The Builders – by Daniel Polansky (Review)

Standalone, Novella

Dark Fantasy, Fantasy; November 3, 2015

219 pages (Paperback)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4 / 5 ✪

A stoat, a rat, a mouse, an opossum, an owl, a badger, a mole, and a salamander walk into a bar…

A missing eye. A broken wing. A lost lower half. A deposed king. A whole lot of trauma. And a country that vanished from beneath them.

Years may have passed but the Captain’s scars are still fresh. While the rest of his crew have moved on, many memories of the past linger. So when their leader comes a-calling to reform the band, most are only too grateful to respond. The others may come kicking and screaming, but they’ll come all the same.

Scores will be settled. Blood will run. There’s always time for second chances.

The Builders is another case of anthropomorphism gone very right; a dark, bloody Redwall, if you will. As schemes go, the Captain’s is a good one, but nothing ever goes exactly according to plan. The story is a good one, though I think it’s a bit wasted in novella form. The characters are bloody unique and exotic, each with their own backstory and motivations—that I would’ve liked to have been explored more. I feel the short chapters both help and hinder this. On one hand, with the novella format, it keeps the story moving so that we don’t get bogged down with too many characters being introduced too quickly. On the other, everything’s quite brief. We don’t get the time for backstory and motivation. It’s a thoroughly interesting cast that we have, but don’t ever get to know better.

I really enjoyed that dark cast of this story, right up to the end. It was billed to me as a grimdark Redwall—and delivered quite nicely. There’s quite a bit of dark humor, some interesting twists and turns, and an ending for the ages. It’s all very well done, but left me a bit wanting. Of more, mostly—which is both a good and a bad thing. On one hand, it’s always good to want more. Show’s the author has done something right. But on the other, there is no more. Sure, there’s a short story (half a dozen pages of fuzzy, grumbly animals), but it’s too brief, and not worth much more than to introduce the world. You can read it here, if you’re interested.


Why? It’s only a couple paragraphs.

*grumbly grumbly*

Whatever. Um… good; not perfect. Dark and bloody with matching humor. Truly a dark Redwall. Not enough development or time for it, it feels like we’ve only just met the characters and the story ends. The quick pacing and brief story work quite well, even if they do also frustrate. This was a love-hate for me, but I mostly loved it. Definitely recommended.

Here’s another link to A Kippled Meal, if you missed it.

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!

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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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)


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.

Book Review: A Little Hatred – by Joe Abercrombie

Age of Madness #1

Grimdark, Fantasy, Epic

Gollancz; September 17, 2019

480 pages (ebook)

4 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished me with an eARC in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Orion Publish, Gollancz and NetGalley. All opinions are my own.

A Little Hatred is the 10th full-length novel by Joe Abercrombie set in the First Law world. Where Red Country saw the rise of expansionism, so does Hatred see the rise of Industrialization. Although, where this age of industry and innovation see the rise of many great miracles, they are built on the backs of the working class, and on flesh, sweat and blood. So, so much blood.

If you were thinking that the dawn of a new age possibly meant the dawn of a new Abercrombie—you really weren’t thinking clearly. I actually had a similar thought upon reading through, at a point where the plot-lines had tied up fairly well and each character had a nice (and if not “happy”, then) aesthetically pleasing end. Then I realized I was only at the 80% mark, and remembered who I was dealing with.

Industrialization has come to Adua. In the capital, Savine dan Glokta stands out as the most feared woman in the nation—even more so than Terez, Queen of the Union. Not only is she the only daughter of “Old Sticks” Arch Lector Sand dan Glokta, but a cutthroat businesswoman, with her finger in every pot. Prince Orso, meanwhile, the Crown Prince and only son of Jezal dan Luthar and Queen Terez—is a worthless disappointment. Known as a wastrel, playboy, drunk, whoremonger, the Young Lamb is possibly less loved than Savine, though definitely more hated. The Union may be a hotbed of industry, though the underclass is restless. Bull Broad thought he was done with war after Styria, but with a war brewing in the north, the eyes of the elite are soon to be distracted. And a war of another kind is stoking closer to home.

