Review: The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French

Review: The Grey Bastards by Jonathan FrenchThe Grey Bastards (The Lot Lands, #1) by Jonathan French
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Lot Lands #1
Pages: 432
Published by Crown on June 19, 2018
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A raucous, bawdy, blood-soaked adventure fantasy debut that's The Lord of the Rings reimagined by way of Sons of Anarchy.

Jackal is proud to be a Grey Bastard, member of a sworn brotherhood of half-orcs. Unloved and unwanted in civilized society, the Bastards eke out a hard life in the desolate no-man's-land called the Lots, protecting frail and noble human civilization from invading bands of vicious full-blooded orcs.

But as Jackal is soon to learn, his pride may be misplaced. Because a dark secret lies at the heart of the Bastards' existence--one that reveals a horrifying truth behind humanity's tenuous peace with the orcs, and exposes a grave danger on the horizon. On the heels of the ultimate betrayal, Jackal must scramble to stop a devastating invasion--even as he wonders where his true loyalties lie.

My Review:

A hero’s journey is still a hero’s journey, even if the hero has tusks, and so does his hog.

In spite of the many comparisons to Sons of Anarchy, the hogs ridden by the Grey Bastards and their half-orc kin are real hogs. The kind that sometimes get turned into bacon – although certainly not in this case. These hogs are bred for riding into battle – and for loyalty to their riders.

The story in The Grey Bastards starts out small, and at the same time in just a bit of in media res. On the one hand, the focus is fairly tight on young Jackal and his band of brothers – even though one of them is actually a sister. Except when she’s not.

The story begins with Jackal’s perspective and Jackal’s point-of-view, in the world that he knows and is completely familiar with – although we don’t. It’s not our world and doesn’t seem to be an analog for any of the traditional mythological or fantasy worlds, in spite of its inclusion of humans, orcs, half-orcs, elves, halflings and centaurs – all under different, descriptive and occasionally vulgar names.

Those familiar casts of beings also have different functions and attributes in this world than in more traditional fantasy. But I hesitate to call these versions twisted because they aren’t that. They feel organic to this created world, just different from what we are used to.

Jackal also doesn’t explain the way that things in his worldview are different from ours, because for him that’s the way it’s always been and always will be – at least at the beginning.

But as the story continues, Jackal’s world expands as the expected patterns of his life begin fragmenting and eventually falling apart. He tries to fix the wrongs that he observes – and they are wrongs – by attempting a takeover of the established order.

However, he’s young and not nearly as smart as he thinks he is. He may be partly right, but he is also still partly wrong, and just a bit young and dumb. He gets outmaneuvered and is forced to learn about his world as it really is, and not just the way he’s always told that it has been.

It’s clear that the expansion of his worldview is going to be the making of him – if that world survives the chaos that is rapidly descending upon it.

Escape Rating A+: There are going to be people who want to label this one grimdark. Jackal’s world is certainly in a state of decay, and there are plenty of times when his situation seems pretty grim. But this world isn’t operating in the shades of grey that are the hallmark of grimdark, in spite of the title.

Jackal wants to make things better. That the situation is actually worse than he has any clue about when the story begins doesn’t change the fact that he is always trying to improve the situation for not just his own people but also anyone else that he comes across who seems to be innocent or downtrodden or just caught up in a bad mess that is not of their own making.

Not that he isn’t more than willing to kill anyone on the other side – particularly those who perpetrated some of the “wrong” situations he comes across. He’s not sweetness and light, he’s a warrior from a brutal and warlike people, but he is trying to leave his world better than he found it.

It’s just that he’s naive enough in the beginning not to see just how bad it is – and how much worse it’s going to get. But he does seem to have a very real chance of fixing at least some of the things – once he gets his head out of his own ass.

There are certainly things about The Grey Bastards that will perturb some readers. The book is incredibly profane. Nearly all of the characters in this book cuss as much as Kiva Lagos in The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi. These two books otherwise have nothing to do with one another, except that both are first books in series that look to be awesome. But Kiva’s constant stream of cussing is epic in scope. None of the individual characters in The Grey Bastards cuss as much as Kiva does alone, but the sum totals feel similar. And equally appropriate for the characters and the story.

There is also a thread of what could be considered misogyny throughout The Grey Bastards, and not just because the story opens in a brothel. The leader of Jackal’s settlement claims that females are only good for two things, and I quote, “fucking and fetching.” His attitude, that females are only capable of being whores, bedwarmers (whores with only one partner) or errand runners is one that seems to be commonly held among the half-orcs – or at least the old guard.

At the same time, the pivotal character in this story is Fetching, the only female member of the warband. And her importance to the story is not as a love interest, but as a formidable fighter and one who ultimately makes the crucial decisions and takes up the mantle of leadership.

Many of the other strong and/or important characters are also female, the elf female Starling who helps to create a critical partnership and Beryl, the adopted mother of virtually the entire half-orc clan. They are, in every way, the equal of any of the males – and their roles in the story are much more important than most.

It feels like a “do as I say, not as I do” dichotomy. The world seems to be male dominated, while at the same time the female characters are crucial and mostly not in traditional female or in only traditional female roles. And it does seem to be one of the things that Jackal finds repugnant at least some of the time.

On my third hand, there’s definitely an attitude that all the whores are happy and enjoy their work and don’t wish for anything different. And while that’s theoretically possible, it feels beyond unlikely.

Obviously I have divided feelings on this particular score.

While I am completely out of hands on this, one of the things that I found fascinating was the way that foundational myths were used for so many purposes. Jackal and his cohort are taught a version of their story that was designed to inspire pride and loyalty AND cover up ugly truths. When it becomes necessary for Jackal to learn more and BE more, he is forced into learning the REAL truth about the formation of the Lot Lands and their true purpose in the scheme of things. While that truth doesn’t exactly set him free, it does give him better perspective and even more reasons to fight – and it also changes the battlefield.

I absolutely do not have divided feelings on the book as a whole. It was a compelling read from its intimate beginning to its eye-popping and world-breaking end. It feels like the opening of a huge, sprawling, brawling, epic fantasy series.I want more, and I want it now. But I’ll have to wait just a bit. The True Bastards ride next July.

Review: Exile of the Seas by Jeffe Kennedy

Review: Exile of the Seas by Jeffe KennedyExile of the Seas (The Chronicles of Dasnaria #2) by Jeffe Kennedy
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Chronicles of Dasnaria #2
Pages: 420
Published by Rebel Base Books on September 4, 2018
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Around the shifting borders of the Twelve Kingdoms, trade and conflict, danger and adventure put every traveler on guard . . . but some have everything to lose.

ESCAPEDOnce she was known as Jenna, Imperial Princess of Dasnaria, schooled in graceful dance and comely submission. Until the man her parents married her off to almost killed her with his brutality.

