Review – Chains Of The Heretic by Jeff Salyards (2016)

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Hardcover, 524 pages
Published February 16th 2016 by Night Shade Books
Purchase on Amazon

Warning: Review to contain minor spoilers.

E-ARC Provided by author and publisher in return for review

In 2014, I called Jeff’s Veil of the Deserters one of my top 5 books, schmoozing with fantasy genre juggernauts such as Brent Weeks and Brandon Sanderson. The debut in the series, Scourge of the Betrayer, captivated me – it was short and to the point, yet incredibly interesting. It left me wanting a lot more, and Veil delivered that to me. The incredible world that Salyards had created opened up before my eyes, introducing me to so much more about the Syldoon culture, their capital city, their politics, and the members of the party that I’d gotten to know in Scourge.

The epic was wrapped up in the forthcoming Chains of the Heretic, Jeff’s largest and most detailed book to date. Each consecutive book in this series has gotten better, longer, more vivid, more gut-wrenching. After the strong showing in Veil, I had huge expectations for this novel, and it delivered in every way possible.

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Veil of the Deserters left our group of soldiers on the run from their capital city, Sunwrack, after narrowly escaping with their lives – minus about a quarter of their men. They fled, with the unlikely help of Captain Braylar Killcoin’s memory-witch sister, Soffijan, in search of the deposed emperor, Thumarr, with the intention of assisting him in retaking the throne. This is easier said than done for them, as they are harried by the new emperor’s troops, and find themselves stuck between their enemy, and the impenetrable wall of the godveil – all that separates their land from the land of the Deserters, the gods who abandoned their world centuries before.

When their feet were put to the fire, our first-person narrator of the series, the scribe Arki, discovered in some ancient texts that he was translating that they perhaps had a way to penetrate the Veil. After taking losses to hold off the enemies, they were able to pass the Veil, only to find themselves met by the Deserters themselves, finding that they were more terrifying than even previously thought, but also, shockingly, mortal. They also find quickly just how powerful that the Deserters are, and are forced to use all of their cunning and resources to escape their clutches.

Upon locating deposed emperor Thumaar, the party is surprised at some changes to his character, as well as his choice of allies; however, they stick to their loyalty to him, and vow to continue helping his plot to overthrow the evil Cynead, who is holding the throne of the Syldoonian empire. Eventually, this plan goes awry in rather spectacular fashion…

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There are so, so many things that this series has done right. Very rarely have I found another trilogy or series where the story and suspense build and build, at just the right speed the majority of the time, every step of the process seeming to come exactly where it needs to. Scourge laid the groundwork, introduced the characters, and left us wondering what COULD be going on. Veil blew all of that up, exposed this enthralling world to us, left readers in shock, in tears at times, or fuming with rage at others. And there to sweep up the fruits of that is Chains, bringing the story home.

Some of the biggest strengths of Jeff’s writing, as well as the novels, are his characters, and more specifically, their interpersonal dialogues and personalities. I often judge novels very harshly if their characters seem homogeneous, similar, as if cut from a mold. Every. Single. Character. in the Bloodsounder’s Arc has their own distinct personality, speech style, mannerisms, behaviors. For large chunks of the novel, I feel as though I could identify almost any of the characters simply by their dialogue or actions, without any noting of who was speaking. That’s brilliance, as far as I’m concerned – to have each character be that distinct, without overdoing it and having them say certain lines too many times, or have repetitive mannerisms (looking at you, Nynaive in WoT). There’s ample usage of certain phrases, actions, etc that make the characters distinct, but it never feels like too much, never feels like anything is used in excess.

Salyards routinely creates distinct and vivid imagery, while using an economy of words. While Chains is by far his longest book yet, clocking in at over 500 hardcover pages, it is not filled with fluff or filler. All of those pages are used for purpose, for events that matter, for character interactions that feel necessary and needed, for descriptions that are succinct, but visceral. Conversations portray information, history, background, forthcoming events; all seamless, always feeling natural. Early in the series, I commented that there was some infodumping-type conversations occurring at times, but these are done away with by the third book, and Salyards seamlessly integrates these into casual conversation, finds a way to get across information without being clunky or awkward. Everything, at this point, is just so polished.

