Shadowhawk reviews Night Shade Books’ latest debut title.
“An awesome mix of Marvel-style space opera mixed in with lots of magic and a ton of action.” ~The Founding Fields
Well, here we are, my first debut novel review for 2013. Last year is when I truly started reading debut authors and in that respect it was pretty much a damn good year. With Zachary Jernigan’s upcoming novel, 2013 has also started off great, more so since there are several more upcoming debuts that I’m really excited about. These include Brian McClellan’s Promise of Blood, Christian Schoon’s Zenn Scarlett, Evie Manieri’s Blood’s Pride, and Francis Knight’s Fade To Black to name a few.
I’ve often remarked before how Night Shade Books publishes stuff that often break genre conventions and breaks away from the traditional stuff. Angry Robot and Solaris do this plenty as well, apparent in their recent releases and upcoming stuff, a small sampling of which I’ve read already and will be reading in the coming weeks. This is one of the reasons why I usually love reading Night Shade books, because they take me out of my comfort zones and get me to read books that I absolutely would not have read otherwise. Zachary Jernigan’s No Return is one such example.
No Return is a novel about identity, religion, and companionship. With these three elements, Zachary mixes in high doses of magic, gods, one-on-one combat, and Marvel-style gods. I’ve been asked before why I use the phrase “Marvel-style gods” when describing the book. The reason for that is that both the prologue and the epilogue for the novel evoke that very style and atmosphere with the writing. Both the prologue and the epilogue are, for the most part, told from the perspective of the world Jeroun’s sole god, Adrash. The way Zachary writes him, and the situations he shows the god in, I couldn’t help but be put in mind of Thor, especially the Thor from Jason Aaron’s current run on Thor: God of Thunder. Since I’m really enjoying that series, this was all great. I was immediately hooked and I loved all the scenes in the book that involved Adrash. Adrash is like this weird mix of Galactus and Thor in personality, and that’s my highest compliment to those sections of the book, since both these characters are my favourites in the Marvel universe.
The meat of the book is told from a variety of mortal perspectives: the Anadrashi warrior Vedas, the mercenary Churls, the android-ish robot Berun, and the two mages Pol and Ebn. Each of these characters brings something very unique to the narrative.
Vedas is a dedicated soldier for one of the Black Suit orders who consider the god Adrash to be their enemy. Vedas’ scenes present the story of a man caught in between a rock and a hard place, someone who has to fight against events to retain his personal freedom and become the man he wants to be, rather than someone else calling the shots. Churls, as a possible romantic interest for Vedas, is just as good. Watching the two of them interact is like watching a Lois Lane/Serena Kyle hybrid interacting with Silver Surfer, a weird combination I know, but the most apt that I can think of, to be honest. Both Churls and Vedas complement each other perfectly and the tensions between them are brought out really well.
Berun is, at best, a conundrum. Some of his early scenes, including flashbacks of the man who created him, are quite confusing and bear re-reading, but over the course of the narrative, a lot of things become clear, and Berun develops rather nicely. He is a very unique character, both in his experiences, and in his nature, setting him apart from the other popular androids and robots in SFF. I’d even hazard a guess that one android and his back-story in particular have had quite an inspiration on Berun’s own character, said android being Data from Star Trek. At least, that’s how it comes across as. And it is in no way a bad thing. Berun’s experiences and the decisions he makes give him a personality of his own so that he never comes across as a simple derivative of what has come before, far from it.(less)
Shadowhawk reviews Katy Stauber’s latest novel, a space opera reimagining of one of the most classical tales in human history.
“Stunningly smart and deceptively unique, Spin The Sky is a new classic for modern times.” ~The Founding Fields
I have always been fascinated with Greek mythology, whether it had to do with the demi-god heroes like Hercules or Achilles, or the gods themselves like Dionysus and Apollo. More than any other, Greek mythology is the most fascinating subject I’ve ever delved into. This is why I loved the Kevin Sorbo-starrer show Hercules, the Lucy Lawless-starrer Xena, and various other inspirations of that source material such as the original Clash of the Titans and Percy Jackson. Of course, the new Clash of Titans and Immortals are just plain terrible, revoltingly so. Hence why a GOOD adaptation of the Greek myths is something I’m always on the lookout for.
Katy Stauber takes one of the oldest myths, the epic poem The Odyssey, and brings it forward into the near future as a space opera. The inspiration isn’t so clear at first, but once you read that the main protagonist’s wife is named Penelope who is being courted by several prominent spacers, that he is returning from a great war after more than a decade, and that he has adventures involving Charybdis and Scylla, it is all readily apparent. Spin The Sky is not a straight adaptation of that source material however, and Stauber weaves a narrative that gets deliciously complex as it progresses.
