Hippogriff's Aerie

Apparitions of Imagination

Summer Vacation and Reading

As I suspected (and feared), summer has arrived and I find there is very little time for reading books, even though I am on vacation. That vacation has been filled with projects and a couple of trips, and it hasn’t helped that I’m really struggling with Steven Erikson’s House of Chains, at least the first part of the story as it pertains to a new character, Karsa Orlong. This side jaunt takes up the first 200 pages of the book, so it is a real grind. I return to work in a week and a half, and perhaps by then I will have moved on to some familiar characters and settings. It’s still going to be awhile before a review of this book is forthcoming, but my reading numbers should pick up when I return to work.

This downtime has also impacted my reading goals for the year. In a previous post I aimed for a target of 12,000 pages read, and currently I’m sitting at 8599 (not counting what I’ve read so far in House of Chains), which is 71.7% complete as I pass the halfway point of the year. If I can finish House of Chains, that would put me at 9452, which bumps me up to 78.8% and means I only need 2548 – about 6 or 7 more books to make my goal. Seems doable…

Advertisements

July 12, 2018 Posted by | Reading Goals | 1 Comment

Book Review: The Traitor God by Cameron Johnston

Traitor GodFormat:  oversized paperback, first edition, 2018

Pages:  426

Reading Time:  about 7.5 hours

One Sentence Synopsis: Edrin Walker returns home after ten years to avenge the death of his best friend, only to find that it is part of a much bigger mystery, one that threatens the city and the only person he still cares about.

 

I received The Traitor God with great anticipation, bumping other books out of the queue so that I could read it immediately. As you know, I had interviewed Cameron Johnston several months ago and pre-ordered the book from Amazon. I was a little nervous, as I enjoyed the interview but was hoping the book was good enough that I wouldn’t have to leave an awkward, negative review. So on to that review, which as usual is chock-full of spoilers, but first I’ll spotlight a couple of other reviews from cyberspace.

Adele from Adele is Reading reviewed an ARC copy, and has this to say: “What drew me towards The Traitor Gods was initially the cover; I mean, it’s beautifully illustrated, and it’s so interesting. There’s so much to look at! The second thing that drew me towards this novel was the title: The Traitor God. The title alone sparks my imagination…The Traitor God was certainly interesting, and at 15% into the novel there was already so much that had happened. I was almost overwhelmed honestly. If I hadn’t told myself that I was reading this book to the end, then I might have had trouble finishing this book. The only thing that I didn’t particularly enjoy was that a lot of history is thrown into this novel. So much so that the dialogue between characters was disrupted so that we could learn some history. What I particularly didn’t like about this was in some instances, this history telling would end up taking chapters sometimes…Something that I truly enjoyed was the fact that even though Walker’s story is one of revenge, I felt like Walker’s story is also one of redemption.

T. Eric Bakutis at Fantasy Hive, which is where I first learned of The Traitor God, offers up this take: “I enjoyed watching the book’s larger mystery unfold while author Cameron Johnston also unspooled the smaller mysteries of Walker’s past, friends, allies, and murderous telepathic dagger. Despite the wonders of Setharis – towering golem war machines who slumber in the middle of the city, powerful magi who can bend the elements and flesh itself, and Setharis’s four remaining gods (you know, the gods Walker didn’t kill) – life in Walker’s world is not easy, even for magi. This is no idealized fantasy world, and life for the average sap living in the mass of slums beneath the magi’s glittering towers is just dreck. Johnston shows us very clearly what life was like before modern sanitation and antibiotics, and even with magic (which is reserved for the elite) his world felt grounded and believable…By putting us inside Walker’s head and telling us his story, Johnston kept me interested in Walker’s quest for vengeance and understanding, and even made me like the bastard. As Johnston revealed more of Walker’s wretched childhood, his attempts to do actual good, and his many failures, Walker evolved from an interesting jerk focused on revenge to an understandably damaged man who constantly pushes down his own survival instincts to protect those he holds dear, fighting when he wants to run…Though Walker is the only POV character in the book, there are a number of colorful and interesting characters throughout. Walker’s best friend, Charra, is a dangerous and loyal ally who constantly gives Walker good-natured grief about everything, and Eva, the mage knight Walker flirts with despite the fact that she’d certainly kill him if she learned who he was, is an absolute terror in a fight. Other favorite characters included Charra’s rather deadly daughter, Layla, and Shadea, an utterly implacable badass…If you enjoy clever gray characters, gritty but interesting worlds, and creepy magic, this book is for you.

Finally, Chris Meadows at Sci-Fi and Fantasy Reviews opines: “It’s a cynical, dark, bloody tale, with flashes of hope, and some terrifying and spectacular magic, in a vivid, well realised world…The book isn’t shy about exploring the themes of power and accountability, examining the kind of decisions which can be made when absolute power is assured, and the compromises of judgment necessary to reach that level – and whether or not those compromises are justified…Walker isn’t what one would generally think of as a hero. He’s quick witted, sure, but also bitter. This tends to manifest as scathing sarcasm and a penchant for running his mouth when he shouldn’t…Walker also realises his own flaws. Understanding his lack of compassion, knowing that magic has broken something inside of him, he struggles to hold on to his humanity, while being appalled at the actions and careless disdain of greater monsters than he…This is Walker’s book, but the ensemble around him is built of well-rounded, believable characters, acting on their own agenda’s. I would have liked to see more of some of them, to be sure; for example, Walker’s oldest friend and her daughter make great foils for our lead, but seem to be straining at the seams of their scenes, trying to take over the stage…The plot? Well, it’s a story of blood, betrayal and despair. It’s also a mystery, as Walker tries to piece together exactly why so many people are trying to kill him. I mean, some of it is because he has a habit of smarting off to authority, but not all of it…Its snappy, tautly written prose kept me turning pages until far too late in the night. It’s a cracking debut, and if you want a well done dose of fantasy-noir, this one’s for you.

 

I agree with The Fantasy Hive and Chris’s reviews, but not so much with Adele’s – I loved the history aspect, but I could see how she would be overwhelmed. I found the opening of the story a bit confusing, as we are dropped into the middle of a battle with Viking-like invaders and Johnston explains how his magic system works. This continues as Walker escapes the battle and heads home after a rough sea voyage, where things become a bit more clear. The magic system begins to make sense when including sniffers, who have the ability to detect magic, but early on we are shown that such magic is flawed, as Walker is easily able to fool the sniffer. We also get a feel for how poor the city’s slums are, and the totalitarian-like response from the ruling mageocracy when their rules are violated. There is a clear feeling of “us vs. them” between these two classes, which gives the setting Johnston has built an authentic ring. In fact, the world-building, primarily as it relates to this single city, is fantastic. Setharis is very much a living, breathing city, from the poor slums to the higher levels of the city where the privileged live, the the towers where mages have ascended to become gods, to the boneyards beneath the city – it’s all fully imagined and makes sense. At times I pined for a map of the city, but I was able to follow along well enough as the story develops. I enjoyed the revelations into the history of the Setharii Empire, the impact of which is still felt thousands of years later by the inhabitants of Setharis, and the remnants of history have a major impact on the story. And the Cthulu influence that Johnston mentioned in my interview with him is definitely born out by the nasty monsters his imagination unleashes. As a Cthulu fan myself, I loved it.

Walker is a wonderful protagonist. He is deeply flawed: snarky, angry, anti-social, and capable of dominating the thoughts of others – he is definitely an anti-hero. This is no farm boy/magic sword story trope (although he does have a Stormbringer-type dagger right out of an Elric story). Yet he has positive characteristics too: driven and determined, loyal to friends, caring about what happens to the poorer citizens of Setharis, and a reluctance to use his power despite its allure for abuse. Perhaps most importantly, Walker grows and changes by the end of the story, which is important for the main character to do. In some ways he reminds me of Zelazny’s Corwin from the Amber series, but Walker is entirely a unique individual born from Johnston’s imagination. The supporting characters are very fleshed out, surprisingly even the dead Lynas, who we get to see in a few flashbacks, as well as characters who talk about him…as Walker’s source of motivation and also his conscience, the ghost of Lynas is ever present in the story. I liked Charra, Shadea, and Cillian, with perhaps my favorite supporting character being Eva: part flirtatious scholar, part mage-knight badass. I think Charra’s daughter is a little underdeveloped, but

The pacing is amazing – I don’t think I’ve ever read another book crammed full of chases, epic battles, intrigue, and a plot that careens from one action sequence to another while barely allowing Walker to catch his breath. As the story progresses, the stakes get higher, more secrets are revealed, and I couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen next. It is a thrill ride from beginning to end, although there is a sequence where the plot bogs down a little as the characters wait around before they can activate a war machine. Still, Johnston has created a pace have never read before, and he will be hard pressed to top it in a sequel.

And as for the plot? Well, that’s pretty good. What initially starts out as a murder mystery turns into a plot to destroy the city and rebuild from the ashes, due to a god-like power and the injustice of the class system of Setharis. While at first it seems hard to believe that Walker would align himself with the class system he despises, it is the cost – the death of thousands of the poor people he associates himself with – that is too high for him to bear, which forces him to oppose this plan. Not to mention that the Skinner – a serial murderer – killed Lynas, so Walker has to track the killer down, too. And then there is the Walker’s foggy memory of killing a god. As this incident becomes more clear, it explains much about how Walker’s abilities have become much stronger, how he can heal more quickly and take so much more punishment. There was a moment in the story when I thought Walker might actually be the god he had killed with a memory block in place, which would have been a pretty cool twist. That, however, would make Walker a little too powerful and probably less empathetic, so I was happy to be wrong on that account. The only quibble I had was that it was very easy to guess what had happened to Walker’s former mentor Byzant, who had disappeared after Walker left town 10 years previously. This book is described as “grimdark”, so for those who are appalled by descriptions of gore and profuse swearing, they will not like this aspect. It didn’t bother me at all.

The Traitor God is a story that Johnston has been working on for years and it shows. The dedication to his craft, along with the feedback from his writer’s support group, has delivered an extraordinary tale. I was blown away by Johnston’s debut offering, which is polished enough that you would think this is his fourth or fifth book written. I hope Johnston is able to deliver a sequel, because I will be all over it. As I mentioned above, I think he will have a hard time “dialing up the monsters and magic to 11”, as he proclaimed in our interview, but I can’t wait to see him try!

June 30, 2018 Posted by | Book Review | | 1 Comment

New Arrivals 6-20-18

Summer is here and as expected, the nice weather has led to yard work (maintaining 5 acres is no small task), some much-needed vacation time, and getting projects done, which leaves little time for reading right now. To fill in the gap until I can post my next review, I present the following books, which have arrived and are being added to the growing queue.

After the difficulties I had in finding Ian C. Esslemont’s Return of the Crimson Guard in hard cover, I thought I better go get the others I was missing. The price seems to be getting higher for each title in trying to find a nice, non-library copy…

Orb, Sceptre, Throne

orb sceptre throne

Stonewielder

stonewielder

Assail

assail

 

Being impressed with Will Wight’s House of Swords, I ordered the sequels…

The Crimson Vault

crimson vault

City of Light

city of light

 

I also picked up the rest of Phil Tucker’s Chronicles of the Black Gate that I have not yet read…

The Siege of Abythos

siege of abythos

The Iron Circlet

iron circlet

The White Song

white song

 

Reading rave reviews about Jonathon French’s The Grey Bastards, which won the Self Published Fantasy Blog Off in 2016, I decided to give it a chance, especially since it was released in hard cover.

grey bastards

 

Finally I picked up James Islington’s An Echo of Things to Come, the second book in his Licanius trilogy, even though I had not yet read the first book, The Shadow of What Was Lost. The price was just too good to pass up.

echo of things to come

 

June 20, 2018 Posted by | Orders and Arrivals | Leave a comment

Book Review: House of Blades by Will Wight

house of bladesFormat:  paperback, revised edition, 2013

Pages:  288

Reading Time:  about 5 hours

One Sentence Synopsis:  A young boy experiences tragedy and vows to save his village, and he achieves the means to do so through willpower and persistence – but finds out that the world isn’t as black and white as he originally thought.

I first heard of Will Wight when I was searching for information on Alec Hutson’s The Crimson Queen prior to purchasing it. I had never heard of Wight before to that, but his name started popping up due to his endorsement of The Crimson Queen. I liked Hutson’s book so much that I thought Wight’s recommendation might mean we had similar tastes, and that maybe I would like Wight’s The Travelers Gate series. So I purchased the first entry, House of Blades, and vowed that if I liked it I would buy and read the following two books. So here’s my review of House of Blades. It’s chock full of spoilers – Wight’s book is so intricately crafted that I won’t be able to explore it without revealing plot points – so read on at your own risk.

I found several “reviews” of House of Blades, but some of them just rehash the synopsis or are very shallow. I’m going to turn to only two of them that I thought made some excellent points. Brian Stewart of Brian’s Book Blog states: “I say it was incredibly surprising because it was very good. Not necessarily something I would consider up there with the best in the fantasy genre, mind you, but it was precisely the kind of fantasy book I like…The parts of the book where Simon learns how to become a Traveler – the magic users in the book – are surreal and compelling. The notion of a characters being trained with strange methods by quirky teachers is not new, nor is the use of strange and magical places where normal rules of time and being don’t apply. But the make up and execution of this part of the book really drew me in, it was done so well. All the constant tests and trials Simon faces were very creatively conceived…Where Alin is dead-set on revenge against the Overlord, Simon is exposed to the war between his kingdom and those that see Alin as their saviour. He is forced to save people who are supposed to be his enemies from his own friends and villagers. He saves his Overlord’s family in the middle of the climactic battle between Alin and the Overlord. And Leah gives the perspective of her kingdom and her father. There might be a good reason why those sacrifices, as brutal as they are, are conducted. It might actually be saving everyone from something worse…The world is fairly creative, though there isn’t much depth to it. The book has a nice pace to it, but the book is fairly short and some parts feel rushed – the magic system and the world building could have used more elaboration for my tastes. The quality of the prose ranges at times between passable to kind of very good, but the construction of the story overall is good to very good. What I love about the book, in the end, is the creativity. The subversion of tropes and expectations reminds me of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn: The Final Empire. The quality of writing isn’t quite up to that standard, however.

Another perspective comes from a site called Wizard’s Blog: “One of the reasons I chose this book was mention in the blurb of the main character not being destined to save the world. The main character being a prophesied hero is such an overused cliche that I appreciate that the author has turned it on its head. As a result of this, the book has unusual dual protagonists – the prophesied hero and the other guy. It’s funny when they get in each other’s way trying to save the day. One of the ways the writing is less than top notch is that the major relationships in the book are not really established. We’re told that the three main characters lived in the same village but didn’t know each other well and then they go off in different directions. It doesn’t result in a lot of reader investment in the relationships. The book also spends almost all of its time with the main character so we don’t learn enough about the other two to understand them well. There was some confusion in the book about the chronology of events – one character got somewhere as a bad thing started, another character arrived there as it ended but somehow they both arrived at the same time. There was no explanation, so I assume it just wasn’t written clearly enough. Unfortunately one of the things that the book glossed over was morality – the main character went from having never killed anyone and having no desire to, to killing 75 people over the course of a couple pages, without enough of a transition or consequences.

