Book Review: Gifts by Ursula Le Guin

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I’ve been meaning to explore the great Ursula Le Guin’s writing for a few years, now. I always thought I’d start with Earthsea if not for a serendipitous occasion in my new university library thanks to which I stumbled upon this, a short 280-page first part of a trilogy by the name of ‘Annals of the Western Shore.’

The pages ran out all too quickly, almost as if the ink itself flowed within me as I consumed this tiny tome in a single morning. It took me…four, maybe five hours to finish from start to end. Time well spent, I assure you.

Gifts tells the deeply personal story of a young boy called Orrec, and his coming to terms with the deadly gift that runs in his bloodline, as well as his’ and his family’s place in the Uplander society. The Uplanders are a tough lot — different gifts run in the different bloodlines, and some of them are thoroughly horrific, like Orrec’s own family gift of ‘unmaking,’ which allows the gifted in the family to unmake creatures with a look, a gesture, a whispered word.

What Le Guin does with our protagonist (the story is told in the first-person view) is, she goes really in-depth inside the mind of a boy–a young man–who possesses such a dark and final power, and what the ability to kill with such ease does to him.

Loss and grief also play a great part in the plot, and in writing about them, Ursula shows uncanny skill and her own deep understanding of these complex themes.

No surprise there.

This work also examines the relationships between parents and children, between cultural gaps, and more. All the character work is nothing short of excellent, truly, and I am beyond excited to read more for that reason alone.

What I did dislike was a climax that felt somewhat rushed. The ending was all too sudden, and the resolution wasn’t as satisfying as I hoped it would be.

My score? 3.75 out of 5.

I didn’t know this was the first book in a trilogy until well after the mid-point, so maybe it’s my expectation that has played a trick on me, but there was enough I did not enjoy the handling of that I feel certain of my 4 star score on Goodreads.

You should read this book. Just don’t come into it expecting too powerful a climax, and you’ll find a lot to love.

Final Verdict: Journey before destination!

 

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

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Naomi Novik spins gold in this excellent new standalone novel, which perfectly captures the essence of Slavic fairy tales while doing an excellent job of turning the classical Rumplestiltskin tale on its heels.

Novik’s previous novel, Uprooted, was a 2015 favourite of mine. Novik’s love for Slavic folklore shined through. For the first time had I read an author who recaptured that very special feeling of magic and wonder which I hadn’t felt since those childhood nights spent listening to my grandmother tell Russian and Bulgarian fairy talesBeyond the nostalgia lay a very atmospheric, character-driven story that is well-worth the read. If you haven’t read it but would like to know more, I have a short recommendation for you! 

Uprooted left me wanting more of the same, and in Spinning Silver, I got it–and so much more. A fully realized story which goes down an unexpected road, with characters you’ll quickly grow fond of, a world covered in winter’s magic, and to top it all off…one hell of a memorable last line!

Naomi Novik went to great lengths to work on presenting the Jewish moneylender stereotype in a different light, and did admirable work with it. Antisemitism is a major theme in this book, and it is handled very well, owed to the author’s Jewish heritage and skill, both.

This novel contains six viewpoints, three major and three minor ones. All are told in the first person which isn’t anywhere near as confusing as you might think. That clarity is owed to the fact that Spinning Silver starts off with one character and introduces the viewpoints of the others at very logical points in the story. More on that later.

Miryem is the very first character the novel introduces us to; she is not only its first main character but also the engine of the story. She is a Jew, the daughter of a bad moneylender and the granddaughter of a great one. Without giving away too much, Miryem becomes a moneylender herself–and an excellent one at that. While collecting her debts, Miryem meets Wanda, the lone daughter of the town drunk and unknowingly gives her an ounce of freedom by demanding her father’s debt be paid with Wanda’s services as a maid.

Wanda sees the world in a simpler way than Miryem does. The language of her PoV sections is simpler, less colourful, as you’d expect from the daughter of a poor farmer. She is strong, though, possessing the kind of strength a young girl needs in order to survive her mother’s passing at an early age. I enjoyed her development. Some serious personal growth there, making this young lady a lot more likable by the end. Some of her scenes dragged along a bit but I hardly mind.

