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The Guns Above is a book that has been on my radar for a while, and so when the audio edition became available I decided to take the plunge, doubly excited by the fact that it would be read by one of my favorite narrators, Kate Reading.
From the look of the book’s cover, I had deduced that the story would be a military fantasy, though in truth it is a bit more complicated than that. For one thing, the presence of magic in this world is sparse to non-existent, not to mention that the tone and style of the setting more is more strongly reminiscent of something you’d find in the historical fiction adventure genre. And then of course we have the steampunk allusions with the airships and aerial battles, which certainly injects a fair amount of thrills and action.
As the novel opens, we are introduced to protagonist Josette Dupre, an airship captain in the Garnian Navy. While in general women are not frequently given command posts, her kingdom has been at war for the better part of life—most recently against the nation of Vinzhalia—and the military has need of all the warm bodies it can get. And thus, when Josette unexpectedly turns the tide in a major battle against the enemy while serving as an Auxiliary Lieutenant, she is rewarded with a promotion and an airship of a “revolutionary” design, a term which everyone in the navy dreads because it almost always means an experimental deathtrap. However, Josette is undaunted, taking to her new role as captain of the Mistral with aplomb even when the powers that be are it making no secret their contemptuous dismay at having a female in such a highly placed position.
In particular, Josette’s promotion has caught the attention of a general who is determined to see her fail and removed from the service. As it happens, his nephew, the pampered and foppish Lord Bernat is in need of some focus and discipline in his life, and so the young nobleman is summarily assigned to the Mistral to act as a spy for his uncle. Bernat’s orders are to keep an eye on Josette, cataloguing all her flaws and mistakes for a negative report that will lead to her dismissal from the navy. However, as the airship crew heads into battle against the Vin, Bernat gets to witness Josette’s leadership firsthand, and eventually comes to respect her abilities for strategy and command.
Let me first begin by saying I enjoyed The Guns Above. This book had all the tensions and urgency of one of my favorite genres, which is military sci-fi or space opera, except that the setting here more resembles the era of the Napoleonic Wars, of course. I always find myself caught up in the thrill of the moment whenever I’m treated to scenes of ship-to-ship assaults, reveling at the complete mayhem of hull breaches, blaring alarms, and panicked officers barking out orders. To my absolute joy, the airship assaults featured in this novel can certainly give any epic space battle a run for its money.
But for all the action in the story, I thought the character development was the best part of the book and would have liked to have seen more. Initially, I was perplexed as to why I wasn’t enjoying myself as much as expected, until I realized how much of the plot was dominated by battle scenes and action sequences. Since at the time, my schedule was only allowing me to listen to this audiobook in short bursts, the constant barrage of pandemonium actually became a little tedious when in fact I was feeling in the mood for something more substantial. It wasn’t until the later parts of the novel that I began to feel more invested in the story, and not surprisingly this was also when the friendship between Josette and Bernat finally evolved to the point where their interactions became more interesting. There was one particular bar scene that was my favorite, where the humor and camaraderie between the characters was on full display.
All told, I definitely enjoyed the second half of the novel more than the first, once story and character relationships were firmly established and began to evolve. At the very least, The Guns Above was fast-paced high-flying adventure full of explosive action and intrepid personalities. The audiobook was also a great listen because of the superb narration. As always, Kate Reading nailed the performance, her voice being the perfect match for Josette’s poise and strength. This book is the best kind of escapism, especially if you’re a fan of military fantasy or speculative fiction with a nice steampunk flavor. I’ll be keeping my eye out for the second Signal Airship installment. Given all the groundwork completed here, I think the next one will be great....more
While The Conqueror’s Saga may be more of an alternate history rather than a true fantasy series, it is nevertheless based on a genuinely fascinating premise. Imagine if Vlad the Impaler, one of the most brutal figures in history, known for his cunning and penchant for cruelty and who served as the main source of inspiration for Dracula, was instead…a princess? As I wrote in my review for the first book, it’s this subversion of the archetypical YA heroine trope that initially drew me in, and I was looking forward to see how the author would continue this story.
Now I Rise is a sequel that picks up shortly after the end of the first book, following Lada’s split with Radu and Mehmed in order to return to Wallachia. Our protagonist is determined to regain control of her country, which she knows she is destined to rule. Though she is without power or allies at this point, Lada is not about to let anything stop her, gathering whatever forces she can to harry the countryside and put the pressure on her enemies.
Meanwhile, her brother Radu has been sent undercover to Constantinople by Mehmed, who has become Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Once the object of Lada’s affections, Mehmed is now consumed by a new vision to retake the city from the Byzantines, driven by a prophecy that has foretold his rise. Radu, who harbors his own secret feelings for Mehmed, is unable to deny the Sultan anything and thus agrees to be his spy behind the walls of Constantinople.
But as Radu carries out his mission for Mehmed, he cannot help but think of his sister Lada, who is far away fighting her own war for a throne. Ever since they were children, the siblings have always depended on each other, with Radu providing Lada with his wisdom and strategic advice while she shielded them both with her strength and confidence. But Radu also can’t help his heart, which cleaves him to the Ottomans’ mission. Torn in his love between the two most important people in his life, ultimately Radu will have to decide where his true loyalties lie.
Reading this book, I was pleasantly surprised to see how unconventional the story felt compared to most other YA novels. It is in essence a retelling of the fall of Constantinople and the retaking of Wallachia—based very loosely on the true events. Thus in many ways, this novel read like a military fantasy, featuring a plot that concerned itself more with war campaigns and waging a siege. I think it would be fascinating too if you are familiar with some of the true history, watching Kiersten White combine fact with fiction to create something new and exciting.
At first, I was also apprehensive about the fact that our three main characters—Lada, Radu, and Mehmed—are mostly split up in this book, and that the main story threads rarely crossed. Thankfully though, for all that the story featured little to no real interaction between them, it didn’t turn out to be much of problem at all. The distance between the characters actually gave each of them a chance to reflect on the ties that were already in place, and I also liked how this gave them the opportunity to form new relationships and motivations.
In particular, I loved Lada’s perspective in this novel, and her struggle with her identity. While the world sees her as merely a woman, she knows in her heart she is a soldier, and woe to those who underestimate her. The ending was testament to this, and it was at once both difficult and satisfying to read. Then there was Radu, who just damn near broke my heart. I can see how many would find him exasperating and unlikeable, but somehow I can’t bring myself to hate this poor lost boy. It’s possible I may also be influenced by residual sympathies I had for him in the last book, in which he was my favorite character. The story was sensitive to the subject of his sexuality and I thought White’s writing captured his internal struggle very well.
Now I Rise is, in a nutshell, a wonderful sequel that delivered on everything it promised, including lots of character growth and even more dark thrills in the plot. The execution of this series has been very impressive so far, as are the new directions the story has taken, and I find myself looking forward to the next book in the saga.
Audiobook Comments: Fiona Hardingham is fast becoming one of my favorite audiobook narrators, and she was the main reason why I decided to switch formats and review the audio for the second book in The Conqueror’s Saga. As always, Ms. Hardingham delivers a fine performance, and I can find no major faults with her narration. If you’re considering the audiobook versions for this series, I would highly recommend it....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
Paranormal horror and historical fiction collide in the rather unfortunately titled Dracula vs. Hitler, since anyone picking up this book would be rightly forgiven for mistaking this book for a campy, humorous mashup. After all, that was my initial thought after seeing the name and cover as well, but as it turns out, my first impression couldn’t be further from the truth.
Dracula vs. Hitler is actually a quite serious endeavor, reinforced with what appears to be plenty of research and painstaking attention to detail. For one thing, it is written in an epistolary style like the original Dracula by Bram Stoker, a nod to the classic work.
The story officially begins with the Editor’s Note, as the author Patrick Sheane Duncan (who is also known for his work as a film producer and director, on movies like Courage Under Fire and Mr. Holland’s Opus) recounts a recent trip deep down into the bowels of a cavernous Washington DC document warehouse (think the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark), where he was supposed to be conducting research for a new television series. Instead, he ends up finding more than he bargained for, when he chances across a thick packet of papers labeled “TOP SECRET”. Inside this classified folder are the documents making up most of this book, mainly a series of entries from the journal of one Jonathan Murray Harker dated between the months of April to June 1941, as well as a number of excerpts from a novel believed to be authored by Lucille Van Helsing writing under a pen name.
These two characters are of course the descendants of the original characters from the novel Dracula, the ending of which apparently didn’t play out the way Stoker had written them. In a letter written in 1890, Lucille’s father Abraham Van Helsing confesses to not having killed the creature as he had intended, instead stashing the body away in a state of suspended animation. Fifty odd years later, as the Nazis are wreaking death and fear across Europe, Van Helsing is now a resistance leader in Romania. Nazi atrocities are detailed in secret communiqués to Berlin written by Major Waltraud Reikel, a vile and sadistic officer of the SS. As the resistance forces flounder under Reikel’s tight hold in the area, Van Helsing is forced to consider drastic measures—like turning to the creature he put down half a century ago. As reluctant as he is to go through with the plan, deep down he knows that to fight a monster…you need a monster. Together with the English spy Jonathan Harker, grandson of original Jonathan and Mina Harker, Van Helsing prepares to go back and unearth the legendary Dracula.
So no, this book is not intended to be a cheesy crossover or a comedic piece so don’t let the title put you off (though on the other hand, if you were attracted to this book because you were expecting a humorous read, then you’ll be disappointed…seriously, they really could have gone with a more suitable title). Instead, what you’ll find is a cleverly thought out novel featuring deep characters which actually deals with some solemn themes. Despite having a strong element of escapism appeal, I also wouldn’t exactly call this a “light, fluffy” read either. The story definitely has its share of slow, dragging parts, especially towards the beginning and in the middle, and for a book called Dracula vs. Hitler, there’s actually disappointingly little showdown between the two title characters. Dracula doesn’t even enter the picture until about a hundred pages in, and the Fuhrer’s presence mainly comes into play near the very end.
Still, after a lengthy buildup, the reader’s patience is rewarded as the momentum picks up. The story takes off bigtime as the resistance unleashes their secret weapon in the form of a bloodsucking vampire, and I can’t even begin to describe the immense pleasure and satisfaction derived from watching the Nazis lose their shit. The fight scenes are suspenseful and literally explosive, and of course, once Hitler finally figure out what’s going on, he becomes obsessed with capturing Dracula for a chance at unlocking the secret of immortality. The author pulls off the rest of the novel marvelously, and there’s no doubt that the climax and conclusion are this book’s best parts.
There are other notable aspects that must be addressed though, and first and foremost is of course the character of Dracula himself. Here he is portrayed as a savior and protector of Romania, though not without some pushback from those familiar with his bloody role in “The Book” as well as his brutal history as Prince Vlad the Impaler. Dracula doesn’t actually get his own “voice” in this novel, and instead we have to rely mostly on Jonathan Harker and Lucy Van Helsing’s sections in order to get to know him. Nevertheless, I am impressed with Duncan’s handling of the classic character. In the story, the resistance often refers to Dracula as “the creature” or “the secret weapon”, but as the plot continues it becomes more and more clear that he is not a thing or a monster, but a man who is more human than anyone gives him credit for. The author has also managed to create a lot of interesting tension between Dracula, Jonathan and Lucy, even going as far as to throw a bizarre love triangle into this mix (and trust me, it is not dubious as it sounds).
All told, its questionable title notwithstanding, I’m actually not too worried because I’m sure Dracula vs. Hitler will find an audience—and I really hope it will find success too because this book really is quite a gem. Do not, and I repeat, do not be fooled into expecting “Freddy vs. Jason” or “King Kong vs. Godzilla” levels of camp with this one; it’s not that kind of book. Historical fantasy and paranormal fans should have a good time though, especially if you’re looking for an imaginative book with a dash of pulp and quirkiness....more
No question, I was particularly eager to get my hands on this third book of The Bloodbound trilogy, especially after that bombshell Erin Lindsey left us with at the end of The Bloodforged. And it appears she’s not done with us yet. The author has saved the best surprises for this final volume, along with some of the toughest battles and most challenging decisions our characters will have to face. The momentum of the war in Gedona is approaching its zenith, and by the time the dust settles, no one will be left untouched.
