Blood of Elves – by Andrzej Sapkowski (Review)

The Witcher #2

Epic, Fantasy, Sword & Sorcery

Hachette Book Group; May 1, 2009 (original English translation)

Orion Publishing; February 13, 2020 (rerelease)

398 pages (PB)

3.5 / 5 ✪

I was generously supplied a copy in exchange for an honest review. Thanks to Orion Publishing for the eARC! #NetGalley #BloodofElves

Blood of Elves officially begins the Witcher saga, a series by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. It follows witcher Geralt of Rivia, of some renown and fame, as well as infamy. Though Geralt was initially introduced in The Last Wish, Blood of Elves is the first full length novel set in this world of elves, dwarves, gnomes, men, and witchers. In addition to the Last Wish, you maaaay be familiar with the Witcher games (which are all amazing). While I enjoyed all the games, as well as the Last Wish, I was torn on Blood of Elves.

Witchers—as introduced in The Last Wish—are a secretive order of monster slayers, hated and feared the world over, but needed as well. Taken as boys, they are put through rigorous and dangerous trials then are pumped full of alchemic and mutagenic compounds to turn them into the perfect monster-fighters. The survivors of these are few, but these few become Witchers. Witchers traditionally stay out of the limelight; not getting involved with the politics of kings, nor humans versus non-humankind.

But when Geralt hears of a certain prophecy, he breaks this unwritten rule. Ciri is the lost Princess of Cintra, a child of the Elder Blood—prophesied to bring great change to the world. She is also an orphan, one with magic in her blood. And so Geralt returns with Ciri to Kaer Morhern—the home of the Witchers—and begins to train her as one of their own. But as a child of Elder Blood, Ciri also begins training in magic, slowly becoming one of a kind. Something unique.

The story, such as it is, follows Ciri. Her Witcher training under Geralt. Her magic training under Triss Merigold. Her… less than reputable training, under the bard, Dandelion. Further on, it follows world events surrounding the Princess of Cintra, a prophesied child of Elder Blood. The politics of lords and kings. War. And more.

There’s a lot going on in Blood of Elves. Sapkowski focuses heavily on world-building, switching between vastly different perspectives with little apparent emphasis on the actual plot. The plot which is… incomplete. While the story follows Ciri as she grows up, and Geralt as her mentor, we spend a lot of time with an extended cast. In addition to Geralt, Ciri, Triss and Dandelion, there’s Yennifer, Vesemir, other Sorceresses, other Witchers, kings and viziers, elves, humans, dwarves, gnomes, rebels, warriors, and more. There are random flashbacks—often short and unhelpful, only hinting at past events. It’s both a thrilling, and incredibly annoying tactic. There’s a lot going on; it’s easy to get lost.

First time I read this, it frustrated me on so many levels. Second time was better, but I still didn’t love it. The plot was still muddied, the pacing… odd. I never knew whether I should be feeling action and thrill or thoughtful and contemplative, and then it changed without apparent reason.

And… well. The plot doesn’t resolve at the end of Blood of Elves. It rather ends in a cliffhanger, in fact. Like the kind Michael J. Sullivan is so obsessed with. But where his novels are usually gripping and thrilling… well, BoE is both of these, too. But it’s also a bit dense. And with very little resolution, I found myself turned off it.

TL;DR

While Blood of Elves demonstrates world-building and lore on an elite scale, its plot is a quagmire of random characters, events and flashbacks, all cobbled together in a seemingly random order. Well the story told is a good one—better than good, even—it’s easy to get lost in all the twists and turns. Having played the Witcher games, having read the Last Wish—I could just barely keep up with it all, but still lost focus in the end, when the book ended, but nothing was resolved. I haven’t yet read Time of Contempt (the next Witcher novel), where the story presumably continues. The desire to both is and isn’t there. If it’s another mire of random characters and flashbacks, I’m not sure I want to. If it’s a series of action and adventure sequences following my favorite characters, I definitely do. So, I’m torn. And I’m not sure which way to lean.

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

Legends of the First Empire #1

Epic, Fantasy

Del Rey; June 28, 2016

387 pages (HC)

4.0 / 5 ✪

Since the dawn of time, humans have worshipped the Fhrey as gods, never before crossing the Bern or North Branch Rivers into the green lands beyond, which their gods inhabit. In fact, none have dared cross these bounds, instead staying on the barren stretch of land north of the Broken Lands which constitutes Rhulyn. Not, at least, until recently.

Raithe currently wishes he’d not broken this particular tradition. After just crossing to a small islet at the junction of the two rivers, a god appeared, killed his father, and prepared to kill Raithe himself. Except that he killed it first. A god. Dead. By his hand. It was quite perplexing, to be honest.

From here, Raithe and Malcolm—a human servant, formerly of the Fhrey—turn south, fleeing the old gods wrath. Meanwhile, Persephone, wife to the Chief of Dal Rhen for the last 20 years, has just been widowed. And with her husband following their son into the afterlife, she awaits the passing of the mantle that will fade her into obscurity. And yet, it’s hard to just let it happen. So when the mystic girl Suri comes bringing portents of their impending doom, Persephone takes it upon herself to keep them safe. The Fhrey are on the warpath, and no Rhune is safe from them. But just when the light is fading and all hope is lost—enter Raithe: the God-Killer.

Confronted by a impending storm that threatens to wipe out their people, Raithe, Malcolm, Suri and Persephone must band together to somehow salvage humanity. They are joined in this endeavor by several unlikely characters, allies, and not-exactly-enemies. Can they keep humanity alive? Or will the birth of legends be the end of the Age of Myth?

It’s a generally good series debut. Michael J. Sullivan, author of Riyria fame, weaves an expansive story set early in his world of Elan; the humble roots of what will become a legend. Of course, the world-building is amazing. This tantalizing tale begins the Legends of the First Empire, a six book epic that will lay the foundation of the world we’ve all come to love from the Riyria Revelations and Chronicles. After his planned six books, I can only imagine how thorough the lore will be. In fact, having now read five of them, I can tell you that the Age of Myth is just the tip of the iceberg, lore-wise. And the story that Sullivan tells in it is just the first in an epic legend. While I wasn’t thrilled with the first half of the six book series, I did find it helpful to read all five leading up to the release of the sixth. And where I found the first three lacking (mostly the first two, though), the last two were both incredible!

