A Time of Blood – by John Gwynne (Review)

Of Blood and Bone #2

Epic, Fantasy

Orbit Books; April 16, 2019

463 pages (PB)

3.9 / 5 ✪

Contains spoilers for A Time of Dread and possible spoilers for the Faithful and the Fallen series!

The second Of Blood and Bone, A Time of Blood shares much the the successes of its predecessors. Both A Time of Dread and the Faithful and the Fallen quartet instilled in us a sense of wonder, of noble deeds and nobler warriors, of truth, courage, and loyalty. All classic fantasy components. And yet where tFatF soared high, OB&B seems a little too nostalgic, and a little too straightforward.

Again, the story leans heavily on its 4 POVs: Bleda, Riv, Drem & Fritha. These POVs tell two separate stories—one of revenge and blood feud, and the other of… revenge and blood-feud. In fact, A Time of Blood reads pretty much like a “How to” for blood-feud. I mean, there’s still a good story underneath, but it all boils down to the same message.

A Time of Feud

In the north, Drem and his companions flee Fritha and the Kadoshim. Following the loss of Sig, they are shaken and desperate to get away from their pursuit. But the Bone Fells are wintry and wild, the Desolation barren and vast, and even with Drem cutting their path, the group is only just managing to outpace their pursuers. Meanwhile, Fritha and her revenants are frantic to catch them, not ready for the secret of the Kadoshim to come out. But as Drem and the others start to pull away, Fritha and her ilk happen upon a few unexpected prizes that might just make up for their failure.

In Forn Forest, Riv and Bleda lead the Ben Elim on a merry chase of their own. But outmatched, outnumbered, they are caught and returned to Drassil. Here Riv is held and awaits her death. But Kol, an upstart Ben Elim, has other plans. Instead of killing her, he plans on using Riv to further his own agenda, make his play for High Captain, and establish permanent Ben-Elim-human relationships. Bleda, meanwhile, is torn. Reunited with his intended—Jin—he can only think about Riv. Her face, her spirit, her lips. And torn as he is, it’s just a matter of time before he does something reckless.

The fate of the Banished Lands is once again in question. And the final battle for them looms large.

‘ This world is one blood feud or another, an endless cycle. ‘

– A Time of Blood, pg. 449

Where the original series was a beautiful coming of age story, a redemption song, and a harrowing battle between good and evil all rolled into one—Of Blood and Bone is starting to feel a lot like one entire blood-feud. While I liked the first book, A Time of Dread, but felt it lacked somewhat compared to the story the original series put out. I enjoyed this second book, but it sure left a sour taste in my mouth after finishing it. It told of much the same battle between good and evil, but with a twist. Each of the two sets of POVs—Drem and Fritha, Riv and Bleda—all have reason to hate each other. After the events of A Time of Blood, they hate one another even more.

As always, John Gwynne weaves an intricate and compelling story—despite all the blood-feud. His world-building is top-notch and his Banished Lands continue to improve in their detail. I only regret that we haven’t fully explored them yet. Nor have we reached Ardain in this trilogy. The short of it is that his world is always well-built, always breathtaking, always lovely in its detail—and A Time of Blood is no different.

AToB is by no means bad, though I have a lot of trouble not comparing it to the Faithful and the Fallen series before it. And it compares badly. It lacks the same charm, the same appeal. The same plot intricacies. A Time of Blood is a well-written, entertaining, straightforward tale of good vs. evil. An enjoyable ride of battles, courage and betrayal. A bitter path of blood-feud and the means taken to achieve it. But little more. It’s certainly entertaining and interesting—but seriously, it can’t compare to what comes before it.

