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Book review: The Spirit Thief, by Rachel Aaron

Omnibus edition of the first three Eli Monpress novels
Omnibus edition of the first three Eli Monpress novels

Eli Monpress is the greatest and most infamous thief in the world. At least, that’s his ambition. The bigger the theft, the higher the bounty on his wanted poster – and what could be higher profile than stealing a king? Unfortunately the kidnapped king’s absence leaves a power vacuum in the wizard-hating kingdom of Mellinor and sets off a chain of events that even Eli’s charm can’t easily get him out of.

I confess that I started reading this book under the misapprehension that it was YA – I’m not sure why, maybe the lovely new cover art for the omnibus edition (right)? However it took me some time to realise my mistake, perhaps because between the “clean rating” (no swearing or sex, very little violence), the girl mage who rides a giant telepathic wolf, and the wryly humorous style, it reminded me of a cross between The Princess Bride and an intelligent Disney cartoon. Of course the fact that the previous book I read was The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan probably made the contrast even more striking! At any rate, this is one of those books that is likely to appeal to – and be suitable for – a wide age range of readers, from young teens upwards.

Towards the end it becomes somewhat darker, as Eli confronts a particularly nasty wizard bent on taking over the kingdom, and I’m told that later books continue in this vein (I have the omnibus edition, so I’ll no doubt be reading them at some point). However the overall flavour is definitely slanted towards the light, epitomised by master swordsman Joseph, who walks around covered in unfeasibly large amounts of edged steel but is really only interested in fighting opponents worthy of his skill.

If you’re not keen on the “gritty” type of epic/adventure fantasy, or just want a break from all the raping and pillaging, I heartily recommend you check out this book. Eli’s reputation depends on it!

Book Review: The Steel Remains, by Richard Morgan

Ringil Eskiath, hero of Gallows Gap, is called from retirement when a distant cousin is sold into slavery to cover her husband’s debts. All perfectly legal, but the Eskiath family honour demands that she be rescued, and although Gil’s homosexuality has made him an outcast in polite society, he is the only family member with the skills and connections for the job.

Egar Dragonbane fought alongside Gil, but after the war he returned to his steppe homeland to lead his tribe. Travel has broadened his mind, however, and he is a misfit amongst the nomads, despised by his conservative younger brothers for his soft southern ways.

Archeth Indamaninarmal is the last of the Kiriath, her kinfolk having departed into the bowels of the earth in steampunk-esque iron ships. Another veteran of the wars, she now acts as advisor to the Yelteth emperor, trying to control his worst excesses whilst avoiding his wrath.

These three heroes’ paths will cross again in a time of crisis, when creatures out of ancient legend return to disturb the decade-long peace…

This is a book I acquired as a convention freebie a few years ago, mislaid, bought in ebook format, changed ebook readers and couldn’t transfer the ebook without cracking the DRM, and finally relocated my paperback copy…so my reading of it was somewhat delayed. This is may be a good thing, since it gave me a chance to cut my teeth on a few other so-called gritty fantasies first. “Bold, brutal and making no compromises”, says the Joe Abercrombie blurb on the cover of my copy, and I have to agree with the verdict. This is not a book for the squeamish – but it rewards perseverance.

For starters, I love Ringil as a protagonist. He’s foul-mouthed and revels in violence, yet at the same time is intelligent and has a wry sense of humour. His high social status enables him to be defiantly gay in a culture that punishes such behaviour with sickening brutality, but he bears deep emotional scars as a result. He’s about as unromantic a hero as you could imagine, and very, very real.

Morgan makes a bold choice with his language and dialogue, not only throwing the f-word around with abandon but using modern idiom such as “okay” and even an occasional “whatever”. I have to admit that on occasion it did jar with me a little, but I was willing to cut Morgan some slack since after all this is not a historical setting, merely a low-tech one. Except that it isn’t.

Although marketed as fantasy, there are strong hints that what the human characters see as magic is merely technology advanced beyond mortal comprehension. We are given glimpses of vast stretches of time, and it seemed to me there was even the possibility that this could be a far-future Earth; the night sky is lit by a band of light – a planetary ring – that used to be a moon much like our own.

I really don’t have much more to say than that if you like your fantasy somewhat epic and dark-edged but with a good dollop of sword-and-sorcery panache, you should read this book. Now.


