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!

Book Review: A Star Reckoner’s Lot

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Disclaimer: This book has been kindly provided by Darrel Drake for free, in exchange for a review. No one said anything about being honest but I wasn’t told to lie either, so it evens out somewhere along the line, I reckon.

A Star-Reckoner’s Lot has been an interesting ride, one that left me some strong impressions. Some of those are bad but I’m happy to say,  the good ones outweigh them by a…Lot! (Hah, I’m a comedian!) I’ll start with what bothered me and make my way down to all the good bits so bear with me.

The Bad!

The NarrationAt times, too distant. I would find myself losing focus, especially early on before I got more comfortable with the style. Furthermore, some of the word choices slapped me right out of the story and back to reality, which is always a pain!

The Beginning: The Start of this novel was a bit of a slog. The prose is somewhat difficult to get used to and the first few chapters come across as fragmentary and disconnected due to frequent time-skips. I could make the argument that the first chapter, which reads like a prologue and is from Ashtadukht’s perspective, isn’t necessary. I’m not sure there’s a single thing I learned from that chapter that I wouldn’t have learned from the next few — and that’s where I would toss the chapter in question into the bin.

The So-So!

Ashtadukht: Of the three main characters the book introduces us to, our sickly star-reckoner is the one I’m least fond of . Due to changes towards the last fourth of the novel, she’s no longer on my ‘firmly disliked characters’ category but I still found her behaviour towards her companions too close to despicable on more counts than I can let pass.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the changes she went through and I’ll always treasure the time in her drunken company. Her wit playing against that of Waray and Tirdad made for some great dialogue (read under Dialogue for more on that).

Tirdad: From all the characters in the book, this one best fit the shoes your typical warrior wears; a man of honour and war who doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty both with blood and with run-of-the-mill manual labour. I disliked nothing about him, or close to nothing but he never surprised me. Having read the synopsis to the second book though, I suspect I’ll be surprised by him quite a whole lot.

(Before I continue, I would like to underline that these are my personal feelings towards the characters. If I spoke about the quality of characterization, that falls under the ‘Good’ section. I am however very partial and refuse to hide it lest the court of public opinion judges me an agent of the Lie!)

The Good!

The Setting: What a unique, wondrous place choice of setting. I know shamefully little of the Sasanian Empire and after reading this I’m hungry to learn more. Of course, this being a fantasy novel, I don’t advise you to try and contest a history major’s knowledge with what you might glean from A Star-Reckoner’s Lot…but Darrell Drake’s love and respect for the period shows and resonates with ease.

Star- and Planet-Reckoning: I’m a stickler for interesting magic systems. Using the position of the stars to battle evil creatures of chaos (or the Lie, in this case) is a recipe for success, especially if you’re trying to get into my good graces! Planet-Reckoning I found even more interesting and I suspect it’s quite a bit stronger (certainly scarier)

The Cover: What a stunning cover this book has. Take a glimpse at it, if you haven’t already, come on! Truly a wonder; from what I understand, we have a Kickstarter campaign to thank for the stellar look–money well spent, Darrell.

Waray: This precious half-div egg-chewer is mad as bonkers, and I love her for it. She’s got it all — bloodthirst, a healthy craving for eggs and a deep-rooted need to belong and avoid being lonely.  It’s like looking into a mirror. On a serious note, Waray was my favourite character and the one I’ll remember for a long time to come.

Maybe.

Not my most structured review but there you go. A Star-Reckoner’s Lot is an interesting novel, one with a few hurdles that keep me from giving it an amazing five-star review on Goodreads but it well earns its 4/5 ‘Very good’ score. I’m also happy to award this my personal and very nebulous “Hottest cousin on cousin will they/won’t they action” award!

Would I re-read it? Not in its entirety. There are parts and strips of dialogue, which I would dearly love to revisit, however.

Would I read the next book in the series? Yes! Yes, I would. A few months from now, I’d love to reacquaint myself with this particular setting and follow along in the star-reckoning journey.

You’ll enjoy this book if you are:

  • looking for a different and unique setting;
  • into astronomy-based magic;
  • an Iranian from the seventh century A.D., wondering what’s happened with his beloved empire, trying to kick back and relive the old div-hunting glory days;
  • a div, probably. Your folks are represented a bit on the dark side but you’re evil monsters in service of the Lie, what did you expect?

