Review: Dragon Age Library Edition Volume 2 by Greg Rucka, Nunzio DeFilippis, Christina Weir, Carmen Carnero, Fernando Heinz Furukawa

Review: Dragon Age Library Edition Volume 2 by Greg Rucka, Nunzio DeFilippis, Christina Weir, Carmen Carnero, Fernando Heinz FurukawaDragon Age Library Edition Volume 2 by Greg Rucka, Nunzio DeFilippis, Christina Weir, Carmen Carnero, Fernando Heinz Furukawa
Format: eARC, hardcover
Source: publisher via Edelweiss, purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover
Genres: fantasy, graphic novel
Pages: 232
Published by Dark Horse Books on December 4, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook Depository
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Journey to the world of Thedas in these canonical comics from BioWare and Dark Horse!

Tessa and Marius are mercenary partners who eliminate those using magic to hurt others. When they betray a powerful patron intending to kill them, they're forced to flee and join the Inquisition. Later, they're taken captive during a mission and it's up to an unwitting agent to rescue them: elven squire Vaea, who's just arrived in Kirkwall for a lavish party thrown by Varric Tethras. A talented thief, Vaea takes on an easy side job . . . but when she chooses to change the terms of the deal mid-heist, she is entangled in this dangerous recovery mission that is surely above her pay grade.

Featuring work by Greg Rucka, Nunzio DeFilippis, Christina Weir, Carmen Carnero, and Fernando Heinz Furukawa, this oversized hardcover edition collects Dragon Age: Magekiller #1-#5 and Dragon Age: Knight Errant #1-#5 and features creator commentary and behind-the-scenes material!

My Review:

I just started a new play-through of the whole Dragon Age saga, which made this a perfect time to review this. The title is a rather unhelpful mouthful of not very informative. What this big little volume is is a hardcover compilation of two Dragon Age graphic stories, Magekiller and Knight Errant.

I knew I was going to get to this eventually – I even picked up an eARC from Edelweiss. But in the end, I bowed to the inevitable and purchased the hardcover. While graphic novels CAN be read on my iPad, that doesn’t mean they SHOULD be read on my iPad – unless I’m really desperate and away from home. The hardcover is large and awkward – but fun reading at the table.

The interesting thing about the two stories in this book is that they both take place in the interstices of the plot of Dragon Age Inquisition. This means three things:

  1. These stories only make sense if you are already a fan of the video game series
  2. They feel/read like short stories that just so happen to be illustrated. I’m not saying that the graphics aren’t terrific – because they are – but both of these stories would work equally well as short stories without the lovely, additional graphics.
  3. The stories are canonical – nothing in them conflicts with the game story canon. A fan can imagine them taking place around the edges of the game(s) actually played. These events happened while your Inquisitor was somewhere else being, as Varric Tethras might say, “all Inquisitorial”.

The first story begins a bit before the game starts, with a pair of mercenary magekillers (hence the title) who have been coerced into killing known cult members before the cult manages to murder the Divine and kick off the whole thing. They find themselves working for the Inquisition, alongside many of the other side characters in the story.

What’s fun about Magekiller is that the male/female mercenary partners are work partners without being romantic partners – nor is there a will they/won’t they vibe to the story. It was pretty neat that the romantic pairing in the story turns out to be between the female mercenary and one of the Inquisition’s better known spies. Who is also female.

That the hero of Magekiller has a very similar vibe to one of my (and many people’s) favorite characters in Dragon Age II is icing on a surprisingly tasty cake.

Knight Errant also feels like it has some callbacks to Dragon Age II, as well as to the game that started it all, Dragon Age Origins – which I’m playing again now.

But the story is all about the power of stories. There’s a quote from Varric Tethras, the author of Hard in Hightown and the premiere storyteller in the series: “There’s power in stories, though. That’s all history is: the best tales. The ones that last. Might as well be mine.”

Varric writes fiction, but he also fictionalizes the heroic deeds of his friends – including himself as a secondary character. It’s a practice that causes him no end of trouble, and makes him an interesting but extremely unreliable narrator.

In Knight Errant, Varric is a secondary character in someone else’s unreliable narration – and he’s more than willing to play along. But under this seemingly simple tale about a has-been knight who travels the world on the strength of the stories he tells about himself, there’s a lot to unpack about why we tell the stories we tell, and how much of ourselves we invest in those stories.

And if you don’t finish this story hearing the original cast of Hamilton singing “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story” you weren’t paying attention.

Escape Rating B: If you’re a fan, this collection is a lot of fun. Possibly even more fun than Hard in Hightown. There are a ton of in jokes scattered throughout both stories, and we get a chance to see a different bit of this world and different facets of characters we have come to know and love.

There are also some informative annotations from the creators on the process of both the story and the graphics.

While I can’t think that anyone else would be interested, for those of us who are working through our hundredth play-through of the series and trying to keep from chewing our nails waiting for Dragon Age 4 (which probably won’t be out until 2021 at the earliest!) it’s a fun way to pass some time in Thedas.

Review: Forged in Blood II by Lindsay Buroker

Review: Forged in Blood II by Lindsay BurokerForged in Blood II (The Emperor's Edge, #7) by Lindsay Buroker
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, steampunk
Series: Emperor's Edge #7
Pages: 422
Published by Lindsay Buroker on July 17, 2013
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Amaranthe Lokdon survives her reckless plan to destroy the enemy’s weapon-filled super aircraft only to learn that thousands of people perished when it crash landed. Half of her team is missing...or dead. Meanwhile, the fighting in the capital has escalated, the Imperial Barracks have been taken by a pretender, and a deadly new danger threatens the populace. Amaranthe’s hopes of returning Emperor Sespian to the throne and bringing peace to the empire are dwindling by the hour.

To make matters worse, her strongest ally—and closest friend—has been captured and is under a powerful wizard’s control. If she can’t figure out a way to free Sicarius, he may kill them all when next they meet...

My Review:

Forged in Blood I ended at maximum cliffhanger, so I dove into Forged in Blood II the moment I finished it. It’s kind of impossible to stop at that point.

(Fair warning, this review will contain spoilers for Forged in Blood I. It would be equally impossible to talk at all about this book without talking about that book. They are pretty much one story, and everything that happens here is dependent on what happened there. Also, Captain Obvious being very obvious, don’t start the series here!)

Forged in Blood I ended at two parallel points with opposite results. Amaranthe has just crashed the Behemoth and wrecked untold destruction pretty much everywhere. She feels guilty beyond measure at the deaths she feels she is responsible for. And she might share in that responsibility but she certainly isn’t solely responsible – particularly considering that she never had any personal ability to control the airship/spacecraft in the first place.

But she walks away from the wreckage, believing all of her team are dead, only to shortly discover that so far, everyone she truly cares for managed to be someplace else.

On that other hand, Sicarius enters the ruins of the ship and finds what he believes are the remains of Amaranthe’s charred corpse. He believes that everyone he cares about, including Amaranthe and his son Sespian, are all dead in or under the crash. He tries to commit suicide-by-enemy in a grand fashion, only to be captured and mind-slaved by one of the many, many forces that is attempting to take control of the capital.

He doesn’t care – at least not too much. If his would-have-been-lover and his son are both dead, he is not unwilling to kill as many of those responsible for the situation as possible (he is an assassin, after all) before he finds a way to at least get himself killed if not take out the wizard controlling him in the process.

