Tower Lord by Anthony Ryan

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This is a book I had been anticipating for a while now, or, more specifically, ever since I turned the last page of Anthony Ryan’s debut novel, Blood Song. When it finally came out, I was beyond thrilled… until I read the reviews. Despite the fact the reaction was mostly positive, it also didn’t make the book out to be anything to get excited about – good, but a little disappointing. So I held off on purchasing it, thinking that it would make more sense to let the price drop a little before finally grabbing a copy. But my resolve broke, and I downloaded it onto my kindle before a week-long vacation, thinking I would have plenty of time to read. I was right and I was right.

I tore through this book at a rate that surprised even me. Yes, it’s a very different book from Blood Song. And though I would also say that it’s not as good, it’s certainly an excellent book in its own way. Blood Song benefitted from the emphasis placed on Vaelin, the reader’s ability to live with him through everything, the drive and spot-on pacing of the plot, and the relatively small-scale of the story (at least in terms of characters), keeping the story intense and focused. Tower Lord has none of these virtues. Instead, this book takes place from the POV of four separate characters, introduces a far greater scope to the world, and in many places feels a bit drawn out. But the main advantage this book has over Blood Song is the improved craft of Ryan’s writing. There’s a far greater maturity and cleanness present than there was in Blood Song… which may contribute somewhat to the general change in tone between books.

Anthony Ryan has some of the most interesting prose I can remember reading. And this is because it’s beautiful, but not in any way I can clearly discern. I’m fond of using the word ‘functional’ to describe prose that does well to carry the plot, but little else. And it feels like that, but there’s an extra element to it. A sort of poetic feel, an elegance of phrase. It’s not flowery or bombastic, as can be the case with other books I’ve loved (all three of The Name of the Wind, The Night Circus, and The Girl Who Circumnavigated… spring to mind), but simple, and refined. It’s a pleasure to read, as it pulls you along and keeps you intrigued, while still not distracting and certainly not detracting from the martial themes of the novel.

One of Ryan’s most controversial choices even before this novel was released was the switch from the focused, distilled, single viewpoint of Vaelin al Sorna to a series of four rotating perspectives. In addition to Vaelin, we have two returning characters from Blood Song – Lyrna and Frentis – and one new one – Reva. For the most part, I was very pleased with the way this turned out, and am certainly glad that Ryan chose not to tell this story from solely Vaelin’s POV. If this is the story he had in his head, and it makes sense as the logical continuation to Blood Song, it would have been a disaster should it have been written solely from the one perspective. Though I was initially worried about Reva (her early chapters are not compelling), I thought that she blossomed brilliantly into perhaps my favorite character. Lyrna’s story takes some very interesting and surprising turns, and though I’m still undecided about her as a character, she is still without a doubt a dynamic and thrilling point of view. Frentis is notable primarily for the uneven nature of his story, but it is worth noting that the way he acts for approximately the first half of the book is not at all how you would expect him to act (and yes, there’s a reason for this). And as for Vaelin, well, Vaelin is just as wonderful a character, but…

His plotline was really poor. Don’t get me wrong, Ryan does a good job wringing out every bit of cleverness and entertainment he can out of it, but at the end of the day, it just does not work. His actions pretty much include: Go north. Go south. Swing sword for two pages. Done! This seems a real shame, because Vaelin is such a multi-faceted and interesting character, but he really does very little throughout the entire story. In contrast with this is Reva, whose story is often the driving force behind the story – it is her location that provides the primary battleground for the entre novel. After her first couple chapters, I would argue that this plotline is the most consistently entertaining and compelling. Lyrna and Frentis’ stories exist somewhere in the middle: more inconsistent plots that range from thrilling to mundane. Frentis’ story in particular is guilty of this, while Lyrna’s hovers more constantly around the ‘fun’ mark, rarely rising any further.

The strange thing is that though all these plot lines have their own distinct issues, they actually work exceedingly well with each other. The rotation works well in this case, and I realized that there were few, if any cases, when I was disappointed with the POV coming up next. The pacing is not as fine-tuned as it was in Blood Song, but still more than good enough to keep me turning pages, even when I really should have been doing other things.

Despite the immense entertainment I got from this book, there are certainly numerous flaws to be discussed. I’ve mentioned the failures of some of the plotlines to provide reliable entertainment, and I also think some of the secondary characters are highly hit-and-miss. Dahrena provides a notable hit, while I found Iltis to be a clear miss, but I can see others disagreeing with me. As for the return of the brothers, I found Nortah to still be an excellent character, while I profoundly disliked the new Caenis – disappointing, as he was one of my favorite characters from Blood Song. I also think that Ryan was a bit too impressed with the world he had created. Though it surprised me with its depth and the level of detail Ryan had ingrained in it, I also thought that certain sections (especially some of Frentis’ earlier ones) felt very much like Ryan trying to show off his newfound skills. Another, rather strange complaint that I had was the sheer number of typos and other typographical errors found in the text. Describing a man as lying “prostate” (instead of prostrate) particularly sticks in my mind, as does the failure to use commas correctly. There were so many instances when the rules of grammar (or even just common sense) dictate that there should be a comma, and yet there was none. This grew to be more than a slight annoyance after a little while, but it was a small complaint in an otherwise excellent tale.
But nothing can compare with the absolute devastation I felt after reading the final scene. Not the last chapter, not the last section. The final scene… all four paragraphs of it. It was clumsy, poorly-written, unclear, confusing, and, worst of all, wholly unnecessary. It ultimately left me with an incredibly sour taste in my mouth concerning this book, despite the immense enjoyment and pleasure I derived from reading it.

