Saturday, 28 March 2015

Review: 'Daughter of the Empire' by Raymond E. Feist & Janny Wurts



Magic and murder engulf the realm of Kelewan.  Fierce warlords ignite a bitter blood feud to enslave the empire of Tsuranuanni.  While in the opulent Imperial courts, assassins and spy-master plot cunning and devious intrigues against the rightful heir.  

Now Mara, a young, untested Ruling lady, is called upon to lead her people in a heroic struggle for survival.  But first she must rally an army of rebel warriors, form a pact with the alien cho-ja, and marry the son of a hated enemy.  Only then can Mara face her most dangerous foe of all--in his own impregnable stronghold.






At the beginning of this year I embarked on my Big Riftwar Read/Re-read, starting with Magician and the rest of the Riftwar Saga. Part of the reason I’ve been so enthusiastic about this so far is because I couldn’t wait to revisit one of my favourite series of all times: the Empire trilogy. The trilogy is a stunning collaboration between Feist and his fellow epic fantasy writer Janny Wurts, and reveals much more of the world on the ‘other side’ of the Rift. This isn’t the Middle-Earth-ish Midkemia, with its forests and its mud and its grey skies; this is Kelewan, hot and exotic, home to a powerful society in which personal honour is held above all else, ritual suicide is the norm, and public displays of emotion are deemed shameful. This intriguing society places great emphasis on honour and social standing, and reader will come to understand – and be fascinated by – the social implications of such seemingly minor things as clothing, jewellery, and behaviour such as bowing or smiling.

I LOVE reading about Tsurani society. Kelewan is bizarre and colourful, and its inhabitants even more so. The rich and powerful consider it a mark of wealth and status to dress extravagantly, even gaudily, to the point where even their soldiers wear armour to reflect the colours of the family they serve. Tsurani society is organised into strict hierarchical family units, with the more powerful of these families referred to as Houses. There are hundreds of these Ruling families, each with their own colours and allegiances, and the book’s frequent and casual references to lots of different names really conveys a sense of the sprawling and ancient hierarchical society of the Tsurani empire. This society revolves almost entirely around politics, deriving much of its order from an endless political struggle known only as the Game of the Council.

Daughter of the Empire accompanies Mara, the new and untested Ruling Lady of House Acoma, throughout the first two years of her rule as she strives to protect her ancestral family name and gain enough strength and standing to enter the Game of the Council. The book focuses solely on her social, emotional and political journey, from a sheltered temple initiate to an independent Ruling Lady. Mara is a sympathetic and admirable protagonist, someone you can really root for. She starts out in a frighteningly weak position, and must use her wits and resources to strengthen her House, making great sacrifices along the way. Mara regrets not having the physical strength to defend her family: her enemies undermine and underestimate her since she is a member of the ‘weaker sex’, and she’s forced to compensate by exercising exceptional skill in the areas of politics, business and high society. She goes above and beyond expectations to ensure the honour of her House is preserved, even to the point of orchestrating schemes that are uncharacteristically ruthless and vicious, and often struggles to deal with the emotional turmoil that often arises as a consequence of her actions.

Feist has created a beautiful and deadly world, and here Wurts really helps to bring it to life. Each page bursts with the rich and vivid setting of Kelewan, with just a sentence or two here and there managing to evoke smells and sounds and colours: you can hear the calls of the bargemen and see the bustle of the markets when Mara travels to the city; and you can smell the akasi blossoms in the evening and hear the needra being brought in from pasture when she returns to the peaceful Acoma estates. Daughter of the Empire is immersive and flowing, and is thoroughly engaging for its setting and atmosphere as much as its plot. There’s little in the way of action, and there are few scenes in the book that can be described as fast-paced, yet Daughter of the Empire is never plodding or arduous. There are plenty of tense moments, as well as one or two mini climaxes before the big finale, and the authors make even the nuances of Tsurani politics thrilling to read. And of course there’s nothing better than witnessing the political payoffs: it’s well worth the wait to see Mara’s plots finally coming to fruition after hundreds of pages of plotting and pain.

Re-reading Daughter of the Empire after so many years has reaffirmed this trilogy as one of my favourites of all time. Knowing how the rest of the series pans out only makes me more eager to continue with the series, and more enthusiastic in recommending it to others. Seriously: it’s magnificent.


