Sometimes a second book is required for me to get a feel for a series, and this is certainly one of those cases. When the Heavens Fall was a novel that gave me mixed feelings, because while it didn’t exactly sweep me off my feet, I did genuinely enjoy it for the new and refreshing sword-and-sorcery fantasy that it was. In any event, it made me curious to tackle the sequel, Dragon Hunters, to see how the chronicle will continue.
What I found caught me by surprise. As it turned out, this novel is rather unlike the first one; not only do the stories differ in tone and style, Dragon Hunters also follows a brand new cast of characters and takes place in a different setting. But in spite, or perhaps because, of this huge departure, I liked the book. I liked it a lot.
One does not often find that subsequent volumes in an epic fantasy series can be read as standalones, but I believe this can be done here. Lore-wise, the plot of Dragon Hunters has strong ties to When the Heavens Fall, but other than that, we’re looking at a whole new ballgame. The story first begins in the period leading up to Dragon Day, an annual event celebrated by the raising of the Dragon Gate. A sea dragon would be allowed to pass into the Sabian Sea, where it will be subsequently hunted by the gathered water-mages who collectively make up a ruling body called the Storm Lords.
One of them, the powerful Emira Imerle Polivar is being pressured to relinquish her reign, though she is not about to step down quietly. Conspiring with the Chameleon priesthood, she arranges for two of their members to infiltrate the heavily guarded citadel and sabotage the Dragon Gate. Ruining the ceremony would deal a humiliating blow to the Storm Lords, which is exactly what Imerle wants. However, it appears that others have been targeting the Storm Lords too, as evidenced by the deadly assassins on the hunt, using the confusion sowed by the conspiracies and chaos to their mysterious benefactor’s advantage.
Considering my reading preferences, it’s probably no surprise that I found getting into this second volume was much easier and faster compared to the first. After all, I love my maritime fantasy, and I also love dragons. In Dragon Hunters, Marc Turner masterfully spins an exciting and cohesive tale of nautical adventure featuring these majestic leviathans, and it captured my imagination from the start. Unlike the first book, which saw four disparate characters come together in their shared quest to find a stolen object, the unifying theme of this sequel is not of a search, but of a hunt. That little difference alone gives this story a much more animated and thrilling sense of urgency.
For one thing, all the characters here are working against the clock. Karmel and Veran, the two Chameleon agents tasked to sabotage the Dragon Gate, are on a heist-like mission trying to complete their objective while struggling with mistrust and hidden agendas within their priesthood. Then there’s Kempis Parr, a city watchman hot on the trail of an assassin who has always managed to stay one step ahead of him, slipping from his grasp each time he draws close. And finally, there’s the grand dragon hunt itself. The plot to ruin Dragon Day notwithstanding, you didn’t think we’d get a book called Dragon Hunters without some dragon hunting action, did you? If dragons are what you want, then you definitely won’t be disappointed. Turner’s dragons are marine monsters, vicious predators that will give the Storm Lord ships a run for their money. While I found When the Heavens Fall to be a slower novel that took nearly until the midway point to pick up speed, clearly I had none of those problems here.
Compared to its predecessor, Dragon Hunters isn’t just like a whole different book, it IS a whole different book. For this reason, I have a feeling that opinions on it will vary wildly. For me personally though, it is an example of a sequel that beats out the previous book when it comes to pacing and scope. Overall, I feel that the story has a more “blockbuster” vibe to it, by which I mean its reach is considerably more epic, encompassing the lives of a greater number of characters and resulting in far more serious ramifications for the world—in other words, not a bad deal at all.
All told, Dragon Hunters was a great book and hooked me where the first one didn’t. I’m glad I gave this sequel a go, because in terms of my excitement level for this series, I know that I’m no longer sitting on the fence: I desperately need to get my hands on the next installment! Marc Turner has completely sold me on his excellent world building and characters, and I can’t wait to see what’s next in Red Tide, The Chronicle of the Exile part three....more
After the great time I had with Battlemage, and given my fondness for epic fantasy audiobooks, I decided to switch formats for the second book of the Age of Darkness series and give Bloodmage a try in audio. I was pleased to find that it worked very well, even though the sequel is a very different kind of story from its predecessor.
Bloodmage takes place in the aftermath of the first book, and some months have passed since the great battlemage war. However, the world still lives under dark times, and they’re about to get even darker. A string of disturbing murders have put the city on high alert and the Guardians of the Peace tasked to investigate are baffled by the strange way the victims were killed. At one of the crime scenes, Guardian Byrne finds a corpse entirely drained of life. Soon after, he takes on a protégé named Fray, who is also the son of his former mentor and a powerful magician still learning to master his talents. Together they search for clues to find the killer, and discover that pieces of the puzzle may actually lie in the past.
Meanwhile, Choss, a champion fighter, is involved at an arena where one of the gruesome incidents took place. The incident has not helped the tensions in the underworld, where a secret war has been brewing between the bosses, and soon the violence will spill into the streets unless someone steps up to do something about it. In the shadows, powerful forces are playing a different game, and an undercover agent named Katja in town spying for her foreign queen. A group of dissidents have been plotting against the monarch, and Katja must infiltrate their ranks and disrupt their bloodthirsty plans before they can come to fruition.
Like I said, compared to the first book, Bloodmage takes the story in a very different direction, and with the exception of a few returning faces from Battlemage who play very minor roles in this one, this sequel also stars a whole new cast of characters. If you’re wondering if this makes it possible to read Bloodmage on its own as a standalone, the answer is yes. In fact, this is the second epic fantasy sequel I’ve read this year that follows this trend and I am hoping it will continue; this makes the books so much more accessible and removes the barrier for new readers who might want to jump right in, if the description of Bloodmage piques your interest.