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There are a plethora of traumatic happenings in Chains, all of which are handled very well. However, the reactions to these tragedies might be the strongest of any book I’ve read in recent memory. The somber response of a group of ultramasculine, hardened soldiers to a comrade’s death, each grieving quietly in their own way, in a group that generally abhors weakness. The internal struggles of our narrator Arki, as he struggles to adapt to the Syldoon lifestyle as they slowly accept him into their fold, as he watches friends fall, witnesses some of the most terrifying and horrific events, and tries to process them, and watch those around process them, picking up on subtle cues that betray their true feelings, hidden under a callous shell.

Arki, as a character, completed one of the single most satisfying character arcs I’ve ever read. His growth as a character, as a person, as a soldier, as an outsider in the Syldoon culture growing towards his acceptance by the group. He changes noticeably over the course of the series, however he does so gradually – never having sudden adaptations, struggling to learn new information and customs, learn new skills; still struggling with those skills by the end of the book, even after practicing them, in an incredibly realistic way. He always feels relatable, believable – you are never in doubt as to the fact that he is a simple scholar and archivist, rather than a soldier like the crew around him. Yet he does grow into his role in the company, slowly gains their trust, slowly integrates himself into the fold.

The characters around him continue to grow as well, through the series – they stick to their guns, ultimately, but change based on deaths around them, events, occurrences. Salyards is fantastic about characters not having miraculous recoveries from grievous injuries – they suffer the effects of things that happen to them for some time, are hindered by these limitations, begin to compensate for them in other ways. It’s hard to discuss ‘realism’ in a book filled with magic and godlike characters, but Jeff gives the book a feel of probability, a sense that, if the events of the book were real, that these characters were struggling and behaving as real people in that situation would. It’s a breath of fresh air, after hundreds of books where characters get sliced to pieces or have limbs broken, in a pre-hospital era, and yet are back fighting later, often the same day, as if there was no effects of their injuries.

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The book and series crescendo is epic and heartbreaking. Jeff warned me of ‘big twists’ towards the end, but even with warning, I was caught totally off-guard by some of the occurrences. More than once I said “HOLY CRAP!” aloud, and more than once I messaged Jeff to give him grief for the things he did to my heart. The groundlaying for events is subtle, well-crafted, and results in a gut-punch when the big events do happen.

While action scenes are not the meat of this series, there are certainly many of them, and they’re handled very well. The craziness of battle is well represented, and while he does not go into the details and brass tacks of large-army (or even small platoon) logistics as much as he could have, you still end up with a feeling of understanding. I felt like I grasped the Syldoonian military strategies and policies, their communication methods with their troops, the potential for subterfuge and dissent among the ranks of subordinate soldiers. It was largely handled with a deft hand, not spending too much time focusing on what could come across as ‘boring’ tactical battle pieces, but still giving enough to work with and imagine the scenes.

The ending itself was both heartbreaking, and very satisfying. Even if you guess what’s coming, it still hits hard, and is an absolute rollercoaster of emotions, all across the spectrum. It’s epic, huge-scale, big implications, exciting. The fade-out epilogue closes things out in a satisfactory manner, leaving the reader with an understanding of the current state of things, without going on too long, being too sappy, being too flat. It was exactly the kind of ending to such an epic and fantastic series that I was hoping for.

There were some steep expectations and hopes for this novel, coming off of the brilliant Veil Of The Deserters, and Salyards delivers in spectacular fashion. Each consecutive book of the series was better and better, and it’s hard not to feel like Jeff has set himself up for a long, and hopefully successful, run in fantasy writing. I, for one, am eagerly awaiting his future endeavors.

Rating: 5 / 5

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Review – A Crown For Cold Silver by Alex Marshall (2015)

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Published April 14th 2015 by Orbit
Hardcover, 656 pages

PURCHASE ON AMAZON

Hardcover provided by Orbit for review purposes – thanks Orbit! You know the way to my heart is hardcover books 🙂

A Crown for Cold Silver  is the first book in a new series by Alex Marshall, an ‘acclaimed author who has previously published several novels in different genres’ but is now operating under a pseudonym. A little of the KJ Parker/Tom Holt situation.

Crown is a schizophrenic novel – it’s all over the place, not really sure what it wants to be, not really sure how to execute its desires. It took me a couple weeks to finish, and I’m glad I’ve waited almost 24 hours to write this review after finishing; the retrospective time has let me consider my notes, consider a lot of what I thought about the book, and consider how certain elements cleverly made me forget about some of the negatives.

