Review: Dragon Age Tevinter Nights – Burn, Thedas, Burn

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Title: Dragon Age: Tevinter Nights
Author(s):
Patrick Weekes, Sylvia Fektekuty, John Epler, Lukas Kristjanson, Brianne Battye, Caitlin Sullivan Kelly, Courtney Woods, Ryan Cormier, Arone LaBray

Publisher: Tor Books
Genre(s): Epic Fantasy, Game-to-Novel
Subject(s): Gods, LGBTQ+

Release Date:
March 10th, 2020
Page Count: 496 (paperback)

Rating: 8.0/10

 

 

The Dragon Age games are dark, heroic, epic fantasy role playing games that have won legions of devoted fans. The first game went triple platinum (over three millions units sold) worldwide, and the second game was released in March of 2011 to solid reviews. This sixth book in the series is an anthology put together by the game’s writing staff and specifically follows the fates of various characters and events from the previous three games and the newly announced fourth game.

 

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So you thought your patience meter was pretty high with regards to DA4’s release? Thought “Yeah, sure, I can wait another few years for it”? Well, you can kiss that serenity goodbye, my friends, because that bar’s going to be bottomed out by the time you finish this.

Tevinter Nights just displaced The Last Flight as my favourite Dragon Age novel. Not so much in terms of prose and character work, but in terms of the breadth of content –walking you through the northern regions of Thedas, throwing you hints and speculation fodder, teasing you with storylines that will most definitely reappear in the next game (I’ll eat my stuffed nug if they don’t), and just re-immersing you and setting up the stage for everything that’s to come–Tevinter Nights is fantastic and a must-read for all fans of the series.

And here’s what the stage looks like: the Qunari invasion is well underway; Tevinter is being eaten up bit by bit even as the Magisters and the Venatori scheme from within; Nevarra is standing on a fracture line that cuts between the Mortalitasi and the royal family; Antiva is being forced to rely on the Crows as their main defense against the Qunari; and a bald overpowered heartbreaker idiot thinks he knows what’s best for the world and will stop at seemingly nothing to achieve it. And that’s just what’s on the surface and on this side of the Veil.

Things aren’t looking too great right now–and as this is THEDAS we’re talking about, that’s saying something.

A few general criticisms, though. Some of these stories are obviously a lead-in to side quests or the main quest in DA4, so their conclusions aren’t super satisfying; they serve more as teasers (though they’re pretty good teasers). Also, a lot of them follow the same plot formula: “x is killing y” or “x wants to kill y”, followed by “z has to step in to find out who and why.” It gets a bit repetitive, especially if you’re reading the book all in one go. And as with all anthologies, you’re going to get a mix of stories that you like and stories that just don’t work.

 

My favourites in order:

“The Wigmaker” by Courtney Woods
“The Horror of Hormok” by John Epler
“Eight Little Talons” by Courtney Woods
“Half Up Front” by John Epler
“The Dread Wolf Take You” by Patrick Weekes

(Courtney Woods and John Epler are really the MVPs of this anthology. Their stories are stuffed with interesting lore, they nail the balance of teaser and substance, and character-wise, they’re just more solidly crafted than the others)

As far as anthologies go, this was one of the best I’ve read in recent memory. And my furious obsession with the series has no bearing on that assessment. None whatsoever!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go play Inquisition for the 50th time.

 

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Review copy provided by the publisher for an honest review

 

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Review: The Unspoken Name – A Saga of Badass Lesbian Orc and Wonder Bread Boy

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Title: The Unspoken Name
Author:
A.K. Larkwood
Publisher:
Tor Books

Genre(s): Epic Fantasy, Portal Fantasy
Subject(s): Gods, Coming-of-Age, LGBTQ+ (main and secondary)

Release Date:
Feb 11th, 2020
Page Count: 464 (hardback)

Rating: 6.0/10

 

 

 

 

What if you knew how and when you will die?

Csorwe does. She will climb the mountain, enter the Shrine of the Unspoken, and gain the most honored title: sacrifice. On the day of her foretold death, however, a powerful mage offers her a new fate.

Csorwe leaves her home, her destiny, and her god to become the wizard’s loyal sword-hand — stealing, spying, and killing to help him reclaim his seat of power in the homeland from which he was exiled.

But Csorwe and the wizard will soon learn – gods remember, and if you live long enough, all debts come due.

 

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Turns out I have a few things to say about this book, so to keep everything organized we’re doing sections today. Huzzah!

 

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Unconventional But Likeable Protagonist

Csorwe is a female orc and also a fighter who’s pretty laid back–almost humble–about being a well-oiled sword swinging machine. That makes her a bit of a unicorn in a genre that lauds its “badass” female human characters. She’s skilled and pragmatic and levelheaded, which is a super underrated character trait, and just plain readable. And the contrast between her calm and Tal’s anxiety-ridden disorder is a joy to behold.

 

  Fun and Genuine Character Interactions

The dialogue is pitch-perfect and arguably the shining point of the whole thing. From scenes of vulnerability to wry sarcasm to fuck-it anarchy (mostly on Tal’s part), they do much to convey the characters’ personalities and their relationships. Csorwe and Tal’s dynamic is pure schoolyard antagonism and entertaining as hell to see played out. Though I’m hoping the sequel adds a few more layers to them because the 24/7 sniping (and nothing else) is going to get old pretty quick.

The slow-burn romance between Csorwe and Shuthmili is also one of the highest points of the story. I mean, Shuthmili is a great character to begin with–her surface coldness a product of a life that’s always been about fearing and being feared for her powers–and her journey of learning to see choices beyond ones that have been spoonfed to her is a nice parallel to Csorwe’s own journey of independence (and I would say better written than Csorwe’s).