Overall, this is a very strong book. Very different from Blood Song, and perhaps not as good, but it does an excellent job of continuing the story of the Unified Realm, as well as expanding the scope and breadth of the novel. But perhaps most encouragingly, it truly shows how quickly Ryan has refined and improved his writing since his last publication. And if that’s not something to celebrate, then I don’t know what is.

Final rating: 8/10

 

 

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The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley

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“His brother had already pivoted toward him, drawing that short knife of his, raising it in a quick motion as Balendin started to shout. Valyn met his brother’s eyes, those distant icy flames, as Kaden closed in on him. He doesn’t feel love either, he realized as Kaden hammered the knife down with a savage thrust straight at Valyn’s head, or sorrow, or regret…

Following in my recent theme of books that have been hyped beyond all reasonable expectations, next up is Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades. Tipped by many to be the best fantasy book of 2014, the fact that it is Staveley’s debut novel ultimately makes this achievement even more impressive. Unfortunately, this is one novel that I found did not live up to its hype.

There’s a lot going on in this book, so I’ll let the blurb describe the plot for me:

When the emperor of Annur is murdered, his children must fight to uncover the conspiracy—and the ancient enemy—that effected his death.

Kaden, the heir apparent, was for eight years sequestered in a remote mountain monastery, where he learned the inscrutable discipline of monks devoted to the Blank God. Their rituals hold the key to an ancient power which Kaden must master before it’s too late. When an imperial delegation arrives to usher him back to the capital for his coronation, he has learned just enough to realize that they are not what they seem—and enough, perhaps, to successfully fight back.

Meanwhile, in the capital, his sister Adare, master politician and Minister of Finance, struggles against the religious conspiracy that seems to be responsible for the emperor’s murder. Amid murky politics, she’s determined to have justice—but she may be condemning the wrong man.

Their brother Valyn is struggling to stay alive. He knew his training to join the Kettral— deadly warriors who fly massive birds into battle—would be arduous. But after a number of strange apparent accidents, and the last desperate warning of a dying guard, he’s convinced his father’s murderers are trying to kill him, and then his brother. He must escape north to warn Kaden—if he can first survive the brutal final test of the Kettral.

Sounds good, right? And it reads well, too, at least in the beginning. Everyone who’s read the seven preview chapters posted online knows that the book opens brightly, with suspense and mystery, rather than outright action. Indeed, the first quarter is gripping and engaging, pulling you along, and deeper and deeper into the well-crafted world Staveley has created. And then, all of a sudden, the action stops. There are few new developments between then and the final fifth of the book. Everything seems like a repeat of something that has happened before, just in a new place, with new monsters, or with new punishments.

The three characters that are front and center in the blurb—Kaden, Valyn, and Adare—are all very different people, and each with their own roles to play. Honestly, I don’t know why Adare was given equal billing to the two brothers; her role is by far the most minor, and she seemed like an afterthought, what happened when Staveley sought to address the lack of female characters in his book. As for the other two, I rather wish their positions had been reversed. Kaden, as the eldest son and heir to the throne, now lives with a group of monks in a secluded, mountain monastery. His chapters seemed to follow a bit of a formula, which goes like this: “Kaden’s mentor tells him to do something. Kaden does it. His mentor asks him some deep, meaningful questions about the project, which Kaden answers wrong. Kaden is punished.” Despite this, I found I rather liked Kaden as a character. He was relatable and lacked many of the clichéd, annoying traits found in many entitled heirs. Valyn’s story was much more interesting and engaging, as we would hope from the story of someone who is learning to fight using giant birds as steeds. However, I found I did not like Valyn as a character – he was impetuous, rash, and rude. The many insults he endures towards his intelligence often do not seem poorly placed.

The secondary characters are few, which is odd for a novel with such a large scope. This was fine, though, as they seemed to be better than the main POV characters. Kaden’s master, Rampuri Tan, and abbot of the monastery, Scial Nin, were both fantastic characters, different aspects of an interesting and deep religious order. Ran il-Tornja, the only secondary character of note in Adare’s plotline, was far superior to Adare herself – he was charismatic, believable, and engaging. The only exception to this rule was Valyn’s plotline, whose supporting characters (with the notable exception of Annick) were either walking clichés, or horribly bland and boring.

Apart from the complete slackening of the pace for the middle half of the book, the plot seemed to waste its not inconsiderable amount of promise. Adare’s story felt like it would have been better placed in the second book. Kaden’s plotline was boring and repetitive. Valyn’s was interesting, but I wish Staveley had brought forward the Trial a little earlier, and we could have seen Valyn interact with his wing a little more before the climax. In addition, Staveley has an unfortunate tendency to launch into lengthy explanations of his world’s history at any point, no matter the suspense he breaks by doing it. And finally, there’s the terrible way the finale was resolved – a complete Deus Ex Machina.

Overall, The Emperor’s Blades is a book that shows remarkable promise in its first quarter. It is gripping, intriguing, and exciting. Unfortunately, the pace drops off dramatically, and the novel never really makes good on the promise it shows. Some hit-or-miss characters are not enough to rescue the book, and one finishes the book with a regretful sense of what might have been.

Final Rating: 6.5/10

Blood Song by Anthony Ryan

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“War is always an adventure to those who’ve never seen it.”

Rarely have I seen a debut novel hyped as much as Anthony Ryan’s Blood Song. Winner of numerous awards (including Amazon’s “Best SFF of 2013”), and receiving glowing reviews from nearly every corner, I’ll admit my expectations were sky high. The book couldn’t possibly be that good, could it?

Well, yes. It could.

Blood Song is the story of Vaelin al Sorna, first introduced as a young man, and already one of the most infamous men in the world. Forced to fight a duel he is expected to lose, he reveals his past to his jailer, a chronicler named Verniers. Vaelin does not tell Verniers his whole story, but he will tell you. Given to an elite group of fighters known as the “Sixth Order” at a young age, Vaelin quickly learns to fight, and to kill. His peers and he form an elite group, setting out to do the King’s bidding wherever it may take them.