I’m going to try and do a quick plot summary here, but bear with me – this book is long, has a bazillion different storylines, and sometimes they get a bit confusing.

Cobalt Zosia was the badass leader of a mercenary army, and along with her five ‘villain’ leaders, fought across the countryside, with aspirations of overthrowing the tyrannical government and free the common folk and etc etc etc. They succeeded, leaving Zosia as queen, which is a position she soon finds herself unsuited for, as it interrupts her…badassery or whatever, with menial leadership tasks. As she struggles to implement the populace-friendly policies she quested for, she eventually loses interests, and puts her crown on the line in a duel, for which she ‘loses’, and disappears.

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Roughly Zosia’s interest level

Years later, soldiers turn up at a remote village and go all scorched earth on it, for unknown reasons. The lone survivor is a wily woman who, shocking spoiler, turns out to be Zosia, although you don’t know that at the time. She swears revenge and sets out on a quest to find her scattered friends from her previous exploits. This sounds like something you’ve heard before, right? Albeit with different pieces maybe.

And while Zosia is set up as the most important character by the book blurb and most reviews, she frankly took a massive backseat to the plethora of side-characters that the book is full of. Several of Zosia’s group of ‘villains’ have POV chapters; the most interesting of which is Maroto, who we meet as he’s guiding a group of “dandies” through a hunting trip, suffering his way through their posh nature. Hoartrop is an aged wizard of sorts – or at least everyone treats him as such. Sullen and Grandfather are Maroto’s nephew and father, who set out on a quest to track Maroto down and make him answer for deserting his wife and family after a battle. The list goes on – there’s a member of the religion relevant to the area (pretty much blatantly Catholicism) who subscribes to a self-torture branch of penance.

I could spend pages and pages, thousands of words describing all the various characters. There are a billion of them – which is part of the problem with this novel. You’re thrown in headfirst, little real introduction, and before you know it, you’re having to keep track of a handful of POVs, and a boatload of ancillary characters who actually matter to the story. It’s similar to how I always hear the first book of Malazan, Gardens of the Moon, described. You’re expected to pick things up quickly, and background details are only revealed very slowly as the story goes on. However, during this time, you’re on the hook for keeping up with the happenings of a character cast equivalent to a circus-car.

I place myself somewhere in the “middle” of readership, in that I enjoy my books having some complexity, and putting some of the onus on the reader to fill in holes with imagination, and figure things out. I don’t, however, enjoy obtuse books that are all action, or have YA-quality characters. That said, this book had a lot of elements of a much ‘simpler’ book, while also being obnoxiously complicated and overworked. It’s definitely possible to write a book with a ton of characters that is cohesive – A Song of Ice and Fire or Red Knight are examples of this. Marshall’s book is not this way, unfortunately. What you’re often left with is certain characters taking the limelight for pages and pages and pages, followed by finally getting back to one character, whom you have to try and remember where you last left them, or what their place in the entire story is. I felt like I needed a CSI-style suspect whiteboard to keep up with all the pieces. I texted my friend Tracy at least 2 or 3 times during the first 1/3 of the book, proclaiming to him that I just could not seem to keep up with the characters – not generally a HUGE problem for me.

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All of these are POV characters somehow

The worldbuilding is adequate, however it felt often like places and cultures were pulled directly off a normal world map, names changed, minor cultural changes (more on this later), and then thrown into the story. Names that were clearly Korean, Catholic, maybe Indian etc are prevalent pieces of the story, and feel more than a bit ripped off. The actual geographical locations tend to take a backseat to the characters, wars, drama, and creatures. Marshall has inserted a lot of elements into the story – some interesting, some crazy, some outlandish – that spruce things up quite a bit. A smorgasbord of made-up creatures are present, many presented during the early chapters, when Moroto is leading the dandy hunt. For example, the ‘horned wolf’ is a terrifying creature that hunts in packs and is incredibly deadly, however most people confuse it with a goat.

Many reviews have hit on the topics of equality – gender, sexual, caste. This is an omnipresent theme in the book; almost every character seems to be openly bisexual, thinking about sex with both sexes constantly, talking about it, etc. One area has prevalent same-sex political marriages, multiple fathers, the list goes on. There are tons of powerful, strong women in the story, including many of the protagonists, which is great.

