HALF A KING by Joe Abercrombie is one of the most hyped novels of the year. Check out some of the author blurbs and you'll see what I mean. Patrick Rothfuss, Rick Riordan, Robin Hobb, and Brent Weeks are among the fantasy heavyweights heaping praise on the novel. When Abercrombie first announced HALF A KING I was anxious. He's my second favorite author and my very reason for returning to the fantasy genre, but I couldn't see how well his brutal wit and grim perspective would translate to a YA novel. You'll no doubt notice that this review has been filed under "Books We Love," but it didn't start out that way.
HALF A KING is the story of Yarvi, the younger son of the king of Gettland. With only one good hand Yarvi has chosen to embrace the path of a minister rather than that of a warrior. The murder of his father (the king) and brother (the natural heir) sees Yarvi ascend to the throne. He is looked upon with contempt by his people for a perceived weakness, but he takes an oath to avenge his family regardless. Betrayed in his quest for vengeance Yarvi must use the greatest and only asset at his disposal (his mind) in order to defeat his enemies and reclaim what is rightfully his.
Because I read this on my Amazon Kindle I was able to track my progress through the novel in percentages. It was also in percentages that I noticed HALF A KING gradually improve. I will openly admit that I was underwhelmed by the first 20-25% of the novel. Yarvi had all the makings of a true Abercrombie hero. He was unconventional and bore a physical handicap and he had suffered as a result. Still, Yarvi had a vanilla flavor that matched the rest of the beginning of the book. The setting of HALF A KING, the Shattered Sea, is has the trappings of a "Viking saga" (as author Myke Cole points out in his blurb) but there's little to differentiate this world from any other generic Norse-inspired fiction, save for the religion. The beginning fifth of the novel is too YA for my liking, it's like HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON without dragons. It doesn't read like Abercrombie. It reminded me why I was reading books like THE BLADE ITSELF when other kids my age were still carrying around the latest Charlie Bone book. And yet...
"What can you think about a cause," muttered Jaud, "when all the decent folk stand on the other side?"
And yet it gets better. I continued reading because Abercrombie has never failed me before. The further I got into the novel the easier it became to forgive the bland opening. With each new conflict Yarvi encounters he became more and more compelling. It got to the point where I started thinking of him as Yarvi Sevenfingers or The Bloody-Seven (no small compliment given I consider Logen of The First Law Trilogy my all time favorite character). In Yarvi exists the literary-DNA of Abercrombie's former protagonists, and still he manages to stand on his own merits. He may not be a great warrior but he is a formidable thinker and the lessons he learnt from his mother (the queen and treasurer) and the king's minister (his mentor) frequently pop up over the course of the novel. Yarvi matures over the course of HALF A KING, growing from naive boy to wise man in a short amount of time. It is an extremely satisfying character arc, one of Abercrombie's best.
"What is the world coming to when an honest man cannot burn corpses with suspicion?" asked Nothing.
The other characters come to distinguish themselves as Abercrombie characters as well, especially Sumael, Shadikshirram, and the man they call Nothing. Sumael channels two of Abercrombie's extremely strong female characters, Ferro (The First Law Trilogy) and Shy South (RED COUNTRY). Shadikshirram brought to mind the fan favorite mercenary captain Nicomo Cosca (BEST SERVED COLD). And then Nothing...well I won't ruin that for anyone. Yarvi forms strong bonds throughout the book, assembling quite a band of misfits on his quest. The cast is colorful and tinged with the sadness that permeates Abercrombie's work and makes for such believable characters.
The plot is largely reactive throughout the novel but once the final third kicks HALF A KING is impossible to put down. Updating my companions as I read the novel I went from "not impressed" to "getting interested" to "not bad" to "hooked" and finally "bravo!" There are a series of twists and betrayals -- the first is predictable but the rest will shock you. The violence so common in Abercrombie novels is toned down. Combat takes a backseat to cunning and negotiation, though it is by no means absent. As always the case when he writes fighting, the edges are sharp and there are no winners...only survivors. Losses present new opportunities and victories are generally Pyrrhic. There are consequences for each and every action and it is this that Abercrombie expresses so well above all other genre writers. Even his YA novel has elements of Greek tragedy and moral ambiguity, understated though they may be in the midst of his other work. This and humor. The wit on display is as dark and sharp as ever, and this is what finally won my affection.
Starting out I was not a fan of HALF A KING. I saw my worst fears for the book realized but I stuck with it and my patience paid off. I wish that the book had been written twice the length as some scenes seem to end abruptly and I would have appreciated more world building. But HALF A KING isn't a novel about setting so much as it is about character, and character is something it has an abundance of. It is also perhaps the most film-friendly Abercrombie book to date. Given the current popularity of movie adaptations of YA books I can see this one getting the big screen treatment (and what a breath of fresh air that would be in the midst of all these yawn-inducing dystopias). I would hesitate to call HALF A KING a masterpiece (and it's still not my favorite Abercrombie novel) but I love it anyway. It starts out like a typical YA novel but transforms into something much greater. I can see this being a gateway drug for new readers. And who knows, HALF A KING is but the first in a trilogy and the end of the novel sees some interesting developments on the horizon.
