The Die of Death by Kenneth B. Andersen – Book Review (#TheWrite Reads Blog Tour Edition!)

When I read The Devil’s Apprentice last year, I enjoyed it well enough, though I had a number of issues with some of the prose and saw the revelations coming from a mile away. How does its follow up compare? Read on to find out!

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The Die of Death follows up six months after the conclusion of Apprentice. Philip has been marked by his time in Hell – no longer the angelic boy he used to be, our young protagonist has made some new friends. Prone to mischevious behaviour and white lies, Philip is having a grand old time.

That is, until he is struck by lightning and finds himself down the familiar steps to Hell. It’s not there that he’s destined to go, however – because Mortimer, cantankerous old personification of Death that he is, has work for Philip.*

What The Devil’s Apprentice did well, this continues to do in the same vein. A return to Hell makes for plenty of fun, blood-curdling moments but the exploration of both the domain of Death and of Purgatory made for welcome additions to the tapestry of the underworld, or the afterlife, or wot-have-it. The characters remain true to themselves, and all the old, well-established characters make a comeback. They bring with them old friendships and adversarial relations, new revelations of forgotten crimes.

Perhaps what I enjoyed more here than in the previous book of the series has to do with the twists and turns. In Apprentice none of the revelations towards the closing third of the novel surprised me. Die held a few surprises I did not see coming, along with the ones I inferred. It’s a slyer novel than the one before it – and that’s something I can appreciate.

Mortimer, especially – old Death himself started off as someone I disliked and his standing with me only grew worse. Andersen, bless his talented writerly heart, turned it around!

Philip is more interesting by far in this one. The story flows better, the dialogue and prose are stronger. You will be surprised. This one does plenty right, and I’m happy to recommend it to people who enjoyed the previous one and to those who, like me, were on the fence at the prospect of reading the follow-up to the previous one.

My score for The Die of Death is a 4 out of 5 stars. It’s a fun second chapter, and I enjoyed it, and that’s all that matters.

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*Writing a variation of my name this many times makes me a touch more megalomaniacal than usual.

I’m not sure I’ll pick the next one up anytime soon – there’s another blog tour a little while from now, but I’ll admit to some reluctance on my part about participating. A case of oversaturation, perhaps.

I, Exile by David M. Samuels – Book Review

This book review was originally published over at booknest.eu.

Self-Published
Genre: Fantasy, Low Fantasy
Pages: 220
Format: Kindle e-book
Copy: Courtesy by the author through r/fantasy’s TBRindr list in return for an honest review;

The opportunity of coming across a gemstone of a book is why I am happy to read the works of indie fantasy authors whose titles haven’t yet gained wider recognition online. I’ve come across some brilliant works, and I’ve faced off against some reads that didn’t quite cut it – in the face of all those, David M. Samuels’ I, Exile measures up as an engaging and entertaining story of personal growth and adventure, with no small dose of sarcasm thanks to smartass protagonist Emelith. Oh, and a bloody lich makes this feel like a proper romp through pulpy fantasy goodness.

What this book reminded me of, as I read it, was the Forgotten Realms novels in the 90s, those Drizzt Do’Urden books every fantasy nerd and their father (i.e. me and my dad) read; not in the characters, necessarily, as there isn’t much in Emelith to remind you of Drizzt, but in the excitement and swift action, in the stakes that are never anything less than life-and-death, in the easy prose which allows you to glide through the pages, and in the unexpected allies found and forged along the way.

The setting for I, Exile is a post-apocalyptic desert in a world that has undergone a massive flood as recently as a few centuries back. All sorts of nasty buggers have made this desert their home, as is the way of these things but the nastiest, perhaps, is a lich seemingly no longer happy with staying with his skull buried in the sand. I’ll say no more about the lich, as that’d be giving away more than is strictly necessary, except for this – this is a fun villain, who strikes a balance between tropey and novel in all the right ways.

Emelith’s journey made I, Exile more appealing than it otherwise would’ve been. Prone to anger and snap judgements, the further our protagonist goes into this Mad Max-esque (to use the author’s own comparison) wasteland, the more she realises about herself. Quiet moments of contemplation abound in-between the excellent action sequences.

Samuels’ novel is technically adept – for its vast majority, I had a hard time finding any typos, grammatical errors or punctuation mistakes. Only the last few percent offered a slight increase in that type of issues, and that might be because I was sent an arc pre-publication date. The prose is expressive without coming across as bloated; if anything, it’s on the economic side as far as descriptions go. 

One piece of criticism I have is, the short blurb and the cover for the book did not work for me – the cover looks so very much like a bad 90s comic, I considered skipping it on this basis alone. That’s not the kind of feeling you want your cover to elicit. The blurb is too short and doesn’t arouse interest nearly as much as it should.

The cast of supporting characters includes plenty of interesting names, many of whom have their own motivations which conflict either with one another’s, or with Emelith’s, There’s a mysterious priestess, a few warriors.

