Saturday, 1 August 2015

100th Review! 'Ruin' by John Gwynne


The Banished Lands are engulfed in war and chaos. The cunning Queen Rhin has conquered the west and High King Nathair has the cauldron, most powerful of the seven treasures. At his back stands the scheming Calidus and a warband of the Kadoshim, dread demons of the Otherworld. They plan to bring Asroth and his host of the Fallen into the world of flesh, but to do so they need the seven treasures. Nathair has been deceived but now he knows the truth. He has choices to make, choices that will determine the fate of the Banished Lands.

Elsewhere the flame of resistance is growing - Queen Edana finds allies in the swamps of Ardan. Maquin is loose in Tenebral, hunted by Lykos and his corsairs. Here he will witness the birth of a rebellion in Nathair's own realm.

Corban has been swept along by the tide of war. He has suffered, lost loved ones, sought only safety from the darkness. But he will run no more. He has seen the face of evil and he has set his will to fight it. The question is, how? With a disparate band gathered about him - his family, friends, giants, fanatical warriors, an angel and a talking crow he begins the journey to Drassil, the fabled fortress hidden deep in the heart of Forn Forest. For in Drassil lies the spear of Skald, one of the seven treasures, and here it is prophesied that the Bright Star will stand against the Black Sun.



It’s not often that I care enough about a book to feel physically sick with nerves as I turn the pages, waiting to see what will happen to a beloved character. It’s also not often that a book makes me cry like a baby. Ruin drove me to both of these, leaving me a sobbing wreck after reading the final line. But I won’t hold that against it, seeing as it’s also an awesomely epic and ambitious tale that delivered everything it promised and more.

Ruin is the third book in John Gwynne’s fantastic The Faithful and the Fallen fantasy quartet, a series which has so far woven an incredibly dense, complex and engaging story. Although the books appear to be getting longer and longer they are also becoming easier and easier to read, a testament to the author’s flowing style and continually improving writing skills. Ruin boasts a cast of no less than fourteen point-of-view characters – FOURTEEN!! – reflecting the epic scale of the series. Far from being confusing, this actually enables us to see the events of the story from conflicting perspectives; and while it’s clear who the true ‘baddies’ are, many characters are formed in shades of grey and it’s fascinating to see their internal conflicts and motivations. Ruin is also notably populated with strong female characters – such as Cywen, Coralen, Fidele, Laith, Brina, and Kulla – who serve important roles even when relegated to the background. Although there are so many characters to keep track of, and although it’s been over a year since reading Valour, I found that I immediately remembered most characters from previous books, which just goes to show how much I’ve become invested in them during the many hundreds of pages of their story so far.

While I’m still not overly-fond of the A Song of Ice and Fire-style ‘named chapters’ in general, I have to admit that it really, really works here. Many chapters are fairly short and rapidly alternating, creating a sense of adrenaline and setting a breathless pace that had me fumbling to turn the pages faster and mumbling to myself, “just one more chapter”. Other chapters are longer and more detailed explorations of individual characters’ motives and emotions, providing intriguing insights into nearly every aspect of the overarching conflict. With so many disparate groups of characters to keep track of, each chapter becomes a keyhole through which we glean hints of what might happen, and through which we gain numerous perspectives on events. Viewing a battle – along with its associated victories, losses and deaths – from different sides of the conflict brings humanity to each and every character, whether ‘good’, ‘evil’, or in-between.

I said in my review of Malice that I’d like to see future battle scenes to be more personal and character-driven, and wow has that wish been granted. The prophesied God-War has finally begun in earnest, but Ruin shows the true face of what this kind of war would entail. Gwynne tells an incredible story of unlikely heroes, well-meaning villains and tired refugees; a story packed with messy skirmishes and small-scale ambushes; a story of confusing conflicts, with people on both sides getting lost and making mistakes, with losses slowly adding up and constant fighting taking its toll both physically and mentally. The action comes thick and fast and it feels as though the reader is there in the midst of it all, sweating and bleeding and dodging attacks from every quarter. The character-driven narratives and their focus on the immediacy of each situation makes it feel a lot less glorious, but a lot more real.