Except when it’s not.

The book ends up in a bit of a “when everyone wins, no one does” situation. EVERY female character is a strong, masculine-type warrior of some sort, who is bisexual and does very strong things. Many of these female characters could VERY easily have been replaced with men, without changing ANYTHING other than their gender pronoun and some genital descriptions. Zosia is essentially a standard male character in many fantasy novels – thinking about having sex constantly, attempting to mate with nearly any female around her, constantly thinking about drinking or doing drugs, etc.

It’s awesome to have diversity in your novels. I praised the everliving crap out of NK Jemisin for the incredible diversity in her book The Fifth Season. I love to see viable, strong female characters in fantasy and sci-fi; hell, even novels just treating women as people. However, many of the ‘strong females’ in this novel are just caricatures of generic masculine males, except as females. In an attempt to make badass women, Marshall has made every woman a generic ‘badass’ in some way, whether it be the sagey Zosia, leader of the Cobalt Company, or the young princess who has been masquerading unofficially as Zosia, while trying constantly to prove how badass she is by sleeping with anyone she can, doing as many drugs as she can, or fighting anyone she can. The ‘diversity’ just came across as homogenized, and felt wholly unnatural – diversity ISN’T unnatural, that’s how life is, there are a lot of different people, types of people, types of strengths. But they all felt kind of the same in Crown.

I feel the need to stop at this point, call a ‘timeout’ if you will. I’m spiraling a bit into negativity, but this book was most definitely not all negative. Not by any means.

The first thing that I need to say is that I enjoyed the hell out of Marshall’s prose. It’s not complicated, but is clearly professional. While some of the phrasing choices felt EXTREMELY modern (not direct quote, but at some point it was something along the lines of “Zosia was completely out of fucks to give“), I was very, very enamored with the lighthearted nature of the dialogue, especially in conjunction with some darker elements.

Which is a great point of conversation – I’d seen a lot of reviews compare this novel to Joe Abercrombie. While I can see why people would say that, on the other hand, it’s not even close. Abercrombie’s prose and style are unmatched in my opinion; Marshall’s novel certainly has some of the grit and “adult” themes of Abercrombie’s. There’s ample profanity, sex, drug use, violence. Which is great – it’s right up my alley. As I mentioned, the dialogue was – most of the time – pretty great, and highly entertaining. People bickered with one another, dropped snappy one-liners, generally summed up how I imagine soldiers and the like would have spoken in these situations. I’m relatively sure I heard the phrase “It smelled like burning hair, and pungent semen” at one point, which made me nearly spit out my coffee. There were several lines like that which made me burst out laughing, or at the very least, put a smile on my face.

The wit alone is one thing that kept me engaged with this novel. When things were dragging a bit, I always still found myself entertained by the dialogue and banter, by the funny descriptions and verbiage. It’s not a secret that I like gritty, ‘realistic’ fantasy novels, and this fit the bill. On top of the witty writing, some of the drug use was very creative, and hilarious. Many characters, especially Maroto, use ‘bugs’, which are exactly what they sound like – bugs with psychoactive compounds. This lead to one of the funniest scenes and scenarios I’ve ever read, as Maroto took the wrong kind of worm before a battle, and ended up going through the battle while tripping balls. Hilarious.

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With that creativity and fun came some moments of brilliance, but also some quirks. As I mentioned above, the sexual freedom and openness was almost so omnipresent that it felt homogenized. There was also some odd obsessions, such as Zosia’s ridiculous fascination with pipes and pipe carving, which seemed to come up at least once in every damn scene she was in. What began as a cool little character trait quickly became a repetitive, Nynaive-pulling-braids style annoyance.

On the brilliance side was Marshall’s introduction of devils – essentially they were bound familiars, who obeyed their masters until their masters, essentially, made deals with their devils, which would set the devils free. Several of the prominent characters had them, to interesting consequences.

There were a lot of great ideas in the book – even if you subscribe to the school of thought that Marshall ripped a lot off from real life cultures or religions, how they were used and executed was often quite good. The repentant-religions character, Portoles, was extremely fascinating, even her strange BDSM-style self mutilation.

