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“Only a stupid man doesn’t respect his opponent’s strengths, and if there’s one thing Eli is good at, it’s never showing up when you want him and always showing up when you don’t.”

I stumbled upon this omnibus of the first three books in Rachel Aaron’s series (consisting of “The Spirit Thief”, “The Spirit Rebellion” and “The Spirit Eater”) a while ago at my local used book store, and it sounded like something that would be right up my alley so I decided to pick it up! The story centers around the series’ titular hero, Eli Monpress: a talented thief who also happens to be a very skilled wizard, and whose goal it is to acquire the greatest cumulative bounty the world has ever known. The book starts off with a bang as Eli succeeds in an especially risky heist: stealing the King, with the aid of his partners Josef: an adept swordsman, and Nico: a powerful demonseed with frightening magical abilities. They are pursued by a woman named Miranda, who is a representative of the Spirit Court intent on stopping Eli from tarnishing the name of upstanding magic users everywhere, but when Renaud: the King’s dastardly wizard brother, returns from years of exile to usurp his brother’s throne, she must reluctantly join forces with Eli and his team to help King Henrith reclaim his title and restore order to the kingdom. What follows is a story full of plenty of well-written action, entertaining banter/dialogue, unique magic and likable characters, but that is unfortunately held back by some repetitive narrative elements, pacing issues in regards to character development and cliches.

Eli himself was a very good protagonist. In a lot of ways he fulfilled the role of your standard charming thief, but I think the way that Aaron incorporated magic into his character and skill-set helped to distinguish him from the countless other characters who fulfill this archetype across the fantasy genre. It’s fairly common that these roguish sort-of thief characters rely on their wit, cunning and physical combative skills to accomplish their goals rather than magic, so it was interesting to see a thief who embraces wizardry to achieve his ends and how the author is able to incorporate that into the already complex machinations of a heist story. Just as he is so-often easily able to charm the people and spirits who surround him, its very easy to like Eli as a reader. He has a good balance of wit, humor, mystery and seriousness to him and while I don’t think he offers anything groundbreaking as far as this type of protagonist goes, he was still a lot of fun to follow. Miranda was also quite enjoyable, and avoided succumbing to many of the irritating tropes that female fantasy heroines so often fall prey to… but not all of them. She was stern and no-nonsense when it came to her work, but also good-humored and flexible in adapting to new situations and people. However, she also has a somewhat annoying habit of seemingly losing all combative capabilities when faced with a real threat, and as a result could rarely accomplish much on her own in a fight despite being a highly skilled magic user. She also has a lot of that stereotypical snarky banter with Eli that is so common is these stories where the main couple initially dislikes each other, but I admire Aaron for showing restraint in not immediately forcing them together as is so often the case in fiction with romance. Oh also, she had a giant talking spirit wolf that she rode on… and I loved him. Josef was probably my favorite character… but I can also admit that that may be due in-part to the fact that I notoriously have a soft spot for the “right-hand man who provides the muscle” sort of characters who are so pervasive in these sorts of books. For whatever reason they always seem to provide just the right amount of heart, dry humor and complete lack of shit-taking from the protagonist to tickle my fancy, and Josef was no exception. I was becoming frustrated with the lack of development for Nico’s character in the first two books of this omnibus, but she really got to shine in “The Spirit Eater”, and the relationship between her and Josef is probably my favorite of the series thus far. I also really enjoyed Renaud as an antagonist, even though he was so stereotypically conniving that half the time I pictured him mechanically twirling a mustache as he enacted his schemes. He was deviously clever in his plot to usurp the throne, and much in the same way that Eli was easy to root for, Renaud was easy to hate… but in a good way!

An aspect of these novels that I really liked was Aaron’s unique take on wizardry and magic. Typically when I think of wizards I think of spell casting and things of that nature. However in this series, wizards are individuals who can communicate with spirits and harness their abilities, with some forming peaceful contracts or servitude with them, and others able to completely control them against their will… and in this world spirits exist in almost everything, from animals and weather to inanimate objects like doors. Each spirit has its own unique personality and it made for some very fascinating passages that ranged from funny and light-hearted to totally terrifying. The third book especially did a good job at expanding this type of lore and magic even further and I really enjoyed seeing the various ways it was played with.

Each of the books individually weren’t very long, and thus I thought the pacing was actually pretty decent in terms of keeping things moving along, but when read as a whole in this omnibus format, some patterns began to emerge that were hard to ignore. Certain plot elements began to feel repetitive as the series went along, it progressively seemed as though the main characters could survive anything so I never really felt any real sense of danger or suspense for them, and the main cast didn’t have quite as strong of a bond as I personally would have liked. I mentioned this in my review of “Fool’s Gold” by Jon Hollins, but I find that stories like this really benefit from strong casts with good chemistry and strong emotional ties and while I certainly felt that these people were friends, I never got that next-level sort of connection between them that I hoped I would. That being said, I want to give props to the quality of the writing itself. Again, I don’t think it was necessarily doing anything groundbreaking, but I think it did exactly what it had to for a story like this. It was fun, light, energetic and knew when to appropriately darken and elevate itself to offer contrast, and it made for an engaging and pleasantly easy read.

I understand that it probably isn’t fair that I’m reviewing all three of these books collectively, and perhaps if I find the time and motivation I will return to this series and review them individually on a more in-depth level, but dammit this is how I found them, this is how I read them, and this is how I’m going to review them (for now at least). This review definitely focused more on the details of the first book (“The Spirit Thief”), as I wanted to try to avoid any potential spoilers for integral plot points between the novels, but like I said, I may come back and review the others with more detail at a later date to amend said issue. I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m dying to read the next installment in this series, but if I happen to come across it in my travels I’ll probably pick it up! It was a very entertaining series of fantasy adventures with a solid main cast, interesting magic, exciting thievery and fun writing, and despite my criticisms I’m glad I picked it up. 3.5/5

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Fantasy Books Closer Looks by Fantasy Books Closer Looks - 2M ago

“Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts. There are seven words that will make a person love you. There are ten words that will break a strong man’s will. But a word is nothing but a painting of a fire. A name is fire itself.”

