Friday, March 17, 2017

Review: Magician: Apprentice

Magician: Apprentice Magician: Apprentice by Raymond E. Feist
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Truly a landmark fantasy book for me, as well as a phenomenal series. I remember distinctly all those years ago, when I was first hired at Borders Books. I was assigned the Fantasy/Sci-Fi section to shelf and maintain as a new bookseller. I had read zero fantasy books up to that point, my genre of preference at the time being horror. It was during my second day of work that I begin to really examine the covers and back cover synopses to see what this fantasy stuff was all about. One of the first that I pulled off the shelf was Magician: Apprentice by Raymond E. Feist. Well, the cover was pretty cool I thought and upon reading the summary it seemed like a fun, uncomplicated read. I figured if I was going to be shelving this peculiar genre, I may as well pick up a book or two and take them home to read. I ultimately chose Feist's first book of the Riftwar saga as my initiation into reading fantasy. It wasn't long before I was pulled into this amazing book and pretty soon I was missing dinner, ignoring phone calls, blowing off my friends, and doing just about everything I could to steal as much time as possible so that I could get back to reading it.

Magician: Apprentice tells the story of a young orphaned boy named Pug who lives in the small town of Crydee in the world of Midkemia. Pug is apprenticed to a master magician, having no family to speak of and no skills involving anything other than the use of his brain not brawn. Very early on in the story, a rift from another world is opened into Crydee using powerful sorcery. From this rift, a strange and foreign invading army begins to pour through. It is incumbent on the leaders of Crydee to inform Midkemia's king that they are under attack and to use any means both militarily and magical to throw back the invaders. The question looming through the first half of the book is what are the origins of these invaders, and from what world did they come from? Also, for what purpose would they wish to open a rift to a relatively peaceful world? The story shifts back and forth from Midkemias's leaders in their attempt to figure out how to deal with the invaders and Pug who now finds his training accelerated in an effort to use his growing skills to find a magical way to combat this new foe. We gradually learn that the invaders are from a world called Kelewan, which is ruled by a race known as the Tsurani. Not content to simply extend their empire to their own world, the Tsurani have found a way to open up rifts in time and space with the hopes of also conquering other worlds. Unfortunately for the population of Midkemia, they were first on the list to conquer. The overarching question is can Midkemia fend off the wave after wave of Tsurani and reclaim their world or will they fall to the Tsurani and be enslaved forever?

I absolutely loved Magician: Apprentice when I first read it about twenty years ago. I love it just as much, if not more now upon rereading it. For me, it is what sparked my interest in fantasy and more specifically, portal fantasy. Magician: Apprentice is probably the reason why portal fantasy will always be my favorite sub-genre. I've read a ton of portal fantasy since this one, few having reached the level of pure genius as the Riftwar Saga. I keep waiting for something to top it, but nothing ever does. About the closest I've come is Barabara Hambly's Darwath series. If you're into fantasy of any kind, you owe it to yourself to read this series. It stands out in so many ways as the right way to write fantasy. The characters are interesting, quirky, and very relatable. I can't recommend it enough really. Don't be dissuaded by people who say that Feist's work is fairly mediocre and that his writing isn't very good. As someone who has read pretty much every Feist book, I agree that his books get progressively lower in quality after Riftwar. But the truth of the matter is he hits a grand slam in the bottom of the 12th inning to win the World Series with the Riftwar Saga. The whole series is worth reading and savoring. In fact, If people who have never read fantasy before in their lives asked me to recommend to them three series to read to get into the genre, this would always be one of them. Truly a magnificent work and will always be one of my favorites. If you are planning on reading them for the first time, I am jealous. All I can say is enjoy the ride, it will be well worth it in the end.

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Thursday, March 16, 2017

Review: Prince of Thorns

Prince of Thorns Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Let me begin by saying that I am fully aware that this book and series are widely-regarded as one of the top works of fantasy to come out in many years. The praise that is heaped upon this series is maybe only eclipsed by the praise for the works of Patrick Rothfuss and Steven Erikson. That being said, once again I seem to be out of step with the conventional thinking of the day. My qualms with this book are not with Mark Lawrence's writing either. I thought that the prose was excellent at times and the story for the most part was an interesting one. It begins promisingly enough: A nine year-old prince named Jorg, while travelling through his father's protectorate with his mother and younger brother, are set upon by a neighboring baron's men at arms. Jorg watches as his mother and brother are brutally slain at the hands of these men. He is discovered later by his father's retinue entangled in a nearby thorn bush and brought back to the castle to be nursed back to health. It is this event that largely shapes the person that Jorg will become and hardens him into an emotionless and uncaring youth bent on revenge at any cost.