These are really great reviews, and Brian nails it when he evokes Brandon Sanderson, because I thought exactly the same thing. The strange thing is, I didn’t really feel that way until I got to the end of the story, and therein lies the heart of Wight’s brilliance and intricate crafting of his plot. The beginning of the story feels unspectacular and full of tropes. I doesn’t help that the prose and dialog is a bit clumsy and doesn’t flow well, and things happen for no apparent reason. For instance, the main character, Simon, is a young boy when his parents are attacked; his father is killed and his mother is driven insane because of a flippant comment his mother makes to two travelers. This event at the outset makes absolutely no sense. Furthermore, Simon is saved by a mysterious figure that he goes looking for later, only to find a different mysterious figure. It makes no sense as to why all these mysterious figures are running around this particular forest. But by the end of the book, though it is not explained outright, some hints are dropped that tie these questionable points together and things begin to make a lot more sense, in a way that reminded me very much of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series.

Then there’s Simon’s training. The second mysterious figure, named Kai, at first rebuffs Simon’s request for training, then acquiesces and to me it wasn’t clear why Kai would waste his time doing so. But then we are given backstory into Kai’s past and what his Territory of Valinhall desires, and once again questionable plot points become more clear. Simon’s training very much reminded me of an anime-inspired video game – there are definitely some Asian and anime influences. Just to clarify, each Traveler has a Territory that they draw power from, which I drew parallels of to Steven Erikson’s concept of Warrens as a place where magic users draw power from. Something I liked about House of Blades was that even if you weren’t born with powers, you could be granted them by the Territory itself (or rather those who dwell in the Territory) if you were found worthy. I also liked the concept of Simon’s power having to recharge so that he had to figure out when to use it and when to recharge, which seemed almost video game-like. It meant that not all of his problems could be solved using unlimited amounts of magic, which was appealing.

The characters are a mixed bag. Simon is a likable enough hero, although his jealousy and competitiveness can be annoying. Still, he’s got some admirable qualities – the desire to save innocent people, willpower, persistence, the years of abuse he suffers in an effort take care of his insane mother, all make him a sympathetic character. However, as Wizard’s Blog states, the morality of the mass killing he must do to rescue the villagers isn’t really explored…that sort of thing changes a person, but it seemed to have little effect on Simon other than in passing. Alin, on the other hand, is far too shallow to have viewpoint devoted to him, but I appreciate his role in Wight’s trope-twisting efforts. Still, it feels like there’s a couple of chapters missing that covers Alin’s training and how and why he gets to the city of Bel Calim when he does. Leah is the most intriguing character – torn between her service to her father and the people of the village she lived with and spied on for two years, she has to make some tough decisions. It’s unclear why the King sent his own daughter away for two years to spy on the villagers – couldn’t he have used someone else? And why were the villagers being spied on? Presumably she was looking for signs of the “Chosen One”, but how did the King know that person would come from Simon’s village? These are questions I’m waiting for answers to. Like Alin, I felt more pages should have been devoted to Leah’s viewpoint.

Other characters are surprisingly deep in the contrasts within their personalities. Chaim, from Simon’s village, goes from being a victim to a “get the torches and pitchfork” villager. The Overlord Malachai is described as vain and lazy, and his methods for obtaining sacrifices are unnecessarily brutal. Yet he loves his family, and in the face of death thinks of the future of the kingdom and how Simon will be an asset. I love the scene where Simon explains that he is there to confront the Overlord for destroying his village and Malachai exclaims, “Seven Stones, I have had more trouble over that village…” I also enjoyed the race called the Nye, who were brilliantly written.

My main problem with House of Blades was, as I mentioned above, not enough pages devoted to Alin and Leah, and I would agree with Brian that more world building was needed. In fact, I think the book suffers from being about 100-120 pages too short. It’s not epic fantasy – more like Sword & Sorcery – but I think Wight could have expanded things a bit and the pace still would have been fine. Also, Alin’s character is a bit unbelievable, as he was able to resist the Overlord’s power and find hidden reserves of strength and magic without an explanation as to how this was possible. Also, the rebellious people of Enosh aren’t given enough time to explain what their outlook is, where their prophecy comes from, and what threat they represent to the kingdom. Occasionally Wight gets a little too cute with his supporting characters, like Andra, the thirteen year old girl that Simon rescues who acts flippant during the rescue, and later has improbably defeated some of the trials in Valinhall (although it is hinted that the Nye may have helped). Finally, as I also mentioned above, at times the prose and dialog is choppy and does not flow smoothly.

These issues are all minor criticisms, however, and I thoroughly enjoyed House of Blades. Despite some early struggles, persevering and investing in the story paid off, and by the end I was shaking my head at Wight’s cleverness. I even went back to re-read the first two chapters after I had finished the book, and it was amazing how many little clues Wight dropped early on and how the pieces began to fit into place for me. It is in this context that the intricacies of the plot, including the “maybe the bad guy was really not as bad as we thought” aspect that had me making comparisons to Mistborn. So I’m moving forward with ordering the sequels The Crimson Vault and City of Light, hoping for more of the same excellence I found here.

 

June 13, 2018 Posted by | Book Review | , | Leave a comment

Shuffling Of Books To Read

I was set to start reading Steven Erikson’s House of Chains a few days ago when I got a notice from Amazon that Cameron Johnston’s The Traitor God was being delivered on the 7th (today). I wanted to get to The Traitor God right away, but that looked impossible if I started on House of Chains…it seems the page count that I extracted from Amazon was way off of the actual page count of the copy that I have by a couple of hundred pages.

I decided instead to read Will Wight’s House of Blades, which is a lot shorter. Since I’m out of town right now anyway, I brought it with me and will hopefully be done by this weekend. A review will follow shortly after that, and then I will tackle The Traitor God and House of Chains in that order.

June 7, 2018 Posted by | Reading Goals | Leave a comment

Book Review: The Black Shriving by Phil Tucker

black shrivingFormat:  oversized paperback, self-published first edition, 2016

Pages:  499

Reading Time:  about 9 hours

One Sentence Synopsis: Asho and Kethe seek the truth behind the second Black Gate and the Black Shriving, Audsley struggles to learn the secrets of the Sin Casters, Iskra seeks help from heretics, and Tharok’s plans take a surprising turn.

In my review of Phil Tucker’s The Path of Flames, I enjoyed it quite a bit and ordered the sequel, The Black Shriving. Interestingly enough, although I found several reviews of The Path of Flames, I only found one review of The Black Shriving (other than Goodreads, Amazon or a forum). My own review follows, and beware of spoilers not only for this book, but also for The Path of Flames.

 

J.C Kang of Fantasy Faction, who also reviewed The Path of Flames, had this to say about The Black Shriving: “In The Black Shriving, we adventure deeper into the supernatural side of the world. We learn about the connection between the demons and magic, and how they are related to some of the concepts introduced in The Path of Flames. If you were curious as to why Asho’s and Tharok’s swords were so similar, well, we can make new guesses now. We visit new, magical places like Starkadr and The Black Gate…We also get to travel to Agerastos, which has its own culture and a religion based on the worship of Medusas – coincidentally, or perhaps not so coincidentally, the same object of idolatry by the ancient Kragh…The mechanics of sincasting is further explained, as is the relationship between The Black Gate and gate stone, or as the Kragh call it, shaman stone. It feels as if the connections that were hinted at in book one are built upon in book two, like the physical cost of sincasting, and how it can be transferred to someone else or abated by gate stone; and how someone’s connection to the White Gate causes them to burn out, yet can be balanced by the black potion seen in the opening scene of The Path of Flames…Just as in The Path of Flames, the core driver of conflict is not love triangles and the quest for popularity, but rather, religious dogma. It takes the form of internal cultural struggle like the Kragh torn between the old worship of the Sky God and the more ancient reverence of medusas; or individual internal struggle with the validity of Ascension; or the cross-cultural wars between Ascension and Agerastos.”

 

In the first book, I was impressed by the careening, unpredictable nature of the story, the epic world-building, and the nobility of Wyland’s character. In The Black Shriving, the story careens less and becomes more predictable, as the plot is laid out from the very beginning, and there aren’t any major surprises (from a plot standpoint) along the way, except for Tharok’s story. The epic world building becomes, dare I say, even more epic, as the source of much of the magic power in the world is revealed in jaw-dropping fashion. And Wyland’s character? Let’s just say that blind devotion to his religion had me switching my allegiance to other characters. So in that respect, it sounds like I consider The Black Shriving as being the exact opposite of The Path of Flames.

And although I enjoyed The Path of Flames a bit more, The Black Shriving still has a lot to offer. The highlight of the book involves Audsley’s character. His discoveries regarding the secrets of the sincasters, the source of much of the magic in the world, and the powers he develops are pretty amazing. Also, Tharok’s character takes the story in a surprising direction that has me very intrigued. His story arc in the first book was a bit disjointed from the others, but in The Black Shriving we begin to see how his story will tie in to the rest, and how dangerous he is about to become. It’s also possible to speculate where the power behind the circlet comes from, and why his shaman is very adamant against using it, as well as being opposed to a new power which Tharok discovers from a chance meeting with human (who I suspect is more than he seems).

One of the problems I had with The Path of Flames – sudden and frequent changes in emotion is no longer noticeable. The nebulous magic system becomes suddenly a lot clearer now, but there is still a problem that I struggled with, mainly that the powers of Asho and Kethe are at times ridiculous. It takes the action sequences and monsters from The Path of Flames and, to borrow a phrase from Cameron Johnston, turns them up to 11. Some of the fight scenes remind me of over-the-top action movies and video games like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, or perhaps God of War. It’s still entertaining, but these sequences are so unbelievable that Tucker will have the difficult task of topping each previous sequence as his story progresses. One positive way that Tucker is handling this involves the consequences of using such copious amounts of magic. (Spoiler Alert!) By the end of the story, Kethe and Asho are physically in bad shape, even dying, due to the cost of using their magical abilities.

If I have one other minor criticism of the book, it is the punishment that the heroes take but still persevere. From hidden reserves of strength to being in shock, from life-threatening wounds to enduring high levels of pain, the heroes manage to have just enough to get them through. It is unbelievable and a bit too much at times, but Tucker manages to (mostly) make it work because of the tension he creates, the wild action sequences, and because he makes you care about the characters and you want to find out what happens them, which is hard to do if they are unconscious or dead! And depth of character is where Tucker is really hitting his stride in this second book. Kethe and Asho form a bond that was somewhat unexpected based on Kethe’s beliefs and upbringing. Like every other viewpoint character in the book, she undergoes life-altering changes. How would you feel if you knew your entire belief system, the one that drives your entire society, was a lie? Kethe comes to see Asho not as a low class Bythian slave, but as an equal, and even develops an affection towards him. She starts to see that it is better to judge someone on their merits rather than their on their appearance or where they were born. It is a change of tremendous growth.

Her mother Iskra goes through the same change in beliefs, and is willing to overthrow an empire to right injustices. In fact, Iskra might be the single most important character in this series. Her standing and upbringing help her in the negotiations with the Agerasterians, and her ability to overcome the damage her former husband wrought while bending people and events to her path with nothing but her will is some damn fine writing. I greatly admire her character, despite a moment of weakness when she believes she might be able to right the wrongs done to her while clinging to that old belief system. It nearly costs her life to do so, and her naivete only makes her more human. After that costly mistake she leaves those beliefs behind and sets up some intriguing possibilities in the next book. Tiron, her on-again, off-again love interest, also manages to impress me, and as Wyland’s character recedes, I turned my allegiance to Tiron. Finally, I’ve already mentioned above some of the changes to Audsley and Tharok, which I found the most compelling. Tucker has really nailed his characterizations, and that feat is worthy of high praise. The final point I’d like to mention is that a few minor new characters enter the story, but The Black Shriving is almost exclusively hero-driven, in a way much like a Terry Brooks story is. I also should mention that there is a little more gore and vulgarity compared to the previous book,  if you find that sort of thing offensive.

By the end of The Black Shriving, there are many unanswered questions…we still don’t know much more about the second black gate, why Asho is drawn to it, or what is physically happening to Kethe and Audsley. Why does the Black Shriving only come once a year? What other secrets will the legendary Starkadr reveal? How will Iskra and the Agerasterians topple the Empire, and how will Tharok impact this? I really enjoyed the story despite the minor flaws, and Tucker has done a great job of maintaining tension, revealing secrets, and developing characters. With more of the same and some unpredictability in the plot, the next book in the series, The Siege of Abythos, could be outstanding. I’m looking forward to ordering it and adding it to the queue.

June 3, 2018 Posted by | Book Review | , | Leave a comment

An Interview with Alec Hutson

35650260

Alec Hutson is the author of The Crimson Queen, and the forthcoming sequel, The Shadow King. He was the Spirit Award winner for Carleton College at the 2002 Ultimate Frisbee College National Championships. He has watched the sun set over the dead city of Bagan and rise over the living ruins of Angkor Wat. He grew up in a geodesic dome and a bookstore, and currently lives in Shanghai, China. His other books are The Manticore’s Soiree and Twilight’s End. His official website is authoralcehutson.com.

Alec was able to field my questions and answer them immediately, so I’m pleased to be able to publish the interview sooner than expected, despite a forgotten question I had to follow up with later. And don’t worry, my questions regarding The Shadow King are mostly spoiler free, but I did get a detail or two out of Alec.

My questions are in bold and referenced as “HA”, while Alec’s answers are represented by “AH”. Together we are AH HA!

 

INTERVIEW

HA: Let’s get started with some personal stuff. I’ve read some of your other interviews…how you grew up in a Massachusetts town (like someplace right out of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories), how your aunt owned a bookstore, and that you thought you might become a lawyer before you started to think about writing…until a girlfriend convinced you to go to China. How hard was it to make the decision to immerse yourself in a different culture, where English isn’t widespread? What was that experience like? What kind of struggles did you go through early on? Is Keilan’s journey akin in any way to your own at that time in your life?

AH: At the time I really embraced the opportunity to live abroad. I had just graduated college in Minnesota and before that, as you said, had grown up in New England. Two wonderful places, but not the most exotic. Perhaps that was part of the reason I read so much speculative fiction growing up – on some subconscious level I was yearning to experience something different, perhaps to have an adventure in an antique land. I’ve always wondered what my life would have been like if I took the other path in the woods and went to law school or got my MFA (I had been accepted into a program just before I decided to go to China), but I can’t say I’m unhappy with how things have unfolded.