Now, all she knows is that the ship she’s boarded is bound away from her vicious homeland. The warrior woman aboard says Jenna’s skill in dancing might translate into a more lethal ability. Danu’s fighter priestesses will take her in, disguise her as one of their own—and allow her to keep her silence.

But it’s only a matter of time until Jenna’s monster of a husband hunts her down. Her best chance to stay hidden is to hire out as bodyguard to a caravan traveling to a far-off land, home to beasts and people so unfamiliar they seem like part of a fairy tale. But her supposed prowess in combat is a fraud. And sooner or later, Jenna’s flight will end in battle—or betrayal . . .

My Review:

Exile of the Seas is a middle book that absolutely does not have even a trace of middle-book syndrome. And that’s marvelous.

The Chronicles of Dasnaria are a prequel/sidequel to the author’s absolutely awesomesauce Twelve Kingdoms series. As a prequel it is not required to have read the Twelve Kingdoms before beginning this series As the Chronicles of Dasnaria have continued we have met some of the characters who will be major players in the Twelve Kingdoms, but it hasn’t happened yet, as they are all still children, or at least teenagers, at this point in their stories.

However, it is crucial – albeit heartrending, that one read the first book in the Chronicles of Dasnaria, Prisoner of the Crown, before essaying into Exile of the Seas. The Chronicles of Dasnaria, are the story of former Crown Princess Jenna of Dasnaria. In order to appreciate where she finds herself at the beginning of Exile of the Seas, and why she begins her transformation from Princess Jenna to Priestess Ivariel, it is necessary to see where she came from and why she fled. And definitely what she is fleeing from.

Her courage often feels of the one step forward, two steps back variety, but considering the events of Prisoner of the Crown, one is constantly amazed that she found that courage AT ALL, let alone enough of it to not merely leave but to defy every expectation that her society has of women in general or herself in particular.

Like Prisoner of the Crown, this feels like a story about becoming. In the first book, Jenna was mostly a victim, over and over and over. What saved the whole book from being merely a litany of despair and disaster was the ending, where Jenna escapes with the help of her brother Harlan.

But escape is not enough. The women of the seraglio are hothouse flowers, pets and playthings, with no tools or experience to allow them to live outside its walls. Jenna may be physically out, but mentally she has not yet begun to escape its confines. A free woman anywhere else in her world has many more options than she ever believed were possible. This is the story of her learning to grasp for at least some of those options.

The story begins with a fortuitous meeting. Or possibly a goddess-ordained one. Aboard the ship Robin, bound for anywhere away from Dasnaria, the frightened and ignorant Jenna crosses paths with Kaja, a priestess of Danu. In a bit of foreshadowing, Kaja is on her way to the court of the Twelve Kingdoms to guard the Queen and train her daughter Ursula in the way of the warrior. But Kaja feels that her goddess has led her to Jenna, to provide Jenna with aid in her quest to escape Dasnaria – or to at least be ready for it to return and attempt to reclaim her.

Under Kaja’s brief but extremely effective tutelage, Jenna becomes Ivariel, and takes the first steps on the road to becoming a warrior priestess of Danu. She takes vows of both silence and chastity – to cover both her accent and her complete unwillingness – or inability – to cope with anyone’s sexuality, including her own.

As Kaja makes her way to her destiny, Jenna, now Ivariel, lets the goddess guide her steps. Steps that take her far, far, away from Dasnaria, to a place where “seeing the elephant” is not just a metaphor.

But in keeping with that metaphor, Ivariel gains experience of her world at significant cost – but not only to herself.

Escape Rating A-: I didn’t pick up on that resonance, between seeing the elephants and “seeing the elephant” until just now. Jenna has always had a dream of seeing elephants – its a dream she was even punished for in the seraglio. Women in Dasnaria don’t get to see much of anything, and certainly not the elephants that live in far away places.

“Seeing the elephant” is a 19th century Americanism that refers to gaining experience at great cost, and was often used in conjunction with serving in the Mexican-American War or the Civil War, or heading west on one of the great stagecoach drives, or of participating in the Gold Rush.

All times and places where a lot of people got a whole lot of experience through a whole lot of hardship, peril and pain. As does Jenna/Ivariel in her own way.

For followers of the Twelve Kingdoms series, it is fascinating to see a completely different part of this world. But it IS a completely different place, so new readers get to see it for the first time along with the rest of us.

This is Jenna’s story as she transforms into Ivariel. We see her grow and stretch and reach out – and sometimes pull back. This is a story of her healing and becoming – even though some of that process is painful, bloody and violent. It feels necessary for her to get past what she lived, and the way that she accomplishes that feels right for her – if not for the faint of heart.

Because the arc of this book is on a constant rise, it does not have any of the feel of a middle book. This is overall a positive story, something that middle-books seldom are. She grows, she changes, she gets better, she takes a step backward and then she reaches forward again. She stumbles, she falls, she doubts, she gets up and tries again.

And after the pain she experienced in the first book, it is not merely good but downright cathartic to see her begin to come into her own.

I’m looking forward to the next book in this series, Warrior of the World, coming this winter. A trip to hot Nyambura should warm at least one chilly January night.

Review: Gift of Griffins by V.M. Escalada

Review: Gift of Griffins by V.M. EscaladaGift of Griffins by V.M. Escalada
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Faraman Prophecy #2
Pages: 352
Published by DAW Books on August 7, 2018
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The second book in the Faraman Prophecy epic fantasy series returns to a world of military might and magical Talents as Kerida Nast continues the quest to save her nation.

Kerida Nast and her companions have succeeded in finding Jerek Brightwing, the new Luqs of Farama, and uniting him with a part of his Battle Wings, but not all their problems have been solved. Farama is still in the hands of the Halian invaders and their Shekayrin, and it's going to take magical as well as military strength to overcome them.

Unexpected help comes from Bakura, the Princess Imperial of the Halians, whose Gifts have been suppressed. As the Voice of her brother the Sky Emperor she has some political power over the Halian military, and she will use it to aid the Faramans, if Kerida can free her from what she sees as a prison. But whether Kerida can help the princess remains to be seen. If she succeeds, Bakura may prove their salvation. But should Kerida fail, all may be lost....

My Review:

Gift of Griffins is the direct followup to last year’s terrific Halls of Law. The action in Gift picks up right where Halls leaves off, and the two books as a whole feel like one single story that was just too long to fit into a single volume. So the author committed duology.

Gift makes no sense whatsoever without Halls. Consider yourself warned.

The story told in the two, however, is a lot of fun. This is epic fantasy that plays with some of the standard tropes in neat twisty ways.

Our point of view character is Kerida Nast. Ker was planning to be a soldier, like pretty much all of the women and men in her family before her. Two of her older sisters have risen to high rank in the Faraman military, and Ker expects to follow in their bootsteps.

