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
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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: 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
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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.

Review: Gutter Mage by J.S. Kelley

Review: Gutter Mage by J.S. KelleyGutter Mage by J.S. Kelley
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, urban fantasy
Pages: 336
Published by Gallery / Saga Press on September 21, 2021
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Fantasy and hardboiled noir in this fast-paced, twisting tale of magic, mystery, and a whole lot of unruly behavior.
In a kingdom where magic fuels everything from street lamps to horseless carriages, the mage guilds of Penador wield power equal to the king himself. So when Lord Edmund’s infant son is kidnapped by the ruthless Alath Guild, he turns to the one person who’s feared by even the most magically adept: Rosalind Featherstone, a.k.a. the Gutter Mage.
But as Roz delves into the circumstances behind the child’s disappearance, she uncovers an old enemy from her traumatic past and a long-brewing plot that could lead to the death of countless innocents, as well as the complete collapse of Penadorian society itself!

My Review:

Is it still urban fantasy if it isn’t set in our world? That’s a question I’m still very much puzzling over after finishing Gutter Mage, because this story has all the gritty, noir feels of urban fantasy, even if the cities of Drusiel and Monaxa are in a place called Penador and nowhere in the world we know.

Not that Drusiel, in particular, doesn’t remind me of other gritty fantasy cities, like Kirkwall and Ankh-Morpork, places where trouble brews in back alleys, disreputable taverns, and in the halls of power and powerful guilds alike.

The story of the Gutter Mage begins in the only disreputable tavern that has not yet barred Arcanist Rosalind Featherstone from its dingy but not disgusting premises. Roz is the Gutter Mage herself – but she’ll deck you if you call her that. Or set you on fire. Or both. Probably both.

Roz is a mercenary, an investigator into magic gone wrong, and a woman who seems to be doing her best to destroy herself one brain cell at a time. She is most emphatically NOT a mage – because the powerful mage guilds threw her out on her ear when her mentor abused her in the worst way possible.

He turned her into a weapon of fire. And she burned him to death for it, along with every other mage who participated in the ritual that put fire literally in her hands.

But someone has kidnapped a nobleman’s newborn baby for a magical ritual that isn’t supposed to exist. Then again, when Roz investigates, it starts to look like the baby doesn’t exist either. And on Roz’ other burning hand, it looks a lot like her former mentor is alive, and well, and planning to enact a ritual that is supposed to be a myth and an allegory, and not a real ritual at all.

Just like the one that put the fire in Roz’ hands. This time, her old nemesis has much bigger plans. He’s not just going to screw up one person’s life – he’s going to bring down the magic that keeps the entire kingdom going.

If Roz doesn’t stop him first.

Escape Rating A-: Gutter Mage is just a surprise and a dark delight of a book. I got captured by Roz’ bar brawl at the very beginning, and just could not read fast enough from there. The story is a blend of dark and gritty urban fantasy, mixed with just a bit of dark and gritty sword and sorcery – although way more sorcery than swords – and a scope that keeps getting bigger and broader even as the story tightens its focus on Roz, her self-destructive tendencies, her property destroying talent – or curse – and her need to put a stop to the man who used her and broke her.

This is a story that starts out small, as many urban fantasies do. Roz and her business partner and best friend Lysander are hired to solve a kidnapping and retrieve the victim – an infant who is so new that his mother hasn’t healed from his birth yet. The case looks easy. They even have a suspect for the crime – a mage guild who claims that the baby is integral to a ritual they plan to perform.

Except that every person they interview contradicts everyone else. There’s too much that just doesn’t make sense. It’s all so obvious that it’s obvious that it’s a setup. A setup that Roz figures out part of relatively easily. It’s just that Roz should have remembered that old saying about when something is too good to be true, and you’re not sure who the chump is, it’s you.

But the reveals are what make this thing so much fun. And where the story expands in scope. Because Roz learns that she might not be who she thinks she is. Also that the guilds and the powers that be are even more evil than she believed they were, even though she starts the story certain that they are all pretty much the WORST. The first thing is life altering. The second might be world destroying – and the world might even deserve it. On top of those revelations, there’s one more, the knowledge that, from a certain twisted point of view – that of Roz’ former mentor – it’s all Roz’ fault, for reasons that I wish had been a bit less clichéd. But the stakes ended up being so damn high that it doesn’t really matter. Except to Roz.

Gutter Mage reminded me a lot of The Blacktongue Thief and The Moonsteel Crown. Both have that same dark feel to them, both of them also feature protagonists who are more antihero than hero, and both revolve around self-deceptive characters who need to save the world anyway – even if they’re not remotely certain they want to save themselves. And both are series openers, and I really hope that Gutter Mage is as well.

Because, like both of those books, Gutter Mage reads like the start of something new and big and exciting. And I can’t wait to read where it goes.

