Book Review: The Crimson Queen by Alec Hutson

crimson queenFormat:  oversized paperback, first edition, 2016

Pages:  419

Reading Time:  about 9 hours

 

Alec Hutson’s The Crimson Queen was added to my queue after reading a review of the book over at Fantasy Book Critic, where it was a Booknest Fantasy Award semi-finalist for 2017. A followup post, which contained an interview with the author, piqued my interest even more as Hutson talked about his path through self-publishing. I ordered a copy of The Crimson Queen from Amazon, and moved it to the front of the queue when I decided to mix in some new releases to queue. I was a little disappointed that it was not available in hard cover, but that is to be expected for a self-published novel. With the final whispers of the story still echoing through my mind, my review follows, complete with minor spoilers.

First things first – head over to Fantasy Book Critic and check out the plot and review summary from Mihir Wanchoo. The story is described by Mihir as “the best of Robert Jordan’s worldbuilding skills, laced with Terry Brooks’ fluid characterization and topped off with a pinch of David Gemmell’s heroic fantasy escapades.”

I completely agree with Mihir’s first assessment: there are some very strong Wheel of Time influences found here, but with Middle Eastern and Asian influences, two rival factions of sorcerers (both past and present), paladins of light, and thousands of years of history, Hutson has created an incredibly diverse and layered world. Some of that history is delivered to the reader through tales of lore, and some is delivered through characters’ discovery of books and exploration of ruins, but the biggest reveal comes through flashbacks of the immortals who were actually there, in the past, and are still walking the world in present day.

Hutson’s characters are well-developed and their motives and actions are believable. The story is told through the eyes of Keilan Ferrisorn, a fisherman’s son; Janus Balensor, a wakened immortal; Alyanna, a courtesan; Holy emperor Gerixes; Xin, a warrior-slave; Senacus, a paladin; Wen Xenxing, the Black Vizier; and Cein d’Kara, the Crimson Queen (thanks to Mihir for this list of names). Each chapter lists the name of the character whose story will be told in that section. There are many other characters that make appearances, but do not have a part in the narrative. I never felt like characters had the same voice, and some have quirky traits that make them unique. Speaking of unique, the author also creates some imaginative creatures – Genthyaki, Wraiths (different from Tolkien’s Ringwraiths), and Deep Ones – while having creatures we are familiar with such as spiders, herons and horses.

The pace is perfect, never bogging down in the details, or under pages and pages of angst. Hutson’s prose is flowing and easy to read. There were a few minor issues I had with the story. First, it’s not entirely clear how much power each sorcerer has (it varies), or even how magic works. It comes from something called the void, but that isn’t explained very well. Also, I did notice a number of grammatical mistakes – then vs. than, a dropped pronoun, and a few other mistakes that a spellcheck wouldn’t catch. In addition, there are occasionally moments where I would be reading about two male characters, then Hutson refers to “he” when some action occurred. It’s not always clear which “he” is being referred to. These grammatical issues are a byproduct of self-publishing and not having an editor, however, they are few and far between, and did not affect my enjoyment of the story. I did appreciate the breaks within the chapters, which made it very easy to find a stopping point when necessary.

I was very enthralled in the magic of Hutson’s story. The world-building, the characters, the mystery, gods, demon hunters, immortals, sorcery, ruins, shadowy assassins – there is a lot of material crammed in this book and Hutson pulls it off. Not everything is original…a coming of age story lies at the heart, the antagonist finds hidden reserves of power to force the plot where it needs to go, and some elements were predictable (I knew who one mysterious character was immediately). But I hated to put the book down. I couldn’t wait to learn more about the world’s history and the Crimson Queen, to see which characters (and creatures) would intersect, and to follow young Keilan’s adventure. The ending comes fast and furious, and features copious amounts of action in the form of sorcery and sword fights. As the pieces of the past slide into place and much of the mystery is revealed, I was even more impressed at not only Hutson’s world building, but also in the way that events of the past connect to the present.

In summary, The Crimson Queen is the best book I’ve read in a long time. It’s inconceivable to me how this was not a finalist, much less a winner, of the Booknest Fantasy Awards. I’m looking forward to the sequel with great anticipation. Highly recommended to those who love epic fantasy, magic and adventure, and imaginative world-building.