Ultimately, the overall package lacked polish. It bogged down badly at times, and the book honestly could have easily been 100 pages shorter and still accomplished the same thing. The characters were too numerous and too confusing, and long periods would go in between chapters featuring some of them. The cultures and geography are a bit derivative, and some of the idiosyncrasies are overdone. The ending was a bit of a letdown – the novel just kind of…fizzled out. However, the writing itself is entertaining, lively, and funny at times; the dialogue was great, and really held the book up. There were long periods of the novel that I really enjoyed it, and it was honestly not until a day had passed and I had time to digest the book, read up on it a bit, and really reflect that I realized a lot of the pieces that annoyed me along the way.

With the amount of negativity I wrote, it would come across as if this was a bad book – it’s not. It’s got a lot of problems, but it also has a lot going for it. Aside from some slow parts, it was ultimately quite entertaining, and a lot of fun. It could have used some really big editing, but in the end, I understand why a lot of people love it, and I also understand why a lot of people didn’t.

A lot of potential.

Rating: 3.5 / 5

 

 

2015 Review & ‘Best Of’

I generally post this kind of thing right around the new year, but I’m lazy (duh). 2015 was another great year for books, albeit not quite the potential year 2016 is shaping up to be. However, I read a LOT of amazing books, and a large quantity of books in general – 104 of them, in fact. Some were amazing, some not so much; but the majority were pretty damn good – 76% of the books I read, I gave 4 or 5 stars to. Part of that is that I’m a fairly generous grader, and part of it is that I just read really great books this year.

I broke down my reading in 2015 by the numbers a couple weeks ago, so for this I’m going to do the classic “Top 10” lists, and break it down into some sub-categories. Because everyone cares what I think, right?

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How my office feels with my TBR pile…

Without further pageantry…

T.I.T.C.’s Top 10 Books Read in 2015:

Specifically, books I read in 2015 that came out in 2015.

10) Shadows of Self by Brandon Sanderson (review)

I’ve been eagerly awaiting the sequel to Alloy of Law for seemingly forever, especially based on Brandon’s readings at his signings earlier in the year. The wait was worth it – the novel was much deeper and more involved than Alloy was, with a lot of older Mistborn tie-ins and some really awesome writing.

9) The Autumn Republic by Brian McClellan (review)

McClellan’s books have found a spot in my yearly top-10s almost perennially at this point. I adore this series; the creativity, the writing style, the characters, and the fact that he gives me lots of lore and backstory via additional novellas (which we all have established that I love). The conclusion to his debut trilogy is a home run, and a terrific read.

8) Half the World by Joe Abercrombie (review)

If I were making a “Mount Rushmore of fantasy authors”, Joe Abercrombie’s sculpted, gorgeous face would most definitely be adorning the cliff. I read every book he publishes as soon as I possibly can. This year, we were graced with TWO novels in his Shattered Sea series, and I found the first of those two to be the superior novel. It picked up where Half a King left off, and continued forward with intensity, wit, and glory, in true Abercrombie fashion. I actually felt that he fell off a bit for Half a War – while I liked it, it was maybe my least favorite book of his to date. That’s not saying much, cause it’s still better than 98% of what I read.

7) Golden Son by Pierce Brown (review)

Speaking of gorgeous, sculpted faces… Pierce Brown wrote one of my top 3 books of 2014 in the breakout hit Red Rising, a book which I could not possibly say enough positive things about. With Golden Son, Pierce avoids a sophomore slump by continuing in the mold of the first book, while improving upon nearly everything. His prose is gorgeous – I always liken it to Mark Lawrence – and his characters are vibrant and visceral. Everything is amplified in this novel, and it’s a much more ‘adult’ package than Red Rising was.

6) The Mechanical by Ian Tregillis (review)

Tregillis caught my heart with his wildly creative and brilliant Bitter Seeds, and the rest of the Milkweed Triptych. With The Mechanical, he goes in a completely different direction – towards a more sci-fi and steampunk feel to things. That’s an area that can easily go sideways and feel cliched, but Tregillis keeps things on point. The creativity is boundless in this novel, and his writing has continued to show dramatic improvements with each novel. This one was a TON of fun.

5) The Skull Throne by Peter V. Brett (review)

Peat got a lot of flak for some decisions made in the third book of his groundbreaking series, titled The Daylight War. I, personally, agreed with some of these sentiments, but there were also elements of that book that I loved, and the overall package was enjoyable. With The Skull Throne, Brett is much more focused, keeping the story flowing and setting up the big finale. Sometimes the 4th book in a series can get lost, but with this one, it turned out to be a standout novel, and I think second only to The Desert Spear for best in the series.