Book review: The White Road, by Lynn Flewelling

The White Road is the fifth installment in Lynn Flewelling’s Nightrunner series, and concludes the story arc begun in Shadows Return. Having escaped the clutches of Plenimaran alchemist Charis Yakhobin, Alec and Seregil are faced with the problem of what to do about Sebrahn, the child-like alchemical being who can kill as well as heal. The paperback edition features another beautiful character illustration (right) by Michael Komarck, this time of Alec – appropriately enough, since this time he is the one making the difficult choices.

I have to admit that I found the first half of this book rather slow. It mostly consists of Alec and Seregil travelling back to Aurenan and encountering a mixed welcome from various ‘faie communities. The only real tension came from the occasional scenes from the bad guys’ point of view, revealing that Alec and Seregil will not be safe for long.

It didn’t help – and this is purely a pet peeve – that for a while the story revolved around dragons. I trust Flewelling to stick to the intrigue and action that I read this series for, and not to wander off into cheesy Pernesque territory, and she didn’t let me down this time – but it was touch and go there for a moment!

By the middle of the book, however, the pace picks up and accelerates towards an action-packed finale. Once or twice the suspense was punctured, rather than heightened, by the fact that we the readers can see what all sides are up to, but on the whole it worked well. There was one plot thread that wasn’t tied up, but maybe Flewelling is saving that for the next book?

Overall, a solid addition to the series that nonetheless for me fell a little short of the emotionally satisfying heights of Shadows Return. Still, I’m looking forward to Book 6, The Casket of Souls, due out this summer. It’s about time our boys got back to some serious nightrunning!

Book review: Among Thieves, by Douglas Hulick

I first came across Among Thieves when talking to my editor about the cover design for The Alchemist of Souls. Marc was thinking of commissioning Larry Rostant, who does a nice line in brooding historical dudes, and used the UK cover of Among Thieves (below) as an example of the look he was going for. Then I met Doug himself on Fantasy Faction, and he was such a nice guy that I couldn’t not read his book. I’m very glad I did, as it turned out to be right up my (dark, rat-infested) alley!

Among Thieves is the story of Drothe (no surname – he’s too cool for that!), a “Nose” or informant in the pay of one of the crimelords of Ildrecca, the capital of a Renaissance-like empire. There are hints of a wider world outside, but the action of the book is confined to the city itself, particularly the seedier quarters where a “shadow empire” of organised crime holds sway. Drothe works for an Upright Man, one of the lower-level bosses who have carved up the city between them but who are themselves pawns in a larger game played by the Gray Princes, near-legendary figures known only by epithets such as “Longreach” or “The Piper’s Son”. Hulick’s use of historical thieves’ cant, supplemented by invented slang, gives shape to what could otherwise be a bewildering array of forgers, fences and hired muscle, as Drothe investigates what seems to be a minor mystery (an undecipherable code found on a smuggler) and finds himself way in over his head.

This is certainly the most action-packed book I’ve read since The Swords of Albion – poor Drothe rarely escapes a chapter without another chase or fight (and a good deal of resultant pain and injury). The pace develops gently at first, allowing the reader time to get to know the world, but by the halfway mark the plot revelations and action set-pieces are coming thick and fast. The fight scenes in particular are very detailed – Hulick is an aficionado of renaissance swordsmanship – indeed almost a little too detailed and blow-by-blow, but this is first-person narrative so I’m willing to cut Drothe a little slack for being hyperaware in combat. I know from firsthand experience (not fighting, I must add) how time really does seem to slow down when your adrenaline spikes!

It’s not all swordplay, however; this is a world of magic too, from minor charms used by the criminal fraternity to spells of earth-shattering power forbidden to all but the emperor. Mostly, though, magic seems to cause more problems than it solves – an approach I heartily endorse. (On a purely personal level, I was interested to note the parallels between this book and my own, though I won’t go into detail here for fear of spoilers – you’ll just have to read them both 😉 )

Overall, a cracking debut, and I’m really looking forward to reading the sequel, Sworn in Steel, which is due out later this year.

