Book Review: The Wolf’s Call – by Anthony Ryan

Raven’s Blade #1

Fantasy, Epic

Ace Books; July 23, 2019

432 pages (ebook)

4.5 / 5 ✪

About two months ago—when I requested the Wolf’s Call from NetGalley—I was cautious, though not terribly excited. While I loved Blood Song like I’ve loved no book since, the Tower Lord and Queen of Fire subsequently killed any passion I had for Anthony Ryan. I hated QoF so much, in fact, that it got DNFed after I skimmed a few more of Vaelin’s chapters around the 50% mark. I had heard that this new book was supposed to be all about Al Sorna in a way unseen since Blood Song, but wasn’t sold.

Upon my request being approved a month ago, the first thing I did was download the book and skim the first few chapters. The first features an account from someone else—like it did in Blood Song—then sticks to Vaelin like glue. By this time I was more cautiously optimistic, if guarded.

I finished the book on Saturday. And it was a total surprise: I loved it. Not as much as Blood Song, as Wolf’s Call is not without its faults, but they are few enough in number that the story itself can make up for them. I really loved this book. It was great. But when I started this review I noticed an unwillingness to recommend it a 100%. It’s not anything to do with the ending (there’s a bit of a cliffhanger), the pacing (it could be better), or the lack of Vaelin’s song (remember, he lost it). It’s because of Tower Lord.

Tower Lord was a good read. But compared to Blood Song it was shit. Sorry, but it was. Now, I know that Anthony Ryan would be crazy to repeat the same mistake he made before. Kinda like in DBZ when the creators attempted to transition on from Goku. It was so awful and the uproar so great that there’s no way it’d happen again. Except. Except that he already did it once.

So. Anyway.

The Wolf’s Call is set years after the events of Queen of Fire. The Volarians defeated, their lands now in possession of the Unified Realm, the Queen of Fire—Lyrna—now rules over them with an iron fist. But the queen is away, touring the Volarian Empire. So when there is unrest in the Realm, her Tower Lord departs to deal with it. Vaelin Al Sorna is greatly changed from the boy we first met in Blood Song. He has lost friends, lovers, a child, his song, and more besides. He is different, but not so much. And when whispers come from across the sea—a living god, an unstoppable army, a mustering Darkness, Vaelin’s once lover, Sherin—he departs to confront them. Though Vaelin may not wish to see another war, he will not abandon any of his own to such a fate without a fight.

I mean, it sounds good. Right?

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed the return of Vaelin Al Sorna. I think his character development, as well as Nortah’s, is key to the success of the Wolf’s Call. There are a few other returning characters—Sherin, Ahm Lin, etc—but none others that were featured in every book in the original trilogy like the Sixth Order brothers. The secondary characters definitely helped, but in the end, it’s all about Vaelin. His story guides the plot in Wolf’s Call in a way not seen since Blood Song. While I enjoyed the world, the overarching plot and to a lesser extent the setting, the story’s real triumph is its characters. And say what you want about the Raven’s Shadow—but its character development and depth were top notch. I’m happy to report that this carries over quite well.

There’re but a few issues I have with it. I’ve mentioned the future, the pacing, a cliffhanger, the setting—I’ve nothing much more to say about them. The future I can’t control; the pacing’s not too much of an issue, more an annoyance; I don’t care for cliffhangers in general. The book is set in the Venerable Kingdoms, which are pretty much just Dynastic China complete with their own Steppe and Mongol Horde. I mean, it’s obviously China and Mongolia and whatnot, but the author has made an attempt to flesh it out on his own rather than cutting and pasting everything. I would’ve liked to see more of an effort in terms of culture and influence and stereotype, but whatever. It’s hardly anything to ruin the entire book. It’s just a bit disappointing.

The biggest issue I had was that sometimes, more than a little, it feels like Ryan is forcing it. Like he’s forcing everything to go through Vaelin. That’s the issue with having a single primary character. In the first Raven’s Shadow, he told Vaelin’s story. In subsequent books, he split the story between other characters to expand and tell a story about the world. Now, I didn’t enjoy it, but I know why the author chose to do it that way. In the Wolf’s Call, it seems like he’s trying to tell the story of the world, but through Vaelin alone. Meaning that Al Sorna has to be everywhere for everything, and central to every event. And it’s making him feel… stretched thin. And somewhat unrealistic.

