Archives for category: Fantasy

The shortlist for the Aurealis Awards, which recognises Australian fiction in science fiction, fantasy and horror genres, has been released.

Aurealis_Award_Logo

It’s days like these that I regret being a cross-genre reader. With all the books I want to tackle, how can I possibly work my way through a shortlist where I have read precious few of the books?

I have read Amanda Bridgeman’s Meridian, the third in her sci-fi series about a crew of space troopers as they fight against a scientific experiment gone rogue.

I’ve also read The Lascar’s Dagger by Glenda Larke, a story of a gifted cleric whose world is turned upside down when a foreign artifact attaches itself to him, complicating his quest to safeguard his religion against gathering forces.

I enjoyed both immensely and intend to read the next books in the series.

Otherwise, Juliet Marillier also made it into the list. I have never read a book of hers I didn’t like, but I have not read Dreamer’s Pool. Scott Westerfield too — I enjoyed his Uglies series. Again, I have not read the title he has been shortlisted for.

Horror/thriller writer Greig Beck also featured. I have been considering reading his novels for a while, but somehow they haven’t made it to the top of my pile. Maybe now is the time.

Fans of Garth Nix will be happy to see his name. I’m almost ashamed to say I’ve never picked up one of his titles.

Sorry to all those authors I am not mentioning here. I congratulate everyone who made the shortlist. The judges received over 750 entries across the 12 categories, with entries reaching an extremely high standard. I don’t envy them having to make the choice.

This self-published book won the 2013 Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel.

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Caldan is an orphan who has been taken in by a monastery. There he works hard and sometimes studies alongside the privileged sons and daughters of nobles who come to learn many arts, including Crafting, Swordplay, Dominion and Alchemy.

An accident leads to his expulsion from the monastery and he finds himself alone in a cut-throat city. To stay alive he has to make the best of the patchwork skills he learned at the monastery. As he tries to find his feet, an invasion force is preparing an assault on the city that will once more throw his life into chaos.

I have mixed feelings about this novel.

I’m constantly in awe of authors who self publish and make it. The world building was great and the system of magic even better. The problem was that I couldn’t identify with the characters – generally a deal breaker for me.

A Crucible of Souls is the “coming of age” type of fantasy novel and Caldan is your typical naive youth who is bound to make ten cringeworthy mistakes before breakfast. Perhaps it says more about me than this book, but that naivety annoyed me. It was also slightly boring. Did Caldan develop as the novel went on? In terms of skills, sure. In terms of character? I don’t think so.

Hogan compounded this error by packing Caldan in cotton wool. He never let things get really bad for the boy. He’d set up an awful situation where things could get very hairy, then sidestep it. I always breathe a sigh of relief when a character escapes a noose, but sometimes the noose has to catch them in order for the suspense to work.

Having said that, towards the end of the book I became more interested and if I’m honest I will probably read the next book in the series. If nothing else, I’d like to find out what happens to some of the minor characters who I found more interesting. I am also curious to learn the reason Caldan’s parents were killed. But I wouldn’t be urging too many people to follow my lead.

I’m going to give it a 3.5/5.

This fantasy epic begins with a politically driven war that shifts the balance of power in an age old empire.The Garden of Stones

Corajidin heads the house of Erebus, but visions have foretold that he will rise to rule all his people. Impatient for his destiny, he commits atrocities to accelerate his ascent.

Renowned warrior-mage Indris would rather not become involved in the conflict, having turned his back on old responsibilities after losing his wife. Yet even he can not escape the momentum of events.

Mari, Corajidin’s daughter, is caught between filial duty and doing what she knows is right.

Whether or not you like this book will strongly depend on how much you enjoy complex fantasy worlds – because The Garden of Stones is all about the world. Barnes creates a multi-layered banquet for the senses and the mind with detailed descriptions of settings and culture that will scintillate a particular type of reader.

I will confess upfront that I am not one of these readers. To me, the world always has to take a back seat to the plot and the characterisation. In my opinion the extreme world-building of this book got in the way of the story.

