City of Songs – by Anthony Ryan (Review)

While this picture is a little grainy, the real-life version is quite lovely.

The Seven Swords #3

Fantasy, Epic, Novella

Subterranean Press; September 30, 2021

160 pages (hardcover)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

Publisher (and Twitter @SubPress)

4.8 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to Subterranean Press and Anthony Ryan for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Beware Spoilers for A Pilgrimage of Swords and The Kraken’s Tooth (Seven Swords books 1 & 2)!

Review of A Pilgrimage of SwordsReview of the Kraken’s Tooth

The third entry in the Seven Swords begins much as the one before it did. Fresh off the decimation of Carthula, Pilgrim (Guyime) and Seeker are fleeing the destruction of their wake while also traveling toward their hearts’ truest desire. In his case another of the seven demon blades, while in hers a daughter long lost. In this they have been joined by another pair: former slave Lexius, now wielder of another of the Seven Swords, inhabited by his wife—he seeks her freedom; and Mareth druid sellsword Lorweth, whose motives and secrets are entirely his own.

They travel to Atheria, the fabled City of Songs. The Shining Jewel of the Third Sea. Governed by a Council, the city is truly ruled by the Exultia Caste—the obscenely wealthy who wear masks to convey their godly status to the rest of the unwashed of the city. Here, Guyime hopes to find another of the demon blades, while Seeker hopes to find her daughter. Instead, they will find nothing but plots, lies, blood and chaos. For Ultrius Domiano—the very man the need to see—lies freshly slain, and it’s up to the Wanderers to find his killer.

Only then will they find the answers they seek.

The Seven Swords have been consistently entertaining, despite their short format. Three outstanding novellas, each telling a complete story while deferring to the next in the sequence to continue the overarching tale. As much as I’d like a full-length Seven Swords story, I honestly think it works perfectly in novella format. The obvious comparison is Murderbot; something great in short form that may or may not work as well in a longer one (Network Effect was good, but I’d say not nearly as good as any of the novellas).

As for the story of City of Songs—it’s a good one. Who doesn’t love a murder mystery? Especially one where the stakes are high. To get the answers they seek, Guyime and Seeker must solve the mystery, which is properly mysterious and immersive. After I finally figured out what was going on, one main mystery still remained. Well, two, I suppose. The why of it was an interesting point, but the main mystery was more than enough motivation to keep reading. A mystery that persisted up until the very end.

TL;DR

Very good tale. And it continues the overarching plot very nicely. I don’t really have any notes or criticisms. Just that while this is a contained adventure, knowledge of the first two books is really helpful to reading it. Luckily Subterranean Press has two hardbacks with your name on them (or ebooks, if you’d prefer). I’d definitely recommend this series, and hope it continues to deliver!

The Pariah – by Anthony Ryan (Review)

Covenant of Steel #1

Fantasy, Epic

Orbit; August 24, 2021

561 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to Orbit Books for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Born into a whorehouse of Albermaine, Alwyn Scribe was raised as an outlaw by the infamous Deckin Scarl. Always quick with a word or a knife, Alwyn was outlaw material at its finest—something that he’d never lose even after becoming a military man. But while fighting under the banner of Evadine Courlain, a noblewoman with apocalyptic visions and the heart of a warrior, he’s seemed to find his true calling.

But that’s the thing about one’s calling: it takes time and living to find. And while Alwyn might just be better at this than he was as a criminal, can any man, no matter how talented, truly overcome life as an outlaw to become a knight? Or will he be stuck in the gutter forever; just another failure with a blade, robbing peasants in a lonely forest?

Bit of a quick recap for me, but I didn’t want to spoil too much. Thing is, despite what was spoiled by the brief—the bit about the King’s army in particular—Alwyn’s life was a mysterious delight to read about, never knowing where the former outlaw would turn next. From friends and companions, lovers and assets, rivals and foes, the people in Alwyn’s wake are what define him. The author’s ability to build deep, flawed, relatable characters pretty much paves Alwyn’s path for him.

Anyone can start in the gutter. It’s not that hard. Raising one’s self up from there is the challenge. And staying alive long enough to do so. It’s quite the journey told here—something almost up to the breadth of Blood Song, be it without all the time spent as a student of the blade. Instead of a military society, Alwyn must rely on his wit, his reflexes, his allies, and his need for vengeance to keep him going.