First of all, the story is brilliant. The frame story has its own plot, one that is introduced, deepened, and resolved in a fraction of the time spent on Vaelin’s story. The first 250 pages of Blood Song are a school story, a darker, more brutal version of classics like Harry Potter. Think Joe Abercrombie writing The Name of the Wind, and you’ll be almost there. A perfect example of the tone can be found in this exchange, where a student expresses his worries to a master before a test:

“’I’m not sure I can swim that far, Master,’ he stammered, staring down at the dark waters of the river. ‘Then try to drown quietly,’ Sollis said, tipping him over the rail.”

Serving as a lengthy introduction to Vaelin and his friends, the first third of the story never falls into a slow patch, and the high stakes keep a degree of tension running throughout the book. Once Vaelin and his friends “graduate”, the story changes. Things move more slowly (though never too slow), and the focus shifts. Intrigue becomes a primary plot point, with the scheming nature of the King and his daughter’s manipulation taking a central role, as every subsequent action in the book occurs as a result of one of their machinations.

The world building is not elaborate, but it does hint at a deeply layered landscape beneath its blunt, bloody exterior. The prose is similarly lacking any frills, or bells or whistles, but it bears the mark of a master craftsman just the same. Ryan perfectly understands the tone of the book he is writing, and perfectly channels that into his writing. An interesting cross between Rothfuss and Abercrombie, the words flow in a way that is very difficult to do with such a blunt story. And, perhaps most importantly, the battle scenes in Blood Song are fantastic. The action is superb all throughout, Ryan makes sure the conflict is clear and understandable, while still being engaging and dramatic. When a book relies on action scenes as much as this one does, the skill the author has in writing them is paramount to the reader’s enjoyment of the novel. And Ryan absolutely nails it.

The characters may have been the weakest point of the novel, but that doesn’t mean they were poor by any means. Vaelin is an excellent main character, good enough that the reader roots for him, while still being flawed enough that the reader relates to him. He was, however, a bit overpowered. When someone is that good with a sword, just naturally, it begins to raise some questions (see Bilbo dueling a goblin in The Hobbit). An attempt was made to limit his abilities by making him worse at archery and horsemanship than some of his peers, but it never really seems to have much of an effect on the story. The supporting cast was well done, but as a rule I generally wish more had been done with them. Caenis was interesting, but I felt that there were aspects of his personality that were never really explored. He may have been the most interesting of Vaelin’s classmates, but he’s the one we earn the least about. I hope we see more of him in Tower Lord. Barkus and Dentos, though fine characters, were really rather flat and two-dimensional. I kept getting them confused, especially in the beginning, where Ryan dumps a lot of names on you (and Vaelin, to be sure), and I just never really figured out what made some of them different from each other. The story lacks a traditional villain (at least until the closing pages), but those that serve as temporary villains do so with aplomb; both the King and Princess are deliciously manipulative without being “evil”, or even “bad”. And then, of course, there’s my favorite member of the supporting cast: Nortah. A different take on the Ambrose Jakis or Draco Malfoy character, his character arc is the most dynamic in the story, including far more growth and character development than Ambrose and Draco combined.

All that said, the book was not flawless. I often felt as though the book was hinting towards certain occurrences or events that were either too subtle or just went over my head. There was a brief period directly after the end of schooling where the pacing dropped off a bit, but it was fixed almost immediately. And I didn’t entirely love the ending—it resolved well enough, but I still had many unanswered questions that I feel weren’t answered, and may never be answered, as Vaelin showed no sign of feeling motivated to seek out any more. The biggest problem I had was the Blood Song itself. It was never really explained, but instead of seeming mysterious and enigmatic, it came across as more of a Deus Ex Machina (though not quite that bad). It’s a real shame, because I thought that with a bit more explanation the magic system could be fantastic – perhaps we’ll learn more with Tower Lord.

Overall, a fantastic book that is well deserving of its reputation. A phenomenal story, great characters, and action scenes among the best I’ve ever read more than make up for the few, small flaws in the story. I will be eagerly awaiting the next books in the series!

Final Rating: 9/10

Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan

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“The age of kings is dead, Adamat, and I have killed it.”

Promise of Blood is Brian McClellan’s debut novel, and one that has already seen him hailed as one of fantasy’s rising stars. With an intriguing system of magic, a large cast of characters, and even a couple gods, all the pieces are in place for a truly legendary book. And while Promise of Blood certainly delivers an entertaining read, certain pieces of the puzzle fail to fall into place.

Perhaps the most interesting about the novel is the setting in which McClellan chooses to place the story. It feels much like a typical Middle Ages fantasy world – only sped up to the industrial era. New is replacing old, and everything is changing in this setting. The book opens with what is symbolically the first step – Field Marshal Tamas leads a rebellion to overthrow the king. Only instead of taking the throne for himself, he and a committee of other interested parties take command, with the primary focus of their rule being the people, not the nobility. There’s even a union of labor workers, whose influence is not insignificant. This transition reflects the upheaval of the time, as old values are challenged and old powers begin to weaken.

The “revolutionary” theme of the story certainly doesn’t end with industrialization. After all, this is a fantasy book! Magic is also changing in this world, with the new “powder mages” threatening the old guard of sorcerers, known as “Privileged”. Privileged magic is reminiscent of stereotypical fantasy magic: requiring elaborate hand gestures, and resulting in some kind of elemental effect. This kind of magic is never truly explained, but it is never used in a Deus Ex Machina fashion. Gunpowder Magery is a far different concept, and the tension between the Privileged and powder mages perfectly represents the conflict between old and new in Promise of Blood. Powder mages have the ability to manipulate gunpowder and bullets, to the extent that their shots can be deadly accurate, while travelling for miles. They can also enter a powder trance by swallowing or snorting powder, a state in which they are stronger and faster, but which also comes with a price. A third kind of magic-user is the “Knacked”, which is less of magic, and more of a weak superpower, such as never needing sleep, or never forgetting anything.