Review: Mother of All by Jenna Glass

Review: Mother of All by Jenna GlassMother of All (Women's War, #3) by Jenna Glass
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Women's War #3
Pages: 656
Published by Del Rey on July 20, 2021
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An evil new magic threatens to undo all the progress women have made in the third and final book in Jenna Glass's riveting feminist fantasy, following The Women's War and Queen of the Unwanted.
In the once male-dominated world of Seven Wells, women now control their own reproduction, but the battle for equality is far from over. Even with two thrones held by women, there are still those who cling to the old ways and are determined to return the world to the way it was.
Now into this struggle comes a darker power. Delnamal, the former King of Aalwell, may have lost his battle to undo the spell that gave women reproductive control, but he has gained a terrible and deadly magic, and he uses these new abilities to raise an army the likes of which the world has never seen. Delnamal and his allies seem like an unstoppable force, destined to crush the fragile new balance between men and women.
Yet sometimes it is possible for determined individuals to stem the tide, and it comes down to a unique triad of women--maiden, mother, and crone--to risk everything...not only to preserve the advances they have won but to change the world one final time.

My Review:

Three “things”, three truths, lie underneath the entire Women’s War trilogy. One is the old saying about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely. This is a world where men have absolute power over women, a power so absolute that it has corrupted the entire society. A power that is used so callously and so heinously that it takes three generations of planning and sacrifice for a trio of desperate women to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to even make a dent in the absolute supremacy of male power.

The second truth is a much more recent saying, the one about man making “God” in his own image. The entire myth of the “Creator”, his “Mother” and the “Destroyer” that squats at the heart of the religion of Seven Wells is certainly a deity made in the image of men. Not humankind, just men. They use their state-entwined religion to explain and excuse the systemic abuse of women at every turn.

It is, however, equally true that if man makes his god in his own image, so does woman. Which is where the title of this entry in the series derives its meaning.

And last, but not least, something that is not so succinctly phrased as the above two concepts, but feels like a truth for this series, is that when a society yokes political power and religious authority, all they are really doing is greasing the skids down the road to hell.

The story of Women’s War is a single story spread over three not insubstantial parts, meaning that it begins in the first book, The Women’s War, continues in Queen of the Unwanted, and concludes here in Mother of All. This is very much NOT three books that each stands alone, but one long and complex story that must be begun at the beginning in order for the ending to have the weight and heft and gravitas that it deserves.

Because it most definitely does deserve all those things. And I say all of the above in spite of the fact that, as much as I enjoyed both the first book, The Women’s War, and this one, that middle book drove me right straight up the wall. But what happened there is necessary in order to understand how all the characters and this world reach the events of this final book in the trilogy.

As this final chapter opens, the chess pieces are all on the board, but not necessarily in the places we expect. Sovereign Princess Alysoon of Women’s Well begins the story believing that the situation in Seven Wells might get better, albeit as slowly as the reactionaries in most other countries can arrange. Her friend, Sovereign Queen Ellinsoltah, is on the throne of neighboring Rhozinolm, and Ellin’s Prince Consort Zarsha is one of the very few men in this story who is not an absolute ass. Not that he’s perfect, because he’s far from that, but he is on the side of change and is eager to help both Ellin and Alys effect that change.

That he is also Ellin’s spymaster makes him an extremely useful player on their side.

Aaltah, Alys’ birthplace, is now in the hands of her brother Tynthanal as Prince Regent. Their hated half brother Delnamal, the previous king, is believed to be dead as the result of an accident or incident or catastrophe or all of the above at the site of Aaltah’s Well, the source of the kingdom’s magical power. Whatever happened to the former king, a catastrophe certainly happened both at and to the Well, a catastrophe that Tynthanal is expected to fix.

A catastrophe that has impacted Aaltah’s magic, its ability to create the magical items that fuel its import/export trade agreements and therefore its economy. A catastrophe that appears to have had even more dire consequences that are just beginning to make themselves known. And unfortunately for pretty much everyone, reports of Delnamal’s death turn out to be, not exactly greatly exaggerated, but terrifyingly incorrect in those all-important pesky details where the devil, or in this case the Destroyer, is considered to reside.

But the situation in Seven Wells is much more precarious than first appears. It must be or there wouldn’t be an entire book yet to come. This world, and the gains that women have made in it, are not yet safe. It will require another trio of women to make another potentially grave sacrifice in order for this place to have a future. Not just a future where everyone can thrive, but any future at all.

Escape Rating A: Short summary of the series – loved the first book, wasn’t all that thrilled with the second but it was necessary, loved the third book. This book. Mother of All brought this epic trilogy to an appropriately epic conclusion, and it made wading through all the setup and political positioning and maneuvering in the second book worth the wade. Also worth the wait of anticipating this conclusion.