Recommended Age: 14+
Language: Nothing worse than you get on prime time television.
Violence: The level of detail in the violence is on par with THE HUNGER GAMES though there is considerably less of it and the consequences are far greater.
Sex: There's some hand holding, that's about it.
Want HALF A KING? Order it here.
I've been waiting for this book for two years. You see, once you read a novel by Robert McCammon, you want the next one. Then the next. And the next. McCammon's writing has an intoxicating nature about it, and since the day I first read his work, I've wanted to read every single word he writes. Thankfully, Subterranean Press was kind enough to send me a review copy of McCammon's THE RIVER OF SOULS.
It's been two years since I read THE PROVIDENCE RIDER. Two years since I last read a Matthew Corbett story. But for Matthew Corbett, it's only been a few weeks since his time on that island. This is when THE RIVER OF SOULS picks up. Corbett is still trying to recover, and then he is asked to do something relatively simple: escort a young lady to a ball in Charles Town.
Seems simple, right? But if you've ever read a McCammon novel, then you know that things are going to go sideways for Corbett, and it will probably all happen quickly. In the case of THE RIVER OF SOULS, the trouble starts right away on page one.
This novel was an interesting one for me to read, and I admit to having reservations. Mostly, this is because the novel is fairly short at around 250 pages. I have to ask myself why I even bother having doubts about McCammon. Has he ever let me down? Nope. Never. And this novel was no different. It wasn't perfect, but it accomplishes what it needs to accomplish, and it is as long as it needs to be.
I look at this novel as setup. Amazing setup, but setup nonetheless. This is McCammon getting Corbett in place for the REALLY crazy situations. The story itself isn't anything complex; after the events escorting the young lady (no spoilers here!) were are thrown directly into a manhunt. No wasted breath. No needless time spent describing foliage. We go from one event to the next with hardly a heartbeat of rest. This is the pace the novel follows until the very end.
The thing I admire about McCammon, and what he does so well in this novel, is his unwillingness to compromise. I realize how that sounds, but it is true in regards to his writing. If the situation calls for something absolutely terrible and horrific to happen to Corbett, it happens. No easy routes are taken. No mercy is given to his characters in THE RIVER OF SOULS (or any of his novels for that matter). McCammon writes the novel without flinching. Make no mistake, Corbett gets whupped in this novel. More than once, and brutally. Why is this important, and why do I call attention to it? Because is shows how much McCammon cares about his characters, and how well he understands "character" in general.
Characters are only as interesting as their weaknesses, principles, and their desire to overcome those weaknesses with those principles. Matthew Corbett is the perfect example of this way of thinking and writing. Every time he is knocked down (literally or metaphorically), he gets back up and tries to do better. That's the kind of character I can root for. That's a real person.
Of course, it wouldn't be a McCammon novel without the Horror. He writes it so effortlessly (at least it seems that way from the outside looking in). It's not that McCammon wrote a Horror novel here, but that he was able to add a feeling of terror and horror to the situations the characters face. Without being too specific, we got mysterious monsters, a murder, a supposed curse, Indians, and quicksand. All that and more in 250 pages.
I can gush for pages about McCammon. He is very possibly my favorite author now. Instead of going on for twenty more pages, how about I just leave you with this:
THE RIVER OF SOULS is yet another incredible piece of literature from Robert McCammon. It is the most fun I've had reading in months, and simultaneously managed satisfy me and make me crave more fiction from McCammon even more. Matthew Corbett is one of his finest characters, and to read about his adventure in this novel was an absolute pleasure.
Recommended Age: 16+
Profanity: Some, and it can get pretty strong. But it's mostly tame for most of the novel.
Violence: Whew. McCammon's ability to go from calm to insane violent in the span of a paragraph never ceases to amaze and impress me. It gets crazy in this book.
Sex: Nope. None shown. Talked about a bit, but nothing explicit.
Just read these books. Historical Horror doesn't get any better than this. But for heaven's sake, start from the beginning:
SPEAKS THE NIGHTBIRD
THE QUEEN OF BEDLAM
THE PROVIDENCE RIDER
THE RIVER OF SOULS
THE EXECUTIONER'S HEART is the fourth Newbury and Hobbes novel, and it takes place several months after the crazy events of the prior novel, THE IMMORALITY ENGINE. Veronica Hobbes' sister has been rescued, and now Sir Maurice Newbury is desperately trying to figure out the key to her prophetic visions, and why the Queen of England is after her.
In a way, this novel is the start of a new series. It's a new start that, while certainly building on the prior "trilogy", sets off in a new direction. With the backdrop of Newbury trying to help Hobbes' sister, a new threat runs amok. A series of brutal murders where the victims chests are torn open and the hearts taken. Along with it comes a vision that Hobbes may be the next victim.
