Review: The Whirlwind In The Thorn Tree by SA Hunt (2013)

22882007

Kindle Edition, 490 pages
Published February 22nd 2013 by Madman Press (first published February 21st 2013)

The Whirlwind In The Thorn Tree has been kicking around my ‘to read’ list for quite a while. I learned of the book, and it’s author, largely on r/fantasy, where he tirelessly promoted it, and it garnered quite a few recommendations from others. I’d actually bought the ebook while it was on sale, but opted to pick up the self-produced audio edition for easier listening. In general, the book came fairly highly acclaimed from many readers, though some folks I trust weren’t particularly high.

Unfortunately, it didn’t always work for me. Whirlwind is, essentially, an 80’s-style portal fantasy, through and through. Kid goes through random modern day life things, kid discovers object (in this case, a mirror – original) is a portal to another world he never knew existed, and gets wrapped up in the events happening in aforementioned world. Stop me if you’ve heard this one…namely like, a billion times. However, in a genre like fantasy, I’m not overly quick to begrudge folks for a bit of “been there, done that“, being as there’s only so many ideas to go with, and after a while everything gets a bit incestuous.

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA
However, Whirlwind isn’t a particularly good portal fantasy, in my opinion. Hunt’s writing is, at times, quite enjoyable – engaging, economical, and free flowing. However, he at times suffers from the trap which many self-pub authors find themselves locked in – over exposition. Sentence after sentence of adjectives and metaphors, in an effort to sound sophisticated or talented as a writer. In my opinion, Hunt’s writing, when it’s not in this trap, is good enough that he doesn’t need the over-writing in areas, but it comes and goes in cycles, with a paragraph you have to trudge through that is completely unnecessary.

The actual world created is pretty interesting, and I enjoy the concept of author-writing-what-he-experiences-in-alternate-world, however everything is just a bit too convenient, almost lazy. Everyone in the alternate world all but immediately accept Ross and his friends as allies, believing their outlandish story with very little prodding. Ross and co, for their part, seem to take to this much much less futuristic world very easily, not struggling at all without their modern amenities, and adapting to everything with very little issue. It all felt too..easy. It left me saying to myself “…really?” quite often.

Overall, the novel was not bad, I just found nothing really original here, and periods of dodgy writing that could have used a bit more polishing up. I can tell that Hunt has talent, has some vision of where he wants this book and his writing to go, but the pieces aren’t all put together here. I can totally understand why some people would love this and immediately engage in it, however for me, I’ve just read this same thing too many times, and done with better execution, to really give it a big endorsement.

Rating: 2 / 5

Advertisements

Quick Review: Sharp Ends by Joe Abercrombie (2016)

26030742

Hardcover, 304 pages
Published April 26th 2016 by Orbit

There are few things I love more than Joe Abercrombie’s writing, specifically his First Law works. I was excited, after getting a short-story collection from Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire series last fall, to get back into Fitch’s series as well.

Anyone who’s read my reviews and blog knows that I’m a big, BIG fan of novellas and shorts. Love them. A collection of shorts is a great thing as well, especially a novel containing something like 12 new shorts, containing some characters we know, and a handful we have not seen much of – if anything – before. The new characters were bright and refreshing, and brought a new life to stories that sometimes were distinctly First Law, and some that could have been almost anywhere. But, lying under all of that, is signature Abercrombie writing – the wit, the edge, the beautiful word stylings.

1030116

Overall, I enjoyed the majority of the stories. Some, such as Two’s Company, Wrong Place Wrong Time, and Three’s a Crowd were exceptional and exciting, vintage Abercrapple, with cracking one liners and multi-dimensional characters. Others, such as The Fool Jobs did not do much for me, and I moved right through them. Overall, I enjoyed the majority.

The only major thing I could point out is that every single story features some kind of LGBT element – a main character with romantic feelings about a member of the same sex, some kind of casual gay sex, etc. It was only a noticeable effect  because of the fact that having a gay character of some sort in every story is still a bit of an oddity – we are making great progress in that department, with some brilliant works like NK Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, but as of now it’s still an under-represented fact. Not so much with Applecrumble in this set of stories.

Overall, an enjoyable package, full of wit, charm, humor, hard-hitting action and moral dilemmas – just like Joe himself. I am still eager to get more from him, more stories and new worlds, but these things take time.

I just lack patience.

Rating: 4 / 5 

Double Novella Review – The Last Witness (2015), and The Devil You Know (2016) by KJ Parker

The Last Witness – 2015

25901575

Paperback, 144 pages
Published October 6th 2015 by Tor.com

This is a fantastic and interesting little tale, which packs a LOT into it’s relatively short format, while somehow not feeling rushed or crowded. The prose in this one is smooth, more in a full-novel format than many novellas, which makes it a fairly easy read, and the pages just fly by.

