The Collarbound – by Rebecca Zahabi (Review)

Unnamed Sequence #1

Fantasy, High Fantasy

Gollancz; May 12, 2022 (UK/EU)
(US release TBA)

346 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

7.5 / 10 ✪

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

On the dark side of the Shadowpass, a rebellion is brewing. Refugees from the war have been flooding across, even now trickling into cities farther and farther from the border. On the edge of the world sits the Nest—built into the side of a cliff, it signifies the path to enlightenment and transcendence—home to a fortress full of mages, the polar opposite to everything the rebels stand for.

Equality, unity, everyone is provided for and given a voice: something the mages in the city are willing to die to avoid. The ungifted are accepted, though while they are judged according to their wealth, none will ever be equal to a mage. Lacuants—former mages who’ve had the magic burned out of them—are second-class citizens, pitied and tolerated as beggars. Kher aren’t even that much. Treated as animals, beasts of burden, they are despised and mistrusted—while being welcomed by the rebels with open arms. Halfbreeds are something worse.

Isha arrives as a refugee, brought to the Nest by a master mage in order to join the fortress academy. But while she may have blended in with the rest of the rabble, she’ll never fit in with the other mages. Kher tattoos brand her as an outcast, a halfbreed—something barely tolerated—though her magic define her as something else. Fleeing memories as much as the war, her past is a mystery even to her, though she’ll have to confront it sooner or later.

Tatters past haunts him daily. Marked by the golden collar of a slave, he flees something more tangible than Isha. Once a rebel, he knows there’s more to the war than unity and equality. An owned mage residing outside of the Nest, he trains students in mindbrawl for coin while existing in the shadows of society. And in the shadows he plans to remain.

But then Tatters meets Isha.

A human with a Kher brand; another wearing a collar of gold. One destined to be singled out her entire life; the other too far beneath to be noticed. But an unlikely bond forms between the two. Tatters is sure he’s seen her tattoo before, but can’t place it. Tatters is the key to something in her past, and Isha is desperate to learn. But as the rebellion carves its way towards the city, they are faced with an impossible choice between two evils.

The Collarbound didn’t start especially well.

It was slow, vague, a bit dull really. Featuring a unique take on magic—where mages engage in mindbrawls in order to dominate or control their foes, or even the common ungifted—that was certainly an interesting concept, but never really came together for me. There are no fireballs or explosions. No lights and sounds. Just scenes and images aimed at undermining their opponents’ thoughts. But at least it was something different; a good attempt.

The world is a bit sparse at the outset, as the reader is thrown in and expects to catch up. There really aren’t a whole lot of info-dumps—the lore and world-building simply percolate from the plot as the story progresses. Thus it takes a good 50-70 pages in order for things to really get rolling. About the time that the Kher make their way into the spotlight.

And everything takes off.

The Kher are a bit like humans crossed with kudu. Anthropomophic kudu. I mean, I pictured them as having dark, ebony skin, curling horns—maybe a bit like a tiefling. Can’t remember if that’s how the author described them or not. Doesn’t really matter when it comes down to it. They’re human enough that they can breed, and they’re instrumental in the story.

At the time, I noted that we really should’ve gotten into it with the Kher earlier. As dull as I found the mindbrawls, Kher society was what really made the book for me. While Tatters and Isha were initially brought together by the mindlinking, the Kher are what bind them. Afterwards we really get into the Kher story, the war, the rebels, the bind that ties Isha and Tatters. And the story takes off.

In the beginnings of the text we are presented with some vague notion of the rebels, the war—but these things are harder to care about at the time. The world was still new and vague. The war is far from the Nest. The rebels are small-time, but growing, all the while soaking the fields in blood. Rebels bad, mages good. The further the story progresses, the more interesting things get. The mages are still painted in a pleasing light on occasion, and the rebels routinely vilified. But the mages aren’t the saviors they’re made out to be at the start. Their treatment of the Khers, even the Lightborn—beings made of colored light that flit to and fro from across the Edge to the awe of the common folk—leaves a lot to be desired. But at least they’re not watering the country with the blood of farmers.