Here's where it all fell apart for me. A year after the horrible murder of his mother and brother, Jorg breaks a gang of cutthroats out of his father's dungeon and runs away with them to become a part of their group. Shortly thereafter, he evolves into the de facto leader of this group of rogues and begins to fashion them as his tool for getting his ultimate revenge. I just had a difficult time believing that these men would all readily fall in line and follow a thirteen year-old boy. That is one of the things that was unrealistic to me and that just I couldn't put aside. I also cringed at the way they would all too easily listen to everything Jorg would say and seemed to give him unwavering respect and loyalty, as well as a hint of fear. Yes, I said fear. They feared a 13 year-old who most of them outweighed by at least 200 pounds. More realistically, one of these men who outweighed him by 200 pounds would have probably slit his throat from ear to ear or at the very least, smacked him on the back of the head with a "get out of here kid, ya botherin' me!" I thought that a better approach would have been to make Jorg a little older, so that the believably of his command over these men would have been easier to swallow. Another thing that annoyed me was the way Jorg always had an answer for everything and no matter the odds, he seemed to be a genius. What, the road is completely flooded? No problem, Jorg has the answer. What, we've walked into an ambush and are outnumbered 50 to 8? No problem, Jorg miraculously finds a way out of it, while not even dirtying his sword! I don't know, everything just always seemed to work out too perfectly for our hero, or in Jorg's case, anti-hero. The one bright spot for me, and the only reason why I would continue to read this series, was the mystery of the builders. It is obvious that the world that Jorg inhabits is one that is a future world born from the ashes a cataclysmic and apocalyptic occurrence. We are treated to some clues as to what happened in that long ago age and Jorg also discovers some artifacts along the way that shed some light on the events that took place. I'm a sucker for stuff like this, so that part really worked for me. That and the fact that as I said Lawrence is a very talented writer, pushed this up to three stars. But ultimately it turned out to be an average read for me based on the things that I mentioned earlier in my review. Maybe it gets better in book two. I'm going to take some time to digest this one before I decide whether I will continue with the adventures of Jorg Ancrath and his band of not-so-merry men.

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Monday, March 6, 2017

Review: The House on the Borderland and Other Novels

The House on the Borderland and Other Novels The House on the Borderland and Other Novels by William Hope Hodgson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

House on the Borderland by William Hope Hogson was actually recommended to me by the author Brian Keene. Forgive me for name-dropping but we got into a conversation on his blog not too long ago and Brian told me that this was the book that ultimately got him interested in wanting to be a horror writer. With a recommendation like that, how could I not read it right? The thing about this book that you also need to know going in is that it was written over 100 years ago (1908 to be specific). So the writing is very archaic and "old-english" if you will. This takes a bit of getting used to when you first immerse yourself in the story, but I found that like with the middle-earth books, once you familiarize yourself with the writing style and language, you do get acclimated to it fairly quickly. And now to the plot of the story. House on the Borderland takes place on a fishing holiday in rural Ireland. Two friends named Tonnison and Berreggnog (yes, that's really his name) embark on what they believe will be a relaxing stay in the Irish countryside spent fishing and enjoying the outdoors. However, this brief vacation is soon turned on its head as the friends stumble across the ruins of an old house in the middle of the dense woods. One of the friends is extremely reluctant to explore the house further; however, the other friend becomes obsessed with finding out who lived there and what secrets it might possibly contain. Upon further investigation of the strange dilapidated house, a diary is discovered written by what appears to be the original inhabitant, a person who identifies himself as "The Recluse". This is where the story really begins to become a Lovecraftian and twisted horror tale as the contents of the diary begin to get read. The diary written by The Recluse begins innocently enough, with the daily recording of his life, how he acquired the strange house, and musings about his sister and dog, who also reside there with him. Gradually though, The Recluse starts to record strange visions, possibly hallucinations, where he travels into what can only be described as another dimension. In this other dimension, strange beasts with pig-like faces act as though they can see him, but cannot communicate in any way. This goes on for pages and pages and with each diary entry, the visions become weirder and more aggressive in nature. Couple this with the fact that in this vision is a house that looks identical to the one that The Recluse has just moved into and you have a truly Gothic horror tale that you want to keep reading until the end to find out what the heck is going on. All I can say about this book is that it really surprised me in a good way. I thought that the fact that it was written such a long time ago would render it high on the cheese factor. That couldn't be further from the truth. I can see now why Brian Keene cited this as his inspiration because it truly is a masterwork of horror. Its brilliance also lies in the fact that it doesn't rely on gore to deliver the scares, but rather uses highly supernatural and some might even say science-fiction themes. I really loved this book and highly recommend it to anyone who loves horror, Lovecraft, and supernatural tales of all types. The book isn't very long either - weighing in at just under 200 pages, so it is a quick read. Pick it up and read it, you won't be disappointed.