The POVs in AoM were pretty solid. Raithe, Persephone, Suri all take turns with the narrative, of course, and are joined by Brin, lorekeeper of Dal Rhen; and two Fhrey Mawyndulë, prince to the fane, and Arion, the Miralyith—wizardess—assigned as his tutor. A few more join these, all of which are generally likable, at least as POVs go.

While the story starts off strong and carries along nicely for the first half or so, uneven pacing bogs it down somewhat in the later stages. Additionally, though I certainly enjoyed my time with it, Age of Myth just didn’t bring the depth that I’m accustomed to in a Sullivan novel. It was like Crown Conspiracy all over again—well, not that bad, actually. Just a bit less thrilling, a bit less relatable, and a bit less realistic than usual. The whole thing was a solid release, though not perfect. And leading into Age of Swords… well, it could’ve gone better. The character development specifically—which, yes, I realize is difficult in the first book of any series—was weak, practically nonexistent but for Raithe and Arion, who adapted a bit over its course.

TL;DR

All in all, I expected more from Age of Myth than it delivered. I mean, it’s still a solid four-star read. Has interesting characters, an entertaining plot, and builds upon the expansive lore only hinted at in the Riyria books. But I’ve a high opinion of Michael J. Sullivan’s authorial skills. The book lags a bit in places. And while every POV is generally good, none wowed me. While Age of Myth was quite the read—it wasn’t perfect. But I’d certainly recommend it. Both the book and the following series. The first of a planned six books, Age of Myth begins the Legends of the First Empire, a series which becomes more and more amazing as it goes on. And so reading the first one—which shouldn’t prove much of a challenge—is key.

Legends of the First Empire continues with the Age of Swords—Book 2—and follows on with Age of War, Age of Legend and Age of Death. Age of Empyre—out later this year—concludes the series, so you’ve got a little to catch up, but shouldn’t waste anymore time. Get on it!

Pile of Bones – by Michael J. Sullivan (Brief)

Legends of the First Empire Novella, Prequel

Novella, Fantasy, Epic

Audible Exclusive; January 7, 2020

67 min (audio)

3 / 5 ✪

Pile of Bones is an interesting interlude in the Legends of the First Empire series, actually set before the events of Age of Myth, back when Suri and Minna were just two sisters roving the forest under the semi-watchful eye of Tura. The short involves a chamber filled with bones, a raow, and the story behind Suri’s distaste for enclosed spaces. While the lore for the raow was interesting, and the glimpses of Minna and Suri together again was kinda heartwarming—the real reason to read this prequel is certainly to learn more about Suri’s dislike of tight spaces. Over the course of the roughly 45 minutes spent in the forests of Elan, I learned, I laughed, I loved—but there was nothing earth-shattering here—and I gained a deeper appreciation of Suri’s aversion to claustrophobia. As I read this between the events of Age of Legend and Age of Death, this gave me insight into her actions over the course of both books.

Time Gerard Reynolds is a pretty good narrator. If you’ve not heard him before, he does all the Riyria stuff. So, if you liked him—good news, you can listen to the entire series now! If you didn’t like him—yeaaah, maybe don’t listen to any of Sullivan’s books.

TL;DR

Honestly, if you didn’t read that, I don’t know what to tell you. While Pile of Bones won’t add much to your understanding of Elan or the overarching story of the Legends of the First Empire, it is a decent bit of backstory. It’s about an hour read—free, too. I’d recommend it for anyone interested in the series or new to it. Also, anyone who’s just finished Books 4 or 5. Or even anyone who is new to audio and is questioning whether or not they want to delve deeper into it as a way to read more.

A Time of Blood – by John Gwynne (Review)

Of Blood and Bone #2

Epic, Fantasy

Orbit Books; April 16, 2019

463 pages (PB)

3.9 / 5 ✪

Contains spoilers for A Time of Dread and possible spoilers for the Faithful and the Fallen series!

The second Of Blood and Bone, A Time of Blood shares much the the successes of its predecessors. Both A Time of Dread and the Faithful and the Fallen quartet instilled in us a sense of wonder, of noble deeds and nobler warriors, of truth, courage, and loyalty. All classic fantasy components. And yet where tFatF soared high, OB&B seems a little too nostalgic, and a little too straightforward.

Again, the story leans heavily on its 4 POVs: Bleda, Riv, Drem & Fritha. These POVs tell two separate stories—one of revenge and blood feud, and the other of… revenge and blood-feud. In fact, A Time of Blood reads pretty much like a “How to” for blood-feud. I mean, there’s still a good story underneath, but it all boils down to the same message.

A Time of Feud

In the north, Drem and his companions flee Fritha and the Kadoshim. Following the loss of Sig, they are shaken and desperate to get away from their pursuit. But the Bone Fells are wintry and wild, the Desolation barren and vast, and even with Drem cutting their path, the group is only just managing to outpace their pursuers. Meanwhile, Fritha and her revenants are frantic to catch them, not ready for the secret of the Kadoshim to come out. But as Drem and the others start to pull away, Fritha and her ilk happen upon a few unexpected prizes that might just make up for their failure.

In Forn Forest, Riv and Bleda lead the Ben Elim on a merry chase of their own. But outmatched, outnumbered, they are caught and returned to Drassil. Here Riv is held and awaits her death. But Kol, an upstart Ben Elim, has other plans. Instead of killing her, he plans on using Riv to further his own agenda, make his play for High Captain, and establish permanent Ben-Elim-human relationships. Bleda, meanwhile, is torn. Reunited with his intended—Jin—he can only think about Riv. Her face, her spirit, her lips. And torn as he is, it’s just a matter of time before he does something reckless.

The fate of the Banished Lands is once again in question. And the final battle for them looms large.

‘ This world is one blood feud or another, an endless cycle. ‘

– A Time of Blood, pg. 449

Where the original series was a beautiful coming of age story, a redemption song, and a harrowing battle between good and evil all rolled into one—Of Blood and Bone is starting to feel a lot like one entire blood-feud. While I liked the first book, A Time of Dread, but felt it lacked somewhat compared to the story the original series put out. I enjoyed this second book, but it sure left a sour taste in my mouth after finishing it. It told of much the same battle between good and evil, but with a twist. Each of the two sets of POVs—Drem and Fritha, Riv and Bleda—all have reason to hate each other. After the events of A Time of Blood, they hate one another even more.