This is pretty standard George Mann. The pacing is relentless, as usual, but is seems even more so with the "time bomb" that Newbury's vision of Hobbes' death sets into motion. The killer--The Executioner--is a terrific character herself. The weaving of her story into that of the other series regulars makes for fun fiction.
Really, that's what I've come to enjoy the most about George Mann's novels: the fun. I love how his glee for the characters and the world shine through in his writing. Every chapter has breathless momentum to it. There is no wasted space. Of course, when I say "fun" I don't mean everything is rainbows and clockwork kittens. Mann doesn't hesitate to put his characters into danger. These characters have been emotionally and physically worn down. Everything bad that can happen to them has happened, or happens in this novel. But the fun resides in the spirit both Newbury and Hobbes show. Beaten but never defeated.
The majority of this novel revolves around The Executioner. In a way this is a transitional novel. I got the impression that it is a novel to get the pieces into place before the real fireworks start. And talk about a cliffhanger ended. Sheesh.
So here's the deal. If you liked these novels before, you will love this novel. If you didn't, this novel won't change your mind. If you are a new reader yet to begin the series...well...I suppose I've spoiled a bit of it for you huh? Well you shouldn't have read ahead!
I love this series. I have loved it ever since reading THE AFFINITY BRIDGE. THE EXECUTIONER'S HEART just adds to the fun. It gives me steampunk, adventure, weird science, the supernatural, and the fun I need when I want to escape the seriousness of everyday life.
Recommended Age: 14+
Profanity: On par with the prior novels. So hardly any, and nothing super bad.
Violence: The Executioner rips out people's hearts. Nuff said?
Get the series here:
THE AFFINITY BRIDGE
THE OSIRIS RITUAL
THE IMMORALITY ENGINE
THE EXECUTIONER'S HEART
In FIREBRAND (EBR review) we met the Sithe brothers Seth and Conal. They were exiled beyond the Veil to the world where full-mortals live, as part of a promise to their queen that they would find the bloodstone. By the time BLOODSTONE begins, four hundred years have passed, and Leonna, Conal's mother, is coming to the conclusion that they will never find what they're looking for, that it doesn't exist.
After FIREBRAND's exciting introduction to the series, BLOODSTONE had a lot to live up to. While not as good as the first book, this continuation of the story isn't afraid to take us where the hard decisions have led Seth and Conal on their quest to be free of Kate NicNiven's control.
The great thing so far about this series is its forward momentum and fascinating characters. In FIREBRAND it was Seth's PoV, but here the narration has broadened to Finn (Conal's niece) and Jed (mortal; Finn's friend and son to Seth's lover). At first I found it annoying because I like Seth's narration and it took the majority of the book to understand why the extra PoVs--and teenagers at that--were necessary for the storytelling. Still, Seth is the one whose PoV carries the story: how he views people, his sense of loyalty to his brother, and his often poor decision-making skills. And the strange thing is that even though I hate some of his choices, I still completely understand why he makes them. He is a fascinating person who wavers between bad-boy and sentimental loyalist. Finn and Jed's stories aren't as crucial as Seth's, but they're still interesting. Jed is a bit of a wild card since he's full mortal, and even though he's tied to important characters, ultimately he's powerless. His character arc is the biggest in the novel, but it was painful to watch him flail about in a situation he had no control over.
There's an unfortunate four-hundred year gap between books, which hinders a fleshed-out setting in favor of a fast-paced story, and as a result we don't learn more about the Sithe world, magic, and the Veil. Not that these tidbits aren't important to the story. The Veil makes the Sithe forgettable to mortals and this makes Finn's high school existence miserable. Adding to her teenage angst is the death of her father, a grieving mother who leaves her to be raised by secretive uncles (who are forbidden by their mother to tell her about the Sithe world), and her witch of a grandmother whose search for the bloodstone occupies her time (because if she doesn't focus her attention she'll want to kill herself to follow her dead husband).
However, the surprises in store do make up for what we miss in the world-building--Phillips takes the story in an unexpected direction. We start out in the mortal world, but most of the action takes place in the otherworld, where Conal teams up with his old comrades-in-arms, Kate NicNiven (the Sithe queen) continues to manipulate events to her advantage, and everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Seth, Finn, and Jed all come to discover that even when they try to make the right decisions, there's no guarantee the results will be what they expect. Phillips weaves these shadowy characters into a complicated and twisty story in a way that is thoroughly engulfing, leaving us with the question of: What will happen next? Because by the end you will want to know.
Recommended Age: 15+
Language: A couple handfuls
Violence: Fairly frequent; gory details sometimes glossed over
Find the first two books of the Rebel Angels here:
Noon Onyx is a waning magic user--the same magic used to control the demons who won Armageddon. Her magic is not what's extraordinary, it's that she's a woman with an ability that manifests only in men. In the series' first book, DARK LIGHT OF DAY, Noon had to come to grips with her ability and be trained so she wouldn't be a danger to herself and others.
