4.5 to 5 stars, I haven't decided to final rating yet but holy shit, this fantasy western tale of revenge was amazing. The protagonist is a witch and4.5 to 5 stars, I haven't decided to final rating yet but holy shit, this fantasy western tale of revenge was amazing. The protagonist is a witch and the book is written in the form of a letter (addressed to the unborn child she is carrying) chronicling her travels across the frontier as she hunts the men who killed her husband. Full review to come closer to release date....more
Humor can be a tricky beast, as I often say. What works for one reader might not work for another, and what works one day might not work the next. Picking up something labeled “fantasy humor” is therefore always something of a crapshoot because I never know how it’s going to play out, and unfortunately the last couple of years have seen more misses than hits. When I started Kings of the Wyld though, I had a feeling it was going to be special, and I’m glad that my instincts didn’t steer me wrong.
This book has it all: gritty anti-heroes and twisted villains, epic battles and heart-stopping fight scenes, exotic locales and all manner of fantastical creatures. If this sounds like your kind of story, then you’re in for a treat. Nicholas Eames has reworked the classic quest narrative and presented it to us in a fun and refreshing package. You might even find yourself laughing out loud along the way.
Kings of the Wyld follows a motley crew of aging yet charming mercenaries as they reunite to rescue a bandmate’s daughter trapped behind the walls of a city under siege. After years of questing and brawling, Clay Cooper is ready put his past behind him. He’s married now with a young child, and he’s looking forward to retiring to a life of quiet and leisure. Fate, however, has different plans. One day, his old bandmate Gabe shows up with a desperate request for help. It seems Gabe’s daughter Rose has run off and gotten herself into trouble again, only this time it’s a matter of life and death.
At first, Clay is reluctant to get involved. He has his own fledgling family to think of now; no longer can he drop everything to traipse across the world on dangerous missions. But seeing Gabe’s distress, and recalling all the good times he’s had with his friend, he finally relents. Leaving the comfort of home behind, Clay joins Gabe to round up the members of Saga, their old band. This includes Matrick, their resident rogue who is now a drunken cuckolded king; Arcandius Moog, a wizard who has turned to a life of research trying to find a cure for a deadly disease; Ganelon, who has spent the last nineteen years trapped in his own private prison; and along the way, they even meet a Daeva named Larkspur who is in fact more foe than ally.
What follows is an entertaining, brilliantly crafted adventure that takes us across the Wyld by land and by air. If you’re a fan of video games or tabletop RPGs, you’ll feel right at home in this world with these characters who feel like they’ve stepped right out of a D&D campaign. Kings of the Wyld reads like a loving tribute to these types of classic narratives, while giving it heart—which I feel is the secret ingredient that sets this one apart. Somehow, Eames made it possible and even easy for me to relate to this band of mostly drunk, fat and jaded old men by turning their faults into endearing traits. These are genuine characters who have very real hopes and dreams, as well as values and principles that are important to them. After all, the entire premise of this story is driven by Gabe’s love for his daughter, and also by Clay’s loyalty to his old friend. You’ll fall in love with the members of Saga and want to cheer them on every step of the way.
And of course, humor is another huge selling point. Kings of the Wyld is a fantasy novel that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and there are elements in it that are unabashedly tongue-in-cheek. The author might have taken a gamble on the style, but in the end I think it paid off. Still, one of the more common criticisms I’ve seen when it comes to fantasy comedy is the use of modern language, slang, or pop culture references. Personally, it doesn’t bother me when it’s second world fantasy, but if such anachronisms aren’t your cup of tea, then you might find it problematic. For me though, what matters more is the tone of humor; I prefer my comedy on the subtler side (as opposed to more overt styles, like slapstick) and this is where Eames struck the perfect balance. Without going overboard, he kept the story light and entertaining while still adhering to epic fantasy traditions.
From the first page to the last, Kings of the Wyld is a rollicking fast-paced novel with just the right amount of grit and wit. Nicholas Eames is definitely on to something here with his impressive debut. Bottom line, read this book if you’re a fan of good old-fashioned quest adventure narratives, epecially if you think you might enjoy one as seen through a modern humorous lens. I’ve tried a lot of books that match this description in recent years, and I have to say this is the best. Already I find myself craving the sequel....more
To put it bluntly, I never thought I would read anything else by Terry Goodkind again. After my disastrous first attempt to get into The Sword of Truth series, I almost turned down the opportunity to read Death’s Mistress, but now I’m very glad I didn’t. It’s been years since I last read Wizard’s First Rule, and it seemed a shame to potentially miss out on a good start to a new series especially when the author’s style or my reading tastes could have changed so much since. And as things turned out, I did have a surprisingly good time with this.
I also had initial concerns about jumping in without having read the entirety of the previous series, but that was not a problem. The book follows Nicci, a “Death’s Mistress” and a former lieutenant of Emperor Jagang who has since switched her alliance after being converted to the right side by Richard. Now that the latter has solidified his rule, Nicci travels the world helping spread the word of his benevolence and letting everyone know that the world is free, while accompanied by the ex-prophet and wizard Nathan.