The hero of Stauber’s reimagining isn’t Odysseus, but Cesar Vaquero, the man who ended the great Spacer War by wiping most of Mexico off the map. He is the kind of hero that even his allies are wary of him, some of them even desiring his death for “stealing the limelight” from them. Cesar Vaquero is the kind of character with whom you can spend a casual relaxed evening having drinks and trading war stories. He is a disarmingly straight-forward conversationalist, a former ranch hand who joined the great war to protect his family, and has become notorious for his actions. He inspires fierce loyalty in his friends and the people under his command, in a way that most heroes do: its instinctual, inherent in their character, something that cannot really be put into any words. In the first few pages of the novel, Cesar is shown as a capable ship captain who cares about his shipmates and will go to any lengths to protect them. That quickly transforms to show us a more personal side of him, when he returns to his home orbital colony, Ithaca, intending to reunite with his family.
The novel is not laid out in the traditional sense, that is, it is not a straightforward third person or first person narrative. Cesar’s son Trevor has set out to gather stories about his father, who has been absent all his life. He wants to know who his father is, what his friends, his men, and others think of him. As such, a majority of the chapters are told from the the view points of these people. This alternates with chapters from the perspectives of both Cesar and Penelope, giving the whole concept a very comprehensive and cohesive feel. This approach allows Stauber to really explore her characters, to give them a depth that otherwise would not have been so readily apparent.
For me, it turned Cesar into a character I got to be friends with. Yes, Cesar is a mass murderer, but so is any soldier in a war. Him dropping a tactical nuke on Mexico was a pre-emptive strike against the military might of the nations of Earth, to put them off the offensive and keep his home orbital safe, to keep his family safe. Cesar is unrepentant about his actions as well, he doesn’t get all angsty and self-loathing about what he did, what he had to do in those times. For him, it was a question of kill or be killed, the rest of the system be damned. That added more of a dimension to him. I did not have to worry about a protagonist who wallowed in self-pity. Stauber gives him dialogue that is witty and charming, adding more to his personality and the “myths” about him. His adventures since the end of the war bear that out all the time.(less)
Shadowhawk reviews the sequel to Nathan Long’s Jane Carver of Waar, which he called “a perfect novel”.
“I had thought that it would be next to impossible to top the awesomeness that was Jane Carver of Waar. Nathan Long fortunately proves me quite wrong on that account for Swords of Waar is even better than its predecessor!” ~The Founding Fields
When I read Jane Carver of Waar back in March, the novel proved to be an experience that I hadn’t quite had until that point, at least this year. It was funny, it was serious, it had great characters, some over-the-top sequences that were written extremely well, a protagonist who was as “good” as you can get, a large political conspiracy, lots of adult humour, and so on. Packing all that into a little package like Jane Carver of Waar was what defined the novel for me and showed me that if I thought Nathan Long was a great tie-in fiction writer, he was an even better one when it came to original fiction. As a reader, I had so much fun with the novel, that when I reviewed it, I gave it that perfect 10/10 score, which I hadn’t to any book until that point. In almost ten and a half months of reading some truly amazing novels, Jane Carver still stands out as one of the best, right at the top of the food chain, which is saying something, if you’ve been following my reviews all through this year. Inevitably, I had some really high expectations of the sequel, Swords of Waar, and I kept hoping that Nathan would duplicate the success of the first novel.
In that respect, Swords of Waar definitely threw me for a curveball, and I came away from it amazed. I’ll admit, I had an extremely fanboy mindset going into the novel, and I came away from it an even bigger fan of Nathan’s work. I often remark that I’m a fairly easy sell and that I am generally disposed to thinking quite favourably of what I read, but when I started reading Swords of Waar, I went in with a very critical eye. Those expectations had to be met after all.
When the novel begins, it finds Jane back on Earth, after she was sent back against her will, presumably by the priests of Waar. For the first act, we see a very different Jane than we did in Jane Carver of Waar. She is morose, depressed, regretful, and generally miserable. Even though I was prepared for something like this, it still struck me on an emotional level that Nathan managed to capture those emotions and her feelings so well. It got to the point that if I could reach out and give her a hug, I would. He takes her to the very depths of her depression, to the point where she will do anything, absolutely anything to go back to Waar and live the rest of her life with Lhan, the nobleman of Waar with whom she fell in love with by the end of the first book and who she was with when the priests came.
