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Fantasy Review: ‘The Iron Wolves’ by Andy Remic

The Iron Wolves: Book 1 of The Rage of KingsNote: Today’s post will be written by the old fantasy curmudgeon.  Just ignore him while he rants, he should be asleep by noon anyway.

Eh, you kids today wouldn’t recognize good fantasy if it slapped you in the face.  With your ‘secondary worlds’ and your ‘punks’ and whatnots.  I tried to read a fantasy novel a week ago that took place entirely in one city.  How the hell can it be a fantasy book without an epic quest?  That is what I want to know.  And don’t get me started on your ‘weird’ stuff, acting like teenagers with dog collars on while you read about slate moths and zombies and god knows what else.  Probably playing that heavy metal music while you do so, if I had my guess.

Now take this Andy Remic character, there is a guy that respects what camebefore.  He follows tradition and doesn’t think he is better than the rest of us, forging brand new paths that none of us want to go down thank you very much.  Take that new book The Iron Wolves.  Ancient evil raises an army and storms the unbreakable fortress that provides the human lands their last hope.  An old general gathers together his old company and travels through haunted woods and past plague lands to stop her.  There is DESTANY involved, because the wolves share a secret curse that makes them the best hope.

He recognized right away what was missing from most new fantasy, Orcs!  Tolkien showed us that orcs are gold; frankly if I don’t see an orc I don’t want anything to do with it.  Even that young punk Jordan had orcs, even if he felt he was better than Tolkien and gave them some silly trolloc name.  Good fantasy should involve a fight of humans against an overwhelming orc hoard, preferably at an ancient fotress with absurdly high walls.  Hmph, that Martin fellow got the wall right but forgot the orcs.  That is why his stuff will never be popular.  And that’s why I see big things ahead for Remic.  He didn’t just give us Orcs, but MUD Orcs.  Raised by sacrifice, led by even nastier mud orcs and a beautiful magic lady, this is a force I can respect.

Now every good fantasy should have a fellowship.  Don’t go calling me old fashioned, I don’t expect all my heroes to be goodie two shoes.  But they do need to be good to each other; that’s important to the story.  These Iron Wolves now, they are the real deal.  Brutish, nasty, but heroes all.  We know they drove back the last orc invasion and are called upon to do it again.  Watching them get together again is half the fun.  Did the fellowship of the ring get together at the Shire?  NO, they have to meet up in different places.  Remic gets that.  You got the drug addict haunted by the memory of her dead sister.  Some tough old brothers with their own feud.  A couple of broken individuals better known for murder than their old heroics, you know, a mixed bag of nasty.  They bicker, they get physical, they go barebones a time or two, and then they save each other and fight the orcs together, just like they should.

I want good fights or I am going home.  Big battles where I can hear the weapons clanging, feel the change in the air during a charge, cringe at every splash of blood.  What is it the kids are calling it?

Grimdark?

Eh?

Isn’t that what I said?

GRIMDARK?

Ok, what is the difference?

Fine.  GRIMDARK.  That’s fantasy that remembers how it’s done.  Don’t stray from the proven path.  Big nasty villain with untold magic, a fellowship with a quest, and lots of battles.  That’s what you kids should be looking for.  Not that your going to listen to me, no doubt you have some tale about a book within a book hiding behind your back.  No respect.

Now that ending left a bit to be desired, I expect a little more UMPH from my conclusions.  A bit anticlimactic, a bit too easy for our heroes; at least when it comes to the invasion.  But like a first book should do this one ends on a cliffhanger; a little political intrigue involving a mad king.  And I see the next book in the series involves the big tower that was being built in the background of this book; if that isn’t a good sign of things to come I don’t know what is.

Now let me tell you a bit about the women in this series.  A couple of fighters in addition to the nasty mage lady.  And at some point most of them got nekkid.  It has been too long since I read a book that described… {And with that we will leave this old curmudgeon to ramble by himself, perhaps suggest he go up for a cold shower.  And we promise to hide the scotch next time}.

4 Stars.  Formulaic, and for fans of GRIMDARK only I am sure, but much improved over the author’s Clockwork Vampire series.  Fast paced, good action and an interesting cast of anti-heroes.

Steampunk Review: ‘Fiddlehead’ by Cherie Priest

Fiddlehead (The Clockwork Century, #5)I have one small complaint about Fiddlehead, the fifth and final book of Cherie Priest’s highly entertaining Clockwork Century.  And I will put it out there early, so I can move on to all the good things that I loved about this book in particular, and the series as a whole.

My complaint is thus; nobody told me that there was a short novella I needed to read in order to get a bit of background on Maria, a main character in the novel.  I have read all five books, but Clementine would have been nice to have my hands on.  Christmas IS coming up though, if there is anyone who wants to remedy the situation for me.

As fans of the series know the American Civil War has continued on for twenty long years.  Steam powered technology has changed the war and Texas tech has allowed the South to extend a losing fight.  The yellow drug imported from Washington territory is really taking its toll, causing both death and a bit of a zombie issue as well.  Enter genius inventor Gideon Bardsley and his amazing thinking machine, code-name Fiddlehead.  After years of work and a lot of data entry he asks who is going to win the war.  (Presumably this was the second question asked of the machine, with an answer of forty two being a puzzle to figure out another day).  Gathering up the answer the very day his lab is being sabotaged he flees to his financial backer, one Abraham Lincoln (who years earlier survived but was disabled by an attack at the Ford theatre).  The news is dire; it won’t be the North or South who will win if the conflict continues but the walking dead.

