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Fantasy Review: ‘The Swordsman’s Oath’ by Juliet E. McKenna

Not long ago I reviewed Juliet McKenna’s debut novel, ‘The Thief’s Gamble,’ a good fourteen years after its publication.  An enjoyable book with a strong lead in Livak, I caused a bit of a discussion about tropes when I suggested that the book hit quite a few of the genre’s big ones.  The author herself pointed out that what was once fresh may now be seen as a trope.  Perhaps lost in the discussion was the fact that I really raced through ‘The Thief’s Gamble,” enjoying the book throughout.  As would be expected, I eagerly dove into the second book of the series.

“The Thief’s Gamble” ended with a narrow escape from some yellow haired island baddies by Livak and her band, including the swordsman Ryshad, who takes over the first person point of view in “The Swordsman’s Oath.”  Like the first book, there is also third person narrative based around other characters, and various historical letters that help flesh out the world’s history.  The story follows Ryshad, working with the wizards of the land, tracking down artifacts that could help explain the Elietimm’s (yellow hair baddies) unknown and devastating magical abilities. Along the way he reunites, and is taken away from, Livak and the complicated relationship they share.

There are several interesting things happening in this story.  Flashbacks can be hit or miss but I feel McKenna handled them very well.  They were introduced gradually and in the early going I didn’t even realized I was looking into the past.  Slowly but surely they were tied into Ryshad’s story until they were so intertwined as to be one story.  Another unique story line involved a new culture; polygamist but misunderstood, with the wives’ being responsible for all trade and business.  And while Livak is no longer the main point of view, she is still an active character in this book, and is still a joy to read about.

So did this book live up to my expectations?  Yes, as much as I enjoyed the first book of the series I feel this one was superior in many ways.  I did miss the voice of Livak and found her more compelling of a main character than Ryshad; but when combined with secondary character of Temar (a voice from the past) he gets more interesting.  The setting for this one was much more unique and dare I say, less trope filled.  The characters have grown past their trope beginnings; making Livak much more than a thief, Shiv shows he is not just a mage, etc.  The overall problem the protagonists and his group face is highly entertaining, racing the Elietimm’s to discover a lost society and its secrets, and fighting them for them when needed.  Obviously war is coming, and while it doesn’t come to head, the first battles are fought.

While I didn’t enjoy Ryshad as much as Livak as a protagonist, he is still and interesting character.  He takes his responsibilities serious, and can’t quite shake that something is influencing his thoughts when he thinks otherwise.  McKenna shows strength in real relationships again; while Livak and Ryshad are becoming more typical love interests, Temar and a women named Guinalle have a much more complicated relationship that doesn’t follow the “one true love” plot line.

Once again I felt the author went on a long, semi confusing, tangent.  Ryshad is taken as a slave to the polygamist culture, and I still can’t quite figure out why or what it added.  Unlike the search for a wizard in the first book I found this diversion interesting; the new culture he had to learn was interesting to be sure, but it didn’t seem to add anything special to Ryshad’s character and the circumstances behind his travels confused a bit.

But outside of that minor complaint, I felt the book was an improvement throughout.  The miscellaneous correspondences to start the chapter added so much to the story, the pace was quick, and the characters continued to be a strong point of the series.  Still love it, still plan on reading the rest.

4 stars.

My thanks to Cheryl from Wizard’s Tower Press for the copy to review.

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

Short Review: ‘From Man to Man’ by D.E.M. Emrys

I received this submission from the author and read it quickly between other books.  As it is a short story being used promote the larger series (self-published), I can not give it a proper review.  I will however give a quick overview of my thoughts.

The story follows Draven, former mercenary trying to make a new life, and is exactly as long as one small adventure.  While working through a mundane job of chopping trees in the village he is offered an escort job, which he takes despite his promise of staying away from violence.

What I liked:

Draven had a nice internal monologue going through the book, and for the most part it was fairly intriguing.  I also enjoyed an early scene in which the imagery is one of war, while the action is as mundane as chopping down a tree.  It provided a nice image of where Draven’s head really is, and what kind of character to expect from him.  It is hard to talk about pacing in something so short, but for what it is worth the book did move at a decent clip.

