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 🙂

The Black Song – by Anthony Ryan (Review)

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

The Raven’s Blade #2

Epic, Fantasy

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

498 pages (ebook)

4.2 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

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

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

Nothing, except maybe Vaelin Al Sorna.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TL;DR

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

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

Legends of the First Empire #6

Epic, Fantasy

Riyria Enterprises; May 5, 2020

366 pages (ebook)

4.4 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

Beware: Spoilers for the previous Legends of the First Empire through Age of Death!

“You’re taller than I remember.”
“I grew up.”
He made a disapproving sound in his throat. “You should try to avoid that in the future.”
“Well, I’m dead, so that shouldn’t be too difficult.”

The epic conclusion to the Legends of the First Empire does not disappoint! While I was torn on the first three (I threw TWO at the wall, and took a month to read the third), the next two absolutely wowed me. The third does a great job of concluding the overarching story of the war between the Rhunes and the Fhrey, and the establishment of the First Empire. Just keep in mind that it’s called the Legends of the First Empire for a reason; the events within occurred so long ago (3000 years, I think) that they’ve become, well, legends. Though I certainly knew what to expect in general (it IS a prequel to Riyria, obviously, so it can’t be too much of a surprise for any veterans of those books), Empyre does provide a few twists and turns, along with some events that actually took me by surprise. It’s like the legend of King Arthur or Robin Hood that often changes in each telling. The broad strokes may be the same—but legends in the making can be quite different than how they turn out on the page.

With over half our cast still dead, the living fight so that those gone may yet have a world to return to. But the war has taken its toll. Dissent and hopelessness are on the rise on both sides of the conflict. Currently on the losing side, the Fhrey have paid an unbelievable price to gain the upper hand. But even as humanity prepares to retreat, the price proves too high for some in the Fhrey, and a desperate gamble is taken. A gamble that relies on two artists, a certain prince, and a mission that was doomed from the start. But with Brin and the other yet to escape the afterlife, all hope may’ve well and truly died (ha).

But there’s a twist. Tressa—as it will surprise no one—has been lying. And when the objective of their quest changes yet again, our heroes may yet have a hope of completing their mission. All they have to do is find their way back to life.

I tried to keep the blurb as vague as possible here. Being a six-book series (or “hexalogy”), there’s no telling where anyone will be now. And be it book four, book two, done for some months, not yet begun, not yet interested in beginning, or anywhere in-between—I don’t want to exclude anyone. That being said, there are definitely some spoilers, so if you’ve read this far… you’ve already noticed a few.

Having read the Riyria, I knew generally what to expect, though Sullivan does point out that these are LEGENDS. Like the stories of King Arthur, Beowulf, or Robin Hood. Something that has well before faded from memory and become legend. To this end, I’ve seen a few reviewers complaining that it’s different than what Riyria led them to believe. There’s bound to be some change in the story just from each telling. Sullivan does justify this further within, but I’ll leave it here. But as a side note, there are others that expected each character to have their own proper ending. This doesn’t happen. And in general, it didn’t bother me. The story wraps up the war and the establishment of the First Empire nicely. While I would’ve liked an afterward to glimpse just what what everyone got up to post-hexalogy—it really isn’t necessary. The conclusion is satisfying how it is. And that’s enough.

The main thing that annoyed me in Empyre was that Brin is credited with inventing writing. Technically it’s said before now, but Empyre refers to it a lot. Seeing as how she copied the writing from some ancient tablets she found in the Agave (in Age of Swords)—she didn’t invent it. Honestly, this probably wouldn’t’ve annoyed me so much, but Sullivan again tries to justify that it’s HER invention, even saying repeatedly (even after we find out who MADE the tablets from the Agave) that Brin had invented them. Even after the writing is noticed on the Horn of Gylindora, which predates Brin by millennia, the author still attempts to give her credit through a conversation with the Fhrey the Horn belonged to, in the land of the dead.

“To most, it looks like a battered ram’s horn. But it has markings on it.”
“Writing?”
The Fhrey nodded. “No one knows that—not yet. Right now, everyone thinks they’re just decorative markings. Some might even speculate they’re magic runes like the Orinfar. But in fact, they are words—words you can read.”
“How is that possible?”
“Because you invented the language they’re written in.”

