Book Review: Ravine of Blood and Shadow by D.P. Prior

ravine blood shadowFormat:  signed hard cover, 2019

Pages:  235

Reading Time:  about 5.5 hours

One Sentence Synopsis:  When the strange traveler Aristodeus arrives with troubling news, and strange events begin to happen in Arx Gravis, Carn’s world slowly descends into a nightmare that he can’t wake from.

 

Since this is the first book in the series, which I picked up without any preconceptions, and I couldn’t find any guest reviews, I’m going to jump right in to the review. Ravine of Blood and Shadow is the first book in the Annals of the Nameless Dwarf series. The origins of the Nameless Dwarf started as a short story that D.P. Prior wrote back in 2009 for Pulp Empire. That turned into 5 novellas, which were in turn published as an omnibus, and then another full length novel followed that. Looking to tie all the stories together in a cohesive arc, Prior approached publishing houses who were complementary of his work but stated that “dwarves don’t sell.” Prior decided to self-publish the books as Legend of the Nameless Dwarf, which went on to sell over 600,000 copies, as well as a successful (but complaint-generating) audio book. Prior decided to reboot the series, both in hard cover and in a new audio book, as Annals of the Nameless Dwarf. It became a major re-write, according to Prior:

Scenes were axed (characters too); scenes were added. Big words were ditched in favor of simpler ones. Names were changed, again to make them easier for the reader. Whole passages of prose were trimmed, and many thousands of words were cut.

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

I somehow stumbled across the series on Amazon, intrigued by the gorgeous cover art, and a trip to the author’s website revealed that he was selling signed hard covers. Putting money directly into an author’s hands is always an easy decision for me, so I reached out to Prior, sent him some money, and soon I had received a signed hard cover.

Ravine of Blood and Shadow (which was previously titled Carnifex: A Portent of Blood before the major re-write) follows the story of Carnifex (Carn), a high level Ravine Guard, whose mother died in childbirth. But Carn has his brother, the studious Lukar, and his friends Kal, Thumil and Cordy, as well as his father, Droom. Characters are so well-defined that it is impossible to mistake one for another or get confused about who is who. Prior does an excellent job in fleshing out each character…their likes and dislikes, their hopes and fears, their mannerisms and motivations. Even certain members of the Council and their right hand, the Black Cloaks, come off like self-serving jerks rather than actual villains. And then there’s the mysterious Aristodeus, a Gandalf-like character who brings dire warnings of a being of ancient evil known as Mananoc, as well as the faen, his magic-wielding servants. And of dark visions and prophecies.

The use of prophesy in fantasy has always been problematic. Since a prophesy foretells what will happen, it essentially robs a story of tension, since the outcome is already known. Furthermore, it implies acceptance of the concept of fate – that the future is written and cannot be changed, so that any choices or the concept of free will are made meaningless. Prior takes a bit of a different approach here. Early hints in the story suggest there are dark times ahead and that Carn will play an instrumental role. Aristodeus is the primary hint-dropper, with statements like “I’ve already said too much”. Prior introduces prophesy and vision, but immediately counters it with Aristodeus trying to convince himself that “the future is not set”, implying that it perhaps the prophesy can be changed. Which then begs the question: if it can be changed, should it? Let’s say there are two paths the future could take: a) the hero rises from tragedy to challenge evil or b) the hero is told of the tragedy, chooses a different path and spells doom for everyone. Is Option B really the best one? Furthermore, if there are two paths, how does someone know which path is the path their enemy wants them to take? I felt like Prior did a good job in conceptualizing and presenting this.

The dwarven society and the city of Arx Gravis are intricate and well-described. From dwarven histories and legends, to laws, political structuring, and policing, to mining and leisure aspects…all are believable and make sense. Even the floor of the ravine, where the destitute, law-breakers and non-conformers live, has it’s own sub-culture full of street vendors, crime, and brutal gladiatorial combat. There are two great maps at the front of the book: the continent of Medryn-Tha, which has no bearing on the story, and Arx Gravis, which is very effective in helping to conceptualize the unique layout of the dwarven city.

Action sequences are well-done, and there are plenty of them for such a short book. Amazon and Goodread reviewers mention violence and gore, but to me it was no worse than other books I’ve read lately such as The True Bastards or God of Broken Things. If I had to stylize the content, I’d say this: take some Dragonlance or Dungeons and Dragons, the tragic swords and sorcery tales of Elric, James Silke’s Death Dealer, and add a slight influence from The Hobbit, and throw them all in a blender…that’s what Ravine of Blood and Shadow feels like to me. Prior’s pacing is excellent; there were concerns about this in Carnifex: A Portent of Blood but I’d say those concerns have been corrected in the re-write. His writing style is also easy to follow, a welcome relief and change of pace from some of the intense door-stoppers I’ve endured. And for a self-published novel, I found no grammatical issues.

Something potential readers might find problematic are hints at other lands and other peoples, but this setting contains only dwarves and dwarven society. This is necessary due to the fact that this is an “origin story”, but it is rather limiting. However, I think I prefer this as opposed to starting with book 2 and presenting this material as flashbacks, so I wouldn’t take this as a negative – it simply sets the stage for the second book which will move away from the dwarven setting. One critique I have of Ravine of Blood and Shadow is that it is too short. At 235 pages it is the shortest book I’ve read since early 2018, and it feels like it ends when it’s just getting started…I can see the attractiveness of an omnibus. Also, for some reason I found the central mystery – the missing and then returned book of the dwarven “Chronicles” – confusing. Somehow I missed the significance of this act and the importance it played in the story…I thought Prior could have handled it a bit better, with more clarity. The final criticism I have of the book is that it doesn’t do a lot to dispel the stereotypes of fantasy dwarven characters that publishers seem to object to. Beards, beer-swilling, fighting and mining are dwarven staples, and aside from an exception or two, such as the scholarly Lukar, Prior stays the course.

Despite some of the minor flaws above, I liked Ravine of Blood and Shadow enough to purchase the second book. I found it a quick-moving, action-packed origin story that is needed to get the series off the ground and beyond dwarven society. If you don’t like Dragonlance or Dungeons and Dragons, Elric, The Hobbit, or dark violence all rolled into one, you probably won’t like this either, but as for myself I found it engaging. I’m looking forward to the second book, Mountain of Madness, to see where Prior takes this story…

Book Review: The Hod King by Josiah Bancroft

the hod kingFormat: oversized paperback, first trade paperback edition, 2019

Pages: 567 (not including extras at the end of the book)

Reading Time: about 14 hours

One Sentence Synopsis: Senlin goes on a mission to Pelphia for the Sphinx but is determined to finally find his missing wife Marya; Voleta and Iren attempt to infiltrate Pelphian society to determine if Marya is content or needs rescue; and Edith brings her new warship to Pelphia to find a missing painting that holds the key to the Towers secrets – and it’s destruction, while over all of this hangs the question: who or what is the Hod King?

 

Josiah Bancroft’s Senlin Ascends is one of my favorite books of all time. The sequel, Arm of the Sphinx, did not quite have the same effect on me, although it was still excellent. Having now completed the third book in the series, The Hod King, would my opinion of the series continue to slightly trend down, or would this entry be the best one yet? Read on to find out, and beware of minor spoilers for this book as well as the two previous ones. First, how about looking at some guest reviews from around the Internet?

 

Richard Marpole of Fantasy-Faction says: “There’s so much artistry and wry imagination on display here. A menagerie of cannons all shaped like different animals. A species of giant weasel bred to clean out pipes that can’t digest humans but enjoys using them as chew-toys. Parrots that live wild in a city, spreading the wickedest rumours they can find. A pork-beef hybrid called moink…Those familiar with the series will find Senlin as resourceful, good-hearted, and endearingly self-flagellating as ever. He’s a remarkable hero, one who survives by his wits but isn’t witty, knows how to throw a punch but isn’t a great brawler, and leaves devastation in his wake but cannot forgive himself for that fact any more than he can stop doing it…Not everything in this novel is perfectly to my taste. Since most of the viewpoints are from characters experiencing the same events, there is a ton of backtracking as Bancroft rewinds time and retells the story from another point of view. This is a common and accepted narrative technique but not one I’m fond of. I like to follow the plot, not circle it endlessly. Even this is a small gripe, as each character’s arc has new revelations and unique moments for us to enjoy and any amount of time spent with Bancroft’s beguiling characters is time well spent. And you can’t fault an author for trying out a different narrative technique. I don’t think that Bancroft could be content to stick to the same format, novel after novel.

Writer Dan of Elitist Book Reviews states: “It was so easy to fall into the pages of Bancroft’s writing. Felt like sitting down with an old friend. This was especially the case because of the three sections this book is broken into, the first deals exclusively with Tom. Tom is still Tom, and we are reminded of that over and over here. We see his goodness, his humanity, his intelligence, and more than anything his undying love for his wife Marya. He wants for nothing more than to find her and give her what she wants. No matter how his own future might work into that equation. While there are brief spurts of an omniscient narrator, and minor spats of POVs from external characters, the story in the main is told from Tom’s POV. I absolutely loved that. My one concern for this book was that the spread of POV time and head-jumping might get larger instead of smaller. I hoped for the latter. And indeed that is what I found, for the most part. There is still some head-jumping. Not enough that it really bothered me, because the story was just that good, but there was enough that I think the story lost some of it’s potential emotional impact because of it. Regardless, this story still packed a veritable punch. This was helped by the focus and drive of the story. The second section of the book comes through the eyes of Tom’s team of friends, “mostly” from Voleta and Iren, as they prepare for, and then infiltrate the high society of Pelphia. The end of the first section of the book had me concerned. The end of the second section had me actively worried. I spent the entirety of the third section, which is told “mostly” through the POV of Captain Edith Winters, on the edge of my seat. The climax of the book was seriously awesome and had me both crowing and still fearing for the worst that might yet come from the fallout. There is real impact and power that comes through this story that you just don’t find in other fantasy novels.

Finally, T.O. Munro of The Fantasy Hive opines: “Bancroft can span the chasm from comedy to tragedy in the space of a couple of lines, taking his readers on an emotional rollercoaster ride to mirror the physical one to which he subjects his characters. For all the eccentric inventiveness and inventive eccentricity in the people and the machines, and the machine-people with which Bancroft populates his work, this is a book of feels – of human emotion. Love, friendship, duty, and devotion are the driving forces that make this utterly fantastic world seem so desperately, poignantly real…He doesn’t drag out some reflex response through a sugar-coated instant of Disney schmaltz. Instead the reader is swept along by the characters, the rising crescendo of events, the sharp switchbacks of fortune and misfortune, the gut punches and sudden breaths of hope until suddenly – in one moment of calm kindness – the pent-up bubble of emotion is pricked and tears flow for character and reader alike…Bancroft’s prose soars through the story, lifting hod and nobles alike with the same elegant vision that filled Senlin Ascends and Arm of the Sphinx. So many pithy lines and phrases catch the eye – images that snag the imagination, references that resonate beyond the covers of the book – far too many to list them all in a single review…Bancroft paints the inhabitants of Pelphia with his customary skill. A realm that evokes the decadent obsession with form and fashion of pre-revolutionary France or the extravagance of the Austrian court depicted in Amadeus…Bancroft paints with the broad brush of revolution as skilfully as he wields the fine touch of personal interest. In all, I find The Books of Babel resemble a Russian doll of stories, each locked within another: the separated wife, the endangered crew, the decadent ringdom, the rising heat of revolution, the potential end not just of the tower but of the entire world. Against this looming catastrophe, the Sphinx sits in her lofty penthouse, surrounded by artefacts, something between the creations of Tony Stark, the machines of Robocop and the clockwork monsters from Dr Who’s ‘The Girl on the Fireplace.’

 

My Thoughts

At 567 pages, the heftiest book in the series by far (to this point), The Hod King is a study in contrasts. Thomas Senlin, a character I was once completely fascinated by, has faded in importance to me. Though others say he is the same old Senlin, I disagree; in Senlin Ascends, Senlin imposed his will on the Tower, improbably bending it and its inhabitants to support his cause. Now, however, the Tower has irreparably changed Senlin in return. As Richard points out above, Senlin “leaves devastation in his wake but cannot forgive himself for that fact any more than he can stop doing it”. He is more predictable and less clever and shrewd, and he now rarely considers what impact his actions have on others.

The book is divided into 3 sections, each featuring the narrative of one of the characters – Senlin, Voleta/Iren and Edith – and of those sections, Senlin’s is the least interesting and compelling, despite the fact that at long last he has contact with his missing wife. The Voleta/Iren viewpoint was also a struggle. The mannerisms and way of life of Pelphia, although interesting and imaginative, is also at times very slow in pace, and Xenia is an absolutely annoying character for the reader to have to put up with, though thankfully she becomes less prominent as the story progresses. I will say, however, that Voleta’s section does finish with quite a bang.

All that aside, and despite some backtracking as Richard points out above, it is Edith’s narrative that carries the day. Her story bubbles with simmering tension; part of that is due to her narrative being last, so the reader is waiting to see how she will react to events that are already known, and the other part is due to her role as the most powerful and enabled character. This allows her to use violent action as a resource to solve problems, which the other viewpoint characters are unable to do (except perhaps Iren, though to a much smaller degree). Commanding a massive warship and bearing the Arm of the Sphinx gives Edith those resources.

Edith’s narrative also includes the most fascinating supporting characters. Byron, the deer-headed butler, although a good supporting character in the Arm of the Sphinx, has a greatly expanded role here and is absolutely wonderful. Edith’s other crew member aboard the warship, the pilot Reddleman (SPOILER! formerly the Red Hand), is a perfect blend of reborn innocence, creepiness and sadistic violence, with the latter two traits lurking just below the surface of the first. And Ferdinand, the mechanical clockwork bull, also makes an appearance.

And then there’s the Pelphian Wakeman, Georgine Haste. Although one might argue that coming into the story, Duke Wilhelm Pell has the potential to be the greatest villain, depending on whether or not Marya is with him of her own free will, it’s Georgine Haste who is truly frightening due to the violent power that Wakeman possess. It had been intimated in the previous books that some Wakemen had lost their way and were no longer working for the Sphinx. As Edith’s narrative progresses, the question as to whether Georgine is friend or foe sits in the back of the reader’s mind, a constant worry. Edith is also instrumental in exploring the mystery behind the Hod King. And finally, Edith’s narrative contains an explosive conclusion, which is partially described within Volta/Iren narrative but is expanded on in Edith’s, and is absolutely thrilling. I would say that it is Bancroft’s best action sequence he’s written to date.

Bancroft does a good job at dropping some surprises here and there at unexpected times, especially when things look most bleak. Readers will be happy to find some resolution regarding several unanswered questions. What is the mysterious substance that the Sphinx harnesses in order to power artifacts and even the Tower itself? What is happening to the messages that the Sphinx hasn’t been receiving? Why is Marya staying with Duke Pell? Who or what is the Hod King? Will Edith recover the painting that the Sphinx needs for the giant zoetrope? Answers will be revealed! Well, some answers, that is. Voleta’s brother Adam is still conspicuously absent, so I would presume he’ll play a significant role in the the fourth book (spoiler: there is a preview of book four in the “Extras” section that does indeed feature Adam).

Maybe it’s just me, and maybe I’m wrong for feeling this way, but going into the story I was hoping that Senlin’s discovery of his missing wife would end badly. Why? Because of the negative impact it would have on Edith. Senlin and Edith definitely have something between them that feels like more than friendship, and Edith seems to have found a brief moment of happiness with Senlin. There are moments during Senlin’s narrative that he is thinking about Edith and what would happen to her if he successfully reunited with his wife. How sad and lonely this would be for Edith were it to happen. I won’t spoil things here, though; you’ll just have to read the book for yourself to find out if this plot point is resolved or not.