My biggest regret might be that I didn’t write for my first ten years in China. Asia – particularly the mega cities like Hong Kong and Shanghai – can be sensory overloads. There’s always so much swirling around that it can be really hard to find the head space necessary to write, or do anything creative. I wonder if I was in some more sedate US city or suburb if I would have thrown myself into writing earlier . . . but perhaps my experiences in Shanghai have enriched my writing and made it better than it otherwise would have been.

I never had a difficult adjustment period. From my first day in Shanghai I felt really comfortable in the city – far more comfortable than I do in, say, New York.

That’s a really interesting point about Keilan and whether his journey mirrors my own. I think, though, that having a character like Keilan is important for most fantasy books, as it is helpful to have a point of view that is discovering the world along with the reader. The young, coming of age perspective emerging into the larger story is an effective way to present the history and cultures of the setting fairly naturally. Fantasy is all about summoning up that sense of wonder, and experiencing the world through characters like Keilan – no matter if it is tropey – is a very effective way to instill this feeling in the readers.

 

Angkor-Wat

HA: I see you have visited Angkor Wat – a magnificent place that gives one a feeling of connection to an ancient past. What other awe-inspiring places have you been to since you moved to China – perhaps the Great Wall or the Forbidden City – what were your favorites, and do you think they make their way into your writings?

AH: I’ve always loved ruins. To walk among towering monoliths or peer down crumbling passages and imagine how splendid it must have been a thousand years in the past. I love the mystery and romanticism of these places. To keep with Shelley, we may not despair when we look upon their shattered visages, but we do feel something deep inside. Or at least I do.

The weight of history presses down on China and shapes the character of its people, but a lot of the physical manifestations of its rich past were purged after the communists came to power. I’ve been to the Potala Palace in Lhasa and the Forbidden City and the Great Wall and these are all impressive places, but for me, Angkor in Cambodia and Bagan in Myanmar are more magical.

And they definitely make their way into my writings. Keilan’s adventures in Uthmala in The Crimson Queen was a homage to my love of ruins. I was imagining Angkor when I wrote my descriptions of that city. It was also a paean to D&D style adventuring – exploring ancient ruins, fighting monsters, returning with treasure and ancient knowledge.

 

HA: You’re a big China Mieville fan. What other writers would you say are your favorite or most inspirational and why is that?

AH: George RR Martin absolutely changed my conception of what fantasy was capable of being. I was 16 or 17 and I randomly found Game of Thrones on the shelf at my bookstore. I’d read Jordan and Goodkind and Salvatore, and I loved those authors, but when I entered Westeros it was like something clicked inside me. I was evangelical about those books before almost anyone else, I think. I remember attending the Odyssey fantasy writer’s retreat soon after and telling everyone that Martin was the harbinger of a new age in fantasy fiction, and they all just shrugged and rolled their eyes.

For prose, I love the rich language of Lucius Shepard, R. Scott Bakker, Josiah Bancroft and David Mitchell. Some writers give me this sense of tingling, dreamlike unreality when I’m reading them, which is another feeling I’m chasing when I crack a fantasy book – the short stories of Kelly Link and the novel The Etched City by KJ Bishop are good examples of this.

Other favorite writers include Guy Gavriel Kay, Iain Banks, Dan Simmons, Elizabeth Bear, Roger Zelazny, Jeff Vandermeer, and Alistair Reynolds. The best fantasy book I read last year (or at least the one I most enjoyed) was Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames.

 

HA: Can you give us an idea about what it is like to self-publish…how did you do it, what obstacles did you face, marketing efforts – were you able to steer people towards The Crimson Queen, and how much of a boost came from the SPFBO?

AH: It was really quite simple. I wrote the book, paid for a cover and editing, and put it up on Amazon. No marketing, no plan. It did well right out of the gate, and I think I was around 1500 in the Kindle store when it somehow got in the hands of the excellent indie writer Will Wight. He read it, loved it, and recommended it to his fans. That pushed my book up into the top 800 or so for about 4 months.

One reason I decided to self publish and not pursue trad was that it seemed to me that the big publishers were not publishing traditional epic fantasy anymore, at least not unless it had a very dark edge. But it looked to me that that style of fantasy was still immensely popular, as evinced by the indie books selling incredibly well online (think Dawn of Wonder, Benjamin Ashwood, Path of Flames, etc). That’s one of the big benefits of this new era in publishing – massively popular subgenres like military sci-fi or epic fantasy that have essentially been abandoned by the big houses can now be serviced by indie writers.

SPFBO has been interesting. I’m glad I did it, but I’m not sure how big its reach actually is. I think there are a few hundred people very invested in the contest, but it’s largely an insular and self-contained community. The blogs and major personalities involved also lean heavily towards one particular style of fantasy (gritty, violent, and dark) and that’s reflected in the scores given out and the finalists chosen. But I don’t think that’s the most popular representation of the genre.

 

HA: The Crimson Queen and Alyanna were in earlier iterations of your story. Where did Keilan’s character spring from as a late addition, and why did you decide to make him a prominent POV character?

AH: The initial conflict was always between Cein and Alyanna. They’ve always been very distinct characters in my mind, and I find them both intriguing. Keilan was eventually added to the story because – as I mentioned earlier – having a coming of age hero makes the discovery of the world and its history seem more natural. Also, it’s helpful to have a character that readers can identify with. Young and confused is something everyone has experienced – sorcerous queens and courtesans not so much.

 

HA: Did your world-building come first, or did the plot come first and the world-building evolved from that?

AH: The characters of Alyanna and Cein came first. And then Jan. Demian was a relatively late addition, and Senacus became a larger character as I wrote the book because I liked him so much. I had the broad strokes of the world outlined, but a lot of the details were filled in as I explored the story.

 

HA: The Crimson Queen is the first book of The Raveling. Do you have a series arc lined up already, or is the story evolving organically as you write and your ending is not yet set in stone?

z3xL6IY

AH: The arc is set, and I know how it all ends. I tend to have a few major plot points and the end very clearly realized when I start writing, and the journey from plot point to plot point sort of unfolds naturally as I go along. That’s not to say that there aren’t major revisions that occur – one of the reasons The Shadow King was so delayed was that I wrote about 60k words with a new character joining Nel and Keilan on their POV thread, and I suddenly realized it would make much more sense for the story to bring back a character I liked from Queen. So I basically started over and re-wrote everything after this epiphany.

 

HA: What would you say are the biggest differences between The Crimson Queen and The Shadow King, from not only a story perspective (sharing whatever generalities you can while avoiding spoilers), but also your perspective in the writing process when crafting the two books?

AH: Hmm. I would say that a big difference is what’s driving the plot. The Crimson Queen was a little like the court intrigues of Game of Thrones, as you had several selfish players competing with others or are perhaps more principled for power and control. The main villain was Alyanna, who could be likened to Cersei. Evil, but still perhaps a bit sympathetic at times. In The Shadow King the threat shifts to become more global. My version of the Others start to work their will in the world.

In terms of the process, it was a bit harder to write simply because I knew I had to do it. With Queen it was a labor of love, bits and pieces written without pressure on holidays and weekends. With King I knew I had to produce something (and it still took me too long).

 

HA: Did you feel any pressure when writing The Shadow King…I mean, is there a conscious part of you that knows people are anticipating the release, and after the hundredth time of “when will it be ready?” (the equivalent of “are we there yet?”) do you feel pressure to finish? If so, how do you keep from buckling under that pressure or avoid rushing things just to meet some kind of self-imposed deadline?

AH: Certainly. The success of Queen took me really by surprise, and the thought that there are many readers out there anticipating the second is a bit daunting. I really wanted to meet their expectations, though, so I never gave any thought of rushing through the sequel to capitalize on Queen’s popularity. I’d rather release a book I’m proud of and have it sell a tenth of the copies than throw something half-baked out there nine months too early. And I’m happy with it. Some threads turned out better than my expectation, and some threads didn’t quite come together like I had hoped, but I think that’s part of being a writer.

 

crimson queen

HA: Do you have artwork chosen for the cover of The Shadow King? What does it represent? How did you go about getting the artwork for your books?

AH: With the art for my first book I found a thread on kboards (ground zero for self-publishing) from an artist I liked and commissioned him to draw Uthmala. It didn’t quite come together like I hoped, but it’s pretty cool so I stuck with it. Now 18 months later I have a much better lay of the land and I’ve commissioned an artist I really like to redo Queen and do King. He’s working on the artwork – I haven’t seen it yet but the scene is going to include the Chosen, the demon-children from the first book (they are the bigger ‘global’ threat in the second) and they are facing off against a sorceress from the second book. The artist doing the covers is John Anthony di Giovanni. He does great stuff.

 

HA: Would you stop at a trilogy, or do you think the series will go beyond three books? Do you have other stories not related to The Raveling that you are considering publishing in the future?

AH: I will probably return to the world with other books, though I might take a break and write something different. Still probably fantasy, though. I’ve got a few ideas gestating.

 

 

HA: Bonus question: You’ve played Ultimate Frisbee for years and are passionate about it. What do you find appealing about it and how did that translate into a “Spirit” award? What is a Spirit award? Did you ever consider a way to work a similar game into your books using some kind of magical item or arena contest? 😉

AH: Haha. Okay, so Ultimate Frisbee is a self-refereed sport. At the recreational level, it’s pretty easy to stay honest and not use the rules to your advantage. But the more competitive you get, the harder it becomes to stay objective. It’s pretty amazing, actually, how well players comport themselves when they are responsible for playing fair. Can you imagine if fouls in soccer and basketball were called by the players? It’s a really remarkable concept. Anyway, the Spirit award isn’t just given for an adherence to fair play, but also for being a good teammate. Ultimate Frisbee – along with speculative fiction – are the two great non-organic loves of my life, so receiving this award from an incredible team of amazing people is still one of the proudest moments of my life.

***

Many thanks to Alec for graciously accepting my interview request and taking the time to answer my questions in an entertaining manner. Look for The Shadow King to be released very soon…

May 29, 2018 Posted by | interview | , | 1 Comment

Alec Hutson Interview Request

crimson queenBack in January I posted a review of Alec Hutson’s The Crimson Queen; that book and Josiah Bancroft’s Senlin Ascends are the best books I’ve read this year so far. Alec stopped by and left a comment, thanking me for the kind review. Big mistake, Alec! I have managed to rope him into an interview and am working up some questions now, which I will post a transcript of once the interview is complete.

 

You can check out Alec’s website here. He says that The Shadow King, the sequel to the The Crimson Queen, is currently under review by his editor, and a late June/early July release is expected barring major revisions. Another book that will be added to the queue…as soon as I can get my hands on it!

Stay tuned for my interview with Alec in the near future…

May 25, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Book Review: Witch Wraith by Terry Brooks

witch wraith

Format:  hard cover, first edition, 2013

Pages:  415

Reading Time:  about 7.5 hours

One Sentence Synopsis: As Aphenglow and Arlingfant struggle to complete the Bloodfire quest, Railing returns from his own quest to seek Grianne, in order to help rescue his brother Redden from the Straken Lord’s captivity.

 

By now you know the story of how my struggles with reviewing Bloodfire Quest got the better of me and I left the book blogging world for a few years. After my return to this blog, in my review of Bloodfire Quest I talked about the opinion that Aiden of A Dribble of Ink had regarding Witch Wraith and the several preceding volumes:

“It’s better to consider the ‘trilogy’ to be the story told across all nine of the books, beginning with Ilse Witch and ending with Witch Wraith. Let’s call this the Ilse Witch Trilogy, for lack of an official name…Just by existing, Witch Wraith and The Dark Legacy of Shannara change the nature of the first two volumes of The Ilse Witch trilogy and take them from being footnotes in Brooks’ career to a cornerstone.”

So after completing Witch Wraith do I agree with that assessment? Read on to find out, but I’m warning you ahead of time that there are massive spoilers throughout this review about the events and ending of Witch Wraith, as well as the entire Dark Legacy of Shannara series.

 

What else did Aiden have to say? “That all said, it’s with no small amount of surprise that I have nothing but praise to heap upon Witch Wraith, as a conclusion to The Dark Legacy of Shannara and the Ilse Witch Trilogy, is as satisfying and grandiose as anything Brooks has written. Does it recycle the ending to The Elfstones of Shannara? Absolutely. In fact, it’s almost exactly the same (uhh… spoiler warning?), but it’s not any less emotionally affecting…Witch Wraith makes the books before it stronger by giving weight to the decisions, sacrifices and conflicts that at first seemed pointless. Hollow. What did Grianne change by making the decision she did at the end of Straken? What did the voyage in The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara mean for the world at large? We get our answers in Witch Wraith and the pieces have been falling into place since the final pages of The Elfstones of Shannara…The ending of Witch Wraith is bitter-sweet, but Brooks’ none-too-kind treatment of Grianne is a refreshing and somewhat shocking turn for the Shannara series. Her decisions, her struggles, conflicts, flaws and strengths are the beating heart of Brooks’ work. There’s genuine sadness in her story and she’s well deserving of this nine-volume arc.

Drew at Raging Biblioholism states: “Mostly, I just can’t understand why Terry has been unable to shake almost literally the same plot lines for the last… really the last three trilogies…And this third book in the “Dark Legacy” trilogy ends up feeling like a mashup of everything from really every Shannara series/novel so far. You want to try to find other Elfstones? Done. Time in the Forbidding? Done. Invasion from the Forbidding? Check. Ohmsfords at the center of things? Yep. Even the idea of going back to the tanequil and attempting to retrieve Grianne… it is simply a different version of the same plot as the last series. And not in the way that “there are only six plots in the whole world” or whatever but in that “we’re going to do the exact same mission but more compressed and with a few details changed around” way. It’s just lazy, to be honest…Indeed, much of this book felt… simultaneously rushed and lazy. As though the compressed writing schedule (all three books within one 12-month!) both forced him to write with more pace but to also then rely on old plots to keep up said pace.

Lighthearted Librarian explains: “As much as I love Terry Brooks, I have to admit, I was disappointed this time…Brooks hinted at the whole “is any race wholly good or evil?” question again as Redden considered Tesla and what life had been like for the Jarka Ruus, but again it was just a blip. And by the way, how did other creatures like the Grimpond get to remain in the Four Lands? If the elves were intent on locking away all evil creatures of Faerie, they certainly missed a few. How does the magic of the Ellcrys snatch away Tesla but leave the Grimpond…I hated the resolution of the Redden/Railing/Mirai storyline — it was too easy. I suppose it doesn’t help that I wasn’t all that fond of either Redden or Railing. I also hated the Grianne storyline but in a good way. It did take things up a notch. It made sense in that even heroes make mistakes, sometimes tragic ones…Despite my disappointment with this installment, I do love the world of Shannara and I’m already looking forward to the next journey. At 25+ titles, however, I’d like to see a few new twists introduced to the series. I’m okay with the fact that we can always look forward to a quest involving the Ohmsfords, the Leahs, and the Ellesedils. I’d just like to see new quests, or new complications.

