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Archive for the category “Fantasy”

The Banneret: Blood of Kings Book 2

Fantasy / Sci-Fi Book Review

I love most of Duncan Hamilton’s books.  I’ve reviewed a number of them here before.  His new series, the Blood of Kings, takes place in the same world as all of the rest that Hamilton has created with his other series, the Wolf of the North, the Dragonslayer, and the Society of the Sword. The world is not too far off from our own which adds the believability of any good myth. He has a knack for creating cultures and putting the reader on the left shoulder of the characters as he tortures them in the various, delicious ways.

In the first installment of the series, The Squire, we are introduced to the main character Conrad.  As a child, Conrad is a victim of a demon attack that kills his parents.  He is rescued by a motley group of sell swords from a range of different cultures and fighting styles.  There’s not enough angst in the group to make a nineties grunge band jealous but there is enough conflict to make them interesting.  The band is loosely led by a banneret of the grey by the name of Nicolo.  He runs a democratic outfit which is already outside the norm for this type of company but it fits the personality and cultures of the group. Left with very little options, they take Conrad under their wing and make him a squire for their small company.  Along the way, they teach him the basics which runs the risk of formulaic fantasy.  Thankfully, it doesn’t turn into one.  Hamilton twists it into a mystery where he invites the reader to uncover who’s behind the demon threat for the crown.

The Banneret picks up eight years later.  Conrad is fresh out of the Academy and he now holds a Banneret title of his own.  In Hamilton’s world, this means you have earned the right to wear a sword in the bigger city and amongst gentlemen.  It’s like being certified a badass.  Hamilton doesn’t waste much time in the set up, doing us all a favor by throwing us back into the mystery.

Conrad’s nemesis from the first book (1st book spoiler incoming), a duplicitous little prat with the well fitting name of Manfred, is down on his luck after Conrad exposes his father at the end of the first book.  Manfred and his family lose everything except for a small chest of seemingly useless junk, some papers and an amulet.  Manfred is smart enough to establish himself as a get shit done in the shadiest way possible character with some elements of the criminal underworld.  It doesn’t take long for him to discover that the amulet is the key to the communication with these demons that gave his father a serious edge in all his negotiations.  Manfred quickly discovers this same power and starts carving out a small empire of his own.

In the eight years between books, the demon activity has sputtered out, leaving the crown to minimize its importance and quit dedicating resources to the problem.  In actuality, the demons have been upping their game behind the scenes.  When they do make their second book debut it’s with a lot more chutzpah.

They uncover a bit more about what the demons want and what they need to do to stop them from getting it.  At the end of the book, Conrad gets a bit of an upgrade which gives him a real chance of standing up to these powerful foes.  It’s a good story.

The thing that stood out is the undercurrent of loss throughout the books.  Conrad is heavily defined by the people he loses.  One of my complaints is that the losses appear to be painfully random, the result of crappy luck.  I think this is the author’s intent but when I’m reading epic fantasy I have this little kid side of me that wants there to be more meaning behind each loss.  But there isn’t.  Fantasy imitating life I suppose.  It leaves you feeling a little empty.

My other complaint is that there is a pretty small cast of characters and while they have been well developed, you don’t build a ton of sympathy towards any of them except the protaganist.  Again, I think this is the author’s intent.  Since his new life since losing his parents is defined by loss, his relationship with others is a bit standoffish.  This is a more mature theme than some of Hamilton’s other books.  Or, maybe I’m just reading too far into it.

Either way, I look forward to the conclusion of this trilogy.

The Unspoken Name

Fantasy / Sci-fi Book Review

The Unspoken Name is a beautifully written fantasy novel by A.K. Larkwood.  She builds a very unique world populated with very unique characters.  There are some excellent experiments with language in these imagined worlds.  The author introduces us to cleverly constructed names of people and places along with a pronunciation guide.  It feels a little like Tolkien’s studies in Elvish. 

Unfortunately, the novel didn’t draw me in.  I found myself struggling to care about the characters or their fates.  This was due, in part, to the slower pacing.  Our current world of fantasy feels like it is competing with streamed shows that are forced to deliver maximum impact in under an hour.  Characterization is ruthlessly replaced with action masquerading as relationship building.  Today’s stories have replaced the interesting elements of getting to know a character and how that character might react to others with a made for Netflix, Tinder-esque style of swiping right into relationships.  I don’t like it, but it certainly colors everything else I read.