Book review: A Shadow in Summer, by Daniel Abraham

It’s not often that a debut novel blows me away, but A Shadow in Summer did just that. I came across this book a few months ago on Fantasy Faction, where it was getting great word-of-mouth, and was surprised I had not heard of Abraham before; unlike contemporary debuts by Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, etc, this one had totally slipped under my radar.

The novel is set in Saraykeht, an Oriental-like city in an apparently pre-industrial fantasy world. It’s hard to say who is the protagonist, since the book follows several characters involved on different sides of a complex political intrigue*, but my favourite is Amat Kyaan, the elderly chief accountant of a foreign merchant. Amat is what is generally described as “a tough old bird”; she refuses to take life lying down, despite the pain and fragility of her years, and is, to my mind, the most sympathetic and well-rounded character in the book.

What really sets this world apart is not just the Japanese-inspired culture, but the magic used by the poets of Saraykeht. Not wizards, mind; the poets themselves have no magic apart from the gift of being able to capture an abstract concept in words and thus transform it into a sentient being, an andat. These beautiful, djinn-like beings are enslaved to their poet-masters, and have the power to perform any magic that can be encompassed by the concept they embody. Thus the andat in this book, Seedless, is used to instantly remove the seeds from the cotton harvest, thus giving Saraykeht’s textile-workers a huge advantage over other nations who must card their cotton by hand. However this is not the only possible use of his abilities – anything that involves the removal of seed (in its widest biological meaning) can be done with ease by the andat – and the story revolves around a plot to abuse that power.

This brings me around to my one criticism of the book, which is that sometimes Abraham is too subtle for his own good. The intrigue hinges around an event which is described so obliquely, with litte explanation either before or after, that the reader is left scratching her head for several chapters, trying to work out what the heck just happened. I did come to some conclusions eventually, but my enjoyment of the book would have been greatly improved by just a little hand-holding from the author.

A Shadow in Summer is beautifully written, complex and subtle, and some may find the languorous pace of the narrative boring, but my experience was one of being drawn slowly but inexorably into a fascinating world that has all the elegance of a tea ceremony with the undercurrent of menace of an ukiyo-e woodcut. This is a seductive novel that I think will bear re-reading; if it’s helter-skelter action you want, look elsewhere!

* I was not surprised to discover that he has occasionally collaborated with George R R Martin; whilst their books are very dissimilar in many respects, their politically complex, morally grey fantasy worlds have a lot in common.

Book review: Songs of the Earth, by Elspeth Cooper

I like to vary my reading diet a little, and having come across the charming Ms Cooper on Twitter and discovered her to be a fellow aficionado of the blade, I couldn’t resist her debut fantasy novel, Songs of the Earth, published earlier this year by Gollancz.

Gair has been raised by the Church to be a knight of the Goddess, but when he is discovered to be hiding magical powers, he is sentenced to death as a witch. Fortunately for Gair he has an unknown benefactor amongst the religious leaders; instead of being executed he is branded on the hand and banished, though not without one of the more fanatical churchmen setting a witchfinder on his trail…

Songs of the Earth is very traditional high fantasy, a tale of a young man who is taken under the wing of a kindly (if sometimes overly secretive) old wizard, comes into his magical powers, and helps to save his new wizarding community from an attack by a psychopathic former pupil of his master. So far, so Harry Potter meets Star Wars. What lifts this novel above such simplistic comparisons are the vivid descriptions of the natural world: this is a writer whose love of the wild places of Britain shines through in many a scene (Cooper lives in Northumberland). The clean and cosy island community of gaeden (wizards) reminded me a great deal of Earthsea, and also of Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar, and I think fans of those books will find a lot to enjoy.

For me, though, it was a little too black-and-white. The protagonist, Gair, is a naive 21-year-old who comes across more like a teenager than a grown man (understandable, perhaps, given his literally cloistered upbringing), and of course he just happens to be great with a sword as well as the most powerful magical talent his tutors have seen in many years. His nemeses, meanwhile, are blacker than black: an irredeemably twisted mage whose motivation seems to be to destroy the world just because he can, and an equally twisted cleric with a taste for torturing young men. Some of the scenes with the latter show that Cooper can write dark and cynical when she wants to, and I for one would have liked to see more of this side of her work.