And that’s it. That’s my biggest issue with the text. I mean, yeah—I’d definitely buy it. Hardcover, straight-up. And I’m usually pretty cheap. I always loved Blood Song because it could be read on its own, as a single tale. The Wolf’s Call, instead, definitely will connect directly to its sequel. Now I don’t know what that will be. It might be another Tower Lord or Queen of Fire. But, as I said before, I’m cautiously optimistic.

Book Review: Fallen Gods – by James A. Moore

Tides of War #2

Grimdark, Fantasy

Angry Robot; January 2, 2018

10:12 hours (Audio), 401 pages (ebook)

3.5 / 5 ✪

In The Last Sacrifice, Brogan McTyre failed to save his kin, but in trying managed to doom the world. Fallen Gods finds him and Harper Ruttket trying to fix what he’s done, chasing after myths and legends of ancient, fallen gods in an attempt to kill the ones destroying the land. Meanwhile Myridia and the other Grakhul women rush to farther lands where they hope to appease the gods, thus saving the world. Niall, Tully and the other escapees still flee from the undying, though gradually their aim has shifted from survival to something more. The Kings and Rulers peruse their options for dealing with the end of the world, but how desperate are they? As they burn through their choices, and options dwindle, they are confronted with two final chances, each one bearing a terrible price. Beron has already crossed a line, replacing the gods for the power of an ancient demon, but will it help him save the world, while somehow managing to come out atop it? Through it all, everyone seeks Brogan McTyre and his men; to appease the gods, appease the demons, save the world. But the world may be beyond saving, and Brogan’s desperate long-shot might be the only way forwards.

The initial Tides of War adventure was a perfect example of Grimdark fantasy—bleak, dark, relatively joyless—though it delivered relatively little and presented a shallow world with underdeveloped characters set upon a simple revenge tale. The follow-up filled in some of these gaps, though the story at its heart remains one of revenge, there’s a bit more to it now. In addition, the characters have filled out a bit. Instead of the meager, cardboard cutouts we were confronted with in the first installment, Fallen Gods transforms them into some approaching people, though they’re still a bit shallow and basic.

The world has filled out a bit more as well, although in the beginning (the first half or more, actually) the plot simply whisks us away to new skin-deep locales, before finally circling back to fill in the bit of the world it’s shown us prior. And in those later glimpses, I believe we see what will become the norm moving forward, and won’t give any of it away. There’re still brutal and bloody battle sequences, and yet they remind me a lot of what was done in the first book: blood for the sake of blood, combat the same, a dismissive and dark tone surrounding everything but not relating much back to the story itself. It’s almost as if much of the melees and blood and gore were cut-and-pasted on later, to fill out the battles.

The dreary, bleak, darkness that was so evident in the first continues throughout Fallen Gods—to the extent that it’s debatably darker than the first, if that’s possible. Instead of a deliciously dark, immersive story, however, the text is just dark and brooding. It’s like making a dark chocolate bar just because everyone else is doing it, but then forgetting to add ANY sugar.

Though an improvement on the Last Sacrifice to be sure, Fallen Gods still struggles to find its way, its identity, while destroying half the world in the process. While overall the plot and character development struggled beneath the weight of this identity crisis, the latter third of the book seemed to find its way home, setting up for a conclusion that actually appears promising. In short, if you liked the first one, you’ll probably like the second, but if you were on the fence following the initial, well, I think it’s likely worth the $3.50 I paid for it. Hope that helps.

Audiobook Note – I had a tough time warming to Adam Sims in the Last Sacrifice. He certainly makes an effort to engage the reader and keep them engrossed and interested—such an effort that carries over to Fallen Gods. He’s… while not my favorite reader, he does a decent job, though more than a few of his characters (Harper front and center among them) bear quite a nasal whine to their voices. Still, entering the final book of the Tides of War, he’s maintained an enthusiastic air throughout and, while it may not make up for the story itself, nor change his voice and accent entirely, that’s all you can reasonably ask for from a narrator.

Discount Note – I got the Audio CD of Fallen Gods for somewhere around $3.50, to go with the $4ish I paid for the first book (in the same format). Last I checked, the final book, Gates of the Dead, was available for only slightly more, making this an entire series available on a budget.

Gates of the Dead finishes up the Tides of War. It was released earlier in the year.

Book Review: The Grand Dark – by Richard Kadrey

Standalone (?)