TL;DR

The Faithful and the Fallen is one of my favorite series of all time. Of Blood and Bone is a pale comparison. A Time of Blood is an entertaining read set in a well-built, well-written world. The plot began as a straightforward struggle between good and evil—a sequel to the war between Kadoshim and Ben Elim spelled out in Gwynne’s previous quartet. But this continuation quickly devolves into feud. While the story is still an interesting back and forth revenge tale, it’s nothing that the books before it were. I’m… on the fence about recommending it. If you’ve read tFatF—I’d say, yeah, probably. If you haven’t, I’d definitely start with that series first.

The series concludes with A Time of Courage, due out April 2, 2020.

Age of Death – by Michael J. Sullivan (Review)

Legends of the First Empire #5

Fantasy, Epic, Sword & Sorcery

Riyria Enterprises LLC; February 4, 2020

420 pages (ebook)

5 / 5 ✪

Author WebsiteGoodreads

Beware spoilers for the previous four Legends of the First Empire books, especially Age of Legend!

Age of Death is the 5th and penultimate book in the Legends of the First Empire series by Riyria author Michael J. Sullivan, and the 16th book I’ve read by him overall. While initially I had my doubts about this series, I loved Age of Legend to a degree I hadn’t felt since Winter’s Daughter in 2017. So would Age of Death live up to my ridiculously high standards? Well, if you read the header I guess you know that it did!

Fresh from the events of Age of Legend (which ended in a spectacular cliffhanger that I just loved), the fellowship of eight that had set out to save Suri reached the Swamps of Ith and made contact with the Tetlin Witch within. Here, seven of those carried on with their mission into the afterlife while Tesh watched helplessly from the shore. As Brin slowly sunk to her death, she heard Tesh’s anguished cry—before darkness consumed her.

And the Age of Death began.

Brin found herself floating in a river. All around: darkness. She had no feeling in her body, and her thoughts rambled endlessly. After an indeterminable amount of time, a light appeared in the distance. Upon reaching this light, she came upon a shore and discovered the rest of the fellowship.

And so we enter the realm of the dead—Rel.

Death is just the beginning. This, the denizens of Elan know well. But it turns out, this is only half the story. And yet, the story is incomplete. The realms are out of sync—the order that should exist has been broken—and the dead that have arrived in Rel now remain trapped there instead of continuing on to the next world. Having arrived here, however, the fellowship has little option but to push onward. As such, they make their way deeper into Rel, passing beings from a time long past, and even some from a time forgotten. But what will they find at its end? Will there be a way to continue their quest, or does their journey end here, always having been fated to be a one-way trip?

In the land of the living, the war remains at a standstill. The Rhunes have pushed the Fhrey to the Nidwalden, but no further. The Fhrey, with the help of Avempartha, hold them here. But soon the Fane will uncover the secret of dragons, and then the tides of war shall change.

While Nyphron exhausts every military option he can think of, Persephone confides her misgivings to the Gilarabrywn. But after those fateful words weeks before, Raithe has not spoken again. The Gilarabrywn remains motionless. But still she hopes. Meanwhile, Suri adapts to her imprisonment. The Fane has yet to break her, kill her, or otherwise extract any secrets from her. But it is only a matter of time. But not all is as it seems on Elan. Neither force is as united as its leader believes and in these cracks, sedition grows. But will it sprout in time to save Suri and stop the war? Or will the land once again fall into chaos?

* *

“It’s just that…” Roan focused on Tressa, as if speaking to her alone. “Well, didn’t you say that the key could open any lock in Phyre? Not just doors, right? And we are locked in.”

“Only in a matter of speaking,” Rain said. “And you can’t insert a key into a manner of speaking.”

So, I LOVED this book.

But first, my two issues with it. One—the book continues from a cliffhanger that I had to wait on for some months. Two—the book ENDS in a cliffhanger that I have to wait on for a few more. Michael J. Damned Sullivan and his stupid cliffhangers! I swear, if his books weren’t so good I wouldn’t put up with this nonsense! But… they are, so I do.

