Revenant Winds is the first book a new series by Mitchell Hogan, and having been curious about the author’s work for a long time, I leapt at the chance to check it out. After hearing the accolades for his Sorcerer’s Ascendant Sequence, I had very high hopes for this novel and I was also drawn to the promise of an epic fantasy that dabbles in ancient demons and curses, unlikely heroes, and secret cabals.
Long ago in the world of this novel, demons roamed wild, menacing the populations that once eked out an existence in this harsh, cruel place. The lore contains tales of devastating cataclysms that scoured the land, leaving mysterious ruins full of treasures and secrets. Now much of the history is forgotten, and accounts of demonic creatures and ancient beings of the elder races have entered into myth. Sorcery is not completely understood, and those who possess magic are either said to be gifted by the gods or cursed by them. When an individual comes into his or her talent though, they are often bound into a covenant with one of the many religions, with the different groups all locked in a constant struggle against each other for dominance.
True to form, our story features many characters, but the three that receives the most attention are Aldric, a priest who possesses the magical power of healing; Niklaus, an expert swordsman and mercenary; and Kurio, a former noble daughter turned master thief. Their three disparate lives converge as Niklaus, enslaved to his goddess the Lady Sylva Kalisia, is on a mission to become a god himself so he can serve by her side forever. Meanwhile, Kurio has stumbled upon something she shouldn’t have during her latest heist job, landing her in a deadly situation that she can scarcely comprehend. And finally, a devout follower of his god who is nonetheless shunned by most of his church because of his sorcery, Aldric is given a special assignment that will bring them all together in a confrontation against an emergent evil long thought defeated.
I’ll admit, it took me a while to get into Revenant Winds, because to me the plot did not pick up until about halfway through when the quest-driven part of the story truly started. Later, I learned that apparently this is par for the course when it comes to Mitchell Hogan’s novels, in that they mostly tend to begin as slow-burners until the momentum kicks in and then builds rapidly. Had I know this, my experience might have been a little different, but some patience is definitely required for the first half in which was mostly taken up by character development and establishing a background for the main story. There’s more of this than you generally find, even in a genre known for lengthy page counts and long intros, though on the upside, readers get to start off on the right foot with a good handle on the world and our key players once the real adventure starts.
More good news is that the second half of the novel makes up for any pacing issues in the first half. Once the main conflict was revealed, things moved fast! It’s almost enough to make me forget about the rough start, as Aldric, Niklaus and Kurio are joined by others, filling in the rest of this fascinating cast. Sorcerous rivalries, daring escapes, and heart-pounding battles against monsters can all be found in this exciting section leading up to the stunning climax and conclusion. There’s also passion amidst the violence as characters form bonds loyalty and love as they travel together, though of course the threat of betrayal is ever present. When you realize that no one is truly safe, that’s when all the character development in the first half of the book makes sense—Hogan has drawn you deep into his tale so now that you are whole-heartedly invested in the people involved, and every single loss feels like a punch in the gut. Furthermore, when he starts writing the action, that’s when his prose really shines, painting the scene with dark designs and gritty detail.
Overall, despite the slow start, I grew to enjoy the epic journey that was Revenant Winds and I’m very happy with my first experience with Mitchell Hogan’s work. While the story took some time to get established, in the end the patience invested was worth it, and I’m looking forward to the continuation of the series.
Audiobook Comments: Fantasy fiction and audiobook fans will probably be familiar with Oliver Wyman, with the impressive number of audiobook narration credits he has under his belt. He rocked the reading of Revenant Winds, as I expected he would, and did a great job brining the story and the characters to life. He has a good voice for this genre, perfectly conveying the mood and atmosphere of an epic fantasy....more
I love reading fantasy, I love reading science fiction, and occasionally I’ll even be in the mood for a bit of both at once. Is it any wonder then that The Nine hooked me on page one? Defying genre traditions and labels, Tracy Townsend’s debut is a fresh and bold novel that marches to the beat of its own drum, delighting me at every turn. By blending together a number of speculative elements, the author has created something that’s altogether different and new.
Taking place in an alternate universe in which science has become a religion and God is seen as the great Experimenter, The Nine involves a magical self-scribing book which lists the nine people whose actions will determine the fate of world. It’s the mother of all experiments, and needless to say, there are various factions who will go to great lengths to affects its outcome. Caught up in this epic struggle is a thirteen-year-old girl named Rowena Downshire, who works as a black market courier in the hopes of one day freeing her mother from debtor’s prison. One day, her employer Ivor tasks her to deliver a mysterious package to the most feared man in the city—a man only known as the Alchemist, who is said to possess dangerous magical abilities. En route, however, Rowena is attacked and robbed by something called an Aigamuxa, which are giant beast-like creatures whose eyes are on the soles of their feet. Afraid to return to the short-tempered and abusive Ivor with news that she has lost the package, Rowena decides to take her chances with the Alchemist instead, continuing on to her destination in order to let the recipient know what has happened.
But to Rowena’s surprise, the Alchemist does not immediately smite her on the spot. Instead, he provides her with safety, food, and shelter, informing her that anyone who has had contact with the contents of that stolen package is now in grave danger. Meanwhile, as proof of this pronouncement, the Reverend Doctor Phillip Chalmers wakes up battered and trussed up in a cell, facing his monstrous kidnapper. The creature has a book for him to translate, and doing what his captors want may be his only chance of survival. Already, a colleague of his has gone missing because of what she has uncovered, and Chalmers has reasons to fear the worst.
For a novel with so many characters and interlacing plot lines, The Nine is surprisingly well put together and tightly paced. Townsend also balances her storytelling with outstanding character development and layered world-building, with the mythos creation being especially impressive. The subjects of religion and science are explored in a way I’ve never seen before, opening up plenty of opportunities for reader engagement, considering the vast number of possibilities for the direction of this series. Almost immediately, the setting feels at once familiar but also strange and exotic enough to be a full-fledged secondary world with all the escapist potential a fantasy fan could ask for. I loved the idea of all life and creation being seen as the ultimate experiment, with God being worshipped as the great Experimenter who is constantly assessing, adjusting, and applying the appropriate interventions based on the observations of how nine randomly chosen human beings live their lives. What a mind-bending concept!
As well, the world is populated with intelligent beings other than humans, such as the aforementioned Aigamuxa, and there is also a race of sentient walking tree creatures called the Lanyani (though their diet is far from plant-like). These three groups exist in a state of tension, with some of their past history and conflicts touched upon in the main story line. Furthermore, it’s clear that Townsend has a knack for world-building, weaving different genres through her narrative so that the setting has this cool mish-mash of steampunk and historical fiction influences.
That said, it’s the characters who steal the show here. Realistically portrayed and nuanced, they provide readers with the opportunity to experience the full story, the multiple perspectives allowing us to see things from all angles. Rowena is one of our main protagonists, and she is a clever, brave, and determined girl. The people around her are also complex, as there are no simple black-and-white characters here. Rowena quickly learns not to trust anything at face value, realizing that everyone has a story to tell. I especially enjoyed her early interactions with the Alchemist, as we discover along with Rowena just how wrongly the old man has been perceived by the rest of the city. Then there’s Anselm Meteron, a former mercenary who now feels entitled to a retirement of indulgent access after all that he’s been through. While there are many characters, these three stand out as our central figures. The trio of them make for an interesting group of allies, but the result is some fantastic dialogue and quality interactions.
All in all, The Nine was a delightful read, its exquisitely dark and twisted plotline packed with genuine surprises. As much as I’ve written here, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of what this terrific novel has to offer. Tracy Townsend has written a dazzling debut which positively crackles with imagination and enigmatic charm. If you’re looking for a clever and magnificently crafted genre-bending fantasy, I wholeheartedly recommend this superb opening volume to the Thieves of Fate series. And believe me when I say I can hardly wait to see what happens next....more
As much as I’m enjoying Michael J. Sullivan’s other series The Legends of the Lost Empire right now, I have to say, nothing quite beats the feeling of coming back to good old Hadrian and Royce. The Riyria Revelations may have concluded years ago, but I swear I will never ever stop loving this awesome duo, and one of the best things the author did for his fans was to continue their legend in a series of standalone prequel stories called the Riyria Chronicles, intended to explore the early years of this partnership.
Like the other books in the series, The Disappearance of Winter’s Daughter is a self-contained adventure featuring Hadrian, an idealistic ex-mercenary, and Royce, a cynical former assassin. Approximately three years have passed since the two were first brought together by fate, becoming the clandestine enterprise known as Riyria, selling their services as rogues-for-hire. Their latest client is Gabriel Winter, a wealthy merchant who has traveled a long way to seek out Royce, having heard of his reputation as a ruthless killer. That’s because Winter wants bloody vengeance—six months ago, his daughter Genny was wed to the Duke of Rochelle, a marriage that her father was vehemently against. Now she is missing, presumed dead after her carriage was ambushed on the way back from the market and left in a gore-soaked ruin. Suspecting that the Duke and his people are behind Genny’s death, Winter wants Riyria to put a violent end to those responsible.
Ever the optimistic one, Hadrian is not entirely convinced that Genny is dead, but nevertheless he and Royce agree to travel to Rochelle to investigate and see if they can suss out any information regarding what happened to Winter’s daughter. When they arrive though, they discover an uncooperative and tight-lipped citizenry, cagey about the fact that a couple of outsiders are poking around. The people in this old-world city with its murky history and tangled political relationships don’t seem to want to talk about their missing duchess, and Royce and Hadrian’s line of questioning soon lands them on the receiving end of some unwanted attention.
The Disappearance of Winter’s Daughter was another solid entry in the Riyria Chronicles, and I daresay it might even be my favorite of the four books out so far. As a reader, it always amazes me to watch an author’s skill grow over time, and indeed Sullivan’s writing has become a lot more polished since the days of The Riyria Revelations and even when compared to The Crown Tower and The Rose and the Thorn. His stories are also becoming more interesting and complex, as this latest installment shows—proof that this series is showing no signs of slowing down or growing stale. It is truly impressive how Hadrian and Royce’s adventures have stayed so fresh and utterly captivating even after all these years and so many novels.
On the subject of the plot itself, I always love a good mystery, so this book was perfect for me. From the very first chapter, I was trying to figure out what happened and how everyone was involved. Rochelle also made for a compelling setting, with its strict customs and superstitions. It’s a city of extremes where the nobility live in decadent excess, claiming descent from imperial aristocracy, while the Mir and other non-humans scrounge for scraps in dirty alleyways and gutters. Royce and Hadrian arrive in town during the festival in which a new king will be crowned, so the inns and taverns are also full to bursting and the streets are packed day and night. Despite the atmosphere of revelry, however, the tensions in the air are palpable, with undercurrents of hopelessness, anger, and resentment. Hats off to Sullivan for managing to capture this soupy mélange of chaos and confusion, using descriptive prose to arouse vivid imagery in the readers’ minds so that we are transported right into the heart of Rochelle.
But of course, no review of a Riyria novel would be complete without mentioning the relationship between Hadrian and Royce. It’s the essence of this series, after all, and when The Disappearance of Winter’s Daughter begins, the boys are just starting to get used to working as a team. Minor personality clashes aside, they’ve become accustomed to each other’s styles, with genuine fondness to be gleaned from their banter even during disagreements. There are some great moments in this book where we get to see their bond strengthen, with trust forming as they learn to depend on one another and watch each other’s backs.
Overall, I couldn’t have been more pleased with this newest addition to the chronicle. Fans of Riyria, I guarantee you will not be disappointed! Not only is this another prequel novel done right, I believe it to be the strongest of the bunch. Even after four books, there’s still so much potential in this series for more exciting and new adventures, and I hope Michael J. Sullivan will continue to keep these Hadrian and Royce stories coming for those of us who simply can’t get enough.
Audiobook Comments: There’s no doubt that Tim Gerard Reynolds is the voice of Riyria. Once again, he delivers a fine performance, capturing the novel’s humor and heart with his pitch-perfect narration. He’s the main reason I opted to listen to the audiobook even though I’ve had the ebook version for weeks now, because I know anytime he reads a Michael J. Sullivan book, it will be awesome. Glad I was right!...more
To put it bluntly, I never thought I would read anything else by Terry Goodkind again. After my disastrous first attempt to get into The Sword of Truth series, I almost turned down the opportunity to read Death’s Mistress, but now I’m very glad I didn’t. It’s been years since I last read Wizard’s First Rule, and it seemed a shame to potentially miss out on a good start to a new series especially when the author’s style or my reading tastes could have changed so much since. And as things turned out, I did have a surprisingly good time with this.
I also had initial concerns about jumping in without having read the entirety of the previous series, but that was not a problem. The book follows Nicci, a “Death’s Mistress” and a former lieutenant of Emperor Jagang who has since switched her alliance after being converted to the right side by Richard. Now that the latter has solidified his rule, Nicci travels the world helping spread the word of his benevolence and letting everyone know that the world is free, while accompanied by the ex-prophet and wizard Nathan.
At the beginning of this story Nathan decides to seek out the witch called Red, and Nicci offers to go along with him for protection, knowing they can trust no one and must be prepared for anything. Sure enough, after their visit, the witch imparts upon them the following obscure message: travel to a dangerous place far away called Kol Adair, where Nathan will find the answers to his struggle with his waning magic. Little do Nicci and Nathan know, that by embarking on this adventure they will also be a part of something much bigger, bringing back peace and hope to many along the way. Indeed, before they can even set off in earnest, Nicci saves the life of a young sailor named Bannon on the docks, preventing him from being mugged and killed by a gang of thugs. Grateful for her help, Bannon offers his services to the Death’s Mistress, volunteering to fight alongside her and Nathan while on their journey to Kol Adair.
I must confess, the story’s introduction was a bit of a whirlwind for me, with the bewildering circumstances around Red and her message, as well as the reasons for Nicci and Nathan to head to Kol Adair. It’s clear that I’ve missed a lot of history, not having followed The Sword of Truth. Trying to piece together everything that has happened since the last time I spent time in this world admittedly took up most of my attention, though fortunately once our characters actually begin their adventure, the path ahead gave way to clearer purposes and more exciting and engaging motifs. Death’s Mistress has a strong traditional fantasy vibe to it, with emphasis on the classic quest narrative. The question why Nicci, Nathan and Bannon were on this journey in the first place became less important to me overtime, while the details surrounding where they’ll go or what they’ll do when they get there or who they’ll meet gradually became more fascinating and relevant.