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Book Review: Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson

shadows of selfFormat:  hard cover, 1st edition, 2015

Pages:  376

Reading Time:  about 9.5 hours

 

Shadows of Self is the first Brandon Sanderson book I have read that was somewhat of a disappointment to me. A common misconception is that this is a sequel to The Alloy of Law, but actually Shadows of Self is the first in a planned trilogy of industrial age Mistborn books, with The Alloy of Law being a prequel. That prequel, now a stand-alone novel, either must have been very enjoyable for Sanderson to write, been more successful than predicted, or perhaps was a generous helping of both, convincing him that it needed a followup trilogy. Shadows of Self comes in with about an extra 50 pages more than its prequel. Unfortunately for me, I struggled at times to maintain interest and complete this book. Read on for my thoughts and as always, spoilers may crop up from time to time.

For the most helpful reviews of Shadows of Self, check these out:

Tor.com (Martin Cahill)

Fantasy Literature (Marion Deeds)

SF Signal (Robin Shantz)

As I struggled to articulate exactly what was wrong with this novel, I found that the above reviews each provided a piece of the puzzle. Martin talks about the humor and banter being a little forced and contrived; Marion is flustered by references to Earth inventions such as radios and aviation, doesn’t appreciate a lack of depth in the Roughs setting, and says the story at times feels like a stage set; Robin, on the other hand, felt it was more like a TV show, and that the story was choppy, lacked detail, and the characters lacked emotional appeal. Even Sanderson admits in the front of his book that he wrote a third of it while waiting for the editing of another book, was forced to set it aside, and that by the time he got back to it, his ideas had changed.

These insights were a great help to me in coalescing my thoughts. Shadows of Self is obviously meant to be a light, quick read, with more flash than substance. This is by design. I understand that context, as The Alloy of Law was written in the same style. But something is wrong with Shadows of Self…to me it feels hollow, like it has no soul. It feels exactly like the byproduct of a successful stand-alone novel, an afterthought, a half-developed idea rushed to market. Oftentimes as I read I would have a hard time maintaining my interest level as I followed Wax (the same protagonist from The Alloy of Law) and his attempts to solve the mystery of who wants to kill the corrupt governor. Which could be any one in the entire city, since everyone seems to be unhappy. Sanderson’s aversion to substance didn’t leave me with enough to care about the plot. His prose is fine, and there’s lots of action in the story, but it is the characters that really impede the novel.

I’m still struggling to explain what I’m feeling, and the closest analogy I can find to illustrate my thoughts can be found in television. Procedural crime dramas like CSI and NCIS enjoy a lot of success not just because of their content, or their mysteries to solve, but primarily due to the dynamics of the ensemble cast. When watching spin off shows like CSI Miami, CSI Cyber, NCIS Los Angeles or NCIS New Orleans, I always lose interest in these other shows quickly. Some of that has to do with saturation, of course, but the biggest part of the equation is the cast – how they work well together, play off of each other, and possess an intangible dynamic. The spin off shows, which try to copy the originals by sticking to a formula, certainly present fine mysteries to solve. The problem is, using a formula can’t necessarily emulate the intangible dynamics of that original cast.

Wax is a well-developed character, but using the analogy I have provided above, he and his allies and antagonists don’t have that intangible dynamic that the characters in the original Mistborn series had, heck, they don’t even capture the magic of The Alloy of Law. Wayne gets more time to shine here, and Sanderson’s efforts are applauded, but as stated above by other reviewers, it’s often a case of trying too hard. We get to see more of his eccentricities and even a little tragic backstory (which could have been expanded upon), but his character contains too many contrasts rolled into one person. His unusual brand of humor doesn’t work very well, although a large part of his role is comic relief, and he’s supposed to come off as an everyday Joe, yet he’s a twinborn (he can use Allomancy and Ferochemy). There’s also a scene where he enters a bar and tries to change everyone’s mood, and it’s so utterly strange that I really struggled with it. Moving on to Wax’s fiance, Steris, she has been so underdeveloped that when she and Wax spend time together and she makes smart observations, I thought that she might have been killed and replaced by the chief antagonist (who in this story is certainly capable of such a feat). Marasi continues to be the most interesting character, as a woman who accomplishes much in a “man’s world”,  but even she doesn’t have a lot of depth to her story.

