Ever wondered what a tournament joust would look like, if both opponents were charging full-tilt towards each other while mounted on three tons of bellowing hadrosaurus? Honestly, I can’t say I have. But Victor Milán has shown me the light, and it is glorious.
Knights and dinosaurs. Tell me you can resist that, because I know I couldn’t.
The Dinosaur Lords takes place in the Empire of Neuvaropa, a fictional land reminiscent of 14th century Europe. The story opens with a great battle. Famed noble captain Karyl Bogomirskiy and his mercenary Triceratops army (though Karyl himself rides Shiraa the magnificent matador, an Allosaurus) are betrayed and then promptly crushed by the forces of Count Jaume Llobregat and Duke Falk von Hornberg. Karyl dies and is resurrected — twice, actually – and eventually joins up with dinosaur master Rob Korrigan to travel to Providence, where they are recruited by the adherents of the Garden of Truth and Beauty to defend their lands and train their troops.
Meanwhile in the capital, the princess Melodía awaits the return of her lover Jaume from his campaign. She becomes increasingly concerned over the war, as well as the rivalries and intrigues within her father’s court. It is especially troubling, given how easily influenced the emperor can be without the presence of his right hand man. Furthermore, unbeknownst to all, the Eight Creator’s mysterious cadre of Grey Angels stand witness to the games of power playing out before them – watching…and waiting.
This is a fantastic introduction to a new series featuring engaging characters and a fun and addictive story. But let’s first talk about the dinosaurs, and about how they make everything better. If that’s what initially drew you to The Dinosaur Lords, you’re probably not alone; I myself confess that they were the huge driving force behind me finally breaking down and requesting a copy of this for review. And yet, the presence of dinos is far from being just a shtick to draw attention. Milán has deftly integrated them fully into the fantasy world of his novel, portraying his vision of a human culture that evolved side-by-side with these creatures.
Not surprisingly, a myriad species of dinosaurs in this story have been domesticated by people for different uses, including but not limited to food, beasts of burden, beloved companions, and of course, prized mounts. Ultimately, dinosaurs are undeniably an integral part the characters’ everyday lives – their folklore, their traditions and even their metaphors. They’re so ubiquitous that a lot of the time, you forget they’re even there, so seamlessly are they incorporated into the world-building. As you can imagine, there are endless possibilities when it comes to the role of dinosaurs in a medieval-like setting. The author explores many of them, and as a result, we readers win. I was especially impressed and thrilled by the battle scenes involving the mounted cavalr—er, dinosaurry. To paraphrase Jaume, a knight’s greatest weapon is his war-dinosaur, and vice versa.
By the way, have I mentioned the beautiful flavor artwork that adorns the first page of each chapter?
Featuring a huge variety of species, this book will be a real treat for any dinosaur lover. And you can imagine my relief to have my kid’s Big Book of Dinosaurs on hand to look up the “true names” of all those described in these pages.
I could probably go on at length about the dinosaurs, but of course this isn’t just all about them. For once a cover blurb actually rings true for me after I read the book. Within the first handful of chapters, the story’s “Game of Thrones vibe” made itself apparent with a focus on courtly politics and the fates of kings, princesses, and nobles on the line. Probably not surprising that The Dinosaur Lords is just as much about lords is it is about dinosaurs. Leaving all the things like dinosaurs and the gigantic insects of this world aside though, there’s actually little in the way of fantasy elements apart from a very subtle thread of magic woven in. Thus even though this world is not our own, it’s easier to imagine this book as a historical fantasy rather than a general epic.
Story-wise, with the exception of a couple instances in the middle where I thought the quick bouncing back and forth of POVs was erratic and perplexing, the narrative was generally well-structured and the pacing was spot on. My only other regret was not seeing Melodía, who was my favorite, in a more significant role relative to Rob’s or Jaume’s. This isn’t the first time I’ve read a series-starter feeling that the main female character was underused compared to other perspective characters, and I hope she’ll feature more prominently in the sequel and have a stronger effect on the story.
I guess that addresses the question of whether or not I’ll continue with the series. My answer is absolutely, yes, sign me up for the next book! Fan of dinosaurs? Then you’ve got to read this novel. Even if you do pick this up for love of dinosaurs alone, you’re guaranteed to leave with a lot more than just that, no matter what. Totally worth it....more
The Price of Valor is the third book of The Shadow Campaigns, of which five books have been planned so we are officially now past the half-way point. An epic fantasy series is often at its most precarious when we get to this tricky place between the introduction and the ending, where arguably the best action and excitement is usually packed. However, it appears Django Wexler is not content to slow things down or let his story languish. Not only does he succeed in carrying through the momentum for the rest of the series, he’s also transformed this middle book into an important turning point.
So far, each installment of the series has given readers something different. Book one The Thousand Names threw us into the middle of a war and treated us to many scenes of large-scale conflict and sweeping battles. Book two The Shadow Throne reined in the scope, concentrating instead on the politics and subsequent revolution in the capital of Vordan. Now book three The Price of Valor is like an amalgamation of both, so that half the narrative remains in the city in the wake of the successful uprising, while the other half takes us back onto the bloody battlefields.
In the wake of her father’s death, Princess Raesenia is now the queen. After an attempt is made on her life, she suspects that the new leader of the Deputies-General is responsible, and goes undercover to search for evidence. Remaining behind in the capital as the representative of the army, Colonel Marcus d’Ivoire finds himself teaming up with the young queen, tasked to protect her and to help her root out those who want her dead. Little does he know though, Raesenia might have a secret or two up her sleeve which would actually make her rather hard to kill…
Meanwhile, Winter Ihernglass is back out in the east, trying to win the war for General Janus bet Vhalnich. She has been promoted and given her own regiment to command, including the new all-women company called the Girl’s Own, though ironically Winter’s own gender still remains a secret to the army, save for a few individuals who are in the know. Among those who are aware of Winter’s secret is her lover Jane, whose hatred for the contingent of Royals in the regiment is making Winter’s job very difficult. Lurking behind the scenes are also the agents of an ancient order called the Priests of the Black, whose Penitent Damned will harness the power of their demons to do whatever it takes to stop the Vordanai army and retrieve the priceless magical artifact known as The Thousand Names.
I was so pleased to see that the military action is back in full force for this sequel. Taking a break to delve into political intrigue and rebellion in book two was a nice change of pace, but I admit my interest mostly lies in the war campaign and the huge battles. Wexler doesn’t disappoint, throwing in plenty of heart-racing encounters with the enemy. Reading some of Winter’s chapters was a little like watching a session of wargames play out across a vast gameboard, with troop actions directed by a shrewd chessmaster who is aware of every piece’s location at all times. In point of fact, these qualities closely describe Janus bet Vhalnich, the military genius whose presence is actually quite limited in the first half of the novel, which made the wargames analogy that much more apt in my mind.
The general’s craftiness is not lost on Jane either, and Winter’s storyline is also made more interesting by the increasingly strained relationship between the two women. Winter’s loyalties are put to the test when she is made to choose between the two things she holds most dear, and I have to hand it to the author for not making that choice trivial. There’s a lot of development to Winter’s character in this book, and I respect her all the more for the difficult decisions she’s had to make about her lover, whom I’ve taken to calling “Insufferable Jane” due to all the problems she’s caused (and that’s already one of my more polite names for her). The road to the eventual camaraderie between the Girl’s Own and the Royals was also fun to read, and made for a good side plot to lighten up the otherwise heavy narrative focused on intense fighting and the resulting casualties.
Still, I was wrong when I thought the best part about this book would be the military action, because what surprised me was how much I enjoyed Marcus and Raesenia’s storyline back in the city of Vordan. Raesenia really grew on me back when she was introduced in The Shadow Throne and I was happy to see her return as a POV character in this one. To see her partner up with Marcus – who has always been my favorite character in these novels – was a real treat. Together they make a great team (and dare I hope, could Wexler be planting the seeds of something more happening between them in the future?) and their investigations into the corrupt government saw their Vordan chapters culminate into one hell of an epic showdown with the Patriot Guards and the Penitent Damned.
Speaking of which, we’re definitely making some real headway into the overall story. I’ve been wondering since the end of the first book when we’ll see some major advancement into the conflict caused by the discovery of The Thousand Names, and when the Black Priests will show their hand. Looks like this book is where it all happens. I did say The Price of Valor is a turning point, and you’ll see why. Even after three books, the impact of the stories have not dulled a single bit.
Needless to say, I’m very excited for the next installment. It’s easy to get caught up in The Shadow Campaigns. Django Wexler’s riveting world of dark magic and martial action featuring strong characters – and especially strong women – is one I’ll want to visit again and again. Military fantasy at its finest....more
Marc Turner’s When the Heavens Fall was a book that snuck quietly onto my radar earlier this year. I knew next to nothing about it beyond the official publisher’s description, and so as with most things shrouded in mystery, I was instantly intrigued and hoping it would score a surprise hit. In retrospect, my first impressions might have been different if I had kept my expectations more in line, but even after they were tempered I knew I probably wouldn’t be shelving this one under my favorites. That’s not to say it’s a bad book, because this is a very solid debut. However, some parts just didn’t work for me as well as it probably would for other readers.
At first glance, this seemed like your classic quest narrative. All the characters and events appeared to be linked to the theft of an extremely powerful and dangerous magical artifact called the Book of Lost Souls. Hidden long ago by the death god Shroud, a rogue mage called Mayot Mencada has since uncovered the tome and spirited it away deep into the Forest of Sighs. This sparks the beginning of the story for four different characters, each with their own agendas. Luker is a former Guardian who embarks on this journey to search not for the book but for his mentor, who was the last person to go after Mayot. Tasked to keep an eye on things is a priestess named Romany, whose patron goddess the Spider was the one who manipulated Mayot into stealing the book in the first place. Then there’s Ebon, heir to a kingdom on the edge of the Forest of Sighs, who is also plagued by voices of spirits in his head. And finally, there’s Parolla, a young woman who seeks entry into Shroud’s realm to settle an old debt with the Lord of the Dead himself.
I think most epic fantasies I’ve read are structured in a way so that each chapter is given to a different character perspective in order to keep all the points-of-view straight. However, When the Heavens Fall does not follow this format, instead switching from viewpoint to viewpoint randomly within chapters, which is one reason why the first 100 pages gave me so much trouble. This constant jumping around – especially when the story is dealing with multiple characters in different locations – gives the introduction a sense of disorganization. This section also holds a lot of background information, and the fact that it’s so densely packed slows down the pacing quite a bit.
To its credit, the book picks up by a lot after the first half. It’s not a coincidence that this is also when the four different storylines begin to converge and when I finally started to spot the connections. Each plot thread does have its ups and downs, though. For example, Luker’s story didn’t capture my interest until the finale, since so much of his story about search for the book/his mentor felt like wheels spinning in place. after losing much of its traction past the first few chapters. On the other hand, Parolla’s story was just the opposite; so much about her was an unknown in the intro, but the more I learned about her and her quest, the more excited I became about her character. And because Romany so often dealt in the metaphysical realm and appeared in a spiritual form, that abstraction might have predisposed me against her chapters. Perhaps the only one whose story I consistently enjoyed was Ebon’s, with his struggles to protect his kingdom in the face of undead attackers and dubious allies. When the four characters find themselves all together in the final showdown against Mayot though, that’s when things get real. This is a very large and intricate web that Marc Turner has spun, and while it does take a little patience, I promise everything will eventually click into place. The ending is truly superb.
I see in Marc Turner’s profile that he names Steven Erikson and Joe Abercrombie as his major influences. After reading When the Heavens Fall, I can definitely see that, though I would say his writing style leans more towards the former author than the latter. Certainly I feel it is closer to Erikson than Patrick Rothfuss, who is the one mentioned in the book’s blurb. I’ve seen several reviewers compare this one to the Malazan books, and in fact I agree they are quite similar in style and tone with that dark, epic feel. Magic is a very complex and abstract concept here, and in a novel like this which is not immune to its fair share of common fantasy tropes, I have to say the system of necromancy and dark sorcery is its most unique and striking aspect.
All in all, this was a good book, though I won’t deny there were many parts that presented a real struggle. The biggest obstacle was the pacing, which was uneven in parts and slowed the momentum. Furthermore, it’s possible my enjoyment was impeded by the fact this might not even be the type of epic fantasy I would normally go for. It’s interesting to note I couldn’t get into Erikson’s Malazan either, so the problem likely isn’t with the book, it’s with me. What this means is I can see When the Heavens Fall working extremely well for some readers, but I just wasn’t swept off my feet. For you, this could end up one of your favorite reads this year. For me, it was an experience I wish I could have enjoyed more. Still, I don’t regret reading this. It was a new and refreshing encounter with a very different kind of sword and sorcery....more
I was never a really good student of history. But my family background being Chinese, I’ve always been taught to embrace my heritage. I grew up listening and adoring the history and legendary tales of Ancient China told to me by my parents and grandparents, who have learned these things themselves when they were children. My great uncle was also fond of watching old Wuxia operas and historical dramas, and he used to record these and leave the tapes at our house for the curious and unsuspecting adolescent me to find. They were…interesting.
It might seem like I’m zipping off on a tangent here, but really, I’m trying my best to explain why I loved this book so much. I read The Grace of Kings with a strange mixture of emotions I’ve never experienced before while reading anything else in my life. It was part giddiness at the familiarity of the topic; the fall of the Qin Dynasty and the subsequent rise of the Han Dynasty being such an important and tumultuous period in China’s classical age, it was instantly recognizable that this interregnum was what Ken Liu was basing his story on. I was like, “Oh, I think I know the story or legend that inspired this scene/character/event, etc.” pretty much every few chapters.