So… his argument here is what—time travel? I don’t understand how—or why—Sullivan keeps trying to justify this. It doesn’t make any sense! Brin’s a badass anyway, she doesn’t need this extra bit. Rediscovering a lost writing system is just as impressive as inventing a new one, at least in my opinion. This is just another invention (e.g. the bow, wheels, pockets, etc) he tries to claim over the course of the series, a trend which I (very) quickly tired of.

As usual, the language is common, relaxed, not trying to reinvent anything, nor replicate that of olde. Therefore it’s quite easy to read, and quickly. I’ve always loved how well Sullivan blends action, excitement, and humor, which paves the way for quite a few memorable quotes.

“You can’t fight all of them,” Maya told him.
“Of course I can. I’m a Galantian. I’m not guaranteeing I’ll win, but I’ll try.”
“All by yourself?”
“What’re you talking about? You’ll help. And I have the Great Rain with me, and he’s got that sweet new sword.”
Rain looked like he might be sick.

The worldbuilding is as impressive as ever—particularly so considering we’re on the sixth book of the third series set on Elan (the SIXTEENTH book overall). While the First Empire is a prequel series, much of the land is undeveloped, but still memorable, though Sullivan doesn’t take quite as much pains as previous books to paint us a lovely word-picture. Of Elan, at least. The underworld, however, was easy to picture, and even sent my imagination running through its description. The characters—as usual—are amazing. Tesh, Brin, Moya, Gifford, Roan, Rain, Tekchin, Nyphron, Persephone, Suri, Mawyndulë, Imaly and even more have been fleshed out by this point. Any one of these characters probably could’ve carried the story on their own, but instead all of them meld together to create a truly epic narrative. There are even a few surprise appearances within that help the tale along. Not that it needs any help, mind.

TL;DR

An epic conclusion befitting of an epic series: Age of Empyre tells the story it sets out to and more, concluding the Legends of the First Empire in a blaze of action, adventure, and flair. While it may not appear exactly as you imagined it from the Riyria days, this hexalogy bears the title “Legends” for a reason. The plot alone provides more than enough justification to read this one—with so many threads converging at this point, it’s an epic conclusion to be sure! Meanwhile the worldbuilding and characters continue to wow, with each detail better than the last. A few hiccups remain—the group ending didn’t really appeal to me the way a personal one would’ve; and one of the story’s key points seriously tries to pitch time-travel as a justification. But, as with the latter half of the hexalogy, the pros well outweigh the cons. Plus, let’s face it—if you’ve gotten this far into Legends of the First Empire—are you really going to skip the final book? Really? Yeah, uh huh.

Ashes of the Sun – by Django Wexler (Review)

Burningblade & Silvereye #1

Fantasy, Epic

Head of Zeus (UK); July 21, 2020
Orbit Books (US); July 21, 2020

592 pages (ebook)

5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

Ashes of the Sun was my most anticipated book of the year—beating out Peace Talks AND Rhythm of War—and it did not disappoint. And while last year was my Year of Django, this may be my favorite book of his thus far.

Long ago, the Chosen ruled the world, but following a war with the Ghouls, they vanished from the earth. Humanity eventually won the war, scouring the Ghouls from the planet, but still their gods did not return. Hundreds of years later, a new Empire has risen in the ashes of the old. The Twilight Order serves the land, protecting its people from the threat of dhak—plaguespawn, unnatural creatures, that would overrun the land if left unchecked. But not all dhak are plaguespawn. As Gyre well knows.

When he was eight, Gyre watched as his little sister Maya was abducted by the Order. He tried to intervene but was rebuffed, the attempt costing him both an eye in the process. As Maya began a new life as an Order trainee, Gyre’s life changed as well. His parents never recovered the loss of their daughter, and soon, Gyre was alone with only thoughts of vengeance to guide him.

Seventeen year-old Maya wants nothing more than to be a centarch of the Order—roving the Empire, protecting the people from dhak, and the dhakim that would exploit it. But when she is recalled to the Order to begin the final leg of her training, it won’t be plaguespawn that she’ll have to worry about—it will be the Order itself. When Maya and a group of other initiates are sent to wile out corruption in a city filled to the brim with it, she assumes that nothing could be worse than the mayor of the place itself. But having been forewarned that her superior will stop at nothing to ruin their mission, she expects trouble on all fronts. But does not expect it in the form of her long lost brother, Gyre.