The moments of the book I did enjoy all referenced the original Mistborn series: what has happened to the Kandra (including Tensoon), what Harmony (Sazed) is up to, statues of Eland and Min, an underground Mistborn museum, and even an appearance by the Lord Ruler’s palace (could the Well of Ascension still be around?!!!). It’s all the stuff in between that I struggled with. Sanderson pulls his usual shocking twists and reveals at the end, with wild chases and battles, and I’ll admit I was entertained by the ending, but in this story it was a bit predictable, lessening the impact more so here than it does in his other books.

Shadows of Self feels very much like a successful writer’s side project, a passable sci-fi western/action movie in the vein of Wild Wild West or Sherlock Holmes, and that’s okay. I guess it’s my fault that I want Mistborn-level depth, which in this setting I think would be spectacular. Shadows of Self definitely feels disjointed, and clearly the author’s initial writings that were shelved and then picked up later and taken in a different direction are evident, and caused more than a few problems. However, with that said I will read Bands of Mourning, the second book in the series, since I bought it at the same time as Shadows of Self. I’d like to see if Sanderson can salvage this series after an uneven opening that has lost its momentum.

Book Review: Forsaken Kingdom by J. R. Rasmussen

forsaken kingdomFormat:  Oversized paperback, 1st Edition, 2017

Pages:  343

Reading Time:  about 6 hours

 

Forsaken Kingdom is author J.R. Rasmussen’s debut fantasy novel. I purchased this book based on Amazon reviews, before I learned of the “pay for review” scheme that I mentioned in previous posts. With an average rating of 4.5 stars on Amazon, and after reading the book, I am highly suspicious of that rating. Forsaken Kingdom is not a bad book by any means, but neither is it worthy of a rating equal to Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn or Patrick Rothfuss’s The Wise Man’s Fear, both of which are also rated at 4.5 stars. To be fair, Forsaken Kingdom has less than 50 reviews, so that’s a pretty small sample size, but I would expect to see at least one or two critical reviews at this point. Read on to discover my impressions, and as always, expect a few minor spoilers.

One of the factors that drew my interest in reading this book was that the protagonist, Wardin Rath, decides at the tender age of 12 that he needs to protect his magical school, called a magistry. He does this by surrendering to his enemy and has his past memories “wiped” and replaced with new, fabricated memories that make him think he is a common servant rather than a prince. When the spell that took his memories begins to fail, however, we are led on a quest where Wardin must discover who he is and where he came from. Although this seems like a pretty unique plot, it’s not the first time a protagonist has lost his or her memory – Robert Silverberg’s Lord Valentine’s Castle was the first story that I could recall to use this plot device. However, the method in which the memory wipe is accomplished is pretty unique, and the reason Wardin isn’t executed on the spot makes perfect sense. The enemy, King Bramwell, has a very complex personality. Kudos to Rasmussen for developing Bramwell into a character both despicably brutal and yet able to be touched by sentiment in a believable way.

Another factor I found intriguing was the magic system. There are three schools of magic: contrivance, battlemage, and sagacity. Most people with magic talents use only one of these schools, and doing so requires “balance”; for instance, if you use too much contrivance, a spirit-based school, you need to balance that by performing physical activities such as hiking or scrubbing floors. Becoming “out of balance” leads to catatonic states and madness. Also, magical dogs known as blackhounds can provide a boost of power to a spellcaster through touch. However, by the end of the book it’s still not clear what a person’s limits are, what they are capable of, or what determines whether they can perform magic in the first place (it seems perhaps to be an innate, random ability).