I was also very moved, and I struggle to find the words to explain this. In essence, seeing what the author has done here – taking these snippets of legends and tales from history that I’ve grown up with and incorporating into this novel, forming this wondrous piece of literature – at times it was too much to take. Many of the side stories in The Grace of Kings had the feel and atmosphere of the old anecdotes my elders shared with me when I was younger. At times I got so sentimental that I was nearly moved to tears. It’s also a beautiful book. Anyway, personal aside over. I don’t usually get sappy in my reviews, but I just don’t know how else to describe how much reading this novel affected me. I saw Ken Liu take a historical narrative that I know and love, and transform it into this gorgeous work of art.
While The Grace of Kings is a combination of East Asian sources with Western elements, that’s only just the beginning. It’s also a blend of storytelling traditions from various other cultures and historical eras along with elements from epic fantasy, mythology, and even a bit of steampunk action with airships and war kites and airborne duels thrown in. The novel’s themes speak to the human condition, exploring the corrupting force of absolute power and the chaos that inevitably follows great change, but the original and poignant execution by Liu gives it all a fresh and new perspective.
Indeed, the novel is different from a lot of today’s mainstream fantasy. Expressive modes of storytelling aside, a lot of the nuances can also be attributed to the writing style. It took a long time for me to read The Grace of Kings, for as fervently as I would have liked to devour this book, it just can’t be rushed. In this sense, Liu’s writing reminds me a lot of Guy Gavriel Kay, another author of historical fantasy whose work I greatly admire and respect. Like Kay again, Liu’s evocative prose feels almost like poetry, meant to be savored. In between the major perspectives like those of Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu, Liu also inserts mini-narratives from those around the main characters. A pantheon of gods stand witness to a group of people whose lives have been touched by the two leaders, and by the events surrounding the uprising against the emperor. War is never insignificant or simple; its effects are felt far and wide by everyone, from all walks of life. Each person has a tale to tell.
This collection of narratives therefore makes the widespread conflict feel more realistic, though one downside is that it puts a distance between the reader and the events of the story, making some of scenes featuring significant developments like major victories and defeats feel muted and less impactful. On the other hand, being able to follow a vast network of characters also greatly opens up the world.
That said, the up-close-and-personal relationships are important to the story too. Mata Zyndu appears to be based on the warlord Xiang Yu while Kuni Garu is loosely modeled after Liu Bang, both prominent historical figures during the insurgency in the late Qin Dynasty. Both characters have similar goals during the revolution to overthrow a brutal reign (a friend of mine has playfully compared this to Game of Thrones, calling it “Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon: The Early Years”), but then later on they come to blows. The story immediately picked up for me after the two of them meet, and it just took off from there.
Ken Liu deftly chronicles the relationship between Kuni and Mata, contrasting them and emphasizing their ideological differences from the beginning, despite their easy friendship. Things don’t slow down even after the overthrow of Erishi, Emperor Mapidéré’s weak heir. Honorable, ruthless Mata is often at odds with the fun-loving and merciful Kuni, and the conflict finally boils over in the mayhem that follows. After all, there are many ways to wage a war, with honor and guile being two sides of the same coin. Just when you think things are winding down, the true excitement begins. My favorite character doesn’t even make her first appearance until around the three-quarters mark: Gin Mazoti, who was an orphan born to a prostitute and survived a rough childhood on the streets to become the greatest military strategist the world has ever seen. Gin stormed onto the page amidst the chaos, and I fell in love with her character immediately. I could probably write a whole page about how awesome she is, but there are certain things best left to surprise.
The greatest stories are those that stir both the heart and mind, and The Grace of Kings is one of those rare novels that accomplishes this feat magnificently. Ken Liu gives readers a lot more than just a story about epic battles, friendship and betrayal, compassion and cruelty; he also inspires. After reading this book I wanted to dig deeper into the historical period that the story was based on, to give myself more context to the tales and legends I’ve always heard about. Highly recommended for epic fantasy fans looking to venture beyond traditional boundaries, and for all readers who love being immersed in incredible breathtaking worlds....more
It’s official; The Liar’s Key is probably my favorite work by Mark Lawrence to date, surpassing even my love for the entire Broken Empire trilogy. It’s also stronger than its predecessor Prince of Fools, which I rated highly as well, but I was never able to shake the feeling that the first book of Prince Jalan’s adventures was still missing a little something – it didn’t read as fluidly as it could have, perhaps. However, The Liar’s Key charges out the gate at full speed and never once does it falter. Chalk it up to the story finding its stride in the second book, but I found this one went a lot more smoothly.
The story picks up again in the port town of Trond, where Jalan and the two Vikings Snorri and Tuttugu have spent the winter after their harrowing journey to the Black Fort. But as the ice retreats, Snorri grows restless to be on the move again, driven by his personal mission to bring his slain wife and children back to the world of the living. He holds Loki’s Key, a magical key said to have the power to open any lock – even the one on death’s door.
But such a powerful item attracts its fair share of attention. Others seek Loki’s Key, including the Dead King, agent of the Lady Blue who has sent her assassins, necromancers and armies of undead to dog Jalan and his companions every step of the way in her war against the Red Queen, Jalan’s indomitable grandmother. In this field full of power players, Jalan and Snorri suspect that the two of them are merely lowly pawns on a game board, yet they do what they must, even if it means heading knowingly into danger.
Consequently, I watched as the story barreled forth with both the inevitability and heart-stopping rush of a runaway tank. I could not peel my eyes away. As our adventurers travel south towards their goal, they pick up two more companions – a witch named Kara and an orphan boy named Hennan – to complete their party and join the quest. Their motivations range from ambition to loyalty, with the exception of Jalan, who was unwillingly bound to Snorri’s fate since the very beginning (even as he keeps telling himself he’s only along for the ride to escape massive gambling debts and the legions of angry brothers, fathers, and husbands of the women he’s bedded back home).
Many reviewers have contrasted Jalan to Jorg Ancrath, the protagonist of Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy, stating that the two of them are completely different. That’s because they really are, but in this book, I began to see some similarities, not least of all is that fact they are actually both quite disgusting and despicable human beings, just in different ways. That didn’t stop me from enjoying Jalan’s character though, embracing him in a way that I never managed with Jorg. Prince of Fools was an aptly named first novel because Jal is a fool indeed, albeit a very charming, lovable one. He’s the best kind of protagonist; for all his unsportsmanlike behaviors, Jalan’s internal dialogue provides an endless amount of entertainment. This series maintains its much lighter, more humorous tone because of it.
At first, I was convinced that Jal wasn’t going to change, that he would remain the kind of rakish, dandy self-serving cad who would throw a woman into the path of an angry horde or use a child as a human shield (both of which he considered doing in the course of this story. Seriously, I never want to find myself in a position where I’d have to depend on someone like him to have my back). But Lawrence is a master of characterization. We do get to see growth in Jalan, a gradual and thoughtful journey that sees him maturing and growing more courageous (well, to a point, of course – this is Jal we’re talking about). We witness a change in Snorri at the same time as well, though he’s lost a bit of his fire in his case, burdened by what happened to his family and the knowledge of what he must do. I found a great irony in this, since the Viking is the light-sworn one where Jalan is the dark, and yet we see the prince become enlightened while the Viking retreats into his gloom. Regardless of how I took to these changes, I was amazed to see how incredibly well these two characters evolved, and yet they still continue to play off each other very well. Bringing Tuttugu, Kara and Hennan into the fold did nothing to throw off the momentum, and instead added a boatload of new and exciting dynamics.
The Liar’s Key is the kind of sequel every reader dreams about. The story is riveting and superbly well-constructed, just one reason why Mark Lawrence’s writing is such a force to be reckoned with. A pure blend of dark magic and adventure, this book launches Jalan’s saga to a whole new level. It unlocks a whole slew of secrets from his past, raising the stakes for everyone involved. Perhaps my only quibble is the ending and how fast we blew through it, but that’s not even really a true quibble because even now I suspect I only felt this way because I was enjoying myself so much I didn’t want it to be over. I have to say I felt that cruel cliffhanger like a punch in the gut, but now I simply cannot wait until the third book comes out....more
The Falcon Throne introduces readers to a kingdom torn apart by a centuries-long feud between two neighboring duchies, Harcia and Clemen – all because of a conflict that happened long ago. In the distant past, two stubborn and power-hungry royal brothers fought for rule, and the resulting rift caused the land to split into the two dukedoms. Now Harcia and Clemen are on the brink of war again with the tensions threatening to boil over, fueled by the lofty ambitions of men on both sides.
Okay, so follow along with me here: in Clemen, the tyrant Duke Harald is feared and hated by his nobles, and inevitably a rebellion led by his bastard-born cousin Ederic and backed by Ederic’s foster lord Humbert swiftly puts an end to Harald’s reign of terror. Believed to be among the casualties is Harald’s infant son and heir Liam, but in fact the child was whisked away to safety by his nursemaid, who intends to raise the boy until he is old enough to take back his stolen throne. Meanwhile over in Harcia, Duke Aimery has two living sons, his hot-tempered heir Balfre as well as the younger and more level-headed Grefin. Balfre has dreams of being the supreme ruler of a reunited kingdom, which would require bringing Clemen back into Harcia’s fold by brute force if necessary. Aimery, recognizing his heir’s dangerous ambitions, would like nothing more than to have his favorite son Grefin succeed him, but you can also be sure Balfre isn’t going to let anything – not even his own father and brother – stand in his way.
First I just want to put it out there that The Falcon Throne is my first book by Karen Miller, but from what I’ve heard about her previous work, I can’t say this is what I expected. I’ve seen reviews of her other books, especially her Godspeaker Trilogy, that have intrigued me with their discussion of controversial characters and bold subject matters. Readers seemed to either love or hate those books, but at least they sounded very different and intriguing. I think I’d expected The Falcon Throne to go in a similar direction, but that didn’t quite happen. Despite the twisty plotlines involving court intrigue, lordly politics, and the unpredictable consequence of shenanigans by pathological schemers, the story and themes aren’t really groundbreaking or anything to write home about.
And yet, I really enjoyed this book in spite of myself. Looking at the fantasy genre, I’ve noticed that in recent years the classic elves and dwarves seem to have been largely replaced by squabbling noble houses and psychopathic royalty. With Game of Thrones fever taking the world by storm, I suppose it’s really not that surprising to see writers hoping to ride on the coattails of its success by emulating its style or concepts. I don’t know if this was Miller’s intent, but I definitely sensed some of those vibes while reading this. Nothing wrong with that, though! Not especially with her obvious talent for writing fully-realized characters and intense sequences.
However, as much enjoyment as I got out of this book, Miller doesn’t quite push things over to mind-blowing territory. Don’t get me wrong, the story was certainly addictive – enough to make getting through 670-ish pages of this ARC not feel like a chore at all. I am still surprised at the speed I gobbled up this book. But like any lengthy epic, it has its ups and downs. The characters are great, but I was largely unaffected by any significant events that happened to them, and even unexpected character deaths didn’t always have the desired impact. Here and there were also several patches with borderline information overload that I was tempted to skim, but I have to make it clear that for the most part, these rare hiccups in the story were made up for by the wonderfully executed dialogue between characters and action-filled fight scenes.
In case you’re still wondering about the validity of the comparisons of this book to Game of Thrones, I would say those descriptions are pretty apt. It’s certainly in the same vein. Still, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I always hesitate to compare anything to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire…simply because nothing out there is like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. Certain series like that or Harry Potter are just so big they defy comparison. But quite honestly, it wouldn’t be fair to The Falcon Throne to make that comparison either. Without a doubt, this book can stand on its own. Some of its themes might ring familiar to avid readers of epic fantasy, but I’ll be the first in line to admit I can’t resist these kinds of stories, and Karen Miller brings her own unique and elegant touch to The Falcon Throne....more
This highly anticipated novel is the final volume of Anthony Ryan’s epic Raven’s Shadow trilogy, so be aware this review may contain spoilers for the first two books of the series if you have not caught up yet. It would be impossible to talk about Queen of Fire without at least referencing some of the events in the previous book, and not just because it picks up directly where Tower Lord left off (and follows in the same vein). The truth is, so much of what stood out were the characters and their growth over the course of the trilogy; to praise (and critique) this book I would have to give the nod to Blood Song and Tower Lord as well.
We learn at the beginning of Queen of Fire that Queen Lyrna, who was brutally attacked and burned at the end of Tower Lord has been healed by the very same forces she used to mistrust, and now seeks to ally with them to meet the invading Volarian army head on. She is determined to fight for the independence of the Unified Realm, but to do so she must first raise an army. Meanwhile, the Tower Lord Vaelin Al Sorna, now also called Battle Lord of the Realm, is taking it upon himself to confront the mysterious Ally and an enemy who must be defeated if the Queen’s efforts are to have a chance. On the way, Vaelin rallies other factions to their side, their support invaluable now that the power of his bloodsong seems to have abandoned him.
Other prominent characters include Frentis, whose traumatizing plight in the last novel made me wonder how he would come back from the consequences of his actions, even though so many of them were not his own while his mind was being controlled. Reva also starts her climb to the top by demonstrating her strength and incredible battle prowess. And finally, an unexpected perspective comes in the form of Alucius Al Hestian who adds tension to the overall arc by having to make some very difficult decisions.
First, the good: Like I said, this is a fitting end for a lot of characters who joined in for this epic journey. Characters like Lyrna, Frentis and Reva have all seen tremendous development since they made their respective appearances, and each had their personal obstacles to overcome. It fills me with much satisfaction to see everything come together in this concluding volume.
I also liked the many new places Anthony Ryan took us in Queen of Fire, as well as the fascinating new people we get to meet. The wolf people were especially great, since I always find it a treat to read about fictional cultures inspired by shamanistic traditions. There were also some amazing moments of characters doing battle on the high seas, which wasn’t a surprise given my fondness for maritime fantasy. In addition, there was the minor element of invention and the enthusiasm of a particular character for tinkering, creating new and improved machines of war – this I loved, even if it did only make up a relatively small part of the story. This is a huge tome of a novel after all, and there is a lot packed in it, much of which I thoroughly enjoyed.
