Thursday, 30 April 2015

Tough Travels: The Big City

‘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 THE BIG CITY.

There has to be somewhere in Fantasyland where everyone comes together. All roads lead to Rome after all. A place where traders prosper, politicians scheme, and criminals thrive.

I had an enormous list this week. Seriously, if it’s a city in a fantasy novel I’ve read recently, I had it on my list. Low Town, Adua, Krondor, Adro, Krasia . . . but I just couldn’t think of enough to say about most of them. Whether this is a detrimental comment about the world-building of these authors, or simply my own abysmal memory, who knows. Let’s face it, it’s probably the latter.


(Discworld series by Terry Pratchett)

On the Discworld, all roads lead here: to the glorious twin-cities of proud Ankh and pestilent Morpork. Famous for its wizards, its underworld, and of course its smell, Ankh-Morpork is home to those from all walks of life. Firstly it boasts the Unseen University, home of the majority of the Discworld’s wizarding population. The University’s immense Tower of Art, well, towers over the rest of the city like, erm, a big tower. Then there’s the river Ankh, which is so thick it crawls rather than flows; and of course the Guild headquarters, including the Assassins’ Guild, Thieves’ Guild, and the miserable Fools’ Guild. There’s also a Golem Emporium, a Post Office, the barracks of the Night’s Watch, the Patrician’s palace . . . and let’s not forget The Mended Drum (formerly The Broken Drum), possibly the most resilient tavern in the history of fiction, complete with its trollish bouncers and of course a nightly brawl. And then there’s the Shades, a rather dodgy part of Morpork where, according to Pratchett, curiosity not only kills the cat but throws it into the river with lead weights tied to its feet. Ahh, Ankh-Morpork. How we love you.


(Herald of the Storm by Richard Ford)

School of magicians? Check. Illegal slave-trade? Check. Assassins? Check. City watch? Check.

Yep, this one definitely belongs on the list.


(The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch)

Welcome to the Camorr, the home of Locke Lamora and the Gentlemen Bastards. With its gullible nobility, corrupt bankers and fat merchants (not to mention easily impersonable priests), Camorr is a con man’s paradise, and is home to an extensive and sophisticated criminal underworld. The city of Camorr is laced with Venetian-style waterways, which perhaps explains why the Camorri’s favourite form of capital punishment is to throw people into a deep pool filled with murderous sea creatures. Their favourite form of entertainment is – oh – yeah, wait, that’s also throwing people into a deep pool filled with murderous sea creatures. Welcome to Camorr!


(Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson)

The Last Free City, Darujhistan was ‘built on a rumour’, as a false gold rush hundreds of years before sent thousands of people flocking to the banks of Lake Azur, where they eventually founded the city. Also known as the City of Blue Fire, so named for its extensive natural gas supply and the blue lamps it fuels, Darujhistan is ostensibly ruled by the Council of Nobles, but a group of mages known as the T’orrud Cabal operate in the shadows behind them. In addition to the politics, parties and duels of the nobility, Darujhistan is also home to a surprising amount of shadier people more familiar with the rooftops than the streets. Assassins and thieves abound in Darujhistan, and any who want a piece of the action – or need protection – will head straight for The Phoenix Inn.

Hogsmeade/Diagon Alley

(Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling)

This one is probably cheating, as neither are actually a city: one's a village and the other's a, well, an alley. However, our favourite Hogswartians don’t get out much, and a trip to Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley is about as close to ‘the big city’ as they’re ever going to get. Diagon Alley has everything a witch or wizard will ever need: shops, banks, pubs, you name it. Is your owl losing his sense of direction? Head over to Eeylops Owl Emporium and buy a new one! Short on cash and need to make a withdrawal? Gringotts bank is your destination, that big white building on the corner (don’t forget your vault key, and don’t stare too hard at the goblins). Need new spellbooks for school? Go to Flourish and Blotts! In Hogsmeade and fancy a pint of butterbeer? Head on over to the Three Broomsticks (watch out for Hagrid, he’s probably had one too many already). Elsewhere in these places you can buy flying brooms, unicorn horns, beetles’ eyes, cauldrons, wizard robes, magical sweets, or even just ice cream . . . anything at all. Don’t miss the Weasleys’ joke shop in Diagon Alley, and be sure to check out the Shrieking Shack before you leave Hogsmeade!

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

Monday, 27 April 2015

Review: 'Assassin's Apprentice' by Robin Hobb

In a faraway land where members of the royal family are named for the virtues they embody, one young boy will become a walking enigma.

Born on the wrong side of the sheets, Fitz, son of Chivalry Farseer, is a royal bastard, cast out into the world, friendless and lonely. Only his magical link with animals - the old art known as the Wit - gives him solace and companionship. But the Wit, if used too often, is a perilous magic, and one abhorred by the nobility.