In essence, this book reads and feels much like a murder mystery, so that the tone and style is pretty far removed from Battlemage. The scope of the story is not as vast and there are far less sweeping battles. Instead, almost all of the clashes in this book are carried out on a more local scale—and they’re more personal. Depending on the type of story you were expecting, this can either be a positive or negative thing. I feel we get to know the characters on a deeper level in this book, but we do lose the some of the “epicness” of the setting and conflicts that I love so much in Battlemage. Since it takes time for a mystery to unravel and other conspiracies to play out, the pacing of Bloodmage also feels more gradual and controlled, so that if you liked the powerful momentum of Battlemage you might find the sequel slower and more subdued in comparison.
Personally, I might have preferred the energy of the first book more because I can’t help but be drawn to fast-paced action. On the other hand, I also love a good mystery on occasion, so Bloodmage also appealed to me in this sense. Ultimately, which book works better for you will come down to a matter of taste, but I must also add that this is worth reading if you enjoyed the first book, since here you will get to experience the fallout from its ending. Characters in Bloodmage still speak of the final showdown between Balfruss and the warlock in hushed whispers of awe, transforming the events of the first book into something like legend. And even though the returning characters from Battlemage appear or are mentioned only briefly, it was still interesting to catch up with some of them and see what they’re up to now, especially Talandra and Vargus.
I’m also happy with my experience with the audiobook. I’ve heard good things about narrator Matt Addis from his performance for the audio edition of Battlemage, and he has taken up the role again for the sequel. He does a great job with his tones and inflections, helping distinguish different speakers which is very helpful in a story with a relatively big cast.
Now I’m extremely curious to see what the final installment of the trilogy will bring. Will book three, Chaosmage, be another standalone-type story? Will it tie everything together, drawing from both Battlemage and Bloodmage? What tone will it take and what kind of surprises will it have in store? I’m definitely looking forward to finding out....more
Sunset Mantle is my first venture into Tor.com’s impressive line-up of novellas from their brand spanking new publishing arm. It wasn’t originally on my to-read list, but after hearing it described as a pocket-sized epic fantasy, I decided I had to take a look after all. The idea of a story like that, packed into just over 190 print copy pages really intrigued me.
The book’s protagonist is Cete, a former hero now in exile. Dismissed from his command both in honor and disgrace, he wanders the Reaches in search for a new place to call home. His travels lead him to Reach Antach, a settlement doomed to fall in the coming storm of infighting among several factions. But before Cete can turn on his heels and leave, a chance meeting with a blind woman in her shop changes everything.
Hanging there on display is the sunset mantle, beauty and light embroidered in cloth. The fine craftsmanship touches Cete in a way he cannot understand; all he knows is that he must have it, and if he can’t, he would want to commission a garment for himself from the shopkeeper and weaver, Marelle. To afford the commission and to stay in Reach Antach, Cete would have to find employment, and to find employment, Cete was going to have to go back to doing what he knows best. Once a fighting man, always a fighting man. However, being in the army also means being embroiled in the politics and schemes of the various clans trying to destroy Reach Antach, and even as his relationship with Marelle deepens, Cete’s fight eventually becomes more than just the mantle and even more than love.
This story left with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I am beyond impressed with author Alter S. Reiss’s marvelous success at laying out Cete’s journey from outcast to legendary warrior, all within this very slim volume. Sunset Mantle is not a “true” epic fantasy per se, with no magical element, and nor does it span a gazillion kingdoms or have enough points-of-view to populate a small village. There is, however, enough political intrigue to fill two fantasy worlds. This degree of complexity is not something I would have expected from a novella, and it also makes the scope of the story feel much, much bigger than the thin slice of what we get to see. Reiss gets a lot more accomplished in under two hundred pages than it takes some other authors to do the same thing in novels three to four times as thick. It does have a way of making you stop and wonder just how much gratuitous or unnecessary flourish goes into some of these doorstoppers.
I also really liked Cete as a protagonist as well as the nature of his relationship with Marelle, which goes much deeper than a romantic union. The trust and honesty between them is a rare thing to find indeed, even between two lovers. Cete sees Marelle as his equal, taking her guidance and respecting her need to do what she believes is right, even if it means letting her put herself in harm’s way. Cete also treats his own soldiers with that same practical respect. He is a man of honor and duty, as evidenced by the loyalty he shows Reach Antach, even though he came to them as a stranger and outcast. Other highlights include the battle scenes, which are quick but powerful, making the most out of the restrictive page count.
That said, the book wastes no words in establishing the situation surrounding Reach Antach and the city clans. Blink, and you could potentially miss something important. Ironically, it made Sunset Mantle a slower read, and it doesn’t give you much time to chew on the plot or characters. In fact, most of my questions came later, after I had finished the book and had some time to mull over what I just read. It made me realize a lack of background information made the story a little harder to understand, and sometimes that uncertainty or need to re-read a passage or two distracted from my enjoyment and prevented me from being fully engaged. Simply put, the overall style of the narrative begs to be savored, but the format is not that well suited for it.
Still, there’s something to be said about something as special as Sunset Mantle. It’s true I would have preferred a bit more breathing room, but that is not an uncommon complaint from me when it comes to novellas and short fiction. I’m usually very picky about this format, which is probably why I don’t read as much of it as I should. All things considered, I was actually quite pleased with this novella, which for me is saying a lot....more
A departure from his Raven’s Shadow trilogy, Anthony Ryan’s latest novel The Waking Fire is the start of a new series featuring a compelling blend of fantasy, adventure, and intrigue. And if there was one thing I learned from reading Queen of Fire, it’s that Ryan has a talent for writing amazing scenes of battle on the high seas—which are also plentiful in this new book. Then, there are the dragons. Oh, we mustn’t forget the dragons.
In this fascinating new world of The Draconis Memoria, no other commodity is prized above what the people call “product”, a deceptively innocuous term for something in fact truly magical and amazing: Dragon’s blood. By itself, product is unremarkable—volatile and dangerous, even—save for the powers it bestows to a very small slice of the population known as the blood-blessed, those rare men and women who are literally one in a thousand. Their abilities that manifest are so advantageous and formidable, that entire industries have been dedicated to the harvesting of dragon blood, either from hunting the creatures or taking it from those kept in captivity. Unfortunately though, over-exploitation has depleted their numbers in the wild, and those in the Ironship Syndicate who have noticed this weakening have real fears that the ensuing shortage of product will lead to war with their neighbors in the Corvantine Empire.