There you have it! My mostly all too honest review of an exciting indie fantasy novel under the banner of the r/TBRindr, an initiative whose purpose is to highlight indie authors and their works.

 

Book Review: Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft

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(Minor Spoilers Ahead)

Senlin Ascends (review herewas an excellent first act in Josiah Bancroft’s fully realized and fleshed out world, with intricate characters and a number of mysteries which set the imagination on fire. Originally self-published in 2015, Arm of the Sphinx came to be re-released by Orbit this March, in preparation for The Hod King which is coming out in September 2018. After reading this book, I’m beyond excited to get my hands on it! That said, I’m getting ahead of myself and so, let’s jump right into the review!

Plot:

Picking up a few months after the end of Bancroft’s first novel, Arm of the Sphinx sees our main characters scrapping by outside the Tower, living the life of gentlemen(and women!) pirates, only taking a fifth or a tenth of whatever the cargo of their victims’ ships is. Not terribly efficient as far as piracy goes, with our daring airship crew often going to bed with empty stomachs and always on high alert. The enemies made in the last novel are nothing if not tenacious, after all, and although our heroes start off free and outside the Tower, the problem now is: how do they get back in? It’s a problem that gets compounded pretty early on in the story and in a funny way, too, but with some serious life-or-dead consequences.

In the previous book, Senlin ascended(hah!) through several of the ringdoms, starting from the Market at the base of the Tower all the way to New Babel, experiencing a number of the Tower’s hospitalities during the climb. Arm of the Sphinx cuts the number of ringdoms Senlin and his crew visit to The Silk Gardens, which continues the tradition of introducing strange environments into the greater whole that is The Tower of Babel. Other areas also figure into the novel, of course, but I won’t name them for fear of spoiling some of the enjoyment. Suffice to say, no small part of the novel takes place in the air outside the Tower itself and the crew dynamics on the Stone Cloud are a welcome addition!

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Themes and Characters:

The Arm of the Sphinx differs from Senlin Ascends in that the focus is no longer on Senlin alone. A number of PoVs now follow the rest of Senlin’s crew as well, offering us readers several different perspectives on how each of the Stone Cloud’s crewmates thinks and engages with the world and their peers. While I’ve immensely enjoyed my time lurking in Senlin’s head, the switch-up makes for a nice change of pace and develops characters I loved seeing on the sidelines in the previous novel.

The novel has a lighter tone than its predecessor, which is something of a plus. The oppressive start to Senlin Ascends and our protagonist’s inability to deal with the reality he found himself in didn’t quite make for light reading, back at the start of Ascends. A big part of this is the Stone Cloud’s crew, with Voleta deserving a special mention; she might, in fact, be my favourite tree-climbing, vent-crawling adrenaline junkie in all of fiction! Something about her, the way she enjoys her freedom as well as just how much she grows during the events of this second novel is absolutely wonderful.

What about Senlin’s character development? I’m as happy with it as can be! Senlin, occasionally going by the name of Captain Tom Mudd, continues to develop due to external factors while nevertheless keeping true to a unique philosophy about life and knowledge that no one else in the whole Tower seems to have. His choices serve to create a contrast between Senlin and everyone else while speaking of a moral core which equips him with the tools necessary to combat the Tower’s influence time and time again.

Something that deserves a mention, theme-wise, is the philosophy within Arm of the Sphinx. Books continue to play a key role and for all the right reasons; each chapter starts off with epigraphs from in-universe novels or diaries. A conflict this novel sets up is the dangers of education versus those of illiteracy — the literate man from outside the Tower can be naive to a fault like Senlin was at his journey’s beginning. At the same time, the lack of knowledge as to the ‘why’ behind the Tower’s existence is a great danger of its own. This is far from the only philosophical undercurrent of the novel, but I would be loathe to give up much more for all of you who haven’t had the pleasure to experience the mysteries the Tower of Babel offers.

Conclusion and Score:

I am unbelievably happy to say that Arm of the Sphinx doesn’t suffer from the expectations  Senlin Ascends created. I loved Arm every step of the way: the start, the middle, and the brutal ending which demands I pre-order The Hod King! This novel gave me the feels, as kids nowadays say. All the feels.