At the beginning of this story Nathan decides to seek out the witch called Red, and Nicci offers to go along with him for protection, knowing they can trust no one and must be prepared for anything. Sure enough, after their visit, the witch imparts upon them the following obscure message: travel to a dangerous place far away called Kol Adair, where Nathan will find the answers to his struggle with his waning magic. Little do Nicci and Nathan know, that by embarking on this adventure they will also be a part of something much bigger, bringing back peace and hope to many along the way. Indeed, before they can even set off in earnest, Nicci saves the life of a young sailor named Bannon on the docks, preventing him from being mugged and killed by a gang of thugs. Grateful for her help, Bannon offers his services to the Death’s Mistress, volunteering to fight alongside her and Nathan while on their journey to Kol Adair.
I must confess, the story’s introduction was a bit of a whirlwind for me, with the bewildering circumstances around Red and her message, as well as the reasons for Nicci and Nathan to head to Kol Adair. It’s clear that I’ve missed a lot of history, not having followed The Sword of Truth. Trying to piece together everything that has happened since the last time I spent time in this world admittedly took up most of my attention, though fortunately once our characters actually begin their adventure, the path ahead gave way to clearer purposes and more exciting and engaging motifs. Death’s Mistress has a strong traditional fantasy vibe to it, with emphasis on the classic quest narrative. The question why Nicci, Nathan and Bannon were on this journey in the first place became less important to me overtime, while the details surrounding where they’ll go or what they’ll do when they get there or who they’ll meet gradually became more fascinating and relevant.
If there’s a bigger story, it hardly matters—at least at this point. Goodkind is starting a new series here, and you can tell he’s doing his best to make Death’s Mistress as accessible as possible. There’s not much history or deep context in play, and no greater conflict to concern ourselves with…yet. Rather, our characters are given a relatively straight forward task (go to Kol Adair, spread the word of Richard’s reign) and while on their travels they encounter various situations in which they can lend a hand or help solve a problem (picking up some side-quests along the way, so to speak). In fact, the structure of the plot can almost be described as “episodic”, the way our adventuring party moves from one place to the next, setting things aright before moving on again to save the next village or help defend the next town.
The results are surprisingly enjoyable. After all, few things are better than being able to explore new worlds, meet new people, and witness epic battles infused with a real sense of excitement and magic. If you’re a fantasy reader, these are the moments we live for, and this book had a way of satisfying all those little pleasures. From our time with our characters on the high seas, to watching them fight alongside a fishing village against a fleet of attacking slavers, to being with them as they try to save a land leeched of life, it’s never a dull moment with this book. The characters are also memorable, with Nicci being a strong protagonist I could sympathize with and root for. Supporting characters are also well-written and fleshed out, leading to some highly emotional and shocking surprises near the end.
Like I said, I’m very glad I decided to give Death’s Mistress a chance. At times, Goodkind’s writing still has the subtlety of a cudgel and some of his scenes can be a little schmaltzy, but on the whole my experience was a lot better than I expected. Nothing too complicated here in terms of plot, but I think in this case, the straightforward and simple approach worked in the book’s favor, offering readers a chance to just sit back and enjoy the ride....more
Eighteen years after its original publication in Polish, this concluding volume of The Witcher series finally has its official English translation. While fan translations have been around for quite a while now, honestly I thought it was well worth the wait, if nothing else because I got to enjoy the excellent audiobook edition. I started off by reading the books, but then on a whim decided to switch formats once I got to Baptism of Fire and never looked back.
Anyway, the final book of a series is always something special. By this time, the story has taken over your mind and the characters have wormed their way into your heart. While endings can be a delight, oftentimes they are also bittersweet, because you’ve had so much fun on this adventure but now it’s time to say farewell. You start to wonder to yourself what the long awaited finale might be like: will it be everything you ever wanted, or fall short of expectations?
Well, in the case of The Lady of the Lake, my thoughts were mixed. The story begins cryptically, with Sir Galahad of Arthurian legend fame stumbling upon Ciri bathing in a pond. After the knight mistakes her for the Lady of the Lake which causes Ciri to correct his error, the two of them start talking and she begins to recount the tale of what she has been up to since the Tower of Swallows. It seemed that the portal she entered there had taken her to a different world, one where the Elves reigned. Seeing that she was trapped and at his mercy, the Elven king had proposed a bargain: Ciri could have her freedom…but only if she would agree to bear his child.
Meanwhile, back in her home world, the northern armies and the Nilfgaardian forces are still at war. In the middle of all this, Geralt and his companions are also continuing their search for Ciri, but with the recent abduction and imprisonment of Yennefer, the Witcher now has even more troubles on his hands.
