Tuesday, August 16, 2016
The Last Mortal Bond by Brian Staveley is the final volume in the Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne trilogy. In my review of the first book, The Emperor’s Blades, I dig into how I felt uninspired because it was about a fight for the status quo, there was no progress, nothing new had been added. Yes, I enjoyed the book because Staveley is an excellent story teller, the book was exciting, and so well paced that I always needed to know what would happen next. Ultimately, that was enough to encourage me to read the sequel.
In my review of The Providence of Fire, I got excited. The Emperor’s Blades was a set-up, and big things happened in book 2. Huge I tell you. There are progressive ideas – thoughts of moving things forward. And it was so well wrapped together, that it was simply impossible to tell who was bad and who was good. Where was it all going to go? There were so many possibilities.
Of course, I had my hopes and ideas of where it was going. They were some really good ideas. They built on the ambiguity of book 2, explored some the more interesting (to me) concepts developed in The Providence of Fire. I was certain Staveley was with me in this, that he was going to pluck these ideas right out of my head, run with them, and then turn them around a few times to put some real sting into it.
But….Staveley wasn’t with me, he had ideas all his own. Yes, they are good ideas – there’s excitement, the stakes are upped even further, more complications added, and some really great fighting and sacrifice, and an unexpected character (Gwenna) leaps up and steals the whole show.
But…I wanted to see my ideas. And so I was disappointed. Much of what excited me about The Providence of Fire was abandoned in The Last Mortal Bond – the empire was not on a progressive path of improvement. In the end…we just got the status quo again. And that pissed me off – I’m just tired of epic fantasy that leaves us with the status quo. Where the people aren’t better off and there isn’t really hope that things have changed a bit. Just a bunch of big battles, lots of death, young leaders learn valuable lessons, the meaning of life is love, blah, blah, blah, and…the same old shit goes on into the future.
I had other ideas too – damn good ones. Of how the gods interacted with humanity and the immortal ‘elves’. I was looking forward to the ambiguity of good and evil, only to have a standard Big Bad fixated on as the story moves forward in more or less predictable ways.
So, overall, I am fairly disappointed with how The Last Mortal Bond wraps things up. Yes, it was fun, and Staveley is just so excellent with the pacing, action, and tension that it really is almost impossible to stop reading his books. I know that it’s my own expectations that lead to my disappointment, and not (necessarily) what Staveley actually did with the book – because it’s not bad, not bad at all. It’s just that I saw so much potential in The Providence of Fire and where things could be taken, and it was crushing to see The Last Mortal Bond take the path that pretty much everyone else before has taken.
Final verdict: Good series, fun writing, exactly what fans of traditional epic fantasy crave…safe. But damn, it could have been great.
Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne
The Last Mortal Bond: Amazon
Set in the Same World As Emperor’s Blades
Skullsworn (forthcoming): Amazon
Wednesday, August 03, 2016
In Los Nefilim, T. Frohock imagines a world where angels, demons, and their human hybrids (nefilim) live and act mostly unnoticed in the world. The focus is on Barcelona in the 1930s and Diago, a unique nefilim with both angel and demon blood. Diago’s family is threatened as angels and demons battle for the future of the world in the face of oncoming war.
Magical battle, torture, betrayal. Yes these things occur and are important. But the soul of the book is in love and relationships. A son and his estranged father, the son a father of a son he does not know, lovers, friends. Add time and betrayal. The sum is greater than the parts where the past must be addressed to accept the present, to know oneself and finally submit to the love all around. To fight without quarter for the ones that are loved. This is Los Nefilim, historic context with consequences for all of humanity, but played out at a personal level.
The foundation of this powerful story is a poetic prose, dark and moody, yet infused with color and music as it embodies hope, love and loyalty. Yes, there is a lot of conflict in that last statement, as is appropriate in a story full of internal and external conflict. It’s the grounded, devoted love that keeps it all together.
