Review: In the Shadow of Lightning by Brian McClellan

Review: In the Shadow of Lightning by Brian McClellanIn the Shadow of Lightning (Glass Immortals, #1) by Brian McClellan
Narrator: Damian Lynch
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, steampunk
Series: Glass Immortals #1
Pages: 576
Length: 24 hours and 53 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tor Books on June 21, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From Brian McClellan, author of The Powder Mage trilogy, comes the first novel in the Glass Immortals series, In the Shadow of Lightning, an epic fantasy where magic is a finite resource—and it’s running out.
"Excellent worldbuilding and a truly epic narrative combine into Brian's finest work to date. Heartily recommended to anyone who wants a new favorite fantasy series to read."—Brandon Sanderson

Demir Grappo is an outcast—he fled a life of wealth and power, abandoning his responsibilities as a general, a governor, and a son. Now he will live out his days as a grifter, rootless, and alone. But when his mother is brutally murdered, Demir must return from exile to claim his seat at the head of the family and uncover the truth that got her killed: the very power that keeps civilization turning, godglass, is running out.
Now, Demir must find allies, old friends and rivals alike, confront the powerful guild-families who are only interested in making the most of the scraps left at the table and uncover the invisible hand that threatens the Empire. A war is coming, a war unlike any other. And Demir and his ragtag group of outcasts are the only thing that stands in the way of the end of life as the world knows it.
"Powerful rival families, murderous conspiracies, epic battles, larger-than-life characters, and magic."—Fonda Lee, author of The Green Bone Saga
"Engaging, fast-paced and epic."—James Islington, author of In The Shadow of What Was Lost
"Clever, fun, and by turns beautifully bloody, In the Shadow of Lightning hits like a bolt through a stained glass window."—Megan E. O'Keefe, author of Chaos Vector

My Review:

As the story opens, Demir Grappo is Icarus, and we see him in the moment of his spectacular fall. A cocky young genius both in politics and on the battlefield, we catch him just at the moment when he learns that someone has decided that he has flown too close to the sun – and that it is time to clip his wings. Or burn them.

It’s a broken man who slinks away from that battlefield, covered in disgrace where there should have been glory. To say that Demir plans to hide in the lowest and meanest places he can find is a bit of an overstatement. We’d call it a psychotic break. He just runs away from his shame and his responsibilities.

Nine years later the young man is a bit older, even sadder, and doesn’t see himself as any wiser at all. He is doing a better job of getting through the days, but he has no plans, no hopes, no dreams beyond doing that for another day.

Until an old friend finds him in the back of beyond, to tell Demir that has mother Adriana Grappo, the Matriarch of the Grappo guild family, has been assassinated. And that Demir is now Patriarch, if he is willing to take up the mantle, the reins, and the responsibility he left behind.

He’ll go home to protect his guild family and hunt down his mother’s killers. Even on his worst day – and he’s had plenty of them in the intervening years – he’d be able to smell the stink of a coverup no matter how far away he was from the seething cesspit of politics and corruption that is the capital of the Ossan Empire.

Demir is willing to tear the Empire down to get the truth. Little does he know that the plot he plans to uncover will require him to save it – whether it deserves it or not.

Escape Rating A+: “Glassdamn.” It rolls easily through the mind, or trippingly off the tongue, as though it’s an epithet that we’ve always used – or at least could have if we’d had a mind to. And glassdamnit but this is a terrific story.

It’s “glassdamn” because the scientific sorcery that powers the story and the world it explores is based on the use of specifically tuned, resonating glass to provide its power. While there are multiple religions in the world none of the deities or pantheons rule much of anything. Glass is king, queen and knave and everyone swears by it and at it and about it all day long.

Glassdamn, indeed.

The title is a bit of a pun. Our protagonist, if not necessarily or always our hero, Demir Grappo, spends the entire story living in the shadow of the political and glass dancer prodigy “The Lightning Prince” – his own former self, the self that he has been running from for all these years. Demir and the man he once was are going to have to come to some kind of resolution if he is going to have even half a chance at fixing everything that’s wrong with Ossa, with his guild family, with sorcery and especially with himself. It’s difficult to tell which will be the hardest job.

The story is told from several perspectives, so that the reader is able to see what’s happening over the vast sprawling canvas that is this first book in a protected trilogy. While we follow Demir, we also have a chance to see the Ossan empire from other points of view, including the childhood friends he brings back to the capital to help him in both his quest and his more mundane work, the master craftswoman he partners with in order to carry out his mother’s last request, and his uncle Tadeus, an officer in Ossa’s much vaunted Foreign Legion, an army that takes nearly as big a fall as Demir once did.

