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.

Darkest Dungeon In-Depth: The Crimson Curse DLC Isn’t Too Great

A hundred and forty hours spent playing the Darkest Dungeon, and at least half of them spent in putting out the horrors caused by the inhabitants of the Crimson Curse DLC. Great boss design, fantastic new class – the Flagellant — and beautiful character/environment art do not make up for the infuriating amount of grief that the Blood causes. Awful, awful mechanic.

But I’m done with these videos — I only have to put them all together and upload the completed version, and that’ll be the end of it. To tell you the truth, Reader, I lost some of my enthusiasm towards Darkest Dungeon — even so, I did my best not to let that show in these last few videos.

Sharp Ends by Joe Abercrombie – Book Review Excerpt

This review is posted in full over at booknest.eu! It’s my longest ever review, and I’m wondering whether to publish each of the short stories as a separate blog post over here at the Reliquary. What do you think?

Anyway, here goes:

Abercrombie’s prose is exceptional. His First Law novels are as successful as they are not only because of the unforgettable characters and the breathtaking twists, or because of the brutal world he’s created, one of the sheerest bloody realistic depictions of a world I’ve ever encountered. He’s one of my favourite authors, and for good reason – I’m not pledging to be impartial, but I will do my best to contain my enthusiasm over the next few paragraphs! Okay, lots of paragraphs. Lots and lots of paragraphs.

I’ll say a few words about each of the short stories in the collection, starting off with whether it’s recommended or downright necessary to have read any of the First Law stand-alone novels to get what’s going on.

A Beautiful Bastard

Colonel Sand dan Glokta is a bastard. To anyone who’s read the First Law trilogy, that’ll come as no surprise. He’s a damn likable bastard too, owing to the fact that he tends to wax poetical about life and it’s many and terrible injustices, which Glokta goes on to perpetrate in the course of one of the finest fantasy trilogies. A Beautiful Bastard is before all that, before the Gurkish got their hands on the finest fencer of the Union and ruined his body. Hours, if not minutes before, to be exact – this story takes place on the day when Glokta’s self-aggrandizement leads him to lead a doomed defense on a bridge being overrun by the Gurkish.

The story draws you in quickly enough, and then it thrashes you around with one of the finest descriptions I’ve ever read:

But Glokta was an utter bastard. A beautiful, spiteful, masterful, horrible bastard, simultaneously the best and worst man in the Union. He was a tower of self-centred self-obsession. An impenetrable fortress of arrogance. His ability was exceeded only by his belief in his own ability… Glokta was a veritable tornado of bastardy, leaving a trail of flattened friendship, crushed careers and mangled reputations in his heedless wake. 
His ego was so powerful it shone from him like a strange light, distorting the personalities of everyone around him at least halfway into being bastards themselves. …most committed followers of the Gurkish religion were expected to make the pilgrimage to Sarkant. In the same way, the most committed bastards might be expected to make a pilgrimage to Glokta. …He had acquired a constantly shifting coteries of bastards streaming after him like the tail after a comet.  (5-6)

This is exactly the kind of Abercrombie prose that shines and glitters on the page. The ironic undertone, the sheer emotional charge of it; and at the end of the day, it encapsulates his character at this point in time so well.           

And of course, if the description wasn’t enough, Glokta finds a perfect way to show how much of a spiteful bastard he is to the only true friend he’s had, Goleem West, who just so happens to be one of the finest side characters Abercrombie wrote in the original First Law trilogy. Oh, and there’s Corporal Tunny who will be known to anyone and everyone familiar with The Heroes. He’s the best. And the worst.

This story was the perfect kick-off to an anthology filled with Abercrombie. My score for A Beautiful Bastard is 4.5/5 – because it’s the perfect comfort food of First Law stories, because the style and voice and prose are as sharp as the pointy end of Glokta’s steels but it doesn’t add any new, unknown dimensions to the tried-and-tested Glokta mix.