The Bloodsworn is the excellent result and reward after two books of build-up to this final showdown between the Kingdom of Alden and the invading Oridian forces. Since this is the last volume in the trilogy, the following review may contain mild spoilers for The Bloodbound and The Bloodforged so you might want to be caught up before proceeding. The previous book ended with a troubling revelation about Erik White, the king of Alden, leading to the creation of a secret plan known only to his majesty’s closest friends at court. A rumor is purposely spread that the king is ill and unable to appear in public, while his sister-in-law and bodyguard Alix prepares to go on a dangerous mission to save him—a quest which would take her beyond enemy lines. Erik himself is locked away to prevent him from being a danger to himself and others, while Alix’s husband Liam is left behind at the palace to guard his half-brother and keep up the façade.
Alix also seeks the council of her brother, General Riggard Black. Though Rig is unable to leave his post, he does send his lover the priestess Vel to accompany Alix, knowing that the two most important women in the world to him will be able to help each other. However, despite Vel’s handy healing skills and knowledge of the terrain, the priestess is no fighter, and on this particular mission Alix knows what a liability that is. Speed is of the essence; if they can’t get to what they need in time, terrible things will happen to Erik and Liam back at home and the kingdom of Alden will fall.
This is a book that covers a lot, a lot of ground. The story itself has several peaks as our characters have to deal with multiple disasters in their respective plotlines, until they all eventually converge in one explosive ending. Once more we have diverging POVs as our main couple is separated again in this book, with Alix heading out into the wilderness to mount a daring rescue while Liam continues settling into his new role as prince by trying to fill in for Erik. Their marriage is further strained as Alix’s guilt and Liam’s lack of confidence remains an obstacle between them, but with everything that happens over the course of this story, they soon realize what is truly important. Thus even amidst all the action scenes and battle sequences, I feel that this book might actually be the most emotional one of the series.
Then there’s Erik, who spends the bulk of his time in this novel imprisoned. This doesn’t make his arc any less interesting though, and in fact, after Alix’s POV my next favorite one was probably Erik’s. Out of all the characters, I think he’s the one who has grown the most. While it’s true that most of his battles are internal, without giving away any spoilers, I have to say Lindsey wrote his sections very well, making his personal conflict and the nuances in his personality feel utterly convincing. To be a good man, or be a good king? Those two roles sometimes clash, and Erik’s mettle is tested when that problem arises, though others like Alix, Liam, and Rig are also forced to ask a similar question of themselves when confronted with their own dilemmas. Lindsey has a knack for challenging her protagonists by putting them in extreme situations, which makes for gripping entertainment, but because you know deep down they are all kind-hearted and inherently good characters, their decisions are often predictable.
Still, like the previous two books in the trilogy, The Bloodsworn is meant to be a feel-good read, and I think we can safely say, mission accomplished. Granted, there are some darker undertones here and there (we are dealing with brutal war and plenty of blood magic, after all) but even through the hardships and heartaches, I feel like I can always cheer for these characters. Every book has also added something new to the world and its history, and I love how incredibly deep the setting feels. Mix in the excellent world-building and brilliant characterization with the action, romance, and thrills of the story, and you have yourself the ultimate fun, enjoyable “summer vacation” kind of fantasy novel.
In fact, according to the author’s website, that’s exactly the kind of book she was aiming to write, with the perfect blend of “action, heartbreak, and triumph”. The Bloodbound trilogy is all that and more, with The Bloodsworn being the outstanding conclusion I’d been hoping for. This is a series very much worth exploring if you enjoy fast-paced and adventurous character-focused fantasy. Highly recommended!...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
If you haven’t picked up Morning Star yet but you are reading this review, chances are you’re probably wondering if I think this final volume is worth reading—a question to which I can provide a definitive answer.
Yes. Yes, it is.
Now that that’s out of the way, I will proceed with the rest of my review, which I’ve gone to great lengths to keep as vague as possible and spoiler-free. Regardless, if you’d rather avoid all coverage of this novel until you’ve read it for yourself, I totally get that too. Believe me, no one understands more than I do the importance of heading into a book with the freshest eyes possible, especially when it comes to this series. I went into Red Rising and Golden Son completely blind, and I was glad that I did. Both times I experienced some very raw, very visceral emotions, precisely because I did not know what to expect at all, and I wouldn’t have traded those first reactions for anything.
The story of Morning Star sets us up for a very similar response. Pierce Brown has proven himself to be quite the masterful storyteller, knowing exactly how to push the reader’s buttons. He has given us a rigidly hierarchical society in a brutal sci-fi dystopian setting, pretty much guaranteeing a violent rebellion. He also gave us a protagonist we all grew to care deeply about. All of us had a reason to root for Darrow, because he was fighting for love, loyalty and honor against an enemy who had none of these things. Each installment saw Brown raising the stakes higher and higher, so the main question I had heading into this book was, “What’s going to happen when all that growing pressure finally comes to a head?”
Arguably, that explosion already happened at the end of Golden Son. What I experienced in those final scenes, I don’t think anything can come close to ever again, so personally speaking I still have to give the ultimate edge to book two. Coming in hard on its heels though, Morning Star nonetheless fared extremely well, considering the sky-high expectations. It had its fair share of unforgettable moments, delivering a brilliant climax and conclusion that I’m sure will leave many stunned and speechless. However, unlike my time with the previous book, I couldn’t help but feel that the emotional high upon finishing this one was more fleeting and just a tad less intense.
After a couple hours of being left to my thoughts, I think part of the issue is because…I can see right through you now, Pierce Brown. In essence, the author has reused some of the same tactics out of his Golden Son playbook. But after the way the last novel made a mess out of my feelings, I will admit I went into Morning Star with a much clearer head and was immediately on alert for any tricks or red herrings. Perhaps I wouldn’t have found the story quite as predictable if I hadn’t, but going in blind didn’t make much of a difference for me this time around. It wouldn’t have changed the fact there were a couple glaring inconsistencies and some heavy-handed foreshadowing that led me to guess exactly how things were going to play out, so it didn’t surprise me when this affected my overall impression of the novel.
However, putting the entire journey in perspective, the Red Rising trilogy is a truly epic saga that can’t be beat. I said it at the beginning of this review and I’ll say it again: Read these books, they are so worth it. I cannot remember the last time a series has put me through the wringer like this, playing with my emotions like a fiddle. I still remember my first taste of the author’s writing and being amazed at the beauty and emotion in his prose. He will likely break your heart in Morning Star, but rest assured, like the previous books in the series, this concluding volume is also filled with equal parts pain and triumph. Despite the circumstances that mitigated its full effect on me, I still loved the hell out of this book. It’s a damn-near-perfect ending, and I closed the cover on the final page filled with glowing sense of hope. The trilogy may be over, but I for one cannot wait to see where Pierce Brown’s talents will take us next....more
I am stunned on so many levels. To call Chains of the Heretic one of the finest pieces of dark fantasy I have ever read would be a gross understatement. It is simply phenomenal, an incredible masterpiece and outstanding achievement for Jeff Salyards. There’s also no doubt about it, this series has come a long way since the author’s debut novel Scourge of the Betrayer, the first Bloodsounder’s Arc book that started us on this epic journey.
Just like the series’ protagonist and narrator Arkamandos (Arki for short), it amazes me to think back to the beginning and see how far things have come. If you’ve read my review of the first book, you’ll know that I liked it plenty. But it was the sequel that really opened up the world for me. Veil of the Deserters drove home for me what Salyards was trying to achieve and made me a diehard fan of the series, and then to have this third book come in and shatter all my already sky-high expectations? It was an unparalleled surprise, to say the least. It goes without saying that these are my favorite kinds of trilogies, the ones where each book just gets better and better.
Not to sound deliberately cryptic, but this series has always been about being secretive and extremely cautious about revealing its intentions. If you haven’t read the first two books, almost everything I say about the story of Chains of the Heretic could be regarded as a spoiler, so I’ll keep my descriptions of it brief. This book picks up right where the last one left off, following Captain Braylar Killcoin and his band of Jackals after their narrow escape from the Syldoon capital, with the shaken Arki in tow. Trapped between the Godveil and the Imperial forces on their tail, the company is forced to make a desperate gambit. All they have to go on are Arki’s incomplete translations of some ancient and obscure texts, which are spotty at best, but the choice is simple: pass through the mysterious Veil and maybe die, or stay to be cut down by Emperor Cynead’s far bigger army and die for sure.
Putting his trust in Arki’s findings, Braylar decides to take a chance on the crazy plan, using his magical flail Bloodsounder to lead his men and women into the unknown. But though this move takes them beyond the reach of their enemies, what awaits them on the other side of the Veil is arguably even more terrible. What they find will shake the foundations of life, religion and history for everyone living in the Empire.
Yes, you heard correctly. At long last, we get to cross the inscrutable Godveil, that ominous piece of the puzzle that has been teasing me from day one. I can practically picture Salyards sitting behind his keyboard as he wrote this book, rubbing his hands together in a villainous fashion while chortling with maniacal glee as he finally unleashed all the secrets he has been sitting on since he first started writing this series. I have to hand it to him though, the wait was well worth it. Plague me, but I was riveted by all the strange things our characters discovered on the other side.
As ever though, what I loved most were the characters. I am and will always be a “character first” kind of reader. Of course in an ideal situation, characters, world-building, story, and writing will all be perfectly balanced, but without the first, it’s generally more difficult for me to get into the rest. That’s why I was really thrilled when Chains of the Heretic delivered splendidly on all fronts, with characters scoring a perfect ten. The choice of Arki as the narrator has always struck me as a brilliant choice—he is the Jackals’ scribe, an outsider hired on to translate documents for Captain Killcoin, but this also puts him in the perfect position to be the company’s Chronicler, both for the Syldoon and us as the readers. His role gives him a reasonable excuse to question everything and everyone, which is how most of the other characters’ motivations and the ways of this world are revealed to us. In this book, we also get to see how Arki’s experience with the Syldoon has changed him irrevocably. He’ll always stick out as the bookish scribe among a group of hardened warriors, but it moved me how the Jackals have gradually come to see him as one of their own.
But while entire series is told through Arki’s eyes, it’s interesting to me how the Bloodsounder’s Arc has always been the about the saga of Braylar Killcoin and his relationship with the eponymous cursed flail. Be that as it may though, the truth is that I would be hard pressed to name my favorite characters. Placing duty above everything else, Captain Braylar is the consummate soldier who will lay down his life for his Tower and commander, but aside from Arki, Braylar’s colorful cast of lieutenants also provide him counsel (or attempt to, anyway). From the seasoned Hewspear to the hulking Azmorgon, from the always-live-in-the-present Vendurro to the foulmouthed Muldoos (who is as eloquently offensive as ever), I literally love them all. And last but not least, there is the good captain’s sister Soffjian, the scary Memoridon who can take down a squad of Syldoon with no more than a single thought if she wanted to. I’ve become so attached to these characters that I’d already braced myself knowing the loss of any one of them would strike a devastating blow.
Furthermore, Jeff Salyards proves himself a skilled wordsmith by the way constructs his prose, especially when he really lets loose in his characters’ dialogue. There’s a lot of humor, and depending on who’s delivering it, you get everything from Braylar’s deadpan, matter-of-fact sarcasm to Muldoos’ creatively crass brand of profanity, plus even some of Arki’s own ironic observances thrown in. This final volume also underscores the superb storytelling, drawing together three books’ worth of intricate plot threads to bring the trilogy to a seamless conclusion. It’s true there are some predictable outcomes, especially if you’ve been following the character dynamics closely, but the overall cohesiveness of the series is a testament to excellent plotting and pacing. I’ve always said that bittersweet endings can be a tricky thing, but Salyards nails it.
The Bloodsounder’s Arc is now in the top spot for my favorite grimdark fantasy series. In case all the frantic gushing I’ve been doing hasn’t driven the fact home already, that’s how much I loved this book. If this is what Jeff Salyards can do with his debut trilogy, I can’t wait to see more of his future writing endeavors....more
I first became aware of The Shards of Heaven earlier this year and knew right then and there I had to read it. Two major reasons for that, really. First is the mention of Cleopatra’s daughter in the book’s description. Despite always being overshadowed by her famous mother, Cleopatra Selene II happens to be one of my favorite historical figures, and I never pass up a chance to read historical fiction in which she appears. The second reason is a more general one, which is my interest in this particular time period featuring the Final War of the Roman Republic, in which Antony fought a civil war against Octavian to fill the power vacuum left behind by the death of Julius Caesar.