It’s a great second act which reveals a dozen mysteries and sets up many, many more. Arm of the Sphinx subverted my expectations, confused and thrilled me in all the right ways, never frustrating in a negative way. The language is once again excellent, the dialogue witty and entertaining to no end.

The score I gave this on Goodreads is five out of five stars!  I also grant this novel two out of two Sphinx arms, as well as a whole bag of steampunk-y devices and knick-knacks!

Buy it, read it, enjoy it, gush about it on the Internet. I just did, and I’m much the better for it!

 

Book Review: Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft

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I’ve had some trouble putting my thoughts in order where Senlin Ascends, the first book in Josiah Bancroft’s Books of Babel series of four, is concerned. This book is an excellent read, the kind whose characters live with you well after you’ve put it down for good. Perhaps Senlin Ascends is one of those rare novels which excel so completely at surprising and thrilling many of its readers that words all of a sudden elude you.

Then again, maybe it’s the sort of read you need a few days to process. And process I have. What did I come up with during those few days?

Senlin Ascends is an excellent novel that doesn’t fall into any one genre checkbox. We can spend all day discussing its Victorian influences and steampunk elements, but at its core, this is (the beginning of) a story of a husband doing everything in his power to find his wife.

Senlin is the headmaster of the only school in the small town of Isaugh, a man ‘at the edge of things,’ a man of reserved judgement who looks on his fellow residents as uneducated and treats them somewhat like children, to their mild disdain. He only recently married the beautiful, talented and lively Marya, described as:

Marya was a good match. She was good-tempered and well-read; thoughtful, though not brooding; and mannered without being aloof. She tolerated his long hours of study and his general quiet, which others often mistook for stoicism. He imagined she had married him because he was kind, even-tempered and securely employed. He made fifteen shekels a week, for an annual salary of thirteen minas; it wasn’t a fortune by any means, but it was sufficient for a comfortable life. She certainly hadn’t married him for his looks. While his features were separately handsome enough, taken altogether they seemed a little stretched and misplaced.

She played the piano beautifully but also brutally. She’d sing like a mad mermaid while banging out ballads and reels, leaving detuned pianos in her wake. And even still, her oddness inspired admiration in most. The townsfolk thought she was charming and her playing was often requested at the local public houses. Not even the bitter gray of Isaugh’s winters could temper her vivacity. Everyone was a little baffled by her marriage to the Sturgeon.

Not much time at all passes before Marya and Senlin lose track of one another, in the very foundation of the massive structure that is the Tower of Babbel, the setting — and, in a way, the prime antagonist — of this fantastic story. Senlin has had a deep fascination with the Tower for most of his life, having bought into all those books proclaiming the Tower of Babel the greatest accomplishment of humanity. Senlin’s trusted Everyman’s Guide to the Tower even describes it so:

