Top 5 Wednesday – Auto-Buy SFF Authors

“Top 5 Wednesday” is a weekly meme currently hosted on Goodreads by Sam of Thoughts on Tomes, where you list your top 5 for the week’s chosen topic. This week’s theme is: your auto-buy authors that write SFF.

I used to buy a lot of books on their release date without reading samples or consulting reviews. But I racked up enough buyer’s remorse to be a lot pickier about them nowadays. The following are authors whose books I’ll not only auto-buy, but buy (sometimes multiple) physical copies of.

1. Pat Rothfuss

Pat Rothfuss
Pat has only published two novels and The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle (which is an…experience and a category in itself) in the past 10 years, which might be considered low compared to some on this list. But his writing style makes my brain cells do happy little jigs. There are so few epic fantasies that laud such lyrical prose while still being entertaining and addicting–like vegetables and junk food all in one–so his books are always a must-buy.

2. N.K. Jemisin

N.K. Jemisin

Jemisin never fails to bring something different and important to fantasy with each book that she writes–an Egyptian-inspired setting, bi/pan-sexual gods, a mostly PoC cast, polyamory, and plots that brim with righteous anger. Her books remind me just why I love this genre so much.

3. Patrick Ness

patness
Another Patrick! Ness’ SFF stories never fail to be unique and/or emotionally gutwrenching. I read through the Chaos Walking trilogy more times than I could count and his work has only gotten better and better.

4. Seth Dickinson

Seth Dickinson
Okay, so the guy has published one book to date (with a second coming in Fall), but The Traitor Baru Cormorant whisked me up to the highest of heavens, smiled, and dropped me like sack of rocks. Years later, I’m still rummaging on the ground, trying to pick up the pieces of my body. If that’s not a great first impression, I don’t know what is. I’ll buy anything that Seth writes.

5. Robin Hobb

Robin Hobb portrait

And, of course, the Queen of Fantasy. I dream of one day writing a book that contains even 1% of the magic that her stories have. If tomorrow Robin Hobb decides that she wants to write Dickensian erotica starring anthropomorphic animals, I will support her all the way and smash the pre-order button to smithereens. Because Hobb at her worst is better than many at their best.

 

flourishes

And there you have it! Do you see any of your favourites featured on the list? And tell me some of your auto-buy authors!

 

[Review] From Unseen Fire – When in Rome…Do as the Mages Do?

From Unseen Fire.jpg

Title: From Unseen Fire (Aven Cycle 1)
Author: Cass Morris
Publisher: DAW Books
Release Date: April 17th, 2018
Genre(s): Fantasy, Alt-History
Page Count: 400
Goodreads

Rating: 5.0/10

 

 

 

This book is a lesson in tempering expectations. One would think that, being a fan of the video game industry, it’s one I’ve learned backwards and forwards by now, but nope–not when it comes to books, it seems. I came into the story wide-eyed and giddy. Months and months before, I’d feasted my eyes on the gorgeous cover, read the words “alt-history” and “Rome” and “magic,” and thought “holy hell, this is made for me,” then fell headlong into hype town. But alas, reality is a cruel mistress. Because while it’s not a terrible historical-fantasy story, it’s a painfully mediocre one–which, to me, is the ultimate kiss of death.

The premise of the story is based around one question: what would the fate of the Roman Republic have been if it’d had mages at its disposal?

First of all, the story suffers from a bit of an identity crisis. It’s mainly set in a city called Aven. And pretty much everything about Aven (minus the magic), from architecture to social and political structure, to its dictator, is identical to Ancient Rome.

Well, okay, so it’s a fantasy world inspired by Rome!

Well, no. Because Aven gods are Roman gods–Jupiter, Juno, Mars, and the like. And the protagonist mentions “Remus” at one point, so Romulus and Remus and the legend of how they founded the ancient city obviously exists in this world (though it makes no sense then as to why the city would be called “Aven” rather than “Rome”).

Then it’s…an alternate history with a dash of fantasy!

