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: 3 – Recommend with (SIGNIFICANT) Reservations

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

 

The Stormlight Archive

Update, 1/8/18: This post has been updated to include comments on books 2-3 of the series. Scroll down to find more recent updates.

By Brandon Sanderson

The Way of Kings

I’ll be totally honest: I have a bit of a man-crush on Brandon Sanderson.

I wrote about Sanderson briefly in my recap of the Wheel of Time books, as he was kind enough to step in and finish the series after Robert Jordan’s untimely death. For many writers, completing Jordan’s magnum opus would qualify as a “lifetime achievement,” but Sanderson seems intent on making it simply one more footnote in a prolific career.

Sanderson’s first novel, Elantris, was published in 2005. In the years since, he’s published approximately one bajillion novels and short-stories (that’s my professional estimate), of which I’ve read virtually word. It’s always a treat to watch an author that you like blossom, and I’ve had a front row seat for Sanderson’s development. His early works like Elantris and the Mistborn trilogy were entertaining but raw. The character development could be a little scant, and while the magic system in Mistborn was intriguing, it was set up in such a way that the “pushing” and “pulling” (these are magical terms) in each combat scenario got old fast. And while there is definitely violence and tension in Sanderson’s work, his work can trend towards the “young adult” end of the spectrum, which is often a non-started for me. There’s rarely any sex (I’m guessing this is due to him being Mormon?), and in general you can depend on the bad guys being transparently evil, and the good guys snatching victory from defeat at the last moment.

But where Sanderson shines, and I mean really, really shines, is in his plotting. It’s very clear that before he gets to work on any given novel, he’s sketched out the plot in significant detail, such that readers can count on being guided to a satisfying, climactic ending. No matter which Sanderson work you’re reading, you can be pretty confident that at around 80% of the way through the book, you will feel compelled to take a break from everything else in your life and finish reading. This includes pausing your body’s biology for as long as it takes.

Now, on to The Way of Kings. This is the first of 10 entries into the “Stormlight Archive,” and it’s clear that Sanderson’s early works were basically a trial run for this, his own magnum opus. Here, he’s marshaled all of his considerable talents, and if your taste runs anything like mine, you’ll quickly be absorbed by the stories of Kaladin the slave, Brightlord Dalinar, and the scholar Shallan. Despite being the first book in a series, the novel is satisfying in its own right, and we get the kind of adrenaline pumping denouement that Sanderson has become famous for.

It’s tough for me to offer objective criticism for this book. I’m sure there are nits that could be picked, but this is the kind of story that reduces me to being a total fanboy. I eagerly await future entries into the series.

So, to sum up: do you like fantasy? If so, read this book. Period.

You’re welcome!

Rating: 5 – Mandatory Reading

If you liked this, you may enjoy: Mistborn, The Black Prism


Below are updated comments on the later books in the series. Read on only if you’ve already read book one, or if you don’t care about spoilers.

Words of Radiance

Sanderson has done it again! Words of Radiance is a worthy successor to The Way of Kings, simultaneously delivering an installment of his compelling saga, while setting the stage for future books (all eight of them!). It’s clear that Sanderson has a long-term vision for the series, which helps me as a reader to really invest myself in the story. Much like Robert Jordan before him, Sanderson does an excellent job of slowing pulling back the curtain on the world, while leaving tantalizing hints of foreshadowing and prophecy to keep us guessing (I wonder how finishing the Wheel of Time may have affected Sanderson’s approach to writing Stormlight?).

Words of Radiance is a truly massive tome (1300 pages), but it never felt drawn out to me. Part of Sanderson’s strategy (I think) is to make sure that each significant character has some sort of internal tension or mystery to them, so that when our POV switches to a different character, there’s almost always some sort of payoff involved for the reader. As The Way of Kings focused on slowly revealing Kaladin’s backstory, Words of Radiance focuses on Shallan, who really comes into her own as a character over the course of the book.

Like all Sanderson books, the book concludes with a frenetic rush of action and reveals, which leads to appropriately awesome moments for the reader. A friend pointed out to me the other day that this type of predictably awesome ending has become known as the “Sanderson Avalanche,” and therefore I will be referring to it as such in future blog posts.