The Tower of Babel is most famous for the silk fineries and marvelous airships it produces, but visitors will discover other intangible exports. Whimsy, adventure, and romance are the Tower’s real trade.
Ah, how wonderful it sounds, how exciting! If only reality were so…
Senlin’s obsession with the Tower will cost him, as its true guise is much different from what he’s imagined and read about throughout his life. His wife lost, Senlin is forced, after a period of dumbfounding shock, to begin his ascension of this great structure.
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Along the way, questions will pile up. Who built the Tower, and just what is its purpose? These lay on the wayside, however. More central are the myriad questions, which shove and prod Senlin at every corner, forcing the well-meaning but cowardly teacher to grow and change in order to survive and follow Marya’s trail. Despite the trials and tribulations in his path, what Senlin retains is a core of decency, compassion and the belief that the Tower’s destructive influence doesn’t necessarily erode everything good and decent in people. It’s this belief in men and women that forces them to do better, to meet him half-way.
Senlin’s growth, in fact, is one of the main reasons this novel pulled me in so thoroughly. It’s no small feat, making a likeable person look completely unprepared and incapable of dealing with a situation, to have all his positives turn into flaws to disastrous effect, only to see him realize all this and, step by step, rebel against it, becoming something of a charming rogue by the end. (Bit long-winded, that sentence.)
Mysteries abound in the form of indebted slaves called ‘hods,’ a terrifying gentleman monster playing at Dr Jeckyll/Mr. Hyde called Red Hand, four ringdoms, levels of the Tower, each under different authorities, built for different purposes, and so on.
Plenty of side-characters are to be found, all of them excellent. My favourites have to be Edith and Tarrou, the latter’s description:
A two-pointed black beard accentuated his iron gray mane of hair. He seemed hale and athletic for a man his age. Senlin was a little intimidated by the width of his chest and shoulders, though his smile seemed amiable enough. “And that is the dazed look of a man fresh from the monkey pen.” He gave an exaggerated shudder. “The Parlor is an awful place.”
The prose is nothing short of exceptional. Bancroft’s sentences flow easily and present a clear view into another world, a world that is sometimes beautiful, sometimes unspeakably ugly and nearly always bizarre. It will set your imagination on fire, both with its adventurous streaks and with the darker undertones Senlin Ascends is rich in.
In short, Senlin Ascends is excellent and well worth your time and hard-earned cash. It’s even worth your tiny sum of pocket money, if you make no cash what-so-ever.
I can see why it has as much hype as it got; I’m almost sad to have found it only now that a big publisher has republished the first two books and will soon publish the third (in September). Now that I’ve started, I can’t wait for the last two books of the series to hit the shelves!
The simplest way to make the world mysterious and terrifying to a man is to chase him through it.
In this, Josiah Bancroft certainly succeeds…even if Senlin Ascends doesn’t always feel like a chase, it’s one hell of a ride. There I go, mixing my metaphors again.
Thank you for reading this review! I’ll be back with a review of the second book in the Tower of Babel series as soon as I finish reading it! Now I’m off to read it!
P.S. Action scenes! Excellent bloody action scenes!
P.P.S. Six seasons and a movie!

The Unintentionally Helpful Villain Vol. 2, #01: Brother, Brother

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This is the Diary of High Imperial Supreme Sourceror, Sheikh, Sovereign, Suzerain and Ship Captain Maus. If lost and found, please return to:
The City (capital of The Empire),
0000, Imperial Palace,
Seat of the Empire,
Throne Room. Any of them is alright, really.
Upon return, you shall be rewarded, and promptly murdered for having touched this sacred artefact. Try not to bleed on it.

Diary Entry #001

I do enjoy new beginnings on occasion.

Sitting before my chained twin-brother in the damp, mossy dungeon of my newly refurbished castle doesn’t mark one of these occasions. He’s got a handsome face, I’ll grant him that but little else going for him. For one, he’s the brother set to rot in a nightmarish dimension of fairy tales come alive, which I reckon he deserves.

How do I reckon that? Having put him there, I doubtless had a fine reason for doing so. He’ll be back in his prison in due time, no doubt of it, and by Me, he’ll learn to enjoy it. Or perchance he won’t. At any rate, mine patience having grown short, I turned to the jailor and snapped my fingers at him.

‘Awaken him,’ I said.

The guard’s face slackened at the order. ‘I-I only puts them to sleep, master,’ he groaned under my gaze.

I sighed. Whose idea was it to cut on expenses and reanimate undead to use as jailors? The stench is pleasant enough, I’ll grant you that, but the shambling legions of rot-infested beings are hardly known for their ingenuity.

‘I suppose it can’t be helped,’ I said, and clasped the zombie with one hand. The creature seemed only mildly surprised as I held it above my brother and squeezed. Its juicy insides plopped over his hair and face. A piece of entrail staunchly refused to fall off him, like a bizarre amulet put on by a small child. Most of the grey rot tapered off, leaving not a spot on his bright white mane, not even on his beard.

How had he grown a beard? I never had a beard. Once glued on the beard of an exceptionally beardy, subsequently beardless, dwarven adversary. Wasn’t quite the same, and I suspected a number of my more cruel and oppressive generals for snickering while I had my back turned to them. Unfortunate to learn how they’d lost their heads later in the evenings.

You can imagine my surprise when they were found to have laughed at an entirely unrelated and military matter I’d heard nothing about. Paranoia is such a terrible weigh on my chest as of late,  I even suspect it might be a curse done me by one of my many viziers, advisers and court magicians.

