Sunday, 1 March 2015

Review: 'Traitor's Blade' by Sebastien de Castell


Falcio is the first Cantor of the Greatcoats. Trained in the fighting arts and the laws of Tristia, the Greatcoats are travelling Magisters upholding King’s Law. They are heroes. Or at least they were, until they stood aside while the Dukes took the kingdom, and impaled their King’s head on a spike.

Now Tristia is on the verge of collapse and the barbarians are sniffing at the borders. The Dukes bring chaos to the land, while the Greatcoats are scattered far and wide, reviled as traitors, their legendary coats in tatters.

All they have left are the promises they made to King Paelis, to carry out one final mission. But if they have any hope of fulfilling the King’s dream, the divided Greatcoats must reunite, or they will also have to stand aside as they watch their world burn…



Traitor’s Blade is the first in the Greatcoats series by debut author Sebastien de Castell, and is the sort of novel that has undoubtedly been described by someone, somewhere, as either a ‘rollicking adventure’ or a ‘ripping yarn’. Possibly both. The story follows Falcio val Mond, formerly First Cantor of the esteemed Greatcoats, as he struggles to uphold justice in the corrupt land that killed his King and censured the Greatcoats. Along with his stalwart companions Kest and Brasti, he has spent the five years since the king’s death eking out an ignoble living as a lowly caravan guard. When their client is brutally killed and the Greatcoats framed for his murder, these three musketeers Greatcoats must first run for their lives before attempting to seek out and bring justice to those responsible. However, Tristia’s corruption runs deep, and it seems that this time Falcio may be just a little bit out of his depth.

I had a lot of fun with Traitor’s Blade. The first-person narrator is humorous and likeable, and I particularly enjoyed the banter between Falcio and his companions: for the most part it’s witty and gentle, and seems natural rather than forced. The plot is solid and relatively tight, and the pacing is strong and fast; and although the main story is peppered with flashbacks, these are surprisingly not annoying in the slightest. The flashbacks are always brief and relevant to the immediate events of the story, and in no way intrude upon or detract from the main events. Refreshingly, the tone is relatively light-hearted throughout, although Castell shows he’s not afraid to delve into murkier waters with a few dark scenes that make for somewhat difficult reading.

The book is by no means perfect. Beneath its likeable heroes and shiny veneer, Traitor’s Blade is riddled with clich├ęs: we have noble outcasts, scheming Dukes, and evil villains (with at least one scene featuring the latter somewhat ill-advisedly revealing their diabolical plans to the captured hero), not to mention an obligatory torture scene, tragically murdered wife and ongoing quest for vengeance. And although I know it’s ridiculous to cry ‘unbelievable’ at a work of fantasy, there are also a few ‘yeah, right!’ moments: for instance, what are the chances of our heroes just happening to arrive at their destination as the city’s equivalent of The Purge is about to take place? And, lastly, I was a bit disappointed that I managed to correctly figure out three of the four major plot twists relatively early on in the story.

Griping aside, I found Traitor’s Blade to be a highly enjoyable and fast-paced read, with a focused plot and a protagonist I could really get behind.  Even better, the ending is perfectly set up for the events of the sequel, which just happens to be released next week.


4/5

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Tough Travels: Chess Masters

‘Tough Travelling’ is a weekly feature: every Thursday (hopefully!) I’ll be rummaging around in my memory to come up with various examples of commonly used fantasy tropes. Full credit goes to Nathan of Fantasy Review Barn for coming up with the idea: be sure to check out his blog!


This week's topic is CHESS MASTERS.

A true master knows where all the pieces are at all times.  Others may think they have taken control but alas, the master knew their last move before they played it.

I had a lot of fun with this week's topic. There were LOADS of examples which sprung immediately to mind, including some I haven't had the time to include (and probably others which I'll kick myself for not including!).



Bayaz

(The First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie)

This diabolical wizard has spent centuries manipulating events in his favour, and in the span of the First Law trilogy manages to get every major character beneath his thumb. A viciously ambitious chessmaster, the First of the Magi is like a big bald spider spinning a vast web of intrigue. Speaking of which . . .