Film Noir, Dark Fantasy

Harper Voyager; June 11, 2019

432 pages

2 / 5 ✪

The Grand Dark is a roaring-20’s dark, film noir set in a fictional world with robots, chimeras and more drugs than an entire nation must know what to do with. This vibrant, dark world brings us to the banks of Lower Proszawa, a city at the end of the world. Its populace now revel, having survived the Great War which stole away their sister city, High Proszawa, formerly set across the bay. Though the city can be incredibly vivid and detailed, the lore surrounding it is anything but. The lead POV, Largo, though possessed of visions for his future, is happy now just living for tomorrow. His lover, Remy, stars at the Grand Darkness Theatre itself, and shortly into the tale, Largo lands himself a new gig, complete with higher pay and all the advantages it brings him. Unfortunately, he is soon confronted with a mystery the likes of which he doesn’t even seem to pick up on for over half the book.

The Grand Dark is a perfect example of a good idea let down by its own lofty expectations. Its blurb describes the book as “a subversive tale that immerses us in a world where the extremes of bleakness and beauty exist together in dangerous harmony in a city on the edge of civility and chaos”. Indeed, it is the world itself that makes The Grand Dark a triumph, if for but a moment. Kadrey does well to paint an alluring picture of a nation ravaged by war, on the brink of chaos, its hedonistic populace living for the day rather than saving for the ‘morrow. Except for a few key details.

Despite the mention of the Great War haunting near each and every page in the book, we really never find out anything about it. High Proszawa was reduced to rubble; the Lower city survived; veterans of the war—known as ‘Iron Dandies’—skulk about, their mutilated faces hidden beneath iron masks; and… that’s about it. The enemy is just referred to as “the enemy”, if at all. The cause of the war is never mentioned, or questioned.

In the prompt, and indeed later on in the text, it states the city is on the brink of chaos. Except it doesn’t really feel as though it is. Largo sure as hell never notices it. Or, at least, never points it out. Until one day it pops up and he doesn’t question it. Sure, there is dissenting literature, and a police force attempting to clamp down on it. But Largo isn’t really a political sort, so he pays it no mind. And when the chaos begins, it was as if he knew it would happen eventually.

The hedonism is definitely shown. For roughly 70% of the book, if you’d have told me this was a story of a guy who would alternating riding around on a bike with having sex, only to fill the other 90% in with drugs and booze, I wouldn’t’ve questioned it. Thing is, while there was a bit of mystery lurking around, to that two-thirds mark, no clear plot had emerged.

I have to give the drugs their own mention. From what I’ve read in a number of other reviews, I was not alone in feeling put off by the sheer amount of narcotic paraphernalia. But Largo is obviously an addict, and addicts often do devote an awful lot of time to whatever they’re addicted to. The thing is, for the amount of time Kadrey dwelt on this, I left the book feeling like he didn’t actually know what he was talking about. Later in the story, Largo gives up morphia—it’s not really a plot point, so I don’t feel bad spoiling it. He’s pretty much hopelessly addicted by this point, having been on it pretty much since the war ended. He kicks it, cold-turkey and in a couple days, is feeling no adverse side-effects. I mean… none. It doesn’t seem like the author understands how addiction and withdrawal work. Which is impressive from the sheer amount of cocaine, morphia, hashish and whatnot that is present in the text.

One thing Richard Kadrey has always done well is his dialogue. The Sandman Slim books championed the foul, sarcastic asshole that was James Stark. At first, Largo is a sweet talking, playful scamp, and the entire world around him bends to his will. Despite having so many issues, The Grand Dark benefits from generally interesting conversations—even if the mostly revolve around hallucinogens. Towards the end, this all changes. No spoilers; it just devolves to a quick, dirty way to relay information. It seems that, after the three-quarters mark, the author was just as impatient to get it over with as I was.

Even the positive points I listed for the novel soon fell through. While initially I was entertained by the detailed city, the snippets of lore introduced between chapters, and Largo himself—the appeal of these quickly faded. The further I got in, the more cramped the world felt; nothing outside Lower (and High) Proszawa is even mentioned. The flashes of randomness between chapters became just that—introducing nothing new, just more sex, drugs and more drugs. As for Largo himself… he’s not right for this tale. It just doesn’t work well as told through him. He’s too naïve, too slow on the uptake; it’s almost as if he’s fighting the story that tries to take hold of him.

