Review – A Plague of Giants by Kevin Hearne (2017)

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Hardcover, 640 pages
Published October 17th 2017 by Del Rey Books

Kevin Hearne has had a pretty quick rise, thanks to his fun and lighthearted Iron Druid Chronicles. However, for some time now he’s been teasing his full-length epic fantasy series at events and blogs, and I personally have had it circled since it was announced, eager to see what Hearne would, and could, do when stepping away from the Iron Druid ring.

A Plague Of Giants is told in a fashion that is in equal parts familiar and unfamiliar – a bard in a tavern spins the tale, however this bard has the ability to shift his appearance into that of the person he is telling the story of – including a younger version of himself, who personally witnessed some of the events. The story is broken up from time to time by focusing on the bard, Fintan, in the present time, dealing with some repercussions of the tale he’s telling – or more specifically, the way the tale is being told. There are interludes of him working along with Master Dervan, a scribe who is tasked with recording Fintan’s story as he goes.

There’s a bit of a learning curve to this, as there are quite a few POV characters expressed, and sometimes keeping track of who you were on and what their storyline was could be a challenge. However, as the story went on, this became more and more second nature and easier to follow, as we learned more details about each person that made them stand out as unique.

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The early portion of the book focuses largely around the storyteller, as well as the Hathrim – the fire giants – who are pushed from their land due to a volcanic eruption that destroys their home. It is revealed that their leader has a plan in mind to seek refuge in the land of man – where they are banned from via an ancient pact – and eventually take the land by force for themselves. This part is interesting and kind of a fun bit of backstory, however I couldn’t help but be bothered by the fact that their story is big in the beginning, disappears for some time in the middle, then becomes relevant very close to the end yet again.

The characters in this novel are many, and while you start to get a feel for most of them throughout the book, the fact there are so many POV characters really starts to muddle things a bit, and makes for a reading experience that often feels like it needs a chart on the wall to track what is going on with what character, and where. This is even further complicated by the storytelling of the bard, as you not only jump from character to character each chapter, you also have small interludes of the bard prepping and introducing what he’ll be talking about – just one more thing to pull your attention away.

It was a huge departure from Hearne’s Iron Druid series, as that focuses mainly on one character for several books. However, if you read reviews and speak with folks in person who have read it, a common consensus often is that the series starts to get a little tougher once it goes from the single-POV of Atticus, and includes POVs of Granuaile and Owen. That transfers pretty directly to A Plague of Giants, where things get bogged down more and more as more characters are added, and each individual character loses bits of their importance when sharing screen time with so many others.

The worldbuilding is far and away the strength of this book. The Seven Kennings is a unique and fun magic system, an onion-like series of magics that unfolds more and more as the series goes on. Many characters are seeking out mythical kennings that are not documented, and one of the main characters accidentally discovers one of these powers, and uses it to his advantage throughout the book (and grows around it, becoming more and more confident and pushy as he learns his strengths). There is magic abound in subtle ways, as well as not-so-subtle ways, such as the fire giants immolation. The tidal mariners are fascinating, and the history of the world that is revealed is engrossing.

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Kevin and I at the Plague of Giants release signing

Unfortunately, the pacing of the novel is not always perfect, and the middle portion of the book was…slow. I won’t say boring, that’s too harsh, but there’s a decent stretch that everyone I’ve spoken to who read it all agreed was a screeching halt to the story flow, and it physically slowed down how quickly I could read it as I was not nearly as engrossed. The ending picked up nicely, and really resulted in a satisfying and thorough finish to the story. It certainly did not feel like a standalone book, but enough ends were tied up to feel a solid conclusion.

As a whole, I had very mixed feelings on the novel. There were some things I really enjoyed about it (magic system, worldbuilding, creativity), and some I did not like (pacing, number of characters). I’m interested to see where this goes, and I’m hoping Kevin shows some restraint in future novels as far as adding even more unnecessary POV characters, and rather opts to tell the story through the ones he’s already got established. There’s a great base to work with here, and I think it can be improved upon in the future novels.

Rating: 3.5 / 5

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Review – The Core by Peter V. Brett (2017)

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Hardcover, 781 pages
Published October 3rd 2017 by Del Rey

The Demon Cycle has been, consistently, one of my single favorite fantasy series since I began reading it some 7 or 8 years ago. One of the most shockingly unique and fresh ideas, in a genre that is struggling mightily with “been there, done that” syndrome, the novels had the writing quality, characters, and worldbuilding to backup it’s big ideas.

The Warded Man was such a breath of fresh air, and while I had some minor complaints, the overall package was impressive and immensely enjoyable. The Desert Spear took the series into overdrive for me – I adored the Krasian storyline, loving exploring the details of their beliefs, the methods to their madness, the behind-the-scenes of what made these baffling people tick. The Daylight War was the humpday of the series, bridging the early portion with the later pieces. While I found it to be not as strong as the other pieces of the series, I still enjoyed it an awful lot, and it had one of the best endings of any book in the series (until now…). In 2015’s The Skull Throne, Brett showed some impressive humility in listening to some of the criticisms of the previous entry and resolving them, and crafted another absolutely stunning novel, keeping me glued throughout, and ended up as the #5 novel of the year on my ‘Best of 2015’ list, despite an absolutely star-studded field including the Hugo winner The Fifth Season.

To say I was going into The Core, the final entry in the series, with high expectations – and high anxiety – would be an understatement. There was a lot riding on this novel, a TON of story threads that were all over the map that needed to be tied back in, and a lot to happen in a relatively short timeframe. Thank the Creator that it delivered on every front.

