Murder at the Kinnen Hotel – by Brian McClellan (Review)

Powder Mage Universe #0.3

Fantasy, Novella

Self-Published; November 24, 2014

75 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

5 / 5 ✪

Special Detective Adamat may be best detective in all of Adopest. His Knack grants him a photographic memory, one that he utilizes to the extreme, always focused on the bigger picture. The foremost detective of the Twelfth, he’s recently been transferred over to the First Division on the request of Hewi, his previous Captain, when she herself was promoted.

But things work differently in the First, and Adamat has always had issues repressing his gift. Why bother, when you’ve the most impressive crime-solving mind alive? As his world becomes obfuscated by politics rather than facts, Adamat is assigned to a murder at the Kinnen Hotel. It seems an up-and-coming businessman has derailed his promising career by murdering his mistress. But as Adamat digs into the case he uncovers a web of conspiracy, extortion and deceit. It may well be the case that makes his career—if it doesn’t kill him first.

A pleasant, if somewhat bloody introduction to the Powder Mage Universe, the novella provides a glimpse into Brian McClellan’s fantasy world—one that has spawned six full-length novels with over twice as many shorter works to go along with them. After all, what’s better than a good old fashioned murder mystery, albeit one with a few variables and eccentricities thrown in?

My second time through, and this novella delivers yet again. It does exactly what it’s intended to do—entertain, stoke interest in the Powder Mage series, and leave the reader thirsty for more. Although it’s fairly short (only about 75 pages), Murder at the Kinnen tells a complete, contained, finished story that is well thought out and engrossing.

While I’m not a huge fan of paying full-price for any book (while understanding that it’s important to support authors by actually, like, PAYING for their work), Murder at the Kinnen Hotel is worth it in my book. It’s around $3 US if you buy it straight up, but is also one of those you can pick up on sale for a buck or two. Even though it’s only 75 pages, the story’s good, interesting, unique, and it serves as a good intro to the universe—or, instead, some backstory into one its premier characters. Alternatively, you could spring for the novella collection, which again McClellan himself often puts up for sale, but retails at ~$10. I can guarantee you that this will not be the last you hear of this collection from me.

The only questions you’re left with are how much more do you want, and how long are you willing to wait for it?

The Coward – by Stephen Aryan (Review)

Quest for Heroes #1

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Angry Robot; June 8, 2021

411 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to Angry Robot (#AngryRobot) for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

First, I owe an apology to Angry Robot (who kindly provided me with the ARC)—because I thought I’d published this review but just flat out didn’t. Whoops. My bad!

I first read Battlemage half a decade past—my introduction to Stephen Aryan—and immediately fell in love with the world he’d created. Now, six books and 5 years later, The Coward takes us outside of that original world that Aryan had created and on to a new one. And a new adventure.

A decade ago Kell Kressia set out with the greatest heroes of his generation to stop the Ice Lich and save the world. They succeeded, but the cost was great. He returned alone, scarred and broken, haunted by the things that he had seen and had done. Now, ten years later Kell lives as a simple farmer, hidden in the corner of Algany with only his horse Droga for company. But recently even he has heard tell of stirrings in the frozen north, and a rumor that something has taken up residence in the Ice Lich’s old castle.

It’s not long before the King sends envoys to summon Kell to the capital. They want him to return to the north and defeat this evil once again. The first journey nearly broke him. Only after ten years and hundreds of miles separating him from it has Kell managed to recover—though the horrors he faced continue to haunt his dreams. Another journey would destroy him. Even still, a shadow stirs in the north. And it’s up to Kell Kressia to stop it.

The Coward includes a pair of quest lines, drawn out across multiple POVs. One involves the legend that is Kell Kressia as he makes his way north once again. The other, Mother Britak in the city of Lorzi. Now the one with Kell is quite obvious. The title character upon his titular quest. It is this quest line that the story lives and dies on. Mother Britak however…

I mean, I know what her POV is for. It’s in there to set up Book #2. But has fuck all to do with #1. I mean that literally—apart from a few details of note, mostly in Part 1 (there are 3 Parts to the book; Part 1 takes about 120 pages)—Britak’s storyline has nothing to do with Kell’s own quest, and doesn’t even have the decency to resolve itself by book’s end. And it’s got one of those “One True Faith” tropes, where the church ends up being completely wrong and borderline evil, which I find overused nowadays. As I said, I’m sure it’s setting up the second half of this duology, but in terms of the here and now: it really doesn’t have much to do with the story.

In the last twenty years there had been a steady decline in the number of faithful. People were busier than ever with family and other commitments. That was the reason he’d heard most often but those were just excuses. The truth was, believing in something abstract was difficult.