The two together are cute and sweet and make me smile–what more can you ask for?

 

Cool Worldbuilding Setup

Dying worlds and broken gods and airships. It’s like the book knows me. Oh, and any author who includes a sentient and intelligent serpent race in their story has my eternal love.

 

 


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Picturing this World in My Head is Like Walking to the Grocery Store Without My Contacts On

You can have an interesting broad scheme for your worldbuilding but drop the ball on the details. And that’s the case here.

This is a story that hops through different worlds, but if you ask me to sketch out what each of them looks or feels like, I’d shrug at you from across a blank page. At best I’d call the settings minimalist–and nothing wrong with that, no one needs a two-page description of the texture of a tavern wall–but mostly they’re a frustrating landscape of vague shapes and smells. It’s like squinting though a mist while a tour guide yammers at your ear about how wonderful the place looks and how rich the culture is–all well and good except you can’t see any of it.

The snake world near the beginning is pretty interesting, but that’s the only one that left a solid impression. The rest are an absolute blur, to the point where I felt disoriented. I’m assuming this was a stylistic decision on the author’s part, but it makes the story resemble too much of an elongated dream sequence. And with an epic portal fantasy, it just feels like a lost opportunity.

 

Sethennai the Wonder Bread Boy

Speaking of blurs! Let’s talk about Belthandros Sethennai. Oh, Sethennai. Sethennai the poster boy for not living up to a badass name.

You know when your friend tells you about their celebrity crush and the person in question turns out to be a bland white dude whose appeal is completely lost on you, and you can’t even differentiate him from the previous bland white dude they were crushing on, so you’re just sitting there thinking, “This is the greatest mystery of my life”? Well, that’s Sethennai. Minus the white bit.

The book tries to make me believe that most everything in its narrative orbits this man. He’s the “kindly” mentor/savior figure who rescues Csorwe. His quest for the reliquary is what propels the storyline forward. Women swoon over him. His mentees fall over themselves to try to please him. It’s devotion at its finest, and all I want to know is WHY. Just why. What makes him so special? From Csorwe’s point of view, I kind of understand; he pulled her out from a horrific fate and I imagine a life debt makes for some thick rose-tinted glasses. But what about everyone else?

The characters tell you that he’s charming and suave and convincing. Whether or not he actually is any of those things is very much the greatest fucking mystery of my life, because at the end of the day, I don’t know who Sethennai is. He’s clear paint smeared atop a clear canvas and just about as exciting and remarkable.

And his weak characterization affects other major aspects of the story, like his quest for the Reliquary. In order for me to have cared about this plotline at least one of the following had to be true:

(1) I’m interested in the premise of the quest itself
(2) I think Sethennai is an interesting person
(3) I care that Csorwe cares about Sethennai

And…yeah. None of those were happening.

 

Lackluster Character Development

This also leads back to good ol’ Belthandros! (He’s out here just ruining everyone’s day, isn’t he?) The other reason why Sethennai had to be a solid character is that both Tal and Csorwe’s storylines lead back to him. So the fact that he isn’t makes Csorwe’s journey of self-discovery, and kicking herself out of the nest, so to speak, less impactful than it should have been. And Tal’s journey is even more underwhelming. If I have zero impressions–good or otherwise–about the man they’ve had this complicated and mostly-one-sided relationship with, then I can’t be expected to feel much for a series of character developments that directly depend on the guy being at least somewhat complex.

Also, there’s a big gap in Csorwe’s development from Csorwe the Chosen Bride and Csorwe Thereafter. From 14 years of living in a convent and being slated for death to being told you’re now a free agent with a future, and the transition between the two is basically non-existent. No exploration of how she’s had to adjust, or how her world views have changed, just a “Okay, I was living in Point A, now I’m living in Point B. The end.”

 


Okay, I know, that seems like a lot of ranting. But I did mostly like the book! On the surface it’s an enjoyable story with great potential, and it’s got a set of main characters (minus He Who I Shall No Longer Name) that interest me enough to keep going. But things start fraying when you try to delve deeper, and I just wish it ended up being more than what it turned out to be.

 

(Review copy provided by the publisher for an honest review)

 

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Review: Nevernight – Nevermore Will I Give into Hype

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Title:
Nevernight (Nevernight Chronicle 1)
Author: Jay Kristoff
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Release Date: August 6th, 2016
Genre(s): Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: Fantasy School, Assassins, Revenge
Page Count: 448 (hardback)

Rating: 6.0/10

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In a land where three suns almost never set, a fledgling killer joins a school of assassins, seeking vengeance against the powers who destroyed her family.

Daughter of an executed traitor, Mia Corvere is barely able to escape her father’s failed rebellion with her life. Alone and friendless, she hides in a city built from the bones of a dead god, hunted by the Senate and her father’s former comrades. But her gift for speaking with the shadows leads her to the door of a retired killer, and a future she never imagined.

Now, a sixteen year old Mia is apprenticed to the deadliest flock of assassins in the entire Republic ― the Red Church. Treachery and trials await her with the Church’s halls, and to fail is to die. But if she survives to initiation, Mia will be inducted among the chosen of the Lady of Blessed Murder, and one step closer to the only thing she desires.

Revenge.

 

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Lying cat! SHHHHHH. I can’t think of a better title right now, okay? Let me have this clickbait one. Also, I think you’re just jealous because there’s a cat character in the book and he has cooler powers than you.