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I’ve held off on reviewing this novel for over a week, simply as a digestion time. I often write reviews while still riding the emotional highs and lows of the books I just finished. I really wanted to wait on The Core, to see if it would still invoke the same response from me as I felt when I finished it, to see if it still stuck with me after completing two other books in the interim. The clear answer to that is yes. Calling it ahead of time, I’m saying the novel is the clear frontrunner for “Best Novel of 2017” that I’ve read – competing with the likes of Mark Lawrence’s Red Sister, Brian McClellan’s Sins of Empire, and Michael J. Sullivan’s Age of Swords. I haven’t read nearly as much this year as in previous years, and Sanderson’s Oathbringer is still forthcoming, but this novel would stand apart even had I done so.

Sharak Ka is approaching quickly, and the world is preparing for it in their own ways. Meanwhile, Jardir, Arlen Bales, Renna Bales, and Jardir’s neice Shanvah inch closer to the Core, the fabled underground lair of the demons and their leaders, using the captured Alagai Ka to guide them ever further. Their actions have, inadvertently, triggered the demons to go into overdrive to prepare for an invasion of the surface, including breeding more of the demon-producing queens. On the surface, the cast of characters we’ve grown to know and love continue to fight their fight, dealing with surface politics while trying to prepare everyone for a large-scale battle.

The Core was utterly brilliant in tying everything together, and buttoning it up nicely. All of the frayed and wild storylines became centralized in very skillful and fluid ways, the full growth cycles of each character becoming apparent and displayed. There was a wonderful feeling of closure in almost every way by the end, with each of the mains being involved in all the major workings, and a lot of the mid-level characters, such as Briar, being explored much more deeply, and given spotlight to go through some real growth and changes. Brett also threw a bone to those of us who stuck out the series, bringing back a lot of the smaller characters from earlier books in cameos, reminding us of how far the series has come, and the huge colorful band of people that were encompassed in the epic.

The execution, as you’ve gathered, was spot on. The story moved fluidly, quickly, and was a very enchanting read. Despite being a moderately long novel, it never felt slow or drug at all, it legitimately stayed interesting throughout, and I had serious issues with putting it down, which lead to it being completed in a couple days for me. I couldn’t bear to wait any longer to see what would happen with Leesha, with Arlen, with Inevera and the entire band of Krasian sister-wives, and of course with what would happen when the Core was finally reached. I won’t discuss in detail how the actual ending happened, but it was a gut-wrenching, exciting, and impactful section, one of the harder to read – emotionally – bits of the entire series. I was thankful that Brett gave a bit of a fadeout here’s where they are now! section after the main bulk of the story, which helped not just give closure to the story, but to also let us wind down a bit after the excitement.

As a whole, The Demon Cycle series was utter brilliance. Unique, well executed, full of peaks and valleys and everything in between. It took a very original idea and ran with it, making a truly wonderful and compelling story that really enriched my life the better part of the last decade.  Brett released a handful of novellas and shorts to augment the series as well, which really helped rope me in over the course of reading, as well as keeping me interested in the years between books.

The Core itself, on it’s own merits, was far and away the best book of the series for my tastes, and it was by a large margin. With as good as the previous entry was, that’s saying a lot, but this really, truly was a wonderful book. The wait was well worth it, and I probably would change almost nothing about how this series ended, and the journey that got us there. If I were making a Fantasy Rushmore for series that I love, it would be impossible for The Demon Cycle not to take up one of the few spots available.

Rating: 5 / 5

Review – The Guns of Empire by Django Wexler (2016)

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Hardcover, 480 pages
Published August 9th 2016 by Roc

I have this issue, wherein I read the first book in a series, love it, and then kind of…don’t go back to the second book. I’ve done this over and over again, with many series, some of which are still in that status – Malazan, The Unhewn Throne, Raven’s Shadow, etc. Some series, however, I stick with, and see through, and read each book when it comes out.

However, the issue I’ve had with Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series is that I love the books, but I put off and put off reading each new book for at least a year, for no reason. I always seem to skip over them when I’m picking my next book – often due to length, I think, as I seem to hover towards shorter books these days – and then finally go “oh geez, I should actually read this”, and then, naturally, love that book. Only to have the next one come out, and wait a year, etc.

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So, a year and change after reading The Price of Valour, I began again on the series with The Guns of Empire. I’ve been reading the series long enough that these familiar characters are like a warm sweater, one of those “ahh, finally back in this world” feelings,  and it’s one I appreciate. The novel starts after general Janus bet Vhalnich’s victories in The Price of Valour, and the opposing forces have arranged a largescale gathering of the various generals and leaders to try and broker peace. Vordan has a carefully planned peace negotiation, and Queen Raesinia is prepared to give it, when Janus blindsides all in attendance by declaring off-cuff that there will be no possible peace without the Church of Elysium disbanding and surrendering control to Vordon – a move that will clearly never happen, and essentially a further declaration of war.

Return protagonists Marcus d’Ivoire and Winter Ihernglass are stuck between their queen and their general, leaning towards Raesinia’s desire for peace and making a deal, however still owing allegiance to Janus after years of working alongside him. As things progress, however, the situation becomes more and more complicated, and the movements of the Church of the Elysium and the Pontifex of the Black force their collective hands.

