Sunday, 5 January 2014

Review: 'Herald of the Storm' by Richard Ford

Stand together . . . or die alone.
The vast cityport of Steelhaven was once a symbol of strength, maintaining an uneasy peace throughout the Free States. But with the King away, leading his armies, the city is rotting from the inside and the streets are slick with blood.

And now a dark cloud hangs over the capital in the form of the dread warlord Amon Tugha. When his herald infiltrates the city, exploiting a dangerous criminal underworld, and a dark magick begins to rise, the fate of the Free States will fall into the hands of the most unlikely saviours.

Comparisons to other authors can sometimes hurt a book rather than help it. One of the main parallels that have been drawn here is between Ford’s work and that of George R R Martin (indeed, it seems rare nowadays for a fantasy novel to escape the inevitable comparisons with ol’ GRRM), but aside from the structure of the novel (alternating chapters from differing points of view) and maybe a bit of the grittiness I wouldn’t personally make this comparison, partly because ASoIaF is something of a sweeping epic, while Herald of the Storm is concerned (for the moment) entirely with the events within a single city.

That the entire story is contained within the city of Steelhaven is actually, for me, the book’s strongest point. The plot is fairly tight and pacy, and the ways in which several of the individual storylines were eventually interwoven was nicely done. There are two or three main plotlines occurring at the same time – an illegal slave-trading operation, a royal assassination attempt, and an act of dark magic – and it’s interesting to see how different characters are involved in each plot, and how each mini-plot becomes relevant to the bigger picture. In fact, the whole book does a nice job of laying the groundwork for the next one in the series.

I enjoyed the diversity of the characters: there’s Kaira Stormfall, morally upright Shieldmaiden of the goddess Vorena; Janessa Mastragall, innocent and headstrong heir to the throne; River, an assassin with a conflicted soul; Merrick Ryder, a former duellist and dandy who has fallen on hard times; Rag, a street urchin and pickpocket; Nobul Jacks, soldier-turned blacksmith-turned city guard; and Waylian Grimm, apprentice in the tower of magick (no, I’m not sure why it has to be spelt with a ‘k’ either). Although there are a fair amount of characters, the variety between them helps to keep it interesting and make it work.
Despite not being a huge fan of the structural style (namely the use of alternating PoV chapters) I did enjoy the way the author used this to keep certain things, such as the identity of certain characters, hidden until key moments. He uses the alternating chapters to gradually reveal the connections between different characters, and to show the impact of other characters’ decisions on others’ lives. I did feel that certain characters’ storylines felt a little out of place – Rag’s story came to feel a bit irrelevant, and Waylian (and magick in general) also seemed a bit like it had been shoe-horned in there. However, the final chapters for these characters do seem to suggest that both will play a larger role in future novels.

A quick point about the language: I don’t usually have a problem with the use of profanity in fiction, provided that the use of language fits with the character of the person who’s saying it. However, the author has created several less-than-golden characters here, many of whom swear frequently; and although it fits the tone of the novel, which is dark and gritty, it does sometimes reach a point where the constant repetition of ‘f**k’ and ‘s**t’ becomes a bit tiresome.
I mentioned the popular use of GRRM as a benchmark for modern fantasy novels, this one included, but the fact is I bought this book on the strength of numerous comparisons with Joe Abercrombie (another of my favourite fantasy authors). While I can certainly see the similarities – character-driven storytelling, grimy characters, dirty deeds – I think this is another case of hurting a book by comparing it to another of a very high standard. Ford’s characters didn’t quite spring to life for me in the same way as those in, say, the First Law trilogy, and I didn’t feel as sympathetic towards any of them as I did towards those in Abercrombie’s books. If I hadn’t heard any of the glowing comparisons (one blog even raved that Herald of the Storm was actually much better than First Law) then I probably wouldn’t even have noticed, but as it is I couldn’t help being just a tiny bit disappointed. However, I enjoyed the story, the characters grew on me, and I look forward to reading the next in the Steelhaven series when it’s released later this year.

 My rating: 4/5
Click here to view Herald of the Storm (Steelhaven #1) on Amazon UK


Thursday, 2 January 2014

Review: 'The Dragon's Path' by Daniel Abraham

Summer is the season of war in the Free Cities.
Marcus is getting out before the fighting starts. His hero days are behind him, and guarding the last caravan out of the city is better than being pressed into service by the local gentry.
Cithrin has a job to do – smuggle the wealth of a nation through a war zone. An orphan raised by the bank, she is the city’s last hope of keeping its treasure out of the hands of the invaders.
Geder, the only son of a noble house, is more interested in philosophy than swordplay. But in the fires of battle, a hero – or a villain – can be forged from even the most reluctant soldier.
All three have a part to play as a minor summer skirmish threatens to spiral out of control and sweep the entire region onto the Dragon’s Path – the path to war.

 The Dragon’s Path is a fantasy novel written in a similar style to GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire, with a nice blend of violence, war, political intrigue, and a variety of point-of-view characters. Although slow to begin with, both the story and the characters steadily improve as the novel progresses.
The Dragon’s Path is the first in a four-book series titled The Dagger and the Coin, a phrase which in this book refers to the two alternative paths of civilisation: war (or 'the dragon's path') and trade. The ‘coin’ is represented by the main female character, Cithrin, and it’s interesting to see how her story is juxtaposed against others who take the path of violence, like Dawson.

While the initial sixty pages or so made me feel as though I was being bombarded with new characters and PoVs, this soon evened itself out into four central PoV characters, all of whom come to be interesting in different ways. The slightly Erikson-esque name-dropping of what seems like a hundred names of races and cities without any elaboration was also a bit confusing at first; it takes roughly the first half of the book for the characters to fully begin to form, and the various aspects of the world, such as its history, and details of the twelve different races, soon fall into place.
There are four main PoVs, each of which are very different: there’s Cithrin bel Sarcour, young orphan girl and ward of the Medean bank; Marcus Wester, war hero-turned mercenary; Geder Palliako, reluctant soldier and amateur philosopher; and Dawson, king’s advisor and steadfast loyalist. Two of these characters – Cithrin and Geder – develop significantly throughout the course of the novel, and it was their stories I found most enjoyable to read. Both characters have some pretty major ups and downs; both are forced to shed their innocent naïveté by events that shape their thoughts and personalities in very different ways, and it’s these two characters in particular that I’m keen to read more of.

The two main female characters in the novel are well-drawn, particularly since both have their own personal strengths, neither of which involves improbable skill with either sex or weapons: Cithrin, although very young, is well-versed in her knowledge of banking and finance, and skilfully uses this knowledge to turn many poor situations to her advantage; while Clara, the wife of Dawson and a comparably minor character, plays an important role by using her ability to read people and by exploiting the inferior position of women in society in order to get access to information and places inaccessible to men. I was pleasantly surprised by how interesting Cithrin’s chapters were, and how the details of her financial schemes actually became one of the most exciting plot points.
The intriguing hints towards the bigger picture – a mysterious and deadly cult threatening to corrupt and engulf civilisation – and the fact that most of the characters have developed in such interesting ways more than make up for the novel’s occasional slowness; and although The Dragon’s Path is a little sluggish to start, the second half of the story – particularly the developments of the final few chapters – promises much greater things.

My rating: 4/5
Click here to view The Dragon's Path (Dagger and Coin #1) on Amazon UK