 

Two of the three reviews above express disappointment, and while I think I too was disappointed in places, I was also entertained. There are definitely things to like about Witch Wraith – the siege of Arishaig was well-done, the final attempt to acquire the elfstones was fun, and any scene with Grianne in it was intriguing. In fact, I got a few chills from some of the scenes with Grianne, especially during the showdown with Tael Riverine, although this ended much too quickly for me. Some other things that I think Brooks did well here addressed my criticisms from the first two books. The first is that often the heroes are only the focus and regular people are nothing more than angry crowds or invisible, not seen or heard…what makes them worth saving? Brooks has several examples of the average, everyday person – soldiers fighting for their lives on the walls of Arishaig, elven soldiers befriending and sparring with dwarves, a human woman in the first book who I believed was self-serving but ultimately turned out to be innocent – it feels like Brooks got the message and I thought these moments were compelling. I found myself actually caring about what would happen to the Federation soldiers, which I never thought would happen. Also, I had many questions from the first books that I thought would go unanswered, but Brooks addresses them all (save for one or two) in this third volume, almost like he made a checklist from my questions and checked them off one by one. So a big hand to Brooks for taking the time to plug these holes.

The reviews above address specific criticisms with regard to recycled material…and let’s face it, that’s a long-standing criticism…as well as how the elfstones and Tesla Dart are resolved. And Railing’s character – yuck! Probably the most whiny, self-centered, entitled emo character that Brooks has ever created…I was outright rooting against him and hoped he would fail. But where I really have a problem (and you might want to skip ahead now to the last paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers), is with the pacing and plot. Usually I complain when the pacing slows to a crawl, but I have the opposite complaint here – the story feels rushed, as if the six month publishing date between books caused some issues. To tell his tale, Brooks needs the three main story lines to converge, but the likelihood of them doing so at the same time is improbable. Yet it all comes together near the end in a neatly tied up package. The ending is wrapped up far too quickly, and focuses only on what happens to the Ohmsford twins. What about the other characters? Some just disappear after a sentence or two, some have a couple paragraphs devoted to them, but the biggest travesty is the Aphenglow/Arlingfant relationship, which ends in characters discussing it but I would have like to have seen more physical moments leading to emotional responses.

However, the biggest criticism I have involves the plot. In addition to the character convergence I mentioned above, there are two gaping holes. One is that the biggest threat to the Straken army isn’t Arishaig – elves and Federation people could care less about each other, so there was no way Tael Riverine had anything to fear from Arishaig – the biggest threat to his army is the Ellcrys. So why didn’t the Straken army march to Arborlon and attempt to destroy the Ellcrys? Yes, that didn’t work in the past but does Tael Riverine really care about what happened hundreds of years ago? I mean, he could have flown his dragon right to the tree and torched it, and the elves would have been unlikely to stop him even with their airships. Tael Riverine attacking Arishaig is simply a forced plot device to buy time for the characters to converge.

Going a step further, then, is the fact that as long as Aphen and Arling succeeded, it didn’t really matter what anyone else did, the other characters simply had to buy time. Of course, those people fighting the battles didn’t know this – no wait, they actually did – so this has the effect of robbing the story of tension, other than who lives or dies, and thus the actions of other characters don’t matter too much, because Aphen and Arling are the deus ex machina that can render everything else moot.

And following that to its logical conclusion, Grianne wasn’t necessary to the plot at all. She was acquired in order to battle Tael Riverine and get Redden back. But in the end, she simply takes over the Straken Army and gets stuck back in the Forbidding. Aiden’s premise that the return of Grianne makes this series a cornerstone and that it serves to “give strength to some of Brooks’ earlier works just by virtue of existing“…in my opinion this falls flat. She made no difference in the outcome of the book. If Grianne’s return had made the difference in delaying the Straken army long enough for the Bloodfire quest to succeed – else all would have been lost – that would have made her appearance key to the plot. The plot, however, didn’t turn out that way. The Straken army hadn’t taken the eastern pass of the Valley of the Rhenn, let alone the western pass which was even more formidable. They weren’t at the gates of Arborlon with the fall of the city imminent. Tael Riverine was riding a crippled dragon and was not making much progress. Probably the only difference Grianne’s return made was that some elven soldiers’ lives were saved in the 30 minutes (if that) it took for Arling to reach the Ellcrys when Grianne stepped out to face Tael Raverine. That’s hardly what I would define as a cornerstone to the previous two series. I loved Grianne’s character in this book…I just don’t think it was handled appropriately in order to have the impact that Aiden suggests.

So in the end I leave Shannara with mixed feelings. Questions were answered, I cared about the ancillary characters, and I loved (almost) every moment of the re-appearance of Grianne. At the same time, the book felt rushed, the plot shows holes big enough to drive a truck through, Grianne didn’t have the impact I had hoped for, and the ending felt incomplete. I guess I won’t say I’ll never read the stand-alone sequels to Witch Wraith, but with so many books in the queue and several works from promising new authors, it certainly feels like this is goodbye for Shannara and I.

May 22, 2018 Posted by | Book Review | , | Leave a comment

New Arrivals and Orders 5-16-18

The following books have arrived on my doorstep and will eventually make their way to the queue:

death of dulgath

After I finished the Rose and the Thorn, The Death of Dulgath was a no-brainer. That led into…

theft of swords

rise of empire

heir of novron

I was surprised by the heftiness of these volumes, for some reason the page counts didn’t register in my pea brain and they are much, much meatier than the books in the Riyria Chronicles.

 

midnight tides

return crimson guard

A couple of Malazan novels added to the growing collection. RotCG is impossible to find in hard cover for a reasonable price and will probably only get worse.

 

king of thorns

I’m curious to see where Mark Lawrence takes this series. I’m holding off on purchasing Emperor of Thorns until I can fairly assess King of Thorns.

 

fools quest

I was going to get this anyway but I included it to reach the free shipping plateau when I was ordering some other stuff from Amazon…

 

Ordered but not yet received:

arm of sphinx

May 16, 2018 Posted by | Orders and Arrivals | Leave a comment

Book Review: Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft

SenlinAscendsFormat:  oversized paperback, first trade paperback edition, 2018

Pages: 389

Reading Time: about 8 hours

One Sentence Synopsis: A school teacher takes his new bride on a honeymoon to the tourist destination of The Tower of Babel, but when they become separated he must ascend up the tower into a dark and strange world in an attempt to find her again.

 

Senlin Ascends made it into the reading queue after it was featured on Mark Lawrence’s Self Published Fantasy Blog Off of 2016. Unfortunately for the book and author Josiah Bancroft, it didn’t quite capture enough interest from review site Pornokitsch to be one of their top 4 picks, and so did not make it past the first round of the SPFBO. It might have continued to wallow in relative obscurity, except for the fact that Pornokitsch did give it a good review, and then Mark Lawrence (and subsequently others) raved about it. In fact, Lawrence declared it one of his favorite books of all time. It moved from a self-published digital story, to being picked up by Orbit and published in paperback. As a history buff, I was intrigued by the Babylonian setting and a hint of steampunk elements, and with Lawrence’s hefty recommendation, I decided to take a chance. Was it worth the gamble? Read on to find out, and as always, be alert to the presence of spoilers…

First, a look as some other reviews from basements, baths, and other mysterious places around the Web…

 

Joe Gordon at Forbidden Planet says: “Except Senlin is as far from anyone’s idea of a capable hero as you can imagine. Trusting in his guidebook soon proves to be a mistake – this is no reliable Baedeker, beloved of Victorian adventurers in exotic lands, it seems like an act of total fiction. Senlin is going to have to learn how to adapt if he is to survive. He’s the proverbial fish out of water, in fact he is often so damned wet you almost feel the urge to slap him and tell him to get with the programme, he’s the blundering idiot abroad, totally unprepared, no idea what he is getting into, no idea what the local customs are, how things work here and it doesn’t look like he has what it takes. The unlikely hero is not a new idea in fantasy, but here Bancroft handles that trope extremely skilfully. Senlin meets people, has encounters, and they slowly start to change him through the hardest of lessons. But he doesn’t transform into some great hero, he’s still Tom Senlin, the village school teacher. But he’s learning. And even from the raw beginning, even at his weakest, Senlin does show one spark of backbone – he will not walk away without his new wife, no matter what…It’s a world that feels like a mix of different parts of our own history – nice little details like people visiting from Ur, for example – and myth, and yet it is also so clearly not our world, and again this allows much scope for metaphor…And then there is the style of writing – Bancroft has a remarkable way with words; workers in their faded finery for a night out have “collars the colour of cigar smoke”, while dancers have “mouths lurid as mashed cherries.” It put me in mind of those wonderfully evocative descriptive phrases in the Philip Marlowe novels, making Bancroft the fantasy equivalent of Raymond Chandler; I was not surprised to find out after finishing the book that he is also a poet.

Writer Dan of Elitist Book Reviews states: “It took no more than a single paragraph for me to realize that this author had some chops. I love finding books like that, which instantly immerse me in language where I can forget about everything else around me and just enjoy the proffered story. Rich detail and intelligent prose that is absolutely chock-full of character pulled me into the story and the mentality of Tom Senlin and the world surrounding him…Senlin himself is a mild-mannered, studious man. He’s used to having things go his way, as they often do in the school room. He teaches what he knows and knows what he teaches. Although he can seem standoffish and even prude at times, it is his hesitation and thoughtfulness that helped me to really find his character likable and engaging. And his sense of humor and sarcasm was directly in line with that of my own. There was this scene at the beginning of Chapter 14–a flashback no less!–about flying a kite, that so absolutely and brilliantly captured the character and motivation of Senlin for me that I never once doubted him again. Likely some of the most powerful and affecting two pages of story that I’ve read in as many decades…I also made the statement that THE GREY BASTARDS stood head and shoulders above any of the others in the final SPFBO group, but the fact of the matter is that for me, SENLIN ASCENDS was even one step better than that. I sooooo wish that SENLIN ASCENDS had been passed along to the final group, as it would definitely have been my vote for the best of the contest, but the simple truth is that it wasn’t…Absolutely a book to read, to own, and to love. Couldn’t recommend it more.

Jared at Pornokitsch opines: “It takes a while to warm to the snobbish, provincial Senlin, and it isn’t until he stops being overwhelmed by his surroundings and starts taking responsibility for his actions that the reader goes from following him to empathising with him….Everything happens for a reason; everything exists for a reason, and part of the oddness is simply that Senlin is a flustered and passive character at the start. When Senlin, well, ascends (in every sense) – and graduates from tourist to ‘native’ – that the world goes from being curious to genuinely immersive…Senlin’s spent his life studying the Tower and the first thing it does is betray him. These prominent emotional hooks carry us through the first part of the book, and, given the oddness of his adventures, that empathy is important…It is also worth noting that Senlin is absolutely and terrifically unexceptional. He’s not a Chosen One, nor does he have any secret magic skills that come to the forefront. He is smart, educated (if naive), hard-working and dedicated. He commits to his quest with neither destiny nor prophesy on his side, and faces overwhelming odds without the barest hint of cosmic assistance. As far as the traditions of epic fantasy are concerned, he couldn’t be any more of an underdog, making his adventure all the more exciting…A terrific, free-ranging fantasy that ranges from Kafkaesque horror to heist thriller, all tied together by themes of agency and ascension. What begins as a disconnected series of curious vignettes turns into an exciting and cunningly-constructed epic. Senlin is that rare fantasy protagonist that succeeds solely through intelligence and hard work, making his progress (such as it is) all the more impressive. This book is bonkers, entertaining, clever and – quite possibly – unique.

These are some of the most thoughtful and articulate reviews I have possibly ever read about a fantasy novel. I agree with what has been said above, to a degree. However, my own spin on the book is a little different, so let me do my best to explain. Books have always been important in my life. Going back to my childhood, I think about the Charlie Brown Dictionary that I carried under my little arms everywhere I went. Stories such as Alexander and the Magic Mouse, The Golden Phoenix, Where the Wild Things Are…and as I grew older, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, A Wrinkle in Time, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nihm, Treasure Island, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Where the Red Fern Grows, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and so many more…. When I was young, it seemed like all these books had been written for me. It was as if each author had sat down and said, “I’m going to write this story just for Brian. I know he’ll really like it!” Somehow the author had reached into my mind and pulled out the most amazing, imaginative stories that connected with me on the deepest level possible. When you’re young, your mind is not yet full of science and math, work and stress, relationships and commitments, cynicism and ego, and laden with filters…at that age, your mind is an empty treasure vault, waiting to be filled with new wonders. Each book I read as a child was an amazing new wonder added to that vault. And though I still love reading books to this day and I’ve enjoyed them thoroughly, I don’t think I’ve ever felt, as an adult, a deep connection to any book like the way I did when I was young.

Until now.

As I read through Senlin Ascends, I was completely entranced. Unable to capture what I was feeling until I sat down to write this review, I now realize that this book connected to me on a deep, deep level – that childhood-deep level that I described above. The story unfolded before me in a way that reminds me of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Alice in Wonderland, only, it did so on an adult level. The book was described by author Pearce Brown as “a modern book that feels like a timeless classic“, and I think that description is spot on. Much of this feeling I attribute to the world-building. The Tower is a vertical world, with its “ringdoms” each containing its own type of citizens, rules and rulers, economy, and ecosystem. The true intent of The Tower is to trap people at specific levels, which is what makes Thomas Senlin’s ascension through these ringdoms notable. Early on I was able to figure out how the ringdoms interconnect – indeed, how The Tower itself functions – due to my fascination with all things steampunk that provided me with some insight.

Another contributing factory to the story’s charm is Bancroft’s prose. It is elegant and wonderfully descriptive, and I believe this is where the “timeless classic” feeling comes from. Here are a few of my many favorite descriptive passages:

The bundle of women’s underwear that had been resting on his lap fluttered open. Hosiery, bloomers, and camisoles flew into the crowd of the public square, alighting everywhere like doves in a park.

He sat at the bottom of a well. There was a point of light far above him. At the bottom of the well, a piercing note rang in his ears. It reminded him vaguely of a finger playing a wineglass.

“‘Spring is gray and miserable and rainy for three or four weeks while the snow melts. The ditches turn into creeks, and everything you own is clammy as a frog belly. Then one morning, you walk outside and the sun is out and the clover has grown over the ditches and the trees are pointed with leaves, like ten thousand green arrowheads, and the air smells like’ – and here he had to fumble for phrase – ‘like a roomful of stately ladies and one wet dog.‘”

Her short hair appeared to have been cut by a blind man weilding a sickle and was the color of ashes.

My apartment smells like a cave where generations of cheese makers cultured their wheels.