If there’s a bigger story, it hardly matters—at least at this point. Goodkind is starting a new series here, and you can tell he’s doing his best to make Death’s Mistress as accessible as possible. There’s not much history or deep context in play, and no greater conflict to concern ourselves with…yet. Rather, our characters are given a relatively straight forward task (go to Kol Adair, spread the word of Richard’s reign) and while on their travels they encounter various situations in which they can lend a hand or help solve a problem (picking up some side-quests along the way, so to speak). In fact, the structure of the plot can almost be described as “episodic”, the way our adventuring party moves from one place to the next, setting things aright before moving on again to save the next village or help defend the next town.
The results are surprisingly enjoyable. After all, few things are better than being able to explore new worlds, meet new people, and witness epic battles infused with a real sense of excitement and magic. If you’re a fantasy reader, these are the moments we live for, and this book had a way of satisfying all those little pleasures. From our time with our characters on the high seas, to watching them fight alongside a fishing village against a fleet of attacking slavers, to being with them as they try to save a land leeched of life, it’s never a dull moment with this book. The characters are also memorable, with Nicci being a strong protagonist I could sympathize with and root for. Supporting characters are also well-written and fleshed out, leading to some highly emotional and shocking surprises near the end.
Like I said, I’m very glad I decided to give Death’s Mistress a chance. At times, Goodkind’s writing still has the subtlety of a cudgel and some of his scenes can be a little schmaltzy, but on the whole my experience was a lot better than I expected. Nothing too complicated here in terms of plot, but I think in this case, the straightforward and simple approach worked in the book’s favor, offering readers a chance to just sit back and enjoy the ride....more
In the first book, The Dinosaur Lords, Victor Milán took my imagination by storm with Paradise, a land populated by dinosaurs and the medieval knights that rode them. While things slowed down a little in its sequel The Dinosaur Knights, I still had faith enough to grab the next book, because surely a premise this cool deserved a second chance. Sadly though, instead of picking up again, the plot has continued to lose its steam in this third installment, and I think maybe it’s time to face the hard truth that the honeymoon period between me and this series might be over.
The Dinosaur Princess begins with a kidnapping. With the confusion of the war and all parties still reeling from the revelation of the Grey Angels, the royal family’s enemies have struck the palace and stolen away Montserrat, the adored little sister of Princess Melodía. Taking it upon himself to rescue the girl, Melodía’s lover and the hero of the realm Prince Jaume dels Flors has gathered a team to go after the kidnappers before they can reach the coast and disappear. Luckily for everyone, Montserrat isn’t as helpless as many think she is. Using her language skills to eavesdrop and spy on her captors, the young teen has left an invaluable trail of clues for the Jaume to follow, and the rescue would have succeeded too, if not for an unexpected twist.
As another faction enters the fray, those already embroiled in the war have no idea what to make of the mystical implications behind this development. Some remain skeptical of Jaume’s account of what happened and as a result, both his and Melodía’s standing are damaged in the eyes of the court. This setback is the last thing the princess needs as she attempts to counsel her hot-tempered father, while those with questionable allegiances whisper dangerous sentiments in his ear and others scream loudly for blood and revenge. Meanwhile, dinosaur master Rob Korrigan and his friend the famed captain Karyl Bogomirskiy have their hands full trying to keep the people of the countryside calm and stave off any dissent. Becoming elevated to noble positions should have helped, but to no one’s surprise, it doesn’t.
This series has been described as Game of Thrones meets Jurassic Park, and while I found this to be a brilliant pitch for the first book, the comparison has become less appropriate for the sequels. We seem to be in a holding pattern right now, with the political intrigue having lost much of its attraction, and the pacing of the overall story arc has slowed to a crawl. Most discouraging of all, there has also been a decrease in the dinosaur action. Considering this is the main selling point of the series, this last issue might have been the most detrimental to my enjoyment.
I also feel we’ve lost sight of the main goal, somewhat. Princess Montserrat’s kidnapping smacked strongly of being a diversion, and sure enough, it served as a precursor to another bigger reveal. When so many other conflicts still in the air though, I wasn’t sure throwing a new bombshell like that into the mix was the right decision. The Dinosaur Knights already had the feel of a “bridge” book, and I was looking forward to some steps towards resolution in this third installment, not more interruptions or distractions to weigh down the storyline. All the exposition required to set up this new plot development only served to slow the pacing down some more, and although the author might have tried to offset this by injecting more shock value into the battle scenes and descriptions of scantily clad female characters, that just put me off even more.
With most books that don’t work for me though, I can still usually find a silver lining, and in this case, I loved the focus on Montserrat. While Melodía may be the star of the series, in my eyes her little sis has already surpassed her in many ways. To be honest, I was actually quite unimpressed by the main characters, their roles remaining in a holding pattern like so much else in this book (e.g. Rob and Karyl), though Melodía did have her moments towards the end, making up for the impotent rage she exhibited for most of the novel. A couple more new faces also join the cast, most notably the mercurial Margrethe and the crafty Rosamaria. I admit to being very curious to see where Milán will take the story with this pair of powerful, clashing personalities at court, and if I pick up the next book, these two women will be a big part of the reason.
At this point, I can’t say I’m as excited about this series as I was before, but there’s still probably time for things to turn around, especially now that we’ve spent two books setting up the groundwork for the eventual showdown between the great houses of Paradise, the Grey Angels, and now the newly introduced faction. The slowness along with the lack of any meaningful development in the story made this book a struggle to get through, but if we get more dinosaur action and plot progress in the next one, I could be tempted to read on....more
If you’ve been following along with the progress of this year’s SPFBO competition, then I don’t have to tell you, 2016’s crop of finalists all look incredible, and of the top ten books remaining in this second phase, one of the ones I’ve looked forward to reading a lot is Phil Tucker’s The Path of Flames. From its description, I had a feeling this would be a novel right up my alley—epic fantasy with a bit of an old-school feel, featuring a standard secondary world wracked with war and dark sorcery while courageous heroes go head-to-head with dastardly villains. There’s a certain kind of comfort and pleasure I take from reading stories like these, mainly because I know that at the end of the day, I’ll enjoy myself no matter what happens. And sure enough, I had a blast with this book.
In typical fashion though, The Path of Flames opens with a battle scene. Still, what a battle! This first chapter also introduces us to one of our main characters, a young Bythian squire named Asho fighting on the side of Lord Kyferin and his famous Black Wolves. However, the enemy’s unexpected use of foul magic leads to tragedy, and Asho is knighted in a twist of fate, tasked to return home alone to tell his Lady Iskra Kyferin that her husband and all his men have all been slaughtered on the battlefield.
Upon receiving the news, Iskra reacts solemnly but is secretly pleased; her husband had not been a good man in life, having abused Iskra and Asho both. But Lord Kyferin’s daughter Kethe is heartbroken, having idolized her father, even going as far as to train secretly as a knight in order to follow in his footsteps. With Lord Kyferin now dead though, this does spell trouble for everyone. Almost all the Black Wolves have perished, leaving the castle defenseless and Iskra no choice but to shore up her remaining forces and seek out new allies. Unfortunately, news of her husband’s death has spread and the vultures are already circling. Despite Iskra’s efforts to protect her people, a sudden betrayal ends up destroying her carefully laid plans, plunging her and all those loyal to her into danger.
As you can see, the story encompasses many of the traditional elements and conventional tropes found in fantasy, though to leave it at that would also be simplifying things and not giving this book the credit it deserves. While I can see the influence of genre classics and fantasy role-playings games on the author’s writing, Phil Tucker does have a few surprises up his sleeve, putting some fresh spins on familiar ideas.
He’s done a phenomenal job on his characters, for instance, creating fully developed backstories for them. Take Asho, whose Bythian heritage makes him the target of scorn in this society that worships the Ascendancy, a religion that divides humanity into a caste system. Lord Kyferin may have plucked him from his homeland as a child, raising him in his own household and even making him a squire, but everyone can see these acts for the empty gestures that they are and still look upon Asho with distaste for being in the lowest “tier” of the Ascendancy. Then there’s Kethe, a young noblewoman who prefers sword fighting to needlework. Again, this is in no way a new idea in fantasy, but Kethe’s complicated history with her father and another character named Ser Tiron puts her decision to become a knight into a more compelling context. In this way, Tucker weaves characterization together with world-building, so that everything is presented to us as a full package. While information might be revealed in tiny chunks and pieces at first, the reader will soon realize that everything is connected. Even Tharok, the kragh whose storyline confounded me for much of the novel became a puzzle piece that fell into place by the end.
It also helped that I loved the writing. Tucker’s style is very descriptive without being weighed down by wordiness, which I think is why his battle scenes come across so well. A good thing too, because there’s a lot of action in this book, ranging from one-on-one duels to sweeping epic battles—and at one point, there’s even a gladiatorial style tournament thrown into the mix. The book’s plot might be your standard fantasy fare, but the story’s pacing never slows down simply because something interesting is always happening on the page. The author’s excellent prose and the novel’s unflagging momentum meant that I finished this sizeable book in a little more than two days—a clear sign of an addictive read.
All told, The Path of Flames was a great series opener, establishing plenty of potential for the later books. It’s a solid gem of an indie epic fantasy novel, which I would highly recommend if you ever feel the hankering for something fascinating and fun, with that traditional yet timeless feel. I’ve already added the next book to my reading list....more
This was a very long, very dense read, but I really don’t mean that in a negative way. Quite the contrary, in fact; it’s has been a while since I’ve sunk my teeth into an epic fantasy so rich and layered, and it felt incredibly refreshing to fall into a meaty novel like this and just let it consume me completely.
The Witchwood Crown is the start of a new series set in the universe of Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy, though I believe it would serve as a decent jumping on point for readers new to the author and his books. This was my first experience with his work and I found I was able to follow the story quite easily, excepting some initial confusion over the lore of Osten Ard and the different inhabitants that make the continent their home. Thankfully, in a lengthy novel like this, there’s plenty of world-building and no shortage of opportunities to catch up on all this information so it wasn’t long before I felt totally at ease in this new setting.
The story continues the story of King Simon and Queen Miriamele from the previous series, having been married for the last thirty years since the conclusion of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. Their grandson Morgan is now the heir apparent, after the death of Simon and Miriamele’s son Prince Josua. With their grief still all too fresh, this causes the aging royal couple to become both overprotective and excessively tough on Morgan, who both yearns for and chafes at the growing responsibilities placed upon his shoulders. Like any young person growing up, he’s trying to find himself but always seems to be getting mixed up into trouble with his rowdy, tavern-hopping friends.
Meanwhile, the realm is in danger once again from a threat long since thought vanquished. The Norns, an immortal elf-like race, are rallying together and preparing for an invasion to reclaim the mortal lands for themselves. After falling into disfavor and becoming a sacrifice, a young half-Norn woman named Nezeru is taken along on a journey to fulfill a mission for their queen, and along the way the group encounters a mysterious warrior named Jarnulf who appears to be much more than he claims to be.
There are a lot of characters involved but I liked how the narrative introduced them all gradually, making it easier to identify the multiple plot threads and determine which perspectives are the important ones. While Simon and Miriamele are characters that I’m only meeting now for the first time, evidently there’s still plenty of growth and development to be had even though they’re both now into their golden years. The two of them are more in love than ever, but the years have also brought certain new life changes and challenges as their priorities have shifted, and most of their disagreements now have to do with their grandson. Speaking of Prince Morgan, he was another important POV character, not to mention one of the more complex and well-written ones. Unlike Simon, who started from humble beginnings as a kitchen scullion, Morgan was born into a royal life and grew up wanting for nothing. In spite of this, he is something of a shiftless and troubled young man who couldn’t be more different than his driven grandfather. And yet there’s something about him that reminds me of a lost and scared little boy, and reading about his self-doubt just makes me want to wrap him up in a big hug.
That said, as a newcomer to this world, I confess it was an interesting experience to be reading the first book of a sequel series, one that I could tell has deep ties to the previous trilogy. While it did not affect my enjoyment overly much, it was at times distracting to be catching little snippets of references to past events and wondering at the full details behind them. The main crux of the story also took a long time to build (for a novel that’s more than 700 pages long, that’s really saying something) and there were rambling sections which I felt could have been trimmed without making too much of an impact on the overall story. Again, this is only my personal opinion as a brand new reader to this world. It’s more than likely that I’m just missing a lot of the nuances, being completely unfamiliar with the events of the previous trilogy, and if you’re an old fan I imagine your experiences will be very different.
At the end of the day though, I think it’s safe to say that no matter who you are, as long as you have a love for rich, multilayered epic fantasy then you will certainly develop a deep appreciation for The Witchwood Crown. It’s a heavy novel, both literally and figuratively, containing robust world-building and character development. Exploring complex themes and conflicts, Tad Williams takes a big-picture look at how several generations deal with problems threatening their kingdom, and while the sheer scope of it can feel a little overwhelming at first, a willingness to invest some time and patience in the story will eventually pay off. I feel like I have a stronger, more confident grasp of the world now, and I look forward to continuing with the next book of the series....more
In my review of Twelve Kings in Sharakhai by Bradley P. Beaulieu, I called the book’s main character one of the best female protagonists I have encountered in years. Needless to say, I was thrilled when I learned later that there was also a prequel novella in the works, and that Çeda will once again be the focus of this tale.
And so I read Of Sand and Malice Made, despite my usual disinclination to pick up novellas and short-form fiction, because that’s just how much I adore Çeda. The book opens with an introduction to her as a young teen, but already she has made a name for herself as the indomitable White Wolf in the fighting pits of Sharakhai. Around this time, Çeda also begins her smuggling work for Osman, running contraband for him to earn some extra wages. Life goes on, until one day a problem with a previous delivery comes back to haunt her, landing her in hot water with a wealthy client.
However, there’s more than meets the eye about this client, as she turns out to be the ehrekh known as Rümayesh, a malicious magical creature made long ago by the god of chaos. The ehrekh likes to toy with its victims, possessing their bodies and forcing them to do its bidding. And unfortunately, this demon has fixated her attentions on Çeda, targeting our unsuspecting protagonist with her nasty minions and dark magic. Now it’s clear that Rümayesh is out to take away everything Çeda has ever cared for, including her friends, her secret identity, and her very soul.