I struggled through the beginning of the book a bit, as the dialog and descriptions are a bit choppy, and everyone seems to have the same voice. As the story progresses, however, Rasmussen settles into a good rhythm and the prose flows a bit better, while characters begin to develop distinct differences. (Spoiler ahead! Skip to next paragraph if necessary!) For the most part, character motivations are explained and believable, including when Wardin returns to the magistry. He has difficulty in cultivating trust with the magistry’s ruling powers, including Wardin’s childhood friend Eriatta, now the archmagister, who believes Wardin might be working for the enemy and trying to destroy them. Wardin is frustrated that he can’t convince them that he is not a threat because his memories haven’t returned. It’s only when a magic item conveniently has the ability to sort out the truth that story progresses. Rasmussen also does a good job of using an early plot device to foreshadow the means by which Wardin is able to repel the army that is about to invade the valley…this was quite clever and nicely done.

Main characters initially feel two dimensional, but Rasmussen does a good job of developing them as the story progresses. I like Erietta, who is strong and courageous, and her twin brother Arun, Wardin’s best friend who has a happy-go-lucky personality. Erietta has conveniently become archmagister despite being only 20 years old; while her character is smart, this seems like a bit of a reach. Minor characters aren’t quite fleshed out like main characters are. Also, Rasmussen experiences a little of what I call “Brooks Syndrome”, where we see few if any supporting characters, “common folk” from the magistry and the kingdom of Eyrdon, and those that we do see are combative or self-serving. It is hard to empathize with protecting such people – instead we have to root for the heroes.

The story has some problems that I feel I need to point out. Although King Bramwell has been established as a complex character who has selfish and brutal motives, we don’t understand why this is. He has killed all of his rivals, yet those rivals were his friends when he was younger. There’s not enough explanation provided as to why he killed all of his friends. He did seem to be jealous and wanted to kill everyone with magic powers because he had none himself, and everyone with magic powers is a threat to overthrow him. But it’s really left to the reader to put two and two together, because we are only given brief glimpses into the king’s past, either as a child playing with his friends, or on the field of battle where he’s killing those friends. I just think a little more depth here would be nice.

Another problem is travel. There is a map provided in the front, which is appreciated, but I didn’t get a good feel as to how far it is from one place to another. And how characters get from one place to another isn’t really explored – they just “arrive” with no explanation of what happened on the journey. Characters just pop into where they need to be in order to move the plot from Point A to Point B. I understand travel can be quite boring, but there should be some kind of attempt to describe the journey, even if it’s just a few paragraphs. There’s another sequence where Erietta is captured by the king’s son, Prince Tobin. Although I liked the sequence of events that leads to her attempted escape, the person who aids her escape arrives from far away and at just the right time, once again with no attempt to describe the journey or timing, the helper just appears and advances the plot to where it needs to go.

The most glaring problem, however, occurs at the big climactic battle near the end that the story has been building up to. (Spoiler ahead! Skip to next paragraph if necessary!) I understand that Wardin hated the king, even though Bramwell could have executed him from the start but didn’t. And I also understand that Wardin was unable to control his rage and rushed to attack the king. This is an important development in the plot, because it helps Wardin win the respect of Wardin’s Eyrdish countrymen, who essentially switch sides during the battle. In reality, however, Wardin should have died instantly. Throughout the story Bramwell has been portrayed as a more-than-competent warrior, who has killed all of his rivals, including those with magical abilities. It’s ludicrous to think that Wardin, a 20 year old boy with very little weapons training, could last longer than 10 seconds in combat with a man that desperately wants to kill him, a man that has proven to be so competently brutal and effective in battle. Rasmussen even acknowledges this by stating that “he was barely twenty years old, inadequately trained and not at all experienced, facing a true swordsman, a true warrior.” There’s no actual description of the fight scene itself, only that Wardin manages to fend off Bramwell’s attacks until help arrives. It actually ruined the story for me, to have this nonsensical sequence lead to an unbelievable victory for Wardin, and turns what could have been a passable story into a disappointing failure.

As I stated at the beginning of the review, Forsaken Kingdom isn’t a bad tale. There’s much to like, and I was engaged in following Wardin’s and Erietta’s efforts, as Wardin tried to recover his memories and the two friends attempted to save their magistry. However, an unbelievable ending unravels all the good work that went before it, and a bad habit of glossing over travel, combat, and events to get characters and/or the plot to where they need to be makes it hard for me to recommend Forsaken Kingdom except to those willing to overlook such flaws. I won’t be purchasing the sequel, A Dark Reckoning, which is due out this Spring 2018, and I’ll be watching to see if the ratings on Amazon remain unbelievably high.