As the text progresses, the waters muddy. And the story impresses more and more. After the 30% mark I was fully invested. Despite that I never warmed up to the mindbrawl magic-system, I never had one more thought of abandoning the book. Like more than a few debut fantasies, there’s a good story within, it just takes a bit of time to get to it.

I hope that the sequel will get going from the outset, and that we warm the mindbrawl concept up a bit. With these two changes—we’d be looking at a much more immersive, interesting, and engrossing tale. The story continues in Book #2—the Eyas, currently TBA.

Seven Deaths of an Empire – by G.R. Matthews (Review)

Standalone

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Solaris/Rebellion; March 29, 2022 (paperback)
Solaris/Rebellion; June 22, 2021 (ebook/hardcover)

550 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

9.5 / 10 ✪

“There is no right and wrong, no black and white. Life is not such a simple thing.”

Think Gladiator, but with magic.

General Bordan was born into nothing, but after a life dedicated to the Empire, he has achieved what little thought possible. He governs the army, the might of the Empire. Other than the Emperor and his kin, he may well be the most powerful man in the Empire. But he is also its most loyal servant.

When the Emperor is killed fighting the tribes in the north, Bordan must do all he can to protect the heir to the throne until the Emperor’s body is returned to the city. Then, with the amulet of office in hand—and the powerful magics within under their control—the heir can ascend the throne and assume control of the Empire. But until then nothing is guaranteed. Rebellion is brewing in the countryside. Assassins lurk in every shadow. And worse, politicians surround the royal family, hiding forked-tongues behind their honeyed words and silky smiles.

Apprentice Magician Kyron and his master are assigned to the late Emperor’s honor guard, tasked with seeing the body home to the capital. Mistrusted and feared by many of their own folk, the magicians are both revered and hated in equal measure. But magic is necessary for this task, for keeping the body from decay requires it. And so their presence is tolerated, if little else. But with many leagues between them and the capital, Kyron and the guard face the greatest danger of all. For whomever controls the Emperor’s amulet controls the succession—and the Empire is not lacking in those hungry for power, be they foe, or friend.

“If you stopped struggling to get free, the guards would not beat you,” Astenius pointed out.
“Life is struggle,” the warrior said.
“We only stop when we are dead,” Emlyn finished and the warrior’s gaze snapped around to her.
“Who are you to know the sayings of the forest?”
“I am of the forest,” she answered.
“Yet you stand with them,” he accused.
“Not through choice.”
“Then you struggle.”
“I am not dead yet,” she answered.

“Why attack us?” Astenius asked once more.
“You are here to be attacked,” the man answered.
“How many of your warriors were with you?”
“Not enough,” the warrior answered.
“How many more are there?”
“More than enough.”

“Are you sure you wish to do this?” Astenius said to the trapped warrior.
“I struggle,” the man replied, gritting his teeth.
“I applaud your bravery,” Astenius said, sweeping his hand to point at the brazier, “but your stupidity astounds me.”
“Life is disappointment,” the man said.

Seriously, Seven Deaths of an Empire reminded me so much of Gladiator that I often found my self picturing events from the book overlaid with scenes from the movie. The battle against the tribes in the forest. The legion’s return to the capital. While there’s no fight in the arena, the novel does include a Colosseum, even though we never get a good look inside. Fact is, Seven Deaths of an Empire was ripe for the picturing beneath scenes of Gladiator in no small part because—as you will see once you read it—the world was inspired heavily by the Roman Empire.

Only with magic.

The magic system is quite a basic one, but as enthralled as I found myself with the story, its lack of creativity never really bothered me. This adheres to the law that the only ones who can wield magic are those born with it. This in part seems to be why magic users are hated, feared. Jealousy breeds resentment, they say. And the church and magic never really gets along—in this world or any other.