There were some stumbling blocks, however. The first is that the story is admittedly on the slow side to take off, with a significant portion of “critical” scenes happening in the second half of the novel. That means I felt that the first 300 or so pages were mostly given to establishing the basis for the finale at the end, which is a bit much (it’s such a lengthy book, after all). Fortunately, the pacing improves by leaps and bounds after the story finds its stride.
I also think that those who were disappointed with certain aspects of Tower Lord might experience the same snags in Queen of Fire. The two books are stylistically similar, both featuring multiple POVs and readers who had wanted more Vaelin in book two will probably not see a marked change here. Vaelin Al Sorna, who won me over in Blood Song, does not really feel like the main protagonist to me anymore, but I find myself okay with that because he is still an important presence. I’m actually regretting more the fact that folks like Caenis and Nortah didn’t show up as much. Clearly, the story’s scope has become much bigger (a good thing) so the result is plenty of other characters sharing the pages with him now that I’ve come to connect with.
But basically, if you were expecting Vaelin to dominate his share of screentime in this book again, I’m afraid you just won’t get that. I do understand the sentiment, though. Speaking for myself, Blood Song still remains my favorite of the trilogy, because it was such a detailed exploration into Vaelin’s character. Of course, it certainly helped that I’m such a huge fan of the warrior school trope chronicling a boy’s rise to become the greatest fighter the world has ever known, complete with a relentless training regime and harsh instructors.
But while Queen of Fire didn’t quite reach the heights that Blood Song or even Tower Lord did for me, it’s nevertheless a good book with undeniably awesome conclusion. I would recommend the series as a whole and if you’ve been following along with the trilogy as the books come out, this is an ending you probably wouldn’t want to miss....more
The end of the Powder Mage trilogy has finally arrived with The Autumn Republic. I really enjoyed the first two novels, and was very much looking forward to this concluding volume. So did it meet my expectations? All told I’m happy to say that it did, in all the ways that count. Still, I confess I can be quite particular about my series-enders. As much as enjoyed this book, if I’m to be completely honest, I did feel there were a couple areas that fell short.
I can’t deny that Brian McClellan did a wonderful job wrapping things up, though. The Autumn Republic starts the way the previous book The Crimson Campaign ended – with the world in chaos. The capital city of Adro has fallen, and Tamas returns from the field only to find his beloved country occupied by a foreign force. His son Taniel is missing and presumed dead. Without strong leadership, his own army is tearing itself apart from the inside out. And on top of all that, the Kez have not ceased their attacks on Adran territory.
For various reasons, I had hard time getting into this book. Catching up at the beginning of each sequel is never easy for me, and it wasn’t helped by the book’s slower pacing, at least for the first half. I recall I had a similar issue with book two as well. It appears I’m in the minority, but I felt that unlike The Crimson Campaign, things here didn’t hit its stride until well into the second half. That’s not to say I didn’t find the novel interesting; on the contrary, McClellan juggles multiple points-of-view and furthers his characters’ story lines. Tamas has his hands full dealing with angry gods and invading armies. Meanwhile, Inspector Adamat is on a mission to rescue his kidnapped son, and finds himself investigating more cases besides. Bo finds a worthy apprentice in the former servant-turned-Privileged-sorcerer Nila. And Taniel Two-Shot, who is in fact very much alive, is hiding in the hills with his companion Ka-Poel, the two of them on the run from enemies he once thought were his friends.
The scope of the story has expanded, and likewise the number of players. In spite of the many subplots, however, the feeling that we were just biding our time never truly left me. There’s so much going on, but that the ending is the main showpiece here was never in doubt, and many developments felt secondary when I could see that everything was building towards the grand finale. No other chapters made me feel this way more than Adamat’s. His eldest child had been taken from him, and yet his grief is hardly conveyed; after that issue plays itself out, he takes on another investigation and life goes on, almost like the author needed to give him something to do. I liked following his storyline, but its progression and resolution was just unexpected to say the least, especially in light of everything he and his family experienced. It was a bit disappointing, considering how Adamat was my favorite character in Promise of Blood.
That said, other characters were much more convincing. In the last book, Taniel was the one who emerged as the clear favorite as I found him and his story to be the most compelling, but he spends most of the time in this book on the lam. I therefore wondered if it would finally be Tamas’s turn to shine in The Autumn Republic. What actually happened surprised me. The one who really stood out for me this time was not any of the main characters but Nila, the young woman who started off as a secondary character in Promise of Blood, but whose role eventually grew when huge revelations about her were dropped on readers at the end of The Crimson Campaign. She gets a lot more page time in this book, along with her own side plot which I really enjoyed. Her relationship with Bo was one of the major highlights, and I wish it had been given more attention because something special was definitely happening there.
The writing has become more natural and polished over the course of the series, which makes this concluding volume all the more rewarding. I did assert that the ending here was the crown jewel of the book, and McClellan gives it his all, delivering a stunning send-off to the trilogy. He ties up the major loose ends, though I felt there were a few important matters still left unresolved. Ka-Poel’s character immediately comes to mind. Where did she come from? What’s the origin behind her amazing abilities? How did she get mixed up with Taniel in the first place? I’ve been asking these questions since the first book hoping to find answers in this final installment, but I still feel none the wiser. Nila’s transition from humble servant to powerful sorceress also happened way too quickly, and I wish there had been more time spent on her growth, not to mention a better explanation for her immense power that had remained latent for so long.
One thing to keep in mind is that I do tend to be more critical of endings – especially bittersweet ones. I have nothing against bittersweet endings (I love them, in fact) but predictability takes away a lot of the enjoyment. I had guessed correctly how things were going to end for at least a couple of the characters, so that dulled the emotional impact considerably. All told, however, I don’t want to come across too negative, or discourage anyone from picking up these Powder Mage books. They’re totally worth it. Even though McClellan may have missed a few opportunities here and played things a bit too safe, I liked this book and thought it was a worthy conclusion to a fantastic trilogy. My issues with it are minor and hardly deal breakers, especially for a relatively new author who now has a completed epic fantasy trilogy under his belt. I am looking forward to his future writing endeavors with much enthusiasm and interest....more
I am glad we’ve not heard the last of Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire, even if Jorg’s chapter of the saga has concluded. As far as endings go, that was a necessary and felicitous curtain call, even though I couldn’t be happier with the way things played out. But of course, that doesn’t mean I’ve had enough of this brilliant dark world.
Regarding his latest novel, Mark Lawrence has stated that what did not want to do was give us Jorg Ancrath again but in new clothes. Well, Mr. Lawrence, you can rest easy about that. I don’t think anyone can mistake that wicked, tortured young psychopath we first met in Prince of Thorns with his new protagonist in Prince of Fools.
Courage is overrated, as a character like the glib but glorious Prince Jalan can attest. A self-confessed liar, coward and cheat, our main character is also a bit of a rakish playboy, with an easy charm to him that makes him instantly endearing, for all his foibles. See? Nothing like Jorg. But the two of them are contemporaries, if you are wondering where The Red Queen’s War fits in relation to the original trilogy. As such, I don’t think fans of The Broken Empire will find much of a problem settling in. We even get to meet Jorg and his Brothers, albeit very briefly, in an unforgettable scene. Despite the mostly new faces though, Mark Lawrence has no trouble convincing me I am back in the haunted, post-apocalyptic milieu with which I first fell in love. As strange as it sounds, given the kind of place we're talking about, it was a bit like coming back home.
But while the writing style and setting may be instantly recognizable, we have a story here that is altogether very different. And yet, even the slippery Prince Jal can’t avoid running afoul of the dark sorcery that is rife in the Broken Empire. Finding his fate magically bound to that of an escaped slave named Snorri ver Snaggason, the two strike up a partnership in order to try to break the spell. We had an inkling of the Broken Empire’s vastness back in Jorg’s story arc, and here we are given the chance to explore even further as Jal and the Norseman’s journey takes them to the frigid and icebound north, towards Snorri’s homeland.
The two encounter many dangers along the way, including necromancy and other unseen malevolent forces. There is no escaping the Dead King, whose plans run far deeper than anyone can expect. Nightmarish beings called the Unborn are raised and fed by the stolen potential of lost infants, sent to carry out his bidding. Gruesome, disturbing elements such as these serve to push Prince of Fools into Horror territory.
And yet there is also a glimmer of optimism, a thread of light that I can easily pick out amidst the doom and gloom, making me feel that this book is actually “less grimdark” than the original trilogy. Prince Jalan, who assures us he has little ambition – beyond getting drunk, winning bets and seducing women – is really more of a hero than he gives himself credit for. I see a young man who wants to be more than just “that prince who is tenth in line for the throne”, even if he doesn’t care to admit that to himself.
The idea of the unlikely hero is not a new one, certainly, but the difference is Mark Lawrence actually makes me believe that Jalan has it in him. Jal’s growing friendship with Snorri also brings to light a hidden side of him, and vice versa; I think the two of them play off each other perfectly. The story displays the classic quest narrative, one that is very character driven. Forced to work together, the relationship dynamics between this pair of disparate and conflicting personalities is what makes this dark adventure shine.
There is no doubt this is a Mark Lawrence novel – pick it up and you will immediately see the hallmarks of his storytelling and writing style which made The Broken Empire trilogy such a incredibly addictive read, replete with his darkly droll humor and very quotable dialogue. Fans won’t be disappointed. But rest assured Prince of Fools is also a one-of-a-kind tale featuring a very different protagonist. Jal has immense potential, and if this is what Lawrence can achieve with his character in just one book, I can’t wait to see what’s next....more
I was very excited when I first heard about Trudi Canavan’s Thief’s Magic, and doubly more so when I discovered it was going to be an introduction to a brand new universe we’ve never seen before. I’m not completely unfamiliar with the author’s work, having read The Magician’s Guild, book one of her Black Magician trilogy, but knowing that she has two series and a couple more novellas based in that world of Kyralia which I haven’t even yet come close to finishing, I was glad to have a fresh start in Millennium’s Rule.
Magic and magic users seem to feature strongly in Canavan’s books, and that’s no exception here. At the beginning of this novel we meet Tyen, a young archaeology student (though calling what he and his professor and fellow students do “Archaelogy” might be a bit of stretch…they’re more like tomb robbers) who discovers a sentient book while excavating an ancient tomb. The book can read the minds of anyone who makes physical contact, communicating through text appearing on the pages. Calling herself Vella, the book claims to have once been a sorcerer-woman, until she was transformed into her current form by one of the greatest sorcerers of history. She has been gathering and storing information through the ages ever since. Sensing bad things to come if Vella were to ever fall into the wrong hands, Tyen decides to keep her to himself for now, but as we all know, a secret this big is always bound to come out sooner or later.
Meanwhile in another world, a dyer’s daughter named Rielle harbors a secret of her own. From a young age, she has had the ability to sense magic – and hence the potential to use it. However, Rielle’s society could not be any more different from Tyen’s, where magic is used freely (and some might say TOO freely) to power their fantastical machines. Instead, the priests of Rielle’s world teach that to use magic is the equivalent to stealing from the Angels themselves. Anyone caught committing this crime is published severely then cast out from the city to live out the rest of their lives in a prison. Rielle is therefore all too happy to just keep her head down, hoping to also to do what her family wants of her and find a prospective husband. But then she meets and falls in love with a local artist named Izare, which is patently NOT what her parents had in mind. Oh, hello, Forbidden Love.
What do these two plot lines have to do with each other? Very little, actually. Reading Thief’s Magic felt essentially like reading two-books-in-one. The novel’s structure can be a little jarring if you’re not expecting it. We first start with Part I which follows Tyen’s story, and several chapters after that Part II begins with Rielle’s. The novel continues like this, alternating back and forth between their narratives. Actually getting the hang of this perspective-jumping isn’t all that difficult, but Canavan likes to tease, and she seems to have this knack for choosing the most suspenseful moments to make the switch between characters. Often, I would find myself pulled away into Rielle’s story just as I was getting completely drawn into Tyen’s, or vice versa. This format was both simultaneously addicting and frustrating, though I have to admit I kind of liked it.
When it comes down to it, I’m just completely hooked by these two characters and their respective worlds. Both Tyen and Rielle are written very well, even though occasionally their naiveté would grate on my nerves. However, their decisions – misguided as they are sometimes – always led to interesting things happening. I’m fascinated by the differences in their cultures and how each of them view magic. I love that their own personal conflicts take them on completely disparate adventures, so that the individual challenges they face differ profoundly as well. I’m especially intrigued by Rielle and her struggles in a society where unauthorized use of magic is treated as the greatest sin, where women like her have very little choice and practically no future when they are discovered to possess magical abilities.
I don’t know if Tyen and Rielle’s paths will ever cross, though something tells me that they will – but that particularly story is not for this book to tell. At this point, I feel I’ve been given enough information to formulate a tenuous theory on how the two characters’ worlds are linked, but for the most part we don’t get too many answers on that front. I really enjoyed following both story lines, but if you’re the kind of reader who prefers self-contained story arcs or at least some closure at the end of a novel, you won’t really find it here. It’s a factor to think about, though I already know I will be picking up the next book in spite of it. Thief’s Magic may have all the hallmarks of a “Book One”, but Canavan has crafted a very fine beginning (technically, TWO very fine beginnings) and I want to find out what happens to both Tyen and Rielle. ...more
You can always tell when I really like a book by how fast I devour it. I gave myself plenty of time to read Brian Staveley’s The Providence of Fire, anticipating it would take me at least a week or more to finish this huge honking tome of a novel, but it turned out I made short work of it, chomping through 600+ pages of this in a little more than three days.
I just loved this book, couldn’t put it down. This incredible sequel to The Emperor’s Blades was everything I hoped for – bigger and better in every way. In fact, I went back to my review of the first book and practically everything I had an issue with there was amended in this second installment. As a reader, you just can’t ask for more than that.