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Thursday, March 2, 2017

Review: Journey To The Black City

Journey To The Black City Journey To The Black City by Keith R. Mueller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On a far-future earth, the population of the world has been divided into various free tribes and city-states in and around the area of what would now be considered the Pacific Northwest and California. Those who inhabit these areas are the survivors of a great cataclysm which occurred two thousand years earlier when huge glaciers began encroaching and grinding on the northern continents. This encroachment sent those in its path searching for habitable regions where they could survive and not be subject to freezing temperatures and starvation. Another result of this glacial advancement southward was a catastrophic war which broke out between the great nation across the western sea called The Unified Tribes of the Black Cross and that of North America called The Unified Tribes of the White Star. The warriors of the nation from across the sea brought with them more than warfare however, and a violent strain of influenza quickly broke out, eradicating almost the entire population of the world. Two thousand years later, the few who survived that hideous time have repopulated the west coast of America, living in vast city-states, megalopolises, and the surrounding wilderness. Not only do the free tribes have to contend with other aggressive warrior clans, but they are also living in the midst of such deadly predators as saber toothed cats, mammoths, and dire wolves. It is almost as if a new ice age has imposed itself over the world again. Located in the southern part of what once was the nation state of California, is the one remaining semblance of civilization called the Black City. At one time the great city of Los Angeles, The Black City has now been thrown back into gaslight technology where zeppelins are the preferred mode of mass-transportation and steam power rules. The long ago buildings are crumbling and a mysterious cathedral sits at the heart of this decrepit megalopolis. When the shadowy priesthood which inhabits the cathedral begins to kidnap the magical shaman of many of the free tribes located in the surrounding wilderness, they begin to hint at a sinister plan which may ultimately lead to another colossal battle between good and evil. To uncover the secretive motivations of the priesthood and hopefully rescue their captured shaman, Kel and Lyria, two members of a prominent tribe, embark on a clandestine journey to penetrate the cathedral and put a stop to a potential reoccurrence of the great war that devastated humanity two millennia before.
Thus begins the post-apocalyptic fantasy Journey to the Black City. Author Keith Mueller is a student of metaphysical studies, shamanism, as well as ancient religions. After reading his first full-length novel I have to say that it definitely shows. His knowledge in these areas comes through so vividly in his writing. I enjoyed the idea of a future civilization having been devastated by an ancient cataclysm and the mystery surrounding that. The strong parts of the book for me were the inherent mystery and the magic system. I thought that the author did a good job of creating a magic system that involved the use of dream-walking. I’m assuming that his interest in shamanism had a lot to do with this and it worked extremely well for me. Each character being able to project their magic through a different animal was reminiscent of the patronus in Harry Potter, but Mueller handled them slightly differently, so that wasn’t really an issue for me. The bishops and priests living in the Black City were well done and sufficiently evil, if not in some cases a bit too evil. If I could compare the feel of this book to another series, I would say that it bears a thematic resemblance to David Weber’s Safehold series (which I am a huge fan of). The idea of a shadowy priesthood trying to subjugate the populace is very similar to Weber’s work. I was very impressed by Mueller’s ability to keep the mystery going throughout the entire book. Many authors either reveal things too quickly, or the mystery is much too predictable. Make no mistake, the mystery of the different factions of The Unified Tribes of the White Star and the Unified Tribes of the Black Cross are the center of the story. As a reader, I couldn’t help but get caught up in exactly what took place between those warring nations thousands of years ago and what the ramifications would be for the people living in the present. If I have one criticism, I would say that I thought there wasn’t enough emphasis put on describing the Black City itself. There were times when the author started to reveal and describe certain parts of the city in detail, but then quickly diverted into another viewpoint character’s story. I also found the romantic relationship between Kel and Lyria to be a little lacking in believability. Seeing as how they were the two main characters of the story, I thought more time should have been devoted to making their relationship more front and center. I really wasn’t as invested in them as I could have been which made me not especially care when they were put in a dangerous situation. Despite that, I enjoyed Journey to the Black City a good deal. It is definitely a fun read and I found myself turning the pages quickly. I wouldn’t put it on the level of the really great post-apocalyptic books in the genre, but I also wouldn’t say that it isn’t worth picking up and reading. I look forward to reading more books by Keith Mueller. If Journey to the Black City is any indication, I think that he has some room to grow and should create some really high-quality books in the future.