Book Review: The Crown Tower by Michael J. Sullivan

crown towerFormat:  Oversized paperback, 1st Edition, 2013

Pages:  368 (not including 46 pages of glossary, extras, and a preview of The Rose and the Thorn

Reading Time: about 8 hours

 

For a few years now I have been eyeing Michael J. Sullivan’s Theft of Swords, volume 1 in his Riyria Revelations series, as a possible series to add to the queue. Although many of his reviews were positive on Amazon and Goodreads, it was the negative reviews that scared me away. Complaints about one dimensional characters, worn out tropes, a simplistic and predictable plot, and conversations that drive the story in place of telling a story, are found aplenty. As a result, I did not consider reading Sullivan’s books despite owning a library of works including Flanagan, Eddings, and Dragonlance novels that could be criticized in a similar way. When additionally considering the “pay for reviews” scheme that I talked about in a previous post, I was skeptical of the positive reviews I was reading. I’m not accusing Sullivan of paying for positive reviews, but in light of the scheme and the fact that Sullivan was initially self-published, it was a concern. Sullivan, however, utilized focus groups on Goodreads to hone his stories, so he had already built up a following that was enthusiastic about his novels.

It wasn’t until I was looking for books to add to the queue by perusing authors on Fantasy Literature’s site that I came across their page on Sullivan, and I saw a review of The Crown Tower, which is Volume 1 of the Riyria Chronicles. That review convinced me that I should take a chance on this book. Although the author and many readers were recommending reading Sullivan’s books in published order, I ignored that recommendation and determined that I would read the books in chronological order, starting with The Crown Tower. I wanted to form an opinion of the series from the beginning, so that I wouldn’t have knowledge of what comes later, in an attempt to maintain tension. My opinion of The Crown Tower would be the determining factor towards any future purchases of Sullivan’s work. So on to my review, and as always, a few minor spoilers are included…

I won’t provide a synopsis here – the review over at Fantasy Literature does a great job of explaining the plot. There are two main characters that drive the narrative: Hadrian, a soldier returning home from war, and Gwen, a fortune-telling prostitute. The first thing I immediately liked about The Crown Tower was Sullivan’s writing style. It is fast moving with just enough detail to get the job done. I never felt like the story was bogging down in the details, and I burned through the book in a few days. When I did have to put it down it was with disappointment, as I was very engaged in the story. The early mystery of the barge ride and the hooded man was captivating, and a later scene featuring Royce and Hadrian in an inn was also excellent. I almost enjoyed Gwen’s story more than Hadrian’s…watching Gwen outsmart her opponents by cultivating favorable relationships was some excellent plot writing. Gwen is smart, strong-willed, and caring, all excellent qualities. I felt that each character did exhibit flaws – Hadrian is naive, Gwen is filled with self-doubt, and Royce has a laundry list of internal problems. And despite some plot predictability – like a supporting character that is claimed to be dead yet I was 100% sure he wasn’t – there were also a couple of plot twists that I didn’t see coming.

However, there are several problems with his book. Most of the criticisms are spot on. The plot at times meanders, but the worst part is it’s all a little too convenient. When Royce and Hadrian are forced to work together, their benefactor hopes that it will all work out in the end. That hope is dependent on convenient timing and assistance of a god-like figure; the latter’s inclusion is totally unnecessary and is a plot device that suggests it can (and will) be used by the author any time it is needed. It also makes their benefactor look wise and all-knowing as a result of nothing more than chance. Such plot devices really undermine the author’s ability to tell a well-written story that can stand on its own merits and not rely on such contrivances. Another problem is “telegraphing”: due to a character having psychic abilities, combined with the fact that the novel is a prequel, together those two factors tend to rob the story of much of its tension. No one is going to die here that was previously featured in the Riyria Revelations series, and since we know the characters will be arriving at Gwen’s doorstep because as a psychic she’s “seen” it, it’s simply a matter of Royce and Hadrian getting from Point A to Point B without any fear of loss or life-ending danger. This is why I wanted to read the Riyria stories chronologically – to help maintain tension by not knowing what happens later.

