To Blackfyre Keep – by Anthony Ryan (Review)

The Seven Swords #4

Epic, High Fantasy

Subterranean Press; September 30, 2022

147 pages (hardcover)

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9 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Subterranean Press @SubPress for the lovely physical ARC! All opinions are my own.

Please beware minor spoilers for the Seven Swords Books #1-3!

Guyime, once named “The Ravager”, once famed king of the Northern Realms, carries on his search for the Seven Swords—for by uniting them as one he hopes to free himself from their curse, and save Seeker’s daughter while doing so.

Advised to aid the cause of a lovesick knight, the party ventures to Blackfyre Keep, a cursed ruin amidst the Northlands, where war and famine rage, and something even more dangerous lurks. This knight has been tasked with taking and holding the cursed keep for a year to win the hand of his lady love—a task that is thoroughly unfeasible even with the involvement of three of the demon blades.

But Guyime doesn’t plan on sticking around.

Only in finding and mastering the fourth sword can his quest continue, and he has a very strong suspicion that the blade he seeks is somewhere in the depths of Blackfyre Keep. They’ll just have to live long enough to claim it.

Cursed I am, but it was always a useful curse.

So, by Book #4 we pretty much know what we’re going to get from this series. There’ll be a demon-cursed sword, some amazing locale to house it—like a hidden tomb, a cursed keep, a stratified city, a god’s chamber—someone to wield it, and a competition to claim it. If you were expecting something different—well, you’re out of luck.

What you see is what you get. Though not everyone might survive to see it.

There’s something quite nice about that, if I’m honest. I don’t have to worry overly about my favorite characters dying, I don’t have to worry about catching every aspect of the plot, I can just sit back and take it all in. Because I absolutely adore the world of the Seven Swords, and would read pretty much any story set in it. With such a simple and straightforward plot that’s basically episodic by now, it frees up Anthony Ryan to dream up new and more fantastical elements of his world than ever before. If you’ve accompanied me to Book #4 then you’ll know what I mean.

So, we have an episodic book and the expectation of another sword by the end of it. What’s next?

I’d argue the adventure itself takes priority. And the adventure here is a good one. It’s not perfect, by any means (one can only bottle lightning so many times, after all), but it’s another entertaining episode, where our heroes journey to a cursed keep and confront an ancient evil. Again, there’s some travel time in the beginning, so we get yet another glimpse at the incredible world the author has dreamt up. There is mystery, there is tension, there are military and horror and supernatural elements threading through a wonderful fantasy tale.

As with the other Seven Swords installments, Blackfyre Keep is light on details (the review copy I received was only 147 pages), which—while you’d expect that from a novella—I found just a bit more shallow than the others in sequence. The title “To Blackfyre Keep” is telling, as that’s the destination. In the other installments our party spent time searching upon the way, but here (apart for a single brief exception) we head straight to the keep before the story really begins.

TL;DR

If you’ve arrived at this point in the Seven Swords, you should know how this works. A place, an enemy, a sword to claim. A challenge in claiming it. It’s pretty much that simple. While episodic, it’s another investing adventure with an entertaining story and interesting characters. Though the world doesn’t feel as interactive as in past installments, the world around remains as detailed and immersive as before, with wondrous locations and terrifying scenes. Not much more I can say about this. If you’ve reached this point of the series, you’re sure to enjoy this one. If you haven’t—I guess you won’t be reading it anyway. If you’re wondering whether it’s time to pick up the series—I’d say yes, but I guess you could always just wait it out and binge them all at once. Got another 2-4 years wait, in that case. Easier to just start now, eh?

Note: The Subterranean Press version is doubtless a work of art in itself, but the entry point is $40, which, if I’m honest, I probably wouldn’t pay for a novella, regardless of how good it is. Still though, if you fancy a piece of history, might I suggest the Lettered Edition? Preorders are up for this $300 book. Otherwise, perhaps the ebook version? It usually retails for $3-5.

Black Heart: Words on Wind, Adrift on Dreams of Splendor – by Mark Smylie

Black Heart #1 / Artesia #2

High Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Self-published; February 21, 2022

235 pages (ebook)

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Please beware minor spoilers for the Barrow.

Give them a chance to be cruel, and they will love you for it.

You know, for a book I never thought I’d read, Black Heart: Part 1 was pretty damn good. Fresh off a reread of the Barrow, it was good to drop back into that same niche, the groove, and explore more of the highly detailed, immersive world of Artesia. While Part 1 is mostly used for building the coming story, there are a few things I’d like to note.

