Release Date: 21 April 2020 Published by: ACE Genre: Fucked if I know. Fantasy, sci-fi elements. Pages: 369 Format: Hardback Review Copy: Courtesy of the author.
The Girl and the Stars is a spectacular opening act to what promises to be one of the finest trilogies of this new decade*.
So many of my fellow bloggers have spoken to the quality of Mark Lawrence’s writing, a fact I have only the barest hint of experience with, in the form of Prince of Thorns, Mark’s debut. I had high expectations but… It’s no stretch to say that they were overcome, with remarkable ease, by this latest release.
I hesitate to call The Girl and the Stars a fantasy novel – chock-full with sci-fi elements, it reminds me of the writing of Zelazny and Gene Wolfe more than anything else in how seamlessly it falls under the cap of speculative fiction; the world is, though its characters might not realize it, a post-apocalyptic one. That’s the speculative fiction trifecta right there! Don’t draw any conclusions yet, though – Lawrence might make use of many different genre conventions but in doing so, he makes of them a homogenous mass. Otherworldly is a term often used for fantasy novels, rarely so apt as it is for The Girl and the Stars.
It is a triumph of the imagination, and a wonder. The characters are relatable and deeply human, even those you’d least expect to be. Helming the series is lead character Yaz, a young woman of the Ichta tribe torn away from her family and the life on the ice she has always known:
She lived a life in the jaws of the wind, her eyes trained to find meaning within a hundred shades of white and grey. She lived as a singular mote of warmth upon a vast and lifeless wilderness.
Yaz is forced into the subterranean darkness** of a hole in which the broken children of the tribes – those too different to survive the cold of the ice – are thrown. Lawrence does an excellent job creating a world in the throes of ice, a cruel surface that holds an ever-present danger…only to throw Yaz into a world beyond the one she could’ve imagined, and one she is unprepared for. How could anyone be prepared? The world below the ice is alien – warmer, holding buried secrets and ancient threats. But also the promise of a life different to the one Yaz has spent her whole life living.
I adore the abilities Yaz and those other survivors in the hole have, what Yaz thinks of as magic but is hinted to be something different at one time or another. Mark does a wonderful job introducing how each gift works, and then exploits all of them in unexpected ways at just the right moment. The results are nothing less than a series of thrills.
I admire the way the author shapes a culture like that of the Ichta early on: “Even in their tents they wore mittens anytime that fine tasks were not required. It was easy to forget that people even had fingers.” Look at the way he makes of these people something unique. Through describing so small a thing, he’s already differentiated the Ichta in a memorable way, and has introduced a motif that has an effect on Yaz throughout – skin contact. The prose is brilliant at this throughout – introducing small details and not just calling back to them but using them to the best effect imaginable, creating the illusion in the reader that every detail has some hidden meaning.
Lawrence does an excellent job in exploring several themes throughout the 370-page count of this novel. The questioning of the nature of compromise is present throughout – does survival in the harshness excuse the sacrifice of those who are born different or broken? That’s a question Yaz is drawn to time and again. She is also drawn towards the need to know herself, in a way that mirrors the obsession one of the most fascinating antagonists in the novel, Theus. Something else that haunts the pages is the mention of “fire and glory,” or “Greatness, torment and fire.” Look out for that one.
As for the ending…I have three words for it***: Such sweet torment. Questions linger, a score of them at least. It’s going to be a long wait until the next one – lucky for me, I have plenty of Mark Lawrence’s books to catch up on in the meanwhile. My score for this masterpiece is 6/5, 11/10!
P.S. If you, like me, enjoy listening to music while reading books, a couple of soundtracks work wonders as background – Austin Wintory’s soundtracks for Banner Saga 2 & 3, and Piotr Musiał’s Frostpunk score.
*If Mr. Lawrence disappoints us down the line, I say we lynch him! Or, if that’s not your thing, write a strongly worded letter.
** This is incidentally the second excellent fantasy book telling the story of a young woman surviving underground through what seems at times sheer force of will I’ve read this year, the first being Rob J. Hayes’ Along the Razor’s Edge.
*** I have a lot more than three words, but the book hasn’t yet been released. I would, in fact, like to scream bloody murder – maybe in a couple of weeks? A deep dive? Do I hear an amen?!
When I read The Devil’s Apprentice last year, I enjoyed it well enough, though I had a number of issues with some of the prose and saw the revelations coming from a mile away. How does its follow up compare? Read on to find out!
The Die of Death follows up six months after the conclusion of Apprentice. Philip has been marked by his time in Hell – no longer the angelic boy he used to be, our young protagonist has made some new friends. Prone to mischevious behaviour and white lies, Philip is having a grand old time.
That is, until he is struck by lightning and finds himself down the familiar steps to Hell. It’s not there that he’s destined to go, however – because Mortimer, cantankerous old personification of Death that he is, has work for Philip.*
What The Devil’s Apprentice did well, this continues to do in the same vein. A return to Hell makes for plenty of fun, blood-curdling moments but the exploration of both the domain of Death and of Purgatory made for welcome additions to the tapestry of the underworld, or the afterlife, or wot-have-it. The characters remain true to themselves, and all the old, well-established characters make a comeback. They bring with them old friendships and adversarial relations, new revelations of forgotten crimes.
Perhaps what I enjoyed more here than in the previous book of the series has to do with the twists and turns. In Apprentice none of the revelations towards the closing third of the novel surprised me. Die held a few surprises I did not see coming, along with the ones I inferred. It’s a slyer novel than the one before it – and that’s something I can appreciate.