Why not spend a goddam minute investing in the characters themselves so that we care?  Someone like Robert Jordan would never make it today.  His towering epic comes in at the monumental sum of 4.4 million words.  Reddit trolls love to bash his work as something that should have been cut down to a trilogy to satisfy today’s moth-like attention spans.  Those of us that did read this once upon a time felt like we really knew those characters (despite many of their puritanical roots), and became friends with them.  I don’t get that in a lot of fantasy I read today.  Characters are far more disposable, mass produced paper plate Redshirts meant to impart the seriousness of a situation.  They often succeed in that goal but their disposability also makes them entirely forgettable.  Perhaps character development is yet another casualty of social media.

To be fair to Larkwood, she spends time on her characters.  The problem I had was relatability.  These characters were so fantastic, so alien, that I couldn’t imagine myself in their place.  My only other character complaint was that two of the primary characters (Sethennai & Shuthmili) had similar enough names that I often confused them.  This led to several – why the hell would he or she do that moments.  This is a risk authors run when experimenting with language, the reader can get lost in those experiments.

The final critical thing I’ll share is that I spent a fair amount of time reading the book and I don’t really know what it was about.  I believe it’s about the journey that ensues when one chooses not to follow the paths that have been laid down for them by others.  This discovery of choice leads to a path to self actualization and awareness.  I may be reading too much into it but I also think there are subtle undertones of deeper meaning that I’m not picking up on.

The novel starts with an introduction to our protagonist Csorwe, best identified by the tusks that jut from her lower jaw.  She plays a critical role in the religious institution on her world.  Before she is set to meet her fate, a mysterious stranger, Sethennai, sweeps in and offers her a different choice that gives her an out from her religion without anyone, but her god, being the wiser.  She takes it and Sethennai becomes a mentor / father figure for her.

He has her trained in martial skills and she effectively becomes an agent for this erudite man of leisure.  Sethennai is the master of playing it cool but he has his own ulterior motives.  He is trying to claw his way back into power by getting his hands on the reliquary, an object of historical importance that will bring him some unknown, mysterious knowledge and capability.

Csorwe has a contemporary by the name of Talasseres Charossa (Tal), who was also taken in by Sethennai.  The two met on one of Csorwe’s first mission where Tal proved himself to be talented but an incredibly self-serving jackwad.  The two loathe each other.  Tal is an unlovable rogue but he is my favorite character of the book.  While he is narcissistic and filled with resentment and spite, he is also the most relatable and interesting character of the cast.  Later in the book you find out that a large part of his shitty personally originates from the hurt of unrequited love, not of Csorwe but another member of the cast.  This doesn’t excuse his behavior but certainly garners him some sympathy.

On another mission, Csorwe meets Shuthmili, another woman bound by her religion.  Csorwe offers her a similar choice to the one Sethannai offered her.  Shuthmili struggles with the choice which leads to some healthy introspection and a budding relationship with Csorwe.  The first book ends with both Csorwe and Shuthmili forced to confront the religions and choices of their past to in a showdown battle for the reliquary. 

It’s obvious that this book is the first in the series but the revelations at the end didn’t feel like enough of a conclusion for the story thus far, or a tease that had me wanting to come back for more.  Larkwood’s mastery of the language is obvious and evident and I often found myself envious at the beauty of her prose.  It was the narrative that I found lacking and because of that, I don’t think I’ll be picking up the next installation of the story.

The Kaiju Preservation Society

Fantasy / Sci-fi Book Review

Scalzi has crafted some pretty amazing, award winning science fiction.  The thing I love most about all of his writing is that he never takes himself too seriously.  The Kaiju Preservation Society is more tongue-in-cheek than most of his stuff and that includes Red Shirts.  Yet, he can take an idea that is a little ridiculous then add a Michael Crichton pacing to it that completely drags you in.  You happily chase him down each absurd rabbit hole and find yourself wanting more at the end.

In the Kaiju Preservation Society, our protagonist is a motivated young professional marketing / customer service director that is taking the corporate world by storm.  He works for one of the hot new delivery service companies, by the name of füdmüd, which puts the mood in food.  I can’t imagine having to type all of those umlauts while writing the book. I had to look up how to put one in the text ( Ctrl :  – then type the vowel if you’re wondering).

