Altered Carbon

By Richard K. Morgan

I came across the Altered Carbon TV show before realizing it was a book series, so while I typically prefer to read the source material first, in this case I went the other way around. The good news is that the TV show is highly entertaining, even if it departs from the book narrative in some significant ways.

The story follows “envoy” Takeshi Kovacs, which is sort of like a super-spy, with the important twist that much of one’s training involves quickly and seamlessly adapting to a new body. In the distant future, bodies are fungible, and much of the book’s narrative involves exploring the question of how human reality would be affected if our minds and bodies could be mixed and matched at will.

The series’ initial novel (titled Altered Carbon) is set up as a futuristic murder mystery. Kovacs, who had been serving an extended prison sentence for various forms of malfeasance, is woken up in a strange place and given an offer he can’t refuse. You know the drill. As you’d expect in this kind of noir, we follow Kovacs deeper down the rabbit hole, and there are quite a few satisfying twists along the way.

Overall, I really enjoyed the series’ first entry, and will happily be picking up the sequels at some point. The TV show does a good job of nailing some of the sultry, lurid nature of the story (Kovacs spends a lot of time tearing his way through whorehouses), so this is definitely a book for an slightly more mature crowd. The story can also get complex at times, so reader beware if you prefer your mysteries simple. With all that said, I thought it was an excellent read, and recommend it to anyone who likes the darker side of sci-fi.

Rating: 4 – Mandatory Reading

If you liked this, you may enjoy: Snow Crash, Leviathan Wakes

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 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 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.

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

Red Sister

Author: Mark Lawrence

Mark Lawrence broke onto the fantasy scene in 2011 with Prince of Thorns, and has been kicking ass and taking names ever since. I read PoT with some trepidation- the book is truly dark, and from the outset it was clear that Lawrence was determined to play with our sympathies re. his nefarious main character, Prince Jorg, who is not above the occasional slaughtering of innocents.

Two trilogies later (The Broken Empire and The Red Queen’s War), any hesitation I had was gone: Lawrence’s skills continue to evolve, and he is truly becoming a master of his craft. Red Sister, his most recent novel, occupies a different universe than his earlier works (I think?), but is consistent with the dark themes and compelling action of his previous trilogies. In terms of tone, Lawrence’s work is perhaps most similar to the great George RR Martin himself, as both happily engage in subverting traditional fantasy tropes and expectations.

The book itself is set primarily in a sort of “monastery for fighting nuns,” which provides ample opportunity for the sort of school-based drama that helped to popularize the Harry Potter novels (though, you know, darker). By the end of the book, we see hints that future novels will move well beyond the walls of the monastery, but I, at least, was in no hurry to get there. Not when the first book is so good!

We’ll see where the series leads, but at this point, Lawrence has a long enough track record to receive the benefit of the doubt. I won’t give his books “mandatory reading” status, if only because they are surely too dark for some readers, but as long as one is open to that sort of thing, I can’t recommend Lawrence’s work highly enough.

Rating: 3- Highly Recommended

If you like this, you may enjoy: The Night Angel Series, The Powder Mage Series