I enjoyed I, Exile. My score for this one is 4/5 Stars on Goodreads, and I happily recommend you put it on your to-read list!

You’ll enjoy this one if:

  • You like less magic and more wit in your fantasy;
  • You’ve a love for desert settings, monsters, and a pleasing surplus of back-stabbing;
  • You’re looking for fun action and choppy dialogue, courtesy of a brash badass;
  • You want to take a deep breath of that action-adventure-y nostalgia of 90s fantasy – it’s pulpy, it’s fun, and it’s head and unlike many of the 90s Forgotten Realms book, it’s actually good!
  • And more! Prob’ly.

Ecstasy and Terror by Daniel Mendelsohn – Book Review

I don’t remember how I came across Ecstasy and Terror but I knew when I read its blurb that I would love it. Having read every one of the essays in this collection, I’ve found myself not only loving it but hungry for more of Mendelsohn’s writing. This anthology by Mendelsohn(who is Editor at Large over at the excellent New York Review of Books) has the apt subtitle From the Greeks to Game of Thrones, which might as well have added the following two words: And Beyond, and would still have been every bit as true.

Mendelsohn’s most interesting and illuminating essays draw connections to Ancient Greece and parallels to modern times; the first section, Ancients sees him exploring tragedies such as Euipides’ Bacchae and Sophocles’ Antigone, the role of the poet Sappho and her sexuality in Greek culture, the place of the Aeneid in modern society and the links between JFK’s assassination and Greek myth.

Following up is the weakest of the three sections, Moderns, which is by no means dull reading; it’s that some of the essays here speak of novels whose themes and problems hardly ever interested me. And yet Mendelsohn’s exceptional skill as a critic offers plenty to enjoy in “The Women and the Thrones: George R. R. Martin’s Feminist Epic on TV” and in “The Robots are Winning!: Homer, Ex Machina and Her“. Equally captivating was a review of an epistolary novel looking at the first emperor of Rome, Augustus. The remaining essays, while interesting to read due to Daniel’s ready supply of wit, left less of an impression, perhaps because the works examined by him pose little intrest to me at this time.

The third and smallest of the sections, titled Personals, I found as fascinating as Mendelsohn’s takes on Classical culture. Whether he spoke of his correspondence with Mary Renault, a lesbian author of historical fiction through his childhood – how her novels affected him and made him fully accept his sexuality – and early adulthood in the 70s or about the role and responsibility of the critic in the excellent piece “A Critic’s Manifesto”, this last section is stellar. It gave me a glimpse into a man whose work I’ve come to admire over the 377 pages of this remarkable collection and for that, I am all too happy.

What is there left to say? Plenty – I could speak about each of the essays, and you know what? I think I’ll make a weekly column out of it. I won’t talk about each and every one of these since, as I said before, I don’t have nearly enough to say about all of them. I’d encourage you to read Ecstasy and Terror for yourself, but in case you need more convincing, I will share with you a few of my favourite essays – what they are about, why they left an impression and what they taught me; because if there’s one thing I cannot stress enough, it is this: You will learn a lot from Daniel Mendelsohn.

Rating this anthology is a task I’m woefully underqualified for, and yet – since I will be cross-posting this to Goodreads, this is an unequivocal 5 out of 5 Stars. I cannot recommend it enough.

A Little Hatred (The Age of Madness #1) by Joe Abercrombie – Book Review

Originally posted over at Booknest.eu.

Pictured here is my own copy. So pretty @_@

Published by: Gollancz.
Genre: (Dark) Fantasy
Pages: 486
Format: Hardback
Purchased the Exclusive Edition from Waterstones.

The world we readers knew from the First Law Trilogy has changed. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed Joe Abercrombie’s standalone novels in the world, Best Served ColdThe Heroes, and Red Country. As the world’s timeline has progressed, we find ourselves amidst an Industrial Revolution much like the one the UK went through in the 1800s, and with it, some of the worst excesses of early capitalist society. 14-hour working days, scant payment for dangerous, life-draining factory labour, child labour, air and water pollution. All this under one common denominator, that of Progress with a capital ‘P’, and see how it encloses all that suffering within itself?

But rest assured, there’s a lot more than this going on. Abercrombie skirted away from the Union after the excellent Last Argument of Kings. We caught glimpses, here and there, of changes, particularly in the excellent Red Country, but the streets of Adua were left closed to us for over a decade until September 2019 rolled along. To date, I think this is the only book I’ve ever pre-ordered from a UK-based bookstore; goes to show you my excitement for it.

Why the hell did it take me so long to get to it?!*

A Little Hatred makes the beginning of Abercrombie’s first trilogy seem sluggish by comparison; from the first, the personalities of each Point-of-View character shine through. No handholding here, no soft introduction to the world and characters. Tragedies, both personal and socio-political see a new generation of characters challenged from the get-go.