Small Kindnesses 

Do I need to read any of the standalone First Law novels to get what’s going on? Nope, this one is quite alright with First Law trilogy knowledge, or even without it!

“Small Kindnesses” introduces us to Shev, a thief of great skill and some renown, and to Javre, The Lioness of Hoskopp. A young Severard (one of Sand dan Glokta’s right-hand men) makes an appearance too, though it’s hardly something more than a cameo. Shev’ though barely entering her twenties, is already tired of the thieving life and is actively trying to get out of it when, of course, the local crime lord’s son has to drag her back into it. So Shev does a job – and she does it fairly well, top marks for the way the action scene is written and for Shev’s crabby luck – but some people just aren’t happy at all with what they get, and our thief ends up in a tight spot. There’s a lot going on in here, and Javre and Shev have incredible chemistry as soon as both are on the page together and conscious. 

What’s even more excellent is, the story of Shev and Javre doesn’t end here – no, this is just the beginning of some of the wackiest adventures in the First Law universe! We’ll get back to them when we get back to them. 4.5/5 – because I know how much more hilarious the pair’s adventuring is about to get.

A Pair of Quick Mini Reviews

Hullo, followers! I’ve been meaning to get a pair of non-fantasy novel reviews out of the way, so here goes! But before I go all non-fantasy on y’all, I just finished a wonderful staple in early 20th century fantasy classic and I’m going to say a few words about it as well! #everythingiscontent

The Sword in the Stone by T. H. White

At last, I come across the work of famed English author, T. H. White! And this, the first book in his Arthurian tetralogy, was a delight. The Sword in the Stone sold me on White’s version of the Arthurian mythology due to two chief reasons – the humour and the characters.

The humour is anachronistic – thank Merlyn! Merlyn, who lives life backwards to everyone else, has such items in his hut such as a weapons rack brimming with modern weaponry, as well as degrees from all of Europe’s leading universities! He decries the state of the European education system in pre-Arthurian times quite a lot, he does, wot wot.

As for the characters, they are full of heart, good cheer, and no small amount of silliness, too! Take King Pellenor, for example, a ridiculous monarch with no land, no armies, not even a bed! He, however, has a task he unfailingly pursues, and that’s to search for the (terrible, question mark??? ) Questing beast. To our young protagonist, Arthur (affectionately called ‘The Wart’ by everyone in his foster father, sir Hector’s domain), King Pellenor is jolly good fun. The two become fast friends.

The Wart is wonderful, filled with that thirst for adventure that you just need to have in any proper Arthur! I’m looking forward to seeing what he’s like as a king in the next three novels!

I listened to this one as part of “The Past and Future King” audiobook, as narrated by Neville Jason. Wonderful, excellent work imbuing the characters with life!

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

Spoilers for  “Of Mice and Men” below.

How do you talk about a classic novella such as this one?

This one is about the friendship between two men, George and Lennie, childhood friends. George takes care of Lennie, who, although a large and inhumanly strong man, has the innocence of a child, and a child’s understanding of any given situation he is in. Terrible strength is, in this case, a curse.

I’ll not retell what happens, and I won’t shy away from the plot points – “Of Mice and Men” is a tragic story that presents the world as it was (and too often still is), cold and uncaring towards those who are born different and lacking what society deems as normal. Lennie’s child-like fear and actions is the engine that propels the story forward,  forcing George and him to move from town to town, and ultimately forcing George to eutanise his friend. You understand why he does it, and whether you think the novella itself is good, great or not worth a damn… It’s heartbreaking. It’s tragic. And it’s an act of love.

Marx the Humanist by Muriel Seltman

I came across Muriel Seltman’s “Marx the Humanist” by accident while looking through the many, many different sections of NetGalley’s offerings. As an English Studies (Literature) bachelor’s, I’m interested in all sorts of different ideologies, anything that’ll give me a greater understanding of what moves human beings from a societal and ideological viewpoint. When it comes to Marxism, I know a fair lot more than about, say, libertarianism, because come from a family at least partially socialist. Or communist. Or Marxist. Honestly, it’s complicated.