So when Fitz is finally adopted into the royal household, he must give up his old ways and embrace a new life of weaponry, scribing, courtly manners; and how to kill a man secretly, as he trains to become a royal assassin.

I first read Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy about eight years ago, so my memories of it are muzzy to say the least. The only thing I could remember about it was that the first two books were quite good, while the third was okay. I never had the urge to revisit the characters, or to read any of her other books. But I’ve been on a bit of a re-reading spree recently, and came across the trilogy whilst sweeping my bookshelves looking for candidates for my next read. And after finishing Assassin’s Apprentice for the second time, I officially revise my initial impression of the book, and can’t believe I’ve let this series sit and gather dust for so many years without wanting to read more.

The Farseer trilogy is so-called after the royal family of the Six Duchies. The Farseers have ruled for hundreds of years, and are unique amongst the kingdom in that they possess the Skill, a hereditary ability that allows them to initiate mind contact and manipulate others for their own purposes. Used for the most part in the defence of the kingdom against pirate raiders, the Skill is both feared and respected, and is believed to be solely the province of royalty and those of otherwise noble birth. But if the Skill is considered as one side of a coin, then on the other side of the coin is the Wit: the ability to communicate with animals. Unlike the Skill, the Wit is reviled, with those who possess it considered to be perverted or tainted in some way. Anyone with the Wit foolish enough to make it publicly known is promptly lynched by neighbours who believe them no better than the animals with which they share their thoughts and feelings.

FitzChivalry Farseer has both the Wit and the Skill. But as a bastard of the royal line, he is considered unworthy of the Skill by many. Furthermore, he must keep his Wit hidden from all or else face disgracing the house of Farseer and seeing himself horrifically punished. Fitz is first brought to the royal Keep when he is six years old, and Assassin’s Apprentice details his growth throughout the next ten or so years. Fitz is trained as a – you guessed it – assassin’s apprentice, but he is also trained by others in the arts of swordplay, Skilling, scribing, and the mastery of horses and hounds. But despite his achievements, almost no one - including himself – can see beyond his shameful illegitimacy, which almost proves fatal on several occasions.

The entire focus of Assassin’s Apprentice is on the main character, Fitz, and one particular aspect that makes him so captivating is the sheer amount of conflict surrounding him. Fitz is training to be a loyal assassin, yet is unable to ignore his own sense of morality. He desperately wants to learn the Skill, but despises the cruel man who is teaching him. And he struggles to understand how he should feel about his father’s eccentric but well-meaning widow, Patience, who was responsible for his father’s decision to abdicate his claim to the throne and retire from the castle after first learning of Fitz’s existence. Perhaps the most defining of them all is his ongoing conflict with the stablemaster Burrich, who loves Fitz like a son and yet is repulsed by his use of the Wit to the point where he will no longer speak to Fitz at all. Hobb makes us genuinely care about Fitz and his relationships with those around him, both good and bad, so that his mind-contact with his new puppy is just as exciting to read about as his altercations with his enemies.

 But not everything is as positive or rewarding as his bond with the animals: there are plenty of harsh challenges for Fitz, with many sad moments and passages that are genuinely moving. I found these parts of the story to be both emotionally draining and satisfyingly cathartic (in a good way), and am not ashamed to say I was actually reduced to tears on more than one occasion. Then there’s the assorted cast of truly reprehensible antagonists, in particular Galen and Regal, at whom my mind would boo and hiss whenever they appeared on the page. Seriously, they both made me furious. And that’s not even mentioning the true baddies of the story, who are currently operating in the background. The Red Ship Raiders are a constant threat to the coastal villages of the Six Duchies, and the ‘Forged ones’ - vicious zombie-like beings who are all that remain of the Raiders’ victims – make them chilling adversaries.

Both the plot and the characters are well-rounded and captivating, as is the setting and worldbuilding, but the novel’s main strength is its narrative voice. It has a consistently pleasant, engaging tone that makes it a joy to read from beginning to end, and the flowing, almost poetic voice makes the narrative feel light and effortless. The focused first-person narrative brings to the fore a likeable and very sympathetic main character; one who is conscious of telling his own story, yet who is at the same time brutally honest, choosing to include all the damning facts about himself and his own actions. I’ve no idea why I didn’t get along with this series and its protagonist when I first read it all those years ago, but now I can’t wait to devour the rest of the books in Hobb’s Elderlings sequence.


Thursday, 23 April 2015

Tough Travels: The Ace

‘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 THE ACE.

Some people are just ridiculously good at everything. Be it magic, swordplay, or all of the above. THE ACE has no equal.