As a debut novel, Songs of the Earth shows an impressive talent for writing description and action somewhat hampered by a predictable story, and I hope that having tested her fledgling wings, Cooper will gain the confidence to tackle something more demanding in subsequent books.

Book review: The Road to Bedlam, by Mike Shevdon

Another book review so soon?

There are two reasons: firstly, last week was a major deadline for my day-job, so I didn’t have a lot of mental energy for writing, and secondly – this book is a fast read!

The Road to Bedlam is the sequel to Sixty-One Nails, picking up where the first book left off. Blackbird is nearing the end of her pregnancy when Niall’s daughter from his first marriage is apparently killed in a freak accident. However Alex is not dead – she has inherited her father’s fey blood and been bundled off to a secret facility for those who cannot control their powers (very reminiscent of Selma Blair’s character Liz in Hellboy). Niall is desperate to find her, but the Courts of the Feyre have more important things on their minds…

I confess I found the opening chapters a little slow. Shevdon understandably doesn’t want to short-change the impact on his protagonist of the apparent death of his child, but it does mean we spend quite a while with him in the mundane world as he tries to visit her in intensive care, attends a memorial service at the school, and so on. I felt this robbed the story of the forward momentum set up in the prologue, and it took a while to get going again. Maybe that’s just me, though; I don’t read much contemporary fantasy, so I’m accustomed to more “exotic” settings that are interesting in their own right.

Once Niall finds out the truth, however, it’s a steadily escalating adventure as he tries to balance his duty to Blackbird and his new kinfolk with his impatience to find Alex, and the book ends with an all-action finale worthy of a summer blockbuster! On the way, we get more fascinating glimpses into obscure corners of English folklore and tradition, like Oakham Castle with its great hall decorated with horseshoes of all sizes.

This is the real strength of Shevdon’s writing: the rich blend of ancient and modern, with a very English flavour (I would say British, but so far all the stories have focused on England, from London to Shropshire). I would love to see these books picked up by BBC Wales and made into mini-series – they would sit very comfortably alongside recent SFF productions like Being Human and Torchwood.

The third installment in The Courts of the Feyre is due out from Angry Robot next summer, so if you haven’t read the first two books, you have plenty of time to catch up!

Book review: The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie

Back in 2007, when I was starting to revise what would become The Alchemist of Souls, I picked up a couple of books that sounded from reviews like they were in a similar vein. One of these (The Lies of Locke Lamora) I read straight away, the other – The Blade Itself – sat neglected on my shelf until a few weeks ago. I am now regretting that delay.

The thing that put me off for a long time was that one of the viewpoint characters, Glokta, is an inquisitor. A torturer, not to put too fine a point on it. And having been so grossed out by a torture scene in The Lies of Locke Lamora that I had nightmares, I wasn’t about to launch into another book that might do the same. Thankfully Abercrombie has a much lighter touch than Lynch, and it’s a credit to his writing ability that Glokta is one of my favourite characters in the book.

Spoiler note: I’ve tried to avoid major spoilers, but it’s proved impossible to explain why I like this book without at least a little detail!

The Blade Itself is in some respects a typical first volume of an epic fantasy. It introduces a cast of colourful characters, including the obligatory white-bearded wizard, a huge “barbarian” and a handsome, sword-wielding nobleman, and ends by sending them off on a quest – but none of these characters is much like the clichés you’re familiar with. Also, the wizard and his quest are practically a subplot in this first volume, most of which is taken up with the political machinations in the city of Adua, as the Union (a large kingdom somewhat resembling Georgian England) teeters on the brink of war.

To be honest, it was the main plot that really caught my interest and attention; it’s a dark fantasy-of-manners – think Jane Austen meets The Borgias – packed with intrigue and humour. This part of the story rests on the shoulders of two very different characters: the aforementioned Glokta, and Jezal dan Luthar, the self-centred young nobleman who is destined to be dragged into the magus Bayaz’s quest.

Sand dan Glokta is a lonely, broken man, a former fencing champion who, during the last war against the Ghurkul Empire, was captured and tortured beyond the endurance of most men. Faced with a choice between going home to his doting mother’s country estate, or working for the Inquisition using the skills he learnt from his tormenters, Glokta chooses the latter. He is set by his superior to root out corruption amongst the merchant class, and uncovers a conspiracy that could threaten the fragile peace with the Ghurkul Empire to the south, even as the Union is about to go to war with the northern barbarians.