As you have probably guessed by now, I really enjoyed Los Nefilim. It’s beautiful, moving, filled with suspense. It kept me up at night because I could not put it down. I want to read more of Diago, Miquel, Rafael, Guillermo, and others. It’s historic urban fantasy, not quite alternative history, and it’s a powerful portrayal of love and family.
Additionally, it’s worth noting that the main family unit at the heart of Los Nefilim is two male partners. The relationship is genuine, heartfelt and simply lovely. I await the day when focus on a same-sex couple is not noteworthy and commonplace, but we aren’t there yet, and it’s books like Los Nefilim that will get us there.
A few logistical notes: Los Nefilim is in reality a print collection of 3 novellas that were initially published electronically: In Midnight’s Silence, Without Light or Guide, and The Second Death. The reality is that the three independent novellas seamlessly work as a traditionally structured novel. Read it as a serial, collection, or single work – it doesn’t matter. But I certainly recommend that you read it.
Los Nefilim: Amazon
In Midnight’s Silence: Amazon
Without Light or Guide: AmazonThe Second Death: Amazon
Tuesday, July 05, 2016
A woman is so broken by life, not only has she adopted the name Broken, but she is incapable of escape – because there is essentially nothing she can do to die. She picks a fight, she heals before death. She tries to commit suicide – it won’t take, she heals after the attempt. The healing is pain. The pain is the only part of life she ‘enjoys’. Folks…this is the backstory, this is where it begins. And of course, Broken is a superhero and there was a time when she could fly.
Broken by Susan Jane Bigelow is extraordinary in its portrayal of superheroes, or extrahumans, as they are called in Bigelow’s books. Everyone loves a label, so let’s call this post-superhero literature. This is the maturation of superheroes in popular culture, and it was originally published in 2011 (and now republished by The Book Smugglers Publishing), so a few years before the current height of superheroes in pop culture had been reached.
It’s a few decades into a dystopic future where the US was on the losing side of a global war. Extrahumans, each with a superpower or two, have become a tool of the government, both hated and loved, but hated more and more. A new government has taken over, much more authoritarian, and full of parallels to groups like the Nazis, or even to the troubling groups in visible in today’s politics. A baby is born – prescient extrahumans have seen a future where things get better, seemingly infinitely better. They have also seen a future where he makes it much, much worse. It falls to a young teen, an unregistered extrahuman who sees countless possible futures when he looks others in the eyes – even his own eyes in the mirror, where he has seen his own death too many times. He finds Broken and together they try.
As positive as I am above, I must admit that dystopic books are not something I read often – it’s just not my thing. I imagine it’s a result of just where I am in life, how hard it is, and how damned stressed out and depressed I am much of the time. I simply cannot enjoy books where that sort of world dominates, where all too real situations dominate, where hope tastes of ashes. I suppose that’s why I like my SFF extra fantastic, where things are unreal and metaphoric as opposed to a version of reality that’s all too real. Call me a dreamer or escapist. So, generally, I avoid the whole dystopian thing.
Given these preferences of my reading, it’s hard for me to say that I enjoyed reading Broken. It’s hard, bad things happen, and hope is scarce, though always present in the background. It’s just not my thing. However, I can see the brilliance of the concept and the success of the execution. Broken is an incredible novel, both timeless and perfectly timed to the now. While I would probably argue that dystopic SFF is becoming overdone to the point of dulling its impact, the genre is primed for the concept of post-superhero fiction. And there’s much more to be said than I get into here. It’s done so well that I just might read the other books of the Extrahuman Union series, knowing that they aren’t my thing. Because as good as Broken is, I’m very curious to see what comes next.
The Extrahuman Union Series
Sky Ranger: Amazon
The Spark: Amazon (forthcoming)
Extrahumans: Amazon (forthcoming)
Thursday, May 26, 2016
As my son, Hebop, has become more of an independent reader, he’s become more interested in the books I receive for review. Arguably, it started with Star Wars and seeing Star Wars book covers that really got him paying attention, but I think that he really began to understand that some of these books are perfect for him with HiLo Book 1: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth by Judd Winick.