As her schooling progresses, Noon has improved--even if her control still isn't what it should be. But even as a maegester-in-training there is a lot expected of her. First off is that despite a pacifist philosophy she must be willing to kill the demons who transgress the law. The other is to accept a student of waxing magic as her protector. But as someone who doesn't plan to seek out dangerous situations, she finds this exercise pointless. That is, until she's sent on her first assignment to the Swallows, a swamp region where the locals complain of disappearances and blame their own demon protector as the culprit.
FIERY EDGE OF STEEL is told from Noon's straightforward point-of-view narrative. She's been raised in a privileged household, but even that has its own problems considering the magical ability of her parents, and especially her father, the head of the Demon Council. Noon knows she'll never live up to her father's expectations and she's determined to be her own woman. But as a future maegester she's under the direct influence of the Demon Council. Even by the end of the book I wasn't really sure what I thought about her. She wasn't too whiny, annoying, or unrealistic, but she was still meh for me.
I liked the secondary characters much better. There's the mysterious Ari Carmine, her boyfriend and partner on their assignment to the Swallows. There's Rafe Sinclair, the laid-back waxing magic user who's assigned to guard her, but Noon can't seem to get him to cooperate like she wants him to. There's Ari's guardian waxing magic user Fara, who exclusively uses glamour to cover her true appearance. Even the ship's captain is fascinating. The mystery of these people is unraveled throughout the book, and I found their quirks more interesting than even the main character's.
The setting is what makes this book shine--it takes place after Armageddon, only it wasn't the host of Heaven who won, it was the demons. That doesn't necessarily mean that demons rule the world, but it does mean they live openly among humans; fortunately humans have been given the ability to seek justice on demons using their magic. Sometimes it was weird to have this half-medieval, half-modern setting, with jeans and t-shirts, espressos, swords, scripture, and magic spells. The concept is interesting and the way Archer displays for us the landscape, people, and magic all work together well.
However, despite a fun setting and interesting characters, it was the story itself that held back my giving an unhesitating endorsement. Which is too bad because all of the elements are there. Well, except maybe for the meh main character, but she's fine as a narrator so it didn't bug me too much. It's that I had a hard time knowing where this story was going. Like Homer's The Odyssey, FIERY seems to be mostly about the journey (not that I'd compare them as equivalent in literary terms)--Noon and Co. spend three-quarters of the book trying to get to the Swallows. Maybe I'm being too nitpicky, but I waded through an extended focus on the tedium of traveling and study, waiting for Noon and her entourage to arrive in the Swallows where the real crescendo of action should happen. As a result, the ending didn't have the building action it needed to give it real significance.
I continue to find myself--even a couple of weeks after finishing it--thinking about the magic and demons and angels. The plot? Not so much.
Recommended Age: 16+
Language: Not that I remember
Violence: Scattered fighting with demons, but without gory detail
Sex: An undetailed scene; otherwise implied or referenced
Find this series here:
DARK LIGHT OF DAY
FIERY EDGE OF STEEL
Sometimes it's way too easy to make a call on a book. There are some indicators that, when they come up, scream, “Run away!” One of the classics is when you get to the end of the first chapter and the last sentence is something with a flavor similar to:
It all started less than 24 hours ago...
Oh, yeah. Those? They're doooozies.
SLOW APOCALYPSE was my introduction to John Varley's work. I was looking forward to a good read going in, what with the cover quote from Tom Clancy, even if the title promised something significantly less than exciting. I mean, who puts “Slow” in the title of any kind of book they want to sell? I don't know.
The premise is that there's a scientist who loses his girlfriend in the United States World Trade Center attack, and then decides to serve up a dish of revenge to those responsible. His method of attack: create a strain of bacteria that will cause subterranean stores of oil to turn solid. Unfortunately for everyone (literally), the bacteria finds a way to go airborne and takes out every oil store in the entire world. The side effect of this solidification process is an excess of hydrogen gas that wreaks havoc with the earth, causing quakes and eruptions and giant jets of flame bursting from the ground.
Where does the story start? Dave Marshall, a sitcom writer living in Los Angeles and the inimitable hero of our story, finds out about the impending oil disaster from a military contact of his in the first chapter...and then the whole story proceeds to fall apart. Yeah, I know. Chapter 1? I thought the same thing. The whole rest of the story (nay, the entire book) is one big, long series of observations and so little of anything else. Oh, let me count the ways.
1.) After stocking up on foodstuffs Dave turns on the TV and watches...and watches...and watches all of the mess that begins to happen in...THE SLOW APOCALYPSE. Dun, dun dun!
2.) Craziness starts to happen in LA (earthquakes, explosions, rioting, etc). Dave roams around the neighborhood, sets up for the long-haul at home, and views some of the destruction in person. Copious amounts of street names, building names, valley names, hills, and corners abound.