 

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I’ll preface this by saying that I didn’t think this was a bad book (so hold your rotten vegetables ’till the end). I thought it was an okay fantasy story with quick pacing, snappy action, and good humour. But from all the things I’d heard about it, I was expecting something a little more…exceptional. I had an image of Harry Potter bathed in blood and guts and dripping sensuality, and instead I got a typical school fantasy with stabby action (of several sorts) and illogical plot points. It was underwhelming to say the least.

(Also, I read this as a buddy read with my friend and it took us nearly four months to finish–which isn’t an indicator of the quality of the book but rather my lamentable efforts at buddy reading.)

Quick points on what I did enjoy about the book:

  • The footnotes provided interesting details about the world and its history. Some facts were silly, others more serious, and I liked the variation in tone. They’re akin to codex entries in video games; information that won’t hinder your understanding and enjoyment of the story if you choose not to read them, but will add extra depth to the narrative.
  • Mia’s shadow powers are pretty cool. And I’ll always champion the existence of magical animal companions in fantasy. I heard great things about Mr. Kindly the shadow cat and I wasn’t disappointed.
  • I really really liked the teasing of a possible enemies-to-lovers F/F for the sequels (it’s probably the main reason why I want to continue reading)

 

The biggest problem for me is that I couldn’t take the Red Church and its people seriously.

This is an assassin’s school (church/organization–whichever) that one enters knowing full well that it’s an assassin’s school. It’s an organization of the best cold-blooded killers in the realm that churns out more cold-blooded killers into society. Its teachers aren’t there to whack you over the head a few times and then hold your hand afterward. They’re there to let you break or be bent into their image of the perfect assassin.

So it makes ZERO sense for the apprentices to be constantly dumbstruck by the trickery that occurs during their lessons. I can give a pass for the first few times; they’re still kids, after all, and there are probably dregs of naivete still pooling around in their collective psyche. But when poisoning and maiming and “gotcha!” moments are part of your weekly routine and yet you’re still fooled time and time again by situations you should be learning to recognize as suspect, I have to ask what you’re even doing here.

“They’re not playing about anymore,” exclaims Mia two-thirds of the way into the story, somehow forgetting that they’ve been poisoned and tortured and thrown to the enemy since day 1.

These characters act like they’re in a boarding school and like they’re playacting as assassin trainees. Which would be fine if at any point the apprentices or the instructors address this by saying, hey, maybe they’re too soft to be here. Maybe they’re not cut out for this. But they don’t.

The lack of seriousness given to their situation (exacerbated by Kristoff’s upbeat, over-the-top writing style) combined with the fact that no major side character dies during these lessons/trials takes all the tension out of the story.

The characters are interesting enough but I didn’t feel like I got to know any of them very well. And while I like Mia’s attitude, she’s a combination of “over-powered hero” and “plot-convenient obliviousness” that frustrates me. Also, Cassius? The Black Prince? The Lord of Blades? The most powerful and feared assassin of the realm? He ended up being the biggest disappointment of the book. (spoiler: you either live long enough to become a villain or die unceremoniously in a random inn, skewered with a sword)

Other than that, there’s a myriad of plot points and character actions that don’t make a whole lot of sense. Like the convenient series of events leading up to the ending (spoiler: how is it that the greatest–and probably only–assassin’s guild in the world gets so easily infiltrated via the actions of two teenagers?) There’s also a criminal “investigation” at one point that ends with the church’s higher-ups accepting circumstantial evidence as concrete proof which I found fairly ridiculous. You’d think that as criminals they’d have seen their fair share of unfair judgments handed down by the Luminatii. So you’d think their justice system would be a little more robust. A little more on the just side. But nope.

I absolutely get why so many people love the book. I mean, firstly, it’s a fantasy in a school setting which is the literary equivalent of crack. There’s also a certain addictiveness to Kristoff’s writing that I can’t deny–a combination of flowery imagery and dry humour (the latter comes out really well in the footnotes). I just expected less plot holes and more of…well, everything.

 

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Now you may begin pelting the vegetables!

Review: A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery – AncestryDNA: Three Musketeers Edition

Hey, everyone! Sorry for being rather absent for the last week and a half. I’ve been super busy preparing for a neuroscience conference and it’s been kind of a mentally taxing endeavour. But I’ll be back on Monday to catch up on posts and comments! Meanwhile, enjoy this slightly overdue review!

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Title: A Labyrinth of Scions of Sorcery (The Risen Kingdoms 2)
Author: Curtis Craddock
Publisher: Tor Books
Release Date: January 22nd, 2019
Genre(s): Fantasy, Steampunk
Subjects and Themes: Court Intrigue, Family Drama
Page Count: 416 (hardback)

Rating: 7.5/10

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Isabelle des Zephyrs has always been underestimated throughout her life, but after discovering the well of hidden magic within her, unveiling a centuries-long conspiracy, and stopping a war between rival nations, she has gained a newfound respect amongst the cutthroat court.

All that is quickly taken away when Isabelle is unfairly convicted of breaking the treaty she helped write and has her political rank and status taken away. Now bereft, she nevertheless finds herself drawn into mystery when her faithful musketeer Jean-Claude uncovers a series of gruesome murders by someone calling themselves the Harvest King.

As panic swells, the capital descends into chaos, when the emperor is usurped from the throne by a rival noble. Betrayed by their allies and hunted by assassins, Isabelle and Jean-Claude alone must thwart the coup, but not before it changes l’Empire forever.

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(Note: If it’s been over a year since you last read Book 1, you might benefit from a reread because holy hell, I couldn’t remember who 70% of the characters were.)

As the sequel to Craddock’s wholly underrated debut An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors, which was one of my favourite reads of 2017, I had pretty high expectations for it. And while I can’t say the book met them, there’s still a lot to like about it. So let’s get the good bits first!

