, and of course there’s also the matter of her newborn baby brother—very curious about where that’s going to lead!
Bottom line, I thought Poisoned Blade was much better than the first book. I wouldn’t call it a standout read compared to some of excellent YA I’ve read, as there’s still room for improvement, but nevertheless I was pleasantly surprised how well the story drew me in considering my less-than-stellar experience with Court of Fives. Frankly I did not expect to enjoy this sequel so much, and now is it’s all but assured that I will be picking up the third book to see how this trilogy will end....more
With my Pathfinder group currently on summer break, I found myself desperately craving for a good quest narrative adventure. Enter Liar’s Bargain, which really hit the spot. Of course, I’d much rather be playing an RPG campaign, but if that’s not possible, reading a story that feels exactly like one is the next best thing.
This book is actually the follow-up to Tim Pratt’s Liar’s Island, and the third in a sequence featuring recurring characters Rodrick and his sentient ice sword Hrym, but like most of the novels in the Pathfinder Tales series it can be read as a standalone.
This time, Rodrick finds himself deep in crusader lands, the last place you’d want to be caught committing a crime. Lawbreakers in Lastwall are punished harshly, as our hapless hero discovers too late, after being sentenced to death for trying to steal a horse. Intrigued by his magical talking sword, however, Rodrick’s captors offer him another way to serve his sentence: join a covert government program with other seasoned outlaws to carry out missions too delicate (and dangerous) for ordinary soldiers. For one year, he would work under his boss Temple and do the bidding of the Lastwall crusaders. Should he survive after that period, he will go free. In the meantime though, Rodrick and his fellow criminals press ganged into service will be implanted with rubies infused with dark magic. If they attempt escape or try to wriggle out of their punishment in any way, Temple promises to activate the magic in the gems, and the explosion would tear their bodies apart.
For Rodrick, the choice was easy. He’d rather take his chances with a ragtag group of miscreants than face certain death at the hands of Lastwall’s executioners. And that is how he and Hrym find themselves teamed up with the outlaw Merihim and her silent companion Prinn, as well as a thief named Eldra and a mysterious alchemist who only goes by “The Specialist”. For the group’s first assignment, Temple sends them on mission to retrieve a very important person—simple enough, Rodrick thinks. But then, one of the others suddenly decide to go off script, and that’s when things start going horribly wrong.
This is only my second venture into the world of the Pathfinder Tales novels, and it couldn’t have been more different from my first, which was Liane Merciel’s Hellknight, a murder mystery mainly starring a duo made up of a hellspawn investigator and a battle-hardened paladin. In contrast, Liar’s Bargain features a traditional quest narrative plot structure and an ensemble cast, with each character bringing something valuable to the party. Merihim is the “brains” of the operation, much to Rodrick’s chagrin. Our poor protagonist fancies himself to be a good leader, but he and his sword were originally brought in simply to be the team’s muscle. The Specialist, despite his name, is the jack of all trades, playing the much essential support role. And of course, no adventuring group can be complete without its resident rogue, and that’s where Eldra comes in. All told, the cast had all the makings of your classic role-playing group, and the story was definitely more in the vein of what I had in mind when I first tried the series, unfolding like a multi-part campaign.
The plot is not very complex, but it’s every bit as fun as you’d expect it to be, with its fair share of surprising twists and turns. In several places, I even amused myself by picturing an imaginary DM setting the adventures up with a jaw-dropping scenario before announcing in an ominous tone, “Roll initiative”, simply because it was just so damn appropriate. As for the characters, Rodrick himself is somewhat of an arrogant puffed-up blowhard, but he plays the part with plenty of humor and snark. When your book’s protagonist has a best friend that’s a talking magical sword with the ability to ice anyone and anything, you can surely count on getting some excellent banter. I’ll admit to more than a few chuckles when I was reading this book, especially during the witty exchanges between Rodrick and Hyrm.
There were some issues, of course, like the Specialist and his apparent ability to come up with a solution to every problem, which felt much too convenient to me (though who knows, maybe he just rolled high on all his skill checks), or the fact that the story meanders too far off the main track with a couple “side quests” in the second half of the novel. But on the whole, I have to say I was quite pleased with Liar’s Bargain. It was entertaining the whole way through, which was exactly what I signed on for, and in fact, I liked it so much, I’m even contemplating going back to pick up the two previous Rodrick and Hrym novels.
Not a fan or player of Pathfinder or RPGs? No problem. Even readers who know nothing about the game can dive right in. If you’re looking for a fun, fast-paced fantasy read, you simply can’t go wrong with this story featuring the misadventures of a lovable gang of scoundrels and rogues....more
Sometimes book blurbs can do more harm than good for the novels they’re trying to promote, by placing crushing expectations upon them that might not be realized. In the case of The Facefaker’s Game, my inner skeptic’s alarm immediately went haywire at the description “for fans of Patrick Rothfuss and Scott Lynch” which is one hell of an ambitious claim if I ever heard one. Then again, every once in a while it pays to give them the benefit of the doubt. While it’s true I went into this book with a healthy dose of realism to guard against the possible disappointment, in the end I shouldn’t have worried. This impressive fantasy debut by Chandler J. Birch definitely did not let me down.
The main character of The Facefaker’s Game is a fourteen-year-old boy with no past; one day, he just became aware of himself, standing in the middle of the street with no idea where he came from or even what his name is. Covered in soot, the boy decides to give himself the name of Ashes. Thing is though, he isn’t alone. Kids like him who just appear in the city one day with no memory are called rasa, and not surprisingly, few of them last long in a cutthroat crime-ridden neighborhood like Burroughside which is run by gangs. Ashes is lucky, if you could call him that; he is clever and quick, which means he is able to make just enough money from begging, stealing and cheating at cards to get by.