It was fall of 2014 when Hebop was looking over my shoulder as I opened a few books that had come in the mail. One of these was an advanced copy of a graphic novel: HiLo: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth. He immediately grabbed it and started to look, with me looking over his shoulder. ‘Dad, can have this book?’. I looked at my wife, we both shrugged, and said yes. He runs off to his room to read. He spent at least the next 2 hours reading, right up until bedtime. He repeatedly requested that either my wife or I (or both) read with him – him reading to us. And he finished the book. I believe this was his first true graphic novel.
‘Dad, I need more books like this.’
In short, it’s a charming story of friendship where a boy (D.J.) befriends a mysterious boy/robot he names HiLo who crashes to earth. The boy, his best friend Gina, and HiLo then save the world. It’s nice because the main characters are both gender and racially diverse, and in spite of the superhero sort of feel, it’s a story of friendship.
Hebop read HiLo over and over again (at least 6 times) for the next week or two. He told all of his friends and brought the book to share. Later, when I got the finished copy, I never even saw it as it went straight to his room. The advance copy was given to his best friend, who quickly had similar love for the book (his mom has thanked us repeatedly for passing on a book that he was so excited about). For the end of the year book exchange, we had to buy a copy of HiLo to include – no other book would do.
A couple of months ago, I got HiLo Book 2: Saving the Whole Wide World in the mail. We excitedly gave Hebop the book, and he excitedly read the whole wide book that night. Then he read it again a few times. By now, graphic novels aren’t new anymore and we have a number around the house, so the excitement wasn’t as enthusiastic as before, though that’s not to say that he wasn’t extremely excited to get book 2. Though we were both (happily) frustrated with the cliff-hanger ending that left us wanting book 3 now.
So, HiLo is a hit in my house. It’s a ‘superhero’ graphic novel that I have no issues sharing with an 8 year old (or 7 year old as when he first saw it). And I am happy to highly recommend it.
HiLo Book 1: The Boy Who Crashed to Earth: Amazon
HiLo Book 2: Saving the Whole Wide World: Amazon
Wednesday, May 25, 2016
Hi all, long time followers here on the blog and other social media know that in real life I am a father, among other things. It is not a surprise that I share my love of reading with my children, and I’ve long contemplated sharing that aspect of my reading life here on the blog. I’ve gone back and forth – separate blogs (I even have several registered, just never posted) or whatever, but the reality is that I will never post often enough to really justify that. So, I’ve decided that they will be integrated here on the blog.
My concept of this will likely evolve significantly through time and vary a fair amount from post to post. Some will be little more than the reaction of one (or both) of my children. Sometimes I might focus on my experience reading a book with them, and others will be a hybrid. But they likely won’t be typical reviews.
Also, I doubt I’ll spend much time on the ‘obvious’ books. For example, my son and I (and my wife) have been reading through the Harry Potter books. We do it slowly, because my wife and I feel that there are aspects of the books that an 8 year old is not ready for. And we don’t let him see the movies until we read the books (my daughter will start next year). Everyone knows that kids love the Harry Potter books and movies – and it is loads of fun to read those books with my son and then watch the movie, but that’s not something that really needs a lot of extra attention. So, don’t expect a lot of coverage there. Also, I may cover something that is really a very big thing, perhaps closing in on Harry Potter scale, but if it’s new to me (and a lot is/will be) then I may go ahead and cover it anyway. However it works out, I think we can all agree that excitement around children reading is a good thing to share.
So, I’ll introduce you to my children’s internet names (that I made up for this). It’s possible (likely) that I have inadvertently referred to them by name somewhere on my blog or social media, but I have chosen give them some privacy either way (hell, I don’t openly publish my own full name here on the blog, though it wouldn’t take too much digging to excavate it).
Hermes (Hebop) is my 8 year old son. He loves all sports (especially soccer) and is always in motion. We work hard for balance and he also does piano and we have instilled a love for reading. He reads quite well for a second grader and reads a variety from silly comics, to rather long novels, to graphic novels. In the near future, most of these posts will focus on Hebop due to where he is at developmentally.