3.) The craziness ramps up as violence escalates. Dave decides to find a way out of LA by driving around the city. Enough map references here to drive my Aunt Margie back into the mental asylum.
Now, yes, there's more that happens. There's some turmoil in Dave's family (estranged wife and teenage daughter). Some of Dave's friends are in danger. There's some nasty biker gangs that make a few appearances. There's plenty of social commentary about how we're too fat as a people, don't care enough about things that really matter, and get tied up in those things that don't. There's all the stuff that you'd probably expect to make a showing in an actual situation like this.
But the problem is that it's all so BORING with a capital B (repetition included on purpose). Yes, it's a story. Yes, it's realistic. Yes, it's even probable. But is it anything I'd want to read? No. Uh, double no actually. And yet I did, as we always do. Oh, the torture the EBR reviewers endure so that you loyal readers can know to avoid these books like the warm, half-full jugs of way-past-expired milk that they are.
Now, Mr. Varley has been around for quite some time. Obviously, he didn't get that cover quote from Tom Clancy by writing books like this. I've seen a lot of places where people said they seriously love this guy's books. Maybe this one was just a stinker. Granted, it was a pretty bad stinker. So, I say go find a book of his that has some decent reviews and give it a try.
Just stay away from this one.
Recommended Age: 16+
Profanity: Very little, but there's some of just about everything in small doses
Violence: Again, very little, but when the gore comes in it comes in small bubbles and spurts (heh, heh--get it?)
Sex: Two scenes that are over fairly quickly, but get somewhat detailed
Atticus and Granuille are in trouble. Of course. But the stakes are higher than usual. The Norse god of mischief, Loki, is on the loose and needs to kill Atticus before he can start the Apocalypse. At the same time our favorite Druids are being tracked by the goddesses of the hunt themselves--Artemis and Diana--in retaliation for giving Dionysus grief in TRAPPED. The only safe place for them is in the world of the Tuatha De Danann, but the only way they can get there is to find a gateway on English soil, and they must run fast across Europe if they want to live.
Hearne's prose is a delight to read. His metaphors are clever and hilarious, and he tells the story with enough detail to help readers understand what's going on, all without cluttering the narrative. The previous books are told from Atticus' PoV, but in HUNTED we get some of Granuille's PoV--also in first person. Atticus' narration continues as entertaining and insightful as in previous books; and surprises even himself that after living 2100+ years he still has a few things to learn. Granuille's prose style threw me off, it felt too old-fashioned for a 21st Century chick, but having her viewpoint was important to the story.
I like Atticus and Granuille. And I also found the various gods and mythological creatures as entertaining as the main characters. Hearne portrays the gods with all their unique quirks and specific abilities, and how that would affect behavior. I find particularly fascinating the way he portrays the Morrigan and her relationship with Atticus, how her powers are limited to who and what she is. Oberon, Atticus' wolfhound pet, continues to play the role as the comic relief, even if it often feels repetitive.
HUNTED is mostly a transitional story as clues to the big picture are discovered and loose ends are tied up before the Big Event coming in following books. However, that doesn't mean this book needlessly suffers from middle book syndrome. The hunt is exciting, the roadblocks interesting and grounded in events that happened in previous books. The ending is important and big and messy and awesome.
Here we see what Atticus can really do, and the difference between druid-newb Granuille and her arch-druid is staggering--there's a long way for Granuille to go before she has Atticus' skill with magic, knowledge of his surroundings, and even understanding his own limitations. But she's smart enough to know that there's still lots to learn, and has the determination to do it--she only has to live through all the problems Atticus seems to attract.
A while back I read and reviewed Hearne's debut novelHOUNDED (EBR review). His Iron Druid Chronicles (of which there are 6 books so far) has gotten mixed reviews--more favorable than not, but still some people are bothered by Hearne's style and the way he tells the story. Because it's not perfect. Or the way they would write it. Or whatever.
I say take this series at face value: as entertaining and imaginative. Sure it could be more serious or more strict with the mythology. And maybe you have trouble with the main character's age yet relative immaturity. If so then maybe this series would be a waste of your time. That's ok, there are plenty of other people who will enjoy Hearne's storytelling.
Recommended Age: 16+
Language: A handful or two
Violence: A fair amount, and sometimes detailed and unpleasant
Sex: Referenced fairly frequently, sometimes crass (and deserving of an eye-roll)
Find these books here:
TRICKED (I particularly enjoyed this one where the Native American god Coyote recruits Atticus for a job on the reservation.)
Note: At the end of book six HUNTED the publishers include Hearne's novella "Two Ravens and One Crow" which should be read before reading book five TRAPPED. It's not mandatory, but it helps with plot issues that would otherwise annoy.
It's Risa Jones' fault that the first key to the portal of hell was found and used, and why dark energies are beginning to leach into the world. OK, maybe it's not all her fault, but she's convinced that none of it would have happened without her interference. Or her existence.