‘How much longer must I listen to your ridiculous monologues, brother?’ said I. Oh, no, wait. That was my brother that’d just spoken. Permit me to do a little something to this here magical quill that takes my thoughts, actions and words into account and writes them down with– dontyoudaretouchmemausstayawayarghhhhh–

‘There, all better. The Quill has been mentally prepared to deal with your whining, brother,’ I (i.e. Maus, Dark Lord extraordinaire), said.

‘You’ve lost your marbles. Perhaps the last single marble you had, when you threw me in that happy little dream of yours,’ he said, scowling. ‘Is that a zombie gut on my head?’

‘It couldn’t be helped, place is full of them. And I didn’t lose my marbles. Look!’ I produced a marble from one of the hidden pocket dimensions within my armour.

‘You’re so bizarre, I swear.’

‘Takes one to know one, brother!’

‘Should’ve strangled you in the womb.’ He suddenly strained against the chains. His muscles grew taut as ropes, but the chains held. With a final huff, he relaxed.

‘An impressive, if useless display, brother.’ Looking down on him, I smiled. ‘Shall we hold counsel, as we once did, you and I?’

He nodded, grumbling.

‘It has come to my attention that I have a daughter.’ No surprise on his face. ‘You knew?’

‘Only you can forget your own kid, you mad basta–nope, forget that one. Of course I remember Alisha.’

‘A-lee-sha.’ The name tasted good on my lips. It felt right.  ‘I’ve been busy, what with defending against the Council of Wotsitsname and making moves to rob my enemies blind.
Good governing is a complex task I don’t expect you to know anything about.’

‘I was your chief governor, you wanker!’ Oh! Right. ‘And besides, I’m not going to help you look for your daughter. If she’s in hiding, it’s probably because of a good reason. Like, I don’t know, her father is a witless git!’

‘You’re one to talk!’

‘Who better?!’

I shut my mouth before fire escaped from it and burned him to a crisp. A deep breath and I began anew. ‘Fine. Talk all you want. But you will find my daughter, whether you want to or not.’

‘And just how do you see that happening?’ he asked, smiling that infuriating half-smile that should be mine, and mine alone!

I returned the smile as frosty as I could’ve made it.

‘I have set the curse of unicorns and puppies upon thine body, brother. If you don’t…’

His eyes widened in disbelief. ‘You would do this to me? To your own brother? You have turned cold, indeed,’ he said. His eyes studied me carefully, no doubt measuring me up, wondering how I’ve grown in power and what could be done to remedy his blighted situation. Whatever his conclusion, it didn’t please him. He broke the eye contact with a last heavy sigh. ‘Very well, brother. Let’s shake on it.’

‘Good, good! Welcome back to the fold,’ I said, ripping his chains off him.

As he got up, unsteady at first, I turned, walking towards the cell door. ‘Oh, and no more attempts to stab me in the back. I may not remember some things, important ones at that…but I’ll never forget your betrayal, brother of mine. And the next time you so much as lift a finger against me, your last prison will look like a dream resort.’

He said nothing to that, just looked at me.

‘Oh, and if you see any undead jailors here, would you turn them to naught for me? I’ve decided on expanding government expenditure, after all. I know, I know, beware of labour unions, but…’

Here, the Dark Lord chatters for several thousand words on policy and labour rights. The Quill would continue to write all this down, but…it doesn’t care enough to want to. Alas.

 

Thank you for reading, dear reader! I had way too much fun writing this, I swear, and time passed by very quick this time around. What’s next for the Unintentionally Helpful Villain? …Labour unionisation? Spoilers: Probably not.

And what about his brother? Find out in the Intentionally Unhelpful Villain, coming soon!

 

Book Review: The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

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Once upon a time, I read Half a King by Joe Abercrombie and was quite fond of it.

Half a King was a wonderful entry into the unique brand of subversive storytelling Abercrombie is famed for. It was a thrill to go through but now that I’ve read four of the six First Law books (the First Law Trilogy and ‘Best Served Cold,’ which introduced me to one of my all-time favourite female protagonists)  I can safely say, the First Law is what  food is to the prisoners of a Siberian penal colony!

You’re impressed by my uncanny ability to make up weird and frighteningly specific similes, I know.

