Shorter Reviews of Six 2014 Novels: R.J. Bennett, R. Ford, S. Saylor, J. Sprunk, A. Furst and A. Roberts (with comments by Liviu Suciu)

Posted by Admin - April 6th, 2014

“A densely atmospheric and intrigue-filled fantasy novel of living spies, dead gods, buried histories, and a mysterious, ever-changing city-from one of America’s most acclaimed young SF writers.

Years ago, the city of Bulikov wielded the powers of the Gods to conquer the world. But after its divine protectors were mysteriously killed, the conqueror has become the conquered; the city’s proud history has been erased and censored, progress has left it behind, and it is just another colonial outpost of the world’s new geopolitical power. Into this musty, backward city steps Shara Thivani. Officially, the quiet mousy woman is just another lowly diplomat sent by Bulikov’s oppressors. Unofficially, Shara is one of her country’s most accomplished spymasters-dispatched to investigate the brutal murder of a seemingly harmless historian. As Shara pursues the mystery through the ever-shifting physical and political geography of the city, she begins to suspect that the beings who once protected Bulikov may not be as dead as they seem-and that her own abilities might be touched by the divine as well.”

So far the biggest positive surprise of the year for me and the current top fantasy for 2014 – though “heavy hitters” from A. Ryan, B. Weeks, D. Wexler and A. Tchaikovsky are due in the summer and I expect at least one of those to get to the top – Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs is one of the rare secondary world fantasy novels that succeed superbly at being different and showing that it is possible to do new things and not recycle the faux-medieval, far eastern, classical or Victorian settings as the genre tends to do over and over, however well done on occasion.

As lots of things happen and I do not want to spoil the twists, I would just mention that there is everything one wants – drama, romance, battles, fights, mysteries, amazing world building and great characters who stay with you.
 

Regarding originality, the last fantasies I felt similarly about were The Last Page by A. Huso, Thunderer by F. Gilman and Perdido Street Station/The Scar by C. Mieville.

Here is just a small taste of the wonders of the book – an extract from a list of miraculous things now stowed away in a secret warehouse whose content are of course of great interest to our heroes and villains:

“368. Shelf C5-158. Glass of Kivrey: Small marble bead that supposedly contains the sleeping body of Saint Kivrey, a Jukoshtani priest who changed gender every night as part of one of Jukov’s miracles. Miraculous nature—undetermined.

369. Shelf C5-159. Small iron key: Name is unknown, but when used on any door the door sometimes opens onto an unidentified tropical forest. Pattern has yet to be determined. Still miraculous.

370. Shelf C5-160. Bust of Ahanas: Once cried tears that possessed some healing properties. Users of the tears also had a tendency to levitate. No longer miraculous.

371. Shelf C5-161. Nine stone cups: if left in a place where they receive sun, these cups would refill with goat’s milk every dawn. No longer miraculous.

372. Shelf C5-162. Ear of Jukov: an engraved, stone door frame that contains no door. Iron wheels on the base. Speculated that it has a twin, and no matter where the other Ear is, if the doors are operated in the correct manner one can pass through one door and come out the other. We speculate that the twin has been destroyed. No longer miraculous.

373. Shelf C5-163. Edicts of Kolkan, books 783 to 797: fifteen tomes mostly dictating Kolkan’s attitudes on dancing. Total weight: 378 pounds. Not miraculous, but content is definitely dangerous.

374. Shelf C5-164. Glass sphere. Contained a small pond and overhanging tree Ahanas was fond of visiting when she felt troubled. No longer miraculous” 

 
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The King is dead. His daughter, untested and alone, now wears the Steel Crown. And a vast horde is steadily carving a bloody road south, hell-bent on razing Steelhaven to the ground

…or the city will fall

Before the city faces the terror that approaches, it must crush the danger already lurking within its walls. But will the cost of victory be as devastating as that of defeat?”

The Shattered Crown by Richard Ford is the second Steelhaven novel after The Herald of the Storm which was a surprise hit of 2013 due to its mixing of the familiar with a somewhat outrageous twisting of it in the various story-lines that follow the multiple and wonderfully diverse in all ways cast.
I was wondering a little if that was a one time trick only as there is a clear logic to the “usual” fantasy storyline – whether new gritty and ambiguous or older traditional with clear sides – and what reads new in a first series novel can look gimmicky and become tired fast in a second, but The Shattered Crown managed to deliver another superb reading experience one could not put down.
This time I would say that the novel is less interested in twisting the familiar tropes and more in brutal no let up action that has our main characters in continual dangers as the outside threat of the dark magic invader army becomes imminent; sides are drawn, agents are exposed or make their final move and the novel bursts with action from page one to the last. 

Overall. another highly recommended installment of this wonderful series.

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In 88 B.C. it seems as if all the world is at war. From Rome to Greece and to Egypt itself, most of civilization is on the verge of war. The young Gordianus—a born-and-raised Roman citizen—is living in Alexandria, making ends meet by plying his trade of solving puzzles and finding things out for pay. He whiles away his time with his slave Bethesda, waiting for the world to regain its sanity. But on the day Gordianus turns twenty-two, Bethesda is kidnapped by brigands who mistake her for a rich man’s mistress. If Gordianus is to find and save Bethesda, who has come to mean more to him than even he suspected, he must find the kidnappers before they realize their mistake and cut their losses. Using all the skills he learned from his father, Gordianus must track them down and convince them that he can offer something of enough value in exchange for Bethesda’s release.

As the streets of Alexandria slowly descend into chaos, and the citizenry begin to riot with rumors of an impending invasion by Ptolmey’s brother, Gordianus finds himself in the midst of a very bold and dangerous plot—the raiding and pillaging of the golden sarcophagus of Alexander the Great himself.

New York Times bestselling author Steven Saylor returns, chronicling the early years of his detective, Gordianus, before he assumed the title of The Finder. Raiders of the Nile is the latest in his much-loved series of mysteries set in the late Roman Republic.”

Raiders of the Nile by Steven Saylor is the 2nd young Gordianus book and it is excellent stuff and another top 25 of mine for 2014, as it is more coherent and unitary than the short fiction like The Seven Wonders, though it continues strands of the storyline there.
The novel is also much more adventure oriented and Gordianus plays action hero, fights some bandits and joins some others, befriends a lion and even uses his budding observation skills to inadvertently wreak havoc.

The postscript of the author – in the form of a q/a – explains his thinking behind the structure of the young Gordianus books and I definitely want more, though the long promised March Ides book would do quite well too. Any Gordianus will do actually as my older post about this wonderful series explains why!

As an aside, in the upcoming Rogues anthology, Steven Saylor has a young Gordianus story that uses the 40′s pulp sf heroes Fafrhrd and the Gray Mouser as legendary beings in the classical worlds, showing again how sff interacts with other genres in occasionally surprising ways,

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“Set in a richly-imagined world, this action-heavy fantasy epic and series opener is like a sword-and-sorcery Spartacus.

It starts with a shipwreck following a magical storm at sea. Horace, a soldier from the west, had joined the Great Crusade against the heathens of Akeshia after the deaths of his wife and son from plague. When he washes ashore, he finds himself at the mercy of the very people he was sent to kill, who speak a language and have a culture and customs he doesn’t even begin to understand.

Not long after, Horace is pressed into service as a house slave. But this doesn’t last. The Akeshians discover that Horace was a latent sorcerer, and he is catapulted from the chains of a slave to the halls of power in the queen’s court. Together with Jirom, an ex-mercenary and gladiator, and Alyra, a spy in the court, he will seek a path to free himself and the empire’s caste of slaves from a system where every man and woman must pay the price of blood or iron. Before the end, Horace will have paid dearly in both.”

 Blood and Iron by Jon Sprunk is a reasonably well executed version of the “humble stranger turns out to have great powers in a different world” version of action adventure fantasy, engagingly written and refreshingly modern in attitudes and language, but not bringing anything new, while the characters and narrative energy on which such stuff depends the most are reasonably interesting to have kept me reading, but not outstandingly so to keep me overtly interested in what comes next. 