However, a group in the Syndicate has been clandestinely following up on the whispers of a rare breed of drake. Ancient texts tell of the White, a dragon that is supposed to be far more powerful than the commonplace Reds, Greens, Blacks and Blues. By all accounts, the white dragon is a myth—but there are those who believe with all their hearts that it exists and would do whatever it takes to get their hands on its blood, a treasure worth beyond anything imagined.
The Waking Fire tells a story of how three disparate characters find themselves on a quest to seek this elusive creature of legend. First there’s Claydon Torcreek, who is not just your run-of-the-mill slippery thief. That’s because Clay is also a blood-blessed, albeit unregistered, using his powers to give himself an advantage over his fellow criminals and scoundrels. Then one day, he gets arrested and pressed into his Uncle Braddon’s service. As it happens, Braddon is about to embark on a journey which would require someone of Clay’s talents. Next up is Corrick Hilemore, an officer newly assigned to an ironship, whose captain is in the early stages of testing out a faster, more powerful engine. As a character, Hilemore didn’t really stand out for me, and it was also a while before we saw his sections relate to the overall story. Still, I have to say his chapters were undoubtedly some of the most exciting (see earlier comment about amazing ship battles!) filled with encounters with pirates and with Corvantine enemy forces. But by far my favorite character was probably Lizanne Lethridge, a spy and assassin tasked by her superior to gather intelligence which would help in the hunt for the white drake. Lizanne embodies everything I love about female spy characters—disciplined and efficient, but also smart and independent enough to not blindly follow orders when her gut instinct tells her something isn’t right.
I also enjoyed Anthony Ryan’s dragons, even though they are more incidental than anything, for it is their blood that is the focus on this story. The power that a blood-blessed can summon upon consuming product will depend on the type of dragon the blood came from. A useful maxim to remember is “Blue for the mind, Green for the body, Red for the fire, Black for the push.” The idea of a “gifted” section of the populace being able to gain a variety of physical and mental enhancements or abilities from chugging certain kinds of substances is definitely not new (for instance, Brandon Sanderson’s magic system in Mistborn immediately comes to mind) but I liked how Ryan incorporated the dragon mythos, and he made it conceivable that uncanny powers can be derived from the essence of these magical creatures.
The plot pacing is a bit uneven, but to be fair that’s not something uncommon for a lot of these big epic fantasy novels. I liked that the book hooked me in straight away, the first ten or so pages of the prologue introducing a riddle which sets the tone for the rest of the story. The three character perspectives are well-balanced and explores multiple facets of the story in depth as well as a great deal of what’s happening around the world. If you enjoy fantasy quest narratives and all that comes along with them, then you should also have a great time following Clay, Lizanne and Hilemore on their individual trials and challenges. As with any long journey, the three of them will experience exciting adventures but also plenty of downtime to regroup and recuperate. Always though, the plot presses forward with its intrigues and character development. By the time the book ended, I was practically screaming at that cliffhanger.
Overall I really enjoyed this book. I was left with a couple thoughts when I finished. First of all, Anthony Ryan has seriously upped his game. The Waking Fire is proof that his debut trilogy Raven’s Shadow was just a taste of more to come from that brilliant mind of his. And the second thought on my mind of course was: WHEN WILL WE GET THE SEQUEL? I’m definitely on board with this new series!...more
After my wonderful time with Victor Milán’s The Dinosaur Lords last year, I was understandably quite anxious to take on the sequel The Dinosaur Knights. However, there were some aspects with this follow-up that made me think the honeymoon period might be coming to an end. While I still love the epic-fantasy-meets-dinosaurs premise behind this series, admittedly the magic has faded somewhat due to this book’s uneven pacing and my growing dissatisfaction with a couple key characters.
The Dinosaur Knights continues the narrative from the first novel, following more or less the same handful of characters. In the Empire of Neuvaropa, a fictional land reminiscent of 14th century Europe, everything is in turmoil as rumors of a Grey Angel Crusade lead desperate men to form the most unlikely of alliances. We pick up Rob Korrigan’s story in the pacifist town of Providence, where the dinosaur master and his friend the famed noble captain Karyl Bogomirskiy are on trial for their perceived crimes against the adherents of the Garden of Truth and Beauty. At the same time, Princess Melodía and her maidservant Pilar are on the run after escaping imprisonment in the palace from the traitor Duke Falk von Hornberg. Eventually, their search for a safe haven leads them to Providence, where the fates of our major characters finally converge.
Meanwhile, Melodía’s lover and Karyl’s rival the Count Jaume dels Flors has joined forces with Emperor Felipe, hatching up an insane plan in the hopes of stopping the Creators’ Grey Angels from returning to Paradise. As war erupts across Neuvaropa, even those who just want to withdraw into peace and isolation are swept up in the rising wave of fear and madness. Worst of all, despite the extreme efforts by the Empire, there’s no telling whether the weapons of the Gods can even be stopped.
First, the good news: All this will ultimately culminate into one hell of a climax and ending. The bad news? I felt like I had to plod through more than 200 pages just to reach the point where things start getting interesting. I experienced little to no emotional engagement or suspense for the first half of the book, because it was impossible to shake the pesky feeling that the author was simply biding his time until he could maneuver all his characters into place, after which he can finally usher in the real action.