Bancroft, who is a self-admitted poet, is a master of analogous descriptive phrasing. It allows him to complete populate his world with people, places, and interesting things, without the story bogging down in the details. It leads to a perfect pace and imaginative setting. There is a point where Senlin is hired to perform work, and after a brief switch to a first person narrative, it returns to third person and starts to bog down a bit. The final 30 pages finally break the story out of this lull and are packed profusely with swashbuckling action, where the pace picks up furiously.

One of the criticisms of the book focused on Senlin meeting people again that he met earlier in the story; that in a place as large as The Tower it shouldn’t be possible. I thought Bancroft handled this deftly, as part was by design, and one random reunion happens because of the port he is at, where smugglers “have” to land at because they wouldn’t be able to land at the nicer ports. The only real issue is with a floozy that seems tied lockstep to Senlin for the purpose of the plot, but it really wasn’t impossible to happen that way – unlikely, maybe, but not impossible.

Another criticism states that Senlin doesn’t give the impression that he is clever enough to pull off elaborate heists. I will say that there is a little merit to that criticism, as Senlin is initially portrayed as socially challenged – to a degree. What we discover about his character is that as a teacher, he has managed all sorts of personalities in his classroom, including bullies, and this experience, combined with the realization that he would do anything to get his wife back, makes him desperate. It also allows him to tap into abilities like inner cunning and identifying weaknesses in others, which he is able to bring into play. It’s important to note that Senlin isn’t perfect, and makes several mistakes along the way. However, one other facet of his personality that is admirable and useful (and has largely gone unrecognized in other reviews), is his general decency and willingness to trust others, even though he has been advised not to. This decency and trust pays him back in spades in The Tower, where such things just do not happen. Senlin is a force that not only allows himself to change and grow within, in order to find his wife, but he also changes others around him for the better.

If I have any criticisms of the book, it is that we only get to see Senlin’s wife Marya briefly at the very beginning and then later in flashbacks, although those flashbacks are very powerful as Writer Dan notes above. Those flashbacks only serve to heighten my wish to see more of Marya as a main character, as she is so wonderfully written – she sees in Senlin what others in his small town overlook, which means she is special. My other criticism is my disappointment with where the story ends…it is not exactly a cliffhanger, but it stops in a place of uncertainty and raises many more questions about how the story will turn out. In other words, it left me wanting more, so I guess Bancroft has done his job well!

Senlin Ascends is one of the best books, if not the best book, I’ve read in a long, long time. That’s high praise, and I understand that other readers may not find the same experience, because as I stated above, this book made a personal connection to me, and it won’t make that same impression on most other people. The beautiful lyrical language, the character that persists in spite of his imperfections and against all odds, and the imaginative setting of The Tower of Babel – all contribute to a story that made me feel a child-like wonder, a story I could place in the empty treasure vault of my mind, and for that I am truly grateful to Mr. Bancroft. I will be ordering the sequel, The Arm of the Sphinx soon, and it will be entered into the queue, where I hope to discover more of that child-like wonder…

May 14, 2018 Posted by | Book Review | , | Leave a comment

Why I Don’t Review On Goodreads Or Amazon

There are a lot of things to like about Goodreads. It is a diverse community and there are many benefits to belonging – finding reviews and recommendations, tracking statistics on your reading, notifications of new releases, a strong author presence – among other things. But there are two gigantic reason why my reviews aren’t found on Goodreads:

  1. I dont like the review system
  2. And, the comments found in those reviews

Most of you who read my reviews know that I don’t use a scoring system. Why is that? Because a scoring system, unless extremely detailed, doesn’t offer any flexibility in assigning book scores. And even if you design in some measure of flexibility – such as a score of 1 to 100, or scoring using multiple categories – defining criteria for a scoring system is difficult to implement consistently. Books must either be compared against other books, or they must be compared against your own internal means of measure, which may be as simple as “I liked it this much”, or it must check off certain boxes to achieve a score.

In a system where the only rating options are 1 to 5 stars, there is a distinct lack of flexibility in assigning a rating. Furthermore, a rating is not an opinion; it is simply a score. There is no context within a score to give the value meaning. Let me use an example I have relied on in the past. Forsaken Kingdom has a total rating of 4.16 on Goodreads, while The Wise Man’s Fear has a total rating of 4.58. Those total scores, however, are disingenuous to my own rating, because I can only leave a score of 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 in my own review. The Wise Man’s Fear has its flaws and is not a perfect book – I don’t equate it to my “cream of the crop” novels, so let’s say I gave it a 4. Forsaken Kingdom is a novel that plays it safe and doesn’t come close to attempting the depth and lyrical beauty of The Wise Man’s Fear, but isn’t terrible. So that means I should rank it lower but not too low, perhaps a 3. Now along comes The Crown Tower. I feel that it is better than Forsaken Kingdom but not as good as The Wise Man’s Fear. Yet my only scoring options are to make The Crown Tower equal in score to either Forsaken Kingdom or The Wise Man’s Fear, instead of somewhere in between.

This is the problem I have with the “star” scoring system – it allows zero flexibility when scoring books. And let’s face it, the score of a book can often influence its success or failure. Whoever set up the 5 star scoring methodology on Goodreads did the reading community a poor service. Amazon uses the same scoring system. This is primarily the reason why I won’t review on Goodreads or Amazon – I refuse to use that type of a scoring system. Yet on both sites, if I want to leave a review, I must use that system.

The other reason I won’t leave a review on Goodreads has to do with the social media aspect regarding comments on reviews. If I were to post a review, I would expect that like many social media sites where anyone and everyone can leave an opinion, the comments section would degenerate into arguments and name-calling. One need look no further than the reviews of Prince of Thorns. There are so many angry comments about rape, and also people saying things like “I can’t stand to follow a murderous character like Jorg” or “I don’t understand how a fifteen year old boy can be good at all these things.” I can see their viewpoint, and I respect it. I would never try to argue with them that what they are feeling isn’t right. That is their opinion.

Yet in the comments section, arguments and name-calling ensue. To me it seems that many of the reviews or comments missed the entire plot of the book – this boy was merely a tool used by a wizard and had little to no control over his actions. It changes the entire context of the story, yet it is as if none of these people actually read the book, or at least came away with an understanding. It’s far too easy to simply deride and shout down differing opinions, and it’s something I want no part of. At least here on WordPress I can moderate comments and ensure that type of thing doesn’t happen to me.

It’s a shame, because there are a lot of thoughtful and wonderful people on Goodreads that have interesting things to say, and aside from the scoring system, the site has some great features. Yet it is the baseness in the comments section that ruins it for me. If that was the only reason to avoid Goodreads, I could probably overcome it. But added to the scoring system, the site just isn’t a good fit for me. Perhaps one day I will reconsider, but for now I’m happy to stay exclusively right where I’m at.

May 7, 2018 Posted by | Editorial | , , | Leave a comment

Book Review: The Rose and the Thorn by Michael J. Sullivan

rose and thornFormat:  oversized paperback, first edition, 2013

Pages:  347 (not counting glossary and extras)

Reading Time:  about 5.5 hours

One Sentence Synopsis: Royce and Hadrian return to Medford after a year’s absence, only to become embroiled in politics, royal assassination attempts, challenges from the local thieves guild, and revenge.

 

In my review of Michael J. Sullivan’s The Crown Tower, I had decided to “kick the can down the road” – or in other words, the determination as to whether I would continue to purchase more Riyria novels would be based on how I felt about The Rose and Thorn. The Crown Tower had enough positive to outweigh the negative for me to order and read The Rose and Thorn. Now that I’ve finished The Rose and Thorn, what is my decision? Read on to discover my choice, and as always, expect some minor spoilers.

 

But first, let’s look at some other reviews around the ‘net. Matt Gilliard of 52 Book Reviews says: “While not as satisfying as the previous effort, The Rose and the Thorn is still packed with all of the things that made Sullivan such a powerhouse in the genre. There are banter and battle in equal measure, a touch of romance, sharply drawn characters, and the wonderful blend of nostalgic sword and sorcery that hearkens back to the books that led many thirty and forty-something readers to the genre in the first place….The plot is nothing groundbreaking, it is Sullivan doing what he does best. High stakes, frequent reversals, and a deeply layered sense of the world in the smallest of schemes. There is no doubt that there are larger forces in play here, and readers of the Riyria Revelations will see the beginnings of larger plot lines and that information, while unnecessary to the main plot line, definitely sweetens the pot for faithful readers. And that’s the real genius in the way that Sullivan has approached this return to the property that brought him so much acclaim. He’s crafted a story that hits all the same notes as the preceding novels while filling in the back stories of beloved characters all while telling these early tales in such a way that is accessible and rewarding for new readers.

Shadowhawk of The Founding Fields opines: “But this time, we see the wider cast of the original series make their appearance. It was fun to see all of them at such an earlier point in their lives, as much as it was seeing the formation of Riyria in the previous novel and this one. Each character adds something different to the overall story. But there was one who really stood. Hilfred, the royal Sergeant who was Arista’s bodyguard in the original series. More than any of the Essendons, he is the star of this novel as far as the story is concerned. The Rose and The Thorn is his origin story, and quite a painful one it is too, knowing what we do from the original novels….However, thing is that there are far too many characters here for Michael to juggle properly and give each his or her due. Michael does well to tell a really intense story that works in the entire cast, and lay the groundwork for the original series, but it all felt like an overload. Particularly because Gwen got the short shrift here. The motivation for everything that Royce does in this novel comes back to Gwen and how she is treated by a noble, but curiously, we get very little of her in the novel. It stands in contrast to the previous novel where she was one of the protagonists.

Finally, Wendell of Book Wraiths states: “And as Mr. Sullivan slowly reveals all these amazing plots, his rare, writing brilliance becomes clear to see, for each of those lovely, individual stories begin to mesh together, creating a single, overarching tale. A yarn that not only encompasses this novel and the Riyria Chronicles but also the Riyria Revelations as well….And somehow while juggling plot lines, Mr. Sullivan also finds time to gift each character with his or her own unique personality. There are no cookie cutter characters in this novel. Each character is well rounded, having their own unique history, problems, hopes, and fears that foreshadow their future selves but does not lock them into a particular role. Indeed, even those characters a longtime reader knows will one day be revealed as “evil” are so life like that you will find yourself hoping that somehow they will see the error of their ways and change before their fate closes around them….Overall, this is a wonderful, entertaining fantasy, worthy of inclusion into the ranks of the best novels of 2013. While some readers call Hadrian and Royce and their adventures simple, uncomplicated fantasy, if this is an example of “simple fantasy” novels then I would label it simply brilliant and ask every writer out there to begin to emulate it. It quite frankly is just that enjoyable to read.

 

So as I sat down to formulate how I should approach this review, I started to think about the unique opportunity I had to review this book as someone who has never read the Riyria Revelations series. Shadowhawk makes an interesting statement at the end of his review: “I must admit that I am quite jealous of anyone who goes into this not having read The Crown Tower or any of the originals. It would be a fascinating viewpoint I think.” It only confirmed to me that I should take that approach (although I did read The Crown Tower), and that my take will be different from almost every other review written about The Rose and the Thorn. I will make some comparisons to The Crown Tower, since it directly proceeded this book.

I’ll start the review with a look at pacing and style. Sullivan keeps things moving at a brisk pace. There’s very little down time spent in describing excruciating details or of pages and pages of character angst and introspection. Sullivan wants to get a certain place by the end of the book and he only has 347 pages to get there, while also needing to develop several new characters and their backstories or personalities. Under those constraints, there’s little time for fluff. This makes for a fast-paced read…in fact, I was surprised by how quickly the story was over.

This pace also has a downside, however. Characterization veers towards the shallow side. Royce and Hadrian actually get a significant reduction in “page time” compared to what they received in The Crown Tower, as the focus shifts to Reuben, the royals, Albert, and Rose, and Gwen’s character has a much reduced role, as Shadowhawk points out. There simply isn’t enough time to devote to multiple viewpoints, motivations, or in depth character studies. However, there is enough detail to get by from the lesser characters, and Reuben and Albert get some significant development considering they are new. Royce finds out that not every problem can be solved by killing people, while Hadrian learns that naivete and showing mercy to an opponent can unravel all his good intentions. Each realizes they have something to learn either from each other, or from their experiences. There is a scene where Royce recalls a former mentor and tries to think of how that mentor would handle a difficult situation. He makes the right play and is surprised at how well the results turn out. Now that is some great character development!

The plot of this book is where Sullivan really shines, and this is where I can differentiate my review from others. Since I didn’t know what would happen in the Riyria Revelations, I didn’t know who would live or die except for Royce and Hadrian. For me, this created an extreme amount of tension in the story, especially when one character central to the plot has their throat slit, one dies in a fire, one is killed in a swordfight, and another is flayed by Royce. By giving other characters like Reuben, Albert, King Amrath, Princess Arista, Top Hat, and others such prominent roles, with Royce and Hadrian taking somewhat of a back seat, I had no idea what would happen to them all. It is a brilliant move that for someone like me, reading in chronological order with no future knowledge of events, made the book very exciting.

Furthermore, this sentiment applies not only to which characters live and die, but also to the direction of the story. Think of Sullivan’s plot threads as strands in a spiderweb. Royce embarks on a revenge mission, Hadian follows Rose and Reuben’s father while at the same time high constable Exeter has a manhunt on for her, royals scatter in multiple directions, a fire breaks out, a conspiracy to kill the royal family is in play, and Reuben makes some difficult choices…there are so many ways that the story could have gone – so many strands in the spiderweb to follow – it was impossible for me to predict what would happen. That means that every twist and turn in the book was, if not totally a surprise, leading to yet another strand of possibilities. This also lent a great deal of excitement to The Rose and the Thorn.

Most of the problems I had with The Crown Tower are non-existent here. There’s no predictions from Rose or intervention from a god-like being that undermine the plot and remove tension; conversations feel more natural and less awkward; and more woman appear in the story in various roles – royals and nobles, a healer – although prostitutes are still the most prominent. I feel that The Rose and Thorn is better than its predecessor in every way. Also, the title of the book makes sense…it comes from a bittersweet moment near the end that encapsulates much of the book’s theme – from out of bad can come good, but the cost incurred is not forgotten.

In conclusion I would say that my reading situation, as detailed above, gave me a more unique, and dare I say, better, reading experience than those reading in publishing order probably found. I read in other reviews (like Matt’s above) that readers who had read Riyria Revelations first, and then read these prequels later, liked seeing the backstories of familiar characters, and were able to recognize the development of subsequent plot lines. However, I think not knowing what would happen in the Riyria Revelations made this book far more exciting for me than it would to those readers. I’m definitely moving ahead with purchasing The Death of Dulgath, as well as the entire Riyria Revelations series, and possibly Sullivan’s Legends of the First Empire series as well. Sullivan has just picked up a major new fan – me!

