Book Review: Shadowblack – by Sebastien de Castell

Spellslinger Book #2

Fantasy, YA Fantasy

Hot Key Books; May 18, 2018 (UK), Orbit Books; August 21, 2018 (US)

340 pages

4.5 / 5 ✪

Kellen wasn’t good at being a mage. He’s no good at being an wanderer, either. With few tricks and even fewer spells, he’s basically a one trick pony. And even in exile, he not only retains more than his fair share of problems—bounty hunters, rogue mages, fear, misconception and inability—but manages to even collect those of others—in the form of a shadowblack plague that not only affects mages, but those with no magic at all. But with Ferius Parfax and Reichis there watching out for him… well, he may live long enough for his own shadowblack to kill him.

So begins the aptly named ‘Shadowblack’—the second book in the Spellslinger series, written by Sebastien de Castell. Where Spellslinger introduced us to the so-called “mainstays” in the cast (although de Castell has warned us not to get too attached to any one character, for obvious reasons—advice that I have ignored, for reasons of me), its sequel provides more than enough entertaining, exciting characters to fall in love with all over again. And when Kellen meets a girl his own age, he might just do the same.

I really liked Spellslinger. It had a great story, entertaining characters, fun, mischief, sarcasm… yet did not manage to escape all the pitfalls that often plague new debuts. Shadowblack it seems, has learnt from these mistakes (for the most part). There is still one moment where Kellen is able to wriggle out of a sticky situation. One, though. That’s not bad. Otherwise, de Castell doesn’t need to invent anything to bring his characters through. And while fixing these missteps, Shadowblack capitalizes on its successes. Why improve on perfection, eh?

Where the first book thrust Kellen into a mystery within the lands of the Jan’Tep, his own people, the second sends him on an epic adventure into the unknown—lands that while he has heard about, Kellen has never experienced. I loved this first glimpse into the greater world. And for a wanderer, an exile like Kellen, it’s an adventure that may just be beginning. I really enjoyed the different lands and people, the new sights and experiences, all seen through the eyes of someone experiencing all of them for the first time. Even though Spellslinger introduced a whole new world to the reader, it was one Kellen had known his whole life. If the subsequent books promise to keep varying the surroundings, testing Kellen and his friends with new and exciting adventures—count me in!

As the series continues, it’ll be interesting to see if—and how—Kellen will evolve. In some TV shows, which Spellslinger kinda reminds me of (new episode, new location, new whatever), the while the locale and experiences change, the characters end up remaining the same. Good ol’ Jack, or MacGyver, or whomever. As Kellen is still young, the series aims to make itself into his coming-out party. Not that kind. Well… maybe that kind. Doesn’t matter. Hopefully the following books leads him through a character arc, one that changes who he is even between books, while maintaining—though tweaking—his core through it all. Will he become disillusioned by the outside world? Will he let his Shadowblack control his destiny, or rise to meet it? Will he and Reichis join up with some teens and a psychedelic van and cruise around solving mysteries? Will he experience real change, or will he continue wandering through life with no path before him but the next step and whatever way the wind blows?

I guess we’ll have to see.

Book Review: Spellslinger – by Sebastien de Castell

Spellslinger Book #1

Fantasy, YA Fantasy

Hot Key Books; May 4, 2017 (UK), Orbit Books; July 17, 2018 (US)

432 pages

4.5 / 5 ✪

A fresh YA fantasy follows a boy struggling through his mage exams. Kellen’s an outcast, unlucky, scion of a powerful family… oh, and he has no magic. The world-building for the first Spellslinger book is impressive for a YA. de Castell doesn’t skimp—fresh off the Greatcoats Quartet, he weaves a tale of intrigue and mystery, with a boy that may lack magic, but has learned to make up for it by using his natural skills and wile. Nothing new about the support-system, Kellen has collected a team of outcasts and friends to help him defeat someone much more powerful than he. But a lovely story with entertaining characters in a new and interesting world should be more than enough of a reason to read.

Kellen has only a few weeks til his 16th birthday, the age when he becomes a man in Jan’Tep society and expected to pass his mage trials. Slight issue: he hasn’t sparked any of his bands that allow him to control the six elements of magic. And without them, not only will he be unable to pass his mage exams, Kellen will always be relegated from the Jan’Tep ranks, instead becoming Mar’Tep—those without magic that act as servants to the ruling class. And seeing as how Kellen is the scion to one of his clan’s most powerful families, his own sister a prodigy of no equal… So, no pressure. And somehow, things are about to get worse.

