Hippogriff's Aerie

Apparitions of Imagination

New Arrivals and Orders 5-16-18

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

death of dulgath

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

theft of swords

rise of empire

heir of novron

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

 

midnight tides

return crimson guard

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

 

king of thorns

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

 

fools quest

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

 

Ordered but not yet received:

arm of sphinx

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

Book Review: Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft

SenlinAscendsFormat:  oversized paperback, first trade paperback edition, 2018

Pages: 389

Reading Time: about 8 hours

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Until now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I Don’t Review On Goodreads Or Amazon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

rose and thornFormat:  oversized paperback, first edition, 2013

Pages:  347 (not counting glossary and extras)

Reading Time:  about 5.5 hours

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Goals for 2018

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

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

pages read

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Bands of Mourning by Brandon Sanderson

bands of mourningFormat:  hard cover, first edition, 2016

Pages:  437 (not counting a postscript and appendix)

Reading Time:  about 7 hours

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Unbound by Jim C. Hines

unboundFormat:  hard cover, 1st edition, 2014

Pages:  338

Reading Time:  about 6 hours

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: I Am Alice by Joseph Delaney

i am aliceFormat:  hard cover, first edition, 2013

Pages:  432

Reading Time:  about 6 hours

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Benjamin Ashwood by AC Cobble

ashwoodFormat:  paperback, self published, 2016

Pages:  398

Reading Time: about 6.5 hours

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Whitefire Crossing by Courtney Schafer

whitefire crossingFormat:  oversized paperback, first edition, 2011

Pages:  375

Reading Time:  about 6.5 hours

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sailor

Format: paperback, first DAW printing, 1976

Pages:  160

Reading Time: about 2.5 hours

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

Thoughts about Star Wars, The Force Awakens, and The Last Jedi

star wars

I was ten years old when the first Star Wars movie, now known as A New Hope, was released. That movie was one of the greatest ever made, in my mind, as it unlocked creative potential within me like the opening of a mystic puzzle box. As a ten year old, I had no idea that you could actually create something like Star Wars out of nothing but imagination. I vaguely remember coming home after seeing it on the big screen and immediately sitting down to write my own story.

A few years later I was standing in line at the theater, waiting to watch The Empire Strikes Back. That line stretched around the building despite the movie having been out for three weeks; many in the line had already seen it and were heading back for repeat viewings. While standing in the line, I was sure that I was about to witness greatness, and I wasn’t disappointed. What George Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan wrought exceeded my expectations in every way, and they would go on to do so again for my all-time favorite movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the ensuing years, as movies became judged on their ability to generate a sequel (and the more the merrier – for the studio anyway), I would learn that a sequel that exceeded the original movie was incredibly rare, and that sentiment applied to Return of the Jedi as well.

Splinter_of_the_Minds_Eye

I was never a superfan of the Star Wars franchise. I found the movies entertaining, and inspiring on a creative level, but I did not live and breath Star Wars. I did not discuss various plot points. I did not dress up like Star Wars characters or consume licensing tie-ins like Star Wars comic books or action figures (although I did read Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye). In short, Star Wars existed in my life only as entertainment and as an inspiration for me to create my own stories, but not as something I cared enough to think about outside the experience of watching the movie.

Time marched on. As Episodes 1 through 3 were released, I relished the new experience. Except for Jar Jar, a too young Anakin who became whiny Anakin, and wooden performances by Natalie Portman, I was entertained by the prequels. Obi-wan Kenobi was the star of the prequels, and to me, Ewan McGregor did not disappoint. Like the original trilogy, however, Star Wars remained strictly in-movie entertainment, and I only cared about what was happening on the screen as it unfolded, not agonizing over whether Lucas had ruined the franchise or 1000 other things that people wanted to nitpick. I was aware of these sentiments, but did not care to waste my time discussing them. This has always been the difference between books and movies for me…I feel that written words are worth discussion, but movies exist purely for entertainment only, often times requiring you to check your brain at the door.