Non stop action where the main hero seems not to have any time to do anything but keep saving the world, or at least his current slice at the time…

Overall, a B plus level pulp fantasy which lacks that extra to raise it to the top so far, the way Brent Weeks‘ novels – by far the best practitioner of this fantasy subgenre of today – do.
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“Paris, 1938. As the shadow of war darkens Europe, democratic forces on the Continent struggle against fascism and communism, while in Spain the war has already begun. Alan Furst, whom Vince Flynn has called “the most talented espionage novelist of our generation,” now gives us a taut, suspenseful, romantic, and richly rendered novel of spies and secret operatives in Paris and New York, in Warsaw and Odessa, on the eve of World War II.
 
Cristián Ferrar, a brilliant and handsome Spanish émigré, is a lawyer in the Paris office of a prestigious international law firm. Ferrar is approached by the embassy of the Spanish Republic and asked to help a clandestine agency trying desperately to supply weapons to the Republic’s beleaguered army—an effort that puts his life at risk in the battle against fascism.
 
Joining Ferrar in this mission is a group of unlikely men and women: idealists and gangsters, arms traders and aristocrats and spies. From shady Paris nightclubs to white-shoe New York law firms, from brothels in Istanbul to the dockyards of Poland, Ferrar and his allies battle the secret agents of Hitler and Franco. And what allies they are: there’s Max de Lyon, a former arms merchant now hunted by the Gestapo; the Marquesa Maria Cristina, a beautiful aristocrat with a taste for danger; and the Macedonian Stavros, who grew up “fighting Bulgarian bandits. After that, being a gangster was easy.” Then there is Eileen Moore, the American woman Ferrar could never forget.
 
In Midnight in Europe, Alan Furst paints a spellbinding portrait of a continent marching into a nightmare—and the heroes and heroines who fought back against the darkness.”

After Mission to Paris, the superb previous novel of Alan Furst from his long running Night Soldiers series of late 1930′s suspense with different main cast but keeping quite a few secondary characters around,  Midnight in Europe fails to repeat its success despite an exciting start. 
The atmosphere is there and the main character is the vintage non-military Furst one – successful early 40′s professional with a taste for women and the good life, but also quietly decided to oppose the creeping menace of Hitlerism – however there is something that doesn’t gel together as in the more successful installments. 
Still a page turner I couldn’t put down, but overall a B plus Furst versus the A+ of his best like Dark Star – which a bit surprisingly is mentioned as inspiration by RJ Bennett for his City of Stairs novel above – one more example how sff and other genres interact and why “narrowness in reviewing” is self-defeating in many ways…

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“It is 1955. Funded, in part, by a reclusive Swiss millionaire and working — it is claimed — from Nemo’s actual blueprints discovered in India, the French Navy build a replica Nautilus. Crewed with sailors and scientists, and commanded by the short-tempered Captain Mason, it is launched in great secrecy from Bayonne.

Almost as soon as it is underwater, however, and having passed beyond the Continental Shelf, an accident (or sabotage!) sends it plummeting towards the ocean floor. The crew desperately attempt repairs as the pressure builds, threatening to crush the entire craft.

But then something very strange happens: despite the fact that they are still descending, the pressure equalises. The descent continues for days; soon passing the 5000m depth that ought to mark the bottom of the ocean. As days turn to weeks, the mystery of their plight only grows deeper: for they pass hundreds and soon thousands kilometres of ‘depth’ with no ill effects.

Other constraints press upon them: particularly the need to find food, and conserve fuel. Pressures amongst the all-male crew intensify as well, approaching breaking point as weeks pass, and the depth becomes measurable in millions of kilometres. Are they dead, trapped in an eternal descent to Hell? Have they passed through some portal into a realm of infinite water? Or have they somehow stumbled upon — or been deliberately lead to, via the mysterious Indian blueprint — some truth about the world too profound even to be measured in trillions?

Then, when they think all hope is lost, and as they approach the trillionth kilometre of depth, they see light below them …”

Usually Adam Roberts‘ novels are in my top 25 of the year, but Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea  was very uneven: as a Vernian pastiche including the superb drawings by Mahendra Singh, it was quite in the spirit, from the lack of female characters, to name checking, to crazy but scientific jargon adventure. 
Unfortunately, it mostly remained that and the genre has moved a lot since the 19th century so the novel fell flat as modern sf which was a bit surprising since Adam Roberts also wrote Swiftly (a Gulliverian pastiche) and Splinter (more Verne) that worked very well, with Splinter one of my huge favorites from the author’s work.
On the bright side, the novel was not an utter disaster like the Null-A sequel by J.C. Wright, as its style was good and the pages turned by themselves.

Overall a minor Roberts and one hopes the upcoming Bete will revert to form.

Fantasy Book Critic

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“The Empire’s Corps Series” by Christopher Nuttall (an overview by Liviu Suciu)

Posted by Admin - March 11th, 2014


“You Should Never Speak Truth To Power…

The Galactic Empire is dying and chaos and anarchy are breaking out everywhere. After a disastrous mission against terrorists on Earth itself, Captain Edward Stalker of the Terran Marine Corps makes the mistake of speaking truth to power, telling one of the most powerful men in the Empire a few home truths. As a result, Captain Stalker and his men are unceremoniously exiled to Avalon, a world right on the Rim of the Empire. It should have been an easy posting…

Well, apart from the bandits infesting the countryside, an insurgency that threatens to topple the Empire’s loose control over Avalon, and a corrupt civil government more interested in what it can extort from the population than fighting a war. The Marines rapidly find themselves caught up in a whirlwind of political and economic chaos, fighting to preserve Avalon before the competing factions tear the world apart. They’re Marines; if anyone can do it, they can.

The battle to save the Empire starts here.”


As someone who has been following Baen’s Bar for more than a decade, I have heard of a promising mil-sf Baen style new author called Chris Nuttall for a while. Going the independent route, his books started appearing on Amazon a few years back, though for some time the samples I checked were not quite clicking for me. 
This until a few days ago when by chance I took a look at his Empire’s Corps series – with 8 published books in the past 2 years, clearly his most successful series to date and probably the one that puts him daily in the top 10 sf bestselling writers list on Amazon

After a short description of the currently available series books from the author’s website, I will discuss a little books 1 and 3 – so I do not spoil things for people wanting to discover this wonderful series, as these 2 books are just loosely related so far – noting that in the last 3 days I have read books 1-4 and I plan to read books 5-8 next, while any upcoming series novel has become a buy and read on publication. 
 

“The Empire’s Corps

The mainstream books follow the Marines on Avalon and run in sequence, while the stand alone books jump around chronologically

The Empire’s Corps (Mainstream Book I)

No Worse Enemy (Mainstream Book II)

When The Bough Breaks (Stand Alone – starts just after The Empire’s Corps.)

Semper Fi (Mainstream Book III)

The Outcast (Stand Alone – starts roughly four years prior to The Empire’s Corps.)

To The Shores (Mainstream Book IV)

Reality Check (Stand Alone – starts just before The Empire’s Corps.)

Retreat Hell (Mainstream Book V)”

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The Empire’s Corps (Mainstream Book I)

While a fairly standard mil sf in the Baen mode, the novel worked for me from all points of view – characters, prose, setting, philosophy, in jokes and references (Joe Buckley, Tom Kratman etc). 
Thinking more about why, I would mention one very important point - lots of female lead characters – more appear as the series goes on but there are a few to start here too – and credible multicultural and diverse characters – today a modern sf novel needs that more than anything for credibility and nothing annoys me more than the lack of female leads (see the recent very disappointing Trillion Leagues Under the Sea), parochial setting with the Galaxy like an English bar of the 50′s (quite a few offenders here) or stereotyping the other (David Brin’s Existence is one relatively recent egregious example of such, but many sff sadly still qualify).

Somewhere between D. Weber (ideology, setting) and J. Ringo (marine hardcore stuff) and a great read all around, with the blurb accurately describing what one gets.
When The Bough Breaks (Stand Alone – starts just after The Empire’s Corps.)
This one takes place on Earth after the exile to Avalon of our heroes and shows the brutal and swift end of the empire.

Commando Belinda Lawton is sole survivor of mission gone bad so in a last authority act the marine supreme commander assigns her as personal bodyguard to spoiled teen Roland Childe who is the puppet heir of the throne marked for slow death by substance abuse by the wheelers and dealers of the senate. In parallel story-lines, we see conspiracies from great to small and a naive student snared in such and how she deals with the overwhelming…

Again not unexpected or unusual stuff – the teen emperor-to-be gets a spine but has not enough power in time, while treachery abounds – but great mixing of the ingredients and lots of narrative energy.

