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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.

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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.

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.

Of Darkness and Dawn (The Elder Empire: Shadow Book 2)

Fantasy Book Review

Fantasy Book Review

Of Darkness and Dawn is the second round of Will Wight’s experimental bifurcated story telling in the elder empire series.  This is Book Two of Shadow side where we continue to follow the mean underbelly of the impressive world that Wight has built.  The author reintroduces us to Shera, Lucan and Meia along with the rest of the Consultant guild.

I mentioned in my review of the initial round of books that I appreciated the experiment of telling the same story from two different viewpoints.  As the story goes on, I find myself liking the approach less and less.  In the first installment I read both books back to back over the course of several days.  While reading the first book it felt like I was always missing a piece of the story which the second book nicely wrapped up in a satisfying whole.

Now a year has passed.  In that time, I have read another hundred or so new books and I have forgotten a lot of the story.  Now, when I tried to pick up on the story that I knew had gaps that would be filled in by the opposing viewpoint I had a really tough time getting back into the flow of plot.  Anytime you pick up a subsequent story in a series you always spend a little time rebuilding the mental architecture that takes you back into that world and its characters.  The new book constantly gives you hints that brings you back into that flow.  However, when those hints are incomplete, as this experiment dictates, it becomes twice as hard to rebuild that mental framework.  Sadly, it made this book seem very disjointed and because of that, somewhat boring.

We can’t blame Wight’s writing style as there is nothing wrong there at all.  It boils down to the failure of the experiment during the writing timeline.  For a reader that picks these up five years from now, I doubt they will have the same problems if they can progress from one novel to the next without pause.  It just doesn’t seem to work if you are trying to stay current and picking up the books as they are released.

Anyway, back to the story.  This books picks up where the last one left off. Shera and her crew are now on the defensive after the passing of the emperor.  They, and the Consultant guild, find themselves in a battle with the factions of light.  Another annoyance with this book is that we spend very little time in the present.  Most of the novel takes us deep into the backstory.  This is something that is always appreciated as it really fleshes out and gives life and builds empathy to the characters but it feels like the plot that takes place in the present is just not moving forward at all.  If this were a marathon, the first book took us nicely past the nine mile mark.  This second installment takes us just one mile further while spending almost all of its time talking about why we decided to get into running in the first place.

I did appreciate that Wight was not afraid to move major characters to the headman’s block.  This keeps the sense of danger that anyone can die real and meaningful.  The characters become even more relatable and interesting over the course of the novel but again my primary complaint is that they just don’t accomplish enough in the present.

If you were a fan of the first round of this series, it’s worth continuing but I would recommend waiting until the second novel for the light side comes out so you can read the two book together.  My hope is that will bring a little more clarity to the plot.

Rogue: The Paladin Prophecy Book 3

Fantasy Book Review

Fantasy Book Review

Frost continues to deliver in the third installment of the Paladin Prophecy.  Frost is the real deal when it comes to writing, having paired up with David Lynch on Twin Peaks and solo writing a bunch of novels along the lines of The Greatest Game Ever Played.  It’s hard not be interested in a writer of this caliber’s attempt at some fantasy even if it is set in a young adult world.  It’s almost like hearing Dave Chappelle is going to do Shakespeare.  Whether or not he pulls off a compelling Othello or Macbeth you sure as hell know it is going to be entertaining.

Frost takes the urban fantasy approach.  He doesn’t veer too far from the Harry Potter formula: bunch of young kids enter a school where the outrageous begins to happen.  Our main character’s parents are missing/dead and he is ushered to the school by a Hagrid like character.  Thankfully, it begins to find it’s own tune shortly thereafter.  Our main character, Will, enters school as a late add and is inserted with four other extraordinary roommates in a school so elite that almost no one knows about it.  Throughout the first two novels, each of the four roommates begin to develop powers that complement Will’s own.  Will has always been fast, but as he exercises his powers they begin to evolve and expand until he could give the Flash a run for his money.  The same holds true for the rest of his team, they’re getting significantly stronger as they mature.  In the first two novels the team is trying to understand how and why they got into this situation.

In the third, some of these answers are revealed.  Frost goes the genetics route to explain what’s behind their amazing powers.  Not so surprisingly, we find out that the genetic tampering is an offshoot from the illicit eugenics programs that the Nazis gave us pre World War II.  What is surprising and a lot more interesting are the secret societies that back the Paladin program.  Behind these secret societies lies yet another level of power, the silent brokers behind the silent societies.  Turns out our characters are smack dab in the middle of a secret war between two powerful groups that have been here for millenia.