May 4, 2018 Posted by | Book Review | , | Leave a comment

Reading Goals for 2018

As most of you know, at the end of December 2017 I made the decision to re-start this blog after idling since mid-2013. As 2018 started and I finished reading my first book for the year, Codex Born, I was hesitant at that time to define reading goals for the year. I didn’t know how much time I’d have to read, much less how much time I’d have to devote to the blog, and I wanted to take a “wait and see” approach in relation to my progress. But as I blazed through book after book and posted reviews, and with April now in the rearview mirror and a third of the year gone, I feel like things are going well, so I’m going to take a risk and set what I feel is an achievable goal for the remainder of the year (as well as 2018 in total). I decided to define my reading goal in terms of “number of pages” rather than in “number of books”. Using number of books as a goal would tempt me to read only short books to meet the goal, and there are some hefty books in the queue that I need to get started on. By defining the goal as number of pages, the quantity of books I read is immaterial.

To find a starting point for the goal, I thought I’d take a look at how much I read in the years up to the idling of the blog to find a baseline and to see where I am so far this year:

pages read

 

In 2011 I came very close to 10,000 pages read for that year. In 2012 I read almost 8600 pages, although a big chunk of that was from re-reads. In 2013 I was on pace to read over 9000 pages for that year before I burned out.

Currently I’m on pace to read 18,705 pages. While that would be an amazing accomplishment, I don’t think its sustainable, especially once the weather improves and I spend more time outdoors (it’s been pretty cold and rainy where I live since the beginning of the year). I’ve come close to 10,000 pages a couple of times, so hitting that mark seems pretty reasonable. However, due to my progress so far this year, that goal seems a bit too easy, so I’m going to aim a little higher. So my goals are defined as thus:

  • 12,000 pages read total for 2018
  • Classic re-reads make up no more than 10% of the total pages read, so that means no more than 1,200 pages read for classic reviews

With 6235 pages read this year so far, I’m over halfway to my goal, needing 5765 pages for the next 8 months to hit the year-end 12,000 pages goal. Here’s a look at some of the books in the queue that will most likely be read first, along with their page counts:

The Rose and the Thorn = 347
Senlin Ascends = 448
Witch Wraith = 432
The Black Shriving = 502
House of Chains = 672
What Remains of Heroes = 406
House of Blades = 292
The Shadow of What Was Lost = 704
Fool’s Assassin = 688
The Traitor God = 432
The Way of Kings = 1008

These 11 books would actually exceed the 12,000 pages goal for the year. However the following classic re-reads would also push the total far over the goal:

Weird of the White Wolf (Elric) = 160
The Vanishing Tower (Elric) = 176
The Bane of the Black Sword (Elric) = 160
Stormbringer (Elric) = 224
Prisoner of the Horned Helmet = 320

The re-reads give me some wiggle room if I can only read 10 of the novels listed above. Reading all these titles by the end of the year seems pretty doable. The Way of Kings looks like the biggest hurdle with its intimidating 1008 pages. Knocking out all these titles would leave about 30-35 books in the queue, with several more classic re-reads waiting as well. If Glen Cook’s Port of Shadows is released before the end of the year, it will certainly bump something else off of this list, unless I’ve hit the goal by then…

May 1, 2018 Posted by | Reading Goals | Leave a comment

Book Review: The Bands of Mourning by Brandon Sanderson

bands of mourningFormat:  hard cover, first edition, 2016

Pages:  437 (not counting a postscript and appendix)

Reading Time:  about 7 hours

 

In my review of the previous Mistborn Novel, Shadows of Self, I was less than thrilled at the way it felt cobbled together, with an uninteresting plot, shallow characterization, and dark ending. I was hoping that despite being published only 16 weeks after Shadows of Self, in The Bands of Mourning Brandon Sanderson would be able to rediscover the magic that made the Mistborn novels so much fun. Did he succeed? Read further to discover my thoughts, but beware – there are a lot of spoilers of not only The Bands of Morning, but also Shadows of Self.

First, a look at some other reviews around the Cosmere. Alice Arneson at Tor.com writes: “Cosmere-building is moving into areas which were previously only hinted: Identity and Investiture come front and center as recognized concepts and magical tools. (The careful Cosmere reader will note that we have now identified the homeland of a certain mask-wearing Worldhopper. We have also seen on the page for the first time another important Worldhopper—one who has not yet been named in any published work, but has been obliquely referenced several times. When these two are properly identified, certain speculations will be definitively laid to rest.)…Steris… ah, Steris. I’ll confess, she’s probably my favorite fantasy character ever. Her progression was hinted at in Shadows of Self, but she really comes into her own here. From moments of painful honesty, to moments of sheer genius, her contribution to the team turns out to be absolutely invaluable. I’ve come to love her self-awareness and calm acceptance of herself, but it was a lovely thing to see her learn that who she is, is worthy.

Dina at SFF Book Reviews states: “As in Shadows of Self, it felt like a number of sub-plots were being juggled, but juggled rather hectically and without as much planning as in the first Mistborn trilogy. Where plot strings beautifully wove together to create a bigger whole at the end, here it feels like every book introduces new side plots, new political factions and character side stories, only to unceremoniously drop some (Wayne’s attempts at redemption, or his obsession with their weapons supplier, for example). Others feel like they should have been foreshadowed way earlier but were instead thrown in quickly and info-dumpy to prepare for the scenes to come…This book also took me on quite an emotional joy-ride. Not only was there a lot going on and it was a thrill to follow the characters as they solve problems each in their own way – I will never forget Spoiled Tomato – but I have also come to love all of them for being who they are. Marasi has grown into herself and trusts as much in her instincts as in statistical data, Wayne is slightly more serious, although you still mustn’t take away his hat. Ever! And Wax, who has been through so much, is put through hell once more. The biggest surprise was Steris, in her cold mathematical manner, who showed kindness and courage and creativity in the face of danger. So yeah, I love that gang!

Finally, Joshua S. Hill of Fantasy Book Review says: “It’s a fantastic bit of worldbuilding which makes Brandon Sanderson’s novels somewhat unique, in that we are really watching two stories – one a micro-story, focusing on the lives of individual characters trying to eke out answers, the other, a macro-story, of an entire civilization on the move, that has so far been spread out over six different books (and likely to be many more)…I spend most of my time reading these new Mistborn books hoping for more time with Marasi, though Sanderson continues to tease me. Obviously the focal point of the book is Wax, but the immediate supporting cast is so important to these books that I’m not surprised when I find I’ve gone a chapter or so without entering into his POV – in fact, I think the way that the story is going allows for this possibility even more as we progress…The Bands of Mourning represents exactly how you write the middle book in a trilogy, without it simply being seen as the stepping stone between book one and three. The character growth for everyone is vital, and beautifully fleshed out, leaving you absolutely enthralled.

 

Let’s start with pacing and structure. The book is divided into 3 parts…Part One covers events in Elendil; Part Two focuses on New Seran; and Part Three takes place in the Southern Roughs and mountains. However, I thought of it more in this way: Elendil is more like a prologue, which is followed by a train action sequence, then the events in New Seran, leading to the warehouse in the Roughs, and finally ending in the mountain fortress. So I consider it four parts with an introduction. The pace of The Bands of Mourning is fast with several hectic action scenes, sharing more in common with The Alloy of Law than Shadows of Self.

Perhaps the most notable improvement over Shadows of Self, however, is the characterization. The odd traits, shallow depth, and loss of team dynamics are gone. In its place are characters with more depth and interaction, restoring the team dynamic, and each character has his or her (or its) moment to shine. Wax is still struggling with what he feels is betrayal by Harmony, and though he makes a number of missteps, it just makes him all the more human. Wayne has toned down the eccentricities to a more palatable level, and even shows growth in a moment of grief by breaking his rule of not using guns and yet showing mercy. Marasi, having moved on from an attraction to Wax, deals with living in his shadow while continuing to show poise and adaptability in difficult situations. MeLaan the Kandra is a delight, not only in her abilities but in her growing comfort level around humans. And Steris? In my review of Shadows of Self I complained about her being underdeveloped, but that I liked her smart observations. Well, that complaint can be shelved, because as Alice mentions above in her review, Steris is an amazing character. Every scene featuring Steris (and there are a lot more of them here) is among the best in the book. I don’t know how Sanderson managed it, but he has completely turned around her development, and as her relationship with Wax becomes more caring, more intimate, I couldn’t help but grin and think, “why couldn’t this have happened sooner?”

Several new characters and concepts are introduced in this story, from a strange race of people to the south, to flying technology, to batteries and generators, to allomantic grenades – Sanderson shows he’s not afraid to think outside the box. In contrast to the new peoples and concepts are the many references to a classic Mistborn concept – hemalurgy. The use of spikes to create creatures or allomancy can be traced all the way back to the first Mistborn book. It’s very cool to see it come around again, and the concept that allomancers can be “created” by spiking them. I’m not one who follows Sanderson’s Cosmere concept…apparently, for those who do there are some hidden clues in this novel relating to his other works. For the rest of us, however, the book stands fine on it its own without the need to know the Cosmere.

The antagonists in this book are really nothing special. Mr. Suit is actually somewhat of a disappointment, and the identity of the main “bad guy” was a bit too predictable. “The Set”, the evil organization trying to start a war, remains somewhat of a faceless entity, although the revelation that it is being backed by a rival god named Trell (another old Mistborn reference) sets up some intriguing possibilities involving a battle between gods Trell and Harmony, as well as civil war between Elendil and all other peoples, that seems to be inevitable. And as Harmony pulls back the curtain a little bit, we learn of a mysterious “red mist”. What in the heck is that?

The map at the front of the book that features Elendil is practically useless – a map of the Southern Roughs and mountains where the warehouse and fortress are located would be far more useful – although I very much liked the map of New Seran. The broadsheets between chapters are still very fun to read as well. The usual appendix has been provided that explains all of the metal capabilities; however, there is a section that talks about the three metallic arts in a first person perspective. I don’t know who this narrating person is, but they reference Roshar a couple of times. Though I have not read any of the Stormlight Archives yet, I do know that it is set in the world of Roshar, so I better get busy with tackling that series soon.

There are a few small problems with The Bands of Mourning. At times I found modern words from our society dropped into the story, which was annoying, but fortunately it doesn’t happen to often. Sometimes the action sequences are so chaotic that they are hard to follow. And there were also a couple of times where I thought to myself, “well why didn’t they do this instead or in response?” It is a result of having a complicated magic system, which makes it difficult for the author to foresee every possibility a character might take. We also continue to have references to characters like Lord Mistborn and the Final Emperor, and when those names are used along with Lord Ruler it can become hard to remember who is really being referred to. And the hint that the Lord Ruler isn’t dead – really? Why would Sanderson undermine the original Mistborn story like that?! Finally there is a beggar who gives Wax a coin outside of a party and sets certain events into motion. The identity of the beggar remains a mystery, and hopefully Sanderson reveals the beggar’s identity and intent in the next novel, else it reeks of deus ex machina.

All of those problems are minor and did not affect my enjoyment of the story, and as a matter of fact I did enjoy The Bands of Mourning very much. I would say that this is the best book of the newer Mistborn entries and one of the best Mistborn books Sanderson has written. It is an action-packed thrill ride with superbly written characters and enough secrets and hints to keep me intrigued, and has me anxiously waiting for the final novel in the series, which is to be titled “The Lost Metal“. Bravo to Sanderson for overcoming what I felt was a previous letdown and for writing a superb novel that recaptured the magic and has hooked me once again.

April 30, 2018 Posted by | Book Review | , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Unbound by Jim C. Hines

unboundFormat:  hard cover, 1st edition, 2014

Pages:  338

Reading Time:  about 6 hours

 

The second Magic Ex Libris book, Codex Born, proved to be the spark that helped me jump back into reading fantasy and resume work on this blog. I had high hopes that Jim C. Hines had another amazing story to tell. Was he successful? Read on to see my answer to that question, including minor spoilers, but first let’s take a look at a few other reviews out in cyberspace (and watch out because they have some spoilers from the previous novels too!).

From the Mind of C.E. Tracy: “As it should be with the third book in a series, the story is much more developed. And it deals with much darker themes than the first two. I like a bit (or a lot) of darkness. It makes it seem more realistic. Not that there can be much realism with vampires and trapped demons and such, but more so with human nature. How far would you go to right a wrong? To save a friend? To protect? That’s what Isaac is up against…the only major character of note is Meridiana. There were plenty of minor characters, but they were never really around long enough to be particularly noteworthy. Meridiana is an interesting character. I found her background story very intriguing. While her back story as a person is fiction (a twin to Holy Roman Emperor Otto III is mentioned but nothing else), her imprisoned form has more legitimacy. Pope Sylvester II was rumoured to have made a pact with a demon name Meridiana and she was in the brazen head he supposedly built…it made a great back story to the quite evil character. We do also get a better look at Ponce de Leon. He has appeared in the other books, but this time we get to see more of him. I like how he and Gutenberg all almost literal opposites. He is more lax and free where Gutenberg is strict and rigid. He also seems more “human” (take that as you will).

Marlene Harris of Reading Reality says: “The pace of this story is utterly relentless – breaks for breath are few and far between, both for the reader and for the characters in the story. At first, that’s because Isaac feels so guilty that he can’t let himself stop, and later it’s because once he gets close to the forces of evil, they don’t let up on their attacks on him. In Unbound, as the title indicates, everything fall apart. The structures and restrictions that the Porters have relied upon for centuries all come unglued. And while in the end that might be a good thing, in the short and medium term, all that results is chaos. It’s ugly. Well written and totally absorbing, but ugly to watch. It’s obvious that the future is not going to be pretty, even if everyone survives to see it. Isaac, as usual, generally goes in with half a plan, half a prayer, and a whole lot of luck. Sometimes he doesn’t so much succeed as fail upwards. He also has no compunction about sacrificing himself for what he sees as the greater good, even if he might be wrong. One of the interesting things going on is that Isaac makes friends, where Gutenberg seems to have mostly made either enemies or sycophants. The contrast in those two styles is going to have a marked effect on the future…it will keep you on the edge of your seat every minute.”

Paul Weimer of SF Signal states: “…Unbound unflinchingly (sometimes to a fault) explores the depression that Isaac undergoes as a result. This is an extremely difficult act to pull off, as exploring a depressed protagonist makes for a main narrative that can have problems getting off the ground. As a sufferer of depression, I intensely felt Isaac’s plight…the entity revealed in the second novel is still plotting to take over the world. Her motivations beyond that sort of suzerainty aren’t always quite clear, and to be honest, feel slightly under done. She’s a credible threat from a power perspective, especially given the fractured response to her machinations. The danger is real and in the encounters we see her, there are some excellent combat scenes showing just what the long trapped sorceress and her minions can do…Fantasy, as a genre, can be the conservative sibling to Science Fiction. Science Fiction is about changes – good, bad and otherwise – happening to society, to Humanity, and how Humanity or just an individual deals with it: the development of teleportation; the discovery of an artifact the size of Earth’s orbit around a distant star; crashing into a hitherto unknown region of space and dealing with a variety of alien aliens, with you the only human, etc. Fantasy, by comparison, is often a story of Restoration, or fighting a rearguard action, of trying to set the world, gone skew, back to rights. There is power when fantasy decides to play in the themes of science fiction and own the possibilities of change and development “in real time”. Unbound taps into that, and I give Hines enormous credit for it.