Consider these statistics. In the first two thousand or so words of the novel we are introduced to:

  • Eight character names (we only meet four of them)
  • Six place or geographic feature names
  • Eight different groups of people (Family Names/Race names/Order names)
  • Seven fabricated words or concepts for objects or magic
  • Four rank titles

All this detail at the start of the novel slowed the action down – the opening battle scene had the pace and tension of a tea party. And Barnes continues to introduce new names, concepts and facts almost all the way through.

Having said that, the descriptions did evoke a strong sense of place (if not necessarily character), and the world Barnes has created is original. For example:

In Seethe fashion there were no exterior walls in the Hai Ardin. No doors. Crystalsingers had coaxed the growing formations into seemingly random steps, chambers and tilted columns. In some areas the high, semi-vaulted ceilings of the Hai-Ardin were open to the sky. Translucent beetle-shell hangings adorned the walls. Ilhen crystals shone like jagged candle flames frozen in time.

Another highlight of the novel was Corajidin, who is a better rounded villain than found in most series. He is not a bad man, just one with strong ambition who ultimately is driven towards immoral actions by failing health. His desperation and impatience with his mortality sings through every scene he inhabits. In retrospect, I found him more interesting than either of the other viewpoint characters. Sometimes I even wanted him to triumph.

In summary, although I personally didn’t particularly enjoy this novel and am going to give it a 3/5, I think many fantasy readers who love detailed worlds will devour it and pant for more.

Sanderson’s Words of Radiance is the second instalment in his Stormlight Archives about a world facing destruction from the voidbringers of ancient myth.

ImageMost of the world’s inhabitants are oblivious of the danger, but some have been piecing the clues together that point to the trouble to come. Unfortunately they also have vastly different ideas about what to do about it.

It seems obvious that the order of the Knights Radiant will be involved: a long defunct order of men and women with special powers.  Yet the budding “knights” come from diverse backgrounds and are afraid of revealing the extent of their powers. Can they get past differences in class in cultures to confide in each other and build the trust necessary for a functioning order? Can they discover the long lost secrets they will need to survive the battle to come?

These questions are not fully answered by the end of the book, leaving a lot to do in the next instalments. Even so, I loved it.  All of it. If I had to choose one word to describe it, it would be brilliant. If I had to choose two, I would say brilliant and long.

I seem to find less and less fantasy books that are really long. Many people find this a good thing. After all, the shorter the book the better for busy people.

Personally, I prefer longer books. It takes me a while to warm up to characters and I like to take some time to enjoy them once I’m familiar with their quirks. Plus, I’m a bit cheap and I always consider the value/price ratio before I purchase a book. If I have a 200-page book and a 1000-page book on my wishlist for the same price, I’ll always buy the latter first.

Words of Radiance was therefore manna from heaven.

I’m in awe of how much the characters develop — they are certainly not the same in the second book as they were at the start of the series. But I’m most in awe of Sanderson’s world building, which is intensely detailed and immensely broad in scope.

I’m going to give this book a 5/5. I bow to Sanderson’s superior abilities and pray it won’t be as long a wait for the next one in the series as it was for this one.

Within the Hollow Crown feels like a Terry Pratchett – Michael J. Sullivan cross.

I like Terry Pratchett for his humour but not necessarily for his plotlines. It’s difficult to have a serious quest if all your characters act in such a ludicrous manner. Antoniazzi manages to strike a balance such that although the narrative tone is Pratchett-like, the story is more generic epic fantasy.

The Rone nobility do not know it yet, but they are about to be overrun by the Turin, indigenous tribesmen of the land the Rone stole hundreds of years ago. The tribesmen’s plan basically involves disrupting the Rone succession, which they know will cause bickering and infighting.

But is the succession really the true succession? Two scholars are about to make a discovery that could change everything.

There are some predictable elements of this story, but the characterisation is fantastic and the humour makes up for all flaws.