One of the main differences between Alwyn and Vaelin is that where al Sorna is a leader, Alwyn Scribe is not. Rebecca (from Powder & Page) pointed this out so well in her review. Of how it’s so different from someone rising to become a hero, a leader. How he plays the supporting role so well. She pretty much nailed it. So while it’s his life we live through this, the telling takes on so much of the echoes of whom he chooses to follow in it. Deckin Scarl, Ascendant Sihlda, Evadine Courlain. I mean, there’s time where he’s on his own too, but often it seems that Alwyn simply attaches himself to famous or ambitious folk. That it’s not about how he changes the world, it’s about how those around him will shape it.

”Much preferred him as a miserable sod,” Toria said, her face souring further as she emptied the purse’s contents into her palm. “Four sheks and a quartet of dice. My fortune is made.”

For a bit of the book Alwyn is alone. I mean, while he attaches himself to the infamous, he keeps only his own counsel. But for a good chunk of it he relies on the wisdom of his friends to keep him on track. In particular, of Toria and Brewer. You know how one of your friends is always the angel on your shoulder while the other plays the devil? Of course not. Because people aren’t like that. While some may be less honorable or savory than others, they’re all human. With their own faults and opinions. These two (as well as a few choice others) color the way Alwyn lives near as much as whatever mythical figure he’s following. It’s for the best then that neither one makes a very good angel—more entertaining that way.

An excellent start to what I’m sure will be an excellent new series—provided there’s no Queen of Fire in it. I want the next one so badly now it hurts! Many thanks to Anthony Ryan and Orbit for sending along a review copy!

The Kraken’s Tooth – by Anthony Ryan (Review)

Seven Swords #2

Fantasy, Epic

Subterranean Press; September 30, 2020

136 pages (ebook)

4.4 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Subterranean Press and Netgalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Second entry in the Seven Swords reunites us with Pilgrim and Seeker, fresh off their battle in the Execration against a mad god. While the Seeker remains shrouded in mystery, her path forward has become clear. She seeks a certain girl, sold into slavery, one that bears a striking resemblance to she herself. The Pilgrim however, has been unmasked. Guyime, known to history as the Ravager, seeks the Seven Swords—a collection of demon blades that imbue their wielders with power and unnaturally long life. A life that Guyime would escape.

But to do that he must travel to Carthula and claim the Kraken’s Tooth, a mythical sword said to be lodged in the heart of a long dead Kraken. Accompanying him on this fool’s errand are: Seeker, whose path seems to parallel his own, for now; a powerful sorceress from an equally powerful clan; and her’s father’s slave, a man that never forgets anything he’s ever learned. But will this trio be enough to help Guyime through a maze built from his worst nightmares and memories, or will this fellowship crumble once their quarry is in sight?

Other than the previous Pilgrimage of Swords, the Kraken’s Tooth has nothing to do with any of Ryan’s other work (that I know of, at least). As with the first, I wouldn’t’ve minded a full novel dedicated to this, though it works well enough as an installment of novellas. I’m not a huge fan of novellas, particularly those I’ve seen from the author, but these two have so far broken the mold. Kraken’s Tooth tells a complete story, with no skimping on plot or fantasy. It’s light on details, yet still manages to convey more than enough to paint the Seven Swords in vibrant colors. I had no issue getting into or following the story, and if anything even less imagining it. Any character development does suffer from the lack of material, with details such as interpersonal relationships, reliability or anything more than brief flashbacks are absent. The characters themselves might as well be mannequins, except for Guyime, who has overcome his stoicism from Book #1 and now just seems gruff and distant (and maybe Seeker, who I’m assuming is supposed to just be mysterious, though it’s difficult to tell).

Other than the character aspect, I had no problem getting through Kraken’s Tooth. There was more than enough action and adventure to entertain, while the story holds a political undertone and throws in a bit of mystery and drama that didn’t hurt either. And as I’ve already mentioned, the world is well rendered—with just enough detail left out that the Carthula I imagined likely won’t be the same as anyone else’s—while still getting the most important aspects of the story across. It may be imperfect, but I’d definitely recommend the Seven Swords to any fan of mainstream fantasy, epic, grimdark, and more. I can’t wait to read the next installment and see where the story takes us next!

The Black Song – by Anthony Ryan (Review)

I prefer the UK cover version, but that’s just me

The Raven’s Blade #2

Epic, Fantasy

Orbit; July 28, 2020 (UK)
Ace; August 4, 2020 (US)

498 pages (ebook)

4.2 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

Beware Spoilers for the Wolf’s Call and minor spoilers for the Raven’s Shadow trilogy.

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Orbit, Ace and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

The Stahlhast have laid waste to an entire continent en route to the Merchant Kingdoms of the far east. Kehlbrand, the true Darkblade, thinks himself a living god—though his divine power comes from his connection to a certain stone, one that is inured with the Dark. With this power he controls a vast army of fanatics and mercenaries, murders and rapists, along with the righteous and those simply seeking glory. Together they’ve proved unstoppable, carving a trail of blood and ashes from sea to sea. And nothing can stop their conquest of the Merchant Kingdoms, and maybe even the entire world.