It vexes me admit this, but The Lady of the Lake was probably the most confusing of all the books. Not that any of them have shown much linear storytelling, but for this one Sapkowski takes devices like flashbacks, dream sequences, POV switches and time jumps to extremes. This not only made the book feel very disjointed and hard to follow, it also dampened my enthusiasm for the story especially when we went on wild tangents that added zilch to the main plot or followed characters I could not care less about. If it were up to me, I would also have axed much of the ending. In my opinion, too much of the fluff that came after the climax spoiled a lot of the impact.
Now that I’ve gotten my complaints out of the way though, here’s what I did like: 1) Pretty much any scene where Ciri or Geralt and any of his companions or key characters appeared was topnotch. These are the characters I’ve come to know throughout the series and I found it hard to stay focused whenever the attention shifted away to anyone else. 2) Despite all the jumping around we do, there was at least a sense that final volume was trying to pull everything together; whether it’s a nod to events in the previous books or tying up loose ends and bringing things full circle, the narrative made an earnest attempt at closure. 3) All the references to fairy tales, myths and legends. This was one of the aspects I fell in love with when I first picked up The Last Wish so long ago, and it just seemed so apt for this last book to bring me back to those memories. 4) The action sequences were amazing. Obviously, it’s great anytime we get to see Geralt or Ciri kicking ass, but there was also this one epic scene depicting a huge battle which I thought was really well done, transporting the reader into the thick of the fighting.
Overall the book’s strengths outweighed the weaknesses, ultimately making The Lady of the Lake an enjoyable if flawed read. It wasn’t my favorite book of the series, and as an ending, it definitely wasn’t as good as what I’d hoped for. Still, I don’t regret reading it at all. Taken as a whole, The Witcher is a superb series, and I would certainly not discourage anyone to try these books just because I wasn’t a hundred percent pleased with this concluding volume; after all, you’d be missing out on many more great moments on this epic journey. In spite of everything, it was well worth it to see this saga through to the end.
Audiobook Comments: As always, Peter Kenny brings his best. His narration was a big reason why I stuck with the audiobooks for this series, because when he reads he brings the stories and characters to life. The Witcher books are also generally pretty well suited for this format, I find, because of their nonlinear structure, and the stories just seem to flow more smoothly and are less distracting when I’m listening. So if you’re considering tackling this series with the audiobooks, I say go for it; truly I can’t recommend them highly enough....more
Continuing with my ongoing love affair with books about carnivals or circuses, I decided to check out Freeks by Amanda Hocking which features a group of traveling sideshow performers in the 80s as they travel across the country looking for work.
The story stars Mara, a teenager who has practically spent her whole life growing up on the road with Gideon Davorin’s Traveling Carnival. While their show boasts many of the usual attractions, what most folks don’t realize is that many among Gideon’s crew actually possess supernatural powers. For example, they have a telekinetic on staff who helps out with a lot of their magician’s “tricks”. Their trapeze artist has abilities to manipulate the air around him so that he can never fall. Mara’s own mother is a fortune teller who gains insights about her clients’ lives by being able to commune with the dead. However, despite being surrounded by these powered individuals and being the daughter of one herself, Mara has no special abilities. She has sometimes wondered what it might be like to settle down and live like “normal” people, but the carnival is the only family she has ever known, and even though the going can get tough sometimes, Mara loves her life and can’t imagine it any other way.
That is, until Gideon takes up a contract to set up camp in a small southern town named Caudry, and sparks fly between Mara and Gabe, a handsome local boy she meets at a party. Mara likes Gabe—a lot—and he seems to like her too. But how would he feel once he finds out she is a carnie? On the other hand…does he even need to know? By this time in two weeks the sideshow will be on the road again and Mara would be on her way to their next destination; if the relationship is doomed to fail anyway, she sees no harm in withholding a few personal details, especially since Gabe seems to be keeping some secrets himself. Before long though, Mara has more pressing matters to worry about. One by one, members of Gideon’s crew go missing or come under attack, savaged by some mysterious creature. Caudry also seems to be giving off some strange, bad vibes. The carnival came here in the hopes of making some extra revenue, but if the incidents keep up at this rate, Mara fears they’ll run out of performers long before their contract is up.
What I didn’t realize before starting this book was how prominently it would be featuring the romantic side plot. While that by itself isn’t always a negative, it is somewhat frustrating when you get teased all these other fascinating elements in the story, such as the sideshow’s supernatural performers and all the peculiar goings-on happening around Caudry. I wanted more of the carnival life, more details on the backgrounds and personalities of the people working there, and more development into the mysteries of the town. But instead, most of what we got was Gabe, Gabe, and more Gabe. The story keeps shoving his and Mara’s relationship down our throats and I can’t help but think way too many pages were wasted in this area.