But then he gets on the wrong side of the crime lord Mr. Ragged, also Burroughside’s governor. For a while now, Ashes has been sheltering another rasa named Blimey, whom Mr. Ragged wants dead. Keeping Blimey hidden with the eventual goal of moving his friend out of Burroughside has its costs though, as it means Ashes has to steal more money, stay out later in the streets, and on the whole take more risks. One night, he takes it a step too far and runs afoul of the governor’s enforcers, but instead of meeting his end, Ashes is unexpected rescued by an Artificer named Candlestick Jack. Recognizing some magical potential in our protagonist, Jack decides to take the boy on as an apprentice, teaching him the mysterious art of light manipulation and illusion.
Of the many things that impressed me about this book, one of the first that jumped out at me was the quality of the writing. It might not be at the same caliber as the most seasoned authors, but this is Birch’s first novel and he clearly has a talent. His style is confident and easy on the eyes, making the story flow remarkably smoothly from one scene to the next. The pacing is strong and hit no lulls, making this one a relatively quick read for an adult fantasy novel that clocks in at almost five hundred pages. Birch also nails the mood of the setting, successfully portraying Burroughside as the rough, gritty, and merciless environment it is without painting it too darkly. Notwithstanding some of the grueling obstacles in our protagonist’s path, The Facefaker’s Game reads more like a fantasy adventure without the weight of cynicism dragging it down.
The book also features some memorable characters, despite many of them being examples of derivative archetypes. From Ashes (the orphan street urchin who turns out to be special) to Mr. Ragged (the evil and corrupt politician crime lord) and Candlestick Jack (the crafty yet benevolent master thief who takes in street rats to train them), you can’t help but feel you’ve met all of them all in some form or another before. Still, we know certain tropes have hung around the genre and stayed popular for so long, simply because the readership loves that stuff—the way I ate them up in The Facefaker’s Game. The author made me care about the protagonist and his friends, which I feel is the first and foremost goal a novelist should strive for, and to Birch’s credit, he also put a number of interesting spins on his characters, giving them back stories that made their personalities, motivations, and reactions feel very persuasive and real.
Story-wise, I thought this was tightly plotted for the most part, though several threads have been floated so far that have seemingly gone nowhere. There are definitely elements in here that could have been better incorporated, and it is my hope that any plot orphans and unanswered questions will be explored in a future installment. But even with its flaws, The Facefaker’s Game did not let me down. It’s an entertaining, fast-paced book that pulled me in effortlessly, especially since I adore stories about thieves, heists, and the creative uses of magic! Speaking of which, I thought Weaving and Stitching light and illusion was a fascinating basis for what Artificers do, and kudos to Birch for creating such an intricate and well thought magic system.
All in all, The Facefaker’s Game is a solid debut. I’m curious to see where Chandler J. Birch will take his characters next, and you can be sure I will be pick up his next novel....more
I am so in love with these audiobooks. Peter Kenny is the incontrovertible voice of this series, making all my favorite characters come to life with his authentic reading style and superb acting. Fan translations of these books have been around for a while, but I don’t mind waiting longer if it means I can enjoy the audio editions; every time I jump into a new book, it’s like coming home to old friends.
The Tower of Swallows picks up from the end of Baptism of Fire, where the search for Ciri continues. The story begins by mirroring the intro of the previous book with a long convalescence of one of our characters, this time Ciri instead of Geralt. The young princess-turned-Witcher has adopted a new identity and settled into life with a party of young rebels who call themselves the Rats. Something happens, however, leading to her being found unconscious and gravely injured in the middle of a swamp by an old hermit named Vysogota. The old man nurses her back to health, and during her recovery Ciri tells him what happened.
Meanwhile, Geralt and his companions are still traveling together trying to find Ciri, but their precarious alliance keeps coming under fire from distrust and infighting, not to mention plenty of bad decisions. There’s also a lot of political intrigue happening in the background as their enemies keep plotting against them, and a new face of evil enters the field.
While I really enjoyed The Tower of Swallows, I have to confess it wasn’t my favorite. In fact, this was the first full-length Witcher novel in which I felt the pacing stumbled a little. After an incredibly strong beginning, the story loses steam around the halfway point when it takes a very sudden turn in a new direction. We go abruptly from fast-paced action and adventure to convoluted politics, which made the end of the book tedious and hard to understand when compared to the first half.
Still, this is a book you won’t want to miss, especially if you’ve been following along with the series, and the good parts made it all worth it. One of the things I admire most about Andrzej Sapkowski’s storytelling is the way he experiments with different narrative styles, which sometimes involve sudden jumps in the timeline and frequent switches in points-of-view. Normally I am not a fan of this; however, I love the interesting and engaging way Sapkowski does it, as illustrated at the beginning of the novel, where the events that befell Ciri are unraveled by having her share her story with Vysogota. Narrative threads are picked up, dropped, picked up again by different characters, but done in a seamless way that flows well and is easy to follow, even in the audio format.
The characters are also evolving nicely with each installment. Notably, Ciri has come of age and she is settling in as one of the series’ major characters. She’s still finding her way in this book, both literally and figuratively. Torn between her old life as a princess and her new one as a rogue Witcher, she’s frequently waffling on what she wants, and like many troubled teens she is quick to anger especially when confronted with hard truths. She may be an expert fighter, but at the end of the day she’s still just a lost young girl. Geralt is of course the other central figure, and here he suffers his own crisis of confidence, beating himself up for not doing all he can to find Ciri, at some points even convincing himself that she is dead and that his quest is futile. He also clashes with his companions, in particular with Cahir the Nilfgaardian, whom Geralt does not trust. Overall, lack of success has demoralized the party, causing rising tensions and fraying nerves. It almost makes you want to break out the popcorn and watch the fur fly.