force awakens

The Force Awakens changed my perception of the franchise moving forward, and not in a good way. Where each of the prequel movies had featured an original plot (which most agree was not good), The Force Awakens was basically a reboot of A New Hope. It was too familiar, an homage to the original, a tip of the cap to Star Wars superfans. It was like watching the first movie all over again, and it managed to do something the prequels had not: it pissed me off. If I want to watch the first movie again, I can do so thanks to the magic of DVDs and digital content, which weren’t around in the 1970s. I had a bad feeling about this new series when J.J. Abrams was brought in to take over, because he had recently rebooted the Star Trek franchise, so I should have known The Force Awakens would follow suit. I held out hope when I saw Lawrence Kasdan’s name attached to the script, but it seems that without Lucas, Kasdan’s talents were wasted. The Force Awakens wasn’t a bad movie, it was simply a feeling of deja vu – that I had seen it all before. Where was the creativity, the uniqueness?

the-last-jedi-theatrical-blog

I recently watched The Last Jedi in 4K, having avoided it in the theaters, and in my opinion, the current series has gone from bad to worse. Thinking back to just how amazing of a sequel The Empire Strikes Back was, The Last Jedi falls far short for me. For as much accolades as Rian Johnson has received, I disagreed and simply saw more of the same rebooting of the original trilogy. From Ridley’s training with Luke mirroring Luke’s training with Yoda, a trip to a casino which felt a lot like a combination of the Cantina and Jabba’s hideout scenes, and AT-AT Walkers advancing on a rebel stronghold, there’s just too much of that deja vu feeling persisting. And that’s not even considering the gaping plot holes or the “Mary Poppins” scene, which, again, I have no wish to waste my time discussing.

rogue one

Rogue One was a breath of fresh air. It showed how good a Star Wars movie can be with an original story, and it tied in beautifully to A New Hope. Maybe the upcoming Solo will follow the path of Rogue One and treat us to something we haven’t seen before. If so, I will be looking forward to any future Star Wars movie subtitled “A Star Wars Story”, and wary of anything that’s an “Episode”, especially now that Abrams has jumped back in to take control of the next script. Disney has had a pretty successful run with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I’m not sure they will solve the problems that currently plague Star Wars, because it is too much of a cash cow for them to do anything except play it safe with more of the same.

April 5, 2018 Posted by | movies | | Leave a comment

Book Review: Battle Mage by Peter A. Flannery

battle mageFormat:  oversized paperback, 2017, first edition

Pages:  630

Reading Time: about 10.5 hours

 

Do you like dragons? Demons? Farm boys with swords that go to a school for training? Battle tactics and armor descriptions? Then this book is for you! In all seriousness, I was a little nervous about multitude of tropes that manifest within the pages of Battle Mage. Even the cover had me thinking that this book was nothing special. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Epilogue…

 

First, let’s start with some reviews. I didn’t find any dedicated blogs that had reviewed Battle Mage, except for one called H. G. Chambers, so in addition to that, I pulled some reviews off of Goodreads. H.G. Chambers of hgchambers.com writes: “I must admit, when I first picked up Battle Mage, I was not expecting anything extraordinary. A fairly generic title, and a nice looking, but also somewhat generic cover. As I delved in however, I found the story to be anything but. It begins with Falco Dante and his best friend Malaki. Since a young age, Flaco has been afflicted with a lung disease, putting him at a great disadvantage. He’s got lots of room to grow, and Flannery makes use of every inch. Malaki, the son of a blacksmith, is quite the talent with a sword. While his character goes through less of a metamorphosis, he’s still enjoyable to get to know. Both characters are entirely likable, and I found myself rooting for them from the beginning.

In this coming of age fantasy adventure, the world is afflicted by the presence of the “possessed,” a demonic force from hell that is determined to overtake humanity, ensnaring it in eternal, permanent suffering. The bigger demons emanate an aura of fear that cripples regular soldiers, unless under the protective shielding of a battle mage. When a battle mage completes his (or her) training, they may attempt to summon a dragon. If it answers their call, then they are bonded with it, and together they stand in battle against the demons and their armies of possessed. I really enjoyed the concepts and premise of this book. It achieves a balance between original ideas, and familiar fantasy concepts that you don’t always see in this genre.

 

Shari Kay on Goodreads says: “This book appealed to me because it sounded like an old school fantasy read (which I love). You know the kind– the ones where an ordinary young man overcomes all the odds, finds out how special he really is and fulfills his destiny by saving the world at the end. That trope. About the time I got to the hated RED WEDDING scene in the GoT series, I was over the dark plots that are so prevalent in the fantasy genre today and looked forward to a book with a likable character with a happy ending. BM lived up to that expectation…mostly.