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Review: Very Important Corpses

Very Important Corpses Very Important Corpses by Simon R. Green
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are times when I just want to read something that is not too complicated or involved. I found myself in that situation after reading and reviewing a few heavy books recently. With that in mind, I took to NetGalley to find a title that had the potential to be fun, light, and just pure escapism without my having to remember 50 characters’ names and houses. I stumbled across Very Important Corpses by Simon R. Green because of the cover mostly. Yes, they say never judge a book by its cover, but this one drew me in for some reason and made me want to read the synopsis. Simon R. Green is traditionally a fantasy/sci-fi author and I had heard of his work before but had never read anything by him. Quickly skimming the synopsis of the book, I saw that it was a supernatural mystery of sorts that took place in Scotland and also involved Loch Ness. I’m a sucker for anything to do with the Loch Ness monster so Mr. Green, you had me at Nessie! I guess you could say there is a degree of ridiculousness to that but there’s a part of me that really enjoys ridiculousness and I won’t apologize for it. In short, if I was looking for something that was solely pure escapism, this passed the test for me as far as the premise went anyway.
As soon as I received the advance reading copy from the publisher, I eagerly immersed myself in the story. Essentially the story is a mystery, but there are so many supernatural aspects to it that it can also be considered a dark fantasy or even horror to a certain degree. Ishmael Jones is an agent who works for a shadowy black ops organization known strangely enough as “The Organization”. Oh, and that’s not all. Did I tell you that Ishmael is an alien? Yes you heard me correctly; he’s an alien and the only survivor of his alien starship crash-landing in southwest England in the year 1963. Did I mention something about being attracted to ridiculousness earlier? But as I said, this is exactly what I was in the mood for and so I kept on reading. As I turned the pages, the story began to take shape and I settled in for what quickly become a very entertaining yarn. Ishmael is charged by his boss, known only as The Colonel, with investigating the murder of one of the Organization’s operatives. The operative was found dead in her room at the historic Coronach House on the shores of Loch Ness while performing security duties protecting the Baphamet Group. The Baphamet Group is a collection of the 12 most influential people in the world who meet annually in such secrecy that their names are only known by the months of the year. The most senior member being December, next senior being November, and so on. What is discussed at these meetings is unknown, but it has been surmised that the Baphamet Group controls and influences the world economy as well as the governments of many countries. Not only has an operative of The Organization been murdered, but it is also revealed that one of the members of the Baphamet Group may have also been taken out and replaced with an imposter for some devious reason. Ishmael embarks on his mission to Coronach House with his partner Penny to attempt to hopefully uncover the dual dead-body mystery. As soon as he arrives; however, it is obvious that not only do the staff at Coronach House not want him there, but the Baphamet Group as well. Good thing that Ishmael doesn’t take no for an answer. Think of Ishmael as Harry Dresden with more cockiness and you’ve pretty much encapsulated his personality. It becomes clear very early on in the book that someone is hiding an extremely important secret from Ishmael and that the murdered operative may have stumbled across a revelation that necessitated her being eliminated before she could speak to anyone about it. The question is, was it a member of the Baphamet Group or one of the many staff members at Coronach House? Couple all of this with a side-story about the Loch Ness Monster and a few other local monster legends, and you’ve got a multidimensional supernatural mystery that delivers on a number of levels.
I really liked Very Important Corpses. It kept me thoroughly entertained for a few nights before bed and I would classify this book as a perfect night time read. It was exactly the kind of book that I wanted to read to scratch my particular itch, so to speak. At just over 200 pages, it was also a relatively quick read. That’s not to say I liked everything about it. I did have some minor quibbles. For one, I thought the main character Ishmael Jones tended to be a bit over-the-top at times. I got a little weary of him constantly getting what he wanted too easily and bullying everybody into submission. I understand that this was probably by design, but it still grated on me after a while. Also, the characters weren’t fleshed out that much which I thought made them a bit two dimensional at times. That being said, neither of these things made me want to put the book down and I was able to set it aside as I approached the final reveal. And what a reveal it was! In the end, I was left very satisfied and this will definitely not be the last Simon R. Green book that I read. I am interested to check out some of his other works because I really do enjoy the way he delivers a story. Bottom line: I recommend Very Important Corpses if you are looking for a fun, scary, and entertaining read before bedtime.