I had heard nothing but positive things about this book for a long time but for whatever reason it just never especially captured my interest… but after my sister pestered me for several months to read it insisting how much I would love it, even going so far as to buy me a copy (thanks Chelsea), I finally decided to give it a read, and I am so glad I did. The story begins when a worn down inn-keeper with fiery red hair named Kote crosses paths with the Chronicler, a widely respected story-teller. The inn-keeper soon reluctantly reveals that he is actually Kvothe: a man famed through-out the land for his tremendous intellect, power and adventures too numerous to count… known to some as “Kvothe the Bloodless”, “Kvothe the Arcane” and “Kvothe Kingkiller”. Despite all of this, he seems content to remain hidden from the rest of the world, but after much prying and insistence from the Chronicler, Kvothe agrees to allow the old man to record his epic story. What follow’s is Kvothe’s first-hand account of his life, starting from his childhood performing in a nomadic troupe with his family, to his years surviving on the streets, all the way to his admittance to the prestigious university where he expands his knowledge in various fields and hones his skills in this world’s magic. I absolutely loved this book from start to finish, from its beautiful writing to its compelling magic and mystery, and I seriously can’t recommend it highly enough.

The story wasn’t at all the sort of thing I usually gravitate towards in my fantasy literature, as the vast majority of the story consisted of lots of quiet moments rich with narrative content, emotion and lore, but very minimal in action. Usually this type of story-telling results in the reading experience feeling somewhat slow (at least for me), but this wasn’t at all the case with this novel… and I’m not even sure I can confidently say why or how exactly. Something about Patrick Rothfuss’ writing style just made even the most mundane and simple of events feel rich and engaging, and as a result the entire story felt extremely captivating. Which isn’t to imply that there isn’t a fair-share of epic content in this book, because there definitely is. Again, the general synopsis might not give off the impression that there is much excitement to be had in this story, but that is not the the case at all. By the end of this book you truly feel like you have gone through an epic journey and considering that this only a small fraction of Kvothe’s life, I can only imagine the adventures he will find himself in in the next installment of this series.

I think a large part of what kept the novel so engaging was the elements of mystery woven into the narrative. Many things pop in and out of the story without much explanation, and rather then being frustrating it simply just made me want to keep reading, desperate for some of the answers to my constantly increasing list of questions. I can’t tell you how many times I would go to my sister with such questions, guiltily seeking out spoilers despite myself, only to have her say something along the lines of “yeah I still have no idea either”. Again, I know this sounds annoying on paper but I promise, it was fantastic… and it was helped greatly by how in-depth Rothfuss went into explaining other elements of this story’s world, from its religion and legends to one of my favorite aspects of this novel: the magic. The intricacies and subtleties of this book’s magic are far too complicated to adequately explain in a review (which I can already tell is going to be way longer than I initially intended), but trust me when I say they were fascinating. They ranged from more familiar types of magic like alchemy and sygaldry (runes), to more unique forms such as the arts known as sympathy and naming. They operated and were treated more like a science that could be mastered than some cosmic force beyond humans’ comprehension or control, and this made Rothfuss’ setting feel very real and grounded without losing that spark of wonder that magic so-often provides to fantasy stories.

As far as characters go, this novel also excelled. Kvothe was an outstanding protagonist, which I think could have easily gone the other way were it not for the various subtleties incorporated into his character that made him so interesting and likable. It is made clear relatively early on that Kvothe has a natural unbelievable intelligence, and as a result lots of things that others may struggle with come very easily to him. Initially I worried that this might result in him becoming a bit of a Gary-Stu, but luckily Kvothe had plenty of flaws to avoid becoming such a character. Yes, he was brilliant, hard-working and resilient… but he was also impulsive, rash and a bit of a smart-ass, resulting in him getting into a decent amount of trouble. I also loved how Kvothe’s love of music and the lute was incorporated into his story and character. As a musician myself I felt it added such a charming element to this book. The supporting cast was also great! There were too many secondary characters to list here, but another aspect of this book that I loved was that every reader seems to have different favorite supporting characters from what I’ve seen online. They tend to come in and out of the novel very quickly, but for the very brief time that some of them occupy in the story they really make the most of it with charming, quirky and memorable personalities. My personal favorites would probably have to be Bast: Kvothe’s assistant/apprentice who works along-side him at the Waystone Inn, Abenthy: the snarky old archanist that first teaches Kvothe in his childhood on the road, Simmon: a fellow student that he befriends upon arriving at the university, and Elodin: the eccentric Master of Naming at said university.

Despite all of the glowing praises I have given this novel up until this point, its greatest strength by far is the writing style. I touched on this earlier, but Rothfuss has a true talent for injecting every line he writes with wonder, humor, beauty and emotion, and it made the novel as a whole feel very cozy and intimate, even during the more tense and frightening sections. He also manages to always adjust the writing style as needed to perfectly accommodate the mood of every scene without sacrificing consistency of tone. On more than one occasion I would be smiling as I read along with what I thought was a nice comfortable passage only to face an emotional gut-punch the following paragraph and nearly be brought to tears, and I absolutely loved it. These were just a handful of my favorite quotes that I happened to make note of as I was reading but trust me, there are countless others that stuck in my memory:

~

“Music is a proud, temperamental mistress. Give her the time and attention she deserves, and she is yours. Slight her and there will come a day when you call and she will not answer.”

“I wanted to tell her that she was the first beautiful thing I had seen in years. That the sight of her yawning to the back of her hand was enough to drive the breath from me. How I sometimes lost the sense of her words in the sweet fluting of her voice. I wanted to say that if she were with me then somehow nothing could ever be wrong for me again.”

“Are you hurt?”
“Absolutely,” I said. “Especially in my everywhere.”

“Remember this, son, if you forget everything else. A poet is a musician who can’t sing. Words have to find a man’s mind before they can touch his heart, and some men’s minds are woeful small targets. Music touches their hearts directly no matter how small or stubborn the mind of the man who listens.”

