Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel (2016)

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Hardcover, First Edition, 320 pages
Published April 26th 2016 by Del Rey

In August 2015, I was in Spokane, WA at the World Fantasy and Sci-Fi Convention (Worldcon). This was a tumultuous time in SFF, with the Sad Puppies crapping all over decency and putting a huge grey cloud over the entire event – moreso than the literal grey clouds clogging the city due to the massive wildfires in the area (it was colloquially called “Smocon” by many) . It was also a bit of a depressing preview of what would happen in late 2016, when the mentality of the Sad Puppies bled over to the mainstream, and pushed towards a certain presidential candidate who, in turn, ended up winning.

During this time, I was handed an ARC for an upcoming book, from a first-time author I was unfamiliar with. This was one of a handful of ARCs I picked up during this conference, many of which from smaller authors who I had never heard of. However, Sylvain Neuvel caught my attention, as this was an ARC being pushed for an upcoming big-publisher release, and I’d heard through some scuttlebutt at the time that it was expected to be a big deal. Over 2 years later, I finally was given a glowing endorsement of this novel from my most trusted fantasy critic, and I chose to finally dive in to a book I had in my possession, but had arbitrarily put off.

I was glad I did.

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Sleeping Giants is told in an interesting fashion, largely surrounding and interview format, between an unnamed host who plays a large part in the stories, and the subjects and protagonists of said story, telling their bits via these information-centric interviews. It’s a format I’ve seen before, but not one I’ve seen handled so skillfully and interestingly. It was reminiscent, to me, of Questions for a Soldier by John Scalzi, albeit in a longer and much more interesting format.

A little girl falls on her bike, awaking to find she’d stumbled across what appeared to be a massive statue of a hand. Over time, that child becomes a leading physicist, only to find herself selected into a clandestine group tasked with researching the source of the giant hand she discovered nearly 2 decades earlier, soon finding it belonged to a full set of relics that formed a giant, for the lack of better term, automaton. The rest of the band of scientists and military-types find themselves tasked by a mysterious government-associated man to discover the rest of the pieces of the automaton, and research into it’s function and history.

It’s soon figured out that this is clearly a piece of alien technology, and one that they quickly discover how to use. It becomes apparent that this discovery is as dangerous as it is shocking, giving whoever controls it a significant military advantage. And therein lies one of the very strengths of this novel – the realism when it comes to handling politics, public perception, and image. Ultimately, this is the driving force behind the story, and more specifically, the resolution of this first novel of the series. As would be realistic if such a discovery were made, quite a few nations showed interest in the discovered unit, and once other countries became aware of the USA discovering and trying to keep quiet the existence of this significant advance, there was considerable political concern to be addressed.

Sleeping Giants is, in a word, enjoyable. It’s a great read, with accessible but eloquent prose, a storyline that was unique but just relataeable enough to other similar stories to feel comfortable. Neuvel handles the format of the story, as well as the relatively unidentified ‘narrator’, very well, keeping it feeling fairly realistic, despite some periods of “there’s no way anyone would say this in an interview, but it makes for good story description”. Any complaints I had were relatively minor, and generally regarded moments where I went “dude there’s no way a normal person would have included that particular description/detail”, though that’s a relatively minor complaint.

I found myself hooked from start to finish of the relatively-short Sleeping Giants, and felt it did exactly what it needed to do in the length it was. Never bland, never drawn out, but also not feeling short on details or progress. This book really blew me away with how interesting it was, both as a concept and as an execution. The aspects of the story and the reaction to them are enjoyable in itself, but the actual execution was very satisfying and thorough, and really held together the whole arc.

Sleeping Giants lived up to the hype it was getting as a year-ahead-of-release ARC at Worldcon in 2015, and lived up to the hype I’d gotten from trusted friends. A quick, dirty, deceptively-deep jaunt in a “what if” scene, this is a novel I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to any friends of this genre.

Rating: 4.5 / 5 

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Review – The Infernal Battalion by Django Wexler (2018)

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Hardcover, 480 pages
Published January 9th 2018 by Ace

Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaigns series has always had a distinct…something going on, which drew me in over and over. It came in around the time when black-powder era fantasy was coming into the forefront in fantasy, and was an immediate standout from that group, as it didn’t rely on that era of technology as the driving force of the story. It’s managed to ride that fine line of balancing story progression, characters, worldbuilding, and quality writing, while mixing in elements of very well-restrained magic. It’s been a great 5-book run, and I’m glad to report that it’s conclusion was as satisfying and well-handled as the rest of the series was.

The Infernal Battalion finds us deep in the threads of this story, with the moving parts more centralized in this story than they largely are through the previous two books, however with much bigger implications. After the events of The Guns of Empire, it was hard to imagine that Wexler would be able to organically bring us back to the same impact level, the same “oh my god, no” that was captured in the previous books. However, those elements are present, and on full display in The Infernal Battalion.

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The final installment comes out swinging, as fairly early-on we’re hit with the bombshell that Janus bet Vhalnich has turned tail on Marcus, Winter and Queen Raesinia, by declaring himself emperor of Vordan, with significant public and military support. Janus acting in such a manner is a baffling move to his former allies, however, it’s quickly unveiled that the Beast has taken Janus, and is controlling him as a pawn. The Beast has rapidly, and demonstrably, been moving through the north, and it’s mysteries continue to be revealed throughout the novel.

There begins with a relatively large loop to draw our protagonists back together, as Winter, Marcus and Raesinia are in different areas entirely, dealing with entirely unique issues. Eventually, their individual tasks drive them all to the central location that the story pinnacle occurs. It is during this time that a relatively large plot piece – one that caught me entirely off-guard and changed the overall tone of the remainder of the book – occurred. It was, however, handled absolutely masterfully by Wexler, who I’ve found to be extremely inept at impactful, breathtaking scenes.

Those scenes were the thing that elevated this novel for me, however. The late revelation is one that blindsided me completely, and lead to a series of encounters that slowly ranged from gut-wrenching to awkward to touching. Loss, stress, grieving, pain – all emotions that Wexler has done a terrific job of portraying, imparting me with some of the few moments of actual feeling I’ve had reading a story, leaving lasting impressions not from the events of the novels themselves, but rather the handling and emotions of the presentation of those events.

Ultimately, the bridge, final chorus, and climax of this brilliant and lovable series lived up to expectations. I had a few minor gripes, as with every novel – the first half was very slow, compared to the series as a whole, as it was largely setup for the final half. The penultimate battle was a bit of a letdown – it passed quickly and relatively without incident. The ending, while satisfying and well written, definitely had an aspect of “everything turned out better than expected” that was a tad difficult, just due to it feeling like a hair of plot armor. While it was great to see a concluded and finalized storyline for these characters, having such a huge series climax end fairly mildly was a bit of a letdown.

That said, the lead up to the aforementioned peak was absolutely outstanding – dramatic, complicated storylines crossing, and a great resolution to almost all aspects. The big “ohhh damn” moments were exactly that, and did not ever feel forced or wedged in. Everything that occurred in the novel felt realistic, organic, fluid – like it was supposed to happen that way, but you didn’t know until the time it actually happened. I never really felt confident in anything other than a general “some level of good ending will come of this” –  I had a distinct feeling it would end fairly well, just based on the tone and events of the story, but no idea what happened inbetween.

Thankfully,  Wexler gave us the resolution that a series this good deserved. The Shadow Campaigns have been a terrific ride, and I am very glad I had the privilege of following along as this series came out (even if I was a bit slow to read them, as I was with this one). I can’t praise this series enough – everything about it is worth reading, and despite minor gripes in each book, I would recommend each one, which is the benchmark I have for brilliant series.

And brilliant The Shadow Campaigns was.

Rating: 4.5 / 5

Review – Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson (2017)

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Kindle Edition, 1220 pages
Published November 14th 2017 by Tor Books

FINALLY.

In the what-felt-like-an-eternity since I blew through the doorstop that was Words of Radiance , I’ve read quite a few books, but nothing really can fill the void (no pun intended) left by the Stormlight Archive series. And, sure, there are other authors with major series that are a bit delinquent on their sequels, but it’s somehow different with Sanderson. We’ve all become so accustomed to his machinelike writing habits, by getting our sequels in rapid succession, by not having to wait for that gratification. And while 3 years is not that long, in the grand scheme of things, the anticipation surrounding Oathbringer was palpable in the fantasy community, and I was right along with the rest in the fervor.

As always, the good news is that the anticipation and excitement were completely warranted. Oathbringer is another brilliant installment in a series that has already established itself among the fantasy elite – a third absolutely doorstop-sized novel, in a planned 10 book series of doorstops, packed full of lore, politics, magic, and intense battle scenes – the standard we’ve come to expect from Brandon’s works. What sets Stormlight Archive apart from so many of it’s peers, however, is the sheer scope of the world Sanderson has created, the way it links into his other novels, the way it immerses the reader in every aspect of the story, the world, the characters.

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If you’re reading this review, there’s an above average chance that you’re already familiar with the series, with the storyline, and with the characters – I don’t think many folks read the review for book 3 of a series without investing in the first book themselves, at the very least. I’m going to do my best to skip over the actual nuts-and-bolts story summary parts, and focus a bit more on my opinions of the execution.

Oathbringer was, for me, the most dense of the 3 books so far for a decent chunk of it – and that includes Way of Kings. Sanderson can be a bit ‘infodumpy’ at times, which can be a necessity when your world is so vast, your magic systems so complicated and mechanic-based, and your characters so numerous and well-developed. What Oathbringer did so well for me was present the info needed without being too dry, without being disinteresting, without making you feel like you were having lore dumped on my head. I would say the better part of the first half of the novel was slow – not encyclopedic in nature, but a lot happened while not a lot happened, if that makes sense. It was setup, sure, but it was also resolutions for previous story pieces, and it was immense amounts of necessary information.

With that said, the second half of this novel – or in particular the last third or so – was intense. The buildup in the first half only made the payoff that much better, and I will put the second half of this book up against almost any novel I’ve read in the last few years. It’s simply spectacular. I could not turn it off, I could not stop reading, I could not walk away from any of the scenes until they were completed, and even then it was all I could do to stop. I spent a lot of nights sitting in my car in the driveway for 20-30 minutes after I got home (obviously did this on audio, go figure) listening to the rest of a chapter, the rest of a section, until I could finally bring myself to walk away and go back to regular life. It was that immersive and intense, that addictive and drawing.

I will admit that, part of the way through the book, I was firmly feeling as though this novel was not going to hold up against the utter brilliance of Words of Radiance, which I called “my new favorite novel ever” in my review of it. To be fair, that wasn’t saying much as WoR was complete brilliance, but I will say that I ultimately put these two novels fairly close to each other as far as my ranking hierarchy is concerned. Oathbringer delivered on all fronts – it was deep, it was entertaining, it showed the continued growth of Brandon as a robot author, it had some great high-velocity action mixed in amongst some very mature and well-handled dialogue and character growth, and balanced an oppressively large volume of information without becoming dull or disinteresting. I was engaged from start to finish, a feat which few books – let alone 1250 page monstrosities – achieve for me.

I can’t do a Sanderson review without hitting on characterization, the area he seems to get panned for the most often. I’ve long been a hair confused by this criticism – it was perhaps valid in the early Mistborn novels when Sanderson was feeling things out a bit more. However, 10+ novels later including some absolute epics, I think it’s probably time to put that perception to rest. The characters in this series are bright, vivid, unique, true to themselves (even if ‘themselves’ are 3 different people – spoilers omg), realistic, and very easy to find yourself cheering for. They grow throughout the novel, they reflect upon themselves to make change, they react to situations in a way that feels like it’s true to the characters, not just convenient for the story or scene at hand. Flaws are laid bare and examined, characters forced to face their past, their demons, or just the consequences of their actions in various ways. It’s immensely satisfying watching these characters grow, develop, change, and adapt.

As a whole, Oathbringer is a wonderful novel in every way. It perhaps could have been balanced a bit so it’s not as backloaded with the real movement, but the leadup to that backend makes it so much more satisfying of a conclusion. There are few times I get as hooked into a book as I was into Oathbringerand I’m now left with that unbearable wait for the next entry, which could be some time considering Sanderson’s contractual bookwriting load, as well as the massive length of these books and the subsequent time needed to edit, rewrite, etc.

And it’s going to be rough.

Rating: 5 / 5

Review – Artemis by Andy Weir (2017)

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Hardcover, 305 pages
Published November 14th 2017 by Crown Publishing Group (NY)

The Martian was one of the more standout novels of the last few years for me, for a handful of reasons. I will admit that a weakness of mine is the “snarky, funny, too-smart-for-the-room, good-at-everything white guy in space” trope, ala John Scalzi, and The Martian filled that niche perfectly for me, in a unique and interesting setting and premise. With the hype that’s come since, including the major motion picture, a lot of eyes and a lot of expectations were riding on Weir’s followup, Artemis. Did the sophomore effort stand up to the expectations? For the most part.

Artemis follows protagonist Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara, a Saudi emigrant living in Artemis, a manned international city on Earth’s moon. Artemis is a multicultural and semi-unregulated city, largely serving tourists from earth who come to the moon to sightsee landmarks such as the Apollo 11 landing site, but also containing some industry such as aluminum maunfacturing, or in Jazz’s case – smuggling. Jazz gets by, defying her father, a renowned welder, by living the opposite of the Islamic lifestyle he did – drinking, having sex, partaking in illegal activities.

Jazz scrapes by until approached by a wealthy acquaintance, who presents her with a situation to make herself rich for life by going a bit outside her comfort zone, and performing huge-scale vandalism on the largest company present on the moon, Sanchez Aluminum. As Jazz goes through the process, she discovers that there are a lot more layers than she was initially presented with, and she soon finds herself fighting for her life, hiding from killers, and trying to resolve a situation that will affect the livelihood and politics of Artemis for generations to come.

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The story, for it’s part, does a great job of carrying the real stars of the book – the characters. Jazz is a vibrant, charismatic late teenage woman, with a darker version of the snarky, self-deprecating humor that Mark Watney had in The Martian. She is, however, a little too close to what you get if you say to a man “please write a strong female character” – that is, basically interchangeable with a man for the sake of the story. She is true to herself throughout the novel, however – she’s independent and self-sufficient, strong, funny, and smart. Too smart. However, as far as being entertaining, Jazz is great.

The list of ancillary characters are what really drew the story together for me. From her father, to the leaders of the city, her business partners, her ‘enemies’ – most are various shades of gray, characters with some depth and their own motivations, rather than blindly going along with whatever Jazz needs them to do for the sake of the story. The interludes of her communicating with her ‘pen pal’ on earth were very enjoyable, and rounded out the story quite nicely, adding some depth to the world and situation, and a nice little glimpse into some of Jazz’s past and present.

The execution of the novel itself is largely quite good. Weir keeps things moving along at all times, yet also fits quite a bit into the relatively short 300 page book. As with The Martian, there’s a certain level of science involved to explain a lot of situations, but also as with The Martian, it’s very easy to follow and understand, and in a way comes across as simple-science-presented-as-complicated-science-explained-simply, if that makes sense. I never really felt confused as to why something was happening, nor did I foresee any major upcoming issues with my knowledge base, nor did I really predict much that was going to happen going forward. The actual progress of the entire caper was a lot of fun, and very white-knuckle at times while the characters were in some real danger. I really blasted through the book, excited to find out what would happen next.

As with The Martian, it was not perfect, and some obvious nitpicks could be made. In Artemis, one of the biggest things folks seem to be mentioning is that Jazz is quite the Mary Sue – she is constantly praised for being soooo smart, she seems to go from amateur to pro in everything she touches in a very short period of time, and almost everything she does either works out for her, or works out after a minor audible. She even has some moments of self-righteous bragging over her accomplishments, but it came across as somewhat endearing at the time. I did take exception to the one thing I saw coming from a mile away – Jazz’s friend Svobota, a scientist, is the dorky-well-meaning-nice-guy who does everything for her and pledges loyalty until the end. I called it early on that in the end, the ‘nice guy’ would get the girl, and of course…well, let’s just say I was not thrilled with how that played out, and the encouragement towards ‘nice guys’ that took place.

As a whole, Artemis was an enjoyable, quick romp, with a lot of redeeming characters and writing, entertaining dialogue, and a fascinating political climate. I can definitely look past some of it’s shortcomings in the name of keeping the book short and compact, getting through the story without an excess of words, and keeping the readers engaged throughout.

Sidenote: Rosario Dawson does a splendid job with the high-end production quality of the audiobook.

Rating: 4.25 / 5

 

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

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