Gyre has had over a dozen years to stoke his hatred of the Twilight Order. In the depths of Deepfire, he’s found a cause that focuses it. Going by the moniker ‘Halfmask’ for the mask covering his ruined eye, Gyre is loathed, respected and feared in equal measure. Under the command of the rebel, Yora, he fights on behalf of the Tunnelborn, those downtrodden beneath the Empire’s boot. But he’s always looking for something more; something to destroy the Order, and the Empire behind it. And when he meets the mysterious Doomseeker—a man of more myth than even he—it appears that what he needs is within his grasp. Enter his sister, Maya, seeking to preserve the very Order he seeks to destroy.

With their paths about to cross will Maya and Gyre be able to put aside their differences and focus on their past, or will they tear the very world each is trying to protect into pieces?

••••

My second ‘ siblings on either side of a war ‘ of the year (following the Ranger of Marzanna), and it turns out that second time’s the charm. Where I found Skovron’s book slow and dry, there’s nothing slow about Ashes of the Sun. With a plot that took off from the very start and action that started off slow and constantly gained speed as it went along—Ashes proved the epic retreat and adventure in a year otherwise plagued with chaos and… plague.

The setting of Ashes begins as one might expect; as a world newly discovered, the reader is introduced around to its various sights and sounds, never dwelling in one place too long as to spoil the effect, but long enough to build up their appreciation of the world-building on the whole. It’s a classic strategy—with a few notable differences.

There are just some terms that we have to work out for ourselves. When Maya and Gyre are introduced to something new or unique, or something they must familiarize themselves with, the reader usually receives a description. But for some other terms, like “unmetal, dhak, Chosen, haken” etc, we’re just left to fend for ourselves while the story continues on, not waiting for us to catch up. While there are some that may be turned off by this, I found it to be the perfect blend of detail and lack-thereof to both give my imagination cues to construct the world, while leaving me to my own devices to interpret some others as I saw fit. Thus the world I ended up imagining may be very different from yours, or the author’s, or anyone else’s.

While the world is great when seen from either Gyre or Maya’s perspective, when you bring them together it is a masterpiece. Characters often see the world in different ways. But this isn’t always clear in the writing. While one person might see the world as a dark, foreboding abyss, another may seen a land full of color and light. Maya sees the world as a lovely, vibrant place, where evil lurks in the shadows—and it’s her job to keep it that way. Gyre, meanwhile, views it as more of a lurid dystopia, where evil comes in many colors and good exists as but a fanciful dream. For the first several chapters, I kept switching back from one POV’s description to the other, but eventually the two began to blend with one another to create something new. Have you seen those paintings that combine the styles of multiple different artists to depict one object (like a building or landscape or whatever)? And the resulting work blends all of what each one sees together to create something recognizable, if completely unexpected? It’s like that. I don’t know if you’ll have the same experience with this, but I sure hope you do!

No one is above suspicion. Without any spoilers or long, rambling thoughts, let me just say this: Maya and Gyre are keepers. Otherwise, all bets are off. This isn’t one of those stories where the heroes vanquish evil and live happily ever after. In Ashes, there are no heroes. And life proceeds accordingly.

While the POV characters are the strongest, don’t count the secondary ones out. Unsurprisingly, Maya and Gyre are the strongest two characters in this story. Somewhat surprisingly, several others came close, with one on each side threatening to steal my heart away from the other sibling. Kit and Beq each flesh out quite nicely. But then most of Halfmask’s and Maya’s crews do as well. Yora, Tanax, Sarah, even Jaedia all try to steal the show at some point. I guess I just wasn’t expecting the level to which they would rise. In a book where no one is above suspicion, and you need to expect the unexpected, it’s never ideal to get too attached to a non-POV character. Or sometimes even a POV one (looking at you Ned and Boromir—yeah, so, pretty much just Sean Bean) (it’s never a great idea to get too attached to Sean Bean).

While it’s a serious quest to save the world, there’s still more than enough time to have fun. Drinking, sex, adventure, mystery, swearing, and sarcasm—if you don’t like any of those you might not enjoy this one. The book knows how to have fun. If I’ve learnt one thing about Wexler by now, it’s that he knows that too. When the cards are down, it’s time to get your game face on. Before that, however, well… there’s no reason to take yourself too seriously.

‘ “That,” she called out to him, “might be the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen anyone try. And believe me when I say you’re up against some strong competition in that category.” ‘

Ashes does humor well. I loved, I laughed, and I did some of each at the same time.