What I didn’t like:

As much as I dug Draven’s internal monolog, the external dialog of the book was awkward.  The writing needs some cleaning up too. “Draven looked to his wife, to the chest, to his wife, and back again an hundred times or more.” Hard to read, and doesn’t really pass the logic test.  The third person narrator using the word “fellers” caught me off guard a few times as well.  And lastly, the small battle near the end wasn’t convincing to me, especially after a standoff when a character calls attack first and then takes the time to give more vocal instructions.

Will I read more?

No, I won’t be reading any more of the series.  It is not trash by any means, but it requires a strong editor to clean up the awkward writing.

No star rating will be given, the story is just too short.  At time of review the short story was free on Amazon.

Fantasy Review: ‘Exile’ by Betsy Dornbusch

I gladly took this submission when the author suggested it.  The blurb offered me a hope for a unique setting, and I was hoping the book offered something a little different as well.  I also fully admit I was intrigued knowing the author was from my home state, which shouldn’t affect which books I pick but did.

A strong hook pulled me in early.  Protagonist Draken is wrongly accused of the murder of his wife, and we first meet him on a ship “walking the plank” into a new land; a forced exile because his homeland of Monoea believe in letting the god’s decide criminals fate.  Akrasia is a land of magic, and Draken quickly finds himself in trouble.  Saved by a Mance (necromancer) who has plans of his own, Draken finds himself entangled in politics and a possible war.

The book was fairly strong through the first third.  The magic shown has a since of wonder, a touch of the unknown rather than being explained in detail.  After accidentally saving the queen from an assignation attempt, Draken is placed in charge of the investigation despite being a stranger in the land.  And working with the Mance and his female companion as investigators showed the protagonist has the potential to be a smart and able character.  Osais, the Mance, is intriguing as well; is he helping or using Draken?

Sadly, after the first third I struggled through the rest of the book.  It is hard to explain, but it basically comes down to this;  too much in this book happens because the author decided to make it happen, rather than letting the narrative work to make it happen.  For example, you know that trope in which a character in major peril is knocked unconscious, and when he wakes he is safe and has friends explain what happened?  This happened multiple times in ‘Exile.”

Draken can’t even be described as Gary Stu, as he doesn’t really have control of what is happening.  Despite that the entire world starts revolving around him.  He can’t sleep so he gets lucky and stops an assassination.  Despite being a complete stranger to the land, he becomes the queen’s most trusted adviser and is given an army.  Despite not doing much of anything he quickly becomes the best known person in all the land, and beloved by all the people in the land (more so than the queen even!)

The plot becomes a travelogue where the world continues to revolve around Draken.  The bad guys entirely unbelievable plan comes to fruition, but of course fails to take into account Draken finding his secret ability (which is tied to a famous, highly desired magic sword that was just given to him).  A fairly confusing, and entirely uninteresting, final battle puts Draken in a position to have even more power.  Every new passage found Draken gaining power and prestige in this land, without it ever really making sense.

I hate to pile on, but going through my notes I have to add a few things.  Draken acts like a horny teenager for most the book, mentally lusting after every female he meets.  Lucky for him he is apparently irresistible, and the girls throw themselves at him.  The only interesting character in the book was Osais, but for all the mystery behind him he turns out pretty unremarkable.

2 stars.  A shame, because the beginning of the book had some real promise. 

Review copy of this book was provided by the author.

Fantasy Review: ‘Moving Pictures’ by Terry Pratchett

 Part ten of the Complete Discworld Reread

Wow, what a slog.  When I started this reread I was wondering how a couple of those I had ignored would read a second time around, with “Moving Pictures” being my biggest fear.  On this occasion my memory was correct, this may be the weakest Pratchett book until the football one released a few years back.

Now don’t get me wrong, even a bad Pratchett book is worth reading, and this wasn’t a complete waste of time.  As per the usual, some of the humor hits hard (I was particularly fond of trolls worried about being typecast into a only a few roles).  And it also has a better than average over all storyline; a strong setup, decent pacing, and a very good conclusion.  So why did I struggle so much with it?  Lots, and lots of “easy” jokes that just twist around Hollywood titles, often without much creativity.