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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Review: Gilded Cage

Gilded Cage (Dark Gifts, #1)Gilded Cage by Vic James
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

England is no longer the England that we are all familiar with. In this alternate England, everyone is by no means equal and all are not citizens with full rights. It is an England now ruled by a select few aristocratic families or “Equals” touched with a special magic called the skill. This magic can burn entire buildings to the ground, influence people’s thought and actions, and in some cases even kill. Those who wish to become citizens with full rights must serve the Equals as indentured servants or even worse, be shipped to a factory slave town called Millmoor. There they will serve as slaves for a full decade of their lives under horrendous living conditions and harsh supervision. The most prominent of these Equals are the Jardines. Their family was the first to impose the Slavedays Compact upon the citizenry hundreds of years prior. Consequently, they now hold a place of great prominence, prestige, and influence in the council government. Yet there are secrets buried within the musty library inside the Jardine estate which if uncovered, could change the course of England’s future and may potentially reveal the secrets behind what led to the heinous compact that now keeps all commoners under the boot of tyranny and oppression. There are those; however, who want the Slavedays to end and are working behind the scenes to force a vote within the council eliminating the barbaric compact forever. They, along with a small rebellious faction who have risen up within the factory slave town of Millmoor to fight for their freedom, may ultimately be the key to ending the scourge of the Equals once and for all.
Vic James is a new writer who has emerged on the scene with great fanfare. Ms. James completed her doctorate in the Vatican Secret Archives, which I found incredibly interesting. Gilded Cage is her first book, which makes what she has accomplished here all the more impressive. I have wanted to read and review Gilded Cage for quite some time as I kept hearing the comparisons to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I’m a huge fan of the Victorian-era magic theme and so I went on a quest to track down an ARC (the release date for Gilded Cage is scheduled for February of 2017) so that I could see for myself what the buzz was about. After reading Gilded Cage, I will say that the comparisons to Clarke are only valid when it comes to the splendid quality of the writing. For when I actually immersed myself in the story, it bore little resemblance to that 19th century time period and plot. The crux of the story of Gilded Cage takes place in a modern day England, albeit a significantly alternate modern day England. Yes, the feel of the writing and specific settings do strike one as Victorian in nature, but that is part of the brilliance of the book. You can’t really pin down a specific time, and so the reader is left to appreciate the story instead of focusing on when in history this is occurring. It lends a uniqueness and freshness to the story as well as a very good mystery. The aspect that really made this book work for me was that I was constantly kept guessing and wondering what was truly going on throughout the entire book. I knew there was something that the author wasn’t revealing and Ms. James would give a snippet here, and a clue there, which I thought worked beautifully. The archaic practice of the Slavedays is a brutal but intriguing premise and ultimately I wanted to find out how that came about and to what ends was this practice initiated. Ms. James writes with the skill of someone who has been an author for decades. I was blown away by how beautiful the prose was and that just lent more effectiveness to the story for me. I haven’t read a book like Gilded Cage in a long time. It disturbed me at times, moved me to moments of joy, made me angry, and also created a sense of wonder in my mind that only a skilled author can deliver.
In the end I was left emotionally spent and wanting another book to read immediately so that I can find out more about this amazing world that Vic James has envisioned. Extremely impressed is all I can really say. I recommend this to everyone regardless of what genre is your favorite. Even though it would be classified as Dystopian, the story is so well-written and compelling that any reader can appreciate and enjoy it. The good news is that Gilded Cage is just the first book of a planned multi-book series called The Dark Gifts. So there’s a lot more coming and I for one am happy to hear that. I really can’t wait to see where Vic James takes this series next. She’s an incredibly gifted author who should be making huge literary waves for years to come.

