The Sword Of Shannara Series

By Terry Brooks

Between Terry Goodkind and now Terry Brooks, I’ve really been plumbing the depths of “guys named Terry whose fantasy novels I read as a kid” lately. My most recent Terry-related experience was inspired by noticing the MTV(!?) show The Chronicles of Shannara, which somehow I had missed up to this point. As someone who read virtually everything Brooks published between like 1997-2002, I was curious to see what MTV (seriously, MTV!?) would make of his Shannara books. Spoiler alert: the show is truly awful. 

After watching the travesty of a TV show, I felt compelled to go back to the source literature to see if my fond memories of Shannara were justified. I can still vividly remember some of the books’ best scenes: the Home Guard’s Crispin standing against the Reaper, Allanon wrestling with the cackling Jachyra, the destruction of the Druid’s home at Paranor. Not bad staying power for books that I haven’t read for 15 years! In any case, I picked up The Wishsong of Shannara to refresh my memory (it was the first in the series that I could find on my shelves).

What’s the verdict? Well, it’s mixed. The good news is that the books are 1000% better than the hormone-filled dreck that is the MTV show (seriously Terry, couldn’t you get HBO to bite?). The bad news is that they’re definitely a bit amateurish, or at least Book 3 (published in 1985) was, so it’s possible they improved later in the series. Their main flaw, to my mind, is that Brooks is often guilty of violating the “show, don’t tell” writing maxim. Characters often give monologues about their innermost motivations, only to have other characters mentally recap the same information to the reader, which gets old fast. The reader is really never asked to do any work, instead, everything is spoon-fed, and characters are generally pretty 2-D.

So, in general, I was a little disappointing upon my re-reading. The good news is that I loved these books when I was in the 12-18 year old range (or so), just like I loved pretty much everything else Brooks wrote (The Word and the Void Series, The Magic Kingdom of Landover). With that in mind, I’m going to go ahead and give this series the “young adult tag.” For younger readers who are mostly interested in a satisfying, linear story-line, Brooks’ books are still a great choice! For more mature readers, maybe not so much.

Rating: 2 – Recommended with Reservations

If you liked this, you may enjoy: Running with the Demon, Split Infinity

The Sword of Truth

By Terry Goodkind

Ah, “The Sword of Truth,” one of my first fantasy loves. I stumbled upon the series in 1995 or 1996, and can still keenly remember using one of my first Amazon gift cards to order the series’ opener: Wizard’s First Rule (though when I bought it, I imagined that the title referenced a “ruling” wizard, as opposed to “wizard rule #1”).

What followed was several years of matrimonial (bibliophilic?) bliss. Goodkind had created a dark, awesome world, and I became deeply attached to characters like Richard, Kahlan and Zedd. Wizard’s First Rule crackled with energy, and by the time I had inhaled books two and three (The Stone of Tears, Blood of the Fold), I would happily tell anyone who asked that The Sword of Truth was my favorite series. Goodkind has a knack for action, and the early books of the series were eminently readable (and re-readable, frankly). Like Brandon Sanderson, Goodkind also had a strong command of narrative climax, and the end of each novel could be depended on to be a rousing apex of excitement.

My love affair with SoT began to wane a bit around book five, Soul of the Fire. That was the first novel in the series to truly depart from Richard/Kahlan’s POV’s, and I thought the series was worse for the change, but was open to the idea that Goodkind was building up to something. It wasn’t until book six, Faith of the Fallen, that the truly radical nature of that change started to become apparent. There’s really no way to dance around what started happening in the series at that point: Goodkind began losing track of what had made the series so popular, and re-oriented the series as an increasingly obvious means of shilling for Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand (I know, that kind of came out of nowhere). That’s not to say that the series immediately went down the drain (I actually liked Faith of the Fallen quite a bit), but in hindsight, book six marked the clear transition from “fantasy epic” to “increasingly transparent morality tale.”

Even so many years after having read my last Goodkind (I did labor through the end of the series in 2011), it’s painful to reflect on how one of my favorite series went so far awry. I could see myself re-reading books one through six at one point, but I have absolutely no temptation to move beyond those. Richard’s transformation from a real person to a shallow Howard Roark knock-off was particularly hard to take. By the end of the series, I didn’t really care about any of the protagonists any longer- they had all become Objectivist assholes.

So how to sum up a such an inconsistent series? For the love which I once bore these books, I’m going to go ahead and list the series as “recommended with reservations.” The reservation, however, is that I don’t recommend reading beyond book six (unless you really enjoyed John Galt’s 100 page speech in Atlas Shrugged).