I do so love stories set in this time period, because for starters there’s certainly more than enough history to go around, and often the facts are as captivating and irresistible as fiction. Even better is when a historical novel is laced with strong threads of fantasy as with the case of The Shards of Heaven. Author Michael Livingston writes in the preface that one world’s history is another’s fantasy, a sentiment I agree with wholeheartedly. After all, historical fantasy has always appealed to me, and a major part of that enjoyment comes from seeing the ways a writer can blend real historical elements with the fantastical.
This is done wonderfully in The Shards of Heaven, a book which takes us back to the final years of the Roman Republic. The great Julius Caesar has just been assassinated on the senate floor, leaving the future of Rome in doubt. On the one hand we have Octavian, Caesar’s nephew and adopted son, who claims to be his rightful heir. On the other we have Caesarion, the only known biological son of Julius Caesar, backed by his mother the Egyptian pharaoh Cleopatra and her lover and ally Marc Antony, former Triumvir of Rome.
As the civil war rages on, Prince Juba of Numidia, another adopted son of Caesar, steps into the ring seeking revenge for his father who was defeated by Julius Caesar’s forces in the battle of Thapsus. Through his journeys and research, Juba has learned of the Shards of Heaven, artifacts said to have the ability to grant godlike powers to the mortals who wield them. However, he is not the only one with a vested interest in these Shards. Octavian means to use one of these artifacts, the Trident of Poseidon, to his advantage in the war, and meanwhile in Alexandria, there are hidden factions and unexpected guardians determined to protect the Shards and keep them out of enemy hands.
What I loved most about this book is the faithful homage paid to the fascinating historical figures and ancient locales, though it’s certainly not the point of this story. The characters are amazingly written, coming across very genuine and fully well-rounded, which I would suggest is the true point. The majority of the people in this book were real, and Livingston has taken what we know of them and breathed new life into their characters. Of course I adored Selene, which admittedly could be my own bias showing, but you can also argue that I’ve set a high bar for this book and it exceeded all my expectations. The way Selene was written made me care about her a great deal, and it was not just her either; Caesarion, Vorenus, Juba, Didymus and others with POV chapters were all enjoyable characters with real depth. When compared to the major powerhouses like Octavian, Antony, or Cleopatra, history may remember the protagonists of this book as “bit players”, but in this story they were the ones who knew all the secrets and held the power to change the world.
I’m also impressed with the way the writing evoked the time period without over-complicating the language or burying the narrative in needless detail. Livingston lays out all the complex political alliances so that the reader has a good grasp of what’s going on without feeling overwhelmed. My only concern is that you do need to know the basics of the civil war conflict, or at least have a general knowledge of the history behind it, to fully understand the background of the novel and some of the characters’ motivations. Fortunately, the mystery of the Shards is the central focus of the story rather than the specific details of the war, and the back of the book also has a helpful glossary of characters to catch readers up.
The Shards of Heaven is a dazzling introduction to a new historical fantasy series. Livingston clearly knows his Ancient Rome, and he also has a real talent for plotting and writing compelling characters, as evidenced by the effortless way he navigates the genre. He even finds ways to throw in some unexpected curve balls, paying respect to real history while injecting an imaginative and magical twist. I highly recommend this book for both its entertainment value and for its depiction of historical events. I can hardly wait for the sequel!...more
Oh, Adele and Gareth. I just want to wrap them both up in a nice warm hug. How apropos it is that my favorite fictional power couple of steampunk is back this fall in a new adventure written by my favorite real-life literary power couple of fantasy fiction. Three years after the end of the original trilogy, Clay Griffith and Susan Griffith return to the world of Vampire Empire with The Geomancer, the first book of a new spinoff series.
This book is the beginning of a new chapter in every way. The vampire clans in the north have been decimated, their hold on Britain shattered. Empress Adele of Equatoria and her consort the vampire prince Gareth are looking to the future, trying to work together to bring back order. Humans are starting to feel safe on the streets of London again. The war here with the vampires is over.
Or is it? Barely half a year has passed since Adele brought death and destruction to the enemy by using her powers of geomancy, but already there are rumors spreading that vampires are making their return. An investigation into a string of bloody murders in London confirm their worst fears—somehow vampires have found a way to resist the killing powers of geomancy. At the same time, news comes of a mysterious human known as the Witchfinder who has thrown in with the new vampire regime, with plans to help them kill humans on a massive scale. There’s no doubt that the two events are connected, and the path to stopping this new threat will lead our characters on an epic quest across the globe, from the warm heart of Equatoria in Alexandria to the cold, icy mountains of Tibet.
The Geomancer is exciting, action-packed, emotional, and I’m delighted to report that there’s plenty to love here for fans new and old. Readers who began the journey from the beginning with the original series will be happy to be reunited with these wonderful characters, while first-timers will be able to jump right in. The narrative is taking the next step towards resolving the conflict between humans and vampires, and we’re swept along for the ride. There are new dangers to face, new foes to fight, new challenges to overcome, and in this novel Adele and Gareth are perhaps facing the toughest question yet: Can their two species ever learn to co-exist?
For all the good Gareth has done for humans in the guise of the hero Greyfriar, his secret identity remains closely guarded. The world is not ready for the truth, nor is it ready to accept Adele and Gareth’s romantic relationship. One day that time will come, and until then the two of them will just have to do what they can to change people’s minds, one tiny step at a time. But before that can happen, both of them are going to have to deal with his or her own personal demons.
For Gareth, who spends a lot of time struggling with his pride and dealing with a lot of self-doubt in this book, this can be quite a harrowing and emotional journey. Adele herself fears that the awesome power of geomancy might be doing more harm than good, especially since it is a force no one truly understands. But through it all, you can be sure the two of them are going to be there for each other, because if there’s one thing the Griffiths have always done right in this series, it’s the romance. The authors have done an outstanding job with these characters, further developing their relationship. Things are still interesting even after four books, and I just love how Gareth and Adele are closer now than ever before.
It’s also great to be back in this world, which I’ve always admired for its uniqueness. The setting is a great mix of alternate history, paranormal, and steampunk, and the vampires here are like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Kudos to the Griffiths for putting a fresh twist on an old trope. I also enjoyed how this book brought us to new places, like the hidden monastery in Tibet where I found a couple of new favorite characters among its intriguing residents. The vampire queen Caterina’s chapters also gave us a closer look at the treacherous power-plays as well as a burgeoning vampire rebellion in the overgrown ruins of Paris.
So if you’re curious about this series, this is a fantastic point to jump on board. I believe fans of the original trilogy will also be very happy with this new beginning, especially since familiarity with the people and places will make the experience all the more rewarding. Either way, prepare for love, action, adventure, and an explosive ending that promises even more to come....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
I was so happy when I found out that Clay Griffith and Susan Griffith were returning to the world of Vampire Empire this fall with another Adele and Gareth book. Even though you can read the upcoming novel as a stand-alone without reading this trilogy first, I still wanted to find out how things will end in the third book before tackling The Geomancer. Plus, I am a completionist at heart.
It’s actually been quite a while since I read the first two books in this series, but this is a very special world full of very special characters, the kind that stay with you for a long time. I jumped right back in with no problems, and it was like I never left. War between humans and vampire is at full tilt, with Empress Adele of Equatoria launching a campaign to take back the lands of the north. Fighting at her side is her consort, the vampire Prince Gareth who is helping the human cause in his guise as the legendary Greyfriar.
The Equatorians also have a secret weapon – Adele herself. A talented geomancer, she has the ability to use the powers of the earth to burn away vampires in vast numbers. But geomancy has its costs. As surely as it kills vampires, the power also poses a danger to her beloved Gareth, not to mention every time she uses geomancy it drains her energy and threatens her own life. After a huge attack on the heart of vampire territory, Adele sees the destruction she has wrought and starts to wonder if there is another way to wage this war. Gareth seeks a chance to do affect change as well, using his influence to undermine the efforts of his brother Cesare, who has become the new king of the vampire clans.
This book is full of bloody battles, hidden alliances, and betrayals. It’s a lot to fit into the concluding volume of a trilogy, but in spite of this, the novel is well balanced and pulls everything together in a spectacular finish. Of all three books, The Kingmakers is probably the most action-packed and fast-paced, building up to the climax of the war.
And yet, there’s also plenty of what first drew me to this series: the romance! In between all the intense fighting and war planning, it’s good to see that Adele and Gareth are still able to find ways to spend quality time together. When it comes to forbidden love, theirs is one of my favorites. So many tales involving star-crossed lovers rely on unnecessary drama and emotional manipulation to keep things “interesting”, but there’s no need for that nonsense when it comes to Adele and Gareth. Throughout the trilogy, their romance has never once felt contrived to me, with their relationship rising above all those cloying clichés. It’s always good to see them as a team, with the Greyfriar’s resolve complementing the Empress’s indomitable spirit.
The Kingmakers is an emotional finale, filled with difficult choices and dark twists. You might be surprised at how things end. For me, it was a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy, and that’s what mattered. Clay and Susan Griffith did something very amazing here, taking a tired old trope like vampires but still somehow managed to make it interesting and unique. Throwing in the alternate history and steampunk setting was a stroke of genius as well.
This book has only cemented my love for this world and the characters. Thinking about the sweet moments like the scenes of Gareth and Adele together at the opera house or at the Great Library of Alexandria still makes me smile. It has also made me realize that it’s probably a good thing that I read this only after I found out there’s another Vampire Empire book on the horizon. Clearly, I’m not ready to say good bye just yet! Now onwards to The Geomancer!...more
Reign of Iron was a great end to a great trilogy. But it still felt like it was missing something.
If you’ve read the last book, you probably know what I’m talking about. After the shocking events that took place at the end of Clash of Iron, I was curious to see how the characters will pick up the pieces and carry on. Hopefully towards a triumphant ending, but with Angus Watson you just never know. As he has already shown us with the previous two books, anything can happen in this series. All we can do is brace ourselves and hold on tight.
This third book wastes no time at all, picking up right where we left off. Quite some time passes in the intro, however, as the tribes of Britain finally wake up to the reality of the invading Roman forces of General Caesar on their doorstep, ready to claim the land for themselves. They rally around Lowa, the warrior queen of Maidun.
But Lowa herself has quite a lot of her mind. Her campaign and her own morale was dealt a serious blow at the end of book two. Over the next year, a lot of significant events take place. Lowa gives birth to her son, the child awakening feelings in her she never knew existed. Sadly, she also loses touch with Spring, the young druid distancing herself to deal with her private grief. All the while, Caesar’s troops are amassing, and the Roman general now has druids and magic of his own. Things look pretty bad for Lowa, but she will do whatever it takes to save her people. For the future and freedom of Britain, every warrior is determined to fight to their last breath.
Thematically, Reign of Iron probably feels closer to Clash of Iron than it does to the first book, Age of Iron. The Romans aren’t just a threat now; they are real. They’ve even unleashed the war elephants, for Jupiter’s sake! We’re in the midst of war, the fighting is in full swing, and the book is as brutal and bloody as ever. The caveat I brought up in my reviews of the first two books also applies here: if you’re squeamish about violence, cruelty, torture, death and all that unpleasantness and pain, it’s best to avoid this series or approach it with discretion. Watson’s Iron Age is a cruel and dark world.
Also, once again the emphasis has shifted on the characters. For me, Age of Iron was Dug’s story. Clash of Iron was more like Lowa’s. Reign of Iron is a novel that focuses on everyone, but I also can’t help but feel that Spring finally got her own book. She really got to shine in this one, and I loved her escapades across enemy lines.
That said, we see a lot of growth in all the characters. The feelings left behind from the last book are still there, which can’t be helped, but the characters’ spirit and resolve at least helped lift me out of that gaping chasm of sorrow. Both Spring and Lowa have their own ways to bolster Britain’s armies, which kept things interesting and sometimes humorous. Motherhood has also changed Lowa, and the mixed feelings she has for her baby becomes a new factor in her war planning.