Just before I begin the review in earnest, allow me to say…I finally read it! I’ve had this trilogy for a shamefully long period of time, without ever touching it for reasons that elude me and defy reason! With this out of the way…

What’s the Blade Itself all about? Ask our old friend, Homer, and he’ll give you an excellent answer: ‘The blade itself incites to deeds of violence*.’ See? Even Homer read The First Law trilogy. It’s that good! It incites even the temporal laws of the universe to violate themselves!

The world of the First Law will, at first glance, seem no more or less alien than any other epic fantasy world you might’ve explored. A great and wise Magi is to be found, a bloodthirsty barbarian fights for his survival, a cruel Inquisitor tortures both the guilty and the innocent for his own advancement, and a young nobleman and soldier prepares for a test of skill, which can see him become champion of the Union.

Dig deeper, and you’ll discover few things are as they first appear — Inquisitor Sand dan Glokta is a man deliciously cynical but to whom there is more than is readily obvious; Logen Ninefingers, a blood-thirsty barbarian by reputation wants nothing more than to leave that reputation behind; our young, dashing officer Lothar is as cowardly as he is pleasant to look at–and oh, how handsome he is. Even our wizard hides within layer upon layer, every one stranger than the one before it. The only character who doesn’t seem to go against my first impression of her was Ferro, the fugitive slave from Gurkhul, the Union’s Southern neighbour and favourite country to go to war with due to reasons way too complex and spoiler-y to explain here; and I quite understand a former slave wanting nothing more than to murder her former slavers.

Dozens of other characters, both likeable ones and absolute bastards are to be found within the pages of The First Law.  None lack in character, none come off as anything less than real human beings with their own motivations and goals, and those come off starkly in conflict with what our protagonists are attempting to accomplish. The conflicts can be very clear-cut, with impressive battle and chase scenes; other times, they’re much more discrete, happening during spectacularly written pieces of dialogue which may leave goosebumps all over your body.

Abercrombie’s battles deserve mention, both for the excellent description and the cost they exact upon the characters who take part in them. War is not without cost, regardless whether you come out on top and the author makes a wonderful job of illustrating what a toil war bears.

Possible problems you might have with The Blade Itself:

  • The plot moves slowly. I never once had an issue with that, because it didn’t feel like pointless build-up to me; exciting and interesting events happened throughout, but we did spend a lot of time in a single city, setting things up; totally worth it in my opinion, but some people are less patient and might not find it as enjoyable as I did, or at all.
  • You might not like the characters. But then again, that’s the risk with every book ever, so why am I drawing this out?!

The Blade Itself is a book about a few different things, and those work really, really well. It’s a character-driven story, a tale about a monarchy besieged on all sides by enemies just as all those enemies move to attack it; it’s a book that sets up one of the most subversive and genre-flipping stories I’ve read in recent memories; and it’s a treat of excellent worldbuilding that never once threatened to overwhelm or bore me.

Perhaps I was wrong to review it only after reading the entire trilogy and appreciating, in retrospect, just how well a number of mind-blowing events are set-up. If that is so — that’s my cross to bear, innit?

One last mention — the city of Adua, where a large portion of this book takes place, makes for a really awesome set piece. It’s majestic and beautiful, but deeply corrupt–three things I want in any city worth visiting! #visitAduanow

PS Yes, the cover above is from the audiobook version. I haven’t listened to it, so I can’t speak to the level of narration; the image was the most high-quality one I could find on the Interwebz.  Feel free to check the audiobook out, if that’s your thing, or if you spend three hours a day in a car, public transport or by train. Go trains!

Thank you for reading! I’ll be back soon with reviews of Before They Were Hanged and The Last Argument of Kings. If you enjoyed this review, please click that ‘Like’ button, and don’t be afraid to Follow me! Have you read the Blade Itself? Let me know what you thought about it in the comments below!  Go grimdark fantasy! Whooo!

 


*Quote in the Odyssey is from the beginning of book XIX , and is, depending on the translation, either For iron by itself can draw a man to use it’ or ‘Iron has powers to draw a man to ruin,’ both of which aren’t too far off from the quote presented above andat the beginning of The Blade Itself. It’s likely that Abercrombie mixed and blended the two translations, adding a bit of his own magic, which I’m all for.