Irina is the third main character in the book, and she’s excellent. Her moral choices are delightfully gray and very clever, after a fashion. She too grows a lot — from the sole daughter of a moderately powerful duke with neither looks nor any great talent, to a powerful woman whose choices shape her very nation, and more.

Miryem is this story’s Rumplestiltskin, spinning coins of silver into gold not by employing magic, wink, but by her own wits and the occasional trickery. The road she goes down on isn’t an easy one, and it’s far from one her parents appreciate.

“My darling, my darling, I’m sorry.”
Sorry? To be warm instead of cold? To be rich and comfortable? To have a daughter who can turn silver into gold?
“To see you harden yourself to ice, to make it so.”

It’s a very powerful road Miryem goes on early in the novel, from a kind but starving girl  freezing every winter because her father can’t ever force himself to take a stand against his neighbours, those who owe him money; to a young woman who takes what she is owed, threatening and cajoling and bending the truth to get what she is owed and build off it, I loved her arc most of all.

Boastful of her skill, Miryem unwittingly summons unwanted attention; the Staryk, creatures of ice and winter, thieves and hoarders of gold, pillagers and even rapists. As luck would have it, Miryem doesn’t attract any old Staryk, but their king. He gives her three tasks, and a promise: To turn her heart to ice if she fails, or make her his queen if she succeeds.

See what I mean? Engine of the story.

Mild Spoilers Ahead:

I absolutely loved the character of the Staryk king, both at the beginning and towards the end of his appearances; I disliked only the parts where he acted like a petulant child. The Staryk culture, their home, their inhuman nature — I loved all those. I wonder if they are partially inspired by the Wild Hunt.

The Staryk came closer and took it from me. He didn’t pour the purse out: it was too full for that. Instead he dipped his hand inside and lifted out a handful of gold to tumble ringing back into the bag through his fingers, until there was only one last coin held between his white-gloved fingers, shining like sunlight. He frowned at it, and me. “It’s there, all sixty,” I said. My heart had slowed, because I suppose it was that or burst. “As it must be,” he said. “For fail me, and to ice you shall go, though my hand and crown you shall win if you succeed.” He said it as if he meant it, and also angrily, although he had set the terms himself: I felt he would almost have preferred to freeze me than get his gold. 

SPOILERS: The Miryem/Staryk story felt like a bit of a rehash of the Agnieszka/Dragon romance from Uprooted without packing the punch that relationship had due to a lot more ‘screen-time,’ if you will. I enjoyed it but it was the one thing in the novel that was familiar, expected and safe to bet on.

Speaking of descriptions, this book does them really well. All of them. I didn’t feel like any of them slowed down the story.

Spinning Silver transported me into its magical world; I read it for five hours straight only to fall asleep, wake up and finish it after two more hours. Truly the kind of book to miss dinner AND breakfast over. My recommendation? Read it. There’s so much packed inside — references and winks to so many myths, memorable characters forced to use their wit to survive, and loads more well worth experiencing!

It’s escapism, pure and simple, and magical to boot.

You’ll enjoy this book if you:

  • are an Ice Elf who’s looking to apply for a Wild Hunt scholarship;
  • are a lover of Slavic folklore;
  • enjoyed Uprooted and want something that captures the same feeling, while being very different, for the most part;
  • love good escapism;
  • and more! Prob’ly.

 

Book Review: Melokai by Rosalyn Kelly: The Good, The Bad, The Meh

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I received Melokai for free as part of r/fantasy’s TBRindr initiative, meant to popularize and highlight the works of independently published authors.

Melokai’s opening held a great deal of promise, which could’ve propelled the story forward. Unfortunately, this novel didn’t ultimately deliver on the promises made, both by its opening and its cover. Before I get down to the Good, Bad and Meh, I would like to state that this review represents only my opinion of Melokai. Although my opinion leans to the negative, many have enjoyed this world and the last thing I want to do is belittle the author’s labour in putting together this novel. It is my hope to provide what amounts to constructive criticism below.