As Forged in Blood II opens, Amaranthe is working on multiple plans – as she always is – to eliminate the alien spaceship before even more nefarious things can be done with it, find a way to get some of their enemies to eliminate each other, and find out what happened to Sicarius and rescue him if necessary.

Sicarius has been given a list of people to kill, and he’s working his way down the list.

I would say that things go pear-shaped at this point, but they have been pear-shaped so long that the pear is starting to rot. This is a series where saying that our heroes jump out of the frying pan and into the fire doesn’t go nearly far enough. The entire series is pretty much fires and frying pans all the way down.

But this book is the end of the main story arc of the ENTIRE Emperor’s Edge series. They have to find the bottom in order for things to come to an appropriate close, and for all of the many, many threads to get tied up in a relatively neat bow.

Not nearly as neat a bow as Amaranthe the cleanliness obsessed would have liked. And the butcher’s bill needs to get paid. But in the midst of absolutely epic chaos, our heroes have to find a resolution that gets all of the many, many opposing forces out of the capitol.

And lets them midwife the birth of the republic that they having been aiming towards for much longer than any of them imagined.

Escape Rating A-: This is so obviously labeled book 2 of 2 that anyone who starts here needs to have their head examined. Just don’t. A part of me is wondering why Forged in Blood wasn’t simply published as one extremely long book – but there’s nothing stopping anyone from reading it that way now that both parts are available.

By this point in this long-running series a reader either loves the characters and the world enough to want to see how it all ends, or they don’t. Obviously, I did.

What made this series work for me was its play on the “five-man band” trope, even as Amaranthe’s little band of outlaws/rebels/revolutionaries grew past the original five. To the point where some of the roles are occupied by two or more members of her band of misfits.

Part of the fun in Forged in Blood II is that Amaranthe runs into someone who is even better at being the “leader” of such a group than she is. It’s both relaxing and unnerving for her to find herself again following someone else’s orders.

That the person whose orders she ends up following is someone who someone in his 60s and clearly still extremely badass is icing on the cake for any readers of a certain age, like moi. It’s always good to see evidence that heroes don’t need to be young to be extremely effective. Age and skill beats youth and stupidity all the damn time, and it’s fun to watch.

I also loved the way that the romance was handled in this series finale. It’s taken a year for Amaranthe to “humanize” the assassin Sicarius to the point where he might be able to have a relationship with anyone, Amaranthe included. At the same time, it was necessary for the events of that year for Amaranthe to have her bright, shiny, law-abiding edges tarnished a bit for her to be able to accept not just the person that Sicarius has become, but also the elements of the weapon that he was made to be that remain. Their romance has been excruciatingly slow-building throughout the series, but it needed to be. And the series couldn’t end without that thread being tied up – even if that tying literally included tying one or both of them to a bed. (Actually I’d pay money for that scene!)

Realistically, it would not be possible for a series that had this much adventure – including misadventure, in it without a butcher’s bill to be paid by the company. That price that they paid felt right, proper and necessary – and provided a much needed bit of poignancy to the ending.

This was a book where as I got nearer to the end I found myself slowing down. I wanted to find out how it ended, but I didn’t want to leave this world or these people. Lucky for me, the author didn’t either. There are two (so far) books set in this world after the end of Forged in Blood II. I’ll be picking up Republic the next time I have a long flight to read through. It’s 572 pages long – and I’m betting they’re all fantastic!

Review: Forged in Blood I by Lindsay Buroker

Review: Forged in Blood I by Lindsay BurokerForged in Blood I (The Emperor's Edge, #6) by Lindsay Buroker
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, steampunk
Series: Emperor's Edge #6
Pages: 378
Published by Lindsay Buroker on May 27, 2013
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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The emperor has been ousted from the throne, his bloodline in question, and war is descending on the capital. Forge, the nefarious business coalition that has been manipulating the political situation from the beginning, has the ultimate weapon at its disposal.

If it was difficult for a small team of outlaws--or, as Amaranthe has decided they should now be called, rebels--to make a difference before, it's a monumental task now. If she's to return idealistic young Sespian to the throne, earn the exoneration she's sought for so long, and help her closest ally win the respect of the son who detests him, she'll have to employ an unprecedented new scheme...preferably without destroying the city--or herself--in the process.

My Review:

And now I remember why I stopped reading this series back in 2013. Not for any bad reasons, I assure you!

But back then, I raced through the first four books in the series (The Emperor’s Edge, Dark Currents, Deadly Games and Conspiracy), loving every one. I think I was about to pick up book 5, Blood and Betrayal, when I noticed that this book, book 6, was titled Forged in Blood I with the obvious implication that there would be a Forged in Blood II – as there turned out to be. But the titles strongly implied that this book wasn’t exactly complete in and of itself, and I decided that I didn’t want to read this until its second part came out.

Then I ran headlong into the “so many books, so little time” conundrum, and didn’t get the round ‘tuit for several years. I picked up Blood and Betrayal a few weeks ago, got right back into everything, loved it, and decided to read Forged in Blood on the long flight back home from Seattle.

It turns out that I assumed correctly. While Forged in Blood I does come to a logical conclusion, that conclusion is a screaming cliffhanger. I was still in mid-flight (Seattle to Atlanta is a LONG flight) and started in on Forged in Blood II with barely a pause for breath.

What we have here is what looks like the beginning of the end of this terrific saga. The story at this point is careening towards the conclusion of its original quest. Way, way back in The Emperor’s Edge, Corporal Amaranthe Lokdon of the Imperial law enforcers was given the assignment to hunt down the Empire’s most dangerous assassin, Sicarius.

It was intended to be a suicide mission. It certainly turned out to be a suicide mission for her career on the “right” side of the law.

But when she failed to capture Sicarius, she found herself a wanted criminal, at the core of a band of criminals, all of whom have bounties on their heads for crimes they either didn’t commit or acts of self-defense. Not that there isn’t a bit of criminality mixed in there, but for the most part, they aren’t guilty – or at least not guilty of much until they all end up on the run.

With both the assassin and the Emperor in their midst. But then, the Emperor hired them to kidnap him to save his from the so-called advisers who planned to have him assassinate. As a result, the people who wanted him dead are now after the entire gang – as well as the Empire itself.

So Forged in Blood I is the beginning of the end. Start with The Emperor’s Edge and get to know this amazingly awesome – just ask some of them – band of big damn heroes. And end this part of the story on pins and needles, not merely wondering but actively worrying whether all of them will get out of this caper alive.

Escape Rating A-: This is not the end. The, well, let’s call it an interim ending, is a hella cliffie. What makes it so gut-wrenching is that by this point in the series we know and love all of these people, and the way this book ends we fear for all of them in one way or another. It’s terrible, and wonderful, and you won’t be able to keep from diving into part 2 immediately.

At the beginning of the series, we had a band of petty criminals and wrongly accused political victims desperately trying to find a way to survive the many and various attempts on their lives and, most importantly, figure out a way to get pardoned by the Emperor.

Well, most of them want to get pardoned. Sicarius is guilty of every single thing he’s been accused of, and a few hundred more. He was, after all, the previous Emperor’s pet assassin – and he was damn good at his job.

He’s also, unbeknownst to everyone at the beginning, but an open secret by this point, the biological father of the current Emperor. The young and idealistic Emperor is having a difficult time processing it all – but his enemies plan to use the information to keep him from ever taking back his throne.

Because they want to install a puppet emperor and wring the kingdom dry.