Something I was annoyed to see return in this story are chance encounters. I don’t mean that I’m annoyed that past characters make an appearance; I’m annoyed that despite the size of the tower, Senlin continues to run into past characters at the most improbable times. It is a bit unbelievable given the size of the Tower. Also the literary allusions are less than they were in Senlin Ascends, yet a bit better here than they were in Arm of the Sphinx.

In conclusion, to apply something similar that I stated in my review of Arm of the Sphinx, The Hod King has some problems, yet is still an exceptional story, told by a gifted writer. Though the first two sections have a slow-moving pace sprinkled with compelling moments and frustrations, it is the third and final act that elevates this book to amazing heights. Bancroft proves once again that Senlin Ascends was no fluke; though that initial tale is his greatest work in the series, the following two books have still been a delight to read. Book four is scheduled for release in 2021, and is billed as the conclusion of the series. I’m both intrigued and saddened that the story will end there…

Book Review: The True Bastards by Jonathan French

true bastardsFormat: hard cover, first edition, 2019

Pages:  579

Reading Time:  about 14.5 hours

One Sentence Synopsis:  While Jackal leaves the Hoof to chase down the wizard Crafty, Fetching, the new chief, must contend with illness, challenges to her leadership, and a frightening new enemy that may destroy everything she values.

 

The Grey Bastards was one of my favorite reads from 2019, winning a couple of Hippogriff Awards. Would The True Bastards, a direct sequel, have the same impact on me? Read on to find out, but beware of spoilers both for this book and its predecessor. But, first, some guest reviews…

 

Nils Shukla of The Fantasy Hive says: “I’ll start by mentioning what I love most about this series, which would definitely have to be the world building. The Lot Lands is not exactly what you would call a picturesque place to live, and this second novel further establishes that fact. The Lot’s brutal, scorching terrain is filled with blood thirsty centaurs, volatile elves, orcs, ravenous hyenas, and human military forces that believe their rule is supreme…Now, if I’m being honest, I didn’t think I would enjoy The True Bastards quite as much as I did with The Grey Bastards. I wasn’t overly keen on Fetch in the first book, and knowing that she would be the main character in the sequel felt kind of disappointing. I WAS WRONG! Fetch was such a superb character. She showed an abundance of strength, courage, and she had such a fiery attitude – every time she was humiliated or degraded, especially by males, it truly was a pleasure to see her put them in their place…One of my favourite scenes was when the Bastards were playing games with the children from their orphanage in a lake. The children were reluctant to wash, as children are, and so to entice them into the water they made a sport of it. This scene just perfectly cut through all the grimness of the book, and showed such a beautiful light-hearted side to each one of them. I’m just going to briefly mention here that much in the style of The Grey Bastards, the levels of profanity, sexual references – including of genitalia – and crude behaviour are just as high in this book…So, what else made this book a remarkable read? Well, that resides in the action sequences. I previously found with the first book that there was a bit too much politics introduced, and at times I felt this became overly complex and confusing. In the True Bastards, French aptly delivers a balance between the politics, which is still central to the plot but brought more clarity, and in between those sections we also get exceptional combat scenes.”

Mogsy of The BiblioSanctum states: “The True Bastards feels slightly different in tone and style from the first book, which roughly follows a quest narrative complete with magical mysteries to discover and obstacles to overcome. The Grey Bastards was not a light story by any means, but still, it did offer a fair bit of adventure. This sequel, in contrast, is feels vastly more oppressive, serious, and bleak. Poor Fetch can’t seem to catch a break! For the entirely of this novel, she’s besieged with problems on all sides and her troubles never let up. In addition, this volume feels like a more personal character study, delving into the history and background of our protagonist. Expanding upon the world-building and adding to our understanding of half-orc society, French reveals a lot more about the magic and lore of the world that we did not know before. Some of it is very complex, and at times disturbing. Speaking of which, the author holds nothing back when it comes to portraying the brutality and grimness of life in the Lot Lands. Expect a lot of explicit language and unrestrained violence and death, though if you’ve read the first book, none of this should be a surprise. With Fetch at the helm, there’s also a shift in the types of issues the story deals with, including vulgar names and crude comments aimed at our protagonist because of her sex. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: this isn’t a series for the fainthearted. But on the whole, I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing this new adventure from Fetch’s point of view. She’s a lot more prudent than Jackal, which makes her lack a lot of his spontaneity as well as a certain fun spark. However, this reflects what I love best about these books—the fact that each half-orc character possesses a special and unique personality. Like Jackal, Fetch is a product of her own background and individual experiences, and they’ve shaped the way she views the world and deals with challenges thrown her way. There’s more darkness in her, but that’s okay; her tale is another piece of the puzzle that help us understand the life and ways of the Lot Lands.”

Mihir Wanchoo of Fantasy Book Critic explains: “So let’s begin with what this book is not, primarily this book is a very different title to The Grey Bastards. That book was an action packed monster, this one is its more contemplative cousin who’s equally deadly but simmers slowly. Fetching as a narrator is very starkly different to Jackal, where Jackal was attack first and ask questions later, Fetching is equally effective at defense and offense. She is also an able leader whose skills get stretched to their limits with all the troubles the True Bastards face. The action in this series is more personalized as we get lots on one on one sequences as well as some mass scenes. The book however is equally filthy, coarse and gory as was its predecessor. It’s better than predecessor in its overall plot as we get more details about certain specific events from the first book as well as the magic system gets more insight. There’s some huge potential revelations that left me hugely excited for what come in the future. Going on to the characterization, with more than 500 pages and just one POV character, the author has to really nail down the tone. Jonathan French goes above and beyond in presenting Fetching as more complex character than Jackal was and having a lot more stress placed on her shoulders due to her gender, her birth as well events beyond her control. But face them with aplomb, she does, while being as foulmouthed, tough and brilliant as she’s shown to be in the first book. Jonathan’s decision to shift the focus really pays off as we get to see the bastards truly become a hoof through hellfire (mostly figuratively and some cases literally)…With regards to the drawbacks, the book’s place is also sluggish for the first nearly 40-50% as the author lays down a lot of tracks for the book’s plot arc as well as the series arc. While I didn’t mind it that much, there will be those who might not enjoy this slow pace at all. The story revelations that come, create more questions and there are no easy answers to be found.”

 

My Thoughts

The biggest difference between The Grey Bastards and The True Bastards is of course the main character, Fetching. Jonathan French took a big risk in switching the viewpoint away from Jackal. Fortunately, the risk pays off in spades. Fetch, half-elf and half-orc, not only has to contend with all of the troubles and evils that plague the Lot Lands, but she also has to be fast, stronger, and smarter to overcome the prejudice of a male-dominated society. French gives her a different enough voice so that the reader isn’t simply following a female version of Jackal. She also has to battle an internal sickness that happened in the previous book and threatens to make her weak and undermine her position. However she doesn’t do all this just to hold power…she does it because she cares about the Lot Lands and her Hoof dearly. She’s really a brilliant character and I’m curious to see what happens in the next book: will the viewpoint character remain Fetch, return to Jackal, or move to another character entirely?

The supporting characters are just as strong as in the first book. The silent and stoic Hoodwink remains perhaps my favorite. Other favorites like Mead and Polecat return, while new ones enter like Dumb Door, Sluggard and Xhreka. In true Lot Lands fashion, characters are going to fall along the way. You will feel sadness and your heart will ache. Your eyes might even water a little. You have been warned.

Other races have been fleshed out as well. The Centaurs, those evil creatures of the Blood Moon rampages, may be more than they appear. And the Tines play a very prominent role, with a good portion of the setting taking place in their territory. There is definitely a native American/Asian mix to them – at least that is the vibe that I got.

The villains have been ramped up too. the dread wizard Crafty is still causing havoc from wherever he is hiding. The men of Hispartha seem more evil and corrupt than ever. And then there’s the big albino orc and his frightening pack of wolves that is killing everything in the Lots. There are other Hoofs that challenge Fetch, and there’s even the appearance of a cyclops!

The plot is fast-paced, full of tension and action. While some claim that The Grey Bastards had more fast-paced action and that The True Bastards is more of a slow burn, I couldn’t honestly tell you as I didn’t notice enough of a difference between the to. And even if it were true, the way French maintains tension makes the story no less compelling. As I mentioned above, Fetch has to deal with challenges, fight off sickness, and contend with the threat of the albino orc. I was enthralled throughout the story. My only complaint is a bit of a deus ex machina that shows up at the perfect time. Other than that I thought it was some pretty flawless storytelling.

As before, the Lot Lands is no place for the weak. You will find swearing, violence and gore, reference to male and female sex organs, rape, and an explicit sex scene. I didn’t find it offensive but your mileage may vary. If you got through The Grey Bastards fine, you’ll have no trouble here. There is one lighter scene that Nils mentions above featuring a water game with children…though it feels a bit out of place, it is also appreciated as a break from the dark violence of the rest of the book, and gives some depth to the characters that the reader might not have considered otherwise.

In conclusion, French has written an impressive sequel to The Grey Bastards. Dark, grim, and compelling, The True Bastards, if it ends up being a middle book in a set of three, does not suffer from middle book syndrome at all. The new settings, villains and characters are great, the new settings are enjoyable (especially the arena!) and the ending is perfect, opening the door for a third book. The True Bastards is one of my top reads of the year, and will definitely claim some Hippogriff Awards…

Book Review: The Disappearance of Winter’s Daughter by Michael J. Sullivan

winters daughter

Format:  hardcover, first edition, 2018

Pages:  444

Reading time:  about 11 hours

One sentence synopsis: Royce and Hadrian take a job to find a man’s missing daughter, but the simple fact finding (and revenge) mission turns into something bigger, and the two men get more than they bargained for.

 

Michael J. Sullivan’s books (at least the ones I’ve read) have been both consistent and inconsistent for me at the same time. What I mean by that is that they’ve been consistently well-written so that I’ve been intrigued by them and look forward to reading them; they have been inconsistent, however, in the quality of the plot and its predictability. The previous book, The Death of Dulgath, fell squarely in the middle between The Rose and the Thorn and The Crown Tower. The Disappearance of Winter’s Daughter, besides the interesting title, is the first Sullivan book I was able to acquire in hardcover. So where does it fall between the previous 3 books? Read on to find out, beware of spoilers, and have a look at some guest reviews…

 

Joshua S. Hill of Fantasy Book Review says: “The interesting characters we meet along the way – some who may sound familiar, and others who will never appear again – are beautifully crafted and bring their own quirks and personalities to an already rich tapestry. The city of Rochelle is an odd place – but, then again, eerily similar to some of today’s societal trends. In this Sullivan doesn’t hit you over the head with subtle societal critiques, but rather uses today’s absurd treatment of one another as fodder for a fascinating city with its own unique currents and eddies…I will say this, however. This is the first time that I thought Sullivan tried to fit too much into a book. It is a small thing, barely noticeable throughout the book, but enough that, by the time you close the final page, there are certain threads left hanging that seemed to be related but in fact, weren’t. A POV character simply disappears towards the end of the book, and a thread which Sullivan introduces for the potential of a future story only served to muddy the water of his main mystery. In the end, I wonder whether the confused ending was the result of trying to weave too many strands together. That, however, is a minor point in the overall scheme of the book.

DarkChaplain at The Reading Lamp states: “The book is chock-full with great moments, adds background to Hadrian and Royce alike, brings the couple even closer together and, to my delight, ties a few more knots to connect the prequel Chronicles to the Revelations. Michael J. Sullivan is a master at making his world of Elan feeling interconnected and dynamic, whether it be through small easter eggs or a wider mythology…The new, and expanded on, side characters were honestly delightful as well. From Mercator Sikara, the Mir trying to find compromises and protect her people, over Evelyn Hemsworth, the old “hag” renting out her room to Royce and Hadrian and always, always added a motherly snark to a scene, to Duchess ‘Genny’ herself, the novel is stocked with interesting, dynamic and even inspiring characters. The villains, too, feel authentic and offer a proper challenge or three. There was never a dull moment, but plenty of laughter. It is incredible to me how well this entry straddles the line between being a depressing story about real oppression where even children may end up dead in an alley, and being a humorous adventure full of Jiggery-Pokery…I’ll just say that, whether or not you have read Riyria before, this book will entertain and excite you on its own merits, and if you have read other installments, you’ll end up with even more to appreciate.

Finally, Kopratic of The Fantasy Inn opines: “Firstly, this book was excellently paced. There wasn’t a single moment where I felt things were dragging…The imagery is, frankly, astounding. The sights, sounds, smells, and even tastes are all accounted for. We even get descriptions of touch, too! I felt like I was living in the bustling city of Rochelle. Every line felt necessary, so the amount of editing that must have gone into this book definitely paid off. A major positive result of the writing is how it helps to convey the world-building…Sure, on the surface it might just appear that Royce is the pessimist (excuse me, realist), and Hadrian is the optimist. But they’re so much more. They’re amazingly well-rounded. And it’s not just them. Even the most minor of characters have their own, distinct personalities. Something I greatly appreciated was that different species’ characters also felt distinct. For example, we meet different characters who are mir. There is no “mir personality.” There’s “this is Villar’s character, etc.” Another thing is that this book employs some strong, extremely well-written female characters. They’re each strong in their own ways. They aren’t the same character with different names and hair colors. They aren’t men with breasts. From Evelyn the homeowner, to Genny the duchess (whom we meet in the opening chapter), we see a variety of strengths from these women and more.

 

My Thoughts

The strength (and hallmark) of a Sullivan book is the strength of characterization. Not just Royce and Hadrian, but also in the supporting characters. In The Disappearance of Winter’s Daughter, it is the supporting characters that carry the story. From the Mir characters to crotchety old Evelyn, from Genny to Hadrian’s old war buddy, from priests to lords and peasants, each character is fleshed out with personality traits that remain consistent and unique. Their motivations are believable, and they are a delight to read. There’s some humor to be found here, and I chuckled a few times, especially in Royce’s and Hadrian’s relationship with Evelyn. She is one character that I hope appears later in the Riyria Revelations series.

The plot is effectively a murder mystery, as Winter, Genny’s father, wants to know what has happened to his missing (and presumed dead) daughter. This is a really great direction for Sullivan to take, because unlike the previous book, The Death of Dulgath -which suffered from being a bit too predictable – the murder mystery in this book allows Sullivan to dole the clues out slowly and keep the reader guessing how the plot will play out. A few twists here and there certainly help things along. Royce and Hadrian play Holmes and Watson, but of course with a different dynamic than that classic duo.

I also liked that more magic occurred in the book; in fact it seems as if each successive book ramps that up a little. How magic works is a bit of a mystery, so Sullivan can use it to move the plot to certain points, although he doesn’t use it as a deus ex machina so in reality it isn’t a major problem. Sullivan builds tension through the use of some of this magic, while at the same time Royce and Hadrian have to use a combination of wits and their particular skill sets to overcome problems, striking a good balance.

Another thing I liked that Kopratic mentions above is the liveliness of the city of Rochelle, particularly in the way that Sullivan describes it. He’s obviously put a lot of thought into the class system, the racial oppression of the Mir and Dwarves, the church’s role, the nobility’s role, the history of not only the city but also of the surrounding area, and the city’s layout and features. In addition, Sullivan accomplishes something a lot of other authors struggle with (and something that I always like to point out): he presents the “average” people in a way that makes you care about what happens to them. A city is made up of all kinds of people: blacksmiths, merchants, innkeepers, cobblers, guards – and they all play an important role in how a city functions and who the main characters have to deal with. Many stories push these supporting characters to the background…in others they are pretty much invisible. By fleshing out these people and making them integral to the story, Sullivan makes you care about Rochelle and what happens to the people that live there.