I was also disappointed with the characters, especially Princess Melodía, the only female POV in a cast dominated by men. She was my favorite from The Dinosaur Lords, and my one regret was not seeing her play a more significant role compared to Rob or Jaume. In a way, I got my wish granted, since Melodía received a lot more page time in The Dinosaur Knights, though I remain unconvinced this was actually an improvement. I didn’t like the way her character was repeatedly set up to be duped or to make mind-bogglingly bad decisions, undermining the hard won admiration she earned from the previous book. Then there was Rob, who frequently displays more respect and compassion towards his dinosaurs than his fellow human beings, which is especially apparent when it comes to his sexual objectification of women. I don’t usually let this kind of stuff get to me, but there were so many unnecessary allusions in this vein that even I couldn’t help but notice. With Melodía being almost useless for the first half of this novel, and Rob going from passably charming to downright insufferable, it was harder to engage with the characters this time around.
Happily, the dinosaurs are still amazing. For one thing, I just love the smattering of chapters we get from Shiraa the Allosaurus’ point of view. These brief glimpses into the dinosaur’s head can be a bit incongruous, but I can’t help but appreciate them for being one of the series’ cooler idiosyncrasies. Furthermore, Milán continues to excel at writing fantastic dino-battle scenes. They’re the real highlights of this novel, with the largescale combat sequences in the final section going a long way in making up for a humdrum first half.
This sequel also delves deeper into the lore of the Creators and their Grey Angels. With dinosaurs and angels, this series is really starting to build into something a lot more complex than I had anticipated when I first picked up The Dinosaur Lords. And while world-building continues to be a work-in-progress and we still don’t have all the answers, I admit I’m curious to see how all the puzzle pieces will fall into place.
It should come as no surprise then, that I still have plans on continuing this series. It’s true that I felt the second book slump with this one, but several promising developments in the last half of the book also give me hope that the third installment will pick things up again. Plus, there’s no dismissing those final climactic chapters, and with the book ending with the Empire of Neuvaropa in even more of a mess than when we started, I’m definitely keen on finding out where our characters will go from here....more
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
There’s so much to say about The Red Queen’s War series, even more so now that I’ve finished this third and final installment and realized to my joy and horror that yes, my time with the remarkable Prince Jalan and his crew has indeed come to an end. Taken as a whole, this trilogy may be Mark Lawrence’s finest work ever, and this stunning conclusion that is The Wheel of Osheim has left me with my mind completely blown.
After we were left with that cruel cliffhanger at the end of The Liar’s Key, I just couldn’t wait to see what would happen next. And indeed, The Wheel of Osheim is a book that will ultimately reveal all—though admittedly in its own time and in its own way. It’s a story that guards its secrets jealously, opening with a bizarre sequence that sets the beginning of this novel in stark contrast to the terrors experienced by the characters on the journey to get where they are. In fact, if there was ever an award given for “Most Hilarious Escape from Hell”, I have a feeling Jalan will remain the undisputed champion for years to come.
His goals to ditch Loki’s key and return to his old life of drinking, gambling, and womanizing don’t go as planned either, as he returns home to Vermillion to find everything changed. The end of the world is said to be coming, caused by a large construct in the north called the Wheel of Osheim. All of reality will unravel as the Wheel turns faster, unless someone is willing to go into the heart of it to shut it down. In the middle of this looming threat, an old enemy also makes its move, taking advantage of the confusion to make a bold strike at Jalan in the capital of Red March. Our poor, luckless protagonist has never wanted to be a hero, but unfortunately even a coward has to step up sometime.
Yep, this one’s all on Jalan, and don’t you doubt it for a second. Though his friends Snorri, Kara, and Hennan are also along for this crazy ride, most of this book is driven by our main character, who has all but shed his former persona by replacing the insouciance with actual initiative and responsibility. The impending destruction of the world isn’t the only reason why he can’t go back to his old life; it’s because he’s also not the old Jalan. That said, this change is not something that occurs overnight. We’ve actually been seeing this shift in Jalan’s personality since the last book, and only now are we seeing the results of that transformation. Thankfully though, Jalan still retains a lot of what made him the “Prince of Fools” we fell in love with when this series first started. While his experiences in the past year have hardened his soft edges and impressed upon him a sense of honor, he’s still far from the picture of gallantry—and I’m perfectly fine with that.
With Jalan coming into his own though, it did mean seeing a bit less of the supporting characters. Not even Snorri presents himself in the flesh until later in the book, but we do get to witness snippets of his and Jal’s time in Hell together, woven into the early parts of the story. Compared to the books that came before, The Wheel of Osheim has a more distinct “ethereal” vibe, due in part to the structure of the narrative as well as the strange, otherworldly nature of the main conflict.
I also found the story to be darker, a lot twistier. The tensions between the Red Queen and the Blue Lady have been building up for a while now, and their war finally comes to a head in this book. More puzzle pieces also fall into place as Jalan encounters Jorg once more, further linking the events of The Red Queen’s War to those of The Broken Empire. How surreal it was to watch these two very different young men get drunk together and give each other life advice. And finally, we get a lot more background into the mysterious Builders. The revelations here confirm that Lawrence is still the undefeated master at turning this genre on its head; with six novels by him under my belt, you’d think I would be used to the surprises by now, but somehow he still manages to amaze me every single time.
Still, when it comes down to what makes this novel truly special—and why I loved this entire trilogy, really—my reasons are actually quite straightforward. Very simply, this book made me laugh. There’s horror and darkness in this series, but also genuine humor. Few books in this genre can claim to be funny in the traditional sense, but then, most books in this genre don’t have a protagonist like Prince Jalan. He was a coward, a cheat, and a liar (and still a bit of all those things, I admit) but it didn’t matter; because of the fantastic way he was written, I loved him from the start. Jalan is, I’m convinced, an honest-to-goodness once in a lifetime character, the likes of which we’ll never see again. Now that the trilogy is over, I’m going to miss him very much.
What else is there left to say, really? The Wheel of Osheim is a masterpiece. You need to read The Red Queen’s War trilogy. The end. Full stop....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
I love Epic Fantasy for many reasons, not least of which is the fact every book is a portal to a whole new world. But when you read as much as this genre as I do, you sure get to visit a lot of them. That is why, when every once in a while I come across a setting that truly stands out, I sit up and take note. And Bradley P. Beaulieu’s Twelve Kings in Sharakhai made me do just that.
