Grave Mercy is Robin LaFevers’ first foray into young adult literature and could probably be described as a historically set paranormal romance. While I’m no great paranormal romance fan I do enjoy a good historical fiction once in a while and something about this book intrigued me. As it turns out the book was well worth the gamble and I found Grave Mercy to be a well-researched and absorbing novel that had a lot more to it than just romance.
Grave Mercy is set in Brittany at the end of the 15th century and unlike in some of the historical fiction I’ve read, this setting is vital to the story and LaFevers engages well with the period. The historical elements are well-researched and integrated into the narrative without becoming overwhelming, making the story accessible to readers who are not familiar with the late medieval period while avoiding annoying anachronisms that might put off readers who are. While the book avoids being graphic, LaFevers doesn’t gloss over some of the less pleasant aspects of medieval life to the extent that some young adult books are wont to do.
There is a lot to like about this novel. Firstly, we are provided with a likeable female protagonist in Ismae. She can hold her own in a historical setting yet still feels believable and doesn’t come across as a modern character tossed into a 15th century setting.
Although romance does play an important role in the story it is integrated into a larger more complex plot complete with scheming nobles, politics and war. I enjoyed seeing a romantic arc that didn’t turn its participants into starry-eyed dolts. Instead Ismae and her love interest must work together to deal with bigger issues than raging hormones (although there are some of these) and love triangles (mercifully absent). Likewise, the supernatural element is also well used and doesn’t feel tacked on.
Overall, I was quite impressed with Grave Mercy and look forward to the sequel.(less)
The Cold Commands is the much anticipated sequel to The Steel Remains, the 2008 fantasy debut of acclaimed science fiction author Richard Morgan. After a three year hiatus, the second installment of A Land Fit for Heroes has finally arrived—and it will not disappoint. No holds are barred in this fast-paced genre shake-up, its pages veritably bursting with passion, action, intelligence, and pathos.
Set approximately one year after the events of The Steel Remains, The Cold Commands reunites us with forgotten war heroes Ringil, Archeth, and Egar, albeit in somewhat altered circumstances. Exiled from his homeland and endowed with strange abilities from his time in the Grey Places, Ringil has taken to what he refers to as ‘abolishing slavery.’ However, as the slave trade is legal in Trelayne, his actions have marked him as an outlaw with a rather hefty bounty on his head. Hunted from every direction and with nowhere else to go, his last hope may be to seek asylum in Yhelteth with the Kiriath half-breed royal adviser, Archeth Indamaninarmal.
However, not all is well in the southern capital. In addition to dealing with the increasingly fanatic Citadel and serving the whims of her decadent monarch, Archeth is receiving strange warnings of approaching darkness from the Helmsmen. Furthermore, her house-guest Egar the Dragonbane, former steppe nomad, feels stifled by Yhelteth society and grows ever more reckless in his boredom. Tensions reach breaking point, old enemies plot, dark forces stir. And with an insidious plot penetrating Yhelteth society to its very core, never has the danger lurked so close to home.
Anyone for some edgy ‘retro dystopic sci-fi/fantasy noir?’ All in all, The Cold Commands takes everything that made The Steel Remains great and amps it up to the next level. It’s darker, faster, grittier, and more violent than its predecessor while providing the same generous servings of black humor, snappy dialogue, and cynical, razor-sharp wit. The fascinating alien technologies, strange powerful races, and science fiction elements introduced in the previous novel also receive enhanced focus. For instance, the self-aware mechanical constructs, the Helmsmen, play a much greater role throughout The Cold Commands, and we learn more about their abilities and purpose. The origins of their creators—the ebony-skinned, technologically advanced Kiriath—are also explored in further detail, as are those of their enemy, the reality-shifting Dwenda. The strange gods of the Dark Court also play a hand in events, and we see more and learn more of the significance of the Grey Places: the realm between realities full of unrealized possibilities and unchosen paths.
However, there’s more to The Cold Commands than strange creatures and sword fights. Morgan resumes his edgy socio-political satire and re-embarks on his poignant exploration of human nature. Themes of corruption, fanaticism, and bigotry are all addressed throughout the novel, and readers are forced to question their beliefs regarding concepts such as revenge, justice, love and camaraderie. Nevertheless, it’s not all darkness and despair. The Cold Commands also contains more tender, hopeful scenes to offset the bloodshed, providing a peculiar sense of warmth in a world more accustomed to the cold clash of steel. These stand as small reminders that perhaps there is still something worth fighting for in Morgan’s otherwise bleak version of reality.
Hard-hitting characterization Undeniably, Morgan’s main strength lies in his characters, specifically his ability to make the reader care about them even when their actions verge on the reprehensible and their motivations are morally suspect. Throughout The Cold Commands, we learn more about the damaged, imperfect misfits we first met in The Steel Remains. Ringil, Archeth, and Egar are undeniably and recognizably human and face greater challenges than ever before both in the events that unfold around them and from within themselves. They are not infallible and frequently make mistakes or allow their passions to cloud their judgement. Even if we don’t agree with a character’s actions in a given situation at least we can understand them.
Once again, there is no black-and-white morality in this series; everything and everyone is a shade of grey. For instance, we are reminded that Archeth—despite appearing superficially to be the least morally ambiguous of the protagonists—is instrumental in preserving the empire of a rather cruel and self-indulgent Emperor. As a near-immortal, she is able to take ‘the long view’ and overlook immediate corruption if it serves a greater purpose. Yet the answers to various questions are never clear cut. It may be corrupt and imperfect, but if not the Empire, what else? The fanatical Citadel? In some cases, one must be willing to choose the lesser of two evils. Additionally, like the reader, the characters are frequently forced to face that age old question: does the end justify the means? And what do you do if it doesn’t?
A conclusion that will leave you gasping for breath While still relatively self-contained, The Cold Commands encompasses a much larger scope than its predecessor and is more obviously part of a trilogy. It lays down the foundations for the third and final novel while carefully avoiding the dreaded ‘second book slump’ that has some writers sacrificing the middle book as mere filler before the final installment. Although the plot slows down slightly around the middle to encompass some enhanced character development, all the pieces fall into place soon enough and the story continues on its path to a truly epic and relentless climax. For the last quarter of the novel, I found myself glued to the book, frantically turning pages and unable to look away. Morgan is not averse to killing characters and I must admit this was one of the rare instances in which I had literally no idea whether my favorite characters would even survive the next few pages. To top it off, the conclusion is absolutely stunning and left me feeling shell-shocked and hungry for the next installment.
You haven’t read gritty until you’ve read this Those who have already read The Steel Remains probably know what to expect; however, any new readers should consider themselves forewarned. Those who pick up The Cold Commands expecting mindless escapism will be in for a rather nasty surprise. Morgan does not shy away from the depiction of graphic sex and violence, drug use or coarse language and although all are used within context, anyone adverse to gritty realism may want to look elsewhere. Some may also detect a rather cynical portrayal of organized religion. While this may alienate certain readers, I personally interpreted it as more disparaging towards blind religious fanaticism in general than an attack on any particular real-world faith. Additionally, those put-off by the homosexual aspects of The Steel Remains will find no respite here, as Morgan brings them back with renewed vigor. Nevertheless, I doubt anyone likely to be scared off by such content will have managed to make it this far into the trilogy.
Why should you read this book? Richard Morgan is an accomplished author at the top of his game and The Cold Commands stands as a testament to this fact. While new readers should probably start with The Steel Remains in order to experience the books to their fullest, this work surpasses its predecessor on almost every front. While it may not be for everyone, A Land Fit for Heroes will undoubtedly appeal to anyone tired of the old fantasy tropes or just looking for something a little bit different. Sharp, fast, furious, and well written, The Cold Commands is a must read for anyone who likes gritty, edgy fantasy that is unafraid to explore complex or difficult issues. Lastly, it is the second book in what is shaping up to be an absolutely unforgettable trilogy and sets the scene for what should be a truly mind blowing conclusion in the third book. All I can say is this—bring it on! (less)
Debris is the debut novel of Australian author Jo Anderton and the first in a projected trilogy, The Veiled Wor...moreAlso published under The Ranting Dragon
Debris is the debut novel of Australian author Jo Anderton and the first in a projected trilogy, The Veiled Worlds, to be published by Angry Robot Books. Despite some minor flaws, Debris is quite a solid first novel and showcases Anderton’s substantial storytelling talent, marking her as a name to watch in the future.
What goes up must come down Debris takes place in Movoc, a remarkable technologically advanced city that sits in the shadow of a symbolic mountain known as the Keeper. Since the revolutionary discovery that most individuals possess the ability to manipulate the small building blocks of matter known as pions through certain geometric configurations and ritual gestures, Movoc-under-Keeper has led the world in everything from architecture to art and medicine. However, while it may seem like a utopia for those who possess significant pion-binding ability, beneath society’s surface lies corruption and oppression. An underclass of ‘collectors’ are forced to collect the bi-product of pion-manipulation, known as debris, and are shunned by the rest of society.
Like many recent debut novels, Debris is told from a single first-person viewpoint, that of the protagonist Tanyana. When we are first introduced to Tanyana, she is one of the city’s elite, a prodigal pion binder and master architect, working on her most ambitious project yet. However, she soon falls victim to a suspicious accident. Her masterpiece is destroyed, she is left scarred, and her connection to the world of pions is severed. Bound into a bizarre ‘collecting suit’, Tanyana must learn to adapt to life at the lowest rung of society, all the while attempting to discover the truth about her fall. However, there is more to the world of pions and debris than meets the eye. Beneath the surface of society brews something far greater and more dangerous than she ever imagined.
