Arcanum Unbounded: The Cosmere Collection

By Brandon Sanderson

I’ve already written about my admiration for Brandon Sanderson, who continues to produce a staggering volume of excellent writing (most recently embodied in The Stormlight Archive). I won’t belabor the point, except to reiterate that one of the really impressive things about Sanderson is the way in which he plans out his narratives, far, far in advance.

The clearest, if not yet fully realized, example of Sanderson’s foresight, is his claim that virtually all of his published works exist in the same universe (“the Cosmere”), despite occurring in seemingly disparate times and places. For most writers, creating a satisfying narrative structure for just a single book is challenge enough. Sanderson, on the other hand, aims to connect whole series, in a way that will presumably be satisfying to the devoted and attentive reader. For most, this would be a pipe dream, but I have all the faith in the world that Sanderson can pull it off.

All that brings me to Arcanum Unbounded, which is a collection of short stories set somewhere within “the Cosmere.” All of the stories are outgrowths of Sanderson’s previously published work, so readers who are familiar with Mistborn, Stormlight, etc. will find a number of familiar faces. Overall, it’s about 600 pages, so is a substantial and satisfying collection. Some of the stories are better than others (I didn’t love the Allomancer Jak one, for instance), but the overall content is quite strong.

I need to give special mention to one particular story, Mistborn: Secret History. More than anything else in the collection, this story really exemplifies the kind of long range planning that I described earlier. I first read the Mistborn series in 2010. I can’t tell you how weird it was to, in 2017, sit down and read a story about Kelsier (a pivotal series character) and have my understanding of the entire series totally changed. I was flabbergasted. This was exactly the kind of satisfying “twist” that authors are looking to produce, and Sanderson didn’t even put it in the original trilogy!? To know what kind of reveal it was going to be, and yet to delay publicizing it until 6 years after the original trilogy has been out? This is a man who not only has a plan, but who is confident and methodical about following it.

So to sum up, if you like Sanderson’s work, you should absolutely read this short story collection. If you haven’t read his stuff yet, I’d recommend starting with The Way of Kings.

Rating: 3 – Highly Recommended

The Night Angel Trilogy

By Brent Weeks

How have I not written about Brent Weeks yet? Time to rectify this oversight.

The Night Angel Trilogy is Weeks’ first published work, and though it’s by no means a perfect collection of books, it demonstrates that Weeks has a firm grasp on plot, character, and what makes a reader unable to put a book down.

The trilogy’s plot centers of Azoth, a street urchin who has bigger, and darker, aspirations. After being taken under the wing of Durzo Blint, the realm’s most accomplished Wetboy (think: assassin), Azoth’s life changes dramatically, and he too begins to train as a killer-for-hire. That’s the basic premise of book one, but this is one of those stories that really expands over time, and by the conclusion of book three, the whole scope of the story is quite different than what we began with.

These are dark books, similar in tone to Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire series, so reader beware. Then again, if you like things a little grittier, than this may be right up your alley. There are certainly some flaws, which isn’t surprising considering this represents Weeks’ first published work. Most notably, the scope and pacing of the end of the trilogy gets a little out of whack. The magic system is quite cool, but there is definitely some “power creep” that sets in, and by the end, several of our characters have grown into Nietzschean supermen-types. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it does threaten to break the readers’ immersion from time to time.

With all that said, these books go down real smooth, and I’ve happily read them twice over the last five years or so. There are some great characters, and there was never a point at which I was inclined to put the books down. This isn’t Weeks’ best work (his more recent Lightbringer series holds that crown), but it’s an excellent dark tale of magic, assassins and love. If you enjoy the darker side of fantasy, read with confidence.

Rating: 3 – Highly Recommended

If you liked this, you may enjoy: Price of Thorns, The Shadow of What Was Lost.

 

The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens That Made England

By Dan Jones

Let’s start by getting this out of the way: this is not technically a fantasy book (and it’s definitely not a sci-fi book). The Plantagenets is a history book, chronicling the era in which England was dominated by the Plantagenet family line (1154-1485). Nevertheless, I’m listing the book here, and will be filing the review under “fantasy” for ease of cataloging.

The reasons why I’m including this in the blog are that A) it’s an excellent book, and B) it basically reads like a fantasy adventure sans magic. Granted, the book does span over 300 years, but it includes a bevy of important figures and events that helped to inform ancient and modern mythologies: Richard the Lionheart, returning from the Crusades to confront his brother John (who, despite being best known as a nasty lion in the animated Robin Hood, went on to have a long and moderately successful kingship of his own); the ravages of the Black Death; The Hundred Years’ War with France; the rise and fall of Thomas Beckett; the creation of the Magna Carta; the sinking of the White Ship. The list goes on!

