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!

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/

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.

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.

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

This review was originally posted over at booknest.eu.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Devil’s Apprentice by Kenneth B. Andersen – Book Review (Ultimate Blog Tour)

I make a game of the collection of Hells.

Stay with me, I’ll explain. Ever since I was but a young ‘un, I’ve been fascinated by the numerous depictions of the underworld in its myriad religious and…not quite, forms. You give me a TV series like The Good Place, and I’ll have fifteen essays’ worth of ideas about the not-quite-good-at-all place. You give me a game like Afterparty, and I’ll gush for ten minutes, at the bare minimum, about how cool its clock-in/clock-out, exhausted-torturer-demons-in-need-of-a-drink premise is. You give me Dante’s Inferno, and I might really get into Italian for four weeks and memorise a bunch of lines at the age of thirteen, which no non-Italian thirteen year old should know.

And don’t even get me started on Disney’s Hercules.

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When my bud Dave of @TheWriteReads fame offered me a part in this Ultimate Blog Tour(TM, prob’ly), I was instantly hooked. Instantaneously. Momentarily. Without delay, I said to him, I told Dave, “Dave, I’m hooked!” Then I promptly deleted that email, it sounds way too unprofessional, don’t it, and I says to him, I sez, “Sure, I’m in.”

Because I’m cool like that.

So how’s this novel? How the HELL is it?

I quite enjoyed it. This is the story of Philip, or as I like to call him “Filip spelled with an uneccessary Ph-” but that’s only my personal lifetime of grievances being aired out again. Where was I?

Ah, yes.

Philip is a good boy, a really good boy, who accidentally gets sent to Hell to become the Devil’s heir. The Devil, Lucifer, is dying and desperately in need of a successor, but there’s been a mistake and Philip is the wrong boy. Philip is terrible at being bad, but Lucifer has no other choice than to begin the difficult task of training him in the ways of evil. Philip gets both friends and enemies in this odd, gloomy underworld—but who can he trust, when he discovers an evil-minded plot against the dark throne?

I enjoyed my time with The Devil’s Apprentice, partly because of the author’s iteration of Hell and partly because Philip and the supporting cast were enjoyable to read about. 12 year old Philip’s struggle to get better at being bad is as hilarious as my attempts at being social during the same age – although he really hits his stride in a matter of days, where I hit mine in…four, five years? What drives Philip to evil? A smitter of jealousy, a sprinkling of envy and — oh yes — a generous helping of manipulation! But fear not, for kids like that can’t do evil right, not for long. I mean, of course, kids whose names start with ‘Ph-‘ and not ‘F-‘, the poor wee buggers. Thank the celestials that he’s got a few demonic influences like Satina, a young temptress devil(ess?) who aids the recently deceased Lucifer-to-be in finding his evil footing. Is there a better thing to learn to lie for than for love?

There were some red herrings, a few mysteries that came to a squeaky clean resolution, and a hero’s journey that is as Campbellian as they come.

While not my usual cup of tea, I appreciate this novel for several reasons, the biggest of which has to do with the fact that it’s very much a child-friendly fantasy book, which has plenty to say about good and evil. The carmic balance doled out in Hell is what I was most fond of — the faces of those who stepped on others in life are used as pavement for the denizens of the underworld, those who have killed themselves spend eternity digging graves and being buried in them AND grave diggers dig those out. On and on goes this hellish torment, tinged with irony. Far from the most original rendition I’ve come across in my time as the Hells’ most avid connosieur but I liked it nonetheless.

Hell, I might read this one to my kids, as soon as they begin to form in their infernal, as of yet unknown, mother’s womb.

My score for this one is a 7.5 out of 10, which I’ll bump to 4/5 stars on Goodreads, since I (nearly) always round up and not down, especially when I enjoy my time with a book, as I did with The Devil’s Apprentice. I might even pick up the next volume, if given half the chance!

The Dragon’s Banker by Scott Warren – Book Review

Originally posted over at booknest.eu! The review below is an annotated version.

Published by: Scott Warren (Self-Published)
Genre: Fantasy (Economic Adventure!)
Pages: 255
Format: e-book
Review/Purchased Copy: Provided through NetGalley, in return for an honest review.

Sailor Kestern is a fine banker in an unenviable position. His former client, a nobleman by the name of Brackwaldt, has it out for him and that’s made business difficult. So difficult in fact, Sailor’s prospects in the capital of Borreos are looking increasingly forlorn. Gates are shut in his face, trade routes are blocked for him, human shipmasters refuse to work with businesses that so much as associate themselves with the Kestern banking house.

Even with this one major issue at hand, it’s an exciting time to be a financier and Sailor isn’t one to shy away from a challenge. The Royal Mint is driving a major initiative on behalf of the Crown, introducing paper currency and hammering it into the economy with all the strength an institution has in wielding hardcore monetary policy. Adam Smith’s invisible hand?  Pfft, please, Borreos has one Darrez Issa, financier extraordinaire, who looks over the interests of the Crown with an eye sharp enough to make even an eagle jealous. A man like Sailor has a healthy dose of awe for the queen’s financial advisor, and the good sense to stay away from him after the last time the two crossed paths.