A perfect set-up for some truly epic conflicts Have you ever read a novel where you had a few gripes with certain characters but were never once tempted to put the book down? How about a novel where at certain points you were not 100% sure what you were reading or what the author was trying to achieve, yet despite it all you were intrigued and still kept coming back for more? This pretty much summarizes my experience with Debris.
A dystopian world of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ and the tale of an individual’s fall from the highest rungs of society are not exactly new to the fantasy genre, yet Anderton manages to put her own spin on these familiar tropes and make them feel fresh. The world itself is unique, containing a number of intriguing aspects. For instance, the opposing forces of debris and pions make for a compelling and complex magic system. The collecting suit and its relationship with its wearer is also quite a fascinating concept that has many potential uses throughout the series. In addition, the government organization, the veche, provides a satisfyingly foreboding presence and its agents, referred to as ‘the puppet men’, are undeniably creepy and sinister. Furthermore, I thought that the reliance of Movoc’s upper classes on pions and the division between ‘binders’ and ‘collectors’ were believable byproducts of a society wherein most individuals possess some degree of pion manipulating power. In some ways this may even be interpreted as social commentary on Western civilization’s own growing reliance on technology. Anderton also does a good job of depicting the culture shock suffered by someone used to having everything come easily, suddenly losing it all and being forced to work to fulfill even the most basic needs. Altogether, this provides an excellent stage for a number of conflicts to play out and for various questions to be explored throughout the story.
Imperfect characters you will grow to love On the whole, the characters are quite well developed and believable. Initially I had some reservations about Tanyana, as I found her a little cold and self satisfied and disliked her haughty demeanor. Nevertheless, as the novel progressed she retained her distinctive ‘spark’ but adapted to circumstances and grew as a person, becoming much easier to relate to as a result. Due to the first person narrative we don’t get as much insight into some of the secondary characters as we could. Nevertheless, many are quite well developed and leave you wanting to learn more about them. For instance, I loved the warmth in the relationship between the group leader Kichlan and his ‘broken’ brother Lad. In addition, their landlord, Eugeny, also stood out as a complex and three-dimensional individual.
On the other hand, there was one character whose behavior just seemed odd throughout the entire novel and who wasn’t believable to me as a person. Without spoiling the novel for others, there turned out to be a legitimate reason for this strange characterization; however, the way it was executed was not particularly subtle. Usually I would consider this a major flaw as it failed to utilize what could, with a slightly lighter touch, have been a shocking surprise. Initially, it also seemed unrealistic to me that a protagonist who had previously been shown as competent and intelligent would fail to have seen this development coming. However, after contemplating why this didn’t bother me as much as I thought it should, I had a realization—this novel is not really about the unexpected reveal; it’s about the characters and their reactions to each other and the events around them. When I looked at the situation considering the fact that Tanyana had recently lost almost everything that made her who she once was, it seemed fitting that she would ignore seemingly obvious cues in a final desperate attempt to hold onto one last connection to her former life.
Building up to something even more climactic As Debris is the first novel in a trilogy, its main purpose is to introduce the world and characters and set up events that will culminate in later books. Anderton definitely achieves this and the necessary worldbuilding and characterization is quite fascinating, despite the fact it results in a slightly slower pace. Furthermore, the action really picks up at the end of the novel and there are a number of plot twists that I didn’t see coming. The events that occur in the last quarter, as well as the connection I felt to the characters by this point, made me quite eager to find out what happens next.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I’ll mention that there is some violence in this novel, though it’s pretty mild by modern standards. Additionally, Anderton shows that she sure knows how to write a sex scene, although I’m sure it’s nothing most adult readers can’t deal with!
Why should you read this book? Those who take pleasure in checking out new talent on the fantasy scene will have a hard time finding fault with this year’s debuts, and Debris is yet another impressive and promising title to add to the list. Personally, I’m definitely looking forward to the rest of the series and can’t wait to see where Anderton goes with her characters and world. I have a feeling that the next book, Suited, will be even more impressive.
Although Anderton makes what could be considered some strange choices throughout the novel, overall Debris worked for me and managed to immerse me in its world. I would definitely recommend it as a book that will appeal to readers who prefer their fantasy complete with a unique magic system, strange technologies, believable characterization and a dystopian edge. (less)
Roil is the impressive first installment in The Nightbound Land duology...moreAlso published under The Ranting Dragon Author interview: http://bit.ly/qjmOyI
Roil is the impressive first installment in The Nightbound Land duology by Trent Jamieson, up-and-coming Australian author of the urban fantasy trilogy Death Works. Jamieson’s newest novel showcases a powerful imaginative streak, creating a darkly fascinating world and successfully combining elements of science fiction, fantasy, steampunk and horror.
Roil is an apocalyptic tale set in a world called Shale, which lies on the brink of destruction by a seemingly unstoppable force known as the Roil. The Roil manifests as a malignant heat and creature-filled darkness, spreading across the land and engulfing everything in its path. Of the twelve great metropolises that once stood, all but four have been consumed. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Roil is not only expanding at an unprecedented rate, it also seems to be changing, taking on an intelligence of its own. Humanity prepares to make its final stand. However, the last chance of salvation may well lie with a drug-addicted youth, a vengeful young woman and a mysterious 4000 year old man as they seek a mysterious machine from a bygone era, The Engine of the World.
No time for half measures or polite introductions Our initial introduction to the strange and perilous world of Shale is far from gentle. Roil begins with our protagonist, David,witnessing the brutal murder of his father by political adversaries before he, himself, is forced to flee for his life. The reader is thrown into the thick of the action and from then on the story progresses at a lightning fast place. Cities fall and lives are destroyed in the blink of an eye.
Personally, I found this helped create a sense of urgency and confusion which really complimented the overall tone of the novel and the events depicted throughout. Like the reader, the characters are “thrown into the deep end” with little time to collect their thoughts. Nevertheless, most of the negative reviews I’ve seen cite this “ungentle introduction” as one of the aspects they disliked about the novel. Undeniably, this will appeal to some readers more than others, as will certain other aspects of the narrative.
For instance, each chapter of Roil begins with an excerpt from “future texts” regarding Shale. These excerpts relate at least tangentially to the events depicted within the chapter, despite (quite cleverly) not giving too much of the story away. This may be a little confusing or jarring to some readers. Personally, I was a little uncertain at first, although I found I grew accustomed to these passages relatively quickly and came to enjoy the foreshadowing.
A plethora of interesting viewpoint characters Multiple events unfold at once throughout Roil and, as a result, there are a number of simultaneous narratives and frequent shifts between various points of view. Initially, I felt a little detached from the characters as the viewpoint would change before I could get a good grasp on their personalities. However, as the novel progressed I grew to relate to these imperfect individuals and found characterization to be one of the novel’s strongest points.
Jamieson’s characters manage to remain relatable and believable even as their lives undergo complete upheaval and their world falls to pieces around them. The protagonists all retain shades of moral ambiguity and even their most “noble” actions are frequently driven by selfish or morally suspect motivations. David has nowhere else to go and would rather spend his remaining life spaced out on the drug Carnival than have any responsibility; Margaret is driven by an insatiable desire for revenge; and Cadell’s motivations, like almost everything else about the Old Man, are shrouded in mystery. Furthermore, even the most ruthless antagonists, such as Stade, are not wholly evil, and truly believe they are doing what’s best for humanity given the circumstances.
A fascinating world of imagination and horror For me, one of the outstanding aspects of Roil was the setting. Jamieson is undeniably imaginative and the creations with which he populates his world are refreshingly unpredictable and decidedly bizarre.
In many way the civilizations depicted are technologically advanced, although much of this advancement seems to be tailored specifically to holding off the Roil. One gets the impression that when faced with imminent destruction, development related to all but the most immediate concerns is stalled and some aspects of society may even regress. Therefore, although we have advanced ice weapons and cold suits, most other aspects of the world are less advanced and embody what could be considered elements of steampunk.
Many other fascinating concepts are introduced throughout Roil, including countless weird creatures and strange technologies. The mythology of the Old Men in particular was quite intriguing. Little is known about the Old Men, although the remnants of their once great civilization lie scattered across Shale. In addition, they have strange powers and are as cold as ice to the touch, the very antithesis of the Roil’s heat. Despite the presence of so many intriguing creations, description remains relatively sparse throughout Roil as Jamieson invites the reader to use their own imagination. While this keeps up the pace and adds to the authenticity of the setting and characterization (the characters, after all, have grown up knowing what an aerokin looks like), it will probably suit some readers better than others.
The horror elements throughout Roil are deliciously creepy and insidious. Jamieson doesn’t resort to graphic violence or severed limbs, instead creating a creepy ambiance that unnerved me in a way that excessive gore never could. Some of the scariest moments are those in which he hints at untold horrors yet once again leaves the rest up to the reader’s imagination. Much terror lies in the unknown, after all.
The plot ends at a logical resting point, although many plot lines are left unresolved and there is still much to discover about Jamieson’s world. If you’re anything like me, you will be hankering for the next installment straight after you finish, so less patient readers may want to wait until the conclusion is closer to publication before starting this weird and wonderful duology.
Why should you read this book? Overall, despite the fact that Roil has some minor flaws, they did not detract from my enjoyment of the novel. Those who like their fantasy complete with weird technologies, creepy monsters, and interesting characters need look no further. Roil is a fun, absorbing, and action packed read that isn’t to be missed.(less)
Blood Song is the debut novel of Australian author Rhiannon Hart and the first installment in the Lharmell tril...moreAlso published under The Ranting Dragon
Blood Song is the debut novel of Australian author Rhiannon Hart and the first installment in the Lharmell trilogy. Blood Song is quite an impressive debut, and one that should appeal to a wide range of readers despite being aimed primarily at the young adult market.