The same points as above apply and in later volumes the universe expansion and the character list grows as befits this kind of series when it jumps to the top rank of current mil-sf/space opera.
Highly recommended stuff, so go and check it out – no drm so even if the books are amazon exclusives, they are easily convertible and accessible on any device.

Fantasy Book Critic

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“Traitor’s Blade” by Sebastien de Castell (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Posted by Admin - February 26th, 2014

“The King is dead, the Greatcoats have been disbanded, and Falcio Val Mond and his fellow magistrates Kest and Brasti have been reduced to working as bodyguards for a nobleman who refuses to pay them. Things could be worse, of course. Their employer could be lying dead on the floor while they are forced to watch the killer plant evidence framing them for the murder. Oh wait, that’s exactly what’s happening…

Now a royal conspiracy is about to unfold in the most corrupt city in the world. A carefully orchestrated series of murders that began with the overthrow of an idealistic young king will end with the death of an orphaned girl and the ruin of everything that Falcio, Kest, and Brasti have fought for. But if the trio want to foil the conspiracy, save the girl, and reunite the Greatcoats, they’ll have to do it with nothing but the tattered coats on their backs and the swords in their hands, because these days every noble is a tyrant, every knight is a thug, and the only thing you can really trust is a traitor’s blade.”

After an ok’ish start on the light side that gave a taste of the picaresque aspect of the novel, Traitor’s Blade started getting darker and more interesting so it quickly pulled me in. By its end, the book turned out to be an excellent read – powerful narrative and many twists and turns of which some major ones are clear from long before, but they are still very entertaining. 
Highly imaginative world building which has a little “iffiness” factor true as some things happen too quickly and of course our heroes escape quite a few deathly situations in sometimes unlikely ways, but that doesn’t really matter given the rest of the goodies of the novel. Also for once a realistic view of “knights”, chivalry and a medieval like society that reads real – brutal, no illusions, no mercy, the powerful oppressing the less powerful and those oppressing the weak

Narrated in alternate present and past by Falcio val Mond, former First Cantor of the Greatcoats – both Cantor and Greatcoat have definite meanings here – who now a few years after his king’s death when the high nobility rebelled against his reforms and King Paelis refused to allow a civil war and ordered Falcio to surrender his highly trained Greatcoats in return for amnesty, surrender that has the survivors now called traitors, tries to keep his last promise to the king and find the treasures the king has scattered throughout the realm and use them to restore a semblance of justice as opposed to the unending brutality of the nobility.

While a great fighter and having a highly developed sense of justice and morality, Falcio is not the sharpest intellect around, so he and his two companions, first sword Kest and first archer Brasti, kind of bumble in and out of mortal peril, are outwitted and manipulated at every turn by nefarious schemers, but in true picaresque fashion, manage to survive despite the odds.

Here is Falcio after killing a renowned knight in a quick battle:
“I looked out at the night sky and the stars that winked at us as if they were all in on some great joke. ‘Five years ago, after the Ducal Army took Castle Aramor, they killed our King and hauled his corpse up to the top of the castle. They mounted his head on a pike. Some men cheered, some men looked away.’ I took another swig of my wine. ‘And some men just laughed.’

‘So Lynniac was there, was he?’

‘Lynniac was there,’ I said. ‘Commander of a division of Knights. I didn’t recognise him at first, but when he was pointing that crossbow at me and he started laughing …’

Feltock bit the inside of his cheek. Then he said, ‘And you think you remember everyone who was there that day?’

I thought about it for a moment. ‘Not everyone,’ I replied. Feltock was looking at me intently, trying to see if I knew, if I did remember. More trouble than it will be worth, I thought, but I was a little drunk and a little tired so I said, ‘But since you’re asking, yes, General Feltock, I remember you.’

Feltock’s eyes went wide for a moment, but then he gave a bitter laugh. ‘Not “General”,’ he said. ‘Not for a few years now.’

We drank some more in silence.

‘So,’ he said, uncrossing his legs with a crack. ‘Are you gonna come for me next, boy?’
I sighed. ‘No.’

‘Why not? I was there, wasn’t I? I was one of those what took down your King, wasn’t I? So what’s the difference between me and Lynniac?’

‘You didn’t laugh.’

He just looked at me for a while and then said, ‘Huh.’ Then he stood up and started walking back to the wagons.

Why “Captain” Feltock?’ I asked when he was a few paces away. ‘Why aren’t you a general any more?’

Feltock turned and gave me a sour grin. He tossed the rest of his wineskin back to me. ‘Because, boy, when they put the King’s head on that pole, I forgot to laugh.’”
 
In the episodes taking place in the past, we see Falcio’s journey from boy to young and happily married farmer, to man on a vengeance quest, to justiciar in the king’s elite Greatcoats, to his last order in the name of the king and the slow revelations of that thread are added to the mix well indeed.

Magic is subtle here and nobody is necessarily as he or she seems, while the main characters – villains and heroes of both genders – are in the best fantasy tradition. A great ending which promises much more and a series that already by its first volume vaulted to the top level, so I really want more.

Overall Traitor’s Blade is the first “new” fantasy of 2014 that met and even exceeded my expectations and for the reasons above takes its place in my top 25 of the year to date. 

Here is one more taste of Falcio’s narration at a crucial moment when he finds a new and unknown group of “Greatcoats” – the now quite missed traveling justices that kept the nobility’s abuses in check – that may or may not be what they seem:

‘He can withdraw if he wishes,’ Lorenzo said soothingly, ‘but any man or woman who runs from a fight is no Greatcoat and has no business here with us.’

I laughed. ‘“Runs from a fight?” You child. We run from fights all the time – we run from any fight we can get away from. “Judge Fair, Ride Fast, Fight Hard” – fighting is always our last resort.’

It was Lorenzo’s turn to sneer. ‘Well, perhaps that explains why you ran so quickly the last time there was a fight worth
winning! Perhaps that’s why there’s no King and no Greatcoats any more. Perhaps we –’ and here he turned and swept his arms out wide – ‘perhaps we plan on fighting, not running!’

Aline put a hand on my arm. ‘Let’s go, Falcio. I think we should go now.’
I shrugged her arm off.

‘You’re a fool, Lorenzo, and so is anyone here who listens to this tripe. You think you’re going to take forty men and women and fight an armoured division of Knights? In plate-mail? The army that came for the King had a thousand men on horseback. You think you can fight your way out of that?’ I felt the sting of irony myself, since I had tried very hard to convince the King to let me do that very thing.

‘You know, First Cantor, you look tired. Perhaps you need to rest, and dream sweet dreams of the past, while younger and better men do the fighting for you. Or perhaps –’ he turned and smiled wolfishly – ‘perhaps you’d like to show us all a thing or two about how you used to do it in the old days?’

‘Come on, Falcio,’ Aline said. ‘This isn’t your fight.’

But she was wrong: these people were calling themselves Greatcoats. I had devoted my life to this cause, and a hundred and forty-three others had done the same. We had fought and bled and died for this cause. My King had lost his head for this cause.

Lorenzo was right about one thing, though, I was tired. I was tired of Dukes and Knights, and even the common folk calling us ‘Trattari’ and ‘tatter-cloaks’ and worse. I was tired of the memory of what we had tried to do for the world being sullied. More than anything, I was tired of running and hiding. I knew I should just leave with Aline, try and find somewhere else to hide. I could practically hear Brasti shouting in my ear, telling me not to put my anger in front of my reason again. He was right.

But I’d be thrice-damned before I let these fools, these arrogant sons-of-bitches, put the final death to the memory of the Greatcoats.

