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

pulledFormat: oversized omnibus paperback

Pages: 137

Reading Time: about 3.5 hours

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

My Thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

pulledFormat: oversized omnibus paperback

Pages: 129

Reading Time: about 3.5 hours

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

My Thoughts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

pulled

Format: oversized omnibus paperback

Pages: 128

Reading Time: about 3.5 hours

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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