As always, John Gwynne weaves an intricate and compelling story—despite all the blood-feud. His world-building is top-notch and his Banished Lands continue to improve in their detail. I only regret that we haven’t fully explored them yet. Nor have we reached Ardain in this trilogy. The short of it is that his world is always well-built, always breathtaking, always lovely in its detail—and A Time of Blood is no different.

AToB is by no means bad, though I have a lot of trouble not comparing it to the Faithful and the Fallen series before it. And it compares badly. It lacks the same charm, the same appeal. The same plot intricacies. A Time of Blood is a well-written, entertaining, straightforward tale of good vs. evil. An enjoyable ride of battles, courage and betrayal. A bitter path of blood-feud and the means taken to achieve it. But little more. It’s certainly entertaining and interesting—but seriously, it can’t compare to what comes before it.

TL;DR

The Faithful and the Fallen is one of my favorite series of all time. Of Blood and Bone is a pale comparison. A Time of Blood is an entertaining read set in a well-built, well-written world. The plot began as a straightforward struggle between good and evil—a sequel to the war between Kadoshim and Ben Elim spelled out in Gwynne’s previous quartet. But this continuation quickly devolves into feud. While the story is still an interesting back and forth revenge tale, it’s nothing that the books before it were. I’m… on the fence about recommending it. If you’ve read tFatF—I’d say, yeah, probably. If you haven’t, I’d definitely start with that series first.

The series concludes with A Time of Courage, due out April 2, 2020.

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

Legends of the First Empire #5

Fantasy, Epic, Sword & Sorcery

Riyria Enterprises LLC; February 4, 2020

420 pages (ebook)

5 / 5 ✪

Author WebsiteGoodreads

Beware spoilers for the previous four Legends of the First Empire books, especially Age of Legend!

Age of Death is the 5th and penultimate book in the Legends of the First Empire series by Riyria author Michael J. Sullivan, and the 16th book I’ve read by him overall. While initially I had my doubts about this series, I loved Age of Legend to a degree I hadn’t felt since Winter’s Daughter in 2017. So would Age of Death live up to my ridiculously high standards? Well, if you read the header I guess you know that it did!

Fresh from the events of Age of Legend (which ended in a spectacular cliffhanger that I just loved), the fellowship of eight that had set out to save Suri reached the Swamps of Ith and made contact with the Tetlin Witch within. Here, seven of those carried on with their mission into the afterlife while Tesh watched helplessly from the shore. As Brin slowly sunk to her death, she heard Tesh’s anguished cry—before darkness consumed her.

And the Age of Death began.

Brin found herself floating in a river. All around: darkness. She had no feeling in her body, and her thoughts rambled endlessly. After an indeterminable amount of time, a light appeared in the distance. Upon reaching this light, she came upon a shore and discovered the rest of the fellowship.

And so we enter the realm of the dead—Rel.

Death is just the beginning. This, the denizens of Elan know well. But it turns out, this is only half the story. And yet, the story is incomplete. The realms are out of sync—the order that should exist has been broken—and the dead that have arrived in Rel now remain trapped there instead of continuing on to the next world. Having arrived here, however, the fellowship has little option but to push onward. As such, they make their way deeper into Rel, passing beings from a time long past, and even some from a time forgotten. But what will they find at its end? Will there be a way to continue their quest, or does their journey end here, always having been fated to be a one-way trip?

In the land of the living, the war remains at a standstill. The Rhunes have pushed the Fhrey to the Nidwalden, but no further. The Fhrey, with the help of Avempartha, hold them here. But soon the Fane will uncover the secret of dragons, and then the tides of war shall change.

While Nyphron exhausts every military option he can think of, Persephone confides her misgivings to the Gilarabrywn. But after those fateful words weeks before, Raithe has not spoken again. The Gilarabrywn remains motionless. But still she hopes. Meanwhile, Suri adapts to her imprisonment. The Fane has yet to break her, kill her, or otherwise extract any secrets from her. But it is only a matter of time. But not all is as it seems on Elan. Neither force is as united as its leader believes and in these cracks, sedition grows. But will it sprout in time to save Suri and stop the war? Or will the land once again fall into chaos?

* *

“It’s just that…” Roan focused on Tressa, as if speaking to her alone. “Well, didn’t you say that the key could open any lock in Phyre? Not just doors, right? And we are locked in.”

“Only in a matter of speaking,” Rain said. “And you can’t insert a key into a manner of speaking.”

So, I LOVED this book.

But first, my two issues with it. One—the book continues from a cliffhanger that I had to wait on for some months. Two—the book ENDS in a cliffhanger that I have to wait on for a few more. Michael J. Damned Sullivan and his stupid cliffhangers! I swear, if his books weren’t so good I wouldn’t put up with this nonsense! But… they are, so I do.

The story of Age of Death was probably my favorite part of it, but there are no end of things to like. The blend of adventure and mystery from the fellowship’s quest, the suspense surrounding both armies with Suri’s fate hanging over it all combines to create a thrilling, addictive read that I couldn’t put down. After waiting a couple months to start this book, I finished it in 3 days. As usual, I wanted to wait so that the cliffhanger I knew was coming wouldn’t have it fester for too long. I bet y’all know how well that’s working out.

Once, I felt Sullivan cheapened invention and progress. Much of that is the reason I’ve just recently come around to Roan. While there’s still a bit of carryover from the past books, Age of Death is pretty much past all of this. The world-building continues to impress, and progress continues to um, “progress”, but without all the ridiculousness. After 15+ books set in Elan, I suppose the world should be pretty much flesh and blood by now. Well—it is. A triumph of design and execution, on par with all but the heavy hitters like Malazan or the Wheel of Time. Nothing for me to complain about here.

