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Fantasy Review: ‘Gardens of the Moon’ by Steven Erikson

What is wrong with me?  I have a to-read pile a mile high, am engaged in a project of reading a series with 40 books, and I read the first book in one of the thickest epic fantasy series around.  And I liked it?  So that big to-read pile now has some major door stoppers on it as well.

For those unaware, the ‘Malazan Book of the Fallen’ is known as one of the most EPIC of the epic fantasies out there. Larger than life heroes, earth shaking magic, big-bad villains, and god’s right in the middle of everything is the name of the game.  The opening book, ‘Gardens of the Moon,’ is also known as a troublesome book for first timers to get into.  And to be fair, I failed to get through it once myself several years ago, though I had put it aside for something I was more excited about at the time.

With that in mind I prepared myself to either be blown away or completely disappointed.  When all said and done, I found myself enjoying every page of this book.  It has some flaws, it isn’t subtle, but if one buys into what it’s doing, it lives up to its reputation of epicness (shut up it IS too a word).


Dropping you right into the middle of the story, there is not easing in period.  I couldn’t even begin to give the story a recap, even from the start.  The Malazan Empire is expanding, the Gods are making a play, and something sinister is rising.  This is a book of war and magic, and both are shown in large abundance.

One thing that surprised me; despite a high body count the book wasn’t a typical GRIMDARK affair.  No flying body parts, spurting blood, or sexual attacks.  Don’t get me wrong, the world is dark, things are going wrong all over, and people do die.  But by toning down some of the brutality I spent a lot of time wowed by what was happening, rather than cringing.  Well done indeed.

Characters are hit and miss.  Some are genuinely human at times.  Some are nothing more than avenues to show off major power.  The interference of some of the gods spice things up, giving some characters multiple angles.  The Bridgeburners were out of favor soldiers, and were fun to follow.  It was sad to watch Lorn lose what humanity she had left as she followed her Empress’ orders.  Kruppe’s aura of being simple left the reader knowing he was hiding something, but not how much.

Not everything worked for me.  Despite not being as inaccessible as I feared, even as a careful reader a few things went over my head.  I never figured out why the Bridgeburners worked to save a certain sorcerer, who went on a nice evil rampage through a good portion of the book.  I never figured out just what Crokus was looking for from the noble girl.  And the build up for the release of a major power ended up being slightly disappointing in how quickly it was resolved (though I am sure future books will make me rethink what has been resolved and what hasn’t).
   
I often mock bad fantasy as being something from a video game, but this book shows how that style could be done right.  It won’t be for everyone (there is no subtle ANYTHING), but if you are looking for fights between gods, armies, and insanely powerful magics, it may be time to finally try this series.  
 
4 Stars

Fantasy Review: ‘Guards! Guards!’ by Terry Pratchett

Part Eight of the Complete Discworld Reread
 
A drunken guard captain as the protagonist. A secret society that barely functions. An overweight, middle aged love interest. The long lost heir to the throne… who just isn’t interested. Dragons! What about this book don’t I like?

Thus starts the adventures of Samuel Vimes in Ankh-Morpork, which will continue on for many more books. And what a long ways our courageous watchman has come. Something of a disgrace, leading the night watch in a town where criminal guilds are the real law, Vimes spends most of his time in a bottle. But there is still a bit of civic pride in the man, and no one can tell him that the dragon he saw is really a large bird. So it is up to him and his motley crew to save the city, beat the dragon, and save/get saved by the maiden fair!


While my favorite plot lines these days involve the Witches of Lancre, when I first started reading Discworld it was the Night Watch books that stood as my favorite. Vimes is an amazing character, especially in the early going when he has just enough pride to get himself into trouble. He just feels real, something fairly unique in fantasy at times. He is not the smartest or bravest, often times has to be prodded in the right direction by his crew, has a very real problem with alcohol, and knows his limitations while pushing them with all he is worth. Even this early in the series you can feel the city slowly bending around to his ways. He is such an overpowering presence in this book that it speaks to the quality of writing that any other characters are memorable at all. But Corporal Carrot could carry a book all by himself (and I seriously hope that someday he gets that chance). Nobby and Colon are comic relief, but they carry the role very well. And Lady Ramkin will shine more later in the series, but even in this book is resourceful and strong.

The story itself is well worth reading, giving the lowliest guards a chance to not die in the first few pages, but rather to do the things usually reserved for farm boys with hidden strengths (i.e. save the day). Meddle not in the affairs with dragons would be the basic moral of the story, with a few special twists.

