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Archive for the tag “Epic Fantasy”

Queen of Storms: Book Two of the Firemane Saga

Fantasy / Sci-Fi Book Review

Raymond Feist holds the status of mythical creature for me akin to Hercules, Thor or Pug. He was an author I read at an early age so I assigned him the same gravitas as Tolkien, Heinlein or LeGuinn. He was a forger of ways, an architect of worlds, a deity of character development.  The original Riftwar series is canon in my household.

It could be that I read him at such a young age that I place him on this pedestal next to Eddings and Lewis. The ten year old mind is easily and completely swept into new worlds. There are very few ten year old cynics pointing out the unbelievable and saying ‘nah uh’. Those ten year olds that do invariably end up joining young republican groups and should be avoided at all cost. I wanted to believe and he made it easy with a style and prose that made reading each page feel like a holiday. Even a stupid name like Pug didn’t deter because the character was so relatable.

That’s why I find myself dissapointed by this new series. The Midkemia world had a wonderful run and he did a brilliant job ending it in such a loving fashion.

This new world is boring. I can’t believe I’m saying that about a Feist novel. It’s like somebody took all the passion of Midkemia and Kelewan and threw it into a Vitamix with some Metamucil then strained it of anything resembling fun.

I believe he is trying to get a little darker and nuanced with his characters, a little more Joe Abercrombie perhaps, but he struggles with bereft and dirty. It comes across as stilted and unrelatable.  I just finished the second book and I find I could care less whether any of the three main characters live or die.  With Abercrombie’s work, you find yourself disgusted by the characters’ choices, hoping they’ll make better ones and rooting for them to do so.  When they don’t, you’re struck by the reality of dreams missed and lives changed.

Not here. Learning about Declan, Hatu and Hava is like learning about the trio of emo kids in high school that chose that path because they weren’t interesting enough to choose another. You talk to them for a while and realize that they’re not hung up on existentialism, they just can’t figure out another way to fit in. They gave up on being themselves to cosplay an outdated stereotype.

The plot isn’t bad. The general idea of the heir of a dying line being sent to a secret organization to protect his heritage and teach him some kick ass skills in order to protect himself is a good one. But the pace is glacial. Hatu doesn’t find out about an even cooler, second organization that can teach him about his Firemane powers until the end of the second book! Maybe I’ve grown used to faster pacing as that seems to be the trend in fantasy these days but if you go back to his old works, even when things are a bit slower paced, they were never boring.

It may be that Feist is getting old and he’s forgotten how to dream big. It may be I’m getting old and a lot more cynical. It’s most likely a combination of both.

Even with this bad review, I’m still going to pick up the third(final?) book of the series when it comes out in July. Maybe he’ll find that magic again as he closes this series out. I hope so. I need him to.

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.

Dragonvein

Fantasy Book Review

After an absurd amount of travel, I’m finally getting the chance to get back to some of the fun things in life namely, writing about books.  Over the holidays I did get the chance to read Brian Anderson’s Dragonvein.  Unfortunately, it was just meh.  This is pretty vanilla epic fantasy that can make your list if you’re planning an 18 hour plane flight to Dubai where you pre-downloaded it and ended up on an aircraft without wireless but otherwise, I’d skip it.

When I say vanilla, I’m talking Lora Doone fantasy wafers.  They don’t taste bad but after you consume, you kind of wish you skipped the empty calories and decided on something a bit meatier.

The book begins with promise, with our hero Ethan, entrenched over enemy lines in the midst of World War II.  He and his BFF find themselves in a shit storm of Aryan proportions when they discover an old stranger who doesn’t speak the language, English or German, in the middle of what is about to become a major skirmish.  Ethan, a best friend proclaimed boy scout, decides that now would be a good time to take on nursemaid duties and helps the old man.  Turns out he’s from another world and the trio narrowly escapes the Krauts by opening up a portal to that world.

This is where the formula kicks in.  Ethan slowly discovers that this world is under the iron fist of a Hitler-esque, Sauron-esque, Darth Vader-esque, Emperor.  Furthermore, there happens to be a prophecy of some Dragonvein character that is supposed to have the utility belt with the full on kung fu grip that can take down our bad guy.  Any guesses who that is?  Ethan finds himself on the run with the old man, Jonas, our wise adviser, picks up a roguish warrior and a healer and creates a merry band.  Oh yeah, and the world has elves and dwarves in it.