The story is narrated in the first person by Zeraphina, the second daughter of the Queen of Amentia, a small and rather impoverished kingdom in Brivora. While her mother and sister are auburn-haired and green-eyed, a childhood illness left Zeraphina with pale eyes and black hair. She also has a number of traits that may not be considered proper in a princess or even entirely natural in a human being. She has an affinity with animals, an inexplicable craving to travel North, and a strange obsession with blood. When her older sister is promised in marriage to a prince from a rich northern nation, it appears that Zeraphina will finally get a chance to find the answers she seeks. A strange and hostile country known as Lharmell may well hold the key, but is Zeraphina really prepared for what she might find there?
More than meets the eye Were you to visit your local bookstore and take a cursory glance at the blurb of Blood Song, you might be tempted to dismiss it as yet another paranormal teen romance involving forbidden love and using vampirism as a metaphor for raging adolescent hormones. However, this would be selling the book decidedly short in a number of ways. I must admit that when I first received my review copy of Blood Song, I was a little worried that I knew exactly where this story was going (you’ll have to forgive me my cynicism this once). Nevertheless, after flipping through a few pages I didn’t notice anything particularly off-putting, and the book seemed to be quite well written. Intrigued by what I saw, I decided to sit down and read it through. Much to my delight, not only did Blood Song refrain from descending into cliché, it also incorporated an interesting story, some fascinating world building, believable characters, and some legitimately creepy monsters!
An interesting, driven plot and a deft touch for setting One aspect of Blood Song I found quite refreshing was that the plot gets straight to the point. This is a relatively short book; as a result, Hart cannot afford to spend pages and pages setting the scene or waste time on unnecessary exposition. We learn of Zeraphina’s strange idiosyncrasies and her family’s inopportune situation within the first chapter, and from then on, the plot progresses in a definitive direction. One gets the impression that Hart knows exactly where she wants her characters to go and how she wants the plot to develop. We learn vital information about Hart’s world not through long descriptions or large information drops, but via smaller hints that form pieces of a larger puzzle which is pieced together as the story goes along.
As might be expected in the first book of a trilogy, not every plot-line is tied up neatly, nor event fully explained by the end of the novel. In fact, the novel raises more questions than it provides answers to, right up until the last quarter. Here, the action really picks up and we are finally introduced to the strange and hostile landscape of Lharmell itself. This alien and otherworldly setting is fascinating and provides what is undeniably the most interesting world building.
Believable characters and a proactive heroine Hart’s characterization is one of the strongest points in this novel, as she succeeds in creating flawed, believable, and often selfish characters that still manage to be likable and easy to relate to. Unlike many other teenage heroines I’ve come across, Zeraphina is proactive and doesn’t waste time whining about her problems or lamenting the fact that she is different. Instead, she takes it upon herself to find an answer to her questions and attempts to solve her own problems. Although her actions are not always wise, at least she actually does something. Furthermore, romance, though hinted at, is not the driving force behind the plot. Thus, Zeraphina does not spend her days obsessing over the male lead, Rodden, or wishing he would pay attention to her. Instead she finds him an annoying hindrance to her plans and often wishes he would just leave her alone. I found this much more compliant with her single-minded and independent character. I also quite enjoyed the presence of Zeraphina’s animal companions, as they add a softer side to her character and had distinctive personalities and roles in their own rights.
Although the secondary characters in the novel are quite well developed and reveal multiple layers to their personalities as the plot progresses, they are few and far between. Apart from Zeraphina and Rodden, there are only a few other individuals who really contribute to the plot in any significant way. Although this didn’t overly detract from my enjoyment of the novel, I felt like this would help the world seem a little more fleshed out. Some of the minor characters that were briefly introduced throughout the novel have some potential and I would like to see them take on larger roles in the sequels.
Why should you read this book? Overall, I consider this to be an interesting and unique book in what promises to be a worthwhile new series. The author is definitely talented and Rhiannon Hart is a name to watch in the future. I’d recommend Blood Song to young adult readers who want something with a little more substance than they might find in the majority of teen fantasy offerings. It would also suit adult readers who like their fantasy reasonably light and with a dash of romance, humor and legitimately creepy monsters. Personally, I can’t wait to return to the creepy and dangerous land of Lharmell with its desolate landscape, deadly inhabitants and acid rains.(less)
Prince of Thorns is the spectacular debut novel of talented new British author, Mark Lawrence. The first installment in the Broken Empire trilogy, it promises to be one of the most exciting releases of 2011. Dark, captivating, relentless and haunting, this brilliant epic fantasy more than delivers in all regards.
Imagine the earth as a desolate wasteland. The dead rest uneasily and hundreds of claimants battle for various thrones across the Broken Empire. Now you’re getting close to the world portrayed in Prince of Thorns. The story revolves around Jorg Ancrath, the warped 14-year-old heir to the kingdom of Ancrath. When he was just ten he was forced to watch, held fast in a hook briar, as his beloved mother and younger brother were brutally murdered at the behest of a rival lord. When his father, the king, chose political gain over retribution, the injustice drove Jorg to abandon his place and pursue vengeance as an outlaw. Since that fateful day something inside Jorg has been broken. He watches and perpetrates acts of violence with cold indifference and lives by a simple philosophy, “Care about no one and you have no weaknesses.” Surrounded by his deadly band of Brothers, survival is merely a game to the young Prince, and one he intends to win by any means necessary.
Fast paced, exhilarating and absorbing Lawrence’s fast paced and relentless narrative wastes no time on introductions, plunging the reader headfirst into the aftermath of Jorg and his brother’s latest bloodthirsty foray. Readers will soon decide whether they can stomach the graphic violence and dark humor that define the novel, and those that can are in for an exhilarating ride. Prince of Thorns shares many qualities with the thorns for which its prince was named. By the end of the first chapter it had well and truly sunk its hooks into me and I was in for the long haul whether I liked it or not. I had more than one night of lost sleep which I blame entirely on Mark Lawrence. In addition, like the scars covering Jorg’s body, the echos of the story remained with me long after I turned the last page.
A warped yet relatable protagonist Prince of Thorns is narrated in the first person and thus we watch events unfold through the eyes of Jorg himself. This offers a unique and somewhat disturbing perspective, as Jorg sees human life as expendable and lacks empathy for those around him. He considers anyone he may grow to care about as a liability that must be removed before it can be used against him. Despite these sociopathic tendencies, and the fact that he is responsible for almost innumerable atrocities, Jorg is decidedly charming and remains unnervingly relatable. This must be considered a remarkable feat by Lawrence as he makes his audience feel sympathy for a character so morally ambiguous it verges on flat-out evil. A significant reason for this is Jorg’s very realistically wrought background. While a reader may not always relate to the choices he makes or the person he has become, the emotions that lie behind Jorg’s decisions and the events in his life can be identified with.
The secondary characters are also very well developed, from the stoic Nuban to the rather despicable Rike. All have their own distinctive flavor, perform their own roles and feel believable in the context of Lawrence’s world. Most importantly, while most of the characters of Prince of Thorns may be labeled as “bad,” they are never stereotyped. These are real people with realistic emotions who have come to where they are now through events and decisions we can all relate to.
A gritty tale for a broken world This captivating tale plays out against a haunting, vividly realized backdrop: the desiccated corpse of a once technologically advanced civilization. Lawrence excels in creating an intense and oppressive atmosphere, enveloping the readers and drawing them further into his world with each new revelation. Magic and science are interwoven, becoming almost indistinguishable in many cases, such as the origins and powers of the monstrous leucrota. This desolate landscape, coupled with the cruelty of the narrator, makes Prince of Thorns a captivating yet undeniably gritty and confronting experience. Some readers may be disturbed by the way it plunges mercilessly into the darkest corners of the mind. Others will revel in the depravity and delight in this exploration of the most sinister aspects of the human experience.
These dark elements, however, are never explored more than necessary. Rather than overloading the narrative with excessive explanation, Lawrence proves very skilled in dropping hints throughout the narrative, showing us the world through Jorg’s eyes and allowing us to piece the puzzle together ourselves. This adds a whole new dimension to Prince of Thorns, enhanced even further by seemingly effortless intermingling of familiar elements with the distinctly foreign.
Kvothe’s evil little brother While many may compare Prince of Thorns to other gritty and epic works like Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy or George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire—and be quite right in that comparison as well—I’d like to compare it with Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind. Although Jorg doesn’t fill his autobiography with stories of how he charms the ladies or lament the fact that he has extreme superpowers he can’t use, both books are coming of age biographies of extraordinary boys far too wise for their age, and the hardships of their lives.
Why should you read this book? Dazzling in its brilliance, Prince of Thorns is a must read for any fan of gritty, epic fantasy that delves into the darkest depths of humanity. I was left feeling slightly bereft and a little shell shocked when it ended. Luckily, this is only the first in the trilogy so there’s two more books to come. It may quite possibly turn out to be the debut of 2011, and Mark Lawrence is definitely a name to watch in the future. While I could easily write another few pages on how much I loved this book, I’d much prefer you go out, grab a copy, and read it for yourself. You can thank me later. (less)
Wolfsangel is the debut fantasy novel from M. D. Lachlan, a pen name for author Mark Barrowcliffe. Lachlan’s first foray into the realm of epic fantasy is a dark and enthralling alternative history involving Norse gods, sinister magic and a unique take on the werewolf mythos.
Wolfsangel begins with Viking King Arthun leading a raid against an Anglo-Saxon settlement. However, he and his men seek much stranger plunder than mere slaves or riches. Arthun acts to fulfill a prophecy of the child witch queen, Gullveig, who assures him that in doing so he will find not only the son and heir he so desperately requires, but one that will inevitably lead his people to glory. However, things do not go entirely as planned as Arthun finds not one child but twin boys, and has no way of knowing to which the prophecy refers. Furthermore, the witches have their own reasons for aiding the king, reasons that involve an eternal battle between gods, the monstrous Fenris wolf, and the death of the god Odin at Ragnarok. Thus begins a bloodthirsty conflict that will carry through the ages and sweep up many lives in its wake.