Seltman’s novel gives an easy introduction to Marx’s ideas while also offering a thesis statement in the very title. “The Humanist” is broken down into four chapters, an appendix and an epilogue; the chapters first give a basic introduction to Marxism, through direct quotes from many of Marx’s works like “The Capital” and “The Communist Manifesto” co-authored with Engels. In addition to these passages, the author gives additional context or furthers certain arguments, to mixed effect.

It’s far from the most persuasive piece of historical (sociological, humanist) non-fiction I’ve read. Seltman too often abandons any attempts at convincing non-believers and nay-sayers, instead singing Marx’s praises into what, at worst, felt self-congratulatory. Some of the author’s arguments didn’t go far enough, either. It seems like Seltman couldn’t find a good enough balance between quoting passages and commenting on their own.

This is a good introduction to Marx’s ideas, thanks to well-chosen quotations, and a decent text by Muriel Seltman. Not quite 3 stars, not quite 4 — my score is 3.5/5 stars. Thanks to NetGalley and Troubador Publishing Ltd. for providing me with a review copy. Opinions are solely my own.

Excitement OVERLOAD! – July Edition

GAAAAAAH! Hello! I’ve been thinking about what book I’m most excited to read next, and it’s actually not a difficult decision at all.

It’s funny, too, because I’m reading Abercrombie’s Sharp Ends right now and rather than sate my appetite, this short story antology set in the First Law universe is making me all the more excited.

A Little Hatred picks up in the familiar world of the First Law, decades after the conclusion of our first trilogy, with a generation of new and, I assume, deeply flawed characters who will be coming into conflict with all-new threats to the Union. We’ll see familiar faces like Sand dan Glokta, King Luthar the Not-So-Blond-Anymore and who knows who else! Are you excited, I’m excited, me, me, me!

Joe Abercrombie’s writing only gets better and better and I am so looking forward to all the delightfully horrible ways in which this latest bloody book will blow my mind. No one writes quite like he does and I can never get enough of his words. They’re downright divine, if you ask me!

It’s coming out in just over a month and a half, on September 17! Who’s aboard the hype train with me?!

Inspired by Lynn’s Book Blog, and this blog post, in particular.

Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett – Book Review

What you’ll get from a Terry Pratchett novel often corroborates to the work you put into reading it. If you’re looking for witty entertainment and humour, you’ll find them in spades, on the outermost layer of virtually all of his novels. When you dig in, there is so much more. Take Men At Arms, for example.

Pratchett’s fifteenth Discworld novel is about the dangers inherent to possessing power, in this here novel in the role of “the gonne”. It’s about racial conflict and how senseless it is. Prejudice, too. (Trolls are guilty. What for? They’re trolls! They’re guilty of something!) It’s about wolves, how they are, and how dogs think they are. It’s about a man who loves his job and feels like he has to give it up in order to be something else, and the lesson he learns.

But at the end of the day, it’s about another man, a simple man, a man trying to sell his sausages at prices that might as well be cutting his own throat.

For Captain Samuel Vimes, things are changing. Commander of the Night Watch, going through his last days on the force before his wedding to the richest noblewoman in Ankh-Morpork, Vimes is understandably a wee bit out of it. But fear not, the good old captain still has a few tricks left up his sleeve. Some of his story beats were delightfully subversive to ye oldé detective cliché, courtesy of the masterful Pratchett twists. In a moment familiar to all fans of detective stories and bad 80s cop movies in particular, Vetinari (Patrician of the city and scariest, cleverest, Machiavelliest man alive) demands that Vimes hand over his sword and badge. It’s funny but it serves to do more than just lark on a genre mainstay; it plays off of what we know about both Vimes and Vetinari’s characters, the one pushing the other’s strings. But even Vetinari isn’t immune to the occasional miscalculation. While attempting to manipulate the good captain, he pushes a shred too far. The result? We get to see the great Patrician squirm for a minute there.