Overall, I really enjoyed The Guns of Empire. It was a bit of a slow starter, with plenty of things happening, however a tad on the dry side as far as the actual movement and execution. However, as the action went back to the field, things really pick up, both with the interpersonal relationships, as well as the overall story. There are some truly gut-wrenching moments, especially towards the end, and some of the action is extremely heavy and exciting. As Wexler explores the range of his magic system, without ever letting it become overly powerful or intrusive, more and more interesting equations are possible, and new characters with unique(ish) abilities or powers are enabled. He takes a very skilled approach, not inundating the world with magic and making the magic itself the focal point, like a Brandon Sanderson book, but rather using it as an augment to the true driving force of his work – the wonderful characters and worldbuilding.

The build of the novel is actually rather satisfying, feeling as though it rose and rose in tempo as the pages passed, leading to a huge crescendo at the end. I couldn’t put it down for the final 1/2 of the novel, and went out of my way to stay up late to finish it, as I just couldn’t fathom walking away before finding out what happens. The setup for the 5th in the series is deft and fluid, not leaving a cliffhanger but rather introducing the beginning premise of the followup in a natural manner, letting us know what would be coming without making a big dramatic DUN DUN DUNNNNNNNN style revelation. I quite loved the ending.

Overall, I regret, as always, not reading this book sooner. It’s sat on my shelf since it was released, looking at me, judging me for ignoring it, and I’m thrilled with the end product. I rather wish I’d waited longer, so I could have begun the 5th book immediately, but alas, I’ve got to wait until January, when I will – hopefully – not put it off for another year.

Rating: 4.5 / 5

 

Review – Spin by Robert Charles Wilson (2006)

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Mass Market Paperback, 458 pages
Published February 7th 2006 by Tor Science Fiction (first published April 2005)

I don’t venture far out of my comfort zone often. I’ve been burnt a few too many times, and been left feeling like I needed to stick to what I knew and loved. However, in books as in life, you never know what new passion you’ve been unintentionally avoiding – much like finally trying pho a decade ago, finally listening to proper European metal music, or more recently finally reading Dune, I did not know what I’d been missing by operating on preconceived notions of what something was, or what I personally thought I liked. I’d been dodging what I viewed as more ‘traditional’ sci-fi works; the type of novel that I interpreted as too stuffy, too focused on the science and less focused on traditional story pillars: people and events.

Sometimes, as I was with Dune, I am very, very wrong in making these assumptions, and the payoff when I finally wake the hell up is more than worth it. As it was true with Dune, it is more than true in Spin, a novel that I – spoiler alert – fucking adored.

I picked Spin almost by coincidence – I’d added his Hugo-nominated novel, Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd Century America to my to-read list a couple years ago, around the time I played the eerily-similar Bioshock Infinite, and was in the mood for that kind of thing. I’d seen RCW’s name around – if you pay any attention to the SFF world, you can’t really miss him, and his Hugo nominations had given me some reason to pay attention. After noting that Spin had won best novel Hugo – beating out George Martin’s A Feast for Crows and John Scalzi’s utterly brilliant Old Man’s War, I kind of wondered whether there was something fishy with this kind of vote, or if RCW really had chops.

Reading Spin answered all of that for me.

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Spin follows Tyler Dupree. At 10 years old, Tyler, along with his best friends – twins Diane and Jason Lawton – witness as the spin occurs. A sudden shade appears over the world, and blots out the sky. Before long, the scientists of the world determine what has occurred – a mysterious ‘membrane’ has encapsulated earth, and while time passes as normal within said membrane, outside the membrane in space, 3.17 years pass for every second within the membrane – 100 million years per earth year. Tyler is quickly wrapped up in the drama when childhood friend, and genius, Jason, brings him along as a special campus physician to the NASA-competing Parahelion, largely run by Jason’s cunning father, E.D. Lawton. Jason’s twin sister, Diane, was Tyler’s love interest since they were children, and following the introduction of the Spin, goes the opposite direction of her brother – enlisting in a radical Christian sect called the New Kingdom.

The novel follows Tyler as he works with Jason, slowly discovering more and more of the secrets surrounding the spin, as well as slowly continuing to pursue Diane, whom he loves but has moved on to a different mindset and lifestyle. As more and more details of the spin emerge, Tyler watches as Parahelion launches a project aimed to terraform Mars in an attempt to turn it into a habitable world for humans to escape to, taking advantage of the advancing speed of time outside the spin membrane, and eventually are visited by a Martian represntative, Wun Ngo Wen, a product of the terraforming of Mars that is hundreds of thousands of years old, despite being only a few years old in earth years.

The spin situation continues to evolve and change over time, as do the interpersonal and political issues that Tyler is wrapped up in, the least of which being his relationship with his beloved Diane, who has latched herself onto her husband Simon, a firm and devout follower of the New Kingdom and it’s various iterations. As things begin to erode and the seeming-end of the world approaches, Tyler scrambles to help where he can, assist Jason in his fight to push towards progress and fight against his father, E.D., who is more inclined to a conservative approach and align with the more conservative politicians regarding the approach to the spin.

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As someone who does not read an excessive amount of scifi, Spin was innovative, creative, and very well thought out. I am not one for the hard-science of books – I noticed a lot of my mutual friends who read this novel gave negative marks for the book not focusing more heavily on the science and repercussions, but for me that was a benefit. The novel had brilliant characters, and a creative and interesting view of the consequences and repercussions, and a more than adequate amount of science, whether that be regarding the logistics of the spin, the cause-effect on the world, and the limitations of the science surrounding the actions earth could take. I’m obviously not a PhD in any science field, but everything seemed to pass the sniff-test for someone who is educated but not particularly versed in this area.

