Review: Silver Under Nightfall by Rin Chupeco

Review: Silver Under Nightfall by Rin ChupecoSilver Under Nightfall by Rin Chupeco
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, epic fantasy, fantasy, Gothic, horror, steampunk, vampires
Pages: 512
Published by Gallery / Saga Press on September 13, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Full of court intrigue, queer romance, and terrifying monsters—this gothic epic fantasy will appeal to fans of Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree and the adult animated series Castlevania.
Remy Pendergast is many things: the only son of the Duke of Valenbonne (though his father might wish otherwise), an elite bounty hunter of rogue vampires, and an outcast among his fellow Reapers. His mother was the subject of gossip even before she eloped with a vampire, giving rise to the rumors that Remy is half-vampire himself. Though the kingdom of Aluria barely tolerates him, Remy’s father has been shaping him into a weapon to fight for the kingdom at any cost.
When a terrifying new breed of vampire is sighted outside of the city, Remy prepares to investigate alone. But then he encounters the shockingly warmhearted vampire heiress Xiaodan Song and her infuriatingly arrogant fiancé, vampire lord Zidan Malekh, who may hold the key to defeating the creatures—though he knows associating with them won’t do his reputation any favors. When he’s offered a spot alongside them to find the truth about the mutating virus Rot that’s plaguing the kingdom, Remy faces a choice.
It’s one he’s certain he’ll regret.
But as the three face dangerous hardships during their journey, Remy develops fond and complicated feelings for the couple. He begins to question what he holds true about vampires, as well as the story behind his own family legacy. As the Rot continues to spread across the kingdom, Remy must decide where his loyalties lie: with his father and the kingdom he’s been trained all his life to defend or the vampires who might just be the death of him.

My Review:

I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into this book, and now that I’ve read it I’m still not entirely sure. Except that it was fantastic. Heart-pounding, fingernail-biting, stay up until 3 in the morning to finish fantastic.

But the question about whether this is fantasy or horror still feels a bit up in the air.

Let me explain…

Remy Pendergast is a Reaper. In this world that means vampire hunter. But Remy only hunts so-called “rogue” vampires – ones who are causing mischief in human-controlled countries like Aluria. Vampires also have fiefdoms of their own where the rules are undoubtedly different.

Where Remy wouldn’t exactly be welcome because he’s famous for hunting their kind.

Not that Remy is exactly welcome in his own country, either. And not because he’s a Reaper. There are plenty of Reapers in high positions in Aluria’s government. In fact, his father used to be one of them.

But his father, who is a cantankerous old bastard at the best of times – of which he has damn few – is also in the midst of a lifelong feud with the head of the Reaper’s Guild – who also happens to be the Royal Chancellor. A man who is just as big a bastard as Remy’s father, and who is taking his feud out on the son now that the father has publicly retired.

And that’s just the tip of the really massive and ugly iceberg of why Remy is persona non grata in his own country – unless they need something killed and everyone else is too scared or too prissy to get their hands dirty.

That’s where the zombies come in. Well, not really and not exactly zombies. But sorta/kinda and close enough.

Someone is creating monsters that at first seem to be super-duper enhanced vampires. But they’re not. They’re mindless husks who regenerate at will and seem to be impossible to kill. Upon closer scientific study (this world is steampunk-ish so there’s plenty of mad science at least of the medical variety) it’s revealed that these mindless husks were never vampires – and that vampires are immune to the infection that creates them.

Lord Malekh and Lady Song, leaders of the Third and Fourth vampire Courts, have come to Aluria to ally with its Queen in order to combat what they call “The Rot” and whoever is behind that threat.

They need a human liaison. They both want Remy (in more ways than one) – who isn’t at all sure what he wants except to get out of Aluria for a while. The political temperature is getting way too hot for him and his father’s demands are becoming even more outrageous than they always have been.

And he’s tempted. Even though becoming a vampire’s familiar is against the law. Even though he’s fought vampires all his life. Even though a vampire killed his mother and he was born from her corpse.

Even though Malekh and Song are clearly in love and engaged to marry each other. Remy can’t understand why either of them wants him when no one else has ever wanted to do anything except use him for their own purposes.

He has a chance at having the kind of happiness that he never expected to even get a glimpse of. And he’s so, so certain that someone will take it away from him – unless he does it to himself first.

Escape Rating A+: Clearly, the setup for this is ginormous. It’s also endlessly fascinating. I got stuck into this and absolutely could not get out until I finished the last page at about 3 AM. It was just that good.

To the point where I’ll probably be squeeing uncontrollably more than reviewing per se. But I did love it so, so hard.

While the blurbs reference the anime series (and videogame) Castlevania, I think that’s because of the vampires, the politics and the monsters. I haven’t played or watched that so it’s not where my mind went. Instead, I kept seeing Remy as a younger, less confident Geralt of Rivia, in a world where hunting magical creatures gone rogue is needed while the people who do it are reviled. I would call it a bit of a coming-of-age story for The Witcher but I’m not sure Remy is fully adulting even by the end of the story – although he’s finally getting there.

Where I started with this review was that I still wasn’t sure whether the book was horror or fantasy. It was presented to me as horror and the scientific experimentation with zombie-like monsters who roam the countryside and infect others definitely has that vibe. There’s even a Doctor Frankenstein who is entirely too proud of his work even if he doesn’t use electricity to achieve his goals.

And then there’s the vampires, both the rogue vampires and the sexy vampire nobility. Which pushes the whole thing towards the paranormal which is an offshoot of horror.

But the form of the story reads like a big, sprawling epic fantasy. The world is huge and vastly complicated. The political agendas have political agendas and everyone is trying to knife everyone else in the back. The grudges seem to last for centuries – and not just among the vampires who have the excuse of living that long.

Basically, the politics behind everything are beyond Byzantine – as much as that is still an understatement if I ever heard one.

All of that makes the story feel epic in scope in a way that horror seldom is. And most of what is truly horrible in this story isn’t the monsters. It’s all the endless betrayals. It feels like the foundations of Remy’s world get pulled out from under him over and over as he keeps learning that under the corruption of everything if you scrape it away there’s yet another layer of, you guessed it, rot and corruption. Nothing he thinks he knows turns out to have any bearing on any truth.

That the triad relationship between Malekh, Song and Remy becomes both his only source of solace and a never-ending well of betrayal AT THE SAME TIME is just the icing on what is an utterly decadently delicious devil’s food cake of a story.

Whether it’s horror or fantasy or gothic or all of the above it’s riveting and downright compelling every step of the way. But whatever genre it falls into, I’m absolutely thrilled that the story isn’t over. Silver Under Nightfall is the first book in a projected duology, so there’s more dark, deadly and decadent delights to come!