(The Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss)

I imagine Kvothe will be on almost everyone’s list this week! Whether it’s magic, Naming, artificing, lute playing, yoga, sexing, being whipped, or pranking enemies, Kvothe the Bloodless would have us all believe that he is the best at everything and perfect in every way. Whether he is really an ace or just an incredibly biased and egotistical first-person narrator remains to be seen, but you have to admit he is pretty cool.

Jean Tannen

(Gentlemen Bastards series by Scott Lynch)

Not only is Jean Tannen an awesome bodyguard and occasional counsellor to his buddy Locke Lamora, but he’s also mega smart and is responsible for all the Gentlemen Bastards’ accounting. His deadly skill with axes, his badass-yet-nicest-guy-in-the-world persona, his mathematical skill, and his apparent, erm, proficiency in the hammock more than justify his place on a list of aces. (And as Lynn likes to say – never miss an opportunity to get Jean on your list!)

Durzo Blint & Kylar Stern

(The Night Angel trilogy by Brent Weeks)

I couldn’t decide which of the above characters deserved to make it onto this list the most, so to make it easy I’ve included both. Durzo and Kylar are both assassins, or ‘wetboys’ as the most skilled ones are referred to in this series. Durzo is the most famous and skilled wetboy in the city, and Kylar follows in his footsteps as his apprentice. They are both insanely skilled with weapons and poisons and are highly regarded as the cream of the underworld, yet they are also skilled at mingling amongst the nobility. Also, they have magic, and are basically immortal. Or something.

The Red Knight

(The Red Knight by Miles Cameron)

The captain of an elite mercenary company, the Red Knight is much more than he first appears. He has the rare ability to use both Wild and Sun magic (most people can only use one or the other, or neither), is highly skilled in the use of various weapons, is an excellent horseman and an inspiring leader. He delivers killing blows to uncountable behemoths of the Wild, and is a pro at planning and conducting battles. Not to mention that he’s a mean hand with both a lute and a harp.

Quick Ben

(The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson)

I mentioned Quick Ben a few weeks back when we talked about Chess Masters, but he’s just so diabolically awesome in every way that I had to include him here too. 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 has the magical ability of twelve mages put together, and even managed to outwit the master manipulator Shadowthrone, which takes some doing.


(The Broken Empire trilogy by Mark Lawrence)

This is another one I also listed as a chess master, but couldn’t not mention this week too. Because there is nothing that Jorg Ancrath can’t do. At the age of ten he is quoting philosophy at his tutors and holding his own amongst a band of mercenaries. At the age of fourteen he is the undisputed leader of said mercenaries, as well as a king of the highlands. And by the age of eighteen he is leading an enormous force on a quest to save the world. He has no equal when it comes to the arts of weapons, technology, philosophy or politics, and is not afraid of playing dirty to get ahead in life.

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

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Review: 'Sourcery' by Terry Pratchett

Once upon a time, there was an eighth son of an eighth son who was, of course, a wizard. As if that wasn't complicated enough, said wizard then had seven sons. And then he had an eighth son . . . a wizard squared . . . a source of magic . . . a Sourcerer.

Sourcery is the fifth Discworld outing, and also one of my least favourites, although I did find it more entertaining than I remembered. A young but powerful child, Eskarina Coin is preparing to give the wizards of Unseen University the shock of their lives: for the first time in History, and against all the rules of the Lore, a girl a sourcerer has arrived in Ankh-Morpork, and her his presence is about to turn the conservative wizarding world upside down. The Discworld is suddenly threatened by ancient and devastating magic, with only the hapless Rincewind and his trusty Luggage there to prevent Trymon the sourcerer from unleashing the Things from the Dungeon Dimensions and initiating the dreaded Apocralypse.

As you can see, a large part of my problem with Sourcery is that it feels too much like a rehashing of both Equal Rites and The Light Fantastic, with nearly all its plot elements being ‘borrowed’ from one or the other. To be fair, in many respects it is better and more coherent (well, kind of) than either of those two books, yet it also suffers from many of the same flaws. For instance, it’s populated with unnecessary secondary characters who, although fairly likeable, have no real impact on the events of the story. It also follows the same routine as many other Discworld novels with regards to plot. There’s a nice quick prologue to set up the story, and then we’re thrown straight into events, which is great. Fast-paced and funny, saturated with chuckle-worthy one-liners, the first half of the story races by. From thereon in, however, it suffers from Pratchett-itis, as both story and momentum lose their thread and subsequently unravel in a series of pointless events and irrelevant sub-plots.

Nonetheless, as with most of the Discworld books, no matter how much mud there is there are still plenty of diamonds to be found. The sheer amount of throwaway comments, witty one-liners and godawful yet hilarious puns is, as always, thoroughly impressive; and I’m willing to overlook any amount of thin plot and mediocre characters for a book involving the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse getting drunk in a bar, having their horses stolen, and subsequently not turning up for their own apocalypse because they were too busy having ‘one for the road’.