Mortimer, especially – old Death himself started off as someone I disliked and his standing with me only grew worse. Andersen, bless his talented writerly heart, turned it around!
Philip is more interesting by far in this one. The story flows better, the dialogue and prose are stronger. You will be surprised. This one does plenty right, and I’m happy to recommend it to people who enjoyed the previous one and to those who, like me, were on the fence at the prospect of reading the follow-up to the previous one.
My score for The Die of Death is a 4 out of 5 stars. It’s a fun second chapter, and I enjoyed it, and that’s all that matters.
*Writing a variation of my name this many times makes me a touch more megalomaniacal than usual.
I’m not sure I’ll pick the next one up anytime soon – there’s another blog tour a little while from now, but I’ll admit to some reluctance on my part about participating. A case of oversaturation, perhaps.
Published by: Gollancz. Genre: (Dark) Fantasy Pages: 486 Format: Hardback Purchased the Exclusive Edition from Waterstones.
The world we readers knew from the First Law Trilogy has changed. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed Joe Abercrombie’s standalone novels in the world, Best Served Cold, The Heroes, and Red Country. As the world’s timeline has progressed, we find ourselves amidst an Industrial Revolution much like the one the UK went through in the 1800s, and with it, some of the worst excesses of early capitalist society. 14-hour working days, scant payment for dangerous, life-draining factory labour, child labour, air and water pollution. All this under one common denominator, that of Progress with a capital ‘P’, and see how it encloses all that suffering within itself?
But rest assured, there’s a lot more than this going on. Abercrombie skirted away from the Union after the excellent Last Argument of Kings. We caught glimpses, here and there, of changes, particularly in the excellent Red Country, but the streets of Adua were left closed to us for over a decade until September 2019 rolled along. To date, I think this is the only book I’ve ever pre-ordered from a UK-based bookstore; goes to show you my excitement for it.
Why the hell did it take me so long to get to it?!*
A Little Hatred makes the beginning of Abercrombie’s first trilogy seem sluggish by comparison; from the first, the personalities of each Point-of-View character shine through. No handholding here, no soft introduction to the world and characters. Tragedies, both personal and socio-political see a new generation of characters challenged from the get-go.
The theatres of operations, as it were, are centered around the latest external conflict with the North and the internal tension within the Union itself. In the North, Black Calder’s bloodthirsty son is on the offensive against the Union’s Protectorate ran by old favourite Dogman; his daughter, Rikke, is in a whole lot of shit for more than one reason – to start with, she’s got the magical Long Eye, which gives her glimpses of the future while suffering bouts of agonizing epilepsy. Matching wits with the Wolf of the North is Leo dan Brock, the soon-to-be Lord Governor of Angland, who is at once likable and a reckless idiot. Don’t worry, I spoil nothing, you pick that vibe up on the very first page he’s on.
The Union is a different story altogether, a den of intrigue, full of serpents, the biggest ones some of our main characters, Savine dan Glokta and Vick Teufel – everything’s changed, everything’s the same, and you can’t help but love it to death. Also in the Union but removed, at first, from the heart of intrigue and conflict either by drunken uselessness and privilege or by post-traumatic stress disorder are Prince Orso and former farmer-turned-soldier Broad, a family man excellent at violence and little else. Orso, despite being one of the most disliked men in the Union – and considered spineless by virtually everyone – is a decent human being, though it takes him a little while to realize it. Between you and me, I’m not sure it’ll last.
Fan-favourites from days gone by come back, as well – His Eminence, Sand dan Glokta the most prominent among them, his iron grip over the Union seemingly slipping due to the pressure of internal and external forces alike. Finree dan Brock also plays the role of governor and general of Angland’s armies, as does a brittle, severely damaged Dogman.
More than one chapter makes for a masterclass in the writer’s craft. CHAPTER NAME puts two of the most cutthroat characters in the novel, Savine dan Glokta and Vick Teufel face to face; it’s a moment of reflection for both as they look in a mirror, each seeing the other as the opposite of what they are while unconscious of how similar they view the world. Here’s Savine reflecting on the woman in front of her:
It was not mockery, exactly. They simply both knew that Teufel had seen things, suffered things, overcome things that Savine would never have to. Would never dare to. She needed no wigs or powder to hide behind. She sat safe in the certainty that she was carved from fire-toughened wood, and could break Savine in half with those veined coal miner’s hands if she pleased.
A page and a half later, Vick observes, “It wasn’t mockery, exactly. They just both knew that savine had more manners, money and beauty in one quim hair than Vick could’ve dug from her whole acquaintance. She sat safe on invisible cushions of power and privilege, knowing she could buy and sell Vick on a whim.” Funny how two of the most ruthless characters Abercrombie has written have so much in common without either realizing it – the world I look forward to seeing them share the page again as by the end of A Little Hatred at least one of them has undergone a metamorphosis the kind you’ll have to read to believe.
And of course, it wouldn’t be Abercrombie if he didn’t have a scene or two full of hopping into the heads of minor characters. I love this contrivance because it’s an excellent way to sketch out significant events from points of view other than those already established. Abercrombie does more in forcing me to care about a minor character with two pages than some authors do with entire books. If that isn’t proof of his skill, I don’t know wot is!