Even though the second half is slow, the book does ends with a bang, making me excited for what’s coming next. In total, there are currently six books translated into English and produced in audio, including two that are story collections. I have a feeling all the questions will be answered and everything will come together as the series heads towards its conclusion.
Narration-wise, I really have no complaints. Peter Kenny has already won me over, and he’s probably the biggest reason why I’m such a diehard fan of the Witcher audiobooks, to the extent now where no other format will do. I’m just sad knowing that the next book will be the final entry in the saga. Regardless, I’m looking forward to seeing how it’s all going to end....more
While this is only my third venture into the world of Pathfinder Tales, I swear the experience is only getting better with each book. And my latest read, Shy Knives, just completely stole the show.
Backing up a bit though, I was excited when I first learned that the wickedly funny Sam Sykes had been asked by Paizo to write a novel for them and that he would be joining the Pathfinder fun, but I think I would have jumped on this book even if I hadn’t been getting into the series already. I knew I was going to enjoy myself, but still—I had no idea just how much!
Shaia Ratani, Shy to her friends, is a scrappy young scoundrel who specializes in the kind of jobs that no one else can handle. For one thing, she’s not afraid to work outside the law. For another, she’s also not above getting her hands dirty. She has cheated, stolen, maimed, and killed—and though she doesn’t exactly condone or relish doing harm to others, it’s not like she can afford to regret her past decisions either. Sometimes a job is just a job, and nothing personal.
One day, Shy is approached by a young noblewoman with an interesting case. The Lady Dalaris Sidara is the sole remaining heir to a destitute house, her already precarious future shattered by the death of her betrothed just days before their wedding. They said that her fiancé had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time, overseeing his family’s trade business at a caravan stop when it was attacked by a marauding band of centaurs, but Dalaris suspects that there is more to the story. With the other nobles watching her like a hawk, she needs someone resourceful like our protagonist to poke around and shake out the truth. Some jobs may require heroes, but this one definitely calls for a rogue.
I loved the characters in this book. Shy’s voice is as delightful as they come, with her sharp mind and sharper tongue. Sam Sykes did a wonderful job with her personality, finding that perfect balance between “hardened criminal” and “rogue with a heart of gold” so that Shy came across as lovable protagonist without being too mawkishly sentimental. She also won me over from the very first page with her clever wit and hilarious anecdotes and one-liners. I could probably fill a dozen pages with my favorite quotes, easy. In multiple places, this book literally had me laughing out loud.
Then there’s Dalaris. My favorite description of her comes near the end, from an observation by Shy herself: “There are two types of people in this world: tough people beneath a layer of tears and teary people beneath a layer of toughness. Dalaris, thankfully, was the former.” Despite the relationship getting off to a rough start, this unassuming and ostensibly meek noblewoman ultimately earns Shy’s respect and friendship, and it’s easy to understand why once you get to know her strength (as well as some mind-blowing revelations about her past).
Now that I have three Pathfinder Tales novels under my belt, I’m also struck by the variety of stories. Despite them all taking place in the great wide world of Golarion, the setting for many of the events in the Pathfinder RPG, my reading experiences have vastly differed each time. I liked that Shy Knives doesn’t take itself too seriously, keeping a light tone and injecting a healthy dose of dry humor (which even includes several tongue-in-cheek jibes about D&D groups/adventuring parties). I wanted a fun, swashbuckling good read, and that was exactly what I got. At the same time though, the book is also a testament to the increasing quality of media tie-in novels. Their popularity is a growing trend, and nothing to be sneered at. I think entertaining well-written books like this one will keep helping the genre gradually shed its stigma of being disregarded as derivative, unsophisticated, or too commercial.
The nice thing too about Pathfinder Tales is that you can pretty much jump in anywhere, as most of the books in this series are written to be standalones (even though some authors will occasionally return to their previously established characters for more stories). While I have no idea if more Pathfinder novels are in Mr. Sykes’ future, if he does decide to do another one I hope he’ll consider bringing Shy back for another adventure. I just adored her character. Her humor and charms made Shy Knives an absolute pleasure to read, though I wouldn’t hesitate to give this book high marks just for being so damn enjoyable and addictive—so much so that I devoured most of it in one sitting. If I thought hard about it I could probably come up with some flaws, but quite frankly, I was having too much fun to care. Bottom line, if you’ve been curious about Pathfinder Tales, wait no longer—Shy Knives is the one you’ve just got to, have to, need to read....more
Great to know I can always count on the Alcatraz series to lift my spirits. The Shattered Lens may be book four of the sequence, but I’m just as hooked on the story as I was when I first picked up Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians, the adventure that started it all. Brandon Sanderson continues to deliver plenty of laughs and action as he prepares to ramp things up for The Dark Talent; now that the illustrated hardcover re-issues of books 1-4 are out in the world, the stage is set for the long-awaited big finale, dropping September 2016.
You’d think a nice vacation for Alcatraz Smedry and Co. are in order, after foiling the latest Librarian scheme to attack the Free Kingdoms—but no. This time, urgent news has come from Mokia, a Free Kingdom nation currently under siege by the Shattered Lens, the most zealous of the Librarian sects. Thinking like a Smedry, Alcatraz hatches up a crazy plan to charge headfirst into the heat of battle, hoping that his actions would encourage the Knights of Crystallia to follow his lead and send support to Tuki Tuki, the capital of Mokia.
It doesn’t take long for Alcatraz to realize he’s in way over his head. The Shattered Lens’ army of giant robots have Tuki Tuki surrounded, and every day more and more of the city’s defenders are falling to the enemy’s coma-inducing weapons. Still, Alcatraz is determined not to let Mokia fall—not while he’s in charge. He only has to hold out until help arrives, which should be soon…ish?