Fantasy Book Critic

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“The Fell Sword” by Miles (Christian) Cameron (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Posted by Admin - February 16th, 2014

Now that it’s been officially revealed that Miles Cameron is the fantasy name of the historical fiction writer Christian Cameron - whose Tyrant, Long War, Tom Swan and The Ill Made Knight series are such huge favorites – I can state here that I really wish he would write fantasy as well as historical fiction, but sadly after The Red Knight (FBC Rv) – some flaws but ambitious, intense, mysterious and offering immense promise as my blurbed quote on the UK cover of The Fell Sword states – this last novel came as a huge letdown.
Personally I believe the main reason is that Mr. Cameron bought into the idea of a long running fantasy series consisting of door-stopper novels, idea that, when it works well, it really works well so to speak, but it always stands the danger of just becoming bloat and it needs the characters, intensity and epic canvas to work. Here the canvas is present but the other two ingredients are sorely missing, so The Fell Sword reads like a forced attempt of marking time and push the page count and number of novels high, while in his historical fiction, the author lets the events flow naturally and it shows in books that are superb, while they seem to get even better as time passes…

Before getting to the novel proper and a few specifics, I would like to mention that I got The Great King and The Fell Sword at about the same time in January – both UK releases at the time – and despite being in many ways in the mood for something different, when I opened The Great King, I simply could not put it down and had to read it, but when I opened The Fell Sword, I kind of yawned the first time, read a little more and tried to make myself interested the second time but still couldn’t muster the will, and only now when I really wanted to read some interesting fantasy, I decided to get seriously into it, became very interested for the first 100-200 pages, only for the book to start becoming so boring and dull that I just started flipping and scanning pages and hoping the final one will come as quickly as possible…

Here is the blurb:

“THE RED KNIGHT was one of the most acclaimed fantasy debuts of 2012 – and now he rides again. Prepare for one epic battle…

In The Fell Sword the Red Knight and his company go across the mountains to the Morea and Thrake – those are the kingdoms to the east of Alba – to put down what appears to be a local rebellion and proves to be larger. In the process, the readers will get to see a little more of the meta-plot.

The Red Knight will meet a beautiful princess. Jean de Vrailly will grow in power and worldly glory. Amicia will develop her own power while getting into a quarrel with the church that will have long term effects for everyone. Readers will meet the Faery Knight and the irks are developed as people and not ‘enemies’. The sides shift, and the stakes grow.”


The short description for The Fell Sword is “fantasy as bloat”: messy, disjointed, with some great moments, sorely lacking focus but also the intensity and to some extent the mystery that made the first volume a much better book despite its “bloatiness” aspects.

Yes, here we are spared a lot of the unnecessary details and gory massacres of the waves of monsters from the first book, but instead we are treated with marking time for the third volume and that is just dull.


The Red Knight – Mega Duke, ser Gabriel etc – and his company became almost a joke after a while with the same habits, same in-jokes – something else that quickly gets old – same dialogue, overall almost a parody of the earlier appearances, with only Harmodius’ presence and inside voice being really interesting. 

In the other – considerably more than in the series debut – locations, there are interesting moments especially in the interludes at the Galle court, but Ser Vrailly’s constant “I am the knight incarnate and I can and will kill you for not kissing my bottom” becomes just annoying repetition – ok we get it, seriously we get it, please stop – while Thorn the all powerful mage - as he believes itself, while we know better of course – is similarly boring after a while: flick the wand, next disobedient underling is dead or absorbed becomes as dull as Ser Vrailly’s postures quickly – both of the villains here were much more interesting in “The Red Knight” when at least there was a limit to their specific power.

Some of the more interesting characters like Princess Irene of the blurb and her supreme adviser Maria get way too little screen time and the  city of Liviapolis fails to come to life. 

On the good side there was universe expansion and a larger canvas, but as mentioned above the lack of intensity – excepting very occasional moments like the dwarf king of Galle attempting to forcefully seduce his favorite 15 year old singer, the initial moments of the Moreean rebellion which form the best scene in the novel and are as superb as any such in all of the author’s writing, Arimnestos facing Xerxes at Susa included, or the interview of Gabriel with the Patriarch – just killed the book.

Overall
The Fell Sword was disappointing and I am in two minds about the next volume – maybe it will get better and more focused as action converges back together, maybe the point of no return as my interest goes has passed, so will see. 

Fantasy Book Critic

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Three Shorter Reviews: Stephen Baxter, Alastair Reynolds and Jean-Christophe Valtat (by Liviu Suciu)

Posted by Admin - November 22nd, 2013

Three highly expected sf novels, two disappointments, one quite good but less than the sum of its outstanding parts. My slightly edited Goodreads short reviews/raw thoughts follow:

The very far future: The Galaxy is a drifting wreck of black holes, neutron stars, chill white dwarfs. The age of star formation is long past. Yet there is life here, feeding off the energies of the stellar remnants, and there is mind, a tremendous Galaxy-spanning intelligence each of whose thoughts lasts a hundred thousand years. And this mind cradles memories of a long-gone age when a more compact universe was full of light…

The 27th century: Proxima Centauri, an undistinguished red dwarf star, is the nearest star to our sun – and (in this fiction), the nearest to host a world, Proxima IV, habitable by humans. But Proxima IV is unlike Earth in many ways. Huddling close to the warmth, orbiting in weeks, it keeps one face to its parent star at all times. The ‘substellar point’, with the star forever overhead, is a blasted desert, and the ‘antistellar point’ on the far side is under an ice cap in perpetual darkness. 

How would it be to live on such a world? Needle ships fall from Proxima IV’s sky. Yuri Jones, with 1000 others, is about to find out…PROXIMA tells the amazing tale of how we colonise a harsh new eden, and the secret we find there that will change our role in the Universe for ever.”

Proxima has a lot going for itself and while it does not fully succeed in its ambitious goal of integrating three classic but usually disparate sfnal story-lines, so being overall less the sum of its parts, the parts themselves attain true magnificence on occasion and the book is worth reading for sure; not to speak of the sequel (Ultima) that the sort-of cliffhanger ending requires.

As others noted, the blurb is quite inaccurate – even the name of the main human character is wrong as he is known as Yuri Eden, while his real name is implied in the end pages – so as a quick summary, I would say that Proxima combines bare-bones (little tech, short, nasty, brutish lives) colonization of a strange planet – this part is the best but ultimately it is a little irrelevant in the big picture – with humanity encountering mysterious and ultra-powerful artifacts that may give it the stars but at a cost and with grave danger – this part will be most likely the most relevant in the next book – and finally power struggles, politics, conspiracies and standard near-future stuff – this part kind of resolves itself at the end.

Overall, ambition and some awesome stuff in various parts of the novel overcome the major shortcoming of the whole being less than the sum of its parts and the feeling of forced stitching of sf tropes that do not really work together and as mentioned, that issue solves itself logically by pushing one trope to front and leaving the rest as “done”.

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“It is a thousand years in the future. Mankind is making its way out into the universe on massive generation ships.
On the Steel Breeze is the follow-up to Blue Remembered Earth. It is both a sequel and a standalone novel, which just happens to be set in the same universe and revolves around members of the Akinya family.
The central character, Chiku, is totally new, although she is closely related to characters in the first book. The action involves a 220-year expedition to an extrasolar planet aboard a caravan of huge iceteroid ‘holoships’, the tension between human and artificial intelligence … and, of course, elephants.”
On the Steel Breeze is quite disappointing – one of the few A Reynolds novels that bored me to no end except for the last 50 or so pages which were excellent and a return to form; the novelty from Blue Remembered Earth is gone, the storyline(s) are very drawn out boring almost to the end with the standard “abundant technological future” tropes where all conflict is kind of made up rather than real, the characters live very long lives that are not really reflected in the page by the author as they act like regular humans of today with aging a counting matter but not really a life-changing experience one etc.

There is very little sense of the external – again, the bland future makes it hard to go into details as I’ve seen this repeated in similar works like 2312 – and the characters are not that interesting or engaging as that was never the author’s forte anyway.

Still ambitious and with enough stuff and a great ending to make it passable but not among the author’s best.

Not sure I will bother to read the last installment – maybe I will take a look when I see a copy – and I hope Mr. Reynolds goes back to writing the sense of wonder sf he showed so magnificently in the Revelation Space sequence or in his short stories.

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“It’s 1907 in the icily beautiful New Venice, and the hero of the city’s liberation, Brentford Orsini, has been deposed by his arch-rival — who immediately assigns Brentford and his friends on a dangerous diplomatic mission to Paris.

So, Brentford recruits his old friend and louche counterpart, Gabriel d’Allier, underground chanteuse and suffragette Lillian Lake, and the mysterious Blankbate–former Foreign Legionnaire and leader of the Scavengers, the city’s garbage collecting cult–and others, for the mission.

But their mode of transportation–the untested “transaerian psychomotive”–proves faulty and they find themselves transported back in time to Paris 1895 … before New Venice even existed. What’s more, it’s a Paris experiencing an unprecedented and crushingly harsh winter.