So from the very beginning, the story feels like a heroine’s journey rather than a hero’s journey. One of the truly neat things about the story is the way that it turns out that Ker Nast is not the heroine whose journey fulfills the epic prophesy and saves the day.

Ker is only a piece, admittedly a big piece, of the prophecy that kicks the invaders out of the Faraman Peninsula and brings the mythic griffins back to their long abandoned home.

As we discover in Gift of Griffins, all of the various magics used by the human population of this world were literally gifted to them by the griffins centuries if no millennia ago. But humans being human, pretty much the first thing those magic users did was band into tribes based on exactly which kinds of magic they used in exactly what way. Then they bickered amongst themselves until, humans being human again, wars broke out, different groups gained ascendancy, and then ruthlessly tried to wipe out whichever faction was sucking hind tit.

Humans do kind of suck sometimes. The griffins, taking the very (very, very) long view, are none too happy with the way that their gift is being abused.

So when Ker finds their stronghold, courtesy of her friend Wiemark – a very, very young griffin that she found and “woke” in the griffins old ancestral home – the griffins tell her to solve her own problems and refuse to let Wiemark go back with her to help her.

Ker has a lot of problems to solve. Her homeland has been invaded by the forces of the Sky Emperor of Halia across the ocean, along with their mages. The Halians believe that women are chattel, and therefore maraud through Faraman killing every woman they see who does not immediately obey their every command – as well as all the women in the military because of course women bearing arms is absolute anathema.

They also kill every single Faraman mage (called Talents) that they find. Because Faraman magic is also utterly corrupt – because they believe it is used by women to deceive and enslave men.

(Any commentary on any contemporary groups, issues or problems feels intentional to this reader. Your mileage may vary.)

Ker, along with the friends and allies that she has gathered along her journey, has to figure out a way to defeat a force of magic users who specialize in mind control – and are all too proficient at it.

But she has an unexpected ally – in the middle of the enemy stronghold. If she can be rescued. If they can join forces. If Faraman can be saved. If the prophecy can be brought to fruition.

The odds are long, the stakes are high – and not everything is quite the way it seems.

Great fun.

Escape Rating B+: On the one hand, it is very nice indeed to have an epic fantasy that seems to be complete in merely two books – and only a year apart at that. On the other hand, the ending felt a bit rushed. It seemed like Ker was still getting her allies lined up when the villains essentially delivered themselves into her waiting (and fully armored) arms.

Not that I wasn’t perfectly happy to see more-or-less good triumph and for definitely evil to get its just desserts – but it felt like 1.9 books of build up and only .1 books of resolution. It felt like the ending happened awfully fast. I wasn’t ready and it didn’t feel like they were, either.

Again, not that they are supposed to be so fully ready that the final battle turns out to be a cakewalk – but they didn’t feel quite ready enough.

On my third hand (so, I’m an alien – or Kali the Destroyer. Sue me if you dare! BWAHAHAHAHA) and not that Ker and her allies couldn’t have used Kali’s power, one of the things I really liked about Gift of Griffins was the discover that while Ker is part of the prophecy, she is not the usual “prophesied one” or “chosen one” who is supposed to save the day. And that the “chosen one” in this story was also a woman and not the boy king – a character who does exist in this story and does help but is also just part of the prophecy and not its culmination.

The characters, well, the ones on the side of the angels at least, are all interesting and Ker in particular is a lot of fun to follow. One of the things that also makes this story work, at least for me, is that Ker’s side, while it is manifestly better than the villains, is never claimed to be perfect. Ker’s people have certainly done their share of murder and suppression, just not on the grand and horrific scale that the Halians are engaging in.

That the Halians turn out to not be the cookie-cutter villains they first appear to be makes the story just that much more involving.

That Ker is working to restore a system that may very well separate her from the man she loves, because it is a better system overall for everyone else, is a big and interesting part of her internal conflict – and we like her because of it. We want her to both help save the day and find a way to keep her own personal happiness.

She’s earned it.

Review: The Magic of Recluce by L.E. Modesitt Jr.

Review: The Magic of Recluce by L.E. Modesitt Jr.The Magic of Recluce (The Saga of Recluce #1) by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy
Series: Saga of Recluce #1
Pages: 501
Published by Tor Books on May 15, 1992
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Young Lerris is dissatisfied with his life and trade, and yearns to find a place in the world better suited to his skills and temperament. But in Recluce a change in circumstances means taking one of two options: permanent exile from Recluce or the dangergeld, a complex, rule-laden wanderjahr in the lands beyond Recluce, with the aim of learning how the world works and what his place in it might be. Many do not survive. Lerris chooses dangergeld. When Lerris is sent into intensive training for his quest, it soon becomes clear that he has a natural talent for magic. And he will need magic in the lands beyond, where the power of the Chaos Wizards reigns unchecked. Though it goes against all of his instincts, Lerris must learn to use his powers in an orderly way before his wanderjahr, or fall prey to Chaos.

My Review:

“The burned hand teaches best. After that, advice about fire goes to the heart.”

The above quote is from The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, but it could equally apply to the way that all of Lerris’ teachers operate in The Magic of Recluce. They all want him to think for himself and learn for himself, and not expect answers to be handed to him. At the same time, it is all too easy to sympathize with his position that they all already know, and why won’t they just tell him already!

And on my hidden third hand, it is clear that while their desire for him to learn things for himself is reasonable, they don’t exactly give him the building blocks from which to start. He’s 15, he’s exiled from the only home he’s ever known, and no one has bothered to really explain why.

All that he knows is that the endless striving for absolute ORDER bores him to exasperation. And that no one can be bothered to help him make sense of it all. There are always secrets within secrets, and cryptic answers within enigmas. He doesn’t even know that his own father is a High Master of Order until long after he has left the boring, orderly paradise that is Recluce.

But speaking of order, this is also a story about order vs. chaos, and the need to maintain the balance between the two. Lerris is actually kind of right in that pure order can be boring. Recluce is the bastion of order, and seems to be needed to balance the untrammeled chaos outside its borders.

However, while in this world it seems to be easier to create evil through chaos than through order, the fact is that both order and chaos, taken to their extremes, are bad. If that sounds familiar, it is also one of the premises of the Invisible Library series and of the Shadow War that was so much a part of Babylon 5. Unchecked chaos is ultimately destructive, but unchecked order leads to tyranny. Neither is particularly good for humans.

It’s up to Lerris, in his journey of training and discovery, to figure out where he belongs on that spectrum between order and chaos. The moral and ethical dilemmas that he faces illustrate the fine lines that separate the two, and show just how easy it is to fall down what turns out to be an extremely slippery slope – in either direction.

Escape Rating A+: The Magic of Recluce was the first book published in the author’s long-running Saga of Recluce. As such, it carries the weight of the initial worldbuilding that is needed for all of its prequels and sequels. However you may feel about reading series in publication order vs. the internal chronological order, this feels like the place to start.

