Thursday, December 19, 2013

REVIEW: The Warlock's Shadow by Stephen Deas

There is something so simple and comforting about this series, of which The Warlock's Shadow is book two of three. After reading the likes of N. K. Jemisin who really like to shake up their fantasy world building, it's nice to return to a bread and butter Medieval Europe setting.

The Warlock's Shadow feels oddly familiar at times, as though I could once again be reading about Pug or Kvothe. At a comparatively short 304 pages however, Deas wastes little time with the non-essentials and I think a more traditional setting has assisted him in this.

Book one, The Thief-Taker's Apprentice, had quite a low risk storyline, not really venturing into any unknown territory, but still providing an entertaining read. For this reason and the length, I would definitely shelve it amongst youth fiction.

The same can be said again for the first three quarters of The Warlock's Shadow, but by the last quarter Deas decides that he has had enough of that and completely ups the anti. As the title perhaps suggests, we see the introduction of magic, which darkens the tone of the novels significantly and adds a layer of complexity not yet seen. The story becomes somewhat more graphic with the corpse tally growing exponentially. But more so than any of that, it is the final chapter that sees the greatest change in this series - let's just say that not everything ends well for our protagonists. While book one concluded with a nice little wrap up, book two is a good old cliffhanger (luckily I have book three, The King's Assassin, sitting on my shelf!).

As predicted, there is nothing to be said against Deas' writing or story crafting, which is meticulous, well thought out and extremely easy to read.

This is such a great little series that requires little time and investment for a great return so I recommend it to all fantasy fans!

Monday, December 16, 2013

REVIEW: Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

I'd only seen passing references to Ender's Game before I went and saw the film at the cinemas last week. I was so incredibly blown away by the film that I just had to read the book immediately. I will be talking a little about the film in this review too, so please be aware of potential spoilers.

I'm always amazed when fantasy books written decades ago can still seem fresh and relevant when read today, as if they were written this year. Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea books are a brilliant example of this, as is Ender's Game, originally published in 1985. Even though some of the technology in the book is no where near as spectacular as it is in the film (and is slightly reminiscent of the original Tron film) Card demonstrates incredible imagination and foresight for his time.

In my opinion the best fantasy and sci-fi novels aren't the ones with the best world building or magic systems, but the ones that use those elements as a platform to explore the human condition and/or psyche. I'm also a massive fan of really getting inside the minds of the characters and seeing a pure honesty as they grapple with conflict.

Ender's Game is a perfect example of this. Much like Katniss in Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy, we see the young protagonist struggle psychologically under extreme and unwanted pressure. While Katniss is interesting because she has little that is remarkable about her and is thrust into the spotlight circumstantially, Ender follows the child prodigy trope a little more closely. What is brilliant about Ender is how is constantly aware about what is happening and how he is being manipulated, but still struggles with his own inner demons.

I really appreciated how even though Card's characters are all incredibly young children, there is a lot of discussion and justification within the story on why. Through his characters Card also reflects on the exceptional and even unnatural state of the children and the concerns over their well being.

Another element that I enjoyed was the shift in perspective from beginning to end of the nature of the buggers, particularly within Ender. I think this was enhanced and therefore more successful in the film than in the book. Card creates the perfect enemy from the outset, which only sets us up for some beautifully tragic moments later on.

The final chapters were a little flat for me and seemed like Card wanted to get through as much story in the least amount of words possible. The film handled this much better, really playing up the climax for maximum investment and editing the story to a crisp and clean ending.

I have a feeling that the following novels in the series by Card won't be as good as Ender's Game (anyone?), but I am definitely going to give Speaker for the Dead a go. I will definitely be seeing the movie again though!

REVIEW: Mitosis by Brandon Sanderson

Mitosis is a short story (more like a chapter really) that follows on from Sanderson's most recent novel, Steelheart. I think it's really great in this digital age that authors can publish tidbits, short stories and novellas rather than being confined to conventional novels. Sanderson has been really successful in keeping the appetites of fans consistently sated through a number of shorter works including The Emperor's Soul, Legion and Infinity Blade: Awakening, all of which I have eagerly anticipated as much as his full length novels. Not only does it make his works richer, but it keeps a steady connection with his fan base.

Mitosis is a great little addition to the Steelheart story before it continues with book two, Firefight. I don't feel like I really need to go into all the things that makes Sanderson's writing brilliant. My only tiny reservation is that Sanderson was really quick to get back on the somewhat forced character motif bandwagon, such as David being really bad with metaphors.