Not everyone is such a joy to read about, though. Over on the Roman side, you have Ragnall the former druid and *cough* traitor *cough* who can’t seem to peel his lips off Julius Caesar’s backside long enough to see what really is going on in the world around him. We also have the druid Felix, whose flashback chapters don’t change my opinions on him that he is an insane and evil child-murdering sadist. The fact that he’s after Spring makes him even more hated. And Caesar is…well, Caesar is just Caesar. The man had many eccentricities, and let’s just say Angus Watson made sure to capture them all here.
So yep, it’s definitely the women who win big in this book.
Now that the series is over, I just have to say how impressed I am with the way the author tied everything together. Very little is known about life in Iron Age Britain and Mr. Watson made it clear from the start he was going to have a bit of fun with filling in the history, but he would be doing so by drawing from the huge amount of research he did for these books. But even though the premise is rooted in history, he never failed to place characters and story first. And the result is a huge success.
Finally, this is also the first time I reviewed the audio version of a book in this series, and I’m happy to report that listening was just as enjoyable as reading. English actor and narrator Sean Barrett is perfect! I love his accent and his inflections. Also, funny sometimes how we as audiobook listeners immediately associate a narrator’s voice to a character’s. Barrett’s voice is exactly how I would have imagine Dug to sound like, making me wish now to experience Iron Age again from the beginning, but in audio this time around. They really couldn’t have chosen a better actor to read this series.
All in all, I can’t recommend this trilogy enough. I had my doubts this book could deliver, after the second book and what was one of the most shocking endings I’ve ever read. That’s not something a series can easily bounce back from, and in truth I doubt it’s even possible to fully recover. And yet, Reign of Iron pressed on and finished off marvelously. I wait on pins and needles, arrows and swords to see what Angus Watson might do next. Here’s hoping he’ll keep writing great stories....more
I confess, any time I go into a new book by one of my favorite authors, I always do so with some nervousness, especially if it’s a sequel to a book I loved. So when I finished The Bloodforged and it ended up being even better than The Bloodbound, it was definitely cause to rejoice! This series is showing no signs of slowing down; in fact, the author ramps up the intrigue and adventure in this brilliant follow-up, building upon her characters and further expanding the political and historical scope of her world. Moreover, The Bloodforged shows there are even higher stakes and bigger plans in place in this far-reaching game of love and war. Well done, Erin Lindsey!
Like the first book, this second volume focuses on our three protagonists. If you haven’t read The Bloodbound yet, I recommend starting from there to get acquainted with the characters, and you should also be aware that this review will contain spoilers for what has happened for them since the events of book one. Noblewoman and warrior Alix Black, formerly a scout in the Aldenian army, is now the king’s personal bodyguard and wife to the prince. Erik White is the desperate king of Alden, trying to find ways to repel the invading Oridian forces closing in on his kingdom on all sides. While all this is going on, Liam White, newly married and newly recognized as the king’s brother, is also still struggling to adjust to royal life.
What surprised and delighted me though, was this book’s addition of a new point-of-view character in the form of Riggard Black! We first met Rig back in The Bloodbound, where he was introduced as Alix’s older brother, bannerman of his house, and Commander General of the king’s army. His greater role and presence in this book was a real treat, providing an up-close and harrowing view of the war right on the frontlines.
Meanwhile, Erik and Alix attempt a near-impossible journey through the mountains to reach the capital of Harram, Alden’s neighbor to the west. Brutal weather, illness, avalanches, hostile tribesmen, and a host of other dangers plague their mission, but all would be lost if they cannot negotiate an alliance with the Harrami and convince them to aid Alden in the war. And then there’s Liam, way on the other side of the country, tasked to lead a diplomatic convoy east to the Republic of Onnan where he is to investigate the delay on the construction of a great fleet of Aldenian warships. Instead, he finds himself woefully unprepared for the cutthroat nature of the Republic’s politics, a deadly web of complexity and intrigue which quickly swallows him up.
A lot clearly happens in this book, and I also feel that it takes a somewhat different approach than The Bloodbound, which was a fantasy story with adventurous and romantic elements in equal parts. In contrast, the romance gets dialed down a little in The Bloodforged while the adventure gets dialed up, up, up, WAY UP! If that sounds more to your liking, you will not be disappointed.
All the characters resonated with me in a big way in this one, and I particularly enjoyed how the dynamics between them have evolved in the months since the events at the end of the first book. What Alix, Erik, and Liam went through together has made their friendship stronger, but nevertheless there is some of that residual tension left over from Alix’s choice. Those emotions play a big and powerful part in her chapters with Erik, adding layers of meaning to the things they say and do. It also adds a whole new dimension to their already precarious situation, the fact that they can persevere through all their troubles in the mountains and still not know what kind of reception they’ll receive in Harram.
But as much as I enjoyed reading about Alix and Erik’s perilous trek through the snowy wilderness, Liam and Rig’s chapters were even more exciting. Liam was always a favorite of mine. For a new POV character like Rig though, it surprised me how quickly he won me over. Rig is a risk-taker, living up to the saying about his family “As bold as a Black.” His chapters show us just how dire things are for Alden in this war, and there’s never a dull moment. Still, Rig’s fighting and leadership skills aside, what I loved most about his storyline was his relationship with the priestess Vel, reminding us of this series’ romantic roots. With their personalities, it’s no surprise there was so much delicious chemistry!
Then there’s Liam. Unlike the other threads, his story had little outright action and lacked any romance, but nevertheless I could not get enough. I always looked forward to Liam’s chapters and cheered a little bit when his POV came back into play. There’s so much to like about him: he’s down-to-earth, funny, and charming even when he’s being self-deprecating. I love stories involving political intrigue, and the Republic of Onnan was the perfect setting for this. But even with the power struggles and deadly machinations, Liam’s chapters were humorous, simply because he is his lovable self, trying to solve the mystery of the Aldenian fleet while navigating his way around “political speak” hoping not to bumble it up too badly.
I can already tell there is so much more coming. For a sequel, The Bloodforged accomplished a lot, revving up the threat of an Oridian invasion while also opening up the world to show just how much is at stake for the entire continent, and you just know no one will be getting off easy. A solid blend of action, mystery and romance makes The Bloodforged a serious page-turner. World-building and characters in this series are amazing, and Erin Lindsey’s writing has that fun and addictive quality that sucks you right in and won’t let go. I really hope more readers will discover her talent for entertaining and immersive storytelling and see why I enjoy her books so much! Highly recommended, and I can hardly wait for book three, The Bloodsworn!...more
A month and a half has gone by since I read and reviewed The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata, and I have to admit I’m still reeling from the ending. Everything in that story from its climax onwards was nothing short of an insanely red hot face-melting explosion of whiplash-inducing action and frenzy. That’s the kind of experience that stays with you for a long time, but nonetheless I felt more than ready to take on its sequel.
Our protagonist Lieutenant James Shelley is back in the battle for justice, but first he and his soldiers must answer for their own actions taken in the unauthorized mission known as First Light. As the country struggles to rebuild its infrastructure and communications systems in the wake of an all-out nuclear terrorist attack, everyone in the team known as the Apocalypse Squad find themselves facing court-martials.
Meanwhile, out in the cloud still lurks the rogue AI program known as “The Red”. Given time, it can get anywhere and access anything linked to the network, including the neural implants in soldiers’ brains – soldiers like Shelley, who has long questioned the motives of the Red. It has already hacked into his head and lead him here; what more does it have planned for him and his team?
When I first learned of the title for this book, I thought it would be referring to the story and the characters’ experiences in a more symbolic sense. Turns out, it was quite literal as well. There are a couple courtroom trials in the spotlight here, and we begin with Apocalypse Squad’s. The public is torn on the actions Shelley and his team took at the end of the first book, and there’s a period of suspense where we are left wondering whether they’ll find the support they need from the government or be thrown under the bus. If you enjoy tense courtroom dramas, you will also enjoy this intro.
Because this is a spoiler-free review, I won’t be revealing what happens. Still, if you’ve read the first book or even my review of First Light, you’ve probably already guessed that the men and women of Apocalypse Squad remain fiercely loyal to Shelley and to each other. This is a series where there’s never a shortage when it comes to the examples of camaraderie between soldiers and kinds of lives they lead. In both this novel and its predecessor, I find there are lots of powerful themes imbedded in the story. Like, what it might mean for a soldier who sees the army as his or her family, support system, and their whole life. What might happen if they suddenly lose contact with that world. It also briefly explores the subject of PTSD, how soldiers with it deal with what they’ve seen while serving in the line of duty, and why some find it difficult to adjust to life after the military.
Compared to the first book though, the plot of this one felt a little more scattered and choppy. I know I said that I felt prepared to tackle the sequel, but now I have to wonder: Was I? The ending of the First Light really blew me away. It was hard to fathom anything else that could surpass it or even match it. I was right, in a way; the ending of The Trials was pretty intense, but it didn’t quite beat the first installment when it came to shock factor and emotional impact.
Another thing that I didn’t notice in First Light but bothered me here was the main character. It’s no secret that Shelley is impulsive and likes to be in charge (it’s emphasized multiple times in this book, mentioned by other characters and even admitted by the protagonist) but in portraying him in this light, I think the author may have done her job a little too well. So many times, I found myself fed up with Shelley and his attitude. He was insufferable when he was getting in Jaynie Vasquez’s face, while she was his commanding officer, even as he acknowledged that he was not in the best position to lead. I also didn’t like the fact he became romantically involved with Delphi so quickly, despite what she meant to him. I realize Shelley’s skullnet can dampen painful emotions and stabilize them to an extent – but I still hadn’t gotten over what happened at the end of the first book, and seeing Shelley blithely moving on made me like him a bit less. This is something that goes beyond simple urges and impulses.
Audiobook comments: The feelings I had about the audiobook version of First Light applies here too. Kevin T. Collins is a good narrator, very enthusiastic and full of energy which is important for a fast-paced, highly charged series like The Red. There were a couple slips where he uses the wrong voice for a character who is speaking, but overall his performance was very satisfactory.
Final thoughts: The Trials was a great sequel, but doesn’t supplant First Light as my favorite book of the series so far – certainly not for the lack of trying though! I’m looking forward to the third book, Going Dark, which will be out later this fall. I’ll most likely listen to the audiobook too, because I’ve been really enjoying these books in this format. Sure gets the blood pumping....more
I won’t lie, Old Man’s War is probably one of my favorite books of all time. I’ve always been more of a Fantasy reader, and around the time that book came out, my Science Fiction reading was pretty much limited to Star Wars novels and the occasional Star Trek title thrown in. However, Scalzi’s sense of humor along with the rollicking space action and adventure in these books really helped me along, showing me that there’s a lot more to the genre than just hard science and media tie-ins. I’ve followed the Old Man’s War series ever since, and all the books have brought me no small amount of entertainment.
So it was with great excitement when I heard that a sixth novel will be coming out in 2015, a direct sequel to The Human Division. And like The Human Division, the plan was for The End of All Things to again be serialized, except the proportions will be changed. Instead of getting sixteen episodes, this time we’ll only get four, but each part will also be longer, so they’ll be more like novelettes.
If The Human Division taught me anything, is that I don’t mind the serialized format. There’s a certain kind of pleasure to be had, watching a bunch of self-contained little parts come together to form one complete, coherent whole. And if anything, the smaller number of episodes as well as their greater length improved the overall flow of the story in The End of All Things. It was a good book, and a worthy addition to the series. The only real downside is that this would make a poor jumping-on point for new readers. So if you’re fresh to the Old Man’s War universe, you probably wouldn’t want to start here; there’s a lot of history you’ll be missing, and not least because this book deals with a lot of the consequences of events from the last few installments. I recommend starting from the beginning, because you’ll definitely want to know all the details – and because it’s amazing.
Below you’ll get my thoughts on each episode as well as a more detailed analysis.
THE LIFE OF THE MIND
This is the story of how our main protagonist and narrator Rafe Daquin became a brain in a box.
