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 Darwin Elevator by Jason Hough

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“Skyler looked at Tania, found her white as a sheet, eyes wide with terror. He followed her eyes to see a subhuman turning the corner at the far end of the computer room. Naked, covered with dirt, blood, and old scars—more gruesome than most. It had an open wound on the side of its face, rancid with infection, revealing the bone beneath. The creature tried to scream at them, but all that came out was a sick gurgling sound.”

The Darwin Elevator is Jason Hough’s debut novel, and, if he continues to improve, I think he could become a real star. Darwin takes place in approximately 2050. In Hough’s future (which is scarily familiar), the Earth has been visited twice by an alien species known as “the builders”. There has never been any contact, rather, a spaceship simply shows up every few years, and delivers a surprise. First was the space elevator, centered in Darwin, Australia. Next was the plague, called SUBS, a disease that turns those who survive it into “sub-humans”, capable of only the basest emotions. For some reason, the elevator shields the area around it from the disease, meaning that the entire population of the Earth is now contained in the former city of Darwin. The book centers on three characters: Skyler Luiken, captain of a scavenger ship, and with a rare immunity to the disease. Tania Sharma, a young, brilliant and beautiful scientist living aboard the orbiting space stations attached to the elevator. And Neil Platz, the most famous man in the world. A true businessman, he capitalized when the elevator came down on his property. He owns all the advanced technology (space stations, water sterilizers, etc.) in the book.

Hough’s prose is fine. Workmanlike and sparse, but it does what it is suppose to do, and that is set the frenetic pace that lasts almost the entire book. Really, the pacing of this book is phenomenal. It was as if the pages turned themselves. And as this is Hough’s debut novel, we can only expect the beauty of his prose to improve… and wow. That is some great potential to be tapped into here.

It starts to break down a little when it comes to the characters. I didn’t find Skyler that bad, he just seemed a bit reactive throughout the entire story, and his personality was a bit bland. I imagine one is supposed to set his or her own traits on top of Skyler’s to gain a greater emotional connection. Tania was the same way, just worse. Far more bland, far more reactive. The primary antagonist, Russell Blackfield, is made out to be such a disgusting and creepy man he becomes a caricature. The book makes numerous references to his charisma and charm, but it never came across. Such a nasty antagonist was hard to relate to, and he came off as an “evil for evil’s sake” villain, even though that’s not what he was.

The supporting cast, however, was excellent. Neil Platz was a brilliant character, full of wit and charisma. I had no trouble believing he was the most famous person on Earth (he reminds me of Elon Musk—I’d be surprised if there wasn’t at least a little inspiration there). Kelly Adelaide and Samantha are the book’s two kick-ass female characters, and I was disappointed that they were relegated to relatively minor roles. Prumble, as the everyman, was probably my favorite character in the whole book, and I hope we get to see more of him as the series goes on. Hough seems to have tied his knot off fairly well, but I can see Skyler needing some help on something else in the future…

The world that Hough has created is vibrant and realistic, and altogether too familiar for comfort. Within the time frame set by the book, we will have the technology that the residents of Hough’s Earth have, and were we to be the subject of an alien visitation…

The caste system set up in the wake SUBS makes perfect sense. Those with good skills are elevated to a higher station in life. Those who don’t are too busy staying alive to learn one. And then the jealousy radiates up the chain. The roles of people like Blackfield, Prumble, and Skyler and his crew are entirely plausible, and the actions of the characters without any impact on the plot are also wholly realistic.

As for complaints, I’ve already registered my discontent with many of the main characters. I was also a little unclear as to what exactly was happening during the final action scene near the end, and although it is possible that I missed something in my frantic page turning, I think it is far more likely that the conclusion was just unclear.

In conclusion, a wonderfully paced, action packed book that kept me turning pages constantly. The characters could have been better, but all the same, a well-built world and gripping premise led to a thrilling reading experience. I think we can expect exciting things from Mr. Hough.

Final Rating: 8/10

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

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

Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks

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“I’m a huge wild bird floating on the currents sliding within the drifting wind, hanging lazily loosed on my outstretched wings cantilevered across the singing air. My wingtip feathers are each the size of hands; they flutter like a lamb’s heart flutters when my shadow falls over it. My feet are steel-tipped grapples hung on the end of my hawser legs. My talons are unsheathed razors; only my eyes are sharper. My beak is harder than bone, keener than just-broke glass. My keel bone is a great knife cozened in my flesh and cleaving the soft air; my ribs are glistening springs, my muscles sleek bunched fists of oily power, my heart a chamber filled with slow thunder, quiet and unstressed; a towering dam trickling power, ticking over, headwaters of charged blood pent and latent.”