There’s a lot of story to unpack by this point. Amaranthe, in particular, still wants a pardon but also wonders if there’s any way back from where this journey has taken her. As a law enforcer, she never believed the excuses of the ends justifying the means, but has discovered that when the ends are her own survival, discussions of means get left by the wayside until afterwards – when the guilt descends.

The young Emperor, Sespian, has been forced to grow up in a hurry while dodging bullets, bombs and even exploding airships. With him, and his idealism, among their party, the purpose of their journey has changed from pardons to revolution. Getting a close up view of just how screwed up the empire is for anyone not in power has inspired them all to invent a new form of government – a Republic. All they have to do is get enough power to push their reforms through – and then be willing to let that power go when they’re done.

Not an easy job. It’s what made the American experiment such a chancy thing at the time. That we have, at least so far, had regularly scheduled and orderly changes of power built into the system. (We’ll see how that goes in the future.)

What makes this series so much fun is the way that the band of misfits manages to work together, both because and in spite of their differences. This is a series where the snark, of which there is a lovely lot, is based on our knowledge of the characters and their knowledge of each other – not on jokes per se. A lot of that humor is gallows humor, because even at the best of time they are only one step out of the frying pan and one jump away from the fire.

This is a series where the worldbuilding has gotten deeper as it goes, as have the chasms that our heroes must leap across in order to stay alive and one step ahead of their many, many pursuers. The pace never lets up – leaving the reader breathless with anxiety and anticipation at the end.

I couldn’t wait to start Forged in Blood II, and so far it’s every bit as good as the rest of the series. We’ll see for certain in next week’s review!

Review: Cast in Oblivion by Michelle Sagara

Review: Cast in Oblivion by Michelle SagaraCast in Oblivion (The Chronicles of Elantra, #14) by Michelle Sagara
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Chronicles of Elantra #14
Pages: 544
Published by Mira on January 29, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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POLITICS ARE HELL

Kaylin wasn't sent to the West March to start a war. Her mission to bring back nine Barrani might do just that, though. She traveled with a Dragon, and her presence is perceived as an act of aggression in the extremely hostile world of Barrani-Dragon politics. Internal Barrani politics are no less deadly, and Kaylin has managed--barely--to help the rescued Barrani evade both death and captivity at the hands of the Consort.Before the unplanned "visit" to the West March, Kaylin invited the Consort to dinner. For obvious reasons, Kaylin wants to cancel dinner--forever. But the Consort is going to show up at the front door at the agreed upon time. The fact that she tried to imprison Kaylin's guests doesn't matter at all...to her.A private Barrani Hell, built of Shadow and malice, exists beneath the High Halls. It is the High Court's duty to jail the creature at its heart--even if it means that Barrani victims are locked in the cage with it. The Consort is willing to do almost anything to free the trapped and end their eternal torment. And she needs the help of Kaylin's houseguests--and Kaylin herself. Failure won't be death--it's Hell. And that's where Kaylin is going.

My Review:

Things are like other things. The stories we’ve read in the past affect how we view the stories we read in the present. There was a point in Cast in Oblivion where one of the characters describes Ravellon as the spike that is holding all of the parallel worlds together and I had an OMG moment and realized that Ravellon might be Amber. In Roger Zelazny’s incredible epic/urban fantasy series, beginning with Nine Princes in Amber, Amber is the one true world and all the other worlds, including ours, are mere shadows of it.

Ironically, in Elantra, Shadow seems to come out of Ravellon. But the analogy might still hold. Or hold enough to serve as metaphor. Which is an often raised topic in Cast in Oblivion, as so much of what Kaylin experiences is described as being a metaphor. She doesn’t see the world the way the others in her life – and even in her house  – even the house itself – see it. And while her metaphors are frequently frustrating to her companions, and often not strictly true, they usually turn out to be right.

For select values of right. Generally right enough to fix whatever has recently gone wrong – even if, or occasionally especially because, Kaylin is at the heart of what went wrong in the first place. At least she often feels like it is. And that idea, like Kaylin’s metaphorical view of her circumstances, may not be strictly true, they are also usually right – or at least point her in the right direction.

Sometimes like a knife.

The Chronicles of Elantra by this point, 14 books in, is a densely packed epic fantasy. Packed to the point where no reader could possibly start here and have any of it make sense. Because this book in particular feels very insular – in the sense that the events and issues that are at the forefront in Cast in Oblivion have been bubbling along since book 8, Cast in Peril – if not before. In fact, much of the action in every book since Cast in Peril has its roots in the journey that begins in that book.

In other words, don’t start here. If any of the above or below sound interesting, start with either the prequel novella, Cast in Moonlight, or the first book in the series, Cast in Shadow.

At the beginning of the series, it felt like urban fantasy, albeit urban fantasy set in a high fantasy world. As the series, and Kaylin, have evolved, it has become an epic fantasy, with Kaylin Nera, human, mortal, flawed, young and “Chosen” as the point of view into a world that is run by “people” much more powerful than she. Kaylin is always operating way above her weight class and suffering through impostor syndrome at every turn.

She’s awesome, not because she’s powerful, but because she never stops trying – no matter how scared she is or how many of those powerful people either underestimate or overprotect her at every turn.

In the end, this is a story about friendship, and the heights and depths that people can and will reach in its name. It’s also a story about family-of-choice and the ties that one chooses to bind oneself with.

And it’s about the power of truth and honesty. And especially about the dangerous nature, and painful truth, of the power of choice.

Escape Rating A-: I love this series, but you can’t get into it here. And I’ll confess that it takes a while each year to get back into it. The story is like a spider’s web, sticky and interlocked at every turn.

It’s also difficult to review. I can say that I love this series, and I do, but that’s not informative. Trying to say why I love this series is awkward. But I’ll try.

I do love a highly convoluted political fantasy, and this series has certainly become that. The Barrani, who are this series equivalent of elves (sorta/kinda) are immortal. They hold grudges for millennia. As do their ancestral enemies, the dragons. Who are also immortal. And currently ruling the empire the Barrani are part of.

The part of the story that we are in revolves around family politics and a sibling rivalry that has literally gone on for centuries. But even though the Barrani are immortal, it has not made them wise – not in any way.

Kaylin is in the position that she is in because one Barrani hoped against all hope that she might be able to save his brother. The brother that he became outcaste for – and that word means exactly what you think it means. And this in a society where people are much more likely to kill their siblings than either love or trust them.

This series also has its roots in urban fantasy, complete with the requisite snark – although that snarkitude has become oddly similar to that in both J.D. Robb’s In Death series and Lindsay Buroker’s Emperor’s Edge series. It’s the kind of smirky and sometimes gallows humor that draws its rueful chuckles from how much we have come to know, and care for, these characters. They aren’t telling jokes, they are telling on each other – with honest love, honest regard and occasionally an honest desire to put one over on their friends and frenemies.

But in the end what draws me back to this series is the character at its heart, Kaylin Nera. She began the series in Cast in Moonlight attempting to commit a really grand suicide by cop, only to find herself adopted instead of imprisoned.

She is a character who has broken far, far out of her original setting in the crime and shadow riddled fiefs – where she learned to keep her head down and became one of the criminals. At first, she seemed as if she was just plain grateful to have become a very young and very immature Hawk, one of the law enforcers of this world. But her circumstances keep forcing her to become more, and her internal voice is the scared, uncertain yet determined voice of anyone who has ever come so far and so fast from where they began that they are just certain that it all not merely can be taken away, but should.

And she tries anyway.