They may rise together – or they may discover that the game is beyond them all. It’s a question that is not yet answered when the story concludes. Which is utterly fitting for the first book in a trilogy. I just wish I had an inkling of when the second book is going to be available, because this is a story that left me with a terrible book hangover. I can’t wait to go back.

One of the things that both sucked me in and drove me crazy about In the Shadow of Lightning, but which also explains why I liked it so glassdamn much, is the sheer number of recent stories it reminded me of, as well as one long-loved classic and, surprisingly, a videogame.

Throwing Age of Ash by Daniel Abraham, Engines of Empire by R.S. Ford, and Isolate by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. into an industrial-strength book blender will get you close to the feel of In the Shadow of Lightning. All are stories of empires that have already rotted from the head down. All have ‘magic’ that is treated scientifically, to the point where their worlds are all much closer to steampunk than to epic fantasy – which doesn’t stop all of them from BEING epic fantasy anyway. None of them are about classic contests between ‘good’ and ‘evil’; instead all are about people attempting to turn back the tide of the type of evil that results from power corrupting. These series starters are not exactly like each other, but they all ‘feel’ very similar and if you like one you’ll probably get equally immersed in one of the others.

The individual character of Demir Grappo, that mercurial broken genius, appearing as antihero considerably more often than hero, trying to save as much as he can and willing to sacrifice whatever it takes into the bargain, recalled a character from a much different time and place, but whose story was still conducted over a sprawling canvas. If you’ve ever read the Lymond Chronicles (start with The Game of Kings) by Dorothy Dunnett, Demir is very much in Lymond’s mold – and it was a bit heartbreaking to watch Demir making entirely too many of the same mistakes and sacrifices. I’m also wondering if he’s going to face some of Lymond’s desperate compromises and am trepidatiously looking forward to finding out.

And for anyone who has played the Dragon Age series of videogames, the corrupt guild family political power brokering – as well as the open use of assassination as a political tool – bears a surprisingly sharp resemblance to the Antivan Crows. I half expected someone to leave a message that “the Crows send their regards,” because they most certainly would, with respect upfront and a knife in the back.

The audio made that last bit even more evocative because the narrator did one hell of a job with all the accents. He also told a damn good story, giving the feeling that we were in each character’s head when it was their turn “on stage”, and making each and every voice distinct. AND he managed to put me so completely inside both Demir’s and Tessa’s heads that I would have to stop for a few minutes because I could tell that whatever was coming next was going to be awful, and I cared so much that I almost couldn’t bear to experience it so closely with them.

So, if you enjoy big sprawling epics, whether fantasy or SF, In the Shadow of Lightning is just the kind of world-spanning, world-shattering, monsterful and wonderful binge read just waiting to happen!

I can’t wait for that glassdamned second book in the trilogy. I really, really can’t.

Review: The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake

Review: The Atlas Six by Olivie BlakeThe Atlas Six (The Atlas, #1) by Olivie Blake
Narrator: Andy Ingalls, Caitlin Kelly, Damian Lynch, David Monteith, James Patrick Cronin, Munirih Grace, Siho Ellsmore, Steve West
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dark academia, fantasy
Series: Atlas #1
Pages: 384
Length: 16 hours and 59 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tor Books on March 1, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

The Alexandrian Society is a secret society of magical academicians, the best in the world. Their members are caretakers of lost knowledge from the greatest civilizations of antiquity. And those who earn a place among their number will secure a life of wealth, power, and prestige beyond their wildest dreams. Each decade, the world’s six most uniquely talented magicians are selected for initiation – and here are the chosen few...

- Libby Rhodes and Nicolás Ferrer de Varona: inseparable enemies, cosmologists who can control matter with their minds.
- Reina Mori: a naturalist who can speak the language of life itself.
- Parisa Kamali: a mind reader whose powers of seduction are unmatched.
- Tristan Caine: the son of a crime kingpin who can see the secrets of the universe.
- Callum Nova: an insanely rich pretty boy who could bring about the end of the world. He need only ask.

When the candidates are recruited by the mysterious Atlas Blakely, they are told they must spend one year together to qualify for initiation. During this time, they will be permitted access to the Society’s archives and judged on their contributions to arcane areas of knowledge. Five, they are told, will be initiated. One will be eliminated. If they can prove themselves to be the best, they will survive. Most of them.

My Review:

This dive into the inner workings of a very dark academia begins with Atlas Blakely, Caretaker of the Alexandrian Society, visiting the six most powerful mages of their generation and making each of them an offer that they can refuse – although he knows that none of them will.

It’s the opportunity of a lifetime and they all know it. Even if, at the beginning, they don’t realize that it will absolutely be the end of at least one of theirs.

In this alternate version of our world, magic has taken the place of science, and is treated, studied, and advanced much as science is in the world we know. Magic has created the equivalent, if not the better, of the technologies that power our world. Magic is known, it is respected, and it is feared.