Vikings and mad gods Overall, Wolfsangel is a tale of human rebellion against a callous and bloodthirsty god. Lachlan’s unique take on the Nordic pantheon was particularly fascinating and stirred in me a new-found desire to learn as much as possible about the fascinating gods and monsters that feature throughout the narrative. I also enjoyed the fact that the novel focused on a mythology that remains relatively unexplored throughout fantasy fiction, especially compared to that of some other cultures and religions (such as ancient Greek, Roman or Christian). Likewise, in much historical fiction, Vikings only appear as the bad guys, so it was a refreshing change to see a story written from their perspective.
A fascinating hybrid of history, horror and myth One of Wolfsangel‘s greatest assets is Lachlan’s ability to seamlessly blend elements of history, mythology, fantasy and horror alongside a truly human story of love, jealousy and struggle against destiny. From all accounts, Lachlan pays close attention to historical detail and adds his own spin on Norse mythology instead of engaging in mere ‘lazy borrowing’ or resorting to cliché. The horror elements of the story are also masterfully done and genuinely disturbing. In addition, I have to give Lachlan credit for creating both witches and werewolves that feel original and are capable of unnerving the reader despite the fact that the horror impact of these fantasy staples has been diluted through many different incarnations in modern literature. The novel is also very well written and Lachlan excels in creating atmosphere, whether he’s describing the eerie and claustrophobic caves of the witches, the warm hearths of a cottage, or the wild lonely places. The prose is darkly poetic and flowing, though never overly wordy or distracting, thus allowing the reader to become fully immersed in the story and invested in the characters and the events that take place.
Disturbing yet intriguing magic The bizarre and sinister magic system depicted throughout Wolfsangel is one of the most interesting and unique aspects of Lachlan’s worldbuilding. In order to obtain prophecy or perform magic one must bring themselves to the very precipice of death or madness. Only then may one walk the realms of gods and monsters. This erosion of sanity is usually achieved through pain and deprivation, and thus the witches frequently engage in various forms of self-torture. The gods, Odin in particular, also require devotion through pain and sacrifice. An exception is Loki the trickster: often an enemy to the gods but an occasional friend to mankind. Overall, I found this element of the novel particularly well-realized. Although such magic features heavily in the novel and is integral to the plot, its specifics are revealed slowly enough to maintain an air of mystery and allow new developments to still shock the reader.
Characters that come snarling to life All in all, Lachlan’s characters are well developed and believable. The protagonists are believable and human while the antagonists are crafty and threatening. Our main viewpoint characters are Vali, an intelligent young prince who prefers the company of women to warriors and stories to warfare; Adisla, a strong-willed farmers daughter; and Feileg, a young man raised among wolves and wolfmen. Many characters, Vali and Feileg in particular, display varying degrees of moral ambiguity throughout the book. Although you may not always agree with their actions or their decisions, they manage to remain relatable and their motives are understandable within the context of the story. This attention to detail also extends to the minor characters throughout the novel, who also display quite distinctive personalities and never feel like empty plot devices. Another highlight came in the form of some particularly strong characters, both male and female, who do what they can to make their own destiny within the restrictions of their society and against overwhelming odds.
A brutal and surprising tale Wolfsangel is a bold, gritty and thrilling work of fantasy with enough action to satisfy even those possessing shorter-than-average attention spans. It also has an admirable propensity to surprise the reader. Just as you begin to think you can see where the plot is heading, some new revelation will emerge, sink its teeth in your expectations and tear them to shreds. The events depicted throughout the novel are frequently violent and often quite gory, yet they make sense within the story and never seem to be included purely for shock value. Nevertheless, there are some particularly gruesome scenes that may not still well with more sensitive readers. Characters are also put into situations where they must make some exceedingly tough decisions. For instance, would you kill a loved one to spare them torment at the hands of raiders? Can you betray a kinsman if the occasion calls? Overall, I found these brutal elements provided contrast to the more tender moments, making them feel more poignant and helped define the characters and their relationships.
Lachlan contains a fast paced and complex story in relatively few pages so the reader must be sure to keep their wits about them if they are to keep pace with the narrative and experience this novel to its fullest. Consequently, although Wolfsangel is perfect for those who prefer their fantasy intricate, gritty and thought-provoking, I would not recommend it for light reading. Personally, I really enjoyed the ending of the novel; nonetheless, some readers may be slightly annoyed by the cliffhanger. Despite the fact that some conflict was left unresolved, I thought that this suited the overall story perfectly and set up some interesting issues for further exploration in the following books.
Why should you read this book? All in all, Wolfsangel is a brilliant and fascinating novel that I would recommend to all fans of dark, epic or historical fantasy or those with any interest in Norse mythology. It represents a refreshing departure from more usual epic fantasy fare and breathes new life into some old fantasy staples. Lachlan’s excellent fantasy debut begins what promises to be an extremely unique and worthwhile series, and I, for one, cannot wait to get my hands on the next book. (less)
The Map of Time by esteemed Spanish author Felix J. Palma is a mesmerising work of literary fiction with specul...moreAlso published under The Ranting Dragon
The Map of Time by esteemed Spanish author Felix J. Palma is a mesmerising work of literary fiction with speculative aspects and pays unabashed homage to H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine. Expertly translated from Palma’s native Spanish by Nick Caistor, The Map of Time is finally ready to enthrall English speaking readers with its lyrical prose and unique narrative voice.
Our story begins in 1896 London where H. G. Well’s latest ‘Scientific Romance’, The Time Machine, is the talk of fashionable and unfashionable society alike, resulting in a craze for anything and everything to do with time travel. To some, it offers a chance to see the future; to others, a chance to change the past… and for some, it offers a last hope to cling to. Two such individuals are Andrew Harrington and Claire Haggerty. Andrew counts down to suicide as he is overwhelmed by guilt surrounding the death of his beloved at the hands of Jack the Ripper eight years previously. Claire, on the other hand, believes she was born far too early and feels smothered by the constraints of Victorian society. Certain she cannot be satisfied in the current era, Claire longs for a far off future where she may truly belong. Thus, when a new time travel company appears to offer each the opportunity to fulfil their greatest wish, both Andrew and Claire embrace the notion with open arms. However, nothing is as it seems, and it falls to the author whose work inspired their dreams to deal with the inevitable consequences.
Just who is the narrator anyway? The novel is divided into 3 distinct parts, each of which stands superficially as its own separate story. However, the plots of these tales become firmly entwined as the tale progresses, just as the lives of the characters become entangled with that of H. G. Wells. By the end of the third act, all the separate storylines have come together and events which went unexplained in one part are accounted for in the context of another.
One of the most distinctive aspects of this novel is the unique narrative style. The omnipresent narrator that guides the reader throughout the tale is a character in their own right. They are shameless in dropping hints regarding their identity and powers, sharing their opinion on matters afoot, and digressing from the main plot to pass over ‘the dull parts’ (for instance, a carriage ride between locations). Although I’ve heard quite a few readers decry this as unnecessarily tangental and distracting from the story, I believe first and foremost that it is this narration which makes the novel stand out from others. I found the narrator quite fascinating and thoroughly enjoyed their witty commentary regarding society and mankind.
Beautiful prose and believable characters The prose throughout A Map of Time is lyrical and flowing, a credit to both the author and the translator. I found it extremely difficult to tell that the novel was not originally written in English.
In addition, Palma’s characters are three dimensional, believable and relateable. At times, their decisions are foolish or downright reprehensible, and not a single character is without their flaws. Nevertheless, I found it difficult not to like and sympathize with these imperfect individuals as they seek to find purpose, achieve a goal, or right the wrongs of the past. Wells himself is an interesting character, embodying a mixture of noble and ignoble traits, who finds himself embroiled in the lives of the true protagonists through duty and the entreaties of his wife, Jane.
Is this really ‘speculative fiction?’ Throughout the novel, the plot takes a number of unexpected twists and turns that may have readers feeling cheated, scratching their heads, and wondering what it is exactly that they are reading. The unexplained and the mundane become almost indistinguishable to the point where the reader mistrusts their own ability to tell between truth and lies, the real and the imagined. Nevertheless, all becomes clear by the end of the novel and I, for one, was not disappointed. Any more than that, I will not say for fear of spoiling it, so you’ll have to find out the answers yourself!
True to its literary roots, The Map of Time explores some thought provoking philosophical and metaphysical questions. For instance, what happens if we alter history? Do we really have a right to the future? Perhaps even more essential to the plot are the questions involving truth, lies, and the human experience. What matters most, truth or happiness? Is a cruel truth truly better than a beautiful lie? And when it comes down to it, is there really that much of a difference between the two?
Why should you read this book? The Map of Time is a truly unique reading experience that should appeal to fans of literary and speculative fiction alike. Although it won’t suit the tastes of every reader, I would recommend it to almost anyone as something that simply must be tried—if only for its sheer distinctiveness compared to most other contemporary works . You’ll either love or hate it, but either way you’ll have read something truly unlike anything that’s come before, the echoes of which will remain with you long after you turn the final page. (less)
‘The Devil’s Diadem’, by popular Australian author and historian, Sar...moreA longer more detailed version of this review is availiable at The Ranting Dragon
‘The Devil’s Diadem’, by popular Australian author and historian, Sara Douglass, is a historical fantasy novel set in an alternate mid-twelfth century England. The narrative primarily focuses on the experiences of the protagonist, Maeb Langtofte, a young woman of minor nobility who is sent to serve in the household of the powerful Earl of Pengraic. Soon after settling into her new duties, it becomes evident to Maeb that strange and ungodly forces are at work as she hears rumour of a demonic plague sweeping across Europe and witnesses the presence of devilish imps. The plague soon decimates the English population and the country succumbs to chaos and terror. However, the plague seems to be searching for something and even those closest to Maeb hold deadly secrets. As men and demons alike search for the devil’s stolen treasure, Maeb must work out who to trust and unravel the secrets of the past before she loses everything and everyone she cares for.