Spellslinger is a strong fantasy novel, and more so, a good beginning to an excellent series. I actually enjoyed the second (Shadowblack) more than the first; in which I felt that de Castell capitalized on his successes from the first while fixing the ways he erred. But that’s for later.

The characters, while not deep, were very human. Instead of the depressing, dark stuff that I normally read, Spellslinger was uplifting, funny and hopeful, despite the fact that Kellen’s story is really anything but. It helps to have secondary characters like Ferius Parfax or Reichis to keep both the comedy and action rolling.

I had a problem with, well, one of those clichés that allowed Kellen and his friends to escape situations they wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. Y’know, it’s like when the villain takes time to explain his/her plan giving the hero the chance to escape and stop her/him. I feel like de Castell—for all the other good he did—really could’ve come up with something better.

While this book doesn’t do anything “new”, exactly—a mage without magic, a ragtag group of heroes going up against overwhelming odds, etc—I found that the combination of it all went together rather smoothly, to the point that nothing was over the top or too cliché. The added elements of kinship versus betrayal, hope versus defeat, and a burgeoning yet complicated love story, really helped bring this coming of age tale to life. As I’ve noted already, the second was amazing, so there’s no reason not to pick up Spellslinger today.

Audiobook Note: Joe Jameson was amazing! I only read the first book on audio, but’ve made it through the 2nd and 3rd with his voice narrating whenever Kellen speaks. It’s always important to have a good reader, and Jameson was certainly one!

Book Review: Blackwing – by Ed McDonald

Raven’s Mark Book #1

Fantasy, Grimdark Fantasy

Ace Books; October 3, 2017

360 pages

4.5 / 5 ✪

Certainly not a feel-good fairytale, McDonald provided an beautifully rendered world on the brink, full of flesh and blood characters and terrible gods, with a savage plot and just a hint of magic and mayhem to tie everything together. Wouldn’t touch the bow though—no telling what it’s made out of. Blackwing begins the Raven’s Mark trilogy, a read that’s sure to be a wild ride all the way to the finish.

The war between the Nameless and the Deep Kings has spilled over. Two races of ancient, powerful beings unite—with humanity in the middle. The Deep Kings are immortal and beyond ancient. They play the Drudge, once-humans that have been changed, they are utterly loyal and tough to kill. The Nameless play the side of humanity; these powerful sorcerers occupy the five free cities of man, aided by Nall’s Engine: a weapon so powerful even their adversaries fear it. Eighty years prior the Nameless first activated Nall’s Engine, a move that created “the Misery”—a wasteland of death and demonic creatures, where even the sky often screams in pain—and brought about the end not only of one Deep King, but also two of the remaining free cities of man. Hundreds of thousands died in that moment to protect the little humanity had left. Eighty years later, a temporary and uneasy truce exists—one that may be unraveling before Galharrow’s eyes.

Ryhalt Galharrow is a scarred man with a grim past. Once noble blood, a series of misfortune has landed him in on the front-lines, hunting defectors and spies into the Misery before they can defect to the enemy. Written in 1stP POV I was fairly well entranced with Galharrow’s story. It was dark, gritty, bloody. A clipped and pessimistic tone. His story harbors a dark heart, a path that may lead to madness, and… a burgeoning love story? It was an odd one, for sure. Though it provided interesting twists. I rather liked Galharrow, even if I had trouble relating to him.

The world around Galharrow provided the most unexpected surprise. Deep, thoughtful characters. A lovely, dark setting. A brief, but competent bit of world-building. At first the story keeps everything a bit hectic, but when the pace slows a bit in the latter half, we are allowed to look about and take in the world. Both primary and secondary characters excelled; they felt truly human, flesh and blood, mortal, intricate while delicate. While the characters themselves are McDonald’s greatest triumph, the world itself is no slouch.

An entertaining story combined with intricate characters and a sense of mystery and magic, McDonald’s debut is a triumph for the grimdark genre. While a lackluster love story holds it back from being truly great, Blackwing provides more than enough to satisfy any reader, despite only being about a day’s read (at 360 pp, it took me 3.5 days, but I’m slow). With a clipped tone and a dark heart, Blackwing was all I needed and more. Can’t wait to read the next one.