This was another awesome installment, but I probably didn’t like it as much as the first three books. Obviously I’m not the target audience here, but while the plot, characters, humor, etc. are definitely more on the “youngish” side, on the whole I’ve found this series to be very clever and witty, engaging enough so that adults like myself can enjoy the stories. That’s why I was surprised when I read the first couple chapters of The Shattered Lens and felt for the first time that the series might have gone just a tad overboard with the silliness. Alcatraz’s ramblings at the beginning of each chapter, which has become somewhat of a tradition, also felt a bit forced this time around. Like I said though, these books weren’t written for my demographic, and what matters is that the kids will still love this one, but I just wanted to give the main reason why I felt this fourth book didn’t mesh as well with me as the first three did.
Now that that’s out of the way though, I want to talk about the things that did work for me. Let’s get to the most important subject first: teddy bear grenades. After all, how else are Free Kingdoms children supposed to protect themselves?! I also really enjoyed getting to visit Mokia, despite having to see it in its besieged state. Sanderson continues to expand the cast as well, adding another member to Alcatraz’s family tree which also means—yay!—more bizarre Smedry talents. Aydee Ecks, Alcatraz’s bubbly little cousin, has the talent of being really bad at math…and I just love the way she puts it to good use.
And speaking of Smedry talents, the one thing I haven’t really talked about in my reviews is the way “magic” works in the Alcatraz universe. Considering some of the intricate magic systems in Sanderson’s adult works, I originally dismissed occulator lenses and Smedry talents, etc. as being superficial and overly simplistic. But I was wrong. Much has been revealed so far over the course of these four books, connecting the dots and fleshing out what is known as the Incarnate Wheel, which is a theory used to divide the different talents up into groups. This style of describing and categorizing talents is pure Brandon Sanderson. Although there’s still this humorous, farcical element to the talent system in Alcatraz, it’s probably no less complex and thought-out than the magic systems in his epic fantasy novels, and I’m really starting to appreciate that.
All in all, it’s become quite evident that we’re now gearing up for the final book, as plot threads are coming together or being tied up left and right. It felt like this was the main purpose of the novel, for even though the siege of Mokia played a central role, it’s the big reveals in here that really stole the show. But there are still so many questions: What’s the real deal behind Alcatraz’s talent? How will things play out between him and Bastille? What’s going to happen with his parents? And will we really, truly, finally get that long-promised, oft-teased altar scene? Diving into The Dark Talent soon, so I guess I’ll be finding this all out in due course!...more
After finishing Wildwood Dancing, I’ve decided to give it a solid 3.5 stars. Considering this is my first Juliet Marillier book that didn’t rate at least a 4, I probably should be feeling more disappointed, especially since, out of all her older titles, this was one I’d been looking forward to reading the most. But honestly, I am not. The reality is, while I’m pretty convinced that Marillier is incapable of writing a bad novel, I also wouldn’t expect to fall in love with every single one of them, and even though I didn’t think this was one of her best, I still thought it was a very good book and I enjoyed it a lot.
Naturally, Wildwood Dancing is a reimagining of several fairy tales and other stories inspired by folklore. It’s a Marillier novel, after all. In the tradition of “The Twelve Dancing Princesses”, the story follows a family of five sisters who put on their fine dancing gowns every full moon in order to travel to another realm, where they would dance all night with the magical creatures who live there. Only the five girls know how to get to this enchanted kingdom through the mysterious portal hidden deep in their home of Piscul Draculi, their castle nestled in the woods of the Transylvanian highlands.
The story is told through the eyes of Jena, the second eldest, who assumes the responsibility of looking after her sisters and running the family business after their father is taken to the southlands to recover from a grave illness. But everything changes with the arrival of their cousin Cezar, a power-hungry man determined to take over the castle and see Jena and her sisters grow up to be “proper” young ladies. His presence has made the girls’ full moon visits through the portal more difficult, and it doesn’t help either that Tatiana, Jena’s older sister, has apparently fallen in love with one of the dangerous dark creatures from the Other Kingdom. As trouble descends on all sides, Jena struggles to keep her family together and maintain her control over Piscul Draculi, even while Cezar tightens his grip around them all and Tatiana continues to slip away.
I should also probably note that Wildwood Dancing is categorized as a YA novel, and it’s possible that some of my issues with the book had to do with the fact it’s aimed at a younger audience. In spite of the story’s charming premise, it’s admittedly predictable at times and hampered by some annoying tropes. Not to mention, they aren’t very subtle. The moment Cezar sweeps in, you could tell he was the evil, evil bad guy, pumped up on his own self-importance and never misses a moment to tell Jena what a silly and improper girl she is for daring to think for herself. There is really nothing more to his character than being teeth grindingly obnoxious and soul-crushing. Tatiana also frustrated me, because while it’s all fine and good to fall in love, it’s not so cool when that love completely consumes you to the point you throw aside the concerns of those who care about you, or that you abandon all your responsibilities including the need to take care of yourself. Tatiana gradually becomes this empty shell because we’re to believe she’s so lovesick after a boy that she loses the will to eat. As the main character, Jena is not immune from criticism either; where her emotions are concerned, she has more blind spots than a drunk bat and I frequently found her stubbornness maddening. For a female protag who is supposed to be strong and independent, she can be stunningly ineffectual.
The characters were probably the novel’s weakest aspect. Happily, predictable or not, I was really interested in the story, and that kept me turning the pages. The Transylvanian setting was intriguing, along with all that it implies. I also liked how snippets of multiple fairy tales were woven into the plot, and the way Marillier somehow made it all work. Like most of her novels, Wildwood Dancing is infused with a whimsical but dark tone, enchanting but also potentially dangerous, and to be sure if you enjoy fairy tale retellings or stories with that kind of vibe, you really can’t go wrong with anything she writes.