You can get Mitosis as an eBook from your favourite online retailers.

Monday, December 2, 2013

REVIEW: The Killing Moon by N. K. Jemisin

I have to say right off the bat that The Killing Moon is definitely leaps and bounds above Jemisin's previous work, the Inheritance trilogy, which I liked, but had far too many flaws and frustrating elements to it. Jemisin's work has been consistently fresh and free from the regular world-building and magic-system tropes, but I felt her debut novels lacked logic and relied too heavily on just being able to make stuff up at the last moment.

Not only has she managed to remedy this completely in this novel, but I can hardly think of any flaws at all ... someone should start a slow clap for this woman.

Jemisin claims that the nation of Gujaareh is based off Egyptian culture, although if no one had told me, I never would have guessed. She does not immediately go for the imagery we all automatically reach for when we think Egypt; other than a city surrounded by desert sands. Jemisin draws upon Ancient Egyptian magic, which seamlessly blends religious and medical disciplines, but then also throws in some Freudian dream theory. Suffice to say The Killing Moon is worlds away from your popular medieval Europe fantasy setting. In her interview at the end of the book Jemisin goes as far as saying that she purposefully moves away from this setting as she believes modern fantasy has a fetishization with medieval Europe and that many authors over-simplify things and end up doing "Simplistic British Isles Fantasy Full of Lots of Guys with Swords and Not Much Else". Can't say that I disagree with her.

The religious and ceremonial beliefs of the Hetawa and that of two of our protagonists Nijiri and Ehiru are intriguing, but even more interesting is the way in which they are challenged by fellow protagonist, Sunandi. The followers of the dreaming goddess Hananja believe in a kind of ritualized killing that brings peace to the recipient and the benefit of dreamblood magic to everyone else. However outsiders like Sunandi simply see it as murder and Jemisin demonstrates how the strength of faith and belief moves each character and what happens when this is challenged.

The Killing Moon finds the perfect balance between delivering exposition and withholding information enough to keep the reader puzzling, without causing confusion or frustration (in excess anyway). There's quite a lot (like a lot) of foreign names and terms thrown in to the beginning chapters, which seems a little overwhelming at first, but quickly becomes more than manageable.

There are a myriad of small touches that add up to make this a great read. Each chapter begins with selections of text from Hananjan law, which gives just tidbits of information that enlighten previous and following chapters. Jemisin's also places an ambiguity on sexuality and in Gujaareen society there is no 'gay', only people who love who they love. All feelings are accepted and unjudged, which is a refreshing perspective coming from a society obsessed with labels and hetero-normalcy. 

The only thing I can say that is missing from The Killing Moon is the incredible passion and the constant need for more that great books instill in readers. Jemisin ticks all the boxes with this novel and leaves me incredibly satisfied, but I had very little emotional attachment to it. Considering this was one of the stronger points in her Inheritance trilogy, maybe she is just yet to find the right balance.

I'll be moving swiftly on to the last installment in this duology, The Shadowed Sun and recommend that you give The Killing Moon a go if you haven't already.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

REVIEW: The Tower Broken by Mazarkis Williams

The Tower Broken by Mazarkis Williams is the third and final installment in the Tower & Knife trilogy, following on from The Emperor's Knife (review here - with spoilers!) and Knife Sworn (review here).

For me, each of these books had a markedly different feel, due mostly to the notable changes in nature of the protagonists and their respective relationships. 

I still think The Emperor's Knife is the strongest book in this trilogy; the opening chapter is definitely one of the most striking and memorable I have come across. The characters were diverse and interesting and the story was a beautiful mix of melancholia, ferocity and the best political intrigue that fantasy can offer.

Knife Sworn, while still a great read was a little disappointing in comparison. This story, especially when experienced through the view-points of Grada and the visions of the Many, became much more obscure and almost confusing in its politics and magic system. I also felt most of the characters lost a lot of their strength and tended to float through the story.

The Tower Broken is best described as a combination between it's two predecessors; somewhat hazy in parts, but also strong and gripping in others. On the cover, Ben Aaronovitch describes is simply as 'Compelling' and this is certainly the word to describe Williams' latest book. The prose is engaging and seamless and Williams never allows the pace to fall below where it should.  