Overall, I found ‘The Devils Diadem’ to be a thoroughly enjoyable saga of love, loss, political maneuverings, friendship and betrayal, that successfully combined believable characters, historical detail and romance with aspects of fantasy and horror. The characters are likeable and human, they have flaws, experience misunderstandings and make mistakes. Their relations are complex, their interactions believable and I found it easy to care about them.
As the book is narrated in the first person, the reader primarily watches events unfold through the eyes of Maeb. However, at certain points we experience the viewpoints of different characters, each with their own unique narrative voice and preconceptions.
The horror elements are especially well done and the descriptions of the plague are legitimately horrifying and often disturbing, complete with excessive fungal growth and spontaneous combustion. I consider myself difficult to scare, yet found myself quite disquieted.
Another element I particularly enjoyed was the mythology of the falloways and the Old People. At many times I found myself wishing that I, to, could wander down a falloway to a realm populated by an ancient people living in harmony with nature.
The only problem I had with the book was an editing error where the name of the protagonist was incorrect on the blurb. A strange oversight, but an irrelevant one that will most likely be corrected upon reprinting.
As a stand alone novel, ‘The Devil’s Diadem’ is by necessity less complicated and intricate than some of Douglass’ other novels (I’m thinking of her excellent historical fantasy trilogy, The Crucible). Nevertheless, I found it to be well plotted, intelligent and enjoyable and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys good, character driven fantasy.(less)
This review contains minor spoilers for The Nameless Day.
The Wounded Hawk is the second installment in Sara Dou...moreAlso published under The Ranting Dragon
This review contains minor spoilers for The Nameless Day.
The Wounded Hawk is the second installment in Sara Douglass’s epic historical fantasy trilogy, The Crucible. The winner of Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel in 2001, this impressive novel is much more than just a placefiller leading up to the trilogy conclusion, The Crippled Angel.
Many of the major plot developments in the series take place here, as well as substantial world building and further characterisation of each of the many participants in the dangerous game playing out between various factions both earthly and celestial. This is where the series really comes into its own as Douglass takes her readers on a gripping journey, dazzling in its scope and encompassing countless unexpected twists and turns.
The Wounded Hawk begins a few months after the events of The Nameless Day, with Thomas Neville having narrowly escaped serious reprimand for casting aside his vows to the church, and continuing his search for the mysterious casket that holds the key to wiping the demons off the face of the earth. Although he now shelters under the protection of his childhood friend Hal (Henry) of Bolingbroke, and his powerful father John of Gaunt, Neville has many enemies both known and unknown to him. Some seek to prevent the success of his quest while others act upon their own, more personal vendettas. Furthermore, the war between England and France continues, while beneath society’s surface stirs civil unrest, sowing the seeds of rebellion amongst noblemen and peasants alike.
Superb writing Once again Douglass showcases her remarkable talents for genre blending and combining multiple narratives while maintaining pace and keeping the reader interested. Innumerable subplots simultaneously unfold in various locations throughout Europe, yet all interweave and their various repercussions significantly impact the story as a whole. Her prose flows effortlessly and contains just the right amount of description to absorb the reader in the sights and sounds of this alternate fourteenth century without becoming tedious or excessive.
Dynamic characterisation Throughout The Wounded Hawk, Douglass does an excellent job of developing and offering further insight into the characters we met in the previous novel while introducing many more into the fray. Our perceptions of certain characters are challenged as they reveal further motives and ambitions and develop in response to the events that unfold around them. A cold-hearted political player may reveal a softer, more human side, while a previously irreproachable character may act ruthlessly when their interests are threatened. Even the most despicable characters are, more often than not, a product of their environment and just as prone to manipulation by their peers.
Alliances can change in a heartbeat and almost no one is really who they seem. Neville, the protagonist who so irked readers in the first book, begins to show some redeeming qualities as he is torn between what he has always believed is right and what is now revealed to him.
Heightened action The Wounded Hawk outdoes its predecessor tenfold when it comes to action and pacing. What’s more, it does this without neglecting other elements such as world building and charater development. Various schemes and promises, the foundations of which were laid in The Nameless Day, finally come into fruition in The Wounded Hawk. Battles are waged throughout England and France alike, countless plots unfold, and civil dissatisfaction within the English peasantry reaches breaking point. Do not make the mistake, however, of assuming that this novel only builds upon previously constructed narratives. Many exciting new developments are introduced to be resolved either within this novel or in the trilogy’s epic conclusion.
Gritty and confronting The Crucible trilogy, in essence, is an extremely bold and gritty work of fantasy that doesn’t balk at the thought of gore or attempt to shirk possible controversy. The Wounded Hawk does contain a number of particularly confronting scenes and depictions of graphic violence, some of which are sexual in nature. Those who are averse to such content may want to give this one a miss. For those who are not deterred, most of these scenes are not merely gratuitous, but serve a purpose within the greater context of the story and aim to provoke thought in the reader. For instance an elaborate and rather shocking deception takes place in the course of the story that, while serving its distinct purpose, causes substantial hurt to various individuals. Desperate times may call for desperate measures, but do the ends really justify the means in this case? Or could a better way to the same goal have been found? One should also be aware that Douglass presents a unique reimagining of Christian mythos throughout the series that may be considered sacreligious or offensive to some readers. While some religious icons are portrayed in a sympathetic, though unconventional, light, many others come across far more negatively.
Why should you read this book? This brilliant and daring example of character driven historical fantasy more than fulfills the promises of the previous book. It is an engrossing, well-plotted, and thought provoking novel with an interesting premise that is relatively unique in the fantasy genre. Even if you were unsure about The Nameless Day, The Wounded Hawk is definitely worth a look and has previously converted many critics of the series. If you have enjoyed The Crucible trilogy so far, I would strongly recommend that you get your hands on a copy of this as soon as possible. It may also be wise to grab a copy of the third installment, The Crippled Angel, while you’re at it, as once you start reading you may find yourself not wanting to stop or endure a tortourously suspenseful wait to find out what happens next.(less)
The Nameless Day is the first volume in Sara Douglass’s trilogy, The Crucible. While the author lists The Cruci...moreAlso published under The Ranting Dragon
The Nameless Day is the first volume in Sara Douglass’s trilogy, The Crucible. While the author lists The Crucible as her favourite of all her series, many readers had mixed feelings about The Nameless Day upon its initial publication. Most of their concerns regarded the vastly different feel of this novel when compared to her previous works (such as the popular Axis Trilogy), and the unconventional choice of protagonist. Nevertheless, in my opinion, having read all three books in the series, I would still recommend The Nameless Day and consider it to be a highly worthwhile read. While it may not suit the tastes of all readers, The Crucible is probably the best historical fantasy series I have ever read, and one of the most intricately plotted and daring fantasy novels in general.
History and fantasy The story takes place in an alternate fourteenth century Europe, in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War and a great schism in the Roman Catholic church which would eventually see three popes simultaneously claim office. Former nobleman turned Dominican friar Thomas Neville is visited by the Archangel Michael who warns him that demons run rife throughout Europe and have integrated themselves into every level of society. If they are to be stopped, Thomas must find a mysterious casket, thirty years missing, and use its contents to cast the demon spawn back into the fiery pit of hell. This task, however, is more easily said than done. The demons have had decades to prepare for his arrival and do not intend to go down without a fight. Furthermore, Thomas is haunted by visions of what he suspects is a demon-woman sent for the sole purpose of tempting him from his promise. Worst of all, the concepts of good and evil may not be as clear-cut as he believes.
Essentially, Douglass interposes another, more secret battle between the rival factions of the angels and the demons, amidst and underlying the various other struggles of a particularly tumultuous period of European history. She does this with spectacular style, involving intricate period detail with fantasy elements, and hinting towards larger themes to be explored in the later books. Such include the respective roles of church, state and the individual, as well as faith and responsibility for one’s fellow man. She also explores and builds upon the origins of what would eventually become humanism. Though she does alter some dates (for example making certain individuals appear earlier or later than in historical records) and The Nameless Day is foremost a work of fantasy fiction, Douglass’s historical scholarship is generally quite thorough and demonstrates an excellent knowledge of and passion for her chosen era.
Complex characters The main protagonist, Thomas Neville, is self-righteous, misogynistic, small-minded and hypocritical. Although this may make him unrelatable to some readers, it makes him a more realistic character given the historical period. After all, the likelihood of finding a man of Thomas’s position with particularly modern or liberal views would have to be relatively uncommon in the fourteenth century. Furthermore, Thomas’s character provides many opportunities for development and, judging by the aforementioned criticism, one must conclude that Douglass has succeeded in creating a character that readers desperately want to see change as a person.
Those familiar with medieval history may recognise a myriad of notable historical figures amongst the supporting cast. These include John of Gaunt, Katherine Swynford, Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV), Charles VII, Joan of Arc, Richard II, Geoffrey Chaucer and many others. Each character, whether historically based or entirely fictional, has their own distinct personality, a great achievement for a novel encompassing so many individuals. The ‘good guys’ are never wholly good, while the ‘bad guys’ are rarely purely evil. Alliances are ever-changing and everyone has their own agenda and hides their own secrets.