Review: Councilor by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

Review: Councilor by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.Councilor (The Grand Illusion #2) by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, gaslamp
Series: Grand Illusion #2
Pages: 528
Published by Tor Books on August 9, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

L. E. Modesitt, Jr., bestselling author of Saga of Recluce and the Imager Portfolio, continues his brand new, gaslamp, political fantasy series with Councilor the thrilling sequel to Isolate. Welcome to the Grand Illusion.
Continued poor harvests and steam-powered industrialization displace and impoverish thousands. Protests grow and gather followers.
Against this rising tide of social unrest, Steffan Dekkard, newly appointed to the Council of Sixty-Six, is the first Councilor who is an Isolate, a man invulnerable to the emotional manipulations and emotional surveillance of empaths.
This makes him dangerous.
As unknown entities seek to assassinate him, Dekkard struggles to master political intrigue and infighting, while introducing radical reforms that threaten entrenched political and corporate interests.

The Grand Illusion
Isolate

My Review:

The Grand Illusion of the series title seems to revolve around the illusion that political action can “fix” things, whether what needs fixing is a country or a system or a person’s circumstances. Even, in a peculiar way, the weather. Or at least the effects of that weather.

This second book in the series, after last year’s marvelous Isolate, continues to follow Stefan Dekkard on his journey from being a political outsider, merely a security aide to one of the 66 councilors of Guldor, to his new position as a councilor in his own right. In other words, Stefan has gone from being an observer of the process – albeit an active and sometimes intimate one – to someone who is part of how the sausage gets made.

There’s a reason why politics is such a dirty business that no one REALLY wants to learn the truth of the process. Which doesn’t mean that some people don’t have to – and that some people don’t enjoy manipulating that process as much as they are able.

The setup of Guldor as a country, and its government, is a fascinating one. The setting is gaslamp fantasy, so they have steam power and electric power, they can make some unfortunately high-powered military ordinance. They are also in the middle, maybe a bit later than that, into the throes of their Industrial Revolution. Meaning that there is a lot of change and a lot of damage as a result of that change. Land and farming don’t convey the power that they used to. Large commercial interests have large amounts of money and therefor large amounts of influence. Small businesses and artisan business are on the rise but have not yet caught up in the power games being played.

If one thinks of the Guldorian political parties; Landor, Commerce and Craft, as being (very) roughly analogous to the British Tories, Liberals and Labour parties respectively, that’s probably not TOO far off.

Stories that take place in times of great upheaval are always interesting, because there are so many opportunities to go both right and wrong and so many people lining up to push in one direction or another. Guldor is at such a crossroads. The Landor (traditional) party has lost some of its sway but still thinks they could get back to their “good old days”.

The Commerce party has been the ruling party for 30 years, and have gotten so used to being on the top of the heap that they seem to have stopped bothering to cover up their abuses of power. To the point where the monarch of this constitution monarchy was forced to call for new elections – and to the point where voters were so fed up that they were willing to make a radical choice and vote in a Craft Party administration.

A circumstance that the Commerce Party doesn’t merely want but absolutely NEEDS to discredit and outright reverse by ANY means necessary. Not merely the quiet assassinations of Craft Party councilors that has been going on for YEARS at this point, but outright terrorism and revolution.

After all, they have an existing scapegoat for all their actions in the subversive Meritorist movement. Or, perhaps, and much more likely, they created one for just such a potentiality. So far, it’s been working out well for them, even if badly for everyone else.

And the entire situation is about to get a whole lot worse.

Escape Rating A: Just as with the first book in the series, Isolate, the story in Councilor is a story about politics that is told through people. Stefan Dekkard is, on the one hand, a bit of an everyman, and on the other a very singular individual with a specific set of skills, strengths and weaknesses. He is very good at observing the world around him, reaching synthesis of disparate and often contrary bits of information and then swiftly acting on his conclusions. He’s also damn good at keeping himself alive in a situation where, maybe not everyone, but certainly entirely too many people really are out to get him.

At the same time, he’s been an actual Crafter, he attended the military academy and has been a security guard to an active councilor. He’s also an isolate, think psi-null, in a society where nearly everyone can be read by elite psi-users who can both read and influence everyone except Stefan and the relatively rare others like him.

We’re following him and his career because Stefan is always an outsider in his own society and can observe without being psychically influenced or read by anyone who might want to probe his secrets or control his actions. Which does not mean that he doesn’t feel emotions or that he can’t be swayed by them, just no more or less than any of us, and in the same ways that we’re used to. It makes him an excellent surrogate for the reader.

As a new councilor, Stefan faces all of the newbie insecurities, and also starts out not knowing nearly enough to do the job. As he learns, we learn how things are – and are not – working right along with him.

He’s also newly married – to his former security partner – as this book begins. Theirs has always been a relationship of equals, and that does not change now that they are married (The author generally does an excellent job of creating these kinds of relationships and making sure that females are equally represented and equally powerful throughout his stories.)

At the same time, their relationship is changing in ways that they have to adjust to – and we see them do it. All in all, the way this story is told is that we see both the exciting things and the prosaic things and we keep following along because we get involved with the people to whom these events are happening. The story literally pulls the reader along because we want to see how they cope with the next load of feces that hits the oscillating device, whether large or small.

So this is a story about watching people do the best they can in circumstances that are less than ideal but that they know they need to get through anyway. And it does its best, which is very well indeed, to pierce through the veil that obfuscates the grand illusion that politics or political action can make absolutely everyone happy and solve everyone’s problems every time.

While still presenting the idea that a government – and the people who are part of it – doing their very best to act to promote the common weal and not for the interests of themselves and their partisans, will, by its very nature, satisfy more of the population more of the time more fairly than anyone in the game for the pursuit of their own private interests.

This is the second book in the series, and it looks like we’re going to be following Dekkard’s political career wherever it might lead him, most likely, or perhaps hopefully, from his beginning as a security aide in Isolate through his first term as a Councilor and on up the ladder of achievements and setbacks until he reaches some pinnacle that we can’t see from here. But I hope we do in the future books in this series.

Howsomever, based on the title, it’s quite possible that the next book in the series will represent one-step-forward-and-two-steps-back. The title will be Contrarian according to the author’s blog, and I already can’t wait to read it.