No, not quite! Because while Aven does have its own Julius Caesar equivalent, his name of “Ocella,” and he dies not of an assassination but an illness. Also, the Mediterranean Sea is called the “Middle Sea” and Lusitania (known today as Spain and Portugal) has been ever so slightly altered to “Lusetania.” It’s as if Aven is your white friend, Adam Smith, who’d one day decided he would get dreadlocks and call himself Swift Flowing River and sell vaginal cleansing moon water at $69.99 per bottle. It’s all just so weirdly dressed-up and unnecessarily inconsistent. There are too many changes made for it to be alternate history, yet too similar to history for it to be an original fantasy world.

Secondly, let’s take a look at the magic system, which I thought was full of potential:

Aven-magic-list
There are nine types of elemental magics in this world and each has its own patron gods–Spirit mages, for example, are said to be blessed by Jupiter and Juno. When charted all out like this on paper, it looks really neat. Nothing too original, but familiar and cool. My problem is that we don’t get to see many of these magics at work in the story itself. There are throwaway comments here and there about a certain mage doing this or that, but Fire and Shadow are the only ones that the story (sporadically) focuses on.

Moreover, Aven feels like plain old Rome, with little to indicate that it’s a city of mages. There are so many ways that the magic could have been incorporated into the setting. Architectural inventions that rely on magic. Elaborate fashion designs that are reflective of specific patron deities and their powers. There are so many cool possibilities that the story just doesn’t explore, and I was left gnashing my teeth in frustration and disappointment.

The characters are a hit and a miss–mostly the former. Latona is a fine lead character. She’s a Spirt and Fire Mage, which means that she can influence emotions and blow shit up, respectively. She’s independent and fiercely protective of her loved ones, but she’s also dealing with trauma from her time at the Dictator’s court, where she was manipulated and kept under leash. I liked how she channels all the guilt, rage, and helplessness she’d felt into helping other vulnerable women.

The same, unfortunately, can’t be said for her male co-lead, Sempronius, and most of the supporting characters. Stories with large casts run the risk of uneven distribution of character development, and that’s exactly the case with this book.

Sempronius is a Shadow and Water mage. Immediately following the death of Oscella, he scries a vision of two possible Avens: one of properity and strength like it has never seen before; the other, of ruin and dust–our Rome, basically. And so Sempronius is determined to do whatever it takes to prevent this second future from taking hold. We see very early on that he’s a noble, charismatic, and ambitious man. And as the story goes on, he continues to be noble and charismatic and ambitious, and…nothing much more. Interesting, complex characters either shed layers or have layers added to them over the course of a story. But Sempronius at the beginning of this story is the same as the Sempronius at the middle and at the end. Bland and paper-thin, he essentially exists for the sole purpose of moving the plot forward (and very slowly, at that).

The supporting characters fare no better, with perhaps the exception of Aula, Latona’s older sister, and Merula, Latona’s handmaiden. Part of the problem is that we see so little of so many of them that it’s hard to feel one way or the other about any. The other problem is that they’re just not very interesting. There’s nothing notable that distinguishes one from the other and they all kind of blend together after a while.

There are two main plotlines: the upcoming election of Aven, which Sempronius is campaigning for, and the rising conflict in Lucenatnia, led by the 20 year-old war-leader, Ekialde. I wasn’t really invested in either of them, and a lot of that has to do with uneven pacing. Nothing much important happens throughout a large chunk of the middle, and then there’s a sudden flurry of activities in the last 70 pages. It also has to do with the the structure of the narration, which was very different from what I’d expected. Many of the scenes are written almost like vignettes: there’s a lot of dialogue and exposition and description of actions, but no detailed descriptions of the setting (or any extraneous details) in between. It’s very economic. Which makes it digestible but doesn’t keep me deeply immersed in the world.

The bottom line is that I was bored. I was bored reading a character-driven story about Ancient Rome and political intrigue and foreign threats and magic influenced by Roman gods. It’s a brilliant premise that fails to deliver. And I tried to like it. I wanted to like it. But for that to happen, you got to give me something to hook my interest onto, and all I found were smooth, flat walls.

Thank you to DAW Books and Netgalley for providing me with a review copy.

Top 5 Wednesday – Favourite Jokesters

“Top 5 Wednesday” is a weekly meme currently hosted on Goodreads by Sam of Thoughts on Tomes, where you list your top 5 for the week’s chosen topic. This week’s topic is: favourite jokesters, pranksters, and funny characters.