The characters in the novel were brilliant, as was the interplay between them – there were an indescribable number of heart-wrenching scenes, of moments of drama, heartbreak, desire, love, hurt, loss, humor, growth, of humanity. People acted predictably in the face of unexpected horror and unknowing future, and the main characters were no different, facing the oncoming end of the world as well as their own interpersonal issues, both relating to their proximity to the people “in the know” about the spin and not.

In the end, Spin was one of the few novels I’ve read in recent years to hook me as hard, to move me as much, and to get really any kind of emotional reaction from me. I was hooked from the early parts, unable to stop reading, unable to stay away from this world for very long. I was shocked by how interesting I found the scenario, how fascinated I was by the characters and dialogue, and surprised how upset I was when the novel ended, despite the more-than-satisfactory explanation at the end.

Spin was, simply put, one of my favorite novels that I’ve ever read. It’s probably the first true entry into my top 20 in two years, and a novel that I feel like I will recommend to many friends. I’ve read many reviews of the book, both positive and negative, both strangers and people I trust, and views on this novel seem to vary wildly. For me, it was every bit deserving of a Hugo win, as I felt it was a revolutionary novel, executed brilliantly, with a problem and story backbone to stand the test of time, and the writing chops to back it up.

Rating: 5 / 5

Classic Review – Dune by Frank Herbert (1965)

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Paperback, 604 pages
Published June 1st 2006 by Hodder & Stoughton (first published June 1st 1965)

I know, I know.

As one of those “FANTASY PEOPLE”, I’m supposed to have read Dune, right? Right? Everyone has? EVERYONE!

I hadn’t, so I finally broke down and took the plunge. Anytime there’s a book like this, a classic, a quintessential piece of sci-fi/fantasy, I can’t help but go in with some preconceived notions. I knew very little about Dune prior to the book, to be honest – I could name some of the quotes from it, I understood some of the ‘spice’ references, etc. However, I’d never read any of it, never seen any of the media from it, and had largely stayed ignorant to the story, which I think is a good thing.

With Dune, I had some odd expectations – I can’t say why, but I kind of figured it would be a bit more stuffy, a bit more in the classical sparse 60s sci-fi style, a book based more on great ideas than great content. To a large degree, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Dune, in the end, is a book about people, focused on people, starring people – the world, while immensely creative, unique, and still holding up through the test of time, was a background mosaic for the driving force of the story – Paul, Jessica, and the rest of the cast were terrific, unique, strong characters with excellent dialogue, and strong convictions.

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Dune surrounds the interstellar planet Arrakis, a desert planet whose importance lies in the fact it was the only source of melange, or the spice. Melange was a drug with many positive effects, one of which being providing a nearly clairvoyant sense to those with the ability to process it as such. The story follows Paul Atreides, the son of the Duke Leto Atreides, who was a flawed but well liked duke of the House Atreides. All planets in the system are controlled by the Great Houses, answering to the Emperor, the cunning Shaddam. Sensing a threat to his power, Shaddam hands control of Arrakis over to Leto Atreides, while plotting with the former ruler of the planet, the fairly black-and-white evil Vladimir Harkonenn, to use the opportunity to remove Leto Atreides from the picture.

One of the major values of the spice is the future-seeing and other mental stimulating effects it has, namely on the powerful Bene Gesserit, a powerful matriarchal group with distinct and trained mental abilities, as well as the capability of passing on all memories and knowledge to others. Jessica, Duke Leto’s concubine, is a powerful Bene Gesserit, and is mistrusted by nearly all due to those ties, as well as her perceived ulterior motives. The Bene Gesserit, as it is revealed, have been undertaking a long term breeding program to try and produce a single powerful male version of the Bene Gesserit, though this remains largely a secret to anyone outside of Bene Gesserit circles.

Upon arrival to Arrakis, the Atreides are immediately set upon in numerous ways, including traps and plots to attempt to kill the powerful members of the family. They are eventually betrayed by a member of their own house, and the family is splintered apart and struggling to survive. Eventually, Jessica and Paul find themselves in the company of the Fremen, the native people to Arrakis, used as essentially forced servants to harvest and distribute the spice to the Empire. The Fremen have adapted to the harsh living conditions of Arrakis, including the sand and sandstorms, as well as the sand worms.

Sand worms?

Sand worms. Like, big ones, huge ones. The sand worms, referred to as ‘makers’ by the Fremen in reference to the fact that they are responsible for the pockets under the sand that create melange, are a massive problem to the inhabitants of the planet, as they often grow to massive proportions and attack aggressively. With the aid of the Fremen, Jessica and Paul integrate into their society, becoming leaders, and as Paul’s powers begin to emerge, he takes his place as the Duke Atreides, and teams with the Fremen to eventually make a push at both Vladimir Harkonnen, and the Emperor Shaddam.

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Dune caught me a bit off guard, with the amount of deep political and interpersonal drama it contained, as well as the incredibly well-done method Herbert employed to present it. His prose wasn’t legendary, in my opinion, but it had a great flow, the dialogue was terrific, and his sense of atmosphere was exceptional. I felt like I was sucked into this world, scared of these worms, scared of the betrayals, nervous for the characters.

Dune was one of those rare occasions where I read something that was well established, very highly praised, and intensely popular, and found it to be everything it was claimed to be and more. I truly enjoyed this novel, start to finish, and while there were some lulls and slow periods, it moved along at a good pace, and was pleasurable throughout.