Nothing, except maybe Vaelin Al Sorna.

Known to the Darkblade as the “Thief of Names”, Vaelin has yet to prove much more of an annoyance than a gnat provides to a dinosaur. But with his allies on the run, his own army in disarray, and one of his truest friends dying; the tides are about to turn. For the Blood Song—the same song he lost so many years before—is again within reach. For with his last breath, Ahm Lin has offered up his own blood so that Vaelin can regain this precious gift. A gift he cannot face the Darkblade without.

But when Vaelin drinks his blood, the song that comes is not his own. It is vile and tainted, a tune that demands death above all else: a Black Song. But while this gift might yet save the world from the Darkblade, it will surely doom Vaelin Al Sorna.

My history with Vaelin is somewhat complicated. I loved my introduction to the Fifth Order back in 2013, and Blood Song is still one of my favorite books. Tower Lord, on the other hand, was… okay. Not a bad read, but not great, either. But when compared (and as a successor) to Blood Song—it was terrible. I honestly hated the turn the series had taken so much that I didn’t even bother to read Queen of Fire. Still haven’t, even.

When Anthony Ryan chose to return Vaelin as the sole lead last year, I was cautiously optimistic. Optimism was quickly followed by relief and love. While I didn’t like the Wolf’s Call quite as much as Blood Song, it was a damn good read. The Black Song is to the Wolf’s Call that the Wolf’s Call was to Blood Song. That is—it’s a great read, but not quite as good. But not anywhere near the disaster that I found Tower Lord.

The world-building itself is kinda lazy. It borrows very heavily upon earth itself. The Stahlhast and Steppe parallel the Mongols and their Steppe. The Merchant Kingdoms (and Cantons) represent China, Japan, Korea and the like, down to their very names and historic attitudes. The Opal Islands are a continuation of South Asia to even Oceana, with their jungle and mythical beasts.

The setting is similarly lame. It’s pretty much the Mongoliad in the world of the Raven. An unstoppable horde rolls over everything in its path, in its quest to conquer the world. The living god, the connection to the Dark, the later stages of the book—all these are new and interesting. I was more forgiving of this in the first book because of the Steppe. I’ve always been a sucker for Mongolian and Tibetan culture and civ. While I like China and Japan and such too, it’s harder to avoid the comparisons now, and how they’re pretty much just the same civs with different names. Like, all of them.

It’s the same great story, though. Vaelin is a little more stoic than he was at the beginning, but nowhere near as cold and aloof as we saw in Tower Lord. The Song itself is intriguing. Rather than an old friend come home, it’s a different tune—one that takes a different telling—something that demands chaos and blood, instead of the orderly one seen in the first trilogy. Where Al Sorna has changed, the Song has as well, and it lends a different… vibe to everything. Where the Wolf’s Call dipped into the iron will and horse culture of the Steppe, the Black Song is definitely a book about kings, emperors, and courtly politics. I mean, it’s not ALL politics or anything. If it was, I wouldn’t’ve read it. There’s action, violence, intrigue, adventure and more—but there’s also courtly etiquette and politics.

My favorite part of the book is Part 3, where we explore the Opal Islands a bit. Due to spoilers, I obviously can’t go into much detail, but there’s jungle, myth and legend, the unknown, and adventure galore. The ending is truly innovative, but can also come off as odd. I mean, a lot of the stuff in Part 3 caught me by surprise, but not in a bad way. It even feels an adventure at times—which I loved, but that’s me. It reminded me of Uncharted (the game) where… actually, never mind, I can’t because spoilers. Sufficient to say it has a different vibe than the other two parts and leave it at that.

TL;DR

The conclusion to the Raven’s Blade duology, the Black Song introduces some new plot mechanics, characters and settings, while retaining the war, antagonist, and overall feel of the Wolf’s Call. With a great story and excellent protagonist in Vaelin Al Sorna, it’s a book I could read over and over happily enough for years to come. While a much better successor to the Wolf’s Call than Tower Lord was to Blood Song—the Black Song isn’t perfect by any means. The setting and world-building are honestly just lazy. As we explore what’s pretty much just Asia, there’s much to take in. Politics mingle with action and war; violence, bloodshed and courtly pandering alternating in a pleasant mix. Despite the near-constant change in setting, I never felt the pacing lag, nor did the story ever bore me. It was good, consistent, and Al Sorna-y. A must read for all Vaelin Al Sorna fans—if you liked Wolf’s Call, you shouldn’t have any trouble.