Ever since I read my first Juliet Marillier novel and she became one of my favorite authors, I have been meaning to go back to read more of her work. I’m glad I read Wildwood Dancing, but given how I felt about it, I’ll probably set the sequel, Cybele’s Secret, as lower priority while I tackle some of her other adult novels since I find them to be more complex and feature more developed and convincing characters. Still, Wildwood Dancing was a delightful read and it is impressive for YA. Fans of Marillier owe it to themselves to check this one out....more
I had a nice surprise when I picked up Department Zero. The book initially caught my eye as a cross-genre science fiction and fantasy adventure about infinite alternate realities, as well as a secret society of agents who have to traverse multiple worlds to clean up interstitial messes. But as if that isn’t cool enough already, Paul Crilley doubles down by tying everything into the Cthulhu mythos and giving this one a nice shot of Lovecraftian horror.
The story stars Harry Priest, a man with one hell of a tough job. He’s in what you would call “biohazard remediation”, which means he cleans up dead people for a living, usually at the site of accidents, murders, suicides, and unattended deaths where the body has had plenty of time to decompose in the stifling L.A. heat. You name it, Harry’s seen it. But still, nothing could have prepared him for his latest assignment. On what he thought was another routine call, Harry arrives to a gore-splattered abandoned motel room in the middle of nowhere, and sees something he shouldn’t have. Before long, Harry finds himself the target of savage spiders and monkey creatures and other frightening monstrosities that shouldn’t exist.
The attacks soon lead him to meet up with Havelock Graves of the Interstitial Crime Department, an agency that polices the multiverse. After being recruited into the ICD, Harry learns all about the network of interdimensional gates and their access to an infinite number of worlds in which there’s always someone, somewhere, sometime trying to break the rules of universe-hopping. Unfortunately for Harry though, Graves is determined to get back on top after his team is disgraced—and isn’t above using our protagonist as bait to draw out a Cthulhu cult that has dastardly plans to destroy the multiverse by awakening the Great Old One.
The first time I read Paul Crilley was a few years ago when I picked up his novels in the Tweed and Nightingale Adventures series, though at the time I hadn’t known he predominantly wrote Middle Grade and Young Adult titles. I was excited when I learned that he was branching into adult speculative fiction with the recent Poison City, and now Department Zero. As expected this one was a blast, combining a mix of action, adventure, and just plain weirdness. It’s also extremely fast-paced, the pages flying by as we’re shunted from one oddball situation to the next. In many ways, the plot reminded me of some crazy video game, which isn’t too surprising considering Crilley’s biography includes writing credits on five computer games (one of them being Star Wars: The Old Republic, a favorite of mine). Keep in mind too that Department Zero is a multiverse story where literally anything can happen, and indeed the author also makes the most out of this by unleashing his imagination, allowing this parade of horrors and wonders to move at full speed.
That said, at times this hectic approach feels overwhelming. The plot will continue charging on ahead even when you wish it would take a breather for a couple pages, regroup and recuperate and maybe spend a few moments getting to know our characters better. Many of them have zany personalities but then they end up being largely forgettable, and Harry himself feels roughly sketched and underdeveloped for a protagonist. He has a failed marriage, a dead-end job, a young daughter that he wishes he can spend more time with, as well as a bucketful of regrets—but I couldn’t connect emotionally to any of his problems. A part of me thinks this might have something to do with the writing style. First-person present tense can feel a bit awkward even at the best of times, and I don’t know if it was the best narrative choice for this story. There’s also the tone of the humor, which sometimes feels over-the-top and a bit forced, though at the same time Crilley also serves up some epic snark, leading to memorable dialogue and hilarious one-liners.
At the end of the day, Department Zero is a light and entertaining novel guaranteed to shake you out of your typical urban fantasy routine. While it might not be that deep, and the humor and pacing might take some getting used to, the story’s quirky premise is perhaps the foremost reason I would recommend it. Readers who enjoy a mix of genres and concepts will especially get a kick out of this snappy, imaginative adventure. If you happen to like your UF on the eccentric side, then this book will be like treating yourself to the most amazing all-you-can-eat buffet....more
Talk about starting the New Year on the right foot. Yes, I know it’s still super-early January, but I’m going to call it now: The Bear and the Nightingale will end up being one of the biggest standouts of 2017. Katherine Arden’s glorious debut is beautiful and everything I expected—vivid, magical, and haunting. The writing is rich and evocative, and if the atmosphere doesn’t immediately sweep you off your feet, I would be very surprised.
At the center of this tale is a spirited young woman named Vasya, though the book begins before her birth. In the forests of northern Russia lives the family of an honorable lord named Pyotr whose wife tells him one night that she is pregnant. Marina Ivanova comes from magical lineage, her own mother having been known to be a powerful witch, and she tells her husband that the baby will be the same. Sadly though, Marina dies in childbirth, leaving the infant, Vasya, to be raised by the nurse and older siblings. Years pass before the pain of losing Marina becomes easier to bear, and Pyotr decides to travel to the court of Moscow to arrange a new marriage for himself.
However, Anna, the imperious and haughty woman he ends up bringing home to his family is unsuited to life in the north, where the people still revere the spirits of nature whom they believe will ward them from evil. Raised to be extremely devout, Anna immediately tries to put a stop to these practices, leading to a clash between her and her new stepdaughter Vasya, whom everyone affectionately says is more wood sprite than young lady. Like her mother predicted, Vasya has a gift which grants her a special connection with the wilderness and the spirits that dwell within. Anna’s arrival has thrown off the delicate balance, and indeed, misfortunes begin to fall upon the village and malicious creatures of the forest are starting to grow bolder. The situation becomes even more unstable as a zealous priest takes up residence in Pyotr’s household, making it his mission to “save” Vasya from herself by undermining her powers and turning the villagers against her.