Also, the dialog between the main characters is a bit clumsy at times. During those moments that dialog feels forced and unnatural. At times it reminds me of Flanagan’s Ranger’s Apprentice series, with humor that comes off as “I guess you had to be there” to appreciate it. Whether that’s by design, as Royce and Hadrian are polar opposites and thus their conversations are awkward, or it occurs unintentionally, it kills the flow of the story in some places. However, I did not feel that the dialog was driving the story as some other critical readers suggested.

Almost all of the women featured in the story are prostitutes, which is troubling. That’s not to say that prostitution couldn’t exist in Sullivan’s society; it is, after all, known as”the world’s oldest profession” in our own civilization. Rather, it’s simply that there are no women prominently featured in the story that assume any other role. The only woman who does appear as something other than a prostitute makes an appearance at the beginning of the story and is gone by Chapter 5, and a farmer’s wife appears briefly at the very end of the story. There are simply no strong female characters that aren’t prostitutes.

Hadrian’s motives and direction are a bit all over the place. I get that he’s done with fighting a war and he doesn’t know what to do with himself, but it’s a bit frustrating watching him try to figure out things that are obvious to the reader. As to Royce’s motives…well, let’s just say that one of the reasons that the author didn’t want the books read in chronological order is that he thought that readers might want Royce to die in this book based on the way he treats people. That actually does a disservice to readers and to Sullivan’s own story, because characters should change over the course of the tale. In fact, many readers want to see a deeply flawed character rise up and become something more – that is the environment in which novels are written today, due to the influences of George Martin, Steven Erikson, Joe Abercrombie and other dark fantasy writers. Finally, there isn’t much world building here. There are some allusions to events in a previous age, and the Crown Tower itself is a relic of that period, but we don’t really get a good feel for what’s going on in the world, and what has happened in the past, other than a few brief mentions.

Despite these numerous flaws, I still found the book entertaining. I do appreciate that it is not a “coming of age” story…even though the main characters are fairly young, they’ve had their share of worldly experiences. I enjoyed the concept of Royce and Hadrian absorbing attributes from each other and changing over the course of the story, and Gwen’s story was well-written. At first I thought that Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser had influenced Sullivan’s Hadrian and Royce, but in this article Sullivan sets the record straight – there is no connection because Sullivan has never read Leiber.

I didn’t feel that the glossary in the back of the book was necessary, as it’s pretty easy to keep people and places straight. I did like the author’s Q&A session in the extras, they provided great insight into Sullivan’s process. One thing I greatly admire about Sullivan is his commitment to writing and finishing his stories, and continuing this over a period of many years, “honing” his craft. I also admire the amount of advice and help he dedicates to aspiring authors with suggestions on writing and self-publishing. I decided to order the sequel, The Rose and the Thorn, to “kick the can down the road” and use that book as the deciding factor for determining whether or not I will read The Riyria Revelations series. I recommend this book to fans of Sullivan, and to those who enjoy a light-hearted, fast-paced action-adventure that uses familiar tropes, and doesn’t contain pages and pages of meticulous detail and expansive world-building.

Book Review: Codex Born by Jim C. Hines

codex bornFormat: Hardcover, 1st Edition, 2013

Pages:  324

Reading Time:  about 7 hours

 

Back in 2013 I gave a glowing review to Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines, the third from last book I read before taking my long break from this blog and reading fantasy. In the meantime I read some biographies (Elon Musk, Nikola Tesla), graphic novels, magazines, and other blogs. Eventually I had the urge to start reading fantasy again. Since I had been so enamored with Libriomancer, I turned to its sequel, Codex Born, in early December of 2017 to try to re-ignite my interest in fantasy.

Getting back on that horse proved to be difficult. During the early stage of the book, told once more in first person through the eyes of Isaac Vainio, it begins with an investigation of a slain wendigo. I put the book down several times during the first few chapters, trying to summon enough interest to continue, but really struggling to get through it. In Libriomancer, Hines sets a tone and brisk pace early when Isaac squares off against vampires. Codex Born starts slower, and I was disappointed with myself for not being able to overcome the lack of action. I wondered if I had made a mistake in picking up reading fantasy once more.