Review: Age of Ash by Daniel Abraham

Review: Age of Ash by Daniel AbrahamAge of Ash (Kithamar, #1) by Daniel Abraham
Narrator: Soneela Nankani
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Kithamar #1
Pages: 448
Length: 14 hours and 35 minutes
Published by Orbit on February 15, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From
New York Times
bestselling and critically acclaimed author Daniel Abraham, co-author of
The Expanse
, comes a monumental epic fantasy trilogy that unfolds within the walls of a single great city, over the course of one tumultuous year, where every story matters, and the fate of the city is woven from them all.
“An atmospheric and fascinating tapestry, woven with skill and patience.” –Joe Abercrombie, New York Times bestselling author of A Little Hatred
Kithamar is a center of trade and wealth, an ancient city with a long, bloody history where countless thousands live and their stories unfold.
This is Alys's.
When her brother is murdered, a petty thief from the slums of Longhill sets out to discover who killed him and why.  But the more she discovers about him, the more she learns about herself, and the truths she finds are more dangerous than knives. 
Swept up in an intrigue as deep as the roots of Kithamar, where the secrets of the lowest born can sometimes topple thrones, the story Alys chooses will have the power to change everything.
For more from Daniel Abraham, check out: The Dagger and the CoinThe Dragon's PathThe King's BloodThe Tyrant's LawThe Widow's HouseThe Spider's War

My Review:

There’s a secret at the heart of the city of Kithamar, but I’m not sure that we’ve plumbed the depths of it by the end of the first book in this projected trilogy. We’ve seen it as if through that glass very darkly indeed. I imagine that we won’t get the view face-to-face until much nearer the end.

So what do we have here?

Age of Ash is, at its own heart, a whole lot of setup and worldbuilding, in a world that really, really needs it in order for the reader to see where they are and why it matters. That setup, that story is told from the perspectives of two (very) young women at the bottom of this city-state-world’s economic ladder.

Alys and Sammish are descendants of Kithamar’s indigenous population, the Inlisc. Like most Inlisc they live in the downtrodden community-not-quite-ghetto of Longhill. They are both what the city calls “street-rats”, a term that is applied to all Longhill residents, but particularly to those who are so close to the bottom of the ladder – not that anyone Inlisc or anyone in Longhill is anywhere near the top – that they are one bad break or poor choice or unprofitable “pull” from sleeping on the streets.

(A “pull” in Longhill parlance is a theft or a cheat or a con game. Everyone does it in one fashion or another, if only to get one-up on their friends or get enough coin to spend a night out of the weather.)

But someone in the rich quarters, in the palace of the Prince of the City, has committed what looks like the biggest pull of them all. They’ve managed to steal the city from the direct line of royalty by putting a “cuckoo” in the royal nest.

The forces that are arrayed to steal the city back are deeper, darker and much more dangerous than anyone imagines. The doings of the power-that-be or would-be should be far above the tiny influence of people like Alys and Sammish.

But these two young women find themselves at the heart of a conspiracy larger, deadlier and with more far-reaching consequences than either of them ever imagined.

Neither they nor their city will ever be the same. No matter how much the city itself tries to maintain the status quo that keeps it in power.

Escape Rating B: Oh do I have mixed feelings about this one, but let me get this out of the way first. I listened to the audiobook of Age of Ash, and the narrator did an excellent job with the material. But, but, but I had some serious issues with the material. This turned out to be one of those books where I was content enough to continue the audio because the reader was terrific but had absolutely ZERO compulsion to switch to the ebook because I just wasn’t compelled to finish the story any faster. The couple of times I tried to switch to the text it kind of turned me off so I went back to the audio.

One of the things that bothered me about the story, and I think it’s something that has been growing on me as an issue, is that it seems as if when a male author writes a heroine’s journey the heroine – or in this case heroines plural – is just way more angsty and suffers considerably more, well, angst, but also grief and are just generally more downtrodden than a hero would be going through the exact same circumstances. This was also true in both Engines of Empire and The Starless Crown. Don’t get me wrong, i’s great to see more female-centric stories, but male writers just seem to give their heroines more baggage than is necessary, and it’s baggage that comes from our world’s issues with female centric-stories that are not romances, and not baggage that is inherent in the created world.

There were entirely too many points where it seemed as if the two women were in a race to see which of them would win the TSTL (that’s Too Stupid To Live), award and get themselves killed. I was both amazed and pleased to see them finally get themselves out of that spiral, but it made for some rough reading.

I’m contrasting all of this with T. Kingfisher’s female-centric stories (A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, Nettle & Bone and pretty much all the women in the Saint of Steel series but especially Bishop Beartongue), because her heroines just GET ON WITH IT, whatever it is. They don’t have the time or inclination to angst about their personal issues and they don’t have to start their stories completely downtrodden. They have a problem and they set about solving it. Like male heroes do. Like women do in real life.

The above is all my 2 cents pitched from the top of a very tall soapbox. But it tasks me. It seriously tasks me.

<Give me a second, I need to summon a stepstool to get down off this box.>

Back to Age of Ash in particular. The part of the story that is both fascinating and completely shrouded in mystery is the nature of the city and its ruling class, which is the secret at the heart of both. I don’t want to spoil it completely, although we do get hints of it fairly early, but it takes concepts from Dragon Age, The Anubis Gates, The Ruin of Kings and even more surprisingly The City We Became and wraps them up into a spiky ball with an overwhelming – but very interesting – swath of collateral damage.

And I don’t think we’ve nearly found out just how deeply awful that whole situation is yet. Probably all the way down to a circle of hell that not even Dante imagined.

Particularly because there’s plenty rotten at the heart of Kithamar, and it doesn’t all have to do with the mystical, magical mess that the plot – and the political plots IN the story – all circle around. It’s like an Ankh-Morpork without Vetinari at the helm to keep the city functional. Even the weather seems to be getting worse.

It feels like Age of Ash is an attempt to show a revolution starting at the bottom, with the tiny pebble starting an avalanche that will eventually consume the city – in spite of the city’s attempts to stop it. It’s certainly a very sympathetic portrait of life at the bottom of an epic fantasy city. By centering on Alys and Sammish barely getting by the reader gets an intimate view of just how firmly the deck can be stacked against people by accident of their birth, and how much effort, legal or illegal, is required just to get through another day in circumstances that can’t be changed easily or at all.

Also, the blurb feels wrong, because in the end this is not Alys’s story. It may start out that way, but by the end it’s Sammish’s story. And it’s the city’s story all along. It always has been. Whether it always will be is something that we’ll discover in the later books in the series.

Which I think will still be worth a listen – if only to discover what happens next.

Review: Engines of Empire by R.S. Ford

Review: Engines of Empire by R.S. FordEngines of Empire (The Age of Uprising, #1) by Richard S. Ford
Narrator: Alison Campbell, Ciaran Saward, Phoebe McIntosh, Ewan Goddard, Andrew Kingston, Martin Reeve, Stephen Perring
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, steampunk
Series: Age of Uprising #1
Pages: 624
Length: 22 hours, 3 minutes
Published by Orbit on January 18, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

This epic fantasy tells the tales of clashing Guilds, magic-fueled machines, intrigue and revolution—and the one family that stands between an empire's salvation or destruction.
The nation of Torwyn is run on the power of industry, and industry is run by the Guilds. Chief among them are the Hawkspurs, and their responsibility is to keep the gears of the empire turning. It’s exactly why matriarch Rosomon Hawkspur sends each of her heirs to the far reaches of the nation. 
Conall, the eldest son, is sent to the distant frontier to earn his stripes in the military. It is here that he faces a threat he could have never seen coming: the first rumblings of revolution.
Tyreta’s sorcerous connection to the magical resource of pyrstone that fuels the empire’s machines makes her a perfect heir–in theory. While Tyreta hopes that she might shirk her responsibilities during her journey one of Torwyn’s most important pyrestone mines, she instead finds the dark horrors of industry that the empire would prefer to keep hidden. 
The youngest, Fulren, is a talented artificer, and finds himself acting as consort to a foreign emissary. Soon after, he is framed for a crime he never committed. A crime that could start a war. 
As each of the Hawkspurs grapple with the many threats that face the nation within and without, they must finally prove themselves worthy–or their empire will fall apart. 