And I fell right into it. I didn’t so much read this book as get absorbed by it. I started one night at dinner and finished the next afternoon. All 500-plus pages later. It’s a good story that keeps twisting and turning until the very end – and, I think, beyond.

Lerris’ story is both a coming-of-age story and a coming-into-power story. At the beginning, he doesn’t know who he is or what he is. He doesn’t even know there is a who or a what to be discovered – and that’s his journey. His internal doubts and fears, his constant questioning of what his purpose is, along with all of his very human frustrations, make him a fascinating character to follow.

What he does eventually realize, after fits and starts and mistakes and catastrophes, is just how equal, opposed and opposite chaos and order are – and how necessary the one is to the other. And that both sides are more than capable of deciding that the ends justify the means.

In the end, Lerris strikes his own path – by doing the best he can with what he has and what he knows – and often by ignoring what he doesn’t – occasionally with disastrous results. But in the end, he discovers or embodies that necessary balance even if it hurts. Because the person who is usually the most wounded is himself – every single time.

His journey is the making of him, and it’s the making of an utterly marvelous story as well as a terrific beginning to a fantastic series.

In celebration of the release of Outcasts of Order, the OMG 20th book in the series, The Magic of Recluce and the following two books in the series are being re-released with new covers this fall.  (The panorama view of the three covers is below, and it is gorgeous!) After falling in love with this series, I have a lot of catching up to do. And I can’t wait!

Review: King of Ashes by Raymond Feist

Review: King of Ashes by Raymond FeistKing of Ashes (Firemane, #1) by Raymond E. Feist
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy
Series: Firemane #1
Pages: 512
Published by Harper Voyager on May 8, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The first volume in legendary master and New York Times bestselling author Raymond E. Feist’s epic heroic fantasy series, The Firemane Saga—an electrifying tale of two young men whose choices will determine a world’s destiny.

For centuries, the five greatest kingdoms of North and South Tembria, twin continents on the world of Garn, have coexisted in peace. But the balance of power is destroyed when four of the kingdoms violate an ancient covenant and betray the fifth: Ithrace, the Kingdom of Flames, ruled by Steveren Langene, known as "the Firemane" for his brilliant red hair. As war engulfs the world, Ithrace is destroyed and the Greater Realms of Tembria are thrust into a dangerous struggle for supremacy.As a Free Lord, Baron Daylon Dumarch owes allegiance to no king. When an abandoned infant is found hidden in Daylon’s pavilion, he realizes that the child must be the missing heir of the slain Steveren. The boy is valuable—and vulnerable. A cunning and patient man, Daylon decides to keep the baby’s existence secret, and sends him to be raised on the Island of Coaltachin, home of the so-called Kingdom of Night, where the powerful and lethal Nocusara, the "Hidden Warriors," legendary assassins and spies, are trained.

Years later, another orphan of mysterious provenance, a young man named Declan, earns his Masters rank as a weapons smith. Blessed with intelligence and skill, he unlocks the secret to forging King’s Steel, the apex of a weapon maker’s trade known by very few. Yet this precious knowledge is also deadly, and Declan is forced to leave his home to safeguard his life. Landing in Lord Daylon’s provinces, he hopes to start anew.

Soon, the two young men—an unknowing rightful heir to a throne and a brilliantly talented young swordsmith—will discover that their fates, and that of Garn, are entwined. The legendary, long-ago War of Betrayal has never truly ended . . . and they must discover the secret of who truly threatens their world.

My Review:

It takes a very special kind of magic to capture lightning in a bottle. Magician had just that kind of magic, but that was a long time ago and world away from Firemane and King of Ashes. In the intervening decades (Magician was originally published in 1982!) the author has been prolific, but all of the books he has written since Magician have been set in Midkemia, the world he created with Magician, with the exception of the standalone Faerie Tale in 1988.

Magician looms very large in my memory. I still have my original copy, a 1982 Science Fiction Book Club edition. I picked up King of Ashes because I wondered if the author had managed to magic that lightning into the bottle again, in this first book in a completely new series that does not hearken back to Midkemia.

King of Ashes begins with a bang. Not quite literally, more like a thwack. That thwack is the sound the headsman’s axe makes when it severs the neck of the last king of Ithrace, Steveren Langene. But Langene’s real cause of death wasn’t the axe – the axe was just the instrument. Truly, he died of betrayal.

Langene’s line, the line of the Firemane, was supposed to have died on that scaffold. It certainly looked like it did, as his wife and all his children were killed before him. But as two of his former barons speculate while standing in the crowd of watchers, there are rumors of a baby, one born not long before this terrible campaign began.

Of course those rumors are true, as one of the barons soon discovers. So even though he couldn’t save his friend without dooming his own people, Baron Dumarch does what he can to save his friend’s only remaining child. He conceals the boy, not in his own household, but in the hidden kingdom of Coaltachin, the country of assassins.

The story in King of Ashes is the story of the coming of age of young Hatushaly who knows that he is different, and not just because of his copper-red hair in a kingdom of mostly dark-haired people. He is raised the same as the masters’ sons, but he knows he will never become a master himself. He feels that he is being protected, even as he undergoes the same grueling training as all children in the Invisible Nation.

He learns to hide, he learns to hunt, he learns to kill. He learns how to lead, how to follow, when to question and when to obey without question. He learns to control the fire inside him, without ever knowing what it is, why it is there, or who he really is. And he learns to control his own anger that secrets are being kept from him that he absolutely needs to know.

When all is finally revealed, he understands everything, but not nearly enough. And his story has only just begun.

Escape Rating A: In answer to the question of whether the author has managed to capture that lightning in the bottle again, the answer is yes. Perhaps not quite as full a bottle as Magician, but nevertheless, the bottle sparks with more than enough magic to make King of Ashes a marvelous read for any epic fantasy lover.

In the best epic fantasy tradition, King of Ashes is a coming of age story. We first meet Hatu as a baby, but the story then fast forwards to Hatu as a young man, nearing the end of his training in the Invisible Nation and learning to master himself and his power.

But it is not just Hatu’s coming of age, and that’s part of what makes the book so good. In spite of their training, Hatu has two friends who stand with him through thick and thin, the master’s grandson Donte and the farmer’s daughter Hava. Together they are the three best students of their year, and it seems as if together they will change their world. If they don’t manage to kill each other first.

It is also, and on the other side of the world, the story of Declan, an young journeyman smith, who gains his mastery and sets out to make his own fortune as the story begins. While Hatu’s training and early missions are fascinating, Declan’s rise from journeyman to master and leader is totally different but equally compelling.

The story switches from one point of view to the other as they are slowly but inexorably drawn together, but the reader is never confused who they are following or what they are witnessing – and why.