Beyond the glorious escapism, A Little Hatred examines themes relevant to the socio-political environment we all live in. The Gurkish Empire, the ‘bad guy’ of the First Law trilogy, has suffered through political collapse; as a result, the Union is struggling with wave after wave of refugees; late in the novel, one character tells another:
‘Lot of brown faces around,’ he said, frowning. ‘Troubles in the South. Refugees are pouring across the Circle Sea, seeking new lives.’ ‘Fought a war against the Gurkish thirty years ago, didn’t we? You sure they can be trusted?’ ‘Some can and some can’t, I would’ve thought. Just like Northmen. Just like anyone. And they’re not all from Gurkland…Dozens of languages. Dozens of cultures. And they’ve chosen to come here. Makes you proud, doesn’t it?’ ‘If you say so.’ *Redacted* knew nothing about those places except that he didn’t want the Union to become one of them. He took no pride in the watering down of his homeland’s character. … ‘Just…hardly feels like the Union’s the Union anymore.’ ‘Surely the great strength of the Union has always been its variety. That’s why they call it a Union.
Bit of a scathing critique, that, if you think about it. And you will think about it, unlike the character whose name I’ve redacted. It’s this kind of social commentary that makes for an excellent argument on the merits of fantasy in exposing the faults of our own world. Escapism, but not just.
Examined also is the “nothing can stand before profit” mentality of the hyper-rich, most directly through the character of Savine dan Glokta, who suffers from the same condition of her father in the previous trilogy, in that she does have internal morals and can recognize her actions as wrong but does not allow them to stand in her way. That’s what made Sand the most memorable character in the First Law trilogy and it is what makes me so fascinated with Savine.
Abercrombie’s A Little Hatred is a revelation, and if you haven’t yet read it, it’s well past time that you do. This is a modern masterwork; my score for it is an unapologetic 10/10. I cannot wait to see the challenges and changes all these characters, and their supporting casts, will go through over the next two novels as The Age of Madness shambles onwards. The themes I illustrated are but a handful of the ones you can find in this opening act and I encourage you to read with care, conscious of this adult, intelligent novel. It has plenty to say, long as you are willing to listen.
*If you must know, I moved from one apartment to another, then bode my time until I had the chance to fully submerse myself in this work. I do not regret it, not even a little bit.
This review was originally published over at booknest.eu.
Published by: HarperVoyager (2010 ed.) Genre: Sci-Fi, Fantasy Pages: 296 Format: paperback Awards: Hugo Award for Best Novel (1968) Copy: Picked up at my local library. Support your libraries, folks!
His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god, but then he never claimed not to be a god.
Gods, I loved this one. My admiration for Roger Zelazny and his talents goes back to early adolescence when my father, may Krishna and Vishnu look at him favourably, granted me passage into a world that lies in intersection to our own (and yet far, far above it, the way real objects are above shadows), the world of Amber. It is a glorious place, and one I haven’t dared revisit for many years; but this review goes a little further back, before Zelazny himself ventured into the Chronicles of Amber.
Lord of Light is an epic contained in just under a three-hundred page novel. Its ideas are grand and ambitious, as much in the vein of fantasy as in science fiction, the basic structure of much of the novel borrowed from the creation myth of Buddhist lore (heavily based on reality but mythologised after two and a half millennia), the aforementioned Sam taking on the role of prince Siddhartha Gautama. But Sam is not a man to only wear a single hat – his identities throughout the seven chapters of the book are many and the role of destroyer comes as easy to him as that of ascetic philosopher. Whether he believes in what he preaches or not is besides the point.
This book is fantastic to read if you don’t know much about Hinduism and Buddhism but are looking for something to enthuse you, make you curious about enlightenment and spirituality of these dual religions which many of us in the Western world are hardly ever in the position to interact with on a meaningful level.
But divorce it from any knowledge from Hinduism; no, divorce is the wrong word. Rather, give Zelazny the creative leeway he deserves, let him loose on the pantheon and watch as he creates something remarkable and original as well as traditional. Perhaps the most delight I took was in these scenes which centred around the interactions between Sam and Yama (also called Yama-Dharma) the death-god and most brilliant amongst all the gods.
“Call themselves?” asked Yama. “You are wrong, Sam, Godhood is more than a name. It is a condition of being. One does not achieve it merely by being immortal, for even the lowliest laborer in the fields may achieve continuity of existence. … Being a god is the quality of being able to be yourself to such an extent that your passions correspond with the forces of the universe, so that those who look upon you know this without hearing your name spoken. Some ancient poet said that the world is full of echoes and correspondences. Another wrote a long poem of an inferno, wherein each man suffered a torture which coincided in nature with those forces which had ruled his life. Being a god is being able to recognize within one’s self these things that are important, and then to strike the single note that brings them into alignment with everything else that exists. Then, beyond morals or logic or esthetics, one is wind or fire, the sea, the mountains, rain, the sun or the stars, the flight of an arrow, the end of a day, the clasp of love. One rules through one’s ruling passions. Those who look upon gods then say, without even knowing their names, ‘He is Fire. She is Dance. He is Destruction. She is Love.’ So, to reply to your statement, they do not call themselves gods. Everyone else does, though, everyone who beholds them.” “So they play that on their fascist banjos, eh?” “You choose the wrong adjective.” “You’ve already used up all the others.”
This is the kind of dialogue that got me into literature, made me want to dig as deep into it as can be, and make the study of it my life’s work. It sparkles, it crackles, and it captures perfectly who these two characters are; Yama, who is avatar and representation of the end of all things, as severe as the silence of the grave; and Sam, who cuts through all the bullshit and calls things as he sees them, and fights for a cause not wholly his own to the last. Fine – I’m projecting beyond the conversation above but you can’t blame me for the enthusiasm.