Seriously, I planned to listen to this one, but switched to the much faster ebook at barely the halfway point because I was so caught up in this and needed to find out how they collectively got out of the many, many catastrophes that were heading in their direction with all the speed of a juggernaut careening down the side of a mountain.

One of the things that is true throughout this series, that the reader is kind of bludgeoned with at the very beginning, is that this world is seriously messed up, totally FUBAR’d beyond not just recognition but beyond all reason, and that the overall arc of the series is the one-step-forward and sometimes ten-steps-back need to, well, unfuck the whole thing. Especially as it seems as if 90% of the men would rather life went back to the way things were when they could rape and murder women at will without repercussions of any kind. (There are fantasy worlds I might be interested in living in, like Pern and Celta. I wouldn’t touch Seven Wells with someone else’s severed hand.)

It’s not just that women have not just few but absolutely ZERO rights and are not just considered property but are legally chattel to either their fathers or their husbands is just the tip of the rotten iceberg. It’s honestly much worse than that. But, and a huge but, as much as some readers may want to see that as a situation for epic fantasy without application to the real world, I believe that there are and were plenty of patriarchal societies, past and present, in the real world that may not have been quite as awful for women but only missed this level of horror by a hair’s breadth.

All of the above makes this series not exactly a comfort or even a comfortable read, no matter how much one might love epic fantasy. Rather it makes for a searing and emotional read, as the reader is taken on an emotional roller coaster ride with characters who seem all too real in their hopes, their challenges, and the danger they face just for being women in a society that believes they are barely human and punishes them harshly if they attempt to assert even a minimal level of control over their own lives.

And that’s what makes this story, in spite of its frequent walks through very dark places, such a compelling read. It’s the characters. It’s walking by their sides and hoping with them against all hope that they might have made just enough of a difference in their world that their daughters will have a better future than their mothers.

Reviewer’s Note: If you’ve ever played Dragon Age Inquisition, Delnamal is kind of a dead ringer for Corypheus, all puns intended, although Delnamal manages to come to a much better end.

Review: The Godstone by Violette Malan

Review: The Godstone by Violette MalanThe Godstone by Violette Malan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Pages: 304
Published by DAW Books on August 3, 2021
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This new epic fantasy series begins a tale of magic and danger, as a healer finds herself pulled deeper into a web of secrets and hazardous magic that could bring about the end of the world as she knows it.
Fenra Lowens has been a working Practitioner, using the magic of healing ever since she graduated from the White Court and left the City to live in the Outer Modes. When one of her patients, Arlyn Albainil, is summoned to the City to execute the final testament of a distant cousin, she agrees to help him. Arlyn suspects the White Court wants to access his cousin's Practitioner's vault. Arlyn can't ignore the summons: he knows the vault holds an artifact so dangerous he can't allow it to be freed.
Fenra quickly figures out that there is no cousin, that Arlyn himself is the missing Practitioner, the legendary Xandra Albainil, rumored to have made a Godstone with which he once almost destroyed the world. Sealing away the Godstone left Arlyn powerless and ill, and he needs Fenra to help him deal with the possibly sentient artifact before someone else finds and uses it.
Along the way they encounter Elvanyn Karamisk, an old friend whom Arlyn once betrayed. Convinced that Arlyn has not changed, and intends to use Fenra to recover the Godstone and with it all his power, Elvanyn joins them to keep Fenra safe and help her destroy the artifact.

My Review:

This is a first. I’ve never read a blurb for a book that managed to reveal too much AND say too little at the same time. It doesn’t really do a good job of describing or teasing the book at all, but still manages to reveal the thing that if it were in a review would be labelled a spoiler. ARRGGGHHH!

So, this wasn’t quite what I was expecting, except in that this is an author I really enjoy (start her Dhulyn and Parno series with The Sleeping God or her more recent book, Halls of Law, written under V.M. Escalada but it’s still her.) So I was expecting a good reading time – and I certainly got that – I just didn’t get it quite the way I started out thinking I would.

This is one of those stories where it feels like you’re dropped in the middle. Which can be a good thing, because it makes the world and the characters seem fully formed from the very beginning. On the other hand, because no one is getting introduced to this world or coming of age in this story we don’t get the explanations that help ground readers into a new world.

It’s more like an immersive language course. The language, after all, already exists and is fully formed when the student begins the class. The newbie is then in a sink or swim situation to get up to speed as soon as possible.

So it is in The Godstone. As the story begins, we’re in a small village out in the hinterlands somewhere. Far from the capital, which is just how both Arlyn Albainil and Fenra Lowens like it. Arlyn is a world-renowned furniture maker, and Fenra is the village healer. Arlyn is also Fenra’s long-term patient, as he suffers from what we would call periodic bouts of severe depression.