This was a hard one. I had trouble remembering any comic-relief/jokey characters in books, let alone ones that I actually liked. The funny ones rarely stick in my mind compared to the broody, serious ones, unless their humour is some sort of well-crafted veneer hiding a mournful or sociopathic interior (which probably says a lot about me). So this is going to be a mishmash of books, film/tv, and comics.

1) Locke Lamora – The Gentleman Bastard Sequence by Scott Lynch

Locke Lamora
I mean, every one of the Gentleman Bastards can fit into this category–you’d have a hard time eking out a living in a decrepit crime-den like Camorr without some sense of humour–but Scott Lynch saves some of his funniest lines and scenes for the star of the show.

 

 


“Know something? I’d lay even odds that between the people following us and the people hunting us, we’ve become this city’s principle means of employment. Tal Verrar’s entire economy is now based on
fucking with us.”

 

 

2) Jalan Kendeth (The Red Queen’s War trilogy by Mark Lawrence)

The Prince of Fools
Jalan is who I imagine most of us would (realistically) be if we were thrown into a fantasy world full of monsters and magic–a big resounding “NOPE” and “Fuck this.” He’s the most unlikely hero, a self-professed “coward” who rarely taking things seriously. He’s also hilarious and one of the most entertaining narrators I’ve come across.

 


“Every fortune-teller I ever met was a faker. First thing you should do to a soothsayer is poke them in the eye and say, ‘Didn’t see that coming, did you?”

 

3) Sette Frummagem – Unsounded webcomic

Sette is the protagonist of Unsounded, an epic fantasy webcomic created by Ashley Cope. As the daughter of a crime lord, she’s already well versed in the art of lies, tricks, and thievery, and her antics drive her companion, Duane, absolutely insane. Cheeky, mouthy, and utterly hilarious, she’s become one of my all-time favourite female characters.

Sette 1

Comic by Ashley Cope

 

4) Jonathan Carnahan – The Mummy films

Okay, so pretty much everyone in the first two movies is hilarious, even the bad guys, but Evie’s bumbling brother Jonathan takes the cake. Primarily because of this scene:

 

5) Jim Halpert – The Office (U.S)

And, of course, the King of Pranks himself. Jim Halpert effectively has two job titles: Paper Salesman and Perpetual Nagging Thorn on Dwight Shrute’s Side. The pranks he pulls on his deskmate make for some of the best parts of The Office, and I could watch compilation videos of them all day.

Jim Halpert Dwight
flourishes

And there you have it! Feel free to tell me some of your favourites!

 

Top 5 Wednesday – Favourite Mentors/Teachers in Books

“Top 5 Wednesday” is a weekly meme currently hosted on Goodreads by Sam of Thoughts on Tomes, where you list your top 5 for the week’s chosen topic. This week’s theme is: favourite mentors/teachers.

I had a lot going on this past week, so this was compiled kind of at the last minute. Which means it’s slightly less wordy than usual (yay!) Also, my first version of the list got scrapped because I wrote it and then promptly realized what a sausage fest it was. So I replaced a couple of dudes with women (sorry, Gandalf). Maybe my memory is just wacked, but why are there so few notable female mentor figures in fiction? For every eight men, I could think of maybe one woman.

Anyhow, here are the five!

1. Elodin (The Kingkiller Chronicle)

Name of the Wind2
Ah, Elodin. He’s just slightly ahead of Auri as my favourite character in the series. Genius. Kinda crazy. Mysterious. Tragic. The Master Namer is one of those profs that you constantly complain about at the beginning of the semester, because the lectures are so weird and unorthodox and there’s no sense to the grading system, but by the end you’re calling their lessons the most transcendent experience you’ve ever had in your academic life. Plus, he’s also one of the few people who’s able to ground Kvothe in humility.

“Re’lar Kvoteh, he said seriously. “I am trying to wake your sleeping mind to the subtle language the world is whispering. I am trying to seduce you into understanding. I am trying to teach you.” He leaned forward until his face was almost touching mine. “Quit grabbing at my tits.”