I had only slight problems with Ashes of the Sun; nothing worth harping on. A minor issue with one or two characters in the second half. A few minor issues with the level of technology changing. A slight issue with the plot leading up to the end. Nothing major; nothing really even minor; nothing worth worrying about.

TL;DR

Ashes of the Sun tells a dynamic story of two equally impressive siblings, each trying to shape the world in their own way. And since each sees and interprets the world differently, Ashes creates a unique perspective when the two points of view blend together. It’s not a seamless thing—more the product of multiple artists attempting to paint bits of the same location in their own style. The result would still be recognizable, but also unexpectedly unique and thought-provoking. I found Ashes of the Sun like that: the fusion of two different perspectives to paint a single picture. And I loved it. But you might not. Either way, the book contains strong characters, a rollicking story, action, adventure, romance, drama and a great plot all rolled into one. Even should you not totally love it—there’s more than enough to enjoy, and no reason not to try it.

When Jackals Storm the Walls – by Bradley P. Beaulieu (Review)

Song of the Shattered Sands #5

Fantasy, Epic

DAW; July 14, 2020 (US)
Gollancz; July 16, 2020 (UK)

528 pages (ebook)

4.2 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

The penultimate entry in the Song of the Shattered Sands takes a while, but manages to impress just as much as its predecessors. The same great world-building, character development, attention to detail and structure are just some of the reasons I’ve made it so far into this series, and many of the reasons I’m looking forward to its conclusion with the usual amount of hope, anticipation and anxiety. As much as I love a good ending—I’ll be sad to bid these characters farewell. But every story needs an end. Let’s just not rush to it too quickly, eh?

The rule of the Kings has been broken. The Blood Queen Meryam nows rules Sharakai, along with the descendants of the Kings. The remnants of the initial Twelve have been scattered to the winds. Ihsan—maimed and scarred—now wanders the Shangazi alone, searching for clues to the gods’ plans for the desert. As his hopes of solo rule have faded so too have his chances of survival. But there is still a slim hope: for Ihsan, and for the world itself.

Brama and Davud have staved off death, at least thus far. All but alone and abandoned, they must each rely on their single ally. But where Davud’s is the beautiful, formerly blood mage Esmerae—with whom he has fallen in love—Brama’s is the dangerous ehrekh, Rümayesh, with who he now shares a body. With no help coming, and nothing but doom before them, both will find themselves attracted to the same mystery. One that may determine the fate of the desert.

With the help of Sehid-Alaz—the thirteenth king—Çeda has broken the asirim’s curse. But it comes at a great cost, as both the goddesses Nalamae and Yerinde lie dead, slain at each other’s hand. But where Yerinde lies still, Nalamae is fated to be reborn, though where and when Çeda does not know. And so she turns her attention to Sharakai, hoping to find some clue to the goddesses whereabouts in the city.

But others are searching for the desert goddess as well. And when Çeda discovers the reason, it will force her to make a difficult choice: work with the former Kings, or risk Sharakai’s ultimate destruction. A desperate plan is hatched, one that may yet save the city. For while the city stands, the Shangazi rests easy, but if the sands consume it, then they may consume the world as well.

All in all, I enjoyed my time reading When Jackals Storm the walls. As always, Beaulieu’s world-building is strong; possibly his greatest strength. The characters aren’t far behind—each continuing their development to a satisfying degree by book’s end. Brama and Davud especially stole the show, though Meryam impressed as well. There are always exceptions to this rule, with two of note: Çeda and Ramahd. Çeda’s development was there, but felt a little diminished as she’s really the face of this franchise. While her love life seems to have recovered (more, at least) from where it’s been in recent books, her transition from warrior to leader seems to have hit a snag. Not that she regressed, more that it was stagnant. Ramahd, for his part, was stagnant. The little we see of him in WJStW, she’s chasing Meryam, still trying to bring her to justice. Late, late in the book, he shows some of the development we’ve seen in past books, but for the most part he’s a mindless, faceless drone

I’m always skeptical of the choice to add a new character so late in the series. While Meryam is by no means “new”—she’s been around as a significant character since the first book—she hasn’t had her own POV chapters until now. And when one gives a character their own POV, the author typically wants to delve into their character’s backstory. This can cause the pace to slow or become uneven, especially in the later books where most other characters have been fleshed out. Meryam is no different. But Beaulieu has attempted to mitigate this by putting only brief flashbacks in each POV chapter, disguised as a dream sequence. They don’t take up as much time, and don’t screw with the pacing as much either. Willem and Hamid show up not nearly as often as the Queen, and mostly just to flesh out the story. Neither feature a heavy backstory, nor much in the way of personality. While they’re mildly interesting, it doesn’t seem like either is around to stay. Or are they?