~

I know this book hardly needs my endorsement at this point, as there’s a reason why it’s so widely critically acclaimed, but regardless, please go read it! Whether you are a fan of fantasy or not, there’s is so much to be enjoyed and appreciated about this novel. The characters are extremely likable, distinct and memorable, the magic is rich and complex, the overall story is surprisingly compelling given the somewhat basic premise, and it’s all held together by an outstanding quality of writing. I can’t wait to start “The Wise Man’s Fear” to see what comes next! 5/5

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Fantasy Books Closer Looks by Fantasy Books Closer Looks - 2M ago

“I dipped my hand into the cool water and stroked the petals of the lilies. I smiled at the beauty of it all. Unlike the faded grandiosity of the castle, the walled garden had been reclaimed by something greater. It gave an illusion of a sublime infinity perfectly captured and imperfectly held, like rainbows in water.”

In yet another instance of an absolutely stunning front cover initially capturing my attention, I saw this novel at my local used book store a while ago and upon reading the synopsis I was definitely intrigued. The story follows Catherine Helstone, a woman living in an alternative version of Victorian England, who travels to the land of the fae called Arcadia. She is drawn there by a desire to find her missing missionary brother named Laon, who went to Arcadia with the intent to convert its’ inhabitants to Christianity but has not been heard from in months. Upon her arrival she is told that her brother is still away on missionary work and she is to be confined inside the walls of a desolate and thoroughly creepy castle until his return. During her wait she becomes acquainted with the inhabitants of this castle including Ariel Davenport: a changeling ambassador between the humans and the fae, the Salamander: the mysterious reclusive housekeeper, and Mr. Benjamin: a kind gnome who is Laon’s only successful convert since his arrival is Arcadia. What follows is a beautifully written story full of mystery, magic and interesting discussions of religious philosophy, but that is also unfortunately hindered by slow pacing and generally un-charismatic characters.

This novel’s greatest strength by far is Jeannette Ng’s writing style and descriptions. The language she uses is very lush and evocative and it is able to effectively create a rich sense of imagery in this world’s mystical creatures and environments, as well as in conveying character’s feelings and emotions. The writing also did a great job at establishing an eerie gothic atmosphere, which when combined with the unique elements of this world’s fae/magic lore, made for some captivating passages.

“Passing one of the larger mirrors […] the corridor was reproduced perfectly in its glassy depths, but everything looked colder and darker. I saw all the other mirrors, a hundred thousand reflections, all reflecting. It created a hypnotic pattern. Peering like this in a looking glass, it was all too easy to believe such reflections to be the sum of existence, that all was but shadow upon shadow, that the endless worlds were all centered on me, wide-eyed, pale and very afraid.”

I do wish that elements of Arcadia and its’ inhabitants were more thoroughly fleshed out however, as while it excelled aesthetically in creating interesting visuals, the lore of the world itself seemed pretty basic in its interpretations of common fantasy creatures and tropes. I wanted to know more about how this land was discovered, as the book makes it seem as though explorers just happened upon it through sea-faring travel one day, and yet it also seems to exist in its own sort of dimension (with its own sun and moon). Where does it preside geographically? How has the rest of the world reacted to the discovery of this magical realm? Given that one of the main characters is a Christian missionary, I appreciated that the book took the time to examine how this sort of discovery would potentially conflict with teachings/understandings of creation and religion, but I still would have liked more explanation and development about this world’s lore in general. Each chapter begins with a short passage of text taken from writings that exist canonically within this book’s universe (essays, poetry, journals, etc.) that offer insight about more focused elements of this sort of history and lore, and they were consistently interesting… perhaps more interesting than the events of the main narrative itself.

This brings me to perhaps my biggest grievance with this novel… how incredibly slow it felt. Considering that the whole premise of this story is centered around the discovery of a vast magical land, the reader spends an awful lot of time inside this one drab mansion. Yes, this does an effective job at conveying to the reader Catherine’s feelings of claustrophobia and anxiety, but that doesn’t make the overall plot drag any less and as a result the pacing felt excruciatingly slow. This might not be so much of a problem if the story was inhabited by interesting and likable characters with dynamic chemistry, but again, this wasn’t so much the case. Catherine herself was pretty bland, and while I admired that she took initiative in seeking out answers to the mysteries surrounding her she still wasn’t a very gripping protagonist. Her brother Laon isn’t much better, as he is controlling, rude and frequently intoxicated, and while the relationship between these two is the focus of the story, the interactions between them usually consisted of either reminiscing about their childhood or quoting scripture at each other. The supporting characters were decent, with my favorite being Mr.Benjamin, as he was always kind, inquisitive, sensitive and supportive towards Catherine as she attempted to navigate this foreign world, but the rest weren’t very engaging… perhaps with the exception of this book’s villain, the Pale Queen. Her cold demeanor and condescending attitude towards those around her (especially humans) was delightfully detestable, and her owl-like appearance was fascinating to envision. Elements of these characters’ relationships delve into some uncomfortable subject matter, so be warned, but if nothing else it provided some shocking twists as I was squirming in my seat.

This book was a very mixed bag for me, as the things I liked were fantastic, but those that were more lacking really held back my enjoyment. Jeannette Ng clearly put a lot of time, effort and passion into this novel, especially its religious/biblical subject matter, and that shows in the exemplary quality of Ng’s writing. Its colonial subtext is another interesting element of this story that I failed to mention earlier, but that I really enjoyed. I wish that the characters and overall plot could have been injected with more life and personality to keep the story driven forward, but for what it was I still found this to be an alright read. If you are looking for a fantasy novel with a unique premise and interesting explorations of religion amidst a grim-dark fae setting, check this book out for yourself and see what you think. 3/5

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Fantasy Books Closer Looks by Fantasy Books Closer Looks - 2M ago

“The whole cliff side shook with the power and the weight of him. The world shrank down to the single point that was him, his eyes, his jaws, his teeth. All sound was the sound of his roar. All the wind was the beating of his wings. All the ground was the tremor of his footsteps. He defined the world.”