4) Beacon 23 by Hugh Howey (review)

I’ve been a pretty fervent follower of Howey since I fell in love with a little, largely unpublicized $0.99 self-pub called Wool you may have heard of it by now (/hipster). While I have found most of his works to be great, Beacon 23 takes things to a new level. The story of an astronaut suffering from some weapons-grade PTSD, and his trials and tribulations aboard a small space-lighthouse, or “beacon”. A must-read.

3) The Liar’s Key by Mark Lawrence (review)

Anyone who follows me knows that I love Mark Lawrence. I love his prose, his characters, style, action, every gods-damned thing. So when I say that I feel this is his best book to date, I do NOT say that lightly. It’s outstanding in every way.

2) The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin (review)

Having said what I said above, it takes an incredibly special book to finish ahead of Mark Lawrence, and Jemisin delivers just such a book. I’m very rarely so moved by a book, or find a book with so many elements of social commentary – race, sexuality, caste, abuse, incredible and strong female and male characters both, and every single element needed for an amazing story. The Fifth Season proved to me why I need to read more female writers in this genre, and showed what an outstanding author NK Jemisin is right now.

1) Knights Shadow by Sebastien de Castell (review)

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The winner this year is the second book by Sebastien de Castell in his outrageously good Greatcoats series. When I first read his debut novel, Traitor’s Blade, I was blown away – an adventure story that moved quickly, but was jam-packed with drama, history, worldbuilding and action. I had high expectations for Knight’s Shadow, almost unfairly so, and was chomping at the bit for it’s release date. To say that it delivered would be the understatement of the century – it was mindblowingly good. It was the book equivalent of cuddling with 12 puppies while eating my favorite foods and drinking my favorite beers good. It’s an especially uncommon day when a book elicits an out-loud reaction from me of any kind, and this book was one after the other. It had some of the hardest chapters I’ve ever read, full of intense imagery and crippling mental abuse – but it moved me so much because I care that much about the characters, about their wellbeing, about them continuing the story and succeeding. Chapters that made me curl up in a ball while reading, forcing me to take breaks in between chapters to compose myself.

Knight’s Shadow is a singular book – one that inspires me to stand on the rooftops and scream it’s praises. It’s that good.

And that’s that. My favorite full-length books of the year. Below I’ll throw out a few other categories. Firstly:

Honorable Mention, 2015 Full Novel:

The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson (review)

End Of All Things by John Scalzi (review)

Court of Fives by Kate Elliott (review)

2015 Books That I Did Not Read, But Could Have Been On This List:

Uprooted by Naomi Novik, Clash of Iron by Angus Watson, The Labyrinth of Flame by Courtney Schafer, Price of Valor by Django Wexler, Black Wolves by Kate Elliott, The Water Knife  by Paolo Bacigalupi

That list could probably go on for a while. And now, my final category, and one near and dear to my heart…

Five Best Novellas or Short Stories of 2015:

5) The Shootout Solution by Michael R. Underwood

A fun and exciting little short, with a very interesting and unique concept.

4) Night Flower by Kate Elliott

Many shorts that are in-world can be a bit flat, but Night Flower had no shortage of substance, interest and drama. A really enjoyable piece.

3) Road Brothers by Mark Lawrence

Glorious, glorious collection of shorts that highlight each of the brothers of Jorg Ancrath in the Broken Empire series. Fantastic.

2) The Builders by Daniel Polansky

As if the mere concept of “Redwall for adults” wasn’t good enough, Polansky nails the story as well.

1) In Midnight’s Silence and Without Light Or Guide by T. Frohock

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Teresa Frohock is a brilliant writer, and the two shorts she released this year were both staggeringly good. Full of beautiful writing, dark elements and story pieces, romance, social issues, angels and demons, and so much more. An incredible pair of stories, with more to come.

And with that, I will conclude this review. 2016 is already looking to be a banner  year for SFF releases, with some of the biggest names in the industry expected to drop some blockbuster books. I am personally incredibly excited to get my hands on many of these novels. Thanks for a great first year of blogging, thanks to those of you who have stuck it out with me for all of 2015’s lumps and bruises, and hope to continue to see you as I continue to post.