Guilt, however, doesn't stop her from continuing her search for the second key with the hopes of keeping it out of the wrong hands. But it seems everyone has their eye on her and are always trying to pull her strings. Such as the vampire council leader Madeline Hunter who makes her investigate the gruesome death of a vampire whose insides were sucked out completely, leaving only a dried-out shell.
At her side is her Aedh protector Azriel, a dark angel and reaper of spirits, who has lately become more to her than merely a bodyguard. Together they sprint around Melbourne, trying to find the husk-leaving demon and the key at the same time. But Risa is young and relatively uneducated in a world filled with old priests, angels, vampires, and demons--how is she going to stay one step ahead of everyone who wants the key?
DARKNESS UNMASKED is the fifth book in Keri Arthur's Dark Angels series, which is a spin-off from her popular Riley Jensen Guardian series. She's written plenty of novels and you can tell that she hammered this one out pretty fast (and that in their haste the editor missed a few errors)--but that doesn't mean it wasn't a fun novel. Imperfect, but still popcorn-type fun, nonetheless. Arthur has built up a storyline that's been woven clear from book one and is reaching a feverish pitch with the most recent installment.
Risa is our first-person PoV narrator. She's got a little bit of a potty mouth but she has a big attitude. For her benefit there's her demon-sword Amaya, a few magical skills of her own, and plenty of friends who can help out with things she can't do. Plus there's the handsome Azriel to keep her alive so she can finish her quest without having to become a martyr. Without all this to back her up, Risa wouldn't have made it as far as she has. But unfortunately, being who he is can cause trouble for her friends, and she's willing to do whatever it takes to keep them safe. She's a fun character to read, not overly emo, or unrealistically kick-butt. The side-characters are interesting in their own right if light on the characterization because the story is so lop-sidedly Risa's.
Arthur tells the story at a breakneck pace--sometimes moving so fast from scene to scene that I barely had time to get my bearings then, wham, the action and Risa and Azriel have whisked off to the next scene of mayhem. While the sequence of events mostly made sense, this breakneck movement and tossing around of seemingly random information was hard for me to track, clear up to the exciting ending. I wonder if maybe this is what ADD feels like.
The setting in Australia is fun for me because most Urban Fantasy I read is set in the U.S. Arthur is obviously familiar with the location and it shows with Risa's movements around the city, its architecture, and the people who live there. The world of magic, shape-shifters, demons, spirits, witches, sorcerers, and other magical creatures all move around Arthur's imaginative world with a unique style. It's rather exciting to explore and experience. Sometimes I'm not clear on what everyone can do magically, which can be frustrating, because I need to understand the limitations Risa is trying to work around. Still, it's creative.
We get a few revelations (some seemed kinda 'duh' moments for me, but whatever) and things change for Risa as she grows more confident in her own abilities. DARKNESS UNMASKED is a great setup for what promises to be the following and final two novels in the series.
Recommended Age: 18+
Language: Yes, quite a bit actually
Violence: Scattered and moderately gory
Sex: Frequent scenes with detail, and otherwise plenty of innuendo
Find this book here:
You were first introduced to Isabella Camherst in A NATURAL HISTORY OF DRAGONS (EBR review) in what Steve called a fantasy version of Downton Abby...kinda. I would also like to point lovers of Novik's Temeraire series, and even those who enjoy Elizabeth Peter's Amelia Peabody series, to this exciting new world Marie Brennan has created.
THE TROPIC OF SERPENTS begins three years after NATURAL's fateful expedition to the mountains of Vystrana. Isabella agrees to a second expedition, but this time it's a further-flung journey to study species on the continent of Eriga. It's a good thing she loves dragons because anyone with less passion would have given up by now considering the deck stacked against her: Isabella's family disapproves of her adventures, even scientists must deal with local politics, and the climate is not only oppressive it's dangerous. The mountains of Vystrana tested her strength, and now the jungle known as the Green Hell will test her resolve.
Along for this expedition is Mr. Wilker, the only recurring character to appear with consistency. If you recall in NATURAL, Isabella and Mr. Wilker didn't get along much, but here they have to rely on each other and come to a mutual agreement. There is also Isabella's mechanically gifted friend Natalie, who has to escape her family in order to join the expedition. There are various locals and a big-game hunter who stirs things up a bit, but on the whole the story is about Isabella and her experience. As a result the secondary characters don't go into much depth, but Isabella is such a fascinating person and her description of people and events is entertainment enough.
The locale is more in-depth here compared to NATURAL, but there are a lot of place and race names to keep track of. I mentally attempted to parallel the place/race with real-life equivalents, but that only gave me a headache. And there's a lot of politics: the local king, settlers from Isabella's country, locals who live in the swamp, and those who live on the other side of the swamp/river, potential invasions, foreigner meddling, etc. We have a lot to learn about Isabella's world.