Frost uses a couple of very cool writing techniques that brings life and relatability to his characters.  The first is Will’s rules to live by.  In the first two novels, these were written by his father and passed down to Will.  In the third novel, Will has evolved to an extent that he has learned these lessons but is mature enough and experienced enough to start writing rules of his own.  What I like about the rules is that they are a list of explicit core values that makes up the heart of who our main character is.  Core values is a term that is bandied around a lot in business but very few people actually know what it means.  Core values means that these are the ingrained values that draw lines that you will not cross.  In business, they should be serious enough that you will hire by them and fire by them.  This firing also includes customers who push you in a direction that would require you to break your core values.  Frost does a wonderful job of turning every situation our characters find themselves in to a test of Will’s core values.  While Will doesn’t always succeed in the short term he never gives up his integrity and so his core values remain sacrosanct.  In the traditional definition of the word, this is what a paladin is, one who never gives up his own integrity no matter the situation.

Frost also does a good job of managing the interplay and dialog of a lot of different characters at once.  This is tricky, with a lot of characters in the same place at the same time it is very easy to lose track of each of those characters’ personal agendas or worse, have one of these characters fade into the background and no longer contribute in a meaningful fashion.  Frost does a masterful job of weaving this delicate balance in a way that all the characters evolve around the different situations in a very natural progression.

It’s a good, fast read and well worth your while.  My only complaint with these novels is that they are not long enough.

A Tale of Light and Shadow

Fantasy Book Review

Fantasy Book Review

I first read Jacob Gowans with his Psion series and absolutely loved it.  The first book of the Light and Shadow series really struggled to hold my attention.  I normally crank through these type of books but this one took me over a week because I just kept finding better things to do than read something that is only slightly entertaining.  Don’t misunderstand, reading the book is not like going to the dentist, more like going to a family wedding.  There is some fun to be had, maybe Aunt Maureen starts to grind on one of the groomsmen who is half her age, but at the end of the day, the weekend could have been much better spent.

The story is not bad, a young carpenter by the name of Henry falls hard for a down on his luck nobleman’s daughter named Isabelle.  It turns out that the nobleman is a world class prick who puts his daughter in a situation that requires some serious rescuing.  Our carpenter enlists some friends and through a barely believable scheme he does that rescuing in epic fashion.

The rest of the book is spent on the run.  Our carpenter and his merry band get themselves into and out of a number of perilous situations that ultimately ends in a cliffhanger eagerly awaiting the next book in the series.  The plot moves forward at an OK pace, but there is nothing remotely original in it.  Gowans creates some believable tension between the characters and the situations they find themselves in but the resolution to the tension is as bland as a nutri system cookie.

The thing that bothered me most about the series is that the characters don’t ever seem to evolve until the very last scene. Both Henry and Isabelle have very little depth.  They are both kind to a fault and their relationship feels like a third grade romance.  The most interesting character is the lovable rogue Ruther and he is not that lovable and not that roguish.  What is seriously missing is a taste of the extreme.  We read books either to learn or to escape.  Sadly, this novel didn’t offer either of these things.  I will not be continuing the series.  This is one to skip.

Shattered Sea Books 1, 2 & 3

Fantasy Book Review

Fantasy Book ReviewFantasy Book ReviewFantasy Book Review

Abercrombie writes books that are damn near impossible to put down.  His style is very similar to David Gemmell’s but they have been modernized a bit to add an even darker element to every page.  Abercrombie’s characters are raw and incredibly believable.  Each one of them is uniquely forged by the fires of circumstance into something hard, dangerous and painfully relatable. I got my introduction to Abercrombie in the First Law series.  Those books were regular Greek tragedies.  When starting this series I knew not to expect happy endings but I couldn’t wait to see the trials he would throw his characters through.

I wasn’t disappointed.  Abercrombie introduces us to another cold and dark world that seemed built from the nightmares of a 13th century Viking.  In the first book we are introduced to Yarvi, the crippled son of a king.  Abercrombie shares his fascination of the disabled yet again in this character who is universally disdained by his disability in a land where survival allows for no sympathy.  The author gives you the faint hint of having his main character rise above his impediment before ruthlessly taking everything away from him.