The two POVs were quite good at getting the story across, each in their own way. Kyron is a bit young, a bit whiny—but this is his coming-of-age tale, and he’ll grow on you once you get used to him. His character might even develop over the course of the story. Bordan, on the other hand, is an old hand. He’s guided the heirs to the Empire for years, as he once was like kin to their father. He is patient and humble, and though his faith is not what it once was, he has faith in the Empire above all else. This is his true strength, but also his greatest weakness. Unlike Kyron, this story does not serve as Bordan’s beginning. It is his swan song. But will he live to see the Empire crumble, or die keeping it intact?

There are a lot of questions that come up over the course of the story, as the past is hinted at and slowly revealed; as loyalties are tested and friendships forged; as the Empire is caught in the wind, and teeters on its foundations. There are many vines in this, and not all will end up bearing fruit. Still, it was quite a thing to see them all come together at the end—and, while not all is cleared up, the overwhelming majority of my questions were answered. All the big and burning ones are, at least. In writing this review a week or two later I was able to come up with a couple that weren’t returned (though I really had to think about it), but none kept me up at night after finishing the story.

TL;DR

Seven Deaths of an Empire may be 550 pages, but to me it went by in a blink. Although it did take a little while to get going. But where it took me 3-4 days to read the first hundred pages, it took me one day to read the rest. Two very strong leads (though they’re both men; it didn’t bother me, but then I typically connect better with male characters, being a guy and all) made the story no effort at all to get into. It’s so reminiscent of Gladiator that I found myself overlaying scenes from the film with the world I’d constructed in my mind. The forests of Germany. The roads of the Empire. The obelisks and Colosseum and wonders of the capital. It really is quite like the Roman Empire but with magic. A thoroughly engrossing read, almost the whole way through. I took a couple points off for the build-up, but clearly nothing that ruined the story for me. Thoroughly recommended! Just don’t expect a happy, sunny story—as this is a dark fantasy, very occasionally bordering on grim.

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

Age of Uprising #1

Fantasy, Epic, Steampunk

Orbit Books; January 18, 2022

575 pages (paperback)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

4.4 / 5 ✪

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

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

And industry is booming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bloodsworn Saga #1

Fantasy, Epic

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

505 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

5 / 5 ✪

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

The gods are dead. The world is broken.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TL;DR

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

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

Powder & PageSwords & SpectresSpace & SorceryRealms of My Mind

Shorefall – by Robert Jackson Bennett (Review)

The Founders #2

Fantasy, High Fantasy

Del Rey; April 21, 2020

493 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4 / 5 ✪

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

Warning: Contains spoilers for Foundryside (and, oddly enough, Gears of War 2)

In Foundryside, Sancia Grado and her ragtag team of allies managed to save the city of Tevanne from destruction, carving out a chunk of it for themselves in the meantime. Three years later, the Mountain lies in ruin and the campos feud with one another to fill the power vacuum left following its destruction.

I’ll be honest though. Don’t remember a ton of what happened in the first book. I remember Sancia—the master thief able to see scrivings—and I remember Clef—the talking key with the heart of gold (because he’s made of gold you see). There was something with one of the campos, a fire, infiltrating the Mountain and… that’s about it.

Anyway, skip ahead three years and you’ll find Sancia passing time within the scriving firm of Foundryside, intermittently stealing, innovating, and making out with her girlfriend, Berenice. None too soon after we rejoin Sancia, the Foundrysiders execute a bold play to steal from one of the campos in a desperate attempt to secure their future and the first step in their plan to liberate Tevanne from the grip of the merchant houses.

But no sooner do they return home in triumph—ready for a drink and a quick toss—then a new threat looms on the horizon. A new, and infinitely larger threat.

In a stunning move, the Dandolo campo has seen fit to resurrect Craesedes Magnus, First of the Hierophants, basically a god in all but name. And the legendary scriver is coming straight to Tevanne. While the Foundrysiders aren’t sure why the Dandolos have done this, or what exactly it is that the First Hierophant intends, they are sure that they don’t want to know anything about it. But instead of fleeing the city, they decide to stay and fight.

For while the Foundrysiders can’t match the legendary hierophant himself, they may know someone who can. Though to save their city Sancia and the gang may just have to tie themselves to an even greater threat than Craesedes Magnus—for what can stand up to a god but another god?