With that in mind, let’s jump into the specifics!

THE BAD

  • Melokai Ramya: A novel lives or dies by its lead and the eponymous Melokai is not a character whose headspace I enjoyed sharing. She is often cruel–and casually so, for no other purpose than cruelty’s sake, best displayed when she orders an ambassador castrated and his tongue cut for being too presumptuous.
    Cruelty alone makes for an unlikable character but it’s okay for the main character to be unlikable, especially at the start of a novel. Gully Foyle was unlikable for a good portion of “Tiger!Tiger!”, and Senlin of more recent “Books of Babbel” fame also started off as unlikable, only to grow to be one of my favourite protagonists in recent years. No, what makes Ramya a bad character is the fact that I didn’t buy into her believability.
    Very early on, the novel as much as tells us this is a woman among women, a skilled and wise leader who’s led her nation of female mountain warriors for twelve years. The moment she falls for a savage, all that goes out of the window, in a time of crisis when her country needs her most.  I suspect it was the author’s intent to write someone conflicted between love and duty; execution falls well short of that. Ramya comes off as the main architect of her own destruction (and of everything she holds dear), with virtually all problems that befall her a result of her inaction. I can see the potential of this idea–I love seeing characters come undone under the weight of their mistakes(take for example Roland of Gilead, the protagonist of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series)–but the decisions Ramya made didn’t engage me in any meaningful way. The fact that very little happens with this supposed legendary warrior until the last few chapters doesn’t help.
  • The Dialogue: Too many characters read similar, came off as bland, and the choice of words didn’t fit the world of the novel.
  • Most PoV characters suffer from the same issues the Melokai does — they’re self-absorbed, never change or grow in a real, convincing way.
  • Gratuitous sexual content: I appreciate sexual content in novels when it has a purpose. A well-placed scene of the sexual act can be used to the benefit of a story — Joe Abercrombie’s “Best Served Cold” has an excellent scene which furthers both the inter-character conflict and the entire plot of the novel. Melokai’s sex scenes are often brutal and shocking while offering the plot very little of significance. Explicit sex content may be a mainstay in grimdark fantasy but
  • The Writing Style: Simple and too lean by far for my tastes.
  • SPOILERS: The ending, in which the Melokai, while fighting to save her beloved and her newborn baby’s life, decides to toy with a particularly grating princeling instead of cutting him down with the ease she’s able to. This scene had me fuming since it was the first time since the beginning of the book during which I was actively engaged with what was happening; until, of course, what little of Ramya’s personality I bought into was overwritten by something I can’t ever buy in the mother of a newborn — the decision to play with an opponent when she could’ve cut him down. 

THE MEH

  • V: The only human character I was interested in, V did not share all the problems I had with other PoV characters.
  • The Swear Words: Despite years of Pavlovian-like training under Brandon Sanderson and Brian McClellan’s made-up swear words, I still don’t find them particularly endearing. “Zhaq” did nothing for me, nor did the other terms.
  • The Wolves: Interesting but difficult to visualize at times.

THE GOOD

  • A great many good ideas: Though the execution is sloppy as I’ve discussed above, I appreciate what Rosalyn Kelly was going for.
  • The Worldbuilding: A nation ruled by women, wolves walking on two legs, cats speaking, these elements make for only a small part of what Melokai has to offer. I was interested in these different cultures and enjoyed learning more about them. The matriarchal society, in particular, was quite interesting to learn about, what with placing men in the position of slaves and worse.
  • The Cover: It’s the kind of cover that draws you in and awakens your curiosity. Whether the book delivered on the image’s promise or not, I can’t deny its a strong image, this one.
  • Adaptive People: People adapt according to their habitat. I don’t recall any explanation on how that worked, but it’s a very interesting idea.