Yep. The Life of the Mind embodies everything I love about the Old Man’s War series. Missing ships. Kidnapped pilots. A mysterious organization conspiring and gathering strength in the shadows. Daquin finds himself entangled in this mess, but even when he is captured by aliens and forced to do their bidding, his first instinct is to fight back and find a way out of his predicament. The fact that he doesn’t have a body anymore and is just a mass of brain tissue hooked up to a ship computer is just a setback. Just another problem to be solved.
The protagonist’s personality and attitude made this one a winner. In the face of overwhelming odds, his optimism was infectious, even if it was sometimes driven by the desire to stick it to the alien Rraey. You know within the first few pages that he makes it out okay, but the conclusion to this section was still oh so satisfying. A really great intro episode to this novel that sets the tone and starts thing off with a bang.
THIS HOLLOW UNION
We switch focus in this one, following Hafte Sorvalh, the Chief Advisor to the head of the Conclave, General Tarsem Gau. She’s probably the second most powerful being in the universe, but as she reminds us, being second isn’t always all that it’s cracked up to be.
I admit to feeling slightly disappointed when I realized this would be a more political story. But after some major twists, I changed my mind. This might not be my favorite episode, but it’s undoubtedly the most important; something huge happens that will throw the entire Conclave into disarray and the ripples will be felt across the galaxy.
CAN LONG ENDURE
Can Long Endure was probably my least favorite episode, but it also showed a very different point of view. In this story, the focus shifts yet again, this time on a group of Colonial Defense Force soldiers who are now busy scrambling from planet to planet, stomping out the sparks of rebellion before they can catch fire and spread. But the will of a huge administrative entity like the Colonial Union is one thing. What about the lives of its soldiers with their boots on the ground, carrying out orders from on high?
This episode lacked the scope of the previous two, perhaps, but it was also the most “human”. It’s a very intimate look into the mind of a CDF officer Heather Lee, just another grunt doing her duty for the good of the CU. But she’s her own person too, and the costs of her government’s decisions are beginning to open her eyes to some ugly truths. And it’s time for Heather to make her own choices.
TO STAND OR FALL
This final episode brings the story to a conclusion. There’s a marked difference in tone from the beginning of the novel, in stark contrast to Rafe Daquin’s snarky attitude and spirited narration. Instead, a certain gravitas surrounds the story, which is fitting I suppose.
In this story, we see the return of several familiar faces here, including a couple beloved personalities. We are also presented the resolution to the problem posed by the shadowy organization calling itself Equilibrium. Given all the build-up, this finale should have been epic and glorious. Unfortunately, we didn’t quite get that. That’s not to say it wasn’t a good ending, because it was. I just couldn’t help feeling it should have been more.
This final episode was not what I expected, but it did its job nonetheless. To Stand or Fall was a punchy and cleverly executed conclusion to The End of All Things, as well as a pretty solid offering as the latest piece of the story to the Old Man’s War saga thus far....more
This highly anticipated novel is the final volume of Anthony Ryan’s epic Raven’s Shadow trilogy, so be aware this review may contain spoilers for the first two books of the series if you have not caught up yet. It would be impossible to talk about Queen of Fire without at least referencing some of the events in the previous book, and not just because it picks up directly where Tower Lord left off (and follows in the same vein). The truth is, so much of what stood out were the characters and their growth over the course of the trilogy; to praise (and critique) this book I would have to give the nod to Blood Song and Tower Lord as well.
We learn at the beginning of Queen of Fire that Queen Lyrna, who was brutally attacked and burned at the end of Tower Lord has been healed by the very same forces she used to mistrust, and now seeks to ally with them to meet the invading Volarian army head on. She is determined to fight for the independence of the Unified Realm, but to do so she must first raise an army. Meanwhile, the Tower Lord Vaelin Al Sorna, now also called Battle Lord of the Realm, is taking it upon himself to confront the mysterious Ally and an enemy who must be defeated if the Queen’s efforts are to have a chance. On the way, Vaelin rallies other factions to their side, their support invaluable now that the power of his bloodsong seems to have abandoned him.
Other prominent characters include Frentis, whose traumatizing plight in the last novel made me wonder how he would come back from the consequences of his actions, even though so many of them were not his own while his mind was being controlled. Reva also starts her climb to the top by demonstrating her strength and incredible battle prowess. And finally, an unexpected perspective comes in the form of Alucius Al Hestian who adds tension to the overall arc by having to make some very difficult decisions.
First, the good: Like I said, this is a fitting end for a lot of characters who joined in for this epic journey. Characters like Lyrna, Frentis and Reva have all seen tremendous development since they made their respective appearances, and each had their personal obstacles to overcome. It fills me with much satisfaction to see everything come together in this concluding volume.
I also liked the many new places Anthony Ryan took us in Queen of Fire, as well as the fascinating new people we get to meet. The wolf people were especially great, since I always find it a treat to read about fictional cultures inspired by shamanistic traditions. There were also some amazing moments of characters doing battle on the high seas, which wasn’t a surprise given my fondness for maritime fantasy. In addition, there was the minor element of invention and the enthusiasm of a particular character for tinkering, creating new and improved machines of war – this I loved, even if it did only make up a relatively small part of the story. This is a huge tome of a novel after all, and there is a lot packed in it, much of which I thoroughly enjoyed.
There were some stumbling blocks, however. The first is that the story is admittedly on the slow side to take off, with a significant portion of “critical” scenes happening in the second half of the novel. That means I felt that the first 300 or so pages were mostly given to establishing the basis for the finale at the end, which is a bit much (it’s such a lengthy book, after all). Fortunately, the pacing improves by leaps and bounds after the story finds its stride.
I also think that those who were disappointed with certain aspects of Tower Lord might experience the same snags in Queen of Fire. The two books are stylistically similar, both featuring multiple POVs and readers who had wanted more Vaelin in book two will probably not see a marked change here. Vaelin Al Sorna, who won me over in Blood Song, does not really feel like the main protagonist to me anymore, but I find myself okay with that because he is still an important presence. I’m actually regretting more the fact that folks like Caenis and Nortah didn’t show up as much. Clearly, the story’s scope has become much bigger (a good thing) so the result is plenty of other characters sharing the pages with him now that I’ve come to connect with.
But basically, if you were expecting Vaelin to dominate his share of screentime in this book again, I’m afraid you just won’t get that. I do understand the sentiment, though. Speaking for myself, Blood Song still remains my favorite of the trilogy, because it was such a detailed exploration into Vaelin’s character. Of course, it certainly helped that I’m such a huge fan of the warrior school trope chronicling a boy’s rise to become the greatest fighter the world has ever known, complete with a relentless training regime and harsh instructors.
But while Queen of Fire didn’t quite reach the heights that Blood Song or even Tower Lord did for me, it’s nevertheless a good book with undeniably awesome conclusion. I would recommend the series as a whole and if you’ve been following along with the trilogy as the books come out, this is an ending you probably wouldn’t want to miss....more
If ever you hear someone say women can’t write military science fiction, please do me a favor and smack them over the head with this book. First Light is the excellent, smart, and action-packed introduction to The Red series, originally indie-published but re-released again recently by a major publisher along with an audiobook – because it is JUST. THAT. GOOD.
Seriously, it doesn’t get more edge-of-your-seat than this near-future thriller, which seamlessly blends advanced technology and military action with political drama. In First Light, readers get to meet protagonist Lieutenant James Shelley in an explosive introduction. Stationed in a remote military outpost deep in the Sahel, Shelley and his team work round-the-clock to enforce the peace and gather intelligence in the area, aided by a cyber-framework that keeps them all wirelessly linked. But that was all before the devastating airstrike.
Shelley barely makes it out alive, saved by the mysterious power of precognition that he possesses, a phenomenon not even the top military scientists can explain. The attack, however, had cost him both his legs, forcing Shelley to agree to an experimental cybernetics program involving synthetic legs and a permanent monitoring “skullcap” implanted in his head. Very Robocop-ish stuff. While recovering, Shelley is hit with another whammy: all throughout his assignment in Sub-Saharan Africa, he and his team had been recorded for a reality TV show. The lines begin to blur for Shelley as tough questions come to the surface. What is real and what is artificial? Who or what is this voice in his head, and is it as benign as it wants him to think? Hidden forces are steering humanity towards an unknown agenda, and for whatever reason, Shelley is at the center of this storm.
There’s so much happening in this first volume, sometimes it gets hard to tease apart the threads. The story’s first act transports readers to its not-too-distant future, describing the soldiers and their state-of-the-art military tech which includes everything from combat armor to surveillance drones. Shelley and his team are hooked into the central intelligence network at all times, physiologically and mentally monitored and even altered by their gear. A process even kicks in for soldiers on the same squad which makes them regard each other as close as siblings, encouraging familial bonds of loyalty while at the same time removing distractions which might be caused by any sexual desire.
But the technology is also far from perfect. It is not uncommon for soldiers like Shelley to become “emo-junkies”, becoming overly dependent on the processes of the skullcaps they wear. You can never be sure whether or not the emotions you feel are really yours, or if they are being controlled or altered by the skullnet. This question of “what’s real vs. what’s not” is a recurring theme that pops up throughout the novel, in many different contexts. War is also introduced as something prevalent and inevitable, a powerful driving force behind the economy. Soldiers are treated like property in this world where reality TV shows can be made of their lives without them even knowing about it, while rich CEOs of big defense contractors play games of political chance using the world as their game board.
This is actually a major premise in the second half of the novel, broadening the scope of the story to tackle conflicts with more significant and far-reaching consequences. The sequence of events that make up the climax and the ending of this book had to be one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had with an audiobook. My heart was pounding the whole time as I listened, and you probably couldn’t have convinced me to take off my headphones even if the house was on fire.
I only have a minor gripe specific to the audiobook, and it is related to the narrator. Kevin T. Collins’ performance was good, and I love his enthusiasm. But this also means he sometimes overacts, his voice bordering on frantic. Good for when we’re in those tense scenes, but very distracting when we’re not.
Nevertheless, this book has my full recommendation, especially for fans of military science fiction. It’s certainly the best of this genre that I’ve read in a good long while. First Light is engaging, intelligent, and full of thrills. It’s been getting all kinds of attention lately, and now I understand why....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
Yeah, if I could leave my impressively eloquent analysis of this book at just that, I would. But no. This review is going to have details (or at least as much as I can give), dammit, and I’m going to do my best to articulate my thoughts while trying to hold myself together lest I fall to pieces.
Honestly though, I’m at a complete loss as to how to review Clash of Iron. Has this every happened to you? You’re just reading a book as normal, all the while taking down mental notes on what you’re going to say about it, when all of a sudden the ending comes at you so hard that the shock and awe of it just drives every single thought out of your head?
This is me right now. I am dumbfounded. Stupefied. I still can’t believe that ending really happened.
But let’s back up a bit to talk about what the book is about. In a word, Clash of Iron is about war. Lots and lots of war. It is the second novel in Angus Watson’s Iron Age trilogy and sequel to his brilliant, epic debut Age of Iron which was one of my top reads of last year. At the end of that book, our heroes Dug and Lowa managed to capture Maidun castle and free it from the brutal grip of its tyrant king Zadar. Lowa has usurped him and taken over his reign as Queen of Maidun, but unfortunately it seems, just in time to meet a massive invading Roman army coming from Gaul! The British Isles are thrown into disarray as its disparate tribes go to battle against each other instead of forming a united front against Julius Caesar, the Roman’s military genius who has his sights set on their homeland.
First I feel the need to warn that like its predecessor, Clash of Iron is as brutal and bloody as ever. As expected, there are many violent battles, lots of split skulls and tons of dismembered limbs flying about. There are also more intimate, disturbing scenes of torture and in general characters doing very unpleasant and painful things to other characters. Watson paints a dark, cruel world in The Iron Age where it doesn’t matter who or what you are; men, women, children, animals can all expect to meet a terrible and gruesome end in this series, so be aware if you’re squeamish about such things to approach these books with discretion.