The Tower Broken reminds me a lot of Bradley P. Beaulieu's The Lay's of Anuskaya trilogy and in parts of Brent Weeks' Night Angel trilogy. The former for the incredible complexity of the story line and the fantastical elements therein, to the point where as the reader I question if it has moved past a one-dimensional story into something far more intricate, or whether it's all just getting a bit too messy to follow.

I struggled in the beginning to fully recall elements from the previous novels even though I read them both in the last year, especially given the growing complexity and changing nature of 'The Pattern'. The Tower Broken further complicates this by involving the god Mogyrk and Cerana's enemy, Yrkmir, which has until now only been floating under the surface. However, while I thought I might struggle a little as in Knife Sworn, the elements of story quickly resolve themselves to create a beautifully constructed world.

The empire of Cerana really is spectacular and could easily go unnoted, such is the skill in which Williams has woven it into the story. Most of all I loved the hierarchy and ceremony that has been built around Sarmin and The Petal Throne that wholely supports but does not intrude upon the plot. While I missed the beautiful idea of The Pattern and The Many, Williams does well (by the end) to integrate the Mogyrk religion further into the story and making it the focus of the final book was a great move.

Even though this series has some fantastic characters, characterisation and consistency of has always been a problem for Williams, as well as expecting the reader to invest in a character who plays a major role on the plot, but only pops up randomly out of nowhere part way through. I have to say though that The Tower Broken is a definite improvement in this regard - every character has a much clearer and defined nature and intention, which they stay true to throughout. 

Sarmin was a definite highlight in this book and found his balls in spectacular fashion. I do miss the powerful female characters such as Mesema and Nessaket from book one, who, particularly the latter, have been severely diminished through recent events. The choice of perspectives in this book were also interesting, with nothing from Grada, Nessaket or Rushes, but instead focusing primarily on Sarmin, Mesema, Govnan and newcomers Duke Didryk and Farid, none of whom are particularly odd, dangerous or ruthless.

I was getting worried near the end that the conclusion might become rushed but I think it resolves quite satisfactorily in terms of both pace and content. There were some moments where I think it got a bit too ethereal and I wanted something of more definite substance, but I guess it is always best to leave the audience wanting more.

If you've been reading this series then I definitely recommend finishing it with The Tower Broken, which sees some remarkable improvement in Williams' writing and a brilliant conclusion. I would also recommend the series to fantasy fans who want a captivating read, but perhaps not if you're the kind of reader who will be irked by the more sketchier and inconsistent areas of the story.

I'd like to thank Mazarkis Williams and the publisher Jo Fletcher Books for providing me with a copy of this book for review. I also want to mention that while the digital version of the cover features a super strange and creepy man with a goatee, he is much more tastefully shadowed and mysterious in the hard copy.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Orbit releases first two chapters of The Broken Eye by Brent Weeks

I've never been one to read these early release chapters because they tend to make me unnecessarily worked up (as I'm sure they're intended to do) and then I just get depressed about having to wait for the rest. But for those of you who need your fix of Weeks, Orbit has released the first two chapters of book three of the Lightbringer series, The Broken Eye.

If you haven't read The Black Prism or The Blinding Knife, doooo nooooooottt click this link, there be spoilers ahoy! Instead, reprimand yourself for not reading them immediately upon their release and rectify immediately.

REVIEW: Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson

The premise of Steelheart really doesn't sit with what I usually like in a book and I discovered this when I tried explaining it to a non-fantasy/sci-fi reader.

"It's set on Earth, where this weird star has appeared in the sky and given some people super powers, like the ability to turn everything into steel or make it night all the time. But everyone who gets these powers are really awful people, or the powers turn them awful (we don't know yet) and so the world is being run by tyrannical super villians. The story is about a group of normal people who are trying to take down the villains, including the most powerful, Steelheart."

Not only does it sound like the corniest sci-fi trope that you could think of, it also sound suspiciously like Sanderson's previous novel, The Final Empire. Nevertheless, Sanderson's previous record of sensational writing and post-apocalyptic power struggles with the divine yet evil always has back for more.

I enjoyed Steelheart, but I would have to say it is my least favourite Sanderson novel so far. Previously this was Alloy of Law, which was only saved because it belonged to the Mistborn universe; I think I just have a beef with anything that moves into more sci-fi and modern day territory. Give me a traditional swords and sorcery fantasy any day.

The world-building and plot of Steelheart felt a lot shallower compared to previous works, due mostly of course to the relatively shorter length of the book and the fact that it was set on Earth. For the very first time in a Sanderson novel I felt myself becoming dissatisfied, or even bored halfway through. Things do get a little predictable in there.