I’m going to give it a 4/5. Looking forward to reading the next instalment. Before I wrap up, here’s a taste of Antoniazzi’s style:

Corthos was a pirate.

At least, that’s what he told people. Usually pirates tried to pretend they weren’t pirates, to avoid trouble with the local constables. But for Corthos, his case was exactly the opposite. He hoped, dearly, that people would think he was a pirate. He wore an eye patch over his perfectly healthy left eye. He spoke with that particular brand of poor grammar that delineated his profession. For a short time, he even had a stuffed parrot strapped to his shoulder.

Corthos’ only regret was that he had never lost any limbs, and didn’t have any peg-legs or hook-hands to show off to the ladies at the pub.

And for most of his life, he was also lacking in one other respect. He didn’t have a boat.

This is Twilight as historical fiction by an author who can actually write.

A taste of blood wine by Freda Warrington

World War Two has only recently ended. Life in England goes on.

Charlotte is a painfully shy girl. She finds it hard to even be frank with her family. It doesn’t help that her sisters appear to be the type of society belle who only ever think of themselves. They have already decided Charlotte is a hopeless wallflower.

Certainly, Charlotte would rather be at home with her scientist father than fishing for a husband in London during the height of the season. She’s looking forward to coming home when her sister meets Karl von Wultondorf. As he’s a vampire he is, of course, literally deathly handsome.

Charlotte feels uneasy around him. Which shows good sense, as he lives off other peoples’ blood. Her sister Maddy is so besotted, however, that she orchestrates a meeting between Karl and her father. Karl is interested in her father’s science; He wants to investigate the scientific impossibility of his existence.

The introduction leads to a working relationship, throwing him into Charlotte’s life and leading unsurprisingly to the start of a love story.

The nice thing about this book is that it doesn’t try to make vampirism attractive – unlike Twilight there is no drinking of animal blood. It’s kill humans or starve. It also doesn’t try and make families accept their blood-sucking relatives. It doesn’t try and prove that the hero has perfect self control. He lusts for Charlotte’s blood like any other human’s. The book feels more realistic this way and also makes less forced the endless self examination endemic to this type of novel.

Where I think it goes wrong is there is absolutely no reason really why Karl should have chosen Charlotte. She is just as affected by his glamour as everyone else. He could have her any time he wanted, as he could numerous other women. We are told there is “something” special about her. I couldn’t see it. She seemed deathly boring to me.

I don’t think I’ll read any more in this series – I didn’t like either of the main characters enough. Both of them agonise about themselves too much, and although they are intrinsically evil because of their propensity to drink blood, they are otherwise goody two shoes.

Looking back, the thing I enjoyed the most was Warrington’s language. She has a wonderful flair for describing scenes in a way that (at least for me) escapes the usual clichés. Here are a few examples:

“She could see the wind, and it was solid: a hill of liquid glass that turned slowly over on itself like a wave.”

“Now she found the truth that lay at the heart of everything: all the fears, veiled warnings, knowing smiles, restrictions; the blood-red stamen at the centre of society’s tightly folded flower. The paradox of an ecstasy that was fretted with danger.”

If I’m going to give it a 3/5.

There is something about Michael J Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations series that charms. I could say it is the story’s simplicity. I could say it is his decision not to kowtow to the fantasy tradition of world building. I could say it is the lack of real darkness in the novels. But I’d probably decide it is the characters.

Michael J Sullivan Riyria Revelations

Hadrian and Royce are thieves. Before Royce met Hadrian, he would have belonged in Brent Week’s Shadow trilogy. He began his life as urchin and became an assassin who didn’t think too much of morals. Killing people was what he did. Before Hadrian met Royce, he belonged in Conan the Barbarian, or possibly a story that chronicles a hero who has too many dreams and not enough realism. I’m struggling to think of one right now.

Interestingly, we are introduced to the pair after they have been working together for years. Their differences have gradually rubbed each others’ corners off. Hadrian is no longer so idealistic. Royce is no longer as bloodthirsty and cold. In most other fantasy novels, we would meet Hadrian and Royce when they were young and travel with them on their journey to this point. But Sullivan begins at the end.