There are three POV characters over the course of the story: Field Marshal Tamas, Powder Mage Taniel, and Inspector Adamat. Each of them has their own storyline, which interconnect and dovetail quite nicely to form the main plot. I must say I enjoyed each plotline the most at various points in the book; McClellan does a great job of keeping action going somewhere at all times. Tamas was a wonderful character – full of flaws and faults and conflicting motivations. There’s a past there, one that you can feel without ever even reading it. I also very much enjoyed Taniel, “Two-Shot” as he is called. He has to struggle with his loyalties, and some difficult events in his recent past add an irritable side to his personality. Oh, and he’s also Tamas’ son, and there are some sparks between them, too… Of the three points of view, I found Adamat’s to be by far the weakest. While his plotline may not have been lacking, I never found myself invested in his character. Despite all the danger he was placed in, I honestly didn’t mind if he made it out or not.

In terms of supporting cast… well, the results here are mixed too. Nila, a minor character with a few POV chapters, was distinctly boring. This is unfortunate, considering the distinct lack of female characters in the story. Olem, Tamas’ bodyguard, was excellent. His first interchange with Tamas was fantastic, and he is instantly appealing in a way no other character is. Ka-Poel and Vlora were both interesting characters, but both had their roles unfortunately downplayed due to certain circumstances. And I didn’t care for any of the Predeii, no matter how important they are.

The plot was extremely well done, tightly bound and gripping. Each scene moved the story along, and it was well paced throughout. However, there were some unfortunate flaws. Perhaps it’s just me, but I don’t like it when the first book of a series ends in a cliffhanger. Second book, sure. But something about the way this book ended rubbed me the wrong way, and I was heavily dissatisfied by the way very little of the plot had resolved by the end of the book. Secondly, I did not like the action scenes. They were slow, unfocused, and boring. I understand that action is considerably different when one is a sharpshooter in a time when guns took almost a minute to reload, but that doesn’t excuse the melee or magical combat scenes. It’s a shame, as these battles felt like a huge letdown after all the magnificent work McClellan had done to get to that point.

In conclusion, I found Promise of Blood to be mostly deserving of the praise it has received. A neat spin on the old fantasy clichés by leading them into their future, McClellan does a good job of leading his reader though a tight, well-thought out plot. His characters are a little hit-or-miss (always a possibility with such a large cast), and his action scenes are weak, but overall it’s a mighty fine novel.

Final Rating: 7.5/10

The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

Editor’s Note: This review contains spoilers for the first two books of the series. If you have not read them, please only read forward at your own peril.

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“’Damn it, when will you learn that refusing to admit you’ve lost isn’t the same as winning?’

‘Sort of depends on how long one keeps refusing, doesn’t it?’”

Well, the wait is over. The book is here, after a long six years. Are you ready for your next dose of Scott Lynch? Have you finished your rereads of Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies? Are you ready to be reunited with your favorite Gentlemen Bastards, and meet one very special Gentlewoman Bastard? Maybe you’re just looking for something good to read this weekend.

In any case, The Republic of Thieves will blow you away.

Told in a similar fashion to the first two books, Republic of Thieves has two plotlines: A flashback, and a “main” plot. The flashback takes place in the pre-Lies of Locke Lamora years, with all the Bastards still, well, intact. We are once again treated to the constantly clever and witty dialogue that Lynch seems able to pull out of a hat. We see some signs of character growth, as Calo and Galdo begin to drift apart from each other. Chains is, as always, and integral part of the group, even the scenes he is not present for. Despite having a more minimal role to play in this book than in previous ones, he still holds my vote for best mentor character ever. Despite all this, the flashback is mainly the story of Locke and Sabetha: how they met, how they interacted, and their slow, highly awkward transition to becoming lovers. The plotline about all the bastards putting on a play is mostly unimportant, even if the play itself does title the book. The play Republic of Thieves is magnificent, by the way. From the few snippets we get, I’d gladly read it for any English class.

The main plotline sees Locke (and Jean) go head-to-head with Sabetha in a battle of wits and cunning, as each seeks to achieve victory for their respective political party in the elections. These elections happen to take place in Karthain, home of the Bondsmagi, Locke’s old enemies. The only way they get him and Sabetha to take the job is by giving each of them something they could otherwise not have received. Much of the story is the three Bastards playing practical jokes on each other, and very little campaigning seems to get done, or need doing. The biggest point of this plotline is the interesting questions the Bondsmage Patience asks of Locke, and his true nature. As of the end of the book, these questions are far from resolved.

Lynch’s prose is, as always, beautiful. There is no expansive description, no frilly bells and whistles on his writing. But it is not a hard-boiled, dirt-and-bones approach to writing, either. It is a fully fleshed out, fluid style that perfectly suits the story being told. To see words flow together so effortlessly and seamlessly is a skill that makes people like me want to tear our hair out with envy.

No one characterizes like Scott Lynch. Not J.K. Rowling, not Tolkien, the only comparison I can really give is Martin. Lynch’s main characters are among the best described, most entertaining in the world of speculative fiction. Though they may not be the most flawed, I for one (and I know I am not alone in this) consider Locke among my favorite characters of all time. Unfortunately, Lynch seems to have dug himself a hole even he cannot dig himself out of; that hole is Sabetha. After all the references and mentions of her in the first two books, the vision of Sabetha is far more powerful than any character Lynch could have created, and she inevitably falls short. She felt like a less witty, more direct version of Locke, and I completely failed to understand Locke’s dewy-eyed obsession with her. That being said, had she not had a reputation to live up to, she would have been an excellent character, at the very least near Lynch’s usual standards.