5/5

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Tough Travels: Beloved Mounts

‘Tough Travelling’ is a weekly feature. Every Thursday 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 BELOVED MOUNTS. Horses, dragons and hippogriffs . . . oh my!




Binky

(Discworld by Terry Pratchett)

He’s Death’s noble steed. He’s pure white. He can fly. He can travel through time and across dimensions. His name is Binky. ‘nuff said.






Bill the Pony

(The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien)

I figured most people would go for Shadowfax this week, so thought I’d mention the much more humble Bill the Pony. Sam and the other hobbits purchase Bill from a cruel owner, and it’s clear he’s been neglected since he’s skinny and weak. Bill accompanies the group as far as the Mines of Moria, when he flees from the Watcher in the Water. Sam sadly assumes he’s dead, though it’s later revealed that the clever little creature found his way home after all.





Havok

(The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson)

There are two horses named Havok in this series. Both are vicious and battle-trained, both stand in excess of 26 hands, and both are owned by the mighty barbarian giant Karsa Orlong.





Saphira

(Eragon by Christopher Paolini)

She probably deserves to be regarded as a companion rather than a mount, but Eragon spends so much time flying around on his DTU (draconian transportation unit) that I figure she counts as a perfectly valid entry on this list. But I can’t remember much about the book, so that’s about as detailed as this entry is going to get. Oh, wait, I remember – she’s blue. Like a sapphire. Get it? Gotta love subtle nuances like that in modern fantasy.



Buckbeak

(Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling)

Buckbeak is a hippogriff, which is kind of a cross between an eagle and a horse. Hagrid acquires him in the third Harry Potter book, and the hippogriff ends up playing a crucial part in the story’s finale. I can’t read the name ‘Buckbeak’ without hearing echoes of Robbie Coltrane’s reprimanding voice from the scene in the movie where he mauls Draco Malfoy’s arm (spoiler alert).



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


Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Review: 'Among Thieves' by Douglas Hulick

There is no honour among thieves . . .

Ildrecca is a dangerous city, if you don't know what you're doing. It takes a canny hand and a wary eye to run these streets and survive. Fortunately, Drothe has both. He has been a member of the Kin for years, rubbing elbows with thieves and murderers from the dirtiest of alleys to the finest of neighbourhoods. Working for a crime lord, he finds and takes care of trouble inside his boss's organization – while smuggling relics on the side.

But when his boss orders Drothe to track down whoever is leaning on his organization's people, he stumbles upon a much bigger mystery. There's a book, a relic any number of deadly people seem to be looking for - a book that just might bring down emperors and shatter the criminal underworld.

A book now conveniently in Drothe's hands . . .


The first instalment of the Tales of the Kin, Among Thieves is a strong, smart, entertaining debut novel. Set in a corrupt world built upon the destruction wrought by ancient magic, the novel introduces us to Drothe, a somewhat hapless criminal who comes into possession of dangerous knowledge and suddenly finds himself on the wrong side of, well, everybody. In a world where Watchmen exist merely to protect the status quo, and in which the Kin and the Empire have a long history of enmity, Drothe finds himself in the midst of a deadly war where both sides will do anything to take what he has found.

Drothe is a likeable and sympathetic protagonist who develops slowly throughout the novel, starting out as something of a selfish anti-hero before morphing into an unlikely saviour and accidental hero. Like any decent main character, he has flaws and limitations, which make him more interesting and easier to identify with. He is not especially powerful, or overly skilled with weapons, or even remotely tall; but neither is he an obvious underdog with any crippling failings to overcome, as per many recent fantasy trends. He is a middling criminal, with people working beneath him and yet more people pulling his strings from above, and all he wants is to do his job and look out for the few friends he has under his protection. When a dodgy smuggling job becomes more than he can handle, he’s thrown into the midst of potentially huge events, and all his subsequent actions are essentially a chain of reactions driven by his own sense of self-preservation. Many of his victories are brought about by luck rather than skill, and many revelations occur as a result of key misunderstandings rather than any manipulation on Drothe’s part.