Needless to say Ruin is much grimmer and gorier than its predecessors. The Banished Lands are at war: no longer charmingly rural, the Celtic settings have become wild and threatening, with large parts of the novel set in uncharted forests, treacherous marshes and daunting giant ruins. This makes for some weird and wonderful imagery, and creates a tangible atmosphere of threat and tension. In fact there’s a real gritty feel to the entire story, and I think the point the author is making here with Ruin is: shit just got real. Despite this, Gwynne manages to create a sense of grimness and overwhelming odds without resorting to the George R R Martin method of mass-murdering every character in sight. Ruin’s underlying tone is, surprisingly, one of optimism: its characters are strong and determined, working together to cope with their losses and continue their attempts to achieve the impossible. Although bleak in places and sickeningly violent in others, grimdark this ain’t. And I like that.

It’s dark, thrilling and bloody. But Ruin’s strongest point is, for me, its characters. The author takes character relationships crafted throughout the first two novels – between friends, family, loved ones and, especially, animals – and brings them beautifully to the fore without overstating them, whilst also forging new ones along the way. He never lets us forget that this entire series is a sprawling net comprised of a thousand little strands of humanity, and that’s what makes it such an engaging and sometimes emotional read. Gwynne has really, really upped his writing game with Ruin, and I have every confidence that the final instalment of The Faithful and the Fallen will continue to thrill, continue to astound . . . and, of course, continue to make me cry like a baby.

5/5

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Review: 'Blood Follows' by Steven Erikson


All is not well in Lamentable Moll. A sinister, diabolical killer stalks the port city's narrow, barrow-humped streets, and panic grips the citizens like a fever.
 
Emancipor Reese is no exception, and indeed, with his legendary ill luck, it's worse for him than for most. Not only was his previous employer the unknown killer's latest victim, but Emancipor is out of work. And, with his dearest wife terminally comfortable with the manner of life to which she asserts she has become accustomed, all other terrors grow limp and pale for poor Emancipor.
But perhaps his luck has finally changed, for two strangers have come to Lamentable Moll... and they have nailed to the centre post in Fishmonger's Round a note requesting the services of a manservant. This is surely a remarkable opportunity for the hapless Emancipor Reese... no matter that the note reeks with death-warded magic; no matter that the barrow ghosts themselves howl with fear every night; and certainly no matter that Lamentable Moll itself is about to erupt in a frenzy of terror-inspired anarchy....
 
 
 Blood Follows is Steven Erikson’s first Malazan novella, the first in a series detailing the nefarious exploits of necromantic duo Bauchelain and Korbal Broach.
Bauchelain and Broach made their Malazan debut in the third book of the main series, Memories of Ice, in which they played a minor part in a battle outside the city of Capustan. Here we were also introduced to their long-suffering manservant Emancipor Reese, and made to wonder just how ‘’Mancy the Luckless’ came to work for his unnatural employers. Blood Follows answers this question for us in the form of a darkly humorous tale detailing the origins of Reese’s unlucky alliance with Bauchelain and Broach.
Containing all the trademark Erikson features without the weight of a 1,000+ page novel, Blood Follows is a Malazan tale in miniature, a single piece of the colossal jigsaw puzzle that usually comprises the full-length novels. As such it’s a tightly focused, fast-paced and brilliantly self-contained story, set on an obscure island and focusing on a handful of characters and their macabre involvement in a series of grisly murders. For this the setting of Lamentable Moll is perfect: a city whose houses and streets are built around and on top of hundreds of ancient (and occasionally haunted) barrows.
The novella introduces a cast of characters which is relatively small, yet nicely diverse and fleshed-out considering the very short page count. The main players – both of whom are amusing and likeable – are Emancipor Reese, the aforementioned down-on-his-luck worker with an exceedingly demanding wife; and Sergeant Guld, top dog amongst the city watch but currently struggling with the pressure of hunting down a serial-killing sorcerer. As usual Erikson also manages to nudge on from the sidelines several awesomely bizarre supporting characters, some of whom are much more than they first appear; it’s these little touches of weirdness and magic and humour that, for me, really make him stand out as an author. These, and of course his ability to weave an intriguing tale leading to an exciting convergence no matter how limited the length of the story may be.
Blood Follows is a ghoulish, hilarious and thoroughly enjoyable Malazan outing that’s now beckoning me (with a fat, white, delicate hand) to read more of these Bauchelain and Korbal Broach novellas.
5/5

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Review: 'Half a War' by Joe Abercrombie


Words are weapons.