Luckily, the Coward isn’t about Mother Britak. It’s about Kell Kressia, and Kell’s story kills. It’s quite enjoyable. I really liked it. The world, the characters, their motivations and intentions—it’d be a borderline 5 / 5 from me without all that Britak nonsense. Honestly I have no notes regarding Kell’s storyline. None. Outstanding fantasy. A bit dark, a bit epic—and a whole lot of adventure!

TL;DR

The Coward is an outstanding adventure fantasy following hero of the land, Kell Kressia, on his return voyage to the north. He will save the world, or die trying. Or, alternatively, he’ll just piss off and let the kingdom solve it themselves. I really have no issues with the storyline revolving around Kell. A little darkness, a wee bit of danger, a pinch of epicness—and one borderline worthless POV following Mother Britak. Her story rarely intersects with Kell’s, and can only be setting the table for the followup plot in Book #2. As good as I found Kell’s story, her’s was simply pointless. I mean, it’s written well and she’s interesting enough—but it barely connects and it’s Kell’s that steals the show. Luckily, it’s Kell’s that takes up the overwhelming majority of the novel. Still, there’s more than enough here for me to heartily recommend the Coward. A great adventure with excellent characters, heroes, action, and adventure. The one misstep that is Britak is not enough to ruin the good time.

A Desert Torn Asunder – by Bradley P. Beaulieu (Review)

Song of the Shattered Sands #6

Fantasy, Epic

DAW; July 13, 2021 (US)
Gollancz; July 22, 2021 (UK)

528 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

5 / 5 ✪

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

Beware spoilers for the Shattered Sands #1-5

Where can we go when all is lost?

The reign of the Kings has been interrupted, but not all is lost. Though Queen Alansal of Mirea now sits atop the Tauriyat, two of the original Twelve Kings still draw breath in the desert. And both Husamettín and Ihsan remain with the Royal Fleet, committed to retaking the city.

Queen Meryam’s blood magic has been burned from her, yet her ambition still burns strong. Armed with the body of Goezhen and the blessing of the younger gods, she seeks out the Hollow—where the elder god Ashael was bound eons prior. But will waking him deliver her all the power she’s ever desired, or will the god’s wrath fall upon the desert instead?

Elsewhere in the desert Çeda and Emre prepare to confront the Alliance about Hamid’s betrayal, but to their horror the tribes have agreed to unite under his banner. Even as the pair arrive, the Alliance readies to sail to Sharakai—to raze the city to the ground.

Even as the Kings, Mirea, Malasan, the Tribes, and Ashael all converge on Sharakai—the gateway beneath the city continues to expand. Though Davud and his allies are attempting to close it, so far they’ve had no luck. And soon nothing will stop the younger gods from stepping through into Further Fields, leaving the mortals to pick up the remnants of they shattered world.

‘ When at last the fields do wither,
When the stricken fade;
The Gods shall pass beyond the veil,
And the land shall be remade. ‘

Well, it’s been a long and immersive voyage—one that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed! With the sixth and last book in the Song of the Shattered Sands—A Desert Torn Asunder—so many threads that’ve been built up over six books (and more novellas) set to converge for the first and final time. As with all grand fantasy adventures, so much COULD happen that it’s next to impossible to know just what will. Going into this I had a general idea—one that proved to be somewhat correct, albeit pathetically limited in imagination. There was just so much going on here! And when it all came together… it was amazing.

This was the perfect ending.

Okay, okay, it wasn’t absolutely PERFECT, but after six books and so many hours of growth and imagination, a few minor issues along the way couldn’t derail it. In fact, there were so many touches and details that I loved, to be honest I don’t remember what any of my gripes were.

As with the previous books, I would rave about the characters, the world-building, the intricacies of the plot, the attention to detail, and more, but instead let’s focus on the gods. Up to this point we’ve known the gods (the younger ones, that is) are the ones pulling the strings. They’ve been behind the scenes until now, but lately have begun to assume center stage. And as such, there are so many details about them in A Desert Torn Asunder that I loved. Let’s begin with Ashael. He was so much more than what I’d expected. So different—and yet not. The elder gods are all more than I’d’ve guessed—detailed yet mysterious.

This holds true for the younger ones as well. They’re still mysterious, albeit less so, with their deeds now at the forefront of the story and their intentions well known. There are so many things I could talk about, but I want to focus on one little (non-spoilery) thing. The way they come and go, each in their own way. Bakhi slashes a line in the air, which he departs through like a portal. Rhia arrives in a flash of moonlight, and Tulathan departs the same way, except hers is done by sunlight. Thaash turns to stone which crumbles to dust as he departs—dust that is scattered by the desert winds. Nalamae appears and vanishes in a swirl of sand. Each of these touches I found incredibly imaginative and had no problem picturing them. As with so much in this series, my imagination hardly knew where to stop; the story ran wild through my mind.