The Verdict

I had a hard time finishing this book. Despite my initial enthusiasm, this was not the sort of grimdark novel I enjoy. Too much felt pointless to me. I enjoy grimdark not for the cruel and vile actions that this subgenre often employs, but for the way characters are shaped by and overcome all manner of hardships (if only to fail miserably at the end). Melokai didn’t offer any characters I found compelling; I appreciate the work author Rosalyn Kelly has put into it but I got very little enjoyment in my time with this particular novel.

Many others did, though! I encourage you to read through several of the four- and five-star reviews on Melokai’s Goodreads page to receive perspectives different from my own. Perhaps what they enjoyed will resonate with you more than my own views. And of course, the best way to make up your own mind is to read it yourself!

 

 

Book Review: Song by Jesse Teller

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This book was provided by Rebekah Teller in exchange for a review! I can’t recall whether it was supposed to be an honest review or a dishonest one, so I’ll trust my fingers to guide me towards the more preferable type.

Song took me a while to get through.

On one hand, Song has an excellent idea, a core concept that attracts me the way a swarm of flies is drawn to a mass grave. An ancient, powerful wizard by the name of Rayph Ivoryfist finds himself in a hell of a lot of trouble when his prison’s inhabitants break out of their cages, killing his friend and warden in the process. Rayph is hard pressed to gather a group of allies and trusted friends to go after these escaped villains and hunt them down like the rabid dogs that they are. A good fourth, or maybe even a third of the book deals with Rayph assembling his ‘Manhunters’ and getting the sign-off of the powers-that-be, introducing us to the major players and setting up the conflict and its players.

The book features a second PoV character, a man by the name of Konnon, whose story is a lot more personal than Rayph–everything Konnon does, he does it for his daughter. The girl suffers from some sort of paralysis, slowly spreading up her body until it reaches her lungs and kills her. Konnon happens to be a good man with terribly destructive fits of rage and an even worse reputation, and so his story takes us to some very different places from Ivoryfist’s more lofty goals from saving (the prick of a) king and country.

So what took me so long to finish what sounds like the sort of novel I’ll read for an afternoon with a cool glass of scotch, on the rocks?

For one, I never drink scotch in the afternoon. The bigger problem I had, however, was with the dialogue. Most of it is written very well…but almost always would there be a line or an exchange which read across as stiff and unnatural; stilted, in a word. Perhaps I’m in the minority on this account but this would often pull me out of the scene and put me straight into editor mode–which I have no business being in while reading anyone else’s writing.

These stiff pieces of dialogue bugged me–I couldn’t help but feel unique character voices become muddled and lost in those moments, which subtracted a lot of the enjoyment — especially when, very often, the novel delivers really epic showdowns between individuals terrible in their power. Individuals who quite enjoy wagging their tongues against one another, as much as their blades and some of those showdowns didn’t affect me quite as much as they could’ve, because of that particular issue I have.

Another small qualm I have is…for a ten-thousand-year-old wizard, Rayph sure weeps a lot! Several of the occasions on which Ivoryfist teared up didn’t feel like emotional enough moments to earn the tears of such an ancient and powerful being. A bit nit-picky? Maybe but it stuck out enough that it warrants a mention.

With this criticism in mind, let me state–this is my personal opinion, and it seems to be an outlier. A lot of my fellow reviewers’ words over at Goodreads praise the dialogue. Odds are, you might enjoy it, too!

Moving on to what I enjoyed!

The tone of Song is on the darker spectrum thanks to a few particularly brutal scenes. These didn’t bother me much but I’ve been through the Malazan-Black Company-First Law triad of mental, emotional and physical torture and my tolerance for horrid torture is pretty damn high.

I enjoyed the villains of the piece, one monstrous Julius Kriss and his lovely, lovely demon of a wife. Sadists, the both of them, and very much intent on torturing the living crap out of Ivoryfist. Kriss’ brutality makes for great stakes in the latter half of Song and his interactions with both main characters were intriguing to read.