 

 

 

Book Recommendation: Sun Wolf and Starhawk Book 1, The Ladies of Mandrygin

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Ah, 80’s era fantasy. An era much beloved by many and fairly disliked by some. To me, it’s a by-gone age with some great books that hold up really well, and some that…well, don’t. Either way, I’ve been going out of my way to explore this decade’s worth of fantasy trends, and–surprise, surprise– sword’n’sorcery is indeed a thing. And a wonderful thing it can be, but also a terrible one.

Where does Sun Wolf and Starhawk fall on that spectrum?… It’s mostly good. Bit anti-climatic to just come out and say so, I know, but it’s true!

If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you might recall how much I enjoyed Barbara Hambly’s Time of the Dark trilogy. She’s penned several trilogies and I intend to explore all of them, year by year until I’m all done with them, and The Ladies of Mandrigyn is the beginning of Sun Wolf and Starhawk’s adventures. It’s a good start, which nevertheless does a few things I didn’t enjoy. It doesn’t necessarily do them badly, mind you.

Sun Wolf is a mercenary captain, Starhawk — his loyal lieutenant. Sun Wolf is first described as an exceptional commander, a skilled fighter that has the ability to see demons. Starhawk is a cold and brutal commander in her own right, following in the footsteps of Gil (Time of the Dark main heroine) in terms of badassery, among other traits.

I was overjoyed to be reading about yet another mercenary squad — the enjoyment on this front soon disappeared, what with Sun Wolf getting himself kidnapped by a number of willful women who don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. The question? “Will you help us fight the immortal wizard Altiokis, who took over Madrigyn, our pretty seaside city, and also enslaved our men, and put them to work. We’d really appreciate it if you could give us a bit of a hand for a bit of coin!”

Sun Wolf, whose two rules of conduct are, “Don’t mess with magic, don’t fall in love,” says no to that and gets poisoned for his troubles. I’d hate to say ‘no’ to those ladies.

Starhawk, being secretly in love with the Wolf, goes after him, though she really has no clue where he went off to, what with his surprise disappearance. Her companion is Fawn, the Wolf’s pretty, young concubine, whose role isn’t all too important in this book. Wonder if she’ll reappear later on or if we’ll steer clear of the lass.

My problem with this book is that although the Wolf is supposed to be this highly skilled mercenary general — which translates to a cut-throat sunuvabiscuit who has more than a single vicious bone, he takes a lot of punishment and abuse from the ladies with a very…Zen Buddhist bearing, if you will. He’s such a stoicist — and he shows his disobedience for the leaders of the Mandrigyn resistance in the most stupid, tantrum-throwing way! It’s not that his character feels unnatural, it’s that the descriptions we get of him early on really have little to do with what he is, in reality. It bugs me.

Starhawk is fantastic, though. Sadly, she plays a less prominent part than does the Wolf. Nevertheless, the chapters with her as our PoV character caught and held my attention from beginning to end.

It’s a good book, with a few good mysteries and one of those moments where a lightbulb in your mind will turn on and you’ll say “Ah!” or, if you’re anything like me, you’ll laugh with sinister delight!

It made for a mostly enjoyable read. Not what I’d recommend if you wanted something to grab you by the throat and transport you to another world as forcefully as possible — if you want that, read Malazan or The First Law, or even Hambly’s Time of the Dark trilogy.

As to how the trilogy itself holds up, I cannot yet say. I’ll get back to it in due time, but I think I need something a bit more captivating first. Luckily, March has been rich on good fantasy. I’ve started working on Senlin Ascends, the first book in the Tower of Babel trilogy.

Working on? Pfft, reading is wot I meant! More’s to come, at any rate, in the following weeks. We are, at this point, back to our regularly scheduled programming, what with at least three posts per week — hopefully more, if I manage to squeeze in the time to write a bunch of stuff about graphic novels you might want to know more about! 