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Review: Children of the Different

Children of the Different Children of the Different by S.C. Flynn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So many Young Adult fantasy novels talk down to their audience. It is part of the reason why I don’t read much of it frankly. While I understand that I am not the target readership for these books, at the same time it is pretty easy to see when a writer feels the need to soft-pedal the content of the story because they believe that teenagers can’t handle a bit of edginess here and there. Saying all of that, I was hearing a considerable amount of chatter surrounding S.C. Flynn’s Children of the Different. I kept reading complimentary things about the book from people whose opinions I value and respect immensely. So when I was given an advance reading copy, I was extremely eager to check it out. Knowing that it was also a post-apocalyptic story taking place on the continent of Australia didn’t hurt matters either since one of my favorite post-apocalyptic series ever, Greatwinter by Sean McMullen, includes both of those elements as well. I was very intrigued and began devouring chapters not too long after getting a copy of the book in my hands.
Children of the Different opens in the wilds of Southwestern Australia and takes place nineteen years after a brain disease called The Great Madness has decimated the population of the world. The mystery of the disease and what caused it is not fleshed out at the outset of the story. I actually thought this was an effective approach by the author as it made me continually turn the pages hoping it would be revealed at some point. As a result of The Great Madness, the survivors have become scattered into settlements just outside the great city of Perth. Newly born children of these survivors upon reaching adolescence, now go through a trance-like state known as Changeland where they will emerge either with special mental powers or as crazed murdering ferals who are no better than the predatory animals that wander the surrounding countryside. There is no way to tell exactly when the Changeland transition will happen and also no way of knowing how each child will come through the ordeal. For that reason, all those who exit Changeland and gradually awaken from their comatose condition must be monitored closely for any sign of potential feral behavior. When thirteen year-old Arika enters Changeland and doesn’t return right away, her twin brother Narrah becomes concerned and somehow finds a way to follow her. Narrah soon discovers Arika as she is being pursued by an evil monster called the Anteater. They are both eventually able to escape and Arika awakens in her bed at home in the settlement not knowing how she has been affected. Will she soon become a cannibalistic beast or will she be granted the power to do great things with her mind? Arika finds out from her mother that Narrah has gone on an excursion to the city with their father to destroy one of the towers that the city people use to communicate across long distances. When he doesn’t return from the excursion, she is told that he was taken prisoner and brought to the city. She knows that she must try to find him at all costs but is still coming to terms with what happened to her in Changeland. It is at the point where she tries to escape her confinement in the settlement and go find Narrah that she begins to realize that her journey through Changeland has left her with the ability to shapeshift. Can she somehow use her newly acquired powers in some way to help save her brother? Or is he like so many taken by the city people, dead to the people of the settlement? There’s also still the possibility that she may become a feral and be cast out by her family. All of these uncertainties surround Arika as she undertakes a most dangerous rescue mission – to the Northwest coast of Australia and an abandoned military base where ferals stalk the shadows looking for innocent blood.
What a fun ride this book was. There were so many elements that I enjoyed that it is difficult to list them all. The one thing that I most admired is the fact that S.C. Flynn did not take his foot off the pedal the entire time. For large parts of the story I forgot that I was reading a YA book. He definitely does not sugarcoat the story to suit younger readers. Another aspect that I enjoyed was the uncertainty surrounding the people who lived in the city and how they were changed, if at all, by The Great Madness. These were truly villains who had a lot of depth to them and also a great sense of mystery. S.C. does a wonderful job of not revealing too much, yet giving you just enough to make you want to turn the pages rapidly. Children of the Different is not a long book either, and I found it a quick read that still left me wanting more at the end. I really hope that he is not done with this world and story because I would like to see a whole lot more. All in all I truly enjoyed Children of the Different and would recommend it to those who appreciate an author the likes of a Garth Nix, as it has some of the feel that Garth injects into his stories. I would also recommend it to anyone who enjoys post-apocalyptic fiction with a dash of science fiction. There are significant amounts of both that give the story a wider appeal than it otherwise would have. Give it a go, you won’t be disappointed.