They soon find themselves involved with some of the city’s seediest, most fascinating inhabitants. But between attending soirees at Mallarmé’s house, drinking absinthe with Proust, trying to wrestle secrets out of mesmerists, and making fun of the newly-constructed Eiffel Tower, they also find that Paris is a city full of intrigue, suspicion, and danger.

For example, are the anarchists they encounter who are plotting to bomb the still-under construction Sacre Coeur church also the future founders of New Venice? And why are they trying to kill them?

And, as Luminous Chaos turns into another lush adventure told in glorious prose rich in historical allusion, there’s the biggest question of them all: How will they ever get home?”

After the awesome Auroraramatop 10 of mine in 2010 – huge expectations for this follow-up. A great beginning and superb artwork throughout the novel, but a major disappointment in the end. Picking up a year after the end of the earlier book, Luminous Chaos lacked somewhat the freshness and originality of Aurorarama but to start with, it had enough goodies to keep me entertained and the style was the same irreverent one of the first volume. Of course as per blurb, the action moved from the Polar regions to Paris where the heroes traveled by “Psychomotives”:

“Once the pilot is charged with Od, it is but a matter of channelling the force efficiently. For one thing, Od, as I said, is diamagnetic and can be used for easy levitation. Then, because the two hands of the body are differently Od-polarized, they can rotate two disks in different directions, hence furnishing electromagnetic power, which in turn operates contra-rotating turbines with mobile rotor blades for steering. It’s as simple as that, really.

Brentford was unconvinced, but after all, this was New Venice. He had seen Helen stop Time and a kangaroo with a wolf’s head emit telepathic messages: if he willed it, he could make his disbelief diamagnetic and let it float on thin air.”
 
I tried to make my belief diamagnetic too and let it float on the air too for but sadly there was a point where with all the magic in the book and my disbelief just couldn’t be suspended any more.

 I would like to avoid major spoilers but overall this book is the precise of equivalent of “everything that happened was a dream and life goes on without any changes/consequences” and I dislike such way too much for even its great style and madcap action to compensate. Hopefully there will be more New Venice stuff rather than this book that could have been skipped without any loss…



Fantasy Book Critic

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“The Path of Anger: The Book and the Sword I” by Antoine Rouaud (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Posted by Admin - October 21st, 2013

Order The Path of Anger HERE
Read the first two chapters at Gollancz’s site.

“There will be blood. There will be death. This is the path of anger. . .


Dun-Cadal has been drinking his life away for years. Betrayed by his friends – who turned their back on their ideals in favour of a new republic – and grief stricken at the loss of his apprentice, who saved his life on the battlefield and whom he trained as a knight in exchange, he’s done with politics, with adventure, and with people.

But people aren’t finished with him – not yet. Viola is a young historian looking for the last Emperor’s sword, and her search not only brings her to Dun-Cadal, it’s also going to embroil them both in a series of assassinations. Because Dun-Cadal’s turncoat friends are being murdered, one by one. . . by someone who kills in the unmistakable style of an Imperial assassin. . .”

The Path of Anger is Antoine Rouaud’s much hyped world debut in various languages, including the original French (La Voie de la Colere – Le Livre et l’Epee: I) and English with a literal translation of the title and it has been a highly expected novel of mine for a long time, so I got a copy the moment it was out and I read it fast as it was quite a page turner.

Story-wise, it is hard to talk about the book without major spoilers which while I suspected some on general principles, the author’s able misdirection made them a surprise as execution went. As structure, the book alternates the present – starting as the blurb indicates with the famous general and knight Dun-Cadal with power to command the “animus” – you know what that is from Star Wars and the like – now wasting his final years away in drink, while everything he believed in crumbled around him, and the past where it is recounted the story of his protegee “Frog” who had saved his life in a rebellion and whom Dun Cadal took to court as a squire and helped him realize his dream of becoming a knight too. 

As opposed to the usual fantasy genre structure of alternating chapters, the book uses the literary fiction technique of switching in mid-paragraph between the times and as that is done outstandingly, The Path of Anger stands out from the usual genre offering. 

While I had some quibbles about the plot especially about the wedding at the end which really didn’t make sense at least as our current understanding of the position of the respective characters in the world of the series, the main drawback is the almost complete lack of world building which leads to the novel reading as characters acting in theater with props, very well done for what is, but in contemporary top tier secondary world fantasy, we need more, namely a sense of the world beyond a few cliches.

The ending is at a good stopping point, wrapping up the main plot driver of the novel and preparing for what comes next when the “book” and “the sword” of the title series should start revealing their significance – their identities are pretty obvious from the start as the blurb talks about the sword, while the book in cause is mentioned every few pages…

Overall, The Path of Anger has outstanding writing style – I would say arguably better than anything in contemporary secondary world fantasy genre – superbly drawn characters and narrative momentum and it is a novel that if it were about college students/professors, historical personages in a context and maybe even sf in a logical future of our world, it would have been awesome but as fantasy it falls short due to minimal world building which modern “serious” fantasy of the secondary world kind requires to be in the top tier.

While not yet a top 25 of mine – though it may grow more on me with time and/or new installments  – I highly recommend The Path of Anger for its major positives and I am definitely interested in the sequel as I want to see both what happens to the main characters and where the storyline of the book and the sword goes…

Fantasy Book Critic

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Current SFF Novels of Interest: Jean-Christophe Valtat, Antoine Rouaud, David Hair and Michael Cisco (with comments by Liviu Suciu)

Posted by Admin - October 17th, 2013

As I have been really slow in reading sff recently – except for my perennial favorite author David Weber whose Like A Mighty Army (Safehold #7 - due February 2014 and full review around then) came a bit unexpectedly a few weeks ago, book which I have read twice since as well as re-reading (large) parts of the whole  series for the nth time – so novels by Gary Gibson (Marauder), Stephen Baxter (Proxima) and Alastair Reynolds (On the Steel Breeze) kind of reproach me from the tablet where they live a bit neglected for now, I decided to do a quick post with four more current sff titles of great interest, hoping that this will spur me to read/review them soon.

It’s 1907 in the icily beautiful New Venice, and the hero of the city’s liberation, Brentford Orsini, has been deposed by his arch-rival — who immediately assigns Brentford and his friends on a dangerous diplomatic mission to Paris.

So, Brentford recruits his old friend and louche counterpart, Gabriel d’Allier, underground chanteuse and suffragette Lillian Lake, and the mysterious Blankbate–former Foreign Legionnaire and leader of the Scavengers, the city’s garbage collecting cult–and others, for the mission.

But their mode of transportation–the untested “transaerian psychomotive”–proves faulty and they find themselves transported back in time to Paris 1895 … before New Venice even existed. What’s more, it’s a Paris experiencing an unprecedented and crushingly harsh winter.

They soon find themselves involved with some of the city’s seediest, most fascinating inhabitants. But between attending soirees at Mallarmé’s house, drinking absinthe with Proust, trying to wrestle secrets out of mesmerists, and making fun of the newly-constructed Eiffel Tower, they also find that Paris is a city full of intrigue, suspicion, and danger.

For example, are the anarchists they encounter who are plotting to bomb the still-under construction Sacre Coeur church also the future founders of New Venice? And why are they trying to kill them?

And, as Luminous Chaos turns into another lush adventure told in glorious prose rich in historical allusion, there’s the biggest question of them all: How will they ever get home?”

I started Luminous Chaos, Jean-Christophe Valtat’s sequel to the awesome Aurorarama (FBC Rv and top 10 of mine in 2010). Picking up a year after the end of the earlier book, this one lacks a little the freshness and originality of the debut but so far it has enough goodies to keep me entertained and the style is the same irreverent one of the first volume. Of course as per blurb, the action soon will move from the Polar regions to Paris where the heroes will travel by “Psychomotives”:

“Once the pilot is charged with Od, it is but a matter of channelling the force efficiently. For one thing, Od, as I said, is diamagnetic and can be used for easy levitation. Then, because the two hands of the body are differently Od-polarized, they can rotate two disks in different directions, hence furnishing electromagnetic power, which in turn operates contra-rotating turbines with mobile rotor blades for steering. It’s as simple as that, really.

Brentford was unconvinced, but after all, this was New Venice. He had seen Helen stop Time and a kangaroo with a wolf’s head emit telepathic messages: if he willed it, he could make his disbelief diamagnetic and let it float on thin air.”

So I guess I can make my disbelief diamagnetic too and let it float on the air too for what announces to be another superb offering!


