Review: The Emperor’s Blades

The Emperor's BladesTitle: The Emperor’s Blades (2014)
Author: Brian Staveley
Pages: 571
Series: Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne #1 (Series Tracker)

This turned out to be a really wonderful debut novel from Brian Staveley; it’s the type of fantasy I can really sink my teeth into — excellent worldbuilding, compelling mysteries, and great action sequences. I really enjoyed the the setting and found myself poring over the appendix and the beautiful map trying to understand every aspect of this world.

The story follows the emperor’s three children: Adare, Valyn, and Kaden as they complete training in their respective disciplines. The two brothers have the meatier roles here, as Valyn trains to be a military assassin and Kaden works at a monastery honing his mental prowess. Although spread across the map, all three siblings fight against treasonous plots designed to bring down their family line. Their successes and failures are especially satisfying, as, despite their political standing, they receive no special treatment from their handlers and come by most of their skills honestly. Adare’s story is underserved but should see a larger role in book #2, which I am excited to start.

★★★★½ out of 5

Review: The Mad Ship

les-aventuriers-de-la-mer,-tome-5---prisons-d-eau-et-de-bois-369293-250-400Title: The Mad Ship (1999)
Author: Robin Hobb
Pages: 906
Series: Liveship Traders #2, Realms of the Elderlings #5 (Series Tracker)

The Mad Ship continues the conquests of those we met in Ship of Magic, while adding a few new character POVs to the fold. As paths cross and fates entwine, many single POVs pair together and the narration becomes more cohesive. Nevertheless, this is much less a complete tale as it is a continuation from book #1 — and with no definitive ending, I suspect book #3 will follow the same path. In many ways this trilogy is one loooong book, sliced into three parts.  

I have been burning through Robin Hobb’s work pretty steadily over the last few months, and I hit a wall with this book. As a reader, I seek fresh new journeys, but this ongoing saga progresses at such a slow pace that it was tough to stay as consistently enthralled as I was at the outset. Luckily, the quality of Hobb’s writing remains top notch and the story grabbed me back as the ending approached.

With such a heavy emphasis on character development, it’s easy to overlook how well Hobb does story revelations. She plants seeds for overarching mysteries that are very hard to solve as the reader, but when the answers are revealed they are surprising, satisfying, and they have ramifications for the overall Realms of the Elderlings world that keep me excited for each subsequent book.

★★★¾ out of 5

Review: Traitor’s Blade

18947303Title: Traitor’s Blade (2014)
Author: Sebastien de Castell
Pages: 370
Series: Greatcoats #1 (Series Tracker)

Sometimes a book will lose me–I’ll be intently focused during the early-going before my interest wanes and I float aimlessly through the rest. This happened during Traitor’s Blade and I was disappointed I did not enjoy it as much as I had hoped to. After a strong start, things get very uneven. By the midway mark, I was bored and disinterested in how the story would unfold. From there it devolved into a deus ex machina-fest with every jam being solved in exceedingly convenient ways.

The Duchal politics at the heart of the story were wholly uninteresting to me, as well. Falcio and his relationship with the deceased king was the only storyline that I was remotely invested in.

Finally, the main trio of Falcio, Kest, and Brasti are an entertaining team that didn’t spend nearly enough time together. The witty banter and jesting evaporates once they are pulled apart and there was more fun to be mined from their interactions than we got. I expected to burn through this story and its subsequent sequels, but it was not to be, unfortunately.

★★¾ out of 5

Review: Ship of Magic

Robin_Hobb_-_Ship_of_Magic_CoverTitle: Ship of Magic (1998)
Author: Robin Hobb
Pages: 880
Series: Liveship Traders #1, Realms of the Elderlings #4 (Series Tracker)

Ship of Magic sheds the traditional high fantasy habitat and fixed perspective employed by the Farseer trilogy to tell a seafaring tale with multiple points-of-view. Moving south from the Six Duchies, we’re introduced to the Vestrit family, whose bloodline has been in possession of a Liveship, a sentient vessel who has recently awakened. Such an awakening is a great blessing for a trading family, but the Vestrit’s can’t anticipate the pirates, sea serpents, and family divisions that come alive, as well.

With the added flexibility of multiple POVs, Robin Hobb deposits her new characters across the map and deftly moves them about to do her bidding. There is no significant forward momentum towards the larger story arc, but each character’s individual story was compelling enough to hold my interest. Most plot lines feel rich with potential, but I had hoped for a more complete story to take shape.

Something Hobb does especially well in this new territory is establishing legitimate threats to the characters across several levels. On a personal level (Jerk son-in-law Kyle Haven, Malta the brat), a regional level (the overindulgent Satrap, enterprising pirates), a physical level (pirates and conniving sea serpents), and an unknown level (the mystical Rain Wild river folk) — All combine to form a daunting maze for our heroes to navigate. This was a good start to the trilogy and I suspect the next two installments will build on the foundation that Ship of Magic establishes.

★★★¾ out of 5

Review: Kings of the Wyld

kings-of-the-wyldTitle: Kings of the Wyld (2017)
Author: Nicholas Eames
Pages: 544
The Band #1
My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review.

In this rock’em sock’em epic fantasy tale, Clay Cooper reunites with his band of mercenary misfits to do battle with a dangerous horde of monsters. It is an undeniably fun journey across a brutal landscape that feels overstuffed with seemingly every fantasy creature…ever. Since the story follows the reunion of the since-retired band Saga, there’s a full career retrospective that has to be explored and explained. This will serve subsequent books in the series well, but it was a lot of information to process while the main story was ongoing.