In conclusion, The Disappearance of Winter’s Daughter is my favorite Riyria book to date. The plot is unpredictable, the pacing is excellent, the characters and city are well-written, and Royce and Hadrian do Royce and Hadrian things. This book is good enough to earn some Hippogriff Awards for 2018, so look for a revised version of that year’s awards that include this book in the near future. With no further books to currently read in the Riyria Chronicles, it looks like I may finally be diving into the Riyria Revelations series later this year…

Book Review: City of Light by Will Wight

city of light

Format:  oversized paperback, 1st edition, 2014

Pages:  386

Reading time:  see below

One sentence synopsis:  Simon, Leah, and Alin must battle Incarnations to protect the kingdom.

 

City of Light is the third book in The Traveler’s Gate series. I liked the first book, House of Blades, but I thought the sequel, The Crimson Vault, suffered from some problems, and though it wasn’t bad, I didn’t think it was as good as the first book. So would City of Light return to form, stay the course, or fall flat? Read on to find out, but beware of spoilers. First, some reviews around the Web, which weren’t easy to find other than Amazon or Goodreads. It doesn’t help that Will Wight has given his book the same title as another novel released in 1999…

 

Benjamin Espen of With Both Hands says: “In City of Light, Will Wight finishes what he started. I admire his focus, there are clearly more stories in this world that can be told. But Simon has completed the hero’s journey, and the cycle is now complete. Which also means that Simon has become a man, and the nature of the problems he faces will be different in the future. Thus, Wight has ended the story at the place where the story should be ended. And for that, I salute him. We also see a great many pieces fall into place [though not all!], explaining why Elysia and Ragnarus are warring with one another, and why the Incarnations were trapped within the bloody trees of Ragnarus. And why the rebel city of Enosh was trying to free them. In the end, it turns out that many of the fateful decisions made had some justice behind them. But justice is not the problem. Everyone has had more justice than they can handle. What this world needs is redemption and forgiveness. Surprisingly, in a world gone mad with power and thirst for vengeance, there is redemption to be had.

John Munro of Wizard’s Blog states: “Something that was an issue in the second book is worse in this one – it’s almost completely fight scenes. Sure it’s the climax, sure they’re at war, but still it felt like somebody was always fighting with someone else, with only brief interludes for plot and character development. It also suffers a bit from all of the main characters being too powerful – as we discovered in the Matrix sequels, watching invincible supermen punch each other to no effect gets boring after a while. Finally, I was irritated a bit by the fact that not everything was tied up by the end of the book. It’s bad enough when one book in a series doesn’t have a complete plot arc, but it’s much more important for a trilogy to have one. I understand the desire to leave things open for a follow-on series, but it’s frustrating when you think a plotline has been introduced to be a big dramatic twist and nothing happens.

 

My Thoughts:

In early December in one of my Status Update posts, you may have caught a true hint regarding my feelings about City of Light after I finished it. I believe I used the words “I really struggled” and “took me almost the entire month of November to get through it”. Well, I’m not going to sugar coat it.

I found this book extremely disappointing and hard to read.

The plot moves relentlessly from battle to battle, with alliances constantly changing. Wight drops his big plot reveals here in the last book, as Benjamin states above: “why Elysia and Ragnarus are warring with one another, and why the Incarnations were trapped within the bloody trees of Ragnarus. And why the rebel city of Enosh was trying to free them.” The problem is, these reveals come too little, too late, as they drop near the end of the story (and thus the end of the series). The lateness gives little time to process this information, and comes at the cost of character motivations, which only now start to make sense (or still don’t). Further, since this comes at the climax of the book, characters are forced to react to these reveals in a way that robs them of agency.

As John mentions above, there’s very little character development since fight scenes dominate pretty much the entire book. When a character like Alin does have a developmental moment, it doesn’t feel genuine, only that he has a sudden change of heart (which actually happens more than once) to get the plot where it has to go or to introduce a McGuffin to bail out the other characters. Alin’s motivations are a constant problem, with his “color voices” offering conflicting guidance. Which voice Alin listens to at any given time seems to be determined at a whim; some of the voices he ignores completely, as well as their abilities. There is a “purple light” that Alin uses to banish anything that doesn’t belong in the territory, but later it doesn’t work properly. This largely has the feel of contrived plot devices and the lack of consistency is frustrating. John also makes a good point that by the end a few plot points remain unresolved, which was a bit unsatisfying.

In conclusion I’d have to say that City of Light is possibly the most disappointing book I completed this year, save perhaps Fury of Seventh Son. It suffers from a lack of focus and consistency, questionable character motivations, some choppy and repetitive prose, and late revelations that have minimal impact. I have never DNF’d a book, but I will admit I considered it here. The worst part is that because I was disinterested and struggled with the problems I outlined above (I went days passing up reading because I dreaded getting back into it), City of Light effectively killed any slim chance I had at meeting my reading goal for the year. For me, Wight’s high point will always be House of Blades, which established a foundation with potential to turn the series into something special, but unfortunately for me, The Traveler’s Gate crashed and burned by the end.

Book Review: Paternus: Wrath of Gods by Dyrk Ashton

wrath of godsFormat: oversized paperback, first edition, 2018

Pages:  511 (not counting appendices and bonus material)

Reading Time:  about 12.5 hours

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

My Thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Labyrinth of Flame by Courtney Schafer

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

Pages:  517

Reading Time:  about 13 hours

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

My Thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Emperor of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

emperor of thornsFormat:  hard cover, first edition, 2013

Pages:  434

Reading Time:  about 11 hours

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

My Thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

pulledFormat: oversized omnibus paperback

Pages: 137

Reading Time: about 3.5 hours

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

My Thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pulledFormat: oversized omnibus paperback

Pages: 129

Reading Time: about 3.5 hours

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

My Thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

pulled

Format: oversized omnibus paperback

Pages: 128

Reading Time: about 3.5 hours

One Sentence Synopsis: The thief Amra Thetys must avoid getting killed by foes both mundane and supernatural to avenge her dead friend and recover a powerful artifact before her enemies do.

 

I struggled a bit with how to approach a review for this title. The Amra Thetys Omnibus is actually a collection of three books: The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble’s Braids, The Thief Who Spat In Luck’s Good Eye, and The Thief Who Knocked On Sorrow’s Gate. Each of these stories was a self-contained, self-published work by Michael McClung, and were combined into one volume to make this Omnibus. I’ll admit that I’m not typically a fan of the omnibus format…I normally prefer to read each story on its own. In this case, however, as a self-published series of books, they were easier to obtain through the Omnibus than to try to chase down physical copies of each story. Since I can be lazy at times I took the easy way out with the Omnibus. McClung, despite scoring a publishing deal, has since had issues with his publisher and has returned to self-publishing, so I’ll need to learn what to purchase in the future that bests supports the author.

Unfortunately I could not find any reviews of the Omnibus edition itself other than Amazon or Goodreads. Therefore I decided to post this as a series of three separate and shorter-than-normal reviews, with each review focusing on one of the stories, and at the end of the final review, some additional thoughts on the Omnibus format itself.

Here, then, is Part One of the Omnibus review, The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids, and guest reviews from around the Internet:

 

Richard Bray of Fantasy Faction states: “At 210 pages, The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids isn’t trying to be the next bookshelf-bending epic fantasy that changes the way you think about the genre. Instead, it’s a straight-forward adventure noir featuring a touch of action, a bit of mystery and a wealth of interesting characters…Amra relays her story with a touch of world-weary cynicism combined with a quick, sarcastic wit. She’s tough as nails and takes a lone-wolf-against-the-world approach to everything, but as her story progresses, we find that she has plenty of friends willing to offer assistance as she needs it…As someone who enjoys noir mysteries where the protagonist follows lead after lead, getting themselves bruised and bloodied in their quest for the truth, this book was right up my alley…McClung doesn’t spend a great deal of time describing the city or trying to make it feel different from your stock fantasy city (though his take on the city’s funeral ceremonies – complete with a final meal with the dead, professional mourners and a demon guardian who makes certain the dead need not fear grave robbers – proves to be fascinating). Instead, he relies on a steady assortment of characters to make the city feel alive and create our interest in the setting…McClung relies upon the people to make this city different from any other. The never-ending forward momentum of the plot means we never linger too long on any one character or portion of the city – instead, we’re always meeting someone new or discovering some small detail about the city that helps to flesh out the setting as the story moves ahead…This is a self-published novel, and there are a few typos and errors in the text…Fortunately, the text is mostly clean, and the writing is strong enough that for the most part the lack of a publishing house’s editing team doesn’t detract from the experience or pull the reader out of the story.

Chris at Sci-Fi and Fantasy Reviews says: “Amra’s world is one of active magic, one where a cataclysm wiped out a major civilisation, and left survivors scrabbling to rebuild. There’s a fair amount of social construction under the surface – allusions to mass migration of refuges after a total disaster, for example. There’s also a fair amount of history, which is quietly laced through dialogue and world description – the odd mysterious ruin, references to long-ago conflicts, and so on…There’s a vibrancy and energy coming off the page from the environs – they’re plausible, detailed, complex, and suggest a living, breathing world around the protagonist. Amra, as a protagonist, is rather a lot of fun. She’s smart, quick, and interesting. Not a moral character, per se, but one with deep loyalties to friends. She’s a charming, pragmatic rogue, with a penchant for one-liners, and the ability to fight her way out of at least some of the sticky situations she ends up in. Over the course of the text, her loyalties are tested a little, and the reader gets to see her expand outside of her behavioural comfort zone – taking on a wider view, perhaps…I rather liked the competent, smooth, and somewhat dangerous feeling police inspector, and there’s a nobleman or two on the page who manage not to be total idiots in some fashion or other, which is rather nice. The feel from the villains is, in a lot of ways, more absolute – trying to get into their morals and motives is left secondary to watching them scheme, rampage, and generally slither in and cause havoc…The plot – ah, I did love this. It feels like someone took a dram of Chandler and a soupcon of Hammett, and blended them into this fantasy world. The noir themes are strong, and there’s a delightful string of byzantine crosses, double crosses and triple crosses. Motivations are obscured, trust is hard to come by, and everyone seems to be looking out for number one. Then there’s some brilliant chase scenes, a sense of high stakes wrapped within an intriguing mystery – and a feeling that no-one and nothing is quite what it seems. Is it worth reading? Emphatically yes. It’s a clever, high energy book, with an absolutely top flight protagonist, and a plot which kicks off from the first page, and didn’t let me put it down thereafter.

David S. at Fan Fi Addict opines: “Starting off with intrigue and murder, the pace doesn’t let up for the 208 pages that it spans. There was never a point where I was bored or wanted to stop reading. I was always on the edge of my seat because even in the most mundane of situations our characters found themselves in there was always a hint of danger and the unknown. Fast paced, dark, and gritty at times, this was a ride worth taking. Michael McClung does a great job of building the world as he goes. I was really impressed by the amount of world building that he was able to get into such a small book…I will say that the magic is not explained in depth. The author does not go into great detail about it and you will not understand everything about it by the end of this book…There were times throughout this story that I laughed out loud, but I also just found myself smiling often. Amra’s humor especially was right up my alley and reminded me quite a bit of the irreverent and sarcastic characters of the Gentlemen Bastards series by Scott Lynch…Amra was a compelling character. A stubborn, brave thief with a conscience just trying to avenge one of her only friends. I found it very easy and enjoyable to follow her in first person and get to know her. We also get to learn about the world as a whole as she learns about it which I really enjoyed.

 

Perhaps no book exemplifies the recent success of self-published works more than The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble’s Braids. I have read and reviewed several books from Mark Lawrence’s SPFBO contests, but I have finally gotten around to tackling this first McClung book, which was the winner of the inaugural SPFBO. As I began reading, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that The Thief Who Pulled on Trouble’s Braids was not only a sword & sorcery style, but was also written in first person. In addition to the references the guest reviewers above have made, my personal feeling is that there are elements of Glen Cook’s Garrett P.I. series, Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, Robert Asprin’s Thieves’ World, and Howard Andrew Jones’ Asim and Dabir stories. In addition, the city in which the story is placed feels like a blend of Cook’s Tunfaire and Thieves’ World’s Sanctuary. It’s a fully realized and believable setting that seems well thought out, if a little mundane…what I mean by that is that there isn’t really anything you’ll find in this city that hasn’t been thought of somewhere else, with the lone exception being the city cemetery – there’s definitely some unique things happening there.

Amra is a joy to read. Part Garrett P.I., part Harry Dresden, and most of all, a competent thief, she manages to maintain not only a sense of humor, but a self-deprecating sense of humor in spite of the scars she bears. She’s under no illusions about the damage she’s experienced and consciously acknowledges it, while at the same time dismissing it with a wry and sarcastic sense of humor. Dig deeper, though, and subconsciously it’s a big problem that affects her ability to trust others and make friends, while lovers are seemingly out of the question. She’s not all-powerful, or magical, or even the best fighter; however, what she does have is a will to survive, good instincts, a thorough knowledge of the thief’s craft, and the ability to understand motivation and spin it to her advantage. In short, she should be quite average and nothing special, and yet she’s an amazing character.

The supporting cast is a mixed bag. Her friend that is murdered isn’t in the story long enough for me to be invested in Amra’s quest for revenge, and that’s a problem. Other characters seem a bit two-dimensional, which is to be expected from a story of this size and that isn’t a problem. The mage Holgren, on the other hand, is a wonderfully developed supporting character and a great addition to the story. His actions and attitudes go a long way towards getting Amra where she needs to go in the story. In other books, sometimes the protagonist has a dependency on unbelievable events that get the plot where it needs to go; Holgren allows McClung to neatly sidestep that problem. Everything that happens here with regard to plot is neatly in place and makes sense.

Spoiler Alert!!! As the reader follows Amra’s quest for revenge, which fortunately turns into a fight for survival (as I mentioned above the revenge plot is a bit thin), we meet an assortment of shady characters and settings. One of my favorite scenes involves entering the lair of a crime boss. A later escapade involves demonology within a house outside the city, which in some ways reminded me of a scene in Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories. But my favorite scene involved the aforementioned city cemetery. This leads to a satisfying ending in which Amra is transformed from ordinary to something else. We just don’t know it yet.

The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble’s Braids is a fun, if all too brief, romp through a great world McClung has created, and worthy of it’s historic SPFBO win. The influences are many, from noir detective stories to wild sword and sorcery tales, and yet McClung has put his own stamp on it by allowing us to see the world through Amra’s cynical eyes. I was thoroughly hooked by the story, and though there isn’t really anything groundbreaking here, it is nevertheless a compelling read that has me looking forward to the next story in the Omnibus with great relish…

Book Review: Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

words of radianceFormat: hard cover, first edition, 2014

Pages: 1080 (not including appendices)

Reading Time: perhaps 28-30 hours???

One Sentence Synopsis: As the three main characters finally begin to interact with each other, the war with the Parshendi comes to a climax, just as the Assassin in White makes a return.