Princess Skara has seen all she loved made blood and ashes. She is left with only words. But the right words can be as deadly as any blade. She must conquer her fears and sharpen her wits to a lethal edge if she is to reclaim her birthright.

Only half a war is fought with swords.

The deep-cunning Father Yarvi has walked a long road from crippled slave to king’s minister. He has made allies of old foes and stitched together an uneasy peace. But now the ruthless Grandmother Wexen has raised the greatest army since the elves made war on God, and put Bright Yilling at its head – a man who worships no god but Death.

Sometimes one must fight evil with evil.

Some – like Thorn Bathu and the sword-bearer Raith – are born to fight, perhaps to die. Others – like Brand the smith and Koll the wood-carver – would rather stand in the light. But when Mother War spreads her iron wings, she may cast the whole Shattered Sea into darkness.

 
So far I’ve been kind of ambivalent towards the Shattered Sea trilogy. As a huge fan of Abercrombie’s six First Law novels I entered his latest series with humongous expectations . . . and ended up feeling a little underwhelmed by it. The characters in Half a King and the story in Half the World felt, to me, distinctly lukewarm: there never seemed to be any doubt as to whether the main characters would achieve their goal, and it never once felt as though they were in any real danger.

Not so in Half a War. Despite its title, this book doesn’t do things by half. Half a War is packed from cover to cover with full-on danger, full-on violence, and full-on excitement. The stakes are higher than they’ve ever been: the events of the first two books have finally come to a head, and the Shattered Sea is embroiled in outright war. The High King’s army are marching, and standing against them is the small but dogged alliance of Gettland, Vansterland and Throvenland. But it’s an alliance of necessity rather than friendship, and the leaders of each nation must learn to co-exist for the greater good of their people.

I simply can’t praise Half a War highly enough. This is the Abercrombie I know and love: the Abercrombie who writes killer action scenes and breathless, adrenaline-fuelled battles; the Abercrombie who loads his pages with dark humour and gritty violence; the Abercrombie who creates flawed yet likeable characters whose witty yet realistic dialogue dances off the page and whose fates we as readers become genuinely invested in. This Abercrombie is not afraid to place his characters in dangerous situations, and to force them to make decisions in which they must weigh their own needs against the needs of others. Neither is he afraid to hurt his characters – or, by extension, his readers – and I feel like this is the first time in this trilogy that the ‘true’ Abercrombie really shines through the YA veneer.

In the same vein as the second book, Half a War has characters who previously featured as main protagonists taking something of a back seat, allowing a new set of characters to come to the fore. So, while Father Yarvi and Thorn Bathu both have their fair share of page time, the real focus here is on two new protagonists: Skara, a deposed and recently orphaned princess; and Raith, bloodthirsty swordbearer to the legendary warrior Grom-gil-Gorm. Both characters are remarkably different to one another, yet both are extremely likeable, and I personally sympathised with both of them a lot more than I did either Thorn, Brand or Yarvi. Still, each and every character has a role to play, and when the full extent of certain characters’ involvement with the ongoing conflict is revealed it makes for a delightfully outrageous surprise.

The only aspect of the series I’m still not entirely convinced by is the notion of ‘elf magic’, which to me seems kind of shoehorned into Half a War given that it was only hinted at subtly in the previous two books (rather than made an integral part of the world as in Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire). However, it does allow for incredible plot opportunities; and although I feel that the storyline involving the ruins of Strokom could perhaps have been fleshed out a bit more, I can’t deny that it results in some madly incongruous and awesome imagery (one particular scene involving the elderly Mother Scaer is both hilarious and terrifying, and will likely stick in my mind for a very long time).

Half a War is fast-moving and highly entertaining. It’s a fairly intense read, full of action and twists, and is led by sympathetic yet unpredictable characters who constantly surprise us with their decisions, eventually leaving us with an optimistic yet by no means fairytale ending. All in all, a stunning finale to a really enjoyable fantasy series. I would absolutely love to see more of the Shattered Sea in the near future.