Of Sand and Malice Made is structured so that its three distinct parts form a larger narrative detailing Çeda’s encounter with Rümayesh, and even includes some gorgeous illustrations between each section. For a book that’s already on the shorter side though, I wasn’t quite sold on this format which further breaks the story down into even smaller parts, and I think any issues I had with pacing stems from this issue. Still, I liked how each section had its own unique feel, and because of this style we also got to see several sides of Çeda. Taken as a whole, this book does a pretty decent job showing us who she is and, more importantly, what makes her tick.
This novella also serves as a good introduction to the magic-steeped world of the series, showcasing the wonders of the magnificent desert city of Sharakhai. The world-building blew me away when I read Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, and it felt great returning to this setting for another adventure, one that explored a darker and more mythological side of the lore. The story itself is satisfying, and manages to pack a whole lot of action, intrigue, and emotion in this small package.
Still, I can’t stay this one hit me on the same level as the novel, but then again, that was to be expected. Obviously, it would not be fair to compare the content of a novella to what you can get from a full-length 600 page novel like Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, but if you want to start your journey with The Song of the Shattered Sands series, this could be the perfect jumping-off point to get your feet wet. And if you like what you see, do consider picking up the full novel; Twelve Kings was a masterpiece in epic fantasy world-craft and characterization, and if you haven’t read it yet, you should do it as soon as possible. Now I’m waiting on pins and needles for the sequel, and even though Of Sand and Malice Made wasn’t that book, reading it sure sated my hunger a little and made the wait slightly easier to bear....more
With six books in total now planned for The Legends of the First Empire series and four more left on the docket, it’s understandable that we have to pace ourselves. That may explain why I found Age of Swords to be on the slower side in comparison to its predecessor Age of Myth, which still holds a slight edge for being the more enjoyable book. That said, this was still a solid sequel, and there were even a few areas which I felt were improvements over the previous book.
Set thousands of years before the events of Michael J. Sullivan’s beloved Riyria Revelations, Age of Swords is the second in a new sequence of books that takes us back to the dawn of this world, introducing us to the precursors of many of the races and locations you’ll find in the time of Royce and Hadrian. This would be a fine series to start with if you’ve never read the author before and would like to give his work a try, though beginning with Age of Myth is a must—Sullivan has a way of foreshadowing the big events at the end of his series by planting subtle seeds for them in the earlier books, and trust me when I say that you won’t want to miss a thing.
We pick up the tale here following the spark of rebellion lit by Raithe the God Killer, turning the bitter enmity that has always existed between the Rhune and the Fhrey into a full-blown war—one that the Rhune are sure to lose, if they cannot unify the tribes against their common foe. After all, what chance do they have, when the most powerful of the elf-like Fhrey are practically immortal and possess magic? Already they have retaliated against the humans for their attempt at defiance, by sending lightning storms and giant beings to destroy the settlement of Dahl Rhen.
Persephone, once the wife of a clan chieftain, now finds herself to be the new Rhen leader. After gathering her supporters, she leads them on a campaign to rally the other Rhune clans to their cause. Among those who follow her are Brin, the Dahl’s newly appointed Keeper of Ways; Suri, the only human known to possess the power of magic, along with her loyal wolf companion Minna; Roan, a traumatized girl with an uncanny talent for tinkering and creating new inventions; Gifford, a good friend of Roan who has a heart of gold but was also born with a congenital disability; Moya, a young woman who wishes to defy tradition by becoming a warrior; and Arion, the exiled Fhrey sorceress who now finds herself traveling with the humans and training Suri to become a mystic.
Eventually, Persephone’s journey leads her to the dwarves, a race that disdains both the Rhune and the Fhrey with equal measure. But with the need for well-crafted weapons to use in the coming war, our characters have no choice but to agree to the dwarves’ demands. In exchange for their help, Persephone and her team agree to descend into the dark depths of the ancient dwarven city to vanquish a demon that has taken residence there.
Needless to say, the women are the real winners here. This book revisits a lot of the characters we first met in Age of Myth, but as Sullivan promised, many of those who played smaller roles are now getting their chance to shine in Age of Swords. As a fan of stories about misfits and outsiders, I loved this new development—especially when our group of Dahl Rhen underdogs the ones providing the catalyst for important turning points. There’s no shortage of stories about the fighters in epic fantasy, but not as much attention is usually given to the inventors, scholars, and deep thinkers whose achievements keep the gears of the world well-oiled and moving. This is why I really enjoyed this book, as it shifts the focus from Raithe to those who fight the war in less apparent ways. The actions of those like Suri or Brin may never earn them cool nicknames like “God Killer”, but their deeds are no less heroic or deserving of recognition. This novel pays tribute to these characters, and I’m grateful to the author for it.
In terms of criticisms though, the one big downside to this story was the uneven pacing. Long stretches of subdued activity, like when the characters are discussing history or magic, were only punctuated by infrequent and brief periods of excitement, while huge technological or cultural advancements felt like they were accomplished in days. These pacing issues kept me from powering my way through this one like I did with Age of Myth, and though a lot seemed to have happened in this book, at the end of the day it didn’t actually feel like we moved the series that much more forward. In other words, in longer fantasy series like this it’s often natural to see the plot go through multiple peaks and dips, and this book felt very much like a “dip”.
Still, these minor flaws aside, there’s lots to like about Age of Swords and I found the book enjoyable overall. As I alluded to before, it’s not unusual to see a sequel take a step back to regroup and reorient itself while setting things up for more to come, which is what I think is going on here especially given the care and forethought Michael J. Sullivan likes to put into his foundation building for later novels. I’m looking forward to see how this series will unfold, and will be picking up the next book without hesitation....more
The Empire’s Ghost was a book that sounded right up my alley: an epic fantasy that touts a complex, multi-faceted story complete with a rich cast of characters and many points of view, not to mention the potential of a brand new setting filled with unique cultures and warring kingdoms—all set within a world where magic has once been lost but is ready to be found again. And indeed, it was a solid novel that delivered on all its promises, but it also had its share of stumbling blocks common to a lot of debuts—namely, that of trying to do too much.
The story opens on the empire of Elesthene, now just a ghost of its former glory. In the aftermath of the Ninist conquest, almost all traces of magic has been wiped clean from the world, leaving broken kingdoms behind to rebuild. However, it was only a matter of time until an ambitious leader like Imperator Elgar came to power and sought to create a new empire in his name, invading neighboring lands that have little hope of fighting back. In the kingdom of Reglay, young Prince Kelken clashes with his father on his idea for an alliance, refusing to risk his sister’s frail health in a political marriage. Meanwhile in Issamira, the richest and most powerful of the kingdoms, the royal succession is thrown into question following the disappearance of their crown prince. On the other hand, no such uncertainty exists in Esthrades where Lady Margraine has taken her father’s throne as his only heir—and is ruling with a determination to rival Elgar’s.
But far away from the royal courts and noble houses also stands the Dragon’s Head, an unassuming tavern tucked among the dank narrow streets of a rough and rundown Valyanrend neighborhood called Sheath. Its owner is a woman named Morgan Imrick who frequently gives shelter to the mercenaries and rogues in the area, and many of the regulars have become a group of friends. Not too many people in Sheath talk about their pasts, but when one of Morgan’s kitchen boys is arrested by the guard, certain difficult truths come to light. The Dragon’s Head crew inadvertently find themselves caught up in the tangled web of Imperator Elgar’s plans for domination, and are subsequently forced to carry out a special mission for him.
As you can imagine, there are a lot of perspectives involved, on account of the huge cast of characters. Normally, this would not be a problem—multiple POVs come with the epic fantasy territory, after all, and one of the advantages to writing a large cast is that you can quickly use them to create a rich and diverse new world. So, having a lot of characters in this genre is a good thing—but only if you don’t introduce them all at once. The first warning signs came early, when I felt I needed a dramatis personae to keep track of everyone in the prologue alone. It made getting into this novel difficult, mostly because so much of my energy was exerted towards trying to remember names without having to resort to building a spreadsheet.
With a large number of characters also comes a large number of plot threads. I enjoyed the story weaving Isabelle Steiger has done here, and by the end of the book I was really starting to appreciate how everybody and everything was coming together. Still, it took a long time for the big picture to come into focus, and while it was doing so, the narrative struggled to balance out the multiple plot lines. Some characters were parked for long periods of time, occasionally given short filler chapters (almost as if to remind us they still exist) while bigger, more important events were happening elsewhere. As the connections started to form, this also made some of the developments feel too convenient to be actually believable, what with all our key players encountering each other supposedly by chance in this vast empire.
Plus, in covering so many characters, the story may have spread itself too thin. Lady Margraine was probably the most fleshed out of everyone there, followed by perhaps Prince Kelken, while character development was disappointingly limited for the rest. Some, like Marceline, feel almost like a footnote. There were also others I would have liked to know better, like Elgar, especially since he is shaping up to be a formidable antagonist. Still, to the author’s credit, the characters that do stand out are superbly written. Lady Margraine, for all her irritating pomposity and claims to be bored, is a real force to be reckoned with and I am most excited with the future of her storyline. I’m sure the other characters and their individual plot threads will come to fruition in time, but for now, I find myself emotionally invested in only a few.
All told, The Empire’s Ghost is a solid entry into the epic fantasy genre and an admirable debut, though it does take bit of time and patience to realize the author’s vision for all her disparate characters and the great number of perspectives. The novel also has the distinct feel of an introduction, and a long one to be sure—many mysteries remain unsolved, and even with the big game changer close to the end, the final conclusion was underwhelming in the sense that no real resolution presents itself. That said, I will definitely be reading the next book, now that the basic setup for the series is complete. I expect the sequel will be throwing us straight into the action, and I’m looking forward to more revelations and answers....more
As you know, I’m quite a fan of Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage trilogy, and so I was thrilled when I discovered he was planning to write a new series called Gods of Blood and Powder set in the same universe. Sins of Empire is a return to this world of magic and war, taking place approximately ten years after the end of The Autumn Republic. While the main cast may contain a few familiar faces, this novel is in fact a new story taking place in a new setting, so whether you are an old fan looking to dive back into the world or a newcomer contemplating this as a possible place to jump on board, this book is accessible to all. (However, a small caveat: if you haven’t completed the Powder Mage trilogy yet and do intend to at some point, keep in mind Sins of Empire may contain some spoilers especially for how that series ends.)
The story begins by depositing us in Fatrasta, a relatively young nation that recently gained independence through a violent, bloody war. Still, despite its turbulent political landscape, the country is booming—travelers from all walks of life are flocking to its borders looking for new opportunities, from criminals feeling prosecution from their nations of origin to intrepid settlers that see this new land as fresh start for their families. Then there are the mercenaries, come to Fatrasta to enjoy the patronage of Chancellor Lindet who governs her land with an iron fist. Among them are the Riflejack army, led by Lady Vlora Flint and her partner Colonel Olem, veterans of the Adro Revolution which took place a decade ago. When an insurrection threatens to destabilize Fatrasta even further, Vlora and Olem are called back to the capital city of Landfall to help put down the rebellion and root out its leader, a mysterious rebel known as Mama Palo.
Meanwhile in a high security labor camp, a convicted war hero who helped win Fatrasta her independence fails to make parole. Angry and demoralized, Ben Styke is just about to accept that he will never taste freedom again when a strange visitor claiming to be a lawyer shows up and makes him an offer he can’t refuse. Somewhere else, an ambitious spy named Michel Bravis receives a dangerous assignment to track down the individual or groups responsible for printing and distributing an anti-government publication called “Sins of Empire”. Even though he feels woefully unqualified for such detective work, Michel has no choice but to accept the mission. After all, this may be the path to earn him the promotion he’s always wanted…though on the other hand, failure could mean much more than his downfall.
Together, these separate threads make up the story of Sins of Empire. In classic epic fantasy fashion, we follow and bounce around between the perspectives as the narrative builds, until all the plot lines converge. Those who have read the Powder Mage books will already be familiar with Vlora who was a supporting character in the original trilogy, but now it’s her chance to be a main protagonist in her own right. I must confess, it was a real treat for me to catch up with her again. Thinking back to when Promise of Blood first came out, one criticism I had of the book involved the underutilization of the female character POVs, and even when compared to Nila and Ka-poel, Vlora received relatively little attention. Oh, how the tables have turned now. Despite the popularity of Ka-poel, it is Vlora who I’ve always had a soft spot for, and it was a joy to watch her take charge and shine bright in this series opener.
Credit must also go to newcomers Ben Styke and Michel Bravis, since they too helped make Sins of Empire a strong introduction. While neither of their stories are as interesting to me as Vlora’s at this point, the good news is I can easily see their roles expanding beyond what they are now with future books, and hopefully in time they will become more than just “violent brute with a heart of gold” and “neurotic spy” respectively. However, it’s important to note as well that both their sections provided a bit of mystery to this novel, adding to the suspense as little by little the characters uncover more secrets behind the rebellion in Falastra, not to mention a few shocking revelations. I loved the unexpected twists and game-changing surprises, and I have no doubt these will also be greatly appreciated by other Powder Mage fans!
In addition, the author has clearly learned a lot from completing his debut trilogy. Sins of Empire is solidly written, and as the first book of a series, I feel the plot is also more compelling and better constructed compared to Promise of Blood. All in all it is a great introductory volume, accomplishing its goal of setting up a strong foundation, at once familiar but also different enough from the original trilogy that I find myself excited to see where McClellan will take us next. The ending teases much more to come, and I can’t wait for more answers in the sequel....more
Whenever I hear about an indie fantasy that makes the jump to a traditional publishing house, it always piques my curiosity and of course The Shadow of What Was Lost was no exception. Fast forward to the moment I finished reading the book, and I all I have to say is: I am impressed. This is James Islington’s first novel, and though that sometimes shows in the raw quality the writing, overall it is a solid series opener and I can certainly understand the reason for all the attention and praise.
The first part of the story introduces us to an interesting lore-filled world. Two decades have passed since the Augurs were defeated and wiped out. These were powerful individuals with god-like abilities which they used to enslave the Gifted, other magic users who were forced to serve their stronger masters. The Gifted themselves were only spared retribution following the rebellion because they agreed to uphold the Four Tenets, promising to adhere to the rules which would keep their own powers in check.