This was a time of incredible change and Jones does his best to give an even-handed account of the strengths and foibles of the monarchs, their families, their friends, and their foes. One of the things that I like about this extremely broad perspective is that it helps to make it clear just how arbitrary the course of history can be. It’s easy to look back and see things like the creation of the Magna Carta, or the expulsion of the English from France and think “well of course things turned out that way,” but Jones helps to show just how unexpected or unlikely these things really were.

In past reviews, I’ve commented on my preference for strong plot over strong prose, and this history of early England is basically nothing but plot. Jones’ writing is excellent, but it’s clear that his goal is to keep the story moving, and there’s not an ounce of fat on the book. I very much enjoyed it, and am looking forward to reading his subsequent book about the time period covering the War of the Roses (a time period which, incidentally, inspired significant portions of A Song of Ice and Fire).

Rating: 3 – Highly Recommended

If you liked this, you may enjoy: The War of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors, The Last Kingdom

 

His Dark Materials

By Phillip Pullman

In my most recent post, I reviewed Phillip Pullman’s new book, The Book of Dust, which returns us the the world (universe? multi-verse?) of the original trilogy, His Dark Materials. That in turn caused me to detour from my previously scheduled reading list in order to plow through the original trilogy once more (and detouring was particularly difficult, because Brandon Sanderson’s latest epic just came out!).

Consisting of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, the His Dark Materials trilogy was published between 1995 and 2000, and it is a difficult series to describe. On one hand, it definitely spills over into the “young adult” genre (Amazon pegs it as being for those “10 and up”). On the other hand, this is a series just teeming with adult themes (the innocence of children, the fall of man, original sin, a corrupt church, etc.). This is no sugar-laden lullaby of a fantasy story, but rather a thoughtful, cynical adventure that mixes religion, science and morality into potent brew. I admit I had forgotten just how “out there” the story eventually gets; how many children’s stories have you read lately that feature a knife that may or may not be able to kill God? Probably not many.

Part of Pullman’s charm is that he’s able to pull the reader along through a narrative that could easily seem clunky in another author’s hand’s. There must have been ample temptation to over-explain as he painted an increasingly complex story, but instead he’s able to use an almost minimalist style to just add enough detail to paint a vivid picture in the reader’s mind, while keeping his focus on our child protagonists, Lyra and Will. Ultimately, this is a universe (multi-verse, I guess) in which magical, unexplainable things happen, and Pullman asks us to just take that on faith (which is ironic, I guess, given the content of the story). I, for one, was happy to go along for the ride.

Ultimately, this is a trilogy that straddles the line between childhood and adulthood, both in terms of the reading level, and of the story itself. So while I don’t recommend that anyone run out and buy The Golden Compass for their ten year-old, this is a perfect series for an adventure loving teenager with a slightly cynical bent (or for an adventure loving adult with a slightly cynical bent, for that matter). Still not sold? Well did I mention that there are fighting armored bears with opposable thumbs?

If that doesn’t sell you, nothing will!

Rating: 3 – Highly Recommended

If you liked this, you may enjoy: The Book of Dust, The Witches.

 

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage (Book of Dust, Book One)

By Philip Pullman

It feels strange to be reviewing Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage immediately on the heels of Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire series, because the two works could not be more dissimilar (at least not while remaining within the fantasy genre). But after the creeping darkness of Lawrence’s work, returning to the world of The Golden Compass comes with a sweet sense of homecoming.

For those readers unfamiliar with Phillip Pullman, he broke out in 1995 with the publication of The Golden Compass (also known as “Northern Lights” in the UK). Along with its sequels The Subtle Knife (1997) and The Amber Spyglass (2000), the books composed the His Dark Materials trilogy, which were childhood favorites of mine (and, I’m sure, of many others). The original trilogy cataloged the adventures of Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon, not to mention some badass panserbjorn (armored bears!). If your only exposure to Pullman’s original trilogy was the 2007 movie version of The Golden Compass, then I beseech you to forget what you’ve seen and just give the books a try. In any case, I’ll have more to say about the original trilogy shortly, as I’m now being sucked back down that rabbit hole.

La Belle Sauvage emerged 17 years after the original trilogy concluded. It is the first book in a new trilogy, and functions as a prologue to Lyra’s tale. The book follows the young boy Malcolm Polstead, who lives with his parents at an English tavern known as The Trout, which just happens to be next door to a nunnery where Lyra (as an infant) has been squirreled away. Malcolm is a classic Pullman protagonist- young, clever (though not formally educated), earnest and spirited. He’s a hard character not to like. Early on in the book, Malcolm becomes aware of some potentially nefarious activities surrounding the nunnery, and the story follows his escalating involvement in attempting to keep Lyra safe.