BM has magic, dragons, Demons, betrayals, secrets, deaths, victories, cruelty, violence and heartache. It is epic in it’s scope and detail. You really know these characters by the end and fear for their lives–for their very souls.

 

Kathleen on Goodreads states: “Good story, but too lengthy for me. With so many pages, we never learn whether all the lost souls are freed from eternal suffering when their demons are killed. After all the sad descriptions of eternal suffering and baelfire, this felt like a major mistake. In all those 850+ pages, oh so many deaths and repetitive battles. I began to skim the battles.

The testing and summoning scenes were excellent, though.

Demons and possessions and eternal suffering but no religions, no gods mentioned in this world. Seems unlikely.

 

These are all excellent points, and yet there is a great story here, an epic fantasy full of tropes and flawed but likable characters, though the story is not without problems of it’s own. So why should anyone read it? What is different about Battle Mage than all the other trope-ridden stories out there?

My answer: Battle Mage is a story about fear and self-doubt warring with faith and love, and overcoming loss, but even more than that, it is about failure and redemption. In fact, the book is divided into three sections, the first and third of which are titled “Ruin” and “Redemption” respectively. I’m going to reveal a minor spoiler here because it explains what I mean about failure and redemption. There’s a scene near the beginning of the book where the main character, Falco makes a horrible, tragic mistake. This mistake causes the death of other characters, the panicked evacuation of a village, and still more deaths, including someone dear to Falco. This in turn leads Falco to despair and self-loathing, and although time lessens the pain a bit, it takes a long time for him to overcome the effects of that one mistake. That’s essentially the underlying theme of the story – how a youthful mistake that costs lives is ultimately redeemed by the willingness to sacrifice oneself to save others, and thus give one’s life meaning and value.

And that’s what makes the story incredibly deep – the characters have flaws that don’t make you want to throw the book across the room. They aren’t frustrating flaws like stupidity or conceited entitlement…instead, these flaws are naivete, youthful inexperience, and uncontrolled passion. And although the “kids go to school” trope is here, it is not the whole story, rather just one section, and is necessary to explain how the youths develop their talents and are given commissions. Going back to Shari Kay on Goodreads, she says: “The idea that inexperienced “kids” were given, and kept, command of military units seemed farfetched during war time“. But what you have to remember here is that this is a war that’s been going on for quite some time and many of the able leaders have been slain, so anyone who shows an inkling of command ability is going to be handed the reins. And as is true in our own world, young inexperienced officers are given command over a unit, often with disastrous results, so it didn’t seem quite as far-fetched to me. The fact that these young leaders all came from the same village is more far-fetched, and tips a cap to Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time, where many of his young protagonists come from the same village. In Jordan’s story, however, that is explained away as destiny or fate (“ta’veren”); In Battle Mage it just is, with no explanation as to how it is possible.

In addition to finding the characters and the story compelling, I also enjoyed some of the unique ideas that Peter Flannery utilizes to tackle old tropes. The forging of a battle mage’s sword, the testing of abilities by the Magi, the bonding of a battle mage to a dragon, the various demons that control the undead armies – Flannery does a good job of breathing new life into these well-worn fantasy staples. Additionally, there was a lot of tension as the story progressed, as I wasn’t sure who was going to live and who was going to die right up to the end. I also should add that Flannery’s prose is excellent, and rarely gets in the way of the story, except for some of the “boss” showdowns with demons that don’t feel fluid – maybe choppy is the right word to use here – and battles end up being a bit repetitious.

There are a few other problems I should point out, and you might want to avoid the rest of this paragraph if you have an aversion to serious spoilers. One problem is that the story ends quickly after the final battle and wraps up a few things, but there are many unanswered questions. Maybe those things get explained if a sequel is coming, or maybe they will go forever unanswered. As Shari Kay points out: “But the main reason I couldn’t give this book a higher rating was because of the ending. I hated it…am I just suppose to assume things worked out? That all our people lived? That the war was won? Can the Emissary marry the Queen now? What consequences did the Prince have? What about Meredith’s father? What was up with the 3 mages at the end? What was the connection with Falco? Why did they get another dragon? I thought there was only one per mage. Do all the black dragons come around, do some dragons still go mad?” I would add, what happened to the commander in the south that was turned? How did Meredith deal with his own father and what became of the Magi? What happened to Fossetta? How was the young “autistic” boy in the village able to determine who would become a Battle Mage? Why do Battle Mages all have the exact same abilities?