Follow the yellow sick toad.  What’s up, Duck? Play it again, Sham.  These are the things that dragged the story down throughout, and were all too common.  Not all were misses, when you throw everything at the wall some will stick; I caught references to Merchant in Venice and King Kong that were a bit more subtle (and a King Kong reference that was not so subtle). 

Oh, the book is about the making of movies in Discworld.  The alchemists who discover the process move to a small area called Holy Wood, where people are irresistibly drawn to in droves.  Some kind of greater magic is in place, and in some ways the films start making themselves, going in directions the actors and directors don’t expect.  Wizard’s apprentice turn actor Victor learns that for many years there were guardians to keep reality in check, but the last one’s death left a void, letting Holy Wood’s magic come through to mess with reality.

The real star of this story is Cut my own throat Dibbler, in his largest role to date.  Drawn to any money making scheme he can find, his escalation of everything in Holy Wood was what really kept me going.  Constant attempts to force advertising into pictures made me laugh every time.  The book also finally settled the Unseen University’s revolving door of Archchancellors, with Ridcully settling in quickly.  Gaspode  makes his first appearance, and the talking dog doesn’t disappoint.  There is a reason I am not talking about the main protagonists, Victor and Ginger; they were boring characters and I am not surprised they don’t show in any more books.

I guess I am being hard on this book.  The bad puns were not all that funny to me, but others may enjoy them more.  The story itself is pretty solid, and the more I think about the ending I realize it was very strong.  But if I, admitted Pratchett fanboy, struggle through a book of his I have to go with my gut.

3 stars.  For film buffs and huge Pratchett fans only.  I would hate for someone to read this and decide that Pratchett isn’t for them.  

Fantasy Reivew: ‘Thraxas and the Warrior Monks’ by Martin Scott

“The worst thing about being in jail is the heat.  And the smell.  And you can’t get a beer.  The company’s always bad as well.  There’s plenty wrong with being in jail.” – Thraxas and the Warrior Monks

Another light hearted entry in a series I am enjoying quite a lot.  It is a hot, hot summer in Turai.  Private investigator Thraxas still has a decent amount of cash saved up from his last case, and is therefore content to spend the summer sitting in his favorite bar, eating and drinking beer.  But when a man comes running into his office claiming innocence of killing his mentor, and is just as quickly dragged out by the authorities, Thraxas is back on the case.  Once again aided by Makri, barmaid and former gladiator pit champion, Thraxas is knee deep in the case; murder and stolen things.  Along the way he has run-ins with assassins, politicians, dueling bands of warrior monks, and a girl who talks to dolphins.

For fans of the first Thraxas story, this one is more of the same.  A convoluted story with dueling plot lines that don’t come together until the end is almost a trademark of the author.  Subtle but persistent humor keeps the mood light.  And everything moves forward at almost lightning speed.  It is a bit formulaic, but if you like the formula, it really works well.

A couple of things really made the book work for me.  Thraxas is a very engaging character.  He is still overweight and down on his luck, but is a very competent man in both mind and body.  Even his enemies may mock his position (an unexplained fall from grace is present), but they never underestimate his skills.  The city of Turai has grown through two books into a character of its own.  A fragile truce with orcs hangs over head, the city struggles with a new drug known as dwa, and the religious fundamentalist still hold power but people are starting to push back.  There is some real possibilities for depth in future story lines with the set up Turai is being given, and I really hope future stories make the most of it.  Oh, and Makri was fun as always, an aggressive warrior trying to better herself through education.

The most disappointing piece of this book are the warrior monks themselves.  They really were just mindless caricatures, and were nothing more than adversaries with no depth at all.  The  formulaic story line worked for me because it was enjoyable, but this book didn’t really break new ground from the first book.  As such, I don’t think this is a series I could read one right after another.  And not a complaint here, but people looking for a long novel for their cash should check the page count, this book is very short.

Fans of the first book should like this one.  People looking for something light should be happy.  And fans of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld may find something worth reading here as well.

4 stars

Fantasy Review: ‘The Shadowed Sun’ by N. K. Jemisin

The author has done something pretty cool here.  The second book of the Dreamblood duology is set in the same world as “The Killing Moon.”  It features some of the same characters.  It requires all the set up that amazing first book provided to work.  But it reads like something completely different, going in its own unique direction.  “The Killing Moon” was focused on what makes right and wrong, the price of peace, and saving the city; “The Shadowed Sun” is more focused on roles of people within the society, taking place after the city could already be lost.