The character building is not bad.  He creates some believable tension between the leads but the plot is just too played.  You also get the sense that Anderson is far too in love with the main characters that there is no chance that any of them will expire of anything other than old age.  This eliminates the chance for any believable fear that these guys might not succeed.

All in all, not worth the price of admission.

Trysmoon Book 4: Sacrifice (The Trysmoon Saga)

Fantasy Book Review

Fantasy Book Review

I did a previous review on the first book of this series and have waited until completing the last to do a final review.  I was incredibly impressed with the first book.  One of my big concerns in the first review was how powerful the primary protagonist, Gen, became and the heights he achieved early in the series.  This often becomes a big barrier to keeping the story interesting as the plot progress.  Fuller answered that challenge nicely by continuously throwing our hero under the bus both in matters of destiny and matters of the heart.

Any good series like this is always built first on the solid foundation of character development by using the relationships these characters have with each other.  This saga was rich with these.  One of the more interesting relationships was the love triangle between Gen, the Chalaine and the Chalaine’s mother, Mirelle.  This was something right out of any college kid’s fantasy.  Mirelle makes no excuses for trying to Mrs. Robinson her way into Gen’s pants.  She is obviously one of the hottest milfs out there so, really, she provides an ethical dilemma that only one of Gen’s character and dedication can manage to navigate through without giving up his own ethical compass.  This achievement is made even more extraordinary when you consider that the Chalaine is not giving up the goods in the first place.  This borders a little on the unbelievable until you make the conscious decision to just roll with it and accept it as part of the fantasy.

The relationship with the Chertanne is also an enjoyable one.  The Chertanne is the character that is supposed to be the savior and focus of the prophesy that bails mankind out of the upcoming apocalyptically bad time floating just over the horizon.  You learn, even in the first book, that he is nothing but an entitled little prick.  The slightly unbelievable thing about this character is his inability to evolve into someone with even one iota of likability. This is true even after he gets sent, quite literally, to hell.  The interesting thing about the relationship between Gen and the Chertanne is that Gen does a wonderful job of turning almost everyone with a shred of common sense against the personality failures of the Chertanne simply by being the polar opposite in both deed and word.  This is incredibly satisfying but a little naively idealistic when one considers the current breed of politician we are forced to stomach in our real world that thrive in a system that doesn’t seem to be able to hold any of these entitled pricks accountable.  I guess that’s why we read this type of fiction in the first place.

There are misses on the relationship side as well though.  I think the biggest miss is the relationship between Gen and his former mentor/tormentor the Shadan, Torbrand.  The Shadan is the ruthless lunatic that gave Gen his training and resistance to pain by keeping the threat of his friends lives over his head as he treated him like a practice dummy.  However, when the odds are against both of these gentlemen in a desperate last stand, they act like BFFs once removed without any of the former antagonism that should rightly exist.  I know Gen is the forgiving type, but come on.  There are other misses along the way too like the Dason relationship and the non factor that Gen’s former flame becomes as the book progresses but none of these are significant enough to make the story un-enjoyable.

The plot charges forward nicely throughout the entire series with only a couple of lulls where it looks like Fuller is looking for something for the characters to do.  But again, these aren’t enough of a slowdown to keep you moving with the characters.  The twists that Fuller continues to add to the prophetic paradigm as he twists the prophecy into something much more dynamic are well worth the read.  This makes the too simple good vs. evil dynamic much more interesting.  The closing chapters are also satisfying as the Fuller wraps up the closing lines of the prophecy as well as turning the love triangle into more of a straight line.

All in all, a good series well worth the time investment.

Of Sea & Shadow (The Elder Empire: Sea Book 1)

 

I first encountered Will Wight’s work in his City of Light series.  In that series I was blown away by how he completely changed the dynamic of yet another young hero that needs to fulfill a prophecy.  He decided to instead focus not on the hero of the prophecy but one of his lesser known friends who turned out to be a hell of a lot more interesting than the two dimensional ‘hero’.  In Of Sea & Shadow, Wight continues to experiment.  He released two books at the same time Of Sea & Shadow and its companion Of Shadow & Sea.  He warns that these two books tell essentially the same story but from a different character’s point of view.  This reminds me of Card’s novel Shadow of the Hegemon which retold the Ender’s Game story from Bean’s point of view.  Sounded boring at first blush but turned out to be brilliant.

I’ve only just begun the companion novel, Of Shadow & Sea,  so this review will focus solely on the lighter side.  Wight respects the intelligence of the reader by asking a lot from them.  His world building tosses the reader right into the mix without introducing any of the terms or concepts that are meant to be commonplace in the prose and then slowly filling these terms in as the plot progresses.  This has always been an enjoyable way to ease into a new world, almost like learning a new science or programming language.  Some elements you have to take on faith early on that you will understand later as you gain more experience in the world.

