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

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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…

Book Review: The Crimson Vault by Will Wight

crimson vault

Format:  oversized paperback, first edition, 2013

Pages:  380

Reading time:  about 9.5 hours

One sentence synopsis: As the Incarnations of the Territories begin to break free, and war breaks out between Enosh and Damasca, Simon and his friends find their allegiances shifting as they struggle to determine who their enemy truly is.

I was pretty impressed by Will Wight’s House of Blades – so much so that I purchased The Crimson Vault and City of Light in order to continue following the story. The Crimson Vault is the middle book in the series…does it suffer from middle book syndrome (existing only to bridge the gap between the first and third books), or does it exceed the first story (a tall order)? Read on to find out, and I’ve actually managed to keep spoilers to a minimum this time. First, however, we turn to some other reviews online. I was a bit concerned as I had trouble finding reviews from sites other than Goodreads or Amazon, which can be a bad sign, but I was finally able to settle on a couple thoughtful reviews.

 

Benjamin Espen of With Both Hands states: “There really are few comic book villains or heroes in the Traveler’s Gate trilogy. Almost everyone has a reasonable motivation somewhere along the line. Simon, son of Kalman, is moderately introspective, but neither talkative nor gifted in seeing into other men’s souls. Thus, Simon does not often stop to inquire why the people he is bludgeoning or stabbing would do the things that they do. Fortunately for us, there are a number of other characters in the book more interested in these things, and more adept at drawing them out, so we get to see a remarkable amount of moral complexity. We also see conniving, backstabbing, greed for power, and pride in ample measures. Then there are miscommunications, judgments made from partial information, and motives that while otherwise just, simply work at cross-purposes with what someone else wants. When evil is done, it is not uncommonly because inflamed passions, or personality defects combined with a surfeit of power, run away with someone…Every Territory is like that: an embodiment of a virtue that has gone so far in a quest for perfection that you literally cannot see any of the other virtues from where you find yourself…All of the Territories tend to just embody their respective virtues turned up to 11. This excess of virtue is bad enough on its own, but when you mix them all up together without anything to put them in order, bad things happen.

Wizard’s Blog says: “Compared with the first book in the series, this one has a lot more point of view characters. I think this is an improvement, because one of my complaints about the first book was not understanding some of the main characters because we spent very little time with them, but it does make it harder to keep track of what’s going on… I do still feel like the author should have spent some more time with some of the main characters so that the choices they make seem less arbitrary – with Alin in particular I feel like I’ve been told what he’s done and why he did it rather than experiencing it with him and empathising with his choices…It does have a plot arc, but (unsurprisingly for the middle book in a trilogy) it leaves a lot of things for the third book to resolve. Overall it’s better than the first one but not perfect.

 

The Crimson Vault is a much different book than House of Blades. At first they seem similar, as something bad happens in the beginning and then the rest of the story centers around the fallout from that event. The plot of House of Blades could be boiled down to “young man trains to become a hero then goes on a mission of revenge”. Conversely, The Crimson Vault focuses on a large scale battle, shifting allegiances, and as Benjamin calls it, “moral complexity”. The plot is much more chaotic than the straight and narrow line its predecessor walks, and although some plot points are revealed, they don’t really have the same impact of those in the first book, which were more intricate – those “a-ha!” moments, and had me drawing comparisons to Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn. The Crimson Vault didn’t really have the same effect.

Though Simon is still the focus, more time is spent on developing the other main characters, Alin and Leah, which is of much benefit to the story. Leah’s development in particular was one of great interest to me. The “succession”, or those siblings of Leah’s who want to take her father’s place, has taken a toll on her and pushed her towards a destiny she never saw coming. I was also able to empathize more with her character as she struggled between that destiny and the empathy she felt from her time spent in Simon’s village. She seems particularly focused on “the greater good”, where some must die in order to save multitudes. Simon and Alin don’t quite grasp or agree with this concept. It is a perfect contrast between the outlook of the ruling class and the working/villager class.

The Crimson Vault suffers from the same issue that I felt afflicted House of Blades: it simply isn’t long enough. Although it is 100 pages longer than the first book, some of the scenes in The Crimson Vault suffer due to brevity, in particular the large scale battle I mentioned above. There is no page time devoted to the actual siege of Enosh by the Damascan army; the layout of Leah’s war camp is not described well, and the battle with the Incarnation had me wondering where everyone was in relation to each other – what were the soldiers doing? How did some people just disappear from the battlefield? Were some characters simply bystanders? A lot of detail that would have been very helpful to “paint a picture” or “set the scene” is missing. As a result, I felt greatly detached from what is perhaps the most important sequence in the story. Finally, although I admire Wight’s effort to try something fairly groundbreaking, I felt that the sheer amount of changes and chaos, combined with the lack of detail mentioned above, gave the story a feeling of being “all over the place” and lacking focus.