Rating: 2 – Recommend with (SIGNIFICANT) Reservations

If you liked this, you may enjoy: The Riftwar Saga, The Apprentice Adept.


The Woven Ring (Sol’s Harvest, Book 1)

By M.D. Presley

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book in return for my review. 

Thus far in this blog’s short lifespan, I’ve resisted book review invitations that came from the authors themselves, mostly because I only have a limited amount of time to read, and would prefer not to spend it reading things that are half-baked. However, I’ve made an exception for The Woven Ring, in part because the author asked nicely, and in part because the book’s Amazon page indicated that it might be worth a shot.

Described as a “fantasy re-imagining of the civil war,” The Woven Ring centers on the character of Marta Childress, one of three children to a powerful and secretive political operator (kind of a spymaster, I guess?). The novel unfolds on two parallel tracks, as the author juxtaposes Marta’s childhood (and later participation in the nation’s civil war) with her more contemporary post-war travails. The use of this narrative device is one of the strongest things about the book, as it functions as a great way of slowly filling out Marta’s backstory, while giving Presley the ability to foster tension in multiple scenarios, rather than being tied to one more linear story-line.

As we discover, Marta (and most of her family members) are among the ranks of the nation’s magic users, which manipulate the substance known as “breath” in order to utilize one of a set of magical abilities (for instance, as a “shaper,” Marta is able to manifest magical weapons and armor). These skills (and her family background) lead Marta to play an important role in the civil war, and much of the book’s suspense comes from waiting to find out exactly how “the old Marta” transforms into “the new Marta” of the modern timeline. (As an aside, the ways that people should, or should not, utilize the power of “breath” seems to be the impetus for the civil war itself.)

As self-publishing grows easier, the line between “professional” and “amateur” work is certainly blurring, which I think is generally a good thing (though it does make choosing each next read a little more challenging). The Woven Ring certainly straddles that line, and as such, there are definitely some instances where the inner editor in me said “oops, there’s something I would have changed” (a few omitted words, and other stuff that’s challenging to catch with a spell checker). While Marta’s character itself is certainly nuanced, several of the other main characters (particularly the bad guys) have a certain cardboard cut-out quality (though there is a revelation towards the end of the book that might help to explain this). I’m also still not sure what to think about Marta’s companions in the modern timeline, who will presumably have their stories fleshed out further in the series’ later books.

Overall, I found this to be a very enjoyable read, and it is certainly an impressive debut! While I wouldn’t put The Woven Ring up against Sanderson and co. just yet, it’s a promising start, and I’m eager to see where Presley takes the series (and lest I appear to be damning it with faint praise, I’d say the same thing about Sanderson’s debut, Elantris). The writing could still use some refinement, so I’m going to stick with the “recommended with reservations” rating, but I’m confident that there’s the potential here for some great stories to come.

Rating: 2 – Recommended with Reservations

If you liked this, you may enjoy: Elantris, Blood Song

The Inheritance Trilogy

By N.K. Jemisin

So I’ve taken a mini-break from fantasy/sci-fi in order to read some nonfiction (I’m currently enjoying re-reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for the umpteenth time). But never fear! I have a deep repository of past reads to draw from, so the blog shall march on.

I picked up The Inheritance Trilogy last November, after coming across it in a bookstore in Asheville, NC. At almost 1500 pages, it passed my “Sir Mix-A-Lot” test, and so ended up coming home with me. As the title would imply, the this is actually a collection of three books in one: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, and The Kingdom of the Gods. The first book introduces us to the city of Sky, the center of the kingdom, which is run by a ruling family who (I’m oversimplifying here) have managed to subjugate the gods who created the world. Our initial protagonist, Yeine, is summoned to Sky from her more rural home, where she is plunged into political machinations, as well as the internecine drama of the gods. Throughout the later books, readers are further introduced to the history which has led to the gods’ downfall, which involves a heavy dose of self-imposed punishment and penance.

I think the word that really resonates with me when I think of this trilogy is “original.” Perhaps not so much in the source material (Jemisin clearly draws on worldly religious traditions and lore), but certainly in the execution and the framing. This is indeed a work of “fantasy,” but one that doesn’t share much similarity to the epics of Jordan, Martin, etc. Instead, we’re treated to a more slow moving, character-based drama. Much of the conflict in the books arises as a result of one character’s determination to do X, even when X is going to make their life more difficult, etc. There’s a dream-like quality to much of the plot, but the story moves along at a brisk enough pace to avoid losing the reader’s interest (most of the time).