Varys

(A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin)

The Spider of King’s Landing knows EVERYTHING that goes on, thanks to his ‘little birds’. The latest book revealed that he’s even more ruthless and cunning than previously believed . . .




Quick Ben

(The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson)

Ben Adaephon Delat – or Quick Ben, as he’s most commonly known – ALWAYS has a shaved knuckle (or acorn) in the hole. Quick is a devastatingly powerful mage with possibly the most cunning mind of any character in the entire series. His plans within plans are often so convoluted that he is the only person who understands them. He is a master at humbling the arrogant and powerful, and is so mysterious and conniving that even the lord of Shadow whom he betrayed is no longer interested in pursuing revenge against him. In fact, speak of the devil . . .



Shadowthrone and Cotillion

(The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson/Malazan Empire by Ian C. Esslemont)

Another pairing to whom the word ‘diabolical’ can be freely applied. Formerly known as Kellanved and Dancer – the Malazan Emperor and the commander of his imperial assassins – Shadowthrone and Cotillion are now the lords of the Shadow Realm. These masters of manipulation instigated their own deaths to achieve their shady goals, and now have god-like powers and an army of demons at their disposal. The pair can be found lurking behind a huge number of schemes and events throughout the series.



Chumaka

(The Empire trilogy by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts)

A chess master in the literal sense, supposedly unbeaten in the strategic game of shah, Chumaka is the First Advisor of our protagonist’s enemy, Jiro of the Anasati. Chumaka is responsible for decades’ worth of plots designed to undermine rivals and further the success of the Anasati. It’s also worth mentioning that Mara herself actually becomes something of a chess master as this trilogy progresses, as her enemies eventually all find themselves outwitted and outplayed.



Andross Guile

(The Lightbringer series by Brent Weeks)

Andross Guile is another ‘chessmaster’ in the literal sense of the word, in this case of the strategic game of Nine Kings. The withered nemesis of the series’ protagonists, Guile uses a facade of age and frailty to mask his true power and intentions.






Jorg Ancrath

(The Broken Empire trilogy by Mark Lawrence)

I couldn’t finish this article without mentioning Jorg. He had everything planned out from the start. EVERYTHING.





That’s it for this week! Join us again next week for the topic of VAMPIRES, and be sure to check out the Tough Travelling tab above for links to my previous posts and fellow travellers!


Sunday, 22 February 2015

Review: 'The Autumn Republic' by Brian McClellan


Field Marshal Tamas returns to his beloved country to find that for the first time in history, the capital city of Adro lies in the hands of a foreign invader. His son is missing, his allies are indistinguishable from his foes, and reinforcements are several weeks away.

With the Kez still bearing down upon them and without clear leadership, the Adran army has turned against itself. Inspector Adamat is drawn into the very heart of this new mutiny with promises of finding his kidnapped son.

And Taniel Two-shot, hunted by men he once thought his friends, must safeguard the only chance Adro has of getting through this war without being destroyed...





Promise of Blood, the first book in the Powder Mage series, caught my attention because it offered something a bit different than the standard fantasy fare I’m accustomed to. Its sequel, The Crimson Campaign, I found to be slightly less compelling than its predecessor; yet it seemed to promise that better things were in store, and The Autumn Republic - the grand finale of McClellan’s flintlock fantasy trilogy - definitely doesn’t disappoint.

The Autumn Republic concludes events set in motion by Field Marshal Tamas’ coup against the king in Promise of Blood. The result of years of planning, Tamas and his advisers are now following the coup by attempting to set up a successful republic in place of the monarchy. But their careful plans have been skewered by the surprise arrival of a foreign power in the capital city of Adopest, a power they are helpless to repel since their own army is away on campaign. The Adrans are fighting a war on several fronts, and to make things worse they now have to attempt to deal with the interference of multiple newly-returned gods of incomprehensible power.