Plus, after all this buildup to the grand finale where supposedly huge revelations would be revealed, the results were decidedly underwhelming. When all is said and done, the mystery felt much smaller than it was meant to be, and reasons are clear as to why: there’s actually very little plot in this book. Like I said, most of it is padded by the romance, and I won’t deny that this is somewhat disappointing. Hocking has set up something really cool here, creating a world where people with supernatural abilities live among us, then shining a spotlight on a traveling sideshow run by many of these special individuals. However, instead of exploring this aspect, she has decided to go with the tired and well-trod route of “yet another YA romance” while adding nothing too new or different to the formula. Big time missed opportunity here, which is what gripes me the most.
In sum, Freeks had the potential to be more but ended up being rather average. Too much emphasis was placed on what was arguably a lackluster romance complete with stale dialogue and hints of insta-love, while regrettably the best and most interesting aspects of the story were underplayed. The book wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great, just another ordinary middle-of-the-road YA fantasy novel.
Audiobook Comments: I’m glad that I listened to the audiobook version of Freeks, otherwise my rating might have been slightly lower. The performance by narrator Em Eldridge made up for some of the weaknesses of the story, as talented voice actors and actresses are able to do sometimes. For one thing, she’s great at accents—when a character’s description states that they have a southern drawl, for example, that is exactly what she delivers. Her energy also gives life and personality to everyone in the story, especially Mara. I believe this is the first book I’ve ever listened to Ms. Eldridge read, but I’ll definitely be looking for more audiobooks narrated by her in the future....more
I fucking loved this book. The Grey Bastards went down like a shot of good top-shelf tequila: warm and smooth, but with one hell of a spicy kick. If SPFBO has taught me any lessons, it’s that you never know what you’re going to get when you pick up a self-published novel, but many stars aligned to make this one work immensely well for me. It happened to perfectly fit my tastes, for one. With a title and cover like that, you can be sure this dark epic fantasy will have plenty of grit and violence. Throw in some breakneck pacing and a dash of that crude and vulgar brand of humor, then you’ve got yourself a recipe for a good time.
The story follows a half-orc named Jackal who is sworn to the The Grey Bastards hoof, one of the eight brotherhoods of former slaves that now live on the land known as the Lots. Shunned by humans but also hostile to the orcs, the mongrel bands are all that’s left standing between the city of Hispartha and the forces that want to see it fall.
Life among the hoofs has its own trials, however. Long has Jackal wanted to challenge their warchief Claymaster for leadership of The Grey Bastards, but because a failed bid can mean his own death, our protagonist is prepared to wait until he has more support beyond that of his good friends, Oats and Fetch.
Still, that was before their so-called allies started turning against them, or before the Claymaster started sparing their orc enemies instead of swiftly dispatching them, and certainly before before a wily wizard named Crafty managed to weasel his way into the warchief’s good graces. More and more, Jackal is noticing erratic behavior in their gnarled and plague-ridden leader, reaffirming his beliefs that the old half-orc should be deposed. The final straw finally comes in the form of an elf girl named Starling, whom Jackal rescues from a terrible fate. Vehemently disagreeing with the Claymaster on their next course of action, Jackal feels he has no choice but to throw down his ax—thus declaring his challenge and sealing his fate for the inevitable course of turmoil to come.
So yeah, I liked this book. I liked it a lot. And thing is, there isn’t any one aspect of the story that I can single out and claim that I liked the most, since it was the culmination of all of its parts—and all at once—that made The Grey Bastards such a memorable and spectacularly good read. I enjoyed how the plot started small before snowballing to become something much bigger, and at no point did it take a step back or even pause for a breather; there was only aggressive forward motion, constantly driving forward.
I’ll also admit a love for reading dark fantasy featuring raw, gritty, foul-mouthed and violence-seeking characters—call me old softie, but I reserve a special place in my heart for these kinds of anti-heroes. However, an author can wind up with a whole cast of virtually indistinguishable characters if they’re not careful, which is a common pitfall for books in this genre. Fortunately though, French manages to avoid this problem in The Grey Bastards, giving all his half-orc characters their own unique and individual personalities. Jackal is our main protagonist, with his lofty ambitions which can sometimes blind him to other perspectives around him. In part, this book is the story of how he finally opens his eyes to see the big picture, but the journey to get there is a tough one indeed. Lucky for Jackal, he has his friends to back him up. Oats is a thrice (so called because they are three-quarters orc, making them physically larger than their half-orc brethren) who is as loyal as they come, and rounding out the inseparable trio is Fetch, the only female in the Grey Bastards who had to fight tooth and nail for her position in the hoof. Like all friendships, the three of them have their ups and downs, but the well-developed relationships between them made these dynamics very convincing.
In terms of story, The Grey Bastards was a book that pulled me in straight away. It’s fun and exciting, full of unexpected twists and turns, though I feel I have to warn prospective readers that this is not one for the faint of heart. If you are easily turned off by brutal graphic violence or crude and offensive language, then this is probably not for you. French pulls no punches in this vicious and no-holds-barred world full of orcs, humans, elves, halflings, and even centaurs all fighting one and another, with scenes of skirmishing and great battles punctuating the narrative every few chapters. This sets a very fast and readable pace with rich world-building that is not so much inserted as it is integrated into the story, often done in a seamless way that is in context with the events playing out on the page. This has got to be one of the most interesting and fleshed-out fantasy worlds I have ever read, and the author made it all seem so effortless.