The Providence of Fire picks up where The Emperor’s Blades left off, following the diverging paths of the slain Emperor Sanlitun’s three surviving children. After spending many years training with the empire’s elite Kettral forces, youngest brother Valyn is in the position to safeguard his older brother Kaden’s succession to the Unhewn Throne – though now he and his wing members are labeled renegades and traitors. Kaden himself has his own destiny to follow. He has spent the last eight years sequestered in a remote monastery in the mountains, learning the mysteries of the monks who live there. With the help of his mentor Tan, Kaden is now ready to use all that knowledge to uncover the truth of those behind Sanlitun’s murder, but being his father’s rightful heir makes him the target of those who want to overthrow the Malkeenian line.
However, oldest sister Adare, whom as you may recall spent most of the last book languishing in the capital being manipulated and treated with disdain by palace flunkies, is probably the one to see the greatest change to her character and storyline out of all of them. Having learned the identity of her father’s assassin, Adare formulates a plan to escape the city in the hopes of removing herself from the enemy’s grasp. Not knowing what has become of her brothers, she is also determined to find allies to secure the throne and keep Sanlitun’s killer from ever taking it.
Adare was my absolute favorite in this book, and I enjoyed her chapters the most. This young woman who has spent her whole life within the walls of the Dawn Palace is not as helpless as you would think she’d be. She may be ignorant of much of the world, but her quick thinking allows her to get quite far in her quest, and I always love to see a female character with brains and ambition. I also have to say, she has the most entertaining companions – just wait until you meet Lehav, Oshi, and the indomitable Nira. In this sequel, Adare is a far cry from who she was back in The Emperor’s Blades, and as one of my biggest criticism in that book was the underrepresentation of her character, I am happy and amazed at how far she has come now. I like Adare’s character very much, not only because I think she’s the strongest and most level-headed of Sanlitun’s children, but also because I had a feeling deep down that Staveley would have great things in store for her. I’m thrilled to see she’s finally getting her moment in the spotlight.
The other gripe I had about the first book was that for an epic fantasy, the story just didn’t feel quite big enough. Kaden’s everyday life seemed to revolve being beaten silly by the monks, and for Valyn it was being beaten silly by his trainers and other rival wings. Adare hardly appeared at all. Well, no problems with any of that here. Whereas in The Emperor’s Blades our settings were mostly restricted to the mountain monastery for Kaden, the Kettral training island for Valyn, and the Dawn Palace for Adare, The Providence of Fire opens the world right up as all three royal siblings travel far and wide on their quests. And rather than dealing with their immediate personal problems, the conflicts they face in this novel are far more urgent and significant as well, with far-reaching consequences for the whole empire and not just our three main protagonists.
With a major war against a new threat is on the horizon, the siblings’ roles in it make for a much more dynamic, fast-paced and action-filled plot. It is also worth noting that Staveley adds another point-of-view character partway through the novel, giving us insight into the motivations and actions of Gwenna, the demolitions specialist in Valyn’s wing. With the boys sent off on a wild goose chase and Valyn losing control of his team, it is up to the female Kettrals (and a Skullsworn assassin who is practically an honorary member) to take care of things. Though Gwenna’s chapters came in later in the second half of the novel, they were one of the highlights of this book for me and there were some very memorable scenes in them.
I’m now more intrigued than ever about where this series will go. I admit the plot became more addicting when Adare, Kaden and Valyn were all unaware of the fates of the others, so each sibling had to act on their own using what information they had available. As a result, Adare, Kaden and Valyn now each have their own individual goals. None of them are all that noble or perfect when it comes to making the tough decisions; I found myself dismayed as often as I was proud of some of their choices, but that is to be expected given the circumstances. I’m actually glad that they each have their strengths and shortcomings.
As such, the relationship between the three siblings also fascinates me. Sanlitun was no doubt a great emperor and a wise leader, setting his children off on very different paths for them to experience new things and widen their worldview. But doing so also left huge gaps in their knowledge. Adare knows very little about the outside world but understands politics and the ways of the palace, and yet she was never meant to sit upon Unhewn Throne. Kaden’s eight years in isolation with the monks taught him the specialized mystical abilities that every emperor needs to know, but that also left him woefully ignorant of the ways of his future empire, including the laws of the land and cultures of his people – that and he has no idea at all how to fight and protect himself. In contrast, Valyn’s time with the Kettral taught him how to fight, survive, and form battle strategies, but unfortunately not much else. When it comes to what makes a great leader, it seems that each sibling has only a piece of the whole. But their years spent away from each other doing their different things also made them drift apart, leading to mistrust and suspicion. Whether they will end up working together or be divided remains to be seen, and that’s one of the main things I’m looking forward to finding out in the future of this series.
While The Emperor’s Blades was a pretty good book, like I said, everything about The Providence of Fire just feels even bigger, deeper and more improved. It’s almost like Brian Staveley took the doors to the series and flung them wide open, vastly expanding upon the world, the story and all the characters. In my review of the first book, I summed it up by saying that it was a promising start and in the sequel I would like a deeper look into the history and magic of the Annurian Empire, as well as a larger role for Adare. Well, you can bet I got everything I wanted and more in The Providence of Fire. The fate of the empire hangs in the balance, not to mention the futures of Adare, Kaden, and especially Valyn. Once again, the author ties everything up while teasing a lot more to come in the next installment, except now I’m even more excited for the next book....more
There are a number of sequels coming out this year with big shoes to fill, and not the least of them is Tower Lord which is the follow up to the sensation that was Anthony Ryan’s Blood Song. While this second installment might not pack the kind of punch its predecessor did, I nonetheless enjoyed the book immensely. It’s a very different novel than the first book, with a shift in style, focus, and character perspectives, and yet it still has all the elements that we epic fantasy fans live for.
In book one, we met Vaelin Al Sorna, a brother of the Sixth Order and one of the greatest warriors the world has ever known. Coming home from a bloody war, he has sworn to fight no more, instead focusing his efforts on seeking any of his relatives that still might live. Named Tower Lord of the Northern Reaches by the new monarch, Vaelin has the noble yet perhaps naïve dream of living out his life in peace and quiet, for news of his exploits (and his crimes) have spread far and wide and those who know of his mysterious gift that guides him will not let him rest.
Anthony Ryan also adds several more point-of-view characters to the mix in Tower Lord, which I was glad to have been prepared for, as Vaelin no longer takes center stage. Instead, he shares the book with mainly three others: Reva, a young woman who begins this journey with hate for Vaelin in her heart and an unquenchable thirst for revenge; Princess Lyrna, sister to the new king and who possesses more strength and resolve than her brother ever would; and finally, Frentis, a familiar face from Blood Song, though he has been changed from his years of being held captive by the Untesh and being forced to fight in the slave pits.
Having been aware of this new format, with the chapters cycling through the character viewpoints, I had expected and prepared myself for the slower start. Indeed, with more characters to follow this time around, the author takes much more time to set the stage for the events in this book. And I have to confess it didn’t quite grab my attention right away. It was a pleasant journey through the first half of the novel to meet new faces or to catch up with old friends, but on the whole Tower Lord lacked a certain quality that made Blood Song the dangerously addictive and immersive read it was right off the bat.
However, I don’t think this makes Tower Lord a weak sequel. On the contrary, in fact. This second book is stronger than book one in many ways, not only because it expands the scope of the series by giving us multiple character perspectives and opening up the wider world, but it also showcases Ryan’s talents as a storyteller. He’s proven himself as an author who can write a very diverse and convincing cast of characters while maintaining a steady level of suspense and interest in all spheres of action, building intensity as he moves all the pieces into place for when things really start rolling.
Quite simply, Tower Lord is a totally different beast. And it’s just hard not to compare a sequel to what came before. It comes down to personal taste, and admittedly, Blood Song and I hit it off much faster. I had myself this experience with a couple other sequels this year; they were all excellent novels, but thematically they just worked slightly less for me. In this case, it’s hardly a surprise. Blood Song began with Vaelin Al Sorna as a young boy, entering the Sixth Order and a huge chunk of the book was dedicated to his training, the relationships he forged with his brothers, and his eventual rise to greatness. It was my favorite part of the novel. And come on, we all know how tough it is beat a good coming-of-age story.
The first book was absolutely a tough act to follow, I know. But all things considered, Tower Lord is a wonderful follow-up that might even appeal more to other readers, especially those who preferred the parts with “grown-up” Vaelin from the first book. I mentioned one of the things I liked about the “young” Vaelin’s chapters was his relationship with his fellow Sixth Order brothers, and it’s incredibly fascinating to see how those dynamics have changed over time. Brother Frentis was a huge surprise for me in this one. Thinking about all the terrible things that has been through and how they’ve affected him, it almost makes his story more interesting to me than Vaelin’s. I’m also impressed by Ryan’s female characters, and the energy and conviction he was able to put behind Reva and Lyrna, two women who are not afraid of setbacks and will fight for what they believe in.
In the end, it’s definitely the characters who made this such a great read. I absolutely adore the new additions. The characters make things happen, set things in motion, and while the first half of this book might have lagged a little, the same cannot be said about the second half, and the final quarter was pure action bliss. Does it take a bit of investment to get to this point? Yes. But totally worth it. Love the intricate magical elements and political entanglements that made the finale such an edge-of-your-seat ride. Anthony Ryan really tied things together and delivered.
I hope when we next meet Vaelin and whoever Ryan decides to let us be acquainted with next time (assuming he once again chooses this multiple POV character format) in the third book Queen of Fire, we’ll be able to jump right into the action. The slower build-up at the beginning held this book back a little, in my opinion, so I can’t say I enjoyed this book more or even as much as Blood Song, but the difference is very close. And I’m not disappointed at all. If you enjoyed the first book, there’s absolutely no reason at all not to pick this up and continue the epic journey....more
Needless to say, putting this review together was quite difficult for me, on account of how very different it is from the one I thought I would be writing. I made it no secret I had high hopes for this one, not only because of the buzz the book has gotten since the ramp up to its release or all the glowing reviews it has garnered, but also I was personally very excited to finally read my first Kameron Hurley novel. Truly, I wanted to love this book and was set and prepared to add my praise to the chorus, but as a reviewer I also have to be honest with others and with myself when a book does not meet expectations.
In the end, I think The Mirror Empire is one of those cases in which I can recognize its literary merits and applaud the author’s designs to challenge the conventions of epic fantasy fiction, but the story itself failed to connect with me on any deeper level and I found myself strangely dissatisfied when I completed it.
First, a bit about the book: The world is about to be shaken up by a cataclysm, and as the dark star rises to herald this event, you have an orphan girl named Lilia who would anything to fulfill a promise to her mother, even if it means putting herself in danger and having to face down unspeakable threats. In another place, a new Kai ascends to power after the suspicious death of his sister and fights to keep his place and his land together even as legitimacy of his rule is called into question. Meanwhile, a young boy said to be destined for great things undertakes a journey to discover himself and his loyalties, for one day he ultimately must choose between sides. And on the battlefield, an able but brutal general faces a similar predicament, caught between her heritage and her oaths to the Empress.
As you can imagine, there are a lot of perspectives involved, and many more characters besides. That should have been my first warning sign. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t mind a big cast of characters (when you’re into epic fantasy, I think that sort of comes with the territory). However, that also means a greater onus on the author to strike a balance when it comes to giving every one of her players enough time to resonate with the reader, and to pace their sections accordingly. Hurley falters in this area by trying to introduce too many characters, both main and supporting, without sufficiently developing them – especially in the beginning. Not only do the odd-sounding names make it harder to remember who’s who, but ironically they also make it all the more obvious when new major to semi-major characters are still being introduced even past the halfway point of the novel. It makes it that much hard to sit back and just enjoy the story when so much effort is going towards trying to keep all the characters straight.
However, to be fair, you should know that I am a “Characters First” kind of reader. Arguably, I place an inordinate amount of emphasis on characters and how effectively I can engage with them. They absolutely don’t have to be admirable or even likeable, but I have to care. Characters are like the foundation of a story – everything else tumbles like a house of cards if I can’t care about them. Naturally, anything they do or anything that happens to them isn’t going to impact me in any meaningful way. The biggest issue I had with this book is the lack of any strong characters, in the sense that none of them were very memorable. Hurley doesn’t develop any of them nearly enough, and her pacing is haphazard and disorganized, so that many long chapters could go by before returning to a perspective character, and then I find myself asking, “Who are you again?” That shouldn’t be happening.
The only one – ONE out of a half dozen or so main characters and at least four times as many supporting characters – that I found myself interested in was Lilia, and that’s likely just because she was the first to be introduced in the prologue. Zezili, Captain General of the Empress, was a close second, and probably because Hurley went to great lengths to make her memorable but did so by taking the easy way, presenting the general as archetypically evil, the cruel mass murderer and an unfeeling lover. Everyone else faded into the background, which unfortunately made me feel very indifferent towards any events of significance, including plot twists or unexpected character deaths.
But look, I’ve gone on for long enough about the negatives, and I don’t want to make it sound like I downright disliked this book, because I didn’t; so I think it’s time to talk about the positives. There were a lot of things I enjoyed about this book, not least of all was the world building. So much praise has been heaped onto this facet of the novel and I have to agree 100% with everything that has been said about originality, spirit and vividness of the universe and cultures of The Mirror Empire.
My favorite thing about this book is that it is bold, it is epic, and it is refreshingly different. I love the idea of two realms clashing together in a catastrophic world-shattering event, and also the more minute details like the sentient flora and giant carnivorous plants. Hurley is a great writer with an incredible imagination, and she’s at her best and in her element when she’s actually not trying so hard to turn things on their head or to be over-the-top. I can’t stress how important it is for both authors and readers to examine and confront the status quo and current state of fantasy, but doing something for the sake of doing it is also rarely interesting. Admittedly, Hurley is not at all subtle when it comes to her attempt at subversion in this novel, but at the same time I still respect her immensely for her steadfast interrogation of the genre.
