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Fantasy Review: ‘Men at Arms’ by Terry Pratchett

 Part 15 of The Complete Discworld Reread

“An appointment is an engagement to see someone, while a Morningstar is a large lump of metal used for viciously crushing skulls.  It is important not to confuse the two.”  — Carrot Ironfoundersson

The following is less of a review and more of a string of musings.
Easily the most quotable Discworld book so far.  Almost every page had something to make me laugh; humorous dialog, subtle references, wacky hijinks are all here.  I could easily have skipped a review and just posted my favorite scenes and quotes.  Peeking ahead at what I have written it may have been a better idea. 

These early night watch books were a real treat, for a long time I would have considered the Vimes based books my favorite of the series because of the humor.  Conversations between Nobby and Colon are almost always a delight.  There is always a little bit of slapstick humor involved with investigations, this time around I really enjoyed the different styles of reports Vimes reads from his watchmen (particularly when Colon gets a hold of a thesaurus to write his).

But they also hold up so well because before the watch got a bloated cast that cut everyone’s screen time (page time?) Pratchett was really building the personalities of each character in interesting ways.   Vimes is incredibly important to the Patricians plans, but never realizes how he is being played by the man. Detritus gains a friend, and shows some intelligence when the conditions are right.  Angua is introduced, and any fan of the series knows that is nothing but a good thing.  Later on in the series the cast will grow so large that some watch members are nothing but an easy joke, but here and now each is an important piece to the story.

The true hero of the story is not really Vimes though, it is young Carrot.  Carrot is much less naïve this time around and the way the city bends around him naturally is starting to show.  The theme of him being simple, but not stupid shows up to great effect.  My favorite is the way Carrot DOESN’T threaten people, but his words make people feel there is a chance he is.  A lot of books play with reluctant heroes, and usually they either turn whiney in a hurry or lose their reluctance and just become heroes.  Carrot has no reluctance to being a hero or being admired, but he does have a problem with people following him solely because he is easy to follow.  It is refreshing to see, he is fully aware of his power and uses it the right way.

The story itself is serviceable, but not spectacular.  A single firearm is in the hands of a killer in a city that has no idea what it is facing.  The watch pieces together the puzzle to figure out how the deaths are related and who to stop.  A nice little side story involves our old friend Gaspode the talking dog and a guild full of nasty dogs led by an unexpected canine.

“Men at Arms” also has one of the worst examples I can recall of bad editing in a good book, follow along with me! (MINOR SPOILER).  We learned about swamp dragons in Guards! Guards!  They are small dragons prone to exploding when excited.  Now to the editing hiccup that has driven me nuts for years.  1.  Something blew up, what could it be? 2. Vimes says, I smell dragons and there is glass (like from a mirror?) all around. 3. New recruit speaks up; she thinks someone blew up a dragon on purpose.  4. (And this is seconds after Vimes SAYS he smells dragons remember). Vimes gives a patronizing “I suppose” and basically ignores the suggestion.  A couple of pages later he finds more evidence and acts shocked shocked SHOCKED that the new recruit was right, they did blow a dragon.  A line of thought that he himself started a few pages back!

Oh, I can’t leave it on a negative.  More awesome stuff!  Rephrenology (look it up Joe!) should totally be a thing.  Lots of foreshadowing in the early going (you’d have to be a fool).  Reflecting the cities’ Ethnic Make-up is important (a dwarf, a troll, and a w—).  A very touching clown funeral. And of course, Gaspode gets a new home.

4 stars.  No five, no four. Ya, four.

4 stars

Fantasy Review: ‘Seven Forges’ by James A. Moore

Hmm.  Promising for sure.  Some potential and may prove to be an entertaining series.  One large Empire that holds power over most of the known world meets unknown peoples from a land suspected to be inhabitable due to an unknown cataclysm in years past.  Even more surprising is the new people claim their gods told them where to meet the party that was trying to explore their homeland.  From there the book acts as a set up book for the series to come; the two groups visit each other’s homes and feel each other out with the reader knowing something is going on in the background, but not what.