See, the intertextuality is something Lord of Light thrives on and is shaped by. The paragraph above makes a passing nod to Dante’s Inferno, and perhaps to some of Zelazny’s other work itself – a quick google search revealed the following quote, penned by none other than him: “All of these things considered, it is not surprising that one can detect echoes, correspondences and even an eternal return or two within the work of a single author. The passage of time does bring changes, yea and alas; but still, I would recognize myself anywhere.” What this intertextuality allows Zelazny to do is weave his unique vision while using Hindu and Buddhist cannon as a vehicle to enrichen an imaginative world which takes on themes of oppression and the dangers of technological advancement, touches on colonialism and, most formidably, seeks to divorce religious preaching from spirituality, while arduously studying the bonds between the two. What does that last point stand for? As mentioned before – and I don’t mark this as spoiler, for it is established early on – Sam hardly believes what he preaches. Does that lessen his teachings? To discover the answer, multi-faceted as it is, you might want to pick this one up.
I am in awe of Zelazny, yet another of the SFF masters of old whose works will always hold relevance to our present. Lord of Light is a quintessential classic, and one you will be well-served by taking the time to read it. It will not always be easy…but it will be rewarding. This is my Sci-Fi read of the month, and I give it full marks, 5 out of 5 stars on Goodreads.
I rarely add a song to my reviews, but there is one that encapsulates the book and its protagonist in particular, in such an excellent way as to warrant it. The song in question is called “The Lord of Lightning” by King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard.
In Alix E. Harrow, I see a respect for stories and words and the power they hold equal to that of Ursula K. Le Guin. If you’ve followed me awhile, you know the depth of this compliment and if you haven’t, boy, have I a few recommendations for you. But this isn’t about Ursula, it’s about The Ten Thousand Doors of January, a novel that takes a magnifying glass and points it at the connection between stories, the worlds they originate from and those who are brave enough to explore them.
January Scaller is a unique girl, though in what way may not become readily apparent. True, she is “a perfectly unique specimen,” as her guardian, Mr. Locke puts it, a child grown up under the wing of this most affluent personage. “A perfectly unique specimen, odd-colored perhaps but not colored” is the description this man, almost a father to her, gives January early on. It is the turn of the 20th century, and this is America – if you needed a reminder of the disquiet, the sheer horrible racist reality of that time, the following sentence, from the view of a seven-year old, encapsulates it well: “I didn’t really know what made a person colored or not, but the way he [Mr. Locke] said it made me glad I wasn’t.” See, in only a few paragraphs, Harrow has given us a conflicting view of the man January considers a father figure.
Not that January doesn’t have a father; it is merely that he, Julian Scaller, spends most of his time tracking treasures and rare objects for his employer, the very same Mr. Locke. Cornelius Locke is something of a collector, you see, and his home would make even the Smithsonian seem an enthusiast’s collection by comparison. January’s father is his most successful agent, owed to Julian’s ability to follow stories to their source – the stories of people and of places, the origins behind their myths
It is a talent his daughter seems to have inherited, for it isn’t the dotting of a millionaire that makes her “a perfectly unique specimen” but the hunger she feels for stories and adventures, for the world outside the confines of Locke House. Like many of you who now read this review – like me – January escapes the tedium of her everyday reality through novels – penny dreadfuls and adventure stories, the horror and excitement of the grotesque. And when, on her seventeenth birthday, life throws at her the very worst it has to offer, it’s into a book that she escapes.
“…(see how that word slips into even the most mundane of stories? Sometimes I feel there are doors lurking in the creases of every sentence, with periods for knobs and verbs for hinges).
The Villains (see the shape of the V, how it places opposites on its two ends, mirroring one another and yet different?) of The Ten Thousand Doors of January range from the universal gothic of the time period to the deeply personal, the kind of villain to kill for – if you’ll pardon the pun.
Its the language, the melodious nature of it that is enchanting to the reader. The masterful control over character voice is equally impressive – a sizable portion of the book adopts the tenets of an epistolary novel, making use of a voice very different from January’s own:
The following monograph concerns the permutations of a repeated motif in world mythologies: passages, portals, and entryways. Such a study might at first seem to suffer from those two cardinal sins of academia—frivolity and triviality—but it is the author’s intention to demonstrate the significance of doorways as phenomenological realities. At least, that is the book I intended to write, when I was young and arrogant. Instead, I’ve written something strange, deeply personal, highly subjective. I am a scientist studying his own soul, a snake swallowing its own tail.
Harrow’s use of these chapters to tell several stories serves to pace January’s own tale and to create additional tension early on,
I return then to Alix Harrow’s respect of words, captured best in the following: “Words and their meanings have weight in the world of matter, shaping and reshaping realities through a most ancient alchemy.”This is at the heart of our culture, did you know? Our society and we as members of it, invent and reinvent ourselves through the process of the word, written or spoken. Our civilization rests on the written word, where many have perished before, their words once spoken but no longer heard. And this novel gets it, understands the importance of words and their ability to change minds and hearts and the paths we make for ourselves.
There’s also the emotional connection – something deeply individual for all readers – but the novel and its characters, their suffering and loss and love and joy as they realised themselves in full, all this found resonance in me. About mid-way through, I even teared up, and there’s nothing like a few tears to illustrate how deeply you connect to a text on an emotional level.