Sunday, 19 April 2015

Review: 'The Red Knight' by Miles Cameron

Twenty eight florins a month is a huge price to pay, for a man to stand between you and the Wild.

Twenty eight florins a month is nowhere near enough when a wyvern's jaws snap shut on your helmet in the hot stink of battle, and the beast starts to rip the head from your shoulders. But if standing and fighting is hard, leading a company of men - or worse, a company of mercenaries - against the smart, deadly creatures of the Wild is even harder.

It takes all the advantages of birth, training, and the luck of the devil to do it.

The Red Knight has all three, he has youth on his side, and he's determined to turn a profit. So when he hires his company out to protect an Abbess and her nunnery, it's just another job. The abbey is rich, the nuns are pretty and the monster preying on them is nothing he can't deal with.

Only it's not just a job. It's going to be a war...

The Red Knight has been gathering dust on my shelf for a couple of years now, but I’ve always put off starting it because of how hefty it looks. However, I recently read a bunch of positive stuff about it, and since my reading mojo has been brilliant lately I thought now would be a good time to finally give it a go. I have to say I found it very underwhelming at first – in fact there were several occasions when I almost gave up on it – but it gradually picked up the pace as it went on, to the point where the second half of the book felt almost like a different, far superior book than the first half.

Firstly, it has to be said that The Red Knight is VERY slow in getting off the ground. I struggled a lot with the first hundred pages or so, finding the prose to be somewhat laborious and the descriptions of duels, complete with the names of guards and stances and such, to be pedantic and dull. In fact, the book didn’t really grip me in any way up until the 200 page mark; unfortunately by that point it already felt as though I’d ploughed through closer to 600, and so I didn’t really start to appreciate the book until quite a way after this. (I’m not sure if the fact that my copy is a trade paperback made it feel weightier than it really is.) However, I did start to enjoy it a lot more as the story progressed, and what begins as a slow introduction of multiple threads does build up to quite a climactic convergence towards the end.

The majority of The Red Knight’s story is set during a siege, which takes place over the course of a fortnight. The eponymous Red Knight and his company of mercenaries have been hired by the Abbess of Lissen Carak to provide protection for her nuns and to investigate the violent murders that have been taking place in nearby villages. It quickly becomes apparent that the murders are not isolated incidents: in fact, they herald an imminent invasion of Alba by an enemy host, and the Red Knight must use all his strength and cunning to defend the nuns’ mountain fortress against an incursion by the fearsome creatures of the Wild.

Despite the novel’s title, only around half the story is actually told from the point of view of the Red Knight himself. The rest of the book alternately follows a range of other characters, perhaps ten or eleven in total, in their own individual conflicts which ultimately become different strands of the main story. The regularly shifting POVs are jarring at first, particularly as each and every transition is heralded by the name and location of the next character, almost as though the author doesn’t trust the reader to keep track. There are also a few characters who felt superfluous to the story, such as Peter and Gaston, and I found myself impatient for their segments to end. The Red Knight himself is something of a mystery, and spends much of the novel nameless and faceless, which makes it hard to sympathise with him. However, hints about his identity are leaked gradually enough to keep the reader intrigued, and he becomes much more human and likeable as the main events unfold. As the story progresses and the reader becomes more familiar with the characters, the multiple POVS actually help to enhance the plot-driven story, giving it a cinematic quality so that you can almost visualise a Game of Thrones-style TV adaptation, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The way the author uses multiple points of view to create epic convergences is strongly reminiscent of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. However, generally speaking The Red Knight reminded me more of Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy in that the main character is more than he first appears, has fallen from high station, and leads a company of morally reprehensible men and women on a quest for glory. There are also clearly influences from the works of Tolkien, and the concept of the ‘Wild folk’ being kept from civilisation by a protective wall has the ring of A Song of Ice and Fire. Despite this, The Red Knight didn’t actually feel too derivative. In fact, what sets it apart from pretty much all other fantasy I’ve read is the fact that the characters fight in head-to-toe armour (or ‘full harness’) in the style of medieval knights, and the author makes a very big deal about this. Somehow the big battles feel all the more realistic when seen from the point of view of characters who have limited vision and are gasping for air due their obstructive helmet visors, and who are hit with multiple swords and arrows during a fight, surviving only because of their heavy armour. And the grim realities of battle are driven home that much harder by showing us thoroughly exhausted knights whose armour is so heavy and restrictive that it requires at least two people to equip and remove it, and whose muscles and joints hurt constantly from bearing its life-saving weight.