Supporting characters are few and far between in the main plot — only Patience and Nikoros really count. Nikoros was always a bit-part player, and Patience never seemed right to me. Her motivations seemed skewed; I was never quite sure what she was trying to accomplish. In the flashback plot, though, there is a whole slew of them. Moncraine, Boulidazi, Sylvanus, Alondo… even the parts in the play develop their own personalities. For the most part, these characters play a certain role, and do it fine. Rarely are they fleshed out more than that, but when they are, I found the characters very well done. Moncraine and Boulidazi especially.

Of course, the area in which Lynch truly excels in is the interactions between his characters. The verbal sparring is ever-present, and I’m sure that Lynch has a fountain of witty and clever dialogue in his house that he turns on whenever he needs inspiration. Jean, Locke, and Sabetha are masters of this in the main plotline, and the repartee among all the Bastards in the flashbacks is often the best part of a section.

The plot of this book, unfortunately, is not quite what we’ve come to expect. Rather than the elaborate heist of Lies of Locke Lamora, or the dramatic naval warfare of Red Seas Under Red Skies, Republic of Thieves often seems a bit lackadaisical in its plot structure. I can’t help but feel this is on purpose, though, as Lynch seems to be using this book mostly to introduce the character of Sabetha. And though there are rarely any stakes, and if they are, they are rarely too high, Lynch does a superlative job of adding tension and suspense into these scenes. It makes what could have been a fairly pedestrian novel into a well-paced, entertaining book. The only real problem I had with the pacing is that the main plot drags a little in the beginning, and the flashback plot around the beginning of the middle. Luckily, both are aided by the fact that the other plot is actually very entertaining right as they slump.

Most fans of Scott Lynch will be eagerly awaiting word of the setting. Unfortunately, neither Karthain nor Espara have the genius of Camorr or Tal Verrar. They are settings, like most places, not particularly embellished upon, and certainly no simple stories of their history, as is relatively commonplace in Lies. It is regrettable, but mostly unnoticeable. I feel that where the addition of the city as a supporting character in the first two books was an added bonus, nothing is lost by not having it that way.

Republic of Thieves is a great book. It is (nearly) everything we’ve come to know and love from Scott Lynch, and he took a big risk in revealing Sabetha to us. Though her character may have fallen a little flat, and elements of the plot feel a little off, I would still consider this book outstanding. A warning before you begin: There are an enormous amount of cliffhangers in this book. You will grow to both admire them for what they are, and despise them for what they do to you.

Seriously though. Read this book. I, for one, will be eagerly awaiting The Thorn of Emberlain.

Final Rating: 8/10

Note: A digital copy of this book was provided for review by the publisher via NetGalley.

Happy Hour in Hell by Tad Williams

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“If I were writing a book of advice for young angels, I would probably start it out with ‘Never, ever, ever go to Hell.’”

Happy Hour In Hell is Tad Williams’ second novel in his Bobby Dollar series. For those unfamiliar with Bobby Dollar, or the first book, The Dirty Streets of Heaven, the Urban Fantasy series is about Doloriel, a heavenly advocate (he’s a defense lawyer for souls upon their death), but who goes by Bobby Dollar while on Earth, which is most of the time. After the death of a demon with whom Bobby was acquainted, if not particularly liked, Bobby is thrown into a conspiracy with the potential to destroy the “Heaven vs. Hell” order and possibly even the entire world.

Happy Hour in Hell continues Bobby’s story, as he attempts to infiltrate Hell for reasons that would be slightly too spoiler-y for anyone not familiar with the series. Suffice it to say that it is something he wants very very badly, and is willing to go through much to get it.

Tad Williams is a highly acclaimed author, and having accomplished much in the other two main areas of Speculative Fiction (Fantasy and SF), turned his sights to Urban Fantasy. His writing is understandably very good, and he paints a beautifully horrifying picture of even such a washed-out topic as Hell.  Unfortunately, the first-person narration can be very jarring, as Williams seems to think Dollar’s various extended similes are far more humorous than they really are. Sometimes they actually are mildly entertaining, but I wish that Williams had removed all the plainly dumb ones, and focused on making the good ones really good. It’s always a problem when a reader thinks he can spot the author’s thought process while writing, and that’s exactly what happened here.

Bobby, despite his overconfidence in his humor, is actually quite a good character. Cynical and sarcastic, but with a sweet and gentle side. I find that I root for him, and for an angel, he really is darker than you’d expect. Unfortunately, the supporting cast is considerably weaker, two-dimensional and uncompelling almost to a person. Sam and Clarence are boring, clichéd “friend” characters, though different in the way they do it. Sam is the wisecracking, confident friend who’s known Bobby for years, while Clarence is the newbie, lacking Bobby’s full trust but still springing up with helpful interventions from time to time. Neither have any truly defined personality traits, but luckily both play minor roles in this book. Caz, Bobby’s love interest, frustrated me beyond belief. I didn’t care about her. I didn’t care about what happened to her. And I simply could not comprehend what on Earth it was that made Bobby so completely obsessed with her. And to round out the supporting cast, we have Eligor, Grand Duke of Hell and Horseman of the Apocalypse. Not a particularly creative villain, but I happen to enjoy the cliché he was created from (the cultured villain), so I was willing to overlook that. Most of the other characters are minor denizens of hell—no, the book is not particularly large in scale, why? —and these are either completely one-dimensionally evil (it is hell, though), or very much “good guys”. Why are so many of the people of hell nice? I don’t know. You’ll have to ask Mr. Williams.