First off, I’d like to begin by saying how deeply saddened I am by the passing of Iain Banks. He was a master of his work, a true legend in the genre of Science Fiction. His work will be remembered as some of the best produced, and he will be remembered as one of the best authors of his generation.

With that being said, Feersum Endjinn is actually my first Banks book. Therefore it would be impossible for me to compare it to any of his other novels, and I have no idea how it stacks up to his much-vaunted Culture series. What I can tell you is that this is certainly a fascinating novel.

Now, fascinating can have a variety of different meanings, and is often negative when used in a review. But I really mean that it is fascinating. Banks’ imagination shines very brightly in this book, so brightly that it seems he got a bit carried away. Parts of the book are needlessly overcomplicated, or need greater explanation.

Feersum Endjinn takes place far in the future, a time when only the eighth death is final for people, and even then, thanks to a product of Banks’ prodigious imagination, it is not quite final. But not all is well; the earth is at risk from an impending disaster known as “The Encroachment”. It is suspected that the King is not taking the threat seriously enough, and may in fact be trying to use it for his own personal gain. This matters more to some characters than others.

There are four main characters in this book (the King also gets an occasional POV chapter, but few enough that I am not including him in this number). The first character we meet is that of a mysterious girl. We know nothing about her, because she doesn’t either. As a result, we are forced to discover who she really is, and what she’s really like, right along with her. Though she seems to be initially unimportant, she is, in fact, by far the most important character in the book, more important even than the king. The second introduced is Chief Scientist Gadfium. Of the four, I found her to be by far the most boring and bland. It seems her job is to run around and talk to people, and though her chapters get slightly more entertaining near the end of the book, she appears to have no purpose, and her actions have no real import on the climax of the story. Third is Count Alandre Sessine. Though a typical hero, with little separating him from any other generic character, I still found him refreshing and entertaining. I wish the book had started off with his POV, because not only is he far more sympathetic and interesting, his first chapter also ends with an excellent cliffhanger. His chapter is the first place the book intrigued me, and urged me to read on.

By far the most interesting of the four characters, and the one we are introduced to last, is Bascule. The first thing to note about Bascule’s chapters is that they are quite difficult to read, as they are spelled phonetically, like so:

“Woak up. Got dresd. Had brekfast. Spoke wif Ergates thi ant who sed itz juss been wurk wurk wurk 4 u lately master Bascule, Y dont u 1⁄2 a holiday?”

This is actually the first line of Bascule’s narration we see, and it doesn’t get any better. Eventually you do acclimate, and find it slightly easier to read, but it never becomes truly simple. Now, if you can work through the difficult style, you discover that Bascule is really a loving, innocent young man, whom we can’t help but root for (even if he is amazingly naïve, and often quite silly). I was however, extremely disappointed by the role he was given to play in the finale. It was such a small one, and I felt like he deserved so much more.

This is not a stellar cast of characters. And because so much of the book is told through their eyes, the story suffers as well. Not enough of the world is explained fully enough, which is a shame, because the world that Banks has crafted is intricate and deep. The Crypt in particular is a fascinating piece of worldbuilding, and yet the reader is left grasping at small hints of what it really is, forced to (inadequately) piece together their own picture of it. Many of the characters turn out to be almost completely irrelevant to the plot, which becomes especially disappointing when you have invested a great deal of time and emotion in them, only to discover that they were really only a minor character in the end.

I’m sorry. So far this has been an exceedingly negative review, and frankly, the book isn’t that bad. Count Sessine is a very good character, and I found his predicament and actions sympathetic and intriguing. Like I said before, Banks’ world is superbly crafted, it just needs to be fleshed out a little more. Asura and Bascule are both very fun to read along with, although each have their own specific problems (Asura’s POV is complex and confusing in the beginning, Bascule’s problem is the difficulty in reading words phonetically).

Ultimately, this book had a lot of potential, but needed more time to build and flesh out the world. The characters were well-crafted, and the plot intricate and well-worked. Ultimately, the greatest criticism I can level at this book is that it never gripped me. I never really felt like picking it up again once I’d put it down, even though I enjoyed it when I did.

Final Rating: 6/10