************************************************************************

“There will be blood. There will be death. This is the path of anger. . .

Dun-Cadal has been drinking his life away for years. Betrayed by his friends – who turned their back on their ideals in favour of a new republic – and grief stricken at the loss of his apprentice, who saved his life on the battlefield and whom he trained as a knight in exchange, he’s done with politics, with adventure, and with people.

But people aren’t finished with him – not yet. Viola is a young historian looking for the last Emperor’s sword, and her search not only brings her to Dun-Cadal, it’s also going to embroil them both in a series of assassinations. Because Dun-Cadal’s turncoat friends are being murdered, one by one. . . by someone who kills in the unmistakable style of an Imperial assassin. . .”

The Path of Anger, Antoine Rouaud’s much hyped world debut in various languages, including the original French (La Voie de la Colere – Le Livre et l’Epee: I) and English with a literal translation of the title, has been a highly expected novel for a long time and now that it is finally out, I plan to get and read it asap.

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“The Moontide has come and the Leviathan Bridge stands open: now thrones will shake and hearts will be torn apart in a world at war.

A scarlet tide of Rondian legions is flooding into the East, led by the Inquisition’s windships flying the Sacred Heart, bright banner of the Church’s darkest sons. They are slaughtering and pillaging their way across Antiopia in the name of Emperor Constant. But the emperor’s greatest treasure, the Scytale of Corineus, has slipped through his fingers and his ruthless Inquisitors must scour two continents for the artefact, the source of all magical power.

Against them are the unlikeliest of heroes. Alaron, a failed mage, the gypsy Cymbellea and Ramita, once just a lowly market-girl, have pledged to end the cycle of war and restore peace to Urte.

East and West have clashed before, but this time, as secret factions and cabals emerge from the shadows, the world is about to discover that love, loyalty and truth can be forged into weapons as strong as swords and magic.”

Scarlet Tides is the sequel to David Hair’s superb series debut, Mage’s Blood (FBC Rv and top 25 of mine in 2012). As Mage’s Blood is one of those novels that grew on me in time, its sequel became a highly expected book and I plan to get a copy on its publication next week. 

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“Member is the account of how Thanks (the narrator) “accidentally recruited” himself into “the cosmic game of Chorncendantra.” On a night stroll, he finds himself behind another walker who apparently dies and recovers. The bag carried by the unknown Lazarus passes into his possession. Investigating, he discovers that it contains a dimensional hole to another world. By accident or design, as bearer of the bag, he is now a courier, carrying messages in a cosmos-wide game he does not understand. Arriving at “the Artifact” (a vast and never-finished machine in the form of a world-dividing wall that manufactures time), Thanks attempts to decipher his own role in the game, to determine whether he can ever become, or already is, or never will be, a member.”

Despite reading only parts from most of his novels, Michael Cisco is one of the “must” authors for me as he is arguably the most interesting writer of the “weird” subgenre of today – see FBC Rv of Tyrant. So his new novel, Member, out today was another buy on release book and hopefully I will even get to finish it sooner rather than later and review it here. But in any case, even if to read only occasionally, and it’s worth having the full Michael Cisco collection always at hand…
 

Fantasy Book Critic

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“The Republic of Thieves” by Scott Lynch (Reviewed by Mihir Wanchoo, Casey Blair and Liviu Suciu)

Posted by Admin - October 3rd, 2013

Order “The Republic of ThievesHERE (US) + HERE (UK)
Read An Excerpt HERE
Read FBC’s Review of “Red Seas Under Red Skies
ABOUT SCOTT LYNCH: Scott Lynch is the author of The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies. He lives in Wisconsin and frequently visits Massachusetts, the home of his partner, SF/F writer Elizabeth Bear. He moonlights as a volunteer firefighter.
FORMAT/INFO: The Republic of Thieves is 650 pageslong divided over a Prologue, twelve chapters and an Epilogue. It is the third volume in the Gentleman Bastard Sequenceafter The Lies of Locke Lamora and Red Seas Under Red Skies. The Republic of Thieves will be published in North America on October 8, 2013 via Del Rey. The UK edition will be published by Gollancz on October 10, 2013. Cover art is provided by Benjamin Carre.
OFFICIAL PLOT SYSNOPSIS: With what should have been the greatest heist of their career gone spectacularly sour, Locke and his trusted partner, Jean, have barely escaped with their lives. Or at least Jean has. Locke is slowly succumbing to a deadly poison that no alchemist or physiker can cure. Yet just as the end is near, a mysterious Bondsmage offers Locke an opportunity that will either save him or finish him off once and for all.
Magi political elections are imminent, and the factions are in need of a pawn. If Locke agrees to play the role, sorcery will be used to purge the venom from his body—though the process will be so excruciating he may well wish for death. Lockeis opposed, but two factors cause his will to crumble: Jean’s imploring—and the Bondsmage’s mention of a woman from Locke’s past: Sabetha. She is the love of his life, his equal in skill and wit, and now, his greatest rival.
Locke was smitten with Sabetha from his first glimpse of her as a young fellow orphan and thief-in-training. But after a tumultuous courtship, Sabetha broke away. Now they will reunite in yet another clash of wills. For faced with his one and only match in both love and trickery, Locke must choose whether to fight Sabetha—or to woo her. It is a decision on which both their lives may depend…
MIHIR’S ANALYSIS: This is a tough review for me as I had a lot of expectations for The Republic of Thieves. First, there was the delay in finishing the book, for which Scott Lynch has my utmost sympathies for. Next, The Republic of Thieveswas the long-awaited introduction of Sabetha and the tale of why Locke is so besotted with her and how it all came to be between them. And finally, there was the climax to Red Seas Under Red Skies, which left readers wondering nearly seven years as to how it would all turn out for Locke and Jean in terms of survival.
All of those things are a tall order to overcome and in some ways Scott Lynch performed admirably as was expected, but in other ways, the resolutions offered were cumbersome IMHO. Let’s begin with the story, which, like the last two books, takes readers to new locales, specifically Lashain where Jeanis trying to keep Locke alive and the Bondsmagi-controlled city of Karthain, which is the site of the Gentleman Bastard’s “job”: a political election. Specifically, Locke and Jean are tasked with making sure the faction “Deep Roots” wins the maximum number of seats, thereby controlling the city, while Sabetha, the love of Locke’s life, is bolstering the opposing faction “Black Iris”. Lastly, the author mentioned that the odd numbered books in the Gentleman Bastard Sequence would be exploring Locke’spast and in this volume, Father Chainssends his gang of teenagers (Locke, Sabetha, Jean, Calo & Sanzo) to Espara to study theatrics. However, things are never quite as simple as they seem, and Locke and company soon learn that even with all of their training, it might not be enough for them to leave Espara unharmed & alive…
That’s the broad gist of the dual storylines inherent in this long-awaited volume. What else can fans can expect from The Republic of Thieves? How about Locke& Sabetha, more details about the world of the Camorri, detailed revelations about Locke’s past and the bondsmagi ,and of course Scott Lynch’s signature plot twists and dark humor.
Regarding the world-building, readers are again presented with a deep look into a new culture, this time the world of the bondsmagi as well as that of Karthain politics. While the bondsmagi have been the main nemesis through the first two books, The Republic of Thievesactually gives them a face as we get to learn more about their ways and methods. For me though, the political drama that unfolds between the factions led by Sabetha & Locke/Jean was the biggest draw. Scott Lynch cleverly juxtaposes the personal struggle between the two headstrong people that Sabetha and Locke are, with the professional skullduggery that unfolds across the political landscape of Karthain. In this regard, I was reminded a lot of the Ides Of March.
Unfortunately, like A Dance With Dragons and The Wise Man’s Fear, The Republic of Thieves did not quite fulfill its potential to my mind. For starters, the author tried to portray an epic love story between Locke & Sabetha, but it just didn’t seem quite that exciting, in either the past or present storylines. Yes, Locke’s definition of love goes beyond simple obsession (and the reason revealed for it seemed more than ludicrous to me), while Sabetha as a character was disappointing. Scott Lynch tries to purposefully subvert the reader’s expectations by presenting a gritty, cunning and savage character that basically does her best to beat Locke at every interaction and we are then supposed to love this character and her interactions with Locke?
Admittedly, the interactions between Locke & Sabetha were darkly funny the first couple of times, with the author alternating between past and present threads, but we get this same rinse & repeat pattern for the rest of the book, resulting in a love story that felt forced and wooden while ending on a rather disappointing note. Plus, I couldn’t fathom how Jean was so quiet during this whole courtship between Locke& Sabetha even though he could predict Sabetha’ actions and knew that she was Locke’s weakness.
Another aspect of The Republic of Thieves that disappointed me was an alternate explanation to Locke’s origins and his attraction to Sabetha, which felt unnatural to me and reversed the series’ earlier presentation of Locke’s commonality and bastardness. Then there’s the Epilogue, which basically resurrects someone from the past without much ado, even though the person’s current condition is considered irreversible, all of which just seemed a bit too clichéd for a writer of Lynch’s caliber. As a result, all of these factors together made The Republic of Thieves a three star read for me. So while I read and partially enjoyed the novel, it was a bit of a letdown, especially compared to the highs of The Lies of Locke Lamora, and I’m wary now as to where Scott Lynch will take the story & characters in book four and beyond.
CASEY’S ANALYSIS: I might have squeed when an ARC of The Republic of Thievesshowed up in my inbox.
We’ve known that Sabetha would make her first on-stage appearance, so to speak, in this book, but I didn’t realize quite how central she was going to be to, well, everything. I should have, though, because she’s central to everything for our protagonist Locke, and this book dives into that dynamic headfirst.
It’s a shift. Since Sabetha wasn’t physically present in the previous two books, Locke was able to operate with only the shadows of Sabetha’s memory to distract him. This book makes it clear that while it’s still the same Locke, there’s a huge part of him we’ve only just glimpsed before, and there will be no going back.
I loved the relationship between the two of them. I love how they’re both clever in different ways and how they push each other. I love how Scott Lynch is able to bring in issues of gender equality issues without the women being stereotyped as weaker, bringing in matters of privilege and entitlement that I haven’t seen addressed in such a nuanced way in our genre.
In The Republic of Thieves, the framework of the past operates around Lockeand Sabetha’s shared history, while the present is a competition over elections in a foreign country, the Bondsmagi’s backyard. And it really is a competition, an utterly hilarious one as Locke and Sabetha strive against and with each other, smacking you in the face with how ridiculous politics in elections become.
We get more of the mysterious creepers that are the Bondsmagi with alarming implications of what’s to come in future books. We get more of Jean Tannen, and he keeps pushing Locke, too. We get horrifying situations and the characters’ wit has me snickering through them. We get an ending that is bittersweet and perfect.
The Republic of Thieves packs a punch or three, and it’s fun besides. It’s not what I was expecting, but I’m delighted with what we got.
LIVIU’S ANALYSIS: The fault of The Republic of Thieves in a word is “filler”; a strong ending raised it one notch but the middle two thirds of the book is just lots of stuff that is not that important. The beginning of the novel would be pretty good and promising except that the suspense on which it is predicated—Locke dying—is obviously missing (see the blurb) and then comes a very strong set-up.
Sadly, the main action is just repetitive and while the book is entertaining enough to turn pages and some fun moments are sprinkled throughout, The Republic of Thieves is otherwise pretty boring and far from the fresh breath of air The Lies of Locke Lamora was when everything was new and interesting.
There is no real suspense until the final moments when revelations start, while the implied love story is just by the numbers, lacking any chemistry on page. If one puts together the first 100 pages, the last 50 pages, some parts of the interludes—those go a bit too long as well, and while fun and interesting as they were in the first book of the series, here they kind of lose their magic and drag on after a while—that would have been the core of an awesome book, but sadly it is not the one we got.
On the other hand, the ending made me want to see what happens next, so I will take a look if/when the fourth book is published, but the desire to see more asap has completely disappeared. Overall, The Republic of Thieves is one of the most disappointing books I have been waiting for these years.