This sequel, however, does head in a new direction when it comes to other aspects. The story here feels altogether different, with more focus on war. When all the sides aren’t engaging in it, they’re preparing for it, in this new martial climate of Britain. With the threat of the Roman Empire and Caesar bearing down on the Britons, there are whole new challenges to face. In many ways, Clash of Iron is Lowa’s story while I saw Age of Iron as being more Dug’s. As queen of Maidun, she’s now the head of an army of thousands and makes all the important decisions that will decide the fate of her people. As a new ruler, she also faces many new obstacles, such as adversity from all sides – even her own. Meanwhile, Dug takes more of a backseat in this book, retiring to a small farm. Still, all the while, his feelings for Lowa are alive and well and so are hers for him, so their awkwardness around each other provides no small amount of hilarity.
Other old favorites return, though describing Ragnal as a “favorite” is a bit of a stretch, that little double crossing fair-weather weasel. Spring’s presence also diminishes somewhat, though her actual role gets a huge boost. Big things are going to happen, and I have a feeling Spring is going to be at the center of them. Chamanca, the literally bloodthirsty warrior woman who scared the living bejeezus out of me in the first book is also back, though this time I had a lot of fun following her character and actually found myself rooting for her. Then there’s new player on the field, Julius Caesar himself, a man who needs no introduction. Angus Watson’s portrayal of the general had me alternating between feeling horror at his atrocities to laughing my ass off at his quirks.
And of course, we come to the ending. Oh, that ending. There’s nothing I can say about it that won’t be a massive spoiler, so I’ll just state that as shocking and unexpected as it was, I really shouldn’t have been surprised. But I was. You just never think an author would go there. But he does.
Any way you look at it, Clash of Iron will have you feeling exultant. You’ve just read an awesome book. Regardless of anything else, this wildly entertaining read will make you pine for the next one. Bring on Reign of Iron!...more
OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Of the many fantasy sequels coming out this year, Luke Scull’s Sword of the North is high on my anticipated list. The follow-up to the hit that was The Grim Company, this second book continues with a story teeming with fantastic characters, a strong plot, and plenty of action.
In the first book we met Brodar Kayne, a hero from the cold reaches whose battle prowess and skill with a blade earned him the title Sword of the North. Together with a band of ragtag outcasts, he and his companion Jerek the Wolf were able to survive the chaos that reigned after the White Lady declared victory and succeeded the tyrant Salazar. However, their new ruler has proven not to be as benevolent as she claimed. Something feels rotten at the heart of the city as dissidents are captured or disappeared, but if the White Lady cannot be convinced of the new danger threatening Dorminia, the state of things are sure to go from bad to worse.
Our grim company is broken now, the characters scattered across the land to pursue their own personal quests. Amidst dark tidings about the Shaman and demon hordes in the High Fangs, Brodar and Jerek begin their journey back to their homeland in light of new revelations about Brodar’s family. Weakened and injured from the ordeal at the end of book one, Davarus Cole wakes up in a labor camp and immediately finds himself put to work, but deep inside he is a changed man, no longer the puffed-up blowhard he once was. Sasha grieves, believing Cole lost to her, and falls back into her drug addiction even as she travels with her slightly unhinged sister Ambryl to bring news to the White Lady. And last but certainly not least, there is Eremul the Halfmage who continues his investigation into the race of immortals known as the Fade. Who are these mysterious creatures? And what do they want?
Make no mistake, the characters are the highlight of this series. It’s difficult for me to single out any favorites, because they are all so well written, deeply developed and memorable in their own way. I don’t know how Luke Scull does it, but even when his characters are dastardly and unlikeable, they’re great. Take for example, the chapters featuring Sir Meredith and his misguided notions of honor. I found them a pleasure to read, if for no other reason because you know it’ll feel so good when the cruel “knight” finally gets what he deserves.
I also believe much of the characters’ strength comes from their all-too-human flaws, which are nonetheless balanced by admirable virtues…well, in most cases anyway. Even Jerek who is as crass as ever can be lovable in his own way, because one would think nothing can shake the old Wolf’s loyalty to his friends. It’s what makes one significant plot development late in the novel so heart-wrenching. When it comes to plot elements that cut deeply, there’s also Sasha and her hopeless cycle of abstaining from the moon dust only to fall off the wagon again and again.
Scull has this way of getting you right into the heads of his characters, and Sasha’s struggle with the drug is one instance where the storytelling really closes in at a more intimate level. It’s all about personal stories, and nothing can be more personal than the flashbacks to Brodar Kayne’s past. These chapters were excellent, giving insight into our rough and tough protagonist, especially with the way they were interspersed with his present perspective. The company may be no more, most of its members separated, but in the process we’ve actually been given some great opportunities to further explore each character.
I was also surprised that for a heavy book containing such abundant themes and trappings of grimdark, Sword of the North was a relatively smooth, breezy read. It’s helped by the strong thread of wry humor woven through the story as well as the straight forward prose and dialogue, which at times featured language that bordered on modern-sounding. It’s not all gloom and doom despite the action and brutal violence, and actually managed to pull quite a few laughs out of me too.
As for flaws, I can’t think of many at all. Sword of the North is the middle book of a planned trilogy, and there are a lot of plot threads to follow so you can expect a slight slowdown in some of them while we gear up for the finale. On the whole, I found this to be the case with Davarus Cole as well as Eremul’s chapters. That’s not to say they were boring; on the contrary, there’s a lot of development happening there. But in terms of pacing, they were no match for Brodar Kayne’s action-filled chapters. Practically every other scene featured Brodar and his companions sticking a sword in something’s face, whether they be bandits, the risen undead, or poop-flinging barbarians. There were a couple new plot elements inserted into that storyline that felt a bit awkward though, such as a certain character from the Jade Isles who joins Brodar and his party late in the book. I think Scull may be setting up some game changers for book three, but the introduction of this character still seemed quite sudden and random. I guess we’ll see if it pays off in the next installment, but something tells me the author knows what he’s doing.
CONCLUSION: All told, this book was very enjoyable. Speaking of the next installment, I absolutely cannot wait for the third and final volume of this trilogy. If the first and second books are any indication, the finale is going to be well worth it. In Sword of the North, Luke Scull delivered a truly stellar sequel....more
I was never a really good student of history. But my family background being Chinese, I’ve always been taught to embrace my heritage. I grew up listening and adoring the history and legendary tales of Ancient China told to me by my parents and grandparents, who have learned these things themselves when they were children. My great uncle was also fond of watching old Wuxia operas and historical dramas, and he used to record these and leave the tapes at our house for the curious and unsuspecting adolescent me to find. They were…interesting.
It might seem like I’m zipping off on a tangent here, but really, I’m trying my best to explain why I loved this book so much. I read The Grace of Kings with a strange mixture of emotions I’ve never experienced before while reading anything else in my life. It was part giddiness at the familiarity of the topic; the fall of the Qin Dynasty and the subsequent rise of the Han Dynasty being such an important and tumultuous period in China’s classical age, it was instantly recognizable that this interregnum was what Ken Liu was basing his story on. I was like, “Oh, I think I know the story or legend that inspired this scene/character/event, etc.” pretty much every few chapters.
I was also very moved, and I struggle to find the words to explain this. In essence, seeing what the author has done here – taking these snippets of legends and tales from history that I’ve grown up with and incorporating into this novel, forming this wondrous piece of literature – at times it was too much to take. Many of the side stories in The Grace of Kings had the feel and atmosphere of the old anecdotes my elders shared with me when I was younger. At times I got so sentimental that I was nearly moved to tears. It’s also a beautiful book. Anyway, personal aside over. I don’t usually get sappy in my reviews, but I just don’t know how else to describe how much reading this novel affected me. I saw Ken Liu take a historical narrative that I know and love, and transform it into this gorgeous work of art.
While The Grace of Kings is a combination of East Asian sources with Western elements, that’s only just the beginning. It’s also a blend of storytelling traditions from various other cultures and historical eras along with elements from epic fantasy, mythology, and even a bit of steampunk action with airships and war kites and airborne duels thrown in. The novel’s themes speak to the human condition, exploring the corrupting force of absolute power and the chaos that inevitably follows great change, but the original and poignant execution by Liu gives it all a fresh and new perspective.
Indeed, the novel is different from a lot of today’s mainstream fantasy. Expressive modes of storytelling aside, a lot of the nuances can also be attributed to the writing style. It took a long time for me to read The Grace of Kings, for as fervently as I would have liked to devour this book, it just can’t be rushed. In this sense, Liu’s writing reminds me a lot of Guy Gavriel Kay, another author of historical fantasy whose work I greatly admire and respect. Like Kay again, Liu’s evocative prose feels almost like poetry, meant to be savored. In between the major perspectives like those of Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu, Liu also inserts mini-narratives from those around the main characters. A pantheon of gods stand witness to a group of people whose lives have been touched by the two leaders, and by the events surrounding the uprising against the emperor. War is never insignificant or simple; its effects are felt far and wide by everyone, from all walks of life. Each person has a tale to tell.
This collection of narratives therefore makes the widespread conflict feel more realistic, though one downside is that it puts a distance between the reader and the events of the story, making some of scenes featuring significant developments like major victories and defeats feel muted and less impactful. On the other hand, being able to follow a vast network of characters also greatly opens up the world.
That said, the up-close-and-personal relationships are important to the story too. Mata Zyndu appears to be based on the warlord Xiang Yu while Kuni Garu is loosely modeled after Liu Bang, both prominent historical figures during the insurgency in the late Qin Dynasty. Both characters have similar goals during the revolution to overthrow a brutal reign (a friend of mine has playfully compared this to Game of Thrones, calling it “Ned Stark and Robert Baratheon: The Early Years”), but then later on they come to blows. The story immediately picked up for me after the two of them meet, and it just took off from there.
Ken Liu deftly chronicles the relationship between Kuni and Mata, contrasting them and emphasizing their ideological differences from the beginning, despite their easy friendship. Things don’t slow down even after the overthrow of Erishi, Emperor Mapidéré’s weak heir. Honorable, ruthless Mata is often at odds with the fun-loving and merciful Kuni, and the conflict finally boils over in the mayhem that follows. After all, there are many ways to wage a war, with honor and guile being two sides of the same coin. Just when you think things are winding down, the true excitement begins. My favorite character doesn’t even make her first appearance until around the three-quarters mark: Gin Mazoti, who was an orphan born to a prostitute and survived a rough childhood on the streets to become the greatest military strategist the world has ever seen. Gin stormed onto the page amidst the chaos, and I fell in love with her character immediately. I could probably write a whole page about how awesome she is, but there are certain things best left to surprise.
The greatest stories are those that stir both the heart and mind, and The Grace of Kings is one of those rare novels that accomplishes this feat magnificently. Ken Liu gives readers a lot more than just a story about epic battles, friendship and betrayal, compassion and cruelty; he also inspires. After reading this book I wanted to dig deeper into the historical period that the story was based on, to give myself more context to the tales and legends I’ve always heard about. Highly recommended for epic fantasy fans looking to venture beyond traditional boundaries, and for all readers who love being immersed in incredible breathtaking worlds....more
Every once in a while I’ll get this hankering for some military sci-fi, so Unbreakable couldn’t have come along at a better time. Teasing the prospect of large scale ship-to-ship battles and space marines in mech suits, W.C. Bauers’ debut also features a kick-ass female lead who’ll prove to be the bane of space pirates and the Republic’s enemies everywhere.
Meet Promise T. Paen (yep, that’s her real name), the novel’s protagonist who hails from an outer rim colonial planet called Montana caught between the Republic of Aligned Worlds and the Lusitanian Empire. Montana is also a hotbed for pirates, and when Promise witnesses her father killed in a raid, the young orphan decides to enlist in the RAW Marine Corps and leave her old life behind forever.
Promise is happy enough killing lots and lots of pirates in the RAW-MC, but when Montana’s capital and spaceport comes under attack by the marauders, she finds herself ordered back home to head up the counterstrike. After neutralizing the threat, Promise is promoted and, to her chagrin, showered with accolades and labeled a local hero by Montana’s vivacious president Anne Buckmeister. However, quietly watching behind the scenes are the Lusitanians, who decide to take advantage of the weakened Marine forces to launch their own attack to seize the planet.
Happily, despite being filled to the brim with plenty of detailed and sometimes very graphic battle scenes, Unbreakable isn’t all just violent action and no substance. There’s depth to Bauer’s world and characters, achieved through occasional breathers in the narrative. Some of these little breaks ended up being lulls in the story that I had to struggle to push through, but for the most part there are far more ups than downs.
