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…