My first thought was that Among Thieves would be grimdark to its core – largely because the very first scene involves the torture and interrogation of a prisoner by an ‘Agonyman’ named Shatters – and I’d expected subsequent events to be similarly grim and gory. Instead, the novel is filled with a satisfyingly clever plot, a number of shadowy mysteries, and the gradual unravelling of a series of cryptic clues, clearly favouring thoughtful plot developments over gore-filled shock value. The setting is also nicely brought to life and incorporates a variety of locations, from filthy burned-out hovels to stinking sewers to opulent mansions, and although not exactly unique Hulick’s world does contain some nice little nuggets that make it stand out, such as an Emperor who is slowly losing his sanity from being reincarnated again and again.

Hulick’s prose is straightforward and his first-person narrative is engrossing; his language creates an atmosphere and world that seeps from the pages to engulf the reader. The continual use of thieves’ cant in Among Thieves gives it the feel of a Locke Lamora novel, whilst the hints of dark magic amidst a world of dirt and corruption are reminiscent of Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy. On top of that, Among Thieves is fast-paced, with a clever balance of intrigue, action and lore. Highly entertaining and highly recommended.

4/5


Sunday, 22 March 2015

Review: 'The Black Company' by Glen Cook


Some feel the Lady, newly risen from centuries in thrall, stands between humankind and evil. Some feel she is evil itself. The hard-bitten men of the Black Company take their pay and do what they must, burying their doubts with their dead. Until the prophecy: The White Rose has been reborn, somewhere, to embody good once more. There must be a way for the Black Company to find her...




This is the first time I’ve delved back into The Black Company since I first became acquainted with the series about eight years ago. Although at first I struggled to immerse myself in Cook’s writing, it quickly became a very enjoyable read and a refreshing change from some of the doorstops I’ve been reading lately.

The Black Company is written from the point of view of Croaker, a physician and annalist working for a mercenary force called – you guessed it – the Black Company. The Company have been hired by The Lady, an ancient tyrant who, along with her monstrous generals (twisted supernatural beings known as the Ten Who Were Taken), is intent on defeating the Rebel armies and ruling all the known lands.

I’ll admit I struggled to get to grips with the novel at first, being somewhat taken aback by Cook’s curt writing style. The Black Company is largely comprised of brusque prose and terse descriptions, which lends even major scenes an air of “blink and you’ll miss it”. The novel is a little disorientating at first, skipping over major events in the storyline in between paragraphs, but the style is something I quickly became accustomed to.

I think The Black Company is the first example of ‘grimdark’ I ever read, and I still remember the thrill I had when first reading it (even if I don’t remember much else). A bunch of characters who are actually fighting on the side of the bad guys? At the time I’d never heard of anything like it, though of course nowadays grimdark tales are a dime a dozen. One thing that stands out here is the way Cook really does emphasise the mercenaries’ . . . well, mercenary nature: Croaker and the rest are almost always motivated by greed and selfishness, and yet still somehow come across as sympathetic (well, most of the time).

Cook has created a grim, eerie, satisfyingly dark world, and does a great job establishing it here. His casual references to the Taken help contribute to the dark atmosphere, with evocative (if slightly unimaginative) names like Nightcrawler, Soulcatcher, Moonbiter, Bonegnasher, The Howler, and The Hanged Man. They lurk threateningly on the periphery of the story, shrouded in mystery, and I think it’s brilliant. However, I do wish they’d played more of a prominent role in the action: they add a thrill of horror and threat to the story, but unfortunately seem to do little else.

The Black Company is packed full of action; however, most of it is tersely described from a distance, as befits the premise of Croaker as annalist. This can make it come across as more of a list of events, and as a result it can be a bit dry at times. I also found myself having a bit of an issue with the sheer numbers involved. Cook informs us that there are hundreds of people in the Black Company, yet we only ever see a handful, and the others are barely even mentioned except when Croaker infrequently refers to the Company as a whole. It was difficult for me to reconcile my initial image of a relatively small group of mercenaries with the massive force we’re told they are later in the book. Similarly the description of the battle towards the end didn’t really seem to add up. We’re told repeatedly that the battle involves over 250,000 combatants, yet the author never really manages to convey the true scale of the conflict – instead it just seems like he’s listing numbers.