Another problem is what Kathleen pointed out above – there is absolutely no religion. There are no gods (not even primitive sun or earth gods), no creation story, and people say prayers, but if there are no deities, who they are praying to? In fact, demons pray to something or someone in the underworld, but it’s not clear who it is they pray to, either. Also, why are there European names everywhere (French, German, Italian etc.) but yet this story does not take place in Europe? Is it a different plane of existence? Europe in the distant future?

In addition, there’s a bit of a “superhuman” problem, where people should be beyond their limits, are exhausted or severely injured, and yet draw on hidden reserves to persevere, which seems a bit deus ex machina. Finally, demons are brought from hell to the surface at various times. It’s not clear how many demons there are, and why they aren’t all brought to the surface at once considering the war has been going on for some time. What’s the limiting factor? How does “hell” work? It’s all a bit nebulous and convenient for plot purposes.

Criticisms aside, I was thoroughly entertained by Battle Mage. The length of the book is a challenge, but I felt it was a much better solution to have this single massive tome that advances through the plot at a decent speed, than it is to split it into a trilogy and pad it with tons of fluff. I thought the pacing was good, the characters were believable, and the underlying theme of redemption was well done. I’ll be watching to see if Peter Flannery has a sequel up his sleeve, and if he does, I will most certainly spring for it.

March 21, 2018 Posted by | Book Review | , | Leave a comment

The Black Shriving (damaged) Giveaway

As I mentioned in a previous post, my copy of The Black Shriving (Book 2 in the Chronicles of the Black Gate series) arrived damaged, with a crease across the front cover of the oversized paperback. Amazon sent me a replacement, so I thought I’d see if anyone would like the damaged copy for free. I’ll even pay for shipping! It will be shipped via USPS media mail so it won’t arrive quickly, but c’mon, it’s free! Leave a comment in this post if you wish to enter the contest. If I receive more than one entry I will use the RandomPicker website to determine the winner. The contest is open to continental U.S. residents only, and will end Sunday the 18th. The winner will be published either that day or on the 19th.

Here are some photos of the damage…

crease2

crease1

March 12, 2018 Posted by | Contest | , | Leave a comment

Book Review: The Call of the Sword by Roger Taylor

call of the sword

Format: paperback, 2nd revised edition from 2008 (originally published in 1998)

Pages: 212

Reading Time: about 2 hours

 

This was a book that I decided to take a chance on when I was searching for potential purchases on Amazon. Although The Call of the Sword could be considered a classic review considering it was originally published 30 years ago, I bought it fairly recently so it’s not a book I once read and am now re-reading. I hadn’t intended to move it to the front of my queue – there are many more intriguing books waiting there – but I thought since it was short (and I don’t have a lot of reading time right now) I could blow through it quickly and get on to another book. So here’s my review, which is actually not filled with a lot of spoilers, because there is much to spoil.

The first thing one notices when picking up The Call of the Sword is that it’s pretty thin. It’s not as thin as some other books of its era like Elric or Amber, but it’s a quick read compared to today’s epic doorstops. The second thing one notices is that the story is filled with tropes and The Lord of the Rings inspirations: magic sword – check; gloomy evil kingdom nearby – check; mad king and poisonous adviser – check; evil humanoid creatures – check (mandroc = orcs, it’s right there in the name as an anagram!); castle on the border warding against evil – check. I do have to give it kudos for avoiding one trope that I have become bored with – the young teen coming of age. The main character, Hawklin, is no struggling youth; rather, he is a bit older, and though he has lost his memories, there are hints that he has an extensive and mysterious past.

Roger Taylor’s prose is, for the most part, excellent. He does a good job of painting a picture with an economical use of words. Another positive is that Taylor is effective in presenting villagers and common folk as empathetic characters. Unlike Terry Brooks, whose common people of Shannara are virtually invisible, some of Taylor’s common folk are given just enough page time and development to make them feel real and worth saving. It could have been even better with a few more pages and a slightly longer story.

