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!

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/

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.

Month in Review: January 2020 at the Reliquary

Greetings, fabled followers, craven cultists, grimoire gnomes and blog butterflies! The first twelfth of 2020 is behind us and the eternal question must be asked: What the heck happened last month?

Here, at the Reliquary, not too much. Books were read, old posts revisited, humans hunted for spo–don’t know where that came from, to tell you right. Let’s see wot’s wot!

I read the best Fantasy Release of January 2020…

Even though I read none of the other releases of the month, I have to say, the Shadow Saint proved brilliant every step of the way. Hanrahan’s Black Iron Gods series has been a revelation, a celebration of the imagination, a wonderful journey into the dark and the macabre. Fascinating characters, deep lore, yet more impressive worldbuilding and truly one of the best character arcs I’ve come across in recent years. You owe it to yourself to read Gareth’s work. But if you’re still on the fence, you can take a glance at my review!

…And Caught up on one of the Finest Debuts of 2019!

Alix E. Harrow sure writes pretty. So pretty in fact that it’s easy to forget to come up with full sentences – The Ten Thousand Doors of January will leave you grasping for breath with the sheer beauty of its prose. It emulates a female bildungsroman; January’s ‘stream-of-consciousness’ offers a wonderful vessel to tell this most unusual story, with its great respect for words and stories and the Doors between worlds. Breathtaking.

My review awaits you here.

I Looked at Characters, and Found them Lacking, thanks to…

I am counting down the days – and books – until I have the chance to dig back into Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. A fascinating work, which does some very interesting things to the notion of character. I’ve spoken more about it here.

I Finished Catch-22!

With Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five behind me in 2019, I thought it was a good time to read the other great Post-WW2 anti-war classic, Catch-22. I have neither scored it, nor reviewed it yet but I was shook, you guys.I haven’t laughed at something this dark since Erikson and Abercrombie; the same sort of excellent gallows’ humour, mixed in with high stakes and a message at once fatalistic and hopeful.

“They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly.
No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.
Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.
They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.”
And what difference does that make?”

I Finally Got some K. J. Parker Into My System with Prosper’s Demon!

And what remarkable style he has. An excellent novella, I highly recommend it.

What’s Next?

Good question! There’s some Star Wars nonsense at work, presently – I’ll be writing a review on the audiobook of Ahsoka, which is nothing short of a real fun space journey with one of the most lovable characters of the Star Wars universe!

I’m also considering whether to post the notes I take on my study of “The Theory of the Novel” by McKeon – a massive side-project I’m undertaking as part of my bachelor’s. Not necessarily the most interesting reading for people uninterested in the in-depth study of literature but there you have it.

I’ve also got to work on a bunch of SPFBO content for Booknest.eu! I’ll be posting my review of A Sea of Broken Glass over there in just a few days; after, I’ve got interviews to prepare for all the finalists willing to chat with me about their books!

There’s yet more to come!

The Shadow Saint by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan – Book Review

Series: The Black Iron Legacy # 2
Published by: Orbit
Genre: Dark Fantasy, Grimdark, High Fantasy
Pages: 567
Format: e-book
Review Copy Courtesy of NetGalley

If you haven’t read The Gutter Prayer and don’t know if you want to, read my review of it here.

The Gutter Prayer was an exceptional debut – no matter how hard I thought about the story, I couldn’t find anything wrong with it! In The Shadow Saint, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan opens up Guerdon to all-new existential threats, which our cast of new and returning heroes are sorely lacking in preparation for; while some characters were dearly missed, their absence keenly felt at one time or another, the cast swells with memorable new names.

I spoke last time of how Guerdon was akin to a living being, a city of immense character equalled by Dickens’ London in Bleak House, for example; what I had not foreseen back when I first drew the comparison was that one of the major characters of the first novel would literally transform into a large part of the city. Following the Gutter Miracle which took place during the culmination of the first novel, Guerdon has undergone a transformation; the so-called New City is a triumph of one man’s will, an organism made of stone with a benevolent will of its own. But some things remain the same:

Feverish, pugnacious, the city is alive in a way she hasn’t seen since before the Crisis. She can almost forget that, less than a year ago, this square was besieged by monsters. When the gutters ran with blood, and the sky filled with vengeful gods.