TL;DR

I can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed the Shattered Sands, especially this conclusion to the series. A Desert Torn Asunder is the end this series deserves. So many threads come together that literally anything could happen and frequently does as the desert people all attempt to save their home. Save it, or rule it. If you haven’t started this series yet (perhaps waiting for all the books to be released), well, now’s the time. Hopefully you’ll enjoy it as much as I have. But I can only hope. Whether this is the final time Bradley Beaulieu will revisit Sharakai I cannot say—though there’s still room for more in this world. As for myself I know that I’ll return to the series time and again.

Where Gods Fear to Go – by Angus Watson (Review)

West of West #3

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Orbit; December 3, 2019

499 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.5 / 5 ✪

Beware spoilers for the first two books in the West of West trilogy

Finnbogi has grown up. During a journey where he fought two rattlecondas unarmed, controlled an army of pigeons with his mind, and made love with multiple women none of which has wanted to talk to him again—the lovable oaf has finally grown a pair and demanded a new nickname.

Now, as Finn the Deep, Finnbogi is slightly more experienced, but still the stupid, horny teenager we’ve come to know and love. But, as the Wootah and Owsla cross the Shining Mountains into the Desert You Don’t Walk Out Of, shit’s about to get real. Or, as real as it can when you’re being chased by Telekinetic Sasquatch (Sasquatches? Sasquatch?).

What’s worse, upon reaching the far side of the mountains, the gang discovers something more terrifying than yetis with mind-bullets: flash floods, tornados, and hordes of terrifyingly huge monsters. And should they survive all of these terrors, the crew will have to figure out how to defeat a goddess who’s already killed all the other gods. Worse, they have to do this all WHILE saving everyone else AND not letting them all die.

Should be easy. Provided they don’t kill one another first.

Well, the end of the West of West trilogy comes both too early for my liking, but also too late. I’ll miss Finnbogi, Sassa, Wulf, Sofi, and the gang, kinda like how I miss how I’m not a dumbass, immature, constantly annoying teen anymore (incidentally, that’s also why I won’t miss them). But also in more legitimate ways. They did some growing up over the course of this trilogy, did the gang. And not just Finnbogi. And not just the Hardworkers. The Owsla have changed too. If you’re after a series with loads of lewdness, swearing, hilarity—but also excellent character development—look no further!

The hilarity and action were pretty much on par with the other books in the series, but there was a serious overtone to everything. The end of the world is looming, and the Wootah are faced with the decision of whether to grow up or die young. And while that’s not an issue for some of them, others may find it harder.

My favorite character remains Ottar. The little savior of the world is proving to be quite adorable—something that you really should’ve noticed on day one—and the hardship thrown on him by the world doesn’t seem to get him down. Sure, he’ll have a bad day (as we all do) but then will shrug it off like the champion he is. So while Finnbogi features some of the more embarrassing, hilarious, and somehow inspiring moments—Ottar has some of the more heartwarming ones.

In the evenings, they ate cactus and Nether Barr’s lizards. Grilled to a crisp, the reptiles were tasty. The old lady helped Ottar make his own net and the boy delighted in failing to catch lizards. When he finally did trap a little striped one with a long tail, he studied it carefully then let it go.

The biggest problem I had with Where Gods Fear to Go turns up at the end of all things. I called the biggest twist, turns out, but not the finer bits of it. And the finer points were rather a letdown. It didn’t ruin the series for me, nor the book even, but rather soured the conclusion a bit. But here—months after I finished the book—I more remember the conclusion for its epic and dramatic twists, battles, romances, and occasional action-packed cutscenes. There are a particular few that come to mind. Point is that while the biggest twist may’ve soured the ending a bit in the short term, it didn’t ruin the series for me past that. I’d totally go back and read it all again (time permitting)! And I’d like to think I’d enjoy everything just as much the second time around.

TL;DR

Where Gods Fear to Go concludes the West of West trilogy, where Finnbogi, Sassa, Sofi, and the rest of the Wootah and Owsla continue their journey west—over the Shining Mountains and across the Desert You Don’t Walk Out Of to the Meadows, that place where the world is ending. And there’s certainly a reason behind it all. Big monsters and natural disasters abound—with a damned goddess at the center of it all. Like its predecessors, WGFtG is heavy on the action, sex, phallic puns, language and hilarity, but with more of a heavy overtone. It’s like the text keeps reminding them: “hey, the world is kinda ending and all, maybe focus on that?” But even the darker twist can’t spoil the fun this story brings. If you haven’t read the series but are intrigued and aren’t bothered by any of the above—hey, maybe give it a try. And if you’ve started the series but not finished—hey, maybe do that. It’s totally worth a look.