The worldbuilding is as delightful to read about as it was in Book 1. For those who are new to the series, the books take place in a steampunk fantasy version of Renaissance France and Spain (if Renaissance France and Spain had been floating sky nations, that is). We also get airships, sorcerers who can make use of shadows and mirrors, dashing musketeers, and feathered people-creatures who retain all the memories of their ancestors. It’s brilliantly imaginative and somewhat reminiscent of Jules Verne, and I’ve not found anything quite like it in fantasy.

So obviously the book will appeal to fantasy readers who are tired of medieval settings and want to see some sky high swashbuckling action, but I think it’ll also hold appeal to all you genealogy buffs out there because so much of the story is about tracing family history and heritable traits.

The writing also continues to delight. Craddock’s prose holds such an effortless charm that makes it an absolute joy to read, and it shines most brightly when it comes to Jean Claude, our protagonist’s bodyguard, who is one of the sassiest, most loyal protector one could wish for. And his protectee Isabelle is as clever and wonderfully independent as I remember.

My disappointment mainly comes from two things: plot and love interest.

As much as I liked exploring this world more, I wasn’t super invested in the main plot. It’s got a lot of intrigue and mystery revolving around family ancestry, which had also been present in the first book, but while book 1 had tension and a sense of immediacy that I found compelling, the storyline in Labyrinth is rather meandering and had me wondering what it was all leading up to or why it mattered.

The second point is what frustrates me the most because it’s a matter of squandered potential. The end of book 1 had more or less set up Prince Julio of Aragoth (fantasy Spain) to be Isabelle’s love interest in Labyrinth. And though we didn’t get an in-depth look at him then, I definitely liked what I saw and was very much looking forward to seeing how their relationship would develop in the sequel.

Instead, he gets shoved to the wayside in favour of a new love interest, a man called  Bitterlich, and he and Isabelle are…pleasant, sure, but bland and their romance too quickly developed.

And okay, yes, Julio is admittedly a little vanilla, especially compared to Bitterlich who’s a shapeshifter. He’s also very proper and reserved and tightly-wound and harbours a not insignificant hero worship for his dead father. And for some strange infuriating reason, fantasy characters with those traits usually get saddled with one of three roles: martyr, cannon fodder, or just plain chopped liver. Hardly ever long-term love interests.

But you know what would have been interesting to see? Julio and Isabelle actually interacting and figuring out how their personalities mesh when outside of life-threatening situations. We get none of that here and it ends up feeling like a waste of a perfectly set up character.

At the end of the day, though, this is the kind of book that I feel good about reading, even when the plot and characters don’t quite meet my expectations, and that has everything to do with the charm and the heart of Craddock’s writing. And that is really what makes this series stand out from others.

I’m very excited to see what adventures the author will take these characters next (hint: there will be airships).

Review: The Gutter Prayer – A Dark, Imaginative Debut

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Title: The Gutter Prayer (The Black Iron Legacy 1)
Author: Gareth Hanrahan
Publisher: Orbit
Release Date: January 17th, 2018
Genre(s): Epic Fantasy, Steampunk
Subjects and Themes: Deities
Page Count: 544

Rating: 8.0/10

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The city of Guerdon stands eternal. A refuge from the war that rages beyond its borders. But in the ancient tunnels deep beneath its streets, a malevolent power has begun to stir.

The fate of the city rests in the hands of three thieves. They alone stand against the coming darkness. As conspiracies unfold and secrets are revealed, their friendship will be tested to the limit. If they fail, all will be lost and the streets of Guerdon will run with blood.

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There has been a great buzz about The Gutter Prayer and the slew of blurbs from well-respected authors and reviewers praising its name should tell you that this is, in many ways, a pretty damn great debut.

And I can tell you the same thing…with some caveats.

Let’s talk about the worldbuilding first, because that’s hands-down the book’s biggest strength.

I wrote in my notes that the way that Hanrahan presents his world–like the origin of the Ghouls and Stone Plague–reminds me a lot of video games. As in, they’re presented in succinct and easily digestible chunks while still being interesting and attention-grabbing (and later I found out that the author writes gaming books, so that was an “Aha” moment). This has the downside of being a little info-dumpy in places, but considering how interesting the world is, I didn’t really mind it.

Comparisons to China Mieville has been made and for good reason. He’s one of the best when it comes to city building and transforming locations into living, breathing characters. And The Gutter Prayer has that in spades.

But I think this world is a little more…Lovecraftian than Mieville’s work (and not just because of the tentacles). And for that reason, it really, really reminds me of the Gothic browser game known as Fallen London.

And you have no idea how ecstatic that makes me.

I won’t get into the details of the game (that’s for another day), but one of the million things I adore about Fallen London (and its spinoffs) is its total embrace of the weird, the foreign, and the terrifying. Various creatures roam the streets and underbellies of its city and while some might see you as their noonday snack, others just want to go about their lives in peace. There’s something new and exciting waiting for you around every corner and the city is just begging you to explore it all.

The same thing applies here. We have the Tallowmen, humanoid wax creations made from the remnants of condemned criminals that are now used as hunting dogs for criminals (and yes, they have a wick running through them–that’s how they come “alive”); worm-colonies that hire themselves out as sorcerer mercenaries; and on and on.

And we get all these different, colourful districts and their rich history and colourful inhabitants–some friendly, others distinctly murdery, and nearly all of them strange and fascinating.

I fucking adore the imagination of it all.

As for the plot, the main one takes a while to materialize (which can be frustrating) but when it does, it begins to resemble the best of Robert Bennett Jackson’s Divine Cities trilogy–warring gods, trapped gods, and mortals who would kill or free them to further their own agenda.