Men At Arms had a few unexpected gut punches. Character deaths came sudden and unexpected, jarring me awake from what often felt like a pleasant reverie filled with Pratchett’s signature humor. Death, or the threat of it can certainly sober most readers up and get the grey matter flowing.

Satire of racial hatred feels poignant, true to Pratchett’s style.  Trolls and dwarves are enemies, and humans see both as equally bad. The Watch’s policy when it comes to crimes, I already mentioned at the start of this review. A man who lives by that philosophy is Vimes’s counterpart, Day Watch Captain Quirke. He’s another character worth keeping an eye on. Quirke is a sort of the anti-Vimes, a lazy, uncaring slob who couldn’t solve a murder if it was his own, and the perpetrator was stabbing him head-on. I feel like Pratchett is going to do something interesting with this one, though.

I absolutely loved the new recruits, three exemplary Lance-Constables of the Watch – the dwarf Cuddy, the troll Detritus and the were…woman Angua. Detritus is the closest yet we’ve narratively been to a troll in the Discworld, and thanks to him we learn a lot about this race of sentient rocks – did you know, for example, that they have silicone brains? Or that they are really quite smart, long as you make sure their brains are cooled down. No, neither did I. Cuddy is fantastic and I loved every minute with him; the two together make for one hell of a funny duo, kind of like Legolas and Gimli in Lord of the Rings. They start from a point of fond dislike over a history of racial hate, only to realize they have a lot more in common than they’d like to admit. And then, eventually, friendship!

Ankh-Morpork is as vibrant as ever. All its guilds, its different cultures and factions are as much a gunpowder keg as always, and the way it all blows up this time around presents a hell of a good story. One of my favourites, in fact. For that reason, I give Men at Arms a score of 5/5!

You’ll enjoy this book if:

  • You know what’s good for you.
  • And more! Prob’ly.

Monstress, Volume 01: Some Good #%@!ing Art

There, I said it. That’s all there is to it.

What’s this? I should probably give you a little more than that? Persuade you, you say. Alright, don’t get your feathers ruffled like so, I’ll do it. I’ve taken the initiative now.

Volume 01: Awakening has a unique art style, slick and gorgeous, showcasing the full skill of Sana Takeda. Obviously inspired by Manga, it’s also informed by Takeda’s work on Marvel series such as X-23 and Ms. Marvel, resulting in an amalgamation that’s unlike most art I’ve personally come across:

Gold and brown and grey are often the colours that dominate the many panels of the first issues of Monstress in particular, creating a human world that looks luxurious but feels cold and metallic. Dominated by science and religious fanaticism alike, the human side of the world of Monstress is nothing short of disturbing. The upper echelons of human society are unnerving, to say the least — humans auction off arcanics (we’ll get to those in a minute) for pleasure, experimentation or …a meal. Disturbing how easily it would be to see this happening; all we need is a comfy distinction of human versus ‘other’ and what ammounts to cannibalism is suddenly acceptable.

Arcanics are half-human and half-ancient. That is to say, they’ll often look like humans, only they’ll usually have a fluffy fox tail, or cat ears or angelic wings; something giving away the fact they’ve got a bit of magical, immortal biped animal-like grandpa/grandma genetic material in them from several generations ago. Arcanics will always be mortal…I think. There’s a lot of them though. Part of the beef arcanics have with humans is that the power behind the human government. the religious Cumaea sect, has been chopping arcanics for their bones, producing a magical resource called lilium for a little while. Lilium has all kinds of wonderful properties — enhancing life duration, healing those at the very edge of death, and only Marjorie M. Liu knows what else.

Knowing this, it’s understandable how humans and arcanics traded some serious blows a while back, a war that ended in tragedy and death, and a tentative peace hobbled by mistrust and downright hatred. I mean, humans hunt cats and put them in cages because they are in fact an arcanist-allied race of hyperintellectual, many-tailed…well, cats. Nothing unusual about that, actually.