Right from the start I was captivated by the magnificent desert city of Sharakhai, where this novel takes place. Surrounded by a literal ocean of dust and sand, this political and cultural trade center attracts all manner of visitors. From merchants to dignitaries, they sail across the dunes in great sand-ships to treat with the city’s kings, twelve immortal men who have held power in Sharakhai since time immemorial. However, not all people are happy with their rule, and many remember the injustices wrought upon them by the kings and their ruthless agents.
The novel’s protagonist Çeda is one such individual. When she was eight years old, her mother was a rebel captured and executed by the kings, then hung from Sharakhai’s walls as a warning and example to other detractors. Çeda has sworn vengeance ever since. Now more than a decade has passed, and Çeda is still as determined as ever to take down the twelve kings, with the help of a book of cryptic writings left to her by her mother. Unlocking the book’s puzzles will not be easy though, and there are many questions about her own heritage that must be solved before Çeda can bring the fight to her enemies.
So many thoughts filled my mind when I finished this book, I’m not even sure where to begin. Beaulieu weaves a complex tale of intrigue, employing devices like flashbacks and bringing in other characters points-of-view to great effect. In many ways, Çeda’s story plays out almost like a mystery plot, following her on a journey to uncover clues about the twelve kings’ weaknesses while also revealing details about her own past and the secrets her mother kept from her. Flashback chapters are generally tricky to pull off, but I was impressed with the way they were done here, inserted at precisely the best moments to emphasize important events in the characters’ lives.
Çeda is also a wonderful main character, one of the best female protagonists I have encountered in years. We open the novel with a scene from the fighting pits, where she is a competitor in the tourney. Right after a phenomenal combat sequence which ends with Çeda serving her opponent his ass on a platter, she then goes on to engage in an intensely passionate tryst with the fighting pit’s owner. If all this was part of Beaulieu’s attempt to capture the reader’s attention right off the bat, well, it certainly worked on me! More importantly though, I got the sense that Çeda is her own woman. She does what she wants but she’s also smart about it, and she is committed to her goals and utterly loyal to those she cares about.
The story also introduces several more major characters, first of which is Emre – Çeda’s childhood friend, partner in crime, and brother of her heart. As Çeda’s mission takes her down one path, Emre’s involvement with the underground resistance takes him down another, leading the two friends to drift apart. But what I love about this story is that nothing about it is black and white, and there’s much more to it than simply good versus evil. The twelve kings may be ruthless and cruel, but the rebels – a group calling themselves the Moonless Host – are far from innocent themselves, employing methods that are just as bloody and destructive. The relationship dynamics between Emre and Çeda become a focal point when the two of them end up on opposite sides, fighting for the same cause while driven by different forces. Throw in a third faction, Ramahd and Meryam of the Qaimiri delegation, and it gets even more difficult to tell friend from foe. As with the best and most realistic stories of fluid loyalties and political intrigue, there is absolutely nothing clear-cut about the situation and the plot will keep you wondering who’s an enemy and who’s an ally every step of the way.
While Beaulieu never stops challenging his characters, the world building in this novel is where his skills really shine. The many distinct cultures that feature in the pages of Twelve Kings in Sharakhai provided a diverse setting, which is further fleshed out by its rich history, religions, and various magic systems. The many sights and sounds of the city are brought to life by the stunningly detailed descriptions of important locales, from the decadent halls of the Tauriyat to the blooming fields of adichara plants in the surrounding desert. The world-building also made up for the slower pacing of the first half of the novel, because there were just so many wonderful things to take in.
All told, the payoff was definitely worth it. A promising start to a new series, Twelve Kings in Sharakhai offers readers a glimpse into Bradley P. Beaulieu’s talent for storytelling as well as his emerging role as a master world-builder. With its many different peoples and cultures, Sharakhai’s desert setting was utterly spellbinding. I also found myself enthralled by the plot’s combination of adventure and intrigue, along with the richness and depth of the characters. Books like this keep the epic fantasy genre fresh and diversified, and I am very excited to see what the future holds for The Song of the Shattered Sands series....more
This review is for the “Author’s Definitive Edition” of The Unremembered. What does this verbiage spell for the book, exactly? According to an interview I found, author Peter Orullian made a ton of changes for this re-issue, many of which were not just limited to minor adjustments like adding an excerpt or fixing a typo here and there, though there was certainly some of that involved too. In fact, there are significant differences between this and the original (but Orullian also assures that those who read the latter will be able to transition into the sequel just fine), like about fifteen thousand words added in, but even more cut out. So, unlike a lot of Author’s Editions, this new version is actually substantially shorter than the original. It’s all supposed to make a stronger book – trimming the fat, bolstering what needed to be bolstered, fixing the pace, improving character development, etc.
I’ve not read the original, so I can’t really speak to whether or not the Author’s Definitive Edition met its goals, but finding out all that information did make me curious about this book. It’s so rare that an author gets a chance to do this, and I wanted to see the end result.
The Unremembered opens with a god condemned by the rest of the pantheon for creating a world filled with terrifying creatures, upsetting the divine balance. As punishment, he is sent to live for eternity with his abominations in the Bourne. Thousands of years later, the focus shifts to the perspective of a villager named Tahn who encounters nightmarish creatures around his home and the lands of the Hollows. Mysterious strangers arrive in town, and one of them – an old man named Vendanj – warns Tahn of great danger. A tear between the realms has resulted in the evil things from the Quiet entering the world, putting everything in peril.
Together with his sister Wendra and his friend Sutter, Tahn sets off on a quest with Vendanj and the old man’s other companions, the Sodalist Braethen and the beautiful-but-deadly warrior Mira. Tahn has no idea where this quest will take him, but he is all too aware that the world is depending on him and his group to stop the darkness from swallowing up everything he knows and loves.