Atë/Artemis/Aristaeus (Arty) is my 5 year old daughter. As the Greek references imply, she’s a bit mischievous (much more sly than my son), and also a very big animal lover, especially dogs. She doesn’t yet read on her own (that will be a summer project this year in prep for Kindergarten). She dances ballet, occasionally plays soccer, and will (hopefully) start piano soon. It’ll probably a few years before Arty is a big focus for these posts.
Anyway, I hope you all enjoy this new direction (I’ll try to remember to tag the posts with Kids Reviews) and just maybe fellow parents, and anyone looking for reading ideas for little ones, will discover a few gems along the way.
Friday, May 20, 2016
What feels like a long time ago and practically a different life, I wrote this review of The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson. In that review I was excited – I was reading a new Mistborn book by Sanderson, one that basically came out of nowhere and pleasantly surprised fans, and one that I was reading months before Sanderson’s rabid fan base was going to see it. It seems to have surprised Sanderson nearly as much, because a small side project, one that wasn’t planned to have sequels has grown into a fully-fledged trilogy (EDIT: I have been informed that The Alloy of Law is a stand-alone, and technically Shadows of Self is the start of the trilogy).
I’m now a few years older and a lot more overwhelmed in life. My reading tastes have evolved and grown a bit. I’ve become a bit more bitter and jaded at a time when I’ve also become more hopeful as I often intentionally pull on the blinders to the world around me and simply enjoy fatherhood.
Anyway…I’m getting a bit too self-indulgent.
After a having a copy of the sequel to The Alloy of Law, Shadows of Self, for over a year, I finally got around to reading it, in spite of just how much I wanted to immediately see a sequel 5 years ago. Anyway, for whatever reason (perhaps all the reasons?), I can’t say that I’m equally as excited after reading Shadows of Self as I was back then – I literally stayed up half the night to immediately write my review of The Allow of Law, immediately requested an interview with Sanderson (and was granted that request in short-order). Now…well, I finished reading the book a month ago and am just now reviewing it, I haven’t done an interview in years and don’t plan on doing one now. So… is this lack of enthusiasm me or the book? (It’s me, but really, that’s not what I want to dwell any more on).
Shadows of Self is an excellent follow-up to The Alloy of Law – it does everything a sequel in a fantasy
trilogy setting should do.
The scope grows, the stakes are larger, more is explained, characters grow and
history is revealed, things get dark, and for fans of Sanderson’s Cosmere, goodies abound. And Sanderson
revels in his strengths – the magic is right in the reader’s face, there are
adventures and battles, and the world of Mistborn
is further revealed. Which of course only leaves more questions to be answered.
As I said, this is a very solid second act for a trilogy not-trilogy.
This is the second book, of a second trilogy set in a secondary fantasy world (surely, this unlocks some super-secret epic fantasy magical power?) (EDIT: Note, I'm keeping this line because it's cool, even if it doesn't work since technically Shadows of Self is the first book in the trilogy). It’s pretty safe to say that if you are considering reading this book, you are already a fan of Brandon Sanderson. You are a fan of Mistborn. You probably know more about Mistborn and the Cosmere than I do. So, let’s face it, this review doesn’t matter. The only people reading it have either read the book already or will read it regardless of the words here at my little blog.
Which brings me full circle to the indulgence of self. Hell, this review jumped the shark, went off the rails, tipped back the bottle a while back. Hell, I’m just excited that for the first time in years I won’t have a backlog of reviews to write and I can’t believe that anyone is still actually reading this. Bless you for that, but really, I’m sure there’s something better that you can be doing with the time.
Anyway…read Shadows of Self – it’s a fun book that fans of Sanderson will love. And I suppose I should read the
final next book in the trilogy: The Bands
of Mourning. I should probably even ‘review’ it, though will I be able top
this piece of …
The Well of Ascension: Amazon
The Hero of Ages: Amazon
The Alloy of Law: Amazon
Shadows of Self: Amazon
The Bands of Mourning: Amazon
Tuesday, May 17, 2016
Author Jason Denzel is best known for running the Wheel of Time fansite, Dragonmount, and in 2015, he published his debut novel, Mystic. Fans who know Jason (and I’m one, going back to my days spending untold of hours on Wheel of Time message boards), probably expect Jason’s novel to be world-spanning, epic fantasy adventure in the same vein of Wheel of Time. They would be wrong.