Without giving anything away, it is the final chapters that really make up for the rest of the book, where Sanderson appears in all his shining glory to not only prove he had us fooled the whole time (as always) but to finally give us the meatiness we were craving.

Because of those final chapters alone I am now eagerly anticipating (Let's not kid ourselves, I was always going to throw any other book across the room as soon as a Sanderson appeared) to release of the sequel, Firefight, apparently in Fall 2014. But first, I want me some Words of Radiance!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Brent Weeks shares new draft blurb for The Broken Eye

The Broken Eye is Weeks' third installment in his Lightbringer series and one of my most anticipated releases of 2014. In an email to fans, Week's shared a new draft blurb for the 900-page book, which is set to be released next August!
As the old gods awaken and satrapies splinter, the Chromeria races to find its lost Prism, the only man who may be able to stop catastrophe.  But Gavin Guile is enslaved on a pirate galley.  Worse, he no longer has the one thing that defined him — the ability to draft.

Without the protection of his father, Kip Guile will have to face a master of shadows alone as his grandfather moves to choose a new Prism and put himself in power. With Teia and Karris, Kip will have to use all his wits to survive a secret war between noble houses, religious factions, rebels, and an ascendant order of hidden assassins, The Broken Eye.
Read my review for The Black Prism here and The Blinding Knife here.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

REVIEW: Knife Sworn by Mazarkis Williams

Knife Sworn is the second installment in the Tower and Knife Trilogy after The Emperor's Knife (see my review - with spoilers - here).

What was frustrating earlier on quickly became a highlight for me in this novel - it was confusing as all hell. There's a lot to say about reading a story through the experience and perception of protagonists that are probably a little unhinged. As readers we take their word as gospel truth, especially after being privy to their internal dialogue. But when that view is limited, so too is ours, sometimes without us realising it.

Emperor Sarmin, affected by his closeted upbringing and now left with the aftershocks of being one of the Many as well as trying to rule Cerana, is not having a great time. There are gaps in his logic and memory, and we are swept into it without so much as a paddle, let alone a life raft. Grada is also one very strange individual, who the pressure has obviously gotten to.

The first third of the book leaves you struggling to keep up, giving you only snatches of information and certainly no solid ground to get your bearings. Characters such as as Nessaket and Rushes give us enough reprieve to get a semblance of a story together, but Sarmin remains thoroughly batty until the end. The magic and religion layered into the story are never explicitly explained or handed over to reason, although I found it easy in the end to roll along with the complex mystery of it all.

I did find that in comparison with book one, Knife Sworn feels like it was written by a different author, such is the change in tone and direction. Not even the characters feel the same. Even though the blurb claims that the book is the story of Sarmin and Mesema and focuses on Sarmin's decision to name a new Knife Sworn, this is hardly the case.

Mesema has been relegated to the role of bedside table, which is a real shame as she was a great presence in The Emperor's Knife. Sarmin and Mesema's relationship which seems to strong at the end of book one now seems almost non-existent. And on the matter of the Knife Sworn ... well it couldn't have had a less signficant role if it tried, not to mention that it was extremely late to the party.

Knife Sworn for me just felt like a watered-down version of The Emperor's Knife. Sarmin is once again faced with a new magical plague, tenuously linked to the Patterning. There's a half-hearted attempt at some political undertakings, but they really just die in the rear. What it ultimately feels like is that The Emperor's Knife was a story in itself, and that Knife Sworn is just left to find a sequel amongst the pieces, after most of the good characters have been killed off. The ending did have potential, but was extremely rushed and fell flat.

Honestly I don't really know how I feel about it all. It was truly a complex, mature and enjoyable read, and I was particularly drawn to the world that Williams created ... but some things were just a little inconsistent and rough for me; it lacked a clear purpose or drive. Nevertheless, still an interesting read if you like high fantasy with a strong signatory world and magic system.

Book three, The Tower Broken, comes out this November - still on my to be read list!

Saturday, August 31, 2013

REVIEW: The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

Firstly, to anyone out there who has been waiting to read The Republic of Thieves since finishing Red Seas Under Red Skies in 2007 ... my sincerest apologies to you. I on the other hand, read them both in the last two weeks. I mention this only partly as a glib taunt, but also because the lack of wait and anticipation colours my view in much the same way it did for my reviews of A Song of Ice and Fire, compared to those who waiting years between installments.