One final note, one of the interesting themes in this particular entry is about the power, and the responsibility of choice, and just how different that perspective of choice is depending on where the chooser stands on any scale of wealthy, poverty, power and responsibility. Kaylin knows that in her early life, even her terrible decisions were her choice. Her alternative choice to committing the crimes of her early years was death, but it was still her choice. The Adversary of this story is not, strictly speaking, evil. Instead, it offers choices to people who choose to take a path that seems evil in pursuit of power. But the choice, and the offering of that choice, is not evil in and of itself – only the result.

I’m still thinking about that, and probably will be when the untitled 15th book in this series comes out, hopefully this time next year. And not nearly soon enough.

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

Review: Endgames by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.Endgames (Imager Portfolio #12) by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Imager Portfolio #12
Pages: 576
Published by Tor Books on February 5, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Endgames is the twelfth novel in L. E. Modesitt, Jr's, New York Times bestselling epic fantasy series the Imager Portfolio, and the third book in the story arc that began with Treachery's Tools and Assassin's Price.

Solidar is in chaos.

Charyn, the young and untested ruler of Solidar, has survived assassination, and he struggles to gain control of a realm in the grip of social upheaval, war, and rioting. Solidar cannot be allowed to slide into social and political turmoil that will leave the High Holders with their ancient power and privilege, and the common people with nothing.

But the stakes are even higher than he realizes.

The Imager Portfolio#1 Imager / #2 Imager's Challenge / #3 Imager's Intrigue / #4 Scholar / #5 Princeps / #6 Imager's Battalion / #7 Antiagon Fire / #8 Rex Regis / #9 Madness in Solidar / #10 Treachery's Tools / #11 Assassin's Price / #12 Endgames

Other series by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.The Saga of RecluceThe Corean ChroniclesThe Spellsong CycleThe Ghost BooksThe Ecolitan Matter

My Review:

There’s a saying about war being diplomacy by other means. Endgames feels like a story about politics being civil war by other means. Alternatively, one could extend the metaphor that Lois McMaster Bujold proposed of SF as fantasy of political agency and expand that to speculative fiction, which includes fantasy, as, well, fantasy of political agency. Because most of the Imager Portfolio in general, and this book in particular, is certainly all about the politics.

However, unlike the traditional epic fantasy, neither this book nor this series focuses on the adventures of a “chosened one”. Instead, the protagonists of this series often feel, particularly from their own perspectives, more like the “stuck one”. The person who finds themselves the linchpin of epic events they did not plan on. And they would generally rather that the cup had passed to someone else – at least until they decide that whoever might have been stuck into their position instead would have done even worse.

The events in Endgames directly follow the events in the previous book, Assassin’s Price. There was an assassin in that book, and the person who was assassinated was the Rex. Now his oldest son, Charyn, is Rex, trying to stay alive in the midst of the continuing chaos.

Unlike the previous heroes in this series, Charyn did expect to be in the position he now occupies. Someday. Eventually. Just not quite so soon, or in the midst of quite so big a crisis. As the saying goes, “the king is dead, long live the king.” But when you’re the second king in that phrase, and not the first one, if you love your father – and Charyn did – you hope that when the first king dies it occurs peacefully, in his bed, after a long and fruitful life. Not in his prime, at the hands of an assassin.

An assassin who is now gunning for you. And who may be much closer than you’d like to think.

So Charyn is busy in this book. First, he is shoring up his internal defenses, trying to stay one step ahead of whoever is trying to kill him. Second, he is attempting to guide his country into the future. A future that he alone envisions, and one that will be much different from its past.

Not that the future won’t come whether Charyn guides things or not, but it’s a question of what that future will be. The High Holders, who are the hereditary aristocracy and the major landholders, want the future to look like the past. A past where they were on top of the heap and could grind anyone they wanted under their heel.

But Solidar is changing. The Factors, who are the business class, are amassing greater and greater power – mostly by getting richer and richer. But it’s happening because Solidar is going through its version of an industrial revolution and power is flowing towards them and away from the aristocracy – as occurred in Great Britain during its Industrial Revolution.

Charyn recognizes this shift in the tide, while at the same time seeing the need to regulate some business practices for “the greater good” – a greater good that is explicitly NOT the good of the aristocracy, but the good of Solidar as a whole.

He’s aiming toward a compromise that serves everyone. If he lives long enough to bring it to fruition. If he survives the dagger aimed at his heart from much, much closer than he imagined.

Escape Reading A: I read this in a day. All 576 pages of it. And pretty much immediately upon receipt four long months ago. I’ll also confess that I had to wipe away a tear at the end. The only reason I’m not grading it higher is that it would be impossible for a new reader to get into the series at this point. As the title implies, this is an endpoint for the series. Possibly THE endpoint, but when asked the author said that he was still deciding. I hope he decides in favor of MORE IMAGERS!

But Endgames is certainly the ending of this middle sequence of the series. Interested readers can begin the Imager Portfolio at one of three places. Either the first published book of the series, Imager, the first book of the internal chronology of the series in Scholar, or the first book of this subseries, Madness in Solidar, which is the middle sequence in the internal chronology.

Endgames is a very political story. That’s true for much of this series, but particularly this subseries in general and this book in it in particular. Charyn is caught between a rock and several hard, sharp and pointy places. We see the story from inside his head, so we understand just where he’s coming from and just how difficult a position he is in at all times.

Everyone has an agenda. Including, admittedly, Charyn himself. But each of the factions that Charyn has to juggle has an agenda that benefits them alone, where Charyn’s agenda is a sometimes desperate attempt to do what’s best for everyone. Or at least what is a reasonable compromise for everyone.

Most of the factions do not want to compromise and their feet will have to be held to the fire – at least metaphorically – in order to make that happen. Charyn is fortunate that the imagers are on his side and perfectly capable of providing that fire – literally if necessary.

The contrast between events as directed by Charyn and current events in the US is also a stark one. As the person at the top of the pyramid Charyn could arrange the situation to benefit himself and his allies only. The laws of the time allow that possibility. But it is not good governance. The best course involves compromises between a lot of people whose interests do not seem to coincide. That he manages to make it happen in spite of each faction’s self-interest is a joy to watch – even though the personal cost is incredibly high.

If you like epic fantasy with lots of politics, this series could be your jam. It certainly is mine!

Review: The Kingdom of Copper by S. A. Chakraborty

Review: The Kingdom of Copper by S. A. ChakrabortyThe Kingdom of Copper (The Daevabad Trilogy, #2) by S.A. Chakraborty
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Daevabad Trilogy #2
Pages: 640
Published by Harper Voyager on January 22, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

S. A. Chakraborty continues the sweeping adventure begun in The City of Brass—"the best adult fantasy I’ve read since The Name of the Wind" (#1 New York Times bestselling author Sabaa Tahir)—conjuring a world where djinn summon flames with the snap of a finger and waters run deep with old magic; where blood can be dangerous as any spell, and a clever con artist from Cairo will alter the fate of a kingdom.

Nahri’s life changed forever the moment she accidentally summoned Dara, a formidable, mysterious djinn, during one of her schemes. Whisked from her home in Cairo, she was thrust into the dazzling royal court of Daevabad—and quickly discovered she would need all her grifter instincts to survive there.

Now, with Daevabad entrenched in the dark aftermath of a devastating battle, Nahri must forge a new path for herself. But even as she embraces her heritage and the power it holds, she knows she’s been trapped in a gilded cage, watched by a king who rules from the throne that once belonged to her family—and one misstep will doom her tribe..