To me, this makes the series a chronicle of a unique relationship: a dream team that works well together because of years of practice. It almost feels like a Marvel comic. There is something comforting and filled with childhood glee in Sullivan’s old fashioned take of heroes who always manage to get themselves out of whatever ridiculous scrape they find themselves in.

This atmosphere lasts until the fourth and fifth book in the series when the overarching plot, which had been quietly chugging along in the background shifts into a new gear. The end begins. The relationship of our dynamic duo is irrevocably changed.

The beginning of the end, which at first had been a graceful 747 planned-landing-type finish, quickly becomes a crash and burn scenario in book six (Percepliquis). This book, the last in the series, has a mournful tone. One of the duo has had such a terrible thing happen to him that he is no longer really himself. Unsurprisingly, given the duo is only half what it was, the change reduces enjoyment of the story. However, the stakes are higher – the end of humanity of course – so we are still hooked until the last page.

I contemplated the change in the atmosphere of the series after I laid down the last novel. If the relationship between the main characters had remained the same, would that have made it boring? Would I really have liked the adventures of Hadrian and Royce to have continued ad nauseam into book 50? The answer was not clear cut. I would have liked to have seen elements of the relationship saved. But I know the characters had to develop in order for the story to have a proper beginning middle and end. So, I guess I’ll just tip off my hat to Sullivan for entertaining me, and let all of you decide for yourselves.

I’m giving the novels a 3.5 out of 5.

Note: When started reading this series it was a self-published (to be) six novel series. After encountering success with books one to five, Sullivan was picked up by Orbit and the series was published as three not six novels. The Orbit books are the Theft of Swords (The Crown Conspiracy & Avempartha), Rise of Empire (Nyphron Rising & The Emerald Storm) and Heir of Novron (Wintertide & Percepliquis). The origins of Royce’s and Hadrian’s relationship are also to be revealed in two new books, the first of which is coming out in August this year.  

I’m not very happy with the Wheel of Time. Not only did it turn from a good series into one that moved at a glacial pace and put its characters through too much repetitious self agonising, but it has also led to Sanderson delaying the release of the second book in his Stormlight Archive series, of which The Way of Kings is the first book. I really do try and avoid the current situation I’m in: starting a book, falling in love with the characters and then realising that I still have months to wait for the next instalment to arrive. It may even be years if the author is as slow as R R Martin. The very things that I love about fantasy — the in-depth worlds, the three-dimensional characters and epic storylines — come back to haunt me. It seems it takes time to write these masterpieces.

Sanderson has certainly taken his time to set up his world in The Way of Kings. We are thrown into the novel at the end of an epic battle, when a group of supernatural knights decide that they can no longer bear the burden of saving mankind, over and over. They give up their duties.

We are then, we assume, introduced to the world that they abandoned, if centuries after the event, to a cast of characters which, if mainly male, are at least well painted. Their world is one that is shaped by periodic storms, called highstorms. This, fittingly, leads to all swear words being a variation of storm, eg Storm you! The plantlife has adopted to the storms and the animals are all variations on crustaceans.

One of Sanderson’s characters has reached rock bottom. Forced into slavery, he soon discovers there is still a worse place to be as he is demoted to what could be called hell on earth. The story centres around his fight to do the impossible and escape his fate.

On the other end of the spectrum, we meet a prince who is struggling to implement the dying wish of his brother the former king, while others deride him for his efforts, thinking him weak. He is also suffering visions during the high storms, which his enemies take as a sign of madness.

A young girl desperately follows a princess, hoping that the princess will consent to take her on as her ward. The girl’s motives for this are not at all pure.

An assassin tries to hide himself from people who might know what he is capable of.

When I reached the end of this novel I was truly hooked. The story was rich and the characters were faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges.

However, there were some things that stopped me giving this book a 5/5, instead settling on 4/5.

