The Mad Queen

By T. Mountebank

I began Sister Sable (Book one of the the Mad Queen series) with high hopes. The book’s Amazon reviews frequently use the kinds of words that get me interested in a story: complex, dark, surprising, intelligent. With 75% five-star ratings, people are obviously finding something to appreciate in the story, but I’m afraid this is one instance where I’m going to need to diverge from the crowd: I put the book down about a third of the way through.

To a certain extent, my lack of appreciation for the book is probably a reflection of my preference for a neater (e.g. tighter, cleaner) story. As a reader, I’m open to some provocative confusion, but in general, I like to have a pretty solid sense of what’s going on, who’s who, and what outcomes I’m rooting for. There were plenty of interesting narrative elements in the opening of the book, and Mountebank is clearly a skilled writer, but I just didn’t find myself getting pulled into the action. My sense is that there was just too much going on, involving too many characters that I didn’t know well yet, for me to make the necessary progress to start empathizing with people. Too much, too soon.

My lack of interest in the story may also have to do with my general inclination towards magic systems that add clarity to the story rather than lessening it. On the spectrum of “fantasy as science” (e.g. Brandon Sanderson’s clearly delineated magic systems) to “fantasy as primordial magic” (e.g. Gandalf’s somewhat unknowable powers), I tend to prefer the former. If I can’t predict what Sister Sable will use her powers to do next, that’s not necessarily a good thing from a story-telling viewpoint. Chaotic, unpredictable magic abilities can certainly shake the story up, but I don’t think they mesh well with a story that itself is already rather chaotic and complicated.

Rating 1 – Skip it.

 

The Traitor Son Cycle

Update, 6/21/18: This post has been updated to include comments on book 5 of the series. Scroll down to find more recent updates.

By Miles Cameron

The Red Knight

I’ve been trying my hand at writing some fiction of my own recently, which means that as I’ve been reading other peoples’ books, I’ve found myself frequently switching back and forth between the perspective of someone who is invested in the story itself, versus being a more analytical observer (thinking about the structure of the book, the author’s intentions, etc.).

All that is to say, while reading Miles Cameron’s “The Red Knight,” I spent most of my “analytical” brain power thinking constructive thoughts like “I am sooo jealous of this guy’s writing.” Then I’d lose myself in the story for a bit, and emerge a few hours later going “wow, he’s so much better at this than I am.” So I guess, thanks, Mr. Cameron?

Seriously, though, I was really taken with this book, and I’m absolutely elated that there are four more books in the series already published. The story itself occurs amidst sort of a parallel universe version of medieval Britain around the 1300’s. Very early in the book, it becomes clear that the author is very familiar with the intricacies of things like period-specific arms, armor, horses, etc. By the time I reached the “about the author” at the end of the book, I wasn’t at all surprised to find that Mr. Cameron (real name Christian Cameron) also writes historical fiction and has extensive experience with military re-enactment.

As discussed in this excellent episode of Writing Excuses, the danger in having done that much research is that you are tempted to use all that knowledge in your book, which can be overwhelming to readers (ultimately the book needs to be about characters, not saddles). With that said, while the book is certainly on the “historical fiction” end of the genre spectrum, I loved the detail. More importantly, I also loved the plot. It certainly isn’t easy reading, but if you enjoy the more sprawling,  darker, epic fantasy plots like The Wheel of Time, Malazan Book of The Fallen, and The Broken Empire, then you’ll likely love this series. I do note, however, that some people in the Amazon reviews did end up holding the high level of detail against the author.

The story itself focuses on the titular Red Knight, and his quest to hold a keep against the encroaching magical forces of the Wild. Like all the best stories, the nuances of the plot go much deeper than that, and I have no doubt that by the time I’ve read the latter books of the series, my understanding of what happened in book one will be different still.  It’s a dark tale (though not without humor), set against a background of war, magic and violence.

One downside I do want to mention: on the Kindle version of the book I read, there were quite a few typos. If you’re a stickler like me, that will no doubt break your immersion, which is a bummer. With that said, it certainly didn’t deter me from gobbling this one up, and I’ve already started inhaling book two.

Rating: 4 – Mandatory Reading (despite some typos in the Kindle version)

If you liked this, you may enjoy: The Wheel of Time, The Last Kingdom.


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.

The Fell Sword

Having just finished The Fell Sword, and begun The Dread Wyrm (book 3), I’m conflicted about how to review the series. In general, I thought The Fell Sword was a slight step down from The Red Knight. I’d argue Cameron moved a little too fast to open up his world (which was already brimming with details and characters), and the book suffered for it, particularly in the early-to-mid section. There’s an art to incorporating multiple POV’s into a book, and Cameron is quite good at it, but juggling a dozen POV’s is still a heavy lift for anyone. George RR Martin is probably the best in the business at it, but even he seems to have lost control of his narrative over time, so the struggle is real.

With that said, there is real payoff here for readers willing to stick with it through the rough patches, and it took me about 5 nanoseconds after finishing book 2 to pick up book 3. Like the initial book of the series, The Fell Sword is prototypical medieval, epic war fantasy.  Cameron is clearly an expert in the details of arms, armor, and era-specific content, and if that level of detail occasionally slows the story down, it also adds a richness to his novels that I appreciate and envy.