Meanwhile, Ali has been exiled for daring to defy his father. Hunted by assassins, adrift on the unforgiving copper sands of his ancestral land, he is forced to rely on the frightening abilities the marid—the unpredictable water spirits—have gifted him. But in doing so, he threatens to unearth a terrible secret his family has long kept buried.

And as a new century approaches and the djinn gather within Daevabad's towering brass walls for celebrations, a threat brews unseen in the desolate north. It’s a force that would bring a storm of fire straight to the city’s gates . . . and one that seeks the aid of a warrior trapped between worlds, torn between a violent duty he can never escape and a peace he fears he will never deserve.

My Review:

The previous book in this series, The City of Brass, was absolutely awesome, as is this one. But the end of City felt guardedly hopeful. Five years down the road, the future that resulted from that guarded hope is anything but.

Instead, The Kingdom of Copper has the feel of The Two Towers, in that things are always darkest just before they turn completely black. And also in the sense that The Two Towers makes no sense without having read The Fellowship of the Ring first.

Likewise The Kingdom of Copper makes no sense without having read The City of Brass first. We readers need that introduction into the characters and especially the hidden city of Daevabad before we have a clue about what’s going on in this book – or why we should care.

Fair warning, if your reading of City was a while ago, it may take a while to get back to the heart of the matter in Kingdom. The worldbuilding in this series is epically dense. Not impenetrable, just terribly, terribly complex.

At the end of City, Nahri had negotiated her marriage with Crown Prince Muntadhir of Daevabad in exchange for an extremely large dowry and some concessions for her downtrodden people. Then her friend, Prince Ali, killed her would-be lover, the djinn Darayavahoush. Ali was exiled, and Dara was just gone.

Nahri is alone in a city she never knew existed, under the watchful eye of her cruel and tyrannical father-in-law. She does her best not to put a foot wrong, because every time she does anything just slightly for herself, the King punishes someone close to her. Ghassan’s treatment of Nahri is a microcosm of how he rules his kingdom. Neither are exactly flourishing under his “care”.

But the way that Daevabad is ruled seems necessary from the king’s perspective. His people, the Geziri, conquered the city that belonged to Nahri’s people, the Daevas, generations ago. But the Geziri are the minority in the city that they rule, outnumbered by both the oppressed Daevas and the completely subjugated shafit, who are djinn with human ancestry.

The king feels that it is necessary to keep the Daevas and the shafit at each other’s throats to keep them from banding together and turning against their oppressors. (And if anyone sees echoes of many past and present tyrannies, it’s probably not accidental).

From Nahri’s perspective we see events in the city, but that’s not all that we see. Ali has survived many attempted assassinations by his father-the-king’s agents, and is living a life of sort-of-peace and increasing prosperity in the desert that is the Geziri home. Or he is until his mother’s family maneuvers him, yet again, into a position where he feels he has no choice but to return to Daevabad and his father’s dubious mercy.

While it is pretty obvious to Ali that his mother’s relatives want him to take steps against his father, their methods are generally more political, economic and subtle than the other player in this game of empires.

Because the djinn Dara is not dead after all. Or does not remain dead – again. The exiled Daevas have a plan to retake their city. A plan for which they need the assistance of the greatest warrior – and most feared weapon of mass destruction – that their people have ever produced. Both are in the person of Dara, who just wants to stay dead, but is honor bound to serve his people one more time.

There’s going to be a bloodbath in the city that they all claim to love – with Nahri, Ali and Dara caught in the middle. Again.

Escape Rating A: This book was terrific. And compellingly readable to the point where I finished at 3 am because I just couldn’t stop reading. At the same time, it just misses the A+ because it takes a while to get back into the action. There’s a lot going on in this story, and it’s all predicated on the events of the previous book. I suspect that if I’d read City a month or two ago instead of over a year ago I might feel differently.

If the final edition includes a precis of previous events that will probably help – a LOT.

Part of what makes this story so good, as well as what makes it difficult to get back into after a long absence, is the combination of how densely packed the worldbuilding is and how different it is from the western mythic traditions that so often underpin epic fantasy.

The worldbuilding in the Daevabad Trilogy is based on what feels like a combination of Indian, Persian and Arabic resources. The history hearkens back to Suleiman, the Islamic name of King Solomon the Wise from the Jewish Torah and the Christian Bible. The world of the Daevabad seems to be the result of Suleiman’s taming or subjugation of the Djinn, an event which exists in all three mythologies.

But most readers have an image in their heads for djinn, jinn, or the more popular term, genie. (If that image looks and sounds a lot like Robin Williams as the genie in Aladdin, well, Disney is also a mythmaker.)

The djinn in Daevabad are not those genies. Well not exactly. And not always. It feels like Dara might be a lot like those djinn, or genies – without the benevolent wish granting. But most djinn in this series seem to be basically people, with magical abilities and an affinity for one or more elements as granted by their heritage.

It takes a bit to stop thinking genie when one reads the word djinn and just think of them as warring tribes of magical people. But it’s definitely worth the mental leap to make it work for you.

Underneath the terminology, the story here is definitely a classic, using multiple tropes to underpin the story.

The obvious one is that age-old saw about power corrupting and absolute power corrupting absolutely. Not just for the current ruler of Daevabad, but also those who would be the rulers. It’s also definitely a story about the corruption of believing that the ends justify the means.

Nahri is certainly the bird in the gilded cage in this installment. After the life of both freedom and insecurity she lived in Cairo, her life in Daevabad is constrained at every turn. It’s only at the end when she returns to the truths she learned during her life on the streets that she finally sees a way out – even if it’s not one that anyone wants to take.

This is also a triangle story, albeit one with some interesting offshoots. Nahri loves Dara, or at least the Dara she thought she knew before she discovered that he was essentially a war criminal. Dara loves her, but the version of her that he left behind when he died. Five years of realpolitik have changed Nahri from that relatively naive girl he left behind.

Ali probably loves Nahri. Or he is capable of it if he figures out what love is – and gets his head out of his own ass on a whole host of topics. And possibly just plain grows up a bit. But Nahri is his brother’s wife. His brother Muntadhir loves his best friend Jamshid – and vice-versa – even though they keep their relationship on the down low. And Jamshid owes fealty to Nahri as the leader of the Daevas.

It’s complicated.

But the real story feels like one about the cost of vengeance. The Geziris conquered Daevabad, so now they oppress and demonize the descendants of the conquered to the point where the Daevas feel as if they have no option but to overthrow the Geziris. And both sides subjugate the mixed-blood shafit at every turn. No one is willing to even talk about building a future together, because everyone is so fixated on the atrocities that their ancestors committed against each other. Which only results in more atrocities. And the cycle continues.

And if that scenario sounds familiar, it bloody well should.

In an interview, the author posited what feels like the point of the entire series when she said, “Can you ever make a new world that properly addresses the wounds of the past?” So far in this series, the answer is a resounding, but absolutely compelling, NO.

So far in Daevabad, no one is even trying. Hopefully they will in the untitled third book in this series, which is not scheduled until (boo-hoo) 2021. It’s going to be a long wait.