Humor wise this is where I like Pratchett best. Less obvious pop culture references, more subtle mocking fantasy and real life. Calculating out million to one chances were a highlight, as was the importance of knowing what all the words in a secret oath mean. I will always enjoy Carrot’s letters home, and Vimes’ interactions with owner of a greasy spoon will carry over to other books as well.

Some areas didn’t hold up as well on reread, notably that timeline editing seems to start getting lazy starting around this point. It is something that I have noticed in several of the Watch books particularly; Vimes gets the important information a few pages before completely dismissing a theory that the info relates to, only to remember the important piece of information at a later time in the story. I don’t know how it happens, but it feels like the time lines were moved around and certain lines were forgotten. Also, Carrot seems a bit too one-dimensional knowing what is to come with him, with none of the ‘simple doesn’t mean stupid’ that we see in later books. This may be something that only matters on reread though, and wouldn’t affect the enjoyment of a first reading.

4 1/2 stars

Fantasy Review: ‘Between Two Thorns’ by Emma Newman

Ok, so there is the real world, known as Mundanus to those who know of the other worlds.  There is Exilium, home of the Fae, and a very dangerous place for mortals.  But in between, there is the Nether, with is neither here nor there.  In this land live the Great Families, mortal, but fae touched and magical.  While in the Nether they do not age, and life seems to be a nothing but a string of social climbing and political posturing between the great families. 

Our heroine Catherine, Cathy for short, has managed to hid from her family and patron in Mundanus, living a typical college student life.  But as the story begins the Fae known as Lord Poppy finds her, strips off the protection that hid her, and gives her three wishes ( and anyone used to ‘fairy tales’ knows this is more curse than gift).  Forced home Cathy is quickly woven into the petty (but perhaps deadly) politics that make up life in the Nether.  Something sinister is happening in the Nether though, as the Master of Ceremonies is missing.  A gate keeper of sorts, his disappearance is noticed in Mundanus as well.  Enter Max, an Arbiter (which appears to be some kind of border patrol between the magical and non).  Originally searching for corruption within his ranks, he gets dragged into the disappearance by a sorcerer.  Lastly there is one witness to whatever happened, a mundane named Sam.  Unfortunately, Sam was drunk when he saw.. something.. and may have a magical charm blocking the memory as well.


Confused?  Don’t worry, the author does a decent job of easing a reader into the new world as the characters travel between the different realms. Most of the story follows Cathy, who is entertaining to read about.  Considered ‘plain’ by Nether standards, she fell in love with the Mundane world, even going so far as having a boyfriend.  Going back to being a ‘puppet’ of the Fae in the Nether grinds on her horribly.  While she never stops fighting for her own personal freedom, for most the story she has little control over her own life; where she lives, where she goes, even a promised marriage are all out of her control.  Max is an interesting character as well.  As an Arbiter his soul is literal taken from his body.  What this does is make him almost emotionless, unless he is near the chain that holds his soul.  It was a strange but interesting plot device, and at times it worked well, though it was a bit clunky in the execution.

I enjoyed the unique take on fairy realms, by adding the Nether there was one more level between the Fae and humanity.  Some neat ideas were present, such the Great Families needed to own the property on both sides for it to be binding.  And when it came to the story itself, I found myself staying up late to finish after a fairly slow start.
  
So there are a lot of interesting ideas, and the plot was enjoyable enough for me to stay up late to finish.  That was good.  But I have to admit, there was too much about this world that I just didn’t believe in, which is a problem for a fantasy book.  I can’t figure out what the Arbiter’s really are policing, nor where they get their authority.  There are vague references to a treaty, but no explanation as to why the Fae should fear them at all.  The Great Families have a thriving economy, but no indication of what it is based on.  No one in the Nether seems to work (outside of servants), but they are not true Fae, so they are not just living on magic.  There are hints that the Great Families trade in things other than money (wishes, dreams, etc), but they also had a heavy hand in the economy of Mundanus, with no real indication of how. It got frustrating.  Other little things; why would a family distrustful of technology use a car because they are afraid of trains?  How could a sorcery be in contract with agents in Mundanus like Max but be so unaware of what technology is useful for, even if he refuses to use it?  Why did they seem to move with humanity right up to Victorian times, they decide to stop? 

And while this was certainly the first in a series, and therefore allowed to have some loose threads, this book left some loose threads completely ignored.  Why was Sam protected by Lord Iron, when no one seems to know who that is?  Why was Max concerned about Titanium used to mend his broken bones?  I have lots of questions, and I am not sure many of them are set to be answered.