When Goodreads’ synopsis of this book pitched it as being “The Hobbit” meets “Guardians of the Galaxy” I immediately wanted to check it out, as that sounded like something that would be right up my alley! In a world ruled and governed by a wicked hierarchy of dragons known as the “Dragon Consortium”, a young man named Will’s farm is burned to the ground after he fails to pay his increased taxes which go towards the hoard of Mattrax: the dragon that controls his small village. After fleeing, he soon forms a small ragtag team of people who he meets in his travels, and fueled by a pissed-off desire for vengeance, he formulates a plan to steal Mattrax’s treasure right from under his nose. Joined by Lette: a young roguish woman with a pension for violence and cursing, Balur: a massive hammer wielding lizard-humanoid, Quirk: a university professor looking to expand her knowledge of dragons, and Ferkin: a raving drunk old man, Will sets out on his quest as he attempts to gain his riches without being roasted alive. I felt as though the novel’s overall lack of depth held back my enjoyment of it, but despite this Jon Hollins (the pen name of author Jonathan Wood) was still able to produce of fun, humorous and action filled story.

If you know me, then you know that I love fantasy heist stories… it’s one of my favorite sub-genres, and one of the biggest reasons I so often love said type of story is the characters. It’s always so much fun watching a group of (often) morally gray figures of varying skill sets come together to pull off an intricate heist while their personalities enjoyably bounce off of one-another, and that was the type of dynamic I was hoping to get with this novel. Each of the characters, and the team as a whole, did have their shining moments of fun and brilliance, but overall I unfortunately just didn’t care much for them. Will was fairly standard but somewhat bland as far as main heroes go, and while Lette could be occasionally annoying in how brash she was I appreciated her desire and inner conflict to be a better person and create a new life for herself. That being said, you can see the fairly generic romance between them coming the moment she hits the page before they even meet, and I know I’m not saying anything groundbreaking in stating this, but I am so sick of this pattern in fiction. You can make men and women have meaningful relationships without them having to be romantic. In fact, I found the characters outside of this main couple to be far more enjoyable! Balur and the genuine pleasure he took in violence was surprisingly likable, as well as the softer side he concealed under his literally hard exterior. Quirk was probably my favorite character, as she had the most compelling backstory and motivation to take part in this heist (at least in my opinion), and the more secretive elements of her character that were gradually revealed were very interesting. And Ferkin… well… he was Ferkin, and if nothing else he was always good for a laugh. Regardless of these strengths and weaknesses in the main cast, another issue I had with them was that I never really felt like they came together as a group in any meaningful way. None of them really had any specific skill sets imperative to their quest which brought them together, and I never really felt a genuine friendship form between the group as a whole. Perhaps there is something to be said about the merits of a heist adventure with that type of group dynamic, but for me I prefer for greater emotional bonds to be gradually formed among the main team over the course of the narrative. Without those types of relationships or compelling character motivations, it’s hard as a reader to become deeply invested. It’s a tricky balancing act to have a lovable group of assholes as your main characters, but when it’s done right MAN do I love it, and I can tell that’s what Hollins was going for. But here… unfortunately it fell a bit flat for me personally.

Just like with the characters, the overall story telling for me was a very mixed bag. At some points it felt incredibly predictable and other times it completely subverted my expectations! Unlike most novels I’ve read in this sub-genre, the initial heist happens very early in the narrative, and when it doesn’t go as expected the story takes many interesting twists and turns. As a result the pacing was fairly solid in its consistency, which I really appreciated. It made for a nice easy read, but at the same time perhaps it was too easy… by which I mean I was often left wanting more depth overall. I wanted to know more about the structuring of the Dragon Consortium, about the politics of this world, about the main characters’ backstories, etc. I know there is a sequel to this novel so its entirely possible that these elements are further explored in said book, but that doesn’t make the reading experience of this book any more immersive.

As far as the style of this novel’s writing is concerned, I actually think it was one of its greatest strengths. Nicholas Eames (author the “The Band” series) has sighted Hollins as one of his inspirations for his own writing, and I can definitely see the similarities as a big fan of Eames’ work. The way he fuses classic and contemporary styles is very entertaining when additionally combined with his crass and vulgar humor, resulting in some great and memorable lines (i.e. “Mattrax was an insolent son of an iguana slut lizard”). At times this style of humor felt a tad forced, and subsequently the jokes didn’t always land, but Hollins was often able to make up for this with great action and an overall very fun atmosphere!

I feel like this book had so much potential, which only made its shortcomings all the more disappointing to me. Elements of the novel’s characters, world-building and writing were very intriguing, but it just wasn’t able to deliver the whole package in the way I hoped that it would. Don’t get me wrong, there is still a lot to like about this book, but I’m just not sure if it gripped me enough to pick up the next installation in the series. If you are interested in a new funny and exciting heist, think about adding this to your TBR and see for yourself! 3/5

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Fantasy Books Closer Looks by Fantasy Books Closer Looks - 2M ago

“‘Treacherous Odin!’ called the wolf. ‘If you had not lied to me, I would have been a friend to the gods. But your fear has betrayed you. I will kill you, Father of the Gods. I will wait until the end of things, and I will eat the sun and I will eat the moon. But I will take the most pleasure in killing you.'”

Ever since I was a kid I have always loved mythology and all the unique captivating tales the genre offers as explanation for happenings in the world. When I was younger this was primarily through Greek mythology, but as I’ve gotten older I have made efforts to expand and diversify my understanding of other cultures’ mythologies as well. When reflecting on Norse mythology, I realized that my knowledge of it was pretty much limited to Marvel movies and the most recent God of War game (as of 2018), and while I don’t doubt that said creative properties’ teams were committed to producing well-researched content in regards to their source material… I decided that I should make an effort to learn more about it myself, and this was the perfect book to do that with! Told as a series of short stories adapted from various classic Norse/Icelandic/Scandinavian tales, poems, songs and legends, this book offers a glimpse into some of the most entertaining and fascinating Norse myths that have not been lost to time through a more contemporary narrative style. Neil Gaiman was able to take a subject matter which can at times be very dense with information and necessary historical context, and managed to make it easily accessible to modern readers without sacrificing the quality of its content. This was a very engaging and educational read!