Sci-fi tech and weapon enthusiasts for one will no doubt geek out over descriptions of the RAW-MC’s impressive arsenal. Some of these sections can be lengthy, and yet I didn’t see them as overly obtrusive. The ins-and-outs of pulse guns and armor suits are as much a part of Promise’s life as everything else, not to mention it’s the little details like that which serve to bring a level of authenticity to this futuristic version of the Corps. There’s also room for levity in the form of social gatherings with Montana’s colonists, outlining the quirks of this backwater planet’s culture. And on the other side of the coin, there are the quiet and heart-wrenching moments of grief as Promise and her company honor their fallen. I honestly thought I’d be getting nothing but gung-ho soldiers and their nifty military toys, but there’s actually a lot more feeling here than I was expecting.
When it comes to characters we don’t get too much insight into anyone else in the story, but that’s because Promise takes center stage and she’s also the most developed. I wasn’t initially all that impressed by her, but what eventually won me over was the fantastic dialogue, which ended up being my favorite aspect of Unbreakable. I learned a lot about Promise and those around her — especially her comrades and President Buckmeister — through their passionate and snappy conversations.
Perhaps the only major criticism I have is the matter pertaining to the main character’s mother, who now and then appears in front of Promise as a specter that only she can see, or speaks to her as a voice in her head. Whether Sandra Paen is a true ghost or just a hallucination of her daughter’s, that’s never really explained or made clear. The publisher’s description in the novel’s synopsis of Promise being “persistently haunted” makes this particular plot point sound more mysterious and significant than it really is, and I’m a little disappointed that it wasn’t explored further.
Still, Unbreakable was a book that intrigued and entertained me. All told, I believe this is a rousing military sci-fi debut that will make fans of the genre quite happy....more
Tales of courtly politics, noble house squabbles and the machinations of psychopathic lords and ladies have taken the epic fantasy genre by storm in recent years, and it looks like author Pierce Brown has been busy taking notes, adopting these elements for book two of his own futuristic sci-fi dystopian series.
As ever, when the ruling nobility go to war it is the common people who suffer, and it’s really not so different in Brown’s Golden Son. Elite Gold houses embroil themselves in a power struggle with very little thought for the low colors, and at the bottom of the hierarchy are the Reds, miners and laborers literally being kept in the dark below the surface of Mars as they toil away for the glory of the Sovereign. But a new hope has arrived in the form of Darrow, a Red who has overcome much in order to don the guise of the enemy and ultimately arise as the Golden Child. Last we saw him, Darrow had bested the competition in the deadly games at command school, and now he has been taken under the wing of his arch nemesis Nero of House Augustus – just as the rebel Sons of Ares have planned.
Needless to say, the story has exploded beyond the small confines of the Institute. The bloody battles that Darrow faced against his fellow Golds in the war games in book one? Child’s play, compare to all that he has to deal with in this crazy follow-up. But while he may be wholly embedded in Gold society now, Darrow still has games to play. As the rising star of a powerful house, he has also made no shortage of enemies. Saddled with certain expectations, Darrow must do all he can to maintain his cover if he’s to bring down the Society from within its rotten core.
While the first book Red Rising had certain elements in it that made me classify it as Young Adult, Golden Son takes a turn for the much darker, ramping up the violence and mature themes, blurring the lines between YA and Adult and yet managing to transcend both categories at the same time. Once again, Pierce Brown manages to utterly blow me away with his exquisite writing. Subtle and even at times poetic, he can describe something as ugly as war and still make it beautiful, if perturbingly so:
“Roses of a thousand shades fall from the trees as Golds fight beneath them. They’re all red in the end.”
The story takes on a life of its own in this sequel, barreling through one stunning plot development after another. There is seriously very little time to catch your breath. Trust no one, believe nothing. Darrow walks this fine line between deciding to keep his companions at arm’s length versus drawing them close into his inner circle. Perhaps my only real complaint is the inconsistency in his character. For most of the book he is a cunning strategist whose only tool is cold logic, a military genius who seems to read his enemies like an open book. I would question how he gained all this knowledge growing up as a simple laborer in the mines of Mars and would even go as far as to call him a “Gary Stu” if not for the odd inexplicable moments where he just goes and does something downright stupid and unjustified. These decisions often come from his heart, but nonetheless I find it hard to swallow that one moment Darrow can blank out his feelings for the sake of war planning, and the next he can insist on making an emotional decision that he knows may jeopardize years of planning, not to mention snuff out all hope for millions of oppressed.
Still, I enjoy the way his character has grown in the two years since his stint at the Institute. In that time, Darrow has learned that not everything in the world is black and white – or Gold and Red, as it were. Some of the worst and most degenerate people he knows are Golds, but then so are many of his loyal followers as well as the woman he loves. Even if he can succeed in breaking their chains, the low colors might not even accept him as one of their own, not when his own family would probably fail to recognize him. Darrow is in the midst of an identity crisis, knowing that every day he spends as a Gold takes him further away from his life as a Red. It is gut-wrenching to read, knowing all that he has given up and how much more he still has ahead of him.
And of course, speaking of gut-wrenching, there’s that ending. Why must middle books of a series always end with everyone getting the shaft? My poor battered heart can only take so much! Golden Son concludes with a bombshell of a cliffhanger that is blatantly written in a way to drive you nuts, and yet I can’t think of anything else I want to say while I’m down here melting in a puddle of emotions except “Please, Mr. Brown my good man, can you stab me in the heart some more?” I just can’t help it! This book left me more exhausted and stricken than Red Rising, which I can’t claim is an entirely pleasant feeling. But even as it crushes and mangles you, twisting you up like a grungy old mop in a wringer, the story is just so powerful and addicting. Need the third book. Now....more
You can always tell when I really like a book by how fast I devour it. I gave myself plenty of time to read Brian Staveley’s The Providence of Fire, anticipating it would take me at least a week or more to finish this huge honking tome of a novel, but it turned out I made short work of it, chomping through 600+ pages of this in a little more than three days.
I just loved this book, couldn’t put it down. This incredible sequel to The Emperor’s Blades was everything I hoped for – bigger and better in every way. In fact, I went back to my review of the first book and practically everything I had an issue with there was amended in this second installment. As a reader, you just can’t ask for more than that.
The Providence of Fire picks up where The Emperor’s Blades left off, following the diverging paths of the slain Emperor Sanlitun’s three surviving children. After spending many years training with the empire’s elite Kettral forces, youngest brother Valyn is in the position to safeguard his older brother Kaden’s succession to the Unhewn Throne – though now he and his wing members are labeled renegades and traitors. Kaden himself has his own destiny to follow. He has spent the last eight years sequestered in a remote monastery in the mountains, learning the mysteries of the monks who live there. With the help of his mentor Tan, Kaden is now ready to use all that knowledge to uncover the truth of those behind Sanlitun’s murder, but being his father’s rightful heir makes him the target of those who want to overthrow the Malkeenian line.
However, oldest sister Adare, whom as you may recall spent most of the last book languishing in the capital being manipulated and treated with disdain by palace flunkies, is probably the one to see the greatest change to her character and storyline out of all of them. Having learned the identity of her father’s assassin, Adare formulates a plan to escape the city in the hopes of removing herself from the enemy’s grasp. Not knowing what has become of her brothers, she is also determined to find allies to secure the throne and keep Sanlitun’s killer from ever taking it.
Adare was my absolute favorite in this book, and I enjoyed her chapters the most. This young woman who has spent her whole life within the walls of the Dawn Palace is not as helpless as you would think she’d be. She may be ignorant of much of the world, but her quick thinking allows her to get quite far in her quest, and I always love to see a female character with brains and ambition. I also have to say, she has the most entertaining companions – just wait until you meet Lehav, Oshi, and the indomitable Nira. In this sequel, Adare is a far cry from who she was back in The Emperor’s Blades, and as one of my biggest criticism in that book was the underrepresentation of her character, I am happy and amazed at how far she has come now. I like Adare’s character very much, not only because I think she’s the strongest and most level-headed of Sanlitun’s children, but also because I had a feeling deep down that Staveley would have great things in store for her. I’m thrilled to see she’s finally getting her moment in the spotlight.
The other gripe I had about the first book was that for an epic fantasy, the story just didn’t feel quite big enough. Kaden’s everyday life seemed to revolve being beaten silly by the monks, and for Valyn it was being beaten silly by his trainers and other rival wings. Adare hardly appeared at all. Well, no problems with any of that here. Whereas in The Emperor’s Blades our settings were mostly restricted to the mountain monastery for Kaden, the Kettral training island for Valyn, and the Dawn Palace for Adare, The Providence of Fire opens the world right up as all three royal siblings travel far and wide on their quests. And rather than dealing with their immediate personal problems, the conflicts they face in this novel are far more urgent and significant as well, with far-reaching consequences for the whole empire and not just our three main protagonists.
With a major war against a new threat is on the horizon, the siblings’ roles in it make for a much more dynamic, fast-paced and action-filled plot. It is also worth noting that Staveley adds another point-of-view character partway through the novel, giving us insight into the motivations and actions of Gwenna, the demolitions specialist in Valyn’s wing. With the boys sent off on a wild goose chase and Valyn losing control of his team, it is up to the female Kettrals (and a Skullsworn assassin who is practically an honorary member) to take care of things. Though Gwenna’s chapters came in later in the second half of the novel, they were one of the highlights of this book for me and there were some very memorable scenes in them.
I’m now more intrigued than ever about where this series will go. I admit the plot became more addicting when Adare, Kaden and Valyn were all unaware of the fates of the others, so each sibling had to act on their own using what information they had available. As a result, Adare, Kaden and Valyn now each have their own individual goals. None of them are all that noble or perfect when it comes to making the tough decisions; I found myself dismayed as often as I was proud of some of their choices, but that is to be expected given the circumstances. I’m actually glad that they each have their strengths and shortcomings.
As such, the relationship between the three siblings also fascinates me. Sanlitun was no doubt a great emperor and a wise leader, setting his children off on very different paths for them to experience new things and widen their worldview. But doing so also left huge gaps in their knowledge. Adare knows very little about the outside world but understands politics and the ways of the palace, and yet she was never meant to sit upon Unhewn Throne. Kaden’s eight years in isolation with the monks taught him the specialized mystical abilities that every emperor needs to know, but that also left him woefully ignorant of the ways of his future empire, including the laws of the land and cultures of his people – that and he has no idea at all how to fight and protect himself. In contrast, Valyn’s time with the Kettral taught him how to fight, survive, and form battle strategies, but unfortunately not much else. When it comes to what makes a great leader, it seems that each sibling has only a piece of the whole. But their years spent away from each other doing their different things also made them drift apart, leading to mistrust and suspicion. Whether they will end up working together or be divided remains to be seen, and that’s one of the main things I’m looking forward to finding out in the future of this series.
While The Emperor’s Blades was a pretty good book, like I said, everything about The Providence of Fire just feels even bigger, deeper and more improved. It’s almost like Brian Staveley took the doors to the series and flung them wide open, vastly expanding upon the world, the story and all the characters. In my review of the first book, I summed it up by saying that it was a promising start and in the sequel I would like a deeper look into the history and magic of the Annurian Empire, as well as a larger role for Adare. Well, you can bet I got everything I wanted and more in The Providence of Fire. The fate of the empire hangs in the balance, not to mention the futures of Adare, Kaden, and especially Valyn. Once again, the author ties everything up while teasing a lot more to come in the next installment, except now I’m even more excited for the next book....more
It is worth noting that I listened to the audiobook version of this, whereas I read the print or ebook copy of the previous two books in the trilogy. I mention this because it probably affected my rating. For some books the reading versus listening experience can vary greatly, and this is one of those cases. But more on that later.