After reading Sanderson’s Mistborn Series, I was a little disappointed at how similar the magic powers are in The Way of Kings. In Mistborn, characters ate metal which they then burned in their bodies to achieve supernatural powers, such as strength, pulling or pushing objects to them, or keen senses. In The Way of Kings, the characters breathe in stormlight, which they then unleash in “lashings”. They use the lashings and stormlight to push objects around, give themselves strength, speed, etc. The first scene of the book, where lashings are used, is very reminiscent of Vin’s rooftop wanderings in Mistborn.

Another issue I have is that Sanderson has again gone for the doomsday approach. If the characters fail, the world will be doomed. Does every story always have to be about the whole world? What’s wrong with fighting for one farm? Sure, saving the world is weighty, but it makes it hard to keep the story brief. This series will take ten books to complete, if what I’ve read about it is correct. Given that this one was released in 2010 and it’s almost the end of 2012, I could extrapolate to say that I’ll be waiting thirty years for the end. If I see it at all. It’s entirely possible that Sanderson will have to engage someone else to finish off his series after he’s gone. As hinted at above, he is currently filling in for the deceased Robert Jordan.

So great book Sanderson, but timing wise, NOT HAPPY.

(Credit: Jason Tesar)

Tesar is god fearing man who has, unsurprisingly, decided to use scripture as a jumping off point for his first series of books. I have to admit, however, that I didn’t really get the feeling that it was biblical, probably because I didn’t read the first three pages of the book, which looked like an encyclopedia entry. I don’t like books that start with a long winded and cryptic explanation. So I skipped the beginning and started with the first action in the book. In hindsight, that wasn’t such a great idea as I missed the point of the story in many ways, but then I think Tesar probably could have introduced his concept better in a narrative fashion than using a dry, legal-looking list.

The (real) start of the books is set on our planet, with analysts talking about global warming and rising seawaters. We don’t know who they’re working for, but one of them has seen something strange happening in a country on the other side of the world, something which involves a lot of water appearing out of nowhere and a man escaping from some scuba divers.  The mysterious company decides to go and rescue the man.

When we see the person being rescued, it’s obvious he’s not part of our world. Then Tesar takes us back to the world that the man came from — a far flung empire still in the sword-wielding stage of technology. There we meet a new character who has a brush with mystery sailors, coming off the worse for the encounter. He dies trying to tell his story to the governor of a nearby city, Adair, who later turns out to be our mystery man rescued in the other world.

Unfortunately, we don’t meet the real main character of the story, Adair’s son Kael, until later. This to me was a fatal flaw in the books, because I’d already sided with Adair and couldn’t like Kael as much as I should. Adair disappeared mainly out of the books after the rescue situation is explained, leaving me feeling hollow.

However, once I became used to Kael as a main character I did warm to him. He is ostensibly “executed” after his father disappears (off to the alternate world), but in reality he’s whisked away to a monastery where he learns to fight with other boys.  He doesn’t feel right about the monastery’s god, for whom he’ll be fighting when the training is done. He fails a test set for him by the high priest of the order and goes his own way. Unfortunately for him, his time at the monastery comes back to haunt him as the boys start appearing while the empire comes under attack from the outside.

100,000 people have downloaded copies of Tesar’s first book, which he’s priced for free on Amazon and Smashwords. I  have to admit that somehow I managed to download the whole trilogy for free (it’s supposed to cost $4.99) , which was a bonus. The freebie did have an unforeseen drawback, however. I thought I’d only downloaded the first book. When I reached the end of the book, I thought I had two further volumes to go, but I had actually read all there was. The finale had more loose ends than in an unravelling sweater, the most important of which for me was, what happened to Adair?

After looking at Tesar’s blog, it seems that he will write another book to complete the story, but he intends to write a number of prequels first. That goes into my “how seriously to annoy your readership” category.

Still, I did enjoy the books. The fighting scenes flowed well and the characters were believable. There was also enough original content in the story for it to feel fresh. However, I really think Tesar should have rethought how he started the book. Clunky prologues are so last decade. It’s also necessary to address the central theme of your story in the story, not just in the beginning.