Now, here comes the caveats. My problem with loud and rich worldbuilding is when the characters aren’t quite as loud and rich enough, so the former ends up drowning them out. This is fine in the early stages of a story–everything is new and shiny and we’re gawking at everything like overexcited tourists–but after a certain point it starts to resemble a lonely stroll through an art museum.

This isn’t to say the characters aren’t interesting–quite the opposite, really!

There are three main characters the story revolves around:

Spar is the leader of the trio and the son of the man who’s founded the Brotherhood–a group of thieves who were meant to be the Robin Hoods of the city, a beacon of hope for the common folk–and also a victim of the Stone Plague, an incurable disease that slowly turns the infected into stone. And he just happens to be my favourite (“The idealistic character with an unbending sense of loyalty who’s also tragically dying is your favourite? Why am I not surprised?”)

Rat is a young ghoul who feeds on the carcasses of the dead.

Cari is the only human/non-infected of the group. She’s left Guerdon many years ago and never looked back. But now she is back and some…disconcerting things are happening with her.

So these are characters with diverse backstories and I enjoyed getting to know them and the lore they bring with them, but I feel like they never developed beyond the surface-level of interesting. Spar in particular never quite reached the potential that I think he has.

And I think the following two points contribute to that:

  1. The three characters spend half of the story separated from each other (and Spar spends a good chunk of that stuck alone in a cell), so we never really get a good sense of their dynamic.
  2. Hanrahan doesn’t have the same knack for emotional character-driven scenes as he does with city building. There are moments, especially near the end of the story, that could have been rousing and vindicating but are curiously glossed over. Tragedies come and go in a blink, leaving you feeling detached and going, “Wait, what?”

All in all, though, Guerdon is a joy to experience and the problems with meandering plot and characters are things that can definitely be ironed out in the sequel. Gareth Hanrahan has stormed into the genre with a deceptively complex debut that’s chock full of imagination, and it sets up a strong foundation for what I hope will be an equally strong trilogy.

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Review copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley. All opinions are my own.

Review: The Monster Baru Cormorant – A Chess Game, A Lesson in Economics, And a Masterclass in Character Work

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Title: The Monster Baru Cormorant (The Masquerade 2)
Author: Seth Dickinson
Publisher: Tor Books
Release Date: October 30th, 2018
Genre(s): Epic Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: Politics, Economy, LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 464 (hardback)

Rating: 9.0/10

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As the long-awaited sequel to Traitor Baru Cormorant, Monster was one of my two most anticipated releases of 2018 and I can safely say that it did not disappoint.

There are few things to keep in mind when diving into Monster.

One: this isn’t a book that you can power through in one or two sittings. It’s a dense, slow-paced story stuffed to the brim with intricate character work and social sciences.

Two: this is an entirely different beast to the first book. Traitor Baru Cormorant was very much an origin story for Baru. I’d almost call it an extended prologue–a story that needed to be told in order for the main story to progress. It was about setting up the pieces on a game board. Or no–not even that. It was about taking chunks of wood and whittling them into piece-like shapes.

Monster is about setting them on the board and saying, “Okay, let’s get moving.”

And boy, do they ever move.

Monster expands our view hundredfold, focusing not only on Baru but also her enemies and her maybe-allies. Dickinson makes it clear that this isn’t just a Baru story anymore. There are other players on the board and each come with their own motivations and their visions for the endgame. And make no mistake, they will each sacrifice what it takes to get there.

Every one of these characters (it feels weird calling them “side” characters) are complex and interesting and so distinct. I just can’t get enough of Dickinson’s ability for compact character building. Even the ones that appear on page for a short amount of time leave such crisp and deep impressions. And that’s a seriously hard thing to do.

As with Traitor, the female characters really shine in this one. These are women of powerful positions. Women of ambition and calculation. Women who have known betrayal and are more than willing to deal it out in turn.

And then there’s the Apparitor who is hand-down the best side character in the book. He’s refreshingly blunt and caustic–his insults giving Scott Lynch a run for his money–and the snipey banter between him and Baru is an absolute treat and a much-needed reprieve from all the doom and gloom (if nothing else, I want these two to become friends).

The plot picks up immediately after the ending of Traitor and we now turn our eyes southward to Oriati Mbo, the thousand year old communal nation that has repelled countless attempts of subjugation and kept its citizens content. Naturally, the Empire wants to know their secrets.

So, here’s an interesting thing. Book 1 established the Empire as this unmovable, all-powerful force. Monster, however, introduces tension within the Empire (specifically, between the navy and the parliament) that, with the right or wrong force, can create cracks in their system. They seem less like a faceless evil and more like a nation with its fair share of weak points.

So while Book 1 was very much an Us VS Them (at least, on the surface), Book 2 isn’t so clear cut. It doesn’t help that it gives you a lot of characters from the Empire that you can sympathize with, like the Apparitor and his lover and Baru’s friend Aminata.

So the water starts getting really muddy, which I love. Which endgame do we, as readers, root for here? The burning of the world through an all-out war as Baru claims she wants? But look at what Baru’s done. Look at what she plans on doing in the future. As repulsed as we are by the Empire’s methods, how can we, in good conscience, root for a woman who will use the memory of loved ones as carte blanche for all her terrible actions?

Noble and kind and honest doesn’t seem to get you very far in this world. And I can’t wait to see how that sentiment changes as the series goes on.

Do you know what my most favourite part about the book is, though? The writing.