I truly fell in love with The Bear and the Nightingale from the moment I picked it up. The prose is gorgeous, bringing the world to life, with the people and places described in exquisite detail. The northern winters in this book are those characterized by ten-foot high snowdrifts and near perpetual twilight, yet it amazes me how Arden can still turn such a dark, harsh and cold setting into a thing of beauty. Those who survive here are also strong, compassionate and hardworking people, and you just can’t help but be drawn to them and care about their plights. These characters grabbed and held my attention from the very first page, which featured a scene of children sitting around a hearth listening to fairy tales while the snow and ice raged on outside. Even before our protagonist could arrive on the scene, I was already half enchanted by her family.
And then Vasya came along. I loved her character, and her portrayal was one of the strongest points of the book. There’s something very earnest and down-the-earth in the way she is written—a wild but dutiful daughter, headstrong but not obnoxiously so, and brave without being foolish about it. It was a joy to read about the various relationships between Vasya and the people in her household, whatever tone they might take. Family is such a huge part of this story, and we get to see the different dynamics that come with it.
There are also plenty of allusions to folk legends and mythology. And while The Bear and the Nightingale is a book about changing times, I would say that it’s more than just another story about a clash between religion and “the old ways”. What we have instead is a combination of elements drawn from many sources, including Russian history and folklore, as well as themes from other fairy tales and literary classics. Through this process of combining and transforming, the author has created magic rooted in realism, something that feels different but also familiar. While reading this book, you might start to think you know where the story is going, but don’t be surprised if you get it wrong.
That said, this is not a “gripping read” in the traditional sense. The pacing, which is already quite unhurried, slows to a crawl in some sections, and if it weren’t for the strength of the characterizations I might have found myself struggling. For better or worse, Arden clearly likes to paint the full picture, which I gathered from the excessive insertion of random POVs and minor subplots, even in places where they don’t flow too well. As far as criticisms go though, that’s a very minor complaint on my part, especially since everything else was damn near perfect.
It probably won’t come as a surprise then, that I highly recommend this novel. I think I’ve already said everything I needed to say about this wonderful, enchanting debut by Katherine Arden, and I positively hope that many others will also get the opportunity discover the magic and joy of The Bear and the Nightingale this year....more
I pondered for a couple days how to rate The Liberation. I definitely liked it more than the previous book, but probably not as much as the first one so in the end I decided to split the difference. In any event, there’s no denying this was a fantastic conclusion to a brilliantly crafted trilogy. Bravo, Ian Tregillis, bravo!
Set in the early 1900s, The Alchemy Wars is an alternate historical steampunk series featuring France and Netherlands at war. That the outcome of the conflict will be decided by the might of the Dutch’s powerful clockwork automaton army was already a foregone conclusion—though no one on either side had expected the twist of events that would ultimately lead to the fate of both nations hanging in the balance. For you see, those so-called mechanical “Clakkers”—who were supposed to be mindless and utterly loyal and obedient to their human masters, according to their creators—actually turned out to be not so mindless after all.
For centuries, these free-thinking sentient machines have been held under the powerful control of series of magical geasa, forced to serve as slaves. When the spell that has shackled them is suddenly broken, the result is a swift and chaotic rebellion. The Liberation is its final act, exploring the actions of an oppressed group which has finally experienced its first taste of freedom. While their bodies might be made of metal and glass, the Clakkers have minds that function like our own and a culture that includes language and religion. For all intents and purposes, they are human. And just like humans, their response to their newfound independence is varied and unpredictable, as this novel shows.
Every sci-fi fan knows that robot uprising stories are nothing new. But to me, the genius behind The Alchemy Wars is in the way Ian Tregillis has adapted the theme, framing it within a uniquely different narrative and setting. Here, there are no clear lines drawn between the A.I. and humans. The robots are us. They have the same potential for compassion and evil. They are as just likely to be our allies as our enemies. The human characters themselves are morally grey as well, in that I can’t say conclusively whether anyone in this series is depicted as a true hero or villain. Incidentally, that’s the nature of many of Tregillis’ stories.
Over the course of this trilogy the books have switched their focus between different characters, but in my review of The Rising I wrote that I was starting to look at The Alchemy Wars as being Jax’s series, and The Liberation has not really changed that opinion. Jax, a mechanical servitor who was one of the first to be freed from his geasa, has now rechristened himself Daniel after the events of the previous book. Each installment has seen a major turning point for his character, his role having evolved from wanted fugitive to reluctant messiah, and you will see his moment of truth in this final novel.
Another important figure is Berenice, the disgraced former spymaster for the French. Despite all the tragedies that have befallen her, she has not backed down, fighting her way back to the Americas where Marseilles-in-the-West houses the exiled royal court of France. While her goals align with the Clakkers’ fight for freedom, if the last two books have taught me anything, it is that Berenice is an ambitious woman who values her own agenda above all others—though to be fair, her character has also come a long way since The Mechanical. Her flaws notwithstanding, Berenice remains one of my favorite characters, and I have to wonder if that is because she reminds me so much of Chrisjen Avasarala from James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse. Both women are strong-willed, foul-mouthed, and major forces to be reckoned with.