These days, one can probably find some degree of social commentary in many works of speculative fiction; however, my favorite ones tend to be those that arrive at their messages organically, part and parcel with compelling storytelling, starting with well-developed characters. Since it’s the characters that fell flat for me in this case, I just couldn’t immerse myself in the story. It certainly wasn’t for the lack of trying, but as I’ve explained, I’m also aware I have some rather nitpicky and particular tastes. Despite my tepid feelings for this novel, I believe the accolades are well-deserved. Sure, I didn’t love it, but then I’m glad so many others did....more
OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Of the many fantasy sequels coming out this year, Luke Scull’s Sword of the North is high on my anticipated list. The follow-up to the hit that was The Grim Company, this second book continues with a story teeming with fantastic characters, a strong plot, and plenty of action.
In the first book we met Brodar Kayne, a hero from the cold reaches whose battle prowess and skill with a blade earned him the title Sword of the North. Together with a band of ragtag outcasts, he and his companion Jerek the Wolf were able to survive the chaos that reigned after the White Lady declared victory and succeeded the tyrant Salazar. However, their new ruler has proven not to be as benevolent as she claimed. Something feels rotten at the heart of the city as dissidents are captured or disappeared, but if the White Lady cannot be convinced of the new danger threatening Dorminia, the state of things are sure to go from bad to worse.
Our grim company is broken now, the characters scattered across the land to pursue their own personal quests. Amidst dark tidings about the Shaman and demon hordes in the High Fangs, Brodar and Jerek begin their journey back to their homeland in light of new revelations about Brodar’s family. Weakened and injured from the ordeal at the end of book one, Davarus Cole wakes up in a labor camp and immediately finds himself put to work, but deep inside he is a changed man, no longer the puffed-up blowhard he once was. Sasha grieves, believing Cole lost to her, and falls back into her drug addiction even as she travels with her slightly unhinged sister Ambryl to bring news to the White Lady. And last but certainly not least, there is Eremul the Halfmage who continues his investigation into the race of immortals known as the Fade. Who are these mysterious creatures? And what do they want?
Make no mistake, the characters are the highlight of this series. It’s difficult for me to single out any favorites, because they are all so well written, deeply developed and memorable in their own way. I don’t know how Luke Scull does it, but even when his characters are dastardly and unlikeable, they’re great. Take for example, the chapters featuring Sir Meredith and his misguided notions of honor. I found them a pleasure to read, if for no other reason because you know it’ll feel so good when the cruel “knight” finally gets what he deserves.
I also believe much of the characters’ strength comes from their all-too-human flaws, which are nonetheless balanced by admirable virtues…well, in most cases anyway. Even Jerek who is as crass as ever can be lovable in his own way, because one would think nothing can shake the old Wolf’s loyalty to his friends. It’s what makes one significant plot development late in the novel so heart-wrenching. When it comes to plot elements that cut deeply, there’s also Sasha and her hopeless cycle of abstaining from the moon dust only to fall off the wagon again and again.
Scull has this way of getting you right into the heads of his characters, and Sasha’s struggle with the drug is one instance where the storytelling really closes in at a more intimate level. It’s all about personal stories, and nothing can be more personal than the flashbacks to Brodar Kayne’s past. These chapters were excellent, giving insight into our rough and tough protagonist, especially with the way they were interspersed with his present perspective. The company may be no more, most of its members separated, but in the process we’ve actually been given some great opportunities to further explore each character.
I was also surprised that for a heavy book containing such abundant themes and trappings of grimdark, Sword of the North was a relatively smooth, breezy read. It’s helped by the strong thread of wry humor woven through the story as well as the straight forward prose and dialogue, which at times featured language that bordered on modern-sounding. It’s not all gloom and doom despite the action and brutal violence, and actually managed to pull quite a few laughs out of me too.
As for flaws, I can’t think of many at all. Sword of the North is the middle book of a planned trilogy, and there are a lot of plot threads to follow so you can expect a slight slowdown in some of them while we gear up for the finale. On the whole, I found this to be the case with Davarus Cole as well as Eremul’s chapters. That’s not to say they were boring; on the contrary, there’s a lot of development happening there. But in terms of pacing, they were no match for Brodar Kayne’s action-filled chapters. Practically every other scene featured Brodar and his companions sticking a sword in something’s face, whether they be bandits, the risen undead, or poop-flinging barbarians. There were a couple new plot elements inserted into that storyline that felt a bit awkward though, such as a certain character from the Jade Isles who joins Brodar and his party late in the book. I think Scull may be setting up some game changers for book three, but the introduction of this character still seemed quite sudden and random. I guess we’ll see if it pays off in the next installment, but something tells me the author knows what he’s doing.
CONCLUSION: All told, this book was very enjoyable. Speaking of the next installment, I absolutely cannot wait for the third and final volume of this trilogy. If the first and second books are any indication, the finale is going to be well worth it. In Sword of the North, Luke Scull delivered a truly stellar sequel....more
Open up The Scarlet Tides and the first things you’ll see are several gorgeously illustrated maps depicting the world of the Moontide Quartet. Needless to say, the maps became indispensable to me while I was reading. I’ve never come across a fantasy series with such a comprehensive and detailed approach to world-building. David Hair goes well beyond simply describing the different peoples and places — what he’s created here actually feels like a living, breathing system. These books take place across two huge continents following about half a dozen characters of different creeds and cultures, with the alliances and conflicts that arise between nations forming the basis for multiple threads of the story and driving the plot forward.
Middle books of a series can also be mighty tricky; I’ve had enough disappointing experiences with sequels myself, which makes me understand why some readers would be nervous when approaching them. However, I jumped into The Scarlet Tides with no reservations whatsoever. This series has grown on me, as I stated in my review of the preceding volume, Mage’s Blood. The first book may have been slightly encumbered by a lengthy introduction and a slow build-up as Hair established the players and set the stage, but it all culminated into one explosive climax and conclusion. And I knew we were going to be heading right into the action with book two.
In this sequel, the Moontide is at hand and the mighty Leviathan Bridge now stands open, creating a corridor between the two continents Yuros and Antiopia, which are normally separated by a vast ocean. The last two Moontides have involved lofty ambitions and crusades of conquest, and this one is no different. Rondion legions and the Inquisition’s windships waste no time storming their way across Antiopia, but very few know of a troubling secret eating at the heart of their empire. A very powerful and valuable artifact called the Scytale of Corineus has slipped through Emperor Constant’s fingers, and he has tasked his inquisitors to scour the world searching for the ones who have absconded with it.
Enter Alaron Mercer, a failed mage who had the Scytale in his hands, then lost it to the girl of his dreams who stole the artifact along with his heart. Cymbellea, who believes she knows the best use for the Scytale, has taken it with the intention of delivering it to Antonin Meiros, the most powerful mage in the world. Little does she know, Meiros is dead, leaving his pregnant widow Ramita on the run from his killers. Several more story arcs run in tandem, including the one which follows Ramita’s former lover Kazim, who ends up with the mercenary Elena Anborn after a botched attack on Emperor Constant’s pureblood mages. Polar opposites in political sides and backgrounds, both nevertheless come to realize they may have a common enemy in Gurvon Gyle, the empire’s spymaster. Some comic relief is also provided by Alaron’s former classmate Ramon, whose storyline involves him running a pyramid scheme, all while his legion marches towards battle. Amusing as this is, Ramon’s point of view also gives readers a boots-on-the-ground view of looming war.
Everything and everyone is connected, the vast distances between the some of the characters and the spheres of conflict notwithstanding. And yet, despite of the sheer scale of it, David Hair manages to make his characters and their stories feel deeply intimate and personal. It’s another reason why this world feels so alive, with all its elements working in tune with one another. Nations and their diverse populations are woven into an intricate web of magic and religion, which are two sides of the same coin. Both play a huge part in nearly all the societies, and as more factions emerge from the shadows we see how much more complex the situation can get.
As things heat up, the net tightens and gradually we are starting to see events converge, bringing the various players closer together. We have betrayals, shifting loyalties, unlikely friendships, and even love. With a dramatis personae so large, it’s inevitable some characters will emerge as my favorites. In Mage’s Blood, the top spot went to Ramita, whose touching yet complicated relationship with Antonin Meiros made me enjoy reading her perspective the most. In this book, however, I came to relish the chapters that follow Kazim and Elena. It’s probably not a coincidence that my favorite storyline yet again involves two people from disparate backgrounds who begin at odds with each other, with the hostility turning to understanding, understanding turning to respect, and the respect eventually turning into love. David Hair has an incredible talent for writing these types of dynamic relationships, making them engaging to read without resorting to clichés and cloying platitudes.
He also does a good job giving each perspective character the attention they deserve. Every one of them has an important role to play, and nobody feels left behind or “parked” while something more exciting happens elsewhere. I learned more about the world from each person, whether it be through meeting Ramon’s new friends from faraway lands, or from Alaron’s encounter with a new race of sentient beings with an astounding origin. And before I could fret myself over how everything will come together, the climax converges most of these storylines, serving up a conclusion and epilogue that tie things up quite nicely.
Overall, an excellent follow up to the first novel, continuing the tradition of vivid, dynamic characters and terrific world building. The intriguing storylines kept me glued to the pages. I honestly found it hard to put down, which was how I ended up reading all 700 pages of this in a little more than three days. Readers of epic fantasy should definitely check out this series....more
I have to say I did things a little bit backwards when it came to this series. It all started with The God Tattoo, Tom Lloyd's anthology of stories from the Twilight Reign that I read last year. Needless to say, I enjoyed it very much. Furthermore, it made me want to explore everything else this world had to offer, so when Pyr gave me the opportunity to read and review The Stormcaller, the first book of the series that began it all, I very enthusiastically accepted.
That collection of tales had given me a taste of the Twilight Reign universe, and piqued my interest with its promise of a dark and epic fantasy. Here was the world I had been introduced to, one of white-eyes, ancient deities and terrible magic. Now I was finally able to see the wider context, getting the full depth of the story filled with gods and demons, clandestine politics and violent clashes between warring peoples. I feel like what I'd gotten from the anthology was just a nibble. And here, this was the whole cake.
Born into a life of poverty, our main protagonist Isak is a white-eye, a genetic rarity known to make those with the condition bigger, stronger, and more aggressive. Feared and mistrusted by those around him, Isak had resigned to the fact that he would never be accepted, until fate intervenes and raises him to a position of power as the heir to the Lord of the Fahlan. In some ways, I feel the book comprises of several distinct parts, and this section of the story would be the first of them, focusing on Isak's transition from a simple peasant to someone with status.
Now, while it's true that a lot of fantasy stories begin this way, I thought Isak's background was a big part of what set his tale apart. For one thing, I find the lore and history behind white-eyes fascinating. Purported to be stronger, faster and more charming than normal men because they are god-touched and divinely chosen to be leaders, white-eyes are still no less shunned and despised by many. Because of this, Isak has to prove himself twice over to satisfy his detractors.
Regrettably, I also think this part of the book was the most difficult to get through. As Isak learns the ropes, this section of the story is mostly filled with descriptions of the things he learns and the people he meets, and it's the most slow-moving part of the story. Add to that, the writing style took some time for me to get used to. I thought the prose came across rather stark and ponderous, and while I wouldn't say I disliked the writing, it still felt like it was missing something -- lightness or emotion, perhaps, though to be fair, the story is meant to be quite dark and heavy. To get through this first part of the book, I did feel I had to work at it.
The action didn't come until later, but I have to say the plot picks up considerably once we follow Isak and his people into war against the elves. This section of the story is driven by several pitched battles, and here the author also starts fleshing out his world in earnest, giving it history and depth. As the layers were filled in one by one (culture, religions, politics, etc) I finally began to feel the full weight of the Twilight Reign universe.
I ended up loving the second half of this novel. It encompassed the final section of the story, in which Isak travels to Narkang with his retinue, and they meet the celebrated King Emin. I won't deny this probably had to do with having read The God Tattoo first; Emin was a character that featured prominently in a couple of the stories in the anthology, and so in a way, I felt like I already knew him and had a good grasp of the setting of Narkang. And lastly, this part of the book also featured the climax of the final battle, which was a great way to bring everything to a close.
All told, it took me a while to read The Stormcaller, partly because it's such a long book but also because I had to settle in to the writing style. Still, I enjoyed this one. I may have come to this series in a roundabout way, but further exploring a world that fascinated and intrigued me was so worth it....more
Finishing a series is always a little bittersweet, isn't it? I find this is absolutely the case with Mazarkis Williams' Tower and Knife trilogy. Of course, I'm thrilled to have finally reached the stunning conclusion to find out how it all ends, but I also know I'm going to miss this world and its characters.
It is also a wonderful thing to see an author's skills grow and evolve as time goes on. Though I think I'll always be a little in love with Williams' beautiful writing, I was admittedly much more taken with these last two books in the trilogy than I was with The Emperor's Knife. All three novels had their own individual strengths, but in general I found Knife Sworn and The Tower Broken to have much better flow and greater complexity than the first book.
In fact, I now find myself at a dilemma. The last two books have both been very strong, and I really can't decide which one I liked better. The Tower Broken, having a much darker plot and effectively raising the stakes, obviously appealed to me a lot. After the events of Knife Sworn, the fate of the world is teetering on the edge, threatened by a malignant force moving itself across the land and devouring everything it touches. The storm moves ever closer to the city of Cerana, and Emperor Sarmin finds he is powerless to do anything to stop its path of destruction. Things are definitely heating up in this one.
On the other hand, I LOVED the chapters about Grada, Nessaket, and Rushes from the last novel. Having the narratives of these three female characters was one of the best things about that book, but in this one they have once again faded back into the background, giving other characters the chance to step into the spotlight. Mesema and of course Sarmin both have their own chapters, but this time we also meet the fruit-seller-turned-mage Farid as well as Duke Didryk, whose point of view adds even more mystery to the already shadowy plot line.