It was a good book, and a real page turner.  I will probably be reading the next in the series, because I enjoyed most of it, and love fairy tales of all kinds.  But I sure wish I believed in the world the author built a bit more.

3 Stars

Advanced reading copy provided by publisher.

Steampunk Review: ‘Agatha H and the Airship City’ by Phil and Kaja Foglio

How seriously do you take a book that in no way, shape, or form takes it’s self seriously?  ‘Agatha H and the Airship City’ is a novelization taken almost directly from a web comic, and it shows.  How much enjoyment a reader takes from the book would depend on how capable they are of turning their brain off.  Lucky for me, I can turn my brain off at will, so I enjoyed the hell out of this little steampunk yarn.

This is steampunk with all the trimmings.  Alternative Europe, mechanical everything, airships, even characters in goggles.  It is also very Saturday morning cartoon, with mad scientist a plenty, daring heroes, and non-stop action.  You see history has been turned sidewise by ‘Sparks,’ super-geniuses that snap into their ‘powers’ with little warning.  Often they use their new found super intelligence to build lots of machines and take over the surrounding area, mad scientist style.  Constant battles between sparks are slowed down when one particular talented man named Baron Klaus Wulfenbach consolidates his power and finds way to control other sparks, using their talents to consolidate it further.  The plot moves at such a fast pace that any other background would really be a spoiler, so let’s move on.


First for the good.  By running at a comic book like pace the story moves along very quickly.  The action is exciting, and if you like classic steampunk the world building will work great for you.  While none of the characters are particularly complex, they are fun to follow.  The Baron seems way to nice to be a tyrant, but shows his darker side from time to time.  His son Gilgamesh rebels in the tiniest ways, and has some of the stories best lines (I love his constant attempts to explain that a now dead professor WAS trying to throw a bomb at him).  And of course the story wouldn’t work at all if Agatha wasn’t fairly engaging.  Her genius is kept under wraps early on, and while it drives the plot, she is much more fun when it comes out near the end.  For most the story she is guided by the plot rather than in control, but toward the end that changes quite nicely.

Fans of this sub-genre will also love the various constructs and techs that are shown.  Once I got past the idiotic accent the Jagermonsters are always worth a chuckle.  I wanted to know more about the slaver wasp hives.  And I am a sucker for airships, for reasons I can’t explain.

Of course everything I just considered a plus could be seen as a negative in a different light.  There is very little back story, once you know that you’re in alt-Europe and history has been taken over by mad scientist you know it all.  If your consider steampunk trite by this point then you will see nothing new to this story.  And if you’re looking for more than action scene followed by action scene, keep looking.  Lastly, if you can’t stand the cheese factor (such as said Jagermosters talking in horrible German accents, cities called Mechanicsburg, people named Doctor Doomsfrenzy, and a lab called Large Dangerous Mechanical Lab), then run far, far away.

I want to give this book 4 stars, because I enjoyed it a lot.  But I got to be honest with myself, it was a pretty simple story, and having now checked out the “Girl Genius’ web comic, I think it would have been a lot better if I had read the same story with the fun artwork.  In fact, I plan too.

3 stars

Fantasy Review: ‘The Thief’s Gamble’ by Juliet E. McKenna

Sometimes a generic fantasy yarn is just what you need.  I love books that try something new, push the limits of the genre, and make me think.  But sometimes a quick little romp is ok too, right?  Sure it is, and when in that mood there is nothing wrong with ‘The Thief’s Gamble.’  It hits all the nice fantasy tropes, and doesn’t see any reason to bend them, break them, or subvert them.  You got your talented thief with a good heart, benevolent wizards, a mysterious stranger in the bar, ancient lost magic along with the commonly used elemental magic, and a whole island of baddies to overcome.

So the story starts.  The Archmage is searching for artifacts from the good old days to better understand lost magics.  To do so he has send several groups out to collect these.  Our heroine, Livak, is coerced into working with one of these groups as they need her thieving skills to get a piece that has been hard to get.  No hard feelings though, despite being coerced she is going to be paid well by mage Shiv and his band.  After some early shenanigans the plot gets going when it is discovered another group is after the same artifacts.  This race of yellow haired jerks is using unknown magic and horrible brutality to get their way.
I liked quite a bit about this book.  Livak is a genuinely interesting character, fairly resourceful within her means, very smart, sometimes witty.  Her chapters are written in the first person, whereas chapters dealing with other characters are not.  She is actually a pretty adult character as well, ok with her sexuality though it is never her defining feature.  She has a couple ‘adult’ relationships with various degrees of attachments, like real people do!  Ryshad, the mysterious stranger, is quickly shown to be loyal to his employer and new friends.  While the various mages tend to run together in my mind, the Archmage and Shiv did stand out.  Shiv is a rare openly gay character in the fantasy genre, though it is only known through a few passing references.