2. Jasnah Kholin (The Stormlight Archive)

The way of kings
One thing that is most definitely, sorely, lacking in fantasy is master-apprentice relationships between two female characters. But Brandon Sanderson does his best to remedy that with Jasnah and her ward, Shallan. Jasnah is a scholar and a self-proclaimed atheist. She doesn’t doesn’t suffer fools but is patient with her teachings. Serious, but possesses a wry sense of humour. Her discussions of philosophy with Shallan are some of the best scenes in the first book.

 

Shallan: You killed four men.
Jasnah: Four men who were planning to beat, rob, kill and possibly rape us.
Shallan: You tempted them into coming for us!
Jasnah: DId I force them to commit any crimes?
Shallan: You showed off your gemstones.
Jasnah: Can a woman not walk with her possessions down the street of a city?
Shallan: At night? Through a rough area? Displaying wealth? You all but asked for what happened!
Jasnah: Does that make it right? […] Am I a monster or am I a hero? Did I just slaughter four men, or did I stop four murderers from walking the streets? Does one deserve to have evil done to her by consequence of putting herself where evil can reach her? Did I have a right to defend myself? Or was I just looking for an excuse to end lives?

3. Chade Fallstar (Realm of the Elderlings)

Assassin's Apprentice
As the series progresses, we see Chade in many roles–assassin, spymaster, a secret relative, chief diplomat–but he was, and always will be, our protagonist’s first teacher. Chade enters Fitz’s life and imparts all sorts of higher learning–history, language, politics, comprehension and observational skills, herbery– alongside, of course, ways with which to kill. He teaches Fitz not to be a mindless killer but a scholar with a penchant for the deadly arts. His first and most valuable lesson, though? Your thoughts and opinions are valuable and it’s okay to express them.

“Learning is never wrong. Even learning to kill isn’t wrong.”

 

4. Helen Justineau (The Girl with All the Gifts)

The Girl with all the gifts
I don’t want to say too much about this one because spoilers, but Miss Justineau is our protagonist’s most favourite teacher. And for good reason. She truly cares about her students and exhibits compassion and understanding in a world where such things are deemed weaknesses. The relationship between Justineau and Melanie is one of the most heartwarming things I’ve encountered in recent memory.

 

 

5. John Keating (Dead Poets Society)

Dead Poet's Society
Is this cheating? Probably. But, then again, there is actually a book adaptation of the movie, so it totally counts. When I was in middleschool/highschool I always felt that this was the one movie they should show to all teachers at the beginning of each year. Mr. Keating shows that being a teacher isn’t just about teaching a subject. It’s about nurturing talents, broadening worldviews, encouraging students to carve out their own path in life, no matter how ludicrous others may view it.

 

He (and Robin Williams) will forever be “Oh Captain, My Captain.”

“No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”

And there you have it! Feel free to tell me some of your favourite mentors/teachers in books!

 

[Review] Master Assassins – A Languid Examination of Character and War (Feat. Giant Cat Mounts)

Master Assassins

Title: Master Assassins (The Fire Sacraments 1)
Author: Robert V.S. Redick
Publisher: Talos
Release Date: March 6th, 2018
Genre(s): Epic Fantasy
Page Count: 460 pages
Goodreads

Rating: 8.5/10

 

 

 

 

Okay. Before we get started, I’m going to give a bit of advice on how you might want to approach this book. Lay down some primer.

See, this isn’t a book that you’ll read the first 80 pages of and go, “Wow, this is a fantastic story!” and start pointing out every part of it that you love. You can’t. At least, I couldn’t. I had no idea what I felt about it in the beginning.

It’s like an interpretive dance. At first you’re not quite sure what you’re seeing–it all feels so disparate and strange–but there’s something about it that urges you to stay and watch. And once you do, you fall into the rhythm of the prose and the characters, and what was strange before becomes a part of the experience, the reality that this world projects. You start to get invested.

So, my advice? Try to stay with it for at least half of the book. It might surprise you.

Now. On with the show.