There were several gods and creatures whose stories I had never heard of until reading this book, from Bragi: the god of poetry, to Jörmungandr: the gigantic sea serpent… and while many of their tales were very interesting, the focus was definitely on Odin, Thor and Loki overall, deservedly so in my opinion. They’re stories tended to be the most exciting, and they all had great distinct characterizations from one-another, but Loki was without a doubt the star of the show. Knowing him primarily for his title of “trickster god”, I expected him to get into a considerable degree of nonsense going into this book but I didn’t anticipate just how likable, and at times sympathetic, he would be. Yes, he was conniving, mischievous and selfish, but he could also be smart, resourceful and very humorous. He was just as likely to get himself and those around him into trouble as he was to get them out of it, and much like the other gods, it was easy as a reader to be woo’d by his charm and charisma even when you know you should know better. His children were fascinating to learn about as well, with Hel: the ruler of the realm of those who did not die nobly in battle, and Fenris: a gigantic wolf, being particular stand-outs.

A flaw I have occasionally found in mythology is that the grandeur and epic scope of the gods, at times, makes it feel as if all of their personalities sort of blend together, with them all being varying degrees of stoic and generically arrogant. Obviously there are exceptions to this, but I appreciated Gaiman’s choice to add very human elements of humor and vulnerability to the god’s personalities, as this made them much more relatable and likable (which is especially impressive considering that the gods across several cultures’ mythologies are somewhat infamous for being…well…assholes). I was also caught off guard but just how often this book had me laughing at loud, which was especially prevalent in my favorite of these short stories titled “Freya’s Unusual Wedding”. After Thor’s hammer is stolen by an ogre named Thrym, the ogre says that he will only return it if Freya marries him, and when she refuses to take part in this bargain what ensues is a hilarious story in which Thor gets dressed up in drag as Freya, and him and Loki have to attempt to keep up the charade until they can swipe the hammer. My only complaint is that I wish that story could have been longer!

“Your hammer has been stolen by Thyrm, lord of all the ogres,” [Loki] said. “I have persuaded him to return it to you, but he demands a price.”
“Fair Enough,” said Thor. “What’s the price?”
“Freya’s hand in marriage.”
“He just wants her hand?” asked Thor hopefully. “She has two hands, after all, and might be persuaded to give up one of them without too much of an argument.”
“All of her,” said Loki. “He wants to marry her.”
“Oh.”

My only actual complaint with this book, and it really is quite minor, is that I wish that some of the other god’s personalities could have been fleshed out a bit more, as while they’re stories were still interesting, they were noticeably less enjoyable then those centered around Odin, Thor and Loki. Despite this, I still loved this book! It could be epic, clever, thought-provoking, hilarious and dark, and it makes me eager to go out and find more novels of its kind that translate mythology for modern audiences. Definitely pick this up if you want a super entertaining read that will teach you something along the way! 4.5/5

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“You can weave your life so long – only so long, and then a thing in the world out of your control will tug at one vital thread and leave you patternless and subdued.”

For quite a while I have heard of this book as being an underrated gem in the fantasy genre, and after having read it myself I can see why, as there is a lot to enjoy and appreciate about it. The story follows a young woman named Sybil who lives on Eld Mountain, high atop to kingdom of Eldwold inhabited by man, with a menagerie of beasts whose care has been passed down the generations of her family and with whom she is able to telepathically communicate. She cares little for the affairs of humans until a man named Coren approaches her gates with a baby who is revealed to be the infant son of the King, and begs that she raise and protect him. She reluctantly agrees and gradually forms a deep love for the child, named Tamlorn… but when Coren returns to her life years later, she is pulled into a conflict full of ancient magic, political unrest and sacrifice that tests everything she knows about herself and the world around her. This story definitely has the general atmosphere of a 70s fantasy novel, and while I feel like its smaller size (around 200 pages) did limit my enjoyment at times in terms of pacing and character development, I still found this to be a very enchanting read.

To me, the shorter length of this novel and its general atmosphere actually made it feel more like a a grand detailed retelling of an epic myth or legend of some kind, and in that sense I loved it! The story takes place over many years so events moved fairly quickly, but I appreciated that Patricia A. McKillip took the time to stop and develop particular moments when needed. She understood that the readers don’t need a detailed recount of Sybil’s horse ride down from the mountain, but it is probably important that they fully experience her first moments being among a large group of humans given her upbringing. I guess what I’m trying to say is that she did a good job at narratively prioritizing given the short length of the book. That being said, I still felt that the shorter length did hinder my ability to become especially invested, as most of the characters didn’t have the time they needed for strong character development and/or growth, at least for me. The novel also feels a little disjointed at times, with the first half feeling very different from the second with the progression of the plot.

Another aspect of this novel that I really enjoyed, but again wish could have been developed a bit further, was the magic. In this world, those born with magic are able to control/ have power over any being they know the true name of, be they man or beast, and I feel like this premise had so much potential to explore the moral ambiguity of that kind of manipulative magic. McKillip did this briefly with a wicked wizard that Sybil has a frightening encounter with, and she does have Sybil herself reflect on the moral nature of her powers for a short while, but I wish these sorts of abilities could have been further explored and expanded upon. But at the same time, I also appreciated the mysterious aspects of this world’s magic as well, with ancient darker magic and creatures being occasionally shown/referenced… and their sparse appearances and limited information only making them all the more frightening. I know it sounds like I’m contradicting myself in my criticisms and praise of this story, but my feelings towards it were genuinely conflicting with one-another from time to time despite my general enjoyment of it.

In terms of the characters, Sybil was definitely the most interesting and well developed. Often regarded for her icy demeanor, she starts the novel being quite cold and uncaring for anyone other than her beasts, and as much as her raising of Tamlorn does open up her heart, I think it was really the relationship she develops with Coren that truly melted away her hard exterior. It was nothing groundbreaking as far as romance goes, but I was surprised by how much it touched me despite its almost fairy-tale levels of simplicity, and Coren himself was a fun, brave, caring and sympathetic character. I also really liked the reverence with which Sybil was treated because of her powers, as they can be surprisingly frightening. Her telepathic magic also gives her the ability to “call” someone, overwhelming their mind with the uncontrollable desire to be drawn to the place which they were called from, and while that premise doesn’t necessarily sound scary, McKillip’s execution of it in her writing makes it feel quite unnerving. She could be loving, terrifying, scared and deeply emotionally conflicted in what she wanted versus what was best for those around her, and it made her a fascinating protagonist. It was just a shame that the other character’s personalities were significantly less interesting, especially those of the beasts who are clearly shown to have sentience. They were mostly just sort of generically docile and obedient, and apart from Cyrin: a riddling boar with with infinite wisdom and the power of speech, I didn’t find them particularly engaging… and in a novel whose title is about the beasts, I felt like that was a bit of an issue.