The events of the previous novel, The Crimson Campaign, represented something of a downward arc (storyline-wise) for most of the characters, as they were thrown into huge events and faced with seemingly impossible odds. The Autumn Republic does a stellar job of gradually turning the tables once more, and it’s incredibly satisfying to see many of the characters developing in ways that allow them to overcome their own obstacles and resolve problems using their own unique skills. I was pleasantly surprised to see Nila get a more proactive role in the story, and for her to actually have the opportunity to develop some personality. During the first two books I found her irritating and irrelevant, but now she has both a role and a purpose, which made me more inclined to ignore the fact that her newfound abilities all-too-conveniently appeared out of nowhere.

The pacing of The Autumn Republic is relentless right from the very beginning, much as it was in The Crimson Campaign. This lends a nice feel of continuity following on from the previous book, and helps create the sense of an ongoing military campaign, as do the continual sequences of battles and war-like settings. For the most part this is a positive thing; however, some of the numerous action-heavy sequences can seem a bit dry. I think this is largely due to the author’s tendency to tell rather than show, which makes it feel as though we’re watching from afar rather than from the centre of the action; and the sheer frequency of the battle scenes means that they do become a little bit repetitive. I also feel that perhaps more could have been done with them: the scale of the conflict, particularly some of the larger battles, has the potential to become epic, and yet much of the fighting happens off the page without any sense of tension or climax. Others simply feel as though they are brushed over, with massive engagements involving thousands of combatants described and dismissed in just a couple of lines.

However, there were plenty of other things to keep me hooked. There are a whole bunch of incredible twists and exciting plot reveals that I simply never saw coming, including one particularly pleasant surprise involving the return of a certain favourite character of mine. And Inspector Adamat’s investigation storyline was, for me, once again one of the most compelling threads of the story (in fact, I’d be perfectly happy with a series of novels based around Adamat’s time as a police inspector). That’s not to say the major storyline was anything less than thrilling: its grand conclusion, complete with divine forces and earth-shattering sorcery, is pretty damned epic.

The Autumn Republic is a satisfying conclusion to a very strong debut series, and I look forward to seeing more from McClellan in the future.


4/5

Click here to read my review of Promise of Blood (Powder Mage #1)
Click here to read my review of The Crimson Campaign (Powder Mage #2)

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Tough Travels: Knights


‘Tough Travelling’ is a weekly feature: every Thursday (hopefully!) I’ll be rummaging around in my memory to come up with various examples of commonly used fantasy tropes. Full credit goes to Nathan of Fantasy Review Barn for coming up with the idea: be sure to check out his blog!



 This week the topic is KNIGHTS.

We're Knights of the Round Table,
We dance whene’er we're able,
We do routines and chorus scenes
With footwork impeccable.
We dine well here in Camelot,
We eat ham and jam and spam a lot.

We're Knights of the Round Table,
Our shows are formidable, 
But many times, we're given rhymes
That are quite unsingable.
We're Opera mad in Camelot,
We sing from the diaphragm a looooooot.

In war we're tough and able,
Quite indefatigable,
Between our quests we don sequin vests,
And impersonate Clark Gable.
It's a busy life in Camelot,
I have to push the pram a lot.


Ahem. Now we’ve got that out of the way, here’s my (somewhat thin) list of the best Knights I’ve encountered in fantasy.



Falcio val Mond

(Traitor’s Blade by Sebastien de Castell)

So Falcio isn’t noble-born, and the Greatcoats aren’t technically Knights, but they’re far more benevolent and admirable than the actual Knights in Tristia. In de Castell’s world, the official Ducal Knights serve the whims of their ruling lords and are prone to acts of greed and violence, whereas the Greatcoats behave in a much more chivalrous manner: serving only the king, they travel the length of the country, dispensing justice and protecting the innocent from those who would take advantage of their weakness.



Anomander Rake

(The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson)

The immortal Knight of High House Dark, Anomander Rake is seven feet tall with midnight-black skin, long silver hair, and mysterious multi-hued eyes. He is thousands of years old, has earth-shattering sorcery at his fingertips, and carries the fearsome sword known as Dragnipur. Oh, and he can shapeshift into a DRAGON. Rake is the driving force behind many pivotal events in the series, and always does what he thinks is best for the protection of his people and the furtherance of the greater good.