In case you couldn’t tell, I am beyond impressed with The Grey Bastards. In reading it I got to experience a strikingly vivid world come to life before my eyes, populated by characters who are at once wild and wonderful. Jonathan French is a fantastic writer and talented storyteller who has created a very special gem here, and the story even ends with potential for our characters to engage in more future adventures. Here’s hoping Jackal and his fellow Bastards will get a sequel soon, because you can bet I’ll be all over that....more
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
With the deft touch of a master storyteller, Peter S. Beagle weaves a strong thread of mythology into this gorgeous and emotional tale about love, sacrifice, and courage. Reading In Calabria is like stepping through a veil and into a dream, crossing into that secret and magical place where everyday life comes face to face with the fantastical. It’s an unforgettable, stunning experience.
In a small village nestled in the peaceful and scenic countryside of Southern Italy, there lives a man named Claudio Bianchi. Becoming increasingly aloof and grumpy in his middle age, he prefers to keep to himself on his farm, tending to his crops and animals while writing poetry in his spare time. His only regular visitor is a postman who comes to his place twice a week to drop off his mail. Life is quiet, routine and uncomplicated, and it’s the way Bianchi likes it. But that all changes in an instant, when our protagonist looks outside one morning and spies an impossible creature gazing back at him from his fields. It is a golden-white unicorn—heavily pregnant too, if Bianchi isn’t mistaken—and for some reason, she has chosen his farm as the place to give birth.
All of a sudden, Bianchi is filled with a new sense of purpose and inspiration. He has promised La Signora, the name he has given the unicorn, that he will keep her and her baby safe. His poetry also come more easily to him now, with her in his life. That peace, however, turns out to be short-lived. Eventually, the rumors start spreading that unicorns have made their home on Bianchi’s land. His farm is sudden swamped by media, trophy hunters, and all manner of nosy busybodies. But worst of all, there are the ‘Ndrangheta, an organized crime group based in Calabria who have come to Bianchi with an offer to buy his farm and the unicorns on it, threatening him with dire consequences if he refuses.
Magical realism fans are going to want to take note for this one. It’s a short and simple tale, but packed with some powerful themes. I’ve always loved stories with unicorns in them, especially those that portray them in meaningful ways, and if anyone can be relied upon to write a book that does just that, it is Peter S. Beagle. The unicorn has long been a symbol of purity and healing, and as we watch Bianchi’s life unfold, it becomes clear that he is in desperate need of some of that magic himself, as much as he may want to deny it. His character is taciturn, a little standoffish, but you can also tell Bianchi is a man who takes pride in his independence and accomplishments. Behind that gruff exterior is a kind heart and plenty of evidence that he cares about the people around him, which is why I found him likable despite his flaws.
There was also a romantic side plot in this that I didn’t see coming, nor did I expect to enjoy it so much. There’s a considerable age difference between the protagonist and his love interest, and while in general May-December relationships can be tricky to pull off, I thought the portrayal of Bianchi and Giovanna’s courtship was sweet, sympathetic, and subtle enough that it doesn’t take too much from the main story. It always warms my heart to read about two very different people coming together, finding an understanding and connection that ultimately leads to something more.
The setting is also something that stands out. This story of course takes place in the eponymous southern Italian region in a bucolic community characterized by hills and farms. The world is presented as this almost surreal mix of the modern and the traditional, showing the juxtaposition between things like smartphones and ski resorts to Bianchi’s low-tech farm and his ancient, barely-running Studebaker. In my opinion, it’s the perfect backdrop for a story like this; if you can suspend reality for a moment and imagine the possibility of unicorns just magically popping up somewhere in the world, I can easily picture it happening in a place like this.
Needless to say, I really enjoyed this book. It’s a short, quick read, but despite its novella-length page count, In Calabria will draw you in and make you feel like a part of its breathtaking world. Highly recommended for readers who love genuine characters, evocative settings, and storytelling with a touch of pure magic....more
What an amazing surprise this was! Though to be honest, I had no idea what to expect at first, only that from the moment I saw the book description for The Valiant, I knew I had to read it. I make it no secret that I am fascinated with anything to do with Ancient Rome, and so historical fiction set in this time period is like an instant Mogsy magnet. And secondly, FEMALE GLADIATORS.
The story follows Fallon, daughter of a Celtic king and younger sister to the late legendary warrior Sorcha who fell to the legions of Julius Caesar while fighting in defense of her homeland. Despite a druid’s prophecy predicting that she will meet the same end as her sister, Fallon remains undaunted and determined to follow in Sorcha’s footsteps, hoping to one day join her father’s fighting force. She even turns down a marriage proposal from the boy she loves, knowing she must make her mark on the world before she could make such a commitment.