Review: Warrior of the World by Jeffe Kennedy + Giveaway

Review: Warrior of the World by Jeffe Kennedy + GiveawayWarrior of the World by Jeffe Kennedy
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, fantasy romance
Series: Chronicles of Dasnaria #3
Pages: 166
Published by Rebel Base Books on January 8, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Just beyond the reach of the Twelve Kingdoms, avarice, violence, strategy, and revenge clash around a survivor who could upset the balance of power all across the map . . .  Once Ivariel thought elephants were fairy tales to amuse children. But her ice-encased childhood in Dasnaria’s imperial seraglio was lacking in freedom and justice.. With a new name and an assumed identity as a warrior priestess of Danu, the woman once called Princess Jenna is now a fraud and a fugitive. But as she learns the ways of the beasts and hones new uses for her dancer’s strength, she moves one day further from the memory of her brutal husband. Safe in hot, healing Nyambura, Ivariel holds a good man at arm’s length and trains for the day she’ll be hunted again.   She knows it’s coming. She’s not truly safe, not when her mind clouds with killing rage at unpredictable moments. Not when patient Ochieng’s dreams of a family frighten her to her bones. But it still comes as a shock to Ivariel when long-peaceful Nyambura comes under attack. Until her new people look to their warrior priestess and her elephants to lead them . . .  

My Review:

Early in the Chronicles of Dasnaria series, and recalled at the beginning of Warrior of the World, Ivariel/Jenna has a vision of three lionesses. Those lionesses are clearly the princesses of the Twelve, now Thirteen, Kingdoms, Ursula, Andi and Ami, Their stories are told at the very beginning of this awesome, interlinked epic fantasy series. If you love strong heroines and enjoy epic fantasy with a touch (or more) of romance, begin with The Mark of the Tala and just enjoy the marvelous ride.

Based on events in the most recent book on that side of the continent – and the series – Jenna’s story will eventually link up to the Twelve Kingdoms/Uncharted Realms series. After all, her younger brother Harlan is now the consort of High Queen Ursula. I’ll confess that I was hoping to see that link here, but it hasn’t happened by the end of Warrior of the World. But the story finally reaches the beginning of that end.

While I’m a bit disappointed not to see the ENTIRE gang finally get together, on the other hand I’m very happy to know that there are further adventures yet to follow in this world and this series. Not merely happy, make that downright ecstatic.

But while I’m waiting for the happy conclusion to the interconnected series, I still have Warrior of the World.

This book, and the Chronicles of Dasnaria subseries of which it is a part, needs to come with trigger warnings. Lots of trigger warnings. ALL the trigger warnings. And you do need to read at least the Chronicles of Dasnaria series from its beginning in Prisoner of the Crown in order to get the full significance of the conclusion of Ivariel/Jenna’s journey here in Warrior of the World.

Because the story of the series is about a young woman who is groomed to be a subservient sexual slave, who is forced to submit to repeated rapes, degradation, physical and sexual abuse by her husband/master, and who eventually breaks free with the help of her younger brother, who loses his rank and status for helping her to get away from the man and the society that brutalized her at every turn.

By this point in Ivariel/Jenna’s story, she is still healing from her trauma. That she murdered her “husband” in a fit of berserker rage is both part of her healing and part of her current trauma. She’s afraid that there’s a monster inside her that will eventually break free and kill those she has come to love while she is in the depths of her unthinking rage.

The story in Warrior of the World is the story of Ivariel learning to embrace ALL that she, both the light and the dark, and finding her path to coming into her own at last.

And learning to share that path with others who will be needed for the final push to victory – and redemption.

Escape Rating A-: As I said, ALL the trigger warnings. Ivariel/Jenna’s life at the Dasnarian Imperial court is simply horrendously awful. Reading about her deliberate grooming for the role her society forces her to play makes for very hard reading – but worth it in order to truly appreciate just how far she has come by the time we get to Warrior of the World.

This story is interesting both as the culmination of the Chronicles of Dasnaria subseries and because of its premise. This is a story about beginning as you mean to go on, about doing the things that signify who you are and not who your enemies – or even your friends – intend for you to be or think you ought to be. At the same time, it isn’t as action-packed as other entries in the combined series. It goes just a tinge slow at some points because healing is a slow process, so Ivariel needs time and process to, well, process.

Ivariel’s life before she found herself among the elephant herders of D’tiembo was a life of reaction. She didn’t act, she wasn’t in control. Even her liberation was a product of someone else’s actions and not her own. She begins the story not knowing how to hope her own hopes or dream her own dreams, and she has to learn those skills. She also has to learn to ask for what she wants and then live with the consequences of that “ask”.

Her healing in this story is about her learning to act and not react. Part of that “acting” is the way that she takes up the mantle of her Priestess of Danu persona in order to wage, not war, but peace. The enemies of the D’tiembo try to bring war to the peaceful tribe, and many want to react with war and vengeance. It’s Ivariel, learning to live with her rage, who points the way towards “waging peace” through bribery, subversion, and absorbing and utilizing the lessons taught to her by the necessary cruelty of her mother. It’s a hard lesson, but it buys time to set up the eventual peace and prosperity of the D’tiembo, so that when the magic finally returns, both Ivariel/Jenna and the D’tiembo are ready to go out and meet the wider world and the fates that await them.

If you don’t finish this story wanting your own elephant-friend, you haven’t been paying attention. The elephants, especially Violet, Capo and Efe, provide some of the most uplifting and heartwarming parts of the entire story.

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

Jeffe and Silver Dagger Tours are giving away a $20 Amazon Gift Card to one lucky entrant on this tour!

Follow the tour HERE for exclusive excerpts, guest posts and a giveaway!

 

 

Review: Blood and Betrayal by Lindsay Buroker

Review: Blood and Betrayal by Lindsay BurokerBlood and Betrayal (The Emperor's Edge, #5) by Lindsay Buroker
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, steampunk
Series: Emperor's Edge #5
Pages: 374
Published by Lindsay Buroker on December 3, 2012
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The last thing Maldynado Montichelu—former aristocrat and current ladies' man—ever wanted was to be left in charge. After all, the team just blew up a train, crashed a dirigible, and kidnapped the emperor. It's kind of an important time.

But, with Amaranthe captured by the nefarious Forge coalition, and Sicarius off to find her, the team is lacking in leaders. Also, Sicarius has made it clear that Maldynado’s life may be forfeit should anything happen to the emperor while he’s gone.

To make matters worse, Forge’s cutthroats are after Sespian, and the young emperor believes Maldynado's loyalties are suspect. As if it’s his fault that his older brother is working with the coalition to usurp the throne. If Maldynado can’t figure out how to earn the emperor’s trust quickly, Sespian will go off to confront their powerful enemies on his own.

Meanwhile, Amaranthe must find a way to escape from the coalition’s newest ally, Master Interrogator Pike, a man who plans to pull all of the secrets from her head, one way or another…

Blood and Betrayal is the fifth novel in The Emperor’s Edge series.

My Review:

Welcome to this week’s second entry in the “long time no see” series. Otherwise known as the “ how big a fool I was to stop reading this” series.

Back in 2013 I started the Emperor’s Edge series by Lindsay Buroker, and fell headlong into her blend of fantasy, steampunk and SF. I also fell in love with her endlessly snarky five-man band of characters – even though the band eventually encompassed more than five characters, male or otherwise.

For a series that is set in a fantasy world that has elements of both steampunk and “pure” SF, the group dynamics of Amaranth Lokdon’s crew have the feel of the best sword-and-sorcery, you know the type where the hero and his sidekick slice and snark their way through a world that seems to be out to get them at every turn.

Amaranthe’s gang certainly is paranoid, but that doesn’t mean that people aren’t out to get them. As is certainly shown in this fifth entry in the series, Blood and Betrayal. And yes, there’s plenty of both within the pages of this thrill-a-minute story.

When last we left our heroes, five years ago and at the end of Conspiracy, Amaranthe had just been thrown out of the dirigible the gang had commandeered. In mid-flight. Of course.