My Review:

This was a first for me. Engines of Empire turned out to be a total rage read that I enjoyed anyway – and does that ever need a bit of an explanation!

The story is fascinating – and compelling. It’s a political story about empires – well, duh – rising and falling. This first book, at least, is about the fall. Or at least the fall-ing. Since this is the first book in the series, I expect the rising to happen later. Whether that will turn out to be the rising of the empire from its own ashes, or merely the rising of the family through whose eyes we saw this chapter of the saga, remains to be determined.

So far, neither of them deserve it. Which is where the rage part of my rage reading came into play.

The story of the falling of the empire maintained by the Guilds of Torwyn is told through the first person perspectives of five characters; Rosomon Archwind Hawkspur, her three adult children, Conall, Tyreta and Fulren, and her secret lover, Lancelin Jagdor.

And I hated all of them except Lancelin. I particularly detested Rosomon, to the point where I’d have been more than thrilled to read a book about her getting EXACTLY what she deserved – if there hadn’t been quite so much collateral damage in giving it to her.

Of those five characters, Lancelin is the only one who has ever had to face ANY of the consequences of his actions. It’s not just that the rest of them have led very privileged lives, it’s that they never seemed to have grasped the concept that their privilege comes on the back of just so damn many other people.

They are all arrogant and they are all thoughtless about that arrogance. This is particularly true of Rosomon – in spite of a whole bunch of crap that should have given her some insights into the ways that the other half lives.

Instead, she’s a narcissist, to the point that she only sees her children as extensions of herself and not so much as people in their own right. So a big chunk of this story is about how they all escape her very clutching clutches and how those escapes help to make their world burn.

But those escapes manage to send them to the far corners of Torwyn’s empire, which gives the reader the opportunity to see just how the whole empire is hanging by a thread. A thread that is fraying anyway and that can be all too easily snipped if someone provides the right pair of scissors.

Which of course is exactly what happens. With catastrophic results – and an aftermath that we’ll see in the future books in the series. Which I will be unable to resist reading, pretty much in spite of myself.

Escape Rating B: I hate most of the characters in this book SO HARD. But I still feel compelled to see what happens next.

Part of the fascination with this story is that it becomes clear early on that something is very rotten in the heart of Torwyn. A rot that is hidden so completely in plain sight that no one even suspects it is there until it is much, MUCH too late for pretty much everyone.

At the same time, the source of that rot, once it is revealed, turns out to be just the kind of villain that we’ve seen before, and that is so often effective and not just in fiction. It’s someone who truly believes that everything they are doing, no matter how morally repugnant in the moment, is in the service of some “Greater Good” that only they can see. So when the manipulator of events is finally revealed, it makes for a lovely, thoroughly disgusted AHA!  It’s obvious in retrospect, but as you’re going along, it’s only the barest whisper of a possibility.

One of the good things about the way this story is told is that in spite of my hatred of pretty much everyone, the voices are very distinct, and not just because the audiobook narrators (one for each POV character) did a damn fine job. Still, even in print it is impossible to mistake Conall’s voice for Tyreta’s or Fulren’s.

Howsomever, one of things about those distinctive voices was that it seems that both Rosomon’s and Tyreta’s roles are restricted to a significant extent BECAUSE they are women. And yet, we don’t see that in the female secondary characters, who seem to be everywhere doing everything. Conall’s own second-in-command in the military is female, and it’s clear that she has lower rank not because she’s female but because she’s of a lower caste in the social hierarchy.

So the quasi-secondary status of noblewomen may be because they are noble, or it maybe because Rosomon’s a bitch and she’s treating her daughter the way she herself was treated. But it’s left for the reader to assume because of our history – not theirs. It doesn’t have to be that way in a fantasy world and isn’t always. I didn’t like the transfer of assumptions – especially once self-indulgent Tyreta turned into a total badass.

Which, I think is part of the story being told, and what I hope will redeem the later books. That Rosomon may go on being the overbearing, thoughtless narcissist that she has always been, thinking she knows the one true right answer only to discover that she was led astray by her own hubris feels likely – as well as likely to lead to several falls before any ultimate rise. Conall’s future, whether he sinks or swims after his experiences in this book, still feel up in the air. But Tyreta looks like she’s set on a fascinating, redemptive and possibly even heroic path. The question is whether she will let her mother push her off it yet again.

I can’t wait to find out.

Review: Obsidian by Sarah J. Daley

Review: Obsidian by Sarah J. DaleyObsidian by Sarah J. Daley
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Pages: 400
Published by Angry Robot on January 25, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Shade Nox is a fiend, a rogue, and a wanted murderer, though her only true crime is that she chooses to dress like a man. Proud and defiant, she wears her tattoos openly as any bloodwizard would, and carries obsidian blades at her hips. Those who laughingly call her a witch to her face soon learn an unfortunate lesson: Shade Nox might be an abomination, but she wields her blades with devastating precision, gleefully shedding blood for elemental magic that matches any man’s.
Shade scratches out a dangerous living in the broken Wastes, but now that they are growing more unstable and dangerous, Shade and her people need their own Veil to protect them. She vows to raise one—a feat not accomplished in over a hundred years. But the Veils are controlled by the Brotherhood, who consider them sacred creations. They would sooner see all the Veils collapse into dust than allow a witch to raise one.
With the help of her friends and allies, and her own indomitable will, Shade stays one step ahead of her enemies. Her zeal is only tempered when she learns the true sacrifice required to raise a Veil—a secret even the centuries-old Brotherhood has forgotten. It is too high a price to pay. Nevertheless, she must pay it, or she will lose everything and everyone she loves…

My Review:

Obsidian is just WOW! There, I’ve said it. Now I have to attempt to be articulate – and it’s not going to be easy.

Think of this as a post-apocalyptic story, but this is NOT our world, so this wasn’t our apocalypse. Just that there’s a point in the past that’s distant enough that civilization has regrouped while still present enough that effects are still being felt.

Or felt again.

While the story opens with a somewhat disgraced former Captain of an Imperial Army, Raiden Mad is not our main character. That position is reserved for Shade Nox, who cuts her way into this story with her obsidian knives and holds onto the center of the narrative with hands dripping with blood – not all of it her own.

But some of it is, because the magic of this world is blood magic – blood magic that Shade, as a woman is not supposed to have or be able to wield. And doesn’t that sound all too familiar?

Especially since Shade seems to be much better at it than the blood wizards of either the corrupt church known as ‘The Brotherhood’ or the criminal ‘Capomaji’ who read like a protection racket run by Mafiosi – with magical enforcers along with the usual legbreakers.

Those traditional mages are losing their power – and, as the powerful often do – refusing to admit that loss while covering it up with even more repression of anyone of whom they do not approve.

Shade Nox is number one on all those lists.

But Shade has a secret. Of course, she has several, but one is big. HUGE. The size of an entire city. Or at least it will be IF she can manage to pull it off. And that’s where Raiden Mad and his Emperor come in – and why the Brotherhood is so desperate to take them all out.

Because at the same time the magic seems to be dying, the reason for that magic is becoming that much more of a threat.

Whatever the apocalypse was – it killed the ecology of the planet. The Brotherhood gained their power and their near-monopoly on so much more because their bloodmagic was the only thing that could carve out a safe bit of territory where life could thrive.

But power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The Brotherhood has been so invested in maintaining their power that they’ve corrupted the way it is used for their own ends. Now it’s destroying them, the cities their power made possible, and the land that surrounds them.

Mother Nature bats last, and in this world she has a very big bat studded with thorns. So to speak.

Shade Nox has the power, most of the knowledge and all of the will to create a new, safe territory that won’t owe a damn thing to the Brotherhood. Who are bound and determined to stop her at all costs.

But not nearly so determined as Shade Nox is to beat them.

Escape Rating A+: If you’ve ever wondered what Dune would have looked like if someone took that climate catastrophe combined with precious resource planet and re-wrote the thing so that planet-native Chani was the protagonist instead of “white” imperial savior Paul you’d get something like Obsidian – although it probably wouldn’t be nearly as good. (I’m saying this and I loved Dune – at least the book versions.)

I think this is also going to remind readers more than a bit of the “Sapphic Saffron Trifecta” of 2021, The Jasmine Throne, She Who Became the Sun and The Unbroken, with their female-centered epic stories although Obsidian does not include much romance at all, queer or otherwise, until the very end.

There’s actually a bit of the Mage Winds of Valdemar series, in that the chaos magic that has wrecked most of this world seems to sweep in and alter everything it touches – people, plants and animals alike, with dangerous and deadly results. And it’s getting worse.

There’s also a bit of the blood magic of the Dragon Age series, although sideways a bit. Shade, and the magic she controls with her obsidian knives, is powered by her own blood willingly sacrificed. It does sound a bit bonzo when you read it, but it is self-limiting and those limits are dealt with. She can’t go too far or she’ll lose control, consciousness and die. She’s also not sacrificing anyone else to achieve her ends – which is one of the places where that Brotherhood has gone off the rails more than a bit.

The story here is about power, as epic fantasy so often is. The Brotherhood wants to keep the power they have. The Empire that Raiden Mad represents isn’t really a threat to local power, although they could be in the future. They just want to deal with some reasonable people – which the Brotherhood most certainly is not.

The empire could be a threat to local power later, but at this point, they’re at “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” stage of things. The Brotherhood has made itself the empire’s enemy. The Brotherhood is most definitely Shade’s enemy. So they are friends of expediency. The future may be different, but first they have to get there.

The heart of this story is Shade’s quest for the hidden knowledge that she needs to raise a protected territory of her own, and then making the sacrifices necessary to raise it. It’s a journey that takes her through a lot of dark places and even darker hearts – including her own.

And it’s not over when Obsidian ends. This feels like the start of a truly epic saga. I certainly hope so and am looking forward VERY MUCH to where the author takes us next!

Review: Servant Mage by Kate Elliott

Review: Servant Mage by Kate ElliottServant Mage by Kate Elliott
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Pages: 176
Published by Tordotcom on January 18, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Fellion is a Lamplighter, able to provide illumination through magic. A group of rebel Monarchists free her from indentured servitude and take her on a journey to rescue trapped compatriots from an underground complex of mines.
Along the way they get caught up in a conspiracy to kill the latest royal child and wipe out the Monarchist movement for good.
But Fellion has more than just her Lamplighting skills up her sleeve…
In Kate Elliott's Servant Mage, a lowly fire mage finds herself entangled in an empire-spanning conspiracy on her way to discovering her true power.

My Review:

In the immortal words of humorist Lewis Grizzard, “If you ain’t the lead dog, the scenery never changes.” The story of the Servant Mage, Fellian the Lamplighter, shows just how much of a surprise it is to the lead dog – or the ass that thinks they’re in front of you – when one of those dogs in the back gets sick of viewing that ass and decides to take themselves out of the pack.

I’ve carried this metaphor far enough, but it is still the lingering image in my mind after reading Servant Mage.

Fellian is the servant mage of the title, a mage in forced indentured servitude – in other words enslaved – as all mages are in these lands ruled by the so-called “Liberationist Council”. The weren’t really “liberators”, of course, or anything even close to that. They’re a theocracy, a religious tyranny that blames mages for all the ills of the world and has forced them into slavery to keep their spirits diminished and their magic untrained so that they won’t rise up and overthrow the tyrants.

Which makes Fellian ripe for recruitment into a conspiracy to overthrow the Liberationists and bring back the monarchy. All she has to do is rescue a bunch of monarchists trapped in an underground mining complex.

The conspirators assume that Fellian will be grateful for her rescue. And she is. Who wouldn’t be? They assume that her gratitude will extend to her continuing to serve the rebellion as a second class citizen because that’s considerably better than the slavery-conditions she had been forced to serve under. And that’s all they think she’s worthy to be. A second-class citizen, useful to them but not as equal or worthy as themselves.

But Fellian considers a bargain to be a bargain. Once her work is done, she has plans for her own future. As far as the monarchists were concerned, Fellian was a means to an end. Aren’t they surprised to discover that in the end, they were EXACTLY the same thing to her!

Escape Rating B: Let me begin by indulging in my usual complaint about novellas; this book was too short. I know I say that all the time but this time I really, really mean it even more than I usually do.

It’s not that Fellian’s journey from “servant mage” to epic heroine isn’t wonderfully complex – because it is. And it’s not that the cause she is recruited for isn’t worthy even if it’s not exactly perfect – because it is. And it’s absolutely not because the worldbuilding in this story isn’t fantastic – because it certainly is that.

And that’s kind of where the too short complaint comes seriously into play. The worldbuilding feels even deeper than the mining complex where Fellian stages that all-important rescue that she was recruited/strong-armed into performing. We get so much about the way this world works – and mostly doesn’t at the moment – that it feels like we’re at the entrance to something much bigger and greater.

Like a truly epic epic fantasy.

Especially when we view the world through Fellian’s eyes and especially Fellian’s mind. Because Fellian is from a land with a surprisingly egalitarian political structure – a place she can’t wait to get back to once this job is done.

From our view of Fellian we can see that she notes every single microaggression and disrespect that she receives, not just from the people who have enslaved her, but from the people who have rescued her as well.

Which leads right back to paraphrase my opening quote, “If you’re not the lead dog, the view never changes.” Her rescuers are sure they are the lead dogs and that they don’t have to be anything more than barely kind to the ones they perceive as being in the back of the pack. Which makes their reaction all that much more satisfying when Fellian rejects their oh-so-kind offer to help them in their quest.

Their privilege makes them blind, which does make the reader wonder how that will bode for their quest to restore the monarchy. Which may make things better for them, but not necessarily for anyone else. At least not better enough.

All of which leaves the reader with all sorts of interesting and lingering questions. What is going on where Fellian came from? What does she face when she returns? What’s going to happen to the rebellion? Can it possibly succeed and on what terms?

And, and, and…ad infinitum. Not quite ad nauseum but reaching towards there – at least in the sense that the questions left unanswered in this too-short story are downright legion.

In the end Servant Mage read as the beginning of something that might be marvelous and fascinating. But I’d feel a whole lot better about it’s incompleteness if I had an inkling that more were on the horizon.

Review: Boundaries edited by Mercedes Lackey

Review: Boundaries edited by Mercedes LackeyBoundaries (Tales of Valdemar #15) by Mercedes Lackey
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Valdemar (Publication order) #53, Tales of Valdemar #15
Pages: 368
Published by DAW Books on December 7, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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This fifteenth anthology of short stories set in the beloved Valdemar universe features tales by debut and established authors and a brand-new story from Lackey herself.
The Heralds of Valdemar are the kingdom's ancient order of protectors. They are drawn from all across the land, from all walks of life, and at all ages--and all are Gifted with abilities beyond those of normal men and women. They are Mindspeakers, FarSeers, Empaths, ForeSeers, Firestarters, FarSpeakers, and more. These inborn talents--combined with training as emissaries, spies, judges, diplomats, scouts, counselors, warriors, and more--make them indispensable to their monarch and realm. Sought and Chosen by mysterious horse-like Companions, they are bonded for life to these telepathic, enigmatic creatures. The Heralds of Valdemar and their Companions ride circuit throughout the kingdom, protecting the peace and, when necessary, defending their land and monarch.

My Review:

After reading – and loving – Beyond, the opening book in the Founding of Valdemar prequel series, I was reminded of just how much I loved this world, and how many stories it still had to tell. So when Boundaries popped up, it seemed like a good time to see if that good feeling about Valdemar still held up.

Because there are so many stories yet to tell in this world, and Boundaries is the fifteenth book of a long-standing series of Tales of Valdemar told by writers who have fallen in love with this well-developed world and have been given the opportunity to explore a bit of it that has piqued their love and interest.

Some collections I dip into and out of in various places within the collection, looking for stories with certain features or certain characters. And not that I don’t love the Firecats, because cats. There’s a long, long ago Valdemar story where two Firecats, at the end of an adventure, have a taste for “field mice on toast” and are planning to go out and hunt for their field mice, admonishing their human on the way out the door that “Toast will be provided!” And isn’t that just cats all over?

The theme of this collection is, just like it says on the label, boundaries, particularly the boundary between Valdemar and Karse. A border that has been a tense place where two countries with conflicting views on just about everything – magic, religion, freedom and opportunity – observe an uneasy peace that is all too often neither easy or peaceful.

Borders are always interesting places, as they are where unlike things and people rub up against each other with interesting, and occasionally even incendiary, results. As it proves in several of the stories in this collection.

Escape Rating B+: Like all collections, some entries are stronger than others. And some work for more people than others. But it was still wonderful to visit Valdemar and its neighbors again, so I’m happy I picked it up.

My favorite story in the collection is “A Time for Prayer” by Kristin Schwengel as it manages to tell a story that both displays the fear in which the hierarchy of the Sunpriests of Karse is held by most people while at the same time showing the service of the priests at the local level to their communities and the surprising flexibility of how that service is performed. Priests are supposed to be men – and only men – in Karse. And yet this is the story of a woman who has been trained by the previous priest in this little village as his acolyte and who, in spite of all the laws and strictures against it, steps fully into his place upon his death. Who, in spite of her fears is not found wanting by her god, no matter what those who believe they speak in his name might believe.

There are also two lovely stories about healers, “Tides of War” by Dylan Birtolo and “Final Consequences” by Elizabeth Vaughan. The first is about a young soldier during and after his first battle (against Karse, of course!) discovering that in spite of what everyone else thinks, both he and his country would be best served if he became a battlefield medic rather than one of their patients.

While “Final Consequences” takes place far from a battlefield, it tells a lovely story about the life of a healer, the demands on their time, the joy of their work, and the way that their service leads to both a full life and just occasionally, a happy ever after. In a setting where not all battles involve obvious bloodshed.

And of course, last but not least for this reader, there’s a cat story. Not a Firecat story, but a cat story. “A Clutter of Cat” by Elisabeth Waters is just an adorable story, not entirely filled with kitten fluff, about a community centered around the ability to Mindspeak animals – and some of the resistance to that gift. Along with some resistance to the cats who are, after all, just being cats.

Review: When the Goddess Wakes by Howard Andrew Jones

Review: When the Goddess Wakes by Howard Andrew JonesWhen the Goddess Wakes (The Ring-Sworn Trilogy, #3) by Howard Andrew Jones
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Ring-Sworn Trilogy #3
Pages: 336
Published by St. Martin's Press on August 24, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In When the Goddess Wakes, the final book of the Ring-Sworn trilogy, Howard Andrew Jones returns to the five realms of the Dendressi to conclude his heroic, adventure-filled epic fantasy trilogy.
The Naor hordes have been driven from the walls, but the Dendressi forces are scattered and fragmented, and their gravest threat lies before them. For their queen has slain the ruling council and fled with the magical artifacts known as the hearthstones, and she is only a few days from turning them to her mad ends.
The Altenerai corps has suffered grievous casualties, and Elenai's hearthstone and her source of sorcerous power has been shattered. She and her friends have no choice but to join with the most unlikely of allies.
Their goal: to find the queen's hiding place and somehow stop her before she wakes the goddess who will destroy them all...
Praised for his ability to write modern epic fantasy that engrosses and entertains, Howard Andrews Jones delivers a finale to his trilogy that reveals the dark secrets and resolves the mysteries and conflicts introduced in the first two books of this series.

My Review:

“When last we left our heroes…” Seriously. When we last left the heroes of the Ring-Sworn Trilogy at the end of Upon the Flight of the Queen it was in the pause, stock taking and toting up of the butcher’s bill after the end of another epic battle to retake another city of the Realms by the remaining loyal corps of the legendary Altenerai.

In other words, the ending of Upon the Flight of the Queen is not all that different from the ending of the first book in the series, For the Killing of Kings, as it also ends in that same pause at the end of an epic battle after retaking a different city of the Realms.

In other words, if you enjoy really meaty epic fantasy, the place to start this series is with the first book, For the Killing of Kings. Which itself begins a bit in the middle of a story that has already been rotting the Realms from within. But by starting there, you have the opportunity to discover what’s gone wrong and who the real enemies are along with our heroes.

The titles of this series are surprisingly relevant to the story – if just a bit long-winded. For the Killing of Kings is all about the discovery that the legendary sword of the same name is NOT hanging safely on the walls of the Altenerai compound. That a fake has been mounted in its place. It’s the first signal that something is rotten, not in the state of Denmark, but in the state of the Five Realms of which Darassus is the seat of power.

The action in Upon the Flight of the Queen takes place, quite literally, as the result of the flight of Queen Leonara from Darassus to a formerly mythical paradise world where she plans to resurrect a goddess. In fact “THE Goddess” whose awakening is the key event in this final book in the series.

The Queen plans to wake the goddess believing that she has promised them a paradise. Our heroes hope to stop her, because any paradise that’s been built on as many lies as Queen Leonara has been telling is bound to be anything but.

But this has been, from the very beginning, a story of unlikely allies and unexpected betrayals.

The enemy of my enemy may not exactly be my friend, but when my enemy plans to destroy the entire world including both the enemy of my enemy and myself – and every other person, animal, place and thing in that entire world, the enemy of my enemy and I – or in this case the Altenerai, and the Naor, are more or less united in the face of the alternative.

But there is someone waiting in the wings, hoping to take advantage of the chaos that will ensue when the goddess wakes. And there’s a literal God of Chaos, waiting to have a few words with the Goddess who betrayed him at the beginning of the world – before she makes an end of it.

Escape Rating A: At the beginning, this series reminded me more than a bit of A Chorus of Dragons. That both series began with books named for swords prophesied to kill kings (The Ruin of Kings for A Chorus of Dragons) did kind of hit that resemblance on the nose a bit. That both series are ultimately about the neverending battle between order and chaos, and that the gods in both series are not exactly what anyone thought they were does keep that resemblance going.

And even though A Chorus of Dragons hits heights that the Ring-Sworn Trilogy never quite reaches, if you like this you’ll love that and vice versa. Particularly if you’re looking for an epic fantasy that isn’t quite as epically long and is already complete.

This story has a huge cast, but the many main characters have become distinct enough that it’s relatively easy to follow along and stay in touch with each of them as they move the action towards the conclusion. After a bit of a rocky start the audio narrator managed to get past her earlier mispronunciations and malapropisms to deliver a solid performance that does a good job of differentiating between the voices of the main characters. It also helps that by the point of this third volume, the story’s focus has shifted so that many of the points of view are female, and that the former squire Elenai has become a leader of the Altenerai and possibly the future Queen.

It works better for me if the reader’s voice matches the main character’s voice no matter how many other characters there are. This just was not true in the first book but became true in the second and is very clear and well done in this one.

The entire trilogy has been an “out of the frying pan into the fire” “things are always darkest just before they turn completely black” kind of story, and that’s still true in this book up until the nearly bitter end. And I did tear up a bit at some of the darkest and bitterest points. This is a story of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, only to have that victory stolen in its turn by the epic betrayals that fuel so much of the action.

But it’s also a tense, gripping tale about unlikely heroes banding together in spite of all their differences and prior enmities. And it’s a story of companionship and found family found in the most unexpected of places.

In the end, the Ring-Sworn Trilogy’s epic conclusion is one of the rare occasions when what appears to be a deus ex machina ending not only involves very real dei, but that their involvement turns out to be the right way to bring the whole thing home, with an ending that manages to mix just the right touch of bitter into the sweet hurrah.

Review: Knot of Shadows by Lois McMaster Bujold

Review: Knot of Shadows by Lois McMaster BujoldKnot of Shadows (Penric & Desdemona #11) by Lois McMaster Bujold
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Penric & Desdemona #11
Pages: 111
Published by Spectrum Literary Agency on October 21, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & Noble
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When a corpse is found floating face-down in Vilnoc harbor that is not quite as dead as it seems, Temple sorcerer Penric and his chaos demon Desdemona are drawn into the uncanny investigation. Pen’s keen questions will take him across the city of Vilnoc, and into far more profound mysteries, as his search for truths interlaces with tragedy.

My Review:

There’s a fine line between justice and vengeance. In the World of the Five Gods, that line is the white of the Fifth God, the Lord Bastard, the god of chaos, criminals and unexpected blessings, often of the “may you live in interesting times” and “be careful what you wish for” varieties. The Bastard is the god that Learned Penric, sorcerer and divine, serves in whatever way his god deems best – or whatever way will screw up Penric’s life the most at the time. If the White God has his way – and he usually does – it’s generally both at once.

After all, if Murphy’s Law has a god, it’s the Lord Bastard.

Penric gets called when uncanny things happen in the port and city of Vilnoc, or in the Court of the Duke of Orbas, which are the same place in summer. But not in winter when the port city is cold and the Duke retreats inland where it’s a bit less so, leaving Penric, who is also the court sorcerer, to concentrate on his other duties and avocations, like his growing family, his service to the Temple, and his scholarship.

But there are always interruptions, and this one is a bit of a mystery that gets bigger and has more profound implications as it goes along.

A corpse was washed ashore, not uncommon in a port city. The dead man was assumed to be a drowning victim, also not uncommon. Until he “woke up” and began knocking on the locked door of the hospice morgue – from the inside.

That’s not common at all. It’s also not all that rare in a world where rogue demons can possess the dead. When THAT happens, putting things to rights is the province of the Bastard, so Penric, as the highest ranked priest of the White God in Vilnoc, trudges to the hospice with the intent of sending the rogue demon to his god and letting the hospice deal with the funeral rites for the unnamed deceased.

But the case isn’t nearly that simple. The body has not been possessed by a demon, but it has been possessed. One of the many ghosts that naturally haunt a place where people meet their end has found a new home in the body. Which leaves Penric on the horns of a serious moral and ethical dilemma, as well as a chilly quest to discover both who the victim was and who wanted him dead so badly that they were willing to sacrifice their own life in order to achieve it.

The Bastard is, among his many other titles and attributes, the deliverer of justice when all justice fails. Worldly justice failed this man’s victims, but divine justice has not. It’s up to Penric to figure out who and how and why, to clean up any loose ends that his god might have left behind.

Escape Rating A-: OMG this was the right book at the right time. Last week’s reading ended on a major fail, so I was looking for something that I was even more certain would be a terrific read. I was also looking for a story of people being competent and accepted for their competence, as Penric finally has been. (He needed to grow up first, and he has.) What I especially loved about this entry in the series is that it’s both a puzzle to be solved AND displays the way that things in this world WORK, both in the sense of how things are done as well as in the way that justice is finally served. The way that even though human justice failed, divine justice was able to balance the scales.

The fascinating thing about this series is that we view the story from inside Penric’s rather crowded head. It’s not just Penric in there, it’s also his temple-trained demon Desdemona, and the memories of all the people (and a couple of animals) that Desdemona rode before she came to Penric. From Penric’s perspective, it’s rather like having a dozen older sisters living in his head, because all of Desdemona’s previous companions have been female. Even the animals.

Desdemona has a personality all her own. She doesn’t always agree with Penric, and she often knows best because her experience is considerably longer than his. They are partners and the relationship is deep and rich and frequently hilarious, because Desdemona sits on Penric’s shoulder like a demon of temptation, and Penric doesn’t need anyone to lead him in that direction. He already knows the way.

In this particular case, it’s Desdemona who is able to identify what’s going on, but it’s Penric’s logic and his legwork that discovers the solution to the mystery. Which turned out to be sad but ultimately cathartic.

Still, this is a story where the journey is what keeps the reader – or at least this reader – turning pages. It’s whodunnit and whydunnit wrapped into one tantalizing package, with just a bit of philosophy added for seasoning.

All the novellas in this series are wonderful little reading treats, just right for a change of pace or something to fill in the corners after a big epic book hangover. If epic fantasy by the mouthful appeals to you, start with Penric’s Demon – just as Penric himself did – and be prepared for a wonderful reading time.

Review: Brothers of the Wind by Tad Williams

Review: Brothers of the Wind by Tad WilliamsBrothers of the Wind by Tad Williams
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Pages: 272
Published by DAW Books on November 2, 2021
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Set in the New York Times bestselling world of Osten Ard, this short novel continues the saga that inspired a generation of fantasists
Pride often goes before a fall, but sometimes that prideful fall is so catastrophic that it changes history itself.
Among the immortal Sithi of Osten Ard, none are more beloved and admired than the two sons of the ruling family, steady Hakatri and his proud and fiery younger brother Ineluki -- Ineluki, who will one day become the undead Storm King. The younger brother makes a bold, terrible oath that he will destroy deadly Hidohebhi, a terrifying monster, but instead drags his brother with him into a disaster that threatens not just their family but all the Sithi -- and perhaps all of humankind as well.
Set a thousand years before the events of Williams's The Dragonbone Chair, the tale of Ineluki's tragic boast and what it brings is told by Pamon Kes, Hakatri's faithful servant. Kes is not one of the Sithi but a member of the enslaved Changeling race, and his loyalty has never before been tested. Now he must face the terrible black dragon at his master's side, then see his own life changed forever in a mere instant by Ineluki's rash, selfish promise.

My Review:

It’s hard to believe that The Dragonbone Chair was published over 30 years ago. A whole lifetime ago. I read it as it was published, and I remember loving it and waiting impatiently for each book but don’t remember anything about the story. I DO remember attempting to read one of the author’s later series (Otherland) and failing miserably.

But that was a long time ago, and the past is another country, so when this book popped up on Edelweiss I thought, “Why not?” As this is a prequel to Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, the trilogy that began with The Dragonbone Chair, I figured that I didn’t NEED to remember anything at all to get into this one.

And I was right. The writing was as lush and descriptive as I sorta/kinda remembered, but I didn’t need to look up anything about the plot of the original books to get into this one – because none of those events had happened in this world. Not yet anyway.

So the story here stood alone. And thankfully didn’t stand nearly as long as the original trilogy, which I may remember fondly but also remember as doorstop-sized. Each. (Also, don’t worry about the designation of this book in some places as following or being part of the Last King of Osten Ard series. Last King is a sequel to Memory, Sorrow and Thorn and Brothers is a prequel.)

Brothers of the Wind is, as it says right there on the label, a story about brothers and brotherhood. But the brothers are immortal princes in their world, so the family dynamics and family squabbles and sibling rivalries are both neverending and potentially world-shattering in their impacts.

A shattering that is still being felt a thousand years later.

Escape Rating A-: More than anything else, Brothers of the Wind is a story about overweening pride going before a very big fall. And it’s a story about the difference between pride and honor. It’s also, playing into that pride, a story about the braying of privilege and the horrifying results of its exercise.

As I was reading, I found myself wondering if Ineluki was what we would call bipolar or something much too similar. He doesn’t have much of a brain-to-mouth filter, but that reads like a consequence of his overwhelming privilege. When Ineluki has a tantrum, which he does, frequently and often and with terrible consequences, he gets placated and indulged because he’s a prince which makes him powerful in his own right. He doesn’t face the consequences of his actions because everyone, especially his brother Hakatri, cleans up after him. Which just makes Ineluki resent him all the more.

But Ineluki really reads like someone who has a gigantic dose of impostor syndrome. He never seems to feel like he’s equal to his brother Hakatri in the hearts of either their parents or their people. The way that the brothers’ actions play out over the course of the story read very much like the dynamic between Thor and Loki in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and wasn’t that a surprise?

I think it fits though. Hakatri, like Thor, is the golden favorite, the older brother who is beloved by absolutely everyone and seems utterly perfect to everyone he meets. While Ineluki is dark and always trying to make his own mark in a world where it seems like his older brother has already taken all the best bits. Ineluki is a resentful second son who nurses his grudges and his temper like a spoiled child.

A spoiled child whose tantrums remake the face of the world, and not for the better, with consequences that will ring down through the ages in the tolling of funeral bells.

But this isn’t just the story of the two brothers, because the perspective of the story is told by Hakatri’s faithful servant, Pamon Kes. While Brothers of the Wind isn’t quite as epic as The Lord of the Rings, The Dragonbone Chair and the whole of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn definitely are. Which means that this book reads very much as if The Lord of the Rings had been written by Sam Gamgee entirely from his first-person perspective. A perspective that shows that even the compassionate, golden Hakatri took a tremendous amount of advantage of the goodwill and hero worship of an awful lot of people, whether his motives were pure or not.

So Brothers of the Wind can be read on more than one level. It’s a story about brothers who can’t manage to escape the roles that have been ordained for them. It’s certainly a story about a whole lot of pride going before a huge, world-shattering fall. And it’s a fascinating prequel for one of the modern classics of epic fantasy, a story that will take lovers of the original straight back to Osten Ard, and will hopefully carry a new legion of readers off to those faraway shores.