Top Ten Things I would do if I were a Mercenary Commander! (Fantasy)

  1. Work on my reputation. Mercenaries are, by far and large, despised for their tendency to, er, switch sides at the slightest bit of trouble. But there’s good money to be earned when you’re known for loyalty, ‘specially when you’ve got the employer to appreciate it.
  2. Never leave a job unfinished and a commision incomplete. Staunchness is best paid when you’re on the side on top, and the best way to win is to do your part and beyond.
  3. Strike hard, dirty and with finality. Because why wouldn’t brutality be the best possible course?
  4. Give my men freedom but not enough that they forget who they’re serving under. Mercenaries can be a nasty bunch, you have got to show them the stick every once in a while.
  5. Try not to get stabbed in the back by my lieutenants and/or employers. Should be pretty simple, right?
  6. Survive getting repeatedly stabbed in the back by traitorous employers and lieutenants. Even simpler!
  7. Avenge myself by going through with a lengthy, convoluted and extremely bloody plot that sees all my former lieutenants dead, my employers deposed of their influence, wealth and, preferably, their heads, and my position restored. 
  8. Discipline the troop and teach them that whole loyalty lesson they seem to have skipped on. A few might hang, a few might regret ever being born, but obviously, they need the lesson.
  9. Maybe stop working for hire and start working with myself, now that I’m known as the guy with the private army and the grudge-holding. Decapitating former employers doesn’t sit well with potential ones — who’d’ve thought it so?
  10. Use my head to make up for the one I cut off. The land is descending into chaos, I might as well make the best of it…right?

Book Recommendation: The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

I’m told you are a widower and have two young daughters, both pretty, both wild. 

Some books, you need to read.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler is one of those. It’s a complex detective noir story and a precursor to some of today’s most notable crime novels — Jack Reacher and John Milton(former assassin) both have some Philip Marlowe in their DNA, I bet my arse on it.

Marlowe is the kind of hard-boiled detective you want in your corner (unless you’re trying to hide something). The raincoat, the smoking, the sardonic humour and no-nonsense, get-to-the-bottom-of-it-no-matter-the-cost attitude; I don’t know if Marlowe was the first to pull this–now, typical — manner but he certainly owns it. (Side Note: I do believe he’s the original archetype of that role.)

This is one of those stories in which our protagonist gets involved in something bigger than what he signed up for. What should be a straightforward investigation into the disappearance of one man and the harassment of one of the daughters of Marlowe’s employer quickly becomes a whole lot more complex when a few bodies start stacking up with connections to a crime boss and General Sternwood’s other daughter.

I enjoyed this and consumed it in a miniature time span. It’s obviously a source of inspiration for many writers, not just those who’re working on thrillers, but on guys such as Jim Butcher. Harry Dresden shares a lot with Marlowe — both get themselves into trouble even when they recognize that the ‘smarter’ thing would be to, say, grab a glass of whiskey at the bar instead of sliding deeper in the muddy underside of LA, or ending up fighting for your life against a dark wizard who enjoys his pastime making pulpy juice out of people’s hearts.

The point is this: You want a noir thriller, something to get your blood boiling and throw you a few curveballs, you might want to pick this book up.

The Big Sleep will not disappoint.

 

 

 

Can’t wait for September!

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Look at this cover! A three-eyed cat! A woman who looks like the Lady! A man that has to be Croaker! A pair of kids, one demonic, the other — sort of nice, if you’re into that sort, and whatnot.

It’s dark, it’s stylish, it’s of great quality! Do the job! Get paid! Survive!

I’m beyond excited. So much beyond excited, I can’t even begin to describe it!

Gah!

Have an excerpt, which I totally didn’t steal from Tor.com:

The chimes turned orchestral as she stepped down from the carpet. A gust tossed her hair in streamers as black as her clothing, but shining. Her hair included several intensely scarlet streaks. A silver and lapis lazuli butterfly clip sat at the root of the boldest red stripe. She was as slim as a maiden but her face suggested past strains beyond those of any maiden’s years.

So, truth absolute. She was Taken. She had gone to the Tower. She had come out of the Tower a bespoke servant of shadow.

Nobody moved to greet her. Nobody doubted what she was, either, though no Taken had visited us in months. The Limper had been the last.

She turned my way, frowned slightly, then smiled just as the sun sneaked out from behind a cloud. Its light kissed her. Her face suddenly seemed coated with white makeup on which thin blue lines had been sketched. The light faded before I got a good look. Then I got distracted by the cat that ambled out of her shadow.

It was a three-eyed cat. You do not see many of those. It was as black as her hair. The rationally placed eyes were yellow, except when they looked straight at you. Then they became a pale lilac rose, and glowed. The third eye, above and between, was a slit visible only from straight ahead. It shone crimson for a moment, then purple.

Excerpted from Port of Shadows, copyright © 2018 by Glen Cook.