Magic is power every bit as much, if in a somewhat different way, as power is magic.

Those six powerful mages are being recruited to join the Alexandrian Society, the secret inheritors of the knowledge and power that was once held in and by the Great Library of Alexandria. Membership in the Society confers prestige, which, on top of their already considerable magical power, is certain to bring them wealth and yet more earthly power as well.

But for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. For every powerful and secret society, there is at least one, if not two or six, rivals searching for a way to take that power and add it to their own.

The six mages who have been recruited by Atlas Blakely have one year to suss out all the secrets held by the Society, by its enigmatic caretaker, and by each other. It’s not enough time to even scratch the surface of that labyrinth.

But it’s all that one of them has left.

Escape Rating B: I have extremely mixed feelings about The Atlas Six. So mixed that the blender of my feelings hasn’t stopped whirling even a week after I finished the damn thing.

At the top of the column labeled ‘good’ feelings, the book is compelling as hell. Once the story gets past Libby and Nico’s barely post-adolescent sniping and swiping at each other, the whole thing is off to the races in a way that both commands and demands the reader’s attention.

I finished at 4 o’clock in the damn morning because I just couldn’t put it down – and when I tried it gnawed at me until I picked it back up again. Over and over until finally I fell out at the end, as exhausted and spent as the characters.

Howsomever, at the top of the column labeled ‘bad’ feelings is the fact that not a single one of these characters is on the side of the angels. There ARE NO angels here. There are no innocents to serve as heartbreaking collateral damage. Saying that no one is any better than they ought to be doesn’t nearly cover it. More like they are all worse than each other in a Möbius strip of turning their backs on anything that could be classified as “light” and diving straight for the bottom.

If you need to like at least one character to follow a story, even if that character is an anti-hero rather than a hero or a lovable or even just a redeemable rogue, there is absolutely no one in this story who remotely qualifies. Every single character, even the ones that at the beginning you might think will turn out to be a bit corrupt but not too awful, seems to have had their moral compass surgically removed at birth or shortly thereafter.

At the same time, for most of its length The Atlas Six seems to sit squarely on the intersection between “power corrupts” and “some gifts come at just too high a price.” And those certainly are elements of the story. But, just as we think we know what’s going on, the centrality of those two tropes is knocked off that center. Or rather, we learn that believing that those are the central tenets also centers characters who may not actually be IN that center.

Which admittedly does ramp up the tension VERY dramatically for the second book in the series, The Atlas Paradox. Which, thank goodness – or more likely badness in this case – is already out so I’ll be starting it as soon as I recuperate from the first book.

The thing is that I’m not sure there’s anything honestly new in The Atlas Six. It’s fascinating, it’s compelling, it’s stomach turning at points, but the whole corruption of dark academia thing is not exactly new under the sun. (Recent examples include Babel by R.F. Kuang, and The Scholomance by Naomi Novik to name just a couple). For this reader, the way that all the arcs, at least so far, are trending so deeply downwards means that I’ll be diving into the second book more to see just how far down into hell these people and this situation can go. I suspect it’s pretty damn far. I don’t actually care about ANY of the characters.

So, if you need to like someone, anyone in a story to want to make your way to its end, The Atlas Six may not do it for you as a reader. I’m very much of two minds about the whole thing.

Howsomever, while I may have had a ton of mixed feelings about the story, but absolutely none whatsoever about the full cast narration. The way the book was narrated was truly what both made it possible for me to read and compelled me to finish. The perspective on the events is batted around between seven first person narrators, the Atlas Six themselves plus Libby Rhodes’ boyfriend Ezra Fowler. In the narration, the actor changed when the perspective did, and the actors did a fantastic job of making each other their characters distinct and easy to recognize.

Because voice acting fascinates me, and this group did such a damn good job of it (and because I had to do a fair bit of digging and listening to figure out who played who), here’s almost the full cast list: (I think I got this right but if I didn’t or if someone knows who Damien Lynch voiced PLEASE let me know)

-Libby Rhodes voiced by Caitlin Kelly
-Nico de Varona voiced by James Patrick Cronin
-Reina Mori voiced by Siho Ellsmore
-Parisa Kamali voiced by Munirih Grace
-Tristan Caine voiced by David Monteith
-Callum Nova voiced by Steve West
-Ezra Fowler voiced by Andy Ingalls

One of the reasons that I plan to listen to the second book, The Atlas Paradox, just as I did The Atlas Six is because this stellar cast is returning for the second book, along with three additional players whose identities I have yet to discover.

However I end up feeling about the second book, even if those feelings turn out to be as mixed as they were for this one, I already know the performance is going to be riveting.