However, when the big day finally comes, instead of formally accepting Fallon into his war band, her father instead surprises everyone by announcing her betrothal to her true love’s brother, a Roman sympathizer. The king cites political reasons for his decision, and also because he cannot bear the thought of losing another daughter to war, but Fallon is unappeased and furious at what she sees as a betrayal.
At this point, you might think you know how this story will play out, or that all the components are laid out on the table. Within the first handful of chapters, we are introduced to a protagonist who has spent her entire life worshiping her older sister while also growing up in her shadow, and even after Sorcha’s death, all Fallon wants is to live up to her memory. Then there are the two boys around Fallon’s own age who for years have been fostered at her father’s castle, vying for Fallon’s affections. But while Fallon fell in love with one, her father decided to marry her off to the other. “Oh, this is a scenario that feels a little familiar,” I thought. “I have a few guesses about what might happen.”
Well, I was wrong about that. There were definitely plenty of surprises, a couple of which came very early on in the book too. I’m not going to spoil what they are, but suffice to say, they altered my predictions for the story entirely. Fallon ends up being captured by slavers and shipped off to Rome, where her steel resolve catches the attention of a representative for a school for female gladiators, and the rest, as they say, is history.
While The Valiant is marketed as a YA fantasy, in fact gladiatrices did exist in ancient Roman times, though they were very, very rare. They were seen more as novelties, according to the few accounts that have survived. And more than likely, they were not viewed or treated with the same regard as their male counterparts. No evidence either has been found of the training of female gladiators, or schools dedicated to them. So in a sense, this book does fall into the historical fantasy category, in the way it attempts to imagine a picture of what life would have been like if gladiatrices had been a big part of ancient Roman culture, in and out of the arena.
By combining history and elements from her own incredible imagination, the author brings the vivid world of The Valiant to life. Details are noticeably on the lighter side when it comes to setting, but Livingston makes up for it by creating an atmosphere that feels distinctly and authentically “Ancient Roman”, allowing readers to fill in any gaps with their own knowledge or understanding of the time period. I also loved the protagonist. At times, I might have found her a tad too melodramatic, but other than that, I don’t really have any major complaints about Fallon or any of the other characters. As I mentioned before, the story is sufficiently unpredictable and I was taken by surprise by a couple plot points. I might also have bemoaned the lack of gladiatorial fights in the first half of the book, but the second half showed me why it’s important to be patient. Towards the end, the ferocious action and the intense thrills succeeded in blowing me away.
In case you couldn’t tell, I loved this book. The category for my favorite YA novel of 2017 officially has its first contender, folks. If there’s any justice in the world, this book will be huge and it will deserve all the attention it gets. The future of this series promises to be exciting both on and off the arena floor, and I can’t wait to read more of Fallon and her sisterhood of ruthless and tough gladiators.
Audiobook Comments: I was lucky enough to be offered the audiobook of The Valiant for review, and I found it to be another splendid example of a fast-paced and addictive listen. Personally, thought the narrator Fiona Hardingham did a great job voicing Fallon’s story. I love her accent and the emotions she puts into her reading, and I would not hesitate to recommend The Valiant audiobook to anyone considering this format....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
If you’ve been following along with the progress of this year’s SPFBO competition, then I don’t have to tell you, 2016’s crop of finalists all look incredible, and of the top ten books remaining in this second phase, one of the ones I’ve looked forward to reading a lot is Phil Tucker’s The Path of Flames. From its description, I had a feeling this would be a novel right up my alley—epic fantasy with a bit of an old-school feel, featuring a standard secondary world wracked with war and dark sorcery while courageous heroes go head-to-head with dastardly villains. There’s a certain kind of comfort and pleasure I take from reading stories like these, mainly because I know that at the end of the day, I’ll enjoy myself no matter what happens. And sure enough, I had a blast with this book.
In typical fashion though, The Path of Flames opens with a battle scene. Still, what a battle! This first chapter also introduces us to one of our main characters, a young Bythian squire named Asho fighting on the side of Lord Kyferin and his famous Black Wolves. However, the enemy’s unexpected use of foul magic leads to tragedy, and Asho is knighted in a twist of fate, tasked to return home alone to tell his Lady Iskra Kyferin that her husband and all his men have all been slaughtered on the battlefield.
Upon receiving the news, Iskra reacts solemnly but is secretly pleased; her husband had not been a good man in life, having abused Iskra and Asho both. But Lord Kyferin’s daughter Kethe is heartbroken, having idolized her father, even going as far as to train secretly as a knight in order to follow in his footsteps. With Lord Kyferin now dead though, this does spell trouble for everyone. Almost all the Black Wolves have perished, leaving the castle defenseless and Iskra no choice but to shore up her remaining forces and seek out new allies. Unfortunately, news of her husband’s death has spread and the vultures are already circling. Despite Iskra’s efforts to protect her people, a sudden betrayal ends up destroying her carefully laid plans, plunging her and all those loyal to her into danger.
