Status Update 12-30-19

Well, here it is, most likely the last post of the year. I just completed The Hod King by Josiah Bancroft. The Pages Read total is 11,407 and that’s probably where I’ll finish with only today and tomorrow left. While that isn’t nearly as much as last year, my average page count per book was 100 pages higher at 543. That means I tackled some real doorstoppers, which of course are a more challenging read, and I didn’t take on any classic reviews, which in retrospect I should have at least managed a few. Also I wanted to close the gap in reviews, as I was falling pretty far behind, so I focused on getting more of those done in December at the expense of some reading time. I only completed 1 review in November, and when December started I was 6 reviews behind. I’ve closed that number to 4, and hope to be fully caught up by the end of February.

For 2020 I’m going to drop the reading goal back down to 12,000. It seems more realistic (I would have been very close this year, 95%) and anything over 12k will be a good feeling.

Next up is D. P. Prior’s Ravine of Blood and Shadow. I’ll also be working on some posts for The Hippogriff Awards.

 

Surprise! A Couple More End Of Year Orders

Well, I thought I was done ordering books for the rest of the year, until I happened to stumble across Alec Hutson’s The Shadow King, the third book in The Raveling series.

shadow king

How did I miss this? I guess I’ve had a lot on my plate, and it’s only been out since the end of November. Well, at least it’s on the way now and will be among the first books I read in 2020.

Books continue to come my way from all sorts of directions. I accompanied a friend to a Goodwill store and I immediately went in the book section. I didn’t expect to find much, but on this day I spotted a gorgeous hardcover: Twelve Kings In Sharakhai by Bradley P. Beaulieu.

sharakhai

I’ve always loved the art of the book and the Middle-Eastern style setting. The only thing that held me back in the past were reviews that talked of long and annoying flashbacks (my pet peeve), and a plot that I wasn’t sure would hold up for 600 pages. But $5 for a near perfect hard cover? Yeah, I’ll take that anytime!

The TBR pile has doubled from 8 to 16 in just 2 weeks. That escalated quickly! In reality there are more books (such as Malazan and Riyria) but I only list the next one in line…

Book Review: Paternus: Wrath of Gods by Dyrk Ashton

wrath of godsFormat: oversized paperback, first edition, 2018

Pages:  511 (not counting appendices and bonus material)

Reading Time:  about 12.5 hours

One Sentence Synopsis:  As Fi and Zeke discover more about who they really are, they continue to be swept up in the battle between the Deva and Asura – but a bigger, deadlier threat emerges that may bring about the prophesied “End of the World”.

 

I will admit I was pretty critical in my review of the first book in the Paternus series, Rise of Gods, but I saw enough promise (and received some inspiring input from RockStarlit BookAsylum), so I decided to spring for the sequel. I was specifically looking to see if the questions I had from the first book would be answered, or if they would go unexplained and kill some of the major plot points. After reading Paternus: Wrath of Gods, I have my answer. You’ll have to read on to get my take, but spoilers of this book (and of the first) may be present – you have been warned. But first, some guest reviews from the Web…

 

RockStarlit BookAsylum (still owning the coolest blog name ever) says: “It’s a hell of a roller coaster ride, one which you can’t get enough of. The events are picked up right at where they were left at the end of Rise of Gods. If you don’t remember everything that happened in that book, don’t you worry, Mr Ashton was kind enough to provide a short summary for you. Unless in Rise of Gods, in this book we only follow two groups of characters, which makes things much easier. I also had less problem to adjusting to the present tense, which can be quite annoying at first, but after a few pages I completely forgot about it and just let the flow carry me on. We also get a lot less info dumps, or they are offered in a better way which actually makes it bearable. Although in some cases the info dump totally break the pace of a fight scene making it longer than necessary. A lengthy description of a weapon during a fight might not be the best idea. In Wrath of Gods the stakes are getting higher, and if you thought it’s impossible to dig up even more mythological creatures, then think again. Dyrk Ashton has some more of them up in his sleeves and not afraid to use them. And play with your emotions too while he is at it. With books like this where a lot happens in a short period of time and have a huge cast of characters one of the problems can be the lack of character building. Or more like the lack of place/time for character building…Fi and Zeke also get their moments, but I still feel that them and Peter are the less developed characters compared to some of the others. I like Fi’s fierceness and strong personality and it was interesting to see as she comes in terms with her heritage. And I’m looking forward to see how she copes with the current situation in the next book. Zeke… find it hard to come to terms with him. It feels like that he is mostly just along for the ride, giving away his knowledge. But then, some of the most interesting scenes belonged to him.

J.C. Kang of Fantasy-Faction states: “The first half of the book reminds me of the old adage about travel broadening the mind, with the caveat of having to survive. The main characters split off on their own adventures, where they develop their powers and discover their heritage. Bitten by the spider, Max, Fi learns what it means to be Firstborn—the ability to understand all languages, endurance, strength, etc. She has to unlearn everything she thinks she knows about herself, with the guidance of Peter and her Firstborn siblings. Zeke continues to be an enigma, with an underlying intrigue—not being Firstborn, there are so many things he should not be able to do, such as slip; and more impressively, pick up a weapon that even Firstborn cannot…It raises a larger question: while to humans, the Firstborn could be considered gods, there is room left for capital-G God. Older Firstborn relate to visiting Christ during his lifetime (and indeed, they fit into the biblical Three Wise Men story), and Fi’s uncle, Galahad, clearly believes in God, despite knowing of Peter. The plot moves along at a good pace along three main story lines, as we are introduced to more Deva and Asura. Like in Empire Strikes Back, where we learn there is a bigger, badder evil than Darth Vader, we find out that the behind book one puppet master Claron is someone even worse. Not only that, but it appears that Earth might have an expiration date. My main complaint of book one was the head-hopping feel of the present tense omniscient viewpoint. This was not a problem in book two. Perhaps I grew accustomed to it in book one, but I do feel Ashton smoothed out the transitions between character thoughts, making it easier to follow.