Nathan doesn’t dwell overlong on her misery however, and she is soon back on Waar, after a string of circumstances that will leave the reader grinning because of Nathan’s tongue-in-cheek solution to the problem. If you loved Edgar Rice Burroughs’ novels, then I think you will definitely appreciate the irony of those scenes.
But things aren’t as smooth back on Waar as Jane had thought. She comes back in the most unlikeliest of places, the grand church of the priests of the Seven in the Oran capital itself. And the priests are most definitely not happy to see that the “she-demon” is back, and with a vengeance to boot. From there, the narrative is all about Jane and Lhan discovering the deepest and darkest secrets of the church, foiling assasinations, organising religious rebellions. As Richard Dean Anderson’s Colonel Jack O’Neill would say, “its all about sticking to the man and doing the right thing”. Incidentally, I can totally see Jane saying something like that since Nathan fills the narrative by several one-liners where Jane references pop culture and the like.
For the entirety of Swords of Waar, Jane is a very different woman. Her experiences on Waar have changed her, and although Oran society is backwards in many ways, such as slavery and misogyny, she couldn’t be happier anywhere else as long as she has Lhan with her. The romance between the two of them is quite stormy, with ample disagreements since Jane is capable of physical feats the likes of which Lhan can, at best, only dream about. He may be a better swordsman and be well-versed in Oran culture, but she has raw power on her side, and an ingenuity the likes of which no Oran can match. In that respect, they make for a great complementary couple, so different from each other, and yet so similar.(less)
Among the bloggers that I follow, there is a general sentiment around that a high percentage of the novels published by Night Shade push genre boundaries and take bold chances that are often trend-setters. Now, most of these bloggers have been avidly reading novels with an eye to being critical for far longer than I have, so they have a much broader scope of experience that dictates this particular opinion. I’ve only been reading as a reviewer for a little over a year, and reading Night Shade Books for about 60% of that time. From my own limited experience (so far), I would have to agree that Night Shade’s novels often do things that you wouldn’t normally find from some of the big publishers. I’ve mentioned two novels up above, two of my favourite Night Shade books. There’s also Kameron Hurley’s God’s War, and Jeff Salyards’ Scourge of the Betrayer, Courtney Schafer’s The Whitefire Crossing, Stina Leicht’s Of Blood And Honey and Katy Stauber’s Spin The Sky. These are all novels that have gone beyond what my expectations, although only one of them disappointed me, God’s War, and I had to stop in the middle. The interconnecting link between all these novels is that they are not just science fiction or fantasy, or whatever genre/sub-genre you want to lump them into. They take some really bold chances, and they present settings that are very different from what you will find in mainstream SFF publishing. E. J. Swift’s Osiris continues that trend.
It is a novel that is not just a post-apocalyptic dystopia. It raises questions about life in a world that has suffered massive global climate changes, and pairs that against an almost commentary on social and political differences in the last remaining (ostensibly) bastion of human civilisation. Adelaide and Vikram could not be any more different from each other than they are, one the daughter of a ruling family of this last remaining human city, and the other a rebel working to improve the life of his fellow poor and disenfranchised. The boundaries that separate them are very reiminiscent of what the boundaries that separated East and West Germany after the Second World War. And that is just one of the imageries that Swift conjures up with her narrative. Osiris is not just a novel about rich versus the poor, it is also about breaking social barriers and being willing to make changes that will resonate down the generations. It presents both sides of the “conflict” very well with characters that are nuanced and compelling. For me, the characters and the setting of the novel were the highlights.
But, the novel also had some glaring pacing issues. The perspective switches between Vikram and Adelaide after often disorienting at first before the chapters pick up, rather quickly at times, and rather slow at others. The first thirty-forty pages of the novel are also a downright slog to get through as there is quite a bit of information provided to the reader, and a prologue that is very disorienting, and which doesn’t actually make much sense until right towards the end of the novel.(less)
Shadowhawk reviews a brand new debut title from Solaris Books, an urban fantasy about angels and demons.
“Blood and Feathers stands out proudly in a year full of stellar debuts.”~The Founding Fields
Lou Morgan is another writer I’ve discovered through Twitter this year and have interacted a fair bit with on numerous topics, as befits the informality of that social medium. I’ve had a pretty good experience overall with all such authors and truthfully Lou is another one for the list of authors I’m keeping, authors that folks should really watch out for. Its so surprising really when I sit down to think about it. I’ve never read so much in a single year, nor so widely either and I’m quite happy that my experiment with genre reading outside of mainstream SFF has been so successful. Alongwith Chris F. Holm’s The Collector novels, Lou’s Blood and Feathers is another novel that has given me an appreciation for urban fantasy, particularly in the sub-genre that deals with angels and demons.