One of our main protagonists is a young Gifted named Davian who has always lived in the shadow of the war. He and his friends Wirr and Asha attend a school for those like them, a place where they are sheltered and trained to use their magic. However, even then they are in no way safe. At the end of their time at school, Gifteds are required to pass a final test to prove they can control their powers, and those that fail must face the lonely fate of being ostracized and forgotten—their memories and abilities wiped away. Now Davian’s final trial is fast approaching, and he still has not been able to master drawing on Essence, the element that fuels magic. Worse, he is beginning to suspect there is something wrong with his own gift, which sounds suspiciously like something that the Augurs used to wield.
If anyone finds out about his secret, it could spell very bad news for Davian. But before his test could come to pass, he is visited in the dead of night by a mysterious newcomer, who gives our young hero a quest to undertake that could change his own fate and that of the world.
Reminiscent of Wheel of Time? Definitely. At the same time, I didn’t get the sense that Islington was out to shake up the genre when he wrote this book, and in fact parts of it feel almost like a loving homage to the classic themes in epic fantasy. It was therefore no surprise when I went to the author’s bio and saw Robert Jordan listed among his influences. In a way, there’s actually something very refreshing about Islington’s straightforward approach as well as his unpresuming commitment to simply writing an enjoyable, down-to-earth character driven story. While I read a lot of epic fantasy and it’s always nice to come across something completely new and unique, at the same time I also have no problems with getting a dash of the classic quest narrative, as long as I know that’s what I’m in for.
Many reviews have also made comparisons to Brandon Sanderson, and his name also came to my mind while reading, though probably not in the way you would expect. Islington’s writing, especially the stark play-by-play style of his action sequences, reminds me of early Sanderson, around his original Mistborn trilogy era. The prose is simple but polished, and the characters that range from the reluctant hero to the royal son in hiding are relatively archetypal, but still sincere in their motives and purposes. The page count probably could have been pared down, it’s true, particular in the middle sections where pacing dragged a little. To the book’s credit though, the story eventually evolves into a more nuanced, politically and magically layered narrative. The plot overall might be on the predictable side, but there will still be plenty of surprises along the way to keep things interesting for the reader.
Like I said, The Shadow of What Was Lost isn’t out to revolutionize epic fantasy, but nevertheless it is an engaging read and a series-opener that starts off on the right foot. The story and characters might come across a little clichéd at the beginning, but from what I’ve seen so far, both aspects have the potential to grow into something more. I have a feeling we’ll be seeing even better things in the sequel, which I’m now looking forward to with great excitement and anticipation....more
Sometimes a second book is required for me to get a feel for a series, and this is certainly one of those cases. When the Heavens Fall was a novel that gave me mixed feelings, because while it didn’t exactly sweep me off my feet, I did genuinely enjoy it for the new and refreshing sword-and-sorcery fantasy that it was. In any event, it made me curious to tackle the sequel, Dragon Hunters, to see how the chronicle will continue.
What I found caught me by surprise. As it turned out, this novel is rather unlike the first one; not only do the stories differ in tone and style, Dragon Hunters also follows a brand new cast of characters and takes place in a different setting. But in spite, or perhaps because, of this huge departure, I liked the book. I liked it a lot.
One does not often find that subsequent volumes in an epic fantasy series can be read as standalones, but I believe this can be done here. Lore-wise, the plot of Dragon Hunters has strong ties to When the Heavens Fall, but other than that, we’re looking at a whole new ballgame. The story first begins in the period leading up to Dragon Day, an annual event celebrated by the raising of the Dragon Gate. A sea dragon would be allowed to pass into the Sabian Sea, where it will be subsequently hunted by the gathered water-mages who collectively make up a ruling body called the Storm Lords.
One of them, the powerful Emira Imerle Polivar is being pressured to relinquish her reign, though she is not about to step down quietly. Conspiring with the Chameleon priesthood, she arranges for two of their members to infiltrate the heavily guarded citadel and sabotage the Dragon Gate. Ruining the ceremony would deal a humiliating blow to the Storm Lords, which is exactly what Imerle wants. However, it appears that others have been targeting the Storm Lords too, as evidenced by the deadly assassins on the hunt, using the confusion sowed by the conspiracies and chaos to their mysterious benefactor’s advantage.
Considering my reading preferences, it’s probably no surprise that I found getting into this second volume was much easier and faster compared to the first. After all, I love my maritime fantasy, and I also love dragons. In Dragon Hunters, Marc Turner masterfully spins an exciting and cohesive tale of nautical adventure featuring these majestic leviathans, and it captured my imagination from the start. Unlike the first book, which saw four disparate characters come together in their shared quest to find a stolen object, the unifying theme of this sequel is not of a search, but of a hunt. That little difference alone gives this story a much more animated and thrilling sense of urgency.
For one thing, all the characters here are working against the clock. Karmel and Veran, the two Chameleon agents tasked to sabotage the Dragon Gate, are on a heist-like mission trying to complete their objective while struggling with mistrust and hidden agendas within their priesthood. Then there’s Kempis Parr, a city watchman hot on the trail of an assassin who has always managed to stay one step ahead of him, slipping from his grasp each time he draws close. And finally, there’s the grand dragon hunt itself. The plot to ruin Dragon Day notwithstanding, you didn’t think we’d get a book called Dragon Hunters without some dragon hunting action, did you? If dragons are what you want, then you definitely won’t be disappointed. Turner’s dragons are marine monsters, vicious predators that will give the Storm Lord ships a run for their money. While I found When the Heavens Fall to be a slower novel that took nearly until the midway point to pick up speed, clearly I had none of those problems here.
Compared to its predecessor, Dragon Hunters isn’t just like a whole different book, it IS a whole different book. For this reason, I have a feeling that opinions on it will vary wildly. For me personally though, it is an example of a sequel that beats out the previous book when it comes to pacing and scope. Overall, I feel that the story has a more “blockbuster” vibe to it, by which I mean its reach is considerably more epic, encompassing the lives of a greater number of characters and resulting in far more serious ramifications for the world—in other words, not a bad deal at all.
All told, Dragon Hunters was a great book and hooked me where the first one didn’t. I’m glad I gave this sequel a go, because in terms of my excitement level for this series, I know that I’m no longer sitting on the fence: I desperately need to get my hands on the next installment! Marc Turner has completely sold me on his excellent world building and characters, and I can’t wait to see what’s next in Red Tide, The Chronicle of the Exile part three....more
With apologies to Django Wexler and Roc, this review is long overdue I think, but better late than never! With The Guns of Empire we’ve reached the penultimate novel in the The Shadow Campaigns and I just want to echo every positive sentiment and praise that has already been made about this book. It is a stellar sequel which succeeds in getting readers fired up for the coming finale.
As this is the fourth installment of the series, please beware this review may contain spoilers for the previous books. The Price of Valor saw the enemies of Vordan defeated at the hands of General Janus bet Vhalnich, leading to possible peace talks at the negotiating table. Janus, however, is unappeased. Against the wishes of his sovereign leader Queen Raesinia, he begins to rally his troops in preparation to march upon the fortress-city of Elysium, stronghold of the Sworn Church. The general is unwavering in his belief that the Priests of the Black will not back down; their followers are too diehard in their beliefs that all demons should be destroyed, and their unwillingness to work with those they consider heretics will make certain any negotiations will be met with failure.
The dissent among their leadership can be felt keenly by Marcus d’Ivoire and Winter Ihernglass, officers who are now torn between their loyalties to their general and to their queen. Brilliant and charismatic, Janus is a well-respected commander—even outright worshipped by some—but those closest to him can see there is more to this campaign than meets the eye. The general appears almost fanatical in his determination to take Elysium, which would not be an easy feat. The Priests of the Black have many weapons at their disposal, both of the mundane and supernatural flavor, and they will do anything to try and stop the Vordanai army. But seeing how Janus’ genius has always never steered them wrong before, Raesinia and Marcus and Winter have no choice but to follow along and hope that their general will lead them to victory once again.
One thing I first noted in my review of The Price of Valor, but I think bears mentioning again here, is the fact that every installment in this series seems to introduce a different theme or underlying conflict that pulls that particular novel’s story together. Between The Thousand Names and The Shadow Throne, we witnessed the transition from large-scale battles to more strategic and localized political plotting. The third book, on the other hand, was a more of a combination. Now with this fourth book, while we’re still seeing a lot of military action and politics, Wexler seems to have also adopted a new approach which would allow him to shine a stronger light on his characters, with the focus shifting to their emotions, vulnerabilities, and personal relationships.
There’s something to be said about the epic battles sequences we’ve seen thus far in The Shadow Campaigns, the way they make your heart race and skin prickle. That said though, when The Guns of Empire decided to slow things down to get more up-close-and-personal with character-driven narratives, I didn’t mind at all. In many ways, I might even prefer this change of pace. Sweeping battle scenes are great and all, but then so is reading about the more intimate and subtle interactions between the different characters. I for one am digging the Marcus and Raesinia pairing so hard; their mutual obliviousness to each other’s feelings is just so adorable it makes me want melt. I am of course also heartbroken over Winter and Jane, whose relationship I wish I could elaborate on, but alas, spoilers. Fortunately, I’ve been reading these books enough to know that Winter can take care of herself; she’s hands down the strongest character in this series—both in personality and the way she is written. I love how far she has come, and how she has been able to forge new bonds. And finally, there’s Janus, who has always proven to be unstoppable, indefatigable, invincible…until now, perhaps?
This book also introduces a whole host of new characters, adding more diversity and fantastic personalities to the cast. Among them are a couple figures we’ve met before, if you’ve read the Shadow Campaigns novellas. Alex, who stars in The Penitent Damned, and Abraham, her co-star in The Shadow of Elysium, both finally make their breakout appearances in The Guns of Empire, making me glad that I’ve read the novellas since the two of them are really great characters. You don’t have to have read them to follow along with the story, but I highly recommend them all the same.
From my personal perspective, I think this is one of the stronger sequels in terms of content, though probably more sporadic in pacing. A lot happens within these pages, and sometimes everything hits the fan all at once, while here and there we experience several lulls. There’s a strong sense too that The Guns of Empire is a “middle book”, and not only that, there’s reason to suspect everything had been planned this way because this is also the set-up novel for the big finale. While there’s nothing inherently negative about that, I do think there’s some biding of time here, saving the actual “big guns” for the concluding volume.
Still, despite this restraint, I thought The Guns of Empire was an excellent read. The Shadow Campaigns remains one of my favorite fantasy series, and you can bet your boots and cannons that I won’t wait as long to review the final book once I get my hands on it. I’m very excited to see how it’ll all come together, and if the pattern continues, it’s going to be truly epic....more
After the great time I had with Battlemage, and given my fondness for epic fantasy audiobooks, I decided to switch formats for the second book of the Age of Darkness series and give Bloodmage a try in audio. I was pleased to find that it worked very well, even though the sequel is a very different kind of story from its predecessor.
Bloodmage takes place in the aftermath of the first book, and some months have passed since the great battlemage war. However, the world still lives under dark times, and they’re about to get even darker. A string of disturbing murders have put the city on high alert and the Guardians of the Peace tasked to investigate are baffled by the strange way the victims were killed. At one of the crime scenes, Guardian Byrne finds a corpse entirely drained of life. Soon after, he takes on a protégé named Fray, who is also the son of his former mentor and a powerful magician still learning to master his talents. Together they search for clues to find the killer, and discover that pieces of the puzzle may actually lie in the past.
Meanwhile, Choss, a champion fighter, is involved at an arena where one of the gruesome incidents took place. The incident has not helped the tensions in the underworld, where a secret war has been brewing between the bosses, and soon the violence will spill into the streets unless someone steps up to do something about it. In the shadows, powerful forces are playing a different game, and an undercover agent named Katja in town spying for her foreign queen. A group of dissidents have been plotting against the monarch, and Katja must infiltrate their ranks and disrupt their bloodthirsty plans before they can come to fruition.
Like I said, compared to the first book, Bloodmage takes the story in a very different direction, and with the exception of a few returning faces from Battlemage who play very minor roles in this one, this sequel also stars a whole new cast of characters. If you’re wondering if this makes it possible to read Bloodmage on its own as a standalone, the answer is yes. In fact, this is the second epic fantasy sequel I’ve read this year that follows this trend and I am hoping it will continue; this makes the books so much more accessible and removes the barrier for new readers who might want to jump right in, if the description of Bloodmage piques your interest.
In essence, this book reads and feels much like a murder mystery, so that the tone and style is pretty far removed from Battlemage. The scope of the story is not as vast and there are far less sweeping battles. Instead, almost all of the clashes in this book are carried out on a more local scale—and they’re more personal. Depending on the type of story you were expecting, this can either be a positive or negative thing. I feel we get to know the characters on a deeper level in this book, but we do lose the some of the “epicness” of the setting and conflicts that I love so much in Battlemage. Since it takes time for a mystery to unravel and other conspiracies to play out, the pacing of Bloodmage also feels more gradual and controlled, so that if you liked the powerful momentum of Battlemage you might find the sequel slower and more subdued in comparison.
Personally, I might have preferred the energy of the first book more because I can’t help but be drawn to fast-paced action. On the other hand, I also love a good mystery on occasion, so Bloodmage also appealed to me in this sense. Ultimately, which book works better for you will come down to a matter of taste, but I must also add that this is worth reading if you enjoyed the first book, since here you will get to experience the fallout from its ending. Characters in Bloodmage still speak of the final showdown between Balfruss and the warlock in hushed whispers of awe, transforming the events of the first book into something like legend. And even though the returning characters from Battlemage appear or are mentioned only briefly, it was still interesting to catch up with some of them and see what they’re up to now, especially Talandra and Vargus.
I’m also happy with my experience with the audiobook. I’ve heard good things about narrator Matt Addis from his performance for the audio edition of Battlemage, and he has taken up the role again for the sequel. He does a great job with his tones and inflections, helping distinguish different speakers which is very helpful in a story with a relatively big cast.