The book was a bit too heavy on convenience for me, perhaps the result of its short length, but a whole lot happened without real explanation.  Some guards go way too far and seriously hurt a secondary character.  Why? Not sure, but his injury was needed for a future plot line so it happened.  And the unexplored waste land was a bit too close to the empire for it to be so damn unknown.  And really?  The mage’s three beautiful assistants are a redhead, blonde, and a brunette?  

Some good interactions between the two cultures though.  The barbarian type working hard to stick to their warlike principles, but still trying to stay diplomatic.  The all-powerful empire realizing they are facing a possible threat and actually taking it serious rather than bumbling around in arrogance.  It may not be groundbreaking but it was better played than some.  I also enjoyed the use of seven mountains as gods that may be more real than some characters know.

Definitely a first book in the series, nothing is really resolved and everything actually escalates in the end.  Entertaining enough in its way, but it wasn’t really all the memorable.  In fact, writing the review two days after finishing it apathy has already kicked in.  But it was certainly good enough that I will pick up the second in the series when it comes.

3 stars.

Review copy provided by publisher.

Fantasy Review: ‘The Republic of Thieves’ by Scott Lynch

Spoilers from the first two books guaranteed.

Prologue

The young man has found a rekindled interest in the fantasy genre.  Joe Abercrombie pulled him back in with The First Law.  George RR Martin tried to break him.  Eagerly the man searches forums for something new, something great, a series to follow for years to come.  Making his choice he grabs one of the shelf, thinking “damn that is a long, awkward title.”

1

The man, slightly older, fires up his Kindle.  It is finally here!  Eagerly he starts reading, looking for answers to old questions.  Was Locke really poisoned, if so how will he pull through?  Is there any possible way Sabetha will live up to the hype?  Can Lynch’s unique writing style stay fresh, particularly the flashbacks?  Will the man be just as excited for the fourth book of the series as he was for the third?
The early going proves promising.  Quickly the man is ensnared in a flashback, complete with an early Sabetha sighting.  The author still has the touch; the flashbacks are not intrusive despite the impatience to get to the main story.  The flashbacks are a bit different this time around, no longer dealing with major time jumps.  Instead, after the prologue dealing with early life, they focus on the full complement of the Gentleman Bastards dealing with one assignment (reviving a theatre in some disrepair).  Very much focused on the relationship between Locke and Sabetha, there were plenty of shenanigans to keep readers entertained

The flashbacks may be a bit dry for some readers, despite plenty of the usually scheming large sections were still spent dealing with the workings of the theatre and the play being performed.   No doubt the play, entitled ‘Republic of Thieves,’ will be devoured by some readers looking for clues hidden within for future story lines.  Though the man isn’t one of those, he did enjoy the wit and glimpses of larger story that he saw from the imaginary work.

Interlude

Oh my god was that book awesome.  Instantly the young man grabs the sequel.  Peaking at the cover synopsis he wrinkles his brow.  A Pirate story?  How the hell is that going to work?

2

The man, finished all too soon, sits back to gather his thoughts.  A rare book that he would have been happy to have another hundred pages of.  The flashback storyline was wonderful, felt complete, and was a fun addition to the backstory.  But what of the “present day” storyline?  Was it everything the man was hoping for?  In some ways it was, though he can’t help but thinking it needed…something more in order to feel complete.

The main storyline was certainly entertaining.  Politics as spectator sport!  With Gentleman Bastards playing the game there is no way it couldn’t be fun.  But the political game perhaps is best not looked at too deeply; it wasn’t the most convincing set up.  And while a deeper look at the vote chasing Locke and Jean must go through may have led to a more bloated book, it might have been a good thing.  A lot of double crossing and fun shenanigans for sure, but not much showed how votes were turned or lost in this all important election.  For those used to getting the full details of the Bastards complicated plans handed down piece by piece it was a tad disappointing, though by no means a complete let down.  Perhaps just a case of unusually high expectations.