Mystic takes a different, more focused approach. This book is an origin story, almost a prequel to a series that hasn’t been published yet. It’s not (well, mostly not) the story of an epic journey to save the world. Mystic is the story of a young woman’s (Pomella) journey, her personal struggles against a severely stratified society, and her own baggage from that society. It’s the journey of a young woman breaking barriers and learning her magic. It’s heartwarming, sweet, with a good bit of misguided teenage action. In this, it’s a classic YA book with a good bit of cross-over appeal.
Yes, there is a threat, a threat that could have dire consequences to the world. But the threat feels almost contrived – it really was a placeholder, something to pitch the growth and struggles of Pomella against. In this way, the book is more about her own internal struggles than the external struggles around.
This internal, almost small-scale focus is both the strength and weakness of Mystic. The fan base Jason is chasing after is most likely expecting a sprawling epic that stand on the shoulders of 1990s era big fat fantasy. They may bounce off of the modest page count and ‘lower stakes’ journey of a young woman. That would be unfortunate, as the story is well told, even as it shows many of the signs of an author still in development rather than full command of their skills.
I enjoyed Mystic, and I look forward to reading what Jason does with this series in the future. However, it does not really cover any new ground. That’s not (necessarily) a bad thing – not every book can or should be groundbreaking, but in a time when so many exciting things are happening in the world of SFF books, this is the sort of thing that could fall through the cracks. Or maybe it’s the sort of book that could really take off due to its accessibility. It’s hard to say.
Friday, May 13, 2016
First, I need to get this out of the way right up front: Black Wolves by Kate Elliott is one of the most extraordinary epic fantasy books I’ve ever read.
Good, because that is a very important perspective that must be understood, especially as I dive into what is undeniably a rambling, unfocused review that says little about book plot and probably says more about my own relationship with epic fantasy than anything else. Feel free to move along knowing that as I said above, Black Wolves is extraordinary and I cannot recommend it enough.
Still with me? Good.
The aspect of Black Wolves that makes it so extraordinary (get used to this word, as I will keep using it), is the scope of its ambition. Black Wolves embraces the full history of epic fantasy, converses with it, moves into interrogation, then subversion, and spits it back out as something new. And this is done in every aspect of the book.
The beauty of this approach and the shear skill and will Elliott wields to pull it all together makes for a reading experience more fulfilling than any I can recall in recent years. For one thing – I literally had no real idea of just where the story was going to go. There were too many options – I could see a vast array of possibilities, and then Elliott would go in a different direction, bring in a new reveal. It was absolute fun and entertainment – yes, as I will discuss soon, this book has a lot of serious and important things that it does, but that fun and entertainment is never lost. The reader is cheering the characters, invested and rewarded. The dark, grim nastiness of the book, it’s interrogation with more than just itself, but an entire genre and those writing it today, are present without ever losing that critical enjoyment of reading, the investiture of the fan. It’s a bloody brilliant maneuver to see succeed.
Black Wolves takes on many of the most common thematic elements of epic fantasy – colonialism, religion, role and execution of government, class system, war and its consequences, violence, gender roles, racial/ethnic tensions, inspirations from non-Western societies, and many more. Any one of these aspects could become quite a lengthy discussion, along with a few that I didn’t mention.
Many reviews and discussions of Black Wolves have (rightly so) devoted time to discussing gender, and to a lesser degree, age, aspects of the book. Black Wolves is full of strong women with agency, which is becoming much more of the standard to achieve rather than an exception to the state of genre, so I won’t focus on that too much (others have already done this and much better than I can anyway). The aspect that I enjoyed and felt was more fresh was the inclusion and focus on older characters. An aging, retired spy/soldier and a Princess who has grown into a commanding role in a corps of specialized soldiers who bond with and fly giant eagles (which, is really cool in of and by itself). It’s rare for older characters to play more than an aging sage, mentor, monarch, etc. – and when they do, it’s very often that they will be killed off early in the series. So, it’s refreshing that arguably the two most important characters in Black Wolves are long past their youth. And I would certainly speculate that it takes an author with a long history in the genre to make these characters work so well.