As you can see, the story encompasses many of the traditional elements and conventional tropes found in fantasy, though to leave it at that would also be simplifying things and not giving this book the credit it deserves. While I can see the influence of genre classics and fantasy role-playings games on the author’s writing, Phil Tucker does have a few surprises up his sleeve, putting some fresh spins on familiar ideas.
He’s done a phenomenal job on his characters, for instance, creating fully developed backstories for them. Take Asho, whose Bythian heritage makes him the target of scorn in this society that worships the Ascendancy, a religion that divides humanity into a caste system. Lord Kyferin may have plucked him from his homeland as a child, raising him in his own household and even making him a squire, but everyone can see these acts for the empty gestures that they are and still look upon Asho with distaste for being in the lowest “tier” of the Ascendancy. Then there’s Kethe, a young noblewoman who prefers sword fighting to needlework. Again, this is in no way a new idea in fantasy, but Kethe’s complicated history with her father and another character named Ser Tiron puts her decision to become a knight into a more compelling context. In this way, Tucker weaves characterization together with world-building, so that everything is presented to us as a full package. While information might be revealed in tiny chunks and pieces at first, the reader will soon realize that everything is connected. Even Tharok, the kragh whose storyline confounded me for much of the novel became a puzzle piece that fell into place by the end.
It also helped that I loved the writing. Tucker’s style is very descriptive without being weighed down by wordiness, which I think is why his battle scenes come across so well. A good thing too, because there’s a lot of action in this book, ranging from one-on-one duels to sweeping epic battles—and at one point, there’s even a gladiatorial style tournament thrown into the mix. The book’s plot might be your standard fantasy fare, but the story’s pacing never slows down simply because something interesting is always happening on the page. The author’s excellent prose and the novel’s unflagging momentum meant that I finished this sizeable book in a little more than two days—a clear sign of an addictive read.
All told, The Path of Flames was a great series opener, establishing plenty of potential for the later books. It’s a solid gem of an indie epic fantasy novel, which I would highly recommend if you ever feel the hankering for something fascinating and fun, with that traditional yet timeless feel. I’ve already added the next book to my reading list....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
Rarely have I read a story where my thoughts at the end are such a complete turnaround from my thoughts at the beginning. When I first started Gilded Cage, I was beyond pumped–the excellent writing, solid world-building, and strong portrayals of the main characters all made me think this book was going to have everything I wanted. Yet by the time I finished, I could barely even put my feelings into words. I didn’t love it, but I also didn’t hate it. The whole thing just left me cold.
In the alternate world of this young adult dystopian, Great Britain is nation starkly divided along class lines. The Equals are the ruling elites who run the government, live on sprawling estates, and enjoy the power granted to them by their magical gifts. Then there are the commoners, who may be the majority, but they have no representation and are expected to submit themselves to a mandatory ten-year term of service to the Equals. This period is called their “slavedays”, in which they will have all their rights stripped away and no longer be considered citizens.
When the story begins, we are introduced to a family about to begin their slavedays. Siblings Abi, Luke, and Daisy Hadley have been arranged to accompany their parents assigned to the Jardine estate, home of one of the most prominent nobles in Equal society. However, on the day the Hadleys are scheduled to depart, a misunderstanding occurs and 16-year-old Luke is instead separated from his family and shipped off to the slavetown of Millmoor. Feeling desperate and alone, he befriends a group of fellow slaves who teach him how to survive, which in turn makes Luke realize there are more ways to fight back than he’d previously believed.
Meanwhile at the Jardine estate, the rest of the Hadley family are exposed to all the political intrigues and scheming of the Lord and Lady Whittam, along with their three sons Gavar, Jenner, and Silyen. Nevertheless, Abi ends up falling for one of the noble-born young men against her better judgment, putting her in the terrible place of questioning her loyalties and having to decide between freedom and love.
Despite its hackneyed dystopian premise and the overly simplistic concepts, I really did enjoy the first part of this book. From Animal Farm to The Hunger Games, you see a lot of the same themes get used over and over for these types of stories, and yet I never seem to get enough. While the core ideas behind Gilded Cage might not be anything we haven’t seen before, I did enjoy seeing Vic James’ take on them and her attempt to inject a few twists. The prologue was a perfect ten what it came to capturing my attention, and what I read in first few chapters made me want to know more. The writing was also delectable.
So I was shocked when it hit me; somewhere around the quarter to midway point, all my previous enthusiasm had somehow drained away, and I hadn’t even realized it was happening. It just occurred to me suddenly that I was bored, I didn’t really care about the characters, and I was zoning out more and more. The feeling was ambivalence, also known as the death knell of a book under review.