Learning a bit more about the bondmages is welcome as well.  Their participation in the game of politics is perhaps not something to look at too closely, but in most other ways they were fleshed out strong.  Why they serve for money, why they don’t run everything with their magics; perhaps not all is explained but details are becoming clearer.  It all makes the land Locke lives in a bit more alive; not a place one would want to live in but enthralling to read about.

Interlude


The dinner was good and the evening enjoyable.  The man’s little boy is tired, thus the bedtime rituals begin.  Teeth are brushed, jammies put on, and hugs are given.  One for Mom, one for Dad, and one for the visiting Aunt; the man’s younger sister.  Little boy in bed the Aunt realizes she has a long drive ahead and starts to say goodnight.  Can she look through the man’s library and borrow a few?  What would he recommend?  Sounds interesting, I’ll try it.  Damn is that a long, awkward title.

3

The man’s thoughts turn to Sabetha.  Rarely is there such build up for the unknown, such an important character in the protagonists life yet not seen for two full books.  It was asking for a letdown, there was no way she could live up to the hype and expectations readers were building.

But she did.

She matched Locke hit for hit, mental blow by mental blow, scheme for scheme.  She knew when he was going left, knew that he knew that she knew, and caught him the act of faking right and going left anyway.  It is perfectly clear why Locke has pined for this woman for five years, their battles of schemes and wits rarely tip to far in one or the others favor, and Sabetha seems to be the only one who gets the better of Locke time and again.

As a competitor Sabetha was everything hoped for.  As the love of Locke’s life, maybe a little less.  She is hard to pin down.  One true love, foretold by destiny?  Lynch plays with the trope a bit, specifically showing Sabetha’s reluctance to let it decide for her.  Almost opposite of a pixie dream girl, she isn’t there to give Locke everything he wants, but often will give him just what he needs.  It is easy to foresee a portion of the fandom turning on her; calls of whiney and bitch will be common for her sometimes treatment of Locke.  Admittedly at times her extreme mood changes into anger seemed directed at the wrong source.  But be clear, it is just one more way she is the perfect counterpart to Locke, no stranger to sudden mood shifts, brooding, and anger himself.

Yes, Sabetha will be a nice addition to future books, as long as the formulaic nature of their interactions is changed up a bit next time around.  Locke already had a perfect friend in Jean, now he has a perfect foil in Sabetha.  She was fun, witty, and razor sharp.

4

Fans of Lynch shouldn’t be disappointed.  Closer in style to Lies of Locke Lamora than its sequel, the book moved at the same brisk speed, wove the story between two timelines beautifully, and provided plenty of excitement.  Ending on less of a cliff hanger was a plus, though of course there are plenty of open questions to provide fodder for the rest of the series.  The flashbacks are interesting, and provide a chance to bring back old friends to the story.  The main storyline was fun and exciting, though a bit shallower.  Sabetha was worth the wait and Locke and Jean are still an awesome pair.

4 stars.  Some areas may not pass the logic test, but it is too entertaining to rate lower and was well worth the wait.

Epilog

“Ya, hello.”
“Hey Sis, what you doing? Nothing, just driving home”
“Oh, you finished it?  What did you think?”
“What the hell do you mean you didn’t like it?  It’s one of my favorites!”

Review copy acquired from NetGalley.

Fantasy Review: ‘The City’ by Stella Gemmell

The city is a mystery even to those who dwell in it.  It is ancient and sprawling almost beyond belief.  It has been built for years over layers of itself.  It has swallowed neighbors in all directions and has been at war throughout most of the immortal emperor’s reign.  It’s enemies are getting desperate, as are the residents, and there are some who feel an end to the endless war can be achieved with the death of the man on top of it all.