5/5

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Review: 'The Liar's Key' by Mark Lawrence


 
 
The Red Queen has set her players on the board…

Winter is keeping Prince Jalan Kendeth far from the longed-for luxuries of his southern palace. And although the North may be home to his companion, the warrior Snorri ver Snagason, he is just as eager to leave. For the Viking is ready to challenge all of Hell to bring his wife and children back into the living world. He has Loki’s key – now all he needs is to find the door.

As all wait for the ice to unlock its jaws, the Dead King plots to claim what was so nearly his – the key into the world – so that the dead can rise and rule.



 

Mark Lawrence is one of my favourite modern fantasy authors. First he blew me away with his Broken Empire trilogy (Prince of Thorns, King of Thorns and Emperor of Thorns). Then, just when I thought he couldn’t get any better, he unleashed a new trilogy titled The Red Queen’s War, set in the same dystopian universe as Broken Empire. The first book in this series, Prince of Fools, was simply awesome; happily, the series continues in the same vein with The Liar’s Key. Although its hefty length means it’s not quite the mile-a-minute thrill ride Prince of Fools was, The Liar’s Key does allow us more opportunities to catch our breath and spend more time learning about our favourite loveable rogue Jalan Kendeth.

Having been dragged to the ends of the earth in the previous book, The Liar’s Key sees the spoilt prince of Red March dragged all the way back home again in a variety of dangerous and entertaining circumstances. We’re still following several of the same characters from earlier in the series, including Snorri, a Viking warrior on a quest to reclaim his lost family, and Tuttugu, Snorri’s most loyal follower (who actually prefers fishing to axe-fighting). A couple of new characters are also thrown into the mix: the witch Kara and the orphan child Hennan add a new dynamic to the not-so-happy gathering, and open up new and interesting possibilities plot-wise.

The Liar’s Key is essentially a fantastically insane travelogue, meaning that yet more of the wonderful broken empire setting is unveiled here than ever before. Not only are we shown new places that have thus far only been hinted at – such as the dreaded Wheel of Osheim – but we also bump into a couple of characters from the original Broken Empire trilogy, each instance of which feels like a cross between a celebrity cameo and a reunion with old friends. Jalan himself is an incredibly likeable character despite his somewhat despicable nature, and his seemingly ceaseless supply of sardonic retorts and self-deprecating witticisms makes almost everything that comes out of his mouth immensely quotable. Furthermore I really enjoyed the way in which Jal’s character develops subtly and consistently, and the use of flashbacks to reveal more about his family’s history is done in a really clever and interesting way.

Lawrence’s prose flows effortlessly as always, making every page delightfully easy and entertaining to read. While I didn’t enjoy The Liar’s Key quite as much as I did Prince of Fools, it’s not often I find myself reading a book for the first time knowing that I’ll re-read it at some point in the near future. Lawrence’s Broken Empire books have already proven themselves to be even more clever and entertaining upon re-reading, and I’m certain that The Red Queen’s War will be the same. The world of the broken empire is like a distorted jigsaw puzzle, the pieces of which are scattered throughout each book, and we can’t truly start to put it together properly until we have all the pieces.

Mark Lawrence is as creatively talented as Jalan Kendeth is outrageously likeable, and I continue to be thoroughly entertained by both of them.

5/5
 
Click here for my review of Prince of Fools (Red Queen's War #1)

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Review: 'The Coldest War' by Ian Tregillis


For decades, Britain's warlocks have been all that stands between the British Empire and the Soviet Union - a vast domain stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the shores of the English Channel. Now each wizard's death is another blow to Britain's national security.

Meanwhile, a brother and sister - the subjects of a twisted Nazi experiment to imbue ordinary people with superhuman abilities - escape from a top-secret facility deep behind the Iron Curtain. They head for England, because that's where former spy Raybould Marsh lives. And Gretel, the mad seer, has plans for him.

As Marsh is once again drawn into the world of Milkweed, he discovers that Britain's darkest acts didn't end with the war. And while he strives to protect queen and country, he is forced to confront his own willingness to accept victory at any cost.