I’m under the impression that this novel is a standalone – and I would like to praise the author for her choice; The Ten Thousand Doors of January accomplishes in one book what many series don’t manage in three – a complete story from beginning to end, which leaves the door…not sealed, not entirely, but firmly closed.
I give The Ten Thousand Doors of January a score of 5/5 stars; if I were using a ten-point system, I’d give it a 9.5 out of 10 because the ending plays it a little bit too safe and the epilogue, while a wonderful way to say goodbye to the characters, wasn’t necessary. Almost as if Harrow wanted one last moment with these characters – something I can hardly blame her for.
My recommendation goes out to all those among you who are in love with the magic of words and stories, those of you who feel a certain disquiet when they think of having to spend a lifetime going through the motions; The Ten Thousand Doors is for adventurers and travellers and seekers. Take a look – I wager you won’t regret it.
I don’t remember the exact age I first read the Eye of the World, though I must have been pre-teen. I remember my dad having bought the first three – they just came out in Bulgarian for the very first time. I was going to the villa with my grandparents, and I had these three thick tomes with me; I had…maybe a week of downtime, likely over Spring vacation and Easter.
I devoured Eye of the World, The Great Hunt and The Dragon Reborn in three, maybe four days. It was love at first chapter, magical and binding, and to hell with it if these books did not become part of my DNA for the week I spent reading and rereading them. This is one of the foundational series of the fantasy genre and it deepend my love for worldbuilding, complex characters, geopolitics and veiled representations of Odin and Arthurian legends.
Thirty years, they’ve been out in the world. More than all the time I’ve spent on this Earth. Thirty years, and the Wheel of Time will soon be available for a whole new generation through a medium even some of the most hardcore fans of this fantasy epic didn’t believe it would ever be seen in.
Don’t screw this up, Amazon.
Me? I go back to these novels, sometimes — in audio format, in the original language they were written in. Every time the trip is familiar, and every time it is new…but it is always something to remember.
“The Wheel weaves as the Wheel wills, and we are only the thread of the Pattern.”
I approach the review of this one with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I enjoyed much of the story (after a fashion), loved the characters and found several of the plot threads nothing short of riveting. On the other, dozens of typos pulled me out of the action very often, much to my annoyance. Further, I admit to some confusion on account of the blurb of this novel only concentrating on a third, at most, of the story it tells. The much more significant conflict, which embroiders four out of the five point-of-view characters of Crown is described by the succinct sentence, “A coming war,” and perhaps by the following line “a broken land where conquerors dream of empires”.
J. C. Kang’s world is multifaceted. History and mythology are one and the same, with fragments of once-corporeal gods empowering the mortal might of broken and aspirant empires both. There’s enough here to be daunting to a new reader to the world of Tivara – at times, I felt lost, uncertain of which of the characters were being introduced for the first time and which of them had starring or supporting roles in Kang’s previous works.
I was entranced by Tomas’ story, the point of view which deals with the eponymous Crown of the Sundered Empire and with an invasion by the disgusting Bovyans, a race of large, militaristic males who procreate by forcing themselves on the women of those territories they subjugate through force. Tomas’ sharp wit is easy to grow fond of, and he goes through a dark hero’s journey, which sees him turn far more ruthless, at a very steep price. Only two instances come to mind as somewhat “off” in terms of his PoV sections, one of them when a soldier intent on not trusting the boy has a change of heart after stating very clearly he wouldn’t trust Tomas; the other involves a mid-wife in his village, of whom Tomas only ever thinks of as “the midwife.” This last one feels bizarrely archetypal and not at all like everyone in this tiny fishing and diving village has intimate knowledge of each other.
Our other characters, princes, princesses, bastards and a half-elf assassin, deal with the fallout of Crown Prince Elrayn’s attempt to unite two broken kingdoms in order to further his own power. At its best, this part of the novel reminded me of the plots of some Shakesperean comedies, with men and women desperate to get out of arranged marriages, falling in love with exactly whom they shouldn’t and creating plenty of amusing conflict. At its worst, however, I just didn’t buy into the casual stupidity the Crown Prince exhibited in the midst of crisis – there’s incompetence, there’s short-sightedness and then there is whatever Elrayn suffers from. His early successes came across as no more than a stroke of luck, and his later failings appeared to me too artificial. Thankfully, he’s not one of the PoV characters – rather, the engine by which most of them come into the conflict.
I was familiar with the high-elf, Jie, from a short novella by the name of “Thorn of the Night Blossoms” and I enjoyed seeing her all grown-up and experienced but also struggling between duty and love. Her affair with Elrayn’s brother, Aryn, was a source of amusement and some well-appreciated tension, which ultimately didn’t come up to the sort of resolution I would’ve liked.
Alwrynn, royal bastard and brother to Elrayn and Aryn, whose overwhelming use of naval terms chafed during several instances, was otherwise an entertaining protagonist, skilled at sea but almost as helpless on land as in the world of politics. His connection with Alaena, the third PoV character and one of the princelings Elrayn attempts to marry into his family, is a source of plenty of tension that pays off really well towards the end of the story.
The action was fantastic, nothing less than what I’ve come to expect from Kang, based on my limited experience with his work.
Crown of the Sundered Empire is an intriguing read with plenty of positive elements. My enjoyment of it was mired by the typos and the extent to which I felt like a newcomer who lacked basic insight into some of the characters’ pasts and world events. Tomas’s story might’ve been a short novel of its own – and I would argue, it would’ve been a finer entry-point to the world for new readers such as myself. As it is, I liked J. C. Kang’s novel well enough, even with the issues I had, which is why I’m giving it 3/5 stars. I feel obliged to say that I’m in the minority – most of the readers who have scored this book over on Goodreads have given it either 4 or 5 stars. What didn’t work for me might very well work for you.