Personally I wanted to skip all that for the dragon hunting. Fortunately, despite this front-heavy information, once all that is out of the way we get into the story itself. It's worth pushing through because it does matter to the story, and fortunately Brennan doesn't make it boring. And there's plenty of dragon information to whet one's appetite. Once Isabella arrives on Eriga we begin to get a better feel for the politics and culture, and as the story unfolds everything makes sense.
Brennan's prose and storytelling are a pleasure to read, compelling, delightful, and entertaining. Just like Downton Abby. Definitely worth your time.
Recommended Age: 15+ (my 15-year-old daughter loved the first book and snatched up this one as soon as it arrived)
Language: Very little
Violence: Peril (human and animal related) and off-screen deaths
Sex: Vague references
Find this enjoyable series here:
A NATURAL HISTORY OF DRAGONS
THE TROPIC OF SERPENTS
DJ Jaco, the sentinel for New Orleans, has proven her mettle. In ROYAL STREET (EBR review), Hurricane Katrina changed boundaries with the Beyond, flooding the area with preternaturals, her mentor disappearing in the chaos. In RIVER ROAD (EBR review) she solves a wizard's murder and settles a mer feud. Now in ELYSIAN FIELDS it appears that one of the historic undead has emerged from the Beyond to continue what he started in 1918...as a serial killer.
But an undead serial killer isn't the extent of her problems. Her friendship with newly turned loup-garou Jake is on the rocks and now her best friend Eugenie's boyfriend Rand is making googly-eyes at DJ. Nothing seems to be going right...well, except that her relationship with Alex is heating up.
I enjoy DJ's narration as she flails around, attempting to give the impression that she knows what she's doing. She gets herself into all sorts of trouble--sometimes it's her fault, but most of the time it isn't. Her elven blood means that she has the attention of the Elf lords, which isn't necessarily a good thing. The Elders send a wizard to give DJ elven magic lessons, but he's a jerk. And no matter what she does, her problems only seem to get worse.
ELYSIAN FIELDS has a larger cast than previous books, but fortunately we're familiar with enough of the regulars that we don't get too overwhelmed. The good news is that the added variables notch up the excitement; the bad news is that someone trying to jump into the series starting with this book will get lost as a result of all the people involved. Fortunately, readers will be carried along in Johnson's exciting pace up until the end, so if they just go with the flow, things work themselves out.
We learned more about DJ's magic and how the world around her works in previous books; we do get to learn a little about Elves, but not a whole lot. Here it's the politics of preternatural relations that drive the story more than the setting or DJ herself. And since it's politics, the story felt a little convoluted as DJ discovered motives and those involved. I liked the previous books better because they were about the different preternaturals and DJ's magic. But I get the feeling this is a set up for something bigger, and I'm definitely interested in seeing what happens next.
Recommended Age: 15+
Language: Less than a handful
Violence: A couple of scenes
Sex: Innuendo and one on-screen scene
Find this awesome series here:
The second book of The Stormlight Archives, WORDS OF RADIANCE, comes crashing down on us after a near four year absence. And ooh boy, does book 2 deliver on what it's promising. If you haven't read the first one, THE WAY OF KINGS, go read the review here, and then buy the book at the link at the bottom of the page. Finishing the last Wheel of Time book kept Brandon Sanderson busy, and it's obvious that he picked up a few things from Jordan, both good and bad.
Let's start with the good, eh? This book clarifies and answers a lot of the questions the first book left us with. Questions about the Knights Radiant and where they went, how they came into be, and more are all explained very well here. Explanations about lashings, magic, and creatures permeate this book, letting you know why certain things are the way they are in Roshar. All of it, literally every scene is painted in a way that grabs your attention and demands you look closer at the world.
The fight scenes are beautifully realized making them quite easy to picture and visualize. Some of these scenes highlight what Sanderson learned from the combat scenes in MISTBORN, (can't say too much, spoilers). But unlike his first book, his descriptions serve us well in envisioning his heroes. In the first novel, it seemed like Dalinar was the only character I really got a solid feel for. This time, the dialogue has improved dramatically, and I found myself enjoying some of the other characters much more. Shallan and Jasnah in particular leapt off the page in a way that I felt the first book failed to deliver. The interludes showcased different characters, including new viewpoints that brought the world into sharper focus.
Brandon added a time-bomb to this book and it drives his story. The idea of the deadline kept most of the pacing quick and focused around the shared threat, and the fact that most of the characters eventually end up in the same location helps to keep his story on track in a way the first book lagged through. (I'm looking at you, Jasnah).
Brandon has really dug his teeth into this epic fantasy and his careful world building helped to keep the readers on track. When Brandon stays on track, this book is great, and when it's great, it's really showing why Brandon has such a following and why he was picked to finish one of the most popular fantasy series of all time. This is his best work to date.