Honestly, the cover wasn’t all that interesting to me, just like with Chris’ novels, which is kind of a weird comparison to draw between them but is probably just a hint of how good the novel is, all things considering. I don’t actually read a lot of reviews from the reviewers I follow on social media, but praise for authors is something that is prevalent enough that sooner or later you do get around to hearing of. Which was the case with Blood and Feathers as well so I thought why not, let’s try it.
Like I said, this is another novel about angels and demons, the third I’ve read so far this year. But it is still pretty refreshing in scope since it takes a very different approach to these characters than I’ve come across before. There are no clear good guys and bad guys here, just a bit morally gray since even the Angels are hardcases who often only care about the bottom-line. The demons (or the Fallen rather)are evil but there are ample hints that not all of them are actually that bad really. Interesting juxtapositions which set the book apart from others in the same category of novels.
The characterisation is pretty excellent where the protagonist, Alice, and her angelic companions Mallory, Vin and Gwyn. The chemistry between all of them is electric, tortured, and deeply personal. Alice is a normal twenty-something girl who gets caught up in events beyond her comprehension, events where angels and the Fallen are actually real and inhabit the same world as the people around her. She is thrust into a role as a half-angel who has great intrinsic value to both sides of the religious conflict going on since the earliest days of Christianity. Lou captures Alice’s fears, her crushed hopes for herself, and her new dreams so well that you feel as if you are right there in her head. That’s a rare thing for a debut author to get right but Lou succeeds here aplenty. Alice really is a fantastic character to read about, very memorable and endearing. She reminds me of Lyra from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, although she is a far bit older.
Mallory and Vin are both Earthbound angels who are being “punished” by their superiors for committing some transgression or the other. Its somewhat like probation, “release” pending on good behaviour. With this, Lou explores the complex angelic hierarchy of Archangel, Descended angel and Earthbound angel, contrasted against the various Fallen who call Hell home. And there are also halfbloods like Alice who are mentored by the Earthbound for acceptance into the ranks of Heaven’s armies, or, should they fall as well, into Hell’s armies. Mallory is definitely the standout character in the novel, more so than Alice. He is cynical, honest to a fault, often drunk, and with a bad case of living hygiene. None of which comes to mind when I think “angel”. But then that’s what Lou does, she breaks down preconceptions and creates an open sandbox where she can challenge those preconceptions and do something different with them. Characters like Mallory and Vin often talk about this, referring to themselves as angels who don’t sit around on clouds playing harps and such. Some delightful world-building and mythos here.(less)
Shadowhawk reviews another Nightshade Books debut title, a military fantasy written by new man on the block, Jeff Salyards.
“If ever you want to read something totally outside of the box, Jeff Salyards’ debut should be your first stop.” ~The Founding Fields
I keep going on and on about reading different types of books than what I’m used to and how this year has been a stellar one for that. Thing is that when I set that objective for myself, I had envisioned simply that I would be reading outside of my comfortable genres: epic fantasy and science fiction of the space opera/cosmic variety. I had never even considered straying outside of the comfort zone and reading something that is structurally very different to anything else I’ve read. As with any of the other authors I dabbled with based on my interactions with them/observations on Twitter, I was drawn to Scourge of the Betrayer because of the premise. It reminded of this one particular Dragonlance novel, the name escapes me at the moment, which dealt extensively with a potential assistant scribe to the gods-appointed scribe of Krynn, Astinos I believe he was called. That was an enchanting story and I expected something similar with Jeff’s novel.
Its been about a week since I finished the book and I’m still uncertain of where I stand in respect to the novel. There are some elements that I really liked, and some that I didn’t. Some things that seemed rather refreshing and some that felt like they were nothing more than old and tired concepts. I had a rough time during the reading itself as I kept stopping every 20-30 pages to retrack and clear up one confusion or another. The stilted (?) experience certainly didn’t help me like it.
Scourge of the Betrayer is about a scribe who is hired by a band of fierce soldiers to record their every deed as they go into a foreign nation on some hidden agenda. For those who’ve been following my reviews for a good while, you can no doubt see the attraction of that premise for me. Scribe + soldiers + politics = different = interesting. That’s how I started on that novel and how I expected things to continue. Plus, its Nightshade Books and they haven’t steered me wrong yet, other than Kameron Hurley’s God’s War which I had to stop reading ~45 pages in because I was completely lost in a maze where I understood absolutely nothing. Scourge was nothing like that, but it was no Miserere or The Whitefire Crossing or Jane Carver of Waar either. Not by a long shot.