Despite the initially confusing multiple points of view, the entire story of The Red Knight actually takes place within a relatively small area of a single country. The author doesn’t feel the need to make vague references to hundreds of obscure places that will never be heard from again, instead concentrating on no more than four or five main locations. This, along with the pleasantly simple map at the beginning, is actually very refreshing. However, there were parts I had difficulty with. I found a lot of the battle scenes to be overcomplicated and confusing, particularly those towards the end of the book; and the way the author swaps out names and noun phrases also occasionally caused me some confusion as to who exactly was doing what, and led to me quite often having to go back and re-read entire paragraphs, especially at the beginning when lots of new characters are being introduced. I also found that there are numerous cases where character or place names are spelt differently throughout the book, sometimes even within the same passage (Sossag/Sassog, Qwethnethog/Qwethenethog/Qwethenog, Emota/Emmota, demon/daemon/deamon, etc.), as well as a surprising amount of general spelling errors, which I find disappointing in a professionally published novel. These inconsistencies and errors continued to repeat themselves throughout the book and became something of a distraction, as did one or two occasionally bizarre descriptive passages (the Queen had “lashes so long that she could sometimes lick them”? Eh?)

To sum up:  I found reading The Red Knight to be something of an uphill struggle, at least for the majority of its first half. Once I’d got the hang of it, I did become suckered in to the story, but I still wouldn’t describe any part of the book to be an easy read. However, The Red Knight compensates for its slow start by being packed with gritty descriptions and bloody action, and has an interesting take on the relationship between religion, magic and the fae. The book has the dubious achievement of seeming twice as long as it actually is, and yet I’m quite interested in seeing how the Traitor Son cycle continues.


Thursday, 16 April 2015

Tough Travels: Awesome Displays of Magic

‘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 AWESOME DISPLAYS OF MAGIC.

Sometimes magic can be subtle. Who wants that? Big explosions or acts of creation, death and destruction or acts of awe-inspiring wonder. If your world has magic then why not show it off?

Pug Destroys the Arena

(Magician by Raymond E. Feist)

Pug is a magician, captured by invading enemy forces from another planet and forced to work as a slave for years before being taken away for magical training and having all his memories stripped from him. As he becomes integrated into his new society, his memories begin to reassert themselves, and so does his sense of right and wrong. He is forced to control his feelings and adapt to a society built on slavery, but seeing his former countrymen being slaughtered like animals for the entertainment of the masses is the final straw. At the Great Games, Pug demonstrates the true power of a ‘Great One’ by unleashing terrifying elemental forces that tear the arena to the ground, while at the same time delivering a thundering speech judging society for its collective crimes. The scene is even more terrifying when we see it again in the Empire trilogy, this time through the eyes of those desperately fleeing the devastation.

Kruppe Defies Brood

(Memories of Ice by Steven Erikson)

Kruppe is a small, fat, cherubic thief who cheats at cards, refers to himself in the third person and generally irritates everyone with whom he comes into contact. Caladan Brood is a 300,000-year-old barbarian warlord, with god-like strength and magic; he also carries the fabled hammer of the goddess Burn, which has the power to shatter mountains and re-awaken the Sleeping Goddess herself.  When Kruppe insinuates himself into a military parley with Brood, the short-tempered warlord finds Kruppe’s presence too frustrating to bear and strikes his hammer against the ground at his feet. The earth splits, the ground shakes and mountains crumble . . . and Kruppe stands amidst the destruction, untouched and smiling innocently. This is not the first clue that tells us Kruppe is much more than he appears.

Pug Travels Through Time

(A Darkness at Sethanon by Raymond E. Feist)

This mainly makes it onto the list because I was racking my brain for different types of magic other than just DESTRUCTION. In the third Riftwar Saga book, the magician Pug and his warrior friend Tomas find themselves trapped in time and space. In order to escape the trap they must send themselves back in time to the very birth of creation, and then move forward through time again to reach the point in which they left it. Bit confusing, and I honestly don’t remember all that much about it, but I remember it being very poetically described and pretty awe-inspiring. It also put me in mind of the scene from Magician where Pug stands on top of the tower in the City of Magicians and has the entire history of the planet unveiled to him I-MAX style, which is also a beautifully described example of awesome magic.

The Baby Discworld Turtles are Born

(The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett)

The first two Discworld novels, The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, focus on the wizard Rincewind and his increasingly desperate quest to save the world. A deadly red star has appeared in the sky and is getting closer every day; while the ambitious wizard Trymon threatens to unleash deadly creatures from the Dungeon Dimensions in the name of personal ambition. Believing that the approaching star heralds the end of all things, the population of Ankh-Morpork riot against magic, and it’s all Rincewind can do to get to the Tower of Art before Trymon can read from the Octavo. After defeating Trymon, Rincewind reads the spell that will save the world. Much to his astonishment, the gigantic moons that encircle the red star crack open one by one, each hatching their own miniature version of the Discworld, all of which then follow Great A’Tuin away from the red star and off into the uncertain depths of space. It’s spectacular.