First, I want to start off by saying that Endsinger is a great conclusion to the series. After all that buildup in Kinslayer, I was skeptical that author Jay Kristoff could wrap it all up in one more book because there’s so much ground to cover, but he pulls it off magnificently. There’s a lot going on here. Without revealing any spoilers, this is just a taste of what we’re dealing with – 1) the Shima Imperium is in chaos, practically tearing itself apart in a civil war, 2) in the last book it was revealed that the Lotus Guild is poised to take over the empire with a secret weapon at their disposal, namely a colossal steampunk giant machine called Earthcrusher, 3) the Kage rebellion is now in shambles and it’s up to Yukiko and her storm tiger Buruu to rally and unite them, 4) somewhere out there, we know there are more of these storm tigers but getting their help would be difficult as they all seem to hate Buruu due to something awful he did in the past, so there’s that mystery to consider, 5) there’s the whole ongoing “gaijin war” happening outside of Shima, and the captured prisoners who are enslaved and subjected to the most horrific fates, 6) and finally, the biggie – Yukiko will have to deal with a major bombshell that was dropped on us in book two. Not going to say anything more than that, except what she learned about herself is a life changing event which would stay with her both emotionally and physically forever.
Then of course there are all the little side plots involving the secondary characters, like Kin and Hana and Yoshi. Everyone is focused on working towards the goal of toppling Shima’s tyrannical reign as well as the evil, blood-soaked lotus industry that drives it. I won’t lie; there’s so much to wrap up here that I was half expecting the news along the way that this series would end up being a quadrilogy. And yet somehow, impressively, Kristoff manages to tie all of this together without leaving loose threads. That in itself is pretty amazing.
There’s a lot to like in this volume. For one, we have the return of some fantastic characters, and as always the relationship dynamics make this one a great read. The story itself is enhanced by the drama of friendships and animosities between characters, the most obvious example being Yukiko’s bond with Buruu, which is one of the highlights of this series. Seriously, it’s a partnership to rival all the classic tales of interspecies friendships through the ages. And obviously, no epic saga is complete without secrets and devastating betrayals – as well as redemption. Plus, there’s also love. We mustn’t forget romance and passion, even in war. This book has all that and more.
The story, however, has a few hitches. I was poised to write about the awesome twists and turns in this novel, until I stopped to really think about that. Sure, there were several hugely significant events that happened in this novel, but could I honestly say I didn’t expect any of them? Not so much. Unlike the last book, a lot of the “surprises” in this one were actually quite predictable, even when it came to some of the major character sacrifices or deaths. I also found the pacing of the storytelling frustratingly uneven. The beginning held me rapt, to the point not even a looming bedtime could have stopped me from listening, and indeed there were several nights where I stayed up late just to get an hour or two farther in the audiobook to find out what happened. Around the middle of the book though, I lost that enthusiasm. The story here started dragging its feet, and it’s a real shame, because unfortunately I never got the momentum back after that.
Now is probably a good time to talk about why I think listening to this in audiobook format affected my experience. I believe it had nothing to do with the narration (which was brilliant) and everything to do with the writing itself. While I think that in general Jay Kristoff is a good writer and an engaging story teller, he does have a tendency to sometimes go overboard with very flowery and ornate descriptions. This has been my experience with the last two books in this series, and in some ways that has prepared me well for going into Endsinger, knowing to expect some of these rough patches and passages. In spite of this, what I didn’t anticipate was how jarring and distracting it is when this kind of purple prose was read to me through an audiobook. As beautiful and detailed as some of Kristoff’s descriptions are, sometimes they go on for far too long, breaking the flow of the story.
I don’t think the effects were so noticeable when reading the actual print books, because my eye may have naturally skimmed over these big paragraphs and walls of text without me even being aware it was happening. This is not possible to do with an audiobook; instead, the audience has no choice but to be swept up into the entire text.
A talented voice actor or actress can make a book come to life (and narrator Jennifer Ikeda certainly delivered an incredible performance in this case), but hearing the writing read aloud can also sometimes clue a reader in to parts where the author is rambling, focused too much on the irrelevant, or losing his or her grasp on the scene. It happened more times than I would have liked here. It was doubly frustrating to have to constantly skip back a minute or two every time I realized my mind had wandered while listening to a particularly long section devoted to overly embellished descriptions.
Still, this trilogy is excellent as a whole, and I have no qualms recommending it to young adults and adults alike (though make that older young adults, as even though the first book started off as more YA, I felt the series grew progressively darker and more mature with each installment). Was the conclusion absolutely epic and completely worth it, though? Yes and absolutely yes!...more
Open up The Scarlet Tides and the first things you’ll see are several gorgeously illustrated maps depicting the world of the Moontide Quartet. Needless to say, the maps became indispensable to me while I was reading. I’ve never come across a fantasy series with such a comprehensive and detailed approach to world-building. David Hair goes well beyond simply describing the different peoples and places — what he’s created here actually feels like a living, breathing system. These books take place across two huge continents following about half a dozen characters of different creeds and cultures, with the alliances and conflicts that arise between nations forming the basis for multiple threads of the story and driving the plot forward.
Middle books of a series can also be mighty tricky; I’ve had enough disappointing experiences with sequels myself, which makes me understand why some readers would be nervous when approaching them. However, I jumped into The Scarlet Tides with no reservations whatsoever. This series has grown on me, as I stated in my review of the preceding volume, Mage’s Blood. The first book may have been slightly encumbered by a lengthy introduction and a slow build-up as Hair established the players and set the stage, but it all culminated into one explosive climax and conclusion. And I knew we were going to be heading right into the action with book two.
In this sequel, the Moontide is at hand and the mighty Leviathan Bridge now stands open, creating a corridor between the two continents Yuros and Antiopia, which are normally separated by a vast ocean. The last two Moontides have involved lofty ambitions and crusades of conquest, and this one is no different. Rondion legions and the Inquisition’s windships waste no time storming their way across Antiopia, but very few know of a troubling secret eating at the heart of their empire. A very powerful and valuable artifact called the Scytale of Corineus has slipped through Emperor Constant’s fingers, and he has tasked his inquisitors to scour the world searching for the ones who have absconded with it.
Enter Alaron Mercer, a failed mage who had the Scytale in his hands, then lost it to the girl of his dreams who stole the artifact along with his heart. Cymbellea, who believes she knows the best use for the Scytale, has taken it with the intention of delivering it to Antonin Meiros, the most powerful mage in the world. Little does she know, Meiros is dead, leaving his pregnant widow Ramita on the run from his killers. Several more story arcs run in tandem, including the one which follows Ramita’s former lover Kazim, who ends up with the mercenary Elena Anborn after a botched attack on Emperor Constant’s pureblood mages. Polar opposites in political sides and backgrounds, both nevertheless come to realize they may have a common enemy in Gurvon Gyle, the empire’s spymaster. Some comic relief is also provided by Alaron’s former classmate Ramon, whose storyline involves him running a pyramid scheme, all while his legion marches towards battle. Amusing as this is, Ramon’s point of view also gives readers a boots-on-the-ground view of looming war.
Everything and everyone is connected, the vast distances between the some of the characters and the spheres of conflict notwithstanding. And yet, despite of the sheer scale of it, David Hair manages to make his characters and their stories feel deeply intimate and personal. It’s another reason why this world feels so alive, with all its elements working in tune with one another. Nations and their diverse populations are woven into an intricate web of magic and religion, which are two sides of the same coin. Both play a huge part in nearly all the societies, and as more factions emerge from the shadows we see how much more complex the situation can get.
As things heat up, the net tightens and gradually we are starting to see events converge, bringing the various players closer together. We have betrayals, shifting loyalties, unlikely friendships, and even love. With a dramatis personae so large, it’s inevitable some characters will emerge as my favorites. In Mage’s Blood, the top spot went to Ramita, whose touching yet complicated relationship with Antonin Meiros made me enjoy reading her perspective the most. In this book, however, I came to relish the chapters that follow Kazim and Elena. It’s probably not a coincidence that my favorite storyline yet again involves two people from disparate backgrounds who begin at odds with each other, with the hostility turning to understanding, understanding turning to respect, and the respect eventually turning into love. David Hair has an incredible talent for writing these types of dynamic relationships, making them engaging to read without resorting to clichés and cloying platitudes.
He also does a good job giving each perspective character the attention they deserve. Every one of them has an important role to play, and nobody feels left behind or “parked” while something more exciting happens elsewhere. I learned more about the world from each person, whether it be through meeting Ramon’s new friends from faraway lands, or from Alaron’s encounter with a new race of sentient beings with an astounding origin. And before I could fret myself over how everything will come together, the climax converges most of these storylines, serving up a conclusion and epilogue that tie things up quite nicely.
Overall, an excellent follow up to the first novel, continuing the tradition of vivid, dynamic characters and terrific world building. The intriguing storylines kept me glued to the pages. I honestly found it hard to put down, which was how I ended up reading all 700 pages of this in a little more than three days. Readers of epic fantasy should definitely check out this series....more
Age of Iron ended up surprising me in many delightful ways, but what I didn’t expect at all was how addicting it was. It simply grabbed me by the throat and wouldn’t let go. It’s dark, brutal, violent and gritty, and yet I was completely immersed in its harsh, war-torn world.
We begin the story with an introduction to Dug Sealskinner, a mercenary on his way to join up with King Zadar’s grand army at Maidun Castle, hoping for a way to earn some steady coin. But then he is waylaid at Barton, a town that gets attacked and annihilated by the very same people Dug had wished to join. In the aftermath, he meets up with a strange young girl named Spring, and together they encounter Lowa Flynn, formerly one of Zadar’s favored fighters who now finds herself on the run and seeking revenge on the king for her murdered band of warrior women.
King Zadar is a tyrant like no other with his twisted sense of how the world should be. His betrayal of Lowa and failure to capture her has earned him a dangerous enemy, but his killing and pillaging across the country has also made him the target of a young druid named Ragnall, who too seeks to make his way to Maidun to rescue his kidnapped fiancée. Ragnall and his mentor Drustan end up joining with our trio, and together the five make up a rather motley party of unlikely adventurers, all with a common foe.
Very little is known about life in Iron Age Britain; that the book began with this fact and a “this is what really happened” kind of statement in its foreword made me wonder what I’ll be in for. Large swaths of the book filled with history lessons, perhaps? But no, while we do indeed get a torrent of rich, scintillating details about the world, all of it no doubt painstakingly researched and cross checked and checked again by the author, none of it felt blatant or overtly shoved down my throat.
In fact, Watson placed storytelling and characters first, which is what I think made the book’s pacing so successful. He gave backstories to even the more minor characters, in a way that didn’t bog down the story but instead enhanced it, as every detail seems purposely placed to provide insight into the people and life at the time. The plot is also constantly driving forward, and there aren’t many places where it loses steam. History clearly has a role in this book, but the ultimate goal here is epic adventure, and we certainly don’t sacrifice storytelling or momentum.
It also wouldn’t feel complete without a bit of magic, which brings us to the druids. I admit I was very much drawn to the mention of them in the book’s description, as I’ve always been interested in the subject. And the druids of Age of Iron are fascinating indeed. There are all kinds of druids – healers, soothsayers, magicians, some who are benevolent and others who are bloodthirsty and depraved. This latter sort of druid seems to get the most attention, in the form of Felix, the druid who serves King Zadar. As cruel and wicked Zadar is, Felix makes him look like a snuffling choir boy. Some of the druid’s deeds are hard to read about, described in all its gruesome, gory details, and Watson doesn’t spare his readers one bit in this area.
I guess here’s where I should mention that no one is safe in this book – men, women, children and animals are all subjected to some horrific, violent fates, and it can get quite graphic – disturbingly so. If you’re squeamish or turned off about that kind of stuff, here’s a caveat: you might want to stay far away.
And yet, Age of Iron isn’t all doom and gloom, and blood and guts. There is humor, and there are inherently good people in this book. However, none of them are so black-and-white as that either. Characters like Dug, Lowa, Spring, and Ragnall serve as good counterpoints to the depravity and viciousness of people like Zadar and Felix, but our so-called heroes aren’t without their weaknesses. They may endear themselves to you, make you laugh or make you root for them, but be prepared to despise them sometimes too, because in the end they are also flawed people and simply trying to survive a world trying to do them in. I was all the more impressed by the well-roundedness of these characters, and whether you love them or hate them, I thought they were all very developed and well written.
Needless to say, I can’t wait for the next book. Age of Iron is one hell of a novel. The polish and skill in the writing makes it hard to believe it’s his fictional debut, but you can bet Angus Watson’s got my full attention. I’ll definitely be watching for his future works as well as the progress of this series with great interest....more