This one has a little extra challenge associated with it due to the grand experiment Will Wight has taken on.    The extra challenge is that you know that you are not going to get any of the extra tidbits until you start reading the companion novel.  Just reading one of the books is almost like doing a Sudoku puzzle without using any 4s or 7s.  You know that there are going to be gaps but is it still enjoyable?

Luckily, it is.  Wight always does a great job of characterization, you end up really caring about what happens to his characters, and when you’re done you feel like these folks could have been a part of your past.  I did struggle a little bit more with these characters than with previous novels due to some of the gaps but I found myself looking forward to seeing how they would be filled in deeper in the next novel.  I also had a good time guessing who would be the main character in the next novel.

On to the plot.  The novel introduces you quickly to the swashbuckling protagonist, Calder Marten.  Calder is the captain of a large ship with a very small crew.  The reason for the small crew is that Calder is a Reader that is intimately linked to his ship.  The ship is an extension of his mind and he can control sails and rigging like just another appendage. Wasn’t super clear on how the crew sailed the ship when he was sleeping but little details like that don’t take away from the enjoyment of the book.

The world is run by Guilds that each have some level of mystical prowess.  Calder is part of the Navigator’s guild but he was raised as part of the Blackwatch.  The Blackwatch monitor Elder activity.  The Elders are the supernatural beings that populate the depths of the world.  You don’t want to run into these guys on a vacation because you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a bad time.  The world itself is an Empire run by an Emperor who has recently passed on.  The ambient power struggles that Calder finds himself in are around the Guilds trying to decide who should take on the burden of leadership left by the void of the recently deceased Emperor.

Calder takes on a couple of passengers that belong to the Watchers guild against the warnings of his first mate.  These passengers end up being somewhat dickish both in personality and in the fact that they are assassination targets of the Consultants.  The Consultants are a deadly Guild with a shit list.  Calder’s passengers are on it.

Most of the novel is around understanding the motivation behind these passengers as they move from one threat to the next.  Throughout each of these threats we get regular flashbacks to Calder growing up.  This is where most of the world building happens.

Overall, it was thoroughly entertaining and as I’m now about a third of the way through it’s companion novel, I’m really enjoying watching yin slowly fit into yang.  Should be a good series.

Trysmoon Book 1: Ascension (The Trysmoon Saga)

Wow.  I have never read anything from Fuller before but he knows how to spin a story.  The first novel is somewhat formulaic but he fills in all the variables of the formula brilliantly.  You know the one: boy from small woodcutting village has something traumatic happen to him that puts him in the cross-hairs of glory.  He goes through a training montage that is followed by his first opportunity to prove his training in a very public way.  This leads to a career that narrows the glory target to the center of the forehead.  Oh yeah, and there’s a prophecy out there that involves him indirectly at first but more directly as we progress.

The formula is not very new but there is a reason why this formula is used in the first place.  It let’s the reader grow with the protagonist in the way that makes you think ‘yeah, I would have done it that way’ and let’s you live in another’s boots for a while.

The nice thing about Fuller’s adaptation of the formula is that he turns it gritty and painful right out of the gate.  This seems to be the trend of good fantasy these days.  This was made popular by George R.R. Martin way back in the Game of Thrones days well before HBO took it to non fantasy nerds.  It’s a good trend.  No major character is invincible from the the author’s ability to make a point.  Fuller wields the butcher’s pen well in the first book of Ascension.

The only way characters grow in any novel is when they are faced with real pain.  The main character Gen gets massive doses of it as soon as the starting whistle is blown.  This pain molds him into a weapon.  Thanks to his pre-weapon days as a bard, our young hero values intelligence over brawn.  This background, coupled with some mystical training turns Gen into a force to reckon with.

You get to experience that reckoning in a public contest of arms when Gen gets to compete for the right to join the Dark Guard.  The Dark Guard protect the major players of the prophecy, who are meant to save mankind from the apocalypse on the horizon. In the contest Gen kicks the crap out of the competition even though the odds seemed stacked against him.  This lands him a spot close to the prophecy and all the intrigue that comes with it.

I’m looking forward to continuing the series.  My only concern at this point is that the main character gets too one-dimensional.  Gen grows so quickly in the first book that there is a risk that he will have nothing else to grow into.  That always leads to disaster – can’t wait to see how Fuller handles it.

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