While these new perspectives brought a heightened sense of intrigue and tension to the table, I still missed Grada, who has become the Emperor's royal assassin, and even found myself wondering after Nessaket, Sarmin's mercurial mother. But most of all, I missed following Rushes, the poor slave girl who has gone through such an ordeal in the course of these two books. I won't deny I was a little disappointed to see so little of the three of them in this novel, but fortunately I was able to get over it quickly, because Williams does such a good job making all her characters interesting. Much like the series, I felt that many of the protagonists especially Sarmin and Mesema have finally come into their own. The transformation of their relationship was the highlight for me in this one; by the end I could see where the author had wanted to go with the two of them all along.
I also think I would be remiss if I ended this review without making mention of the magic in the Tower and Knife world. The first book introduced us to the complex dynamic between mages and spirits, with the former harnessing their abilities by imprisoning the latter into their bodies, then sucking them dry of the energy required to power magic spells. We get to see a lot more of that here, as well as insight into the concept of "pattern magic" which is central to this entire trilogy. I think it's great how the last book ends with a much more detailed look into the mechanics of this system, because I'd always felt the story needed it.
So the the trilogy may be over, but I would read any future books by Mazarkis Williams in a heartbeat! Pulling off the final installment of a series is always a doozy, but it was done well here, even if everything wrapped up a little too neatly. I would still take a "complete" and satisfying ending like this over an open-ended one any day. Ultimately I think Williams made all the right calls, and at the end of the day served up an impressive conclusion. ...more
I've long been curious about Ice Forged. Though I also own The Summoner from her Chronicles of the Necromancer series, for some reason I just knew I wanted this one to be my first Gail Z. Martin book. They're both stories set in high fantasy worlds, but lands of ice and snow have always fascinated me, I don't know why. Maybe because I think these harsh settings are often fertile ground for exceptional protagonists, driven to be harder in an environment marked by extreme temperatures and scarcity. I love to read about characters becoming shaped by those experiences and overcoming those challenges.
So it was a pleasant surprise when the book began by throwing its main protagonist into a situation that was even more harrowing than I'd expected. Blaine McFadden is convicted of murder, and though his reasons for the killing were honorable, the young nobleman is sentenced to live out the rest of his days in a penal colony on Velant, an icy wasteland at the edge of the world. Six years later, Blaine (now known as "Mick") is a new man, emerging as a natural leader in the eyes of the other convicts and colonists. Still, they are kept under the thumb of an oppressive governor, and are at the mercy of the mages who are always too keen to administer their swift and often cruel discipline.
But one day, the supply ships stop coming. War has torn Blaine's former home of Dondareth apart, and the magic that civilization had always depended upon has been lost. It changes everything. Without the mage's power holding them back, the colonists of Velant take back their freedom but afterwards they too must decide their own fate. For many, this frigid land has become home, and they would like nothing more than to stay. Blaine, however, still has a far greater destiny to fulfill.
This is good old fashioned down-to-earth epic fantasy. And I use that description as a compliment. In many ways, this book reminds me of the pure delight and enjoyment I felt when I read Michael J. Sullivan's Riyria Revelations series, which I also loved; both share that same easy, straightforward writing style with story elements and character-types that won't be anything new to the avid fantasy reader, and yet I felt warm and comfortable wrapped in their familiarity.
I was also glad to see I was right about the strong characters, all of whom are wonderful and likeable in this novel. They are what drives this story, and makes the reader care about what happens in this book. When the magic went away, I found myself completely gripped by the consequences, shocked by certain deaths I never expected or kept on edge about what characters would do in response to such a big change in their world. Despite how I described the novel in the previous paragraph, scenes like these are what sets Ice Forged apart and makes it special.
I'm particularly impressed with the world which Gail Z. Martin has created, with emphasis on the background of the lore and magic. Not that the descriptions and details of the places in Velant or Dondareth weren't rendered well either, but I was much more drawn in by the histories of the land and people that she has woven. I love stories that establish a long, vivid past, because then the effects on the present and the future feel more impactful. That is the case here.
All in all, Ice Forged is a solid start to a new series. I eagerly await the next Ascendant Kingdoms novel to continue following Blaine on his quest to restore stability to his world....more
I used to think military fantasy wasn’t my thing, but ever since I started reading a lot again for book blogging, it’s become even more apparent that what I like or what I don’t like isn’t so much about the genre or sub-category, but is in the way it’s written. I saw that last year when I read Django Wexler’s The Thousand Names, an epic military flintlock fantasy that invariably clicked with me. In fact, I would say it did more than that; it ended up being one of my top reads for 2013.
In the end, a novel’s genre or topic doesn’t matter; it’s characters first and foremost, and that’s the way it has always been. I think this is why I find so many of Wexler’s books enjoyable to read; whether it’s his epic fantasy, urban fantasy, or even middle-grade fantasy, his talents for writing great characters are exceptional. I first fell in love with Captain Marcus d’Ivoire and Winter Ihernglass, his two main protagonists in The Thousand Names, but eventually grew to appreciate many of the supporting characters as well.
I guess that’s why I was initially nervous when I first picked up The Shadow Throne, the sequel that I’d been so impatiently waiting for, and saw that we mostly had a new batch of characters, a new setting, and a whole different kind of war to fight. Sure, I was glad to see that Marcus and Winter were back, but then again, all those wonderful personalities I met in the first book – Fitz, The Preacher, Give-Em-Hell, Graff, Bobby, and pretty much the whole of the Vordanai Old Colonial army – were also largely absent from this one. But thank goodness we still got plenty of Colonel Janus bet Vhalnich, because I honestly don’t know what I would have done without my favorite military genius.
The Shadow Throne picks up directly from where things left off in The Thousand Names – the war in Khandar is won, and Janus, Marcus and Winter return in haste to the capital as heroes – but even so, there were times I felt the sequel read like a whole different story. Nothing terribly wrong with that, though. There’s still plenty of open conflict, but instead of the broad, sweeping battles in the desert, most of it takes place within the city walls of Ohnlei. It’s a very unstable time with the King of Vordan on his deathbed, and men like the dangerous and power-hungry Duke Orlanko are circling like vultures around the young, delicate princess and heir, waiting to manipulate her and seize control.
However, the princess Raesenia is more than she appears. Like, a LOT more. There’s a huge secret about her that gets revealed early on in what might be one of the best and most surprising scenes of the novel. My earlier disappointment about not seeing more of the characters from the first book ended up being rather short-lived, because Raesinia as a new point-of-view character pretty much made up for it single-handedly. Her perspective added a whole new layer to this story, and it’s great to see another strong female character in this series who’s not afraid to buck expectations and take control of her own life. In fact, it’s the women who steal the show in The Shadow Throne. While Marcus continues to hold his own, I have to say Winter and Raesinia’s chapters were the highlight for me in this one. And let’s not forget the deadly assassin Sothe or the girls of the Leatherbacks gang led by their bold leader (whose identity is yet another surprise).
Admittedly, the story was slower to start off and took some time to gain momentum, seeing as it had to introduce new characters and also to set up the political climate in this new environment. I also feel The Thousand Names was a stronger novel, but probably because the themes of it suited me more, whereas The Shadow Throne felt very different in overall tone. It’s more of tale of revolution, with a heavier focus on political intrigue and differences in ideology between Borelgai supporters and those who want to see Vordan free from the clutches of Duke Orlanko’s influence. A lot of the conflict has shifted to another front, with bloody battles in the city streets but also fierce verbal clashes in the shadows of palace chambers, university classrooms, common taprooms and other places where dissidents gather.
The action therefore felt a little more subdued and on a smaller scale in this one, and a couple of action scenes also had to happen “off-screen” due to limitations imposed by only having a handful of POV characters. But this in no way diminished my enjoyment. There’s a grand siege near the middle of the story that had me biting my nails, and I loved me some subterfuge and the bigger role that espionage played in the book. The author made sure that the quieter, more discreet action sequences that took place in the shadows were just as engaging to read as the all-out battles.
So with a novella and two full length novels officially under its belt, can I finally say The Shadow Campaigns is one of my favorite fantasy series out right now? Certainly my favorite military fantasy. I knew from the very start that The Thousand Names would be a tough act to follow and that book two would have big shoes to fill, but The Shadow Throne was no slouch; it delivered exactly what I wanted to see in the sequel – raised stakes, impactful decisions that furthered the plot, and of course, more of Wexler’s outstanding characters....more
Here's the thing, whenever I finish a book I love, I tend to make it a mission to check out more of the author's work. This might mean pre-ordering thHere's the thing, whenever I finish a book I love, I tend to make it a mission to check out more of the author's work. This might mean pre-ordering their next book if the author is new, or if they have other books already out those will immediately go on my to-read list. Anyway, ever since I discovered Django Wexler's The Thousand Names he's become one of my favorite authors, so of course I went through the same process of tracking down his other stuff. Thing is though, his two previously published books are out of print and are extremely hard to track down, but as luck would have it I was able to get copies without having to break the bank.
I am glad I started with Memories of Empire. If you've read The Thousand Names, this one actually feels almost like its spiritual predecessor. There are shared elements in the story and setting that made me feel right at home, those that are common in epic fantasy like faraway lands, exotic cultures, multiple plot threads featuring many different characters and warring nations. We have Veil, a young girl sold to slavery only to be accidentally rescued by Corvus, a passing swordsman who seeks answers to his past. We have the Khaev draek riders Kit and her Wing Leader Kei, tasked on an expedition to hunt down a rogue sorcerer. Then there are the other factions carrying on behind the scenes, not least of all the demons and spirits of this world who pull the strings and play mortals as their pawns in order to suit their own ends.
After reading this I can see how the author's writing has evolved and gotten better over the years. It's true there are some parts of this book that could have been streamlined, some characters that felt underused or whose motivations could be better explained, plot points that could have been made more clear. Still, for someone who really enjoys Wexler's smooth, flowing style and pacing I was not disappointed, and his talents for world building and character development were apparent even back then.
For one, I adored Veil and ate up every page she was featured in, and still couldn't get enough. Her relationship with Corvus is something I followed with enthusiasm; there was something very sweet and endearing about the nature of it, a mixture of admiration, respect and awkward school-girl crush. That's just one example of the author's knack for conveying the complex emotions and dynamics between characters, and another is the friendship between Kit and Kei. Some of the flashbacks and memory sequences into their pasts didn't add much to the story, but they made the two women better characters even if I still didn't connect to them as much as I did Veil, who was my absolute favorite.
I can also see how Wexler's love for wargaming came through in this one. I wonder how much of it was involved in the descriptions of the fighting, but no doubt what went in made the battles in the book better because of that. The final one near the ending almost reads like a narrative for a campaign, and it's a real treat to read a book with battles in it written by someone experienced in a command role in historical wargames. If that sounds like something that interests you, definitely check out Django Wexler. The Thousand Names has all that goodness too, and unlike this book it is easy to get your hands on!...more
The City Stained Red is the start of Sam Sykes’ new series called Bring Down Heaven and it takes place in the same “universe” as his Aeon’s Gate trilogy. Happily, you do not have to have read the latter before tackling the former. In fact, I wasn’t even aware that the two series were linked until it was bought up to me by a fellow reviewer. I don’t doubt, however, that if you’ve read Aeon’s Gate you will find this novel’s world and history all the more powerful and enriching.
The book opens with an introduction to a mercenary named Lenk, and the list of his fellow adventurers looks conspicuously like a party straight out of a role-playing game. There’s Kataria the elf-like archer, Asper the priestess of healing, Dreadaeleon the young wizard, Denaos the rogue with a shadowy past, and Gariath the beastly dragon-man brawler. Together, they arrive at the city of Cier’Djaal to track down a man named Miron, a client who hired them to do a job and then stiffed them out of their pay. The group has chosen a hell of time to arrive though, as two opposing armies bear down on the capital desiring only blood and war. As demons emerge from the depths to harry Lenk and his team, a banished god also takes advantage of the turmoil to rise again.
This was a good book, though it did have the occasional hiccup. To its credit, the book started out by putting its best foot forward, with Sykes winning me over with his clever writing style and delightfully dry wit. Despite the fantasy archetypes, his characters have unique personalities and voices, and I particularly liked Lenk’s sardonic and self-deprecating attitude. Sykes also ensures that his readers get plenty enough time with everyone in the group, devoting time to each character with their own perspective chapters as we move through the story. Lenk, Kataria, Asper, Denaos, Dreadaeleon and Gariath all have backstories that make them interesting, and their personal struggles give them depth, elevating each beyond simply “stock character” status.
I hit my first speed bump around the quarter-way mark when I felt the story lose some of its momentum, and it took me a moment to figure out why. After all, at this point we were still going full steam ahead with all the conflict and wicked fight scenes. Then I realized that might be part of the problem. There is such a thing as too much action, and I felt perhaps the story could have found a better balance. After what felt like a string of chapters featuring non-stop battling, I stopped to wonder where the plot was going. I was sure that it was heading towards a certain direction, but at the same time it seemed to be stalling out from all the fighting.
Also, while I appreciated a deeper look into each character, the format of shifting from one perspective to the next hindered the pacing to an extent. It might not have been so noticeable if it had been only two or three characters, but the downside of cycling through six points of view is that you risk breaking up the flow of the story. Individually, the characters were also written well and I was able to connect with them, but the relationship dynamics between them were harder for me to grasp. It was especially tough to relate to Lenk’s feelings for Kataria. The fact that he has strong feelings towards her is made obvious through the text, but even though Sykes is good at expressing a wide range of Lenk’s emotions, when it comes to love and passion it is still a tad bit shaky.