I hedge a little on the “most of the time,” because I think the trilogy does lose some steam as it progresses. The first book, IMHO, is the best: we’re still so new to the situation that each new piece of information feels important, and by showing us the city of Sky through Yeine (who is not familiar with it), Jemisin gives herself an easy method of slowly revealing the larger story to us. I still enjoyed book two quite a bit, though it seemed to get a little bogged down in the relationship between some of the primary gods (though to be fair, their relationship is kind of the crux of the story). By book three, I felt like things had slowed down considerably, and my interest definitely waned.

To recap: this is a long, dreamy fantasy trilogy that is a significant step away from more traditional fantasy world-building. The conflict tends to be emotional and interpersonal – there’s little explicit combat. Instead, Jemisin poses a whole new set of questions: what would it mean to fall in love with a god? What would it be like to be a mortal, made into a god? What about being a god, made into a mortal? How would one cope?

If those sorts of questions interest you, give this a shot. If your tastes run more towards “swords and sorcery,” you may want to give this one a pass.

Rating: 2 – Recommended with Reservations.

If you liked this, you may enjoy: Assassin’s Apprentice, The Name of the Wind.

Soulsmith AND Blackflame (Cradle, Books 2+3)

By Will Wight

I’ve noticed a strange phenomena since transitioning from reading hardcopy books to reading mostly via my Kindle, which is that:

A) I’m less apt to remember the names of the books I’m reading (presumably because I don’t look at the book cover every time I open it up), and

B) when I read multiple books in a series one after another, the books tend to merge together, whereas with hardcopy books, the delineations between books seemed much more stark.

With that in mind, I just inhaled books two and three of Will Wight’s “Cradle” series without taking much of a breath, and so it seems to make more sense to just review them together, rather than attempting to tease them apart. Reader’s of last week’s review of book one, Unsouled, will recall that the series follows Wei Shi Lindon, a young man who initially seemed handicapped by his lack of a “soul,” but who (of course) turns out to far more capable than anyone ever dreamed, the chosen one, etc. etc. It’s a hackneyed premise, but Wight’s opening novel kept my attention, and the story only improves over books two and three.

As book two opens, Lindon has left the relative safety of his ancestral community, and travels with his newfound companion and (sort of) mentor, the talented but terse sword artist Yerin. Faced with the wider world, Lindon quickly realizes how myopic his home community’s perspective is (both on the topics of “soul abilities,” and in other respects). With his new perspective comes new goals, as Lindon continually pushes to develop himself and embrace the destiny that was (partly) revealed to him in book one. Along the way, Lindon and Yerin accumulate antagonists and friends, the most memorable of whom is the mysterious Eithan, whose humor and confidence quickly endear himself to the reader.

When he’s not writing books, Will Wight is also a creator of board games, and the Cradle series owes a lot of its appeal to the notion of “character progression” codified in both board game and video game lore. Much of the series’ (if not all of it, frankly) is driven by Lindon’s quest for continuous improvement, and the most satisfying passages in the books typically revolve around Lindon “leveling up” (in video game parlance) at crucial times. If that sort of “character development” appeals to you, you’ll likely enjoy the series quite a bit. If that concept turns you off, Cradle may not be for you.

By the end of book three, the story arc continues to develop in interesting ways, and I’m eager to see what book four holds. The danger with this sort of story is that by continuing to raise the bar on what is possible (and how powerful any given individual can be), the author backs themselves into a corner, as the only way to challenge a super-humanly powerful protagonist is by introducing a villain who is somehow even more capable (but not so much that the hero can’t figure out some clever way to defeat them!). We haven’t seen that villain yet, though Wight has sketched out some possibilities that will no doubt be revealed in future books.

To sum up: the Cradle series is standard fantasy fare, with a heavy dollop of video-game like character progression mixed in. The books are quick, easy reads- perfect for a summer day at the beach, mountains, or what have you. This isn’t high literature, and Wight tends to gloss over anything that might distract from the core of the story (there are something like 6 significant characters by the end of book three). With that said, these are satisfying reads, and I’ll download book four as soon as it comes out.