Finally, Petrik Leo of Novel Notions opines: “If you love the exposition of the mythologies in the first book but found it too info-dumpy, Ashton did a better job here in ensuring that the pacing of the story does not suffer from the same. My favorite newest inclusion in this regard was the importance of Hinduism for the plotline. Whether it’s the cosmic calendar, Ganesha, or Nagalok, the integration of the myths into the narrative never ceased to intrigue me…In the first book, although Zeke and Fi were the main characters, their presence was overwhelmed by Peter; I loved how this book changed that perception. We finally get more revelations around Zeke and Fi and the immense significance of their roles. Plus, their personalities were so much more fleshed out. The entire part two of the novel, or what I would say are the chapters which divulged Zeke’s background, for instance, was easily my favorite section. It was wholly engaging, a non-stop page turner, and unpredictable. Part three slowed down in pace as the narrative prepares for the big conclusion in the coming finale. Don’t give up too quickly easily on this series if you find yourself struggling through the first one-third of the first book — I disliked that part too. Dyrk has grown a lot as an author, professionally and writing-wise, since then. I do, however, have to admit that the book took some time for me to get used to despite the great pacing and compelling story. This is because of my personal issue with the narrative style that occasionally utilizes paragraphs to shift character perspectives, instead of chapters.

 

My Thoughts:

There were several issues I had with Paternus: Rise of Gods: a big plot hole, “unbeatable” immortals that rob the story of tension, an awkward third person present tense narrative, immortals that lack clear motivations, shallow “mortal” viewpoint characters who lack agency, and a bucketful of unanswered questions. Let’s address these one at a time:

  • The big plot hole was isolated to the first book. Though the effects of that plot hole will be present throughout the series, I didn’t find any major new plot holes in Wrath of Gods, so that’s a positive.
  • Unbeatable immortals? Well, that’s still kind of true, although this book expands on a threat from the first book, cybernetic insects that can kill immortals, so it adds a lot more tension here, since now it seems anyone could perish at any time.
  • The third person present tense narrative is still present, but perhaps I’m getting used to it as it didn’t bother me quite as much. As J.C. Kang says, it feels like Ashton improved transitions between viewpoints.
  • Most immortals still lack motivation, except when it comes to saving the world…otherwise we have no insight into why they feel and act the way they do. There are a few exceptions (such as Galahad).
  • The shallow mortal viewpoint characters, Fi and Zeke, get a bit more of their backstory revealed, which gives them a little more depth. Early in the story, they are still reacting to events, but towards the middle of the book they began to have agency, so that’s a positive, too.
  • Many of the questions I had in the first book have now been explained. While there are a few questions that have gone unanswered, overall Ashton has done a splendid job of avoiding what could have been inexplicable plot devices.

The pacing of Wrath of Gods is excellent. The plot careens from one action sequence to another, and as before, Ashton proves adept at handling battles, chases, and action-packed scenes. There is a spot in the middle of the book where things slow down a bit as the Deva gather for a meeting of the minds. It feels a little out of place – almost like having a party as the world is in danger of being destroyed – and there are some big info dumps going on. However, I will admit I loved reading about the Cosmic Calendar – that is pretty cool. When I told a friend about this at my workplace (he is originally from India), he was impressed that the Cosmic Calender was in the book and wanted to know what I was reading.

Spoiler Alert!!! Skip to next paragraph if necessary! I do still have a few questions I want to see answered…how did so many of the cybernetic insects get made? Why is Earth the “last world standing”? Why do Lucifer’s schemes line up with the Cosmic Calendar…is it predestination, or simply coincidence? How do God & Jesus fit into the Deva structure – or do they? Do angels such as Michael and Gabriel exist in this setting? When the immortals pray, who are they praying to? Lots of questions I hope will be answered in the third book.

One thing that I thought was cool was that Lucifer and Satan (Kleron) are not the same being. This actually fits with some Christian theology in which Satan was the angel that fell from heaven and became the Devil, while Lucifer was the king of Babel.

Some of the best parts of the book involve tongue-in-cheek sexual humor. It’s becoming clear that Fi and Zeke are probably going to become a thing, so it’s great fun to see the less-inhibited immortals like The Prathamaja Nandana toy with Fi about “closing the deal” with Zeke and pretending having interest in Zeke just to get Fi’s hackles up.

My favorite part was the appearance of Ganesha, who is probably my favorite immortal in real life, as I have 3 different Ganesha statues in my library. Some other new characters are introduced, and a couple fall by the wayside. We also see some interesting artifacts make an appearance, including one that Kleron uses to control the cybernetic insects.

In conclusion, I enjoyed Wrath of Gods immensely, far more than Rise of Gods. With even more action, stellar pacing (except for one scene), better character development, some questions answered, and more danger leading to more tension, this book is superior to the first in every way, and at times had that “just one more chapter” feel. I’m excited for the next release, Paternus: War of Gods, which is slated for release on May 19, 2020.

Book Review: The Labyrinth of Flame by Courtney Schafer

labyrinth of flameFormat:  oversized paperback, first printed edition, 2015

Pages:  517

Reading Time:  about 13 hours

One Sentence Synopsis:  Dev and Kiran must overcome the desert, fanatics, and politics to remain hidden from Rustlin, and yet find out that they are the only ones who have a chance at stopping a far greater threat – one that can end the world as they know it.

 

Courtney Schafer suffered a bit of bad luck when Night Shade Books, the publisher of her first two novels, nearly went bankrupt and was bought out, leaving the status of her third book in the Shattered Sigil trilogy, The Labyrinth of Flame, in limbo. Fortunately Schafer launched a successful Kickstarter campaign and was able to self-publish the book herself, including keeping the same artist and cover designer as the previous two books, as well as new content featuring a map and interior illustrations. The Labyrinth of Flame was released in 2015; by the time I went looking for a print version in 2017, Seattle Books only had a few copies left. Currently, the e-reader version is readily available, but the print version is long gone and cannot be found, even on eBay.