The bottomline: The Grand Dark is a highly ambitious project—one that just didn’t work out. The author spends overly long developing a story that seems amateurish when it finally comes together. The abundance of narcotics (half the damn book was a constant cocktail of morphia and cocaine), detracted from rather than added to the story. Little to no character development, a city surrounded by fog, references to things that are never revealed, a story that couldn’t wait to finish—are all reasons to skip this book. It wasn’t the worst thing I’ve ever read, but far, faaar from the best.

Book Review: Lost Gods – by Micah Yongo

Lost Gods #1

Fantasy, Epic, Dark Fantasy

Angry Robot; July 3, 2018

432 pages

2.5 / 5 ✪

Lost Gods is the debut fantasy for Brit fantasy author Micah Yongo. It features a setting and world-building reminiscent of feudal Africa, centering around five young warriors of the Shedaím—a brotherhood of assassins that help control the nearby tribes and kingdoms through, well, killing. In particular, the brunt of the story follows Neythan, one of the initiates who is raised in the early stages of Lost Gods and given his first assignment. All five are raised, in fact, and prepare to depart Ilysia.

Twins Josef and Daneel are the first to depart, as their assignments lie farther distant. The other three—Neythan, Yannick, Arianna—follow soon after for Dumea, where Neythan is to kill the chief scribe’s wife. A day from the village, however, Neythan’s priorities change.

He awakens to find himself covered in blood. The bed and room in which he slept are a mess and in a chair nearby lies Yannick, his best friend, his throat roughly cut. Arianna is nowhere to be seen. Men break into the room, and upon seeing the body, finger him for the crime. Neythan eludes them, escaping the room and seeking out Arianna, whom he believes is the true killer.

His search for Arianna leads him out of the town to a river, and to a Watcher, a mythical being of great power and sight. It also leads him to Caleb, an unlikely companion. But Arianna eludes him. Neythan’s chase will take him across the five realms, where he has adventures, does favors for favors, and attempts to seek out the heart of the mystery.

In addition to Neythan, there are three other POVs—Yasmin, wife of a local governor; Daneel, another young assassin of the Shedaím, whom, along with his brother is tasked with killing Yasmin’s husband, Hassan; and Sidon, the young king of Hanezda.

I found Lost Gods very cliché. The noble assassin. Being framed for a murder he didn’t commit. It certainly wasn’t anything I’d call new or groundbreaking. Combined with characters that lacked depth, a story that doesn’t live up to its ambitions, and a mystery that was often not explained well. There were several times that I kept reading but was in the dark about what exactly was going on, and rereading didn’t seem to do any good. I will say that the world’s description was lush and unique, though its characters lacked the same definition. So many of them just seemed to be there to inhabit the space, while the POV characters moved around them.

Another main issue I had with this was its pacing. So often Neythan is described as being impatient or upset that he needs to find Arianna, only to look off at something completely random and then spend the next couple pages describing it. Or entertaining a flashback that isn’t terribly relevant. Or going drinking. The other POVCs are even worse. The plot is one that seems to demand urgency, and yet the characters ignore it. It’s like a chase scene with no running, no panic. Instead like an intense chase-stroll in the park, without any intensity. It just doesn’t make any sense.

The mystery made Lost Gods readable. While not great, there were a couple twists that I didn’t see coming. Although, as I mentioned before, the mystery itself was often not explained well, paving the way for many things I couldn’t’ve seen coming. The POV characters (well, the young Shedaím, at least) were interesting and deep. A few even underwent character growth and development. But not all—not enough, even.

All in all, Lost Gods was an underwhelming debut. A story that tried to little, and mostly failed when it did try. Bland, uninteresting characters detracted from a lush and ofttimes vibrant world. I’d read another, but don’t think I’d pay much for it.

The Lost Gods saga will continue with Pale Kings. It comes out August 13, 2019.

Book Review: Magefall – by Stephen Aryan

The Age of Darkness #2

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Orbit Books; September 4, 2018

438 pages

4.8 / 5 ✪

I actually received a free copy of Magefall a little while after it was published, and am kinda embarrassed to admit that I put it off for so long. Not because of the wait. I read what I like, and sadly it kept getting pushed back. But mostly… mostly because it was really good. I’m a big fan of Stephen Aryan’s books, and this one was no exception.