There are a few other problems, such as how Simon was able to use a very dangerous artifact for so long without becoming an Incarnation himself, and although Wight’s writing has improved in this second book, there’s some modern phrasing used that is distracting and out of place…it felt more like I was reading subtext in a Final Fantasy video game than a fantasy novel. Which in turn reminds of another problem, the “leveling up” of the characters, particularly Simon…it’s almost like I’m reading about a video game being played as Simon and Alin get more and more abilities and items as they gain experience. And speaking of Alin, his character was inconsistent with regard to the portrayal of abilities in House of Blades. In that story, he seemed to have almost endless reserves of power when battling the Overlord. Yet here, he seems barely able to get past less (or equal) opposition, and in a couple of cases is forced to retreat. It felt like he was actually weaker when he should have been stronger.

In conclusion, I feel a bit isolated in saying that I actually enjoyed House of Blades more. That does not seem to be the case for most other reviewers, who on Goodreads and Amazon proclaim that they liked The Crimson Vault better. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that this sequel is a bad story, and I enjoyed the improved characterization of Leah and Alin…the plot just didn’t grip me and have the same payoffs at the end that the first book did, which is typical of “middle book syndrome”. I’m still quite interested in finding out how things will turn out in the final book of the series, City of Light.

Book Review: Revisionary by Jim C. Hines

revisonary

Format:  hard cover, first edition, 2016

Pages:  342

Reading time:  about 8.5 hours

One sentence synopsis: Isaac has now exposed the world to the presence of magic and supernatural creatures, but now must deal with those who are threatened by this revelation and plan to eliminate that threat.

 

The end is here for the Magic Ex Libris series, aside from a novelette about ancillary character Jeneta entitled Imprinted. Jim C. Hines noted on his website back in 2015 that, barring some unusual circumstances, Revisionary would be the final book in the series as he desired to move on to other projects. In my opinion the sequels have been great, but with a slight decline in quality from each book to the following one. So does the trend reverse with Revisionary? Keep reading to find out, and as always there’s going to be some spoilers, but first, on with the guest reviews…

 

Liz Bourke at Tot.com states: “Hines’ love for speculative genre literature shines through on every page. In many ways, this series is an ode to the weird, the batshit, and the wonderful imaginative possibilities of speculative fiction—which does occasionally make it feel as though it’s playing an insider’s game: it might be a little too sincere about its love, sometimes…It reflects, too, a world in which governments cannot be trusted in the least to respect due process and human rights, and its generally optimistic tone is darkened by the underlying dialogue on the nature of civil rights and equality before the law when whole classes of people can be designated as not human enough at a government’s convenience. This is a fantasy novel that deals with the trappings of the security state, and its positive ending is a fragile, fragile thing. Deeper thematic arguments and questions of political morality aside, Revisionary is an awful lot of fun. I personally really enjoyed the fact that Isaac spends most of the novel simply surrounded by competent women…If I have one complaint, it’s about the italicised sections of context-free dialogue that open each chapter. It takes a while for a reader to realise who’s talking in these segments, and that is a little distracting.

From the Mind of C.E. Tracy says: “This was the best book in the entire 4 book series. The best. At least it ended on a high note. The story was fun and full of adventure. I liked how there was very little lull in the story. Even in the parts where they wasn’t much action, there was still something being learned, understood, figured out, etc. I also liked how Issac had much more freedom than in the previous books. He always seemed held back. Now, with the death of Gutenberg, he is finally able to spread his wings and grow. All of the characters have grown tremendously throughout the series. As I mentioned in the paragraph above, Issac was held back because of Gutenberg, but now he has since become so much more powerful. I think it is cool that he can read magic. I also like how he can siphon others’ magical abilities and use them temporarily…Then there’s the relationship between them and Nidhi. It feels like one of those things where they finally realise that no one is going anywhere and have finally just accepted each others’ role in it. It wouldn’t be too far a stretch to also say that Issac and Nidhi have developed a fondness for each other. The writing is much more polished than it was in the other books. This one had a better flow and just felt better put together.

 

I disagree with both of these reviews: I think Revisionary is, while still a good story, the worst book of the series, and I’ll tell you why. In the plots of the previous novels, Isaac uses libriomancy to battle against magical threats, from automatons and killer bugs to ghosts and god-like creatures. Isaac’s libriomancy allowed him to pull really cool things from books, things that make many of us readers “geek out”. In Revisionary, however, I never really felt that “geeking out” experience. The things that Isaac used were appropriate, and his libriomancy has evolved in a spectacular way. But both of these things are driven by the plot and Isaac’s adversaries, and that’s where the true problem lies.