I don’t want to give the game away, so I’m trying not to add spoilers, and it’s very hard. This book was pretty damn awesome. The only reason I didn’t finish it in one day (all 500 pages of it!) is that about 2 am I just couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore, no matter how much I wanted to. I finished at breakfast the next morning because I just couldn’t stop.

There are elements of other epic fantasies, because these are classic tropes. The hidden prince story goes all the way back to King Arthur and the story of Excalibur in the stone. For a more contemporary parallel, the Codex Alera by Jim Butcher also has a similar feel. The loss and destruction of Ithrace has parallels to Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, but that seam has also been mined time and again. The hidden kingdom of assassins also has its parallels in Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Assassini and even in the assassin kingdom of Antiva in the Dragon Age video game series.

But putting those elements together with Declan’s considerably more prosaic but still fascinating transition from journeyman to master to leader makes for a magically tasty read. I am also happy to say that although the focus is on Hatu, Hava’s story arc is not reduced to merely sidekick/love interest. It is clear from the very beginning that she is going to be a mover and shaker in this story in her own right as it continues.

And there’s the rub. Unlike Magician, King of Ashes is far from a finished arc for these characters. As the Baron Dumarch puts it, this is only the first chapter, and it is a long game for him and a long first chapter for readers, albeit a very satisfying one.

The author appears to be committing trilogy, with the succeeding volumes very tentatively titled King of Embers and King of Flames. And I can’t wait.

Review: The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

Review: The Poppy War by R.F. KuangThe Poppy War by R.F. Kuang
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, grimdark
Pages: 544
Published by Harper Voyager on May 1, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

When Rin aced the Keju—the Empire-wide test to find the most talented youth to learn at the Academies—it was a shock to everyone: to the test officials, who couldn’t believe a war orphan from Rooster Province could pass without cheating; to Rin’s guardians, who believed they’d finally be able to marry her off and further their criminal enterprise; and to Rin herself, who realized she was finally free of the servitude and despair that had made up her daily existence. That she got into Sinegard—the most elite military school in Nikan—was even more surprising.

But surprises aren’t always good.

Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.

For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .

Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.

My Review:

The Poppy War is an absolute wow of a book. It’s also amazing that this is the author’s first novel, but that’s not what makes it such a marvel. It’s just completely, totally and utterly WOW! If you like grimdark (because this one is very grim and exceedingly dark) and/or if you like your fantasy-style alternate history set in a time and place that is totally f-ed up beyond saving, but the characters try anyway, then this book might be for you.

If you want a happy or at least a triumphant ending, where both good and evil are clear-cut and clearly drawn, this is not your book.

Instead, be prepared for absolutely anything, because this one sets off a whole pantheon of trigger warnings. And if you fall into it, dragging yourself out at the end is incredibly difficult. This is an epic book, and it will give you an epic book hangover – interlaced with tons of frustration, because it is clear from the way this book ends that this story is not over. Rumor has it that the author is committing trilogy, but there are no projected publication dates, or even titles, for those putative books 2 and 3.

Even though when you finish The Poppy War, you will want to read them right now – or at least right after a cocoa and a lie-down. I’d pass on the nap, because I think nightmares would probably be inevitable for a bit.

This book is so many things. It is a heroine’s journey, but it is not the usual heroine’s journey. Every time the heroine reaches a point that should be a triumph, the situation descends quickly into tragedy, anarchy or both.

There’s certainly an element of the “chosen one” to this story, but by the end one has the distinct impression that what Rin has been chosen for or by is operating by the old saying, that “those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad.”

While the heroine is in her teens, and she certainly comes of age over the course of the story, this is absolutely, positively NOT a YA book. And while the first half of the story covers the trials and tribulations of fish-out-of-water Rin at the prestigious military academy at Sinegard, this is also not a “save the school, save the world” story in the way that Harry Potter is. At the same time, there are elements of Rin’s personality that may remind readers of a very, very dark Hermione Granger – at least the swotting parts of her personality.

The Poppy War is also an #ownvoices epic fantasy. The heroine is a brown skinned Asian woman, written by a brown-skinned Asian woman. The history that the author has chosen to use as her background is history that is all-too-familiar to her, but that we are not familiar with in the West, and should be. The unfamiliarity makes the story even more fantastic, while the grounding in the real gives it an authenticity that makes the tragedy all that much more tragic and awful.

And “awful” both in the sense of terrible and in the sense of “full of awe”.

Escape Rating A+: This may be the first week I’ve ever had two A+ books, and back-to-back at that. Epic fantasy is one of my first loves, and it’s certainly obvious in this week’s books.

The Poppy War is so many, many things, and all of them special and amazing. I was absorbed into this world from the opening pages, as our chosen heroine desperately seeks a way to escape her intended fate as concubine to an old man so that her foster parents can further their opium business.

Rin’s way out is through pain and achievement, and it sets the pattern for the rest of her story. At each turn she takes the more painful and dangerous route, no matter how dark the road seems or how often she is warned against it.

The Poppy War is a story where things are always darkest just before they turn completely black. Then the scene lights up with fire, and everything is reduced to ash. And Rin, well, Rin does not so much emerge triumphant as she rises slowly to a standing position, bloody, broken and incandescent.

Review: The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton

Review: The Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa GrattonThe Queens of Innis Lear by Tessa Gratton
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy
Pages: 576
Published by Tor Books on March 27, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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A kingdom at risk, a crown divided, a family drenched in blood.

The erratic decisions of a prophecy-obsessed king have drained Innis Lear of its wild magic, leaving behind a trail of barren crops and despondent subjects. Enemy nations circle the once-bountiful isle, sensing its growing vulnerability, hungry to control the ideal port for all trade routes.

The king's three daughters—battle-hungry Gaela, master manipulator Reagan, and restrained, starblessed Elia—know the realm's only chance of resurrection is to crown a new sovereign, proving a strong hand can resurrect magic and defend itself. But their father will not choose an heir until the longest night of the year, when prophecies align and a poison ritual can be enacted.

Refusing to leave their future in the hands of blind faith, the daughters of Innis Lear prepare for war—but regardless of who wins the crown, the shores of Innis will weep the blood of a house divided.

My Review:

The Queens of Innis Lear is a fantasy retelling of Shakespeare’s play, King Lear. It’s important to remember that the full title of the play is The Tragedy of King Lear. And while the author of Queens makes plenty of adjustments in order to make her source material into an epic fantasy, one thing does not change – the story, in the end, is still a tragedy. Maybe, just maybe, not quite as dark as the original version, but do not go into this one expecting a triumphant, happy ending, because it isn’t there.

And it wouldn’t be right or proper if it were. It feels like it ends the way that it is meant to. But happy is not any part of that. It ends as it must, not as the reader, or any of the participants, wish that it would.