I suppose I should get around to reading more of these older, well-regarded novels.

Rating: 4.5 / 5

Review – A Conversation In Blood by Paul S. Kemp (2017)

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Hardcover, 288 pages
Published January 24th 2017 by Del Rey

I have a weird relationship with the Egil and Nix series.

On the one hand, I’ve got some significant criticisms with some of the aspects, writing decisions, odd resolutions, overused plot points. On the other hand, something about the buddy relationship of Egil and Nix, the comforting banter between them, the way their relationship makes you root for them always. The kind of lighthearted nature of the stories, the shorter format that makes them great ‘junk food’ style reads, the ones you plow through in a short amount of time because they’re so entertaining and a great quick reprieve from heavy doorstoppers.

A Conversation In Blood, the third in the series, is no different from my previous feelings on the series. Despite giving somewhat lukewarm reviews to the previous books, including some hefty criticisms, I had found myself eagerly awaiting this entry, a seeming eternity between it and the second edition, due to Kemp’s other writing obligations. When Goodreads showed it out last summer, I got extremely excited, and was very let down to find out that it was in error and not out until January 2017. There’s *something* about this series that keeps drawing me back, keeps me excited for the next edition, and keeps me intrigued as to where it will go. It’s ‘junk food’ for sure, but has a lot more serious aspect to it, an underlying story, a dark side that a lot of the other junk food series lacks.

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The novel picks up with a restless Nix eager for something to shake up his bland existence. Egil is in a depressive state after the happenings of the second book, drinking away his sorrows on a daily basis, in a funk he cannot seem to get out of, nor has any interest in such. Pushed on by mutual friends, Nix manages to snap Egil out of it, and with the help of a returning friend from a previous adventure, the duo embark on yet another of their serial adventures. This time, they find themselves in possession of some mysterious metal plates (straight up Mormon-style), of which they soon find themselves the target of the hunting of a mysterious creature hellbent on recovering the plates.

The story unfolds as the trio learn the unfortunate reality of the plates, and of the creature chasing them to recover aforementioned plates. There’s some depth to this storyline, as well as the creature – The Afterbirth – that slowly unfolds and becomes more and more intriguing. It also opens the door to take a bit more of a view into Nix’s past as a sorcerer in training, as well as into the true depth of the friendship between the pair (hetero life mates). I thought the majority of this was very well handled, and very interesting – the plates did not feel overly original at first, even when we started dealing with the history of them, and the magical school Nix was an outcast from. However, I felt no real sense of familiarity when it came to the actual details, especially when The Afterbirth was involved, as it was a fairly unique character to me, one which Kemp gives just enough depth to in order to keep it interesting, but also leave it mysterious until the unraveling of the story details at the end.

Oh, and what an ending. An emotional rollercoaster to conclude the book – even feeling as though Egil and Nix were protected by obvious plot armor, there was significant drama and excitement, and I found the conclusion to be very heartwarming. That said, it was not without flaw, which is part of my frustration with each book in this series. Jime (guessing at spelling, I did audio), the third character in the novel, felt from the very beginning as Ensign Expendable, an additional side character that served no purpose other than eventual sacrifice, and – spoiler alert – that is exactly what he was. As the ending was unfolding, I was riveted, but I knew that somehow he would end up being sacrificed for the sake of the story, and it went down almost exactly as I imagined. It was interesting, it was a fun ending, but it was VERY disappointing to have such an obvious sacrifice along the entire time, serving little to no purpose aside from dying while the main characters lived. It was almost frustrating that it played out the way it did, because I wanted MORE from Kemp in this instance.

Some of my criticisms are the same as previous books. I love the banter between the duo, their familiar nature, the jabs at each other that were so obviously well-meaning, despite seeming harsh. Kemp does a terrific job showing their appreciation of each other, the deep bond the pair share, and how their adventures have shaped and changed them. However, the whole Egil-as-a-priest-of-an-obscure-god thing is just as worn out and lame as it was before. It’s brought up constantly, he’s referred to as ‘the priest’, or Nix will make comments about how he’s the one who is a priest, etc. However, as with before, there is ZERO impact on the story related to his worship of this god, there’s just no reason for it to even be a thing other than to mention it constantly. I wish there was more substance to it, but there still is not, after 3 books.

That said, I could nitpick it just like I could with any book, but in the end I still enjoyed this one quite a bit. I blasted through it quickly, enjoying the ride and especially the conclusion, even with the Ensign Expendable aspects of it. The pair continue to be so endearing, the dialogue between them entertaining as hell, and there’s always multiple laugh-out-loud moments in the stories. I like Kemp’s style in general, and this series does fit a very specific niche for me, one that only a series like this can fulfill, and it’s my favorite of the junk-food-sword-and-sorcery style books. It’s what Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser would be if they were more modern, I think. I enjoy that the series is fairly ‘adult’, not necessarily with graphic sex or violence, but with just enough profanity, dark plot pieces, and adult themes to separate it from some of the similar, but more lighthearted, stories of it’s ilk.

Overall, a flawed but fun adventure, the books continue to get better with each edition.