Fantasy Book Critic

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“Walls of Byzantium: The Mistra Chronicles 1″ by James Heneage (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Posted by Admin - October 2nd, 2013

“Set in the last decade of the fourteenth century, WALLS OF BYZANTIUM, opens as the Ottoman Turk, Sultan Bayezid, prepares his final assault on the Byzantine Empire. Only the little Despotate of Mistra in the Greek Peleponnese stands between him and his ultimate prize – Constantinople.

Four young people are drawn into this turbulent world. Anna Laskaris is the feisty daughter of the most noble family in Mistra. She has been betrothed in a political alliance to Damian Mamonas, but loves another: Luke Margoris, a Varangian guardsman whose ancestors, centuries before, hid a secret which has the power to unite the Christian world in its hour of need. Damian’s twin sister, Zoe, who is as cunning as she is beautiful, denied the Mamonas inheritance which she feels is hers, also sets out to find the Varangian treasure with, or without, Luke.

As events unfold and the kings of Christendom are persuaded to send the biggest crusade yet to the rescue of Byzantium, Luke finds that his destiny draws him east, away from Anna, to face a threat even more terrifying than Bayezid: the Mongol Horde under the merciless leadership of the murderous Tamerlane.

From Constantinople and Chios to Venice and Samarcand, WALLS OF BYZANTIUM, is an epic novel which brings to dramatic life the battles in the final years of Byzantium in a story of love and honour in a time of colliding empires.”

Reading the first 100 pages of Walls of Byzantium can make one believe we are in a standard epic fantasy series first volume that just happens to be set in our history, while having hints of possible magic too: destined boy, doomed love (maybe?), straight-out villains and heroes (again who knows…), hidden magic treasure that may save (or doom) an empire if found, and a writing style that occasionally borders on bestseller blandness and predictability, 
All this balanced against very interesting content and on my first reading, I kind of thought “not again, promising stuff done in a mediocre at best way” and skipped through the book and read here and there and the end.

And guess what, once I got familiar with the author style, I was hooked and let the characters take over, so much so that this novel went straight to my top 10 for the year and with a good chance to stay there.

And yes everything said in the first lines is still true, but there is something so compelling about our heroes and more generally the whole storyline/world building that makes all above negatives irrelevant, while the book truly “lives” in a way that books maybe written with better style and more sophisticated characters do not:


The naive to start Luke Magoris, grandson of a disgraced Varangian guard from Constantinople whose father had to take service with arch-villain, traitor, greedy etc etc Archon of Momenvasia and who grew up with their twins – spineless coward but heir-by-gender Damian and the willful, wanton, scheming Zoe who badly wants power and tries to prove that her being born a girl is just an accident she can correct, while of course as the novel progresses, Luke turns to be a prince, or at least the descendant of such…

Anna, another naive heroine this time, daughter of the right hand of the Despot of Mistra – to whom the Archon owes allegiance in theory, but in practice he sells his services to whomever offers him the “best deal” and the Ottomans and the Venetians are now the rich kids on the block, the latter from their spoils of their traitorous Sack of Byzantium two centuries back, while the former the new power which of course wants Byzantium and everything; Luke is the “man of her life” but she is married to another – Damian the coward perv – and courted by someone even more powerful – Suleyman, heir of famous Bayezid, lover of Zoe and all around schemer and lover of women, wine and pleasure – etc etc…

Finally there is Zoe, another great character whom one loves to hate and then of course the assorted cast of villains, heroes and wise men both Christian and Muslim as only the Venetians are uniform villains so far, not to speak of a great ending that truly begs the continuation asap.

Overall, Walls of Byzantium is a great saga beginning and an entertaining page turner which offers everything one wants in such – dramatic sieges, false accusations, magic treasure, enchanted sword, traitorous murders, intrigue, romance, overview of the state of knowledge of the day, battles and the bloody executions after Nicopolis, awesome world building and narrative power that makes one turn the pages, root for the heroes and get immersed in a novel that is grounded in history but reads more like fantasy than anything else.

Fantasy Book Critic

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Interview with Christian Cameron: “The Ill Made Knight” (with comments by Liviu Suciu)

Posted by Admin - September 13th, 2013


1. So—you’ve gone and started a whole new time period. You write about Ancient Greece—isn’t that enough? Why?  And why the later Middle Ages? 

Well, I’ve always loved the Middle Ages. I love chivalry, warts and all, and I wanted to write about it. And—if you follow William Gold long enough (like, into Book 2, The Long Sword) we’ll get to Greece in this period, too. But mostly, it’s about my love of the martial arts of the period. I love to fight in armour, and I love to study the period—in situ, as it were. I don’t just reenact this period. Fighting in armour with steel swords is a remarkable thing. Hard to describe. But very good for fitness, and very—exciting.