It’s also nice to see that every single character in this book has its flaws – there simply isn’t anything universally likeable or unlikeable about any of them. That is a difficult balance to pull off. But, I’m not going to go into any detail of this beyond this mention that characters a fully rounded people and never an encyclopedia entry.
As I’ve matured in my own reading journey through the years, I’ve become far less focused on battles, world-building, and other such details of fantasy books. Often what really gets me excited is fully developed political maneuvering and all of the unpredictability that come from a multitude of intelligent, motivated people all working to further their own interests within and beyond the constraints the world places on them. In Black Wolves we have all that through a King, his wives, his sons and daughters, and a few other, more mysterious groups. Throw in the cultural/colonial appropriation and re-write of history and things get very interesting indeed. As I said above, this creates a mystery and unpredictability of the narrative that keeps tensions high, even as the book drags a bit in the middle.
And this brings us to perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of Black Wolves, one that occurred to me much more in retrospect than while I was too busy simply enjoying the book: change. Cultural change to be sure, but Black Wolves is more than just an epic fantasy thriller wrapped around a period of monumental cultural change. To a degree (in my opinion, a large degree), it’s a meta commentary on the cultural change that the entire SFF field is going through. And it’s brutally unapologetic in this interrogation as it revels the change of today and those to come. Change is messy: it’s messy in Black Wolves, I suspect it’ll get messier in the sequels to come, and cultural wars facing genre today, while overall moving things into a much better place, are too often cruel, disheartening, disgusting, tortuous, as they leave countless casualties in their wake. Black Wolves is an answer of perseverance to all that. As I’ve hinted at above, it takes an author who has been too often on the receiving end of a brutal patriarchy for her entire career to seize the opportunity of this time and celebrate the possibilities of the future, all the while shouting ‘Fuck You’ to the haters. Bloody brilliant I say.
As I have now repeated said, Black Wolves is an extraordinary epic fantasy that can be enjoyed on many different levels. One does not have to see the meta interrogation of genre if one doesn’t want to – it can be enjoyed as a great, fun book to read. And, one can enjoy it for other reasons than I focused on in this review. This book is the real deal and a shining example of what can be done. Simply put, the best thing I can say in this review is: READ IT NOW!
And I figure I should get out a few final details that some may find important and/or helpful. Black Wolves is the first book in a planned trilogy. It is also set in the same world, though many years after the events of the Crossroads Trilogy. Black Wolves is the first book by Elliott that I’ve read (and it certainly won’t be the last), so it can easily be enjoyed with no knowledge from the first series, though I predict that knowledge from that series may enhance some aspects of one’s enjoyment. Anyway, do not let this book pass you by.
Spirit Gate: Amazon
Shadow Gate: Amazon
Traitors Gate: Amazon
Black Wolves Trilogy
Black Wolves: Amazon
Wednesday, May 04, 2016
The Builders by Daniel Polansky is at its basic, a novella about a bad joke. No, I won’t give you the punchline or even tell you what the joke is – knowing that it’s there, you’ll figure it out. And the suggestion that book is about a bad joke is in no way my saying that the book is a bad book – it’s quite the opposite, but it does help frame the story. Appreciation of just where this book comes from makes it all the more enjoyable, as for example, a Quentin Tarantino movie is.
“Revenge is a dish best served cold”
The Builders begins with this idea at its core, and the story is very much full of references not only to revenge tales, but also to variations of small teams at war and/or criminal gangs on a mission. I will not list them – they are legion – and I suspect many a reader will come up with their own, and those may or may not align with the ideas of Polansky as he wrote it all.
The mysterious Captain begins the story by recruiting his team, or more correctly, getting the old gang back together for one final mission to redress their last failed effort. We know one of the crew was a traitor, of course we do not know who. We can only suspect that it’s all only the beginning.
