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

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: 4 – 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: 4- Highly Recommended

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

Neuromancer

By William Gibson

Neuromancer is one of those books that modern sci-fi readers may dismiss as being “old news,” but they do so at their own peril. First published in 1984, Gibson’s novel was incredibly prescient; his description of “cyberspace” presaged much of what the world wide web would become, years ahead of its time.

Neuromancer’s influence can be seen virtually anywhere you look in the modern sci-fi scene. It popularized what would become known as the “cyberpunk” genre, and more modern works like The Matrix are direct descendants of the ideas Gibson explores. In fact, there’s a certain sense in which the very character of the modern day internet is indebted to Gibson’s vision (for more on this, check out Jack Womack’s afterword to the 2000 re-printing of the novel)!

The plot follows beleaguered hacker Henry Dorsett Case, who finds himself in difficult straits in Chiba City, Japan. In return for bailing Case out, a mysterious benefactor sets him on the path to find a piece of artificial(?) intelligence, and things get pretty crazy, pretty fast. Suffice to say, there are ninjas, samurai, a whole heap of drugs, and sojourns into cyberspace.

As a novel itself, Neuromancer is a little choppier than I’d like. It’s a challenging read at times, and wading through the characters’ slang can get tiring. Beach reading, this isn’t.

With that said, this is a cornerstone of the sci-fi genre, and I continue to be amazed that anyone could have written this book before the existence of the web. Like the subject of my next review (Snowcrash), this isn’t for everyone, but it’s certainly a worthwhile read for any one who enjoys sci-fi generally.

Rating: 3- Recommend with Reservations

If you like this, you may enjoy: Snowcrash

 

H.P. Lovecraft, The Complete Fiction

By H.P. Lovecraft

I’m a certified “big book” lover, and so when I wander through bookstores, my eye often settles on the bulkiest books around (insert Sir Mix-A-Lot reference here). On just such an outing a few years ago, I found myself drawn to a suitably large tome, which revealed itself to be The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft.

I knew Lovecraft’s name, and that it was synonymous with weirdness, but that was about the extent of my familiarity with the author. A few short hours later, I had remedied that situation, by poring over his weird and wonderful tales of woe. Lovecraft is difficult to describe- he’s very much situated in a particular place and time (or at least that’s how it feels to read his work 100 years later), and yet he’s writing about fantastic and horrific concepts that seem to transcend time. His writing is compelling, and his imagination is truly something to behold.

The enduring nature of the words, images, and, well, creatures that Lovecraft created is a testament to his skill. I mean, how many other authors dead before 1937 are the inspiration for modern board games? (I HIGHLY recommend the game, btw.) If you’re a reluctant reader of the horror genre (and I count myself firmly in that camp), I’d still suggest giving Lovecraft a try, if only because of his over-sized influence on the modern fantasy/horror landscape.

Now, one very significant caveat: Lovecraft, by any modern definition, is well… pretty racist. Even if you’re inclined to grant the guy a certain amount of slack for having lived in a different era, your eyebrows are likely to rise on occasion due to his descriptions of “mulatto’s,” etc. My personal approach is that reading an author’s work doesn’t necessarily mean accepting their premises, but I can certainly understand if some people would just prefer to skip H.P. entirely.

Rating: 3- Recommend with Reservations

If you like this, you may enjoy: Edgar Allen Poe, George R. R. Martin’s Short Fiction

The Morgaine Cycle

By C.J. Cherryh

The Morgaine Cycle began in 1979 with the publication of Gate of Ivrel, but I didn’t encounter the series until 2016, when all 4 books of the series were long since published. Reviews of the series compare it favorably to the Lord of the Rings, and I eagerly sat down to begin my copy of The Complete Morgaine.

Full disclosure: I only made it half-way through book 2 before throwing in the towel. I enjoyed book one, but ultimately found the world to be pretty bleak and unsatisfying, and that dynamic didn’t seem to be changing by book 2. To be fair, part of that is the intentional tone of the story, but it just never quite clicked for me. Much of the plot development felt jarring; characters frequently engage in activities that seem ill advised, or swear oaths that end up constraining their behavior in dramatic ways, or otherwise make decisions for reasons that are difficult for a reader to fathom. The cast of characters was also quite small, which is a pet peeve of mine when it comes to “epic fantasy.” For a world to feel truly lived in, I think it needs more than a handful of named characters.

I’m sure there are plenty of other people for whom this series would be right up their alley, but it’s just not my cup of tea. If your tastes run similar to mine, then my advice to you is: skip it.

Rating: 1- Skip It.