I really shouldn’t have to say it, but my opinions are my own, and I don’t change them for anyone, even nice people that send me free books. Don’t let that stop you, though.

All books are better when signed. It’s just a fact.

Mageborn saw the fall of the Red Tower. Mages and talents alike became reviled, hated for the magic they were born with. Children showing the spark were no longer delivered so that they might be trained but drowned in rivers or smothered in their sleep. The former high mage’s council has fractured into three; each now traveling their own path. Balfruss—arguably the most powerful mage alive—accompanied by Eloise, he leads his group into the east, and to safety. They are welcomed by the desert kingdoms, but once there, it is difficult to return. Garvey leads the faction of students that refuses to bow, nor to run. They rove between the borderlands of Zecorria and Yerskania, murdering and razing towns that will not allow them succor. They become feared, hated, in equal measure. Wren leads a small group out into the wilds of Shael, where they set up camp and try to learn, grow, survive. They are safe, for now. In Yerskania, Monroe searches in vain for her family, an anger unlike anything the world has seen building within her. In Perizzi, Tammy suffers under the mantle of leadership, trying to guide the Guardians through a web of lies and betrayal, while their country crumbles from within. In Zecorria, the Regent attempts to create his own cabal of mages, but for the safety of it or power it brings only he can say. On another plane, gods and immortals play quite a different game, each with their own pieces and rules. Akosh, one such being, plays a dangerous game. But if she can maneuver it correctly, there waits a sea of certainty and power in an uncertain world. But as always, Vargus lurks nearby, waiting for any that dare cheat. A storm looms, and none know where the wind shall take it.

Magefall continues the Age of Dread trilogy (which follows the Age of Darkness trilogy, and will likely precede the Age of Sunshine and Adorable Bunnies trilogy), which began with Mageborn, and in which Stephen Aryan firmly establishes himself as one of the masters of dark fantasy. The quality of the world continues from the pinnacle it reached in Chaosmage and while most of the POV feature returning characters, there are a few new faces as well. The story is solid and yet toes the line between simply advancing the overarching plot and going off on its own course. It’s… it does advance the Age of Dread plot. But there exist slight distractions between this and the characters’ own individual stories, some of which are more self-contained than threads in a greater story.

The overarching plot isn’t terribly intricate, with the events of Aryan’s debut Battlemage as the main focus. The war that turned people firmly against magic. While the Age of Darkness has ended, and the darkness pushed back, the commonfolk it seems are not eager to return to such a time. And there you have it. Short and sweet. I mean, it’s not terribly inventive, and one could say that Aryan is certainly getting his money’s worth out of his first novel. But it works. And it’s entertaining. So, I don’t really have a problem with it.

I really loved this book. The characters, the depth, the world-building, the plot (even though I found it a bit simple), the writing were all truly amazing. Almost up to Chaosmage levels. I’ve really enjoyed the journey so far, and Magefall did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm.

The most inconsistency Magefall shows is in its characters. Though not their motivations, nor arcs. It’s mostly the POVCs (Point Of View Chapters) in the text. Munroe had increasingly dark POVCs throughout, which—though holding to her deepening thirst for vengeance—made her chapters do little more for me than to move the story along. Akosh was difficult to relate to as all gods are, but particularly the kind of god that you’ve seen in POVCs since Battlemage and are still trying to figure out how they work exactly. But minor players in Book 1; Tianne, Danoph and Garvey stepped into the spotlight. Honestly, two even featured twists I never saw coming. One was so surprising that I keep going back and rereading it. For the most part, the POVs of Magefall I found grossly entertaining, even the few I had trouble relating to. The one-hit wonders provided a bit of struggle, as they do anywhere really. Still, you’re going to encounter that in 99% of novels, and this was by no means flagrant, or a deal-breaker. It may’ve helped hold the book back from a full 5 star rating, but did little else. Magefall is still damn good. And if you haven’t yet read any of Aryan’s books, it’s past time to start.

Pleasantly but not devilishly dark, Magefall features both deep and relatively green characters, both of which help drive its excellent story. While a few, minor inconsistencies and the occasional dropped POV held it back from being something truly special, Magefall is nevertheless one of my favorite Aryan books, and so far the best book I’ve read this year. Can’t wait for Magebane. It drops in June, giving everyone just enough time to catch up on the series if they haven’t already done so.

But.

Literally. Cannot. Wait.