Anyway, he is a young corporate hotshot for all of the first half of chapter one before getting fired by his douchebag CEO, a Travis Kalanick clone, by the CEO offering him a job as a deliverator.  That’s the other great thing about this book.  Scalzi assumes that you are well read in all the nerd greats like Snow Crash and he lavishly spreads the references around like a sci-fi Easter Bunny.  He doesn’t make you work too hard for it as the main character or some side character will inevitably call out all references somewhere in the text because the author wants you in on the joke.

After he gets fired, thanks partly to the pandemic rolling in, our main character swallows his pride and starts deliverating food.  This is where he meets an old buddy of his from college who offers him a very black ops role that he refuses to tell Jamie (protagonist) anything about.  This is when the fun begins.  Jamie and the others who sign up with him get a baptism by fire of sorts where they are introduced to the kaiju firsthand.  The Kaiju Preservation Society (KPS) has found over time that this is only the real way to convince people that the kaiju are real.

For those unfamiliar, the most famous of the kaiju is Godzilla.  This was followed up with movies like Pacific Rim (surprisingly good) and several other poorly thought out and horribly Americanized Godzilla sequels.  The primary question is: if these things are real, where could they possibly be hiding?  The easiest answer – another dimension.  Sometimes, due to interesting circumstances detailed in the book, the barrier between dimensions can be breached and that’s how Godzilla pops in on Tokyo like some terrible monster in law.

Scalzi doesn’t spend a ton of time on the science that would make all this possible but he spends enough.  Namely, he talks us through how the square-cube law is not broken by their unique biology which actually makes these creatures their own walking ecosystems.  It’s a stretch, but it’s a fun one.

Things go great for Jamie in the other dimension.  He loves the job and he loves who he is working with.  The whole concept of the kaiju is fascinating enough that he completely forgets about the pandemic.  I think this is a nod towards staying busy by finding something you can be passionate about.  This approach always pays far greater dividends than sitting on your couch watching Tiger King.

Everything is going great until the bad guy with the money shows up.  The sleaze that oozes from this character is Carter J Burke (Paul Reiser’s annoying character in Aliens) worthy.  There’s always an ulterior motive and that motive is meant to make cash even if it means some or a lot of people are going to die.  The bad guy becomes the turd in the KPS’s stew and the main characters are all forced to make difficult decisions.  Lest you worry, there is great schadenfreude to be had in the end.

Just read it.  It’s no David Foster Wallace because it’s too damn fun.  There’s not a ton but there is deeper meaning to be found here.  You get the sense that this was the book that helped Scalzi get through the pandemic, the insurrection and every other turd sandwich that 2020 and 2021 shot at us even before he confirms this in his author’s note at the end.  I’d look forward to a second one even though I don’t think it’s coming.

LitRPG – Defiance of the Fall

Fantasy / Sci-Fi Book Review

Apologies for the five of you who read this blog on a regular basis 🙂  It’s been a long time since I’ve posted a review.  It’s been even longer since I posted a review for a fantasy or sci fi book.  I hope to change that over the next several months as I’m diving deep into the genre again just as the writing bug is beginning to burrow its way into the ol’ grey matter substrate.

The book I’ll review here is Defiance of the Fall by JF Brink.  Before we dive in, I’d like to start with a discussion of the LitRPG genre.  I’ll admit the LitRPG genre fascinates me.  I’ve played my fair share of RPGs and I’ve read loads of fantasy and science fiction.  The appeal is simple.  The story starts with someone in our mundane world who gets swept up into a new world.  This is not so different from other fantasy genres out there.  What is different is that they are almost always presented with some type of gaming interface.  This interface shares the progression of the main character with the reader in a discrete and structured progression.  This progression is often presented in Excel type charts that mimic what you’d find in a video game.  The character goes up levels, gains new skills and tackles harder and harder challenges.

It’s a similar appeal to a Twitch stream.  These are most commonly enjoyed by watching someone else play a video game.  Many from my generation (Gen X) and worse, the Boomers, will never understand this.  They pillory the younger generations for watching Twitch. 

“Wait, you’re watching someone else play a video game?  Why don’t you just play the game yourself?” 