Other than sex, the same formula as the Barrow
There was no graphic sex or mention of cocks until nearly the two hundred page mark! It was weird. Luckily Smylie squeezed one scene in before the close of Part 1, so if you were only reading this one for the lurid fantasies—take hope!
If instead you were reading it for story- and world-building, yeah, there’s a lot of that. Black Heart uses the same formula that the Barrow did before it. Namely, a bleak starting location, heavy on the action, then a break to build the world and splay the threads wide.

Not a whole lot of repeated POVs.
As a buildup for the rest of the book to follow, Part 1 skips around a lot after leaving Stjepan and Erim outside Devil’s Tower. The story begins right after the events depicted in the Barrow, as the adventurers continue on, searching for Gause Three Penny as they hinted they might at the end of the last book. We spend a bit there, but following their departure, the overall plot zooms out a bit. POVs include the Nameless, the Guilds, the Council, the Lords and Ladies of the city, and another special guest.

Despite the time it took, it’s still the same Artesia
I confess to being a little worried the world would’ve changed after such a long absence. But as I read the Barrow right before this I can tell you for certain that it was just like stepping out of one story and into the next. The world around doesn’t change, nor does the immersion—so it’s back into the breach right away, just like no time has passed.
I’ve never read the graphic novels, but this was the same world I remember from Book #1, no problem.

It’s a good start to Book #2
When it comes right down to it, this is what matters. Whether the story is good or not. And, well, it is. The pacing is a bit slow at times, as we have to read through several new characters while the author builds up the world, but otherwise I had no complaints. Can’t recommend the entire thing yet as I haven’t read it all. But from what I’ve seen thus far, there was no reason to worry!

Coming next, Black Heart: Part II: In the Coils of a Horned Serpent!

The Martyr – by Anthony Ryan (Review)

Covenant of Steel #2

Fantasy, Epic

Orbit; June 28, 2022

526 pages (paperback)

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9.0 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Orbit for the lovely ARC! All opinions are my own.

Devotion is inherently nonsensical

Once an outlaw and vagabond, Alwyn Scribe has moved up in the world. Former scribe of the Covenant Company, he now serves as spymaster and sworn protector of Lady Evadine Courlain, the Risen Martyr, whose visions of the apocalypse—called the Second Surge—have divided the kingdom around her.

Evadine’s status as a living martyr has put her at odds with both the Crown and the Faith. Though behind her stand rank upon rank of her converts; barely fed, untrained, fanatics. The Crown and Covenant possess enough of a standing army to make a bloody fight of it, should it come to blows.

Which it has not—yet—as Evadine remains a loyal subject. It seems there exists a plan to see her dead without a bloody revolution, as soon Alwyn and the company are dispatched to Alundia to quash a rebellion; a faith that sees Evadine as more of a whore and heretic than her own. Here they are set up in a ruin and commanded to raise the King’s banner, distribute a list of traitors for deliverance, and hold until the King arrives with his army. Such is basically a death-sentence and all know it. But what choice do they have?

Here Alwyn finds more than just a war for the faith, a division of kingdoms. While he’s never been sure what to think of Evadine—whether she is a sycophant or insane—he knows she remains sworn to a better future. Despite their link, (or because of it) maybe that is something he can follow, to the end.

A man who isn’t truly a king stands ready to greet a woman who isn’t truly a martyr.

I have often reflected upon the notion that the worst thing about having true friends is missing all of them when they’re gone.

The Pariah was one of my favorite books of 2021, an introduction to Alwyn Scribe: outlaw, pariah, prisoner, scribe, liar. The Martyr takes Alwyn in a different direction. Heck, it opens with him as a knight. Well, kind of a knight. In fact, it actually opens with him laid up with a cracked skull and a hallucination taken up residence in his head. It’s quite an up and down for old Alwyn, beginning at the outset of the Pariah, and I am happy to report that it carries on throughout the second book. Never a dull moment.

A nicely paced novel cobbled together with solid world-building, fascinating characters, and an interesting premise—yeah, it ticks all the boxes for me. There is a slight pacing issue over the second half, and the story took me a good while longer to get into this time around, so I didn’t love it quite as much as its predecessor—but all in all it’s another marvel. The mystery of the Sack Witch grows to another level, as does Evadine’s status and what it means for the continent. Alwyn’s status, on the other hand, often changes chapter to chapter. Never a dull moment, as I said.

And… yeah. I’m not really sure what else to say about this. It’s good. Read it? I mean, that’s pretty much my recommendation, especially if you enjoyed the previous one. And if you didn’t enjoy the previous one… why not? Read it again and enjoy it this time. Then read the Martyr. I cannot wait to see where the story goes from here!

Daughter of Redwinter – by Ed McDonald (Review)

Redwinter Chronicles #1

Fantasy, Epic

Tor; June 28, 2022 (US)
Gollancz; June 30, 2022 (UK)

345 pages (ebook)

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10 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Orion & NetGalley for the eARC! All opinions are my own.