I was persuaded to read the first Milkweed novel, Bitter Seeds, last year, and although I found it a decent read it left me sceptical as to where exactly this trilogy was headed. After finishing The Coldest War I can hardly wait to find out.

Set in 1963, The Coldest War takes place in the same alternate history as Bitter Seeds. The main events occur almost twenty years after the first book; the Soviets are now on the verge of winning the Cold War, having made use of the devastating Nazi scientific secrets stolen at the end of the first book. The characters themselves are almost unrecognisable. Each of them is in a dark place: Marsh’s marriage has degenerated into a resentful partnership that revolves around caring for a disabled son; Will is burdened by guilt and memories; and Klaus is imprisoned in a Soviet research facility along with his psychotic sister Gretel. All are shadows of their former selves, which makes for quite a gloomy kick-off to the story. However, the more time we spend with the characters the more we see them regain their old fire; and the further they’re dragged back into Milkweed, the more exciting their circumstances become.

It’s not until later that it’s revealed just how many of these circumstances have arisen as a direct result of a certain character’s manipulations in the first book. I really wish I’d gone back to re-read Bitter Seeds before beginning The Coldest War, since reading them back-to-back is probably the best way to appreciate the author’s skilful use of timelines, not to mention the subtle set-ups and spectacular payoffs. The jaw-dropping ending actually had me racing upstairs to find Bitter Seeds and then flipping through the pages looking for one scene in particular, after which my jaw dropped and for several seconds I was literally speechless. The first book planted so many seeds (book two really gave ‘bitter seeds’ a whole new meaning) and I can’t wait to see how everything plays out in the final instalment, Necessary Evil. My only criticism is feeling that the Eidolon storyline didn’t mesh particularly well with the rest of the story, although its significance in the greater events of the trilogy is made abundantly (and terrifyingly) clear by the end of the novel.

Despite this I absolutely LOVED this book. The Coldest War is awesome and exciting, and I already look forward to re-reading the whole trilogy in the future.

5/5
Click here for my review of Bitter Seeds (Milkweed Triptych #1)
 

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Review: 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban' by J.K. Rowling


 
Harry Potter is lucky to reach the age of thirteen, since he has already survived the murderous attacks of the feared Dark Lord on more than one occasion.
But his hopes for a quiet term concentrating on Quidditch are dashed when a maniacal mass-murderer escapes from Azkaban, pursued by the soul-sucking Dementors who guard the prison.
It's assumed that Hogwarts is the safest place for Harry to be. But is it a coincidence that he can feel eyes watching him in the dark, or should he be taking Professor Trelawney's ghoulish predictions seriously?

 

The Great Harry Potter Re-read continues with book three of the series, Prisoner of Azkaban. Although it’s been years since I last read it, I always remember this book as my least favourite of the series, so I was really surprised when I found myself enjoying it rather a lot. It has all the things I liked about the first two books, such as funky magical creatures, stunning plot twists, and of course Rowling’s trademark humour. Furthermore, some of my favourite characters – namely Sirius and Lupin – make their first appearance here, and I thoroughly enjoyed becoming re-acquainted with the little darlings.
Despite this, I did find myself getting a little impatient with the story, and was often reminded why I previously regarded this as my least favourite of the series. (Yes, Harry, we know you’re not allowed to go to Hogsmeade, now please stop moaning about it. It’s a rat, Ron, for God’s sake get over it. And oh dear God, not another Quidditch match?!?!) I also feel like I was less engaged with the story in general than I was with the first two books: Philosopher’s Stone kept us guessing throughout and was full of questions (who robbed the Gringotts vault? What is Fluffy guarding? Who is Nicholas Flamel?), and Chamber of Secrets was packed with even bigger questions (What is the Chamber of Secrets? Who is the heir of Slytherin? Who or what is petrifying muggle-borns?). Prisoner of Azkaban is the first book in the series to lack a great underlying mystery, and unfortunately this meant that I felt less compelled to keep turning the pages.
That said, there are a lot of things this book does very well, the main one being its depiction of the characters’ emotional growth. We see the first real disagreements between Harry, Ron and Hermione as they each become more headstrong, and their arguments are portrayed as petty yet as realistically serious in that dramatic way unique to young teenagers just starting to hit puberty. Much of the story is about Harry being in emotional turmoil rather than physical danger, and while this doesn’t always make for the most thrilling of reads, it’s nonetheless well done. I think this is the point where the series first starts to mature: there’s a lot more emphasis on personal revelations rather than magic, and it’s the first time we see Harry have to really deal with emotional issues surrounding his own past and the deaths of his parents.
It has to be said that the last few chapters of the book are really fantastic: fast-paced and full of really great revelations and clever plot twists leading to yet another tidily satisfactory conclusion. Best of all, finishing this one means that now the fun really begins: Goblet of Fire next!