I’ve seen this said, without a whiff of irony, by a dad watching football while sitting on the couch with one hand down his pants.  When I drew the obvious parallels, he said – “Yeah, but these are athletes in their prime playing at the highest level.” 

I then explained the concept of esports and how professional gamers also make millions for playing a game without destroying their bodies and buying into the gladiator culture of the NFL.  He refused to even look it up until there was a twenty dollar bet on the table.  Easiest twenty bucks I’ve ever made.

The buy in to a LitRPG book is a lot lower than traditional high fantasy.  The minute the interface screen appears in the text – you’re in on the joke.  Sure, the author still needs to do a fair amount of world building but they can employ lots of shortcuts because most of the readers are familiar with RPGs.  The reader can imagine themselves inside the world more easily because they already understand the general framework about how the rules of this world will be revealed.  This often creates an interesting second level of abstraction where the reader can imagine an avatar they’ve created in the past and can then imagine being transported to this new land as that avatar.  It’s a cool new mental architecture the author helps you to build.

I would argue that the shortcuts too easily make the world flat over time.  In the early stages of discovering the rules, like any reader does in a fantasy world, the charts and numbers satisfy that nerd itch that each of us has somewhere deep in our souls.  Over time however, as we are continuously exposed to the innards of the system the author has built, it becomes less interesting.  It starts to feel like reviewing math notes before a final.  All of those little discoveries that were so wonderfully crafted early on start to feel like a computer program rather than the fantastical world you wanted to escape into in the first place.  This may turn all the dials to keep some readers interested but this is where most authors of the genre lose me.  I start feeling like I’m listening to some ex World of Warcraft player tell me about a raid he participated in five years ago.  Sorry, not that interesting dude.  Same thing when an ex jock starts telling me about a football game he participated in twenty years ago when he was in his prime.  It feels a little sad.  Bring me something new and more interesting or you lose me.

Compare that to some of the great works of high fantasy.  They require a lot of buy in early.  I, the reader, understand almost nothing and you’ve tossed a ton of new terms and new environments that I’m struggling to even picture.  Once the author gets me there, they’ve done so through engagement, character development and feeling.  I’m much more willing to follow along as they continue to world build exactly because I don’t know the innards of the system.  It continuously opens the door wider to further exploration where the LitRPG world seems to narrow that aperture as the story progresses. 

There are exceptions.  Some LitRPG authors transcend into higher fantasy or science fiction due to the brilliance of their character development, world building and prose but I didn’t find that to be true with Defiance of the Fall.  It was an enjoyable romp but it didn’t transcend.

It starts off with our main character, Zac, winning a lucky die roll that allows him to survive Earth’s merging with the multiverse.  This lucky die roll and the corresponding luck attribute ends up being his primary advantage in the new Earth.  He finds himself isolated on an island out in the ocean where he has to fight for his survival against an invading tribe of demons.  He progresses through a series of difficult encounters that lead to several boss fights.  Ultimately, he builds some level of peace with the invaders and begins to build his base on the island.  Near the end of the first book he has built an interesting community and is starting to explore outside of it to visit other parts of the war torn and massively changed Earth.

The action scenes are numerous and gratuitous as Zac runs from one conflict to the next.  It feels a little like an 80s action movie with the non-stop violence.  With that said, it is fun to read even if the conclusion of each sequence feels inevitable.  Even as our protagonist is getting abused you don’t really get the sense that he will run into something he can’t defeat.

The character development continues the video game trend.  I felt like I could hit the skip button on each of the character cutscenes and feel like I wasn’t missing that much.

At the end of the day, I don’t feel like the author wasted my time and I got almost exactly what I expected from it.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O

Fantasy / Sci-Fi Book Review

Over the years I’ve read a lot of Neal Stephenson.  I was completely blown away by Snow Crash.  But then, who wouldn’t be entranced by a cyberpunk pizza delivery ninja?  I was just as enamored with the Diamond Age and even Cryptonomicon both of which launched Stephenson onto my must read author list.  Then he came out with the Baroque cycle which I slogged my way through, wondering the entire time: what am I missing here?  In retrospect, I realize it wasn’t much.  I believe that this series was simply Stephenson performing a little academia fueled intellectual masturbation where he forgot the one crucial no-no of storytelling – don’t bore the shit out of your readers.