Now I’m extremely curious to see what the final installment of the trilogy will bring. Will book three, Chaosmage, be another standalone-type story? Will it tie everything together, drawing from both Battlemage and Bloodmage? What tone will it take and what kind of surprises will it have in store? I’m definitely looking forward to finding out....more
Sunset Mantle is my first venture into Tor.com’s impressive line-up of novellas from their brand spanking new publishing arm. It wasn’t originally on my to-read list, but after hearing it described as a pocket-sized epic fantasy, I decided I had to take a look after all. The idea of a story like that, packed into just over 190 print copy pages really intrigued me.
The book’s protagonist is Cete, a former hero now in exile. Dismissed from his command both in honor and disgrace, he wanders the Reaches in search for a new place to call home. His travels lead him to Reach Antach, a settlement doomed to fall in the coming storm of infighting among several factions. But before Cete can turn on his heels and leave, a chance meeting with a blind woman in her shop changes everything.
Hanging there on display is the sunset mantle, beauty and light embroidered in cloth. The fine craftsmanship touches Cete in a way he cannot understand; all he knows is that he must have it, and if he can’t, he would want to commission a garment for himself from the shopkeeper and weaver, Marelle. To afford the commission and to stay in Reach Antach, Cete would have to find employment, and to find employment, Cete was going to have to go back to doing what he knows best. Once a fighting man, always a fighting man. However, being in the army also means being embroiled in the politics and schemes of the various clans trying to destroy Reach Antach, and even as his relationship with Marelle deepens, Cete’s fight eventually becomes more than just the mantle and even more than love.
This story left with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I am beyond impressed with author Alter S. Reiss’s marvelous success at laying out Cete’s journey from outcast to legendary warrior, all within this very slim volume. Sunset Mantle is not a “true” epic fantasy per se, with no magical element, and nor does it span a gazillion kingdoms or have enough points-of-view to populate a small village. There is, however, enough political intrigue to fill two fantasy worlds. This degree of complexity is not something I would have expected from a novella, and it also makes the scope of the story feel much, much bigger than the thin slice of what we get to see. Reiss gets a lot more accomplished in under two hundred pages than it takes some other authors to do the same thing in novels three to four times as thick. It does have a way of making you stop and wonder just how much gratuitous or unnecessary flourish goes into some of these doorstoppers.
I also really liked Cete as a protagonist as well as the nature of his relationship with Marelle, which goes much deeper than a romantic union. The trust and honesty between them is a rare thing to find indeed, even between two lovers. Cete sees Marelle as his equal, taking her guidance and respecting her need to do what she believes is right, even if it means letting her put herself in harm’s way. Cete also treats his own soldiers with that same practical respect. He is a man of honor and duty, as evidenced by the loyalty he shows Reach Antach, even though he came to them as a stranger and outcast. Other highlights include the battle scenes, which are quick but powerful, making the most out of the restrictive page count.
That said, the book wastes no words in establishing the situation surrounding Reach Antach and the city clans. Blink, and you could potentially miss something important. Ironically, it made Sunset Mantle a slower read, and it doesn’t give you much time to chew on the plot or characters. In fact, most of my questions came later, after I had finished the book and had some time to mull over what I just read. It made me realize a lack of background information made the story a little harder to understand, and sometimes that uncertainty or need to re-read a passage or two distracted from my enjoyment and prevented me from being fully engaged. Simply put, the overall style of the narrative begs to be savored, but the format is not that well suited for it.
Still, there’s something to be said about something as special as Sunset Mantle. It’s true I would have preferred a bit more breathing room, but that is not an uncommon complaint from me when it comes to novellas and short fiction. I’m usually very picky about this format, which is probably why I don’t read as much of it as I should. All things considered, I was actually quite pleased with this novella, which for me is saying a lot....more
A departure from his Raven’s Shadow trilogy, Anthony Ryan’s latest novel The Waking Fire is the start of a new series featuring a compelling blend of fantasy, adventure, and intrigue. And if there was one thing I learned from reading Queen of Fire, it’s that Ryan has a talent for writing amazing scenes of battle on the high seas—which are also plentiful in this new book. Then, there are the dragons. Oh, we mustn’t forget the dragons.
In this fascinating new world of The Draconis Memoria, no other commodity is prized above what the people call “product”, a deceptively innocuous term for something in fact truly magical and amazing: Dragon’s blood. By itself, product is unremarkable—volatile and dangerous, even—save for the powers it bestows to a very small slice of the population known as the blood-blessed, those rare men and women who are literally one in a thousand. Their abilities that manifest are so advantageous and formidable, that entire industries have been dedicated to the harvesting of dragon blood, either from hunting the creatures or taking it from those kept in captivity. Unfortunately though, over-exploitation has depleted their numbers in the wild, and those in the Ironship Syndicate who have noticed this weakening have real fears that the ensuing shortage of product will lead to war with their neighbors in the Corvantine Empire.
However, a group in the Syndicate has been clandestinely following up on the whispers of a rare breed of drake. Ancient texts tell of the White, a dragon that is supposed to be far more powerful than the commonplace Reds, Greens, Blacks and Blues. By all accounts, the white dragon is a myth—but there are those who believe with all their hearts that it exists and would do whatever it takes to get their hands on its blood, a treasure worth beyond anything imagined.
The Waking Fire tells a story of how three disparate characters find themselves on a quest to seek this elusive creature of legend. First there’s Claydon Torcreek, who is not just your run-of-the-mill slippery thief. That’s because Clay is also a blood-blessed, albeit unregistered, using his powers to give himself an advantage over his fellow criminals and scoundrels. Then one day, he gets arrested and pressed into his Uncle Braddon’s service. As it happens, Braddon is about to embark on a journey which would require someone of Clay’s talents. Next up is Corrick Hilemore, an officer newly assigned to an ironship, whose captain is in the early stages of testing out a faster, more powerful engine. As a character, Hilemore didn’t really stand out for me, and it was also a while before we saw his sections relate to the overall story. Still, I have to say his chapters were undoubtedly some of the most exciting (see earlier comment about amazing ship battles!) filled with encounters with pirates and with Corvantine enemy forces. But by far my favorite character was probably Lizanne Lethridge, a spy and assassin tasked by her superior to gather intelligence which would help in the hunt for the white drake. Lizanne embodies everything I love about female spy characters—disciplined and efficient, but also smart and independent enough to not blindly follow orders when her gut instinct tells her something isn’t right.
I also enjoyed Anthony Ryan’s dragons, even though they are more incidental than anything, for it is their blood that is the focus on this story. The power that a blood-blessed can summon upon consuming product will depend on the type of dragon the blood came from. A useful maxim to remember is “Blue for the mind, Green for the body, Red for the fire, Black for the push.” The idea of a “gifted” section of the populace being able to gain a variety of physical and mental enhancements or abilities from chugging certain kinds of substances is definitely not new (for instance, Brandon Sanderson’s magic system in Mistborn immediately comes to mind) but I liked how Ryan incorporated the dragon mythos, and he made it conceivable that uncanny powers can be derived from the essence of these magical creatures.
The plot pacing is a bit uneven, but to be fair that’s not something uncommon for a lot of these big epic fantasy novels. I liked that the book hooked me in straight away, the first ten or so pages of the prologue introducing a riddle which sets the tone for the rest of the story. The three character perspectives are well-balanced and explores multiple facets of the story in depth as well as a great deal of what’s happening around the world. If you enjoy fantasy quest narratives and all that comes along with them, then you should also have a great time following Clay, Lizanne and Hilemore on their individual trials and challenges. As with any long journey, the three of them will experience exciting adventures but also plenty of downtime to regroup and recuperate. Always though, the plot presses forward with its intrigues and character development. By the time the book ended, I was practically screaming at that cliffhanger.
Overall I really enjoyed this book. I was left with a couple thoughts when I finished. First of all, Anthony Ryan has seriously upped his game. The Waking Fire is proof that his debut trilogy Raven’s Shadow was just a taste of more to come from that brilliant mind of his. And the second thought on my mind of course was: WHEN WILL WE GET THE SEQUEL? I’m definitely on board with this new series!...more
After my wonderful time with Victor Milán’s The Dinosaur Lords last year, I was understandably quite anxious to take on the sequel The Dinosaur Knights. However, there were some aspects with this follow-up that made me think the honeymoon period might be coming to an end. While I still love the epic-fantasy-meets-dinosaurs premise behind this series, admittedly the magic has faded somewhat due to this book’s uneven pacing and my growing dissatisfaction with a couple key characters.
The Dinosaur Knights continues the narrative from the first novel, following more or less the same handful of characters. In the Empire of Neuvaropa, a fictional land reminiscent of 14th century Europe, everything is in turmoil as rumors of a Grey Angel Crusade lead desperate men to form the most unlikely of alliances. We pick up Rob Korrigan’s story in the pacifist town of Providence, where the dinosaur master and his friend the famed noble captain Karyl Bogomirskiy are on trial for their perceived crimes against the adherents of the Garden of Truth and Beauty. At the same time, Princess Melodía and her maidservant Pilar are on the run after escaping imprisonment in the palace from the traitor Duke Falk von Hornberg. Eventually, their search for a safe haven leads them to Providence, where the fates of our major characters finally converge.
Meanwhile, Melodía’s lover and Karyl’s rival the Count Jaume dels Flors has joined forces with Emperor Felipe, hatching up an insane plan in the hopes of stopping the Creators’ Grey Angels from returning to Paradise. As war erupts across Neuvaropa, even those who just want to withdraw into peace and isolation are swept up in the rising wave of fear and madness. Worst of all, despite the extreme efforts by the Empire, there’s no telling whether the weapons of the Gods can even be stopped.
First, the good news: All this will ultimately culminate into one hell of a climax and ending. The bad news? I felt like I had to plod through more than 200 pages just to reach the point where things start getting interesting. I experienced little to no emotional engagement or suspense for the first half of the book, because it was impossible to shake the pesky feeling that the author was simply biding his time until he could maneuver all his characters into place, after which he can finally usher in the real action.
I was also disappointed with the characters, especially Princess Melodía, the only female POV in a cast dominated by men. She was my favorite from The Dinosaur Lords, and my one regret was not seeing her play a more significant role compared to Rob or Jaume. In a way, I got my wish granted, since Melodía received a lot more page time in The Dinosaur Knights, though I remain unconvinced this was actually an improvement. I didn’t like the way her character was repeatedly set up to be duped or to make mind-bogglingly bad decisions, undermining the hard won admiration she earned from the previous book. Then there was Rob, who frequently displays more respect and compassion towards his dinosaurs than his fellow human beings, which is especially apparent when it comes to his sexual objectification of women. I don’t usually let this kind of stuff get to me, but there were so many unnecessary allusions in this vein that even I couldn’t help but notice. With Melodía being almost useless for the first half of this novel, and Rob going from passably charming to downright insufferable, it was harder to engage with the characters this time around.
Happily, the dinosaurs are still amazing. For one thing, I just love the smattering of chapters we get from Shiraa the Allosaurus’ point of view. These brief glimpses into the dinosaur’s head can be a bit incongruous, but I can’t help but appreciate them for being one of the series’ cooler idiosyncrasies. Furthermore, Milán continues to excel at writing fantastic dino-battle scenes. They’re the real highlights of this novel, with the largescale combat sequences in the final section going a long way in making up for a humdrum first half.
This sequel also delves deeper into the lore of the Creators and their Grey Angels. With dinosaurs and angels, this series is really starting to build into something a lot more complex than I had anticipated when I first picked up The Dinosaur Lords. And while world-building continues to be a work-in-progress and we still don’t have all the answers, I admit I’m curious to see how all the puzzle pieces will fall into place.
It should come as no surprise then, that I still have plans on continuing this series. It’s true that I felt the second book slump with this one, but several promising developments in the last half of the book also give me hope that the third installment will pick things up again. Plus, there’s no dismissing those final climactic chapters, and with the book ending with the Empire of Neuvaropa in even more of a mess than when we started, I’m definitely keen on finding out where our characters will go from here....more
Ever wondered what a tournament joust would look like, if both opponents were charging full-tilt towards each other while mounted on three tons of bellowing hadrosaurus? Honestly, I can’t say I have. But Victor Milán has shown me the light, and it is glorious.
Knights and dinosaurs. Tell me you can resist that, because I know I couldn’t.
The Dinosaur Lords takes place in the Empire of Neuvaropa, a fictional land reminiscent of 14th century Europe. The story opens with a great battle. Famed noble captain Karyl Bogomirskiy and his mercenary Triceratops army (though Karyl himself rides Shiraa the magnificent matador, an Allosaurus) are betrayed and then promptly crushed by the forces of Count Jaume Llobregat and Duke Falk von Hornberg. Karyl dies and is resurrected — twice, actually – and eventually joins up with dinosaur master Rob Korrigan to travel to Providence, where they are recruited by the adherents of the Garden of Truth and Beauty to defend their lands and train their troops.
Meanwhile in the capital, the princess Melodía awaits the return of her lover Jaume from his campaign. She becomes increasingly concerned over the war, as well as the rivalries and intrigues within her father’s court. It is especially troubling, given how easily influenced the emperor can be without the presence of his right hand man. Furthermore, unbeknownst to all, the Eight Creator’s mysterious cadre of Grey Angels stand witness to the games of power playing out before them – watching…and waiting.
This is a fantastic introduction to a new series featuring engaging characters and a fun and addictive story. But let’s first talk about the dinosaurs, and about how they make everything better. If that’s what initially drew you to The Dinosaur Lords, you’re probably not alone; I myself confess that they were the huge driving force behind me finally breaking down and requesting a copy of this for review. And yet, the presence of dinos is far from being just a shtick to draw attention. Milán has deftly integrated them fully into the fantasy world of his novel, portraying his vision of a human culture that evolved side-by-side with these creatures.
Not surprisingly, a myriad species of dinosaurs in this story have been domesticated by people for different uses, including but not limited to food, beasts of burden, beloved companions, and of course, prized mounts. Ultimately, dinosaurs are undeniably an integral part the characters’ everyday lives – their folklore, their traditions and even their metaphors. They’re so ubiquitous that a lot of the time, you forget they’re even there, so seamlessly are they incorporated into the world-building. As you can imagine, there are endless possibilities when it comes to the role of dinosaurs in a medieval-like setting. The author explores many of them, and as a result, we readers win. I was especially impressed and thrilled by the battle scenes involving the mounted cavalr—er, dinosaurry. To paraphrase Jaume, a knight’s greatest weapon is his war-dinosaur, and vice versa.