 

Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, the first book in the Stormlight Archive, blew me away and captivated me so completely that it ended up in my top 20 of books published prior to 2013…which is no small feat due to a staggering amount of contenders. The question for the sequel, Words of Radiance would be: do I dare raise my expectations of how awesome I think this book should be? Read on to find out what happens, noting that there will be some spoilers, including a few for The Way of Kings. First, some guest reviews from the World Wide Web:

 

Carl Engle-Laird of Tor.com writes: “Shallan Davar, whose backstory we learn in Words of Radiance, was already my favorite main character in this series, and this is her book through-and-through. I know that many fans dislike Shallan, finding her childish or flippant, or perhaps just boring. And while I’m sure many might still dislike her once this book is finished, I doubt there will be many readers who don’t come to respect her. Her backstory is heartbreakingly poignant. Sanderson masterfully weaves her dialogue with her past throughout the narrative, bringing her conflicted self-image into stark relief. As I read through the book, the pressure of her backstory grew and grew. Even when it became clear what Sanderson was going to reveal, the anticipation was not relieved. I teetered on the edge, waiting for the book to come out and say the devastating facts that I knew were coming, waiting for her to admit the terrors of her past. Even as we reel at Shallan’s past, she faces challenges from every direction in the present. Words of Radiance cranks up the level of intrigue to dizzying extremes, picking up all the plots from the end of The Way of Kings and introducing even more. Where Way of Kings portends, Words of Radiance delivers, resulting in a much faster pace. Brandon Sanderson has shored up the biggest weakness of the first book, showing once again that he can write page-turners with the best of them, even on a massive door-stopper scale..The book isn’t without its flaws. First, some characters get a lot less attention. Dalinar in particular is a much less frequent viewpoint character, with Adolin taking up much of his page-time. Adolin has improved greatly between books, but it’s sad to see Dalinar stepping back from the action. This is made worse by the fact that much of the tension in Words of Radiance is derived by characters’ unwillingness to talk to each other. Even when justified by character prejudices, as is the case in this work, I hate this device. Kaladin spends almost the entire book being a paranoid jerk who won’t admit his fears or suspicions to anyone, and it just makes me want to shake him. I can’t help but feel that Sanderson could have provided less irritating motivations…For every cultural assumption, Sanderson has provided an opportunity for re-evaluation, questioning, dissent. He shows how the systems of this world developed, and where they’ve gone wrong. Alethi culture in its present form is sexist, classist, racist, and oppressive, and we are invested in its survival. But Sanderson has provided his characters with abundant grounds to question their cultural prejudices, and shaken the roots of the system enough to enable change. I can’t tell you how much I look forward to that pay-off.

Dina of SFF Book Reviews states: “If The Way of Kings was Kaladin’s book, this is clearly Shallan’s. The story continues seamlessly from where the first book left off, continues and (finally!) intertwines Kaladin, Shallan, and Dalinar’s tales, and answers some burning questions, while throwing up a whole bunch of new ones. Oh, and did I mention the epic battles, powerful magic, lovely bickering, and world-building? Well, you’ll get all of that too for the price of one book…What at first appeared to be random or existed by evolution turns out to have more complex backgrounds and it was so much fun discovering how new information made events from the first book appear in a different light. We learn a lot about spren, about what is probably the Big Bad for our heroes to fight, about history and culture in Roshar… oh man, there is seriously so much to discover. I especially liked the interludes which usually have nothing to do with the main story but are put in as an added world-building bonus, if you like. As I said, this was Shallan’s book, and just like we got Kaladin flashbacks in The Way of Kings, we get Shallan flashbacks in this one, fleshing out her past, her reasons for hunting down Jasnah Kholin, and more information about Shallan’s family. Some of these were not surprising, but there were a few revelations that I found quite chilling. And knowing what Shallan has gone through makes her character all the more impressive. The way Kaladin deals with grief (and he’s had his share of that!) is very different from how Shallan deals with hers, but I liked both of them better for it.

Mike of King of the Nerds says: “The characters readers came to know and love in the first book return here and while Shallan and Kaladin take the fore Sanderson manages to delve into and further explore a host of other characters including Adolin, Dalinar, Navani, Renarin, Jasnah and countless others. Sanderson really puts Kaladin through the ringer again here. Where the bridge runs in the previous book served as a sort of galvanizing force for Kaladin the sudden shift towards providing protection for Dalinar and his family rocks Kaladin back on his heels. Torn between duty and his own anger Kaladin is an extremely troubled figure throughout the entire novel. Perhaps the most standout character of the novel was Shallan. Over the course of the novel readers get to see the tragic events that lead to her quest to steal Jasnah’s soulcaster while during the present narrative we witness Shallan playing a dangerous game of cat and mouse with the Ghostbloods; a mysterious group who were responsible for the death of Gavilar.  Sanderson delves deeper into the culture of the Parshendi through the character of Eshonai; a Parshendi shardbearer. They are a fascinating society and her arc, seen first in the novel’s interludes, is particularly fascinating given the revelations about the parshmen in Way of Kings. Sanderson strikes an even tone during Eshonai’s chapters revealing how the war to avenge Gavilar’s death has worn on her people. While the war is the result of her people’s action there is a touch of the tragic to her tale as you witness a people willing to go to extreme lengths to ensure their own survival…Words of Radiance is quite frankly the definition of epic fantasy. Sanderson is writer who improves with each new novel he releases and Words of Radiance is his strongest release yet. Clocking in at over 1000 pages it is a novel that never lags; not once. Even in the moments when it slows down you are left, mind racing, trying to figure out how each new revelation and every new character fits into the larger frame of the story that Sanderson is weaving. If you’ve yet to start The Stormlight Archive now is that time.

 

I’ve explained many times that I don’t like flashbacks. They’ve become so trendy, the “in” thing to do, that almost everyone does it. And I’m so against anything that’s in or trendy. Forge your own path! The use of flashbacks are taken to extremes by Sanderson in The Stormlight Archive, with the main characters flashing back to events in their own lives, while Dalinar has additional flashbacks of other lives and events in the distant past. In Words of Radiance it is Shallan who is the focus of the character flashbacks. I will grudgingly admit that the flashbacks are used effectively here, not only adding depth to Shallan’s character and making her more sympathetic, but also giving the reader multiple “A-ha!” moments when we find out what exactly happened to her, and her family, in the past.

When looking back at my review of The Way of Kings, I noted that Shallan’s character was a mixed bag and wondered whether or not the pages devoted to her narrative were justified. I needn’t have worried. Shallan is the star of this book, and as I mentioned above, she becomes integral to the main plot. In fact, Sanderson does a great job of redeeming her character to the point of being more compelling than everyone else. She’s clever, has good instincts, and has luck on her side to help the plot along on a few occasions. And when it comes to compelling characters, you have to add Adolin to the mix, as more page time definitely helps his character develop from one dimensional to something more complex. Even his brother Renarin gets a welcome boost in development. All three of the main character viewpoints converge in this book, which is a welcome event, as Shallan’s physical distance from the others previously made her story harder to follow.

Unfortunately the focus on Shallan comes at the expense of the other viewpoint characters. Dalinar actually has very little page time in the book, although I’ve read that he is the main focus of Oathbringer, which makes a lot of sense. In Words of Radiance, Kaladin comes across as rigid, envious, and paranoid for much of the first half of the story, which is at odds with his personality in the first book. I suppose you could say that he now has much more to live for, hence the personality shift. However, the old Kaladin returns in the later chapters during a brilliant arena scene that I won’t spoil, but it is one of the highlights of the story. He also is really the true hero of this tale, and his importance is never greater than when the war with the Pashendi reaches a climax while at the same time the Assassin in White appears, resulting in a thrilling ending that goes on for pages and pages as viewpoints switch, the stakes get higher and higher, and the pace becomes frantic.

As Mike mentions in his review, adding an “alien” viewpoint character in Eshonai, one of the Parshendi, allows Sanderson to explore the differences and motivations behind their culture, which also goes a long way towards understanding them as a people rather than just casting them as a one-dimensional villain. In addition, it helps give a boost to Sanderson’s world-building, which he has always been quite adept at. I does bear worth mentioning again (as I explained during The Way of Kings) that Sanderson seems a bit limited in how he has built his heroes. What I mean is, between this series and Mistborn, his characters only seem capable of running fast, jumping high, pushing, pulling, etc. Perhaps that’s by design since all of these stories are part of Sanderson’s overall “Cosmere”, or related worlds, but rarely does Sanderson bother to delve into tactics, swordplay, or anything else beyond applying superhuman abilities. It does lend a “been here, done that” type of feel to the action if you’ve read the Mistborn series.

Minor Spoilers ahead! One thing I really like about Sanderson’s plot in this book, and the series, is that he’s not afraid to discard everything he has set up in the first two books, with eight more books still to come. The war with the Parshendi largely dominates the focus of the first two books, but that ends as Words of Radiance comes to a close. The scope of the series and the plot becomes more complex and convoluted by the end of the story. Who are the bad guys here? What is their motivation? Where is the plot going from here now that the Parshendi storyline has been wrapped up? What role do the Spren have to play? While a small bit of clarity is gained, Sanderson, in typical fashion, never lays all his cards out on the table and surely has some twists and surprises up his sleeve.

Clocking in at a whopping 1080 pages (not including appendices), which is almost 10% more than The Way of Kings, readers are looking at an intimidating 2000+ page count just from the first two books in the series. However, like The Way of Kings, I never felt like getting through over 1000+ pages in Words of Radiance was a chore. The pages seem to fly by thanks to a brisk pace and there really isn’t a lot of filler, except perhaps for interludes that explore ancillary characters and settings, but even those are appreciated for their contributions in worldbuilding as Dina mentions in her review. Even when there’s no action sequences happening, there’s plenty of intrigue to keep the reader’s interest high. I always mention when a book gives me frequent breaks in the reading so that there are plenty of stopping points, and that is true here…it’s easy to stop and pick up where the break is, if necessary.

There’s really not much more that I have to add besides what the guest reviews have expressed and what I’ve written. While it seems a disservice to this book to write such a short review for so many pages of material, the main takeaway is that while it didn’t completely captivate me like The Way of Kings did (I have a couple of other books rated higher for 2014), Words of Radiance is still a page-turner that I did not want to put down. The scope of this series is incredible, and despite an even bigger page count looming for Oathbringer (1248, a 20% increase!!!), I’m really looking forward to it…

Book Review: God of Broken Things by Cameron Johnston

God of Broken Things

Format:  paperback, first edition, 2019

Pages:  312

Reading Time:  about 8 hours

One Sentence Synopsis: Edrin Walker has survived a battle with gods and monsters and saved his city, only to find out that he must lead a suicide mission to his birthplace to fight off Skallgrim invaders, powerful creatures of horror…and his grandmother.

 

Cameron Johnston’s The Traitor God was tied for my top read of 2018, and absolute thrill ride that earns a spot in my all-time favorites. God of Broken Things is the sequel, in which Johnston promised that he would be “dialing up the monsters and magic to 12“. So was he successful? Read on to find out, but expect to encounter some spoilers, as well as several for The Traitor God, which I recommend you read before reading this review. For a good synopsis of the story, check out Mark Everett Stone’s review over at new york journal of books. Now, on to the guest reviews from cyberspace…

 

Dr. Dann Lewis of Grimdark Magazine says: “Johnston’s way with words is another thing that I must mention. The base description within the generic grimdark story revolves around “action, blood, sex, magic, monsters, more action, blood, and more sex”. At times there is little to no nuisance, and this is where Johnston excels above his luminaries. To read passages such as: ‘The Scarrabus shrieked in rage…as their god-beast fell to earth, burning and unconscious, its vast mind a fragmented thing drained of all magic…they slammed through the skin of the world and its fiery blood spewed into the sky’ and ‘flesh burst in a welter of blood and from his insides a god came forth…my guts churned and my Gift burned as if I stood too close to an inferno’, not only depict the world as gritty and dark, but as magical, volatile, and bleak. Broken Things is filled to the brim with such little details that build upon Johnston’s already wonderful world…Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed Broken Things, there were some parts that detracted from Johnston’s novel. The language itself was a little derivative and while his description and worldbuilding was spot on, the characters’ vernacular and narration was, at times, tedious. This was disappointing and distracted me considerably as, more often than not, wonderful tidbits of detail was placed next to lines such as ‘Oh. Fucking. Shite. I suddenly needed to piss. Badly.’. The wittiness and banter does add a layer of levity much needed in Broken Things, but there were many instances where the levity took on a life of its own. The swearing did also border on being quite juvenile and not befitting such a fantasy realm, but that may in fact be a personal qualm of mine. The characters were, unfortunately, mostly forgettable, though that might be the fault of being in the shoes of Edrin Walker. As a first-person novel, the reader is beholden to whatever the protagonist wants to see, feel, taste, and describe, and this in no exception in Broken Things.

Nick T. Borrelli of Out Of This World SFF Reviews states: “Where the first book was more of a slow-burn that focused on Edrin in somewhat of a detective role trying to uncover the identity of the murderer of his best friend, GOD OF BROKEN THINGS puts a boot on your throat from page one and never lets up. It’s very rare that you get a second book that actually has even more action and thrills than the first, but this fits that bill. Normally second books are methodical and used as a setup for the breathtaking and riveting final book finish. Yeah, not so much here…Johnston has just gotten better and better as a storyteller and his characters continue to have incredible depth and personality that you don’t see in many fantasy books these days. Yes, Edrin is still a wiseguy who believes he can get out of any situation, but he also has a vulnerability that makes him sympathetic and endearing. ..The ruined city of Setharis is described in such amazing detail as we get to see and feel the devastation that led to its fall and the subsequent aftermath. Yet we also get a sense that it may rise again one day and here is where Johnston hints at a bit of hope in the midst of enormous hopelessness. I can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed this book.

Finally, T. Eric Bakutis of The Fantasy Hive opines: “On the surface, God of Broken Things is a war story, and the ways Johnston leverages his already interesting magic system into the punches and counterpunches of a running magical military battle is one of the most entertaining parts of the book. If there’s one thing Walker’s good at, it’s coming up with nasty tricks and traps to slay his enemies, yet this time, the enemy is just as devious and clever as he is. Worse yet, Walker has traitors within his ranks waiting to backstab him the moment they get the chance. The running battles of the book are a highlight that showcase Johnston’s cool magic system. However, Johnston’s book is much more than a series of riveting battles and explosions. As Walker’s situation gets more desperate, we gain further insight into the events that shaped him into the dickish yet sympathetic jerk he’s become. We also (finally!) learn the true origin of Walker’s demon dagger and his history with his witchy brethren, and watch him move beyond vengeance to truly caring about people outside of his circle of friends. He grows both as a person and a leader. By the time the book careens toward its close, the stakes have risen beyond even Walker’s worse fears. The final clash between Walker and the leader of the opposing army is as epic as the flesh kaiju battle from the first book, and just as satisfying. And as is typical for Walker, the choices he makes in the end leave almost everyone incredibly pissed off, which is just the way he’d want it…If you enjoy bloody, highly tactical magic battles, a slow burn demonic history reveal, and a grumpy and relatable jerk who you can’t help but root for despite his flaws, God of Broken Things is your jam.

 

The city of Setharsis as a setting appears as a fraction of the story this time around, as Edrin Walker heads out to the mountains of the Clanholds to do battle with the invading Skallgrim. I found this slightly disappointing, as the open terrain is an inferior setting compared to that of Walker’s hometown, which I absolutely loved in the first book. Also, in a setting of this magnitude, it’s impossible to maintain the insane pace of the first book, since there is much more traveling and strategic battle planning involved. Still, I applaud Johnston for trying something different from his first plot. Equivalent in many ways to our own Celt society, the Clanfolk seemed to be more than just barbarians despite their primitive beliefs and simple lifestyle. While there, we get a glimpse into Walker’s past (he grew up in the Clanholds), including the sadistic grandmother that caused so much damage to him when he was younger.

Walker travels with a group of misfit mages to aid him in his mission. This was possibly the least believable aspect of the story, as Walker’s quest is billed as a desperate attempt to stall the Scarrabus parasites, and yet the Arcanum gives him little assistance to get the job done, asking for volunteers to accompany him instead of assigning them. The volunteers that step forward are flawed just like Walker is, but their skills are complimentary to one another and the group ends up being greater than the sum of its parts. To add a bit of a twist and some mystery, an unknown member of the group is very likely a traitor, which is a problem that must be solved in the midst of trying to stop the Skallgrim invasion.