I feel like all of these criticisms are making it come across like I didn’t enjoy this novel, but I really did. It was a pleasant short novel and McKillip did a great job at creating a captivating world, interesting magic, and a gripping protagonist. I would definitely recommend this to anyone looking for a quick read ripe with a retro fantasy tone and atmosphere and I’m very glad that I checked it out! 3.5/5

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“Rusing was a craft. An art form. Like the rich folks’ orchestral music – some movements slow, some movements swift and thrilling, but Ard was always the conductor.”

This was such a fun fantasy heist story, and it did a great job at occupying the currently vacant space in my heart left by Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards series (at least until November 2019, which seriously can’t come soon enough). The story follows an infamous, dashing and devilishly clever ruse artist for hire named Ardor Benn, who works within a kingdom comprised of a series of islands called the “Greater Chain” with his partner and life-long friend Raekon Dorrel. Together they use their wit, resourcefulness and in many cases dumb luck to scam and manipulate those around them to get their next paycheck… that is until they are approached by an old priest who hires them to pull off their most difficult ruse yet: stealing the king’s dragon-shell armor. With the promise of a massive amount of money on the line, the duo hires a skilled thief named Quarrah Khai to assist them for this job, and with the additional help of a series of memorable side-characters, the team works together to infiltrate the palace and claim their riches without losing their heads. What follows is a gripping adventure full of action, comedy, disguises, romance and magic, and while it did suffer from some issues in its’ pacing and characterization, I still thought it was an extremely immersive and entertaining read!

This book had a really enjoyable cast of characters, with my favorite probably being our titular hero, Ardor (referred to as “Ard” throughout most of the novel). In a lot of ways he was your standard charming rogue with a heart of gold, but that didn’t make him any less engaging to me. He was funny, charismatic, emotional and a master manipulator, which when coupled with his effortless intelligence made him a true force to be reckoned with. He certainly had a knack for getting himself into terrible situations, but the question was rarely if he would get himself out of said situations, but rather how, as you knew he would find some ingenious way using any variables at his disposal. He doesn’t experience an especially dramatic character arc, but his story still has several interesting elements, from his struggles with trust and selfishness to even explorations of his spirituality. I also really enjoyed his right-hand man Raek, who was a consistently snarky, reliable and warm presence in the story. He’s a large and rather imposing figure upon first glance, but he’s also an ingenious mathematician and lover of pastries when not providing some much needed muscle, and their strong friendship and reliance on one-another was one of my favorite aspects of the novel. Their characterizations and dynamic were very similar to that of Locke and Jean respectively from the aforementioned Gentlemen Bastards series, and I apologize if I’m alienating anyone by again drawing said comparison, but to anyone who has read Scott Lynch’s series the similarities may be very noticeable. Some people may take issue with this, and I have no clue if Tyler Whitesides has even read those books, but for me it wasn’t an issue, as it was more just giving me the type of characters and strong platonic relationships that I love in my fiction, plus the situations they were placed in were different enough to still feel very fresh! Quarrah was a bit more hit-or-miss for me though, especially in the first half of the story. Her thieving was really cool and impressive, and I appreciated how she was less “stoic bad-ass battle chick” and more “socially awkward girl who isn’t used to having to work with a team”, but there were times when she really annoyed me with how oblivious she seemed in anything pertaining to running a ruse despite already operating in criminal circles. However, this became much less of an issue as the novel went on and she learned to open up to her new comrades without, for lack of a better term, taking any of Ard’s shit, and I ended up quite liking her. You can see the romance between them coming from a mile away (which I hope you don’t consider a spoiler), and at times it felt very cheesy and predictable, but I was surprised by how invested in it I had become by the end of the book.

I also loved the magic system in this story, as it was really unlike anything I had ever read in any other fantasy novel. It’s based around a substance called “grit”, which is a powder stored in small portable pots which, when ignited, has a vast amount of abilities depending on what the powder is comprised of. These include creating magical barriers, explosions, loss of memory, resistance to gravity, deafening noise and creating illusions just to name a few, and the creative ways that Whitesides implements and combines these abilities was so fun and interesting. I also think its worth noting the method with which grit is formed, because oh man it is wacky. First you take the substances you want infused into your grit, sew them into the carcass of an animal, feed it to a dragon, track said dragon until it…um… relieves itself, the dragon torches its droppings until they are rock solid, at which point that material is ground into a fine powder and is ready for use. It was nothing if not unique! At first the whole magic system of grit was a bit confusing, but Whitesides was kind enough to provide a detailed record to all types of grit and their properties, cast-times and abilities at the back of the novel… which I did not realize existed until I finished the book. Whoops. But either way, as a reader you get the hang of how it works pretty quickly and I loved it!

Clocking in at about 730 pages this book was a bit of a beast, and in a novel that size I would be shocked if it didn’t run into a few pacing issues. I found that this was particularly evident earlier on in the novel as the ruse was initially being formulated, and it wasn’t until about 150 pages in that things really picked up. In the grand scheme of a book this large that is still relatively early on, but I can see why for many readers that is too large of a portion to have to initially get through, but once I did I couldn’t put this book down. There were also some chapters scattered through-out the novel that followed Isle Halevand (the priest who hired Ard) and an associate of his as they uncover hidden secrets about this world’s kingdom and history, and while the information they uncover is important, the method in which they tell it was such a slog to get through. Most of the time they were just giant dumps of uninteresting exposition and they made everything come to a grinding halt. These chapters were pretty few and far between but I was always happy to move on once they were finished.

Despite these criticisms I had such a fun time reading this book. It was energetic, had great dialogue, fascinating magic and plenty of interesting characters and plot twists. I can not wait for the next entry in the series! 4/5

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Fantasy Books Closer Looks by Fantasy Books Closer Looks - 2M ago

“The orchestra hit a beat, the fans snapped shut, and for half a moment they both struck a tantalizing pose. Not quite long enough to see exactly what they were or were not showing, but long enough to make everyone in the audience wonder. Then the lights went out and the crowd screamed for more.”