In the previous two books, the endings were bittersweet…with the main characters in trouble but holding on to a ray of hope. So how would Schafer choose to end not only the third book, but the series as a whole? Read on to find out and beware of spoilers. First, however, some guest reviews from cyberspace:

 

Adrian at Bibliotropic says: “…I had amazingly high hopes for The Labyrinth of Flame. And despite how high my hopes were, Schafer still managed to surpass them…It’s a layered plot of chaos and desperation, and pretty much as of about 1/3 of the way through, the pace doesn’t let up for a second. “One more chapter” syndrome hits hard. There are new reveals and new dangers around every turn, the plot gets even more full of twists and complications, and yet it never once feels like things are over the top, or like the author is trying to one-up anything previously done. The story all flows naturally, it all makes sense, and it isn’t filled with big impressive events just for the sake of big impressive events. It’s beautifully done, and I enjoyed just how much I was on the edge of my seat for most of the reading…I love the way the book challenges cultural norms all over the place, but particularly I like how it does this with romance and relationships. A presentation of people who don’t typically follow a pattern of only choosing one partner at a time but instead are rather polyamourous (and more fluid in their associated sexuality, at least sometimes, and depending on the person) is wonderful to see in fiction, not because I believe that’s the only proper way to have a healthy relationship, but because it breaks molds and shows that there are more ways to have a healthy relationship than just monogamy. I love to see this stuff explored, and I love that Schafer explored it with respect and compassion…Which brings me to the book’s ending, and I have to say this: the ending of The Labyrinth of Flame is quite possibly the most satisfying ending to a series I’ve ever read. It ties up everything wonderfully, leaves room for the future, and left me with flailing around like an idiot over what happens to the people I ship. Seriously, I don’t think there’s any possible better way for this book and this series to have ended.”

Nathan Barnhart of The Speculative Dragon states: “This series has always been a buddy adventure taken to an extreme level. It is the story of Dev and Kiran, best friends after two books who will do anything for each other, and their relationship is the thread that holds everything together. Not to get too touchy feely but damn it one has to be touched by the level of devotion their relationship has grown to. The Labyrinth of Flame succeeds because it never forgets its main story revolves around this. Passages in which the two have to go their own way are almost painful; it never seems right and even if bad things are about to happen it always feels worse when they are apart. Secondary relationships are also important; Dev has a strong and capable love interest in Cara that deserves her own series. Watching a whole group of people willing to sacrifice themselves for others; all tied to the path Dev and Kiran are on, is enough bring hope to even the bleakest setting…This concluding volume is a fast ride with dueling factions trying to gain a weapon of unknown power, a city in rebellion, and terrible acts of magic that leave destruction both on the physical plane and in the mind. Also expect torture, betrayal, and bad people occasionally winning the battle…One of the best signs that a book is doing a whole lot right is when even things that usually bother are done well. In this case there is a magic ‘system’ in place that gets explained in more detail that I usually can put up with…In The Laberynth of Flame it finally got a bit too much page time for my liking as Kiran was running on a very limited pool for much of the book and thus it was ever present. But it did give everything a sense of urgency that is hard to pull off; soon I was wondering with each act if Kiran had what it took to keep going. Courtney Schafer created a wonderful world in this series then teased us by only really letting us see a few cities and very little of the land. But the overall story is truly epic in scale; the small band of protagonists are fighting not just to save themselves but for the world.”

Paul Weimer at SF Signal surmises: “The Shattered Sigil features a world of gorgeously described and richly invoked mountain vistas, dangerous deserts and intriguing cities. The Labyrinth of Flame takes this worldbuilding and provides us with new areas in her diverse world to explore, lands strong reminiscent of the Utah and Arizona desert canyons. The travels of Dev and Kiran as they make their way across areas south of their usual haunts are excellently described…From the beginning, I’ve enjoyed the diversity of the magic and the polities featured in this seires. From Ninavel, a city supported by water magic in a harsh desert, to blood mages, charms, magical barriers, and at times, the narrative is bursting at the seems with imagery. This final volume adds yet new elements and ideas, sometimes at a breakneck pace that, despite the epic fantasy length, feels almost too breezily done. I’d like to learn more about some of the things she introduces in this latest volume. Character has always been at the heart of the trilogy, however. The author maintains the split 3rd person/1st person perspective shift between Dev and Kiran, giving readers a slightly asymmetrical and yet complete perspective on her two protagonists. I expected major changes and growth in Kiran, as it has been throughout the series, and the novel delivers on that quite well. Dev gets some interesting character development as well, especially in an unexpected call back to his still-longed for youthful days as a Tainted. The Dev that emerges through this novel is a stronger, more rounded individual.”

 

My Thoughts:

I continue to be impressed by Schafer’s writing. The imaginative landscape and setting, the detailed rules behind the magic system, the great characterization, the constant feeling of desperation, careening from one plot point to the next without being able to take a breath…Schafer balances this very nimbly. It’s clear she put a lot of thought into how to wrap up this third installment.

The characters grow and change somewhat…most of that comes from Kiran. Dev’s character seemed a bit off in this story…it’s hard to put my finger on exactly what’s different. Perhaps it is more anger and swearing than there was in the first two books. It’s not really a concern and doesn’t impact the story too much, but I did notice it. Some new characters like Yashad are introduced from the city of Khalat, as well as some desert dwellers like Teo, Zadikah, Gavila. All these supporting characters are well-devloped, with believable motivations. Unfortunately Dev and Kiran bring trouble with them wherever they go, and often have to deal with the frustration of how their attempt to survive, and even save the world, impacts those around them in a negative way. We also get more backstory into how Rustlin and Lizaveta discovered Kiran. In addition, it was great to see Melly become a prominent character, since keeping her safe was such an important plot point in the first two books.

Although the narrative switching has bothered some readers over the series, I continued to enjoy the first person Dev and third person Kiran narrative. The different perspectives are a really unique way to tell the story. Having Dev as the first person narrator works largely because he doesn’t understand the intricacies of magic, and he is largely reactive to what is going on around him. In contrast, approaching Kiran’s narration from a third person perspective allows the reader to delve more into the explanations and rules of the magic system. It works extremely well. The ending also factors into the narration – it makes sense as to why Dev would be narrating in first person – and I don’t want to spoil the ending so I’ll leave it at that.

The pacing and plot are superb. As Adrian expressed, the pace doesn’t let up and it is very hard to put the book down. Fortunately it is very easy to find a stopping point, which allowed me to read in quick spurts when my available reading time was brief. There were twists and turns that I didn’t see coming, and I had no idea how Dev and Kiran would be able to pull off what they were attempting. The stakes get higher with each passing chapter, and the intensity did not let up.