After that snorer of a series, I gave up on him for good.  I felt justified by that decision when he released Anathem which looked like more of the same.  I refused to even pick that one up and removed Stephenson from any and all novel release alerts.  Then he wrote REAMDE which people I trust said was a must-read.  It wasn’t bad.  It was similar to Cline’s Ready Player One albeit quite a bit darker.  It wasn’t good enough to restore him back on the must read list.  After losing faith in Stephenson, I don’t touch his books unless they come with a great recommendation.  Right before the holiday, I met up with my old college roommates and one of them gave the rec that the Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O was worth the read.  So here we are.

The concept of the book is excellent.  It’s got all the physics nerd themes you could ever hope for.  Being a physics nerd, this really worked for me.  He dives deep into quantum theory using the famous Schrodinger’s cat thought experiment as a starter reference point then evolves the ideas from there.  That was one of the things I loved about the book, the science was on point.

The style of writing was pretty cool.  He constantly went back and forth between journal entries, email conversations, wiki posts and the more traditional third person view.  All told, it felt more like an experience than reading a book.  This was a good, modern way to experience literature.

The plot starts in a somewhat Jurassic Park fashion with a strange military dude looking for an expert on ancient languages.  You get the clear sense very early on that Dr. Melisande Stokes, our walking anachronism, will be put to good use and quickly.  The plot doesn’t disappoint.  You quickly discover that our military dude, Tristan Lyons, is part  of some covert government group looking to understand what happened to magic.  That’s right magic.

These two characters quickly form a much larger group of scientists, operatives, and witches that dive into the mysteries of magic and time travel.  It gets weird quickly.  But it’s a good weird.  The magic elements continue to be somewhat believable especially with the strong ties to quantum paradoxes and multi-universe theories.  Stephenson does a good job of implying these scientific elements instead of forcing them on us.  This keeps all these concepts well available for non-physics nerds.

As our characters start jumping back and forth through time, Stephenson finds his groove.  He definitely gets a lot of pleasure from historical fiction but this time around he does a good job of making these forays enjoyable for the reader as well.  Historical integrity is obviously very important to him and you can tell he did his research.  Each fall back into time felt authentic and he uses the time locked characters well to breathe life into each of these scenes.

As they pass through time, they realize that there are competing factions doing the same thing.  This has the smell of a really interesting rivalry but sadly nothing ever really happens with it.  That was the impression I got with most of the book.  There were a lot of really good ideas without any great resolutions.  Except for one brilliant Vikings in a Walmart scene near the end of the book much of the wrap up was disappointing.  Even the ending seemed somewhat anti-climactic.  I don’t want to ruin the ending by providing spoilers because some of those crazier scenes as well as the underlying theme still make it worth the read.  It just wasn’t one of his best.

The Land: Founding

Fantasy Book Review

Aleron Kong has pioneered a new genre of fantasy.  This is something called LitRPG.  This was my first foray into the genre and I  didn’t even know it existed until after I finished the book and found a whole host of others writing in the same style.

LitRPG is, what I presume, short for a literature role playing game.  The author takes you into an RPG world of their creation and lets you perch on their shoulder while they ‘play’ this game of literature.  This is a shockingly simple concept and I’m pissed that I didn’t think of it.  It should be boring but it isn’t.  You get sucked in quickly because the rules of the world are familiar to any gamer and therefore inviting.  From the first chapter on, it’s like sitting down to a hot meal of comfort food.  There’s not a whole lot of kale for your brain within these pages, but who cares if it tastes good.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that this is successful.  I am constantly shocked that my kids spend 20X the time watching other people play video games then they spend watching scripted shows.  There’s a reason that Twitch was sold for roughly $1 billion.  One billion dollars!!!  Watching other people play video games is an absurdly profitable business.  LitRPG is a logical progression that, in hindsight, seemed inevitable.

The character development is…analytical.  You get to see the literal D&D style character sheet in many different flavors as the character progresses throughout the world.  As far as emotional development goes, it’s almost nonexistent.  I actually just finished the fifth book in the series, so I obviously can’t judge this too harshly, but there is no emotional growth at all in the main character.  He has the emotional intelligence of an unripened kiwi fruit but, for the genre, it works.