Rating: 4 / 5

 

Review – Clash of Iron by Angus Watson (2015)

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Paperback, 560 pages
Published April 14th 2015 by Orbit

When going into 2014’s Age of Iron, I was not really sure what to expect, and despite several positive reviews, didn’t necessarily know how I’d feel about it. To say I was pleasantly surprised is an understatement – I laughed out loud at times, couldn’t put it down, and adored the characters and presentation Watson had generated. I took off quite a bit of time before reading the second novel, though found myself having no troubles jumping right back in with little to no refresher needed.

I was thrilled to find that the characters I’d loved in the first were back, and exactly as I remembered them – namely Dug, Spring, Lowa, Ragnall, and…Julius Caesar?
Yeah. That Caesar.

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Clash of Iron takes us back to 1st century era Europe, a fantasy-based take on a real time period, real places, and in a lot of cases, real events. Some items are changed for the story, or made up altogether, but the bits and pieces involving historical figures are largely fact-based, and with my meager knowledge of the time period. I felt fairly immersed in the book. A general competence was shown by Watson to transport the reader to the time period, which I think is a “must” for any historical-based fantasy. As with Bernard Cornwell’s books of similar ilk, if you’re using real settings, it’s important to get some details right, while you can fudge some others, and I thought Watson walked a very fine line to get it just right.

As with Age of Iron, the real stars of the story are the characters. The simple-yet-deep Dug, a relatable bear of a man, struggles to balance his duty to his new friends, his new lands, while finding a place to fit into the entire picture, unaware of just how important of a piece he is in the puzzle. Lowa is now queen of Maidun after the events of Age of Iron, and her life is that much more complicated because of it, not to mention her relationship with Dug, and some of the revelations to come between them. However, her scouts soon discover some very concerning items regarding the impending Roman invasion.

Oh, right, the Roman invasion – I mentioned that, right? We find another favorite from the first book, Ragnall, now in league with Julius Caesar, and also torn – between his homeland, which he feels increasingly bitter towards, and his new Roman compatriots, particularly the impressive Julius Caesar. He soon finds himself a close confidant and insider for Caesar, admiring the man in his own way, and enjoying the favor he was able to achieve by assisting him, even if he did not get the same courtesy from the other self-aggrandizing Romans around him. Ragnall finds himself ever more impressed with the Roman culture and diplomacy, and ever more jaded towards his former homeland, to the point of beginning to wish the Romans upon them as a way to civilize and modernize them.

The novel is a lot of fun – not nearly as funny as the first, in my opinion, but still very clever, and getting several legit out-loud laughs from me. It takes a much darker direction overall than Age of Iron, both in tone and events, but it was never oppressive or overly gloomy, as some grimdark novels can become. The characters are brilliantly written – each with unique characteristics and voices, each well rounded and deep, never bland or flat – there are many shades of gray in this book. The female characters, in particular, are very well-written, and given a place in the forefront of the novel, positions of power, and very competent attributes and skillsets to boot. There might be more page time for the male characters, but Lowa, Spring and co always felt well represented and integral pieces of the story.

It’s hard to talk about without giving any spoilers, but I will say that the ending of the book had me saying “WHAT THE EFF” out loud, and absolutely shocked by the direction taken. There were a few “WTF” moments through the novel, but the ending takes the cake. Where a lot of authors struggle to finish their novels, Watson hits an absolute home run in this piece, giving a gut-wrenching, moving and important tour through the final few chapters, leaving the reader pining for more, but also needing some time to recover and recuperate after what happened.

Clash of Iron has some very high points, a few flat periods, and in general a lot of positive attributes. I did not love it the way I loved the first, but it’s still a very good book, one I thoroughly enjoyed reading and a series that I will recommend to others – especially readers of Bernard Cornwell – and will continue reading myself.

Rating: 4.25 / 5

 

Review: Those Below by Daniel Polansky (2016)

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Hardcover, 368 pages
Published March 10th 2016 by Hodder & Stoughton Ltd

I have a fairly up-and-down relationship with Daniel Polansky’s work – I enjoy almost all of it, and for large portions of each (most, more accurately) of his books, I’ve experienced pure joy reading. However, as I’ve pointed out in numerous reviews of Daniel’s books, I’m consistently frustrated with his novels. His prose is, for the majority of the time, stellar – among my favorite of any author, an absolute pleasure to consume. I generally enjoy his characters, his worldbuilding, his creativity. However, in every novel, I’ve felt like he just didn’t quite put all the pieces together, whether it be flat spots in certain sections, making decisions in the story that didn’t make much sense to me, or even just overwriting chunks of the book. I’ve been quite upset with it at times, because I feel as though he could be one of my favorite writers.

Those Below threw all of that above criticism out the window.

While I will stop short of saying that I think Polansky has finally ‘put it all together’ (largely based on the fact I did not enjoy his newest novel all that much, but that was obviously personal preference, based on style and decisions), I will say that I thought Those Below was far and away the best, and most complete, of his works to date. The story arc, progression, characters and dialogue, story direction choices, misdirection, and of course the wonderful prose all worked, all clicked, all felt fulfilling and complete. As much as I wanted to see the resolutions, I dreaded reaching the end, though I thought the conclusion itself was very well done, very moving, and exceptionally impactful.

Those Below picks up not too long after where it’s prequel, Those Above, left off – following Eudokia, Calla, Pyre, and co at the Roost, the magical tiered city run by, well, Those Above, the Eternal, a species of nearly-immortal, godlike people, with some avian qualities. Additionally, we returned to my favorite character from the first book, Bas – the hero warrior of the Aelerian empire, one of the only known to have killed one of Those Above – as he marches his army towards the Roost in preparations for an invasion and war. The pieces have been laid for this, with Pyre and his Five Fingered brethren wreaking havoc in the lower – poorer and more oppressed – parts of the city, sowing the seeds of rebellion, disrupting trade and striking fear into the humans of the higher rungs, ever closer to the Eternal.