The plotting was a strong point as well; fairly fast paced fairly focused.  There were only three or four threads to follow throughout the book, but they were all tied together by the end.  One small diversion to visit an old mage dragged on too long, but outside of that everything moved at a brisk pace.  While this was the first book of the series it could be read as a standalone; it ends with good conclusions for surviving characters.  Oh, ya there is an actual sense of danger, not everyone will survive the journey.  While never the focus, the violence factor really ramped up in the last twenty percent of the book. 

Only a few complaints here.  I was fine with the generic feel of it, but be aware that no new ground was broken here.  The history of the land was a bit jumbled, or at least it confused me.  Some things I thought were part of ancient history instead turned out to be only a few generations old.  Lastly the magic was a bit inconsistent, sometimes incredibly powerful, others fairly limited.

3 and a half stars.

PS.  Not related to the actual book, but whoever wrote the excerpt on the back of the paperback copy (which also appears on Goodreads) didn’t even attempt to read the book.  He/she actually mixed up some of Livak’s plot line with a separate minor character.  And the ‘teaser quote;’ ‘Never bet against a wizard, you might win,’ has zero to do with the story either.  Just bad packaging.   

Books in the Series
The Thief’s Gamble
The Swordsman’s Oath

Fantasy Review: ‘Cold Magic’ by Kate Elliott

I really like Kate Elliot.  I raved about her ‘Crossroads’ trilogy.  She is a great world builder (her blog is titled ‘I Make up Worlds’), has always shown interesting characters, and usually her writing quickly draws me in and keeps hold of me.  I have had this series on my to-read list for way to long, but finally I got to it.  To my complete surprise, and eventual disappointment, the book left me a little cold.

In typical Elliot fashion the world building shows a lot of promise.  An alternate history that is a little hard to explain.  Rome kept some power, the Phoenicians built a fairly strong sea-trading empire, Mali was a power before disaster forced a mass exodus into Europe.  There is a mix of steampunk technology along with mage houses acting as focal points of power.  I could probably read an entire faux history book on this alternative world.  A lot of questions are left on the table, even the map doesn’t show where a lot of the lands I wonder about are.  More than anything else, it was this world building that left me hoping for more, and was strong enough for me to know I will continue the series no matter what.
It was a good thing I was so intrigued by the world building, because the story itself did nothing for me.  I have read a lot of ‘first books’ in trilogies, but rarely have I seen one in which so little is resolved.  A great many plot points are brought up, but very few go anywhere.  A Roman infiltrator in the girl’s school, what power does Rome still have?  Why was he at the school?  No hints given.  A book Cat learns is a code book, what is it for?  Who knows?  Certainly not the reader.  Why is everyone so interested in dreams with dragons?  More questions than answers in almost every thread of the plot.  When Cat breaks through to the spirit world I don’t know why, nor what is important about it.  At least twice her mystical, previously unknown brother disappears, both times she broods on what might have been.  I just found myself caring very little.  The magic system gives nothing, I still don’t really know much about the cold mages themselves, and even less about the meager magic Cat wields

I also wasn’t too fond of Cat as a main character.  The brooding over her brother when his disappears is only the beginning.  She has a strange fascination with Andevai, even when he is basically kidnaps her from home.  She is semi resourceful, but most of her good breaks are luck rather than her own doing.  Ironically villain Andevai worked much better as a character for me, torn between who he is and who he wants to be, loyalty to his house verse loyalty to his family.  His set up is great, initially a cold villain, growing into a more human character.  Cat’s cousin Bee was also very entertaining, knowledgeable in reading people and playing off their expectations of her.  There were other characters, but I have already forgotten most of them as well.

This is a fairly disjointed review, but I have rarely been so conflicted about a book.  I finished it last night and while the world building stands out in my mind still, I feel I would need cliff notes to remember the plot.  I tried twice to write a quick synopsis at the beginning and gave up.

3 stars, because it was just good enough to make me hope the sum of all parts will make the series better than the first book.