As Yarvi’s world is destroyed and he himself is sold into slavery, the only thing he is left with is an oath of vengeance.  Luckily, to a viking, vengeance is more sustaining than a pallet of powerbars and Yarvi rises above again and again.  He makes lifelong friends of his oar-mates who respect, if not his strength, certainly his persistence and definitely his ‘deep cunning’.  Yarvi trained to be a minister which, in the Shattered Sea, is an adviser to kings.  He uses this knowledge to turn the tables on his situation and by the end he fights his way free of slavery, misconceptions and even disability.  He becomes a character that is likable and respected.

In book two, Abercrombie takes a risky approach and presents us with an entirely new cast of characters.  Yarvi is still around but he plays a secondary role to our new characters Thorn and Brand.  Thorn Bathu is a fireball.  She is one of the first women to come close to passing the warrior’s trials and she is heavily discriminated against because of it.  While these northern women are expected to fight in self defense they are never expected to become actual raiding warriors.  This bias earns Thorn a one way ticket to a personal showing of the headman’s axe.

Brand, the young warrior that Thorn bested to win her warrior’s badge, struggles with the injustice heaped upon Thorn and ultimately stands up for her, even though he can’t stand her, by bringing up the injustice to Yarvi.  Brand is one of the good guys in a bad world and he ultimately gets punished for it.

By circumstance, Yarvi takes Thorn and Brand on an epic journey to the south to gain the support of the southern empress.  They bring along a cast of interesting characters with them, one of which is an old witch that trains Thorn into a formidable weapon.  By the end of the journey, no single man seems able to best Thorn in a fight and her reality becomes legend.  Interestingly enough, a romance also blooms between Thorn and Brand in a reverse chick flick sort of way.  The relationship is as endearing as it is fleeting and you find yourself truly rooting for these two while knowing that good things just don’t last long in the dark of the North.

Our author doubles down in the third novel by changing up the cast once again.  This time our heroine is Skara, princess and daughter of a slaughtered king.  Skara is no warrior but her battles are one of policy and politics as she does her best to wrench her kingdom back from the High King.  Only she has the power to bring warring realms together to fight a greater tyrant and she does it admirably.

One of the sneaky things that Abercrombie does with his characters is turn heroes into villains.  He changes characters you love into ones that you don’t like so much along the way.  This is a much more odious and painful way of destroying characters than the Martin approach of just killing them off.  It takes a lot more balls to shift the love of a reader into something akin to hatred.  He did it with Baez in the first law and he does it again here.  Don’t want to ruin the surprise but it teaches an interesting lesson that all men are fallible when pushed in the right way.

Read the series if you are willing to give up all your free time for the next week or two.

Graceling (Graceling Ream Book 1)

Fantasy Book Review

Fantasy Book Review

As fantasy continues to push into the collective consciousness and is no longer limited to the nerdom of 20 years ago, more and more writers are flexing their literati musculature into the genre and it benefits all of us.  I wouldn’t call Kashore one of the top fantasy writers out there but she does have a lot to offer.  Graceling is well thought out, well written and smartly executed.  She builds her own world which is a must in my opinion and she populates it with interesting characters doing interesting things.  She also invents the mysticism that permeates that world and that acts as the catalyst to all major events.

The world is a fairly standard one with a handful of kingdoms, each with their own politics and beliefs which nicely sets the stage for all sorts of potential realm conflict. The people that live in this world are the staples of medieval serfdom save for the gracelings.  The gracelings are easy to spot due to their different colored eyes.  When a graceling is identified they become immediate property of the kingdom so that they can assist the dynastic lords in keeping a tight leash on the populace.  The gracelings each have a specific power that is as unique as the person themselves.  Some of these powers are completely useless but most gracelings are graced with a skill that gives them a distinct edge over the rest of the populace.

Our main character, Katsa, is one of the deadliest gracelings in the realm.  Her skill is, quite simply, death.  She spends the early part of the book as an assassin on a tether for one of the more tyrannical lords of the Seven Kingdoms.  She is not horrified by her role but neither does she revel in it.  What does horrify her is the pettiness that drives her master and she spends a good amount of the book struggling with these weak motivations.