That said, the pacing of When Jackals Storm the Walls is already slow. Honestly, I found it slower to build than most of the predecessors—since roughly Book #2. This slow build clashes dramatically with the sense of urgency exhibited by most characters throughout the book, and makes for the oddest feeling. It’s like the army adage “hurry up and wait”. It’s legitimately strange to see the characters of a book talking with urgency, but then strolling around like they have all the time in the world.

Through most of the story, I was interested, if not overly so. While a bit slow, there is a good mystery to the book—involving Sharakai, the gods, Nalamae, the Kings, the desert itself. When the mystery begins to unfold, it sells vast on a vast scale; one where the gods move humanity and demons alike around like pieces on a chessboard. The moment where I put everything together I wondered if Beaulieu had this in mind all along—because it is brilliant. But it takes some patience to make it this far. Around the 55% mark, the pace began to catch up to the urgency, and the tale began to drink me in. The conclusion, which begins to build after around the 70% mark or so, was truly an epic one—one of the most epic and jaw-dropping conclusions I’ve ever witnessed. It wasn’t so much that I was blindsided, or didn’t see it coming, it was just the execution was spot-on; the description so vivid and detailed that I felt like I’d fallen into the book and was witnessing it happen myself.

TL;DR

Addition of new characters, new faces, and new POV chapters hurts the pacing, but ultimately helps tell the story. With everything happening, When Jackals Storm the Walls lays down a level of urgency that the text just doesn’t live up to, at least for a while. But throughout a mystery is unfolding, one written on the level of the gods themselves. It’s truly impressive once you figure it out, especially if one manages it before the story hands it to you. When the pacing finally does catch up with the urgency, it sets off a conclusion that is epic even in the most epic standards. So detailed is the writing, so vivid the description that I felt like I’d fallen into the book—and was witnessing events firsthand. The fifth book of the Shattered Sands sets up what’s certain to be an even more epic conclusion, if such a thing is possible. After the ending sequence of this one, I cannot wait for the next one!

Two Bits: The Penitent Damned – by Django Wexler

Novella of the Shadow Campaigns #0

Novella, Fantasy

June 17, 2013

20 pages (ebook)

4 / 5 ✪

It begins with a discussion between the Last Duke and his assassin. A thief is coming to steal something very valuable, and they must be ready. But what is the item in question, and its importance to the thief? More so, the thief himself is an unknown. What abilities does he possess, exactly, and why would a careful man like him take on a dangerous mission such as this? To answer these questions, they must capture him.

Or her.

Alex is a master thief. And a master thief must have a masterful job before them. Anything less decays their skills and puts their talent to waste. And this job must be a masterwork. Anything less and she’ll die horribly. Even might die if she does everything perfectly—which means that Alex will cheat. Just a little.

I’ve not yet read any of the Shadow Campaigns, but I may have to remedy this very shortly. I have the first book sitting around somewhere (I think) and this glimpse into its world has me hungry for more.

A short, but lovely little read. Fast paced, thrilling and packed with heart-pounding action. I raced through it—shame it wasn’t longer. The magic system seems interesting; and while not new, isn’t the cliché version of point-and-shoot that just anyone can come up with on their day off. The surprising thing is that the characters showed depth. In a twenty page novella! While it wasn’t great depth, that can hardly be expected. But it did hint at more. Yes, I may have to read the Shadow Campaigns soon.

Recommended. You can read it for free here.

The Bone Ships – by R.J. Barker (Review)

Tide Child #1

Epic, Fantasy

Orbit Books; September 24, 2019

513 pages (ebook) 17hr 3m (audio)

3.4 / 5 ✪

Many thanks to Orbit for the ARC! Sorry it took so long, y’all. I was provided with a free reader’s copy in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

Though all in all an interesting, often exciting read, The Bone Ships didn’t tick all the boxes for me. Though occasionally I found the dialogue wandering and the description exhausting rather than thorough—most troubling was the realization at about the 75% mark that I just couldn’t wait for the book to be over with so I could move on to something else.