By the way, have I mentioned the beautiful flavor artwork that adorns the first page of each chapter?
Featuring a huge variety of species, this book will be a real treat for any dinosaur lover. And you can imagine my relief to have my kid’s Big Book of Dinosaurs on hand to look up the “true names” of all those described in these pages.
I could probably go on at length about the dinosaurs, but of course this isn’t just all about them. For once a cover blurb actually rings true for me after I read the book. Within the first handful of chapters, the story’s “Game of Thrones vibe” made itself apparent with a focus on courtly politics and the fates of kings, princesses, and nobles on the line. Probably not surprising that The Dinosaur Lords is just as much about lords is it is about dinosaurs. Leaving all the things like dinosaurs and the gigantic insects of this world aside though, there’s actually little in the way of fantasy elements apart from a very subtle thread of magic woven in. Thus even though this world is not our own, it’s easier to imagine this book as a historical fantasy rather than a general epic.
Story-wise, with the exception of a couple instances in the middle where I thought the quick bouncing back and forth of POVs was erratic and perplexing, the narrative was generally well-structured and the pacing was spot on. My only other regret was not seeing Melodía, who was my favorite, in a more significant role relative to Rob’s or Jaume’s. This isn’t the first time I’ve read a series-starter feeling that the main female character was underused compared to other perspective characters, and I hope she’ll feature more prominently in the sequel and have a stronger effect on the story.
I guess that addresses the question of whether or not I’ll continue with the series. My answer is absolutely, yes, sign me up for the next book! Fan of dinosaurs? Then you’ve got to read this novel. Even if you do pick this up for love of dinosaurs alone, you’re guaranteed to leave with a lot more than just that, no matter what. Totally worth it....more
There’s so much to say about The Red Queen’s War series, even more so now that I’ve finished this third and final installment and realized to my joy and horror that yes, my time with the remarkable Prince Jalan and his crew has indeed come to an end. Taken as a whole, this trilogy may be Mark Lawrence’s finest work ever, and this stunning conclusion that is The Wheel of Osheim has left me with my mind completely blown.
After we were left with that cruel cliffhanger at the end of The Liar’s Key, I just couldn’t wait to see what would happen next. And indeed, The Wheel of Osheim is a book that will ultimately reveal all—though admittedly in its own time and in its own way. It’s a story that guards its secrets jealously, opening with a bizarre sequence that sets the beginning of this novel in stark contrast to the terrors experienced by the characters on the journey to get where they are. In fact, if there was ever an award given for “Most Hilarious Escape from Hell”, I have a feeling Jalan will remain the undisputed champion for years to come.
His goals to ditch Loki’s key and return to his old life of drinking, gambling, and womanizing don’t go as planned either, as he returns home to Vermillion to find everything changed. The end of the world is said to be coming, caused by a large construct in the north called the Wheel of Osheim. All of reality will unravel as the Wheel turns faster, unless someone is willing to go into the heart of it to shut it down. In the middle of this looming threat, an old enemy also makes its move, taking advantage of the confusion to make a bold strike at Jalan in the capital of Red March. Our poor, luckless protagonist has never wanted to be a hero, but unfortunately even a coward has to step up sometime.
Yep, this one’s all on Jalan, and don’t you doubt it for a second. Though his friends Snorri, Kara, and Hennan are also along for this crazy ride, most of this book is driven by our main character, who has all but shed his former persona by replacing the insouciance with actual initiative and responsibility. The impending destruction of the world isn’t the only reason why he can’t go back to his old life; it’s because he’s also not the old Jalan. That said, this change is not something that occurs overnight. We’ve actually been seeing this shift in Jalan’s personality since the last book, and only now are we seeing the results of that transformation. Thankfully though, Jalan still retains a lot of what made him the “Prince of Fools” we fell in love with when this series first started. While his experiences in the past year have hardened his soft edges and impressed upon him a sense of honor, he’s still far from the picture of gallantry—and I’m perfectly fine with that.
With Jalan coming into his own though, it did mean seeing a bit less of the supporting characters. Not even Snorri presents himself in the flesh until later in the book, but we do get to witness snippets of his and Jal’s time in Hell together, woven into the early parts of the story. Compared to the books that came before, The Wheel of Osheim has a more distinct “ethereal” vibe, due in part to the structure of the narrative as well as the strange, otherworldly nature of the main conflict.
I also found the story to be darker, a lot twistier. The tensions between the Red Queen and the Blue Lady have been building up for a while now, and their war finally comes to a head in this book. More puzzle pieces also fall into place as Jalan encounters Jorg once more, further linking the events of The Red Queen’s War to those of The Broken Empire. How surreal it was to watch these two very different young men get drunk together and give each other life advice. And finally, we get a lot more background into the mysterious Builders. The revelations here confirm that Lawrence is still the undefeated master at turning this genre on its head; with six novels by him under my belt, you’d think I would be used to the surprises by now, but somehow he still manages to amaze me every single time.
Still, when it comes down to what makes this novel truly special—and why I loved this entire trilogy, really—my reasons are actually quite straightforward. Very simply, this book made me laugh. There’s horror and darkness in this series, but also genuine humor. Few books in this genre can claim to be funny in the traditional sense, but then, most books in this genre don’t have a protagonist like Prince Jalan. He was a coward, a cheat, and a liar (and still a bit of all those things, I admit) but it didn’t matter; because of the fantastic way he was written, I loved him from the start. Jalan is, I’m convinced, an honest-to-goodness once in a lifetime character, the likes of which we’ll never see again. Now that the trilogy is over, I’m going to miss him very much.
What else is there left to say, really? The Wheel of Osheim is a masterpiece. You need to read The Red Queen’s War trilogy. The end. Full stop....more
The Price of Valor is the third book of The Shadow Campaigns, of which five books have been planned so we are officially now past the half-way point. An epic fantasy series is often at its most precarious when we get to this tricky place between the introduction and the ending, where arguably the best action and excitement is usually packed. However, it appears Django Wexler is not content to slow things down or let his story languish. Not only does he succeed in carrying through the momentum for the rest of the series, he’s also transformed this middle book into an important turning point.
So far, each installment of the series has given readers something different. Book one The Thousand Names threw us into the middle of a war and treated us to many scenes of large-scale conflict and sweeping battles. Book two The Shadow Throne reined in the scope, concentrating instead on the politics and subsequent revolution in the capital of Vordan. Now book three The Price of Valor is like an amalgamation of both, so that half the narrative remains in the city in the wake of the successful uprising, while the other half takes us back onto the bloody battlefields.
In the wake of her father’s death, Princess Raesenia is now the queen. After an attempt is made on her life, she suspects that the new leader of the Deputies-General is responsible, and goes undercover to search for evidence. Remaining behind in the capital as the representative of the army, Colonel Marcus d’Ivoire finds himself teaming up with the young queen, tasked to protect her and to help her root out those who want her dead. Little does he know though, Raesenia might have a secret or two up her sleeve which would actually make her rather hard to kill…
Meanwhile, Winter Ihernglass is back out in the east, trying to win the war for General Janus bet Vhalnich. She has been promoted and given her own regiment to command, including the new all-women company called the Girl’s Own, though ironically Winter’s own gender still remains a secret to the army, save for a few individuals who are in the know. Among those who are aware of Winter’s secret is her lover Jane, whose hatred for the contingent of Royals in the regiment is making Winter’s job very difficult. Lurking behind the scenes are also the agents of an ancient order called the Priests of the Black, whose Penitent Damned will harness the power of their demons to do whatever it takes to stop the Vordanai army and retrieve the priceless magical artifact known as The Thousand Names.
I was so pleased to see that the military action is back in full force for this sequel. Taking a break to delve into political intrigue and rebellion in book two was a nice change of pace, but I admit my interest mostly lies in the war campaign and the huge battles. Wexler doesn’t disappoint, throwing in plenty of heart-racing encounters with the enemy. Reading some of Winter’s chapters was a little like watching a session of wargames play out across a vast gameboard, with troop actions directed by a shrewd chessmaster who is aware of every piece’s location at all times. In point of fact, these qualities closely describe Janus bet Vhalnich, the military genius whose presence is actually quite limited in the first half of the novel, which made the wargames analogy that much more apt in my mind.
The general’s craftiness is not lost on Jane either, and Winter’s storyline is also made more interesting by the increasingly strained relationship between the two women. Winter’s loyalties are put to the test when she is made to choose between the two things she holds most dear, and I have to hand it to the author for not making that choice trivial. There’s a lot of development to Winter’s character in this book, and I respect her all the more for the difficult decisions she’s had to make about her lover, whom I’ve taken to calling “Insufferable Jane” due to all the problems she’s caused (and that’s already one of my more polite names for her). The road to the eventual camaraderie between the Girl’s Own and the Royals was also fun to read, and made for a good side plot to lighten up the otherwise heavy narrative focused on intense fighting and the resulting casualties.
Still, I was wrong when I thought the best part about this book would be the military action, because what surprised me was how much I enjoyed Marcus and Raesenia’s storyline back in the city of Vordan. Raesenia really grew on me back when she was introduced in The Shadow Throne and I was happy to see her return as a POV character in this one. To see her partner up with Marcus – who has always been my favorite character in these novels – was a real treat. Together they make a great team (and dare I hope, could Wexler be planting the seeds of something more happening between them in the future?) and their investigations into the corrupt government saw their Vordan chapters culminate into one hell of an epic showdown with the Patriot Guards and the Penitent Damned.
Speaking of which, we’re definitely making some real headway into the overall story. I’ve been wondering since the end of the first book when we’ll see some major advancement into the conflict caused by the discovery of The Thousand Names, and when the Black Priests will show their hand. Looks like this book is where it all happens. I did say The Price of Valor is a turning point, and you’ll see why. Even after three books, the impact of the stories have not dulled a single bit.
Needless to say, I’m very excited for the next installment. It’s easy to get caught up in The Shadow Campaigns. Django Wexler’s riveting world of dark magic and martial action featuring strong characters – and especially strong women – is one I’ll want to visit again and again. Military fantasy at its finest....more
“Not all wars are fought with swords and spears, and not all foes are found on the battlefield. The times are changing, brother, and we must change along with them.”
I think it’s safe to say, if you loved The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu’s phenomenal debut that took the genre by storm last year, you will also be blown away by its magnificent sequel. Liu’s prose is as beautiful and lyrically expressive as ever as we dive once more into this scintillating world where history and mythology collide. You will again be met with epic battles and court intrigue, the triumphs of victory and heartaches of defeat, the timeless fiery passions and ambitions of people touched by fate.
And yet, like the above quote so poignantly suggests, the winds of change are sweeping across the realm, and The Wall of Storms is a story of transformation and adaptation. The empire of Dara still faces challenges but now they come in other guises, and those who want to survive will need to learn to understand the forces they are up against. Conflicts come from both within and without, and yet sometimes your foes are not flesh and blood but philosophies and concepts.
Hence the war continues, even though the long uprising is over and Kuni Garu now sits on Dara’s throne as emperor. In the first part of the novel, we look at how the clashes have persisted, though now the focus has shifted from the arts of war to the scholarly ways of learning. We also have another generation enter the equation. The book begins as Emperor Kuni’s children—Timu, Phyro, Thera, and Fara—sneak out of the palace to enjoy a day of listening to stories in a local tavern. Through the storyteller, we are briefly brought up to speed on the tumultuous relationship between Kuni Garu and the now deceased legendary warlord Mata Zyndu, a subject which was a major part of The Grace of Kings. All hell breaks loose, however, when a disgruntled patron in the crowd accuses the storyteller of sedition for glorifying Zyndu, the Emperor’s one-time friend turned bitter rival. Thankfully, someone else steps in to defend the storyteller and tavern-goers—a character who is new to the series but whom nonetheless plays a very important role in this novel.
Zomi Kidosu is her name, and much of The Wall of Storms is dedicated to the story of her life. The first half of this book tells of Zomi growing up in a poor fishing village, scarred and crippled from an accident which left her with little prospects for the future. But fate leads her to a chance encounter with Luan Zya, the wandering philosopher and former adviser to the emperor. Recognizing Zomi’s intelligence and latent potential, Luan decides to take the girl on as a student, and thus begins one of the most beautiful and heartfelt friendships I have ever read.
Zomi’s efforts eventually lead her to sit the Imperial Examinations. Once again, we can see how history has inspired Ken Liu’s writing and the world of The Dandelion Dynasty. It was a delightful surprise when I saw that the author had taken a fascinating piece of history from ancient China—the real Imperial examination system—and mirrored it for his purposes here. Intended as a way to select the best candidates for civil service, the examinations were indeed as tough and exclusive as Liu portrayed them in this book. Such exams helped shape ancient China’s history, and over time became one reason for the shift from militaristic policies to more scholarly and bureaucratic ones in the early dynasties—a shift that is happening in Dara as well, as this sequel hints. The examinations also encouraged cultural unity, and that really fits one of the key themes in both The Grace of Kings and The Wall of Storms: the idea that there’s more than one way to win a war and conquer your vassals. Again, we talk about change in this sequel—like putting down swords and picking up pens instead.
But if you think this book is going to be dominated by talk of the scholarly pursuits, you are also mistaken. The second half of the book goes back to all out warfare as a rebellion threatens the stability of Dara. In addition to that, a mysterious force also invades from beyond the wall of storms. This is where Princess Thera steps up and becomes an impressive figure in her own right, pushing back against her detractors who are practically in fits at the absurd idea that a mere woman can hold and wield power. These attitudes are summarily smacked down as the sexist, stupid views they are as Thera proves why she is regarded by her father as the strongest and wisest of his children.
Indeed, in this sequel, the women steal the show. I think those who noted the relative absence of major female characters in the previous book will be happy to see that this is not the case here. Between Zomi and Thera, we have two very influential women rocking these pages, but there’s also the behind-the-scenes conflict at court between Empress Jia and consort Risana. While their war of wills involves more subtle attacks rather than overt fighting, it very much parallels the battle of ideologies we saw between Kuni and Mata in the first book. Yet another example of The Wall of Storms displaying familiar themes, but coming at them with a different approach.