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Review: The Bear and the Nightingale

The Bear and the Nightingale The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So many fantasy books these days follow the same formulaic themes, plot, and character tropes that it is easy to get cynical when a new book comes along claiming to be something totally different and fresh. I simply cannot count the number of times I have cracked open a book advertised as “not your typical fantasy” and then after 100 pages been disappointed yet again because typical is exactly what it was. So it was with more than a little dose of skepticism that I picked up an ARC of Katherine Arden’s debut novel The Bear and the Nightingale. I will say that I was encouraged to see that both Terry Brooks and Naomi Novik gave the book glowing praise, so with that in my back pocket, I dove into the story.
The Bear and the Nightingale is a fairy tale, which in and of itself is somewhat rare in a genre lately dominated by epic high fantasy, military fantasy, and gritty grimdark. The story takes place in a medieval Russian village at the edge of a cold, snowy, and unforgiving wilderness. Pyotr Vladimirovich lives in this isolated village with his five children. His last-born daughter Vasya; however, is very different from her other siblings. Even before her birth, Pyotr’s first wife Marina knew that there was a specific role destined for Vasya and that even though it might end with her own death, she must go through with the pregnancy to bring her baby into the world. Marina does in fact pass away not too long after delivering Vasya but before dying, she forces her husband to promise that he will always look after precious Vasya and keep her safe. There is definitely a sense during this conversation that Marina is certain that Vasya will be special and needed for some unknown reason. Some months after his wife’s death, Pyotr travels on a long journey to Moscow with the goal of finding a new wife to help him raise his children. While there, a mysterious blue-eyed stranger approaches and hands him a necklace with a beautiful gem and implores him to give the priceless jewel to his newborn daughter as a gift. The stranger also insists that Pyotr make a promise to him that Vasya will keep it with her at all times and never part with it for any reason. Pyotr, not wishing to offend the man, accepts the gift and presents it to his daughter when he returns home some months later. He also returns with a new wife who sees demons everywhere she looks. Are they real or are they the delusions of a woman with mental illness? Even more peculiar is that ever since Vasya received the strange necklace, she has begun seeing mythical creatures of her own and can also speak with them. First there’s the gnome-like creature living in her father’s horse stables, then there’s the frog-like fairy creature who makes its home at the bottom of the bog not too far from their cabin. As Vasya becomes more adept at conversing with these mythical creatures, we begin to wonder for what purpose is this happening? Is there an evil lurking inside the wooded village that must be fought at all costs? Are the demons that her new stepmother is seeing in every corner of their cabin truly demons? And what part does Vasya and her new mythical friends have to play in keeping the evil contained and potentially vanquishing it altogether?
When I finished the last page of The Bear and the Nightingale, I was exhausted. Not in a bad way, but it really is an emotionally draining novel. So much of the story is very personal and Ms. Arden does an excellent job of making you emotionally invested in the characters. I really genuinely liked Vasya and I routed for her throughout the story. I felt sad for Pyotr and wanted to see him conquer the sadness of losing his wife and become the father he wished to be for his children. I felt angry when Pyotr’s new wife fell completely under the spell of the overly-devout priest who came to stay with their family. All of these emotions were elicited because a talented author brought them out of me. If I didn’t care about any of the characters, none of it would have mattered. But it did! Therein lies the brilliance of this novel, because yes, it is a fairy tale and a great story. But what makes it even better is the way the characters become attached to you and you can’t shake them. You think about them on your drive to work. You agonize over their plight while lying in bed before you fall asleep. It is truly a testament to Ms. Arden’s skill in her craft that she can create such a wonderful reading experience. In the end, I have to say that The Bear and the Nightingale deserves all of the praise it has gotten up to this point. If you are looking for a phenomenal fairy tale fantasy read, you can’t go wrong with this book. The history and mythology that is also intermingled into the story gives it an added dimension that will please readers who enjoy those elements in their stories. Highly recommended.