2. The Ill-Made Knight reflects some very uncomfortable truths about the Middle Ages, doesn’t it?
It does. I have a degree in this period; I’ve always loved it, but it’s not a unicorns and maidens kind of love. The central fact of my beloved late Middle Ages—in literature, in war, in economics and even in fashion—is the Black Plague. A third of the population died. Next to that single event, it is hard to picture how they kept civilization together, much less went on with their lives or made great art or fought wars or even went to church. It must have been—horrible. A word too often used.
3. And then there’s the Hundred Year’s War…
Exactly. Wherein England attempted to take France by means of a war of terror—a very modern kind of war. Fought by knights who were sometimes the very antithesis of chivalric.  But I’m not writing anti-heroic ‘grim reality.’  I’m really interested in genuine heroism—and what is more heroic than learning a set of ethics and sticking by them in the face of disaster and death—or even in the face of the banality of evil? I’ll be frank and say that ‘grim reality’ bores me. I have tried to make my vision of the Hundred Years war as authentic as I could manage; yet my story is about one of the men who rose above the ‘grim.’ It did happen.  

4. You are a passionate advocate of chivalry. 

I am! I tried to practice it as a military professional and I still struggle live up to it. Every time I’m beaten in a match—especially when I am full of adrenaline—it takes discipline to smile and congratulate my victor. Ideals of loyalty and generosity can be the devil to adhere to in real life situations, and it is not for nothing that one of the great Medieval works of chivalry is a book of questions with no answers!  

5. But you admit that most knights failed to live by the code in period.
Like any ethical code, adhering to chivalry is a struggle. I’ve seen refugee columns. I’ve seen directly what happens when nation-states make war directly on civilian populations; when genocide occurs or is attempted. I think what I saw in Central Africa in the 90s informs my idea of what France—France as a failed state in 1362—must have been like. Psychology and neuroscience have both begun to give us insight into the long term consequences of trauma; imagine a war that lasted, with some very brief respites—for over a hundred years. Any rules—and rules at all, any ethics that save a few people from the slaughter or allow a spark of compassion to exist—are better than no rules at all. The knights and men-at-arms who attempted to abide by the rules must have been better men. 

And let me say—I probably say this too often—that we could look at the 20th century and—eying the statistics—say ‘Democracy is the leading cause of war in the 20thcentury’ or ‘Democracies are evil—they killing innocent people.’ Every system fails. We can look at the failures, or we can examine the successes. That said—I still believe, as Richard Kaeuper, my mentor in University, taught me, that despite its best efforts, Medieval Chivalry caused  more harm than it limited. Interesting dichotomy, eh? 

6. Why did you choose William Gold?  What was the spark?

A few years ago I read a brilliant book by a scholar named William Cafferro about John Hawkwood, the real life Captain of the White Company. In the course of the book he describes the taking of Cesena—a serious war crime in the Italian wars when a cardinal of the church (soon to be pope) ordered the entire civilian population of a town exterminated for no better reason than that they had humiliated him. Cafferro suggests that some of Hawkwood’s men left him in the aftermath, and the dates suggest that one William Gold, a fairly senior officer, went off and fought for Venice. I don’t know if William Gold left Hawkwood because of the massacre of Cesena, but my William Gold will. At the same time—this is what I studied in university, and I was fascinated by ‘William the Cook’ and the notion that a man in the later Middle Ages so desperately wantedto be a knight. 

7. You chose the title The Ill-Made Knight?  It’s a pretty famous title!

It’s true. It is one of my favorites from my childhood. Of course, the Ill-Made Knight of T.H. White is Lancelot. I wanted readers to see the connection, and the homage is quite deliberate. Without T.H. White I wouldn’t have studied the Middle Ages at all. In fact, we just read ‘The Sword and the Stone’ to my daughter, and I was struck every night by how much of that book I’d just—taken in. By osmosis, almost.  It was perhaps the most important book of my childhood, I now realize.   

8. You like to write first person.  Do you identify with your characters? 

I confess that I identify with William Gold more than with Ptolemy in ‘God of War’ or Arimnestos in the ‘Long War’ series. William Gold has in him a number of men I respect—and a little of me. Arimnestos is modeled on some SF guys I worked with, but also on my uncle, Donald Cameron, who was a great story teller and a very dangerous man. But first person—it’s very hard. It is hard to avoid anachronism and it is fiendish to make sure that the reader understand what’s going on. In France in 1362, it was all I could do to avoid moment where some character ‘data-dumped’ a political monologue. The Paris Commune?  The Jaquerie? Really hard. I hope I pulled it off. But that said—the challenge is what drives good writing, I think.

9. There’s an awful lot of religion in ‘Ill-Made Knight’
Well—there’s some. It was the central reality of the thinking man in the Middle Ages—at least in the West. Most of my characters in every period are pious. Atheism is really a modern adventure. People in the past believed—or that’s my reading of history. So—Kineas has dreams and religious experience, and so does William Gold. I read a lot of Medieval theology before I wrote this book. And some Medieval Philosophy, although, to my amateur eye, they are virtually synonymous. Throw in Aristotle—see that’s research saved! (Laughs) I mean, I read Aristotle for Kineas and Alexander!
10. What are you reading now, what are you writing, and what’s up with Tom Swan?
Er—ah—I just finished ‘Basic Writings’ which was a compendium of the writings of Martin Heidegger. And ‘Venetian Ships and Shipbuilders’ by Frederic Chapin Lane, which is research for both Tom Swan and William Gold. My Venetian Galleys were too much like ancient galleys… I won’t make that mistake again…. I’m about to write Book Two of the ‘Chivalry’ series, about William Gold and the Green Count’s Crusade. William—Sir William-is about to go on one of the least known crusades. And encounter what a wonderful civilization the Byzantine Greeks had—oh, and another wonderful civilization, the Ottoman Turks… 
Tom Swan will ride again—or walk. He’s off to the Siege of Belgrade in 1456. That event will cover three installments, and I suspect they’ll start to appear by Christmas. I write Tom Swan for fun—and to pay for armour and stuff—so I have to work on him in the nooks and crannies between projects. Oh, and yesterday I finished Symposium II, the last chapter in the prequel to the ‘Foreworld’ project. It’s out as a graphic novel. I really recommend it to my Tyrant and Long War fans, not because I’m so great, but because Dmitry Bondarenko has done an incredible job of making Ancient Athens come to life.  

11. Can we see you fight in armour? 

Yes. I’m a pretty middling armoured combatant—I’m old, for one thing. But my harness is good—thanks to Mark Vickers at Saint George’s Armoury, Craig Sitch at Manning Imperial, (who also makes some of my Ancient Greek harness) and Peter Fuller at Medieval Reproductions. But I’ll post a melee from a recent event on my Author page on Facebook. 

12. Thanks, Chris 

Thank you!   

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Official Christian Cameron Website

Order The Ill Made Knight HERE

I want to thank Christian Cameron for this wonderful interview and for the insights into medieval life he has so kindly shared with us. I have just finished “The Ill Made Knight” last night and while I plan a full review in the next couple weeks – tentatively next Friday, September 20th, but could move to the following week – I would like to add that the novel is superb and possibly the best single work of the author as it has the most balance between action, background and world building, while the narrative flow is impeccable here without hitting any walls that stop from turning the pages, but also inviting to further research into the period. 

Structurally the novel starts in 1481, with William Gold now a respected and rich 41 year old knight going back to England from Italy; stopping at a Calais inn, he meets an old acquaintance and occasional rival, namely the diplomat, courtier and intrigue master, Geoffrey Chaucer (yes that one!) and a friend of his, Jean Froissart (that one too), with the French/Belgian (as we would say today, “Hainauter” as he was then) chronicler mightily interested in Gold’s life and exploits. And of course, so it starts, covering briefly William’s upbringing and the how and why he got to France as a 15-16 year old boy and then following his career for the next 6 years or so with much more to come as promised by the author.

If after finishing the novel you read the interview above, you will be struck by how much of what Mr. Cameron told us here, is really reflected in the novel and the way William’s voice presents things, showing once more the authorial capabilities of Christian Cameron in bringing an era to life and consciously reflecting on it from the outside too. 

Fantasy Book Critic

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