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The twists involved in this story are not exactly the most shocking, however they were well set up, well presented, and as the pieces fell into place the story became more and more enjoyable. The understated, but incredibly powerful Eudokia mentally sparring with the leader of the Eternal, as well as several of his peers, and of course with Calla, the human servant and representative of the leader of the Eternal (as well as her involvement with Eudokia’s nephew), was one of the more enjoyable bits I’ve read. Calla and her relationship conflicts, being torn between seeing the human’s point of view, while still appreciating the Eternal for their greatness, and the great life her and her predecessors had lived due to them. Bas and his melancholy, his slow descent and acceptance of his purpose, his place in the world, and his inevitable end while his friends fall around him.

The setup is a bit of an anomaly – the book is definitely a slow burner, despite being relatively short, but does keep you engaged the entire time. I never had the periods of incredibly slow movement I experienced in most of his previous works, never lost any interest, never wanted to really put the book down once I was reading it. I always wanted to know what would happen next, how the impending battle would go down, whether we were going to be shocked in the end.

Those Below was certainly one of my favorite reads of 2016, and gave me that “all in” Polansky piece that I’d been desiring after reading his previous works. It was enjoyable front to back, and it was impressive just how much he fit into only two ~350 page novels, a rather refreshing dip from long-winded doorstoppers that have become so common in fantasy. Daniel does not waste words, does not fill space with nonsense, but the words he does use are wonderful and glorious in this piece, and I savored every bit of it.

Rating: 4.75 / 5

Quick Reviews: Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal (2016), and Waypoint Kangaroo by Curtis Chen (2016)

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Hardcover, 304 pages
Published August 16th 2016 by Tor Books
Ghost Talkers is a WWI-era novel that follows Ginger Stuyvesant, a medium (yes, that kind of medium) from America, living in London during the war. Ginger is part of a mostly-secret group of magical seers, the Spirit Corps, who communicate with recently deceased soldiers, reliving their final moments and helping to assist them into the afterlife, while using the information they gather from these deceased soldiers as a form of intel for the army. Her fiancee, British soldier Benjamin Harford, is an intelligence officer for the British Army, and is lucky enough to work alongside Ginger periodically, when he isn’t being sent to the front lines.
After a fairly shocking turn leaves Benjamin deceased (mild spoiler, sorry), he finds himself unable to pass on to the afterlife due to the unfinished business of getting to the bottom of who killed him and why, and is able to assist Ginger with this mission as an incorporeal being who has some ability to interact with the real world, at the cost of his post-life sanity and energy. It soon becomes obvious that there’s more to the situation than there seemed on the surface, and Ginger, Benjamin, and Ginger’s peers find themselves on a wild goose chase to find traitors and murderers.
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I’ve been a fan of Mary for quite some time, as much for her personality, wit, narrating ability, and other talents as for her writing (which I also enjoy thoroughly, mind you). Her regular series is a bit out of my “normal” reading genre, but is a wonderfully written set of stories, with a lot of really high quality characters – especially strong female characters. Ghost Talkers is no different, with Ginger being a force, a strong-willed, intelligent and persistent presence in the story, and the true powerhouse of the novel. The supporting cast vary greatly in background, attitudes, and actions, but work well alongside Ginger to complete their tasks.
The novel itself is a lot of fun. It’s quick and to the point, and a total page-turner – I found myself flying through it, and actually read it in one sitting. I had become excited by the prospect of this novel when Mary first mentioned it at a book signing something like 2 years ago, and have been eagerly awaiting it since, and it did not disappoint.

Rating: 4.25 / 5 

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Hardcover, 320 pages
Published June 21st 2016 by Thomas Dunne Books

Curtis Chen is a local Portland author who I see quite often, and have hung around quite a bit (though much like David Levine, I doubt he could pick me out of a lineup), so I’ve had my eyes on this novel since he announced it some time back (last year?). Kangaroo is a spy, but one with a very particular and exclusive talent – he can open a “pocket” to a foreign bit of space, in which he can store anything of any size, for an indefinite amount of time, until he can return there and recover it. You can imagine that this would be pretty useful in general, but doubly so for a spy, as it allows him to have a variety of specialized instruments, weapons, etc for missions, as well as smuggling out important items without being caught with them. Neat, right?

Except Kangaroo is a bit of a loose cannon – too loose for his employers at times, as he finds a way to bungle some form of his missions seemingly consistently. So when Kangaroo yet again involves some collateral damage in a careless mistake, he’s asked by his boss to ‘take a vacation’, and walk away, specifically while their office is being audited, and there’s a chance he could blow it for them. However, as Kangaroo boards his cruise ship to Mars, he quickly finds himself unable to discontinue working, and is quickly entwined in a murder mystery on the ship, assisting the military-employee crew of the boat.

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Waypoint Kangaroo is a blast. It’s fast-paced, intelligent, witty, and has a lot of twists and turns. Not the most complicated plot line I’ve ever read, but I appreciate that because it let me simply enjoy the fast pace and pleasurable prose. Kangaroo isn’t your typical wittier-than-thou, smooth-talking protagonist we deal with so often in male-centered first person spyish novels, which was a nice break; he’s certainly witty, but isn’t perfect by any means. I had a good chuckle – I was reading this while on vacation, but on a vacation in which I found myself working more than not. Often my boss and friends tell me I’m ‘terrible at taking time off’ because I never stop working, and never let myself reset and rest. The entire novel, Kangaroo is ripped on for never relaxing, not knowing how to turn off work, etc – it hit very close to home, and made me laugh quite often at the irony of it.