 

Review: The Death of Dulgath by Michael J Sullivan (2015)

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Michael J Sullivan launched himself successfully from the realm of part-time, self-published novelist, to full-time, successful commercial novelist in a relatively short amount of time. His Riyria Revelations series – a 6 book epic, which was turned into 3 omnibus volumes by Orbit – has been incredibly well received, and his protagonists Royce and Hadrian have found themselves in the ranks of the most beloved duos in fantasy. I personally enjoyed the original series quite a bit, especially the ending. Based on the success of the series, as well as demand from fans, he began writing a prequel series, the Riyria Chronicles, which give background to how Royce and Hadrian met, some of their adventures prior to the original trilogy, and a heaping pile of fleshed-out references made in the Revelations series.

My review of Riyria Chronicles book 1, The Crown Tower

My review of Riyria Chronicles book 2, The Rose and The Thorn

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A couple years back, Mike (look at me, getting all familiar here) successfully launched and completed a Kickstarter campaign for his sci-fi novel Hollow World (review here). At the time, I thought this was a great idea – it allowed him to produce and print a story in a unique way, get it out quicker than he would have normally, and gave his diehard fans a bit more of a unique chance to get a piece of the action. Personally, I loved it – for something like $35, I got a very respectable package, including a signed novel, my name printed in the novel, bookmarks, signed posters, and some other items. It was a great bargain for a fan and collector, and the whole process worked incredibly well.

Springboarding off of that success, Michael opted to go a similar route with The Death of Dulgath. Despite the first two books in the series being published by Orbit, the publication of his forthcoming epic fantasy series meant that putting out a new Royce and Hadrian novel would be pushed back for a year or more, unless he opted to self-publish it, as he had in his early days. Cue a similar, albeit MUCH larger Kickstarter campaign for the new series, including a whole slew of add-on goodies and the like, and the third installment of Riyria Chronicles made it to the market in style.

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The Death Of Dulgath continues where The Rose And The Thorn left off, with Royce and Hadrian working together as Riyria, mercenaries/thieves/hired hands. In this particular novel, they’re contracted to travel to a small corner of their world, for the assassination of a noblewoman from one of the oldest noble families in Avryn. Or, more specifically, to help prevent an assassination, by providing counsel to the guards and handlers as to how they WOULD go about assassinating her.

Upon arrival, they’re thrown into a city in turmoil – a large clash between the religions of the area, and everyone is tense due to the suspected assassination of their noble leader; on top of that, Lady Dulgath herself is an eccentric and bizarre character. They immediately find themselves maligned by a group of locals, after saving a local church leader from being tarred and feathered publicly as a product of the locals’ beliefs. This, in turn, has some grave consequences.

As Royce and Hadrian attempt to complete the mission they are hired for, they end up caught in a large web of deceit and corruption, have their lives threatened on a handful of occasions, and find themselves framed and on the run from the local authorities. Or, in other news, all in a day’s work for them. Along the way, a colorful and deep cast of side characters are introduced, including some faces from Royce’s past, who pop back up at the most inopportune time for them.

The novel itself is, frankly, exactly what we’ve come to know from Riyria novels – somewhat complicated plots that the duo have to unravel, intense action scenes that showcase the strengths and weaknesses of the pair, interpersonal relationship conflicts between Royce, Hadrian, and the people around them. There are, however, some glaring differences between this novel and the previous two in the Riyria Chronicles series.

The first, and biggest, difference being that this novel contains a MASSIVE spoiler for the Riyria Revelations trilogy. The kind of spoiler that completely takes the ‘oomph’ out of one of the main storylines in the entire series. Michael has been pretty easygoing about the ‘suggested reading order’ of the series. However, I personally felt that new readers to his series should start with the Riyria Chronicles prequels first, as they set up the characters, give background, and are a lot of fun. Additionally, The Crown Conspiracy (the first half of the ‘Theft of Swords’ omnibus on the Orbit side) was a bit of a…rough book – the writing was a bit dodgy due to being early on in Sullivan’s writing career, and Michael was still growing into his characters and series. The writing as the Revelations series goes on improves with each book, and I felt that reading the prequel books first put the reader in the right mindset for the series, and made the writing quality of the first book a bit more of a moot point, as the focus would be on the story and characters.