The Hero’s Journey immediately comes to mind. The Unremembered is exactly that, pulling in the familiar tropes in the genre for this traditional quest narrative. This makes it a tough book to review. On the one hand, many of the themes can be recognized as the conventional and rehashed ideas from well-known fantasy classics, and though I wouldn’t exactly describe the story as generic, I can’t exactly call it original either. On the other hand though, there’s a certain charm and appeal to reading a book that harkens back to the days of old-school fantasy, almost like slipping on a worn but comfortable and much-loved sweater. As with all books in general, I suspect how you feel about this one will entirely depend on the sort of mood you’re in.
Still, that’s not to say Peter Orullian brings nothing to the genre. I find his world and characters intriguing, and whether or not this has to do with the changes he made in this edition, I liked his writing style and found it flowed very smoothly. His world-building is deep and very detailed, and his characters – while playing a bit to clichés – are people you can relate to. After all, archetypes such as The Hero are popular because they resonate with us. Tahn is likeable in that role, and his companions also play out their respective parts nicely. Orullian fleshes out his characters and gives them individual traits that make them memorable, even if they are present in a derivative capacity.
Is The Unremembered perfect? No, but I still enjoyed reading it. It’s well-paced, probably much improved from the original version is my guess. Some scenes carry a lot of weight, and in these the author does a fantastic job with the atmosphere, highlighting tough choices and the consequences of making them. Sometimes, it can get very poignant and emotional in keeping tensions high and the reader hooked on every word. As well, at a certain point in the book, the story diverges into two different threads, which threw some variation into the mix.
Ultimately, I don’t know if I would recommend this book to everyone, but I imagine there will be fantasy readers who will enjoy it. If you’re looking for something wildly fresh and original, this probably won’t be it. But if you’re feeling nostalgic for some traditional epic fantasy reminiscent of The Wheel of Time or The Lord of the Rings, then it’s quite possible that this could work for you. Personally I thought this was a decent read, and I felt invested enough that I will most likely read the sequel....more
I first became aware of Battlemage in the Spring of 2015 and knew right then and there that I had to check it out. Because come on, BATTLEMAGES! Also known as the heavy-hitters of Fantasyland. They. Are. Awesome. As you can guess, I ended up devouring this book pretty quickly. Not only do I love the premise, I also found it to be an extraordinary easy read because of its style and down-to-earth traditional story.
Needless to say, if you’re a fan of mages, wizards, sorcerers, or any of those magician types, you won’t be disappointed. Balfruss is our main battlemage character, one of six who has answered the King of Seveldrom’s call to arms against the mad Emperor Taikon’s invading army from Zecorria. It is said that their enemy is led by a powerful battlemage known as the Warlock, prompting the need for Balfruss and the powers that he and others like him can provide.
While the battlemages combine their efforts, the war is also fought on the frontlines by thousands of unranked soldiers. Among them is Vargus, an aging mercenary who has sworn an oath to fight, even if it means leaving the quiet village that was his home for the last forty years. Gradually, his name becomes known in the army camps for the morale and camaraderie he has instilled in his fellow soldiers, creating a brotherhood that fights as one. And of course, no war is fought without a network of spies and agents in the shadows, led by Talandra, princess of Seveldrom and keeper of all secrets. Taikon of Zecorria may have sparked this religious war under false pretenses, but as the clever and resourceful Talandra proves, two can play at that game.
What really worked for me was the pacing of this novel and the fact that its momentum was almost always a constant. This made Battlemage a very quick and easy read, as I alluded to in my introduction. There is very little downtime, and also plenty of action and battle scenes. Essentially, these fell into two categories, reflecting the reality of a war fought on two fronts – one with magic, and the other with the sword. There’s a good mix of these, so that the plot doesn’t get too repetitive. Balfruss and the battlemages fight in abstract and magical ways that deal more with the mind, while the soldiers like Vargus utilize more direct methods like blades, shields, and just plain muscle strength. Stephen Aryan’s writing style is also very straightforward and casual, so it took very little effort to simply dive right into the story.
Of the characters, I enjoyed all of them but hands down Talandra was my favorite. Balfruss and Vargus are great, but ultimately they are rather standard archetypes for their roles, while Talandra broke the mold in many more ways to become the most interesting. Also, off the top of my head I can name several examples of epic fantasy novels with an ensemble cast where I’ve found the female character’s role to be downplayed and underutilized (especially in first books of a series), but I certainly did not encounter this issue in Battlemage. In fact, Talandra probably plays one of the more important roles in the book, getting the most results by directing a large network of spies who carry out her orders from afar. Her sections aren’t as invigorating as Balfruss or Vargus’s fight scenes, but nevertheless I felt her personal story of sacrifice was the most compelling by far.
The overall plot itself is entertaining, if perhaps more predictable than I would have liked. A lot of the story elements feel familiar like I have read them elsewhere before, such as the mad and sadistic tyrant king, the populace’s fear and mistrust of magic, or the various political machinations – just to name a few. To the author’s credit though, he combines it into a neat package that offers a good mix of everything, plus the setting feels unique. There’s a bit of the new stirred in with the old, so to speak, and I actually wouldn’t have minded a bit more to the world-building to set it further apart from other epic fantasies of its type. There are mentions of faraway places and the fantastical humanoid races that inhabit them, like the Morrin, a horned, yellow-eyed and pointy-eared people; or the Vorga, a saurian race. These are the types of things in the world which I would love to see strengthened and expanded.
So if you’re feeling in the mood for a fun and action-filled fantasy story, you might just find it in Battlemage. It’s true that it doesn’t break much new ground, but I certainly wouldn’t dismiss it for that reason. I can see the story offering a comfortable and accessible experience to both new and experienced readers of epic fantasy, and I find I’m looking forward to the next book, which I wouldn’t be if this weren’t such a solid start. Definitely give this one a shot if it sounds right for you. And enjoy the battlemages....more
The boys are back! When I heard Michael J. Sullivan was going to take his next Hadrian and Royce adventure to Kickstarter in the summer of 2015, I happily forked over the cash to support this brilliant project by one of my favorite authors. I’ve read and loved every Riyria novel and I couldn’t have been more excited about The Death of Dulgath. As part of my backer rewards, I received an early digital copy of the book, but I later also picked up the audiobook version because of Tim Gerard Reynolds, the narrator who brings Sullivan’s wonderful characters and world to life.