The tone of this graphic novel is dark, as you might’ve guessed by now. But it needs to be said and underlined: this is a dark story, a story of death and brutal violence, much of it perpetuated by our own heroine, Maika.

Maika

Maika is dangerous. Possessing power that no arcanic should, Maika’s ignorance of that same power makes her both horrifying and sympathetic. A tragic backstory plays up the sympathy but the power slumbering inside of her is hungry; and whenever that hunger manifests, we get treated to some pretty dark shit. As for who she is as a character? Determined, angry, looking for answers. There is an underlying softness to her, a caring that she seems intent of not showing but which nevertheless comes to display every once in a while, in particular towards the later issues of this volume, whenever we see supporting character and adorable girl-fox-who-is-scared-shitless Kippa.

Kippa is kutta! And by that I mean, cute. I don’t know what phonetic
nonsense I was going for there. She’s loyal despite being afraid most of time
— but she’s got a really good reason so don’t think any less of her.

See? She IS adorable!

What else, what else? There’s a cat! His name is Ren, he’s a nekomancer,
which I’m pretty sure sounds intentionally like a necromancer and that fucks with my head in several ways, mostly because I want to see a cat raise the dead, oh how I want that. New short story idea? You bet! But also, this cat is way too much like me, it’s uncanny.

If you know me, you’ll see the resemblance.

I am in love with this, and it’s no surprise how successful, popular and
critically acclaimed it has become. The writing is on point, offering dramatic tension, character development and plenty of conflict. The art, as you have seen, is a wonder. This truly is a praiseworthy graphic novel, an example of the heights that this mode of storytelling can reach, up there with Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Kieron Gillen/Jamie Mckelvie’s The Wicked + The Divine. I’ve already ordered the next two volumes and can’t wait for the fourth, releasing in October of this year. I wish I hadn’t waited this long to get my hands on it, Monstress truly is that kind of story. No wonder it’s won a bunch of Hugo and Eisner(Nominee) Awards!

Oh, and the antagonists? Some of them are pretty fucking scary, and you just can’t put them in the ground, no matter how hard you try. Besides, no matter how hard you try, you won’t do as well as Maika Halfwolf will so you might as well take a seat, open up this volume, and enjoy the ride!

Monday Morning Book Clubbing: “And They Were Never Heard From Again” and “UR”

Hullo and welcome (back) to my blog! It’s been a little while since last I had the pleasure of working on a blog entry for this here Grimoire Reliquary and since I just finished two rather small works (in terms of content), I thought now might be a good time to tell you about these two. One is a short story by Benedict Patrick, a friend and a fantasy author I admire greatly for his folklore-inspired Yarnsworld series. The other is by Stephen King, a novella originally written exclusively for the Kindle. Both together, these reads are a little over a hundred pages — the perfect length to read on a busy Monday evening, afternoon, or whenever you’ve got the freedom to do so. Let’s talk about each of them in turn:

“And They Were Never Heard From Again” by Benedict Patrick

The Magpie King’s Forest was one of my favourite new places to inhabit last year, when I first came across Benedict’s work. It’s a mysterious place, dangerous during day and deadly at night, the Forest still unclaimed by the human villagers who live in its reaches. I’ve had my share of exploration of its great and dark confines, and yet have hungered for more over the past few months. Once Benedict Patrick gets in your head, you see, it’s difficult not to hunger after more knowledge of the Forest’s denizens of the night.

But what is a monster of the night without a pair of humans to horrify and appall? The unlucky protagonists of this story are two brothers, one younger and the other older — as these stories tend to go — by the names of Tad and Felton. Felton drags his younger brother to another village for just about the most teenage reason you could think of, and after a series of unfortunate events, the two end up far, far away from the safety of home after darkness falls down on the forest.

What follows, I won’t spoil — but this was the kind of story that questions the power of storytelling and the collective subconscious in a way eerily reminiscent of my favourite work of Neil Gaiman.