 

Much like Codex Born, Unbound struggles with pacing at the beginning of the story. Part of this is due to the difficulty in how Isaac collects information without using magic, and part of it is a focus on Isaac’s loss of magic and his feeling of failure from losing Jeneta, the latter of which Paul points out above. I must say that reading about depression, for me, is uncomfortable, and while it has a purpose and I see the the value in exploring that state of mind in a character, I’ll be frank in saying I don’t particularly enjoy it. Hines displays a deft hand in making it prominent without overwhelming the story completely. I managed to get through this until the action begins to pick up as Isaac explores a vampire blood bank in space (yes you heard that right) and on his return to Earth lands in Rome to talk to the dead. From this point of the story all hell breaks loose and the action is fast and furious.

The characters of Bi Wei, Johannes Gutenberg and Juan Ponce de Leon have much more prominent roles in this story, and I thought those expanded roles were excellent. These characters, who have lived for several centuries, are very powerful, so it is telling that on multiple occasions they turn to Issac to solve some serious problems…they recognize a greatness within him, and that in turns supports Isaac’s role as the protagonist when by all other definitions he is just one libriomancer among several. Nidhi Shaw gets more page time as well. As a result, Lena does not have as big of a role as she did in the previous novel, but her character was explored in depth in that novel, so its okay for others to shine this time.

One cool feature I liked in this book were the multitude of fantasy creatures that make an appearance: a gorgon, a harpy, a sword-wielding angel, and even an appearance by Frankenstein’s monster! Also, some Dungeons and Dragons magic items show up, which was a great touch. And a flying saucer! Plus a new Harry Potter novel (we wish!) and an unpublished H.G. Wells manuscript…folks, it is simply amazing how much geeky stuff Hines injects into this book. Between each chapter Hines devotes a page where he explores how people would react to the reality of magic…this is done through imaginary news feeds, letters, emails, etc. I enjoyed these brief diversions, all though some are better than others.

Hines tries to strike a balance in limiting the power of Meridiana and the Ghosts (Devourers). Due to the nature of her power, Meridiana has the potential to practically be a god, but that power is somewhat limited by her prison and the fact that Victor Harrison is no longer around. However, Hines actually makes a critical mistake here. Meridiana always seems to be one step ahead of the protagonists and overpowers them, forcing them to flee. There were several points during the story where I wondered why Meridian hadn’t pulled objects from the e-reader to help locate Isaac while he was in hiding, or even to find her own prison…or to do a hundred other things that would have helped her achieve her plans other than just creating monsters and messing with Gutenberg’s spells. It’s kind of a giant-sized hole in the plot: she was capable of doing more but she didn’t, and we don’t know why. About two-thirds into the book, a shocking development happens that I totally wasn’t expecting. It changed the entire nature of the series, and sets up the next novel in the series, Revisionary, to have the potential to be amazing. But I also have reservations…just like the plot hole above, I’m worried that Hines might create another big plot hole in Revisionary, because let’s face it, he can’t think of everything that could happen, only that which fits within his narrative.

In conclusion, Unbound starts slow but picks up steam and then becomes a wild ride to the end. Despite a big plot hole, the copious amounts of action, unraveling of puzzles, and further development of the core characters put Unbound at a level close to that of its predecessors, and it is highly entertaining. It is also a game changer that will take the series in a new direction, and I can’t wait to get there…

April 22, 2018 Posted by | Book Review | , | Leave a comment

Book Review: I Am Alice by Joseph Delaney

i am aliceFormat:  hard cover, first edition, 2013

Pages:  432

Reading Time:  about 6 hours

 

I Am Alice is the 12th book in Joseph Delaney’s Last Apprentice Series. It’s been over 5 years since I reviewed the previous book, Slither. Delaney continues his detour away from his protagonist, Tom, to explore the adventures of Alice as she ventures into the dark to find a blade that Tom will use to cut off her thumbs and cut out her heart in a sacrificial rite that will stop the evil Fiend. No, I am not making that up. I’ve grown tired of this series but with only this book and the next to finish, I thought I’d get one step closer to the end. I don’t think there are very many people who are still paying attention to this series, but I did manage to find a couple of reviews, which I’ve summarized below, and after that are my own thoughts, which are chock full of minor spoilers and one great big one. If you don’t want spoilers, it’s probably best to skip to the last sentence…

 

Karissa of Hidden in Pages is ready to get to the final battle, but had a positive review, stating: “Through most of the book all I could think was “poor Alice”. She has a very heartbreaking past…this girl has got to have the worst luck of any heroine I have ever read about. Then you get to the present and Alice’s journey through the Dark. Poor Alice has to face things no one should have to face. She has to face enemies that she’s already vanquished and deal with their hatred for her part in their deaths. Things just get worse and worse for her as the book goes on. Then you remember that she is doing all of this to retrieve a dagger that will be used to maim and kill her as a sacrifice to destroy the Fiend. It makes you even sadder. That’s not to say that this is an especially depressing read. It is one of the darkest book in the series. However, Alice faces her miserable circumstances with a surprisingly practicality and a resilient attitude. She is incredibly brave and incredibly determined to not succumb to the Dark.”

Jade Cranwell of nudge-book reviewed the UK version (titled Spook’s: Alice): “Alice, loyal companion of Tom and the Spook, gets straight down the business; travelling into the realm of ‘The Dark’ to find the third object needed by the Spook and his apprentice, Tom, in order to destroy their greatest enemy, The Fiend. The Dark is not a place anyone would want to go – a place where the non-human folk end up when they die on Earth. It just so happens that Alice has done her fair share of killing some on the more dangerous and evil creatures over the year – or at least been a helping hand – and by travelling into their realm, they finally have the chance to take their revenge. This makes for a bad situation for Alice but a brilliant, action-packed story for the reader! Alice not only encounters past threats but also takes readers down memory lane by revisiting her childhood through an encounter with a particular enemy….as always, Delaney is able to effortlessly create an atmospheric world fit for witches and other such unsavory creatures that I have grown to love so much.”

 

During the 5 year gap in my reviews of Slither and I Am Alice, a movie was released called Seventh Son that was supposed to be loosely based on this series. The movie was quite terrible and had very little in common with the books, other than the names of the characters. Apparently the dollar signs Delaney saw when optioning his book for the big screen outweighed any creative control he might have exerted in making sure the movie stayed true to the books. Allowing his series to be turned into another forgettable Hollywood dud does not reflect well on the fact that a decent movie might have steered new fans towards his books. And while I can appreciate Delaney wanting to tell stories through different viewpoints, as the two previous stories Grimalkin and Slither have done, I Am Alice feels like a money grab more closely related to the movie than the series itself.

The prose and tone of this book are fairly consistent with previous entries. Due to the large text the pages fly by fairly quickly. I have always liked the character of Alice; she’s strong, brave, and loyal to Tom, and a book that focuses on her should be a joy to read, but there are a number of missteps to be found in I Am Alice. Since witches and evil creatures go to the Dark when they die, it gave Delaney a chance to bring all of his villains back for a greatest hits, gauntlet-like run that Alice must endure to find the dagger she needs. It also re-introduces the character of Thorne, Grimalkin’s former apprentice. You could argue either way as to whether seeing these characters again is a good or bad thing – either you enjoy getting to see familiar faces, or are disappointed to revisit more of the same. However, a couple of the villains do not appear in any previous stories. The introduction of these new villains causes Delaney to divert from the present tale by employing flashbacks to fill in Alice’s backstory, and her relationship with these evil beings. The problem for me was that these two flashbacks took up 218 pages of a 432 page book – over 50% of the book is spent going back to the past. The flashbacks are important in establishing Alice’s character, but we are 12 books into the series…does a flashback of this length really need to be done? Shouldn’t this have been done several books ago? It feels a lot like fluff.

Another problem is that some of Alice’s problems are solved by deus ex machina. Just when it looks like Alice has no chance of survival, something comes along to turn the tables just in time. The worst instance is during a showdown between Alice, Thorne, and several water witches. Alice and Thorne are saved by skelts, bug-like creatures with long snouts that use those snouts to pierce their victims and drink their blood. The skelts leave Alice and Thorne alone and go after the witches, then guide the two girls to the Fiend’s throne room. This is after some other skelts tried to kill them in another part of the Dark. Why did they save Alice and Thorne? Alice postulates that maybe these skelts are different and don’t want to serve the Fiend. Since the skelts up to this point have been nothing but mindless creatures who are caged by witches and released to drink the blood of victims, this explanation makes no sense.

What I can say, without reservation, is that the worst part of the book is on page 427, just 5 pages from the end, when Alice is reunited with Grimalkin, who states:

The bad news is that you didn’t need to journey into the dark after all. The dagger you hold is not needed. You risked your life and very soul for nothing.

Wait a minute – Delaney just told the reader that none of what they just read matters? Are you kidding me?! Who does that?! It means the only purpose of this story is to get Alice close enough to the Dark so that she can turn into some evil creature in the last book. Talk about a forced plot point!

I’m so glad there’s only one more book to go. I’ve had enough of this series…

Fun Fact: Alicia Vikander, who played Alice in Seventh Son, is now starring as Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider reboot…

April 18, 2018 Posted by | Book Review | , | Leave a comment

Book Review: Benjamin Ashwood by AC Cobble

ashwoodFormat:  paperback, self published, 2016

Pages:  398

Reading Time: about 6.5 hours

 

Benjamin Ashwood, AC Cobble’s debut novel, was released in 2016, the same year that Alec Hutson’s The Crimson Queen and Phil Tucker’s The Path of Flames were released, also debut novels, so comparisons by me are inevitable. However, Benjamin Ashwood has not gotten the review exposure that The Crimson Queen or The Path of Flames have, so finding reviews from other sites was a challenge. Fortunately I was able to find a couple for reference. After the reference reviews, I’ll have thoughts of my own, and as always, expect a few spoilers to appear.

From the back cover of Benjamin Ashwood: “Epic Fantasy at its best. This classic swords and sorcery tale is inspired by Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and Tolkien’s The Hobbit. If you liked them, you will love Benjamin Ashwood.

Life is simple in Ben’s small town until an attack brings the arrival of exciting strangers straight out of a story. Before Ben understands what is happening, he embarks on a dangerous journey to help his friends. A mage, demons, thieves and assassins are just a few of the perils he will face while trying to make it to safety.

But things aren’t always what they seem and safety is a fragile concept when the destructive behaviors of the powerful are exercised unchecked. In Ben’s world – like our own – political, economic and military might create a system to keep the elite in power at the expense of the common man. As the series unfolds and Ben’s knowledge and skill grows, he will have to decide if he wants to live within the system, flee from it or break it.

 

The first review comes from Leony Henry of Booknest.eu, who states “It has a nice action-packed opening, with our hero the farmboy Benjamin helping his village folk battle a demon attacking their village. Shortly after, a strange group shows up, featuring a stern mage lady, a blademaster, an affable rogue and a noble girl with her maid. One can see the Wheel of Time influence, but it didn’t feel derivative at all…the fighting scenes, action, adventures, political intrigue, journeys, city and market scenes are top notch quality and the book is a solid page turner. One great thing about this story is, the main protagonist is just a simple brewer from some backwater village. He has no special powers, no prophecies, no magic. He is not a chosen one or savior. He listens to his mentors and learns skills with hard work and daily practices. This was quite inspirational stuff, no special powers coming out of thin air, but with disciplined work and dedication. I really liked this about the story.

Leona also provides more insight with “However, as fun as it was to read, Benjamin Ashwood has quite a few issues…for one, I found the female characters weak and nondescript for the most part. Amelie is quite flat, even though she is supposed to be important. Lady Towaal had potential in the beginning, but she is mostly absent and hardly talks…way too modern vocabulary sours the experience quite often…I could overlook those, but then the phrases like “frugal lifestyle” and “tax dollars” sticking out like a sour thumb made that impossible…another issue I had was the girls throwing themselves at Ben. There was one one night stand sex scene, which came out of nowhere and served absolutely no purpose, left me scratching my head.

The second review comes from The Genre Minx, who says “The supporting characters were a hoot! Now they did have their super skills but that was appropriate as they were the teachers in this story. His travel companions all have their own secrets and Ben spends quite a bit of time trying to piece figure out where their loyalties lay and how they fit together…Along the way there is death and loss. Ben has never truly had to consider or face the realities of what it meant to fight, what being a hero was truly about. He had spent so much time as a child listening to stories of hero’s that he never considered what the downside was. I loved watching Ben’s character develop and seeing him struggle with his humanity was a breath of fresh air so to speak.” What Minx didn’t like was a lack of detail in the worldbuilding.

 

The first thing I’m going to talk about is the marketing of the book. The name itself is so plain and uninspiring that it could be the title of a romance novel or an action adventure like Jack Reacher. It could even be a western! Also, just a suggestion, but if you’re going to drop names on the back of your book like Tolkien and Jordan and compare yourself to them, you’re putting a lot of pressure to measure up to those lofty standards, and probably setting yourself up for failure.

Cobble freely admits that Benjamin Ashwood is a farmboy sword & sorcery trope. The beginning of the story has Ben and his fellow townsmen hunting down a demon. Despite the fact that demons are another well-worn trope, this introductory scene does a great job of delivering tension during the hunt and demon encounter. A group of strange travelers show up to help, and the story turns to one of travel and adventure. I can definitely see the Eye of the World influence here.

However, as the story progresses, Cobble begins to lose his way. The places Ben travels to are described in enough detail, and the plot is fairly straightforward, but the tension evaporates as the group meanders from city to city. The addition of a young thief to the party, Renfro, makes no sense and his acceptance by others in the group is highly suspect. And the book might as well have the “farmboy goes to a school to train” trope added to the list of tropes, because a large part of the story involves Ben training with a skilled swordsman in the group.

The worst part related to pacing and plot, however, is a sequence in the last third of the book detailing Ben’s brewing efforts and his concern about fending off rivals. The section completely drags and I struggled to get through it, as it was boring and uninteresting. Spoiler Alert – skip if necessary – finally at about the 370 page mark, things start to pick up again as tension makes its way back into the story, when Ben’s benefactor leads a squad of armed men to take on their rival, only to be ambushed. I saw the ambush coming, although I will admit that I didn’t see who would be leading it. The action ratchets up as Ben races to save Amelie. The problem for me is that this sequence should have happened 100 pages earlier in the story. Benjamin Ashwood ends with a cliffhanger, which you may love or hate depending on your take. Personally, I felt there was way too much padding in the story to necessitate ending on a cliffhanger.

