My 13 Favourite Fantasy Reads of 2019

First, let’s get over the rules. One: This is not my “Best of 2019” list. That list is coming at the end of January or the beginning of February. Some of the books that appear here will probably appear there, as well – and some won’t. I’m taking my time with it because I have about five really big releases I want to get through, including Abercrombie’s A Little Hatred. Two…One book per author! There you have it; let’s get on with it, shall we? Oh, and no numerals. None of that, thank you very much – all these are either 4.5 or 5 star reads. And all of them are fantasy – there’ll be a sci-fi bit later on, one hopes.

The Flight of the Darkstar Dragon

Benedict Patrick takes a sojourn away from the folklore-infested Yarnsworld series and pens a short, remarkably enjoyable standalone in a world as imaginative as anything I’ve come to expect from him. Add to the mix a likable lead by the name of Min, an elderly Samuel L. Jackson as her mentor, and a petty villain who will make you want to strangle him time and again, and you’ve got a memorable journey ahead of you.

I happen to adore the deliciously creepy tales of the Yarnsworld, but this portal fantasy really hit the right spot. Imaginative, short and striking a perfect balance between light-hearted exploration and matters of light and death, Benedict’s latest is a memorable adventure you don’t want to miss out on.

You can find my full review here; for my recent interview with Benedict, click here.

God of Gnomes by Demi Harper

This is probably my favourite debut of the year, and that’s saying something. This is the book that made me feel like a child again, standing over a strategy game with a lot of heart in it, and enjoying every last second. Humour, drama, action – you just don’t expect these things when you’re reading about a sentient gemstone. And yet, you get so much more.

You could adapt this into a Dungeon Keeper-style game with minimal issues and a bit of imaginative storytelling, and the world would be all the better for it. I could get a pitch done in three days, game developer person reading this – call me!

You can find the full review here.

The Gutter Prayer

Politics, magic, religion and alchemy all come to a head in The Gutter Prayer. Driven by a stellar cast of characters and an enviable imagination, this book is a must-read for fantasy lovers. 

I must commend the author for the glossary of delightful monstrosities within these pages, from the alchemists’ insane servants, the Tallowmen with their wax bodies and sharp axes:

Before they can get to it, the door opens and out comes a Tallowman. Blazing eyes in a pale, waxy face. He’s an old one, worn so thin he’s translucent in places, and the fire inside him shines through holes in his chest. He’s got a huge axe, bigger than Cari could lift, but he swings it easily with one hand. He laughs when he sees her and Rat outlined against the fire.

all the way to the Gullheads; from the cursed Stone Men who become stronger the more their deadly disease progresses, to The Fever Knight, a creature of nightmare held together within its plate armour. Oh, and if these aren’t enough, there’s also worm-people, the arcane and utterly disgusting Crawling Ones:

Its voice is oddly musical and warm, but behind it she can hear the flapping and slithering of the worms, like hot fat on a frying pan. “What, may we ask, brings you walking in the places beneath?” It extends a cloth-wrapped “hand” to Aleena and helps her up. She feels worms pop and squish beneath the cloth as she pulls herself upright.

Ew. The descriptions of all these creatures lean almost towards the grotesque but they are all so very excellent. The cover, too, is a work of art, capturing the tone of the book perfectly – illustrated by Richard Anderson and designed by Steve Panton, it is nothing short of exquisite. If you take a look at it, you’ll get an idea, a feeling of what exactly awaits and this is witness to the makings of a great book cover.

You can find my full review over here.

Priest of Lies by Peter McLean

Peter McLean’s fantasy Peaky Blinders doesn’t have the right to be as good as it is! I tell you, friends, I bloody love this series – it’s despicably dark and twisted and it forces protagonist Tomas so far out of his comfort zone that it’d be funny…if the world of politics he comes to inhabit wasn’t just as deadly as the world dominated by gang violence from predecessor Priest of Bones.

You can read my review here.

The Sword of Kaigen by M. L. Wang

This is the novel that emotionally shattered me. It’s ah…it’s probably my favourite book of the year, based on emotional punch alone. If I had any money to bet on a SPFBO 2019 winner, I’d bet them all on this one; don’t worry, fellow SPFBO judges, due to my obvious bias, I’m staying away from giving it an official score for booknest.eu’s part in the competition. It’s out of my hands – and I’m really hoping that the other nine finalists are as strong in terms of narrative and characters as this one is.