After all, he promises in his blog:

In book xx  of his debut series, Jason Tesar delves into the heart of an ancient legend, expanding an epic saga that will journey from earth’s mythological past to its post-apocalyptic future, blending the genres of fantasy, sci-fi, and military/political suspense.

I didn’t get the feeling at all that he’d delved into the heart of an ancient legend. It felt more like he attempted to build a good story on a clumsy background. I’m hoping that the books yet to come bring more of the mythological flavour he’s promised into his writing. But I don’t feel like reading the prequels and probably will have forgotten about Tesar by the time I he gets to complete the story he’s already started, so I may never know if they do.

I’m going to give this series a 3/5. If it had been finished properly, it would have had the potential to be a 4/5 or higher.

The ebook cover for the Mistborn Trilogy

(Credit: Brandon Sanderson, Tor and Sam Weber)

On recommendation, I decided to read Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy. Originally, I’d thought it was a four part series, because there were four of the books available for Kindle. This caught me out, because as I was nearing the end of the third book, I was reading it like I would the middle of the book, not like I would the end.

That might sound odd, but if I know that I’m at the end of a series I’ve enjoyed, then I’ll slow down to savour the last vestiges of it, just like you might want to take a few more sips at the bottom of a good glass of wine instead of taking it all down in one gulp.

And I did enjoy these books. Sanderson says that his inspiration was taking an Ocean Eleven type crew and giving them magical abilities. He also said that he wanted to create a world where the hero doesn’t win — in his case, the world is formed by the fact that someone who wasn’t the hero gained control of a power and used it to create a land were hope is crushed. In essence,  The book revolves around the thieving crew with magic abilities deciding to overthrow this anti-hero who has held the land under domination for hundreds of years and is seemingly immortal. Of course, he turns out not to be so immortal or so evil as events unfold.

I’m not a big fan of Ocean’s Eleven and, although I like taking tired stories and turning them on their heads, I don’t think this was what made the Mistborn trilogy so spectacular. What I really enjoyed was how neatly everything fit into his story. There wasn’t a character who didn’t have a reason for being. And the plot was woven so tightly it was hard to find a hole. Later in the trilogy you’d find out something and think, “Oh. So that’s why so-and-so did that.”

My favourite part of the trilogy was the powers that Sanderson gave to his heroes. It wasn’t simple magic, but a complex system which must have taken time to think up. There were three types of magic, all involving metals. One where the user burned a metal to gain power from that metal, one where a user stored their own power for later use in a metal, and one where a person could take someone else’s innate power to use metals by killing them with a metal. We weren’t introduced to all of these at once, so it wasn’t overwhelming. Instead, the concept started as a bud, with my favourite character — Vin the street urchin — using her “Luck”, not realising that she was in fact burning metals.From there we are gradually introduced to the magic of ingesting and burning metals, called Allomancy. Later, we find out about the two other strains.  The types of magic then fitted in perfectly with the concepts of warring gods which is introduced later in the series. Sanderson’s forethought in this area made the magic seem realistic, and the idea of the books also feel pure in its symmetry.

The other thing that I really enjoyed about these novels was that Sanderson wasn’t afraid to let key men in his crew die. In revolution, people will be killed, so it would have felt unnatural if this “Ocean Eleven” type crew would have all lived to see the end of the trilogy. But I hate parting with a character I’ve grown to love, so was glad that he didn’t make the book a killing field. He was also ready to throw all of our beliefs on their head and have everything the characters had been working towards become no longer at all desirable. This kept the reader on their toes and wanting to plow through more pages, even if they should be doing something else. Indeed, I read the second book in two days.

Overall, I loved the series. and have to give it 4.5/5.  The missing 0.5 is because I felt a little let down by the very end of the series, but I don’t want  to put a horrid spoiler in this review, so I won’t go into it.

Have you read the series? Did you enjoy it too?