After five books, the characters continue to develop. As much as I enjoyed the Riyria Revelations, character development wasn’t a big part of it. Yes, a few of them change eventually, but in 6 books, something better. It’s amazing to see the growth and development between even a couple books of this series, as characters continue to change even in death. Granted, I wouldn’t call every change in the characters’ development “growth”, but de-growth and de-development both sounded ridiculous so I’m just going to call it an either/or term. No matter which direction said “growth” takes, it’s an entirely human change. Yes, even in the Fhrey and Belgriclungreians. And having such “growth” in one’s books, between one’s books, and especially over the course of an extended series is both realistic and refreshing.

Oh, and I’m not sure who has done the covers for this series, but they continue to be amazing and suitably epic!

TL;DR

Be forewarned: Age of Death both starts and ends with a cliffhanger. It’s also extremely addictive and you might find yourself reading late into the night when you’re already short on sleep and have work early the next day. And you might find yourself hating the book (and the author) for making you wait a few months for the next book. Don’t worry—these feelings are all completely natural. There’s a place online for you to complain. Or you could scream and throw the book at your least-favorite wall. Just maybe don’t if you have it as an ebook.

Age of Death is the penultimate entry in the Legends of the First Empire series and it’s just incredible. I was a little iffy on continuing the series early on. Sullivan tried me more than once, but he got away with it in the end. The world-building is at the top of its class. The character development is so thorough its practically overwhelming. The mystery, the adventure, the suspense that Age of Death brings are all equally reason enough to read it. Combined… this book is impressive. I know if you haven’t started the series this could feel like a long shot, but I think it’s worth the time, effort and heartache. If you have read past Age of War—you seriously need to catch up. Then you and I and the rest of the world will be anticipating Age of Empyre together.

Age of Empyre is expected out via Kickstarter sometime in the spring, or on May 5, 2020 via Grim Oak Press.

Herald of the Storm – by Richard Ford (Review)

Steelhaven #1

Fantasy, Epic, Dark Fantasy

Headline; August, 2013

392 pages (PB)

3.5 / 5 ✪

Welcome to Steelhaven, the new fantasy epic by Richard Ford (or R.S. Ford), the author of the War of the Archons trilogy. Once a beacon of strength and hope amidst the Free States, the great city of Steelhaven is now under threat. King Cael leads their combined armies against the threat, but while the King is away, the city has begun to fester—black magic and criminals tearing the city apart from within. And when the enemy’s Herald comes, the city of Steelhaven is in for the fight of its existence.

Massoum Abbasi has arrived in Steelhaven. Herald of Amon Tugha, he has come to the city on a mission. Here, he comes upon a few dark allies. An assassin and his two sons—Forest and River. River lives to serve his father and the dark lord, but one single act of rebellion may yet ruin it all.

Janessa is the princess of Steelhaven, and as such, her entire life has been mapped. She will court and marry, birth sons, grow old and die far from home, alone and friendless, while her husband flirts with scullery maids and her children war and die. But there is a problem with this grand plan. Janessa, only daughter to King Cael, is already in love, with a man no father would approve. But will she follow her heart, or her father’s plan? She has a difficult choice, even as the world around her falls to ruin.

Waylian is a journeyman magistra, but without magic, he might as well not be. Apprenticed to notorious Red Witch, his life isn’t looking up. Outcast and laughingstock, he must forge ahead, for despite his lack of magic, the fate of Steelhaven may very well fall to him.

Rag has never had anything. A cutpurse and thief, she and her band of friends rove the streets in search of coin, food, and survival. She has lost friends before—such is the life of an orphan. But when Rag loses a unlikely friend, her world overturns. And suddenly survival isn’t enough anymore.

With the fate of Steelhaven at its center, all these character arcs come together to tell its story—whether the city survives the day, or falls to ruin. Welcome, then, to Steelhaven.

First thing I want to point out is that this is just under 400 pages. And all those characters above? That’s not it. In addition to them, there are a trio more: Keira, a temple Shieldmaiden; Nobul, a blacksmith turned soldier; and Merrick, a gambler. And a bad one at that. The first seven chapters (spanning 61 pages) introduce a new character. Chapter 9 introduces another. Not that these characters aren’t interesting or anything, it’s just that the book’s beginning is a bit…. hectic. A bit unfocused. Eight POVs—as Massoum really only has one here and there—is fine, but for such a short book, it’s inadvisable. Indeed, Herald of the Storm is interesting, but it really only gets exciting once you get into it a bit. There’s really no hook in the beginning to keep you reading. I had to fight to get past the first quarter or so, before everything familiarized. Every POV IS interesting, but there are so many of them! It’s a bit overwhelming.

The second thing I want to talk about in HotS is the story. It’s a good one, but. 8 POVs creates a nice contrast, a lovingly crafted tale that once I settled into was quite easy to read. But since the book is so short, everything has to tie up quickly in the end. Like, abruptly. So much so that it really doesn’t. Not that there’s a cliffhanger, exactly, but more that the ending feels… open. Unfulfilling. Like it’s really just a build-up for Book 2. Which would be fine, except that when you have to wait a year between publications, it’s easy to lose interest. I have the second book, but I’ve never gotten to it. Steelhaven was interesting, but it was so easy to lose track of the story when there’s so little settled.

Now I want to talk about the characters. As I mentioned before, there really are too many for the length. The author really should’ve axed some of them. But I understand why he didn’t. For most stories, I have my most and least favorite POVs. Some I look forward to, others I might dread. HotS… I liked Waylian, River and Rag the most. I wasn’t a huge fan of Kaira, though I didn’t dread her chapters. I pretty much liked everyone else. And their arcs all tie-in very nicely. Now, not all them resolve in Book #1, but that’s different. I trust that the author had a plan for them spanning the trilogy, and assume their individual stories are important for the outcome of the overall story. The character building and development are pretty top-notch. There were even a few instances of growth throughout the book, which I would’ve expected to feel unnatural or forced in such a small space. But they don’t. They’re really very well written and designed.

The world is also fairly well built. Though it reminds me a bit of Landfall from The Boy with the Porcelain Blade. What is shown of the world is lively, vivid. In this case, that’s Steelhaven. What isn’t shown, really isn’t mentioned. Landfall is covered in a thick fog. It’s mentioned, but not much. The world outside Steelhaven might as well not even exist. So, the world-building of Herald of the Storm is pretty amazing, but incomplete. Very incomplete. I don’t know if the story ventures outside Steelhaven in the second installment, though I’m interested to see how the world-building changes in the next story. Or, if it does at all.