Our main character is known by his RPG handle, Richter, after the first couple of chapters.  I’ve forgotten what his real name is at this point and since we never revisit his past, it becomes irrelevant.  This is an area where color could have been added to the character and it feels like a bit of a miss.  Does he miss his mom?  How about friends or family at home?  Unlike Cline’s book, Ready Player One, you are in the game with Richter all the time.  Richter has all the complexity of a frat boy that gets to play with a bunch of medieval toys.

One of the elements that I loved about the book is Richter is not just leveling himself up.  He quickly gains the opportunity to start and level his own town.  So now we are combining the elements of RPG with turned based strategy.  That was always one of my favorite types of games so it resonated with me.  While the character himself is not that complex, the world that Kong builds is rich with detail.  The skill trees presented to Richter are satisfyingly deep as are the complexities of the town.

Knowing that you are in a game the entire time removes a layer of  the suspension of disbelief that I typically look for when I dive into high fantasy.  However, knowing the rules before you jump helps create the world for you as you read through it.  I didn’t want to like these books as skipping the whole world build part almost seems like cheating.  Like I said earlier I’m five books in, so they’re not all bad.  Feel free to add the series to your guilty pleasure list.

Meta Series

Fantasy Book Review

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This is a review of the series that Tom Reynolds has written so far.  I thought there was a chance he would be tying it off after three books and making it a trilogy.  After finishing the third book, that’s clearly not the case.  You can see why though: the books are selling.  There’s still a lot of interesting situations that he can throw his characters into and, if anything, he seems to be just finding his stride.

I’ve tried to understand why these books are interesting when the whole superhero thing has become so overplayed.  Marvel has something like three movies a year coming out and most of them are surprisingly good.  Superheroes have evolved dramatically from the black and white Superman character to these deeply flawed, incredibly interesting everyman characters that each have their own twist.

Each superhero story has become this Freudian battle between the hero’s super charged id and their super-ego.  This battle was phrased most clearly by Uncle Ben in Spiderman with his, “With great power comes great responsibility” quote.  Spiderman was still pretty clean cut however.  Luckily, these internal demon battles have become far more nuanced and a lot more interesting.  Netflix is doing some of the most groundbreaking stuff with their superheroes in NYC.  Talk about your superhero screw ups just trying to make their way in the world.

The ego, which tries to be based in some level of reality, plays the role of secret identity or ‘alter ego’ if you will.  The stories that get it right make the ego identity just as interesting as the superhero one.  When done well, you find yourself wanting to find out how each side of the identity coin is going to weather the inevitable shit storm they are thrown into.

The villains are getting a lot more attention too.  In the good stories, the villains go one of two ways.  The first is a villain that is so loathsome that you love to hate them.  Their debauchery and maliciousness is both creative and innovative.  When the author spends the time truly making you hate these characters, their comeuppance becomes cathartic.  The second approach is the misunderstood villain.  These villains are the byproducts of bad choices.  These are bad choices that you or I could have easily made.  Now they find themselves in situations where every choice is filled with regret.  These are the villains we feel sorry for because we can relate.  We also feel thankful that we aren’t them in much the same way that we derive pleasure from these poor idiots that make asses out of themselves on reality TV.

So where does Reynold’s Meta fit in?  It’s been pretty fun to watch the evolution of this character.  It is definitely YA fare but Reynolds has the gift of building an interesting plot.  Our hero starts off whiter than Wonder Bread fighting one dimensional villains.  By the third book the character is decidedly more interesting.  He gets put into situations where there aren’t the build your own adventure good and evil choices but instead choices that make him question his own morality.  It has almost become a coming of age story and I think that’s why it’s interesting.

Our main character is Conner Connoly whose super powers literally drop from the heavens in the form of meta bands.  These meta bands are the source of all of his powers and are what transform mild mannered Conner into Ultra.  Ultra is very similar to Superman but is heavily reliant upon the charge of his meta bands.  So basically Superman with a battery. iSuperman.

These meta bands aren’t new to the world.  Conner, aka Ultra, is the first of a second generation of metas.  The world saw a stew of these superheroes about 10 years ago.  The first generation of metas died out when the top superhero dragged villain numero uno into the sun.  Once that happened, all the other heroes saw their meta bands go defunct and the first generation of heroes vanished.

Having your super powers drop from the sky is not much of an origin story.  I saw this as a huge weakness in the first book because the origin story is typically the best part of any superhero drama.  However, Reynolds reveals that there is quite a bit more to this genesis in the third book.  This was refreshing background information that drew me back in.