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

One aspect of this novel won me over, and it’s a specific reading of the novel that I will now expand on:

At one level of The Dragon’s Banker, there’s a critique of capitalism’s ceaseless chase of profit maximization. Though avaricious, Sailor never has the amassing of riches as his personal goal. For him, money is most valuable for what it can do for people. In that way, what could’ve been a cynical take on banking is instead a subversive work of fantasy well worth the read for that angle alone.

Sailor Kestern is a humanist – and that, I think, is the greatest triumph of The Dragon’s Banker. This banker, the only one worthy of representing the interests of the most avaricious creature of all, the dragon, ultimately differs from his cold-blooded patron in the following way – money isn’t an end goal for him. It is merely a tool.

To me, The Dragon’s Banker is a 4.5/5 star read. I enjoyed it immensely, partially because of my background, partially because of my reading of it as a critique on some of the woes of capitalism. It’s my firm belief that you’ll find plenty to love within these pages.

As for me, I am curious to see what else Scott Warren is capable of.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

I’m happy with the progress I’ve made with Haruki Murakami’s books over these last few months. Kafka on the Shore in May, Norwegian Wood in September and just this last week, What I Talk About when I talk About Running. The last is freshest in my mind but I’ll contain myself and instead turn to Norwegian Wood, the title inspired by the Beatles song of the same name. It also happens to be the work that really shot Haruki Murakami to fame first in Japan and later internationally.

Norwegian Wood is a love story and it’s about overcoming grief, and it’s about those first coming of age years after you leave home, quite uncertain about what comes next, the direction you’re supposed to take as the world begins to mold and pressure you in ways outside of your control. It’s easy to lose yourself — something that main character Watanabe manages at one point in this novel.

Let’s look at it as a love story first, shall we? It’s sweet and sexy and tragic enough that you might just tear up by the end of it. Bittersweet but hopeful – that’s how I’d describe it in three words, were I forced to do so.

As a side-note, I would ride on the bus, listening to the audiobook more than once, when a ridiculous, steamy sex scene started up. You know, these are the moments when you’re not quite certain whether you should be grinning or blushing or pressing ‘Pause’. Say one thing about that, say it was funny.

What about dealing with grief?

Toru Watanabe, the protagonist from whose PoV the novel is told, loses his best friend Kizuki. Kizuki kills himself on his 17th birthday and this marks Watanabe for life — as it would most of us. Another, Kizuki’s girlfriend, Naoko, is as affected by his suicide as Watanabe; perhaps more. Years later, Naoko and Watanabe reconnect and fall for each other but Kizuki’s shadow never fully clears between the two. Unable to cope, Naoko eventually ends up in a sanatorium, doing her finest to piece herself back together.

Some of the characters are unforgettable. Maybe not their names – I forget names easy enough – but the personalities will stay with me. Nagasawa is Watanabe’s exact opposite — driven and ambitious, and far more cynical than our protagonist, Nagasawa is in many ways Toru’s foil. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, the two become close friends…although Watanabe never allows Nagasawa into his heart the way he let Kizuki in.

I was partial to Midori, an older woman in the same sanatorium as Naoko. As Nagasawa is to Watanabe, Midori is a foil to Naoko — though burdened by her own demons (her story is perhaps the highlight of Norwegian Wood for me) Midori has strength, the presence of character necessary to survive and perhaps overcome all that placed her in the sanatorium. Midori’s a guitar player, a concert pianist and totally the coolest, yo! Very flirty, too, which gives rise to some hilarious exchanges between her, Watanabe and Naoko, who also happens to be her roommate and dear friend.

This isn’t the best Murakami book I’ve read, nor is it my favourite. I’d live these honours to Kafka on the Shore and Dance, Dance, Dance, respectively. But it has a certain appeal to those who know a little of loss and pain and love, and I am certain some of you will be well-served by reading it.

I straightened up and looked out the plane window at the dark clouds hanging over the North Sea, thinking of what I had lost in the course of my life: times gone forever, friends who had died or disappeared, feelings I would never know again.

The opening paragraph of Norwegian Wood.

My score for this novel is 4 stars. There’s plenty you can get out of it — but it’s not a book for everyone. Stay away if you can’t handle suicide and depression in your fiction – leave me a comment down below with your preferences, and I’ll point you to another one of Murakami’s novels, instead. If you’ve read any of his previous novels, there’s a chance this one’ll surprise you — it lacks many of the eery, magical realism and even surrealism that’s typical for most of his other works.

The audiobook narration by John Chancer was enjoyable – no complaints there, he distinguished between the characters and delivered an excellent performance.