The Shadow of the Gods – by John Gwynne (Review)

Bloodsworn Saga #1

Fantasy, Epic

Orbit; May 4, 2021 (US)
Orbit; May 6, 2021 (UK)

505 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished an advance copy in return for a fair and honest review. Many thanks to Orbit and NetGalley for the eARC! Any quotes are for demonstrative purposes only, included to help showcase the level of detail and writing style that the author employs, and may not be included in the final, published version. All opinions are my own.

The gods are dead. The world is broken.

Three hundred years have passed since the old gods fell, breaking and reshaping the world in their passing. Monsters roam the land—a remnant of the world before. Petty kings and queens have seized control and now vie for whatever power has been left behind. Myths and legends, bones of the fallen gods, and children born of their tainted blood—the Jarls compete for whatever will distinguish them from the rest, all with the same aim: to write their story to be told alongside the old gods before them.

Orka has had her fill of power. Having long since escaped the world of blood and kings, she and her husband now live in the wilds with their young bairn. But she can’t escape the past, nor the machinations of those seeking more power.

Varg has worn a collar his entire life, since both he and his sister were sold to a wealthy landowner as thralls. Ever since Varg has been satisfied to survive—until his sister was killed. His quest to avenge Frøya’s murder will take him to places he never imagined, and find family he never knew existed.

Elvar is a mercenary, seeking to write her own saga in the blood of her enemies. Hired to find an escaped thrall, her band comes into possession of the man’s wife and child, who eventually lead them on a quest to unearth a myth—and the power and glory that it holds.

It seems that the better a book is, the harder it becomes for me to talk about it. And this one is absolutely amazing. Surely by now you’ve seen some hype for it, some 5 star reviews and—if you’ve yet to experience it yourself—are wondering if it’s really all that good. Well, it is. It really, really is.

Shadow of the Gods is truly a masterclass in execution. The world-building is on par with that of the Banished Lands, as the Bloodsworn Saga introduces us to a lush land of Vikings, monsters and gods—all seeking power and glory. While I wouldn’t call SotG a dark fantasy, the descriptions do lend quite a bit of darkness to the story, so much so that in my imagination, the world always carried a bit of a dusky cast. Shadowy forests, deep fjords, seedy taverns and slums, brochs, longhouses and earthworks all added to the dark, Viking feel so much that the entire thing rendered in my head like some ambient Wardruna video.

They were moving through a land of tree-cloaked hills and shadow-dark valleys, of sun-drenched meadows and rivers winding and glistening like jewel-crusted serpents that coiled through the land. The new-risen sun blazed bright as Arg stepped out on to a hillside of rolling meadow and left the trees behind him.

Above her rainclouds shredded and blew across the sky like tattered banners.

The description really is amazing. Each setting is rendered in such detail that I felt as if I’d been there and was just reliving the memory.

As with most of his books, SotG emphasizes the dishonor of the bow, so all combat is restricted to a close-quarters brawl. This, combined with the description and style of writing, made everything feel so much more immersive, almost as if I was experiencing something from memory rather than reading about it. Through the setting and world-building and detail, this one really came alive, and I can’t find the right words to convey just how amazing this was!

TL;DR

While I’m not sure yet if I loved it quite as much as Ruin, Shadow of the Gods is certainly one of the best books of the year and on the shortlist of my all-time favorites. I mean, I’m sure I could rave about this for another page or two and it wouldn’t convey anything more than “you should read it, it’s really that good”—so I’m going to leave it at that. But, yeah, you should read it. It’s really THAT good.

If you don’t believe me and need some more convincing, here’re some other reviews that you might want to look at:

Powder & PageSwords & SpectresSpace & SorceryRealms of My Mind

The Glass Breaks – by A.J. Smith (Review)

Form & Void #1

Fantasy, Epic

Head of Zeus; March 19, 2018

512 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Twitter

4.0 / 5 ✪

Chained to the rocks and left for the tide, Duncan Greenfire will either become a Sea Wolf—or he’ll die trying. All that stands between the 17 year old and death is the realm of Void, and his ability to cross the Glass into it. But as powerful as Duncan is—it’s a raw power, one that he can’t always control. And after two days doing little more than trying to survive, he has little enough power left. But when the dawn comes, and Duncan is still alive, his initiation is complete. He is a Sea Wolf, now and forever.