Cohen the Barbarian

(The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett)

I know, I know, Cohen isn’t really a Knight. He’s a barbarian, and is actually described in the Pratchett novels as a Hero rather than a Knight. But he rescues an innocent woman from ritual sacrifice, and plays a crucial part in helping Rincewind and Twoflower to defeat the evil that is Trymon. He’s not exactly a knight in shining armour . . . but he does have sparkly diamond dentures ('dine-chewers?'), which are almost as good.




Half the population of Westeros

(A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin)

You can’t swing a cat in Westeros without hitting one ‘Ser’ or another. For starters you have the Kingsguard, a small brotherhood of men sworn to defend the reigning monarch. Notable members of the Kingsguard are Ser Jaime Lannister (the ‘Kingslayer’ – though he prefers not to use that moniker on his CV) and Ser Barristan Selmy (who immediately defects to join the rebel Queen after being offered comfortable retirement by the King he serves). There’s also the former smuggler Ser Davos Seaworth, former mercenary Ser Bronn, and of course Ser Lancel Lannister, who earned his Knighthood through a combination of having sex with his cousin and as a reward for assisting in the death of King Robert. And last but not least, let’s not forget the mass-murdering lunatic Ser Gregor Clegane and exiled slaver-turned-traitor Ser Jorah Mormont.


That’s it for this week! Join us again next week for the topic of CHESSMASTERS, and be sure to check out the Tough Travelling tab above for links to my previous posts and fellow travellers!

P.S. NI! Ni! Ni!

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Review: 'House of Chains' by Steven Erikson

In Northern Genabackis, just before the events recounted in 'Gardens of the Moon', a raiding party of savage tribal warriors descends from the mountains into the southern flat lands. Their intention is to wreak havoc among the despised lowlanders, but for the one named Karsa Orlong it marks the beginning of what will prove an extraordinary destiny.

Some years later, it is the aftermath of the Chain of Dogs. Coltaine, revered commander of the Malazan 7th Army is dead. And now Tavore, elder sister of Ganoes Paran and Adjunct to the Empress, has arrived in the last remaining Malazan stronghold of the Seven Cities to take charge. Untested and new to command, she must hone a small army of twelve thousand soldiers, mostly raw recruits, into a viable fighting force and lead them into battle against the massed hordes of Sha'ik's Whirlwind. Her only hope lies in resurrecting the shattered faith of the few remaining survivors from Coltaine's legendary march, veterans one and all.

In distant Raraku, in the heart of the Holy Desert, the seer Sha'ik waits with her rebel army. But waiting is never easy. Her disparate collection of warlords - tribal chiefs, High Mages, a renegade Malazan Fist and his sorceror - is locked in a vicious power struggle that threatens to tear the rebellion apart from within. And Sha'ik herself suffers, haunted by the private knowledge of her nemesis, Tavore...her own sister.


House of Chains, the fourth instalment of Steven Erikson’s incredible Malazan Book of the Fallen, returns to the dangerous and rebellious desert continent of Seven Cities. This was also the setting for Deadhouse Gates, the second book in the series, and there is a poetic sense of symmetry in the journey of the new untested Malazan army as they retrace the path of those tragic events. That they are quite literally walking in the footsteps of the legendary Coltaine is a perfect metaphor for their struggle to defy all expectations and complete the seemingly impossible task they have been assigned: to defeat the Whirlwind rebellion once and for all.

Despite this symmetry and the return to Raraku, House of Chains in no way feels repetitive, or even remotely similar to Deadhouse Gates. The tone is completely different, and although the plot is largely focused on the events of the Whirlwind there is a huge amount of reference to wider events that makes House of Chains feel much more like an instalment of a sweeping epic rather than the almost standalone story of Deadhouse Gates. Erikson delves further and deeper into the Malazan mythology, introducing us to primal beings from the dawn of time – such as the Eres’al and the Deragoth – and flinging them headlong into the main events. The depth of worldbuilding evident here, particularly the skilful interweaving of complex histories and events is astounding, and Erikson manages to interlace multiple storylines together seamlessly. As with other books in the Malazan series, there is revelation after revelation, increasingly creating the impression that everything within this universe is connected in some way. Although the events of House of Chains are not on quite as grand a scale as previous books, it nonetheless conveys an atmosphere of epic grandeur: through the setting, through embedded references to history and ancient mythology, and through the unique and captivating tone and atmosphere present in all the main books of this entire series.