TL;DR

Overall I was pleased with Herald of the Storm, once I got into it. But it certainly wasn’t ideal. The world-building and character development was top-notch. There was even character growth, despite the shortness of the book. This establishes the characters as the novel’s greatest strength. But they are also it’s greatest weakness. Eight distinct POVs take a lot of time to introduce. When done one after the other, this can often lead to a disconnected, tepid introduction. This is certainly the case with Herald of the Storm, where the first 15% is a slog, and the next nearly as painful, waiting while the story settles in to a good rhythm. But once it gets going, the story is another strength. The end is a bit of a let down, though hopefully that’s solved in the sequel. I guess I don’t really have an answer whether the read’s worth it. Not yet. I’ll have to see how I like the 2nd one yet. It’s on my Top TBR for the year. Hopefully, after I read it, it’ll be enough to recommend Herald of the Storm, but we’ll see.

Steelhaven continues with The Shattered Crown. If you’d rather try something else by Ford, I’ve heard good things about the War of the Archons. Book #1, A Demon in Silver, was published in 2018 by Titan.

Top Ten of 2019

This is actually my 4th or 5th attempt at a Year’s Best list. A few were too long (one had 25 books) others were too short (5 books), some too restrictive and others too broad. I was going to do a 2019 Only list, but I ended up scrapping that last. While most of my favorites for the year were released THIS year, this year I probably read more newly released books than ever before. And while only 3 of my Top 10 come from before this year, they include 2 of my Top 3. So I cut it to 10. I could probably throw in a few honorable mentions, but then I’d invariably get carried and we’d be here all day. So it’s 10. Just 10. There’ll be links to both the Goodreads page and my reviews for each book, in case you’d like to check out either. Otherwise, I hope you’ll enjoy the list and maybe comment. While I liked most of 2019, the end was just painful. Horribly, terribly painful. I hope that whomever and wherever you are, your year was much better, and ended more gracefully. Can’t wait for 2020! But first, here’s to 2019:

10. Beneath the Twisted Trees – by Bradley P. Beaulieu (2019)

GoodreadsReview

To begin the list, Beneath the Twisted Trees is Book #4 of the Song of the Shattered Sands. Out in 2019, it was a fantastic ride filled will vivid storytelling and epic world-building. Continuing the story of Çeda on her journey to destroy the Kings of Sharakai, I cannot recommend this series enough. Bradley Beaulieu’s attention to detail has always been on-point, but The Shattered Sands impressive still.

9. The Imaginary Corpse – by Tyler Hayes (2019)

GoodreadsReview

Again thanks to Angry Robot for this ARC! I’d never even heard of Tyler Hayes at all until I got this book—but the Imaginary Corpse absolutely blew me away. An imaginative and fun world filled with adorable and cuddly characters, including one of my favorites of all time: Tippy. Combining the dark noir of the classic gumshoe with the cuteness and fun of something out of the Great Mouse Detective, I’d recommend this story for pretty much everyone, easily one of my favs for the year!

8. Age of Legend – by Michael J. Sullivan (2019)

GoodreadsReview

I hated the ending to Age of War soooo much, I threw the damned book at the wall. I loved the Age of Legend so much, I had to keep myself from starting the Age of Death right upon finishing it. A darker beginning gives way to an epic adventure—a Michael J. Sullivan specialty. My main issue with this book comes with its own warning: there’s a cliffhanger (another Sullivan specialty), so you’ll likely want to read the next one right away. Which, if you didn’t back the Kickstarter, might be an issue. So maybe wait until February to read them. Or prepare to suffer the consequences.

7. Blackwing – by Ed McDonald (2017)

GoodreadsReview

Blackwing was originally published in 2017, but served as my intro to the Ed McDonald, and the Raven’s Mark trilogy, which concluded in 2019. It actually took me three tries to get past page 30, but once I did, I was captivated. A thrilling adventure in a new world—Blackwing definitely puts the… ‘A’ in adventure? Something like that. Whatever. If you haven’t read it, it’s really cool.

6. Soulkeeper – by David Dalglish (2019)

GoodreadsReview

I loved Dalglish’s Shadowdance series—and while Skyborn underwhelmed me—Soulkeeper won me back. If I’d needed winning back, I guess. A new fantasy adventure, with a classic fantasy appeal, this book nailed the characters, the world-building and the nostalgia for me. The only thing I took issue with was the dialogue, but it wasn’t a detail that ruined the story. Didn’t even leave a bad aftertaste. Can’t wait for Ravencaller in 2020!

5. Walking to Aldebaran – by Adrian Tchaikovsky (2019)

GoodreadsReview

I’m usually hit-or-miss on novellas and short-stories. Anything that half-asses a proper length adventure. For Adrian Tchaikovsky, however—I’ll make an exception. A light but surprisingly deep read, Aldebaran follows smartass astronaut Gary Rendell as he explores an alien artefact at the edge of our solar system. I loved the adventure and wit, the exploration of the unknown, the tone Tchaikovsky uses to describe the world, even didn’t mind the shortness of the tale—really my only issue was the price.

4. Fallen – by Benedict Jacka (2019)

GoodreadsReview

The tenth Alex Verus book is my favorite thus far. We’ve hit a pretty good stride with that, as so were Books 7, 8 and 9 upon their releases. Fallen is the best of the bunch, though. As Alex’s adventure nears its completion, the story is getting deliciously dark (though not Grimdark), enough to convince Verus that a dozen books is enough. I assume, at least. Ten books down, and Alex must become something else, something MORE, in order to move forward. I love the direction this series has gone and can’t wait to see where it goes next!

3. The Fall of Dragons – by Miles Cameron (2017)

Goodreads • Review

The final book in the Traitor Son Cycle leads off my Top 3. The Red Knight has gone through trials and travails; found and lost and found love once more; crossed untold lands, worlds, filled with mysterious and terrifying beasts; fought battles, wars and emerged bloodied, but unbeaten. And yet the enemy remains. Fall of Dragons is the epic—and immensely satisfying—conclusion. If you haven’t read it—or any of the other Traitor Son books… well, they’re just amazing. It’s an epic, incredible, awe inspiring adventure. Sometimes the detail and language can be a bit dense, but by Book 5 I was more than used to it. I’m not a fan of endings; I know that all good stories must end, but sometimes I wish the adventure would just continue forever and ever. Fall of Dragons ends well. It isn’t necessarily happy—but it’s such an ending! A must read.

