Longer review to come at SFFWorld, but the short of it is this:
1) I would lean towards 3.5 stars on this one rather than 4 stars 2) Underwood has creatLonger review to come at SFFWorld, but the short of it is this:
1) I would lean towards 3.5 stars on this one rather than 4 stars 2) Underwood has created a wholly unique milieu and I would love to see more stories about these characters and their world 3) This book has a *gorgeous* cover...more
It has been a pretty good year for Epic Fantasy in 2014 and the upward trend continues with Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire, her first novel for AnIt has been a pretty good year for Epic Fantasy in 2014 and the upward trend continues with Kameron Hurley’s The Mirror Empire, her first novel for Angry Robot Books and the first installment of The Worldbreaker Saga. Set in a milieu of parallel worlds featuring gender roles swapped or showcased in a different light, invading forces, blood magic, orphans, and bears-as-mounts, swords made of vegetation; to name only a some features, few Epic Fantasy novels/stories truly embrace the notion of Epic Fantasy to the same degree as Hurley’s ambitious tome. This should come as no surprise to people who have read her previous work (debut novel God’s War which received multiple genre nominations and the Kitschy for best newcomer) or her many opinion pieces around the genre web. Those who haven’t read anything by Kameron Hurley or aren’t familiar with her work (of any kind) are in for something incredible when they dive into The Mirror Empire.
The land of the Dhai is the primary physical location for the action of the novel, it is a land where celestial bodies, (satellites in their parlance), rule the shifting lives of those who live under them. The satellite+ (Is a star? A comet? A moon?) Oma is set to return to the planet’s orbit, which portends a catastrophe that could shatter multiple nations. When a young girl, Lilia, and her mother are traveling, Lilia’s blood-mage mother makes the ultimate sacrifice and thrusts her daughter through a portal to another world so she can escape an invading force. Not known to Lilia is she is an omajista, a wizard who can manipulate the power of the star Oma. Lilia is a very young girl and is soon taken in by the Kai a seemingly monastic order and the narrative jumps twelve years. The young girl is permanently wounded, with a bum leg but she comes to realize the truth about the mirrors she sees: each can be a portal to another world where a double our counterpart of everybody she knows exists. However, the only way for one person to travel to a parallel world is if their double is not alive in the other world.
As for the gender roles, the women warriors are dominant in much of the world. They are aggressive and, at times abusive to their husbands both mentally and physically. Men are treated, in many cases, as sex objects and holders of the seed for procreation. Many of Hurley’s characters can have one of five gender identities male assertive, male passive, female assertive, female passive and ungendered. And oh yeah, characters like the aforementioned Taigan can change genders in mid story. There’s a risk a writer can run when featuring such drastic, sweeping changes to conventions of fiction (and history and life, for that matter) in their fiction. It can be handled sloppily and distort the story, it can put readers off of the work. In the case of what Hurley is doing in The Mirror Empire, it was an ambitious, brilliant eye-opening embracing of what it means for a writer to truly push boundaries while still keeping a strong and powerful narrative alive and vibrant with a solid and engaging story. In short, just about everything Hurley has put in “behind the scenes” of the novel allows the novel to come across as a generally well-executed piece of art.
What Hurley is doing in The Mirror Empire (and I hope she continues with The Worldbreaker Saga) is to not only tell an engaging story, but tell an Epic Fantasy story in a new language. But this new language is one we can understand, it uses words with which we are familiar enough that the recasting of some of the new elements of the language can easily be deciphered and digested. For the most simplistic analogy, we all know what bears are, but aside from that 1993 Rumple Minze advertisement, how often do we see bears used as mounts? But here’s the thing…Hurley does such a good job with this one thing (and nearly every other recast element in the novel) as a feature of the novel rather than a bug – it felt natural and essentially the only way for everything else in the story to work as well as it did.
The hook that I saw Kameron use in describing the book (or maybe it was the publisher) is Fringe meets A Song of Ice and Fire, which is a fairly accurate assessment but still sells the book shy of just how deceptively complex, ambitious, and impressive The Mirror Empire is.