Gaelan Lear is the king of the island of Innis Lear, and just like in the play, he’s more than a little bit mad. The reasons for that madness, however, are rooted in the magic that underpins the island of Innis Lear and everything that happens upon it.

The island’s founding and foundational magic seems to have several branches, represented by the worms of the earth, the winds and the rootwaters, and finally the stars of the heavens. Another way of looking at it would be death, life and prophecy. There are multiple possible interpretations.

But Lear is a star priest, and he has decreed that only the prophecies of the stars will hold any sway over his kingdom, and that all reverence and obeisance to the other branches of magic are forbidden. Over the following decade, the kingdom has become as unbalanced as its king.

Lear has three daughters, Gaela, Regan and Elia. Gaela is a warrior queen, Regan a witch queen and Elia a remote star priestess. They also are out of balance, but they are young and still capable of change. With their father in decline, it is on their shoulders that the fate of the kingdom rests. And it rests uneasily.

Escape Rating A+: I absolutely loved this one. I got sucked in from the very first words. The prologue to this book is marvelous, mysterious and pulls the reader in. If epic fantasy is your jam, you’ll lick this one up with a spoon.

That being said, this is a sprawling epic of a story. A lot of what pushes and pulls it towards what becomes its inevitable conclusion are the internal motivations of all the characters. It is a slowly building story, where there isn’t a lot of action at points, but there is a lot of thought and memory and flashback.

So if you are looking for epic fantasy with big battle scenes and obvious good triumphing over obvious evil, this probably isn’t your book. All of the characters in this story operate very much in shades of gray. That is part of what makes them so fascinating, because you can see where things might have gone differently, and more happily, if people had made just slightly different choices.

This is also a story where, in spite of the king’s emphasis on star prophecies above all else, the quote from another Shakespeare play, Julius Caesar, is apropos. As Caesar says, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” In Queens, so much is blamed on star prophecy, and on the king’s exclusion of all other magic. But for the characters, it is not the prophecies, but their reactions to them, that drive their actions. The faults that doom so many of them are very definitely their own.

It has been said that this is a feminist interpretation of the play, because the emphasis in the story is not on Lear, but on his daughters and their reactions to him. In this version, Lear represents a past that is fading away, but is also the foundations of the sisters’ actions in the present. It is the conflict between the sisters, and between the two elder sisters’ husbands, that pushes the narrative. This is certainly a story where it is the women’s perspectives that carry the most weight, while the men, with very few exceptions, are mostly supporting characters. And when they try to become principals, it is to their cost. Whether that makes this a feminist interpretation or not, it certainly makes for a fascinating one.

In the end, this feels like the youngest sister Elia’s coming of age story. In the wake of their mother’s death, she chose to cling to her father and to follow the path he wanted her to follow, that of the remote star priest. The path that he had intended to take before the crown was thrust upon him. But in the turmoil surrounding the succession, she is forced to finally make her own choices, and to ultimately realize that duty triumphs desire.

Two final comments before I close. For those who have read Jeffe Kennedy’s Twelve Kingdoms series, The Queens of Innis Lear feels like a “Mirror Universe” version of that wonderful epic. I mean “Mirror Universe” in the Star Trek sense, where the characters are all the same, but have been reflected back as their own twisted twins. The Twelve Kingdoms beginning with The Mark of the Tala, is also the story of three sisters, who are also the daughters of a mad king. But because they made different choices in reaction to the same event, the early death of their mother, they emerge stronger and united, instead of weak and divided, and are able to wrest a happy ending from the same circumstances that drove The Queens of Innis Lear to their own near-complete destruction – along with that of the kingdom they fought both over and for.

And finally, more than anything else, The Queens of Innis Lear reminds me of Guy Gavriel Kay’s awesome work of epic fantasy, Tigana. I found Tigana to be both triumphant and tragic, but as much as I loved it, and have kept multiple copies of it, I have never been able to read it again. The ending was perfect and harrowing at the same time.

The Queens of Innis Lear is strikingly similar. The setting, just as in most of Kay’s work, is a slightly altered version of our own history, with magic a part of the weaving of the world and the tale. Innis Lear is a version of England, and all the other countries mentioned have recognizable analogs to our own history.

But the most striking similarity is in the ending. Both stories end in ways that are ultimately necessary. They can’t be anything else. The way the story is woven, the way the characters have acted, have led to only one proper conclusion, and it not a happy one. But it is the one that has to be. And it is heartbreaking for the characters, and for the reader as well.

Review: Blood of the Four by Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon

Review: Blood of the Four by Christopher Golden and Tim LebbonBlood of the Four by Christopher Golden, Tim Lebbon
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Pages: 480
Published by Harper Voyager on March 6th 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The acclaimed authors of The Map of Moments and The Secret Journeys of Jack London join creative forces once more in this epic, standalone novel—an exciting dark fantasy of gods and mortals, fools and heroes, saviors and destroyers with a brilliant beam of hope at its core--that should more than appeal to readers of N.K. Jemisin and Brandon Sanderson.

In the great kingdom of Quandis, everyone is a slave. Some are slaves to the gods. Most are slaves to everyone else.

Blessed by the gods with lives of comfort and splendor, the royal elite routinely perform their duties, yet some chafe at their role. A young woman of stunning ambition, Princess Phela refuses to allow a few obstacles—including her mother the queen and her brother, the heir apparent—stand in the way of claiming ultimate power and glory for herself.

Far below the royals are the Bajuman. Poor and oppressed, members of this wretched caste have but two paths out of servitude: the priesthood . . . or death.

Because magic has been kept at bay in Quandis, royals and Bajuman have lived together in an uneasy peace for centuries. But Princess Phela’s desire for power will disrupt the realm’s order, setting into motion a series of events that will end with her becoming a goddess in her own right . . . or ultimately destroying Quandis and all its inhabitants.

My Review:

If you have ever searched for a single-volume epic fantasy that had everything you want in an epic fantasy, look no more. Instead, settle in for a trip to Quandis, amidst the utterly absorbing pages of Blood of the Four.

It has always seemed as if, in order for epic fantasy to be truly epic in scope, the author (or in this case, authors) needed to at least commit trilogy, if not tetralogy or even more. That is not the case with Blood of the Four, which may weigh in at a solid 480 pages, but is blessedly complete in and of itself, with no breathless waiting for book 2 and book 3 to appear and for he story to reach its epic conclusion. It’s all right here, and it’s marvelous.

The story begins with a secret. And a betrayal. And ends after a night of fire and bloodshed with a new beginning and a new queen, just as it should. The monsters are vanquished, evil is defeated, and good begins a new chapter in the history of a storied kingdom.

But those monsters are not mythic creatures out of legend. Nor should they be. The monsters begin as all too human, and they carry those human faults and frailties more than just a bit too far.

This is a story of hubris, and of reaching not just well beyond one’s grasp, but well beyond what any human should grasp.

And it’s awesome.

Escape Rating A+: Blood of the Four is my first A+ review of 2018. I loved it so much, it’s difficult to write about – but I’ll certainly try to do it justice.

First of all, it’s just damn amazing that this huge story is complete in one (admittedly big) volume. And that it doesn’t feel as if the authors left anything out that should be here. If this had been the usual epic trilogy, there would probably be more backstory on the characters, or the story would have started a bit earlier in their lives, or both.

But the authors did a great job at presenting the backstory that we really need to know to understand the characters, so we’re able to jump into the middle of the action and once we’re there, the pace never lets up.

There are a lot of threads to this story. From certain angles, this is a story about sisterhood, because there are two sides of this equation, and in the end both are saved by the characters’ sisters.

It is also the classic story of power corrupting, and absolute power corrupting absolutely. The queen of Quandis seemingly has everything including the love and loyalty of her adoring people. But it is not enough – because it never is – and her search into dark places and even darker magics leads to death and destruction, and not just her own.

The story also happens fast. From the very first betrayal until the dawn of the new age, an awful lot happens in a very short time period, and it feels as if we’re there for all of it. We don’t just follow those at the top of the rotting social order, the queens and princesses, but we also have characters who give us perspectives among the religious caste, the warriors and most important for this particular story and its result, the slaves and the underclasses. We see it all and we feel for everyone, every step of the way.

Something about this story, and I’m not exactly sure exactly what, reminded me a bit of The Queen of the Tearling as well as Jeffe Kennedy’s Twelve Kingdoms series, particularly The Mark of the Tala and The Talon of the Hawk. Probably the awesomeness of its heroines and its absolutely sweeping passing of the Bechdel Test. Women not only talk to each other, but they also respect each other – and it glows.

If you love epic fantasy, especially if you are looking for one where you can read it all without endless waiting for a next volume or spending a year of your life wading through a dozen or more doorstops, grab a copy of Blood of the Four. You will not be disappointed, not for a single page.

Review: A Plague of Giants by Kevin Hearne

Review: A Plague of Giants by Kevin HearneA Plague of Giants by Kevin Hearne
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Seven Kennings #1
Pages: 618
Published by Del Rey Books on October 17th 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In the start of a compelling new series, the New York Times bestselling author of The Iron Druid Chronicles creates an unforgettable fantasy world of warring giants and elemental magic.

In the city of Pelemyn, Fintan the bard takes to the stage to tell what really happened the night the giants came . . .

From the east came the Bone Giants, from the south, the fire-wielding Hathrim - an invasion that sparked war across the six nations of Teldwen. The kingdom's only hope is the discovery of a new form of magic that calls the world's wondrous beasts to fight by the side of humankind.

My Review:

This is a book to savor. It’s very long and incredibly involved and left me with a marvelously horrible book hangover. And I loved every minute of it.

There’s no singular hero in A Plague of Giants, although there are plenty of people who do heroic things. But there’s no Frodo or Aragorn or Harry to lead the charge.

Instead, we have Fintan the bard, who may have participated in a few bits of the story, but who is not the hero. Fintan is the one telling the tale, using all of the powers at his command as a master of the bardic arts. But it is not his story that he tells. Instead, it is the story of every person in Teldwen whose life has been uprooted, or ended, by the invasion of not one but two armies of giants bent on conquest.

Even one army of giants is not enough to make this big of a mess of a the world.

At least one set of giants is known. And their motives are understandable, even if their methods are often brutal. The Hathrim are masters of fire, but even their cities can be overwhelmed when a dormant volcano wakes up. But they are masters enough of their element that they could see it coming in time to evacuate. Their plan is to use the tragedy as an opportunity to carve out new, resource-rich lands on the mainland.

But they lands they choose, while currently unoccupied, are not unowned. And border on the lands of their natural enemies. If the Hathrim are masters of fire, the Fornish are masters of woodcraft and forest lore. The trees that the Hathrim view as mere fuel for their fires, the Fornish see as sacred.

The Hathrim fire mastery and the Fornish command of all that grows in the land are merely two of the seven kennings of the series title. Three of the other kennings are the standard ones of so much fantasy and mythology; air, water and earth. Just as the Hathrim are fire masters, the Raelech are masters of the earth, the Brynts are water masters, and the Nentians have the mastery of the air.

But in the face of the invasion from both the known and feared Hathrim and the unknown and even more fearsome “Bone Giants” the sixth kenning finally appears. Just as the Fornish have power over all plants that grow, the first speakers of this new, sixth kenning have control over all animal life, from the smallest insect to the largest beast.

And the Bone Giants have invaded in search of the elusive seventh kenning, which no one has ever seen, heard of, or even speculated about. But whatever it may be, the Bone Giants are laying waste to vast swaths of Teldwen in order to locate it. Whatever and wherever it might be.

The story that Fintan the bard tells is the story of every person of every nation who becomes instrumental in the fight against both sets of terrible giants – and the story of the giants as well.

A Plague of Giants is an epic tale told by a master storyteller. And it is far from over.

Escape Rating A+: I absolutely loved A Plague of Giants. Which makes it very hard to write a review. Unless I just squee. A lot.

This both is and isn’t like a typical epic fantasy book. Yes, it’s long and has a huge cast of characters, so that part is very like. But it’s different in a couple of key aspects.

First, instead of being a narrative quasi-history, this is the story itself being told by its partipants, through the means of the bard’s magic. We’re not reading a history or quasi-history, instead Fintan is reciting events for his crowd of listeners in the words and images of the principal participant. It feels different.

The author Kevin Hearne said that he was trying to recreate the feeling of the old bardic tales as Homer used to tell them. I can’t say whether he succeeded, but he certainly has created something different. And compelling.

There’s something about the way that Fintan tells the story that reminds me of Kvothe in The Name of the Wind. I’m not sure why, but it just does.

Another difference in A Plague of Giants is that there are no clear heroes, and not really any clear villains, either. Not that one of the characters isn’t villainous, but he’s far from being a mover and shaker on either side.

We are able to see the story from the Hathrim point of view and it’s obvious that from their own perspective they are not evil. They think they are doing right by their own people, and don’t particularly care who they have to lie to or mow down to accomplish their goals. But it feels like real-politik, not evil.

Even the Bone Giants don’t think they are evil. Not that they don’t commit plenty of seemingly evil actions. But we don’t yet know enough to know what motivates them. So far, at least, it is not evil for evil’s sake. It looks like religious fanaticism, but even that isn’t certain. And we know that they think they have been provoked. (And there is something about their unknown nature and implacability that reminds me a bit of Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera. But I’m not certain of the why of that reminder either, just that it feels right.)

Fintan is not the hero, and does not intend to be. It’s his job to tell the story – not to fix it. Whether anyone else will emerge as the hero is anyone’s guess at this point.