As Blood and Betrayal opens, the gang is kind of in the same position that Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli are in at the opening of The Two Towers – minus the death of Boromir (or his equivalent).

The remaining members of Amaranthe’s merry band of tricksters all want to find her and rescue her. But they are already in the middle of a mission to pretend to kidnap the young Emperor Sespian and uncover the plot to overthrow him – along with figuring out all of the other plans being hatched by the dangerous and mysterious group calling themselves Forge.

Sicarius, Amaranthe’s second-in-command, pet assassin and possible future lover, finds himself on the horns of a dilemma. He desperately needs to rescue Amaranthe. He equally desperately needs to keep the young Emperor safe – because unbeknownst to everyone except himself and Amaranthe, Emperor Sespian is his son.

And someone needs to lead the remaining members of the crew – because it’s dubious whether they’re remotely capable of leading themselves anywhere except into yet another disaster. But in order to save Amaranthe he’ll have to trust them anyway – with not just their own continued existence, but with the life of the son he doesn’t dare acknowledge.

Out of the frying pan, into the fire, out of the torture chamber and into a subterranean sub rosa meeting to overthrow the empire. With deadly alien machines chasing them every step of the way.

It’s all in a day’s work – at least until the ocean crashes in.

Escape Rating A: It’s been 5 years since I read the previous book in this series, but as soon as I started this one (admittedly after re-reading my reviews of the previous four) I fell right back into this world and was just as caught up in the interpersonal dynamics of this terrifically odd assortment of people as I was back then.

Not that I’m planning to wait another five years to read the next books in the series. I was reminded of just how much I loved this gang and now that I’m back I can’t wait to keep going. I will say that now that I’m listening to books more again I really wish that the next books had been recorded (the first five have been) so that I could listen while I drive and workout. The level of snarkitude of these folks would make this a perfect series to distract me on the treadmill.

The heart of this series is the character of Amaranthe Lokdon herself. As one of the members of her crew puts it, Amaranthe is the glue that holds the group together. None of them would have ever had much to do with one another, but over the course of the series they have run into her and gotten themselves stuck both to her and to each other.

This particular entry in the series has the challenge of keeping Amaranthe’s “glue” front and center while she herself is a tortured captive elsewhere and Sicarius is tracking her captors so that he can rescue her – if he can get there in time.

With Amaranthe and Sicarius out of the immediate picture, the perspective on the remaining gang’s part of the story shifts to Maldynado the disowned nobleman whose family just might be behind the conspiracy to overthrow the empire. Not that Maldynado knows anything about what they’re doing – they disowned him years ago.

With his reputation as a fop – a reputation he encourages at every turn – Maldynado finds it difficult to take charge of anything. His actions in this story give him a surprising chance to step out from Amaranthe’s comfortable shadow to stand in the light for a change – a position from which he generally gets shot at. A not uncommon scenario for everyone in Amaranthe’s orbit!

This is a story that takes its turns into dark places – and into the backgrounds of more of its characters in ways that explore what brought them to these circumstances. At the same time, it’s a roller coaster ride of a story that never lets up until the train – in this case the steamroller – pulls into a sharp breaking stop at the end of the ride.

But the fun’s not over yet. There’s more to come in Forged in Blood. There’s no way I’m waiting five more years to see what happens next!

Review: Kill the Queen by Jennifer Estep

Review: Kill the Queen by Jennifer EstepKill the Queen (Crown of Shards, #1) by Jennifer Estep
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Crown of Shards #1
Pages: 416
Published by Harper Voyager on October 2, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Gladiator meets Game of Thrones: a royal woman becomes a skilled warrior to destroy her murderous cousin, avenge her family, and save her kingdom in this first entry in a dazzling fantasy epic from the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the Elemental Assassin series—an enthralling tale that combines magic, murder, intrigue, adventure, and a hint of romance

In a realm where one’s magical power determines one’s worth, Lady Everleigh’s lack of obvious ability relegates her to the shadows of the royal court of Bellona, a kingdom steeped in gladiator tradition. Seventeenth in line for the throne, Evie is nothing more than a ceremonial fixture, overlooked and mostly forgotten.

But dark forces are at work inside the palace. When her cousin Vasilia, the crown princess, assassinates her mother the queen and takes the throne by force, Evie is also attacked, along with the rest of the royal family. Luckily for Evie, her secret immunity to magic helps her escape the massacre.

Forced into hiding to survive, she falls in with a gladiator troupe. Though they use their talents to entertain and amuse the masses, the gladiators are actually highly trained warriors skilled in the art of war, especially Lucas Sullivan, a powerful magier with secrets of his own. Uncertain of her future—or if she even has one—Evie begins training with the troupe until she can decide her next move.

But as the bloodthirsty Vasilia exerts her power, pushing Bellona to the brink of war, Evie’s fate becomes clear: she must become a fearsome gladiator herself . . . and kill the queen.

My Review:

This fantastic (in multiple sense of the word) story starts and ends in pretty much the same place – the Queen is dead, long live the Queen. It’s just that it’s a different queen each time. And in the middle – well the story in the middle is absolutely awesome – and edge of your seat, can’t turn the pages fast enough riveting.

For a story that goes so fast once it gets going, the beginning is a bit leisurely. That beginning is our introduction to this world, and to our heroine, Lady Everleigh Winter Blair. Her very, very few friends in the palace call her Evie, because she’s a low-level – make that very low level – royal.

Queen Cordelia is a cousin, but Evie is at the lowest end of the family pecking order, an orphan with no fortune, no influential relatives and no powerful magic – at least no powerful magic that anyone knows about.

But she’s still a royal, so to earn her keep she handles all the crappy jobs that no one else in the royal family can be bothered to do. Basically, she’s a presence for events where a royal presence is required but where little can be gained from that royal presence in the way of power or prestige.

When we first meet Evie, she’s complaining about her dance instructor and stuck making pies for the ambassadorial visit from a neighboring country. It would be an insult for anyone other than a royal to make these particular pies – and thanks to the magic, they would know if someone else did the baking.

So Evie is stuck, just as she is always stuck, doing the jobs that no one else wants to do.

She plans to use the diplomatic banquet to ask her cousin for permission to leave. After all, Evie is in her late 20s, she’d like to buy back her late parents’ estate and work for herself. It’s a good plan – until it all goes spectacularly – and bloodily – pear-shaped.

That banquet turns into a slaughterhouse, with all of the Blairs, including the Queen, dead on the floor. Except for two – Evie and the Crown Princess Vasilia, the perpetrator of the slaughter.

Vasilia got tired of waiting for her mother to die so she could become queen, so she decided to push her own timetable forward – with a blade to her mother’s heart. (It is deliciously appropriate that her mother is Queen Cordelia, named after the one faithful child of King Lear in Shakespeare’s epic. One of the famous lines from that tragedy, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.” Ironically, in the play, the comment refers TO Cordelia.)

Evie escapes the, let’s call it the “Red Banquet”, by the skin of her teeth, and mostly by accident. Vasilia uses her lightning magic to toss Evie over a wall that puts her outside the killing the zone – admittedly onto a steep hill that drops her in the river. She’s lucky she doesn’t drown, but then she’s just lucky to be alive.

All she has to do is figure out how to stay that way long enough to topple Vasilia from her ill-gotten throne. Because Evie is now the last of the Blairs, and only she can save her country and her people from the machinations of a madwoman who only became queen so that she could lead their country into other people’s wars for other people’s causes.