It became clear to me relatively quickly when reading this novel that the only thing that distinguished it as fantasy is that it takes place in a fictional world which closely parallels our own, so don’t expect any magic, mythical creatures or epic battles. But hey, I read it, so I’m going to talk about it! In the book’s titular cosmopolitan setting of Amberlough, a radical and oppressive One-State Party nicknamed the “Ospies” is vying to seize control of the government and unite the surrounding countries into one socially conservative power. The novel follows three primary characters in the midst of this political upheaval, the first and second being Cyril Depaul: a spy under the employ of Amberlough’s government, and his secret lover: Astride Makricosta: a fabulous performer at the Bumble Bee Cabaret who also works as a smuggler. The third POV character is a dancer at said club named Cordelia Lehane, who also operates as a runner for Astride, and together these characters fight to preserve their freedom, livelihoods and survive in the face of this dangerous rising political power. While this novel lacks any sort of traditional fantasy elements to its world, Lara Elena Donnelly more than makes up for this with a lush and richly stylized world inhabited by a diverse cast of likable, complex and nuanced characters.

It was pretty obvious that this novel’s setting what meant to be some form of allegory for 1930’s Europe during the rise of the Nazis, with the Opsies’ fascist ideology closely mirroring that of said party. I’m certainly no expert on this vastly complicated portion of history, so many of Donnelly’s more subtle allegorical parallels were likely lost on me, but I appreciated that the novel focused less on the historical events themselves (which inspired those that transpire in the story) and more on how said events impacted the characters’ day-to-day lives. Bringing such huge and far-reaching events under a more focused lens allowed for a much more emotional and intimate reading experience and it was a smart decision on Donnelly’s part. I also loved what a vibrant and dazzling world she was able to create through her rich descriptions. The contrast created between the drab and muted feeling of the offices and streets of Amberlough with that of the color and decadence of the Bumble Bee Cabaret was striking and only further served to immerse the reader and make them just as invested as the characters in preserving such beauty and life.

Cyril was a very interesting character, and much like the rest of the main POV characters, I appreciated how smart and careful he was in navigating his politically tense and tumultuous climate. He certainly doesn’t support the Ospies or what they stand for, but he also does what he has to to protect himself and the few people that he truly cares for, including Astride… who was definitely my favorite character. He was witty, unapologetically arrogant, passionate and occasionally a bit of an ass, but that only made him more fascinating to me, as his charisma always shone through. Initially, Cyril and Astride’s relationship appears to be purely physical, and there is a great deal about their lives which they conceal from one-another. But as the Opsies (who would surely not stand for their homosexuality) continue to grow in power, they begin to emotionally open up and grow to realize how much they truly mean to and depend on each other. It definitely wasn’t your typical sort of romance but their great banter, dynamic and blossoming relationship was one of my favorite aspects of this book. Initially I didn’t much care for Cordelia and didn’t really see what purpose she served in the narrative, but as the novel went on I really liked her wit and sense of humor. She still doesn’t have as strong of a motivation as either Cyril or Astride, but I grew to appreciate how her acting selfishly wasn’t necessarily a bad quality, such was the case with many of this novel’s characters. Given the political climate of this story, many times the main characters had to act selfishly in order to get by (lying, stealing, cheating, etc.), and as the reader you may not agree with their decisions, but you understand why they make them. I always like some moral ambiguity in my characters and in that aspect this novel didn’t disappoint in its main cast. The supporting characters (for the most part) weren’t especially interesting, but they served their narratives purposes well enough.

My main complaint with this novel was probably the pacing, as it’s definitely a slow burn. Things really got going in the last third, and the story/characters were interesting enough until that point to keep my attention, but as someone who generally likes a bit more action and excitement in my stories I would have appreciated if said elements would have been able to be more consistently integrated into the overarching plot. But I understand that that isn’t necessarily a requisite for all readers.

Despite my few complaints with this book, overall I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I don’t typically reach for thriller noir-esque stories such as this, and if it hadn’t been categorized under “fantasy” at the book store I likely never would have found it, but I’m very happy that I did. It had a solid cast, interesting historical allegory, a great writing style and one heck of a cliffhanger which definitely had me eager to read the next book in this series! 4/5

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Fantasy Books Closer Looks by Fantasy Books Closer Looks - 2M ago

“When he opened his eyes, he looked around at the cool darkness, this well of silence, the weight of rock and loneliness and thought ‘this is what it is to be emperor'”

Lately I’ve been craving a good politically focused fantasy story, so the premise of this novel definitely caught my attention as something I wanted to check out. In a kingdom governed by the ruling class of elves, a young half-elf half-goblin named Maia lives in exile until one day an urgent message is delivered to him. His father: the emperor, and his two older brothers have been killed in a mysterious airship accident… suddenly thrusting him forward in the line of succession and making him the new emperor. The ensuing story follows Maia as he attempts to navigate his new position of power and distinguish friend from foe in a court that can be less than kind towards his goblin lineage, and while I felt that this book had issues with it’s pacing and occasional over-complexity, Katherine Addison (the pen name of author Sarah Monette) made up for it with a lush descriptive writing style and a fantastic protagonist.

In a genre where complicated political strategy so often favors and rewards the cut-throat and cruel, it was very refreshing to follow a protagonist such a Maia, who in the face of such conditions, still chooses to be kind and moral. As the reader learns more about his past over the course of the story we understand that he has every reason to be angry about the life which lead him to his current situation, and while he could use his new found power to act vengefully, more often than not he chooses mercy and compassion instead… not necessarily because he doesn’t feel those emotions, but because of a deep passion he develops to be a better emperor than his father before him and to not be the inept usurping spiteful hobgoblin that so many around him perceive him to be. Despite the fantastical circumstances of the situation, Maia’s internal struggles felt very realistic and understandable, and he was by far my favorite aspect of this novel. He was emotional, gentle, passionate, determined, and humble when acknowledging and navigating subjects and situations with which he was unfamiliar. This was often best displayed when interacting with the members of his court, but especially his primary advisers and protectors. Csevet acts as his main political adviser, Beshelar as his physical shield, and Cala as the protector of his spirit (although the book doesn’t go into great detail about what exactly it means to “protect one’s spirit”). As stated previously, in the fantasy genre I’ve grown so used to expecting back-stabbing and betrayal, so it was nice of have a cast of secondary characters such as this that was genuinely interested in supporting their emperor as best as they could. Overall I would have liked for their characters to have received deeper development, but they were still enjoyable and the gradual friendship they develop with Maia was great to watch.