As of my writing of this review, Hurley had recently received the Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer and her guest post “We Have Always Fought: Challenging the ‘Women, Cattle and Slaves’ Narrative” at A Dribble of Ink, Aidan Moher’s recently Hugo-award winning Fanzine/ Blog, netted Kameron the Hugo Award for Best Related Work. Even before that, a great deal of hype and pre-publication buzz surrounded The Mirror Empire, enough that not acknowledging it even as something of a post-script such as this would be nonsensical. I will admit the last few books I read that had such pre-publication buzz wound up disappointing me on multiple levels even if those books had some merit, the whole was less than sum of the parts. This is far from the case with The Mirror Empire – by midway through the novel, my hesitations were unwarranted and I enjoyed the novel a great deal. I expect to see it on many awards shortlists in the next twelve months.*
The ending is the beginning, or at least that’s how Paul S. Kemp begins his second Egil and Nix novel, A Discourse in Steel. Or for another comparisonThe ending is the beginning, or at least that’s how Paul S. Kemp begins his second Egil and Nix novel, A Discourse in Steel. Or for another comparison, a quick mini-adventure which introduces the plot element of the main narrative of the novel… Our intrepid (though if either one of these two men heard me call them intrepid they’d probably say “Fak off”), duo enters, the Blackalley, a dark portal in an attempt to save a friend’s mentor. Meanwhile, in a somewhat bungled assassination attempt, one of the sisters the duo saved in The Hammer and the Blade, Rose, is affected by the assassination. You see, the person assassinated is the head of the Thieves’ Guild and at the moment he was killed, Rose was performing a seeing, trying to look into his future. As a result, a supernatural/mental shockwave hits her, leaving Rose in the equivalent of a magical/mental coma. The Thieves’ Guild attacks the bar the duo own and try to burn it down in an attempt to kill Rose. So what does our Leiber-esque duo do? Why, they bum-rush the Thieves’ Guild to extract revenge and in the process of escaping, manage to kidnap Channis, the head of the Thieves’ Guild, a rank with the title of The Upright Man. These events barely bring readers to the midpoint of this breakneck-paced novel.
I said in my review of The Hammer and the Blade that Kemp is evoking Fritz Leiber, that evocation/homage continues here in A Discourse in Steel quite nicely. The protagonists Egil and Nix are fully realized characters who breathe and banter in my head like old friends. Kemp’s writing/storytelling with this duo puts you in the room, the tunnel, or dungeon with them; essentially, it feels as if you become part of their group. Sword and sorcery can be considered the fantasy equivalent of the buddy movie and Egil and Nix, along with Scott Lynch’s Locke and Jean, are perhaps the most entertaining buddies in the genre. Egil and Nix are a bit more experienced, which adds another layer to their dynamic and the depth of their history. At times I’d almost expect one of them to echo Murtaugh in saying I’m too old for this shite. That age and history comes into play as the Blackalley plays against a person’s fears, sorrow and loss. This affects Egil very profoundly as the regret over his lost wife and child continually come back to him as the duo progress through the narrative.
A greater depth to the history of Ellerth is laid out, expanding beyond the more local confines in which these tales of Egil and Nix have taken place. With both of these novels, Kemp has done something superbly well – told a complete story in one volume that invites speculation about these characters and world (where they were, where they are going), and hints at things to come.
A Discourse in Steel is a fun thrill-ride that builds on what came before in The Hammer and the Blade, but stands on its own, while teasing things to come. In short, Paul S. Kemp has published another fine sword and sorcery novel. I can’t wait to read the next one, A Conversation in Blood.
Mookie Pearl is hired muscle for The Organization, the Polish mafia in the NY/NJ tri-state area. Not only does he deal in death, and does what needs dMookie Pearl is hired muscle for The Organization, the Polish mafia in the NY/NJ tri-state area. Not only does he deal in death, and does what needs doing on a regular basis, he also partakes in the supernatural underbelly of New York City. This underbelly is populated by gobbos (goblins), undead, and other assorted creatures out of nightmare, role-playing games, and world myth.
Mookie is at the stage in his career in the Organization that he’s gained enough trust and loyalty with the Boss that he can come and go as he pleases and run his side of the Organization as he sees fit. The problem is two-fold – the Boss is on his last legs and a young woman named Persephone is causing a great deal of havoc for the Organization and the Underworld in general. What few people know, actually nobody outside of Mookie’s closest ‘friend’ Werth, is that Persephone is actually Mookie’s daughter Eleanor “Nora” Pearl. As events unfold, The Boss appoints his grandson the heir of the Organization, new ‘partners’ are brought into the fold of the Organization, the Boss’s health takes some strange turns; Mookie is increasingly put in the middle of his loyalty to the Organization and his yearning to make things better with his estranged daughter Nora.