Still, the evolution and transformation of this series notwithstanding, if you didn’t take to the style of The Grace of Kings, you’ll probably experience the same issues with this sequel. Liu’s writing is elegant and rich, and like I said in my review of the first book, his evocative prose is meant to be savored. Together with the mini-tales and historical asides he injects into the main plot though, this can sometimes slow the pacing and weigh down the overall story. But if, like me, you were enchanted with this book’s predecessor and enjoyed every moment of its epic, far-reaching narrative, you will love The Wall of Storms just as much if not more.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: whether he’s penning short stories or 800+ page novels, Ken Liu’s writing is so inspiring. If you are a fan of epic fantasy and you haven’t read The Grace of Kings yet, you are missing out on some of the best writing and storytelling this genre has to offer. Now having finished The Wall of Storms, this sequel only served to cement this series in my mind as a true work of art....more
I love Epic Fantasy for many reasons, not least of which is the fact every book is a portal to a whole new world. But when you read as much as this genre as I do, you sure get to visit a lot of them. That is why, when every once in a while I come across a setting that truly stands out, I sit up and take note. And Bradley P. Beaulieu’s Twelve Kings in Sharakhai made me do just that.
Right from the start I was captivated by the magnificent desert city of Sharakhai, where this novel takes place. Surrounded by a literal ocean of dust and sand, this political and cultural trade center attracts all manner of visitors. From merchants to dignitaries, they sail across the dunes in great sand-ships to treat with the city’s kings, twelve immortal men who have held power in Sharakhai since time immemorial. However, not all people are happy with their rule, and many remember the injustices wrought upon them by the kings and their ruthless agents.
The novel’s protagonist Çeda is one such individual. When she was eight years old, her mother was a rebel captured and executed by the kings, then hung from Sharakhai’s walls as a warning and example to other detractors. Çeda has sworn vengeance ever since. Now more than a decade has passed, and Çeda is still as determined as ever to take down the twelve kings, with the help of a book of cryptic writings left to her by her mother. Unlocking the book’s puzzles will not be easy though, and there are many questions about her own heritage that must be solved before Çeda can bring the fight to her enemies.
So many thoughts filled my mind when I finished this book, I’m not even sure where to begin. Beaulieu weaves a complex tale of intrigue, employing devices like flashbacks and bringing in other characters points-of-view to great effect. In many ways, Çeda’s story plays out almost like a mystery plot, following her on a journey to uncover clues about the twelve kings’ weaknesses while also revealing details about her own past and the secrets her mother kept from her. Flashback chapters are generally tricky to pull off, but I was impressed with the way they were done here, inserted at precisely the best moments to emphasize important events in the characters’ lives.
Çeda is also a wonderful main character, one of the best female protagonists I have encountered in years. We open the novel with a scene from the fighting pits, where she is a competitor in the tourney. Right after a phenomenal combat sequence which ends with Çeda serving her opponent his ass on a platter, she then goes on to engage in an intensely passionate tryst with the fighting pit’s owner. If all this was part of Beaulieu’s attempt to capture the reader’s attention right off the bat, well, it certainly worked on me! More importantly though, I got the sense that Çeda is her own woman. She does what she wants but she’s also smart about it, and she is committed to her goals and utterly loyal to those she cares about.
The story also introduces several more major characters, first of which is Emre – Çeda’s childhood friend, partner in crime, and brother of her heart. As Çeda’s mission takes her down one path, Emre’s involvement with the underground resistance takes him down another, leading the two friends to drift apart. But what I love about this story is that nothing about it is black and white, and there’s much more to it than simply good versus evil. The twelve kings may be ruthless and cruel, but the rebels – a group calling themselves the Moonless Host – are far from innocent themselves, employing methods that are just as bloody and destructive. The relationship dynamics between Emre and Çeda become a focal point when the two of them end up on opposite sides, fighting for the same cause while driven by different forces. Throw in a third faction, Ramahd and Meryam of the Qaimiri delegation, and it gets even more difficult to tell friend from foe. As with the best and most realistic stories of fluid loyalties and political intrigue, there is absolutely nothing clear-cut about the situation and the plot will keep you wondering who’s an enemy and who’s an ally every step of the way.
While Beaulieu never stops challenging his characters, the world building in this novel is where his skills really shine. The many distinct cultures that feature in the pages of Twelve Kings in Sharakhai provided a diverse setting, which is further fleshed out by its rich history, religions, and various magic systems. The many sights and sounds of the city are brought to life by the stunningly detailed descriptions of important locales, from the decadent halls of the Tauriyat to the blooming fields of adichara plants in the surrounding desert. The world-building also made up for the slower pacing of the first half of the novel, because there were just so many wonderful things to take in.
All told, the payoff was definitely worth it. A promising start to a new series, Twelve Kings in Sharakhai offers readers a glimpse into Bradley P. Beaulieu’s talent for storytelling as well as his emerging role as a master world-builder. With its many different peoples and cultures, Sharakhai’s desert setting was utterly spellbinding. I also found myself enthralled by the plot’s combination of adventure and intrigue, along with the richness and depth of the characters. Books like this keep the epic fantasy genre fresh and diversified, and I am very excited to see what the future holds for The Song of the Shattered Sands series....more
This review is for the “Author’s Definitive Edition” of The Unremembered. What does this verbiage spell for the book, exactly? According to an interview I found, author Peter Orullian made a ton of changes for this re-issue, many of which were not just limited to minor adjustments like adding an excerpt or fixing a typo here and there, though there was certainly some of that involved too. In fact, there are significant differences between this and the original (but Orullian also assures that those who read the latter will be able to transition into the sequel just fine), like about fifteen thousand words added in, but even more cut out. So, unlike a lot of Author’s Editions, this new version is actually substantially shorter than the original. It’s all supposed to make a stronger book – trimming the fat, bolstering what needed to be bolstered, fixing the pace, improving character development, etc.
I’ve not read the original, so I can’t really speak to whether or not the Author’s Definitive Edition met its goals, but finding out all that information did make me curious about this book. It’s so rare that an author gets a chance to do this, and I wanted to see the end result.
The Unremembered opens with a god condemned by the rest of the pantheon for creating a world filled with terrifying creatures, upsetting the divine balance. As punishment, he is sent to live for eternity with his abominations in the Bourne. Thousands of years later, the focus shifts to the perspective of a villager named Tahn who encounters nightmarish creatures around his home and the lands of the Hollows. Mysterious strangers arrive in town, and one of them – an old man named Vendanj – warns Tahn of great danger. A tear between the realms has resulted in the evil things from the Quiet entering the world, putting everything in peril.
Together with his sister Wendra and his friend Sutter, Tahn sets off on a quest with Vendanj and the old man’s other companions, the Sodalist Braethen and the beautiful-but-deadly warrior Mira. Tahn has no idea where this quest will take him, but he is all too aware that the world is depending on him and his group to stop the darkness from swallowing up everything he knows and loves.
The Hero’s Journey immediately comes to mind. The Unremembered is exactly that, pulling in the familiar tropes in the genre for this traditional quest narrative. This makes it a tough book to review. On the one hand, many of the themes can be recognized as the conventional and rehashed ideas from well-known fantasy classics, and though I wouldn’t exactly describe the story as generic, I can’t exactly call it original either. On the other hand though, there’s a certain charm and appeal to reading a book that harkens back to the days of old-school fantasy, almost like slipping on a worn but comfortable and much-loved sweater. As with all books in general, I suspect how you feel about this one will entirely depend on the sort of mood you’re in.
Still, that’s not to say Peter Orullian brings nothing to the genre. I find his world and characters intriguing, and whether or not this has to do with the changes he made in this edition, I liked his writing style and found it flowed very smoothly. His world-building is deep and very detailed, and his characters – while playing a bit to clichés – are people you can relate to. After all, archetypes such as The Hero are popular because they resonate with us. Tahn is likeable in that role, and his companions also play out their respective parts nicely. Orullian fleshes out his characters and gives them individual traits that make them memorable, even if they are present in a derivative capacity.
Is The Unremembered perfect? No, but I still enjoyed reading it. It’s well-paced, probably much improved from the original version is my guess. Some scenes carry a lot of weight, and in these the author does a fantastic job with the atmosphere, highlighting tough choices and the consequences of making them. Sometimes, it can get very poignant and emotional in keeping tensions high and the reader hooked on every word. As well, at a certain point in the book, the story diverges into two different threads, which threw some variation into the mix.
Ultimately, I don’t know if I would recommend this book to everyone, but I imagine there will be fantasy readers who will enjoy it. If you’re looking for something wildly fresh and original, this probably won’t be it. But if you’re feeling nostalgic for some traditional epic fantasy reminiscent of The Wheel of Time or The Lord of the Rings, then it’s quite possible that this could work for you. Personally I thought this was a decent read, and I felt invested enough that I will most likely read the sequel....more
I first became aware of Battlemage in the Spring of 2015 and knew right then and there that I had to check it out. Because come on, BATTLEMAGES! Also known as the heavy-hitters of Fantasyland. They. Are. Awesome. As you can guess, I ended up devouring this book pretty quickly. Not only do I love the premise, I also found it to be an extraordinary easy read because of its style and down-to-earth traditional story.
Needless to say, if you’re a fan of mages, wizards, sorcerers, or any of those magician types, you won’t be disappointed. Balfruss is our main battlemage character, one of six who has answered the King of Seveldrom’s call to arms against the mad Emperor Taikon’s invading army from Zecorria. It is said that their enemy is led by a powerful battlemage known as the Warlock, prompting the need for Balfruss and the powers that he and others like him can provide.
While the battlemages combine their efforts, the war is also fought on the frontlines by thousands of unranked soldiers. Among them is Vargus, an aging mercenary who has sworn an oath to fight, even if it means leaving the quiet village that was his home for the last forty years. Gradually, his name becomes known in the army camps for the morale and camaraderie he has instilled in his fellow soldiers, creating a brotherhood that fights as one. And of course, no war is fought without a network of spies and agents in the shadows, led by Talandra, princess of Seveldrom and keeper of all secrets. Taikon of Zecorria may have sparked this religious war under false pretenses, but as the clever and resourceful Talandra proves, two can play at that game.
What really worked for me was the pacing of this novel and the fact that its momentum was almost always a constant. This made Battlemage a very quick and easy read, as I alluded to in my introduction. There is very little downtime, and also plenty of action and battle scenes. Essentially, these fell into two categories, reflecting the reality of a war fought on two fronts – one with magic, and the other with the sword. There’s a good mix of these, so that the plot doesn’t get too repetitive. Balfruss and the battlemages fight in abstract and magical ways that deal more with the mind, while the soldiers like Vargus utilize more direct methods like blades, shields, and just plain muscle strength. Stephen Aryan’s writing style is also very straightforward and casual, so it took very little effort to simply dive right into the story.
Of the characters, I enjoyed all of them but hands down Talandra was my favorite. Balfruss and Vargus are great, but ultimately they are rather standard archetypes for their roles, while Talandra broke the mold in many more ways to become the most interesting. Also, off the top of my head I can name several examples of epic fantasy novels with an ensemble cast where I’ve found the female character’s role to be downplayed and underutilized (especially in first books of a series), but I certainly did not encounter this issue in Battlemage. In fact, Talandra probably plays one of the more important roles in the book, getting the most results by directing a large network of spies who carry out her orders from afar. Her sections aren’t as invigorating as Balfruss or Vargus’s fight scenes, but nevertheless I felt her personal story of sacrifice was the most compelling by far.
The overall plot itself is entertaining, if perhaps more predictable than I would have liked. A lot of the story elements feel familiar like I have read them elsewhere before, such as the mad and sadistic tyrant king, the populace’s fear and mistrust of magic, or the various political machinations – just to name a few. To the author’s credit though, he combines it into a neat package that offers a good mix of everything, plus the setting feels unique. There’s a bit of the new stirred in with the old, so to speak, and I actually wouldn’t have minded a bit more to the world-building to set it further apart from other epic fantasies of its type. There are mentions of faraway places and the fantastical humanoid races that inhabit them, like the Morrin, a horned, yellow-eyed and pointy-eared people; or the Vorga, a saurian race. These are the types of things in the world which I would love to see strengthened and expanded.
So if you’re feeling in the mood for a fun and action-filled fantasy story, you might just find it in Battlemage. It’s true that it doesn’t break much new ground, but I certainly wouldn’t dismiss it for that reason. I can see the story offering a comfortable and accessible experience to both new and experienced readers of epic fantasy, and I find I’m looking forward to the next book, which I wouldn’t be if this weren’t such a solid start. Definitely give this one a shot if it sounds right for you. And enjoy the battlemages....more
The boys are back! When I heard Michael J. Sullivan was going to take his next Hadrian and Royce adventure to Kickstarter in the summer of 2015, I happily forked over the cash to support this brilliant project by one of my favorite authors. I’ve read and loved every Riyria novel and I couldn’t have been more excited about The Death of Dulgath. As part of my backer rewards, I received an early digital copy of the book, but I later also picked up the audiobook version because of Tim Gerard Reynolds, the narrator who brings Sullivan’s wonderful characters and world to life.
I was not disappointed. The Riyria Revelations ranks high among one of my favorite fantasy series, so naturally when Sullivan went on to write two more books in The Riyria Chronicles, I read those too. Chronicles is meant to be a prequel series, comprised of stand-alone tales featuring Hadrian and Royce before the events of Revelations, and The Death of Dulgath is the third of these. As thieves for hire, our protagonists are always getting into trouble involving daring heists and other shenanigans, which is another reason why these side stories about their “time before” have always appealed to me, but in this latest novel, things take on a surprising twist.
This time, instead of being tasked to steal something, Royce and Hadrian are hired on as consultants…of a sort. In the province of Dulgath, the last surviving member of the ruling noble family is being targeted for assassination, and the authorities need Riyria’s expertise to help foil the plot. But of course, things are never as they seem. When Royce and Hadrian travel to Dulgath, they find a perfect little kingdom where everyone is healthy, crops grow aplenty, and it never rains during the day. Plus, the young Lady Dulgath whom they are meant to protect seems to know a lot more about the situation than she lets on.