Note: I apparently haven’t review this yet, since I read it before this whole blog thing took hold. Hopefully I’ll get to that soon.

2. Crowfall – by Ed McDonald (2019)

GoodreadsReview

Where Blackwing (#7, pay attention) began the Raven’s Mark trilogy, Crowfall ends it. Though I didn’t love Ravencry, both Books 1 & 3 effectively blew my mind—more than enough for them to make this list. But where Blackwing suffered from the uncertainty that begins a new series, Crowfall shows that McDonald knew where he was going with it. Or maybe he got, really, really lucky. All the pieces of Galharrow’s adventure came together in this book, and the resulting story was amazing. There’s little more that I can say except: Read this. I loved it, and I hope you will too.

1. The Ember Blade – by Chris Wooding (2018)

GoodreadsReview

In a year where most of my favorite reads were new releases, my top choice harkens from the year prior. The Ember Blade is an epic tale, 800+ pages of classic fantasy adventure. A new world to explore, new characters to know and love, new details, new subplots, new love, new loss. Book 1 of the Darkwater Legacy was a coming-of-age epic that had it all—fantastic creatures, villains, heroes, love, purpose and adventure, so much adventure! While I wasn’t completely sold from the start, about a quarter way through my time with this tome, I was way past stopping. While it may seem like a classic coming-of-age tale, The Ember Blade mixes new with old, light fantasy with dark, to come up with something amazing and special—something that I hope you’ll love just as much as I did.

Ship of Smoke and Steel – by Django Wexler (Review)

Wells of Sorcery #1

Fantasy, YA, Teen

Tor Teen; January 22, 2019

366 pages (Hardcover)

3.5 / 5 ✪

Ship of Smoke and Steel is the latest offering from Django Wexler, a YA/Teen fantasy novel with adventure and romantic elements. A bit of a mashup, it involves some mystery, combat and suspense as well. Some of these it does very well, while others it fails at spectacularly. While I definitely enjoyed my time spent reading it, SoSaS wasn’t nearly as enjoyable as I would’ve thought after the first third. While hardly a slog, some sections were weighed down by clumsy, uneven pacing or slowed by the melding of two stories that just didn’t fit.

But let’s get into it.

In the slums of Kahnzoka, 18-year-old Isoka once ran collections for a shadowy crime lord. One that may or may not have also been her. A Melos adept, she used her combat magics to cut her way through anyone or thing that opposed her. But when her secret was discovered, Isoka was snatched up by the Empire, and given an impossible choice. To steal a legendary ghost ship for the Empire—something that is almost surely a suicide mission—or to turn her back on the one person Isoka truly loves: her little sister, Tori.

Soliton is more myth than ship. It makes berth in Kahnzoka once a year, where the adepts and sensitives of the city are sacrificed to help swell its ranks. Isoka is one such sacrifice. Infiltrating the ship under the orders of the Empire, she’ll have one year to deliver them Soliton, or lose Tori forever. But the task is a daunting one. And as you may’ve guessed, it begins from the bottom.

Thrown in with a ragtag group of misfits, Isoka’s mission looks doomed from the start. But—as these misfits show their character (and Isoka nearly dies)—she soon comes upon an opportunity for advancement. One she can’t afford to pass up. But on a ship of magic users and sensitives, how can she tell friend from foe? And what else may be lurking, ready to pounce?

As a teen fantasy adventure, SoSaS impresses. I loved the new and mystical sights; the mysterious ship Soliton, the creatures onboard, the descriptions, the Vile Rot, the wonder and adventure and twists and turns. Isoka’s journey is a bleak and bloody one to be sure, but the vibrance of the world itself makes up for her heavy handed approach to life. Soliton doesn’t seem like a ship, encompassing vast swaths of mysterious and unexplored heights, depths, and decks. Truly a world in itself, the ship is a triumphant creation, pulled off by Wexler through what I suspect is a time-honed combination of skill and luck, tempered with a wild imagination.

The story itself is… good. It’’s a little lame at first, if I’m honest. Kahnzoka isn’t the best backdrop, and the initial plot of blackmail and an impossible task, then a ragtag group of misfits seemed a bit cut-and-paste. Once aboard Soliton, the story really takes off. While beneath it all, there’s still the rather unimaginative blackmail machination driving everything—the story of Soliton itself steals the show. Now, though the ending itself is a little less than spectacular, the journey there is well enough worth it.

The romance, however, is a complete dud. Unless an awkward, fumbling teen romance is a thing that people actually WANT to read about. Now, Isoka has no problems cavorting with the opposite sex. At least when screwing them. It’s the fairer sex that’s the root of her issues. Specifically, one certain princess. This is the focus of the book’s romance. And personally it makes me cringe. Not the same-sex attraction, but the way that it is rendered. It reminds me of a simpler, more awkward, complicated, adolescent time when everything was all puberty, puberty, PUBERTY. It certainly does NOT make for an entertaining read.

The magic and combat of SoSaS is where the action is. The Wells of Sorcery—eight of them, at least—make for an entertaining combination of combat and tactics. When these Wells are combined in a single person, the opportunities for different styles of attack are nearly endless. Here, Wexler has built an impressive arsenal of potential magical powers and techniques that is certainly worth a look. That said, I felt that it was undersold in the book. The story gives a brief overview of the Wells, but little detail is given to anything beyond Melos. I would’ve liked to see more depth from the magic, especially beyond mere combat. The Lost Well (Eddica, the Well of Spirits) is well featured in the mystery around Soliton, but not very well explained. Actually, this is about par—the other Wells are similarly underused, vague and ill explained. We’re left with just a basic understanding of the magic; little beyond how to kill things.