Spoiler Alert! The main plot of Revisionary revolves around a subset of the government trying to destroy magic, or as Liz eloquently put it, “whole classes of people can be designated as not human enough at a government’s convenience”. This plot is so worn out and cliche that I really struggled with it. There’s nothing new about the government (or a subset of it) trying to control or destroy people with supernatural powers…X-Men used it, The Avengers used it, the TV show Alphas used it, and there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other stories, movies and TV shows that have used it. In other words, it’s over-used, it’s tired, and it’s quite frankly annoying to see it pop up yet again. Sadly, with the direction the Hines took by the end of Unbound, there was no other way to go, and that’s what is most disappointing to me.

One could argue that the means by which this plot was implemented – using magical creatures and networked clones to destroy magic – was fairly unique, and regarding the actual creatures used, they’d be right. Ultimately, however that plot point – using supernatural creatures or people against other supernatural creatures or people –  is also not new. As I expressed in my review of Unbound, I was afraid that with this new direction Hines was taking, that he wouldn’t be able to consider all the ramifications that would result from the direction of his plot, and I was right…I thought of at least a dozen things that Hines never considered, because one person can’t always conceive every detail when using a scope this big (the integration of magic and magical creatures into societies all over the world).

Very little time is spent on the ramifications of Isaac’s decision to reveal magic to the world. He didn’t ask anybody else what they thought. He didn’t get a consensus. He didn’t really think through what the consequences of his actions would be. Some of this is explored through the chapter intros, where Isaac sits before congressional hearings, or discusses the issue with someone (I won’t reveal who), but the ethics and morality of the decision that he made, by himself, are largely absent from the main story, except in the research center and the way that Isaac attempts to aid his niece. This means that the story presents the ways in which Isaac benefits, but spends little time on what the cost has been to those he has “outed”, except for a report on an exterminated vampire nest that is strangely clinical and cold.

Another problem with the book is that Isaac has become far too powerful. His magic is so strong that he can solve any problem and threats don’t feel as substantial. And he doesn’t even really need the physical books anymore to overcome problems, which is sad because the original form of libriomancy – reaching into books and pulling things out – has been pushed aside to a large degree, and in my opinion it was one of things that made libriomancy so much fun. There are some other issues, such as Ponce de Leon, a once-prominent character, completely disappearing. He does not appear in the book, and his disappearance is never really explained other than he is grieving for the loss of Guttenberg. Also, in previous books, an enemy could get to Isaac by threatening Lena’s tree. Although the government is aware of Lean’s tree, Isaac’s enemies don’t use it against Isaac and Lena, which is a giant hole in the plot.

It’s not all doom and gloom. I agree with C.E. Tracy that it’s great to see the way Isaac and Nidhi (and Lena of course) have evolved their relationship. I also like that Bi Wei and Jeneta are integral to the story, although I would have liked them to play a bigger role. Deb DeGeorge the vampire is a great character – and in fact, Hines continues to write outstanding female characters, as Liz points out (and as I have pointed out in previous reviews) – and Smudge the fire spider is always a delight. As has been the case in previous books, Hines handles his action scenes (and there are a good amount here) with a deft hand, building the scene, and the tension, quite well. I just didn’t find them as compelling here as I did in those previous books.

In summary, I’m a bit sad that Revisionary is final book in the series, but mostly I’m relieved, as I didn’t like the direction it was taking. Obviously I’m in the minority, as my guest reviews (as well as reviews on Amazon and Goodreads) can attest to, so maybe it’s just me. As I mentioned above, on his site, Hines has a post entitled “Ending the Magic Ex Libris Series“. In this post, Hines states the following as one of the reasons for ending the series:

The series reached a natural stopping point, one that brings closure to a lot of the things I’ve been doing throughout the books. In truth, Unbound could have been a good end point as well, but I’m happy to have been able to take that next step with Revisionary.

And then further on there’s this tidbit:

My son gets very sad and upset when a show he likes comes to an end, and I understand where he’s coming from. He’s young enough he doesn’t understand the danger of a series stretching out too long and jumping the shark, or simply losing its magic.

I think this is what has happened to me: the series has stretched out too long and lost its magic, and to me, Unbound would have been a good end point. I can say that I sure am going to miss Lena, Smudge, and some of the other characters. I will also miss reading about the ability to pull things out of books; the initial awesomeness of Libriomancer still resonates with me, and has certainly sparked my imagination in a good way. For that, I will always be grateful to Mr. Hines…

Book Review: Fury of the Seventh Son by Joseph Delaney

fury of seventh son

Format:  hard cover, first U.S. edition, 2014

Pages:  462

Reading Time:  about 4 hours

One Sentence Synopsis:  The final battle is here, and Tom calls on old allies to face down enemies and try to defeat the Fiend for good…but to do so he will have to sacrifice what he loves most in the world: Alice.