Our other lead, Po, is a prince from one of the island kingdoms and he too is a graceling.  His grace, to the outside eye, is one of swordsmanship.  He travels to Katsa’s kingdom on a political mission with all sorts of ulterior motives and soon finds himself orbiting the same circles as Katsa.  He is as charming as Katsa is stand-offish and the two start a relationship that is as inevitable as gravity.  They start by pitting each other’s graces against one other but it soon becomes obvious that they both share the desire to be doing something relevant, something far from the pettiness of Katsa’s every day life.

Po gives Katsa the excuse she barely needs to break free from her master and set off on her own crusade.  This starts the physical journey of the fantastic which also begins the metaphysical one of self discovery.  Not only are our two characters learning about themselves but they are also learning about the graces that define them.  They discover that the graces are not the well defined boxes that others tried to put them in but instead are far more intricate reflections of their own character.

That’s really one of the main lessons that the book has to offer.  Nobody has the right to put baby in a corner.  We all have to play the cards we’re dealt but how we play those cards is entirely up to us.  As we examine those cards,. we find that they can make just about any hand we want.

The villain is a graceling as well and his motives are entirely evil.  He is the only character that could have used a little more development.  The evil he exudes is a little too anonymous and hard to identify with.  That is truly my only concern with the book.  The characters are believable and likable and the plot takes you from place to place with a breathlessness that makes you wonder how the characters will ever get out of the next pickle they are put into.  I will definitely be continuing this series.

An Ember in the Ashes

Fantasy Book Review

Fantasy Book Review

Sabaa Tahir wrote an excellent novel.  Rumor has it that it is going to be almost immediately turned into a movie at the hands of Paramount.  This shouldn’t be a surprise, Young Adult fantasy seems to be the only sub-genre in fantasy that can hold the attention of summer movie goers for a full two hours.  While that might sound like a complaint, HBO has taught us that TV serials are a much better place for the in-depth exploration of lands like Westeros, but I digress.

The world Tahir builds takes place in and around Blackcliff Academy.  The place feels like a much darker military school version of Hogwarts, where every authority figure makes Snape look like a cuddly teddy bear of an uncle.  The conflict is between two classes, castes almost, in the book: the Martials and the Scholars.  The Martials are the ruling class and they treat the peasant Scholars with a disdain worthy of King Leonidas.  This is Sparta but a darker, meaner Sparta.

The story is told from the alternating viewpoints of Elias, a Martial Mask in training, and Laia, a scholar wanting to do nothing more than save her brother and survive to tell the tale.  Elias seems to be the only sane Martial in the academy.  He clings to his humanity as the rest of his brethren seem resigned to having that humanity beaten or traumatically ripped from them in a series of painful trials.  That is Blackcliff, an academy with the singular goal of turning children into ruthless, domineering assholes.  Elias does his best to push back against this environment without getting himself killed in the process.  Symbolism is rife in the form of the actual Mask these young killers are asked to don.  The mask itself is an ethereal quicksilver that melds to one’s face.  Elias is the only one in his graduating class that still takes the Mask off, physical ripping the silvery tendrils of the parasitic device from his face, if only in the confines of his own room.  Symbolizing the struggle of pushing back against an autocratic regime in this way makes for some really powerful visuals.  This struggle is at the heart of the Elias character and colors all of his actions.

Laia, on the other hand, is a coward.  Or she thinks she’s a coward anytime she runs from certain death situations.  She beats herself up over this to an extreme that seems a little trite.  Again and again, she claims ‘I don’t have the courage to do something like that,” and then goes ahead and does it.  This is YA fiction, so it can be forgiven.  We do get it, everyone faces challenges and you have to woman up to get it done.  Laia’s challenge is that the Masks came and took her brother for possessing militaristic drawings that are a serious no-no for the downtrodden class.  She then spends the novel trying to break her brother, Darin, out of prison.  This brings her in contact with the Scholar resistance which starts her whirlwind into a life of espionage and adventure.

Inevitably, the two characters cross paths.  This is where the love triangle, or love star of David, begins.  There are multiple triangles being juggled as these characters wrestle with young love in an era of repression and sadism.  The love stays very PG and innocent throughout but Tahir does a good job of making every character in each triangle worthy of love and our empathy.  The characters are well thought out and very identifiable.  They may not be as complex as you will find in a Martin or Rothfuss novel, but this is YA fiction where black and white necessarily holds sway.

There are not a ton of lessons to learn within these pages but it is a very fun, adrenaline filled read that is well worth your time.

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