However, if the characters are a bit lackluster, than the plot is a bit brilliant. A perfectly crafted pacing keeps you on your toes, as you find yourself sucked into Williams’ world. The Hell that exists in this book is twisted and dark; everything that Hell should be. It is very Dante-like in terms of its vertical structure, and the further down you go, the more horrible things get. Every place Bobby visits in hell is meticulously crafted, even down to the local wildlife (which is also horribly creepy). It is a beautifully crafted world, and even if I wouldn’t want to live there, I can certainly admire the craftsmanship that went into its creation.

So what we have here is a fun, easy Urban Fantasy romp. It’s not a complicated book or hard book to read. It has a good, fast pace and an entertaining main character. It is set in a chilling, wonderfully atmospheric setting, and is a real page-turner. It is sorely lacking in the supporting cast of characters, and a constant insistence on rarely funny humor gets tiresome quickly, but if you are looking for a fun, easy read, then this book would be a good choice.

Final Rating: 6.5/10

Note: A digital copy of this book was provided for review by the publisher via NetGalley.

Emperor of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

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Note: I have tried to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, but have not been 100% successful. If you have not read Mark Lawrence’s “The Broken Empire” Trilogy, then read forward at your own risk.

“Dark times call for dark choices. Choose me.”

This single quote provides perhaps the best possible summary of the book I can give. I will, however, endeavor to add a little detail to this review, as well as a brief background on the series for those unfamiliar with it.

In 2011 Mark Lawrence released his debut novel Prince of Thorns, thereby propelling himself into the upper echelons of fantasy authors. Readers are all over the world were entranced by his protagonist, Jorg Ancrath, his not-so-merry adventures, and even less merry band of adventurers. We forgive him his many flaws, as his charisma and dark humor shine through beautifully in the first person narration. The book is brutal and uncompromising, full of grittiness and harsh reality. Jorg’s ambition and cruelty form a picture of a fascinatingly three-dimensional character, one who a reader would admire and support, even if they do not necessarily like him.

2012 saw the release of King of Thorns, which I consider one of my favorite books of all time. In addition to the classic “villain” character that Jorg would be if the book were told from any other perspective, Lawrence introduces a classic “hero” character, with whom Jorg clashes over several issues. The reader (as well as Jorg himself) must decide who to root for in this conflict. And no one chooses the good guy. It is a masterful piece of writing, truly exemplary.

And now 2013 has come, and with it, Emperor of Thorns, last in the best debut in recent memory. Though I did not find it quite as good as the other two in the series, it is still a worthy conclusion to the acclaimed Broken Empire Trilogy.

The story is told in three ways. The first two are familiar—The first being Jorg in the present, as he travels to and reaches Congression, an event occurring every four years, where an emperor would be picked if the squabbling lords could ever agree on anything. The second is Jorg five years ago, as he travels around the lands he one day hopes to rule. The third, and most risky on Lawrence’s part, is from the POV of the necromancer, Chella. Though I thought her perspective dragged a bit in the beginning, I found it to be, in general, a good addition to the story.

As always, Lawrence’s writing is masterful. The only reason Jorg is such a compelling character is because of the sheer brilliance of the writing. Lawrence develops all the charisma and humor (I rarely laugh out loud while reading, but to make me do it multiple times in such a dark book is quite an achievement), and I feel almost in awe of the ability to evoke such powerful responses from his readers.

In general, the rest of the supporting cast is either hit-or-miss. I liked Katherine (Jorg’s love interest, although she’s really much more than that) in the first book, but not so much in either of the other two. Miana (Jorg’s wife and queen) is entertaining and smart, but she never really develops past bit-part player. I have always loved Sir Makin, and he is no different in this book. A grounding influence on his brooding lord, his humor and charm is far lighter than Jorg’s and he provides a much-needed lightening of the atmosphere. Jorg’s group of travelers, Rike, Kent, and Gorgoth are all two-dimensional, but they serve a purpose, the same as Kai Summerson, who has a far different impact on proceedings. Chella has been a major player since the first book, and even with the addition of her own POV, I never really developed any strong feelings for or against her inclusion. She was just there. And then, of course, there’s Jorg’s adversary, “The Dead King”. The subject of one of the least surprising plot twists I’ve read in a while (it is hinted at so much I’m surprised Lawrence doesn’t just come out and say it), but even so I never found him a particularly compelling villain. I vastly preferred the villains of the first two books (Olidan and Orrin), who I found to be far superior characters.

The place where I thought the book ran into the most trouble was the worldbuilding. Where previously it was only hinted at, this book reveals the true sci-fi nature of the trilogy, and, unfortunately, it fell very flat. A lot of the hocus-pocus technological explanations for things fell very short, and rarely did they make any sense. I do like the semi-Europe that Lawrence has set his world in, and the African lands that Jorg spends some flashback time in, but that was about it for setting. This series has never really been about location, anyway.

The other main flaws of the book were in the conclusion. I found the motivation of the Dead King to be entirely unrealistic and unlikely, especially considering everything we’d heard about him in the previous two books. I also found the resolution to be very weak, far far too easy for such a complex problem. I won’t go into any more detail than that, but those who have read the book will understand what I’m talking about.

Overall, the book was very good. It did not quite live up to the hugely high standards set by the first two books, but still absolutely worth a read. Jorg remains one of my favorite characters, and the second plot twist at the end (this one entirely unexpected, and actually rather genius) served to end the series in a rather satisfying way, and one wholly in keeping with the theme of the rest of the series. If nothing else, this book and series serve as a warning to the rest of the fantasy community: Mark Lawrence is a fantastic author, and he is (I’m fairly sure of this) going to be the next “big” fantasy author.

Final Rating 7.5/10

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

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“I saw the world I had walked since my birth and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger. I saw the world from above and below. I saw that there were patterns and gates beyond the real. I saw all of these things and understood them and they filled me, just as the waters of the ocean filled me.”