Missing from action though, is Hugo Longchamp. It was a little disappointing, since he was one of the standouts from The Rising. Still, I understood the reason for his diminished role and the need to bring in other perspectives in order to paint the full picture for this epic conclusion. Indeed, this book introduces an unexpected though no less fascinating new point-of-view, that of Anastasia Bell, a high-ranking member of the Clockmakers Guild of Amsterdam. For the first time we are getting an up-close-and-personal look at what is happening behind the scenes with the Dutch, and boy it is not pretty. When the story opens, Anastasia has just finished recovering from her grievous injuries sustained from the last book, only to be hit full-on with the Clakker rebellion.
The Liberation is about free will, and the privileges and responsibilities that come with it. It is about how a person (or machine) wields that power, whether you choose vengeance and violence or decide to walk the path of peace. It is about recognizing the humanity in others, and the consequences of ignorance and hubris. It’s a satisfying, stunning end to one of the most compelling and cleverly written stories I’ve ever read. If you’re looking for a series that’s both entertaining and thought-provoking, I highly recommend The Alchemy Wars....more
Whenever I hear about an indie fantasy that makes the jump to a traditional publishing house, it always piques my curiosity and of course The Shadow of What Was Lost was no exception. Fast forward to the moment I finished reading the book, and I all I have to say is: I am impressed. This is James Islington’s first novel, and though that sometimes shows in the raw quality the writing, overall it is a solid series opener and I can certainly understand the reason for all the attention and praise.
The first part of the story introduces us to an interesting lore-filled world. Two decades have passed since the Augurs were defeated and wiped out. These were powerful individuals with god-like abilities which they used to enslave the Gifted, other magic users who were forced to serve their stronger masters. The Gifted themselves were only spared retribution following the rebellion because they agreed to uphold the Four Tenets, promising to adhere to the rules which would keep their own powers in check.
One of our main protagonists is a young Gifted named Davian who has always lived in the shadow of the war. He and his friends Wirr and Asha attend a school for those like them, a place where they are sheltered and trained to use their magic. However, even then they are in no way safe. At the end of their time at school, Gifteds are required to pass a final test to prove they can control their powers, and those that fail must face the lonely fate of being ostracized and forgotten—their memories and abilities wiped away. Now Davian’s final trial is fast approaching, and he still has not been able to master drawing on Essence, the element that fuels magic. Worse, he is beginning to suspect there is something wrong with his own gift, which sounds suspiciously like something that the Augurs used to wield.
If anyone finds out about his secret, it could spell very bad news for Davian. But before his test could come to pass, he is visited in the dead of night by a mysterious newcomer, who gives our young hero a quest to undertake that could change his own fate and that of the world.
Reminiscent of Wheel of Time? Definitely. At the same time, I didn’t get the sense that Islington was out to shake up the genre when he wrote this book, and in fact parts of it feel almost like a loving homage to the classic themes in epic fantasy. It was therefore no surprise when I went to the author’s bio and saw Robert Jordan listed among his influences. In a way, there’s actually something very refreshing about Islington’s straightforward approach as well as his unpresuming commitment to simply writing an enjoyable, down-to-earth character driven story. While I read a lot of epic fantasy and it’s always nice to come across something completely new and unique, at the same time I also have no problems with getting a dash of the classic quest narrative, as long as I know that’s what I’m in for.
Many reviews have also made comparisons to Brandon Sanderson, and his name also came to my mind while reading, though probably not in the way you would expect. Islington’s writing, especially the stark play-by-play style of his action sequences, reminds me of early Sanderson, around his original Mistborn trilogy era. The prose is simple but polished, and the characters that range from the reluctant hero to the royal son in hiding are relatively archetypal, but still sincere in their motives and purposes. The page count probably could have been pared down, it’s true, particular in the middle sections where pacing dragged a little. To the book’s credit though, the story eventually evolves into a more nuanced, politically and magically layered narrative. The plot overall might be on the predictable side, but there will still be plenty of surprises along the way to keep things interesting for the reader.
Like I said, The Shadow of What Was Lost isn’t out to revolutionize epic fantasy, but nevertheless it is an engaging read and a series-opener that starts off on the right foot. The story and characters might come across a little clichéd at the beginning, but from what I’ve seen so far, both aspects have the potential to grow into something more. I have a feeling we’ll be seeing even better things in the sequel, which I’m now looking forward to with great excitement and anticipation....more
I’ve dabbled in the Pathfinder roleplaying game for a few years now, but this is actually the first time I’ve actually tried one of the books in the Pathfinder Tales series. To be honest, I don’t know what took me so long, since seeking out tie-in novels or any kind of related literature spawned by the movies, games, etc. that I enjoy is something I do quite frequently. Part of it might have to do with the fact that it’s such a HUGE world, and when it comes to what I know of Golarion (the main world of Pathfinder where most of its campaign and events take place) I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. It’s all just a bit intimidating, especially when you consider how often new volumes are being released (about every few months or so), and currently the series is sitting at more than thirty novels and that’s not even counting all the novellas and short stories. Though I was assured that the majority of the books are standalone adventures, I still felt uncertain.
Finally, I decided to simply take a chance and go for it. It helped that the book I was interested in, Pathfinder Tales: Hellknight, had an interesting premise and was written by Liane Merciel, an author whose work I’ve been wanting to check out for a while now due to the fantastic things I’ve heard about her Dragon Age novel. More importantly, I was happy to find that Hellknight is indeed a book anyone can jump into and enjoy, no matter what your familiarity is with the Pathfinder franchise. The story is really easy to pick up, and you don’t need to have any prior knowledge at all.
At its heart, this book is about a murder investigation. There’s an organization of warriors called the Hellknights who are charged with maintaining the law and order of the land, and one of them, a hellspawn woman named Jheraal, is dispatched to a nobleman’s estate to investigate the brutal murder of its heir. Meanwhile, the victim’s brother is being called back from the front lines, now that his presence is required at home. Ederras, disgraced and exiled for his part in a rebellion when he was younger, is now an experienced and battle-hardened paladin. For his part, he’s actually quite reluctant to leave his post, but what choice does he have? Now that his brother is dead, someone needs to inherit his family’s title and take care of their lands and holdings.