That leads me into discussing a few problems with The Call of the Sword. One is that events are very slow to develop. A mystery builds, characters are presented and developed, and traveling occurs, but nothing much of consequence happens until the last few chapters. By the time things pick up, the story has ended far too quickly. This is what differentiates The Call of the Sword from Elric or Amber stories, which move along rapidly with several action sequences. Also, the main action sequence near the end is not well-described and is a bit confusing…Taylor’s prose was good up to this point, but he really struggles with trying to describe what is happening, and events were hard to follow. Magic is kind of all over the place, with no explanation as to how it works or how much people can continue to use it. The poorly described action sequence and unexplained magic contribute to a rather abrupt ending and left me quite unsatisfied with where the story left off.

The most glaring issue, however, is that there isn’t a lot here that we haven’t already seen somewhere else. It’s abundantly clear that The Lord of the Rings heavily influences this story, and although there are some interesting possibilities, such as Hawklan’s true identity, history carved into the stone of a castle wall,  and a series of lords banding together against the king, it seems like I’ve read this all somewhere else. The Call of the Sword is not necessarily a bad story – it’s the kind of book I would have readily consumed in the 80s as a teenager – but it also doesn’t fare well against what is being published today. I might pick up the sequel, The Fall of Fyorlund, after getting wiped out by a giant epic fantasy and needing something simpler .

 

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

Another Anticipated Book for 2018: Port of Shadows by Glen Cook

Add another book to my Most Anticipated List for 2018:

port of shadows

My ban on Glen Cook only applies to the Garrett P.I. novels. I’ve been waiting for another Black Company book for a long, long, time, considering I devoured the first 5 books in 1990, as well as Dreams of Steel when it was released that same year, and only 4 books were published in the 10 years that followed (with the last in 2000). Timeline-wise it falls between the original The Black Company and its sequel, Shadows Linger. I hope Cook can pull this off in narrator Croaker’s original voice, especially when the last couple of books were pretty bleak. I can’t wait for more Goblin and One-Eye antics!

Tor.com has a great, albeit brief, look at Port of Shadows, which is slated for a September release. Cook intimated in this 2005 interview with Strange Horizons that another title was planned called A Pitiless Rain. I hope he succeeds.

March 2, 2018 Posted by | Most Anticipated Releases | | Leave a comment

Books Ordered and Received (2/25/18)

The following books were ordered and received and will be added to the queue…

I was unable to find The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble’s Braids in paperback, so instead I bought the omnibus which also includes the sequels, The Thief Who Spat In Luck’s Good Eye and The Thief Who Knocked On Sorrow’s Gate.

Also, The Black Shriving arrived with the front cover bent and creased thanks to loose packing in the shipping box. If it was used I wouldn’t care too much, but at new book prices, that is not acceptable, so I have a replacement coming.

 

 

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

Book Review: Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

prince of thorns

Format:  hard cover, first edition, 2011

Pages:  324

Reading Time: about 5 hours

 

I suspected when I ordered this book that it was going to contain material that I normally don’t go for. A story about revenge, a 14 year old boy as the protagonist, and a group of looting, murderous associates is not one I’d normally look forward to. However, I like to think I have enough of an open mind to give it a chance, especially when considering the high praise it has received. Also, I feel as if I owe no small amount of gratitude to Mark Lawrence…his Self Published Fantasy Blog-Offs have turned up some great titles that I had no idea existed and might not have made it into my collection otherwise. He also backed Courtney Shafer’s kickstarter to publish The Labyrinth of Flame, the final book in her trilogy, which I was able to track down in paperback before all copies had disappeared completely. Buying and reading (at least) the first book in his series feels like a way to repay Lawrence for the sum of his efforts. So on with the review, and expect a few spoilers along the way.

I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to crack open this book and discover a first person narrative…my favorite style! My mind immediately went to The Black Company and I wondered if there would be similarities. The answer is not really. Lawrence’s work stands on its own, especially his narrating protagonist, Prince Jorg Ancrath. Where the Black Company featured the camaraderie of a mercenary group that looked out for each other and had their own code of honor, Jorg’s group has a loose camaraderie that is held together only by Jorg’s whim and strength of will. In fact, it is a constant, internal battle for Jorg not to kill the men he travels with when he feels disrespected, or when he suffers a foolish statement or an argumentative response from one of them. To him they are just tools, a means to an end that allow him to achieve his goals.