The fact that the story has gotten more interesting as it has progressed brings a lot of hope for the series as most of these YA series seem to lose steam after the first book.  I will definitely continue to read the series and I recommend giving it a shot.

The Wolf of the North: Wolf of the North Book 1

Fantasy Book Review

I am familiar with Hamilton’s work from his Society of the Sword series.  That series was really good but I’m happy to say that he has gotten better.  These books feel darker, almost like he added a dash of Abercrombie to his previous mix.  The darkness together with the wonderful plot building makes the Wolf of the North well worth the read.

He’s not breaking any new ground within the Northman genre.  This has all of the usual Viking tropes but the tropes are what make the Vikings interesting in the first place so you find yourself forgiving them.  He does his best to show the limitations of the Warrior driven, patriarchal society but it comes across a little light, especially in how the women are treated.  I’m not for misogyny in any universe but the way in which the women are humored seems a tad bit out of place considering that there aren’t any women Warriors.  You know Loki wouldn’t have put up with that shit.  It’s his world though and since he is not pretending any level of historical fiction, it works.

The story starts with our hero Wolfric as a chubby little pud that is constantly getting the crap kicked out of him.  He is the son of the First Warrior though, so his extreme level of sissitude is unacceptable in the family dynamic.  With a little mystical help, he finally stands up for himself and in a berserker rage, goes apeshit on one of the bullies that has made his life hell.  Their fortunes immediately switch.  The bully becomes a despised cripple that is kicked out of the Warrior caste and Wolfric is elevated into it.  In standing up for himself he did make an enemy for life and that enemy comes back to haunt him later.

Wolfric then enters his training and spends several of his formative years working on the multiple badges of bad-assery inherent to the Warrior society.  Things are looking good until an old evil slithers into their lives and war breaks out between their village and their closest neighbors.  As chaos ensues and the ranks of the Warriors are thinned, the village is forced into making one devil’s bargain after another until their society is forever changed.  Wolfric and the Warrior caste quickly find themselves pariahs in a new age of softer values.  This book does a wonderful job of bringing these struggles to life and captures the emotions of each stage with a poignant grace.

The story is told from the viewpoint of a master storyteller, much in the same way as Rothfuss tells his stories in the King Killer Chronicles.  This lends a misty uncertainty to the tale and it gives the author a ton of artistic freedom because the story can fall prey to the memory of the storyteller.  This allows for artistic embellishment and a sense of literary tension around what is true and what isn’t.

The culture shift that the Warriors go through is a major component of the novel.  It drives the majority of the pain of the characters as change is wont to do and you find yourself super invested in how these clash of cultures is ultimately going to work out.  There is romance in the book as well but it is somewhat secondary to the more visceral elements of survival in the harsh climate.  At the end of the first novel, the change of cultures is nearly complete and Wolfric and his brethren are not handling it well.  When his romantic interest is dealt a rotten hand Wolfric takes off to do something about it and what that is will probably make up the second book.  I look forward to it!

The Lies of Locke Lamora (Gentleman Bastards, Book 1)

Fantasy Book Review

Fantasy Book Review

I’m very surprised I haven’t found Lynch’s work until now.  It’s odd to have such a strong series be completed without any of the Amazonian algorithms pushing a book of this quality my way.

One of the first things you’ll discover with this book is that you have sailed right off the map of young adult fiction.  Maybe it’s the line, “I told you they were shit-flinging little monkeys when we made the deal…” which happens in paragraph four that instantly gave me the sense that this was going to be a book written for adults by and adult.  Refreshing.

That being said, I have to say that I struggled a little getting into the novel.  There was a little too much Dickensian aspiration for describing a scene.  In several sections you simply can’t wait for him to just get to the fucking point.  When I discovered this was Lynch’s first novel, it made a little more sense.  Describing the scene at this level of detail is akin to literary masturbation, it’s important and gratifying to the author but not something you need to share with your friends.  Lynch is more than talented enough with his prose that he will get past this.

Other than that, the writing and the character building is spot on.  He runs a tidy past and present three card monte on you that introduces you to each character through flashback side stories.  This is nice because there is always something new and surprising to learn about each of these new and surprising characters.