Jezal dan Luthar is one of the latest hopefuls entered into the same fencing contest that Glokta won in his youth. Unfortunately Jezal would rather drink and play cards with his fellow officers, to the despair of his trainers. However when Jezal falls in love with the sister of his friend Major West, he discovers new motivation…

Abercrombie’s strength is most definitely in his characters, all of whom are complex and, in their own way, sympathetic, despite some pretty deep flaws. I particularly liked Jezal’s objet d’amour, Ardee West, who starts out as a vivacious cross between Lizzie Bennett and Mary Crawford, but is revealed to be a much more complex (and, somewhat inevitably, tragic) character. And then of course there’s Glokta, whose dry humour and stoicism in the face of constant pain (both physical, from his war wounds, and the emotional impact of the contempt of others) makes him totally sympathetic despite the horrible things he has to do for his job. Thankfully Abercrombie skips over the gruesome details, knowing how to give you just enough information to be creeped out rather than nauseated – something I wish Lynch was better at!

If anything, the Adua sections were so enjoyable that I found the more traditional epic fantasy parts rather dull in comparison. Maybe I’m just jaded by a lifetime of reading such things and, more recently, seeing amazing CGI in movies, but for me the Big Magic felt at odds with the gritty realism of the rest of the story. I suspect I’m out of tune with the majority of the fantasy audience, however, who seem to demand this kind of thing, since practically every epic fantasy has this kind of buildup from the mundane to the ZOMG SFX’n’dragons!!1! (Not that there are any dragons in The Blade Itself, thank the gods.)

Some readers may find the complex, multi-threaded narrative hard to follow, and I confess I found the conspiracy plot particularly hard to keep a handle on because of all the switching back and forth, but on the other hand the writing was so assured, it was that rare kind of book where I could just sit back and enjoy the ride, without worrying where the author was heading.

In conclusion: excellent stuff, and I’ll definitely be picking up the second volume – whilst hoping the epic doesn’t overwhelm the intrigue!

Book review: Ten Ruby Trick, by Julia Knight

Black into white into blue into grey into black. Order and pattern are the way of Holden’s life, buffering his mind from the reality that he is mage-bonded to the Master of the Archipelago, with no choice but to obey his every whim or die in agony. So when the Master commands him to capture the notorious privateer Andor Van Gast, Holden has no qualms about using his former lover Josie to do it. Josie, herself a pirate captain of no mean repute, is well known to be Van Gast’s worst enemy, so surely she will be happy to help Holden? In fact Josie and Van Gast are secret lovers, using their famed rivalry to fool their victims into siding with one or the other in elaborate confidence tricks–and Josie intends Holden to be next. This time, though, the stakes are higher than money or treasure. If anything goes wrong, both she and Van Gast could end up dead–or worse.

Ten Ruby Trick is in many ways the perfect swashbuckling romance. Van Gast is the quintessential rogue-with-a-heart-of-gold, always ready to do the stupid-but-exciting thing; Josie is cunning as a bag of foxes and stubborn as all hell. There are sea battles, storms, chases (lots of chases!) and a really nasty villain to boo – what’s not to like?

This is no bland medieval fantasy world, however. The majority of the inhabitants are dark-skinned, apart from the Viking-like Gan, and gunpowder weapons sit comfortably alongside magic that can quell storms or erect forcefields against cannonades. Most intriguing of all is the magic of the Archipelago, which crystallises on its users’ skins, turning them into helpless grotesques, barely able to move and reliant on their slaves for everything. This is nasty, dark magic at its most imaginative.

I began my review with Holden, as does the book, because although Van Gast is undeniably the hero of the story, Holden is the anti-hero. He’s the guy we want to fail – and yet whose struggles against the vile magics that hold him in thrall cannot help but engage the reader’s sympathy. The theme of this book is freedom, and no character embodies that theme better than Holden.

If you enjoyed Pirates of the Caribbean or Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar books and don’t mind a dash of unsoppy romance with your fantasy, I recommend you give Ten Ruby Trick a whirl!

Ten Ruby Trick is available as an ebook published by Carina Press.