The desert setting continues to deliver unexpected delights and a uniqueness not found in other books. The mountain climbing aspect was a big draw of the first book, but was largely absent from the second. Here it is re-introduced, in a balanced sort of way that neither has too much nor too little. The plateaus, caves, box canyons, ridges, clefts, deserts, and other features make for a wonderful setting.

Another point that Adrian makes is that the ending to the book, and the series as a whole, is probably the best he has ever read. I’m hard pressed to say that I agree, but only because I’ve read so much material. There is some tragedy, but Schafer handles it deftly and manages to bring a large amount of satisfaction in the ending of both the book and the series without letting the tragedy dominate. I would agree that the ending is very, very good. Thank goodness Schafer wen’t the Kickstarter route to give the series the ending it deserves.

In conclusion I’d have to say that The Labyrinth of Flame is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and I feel fortunate to have been able to add it to my library. In looking back over the series as a whole, Schafer did an amazing job, and though it’s sad that this is the final volume (except from some related short stories), the ending ties things up neatly to leave me satisfied with how things turned out. I only wish I had discovered this series sooner.

New Additions – End Of 2019

In my efforts to (minimally) re-stock the TBR pile, here are a couple of last minute orders I placed. These will be my final acquisitions of 2019.

gutter prayer

The Gutter Prayer has received high praise from a number of other reviewers that I trust. Although I’m nearing my fill of stories revolving around assassins and thieves, there’s some interesting ideas presented here, and as I mentioned above, the positive reviews don’t hurt. I would have  liked a hardcover edition but they seem to be pretty rare (and expensive).

 

Symphony of the Wind

Another book that has received high marks (from some reviewers) is 2018 Self-Publishing Fantasy Blog Off finalist Symphony of the Wind. These blurbs from Fantasy Book Review hooked me instantly:

This book is insane and it has everything. I’m pretty convinced the author wrote a checklist of all the cool shit a writer can put in a novel, then methodically went through ticking it all off. If someone had told me that before I started, it would have been a hard nope from me, but he makes it work. You want a terrifying underground Doom/Resident Evil style fight against genetically altered animals and undead monsters? You got it. You want a Star Wars style fighter battle in the sky? Yep, it’s here. You want brutal one on one fights? Present. You want larger fights against desperate odds? Oh boy, you’re in for a treat. You want death? Bucketloads. You want humour? Laughs galore. You want characters to love like they’re your own child? Take a handful. You want villains who just won’t goddamn die? Neither do I, but you got ‘em anyway. You want conspiracies, surprises, magic? Done, done, and done. It’s a big book and he’s got it all in there.” – Emma Davis

And this:

Steve McKinnon’s debut (!) fantasy novel Symphony of the Wind is a post-steampunk military fantasy with enough stirring action sequences to rival Pierce Brown’s ‘Red Rising’ series. It deals with post-war PTSD, political propaganda and conspiracies, organized crime, celebrity culture, environmental threats, and a smattering of Greek mythology. It has characters you love who will die, and characters you hate that just won’t go away. And somehow, it is also funny as hell.

But that still leaves out so much of the story. I could go into detail about the massive chase scenes, violent sieges, numerous gun-and-sword battles, thrilling air combat, secret underground bunker labs gone awry, human experimentation, non-human experimentation, mind control, radiation-afflicted beasts, and enough breathtaking set pieces to fill a summer blockbuster trilogy at the cineplex.” – Adam Weller

Sound like my kind of book!

Book Review: Emperor of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

emperor of thornsFormat:  hard cover, first edition, 2013

Pages:  434

Reading Time:  about 11 hours

One Sentence Synopsis: Jorg journeys with his family to Congression, battling the minions of the Dead King along the way, in order to restore the Broken Empire under one ruler – and Jorg intends to be that ruler.

 

I have finally completed the journey that many others finished long ago: I have come to the end of the Broken Empire trilogy. After being intrigued by Prince of Thorns and experiencing mixed feelings regarding King of Thorns, did this final installment swing me one way or the other? Read on to find out, but as always, beware of spoilers. First, however, let’s have a look at the guest reviews from around the Web…

 

Jared at Pornokitsch has one of the most incredible, thoughtful reviews I have ever seen in a fantasy book review. In it, he says: “I’m repeating myself, but I’m doing so on an annual basis, so forgive me: there’s so much right about this book. For one, the split narrative is a lovely piece of literary trickery. In previous books, most notably King, ‘past-Jorg’ was running about gathering power-ups for present-Jorg’s use in the book’s boss fight. Emperor is a bit more subtle about it: Jorg is still arming himself, but he’s doing so, if you’ll excuse the wank-word, philosophically…The result is that Jorg is enlightened with the Big Picture of what’s at stake: possibly the universe, probably the world, definitely humanity. And here we have the critical path of Jorgism: does he sit back and let the real chosen one handle it (the Prince of Arrow) or does he take care of it himself? In effect, we’re led to believe – as Jorg often recites – sometimes you need a bad person to do the right thing. Jorg is motivated (ostensibly) with the believe that he’s the right wrong person to save the world…The balance of big picture, little picture and the active subversion of the epic fantasy ‘destiny’ trope is incredibly compelling. The elements are woven together so that Jorg has both free will and predestination, he himself is not chosen. Instead, the universe requires a very specific person for a very specific task, and Jorg is determined to claim that role for himself. He is molding himself into a Platonic form. Does it make him a hero (he’s keen to save the universe, right?), a monster (he embraces the ruthless things it will require of him) or merely a flawed and selfish human (Jorg doesn’t care about the universe or the ruthlessness, he’s just determined that the bigger ‘story’ be all about him). That’s the big good of Emperor of Thorns, and it is both very big and extremely good…Emperor also left me with the sinking suspicion that, as far as the text is positioned, Jorg was forgiven. Redeemed, even.