I also decided that I have to give a cursory mention to the Gedderone Fete in Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon. It’s the first true example of awesomeness in a series saturated with epic displays of magic, and I almost included it on my list instead of Kruppe. In the city of Darujhistan, shapeshifting dragons, fearsome demons, ancient tyrants and modern munitions conspire to turn the lady’s Fete into smoke and rubble, and it’s AWESOME.

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

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Review: 'The Black Lung Captain' by Chris Wooding

Darian Frey is down on his luck. He can barely keep his squabbling crew fed and his rickety aircraft in the sky. Even the simplest robberies seem to go wrong. It's getting so a man can't make a dishonest living any more.

Enter Captain Grist. He's heard about a crashed aircraft laden with the treasures of a lost civilisation, and he needs Frey's help to get it. There's only one problem. The craft is lying in the trackless heart of a remote island, populated by giant beasts and subhuman monsters.

Dangerous, yes. Suicidal, perhaps. Still, Frey's never let common sense get in the way of a fortune before. But there's something other than treasure on board that aircraft. Something that a lot of important people would kill for. And it's going to take all of Frey's considerable skill at lying, cheating and stealing if he wants to get his hands on it...

It’s been a year since I read the first Ketty Jay novel, Retribution Falls, and to be honest I can barely remember a thing about it. I re-read my own review of the first book before starting The Black Lung Captain to try and refresh my memory, and came away with a vague impression of a fairly enjoyable story but with characters that fell sort of flat. Whether this is in fact true or not, I’m delighted to say that whatever misgivings I had about the first book, I thought the second one was bloody fantastic.

The Black Lung Captain immediately re-introduces us to the crew of the Ketty Jay doing what they do best: exhibiting a collective lack of morality whilst bumbling through a failed money-making mission, in this case being chased by an angry horde after robbing an orphanage. The book starts with a bang – an incredibly funny one – and continues in pretty much the same vein for the rest of the book. It’s action-packed and very fast-paced, and there is a lot of hopping about from place to place, as you might expect from a book about an airship crew. There are always good reasons for them to head to these places – usually because they’re either chasing something or running away from someone – and it keeps the story lively and the reader on their toes. The Black Lung Captain is also packed full of kickass aerial battles. Wooding never seems to run out of spectacular settings for them, whether it’s the middle of a thunderstorm on a pitch black night, or beneath a supernatural maelstrom in cloudy, frozen skies. With each battle you can virtually see the flash of the guns and hear the bullets ricochet off the ships, and it makes for a continually exciting read.

The thing that really makes The Black Lung Captain really come to life is the characters themselves, namely the crew of the Ketty Jay. Each and every member of the crew gets the page time they need to round them out and help the reader get to know them better, and there wasn’t a single character I disliked reading about – which is ironic, given that my main criticism of the first book was that the characters were two-dimensional. The author uses regularly shifting POVs within chapters, choosing to show events through the alternating viewpoints of the five or six main characters. This frequently provides levity in the midst of otherwise serious situations, usually due to the incongruity between many of the characters’ outlooks: for instance, during a dogfight with the enemy, the POV often shifts back and forth between shell-shocked, gibbering veteran Harkins, who is terrified of fighting, to the youthful daredevil Pinn, who is described as having no fear of death since he lacks the imagination to conceive of it. The shifting POVs are used to even better effect in depicting the rivalry between Harkins and Slag, the fearsome cat who dwells aboard the Ketty Jay. However, it’s Frey’s segments that pull the whole thing together and drive the plot forward, which is rather fitting seeing as he’s the one in charge. The unscrupulous, down-on-his-luck captain becomes something more than just a loveable rogue here, and his character arc is both rewarding and immensely entertaining.

Another real strength of The Black Lung Captain is in the interactions between the crew: they bicker and argue and sometimes don’t speak at all, and when they do it sounds coarse and sometimes unfriendly. But there’s also the casual and hilarious friendly banter, the gentle jibes, and the occasional rough and affectionate hug. Some lines actually had me laughing out loud, while there were also moments that almost had me in tears (there was one moment in particular involving Crake, who is also, incidentally, my favourite character). It’s realistic and funny and moving, and the relationship between Frey and his crew is pretty much the focus of the novel just as much as the events of the main plot are.

There’s not much more to say about this book. I loved the story, I loved the characters more, and I’m now officially in love with this series.

Also, when I grow up I want to be a Century Knight.


Sunday, 12 April 2015

Review: 'Before They Are Hanged' by Joe Abercrombie

Superior Glokta has a problem. How do you defend a city surrounded by enemies and riddled with traitors, when your allies can by no means be trusted, and your predecessor vanished without a trace? It’s enough to make a torturer want to run – if he could even walk without a stick.