One fun aspect of Kings of the Wyld was the readily-apparent influence of rock band culture. It became a fun scavenger hunt to identify the parts of the mercenary band world that paralleled the world of rock — from going on tour, to groupies, frontmen, opening acts, headliners, tour bus skyships, battle of the bands, and many more. This was an amusing twist on a genre that often hits similar notes time and time again. While I never quite crossed the threshold from ‘like’ to ‘love’ on this novel, it was an entertaining ride, nonetheless.

★★★ out of 5

Review: Brother’s Ruin

brothers-ruinTitle: Brother’s Ruin (2017)
Author: Emma Newman
Pages: 160
Industrial Magic #1
My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for an advanced reader copy in exchange for an honest review.

The Royal Society of Esoteric Arts provides stability and prosperity to Great Britain through the tireless work of their Magi. Latent magi are highly sought after, but, once discovered, must forgo their normal life for one solely in service to the Crown. With her autonomy threatened, Charlotte, a young mage, hides her abilities from the world. When her father foolishly offers Charlotte’s feeble brother up to the Royal Society in desperate hopes of landing the large windfall that comes with selection, Charlotte must use her abilities to save brother, her family, and her entire way of life.

This novella, very much a Part 1 to a larger story, did not hook me from the start. It seemed that Emma Newman’s flair for storytelling was not on full display at the outset and may have been hampered by the novella format. Slowly, but surely, as the narrative unfolded, I was more and more invested…until it all ends abruptly — just when I was ready for more!

With such an interesting gaslamp sandbox to play in, I had hoped for more worldbuilding and a wider scope. Hopefully that comes in future installments, as Brother’s Ruin feels like the appetizer to a (potentially delicious) five-course meal.

★★★ out of 5

While I was reading this I was delighted to see the news that Emma Newman will pen two more Planetfall novels. I first discovered Newman through those novels, and I look forward to seeing where she goes next in that world.

Review: Passing Strange

passing-strangeTitle: Passing Strange (2017)
Author: Ellen Klages
Pages: 220

Passing Strange is a story of love and friendship among six women in 1940s San Francisco. Author Ellen Klages employs elegant prose, a straightforward plot, and a splash of magic to construct this beautiful and well-told story. Everything here works well, but nothing about it blew me away. That being said, I would read an entire book of Klages describing pastries!

★★★½ out of 5

Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

19-lincoln-in-the-bardo-w245-h368Title: Lincoln in the Bardo (2017)
Author: George Saunders
Pages: 343

After mastering the art of short fiction storytelling, author George Saunders has written Lincoln in the Bardo, his first full-length novel. It is one of the least conventional novels you will ever come across. Chaotic in both form and story, Saunders employs a mix of primary and secondary sources (some authentic; some completely made up) interwoven with the conversations of loitering, spirit-like entities trapped in the “bardo,” where the manifestation of their consciousness waits for their next birth. Very straightforward, right?

The story at the forefront of this madness is the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie, and Lincoln’s mournful visits to his grave. Simultaneously, Willie’s spirit is floating around with all the other residents of the cemetery, as they each seek absolution in their own way. It is a powerful meditation on grief and loss, with a welcome dash of biting humor.

The unsystematic patchwork of storytelling modes is often bewildering in its construction, so, as the reader, you must (cliche alert) make it more about the journey than the destination. Despite the oodles and oodles of originality, the experience is too bizarre and unnerving for the ride to be worth it. I hope to revisit this story in audiobook form, as the star-studded voice cast may add a layer of familiarity to what is, in practice, a very alien novel.

★★★ out of 5

Review: Assassin’s Quest

robin_hobb_-_assassins_quest_coverTitle: Assassin’s Quest (1997)
Author: Robin Hobb
Pages: 839
Series: Farseer Trilogy #3, Realms of the Elderlings #3 (Series Tracker)

Robin Hobb writes character relationships like no one I’ve read. In Royal Assassin, the novel directly preceding this one, that skill is on full display — FitzChivalry Farseer is in a castle surrounded by his enemies, his allies, his confidants, and his lover. Fitz’s interwoven relationships with these groups made for a very satisfying level of court intrigue.  In Assassin’s Quest, Fitz casts off on his own, leaving Buckkeep behind. It reminded me of the disappointment I felt toward the end of the Harry Potter series, when Harry is no longer at Hogwarts. Harry moves from place to place, spending large chunks of time camped in the woods. It never quite feels as magical as it did back within the confines of Hogwarts.

The word “Quest” in the title is apt. Fitz journeys relentlessly. There are only so many times one can make camp, hunt, and evade capture before it becomes a trifle tiresome. Things unfold so slowly that it feels like Fitz and his companions are wading through quicksand. The events that transpire along the way are interesting enough to recover some goodwill, but it was not always a satisfying journey to me as a reader. While Royal Assassin was always propelling the reader forward toward an ending, Assassin’s Quest felt meandering and stagnant.

There is magic to be found here, however. Between the Skill and the Wit, Hobb has created two unique magic systems that are intriguing in their own right, but Fitz’s possession of both makes for a dazzling combination. The issue is that Fitz is never in full command of his abilities. In fact, no character in this story is wholly themselves. Hollowed out by grief, or the Skill, or secrets, no one is operating at 100% and the wonderfully written characters cannot shine until the final pages. That being said, the conclusion here is epic and the story is capped by a beautiful and rewarding epilogue. Despite my aforementioned misgivings, Hobb’s writing remains the beacon in the dark. Rarely have I read fiction so engrossing. Her words evoke such a clear picture in my mind as a reader that even a story with flaws can still take flight off the page.

★★★★ out of 5