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Review: Mage's Blood

Mage's Blood Mage's Blood by David Hair
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sometimes I read a book that everyone else seems to love and for some reason it just doesn’t resonate with me. Then I wonder, “Is it just me?” or “Did I miss something?” David Hair’s Moontide series is one that I kept hearing amazing things about. Hair is a New Zealand author, one of many up and coming talented writers who have been emerging on the fantasy scene recently from that island country. One particular review that I came across regarding this series even went so far as to say that it was a worthy substitute if you are eagerly awaiting the next George R.R. Martin Song of Ice and Fire book to be released. That is high praise indeed! So I felt like I wasn’t really taking a very big chance when I picked up the first volume, Mage’s Blood based primarily on all of the good publicity. After reading the summary it looked like Hair was attempting to construct a fantasy retelling of the whole Middle Eastern culture vs the western conflict that has evolved in our past and present “real life” history. I have never read a fantasy book that touched on this topic before and it intrigued me to say the least. Hair definitely has some guts to tread into that territory and I thought it was not only a brave move but also a fresh idea to try to tell the story of that history in a fantasy-like setting where magic is involved. I was very eager to get started and had high hopes that I would be deeply engrossed in this book and ultimately the rest of the series going forward. I prepared myself to be blown away, which is always a perilous move when you read something new. Alas, although I thought the book was entertaining and even somewhat captivating at times, there were a few things that stopped me from really liking it and in the end; it didn’t click on enough levels to make me want to give it anything more than a slightly above average rating.
The action of Mage’s Blood unfolds on two major continents: Yuros and Antiopia. Yuros is essentially Europe and Antiopia could be considered the Middle East. The continent of Yuros is populated with powerful mages who use their powers to subjugate the lesser populace on their own continent as well as the people of Antiopia. Long ago in the history of the two lands, a Leviathan Bridge connecting the two continents was erected across the ocean by a renegade mage named Antonin Meiros. The bridge would appear every 10 years with the Moontide and was initially designed to promote trade, communication, and understanding between the two vastly different cultures. However, the ruling mages of Yuros quickly became distrustful of the people of Antiopia and decided to launch a violent crusade to occupy it for the purpose of conquest. The last two crusades were devastatingly successful in Yuros’ favor and there is a growing fear in Antiopia that when the next Moontide raises the Leviathan Bridge again, the next crusade may spell the final end for Antiopia. A small band of transplanted Yuros citizens who emigrated to Antiopia for peaceful purposes during one of the crusades may be the only hope in turning away the third crusade. These citizens are led by Elena Anborn, former Yuros assassin turned guardian and chief councilor to the most influential royal family in Antiopia. Elena, a powerful mage in her own right, sees that Yuros is only concerned with conquering and exploiting Antiopia and is determined that the continent be ready for the attack when it eventually comes. Will the invaders be thrown back by Antiopia’s forces? Or will the mages in Yuros win out again and ultimately conquer the whole of that land, forever enslaving its people under their brutal rule.
This book had so many possibilities that could have made it great for me. The parallel to Islamic/Indian cultures clashing with western culture is something that I was interested in because of everything that is going on in the world today. I definitely thought it was an interesting avenue to pursue for a fantasy book/series. The Crusades mentioned in the first few chapters are obviously a reference to the Christian crusades of the 11th and 12th century in which many Muslims living in that part of the world were forced to either convert or die. So when that part of the story came up, I totally got it and understood what Hair was trying to do. It’s only as I read further into the story that I began to see that instead of simply telling the story of the historical conflict between the west and middle-east culture in a balanced way, just in a different setting, Hair’s personal commentary largely overpowered the narrative. Reading it, I was struck by how every single viewpoint character on the continent of Yuros was evil, selfish, conniving, a murderer etc. These people had no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Conversely, the majority of the characters living in Antiopia were just simple people looking to be left alone. They were portrayed as helpless victims of the maniacal mages of Yuros with no counterbalance at all. Let me speak plainly, I have no skin in the game when it comes to the real world conflict happening in our world today. I think that both sides have done some unspeakably horrible things over the years and that there is no good guy in this scenario. My main beef concerns how it was handled in this book. When reading a story where you have two sides, both of which are cookie-cutter portrayals of bad and good, it takes away from any enjoyment that I have regarding the plot. It truly is a shame because Hair is a skilled writer and there were times where I got immersed in the story, only to be put off by yet another vile act committed by the incredibly evil mages of Yuros on the helpless Antiopians. I was expecting more intricate plotting and less “black and white” so to speak. As a result of this, I found myself not enjoying the book for large chunks at a time. I’m not saying that this is a bad book; not by a long shot. I’m simply saying that personally, I need more complexity and less overtly-predictable character descriptions. Simply describing one side as always bad and the other as always good and then never deviating from that template doesn’t do it for me. I can only give Mage’s Blood average marks, but if you are into fantasies that are a classic good vs. evil plot with a lot of military action thrown in, then this one may be for you. Sadly, it just wasn’t for me.

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