Book Review: Servant of the Underworld, by Aliette de Bodard

One of my favourite genres outside fantasy is historical crime, so a series that combines both is an irresistible lure to me. I was very glad, therefore, to come across de Bodard’s Obsidian and Blood series, set in the pre-Columbian Aztec Empire.

Disclaimer: Aliette and I share both a publisher and an agent. I take this, not so much as bias, as an indication that our tastes are similar and attract a similar audience. It should not surprise anyone, therefore, if I enjoyed this book!

Servant of the Underworld is de Bodard’s debut novel and the first in her series about Acatl, High Priest of the Dead in the city of Tenochtitlan. In it, Acatl finds himself embroiled in the case of a missing priestess when his brother, a knight of the prestigious Order of the Jaguar, is found in her room covered in blood. Acatl has always been jealous of his more successful brother, but concern for his sister-in-law and her children, as well as a dogged sense of honour, drive him to pursue the case despite his misgivings.

By choosing to set a novel in the Mexica Empire, de Bodard has a tough task on her hands. Most readers will probably have some basic ideas about the Aztecs, thanks to Indiana Jones and similar sources–cue mental images of step pyramids, crystal skulls, and of course human sacrifice!–but the details of daily life are less familiar and, thanks to a fragmentary archaeological record, incomplete in any case. Writing fiction in such a setting therefore requires a mixture of historical research and fantasy-style world-building, not to mention the ability to present this world in an easy-to-absorb fashion.

Take the matter of names, for starters. The language of the Mexica Empire, Nahuatl, is agglutinative, meaning it produces long polysyllabic words. Add to that a Spanish-derived orthography and you end up with names that are difficult for any English-speaking reader to parse and remember: Ceyaxochitl, Neutemoc, Quiyahuayo. Thankfully de Bodard is careful not to introduce too many characters at once, and her protagonist at least has a short name, but added to the unfamiliar culture it makes this a hard book to get into at first. Unfortunately there’s no real way around this unless one resorts to translations of names, and not all names translate into English in any case. I suspect this is one reason why non-Eurocentric real-world fantasy is relatively rare. An Anglophone writer creating a secondary world is free to invent names that are easily comprehensible to an English-speaking audience–Gandalf, Elric, Rincewind–whereas one writing about a real, historical culture has no such option.

The second difficulty de Bodard faces is the reality of the religion of this period, notorious for mass sacrifices (of humans as well as animals) which presents a real barrier to reader sympathy. Characters slit the throats of animals to power their spells, or speak casually of the deaths of men, women and children that are required to placate their gods. De Bodard softens this impact by never dwelling on the gory details–which is appropriate, since to her characters this is all very normal and unremarkable–but it is an ever-present shadow nonetheless.

What holds the story together and keeps the reader turning pages is the steady presence of the amateur detective, Acatl, who is himself a fish out of water: an unambitious parish priest promoted higher than he feels competent to deal with. Acatl’s humility and caution also help to balance the fact that he wields powerful magics; powers that could all too easily overwhelm the plot in the hands of a more assertive character (or a less skillful author!). Occasionally I felt that Acatl went a little too far in the direction of humility, and his constant fretting about his relationship with his brother became a little repetitive, but this was a minor detraction from the pleasure of spending time with him.

One advantage of writing a crime story in an unfamiliar setting is that the reader knows too little to be able to guess the ending, and yet the challenge to the writer is that the identity of the killer still has to make sense. I felt this was handled pretty well in Servant of the Underworld, with the escalation from an apparently simple murder to a major conspiracy at the highest levels of the Mexica world presented in digestible chunks. I confess that I’m not a terribly analytical reader, however, so it’s quite easy to slip clues past me under cover of an exciting storyline!

The book is not quite as long as its page count would lead one to believe. In true epic fantasy tradition there are several appendices, including a dramatis personae, an Aztec glossary, and an essay about the background to writing the book. This latter gives some interesting insights into de Bodard’s writing process, as well as explaining how much fact vs fiction has gone into the novel. The one thing I felt was lacking was a pronunciation guide for the names; I was driven to search the web for guides to Nahuatl, but finding a reliable one that adequately covered the names used in the book proved a difficult task.

Overall I enjoyed this book a great deal, and will definitely be reading the second volume, which is already waiting on my iPad!