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