 

After several detours, Joseph Delaney finally returns to his protagonist, Tom Ward, in this 13th and final book in The Last Apprentice series. As I mentioned in my review of the previous book, I am Alice, I’ve grown quite tired of this series, but now the end is nigh and I can put this series to rest. As I also mentioned before, I don’t think there are very many people who are still paying attention to this series, but I did manage to find a couple of reviews, which I’ve summarized below, and after that are my own thoughts, which are chock full of big spoilers. That’s necessary because I can’t really give an honest review without exploring major plot points. If you don’t want spoilers, it’s probably best to skip to the last paragraph, where I summarize the book and the series in whole. For a good synopsis of the story, check out this post by Awake At Midnight.

 

Barb Middleton at Reading Rumpus states: “Delaney departs a bit from his usual pattern in this series finale. There is still plenty of action and violence, but there are no new monsters and more revisiting adventures Tom and John had in previous books. It doesn’t read like a finale. I had more questions at the end then answers…The forces of evil are putting the Fiend together except this time Alice is helping a powerful mage. This part of the plot needed to be fleshed out more because Alice’s motivations and casting aside of friendships to the point of sacrificing Grimalkin and others just didn’t make sense to me. I would have expected her to be torn more but she just stepped into the cauldron of evil and suppressed her good side. It doesn’t make much sense until the end. In the grand battle at the end I expected Alice and the mage to be present but they aren’t. Grimalkin gets more page time in this book then Alice and I find her character one dimensional and less interesting than Alice…I wasn’t keen on the prophecy because it gave away some major plot points. This technique adds tension but I find that I prefer different ways to pull the reader along. The problem with a series this long the characters have not changed much and the plot starts to feel recycled. But really, this is more candy reading for me. I just want something fast and entertaining and that is what I got. I’m not expecting anything too deep.

Karissa at Hidden In Pages says: “I enjoy Tom as a character, he has more and more powers appearing as he unlocks his heritage both as the son of a lamia and as a 7th son of a 7th son. He does get a bit whiny at points in this story though, something that was new for him and not at all fun to read. My favorite character of the novel continues to be Grimalkin. She is super tough and really fights for what she believes in, she is just such an awesome character to read about and she is in the story quite a bit. Alice isn’t in the story a lot and she was one of the biggest disappointments for me in this book. Her character takes a turn that I didn’t enjoy and I was disappointed in the direction things took with her and Tom…This book is much darker than the rest of the series (more along the lines of I Am Alice, which was also darker). It is very violent and there is a lot of heartbreak and betrayal. I continue to really enjoy the epic struggle between light and dark that takes place in these books. This book really shows some shades of grey as well, since some dark characters are forced to band together with the good in order to fight an even greater evil. Some people have complained about the simplicity of the writing style, I don’t think that has really changed. Delaney has always had a somewhat stark and simplistic writing style…at times the dialogue between characters has felt forced or stilted…Overall I really enjoyed this book a lot but there were a few disappointments too. I was really disappointed in the lack of resolution and in the direction Alice is taking as a character.

 

I have many problems with Fury of the Seventh Son, but I will start with the positives. It was a very quick read, I blazed through over 400 pages in 4 hours. The pages are small, the print is large, and Delaney’s writing style is bare bones and he keeps the plot and action moving. In the first one-third of the book, Tom is on his own and has tracked down the stolen head of the Fiend to an ominous tower in a neighboring county. The tower is full of witches and a dark mage, and Tom has to figure out how to get inside and retrieve the Fiend’s head before it can be re-attached to the body and bring the Fiend back to life. This scene involving the tower is tense and dramatic, and is some of the finest writing yet from Delaney…it harkens back to events in Wrath of the Bloodeye, where I said Delaney had achieved a milestone. The tower scene is close to recapturing that high point. Such milestones have always come when Tom is completely alone.

And that’s it for the positives. As described above, Alice’s character, who we just had a whole book devoted to, completely and suddenly changes. It makes absolutely no sense – Delaney spends very little time exploring the abrupt change (in fact it is told from Grimalkin’s limited viewpoint) – and this shallow characterization is completely at odds with what was developed in the previous book. Yes it was clear that Alice’s journey took her close to the Dark, but manner of the change and the romance that immediately blossoms between her and the dark mage Lukrasta (who was supposed to have died in the Doomdryte ritual but is still alive – really?!), seems unbelievable and exists only for the sake of the plot, considering how Alice has always felt about Tom. The purpose of I Am Alice was to retrieve a blade that Tom needed for the ritual to destroy the Fiend, but because the ritual is not performed, it negated the entire plot of I Am Alice, and that book now simply exists as a means to get Alice closer to the Dark. Boooo.