But, no one is perfect, and a tome weighing in at over 1000 pages has a lot of room for errors. There were times when Brandon left the pacing behind and gets distracted enjoying his own characters (this time I'm looking at you, Kaladin). The setting is great and his detailed worlds is what drives Brandon's success, but there are a few points where he wanders into unnecessary details--he could have trimmed 100 pages off this book, maybe more.
And the cover art. I'm a huge Whelan fan. I hunted down his Stormbringer book cover just to own it, and I loved his A MEMORY OF LIGHT and THE WAY OF KINGS covers. However, this cover just doesn't do it for me. It turned me off on the book before I even started reading it. I am very disappointed and I know Whelan can deliver a much more epic and heroic-looking piece. I hope he does the third book and gets a chance to show off. That being said, there is some bonus art from Whelan as the endpapers for the hardback novel, and it's awesome.
Brandon learned a lot from Jordan and picked up some great habits...and some very bad ones. Long-winded exposition pushed me away from the stories a few times, while some dialogue jarred me out of his characters. A lack of conflict and action bogged the book down a bit in the middle.
All of these issues pale when you get to the final tenth of the book. Suddenly, the first 1900 pages of this series make sense, and you get a pay-off that's two books in the making. And man, oh man, oh man, oh man, is it one heck of a payoff. That end section alone should cement Brandon in the halls of epic fantasy for all time.
If you like epic fantasy, Sanderson, or awesomeness in book form, you should probably read WORDS OF RADIANCE. In fact, who am I kidding? Everyone should read this book. And the first one. You won't regret it. I promise.
Recommended Age: 13+
Language: In-universe cursing
Violence: Not as much as the first book, but it's there, especially at the end (one scene was particularly brutal)
Find the first two books of the Stormlight Archives here:
THE WAY OF KINGS
WORDS OF RADIANCE
Does this look familiar? It should. I originally posted this review back in 2010. So why am I redirecting you to it now? Well, because this awesome collection can be purchased with ease now, and without murdering your wallet, from Tachyon Publications. This is the collection I recommend to everyone who is new to Joe R. Lansdale, because I loved it so much when I first read it in 2010. So anywho, here is the review for any of you who missed it the first time around.
I like supernatural stuff. I like the Old West. It doesn't take a genius to see that I really like supernatural stuff in the Old West. DEADMAN'S ROAD, by Joe Lansdale, nicely fills that niche. In short, this collection of short stories and a novella make for pure entertainment.
The stories in this collection star Reverend Jebidiah Mercer. He's your typical Old West Reverend...well apart from his alcohol addiction, gunslinger skills, and his penchant for violence. You see, he sees himself as the Lord's Messenger in the Old Testament sense. Wrathful and all that. He is a compelling character that, despite his faults (or perhaps because of them), you love to root for him.
DEADMAN'S ROAD contains the following stories: "Dead in the West", "Deadman's Road", "The Gentleman's Hotel", "The Crawling Sky", and "The Dark Down There".
"Dead in the West" is the novella that introduced the world to the good Reverend. It all has to do with an Indian Curse that leads to a zombie infestation. This story takes up over half of the collection, and it is easily the strongest of all the Reverend's adventures. It is in this story that we see the most character development, and the best story and plot progression. Really, the collection is defined by this story, and it manages to have that pulp quality while still managing to give a light (but distinct, in my opinion) literary flavor.
The remaining tales are all short stories, ridiculously fun, and pack serious punch. "Deadman's Road" deals with a ghoul of sorts. "The Gentleman's Hotel" has ghosts and werewolves. "The Crawling Sky" deals with some bizarre creature thing that wants to kill the Reverend. Lastly, "The Dark Down There" is about a pack of kobolds killing miners with the Reverend teaming up with a 300-pound woman named Flower. While all the stories are awesome, none of them match the strength of the novella "Dead in the West", which has me begging for a TV series and more stories from the Reverend. That being said, "Deadman's Road" and "The Gentleman's Hotel" were my favorites of the shorts.
The overall positive this collection brings is Lansdale's pure ability to give the readers an uncompromisable, visceral description of the horrors the Reverend is facing. He describes the grotesque in a way rarely ever seen. Amidst all the horror and supernatural, Lansdale never loses sight of the western flavor of the stories. The Reverend is put into intense, horrific situations that grab you by the head and force your eye-lids open so you get every gut-wrenching detail. It is this near perfect blend of western horror that makes this collection one that should be read by every horror-lover out there.
What an amazing collection...
Recommended Age: 18 and up.
Language: All sorts.
Violence: This is a seriously grim and grisly collection. Awesome right?
Sex: Mentioned quite a bit.
Here's your link! Quit screwing around and buy this book! DEADMAN'S ROAD
Note 3-5-2014: This collection was my first exposure to Joe Lansdale, and not only has he quickly become one of my favorite authors, but he has changed how I read and write Horror. I had the opportunity just over a month ago to sit down for lunch with Mr. Lansdale, his lovely wife, daughter Kasey, and son Keith. Quite simply, they are one of the nicest, most genuine families I have ever had the pleasure of meeting.