However, in spite of his staggeringly ambitious storytelling, Erikson never loses sight of the one thing that really brings this series to life: the enormous cast of diverse and unforgettable characters. In addition to revisiting a few old favourites – cynical Sergeant Strings, deadly assassin Kalam Mekhar, and of course the diabolical and insane High Priest of Shadow Iskaral Pust – House of Chains also introduces several staple characters of future books in the series, such as Tavore’s Fourteenth Army, the exiled yet noble warrior Trull Sengar, and the undead outcast Onrack the Broken, not to mention one of the best characters of the entire series: the mighty Karsa Orlong. The characters are, as always, fantastically well-written and incredibly varied: there are flawed heroes, greedy mages, grizzled veterans, brave barbarians and tired commanders, as well as plenty of despicable villains and unhuman antagonists. I personally really enjoyed the developing relationship between Lostara Yil and Pearl: Erikson is adept at creating unconventional chemistry and realistic relationships within a relatively small amount of page time, and I felt personally invested in everything that was happening to these two characters in particular.

The plot of House of Chains follows a slightly unconventional format in that the first quarter or so of the book focuses entirely on one character, before reverting to the characteristic shifting POV narratives used throughout the previous books. The tale at the beginning – of Karsa Orlong’s rise and fall prior to the main events of the series – is so good that I feel it could easily have been extended to fill the entire 1,040-page novel by itself. Instead, we have a spectacularly condensed account of Karsa’s origins and development that spans the course of several months and numerous continents, and finishes in a way that leads perfectly into the main events of the story. These events are rarely less than thrilling, and although there are a few less-than-exciting sections – particularly those centred around Gamet, as well as a few repetitive exposition scenes regarding the nature of light, dark and shadow magic – this occasional slowing of pace allows us to take a welcome step back from the otherwise climactic series of events. Erikson’s awesome talent for creating exciting convergences continues to manifest in House of Chains, and the way he manipulates the rapidly shifting POVs to increase the pace, build tension and maximise momentum is, as always, nothing short of masterful.

Once again, I’m in awe of Erikson’s storytelling. The combination of clever pacing and intense narrative, along with its complex web of events and unique characters truly earns House of Chains the title of ‘epic’, and continues to reinforce The Malazan Book of the Fallen as the best and most ambitious epic fantasy series I’ve ever encountered.


5/5

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Tough Travels: To Blathe (True Love)

‘Tough Travelling’ is a weekly feature: every Thursday (hopefully!) I’ll be rummaging around in my memory to come up with various examples of commonly used fantasy tropes. Full credit goes to Nathan of Fantasy Review Barn for coming up with the idea: be sure to check out his blog!


 This week’s topic is TRUE LOVE.

"Sonny, true love is the greatest thing in the world. Except for a nice MLT, a mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich, where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomato is ripe."

There were LOADS of examples I considered for this week's topic: Locke and Sabetha, Ron and Hermione, Faramir and Eowyn, Tristran and Yvaine . . . and, of course, Wesley and Buttercup. But I don't have twelve hours to sit and gush about them all, so here follows three examples of true love that have clearly stuck in my memory more than others . . .



Mara and Kevin

(Servant of the Empire by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts)

The phrase “worlds apart” can be applied quite literally to these two. Midkemia and Kelewan are two planets fiercely at war with each other, and Mara and Kevin are from opposite sides of the Rift. When Kevin finds himself a captured slave on Kelewan, he despises Mara and everything she stands for. But Mara admires his courage and honesty, and spends hours – and later, days and weeks – in his company, learning his “alien” ways. The two fall in love, and Mara’s new insight into her own culture helps form her into a stronger and better leader. Of course, in Kelewan, a slave is not deemed to be an appropriate companion for a noblewoman, and their relationship can at best be described as turbulent. Does it end happily? I’m not telling you . . .