Grimalkin’s character is relatively consistent, and there’s a great scene where she has to repair her broken leg using a silver pin, which causes her great pain. John Gregory has become weary and senses his time is short, which is believable. But Tom’s characterization is probably the worst of the book. With Alice’s turn to the Dark, Tom becomes jealous, angry, and as whiny as a lovesick puppy. This was incredibly annoying to read, especially after we’ve waited so long to return to Tom as a protagonist.

This section is going to have some serious spoilers…beware! After the tower scene I mentioned above, the plot is all downhill from there. There is a big battle between the forces of Light and Dark at the Wardstone. In this battle, John Gregory dies. Strangely, his death is covered in one short paragraph as Tom steps over his fallen body. I get that Tom is in the middle of a battle, but this is a character that Delaney has invested a lot of time in. The scene is so cold and unfeeling that although it is a bit of shock – which might be a stretch due to the amount of foreshadowing that telegraphed it – the effect is that John Gregory’s death is robbed of much of the emotional impact that it should have had. This is where Delaney has made his biggest mistake in this series, in my opinion…when you consider what I mentioned above, the most compelling scenes in this series have been when Tom is alone and up against great odds. Too much of the series has involved deferring to John Gregory and alternate protagonists. John Gregory should have been gone several books ago – the series would have been better for it and his character could have gotten the send-off he deserved.

Another hole in the plot involving the big battle has to do with Lukrasta and Alice. I kept expecting them to show up but they were nowhere to be found, except for some fog that caused paralysis before the battle started. Despite being on the side of the Dark, and despite aiding the minions of the fiend before, and despite warning Tom that destroying the Fiend would unleash a greater evil, they did not aid the Dark once the battle began. This made zero sense. Perhaps Alice did not want to face Tom, but at a minimum Lukrasta would have tried to stop him. It seems like a forced plot point to keep Alice and Tom apart. These events led to a bitter and disappointing ending. Alice is still on the side of the Dark, John Gregory is dead, Tom doesn’t see his family again, and although the Fiend is defeated, a greater threat has been created, but the story of The Last Apprentice ends here.

In conclusion, despite some compelling storytelling in the first part of the book, it is the shallow and nonsensical characterization, big plot holes, and a largely unresolved ending that brings the series to a disappointing close. Frankly I’m surprised I stuck with The Last Apprentice so long, but I did become invested in the characters, and every now and then it’s great to have a quick, easy read. Unfortunately, reviews of the trilogy sequel, The Starblade Chronicles, point out issues that are similar to what I experienced in Fury of the Seventh Son, and are perhaps even a bit worse, so here is where I will call it quits in the story of Tom Ward, the Seventh Son of a Seventh Son.

Book Review: Paternus: Rise of Gods by Dyrk Ashton

paternus

Format: oversized paperback, trade paperback edition, 2016

Pages: 457

Reading Time: about 11.5 hours

One Sentence Synopsis: Fiona, through her association with a mysterious old man, gets caught up in a battle between gods, only to find out secrets that upend the world she thought she knew.

 

I first heard about Paternus: Rise of Gods through the Self Published Fantasy Blog Off (SBFBO), where it received some high praise and ended up as a semi-finalist. Though I prefer epic fantasy and Swords & Sorcery, I will occasionally crack open a urban fantasy. So did I agree with the praise from the SPFBO? Read on to find out. First, a few guest reviews from around the internet…

 

RockStarlit BookAsylum (cool name!) states: “Rise of Gods builds up slowly, but the second half or so is packed with action to the brim. But then you need a bit of time to get used to the book being written in the third person, present tense and the sudden changes in the POV, which sometimes can be kind of annoying. Because of this and that things happen really fast, and mythical creatures and legends get a rather big role (maybe bigger than they should have at some points) there isn’t enough time and space for character building (I liked how Fi and Zeke adapted to the situation though), so this book is rather action driven. Sometimes this is overwhelming and makes hard to connect to the main characters: Fi, Zeke and Peter. Although their interactions are good and they bring some humor into the bloodbath, which does good to the book. These light moments are refreshing and give a moment of break to get from one scene to the other…The writing is smooth otherwise and this book is crammed with mythology, stories, names and legends from all around the world: from Native America through Ancient Europe to Africa and Asia. Good points for Mr Ashton using the less known legends and stories instead of the overused greek and roman gods. Actually, let’s give the man respect for doing such a thorough research to bring together so many cultures.