Those who see the dead soon join them.

Seventeen year-old Raine knows what she wants out of life, and has it. A man that loves her, a life where she’s respected, a group she’s protected in so much that she almost feels loved. The only problem is that her new family is on the run and holed up in a decaying monastery—which has started widening the cracks in her perfect life.

Maybe her love isn’t so perfect. Braithe is great, but at twice her age he should know better. He yells and belittles and raises his hand to her far too often, to the point that Raine is starting to feel like nothing but a bedwarmer. Her perfect family is less than perfect as well. The sisters preach about the colors within, and their followers eat it up. But Raine isn’t a believer. In fact, she’s never felt like one of them less.

But her die is cast and her lot chosen. She’s with them to the death—especially since death is coming for them all.

In the form of a lost apprentice, hunted by her Draoihn brethren. One that Raine helps, and who repays her by trying to summon an ancient evil unto the world.

An evil Raine helps defeat, but only just. After which she is whisked off to Redwinter by the Draoihn pair, as a witness to the foiled end of the world plot. But after being spared certain death, Raine is now confronted by a probable and much worse end. For if they knew her secret—her ability to see and commune with the dead—these warrior mages would kill her in a much more spectacular and painful manner.

As she lingers in Redwinter, Raine finds more than she ever could’ve hoped, but far less than she might have dreamt of: a life, albeit not one she expected; friends, though they might turn on her if they ever found out her secret; power, though it’s temperamental and impossible to control; and a plot, one she’s got to get under control before it burns her new home down around her.

I began to have a life. It was not a life I had wanted, but it was the one I was living, and one cannot always swim against the tide.

Earlier this month I read a review from Rebecca over at Powder & Page, which proclaimed this as a potential book of the year candidate. Now, I thoroughly adored McDonald’s last series and was ecstatic to hear her praise. And even more excited, as the book did not disappoint.


Friendship is easy to claim and dangerous to test.

I thought I had this pegged as soon as we prevented the ancient evil from releasing itself on the world. I was wrong.

This was not a “teen discovers powers”, “teen goes to magic school”, “enter hijinx and tomfoolery and maybe the end of the world”, like I expected. Sure, it has many of those characteristics—so many that it really looks like it’s going to follow the same pattern. And then the plot takes a left turn. Even further on, when I thought we’d fallen back into the original pattern—it takes another abrupt turn. I’m not going to spoil either of these, but they’re as surprising as they are entertaining, and—better yet—they work really well. The twists may not be world-changing, but they do just enough to change the story while keeping the pace and flow intact.

Raine is an excellent character. She’s young and foolish. She’s clever and witty. She’s pessimistic but hopeful. She has darkness within her, but light as well. She’s… human. Well designed, well portrayed, well written. She’s by far the strongest character, though the others are well written as well. Often profoundly so. Ovitus was among one of my favorite characters just for his sheer complexity. He’s not a particularly… charming character, though he does have something about him that makes him appealing. He’s just so interesting—especially in how he interacts with the world, the other characters, Raine herself—that he’s a fascinating character to read. Raine was by far my favorite, though a few of the others grew on me over the story’s course.

What else do I really have to say about this? Well, not too much as it turns out. I could rave about how well everything is done or about how much I loved every bit of it, but sadly I don’t think this would be enough. The only thing I can really do is tell you to read it, and recommend it whole-heartedly.

TL;DR

Not much to say here, except that Daughter of Redwinter continues Ed McDonald’s strong course of written works. I won’t even bore you by recapping the details. Everything was strong, in my opinion. A great world, great characters, story, blah blah blah. This is (very, very likely) my book of 2022 thus far. Go read it.

The Barrow – by Mark Smylie (Review)

Sword & Barrow #1

Grimdark, Fantasy, Epic

Pyr; March 4, 2014

587 pages (paperback)

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8.5 / 10 ✪

With the long-awaited release of Black Heart earlier this year, it was time to revisit the world of Artesia via The Barrow, a prequel adventure to the comics/graphic novels that I’ve not yet read. What I remembered about the book I read back in 2014 could’ve filled… well, a paragraph? A short one, at least.

Deep and extensive world-building. A highly addictive read full of adventure, magic, darkness, intrigue, and bloody fights. Also, very graphic sex.

Which… yeah, is basically the Barrow in a nutshell. But let’s go a little deeper, shall we?

To find the Sword, unearth the Barrow. To unearth the Barrow, follow the Map.

Stjepan Black-Heart, murderer, royal cartographer, and adventurer, is desperate for success. But then he’s traversed the whole of the Middle Kingdoms—even escaping their bounds, and crossing the continent itself. But for his greatest adventure, he must turn to somewhere oh so close to home.

When asked just who she was, Erim wasn’t sure what to say. But after a trip to Manon Mole, she would’ve said she was Stjepan’s man. Only hiccup being that she ain’t a man at all, but a woman masquerading as one. What she may lack in confidence, Erim makes up in skill. Her skill with a blade, specifically. But this latest adventure may answer a few questions for her—if it doesn’t kill her first.

Harvald Orwain is the youngest son of a once great house, determined to retrieve his family’s honor. He’s also a troublemaker, thief, and architect of the crew’s current mission. After all, only a miracle can resurrect their family name. A miracle, or a mythical sword.

The sword Gladringer is one of the most legendary blades in creation. Used by the last Dragon king to slay the Wormlords and their hell-forged swords, it was lost by a lord known forever as the Fumbler, and fell out of hand and into legend. However, rumor has it that it was taken up by Azharad, an evil warlock without equal, and was buried with him in his barrow when he fell. Many adventurers have set out to find this blade, and only a few returned empty-handed.

Because most never returned at all.

The problem with the barrow is, while it’s thought to exist in the Bale Mole, its precise locale is lost to time. And the Bale Mole is as vast as it is deadly. And yet Harvald and Stjepan have hope. Because they have found something that no one else has.

A map.

But even with a map, a quest into the Bale Mole is fraught with danger. They’ll need a some weapons, some talent, some expendables—they’ll need a crew.

Gilgwyr is a brothel owner and exceptional pervert. The only thing he likes more than sex is power, and the coin to enable it. Leigh, a magus who may not be the evil wizard he was exiled for, but he’s definitely gone a little bit crazy in his years alone. Arduin Orwain is the scion of Harvald’s house, brought low by scandal. Annwyn is the beautiful cause of said scandal. Godewyn Red-Hand is a mercenary, murderer, rapist, and professional asshole. But where the crew is headed, they’ll need all the help they can get.

Wilhem Price and Sir Colin Urwed were walking around the Ladies’ Tent, marking a sentry circle, scanning the field and hills around them, when they heard something like a whisper come up from the hill. They turned and looked up the hill just in time to see a plunge of dust jet out from the entrance to the barrow some six hundred paces away up the stone steps. The two of them took a few steps toward the hill and stopped, then looked at each other.

A bloody, violent, brutal romp through half the empire to the tomb of an evil necromancer. Absolutely filled with violence, lore, graphic sex, and “oh FUCK” moments. Supported by tension, mystery—and lore the likes of which is rarely seen. Did I mention the graphic, graphic sex? It’s like, I mean, I can’t judge personal preference or taste but… it’s borderline too much. Beastiality, incest, consenting adults and all that. I mean, it’s definitely noticeable, especially in the beginning. But then the adventure takes over.

This is the dark fantasy you always wanted. Or never wanted to see. Or… probably somewhere in between.

And if the graphic sex didn’t scare you off, the gratuitous violence probably won’t either. But, to be fair, it really isn’t the worst I’ve ever seen. It’s definitely grimdark level combat, but Smylie doesn’t have the bloody red streak that you’ll see in Abercrombie and Lawrence. But he does have his own personal touch (what with the all sex and such).

The adventure, the quest is the reason to come and the reason to stay. Set in a world of deep lore and meticulously built from the ground up, Artesia is truly a wonder, say what you will about how it comes across. There’s just so much to it—the depth keeps going. Sometimes this was borderline too much as well; unwanted info that otherwise spoiled the mood, or more likely the pace, though I really couldn’t find myself caring overly much about it. This is the Barrow’s charm, you see. You take one with the other. And to go on this legendary adventure, you’re going to have to pick up a bit of its history. History that was mostly quite entertaining. I only ever really noticed it near the end. Otherwise, I didn’t care.

The adventure itself… well, it’s a treasure hunt through a kingdom of lords and thieves. Of whores and ladies. Of magic and mystery. Of darkness and… darker darkness. It’s everything that you ever dreamt when you first read Narnia and though “hmmm that doesn’t seem realistic”. It’s a treasure-hunt with all the blood and sex and battles and undead and intrigue and mythos and more. It’s a hell of an adventure and a hell of a read.

And it’s just the beginning.

Black Heart, the second Sword & Barrow novel by Mark Smylie, is currently available in three parts as an ebook, but has yet to be picked up by any publisher. If you’re curious about the story there, I’ve a bit of a series of posts about it. I’ll throw the links in down at the bottom. The final entry in the Sword & Barrow, Bright Sword, is in the works. Smylie has said he’s started working on it already, and with Black Heart finally releasing, I’m actually hopeful we’ll see it in the next few years.

• Black Heart Updates •

BH IBH IIBH IIIBH IV

Beautiful World of Books – Special

Welcome to a special month-long edition of the Beautiful World of Books, where I showcase one of my favorite series of all time! Now I know that some of the rest of you have your own opinions on whether or not this series is all that great or not (but it is, and that’s that;) —but hopefully you’ll be okay as we spend a few weeks examining the covers that we’ve seen over the course of this 15 book series!

As this is such an expansive and world-renowned series, I’ll be covering it in quite a few posts, starting with the first four books—Eye of the World, The Great Hunt, The Dragon Reborn, and Shadow Rising—along with the prequel, New Spring. After that I’ve a tentative schedule I’ll be looking to follow, but if you know anything about me it’s that schedules and I often have… an issue.

  • From the Two Rivers (Books #0-4) – Thursday, April 14th
  • Early Special Editions (Books #1-2, mostly) – Thursday, April 21st
  • The Rise of the Dragon (Books #5-9) – Thursday, April 28th
  • The Art and Lore of the Wheel of Time – Thursday, May 12th
  • The Breaking of the World (Books #10-14) – Thursday, May 19th
  • Recap and All together (Books #0-14) – Thursday, May 26th

So, please come back tomorrow for the start, or stay away while I rant about how much nostalgia I get from this series. Haha kidding—I promise I won’t do that, like, too much…

Also, just a note, I won’t be talking about the Amazon series at all, mostly because I haven’t seen it. And don’t plan to. You see, I have it all imagined and pictured a certain way in my mind, and I’m not interested in seeing it done up any other way. But if you want to tell me about it, that’s cool. I’m just not going to watch it.

The Bladed Faith – by David Dalglish (Review)

Vagrant Gods #1

Fantasy, Epic

Orbit; April 5, 2022

470 pages (paperback)

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8 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Orbit for sending me a lovely physical ARC! And additional thanks to David Dalglish for taking the time to chat with me a bit more about it! All opinions are my own.

How did one weigh one atrocity against another?

According to David Dalglish, this is his 20th novel (something I’m not going to measure or question at all and just go with)—and what better way to mark the occasion than with a review…? Okay, okay, I guess I could’ve got him a gift or something. Might have to, after this goes live. Because while I did quite like the book, it wasn’t quite the adventure that the Keepers was, nor the chaos of Shadowdance.

But we’ll get into that later.

When Prince Cyrus was twelve, the Everlorn Empire came to his shores. A quick and decisive battle later, his fleet was demolished, his city burned, his gods defeated, and his parents killed. Taken prisoner to legitimize the Empire’s rule, for two years Cyrus was paraded about as the captive prince, until the execution of his gods gave him an opportunity to escape.

Now, holed up in the Thanet countryside, Cyrus is given his one chance to strike back at the Empire that took everything from him. The fledgling resistance—such as it is—needs a figurehead to legitimize their cause, and the former prince is perfect for the job.

But, his road to revenge isn’t to be an easy one. For while the island needs an heir, the path to freedom is not paved with diplomacy. Not entirely, at least. Instead Cyrus is secretly trained to be a killer: a god of blood and fury, wielding twin sabres and hidden behind a skull mask and cloak.

The Vagrant rises to protect Thanet, and to see its invaders to the shores.

But not all is as it seems. Cyrus’ god-given right to rule is not as solid as he once thought, and the mantle of the Vagrant isn’t the heroic role he imagined. Soon he will discover the real weight of his duty—and the price of his vengeance.


“You took from me everything I loved. My parents. My kingdom. Even my gods. I can’t unmake the loss, but I can make you hurt. I can make you afraid.

“And you will come to fear me, monsters of the empire. You will fear the Vagrant Prince when he comes to reclaim his crown.”

He lowered his swords. A smile cracked his stern expression to match the one on his mask. He laughed to himself, mood unable to remain serious for so long.

“Hopefully.”

As tales of vengeance go, the Bladed Faith is the start of a pretty good one. An impressionable boy willing to do whatever it takes to avenge the deaths of his parents, his gods, his kingdom. Willing to kill for Thanet’s freedom, even at the expense of his life. But the deeper he goes down the rabbit hole, the more he questions it. The more he learns, the more it haunts him; the lives he’s ended, the path he’s taken, the secrets he’s found. There’s a very real sense, throughout the book, that Cyrus is keeping it all together through sheer force will, maybe bound by scotch tape and bits of string. His mental heath is way past questionable even before he was imprisoned by the invaders that destroyed his whole world. That he’s just going to come to pieces at some point, some point soon. And the secrets that he learns—I mean, I can’t give anything away here, but it sets up an epic conclusion, one I truly did not see coming.

And while it’s great to see an author address the health and stress and mental battles coming with killing so much (and that becoming a “heartless killer” isn’t something that a person can just turn on and off with no repercussions), I would’ve actually liked to have seen a bit more of it. Let me explain. When you really get into it, the Bladed Faith boils down to two key aspects: fight scenes, and the exhaustion that comes after. I mean, yeah, there’s some set-dressing, some political intrigue, some world-building and lore and whatever else. But the key moments—especially after the halfway point—boil down to the fight, and what follows it.

It’s really hard to complain about the fight-scenes. It’s not like some books where that’s all there are, or others where they are too few and too far between. Plus Dalglish writes them so well! There a good amount of battles, scraps, prowling rooftops, ambushing soldiers, screwing up and having to fight their way out. When the battle is raging, the battle-lust is high. But when the red leaves their eyes—especially for Cyrus—the aftermath is near as intense as the actual fight. That said, it feels… incomplete, somehow. See, there’s usually a cutaway between the fight and the exhaustion that follows. A break in the narrative that occurs just at that point where it goes from “kill kill kill” to “what have I done?”. I think that’s one of the reasons it never felt really fulfilling to me. The other being that none of Cyrus’ heartfelt moments after seem to come to fruition. And while I understand the reasoning behind the latter, I don’t so much for the former. When it works—as it does quite often—there’s nothing to complain about. When it’s done well, it really gets you thinking, considering the story from a new perspective. But it doesn’t always work. There’s a… for a book that strives so much to detail the emotions of its protagonists, this seems like a strange tactic. Just a break when emotions are running their strongest, or their weakest; when the battle-lull sets in, and the lust fades. Yes, there’s plenty of time spent examining what happens after, but it’s “some time after”, not “directly after”. I suppose what I’m objecting to (as it’s not even that obvious to me) is the break in the range of emotions. We’ve had the highs of the battle. Then there’s a break. And now we’re dealing with the lows of the experience. This is predominantly what I remember happening (there are a few that go: highs of battle, then a lull, then a break, or lull to full downturn, but really nothing that encompasses the whole thing)—I suppose all in all, it seems a rather minor thing to harp on, but in a book that seems to spend so much time on the emotions of becoming a hardened killer, it really doesn’t ever seem to focus on the entire range of emotions.

For the resistance against such an enemy as the Everlorn Empire, whose borders span pretty much the known world, the tiny isle of Thanet is the perfect setting. We don’t have to focus on the world in its entirety. There aren’t a lot of unconnected POVs placed strategically amidst a vast sea. We focus on a little island a hundred leagues from the mainland, and the whole of the story takes place here. While there is lore about the rest of the empire, especially the farther we get on, the reader only has to really focus on Thanet. I really liked this; I thought it worked really well. While I was curious about the larger world (I always am—I can’t help myself), I was happy enough to concentrate on this one part of it so long as the story centers there. Now the author has hinted that the Vagrant Gods trilogy could just be one piece of a much larger tale—one that surely would involve a glimpse of the much larger world—there are no specifics at this point. And while I will admit that some fantasies that span the entire globe do turn out to be AMAZING, they can be quite overwhelming at first. And some readers can burn out on them quite quickly. The smaller, more centralized story here shouldn’t suffer the same. And while some readers will invariably DNF this, it’s likely not the number had it been a universe-spanning, millennial-long tale of truly epic proportions.

TL;DR

I’m not sure what the future holds for the Vagrant Gods, but I know I’m on-board for it. While it’s not the perfect execution in my mind, the Bladed Faith deals with far more than the stabby-stabby bits of an impressionable youth turned hardened killer. There’s quite the range of highs and lows, emotional and mental fortitudes, and long, hard looks at oneself within. And though the emotional range is a little lacking to what I might’ve liked, it’s far more than that of other books and media where our protagonist flips a switch between killer and average guy like it’s nothing at all. This story of vengeance takes place in the secluded corner of a truly vast empire, and rarely stretches beyond its shores. Yes, there is a bit of lore and history of the Empire and its wars, but for the most part our attention remains glued on Thanet. And I loved that. I thought it worked quite well as the introduction to a possibly grander story. It doesn’t overwhelm or distract the reader with dozens of POVs over thousands of miles; it concentrates on this little isle, so long as the story centers here. Which it does throughout the Bladed Faith, at least.

I’d also suggest carrying on after the main attraction to read the author’s note. These are hit-and-miss, often little more than kudos to everyone who made the book possible (which is great, I’m not criticizing them), but Dalglish’s often include much more. The writing process; his state of mind; how the story evolved, sometimes even through publication. I always love reading these, and this one is no different. In it, he describes the tale that the Bladed Faith could have been. What it started out as, and how it became what it is. Honestly, I’d love to post the entirety of it, but I’ll have to talk to the author first. Or, you know, you could just buy the book and read it then;) I will have a little Q&A later this week where I ask things about what this series could’ve been, and why it wasn’t—so maybe check back for that in the meantime.

The Long War – Beautiful World of Books

I’ve read A.J. Smith only twice before—having stalled in the middle of not one, but two of his series’ sequels. The trilogy he’s currently writing is the Form & Void trilogy, but the one that started it all was the Long War tetralogy, a series of epic, dark fantasy novels Smith wrote; set in a world he created over several years of tabletop gaming. While I’ve been having issues getting into the books themselves, the world is very finely crafted and vividly imagined. And while I continue to hear good things about the series, I’m not sure this is a story I’ll ever experience to fruition.

But I can show off the covers.

The Long War

To be honest, while I find the cover of the Black Guard somewhat interesting, the next two—the Dark Blood (#2) and the Red Prince (#3) (not to mention the Tales omnibus)—are rather boring. Weapons, by themselves, are a bit overplayed in fantasy books, and maybe as a result somewhat pedantic. That said, I quite like the axe adorning the cover of the World Raven. It’s probably my favorite of the four.

Form & Void

These all stick to the same basic sea-theme, but since they’re waaay less generic than the Long War covers. And I kinda like how well they go together.

I’m still planning on continuing the Form & Void trilogy (I need to restart #2, The Sword Falls sometime soon), but I might not ever come back to the Long War. I know Drew would be somewhat disappointed in this decision as I seem to remember him really liking this series, but has anyone else read it? And what do you think? Also, what’d you think of the covers—favorites?

Engines of Empire – by Richard S. Ford (Review)

Age of Uprising #1

Fantasy, Epic, Steampunk

Orbit Books; January 18, 2022

575 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

4.4 / 5 ✪

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

While Torwyn was once a nation based on the will of the Wyrms—five great dragons that granted men magic and ruled the doors of life and death—it is now powered by the might of industry.

And industry is booming.

But industry is only as good as the people that run it—and in Torwyn, industry is run by the Guilds; chief among them the Archwind Guild, whose guildmaster now occupies the Emperor’s throne. Only a step below them sit the Hawkspur Guild, run by the Emperor’s only sibling, Rosomon. It is around Rosomon that the story resolves—her and her three children.

Conall, the eldest son, is dispatched to the frontier, where he hopes to earn honor and fame through military valor. Instead he finds a desert full of enemies, be they human or demon. The sands also hide a conspiracy, one that hints of a coming revolution, one that may shake the empire to its core.

Tyreta, the eldest daughter, the future Guildmaster of the Hawkspurs, is sick of duty. She’s not her brother, and constantly feels the weight of responsibility. A webwainer, she can control and wield the power of pyrestone—a geological component vital to the Empire’s burgeoning industry. When Tyreta is dispatched to visit Torwyn’s overseas colony of New Flaym, it might be just the escape she has been seeking. Or it might change everything for her, including in ways she never thought were possible.

Fulren, youngest son and brightest star of the family, is a talented artificer, one that is destined to lead the Guilds into the new age of industry. If he survives to see it. After being assigned as an escort to a foreign dignitary, he soon finds himself accused and condemned of murder he didn’t commit. A crime that may just start a war.

Industry drives the future of Torwyn. And the future seems bright, for now. But whispers in the Empire’s darkest corners tell of something more: of revolution, of rebirth, of the rise of an enemy long forgotten.

In many ways Engines of Empire is high fantasy at its best. A rich, immersive world, built on the backs of its strong leads, and equally strong characters. A lovely steampunk setting that blends magic with technology, and that pits the new ways against the old. A plot that plays at speculation, at fears, at rumors of revolution, and even darker whispers of unknown evil at its edges. It all comes together to tell an amazing story, one that I had absolutely no trouble tearing through once I got into it.

The problem is that I didn’t get into it right away. While I appreciated that the story was driven by alternating POVs of the same one family, it was this style that somewhat dampened my enjoyment. See, in a story of technology, one that tells of discontent and possible revolution, of an industry built on the backs of the working class, it’s important to see at least some of what the working class is dealing with. The Hawkspurs are each different, each see the world their own way and each want something different for their place in it—but if there’s one thing they’re not it’s underprivileged, downtrodden, working class. I would’ve liked to see at least one POV from the commonfolk, to see what life was like out of a position of inherent power. This is my main issue with the plot, one that really kept me from getting immersed in the story sooner.

That said, it’s also really my only complaint.

The story is a great one—interesting, entertaining, faced-paced at times and slow-built tension at others. There’s not a lot I can say about Engines of Empire, other than you really should read it. There was a lot of hype surrounding the release of this book, and I’m happy to say it was entirely warranted. I’ve read R.S. Ford before; his first series, Steelhaven, was a bit of a mixed bag—partial world-building and mostly human characters, some combination of dark and epic fantasy that never quite figured out what it wanted to be. It’s a good story, but one that leaves something to be desired. It’s been seven years since Steelhaven finished, and it seems that Ford has spent his time since well. Engines of Empire begins a much different series, one with stronger leads, stronger world-building, and a more immersive plot. It’s not that I hated his previous works—it’s more how much I love this new universe. Can’t wait to see where the story goes from here!

The Age of Uprising continues with Book #2, Engines of Chaos, presumably out 2023.

Blood of the Chosen – by Django Wexler (Review)

Burningblade & Silvereye #2

Fantasy, Scifi, Epic

Orbit Books; October 5, 2021

415 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.8 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many, many thanks to Orbit Books for providing me with a lovely, physical ARC! This in no way affects my partiality, or my cynicism. All opinions are my own.

Please beware minor spoilers for Ashes of the Sun.

No need to reread or browse Ashes of the Sun just because you’re a bit foggy on the details! I mean, you certainly could—it’s still a damn good read—but should you not wish to, Blood of the Chosen comes with a series recap and character cast up front. Love these; even if you’re up on the series, I love them being there, so the author doesn’t have to spend the first few chapters intermittently setting the stage while recapping the previous.

Where Ashes of the Sun was my favorite book from last year, Blood of the Chosen is a letdown—it’s not quite as good. This is pretty much like finding a golden idol buried in your backyard and complaining that unlike the last one, this one isn’t quite as shiny. Blood of the Chosen is an amazing read in its own right! (Just not quite as good).

Fresh from the battle for control of Deepfire (and possibly the continent), Gyre returns to the ghouls a failure. Their leader dead; Kit mostly, pretty much dead; and the plans to overthrow the Order pretty much just as likely. But not only does he aim to spin this defeat off as a minor setback, Gyre thinks that he can even talk them into giving him a ton of ancient tech and weapons and money and turning him loose on the southlands to gain allies and blacken some Order eyes. He even may succeed in doing so, after a fashion. But even if he convince the ghouls, uniting the rebel factions in Khirkhaz won’t be so easy. And defeating the Order—less so.

Maya remains with the Order, although she’s a bit unsure of her position there. Meeting with Gyre seems to have caused some cracks, however slight. These are only widened after Maya is sent on a mission to the Forsaken Coast, north and west of Deepfire, to find an Order archive long lost. Lost after the region was overrun by plaguespawn. What she finds here may yet renew her faith in the Order—or shake it to the core. For while she might doubt some of their policies, Maya knows the Order holds the world’s best interests—as well as her own—at its forefront. Unless of course, they don’t.

Where Ashes of the Sun began this amazing journey of brother and sister, Blood of the Chosen continues it. Like Deepfire, Khirkhaz has its own share of ancient relics—both those with obvious meaning and others whose use has been lost to time. The backdrop (the setting) may be different, but is no less vibrant. A few familiar faces come along for the ride, too. In addition to Beq, Varo, and Tanax on Maya’s end, Sarah and Kit have joined Gyre as well. Along with these old characters come new ones—each carrying an interesting amount of mystery and depth as well. While the siblings remain center stage and the cast around them fluctuates, it’s still unclear as to just who may steal the show.

It didn’t take me any more time to get into this than its predecessor, but unlike Ashes of the Sun, there was a small but noticeable lag in the middle. A minor side mission, for each character. While Maya’s did actually pertain to the overarching plot, I can’t say for sure that Gyre’s did. Instead, this stands out as the one baffling choice amidst an otherwise tremendous sequel.

There are some heart-pounding moments in this entry, but some hilarious ones as well. I loved, I laughed, I… never cried, but I did have a lovely time regardless. The action, the romance, the… whatever Gyre and Kit have—all of it was interesting and immersive and exciting. There was a heavy dose of mystery in the air, and not all of it from Maya. While her turn through the archive did sort of steal the spotlight away from Gyre’s second revenge crusade, the two managed to share the focus more or less evenly otherwise. And with that ending…! (The ending was quite good) I can’t wait to see what they get up to in the third!

Supposedly this is just a trilogy, but I’d quite like to see a bit more of the world. While Gyre and Maya’s story might be about to come to fruition, I hope the world itself will have more stories to tell. Unless it up and ends in the third book. In which case, if it’s anything like the rest of this series, it’s sure to be an incredible, bloody, steamy, heartwarming ride! I can’t recommend Burningblade & Silvereye enough—anymore than I an wait until Book #3 is out: at the moment titled Emperor of Ruin, release date TBA.