 
Togg and Fanderay

(Memories of Ice by Steven Erikson)

This is a bit of an unconventional entry, seeing as Togg and Fanderay are not actually human. In fact, they are wolves – wolf gods, in fact – who were torn apart by an apocalyptic event and then spent literally thousands of years seeking one another again. And they say animals don’t have feelings?




Arwen and Aragorn

(The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien)

He’s a mortal human ranger, she’s an immortal elven princess: Arwen and Aragorn’s love story is a classic example of this fantasy trope, complete with a “you’re not good enough for my daughter” subplot. Arwen has two choices: leave Aragorn and go to live forever amongst her fellow elves, or remain in Middle Earth with her lover and eventually die. She chooses the latter, even though she knows their love will only last for his mortal lifespan, and even though she will be left to live alone for centuries after Aragorn has passed away. Aragorn even tries to persuade her not to stay, because he loves her too much to see her make such a sacrifice. Now THAT’S dedication.


That’s it for this week! Join us again next week for the topic of KNIGHTS, and be sure to check out the Tough Travelling tab above for links to my previous posts and fellow travellers!
  

Monday, 9 February 2015

Review: 'Pawn of Prophecy' by David Eddings





Long ago, the evil God Torak fought a war to obtain an object of immense power - the Orb of Aldur. But Torak was defeated and the Orb reclaimed by Belgarath the sorcerer.

Garion, a young farm lad, loves the story when he first hears it from the old storyteller. But it has nothing to do with him. Or does it? For the stories also tell of a prophecy that must be fulfilled - a destiny handed down through the generations.

And Torak is stirring again . . .





I have to admit that I struggle a bit when reading 'classic' fantasy. The reason for this is probably my age: I've (more or less) become familiar with the genre by reading 'modern' fantasy, which is influenced heavily by the likes of Tolkien, and Gemmell, and Eddings. This means that when I read a book like Pawn of Prophecy, I can't help but read certain parts of story (such as a huge man who transforms into a bear, a farmboy torn away from his home and forced into an adventure, a mysterious magical object, and a wise old man who is more than he first appears) and think 'oh, dear, how derivative'. When, in fact, these guys wrote about this stuff before everyone else did. They created these tropes in the first place; they made them fashionable, and it's only now that they've become, to varying extents, cliched.

There is a fair bit of this book that was clearly influenced by Tolkien, but there's much more of it that seemed familiar because I've read it in more recent books. The epic journey, the motley companions, the young boy who discovers that he's actually rather special, the evil God bent on ruling the world . . . It's all traditional, classic stuff. And there's nothing wrong with that. (That is, in fact, the reason I've been enjoying Daniel Abraham's Dagger and Coin series so much - he draws on such traditional plot points in a nostalgic sort of way, but mixes them up just enough to keep in interesting and entertaining.)

However, what is less impressive is that there isn't much of a real plot going on here. I realise it's the first book in a series, and the entire book has obviously been spent setting up for the rest of this series, but that doesn't make the constant repetition (travel to a town, stay at an inn, have some cryptic conversations; travel to a town, stay at an inn . . . rinse, repeat, etc.) any less of a chore to read. There hasn't been a lot to really grip me, and I felt like I was reading the same bit again and again every time I picked up the book.

However, I did rather like the characters. The main character - the boy Garion - is fairly likeable, and the author has done well with writing credibly from the point of view of a child with a nice mixture of ignorance, curiosity, and simplicity. The other character I really liked was Silk, who is more of a minor character; the author does a nice job with the supporting cast, giving them enough personality to make us care about them and prevent them from fading into the background. 

It's also good to see how well Eddings has built his world: we have maps (which, while often criticised as yet another cliche of the genre, I actually feel give an extra dimension to the story), we have politics, we have history, and we have economics. And, even better, it's not thrown in our faces: it's just there, giving the story a sense of reality, which is exactly how it should be. 

There's certainly a sense of where the overall story began, and where it's going to end. This, along with the sympathetic characters and the easy and simple (if occasionally flat) writing style, is the reason I'll probably give the second book in the series a try at some point, despite not rating this one particularly highly.

3/5