A little bit of everything (done well!) Once again, Douglass showcases her admirable talent for seamlessly blending elements of different genres into a cohesive whole. The Nameless Day incorporates fantasy, history and romance, while also containing some particularly brutal and gory moments that would put most writers of modern horror to shame. Certain sections, especially at the beginning of the novel, are very dark and reminiscent of early Gothic works such as Matthew Lewis’s The Monk, full of sinister clergy and malevolent secrets.
Why should you read this book? By the end of the novel, much is still unclear and many questions remain to be resolved in the following books. However, those who can bear the suspense will be greatly rewarded by this daring and thought-provoking series and the many shocking and unexpected developments it encompasses. All in all, The Nameless Day is definitely worth a read for any fantasy fan who isn’t particularly averse to historical fiction and would like to try something a little more daring and challenging than just another Lord of the Rings clone. However, it does contain substantial violence and various depictions of religious figures behaving badly, which may be unpalatable to some individuals. Hence, you may be wise to refrain from lending it to, for instance, your fainthearted and devoutly Catholic grandmother. (less)
Richard Harland’s Worldshaker is a dystopian steampunk adventure aimed at...moreAlso published under The Ranting Dragon Author Interview: http://bit.ly/n1clNR
Richard Harland’s Worldshaker is a dystopian steampunk adventure aimed at young adult readers. Although it is targeted at a younger audience, I found this novel to be an entertaining and worthwhile read that I finished in one sitting.
A steampunk coming of age story Worldshaker tells the story of Col Porpentine, grandson of Sir Mormus Porpentine, Supreme Commander of the industrial juggernaut Worldshaker. Col lives a privileged yet sheltered life on the elite upper decks of the immense moving city while sub-human workers known as Filthies toil below. Chosen to succeed his grandfather one day and bring honor to his family, Col’s life seems to be on track. However, unbeknownst to him, his safe, stable world is doomed to fall apart when an escaped female Filthy chooses his cabin as a hiding place. Despite her wild appearance and lack of personal hygiene, the Filthy, called Riff, doesn’t seem that different from anyone else and, most shocking of all, she can speak! No matter how hard he tries, Col cannot escape the knowledge that life as he knows it is based on a lie. Furthermore, he hasn’t seen the last of the Filthies, and the events that follow will have him questioning everything he once believed in, both about his society, and himself .
A familiar tale with a refreshing twist Combining elements of romance, satire and adventure, Worldshaker focuses on the relationship between the protagonists, Col and Riff, and Col’s resultant awakening to the rampant injustice within his society. While the concepts of star-crossed love and a challenge to an individual’s preconceived worldviews are hardly new to literature, Harland writes with such wit and humor that these familiar concepts feel fresh and exciting. He also adds his own surprising twists to the familiar tale, ranging from the inevitable to the downright bizarre.
Col and Riff are likeable yet believably flawed and are supported by a colorful cast of quirky secondary characters, each with their own unique charm. Undoubtedly some exist more for the sake of parody than others, drawing attention to various follies within society and human nature. Nevertheless, while they may initially seem more like humorous caricatures than real people, most develop greater depth as the story progresses, becoming much more relatable as a result. I also thought it was nice to see a Romeo and Juliet story where the traditional roles are reversed and Riff is the streetwise, kick-ass heroine and Col, while educated and intelligent, is comparatively naïve in the ways of the world. While Harland may not be the only writer to explore this variation on traditional gender roles, I thought it added another layer to the narrative and fit in well with the rest of the story.
A quirky world with plenty of surprises Worldshaker’s setting is unique and fascinating despite the fact that the story takes place entirely within the self contained world of the industrial behemoth. The upper decks are populated by stuffy upper-class English society with stiff manners and a rigid social class system. In contrast, the lower decks are a perilous wasteland of coal, machinery and furnaces where a single slip could cost one their life. We are also given some intriguing hints as to the history of Harland’s world and the existence of similar moving cities, manned by the populations of different developed countries. Overall, I was left with a strong desire to learn more about the world outside Worldshaker which, without giving away too much, happily features more prominently in the sequel Liberator. Readers who prefer all aspects worldbuilding to be backed up with scientific explanation may be in for an unpleasant surprise, but those willing to suspend disbelief and have a bit of fun will enjoy the quirky humor and sharp, slightly satirical wit. Much like the maze of hidden compartments and secret rooms that characterize Harland’s juggernaut, the story itself contains some genuine surprises. The plot itself is not shy in taking unforeseen directions, and characters you thought you knew frequently reveal new aspects of their personalities, both for the better and the worse.
On a slightly darker note… Don’t make the mistake, however, of thinking that Worldshaker is nothing but a lighthearted romp. There are more serious concepts explored and darker moments throughout the novel. Themes of betrayal, prejudice, revolution and oppression underlie the plot and even the more humorous parts of the novel have a slightly darker edge than you might find in most books aimed at a similar age group.
Why should you read this book? I recommend Worldshaker to anyone with an interest in the steampunk genre, anyone who enjoys quirky stories with a healthy dose of humor, and more conventional fantasy fans looking for a change of pace. While the plot may seem a little simple for some older readers, I believe the unique writing style and wit provide adequate compensation. I definitely consider Worldshaker a worthwhile read; and the sequel Liberator, which I read immediately after, is even better.(less)
‘The Nameless Day’ is the first volume in Sara Douglass’s three-part series, The Crucible. While the author lists ‘The Crucible’ as her favourite of all her series, many readers had mixed feelings about ‘The Nameless Day’ upon its initial publication. Most of their concerns regarded the vastly different feel of this novel, when compared to her previous works (such as the popular Axis Trilogy), and the unconventional choice of protagonist. Nevertheless, in my opinion, having read all three books in the series, I would still recommend ‘The Nameless Day’ and consider it to be a highly worthwhile read. While it may not suit the tastes of all readers, ‘The Crucible’ is probably the best historical fantasy series I have ever read, and one of the most intricately plotted and daring fantasy novels in general.
The story takes place in an alternate fourteenth century Europe, in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War and a great schism in the Roman Catholic church which would eventually see three popes simultaneously claim office. Former nobleman turned Dominican friar, Thomas Neville, is visited by the Archangel Michael, who warns him that demons run rife throughout Europe and have integrated themselves into every level of society. If they are to be stopped, Thomas must find a mysterious casket, 30 years missing, and use its contents to cast the demon spawn back into the fiery pit of hell. This task, however, is more easily said than done. The demons have had decades to prepare for his arrival and do not intend to go down without a fight. Furthermore, Thomas is haunted by visions, of what he suspects is a demon-woman sent for the sole purpose of tempting him from his promise. Worst of all, the concepts of good and evil may not be as clear-cut as he believes.
Essentially, Douglass interposes another, more secret battle, between the rival factions of the angels and the demons, amidst and underlying the various other struggles of a particularly tumultuous period of European history. She does this with spectacular style, involving intricate period detail with fantasy elements, and hinting towards larger themes to be explored in the later books. Such include the respective roles of church, state and the individual, faith, responsibility for one’s fellow man. She also explores, and adds upon, the origins of what would eventually become humanism. Although, she does alter some dates (for example making certain individuals appear earlier or later than in historical records ) and “The Nameless Day” is foremost a work of fantasy fiction, Douglass’s historical scholarship is generally quite thorough and demonstrates an excellent knowledge of and passion for her chosen era.
The main protagonist, Thomas Neville, is self-righteous, misogynistic, small-minded and hypocritical. Although this may make him unrelatable to some readers, it serves to make him a more realistic character given the historical period. After all, the likelihood of finding a man of Thomas’s position, with particularly modern or liberal views would have to be relatively uncommon in the fourteenth century. Furthermore, Thomas’s character provides many opportunities for development and, judging by the aforementioned criticism, one must conclude that Douglass has succeeded in creating a character that readers desperately want to see change as a person.
Those familiar with medieval history may recognise myriad notable historical figures amongst the supporting cast. These include John of Gaunt, Katherine Swynford, Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV), Charles VII, Joan of Arc, Richard II, Geoffrey Chaucer and many others. Each character, whether historically based or entirely fictional, has their own distinct personality, a great achievement for a novel encompassing so many individuals. The ‘good guys’ are never wholly good, while the ‘bad guys’ are rarely purely evil. Alliances are ever-changing and everyone has their own agenda and hides their own secrets.
Once again, Douglass showcases her admirable talent for seamlessly interblending elements of different genres into a cohesive whole. ‘The Nameless Day’ incorporates fantasy, history and romance, while also containing some particularly brutal and gory moments that would put most writers of modern horror to shame. Certain sections, especially at the beginning of the novel, are very dark and reminiscent of early Gothic works such as Matthew Lewis’s ‘The Monk’, full of sinister clergy and malevolent secrets.
By the end of the novel, much is still unclear and many questions remain to be resolved in the following books. However, those who can bear the suspense will be greatly rewarded by this daring and thought-provoking series and the many shocking and unexpected developments it encompasses. All in all, ‘The Nameless Day’ is definitely worth a read for any fantasy fan who isn’t particularly averse to historical fiction and would like to try something a little more daring and challenging than just another ‘Lord of the Rings’ clone. However, it does contain substantial violence and various depictions of religious figures behaving badly that may be unpalatable to some individuals. Hence, you may be wise to refrain from lending it to, for instance, your faint hearted and devoutly Catholic grandmother. (less)
Liberator is the excellent sequel to Richard Harland’s 2009 steampunk adventure, Worldshaker, and once again the majority of the story takes place on the huge mobile city, now renamed to reflect its liberated status. While you do have to have read Worldshaker to fully appreciate Liberator, I personally found the entertainment value alone of both books more than worth the few hours it took to read them.