The world-building was pretty interesting, very high-fantasy due to the sheer scale of creatures with whom Rayph consorts — demons, ethereal spirits, goddesses, and spies! I also enjoyed the fact that the book had right an’ proper cursing, storm it! Some of the relationships worked for me, some of them didn’t.

The pacing…I’ll have to go back to the stilted dialogue for this one. The way some of these problematic conversations are written, they’re written to get our leads from one point to another. Not enough time and attention is given to some scenes and interactions and a good bit of side-character interactions are shoved away from the spotlight with a few lines of unrealistic dialogue.

Despite this, I did enjoy Song. Enough to revisit Jesse Teller’s world in the following ‘Manhunters’ books. Enough that I award this book my very own, very prestigious “Best Eat-the-Wench scene in a 2017 grimdark novel” trophy! Along it comes a score of 3.5 out of 5 (going to round it up to 4/5 on Goodreads, methinks).

You will enjoy this book if you are:

  • into darker fantasy;
  • into ‘soft’ magic, i.e. the sort of magic that doesn’t have much of an explanation, rules-wise but does cool shit quite often;
  • into monsters, literal and figurative, there seem to be several of both kinds;
  • one of Rayph’s many, many mortal and immortal friends;
  • looking for a guide on how to be a really nasty, psychotic and sadistic villain or villainess;
  • a really old wizard looking for a guide on how to get in touch with your feelings despite your advanced age!
  • AND MORE! Prob’ly.

If you’re doing the r/fantasy Bingo, this book qualifies for some or all of the following (depends on how bad I mess this up!):

  • Reviewed on r/fantasy

  • Self-published

  • Less than 2500 Goodreads ratings
  • Novel with a one-word title (might be what I use!)

Thank you for reading! You can find this book on Amazon and grab it for about $5 for your Kindle, or $13 on Paperback!

P.S. I just noticed that the Amazon/Goodreads synopsis talks about Rayph having to protect king Nordac. However, in the book, the king’s name is Phomax. Is Nordac a family name, or is it an earlier name for Phomax? 

 

Book Review: Promise of Blood

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(Disclaimer: Some minor spoilers ahead.)

Brian’s Style

Promise of Blood isn’t the first novel I’ve read by Brian McClellan. That honour goes to Sins of Empire, which holds a special place in my heart as both the first flintlock fantasy I’ve read, as well as the first title I purchased because of a recommendation read on r/fantasy! I seem to recall getting my hands on Sins either on its debut date or just a few short days later but it was fresh hot!

I’m not just mentioning Sins of Empire out of melancholy for by-gone times; rather, I mean to venture into a small comparison. If you came to me, asking which of these two books to get, I would point you to Sins of Empire. The writing is better, the twists and the action more memorable. The beginning of McClellan’s second trilogy is an established writer’s fourth novel, where Promise of Blood is Brian’s debut. I like to think that most writers, as they continue working on the craft, grow in skill, find more and more distinct voices and Brian is an excellent example of that.

…Which is not to say Promise of Blood is by any stretch anything less than an excellent first act to what has proven to be an exciting trilogy, filled with some of what I love most about fantasy. What makes it so?

The Plot

Revolution, bloody revolution! That’s how Promise of Blood begins — with our trilogy’s main protagonist, Field Marshall Tamas slaughtering the Privileged Royal Cabal in their sleep with the help of his Powder mages, dethroning the rightful king  Manhouch, rounding up the nobility and cutting that lot’s heads off while a million men, women and children watch the executions in Adopest, the capital of Adom’s public squares. Enough blood is spilt that the executioner could drown on it several times over.

And that’s just the start of Promise of Blood, one of the flagship titles of everything flintlock fantasy is supposed to be. Fast-paced, action-packed and ridiculously easy to read, this book was a blast.