The one thing that turned me off more than anything else about the novel was that prose was so dry and without any flourishes of any sort. I was not expecting that at all. I wouldn’t really say that the prose is bland, because its not, but neither does it excite me enough to get lost in the narrative and just roll with things. Looking back on it, I wonder if that reflects on our point of view – the scribe Arkamondos, who is an ordinary man by all means and is about as average as they come, outside of his job title. Does the prose suit him or he the prose? Not a question I’ve been able to answer myself. The writing is concise, it is tight, and rarely if ever does it go off any kind of tangents, but that vital spark just wasn’t there. I almost gave up on the book several times because of this, making this novel one of the most frustrating reads for me ever.
The characterisation also confused me a lot of times. Jeff has gone for a bold approach in crafting a story that is a character study of two different men: Arkamondos and the Syldoonian Captain Braylar Killcoin. Given that this is a first person narrative from the point of view of the former, we spend the entire time in his head and seeing the latter through his eyes. It coloured my perceptions about Killcoin and made for an uncomfortable read since I desperately wanted to get inside his head. Arkamondos is one of those characters who are caught in events outside of their control and are platforms through which the author explores these events. I liked that a lot actually, but the truth is that I couldn’t bring myself to become truly invested in his character. I am hardpressed to pinpoint if there was a character growth arc for him other than the usual “acceptance” approach. He could have been treated a fair bit better I think.
Where Killcoin is concerned, he was a frustrating character since he seemed to move between badass-dangerous Syldoonian warrior and the smooth talker with a trick up his sleeve too comfortably. Given some revelations in the second half and in the end about why he is doing what he is doing, I suppose that fits, but it is not an approach that worked for me. I loved his badass parts, but the smooth scenes jarred too much for me to take Killcoin seriously. Which is a downright shame since I really enjoyed his particular arc. The revelations were very surprising, just as they should have been and Jeff shocks me aplenty with them as they come in one by one.(less)
Shadohawk reviews the first novel in the Katharoi series, Miserere: An Autumn Tale, by debut author Teresa Frohock, published by Nightshade Books.
"Mis...moreShadohawk reviews the first novel in the Katharoi series, Miserere: An Autumn Tale, by debut author Teresa Frohock, published by Nightshade Books.
"Miserere has what I can only call a dark vitality to it. It is going to hook you in with the very first pages and draw you into a world of religious mysticism and the occult that is extremely original and endearing." ~The Founding Fields
Twitter is great. It really is. I've met loads of authors through it this year and I have read some of their books, with more yet to come, and its been fantastic. Just like with Michael J. Sullivan's Riyria Revelations, Teresa Frohock's Miserere is one of the defining fantasy novels that I've read so far in 2012. The charm of the novel isn't that its just fantasy with a dark twist to it. The real charm is that it blends the fantasy world, and our own world, and then the concepts of Heaven and Hell together so seamlessly. I'd like to say that I'm not easily impressed so I can convey how awesome this novel was, but the fact is that I am easily impressed in the main. And yet, Miserere is a singular novel, one that serves as a fantastic start to a brand new fantasy trilogy by a highly talented debut author (not debut anymore of course since the novel was published a little shy of 11 months ago).
The characterisation in the novel is inspiring. Each character, whether major or minor, gets ample time to live his/her mark on the narrative. They are characters who really make you feel a range of emotions: love, sympathy, hate, disgust. Each of them is also deeply flawed, because the Woerld (as Teresa's world is known) is not a place where there is a divide between good and evil. Not quite. The entire atmosphere of the narrative lends itself strongly to the feel of the Warhammer Fantasy novels. The good guys are often as bad as the villains in what they do. And I really liked that aspect of Miserere.
Lucian, the male protagonist, is someone that I came to sympathise with very early on. Unwittingly coerced by his sister into betraying everything and everyone he once held dear, he is now her prisoner in a distant city. While Catarina makes pacts with dark powers and allies herself with traitors and rebels, Lucian struggles to find meaning in his life. Miserere is very much his journey of redemption. Often conflicted between his love for his sister and the oaths he broke, he is a tragic character who would not be out of place in a Shakespearean play. Teresa has conveyed his dark moods, his convictions, his passions and his thirst for redemption very well. You really connect with the character and just have to be rooting for him whenever things look like they are about to flip out on him.
