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.

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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…

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…

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.

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?

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.

Classic Review: Shapechangers by Jennifer Roberson

1046558Classic 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…

Format:  paperback, First Edition, 1984

Pages:  221

Reading Time:  about 3 hours

 

It’s hard to recall when I first got my hands on Shapechangers. This book was released when I was still in high school, and back then I didn’t have a lot of money for new books…most of the books I acquired were in small used book stores that eBay, Amazon and Barnes & Noble have effectively squashed out of existence. I didn’t find them in the local library. I also didn’t pick up books during my subsequent military service, as I had to travel light and again I wasn’t earning a whole lot money then. Even after I left the military, I was only making minimum wage, so it was most likely the early 90’s when I finally picked up this first book. I got hooked and ended up hunting down the entire series.

Roberson doesn’t get a lot of credit for her imaginative series, despite being released about the same time as David Eddings was writing his Belgariad books and Raymond Feist was exploring his Riftwar Saga. Some of that is due to the content itself. The book does not actually contain, but gets right up to the edge of, rape and incest. As the books were targeted at younger readers, since it is a coming of age story, most such readers overlooked it, but it would have turned others away. This re-read at Tor.com provides an excellent plot summary, discusses how the reviewer, Tansy Roberts, felt about the books when she was younger, and how she views it now as an older reader. I think my opinions for the most part align with Tansy’s fairly well, but my re-read took me in a slightly different direction. Continue reading to find out my thoughts, and as always, ‘ware the spoilers!

Long before there was Robin Hobb’s “Wit”, there was Roberson’s lir, animals bonded to the Cheysuli, which Hobb has generously liberated for use in her Assassin Apprentice series, including the pain and emptiness suffered when the bond between man and animal is severed. At the time Shapechangers was written, Roberson’s attachment of man to animal, and the ability of that man to assume his lir’s animal form, was fairly unique. Roberson, a fantasy reader who once said that she wrote The Chronicles of the Cheysuli because she got tired of waiting for writers to release new books, describes her vision in what is effectively an author’s note:

“The Chronicles of the Cheysuli is a dynastic fantasy, the story of a proud, honorable race brought down by the avarice, evil, and sorcery of others – and its own special brand of magic. It’s the story of an ancient race blessed by the old gods of their homeland, and cursed by sorcerers who desire dominion over all men. It’s a dynasty of good and evil; love and hatred, pride and strength. Most of all it deals with the destiny in every man and his struggle to shape it follow it, deny it.”

Shapechangers, and Roberson’s plotting and writing style, are all a grand study in contrasts. Roberson’s prose is easy to navigate, at times very elegant and other times stilted and repetitive. Dialog between characters drives the story, rather than elaborate descriptions of the setting or copious amounts of action. It is essentially a love story with fantasy elements, battles, and social commentary. The main character, Alix, flits between one love interest and another, denies and then accepts her heritage, follows cultures and customs and then follows her own instincts.

Roberson also proves masterful at character change. She has four main characters: Alix; Prince Carillon, heir to the throne; Duncan, the clan chief, and Duncan’s and Alix’s half-brother, Finn. Each of these characters begin with specific opinions and prejudices, but by the end of the book their journey has changed each character to be something more, something greater, in a believable way. That is no small feat for a book of 221 pages.

In fact, this compact book, which is a quick and easy read, packs more between its pages than books 4 times its size. Roberson tackles racism and prejudice, rape and incest, predestination/prophesy and free will, and a woman’s role in a male-dominated society. Roberson doesn’t include these things in her story because she advocates them, she writes about them because they are very real issues in the cultures she has created. For instance, the Cheysuli have a very strong Native American influence. The land of Homana, where the story takes place, originally belonged to the Cheysuli, but they were forced to give it up to human settlers and then serve those humans in order to avoid persecution. The displacement of native peoples is something we know well but choose to ignore, while Roberson has made it a central part of the story.

Likewise, after the Cheysuli are hunted and persecuted, they capture human women and subjugate them, which includes rape for the purpose of childbearing. The closest Roberson comes to realizing this in the story is when Finn considers doing so to Alix after he has initially captured her; in other parts of the story we learn of the practice through character dialog. If a people are being wiped off the face of the earth and their numbers have dwindled towards extinction, and the survival of their race and their customs depends on maintaining their population, they just might be desperate enough to force the women of the very race that persecutes them to bear their children. By writing about it, Roberson does not give approval to the practice – this is not Terry Goodkind constantly preaching a brand of philosophy – rather, Roberson merely points out what a desperate people might do to survive, without going into Steven Erikson-level detail. I very much admire Roberson for having the courage to explore such dark facets of culture and society in her work. For those who do choose to read further in the series, you will find these are not all happy ending type stories…several of the books contain very tragic scenes.

Shapechangers does have a few problems. Due to its (mostly) fast pace and copious amounts of dialog, we don’t always get detailed descriptions of people and places and must fill in the details using our own imagination. And regarding that fast pace, there are parts of the story where Alix is introduced to the Cheysuli ways and the story tends to drag a bit as Alix tries to fit in while at the same time attempts to cling to her own beliefs. Alix’s flip-flopping and flightiness at times had me rolling my eyes at the soap opera unfolding before me. Some of the dialog is so repetitive it becomes grating – I was ready to claw my eyes out when the phrase “What do you say?” is used for the seemingly hundredth time. Also, Roberson occasionally contradicts the system she has established. When Finn attempts to force Alix, Finn’s lir intervenes, saying “she is not for you.” Thus one of the lir, who have knowledge of the prophecy that plays such an important part of the story, attempts to influence events based on its knowledge of the prophesy. Yet later another of the lir explains to Alix that “the lir cannot precipitate it” when referring to the prophecy and how they cannot tell her what will happen. These two events seemingly contradict each other.

In my youth I found this story fascinating, and the re-read as an adult has not changed that whatsoever – it has actually given me greater appreciation of the depths of Roberson’s talent, despite any clumsiness in being Roberson’s debut novel. I had forgotten much of the story, almost to the point where I was reading it once more for the first time, making it more enjoyable than if I had recalled every detail of the plot. There are eight books total in the series, which is out of print but was re-released as a 4 book omnibus series, with two of the original books per omnibus. I have seen a variety of different covers, but only the art of the original series, beautifully done by Julek Heller, captures characters the way I imagine them. I do vaguely remember subsequent books containing more love stories, tragedies, cool lir and shapeshifting, and how truly evil the Ihlini sorcerers really were. I’m looking forward to re-reading the rest of the series and posting my thoughts here. I would recommend this story to those looking for a quick, sword and sorcery-type read that contains more depth than appears on the surface.