The Captain’s crew is a mixed group of the most unlikable sort – assassins, artillery, demolitions, snipers, etc. – but one and all, they are killers. Some of them get along, some hate everyone, the Captain holds them together, and for all that it may only be due to the blood they have spilled together. Or that the Captain is the meanest, most dangerous of them all.
And I suppose that I should mention that all the characters are anthropogenic animals whose personalities, instincts, and deadliness often correspond with their species. The mysterious, deadly Captain who all fear – he’s a mouse. His crew has a weasel, badger, rat, mole, salamander, owl, and possum. One of them may be French. They are up against the likes of an ermine, armadillo, cat, snake, fox, skunk, and legions of rats.
Personalities may be large, but the prose is minimal, dark, and dripping in morbid, gallows humor. There is bombastic boasting, dark grumbling, and the flash of knives in the dark. The final, suicide mission is told, blood and gore abound, betrayal, victory, and death. Who lives, who dies? Does it mean anything? Was it cold enough? Was it worth it…was it worth anything?
Who has the final laugh?
Will it be you dear reader, will you get the joke?
The Builders: Amazon
Tuesday, April 26, 2016
Lian Hearn returns to a world of medieval Japan with a new series, The Tale of Shikanoko, set in the world of her earlier Otori series. Emperor of the Eight Islands introduces this new series, as it explores the great warrior tales of ancient Japan.
I have not read any of Lian Hearn’s previous books, though the Otori series has been on my shelf for years waiting for me to come around. During my recent trip to Japan, I spent some time in Northern Honshu in the region of the Great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which is the same region in Japan where Hearn drew inspiration for this series in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami. This in combination with my having wanted to read Hearn’s books for years, made it an easy choice for me to begin with this book.
The Tale of Shikanoko is told in what feels like a very Japanese writing style – elegant, poetic, and minimalist. Which is to say, a style that I am not very used to. At first it felt very wooden, more like a ledger account than a story, lacking emotion and intimacy. However, as I grew used to the style I realized that this wasn’t the case. The minimalism of the story doesn’t lack the intimacy that I was looking for – it was just more subtle and shown a bit differently. By the end of book I had not only learned to appreciate the style of the story, but I can see how the approach makes emotional punches that much more effective.
This is a story of an older time – a feudal Japanese world, a time of divine emperors, magic and mysticism where the spirits of the land and those of people are much closer. A time when the world was a smaller place, and humans were a smaller presence. It is a time before (perhaps just before?) the arrival of temples of Buddhism and where the politics and rivals of the elite dominate everything.
In this, The Tale of Shikanoko is not just a great example of Asian-inspired medieval fantasy, but it’s a bridge for those deeply attached to fantasy inspired by medieval Britain and surrounding environs. The parallels are rather striking – a deep mystical tradition of living close the spirits of the land that is threatened by the arrival of a religion from abroad, and a feudal society dominated by the elite where rivals backed by traditions from abroad are at war. At the heart of this tale is a young man connected to the spirit of a great stag. It’s still early in the series to know just where it will end, but I think it’s not a stretch to believe that this young man is bound for some form of greatness, and quite likely, a tragic end. Before reading this book, I had never realized how the Arthurian traditions of Britain so closely parallel the warrior tales of Japan. This of course will lead to the inevitable decrees that The Tale of Shikanoko is the Japanese King Arthur, which is a disservice to both in spite of the very real parallels.
But it really misses the point for me to frame this story in terms of similarities to ‘Western’ traditions and that is not my intent. Merely an observation that I came to time and again while reading.
These are human tales – universal tales of power and love, betrayal and victory, loss and change. It’s a coming of age story, I believe it will become a story of revenge. A story of love, hate, betrayal, and everything in between.