The North has come to Angland. Black Calder has tired of waiting for the Dogman to die and pushed Scale to invade. And when the Northmen, led by Calder’s son, Stour Nightfall, come knocking, the Union moves to engage. Rikke, daughter of the Dogman, is blessed with the Long Eye. Errmm… or, cursed with the Long Eye. Or… HAS the Long Eye? One o’ those. But the future isn’t exactly helpful if you don’t have a clue to what it means. Luckily, she has allies. Unluckily, they’re like the Young Lion, Leo dan Brock. An inspired leader, if a selfish, arrogant one, he’s as pretty to look at as he is to bed. Clover is an uninspired warrior. A Named Man, he gained his name in the Circle. And then lost it, only to gain another. But when he’s pressed into war, he may gain yet another name, and this one might be the worst of all.

Darkness, intrigue and war ravage the world. Where there is war, there is blood. And where there is blood, there are heroes. And those other ones.

The character arcs and progression are evident in ALHatred, though I’d almost really separate them into pro- and regression arcs. Meanwhile, the plot and story both remain strong, sometimes powerful enough as to convince me I had lived it. After a decade plus of this, this Brit really knows what he’s doing.

Now, up to this point Abercrombie hasn’t exactly been all sunshine and daisies. But A Little Hatred is more than just a little depressing. There’re terrible people, and just mostly terrible people, and some only kinda terrible people—but they’re all just people. Oh, and they’re all selfish bastards.

I think this is my biggest issue with the book. Self-interest—more than anything else—ruins pretty much everything. I mean, a little self-preservation isn’t a bad thing. And some people are always going to be self-obsessed. In previous efforts, many of Abercrombie’s characters have been. But not in ALHatred. Because they all are. Every single character is a selfish bastard at one time or another, and most for pretty much the entire book. For the most part, it’s a book full of terrible, depressing people. Now, you may argue that this’s just Grimdark at its finest. Which, yeah… I guess. But it’s just not realistic. Not everyone is going to be a self-obsessed bastard. Except that in this case, they are.

As always, Abercrombie presents a dark rendering of the world. But while I found the industrial world of the First Law to be vibrant and interesting, realistic to a scary degree, immersive to almost the same amount—its characters fall well short. I had absolutely no issue picturing the world. So much of the book is rendered in gory detail, the scenes the text creating in my mind’s eye brought me chills. There’s one I remember best of all: a beggar set amidst the runoff from a textile mill, dye and filth mixing freely in the water, while behind her the city burns. It’s such a haunting image of progress, innovation, revolution. The world leaps forward, but once more leaves the common man behind.


A Little Hatred presents a level of realism unheard of in fantasy on all fronts—save one. The level of detail was truly astounding, as I was swept from a scene of majestic beauty, to one of tortured triumph, to the aftermath of a gruesome battle, and beyond. The overarching plot and each character’s story are almost as amazing, trailing through the murk as the world industrializes. A dark book, Abercrombie has not changed in the slightest. Though he may have lost some in transit. The characters, his bread and butter, seemed hollow, self-obsessed husks of humanity. Puppets rather than ‘men inhabiting this otherwise real world. While not his strongest work, A Little Hatred is definitely worth a read, whether you get it new or used. Even more so as it begins a new trilogy: the Age of Madness.

A Little Hatred is due out September 17, 2019 in both the US and UK. The next entry, The Trouble with Peace, is expected next year.

Book Review: Fallen Gods – by James A. Moore

Tides of War #2

Grimdark, Fantasy

Angry Robot; January 2, 2018

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

3.5 / 5 ✪

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Magefall – by Stephen Aryan

The Age of Darkness #2

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Orbit Books; September 4, 2018

438 pages

4.8 / 5 ✪

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Literally. Cannot. Wait.

Book Review: Blackwing – by Ed McDonald

Raven’s Mark Book #1

Fantasy, Grimdark Fantasy

Ace Books; October 3, 2017

360 pages

4.5 / 5 ✪

Certainly not a feel-good fairytale, McDonald provided an beautifully rendered world on the brink, full of flesh and blood characters and terrible gods, with a savage plot and just a hint of magic and mayhem to tie everything together. Wouldn’t touch the bow though—no telling what it’s made out of. Blackwing begins the Raven’s Mark trilogy, a read that’s sure to be a wild ride all the way to the finish.