While two main characters from the first book, Nijiri and Sunandi, do have prominent roles, most of the story revolves around two new characters, Hanani and Wanahomen.  Hanani is the first women to be admitted to the Sharers, a sort of magical healer.  Though change has been made necessary due to the occupation of Gujaareh, she is still looked upon with suspicion even from those she is meant to help.  Wanahomen is the exiled son of the now dead Prince of Gujaareh, and thus heir to a city under occupation.  The people of the city are not content to stay occupied, and most of the book deals with several plans to bring Wanahomen back to the throne.

So the attempt to retake the city makes up the main story, but much its predecessor this book is impossible to define by one plotline.  A magical sickness is affecting people in the city indiscriminately, and curing it may shake people’s since of right and wrong.  The author seems to be pushing against traditional fantasy a bit in this book; looking a little deeper at the caste society she has built, and showing people with completely different reactions to acts and threats of sexual violence.  And just to keep it interesting, a rather sweet love story is built through the second half of the book.

I liked most of the new characters.  Wanahomen was built to be a Gujaareh prince, and as such struggled between doing right by his conscience and doing right by his people.  We first meet him as a leader of desert nomads who must consistently prove he is not an outsider to them, despite eventual plans to leave them.  A strong secondary character was a woman who in a typical fantasy book would have been cast as the jealous ex who makes the new girl miserable; in this book she was the woman who eventually earned the trust and confidence of Hanani. 
“The Killing Moon” had some darkness to it, but most the violence took place in dreaming.  Scary, but rarely was it hard to read.  For the squeamish this book may be a bit harder to get through.  As the peace has been shattered by the occupation there is much more bloodshed.  A fathers unnatural love, a violently stopped assault, and particularly painful to read about dismemberment should drive home that this isn’t a children’s story.

I can’t say that I liked the book as much as its companion.  While still very good, more things bothered me this time around.  The truly unique world was still present, but until the second half the story could have taken place in almost any world; it was a more generic occupation story.  Also, outside of Sunandi the occupying forces seemed comically inept; at no point did it seem they had a handle on the town they controlled.  In this case the “secondary” story lines were much more interesting to me than the main one.

Still, it was a great conclusion to the two book series, and I am so glad to have found the Dreamblood set.  I hope lots of people read Jemisin, because I can’t wait to see what other stories she has to tell.

4 Stars

The Dreamblood
The Killing Moon
The Shadowed Sun

Dystopia Review: ‘Wool Omnibus’ by Hugh Howey

The first ‘Wool’ novella was quick, smart dystopia that ended with a punch to the gut.  It focused on Holston, sheriff of The Silo.  The silo is a huge underground facility holding the survivors of an unknown apocalypse.  Holston is a man haunted by the memory of his wife, who three years ago was sent out for “cleaning.”  Cleaning is a punishment for those who express interest in the world outside the silo; it consists of suiting up, going into the toxic atmosphere, and cleaning the lenses that show the barren outside landscape.  For reasons unknown, no one has ever failed to do the actually cleaning.  I read the short novella in a single sitting, said “WOW!,” and immediately acquired the omnibus containing all five books.

The next four stories never quite lived up to the first one, but the omnibus was entertaining throughout.  After a fairly… well boring… second installment, the quality in novellas three through five kept me hooked.  Often the strength of a dystopia lies in the unknown; rarely do I find authors know how to keep the suspense once the world becomes familiar to readers.  This series suffers from that some, but the author does a very good job at adding new mysteries in each installment without turning to gimmicks.

One thing I appreciated was a fairly diverse cast of characters from story to story.  Holston was the tired lawman, the second story dealt with a strong elderly woman, while the last three spread the love among several different characters.  All of the characters felt human; each with their own fears and desires.  Nobody was a superhero and nobody was pure evil.

I don’t know if I bought into the entire psychology of the ‘cleanings’ as details emerged.  In fact the entire way the silos are ran behind the scenes works better if you don’t really think it through.  The inevitable showdown that could be expected in a story like this really distracted from the nice character based story that was building and focused too much on action.  And I still have not figured out the timing or necessity of a certain plot changing sneak attack in the fifth book.