I do need to mention that the Kindle version of this book, like book one, needs some additional editing. Sometimes character’s names are randomly spelled wrong, and there are other similar errors that threaten to pull the reader out of the story.

When it’s all said and done, I’m going to retain the “mandatory reading” rating for now, even though I’m sure the series would appeal to a smaller slice of fantasy fans than a more refined and accessible series (see: Stormlight Archive). I’m vacuuming this stuff up, and so I’d like to make sure other people have the opportunity to hear about it as well.


The Dread Wyrm

My apologies for the lack of substantive blog updates- please blame Miles Cameron!

I’m still chugging along with the Traitor Son Cycle, and book 3 was more of the same (which is a good thing!). I do note that I’m seeing fewer typos lately, so it could be a reflection of him having more editing help later in the series.

I won’t add much more at the moment, other than to say that my rating for the series is unchanged: Mandatory Reading!


The Plague of Swords

The Fall of Dragons

That’s it, I’m done! It’s been a few months and about 3,000 pages, but I’ve wrapped up Miles Cameron’s epic, medieval fantasy series. It’s by no means a perfect series (is there one?), but it kept my interest throughout, and I’d welcome another journey into the land of the Red Knight. If you enjoy fantasy with a medieval, historical bent, then I highly recommend The Traitor Son Cycle.

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 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.

Sol’s Harvest

By M.D. Presley

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

This review includes information from book one of this series.

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 Books of the South (Chronicles of the Black Company, Series Book 2)

By Glen Cook

I reviewed the first “Black Company” omnibus back on June 13, and *spoiler alert* I loved it. This is a dark, gritty series in which there aren’t always clear lines between hero and villain, and I’ve lapped it up. The series’ first book was published in 1984, so while I’m tempted to compare the book’s grittiness and real politik to the more popular A Song of Ice and Fire, the truth is that Cook’s opus predates GRRM’s (A Game of Thrones was published in 1996).

It’s very difficult to review the series’ second omnibus, The Books of the South, without offering major spoilers. Cook shares GRRM’s propensity for killing off heroes and villains alike, so even knowing what characters remain by the outset of the second omnibus would reveal key plot points about the earlier books. With that in mind, I’m going to opt to just provide some general thoughts, rather than risk any unintentional reveals.

Sticking with the general remarks: Cook’s short, choppy prose has an old-school feel to it, but part of what I find remarkable about these books is that they seem so timeless. If someone had introduced me to the books, and told me they had just been published, I would have had no reason to think otherwise. Some of that dynamic is no doubt due to the centrality of war in the narrative (after all, in the immortal words of Fallout 4 “War, war never changes”). Cook himself served in the US Navy, and his writings are imbued with the kind of weariness and fatalism that I imagine must come naturally to those who have worn the uniform.

People reading this review will presumably fall into two camps: either you have, or you have not, read the previous collection of stories. If you haven’t, I’ll repeat my exhortations from the prior review: if you like war stories, the dark and dour, and shades of grey in the moral spectrum, then I can’t recommend these books highly enough. If you prefer stories in which the good guys can be counted on to survive and prosper, these are not the books for you. Proceed accordingly.

Assuming you read the first omnibus and enjoy it, embark upon the second with confidence. It takes a little while to get going, and there are definitely some parts that ring hollow (I didn’t care for the use of the narrator for the second book, in particular, and the third book seems out of place), but overall, I was more than willing to go along for the ride.

Rating: 3 – Highly Recommended

If you liked this, you may enjoy: The Broken Empire, The Thousand Names.

Chronicles of the Black Company

By Glen Cook

Ok, first, an admission: I’m not quite finished with Cook’s Chronicles of the Black Company, so I reserve the right to edit this review if the final chapters turn out to be absolute dreck. (Editor’s note: they didn’t.)

With that said, I’m pretty confident that won’t happen, because I’ve LOVED these books so far. Cook’s work first came onto my radar a few years ago, as I was looking for some “dark and gritty” fantasy. I ended up opting for Joe Abercrombie’s series The First Law instead. It did indeed satisfy my dark urge, but I ultimately found Abercrombie’s work a little dispiriting- I love a good anti-hero, but when entire books are made up of them, it can become a bit of a slog (full review of The First Law, forthcoming).

Despite writing in the same sub-genre, Cook’s work never left me with quite the same feeling. Sure, the members of the Black Company aren’t angels, but they demonstrate camaraderie towards each other, and when they do commit foul acts, it’s typically under duress. I think the story is well-served by being grounded in the generally morally acceptable character of Croaker, the Black Company’s physician and our protagonist. It also benefits from Cook’s magnificent vision of “The Lady” and her “Ten Who Were Taken,” whose dastardly desires keep the plot progressing in satisfying fashion.

In terms of writing, Cook’s style tends towards the short and choppy. He’s not prone to over-description, and tends to get straight to the dialogue/action, which I appreciate (as detailed in the “About Me” section, I’ll take plot over prose any time). With that said, if you’re looking for fantasy with a more “literary” feel, there are plenty of more appropriate options out there (for instance, The Name of the Wind, or The Dragonbone Chair).

However, if you’re into grittier, war-based fantasy, then I can’t recommend these books highly enough. They may not be for everyone, but Croaker and his merry band will stick in my memory for a long time to come.

Rating: 3- Highly Recommended

If you like this, you may enjoy: The First Law, The Broken Empire