The title “Master Assassins” is a bit of an inside joke. The story is about two young men– half-brothers Kandri and Mektu–who blunder into one mistake after another and find themselves inadvertently becoming the most wanted and accomplished assassins in the continent. Our “assassins” reside in Urrath, a land (home of the Chiloto, among many other clans) that has been contested for centuries by various conquering nations. Most recently, it’s been taken over by the Vazeks and the Chiloto people have endured centuries of slaughter and subjugation under their rule. Then a young Prophet came into the picture. She’s the Joan of Arc of this world; claimed to be chosen by the Gods to lead her people to unity and freedom, she took up the mantle of leader, and under her power, a vast army formed. Present day, this army has retaken a vast a majority of Urrath. But the Vazeks will not bow down easily.

The immediate thing that jumps out is the prose. It’s something you don’t really see in epic fantasy. For one, much of it is told in third-person present tense. For another, it’s very stylized; there are a lot of sentence fragments and bits of stream-of-consciousness. The closest comparison I can make is The Court of Broken Knives mixed with Kai Ashante Wilson–the dialogue resembles the latter more, a distinct mixture of coarse and melodic–and like those book, the style will not appeal to everyone. It played right into my tastes, though.

The story is told from Kandri’s point-of-view, alternating from the present to flashbacks that reveal details of his childhood. Kandri is the steadier of the two brothers. He hates fighting and despises killing even more, yet circumstances have landed him as a soldier in the Prophet’s army. I quite liked him; he’s thoughtful and empathetic–a perfect lead character.

Mektu was my favourite, however. He’s coarse and irreverent and oscillates from hyperanxiety to excitement; his interests flit from one shiny thing to the next. He says some bizarre and shitty things but I couldn’t really hold it against him because he’s so blissfully unaware of how people would react to his words and actions. He reminds me a bit of Michael Scott from The Office (U.S version). He’s not mean-spirited, he just has no social filter. You get the sense that he’s a child in the body of an adult; there’s an innocence to him that I couldn’t help but find endearing.

Kandri’s relationship with Mektu is the heart of the story and it’s one of rivalry and exasperated acceptance. And also love. They bicker constantly but they lean on one another for support and there is little doubt of the strength of their bond. I said before that I wanted more fantasy stories focusing on sibling relationships, and here I got a great one.

The world of Master Assassins isn’t built meticulously from the ground up, but through a scattering of details that you have to collect and piece together. This frustrated me quite a bit in the beginning. Everything felt vague and incomplete. I got the idea that something catastrophic has happened to the world–there’s talk of a “World Plague,” and how the Urrathi are immune to it–but little else was offered beyond that. There was a lot of name-drops but little sense to where these places resided and what they looked like.

Then I got a quarter of the way through and came across this passage:

History, geography, politics, the classic Urrathi tales: none of these were taught any longer, save by private tutors.

And a switch flipped in my head. I realized that the readers don’t have a good grasp of the world and its culture and history because our narrator, Kandri, doesn’t have a good grasp of the world. Once I understood this, things started to get less frustrating and a lot more exciting. I no longer cared that these names had little context or texture because now I knew it was the same for Kandri. We were both fumbling along in the dark together. And I think this is a brilliant bit of writing craft by the author–ignorance that doesn’t exclude us from the characters, but connects us together. There are mysteries that run through the story and I was stoked to uncover the secrets of this land alongside our heroes.

And the worldbuilding we do get is original and exciting. It’s a strange, brutal yet beautiful world–a curious amalgamation of medieval and modern. There are tame riding cats, clockwork contraptions, vultures bigger than elephants, a string of towering islands across an ocean robbed of its water. The images conjured are at once quiet and arresting:

They are walking on dragonflies, hundreds of thousands strong, black pearl eyes and rainbow wings, dessicated, dead. All of them facing the same direction, which happens to be their own. As if the swarm had set its collective mind on crossing the Yskralem and flown due east, low and purposeful, moving as on. Until strength abandoned them, or the last trace of water in their bodies, or simply their will…For over a mile, they wade in this river of silver corpses. Then the wind starts to blow, and the insects click and clatter over the salt pan like a curtain of beads.

Besides Kanri and Mektu, all the characters are diverse and colourful, not just in terms of race and gender but also in personality. No two people they meet are the same: Uncle Chindilan, the Master Smith, who’s not really their uncle (just a family friend); wise Eshett who was captured by human traffickers and is now trying to return home; Talupeke, a hot-headed young soldier seeking revenge for a betrayal, who also happens to be an absolute beast with knives. They are complex characters brought together by happenstance and the author does well to showcase them all equally.