I loved it in Traitor, but compared to Monster I can only call the former restrained and the latter experimental and free-flowing. Dickinson just does so many interesting things with the style and formatting–we get PoV and tense switches, flashbacks, interludes, small diagrams in the middle of paragraphs, interjections from dead characters (or so it seems), extended use of parentheses. Each PoV comes with its own distinct voice and structure, so even when nothing notable was happening plot-wise, I was still very much engaged by the writing itself.

I love the creativity and the daring of it because you don’t see too many epic fantasy books go, “Fuck conventional styles, I’m just going to do what I want.” And in a sequel at that.

And what surprised me was how much humour there is. Some of it’s gallows humour–the “can’t cry so might as well laugh” type–but others are genuine, which I didn’t expect considering how things ended in Traitor. Really, all I could think was that he must have had a ton of fun writing some of this because I had a ton of fun reading it.

He does a lot of things and I know it won’t be to everyone’s tastes–I know some people like the prose in their fantasy to be plain and invisible–but, for me, they all worked and really cemented Dickinson as one of my favourites in the genre.

So if you’re one of those people who have sunk far too many hours of their lives into grand strategy games like Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings (*whistles loudly*) and the notion of staring at a map plotting out trade alliances, assassinations, and increasing territory while stamping out conflict makes you positively giddy, then my god, this book (and the series) is for you. It is geopolitical fantasy at its finest.

If you’re one of those people who are into books written by someone who’s well-versed in science and politics and knows how to communicate them to the readers in a clear but interesting way, while also creating ridiculously complex characters and drowning the text in flair and wordsmithery…then you should also maybe, probably, most definitely pick this up.

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Thank you to Tor for providing the review copy. All opinions are my own.

Mini Review: Time’s Children (The Islevale Cycle 1) – A Fast-Paced Time Travel Fantasy

Hey all! It’s been a terribly busy week and I’ve been neglecting my reading and blogging in favour of pretty much everything else. So I’ll try to catch up on your comments and posts in the upcoming week.

In the meantime, here’s one very overdue mini review! (I told myself I would do more of these)

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Time's Children


Title
: Time’s Children (The Islevale Cycle 1)
Author: D.B. Jackson
Publisher: Angry Robot
Release Date: October 2nd, 2018
Genre(s): Fantasy, Science Fiction
Subjects and Themes: Time Travel
Page Count: 528 (paperback)

Rating: 6.5/10

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Fifteen year-old Tobias Doljan, a Walker trained to travel through time, is called to serve at the court of Daerjen. The sovereign, Mearlan IV, wants him to Walk back fourteen years, to prevent a devastating war which will destroy all of Islevale. Even though the journey will double Tobias’ age, he agrees. But he arrives to discover Mearlan has already been assassinated, and his court destroyed. The only survivor is the infant princess, Sofya. Still a boy inside his newly adult body, Tobias must find a way to protect the princess from assassins, and build himself a future… in the past.

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I found this to be a pleasantly lukewarm read for the most part. The prose is simple but engaging. The worldbuilding isn’t overly complex but still snags your attention. It doesn’t do anything out-of-this-world fantastic, but it sets up a nice jumping off point for what could be a very good fantasy series.

The world of Time’s Children is one where Walkers (those who can time travel), Spanners (those who can cross long distances in a blink of an eye), Seers (those who can glimpse into the future), and other such gifted individuals ply their services to nobility. Tobias is a 15-year old Walker who has been tasked with traveling back 14 years to prevent a war. Everything goes awry when he arrives, however, and he becomes witness to the assassination of the royal family and ends up having to flee the castle with the baby princess in his arms.

The time travel plot doesn’t kickstart until about 1/3 of the way into the book, which I actually quite liked. I appreciated that Jackson took the time to not only establish Tobias’ character, but also the rules of time travel–clothes off when traveling; running into your traveled self is dangerous; and if you travel back 12 years, you age 12 years, and when you travel forward again, you age 12 more–and the political situation of these countries. It’s fascinating stuff and I enjoyed this slower-paced first half more than the action-filled second half.

I also loved that these Walkers aren’t romanticized. While respected by nobility and commoners both, their job isn’t a pretty one. They exist, really, to clean up the nobility’s mistakes, sacrificing years of their life while doing so. A character remarks to Tobias near the beginning that there’s little to separate it from slavery, and I couldn’t agree more. I hope it gets brought up again in the later books because it’s great foundation for character conflicts.

Which brings me to my main problem: the characters. Tobias himself is a sweet, likeable boy who reminded a little bit of young FitzChivalry. But pleasant and likeable is about the extent of his character. I would have loved an in-depth exploration into his PTSD as I can only imagine the psychological havoc that a sudden aging can wreak on a person. Unfortunately, it’s an area for character growth that the story doesn’t really take advantage of. Yet, anyway. Considering this is only the first book, I assume–hope–we’ll see more layers to him in the sequels. As for the side characters, they’re a diverse bunch and they’re all given PoVS of their own, but I had a hard time connecting with any of them.

All in all, though, this was a fast-paced, highly readable fantasy with a lot of potential and room for growth and I’m interested to see where the author takes the story next.

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Review copy provided by publisher via Netgalley

Review: The Phoenix Empress (Their Bright Ascendancy 2) – Toppling into the Ashes

Pheonix Empress

Title: The Phoenix Empress (Their Bright Ascendancy 2)
Author: K. Arsenault Rivera
Publisher: Tor Books
Release Date: October 9th, 2018
Genre(s): Epic Fantasy, Romance
Subjects and Themes: LGBTQIAP+
Page Count: 544 (paperback)

Rating: 3.5/10

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The Phoenix Empress picks up where The Tiger’s Daughter left off, with Shizuka and Shefali reunited after eight years apart. Shefali returns to find Shizuka crowned empress and drowning herself in alcohol, while Shefali herself is dealing with demons of her own (quite literally) and the fact that she is dying.