J.C. Kang of Fantasy-Faction explains: “From my personal preferences of fantasy fiction, two aspects, one after the other, dug Paternus into a deep hole: Third Person Present Tense. Dipping into many characters’ thoughts in quick succession. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the gold standard in executing the latter brilliantly; and since nothing quite compares to Douglas Adam’s masterpiece, it would be unfair to compare Paternus to it. That said, I’ve never been accused of being fair. While it took me a while to get used to the perspective, I found Paternus to be a swift-paced, fascinating story, written in vibrant prose. I was intrigued by the fantasy elements in an urban setting, and was trying to figure out if it was a werewolf story. Don’t Panic! It’s not a paranormal romance. There’s no snarky heroine or brooding love interest…The benefit of the Omniscient Viewpoint is that we get a glimpse into so many different heads, to understand their motivations. It is easy to like, loathe, adore, or otherwise feel invested in many of the characters. That said, it was also hard for me to connect deeply to any of them. I would certainly classify it as a plot-driven story. The Omniscient Viewpoint sometimes leads to the head-hopping effect. I sometimes felt like I was caught in a Michael Bay movie, jumping from the thoughts of one character to another. This was particularly disorienting during fights.

Finally, Dorian Hart says: “My issues with Paternus are mostly of the technical/editorial sort; it felt like any editing done was light and incomplete. That is not to say the book is one of those amateurish nightmares of the self-pubbed world with dozens of typos and piles of broken grammar. Overall the writing is quite good. But there were many small things that kept pulling me up short: comma splices, wrong homophones (e.g. peaked instead of piqued), use of interrobangs and multiple exclamation marks, and similar small glitches…Paternus is written in the third-person present tense, which is fine, but the head-hopping between characters was so constant, it gave me whiplash. It often happens between short paragraphs without so much as a section break. And while there are a lot of characters in Paternus (and I love some of them and like most of them), the two lead characters, Fi and Zeke, felt flat to me. They seemed more like witnesses and people-to-whom-things-happen than interesting characters driving the action…So, what did I like? First, just to get this out of the way, the author knows how to write sentences to serve his action…and this book is almost all action. There are beautiful and evocative images throughout, and his ability to describe scenes is magnificent. So understand, despite my complaints, this is not by any means a poorly written book. Quite the opposite…But the star of this show is the action. The pace of Paternus is so relentless, and the battles so entertaining and cinematic, no piddly little editing issues were going to stop me from turning the next page. The conceit of battling gods from multiple pantheons is absolutely brilliant. (Quetzalcoatl vs. Hephaestus and the Minotaur! Anansi vs. Galahad! Kali vs. Baphomet! Cerberus vs. the Devil!) As a 14-year-old D&D nerd reading the hardcover Deities and Demigods, I loved to speculate about who would win if (for instance) Odin fought against Cthulhu. Dyrk Ashton wrote a whole book about that kind of epic clash of titans, and it’s every bit as delightful as it sounds. The research and knowledge of world mythologies that went into his work is astounding, and the novel is just plain popcorn fun from beginning to end.

 

To start, I think Dorian makes some great points. Like him, as a teenager I imagined battles between gods from the Deities and Demigods book from the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons game, so Paternus calls to that part of my imagination, and I have no issues with the premise of the plot. After laying low for many years, suddenly all these god-like creatures are about to get caught up in war that forces them all to choose a side. The two sides are the Asura, who are classified as bad, and the Deva, who are the good guys. However, the plot contains a serious hole big enough to drive a truck through. When the Asura leader Kleron sets his minions against an old man named Peter, who is a dementia patient in a hospital, it unleashes a chain of events that continually serve to thwart Kleron’s plans. It makes no sense as to why Kleron simply didn’t send a wealth of his Asura minions out to pick off the Deva one by one, since they are mostly scattered and vulnerable. This does happen in a few instances, but surely there are more Deva in the world, and in some cases Kleron doesn’t send enough minions to ensure success. Had Kleron wiped out the Deva, he could have then turned his attention to the hospital, leaving old man Peter with no allies. It’s a bit of a blunder for a character that is portrayed throughout the story as being a step ahead of his opponents.

There are a few other problems with the story. One involves the use of cybernetic insects on parallel worlds, and it’s not really clear how they have come into being or how the Kleron controls them and has them do his bidding. Some characters are “unbeatable”, so there’s not much tension with regard to the outcomes of their battles. And the third-person present tense is an awkward choice. As J.C. and Dorian describe it, the head-hopping between characters using an omniscient viewpoint is often troublesome.

And this brings us to the main problem with Paternus: Rise of Gods – the characterization. For much of the book, Fi and Zeke feel underdeveloped, and the beginning, as other reviewers have pointed out, definitely has a YA urban fantasy/angst love story vibe. That’s not necessarily a deal breaker, but that type of perspective does not lend itself well to deep character development. As Dorian says, they simply react to events going on around them without driving the action. It gives them a feeling of being bystanders, and that aspect, combined with their limited viewpoint – due to the number of different characters with page time – makes them feel shallow. To me, Ashton is merely describing their feelings…I didn’t really feel what they were feeling. As for the god-like creatures, we can’t really understand what’s going on in their head or why the even care about certain things, especially the few that are millions of years old.