Phil at A Fantasy Reader states: “At first, I thought that the flashbacks would have a lesser impact on the present story but I was happily deceived. The whole plot doesn’t revolve around a mystery as intriguing as the memory box in King of Thorns but the experiences and discoveries of Jorg are paramount to some events from King of Thorns and to several circumstances influencing what’s happening toward the end of the book…He’s not mighty in term of military power, but an incarnation of dedication directed toward a goal can be devastating and he’s ready to do everything that needs to be done in this unforgiving world (I wish you could read about more of what’s outside the Broken Empire)…It’s the last book in the series and I thought that Lawrence wouldn’t leave much in term of unresolved business. He doesn’t but for some threads, the explanation behind the denouement isn’t shown directly from Jorg’s perspective. He sees the impacts more than the course of it. In retrospect, I think that it was essentially a wise decision by the author and it probably kept the narrative tighter (certainly to the disappointment of some readers)…There was also a flashback where I felt that Mark was trying to add another layer to the reasons behind the portrait of terrible doom that is Jorg and I think it was not necessary (the scene at the Monastery)…I’m still not sure about my feelings for the conclusion of Jorg’s trilogy. It was such a ride, I mean, with such a powerful character, expectations flew in every directions. And that’s probably the problem for me. These expectations lead me nowhere since I didn’t see it coming. Not that it’s the revelation or shock of the century but with a touch of weirdness involved, I had not expected something like this, which is a good thing.

Finally, Redhead at The Little Red Reviewer surmises: “Jorg’s future lies at Congression, but every person he’s killed along the way becomes another corpse for the Dead King’s necromancers to raise up…Pacing, again, was an issue for me. This is more of an introspective book, so there was far less action, and far less character interaction and banter. As in King of Thorns, much of the narrative was Jorg’s questioning his own actions. Did he do the right thing, should he have done this other thing, or listened to this other advisor, or spent more time on whatever, and it got repetitive. I did appreciate the handful of chapters from Chella the necromancer, and it was interesting to see her point of view, as she’s the only person who has had interaction with both Jorg and the Dead King. As the end of the book got closer, and some hints were dropped as to the identity of the Dead King, I began to get very worried. We do learn the identity of the Dead King, and while the timing made sense, I simply could not for one second buy into the Dead King’s identity. I could accept the timing, but from what I knew about this character, their transformation into the Dead King made no sense to me. Unless of course, the only reason for that person to have become the Dead King was so that the very last scene could occur. Was the Dead King then, nothing more than another clunky plot device? Suffice to say, I was incredibly disappointed with the conclusion of this series. Mark Lawrence is ever the risk taker, it’s earned him well deserved applause and attention. The risks he took with this entire series worked for a lot of people, as can be seen from the many glowing reviews. But when it came down to it, the further down the road I went towards the conclusion, the less satisfied I was with the journey.

 

My Thoughts:

There are plenty of other reviews that talk about plot, pace, characters, dialog, etc. Many of these other reviews are spot on in terms of analysis, and I don’t think I have anything new to add. In fact, all that I can really add are my feelings about this book, its place in the series, and the complete series as a whole.

The book itself is a bit plodding, and I initially found the flashbacks annoying. But a funny thing happened on the way to Congression…I began to enjoy the story any time the Dead King or Chella were in play. There is particular scene where Jorg is stomping around in a bog, half-delusional and with enemies closing in. I though that this scene was one of the finer moments of the whole series. Unfortunately, the sex scene in the coach with Chella is one of the worst moments in the entire series, as I find the reasons behind it utterly implausible.

SPOILER! As all the pieces fall into place to get Jorg where he needs to be, with the allies and votes he has to have, it almost feels a little too scripted to have everything come together in his favor. If it wasn’t for Fexler, the pre-apocalypse AI that is responsible for manipulating events from afar, it would be damn near impossible.

The most difficult part of the series was always going to be the ending. Did Jorg earn redemption? Did he deserve it? Was he capable of humility? Or was he going to be a jerk to the end? The root of the problem is that Lawrence has painted the reader (and himself) into a corner. It isn’t crazy to think that no ending is going to be satisfying, no matter how you feel about Jorg’s character. Lawrence does an admirable job and and takes the only real option available: confusion (the questions above aren’t really answered). There can be no happy ending for Jorg where he gets everything he wants – that would leave a bad taste in the reader’s mouth. On the other hand, you could root for Jorg to die horribly without getting what he wants, and while you might justified in thinking that, it means the entire journey was a waste of time. Jorg takes the only good path available, but all of the people he killed to get there makes it hard to swallow. Not only that, but I agree 100% with Redhead – the Dead King’s identity made absolutely no sense, nor did his motives in targeting Jorg. Which kind of undermines the entire plot.

In conclusion, although I was captivated by parts of Emperor of Thorns, the flashbacks simply weren’t interesting enough and a little gratuitous, and the ending, although fitting, wasn’t particularly memorable. It wasn’t something that resonated with me and had me thinking about it long after I had closed the book. In looking at the series as a whole, I still feel it was well worth the dark and twisted journey it took me on. However, I loved the plot most when it was a battle between court wizards who moved people about like chess pieces. When it became something different, it was a bit disappointing for me and as a result I will always feel like Prince of Thorns was the high point in the series.

Book Review: Pulled Spat Knocked – The Amra Thetys Omnibus by Michael McClung (Part Three)

pulledFormat: oversized omnibus paperback

Pages: 137

Reading Time: about 3.5 hours

One Sentence Synopsis: The thief Amra Thetys returns to Bellarius, the place of her childhood after receiving a disturbing message, and must battle with thugs, wizards, another weapon of the Eightfold goddess, and the ghosts of her past, as well as those of Bellarius, in an attempt to save a city she despises.

As I mentioned in my review of this Omnibus in Part One, I wasn’t sure how to approach a review for this title. The Amra Thetys Omnibus is actually a collection of three books: The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble’s Braids, The Thief Who Spat In Luck’s Good Eye, and The Thief Who Knocked On Sorrow’s Gate. Each of these stories was a self-contained, self-published work by Michael McClung, and were combined into one volume to make this Omnibus. I decided to post this as a series of three separate and shorter-than-normal reviews, with each review focusing on one of the stories, and at the end of the final review, some additional thoughts on the Omnibus format itself.