The Characters

Promise of Blood follows three main storylines:

  • Field Marshal Tamas’ attempt to build a working government with his co-conspirators while securing peace with the Kez.
  • Inspector Adamat’s search for answers — when the Privileged were dying, each and every one of them cried a certain phrase in death, ‘You can’t break Kresimir’s Promise.’ Adamat has his hands full in what turns out to be a more dangerous investigation than he imagined.
  • Taniel, the Field Marshal’s son, nurses his broken heart by going after his dad’s enemies along with a savage red-headed girl whose magic is entirely different and way scarier than anything else you’ll see in the trilogy.  Taniel and Ka-Poel’s shenanigans set up some of the most entertaining fights in the novel.

An additional plotline follows Nila, the laundress of a noble family, trying to save a young boy from his parents’ fate. It’s interesting but a lot less detailed than the rest of the plot; unfortunately it’s also the only female perspective, which is a pity since Vlora, who is one of Tamas’ gunpowder mage cabal, was the stand-out PoV in Sins of Empire.

Regardless, I loved these characters during their trials and tribulations. Tamas now shares in Dalinar Kholin’s title of “most likely older general to inspire me into fictional military service”. But Tamas is far from perfect — his past grievances with the Kez force his hand at a critical time.

The same can be said about Taniel. While a legendary powder mage, Taniel ‘Two-Shot’ is in a pretty bad place, psychologically, after two years of bloody war, only to return home to find his fiance bedding another man; the relationship between father and son is strained at best, especially considering some of Tamas’ orders later on in the book. Taniel’s addiction to gunpowder also grows worse as the book progresses.

As for Adamat, his storyline is a great way to get a bit of distance, a little break from all the Army and politics and it reads like an atypical Victorian detective story in all the best ways.

So many memorable side-characters — Olem, Lady Winceslav, Borbadeur; I could spend a good few minutes listing character names which’ll mean nothing to you since I ain’t spoiling any more than Ihave already.

The Magic System

The Privileged are this setting’s elemental sorcerers, men and women capable of touching the Else with their hands, each finger connecting to one of the four elements and the thumb for the aether (which, I’m told, some of the Ancient Greeks were crazy about!).

Gunpowder mages, while nowhere near as potent as the Privileged, gain enhanced senses when they snort or taste gunpowder charges. Where they lack in power, they make up for in reach and alacrity and the added benefit of being able to deflect bullets, force gunpowder to explode from a certain distance with their minds and all that.

There’s also lesser magic manifested in individuals called Knacked, who possess certain talents (or Knacks), like Olem, for example, who doesn’t need to sleep, or Adamat, who remembers everything he’s ever seen. And neither of them are insane because of these magical abilities!

Sanderson himself has praised it as a good magical system and I thought it read great. There’s plenty of depth as well, as the novel progresses — and the next two books in the trilogy add a lot to make the magic systems feel even more distinct.

Closing Thoughts

‘The Age of Kings is dead…and I have killed it.’

This is an excellent novel, which begins with a promise of blood and delivers through and through. Whether you’re following Tamas’ decisive dealings against internal and external threats alike, Taniel’s chasing around of dangerous targets or Adamat’s investigations, there’s plenty to be loved about this first part of the Powder Mage trilogy.

Will I reread this? You bet! 

The Verdict? Buy it, Read it, scream at your dad angrily until he caves in and reads it too. It’s what I did.

How about the score? It’s a five out of five on Goodreads and it bags the ‘Most Promising to Deliver Loadsa Blood’ trophy!

You’ll love this bloody, bloody book if you’re into:

  • violent revolutions eerily reminiscent of the French revolution;
  • Angry, angry mages doing loads of damage with their fingers and/or guns and sharp objects;
  • Fast-paced reads which suck you in all the way;
  • loads of blood, really;
  • Political intrigue, subterfuge, betrayal and more! Prob’ly.

To close this off, the reason behind me reading this first trilogy of Brian’s is to celebrate the release of Wrath of Empire, Sins of Empire’s follow-up and the second book of his sequel trilogy in the Powder Mage world. I’ll soon post the reviews of the second and third books since I read them both for two consecutive days (and what joy that brought me!) but the end goal is to review McClellan’s newest novel, and hopefully his best yet!

Thank you for reading!