SPOILER ALERT! There’s a scene where the Asura master and his minions get into a secret catacomb before the protagonists do…how is this possible? How did the Asura master even know about the catacombs? It is not explained. Additionally it is revealed that Zeke has a “power”, even though he is mortal. So where does this power come from? Even some of the more knowledgeable characters admit that they don’t know. And what are the chances that a mortal with Zeke’s powers should not only be close to Fi (who is also more than she seems), but an intricate part of her life? It feels like there is a piece missing here, so my hope is that Ashton actually has an explanation that will be revealed in sequel and that it’s not just a huge coincidence for the sake of the plot.

There’s a significant chunk of downtime towards the end where a big infodump occurs. Usually authors will place an infodump at or near the beginning of the story. Why? Because it slows down the pace. By placing the infodump at the end, where normally an author is building up tension to an exciting conclusion, Ashton has robbed his story of some of that tension by stalling out while trying to process the infodump. Fortunately the copious amounts of previous action sequences carry the day. Also, it should be noted that there is some darkness to this fantasy, with gore, heads being ripped off or eyeballs plucked, and a sex scene that may bother more sensitive readers.

Although this review sounds overwhelming negative, there are positive aspects to the story. In addition to the brilliant warring gods concept, the action sequences that these gods engage in are described very well. And I actually enjoyed the linking of the same mythological being throughout a variety of different cultures. It’s clear Ashton has done his homework and taken it to another level. And the pace, aside from the infodump near the end, is fast-moving.

In conclusion, despite many problems with the story, Ashton manages to make it work to enough of a degree that I will probably spring for the sequel, Paternus: Wrath of Gods. While it not one of my favorite reads lately, it wasn’t a struggle to get through and has a lot of things going for it, and I’m curious to see what direction Ashton takes the sequel in.

Book Review: The Tainted City by Courtney Schafer

tainted cityFormat:  oversized paperback, first edition, 2012

Pages:  402

Reading Time:  about 10 hours

One Sentence Synopsis:  Dev and Kiran return to Ninavel in an attempt to win back their freedom, but when things go downhill quickly, it becomes a fight not only for freedom but also survival.

 

A little over 8 months ago I acquired all 3 books in The Shattered Sigil series by Courtney Schafer, and read and reviewed the first book, The Whitefire Crossing. I liked the story but was slightly disappointed by the ending, though I said at the time that it was certainly set up for the sequel. Well, I have just completed that sequel, The Tainted City, and I’m ready to offer up my thoughts. First, however, some guest reviews from around the internet:

 

Paul Weimer of SF Signal states: “Happily, for me, The Tainted City lived up to my expectations and wishes for a sequel. Its strengths are many, and I would like to start with the worldbuilding and the setting. Although we get some scenes within the mountains (no surprise, given the author’s interests), the focus and the heart of the story is firmly set in the city of Ninavel. The author brings the city of Mages to life as convincingly and in as much depth and evocation of sense of place as she does the Mountains. Also, the magic system worldbuilding is well done…Character and the writing that evokes it is the other strength I want to mention here. Like its predecessor, the novel alternates between a first person perspective for Dev, and a third person perspective focusing on Kiran. The character voices are strong. An event early on does act as a large reset button on their relationship, perhaps too much of one. However, this has the salutary effect of helping make The Tainted City stand very much on its own rather than being a sequel dependent on the first novel…What could have been better about The Tainted City? Especially with the ever growing complicated landscape and geopolitical world, a map and concordance was sorely missed. This is a big and rich world, and more and more of it is impacting on the story, even if the story itself is physically set in only a slice of it.

Sparky at Fangs for the Fantasy opines: “I love the way this book examines “end justifies the means” thinking by repeatedly showing its victims – whether it’s the way Dev and Kiran were betrayed by Marten, how Ruslan hurt Kiran to bring him back to their family or even the utter goal of trying to stop and remove a truly corrupt and dangerous city – but at what cost? The manipulations – and willingness to sacrifice people – on the past of the “good guys” are not presented as rosier or happier or more right than the manipulations of the “bad guys.”…Which brings me to the characters – I love the characters in this book because they’re all very real. From Marten and his manipulations and conflict over them, to Lena’s conflicted morality, to Cara’s free and easy ways covering her serious dedication to Kiran’s much abused world view. Even the bad guys – Ruslan and co and Dev’s ex are all very human with human motivations and understandable world views. You can see real people making the decisions of all these characters, their emotions feel real, their actions understandable, their view points, even when wrong, are ones you can see actual people having…This book has some good female characters – the determination and skill of Cara who also brings a brightness to book which is often so gritty. There’s the moral centre and conflict of Lena. There’s the enigmatic and cruel Lizaveta and I can’t get past the idea that she may be manipulating Ruslan and be the true power behind the throne and there’s even the painful, cunning yet redeemed Jylla. There are some other female characters but they are in minor roles – which is rather my problem with the female characters – they’re all rather minor…I would have loved to see any of these women take a more active role, or a role that wasn’t so related to the men around them. I liked them all as characters – as I liked all the characters in this book – but they deserved more presence in the book itself.