Straight out of the gate the story got rolling with a thrilling heist. It was great to see Sancia and the gang doing what they do best—stealing things and running away. And it gave us time to reconnect with the characters we might’ve somehow forgotten. Be it Orso, former campo child and the outfit’s brains; Bernice, the beautiful and genius scriver Sancia has fallen for; Gregor, strong and silent, another scrived human with blood staining his shadow; and Clef, pretty much just a key now. A key that won’t open any door.

From there we get on to the meat of the matter—resurrecting a god. Or attempting to stop one. Turns out, it’s not an easy thing to do. Through this part the atmosphere grows tense, the story mysterious, dark. Then everything kicks off for good when Craesedes Magnus rolls up.

I hate to say it, but my favorite character in Shorefall is probably the dark god himself. He certainly acts like an ancient immortal—someone who’s seen and done everything and lived through worse. But also there’s a hidden agenda to him. And his endgame turns out to be a twist I ddi not see coming, something truly surprising for something so close to invincible and powerful as he. Moreover, it’s his relationship with Sancia herself—also Gregor, and some of the others from the Dandolo campo—that makes his character so interesting. I won’t give any more about him away, but to say he’s a truly great character with a depth that profoundly surprised me.

I don’t have too many issues with Shorefall. Mostly it’s a lot of fun. A great read with a lovely world and interesting characters. But I do miss Clef. His banter with Sancia was one of the things that made Foundryside such a great read (and pretty much the only thing I remembered about the book prior to reading its successor). While Bennett does attempt to do a similar thing in Shorefall using some of the other characters, it just doesn’t have the same appeal that the Sancia-Clef relationship had. The dialogue here is more cumbersome, and more empty. While I never got sick of Clef and Sancia no matter what the pair were discussing, that doesn’t hold true for Sancia and pretty much anyone else.

The tale is more rollicking fun, but with a darker, more somber mood to it. The world is changing, and not necessarily for the better as all Foundrysiders hoped. With an awakened god looming on the horizon the team feels more powerless than ever before. It’s like the moment in Gears 2 where they use a gigantic rock worm to sink Jacinto, and fly away knowing that while they “won”, their one and only home now lies in ruin. Even when there is brightness and joy in Shorefall, there is also some sorrow.

TL;DR

With a darker, somber atmosphere, Shorefall is the predecessor that makes you feel, makes you care about the world of Tevanne. While it doesn’t have the same back-and-forth, carefree dialogue of the original, Shorefall takes you to a few more grey areas, a few more moments of weakness on its journey of hope and despair. It’s not exactly a dark book, but it does have its moments. It’s a tale of love and friendship, but also of half-truths and two evils. It’s half mad-dash, half atmospheric thriller, and half powder keg. See? This book gives you 150% and doesn’t disappoint—if that’s not a reason to read it I don’t know what is.

The Black Coast – by Mike Brooks (Review)

God-King Chronicles #1

Fantasy, Epic

Solaris; February 16, 2021

670 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.8 / 5 ✪

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

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

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

A choice that will guide him throughout the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

TL;DR

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

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

Book Review: The Ember Blade – by Chris Wooding

Darkwater Legacy #1

High Fantasy, Epic, Dark Fantasy

Gollancz; September 20, 2018

832 pages (HC) / 30hr 40m (AU)

5 / 5 ✪

The Ember Blade combines the typical coming-of-age fantasy with a bit of something dark, in order to create an epic debut that fails to fall under either category—yet somehow succeeds in both. Early on (for the first 10 hours or so), I was convinced that this was your general light vs. dark tale, complete with ancient evils, a chosen one, and third-party horrors awaiting to devour them all. And yet towards the latter half of the tale, it morphed into something more. Something different.

It begins with Ossia, a once great nation laid low by the Krodan, subject to Krodan rule for so long that freedom is little more than an idea. Enter Aren, a merchant’s son, obsessed with everything Krodan. Their language, their history, their law. Even the young love of his life is Krodan. They have no chance of being together, however, as Aren, as hard as he tries, is not Krodan. Enter Cade, son of a carpenter, obsessed with stories. Tales of illusion and grandeur, greatness and adventure, fame and fortune. And especially Ossia. A free, independent Ossia. Two unlikely friends against the world.