You can find the rest of the review on The Founding Fields:
As most people who follow my reviews know, I rarely do negative reviews. Part of it is my experience with doing negative reviews, and another is that I consider myself to be somewhat easy to impress (more on all that here). Another part is that I do negative reviews when I feel strongly about the work in question. If a book, for me, is bad, then that means that I consider it to be pretty terrible. Especially when I have some high expectations of it. One such novel was The Emperor’s Knife, the 2011 debut by Mazarkis Williams. Now, I read the novel way back early in the year and this review is somewhat from memory, so if I get details wrong, I do apologize.
The Emperors Knife
Mazarkis Williams is one of those authors that I found out about through Twitter, much as with a LOT of other authors I’ve read this year. His novel promised a lot, being of a middle-eastern bent with regards to the primary culture, and since it is about assassins, hooded assassins at that. I like assassins, thieves, and the kind in fantasy, although I think that they are becoming too much of a staple these days. Still, I was excited to be reading this novel. Sadly, my expectations were never satisfied. Reading this novel left me, honestly, cold. My reaction was a massive disappointment with what had been done.
It’s significant to mention here that I broke my 60-page rule with this novel. Generally, if I’m having trouble with a novel, it has no more than 60-pages to get me over the hurdle and keep my interest. The Emperor’s Knife did not do that. I kept going on, waiting for that moment where the novel would finally start working for me. That point never came. I read the entire novel since I had kind of talked a lot about getting to it on Twitter and I felt some sort of commitment to seeing it through to the end.
Thing is, the novel feels to be very much by the numbers. Prince Sarmin, a male protagonist who is a royal, but has been kept “hidden” from the outside world by his brother who rules the empire. Mesema, a female protagonist from a tribal clan who is very independent and is being sent off to marry the king’s brother (or the king himself, it is never exactly clear). Eyul, an old assassin in royal employ who murdered the male protagonist’s siblings, keeping only him and the older brother alive. The assassin happens to be getting tired of his job. There is an “evil” uncle/advisor who wants the throne for himself. The boys’ mother is also involved in the plotting. There’s a sickness going around the empire, one that threatens the stability of the empire since even the king is infected!
There is so much potential here, so many interesting concepts. But it all fell flat for me. The narrative drags out interminably, making for a really tough read. The motivations for the characters are rarely clear and some of the flip-flops left me shaking my head, confused at what had just happened. The whole angst that Sarmin and Mesema feel throughout was also over-done, I had trouble taking either of them seriously, not until the final quarter of the novel at least, after which they became somewhat bearable! The disease, referred to as the Pattern, was a huge WTF for me. It’s a tattoo-ish mark that appears on the skin and then either the person dies or becomes some sort of an overcharged zombie-killing machine. And for a character who is featured on the cover, Eyul got a lot less coverage than any of the other characters. Saving grace was that he was the only character I could get behind at all. Now, if only he had much more of an agency, and a more proactive narrative role!
Then there’s the whole middle-eastern influence. I know that as someone who has lived in Dubai for the last 12 years, I should be able to comment on this with some authority, but I honestly can’t. People say that the novel has a very Persian feel to it. I didn’t get any of that. The characters don’t come across as Persian/Iranian to me, although I know very little of either culture to be confident in that statement. I was expecting something Aladdin-esque in that I’m not referring to the Disney version, but to the Arabian Nights version. Do take that whole statement with a slight pinch of salt.
In short, this was one of the most disappointing books I read this year, especially when measured against the expectations I had of it.
Shadowhawk reviews Courtney Schafer’s 2011 debut novel, the first in the Shattered Sigil adventure fantasy series.
“If I could give out an actual award for best novel of the year,The Whitefire Crossing would be at the top of the list as one of the strongest contenders.” ~The Founding Fields
From all the reading I’ve done so far this year, one thing has become very clear to me: epic fantasy is no longer the big hulking juggernaut it once was. To be specific, epic fantasy that is defined by stories where you have elves, dragons, dwarves, goblins, trolls, orcs and so on, in the vein of the Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Warhammer Fantasy, Lord of the Rings and so on. Don’t get me wrong, these books are still very popular and a big part of the market, but from my own experience, these big sprawling settings are facing some stiff challenges from other subgenres of fantasy: urban, parnormal, historical and others. And even when you get novels (or series) that are “mainstream” fantasy, the focus is quite often on human worlds with only the bare minimum of the fantastical creatures and races that once dominated the genre. Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations novels are a good example of this.