The theatres of operations, as it were, are centered around the latest external conflict with the North and the internal tension within the Union itself. In the North, Black Calder’s bloodthirsty son is on the offensive against the Union’s Protectorate ran by old favourite Dogman; his daughter, Rikke, is in a whole lot of shit for more than one reason – to start with, she’s got the magical Long Eye, which gives her glimpses of the future while suffering bouts of agonizing epilepsy. Matching wits with the Wolf of the North is Leo dan Brock, the soon-to-be Lord Governor of Angland, who is at once likable and a reckless idiot. Don’t worry, I spoil nothing, you pick that vibe up on the very first page he’s on.

The Union is a different story altogether, a den of intrigue, full of serpents, the biggest ones some of our main characters, Savine dan Glokta and Vick Teufel – everything’s changed, everything’s the same, and you can’t help but love it to death. Also in the Union but removed, at first, from the heart of intrigue and conflict either by drunken uselessness and privilege or by post-traumatic stress disorder are Prince Orso and former farmer-turned-soldier Broad, a family man excellent at violence and little else. Orso, despite being one of the most disliked men in the Union – and considered spineless by virtually everyone – is a decent human being, though it takes him a little while to realize it. Between you and me, I’m not sure it’ll last

Fan-favourites from days gone by come back, as well – His Eminence, Sand dan Glokta the most prominent among them, his iron grip over the Union seemingly slipping due to the pressure of internal and external forces alike. Finree dan Brock also plays the role of governor and general of Angland’s armies, as does a brittle, severely damaged Dogman.

More than one chapter makes for a masterclass in the writer’s craft. CHAPTER NAME puts two of the most cutthroat characters in the novel, Savine dan Glokta and Vick Teufel face to face; it’s a moment of reflection for both as they look in a mirror, each seeing the other as the opposite of what they are while unconscious of how similar they view the world. Here’s Savine reflecting on the woman in front of her:

It was not mockery, exactly. They simply both knew that Teufel had seen things, suffered things, overcome things that Savine would never have to. Would never dare to. She needed no wigs or powder to hide behind. She sat safe in the certainty that she was carved from fire-toughened wood, and could break Savine in half with those veined coal miner’s hands if she pleased.

A page and a half later, Vick observes, “It wasn’t mockery, exactly. They just both knew that savine had more manners, money and beauty in one quim hair than Vick could’ve dug from her whole acquaintance. She sat safe on invisible cushions of power and privilege, knowing she could buy and sell Vick on a whim.” Funny how two of the most ruthless characters Abercrombie has written have so much in common without either realizing it – the world I look forward to seeing them share the page again as by the end of A Little Hatred at least one of them has undergone a metamorphosis the kind you’ll have to read to believe. 

And of course, it wouldn’t be Abercrombie if he didn’t have a scene or two full of hopping into the heads of minor characters. I love this contrivance because it’s an excellent way to sketch out significant events from points of view other than those already established. Abercrombie does more in forcing me to care about a minor character with two pages than some authors do with entire books. If that isn’t proof of his skill, I don’t know wot is!

Beyond the glorious escapism, A Little Hatred examines themes relevant to the socio-political environment we all live in. The Gurkish Empire, the ‘bad guy’ of the First Law trilogy, has suffered through political collapse; as a result, the Union is struggling with wave after wave of refugees; late in the novel, one character tells another:

‘Lot of brown faces around,’ he said, frowning.
‘Troubles in the South. Refugees are pouring across the Circle Sea, seeking new lives.’
‘Fought a war against the Gurkish thirty years ago, didn’t we? You sure they can be trusted?’
‘Some can and some can’t, I would’ve thought. Just like Northmen. Just like anyone. And they’re not all from Gurkland…Dozens of languages. Dozens of cultures. And they’ve chosen to come here. Makes you proud, doesn’t it?’
‘If you say so.’ *Redacted* knew nothing about those places except that he didn’t want the Union to become one of them. He took no pride in the watering down of his homeland’s character. … ‘Just…hardly feels like the Union’s the Union anymore.’
‘Surely the great strength of the Union has always been its variety. That’s why they call it a Union. 

Bit of a scathing critique, that, if you think about it. And you will think about it, unlike the character whose name I’ve redacted. It’s this kind of social commentary that makes for an excellent argument on the merits of fantasy in exposing the faults of our own world. Escapism, but not just.

Examined also is the “nothing can stand before profit” mentality of the hyper-rich, most directly through the character of Savine dan Glokta, who suffers from the same condition of her father in the previous trilogy, in that she does have internal morals and can recognize her actions as wrong but does not allow them to stand in her way. That’s what made Sand the most memorable character in the First Law trilogy and it is what makes me so fascinated with Savine.

Abercrombie’s A Little Hatred is a revelation, and if you haven’t yet read it, it’s well past time that you do. This is a modern masterwork; my score for it is an unapologetic 10/10. I cannot wait to see the challenges and changes all these characters, and their supporting casts, will go through over the next two novels as The Age of Madness shambles onwards. The themes I illustrated are but a handful of the ones you can find in this opening act and I encourage you to read with care, conscious of this adult, intelligent novel. It has plenty to say, long as you are willing to listen.