It’s obvious that Addison went to great lengths to ensure that her world was thoroughly fleshed out, and I enjoyed the subtle elements of steampunk she incorporated into its setting. However, I felt that said scope and complexity often hindered my enjoyment of the story… not because I don’t enjoy complicated richly developed fantasy settings, but because the way in which it was executed in this story was often muddled and confusing. It relied heavily on frequent portions of expository info-dumps, which wouldn’t be too bad on their own were it not for the sizable amount of terms, titles, and names used. This likely wasn’t an issue for all readers, but for me several of them were easy to confuse with one-another,and were only made more complicated by the unique naming, title and rank language classifications of this universe. Granted, the back of the novel had a 14 page glossary, but even that at times was unhelpful, as I could be searching for a word like “Drazhada”, which is defined as “the ruling house of the Ethuvarez” and then I would ask “okay, what is the ‘Ethuvarez?'”. Again, I want to emphasize that I’m not criticizing the fact that Addison went to the trouble of creating such a fully developed world and language, in fact I highly commend her for it… I’m just saying that it became very exhausting to have to constantly flip and and forth to the glossary just to keep all the characters, noble family tress and titles straight.

In terms of pacing the novel definitely started off strong, throwing Maia (and the reader) into his new position as emperor right away, and I would say up until about 100 pages in (when Maia had his official coronation) all of the court intrigue and political maneuvering thoroughly kept my attention. However, after that point the pacing definitely lost some steam. Initially it seamed like the over-arching conflict would be to solve the case of the airship crash which killed Maia’s father and brothers, but this was quite often forgotten and swept to the side, and instead he just sort of jumped between different political situations (finding an empress to wed, foreign relations with the goblins, etc). The result was a plot that felt very disjointed and difficult to get deeply invested in, as there wasn’t really an ultimate goal beyond Maia navigating the court and learning how to best act as emperor. The story was at it’s best when Addison gave her characters more emotional personal moments that took the time to develop how they were feeling, and I wish that there were more of said moments as they were when her writing truly shined.

I know that based on all of those critiques it sounds like I didn’t much care for this book, but I did really enjoyed it. Addison had a lovely writing style, the world was very immersive and, as I previously gushed about, Maia was one of the best protagonists I’ve has the pleasure of following in a while! It’s just that I wish that the novel’s weaker elements were less present, as I felt they held it back from being something truly amazing. That being said, I can still confidently recommend this book, especially to fans of complicated political fantasy stories. 3.5/5

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Fantasy Books Closer Looks by Fantasy Books Closer Looks - 2M ago

“It seemed that Loch was a feather, not a rock. If you wanted to catch a rock somebody had thrown, you grabbed fast and hard to make sure you got hold of it. But with a feather, you watched carefully, spread your hands, and waited.”

I was very excited when I finally found a copy of this novel in my local used bookstore, as I am a huge fan of the video game series Dragon Age and Mass Effect in which Patrick Weekes has previously worked as a writer, and I was anxious to see how his story-telling skills would translate between mediums. Acting as the first installation in a larger series and taking place in the fallout of a thrilling prison escape, this novel follows Loch: a former solider… and her right hand man Kail as they gradually put together a rag-tag team of specialists to assist in pulling off the heist of a priceless elven manuscript which once belonged to Loch’s family. Comprised of a shape-shifting unicorn, a lock-smith, an especially nimble and flexible imperial, a death priestess (and her magical talking hammer), a mage who specializes in illusions, and a boy who accompanies him, the team sets out on a quest filled with tense action, several twists and a good dose of humor to boot… and while there were some aspects of the writing which held it back for me personally, it was still a very entertaining read.

Initially I wasn’t completely in love with Loch as a protagonist because of how guarded she seemed, but as you learn more about her family, past and motivations, it becomes clear as to why she starts out that way and she became much more enjoyable to me as the novel went on and she grew closer to her new companions. She certainly wasn’t ground-breaking as a protagonist, but it was very easy to root for her as a strong, competent and resourceful leader. Now I’m a huge sucker for heist stories built around an eclectic cast of supporting characters with unique skills, and in that respect this novel did a good job… although I feel like it could have been a bit better. I was certainly intrigued by the unique roles that each of these characters filled beyond that of simply “the wizard” or “the fighter” as is sometimes the case… I mean, any novel that advertises itself as a heist that involves a shape-shifting unicorn is definitely going to catch my attention. However, I felt that their personalities, while enjoyable enough, lacked a greater depth than what I was hoping for (but I understand that this is the first book in a larger series, so it is quite likely that these characters receive more development as the series goes on). That being said, Hessler (the aforementioned mage illusionist) was a definite stand-out for me, as his dry humor contrasted very nicely with his more discreet kind and caring demeanor. I also think its worth giving props to this novel for having an nearly equal number of men and women in it’s main group, as this is surprisingly rare!

Overall I would say that my biggest issue with this novel is the pacing, but not the overall pacing… if that makes sense. Within each chapter the settings and/or perspectives changed multiple times, rarely giving any particular moment more than a few pages to breath. As a result the novel felt very jumpy at times and I think it would have benefited the overall depth of the story if each scene was given more time to develop. Despite this, I thought the over-arching plot was paced quite well, not taking too long to get the team together and set on formulating and executing their plan.

Despite my complaints, I had a lot of fun reading this novel! I can definitely see resemblances in the overall tone to the video games series on which Weekes previously worked. The story and characters definitely got me invested enough to want to check out this series’ next installment and I can easily recommend to book to anyone craving a good fun heist narrative! 3.5/5

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