A tight cast and a tightly woven story, I found myself hooked from the beginning. The author sure knows how to tease the reader with just one important detail, starting with a small cast and getting a little more complex with each chapter.  Much like reading an espionage thriller in some regards, each chapter had me rearranging my thoughts and trying to figure out just who knows what and what they were doing.  By the end every important character was moving different directions but none were forgotten, each had their role for better or worse, and competing conspiracies threatened to out one another.  Some may not like the ending, wondering what they just read, but it would be hard to argue that it wasn’t just as tight and complete as the rest of the book.

If I had to make a comparison I would say those who have read KJ Parker should feel very comfortable with this book.  Fairly dark but never graphic.  Entertaining characters but not people that the readers will ever really connect to (though several are a bit more likable than Parker’s).  A plot that reads very easy but feels fairly complex.   And a willingness to kill of characters without hesitation.

What else did I like?  The diversity of the cast for one; generals and scavengers, newly drafted women soldiers and veterans, godlike humans, spy masters, and artisans.  While I didn’t connect to all the characters I enjoyed how much agency each of them had, they had lives of their own rather than drifting until the author needed them.  I enjoyed the life of the city, glimpse of what has held it together and what is slowly tearing it apart.  Loved the unexplained nature of the ruling class; are they truly divine or just smoke and mirrors?  Different characters have different views, always nice.  And as mentioned, an incredibly tight plot that moves at a brisk pace; always giving a few new questions as a few old ones are answered.  Those who hate flashbacks stay away, but for me they worked much the same way Lynch uses them in ‘The Lies of Locke Lamora;’ I found they were just as interesting as the present day and never dragged the book down for me.  (Wow, two author comparisons in one review, I almost never put in even one).

Five star book?  Probably not for me, but certainly it gave a good run.  Much like the aforementioned Parker I marvel at the craftsmanship and will probably reread and enjoy this book in the future, but with very little connection to the characters I enjoyed it in a slightly detached way.  The city also never really felt as big as it was described, leading to a few more unbelievable moments for me, specifically relying on a child’s memory of the underground several years later.  Also if someone could explain the importance of the women’s veil toward the end of the book it would be appreciated, I find myself at a bit of a loss on that one.

4 stars.  Very enjoyable.  Epic fantasy with a Roman touch, the book may not be earthshaking but it is something a little different from the norm.

 

Fantasy Review: ‘Shadow and Bone’ by Leigh Bardugo

Awesome set up, immensely readable, and a book that left me begging for a sequel.  I think this book just rocketed into my top five YA fantasy books, there was so much good in it.  But oh that damn YA structure, this book could have been a whole lot more.

Young orphan Alina struggles through military life in faux-Russia.  The country is cut in half by “the fold,” a magically made pitch black area full of nasties that not even the lands Grisha (mages) can contain.  In order to bring supplies in from the coast stealth runs through the fold are mounted by the military.  During one of these runs nasties attack convoy, and Alina passes out when attacked, only to wake up and learn she saved the day!  Yeah, hidden powers and chosen one storyline to follow!  She is a sun summoner and might be the answer to destroying the fold.

Oh don’t get me wrong I love the set up.  For once a logical explanation is given to way the slightly awkward turns out to be powerful, why the main characters are all beautiful, and why the evil baddie is doing evil bad things.  Several clichés are turned around throughout the book; always a plus.  The magical system has some potential and is leaked to the reader gradually, avoiding boring info dumps.

The Darkling, a man who heads all the Grisha and holds power unique to him was easily the most compelling part of the book.  Is he evil, misunderstood, or even a bit immature?  He seems to be whatever he needs to be to get to his goals, his near immortality giving him insight into other people others only dream of.  He actually feels like a real power, weaving people’s emotions and expectations as well as showing truly impressive feats of magic.

There is also a tender friendship between Alina and fellow orphan Mal.  Once again the author makes it authentic; the heartache of a secret crush, the longing, the fights and the joy.  Written well enough that I would believe it ending in either love or abandonment, without so much foreshadowing that one or the other seem like a foregone conclusion.