So, despite some issues with The Tiger’s Daughter, I did quite like the relationship between the two main characters; while over-dramatic at times, I’d found it romantic and addictive for the most part. The Phoenix Empress, however…well, I think the best thing I can say about it is that it’s prettily written.

First of all, much of its first half is devoted to telling the readers what will happen later on in the story–a lot of coy promises that fall along the lines of “this and such exciting things happened to these two characters during the eight years…but we’re not there yet, so you’ll just have to wait for the details!” It took much of the anticipation out of the story and I found myself penduluming between frustration and boredom.

The other problem I had was with the structure. Whereas book 1 was a straightforward epistolary with brief interludes in between, this one goes back and forth between the present, with Shefali and Shizuka reunited, and the past, which recounts Shizuka joining a temple and becoming the general of an army. This all sounds fine on paper, but then you quickly realize that the structure doesn’t allow for any kind of meaningful and continuous character development.

Eight years is a very long gap in a relationship and it’s a long time for friction to build up–friction that doesn’t really get explored in this book. Just when I thought something interesting was building between the two women–something more than “You’re the love of my life”–the narrative jumped back into the past, and when it moved into the present again, all the previous tension dissipated. They love each other, which is great, but the relationship doesn’t move beyond that. I can shrug and overlook that in a 200-page romance novel, but in a 500+ epic fantasy–one in a four-part series, no less–I want something more complex and substantial.

Also, about a third of the way through, I finally figured out what’s been nagging at me about the tone of the writing: it feels culturally arrogant. The empire uses 32 honorifics; the brushstrokes of your calligraphy must be crisp and the scent of the paper perfect; the colour of the cord that you use to tie the scrolls must vary from recipient to recipient. It’s all so overly grandiose. I don’t want to say “fetishize”, but it is a level of glorification that goes into weirdly zealous depths. It’s like reading about a college exchange student who spent three months in East Asia, came back, and anointed themselves an expert on the cultures. And it’s not unlike the feeling I get when I’m being lectured to by a guy on a subject I’m already familiar with. Or listening to someone who feels the need to explain, in painstaking (and sometimes false) detail, the ins-and-outs of Korean culture just because they’re a fan of K-pop and K-dramas.

Moreover, the rest of the story felt very shallow. The side characters are present but underdeveloped;  Shefali and Shizuka get touted as gods but the story doesn’t really go into the details of how or why; and the ending I can only describe as underwhelming. Small spoiler (but not really because the book spoils it for you at the beginning): the latter part of the book sees Shizuka dethroning her uncle and ascending as Empress, but it occurs with such ridiculous ease and any political ramifications and–most infuriatingly–any lasting effects of Hokkaro’s imperialism are brushed over. And setting a story in an imperialist nation (based on a real-life imperialist nation) without addressing the deplorable nature of imperialism itself feels like a highly irresponsible decision.

Really, I’m beginning to realize that this series is very much Shefali and Shizuka Versus the World. At the core of the tale is their all-consuming love and every other story element–side characters, magic system, worldbuilding, cultural representation–gets sacrificed at the altar of it. Which makes for a validating F/F story, but not much of anything else.

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Copy provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review

Review: Bloody Rose (The Band 2) – Zigazig Ah-ing its Way to Glory

Bloody Rose

Title: Bloody Rose (The Band 2)
Author: Nicholas Eames
Publisher: Orbit
Release Date: August 28th, 2018
Genre(s) and Subject(s): Epic Fantasy, Humour
Page Count: 560 (paperback)
Goodreads

Rating: 8.5/10

 

 

 

 

Before we dive in, let me just mention that Chapter One of Bloody Rose sees our protagonist reverse-mansplaining to an idiot and then declaring she likes girls (to the readers, anyway). If that’s not one of the best openings of 2018, I don’t know what is.

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In a land where mercenary groups are like rock stars of our world–with gigs, tours, groupies, and a penchant for drugs and sex–Tam Hashford is just an ordinary teenage barmaid. But when Fable, a mega-famous group led by a woman they call the “Bloody Rose”, comes into town, Tam decides she wants to join them as a bard instead of spending the rest of her life working in a tavern under her helicoptering father. What follows is a bloody, thrilling quest for glory (or death).

Kings of the Wyld was a rollicking debut featuring a band of aging mercenaries. Eames could have kept the same formula–a group of male adventurers, a “damsel” in need of saving–and it would have been just as fun and wildly successful. But instead he does something that genuinely surprised me: he changes things up.

What he did in the first book, he improves on in nearly every way–introduce more diversity, add more character depth, explore more of the world and its history. In Kings of the Wyld, we had a gay side character with a dead husband; in Bloody Rose we get a lesbian main character with a F/F plotline. In Kings of the Wyld, we see middle-aged characters trying to reclaim old glory; in Bloody Rose we explore how the expectations we place on ourselves can become a crippling weight. The ending of Kings of the Wyld was exhilarating and sweet. The ending for Bloody Rose hits you like a goddamn freight train.

Tam is very much an observer protagonist (think Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird). She’s the narrator of the story and her POV is the only one we get, but she’s not the main character. She’s the chronicler. The witness. The Bard. Not the main attraction but the one who, more often than not, stays in the background. Does that mean she’s any less of a character than Rose or the rest of Fable? Hell, no. The trouble with observer protagonists is that they can easily end up being bland and underdeveloped. That is not at all the case with Tam. She’s capable, talented, and her youthful eagerness and naivete is a refreshing contrast to Rose’s fiery personality.