And joining the growing trend is what author Courtney Schafer has termed “adventure fantasy”, a fantasy story where it is all about the adventures that the characters go through, the journey itself, rather than the grandiosity of the beginning and the end. Now, you might be wondering just what it is that makes adventure fantasy different from other fantasy subgenres, or more specifically, how is adventure fantasy any different from epic fantasy (examples above). Remember that scene from Fellowship of the Ring where the Fellowship is crossing the Misty Mountains (aka the Redhorn Pass, or the Caradhras Peak) but are forced to turn back because of the intense snow storm stirred on by Saruman? Take that entire scene sequence and imagine a novel where half the story is crossing those mountains as part of a caravan and with the possibility of the most powerful (and nastiest) mages hunting you down. That’s what The Whitefire Crossing is about, an adventure through the Whitefire mountains along the most treacherous of routes.
To me, the term adventure fantasy constitutes a very specific imagery although there is a lot of overlap between it and epic/mainstream fantasy. Michael J. Sullivan’s Emerald Storm and Alex Bledsoe’s Wake of the Bloody Angel and Cassandra R. Clarke’s The Assassin’s Curse can all be considered to be adventure fantasy novels, as well as being “nautical fantasies” in that they all deal with pirate ships and adventures on the high seas. So, not an exclusive genre by any means but one that does have its place in what the current trends are. It fits right in and for me, the whole adventure part of the first half of The Whitefire Crossing was what drew me in and hooked me.
There are two principal characters in the novel, with backgrounds that are very different from each other, although in the end there are some similarities between them. Dev is a smuggler, a former street-urchin who was also a thief and could manipulate magic, the kind known as Taint. Kiran on the other hand is a noble, by virtue of his status as a mage in a city run by mages, Ninavel. When a new trade season starts between Ninavel and the neighbouring Alathian city of Kost, Dev finds out from his “employer” that apart from the usual shipment of special items he needs to smuggle across the border he also has to get a young man, Kiran, into Kost. Dev can’t resist the pay on offer since he has recently fallen on hard times and needs a lot of money to keep a promise to an old (dead) friend. What he doesn’t know however is that Kiran is a mage and the Alathians don’t take kindly to rogue mages, especially those who smuggle themselves into their cities. This sets the stage for a really delightful story of how two young men from vastly different backgrounds come together under the harshest of circumstances and become comrades, if not friends.
I really liked how the author portrayed these two individuals. There is a lot of attention to detail that has gone into them to make them realistic, to make them characters that the reader can identify with and who they’d like to be. Dev is competent smuggler and a mountain-climber who knows his way around mountains and city guards and less-than-reputable people. Kiran is an uncertain, frightened man who wants to escape his past and a dreadful future of servitude. For me, what separates the greatest compelling characters from the average compelling characters is not when the author portrays them as strong and confident, but also plays up their fears and exposes their darkest secrets. I don’t want to see just the strongest traits of a character, but also their deepest flaws. I want to see them fight against their own nature and win through, based on the good qualities that define them.(less)
Shadowhawk reviews Nathan Long’s latest action-adventure novel, Jane Carver of Waar, published by Nightshade Books.
“A thrilling and fast-paced pulp, action-adventure novel, Jane Carver of Waar proves that Nathan Long can write original fiction as awesome as his tie-in fiction.” ~ The Founding Fields
If you’ve read my reviews of Nathan’s Ulrika tie-in novels for Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy setting (here and here) then you’ll know that I am a big fan of Nathan’s work. Even the one Gotrek & Felix novel of his that I’ve previously read, Orcslayer, impressed me quite a bit, and of course, there’s one of my all-time favourites, the Blackhearts Omnibus. I am also currently reading the Gotrek & Felix anthology, and Nathan has two stories in there, the novella Slayer’s Honour and the short story The Two Crowns of Ras Karim. Have only read the first of those so far though, but I loved it. Definitely recommended!
Anyways, as I was saying, I really like Nathan’s work. Part of the appeal is that he writes very engrossing characters that you just HAVE to root for no matter what, his pacing is excellent and he keeps the reader entertained throughout the narrative. In essence, he writes fantastic tie-in fiction and I love his work. For me, he is definitely one of the best writers for Black Library period.