Often in my blog posts, I talk about how, for me, “plot trumps prose.” But with that said, there are some authors who just have such a natural way with words that I can only gape in admiration, and Pullman is certainly one of those rare few. Rationally, I know that Pullman hasn’t been sitting at a desk slowly crafting this story for the last 17 years, but I can’t quite shake that suspicion, because his prose is just so thoughtful and polished. Perhaps it’s just that I have a soft spot for the Brits (I grew up on C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Roald Dahl, etc.), but there’s just something so refined and careful about Pullman’s use of language, like there’s never a word out of place.

Ok, back to the review. Overall, I enjoyed this book very much, even if the narrative wasn’t quite as compelling as that of The Golden Compass (if I’m being honest with myself, it’s probably just that it didn’t include those sweet, sweet armored bears). Like Pullman’s other works, this is a perfect book to curl up with by a fire and sip English tea. I very much look forward to the next two books in the series.

Rating: 3 – Highly Recommended

If you liked this, you may enjoy: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, The Witches

The Broken Empire

By Mark Lawrence

I first picked up Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns (Book one of The Broken Empire trilogy) in 2012, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure what to think. Let me start off by saying, this series is DARK. Not horror, exactly, but definitely inspired by the way in which someone like George R.R. Martin straddles the line between horror and fantasy.

The series follows “Prince Honorous Jorg Ancranth,” and so I suppose he does deserve the title of “protagonist,” but he’s the most sinister protagonist that I can recall in modern fantasy. Due to some pretty gnarly childhood trauma, Jorg has a very dour outlook on life, and his perspective is further warped by his later association with a cadre of similarly sinister highway-men types. Prince of Thorns follows Jorg’s attempt to re-claim his birthright, although a fair bit of the book simply follows him and his brotherhood as they inflict mayhem across the countryside.

The series itself is written in first-person (Jorg’s perspective), and so there is a fair bit of cognitive dissonance involved for the reader (insofar as Jorg is a bad dude who does bad stuff). There are also times when, as a reader, I found myself pulling back and saying “what, this guy is supposed to be like 15?” (spoiler: yes, yes, he is). As a reader, you need a certain amount of mental flexibility in order to make it through the book, and you may well feel a little dirty by the end.

With all that said, why should you read this series? Because it’s really, really, good! And the good news is that it only gets better after book one. Lawrence really hits his stride with book two (King of Thorns), and it doesn’t hurt that Jorg gets a little more humanized by that point, which helps to reduce some of the cognitive dissonance of identifying with his perspective in book one. Granted, the story never strays from the category of “pretty damn dark,” but at the very least, you can understand why Jorg does much of what he does in the latter two books.

So to recap: do you like fantasy that’s full of moral ambiguity (and perhaps even straight-up darkness)? Do you like “darker” works by authors like Brent Weeks and Joe Abercrombie? Then do yourself a favor and give this series a try. It doesn’t hurt that if you make it through The Broken Empire, you’ll be ready to move onto Lawrence’s next trilogy, The Red Queen’s War (spoiler, I think it’s even better than his first!).

Rating: 3 – Highly Recommended

If you liked this, you may enjoy: The Blade Itself, The Way of Shadows.

Old Man’s War

By John Scalzi

Old Man’s War was my introduction to John Scalzi’s writing, and while it may not be my favorite book of his (that would be Red Shirts), I have very fond memories of it.

The premise is a great one: at a point in the distant future, mankind is dispersing through the galaxy, and human colonists are in need of protection from various hostile alien species. Enter our protagonist John Perry, a 75 year-old Earther who celebrates his birthday by enlisting in the Colonial Defense Force (CDF). The idea here is that the CDF wants old people with experience but little to lose, who are then given new (young, strong) bodies in return for their commitment of service.

Here’s where things get a little weird (which is a Scalzi-special). You know how from time to time you may come across people saying things like “you have no idea how much hanky panky goes on in nursing homes?” And then you immediately steel yourself against that knowledge, and desperately try to forget you ever heard it in the first place? Well, permit yourself to be open to that information for just an instant, and then imagine what would happen if a bunch of those nursing home residents were given new, strong, virile bodies. Spoiler: they get freaky pretty quickly.

Anyway, this section of the book is all in good fun, and it’s sort of cathartic to read about Perry (whose wife had passed away years ago) relieving his younger days. From there, the book transitions into more of a straightforward tale of militant space exploration, with all the alien and spaceship conflict that typically entails (there are definitely hints of Heinlein here). There’s definitely more to the story (and at least one pretty incredible coincidence to help drive the plot along), but I won’t spoil the story.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book. At 332 pages, it’s a relatively quick read, and Scalzi keeps the plot moving along in a way that demands your attention. The book also spun off five sequels (though I think I petered out around book five), so if you enjoy this one, there’s plenty more Scalzi to go around. If you’re looking for a military-themed sci fi novel, you could do much worse than Old Man’s War!

Rating: 3 – Highly Recommended

If you liked this, you may enjoy: The Forever War, Red Shirts