Finally, Kristen at Fantasy Cafe explains: “I wasn’t quite prepared for just how much I ended up loving The Tainted City, though. It has everything I like to see in a secondary world fantasy – a fascinating, well-built, and consistent world; excellent, authentic characters who are put to the test; an exciting story that kept me on the edge of my seat; and magic that is not easy and often requires making tough choices. It’s a very thoughtfully written fantasy book, but not in a way that’s trying too hard or takes away from the story being told. It’s thoughtful in how seamless the characterization and world-building are, and the way good and bad are balanced in societies and characters…Similarly, the characters are well-rounded without falling firmly into the category of “black” or “white.” Some were darker than others, and they all had to face difficult choices that showed what they valued and where their priorities lay – Dev had to figure out just what he’d sacrifice to keep his promise to save Melly, and Kiran had to decide just how far he was willing to go to be a blood mage. Those other than the two main characters also had to wrestle with various choices, and I really appreciated that no matter what a character did or how much I might disagree with it, I always understood WHY he or she acted that way…In fact, the entire second half of this book was fast-paced, urgent, and kept me on the edge of my seat. If I had one complaint, it’s that there were some parts in the first half that were a little slow, but it really wasn’t a bad sort of slow that was boring. It just seemed to take awhile to really get to the heart of the story, but once it did things moved at a rapid pace and it was a fast ride full of twists and turns right until the end.

 

These reviews are spot on. The strength of The Tainted City lies in the characterization. The characters all have their own voices and own motivations, which makes them realistic and believable. In fact, much of the character interaction is what kept me glued to the story during the first couple hundred pages, when there really isn’t much action going on. Dev seems more of a hothead than I remember, and Kiran goes through some major changes. Cara returns but has very little page time, while Ruslan, Mikail and the opposing mages like Martin and Lena get greatly expanded roles. Schafer’s plot makes sense, and her magic system is so thoroughly explained with rules of not only what can and cannot be done, but also why and when and how it can or cannot be done. It’s one of the most complex, detailed, and flawless systems I’ve ever seen explained. In fact, it’s so complex that at times I’m not sure I fully grasped the nuances.

As I just mentioned, there isn’t a lot of action right away. Oh, there’s lots of interaction, mystery, and intrigue, with people trying to use their wits, along with any other means of leverage, to gain advantage. It’s a testament to Schafer’s talent that she not only managed to keep me engaged through all of it, but also took the story in a few directions that I didn’t see coming. Dev and Kiran return to Ninavel, and immediately Kiran is given to Ruslan. The remainder of the plot focuses on how Dev attempts to get Kiran back, while protecting his ward Melly, and all this happens concurrently with the search for a serial killer of mages. As the pages turn and the tension builds, I began to wonder how Schafer was going to possibly resolve these multiple plot threads in a satisfying way.

The worldbuilding is excellent, but as Paul stated, a map is sorely needed. While there was a big emphasis on mountain climbing (a hobby of Schafer’s) in the first book, there is very little climbing here except at the beginning and end of the story. Most of the setting takes place in Ninavel, and it is a fully realized city, with slums, mansions, markets, warehouses, embassies, a cistern where mages create water for the city, a royal palace, and the confluence, a source of magic within the city. It is not quite as exciting of an environment as the mountain climbing in the mountains in The Whitefire Crossing was, but it’s not a bad setting.

The conclusion does reach an ending. Is it satisfying? I suppose it depends on your expectations. With one more book to go, I wasn’t confident that the ending would be a happy one. In fact, the ending of this book reminds me a lot of the ending of the first book – not necessarily happy, but with reason to hope that things will work out in the next book. There is one thing I hesitate to bring up, and it is a minor quibble, and that is the plot itself, which returns Dev and Kiran almost immediately to Ninavel as the story begins. Why is that a bad thing? Well, if you think about how the plot of The Whitefire Crossing was to get Dev and Kiran away from Ninavel, The Tainted City returns them right back there by page 65. In other words, this sequel undermines the entire plot of the first book and makes it totally unimportant in the grand scheme of things, since almost all of The Tainted City is set in Ninavel. Again, this is minor, but still not a great treatment of the previous plot in my opinion.

In conclusion, I enjoyed The Tainted City thanks to the strong characters and detailed magic system. While it wouldn’t crack my Top 20 list that includes the year this book came out (2012), it is a good book that kept me intrigued and makes me glad that I took the effort to hunt down The Labyrinth of Flame.