Northmen have spilled over the border of Angland and are spreading fire and death across the frozen country. Crown Prince Ladisla is poised to drive them back and win undying glory. There is only one problem – he commands the worst-armed, worst-trained, worst-led army in the world.

And Bayaz, the First of the Magi, is leading a party of bold adventurers on a perilous mission through the ruins of the past. The most hated woman in the South, the most feared man in the North, and the most selfish boy in the Union make a strange alliance, but a deadly one. They might even stand a chance of saving mankind from the Eaters. If they didn’t hate each other quite so much.

Ancient secrets will be uncovered. Bloody battles will be won and lost. Bitter enemies will be forgiven – but not before they are hanged.

There’s a pattern emerging here. Last year I read Half a King, the first book in Joe’s YA Shattered Sea trilogy, and it prompted me to re-read The Blade Itself, which was the first book in his First Law grimdark fantasy trilogy. I recently read the second Shattered Sea novel, Half the World, and once again there immediately followed an urge to return to the First Law trilogy.

Before They Are Hanged follows the events of The Blade Itself and continues storylines carefully set up in the first novel. All of the major characters from The Blade Itself return here, and leap off the page just as much as they did in the first book. Cynical Inquisitor Glokta and optimistic Logen Ninefingers in particular continue to stand out, with their beloved idioms and now-familiar catchphrases making the book feel like a reunion with old friends. It’s Joe’s ability to create vivid and unique voices for each of his characters that really makes his First Law books stand out, not only in the characters’ internal monologues but also in the flowing and fantastic dialogue. In fact, it’s almost shocking when you realise how much of the novel is comprised of just dialogue . . . and yet it never gets boring. I said in my review of The Blade Itself that it was easy to overlook the fact that there isn’t all that much actually happening, because the character-focused narrative and gripping internal monologues keep the pace flowing smoothly; and the same is also true of Before They Are Hanged.

In this second instalment of the First Law trilogy, our characters are spread far and wide across the known world. Glokta is investigating the disappearance of an Inquisition representative in the besieged city of Dagoska in the South; West is on campaign against the wild men of the North; and Bayaz, Jezal, Logen and Ferro have set out on a mysterious quest to the edge of the World to find a long-lost relic of enormous power. This means, of course, that the events here are on a larger scale than those of the first book; and yet the consistent focus on a small handful of characters gives the book a curiously intimate feel. The characters themselves develop much more noticeably here, and it’s fascinating to see them change in often unexpected ways, in keeping with the darkly cynical tone of the series. Joe is a master at pulling the rug from beneath the reader in terms of our expectations of both characters and events, and Before They Are Hanged is no exception.


Thursday, 9 April 2015

Tough Travels: Unique Flora

‘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 UNIQUE FLORA.

Due to my apparent lack of imagination, I’ve sort of narrowed the topic down from UNIQUE FLORA to INTERESTING TREES. I really need to start branching (heh) out from traditional fantasy if I want to make these lists more interesting in future.

Walking Trees

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

The Ents are some of the oldest creatures still to walk Middle Earth. Peaceful, ponderous, sentient tree-like beings, the Ents are mostly content to simply mooch about in their forests for hundreds of years at a time, occasionally holding the odd “Ent Moot”, a lengthy group debate in which it takes them an entire day just to exchange greetings with one another. They are slow to anger, but when finally riled up their wrath and strength is terrifying.

Talking Trees

(House of Chains by Steven Erikson)

Phyrlis is pretty unique. The Jaghut are an exceedingly long-lived race of tusked humanoid beings, locked in an eternal war against their immortal undead hunters, the T’lan Imass. Phyrlis was a Jaghut baby when the Imass murdered her mother and spitted baby Phyrlis on a spear driven into the ground. Instead of killing her, the spear, which was made of wood native to her region, absorbed what was left of Phyrlis’ life force and was itself reborn, growing into a tree around her just as Phyrlis grew into adulthood amidst the tree.

Creepy Trees

(The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss)

The Cthaeh (I think it was a tree?) is an omniscient being with the chilling power to see all possible futures. A thoroughly malevolent being, the Cthaeh knows all possible timelines for any given person, and will seek to drive them down the least pleasant one. Although it can’t affect events directly, the Cthaeh can manipulate those to whom it speaks in order to indirectly cause the largest amount of death and devastation. Also, apparently it bites.

Violent Trees

(Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling)

Come on, I couldn’t NOT include Rowling on this list. There are a few candidates from Harry Potter that I could have mentioned – the Mandrakes were actually the first that sprang to mind – but there is one that dominates the others. I’m talking, of course, about the Whomping Willow. The Willow pulverises anyone and anything that comes near it, including Ron’s dad’s flying Ford Anglia and Harry’s beloved Nimbus 2000 broomstick, severely denting the former and turning the latter to mulch. Originally planted to guard a secret tunnel entrance to a werewolf lair, the Willow is, in fact, Dumbledore’s terrifying interpretation of Child Protection.