The supporting characters are fleshed out just enough to make you care about them, although each deserves a little more page time to explore their personality and past. In his review, Dr. Dann points out:

The characters were, unfortunately, mostly forgettable, though that might be the fault of being in the shoes of Edrin Walker. As a first-person novel, the reader is beholden to whatever the protagonist wants to see, feel, taste, and describe, and this in no exception in Broken Things.

This is a really great observation. When a supporting character in the story was lost, I had a feeling of disappointment, but not really grief, as I didn’t really bond as strongly to them as I would have with more development involved. One way that Johnston could have overcome this is through more interaction between Walker and his coterie. Through direct dialog, more of each character’s personality would come through, we’d learn more about their background and what makes them tick. Maybe we’re not supposed to care about them – Walker certainly doesn’t (for the most part) – but dammit, just because Walker doesn’t, that shouldn’t mean that I don’t. I wanted to feel the loss of these people, for their lives to matter more. I do want to thank Johnston for bringing back a prominent character that I really enjoyed in the first book, and one that I did care about…Johnston did well with that character, and no I won’t spoil it.

While the pacing is fine and the battle strategies and large scale combat taking place on open terrain are interesting, as I mentioned above the pacing isn’t as thrilling as that of the first book, and the plot is not as tight. In fact, there are several diversionary scenes, including interacting with gods and powerful beings on other planes of existence that take the story on an odd tangent. Combined with the downtime of traveling (since the landscape isn’t really anything groundbreaking), the book drags a bit more than The Traitor God.

Walker himself is still the snarky, self-preserving arse that he was in the first book, but you don’t go through what he did without some changes happening. Always the reluctant hero, he is a bit more willing to embrace the role this time around, and actually displays some leadership skills in running his band of misfits on their suicide mission. The ability to “think outside the box” and come up with clever solutions to problems while still maintaining his self-preservation motivation is quite the balancing act, and Johnston manages to pull it off, which is no simple feat.

The trio of enemies – Skallgrim, Scarrabus and Elder Tyrant – work well as a foil to Walker. And Walker’s meet up with his grandmother is satisfying as well. The ending was a bit predictable to me, and there’s something that I thought didn’t make sense. Here I will post a SPOILER ALERT – YOU SHOULD SKIP TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH! After the battle, when Walker’s mind inhabits a new body, that body just vanishes from the battlefield, only to reappear later somewhere far away. I’m not really clear as to how this was possible, but maybe I just missed something?

In conclusion, I’d have to say that I really liked God of Broken Things. While I don’t think that Johnston was quite able to dial the magic and monsters up to 12, and that The Traitor God was a bit better, I still enjoyed this new story immensely. I know Johnston values honest critiques and I offer up some minor ones here to build him up, not tear him down. Walker is a dark and yet likable hero and narrator, and God of Broken Things could still end up being my favorite release in 2019. I’ve heard some people say they can’t wait for the next one, while others are stating that Edrin Walker’s tale ends here. On his blog (see the “Cameron Writes” link in my sidebar), Johnston drops some hints that this might indeed be the end. I would be disappointed by that, but I also think Johnston would never say never, and at some point he’ll have a new idea rolling around in his head while he’s smithing swords, drinking ale or walking among ruins. He did state on my site in the interview we did (prior to the release of The Traitor God) that “if only The Traitor God does well enough to get a book 2 & 3“, which means book 3 *is* possible. I hope that’s the case because I’d love to see more of Edrin Walker and Setharis in the future…

Book Review: Fool’s Quest by Robin Hobb

fools quest

Format:  hard cover, first edition, 2015

Pages:  754

Reading Time:  about 19 hours

One Sentence Synopsis:  Fitz returns to Buckkeep, Fool in tow, in some highly emotional scenes, but when he finds out Bee has been kidnapped, nothing will stop him in pursuing the kidnappers and attempting to get his daughter back.

 

I can’t tell you how charged with anticipation I was to pick up this book after the cliffhanger ending of the first book in The Fitz and the Fool series, Fool’s Assassin, left me wanting more. Robin Hobb has rarely failed to disappoint me, and I expected Fool’s Quest to be no different. So was that the case? Read on to find out, and note that I’ve kept spoilers here to a minimum, although there will be some spoilers of events in Fool’s Assassin, which is necessary to help shed light on this sequel. First, some excellent guest reviews from cyberspace…

 

Joshua Hill of Fantasy Book Review says: “For those who are not fans of jumping points of view, this book might at times irk, as we continue to jump primarily from Fitz’s point of view, to that of his daughter, Bee. Bee does not receive a lot of page-time in this novel, and when she does the complete juxtaposition in character from that of her father rubs a little raw at times. However, I choose to see that as an example of just how well Robin Hobb has written these characters that the reader is so easily able to see that they have jumped perspective and are now in the mind of a completely different character. In the same vein, Robin Hobb is able to write the Fool in just such a way that he is completely and utterly believably a selfish jerk throughout the vast majority of this book, leaving me, the reader, feeling thoroughly uncomfortable at having to sit through portions of the book where he is whining about one thing or another. But the twist in this is not that the character is badly written, but that his situation has created a person so deeply traumatised and simultaneously hell-bent on revenge that all common-sense and reason has been eaten away, leaving behind only the shell of what once was, and in its place a vengeful and hateful, yet cowardly and fearful replacement. So while I might itch at returning to the point of view of our hero, Fitz, and away from the helplessness of his daughter Bee’s point of view chapters, and while I might desire to throttle the Fool for his absurd view on life, I can do neither (not least because it’s a book) because those are the characters they are, and to be otherwise would result in a lesser story and lesser characters.

Rob B of SFFWorld states: “There are so many things that happen to Fitz (and the Six Duchies) of tremendous import here, I hesitate to reveal any of them. Some are wonderful (Fitz), others are harrowing (Chade), while still others initially provide for a strong sense of cognitive dissonance (Fitz and the Fool). But of everything, the emotional flavor of this novel for me was bittersweet – heartwarming passages and emotional highs followed by the depths of despair. From Fool’s Assassin to Fool’s Quest, Fitz has been dragged through an emotional crucible, as was the Fool to an extent (both emotional and physical) in prior novels. In the Fool’s case we just get to learn more about it here in Fool’s Quest. My point is that these two characters have spent a great deal of time apart dealing with emotional and physical hardships. They both had to have their souls nearly destroyed so they could become the ideal versions of themselves through a rebirth and healing to confront their adversaries. The sense of urgency in the novel is extremely heightened, despite the same reserved pace that made Fool’s Assassin such a joy to read and experience. Fool’s sense of urgency to strike back at his tormentors, combined with Fitz’s desperation to find his stolen daughter made for incredible tension. Fitz’s experience; however, makes him realize rushing into their situation will only be a detriment to their success. Robin Hobb balanced their tension with a quiet reserve during many of the court scenes and meetings that Fitz was obliged to experience very well, giving both frustration and hope. Hobb’s magnetic, captivating prose completely wrapped itself around me.

Beauty in Ruins opines: “Fool’s Quest is an absolutely brilliant book that works perfectly on all levels. It takes the story that was introduced in the first volume, builds upon it, develops it, and sheds new light on what has gone before. More than that, it’s also takes the story that was told in the first two trilogies and develops it in some surprising (but welcome) directions. I won’t spoil the moment by providing any sort of context, but if you aren’t overcome with emotion when Fitz says “The roar of acclaim broke over me like a wave,” then you haven’t been paying attention to the sacrifices he’s made throughout the series…As for the other cornerstone here, I won’t lie when I say that I loved every scene with the Fool. Here is a scarred, broken, damaged man, one who has been robbed of everything from his sense of purpose to his sense of future. He’s come to Fitz for help, for protection, and for revenge. He’s so terrified and so vulnerable that we get to experience another role relationship reversal between him and Fitz. The Fool grows as he heals, prompted by his own desire for revenge, by a surprising revelation regarding young Bee, and by his experimentation with a dangerous cure. His scenes are emotionally exhausting – as they should be – and he proves to be just as stubborn and obsessed as Fitz or Chade could ever be…This is a book that I found myself excited about, from beginning to end, never once lamenting those lulls to build character or reveal the truth behind schemes and actions. It was glorious to properly return to Buckkeep, but I also enjoyed our visits back to Withywoods. More than all that, though, I enjoyed our trips through the Stones the most, especially as they take us to some surprising (and nostalgic) places in the concluding chapters…Fool’s Quest isn’t just a return to form for Fitz, Chade, and the Fool, it’s a return to form for Hobb herself. This is precisely the kind of novel we were all expecting from the opening chapter of The Fitz and The Fool Trilogy, and it has me ridiculously anxious to read the next. The pacing is perfect, the characters ring true, and the world building continues in some delightfully surprising ways. There’s a lot of intimate, personal conflict here, and I really wondered how she would resolve it all, but the final chapters are some of the most satisfying she’s ever written – and that includes the agonizing cliffhanger we’ve come to expect.

 

Fool’s Quest is the middle book in The Fitz and the Fool series. When I read and reviewed the first book, I stated how I was frustrated by the plot but didn’t think the pacing was bad, while being of the opinion that the characterization was superb, what Hobb in essence is most known for. For me, Fool’s Quest reverses some things. I was frustrated by the characterization, thought the pacing wasn’t bad, and I really enjoyed the plot. I’ll get into each of these aspects in a moment, but it’s important to keep in the back of your mind that this book is outstanding, whatever criticisms I may have of it.

The reason I was disappointed by characterization here, which I usually consider to be Hobb’s strength, is the absolute frustration of following characters that wallow in self-pity, selfishness, or cluelessness. Hobb’s treatment of Fool’s character is the single worst decision she has ever made with regard to any of her characters. The mystery, quirkiness, wit and sarcasm of Fool have been stripped away, to leave nothing but a selfish, bitter and broken child-like man. I realize this was a necessary evil for Hobb to get the plot where it needs to go. That doesn’t mean it is easy to stomach, and is in fact difficult to wade through.

Meanwhile, another frustration is following Fitz as he wanders around Buckkeep, clueless that his daughter has been taken, while the reader knows. It made me want to skip ahead to the point where Fitz finally is informed, because you know the story has to pick up at that point. Skipping ahead would be a mistake, as I will relate in moment, but the desire is there. Bee continues to be a delight for me to follow, and even Shun is redeemed a bit, and while still a bit unlikable, speaks to Hobb’s abilities to make you care about a character that you thought you’d care nothing for. One of the best things about Fitz’s stay at Buckkeep, however, is more page time for Dutiful, Kettricken, Elliania, and Nettle, which is long overdue. The relationship in particular between Fitz and Kettricken is quite complicated. As we know from the past, she is more than just a stepmother…Verity used Fitz’s body to help conceive Dutiful with Kettricken. With Dutiful long gone, leaving Kettricken lonely, there are undercurrents of emotional (and even sexual) tension between Fitz and Kettricken that seem incredibly plausible, especially if you’ve studied the activities among the royals of Great Britain and European nations. I’m still a bit confused about Lant’s character – what is his purpose in the story – but I’ll give Hobb the benefit of the doubt here.

Plot is where Fool’s Quest absolutely shines. Despite Fitz spinning his wheels at Buckkeep for a time, it gives Hobb the opportunity to pursue something long overdue. There is a poignant scene that Beauty In Ruins describes above, without trying to be too “spoilery”:

if you aren’t overcome with emotion when Fitz says “The roar of acclaim broke over me like a wave,” then you haven’t been paying attention to the sacrifices he’s made throughout the series.

That’s an incredibly deft way to describe an event without giving too much away. I’ll go along with that, but I will add this: I mentioned in my review of Fool’s Assassin that Hobb is the only author that made me feel so much sorrow, that not only did I have to stop reading as I blubbered at the loss of a character, the hurt stayed with me for days. Here, Hobb achieves the opposite – tears rolled down my face as I was overcome with emotion, but in a positive way. All the wrongs that had been done to Fitz, all the punishment, prejudice and pain, the toiling in obscurity, the absence of a regular life with Molly and Nettle – it is all reversed in a single scene that allows the brilliance of Hobb’s writing to shine more than that of a hundred – nay, a thousand – diamonds. That one scene makes the entire book, and entire series, satisfying and worthwhile. It doesn’t matter what came before, nor where the series is headed…it gave me an amazing moment that I will never forget. Near the end of the is another surprisingly emotional scene involving a character thought long gone. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that it was bittersweet to experience, but I still appreciated that the character wasn’t forgotten. Making an emotional connection between the story and the reader is something Hobb does better than any other writer in fantasy.

As if that weren’t enough, I thought I knew where the plot was going, thinking back to a scene in the original series when Fitz manages to poison a group of men that intend to do him harm. In a surprise twist, things turn out a bit differently than I expected. In fact, Hobb lulls you into the fact that though Fitz still appears to be fairly young, in reality he finds that his age does limit him more than expected. It is such a refreshing alternative to the energy-filled enthusiasm of coming-of-age stories, of which there seems to be an endless supply. But there is also loss that provides motivation for Fitz to truly become Fool’s assassin. In my review of Fool’s Assassin, I mentioned some things that I thought were problems, such as inconsistency in Shun’s characterization, and also things I thought I had cleverly guessed such as Bee’s ties to Fool (though it appears that maybe it wasn’t that hard to figure out). While Hobb explained Shun’s inconsistencies through some dialog from Chade, I still found that explanation a bit implausible.

The pacing isn’t bad. Some found it better in this book than in the first; I thought the first half of the book suffers a bit based on what I wrote above about Fitz being clueless with regard to the welfare of his daughter…we know what happened and have to wait for him to catch up, which takes awhile. The moping bitterness and selfishness of Fool is also a drag on the pace. But once Fitz learns about what happened at Withywoods, the pace picks up and is so compelling that I didn’t want to put the book down. So to summarize, the pace is a little worse than Fool’s Assassin in the first half of Fool’s Quest, but far better in the second half.

In conclusion I can say that Fool’s Quest is outstanding, one of the best books I’ve read this year and it easily tops the list of books I’ve read that were published in 2015. With emotional highs, an unpredictable plot and a bit better pacing than the first book, the only thing that holds Fool’s Quest back a bit is the unusually frustrating (for Hobb) characterization. I am both excited and apprehensive at what I will find in the final book, Assassin’s Fate

Book Review: An Echo Of Things To Come by James Islington

echo of things to comeFormat:  hard cover, first edition, 2017

Pages:  716

Reading Time:  about 18 hours

One Sentence Synopsis:  Wirr must deal with the fallout of repealing the laws against gifted and Augers; Caeden begins to regain his memories and struggles to deal with them; Asha investigates the disappearance of Shadows and discovers a greater threat; and Davian runs into problems at the Tol while his instincts urge him to get to the failing Boundary as soon as possible.