The best part? It’s completely, absolutely, unreservedly free, this story. That’s right. $0.00. I’d grab it if I were you. If you’ve never experienced the world, you might just fall in love with it. My score for “And They Were Never Heard From Again” is 5/5.

“UR” by Stephen King

When I opened this on my Kindle on accident a few days ago, I did not expect to come across a very solid, enjoyable 61-page novella that was also tied to Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower” series, one of my most beloved meta series.

“UR” does all the things Stephen King’s best novels do. It presents a relatable, likable protagonist with very human flaws — in English Lit professor Wesley’s case, a sort of childish spite — and an event that sees said protagonist’s grasp on reality begin to slip, pushing him towards a questioning of reality as he knows it.

It’s incredible how much I grew to care about Wesley in the span of these sixty pages. The mark of good writing, and King’s writing in particular — the man can make you care about anything and everything in just a few pages, and then force you to bitter tears. I’m looking at you, “The Stand.”

It’s a simple enough story — Wesley is looking for a way to show university colleague and his ex, Ellen, that she’s wrong about him, and so buys a Kindle. This used to be in the very earliest day of Kindle, kids, when you only had the one variable; it came in white, didn’t have touch-screen or LED lights, and was generally a somewhat bulkier and worse device than some of its competitors — but it did have all of Amazon’s considerable catalogue of e-books, which crowned it King of the e-reader market. History lesson over!

At any rate, Wesley gets a pink Kindle, which at first he doesn’t at all mind — he hasn’t done too much research, after all, it was more of an impulse purchase on the advice of one of his pupils, “the Henderson kid” who plays an important role in the novel’s interpretation of “The Three Stooges”. Ha-ha, my reference game is strong today!

At any rate, it’s not the colour that’s the strangest thing about the Kindle — it’s the fact that its experimental features allow the reader to access the works of writers like Ernest Hemingway and William Shakespeare; only, Wesley discovers works never written by these authors. Works that are so obviously written by these authors that to deny their authorship would be madness, greater even than accepting the impossibility of the small pink device being able to tap into the virtual libraries of alternate realities. I’ll say no more, but let’s just leave it at this: there are other, more impressive features this pink Kindle possesses.

What surprised me was the ending. It could’ve gone several kinds of wrong, but unlike in, say, “Pet Sematary” or even “The Dark Tower” itself, King decides to give us readers a break…mostly.

I will say, if I ever see a pink Kindle delivered to my door by mistake, I’d like to think I would squash it with the heel of my boot…but I have the gnawing doubt that I’ll pick it up and sign up for the experimental “UR” features, instead.

My score of “UR” by Stephen King, is…5 stars! Again!

A fine day to review titles, I reckon. Not that I’m complaining. If they weren’t good, I’d be a sad lad! At any rate, thank you for following along! As always, more is soon to come!

Book Review: City of Kings by Rob J. Hayes (Archived)

Hey, everyone! This review was originally published over on BookNest.eu about six months ago. Check the site out, great reviews by me and many other lovely folks! I thought I’d start reposting my old reviews here every few days, in case anyone who hasn’t seen them before follows my blog for the book reviews in question. Hope you enjoy!

Disclaimer: I received this novel for free thanks to the r/fantasy TBRindr initiative, in return for an honest review. The purpose of this initiative is to showcase the works of independent authors.

 City of Kings is a tale of siege, dark necromancy and bloody betrayal. It’s the sixth book in Rob J. Hayes’ First Earth setting, but it works well as a stand-alone. I should know since I haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading any of his previous works. And I don’t use ‘pleasure’ lightly.

Let’s jump straight into what I loved about this book!

The Characters:

Five main characters, five diverse viewpoints.

Meet Rose, leader and de facto queen of the Wilds. Rose is on a quest to rid the land of the blooded, long-time lords and despots of the Wilds. This is one scary pregnant lady, ready to put everything on the line for vengeance. 