The war between the Nameless and the Deep Kings has spilled over. Two races of ancient, powerful beings unite—with humanity in the middle. The Deep Kings are immortal and beyond ancient. They play the Drudge, once-humans that have been changed, they are utterly loyal and tough to kill. The Nameless play the side of humanity; these powerful sorcerers occupy the five free cities of man, aided by Nall’s Engine: a weapon so powerful even their adversaries fear it. Eighty years prior the Nameless first activated Nall’s Engine, a move that created “the Misery”—a wasteland of death and demonic creatures, where even the sky often screams in pain—and brought about the end not only of one Deep King, but also two of the remaining free cities of man. Hundreds of thousands died in that moment to protect the little humanity had left. Eighty years later, a temporary and uneasy truce exists—one that may be unraveling before Galharrow’s eyes.

Ryhalt Galharrow is a scarred man with a grim past. Once noble blood, a series of misfortune has landed him in on the front-lines, hunting defectors and spies into the Misery before they can defect to the enemy. Written in 1stP POV I was fairly well entranced with Galharrow’s story. It was dark, gritty, bloody. A clipped and pessimistic tone. His story harbors a dark heart, a path that may lead to madness, and… a burgeoning love story? It was an odd one, for sure. Though it provided interesting twists. I rather liked Galharrow, even if I had trouble relating to him.

The world around Galharrow provided the most unexpected surprise. Deep, thoughtful characters. A lovely, dark setting. A brief, but competent bit of world-building. At first the story keeps everything a bit hectic, but when the pace slows a bit in the latter half, we are allowed to look about and take in the world. Both primary and secondary characters excelled; they felt truly human, flesh and blood, mortal, intricate while delicate. While the characters themselves are McDonald’s greatest triumph, the world itself is no slouch.

An entertaining story combined with intricate characters and a sense of mystery and magic, McDonald’s debut is a triumph for the grimdark genre. While a lackluster love story holds it back from being truly great, Blackwing provides more than enough to satisfy any reader, despite only being about a day’s read (at 360 pp, it took me 3.5 days, but I’m slow). With a clipped tone and a dark heart, Blackwing was all I needed and more. Can’t wait to read the next one.

Ravencry, Raven’s Mark #2, was published in 2018 by Ace Books (in the US) and Gollancz (in the UK).

Underrated: The Last Sacrifice – by James A. Moore

Tides of War Book #1

Grimdark Fantasy

Angry Robot: January 3, 2017

320 pages

2.5/5 ✪

33 Reviews on Goodreads

The Last Sacrifice is an example of good grimdark writing that is let down by shallow world-building, an unsatisfying conclusion and generally dark, unlikeable characters. James A. Moore is the author of the Seven Forges quartet, a series I’ve heard generally good things about. The Last Sacrifice serves as my intro to his works.

The Last Sacrifice finds Brogan McTyre returning from a job protecting caravans to find four coins on his doorstep. His family is gone, never to return. For when the Grakhul take sacrifices—leaving one thick, gold coin for every man, woman or child for each—those people are never to be seen again. They are not even seen as living once the immortal servants of the gods seize them. To look upon their faces once more would be death, and going after them even worse, sacrilege. But Brogan McTyre does not care what it will cost him—he cares simply for his family. And will do anything to get them back.

So begins the Tides of War, which is… well. It’s not bad, nor is it great. Let me explain.

The book is a dark, brooding place: a great example of grimdark lit, actually, or would be if it was of a bit more substance. While at first the gloom blanketing every town tells of an atmosphere complementary to the dark story, upon second glance it appears just to be a fog written in to cover for the fact that nothing in the world has any depth. This works well enough in a book where each POV character is on the lam—no locale is around long enough to be seen with any clarity—but would fall apart were the story anything more than one big chase scene. Far from a thriller, it features a slow and steady build that leads to an ultimately unsatisfying conclusion.

Though neither the story nor world-building are anything special, it’s characters, well… don’t stand out much either. The cast fits the other two, certainly. Each man and woman is dark, brooding and generally unlikeable. Moore could scrap ‘em all and start anew in Book #2 and it wouldn’t bother me.

So to sum up, unlikeable characters mixed with a sub-par attempt at world-building did little to improve a story that proved just enough to hold my interest to its conclusion. A conclusion, I might add, that concluded little. So, if you like Moore or grimdark, you might give it a shot. Otherwise, the Last Sacrifice might be one to skip.