One final issue: while I do really like having the story narrated by Croaker, I find that the biggest problem with using a single first-person narrator lies in finding pretexts for having them witnessing or participating in key events. In this case I found the pretexts for getting Croaker in the thick of things (namely getting sent on special missions by the Lady again and again, despite not being one of the most skilled fighters in the company) to be a bit flimsy. However, I did enjoy how the plot of The Black Company twists expectations: the sub-plot actually ended up becoming the main plot, with its resolution feeling almost more climactic than that of the main conflict.

So. When I first started my re-read of The Black Company I almost put it down again, as I struggled to see how I’d enjoyed the series so much all those years ago. But it didn’t take long before it booked its ideas up, and now I can’t wait to revisit the rest of the series.


4/5

Friday, 20 March 2015

Tough Travels: Bards


‘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 BARDS.

BARDS often join questing parties and provide entertainment around the campfire. Sometimes their music even holds a little bit of magic. Or a clue to an ancient mystery. Or . . .

I'm running a bit behind this week and could only think of three entries for the list . . .



Laurie

(The Riftwar Saga by Raymond E. Feist)

The wonderful Laurie of Tyr-Sog is a loyal and stalwart companion to both Pug and Arutha throughout the Riftwar Saga. He’s always reluctant to part with his beloved lute, and can often be found performing for both friends and strangers, even after he’s made a Duke of the Kingdom. When Laurie is stranded on an alien planet amongst a race unfamiliar with his preferred instrument, he oversees the making of one, and feels incomplete throughout the months it is being made.



Rojer

(The Demon Cycle by Peter V. Brett)

Rojer is a uniquely talented musician whose abilities have saved his life on many occasions. Not only were his fiddling skills his sole means of income at one time, but he later discovers that his music can actually repel the demons that terrorise the land at night. At first he uses this in a solely defensive way, but later he learns how to use his music to manipulate and hurt the demons, and teaches others to do so too. His music becomes both a weapon and a shield, as well as an inspiration to the besieged villagers of Cutter’s Hollow.



Kvothe

(The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss)

And now we come to one of my all-time favourite fantasy protagonists. Kvothe the Bloodless spent his entire childhood amongst travelling performers, is adept at playing the lute,has “written songs that make the minstrels weep”, and performs regularly at a high-class inn called The Eolian. Rothfuss’ descriptions of Kvothe’s music are beautiful and often genuinely moving, serving as a reminder of the character’s sensitivity in spite of his otherwise self-assured and over-confident demeanour.



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


Monday, 16 March 2015

Review: 'The Alchemist of Souls' by Anne Lyle



When Tudor explorers returned from the New World, they brought back a name out of half-forgotten Viking legend: skraylings. Red-sailed ships followed in the explorers’ wake, bringing Native American goods--and a skrayling ambassador--to London. But what do these seemingly magical beings really want in Elizabeth I’s capital?

Mal Catlyn, a down-at-heel swordsman, is seconded to the ambassador's bodyguard, but assassination attempts are the least of his problems. What he learns about the skraylings and their unholy powers could cost England her new ally--and Mal his soul.







Anne Lyle’s debut novel, The Alchemist of Souls, is an intriguing mix of magic, drama, espionage, swordplay and politics set against a backdrop of Elizabethan England. I’ll be honest, this first book in the Night’s Masque trilogy isn’t spectacular in itself, but it does introduce a whole lot of interesting concepts and events, and hints at better things to come later in the series.

I usually prefer my reading to be ‘strict’ fantasy rather than historical. However, in this case I feel like the setting and time period create the perfect set-up and atmosphere for the story, and I particularly enjoyed the focus on the Elizabethan theatre and the references to figures such as Shakespeare and Marlowe. The sub-plot about the contest of plays, along with its accompanying mix of rivalry, jealousy and sabotage, was one of my favourite aspects of the book.

With regards to the main plot, I found it fairly fast-paced and entertaining, though it went in a slightly different direction than I’d anticipated. I’d expected quite a heavy focus on espionage as Mal learned the tricks of the trade, but this aspect of the story was somewhat surprisingly side-lined. However, I enjoyed the undercurrent of conflict between the humans and the skraylings, and felt that the author did a really nice job of interweaving each aspect of the storyline with the historical setting: the inclusion of real people and places gave great depth and realism to an otherwise fantastical tale.