4/5

 

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Review: 'Fortress Frontier' by Myke Cole

The Great Reawakening did not come quietly. Suddenly people from all corners of the globe began to develop terrifying powers - summoning fire, manipulating earth, opening portals and decimating flesh. Overnight the rules had changed... but not for everyone.

Alan Bookbinder might be a Colonel in the US Army, but in his heart he knows he's just a desk jockey, a clerk with a silver eagle on his jacket. But one morning he is woken by a terrible nightmare and overcome by an ominous drowning sensation. Something is very, very wrong.

Forced into working for the Supernatural Operations Corps in a new and dangerous world, Bookbinder's only hope of finding a way back to his family will mean teaming up with former SOC operator and public enemy number one: Oscar Britton. They will have to put everything on the line if they are to save thousands of soldiers trapped inside a frontier fortress on the brink of destruction, and show the people back home the stark realities of a war that threatens to wipe out everything they're trying to protect.

 

This is one hell of a fast and fun read. I devoured Fortress Frontier in less than 24 hours, racing through a dynamic story full of likeable characters living in a not-too-distantly futuristic world. The second instalment in Myke Cole’s awesome Shadow Ops series is insanely fast-paced: the story races along a mile-a-minute, with every few pages introducing something new and exciting, be it an explosion, a magical beastie, an enemy attack or a supernatural discovery. Fortress Frontier is essentially much like its predecessor, Control Point, only better; it’s as though the first book has been patched and updated, not to the point where it’s perfect, but to a point where it feels much more smooth and satisfying than the original.

In my review of Control Point I described the Shadow Ops series as a combination of X-Men, Black Hawk Down, Avatar and Heroes. I stand by these comparisons after completing the second book, focusing as it does on a minority of people with special abilities in a military setting in hostile territory inhabited by alien races (which is AWESOME, by the way). To drag in more names, Fortress Frontier is dedicated to J.R.R. Tolkien and the father of D&D Gary Gygax, which is fitting since a big chunk of the book is taken up with a small group of characters embarking on an intrepid journey across thousands of miles in order to try and save the world. But despite all the comparisons with other writers and franchises, I’ve never read anything quite like it, and I would say this is another huge point in the author’s favour.

The one issue I had with the first book was a lack of sympathy with the mercurially-mooded main character Oscar Britton. Thankfully that’s largely resolved here by the addition of a new POV character who dominates the majority of the novel. Alan Bookbinder is a much more likeable protagonist than Oscar, focused as he is on his struggle to overcome his own lack of experience and self-confidence in order to survive in a strange and lonely environment. Alan’s character develops steadily and believably throughout the book, unlike Oscar in Control Point; and while his overnight mastery of his newfound abilities is almost as implausible as Oscar’s in the first book, I found Alan to be so likeable that I didn’t mind turning a blind eye.

It’s been about a year since I read the first book, and so I was a bit confused regarding the time frame of events relating to the original characters. When Oscar and the others finally did make their appearance I was a little disoriented, and the subsequent pages of characters squabbling repetitively didn’t exactly do a stellar job of getting me back on top of things. But the events of the first book came back to me in dribs and drabs, and if it hadn’t been so long since I first started the series I imagine I’d have had no trouble following at all. Either way I definitely don’t intend to wait nearly as long before moving on with the series this time. After Fortress Frontier’s explosive (if slightly rushed and chaotic) finale there are still a lot of plot threads waiting to be resolved, and I can’t wait to see how they play out in the next book, Breach Zone.

To those still on the fence: if you liked Control Point, you’ll love Fortress Frontier. If you didn’t like Control Point, give Fortress Frontier a try anyway – it’s much better!

4/5