SoSaS doesn’t feature a cliffhanger or anything, but the ending is less than perfect. For days afterwards I felt too disappointed to start this review, preferring to put it off while I searched for any fulfillment the text had yet to offer. Without giving anything away, I’ll say that it’s abrupt. There’s little feeling of resolution—the story falling flat after such a great buildup. I’m still enthusiastic for the next one, just not excited. I want to read it and all, but it can wait.

TL;DR

Ship of Smoke and Steel is the latest addition to Wexler’s family, a Teen/YA novel that takes two different perspectives of a girl—Isoka—and attempts to weave them into a single story. The resulting adventure is fantastic. With flashy magic and brutal combat that helps support a lush and vibrant world aboard the mysterious Soliton, which is more continent than ship. The story of one girl’s quest to save her sister, at whatever cost. The resulting love-story doesn’t work. With cringe-worthy scenes that disrupt pacing, will-they won’t-they moments abound—as Isoka travels the length of the world to find love. I suppose it IS a teen novel, and nothing screams puberty more than this romance. Combined, the two tales make one halfway decent story, just don’t expect too much. The conclusion, as well, could’ve used an overhaul. I left SoSaS feeling unfulfilled, even disappointed, as Wexler usually does a better job at resolution. While Ship of Smoke and Steel is well worth a look as a fantasy adventure, it’s worth little as a well-rounded tale. There’s action, combat, adventure, mystery and suspense, but anything beyond the hitting of things is rather lackluster. As is the magic itself. Full of color and flair, the Wells are skirted over—no real detail, nothing in-depth, and little seen other than with Melos itself.

The short of it: Ship of Smoke and Steel underwhelmed me. I definitely enjoyed the adventure—and would recommend the book for that alone—but a well-rounded fantasy it is not. While I am looking forward to the sequel, I honestly expect more from it.

City of Stone and Silence comes out January 7, 2020.

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

Legends of the First Empire #4

Fantasy, Epic

Grim Oak Press; July 9, 2019

361 pages (ebook)

4.5 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished with a copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to both Grim Oak Press, Michael J. Sullivan, and NetGalley for the review copy! All opinions are my own. Sorry it took so long.

I read Age of Myth for the 2nd time this spring, and though I did like it I was somewhat underwhelmed. Pretty much the way I’d felt upon reading it for the first time. Reading the Age of Swords soon after strengthened this feeling. While I’d enjoyed the first book, the second annoyed more than thrilled me. I mean, it still had the action, the adventure, the discovery… but there was something missing. Kinda how the Crown Conspiracy or the Rose and Thorn compares to the other Riryia books. They’re good, just kinda bland when compared to Sullivan’s other stuff. Then I read the Age of War.

The week I spent on it consisted of five days to reach the 200 page mark. The last day and a half were spent on the remainder. And once finished, I threw the book against the wall. So, I guess I can’t say I wasn’t invested in it. I hated the ending—loathed it—but while that didn’t ruin the entire story before it, it did make me put off reading the next one for a bit.

Until just recently.

Age of Legend is the 4th of 6 books in the Legends of the First Empire series. It follows the events of Age of War in three parts. The first takes place directly after the AoW, the second following a year later. Both the 1st and 2nd parts are abbreviated, totaling a quarter of the text combined. Part three—set five years after AoW—is where the real meat of the story is, though #1 and #2 help set up the telling of it. Personally, I found the first and second parts a bit dry, but also rather dark. It begins a good blend of darkness and despair, hope and love, that honestly a bit surprised me. I’ve known Michael J. Sullivan to write the latter pair, with maybe a sprinkling of the former. This is a fairly equal balance.

Fresh off the battle featured in AoW, by AoL the war is on in full. And it is a grind. Longer than either side anticipated, and a great deal bloodier. I was actually surprised at how thickly Sullivan laid the feeling of war on—familiarizing the reader with blood, death and hopelessness early on, so that they could possibly grasp the events following many years of it. Early on, Persephone, Suri and Brin star. Later on in the tale, Seph’s role fades only to be replaced by others—including one I hadn’t expected. And kinda forgot about. Brin and Suri dominate this book, but share time with regulars like Tesh, Gifford, Moya and others. Along with some new faces.

The war between ‘men and Fhrey has reached a standstill. While the humans have managed to push the elves back to their homeland, they cannot reach any farther. And while the elves have managed to stop the ‘men at the river, they cannot push the humans back. Both sides are searching for an upper hand. And some few within are still hoping for peace. But one faction may yet get what they desire—only, which one?

The latter half of the tale features desperation, a betrayal, and an overwhelming dread, followed by an unlikely savior—well, two, really—along with more than a few startling revelations. Even better, while the ending annoyed me, it didn’t make me throw this book at a wall. Which was great, considering I was reading an ebook. Also, it was for a completely different reason. The same reason, in fact, that made the lull between Wintertide and Persepolis intolerable: a cliffhanger. Had I read this several months before, I would’ve been more angry. But with Age of Death on hand, I find myself oddly forgiving of the behavior. Mostly.

In fact, the entirety of my problems with this book include the slow, dry start and the cliffhanger at the end. And nothing in-between. Frankly, I LOVED AoL, and am finally invested in this series after Book 4.

The character development and arcs are impressive, as both Fhrey and Humans feature equally. Suri’s story was easily my favorite, but I won’t sell anyone else’s short. Worldbuilding continues to be a strong element of Sullivan’s books, but it’s the characters themselves that steal the show. I’m even getting to the point where I can stand Roan, now that she’s let off on cheapening human ingenuity. And while both Brin and Suri go through a lot, a few other characters impressed me with their depth. There was one especially lovely part further on in the story, built to accommodate just me, I’m assuming. As I’m really trying to avoid spoilers here, let me just say that it was quite heartwarming and leave it at that.

The adventure is back in AoL; something that, while Sullivan tried in AoM and AoS, I feel like he failed to deliver on. A merry little quest, doomed with failure before its very start. Years before, in fact. It is this harrowing quest that ends with a cliffhanger, this Fellowship upon which everything rests. Wait, no. Not the fate of Middle Earth, but close.

Ish.