Fortunately, the story regained its traction once it got moving again, which I was glad to see. I enjoyed the rest of the book, though it’s also true I was unable to throw myself back into with the same energy and enthusiasm I experienced at the book’s beginning. Still, the good parts – most notably the beginning and the end – stand out and make this one a memorable read. What other foul and evil things can befall our adventurers in this awful, awful city I can’t even imagine, but I’m sure Sykes has more in store for us in the next installment. I’m looking forward to finding out....more
When trying to make a good impression, the saying goes you should put your best foot forward as soon as possible, and that’s definitely true for books as well. The fact that Blood and Iron was a bit slow in doing so may have weakened it a little in my eyes, but it is by no means a bad book. Indeed there are a lot of strengths, ones that I think would have made this book even better if the narrative had seized full advantage of them and taken things all the way.
The book’s description begins with “Set in a richly-imagined world, this action-heavy fantasy epic and series opener is like a sword-and-sorcery Spartacus.” If that sounds like your thing, then I have great news for you, because that is exactly what Blood and Iron delivers. “Richly-imagined world” doesn’t even begin to do the setting justice; this is one incredible feat of world building Jon Sprunk has managed to achieve in his creation of an empire resplendent in its diversity of people and places.
The writing certainly does not skimp on the details. Every time a character enters a new environment, we are treated to an explosion of information about the surroundings, from the beautiful shoreline where the main protagonist Horace washes up after a shipwreck, to the decadent throne room of Queen Byleth’s palace where he ends up being a political prisoner of sorts. When it’s discovered that Horace possesses the latent abilities of a sorcerer, we are introduced to the beginnings of a complex world of magic as well.
Individually, the characters are also pretty interesting. Considered a “savage” by the slave-keeping, bloodthirsty culture of the Akeshians. Horace is our main character simply trying to stay alive in the intricate web of customs and politics in Byleth’s court. Byleth herself is someone I could not get a bead on for much of the novel. Depending on whose point of view you’re looking at, she’s either strong or powerless, a tyrant or a victim, manipulative or vulnerable, though perhaps that is why of all the characters I found her the most intriguing.
For the most part, however, it feels like the plot of this novel is too too narrowly focused on the machinations at court, when my overall sense is that it wants to be something more. I didn’t exactly get the feeling there was war and a greater conflict on a grand scale out there, which is what I think the narrative wants you to know but somehow doesn’t quite manage to convey. It’s almost like the bigger story is always just there lurking beneath the surface, and I kept waiting for it to break out but it never did, at least not until close to the very end.
Part of this has to do with what I thought were a couple of underutilized perspectives, namely those of Alyra, a slave who is really a spy in the queen’s court, and Jirom, the badass mercenary and gladiator extraordinaire. Scenes with the former working for her underground network or the latter fighting in his army’s battles, both of which would have expanded the story’s scope, were only inserted here and there between Horace and Byleth’s dealings with each other. All the while, there seemed to be a lot more nonessential rehashing of events between the protagonist and the queen that take place at the palace.
It took a while for it to click with me where this story wanted to go. As such, the novel has the feel of a long introduction, albeit a good one. Like I said, there’s a lot to like in here; it just takes a while for everything to consolidate, but the ending was without question stronger than the way it began. Now that we’ve got the ball rolling, I’m looking forward to seeing what the second book will bring....more
Before we begin, I feel I should make it known that this book is not for the faint of heart. If you know you'll feel uncomfortable with things like brutal violence, ear-bendingly foul language, and extremely graphic sex, then you may wish to reconsider having a go at this ... especially when it comes to that last one. In general, I am not the kind to be bothered by lewd and explicit acts in books, and yet there were still certainly no shortages of eyebrow raises from me with this one! Anyway, it was enough that I feel I should say something. Fair warning!
And now with that out of the way, let's get down to the reasons why this book totally rocks. If you're the kind of person who likes the combination of a good adventure story with the dark and gritty aspects of fantasy (of course, keeping in mind the caveats mentioned above) then you'll love The Barrow! Incidentally, this is exactly the kind of mix I enjoy. The fact that it was even darker than I expected was a nice surprise, though I don't know if I would call it full-out grimdark. In an interview, Mark Smylie described the book as more of an "archetypal Dungeons & Dragons adventure as run through the filter of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" ... and well, yes, actually I suppose that description would do nicely!
Furthermore, the book also takes place in the world of Mark Smylie's Artesia graphic novels. I won't deny that an emotional attachment to the setting was a factor for me, but if you are not familiar with the comics, do not fret! This is a brand new self-contained story, no previous knowledge of the world or characters required -- which is actually great for me too, since I'd only read the first volume and it was quite a while ago. However, you can still tell that writing a story within a setting that has already been established works well in the novel's favor; the world-building is phenomenally robust and very deep, with many layers to the descriptions of the people and places.
As the reader, I felt like I was transported right there -- and that is both a wonderful and terrifying experience, considering the type of world we're thrown into, one filled with dark magics, shady politics, and disreputable characters. Scoundrels and perverts lurk at every corner, and if you're really unlucky, you might even run afoul of demonic horrors and evil gods. The main plot is actually quite simple, deceptively so perhaps; on a routine tomb-robbing operation, Stjepan Black-Heart and his crew stumble upon an ancient map which details the final resting place of a long-dead wizard, who was said to have been buried with a priceless legendary sword.
Here's where the adventure narrative comes in. To find the sword, our protagonists must first gather their allies and go forth to locate this tomb. Of course, epic quests are never so easy or straightforward. But even when a curse placed on the map kills one of the essential members of the crew and ends up transcribing itself onto the skin of a young noblewoman, you think that would stop the Black-Heart? Nope! Whether it's wealth, fame, freedom, or absolution, everyone on this journey has a reason to find this fabled Barrow, which makes this story a riveting one filled with secrets and unexpected twists.
Among these colorful personalities, some of the characters are so disturbing it will make you sick to your stomach, while others are so crazy it will make you laugh; but there's definitely no accusing any of them for being boring. Out of everyone, I think I like Erim the best. A young woman masquerading as a man, Erim is Stjepan's protege, and despite her skill with the blade, in many ways she is as sheltered as her mentor is well-traveled. It's ironic that she doesn't find herself to be very interesting, because she was my favorite with her quiet introspection and fierce loyalty. That pretty much also makes her the most honorable of the lot; we're talking about some rather grim and nasty characters here, after all.
This is a book that pulls you in immediately, starting with an explosive intro that sets the tone and mood of the story quite nicely. It also contains possibly one of the most heart-pounding prologues that has ever graced the pages of a fantasy novel, and my head is still reeling from the events at the end of that chapter. However, the pacing of the novel is a bit uneven, which is probably the only quibble I have about this book. After the introduction comes a middle that slows down considerably as the characters travel towards their destination. There are frequent stops along the way, but the good news is that something interesting happens at every one of them. These encounters often added to the depth of the lore and setting, giving me more of a sense of the world's vastness.
But while it took me several days to read the first three-quarters of this book, I think I devoured the last 150 or so pages in one exhilaratingly intense sitting. Everything that happens after they find the Barrow is pure insanity. Also, I just love twists and surprises! It's a climax and conclusion that goes beyond just being an ending, because more importantly it reveals how all the themes and undercurrents of the novel come together. It speaks much about Mark Smylie's skills as a storyteller. He marks his transition to full-length novels with this incredible debut, and I'm glad to hear we will be seeing more from him following The Barrow...more
I have not had the pleasure of reading Andy Remic's Clockwork Vampire Chronicles yet, but hearing about how those books have earned the author the nickname "Tarantino of epic fantasy" has gotten me mighty curious. Being compared to the great QT is high praise indeed! How then could I possibly say no to The Iron Wolves?
This book has it all: bloody fight scenes and explosive battles, psychopathic villains and twisted, gritty anti-heroes. Oh, and mud-orcs. Mustn't forget the mud-orcs. Needless to say, I am happy to report that Andy Remic's title is well-deserved; we're talking no-holds-barred dark fantasy, of the faint-of-heart-need-not-apply variety. We're talking graphic violence, explicit sex scenes, and a truly astounding number of decapitations within these blood-soaked pages.
If this sounds like your kind of novel, then you're in for a real treat. Andy Remic has taken the classic "gather your party and go forth on a quest of epic proportions" objective, and so generously wrapped it all up for us in a nice grim package. To stop an invading army of horrors, the great general Dalgoram sets out across the land to reunite his band of veteran warriors for one last stand. Having been estranged for years, the members of the Iron Wolves have all either fallen on hard times or have turned to lives of deviance and corruption. But together again, they find they can transform their shared curse into something so much more.
By the way, my description of "twisted, gritty anti-heroes" was in no way an exaggeration. With perhaps the exception of the old man Dalgoran, I was hard pressed to name a single admirable soul in this group of vile, despicable Iron Wolves. But that's what I signed up for so I can't complain too much, especially since Remic delivers exactly what was promised. The only downside I could see to this is finding enough to set some of these characters apart, which gets a little difficult when almost all of them are defined by broken pasts, foul mouths and violent tendencies.
Also as I've noted before, at times a novel's "epicness" can be something of a double-edged sword, as it can do a number on pacing. This story stumbles a bit due to the sheer size of the cast and their multiple points of view, especially when a couple more Iron Wolves are still being added to the mix at about two-thirds of the way through the book. As maniacal as they are, I wish we'd gotten a chance to know Zastarte and Trista a bit better, though I think this will mean a much smoother ride for the next installment now that the scene has been set and all the introductions have been made.
Speaking of which, I'm excited about book two, and if you'd seen that ending, you would be too. I have to say I felt the final showdown scene was over way too quickly, though this probably had less to do with the pacing and more to do with how much I enjoyed the climax and conclusion. Andy Remic is in his element when it comes to writing big battles and fight scenes, and he graces this book with a lot of them. It would be easy but disingenuous to brush them all off as an excuse to provide gratuitous violence, because I actually found many of the scenes of war and fighting to flow and fit exceedingly well within the context of the story.
After all, this is The Iron Wolves, folks. A great choice for readers looking for a stronger, headier kick to their heroic fantasy, just remember to steel yourselves for the unlimited energy and madness this book will unleash upon your lives!...more
Books like Mage's Blood are extremely hard for me to review, and not least of all because the many comparisons of this to A Song of Ice and Fire are mostly appropriate; this first book of the Moontide Quartet is a sprawling epic indeed! Still, I'm of the mind that George R.R. Martin's epic series stands uniquely on its own...but then so does David Hair's. It would be impossible for me to go into every single thing I liked about this book without having to talk about why, because that would just lead to lengthy explanations into the details of the plot, and if I did that this review will end up being thirty pages long with half of it made up of spoilers. Obviously, we can't have that.
Suffice to say though, this book has it all: nations at war, clashing religions, political intrigue, mages and sorcery, multiple points of view. Yuros and Antiopia are two lands long separated by vast ocean. But every Moontide, the seas part to reveal the magnificent mage-crafted Leviathan Bridge, allowing trade and communication between the two continents. Unfortunately, the passage is also a source of much bitterness and conflict. The last two Moontides have involved crusades of conquest, thanks to the lofty ambitions of the Magi.
Now another Moontide is at hand. As the time draws nearer, the people on both sides prepare for war. Antonin Meiros, a mage of great renown (in fact, it was he who was the intellect behind the Leviathan Bridge) seeks a new wife, and travels to Lahk to wed Ramita. Ramita, however, is already betrothed to the hotheaded Kazim. In another part of the world, Elena Anborn has pledged her life to protect the royal family of Javon, fighting off the assassination attempts and conspiracies masterminded by her former lover Gurvon Gyle, who works for powerful political enemies. Meanwhile in Noros, Elena's nephew Alaron prepares for his mage finals. But during the presentation of his thesis, he unwittingly proposes a dangerous topic that could mean the end to his hopes and dreams.
Everything and everyone is connected in this massive and intricate web that David Hair has woven. The scale of both setting and story are vast. The continents involved here encompass various nations, many of which are described here with great thought and detail. Their populations, including their cultures, languages, religions, rituals and even food and styles of dress are given the same exacting care. This is a world where both magic and theology form a strong basis for society, and it is diverse.
At the same time, readers will find there is much that is familiar in this fantasy world of Urte. Most of the nations and cultures in this book bear marked resemblances to those in our reality -- even when it comes to religion and geography. The nature of this brought to mind a recent discussion I had with a friend, regarding settings in various epic fantasies and how he usually preferred fictional worlds that he can imagine as our own earth, whereas I tended to prefer the opposite. Needless to say, a book like Mage's Blood can appeal to both camps. As well, even I can admit that real-world historical and cultural influences in a fantasy setting can add a lot to a story, a prime example being Jacqueline Carey's original Kushiel's Universe trilogy which remains one of my favorite series of all time.
With a book so massive which features a cast so big, it was perhaps no surprise that the first quarter of Mage's Blood is the most demanding of the reader. The different characters and their story lines are cleanly organized and separated by chapters, which is why this is my favorite format for epic novels. Nevertheless, it makes for a slower start, when an author has to cycle through the perspectives while introducing all the main players, and the first couple hundred pages were dedicated to this task. Patience pays off though, as the book finishes setting the scene and gradually builds up momentum in the middle chapters. This is the meat of the story, and it is amazing how David Hair manages keep all the plates spinning at once, giving each character and plot thread the attention they deserve, while also meticulously bringing them all together so that they eventually form a much bigger picture.
As Mage's Blood features an ensemble cast, obviously I had my favorites (the notable example being Ramita and her story with Antonin Meiros) while others were not as interesting to me. Each person has an important role to play though, and this was made clear by the climax and the ending, which is in a word incredible. It is a conclusion that is positively incendiary, leaving me wondering what else the author has in store. As the series name implies, Mage's Blood is only the first in what is meant to be series of four books, and as such there is much left wide open for huge things to come. However, at the same time David Hair has wrapped things up in a way that is straightforward and satisfying, without any abruptness. I think this is a far rarer skill than people realize.