*If you must know, I moved from one apartment to another, then bode my time until I had the chance to fully submerse myself in this work. I do not regret it, not even a little bit.

Only autographed book I own!

Along the Razor’s Edge (The War Eternal #1) by Rob J. Hayes – Book Review

Review originally posted over at: Booknest.eu
Release Date: March 30, 2020
Published by: Self-Published
Genre: Fantasy, Grimdark
Pages: 281
Format: ebook
Review Copy: Provided by the author in return for an honest review.

What Rob J. Hayes has done in Along the Razor’s Edge cements his place as one of the masters of grimdark fantasy.

I’ve taken my time getting to the review of this book, the first of an ambitious new trilogy Rob has decided to release over the next few months of 2020, starting March 31, just a little over a month as of the time of writing of this review. There’s plenty I want to say, and I will begin with this: as soon as I was finished with Razor’s Edge, I was desperate for more. Perhaps this doesn’t sound like great praise to you but keep in mind, only a few fantasy authors in my adulthood have awoken in me the desire to dive into their fictional worlds without so much as a breath of something different in-between – Sanderson, Joe Abercrombie, Brian McClellan, Steven Erikson.

Eskara Helsene is a Sourcerer of great potential, capable of holding up to five Sourcery stones in her stomach at any one time, she is a deadly trump card for the Orean Empire and a fierce combatant against their Terrelan foe. Or she was, anyway, before the side she fought the war on lost. Now, Eskara is a captive, one of thousands of the foes of the victorious Terrelans stuck in The Pit, a hole in the ground in which the prisoners are forced into performing endless Sisyphean labour every day of their miserable existence. Digging rocks, dragging them out and then digging yet more rocks. “Maybe it was just punishment; never-ending, pointless toil down in the dark. The sure, unwavering knowledge that nothing we did or said meant a damned thing. A punishment worse than death. Irrelevance.” The Pit is made to break people, not just physically but psychologically shatter them as well.

But Eskara will not be broken. Despite betrayal by her closest friend and beatings at the hands of a sadistic foreman at the opening of Razor’s Edge, despite the lack of food and rest and even sunlight, this fifteen-year-old girl refuses to surrender. She draws strength from the daily cruelties perpetrated against her, turns it all into smouldering fury. All-consuming rage is perhaps one of the most sure-fire mechanisms of survival and it serves Eskara well but like the Source inside her belly, it too is poisonous the longer she carries it inside. Do not mistake this for flat characterization. Though Eskara is dominated by fury and pride, her emotions go further; it’s the inability to express them that speaks of a character deeply scarred and emotionally curbed from childhood. What she uses as a crutch is her power: “…I wouldn’t trade my magic for all the meals and sleep in the world. I love the power far too much.” Eskara defines herself through her Sourcery, even in the Pit.

The strongest element in Hayes’ work has to do with character voice; the narrator is none other than Eskara herself – but an older, world-weary Eskara, one for whom the Pit is in the far-off past, though it’s obvious through her narrative that it’s a gangrenous wound that this older Sourcerer has not wholly escaped from. Foreshadowing, done right, can add so much to a work of fiction. Rob does it right, as well as Gene Wolfe in the genre-defying Book of the New Sun. Though these are two very different stories, they share strands of DNA not in voice alone but also in the primal fear of deep, dark places far underneath the surface they both seize. They share, too, well-crafted prose, every word fitting into the greater whole like pieces of a puzzle. So often I come across self-published fantasy works whose occasional smattering of modern parlance comes across as staggering discrepancy, and indeed, I recall even the first of the author’s books I read, City of Kings had the occasional incongruity in this way; not so with Hayes’ latest.

Another strong element of this title is the magical system. A cool, imaginative twist on the schools of magic you might be familiar with, the magic in this world is internally consistent and what I’d call “hard” magic. It’s powered by Source stones the Sourcerer must swallow, each stone with a different magical affinity. There’s plenty more of it than that and suffice to say, I’m excited to see its further complexities reveal themselves.

I would be remiss not to mention the cast of characters. Though I don’t intend on calling each one out, I have to commend Rob for his handling of the dynamics between Eskara and her fellow Sourcerer, Josef. Few in the Pit are what you might call “nice people,” and Eskara is nowhere near as good at making friends as she is at making enemies, but a few allies are nonetheless in the cards for her and the intricacies of their relationships intertwined make for an additional layer of human drama.

The novel is an intelligent work about the costs of perseverance fuelled by the basest human emotions. As thrilling as this first chapter in Eskara’s tale is, it offers caution too. Though anger keeps her alive – that’s no great spoiler, I think, as the older Eskara’s narration is immediately evident – the urge to lash out at those around her costs our protagonist immeasurably much.  

Shall we speak of the cover art? Felix Ortiz continues to outdo himself and if you don’t believe me, come back over at booknest.eu tomorrow, because I have a special treat for you – Rob has given me the absolute pleasure of revealing the cover for Along the Razor’s Edge’s sequel, The Lessons Never Learned!

In the end, I am excited – excited to see the world outside the Pit, excited to see Rob follow-up on what is the best example of foreshadowing I’ve come across since Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, excited for more of Eskara beyond all else. This is my Fantasy Read of the Month; I am happy to give it a full score of 10/10. I consider this a grimdark masterpiece, and an early contender for my favourite opening of a series for the year.

Synopsis:

No one escapes the Pit. At just fifteen Eskara Helsene fought in the greatest war mankind has ever known. Fought and lost. There is only one place her enemies would send a Sourcerer as powerful as her, the Pit, a prison sunk so deep into the earth the sun is a distant memory. Now she finds herself stripped of her magic; a young girl surrounded by thieves, murderers, and worse. In order to survive she will need to find new allies, play the inmates against each other, and find a way out. Her enemies will soon find Eskara is not so easily broken.

All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries #01) by Martha Wells – Book Review

This review was originally published over at booknest.eu!

Published by: Tor.com
Genre: Sci-fi
Pages: 152
Format: paperback
Copy:  Borrowed from my local library. Support your libraries, folks!

While browsing through the rows of books in English in the Swedish library I frequent, I came across Martha Wells’ All Systems Red, a novella whose cover I dimly recalled seeing years before on Tor.com. I looked through my To-Read list and – surprise! – this one was nowhere near it…as if that would stop me. I grabbed it, stole away Ada Palmer’s too Like the Lightning as well, in case someone thought this thin novella too conspicuous. Long live sci-fi!

By the end of the night, I’d read through the first of these titles with barely any effort.

All Systems Red offers a fun story from the point of view of an anxiety-riddled robot with several biological components and a touch of misanthropy: “I liked the imaginary people on the entertainment feed way more than I liked real ones, but you can’t have one without the other”. This SecUnit calls itself Murderbot and seeks to avoid all direct interactions with its human wards, interested only in watching the tv, music and game programmes on entertainment channels. If this isn’t enough to make the Murderbot relatable, I don’t know what will.

Stuck on a planet with a band of scientists performing geological studies, our protagonist hopes to avoid any sort of excitement; unfortunately for him, this is a sci-fi novella intent on putting Murderbot on the spot and testing its mettle! A few action scenes are only to be expected – and they were well handled and entertaining.

The prose is serviceable – not quite excellent, but it doesn’t need to be. There’s plenty of great interactions, the dialogue never tends towards the heavily expositional and the personalities of all the scientists, led by team leader Mensah, shined through. Oh, and the humour? Golden: “Yes, talk to Murderbot about its feelings. The idea was so painful I dropped to 97 percent efficiency. I’d rather climb back into Hostile One’s mouth.”

In terms of antagonists, the architects behind our protagonist’s woes don’t make for anything especially memorable; they’re rather archetypal, presenting rather the depths to which human greed tends to go when a group of people goes off the deep end. It works well and keeps our SecUnit and his group of scientists on their toes and pushing themselves as hard as they can to survive.

Once embroiled in a crisis, Murderbot is willing to put its life on the line for the band of humans it has been tasked with protecting – despite it hacking its governance module. The same module that allows anyone who’s signed a deal with the Company – like the scientists – to command Murderbot. By working to save Mensah and the rest of her team from a shadowy enemy, then, Murderbot is exercising its free will – and this is at the heart of what’s examined in Wells’ novel. The question is one of freedom and compassion and examination of the self, and the text goes a long way in showing how Murderbot exercises all three.

My score for All Systems Red is a 4/5. This is a legitimately enjoyable adventure in a science fiction setting with plenty of good zingers and a socially awkward Robocop – what’s not to love?! I’m looking forward to reading more about Murderbot in the future! I’ll definitely be picking up his story when I’m next in my local library!

Kingshold by D. P. Woolliscroft – Book Review (Blog Tour!)

Published by: Self-published
Genre: Epic Fantasy

Series: The Wildfire Cycle #01
Format: ebook
Review Copy: Courtesy of TheWriteReads, as part of the Kingshold Blog Tour!

Kingshold was difficult to get into – so difficult, in fact, I hate to admit that if I wasn’t part of this blog post, I might not have gotten past the opening third…which would’ve been a pity as there is plenty I enjoyed further on! For that reason, before I get into the review proper, I’ll take a little while to tell you about the issues I thought plagued these first hundred and thirty pages or so.

The first 30%

The beginning felt bloated. Exposition-heavy dialogue distracted from the characters and their motivations, traits and roles in the story.  There’s a lot which yells out “boilerplate fantasy” here, in terms of archetypes and descriptions both – from the ancient mildly Bayaz-esque wizard who pulls the strings of a kingdom and does as he wills to the burly torturer who says “M’Lud” instead of “My Lord”. All planets have a north, I know, I know. The issue of the descriptions to start with is, they all felt like I’d read them a hundred times before. I prefer a well-crafted image, which fleshes out one memorable trait as compared to what the reader often comes across here, a dozen forgettable adjectives.

It’s overwritten – but even then, I enjoyed some of the characters from the start. Take for instance the Lord Chancellor Hoskin, whose wry amusement at the expense of others put a smile to my face. What I found lacking early on was subtext – so many issues are presented bare and without a hint of subtlety. It’s almost as if the author didn’t quite have the faith early on that the readers might pick more subtle cues from his characters; Woolliscroft felt the need to be blunt about characters’ motivations and goals this early on, and I wasn’t won over by that.

Once I passed the 30%, however, I started getting into Kingshold.

D. P Woolliscroft has comedic timing, something I got quite a few hints of early on. It really blossoms once you get to know the characters better and as a result, I chuckled throughout. I found more than a few of the intimate moments between the cast touching, as well.

The dwarves deserve a commendation – several small details given them by the writer differentiated Woolliscroft’s take in memorable ways compared with the usual portrayal you get in fantasy. Some sweet details about their homes, their forging techniques, their thermal baths – all things you have got to love.

In terms of characters, I enjoyed their growth over the span of the book. Chancellor Hoskin transformed from a nervous bookworm to an acidic arsehole, and I loved every minute of it. I won’t touch upon all of them, but the bard Mareth was also a lot of fun to watch grow from a semi-capable drunk to someone with vision and a desire to elicit change, as was the servant Alana, whose duties in serving a wizard his breakfast really help her find her place in the world. The wizard in question has a daughter, Neenahwi, who has several satisfying moments in her own right.

The prose holds this book back – too often, words feel out of place; dialogue or descriptions are overwritten and bloated. As I said, it’s serviceable but it lacks a certain amount of stylization – particularly in terms of dialogue, which comes off as unintentionally ironic from time to time – which is what makes the best examples of the epic fantasy subgenre exceptional. The language lacks exactness, and often makes the mistake of being too passive: “There have been some of the younger dwarves who have gone missing.” This sentence could easily be reworked to something dynamic like “Some of the younger dwarves have gone missing.” Shorter, easier to read, better.

Another small qualm I have with the novel is, it’s got a number of punctuation errors and typos, a few missed words: “She’d come into their group like a whirlwind, full of confidence of the like Alana only dreamed [of].” Annoying, that.

With a round of close in-line edits, these issues could have been fixed. Kingshold has a strong core of ideas, a cast of likable protagonists and plenty of heart. It’s a pity that some of it comes across as sloppy, bloated and over-written because the potential for this one to be brilliant is there. So many of the ideas Woolliscroft presents are ridiculous amounts of fun! One of Kingshold’s chief exports, for example? Assassins. How does it work? A legal framework is in place and all, and no one bats an eye!  “…It did prove useful that there was a certain understanding between the branches and the head office here. Made him wonder why the other cities would countenance their existence. But he supposed a score of deadly assassins had a certain special kind of lobbying power.” See? Fresh and funny!

My score for this one is 3.5 out of 5 stars on Goodreads, or a 7 out of 10. Kingshold offers a pastiche of many of the traditional themes and motifs of epic fantasy and while it takes a while for them all to mix fully, once they do, Woolliscroft offers an engaging read despite a number of issues.

You can follow D. P. Woolliscroft over at: www.dpwoolliscroft.com
Or check out his Twitter – @dpwoolliscroft and Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/dpwoolliscroft/

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny – Book Review

This review was originally published over at booknest.eu.

Published by: HarperVoyager (2010 ed.)
Genre: Sci-Fi, Fantasy
Pages: 296
Format: paperback
Awards: Hugo Award for Best Novel (1968)
Copy: Picked up at my local library. Support your libraries, folks!   

His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god, but then he never claimed not to be a god.

Gods, I loved this one. My admiration for Roger Zelazny and his talents goes back to early adolescence when my father, may Krishna and Vishnu look at him favourably, granted me passage into a world that lies in intersection to our own (and yet far, far above it, the way real objects are above shadows), the world of Amber. It is a glorious place, and one I haven’t dared revisit for many years; but this review goes a little further back, before Zelazny himself ventured into the Chronicles of Amber.

Lord of Light is an epic contained in just under a three-hundred page novel. Its ideas are grand and ambitious, as much in the vein of fantasy as in science fiction, the basic structure of much of the novel borrowed from the creation myth of Buddhist lore (heavily based on reality but mythologised after two and a half millennia), the aforementioned Sam taking on the role of prince Siddhartha Gautama. But Sam is not a man to only wear a single hat – his identities throughout the seven chapters of the book are many and the role of destroyer comes as easy to him as that of ascetic philosopher. Whether he believes in what he preaches or not is besides the point.   

This book is fantastic to read if you don’t know much about Hinduism and Buddhism but are looking for something to enthuse you, make you curious about enlightenment and spirituality of these dual religions which many of us in the Western world are hardly ever in the position to interact with on a meaningful level.

But divorce it from any knowledge from Hinduism; no, divorce is the wrong word. Rather, give Zelazny the creative leeway he deserves, let him loose on the pantheon and watch as he creates something remarkable and original as well as traditional. Perhaps the most delight I took was in these scenes which centred around the interactions between Sam and Yama (also called Yama-Dharma) the death-god and most brilliant amongst all the gods.

“Call themselves?” asked Yama. “You are wrong, Sam, Godhood is more than a name. It is a condition of being. One does not achieve it merely by being immortal, for even the lowliest laborer in the fields may achieve continuity of existence. … Being a god is the quality of being able to be yourself to such an extent that your passions correspond with the forces of the universe, so that those who look upon you know this without hearing your name spoken. Some ancient poet said that the world is full of echoes and correspondences. Another wrote a long poem of an inferno, wherein each man suffered a torture which coincided in nature with those forces which had ruled his life. Being a god is being able to recognize within one’s self these things that are important, and then to strike the single note that brings them into alignment with everything else that exists. Then, beyond morals or logic or esthetics, one is wind or fire, the sea, the mountains, rain, the sun or the stars, the flight of an arrow, the end of a day, the clasp of love. One rules through one’s ruling passions. Those who look upon gods then say, without even knowing their names, ‘He is Fire. She is Dance. He is Destruction. She is Love.’ So, to reply to your statement, they do not call themselves gods. Everyone else does, though, everyone who beholds them.”
“So they play that on their fascist banjos, eh?”
“You choose the wrong adjective.”
“You’ve already used up all the others.”

This is the kind of dialogue that got me into literature, made me want to dig as deep into it as can be, and make the study of it my life’s work. It sparkles, it crackles, and it captures perfectly who these two characters are; Yama, who is avatar and representation of the end of all things, as severe as the silence of the grave; and Sam, who cuts through all the bullshit and calls things as he sees them, and fights for a cause not wholly his own to the last. Fine – I’m projecting beyond the conversation above but you can’t blame me for the enthusiasm. 

See, the intertextuality is something Lord of Light thrives on and is shaped by. The paragraph above makes a passing nod to Dante’s Inferno, and perhaps to some of Zelazny’s other work itself – a quick google search revealed the following quote, penned by none other than him: “All of these things considered, it is not surprising that one can detect echoes, correspondences and even an eternal return or two within the work of a single author. The passage of time does bring changes, yea and alas; but still, I would recognize myself anywhere.” What this intertextuality allows Zelazny to do is weave his unique vision while using Hindu and Buddhist cannon as a vehicle to enrichen an imaginative world which takes on themes of oppression and the dangers of technological advancement, touches on colonialism and, most formidably, seeks to divorce religious preaching from spirituality, while arduously studying the bonds between the two. What does that last point stand for? As mentioned before – and I don’t mark this as spoiler, for it is established early on – Sam hardly believes what he preaches. Does that lessen his teachings? To discover the answer, multi-faceted as it is, you might want to pick this one up.

I am in awe of Zelazny, yet another of the SFF masters of old whose works will always hold relevance to our present. Lord of Light is a quintessential classic, and one you will be well-served by taking the time to read it. It will not always be easy…but it will be rewarding. This is my Sci-Fi read of the month, and I give it full marks, 5 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.

I rarely add a song to my reviews, but there is one that encapsulates the book and its protagonist in particular, in such an excellent way as to warrant it. The song in question is called “The Lord of Lightning” by King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard.

Binti by Nnedi Okorafor – Book Review

Published by: Tor.com
Genre: Sci-Fi, Afrofuturism
Pages: 96
Format: ebook
Purchased Copy: from Amazon
Awards: Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novella (2016)

Calvin Park spoke about this one over at one of the recent episodes of his Under a Pile of Books podcast; and since I’ve been trying to finish the last few squares for r/fantasy’s yearly bingo challenge, a book on the topic of afrofuturism was most welcome.

Sometimes, everything about a story is excellent – the voice, the worldbuilding, the protagonist – with the exception of one huge, glaring error, a detail overlooked in such a low-key manner that you might not even notice it at first. Then, once you’ve put Binti away, you pause, take a breath and consider.

That is when the final third of this 90 or so pages long novella falls apart.

But before I touch on this spoiler-heavy section of the review, allow me to offer credit where credit is due. Nnedi Okorafor’s respect for the culture of Binti’s people (which draws inspiration from the Himba people of Namibia) along with its infusion with mathematical knowledge make for a fascinating vision of a society both new and steeped in tradition. The way ideas such as mathematical harmony and “ancestral magic” as some call what Binti does, are presented, enrichens the world, and the internal conflict Binti goes through – between following into the footsteps of her ancestors and going after her own desires – plays out in an interesting way.

It’s an engaging read, which I finished in a little over an hour, having enjoyed many of the ideas within – some of them core tenets of science fiction.

Now, onto the SPOILER-filled part of my review, which illuminates the extent of the problem with Binti.

The Meduse, an alien species that counts itself as one of the enemies of the humans and has long warred with them, assaults a ship traveling towards Oomza University. On this ship is Binti, one of the dozens or even hundreds of students on their way to Oomza Uni. Out of all of them, only Binti and the ship pilot survive. Everyone else is slaughtered in seconds, all at once. Binti eventually manages to talk the Meduse out of their attack on Oomza Uni and comes to represent the aliens before the directorial council of the university. Together, they all come to an agreement that sees the stinger the Meduse came to Oomza Uni to reclaim returned to its rightful owner, and everything concludes with a peaceful resolution and the seeds of friendship planted between two old enemies.

So what’s the problem? Let’s look to the Meduse, and what they do here.

The following notion is a turning moment in Binti’s personal perception of the aliens: “Now I could never go back. The Meduse. The Meduse are not what we humans think. They are truth. They are clarity. They are decisive. There are sharp lines and edges. They understand honor and dishonor. I had to earn their honor and the only way to do that was by dying a second time.” That said, to ignore the fact that the Meduse killed a ship full of prospective students is ludicrous – and this is just what happens, when at the end of the novella, during negotiations, the professors of Oomza University agree to return the stinger of the Meduse leader on whose order the massacre is perpetrated; not only that, they demand one of the Meduse come study at the university. What of the slaughtered students? It’s as if they are forgotten by everyone involved – their deaths forgotten, too, by Okorafor, judging by the speedy resolution she offers.

Based on this alone, Binti, much as I enjoyed most of it, shouldn’t have won a Nebula award. This is a glaring mistake and though I’m very interested in the works of Nnedi Okorafor, to praise her work for such naivete goes against the spirit of science fiction. Look at Le Guin’s “The Word for World is Forest,” a SF Masterpiece which treats ; look at the conflict between terrans and the people of the Forest, and how it ends. When one side slaughters dozens or hundreds, there can be peace…but the kind of harmony Okorafor’s characters find after the shortest negotiations is an impossibility, which overlooks so much of the nature of humanity. Not the better part, perhaps – but a part of who we are, nonetheless. Voices should be crying out for justice and for vengeance; there should be words of righteous indignation spoken. But there are none – instead, there is harmony.

It is not earned. Binti’s growth and individual understanding of the Meduse doesn’t wash away the weight of what they have done. The stolen stinger, as fine a reason as it is to the culture of the Meduse for the perpetration of slaughter and the planning of a yet more grand massacre, is no excuse most anyone would accept. And that…that’s a serious overlook on the part of Okorafor, all the more shocking for the brilliant way in which she captures the culture of Binti’s people, and the work she does on the Meduse.

My score for this one is, regretfully, a 3 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami – Book Review

I keep returning to Murakami’s works, captivated by the prism through which he sees the world. His protagonists are a consistent type – alienated men, most often in their thirties. Something is missing in the lives they live, often to do with some personal tragedy in their late teenage years – in Norwegian Wood, it was the death of the protagonist’s best friend; in here, it is the fact that Tsukuru Tazaki is expelled from his group of friends soon after he graduates highschool and moves to study in Tokyo.

Tsukuru interested me – he sees himself as an empty container, a man with hardly any personality; that’s where the adjective in the title, “colorless” comes in. This is a lonely man, friendless, single, without kids. He hasn’t had a close confidant since university, when he befriended a younger man by the name of Haida…who is but one of the novel’s many mysteries without answer.

Sure, he’s had a few girlfriends but Tsukuru never truly connected with any of them – and nor did they connect with him. This changes when he meets Sara, a woman two years older than he, who penetrates his exterior and helps him realise he needs to work through the issues hanging over his head ever since his expulsion from the group.

This is a novel about reconnecting with the past and letting go of that which leaves the deepest marks; it’s about learning to overcome the shackles of past trauma not for someone else but for yourself.

I’ve lost friends. I’ve lost lovers. Precious, wonderful connections, which meant the world to me but for one reason or another, came undone. Those most intimately close to us have the ability to wound us the deepest, to leave a mark that might never heal – unless we seek help. Unless we find it for ourselves, whatever the form. For Tsukuru, it’s reconnecting with his friends, asking them the one question he couldn’t, sixteen years ago – Why? For you and me… Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage is a cautionary tale of what might happen if we let the wounds fester and turn gangrenous.

And it is plenty more.

Tsukuru isn’t just a sum of his trauma or his past unhappiness – he’s also a creator, his name holding the meaning of “to build, to make, to create”. His work as a railway station engineer is important, it’s beneficial to society and most significantly, he’s doing what he’s always dreamed of doing. Murakami’s protagonists are far from one-note – they’re personalities, and Tsukuru, much as he does not see it, is one too.

My score for this one is 4/5 stars.

“Never let fear and stupid pride make you lose someone who’s precious to you.”

The audiobook for this one was narrated by Michael Fenton Stevens, who does an excellent job.