TL;DR

Age of Legend is an impressive read. A little bit dark, a little sweet, with an adventure thrown in—all of it beneath the dark cloud of war. Coming out of AoS and AoW, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue reading the series. And now, I honestly can’t wait to see where it goes from here. While the worldbuilding and storytelling is strong, the characters are where AoL shine. The growth and development of Suri, Tressa, Tesh and Brin all had me interested, such that I really didn’t end up dreading anyone’s chapters. A bit dry at first, the pace quickly sped up, leading to the patented Sullivan cliffhanger. Luckily, with Age of Death now out, there’s no waiting on the conclusion. If you read this on its release, however… it would’ve been quite a pain. Though set during wartime, AoL provides a nice balance of action and diplomacy to get you to its latter half, where the adventure abounds. If you decided to stop after the first three books, maybe check AoL out. If you’ve yet to start it and want to know if it’s worth it in full… eh, dunno. Let me read Age of Death and I’ll get back to you.

Age of Death released via Kickstarter in October. The official release is on February 4th, 2020. Age of Empyre, the final entry in the series, is set for another Kickstarter sometime in January 2020.

The Land You Never Leave – by Angus Watson (Review)

West of West #2

Dark Fantasy, Epic

Orbit; February 22, 2018

476 pages (PB)

4.3 / 5 ✪

SPOILERS – Contains spoilers for You Die When You Die

The Land You Never Leave is the second book in Watson’s West of West series, the continuation of a journey of stranded Vikings across a fictionalized New World in order to defeat an ancient evil threatening to destroy the world. Following the events of You Die When You Die; the Hardworkers have fled their destroyed town, pursued west across the continent by the Calnian Owsla—a squad of Amazon-like super soldiers, intent on eliminating them. In a twist ending, the two tribes unite, whereupon they must journey west of the Shining Mountains, past the Desert That You Don’t Walk Out Of, to the Meadows to save the world.

So begins TLYNL, or as I like to call it “Sex, Lies, and Wootah”.

TLYNL picks up right where YDWYD leaves off, with the Wootah and the Owsla on the edge of the Ocean of Grass, traveling west. Though some of the Owsla have been making eyes at the Mushroom Men, and the Wootah—though, mostly Finnbogi—have been entertaining lurid sexual fantasies involving the Owsla, the two tribes are far from trusting each other. Or even tolerating one another.

Soon enough, however, any chemistry is the least of their problems. For even before the two reach the Water Father, our heroes encounter the denizens of the Badlands—the Badlanders—a horrifying collection of monsters and killers, complete with their own Owsla. Far from bonding over a picnic, the two are soon at one another’s throats, with the Badlanders victorious, and the Wootah and Calnians taken prisoner and carted off to the Badlands to be brutally killed.

Before the book is out, Watson treats us to some terrifying threats both new and ancient, a few high-profile deaths, and a truly epic, entertaining adventure. Assuming you’ve read YDWYD, TLYNL provides more of the same, with intense violence, near-constant sexual innuendo, dark comedy, and generally good-natured fun. While I wouldn’t call any of what it does “family friendly”, well… you’d probably have noticed that from #1 anyway. TLYNL is an excellent continuation of the series—combining adventure, excitement, comedy with a number of unexpected twists, including one at the very end.

Finnbogi realized he might admire the psychopath who’d tried to have him killed by giant snakes more than the woman who’d taken him in and raised him like her own child. Life was odd.
- The Land You Never Leave, Finnbogi the Boggy

Though the Badlands plot dominates most of the book, there exist a number of minor and sub-plots throughout that add further elements to an otherwise jam-packed story. While a few of these are too brief or absurd to be enjoyable, most provide a brief respite, ensuring that the overarching plot doesn’t grow tedious or the pacing lax.

I was all-around impressed with The Land You Never Leave, but my favorite aspect of it is what I love to see in every post-first-book entry: character development.

Over the course of epic adventures, characters change. This is a big component especially of Coming-of-Age stories, so I was pleased to see it in TLYNL, for what were the Hardworkers in YDWYD exactly but big children? From being provided with everything they’ve ever needed, to being forced to survive on their own while being hounded and hunted across the continent. Well, come TLYNL they’re evolving into something more—or being left behind. Without a doubt, my personal favorite of these was Finnbogi’s development, for coming into TLYNL, well, he hadn’t done much. And as any such hero, the sequel provides him with more than enough hardship and strife to mold him into something new, something… Boggy-ish. Or, MORE Boggyish, I suppose. Without spoiling anything, I can’t say much, only that his personal journey was particularly impressive, though not without its own blunders.

While the individual character development stole the show, the group element needs to be mentioned. Coming into the second book, the Calnian Owsla and Wootah were tenuous allies. Throughout the course of the story this evolves into something more—while at the same time, also something less. That is, bonds are tested and stretched, or just broken and reformed. While some characters change, others stay resolute, forcing their dynamic to adapt, or be broken. Not all the change in TLYNL is positive. There is a combination of the two, some of which remains unresolved even at the end.

Sadly, while I loved TLYNL, it is not perfect. Toward the end, after the main plot has been completed, there is a bit of a stutter. Plot-holes, gaps, and questionable reasoning solved, and a setup for the finale only made possible by the timely intervention of a clairvoyant (and short-lived) warlock. Solved in but a chapter, no less. After an adventure that was entirely epic, this was a bit of a let-down.

TL;DR

The Land You Never Leave is a suitable successor to You Die When You Die, providing an epic adventure with more of the same fun, comedy, sex and violence prevalent in its predecessor. I particularly enjoyed the character development, specifically that of its individuals, though that of the group’s dynamic as well. However, a misstep toward the end when a fairly large number of potential problems are solved by a magical intervention, tends to spoil an otherwise epic conclusion. A number of revelations and interesting sub-plots did well to keep me reading through the end without issue—the last pages providing a particularly intriguing twist, one that hopefully will pay dividends in the final book.

Secrets and lies may yet bring an end to this noble mission, or the truth may remain forever buried. An epic adventure requires a fitting conclusion, one that I fervently hope Watson can provide. I don’t know about you, but I eagerly await the conclusion to this trilogy. And personally I’m hoping for a Bard’s Tale-esque ending. No, not that one. The second one. Or the third one, where they just go drinking. You know, either or.

Where Gods Fear to Go, the third and final installment of West of West, is set to release late this year—on December 3rd in the US and December 5th in the UK.