I was not disappointed. The Riyria Revelations ranks high among one of my favorite fantasy series, so naturally when Sullivan went on to write two more books in The Riyria Chronicles, I read those too. Chronicles is meant to be a prequel series, comprised of stand-alone tales featuring Hadrian and Royce before the events of Revelations, and The Death of Dulgath is the third of these. As thieves for hire, our protagonists are always getting into trouble involving daring heists and other shenanigans, which is another reason why these side stories about their “time before” have always appealed to me, but in this latest novel, things take on a surprising twist.
This time, instead of being tasked to steal something, Royce and Hadrian are hired on as consultants…of a sort. In the province of Dulgath, the last surviving member of the ruling noble family is being targeted for assassination, and the authorities need Riyria’s expertise to help foil the plot. But of course, things are never as they seem. When Royce and Hadrian travel to Dulgath, they find a perfect little kingdom where everyone is healthy, crops grow aplenty, and it never rains during the day. Plus, the young Lady Dulgath whom they are meant to protect seems to know a lot more about the situation than she lets on.
For several reasons, I found The Death of Dulgath to be very different from the other Chronicles books, with the most obvious distinction being the story’s heavier emphasis on mystery. Royce and Hadrian do more investigating than anything else, and the pacing was markedly slower especially towards the beginning and the middle—though fear not, as there’s still plenty of action and adventure to go around, as well as a good number of plot twists.
But as usual, what I loved most was the character interaction. Fans of the series have always known Hadrian to be the one who wears his heart on his sleeve, while Royce is his polar opposite—ill-tempered, aloof, and untrusting. The Death of Dulgath catches our protagonists at an interesting time in their lives, set only a few years after they first met. Both are still learning how to work with the other, but slowly yet surely, trust is starting to grow. Let’s just say there’s a good reason why everyone calls this series the ultimate bromance; each story adds a little more to what we know about their relationship, which is another reason why the prequel novels are so special to readers who have followed these characters for a long time.
For this reason, I highly recommend reading all the Riyria books in publication order, starting with The Riyria Revelations series. You can then pick up any of the Chronicles books and enjoy them perfectly fine as standalones, but having read Revelations first really enhanced my experience with The Crown Tower, The Rose and the Thorn, and now The Death of Dulgath. What’s more, Michael J. Sullivan peppers this book with a lot of references to the lore and history of this wider world. While you don’t need any of it to follow the story, it’s obviously much more fun when you recognize all the allusions. Also, it lets you appreciate just how big, vivid and elaborate this series is, and believe it or not, it’s still growing all the time—next year, Sullivan’s upcoming Age of Myth will be set in the distant past of these Riyria books, going back to this world’s ancient times. In fact, he even works in a teaser or two for it in the plot of The Death of Dulgath.
No question about it, this book is another winner, bringing back everything I love about Riyria: great characters, great setting, great story. I really couldn’t have asked for more. A must-read for fans of the series, and if for some reason you haven’t been initiated into the fascinating world of Riyria yet, seriously, what are you waiting for?...more
Wow! What a long way these characters have come since The Emperor’s Blades, and also what great strides Brian Staveley has made as a writer and storyteller. Epic does not even begin to describe this dramatic third and final installment in the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne trilogy, which brings everyone back together for one explosive finale.
Things sure weren’t looking too good for the three imperial siblings, last we left them at the end of The Providence of Fire. (Warning! Possible spoilers ahead for the first two books if you haven’t read them yet!) Kaden, the heir who was set to inherit the throne after the assassination of his father Emperor Sanlitun, has decided instead to dissolve his rule, creating a republic instead. The problem? None of his counselors can set their ambitions and differences aside to work together. Meanwhile, the empire is crumbling at the edges and hordes of invaders are marching their way towards the capital. Adare has no choice but to rely on her former-lover-turned-nemesis General Ran il Tornja to hold off the Urghul, who are now being led by a powerful and cruel leach. And finally, there’s Valyn, who probably has it worst of all. Betrayed, blinded, and thrown from a tower, he was left for dead to fend for himself in the Urghul-infested wilderness.
I was also happy to see Gwenna return with her own POV chapters. She was one of the best surprises in the previous book, and she’s back now to show the Malkeenians how to get shit done. If you love what you see on this book’s insanely gorgeous cover, then you most definitely will not be disappointed. There is plenty of Kettral action in here, and with Valyn lost to the wing, things have gotten even more intense now that Gwenna has assumed the leadership. She more than proves her strength and capability in this novel, taking back the order and rebuilding its ranks with only a group of washouts and rejects at her command.
Indeed, without Gwenna, this book would have been darker and even more despairing. “Broken” is the theme for The Last Mortal Bond, with the three royal children floundering in their own respective ocean of problems. Talk about your dysfunctional family. Ever since the first book, I’ve been intrigued by the dynamics between Adare, Kaden and Valyn, and even though Emperor Sanlitun is dead and barely appears in this series except in memories and flashbacks, it’s still stunning to see how his choices for his children have had such profound effects on their lives and on their relationships with each other. With each of them heading in their own direction—and with barely a shred of trust between them—anything could happen at all. And while things did not go the way I expected, the siblings’ long awaited reunion in this final novel is surely not to be missed.
It’s also very interesting when I reflect upon how my feelings for these characters have changed over the course of the trilogy. Brian Staveley has pushed them all to their limits, forcing them into difficult situations where they have to make some tough decisions, and not all of them lead to positive results. Adare really stepped up in the last book, and I was glad to see her carry her role into the events of this one. However, a sheltered lifetime within the palace walls has certainly put her at a disadvantage, and it shows. At times, she frustrated me with her naiveté, but I also felt a deeper sympathy for her when it came to the matter of her infant son. Being a new mother is terrifying enough, but she also had to do it in the middle of a war with a target on her back.
At the very least though, I found Adare’s chapters to be a lot more compelling than her brothers’. As a character, Kaden has always felt distant to me because of his tendency to push aside all emotion, but this book saw him slipping even further away. Meanwhile, Valyn had retreated into the darkness to wallow in his self-pity, yet somehow still managed to emerge as a kind of tortured hero. Clearly, Sanlitun’s children have not benefited too much from the paths he has chosen for them. Hands down, the indisputable winner here was Gwenna, who ended up stealing the show with her brilliant side plot and incredible character growth. Please, Mr. Staveley, if you ever decide to revisit this world, a series or even a one-off tale about Gwenna and the Kettral would make my dream come true!
As for the story itself, we all know what a tricky thing it is to wrap up an epic fantasy series, but Staveley takes to it so naturally that it’s hard to believe this is his debut trilogy. He never once loses sight of his goals and is always in control, driving the plot forward so that the pacing never falters even through the frequent perspective changes. Amazingly, each character arc has its own rising action and climax, and yet all four POVs end up come together for a seamless, spectacular conclusion in the final pages.
For readers of epic fantasy and fans of complex worlds and characters, I highly recommend checking out this series. Reading these books and discovering Brian Staveley’s talent has been an immense pleasure and delight; I am only sad that the trilogy is over now....more
Kate Elliott is on fire this fall with the release of this first novel of a new series, set in the same world as her celebrated Crossroads trilogy. What can I say, but Black Wolves is a sweeping masterpiece that will leave fantasy readers spellbound. Coming in at nearly 800 pages–all jam-packed with richness and beauty–this epic novel sank its talons in me and kept me enthralled for days on end until I finished it. No question about it, this is my favorite book by the author yet.
While Black Wolves is technically the beginning of a sequel trilogy to Crossroads, reading the original series is not a prerequisite to starting this book. The characters and events appear pretty separate, seeing as we do jump 44 years ahead in time after the first 90 pages, though the preceding section does introduce a couple of the main characters. First there’s Kellas, captain of the Black Wolves, an elite fighting force dedicated to serving King Anjihosh of the Hundred. Then there’s also Dannarah, Anjihosh’s young daughter who dreams of a life beyond being married off to some foreign land for political gain.
After the time jump in Part Two, we discover that Dannarah has gotten her wish, having become a Marshal of the eagle-riding enforcer group known as the reeves. However, we also find out that her brother Atani, who succeeded Anjihosh for the throne, sadly died twenty-two years ago, murdered in a traitorous plot. Captain Kellas, the man who was charged to protect Atani, saw the death of his king as a personal failure and retired to a life of obscurity after disbanding the Black Wolves.
But now Kellas, old as he is, has been called to serve again. Unlike Anjihosh and Atani, the new king is weak, unable to hold the Hundred together in the face of social unrest, corrupt politics, and conniving palace schemes. Fearing demon assassins in the shadows, the king calls upon Dannarah to coax Kellas out of retirement so that the former Black Wolves captain can serve as his protector. Mindful of his own tumultuous history with the royal family, Kellas is reluctant at first but eventually agrees. Politically unstable and rife with strained relations, the Hundred is a land in need of men and women like Kellas and Dannarah to protect it right now—but first our heroes must make peace amongst themselves and determine where their loyalties lie.
With such a huge jump forward in time and all the subsequent flashbacks throughout, it’s probably no surprise when I say that pacing was the story’s main weakness. For almost a hundred pages, we got to know and love Kellas and the royal children Dannarah and Atani, but with one turn of a page, everyone became forty-four years older. Worst of all, clever and precocious Atani, the boy prince who so enjoyed thwarting King Anjihosh and getting his guardian Kellas into all sorts of trouble, is already dead! Granted, I probably wouldn’t have felt so terrible if I didn’t like the character so much, but it was still hard not to feel cheated. Also, call me crazy, but I don’t like missing out on huge chunks of a character’s life. Flashbacks are a handy plot device, but they just aren’t the same (not to mention, they can be confusing). I wanted to be “in” the moment when Dannarah became a reeve, or when Kellas fell in love with a demon, instead of experiencing all of those events through memories.
But as you can see, I still loved Black Wolves, and indeed the pacing issues resolved themselves about a third of the way into the book. While it was not immediately apparent, there were good reasons for the time skips. With a book so all-encompassing and massive, you do have to allow for a lot of story organization and set-up. As expected, the beginning of the book was slower as Elliott prepared the stage. Patience paid off big time in this case, as the pieces of the plot gradually fell in the place and the story built up momentum. The world-building was to die for, and in addition to Kellas and Dennarah there were other supporting characters like Lifka, Sarai and Gilaras to fill out this ensemble cast. Everyone had a vital role to play in this intricate web, with all the relationships and connections culminating into a stunning finale.
On the subject of characters, the ones who stood out most were the women—no contest there at all. Despite my misgivings surrounding the huge time skip, I took an immediately liking to the aged version of Dennarah. Not only is it a breath of fresh air to see an older woman playing a starring role in an epic fantasy novel, she’s also a force to be reckoned in her position as an experienced fighter and peacekeeper. Then there are Sarai and Lifka, young women who refuse to be pawns, instead stepping up to seize control of their own destinies. These heroines feel larger-than-life but also down-to-earth at the same time, a testament to the incredible character development and the careful way Kate Elliott crafted the women’s histories.
So if you love epic fantasy, you’ll want to check out Black Wolves, a powerful novel that excels in the traditions of the genre—rich storytelling, vivid world-building, and dynamic characters. If that’s what you’re looking for, Kate Elliott’s got you covered....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