Joron Twiner is the ship-wife (captain) of a Ship of the Dead—a vessel crewed by a group the sea over already considers dead. They are treated as part of the navy, but not. See, they are not people, but the dead, the lowest of the low, a caste already dead and only yet to be buried at sea. Now, how Joron got this post is a tale. But that is for another time. The real story here is of Lucky Meas, the last dragon, and Tide Child.

It all begins with Joron piss drunk on a beach. Tide Child—his Ship of the Dead—idles off shore, drifting, waiting. Waiting for “Lucky” Meas Gilbryn. Now how she came to find him on this beach is another tale, again not for this time. But find him she did, and pull him from his cups she did as well. Joron returned to Tide Child not as its Captain, but as crew.

Centuries before the dragons vanished, hunted to death by humans for their bones. Bones used to build strong, fast ships. Ships, such as Tide Child. Long after the dragons disappeared, their bones are still used and reused, warred over and against, all to fuel a cycle that will only be over when either all the humans or all the bones lie upon the bottom of the sea.

But then, a lone dragon emerges.

And so ships near and far marshal to it, each hoping to win this prize for their own. For the dragon represents wealth, glory, fame, and new ships like Tide Child. But not all would use it as the other. Lucky Meas has a plan for the dragon, but what is it? And how is it different from the rest? And is Joron willing to follow her, knowing that should he, he will almost certainly be going to his grave? But then again, he is already of Tide Child. And thus already dead.

This began as a grand adventure into realms unknown, filled with pirates, glory, and dragons. I loved the various and unique beasts, the description of the numerous horrors that stalked the wilder parts of the land and sea. The text definitely showed its creativity, which I never stopped appreciating. The world-building showed no less. Though not exhaustive, it was pretty well complete. I hope the proceeding installments continue the trend found early on. Later… I found it more of a glimpse of every port philosophy, like a game or movie that focuses on one element once only to never look its way again. Episodic, but with one constant. Tide Child is that constant. A glimpse is taken, a picture taken, then back to Tide Child and onward—this is what it felt like.

I honestly don’t know how or when I soured on the Bone Ships. It just kinda happened. At first, it was an interesting, unique adventure—somewhat reminiscent of Dragon Hunters, by Marc Turner. While in the latter’s case I became more immersed the longer the story went on, in the former’s I just became bored. And I’m honestly not sure why.

It could have been that I just felt the story went on too long. That there was too much detail but too little action. That there was a lull in the telling, where the tale lost me and I mentally checked out. And there was this—all of these. About the halfway point (maybe 40%) I felt the pace slow; it hadn’t exactly been storming along to that point, but now it really slowed. While there are a few actiony bits here and there, I found them few and far between. Normally this wouldn’t’ve bothered me. I stayed around for all 15 Wheel of Time books, after all—yet here it did.

I had trouble getting into this one, to be fair. I had several false starts, ultimately resulting in my decision to read this as an audiobook. Now, it could have been a reader issue, but wasn’t: I quite liked the reader (Jude Owusu), though it took me a bit to warm to him. It was more likely an author issue. This was my first Barker book. I have the first Wounded Kingdoms book, but haven’t read it yet. It was the language, the content, the feel, the… the dialogue. I found it a bit clunky. Often somewhere between banal and fustian (flowery, but carrying little meaning), I found it little more than filler.

TL;DR

I’d probably even recommend this, even though I didn’t love it. It was still a good read, even if it got a little too long towards the end. Other than Joron, I found very little character development evident. While Joron’s change is significant, pains are taken with Lucky Meas—pains which I felt never evolved into anything. She was still a myth by the end of the book, instead of flesh and bone. Thing is that while it began as a good and action-packed adventure, by the time the Bone Ships came to its conclusion I was already over it. The reader is good, the adventure is good, the description is good, the world-building is better than good—and all came together and worked for me. Until it didn’t. Hopefully it works well throughout for you. It just didn’t for me.

The Tide Child series continues with the Call of the Bone Ships, due out November 24, 2020.

Ravencaller – by David Dalglish (Review)

The Keepers #2

Fantasy, Epic

Orbit; March 17, 2020

576 pages (ebook), 535 pages (PB)

4.9 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly furnished with a copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Orbit and David Dalglish for the ARC!

My ninth Dalglish book, Ravencaller might just be my favorite. Thus far, at least.