The story wasn’t without its problems, the foremost being that it took me a while to get into it. A fair chunk of the middle is spent on Kandri and co. running for their lives across the oceanless ocean, which was a little tedious (the pacing felt VERY slow, and I’m talking as a Robin Hobb fanatic). Worry not, though, because latter part is thrilling and eerie and got me eager for the next installment. The colloquial dialogue also threw me off at first. While I did get used to it, there were still some that I found a little weird and jarring. There is also mention of child prostitution, rape, and human trafficking, which may turn off some readers.

Most interestingly, I think, the author posits questions you don’t often see in stories about an oppressed group of people and the rebellion that eventually follows.

What happens when your leader, your savior, the one who has liberated your people from slavery and genocide, begins to exercise the same kind of censorship and brutality as your former subjugators, albeit in a slightly different way?

What happens when you replace one conqueror with another?

What happens when you find that you have become the enemy of your own people and faith?

Master Assassins is a story of a rebellion within a rebellion. A story of the cost of war and the complicated bonds between family. It’s not an easy read, but it is a fulfilling one. And I recommend you give it a shot.

 

The Infernal Battalion – First Review!

Infernal battalionRating: 8/10

What better book to start off the blog than the finale of The Shadow Campaigns series?

We pick up right where Guns of Empire left off, with Winter in the Mountains and Marcus and Raesinia back in Vordan. Our heroes soon receive word that Janus bet Valnich, who was meant to go into quiet retirement, has instead declared himself Emperor. Marcus and Raesinia scramble to prepare the army to face their former ally, and Winter plans a way to destroy the Beast of Judgment before it reaches Vordan city.

Before I get into any details, I would just like to point out that there are TEN (!!) queer characters featured in this book, and all well-developed with crucial roles in the story. The number is practically unheard of in “mainstream” adult fantasy and I wanted to squeal with joy. This needs to be the norm in the genre, especially with books that feature large casts, and Wexler has taken a huge step in the right direction.

With that said, let’s talk about what worked and what didn’t work in this finale.

We get a bit of everything in this book: large-scale battles, small skirmishes, political machinations, and intimate character moments.

Marcus I still found the most boring of the trio. It didn’t help that he no longer had Janus to bounce off of. My interest did perk up near the end with a surprise reveal that I did not at all anticipate. That brings me me to the biggest gripe I have with the series as a whole: while Marcus and Raesinia form and sustain a close relationship, they rarely interact with Winter beyond the occasional professional dialogue. Moments near the end would have been so much more emotionally-charged had they had a deeper relationship than “You’re my colleague.”

Raesinia’s storyline is a bit more proactive, but she unfortunately decides to embroil herself in economic skullduggery. There are only a couple of fantasy book that has managed to make economics interesting for me (or at least, not so rage-inducing), and this wasn’t one of them. But I’m sure many people will love it. She continues to remind us just why she’s fit to be Queen, as she navigates the politics of Vorsk and Vordan with grit and cunning.

Winter is, really, the star of the story. She journeys from the Mountains to Vordan, and the people she meets along the way are very interesting, as well as the internal crises she faces. She alone has the means to defeat the Beast, but her abilities never feel overpowered, and she requires the help (and sacrifice) of many others to complete her quest. Her character arc is one of my favorites in fantasy–from a girl running from her past to a leader and role model for other young women, it’s been a blast seeing her grow into herself.

Janus is tied with Winter as my favorite character of the series and he’s indisposed for most of the book, which is disappointing but understandable. We are, however, treated to his own POV chapters for the first time and they offer fascinating glimpses into the man. We also delve into Janus’ backstory–his unfortunate childhood and the identity of Mya–and they further reveal his motivations.

The final showdown is exciting and fraught with tension–pretty much everything I wanted –and Jane’s character was handled in a pleasantly surprising way.

All in all, this was a very satisfying ending to a great series. It’s been an absolute pleasure getting to know these characters over the course of five books, and I’m proud of how far they’ve come. I’m crossing my fingers for another series set in the world, because the ending hints at a few things that might be brewing on the horizon.