A bard’s duty was to watch, to witness. For Tam to turn an eye when glory faded, when heroes were forced to endure heartbreak and hardship no strength of arms could overcome, was to betray that duty.

Rose is, of course, the star of the show. Through Tam’s eyes, we see her shift from a legendary warrior to a woman who’s so desperate to surpass the glory of her father, she’s willing to sacrifice her own identity for it. Her struggles are at once fascinating and heartbreaking.

Eames is blessed with a prose that is addictive and so, so much fun. For those of you who avoid epic fantasy because sometimes the characters talk like, “It behooves me to mention that the King bespoke of my lord with indubitable respect”–well, these books are for you, because anachronistic, colloquial style of writing is Nicholas Eames’ game.

“What about Rose and Freecloud?” Tam asked.
“Don’t expect we’ll see much of them today,” said the shaman with an exaggerated wink.
“Okay.”
“If you know what I mean,” he added, winking again.
“I do,” Tam assured him.
“Because they’re having–“
“Bye,” she said.
“–sex, Brune finished, but she was already headed for the stairs.

But I think his greatest talent, prose-wise, is his ability to transition from ridiculous, laugh-out-loud humour to serious poignancy with fluid ease.

My only main criticism is that the plot follows a too-similar pattern to Book 1–lots of moving from point A to B and then defending a city from a horde of monsters. But if you love lengthy travel sequences in your fantasy (I usually don’t), you’ll probably love this. I also wish we got a little more from the villain than the typical “I want revenge” motive.

All in all, The Band series continues to be a love letter to gamers, fantasy connoisseurs, and anyone who enjoys a good story filled with friendship, action, and heart. If Eames keeps moving at this trajectory, I have no doubt his work will leave an indelible mark on the pages of SFF history.

(Also, I’m inordinately proud of myself for coming up with that title)

Review: Fire Dance – Beautiful and Etched with Heartrending Loneliness

Fire Dance

Title: Fire Dance
Author: Ilana C. Myer
Publisher: Tor Books
Release Date: April 10th, 2018
Genre(s): Fantasy
Page Count: 368 (hardback)
Goodreads

Rating: 9.5/10

 

 

 

 

That, he believed, was the essence of what it meant to be a poet. Not to work magic. Rather it was to see, and weave verse from, life’s manifold truths. Even if they hurt.
They nearly always did.

This book is a triumph. A masterwork of character and prose that wind through your soul like the final trembling notes of a song. Myer’s debut, Last Song Before Night, was brimstone and fire and icy winds and music that rumbled low through your body. Fire Dance plays out like a haunting ballad that recounts a yearning for a time and place long lost and bone-deep loneliness.

There is honestly no one who writes quite like Ilana Myer. The genius of her writing isn’t in the way her individual sentences are constructed (though they are very lovely); you won’t find many quotable one-liners in her books. It’s the way the sentences combine together to evoke emotions in you. Her words just have so much sadness running through them. But there’s also music. And poetry. And the inviolate truths of life and all the wonder and beauty that’s wrought from them. I feel the same way reading her stories as I do listening to Damien Rice songs. Like my soul has been gently lifted and carried off on a journey.

While Fire Dance is marked as a standalone, I highly recommend reading it after Last Song Before Night, because half of the main cast are characters from the first book and much of their past rear their heads in this one. The story is split between Eivar, a country of poetry and music, and their neighbouring ally, Kahishi, which is a land of magicians and prophecies divined from the stars. Lin Amaristoth, Court Poet and Seer (which is pretty much the highest recognition you can get as a poet in Eivar), travels to Kahishi to aid their court against the mysterious Fire Dancers. While Lin mires herself in politics and intrigue, three other characters are caught up in strange magical matters at the Academy (a school for aspiring poets) in Eivar.

The contrast between lush and vibrant Kahishi and the grey austerity of the Academy is utterly fascinating. Myer has a talent for dragging out the best that a setting has to offer, and her descriptions of the major landmarks within Majdara, the capital city of Kahishi, left me breathless with wonder:

Lin’s gaze was drawn up, to the walkways that ran alongside the walls in three levels, accessible by staircases of porphyry and gold. The walls that were entirely glass, clear as air, so that along the walkways burned countless stars.
All this overseen by an arched ceiling like a second sky, adorned with stars and spheres. Against a backdrop of black crystal, jewels made the constellations.

Myer cites Robin Hobb as a major inspiration, and this is readily apparent in her writing because she writes some of the best layered characters in fantasy. You try to peel away at them throughout the course of the story and find there’s yet still more…and more. Morever she is fantastic at writing tortured characters. And I say that, from the bottom of my heart, as a compliment. All her characters have gaping holes. Hunger desperate to be filled with something–friendship, love, recognition, power. The specifics of their hunger may be different, but they all seem to share a common root: loneliness. And often times we see that loneliness twists into something uglier. Sharper.

Like jealousy.

Resentment.

Despair.

They are a symphony of warring longings and pains, and it’s this internal struggle that keeps you so completely–helplessly–enthralled, more so than any strange magical happenings or political intrigues.

The only thing that prevents me from giving it a perfect score is the ending, where the story halts just a bit too prematurely for my liking. The book definitely feels like a Part One of a larger story, and while the main storyline is wrapped up, there are still many questions newly posed or left unanswered.

Reading Fire Dance is like eating chicken noodle soup and watching the ending of Brokeback Mountain at the same. It will heal your soul and simultaneously break it.

So please go check it out.

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And as a little bonus, I leave you with two songs! One that captures the rousing cry of Last Song Before Night (I must have listened to this at least a dozen times while reading the book):

And one that captures the heartaching melancholy of Fire Dance: