Sworn In Steel, by Douglas Hulick [A Tale of the Kin #2]

Title: Sworn In Steel (A Tale of the Kin #2)
Author: Douglas Hulick
Publisher: Tor (UK) Roc (US)
Publication date: May 8th 2014
Rating: ★★★★★

sworn_in_steel_UKWhen I realised that we were approaching the release date for Sworn in Steel, the second Tales of the Kin book by Douglas Hulick, I knew I had to beg, borrow or steel a copy to get it NOW. Because Among Thieves was one of the best books I’d read that year, without a doubt. I’ve been patiently (must read now!!!) waiting since, desperate to know how Drothe will adjust to his new, loftier existence. So, I scored an ARC, thinking I needed to read this as soon as possible (so thanks to Doug’s publicity department for arranging an ebook for me).

I wasn’t wrong.

At the end of Among Thieves, Hulick’s first Tales of the Kin novel, we left Drothe in a bit of a “situation”. Somehow, through circumstance, chance and dumb luck, he’s found himself a Grey Prince. Not only does that mean an entire organisation to run, people to protect, dodges to organise and cons to run, but it’s put a solid end to his days as a Nose.

Problem is, that’s what Drothe is good at: he lives the street, knows how to work it, play the game and shake down what he needs. It’s what he is.

Except it’s not, not any more. Drothe is the newest Grey Prince – and he’d better get used to it.

But there’s another thing Drothe is good at: trouble. They’re on first name terms and trouble is always looking to hook up, whether Drothe likes it or not. So when a sticky situation goes belly up and another Grey Prince is dusted, with Drothe’s knife stuck in his eye, everything looks set to crumble, unless he acts fast.

Drothe needs to shift the focus from him if he doesn’t want the other Grey Princes and the rest of the Kin knocking at his door. Basically everything is starting to slide already, and without Degan at his back – an absence he’s beginning to feel – Drothe doesn’t have many people to rely on. There’s Fowler, of course, always standing oak, but she’s still not forgiven him for playing the wide nose after he’d gone long for Kells. But she’s back and though things aren’t the same – what is? – it’s good to have the Oak mistress there.

Only, whilst Drothe still regrets what happened with Degan, another of the order comes knocking. It’s not a social call and soon Drothe learns that this Degan – Silver, though Wolf seems more apt – was the one who dusted this Grey Prince and he’s deliberately setting Drothe up. He wants something, does Silver. He wants Bronze Degan.

Before he knows it, Drothe is planning a trip to Djan, away from the Empire and into the reach of the Despot. This brings its own challenges and problems, but Drothe believes he can find a way into the old city, where the movement of foreigners is closely monitored, and somehow find Degan. Besides Wolf’s incentive, Drothe wants to find Degan and make amends. If he even can.

Only… In a city where he doesn’t have an organisation at his back or know the local talent, how can Drothe manage to stay ahead of the game? Never mind when that game changes. Before he knows it, everything has gone to hell. Suddenly he’s stuck in the middle of clan politics and something much darker. Whatever it is, it has to do with his unusual night vision and how he got it. But it’s hard to ask a dead man questions, so he won’t be quizzing his stepfather, Sebastian. Drothe only knows the ritual he underwent but that doesn’t mean he knows anything else.

But being Drothe, that’s just not enough trouble.  Having been asked to carry a package to Djan in return for the promise of aid, Drothe expects it’s contents are probably a slightly greyer shade of legal. Little does he know that what he carries is about to bring him a whole world of hurt.

There’s more to this package than Drothe imagined and when it comes to his expedition to Djan on the whole, far more tangled and overlapping intentions than it first seemed. As usual, Drothe is about to step into something huge and seem to the world far more calculating and unscrupulous than he really is.

Drothe has a lot on his mind, lots to do – but that’s okay, right? Since every second he spends entangled in the problems his coming to Djan has stirred, is a second less spent thinking about being a Grey Prince.

Sworn in Steel is a deliciously devious, perfectly plotted adventure that is heart-stoppingly tense and stuffed full of excitement. I got everything I expected, and more: more of Hulick’s incredibly addictive and colourful narrative, more twists and turns and “oh god, what now?”. There’s not a part of this second book that suffers for following after such a fantastic book as Among Thieves. In fact, however good Drothe’s first outing was, this is undeniably a thousand times better. It’s just better and offers more, demonstrating that Hulick is a writer worth waiting for. Yes, there’s been a wait between books: do I care? The hell I do. Now Sworn in Steel is all finished up and I’m already gnashing my nails in anticipation fro the next, every second of the wait was worth it. There isn’t another writer like Hulick; with all the personality of a Harry Dresden narrative and the day-to-day grind of being a Kin on the street, there is something that feels utterly unique to the Tales of the Kin. Something that kept me up late reading, night after night.

Sworn in Steel is funny, light as well as engaging easily with the gritter aspects of what is basically fantasy organised crime. But who doesn’t love a good mob story? And that’s what you get here, only with fantasy and the moreish culture of the Djanese, all tangled up with an incredibly complex and deep secret that lies not just close to the heart of the Empire, but smack bang in the middle of it. This book reveals surprising secrets, introduces completely unforgettable characters with their own unique agendas, and does so whilst maintaining a fast pace, a brilliant sense of humour, and incredibly gripping narrative. I’m a huge, huge Hulick fan, and Sworn in Steel just made me fanboy from here to the mountains of Tibet. Absolutely nothing whatsoever brings this book down from its pedestal. It is exactly what I was expected–and more. As the story deepens and we learn more, all I can say is that Hulick is the kind of writer I think everyone secretly wishes they could be–I know I do!

If Sworn in Steel isn’t way up there on your reading list, you’re missing out. It should be at the top. This was a completely unparalleled pleasure and as usual, Hulick certainly knows how to end a damn book! Now all there’s left to do it hole up and wait for book three. And I couldn’t care less how long that wait is, my tent is firmly pitched.

Awesome, just damn awesome.

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Drakenfeld, by Mark Charan Newton [Drakenfeld #1]

Title: Drakenfeld (Lucan Drakenfeld #1)
Author: Mark Charan Newton
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: 1oth October 2013 (UK)
Rating: ★★★★★

Drakenfeld-Cover-Art-540x830Drakenfeld is a complete change-of-pace from what Mark Charan Newton exhibited with his Legends of the Red Sun series, which veered towards the New Weird and definitely played with darker plotlines. Instead, this classically-influenced fantasy is a crime hybrid that is set to be as much of a stellar success as the rest of Newton’s work. In fact, I’ve been hoping for something like this for a while and when I received this ARC before the summer I dived straight in.

I was hesitant at the setting in the first instance—I’m not a massive fan of the classical world and definitely not a fan of Rome and Greece and all that sort of stuff. But I was anticipating this because it’s a Newton and because, crime hybrid. That’s pretty much all I needed to hear.

I’m glad I forwent my ho-hum attitude towards the setting, because Drakenfeld is a complete success of a novel. I wish there were more hybrids, especially ones that merge the crime genre into fantasy and science fiction.

Essentially, Drakenfeld is a whodunit. My favourite kind.

Lucan Drakenfeld is the son of a renowned Officer of the Sun Chamber and his whole life he has lived in his father’s shadow. To this end, he has been working far from the city of his birth, avoiding elements of his past—and his father’s glowing reputation.

But upon receipt of news of his father’s death, Lucan is recalled to the ancient city of his birth, Tryum. Along with him goes his assistant, Leana. They travel to the city and soon find themselves completely entangled in what will prove to be his most difficult and complicated case to date. Along the way, as might be expected with Lucan returning to his home, he will have to confront elements of his past that he would rather forget. More than that, his father’s death is suspicious to Lucan, despite the Sun Chamber’s belief that it was a natural death.

With both the death of the King’s sister and the mystery of his father’s death hanging over the investigation, Lucan and Leana must delve into the heart of the city’s politics  to uncover the truth—which is far stranger and more complex than  either of them could have accounted for.

Everything in this fantasy crime hybrid is woven together perfectly and Newton demonstrates an aptitude for not only the complex fantasy of the Legends of the Red Sun series, but for the subtle twists and turns of a Romanesque mystery, too.

Following the slightly darker turns of his previous series, the final book of which I was incredibly disappointed by, I was expecting to love Drakenfeld off the bat after reading Newton’s blog on the subject, promising a completely different sort of protagonist and ideal.

Precisely this is delivered, in spades. Drakenfeld is a book that I devoured in a couple of days due to its addictive pace and moreish, compelling plot. As a protagonist, Lucan Drakenfeld is completely honourable and likeable and this manner of lead character is something of a fresh perspective amidst the darker natured, more anti-hero archetypes flooding the fantasy forum at the moment.

One of the best things to hope for from a series like this is the subsequent books come to and their potentially episodic nature. Like all good crime stories, which admittedly I only have experience of from TV, there promises to be a different plot thread in each accompanying novel, and throughout I expect to learn more of Lucan himself as the series develops.

I’d been hoping for a return to the level of enjoyment received from Newton’s earlier books and I wasn’t at all disappointed. It felt that whatever I perceived was missing from the writing of The Broken Isles was back in full force. The writing felt like “Newton” again. As a loyal and steadfast fan, this was immeasurably relieving. With this novel, I have a well-missed, well-loved author back at the top of my pile.

It is always satisfying to anticipate plot twists coming; it gives a certain sense of smugness, as if high-fiving or knuckle-bumping the author. It’s like being in on some kind of private joke. And it is definitely something that adds a layer of further enjoyment to a novel such as this. Maybe it’s just me; maybe other people like the “wow” or “holy crap!” factors when a plot twist comes to light. Either way, Drakenfeld was a complete success for me. (I do think a parental obsession with Saturday night instalments of Jonathan Creek taught a certain way of thinking in regards to the Locked Room puzzle, however, despite being a wee bairn at the time, likely sprawled on the floor with colouring books and staying up way past bedtime.)

I expect that Newton’s new series will be an immediate success, thanks partly to its depth of worldbuilding, managing to create a secondary classical world that is familiar enough to be so, yet still completely his own. Lucan Drakenfeld is a complex character with a good core—and this is just the kind of character I feel has been largely missing from certain veins of fantasy. There’s been too much darkness. It was about time that something lighter, yet still no more stereotyped or clichéd, should break through that darker branch of the genre.

Overall I loved Drakenfeld every bit as much as I expected to. It left me with a deep longing for more fantasy/genre hybrids. Romance has always been something of a part of SFF, way back through the decades, and so to find it in fantasy isn’t classed as anything unusual. But horror and crime and mystery as their own separate elements have not yet breached the hold. Drakenfeld is the first step, with the novel generally being accepted as having “crime” elements, so much so that Newton himself is a member of a crime writers association.

A deep and clever story focused around a man and his duties, with revelations along the way that make for an enjoyable start to a promising new series.

The Merchant of Dreams, by Anne Lyle [Night’s Masque #2]

  • TITLE: The Merchant of Dreams [Night’s Masque #2]
  • AUTHOR: Anne Lyle
  • PUBLISHER: Angry Robot Books
  • PUBLICATION DATE:  3rd January 2013 (UK paperback)

The Merchant of Dreams, by Anne Lyle—Night’s Masque #2—is an example of pure storytelling. Rich and well-paced, the second instalment of the series builds on the foundation of The Alchemist of Souls and completely avoids “middle-book syndrome” by becoming a solid middle point for the series, setting a high bar and allowing only for things to get better.

Often, what makes a book is a mixture of two elements, perfectly and chemically arranged on a page as suits the author’s style and tastes. Character and plot. If any one ingredient is lacking, or does not gel well enough, then the formula is ruined and the result will be subpar. When reading Lyle you never need to worry about the mixture being right—it always is. Lyle’s skill at writing character sets her apart in the genre and makes her work all the more approachable and identifiable.

In The Merchant of Dreams—helpfully hinted at by the gorgeous front cover and the play on Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice—the cast sets sail on Walsingham’s business to the Serene Republic; Venice. With the richness and wonder of Venice to play with, Lyle set out to really push the imagination and just what she could achieve with her characters and the setting provided. The result is a magical romp through a familiar Venice—with its canals and piazzas and masked parties—with all the tension and intrigue of intelligencers, skraylings and guisers, and secrets nestled between the Serene Republic’s soft bosom—secrets that she wants to keep close to her heart.

With Coby’s secret held by Mal, their relationship begins to blossom, awkwardly—though as long as they remain in England there can be no romance between them. On the contrary, Gabriel and Ned have settled into a routine of domestic and romantic normalcy that—mostly—serves to quell Ned’s resurfacing affections for his former lover, Mal, who, despite having freed his twin brother Sandy from Bedlam and having successfully uncovered the mysteries of his past, is as troubled as ever by recent revelations and events. And with Ambassador Kiiren gone from England and Sandy with him, Mal’s humour has been better.

When he is ordered to Venice to spy on the skraylings’ sought alliance with Venice, he takes Ned with him, giving Cody strict orders to take care of Sandy, whose return is a welcome surprise, yet one he cannot fully trust. Coby swears to Mal his brother will stay safe. No sooner has the promise been made, than Sandy and Erishen inside him, begin to cause trouble—trouble that forces Coby and Gabriel both from England. Before long, more ungodly trouble hounds Coby, with the appearance of more skraylings, whose betrayal comes at sea and threatens to take them all the way back to the New World. Coby is forced to lie and think quickly and eventually they find themselves following after Mal and heading to Venice.

Meanwhile Ned is hardly cut out for the life Mal has introduced him to, and though he is a dab hand on a ship, he soon tires of being away from Gabriel and being surrounded by men on a ship who take a dislike to his preferences. More danger abounds before they even reach the Serene Republic, and with Sir Walter Raleigh in tow and appearances on the up-and-up, Mal is struggling to get done what needs doing, without arousing suspicion regarding his own secret past. After attacks at sea, storms and pirates, being in Venice should be an easy game, but Mal discovers otherwise when he finds there is no access to the skraylings or Kiiren, and that Venice is ruled from the shadows by at least one guiser.

Under the cover of seeking his brother Charles, who is rumoured to be in Venice, Mal treads as lightly as he dares through the streets of Venice, which he finds are not as serene as the name implies.

The Merchant of Dreams is a complete success that invites you into a world of intrigue and danger, fencing and romance. The sexual tension between Ned and Mal is beautifully written and adds not only a depth to the relationship, but a streak of realism. Lyle successfully writes gay and bisexual characters as naturally as breathing, and it makes for a deeply enjoyable read. Gabriel and Ned are as enjoyable as Coby and Mal, Sandy and Kiiren.

In fact, the relationships between Lyle’s male characters take the book to another level for me. She writes homosexual characters and shoehorns nothing for any minority (perceived or otherwise)—she just happens to write Gabriel and Ned, who love each other and do the dirty, and Ned, who is Mal’s former lover, who happens to enjoy the womenfolk as well. It’s as simple as that and I appreciate seeing more than just a homosexual character there for decoration, or to be penned in on all sides by heteronormative characters. Never mind the mythological bisexual character, appearing, nowhere, ever!

It’s refreshing, and damn if I don’t enjoy reading about pretty Gabriel and brooding Mal. Coby, too, is a brilliant example of a cross-dressing heroine doing it more—by now—because she enjoys being Jacob Hendricks as well as Mina Hendricks. It raises fantastic questions about gender in a new way—and I love it.

In fact, I loved everything about The Merchant of Dreams: it is exciting, thrilling and Lyle’s gorgeous prose drives the story elegantly forwards towards a goal. Lyle is good at endings—not all writers are—and amidst the bittersweet closing chapters lie the seeds of a plot that could have some incredibly awesome consequences, should they be allowed to bloom. A fantastic example of historical fantasy going all the way and holding nothing back, The Merchant of Dreams is complex and exciting.

Gorgeous prose, stunning ability to weave a story, and likeable, moreish characters—Lyle is a winner. Read her.

5/5

(P.S. I am crushing on Coby.)

The Alchemist of Souls, by Anne Lyle (Night’s Masque #1)

  • TITLE: The Alchemist of Souls (Night’s Masque #1)
  • AUTHOR: Anne Lyle
  • PUBLISHER: Angry Robot Books
  • PUBLICATION DATE: 5th April 2012

I’ll start by saying this is the first book from this imprint I’ve read; mainly as I’d never really heard of Angry Robot Books before (shame on me!). The majority of the titles I read have been published by Orbit, Gollancz, and Tor, and since I am fairly new to alternate history fantasy, or historical fantasy (a particular flavour that seems very common to the imprint) it’s not a surprise to me that this is my first.

And what a first to begin with! I honestly haven’t had this much fun with a book since Douglas Hulick’s Among Thieves. They are very different books, but they share the same sort of cloak-and-dagger flavour.

I must begin by saying that Anne Lyle is a storyweaver of the highest calibre; her elegant prose is nothing short of beautiful. I enjoyed every single second of this book and everything from the characters and their relationships, to the exceptionally tight plotting, to the believable intrigue heralds Lyle as not just an insanely talented new writer, but also a poet and true master of words.

It might be somewhat obvious by now that The Alchemist of Souls was a hit with me. I’ll try not to gush too much hereafter…

I’m very new to real-world or alternative history fantasy—that isn’t of the urban variety—and I am woefully unused to the genre and the way it works, having only read The Fallen Blade, by Jon Courtenay Grimwood, thus far. I’d been under the impression that I might not like a fantasy of this type—that it wouldn’t be “fantasy” enough for me, being set in our real world. In the end, that didn’t matter a jot. The most magical thing about alternate or historical real world fantasy is that anything goes. I suppose that’s why it’s fantasy.

Lyle’s imagination is a vivid and colourful one, and boy does it show through. The Alchemist of Souls offers, alongside the usual life of Elizabethan England, the skraylings—creatures from the New World—and a fashion of alchemical magic and wonder that gives a whole different edge to the story.

The characters are believable and exceptionally well written; there isn’t a single member of the cast who doesn’t vie for your readerly affections—and there certainly isn’t one who doesn’t receive them. I liked everyone. I forget the last time I read a book and liked absolutely everyone. Sure enough, the characters have flaws and the way in which the other characters see them differs depending on POV—it’s interesting and builds a gentle sense of natural conflict and tension that is so very real that it brings the characters to life on a whole new level.

Maliverny Catlyn is the protagonist, and at first glance he appears to be your typical rogue-with-a-fancy-rapier. From a noble line, but down on his luck, Mal doesn’t seem to be anything special, and at first, the supporting cast—player Gabriel “Angel” Parish, scribe, Ned Faulkner, Mal’s friend and Gabriel’s lover, and Coby, a tireman for a troupe of actors with the patronage of Lord Suffolk—seem to be far more interesting and layered. Of course, there is far, far more to Mal than meets the eye—more than even he knows.

Gabriel and Ned begin the story apart, with Ned mooning over an uninterested Mal—but that doesn’t stop Ned hoping—with Gabriel readying himself within his group of players, Suffolk’s Men, headed by Master Naismith for a playing contest, whilst Mal is conveyed to the Tower of London in questionable circumstances, for reasons contrary to his expectations. Meanwhile Coby—Jacob Hendricks—is a young Dutch boy fending for himself whilst holding a treacherous secret to his chest. The events of the story all intertwine and pull the characters closer together, with unexpected revelations and circumstances along the way.

Not one character is under- or overdone and when the viewpoint skips from one to another, there is no sense of lost pace or momentum. All the characters are equally entertaining and with equally riveting plot arcs of their own.

I particularly enjoyed the way Lyle handles homosexuality and gay sex. Since she’s a woman, I’m certain it’s something she’s never experienced, but instead of treating it as something alien, she appears to write simply as though she were writing love/sex scenes between any two characters that share lust or love for one another. And the prose is all the richer for it. I haven’t read many gay sex scenes in fantasy. In fact, the only character I’ve read who is homosexual is The Legends of the Red Sun’s (Mark Charan Newton) Brynd Lathraea. There was something more to the relationships between Lyle’s men, something far more passionate and real.

As a bisexual male, I definitely appreciated a break from swooning maidens and heroes with their eyes agog at the heroine’s fine, fine cleavage. It was a refreshing change, and a fantastic reminder of how much closer men used to be with one another, in light of the role women played, historically, in Lyle’s chosen time-setting. If we’re not mincing words; I bloody loved it.

There are more twists, plots, and subtle machinations in The Alchemist of Souls than you can shake a pointy thing at—and damn does Lyle write every second, every detail, every thread so impeccably well that you’d think she’s been writing books for centuries. Yes, she’s that good.

It has been a long time since I encountered an author whose work I would describe as poetry also. Anne Lyle is one such author. The Alchemist of Souls, as a work of elegant fantasy prose, should be considered alongside Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind and (by my favour) Elspeth Cooper’s Songs of the Earth.

Anne Lyle’s writing is beautiful, elegant and gripping; be prepared to be swept away to a rich and colourful depiction of a different Elizabethan England, where treachery and danger abound.

5/5

The Emperor’s Knife, by Mazarkis Williams (Tower and Knife #1)

  • TITLE: The Emperor’s Knife (The Tower and the Knife #1)
  • AUTHOR: Mazarkis Williams
  • RELEASE DATE:  27th October, 2011 (UK)
  • PUBLISHER: Jo Fletcher Books (Quercus)

    The Emperor’s Knife, the first in a new trilogy (The Tower and the Knife), is Mazarkis Williams’ début novel—and one of the first offerings from brand new SFF imprint, Jo Fletcher Books (Quercus).

    I recently interviewed Mazarkis (interview link to be added when it goes live over at Fantasy Faction), before I’d finished up with the book, and found him to be a great guy who told a great story. It may sound obvious, but sometimes in the modern market, writers are so bogged down with what they “should” be writing, that sometimes the story suffers. Williams tells a story; nothing more, nothing less. And for it, The Emperor’s Knife is an engaging, interesting book that really whets the appetite for the following books in the series.

    The Emperor’s Knife offers a setting with a definite Persian/Arabian flavour—picture both Prince of Persia and Arabian Nights, then meet somewhere in the middle, and we’re there—which is both exotic, a break from the pseudo-European worlds that permeate fantasy, and exciting. We’re treated to tall towers, hot desert sands and nomads, glittering palaces, and an almighty Emperor, seen as the Son of Heaven. It’s a spectacular setting that stretches from the beautiful palace and the urban expanse it sits at the heart of, across the desert, and to flat plains where the grasses are tousled by the winds and the Windreaders dwell. It’s a beautifully set book, with a very clear sense of imagery: you are very aware of what everything looks like, and the level of immersion is unusually deep.

    For a début novel, this is utterly stunning. Williams weaves a deeply subtle and mysterious story with very little effort, and to the very last page, the plotting is tight, clean and strong. In fact, the book was an absolute pleasure to read: a pleasure to identify with each and every character, even in a small way; a pleasure to turn each page, constantly guessing at the nature of the villain and his “weapon”; a pleasure to reach the final page with a huge grin, eagerly seeking the rest of the story to see what happens to the characters you’ve come to know.

    Williams’ styling is different, cleaner, and definitely more simplistic in parts, than what I’m used to. My ideal fashion of prose is somewhere between Patrick Rothfuss and Elspeth Cooper, with Blake Charlton’s exposition thrown in. Williams’ style is close to none of these; it is entirely different. Whilst he does flirt with exposition in parts, the presentation is so different and integral to the narrative of his characters, that he comes exceptionally close to the idea of “show, not tell”, for a fantasy novel. Personally, someone tells me to “show, not tell” and I want to run a thousand miles in the opposite direction. It reminds me far too much of non-genre lecturers slowly killing the art of exposition, word by word. However, I enjoyed Williams’ style: it added to the mystery and effect of his setting, somehow.

    It’s an incredibly subtle novel, but one that compels you to keep turning the pages, right until the very end. The characters are interesting and likeable—Sarmin, trapped and kept from the world; Mesema, taken from her home by duty, and thrown into a tangled web of intrigue; Eyul, ever seeking forgiveness for the blood on his hands—and keep the reader’s attention rooted, even when there’s little action taking place.

    In fact, there isn’t much in the way of action, and this certainly isn’t a “swashbuckling” tale of scimitars. Instead, it’s a fantasy-mystery with one of the most subtle, yet ingenious plots I have seen in a long time. Perhaps what really makes The Emperor’s Knife succeed as a fantasy-mystery, is that is lacks the necessary components that make a classic mystery: there is no hint of a “whodunit”, and no real way of tracing events to their source in order to figure out the villain. Of course, throughout the story a list of “possible suspects” is built up, but it is a small one, and one of the characters was struck from the list immediately, following the same line of thought of “the butler did it”. Williams’ is too slick for the blindingly obvious. (I am fairly proud that I guessed the villain (of course I won’t reveal the identity here!), and prouder still that it was a single line that led me to guess just who was behind the Pattern.)

    As one of Jo Fletcher Books’ first offerings, The Emperor’s Knife has definitely sealed my initial opinion at least: this new imprint is one to look out for. Williams’ début was an anticipated read, for me, and I was not disappointed in the slightest. A fantastic book with a deep vein of emotion and thought about human nature beneath, The Emperor’s Knife strikes a chord because it is such a human story—yet an ultimately positive story.

    A brilliant, slick, and well-crafted début.

    5/5

Spellbound, by Blake Charlton (Spell #2)

  • TITLE: Spellbound (Spell #2)
  • AUTHOR: Blake Charlton
  • PUBLISHER: Harper Voyager
  • RELEASE DATE (UK): 29th September 2011

Blake Charlton’s Spellbound featured in my recent “Best of 2011” post, however, I’d not yet finished the book, and had I written that list when I had, it may well have been awarded a higher ranking than it was.

Spellbound returns to the cast of Spellwright—ten years after the events that took place. The cast from the first book return—Nicodemus Weal, Deidre, Magister Shannon—and continue their plight to prevent the Disjunction, whilst keeping Nicodemus safe, now exiled from Starhaven and his studies, considered a murderer and a dangerous cacographer. In a new part of Charlton’s world we meet new characters—Francesca, Cyrus and a handful of supporting cast.

Essentially Spellbound is the middle book in the trilogy, but it’s so much more than that besides. Building on the excellent story told through the first book, this second instalment couldn’t do more to avoid “middle-book” syndrome: Spellbound feels like an epic adventure filled with intrigue, twists and everything a reader may have come to expect from Charlton’s work. There’s nothing “middle-y” about this book: in fact, however good Spellwright was, Spellbound swoops down and takes the crown. It is a superb book, and a unique book with its own ideas, themes and rules. It is an excellent and relevant book, not only in a sense of personal discovery, but also in regards to the forthcoming fantasy Renaissance, as termed by Charlton himself when I interviewed him for Fantasy Faction.

Spellbound delivers everything promised—and then some. From the first page Spellbound is a page-turner and the delivery of the story is expertly done, especially since more modern readers might be unfamiliar with the idea of a “ten years later” vein of approach. It works in this instance, and despite the fact that we rejoin events and a whole ten years of action is essentially missing from our knowledge, it doesn’t matter: we can infer that the whole time has been spent continuing on in the war against Typhon and his Disjunction, with Nicodemus training the Kobolds and seeking his lost emerald. The in-between bits do not matter expressly as we are able to grasp the whole.

The gap in time allows us to more easily accept the new protagonist, Francesca DeVega, who now shares the limelight with Nicodemus. There are no rushed or clumsy introductions of this new character, as so much time has gone by and we enter a new decade of the larger story. Francesca’s introduction is as natural as it should be with no effort made to merge her with the story: the new story is her story. Her story in this instance begins ten years after the beginning of Spellwright. She is an enjoyable addition to the cast and her rapport with Nicodemus is one of the elements that truly makes the book. Their banter and discussion on Nicodemus’ disability—from the perspective of a physician—is enjoyable, amusing and insightful.

Charlton’s style has improved from his début—it is now confident and seamless and he paints the world he imagines both vividly and effortlessly. Much of Charlton can be glimpsed through both protagonists and this makes the story all the stronger, because the reader knows it is authentic.

Spellbound is a fantastic, exhilarating read that kept me flicking the pages at lightspeed, just to finish it. The twists are well-plotted, exciting, and the kind that make you go “aha!” if you get it mere pages before, or “ohhhh” if you’re enlightened at the same time as the cast. A truly excellent book, Spellbound needs to be considered one of the best books of 2011.

One of the best elements of Charlton’s evolved style is his exposition: the reader sees the world as and when the characters see it, and his approach does not flood the story with his worldbuilding, but rather allows the reader to truly explore the setting as the story progresses from location to location. Charlton’s world is tight, vivid, and real.

Spellbound was a pleasure and an excitement to read and I can only hope that Spellbreaker (?) will deliver far past expectations, just as both its predecessors have. A fantastic addition to the series and full of absolutely everything any damn good fantasy novel should be. An extremely satisfying read.

5/5

The Summoner (Chronicles of the Necromancer #1) by Gail Z. Martin

“A great quest will come to you, Son of the Lady,” the crone whispered, tracing a barely visible line on Tris’ palm with her nail. “Who can see its end?” she mumbled, her nail tracing the folds of Tris’ palm. “Many souls hang in the balance. Your way lies in shadow.”

  • TITLE: The Summoner
  • AUTHOR: Gail Z. Martin
  • RELEASE DATE: 30th January 2007
  • PUBLISHER: Solaris (UK)

I’m going to start by giving no illusions as to what I thought of this book: it was awful. The main problem with Gail Z. Martin’s first novel is that the writing is terrible. Overwritten, amateur descriptive talent, and crafting that reads more like campaign notes for a game of Dungeons and Dragons are only part of what make this book such a failure.

I’ll make it clear that I a) listened to this as an audio book (the version of which likely added to the overall awfulness, given that out of nowhere, this epic fantasy world was filled wall-to-wall with deep-south US accents more fitting of gruff cowboys than anti-hero smugglers) and b) having not realised that Martin’s new series, headed by The Sworn (released Feb 2011, by Orbit) followed on from the Chronicles with the same characters and world, I started this first, and can vouch for a vast improvement in her writing.

The Summoner begins well: Prince Martris Drayke is forced to flee with a handful of friends—two fighter-types and a bard—after his half-brother brings about the murder of his father, mother and sister. Then, Tris begins to realise he has the dormant powers of a Summoner—in fact, he is the Mage Heir of the Summoner, Bava K’aa. Conveniently, his grandmother.

When Tris and his friends have to run, with Jared’s hatred hot on their heels, aided by a mage who pulls strings from behind the scenes, the story should turn into something riveting and exciting. It doesn’t. The only part of the book with any genuine excitement is the beginning. And we’re talking about a 600+ page book, here. It’s a long story.

I wish I were exaggerating when I say nothing happens. The same formula carries the book from page one, to page six-hundred-and-too many. They travel, encounter trouble, someone is wounded, they recover, Tris discovers more about his magic, they travel. And repeat. The “chance” meetings along the road are obviously staged and the plot becomes very transparent. It’s a huge pity, because Martin’s world is beautifully crafted and original, let down, again, by bad writing and a terribly constructed plot.