Time and again, Hanrahan shows mastery over character voice. Eladora’s introspections are an academic’s curiosity through and through (I would know); the spy, meanwhile, thinks exactly as a spy would, studying every angle, observing every situation, looking always for an edge to gain on everyone else for his own purposes. His masks take on a life of their own, personas he puts on and then discards. Some stick, however, and this allows us to touch upon a topic of great interest to me – just when does pretense turn to reality? The spy’s point of view is masterful – not since Sins of Empire have I come across such a compelling shadow operative. And this one, with all due respect to Brian, would run circles around Michel. 

The Haithian, Terevant’s, way of viewing the world is that of a poet in a soldier’s uniform. I adored the story of this failed officer, a failed younger scion of the powerful Everesic family, as he sought to redeem himself in the eyes of kin and country, only to realize…but no, that would spoil something, wouldn’t it? “He dislikes feeling hollow. He wants to be on his way already, to fill himself with purpose.”  Terevant has a lot going for him, and his storyline is satisfying from beginning to end.

I took great pleasure in Eladora’s stolen moments of thaumaturgical studies, the magic system Hanrahan employs is interesting and costly to the caster:

She clenches her first, slowly, imagining the spell paralyzing a target, holding them in unseen chains of sorcery- but then she loses control, the magic slipping through her fingers. For a moment, her hand feels like she’s thrust it into an open fire, the unseen chains suddenly turned to molten metal, her skin blistering. A spell gone awry can discharge unpredictably – if she swallows the power she’s drawn down, she can ground it inside her body, risking internal damage. If she lets it go, she might ignite something, and this cramped backroom in the IndLib’s parliamentary office is crammed with papers and books.

But a little magic is far from the most interesting skill Eladora acquires. Her evolution through The Shadow Saint marks the best character arc Hanrahan has written yet and I look forward to seeing how it’ll resolve in the third book of the series. There’s a lot of her former teacher Ongent in Eladora – as much, perhaps, as the effects of the Thay blood she was so uncomfortable with, in The Gutter Prayer.

The spy – his endgame is such a good fucking mystery. I’m proud of calling his true identity about mid-way through. Still there was plenty to surprise me, and I wish, I really wish I could gush about how cool all of it is – but I dare not.

What I missed, more than anything else, was the active part the Alchemists’ guild previously took in the political and social life of Guerdon. The horrid Tallowmen are gone, and so are the other vat-grown monstrosities that so chilled and thrilled me and many others. A little something was teased out towards the end of the novel, to do with a certain alchemist who appeared  previously – which gives me hope that this most devious of players on Guerdon’s political board will make her return before all is said and done.

The Keeper Church, meanwhile, features prominently throughout. I, like Eladora, missed Aleena, the fuming, cursing, flame-wielding saint of the Church; the Keeper Gods have kept busy after her fall, and have made themselves a fair amount of crazy idiot saints. Fanatics, plenty of fanatics – and you’ll love to hate them, just as I did.

I appreciated what Hanrahan showed us of the world outside the city of Guerdon – the necromantic empire of Haith, a place in which the dead have long since outnumbered the living, once the greatest power in the world – now in retreat before an enemy that defies even their countless undead hordes; glimpses of Ishmere, with their mad gods, thirsty for ever greater expansion. Oh, and a cartel ran by dragons is a thing. Wicked, I know.

Supporting character, whether new or returning ones, left an impression. Politician and reformist Effro Kelkin makes a return after his miraculous survival, attempting to finagle his way back to power. I love the man, and this description encapsulates everything great about his character: “He manages to be simultaneously the wily old trickster who knows how to pull every lever and work every cheat in the system, and the firebrand who’s going to burn it all down and build something better…A better tomorrow, if only you’ll believe in him – and yourself. No guilds, no gods – just honest hard work, charity and integrity.” Great character, possibly born in the wrong world. Other supporting characters I cheered for include the Haithian war hero Olthic, brother to Terevant, who works to make an ally of Guerdon, no matter the results of the oncoming election; a career politician who switches affiliations faster than I switch hairstyles; Ramegos, a brilliant thaumaturgist whose knowledge is indispensable to the IndLibs and Eladora alike; and Emlyn, a child-saint whose story is intricately linked to that of the spy.

I continue to fall in love with this world and characters, the more I think about them. As I revisit the hundred passages I’ve highlighted for one reason or another, I am awed by the mastery Hanrahan shows – in quality of his prose, in the mastery of voice, in the deep worldbuilding he’s woven into this story of saints and mad gods. This is my book of January 2020, no doubt about it. My score for The Shadow Saint is 5/5 stars. The Black Iron Legacy series is worth every hour you’ll put into it, every minute. Every fucking second.

This review was originally published over at Booknest.eu.

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.