The premise is very interesting – the last witness has the power to enter someone’s mind, and remove memories; unwanted in most cases, but this power is vast, and he can do it without the people desiring the memories be taken. This is, of course, a very useful, powerful, and lucrative talent to have. However, as you would imagine, there are quite a few risks associated with this, and possessing knowledge of many things is not always a safe place to be. In this line of work, our narrator comes across unsavory characters looking to cover illegal activities, which they are often paranoid about covering.

Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, as the last witness ‘absorbs’ that persons memories into his own, it begins difficult for him to differentiate which memories are his own, versus those of other people, and this distinction becomes more and more difficult as time goes on. As you can imagine, this leads to an unreliable narrator, one struggling with memories and visions, and having minor identity crisis.

I found The Last Witness to be a great piece – easily the best of Tom Holt KJ Parker’s works that I’ve read. The difficult narration of the story is handled brilliantly, the prose is entertaining, yet cuts to the point with a terrific level of skill. It stays entertaining throughout, and is absolutely a rapid page turner throughout it’s (relatively limited) duration. And, speaking on the duration – it was just right  for a novella, in my opinion. It did not drag out, yet did not skimp on details or writing, and stuck around long enough to do what it needed to, and not overstaying it’s welcome.

A lot of fun, and very enjoyable.

Rating: 4.5 / 5

Tom Holt, photographed by Charlie Hopkinson © 2010

The Devil You Know – 2016

27158850

Paperback, 128 pages
Published March 1st 2016 by Tor.com

The Devil You Know presents an interesting conundrum – in a world where you can sell your eternal soul to the devil, in return for a few years of service from a pseudo-god, how can you be sure it’s worth it? How can you be sure who is getting the better half of the deal?

When the person making the deal is Saloninus, known to be manipulative, genius, subtle and crafty, as well as the greatest philosopher of all time, that question gets even more muddled. Saloninus enters into his contract with the demons almost too happily, none too concerned about damning his eternal soul in return for, relatively speaking, a minor increase in life’s length, and the power and assistance of a demon who is all powerful, but also essentially a slave by contract. How could that be worth it?

Of course, the tricky philosopher lives up to his reputation, twisting words to his benefit, and taking advantage of his abilities to use forbidden and discouraged practices, such as alchemy, to meet his end goal, which turns out to be even more sinister than the demons and Devil are ready to address. What begins as a simple and somewhat-routine contract quickly turns into one with huge-scale repercussions, and the demons are scrambling to decide how to best address this in order to protect not just themselves and their reputation amongst the mortals, but also potentially the world itself.

This novella isn’t as well written as The Last Witness in my opinion, especially the odd decision to switch POV at a few points in the story, which were a jarring and confusing switch, as there was little notification at the time, and you are suddenly left trying to figure out what exactly was happening. The characters, however, were bright and vivid, Salolinus every bit the genius and unsavory character he’s made out to be, and manages to maintain control at almost all times, despite his precarious circumstances.

So, while not quite as good as The Last Witness, this is yet another quality piece from Parker, as well as Tor.com, who has impressed the hell out of me with their novellas. Some big names, and some really great work by those names, in gorgeous packaging and with fantastic cover arts. The ones that made it to audio are an even bigger bonus (I got through this one in part of a day), and the quality of the production is high as well. I look forward to more, and I feel like I should continue reading Parker’s works, even after the disappointment from the Two of Swords series, which just did not quite hit the mark for me.

Rating: 3.75 / 5

Review – Eleanor by Jason Gurley (2014)

22081556

Hardcover, 384 pages
Published January 12th 2016 by Crown (first published 2016)

Authors get asked to do a lot of blurbs, especially once they’re on bigger publishers. However, some authors give blurbs that I take very seriously, especially if they follow up by repeatedly praising a book – Hugh Howey is one of those guys for me, and he has bestowed the quality of Jason Gurley’s work for some time. While I am very crappy at it, I do my best to support local guys as well, and Gurley is a Portland guy like myself, and I have had him on my to-read for a while. On my to-read, but not actually read, and I was never quite sure why, other than I just didn’t quite get to it. With a to-read list like mine, and a slow reading schedule, the best way to get read by me is to be available on audio, and Gurley finally was as of a couple months ago – rejoice!

Eleanor is what I’ve noticed recently called “magical realism” – a story in an otherwise normal, (usually) modern earth, but with some magical elements. Seemingly differentiated from ‘urban fantasy’ by the focus – less on first person magical character, more on mundane people with magical abilities, or in a slightly-magical world. I’ve read a lot in this “genre” of late – This Census-Taker by China Mieville, and A Darker Shade of Magic by VE Schwab being the most obvious. However, Eleanor trumps those – and how.

6904187

Eleanor begins as the tale of a young mother, a depressed mother of young Agnes, who has watch her dreams fail due to her family/relationship choices, and lives in a constant state of resentment. Until, one day, she disappears. The story then switches to that of Agnes and her two twin daughters, one of whom named after aforementioned young mother, Eleanor. Another depressed mother, living in resentment, until a tragic accident takes the life of one of her daughters. We then shift into the main POV character, that of the remaining daughter of Agnes, Eleanor.

We watch as Eleanor 2.0 copes with her father, Paul, having left Agnes and Eleanor, largely caused by Agnes’ spiral into nothingness, drinking her life away and doing little else other than lashing out at those around her, and feeling sorry for herself. Meanwhile, her young and emotionally damaged daughter is forced to single-handedly care for herself, while coping with harsh migraines and mental distress, as well as the lack of real parenting. However, one day, Eleanor is at school, and as she enters a doorway, she feels an electric crackling sensation, and is suddenly no longer in her school, but rather an entire place entirely.

We follow Eleanor as she, as well as her best friend Jack, her father, her mother, and her aunt, try to figure out why Eleanor suddenly disappears, reappearing (sometimes forcefully) in different places, over varying time delays. We also explore the people behind these disappearances, their motivations, their struggles, and eventually, their identity. It is hard to describe much more without giving away spoilers, at least without giving away more spoilers than I already have.

960

I am not quite sure what I expected going into Eleanor – I had honestly heard very little about the novel, aside from “it’s really good”. I wasn’t aware of the setting or characters, and I certainly was not prepared for what it was: a gut-wrenching, tear-jerking story of a family in peril, numerous tragedies, and a young girl forced to cope with all of this without much help from around her, aside from essentially one single person.

However, this, as well as almost every other aspect of the novel, is brilliantly and skillfully handled by Gurley. Eleanor feels as close to a real, tangible girl in her age bracket as I could possibly imagine, especially being written by someone who was not a preteen girl (I assume?). Considering the number of tragic events, the family trauma, the degeneration mentally of many characters, it was integral to the success of this novel for this grief to be written well, to have the characters address situations in a manner that is both realistic, but also does not limit the story progress. Thankfully, Jason handles these situations brilliantly, and I frequently found myself feeling as though I’d been punched, sympathizing with the characters, rooting for them, grieving their losses, feeling their pains.

The novel builds and builds as it goes – it begins so bleak, so harsh, and so shockingly. You’re introduced to characters, before they change drastically, or go away altogether. This is a book of loss, of handling loss, of addressing adversity. Everyone in the novel seems to go through serious and terrible events, and everyone is forced to cope, to manage their grief, to either move on and try to live, or spiral in self-destruction. Everyone handles things differently, everyone feels their pain differently. It was as close to perfect as I think I’ve read in that aspect – unique characters handle situations in unique and suitable ways.

Eleanor’s growth is brilliant as well – her changes from being a young girl, to an overly-mature-for-her-age teenager, to a constantly traumatized adult who had no time to adapt to the years of her life she’d lost due to her ‘blips’ (for lack of a spoiler-free way of putting it). No change is as drastic as hers, but the other characters all evolve, all adapt to their situations in varying ways. This is the biggest strong point of the book to me, as my immersion was kept at a consistent level because the characters always felt realistic, and visceral, and engaging.

The creativity of the book varies, but I am not looking for groundbreaking changes all the time – I’m looking for great writing, great characters, and enough unique aspects to keep me interested. There’s a portal aspect to this story, as well as a certain level of magical beings and/or powers, or at least unexplainable powers. I thought the escalation of the side-storyline was terrific, as we were led closer and closer to the climax and conclusion, as Eleanor figured out what was happening, explored it, and completed what she needed to.

My biggest complaint about the book was the odd gender discrepancy. I am one of the last people to complain about this kind of thing in books (really), but I could not help but notice in the novel that the male characters are, largely, featuring only minor flaws. Jack is a borderline Gary Stu – he is the best friend a person could have, always forgiving and protecting Eleanor, being there for her at all times, altruistic in his actions and feelings, and despite being head over heels in love with Eleanor, he is patient with her even when she disappears. Paul, while struggling with losing a daughter and not getting much out of Eleanor, does his best, doesn’t do anything outwardly negative, and swoops back in to care for Agnes later in the book.

Meanwhile, basically all of the female characters are heavily broken in one way or another. The original Eleanor is self-centered, whiny, and apathetic, essentially caring for her feelings only, caring about how upset she is, how the things that happen to her and the events in her life are unfair, until she throws it all voluntarily away, leaving everyone else behind to deal with things. Agnes herself takes up her mother’s footsteps, having a major anger problem, reacting aggressively to Paul’s business trips and work schedule, harboring animosity towards almost everyone, including, eventually, her own daughter, going as far as to blame her for her sister’s death, when it was clearly Agnes’ fault. Even our Eleanor is flawed, not only having massive headaches and health issues, but frequently snapping out at people, and while she was more perfect than any of the other females, she still had huge issues.

Again, I normally would not even notice a thing like this, but the fact I did means it was a bit of a glaring dichotomy. Maybe there was an intent there by Gurley that I missed, some message or metaphor, but if there was, I missed it, and it just felt like the females were all inherently largely flawed, while the males were much less so. Despite that, it did not really distract me from the story much, and I felt the female characters were well written, including their flaws.

Overall, I was blown away by the book. I invested emotionally into it significantly more than I have with almost any recent novel I can think of. I felt for the characters, I was anxious for them, and I was hooked – always wanting to know what happened next, how things would turn out. I blasted through the book in only a few days, and I just couldn’t get enough of it. If this is the kind of quality I can expect from Jason Gurley, then I absolutely agree with Hugh Howey’s assessment – he’s excellent.

Rating: 4.5 / 5

Quick Review – The Price of Valor by Django Wexler (2015)

23435269

Kindle Edition, 515 pages
Published July 7th 2015 by Roc (first published July 2nd 2015)

One of the biggest books on my “Books I Meant To Read But Somehow Didn’t Get To” from 2015 was the third in the Shadow Campaigns series, The Price of Valor by NW Author Django Wexler. I have a big habit of reading the first book of a series, enjoying it, then never quite going back to the rest of the series. However, generally, if I like the first book in a series enough to read the second, I’ll continue reading throughout the course of the series. This was the case with The Shadow Campaigns, where I found the first book, The Thousand Names, to be exceptionally fresh, interesting, and well written. The second novel, The Shadow Throne, was equally as enjoyable. 

Thankfully, my patience (ok ok, laziness) paid off, and The Price of Valor was exactly what I wanted, and needed, to revitalize my feelings towards the genre. Wexler manages to avoid the “more of the same” feel that a third book in a longer series could fall victim to, keeping things feeling fresh. The book was, for the majority, much more mild and slower moving than the first two, fewer battles, fewer major events, and a lot of character development. Luckily, Django handles this very well, the interplay between Winter and her peers, her lover Jane, and her superiors enthralling, and it’s impossible not to cheer for her. Winter is one of the more relatable and likable characters I can think of, despite being not remotely relatable to me (can’t say I could ever find myself in the same situation).

The action picks up later in the book, and when it comes, it’s hot and heavy. Django does a really great job with the military aspects of the novel, but when things break down to the actual action, it’s exciting, nerve-wracking, and a total page-turn situation. The book picks up in intensity as it goes, and finishes with a flourish, followed by some very intense moments, and one of the more “oh snap!” epilogues I’ve ever read.

Overall, I did not feel the book was the best in the series, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading through it. The ending really kicked things up a notch, but despite the lack of ‘action’, the rest of the novel stayed interesting and fun, as well as incredibly smooth to read.

Rating: 4.25 / 5

Review: The Second Death by T. Frohock (2016)

25887325

Kindle Edition, 128 pages
Published March 29th 2016 by Harper Voyager Impulse
PURCHASE ON AMAZON

Wow.

I should start by clarifying that this piece, The Second Death, is the third and final entry in T. Frohock’s Los Nefilim series of novellas. Obviously, you will need to read the first two to actually understand what’s going on here – but that’s a good thing, because they’re wonderful. And I apologize in advance to Teresa if I misuse any wording or abbreviations while writing this review – I’m not sure of all of the correct terms 🙂

As this series has progressed, things have gotten more and more intense; the different threads of the story, the deceptions, the hatred, the two-timing, the relationships, and the implications of each series of events. We left Without Light or Guide with Diago and Miguel hiding in Don Guillermo’s Santuari, with Diago’s son, Rafael. Diago is still recovering from his previous injuries and trauma, and suffering lingering symptoms of that, however is trying to reintegrate himself with the Los Nefilim as quickly as possible, while getting to the bottom of the events unfolding around him.

All of this is thrown for a quick loop, as Diago is attacked outside of his home, and him and  Rafael are taken prisoner by corrupt German Nefil, who are conspiring with certain members of the Spanish Los Nefilim, and their distrust of Diago, and his daimon blood. Diago’s husband, Miguel, springs into action to recover his lover and their boy, along with the help of Don Guillermo, the leader of the Los Nefilim, and one of Diago’s few true supporters. Along the way, they gain help of a pair of ancient angels of death as well, and some of their allies in the Los Nefilim.

643896

Diago is frantic to rescue his son, who is being used as leverage by the Die Nefil, the German Nefilim, who are working alongside the Nazis it appears, and are seeking plans for an ultra powerful magical weapon that the Nazis plan to use. Diago is forced to choose between unthinkable events – helping to aid the Die Nefil and the Nazis to save his son, and potentially doom them all, losing his son forever as he would receive the Second Death, or a potentially even worse idea, especially for his reputation amongst those who doubt him – turning to daimons for help.

The Second Death is a thrilling, heart-wrenching conclusion to this series, and one that engrossed me from the start. Much of the unexplained aspects of Frohock’s world are explored in this novel, at least to some degree, and some of the lingering questions were answered. We learn a lot more about the other Nefil branches, and how easily swayed in different directions and philosophies they can be. The corruption within the Los Nefilim alone becomes more apparent, as an overthrow attempt is made on Don Guillermo’s claim to power among the Spanish Los Nefilim.

We also learn more of the true star of the series – Miguel. A patient, understanding lover, who supports Diago through everything; his problems, his infidelity/rape, his lack of perspective and understanding, his health. Miguel accepts Diago’s child, borne of infidelity, as his own, bonding with the boy, taking care of Rafael when Diago can’t, and in ways that Diago cannot due to his overwhelming personal problems. Miguel is the best spouse anyone can ask for, and Diago struggles knowing that Miguel is far more than he deserves, knowing that Miguel has laid it all on the line for him time and time again, as he struggles with his own self worth and self-trust, even as those who care about him support him.

Diago’s internal struggles make up much of the entire series, and it was really fascinating to watch him grow, change, adapt. He struggles with the turmoil around him, with his own thoughts, with his doubts, with the doubts of others, with his upbringing and his relationship with his daimonic father. He struggles at every turn, and it makes him a much more real and relatable character, not superhuman, not able to shrug off things just at the drop of a hat in the name of moving the plot forward, as you see in so many other books. He’s the most ‘human’ character I’ve may be ever read, while simultaneously not truly being human – ironic, isn’t it?

Death is a large theme in the series – while many of the characters are, essentially, immortal, the fear of the dreaded second death looms over them all. To kill an immortal so that they cannot reincarnate, to end their lives forever. Rafael being threatened with the second death is a heartbreaking and terrifying prospect for Diago, much more so than his own personal death, and leads him to risk it all by negotiating with his father, who has become one with the evil Moloch, in order to try and save his son by fooling the German Nefil into thinking they’d received the plans for their weapon.

Frohock brilliantly handles almost every aspect of the series, keeps it interesting, keeps things moving, while not ruining the pacing, not overdoing it. A lot of questions are still left unanswered, but that’s a reality when you are writing a short novella series, and don’t have the time and space to really explore things. I feel she could do significantly more to explore this world, and I hope she opts to do so going forward. However, the amount of info given in the books, the level of understanding the reader leaves with, while still leaving a large amount of intrigue and questions, is skillfully done, and very enjoyable.

I loved this series, and I just want more of it. Diago and Miguel and Rafael, their family of bears, are near-and-dear to my heart after spending this time with them. The incomparable Don Guillermo, his family, their friends in the Los Nefilim have left an impression on me that will last. I couldn’t recommend this series more – to fans of dark fantasy, of fantasy horror, or to people looking to branch out into something new. Los Nefilim is approachable, quick to read, incredibly well-written, and above all – it’s just really, really damn entertaining.

Bravo, Teresa.

Rating: 5 / 5

Review: This Census-Taker by China Mieville (2016)

25489159

Hardcover, 210 pages
Published January 12th 2016 by Del Rey (first published January 5th 2016)

My relationship with China Mieville’s works are….tumultuous. He simultaneously has written one of my favorite books (The City & The City), and one of my least favorite books ever (Perdido Street Station). Mieville is another author whom many people I respect adore, but my first impressions were not very good. However, I feel motivated to figure out what it is people see in him. Luckily, my last couple book experiences with China’s novels were generally positive. This Census-Taker was another one of those successes for me.

The story is told from the perspective of a young man – an incredibly unreliable young man. He is a victim, he is naive and uninformed, and he is scared. After noticing a disturbing pattern with his father’s behavior, he walks in on his father committing a heinous act. He runs to town, for protection, for escape, for comfort – only to find that the townsfolk do not believe his story, find his inconsistencies in telling to be suspicious, and side with his father, releasing him back to his father’s care. He stays with his father, alone, until a knock on the door comes, and his world is turned upside down yet again.

33918

A novella-length novel is a bit of an odd format for a guy like Mieville, and because of that, the book is a very ambiguous telling. Little background is given, even at the end, and the reader is left to fill in pieces in their head, following along as the young man figures out what is happening around him, tries to piece together why his life is falling apart before his eyes. You’re left wondering what exactly is going on at every turn, whether the narrator is accurately depicting or interpreting things, whether there’s something less obvious happening behind the scenes.

Additionally, this book is DARK. Right from the start, you’re smashed in the face with tragic events, and they continue as the story progresses, along with undercurrents of even more sinister things. It does not feel “dark for the sake of being dark”, it feels dark for a purpose. It drew me into the book even more, as I could feel the confusion and terror of the protagonist, I could feel the impact of the terrible things occurring, I could feel his exasperation at the lack of support he’s receiving, and his feelings of helplessness. His terror was palpable.

There are periods of the novella where I was a bit confused, a bit lost – but that was part of the point. With a drastic economy of space, Mieville paints a vivid picture, the gaps in the story leaving the imagination to fill in the rest – not in a lazy way, but in an incredibly skillful way. The prose and wording lack some of the “overcomplication” that Mieville can get himself into, such as he did in the New Crobuzon novels. Instead, we’re fed an eloquent and enjoyable format, one suited to following a young boy experiencing trauma, but not one that feels YA or childish. I was never left searching for a dictionary, nor was I left wishing for more .

It’s open-ended enough, especially the ending and some of the details about the narrator’s future (where he is telling the story under guard and incarceration for some reason). The unreliability is further enhanced by changes in tense, switching from second to third to first to third, and giving a bit of a schizophrenic feel. Very little is ever laid out in the book – it’s implied, it’s subtle, it’s gently addressed.

It’s a weird format, but it’s coming from a weird author. And it works.

Rating: 4 / 5

Throwback Review: The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell (2006)

68527

Paperback, 368 pages
Published January 3rd 2006 by Harper Paperbacks (first published 2004)

“Destiny is all. And now, looking back, I see the pattern of my life’s journey. It began in Bebbanburg and took me south, ever southward, until I reached the farthest coast of England and could go no farther and still hear my own language. That was my childhood’s journey. As a man I have gone the other way, ever northward, carrying sword and spear and ax to clear the path back to where I began. Destiny.”

Why do more people not read Bernard Cornwell novels? This is my third from him, and I have LOVED all three so far, and intend to continue reading more. As far as historical fiction is concerned, there are very few authors that I have found to even remotely hold a candle to Cornwell.

12542

This is a retelling of historical events, which follow Uhtrid, a young Englishman, son of a noble landholder, who is captured by the invading Danes. He is subsequently accepted into their culture and family as a son, trained to fight, trained in their ways, and even helps the Danes fighting the British. However, he is returned to the English at the behest of their king, Alfred, who has visions for the young man his scouts identified as assimilating into the Danish culture.

Alfred is an ultra-pious Christian, as most everyone seems to be at that point. However, Uhtrid, having spent some time as a child around the extra strict Christians, finds he prefers the Danish way of life much more, namely it’s warrior culture and lack of rules. He begrudgingly agrees to help King Alfred fight the Danes, protect his lanes, and provides info and fighting prowess. He bounces around quite a bit through his youth and teen years, back and forth between the Danes and English, accepted by both, fighting for both and against both, before finally settling with the English, marrying at the command of his king, and assisting in bringing down the invading Danish forces and protecting Alfred’s quickly shrinking lands.

The story is, in a word, outstanding. Cornwell’s writing style, prose, dialogue, fight scenes and other action – all are fantastic. I loved watching Uhtred grow, change his views, become self-reflective on how he is a child being manipulated, including realizing at one point that he “follows the last person who spoke with him”, upon becoming conscious of the fact that he tends to agree and follow the Danes when they speak with him, and the English when they speak to him. It’s a refreshing change from the oblivious, head-down characters that are so often present.

Cornwell does an excellent job of portraying information without feeling “dumpy”, and his dialogue always felt realistic, un-stuffy, and smooth. Characters interacted well, reacted and grew based upon their conversations, and tended to act within character, rather than catering to the story being told (which, admittedly, is limited due to being close to historical records). The pious nature of the English is well handled – presented often and assertively, but without feeling hamfisted or awkward. It was a great presentation of Uhtred’s struggles with his countrymen’s religion versus his own beliefs, his struggle for identity, swapping between the Danes and English often as his moods, motivations, and maturity level changed.

I really, truly enjoyed everything about this book. I could make minor complaints – it is a bit jumpy at points, skips over some periods of time. The standard ‘ye olde strong female character’ is another English girl who is captured while Uhtred is with the Danes, and sticks around with Uhtrid as he goes back and forth between the English and Danish. She is, however, a bit bland, and I found she did not contribute a whole lot other than an occasional assistance in talking their way out of a sticky situation, or just kind of ‘being there’. I would have liked to see her play a bigger role than she did, and the way she exited the story was abrupt and did not serve a lot of purpose.

However, speaking of endings: this book’s was SPECTACULAR. A huge battle between Uhtrid and one of his former friends and leaders, with some snappy dialogue and a very satisfying finish. The final line of the book, without spoiling, is a tribute to the quote I made at the top of this review, and felt like a total “mic drop” situation. It was badass, and I was left going “Daaaaamn”. I loved it.

I am eager to read more of these stories.

Additionally, the audio narration done by Jonathan Keeble is some of the best I’ve EVER listened to – he gets excitable when needed, and adds an edge to important battle scenes or dramatic moments. His accent adds a feeling of authenticity to the English protagonist, but is thin enough to not distract from the story. Absolutely A+ work by him.

Rating: 5 / 5

Review – A Darker Shade of Magic by VE Schwab (2015)

A Darker Shade final for Irene

Hardcover, 398 pages
Published February 24th 2015 by Tor Books
PURCHASE ON AMAZON

A Darker Shade of Magic is a wildly creative book, encompassing parallel worlds that, for the sake of the book’s POV, contain four variations of the city of London. Our main protagonist, Kell, is a magician, who possesses the increasingly rare ability to travel between these Londons, and thus is afforded a life as, essentially, an honorary prince for a noble family, used to travel between these parallel Londons and relay messages between the royal families of each. His London, “Red” London, is still magical, still a place where folks like Kell are embraced. “White” London…not so much. Magic is scarce there. “Grey” London has no magic remaining, no signs of it, little to no knowledge of it. And “Black” London? Well, we don’t really want to talk about Black London.

The worldbuilding for the book is a lot of fun – there aren’t a TON of details about each individual London to go around, but the entire situation is handled fluidly by Schwab, keeping things interesting while introducing the concepts, never leaving the reader feeling as though they’re the victim of a textbook-style infodump, while simultaneously getting a lot of relevant items across. Kell’s early struggles seamlessly expose us to the majority of the information we need, including the creative blood magic that he (and one of his counterparts) possess, as well as the varying differences between the parallel Londons.

174797

The writing quality of the book stays consistent – Schwab has a very eloquent, approachable prose, that keeps the pages turning. I felt as though I was finally getting some of that ‘whimsy’ that everyone is so in love with in books – it felt like a bit of a cross between Neil Gaiman and, say, Jo Walton. The book had a fairy-tale quality overall, but without sacrificing it’s structure and validity in the process. The dialogue was generally snappy and witty, the various characters bright and vibrant.

However, the main issue I took with the book was, in fact, it’s characters. Not because they were poorly written, but because I just didn’t like them. Kell, for a powerful magician with a rather interesting history, is often 10-ply soft. He waxes emotional poetic about how the family that took him in, cared for him, accepted him as one of their own, and provided him with many of the luxuries and power of a full fledged royal did not love him enough, or the motivations behind their acceptance of him. He gives in to almost everyone, then will turn around and use very powerful magic to kill someone. It was an interesting dichotomy, and often the switches back and forth were jarring. That said, I felt connected to him, I felt some understanding of his struggles, and I felt for him as he watched his princely brother suffer and almost die, the closest friend he had.

The bigger problem, however, was our secondary protagonist, Lila. Lila is a pickpocket/thief in grey London, and robs Kell of an important bauble that could have huge-scale negative effects if it fell into the wrong hands, and forces Kell to pursue her. The issue I took was that Lila was gods damned obnoxious. She was arrogant, childish, extremely immature, self-centered, and downright annoying at times. She was, essentially, every negative aspect you could pick out if you hung around a group of middle school preteens, wrapped into one adult-aged overgrown brat. She is ungrateful, defiant in EVERY way, so self-aggrandizing as to think she’s significantly more important and powerful than she is, and essentially constantly says “no” to everyone and everything said to her. Yet, somehow, she comes out as the hero in the end, which was a VERY “YA” style touch, to me. I appreciate what Schwab was trying to do with her, but she just came across as a constant thorn in everyone’s side, a TERRIBLE person overall, and one of the most grating characters I’ve ever had to read.

I would find myself reading the book, smiling, really enjoying the whimsy and story progression, then it would be broken up by Lila acting out like a petulant preteen, and I would immediately groan and be taken out of my enjoyment and immersion in the story. It’s frustrating to read other reviews and see people loving Lila – I just found her to be abhorrent, some ways blatant and some subtle; she reveled in murder, bragging to Kell about how much she enjoyed the aspects of killing. She reveled in her self-centered thievery, robbing those who cared for her and gave her love, despite her complete lack of appreciation. She refused to listen to any instructions or suggestions, instead selfishly hoarding the magical item for her own use and putting it in constant further peril. She was, frankly, a monster.

I’d like to clarify, here, that I don’t rate down books because people act badly, or are evil. Jorg Ancrath is a terrible person, but I loved him and his stories. However, Lila has a grating quality, and it felt like every third thing she said or did made me physically cringe, made me uncomfortable, made me angry and annoyed. She was well-written as that style of character, and I feel like everyone knows some obnoxious, self-centered snob like Lila in real life, to compare her to. However, the “annoying” factor really drug her down for me.

That giant rant aside, Lila’s nature did not take away from the book quite enough to drag it down. Schwab’s writing was wonderful, and the story had a fantastic ‘feel’ to it. The actual plot of the story wasn’t the most creative ever, but at this point, there’s only so many different story types to choose from. The details, however, were creative and lovely, and I enjoyed the way that, despite the main character having control over the magics, they still felt powerful, rare, scarce. The worldbuilding, overall, was really well done, and really transported me into the story. I can’t rightly give exceptional marks to a story where I hated a character so much, however, the rest of the story warranted praise, and I can safely say that I really enjoyed the book overall, and plan to read the sequels.

Rating: 4 / 5

Review – Calamity by Brandon Sanderson (2016)

15704486

Hardcover, 421 pages
Published February 16th 2016 by Delacorte Press
PURCHASE ON AMAZON ($10 hardcover as of today!)

Calamity is the conclusion to Brandon’s ambitious ‘Reckoners‘ series – a young adult, superhero epic that deconstructs what it means to be a superhero, and what would happen if superpowers tainted their users into selfish, evil acts. It’s a fantastic concept, and a really fresh take on what is, often, a bit of a worn out concept (especially considering the rush of superhero movies and TV media of late).

I will admit, openly, that I often struggle with YA books – I find that, more often than not, YA novels feel watered down, neutered, unfulfilled. There are obvious exceptions – the brilliant Hunger Games comes to mind, as well as a piece of art such as Red Rising (which was not really a YA novel). However, if Brandon Sanderson writes something, I will read it – in the case of the Reckoners series, I’m glad that fact pulled me in, as I’ve enjoyed my ride through this world.

11904728_10153661370261349_8129793876821657653_n

Brandon and I – Worldcon 2015, Spokane, WA

Calamity picks up where Firefight left off – Prof has given into the evil that his powers brought, leaving the Reckoners behind. Meanwhile, Megan, formerly working with Steelheart, continues to help the Reckoners alongside her boyfriend – our protagonist and POV – David. The team is fighting to stop the destruction of more cities, stop Prof and hopefully turn him back into his old self, free of the taint of being a high Epic. The end goal is, of course, to stop Calamity, the head Epic, so to speak, from continuing his path of destruction and influence over the other epics.

The feel of Calamity, for me, was a tad different than the previous novels. It’s the same band of characters, plus a few new faces, but the focus in this novel focuses a lot more on those characters themselves, whereas the previous novels spent a lot more time looking into the Epics, exploring the ramifications of their actions, and highlighting the Oceans 11 style plans the team comes up with to bring them down. While the team is still planning, the Epics are still Epicing, and there is ample high-intensity fighting, Calamity pumps the brakes a bit on the pacing, brings things back into focus, and puts the character changes and development into a much bigger spotlight.

Which, in this case, both works, and also does not necessarily work. I really enjoyed watching some real, tangible character growth – especially towards the end of this novel. More “Oh, damn, I guess I need to change how I think about things” moments, rather than discovering a problem or solution, and just going with it. The downside to this, however, is that with how much focus is placed on this, the action and development of their plan and course of action is stunted, and it brings the series’ rapid pace down quite a bit. It was more of a shock related to the change of pace, rather than a real ‘problem’.

On that note, I did enjoy the characters quite a bit. The Reckoners squad are a lot of fun – a varied group, almost like a stock textbook photo; people of all sexes, races and backgrounds. They work together, each having their own unique speech patterns and quirks: David’s terrible metaphors, Abraham’s sage knowledge, Cody’s ridiculous made up Scotland stories. They are entertaining as hell, and the interplay between these characters, as well as the slight focus placed on each of their ‘quirks’, makes for a very fluid read when they’re interacting with each other. I enjoyed the addition of Nighthawk quite a bit, and thought his predicament was very unique (avoiding spoilers there).

Where this fails a bit is with Calamity himself, the ubervillain of this tale. While all the other characters were bright, fleshed out, explored – Calamity feels…incomplete. He comes across as a whiny, spoiled child, but has little else to him. His background is not explored nearly enough, and I was left with a bit of longing towards the end, wishing I knew more about him, more about his motivations, more than him just being a malevolent baddie. I know in superhero roles, the bad guys are often black/white “baddies”, but this series transcends those “typical” characters, explores them quite a bit, and I wanted Calamity to be explored a lot more.

The ending, as a whole, didn’t quite work for me. I didn’t understand some pieces of it – why certain characters had certain powers, why certain characters gained aforementioned certain powers, and the general feeling of…unfulfillment. I enjoyed my journey through this series, but was left feeling that the conclusion was too open-ended, and not the satisfying, fleshed-out series completions I’ve come to know and love from Sanderson. The book had all of the characteristic things I love from a Brandon book, but the ending came across as a more watered down version of the ending I expected.

The feel-good portions of the ending, namely in the epilogue, I enjoyed quite a bit. I didn’t really see it coming, and it made it all the more enjoyable. I’m normally not the kind of guy who actively seeks a happy ending, but I was glad to see one in this series – it just felt right, it felt like it SHOULD have a happy ending, so I was glad that decision was made.

Overall, I enjoyed Calamity quite a bit. There were a lot of laughable points, some sadness, and a lot of moments in character growth that I really enjoyed. That said, the book felt a bit incomplete, the ending leaving a bit to be desired. I’m a bit torn overall, as I really did have a great time reading this book, as well as the rest of the series, and I’m a bit sad to see it go (for now). This wasn’t my favorite Sanderson novel, but his bar is set so high that I feel I’m not saying much by stating that. Sanderson with some ‘holes’ in the writing is still better than 99% of writers out there, so needless to say, it’s still a great book, a great series, and an enjoyable read.

It just wasn’t perfect.

Rating: 3.5 / 5