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is acclaimed author Neil Gaiman’s most recent release. Famed for his brilliant, effortless creativity and unclassifiable novels, The Ocean is gentle, for him. Yes, it includes witches and earth-devouring monsters, but at its roots it is really a tale about childhood, and what it means to be young.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the tale of a young, seven-year-old boy, whose name we never actually learn. The eponymous ocean is that of the Hempstocks, the strange family that lives down the road from his family, at the end of the lane. When a South African opal miner kills himself on their street, he awakens forces better left untouched. Because our narrator is down at the Hempstocks at precisely the wrong time, the youngest Hempstock (she claims she’s eleven, but how long she’s been eleven for remains unknown) takes him with her to go and get rid of a “flea” from the land behind their farmhouse. She hides in our narrator’s foot so he brings her back to the real world, where she proceeds to make his life as miserable as she can. When the boy tries to go to the Hempstocks for help, things escalate to a level beyond the imaginings of even the books our protagonist loves so much.

Gaiman’s understanding of childhood is lovely; the fact that it is (very) loosely based off of events of his own childhood (the back cover is actually a picture of him) certainly helps in this instance. Once again, he proves that the fluidity and creativity of his prose is nearly unmatched, the effortless uniqueness of his writing can be awe-inspiring at its peak. Gaiman easily shows what it means to be a child, all the while telling a story of ancient magic and power.

Our narrator is a perfect character, completely realistic and surprisingly childlike. I never once doubted that he could exist, and I suspect that Mr. Gaiman used himself as a model when writing him. The Hempstocks are 100% Gaiman, plain, unassuming people who just happen to wield more power than anyone in the world. They are proud, a bit stubborn, and very human. Brilliant. And Ursula Monkton (the villain, as if you couldn’t tell from her name) is horribly creepy, leaping out of the pages of the book through Gaiman’s vibrant description. A really well-assembled villain, she evokes many different emotions as the book moves on, anywhere from hatred to pity.

The plot, despite the fact that Earth is very nearly destroyed, is really quite small. The book is not a long one, and everything moves along rather quickly and simply. There is no elaborate problem solving, as in many of Gaiman’s other works; instead this book is character-driven through and through. It was all very simple, ultimately. There were lovely characters, and the interactions were spot on, but the plot was very… bare.

And that is my one complaint. I wish more time had been taken to flesh out the plot, and the setting. Who are the Hempstocks, really? Where did they come from? I wanted to more about fleas and varmints, to know why they are what they are. I wanted a more detailed, expansive description of the world, and I wanted a more detailed, expansive plot. I know this book originally started out as a short story, and maybe that was the problem. Mr. Gaiman was trying to make it short and sweet, but all that ended up happening was that we lost a little something.

In conclusion, this book is not Gaiman’s finest work, but still well worth a read, especially if you already know that you like him. It has his beautiful prose and realistic characters, but it lacks the intrigue and development that his better books have. A solidly good book.

Final Rating: 7.5/10

Nightside the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe

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“Overhead the skylands sailed serenely among broad bars of sterile cloud, displaying countless now-sunlit cities in which nobody at all knew or cared that one Patera Silk, an augur of faraway Viron, was frightened almost to death and might soon die”

Gene Wolfe is one of the most divisive authors in the genre of speculative fiction (I use that generic tag because he fits neither the category of Science Fiction nor Fantasy—rather, he exists in his own world, the world of “Science Fantasy”.) Wildly popular among critics, and with several awards to his name, he is also an enormous influence on other respected writers, most notably the excellent Neil Gaiman. However, his popularity among the masses is far less effusive. Though his relatively few fans are fierce in their love, they are, well, few. For various reasons, people simply do not like him, the most common complaint being that he is boring, though I have heard many others. Having grown up in a household home to one of his fans, I was always expected to try one of his books. And yet I was always put off by the distinctly mixed reviews I was getting, especially from sources I trusted. Finally I decided to pick one up. This would not be the easiest book of his to start with, nor would it be the first published, but I was advised that it was his best. So, with no little trepidation, I began.

The main character of the book is Patera Silk, augur (essentially a minister) of a poor manteion (holy building). Unknown to him, the building which he regards as sacred, not to mention holding great personal significance, is to be sold to a crooked businessman – named Blood – due to unpaid taxes. He attempts, unsuccessfully, to convince Blood to allow him to keep the manteion. This involves breaking into his house, which earns him Blood’s respect, if not his goodwill. He is offered a deal, one that will get him back his manteion. Unfortunately, the terms of this new deal are practically impossible for Silk to perform…

First off, Wolfe’s characters are exceptional. Patera Silk is amazingly well-developed, fully three-dimensional, and with a whole host of flaws to match his virtues. Let us not forget that, being a priest, he decided it would be a good idea to try to break into someone’s mansion. If this does not make a character interesting, I don’t know what does. Blood, as the primary villain, is also relatable and sympathetic. He’s not your typical bad guy, he’s not even really “bad”. Everything he did, every action he took, was perfectly appropriate, reasonable, and justified. And that makes him all the more interesting to read about. There are four other supporting characters who I expect to become more important as the series goes on; two good and two bad. Hyacinth, the courtesan, and Crane, the doctor who may be much more, would be the first category. Musk, Blood’s second, and Mucor, Blood’s demon daughter (seriously) would be the second group. All are well-crafted, intriguing, and three-dimensional.

Wolfe’s world, known as “The Whorl” is also well-crafted. The Whorl hides a secret, but instead of being explicitly told, readers are left to discover this on their own, figuring it out piece by piece. Religion plays a major factor also, as one would expect when the main character is a priest. The pantheon of gods appear to their followers through a device known as a “Sacred Glass”. I am not quite sure what these are, nor what the gods will turn out to be, for they certainly exist.