Their are some other missteps along the way. Ben’s traveling companions all have mysterious backstories, and Cobble sheds little light on where their skills or powers come from. I get that the characters are deliberately evasive, but there’s almost nothing revealed by the end of this first book. Also, Cobble’s prose is not great, incorporating a “telling” rather than “showing” style that avoids detail and makes character actions and interactions unbelievable. Cobble also has a nasty habit of using modern terminology to turn a phrase, as Leona Henry points out above. Text such as “assured mutual destruction”, “what makes the man tick” and “no way!” are so awful that the real world intrudes and it kills the fantasy vibe.

In conclusion I blew through Benjamin Ashwood quickly because I was suffering from a cold and couldn’t do much else but read, but it was a struggle at times to get through what is a tediously boring story, except for the beginning and ending. The back cover comparisons to Tolkien and Jordan are ludicrous, and Benjamin Ashwood doesn’t even come close to approaching the high standards set by contemporaries The Crimson Queen or The Path of Flames. On his website Cobble, who mentions several times the amount of time he puts into marketing, proudly proclaims that Benjamin Ashwoodwas one of the Top 5 Epic Fantasy debuts of 2016.” I found that hard to believe, based on the lack of reviews by review sites, but then I went to Goodreads and found several 5 star ratings, and I just shook my head. As for myself, I will be steering clear of the sequel.

April 15, 2018 Posted by | Book Review | , | Leave a comment

Book Review: The Whitefire Crossing by Courtney Schafer

whitefire crossingFormat:  oversized paperback, first edition, 2011

Pages:  375

Reading Time:  about 6.5 hours

 

Over the last few years, when buying books on Amazon I would occasionally see The Whitefire Crossing pop up as a recommended read. To be honest I passed over this book multiple times due to the premise about mountain climbing, which I thought I would have no interest in. And since the book came out in 2011, I missed most of the reviews on other sites, since at the time I was primarily focused on getting my own site established. It wasn’t until I discovered that Mark Lawrence had helped back Courtney Shafer’s kickstarter to publish The Labyrinth of Flame, the final book in her trilogy, that my interest became piqued. When I discovered how hard it was to track down a physical copy of The Labyrinth of Flame, I took a chance and bought the entire trilogy. I’ll share my thoughts regarding The Whitefire Crossing below, with some spoilers, but first let’s check out out some other reviews.

 

Robert Thompson at Fantasy Book Critic thought “The Whitefire Crossing is very well-written. Courtney Schafer’s prose is polished and confident, and her writing style is highly accessible. Most impressive was the author’s ability to write compelling narratives in both first-person and third-person point-of-views” and “World-building is not very detailed, providing only the barest amount of information necessary to understand concepts introduced in the book—the founding of Ninavel, Alathia’s restrictions against magic, Tainted children—but it is extensive.” Robert also states that the magic system was “not very groundbreaking as far as magic systems go, but it’s interesting and well-developed” and “Storytelling in The Whitefire Crossing is superb. Right from the start, I was hooked by the book’s plot and remained fully engaged throughout thanks to excellent pacing and a story that is easy to follow, yet full of unexpected surprises and nonstop thrills.

Paul Weimer at SF Signal listed the Pros as “Spot-on scenes set in the mountains written by someone comfortable and familiar with such a milieu; a vividly described secondary fantasy world; well done “reluctant companions” social dynamic between the two main characters” and Cons were “The switch between 1st- and 3rd-person not always effective; an important plot element is left frustratingly unresolved.” Paul also states “Within this onion-layer reveal of the true situation the characters are in and who they are, Schafer has plenty of time, narratively, to bring her world to life. And she definitely does. Although the author told me she had never read the anthologies, Ninavel felt, to me, to be inspired by the Robert Asprin Thieves World anthologies.” Finally Paul offers up this critique: “I think that the 1st-person/3rd-person point of view split is not entirely successful. There were times I would dearly have loved to been in Kiran’s head, or seen Dev’s adventures from a 3rd-person point of view. I’m moderately surprised an author would attempt such complex POV changes in a first novel. The other thing I thought didn’t work as well was a Chekov’s Gun that, in the end, is not resolved within the book itself. I hesitate to say more (spoilers!) but I was more than a little disappointed that it was not resolved by story’s end. One other weakness of the book I will mention, but it’s more of a kvetch on my part: the book definitely could have used a map.

 

There are many other reviews of The Whitefire Crossing – some decent, others not so much. I’ll try to focus more on what isn’t covered by other reviews. The story is told from two points of view: Dev the smuggler is in first person, while Kiran the mage is in third person. Some other reviewers didn’t care for this but I really liked it and felt that it gave the story a unique narrative that made it stand out from other books. Character motivations are rational and believable, except perhaps Mikail’s, Kiran’s “brother”, whose motivations are at times inconsistent. I really liked the few supporting characters that have a place in the story, and I wish more time had been devoted to Cara, the caravan guide, or “outrider”, who is very intriguing. The cultural diversity of Ninavel is a nice touch, and I would agree with Paul Weimer’s comments that it reminds me a bit of Sanctuary, the city found in the Thieves World novels. Schafer has done an excellent job at creating a living, breathing world – it feels real.

Since many others reviews have touched on the mountain climbing aspect and how well it is done – Schafer, as an avid climber, knows her subject matter well – I’ll simply agree that this part of the story was excellent and move on, while acknowledging that it is only a factor in the first half of the book.

The magic system is well thought out, but can still be a bit confusing at times…Schafer does a good job in explaining many of the rules behind her system, but occasionally I found myself not understanding a few aspects of it, especially when it causes the death of one of the antagonists – I’m still not sure how that happened. I did like the different schools of magic, and the fact that two countries used magic in completely opposite ways.

Schafer’s prose is a delight to read, but there are moments where “real world” speech intrudes, and there are a lot of F-bombs. Pacing is excellent, except for a magic ritual that occurs within the last third of the book, where the time spent on the details of the ritual slows the pace down considerably. Even factoring in that blip, however, I found that Schafer exhibits great skill in building and maintaining tension. There were several points in the book where I expected the story to be over, but I thought, “it can’t be, there’s too many pages left”, and sure enough, the stakes get higher each time. It’s that old “out of the frying pan and into the fire” adage, which Schafer utilizes extremely well.

Spoiler alert (skip if you must): The Whitefire Crossing is not a story with a happy ending. The fate of the main characters has not been resolved, and there’s a particular antagonist lurking around that threatens to be a big problem for the protagonists. But that’s why there’s a sequel, right?

I’m looking forward to reading the final two books in the trilogy, starting with The Tainted City. Schafer has managed to build tension with great skill while incorporating the uniqueness of mountain climbing with a fantasy adventure laden with magic. Who knew mountain climbing and fantasy would work so well together?

April 15, 2018 Posted by | Book Review | , | Leave a comment

Classic Review: Sailor on the Seas of Fate by Michael Moorcock

Classic Review is a feature where I pull a book that is over 20 years old from my collection and re-read it, then review it…

sailor

Format: paperback, first DAW printing, 1976

Pages:  160

Reading Time: about 2.5 hours

 

Michael Moorcock’s White Wolf’s Son is sitting in my queue, and it will be the last Elric story that I read. Before I get there, however, I’m skimming through the earlier books in the Elric saga to build up to the finale, and this review covers book two, The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, from an old DAW printing I have featuring another fantastic Michael Whelan cover. For my review of the first book of the series, Elric of Melnibone, see this post. Chronologically, though The Fortress of the Pearl was written later, events in that book pre-date those in this book, but I’ve chosen to skip that one for now. As most Elric stories appeared in various issues of Science Fantasy magazine in the 1960s in no particular order, the DAW release was an attempt to order the stories chronologically, with the chapbook “the Jade Man’s Eyes” from 1973 rewritten and renamed Sailing to the Past and tacked on to the end of The Sailor on the Seas of Fate. I found a couple of really good reviews of The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, one from Karin L Kross of Tor.com and one from Tim Scheidler of Fantasy Literature. Karin’s review of this book is one of the best I’ve seen, and she makes some really good points:

The Sailor on the Seas of Fate has never really been my favorite Elric book. Where The Fortress of the Pearl stands quite well on its own and in the continuity, Sailor is a little more awkward; it’s as if you can see more of the welding marks in its insertion into Elric’s continuity between the origin story of Elric of Melniboné and his downfall of The Weird of the White Wolf; where that book actually feels like a cohesive work, despite being composed of short stories published months, even years apart, Sailor feels disjointed, its structure forced. However, even a comparatively underwhelming Elric book has more going for it than your usual high fantasy offering.

Karin reveals some information that I was not aware of: “The tale here originally appeared as a chapbook called “The Jade Man’s Eyes” (which was, as Richard Grey notes in “One Life, Furnished in Early Moorcock,” printed in green ink). This story fit into Elric’s continuity after the events of The Sleeping Sorceress (two books down the line from this one) and Elric’s sidekick was a fellow we’ll meet in the next installment of this reread, Moonglum of Elwher. More about him when we get there. In putting together The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, Moorcock substantially reworked “The Jade Man’s Eyes,” replacing Moonglum with Smiorgan Baldhead, and having Elric picked up at sea by the explorer Duke Avam Astran, rather than being peeled off the streets of a city.

Karen also goes on to say: “The essential bleakness of the original chapbook is definitely present in this rework, though it feels a little odd at this placement in the continuity. Much is made of Elric’s dependence on Stormbringer, as well as the sword’s unfortunate tendency to overreach its wielder’s intended targets—and at this point in the series, neither of these tropes has yet become as central as they eventually will. The original “Jade Man’s Eyes” is perhaps a somewhat stronger story, particularly as Elric’s characterization is more consistent with the stories that take place later in his personal chronology. That being said, it’s possible to read “Sailing to the Past” as the point where Elric’s worldview starts to truly darken, transforming him to the nihilistic figure we’ll see in the next volume.

 

Tim adds this: “As always, Moorcock’s prose is great and Elric never fails to feel interesting as protagonist. The eerie, strange tone of the proceedings actually gives the novel a kind of dreamy allure: it’s not what readers of traditional sword and sorcery might expect, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s a very well-done novel in many ways, especially going into it directly after Elric of Melnibone so that one has become acclimated to Moorcock’s “style over structure” method in a comparatively gentler text. On the other hand, it’s hard to deny that for casual readers who really couldn’t be bothered about the multiverse or what-have-you and expect instead to see some sort of motion in the world Moorcock constructed in the first novel, this sequel may be a baffling disappointment. None of the other Melnibonéans we were introduced to in Elric of Melniboné have anything to do with The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, and indeed Elric’s meeting with Count Smiorgan is about the only impact Sailor has on the overarching plot of the series.

It may really have been a bit early to bring in the Eternal Champion idea, in all honesty: had Moorcock built to it over time a bit more, it probably wouldn’t have seemed so jarring here. Asking the reader to grow used to one world and one set of circumstances for the protagonist only to turn that on its head by dragging him out of that world entirely is probably a little demanding — and thus risky — in the second book.

 

The reason I chose these particular comments is because they affirm a lot of my own thoughts that I contemplated after I re-read the book. The three separate stories – Sailing to the Future, Sailing to the Present, Sailing to the Past – are so disjointed, that they have a feeling of being unrelated short stories thrown together to make up a single book, and at first it seems that only the “sailing strange waters” ties the stories together. Thematically there is an Eternal Champion Construct story, a medieval romance story, and a Black-Sword-Does-What-It-Wants story, and all jar against each other in a distinct lack of continuity. In the re-read, I remembered Sailing to the Future perfectly, most likely because the story is repeated later in Corum and Hawkmoon novels. I had forgotten Sailing to the Present completely, with no recollection of that story whatsoever. The tale I was most looking forward to was Sailing to the Past, as I remembered the ending to be important, but did not recall the events leading up to that ending. As Elric seeks answers to his past, he chooses a path that will come back to haunt him in his future. This is where Sailing to the Past becomes essential in establishing events in subsequent books.

By the third story, Elric recalls nothing of the happenings within the first story…the events of that first story become fleeting shadows that seem more like a dream. The second story is a buffer, which helps to stuff those dreamy memories into Elric’s subconscious. But instead of bringing him peace, his subconscious now nags at him and drives him to explore places and take actions he wouldn’t normally consider in an attempt to figure out where he came from and what his future may hold. Free will versus fate, opposing forces within the universe at war, and an increasingly sentient sword are explored. In a strong bit of irony, Elric has been fighting the concept of fate and believes that he has free will, but by making an honorable choice through free will, he will unleash a disastrous chain of events and solidify a dark fate. It is really a brilliant concept, although it could be argued that Elric’s honor really gave him no choice at all.

Moorcock’s prose is steady and at times is simple yet elegant, with what feels like Tennyson or Wordsworth influences. Take this introductory passage, for instance:

Distant thunder rolled; distant lightning flickered. A thin rain fell. And the clouds were never still. From dusky jet to deadly white they swirled slowly, like the cloaks of men and women engaged in a trancelike and formalistic minuet: the man standing on the shingle of the grim beach was reminded of giants dancing to the music of the faraway storm and felt as one must feel who walks unwittingly into a hall where gods are at play. He turned his gaze from the clouds to the ocean.

The sea seemed weary. Great waves heaved themselves together with difficulty and collapsed as if in relief, gasping as they struck the sharp rocks.

Moorcock’s style makes for a quick, easy reading experience, and like the first book, The Sailor on the Seas of Fate is over all too soon – a novel twice this length would be more satisfying, but Moorcock’s gift has always been to paint fantastic imagery and wild tales with an economical use of words, and leave much of the details up to the reader’s own imagination.

Elric himself is a polite yet complex fellow, with a mixture of flowery speech, irony, skeptiscism, wit, wisdom, and world-weariness, with an honor and empathy not found in his people of Melnibone. Yet beneath it all, the cruel nature of his people lurks, and at times he loses himself to that nature. Also, Stormbringer is ever a constant, evil influence on his actions and perceptions. Elric’s sorcery is explained as the ability, in the high speech of Melnibone, to concentrate and summon forces through his noble blood and sheer willpower. Such sorcery is more of a deus ex machina, however, for Elric is able to call on old debts in certain times of need, yet in other instances he is unable to do so, and it seems to be largely a function of satisfying the plot. One aspect of Elric’s character, however, is his weakness, as at times he is only able to draw strength from Stormbringer, and when Stormbringer has not been “fed” with souls, Elric is often too weak to perform certain actions.

The Sailor on the Seas of Fate is not the most satisfying Elric book to read, but it is important in setting into motion the events that will make the albino sorcerer with the black sword one of the most distinctive, influential, and legendary characters ever created in fantasy fiction.

April 7, 2018 Posted by | Classic Reviews | , , | Leave a comment