I’ve read quite a lot this past week. After finishing Sanderson’s Starsight, whose review you can find here (Spoilers, I thought it was beautiful), I moved onto listening to an old favourite, one of the very first books I ever wrote a teeny, tiny review for. The book in question is Naomi Novik’s Uprooted and revisiting it was excellent fun, thanks in no small part to the narrator, Katy Sobey. I couldn’t believe how much I’d forgotten about some parts, and how my mind had played a trick on me, giving a greater role to characters whose roles really weren’t all that important. Funny how the mind will twist things up.
I moved onto The Devil’s Apprentice (review on the blog just yesterday!), since I was running out of time – my review was supposed to go up on the eighth, a mere four days away! Thankfully, The Devil’s Apprentice was a remarkably easy book to read — I read it in about two hour and a half long sittings. What did I think about that one? Just scroll below this post and you can find out. Or, if you’re prodigously lazy, click here.
Two books down by Friday (Sixth of December), two to go.
The weekend was consumed by postmodernism. Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman was a trippy, bizarre read, albeit wonderful for its strangeness and exquisite language. It’s brutal, though; deeply pornographic, chock-full of acts of pure desire. I have a big essay to write on it, and on Anna of the Five Towns and on To The Lighthouse, all about the ontology of reality through three very different literary currents.
In-between chapters of The Infernal Desire Machines, I read essays by Daniel Mendelsohn from his recently released Ecstasy and Terror. This paperback with its glazed pages is separated into three – Ancients, Moderns and Personals – nouns which encapsulate what the author’s essays are about.
Mendelsohn’s work is quite illuminating. I will take an in-depth look at it eventually, once I’ve read through all the essays and picked my favourites but regardless of whether you prefer the art of Ancient Greece as compared to that of the contemporary world, you will find plenty of note here. My personal so far is a piece called Girl, Interrupted: How Gay was Sappho? and is, of course, all about the Ancient Greek poet known for her poetry as much as for her outrageous sexuality.
My final read–listen–was Alan Cumming’s Not my Father’s Son. This one was horrifying, heartwarming and hilarious all in equal parts. Nothing like the autobiographical works of some ‘stars’, which might as well be screams for attention. I wouldn’t have picked this up as a paperback but I love Alan, I love his voice, I could listen to him for hours and when I saw the audiobook – was it at a sale? – I knew, immediately, I would enjoy every last minute of the man’s velvety voice. I’ll write more about this book later but suffice to say, this one really goes in-depth as to the fuel originally behind Alan’s creative drive. It also plays out like a proper mystery, which delights and excites both. A short review of this one, I think, should appear on the blog within a few days – if I’ve the energy to spare.
This post is somewhat chaotic, written more for myself than for anyone else – that said, I had fun recollecting some of my reading experiences.
As for this coming week? I did start listening to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities – might as well continue it, aye? It’s interesting enough – Dickens takes awhile to warm up. Probably due to the fact that he got paid by the word. No rushing that one.
I also dabbled into a Horus Heresy audiodrama – Little Horus. That was fine, not quite as much as I’ve come to expect from Dan Abnett – but it was exceedingly short so I’ll hold no ill will towards him. And hey, I finally got to see what Horus’s Legion looks like after Isthvaan III and V – hooray!
I’ll have to unpack Philip K. Dick’s Ubik for my Researching Literature class, as well. Oh, and plenty more essays on postmodernism to read! And don’t even get me started on the self-published novels I’ve got to get through…
How about you? What’s your reading looking like this coming week?
Stay with me, I’ll explain. Ever since I was but a young ‘un, I’ve been fascinated by the numerous depictions of the underworld in its myriad religious and…not quite, forms. You give me a TV series like The Good Place, and I’ll have fifteen essays’ worth of ideas about the not-quite-good-at-all place. You give me a game like Afterparty, and I’ll gush for ten minutes, at the bare minimum, about how cool its clock-in/clock-out, exhausted-torturer-demons-in-need-of-a-drink premise is. You give me Dante’s Inferno, and I might really get into Italian for four weeks and memorise a bunch of lines at the age of thirteen, which no non-Italian thirteen year old should know.
And don’t even get me started on Disney’s Hercules.
When my bud Dave of @TheWriteReads fame offered me a part in this Ultimate Blog Tour(TM, prob’ly), I was instantly hooked. Instantaneously. Momentarily. Without delay, I said to him, I told Dave, “Dave, I’m hooked!” Then I promptly deleted that email, it sounds way too unprofessional, don’t it, and I says to him, I sez, “Sure, I’m in.”
Because I’m cool like that.
So how’s this novel? How the HELL is it?
I quite enjoyed it. This is the story of Philip, or as I like to call him “Filip spelled with an uneccessary Ph-” but that’s only my personal lifetime of grievances being aired out again. Where was I?
Philip is a good boy, a really good boy, who accidentally gets sent to Hell to become the Devil’s heir. The Devil, Lucifer, is dying and desperately in need of a successor, but there’s been a mistake and Philip is the wrong boy. Philip is terrible at being bad, but Lucifer has no other choice than to begin the difficult task of training him in the ways of evil. Philip gets both friends and enemies in this odd, gloomy underworld—but who can he trust, when he discovers an evil-minded plot against the dark throne?