But oh that damn YA.  Why are the Grisha, the most powerful humans in the land, playing dress up in court and acting like high school gossip queens?  (And if the Grisha check every child in the country for talent why do they all acted like silver spoon aristocracy, with only Alina thinking to buck the system?) Every major male character save one is a love interest for someone (which to be fair is the reverse of a lot of fantasy out there).  Is Alina going to be the most powerful Grisha around or will she moon over the men in her life the whole time?  And my hopes of a more in depth look at so many of the interesting aspects of this new world just wouldn’t fit the YA structure.

Oh well, an entertaining read, decently tied up at the end but with obvious need for a sequel (that is already out).  I can nitpick, but I really want to read the next book so that is what really matters.

3 ½ stars

Fantasy Review: ‘The Scar’ by Sergey and Marina Dyachenko

Sometimes grabbing things off the shelf randomly pays off.  Sometimes translations are done seamlessly.  Sometimes collaboration’s don’t completely suck.  Sometimes the guy behind my computer screen doesn’t have a damn clue how to open a review.

Perhaps with comparisons to other well-known fantasy works of recent history?  I guess I could try.  Egert has the wit and brains of Locke Lamora combined with the arrogant assholeness of Jezal dan Luther… Scratch that comparisons are no good if everyone doesn’t know the source.

Well hell, I have been on vacation for a week, I am taking the lazy way out and opening with a summery.  Egert is living the good life in the elite guards.  Perhaps not loved by all, but certainly the man many aspire to be.  He has a way with the ladies, more talent than he knows what to do with and an almost unquenchable thirst for thrills (with no problem risking the lives of others to satisfy his thirst).  We first meet him engaging in a barroom knife throwing contest; using a young serving girl to hold his props.  A short run of his exploits are given, many resulting in him making a fool out of someone else while basking in his own glory.

So it continues when Egert notices a pretty young student visiting town with her fiancé.  Always wanting what someone else has he pokes and prods until the young man feels compelled to challenge Egert to a duel.  When the duel ends the visitor is dead in the street, fiancé Toria is crying, and a mysterious stranger remembers Egert’s face.  When this wanderer leaves a mark on Egert’s face in a later duel the book takes off.

Take a look at what the authors have done here.  A thoroughly unlikable character without being a complete psychopath.  Not an antihero, we are not supposed to like him.  Not a villain either, no cheap clichés are employed to make us hate him.  No murders, tortures, rapes, or cussing out of elderly in his path.  Instead we see a realistic bully, high on the praise he consistently gets, who’s ‘crime’ is seen as completely defensible by the laws he has grown up with.

So when this unlikable man is marked by the wanderer the change we see is shocking.  Our brash lead character is suddenly unlikable in a completely different way; a sniveling coward.  Which is more horrible, the death he caused?  Or pushing a woman out of a hiding place as he dives into it when the bandits come?  It will be a long path to get back what he once had.  Along the way he will fail test after test, including some particularly cruel actions made by former friends.

Egert’s possible redemption story is only half of the book though.  That fateful night didn’t just affect him and the dead man; a young lady watched her life plans changed completely with the thrust of a sword.  Toria also falls into the lowest point of her life.  Of course she eventually meets Egert again.  Of course their story becomes intertwined.  To speak of it would spoil half the book, but be sure it was moving.  Sacrifices must be made by both, lives are saved and bonds are made over the worst of starting circumstances.  Toria’s arc never over takes Egert’s, but rather than playing second fiddle it eventually merges into one cohesive story.  Very well done.

In the background of this story of redemption and rebuilding is an interesting fantasy backdrop.  A cult makes a major power play.  A lone mage uses everything he can to stop some serious forces.  And the Wanderer comes back for a rare ending that both does what I was hoping but surprised me in how it was done.

A real gem of a story found by accident, smart and full of heart, and recommended for anyone looking for a fantasy outside the norm.

4 stars