However, I found the explanation of Mal and Sandy’s connection to the skraylings a bit confusing, and couldn’t seem to get my head around the time-frames relating to this aspect of the storyline. I also found the climax a little bit chaotic, and felt that the story lost some of its impetus as a result of the pacing and sequencing of events towards the end. Similarly I thought that the Mal/Sandy/Kiiren storyline was concluded somewhat hurriedly and unsatisfactorily. Neither did I really connect with any of the main characters as much as I would have liked, and although I quite liked Mal and Ned I didn’t really engage with much of Coby’s story at all. Theoretically she is one of the more interesting characters: a woman from another country disguising herself as a boy working for a theatre company in Elizabethan England (Shakespeare would have been proud), but for some reason I just couldn’t bring myself to care overmuch.

Despite this, Lyle does a great job in weaving relationships between certain characters; and the sexual dynamics between many of them – Mal and Coby, Ned and Gabriel, Mal and Ned – are made much more interesting given the historical backdrop and its restrictions against both pre-marital and homosexual relations. I also really like the fact that the author creates lots of potential for the sequels without leaving us on a cliffhanger: I own all three books in this trilogy and look forward to seeing what Mal gets up to next.


3/5

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Review: 'Mort' by Terry Pratchett


Death comes to us all. When he came to Mort, he offered him a job.

After being assured that being dead was not compulsory, Mort accepted. However, he soon found that romantic longings did not mix easily with the responsibilities of being Death's apprentice...



Mort is the teenage son of a vineyard owner, but has “about the same talent for horticulture that you would find in a dead starfish.” As a result, one day his despairing father takes him down to the local market to fob him off as an apprentice. Luckily, Death has an opening, and shows up on the stroke of midnight on his white horse (named Binky) to collect his new student and begin showing him the ropes. When Mort’s first solo job goes spectacularly wrong, he must find a way to set things right . . . before history itself is destroyed forever.

I thoroughly enjoyed this Discworld outing, more so than any of the previous three books in the series. The plot feels much more focused and coherent, as though Pratchett actually planned it out from the beginning rather than just making it up as he went along. The main characters – Mort, Ysabell, Cutwell, Albert and Death – are all vivid and likeable, and the settings are nicely varied and three-dimensional. In particular we get our first proper look at Death’s abode, which contains every shade of black on the spectrum, has a scythe in the umbrella stand, and is rather heavy on the skull-and-bones motif. However, it also has a carp pond, a stable, and a kitchen, where the butler Albert deep-fries all his food into submission.

Mort is the first Discworld book in which Death features as a major character, and gives us our first real glimpse of this strangely sympathetic and endearing black-hooded, scythe-wielding creature. Yes, he’s a skeleton; yes, he reaps souls for a living; and yes, he has no comprehension of fairness or injustice (there is only ‘The Duty’). And yet we’re quickly made to feel a huge amount of sympathy for the creature who hasn’t had a night off in two thousand years, has never been invited to a party, and gets majorly upset about people drowning kittens. Death has his own major storyline in the book: while Mort is running around trying to correct his mistakes, Death is on a personal quest to learn what it is to be human, and the result is a delightful sort of tragic-comic series of events.

Pratchett is a master of the absurd, and Mort shows off how wonderfully adept he is at creating hilariously incongruous situations, mostly involving Death. The Great Leveller finds himself doing the conga at a party in an attempt to understand the concept of ‘fun’; he tries to get drunk at a bar; he goes looking for a new job (“something nice involving flowers or cats”); he tries his hand at fly-fishing (his ‘fly’ is sharp-toothed and demonic, and dives into the water to forcibly drag the fish out); and of course he takes Mort out for a hearty welcome meal (preceded by the awesome line “I don’t know about you, but I could murder a curry”).

The fourth entry in the Discworld series, and my favourite so far, Mort is fast-paced, funny and satisfying. Highly recommended for Pratchett fans, and also yet another possible entry point into the series.


4/5

RIP, Sir Terry, and thank you for blessing us with your amazing sense of humour (and so many Discworld books). Non Timetis Messor.