I enjoyed my time with The Devil’s Apprentice, partly because of the author’s iteration of Hell and partly because Philip and the supporting cast were enjoyable to read about. 12 year old Philip’s struggle to get better at being bad is as hilarious as my attempts at being social during the same age – although he really hits his stride in a matter of days, where I hit mine in…four, five years? What drives Philip to evil? A smitter of jealousy, a sprinkling of envy and — oh yes — a generous helping of manipulation! But fear not, for kids like that can’t do evil right, not for long. I mean, of course, kids whose names start with ‘Ph-‘ and not ‘F-‘, the poor wee buggers. Thank the celestials that he’s got a few demonic influences like Satina, a young temptress devil(ess?) who aids the recently deceased Lucifer-to-be in finding his evil footing. Is there a better thing to learn to lie for than for love?
There were some red herrings, a few mysteries that came to a squeaky clean resolution, and a hero’s journey that is as Campbellian as they come.
While not my usual cup of tea, I appreciate this novel for several reasons, the biggest of which has to do with the fact that it’s very much a child-friendly fantasy book, which has plenty to say about good and evil. The carmic balance doled out in Hell is what I was most fond of — the faces of those who stepped on others in life are used as pavement for the denizens of the underworld, those who have killed themselves spend eternity digging graves and being buried in them AND grave diggers dig those out. On and on goes this hellish torment, tinged with irony. Far from the most original rendition I’ve come across in my time as the Hells’ most avid connosieur but I liked it nonetheless.
Hell, I might read this one to my kids, as soon as they begin to form in their infernal, as of yet unknown, mother’s womb.
My score for this one is a 7.5 out of 10, which I’ll bump to 4/5 stars on Goodreads, since I (nearly) always round up and not down, especially when I enjoy my time with a book, as I did with The Devil’s Apprentice. I might even pick up the next volume, if given half the chance!
This interview was originally posted over at booknest.eu.
Hey Benedict, thank you for joining me today! First thing to get out of the way before we jump into it – you made it to this year’s SPFBO semi-finals; even though Lynn ultimately went with Rob Hayes’ “Never Die” as her finalist, you put up one hell of a fight! Are you pleased with how this year’s contest turned out?
Thanks for having me, Filip – excited to chat for a bit! I owe a lot to the SPFBO, so I’m always delighted to take part. It’s a great way to meet new people – authors, readers and bloggers – and it kills my TBR list every year! I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit gutted at getting knocked out today (my third semi-finalist position, dontchaknow), but it was always going to be a hard group, and that’s with the authors whose work I’m already aware of. The SPFBO is strongest when connecting new authors with new readers. I wasn’t aware of M L Wang’s work before this year’s contest began, but now she’s a hot favourite to win, and I’m excited to get stuck into her book!
The Sword of Kaigen is a special novel. I will admit it might be my own favourite so far, though having read it before the contest, I’m staying far, far away from booknest’s official score of it. I was a bit gutted to find out you didn’t make it to the finalists this year, myself but I’m cheering you on for next time!Your latest novel, The Flight of the Darkstar Dragon saw its release last month, on October 7 – what’s that been like in terms of initial reception? Has it been a load off your mind, finally having it out there?
Darkstar Dragon took a lot longer to get out into the world than I had planned, so it certainly was a relief to finally hit the ‘publish’ button. I’ve had that world running around in my head for a good few years now, and had planned to leave it there for a lot longer – at one point I had promised myself I’d have six Yarnsworld books published before trying something new. After finishing Owl Queen’s Court last year, however, I knew I wanted to take a break and try something different, so the Darkstar books got a bump in priority.
Initial reception has been great, so far. Not all of the Yarnsworld readers have picked it up straight away. I had expected that to be the case; it is always more difficult to get people to try something new, and this was a departure from those first books – much more action-adventure, lighter than the Yarnsworld novels. What had thrilled me, however, is that the majority of people I’ve heard back from have loved the story, the world in particular. That’s feedback I can roll with, and I’m excited to return there in 2020.
Owl Queen’s Court was a powerful novel, very dark, even sublime. It must’ve tapped into the darker side of your imagination – and that’s part of why I enjoyed your latest work. “Darkstar” is a book that is a break away from what you’ve been doing in the entirety of your career as a self-published author so far, with the tightly-knit folklore of Yarnsworld. Instead of the claustrophobic spaces of the Magpie King’s forest, you had the freedom of a hundred worlds to play with. How liberating did that feel? Was it a little daunting, as well?
Oh, I loved it. One of the best parts of this gig is getting to create your own playgrounds, and I wanted to go to town with the Darkstar, create somewhere all kinds of stories could take place in. The first book wasn’t daunting, but the second one might be, especially after hearing how enthusiastic so many of the readers have been. Will I be able to keep up that level of wonder, will I be able to live up to the promises that seem to have been made in the first book?
Crap. I’m not going to get to sleep at all tonight, am I?
I wouldn’t bet on it… I was going to ask you if you were planning on returning to Min and her crew in the future, but you’ve given me the answer already… unless you are interested in telling brand-new stories with different characters in the sandbox you’ve created for yourself?
Got to keep myself busy, don’t I? The current novel is another Yarnsworld book, then back to ‘The Return of the Whalefleet’ (Darkstar 2), and after that… I’ve got a few ideas. I do want to return to the City of Swords at some point soon, and of course the Magpie King’s forest demands a return trip too, but… Well, there are one or two other ideas bouncing around that are demanding attention, and one of them is looming particularly close on the horizon right now.