I’ve mentioned how bad I felt the writing was, so let me elaborate. Martin over-describes her characters as though she’s showing them off in a pageant, almost as if she’s constantly reminding us how they look. She does this with such detail that it’s like a constant reminder of how handsome or beautiful they are. See, Tris! See his white-blond hair! See it a thousand times that he takes his fairness from his mother! See a thousand times more than Jared has a darkness to his face that Tris doesn’t! See for the thousandth time Tris’ hair dye has worn off, showing off his white-blond beneath. It becomes annoying to the point that you feel constantly patronised.

Martin uses the same descriptions over and over again, describing everything and anything. She uses the same lexis so often that you begin to realise when she does, you actually focus in on the words because she uses them so much. More than a few times Martin described the healer Carina in the exact same way after an encounter: all this demonstrates is an unimaginative writing style and a lacking descriptive vocabulary. It’s dully repetitive.

Further to this, Martin overwrites everything to the point that the story takes on an uncomfortable air of melodrama that does not belong. Martin writes in a fashion teenagers are scolded for during Creative Writing class; she constantly overeggs the pudding and by the end, whenever anything dramatic does happen, whenever there is a hint of something original (and not a repeat of past events) happening in this book, it is met with a roll of the eyes and a groan at the sheer and awful melodrama instilled by her dreadful craft.

Martin’s characters could have been attractive, interesting and original, if they weren’t let down by her writing. It feels as though Martin created the entirety of the Chronicles of the Necromancer as a huge story arc, knowing the details before she began writing The Summoner, and it seems that the first novel was a means of getting her characters from A to B. 600+ pages is an excruciatingly long A-B. Too long.

The Summoner is the most boring fantasy book I have read. The most annoying, too, and certainly the most patronising. Nothing in this book keeps me interested in reading the sequel—The Blood King—and then further in the series after that. It is, in fact, The Sworn that restores a little of my faith in Martin’s ability as a storyteller. Whilst it exhibits some of the overwriting that I have a feeling Martin never outgrows, the crafting of The Sworn is far superior and any flaws are only noticeable after having read The Summoner.

Honestly, it’s just not good enough. A writer’s craft is allowed—expected—to develop throughout a series. However, it’s unacceptable for it to take an entire series (especially with books weighing in at 600+ pages) to do so. I can only assume the writing of the remaining Chronicles is as bad as the first, steadily growing in competence, until we reach The Sworn.

Everything that happens in The Summoner can be summed up in precise bullet points, and without the overwriting, the repetition and purely indulgent encounters that serve the single purpose of having Tris take baby steps with his powers, it could have been half the size it is. Then perhaps it would have been a good book, with interesting characters, an intriguing plot and an original world.

Instead, we have a drawn out story with a video-game like course (travel, encounter, rest, and repeat) that not only bores the reader into submission, but infuriates to the point where you feel Martin must be having some kind of private joke with herself given the quality of her prose. It’s so awful, I thought the book must predate 1990. It doesn’t. To my alarm, I discovered it to belong to 2007. Modern fantasy is no longer entirely filled with 600+ page slogs through a writer’s imagined world—and if these exist, the craft of the writer is honed, deliberate and precise, unlike Martin’s sloppy workmanship.

I lose count how many times I literally yelled at the audio book, cutting out sentences, toning descriptions down, and generally losing my temper at seeing a perfectly decent story absolutely gutted and slaughtered by terrible, terrible crafting.

At worst it reads like clumsy fan-fiction (and even some fan-fiction is better) and a melodramatic narrative flecked with an attempt at the moral philosophies of life, death and their meanings. Perhaps if someone else had written this book, the review would be very different.

However, I do intend—though in how long, I can’t say—continue with this series. Why? Because of The Sworn. The improvement in Martin’s craft is tenfold, and having been invited to her world, having glimpsed the originality of the setting, I want to trust her and I want her to improve. The Sworn promises improvement and I can only hope this improvement is realised somewhere between the remaining three books of the series.

A truly awful book that seems to have had the last laugh either way; I will be reading further, and I already bought the books. But thank god they were second-hand.

Unless you have the patience of a saint, or the stubborn curiosity of a dedicated reader-writer, I do not recommend this book: if any of the above sounds as though it might annoy you, then this book will leave you fuming and wishing you’d reached for another book on your “to-read” pile.

Reading this book was not a pleasure. Instead, it was a long trudge through bad writing, melodrama and wasted characters that sort of felt like trudging uphill on a beach, in the rain, whilst molasses pour downwards.

1/5