Minor qualms, the omnibus was enjoyable and a real page turner.  If there was a deeper message like many dystopias profess to have it went right over my head, I treated it as nothing more than a highly entertaining story.  Even if the omnibus doesn’t appeal, everyone should go download the first Wool novella.  But I have the feeling if you do I won’t be the only one who immediately grabs the next four.

3 1/2 stars

Urban Fantasy Review: ‘Death Ain’t But A Word’ by Zander Marks

To me this is the perfect example of Urban Fantasy done right.  A tight and focused book, it picked a small element of supernatural to work with and then built an amazing story around it.  Strong imagery that excels in its simplicity, smart and realistic dialog, and a never bloated, always compelling plot.  

Wilkin is homeless and a crackhead, but he isn’t crazy.  He started seeing ghosts long before he ever ‘flew to Peru.’  We first meet him helping a friend rob a house, knowing the owner is in the hospital.  Immediately we know he may not be perfect, but he tries to still do right; he peels off enough cash from a hidden stash to convince his friend of a successful robbery while leaving the majority in the house.  Staying at a trashed out hotel that night he sees the ghost of his childhood friend, and his hard life starts to spin a whole new direction.

Turns out his friend was murdered years before, but for reasons unknown the murderer is suddenly buying the hotel in order to erase the last of the evidence.  Wilkin digs up his friend’s skull and starts running.  The journey will include, a crazy trucker, a famous lawman from the Wild West, and a little old lady with wit sharper than a knife.

There is so much to love about this book.  While there is nothing novel about a talented person who sees ghosts, almost everything else about the setting is practically one of a kind.  Homeless drug abusers in Dallas are not the typical UF cast.  A unique setting along does not a good book make, but lucky for a reader, there is more to love.  Wilkin is an incredibly engaging character, and his love for his childhood friend is surprisingly moving.  His rap sheet does nothing to hide his large heart, and the already well-conceived conclusion to the book is so much better because of the strength of his character.
Some other characters are just as strong.  Dead childhood friend Humphrey is something different; a nice counter point to the ‘forever innocent’ thought of children, without ever going into silly horror movie territory.  The psychopath chasing Wilkin may be a little overwhelmingly evil, but his obsession kept me hooked page after page.  Most other characters are vessels to move Wilkin on, but each fits their role well, and most have something distinct about them to make them seem more like people that plot devices.

The plot itself moves at a fast pace and is basically a couple of interwoven revenge tales.  As the title points out, death is only one small part of life.  Wilkin meets others who can see ghosts as well; he learns but refuses take part in what they do to keep the peace between the living and dead.  While raw and gritty with a decent amount of violence, the author never is gratuitous with it.  Early on even the narrator swears pretty regularly, though that aspect seemed to lessen as the book continued. 

Oh, the conclusion!  Even some great books run out of steam, but not this one.  As mentioned above it fit perfectly with Wilke’s growth throughout the book.
Because I am a nitpicker I will point out the few small issues I had.  Every character from Dallas seemed to have an important place in the story, but when Wilke reached Kansas the same could not be said.  One cop was added, then disappeared without making any impact to the story.  And while most the major questions were answered, the exact duties and territories of ‘yardwalkers’ are vague and unanswered by the end.

5 Stars

This book was gifted to me by the author through Goodreads.  In no way did this influence my review; the book was really this good.

Sci-fi Review: ‘Blackcollar’ by Timothy Zahn

Manly men, doing manly things, sometimes in outer space!  Super geniuses, always one step ahead of the game, weaving masterful plans of manliness.  Space battles, ground battles, hand to hand battles, throwing stars and nunchuku.  The evil aliens have kept the humans underfoot for too long; it is time to strike back!  Bring on the Blackcollars, buckle in, and take a wild ride!

Obviously, you have to take this book for what it is, a fairly cheesy space adventure on the lighter side of the sci-fi genre.  The author is probably better known for his Star Wars novels than he is for his original works, but fans of the tie-ins know that he is one of the better writers to do them, for whatever that is worth.  But if you find yourself hankering for a fast paced sci-fi adventure, you may find this one to be a bit smarter than you were expecting, and fairly enjoyable.