Each of the individuals that Fintan portrays does an excellent job of both representing their people and illustrating their own portion of what has become a world-spanning story. Some of them stand out more than others. Some of them survive, where others do not. But their heroic acts are confined to their small piece of the puzzle.

At the same time, the flow from one character to another, and from one day to another of Fintan’s telling of the tale, is surprisingly compelling. With the end of each tale, the reader (or at least this reader) is incapable of resisting the compulsion to find out just a bit more.

I still feel compelled. The second book in the series will be titled A Blight of Blackwings, when it is published at some future unspecified date. And I want it now. Impatiently. Passionately. Desperately.

Review: The Bloodprint by Ausma Zehanat Khan + Giveaway

Review: The Bloodprint by Ausma Zehanat Khan + GiveawayThe Bloodprint (The Khorasan Archives #1) by Ausma Zehanat Khan
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy
Series: Khorasan Archives #1
Pages: 448
Published by Harper Voyager on October 3rd 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A dark power called the Talisman has risen in the land, born of ignorance and persecution. Led by a man known only known as the One-eyed Preacher, it is a cruel and terrifying movement bent on world domination—a superstitious patriarchy that suppresses knowledge and subjugates women. And it is growing.

But there are those who fight the Talisman's spread, including the Companions of Hira, a diverse group of influential women whose power derives from the Claim—the magic inherent in the words of a sacred scripture. Foremost among them is Arian and her apprentice, Sinnia, skilled warriors who are knowledgeable in the Claim. This daring pair have long stalked Talisman slave-chains, searching for clues and weapons to help them battle their enemy’s oppressive ways. Now, they may have discovered a miraculous symbol of hope that can destroy the One-eyed Preacher and his fervid followers: The Bloodprint, a dangerous text the Talisman has tried to erase from the world.

Finding a copy of The Bloodprint promises to be their most dangerous undertaking yet, an arduous journey that will lead them deep into Talisman territory. Though they will be helped by allies—a loyal ex-slave and Arian’s former confidante and sword master—both Arian and Sinnia know that this mission may well be their last.

My Review:

If the Taliban and The Handmaid’s Tale had a hate child, it would be The Bloodprint. Yes, I mixed my metaphors, but it feels correct. And if after reading The Bloodprint there is anyone who does not mentally link the Talisman of the book with the Taliban of real life, I’ll eat my virtual hat.

The Bloodprint is an epic fantasy that feels very definitely part of the grimdark movement. It’s a very grim story, and the world that it portrays is in that terrible place where things are always darkest just before they turn completely black.

And although our protagonists are pursuing that one last ray of hope and light before all is extinguished, by the end it just feels as if all is lost.

The interesting thing about The Bloodprint is that it is, for the most part, a heroine’s story. The characters with agency are all female, and the defenders of the light are a female order of wise women and warriors. The story passes the Bechdel-Wallace test within the first page.

And that seems fitting, because so many of the victims of the darkness that has taken over this world are also female. Women without husbands or children are automatically sold into slavery. And the slave trade is so lucrative (or something even more nefarious) that the men of entire villages are wiped out just so that their surviving wives and daughters can be sold into slavery.

That’s not all that’s wrong. The Talisman, the villainous empire of our story, are systematically wiping out all books, all writing, and anyone who has the ability to write. Our heroes refer to the time that they live in as the “Age of Ignorance” because of this systematic erasure. And the parallels to the real-world Taliban, both in their treatment of the historical record and their treatment of women, feels screamingly obvious.

One of the foundations of the side of the light are its scriptoriums. And its relentless need to pass on any and all knowledge by oral as well as written tradition. Because there’s a reason for all of this erasure of history.

Writing, or at least a particular piece of writing called the “Claim”, is magic. And those who can wield the magic of the claim are extremely powerful. And rare.

Arian is our heroine, and one of the women who can wield the magic of the Claim for both offense and defense. She is a leading member of a legendary sisterhood, and she is tasked with the duty of retrieving a mythical original manuscript of the Claim, in order to bring about the end of the Talisman.

No such quest is ever conducted alone. Arian has companions on her journey, a guardian from her sisterhood, the man who loves her but whom she of course cannot have, and a child she rescues who will probably turn out to be the key to the whole thing at some future point. (I do not know this at all, I merely speculate.)

But equally, no such quest is ever undertaken without grave risk. Arian’s problems begin within the walls of her own sanctuary, as the leader of her order seems to be pursuing a separate, and possibly inimical, political end of her own.

Arian is uncertain whether or not she has been betrayed before she even begins. But as her journey continues through the devastated lands, she discovers that there are more forces arrayed against her than even she imagined in her darkest hours.

And that things are indeed always darkest just before they turn completely black.

Escape Rating B-: I have some mixed feelings about this book. There are some parts of the story that I really liked, and some that left me completely puzzled.

I love the idea of this in a whole bunch of ways. I really liked that the story begins as a buddy-story, with both of those buddies being women. And that our initial antagonist is a woman as well. There is absolutely no reason that any story can’t have women taking on a whole bunch of the roles that men regularly do. Hero, savior, villain, companion.

I also found it interesting that the male character in the story, while he is powerful in his own right, also takes on some of the roles that usually fall to women. This is Arian’s story and Arian’s quest and Daniyar is the one following her while she leads both the party and the story.

I was also fascinated by the way that this story is rooted in an entirely different mythical background than the Norse and/or Celtic mythologies that so often dominate epic fantasy.

But it was difficult to get into the story. At the beginning, it felt like a lot had already happened, and that somehow I’d missed. It. In the end, the impression I’m left with is that The Bloodprint felt like the middle book of a trilogy, even though it isn’t. When the story begins, we’re in the middle of action that has been going on for years. The situation is already desperate. And there’s positively oodles of backstory between not just Arian and her companion Sinnia, but between Arian and Daniyar, and especially between Arian and Ilea, the leader of her order. Backstory and context which readers scramble to assemble from the clues left by the characters’ thoughts and actions.

And the world has already gone completely to hell in that handbasket and it doesn’t look salvageable. Arian’s quest has the feel of a “Hail, Mary” pass, one of those million-to-one shots that only succeed in epic fantasy and the Discworld.

But it also feels like a middle book because the narrative trajectory heads downward. Things start out bad, get steadily worse, and we end on a horrible cliffhanger with the fingers being stomped on. Things began grim and ended grimmer.

On my other hand, the final 25% is absolutely compelling page-turning reading. I could see the end coming, I knew it was probably going to be horrifying, and I could not stop myself from racing to get there as fast as I could.

In the end, The Bloodprint is compelling but very, very dark epic fantasy. I’m very curious to see how our heroines get out of the very hot frying pan they’ve landed in, and how much hotter the fire underneath will turn out to be.

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