I have a feeling a lot will be happening in The Scarlet Tides. Mage's Blood may have been encumbered by a lengthy introduction and a slow build-up to the story, which I honestly don't think could have been avoided. I suspect, however, that we will jump right into the action with the sequel. I'm excited, and can't wait to see where things will go....more
The Leopard was a really tough book to rate and as I sit down to write this review, I find myself waffling back and forth on my thoughts. For one thing, I did not expect the unconventional structure, effectively dividing the novel into two separate parts. Because The Leopard is also the first installment of a duology, with the bulk of the story still left untold in book two, it’s also hard to decide how I really feel based on what happened here alone.
After the prologue, we are introduced to Deyandara, a bastard tribal princess who suddenly becomes her mother’s sole heir when everyone else in the family was murdered. But before this news even has the chance to settle, Deyandara is made messenger to the goddess Catairanach, who sends her on a quest to seek out the assassin known as the Leopard. Said assassin, whose true name is Ahjvar, is a cursed man who only wants to die, taking his burden to the grave. However, Deyandara’s message from the goddess changes all that. If he accepts her mission to kill the mad prophet known as the Voice of Marakand, Catairanach promises to free him from his curse. Along with his companion the escaped slave Ghu, Ahj sets off to perform this one final task.
Then we reach Part Two of the novel, which features a whole cast of different characters, apparently bringing back some of the familiar faces for those who have read Blackdog, an earlier novel based in K.V. Johansen’s world of the Marakand. We don’t get to see much (or anything) of Deyandara, Ahjvar or Ghu again. I don’t even know what more I can say beyond that, since Part Two also really lost me, and I found myself struggling through the rest of the novel. The truth is, while I ate up Part One, I practically had to force myself through Part Two, and almost had to throw in the towel. I spent most of the time trying to care about Moth, Mikki, and the other new characters, but never quite managed.
Though it is not necessary to read Blackdog first before tackling The Leopard, I wonder if I would have enjoyed this second part more if I had. At the very least, I think I would have felt more of a connection to the characters, this group of mysterious shapeshifters and otherworldly beings whose convoluted activities only seem to have a tenuous link to the storyline I read in Part One. In Part Two we see that Ahj’s activities have resulted in some rather strong ripples, but I still found it hard to stay focused since all the while Ahjvar, Deyandara and Ghu remained ever present in the back of my mind. It wasn’t long until I realized I wish I could have been reading about them instead.
This book won’t be for everyone; because of the vast difference in my feelings for the two different story lines, I still wonder if it is for me. Johansen’s style also takes getting used to. She clearly loves detail, but it’s a double-edged sword. The wonderful descriptions that made Part One such a vivid and scintillating experience also made Part Two feel lagging and tedious – though no doubt this has a lot to do with how effectively each story line captured my attention. My love of the setting was a constant, however; I’m a big fan of sword and sorcery set in Middle Eastern and Eastern influenced worlds, and Johansen’s writing is perfect for bringing this environment to life.
The world of Marakand really is quite lovely, and I enjoy its people, cultures and magic. But it wasn’t enough, because ultimately the main issue I had with this book was its structure. It’s one thing to weave two different storylines in tandem, it’s quite another to place a very distinct split in the middle of a novel. I put a lot of stock in characters and I’m usually extremely averse to the idea of drastic changes in players or perspective, so I don’t think this book worked for me – but it might for you....more
Featuring exotic lands, magic and adventure and warrior knights embarking on sacred quests, Heartwood had everything I like going for it. Now that I've finished this book, I'm still amazed at the sheer scope of the story; epic doesn't even begin to describe it. Though as I soon found, "epicness" could also be something of a double-edged sword.
The book opens with a scene at the Congressus, a conference of peace talks in which representatives from all across Anguis come together in an attempt to negotiate and maintain stability between the many nations. Chonrad, Lord of Barle, joins the holy knights of Heartwood to oversee the talks in the fortified temple, where the great tree called the Arbor stands. Congressus does not go well, however, and then the gathering is ambushed by an army of warriors who seem to have materialized from the water of the river itself. In the ensuing battle many are killed, but it is the Arbor with its massive trunk split and its heart stolen away that is the worst blow of all.
Because the great tree is what binds the land and all its people, it must be saved. First, the Arbor's heart must be retrieved, but five Nodes located in five different hallowed sites across the land must also be activated in order for the tree to heal. In addition, a powerful magician called the Virimage must also be found, brought back to Heartwood so he can lend his abilities to the mending. Thus it begins; we have seven different groups, each on their own journey, each tasked with a special Quest.
Like I said, the scope of this is massive. It's what I loved best about this book, and the author Freya Robertson pulls off an impressive feat of storytelling by weaving no less than six or seven different plot threads together into a one big whole. She's also done incredible things with world building, creating this land made up of many different nations, all with their own unique population and cultures. The characters featured in this book all have ties to their own homes and histories, which also reflects in their personalities, motivations and value systems. I liked this last point a lot too, reminding me very much of the worlds in the role-playing games I like to play.
Viewed as a whole, however, the massiveness of Heartwood -- both its length and scale of the story -- can also make things a little problematic for the reader. When you have so much going on, such as half a dozen quests occurring all at once, that's a lot to take in. First, we have the introduction to the characters, of which there are many, and that shouldn't be a surprise given the intricacies of the plot. Still, I like to see momentum build in the first quarter of a book, because that's generally when I expect to be pulled in by the story as well. In Heartwood, much of the first 100-200 pages is given to establishing the characters and world, which made for a slower-paced beginning. It felt sometimes like I was encountering a new character and his or her long and detailed back-story every few pages, when what I wanted very much was for the story to move forward. Structurally, I think if some of the information could have been edited out or even just spread out more evenly, it might have improved the flow for the first part of the book.
These insertions of character history and moments of information dumping persist throughout the novel, but I think they are the heaviest in the first half. The good news is, I think the story picks up considerably in the second half, after we have the all the introductions and necessary details established. Though a little patience and determination was required of me to reach this point, I have to say it was worth it in the end. I'm still astounded by the way Freya Robertson was able to make all her quest stories come together. She manages to keep all the threads in line, never once letting any of them get away from her, and keeps up a steady level of suspense for each group throughout. With all the perspective changes and jumping around in places and time, I would have expected this book to be way more disjointed than it is, but surprisingly it wasn't, at least not for me.
I didn't get to connect to all the characters equally, since one of the downsides of this format is having to spread my attention between a whole bunch of different players. And some like Chonrad, for example, disappear for a chunk of time after Part I as the book shifts focus to the people on other quests. But over time, I did develop a few favorites. The writing is admittedly not very subtle when it comes to revealing their every thought or emotion, but regardless I came to enjoy Heartwood's female characters a lot. Their depth made them memorable, and the holy knights Procella and Beata stood out for me in particular. Both are strong leaders who are capable and competent, and yet also have their own personal battles between duty and love, what's insides their heads versus what's inside their hearts. On that note, I also want to say how much I appreciate a little romance in my epic fantasy. There's definitely an element of love here, and Freya Robertson is so good at creating passion and sexual tension between couples. I was not surprised when I found out that she has also published a number of romance novels under a different name.
Ultimately, my overall feelings towards Heartwood are positive, though it did take a little time for me to get into the flow of the story. It is, after all, an ambitious novel, and despite a few hitches in its structure and pacing, for a first book in a series I think this one does an admirable job in establishing the world and characters. The way the story unfolded and came together in the end made me curious enough to want to read more from this series and author, and I'll most likely be picking up the next book....more
The Tower and Knife series continues with Knife Sworn, and the second book is as full of magic, intrigue and beauty as the first -- if not even more so! One might be tempted to stop with The Emperor's Knife, its story having wrapped up so nicely at the end after all, with Sarmin coming into his own and the Pattern Master vanquished forever. But trust me, you won't want to miss this.
The events at the end of The Emperor's Blade saw Prince Sarmin free at last, taking his place on the throne after years of being locked up in a tower. Mesema, the girl sent from the horse tribes is now his wife and empress, and has just given birth to a boy. However, Sarmin's own mother the Empire Mother Nessaket has also just recently borne a son, throwing the matter of succession into question. And as the first book has shown, too many boys with royal blood at the palace has always led to bad news.
On top of this, Sarmin has been suffering from memory lapses and getting pressure from his advisers to name a new royal assassin, or a knife-sworn. He's also just received an unwanted gift of a harem of concubines, which he suspects is actually harboring a spy. There are only a few people close to Sarmin he can trust, and with the births of the princes and the arrival of a Yrkman peace convoy, they become more important to him than ever before.
First and foremost of these characters is Grada, whom we met in The Emperor's Knife and has since become one of Sarmin's closest companions and his trusted investigator. I mentioned in my review of the first book that out of all the points-of-view featured, my favorite one was Mesema's. In Knife Sworn, she takes on a less central role, but in her place Mazarkis Williams has given us the narratives of three other women, all strongly characterized and well-written. I've already mentioned Grada, whose complex past and warring emotions made her the most interesting person in the book. There's also Nessaket, who was almost a villain in my eyes in The Emperor's Knife, but in Knife Sworn I actually sympathized with her. And finally, my favorite character in this book was Rushes, the slave girl who instantly endeared me to her with her good heart.
Mazarkis Williams' writing is also in a league of its own, invoking such powerful and vivid imagery. It has been many, many months since I read The Emperor's Knife, but I still remember a certain scene involving blooming flowers in the desert, which Williams had brought to life with exquisite attention to detail. The writing was simply beautiful, and it is even more so now in Knife Sworn since the storytelling has become cleaner and more robust. It's the prime reason why I enjoyed this sequel even more than the first book; in The Emperor's Knife I sometimes found myself lost in terms of which character I was supposed to be following or trying to figure out where I was. I experienced none of that here, in the smooth flowing pace and structure of Knife Sworn.
The author has also ramped up the intrigue. If that was your favorite part of the first book, you will not be disappointed here. Conspiracies, secret agendas and betrayals abound, with twists thrown in. Almost everyone can be seen as a friend or a foe, depending on whose perspective you're following. I read this book much faster than I expected, because I wanted badly to see what certain characters would do.
The only thing I would have liked to see more of in Knife Sworn is the magic. Specifically, I wouldn't have minded a bit more about how it works; the first book introduced a very interesting system involving relationships between mages and spirits, and it was one of the coolest ideas I've ever come across in fantasy. Mages didn't play as big a role in this one, though with the emergence of a new magical threat to the empire, I hope the third book will offer a deeper and more detailed look at the magic of this world.
On that note, The Tower Broken will be coming out very soon! I wouldn't miss it for the world....more
The word "spy" has such heavy undertones, especially when it comes to genres in fiction. When I first picked up The Lascar's Dagger by Glenda Larke, everything I knew about it came from its description, so I was surprised when it turned out not to be the kind book I thought it'd be. Not that I had an inkling of how a story about a cleric-intelligencer was going to play out in a fantasy setting in the first place; still, if not a gripping page-turner, I expected at least something faster paced. But at the same time, I wouldn't exactly call this book slow, though it definitely had its ups and downs.
Case in point, it took a week to read the first third of the book, but the rest only took me about a few days. and I'd actually polished off the second third in a single sitting. For me The Lascar's Dagger was the type of novel with an ending much stronger than its intro; it may take its sweet time finding its momentum, but when it does, you'd better watch out. I know I could hardly put it down once the story got going.
The novel follows Saker Rampion, a priest who also serves as a spy for the Pontifect of the Va-Faith. On a routine information gathering assignment, he unwittingly stumbles upon Ardhi, a lascar up to no good. After a brief tussle, Saker comes away with the lascar's dagger, and its magical properties are revealed when multiple attempts to discard the weapon prove unsuccessful. Even after throwing it into the harbor, the dagger always seems to make its way back to Saker Rampion's side!
Not long afterward, the Pontifect reassigns Saker on a new job to act as new spiritual adviser for the prince and princess of Ardrone. Meanwhile in another place, a young woman named Sorrel Redwing is on the run, charged with the murder of her husband. She ends up at the royal court too, after the Princess Mathilda takes Sorrel under her wing and offers her protection. At this juncture, the story is still in the process of evolving and has not reached its tipping point. However, once it becomes clear that Mathilda also has a larger role to play, the situation ramps up into a new and irreversible development.
In fact, for a spoiled princess, Mathilda had a lot to offer as a character, and was the one who stole the show for me, not least because the story might not have ever taken off if not for her actions. She also had by far the most interesting personality, even if at times she was a self-absorbed brat or even an airheaded ninny. Sorrel takes second place, impressing me with her strength and loyalty, and the fact she appears to have the patience of a saint. It's the female characters that really shine in this book, and they were the ones who drew me in despite Saker Rampion being the most prominent character. As it turned out, the fact that he was a spy didn't even play into the story all that much, at least not in the ways one would expect, and at times some of his shortcomings and naivete were positively cringe-worthy.
While I would not call this book action-filled or even an adventure, readers who love epic fantasy for the political intrigue and all that entails would find lots to like in The Lascar's Dagger. There are scandals, betrayals and plays for power, cleverly used to raise the stakes. Then there's the magic, an intriguing element that adds a sense of mystique and danger. There's not just one avenue of magical power in this world but several systems, one form of it being a "witchery" which relates to the spiritual sphere. I like that different people can be granted different kinds of abilities, as well as the idea of how a witchery power comes to a person in the first place. It's a very unique way of looking at magic, and raises plenty of questions about the evil and good forces of the world.
A while ago, I contemplated books -- especially firsts of a series -- that are slower to get started and realized that I don't mind a putting in a little investment if I think the payoff will be worth it. I have been pleasantly surprised like this before in the past, so I'm always reluctant to put aside a novel even if the introduction doesn't grab me right away. In this case, I'm glad I decided to stick with The Lascar's Dagger because the story eventually grew on me, and the ending presented a very tense situation in which the implications for the next novel are mind-boggling. I have to praise this book for its originality; there are ideas in here never seen before, and with really no way to predict what's coming next, I'm definitely on board with continuing this series....more