Here, then, is Part Three of the Omnibus review, The Thief Who Knocked On Sorrow’s Gate, and some thoughts about the Omnibus itself…but first, some guest reviews from around the Internet:

 

Richard Bray of Fantasy Faction says: “Amra is once again a compelling protagonist – a thief who relies on her reputation for being tough as nails, yet clearly has a soft spot for the unfortunate and unprotected. Amra’s backstory has been artfully handled throughout the series, so much so that her return to her hometown – a place we’ve previously only seen glimpses of through Amra’s recollections – feels like a natural next step for the story. This new setting not only gives Amra a new sandbox to explore, but also gives readers their best chance yet to learn more about Amra’s childhood and discover how she became the thief we first met in Trouble’s Braids. It’s not uncommon that I find myself enjoying series more and more as they go along and as the author feels more comfortable with both the characters and the overarching story her or she is telling. The same holds true in this case – McClung’s second effort captured my favorite parts of Amra as a character and the world she lives in, and Sorrow’s Gate only built upon that with even greater storytelling confidence. While I especially liked the ending, readers who hate cliffhangers could find themselves frustrated by this book and may be better off waiting for the next in the series so they can immediately follow Sorrow’s Gate with its sequel. Judging by the conclusion to Sorrow’s Gate, it should be worth the wait.

Sandra Bone of The Ampersand Board states: “I can never compliment Michael McClung’s plots enough. This story has everything: evil goddess knives, revenge, magic, prophecy, and more. The problems he throws at Amra are unique. It is rare to find a story so full of surprises. In addition to possessing a great plot, the story is well-paced. The action is consistent, and there are enough low-energy and funny moments to break up the story…Amra is amazing. She’s snarky, kind-hearted, realistic, and smart. Her personality never seems over the top because everything is delivered so naturally. She’s great to follow as a main character. A bad point: I can see an argument that Amra is becoming too powerful. Without providing spoilers, I will say with the way Amra keeps growing, it might eventually become too much. In this book she was so powerful that it seemed unlikely anything could stop her reaching her goals. If this trend continues, there won’t be anything left for readers to fear. Part of Amra’s charm was that she felt ordinary, and she is becoming less so with every book…The new setting feels just as interesting as the old one. Bellarius is a city where people carry on with their business even as the world seems to be ending. After all, what can they do? The city is dominated by the criminal element and filled with the spirits of murdered children. Cynicism fits them, and gives the setting an unnerving, hardened atmosphere.

 

My Thoughts:

The Thief Who Knocked On Sorrow’s Gate is a welcome return to the tone and feel found in The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble’s Braids. Although the story takes place on Bellarius, a port city on the mainland where Amra lived as a child, it bears more similarities to Lucernis than the otherworldly setting of Thagoth found in The Thief Who Spat In Luck’s Good Eye. Only later did I learn that The Thief Who Spat In Luck’s Good Eye was actually written first (named appropriately, Thagoth). This actually makes sense as it felt out of place to me versus the other two stories. With some editing it appears that McClung was able to manipulate the order of the books in order to better explain Amra’s progression in power by the third book.

Amra has left Holgren behind, so other characters are needed to step in and fill the void. Fortunately there are some great supporting characters in this story. Keel, the young thief that Amra takes a shine to, is outstanding, kind of a smaller version of herself. The God of Sparrows is a brilliant idea, a god who fell from being an all powerful Blood God and can now speak only by sharing telepathic images. Amra’s uncle, Ives, has secrets of his own. The Hag lives on a wrecked ship in the sea and Amra must confront her. Fallon Greytooth is a mysterious wizard who could be an ally or an enemy. Since the story is told in first person, the only way for McClung to bring these characters to life is through Amra’s viewpoint, and much of that relies on dialog. McClung continues to show he is very talented with the ability to make this happen. The most delicious part, of course, is that since Amra doesn’t trust anyone, we don’t trust them either, so you always find yourself waiting for that knife in the dark, or that betrayal at the worst moment.

Amra is much like she was in The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble’s Braids: using self-deprecating humor, sarcasm, and distrust when interacting with others, and relying on instinct and cleverness to solve problems. But she has also undergone some serious changes. Here’s what I wrote in my review of The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble’s Braids: “She’s not all-powerful, or magical, or even the best fighter; however, what she does have is a will to survive, good instincts, a thorough knowledge of the thief’s craft, and the ability to understand motivation and spin it to her advantage. In short, she should be quite average and nothing special, and yet she’s an amazing character.” In actuality that is no longer the case. Amra is now in possession of some serious, destructive magic. It has become necessary as the stakes get higher in each story, but as Sandra points out above, it feels like she is now overpowered, and it robs the story of some tension.

As in the previous two books, there is quite a bit of action, but as I mentioned above and was true in The Thief Who Spat In Luck’s Good Eye, everything is overpowered, and as a result I never really felt tense about Amra’s fate. The action is easier to follow this time around comared to the previous book, as the sequences rarely last more than a page or two and are very situational. The plot is well thought out, with a few twists and turns that I didn’t see coming. In The Thief Who Spat In Luck’s Good Eye, I felt that the short page count held the story back due to a lack of detail; here, despite an almost identical page count, I didn’t get that feeling at all, due to the return to the noir mystery feel, the brief action segments, and the copious dialog between Amra and the supporting characters, something absent from the previous book. Some people will not enjoy the cliffhanger ending; if you had planned to stop reading the series here, you will be disappointed. There are currently two more books that follow this one, with the next, The Thief Who Wasn’t There, featuring Holgren as a viewpoint character rather than Amra.

In conclusion, The Thief Who Knocked On Sorrow’s Gate is a welcome return to the tone and feel found in The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble’s Braids. The plot, pacing, dialog, and action are all positives. An overpowered hero with higher and higher stakes are a negative, as is the cliffhanger ending, but the positives greatly outweigh this. I found the story quite enjoyable, and I will probably pick up The Thief Who Wasn’t There at some point in the near future.