It’s been 167 years since the Sea Wolves and their Eastron kin sailed across the sea to take the Pure Lands by force. With an ability to step between the realms of Form and Void, their strength was unparalleled and the natives folded before their might. In the years since, their rule has become absolute. But the Eastron are now fractured: the People of Ice hide on their northern isles, the Kneeling Wolves sulk in the shadows of Big Brother, the Dark Brethren sit in regimented and orderly rows upon the Father, the Winterlords kneel to their Always King on the Isle of the Setting Sun, and the Sea Wolves who lounge on the Isle of Nibonay. None of these masters are terribly benevolent, least of which the Sea Wolves; they raid and slaughter the Pure Ones on a whim, cull their populace, seeing the natives as little more than beasts—and their Eastron kin as little better.

But as Duncan joins their ranks, he discovers the Sea Wolves may not be everything he’s ever wished of them—a sentiment echoed by Duelist Adeline Brand. She and her brother Arthur are two of the most well-known and brutal Duelists of their clan, bathing in blood and booze in equal measure. And yet Adeline harbors doubts about the Sea Wolves, the same ones Duncan is currently confronting. These come to a head when the two are dispatched on separate secret missions for the clan: Duncan to the Isle of Nowhere, seat of the People of Ice; Adeline to the Bay of Bliss, on the other side of the Isle of Nibonay. But where Adeline unearths a threat that will surely mean the doom of her and all the other Eastron in the Pure Lands, Duncan uncovers a conspiracy that may yet save them all. For certain powers have known of this threat for generations, and have been working to stop it. But the question remains: will they succeed, or will the Sea Wolves and their kin be wiped from the world instead?

This took quite a turn from where I was expecting it. The Sea Wolves—as you probably might guess after reading my description—are not nice, friendly people. They are racist, genocidal monsters, who have “generously” allowed the Pure Ones to live on their ancestral lands, all while raiding, pillaging, and slaughtering them as they see fit. Or whenever they’re bored. They do this through their marshal skill and ability to break the Glass, something the Pure Ones can’t do. The Glass and the Realm of Void are an interesting if not wholly unique system of magic, where crossing over from Form to Void means essentially traversing the spirit world (one that more or less parallels the realm of Form) and either manipulating the spirits of the Void or harnessing their energy for their own.

It was a little refreshing to read a story from the villains’ perspective, as the Sea Wolves are definitely it. Even if matters complicate and sympathies change over the course of the book, it cannot be said that the Sea Wolves aren’t the bad guys. They definitely are. Or, well, one of them.

Another twist is that Duncan is kinda an ass. He’s immature, willful, whiny, thickheaded, but mostly just annoying. Like, really, really annoying. But only about half the time. It’s not that his chapters are necessarily awful to read, more that he constantly makes the dumbest choices. This really isn’t much of a spoiler as he will do it early and often. So it’s both really interesting as a plot device and really frustrating to watch him do it. It’s the equivalent of trying to stop someone from jumping off a bridge by shooting them in the head—technically effective, but not in any circumstances acceptable behavior. He’ll also constantly proclaim that he’s a Sea Wolf. Seriously, all the damn time. At first I found this repetitive and unrealistic but then realized how realistic it actually was. Duncan’s a young, immature boy that never had a childhood and only really craves his father’s approval. Despite the fact that he hates the man. And all he’s ever wanted was to be a Sea Wolf. But now that he is, it’s not living up to his expectations. It doesn’t feel real. He doesn’t feel accepted. Plus, he doesn’t feel worthy of it. So he continually asserts that he IS a Sea Wolf, on and on, because he’s just a scared, lost kid who no one has ever shown any kindness. A scared, lost kid with too much power and no control over it.

Either that or I’m overthinking it and he’s just a poorly developed character, suffering from a bad, repetitive style of writing.

While I had mixed feelings about Smith’s other series—the Long War—one thing that’s not up for debate is the world-building. Which was top notch. Similarly, Form & Void has a very well constructed world. Albeit one somewhat bereft of people. Though there are plenty of warriors (Pure Ones, Eastron, Sea Wolves, etc), there aren’t a whole lot of common folk mentioned. I mean, I assume they’re around, just we barely ever see them. Otherwise, the world itself, its history, its geography—is all amazing. No issue at all.

The story itself is pretty good as well. It’s full of twists and turns, typically not following the path I expected (insomuch as the idiotic things Duncan does can be considered plot twists), though it did pretty much end like I’d’ve guessed. I absolutely no problem reading the book as Adeline and Duncan make a pretty good pair. Each have their own strengths and weaknesses—though Duncan’s are far more weaknesses than strengths—and compliment one another rather well. You’ll get sections of one or the other: four straight chapters from Duncan’s POV, then the same from Adeline’s (both in 1st person), and on and on.

The characters themselves are another reason to read the Glass Breaks. Other than Adeline and Duncan there are dozens of other well-developed characters, each with their own motivations and backstory. And they’re all expendable, even the ones that you think are too important to die. All in all, it’s a great start to the series, though one I’d like to see fine-tuned a bit for the sequel.