And yet when the Krodan law comes down upon them, their friendship is tested. Aren’s father is arrested for being a traitor and slain, Aren and Cade sent to a work-camp in his stead. Not only is Cade’s friendship with Aren in jeopardy, but Aren’s fascination with all things Krodan is as well. And yet with the help of some unlikely allies, they escape the camp. But… to what end? For there is something bigger than just their story between them now, and Aren and Cade—caught up in it—find themselves playing a much grander game. One that may just end with their finger in a Krodan eye, and the first piece to a free, independent Ossia. For the young prince of Krodia is due to be wed, and at his banquet shall fall the Ember Blade: a symbol of Ossian nationalism. But can Aren and Cade and their newfound allies begin the dream of a free, unified Ossia, or will they be crushed under the heel of the Krodans once again?

First and foremost, this is a coming-of-age fantasy. The main characters, Aren and Cade, definitely grow and change over the course of the text. It’s their character growth that makes the Ember Blade a success, above all else. The dynamic of their friendship is tested time and again—sometimes it bends, maybe even breaks. And yet persists throughout the entire book. Even when they’re not speaking it’s that dynamic that drives their story, whether Wooding means it to or not. I mean, there are other factors in play, too. Of course there are.

I mentioned earlier that I struggle to classify this as anything more than a coming-of-age story. I mean, it is SO MUCH more—I’m just not sure where to start. It begins with the classic CoA fantasy vibe. Light against dark, battling ancient evil with their team of misfits and mentors. An oppressed people trying to overthrow a tyrannical power. A true underdog story.

But then, something changes.

I’m not exactly sure when it happens. It begins with a crack here. A crack there. The great and noble dream of Ossia may not be that noble at all. Krodia may not be the horrid power we once thought. And slowly the realm of heroes and villains is slowly replaced. By that of people—humans—just trying to do what they think is best. The lines blur from black and white, and occasionally the story gets downright dark.

I, uh, really enjoyed it.

Chris Wooding tries something new, here. Blends it with something tried and true. And it… works. I mean, the Ember Blade may not be for everyone, but I think it will appeal to more just through its split nature. It’s not a classic good and evil battle. It’s not a grimdark piece, where everyone’s inherently selfish and the world just sucks. It’s not a clean split, a dark fantasy, or much in-between. It’s… hard to pin down. But I’d say it’s a blend of High and Epic, with just a splash of Dark. And it works. Very well, in fact.

If you needed a further reason to read it, it’s the characters. There are several POV chapters throughout, each with their own strong narrators that have their own history, morals, strengths, weaknesses and depth. In addition to Aren and Cade, there’s the freedom fighter Garric. The Druidess Vika. The prisoner Grub. The survivor Ren. A bard, an exile, a lieutenant and more. Can’t say I was thrilled to read each’s POV, but I was actually fairly well invested in everyone’s. Didn’t hate any of them, even. Each with depth of character, arcs and change and growth and regression.

A detailed world, it gave me just enough for my imagination to fill in the rest. A powerful story, though lacking in subtlety. A pretty good chunk of text—800ish pages. Or, if you’d prefer an audiobook like I did—30-odd hours. And I didn’t have any problem getting through it. No lags, as it were. Not much disinterest. For such a long book, it really kept me entertained throughout.

TL;DR

The Ember Blade is an immensely entertaining coming-of-age fantasy, set in an interesting, well thought out realm. It defies traditional light vs. dark, good vs. evil plots, instead choosing the middle ground; while committing to neither high nor dark fantasy in its telling. The text is jam-packed with POVs, each as deep and intricate AND entertaining as the last. I can’t say there was one that I was dreading, one that I had on auto-skip as I usually do in these long epic debuts. While I can’t promise that you’ll enjoy all your time reading this monster, I will predict you’ll find something you like within—something that will likely see you through to its conclusion.