The story of Age of Death was probably my favorite part of it, but there are no end of things to like. The blend of adventure and mystery from the fellowship’s quest, the suspense surrounding both armies with Suri’s fate hanging over it all combines to create a thrilling, addictive read that I couldn’t put down. After waiting a couple months to start this book, I finished it in 3 days. As usual, I wanted to wait so that the cliffhanger I knew was coming wouldn’t have it fester for too long. I bet y’all know how well that’s working out.

Once, I felt Sullivan cheapened invention and progress. Much of that is the reason I’ve just recently come around to Roan. While there’s still a bit of carryover from the past books, Age of Death is pretty much past all of this. The world-building continues to impress, and progress continues to um, “progress”, but without all the ridiculousness. After 15+ books set in Elan, I suppose the world should be pretty much flesh and blood by now. Well—it is. A triumph of design and execution, on par with all but the heavy hitters like Malazan or the Wheel of Time. Nothing for me to complain about here.

After five books, the characters continue to develop. As much as I enjoyed the Riyria Revelations, character development wasn’t a big part of it. Yes, a few of them change eventually, but in 6 books, something better. It’s amazing to see the growth and development between even a couple books of this series, as characters continue to change even in death. Granted, I wouldn’t call every change in the characters’ development “growth”, but de-growth and de-development both sounded ridiculous so I’m just going to call it an either/or term. No matter which direction said “growth” takes, it’s an entirely human change. Yes, even in the Fhrey and Belgriclungreians. And having such “growth” in one’s books, between one’s books, and especially over the course of an extended series is both realistic and refreshing.

Oh, and I’m not sure who has done the covers for this series, but they continue to be amazing and suitably epic!

TL;DR

Be forewarned: Age of Death both starts and ends with a cliffhanger. It’s also extremely addictive and you might find yourself reading late into the night when you’re already short on sleep and have work early the next day. And you might find yourself hating the book (and the author) for making you wait a few months for the next book. Don’t worry—these feelings are all completely natural. There’s a place online for you to complain. Or you could scream and throw the book at your least-favorite wall. Just maybe don’t if you have it as an ebook.

Age of Death is the penultimate entry in the Legends of the First Empire series and it’s just incredible. I was a little iffy on continuing the series early on. Sullivan tried me more than once, but he got away with it in the end. The world-building is at the top of its class. The character development is so thorough its practically overwhelming. The mystery, the adventure, the suspense that Age of Death brings are all equally reason enough to read it. Combined… this book is impressive. I know if you haven’t started the series this could feel like a long shot, but I think it’s worth the time, effort and heartache. If you have read past Age of War—you seriously need to catch up. Then you and I and the rest of the world will be anticipating Age of Empyre together.

Age of Empyre is expected out via Kickstarter sometime in the spring, or on May 5, 2020 via Grim Oak Press.

Soulbinder – by Sebastien de Castell (Review)

Spellslinger #4

Fantasy, YA

Hot Key Books; October 4, 2018

417 pages (PB)

4.5 / 5 ✪

Author WebsiteGoodreads

Contains possible spoilers for the previous 3 Spellslinger books.

The fourth book in the Spellslinger series, Soulbinder details the continuing adventures of spellslinger and outlaw Jan’Tep Kellen Argos as he traipses across the land performing his noble deeds. Or… mostly while he rips people off, still searching for a cure for his Shadowblack. But where no one had previously understood his ailment or how to cure it (short of attempting to kill him, that is) (which they’ve all done quite a lot of, really), Soulbinder may finally present Kellen’s lucky break. But—rather than a community of patients now cured of the horrible disease—he’s found a realm of people still infected with it. And they have graciously accepted him into their society, what by knocking him out and kidnapping him and all.

Reichis is nowhere to be found, however, prompting Kellen to assume the worst. As he left his cuddly little business partner dying in the middle of the desert, this isn’t really a big leap. But Kellen, being remarkably short on friends, is still willing to risk his life to save Reichis’s. Assuming that he can even find the squirrel-cat, that is. And, assuming that he can escape the Ebony Abbey first.