I understand you’ve been hard at work on a new novel – To Dream and Die as a Taniwha Girl. Could you tell us a little bit about it?
Happy to talk a bit about it! I knew I wanted to return to the Crescent Atoll, but I honestly thought Kaimana and Rakau’s story was done. I adored the film Kobu and the Two Strings, and it really hit home for me when the creators were asked about a sequel; they did not want to, because then they would have to escalate the follow-up. As it stands, the events of Kobu are the most important moments in that character’s life. If they made a sequel, would they relegate those moments to second place? Or would the sequel be less important? I had felt the same about K and R – their story was done. They would pop up in other tales, of course, as side characters or Easter eggs, but it was time for something new.
Sometimes, the characters call to you, don’t they? It’s like they have a mind of their own.
The characters had other ideas. I HATE it when authors say that, but this time it really is the case. In fact, the main events of ‘Taniwha Girl’ stem from the closing folktale in ‘Where the Waters Turn Black’, where we learn that the people of the Atoll are starting to tell folktales about Kaimana now. In a place like the Yarnsworld, stories have a price. In this next book, Kaimana and Rakau are going to find out that becoming modern folklore characters brings with it a hefty toll…
As someone who hasn’t yet read “Where the Waters Turn Black,” I think I better get to it soon! I’m looking forward to finding out what price Kaimana and Rakau will be forced to pay although knowing the Yarnsworld, I have the firm suspicion it might involve more than a pound of flesh… But to step away from the writing side of things,Authors today, especially those in self-publishing, are required to do so much more than just write. How do the mish-mash of marketing and near-constant need for social media presence affect your writing process?
I get around it by not being that good at them! I’m lucky in a way that the writing side of things tends to be well received, although of course I’m always striving to improve, and always have areas of my craft I want to keep developing. Compared with that, marketing is still a crap shoot for me. Marketing changes so often, that anytime I feel I’ve got a handle on something that is working for me, algorithms shift and success rates change. I took a break from major ongoing marketing for most of this year to focus on the writing, but plan on returning to it in 2020, hopefully not affecting the writing speed too much! It is tough, though. I’ve got nothing for admiration for the authors who seem to ace both sides of the business, and that’s really what you need to do to be financially successful at this game.
Now, for a trio offun questions!
You used to be a devout World of Warcraft player, this much I know – “used to” being the operative word. Well, phrase. During which expansion did you finally give up?
Mists! I had actually been in and out during Cataclysm, but I ran a casual raiding guild during Mists, and when it fell apart my reasons for sticking around left too. I did nip back during Warlords for a month, but the storyline did not appeal to me. But I’m telling you this now, Filip – I’m going to try again. Did you hear they have fox people now? Fox people! I’ve already logged in with a free account to save the name ‘Vippon’. Next year is the year!
The fox people even have a cute song! I will send it to you later. *Laughs* If you need reinforcements, I might just be open to aiding you in the construction of a brand new fox-guild!
You have a D&D podcast – Crit Faced – with fellow authors Josiah Bancroft, Timandra Whitecastle, Phil Tucker and David Benem. It’s excellent fun for those who don’t know about it but as a fellow DM, I was hoping you’d tell me how you got into the hobby. What’s one advice you’d give a newcomer to role-playing games?
One of my high school friends introduced me to role playing via a book called Dungeoneer. I don’t know if you had the Fighting Fantasy books when you were growing up, but it was basically an RPG using those rules. I stayed away for most of my twenties, but it was actually podcasting that got me back into it. I read a lot of webcomics at the time, and two of the strips I followed – PVP and Penny Arcade – started an irregular DnD podcast. I had never known how much fun the game could be until I heard those guys play, and I wanted to have a go.
Don’t stress about the role playing. Certainly not about the silly voices. Most people you hear or see playing online – the Crit Faced crew included – already have a history of playing together. It takes a while to get comfortable playing together, and you need that before players allow their characters to shine through.
Either that, or get drunk. That usually leads to some odd gaming experiences, though.
It’s a hobby like no other – somehow, role-playing teaches you so much about personal choice and consequences while bringing groups of people together. Although, when alcohol is involved, things tend to get a touch more explosive!
I find the guys turn into barmaids. Not pretty.
Mine end up chugging potions way past their end-dates, puking rainbows and once, forcing a gigantic ice wyrm to grow a moustache.
Thank you so much for doing this, Benedict! Before I leave you, one last question: Which of your novels would you point out to a first-time reader, and why?
Oh, I wouldn’t point them to a novel at all! I think a great starting point would be the short story ‘And They Were Never Heard From Again’. It is short, it is free, and I’m bloody chuffed with it – I reckon it is a great introduction to the Yarnsworld in general, and the Magpie King’s forest in particular. If someone enjoys that story, then they can be pretty such there are other Yarnsworld books out there that will appeal to them.
You know, that’s the perfect entry point I’d offer them as well, having read And They Were Never Heard From Again. It encapsulates everything great about the Yarnsworld.
Now you’ve got me wearing my ‘aw shucks’ face.
I am happy to accept all the credit for that! This was extremely fun – let’s do it again next year! Maybe over video chat this time, eh? Will we be brave enough? Time will tell!
I’m up for it! Give me a warning, I’ll grab a few beers first, and then we can all be barmaids together. This was a lot of fun, man – thanks loads for asking me to do it!
A better first interviewee I could not have asked for!