Now, though everything that I’ve mentioned in his review so far has been overwhelmingly positive (glowing, in fact), I did not love this book. And this is because it suffers from a serious problem with pacing. The first 100 pages of the book are among the dullest I have ever read. No sort of development occurs; plot, character, or otherwise. After that the book improves, and I felt myself drawn in. Unfortunately, due to the fact that the entire first third of the book is terribly slow, I was unable to fully immerse myself in the story. I was constantly afraid the book would slip back into those doldrums, and my initial perception of the book, though it did not apply in the later portions, was difficult to fully ignore.

Also, the book never really concludes. The problem isn’t solved. Ultimately, very little really happens in the book. I feel like if the first hundred pages were cut, that would give the author 100 pages more at the end to actually do something with the story, rather than make this book feel like one big set up. Which I’m sure it is, and that the second book is far better. However, it seems arrogant to assume that readers will pick up the next book in the series, no matter how enjoyable the pervious one was.

Overall, this was a good book. I don’t believe it approached the stratospheric levels where many critics have placed it, nor do I think it was as terrible as many readers seem to think it is. A great world and great characterization are all well and good, but when the pacing is off I struggle. Still, all in all, a fine novel, and a good introduction to Mr. Wolfe.

Final Rating: 6.5/10

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

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“The sun hitched up her trousers and soldiered on up into the sky. September squinted at it and wondered if the sun here was different than the sun in Nebraska. It seemed gentler, more golden, deeper. The shadows it cast seemed more profound. But September could not be sure. When one is traveling, everything looks brighter and lovelier. That does not mean that it is brighter and lovelier; it just means that sweet, kindly home suffers in comparison to tarted-up foreign places with all their jewels on.”

A word of warning before I begin—this is going to be a glowing review. A very glowing review, as this book has even overtaken the phenomenal The Night Circus as the best book I have read all year. Are you buckled up and ready? Then let’s begin.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship of Her Own Making is the story of September, a little girl from Omaha. She is terribly bored by her life, and subsequently the Green Wind whisks her away across the Perverse and Perilous Sea, in order to have adventures in Fairyland. She discovers a land of muted magic and enjoyment, thanks to the ruler of Fairyland, known as the Marquess. And as the Green Wind says of the Marquess:

“All little girls are terrible, but the Marquess, at least, has a very fine hat.”

After being blackmailed by the Marquess, September embarks on a quest to retrieve a sword, with the help of a Wyverary (when a Wyvern and a Library love each other very much… well, you understand.) and a wish-granting Marid. I won’t go any further for fear of spoiling anything, but let me just say that I found the ending to this book to be among the best I have ever read, and an absolute pleasure to read.

First of all, Valente has complete mastery of the English language. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’d slept in a circle of toadstools, wrestled a bear, and pulled a sword from a stone in order to win this skill from an evil witch. The way she effortlessly evokes emotion and images with the simplest of phrases is reminiscent of C.S. Lewis. I was constantly left in awe of her prose, which is deliberately similar to that of a stereotypical fairy tales, only with ten times the genius.

Her characters are similarly wonderful. September, the main character, is a three-dimensional model of the classic fairy tale girl. Like Alice or Dorothy, just more interesting, and more likable. Though she often expresses her desire to be “irascible and ill-tempered”, she often shows a kind and gentle side, as well as a fierce devotion to her friends. Though she is fun to read about, sympathetic, entertaining, and an all-around just a smashing character, she still pales in comparison to Valente’s supporting cast, which is simply stellar. I’ve already mentioned the Marid, Saturday, and the Wyverary, A—L (or Ell for short). These two are the most important of all secondary characters, being September’s quest-mates, and they certainly do not disappoint. Saturday is unique, a genie of the ocean, so to speak. I found his diet particularly fascinating, though I won’t spoil the surprise for you. And as for A—L, well, Ell is now one of my favorite characters of all time. Humorous, witty, lovable, flawed… just about everything you could hope for in a character is there. Not to mention his hilarious story about his birth and heritage. The Green Wind, despite his relatively small part to play, is such a magical, charming Harsh Air that even when I had finished the book, it was him I wanted to read more about, not Saturday or Ell (or even the key!). And the smoking jacket that he gives September is just priceless, providing humor and sympathy even in the bleakest portions of the book. The Marquess is a brilliant villain, who gives you something to root against in the beginning, but also is revealed to be far more sympathetic than she initially seems. Her story is terribly tragic, and I felt genuinely sorry for her by the end of the book.

All of September’s stops on her journey are filled with all the same whimsy as a normal fairy tale, but with a darker tone. The autumn provinces. The winter provinces. Meeting Mr. Map. The hundred-year old furniture. The great velocipede (it means bicycle) migration. All of it is completely entrancing. The plot of the story is beautiful, it, despite all its outward appearances, is not your average fairy tale. There is real danger to the characters, and growth throughout the book. And the plot twist at the end got me. I honestly didn’t see it coming, and was genuinely shocked. It has been a long time since that has happened to me, and so it was a wonderfully pleasant surprise in this case.

Are there any problems with this book? Well, I tried to think of one, and I came up short. There’s a very brief section in the third quarter of the book that drags a little. There are still some unanswered questions (but it’s a series, so I can’t really complain). Maybe the ending was a little saccharine? I honestly can’t really think of much.

In conclusion, this is a wonderful, whimsical book; a traipse through tried clichés and tired metaphors that somehow manages to breathe new life into everything it touches. There aren’t really any notable problems, and has one of the best casts of characters I’ve seen in a long time. And the best part is, anyone can read it. Its appeal is entirely cross-generational. My library has it filed under YA, it could just as easily have been in the children’s section. Anyone could read this book and enjoy, no matter their age. And everyone should, too.

Final Rating: 9.99/10