TL;DR

The Glass Breaks is the start of an interesting new fantasy series from the author of the Long War. Long ago, the Sea Wolves crossed the ocean and found a new home. Once there, they brutally subjugated the natives and have continued to raid and slaughter them for the next hundred and fifty years. Enter Duncan Greenfire and Adeline Brand, Sea Wolves of the Severed Hand. Each dispatched on their own secret mission, they discover conspiracies that will doom the Sea Wolves, but might also save them. The world-building and characters are the strongest aspect of the Glass Breaks, and though Duncan can be seriously annoying at times, his stupidity comes in handy through some twists I couldn’t’ve seen coming. While there can be needless violence and somewhat repetitive internal monologues at times, there’s also a tense, mysterious atmosphere and uncommon, interesting magic system. Combined with a good story and epic (though occasionally over-the-top) dramatic and action sequences, the Glass Breaks is a great series debut, one that I enjoyed far more than I thought I would. Recommended!

The Glass Breaks is also free on kindle unlimited, if that’s your kind of thing. Form & Void continues with The Sword Falls, out May 1, 2020.

The Black Coast – by Mike Brooks (Review)

God-King Chronicles #1

Fantasy, Epic

Solaris; February 16, 2021

670 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.8 / 5 ✪

I was kindly provided with a review copy in exchange for an honest review. This in no way alters or affects my opinion. Many thanks to Solaris, Rebellion and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

The Black Coast is the first in the brand new fantasy epic series, the God-King Chronicles. Instead of a novel of war or chaos, or another GoT-esque fantasy, Black Coast details the coming together of two very different cultures—enemies, even—as they try to live together in peace. It’s more of a… controlled chaos.

Saana, Chief of the Tjakorsha, has left home for the last time. Fleeing the Golden, an immortal draugr heralding the prophesied end of the world, the Brown Eagle clan arrives on Naridan shores seeking a new home—one that they will find one way or another. Daimon Blackcreek is the adopted son of the Lord of Black Keep, and when the raiders draw up on shore he fears the worst. But when the clan lays out their plea for peace he sees but two options. Either the Blackcreek’s can accept the raiders into their home and attempt to live as one, or the Brown Eagle may rebuild their home in the ashes of Daimon’s own. But his father has different ideas—and will never surrender to such savages. Leaving Daimon with one choice.

A choice that will guide him throughout the story.

Elsewhere a silent war rages between the two descendants of Nari—the God become flesh. While Tila’s brother, Natan, rules in Idramar, the Splinter King inhabits the east, living like a sideshow amongst the City of Islands. While at the moment the Splinter King offers little dissent, Tila knows that should anything happen to her brother before he produces an heir, the Splinter King will take center stage. And so she sets off on her own expedition to find this would-be King. And end him.

The characters Brooks has created have always been strong; as readers of his Keiko series will know. The characters of Black Coast exemplify this, with a few exceptions. The Lord Daimon Blackcreek is an honorable-enough man, doing everything he can to protect his people. He’s also a bit of a self-obsessed asshole, and a young and naïve one to boot. Chief Saana is the brave and innovative leader of the Tjakorsha, as such leading her people from their ancestral home to settle on the shores of their age old foes. A passionate leader, she remains quick to anger while still preaching the importance of peace. Jeya seems your prototypical urchin. Thief, ragamuffin, waif—she didn’t make a great impression at first, but upon digging into the text, the reader will learn that just like most other humans, she will fight just as hard as anyone else when the cause appeals to her. Rikkut’s a bit insane, but in a human way. Tila was the biggest letdown of the main cast. Sister to the God-King, Tila leads a double life, but nothing approaches the love that she holds for her brother. While I didn’t find her character weak, exactly, it was just hard to buy the disassociation between her two personalities.

My largest issue with this read comes very late in the book, so this makes it quite difficult to explain while still avoiding spoilers. Sufficient to say that it’s Saana, who up to this point has been a caring, doting mother, sometimes even going above and beyond the cultural norms her own tribe allows to keep her daughter, Zhanna, out of danger. While there are a number of events that prevent her from doing so throughout the book, when it’s up to Saana she will not risk the already tenuous relationship she enjoys with her daughter. That’s what makes this event so out of character; it’s the complete opposite of anything she’s done to this point—and it’s so blatant I found it a bit insulting to her character.

As for the plot, I was pretty much entranced from the beginning. Brooks has built a good one here: the blending of very different cultures clashing in obvious and unseen ways alike, several cultures with many and often fluid gender options while some are just the rigid two, a believable fantasy epic about peoples avoiding war instead of running flat into it. The main cultures and their interaction steals the show, as two particular ones take center stage—the Tjakorsha and the Naridans of Black Keep. While the Splinter King sub-plot and Jeya’s role in the City of Isles kept me more than entertained enough, the interactions between the two former enemies just wowed. I really have no notes or complaints: this was an INCREDIBLE story!