What could be a simple novel takes on an air of gravitas because of Wendig’s subtle yet powerful writing. Giving these totems, places, and people titles like The Underworld, The Boss, and The Organization, Wendig lends them a resonance that gives the story great, almost mythic power. This is further enhanced by the “journal clippings” prefacing each chapter, the journal of a lost, possibly insane and possibly fictitious, cartographer of The Great Below, John Atticus Oakes. Such chapter prefaces often work very well for my reading sensibilities and the fact that I found a resonance of sorts with what Chuck Wendig did here to what Mathew Stover (a favorite writer of mine) did in Blade of Tyshalle only heightened my enjoyment because Wendig did just as an effective job with these lost journal fragments.
Despite the violence and monstrous stakes, Wendig manages to keep a lot of intimacy intact. One of the things Mookie loves, aside from his daughter and The Organization, is eating. Mookie cooks, he has a personal butcher and the food he eats (gwumpki, pierogies) are foods I grew up eating, so I found a level of kinship with Mookie, even if my only other similarity (frankly, I’m not as old as him, not as hulking, nor do I have an estranged daughter) is living in the same NY/NJ corner of the US as does Mookie.
It may be reductive to do the whole combine-and-compare thing, but think one part Hellboy, one part Mathew Stover, one part Big Trouble in Little China, and throw in a dash of The Sopranos, the film The Wrestler and pulp sensibilities, and you might have an idea of what a great stew of fun this novel really is. Although I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Mookie is a killer on the same level of Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski, there’s a similar dichotomy and divide between the family life and the “work life” of the two men. What’s even better is that Wendig seems to only given readers a peek into the world Mookie and his daughter Nora inhabit.
The Blue Blazes is novel/story with a rough, hewn-leather exterior of action and violence with a powerful, emotional core. Emotions that intertwine like love and hate, and emotions that fuel and underlie the motives and actions like regret, sorrow, and fear, and ultimately inform a man with powerful exterior who uses that exterior to often hide his fears and regrets. I found myself not wanting to move on with whatever my daily life required while I was reading The Blue Blazes, work, family activities, etc. The great power of this novel is that I feel like I have to read more of Chuck Wendig’s fiction.
A note on the cover The Blue Blazes, in one word: AMAZING. Not only is Joey HiFi’s image minimally colored and powerful because that fact, the image itself seems to capture so many of the moments in the novel itself. Perfection in a book cover.
In the end, The Blue Blazes is a blast, an awesome, smartly written novel that far exceeds the sum of its parts and transcends those things with which it is similar to be an excellent novel on its own merits. Sure to end up on my favorite reads list at the end of this year.
Monarchies and courts are ever present in Epic Fantasy. At the start of Promise of Blood, Brian McClellan’s debut novel and first installment of The PMonarchies and courts are ever present in Epic Fantasy. At the start of Promise of Blood, Brian McClellan’s debut novel and first installment of The Powder Mage Trilogy, Field Marshal Tamas destroys that notion by charging the king with treason and summarily executing him. The country of Adopest erupts into chaos, primarily the center of the capital where the king is executed. Tamas, though he has allies, has made enemies over the course of his military career and many see his move as a chance for Tamas to rule, which is not what he wants. Growing tension with the Kez, the enemies of Adopest, further fuels the unrest in Adopest. As Tamas struggles to maintain a semblance of calm for his country, he is beset by enemies on many sides, including those he once thought of as friends. Because of threats on his life, Tamas hires a retired investigator named Adamat to track any leads regarding the conspiracy, specifically the people attempting to murder Tamas. Another stressor for Tamas is his son Taniel, who returns without Vlora, the woman he was supposed to marry, much to Tamas’s chagrin since he basically arranged the marriage, because Vlora cheated on Taniel. Tamas is also haunted by the specter of his murdered wife, murdered at the hands of the Kez years prior to the start of the novel.