A final thought about the Omnibus format: this probably isn’t something I’d do again. It’s annoying to figure out how to review it, impossible to link multiple reviews from one widget in the sidebar, and just an overall pain. Still, there are some nice features found in the Omnibus that I’m not sure are in the paperbacks. At the very end is a section titled “Amra’s World” by Lhiewyn, a priest character found in the first book (fun fact: McClung has written an additional book called The Last God featuring three short stories around Lhiewyn). This section contains subsections titled “An Incredibly Brief Overview of the World”, “The Known World: A Slightly Less Brief Overview and History”, “The Gods, Goddesses and Infernal Powers. Also Magic”, and finally The Map”, with of course a black and white map that was fairly useful, though it does not show Thagoth. I did enjoy the worldbuilding found here that is fleshed out more than the bits and pieces found in the stories. The total of all these sections is 13 pages, and they are written in the same sarcastic flavor that you’ll find throughout the Omnibus.

Status Update 12-15-19 and New Orders

The first bit of news is that I am able to use WordPress at home again. I solved this by simply logging off of WordPress and logging back in. Everything works now. Quick take: I’m quite often not the sharpest sword in smithy when it comes to simple solutions. But hey, at least I (finally) solved the problem myself.

Last night I completed The True Bastards by Jonathan French, the sequel to The Grey Bastards. The Pages Read count for the year is now 10783. I had to make a correction to this number because I had the page count for the Amra Thetys Omnibus incorrect on the spreadsheet I am using to track my progress and I didn’t realize it until I started posting the reviews of each story. This has happened before when I used Amazon’s page count initially as a placeholder – their page count numbers are occasionally inaccurate, so if I don’t go back and update my spreadsheet once the I have the book in hand, my numbers will be off.

Up next: I’ve started The Hod King by Josiah Bancroft, the third book in the Books of Babel series.

And finally, with the TBR pile starting to look a little thin (other than a boatload of Malazan novels), I placed a couple of orders after browsing through Amazon last night:

 

son of black sword

I’m really intrigued by Son of the Black Sword…though a sentient black sword is not an original idea, the oriental influence, along with questions of morality vs. religion vs. law sound intriguing, and the combat sequences are said to be top notch. The sequel was released earlier this year so I’ll be picking up that too, assuming I connect with this book.

 

ravine blood shadow

I’m surprised I had not run across this until now. Ravine of Blood and Shadow is the first book in the Annals of the Nameless Dwarf series. According to a September 4, 2018 post on D. P. Pryor’s blog on his website:

It’s been nine years since I wrote the first Nameless Dwarf story, a short story called The Ant-Man of Malfen. Ant-Man was accepted for publication in volume five of Pulp Empire, and from then on in I began to receive emails asking for more.

The first five Nameless Dwarf novellas I subsequently wrote were published together in an omnibus edition, Chronicles of the Nameless Dwarf in 2012 and went on to become an international bestseller as an indie publication.

I followed up the novellas with a full-length novel, Return of the Dwarf Lords…

I decided to take the opportunity to give the series a much needed revision. There had been a mad rush to meet deadlines when I wrote books one and two, and I was never fully satisfied with the cohesion of the narrative as a whole. And so I started to re-read and make small changes, then the small changes became large ones, and before I knew it I was neck-deep in a total re-write. Scenes were axed (characters too); scenes were added. Big words were ditched in favor of simpler ones. Names were changed, again to make them easier for the reader. Whole passages of prose were trimmed, and many thousands of words were cut.

The result: a much faster, more succinct, and focused read. It’s not only improved the series, but in essence it has created something new.

The structure has also been altered: there are currently six novels now, varying in length between 75,000 and 90,000 words. I have already started writing book 7. Book 8 is planned, and book 9 is already written but requires some substantial revision.

 

Prior released the initial re-written book, Ravine of Blood and Shadow, in January of 2019. And currently, the first 6 books have been re-written and released, all with hard cover editions available, with books 7-9 coming in 2020. As a lover of the hard cover format, this naturally caught my attention. When I read Prior’s latest blog post where he indicated that signed hard covers were available directly through him, after a few email exchanges and a payment sent, a signed hard cover of Ravine of Blood and Shadow on its way to me, possibly arriving before Christmas. This seemed like a no-brainer, especially since it places the money directly into Prior’s pocket. As a result, I’ll be reading and reviewing this one almost as soon as it arrives. The small page count means it would be the shortest book I’ve read this year, but also means I can finish it quickly and order the remaining books if the first one resonates with me.

Book Review: Pulled Spat Knocked – The Amra Thetys Omnibus by Michael McClung (Part Two)

pulledFormat: oversized omnibus paperback

Pages: 129

Reading Time: about 3.5 hours

One Sentence Synopsis: The thief Amra Thetys and Holgren, her mage ally, are magically transported halfway across the world to obtain a powerful artifact, but must go up against a god with terrible powers and hideous minions.

As I mentioned in my review of this Omnibus in Part One, I wasn’t sure how to approach a review for this title. The Amra Thetys Omnibus is actually a collection of three books: The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble’s Braids, The Thief Who Spat In Luck’s Good Eye, and The Thief Who Knocked On Sorrow’s Gate. Each of these stories was a self-contained, self-published work by Michael McClung, and were combined into one volume to make this Omnibus. I decided to post this as a series of three separate and shorter-than-normal reviews, with each review focusing on one of the stories, and at the end of the final review, some additional thoughts on the Omnibus format itself.

Here, then, is Part Two of the Omnibus review, The Thief Who Spat In Luck’s Good Eye, and guest reviews from around the Internet:

 

David S. of FiFanAddict says: “You know those stories that just give you hope? Those tales that uplift you and make you believe in the better part of humanity? That show you that there is still good in the world even in the face of what looks like insurmountable evil? That’s what this book was for me. The Thief Who Spat in Luck’s Good Eye just made me feel good. From the characters, to the world itself, to the action and suspense, Michael McClung has shaped a world that I truly love and is always a joy to return to reading…Tha-Agoth and Athagos were really interesting. The magic and lore they brought to the table was so cool to see and imagine. There was a particular scene where Tha-Agoth does something really powerful and it was described in so vivid a way that I felt like I could see it happening in front of my eyes. The world was expanded quite a bit in this one. We have interludes where the gods are looking down on Amra, Holgren, and all the events happening around them like chess pieces on a board and I really enjoyed this addition. That, along with more of the history and lore of the world being discussed and the stakes being raised because of that made for an enjoyable read. The only complaints I have about this book were the character work as mentioned above, and the tone of the story. I think the use of the “journey/quest to stop the end of the world” trope, though well done in its own right, really took the heart out of the story at times…With that being said, if you are looking for something light, a book with characters that you can admire because they are truly good people, and a story that is fast paced and intriguing, pick this one up.”