Although there are only 324 pages, there is a lot of adventure (and darkness) packed within this book. From castles and dungeons, to shanty towns and bogs, to underground caves and even a combat tournament, Jorg and his crew venture to several locales, each with a believable motivation. And the darkness! Various murders and incidents of looting, Machiavellian schemes, dark impulses and genocide…as I mentioned above, not something I would normally invest my time in. But Lawrence has accomplished something brilliant here, and even after finishing the story my head is still swimming.

(SPOILER ALERT! Move along to the next paragraph if necessary!) What I’m referring to here is something that stumped me early on. How does a ghost encounter a 14 year old boy and run away frightened? How is it that this same boy, who left home determined to have revenge against a rival baron, spent 4 years pursuing other interests and then decide to head home instead of pursuing that revenge? How does he command the respect of thugs and outlaws, and make decisions that only someone twice his age would be seasoned enough to reason out? Feel no guilt over committing genocide? Recognize that caring for anyone is a weakness that enemies can exploit? I thought it all too unbelievable, and had I given up, I would not have known the truth: that Jorg did not control his own thoughts and actions. It is a brilliant concept that once revealed, explains so much, and still leaves me wondering if any of Jorg’s actions were his own? If so, which ones? It also explains the title Prince of Thorns, going beyond the simple explanation of a child trapped in a thorn bush; instead, I believe it refers to Jorg being trapped and not able to exercise his own free will, as well as symbolizing that whenever Jorg even considers that he cares about something, the pain of loss (potential or realized) causes him to bury his feelings and not expose himself to “weakness”.

I loved the concept of court wizards using/advising kings and barons as chess pieces in a game only the wizards know is being played. I also liked that the scoundrels that follow Jorg around continue to do so after he murders one of them, or doesn’t deliver loot as promised, simply because they have no other prospects and Jorg generally lets them be as nasty as they want to be. A lot of characters are killed off during the story, including my favorite character, although as the story progresses, new characters are added. There are fantasy elements such as ghosts and magic, but it’s not clear what the source of that magic is. There are also references to ancient technologies, which become part of the plot, and some cultural references suggest that this may our own world, or perhaps a parallel one. By the end of the story I was “hooked” enough by the Prince of Thorns that I felt the need to order King of Thorns, the sequel. Well played, Mr. Lawrence, well played.

February 23, 2018 Posted by | Book Review | , | 2 Comments

Book Review: The Path of Flames by Phil Tucker

path of flames

Format:  oversized paperback, 1st Edition, 2016

Pages:  495

Reading Time:  about 8 hours

 

I picked up The Path of Flames after discovering that it was runner-up in the Self Published Fantasy Blog Off in 2016 held by Mark Lawrence. It received accolades from many readers, and I don’t think it is by accident that the cover is something one might see on an Elric novel. Not that The Path of Flames has anything in common with Elric, only that it sure couldn’t hurt sales to invoke such imagery. Other reviews of The Path of Flames:

Elitist Book Reviews

Booknest.eu

Fantasy Faction #1

Fantasy Faction #2

Vanessa at Elitist Book Reviews says the magic system isn’t explained well enough, the world-building seemed unfinished, and the plot has holes, but yet the story delivers on tension and the need to know the answers to many questions. Petrik at Booknest.eu is impressed by the strength of the female protagonists, but feels there was too much action and not enough character development, that Tharok’s point of view was disjointed, and is reminded of RPGs such as Dragon Age or World of Warcraft. Geoff at Fantasy Faction stated that the magic and religion reminded him of Dragonlance, feels all the trope boxes are checked, but that the story is enjoyable and the world and magic are interesting. Geoff’s counterpart at Fantasy Faction, J.C. Kang, felt that the strength of the story was in the excellent world-building and character POVs, points to a “Hindu-like progression (or regression) of reincarnation, that establishes a race- and location-based caste system“, and feels that the narrative prose is good but not as elegant as the world-building.

These are all excellent observations – I suppose I could stop right there and say “that’s a wrap!” But I feel like I have a few more things to add, so I’ll move on to discuss said things now, and if you’ve been reading my reviews, you know the drill – I’m going to spoil the story a little bit; however, no major plot points will be revealed here.