The world was large and well-built, with peoples and dragons (did I mention the DRAGONS???—multiple species of different and sometimes ridable dragons) and rumors and legends of more lurking at the map’s edges. Not only can I not wait to see more of the story, but I can’t wait to see what lies beyond the edges of the world that we’ve explored thus far.

Note: The map for the ebook version I was provided was shit—completely worthless. I was able to contact both Rebellion and Mike Brooks himself, each of which provided me a high-res version of the map and reassured me that the published version of the ebook would have a much better map. Hopefully it is, but if not… I have a map if anyone needs a copy.

TL;DR

The Black Coast is the fantastic high fantasy debut for Keiko author Mike Brooks. Telling an enthralling, action-packed, and ofttimes difficult story full of unique and human characters in a vivid, highly-detailed world. While each character had their flaws, they also had their own sets of motivations and experiences—some of which clashed over the course of the tale. For the most part each character impressed throughout, though there were a few hiccups over the course of this 700-page epic. The story of Black Coast was amazing, but its people and cultures stole the show—particularly their beliefs and interactions that swung wildly between peace and war throughout, sometimes at the drop of a hat. All in all, for a story that included dragons, witches, krakens, samurai, assassins, intrigue, plot-twists and more—the Black Coast is one book you need to make time for this year!

It’s early still, but the sequel, The Splinter King, is due to be published September 7, 2021 by Solaris.

The Shattered Crown – by Richard (R.S.) Ford (Review)

Steelhaven #2

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Epic

Headline; April 22, 2014

391 pages (Paperback)

4.0 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

The second book of the Steelhaven trilogy, the Shattered Crown carries all the weight of the previous installment, but does a much better job of handling it. All POVs return—save one: River’s tale has taken him outside the city and gets little exposure because of it—and even adds an additional character to the mix. While I felt that all the POVs weighed down Herald of the Storm, affecting both its pace and flow, the Shattered Crown rolls along much more smoothly, telling an action-packed story of love, hope, and betrayal.

Janessa now wears the Steel Crown. With few real allies and no real confidants, she is untried and untested. Yet with the Horde looming on the horizon, she must mature quickly. But will the girl become a Queen, or will she burn along with her city, becoming little more than a footnote to history?

Though the shadow of war looms large, life in Steelhaven carries on. The citizens have a choice to make, however. Will they stand in defense for the city, or pin all their hope on mercy from Amon Tugha? It seems that Kaira, Nobul, Waylian and Regulus have all made their choice—but for Merrick, choice is an illusion. While he carries duty and responsibility now, he mind rebels at the very thought of it.

Rag simply wants to be protected. Amon Tugha, the Guild, even the Greencoats (the city guard)—she’s not picky. But due to her choices in Herald of the Storm, life seems more real and death more inevitable lately. And yet, even her choices will help shape the fate of the city. For the Horde is coming, and no city is greater than the sum of its parts.

Herald of the Storm stumbled straight out of the gate. Each of the first seven chapters introduce a new character. That means a whole lot of new faces and backstories to take in, and not a whole lot of opportunity to establish any kind of a rhythm. Now, while the Shattered Crown follows exactly the same equation—the first seven chapters, each with a different POV, though only one of them is truly new—it seems to go much more smoothly than before. I think it’s because we’ve become used to these characters. With a book under his belt, the author doesn’t need to introduce a whole new motivation and backstory for each one. Instead, it’s more—here’re your returning POVs, here’s what they’ve been up to since you saw them last. While it still makes for a slow start, it doesn’t seem nearly as clumsy as it did before.

As usual, this story revolves around its characters. Each (except Regulus) have had a book to flesh out. While I didn’t find each and every one as deep and intricate as the last, there were a few that surprised me with their depth and impressed me with their ability to keep the story moving. I found some, like Kaira and Regulus, to be little more than cut-outs to progress the story. Others, like Rag, Merrick and Janessa, impressed me. Still more, Waylian and Nobul, haven’t made up their minds yet. I’m quite curious to see what will happen in the series conclusion—will every character experience some kind of development? Nobul and Kaira have been pretty stagnant up to this point, with Janessa, Merrick and Rag carrying most of the developmental weight. Will everyone finally progress? Or will some regress? Or will they all just die when Amon Tugha finally gets to the city?