Here’s my review of it. (Booknest’s “Read” counter tells me this review has been read over 18 thousand times, which seems like an utterly insane number!)

Hero Forged by Josh Erikson

Josh Erikson is one of the finest narrators I’ve ever heard. That sucks, really – because he’s a writer, so you don’t have dozens upon dozens of novels narrated by him; instead, you only have two – Hero Forged and Fate Lashed. Luckily, Josh is also a word wizard, as evidenced by the fact that his urban fantasy series is fucking dope. I don’t particularly care for the subgenre, but I am crazy for Josh’s world – almost as crazy as for main characters Gabe and Heather!

Me, enjoying for Hero Forged

You can find my review here.

Wrath of Empire

I am burdened by the greatest wrath – I have not yet read the conclusion to McClellan’s series, Blood of Empire. And when Wrath was such an excellent book – a novel whose greatest strength are its characters, a novel as explosive as the gunpowder Brian’s Powder Mages snort in what sure feels like unhealthy quantities — but I’m sure they’re fine. Right?

My review of this excellent book, y’all can find here. (I’ll permit myself a brag here – when I posted it on r/fantasy, this review was hot! Great discussion over there!)

Occultist by Oliver Mayes

From my review:

Oliver Mayes’ debut novel, Occultist, has made a litRPG believer out of me, an accomplishment I wasn’t certain would ever be in the cards for me. All this, considering how each time I’d picked up a book in this particular subgenre of speculative fiction, I ended up walking away with devilishly bad impressions. In my experience, the litRPG genre suffers from several issues, the biggest of which are an over-reliance on nostalgia and a trend towards dense exposition, and I mean walls upon walls of text as unreadable as a bad 80’s AD&D module! But this isn’t about the subgenre as a whole, it’s about the first instalment in the Saga Online series, so let’s get into it!

I’m quoting myself now, that’s how bad ye olde ego has gotten.

The Hod King

If there’s a series that I expect to be read fifty years from now the way Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea is, for example, that would be Josiah Bancroft’s The Books of Babel. The Hod King is the third of four planned novels and it continues the adventure of Senlin and his merry band of pirates, adventurers, marauders, sky sailors, past and present and future wives, and – oh, even though I joke, I truly think it’s a brilliant work of fiction. I’m beyond excited to see it all come together with book #4. Will Bancroft stick the landing?

I reckon he just might.

You can read more about it here.

Never Die by Rob J Hayes

All throughout Never Die, Rob J. Hayes treats us readers with one badass fight after another; most of the main characters end up beating the living crap out of each other, or otherwise facing off through some convoluted challenge. The battles–and I can’t stress this enough (try as I might)–are like a shot of adrenaline through the system; if you’ve ever liked an anime battle, they will immediately feel familiar; and if you haven’t, they’ll still be cool as hell. Steel against steel, the sound of rifle fire and the smell of gunpowder, sweat and the metallic taste of blood – these are but a fraction of the images I came away with after reading this delightful novel.

Here’s my review of it.

Breaking Chaos by Ben Galley

In this final volume of the Chasing Graves trilogy, Ben Galley sees each of the myriad plotlines built over Chasing Graves and Grim Solace come to their fruition: Caltro Basalt, thief, locksmith and body-hopper extraordinaire at long last comes to embrace the role he’s tried time and again to swerve away from. Not that it’s painless. So very close to gaining his freedom, Caltro is again forced into playing different sides, listening to all their promises and trusting none of them.

The Dragon’s Banker by Scott Warren

As a reader with a bachelor’s degree in economics, I was the perfect audience for The Dragon’s Banker. The economics made sense and Warren seems to have a good grasp of how demand and supply work; he’s thought through all sorts of issues that the reader could’ve picked up on and works them in the story seamlessly and just at the right time. Some of main character Sailor Kestern’s most minor actions, at first, see great pay-off by the end of this 255-page read and in ways I didn’t necessarily expect.