Sandra Bone of The Ampersand Board states: “I loved the unusual devices and characters. Gods interact with the characters, and in a variety of ways. Sometimes those gods are disempowered, giving the main characters an edge over them that made it more realistic. But the gods are still extremely powerful. I got chills when I read the quote: ‘I do not consider you an enemy. I do not consider you at all.’ On the other hand, the higher stakes might be too impersonal to make me really care. Two of the major gods of the pantheon, Kerf and Isin, make the consequences of the conflict difficult to judge…There is so much action going on in this book that it was hard to put down. What looks like a simple mission goes off the rails so fast I had to read it twice. This story takes place over months (though most of that is time lapsed), but for me at least, it never dragged on. There was always some mystery or excitement to keep me on the edge of my seat. Amra is the perfect character to have at the center of this story. Her big personality dominates the slower parts, she remains consistent throughout the book – and throughout the series so far…The secondary characters are as fascinating and well-developed as ever. They force Amra to ask important moral questions, like whether or not someone has the right to die if they can still be useful to others. If she wants them to live (to help her), is that selfish? Is wanting to survive selfish? If so, is it immoral? Does she have the right to choose life for someone else whether she benefits from their survival or not? The plot kept me guessing. Unlike a lot of magical plots, there are no clear “good guys” here. Any winner could literally destroy the world. The most sympathetic-looking gods were at times the most dangerous ones, and it wasn’t until the end that the solution became clear.”

 

My Thoughts:

The Thief Who Spat In Luck’s Good Eye has a much different tone and feel than The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble’s Braids. Gone is the noir/Thieves’ World setting and environment that evoked references to Asprin, Chandler, Hammett, Cook and Butcher. Instead, this story shares more in common with Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar, Michael Moorcock’s Multiverse, and any work from Roger Zelazny. It is fantastic, imaginative, and at times borderlines on the wildly absurd.

It is also much darker than the first book. This next bit contains a bit of a spoiler, so you may want to skip to the next paragraph. Amra does not travel to this new land alone, but almost right away an event happens that leaves her by herself, trapped in a strange land among hostile creatures with no food and no way to return home. Amra struggles mightily with just giving up. This is the darkness of the story: despair arrives on the heels of having no good options for survival. And yet there is something within Amra that will not let her give up. That “something” occurred during an event in the previous story, and it has given Amra enhanced abilities. Combined with some unlikely allies, Amra does manage to make the best of the situation.

As I mentioned above, the setting of the story is absolutely strange. In a foreign land thousands of miles from Lucernis, there is an ancient city called Thagoth within a jungle, which is inhabited by strange ape-like creatures. Within Thagoth are a couple of gods with, of course, god-like powers but both are a bit unhinged. Then there are the viewpoints of Kerf and Isin, even more powerful gods that are monitoring the events with some detachment. It reminded me of a scene from the movie “Clash of the Titans”, where the gods in Olympus are watching events unfold in the world below them. There’s also an underground temple in a hillside that houses deadly creatures, a kraken-like lake monster, and more. While the other two reviewers seemed to have enjoyed all of this, I found it a bit too much. I applaud McClung for trying something different, but it is so at odds with the first book that it feels like things have gone a bit off the rails.

There is quite a bit of action, but as I mentioned above, everything is overpowered, and as a result I never really felt tense about Amra’s fate. There is so much action in the story that at times I had trouble following it or the picturing the scene in mind. McClung provides just enough detail to get the job done, but the limited page count does him no favors here…another 40 pages of detail would have helped to flesh things out a bit. And as Sandra states in her review, the plot of “saving the world” is such a departure for this book that it doesn’t feel new or fresh; instead, it feels like I’ve read this 100 times before. I get that McClung is making the stakes higher, but by the end of the story it doesn’t really feel like Amra made a difference. In other words, she could have *not* gone after the treasure and nothing would have changed. I will drop a bit of a spoiler and say that the events here will impact Amra’s character in the next book – it’s just not apparent by the end of this one.

In conclusion, The Thief Who Spat In Luck’s Good Eye is a tough one for me to recommend unless you are a huge fan of swords and sorcery material such as Moorcock or Leiber, and even then this is more like an homage than anything groundbreaking. However, I will say that you will gain some insight and appreciation into Amra’s character and abilities in the next book, The Thief Who Knocked On Sorrow’s Gate, if you tackle this one. And it is short, so it’s not like you’ll spend 30 hours of reading only to be disappointed. If you plan on moving on to the third book, which does return to a more grounded setting (as was found in The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble’s Braids), do give this one a shot.

Status Update 12-10-19 and a New Arrival

Today I completed The Disappearance of Winter’s Daughter by Michael J. Sullivan, the fourth book in the Riyria Chronicles. The Pages Read count for the year is now 10066.

Up next: I’ve started The True Bastards by Jonathon French, the sequel to The Grey Bastards.

And finally, a new arrival that showed up yesterday that I was very happy to see:

light all that falls

I’m just disappointed that I won’t have time to read it before the end of the year…

Status Update 12-2-19

Last week I completed City of Light, the third and final book in the Traveler’s Gate series. I really struggled with this one and took me almost the entire month of November to get through it. The Pages Read count for the year is now 9622. While it’s looking highly unlikely that I’m going to meet my reading goal, I think I’ll be making a serious run at it while I am out for a couple of weeks for surgery and will be laying in bed with nothing to do but read.

I’m continuing to have trouble with WordPress on my home PC: I open up my site only to find a blank screen. It’s making updating the site and writing reviews impossible. So starting next week I may not be able to post anything until January. I’ve got an email into WordPress to see if they can help me figure out what’s wrong.

Up next: I’ve started The Disappearance of Winter’s Daughter by Michael J. Sullivan, the fourth book in the Riyria Chronicles. I haven’t seen Kickstarter from Mr. Sullivan for another Riyria Chronicles book (he’s been busy writing his First Empire series), so it’s possible I’ll get to the original Riyria Revelations series sometime in 2020…