Ravencaller is the follow-up to David Dalglish’s Soulkeeper, in which magical creatures and monsters alike have reawakened after centuries spent trapped in a deep, deep sleep. Where in the first book we dealt with the awakening of these creatures, in Ravencaller we deal with the fallout. For the creatures’ sleep was not voluntary. In the times before, humanity and the denizens of the Dragons often clashed, and soon it became clear to one another that each could not exist while the other yet lived. And then something changed. The Dragons were forced under by the Sisters’ power, so that humanity could inherit their world. Imprisoned with them were all of their creations, who so recently awoke.

I was a big fan of Soulkeeper last year, but Ravencaller surpassed even my lofty hopes set by its predecessor.

Magical creatures now roam the land, preying on anything and everything to sate their bloodlust. Their imprisonment was long, and their tempers have frayed. Humans and animals alike suffer their wrath—but mostly humans. Not only the creatures have returned, however. Human servants of the Dragons, called Ravencallers, have emerged, their newfound powers similar to those granted to the Faith- and Mindkeepers but wielded towards a different goal. To drive these ‘men from the Dragons’ land, rather than save it from them. In addition to the these new malcontents, disease has arrived with the magic itself.

Humans awaken hungering for flesh, most often that of their neighbor. Others die, taken by plague or owls, gargoyles and foxes, or other magical predators. One band of creatures quickly overruns the Low Dock, taking it for themselves. Another drives the ‘men from Orismund west of Londheim, demanding past arrangements be honored. An army stands upon the city’s threshold. Another looms in the west. The Sisters’ faithful are pressed back on their heels—with one exception. Adria Eveson.

Transformed by Viciss and his creature Janus, she stands at the head of the church’s army. While magic has returned to the people of the land, Adria is something more. Something far more. And to ensure humanity’s survival, she must become far greater than she’d ever hoped.

Luckily, Adria has allies. Tesmarie, the ebon faerie; Devin, Soulkeeper and her brother; Tomas, newly awakened sorcerer; Jacaranda, newly awakened soulless; and more. The odds are heavily against them, but the humans may yet triumph in this war. Or, they might yet come to another, less bloody arrangement. But time will tell.

Despite a few faults, I loved Ravencaller. More than Soulkeeper. More than any other Dalglish book before it (my personal favorite up til now was probably A Dance of Ghosts). Devin remains my favorite character, but a newbie—Dierk, a Ravencaller—also steals the show. I liked Adria and Tesmarie and others, but Jacaranda’s one-woman revenge mission started to feel a bit worn-out at the halfway point. Nonetheless, I never got to a point in which I was dreading someone’s POV chapter. Not even hers’.

The language remains the same as it was in Soulkeeper. If you didn’t like the casual banter, the common names and words before—you probably won’t like it any better now. If you liked it, that probably won’t change. I didn’t mind it, because it’s what Dalglish used in his Shadowdance series. I’m used to it. But it might annoy you. And if it does, then it does.

The world-building continues to impress, as the changes the author makes to the world mirror the magic awakening all throughout it. Diseases pop up where none were before. Old tensions reawaken. Old disagreements draw new blood. The creatures’ motivations are their own, just like the humans’. It’s a mistake to think either are united in their ideals, their resentments. But can Devin and his friends keep an all out war from erupting?

I really have very little to say about Ravencaller. I loved it—and that pretty much seems sufficient. A classical story with darker elements. Just what I needed at the time. When the world is uncertain, escape into a lovely, well-rendered story.

TL;DR

If you enjoyed Soulkeeper, you’ll probably like Ravencaller. I’d be willing to say you’ll probably like it more. Returning are the riveting plot, the lovely world-building, the interesting and immersive world and its creatures. If anything, there’re even more interesting and unique creatures now. There’s mystery, combat and drama. Love and death. War and… well, mostly war. Action and adventure (though we spend less time out of the city than in Book #1). There’re strong male and female leads. Good characters, POVs and chapters. Nothing too difficult to read or too boring to not suffer through. I’d recommend it, but you’ll have to read #1 first. Honestly, it’s a no-brainer.

Ravencaller comes out early next week, March 17th to be exact. Pick it up, it you need a break from reality. Or, if you’re practicing social distancing. The series may or may not conclude with Voidbreaker, due out 2021. I’m looking forward to next year—and I’m already sick of this one. In March.

Outstanding.