My review can be found here.

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin

While I haven’t written the essay I’ve been meaning to about the relationship between Wizard of Earthsea’s main character Ged and priestess Tenar, I think The Tombs of Atuan is nothing short of a magical sequel, which does as many interesting things about fantasy as Wizard did, in many different ways. This is a novel of equality, of taking charge of your fate, of finding friendship in the darkest hours in your life. There’s good reason why Le Guin’s Earthsea is considered a classic, a novel that’s very much shoulders above most of the genre at the time of its publication, whose messages have lost none of its relevance nearly fifty years later.

You can read my A Wizard of Earthsea: Yesteryear’s Magic is all the More Potent essay here!

This is it! My end-of-year fantasy list! Thank you to everyone for sticking around with my blog – this year has been incredibly fun in terms of books, blogging, making friends in the community. Looking forward to 2020 with you all!

The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan – Book Review

This review was originally posted over at booknest.eu.

Series: The Black Iron Legacy # 1
Published by: Orbit
Genre: Dark Fantasy, Grimdark, High Fantasy
Pages: 544 (kindle edition)
Review Format: e-book
Purchased Copy.

I enjoy playing catch-up at year’s end – time is ever a limited resource and great books fall through the cracks more often than I’d like. One such prime example is The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, the first part in The Black Iron Legacy sequence, a wildly imaginative work. This is the author’s debut and it has put Hanrahan on just about every book blogger’s radar, at least in my tiny corner of the internet. Many have called it “the best debut of 2019” and now that I’ve read it, I can see why.

The Gutter Prayer is immensely imaginative, one of the first books I would hand over to someone who used to love fantasy but has gotten worn down by the conventions of the genre. It is an ambitious novel, unafraid to tackle the nature of gods and their relationship with their faithful, as well as economic inequality, the effects on deadly disease ravaging through the populace and more.

Guerdon is a fully realized city, every detail you could ask for mapped out and integrated into a heterogenous whole. I wouldn’t say it’s seamlessly done – no great city, no harbor port town in our own history could be described as seamless in that sense – but it is masterfully executed. This is a city of industry, with all that comes with that, from the shit-filled gutters and quarters dominated by crime and poverty and the stone plague to the homes of the middle-class and the boroughs of the rich, all the way to the city-within-a-city that is the Alchemist guild’s district. And that’s not even touching on the catacombs and tunnels down below, housing their own chthonic horrors…

So much is at play here, and it is slowly revealed through the eyes of an increasing cast of stellar characters, the first among which is a gutter rat of a thief called Cari, the lost daughter of a once-prominent Guerdon family. Cari is angry, brash and vengeful but above all else, she is as unlucky as they come, as before too long at all, she finds herself under the assault of strange, nightmarish visions whose appearance spells a great deal of trouble not only for Cari but for the city entire.

Her two friends, Spar and Rat – a Stone Man and a ghoul, respectively – further complicate matters. Spar is afflicted with a disease that slowly turns him to stone from the inside out. Before too long, he will be a prisoner of his own body, a living statue dependent on the mercy of others, until his lungs, his heart, his veins and blood also harden and calcify and he expires. The only stop-gap measure is an alchemical compound known as alkahest, expensive and difficult to get unless given directly by the Alchemist Guild; which is why so many Stone Men work as manual labourers for the Guild. But Spar doesn’t work for the alchemists– no, he’s part of the Brotherhood, a Thieves’ Guild, if you will, once under the control of Spar’s father Igde – an idealist who exemplified the romantic Robin Hood mentality of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor –  but now under new, far more cutthroat, less idealistic management. I didn’t necessarily like Spar for the first half of the novel; he’s hard-headed and obstinate, just like his decisions. But he grew on me, just like that crystalline formation keeps growing on him, taking away the physical boundaries of his humanity one inch at a time.

The ghoul, Rat, is a young member in a race of psychopomps, creatures that feed not only on dead flesh but on the souls of the dead, delivering them to the bosom of the Keeper gods, one would think. They’re a fun lot, ghouls are, and Rat most of all.

Ghouls love their eldritch mysterious stairwells descending infinitely into fucking shit-and-mushroom town.

Other characters also loan us readers their headspace – Jere, a thief-taker; an assistant at the university of Guerdon; a saint or two. These myriad viewpoints allow for a depth of experiences within the world, a mapping out of the different layers of society within this city. It’s downright Dickensian in how Guerdon is itself not only the battleground of so many different ways of life trying to assert themselves over the others, but a main character in its own right.

The city hasn’t slept. It staggers, drunktired, into the new day, uncertain of everything and looking for a fight.

Written in the present tense, it might take you a chapter or three of getting used to if you’re as used to reading in the past tense as I am but it’s certainly no hindrance to the enjoyment of The Gutter Prayer. I suspect Hanrahan chose it in order to further reinforce the feeling of immediacy in the action that often dominates the pages of the novel.

I must commend the author for the glossary of delightful monstrosities within these pages, from the alchemists’ insane servants, the Tallowmen with their wax bodies and sharp axes:

Before they can get to it, the door opens and out comes a Tallowman. Blazing eyes in a pale, waxy face. He’s an old one, worn so thin he’s translucent in places, and the fire inside him shines through holes in his chest. He’s got a huge axe, bigger than Cari could lift, but he swings it easily with one hand. He laughs when he sees her and Rat outlined against the fire.

all the way to the Gullheads; from the cursed Stone Men who become stronger the more their deadly disease progresses, to The Fever Knight, a creature of nightmare held together within its plate armour. Oh, and if these aren’t enough, there’s also worm-people, the arcane and utterly disgusting Crawling Ones:

Its voice is oddly musical and warm, but behind it she can hear the flapping and slithering of the worms, like hot fat on a frying pan. “What, may we ask, brings you walking in the places beneath?” It extends a cloth-wrapped “hand” to Aleena and helps her up. She feels worms pop and squish beneath the cloth as she pulls herself upright.

Ew. The descriptions of all these creatures lean almost towards the grotesque but they are all so very excellent. The cover, too, is a work of art, capturing the tone of the book perfectly – illustrated by Richard Anderson and designed by Steve Panton, it is nothing short of exquisite. If you take a look at it, you’ll get an idea, a feeling of what exactly awaits and this is witness to the makings of a great book cover.

Something that left a bit of a negative impression – I spied quite a few typos, an unusual number for an Orbit-published book. Something that could be cleaned up from the ebook and future reprints but at this point, I’m wondering whether to start offering my services as a copyreader.

Politics, magic, religion and alchemy all come to a head in The Gutter Prayer. Driven by a stellar cast of characters and an enviable imagination, this book is a must-read for fantasy lovers. My score for Hanrahan’s debut is 5/5 stars. 

Not my Father’s Son by Alan Cumming – Mini Book Review

I love listening to the autobiographies of my favourite actors and comedians. Kevin Hart, John Cleese, Felicia Day, Amanda Palmer, all have put out such engrossing, fascinating reads. I couldn’t get enough of them!

When I joined Twitter I described myself as “Scottish elf trapped inside a middle aged man’s body” and I still think that’s accurate.

Despite this cheery description, Alan Cumming’s Not My Father’s Son is a considerably heavier book than some of the abovementioned authors’ works, though if you know Alan’s work and the flamboyant personality he puts forward into the world, you won’t be surprised by the generous helping of humour which follows or precedes each of Alan’s stories about his abusive monster of a father.

The recollections of these memories are interwoven with the events of Alan’s shot for the British series Who Do You Think You Are across a few months in 2010. For those who, like me, might be unfamiliar with these BBC series, Who Do You Think You Are digs into the family history of a famous Brit and reveals herefore-unknown secrets to the guest in question. It’s a fascinating experience for the star around which the episode is centered, as their reaction at finding out old family mysteries are caught on camera. This secondary story is about Alan’s grandfather, Tommy Darling, a soldier in WW2 who died under mysterious circumstances.

Despite some mind-blowing revelations along the way, what struck home with me is that Alan manages to extract important lessons from even the most negative experiences. He doesn’t allow the past to form him into a man as weak as his father; he uses it as fuel to grow and be better. To me, that’s what this book should’ve been and I’ll happily give it my recommendation to any fan of the biography genre.

Mechanicum (Horus Heresy # 09) by Graham McNeill – Book Review

This review was originally posted over at booknest.eu.

Graham McNeill seems to me the most consistent of all the Black Library authors working on the Horus Heresy series. I put aside Dan Abnett here, whose abilities as a writer I hold in high esteem over the excellent Eisenhorn trilogy. This is the third Heresy novel I’ve read written by McNeill, and it’s the third one I’ve thoroughly enjoyed.

 Here are a few commonalities between all McNeill’s Heresy novels so far:

  • They move the overall plot of the Heresy along. False Gods showed Horus’ corruption; Fulgrim was the most WarHammer 40k book I’ve ever read, with all the gleeful corruption of Chaos and ultraviolence and the purple prose which was most certainly written to fit the ridiculousness that is the Emperor’s Children legion and to play on this whole meta aspect  – and you can take that to the bank, Mr Rob Hayes’ hat! (Love you, Rob)
  • They’ve got characters who do not bore the life out of me. Looking at you, Battle for the Abyss.
  • The narration is always to die for. I needed a third point, okay? These bulletpoints must always go in threes at the least, doncha know?!

These all certainly earn McNeill some credit*. But even if this was the first book of his I’d read in the Heresy series, I’d still have enjoyed it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m conscious of a number of issues which don’t make sense to me either because I’m not steeped deep enough into the lore of this mega-event, or because McNeill and co. didn’t quite think things through when they were moving all the different plot pieces in planning the greater span of the Horus Heresy.  

In terms of characters, there were a few memorable ones. First among them is the Forge Mistress Koriel Zeth, who is a proud bearer of the torch of scientific progress passed down since the Enlightenment, prob’ly, a torch that is doomed to be swallowed by the torrential sea of Chaos during the Heresy. I really liked Zeth for her irreverence towards the nonsense of the Machine God and her ambition to unlock the secrets of the universe, for her willingness to sacrifice everything to stand against zealotry and all the dark horrors seeping into Mars under the direction of Kelbor-Hal, Fabricator General of Mars.

As likable as her but for many different reasons is Dalia Cythera, a girl from Earth who has an intuitive understanding of the workings of technology. Saved from a cruel death sentence for fiddling with technology (making it better) by Zeth, Dalia finds herself in the middle of Mars’s deadliest conflict yet.  Around her is a nice cast of supporting characters, most of them hardly what you’d call deep, since there’s plenty more going on than just Dalia’s storyline. They do their jobs quite well, though, as Dalia ends up fulfilling a dangerous, important role that sadly seems to never be referenced again in any other Warhammer 30-40k book. Aw, shucks.

On the other side of things, we’ve got…MECHS. Pardon, Titan Legions waging war on one another. It’s entertaining and entirely forgettable. Seriously, I finished this one about two months ago and I can’t even recall the name of our PoV character. I liked him! I can remember that much; it’s just that his storyline is your average tale of glory, heroism and sacrifice that’s to be expected of the setting.

My biggest issue with this here book is – all of this is happening on Mars, Earth’s literal back porch  and not until the end of the book does it seem as if anyone is willing to check out what’s going on with the neighbours. And when the big wigs over at Earth do notice something is wrong, they send a punitive force that roughly equates to a five-year-old with a stick coming into the Martian neighbour’s yard to put an end to a drunken brawl. Blimey, this Horus Heresy really is a mess sometimes.

Other than that, The Mechanicum was really quite solid. I was entertained throughout, which is why I’m happy to give it a 3.5/5, which I will helpfully bump up to 4 stars on Goodreads – I’m such a nice guy, aren’t I? It’s a good read, if you can ignore the glaring elephant in the room – our very own planet, Earth.

You might enjoy this one if you like:

  • the Adeptus Mechanicus, aka those weird robot fellas who knock on your door and always try to sell you on “Our Lord and Saviour, the Machine God”;
  • Mechs. Just…mechs;
  • Some real cool characters, actually;
  • and last but certainly not least, loads and loads of heresy;
  • Oh, and more! Prob’ly.

 HEEEEEEEREEEEEEESYYYY

*What’s with me and finance today? I still can’t live down The Dragon’s Bankerby Scott Warren. Now there’s a fun fantasy if you need one!  Oh, also, if you want to read my thoughts on some of the other Horus Heresy books, you can check my blog out, The Grimoire Reliquary. They’re not reviews, per se but I recall complaining loudly about some of the novels.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Book Review

What’s there to say about this one that hasn’t been said before?

Vonnegut is among the quintessential American authors, someone who, despite writing science fiction, transcended the stigmata of SF without difficulty, entered popular American consciousness and hasn’t left it since. Its message strongly abhors the very notion of war, decries the brutalities of it and relates the horrors of the Second World War in bloodcurdling detail. It’s not an easy book to read or listen to, not even with James Franco’s voice relating the events Billy Pilgrim goes through. Billy Pilgrim, unstuck through time, going back to World War 2 and forth into the sweet unknown; Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist. Billy Pilgrim, prisoner-of-war in Dresden, shoved forth into Slaughterhouse-Five with the rest of them, along with one Kurt Vonneghut, though he himself never makes use of the name.

“And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.”

Billy Pilgrim, who is kidnapped to Tralfamadore and stuffed into their zoo along with a woman he comes to love. Billy Pilgrim, who knows the hour and the method of his own death, and knows it is predestined, and does not fool himself into believing in the folly of free will*.

So it goes.

What’s between the covers of Slaughterhouse-Five is real. It’s anger and it’s fury and maybe it’s helplessness, too, at the perpetual cycle that churns out war and its injustices. Monstrous, terrible as they are. Vonnegut shows it how it is; no glory can be found amidst the mud and ice – only the illusion of it in the eyes of the vainglorious prick Roland Weary, whose pettiness and cruelty plant a seed the poisonous fruit of which eventually results in the death of a good man.

It is also a critique of America, in two of the most poignant paragraphs I have read in recent memory:

“America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves. To quote the American humorist Kin Hubbard, ‘It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be.’ It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. The meanest eating or drinking establishment, owned by a man who is himself poor, is very likely to have a sign on its wall asking this cruel question: ‘if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?’ There will also be an American flag no larger than a child’s hand – glued to a lollipop stick and flying from the cash register.

Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say Napoleonic times. Many novelties have come from America. The most startling of these, a thing without precedent, is a mass of undignified poor. They do not love one another because they do not love themselves.”

These words were true when Vonnegut wrote them, and they resonate so much stronger today. I fear they will resonate stronger yet tomorrow, and tomorrow, and the one after it, as well.

Strange, perhaps, that I didn’t enjoy this one as much as I enjoyed the Sirens of Titan. But I appreciate its merits; appreciate, even, that it has more merits than Sirens does. I’ll always remember 2019 for Vonnegut, for this and Sirens and perhaps Breakfast of Champions, if I manage to get through it before the closing of the year.

—————————————————————————————————————–

* But these are not Vonnegut’s beliefs; just because his main character believes it, and the Tralfamadorians believe it, doesn’t make it so, my friends. The only reason I mention this is, Vonnegut seems to have gotten a lot of flack for it in the past.

Oh, and do I even need to tell you how great James Franco does as narrator? No. No, I don’t.

The Train Station, 4:30 a.m.

I wrote and sent this to one of my best friends early in the morning as I was waiting for a train to take me to the airport. I enjoy doing small pieces like these, reflections on reality through my point of view.

At four thirty in the morning, Malmö Central is nothing at all like what it is in the greyness of day. It’s a serene spot, empty of all life, devoid of the crowds that assail it in waves during the day, flittering back and forth. Not a single human in sight. Not even a bone!

That is, until the passengers of city bus number 4 dismount their creaking, mechanical mount and step inside. They shuffle inside like a crowd of mildly peckish zomboids. They devour the silence. The crunch of leather, the rhythmic pat, pat, pat of steps against the shiny floor tiles, the hushed groans of those who know each other in this abysmal hour. It continues, but only for a short while, only until you reach the escalators, where all comes to a halt, you and your suitcase in tow, both of you staring at the sliding door. There’s plenty to stare at – it’s made of glass, only a huge chunk of it is missing. Someone’s come up with an elegant solution to the problem — duct tape, in ludicrous quantities. As if someone tried to mumify the door after seeing Tutenstein a few times too many. It’s ludicrous, and it works, and that’s ludicrous too, and I love it.

Then you step past the door — it still works, it slides open for you, what magic is this?! — and you accept that the next time you see it, it will most likely be sporting a new sheen of glass. Everything interesting about it gone without so much as a screech of protest. You say your goodbyes, the thought that a picture might come in handy later never even having crossed your mind.

You hope the maintenance guy gets a cut for ruining it.

And then, at last, you see it, and all your dislike for your fellow man, striding the earth as early as you yourself do, dies away. That infernal desire machine, that glistening titan of industry. The train that will take you home*.

Charlie the Choo-Choo, illustrated for Stephen King’s…children’s book…? (Dark Tower fans will know!)

*in my case, the train that will take me to the airport that will allow me to board one plane that will fly me to another airport in which another plane, if I be lucky, will await. Thanks for being witness to my crimes against writing!

What I Talk about When I Talk about Running by Haruki Murakami – Book Review

This novel constitutes my first experience with the non-fiction work of the great Haruki Murakami. It was a hell of a lot of fun – and now that I’ve read it, I feel I have a touch greater understanding of the man behind some of my favourite magical realism fiction.

This book will motivate you even if you’re not a runner, even if you have no interest whatsoever in taking part in a marathone or a triathlone or any sort of endurance-based competition at all. It’s a book about perseverance, about a man chasing after what he loves.

Murakami persevered first in running a bar; then, he began to write and once he found his legs, he’s never stopped since. Throughout, he’s kept running. Succeeding, failing – that matters…but not too much. What matters more is, he’s never given up, not even as age slowly crept up on him; as it does with us all.

I suspect writing this one was something of a cathartic experience – almost as cathartic as running itself has been for him. In his catharsis, I find inspiration – metric tons of it. In how he’s dealt with loneliness, for example, I find solace; rather, I find solace that he has never really minded it. Sometimes, I feel a certain amount of guilt for being okay with mine.

I love running, even though I’ve never done too much of it. A few months here and there, inevitably ruined by some cold or flu or virus; the cycle broken and my willpower smashed to smithereenes. But this book…it inspires me to go back to it, to make another effort.

“To keep on going, you have to keep up the rhythm.”

I also happily accept the following quote as a pat on the head, in my charmingly arrogant fashion:

“If you’re young and talented, it’s like you have wings.”

Don’t worry, this didn’t get to my head too much, not after I came across this piece:

“An unhealthy soul requires a healthy body.”

You’ve got to be realistic about these things.

I listened to this one on Audible. The narration was courtesy of Ray Porter, who is one of my all-time favourite narrators; I’m familiar with his work as gruff detective Philip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s classic noir novels. Brilliant job, my good Mr Porter, brilliant.

My score for What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is 4 out of 5 stars. Toodles!

STAR WARS JEDI: FALLEN ORDER REVIEW – Excellent, Buggy, Lacking Ambition

Jedi: Fallen Order has a lot going for it – an excellent story, an addictive combat system and plenty of Metroidvania elements in the planets we players explore as we take on the role of Cal Kestis. Unfortunately, Fallen Order is also plagued by bugs and the number of gameplay systems directly copied from other games make for a certain lack of ambition in terms of the innovation developer Respawn Entertainment implements.

In this video, I did my best to take a critical look at the story, dialogue, gameplay systems and the overall presentation of the game. I’m happy with how it turned out – if you are too, leave me a comment and please, please, please…share the video with your friends!

Revisiting the Classics: Hellblade – Senua’s Sacrifice, a Descent into the Underworld

I don’t necessarily have the best opinion of content I’ve worked on in the past but I had a friend over this last Friday and I happened to show her the trailer of the recently announced Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 (it looks great, you can see it here) and she’d never heard of the first one. Rather than explain the first one to her, I remembered I’d done a video on it and played it for her.

Imagine my shock when I realised it was quite an in-depth look at Senua’s journey. Well-crafted arguments, solid examples, quality audio. Yes, I was annoyed by having left an instance of repetition in my narration but I’ll forgive my past self this one.

If you’re interested in Hell, Hades and the Underworld, this one will be a great watch. I used the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice to contrast desire and lack of faith with the journey of self-discovery and reconcilliation that Senua goes through.

It’s one of my better video essays and I’d appreciate your support, likes, shares.

Crown of the Sundered Empire by J. C. Kang – Book Review

This review was originally posted over at booknest.eu.

I approach the review of this one with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I enjoyed much of the story (after a fashion), loved the characters and found several of the plot threads nothing short of riveting. On the other, dozens of typos pulled me out of the action very often, much to my annoyance.  Further, I admit to some confusion on account of the blurb of this novel only concentrating on a third, at most, of the story it tells. The much more significant conflict, which embroiders four out of the five point-of-view characters of Crown is described by the succinct sentence, “A coming war,” and perhaps by the following line “a broken land where conquerors dream of empires”.

J. C. Kang’s world is multifaceted. History and mythology are one and the same, with fragments of once-corporeal gods empowering the mortal might of broken and aspirant empires both. There’s enough here to be daunting to a new reader to the world of Tivara – at times, I felt lost, uncertain of which of the characters were being introduced for the first time and which of them had starring or supporting roles in Kang’s previous works.

I was entranced by Tomas’ story, the point of view which deals with the eponymous Crown of the Sundered Empire and with an invasion by the disgusting Bovyans, a race of large, militaristic males who procreate by forcing themselves on the women of those territories they subjugate through force. Tomas’ sharp wit is easy to grow fond of, and he goes through a dark hero’s journey, which sees him turn far more ruthless, at a very steep price. Only two instances come to mind as somewhat “off” in terms of his PoV sections, one of them when a soldier intent on not trusting the boy has a change of heart after stating very clearly he wouldn’t trust Tomas; the other involves a mid-wife in his village, of whom Tomas only ever thinks of as “the midwife.” This last one feels bizarrely archetypal and not at all like everyone in this tiny fishing and diving village has intimate knowledge of each other.

Our other characters, princes, princesses, bastards and a half-elf assassin, deal with the fallout of  Crown Prince Elrayn’s attempt to unite two broken kingdoms in order to further his own power. At its best, this part of the novel reminded me of the plots of some Shakesperean comedies, with men and women desperate to get out of arranged marriages, falling in love with exactly whom they shouldn’t and creating plenty of amusing conflict. At its worst, however, I just didn’t buy into the casual stupidity the Crown Prince exhibited in the midst of crisis – there’s incompetence, there’s short-sightedness and then there is whatever Elrayn suffers from. His early successes came across as no more than a stroke of luck, and his later failings appeared to me too artificial. Thankfully, he’s not one of the PoV characters – rather, the engine by which most of them come into the conflict.

I was familiar with the high-elf, Jie, from a short novella by the name of “Thorn of the Night Blossoms” and I enjoyed seeing her all grown-up and experienced but also struggling between duty and love. Her affair with Elrayn’s brother, Aryn, was a source of amusement and some well-appreciated tension, which ultimately didn’t come up to the sort of resolution I would’ve liked.

Alwrynn, royal bastard and brother to Elrayn and Aryn, whose overwhelming use of naval terms chafed during several instances, was otherwise an entertaining protagonist, skilled at sea but almost as helpless on land as in the world of politics. His connection with Alaena, the third PoV character and one of the princelings Elrayn attempts to marry into his family, is a source of plenty of tension that pays off really well towards the end of the story.

The action was fantastic, nothing less than what I’ve come to expect from Kang, based on my limited experience with his work.

Crown of the Sundered Empire is an intriguing read with plenty of positive elements. My enjoyment of it was mired by the typos and the extent to which I felt like a newcomer who lacked basic insight into some of the characters’ pasts and world events. Tomas’s story might’ve been a short novel of its own – and I would argue, it would’ve been a finer entry-point to the world for new readers such as myself. As it is, I liked J. C. Kang’s novel well enough, even with the issues I had, which is why I’m giving it 3/5 stars. I feel obliged to say that I’m in the minority – most of the readers who have scored this book over on Goodreads have given it either 4 or 5 stars. What didn’t work for me might very well work for you.