Though I was only reading a few pages at a time, persistence paid off when I hit page 50. After that the story became action-packed, moving at a furious pace, and I couldn’t put it down. Some new characters are introduced, and the book dives deeper into Johannes Guttenberg’s past and the threat of not just one, but two different groups of entities with malicious intent trying to cross over into the real world. A new form of Libriomancy is also introduced. Make no mistake, however – this book is really about the development of Lena Greenwood, the dryad that returns from Libriomancer…there she was a supporting character, but now she is front and center in Codex Born.

This review by the Little Red Reviewer explains far better than I could why Lena is one of the most complex characters ever written, and is really the star of the show here. At the beginning of every chapter is a brief glimpse, a flashback, into Lena’s past. We still don’t know how Lena came to exist, other than she had to have been brought into existence by a libriomancer, but the rest of her past is filled in wonderfully, and she becomes the key to both the bad guys winning and the means to oppose them. She has to be one of the best fantasy characters ever written. Kudos to Mr. Hines for that accomplishment.

The look back into Guttenberg’s past is also fascinating. No one in this story is above making mistakes, and that includes the all-powerful Guttenberg. At times he seems to be morally corrupt and heavy-handed, and you wish to see him fail and get a comeuppance. On the other hand, without the safeguards he has put in place, the world would have surely been destroyed many times over. As I mentioned in my review of Libriomancer, it’s easy to criticize, but much harder to come up with a better solution to the problems libriomancy presents, that will actually work.

By the time I had read the last page and closed the book, I was thoroughly satisfied. Like its predecessor, Codex Born is smart, funny, and full of action, once you get past the first 50 pages. Hines puts a lot of thought into his libriomancer system, as well as plausibly developing the new form of it, and how at least one group of adversaries came to exist. He also continues to explore moral and ethical questions that may not have a right or wrong answer. Character motivations seem believable. My only criticism of the book would be the ponderous slowness of those first 50 pages, as well as Victor Harrison’s father, who is presented as both smart and stupid depending on how the plot needs him to be, and his motivation is the only one I really questioned. Ultimately I found the book to be fast-paced, exciting and compelling, building off what made Libriomancer great and taking it to another level. It proved to be a great selection to rekindle the flames of my interest in fantasy…I’m not sure there’s another book out there that would have done as well. I’m looking forward to the next book, Unbound, which is in the queue of books to be read, to see what further trouble Isaac and Lena can get into…

Book Review: Bloodfire Quest by Terry Brooks

bloodfire questFormat: Hard Cover, First Edition, 2013

Pages:  339 (not including a 10.5 page preview of Witch Wraith)

Reading Time:  about 8.5 hours

 

I must say that I approached this review with some trepidation. This was the story and review that became the final nail in the coffin that kept me locked away from reading fantasy for four and a half long years. Like an eel in a flooded soap factory, reading time slipped away me for those four and a half years. Suffering burnout from a lifetime of reading fantasy (30 years) and blogging (2.5 years straight), and in desperate need of a break, it is unfair to assign any blame to this book – that is all on me. For some reason, I could not offer a review that said something different than what was already said elsewhere, which I found extremely frustrating. After all this time, I am ready to navigate this review and move on to other books and reviews. Continue reading to find out more of my thoughts, but fair warning given: spoilers of Wards of Faerie and Bloodfire Quest are present.

Here are some other reviews of Bloodfire Quest:

A Dribble of Ink

Fantasy Book Critic

M.A. Kropp

Aidan’s review at A Dribble of Ink talks about how war seems imminent (though it is not present in this book) and also about how strong the female characters are. Ryan Lawler at Fantasy Book Critic offers a bleak review – the darkness and death, as well as the recycled plots in this book, made him unhappy, turning Bloodfire Quest into an unsuitable sequel to Wards of Faerie. M. A. Kropp also talks about the book’s darkness as not being fun to read, but claims it is necessary to show that Brooks is willing to step outside his comfort zone, achieving growth after years of stagnate writing, and offers a reminder that Bloodfire Quest is only part of the story.