This is the story of Locke Lamora, an incredibly successful thief who seems to be lacking direction.  We are not talking about a moral compass here, he has no illusions that he is the good guy, but he and his band of Gentleman Bastards have amassed a fortune that they don’t really know what to do with.  They work within an organized crime syndicate, kind of like the Sopranos move to Westeros.  Locke is the lieutenant of the smallest crime family that reports to the Capa.  He and his team have done a masterful job of hiding their wealth, not only from other thieves but also from the Capa.  They always pay their weekly tithe on time and on budget but they never draw attention to themselves.

What nobody knows is that Locke is also the Thorn of Camorr.  The Thorn is talked about in hushed tones and only in myth and rumor. He has become this mystical figure that runs the biggest, most audacious scams in the city.  He preys only on the nobles of Camorr so fancies himself a bit of a Robin Hood character without the whole inconvenience of giving back to the poor.  His schemes are clever and seem to be a rich source of entertainment to the Gentleman Bastards.

His two concerns are: one, getting found out by the Capa, which would mean a quick and toothy death at the fins of some particularly graphic sharks which seem to be a large part of the culture of Camorr.  And two, at the hands of the Spider, the mysterious spy master that pulls all the strings in the duchy.  That is until a new player comes on the scene, the Gray King.

The Gray King is over the top nefarious.  He employs an even nastier free lance sorcerer with a hybrid scorpion hawk for a familiar.  The Gray King doesn’t fuck around.  Without giving away any important plot points, he puts Locke in a world of hurt while at the same time turning the crime syndicate and the entire city of Camorr upside down.  Locke has to figure out how to counter this shady figure and do his best to keep him and his gang breathing while doing so.

Once you get into this book, it is almost impossible to put down.  It has an unexpected yet satisfying conclusion that reminds me a bit of the Ocean’s Eleven style hi-jinks.  Don’t miss this one, it is well worth your time.  I have already started the second book.

Traveler’s Rest

Fantasy Book Review

I’d like to start by saying that Morris is a beautiful writer.  The way he can capture a theme or a feeling will make you feel like you are riding shotgun in each character’s tormented lizard brain.  That being said, the story felt very derivative.  Not that derivative is always bad, it was just a little too on the nose.  It felt almost like a mix between Stephen King’s The Shining and Sartre’s No Exit.  It’s one of those novels that you start reading and immediately think you know how it is going to end.  The good news is he surprises you with the ending, the bad is that he takes a little too long to get you there.

Morris can do creepy and do it extremely well.  There was all sorts of creepy in the novel, especially in the beginning when the table is being set for the main course.  It’s been a long time since a book actually got my heart beating fast while reading it.  I distinctly remember at one point putting the book down at around 2 AM, taking a leak then literally running back to the safety of my bed, Morris’ phantoms giving chase an inch behind. It’s the kind of creepy that gets under your skin and stays there like a spider bite.  One of the reasons the creepiness is so effective is that he captures the essence of dreams so fluidly that it feels like a dream that you might have had and somehow shared with the author.  The novel is a little disjointed, certainly incomplete but it hits the primal high notes of fear and confusion in a relentless avalanche of icy chill that leaves you deliciously wanting.

The book kicks off with our small family of a mom, dad, son and fucked up druggy brother to dad that end up pulling off the highway and into a small town due to a raging blizzard. They end up at the Traveler’s Rest, a gorgeous old hotel that is clearly out of place in a town that had its hey day many decades before.  The hotel belongs to the past, or the past belongs to it but either way it is a place out of time.  They check in as the storm continues to rage and that’s when the mayhem begins.  All four characters end up getting separated and quickly tossed into some level of existential frustration that makes up the rest of the book.

The mom and the dad get it the worst.  They get put on the dream treadmill and neither seem able or willing to get off.  Their disappointments with how their lives ended up become fodder to the dream factory that ultimately traps them in a constant rerun.  What appear to be strengths of each character are quickly turned to weaknesses and what these characters believed to be important can’t make it past the snow imposed malaise that continues to pile on the consciousness of these tormented few.

It’s a study of the human condition but not a happy one.  Morris gives you the data and seems unconcerned with how you will take it.  My only real criticism is that the middle of the book drags a bit as our author seems to get a little too impressed with the dream land he has created and selfishly wants to extend it long after making his point.  Other than that though, it is a quality read that kept me thinking about it long after I finished the book.  It’s worth your while.

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