The story continues Liberator picks up a few months after the events of Worldshaker. The Filthies may now have their freedom, but not all is well on the immense juggernaut. A saboteur and murderer is concealed within the population and suspicion falls upon the former upper decks residents, or Swanks. The resulting paranoia, paired with the lingering ill-feeling of the Filthies towards their former oppressors, widens the already substantial division between the two groups and offers the perfect climate for extremists to gain power. Furthermore, the Liberator faces not only war within the ranks of its citizens, but also assault from external sources as Imperialist juggernauts converge upon its position. Riff and Col must overcome their mistrust and unite the factions if anyone is to survive the oncoming storm.
Bigger and bolder Overall, Liberator encompasses greater character development, greater scope and more intense action than its predecessor. We are offered more insight into the characters of the protagonists, Riff and Col, and watch them grow with the decisions they make throughout the story. Furthermore, Harland’s antagonists, such as Lye, are more developed than those in Worldshaker, with understandable flaws and motives rather than coming across as ‘just plain evil’ or serving solely as devices through which to parody certain historical stereotypes. The supporting cast, such as Col’s parents, teacher and even the ambiguous dog/cat Murgatrude, also benefit from some further attention. The result makes them much more real and endearing, while still remaining quirky and larger than life.
Throughout the course of this novel we finally get a glimpse of what Harland’s world is like beyond the claustrophobic confines of the mobile city. We visit an Imperial colony, located in Botany Bay and powered by convict labour, that exists purely to refuel the roaming juggernauts, and we even get to see some of the other, deadlier, mobile fortresses firsthand. The world outside is alien and threatening to Filthies and Swanks alike, yet can no longer be ignored if they are to continue to survive. All in all, this enhanced worldbuilding adds to the authenticity of the novel, reinforcing the perception of the Liberator as both a world contained within itself and yet still a part of a greater whole.
Life after revolution Harland also does a good job of showing that life is not all joy and harmony in the aftermath of a revolution (complete with ample thinly veiled allusions to the Russian Revolution). Fanatics from both sides, Imperialist and Revolutionary, are depicted as inclined to bigotry and capable of using ruthless means to achieve their goals. Questions raised by the previous book, such as the inevitable reactions of the other Imperial juggernauts to the Filthy upheaval and the plight of their own analogous lower classes, are likewise explored.
The novel also provides some exhilarating battle scenes, laugh out loud moments (I’m thinking of Col’s mother’s personal revelation) and food for thought, all set in the bizarre and strangely alluring environment of the industrial behemoth.
Why should you read this book? Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed both Liberator and Worldshaker, and while their slightly unconventional style may not be to everyone’s taste, I found it a welcome break from the bleaker outlook and somewhat heavier tone prominent in many contemporary sci-fi and fantasy offerings. While the book is aimed at the young adult audience, I would also recommend it to older readers, such as myself, who are looking for a fun and quirky science fiction/fantasy read that has depth but doesn’t take itself too seriously.
The Cardinal’s Blades is a work of alternative history set in a vividly realized reimagining of seventeenth cen...moreAlso published under The Ranting Dragon
The Cardinal’s Blades is a work of alternative history set in a vividly realized reimagining of seventeenth century Paris. While many elements of the story and setting stay true to the period, this version of France is no stranger to dark magics and various fantastic, often draconic, beasts. The Cardinal’s Blades is the first book in an ongoing series, also titled The Cardinal’s Blades, by French author Pierre Pével, and was originally published in France in 2007. The first two volumes have since been translated into English with a third due in the not-too-distant future. This review focuses on the English version of the novel, translated by Tom Clegg.
While King Louis XIII may rule in name, the true power in France is Cardinal Richelieu, remembered throughout history for his extensive influence and cunning political manipulations. However, it’s not all fun and games being one of the most powerful and renowned figures of your age. Not only must Richelieu contend with ambitious peers and a nearly constant stream of assassination attempts, but also the threat of war brewing with Spain. All the while, the Black Claw, a notorious sect of dragon descendants, covetously watches France, awaiting an opportunity to establish itself within her borders. In response to this insidious threat, Cardinal Richelieu is compelled to reunite the previously disbanded group of elite spies and swordsmen known colloquially as the Cardinal’s Blades. Unfortunately, the Blades are now scattered across the country, tainted by betrayal and shadowed by loss. They are, however, France’s last defense against the oncoming storm.
Historical Paris with a draconic twist Pével evokes a vibrant and believable 1633 Paris, from the decadent aristocratic mansions to the stinking, filth covered streets of the city’s slums. Much of the action in the novel takes place within the city walls and Pével frequently makes reference to various distinctive Parisian landmarks. Luckily for those like me who are unfamiliar with the finer details of historical French urban planning, the appendices of the book contain some detailed maps of the city layout to help the reader along. As previously mentioned, one of the key differences between the historical France that we find in the history books and the France depicted in The Cardinal’s Blades is the presence of various dragon-like creatures. While many works of fantasy feature dragons in one form or another, I cannot recall another that contains so many different dragon variations in one novel. Pével’s France is inhabited by many kinds of dragons: cat-sized dragonets that are kept as pets or roam wild throughout the city, flying wyverns that are used as a form of arial transport, humanoid drakes, and half bloods. The most powerful and dangerous dragons, however, are the ancient Ancestral Dragons, whose descendants may move undetected throughout society in human form.
En garde! A word that frequently recurs in reference to The Cardinal’s Blades is ‘swashbuckling’ and I must agree that this is a completely accurate description. This is no long, drawn out epic, but in essence an action-adventure novel filled with plenty of vicious sword-fights, daring escapes, and nick-of-time rescues. Pével provides us with ample fight scenes complete with detailed play-by-play combat. While the lightning fast pace of the narrative and constant switching between characters take a little getting used to and may be confusing for some, others will absolutely adore the constant engagement this writing style provides.
Colorful characters The many characters may initially appear to be an extensive collection of character clichés. We have a battle hardened captain; a dashing cad; a good humoured, hard drinking old soldier; a brooding half-breed assassin; a prodigal swordsman; and a strong-willed token female thrown in for good measure. Nevertheless, Pével uses these characters well and as the story progresses it becomes evident that, although they may not be the most fleshed out characters in the fantasy genre, they do indeed have more depth than one may initially assume. I also anticipate that more time and energy will be devoted to characterization in later books, especially as much of the history and other background knowledge have already been laid out in this one. The upside of having so many different characters is that almost any reader should be able to find one or more that they can relate to. While I was fond of most of the Blades, my personal favourite would have to be Agnes, the sole woman on the team. Despite the historical setting, I found it refreshing to find an independent, clever, and unconventional woman who can hold her own amid the men in this kind of novel.
Lost in translation? Now, it’s all perfectly well to convert a popular title into other languages, but if the translation is subpar it doesn’t matter how well written the book originally was or how interesting its premise. Thankfully, Tom Clegg’s translation is pretty solid and, from all accounts, stays as true to the original as possible. However, one does occasionally get the feeling, especially in some of the more quick witted humour scenes, that a little may have been lost in the translation and that the text probably flowed more smoothly in its native language. Generally though, I would say that the benefit of being able to experience works originally written in foreign languages vastly outweighs any trifling complaints one might occasionally have with the translations. The Cardinal’s Blades is no exception.
Cliffhanger extraordinaire One aspect of Pével’s writing that may be considered a downside by some and a mark in its favor by others is his seeming infatuation with ending his books on dramatic cliffhangers. While most of the main plot lines are wrapped up neatly enough by the end of the novel, Pével throws in a dramatic revelation right at the end — which is fine if you have the next in the series already on hand, but can be frustrating if you have to wait. If you are a particularly impatient person, I would still recommend The Cardinal’s Blades; however, you may be advised to wait until the series is closer to completion. The overall motives of Black Claw are also left somewhat unclear by the end of the novel. However, I am sure this is not the last we will hear from the malevolent sect.
Why should you read this book? The Cardinal’s Blades is an extremely colorful, fun and action-packed read that will keep you turning pages. The characters are interesting, the plot is exciting, and the French setting is a nice change from the usual English alternative history fare. This novel also offers a great opportunity to sample some quality translated fantasy, and if the trend to translate popular foreign titles into English continues, we may all get the opportunity to broaden our horizons and experience books and authors we may never otherwise have had access to.(less)
Fenrir is the sequel to M. D. Lachlan’s brilliant fantasy debut, Wolfsang...moreAuthor interview: http://bit.ly/qBFcit Also published under The Ranting Dragon
Fenrir is the sequel to M. D. Lachlan’s brilliant fantasy debut, Wolfsangel, and the second installment in his unnamed Norse werewolf series. Now, many readers will have but one question regarding this book: “Is it as good as Wolfsangel?” The answer, in my opinion, is an emphatic “yes.” While the two novels are quite different in a number of ways, Fenrir lives up to the high expectations set by its predecessor, and, in many cases, exceeds them.
A struggle throughout the ages Fenrir is set approximately 100 years after the events of Wolfsangel, in an early medieval Paris set alight by the torches of Viking invaders. The hordes lay siege to the city, yet strangely their leaders demand not slaves or riches, but the Count’s sister, Aelis. They are not alone in seeking the young woman—the raven priests of Odin also hunt her, as does a mysterious wolfman lurking in the shadows. Unbeknowst to Aelis, her role in these events is due to no mere machination of politics but serves a greater, more sinister purpose. The crippled and blind living saint, Jehan, is given the task of speaking to the girl and perhaps convincing her to accept her fate. However, Aelis and Jehan are about to become pawns in a mad god’s schemes. In their future lies death, madness, dark magic, and the monstrous Fenris wolf, fated to kill Odin at Ragnarok.