 

In my review of James Islington’s The Shadow Of What Was Lost, the first book in the Licanius trilogy, I praised his worldbuilding and character development, but I was concerned that 3 books would not be sufficient to effectively wrap up the plot. I really loved the first book, so did that carry over to An Echo Of Things To Come, or did it suffer from “middle book syndrome”? Read on to find out, and beware of spoilers for this book and the previous one, but first a few guest reviews collected from other sites…

James Tivendale of Fantasy Book Review says: “The narrative starts slowly and takes a few 100-pages to really get going. A fair amount of new characters are introduced or expanded on from the shorter almost cameo roles they had in the previous book. Andyn, Wirr’s witty and mysterious bodyguard was a personal favourite. Certain side characters never feel as fully fleshed as I would have liked though and more often act as devices to point the main characters in a certain plot direction. The magic scheme is still enhanced and pretty glorious though and through Caeden’s flashbacks we are given views of the phenomenal potential it can have as well as the history surrounding it and it’s past users…The magic-system, world-building, and character-development are sublime. The pacing was slightly off for me here very occasionally…The final third sees everything speed up and previous complexities seem to make sense. There are a few tragic moments, unexpected deaths, and brief torture scenes. All the story arcs conclude in an intense and exciting fashion…

The Quill To Live explains: “Book two however, is where the plot starts to really become clear. The Licanius series is all about time in many senses. While the magic of the world surrounds manipulating time’s flow, the themes that are explored by the cast also revolve around time. Some characters have lost their past and are working hard to discover who they are and what happened to them. Some characters are trapped in a terrible present that they want to escape, and are searching for anyway to rewrite the past or find a future with hope. And some characters have seen an echo of things to come and must prepare and plan to deal with what they know is inevitable…While it might be unfair to both series, I can’t help but think that Licanius is shaping up to be a better version of The Wheel of Time. It has all the things that made that classic great; a diverse cast, a sweeping epic world, an unambiguous evil to fight against, and a protagonist rising from nothing to greatness. But it also shores up a lot of the issues I have with Wheel (such as its pacing issues); however, no book is perfect. One of the POV’s in the story is a man recovering his memories. His segments are often used to give you insight into the backstory and history of the world as the character and reader discover his past together. This can unfortunately result in some confusing sections as following conversations with people he used to know can be difficult. On the other hand, if you can put up with being a little in the dark you will eventually have enough puzzle pieces to understand who everyone is and what is happening – and the payoff is definitely worth it.

The Eloquent Page states: “The thing I like most about this book is that each character’s narrative thread weaves seamlessly into the story as a whole. Take Caeden for example. As he uncovers more and more about his murky past, he has to confront the fact that he has done things he isn’t proud of. The question that looms ever greater in his mind. If push comes to shove, would Caeden choose his friends over the greater good? An Echo of Things to Come reinforces the idea that the author has hinted at before; there is no such thing as entirely good or entirely evil there are just endless shades of grey. Character perspective is key when it comes to events unfolding. Due to the gaps in his memory, Caeden is the character ideally suited for seeing both sides of the conflict. Islington does a great job of subtly exploring the nature of this dichotomy while ensuring his observations always enhance the plot…When it comes to epic fantasy I guess you’re going to expect a large cast of characters. I think a story’s ultimate success or failure is dependent on how well the author is able to flip between multiple different perspectives. George R R Martin is a master at this, and James Islington displays similar skill. A shocking admission I know, but in other epic fantasy novels I have skipped whole chapters whenever I realise it is a specific character that is being followed. Fortunately, I never felt the desire to do that in this case…Book two of The Licanius Trilogy achieves exactly what I had hoped for. Not only does it build successfully on the solid groundwork James Islington crafted in book one it also allows the characters to evolve. The second part of a trilogy needs to act as a bridge between the beginning and end of a story. All signs suggest that this latest release does exactly that. Like a massive fantastical boulder, An Echo of Things to Come gathers momentum as it hurtles towards its conclusion. There is little doubt that reading, never mind writing, this series is a massive undertaking but it is entirely worth it. Great characters, a plot that captivates and some first-class world building are coming together to create something quite special. If you like your vistas endless and your narratives legendary then look no further.

 

Character development continues to be one of Islington’s greatest strengths. His characters speak and act believable, with emotional depth, and their interaction, especially between Caeden and the immortals, is wonderful. If Islington’s characters lack anything, it is perhaps an absence of personality quirks that would make them more individualistic. Each of the main characters are capable of showing fear, bravery, determination and empathy, but they all feel just a little too “same”, for lack of a better word. They need a few odd quirks or mannerisms that set them apart from each other. Asha is still my favorite character, and she has some tense scenes in the catacombs that are riveting. Davian also has some compelling moments, particularly in sequence at the Tol where he and other augers are confronted, and the resolution is smartly written and satisfying. Wirr has been a wasted character to me, but the scenes in which he confronts his mother create a lot of tension and are well done.

I have to say that I am impressed by the structure of Islington’s writing and plot. This book (and series) is less a question about good and evil, and more so about destiny versus free will. Think about all the fantasy books you’ve read where events all just happily line up to get the story and characters where they need to go. Most of the time it’s actually far too unbelievable and convenient. Lucky breaks, timely assistance, alignment of multiple factors…most stories don’t even acknowledge how the plot elements perfectly fall into place in order to achieve the writer’s desired outcome. In An Echo Of Things To Come, Islington has made a conscious choice to bring the concept out in the open and explain why things happen. There are two opposing forces, or gods, in the story. One god represents chaos and destruction, and is initially depicted as evil. The other god, or “the good one”, manages to contain the evil one by creating a world of predestination, or fate, where every action has already been predetermined.

Where Islington’s story becomes intriguing lies in the question of whether the roles of the god might be reversed, and those fighting for predestination may be on the wrong side. It is something Caeden struggled with so greatly that he turned on his fellow immortals to follow the path of “evil”. This struggle is conveyed, as Caeden travels to a series of pre-determined locations, through a series of flashbacks that restore small bits of Caeden’s memory, with each location triggering a flashback through its familiarity to him. While this is totally fascinating, as The Quill To Live states above, it also serves as the main problem with the book: the flashbacks often cause confusion, because we don’t know the ancient peoples, cultures, and settings in which these flashbacks take place. By design, Islington has hidden much of the worldbuilding and brings it out little by little. For the reader, being given small pieces of information in the overall puzzle often isn’t enough to make sense of what is happening. Several characters have more than one name, which only adds to the confusion. I think an immediate re-read would help immensely, as I found myself skimming back to previous pages in order to put things together. It probably all makes sense in Islington’s head, but for me it was sometimes a struggle to maintain clarity. It’s no secret that I despise flashbacks as an over-used plot device in print or television, and this simply adds fuel to that fire.

With regard to pacing, aside from the flashbacks the book moves along at a decent pace. Davian’s story is naturally compelling as his race to the barrier is impeded. Caeden’s story is just as compelling as he unlocks the mystery behind his past. Asha and Wirr’s narratives should bog the story down, but Islington solves this through the tense scenes I described above. I hated to put the book down, and each time I couldn’t wait to get back to it.

The worldbuilding also continues to be sublime. Although Caeden’s flashbacks are a problem, as the story got closer to the end, I felt I finally had enough information to start putting the pieces together. As I begin to understand more and more of Islington’s world, I am impressed by the thought and scope he has put into its past. The concept of the barrier is nothing new; many books have barriers that fall and release an evil entity. But some of the concepts that Islington employs, such as how the barrier is powered, and how it can be crossed, is pretty unique.

In conclusion I was enthralled with this book, despite my concerns over the confusing flashbacks. The characters and worldbuilding, as well as some of the plot piece reveals and Islington’s ability to maintain tension, continue to support the excellence that began with the previous entry. To me, An Echo Of Things To Come never feels like a middle book or suffers from “middle book syndrome”, despite that being the book’s ultimate purpose. I’m still not convinced Islington is going to wrap up this series to my satisfaction in one more book; it’s more likely that much of the past will remain in the past and largely remain a mystery, unless Islington decides to write some prequels. I also don’t see how the plot will reach the point where Davian time travels to the present day from the future. I’m looking forward to the next book, but I’m a bit sad that the series is coming to end when it deserves a Wheel of Time‘s worth of material. So far, this is the best book I’ve read that was published in 2017, and seems like it’s part of a “golden age of fantasy” where the quality of material that has been recently released is unprecedented…

Book Review: The Wrath of Heroes by David Benem

wrath of heroesFormat:  paperback, first edition (signed by author), 2017

Pages:  520

Reading Time:  about 12 hours

One Sentence Synopsis:  As the Spider King and his allies and minions seek to increase their power while General Fane seems to be deliberately losing the war, it’s up to Lannick, Bale, and Gamghast to stand against them, while Fencress despairs over the changes that have transformed Karnag into something out of nightmares.

 

Author David Benem provided me with a signed copy of The Wrath of Heroes last year, free of charge. While that was quite generous and I appreciate the gesture, that in no way influences my review. I didn’t ask for a free copy, and as a reader I look for unbiased reviews when choosing to spend my money on a book, so there’s no way I’m going to dupe someone else in the hope of getting more free books and lose all credibility. This review will also be unique in the fact that I didn’t find any guest reviews to spotlight.

The first thing I noticed about the book on receiving it was the sheer meatiness. Weighing in at 520 pages, it is noticeably thicker than the 396 pages of the previous entry. This lends some serious consideration to the notion that this is a book to be taken seriously and promises more depth than the first book. So with that said, I’ll proceed with my thoughts, and try to point out spoilers ahead of time. There may also be spoilers for What Remains of Heroes here, so enter with caution.

In my review of the previous book in the series, What Remains of Heroes, I stated that the action was a bit lacking, but that I had heard that the sequel was better in that regard. This is absolutely true. Those 520 pages that I mentioned above are packed with tense travels through hostile areas, the infiltration of a Necrist stronghold, and an all-out battle for the town of Riverweave, as well as showdowns between multiple characters and their nemeses. The Wrath of Heroes exceeded my expectations in regard to action sequences. While not a thrill ride like Cameron Johnston’s The Traitor God, there is more than enough action here to satisfy the reader. That Benem manages to do this while developing both his main and supporting characters is an impressive feat. I did struggle a couple of times to envision how some of the sequences were playing out, so I think Benem can improve on his descriptions of spacial relationship between characters as well as between them and the environment in which the sequence takes place. I also think that because of the heightened focus on more action and character development, the worldbuilding has lessened – there isn’t quite as much to be found here as there is in the first book – but that is a minor quibble. Benem did such a good job with it in the first book, that what is found in The Wrath of Heroes suffices. Between Bale and Gamghast’s discoveries, the Necrist Tower, The Spider King, and the revelation of two more Sentinels, plus the evolution of Karnag’s character, I feel that there’s plenty of material that indirectly supports the worldbuilding aspect.

The characters continue to be a mixed bag. It’s okay for characters to have flaws, but the degree to which Lannick and Bale struggle is at times frustrating. Benem is really walking a tightrope here. Lannick and Bale are so weak, their struggles are so great, that it often seems like they succeed in spite of themselves, not because of talent or noble character. While these flaws do serve to humanize them and helps them avoid falling into stereotypical tropes, it also makes them less compelling and the end effect is that the supporting characters are far more interesting. This results in disappointment, because instead of reading about those more interesting characters, I’m stuck focusing on ones that I don’t care as much about. Characters like The Spider King, Lorra, Alisa, Wil, and Queen Reyis all deserve more page time.

In an interesting twist that started back in the middle of What Remains of Heroes, Fencress and Karnag have switched places, where Fencress has become a main character and Karnag a supporting one. This is a good choice, too, as Fencress continues to be one of the best, if not the best, characters in the story. The villains of the story like Fain, Alamis, and the dread Necrists are easy to root against. Karnag remains a puzzle to solve, and I have no idea where is character arc is headed, while Fencriss slowly loses hope that she can save him. That unpredictability is a good thing! It’s also worth noting that I didn’t feel as detached from the characters as I did in the first book. Lannick’s emotional instability is still often frustrating, but at least his path to redemption has taken a step forward and he is not as much of a drag on the story this time around. Bale is probably my least favorite character now, and his whining, crying, and constant terror at anything that moves is pretty annoying, but fortunately there are plenty of other characters that lessen his personality’s effect on the story. For what it’s worth, Bale’s part in the story is important, as the Sentinels will surely have a big part to play in the future.

Benem’s plot winds tightly through the book, and I had no idea where it was going. There were several times when I thought I knew what was going to happen, and Benem took the story in a different direction or just flat out surprised me. This unpredictability also adds to the compelling nature of the book. Benem’s not averse to killing off characters, even evil ones, earlier than I expected, in order to advance the plot. It is rather refreshing. The editing seems a little better this time around and nothing stood out to me as a problem…not that it was a big issue in the first book. The writing just seems to be incredibly polished for a self-published novel. The cover art is good and the map at the front of the book is appreciated, although I didn’t really refer to it since I had looked at it previously on Benem’s blog. I should also mention that there are some grimdark elements in the book, so if swearing, severed limbs and torture bother you, best to look elsewhere. It really didn’t bother me at all.

SPOILER ALERT! There are a couple of scenes in the book that I found really compelling. One involved Lannick’s confinement and transport in a coffin, and the moment where hope of escape arrives had me on the edge of my seat. I also enjoyed Bale, Lorra and Alisa moving through the Spider King’s tower and their subsequent showdown with the Necrists. Perhaps the best sequence in the book involves Karnag facing off against the Spider King. All of those moments were memorable long after the pages of the book had closed.

In conclusion, Benem has crafted an action-packed tale that is better than the first book, showing that his writing has improved from the first book to the second. While the main characters are at times a chore to follow, and the worldbuilding has been dialed back a bit, the action, pace, and compelling scenes more than make up for it. When I look at other books I’ve reviewed from 2017 so far, I’d say The Wrath of Heroes is as good as Battle Mage, which I really enjoyed, and far above Forsaken Kingdom. With the increase in self-publishing currently in play that has opened the doors for authors like Benem, this book is proof that such self-published books can offer just as much enjoyment as a published one, but this is entirely dependent on the skill of the author. In The Wrath of Heroes, Benem shows he has that skill. This sets the bar high for The Ruin of Heroes, the third and final book in the series, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed…if Benem can make the leap between his second and third books that he did between the first and second books, I expect The Ruin of Heroes to be outstanding. No pressure, Mr. Benem!

Book Review: The Siege of Abythos by Phil Tucker

siege of abythos

Format: oversized paperback, self-published first edition, 2016

Pages: 719

Reading Time: about 17 hours

One Sentence Synopsis: As a war is fought on two fronts, Asho, Kethe, Iskra, Audsley, Tiron, and Tharok cross paths when the Empire struggles against corruption within, and also against from Tharok’s forces that lay siege in an epic attempt to seize of the fortress of Abythos.

 

At the conclusion of The Black Shriving, Phil Tucker’s previous entry in the Chronicles of the Black Gate, I thought that The Siege of Abythos could be outstanding if Tucker managed to maintain tension, reveal secrets, and develop characters while avoiding plot predictability. So was Tucker able to accomplish this in The Siege of Abythos? Read on to find out, but be prepared for spoilers for this book as well as the previous entries. First, here are a couple of guest reviews from cyberspace…

 

Calvin Park of Fantasy Book Review writes: “The world building in this series continues to be unique and intriguing in multiple ways. The way that the religious system interweaves with the concrete functioning of the world is believable and absolutely fascinating. In this third book in the series, we get more clarity around the magic system (though also plenty that has yet to be revealed) and we get to see even more of the world itself. To me, it felt like plot, characters, and setting all really coalesced in this novel. We’re definitely in the thick of things now in terms of plot and Tucker has done a stupendous job of keeping the plot fast moving while constantly developing new threats and new twists. The sense of development here is nearly off the charts. Every character is different at the end of the novel compared to the beginning. Every plot thread has been moved forward or wrapped up in a way that actually shifts things and moves another thread forward…There was, however, one aspect of the novel that just did not hit for me. Kethe’s arc felt very out of character, in a lot of ways. To begin, she spends the vast majority of the novel being reactive and doing exactly what she’s told to do with little defiance. This just felt so unlike Kethe from the previous novels. I believe we’re meant to understand that she had some sort of a spiritual experience which leads to this, but it didn’t seem that way to me. It felt like our defiant, fiercely driven Kethe was inexplicably compliant and going through the motions. The brief glimpses we received of the old Kethe were primarily instances where she was just being mean because other people weren’t as compliant as she was…The Siege of Abythos is filled with fast moving, twisting plots and loyalties with an amazing cast of characters. Tucker’s Chronicles of the Black Gate is quickly becoming one of my absolute favorite epic fantasy series.