For several reasons, I found The Death of Dulgath to be very different from the other Chronicles books, with the most obvious distinction being the story’s heavier emphasis on mystery. Royce and Hadrian do more investigating than anything else, and the pacing was markedly slower especially towards the beginning and the middle—though fear not, as there’s still plenty of action and adventure to go around, as well as a good number of plot twists.
But as usual, what I loved most was the character interaction. Fans of the series have always known Hadrian to be the one who wears his heart on his sleeve, while Royce is his polar opposite—ill-tempered, aloof, and untrusting. The Death of Dulgath catches our protagonists at an interesting time in their lives, set only a few years after they first met. Both are still learning how to work with the other, but slowly yet surely, trust is starting to grow. Let’s just say there’s a good reason why everyone calls this series the ultimate bromance; each story adds a little more to what we know about their relationship, which is another reason why the prequel novels are so special to readers who have followed these characters for a long time.
For this reason, I highly recommend reading all the Riyria books in publication order, starting with The Riyria Revelations series. You can then pick up any of the Chronicles books and enjoy them perfectly fine as standalones, but having read Revelations first really enhanced my experience with The Crown Tower, The Rose and the Thorn, and now The Death of Dulgath. What’s more, Michael J. Sullivan peppers this book with a lot of references to the lore and history of this wider world. While you don’t need any of it to follow the story, it’s obviously much more fun when you recognize all the allusions. Also, it lets you appreciate just how big, vivid and elaborate this series is, and believe it or not, it’s still growing all the time—next year, Sullivan’s upcoming Age of Myth will be set in the distant past of these Riyria books, going back to this world’s ancient times. In fact, he even works in a teaser or two for it in the plot of The Death of Dulgath.
No question about it, this book is another winner, bringing back everything I love about Riyria: great characters, great setting, great story. I really couldn’t have asked for more. A must-read for fans of the series, and if for some reason you haven’t been initiated into the fascinating world of Riyria yet, seriously, what are you waiting for?...more
Wow! What a long way these characters have come since The Emperor’s Blades, and also what great strides Brian Staveley has made as a writer and storyteller. Epic does not even begin to describe this dramatic third and final installment in the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne trilogy, which brings everyone back together for one explosive finale.
Things sure weren’t looking too good for the three imperial siblings, last we left them at the end of The Providence of Fire. (Warning! Possible spoilers ahead for the first two books if you haven’t read them yet!) Kaden, the heir who was set to inherit the throne after the assassination of his father Emperor Sanlitun, has decided instead to dissolve his rule, creating a republic instead. The problem? None of his counselors can set their ambitions and differences aside to work together. Meanwhile, the empire is crumbling at the edges and hordes of invaders are marching their way towards the capital. Adare has no choice but to rely on her former-lover-turned-nemesis General Ran il Tornja to hold off the Urghul, who are now being led by a powerful and cruel leach. And finally, there’s Valyn, who probably has it worst of all. Betrayed, blinded, and thrown from a tower, he was left for dead to fend for himself in the Urghul-infested wilderness.
I was also happy to see Gwenna return with her own POV chapters. She was one of the best surprises in the previous book, and she’s back now to show the Malkeenians how to get shit done. If you love what you see on this book’s insanely gorgeous cover, then you most definitely will not be disappointed. There is plenty of Kettral action in here, and with Valyn lost to the wing, things have gotten even more intense now that Gwenna has assumed the leadership. She more than proves her strength and capability in this novel, taking back the order and rebuilding its ranks with only a group of washouts and rejects at her command.
Indeed, without Gwenna, this book would have been darker and even more despairing. “Broken” is the theme for The Last Mortal Bond, with the three royal children floundering in their own respective ocean of problems. Talk about your dysfunctional family. Ever since the first book, I’ve been intrigued by the dynamics between Adare, Kaden and Valyn, and even though Emperor Sanlitun is dead and barely appears in this series except in memories and flashbacks, it’s still stunning to see how his choices for his children have had such profound effects on their lives and on their relationships with each other. With each of them heading in their own direction—and with barely a shred of trust between them—anything could happen at all. And while things did not go the way I expected, the siblings’ long awaited reunion in this final novel is surely not to be missed.
It’s also very interesting when I reflect upon how my feelings for these characters have changed over the course of the trilogy. Brian Staveley has pushed them all to their limits, forcing them into difficult situations where they have to make some tough decisions, and not all of them lead to positive results. Adare really stepped up in the last book, and I was glad to see her carry her role into the events of this one. However, a sheltered lifetime within the palace walls has certainly put her at a disadvantage, and it shows. At times, she frustrated me with her naiveté, but I also felt a deeper sympathy for her when it came to the matter of her infant son. Being a new mother is terrifying enough, but she also had to do it in the middle of a war with a target on her back.
At the very least though, I found Adare’s chapters to be a lot more compelling than her brothers’. As a character, Kaden has always felt distant to me because of his tendency to push aside all emotion, but this book saw him slipping even further away. Meanwhile, Valyn had retreated into the darkness to wallow in his self-pity, yet somehow still managed to emerge as a kind of tortured hero. Clearly, Sanlitun’s children have not benefited too much from the paths he has chosen for them. Hands down, the indisputable winner here was Gwenna, who ended up stealing the show with her brilliant side plot and incredible character growth. Please, Mr. Staveley, if you ever decide to revisit this world, a series or even a one-off tale about Gwenna and the Kettral would make my dream come true!
As for the story itself, we all know what a tricky thing it is to wrap up an epic fantasy series, but Staveley takes to it so naturally that it’s hard to believe this is his debut trilogy. He never once loses sight of his goals and is always in control, driving the plot forward so that the pacing never falters even through the frequent perspective changes. Amazingly, each character arc has its own rising action and climax, and yet all four POVs end up come together for a seamless, spectacular conclusion in the final pages.
For readers of epic fantasy and fans of complex worlds and characters, I highly recommend checking out this series. Reading these books and discovering Brian Staveley’s talent has been an immense pleasure and delight; I am only sad that the trilogy is over now....more
Kate Elliott is on fire this fall with the release of this first novel of a new series, set in the same world as her celebrated Crossroads trilogy. What can I say, but Black Wolves is a sweeping masterpiece that will leave fantasy readers spellbound. Coming in at nearly 800 pages–all jam-packed with richness and beauty–this epic novel sank its talons in me and kept me enthralled for days on end until I finished it. No question about it, this is my favorite book by the author yet.
While Black Wolves is technically the beginning of a sequel trilogy to Crossroads, reading the original series is not a prerequisite to starting this book. The characters and events appear pretty separate, seeing as we do jump 44 years ahead in time after the first 90 pages, though the preceding section does introduce a couple of the main characters. First there’s Kellas, captain of the Black Wolves, an elite fighting force dedicated to serving King Anjihosh of the Hundred. Then there’s also Dannarah, Anjihosh’s young daughter who dreams of a life beyond being married off to some foreign land for political gain.
After the time jump in Part Two, we discover that Dannarah has gotten her wish, having become a Marshal of the eagle-riding enforcer group known as the reeves. However, we also find out that her brother Atani, who succeeded Anjihosh for the throne, sadly died twenty-two years ago, murdered in a traitorous plot. Captain Kellas, the man who was charged to protect Atani, saw the death of his king as a personal failure and retired to a life of obscurity after disbanding the Black Wolves.
But now Kellas, old as he is, has been called to serve again. Unlike Anjihosh and Atani, the new king is weak, unable to hold the Hundred together in the face of social unrest, corrupt politics, and conniving palace schemes. Fearing demon assassins in the shadows, the king calls upon Dannarah to coax Kellas out of retirement so that the former Black Wolves captain can serve as his protector. Mindful of his own tumultuous history with the royal family, Kellas is reluctant at first but eventually agrees. Politically unstable and rife with strained relations, the Hundred is a land in need of men and women like Kellas and Dannarah to protect it right now—but first our heroes must make peace amongst themselves and determine where their loyalties lie.
With such a huge jump forward in time and all the subsequent flashbacks throughout, it’s probably no surprise when I say that pacing was the story’s main weakness. For almost a hundred pages, we got to know and love Kellas and the royal children Dannarah and Atani, but with one turn of a page, everyone became forty-four years older. Worst of all, clever and precocious Atani, the boy prince who so enjoyed thwarting King Anjihosh and getting his guardian Kellas into all sorts of trouble, is already dead! Granted, I probably wouldn’t have felt so terrible if I didn’t like the character so much, but it was still hard not to feel cheated. Also, call me crazy, but I don’t like missing out on huge chunks of a character’s life. Flashbacks are a handy plot device, but they just aren’t the same (not to mention, they can be confusing). I wanted to be “in” the moment when Dannarah became a reeve, or when Kellas fell in love with a demon, instead of experiencing all of those events through memories.
But as you can see, I still loved Black Wolves, and indeed the pacing issues resolved themselves about a third of the way into the book. While it was not immediately apparent, there were good reasons for the time skips. With a book so all-encompassing and massive, you do have to allow for a lot of story organization and set-up. As expected, the beginning of the book was slower as Elliott prepared the stage. Patience paid off big time in this case, as the pieces of the plot gradually fell in the place and the story built up momentum. The world-building was to die for, and in addition to Kellas and Dennarah there were other supporting characters like Lifka, Sarai and Gilaras to fill out this ensemble cast. Everyone had a vital role to play in this intricate web, with all the relationships and connections culminating into a stunning finale.
On the subject of characters, the ones who stood out most were the women—no contest there at all. Despite my misgivings surrounding the huge time skip, I took an immediately liking to the aged version of Dennarah. Not only is it a breath of fresh air to see an older woman playing a starring role in an epic fantasy novel, she’s also a force to be reckoned in her position as an experienced fighter and peacekeeper. Then there are Sarai and Lifka, young women who refuse to be pawns, instead stepping up to seize control of their own destinies. These heroines feel larger-than-life but also down-to-earth at the same time, a testament to the incredible character development and the careful way Kate Elliott crafted the women’s histories.
So if you love epic fantasy, you’ll want to check out Black Wolves, a powerful novel that excels in the traditions of the genre—rich storytelling, vivid world-building, and dynamic characters. If that’s what you’re looking for, Kate Elliott’s got you covered....more
Marc Turner’s When the Heavens Fall was a book that snuck quietly onto my radar earlier this year. I knew next to nothing about it beyond the official publisher’s description, and so as with most things shrouded in mystery, I was instantly intrigued and hoping it would score a surprise hit. In retrospect, my first impressions might have been different if I had kept my expectations more in line, but even after they were tempered I knew I probably wouldn’t be shelving this one under my favorites. That’s not to say it’s a bad book, because this is a very solid debut. However, some parts just didn’t work for me as well as it probably would for other readers.
At first glance, this seemed like your classic quest narrative. All the characters and events appeared to be linked to the theft of an extremely powerful and dangerous magical artifact called the Book of Lost Souls. Hidden long ago by the death god Shroud, a rogue mage called Mayot Mencada has since uncovered the tome and spirited it away deep into the Forest of Sighs. This sparks the beginning of the story for four different characters, each with their own agendas. Luker is a former Guardian who embarks on this journey to search not for the book but for his mentor, who was the last person to go after Mayot. Tasked to keep an eye on things is a priestess named Romany, whose patron goddess the Spider was the one who manipulated Mayot into stealing the book in the first place. Then there’s Ebon, heir to a kingdom on the edge of the Forest of Sighs, who is also plagued by voices of spirits in his head. And finally, there’s Parolla, a young woman who seeks entry into Shroud’s realm to settle an old debt with the Lord of the Dead himself.
I think most epic fantasies I’ve read are structured in a way so that each chapter is given to a different character perspective in order to keep all the points-of-view straight. However, When the Heavens Fall does not follow this format, instead switching from viewpoint to viewpoint randomly within chapters, which is one reason why the first 100 pages gave me so much trouble. This constant jumping around – especially when the story is dealing with multiple characters in different locations – gives the introduction a sense of disorganization. This section also holds a lot of background information, and the fact that it’s so densely packed slows down the pacing quite a bit.
To its credit, the book picks up by a lot after the first half. It’s not a coincidence that this is also when the four different storylines begin to converge and when I finally started to spot the connections. Each plot thread does have its ups and downs, though. For example, Luker’s story didn’t capture my interest until the finale, since so much of his story about search for the book/his mentor felt like wheels spinning in place. after losing much of its traction past the first few chapters. On the other hand, Parolla’s story was just the opposite; so much about her was an unknown in the intro, but the more I learned about her and her quest, the more excited I became about her character. And because Romany so often dealt in the metaphysical realm and appeared in a spiritual form, that abstraction might have predisposed me against her chapters. Perhaps the only one whose story I consistently enjoyed was Ebon’s, with his struggles to protect his kingdom in the face of undead attackers and dubious allies. When the four characters find themselves all together in the final showdown against Mayot though, that’s when things get real. This is a very large and intricate web that Marc Turner has spun, and while it does take a little patience, I promise everything will eventually click into place. The ending is truly superb.
I see in Marc Turner’s profile that he names Steven Erikson and Joe Abercrombie as his major influences. After reading When the Heavens Fall, I can definitely see that, though I would say his writing style leans more towards the former author than the latter. Certainly I feel it is closer to Erikson than Patrick Rothfuss, who is the one mentioned in the book’s blurb. I’ve seen several reviewers compare this one to the Malazan books, and in fact I agree they are quite similar in style and tone with that dark, epic feel. Magic is a very complex and abstract concept here, and in a novel like this which is not immune to its fair share of common fantasy tropes, I have to say the system of necromancy and dark sorcery is its most unique and striking aspect.
All in all, this was a good book, though I won’t deny there were many parts that presented a real struggle. The biggest obstacle was the pacing, which was uneven in parts and slowed the momentum. Furthermore, it’s possible my enjoyment was impeded by the fact this might not even be the type of epic fantasy I would normally go for. It’s interesting to note I couldn’t get into Erikson’s Malazan either, so the problem likely isn’t with the book, it’s with me. What this means is I can see When the Heavens Fall working extremely well for some readers, but I just wasn’t swept off my feet. For you, this could end up one of your favorite reads this year. For me, it was an experience I wish I could have enjoyed more. Still, I don’t regret reading this. It was a new and refreshing encounter with a very different kind of sword and sorcery....more