Oh yeah, some spoilers. Amon Tugha doesn’t actually GET to the city yet. I mean, everyone knows he’s coming, but the dude is taking his sweet time. So far we’ve spent two books building up to the epic battle, and I’m more than ready for it to begin. Truth is, I was ready for (and anticipating) it sometime in the Shattered Crown, only for that moment to never arrive. I’d say that’s the largest disappointment in store for would-be readers. But otherwise, nothing’s too bad.

TL;DR

The Shattered Crown picks up where Herald of the Storm left off, but succeeds where the previous entry often disappointed. The story is interesting and entertaining. It takes a darker turn than I was expecting, as if to remind you that Steelhaven isn’t a place of sunshine and posies. There’s action, suspense, intrigue. Love, drama, hope, betrayal. The character development needs some work, and the world-building might as well not exist outside of Steelhaven. But there’s very little outside to pay any mind to—little that relates directly to the story, at least. And the characters of the Shattered Crown are better than they were in Herald of the Storm, which gives me hope for Book #3. All in all, a good read, and a better follow-up to a lackluster debut.

The series concludes with Lord of Ashes.

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!

Magebane – by Stephen Aryan (Review)

Age of Dread #3

Fantasy, Epic

Orbit Books; August 6, 2019

491 pages (PB)

4.3 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

Contains spoilers for both Mageborn and Magefall. Also may contain possible spoilers for the Age of Darkness trilogy!

For a guy who hated one of my favorite books, Stephen Aryan can tell a pretty good story. His second trilogy set in this particular world, the Age of Dread continues what the Age of Darkness started, with magic, law, and the gods themselves coming to the forefront for this conclusion.

The Age of Darkness ended in an epic battle for the good of the world, but the Age of Dread features an epic struggle as well—this one for both gods and men. Having carved out a niche for themselves in the corner of Shael, Wren and the others now search for acceptance from a world that continues to hate and fear their kind. When a mysterious illness appears on the streets of Perizzi, it’s up to Tammy to make sure the virus spreads no further. But she fails as the city is soon quarantined, and are left with a choice—will they survive together, or die alone? As Munroe hunts the being that stole her family from her, nothing will stand in her way. Less justice, more vengeance; nothing will save Akosh when the mage catches up to her. For justice is all well and good, but some debts can only be paid in blood. Akosh has fallen far from the goddess she truly is. Hunted on all fronts, she is forced into an alliance with a being even more powerful and ancient than herself. And when even her once ally threatens to turn on her, Akosh must make the ultimate sacrifice to survive. Revealed as something more than mortal, Danoph know travels with Vargus, the one-time Weaver showing him the ropes. But what is Danoph’s task, exactly? And will he be able to fulfill it when the truth is revealed?

I know this was a fairly brief prompt compared to my usual ramble, but at the end of a six book series (that’s two trilogies), I’m not sure who’s where and how much I should be revealing. Hopefully I did a decent enough job of keeping it informative, yet also vague enough that anyone can jump right in.

I’ve really enjoyed these two trilogies—both the Age of Darkness and the Age of Dread—though I know they weren’t exactly giant successes. It seems most of the people I’ve talked to about them read one or two of the first trilogy, but thought they were decent at best, and then dropped off. Well, everyone’s allowed their own opinion, but it doesn’t really matter as I thought they were brilliant!

With five books preceding Magebane, there are so many paths diverging and converging that the story could almost end up anywhere. It was a brief disappointment when instead we arrived at two shared threads, but the conclusion was entertaining enough that I soon got over it. Though not as epic (in my opinion) as the finale of Chaosmage, the ending here was still impressive. An ultimate evil on one side, while a much different evil awaits on the other. It wasn’t exactly what I’d expected given the series’ history, but in some ways impressed me more given that it broke out of the mold it’d kept to up to this point.

The characters and world-building have been strong throughout the series, reaching an impressive zenith as all their threads collide. While we didn’t get as much exposure to either Sorcerer as I would’ve liked in this final book, enough of the other characters starred that I got over the slight—especially when I figured out what the author was up to. While the trilogies both feature so much of the affairs of gods and sorcerers; the world is not built upon them. It’s built on the backs of mortals. Or, I guess, ‘it is in men that we must place our hope.’ Many stories ended here, some are only getting started. I can’t wait to see where Aryan takes the story from here!

TL;DR

The Age of Darkness ended with a bang. The Age of Dread ends in much the same manner. Another epic conclusion concludes another epic series. Part of me was truly disappointed to see it end, but every story must come to an end. As they’ve struggled to adapt and overcome over the course of six books, the characters that emerge from Magebane have seen some things. They’ve been fleshed out, humanized, developed, grown, regressed, both most of all survived. Everything has led to this point—the end of an age. If you’ve not yet begun either series—I’d definitely recommend it. If you’re somewhere in the middle but on the fence about continuing—I’d still recommend it. If not, I understand; there’s always more to read 🙂