The Abbey is quite the abode. A shadowy dimension inaccessible from the outside. Filled with dozens of pupils, all infected with the Shadowblack. Any of whom might turn at the drop of a hat, giving in to the vile darkness that lurks in their minds, urging them to kill.

But Kellen is delayed in his quest to discover Reichis’s fate. First, by the monks knocking him out and tying him up when he tried to escape, but later by the fact that he can’t find anywhere to escape TO. And furthermore, Kellen has very little idea where Reichis even is. He’s in a desert… somewhere… in the world.

And the longer that Kellen is trapped in the Abbey, the more he comes to feel like part of a team. All his life, Kellen has felt alone. First, due to his lack of any magical talent. Next, being marked with the Shadowblack. Here in the Abbey are several dozen young outcasts who feel exactly as he has, all struggling with the same condition that will one day kill them… or worse turn them into monsters. While he needs to find Reichis, needs to continue his quest—Kellen finds himself unwilling to leave. For maybe, finally, he’s found his true home.

Soulbinder may be my favorite book in the series to date. Took me all of four days to read. As with every other book in the series, it’s easy to roll through fairly quickly. The language, the humor, the pacing, the predicaments all make the story move along. The short chapters give one multiple opportunities to stop and get on with one’s life, but also entice the reader into just one or two more, since they won’t take very much time. As usual, de Castell has woven a marvelous tale—with but a few exceptions.

My biggest problem with Soulbinder is that it feels episodic. I mean, Spellslinger is a six-part series, where Book 1 served as a coming-of-age tale, and #2 worked on establishing his outcast identity. Charmcaster sees Kellen really come into his own, complete with his split from Ferius Parfex—his mentor. Soulbinder, while truly interesting and exciting, does little to further the overarching plot. Yes, yes, there is a little bit here and there, but it really just feels like a separate adventure set in the same world. It’s not a tremendous issue, as there are two books to come, but in the same way: there’re only two books left! Assuming that Queenslayer sets the table and Crownbreaker ends the series—what good does Soulbinder serve? That being said, it was a thrilling adventure—one that I’ve just said was my favorite thus far. So, while it DID feel episodic, it’s not like that really bothered me.

Another issue is the lack of returning characters. Kellen is on his own this time. No Reichis. No Ferius. There are a few cameos later on, but initially at least, Kellen has to make do with keeping his own company. That, or make nice with his captor/rescuers. While it’s certainly nice to see how Kellen gets on on his own, and while his interactions with his fellow Shadowblackies are just as entertaining—I missed the dynamic Kellen has with his friends.

In every other way, Soulbinder is a must-read. I loved the new adventure set in a previously unknown locale, and the fellow Shadowblackians provide a glimpse into the deeper, darker corridors or Kellen’s affliction. More so, they offer Kellen with insight into his disease, and how the Shadowblack may even be used to his advantage. And of course, they underline its terrible price. And the Abbot’s knowledge—while far from being complete or scientific—provides us with some much needed lore about the Shadowblack and its sufferers.

TL;DR

Soulbinder is another amazing entry in the Spellslinger series, as Sebastien de Castell does his best to bankrupt us and steal away all of our sleep. A page-turning thriller from beginning to end, while it does comparatively little to advance the overarching plot, Soulbinder does provide a much needed glimpse into the world of the Shadowblack, easily doubling what we know about it thus far. Kellen is on his own this time—no Reichis, no Ferius, though a few familiar faces do crop up later on. And a few new associates do steal the spotlight from him now and then. It’s a quick and easy read; between the language, the story, and the pace, I finished it in 4 days. And I’m not the fastest reader. Highly recommended. Easily a must-read if you’ve made it this far into the Spellslinger series. And if you haven’t—why not?

Spellslinger continues with Queenslayer, the penultimate entry, and Crownbreaker, the series finale—both out in 2019. And can we just admire the cover art and illustrations by Sam Hadley? They’re incredible.