Evie must return and become the Winter Queen that she was meant to be. If she can just figure out how to survive the night – and all the long nights to come.

Escape Rating A: The thin line between A and A+ for this one is that it does start surprisingly slow. Once that “red” banquet begins, the story is off to the races, and doesn’t stop until it leaves the reader gasping at the end.

So read that first third for the character introductions and worldbuilding, and then hang onto your hat for the rest of the ride – because it’s wild from that point forward.

Kill the Queen is emphatically a heroine’s journey, and Evie Blair is our heroine. She begins the story as someone who is self-effacing and retiring at every turn. It has been drummed into her for 15 years that she is powerless and that the only way to survive is to keep her head down and obey everyone about everything. That doesn’t mean that she’s a natural doormat, just that being a doormat has been her only way to survive, and she’s drummed that lesson into herself to the point that it feels like a new awakening for her to finally be able to stand up for herself and let her inner rage, of which she has plenty, off its leash.

So this is a story about Evie first learning to stand up for herself, and then pushing that outward so that she is both able and willing to stand up for others. It’s a painful learning process – literally. Evie has to learn to fight, and she learns those skills as part of a gladiator troupe. And it is, as they say, the making of her.

Unlike the author’s previous series (and in spite of the cover image), Kill the Queen and the Crown of Shards series of which it is the first book, are epic and not urban fantasy. This first installment is a big sprawling story, and the world is only going to expand from here as Evie will be forced to unravel the plots that put Vasilia on the throne in the first place, and those plots have their origins in countries outside of her own.

While many have made comparisons between this story and Game of Thrones, and those comparisons are certainly there to be made, the two stories it reminded me of most were The Queen of the Tearling series and The Empress Game. Those are also stories where a woman must fight to control her throne and learn her own strength. The Empress Game (in spite of it being SF and not Fantasy) also has a similar element of using gladiatorial contests to determine who holds the crown.

Surprisingly, for me the beginning also had a lot of echoes from the plot of the video game Dragon Age Origins, particularly the two noble origin stories, where the crown and royal family are betrayed from within, and one young and disregarded member of the betrayed family survives to bring down the usurpers and wreak vengeance.

Kill the Queen is a big, sprawling epic of a story, with plenty to love for readers of the genre – and more to come. Protect the Prince is coming in July and I can’t wait to see how Evie manages to hold her crown, protect her kingdom – and apparently her prince. Or at least someone’s prince. We’ll see come summer.

Review: Markswoman by Rati Mehrotra

Review: Markswoman by Rati MehrotraMarkswoman (Asiana, #1) by Rati Mehrotra
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy
Series: Asiana #1
Pages: 384
Published by Harper Voyager on January 23, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Kyra is the youngest Markswoman in the Order of Kali, one of a handful of sisterhoods of highly trained elite warriors. Armed with blades whose metal is imbued with magic and guided by a strict code of conduct, the Orders are sworn to keep the peace and protect the people of Asiana. Kyra has pledged to do so—yet she secretly harbors a fierce desire to avenge her murdered family.

When Tamsyn, the powerful and dangerous Mistress of Mental Arts, assumes control of the Order, Kyra is forced on the run. She is certain that Tamsyn committed murder in a twisted bid for power, but she has no proof.

Kyra escapes through one of the strange Transport Hubs that are the remnants of Asiana’s long-lost past and finds herself in the unforgiving wilderness of a desert that is home to the Order of Khur, the only Order composed of men. Among them is Rustan, a disillusioned Marksman whose skill with a blade is unmatched. He understands the desperation of Kyra’s quest to prove Tamsyn’s guilt, and as the two grow closer, training daily on the windswept dunes of Khur, both begin to question their commitment to their Orders. But what they don’t yet realize is that the line between justice and vengeance is thin . . . as thin as the blade of a knife.

My Review:

This one sits right on the border between YA fantasy and Adult epic fantasy. I say this as more of a warning, in that the “official” genre designations on both Goodreads and Amazon emphasize the epic fantasy aspects and gloss over the young adult heroine. I enjoyed the book a lot, and am hoping to get an eARC for the second book in the series, Mahimata, but I’m not sure I would have picked it up if I’d known it was YA. So I’m not sorry in the least that I did, but your mileage may vary.

The Asiana series is also part of the “if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck but isn’t actually a duck” school of fantasy-flavored science fiction. Or, if you prefer, science fiction that feels like fantasy. Like Pern or Celta, worlds that were created or found by science but have either regressed or chosen to live in a way that feels fantasy-like. I suspect that the SFnal origin will come into play later in this series, just as it does in both Pern and Celta.

In the case of Asiana, this world is a far-future, extremely post-Apocalyptic version of quite possibly our own Earth. The Apocalypse in question is so far back in the distant past that it is by this point a matter of myth and legend rather than history, but it is definitely there. The Orders of Peace of which the Order of Kali that Kyra belongs to is one, are known to be descendants of that long ago catastrophe.

More than long enough ago that the rules, regulations, strictures and beliefs have morphed considerably over the centuries. But at their heart lies that long ago, planetary-wide devastation.

But this story takes place in that far-future “present” and focuses on the struggles of the young Markswoman, Kyra.

Markswomen are bonded to their specially forged blades, and serve as peacekeepers, guards, judges and sometimes assassins throughout the world of Asiana. We meet Kyra as she undertakes her first Mark, the death that signifies a change in her status from apprentice to full-fledged Markswoman.

For Kyra it is also a personal quest, as her mark is the son of the man who wiped out her entire clan. It is justice, as his father murdered her clan’s future, she in turn kills his.

But it also marks the beginning of a long journey. One in which Kyra discovers that what she has been taught is not all that it seems – and that betrayal comes most easily from those that are closest to us.

It is a lesson that sends Kyra on a journey across the continent and back, because the person who has been betrayed is Kyra’s teacher and not herself. And Kyra is the only person capable of resetting the balance.

Escape Rating B+: Markswoman is the opening of a terrific epic fantasy – one that is all the better for having its roots somewhere other than the Western traditions that so often flavor epic fantasy.

The story also sits on that dividing line between coming-of-age and coming-into-power. Kyra is on the cusp of becoming a full Markswoman as the story begins. She is uncertain about her place in the Order of Kali and in her world in general. And she has to leave home in order to figure out what her destiny is and where she truly belongs. For most of the story, she is constantly learning lessons – not the formal lessons that comprised her novitiate and apprenticeship in the order, but the life lessons that will allow her to move forward.

One of the hardest, as it so often is, is the lesson about letting go. Not giving up, but of learning which are the battles to be fought and which are the injustices to be forgiven. We feel her indecision, her desperation, her frustration and her impatience. We also feel her need to make things right, and the conflict that brings to her heart.

But, as I said at the beginning, this story lies on the knife edge between YA and epic fantasy. The one place where it slips into YA territory is in its treatment of potential romantic relationships, as it very nearly falls into the dreaded love triangle trap. It doesn’t quite fall, but it gets a bit too close for comfort.

This also leads to wondering about the complete gender segregation of all of the Orders of Peace and how on Earth – or Asiana – that possibly works. Admittedly, we do get hints that it doesn’t. But it does make one wonder how Kyra’s nascent relationship with a Marksman from another order is going to work – if at all – or how much trouble it’s going to get them both into if they survive.

Which leads to my fair warning about the end of the book. Because Markswoman ends on one hell of a cliffhanger. While I wonder what took me so long to read it, I’m also glad that the eARC for the second book is already available. I can’t wait to see what happens next!