However, that plan of attack is completely tossed out by Death of Dulgath, as it all but ensures that you must read the Riyria Revelations trilogy first, unless you want it to be spoiled by the revelation (sorry) in this novel. On top of that, the issue at hand was fairly subtly handled in the Revelations  series, however was very straightforward in this novel – there was no mystery, no drama about it; the reader was just kind of presented with the information and left to do with it as they chose. Those of us who read the Revelations series were not surprised by this at all, however the impact would be lesser even to a new reader, as without the backstory in Revelations, there is very little background as to why this entire event is actually a big deal in the first place.

That said, this is hardly a crippling issue, or something that hurts the book. It’s fine, it’s an important piece of this particular novel, and I do not feel that Sullivan handled it poorly. I felt that it probably should not have been written into the book at all, for the sake of continuity and versatility, but if it was to be in the story, he handled it about as well as it could be.

Sullivan handled many parts of this particular story very well – Royce and Hadrian’s interactions in this novel were quite interesting, still in the ‘feeling out’ process of knowing each other a little bit, and some more background was revealed about the pair of them. It also featured Royce and Hadrian in some of their weakest and most vulnerable states at any time in the series as a whole – both physically and emotionally. Both had their internal working stripped bare at times, exposing them, leaving them vulnerable and weak, and forcing them to overcome those lapses in strength. Physically, they encountered a battering – physical beatings, poisoning, incarceration, the works. So while we know they escaped from the adventures unscathed (part of the downside of writing prequels), there were still plenty of tense moments, and nervous interactions that left you feeling as though the heroes of our story were truly human, flawed, able to be exposed.

The writing in the books is what we’ve come to expect from later Sullivan – crisp and without excess, incredibly approachable for people of all reading levels, not lacking in sophistication but also not wowing you with the prose and structure. Sullivan makes his living as a storyteller, one with very easy-to-read works that appeal to a large audience, and he certainly has that part of things down. It works with Royce and Hadrian, and he is able to drop lore bombs, have impactful scenes, intense battles, and plot twists and turns, but without encumbering the reader.

The one downside I had to The Death of Dulgath, which I did not have in his previous works, was predictability. While his books have always been approachable and fairly easy to digest, they were never short on twists and turns, and some of his novels had jaw-dropping moments (Percepliquis/Heir of Novron, looking at you, buddy). Unfortunately, I personally found The Death of Dulgath to be his most predictable work  – I am fully self-aware that, as a reader, I am not always the most intelligent or active person when it comes to deciphering plot twists, diagnosing the story elements, or using my skill in soothsaying to predict upcoming events or endings. However, in this book I found myself easily predicting upcoming events, including the ‘main’ story twists. They were slightly more foreshadowed, and I think most readers knew exactly what was coming when it came to the main plot points. There were still plenty of “oh snap” moments, wherein something unexpected happened, but the overarching story was fairly predictable.

That being said, it was still incredibly enjoyable. Royce and Hadrian are like a familiar, comfy sweatshirt – the kind that isn’t necessarily your most fashionable piece of clothing, yet you always find yourself reaching for it when you’re getting dressed, and you’re always glad that you pulled it on. The more bits and pieces we get about them, the ancillary side characters, the world and politics, the more we WANT to know about them. They’re a fascinating duo, their dynamic grows with each new book featuring them, and although there’s only a finite number of stories that we can have with them in it due to the timeline of things, I feel as though I speak for all Sullivan fans when I say that we still want more.

The Death of Dulgath wasn’t my favorite of the series (that goes to The Rose and the Thorn in Chronicles, and Percepliquis in Revelations), and it was probably the most divisive of Michael’s books in this setting. However, that’s far from a condemning statement – like saying that chocolate ice cream isn’t my favorite, even though chocolate ice cream is still pretty amazing. It holds up well, and I found myself smiling contentedly while reading, laughing at the jokes, sitting on the edge of my seat during the action sequences. Royce’s character is developed significantly in this book, and we’re treated to a very well-handled (albeit high schoolesque) romantic situation with him that was a lot of fun, and actually fit really well within the story being told.

The Kickstarter campaign was another rousing success, the story itself was worth the wait and was a lot of fun, and I still think this is one of the penultimate series for fans of more casual fantasy – easily approachable, yet rich with content and history, and never short on drama. Sullivan has more than earned his spot amongst the fantasy elite.

Rating: 4 / 5