As Jheraal and Ederras team up to find the murderer, they uncover a deeper conspiracy leading to more death and destruction. A trail involving some missing servants leads to a gruesome find, as it appears that their serial killer has been targeting hellspawn, cutting out their hearts in a magical ritual thus leaving them in a state of lifelessness-but-not-quite-dead. The two of them end up recruiting the services of Velenne, a crafty diabolist who has a history with Ederras, and it seems she is not quite done with the paladin yet.
For a book based on an RPG, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed Hellknight. Based on my experience with tie-in novels, I’ve found that the quality of them can vary greatly, and I admit I wasn’t expecting much from this one, but I ended being quite impressed by the high standard of storytelling. The writing is also superb. Liane Merciel does a fantastic job setting up the stage for a mystery, creating a very immersive environment at the same time. It’s the little details that make a difference, masterfully showing without telling us right out what kind of society our characters live in. It is not a very pleasant place, especially not for hellspawn, who live as second class citizens in this world, mistrusted and abused.
I also enjoyed the characters, who come into their own and set themselves apart even when they’re being obviously written to conform to RPG/fantasy archetypes. Again, I was surprised at the depth of their personalities and the complex ways they are impacted by the events of this novel. Both protagonists have interesting backstories and are haunted by their pasts, with Jheraal hiding a secret daughter and Ederras struggling to come to terms with the mistakes he made in his youth. The themes of this book are made fuller by their two tales of sacrifice.
My only criticism is that the story’s pacing is very uneven. Hellknight started off strong, but the momentum tapered off as we entered the middle section, and then plateaued until we reached the last hundred pages or so of the novel, where things fortunately started picking up again as we moved into its climactic ending and resolution. For this reason, I can’t quite justify giving this book more than a solid three stars, though overall it was very enjoyable. Its quality is easily heads and shoulders above a lot of media tie-ins out there, and despite its pacing issues I thought this was a really good story and well worth the read.
So don’t let the Pathfinder name scare you off, which is probably the key point I wanted to emphasize, because tie-in fiction can be great fun and I think most will have no trouble diving into this world and appreciating it like any other fantasy novel. I look forward to reading more by Liane Merciel, and I definitely see more Pathfinder Tales in my future....more
How do I know when I have series addiction? Clearing my reading schedule and dropping everything the moment I get my twitchy fingers on the sequel is a pretty good indication. I simply adore these Alcatraz books! The first four installments are being re-issued this year, with The Knights of Crystallia being the third book to get the fully illustrated hardcover treatment, and my latest fix.
After their narrow escape from the Library of Alexandria, Alcatraz Smedry’s friends are ready to help him take the next step—his first visit to the Free Kingdoms. Finally, our young hero will get to see where his family comes from. The only thing dampening Alcatraz’s spirits though, is his father’s aloof behavior towards him. You’d think reuniting with your long-lost son after thirteen years would be cause for more celebration, right? But no, Attica Smedry seems to care only about himself, and doesn’t even appear to notice that it was Alcatraz who masterminded the plan to save all their lives.
But soon, Alcatraz is distracted from his disappointment. The wonders of the Free Kingdoms turn out to be as amazing as he’d imagined, and the best part is, Alcatraz discovers he is famous! While he grew up in the Hushlands unaware of his true origins, Free Kingdomers have known about him for years, making up fantastical stories about his exploits.
Still, it’s not all just fun and games. Alcatraz’s friend Bastille is about to go on trial, in danger of being stripped of her knighthood. The king is also about to make a deal with the evil Librarians, one that would bring peace but also deal a huge blow to the Free Kingdoms. And worst of all, Alcatraz finds out his mother is in town, sneaking about and surely being up no good. All of these events must be related somehow, but can Alcatraz keep the fame from going to his head long enough to figure it all out?
After three books, I’m amazed this series can still keep me laughing the way it has been, or maybe I shouldn’t be shocked at all, since one should never underestimate the cleverness of Brandon Sanderson. His character Alcatraz is still as devious, sarcastic, and rambling as ever, but with each installment he comes up with new ways to make this shtick feel new and interesting. This particular point is so important for me; because while I may be beyond the targeted age group for this series, sometimes I do feel as though I have the attention span of a middle grader. Yes, I confess—I need fresh jokes and creativity in order to keep me reading, especially when it comes to children’s books, and thankfully this series delivers.
Alcatraz continues to be fun and enjoyable on so many levels. Kids will love the crazy adventures of our main character and his friends, and adults can also laugh privately at the underlying jokes while appreciating the subtler themes and important messages that the stories are trying to convey. By their very nature, these books are so unpredictable thanks to Alcatraz’s zany style of storytelling, but by the final pages I’m always impressed at how everything comes together. So far, each book has given me a moment where I want to cheer and pound my fists on the table at the same time, yelling, “This is brilliant! It all fits so perfectly! Why didn’t I see this coming?” Even if I can’t always guess what’s going to happen, with three Alcatraz books under my belt, you’d think I would be used to Sanderson’s kooky brand of well organized chaos by now.
A fantastic sequel, The Knights of Crystallia is another fast-paced, hilarious and exciting installment which I liked even better than the previous book, since it also does so much more in furthering the events of the overall series arc. Alcatraz continues to play his cards close to his vest, teasing more big things to come, and we’re getting no sign that things are slowing down. Seems I have a hard time being patient when it comes to anything by Sanderson, whether it’s his adult novels or Young Adult/Middle Grade–I can practically feel the serious withdrawal symptoms coming on as I’m already craving the next book....more