J. C. Kang of Fantasy Faction states: “So, now back to the original premise of my review, which is that the dogma of Ascendency is just a tool for control. Of course, just three books in, this is only my reader theory; but our favorite Kragh Warlord, Tharok, pretty much lays out how religion can be used to manipulate followers, and even goes about creating his own to those ends. Tharok isn’t the only fictional L. Ron Hubbard, either. As with the previous two books, the worldbuilding in this installment is deliciously detailed, and we start The Siege of Abythos at polar opposites: the slave mines of Bythos, and the stone cloud of Aletheia. As our heroes go about their individual missions, we are steeped deeper into the culture that Ascendancy propagates, and learn just how deeply it is ingrained, even in those it subjugates. The contrast of these two societies at the opposite end of ascension is marvelous. The black market and crime syndicates that operate within the enslaved population of Bythos is reminiscent of mafia and triads that subjugated but also supported immigrant communities in America; and we experience it through the eyes of Asho, now an outsider to his own people, as he navigates this minefield, all the while being torn between his loyalty to Iskra and his love for his sister Shaya. Magister Audsley is no stranger to being a fish out of water, the awkward scholar always fought to fit in among the knights and warriors; but in book three, he must face a new challenge in the pretentious upper class of Alathea. A reader cannot help but to hold Tucker’s creation of this society in awe: from the subtle symbolism of colors in the layers of robes someone wears, to the metaphorical language reminiscent of Chinese proverbs (real ones, not the kind you get in fortune cookies), and poetry duels that put epic rap battles in downtown L.A. to shame. If you saw Sokka’s haiku fight in the Last Airbender, yeah, it’s that awesome. These societies, as well as Agerastos, serve as a stage for our beloved characters. Many of us watched with bated breaths as romantic couples formed by the end of The Black Shriving: Iskra and Tiron, and Asho and Kethe. Yet, with three books to go, they could not yet enjoy a Happily Ever After ending. Instead, duty tears both couples apart, but with that comes new strength of character and power.

 

The Siege of Abythos is not only the middle book in the series – a total of 5 books comprise The Chronicles of the Black Gate, and The Siege of Abythos is the third book – but it also “feels” like a middle book. It’s not surprising, then, that it suffers a bit from “middle book syndrome”. It is certainly the thickest book of the series, coming in at 719 pages, and while this affects pacing a bit, it’s not too detrimental to the story. It does help move the plot from a place where all the characters were off doing their own thing, to the decisive siege that brings Tharok into contact with some of the others, neatly tying formerly disparate storylines together in a tidy package.

In The Black Shriving, there was a big emphasis on world building and character growth, while the plot was a bit predictable, and there were many unanswered questions about the way things work, specifically Ascension, the Black Shriving, and the Black Gate. In The Siege of Abythos, none of those questions are really answered, there still aren’t many plot twists, and the characters at times seem to be spinning their wheels while they wait for events to affect them rather than driving the action themselves. The exception is Tharok, who has gotten himself trapped between a rock and hard place, trying to placate his people while playing to the medusa’s ego as she consolidates power in an attempt to subjugate his entire race. It goes without saying that any success that Tharok enjoys feels like it will be short-lived. He begins to not only physical suffer from the effects of the circlet, but also his people are now suffering from the callous decisions he makes while wearing it. Yet he doesn’t dare remove it for any length of time, lest all of his plans fall apart and the medusa enslaves all of the Kragh.

Multiple environments in the worldbuilding are explored, from the heights that Kethe and Audsley are embroiled in (with poetry wars and gladiator-like combat), to the mines and city of Bythos, where we get a peek into Asho’s roots, to the walled fortress of Abythos where a massive battle takes place. Tucker’s worldbuilding continues to be the most outstanding feature of the series. The map at the front of the book is less than helpful, though, as it doesn’t really give a good impression of Tharok’s lands and its relation to Abythos, nor where Abythos is in relation to Bythos.

Meanwhile, Asho struggles to free his people, many of whom are content to entrust their fate to Tharok. Asho’s sister Shaya becomes a fleshed-out character (in the past she was only in Asho’s memories). Iskra struggles to maintain power in the fragile Agerasterian society, making sacrifices that are distasteful and tragic. For poor Tiron, who has been through so much torment already, this feels like a death-blow. But he ends up moving on to a new purpose, and his storyline becomes, dare I say, second only to Audsley’s when it comes to being compelling. Wyland, who was once such an important character to me, continues his slide into oblivion, a victim of religious dogma that turns him into something despicable. And speaking of Audsley, he continues to have the most compelling and wonderfully written pages devoted to his efforts. When he fails, he fails badly, but still somehow manages to find solutions that overcome his problems. Finally, I agree with Calvin above that Kethe becomes a bit boring and she becomes the least-compelling character.

Early on we get a glimpse of the White Gate through Kethe’s eyes. What is this mysterious white light? And how do the multitude of demons near the White Gate manage to not be destroyed by its presence and power? And what the heck is Ascension, really…is it a lie as Iskra believes, or is it true and has been corrupted by the actions of a select few, or perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between? There are many more questions raised than answers given, which is surprising for a book of this size. I’m willing to push those answers out a bit further, but when combined with answers still pending from previous books, I’m concerned that they might never be revealed. I guess I’ll have to take a “wait and see” attitude until I get through the final 2 books.

The battle scenes are done fairly well as compared to previous books, and the siege itself is pretty awe-inspiring in regards to its scale, although I did struggle at times to picture the layout of the fortress accurately…a little more description of aspects of the layout in relation to other aspects is sorely needed at times. Another question I had that was quite puzzling to me was that in Bythos and Abythos, the Black Gate is fairly close. In the previous story it was established that Asho draws his power from the Black Gate, but he is practically powerless despite his constant proximity to it. I found this plot point convenient for the sake of the plot. Perhaps it was explained somewhere why this was the case, but I’m afraid I missed it somehow.

In conclusion, despite suffering from middle book syndrome, in The Siege of Abythos Tucker continues to offer up intrigue and compelling characters, along with excellent worldbuilding, that carry the series forward. I’m really hoping all my questions get answered in the next two books, and until then I’ll give Tucker a pass on keeping me in the dark. While the plot is a bit predictable, the characters often end up far from where they started, and that is a good thing. I really enjoyed The Siege of Abythos and hope Tucker can continue to build the momentum established, answer some of the burning questions I have, and throw in some plot twists to keep me guessing…

Book Review: Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft

arm of sphinxFormat:  oversized paperback, first trade paperback edition, 2018

Pages:  398

Reading Time:  about 9 hours

One sentence synopsis: Thomas Senlin and his crew look for a safe place to hole up as Senlin moves closer to finding his wife, but danger soon throws them into the path of the mysterious and god-like figure known as the Sphinx.

 

Last year, Josiah Bancroft’s Senlin Ascends blew me away…his imaginative world dripped with fantastic imagery and elegant prose that in my mind made it a literary classic, and was one of my favorite stories of all time. I approached this sequel with a mix of excitement and trepidation: the bar had been set high by the first book…could Arm of the Sphinx possibly live up to my lofty expectations? Read on to find out, but first here’s a look at some other reviews from around cyberspace…

 

James Tivendale of Fantasy Book Review states: “There are a larger number of point of view perspectives in the Arm of the Sphinx than in the previous entry. Written in the 3rd person, the characters we follow in addition to Senlin are the one-armed and trustworthy first mate Edith, the inquisitive and adventurous Voleta, her engineer and perhaps untrustworthy brother Adam, and finally, Iren who previously acted as a bouncer/bodyguard within one of the Ringdom’s seedy criminal underworld. The character development is excellent and the above-mentioned members of The Stone Cloud really grow and shine and they are no longer merely side characters in “The Thomas Senlin Show.” We are introduced to these characters’ personal thoughts and feelings which adds heightened affinity and I truly cared about each of these very different individuals. Bancroft writes an exquisite mix of fantasy and steampunk. As further mysteries of the Tower unfold science-fiction elements are introduced and merge seamlessly. The world-building is brilliant and totally unique. The grandiose and labyrinthine Tower is arguably the main character in this series and in this novel new Ringdom’s are introduced for the first time including the Silk Gardens. Each of the Tower’s many Ringdom’s is the size of a city and they all have great differences aesthetically, socially and politically. The only common denominator is that they can all present an extreme degree of danger.

Writer Dan from Elitist Book Reviews opines: “There were two aspects of the novel, however, that significantly detracted from the goodness of the book. The first you might have already guessed: point of view. Instead of the focused, driven, single (overwhelmingly) perspective of Tom Senlin we got in SENLIN ASCENDS, nearly every secondary character that calls Tom a friend got POV time, and there were even a few others that never even met the man. The main difficulty with this is that none of these various characters had anywhere near the motivation, drive, or persona of Tom Senlin, and so this diluted the story significantly. Additionally, there were egregious examples of head-jumping, which I just can’t abide…The second issue that really made me lose some of my steam for the book was the ending. With the title of the book being “Arm of the Sphinx” I fully expected that Edith would be a focus of the story, and she was. In my opinion, her POV was the only one that was justified though, and she should have gotten considerably more attention in the story. All of the others but Tom could have been removed, and it would have made the books much the better. With all the resulting dilution of the story, however, the ending really kind of fizzled for me, and it ended up feeling very much like the second book in a trilogy, or more directly: a setup novel for the final book. Granted, it was only the ending that made me feel this way. So much of the adventure of the entire book was exactly what I’d been looking for. With a lot more focus and energy, this book could have been just as good as its predecessor.

Finally, Dorian Hart of dorianhart.com writes: “First, the sentence-crafting is every bit as good as in Senlin Ascends. Bancroft’s sublime artistry with imagery and metaphors is on full display, making the story a joy to read on its lowest level. I found myself stopping to take notes on particularly lovely turns of phrase, which is not something I typically do while reading…It did feel to me like the author couldn’t quite bring himself to commit either to 3rd-person limited or true 3rd-person omniscient narration, and I did find the head-hopping to be distracting at times. Changes in POV sometimes felt haphazard and unexpected. But the story’s willingness to break its single-lead-character shackles was more a strength than a weakness; it allowed the author to treat us a tale of wider scope and at the same time give us wonderfully detailed characterizations. Of all the types of virtuosity on display in Arm of the Sphinx, my favorite was the author’s ability to present complex physical action with an almost uncanny clarity. I am reminded of a particular scene where [very minor spoiler] a character is trapped in a submerged boat by a monster, and the action could have been extremely confusing to follow in the hands of a less savvy author. But Bancroft made it so easy to follow the complexities of the scene, I never had to pause to reorient myself. All of his action sequences are like that – complex but clear. It’s a rare skill.

 

As the other reviewers have explained above, Arm of the Sphinx is very different from its predecessor. Where Senlin Ascends focused on Thomas Senlin’s point of view, his dogged, straight-line pursuit in search of his wife, and introducing the setting that is the weird and wonderful Tower, in contrast the sequel presents multiple points of view, drifts a bit and at times lacks clear direction, and instead of focusing on the setting of the Tower, instead begins to reveal some of the secrets behind it, much like the curtain being pulled back in The Wizard of Oz to reveal the true nature of the Wizard. In essence, it almost feels as though Bancroft abandoned his original plot and viewpoint to explore other ideas. At times, Arm of the Sphinx is better for it; at others, it suffers because of it.

The analogous phrasing that I loved so much from the first book is more subdued here, but the prose and descriptions are still absolutely stellar. At the beginning of each chapter, Bancroft presents sayings captured from books or other accounts that related to people or events in the tower. It offers a glimpse into the Tower’s past, which is expanded upon by the musings of the Sphinx, a mythical, god-like creature which is part of the mystery revealed as I highlighted above.

Whether or not the differing viewpoints are a benefit or detraction is a matter of personal taste. I enjoyed learning more about Edith, Adam and Voleta…their perspectives allow for a much wider look at the Tower and its denizens than what the single-minded Senlin provides. On the other hand, Senlin’s undaunted purpose, his influence on others, and his cleverness, which drove the first book to incredible heights, are largely absent here. When added to an unintended bout with a chemical substance, as well as Senlin’s wife Marya (who I loved in the first book) being largely portrayed as a negative element rather than a positive due to a plot twist, these things in my opinion cause Arm of the Sphinx to pale in comparison to Senlin Ascends. For most authors that would be a death sentence, but Bancroft is so talented that the story is still a delight in spite of this.

A lot of things I loved about the first book – the steampunk elements, figuring out how the Tower works (I was right on all counts as confirmed by this book), the unique settings, and wondrous moments – there’s still plenty of that to be found here. While the plot fairly bogs down and stagnates as Senlin becomes something of a joke and a side note, thanks to the other viewpoint characters (and Byron!) step up and the mysteries of the Tower and the Sphinx are revealed, I still did not want to put the book down. Another thing I appreciate is that it’s always easy to find a good stopping point when you only are able to sneak in quick batches of reading. And I loved how Bancroft, a self-admitted poet, paid homage to another poet by naming a character Byron.

The section of the book devoted to exploring The Zoo was perhaps for me the highlight of the book. This part of the story most closely resembles Senlin Ascends, with adventure, danger, intrigue, a touch of cleverness on the part of Senlin’s crew, and fair amounts of well-described action. I’ll not reveal too much here for fear of spoiling the plot…I’ll just say that it appears that The Hod King will return to this setting, and with a renewed focus on finding Senlin’s wife, I find that very intriguing.

Despite a host of problems, Arm of the Sphinx is still an exceptional story, told by a gifted writer. If I have one concern moving forward, it’s that Bancroft may have telegraphed his plot for The Hod King a bit too much. Hopefully the author surprises me with some twists and turns along the way, and I’ll be happy to be proven wrong. So I’m looking forward to The Hod King to see if it wraps up the series or if there will be more books, in order to see how it all turn out in the end…

Book Review: The Bonehunters by Steven Erikson

bonehunters

Format:  hard cover, first American edition, 2006

Pages:  984 (not counting a glossary)

Reading Time: about 25 hours

I’ll admit that I was a little worried about skipping Steven Erikson’s Midnight Tides in order to tackle The Bonehunters. My reasoning was that Midnight Tides was essentially a prequel, and I didn’t really want to move backward just to move forward. Would it create confusion and impact my enjoyment of The Bonehunters? Only one way to find out! But first, some guest reviews from some other sites:

 

Strakul’s Thoughts thinks: “This is yet another fine addition to the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. By now, the story is well in place and the characters are all familiar. As in every other book, the plot is epic and overwhelming. It is satisfying to see many threads connecting, but the sheer scope of it is vast. The author, unfortunately, tries to grasp everything at once and it requires a very dedicated reader to follow along…The story feels like it’s all over the place and far less focused than some of the prior novels. This is very strongly a middle book in that the characters are all known and are just positioning themselves (and making discoveries along the way) for the final confrontation. While there are clear climaxes or turning points in the novel, most of it feels like it’s jumping around trying to follow the diverse set of characters…As I have previously mentioned in prior reviews of the Malazan series, words of wisdom can be found among many of the characters, even ones of “lower” status. This is very much evident here and, in my opinion, have made the story a bit heavy. It is not surprising to start a chapter with a character undergoing deep reflections on the nature of life, gods, duty, love, etc. Sometimes interesting aspects of the world are revealed in such reflections, but more often than not these only add to our knowledge of the character. What is surprising is the frequency with which it happens and how it comes from characters we don’t expect. Soldiers or officers in an active army, I would expect, would be more focused on their tasks rather than, for example, wondering the nature of the gods. Some of these discussions feel a little out of place and can make the story drag a little.