Clearly, McClellan is weaving several plot threads and characters together in Promise of Blood, because there are more characters than those I’ve already mentioned. One of those characters, is the mute ‘savage’ Ka-Poel and companion to Taniel; another set of characters are those who give Adamat added pressure for his unpaid loans, pressure in the form of threats against Adamat’s family whom he sent away from Adopest just before Tamas’s plans were set into motion. While Tamas is the primary protagonist with his own set of supporting characters, one could also consider his son Taniel secondary protagonist since large portions of the novel not told from Adamat and Tamas’ POV come from Taniel. The Field Marshall’s son is a much more flawed character than his father, he has an addiction to powder, is unwilling to murder a friend despite his father’s orders, holds a great deal of anger towards Vlora and finds himself in a strange relationship with the silent Ka-Poel.
I’ve not mentioned the magic which forms the more unique aspect of this novel and milieu. Just as gunpowder provided a great advancement in war, among other things, powder provides great powers to the Powder Mages who ingest the substance – enhanced sight, control over the bullets they fire, and endurance. Other magic in this world includes manipulation of magical essence, known her as ‘Else’, though this magic is only accessible to one-percenters of McClellan’s world.
With the coup and execution of the novel taking the very early portions of the novel, McCellelan drew me into the novel very strongly and very quickly. The slight change in pace, though not entirely smooth, made for a more relaxed pace that I felt very comfortable reading. The threads follow, primarily, Adamat’s investigations and ducking of the people to whom he owes money, Taniel on the outskirts of Adopest’s borders fighting the Kez, and Tamas’s struggles with the Church to set the nation on a better path. Oh yeah, the gods might be returning to the world and a laundress is watching over the sole heir (though not a direct heir) of the executed king in seclusion. In short, the realistic conflicts of war and civilization are tightly interwoven with prophecies and more fantastical elements.
One god in particular makes a very bombastic return, though his initial appearance as the chef Mihali (essentially a blue-collar working type) counters his supernatural background. Something of Mihali’s gruff demeanor and the overall feel of reading his scenes resonated for me with the great Bayaz of Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy. Continuing the theme of resonance, the relationship between Taniel and Ka-Poel feels very similar to the relationship between Joseph and Nico in Rachel Aaron’s Eli Monpress novels.
While the inventiveness is similar, Brian’s sheer ability to show both positives and negatives of the powder magic is a standout. Though both Tamas and Taniel employ powder in their magic, Taniel has become addicted to the substance; the downside to ingesting the powder. It proves to be a major strain on the already strained relationship between father and son. However, that strain is an ever-present thing, especially for Taniel. He feels his father looks down upon him and has little respect for him, which adds to Taniel’s growing discontent with his father and abuse of the powder – a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy.
If I can level any negative at Promise of Blood it is the imbalance of gender. The three main characters are strong, powerful and flawed men – very well rounded. The sole female whose POV we see, Nila the laundress, is less powered, driven by revenge, threatened with rape, and not entirely empowered. Taniel’s former fiancé is portrayed as promiscuous and the cause of their break-up, though she is respected by Tamas and what we see of her on the page comes across more favorably than the past which occurred prior to the novel’s beginning; Julene, a one-time ally of Tamas and Taniel, is portrayed as power-hungry, selfish, and unwilling to cooperate with her supposed allies, with very little positive light thrust upon her. The most favorable female, Ka-Poel, is mute though she communicates silently with Taniel and is more of a sidekick to the Field Marshal’s son. That said, I suspect as the series progresses, Nila will play a larger, more important role as will Ka-Poel, and I can see a potential redemptive arc for Vlora.
In the end, Promise of Blood is an extremely engaging novel. McClellan hit the right buttons for my Epic Fantasy reading sensibilities, he’s drawn characters who made a powerful mark and whose plight I want to follow over the course of the subsequent novels in the series. The addictive narrative pace, inventive world-building, and gestalt of this novel are impressive.
I want to take some space to speak about the physical aspect of the novel. The maps, the layout, the cover art is perfect and I love the paperstock for the dust jacket. It is clear the people who made this put a great deal of effort and care into it. Orbit has designed some really nice books over the past few years, but even by their high standards, this physical book is really a piece of art in book form.
Overall, I give Promise of Blood a very high recommendation.