A new perspective on the familiar Once again, Lachlan delivers a dark and thrilling tale incorporating Norse gods and monsters, historical detail, and sinister magic into a tragically human struggle against fate. It is these human elements that stand out in this book when compared to the last. The characters are more developed and their relationships are more complex. Some old characters reappear (e.g. Loki), and we are introduced to many new ones, as well as some that are simultaneously new and familiar—the reincarnations of those in Wolfsangel. This in and of itself is one of the most interesting aspects of the novel, as we learn more about each of the major players from an entirely different perspective. We see who they have become and how they react in vastly different circumstances. For instance, Adisla is no longer a farmer’s daughter but the highborn lady Aelis, and as a result, she acts quite differently in some regards while still retaining certain characteristics from her previous incarnation. In other cases, the differences are even more pronounced, and Lachlan keeps the reader guessing who is actually who in relation to the previous novel. Often he manages to surprise in this respect.
Enhanced characterization While the characters in Wolfsangel were already believable and human, Lachlan takes his characterization to a whole new level in Fenrir. Each character develops as an individual, has their own flaws, and almost every one displays some degree of moral ambiguity. The protagonists are never completely irreproachable, while the antagonists never come across as wholly evil or without motivation for their actions. In many cases you may well find yourself sympathizing with a character you initially wrote off as irredeemable.
Another noteworthy improvement regards the female protagonist Aelis/Adisla, who takes on a much greater role than she did in Wolfsangel. She evolves from being possibly the least developed of the protagonists to one of the most well characterized. In addition, she displays greater agency and is much more proactive character instead of being a hapless victim dragged into a struggle not of her own making. Personally, I found this made her much easier to relate to and a much more well-rounded character than she was previously. There is also a much greater focus on the feelings and internal struggles of the characters in this book, as they come to understand much of what is happening to them, and endeavor to fight against their fates. Can they really rebel against the inevitable and defy a god? There’s only one way to find out…
Evocative prose and an immersive atmosphere Lachlan’s writing, already proficient in Wolfsangel, is further perfected in Fenrir, fully immersing the reader in this strange world of gods and monsters. There were moments when I could almost hear the dripping of moisture in a dark cave or see the light streaming down through the canopy of a forest. Lachlan excels at creating atmosphere and pays great attention to historical detail, effortlessly evoking a bygone age. Although lyrical and flowing, the writing never distracts from the story and the historical aspects are incorporated seamlessly into the plot. For instance, we are not told about the differences and conflicts between Christian and Norse religion, but come to understand them through Jehan’s interactions with his companions. In fact, some of the more amusing moments in what is otherwise quite a dark novel involve the Vikings pragmatism in response to Jehan’s attempts to convert them (they’ll believe in his god if his god brings them a shelter or makes them fiercer warriors) or misinterpretation of each others customs.
A dark and brutal tale Fenrir is even darker and more intense than its predecessor, and includes a few somewhat disturbing and rather graphic scenes that I would not recommend to anyone with a weak stomach. Nevertheless, these scenes are used in context with the rest of the story and often play important roles in the progression of the narrative. Though many of the events depicted throughout the novel are undeniably violent and often horrific, they are never depicted in an overly gratuitous manner or included purely for shock value with no relation to the plot. The novel is set in a brutal age and Lachlan does not try to sugarcoat this, provide an idealized version of history, or glorify bloodshed. Often, I felt this added to the authenticity of the story and made the fantastical elements more believable. Additionally, the juxtaposition of the more tender human moments with the gory or violent scenes increased the impact of the story as a whole.
A more linear, character driven plot Fenrir is a longer book (by around 200 pages) than Wolfsangel, and the plot unfolds in a primarily linear fashion, without as many jumps between time-frames . Some readers have mentioned the pacing of Fenrir is also marginally slower; however, I see this an inevitable by-product of the greater focus on character development. Personally, I felt getting to know the characters better—and, as a result, caring more about what happens to them—more than compensated for a slower pace. All things considered, the plot is still thrilling, the world still fascinating, and the pace quite fast compared to many other novels.
When reading Fenrir, one must keep in mind that this is but the second book in a longer series (the exact number of installments is not yet finalized), and as such may not offer the reader the closure they may desire. Those hoping for a decisive conclusion to the overall storyline are setting themselves up for disappointment. Personally, I am thrilled that there are to be more books after Fenrir and was quite satisfied with the ending. It provides a conclusion to this chapter in an ongoing struggle and hints at how circumstances may change in the books that follow.
Why should you read this book? If you haven’t already done so, I would strongly suggest you read Wolfsangel before picking up Fenrir. In fact, if you haven’t read Wolfsangel, why are you wasting time reading this review? Stop immediately, go get your hands on a copy, and read that instead. If you read and loved the first book like I did, I would definitely recommend you read this one as well, as, in my opinion, it is even better. While Fenrir is an engrossing and well-written story in its own right, it is an excellent second book in what is shaping up to be a brilliant multi-volume series. Honestly, the worst thing about this novel is the fact I now have to wait for the next one.(less)
The Alchemist in the Shadows is the second book in The Cardinal’s Blades trilogy by French author Pierre Pével....moreAlso published under The Ranting Dragon
The Alchemist in the Shadows is the second book in The Cardinal’s Blades trilogy by French author Pierre Pével. We return to Pével’s vibrant 17th century Paris where magic, though rare, certainly exists, and the presence of dragons in one form or another is considered commonplace. Originally written in Pével’s native French, the English edition of The Alchemist in the Shadows is once again translated by Tom Clegg, the man responsible for its predecessor The Cardinal’s Blades.
Chronologically, the events of The Alchemist in the Shadows take place soon after those of the previous book. The Blades may have foiled the Black Claw’s original plan but the insidious sect has many more tricks up its collective sleeve. A beautiful and notorious Italian spy known as La Donna contacts Captain la Fargue offering valuable information in exchange for amnesty and Cardinal Richelieu’s protection. The Cardinal is not known for his leniency, but La Donna’s knowledge may be of such vital importance to the security of France that he has no choice. The Blades must be called upon once again to defend their country, and this time their adversary is none other than the elusive and deadly, the almost legendary, Black Claw operative: the Alchemist in the Shadows.
An engaging setting While The Cardinal’s Blades introduced us to Pével’s intriguing take on 1633 Paris, in The Alchemist in the Shadows he has taken his world building to the next level. We learn more about the governance and society of historical France as well as the religious bodies and secret organizations that operate behind the scenes. There is also much more direct involvement by various types of dragons than in the previous novel and although there are so many featuring in the plot, all appear completely at home in Pével’s otherwise historically accurate Paris. From the little dragonets kept as pets and spies to the crude mercenary drakes, all not only add to the ambiance of the novel but also play important roles. Thus, The Alchemist in the Shadows carefully avoids the common alternative history trap of feeling too much like a history lesson with a fantasy element or two tacked on as an afterthought.
Enhanced characterization The Blades are back and this time around we finally start seeing some real character development. While The Cardinal’s Blades hinted that there was more to each of Pével’s characters than met the eye, The Alchemist in the Shadows has them evolve from a somewhat clichéd archetypes into fully realized individuals. The backgrounds of certain characters are explored, making them more relatable and often revealing surprising revelations about their pasts. Additionally, other familiar faces from The Cardinal’s Blades return to gain further prominence in this novel. For example, fans of the former spy Arnaud de Laincourt will be well pleased by his role. We are also introduced to fascinating new secondary characters with their own well defined and distinctive personalities. While the usually unscrupulous lady spy La Donna may reveal a soft spot for her mentor and pets, Leprat makes a friend behind enemy lines who may or may not turn out to be a decent sort. The main antagonist, The Alchemist, remains a mysterious, foreboding presence for most of the book, waiting for the optimum moment to unleash the full extent of his horrifying power. Personally, I found this made him a much more threatening character than the comparatively transparent Countess from The Cardinal’s Blades.
This series is defined by action, and in many cases throughout the novel, actions speak louder than words when it comes to characterization. We learn who among the characters will spare a surrendered foe and who will simply slit their throat. That’s not to say there’s anything lacking in the dialogue, however. In fact, the same characteristic flair and sharp wit that permeated the first book is equally, if not more, present in this one.
Action-packed extravaganza The Alchemist in the Shadows hurtles along at an even faster pace than The Cardinal’s Blades while embodying a heightened sense of drama and urgency. It achieves this while also containing more of the swashbuckling action and flamboyant play-by-play rapier duels that made the original so much fun. Once again, the story leaps between many different viewpoints with each of the Blades and other characters fulfilling their own separate roles and missions. These simultaneous narratives, along with the aforementioned lightning pace, do not make for a relaxing read as you will need your wits about you to keep up with the story. They do, however, make for an exciting one that will keep your pulse racing.
Many questions, few answers Once again, Pével ends his story on a cliffhanger, one that is perhaps even more dramatic than that which concluded The Cardinal’s Blades. Furthermore, the revelation from the previous book is referred to briefly although its exact meaning and possible consequences remain elusive. We do learn a little about La Fargue’s secret although it serves mainly as a teaser to build intrigue for what I expect will be a big part of the third book, The Dragon Arcana (to be released in November 2011 in the UK).
The last few aspects of the book I should probably mention are mainly technical. Tom Clegg’s translation once again seems quite decent, providing a flowing English translation while maintaining the decidedly French feel of the book. In addition, the map of Paris provided in the front of the novel is less detailed but much more user friendly than that in The Cardinal’s Blades.
Why should you read this book? All in all, The Alchemist in the Shadows surpasses its predecessor in many ways and if you enjoyed The Cardinal’s Blades you would be well advised to give this book a try. The cliffhangers and teasers may provide a challenge for the impatient, who may prefer to wait until the release of The Dragon Arcana before consuming these relatively short (around 350 page), yet extremely enjoyable, installments one after the other. The series is a must for those who enjoy their fantasy with a sharp wit and a break neck pace. This engrossing sequel is definitely hard to resist with its combination of action, dark magic, intrigue, a touch of humor and bloodshed all set in the decadent splendor of 17th century Paris. (less)