Emperor of the Eight Islands is the first book in this series of four, all of which will be published in 2016. It is the opening, the origin story, the telling of how the stones are placed before the real game begins. It is the first quarter of a whole rather than an independent work, and as appropriate for the minimalist prose, it weighs in at only 270 pages. In many ways I’ve reviewed this book as if I know what’s ahead, which is untrue. I have not read the others in this series, though I now look forward to doing so. It is a universal tale, one that we’ve heard before, though the details are different. Of course most universal tales are tales of change, so what changes are in store?
As I said above, I look forward to finding out.
Tales of Shikanoko
Emperor of the Eight Islands: Amazon
Autumn Princess Dragon Child: Amazon
Lord of the Darkwood: Amazon
The Tengu’s Game of Go: Amazon
Monday, April 25, 2016
It’s a word that I initially wanted to avoid at all costs for this review as I suspect that it’s probably used in just about every review of Swords and Scoundrels by Julia Knight. But, the more I thought about it, I came to conclude that it’s a word that should be fully embraced.
Swashbuckling – it just roles off the tongue. It’s fun to say. It’s one of those words.
So…let’s take a look at what it really means to swashbuckle and be a swashbuckler.
Swashbuckler: a swaggering swordsman (swordswoman), soldier, or adventurer; daredevil
Well, yes, this covers the 2 main characters (a sister and brother duo) in Swords and Scoundrels. It covers it really well, each having different aspects of a swashbuckler. But, it’s really this definition below that I think captures the book.
[to] Swashbuckle: engage in daring and romantic adventures with ostentatious bravado or flamboyance.
That definition above is Swords and Scoundrels in a nutshell, though with some very important caveats. As I said, the book is about a sister/brother duo, each embodying different swashbuckling aspects in different ways – one traditionally flamboyant and one a fair bit darker, though no less a swashbuckler for that darkness. It’s the duality in many ways that has brings more to Swords and Scoundrels than the traditional swashbuckling adventure, offering swashbuckling commentary and even subversion of swashbuckling. Throw in a fantasy setting, large-scale clockworks, a magician or two, and nice bit of populism to add depth, and Swords and Scoundrels is the perfect swashbuckling tale. And as the book is the first in the Duelist Trilogy, there are 2 more presumably equally swashbuckling adventures to follow – excellent!
The Duelist Trilogy
Swords and Scoundrels: Amazon
Legends and Liars: Amazon
Warlords and Wastrels: Amazon
Note, this review joyfully uses a variation of swashbuckle 15 times!
Wednesday, April 20, 2016
Updraft by Fran Wilde was released with a fair bit of critical fan-fair in 2015 and I read it a few months post-release based largely on that the good word of many of those I follow in the blogging world. My thoughts on the book are somewhat mixed, though I believe that to be largely a result of relatively high expectations I had from reading other reactions.
In short, I liked the book, I really enjoyed the turns the plot takes, a few of the surprises that are thrown about, and the more political machinations. Where I struggled a bit is with the whole flying thing and the general weirdness of the world.
It’s not that I don’t like a good, weird world of fantasy, it’s just that I was never completely sold on it. I’ve seen the comparisons to this book and worlds created by the likes of China Miéville and I just can’t take things that far. Yes, Miéville creates some very weird worlds, but those creations aren’t questioned in my reading of them, just marveled at. And the very weirdness of those creations usually serves an important point in the thematic goals of the writing. It’s not Wilde doesn’t do these things with her world, it’s just that it didn’t completely work for me. I understand that keeping the origins of these mysteries is key, and I also get that this is fantasy, so fantastic and unexplainable things are around. But it still didn’t gel the way I would have like to see.
However, I don’t want to dwell on these, as they didn’t really bother me all that much. I did like the book. I am looking forward to reading the sequel. And I’m happy to recommend the book to readers at the blog here. Updraft is a coming-of-age story, it is the story of a child seeking information about a parent, there are secrets, and what I enjoyed most is that it’s a story about a moment of upheaval in a society that can and will likely end in a very different place. Plus, living bone towers and people flying around way above a distant, fog-covered ground – it might not have completely worked for me, but is still sounds pretty awesome.
Updraft is the first novel in a planned trilogy in the Bone Universe. The second novel, Cloudbound is forthcoming in September, 2016.