Here’s what I think happened: 1) over time, the strength of the story began eroding due to too many POVs. I couldn’t help but feel the author was trying to emulating the structure and style of an epic fantasy, except, of course, Gilded Cage is not an epic fantasy. 2) The story got hung up on too many unnecessary details. Don’t get me wrong, though. Details are nice. Details are important. But when I find I can zone out or forget everything that was said for several pages at a time, and then have it make absolutely no difference at all in the end, that’s a problem. 3) The split storytelling between the Jardine estate and Millmoor was an interesting decision, but I’m not sure that it was carried out too well. While it was nice seeing a picture of both sides of the world, the ultimate effect was neither here nor there. I couldn’t form a connection to either storyline, and ended up shrugging off both.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it. I’m disappointed. What started off so promising ended up making me feel so…blah. Still, that’s not to say the book didn’t have it strengths. I recommend giving it a try if the description interests you. It has also been received very positively by a lot of other readers, and I encourage everyone to check out their reviews for another perspective because they do a fantastic job covering all of the story’s charms and high points. Simply put though, the strengths were not enough to overcome the ennui I felt for most of the book, which stumbled after a great beginning and unfortunately never recovered its momentum....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
Pride and Prejudice retellings and other Austenesque-inspired stories have traditionally been hit-or-miss with me, but there was something about Heartstone that drew me to it right away. Might it have been the dragons? Okay yeah, it was the dragons.
While I’ll be the first to admit I’m no aficionado on the works of Jane Austen, I am familiar enough with Pride and Prejudice to know that Heartstone is actually a pretty faithful rendition of the original, in some places following the plot so closely that I was surprised the author took such a direct route. The story follows Aliza Bentaine, the second of five daughters in a family living at Merybourne Manor. Their home has been set upon by monsters as of late, and six months ago tragedy struck as Aliza’s youngest sister was attacked and killed by one of the wild gryphons that have invaded the surrounding woods. This has led to the arrival of a band of Riders who have come to Merybourne to eradicate the creatures, and among them are the warriors Master Brysney and Master Daired.
Excited to have two noble bachelors visit the household, Aliza’s mother quickly ensures that her daughters would be present at the party to receive the Riders, and her hopes are answered as Brysney takes an immediate liking to Anjey, the eldest. Aliza herself, however, is unimpressed by Daired, whom she finds rude, arrogant, and standoffish. It also didn’t help that due to a hilarious misunderstanding, Daired started off their introductions by kicking Aliza’s good friend Tobble the hobgoblin clear across the yard. But in order to be polite to their guests, Aliza makes an effort to get to know the Riders and help them hunt the gryphon hordes in any way she can, even befriending Daired’s majestic mount, the dragon Akarra.
The publisher blurb for this book describes it as Elle Katharine White infusing Austen’s classic with her own brand of magic, and I find that wholly accurate. If you know your Pride and Prejudice, many of the major plot points in Heartstone won’t come as much of a surprise, i.e. just as Elizabeth and Darcy manage to find common ground and eventually fall in love, Aliza and Daired also come to an understanding with each other and gradually a romance blossoms between them. With the exception of the ending, I wouldn’t say that the strength of Heartstone is in its story since most of the plot closely mirrors the original, but what really shines is the world-building. White doesn’t stop at populating her book with all sorts of extraordinary creatures from hobgoblins and wyverns to lamias and lindworms, for she has also fleshed out the world with a vibrant culture that’s entirely of her own imagination. I loved how this world had its own history and religion, and even the dragons had their own set of traditions. One of the elements I most appreciated about this book was the fact that White did not set out to copy Austen’s style or reproduce the Regency period, because I doubt that would have worked as well for me.
Still, just when you think you’ve taken this book’s measure, the author does have a couple surprises hidden up her sleeve, waiting for the perfect time to spring them on the unsuspecting reader. I had briefly mentioned the ending, which definitely deserves more attention. For one thing, you most certainly won’t find anything like it in the original, and in a way I’m really glad this is where White decided to go “off-script” because otherwise I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed this book so much. Pride and Prejudice retelling or not, when a story features wyvern and dragon-riding warriors, I think it’s a safe bet that most readers would expect a battle scene or two to see them in action, and in this regard, I’m pleased to say Heartstone did not disappoint. That epic ending capped off what was for the most part a relatively tame and faithful retelling, and it was exactly what the book needed because I don’t think things could have wrapped up more perfectly.
In sum, Heartstone is described as a Pride and Prejudice retelling with fantasy elements, and for better or worse, that is exactly what you get—as in, right up until the grand finale, the plot matches up with the original almost perfectly, down to the similarity in character names, which at times can feel a bit disconcerting. That said though, I thought the decision to depart from the Regency style and language made this book a lot more readable and engaging, and the author’s own additions to the world are wonderfully original and well integrated. Whether you’re an Austen fan or not, I think you’ll also find that the world-building elements are a key highlight along with the story’s superb ending, and despite its strength of being a rather close retelling, there’s no denying Heartstone was at its best when it was doing its own thing, delving into the fantastical. All told it was a delightful experience that felt comfortably familiar and fresh all at once, and I highly recommend it....more