In the end, I enjoyed the book quite a bit, and found it to be an encouraging and fun debut from Curtis. I look forward to the forthcoming sequel, and hopefully I’ll see Curtis sooner than later so I can tell him in person that I enjoyed the work quite a bit.

Rating: 4.25 / 5

Review: Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine

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Kindle Edition, 320 pages
Published July 12th 2016 by Tor

I want to preface by saying that I know David a bit, as he’s a prominent figure in the local book scene, however I doubt he could pick me out of a lineup. I’m a huge fan of his short fiction – I really have legitimately enjoyed pretty much all works from him I’ve ever read. Knowing that, I was more than excited to get my hands on his full novel, especially once the details on the plot and setting came out.

Arabella Ashby is a Martian. Actually, let me rephrase that: Arabella Ashby is a lady of English descent, who is part of a generation of colonists who were born and raised on Mars.

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In the 1600s, leaps in technology allowed Captain Kidd to take an airship to Mars, and begin the process of colonizing the planet. Obviously, there’s some suspension of disbelief here, but this is a fantasy/steampunk novel afterall, so that’s expected. The sooner you get over those improbabilities, the sooner you can enjoy novels like this. Arabella’s family runs a wood plantation on the colonized Mars, however her mother is concerned with the danger Arabella faces on the planet, as well as her increasing levels of tomboyish endeavors that take her away from being a proper English lady. Mother packs up Arabella to head back to Earth, leaving Arabella’s father and her brother, Michael, behind to run the plantation. However, word comes back later of her father’s passing, and soon after Arabella is surprised by deceit within her family, necessitating her getting to Mars to protect her brother – as soon as possible.

Arabella then escapes her family (whose mother I don’t remember her ever actually getting a hold of, despite thinking about it at one point) and looks for passage to Mars, however without any money on hand. She steals some men’s clothing, poses as a boy, and joins the military. However, before she can leave, she’s approached by a private sailing cargo ship, who employ her as a captain’s boy. The book follows Arabella’s adventures on the trade ship Diana, a dirigible capable of space travel on coal/steam power, wherein she learns valuable skills and proves her worth, fights the French, and has to deal with a ship mutiny, while hiding her true sex, before negotiating with the native Martians to get her brother back.

There are a lot of pieces moving in this story, despite it’s overall straightforward feel. Levine’s writing is, as always, an easy and pleasing read, technically sound but not stuffy at all. The dialogue is intelligent, believable, and consistent, and the story flows at an excellent pace, without major stalling at any point, or unnecessary info dumps. The shorter format of the novel means it’s a quick read overall, which is superb as it’s a hell of a page-turner. All of the characters are diverse, with unique voices and traits, and I had no issues keeping people separated based on their actions and speech alone.

I really enjoyed the way the space travel was handled – hints at some of the various things that went into it occurring, but not going overboard in technical explanations, or using magic of some sort. The fact it was just “it is what it is” was a great touch for me, and helped keep me from thinking of unnecessary details, and just enjoying the story within the framework of the world developed. The ship scenes were well done, giving the intrigue and excitement of a long voyage, but without some of the boat-porn we get in other novels, such as Red Seas Under Red Skies. There were ample anxiety-inducing scenes, where I found myself actually concerned for what might happen or the consequences thereof. The ending of the book, while a bit expected, was a satisfying conclusion to this novel, leaving it open-ended enough to continue if desired, but closed tight if not.

There’s a bit of been-there, done-that for sure. Less so with the steampunk aspects, as I found the dirigible-to-Mars to be a fresh take, and really interesting. However, Arabella is similar to most teenage female protagonist in Regency-style fantasy I’ve seen; the proper lady who desires to do the things denied to her by her status as a woman. The girl posing as a boy and staying undiscovered while proving their worth. I could continue – however, this archetype works, this is popular, and people obviously enjoy it, being as I’ve seen it time and time again. Arabella herself is a deep character, who is intelligent and unique in her own way, despite meeting a lot of the characteristics I’ve seen time and time again. The cast of supporting characters are, however, quite vibrant and interesting, and help carry Arabella through her trials.

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However, what I missed in this entire process was that this is a YA novel, through and through – I’m sure this has been mentioned, but I missed the memo. While it does not appear to be directly marketed that way, it contained all the elements: teenage protagonist (bonus points for female), mild romance storyline, the proper-but-intelligent-and-full-of-ingenuity protagonist who goes outside their comfort zone to save the day, etc. The ending, while containing some fantastic writing and plot twists, also had a very feel-good-everything-went-ok feel to it that I associate with YA novels. While this is not a problem, it did catch me off-guard, as I was used to the much more adult feel and tone of much of Levine’s short fiction. He does a terrific job at this style, however, keeping the book interesting and complicated enough to keep anyone invested, while making it accessible and enjoyable to most reading age brackets.

Arabella of Mars isn’t perfect, but it’s a really great read, and a tantalizing taste of what David Levine can do when writing at novel length. If you’re the type who enjoys steampunk settings, even with a bit of Regency-era behaviors and dress, as well as space tales, this book is a home run for you, and a must-read.

Rating: 4 / 5