So how do my thoughts differ from those above? They don’t, exactly. I agree with everything said above. And yet, at the same time, I feel like that may be an oversimplification of what Bloodfire quest both offers and represents. Hopefully I can explain that contradiction.

Brooks has always been at the top of his game on “quest” stories. While the plot lines may seem recycled, and in a way they are – elves trying to save the Ellcrys, the Ard Rys confronting the Straken Lord, the Federation trying to snuff out magic – there are subtle shifts in perspective. In the Elfstones of Shannara, we didn’t understand the sacrifice required to save the Ellcrys until the end. But what if the character knew what the sacrifice was going to be ahead of time? What would that struggle be like, how much harder would it be? And now the Federation is being controlled by a witch who desires magic, particularly the elfstones, for herself. How might that change what the Federation has always represented?

The character of Grianne Ohmsford, probably the most unique and compelling character Brooks has created, along with her interaction the Straken Lord, seemed to have a disappointing story arc by the time the High Druid of Shannara ended. It was as if all the efforts and loss in the Voyage of the Jerle Shannara and the High Druid of Shannara meant nothing, and only the journey mattered. Oft times it is the journey, and not the destination, that matters, but when the destination undermines the journey, it leaves one less than satisfied. However, Aidan’s review of the final book, Witch Wraith, gives me great hope that The Dark Legacy of Shannara series will conclude Grianne’s story satisfactorily. Here is what Aidan said that gives me that hope:

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.”

Aidan offers the most intriguing take on the 9 book arc that I have seen anywhere. The main difference between a book like The Elfstones of Shannara, and the books of the “Ilse Witch trilogy” as Aidan calls it, is that that each series should have only been one book, consisting of all three books in that series. Brooks has become a rich man by spreading each story into three separate books, but that has also lead to much criticism at the fluff and filler it takes to accomplish this. Compiled as 1 volume, with the filler cut out, there is no doubt that Antrax, Morgawr, and Ilse Witch as one book, called the Voyage of the Jerle Shannara, would have been epic, and the same goes for the High Druid of Shannara trilogy. You can indeed buy all 3 books of each series in one volume now, although since they are not re-edited, the fluff makes them longer than they should be.

So what did I think about Bloodfire Quest? I thoroughly enjoyed it. The book is full of action, airships flying all over the place, battles and combat (including ship to ship combat) and lots of dead characters. The stakes are high (and grave) as the end of the Shannara stories draws near. I particularly enjoyed the Bloodfire quest portion as Arling struggles to accept the sacrifice she must make, and I also liked the happenings in the Forbidding and the return of the Straken Lord, and the forthcoming quest to see what has become of Grianne. It was a faster read than Wards of Faerie and at times I didn’t want to put it down. This time Todd Lockwood’s art, and the map, have been moved to the front of the book, which I appreciated. And the the last ten and half pages offer a preview of Witch Wraith, the sequel to Bloodfire Quest and the third and final book in the series.

Criticisms are numerous…the main criticism I had was of Edinja the Federation witch – her power seems limitless and its source is not explained to my satisfaction, so when she creates a few animal-like creatures out of men, why doesn’t she create more? What is stopping her? And why does she have so much information, yet remains clueless about the Ellcrys dying, the Forbidding failing, and the Straken Lord coming, which might make her think twice about killing off those who could defend against this? It feels once more like a forced plot device. Many questions from the first book remain unanswered. The heroes continue to only react to events around them…rarely do they ever drive the action. And once again we see only the heroes, with no “regular” people, except at the very last few pages of the book, where a couple of “regular” people appear, only to be depicted as greedy and self-serving, and not worth saving.

Despite the shortcomings, I really didn’t let them influence my enjoyment of the story. Action-packed, fast-moving, and heroic, Bloodfire Quest is much better than Wards of Faerie, in my opinion, and one of the best Brooks novels in quite some time. Since I have no plans to read the subsequent Defenders of Shannara and Fall of Shannara series, the final book in this series, Witch Wraith, is very likely the last Shannara book I will ever read. And with Aidan’s words (that I have quoted above) in mind, I’m very much looking forward to, well, “The End.”