Ravencry, Raven’s Mark #2, was published in 2018 by Ace Books (in the US) and Gollancz (in the UK).

Underrated: The Last Sacrifice – by James A. Moore

Tides of War Book #1

Grimdark Fantasy

Angry Robot: January 3, 2017

320 pages

2.5/5 ✪

33 Reviews on Goodreads

The Last Sacrifice is an example of good grimdark writing that is let down by shallow world-building, an unsatisfying conclusion and generally dark, unlikeable characters. James A. Moore is the author of the Seven Forges quartet, a series I’ve heard generally good things about. The Last Sacrifice serves as my intro to his works.

The Last Sacrifice finds Brogan McTyre returning from a job protecting caravans to find four coins on his doorstep. His family is gone, never to return. For when the Grakhul take sacrifices—leaving one thick, gold coin for every man, woman or child for each—those people are never to be seen again. They are not even seen as living once the immortal servants of the gods seize them. To look upon their faces once more would be death, and going after them even worse, sacrilege. But Brogan McTyre does not care what it will cost him—he cares simply for his family. And will do anything to get them back.

So begins the Tides of War, which is… well. It’s not bad, nor is it great. Let me explain.

The book is a dark, brooding place: a great example of grimdark lit, actually, or would be if it was of a bit more substance. While at first the gloom blanketing every town tells of an atmosphere complementary to the dark story, upon second glance it appears just to be a fog written in to cover for the fact that nothing in the world has any depth. This works well enough in a book where each POV character is on the lam—no locale is around long enough to be seen with any clarity—but would fall apart were the story anything more than one big chase scene. Far from a thriller, it features a slow and steady build that leads to an ultimately unsatisfying conclusion.

Though neither the story nor world-building are anything special, it’s characters, well… don’t stand out much either. The cast fits the other two, certainly. Each man and woman is dark, brooding and generally unlikeable. Moore could scrap ‘em all and start anew in Book #2 and it wouldn’t bother me.

So to sum up, unlikeable characters mixed with a sub-par attempt at world-building did little to improve a story that proved just enough to hold my interest to its conclusion. A conclusion, I might add, that concluded little. So, if you like Moore or grimdark, you might give it a shot. Otherwise, the Last Sacrifice might be one to skip.

Book Review: Age of Swords – by Michael J. Sullivan

Legends of the First Empire Book #2

Epic Fantasy

Del Rey Books: July 25, 2017

465 pages

3/5 ✪

This was a difficult book to review, as Michael J. Sullivan did many things well, he just waited a while to do them. I was disappointed overall, but the story is still a can’t-miss in my book, if only for how it bridges the gap between 1 and 3. Strong female characters step up to take center stage in this sequel to Age of Myth, making an enjoyable read into something more dynamic and inspiring. A greater perspective of the different races from men to Fhrey [elves] to Belgriclungreians [dwarves] (and even Grenmorians [giants]) helps give the novel scope, although it continues to lack any dwarf or giant or goblin POV—something I would love to see. However, early, uneven pacing and disappointing POV chapters instead ruin a sophomore effort that could’ve been great.

In addition, frequent sudden, great innovations only seem to cheapen their worth when they are repeated chapter after chapter. The most notable of these—the bow and arrow—goes on to be a major plot device. It’s akin to an author (or Assassin’s Creed) simply throwing in a historical figure just for the hell of it. Not to mention that the invention of the bow predates recorded history, including such things as bronze working, copper working, the wheel, wells, the dahl (and most other earthworks), any known writing system, the sword, pretty much any kind of non-nomadic existence and… well, you get the idea.

After early hiccups, the story really gets going in the second half of the book, in which the strong female leads step up in a big—and badass—way. And yet the conclusion feels cheap on many levels, though I’ll admit I am looking forward to the next installment. The inconsistency of the story and hollow nature of new character POVs in the first half had me abandon the book once or twice before ultimately picking it up again. Once I cleared the 200 (ish) page mark (with the exception of a few bits and pieces) the read became much more smooth and enjoyable.

So… I definitely didn’t love Age of Swords. I was so annoyed reading it that I actually gave up a couple times (yeah, okay, for like a day each), but it is interesting. And it is good. Just needs some work to ensure that the following four books don’t suffer the same shortcomings. Not that that matters, as MJS has already finished writing all the books.