This is a series that has definitely been slow to grow on me. I found The Lies of Locke Lamora somewhat unremarkable and it took more than half of Red Seas to really start getting into a position of favour. I hit the ground running with Thieves, which picks up seamlessly from the events of book two, which was great for me, in much the same way as an accelerating getaway car avoids the long arm of the law.

But to the actual review! Thieves follows an almost identical formula from it's two predecessors, alternating between past and present. In this case, the past returns us to a time when the Gentlemen Bastards are still under the tutelage of Father Chains except that this time, lo and behold, we finally learn all about the mysterious Sabetha. It is not surprising in fact, that this whole book, in both timelines, revolves around Sabetha, or rather, her relationship with Locke.

All things considered, the choice to put off this part of the story until now worked quite well. The mystery of Sabetha was only referenced lightly in previous books; enough to create some suspense, but not nearly enough to frustrate or impede the story at hand. What I really loved was being able to go back and once again experience the characters (such as Calo and Galdo) that have since departed the story - there's nothing better than the joy of experiencing something that you thought lost. My only issue with Lynch's formula for each novel is that I feel that these 'past' events should have affected or at least have been referenced in 'present' events of previous books. While there are no major oversights, it still does feel a little bit like Lynch is creating or adding history retroactively.

The present day arc is equally as entertaining and flows smoothly alongside its past counterpart. Lynch cleverly mirrors both storylines; both telling of the kindling and rekindling of Locke and Sabetha's relationship respectively.

Locke Lamora continues to shine as the golden boy of this series and more and more brings to mind a younger and perhaps more adventurous Tyrion Lannister. Locke's unfailing wit reaches new heights in this installment and as things go from bad to worse, so too does his regard for his own well-being. This translates directly for us as the reader, to some downright laugh out loud moments. Even in his exposition, Lynch doesn't hold back on the colourful language.

Sabetha still remains a bit of a mystery to me and I can't help but feel only some of it can be put down to 'it's because she's a woman OoOoOoO.' Her and Locke obviously have a complicated relationship, but when you get down to the nitty gritty, I still can't figure out why. She seems to be incapable of handling even the slightest argument, instead choosing to flee the continent at any given moment. It all seems a bit too convenient for me.

The standalone highlight of this book is Lynch's masterful use of prose and vocabulary, making for a thoroughly crafted and intelligent read. I can't really elaborate more or give it higher praise than that, other than by saying he has the writer's equivalent of the comic timing of the world's best comedian. When the character's pause, you pause, when the action is happening, your adrenaline starts going and you read god damn faster!

The world of Locke Lamora continues to expand within the new settings of Karthain and Espara. While Lynch has never been one to spend copious amount of time describing the environment in detail, a colourful and unique world is built nonetheless. I think that by the end of the series the protagonists will have taken us through every city, one by one, book by book.

The tone of Thieves really surprised me and I actually found it very light on, especially compared to book two. Red Seas had us in dire straits (see what I did there) and managed to get some real emotional hooks in. This book not only felt briefer, but a lot safer. Although it could be seen as a nice respite it certainly makes Thieves stand out as a transitional book in a larger series, rather than a milestone in it's own right - a shame considering the six-year wait fans have endured.

I don't know how or why, but I was under the impression that Thieves was the last of a trilogy. Imagine my surprise when I encountered a shock ending, riddled with foreshadowing and catastrophic potential and then ask my good friend Google who tells me there are in fact seven books. Ladies and gentlemen, we are in for the long haul. And in that case, Lynch definitely needs to shake up the formula before things get downright repetitive and boring.

Which brings me to my biggest criticism of not only this book, but the series in general and certainly it's biggest downfall. Lynch ticks all the right boxes as I have mentioned above but somehow I'm still not hooked; there is no fire. I am definitely not aching to read the next book. Don't get me wrong, I will be sure to read it to get my next dose of scathing Lamora humour, but not because I care about the fate of the characters or story. I can't put my finger on why exactly this is the case, but it's a pretty major drawback. It's certainly a combination of feelings I have not experienced before.

I think if you have enjoyed the series so far then it is worth continuing with it; The Republic of Thieves maintains the elements that you have grown to love and gives you another shot of Lamora goodness (or wickedness). I'll be looking out for book four, The Thorn of Emberlain!

This is a review of an advanced reading copy supplied by the publisher. The Republic of Thieves is expected to be published on October 8th, 2013.