Matt Hilliard of Yet There Are Statues says: “More so than previous books in the series, Bonehunters gets off to a distinctly slow start. The first third of the novel reintroduces dozens of characters from previous books and sets them in motion. Characters are traveling every which way on the Seven Cities continent, and since mapmaking is apparently a popular pastime for the series’ hardcore fans, it would be interesting to see an animation of the various characters and groups of characters criss-crossing the continent with their journeys. Much of the content of these traveling scenes takes the form of introspection, as characters think about where they’ve been (probably to help readers who didn’t recently read the previous books), where they are now, and what they hope to be doing in the future. It would be easy to overstate the problem here. It’s not boring, exactly. Erikson’s characters are thoughtful and have interesting observations. But in a series this long, for someone like myself who has been reading these books in a relatively short time period, it’s inevitable there’s some repetition…Perhaps my biggest problem with the introspect moments is they tend to emphasize one of my least favorite elements of the series, namely the way the characters so often seem weakly motivated. Why do Apsalar and Cutter work for Cotillion? Why is Fiddler still in the army? What is Kalam doing with his life now that he’s out of it? Where is Karsa Orlong going? The characters themselves wonder about these questions to varying extents, which is never a good sign…People like Quick Ben and Ganoes Paran are living in a high fantasy story as they struggle against the Crippled God and his allies. The soldiers of the Fourteenth Army, many of whom are colorfully fleshed out in the early parts of the novel, are in a low fantasy story about a military campaign. This allows us to view some of the same events from two very different angles, but it does make it that much more difficult for the myriad viewpoints to coalesce in the reader’s mind. The high fantasy characters tend to have strong motivations and clear goals, but they do their best to hide them from others, including the reader. The low fantasy characters are caught up in their machinations and wondering if they should be trying to free themselves, but they know even less than the reader about what’s going on.

 

The Bonehunters can, in my opinion, be divided into three acts. Act 1 follows a few characters around and culminates with the siege of Y’Ghatan. Act 2 follows the army as it leaves Y’Ghatan and attempts to rendezvous with the Malazan fleet, while at the same time following the actions of Ganoes Paran, the Master of the Deck of Dragons. Act 3 wraps up the story with a portrayal of civil unrest on Malaz Island, as well as a battle for the First Throne. So I’ll talk about each of these 3 acts, and then conclude with my overall impressions.

In his review above, Matt states that story gets off to a slow start, and I would wholeheartedly agree with that…for me, The Bonehunters starts out glacially slow in Act 1. This inhibits pace and any kind of momentum building. In this early part of the story a creature called a T’rolbharahl is released by the mysterious Nameless Ones. At first we only know that the Nameless Ones unleash this terrible entity in order to target a victim, but who that victim is remains a mystery; later, however, it becomes clear that the Nameless Ones intend this evil to kill Mappo and remove his influence over Icarium. Meanwhile the Malazan army is pursuing the remnants of Leoman’s forces across the desert until they reach Y’Ghatan.

One of Erikson’s writing traits that has been difficult to embrace is jumping around from viewpoint to viewpoint, with multiple viewpoint jumps within a chapter. It adds confusion, affects continuity and investiture, and definitely has an impact on pacing. I understand why this is done, and that’s due to the sheer number of characters that share their perspective. My question, then: is this really necessary? Think about what Matt has said above regarding character motivations, and then ask yourself if shedding a few viewpoints, especially when the character motivations are questionable, would make a more coherent, flowing story. My answer is undoubtedly yes. The siege of Y’Ghatan is a perfect example of this. Although there is viewpoint jumping during the siege, the viewpoints are among characters involved in the siege, and because the story focuses exclusively on this event, the payoff in continuity and coherence is evident.

Another Erikson writing trait that has been problematic is prose…specifically (and I’ll use the siege of Y’Ghatan as an example here), Erikson is not great at “painting a picture” with his words. He has great mastery of language and executes his action sequences effectively; however there are many times during his narration that I have to “fill in the blanks”, because the setting is lacking in detail. It’s stunning, actually, to say that about a nearly 1000 page book, but it’s true. Most of the prose is spent on character interaction, retrospection, and movement from one place to another, while very little time is spent on physical descriptions of the characters, or on places like Y’Ghatan, where I’m forced to draw on other stories I’ve read to picture what the city might actually look like. All that aside, the siege of Y’Ghatan is a great example of how much easier Erikson’s writing is to follow when focused on a specific event rather than jumping all over the world (and into warrens as well). The lasting effect of the siege of Y’Ghatan is that it ends the military campaigning on Raraku, and provides a replacement for the legendary Bridgeburner regiment – and that replacement is The Bonehunters.

Act 2 seems like it should slow down in pace, but I did not find this to the case. In fact, Erikson does a great job in building tension over this section of the book. What will be the fate of The Bonehunters? What is Ganoes Paran doing with Bridgeburner ghosts? Where are Icarium and Karsa Orlong traveling to? What havoc will the T’rolbharahl unleash? How do Cotillion and Shadowthrone show up everywhere? Why are they the only gods that seem to be personally influencing events? Who are the mysterious Perish? Although we don’t get answers to all these questions, it feels like the story is building up to something big.

If you’re looking to avoid spoilers, this next section involving Act 3 is that “something big”, and it is going to contain some major spoilers. It is the culmination of events that build throughout the story, and also some of the previous novels. In essence, it shows the folly of an empire that overstepped in pursuit of conquest. There is a price to be paid for war. Most often that price is blood, but there is also an economic cost, a social cost and a political cost. What I mean by that is that war is never popular within a civilized population. A society may believe they have good reasons for entering into war, such as possession of resources, to defend itself, or simply to subjugate other cultures. However, there will always be those within society that are opposed to war on moral or economic reasons; there will be soldiers within the ranks that do not believe in the orders they have been given or the competence of their leaders; and there will be allies that may decide the cost is too high and decide to sit the war out. During a war, the poor are the ones most likely to pay with their lives. Those remaining behind may feel the need to assign blame as the war strains resources and becomes increasingly unpopular.

So why the exposé? The Malazan Empire has been at war for many years, with campaigns recently being fought on two fronts. All the costs I mentioned above are becoming quite high. The Bridgeburners are lost, and the war on Raraku has stretched on for what feels like ages. The citizens of the Empire have had enough, and are looking for someone to blame. Empress Lassen could restore order by force, but that move would be unpopular and could lead to being overthrown. Instead, she decides it will be better to blame and sacrifice a group of people in order to satiate the bloodlust of the people and calm the unrest. I found this part of the book absolutely riveting…in fact, I will boldly state that these tension-filled scenes are the finest writing Erikson has executed to date. There are some eye-rolling moments, such as how a couple of villains from Raraku are now the top advisers of the Empress (without any explanation as to how that occurred), or the superhuman fighting by Kalam that is pretty much unbelievable. Still, these quibbles don’t detract from a fascinating depiction of the Empire fracturing in the course of one night.

The final occurrence in Act 3 is the unleashing of Icarium. We’ve been told what a danger it is to keep him from fighting, but here we finally see what the fuss was all about as he becomes a force that destroys everyone around him in the battle for the First Throne. This part of the book is where I regret having not read Midnight Tides, as there are multiple references to events and characters in that novel that affect The Bonehunters.

In conclusion, despite some pacing issues, viewpoint hopping, and a detachment due to a lack of detail, The Bonehunters is Erikson’s finest Malazan novel I have read to date. It is the brilliant conclusion on Malaz Island that really pulls everything from the previous books together and leaves me dying to know what happens next. I have high expectations for Reaper’s Gale

Book Review: The Death of Dulgath by Michael J. Sullivan

death of dulgath

Format:  oversized paperback, first edition, 2015

Pages:  392 (not counting author notes and preview material at the end of the book)

Reading Time:  about 10 hours

One Sentence Synopsis:  Royce and Hadrian take a consulting job on how best to perform an assassination (in order to prevent one), but like any good mystery, things are not as they might seem.

 

To this point I’ve really enjoyed reading the Riyria Chronicles, the prequels to the Riyria Revelations series, especially the previous book The Rose and the Thorn. As the thickest book in the series so far, and being the longest read, would that trend continue? Read on to find out, with some minor spoilers appearing, but first it’s time to host a couple of guest reviews from around the Internet…

 

Sarah of Bookworm Blues says: “The mystery of Death of Dulgath was rather straightforward, and didn’t overwhelm me overly much. What I truly enjoyed about this novel was the growth, the developing relationship between Royce and Hadrian, and the history of various cultures and peoples that Sullivan liberally splashed throughout the novel. Royce and Hadrian are obviously at their early years as a partnership, and Sullivan has a lot of fun showing just how trying and rewarding that early relationship truly was. He had me laughing quite a bit at certain moments, and feeling deep, powerful emotions at others. These two characters are so real they practically leap off the page. The world itself grows quite a bit as Royce and Hadrian end up traveling elsewhere on a job. Elsewhere ends up being a rather interesting place, with a medieval feeling culture that has quite a few surprises thrown in to keep things interesting. With a powerful religious influence, and an elevated lady who is absolutely her own woman. Thrown in with this are some fantastic dollops of magic and very ancient history. It’s quite ambitious when you consider just how much Sullivan packed into this novel, but it never lost its fun vibe or intense emotions. It’s hard not to love this novel. It really is a lot of fun, but it’s also quite educational and informative, and gives me a new perspective regarding some aspects of the rest of Sullivan’s novels set in this world. However, what always impresses me with Sullivan’s work is just how real it all is…He managed to make this book fun, and quite compelling at the same time. There are plenty of twists and turns, a good number of surprises, and a lot of pleasant intensity, but Death of Dulgath shines because I can tell that the author really loved what he was doing, and I felt that in the book.

Total Inability To Connect states: “The novel itself is, frankly, exactly what we’ve come to know from Riyria novels – somewhat complicated plots that the duo have to unravel, intense action scenes that showcase the strengths and weaknesses of the pair, interpersonal relationship conflicts between Royce, Hadrian, and the people around them. There are, however, some glaring differences between this novel and the previous two in the Riyria Chronicles series. The first, and biggest, difference being that this novel contains a MASSIVE spoiler for the Riyria Revelations trilogy. The kind of spoiler that completely takes the ‘oomph’ out of one of the main storylines in the entire series…The writing as the Revelations series goes on improves with each book, and I felt that reading the prequel books first put the reader in the right mindset for the series, and made the writing quality of the first book a bit more of a moot point, as the focus would be on the story and characters. However, that plan of attack is completely tossed out by Death of Dulgath, as it all but ensures that you must read the Riyria Revelations trilogy first, unless you want it to be spoiled by the revelation (sorry) in this novel…Sullivan handled many parts of this particular story very well – Royce and Hadrian’s interactions in this novel were quite interesting, still in the ‘feeling out’ process of knowing each other a little bit, and some more background was revealed about the pair of them. It also featured Royce and Hadrian in some of their weakest and most vulnerable states at any time in the series as a whole – both physically and emotionally. Both had their internal working stripped bare at times, exposing them, leaving them vulnerable and weak, and forcing them to overcome those lapses in strength…The writing in the books is what we’ve come to expect from later Sullivan – crisp and without excess, incredibly approachable for people of all reading levels, not lacking in sophistication but also not wowing you with the prose and structure. Sullivan makes his living as a storyteller, one with very easy-to-read works that appeal to a large audience, and he certainly has that part of things down. It works with Royce and Hadrian, and he is able to drop lore bombs, have impactful scenes, intense battles, and plot twists and turns, but without encumbering the reader…Unfortunately, I personally found The Death of Dulgath to be his most predictable work – I am fully self-aware that, as a reader, I am not always the most intelligent or active person when it comes to deciphering plot twists, diagnosing the story elements, or using my skill in soothsaying to predict upcoming events or endings. However, in this book I found myself easily predicting upcoming events, including the ‘main’ story twists.

 

Sullivan’s prose continues to be very approachable and smooth, getting better with each outing as Total Inability To Connect states above. In fact, the section of the review that states “crisp and without excess, incredibly approachable for people of all reading levels, not lacking in sophistication but also not wowing you with the prose and structure. Sullivan makes his living as a storyteller, one with very easy-to-read works that appeal to a large audience”…all of that is incredible insightful and right on the money as to how I felt about Sullivan’s writing here. After having recently read several average or disappointing efforts in my TBR pile, I was looking for something to “raise the bar”, so to speak. The Death of Dulgath comes close to satisfying that requirement, though it is not without flaws. Still, it was an enjoyable read that I gladly welcomed.

I was disappointed to find out about the “MASSIVE spoiler” in that review. I thought I was being clever by reading the prequels first, only to find out that this prequel ends up spoiling what comes later…c’mon Sullivan, it should be the other way around! Will this remove some of the mystery of the Riyria Revelations? I hope not, but sounds like that is very possible. I’m pretty sure I already know what that spoiler is, so it will be interesting to find out what the impact on me will be as a work through the original series.

The characters presented here are the strongest element in a mostly successful story. Royce and Hadrian continue to forge a strong partnership…so much so, that there are scenes in the story where each is dismayed that the other might have died. We know that isn’t the case, because, well, Riyria Revelations, but it’s still fun to watch the relationship develop. We get to learn a bit more about Royce’s backstory, as well as how he and Hadrian have become more comfortable together despite their different outlooks. I enjoyed the introduction of two strong female characters in Scarlet Dodge and Lady Dulgath…as I have mentioned in the past, Sullivan’s reliance on prostitutes as his main female characters has been a detriment. Here, however, are a couple of wonderful exceptions. Scarlet Dodge, a former criminal that is now living the placid life of a villager, and Lady Dulgath, who is eccentric and mysterious, are both welcome additions to the story. The other characters don’t stand out quite as much and are a bit predictable.

Which leads to one of the main problems with the book: the plot just isn’t very compelling. Mysteries are fine themes, and can offer some unexpected twists and turns to keep the reader guessing. Sullivan does that here to an extent, but thanks to some telegraphing – whether intentional or unintentional, I’m not sure – it’s not hard to figure out where the story is going. In addition, it takes the book a bit of time to build up some momentum as the groundwork for the mystery is established. The reviewers above use the words “straightforward”, “didn’t overwhelm” and “easily predicting”, and I would agree with that. The Death of Dulgath directly contrasts what I experienced in reading The Rose and the Thorn, where multiple possibilities really kept me guessing about what direction the plot would take.

Otherwise, the book had me turning pages, and I can’t really say I was ever bored, so Sullivan did a fine job of holding my interest in spite of what I wrote above. The action sequences are well done, there are some underlying currents that set the royalty and church on opposite sides, and magic is more prevalent than it has been in previous outings. There are some nods to the distant past (tying in to Sullivan’s Age of Myth series I’m sure), and other questions are raised, especially regarding Royce’s heritage and how he got interred in the salt mines, with only a brief explanation of how he escaped. I will say that so far the books are slanted heavily in favor of Royce when it comes to character growth. What I mean by that is with each story, Royce appears to be changing…swiftly in some ways (such as when Gwen is around) and slower in others, but there’s still progress found in stretching the character’s boundaries. Hadrian, on the other hand, seems mired in naivete and misguided intentions. While there is some growth found in his grudging acceptance of performing unlawful acts when needed, his personality doesn’t seem to be allowing room for him to change and really become more than he was at the beginning of the first book.

In conclusion, The Death of Dulgath is a fine story. Not quite up to the standards Sullivan set with the previous book, but still better than other material I have read lately. It is really the developing relationship between Royce and Hadrian that holds the story together and ultimately makes it satisfying. At some point I will get to the original series, but with the release of The Death of Winter’s Daughter last year, which is the next book in the Riyria Chronicles, it seems that the Riyria Revelations while have to wait a little bit longer…