Both characters are well into adulthood when we meet them, even if Arlyn is a whole lot further into adulthood than anyone – including his healer – could possibly imagine. They are who they are going to be. What makes them interesting is that they are not exactly who they appear to be, and especially not precisely who they have told each other they are.

The Godstone is an adventure story. And a quest. And a story about being forced to dismantle a comfortable persona in order to do what desperately needs to be done.

Which just so happens to turn out to be saving the world.

Escape Rating A-: This turned out to be an absorbing little world, and a surprisingly compelling story, in spite of the fact that I a)knew way too much from the blurb going in and b)went down a rabbit hole of my own making and couldn’t get myself out. Only to eventually realize that the rabbit hole was not quite as much of a wild goose chase as I originally thought.

And that many of my assumptions about the way that things work here, based on what they remind me of, may be considerably more off-base that rabbit hole that sorta/kinda wasn’t.

The story at first seems straightforward enough, in a sense, because it’s obvious to Arlyn from the very beginning that there are some seriously screwy political shenanigans going on in the capital that someone wants to entangle him in. So even though the political shenanigans themselves are more convoluted and dangerous than first appears – because of course they are – that initial framework itself is easy to understand.

Arlyn knows that his summons to the capital is not exactly on the up and up because he’s being summoned as the nearest relative of a powerful practitioner (read as magic-user). He knows it’s not legit because he himself is the supposedly dead practitioner he’s been pretending to be the relative of for, let’s say, lo these many years.

Fenra, who is the local practitioner in their remote village, assumes its not totally legit because the rise of political shenanigans in the capital was the reason she decided to set up her practice in a remote village in the first place. Paraphrasing Shakespeare a bit, because this story made me borrow bits from pretty much everywhere – It’s Denmark, and the state of the place is rotten and getting rottener by the year. Fenra doesn’t want her patient getting caught up in someone else’s game of political or magical one-upmanship, whoever and whatever it might be.

The exact nature of Arlyn’s illness – or at least how he became ill – is suddenly and perpetually relevant. Arlyn has periodic bouts of what appears to be a deep depression. Fenra is able to level him out so he can be functional – and also not waste away into nothingness – but she can’t cure him.

What makes Arlyn’s illness so fascinating, and what turns out to be the central puzzle of the whole story, is how he got that way. Once upon a time, the practitioner he used to be created an artifact that could literally destroy the world. He couldn’t destroy the artifact or at least not without potentially doing the thing he didn’t want to do in the first place, i.e. destroying the world that he himself was living on, so he locked it away where it could never be found. Except, of course, it has been, hence the original not-exactly-legit summons.

Arlyn thought that when he locked away the artifact, the Godstone, he lost his power in the locking away. Instead, he split himself in two, kind of like the episodes of Star Trek where Captain Kirk splits into good and evil twins. So there are two Arlyns, and both of them are telling their bits of the story in the first person, as are Fenra and Arlyn’s long-lost – seriously lost – friend, Elvanyn.

I found myself following the story by using equivalences. The Modes, the different neighborhoods, or counties or villages, seemed to be like the Shards of Marie Brennan’s Driftwood. Not quite, but close enough. Political skullduggery is it’s own mess, but the forms it takes tend to be similar, and so it seems here. Arlyn’s personality split echoes that Star Trek scenario, as what he’s divided into are a half with knowledge but no power, and one with power but no knowledge. Arlyn is actually a fairly decent person, while his other half, Xandra, has all of his power and all the arrogance that goes with it, but none of Arlyn’s wisdom or empathy to temper it.

Arlyn was a bit of a puzzle because his name echoes a character in, of all things, Final Fantasy XV. I kept mentally equating Arlyn Arbainil with Ardyn Izunia. Then I thought I’d fallen down a rabbit hole, then I decided that there was more carryover than I first thought, and not just because both characters are considerably older than they appear. Also much more of a psychological mess than they first appear. And while Arlyn is not as nasty as Ardyn, his long-buried counterpart, Xandra, certainly is.

So there’s a lot to process in this one. I enjoyed the hell out of it, even the times I was a bit confused. The round-robin of first-person narratives got a bit confusing with both Arlyn and the other Arlyn telling their parts of the story under the same name, but they were so opposite to each other that it didn’t take too long to get back on track.

There are still so many things about this world I don’t know, things that occasionally got a bit in my way but never for long. I loved that the other two voices were so distinct, and that Fenra was keeping just as many secrets as Arlyn – even if hers were not nearly as world-shattering. Although, come to think of it, they could be if this turns out to be the first book in a series after all. The Godstone didn’t end in a way that felt like it led to more adventures in this world, but it could.

I certainly had a more than good enough reading time that I’d sign up for the sequel – right this minute if I knew where to sign!