Rating: 2 – Recommended with Reservations

If you like this, you may enjoy: Red Rising, Mistborn

Unsouled (Cradle, Book 1)

By Will Wight

I picked up Unsouled with a bit of trepidation, as my only other encounter with Will Wight’s writing (try saying that 3 times fast!) came via his Traveler’s Gate trilogy, which I started but didn’t finish. The Cradle series, like the Traveler’s Gate trilogy, leans heavily on that hoary old fantasy trope of a seemingly unremarkable young person, who ends up being a future ubermensch, etc. etc. As I’ve written before, I don’t mind the trope- some authors use it at a jumping off point for a compelling story, while other times the story never really transcends the trope. For me, the question becomes whether the characters develop in interesting ways, and whether the world broadens out in a satisfying way. I didn’t get that feeling from Wight’s House of Blades, though perhaps I’ll need to give it another try, because I did end up enjoying Unsouled quite a bit.

The “unsouled” in question is Wei Shi Lindon, born into a community where young people typically manifest one of four specific “soul talents,” which allow them to gain greater power, provide greater utility to their people, and to assume greater social status. Lindon, however, appears to be “unsouled,” meaning that his path to making something of himself appears to be cut off before it begins. However, as a canny reader may guess, fate intervenes (in the form of an incredibly advanced celestial being), leading Lindon to leave his village and begin his transformation into something far beyond his original dreams or expectations.

Again, as a premise, you’ve probably heard this before, and there are plenty of pitfalls for Wight to navigate. I developed a quick fondness for Lindon, but was less interested in the specifics of the four schools of talents, so was relieved that Wight didn’t spend large chunks of the book belaboring the magic system. And while this review is specific to book one of the series, in the interest of full disclosure I’ll note that I’m currently finishing up book three, and have been encouraged by how the story continues to adapt in the subsequent books.

To sum up: Unsouled is a classic fantasy bildungsroman. It’s heavy on plot, and relatively light on character development (Lindon gets good treatment, but most of the other characters end up being pretty two dimensional). It’s a relatively simple and quick read, so would make good beach reading fodder. It also has the advantage of being free on the Kindle library (if that’s your reading method of choice), and one can speed-read it with confidence knowing that books two and three are available for future consumption. High literature, this isn’t, but it’s a satisfying portion for a fantasy glutton like me.

Rating: 2- Recommended with Reservations

If you like this, you may enjoy: Red Sister, The Shadow of What Was Lost.


Ancillary Mercy (Imperial Radch, Book 3)

By Ann Leckie

In most book series, and particularly in the sci-fi/fantasy genres, the narrative universe tends to grow and expand with each new book. It’s a rare series that narrows in focus over time, and off the top of my head, I can’t recall another sci-fi “space opera” type that fits that descriptor, with the notable exception of Leckie’s Imperial Radch series, which concludes with Ancillary Mercy.

As blog readers will recall, I found the series’ initial installment, Ancillary Justice, to be a show-stopper. I loved the flashbacks to Breq’s former existence as a multi-bodied AI, and found the universe of the Radch to be both mysterious and intriguing. Like many other authors before her, however, Leckie seemed to struggle a bit with the “middle” book of the series (Ancillary Sword) which seemed a bit slow and myopic compared to book one.

Book three picks up just where book two had left off, with Breq continuing to try to maintain control of the Athoek system, and opposing the machinations of the many-bodied ruler of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai. But like book two, much of the actual narrative of the book is devoted to Breq’s relationships, both to the members of her crew, and to the inhabitants of Athoek. (I notice that one of the prominent Amazon reviews refers to the book as being more “soap opera” than “space opera,” and I’m inclined to agree.) While I’m not normally a fan of that kind of narrative (it’s part of what I didn’t love about Cherryh’s Morgaine books), I think Leckie does an admirable job of tugging on the readers’ sympathies. Even as the pace slowed in books two and three, I found myself rooting hard for Breq, even as I occasionally reminded myself that Breq was an android (sort of).

Unfortunately, while the narrowing of scope does allow for some increased attention on the characters’ emotional state, it doesn’t help with the overall arc of the story, which seems underdeveloped. As in book two, Ancillary Mercy’s conclusion seems rushed and unsatisfying, and I thought Leckie’s resolution re. Anaander Mianaai felt forced. Don’t get me wrong, this is a good book, but it suffers in comparison to book one, which is unfortunate.

Final analysis: if you’ve gotten through book two, by all means, finish the series. Though I thought books two and three represented a step down from the start of the series, I was never tempted to stop reading, and I would happily read future stories about the Radch. If you don’t mind a little “soap opera” mixed in with your “space opera,” this could be the series for you!

Rating 2- Recommended with Reservations

If you like this, you may enjoyA Fire Upon the DeepHouse of Suns.