As the story began, I found the prose a bit choppy and jarring. Having read a lot of smooth-flowing prose recently (Devon Monk and Alec Hutson for example), it was glaringly evident that Tucker had a good story to tell but was having difficulty in trying to establish a smooth and consistent narration. As the story progressed, however, Tucker seemed to find a rhythm and the prose only occasionally interfered with the story. And what a story it was. I found myself swept up in events…from the opening large scale battle to a small tournament, then to the occupation of a ruined keep, a hunt for a demon, and a climactic battle – Tucker moves the story along briskly, with events unfolding in a believable manner, and often characters are faced with situations that give them no good choices. It’s compelling to follow these characters through their struggles, and I really had no idea where the story was going most of the time, which was a good thing – it wasn’t predictable.

I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with J.C. Kang: the world-building is top notch. Gate travel, floating worlds, frozen heroes and dragons, the Age of Wonders that predates the main religion (Ascension), the suggestion that Ascension is very likely not what it seems, ruined castles, 18 feet tall faceless demons, albinos living in caves near “hell”, seven “Virtues” (knights with magical powers)…it all creates an interesting world that I want to learn more about. Unfortunately, in this first book, some answers that are brought forth serve to only create more questions. The title itself refers to a a thin black book within the story that reveals The Path of Flames is “seeking the greatest good at the cost of the least corruption”, otherwise known as Sin Casting. However, the book is only briefly looked at, giving us nothing but hints as to why Tucker’s debut novel bears the same name. I also agree with J.C. about the Hindu elements, and I would add that the concept of karma makes an appearance as well, as doing bad things (as defined by Ascension) will get an individual reincarnated in a land closer to the Black Gate, while performing acts in the service of Ascension will move an individual closer to the White Gate and the afterlife.

I found all the characters were interesting and have a major part to play. Six POVs is a little bit much, and often takes the reader away from a POV that they find more interesting…Tucker could have stuck with four and that would have been sufficient. Although many reviewers felt that the story of Tharok feels like a separate novel, in his final chapter there is a reveal that puts him squarely in line with the other POVs. Did I see the reveal coming? Well yes, but that didn’t make it any less important – the events that got Tharok to the exact place and time that he needed to be, so that he will interact with the other POV characters later, I’m certain will be important in the next book. My favorite character was one that did not have a POV and possessed no magical abilities nor wielded a magic sword: that would be Wyland, knight and last of the order of the Black Wolves. Wyland is noble, level-headed, and full of positive energy despite the struggles he becomes embroiled in. Readers could be forgiven for thinking that this virtuous knight doesn’t quite fit in a story where darkness is everywhere and even the highest members of the Ascension have questionable motivations, but in a tale so full of religious zealotry, cynicism, and racism, Wyland is a breath of fresh air. There is a scene near the end between Wyland and Asho that is fantastic and hit home for me…sometimes all you need is for one person to believe in you in order to become something greater. I loved it.

There are a few problem areas in the story. Characters often experience sudden changes in emotions that aren’t believable – sometimes within subsequent sentences…it happens far too frequently to be able to ignore. The magic system does not seem to be well-defined yet, but I suspect it will be fleshed out in later books. A couple of the protagonists seem to have almost limitless powers from out of nowhere, and some powerful magic items are introduced, relegating the ending to one deus ex machina effect after another. In the later part of the story, as some of the characters are hunting a demon, the character with the POV at the time, Kethe, gets separated from the others, and the narrative follows her actions. When Kethe meets up with her mother later, the characters she was separated from just “pop” back into the story unexpectedly, with no explanation as to what happened to them after the separation…it almost felt like there was a chapter missing, and with only 10 pages per chapter, it wouldn’t have hurt Tucker to insert one here to tidy up things a bit. Finally, there are a few typos and some punctuation issues, but nothing too glaring that disrupted the story…actually, for a self-published novel, there were fewer than I expected.

In summary, from my perspective, the strong world-building and characterization win out over the deus ex machina devices, occasional stumbles with prose and the other issues I mentioned above. I can see the Dragon Age/World of Warcraft comparisons, but there are enough unique ideas here that have me intrigued, and with a plot that careens from one difficult situation to another without being predictable, I was thoroughly entertained and want more answers, especially about what Ascension really is. I have ordered the next book in the series, The Black Shriving, and will be tackling it, I hope, later this year…

February 19, 2018 Posted by | Book Review | , | Leave a comment