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

Monday, 6 April 2015

Review: 'Leviathan Wakes' by James S.A. Corey

Jim Holden is XO of an ice miner making runs from the rings of Saturn to the mining stations of the Belt. When he and his crew stumble upon a derelict ship, "The Scopuli," they find themselves in possession of a secret they never wanted. A secret that someone is willing to kill for - and kill on a scale unfathomable to Jim and his crew. War is brewing in the system unless he can find out who left the ship and why.

Detective Miller is looking for a girl. One girl in a system of billions, but her parents have money and money talks. When the trail leads him to "The Scopuli" and rebel sympathizer Holden, he realizes that this girl may be the key to everything.

Holden and Miller must thread the needle between the Earth government, the Outer Planet revolutionaries, and secretive corporations - and the odds are against them. But out in the Belt, the rules are different, and one small ship can change the fate of the universe.

For my first ever science fiction reading experience, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by Leviathan Wakes. I wasn’t sure what to expect – 600 pages of spaceships randomly flying around and making ‘peowm!’ noises? – but it certainly wasn’t a mystery story with horror elements that just happens to be set in space.

Leviathan Wakes introduces us to the futuristic world of The Expanse, a world in which humanity has colonised the Moon, Mars and the Asteroid Belt, and in which the ‘Belters’ are seen as inferior to the ‘Inner Planets’. When a small mining crew accidentally stumbles upon an eerie deserted ship, they find themselves reacting to a series of explosive events as unseen players try to eliminate them in a bid to start a destructive interplanetary war. Meanwhile, a washed up and world-weary security guard on the asteroid of Ceres finds his fate tied with that of the crew, as a seemingly standard investigation begins to turn up clues about a sinister plot that threatens not just the planets but the entire human race.

The story focuses on two central characters: Holden, a dashing young ship captain intent upon protecting his small crew and doing the right thing; and Miller, a fifty-something cynical Detective with a much looser opinion about right and wrong. Both characters are likeable and sympathetic in their own ways, though Miller proved to be the more interesting of the two given his many faults and peculiarities.

For the most part Leviathan Wakes has a pleasantly colloquial and engaging tone, though the prose feels a bit bland at times. This may be the result of two authors sharing the writing, but the inconsistency leaves it feeling slightly rough around the edges. Despite this, the first book in the ongoing Expanse series is an intriguing, character-focused narrative with a minimum of technological bullshit, which I think has made it an excellent choice for my first ever SF read. I’ll definitely be coming back for more, of this series at least.


Friday, 3 April 2015

Tough Travels: Enforcers

‘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 ENFORCERS.

Some people are made to give orders; others are made to make sure they are carried out. Be it through muscle or guile there are just some people you don’t want to hear are looking for you.

The Claw

(The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson)

Trained killers serving the Empress Laseen, the claw are deadly assassins who travel in ‘hands’, or groups of five. Skilled in the use of crossbows, throwing stars and poisoned blades, they are perhaps the most feared and reviled group both inside and outside the Malazan Empire; their name is often spoken in whispers by people afraid of summoning them.

The Adjunct

(The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson)

The Adjunct is the will and the right arm of the Empress. Since the reign of the Empress Laseen the post of Adjunct has always been held by a woman, most notably Tavore Paran. The Adjunct carries an otataral sword, which is not only a symbol of office but also a deadly weapon with the power to completely negate magic.

The Inquisition

(The First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie)

Corrupt and cruel, the Inquisition are an extension of the king’s will, though its members are not averse to serving their own ends as well. Possessed of the authority to drag citizens from their beds in the middle of the night, the Inquisitors and their Practicals are regarded with dread by the innocent and the guilty alike. Probably because those who are taken into the House of Questions never come out again . . . at least not in one piece.

The Spider Priests

(The Dagger and the Coin by Daniel Abraham)

Anyone who has anything to hide should be terrified of these unholy enforcers. Servants of the unwitting tyrant Geder Palliako, the spider priests are beholden to an ancient evil. They literally have spiders coursing through their blood, which gives them the ability to detect lies from truth, and the power to convince people to do their bidding. Palliako mainly deploys them to catch out and arrest anyone who is considering treason, as well as people who simply think disloyal thoughts about his rule. And that’s a LOT of people.

Death Eaters

(Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling)

The Death Eaters are pretty much Rowling’s equivalent of the KKK. Dressed in black robes and hoods, Death Eaters serve the will of the dark lord Voldemort. They persecute witches and wizards with ‘impure’ blood, and have no qualms about committing torture and murder. However, not all enforcers are baddies. In the Harry Potter universe, Aurors are the enforcers for the Ministry of Magic, and they hunt Death Eaters for a living!

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