So it was with great excitement that I finally picked up his first foray into original fiction, courtesy of Commissar Ploss who arranged things. Jane Carver of Waar, is a novel that is very much inspired by Edgar Rice Burrough’s excellent John Carter novels, with the big difference being that the protagonist is a former Airborne Ranger and now biker chick rather than a former Confederate cavalryman. And the action doesn’t take place on our next-door neighbour, the Red Planet, but rather than a world far, far away, Waar.
Verdict: If Jane Carver doesn’t win an award or two this year, I’ll be sorely disappointed. The reason being that it is bloody brilliant!
It is all quite simple really. One of the absolute best novels I’ve read so far this year, and just like ever, is Rob Sanders’ seminal Warhammer 40,000 novel Legion of the Damned. Similar to that, Jane Carver just breathes excellence from page to page throughout the course of the narrative and once it takes a hold of you in the very first few pages, it refuses to let you go. Not that you want to put it down you know. Its just one of those novels that you’ll just naturally want to burn through, turning page after page to read what is going to happen next. I finished the novel in two long sittings myself.
Its quite rare to read a novel like that. Some novels do this naturally. With some others you have to kinda force yourself to get through. The former always end up being great novels in the end while with the latter it is more hit and miss but fortunately, I have had far more hits than misses. Jane Carver falls in the former category.
The charm of Nathan’s work is that it is itself written very naturally. Events flow from one to the other smoothly and without hiccups. The characters all talk as they should, especially Jane herself who often swears like a sailor, leaving her new companions confounded a lot of the time. This is trademark Nathan Long style. His novels all have this quality of being easy reads because his prose is always so simple and direct, yet punchy.
The pacing is also excellent. There are highs and there are lows, with the narrative progressing at its own pace that is dictated naturally by the characters and the events around them. I never got the feeling while reading the novel that events were being forced or that there was any kind of improper impatience in the characters to get from A to B while taking detours through C, D, and E. If anything, the pacing hearkens back to how Nathan wrote the Blackhearts Omnibus, where the characters got ample time to grow and develop
Speaking of characters, Jane is a character that I can totally fall in love with. She is sexy, spunky, original, tough-as-nails, adapts quickly to changing events, doesn’t take crap from anybody (at least not without a good reason), swears a lot and can dish out far more than she gets. In fact, for me she is a perfect heroine. I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I didn’t have a crush on her either. She just inspire that. She reminds me a lot of Rachel from the Animorphs novels by Katherine A. Applegate (a series of short YA novels). Rachel is a teenager compared to Jane but they have a lot of things in similar, one of those being that they are both tough chicks in a highly dangerous and misogynistic world and they don’t let people talk down to them.
All things considered, Jane has totally skyrocketed up the list to become my favourite female science-fiction character ever.
The others, Sai-Far, Lhan-Lar , Wen-Jhai and all the rest are also very endearing, particularly the first three. They all show a fair amount of character growth throughout the course of the narrative and as the closest companions to Jane herself, they also are the perfect window for her to look in at the cultures and societies on Waar. As the one who has to go through a literal trial-by-combat to win back his stolen love, Wen-Jhai, Sai is a character that I connected with instantly. He is almost always the underdog in the narrative but there is a quiet, unassuming strength to him that is very appealing. I can’t say the same for Lhan, who took some getting used to, but I consider him to be a fairly original character. His only motivation throughout is to help his friends no matter what, and that’s really all there is to him. He is one of those characters who walk in the shadow of others but still shine brightly. Wen-Jhai is I think one of the most excellent female side-characters ever. As a sort-of jilted lover, she definitely doesn’t beat the bush when it comes to showing her disapproval and she is quite spunky herself. Far more than Jane herself even I’d say, based on certain scenes. If Jane had been any less dominant as the protagonist of the novel, Wen-Jhai would certainly have outshone her.
It speaks of Nathan’s great skills with characterisation that his main characters are all strong ones in their motivations and all. Coming off the Ulrika novels and the Blackhearts Omnibus, this was always one of my expectations and Nathan met those expectations true to form.
One of the other charms of the novel is that it has a strong adult theme throughout. The Oran society on Waar is quite an open society in that regard, very reminiscent of Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts’ Empire novels featuring the Empire of Tsuranuanni. Quite a mouthful I know. if you think about it, it is sort of a cliche when showing exotic, alien cultures in SF/F settings, but Nathan carries it all along very well. This is part of what makes the novel enjoyable because Jane is always complaining about it in one form or another and is the source of no small amount of frustrations for her. This little detail is also quite relevant to the narrative itself as an important sub-plot involving Jane and her two companions – Sai and Lhan, two natives of Waar who belong to the Oran society, the dominant culture on the planet.(less)