Anders is a good-for-nothing drunk, a charming spy, and capable of inexplicable feats of magic. He is also the son of our big bad, the blooded lord and military tactician Niles Brekovich.

The Black Thorn is a giant of a man, and a wielder of a great-axe much more at home lopping off heads than acting the part of nominal leader of an army and being called a hero. His romantic relationship with Rose is written well, and the prospect of fatherhood in the world he inhabits is examined well.

Red Henry delights in blood, murder and mayhem…but she is no soldier. And the battlefield is all too foreign to a woman used to striking from the shadows.

Pern Susku is an honour-bound warrior who failed in his mission to protect his master; who, in fact, allowed that very master to be killed by The Black Thorn. This failure haunts him, as does the tribe of warriors he comes from.

These five main characters come alive over the three-hundred pages or so of City of Kings. None of them are good people, with the possible exception of Szusku who does a fair bit of agonizing over past decisions. They‘re one and all opposed to the blooded; much like Joe Abercrombie‘s First Law trilogy, this presents characters wholly entwined with one side of the conflict. The blooded are ever seen as adversaries and for good reason.

Not that our protagonists are much better, mind. Hayes does very well with the ending when one of the main characters steps over the line in what is a particularly gory and memorable scene.

The side characters are memorable, too. Two captains, a sergeant, and of course the Five Kingdoms general, Verit, deserve mention. So does Pug, The Black Thorn’s young squire, whose fear and lack of skill don’t stop him from putting his hide in harm’s way time and time again.

The Plot:

Fast-paced and with the highest stakes, City of King‘s plot takes place over just six days. Not the time to pull off a proper siege, but time is not on Rose‘s side. With an empty coffer and enemies threatening to push on all sides, the self-styled queen of the Wilds only has one choice – to wager the men and women under the Black Thorn’s banner in a desperate bid to break the last bastion of the blooded.

But if a siege blood-curdling in its intensity isn’t enough for you, you might be won over by the shambling hordes of undead, or the daring battles with horrifying cave-trolls! Or perhaps you seek betrayal and heartbreak? There’s plenty of that, too!

I appreciate the downtime between battles, the moments of quiet reflection and discussion on what comes next, how the siege is compounded by whatever disaster our protagonists are forced into dealing with. It is during those times I most appreciated the character-building skill Hayes possesses, and so will you.

Conclusion:

Like the best of grimdark, this book doesn’t contain violence for violence’s sake. There is a point to it all, and it reflects on and deeply affects the characters who witness or perpetrate it. You will find no glamour in the clash of attackers and defenders, no allure to battle in City of Kings.  

What you will find, is a deftly written story, detailed and unafraid to show characters at their worst. Rob J. Hayes displays a tremendous amount of skill with a fully realized world, as well as a string of unexpected twists and turns all the way to the end.

With City of Kings, Hayes has earned a great deal of my interest. I’m looking forward to revisiting the First Earth setting both in future installments, and by picking the past five novels!

Did I have any problems with it? Not as such; more nitpicks than anything. Anders, despite being a favourite character of mine, was a bit too verbose even for a nervous drunk prone to bouts of chattering.  A letter is missing here and there, maybe even two!

…I really have no issues with this book.  I’m not shy about pointing out what I dislike, but there wasn’t anything I had problems with here, neither in terms of story and characterization nor on the technical side. The writing style is clear, crisp. Descriptions set the backdrop of scenes well.

You’ll enjoy City of Kings by Rob J. Hayes if:   

  • You are a fan of grimdark;
  • You are planning to besiege a fortress in the bloodiest way possible;
  • You’re looking at a handy how-to guide to pregnancy;
  • You enjoy books written by men who can pull off a gambeson;
  • And more! Prob’ly.

I gave this 5 stars on Goodreads!  (4.5 Stars)

Book Review: Gifts by Ursula Le Guin

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

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

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

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

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

No surprise there.

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

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

My score? 3.75 out of 5.

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

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

Final Verdict: Journey before destination!