With that in mind, I’ll be leaving the series review above unchanged: this is mandatory reading.


Oathbringer

In preparation for reading Oathbringer, I went back and re-read books one and two of the series, which coupled with reading book three, made for a very satisfying month of living in Sanderson-land. I realize there’s a temptation to just re-read plot synopses of past books before jumping into new material, but with a series this good, I’d prefer to marinate myself in it for as long as possible.

With that said, I do have to admit that I didn’t think Oathbringer quite measured up to books one and two, though that’s admittedly a very high bar. I was surprised to look back and realize that Oathbringer was actually shorter that Words of Radiance, as it felt considerably longer. There comes a point in the book where I seriously thought I might be nearing the end (reading on a Kindle, and not looking at the page count), only to find that I had another two-fifths of the book left. Now, as a lover of both epic fantasy and the Stormlight Archive, I’m not going to turn down any extra content, but I did think the flow of the book was not quite as natural as that of the previous novels.

Oathbringer is also a bit of a challenge insofar as our protagonists are going through some pretty challenging times in the story, which (I think) makes it a little more difficult to zip along through the book. At almost any given time during the book, either Dalinar, Shallan or Kaladin is having a crisis of faith (or something equivalent), and despite the fact that all of their suffering seems genuinely earned, it can be difficult to not want to grab hold of them and yell things like “JUST BELIEVE IN YOURSELF AND INHALE THAT STORMLIGHT, DAMMIT!”

With all that said, have I changed my mind at all about the series itself? Not a bit. This is still the series I’m most excited about (though GRRM may have something to say about that if The Winds of Winter ever comes out). I eagerly await book four, as well as whatever side project Sanderson cooks up in the meantime…

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: 4 – 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: 4 – 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: 4 – Highly Recommended

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

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: 3 – Recommended with Reservations

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

Kings of The Wyld

By Nicholas Eames

Wow, what a pleasant surprise this was.

I found Kings of the Wyld like I find most books these days, by tooling around on Amazon and looking for authors similar to those I like. The process can be hit or miss (hence the creation of this blog!), but occasionally one does strike gold. I was initially a bit skeptical of the book’s premise, which sounded like it could get old quick.

From the site:

Clay Cooper and his band were once the best of the best, the most feared and renowned crew of mercenaries this side of the Heartwyld. 

Their glory days long past, the mercs have grown apart and grown old, fat, drunk, or a combination of the three. Then an ex-bandmate turns up at Clay’s door with a plea for help–the kind of mission that only the very brave or the very stupid would sign up for. 

Reviewers went on to explain that in this world, mercenary “bands” paralleled modern rock bands (e.g. each band has a “frontman,” they go “on tour” through the wilderness, etc.). I fully admit, I was skeptical of this premise, which brought to mind some of the really terrible 80’s fantasy that I read when my library started running out of more promising candidates.

But take it from me: this is a truly charming book, and like The Shadow of What Was Lost, it’s that much more remarkable for having been the author’s debut effort. Perhaps the highest praise that I can give the book is this: it is laugh-out-loud funny, to the point that I have trouble coming up with good comps elsewhere in the fantasy tradition. It’s not quite zany like Pratchett, though does share some similarities with his work. Maybe The Princess Bride? Readers, help me out if you have suggestions!

Here’s a typical passage, as our protagonist tries to extricate himself from an opponent’s grasp:

The stitches in Clay’s face had come open again, and his left cheek was scraped raw. He climbed groggily to his feet, trying to reconcile in his head how he’d spin this story to Tally if he lived to tell it. 

What’s that honey? What I was doing while Uncle Gabe was dueling a god with all of civilization at stake? Why, I was wrestling in the muck with an exceptionally tenacious cow.

The book is an engaging, funny work that somehow both inhabits and subverts many of the traditional fantasy tropes. I’m kind of running out of superlatives here. I understand there’s a sequel in the works, and it’s immediately shot to the top of my waiting list.

So to sum up: if you’re looking for a quick, fun, satisfying read, then this is a great choice. I eagerly await Eames’ future work.

Rating: 5 – Mandatory Reading

If you liked this, you may enjoy: The Princess Bride, Guards! Guards!