From there we get a lot of action.  Former Confederate darling turned Pinkerton agent Maria Boyd is brought in to track down who is trying to hush up Gideon’s work.  President Grant wakes up to the fact that he is being played like a fiddle (see what I did there?) by his own staff; and can only hope that it isn’t too late to stop a terrible tragedy.  Bardsley and Lincoln work to get word of the undead threat out despite being hounded at each turn; first by threats and later with extreme violence.  And when the actual dastardly plan is discovered it is up to Boyd to save the day, and the country.

I devour these books like candy and this last entry was no exception.  Priest knows how to keep a rhythm in her writing, plenty of action but enough breaks to allow a reader to catch their breath.  Steampunk elements show throughout but never take over the story itself; a few airships and the like are all we really see.  I loved both major character additions; Maria continues the tradition of very capable women doing awesome things and Bardsley’s abrasive personality combined with his genius was entertaining to watch.

This series has taken a very interesting approach to get to this point.  After four books I would have been hard pressed to find an overarching story arc.  Each dealt with different characters and there were only lose connections between them and their stories.  But with this last entry it proved itself out.  I love the approach, many individuals were responsible for the end result and they were not all from a single group; rather they all played their own small part.  By staying away from a core group of characters the world felt bigger and lacked those crazy coincidences that often plague series trying to get everyone back together.  (In a way the forth book, by far weakest of the series, fell victim to the problems that usually plague final volumes; it was the one that felt like a reunion tour of old characters).  We only get a few letters from characters left in Seattle, despite being the home of two out of the four books.  We glimpse a few other old friends here and there but never in a way that felt like an intrusion.  It felt more real, and made the world feel bigger in a good way.

What more can I say, I loved the series and am very thankful Fiddlehead provided a strong conclusion.  Did I have some issues?  I felt this book’s set up was a bit thin, both in how a thinking machine works and how its importance was known by the books villain (I mean it is a thinking machine, how did they know exactly what was going to be asked even if they knew what it did).  But nothing kept me from wanting to read this book cover to cover in one sitting, and I was entertained throughout.  Oh and let’s be honest, I would be the weirdo that could read an entire faux-history book dealing with the alternate course the war took; the little hints I got from book to book were never enough.

A great conclusion to the series.

4 Stars.

 

Fantasy Review: ‘The Scroll of Years’ by Chris Willrich

The Scroll of Years (Gaunt and Bone, #1)Damn it Nathan, just write a review for the book!

I am trying, but honestly I don’t know where to start.

Well, what is the book about?

Two lovers, one great with child, fleeing a nasty set of villains.  They end up in a land with a heavy Asian influence (or at least what an American may see as an Asian influence).  Once there they meet interesting characters, learn their unborn son is of much interest to important people, meet a dragon or two and a couple of teenage bandits.  Oh, and a magical piece of artwork makes everything a lot more interesting.

That is a summary, but I still don’t know how to review it. 

A lot of people are comparing the book to the works of Mieville, Valente, and Leiber; perhaps you can run with that?

Who the hell is Leiber?

I don’t know, Google it.  I know you have read the other two mentioned; does the book fit their mold?

I dunno, I guess?  I mean I can see the comparisons.  The writing has a certain something that stands out from the pack a bit, that is true.  I’ll be honest, I usually skip poetry inserted into fantasy books because usually it bores me to tears and feels more like an author wanted to show off that something that belongs in the book.  Here that is not the case.  And the book just flows, I never want to put down a book but this is the type of writing that makes me forget to check my watch periodically.  So sure, in terms of prose it can be compared to those two masters loosely, though I hesitate to compare anything to Valente on that front.

In terms of originality I guess it also belongs in their category.  Though more grounded in reality that say, Perdido Street Station, there were a couple of creations that could have fit right in in Bas Lag.  I would have loved to see Hackwroth from this book fight the Weaver from Mieville’s work.  The dancing between realities of the Weaver vs the premonition possessed by Hackwroth could…

Not everyone has read Mieville, you really should stick to talking about this book Nathan.

Hey, you are the one who brought it up.  But you’re right.  There was more to this book that just ‘weird’ though.  Relationships played a heavy role, many couplings that played with a Yin/Yang concept in subtle and not subtle ways depending on the couple.  A former couple now following different ‘paths’ both seeking the unborn child for entirely different reasons, with neither trying to harm the child?  You just don’t see this type of thing enough.  Gaunt and Bone themselves are interesting enough; protecting each other with neither taking a dominate role.  And the growth of young friends Next-One-A-Boy and Flybait was charming; full of youthful innocence.

Anything else?

This book has a powerful ending, something of a cliffhanger on par with few I have seen.  This only works because I cared so much about these people by the end.  I only want what is best for the young man Gaunt bore, is that too much to ask?

Oh, and my love of dragons is well known and here I get yet another unique and interesting take on them; pretty sure I have not seen them born of falling stars and made of stone before.

So you like the book a lot.  5 stars?

No, not quite.  Some of it was a bit heavy handed, some of it a bit too anachronistic for my taste.  Gaunt made some pretty astute political observations early on, and Next-One-A-Boy was pretty advanced in her feminism without much support around her.  (Really there was some inconsistency there, as there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of entrenched misogynism for her to be fighting so hard against; certainly gender didn’t seem to hinder any of the major characters throughout the book.  At one point we even see a women leave the husband at home with children for her own quest).  And while the first short story was included at the end of the book I felt that there were a few items that only would have made since had I read it (and any other short stories floating out there) first.  Felt like I should have done some homework before starting it.

I have seen your transcripts, if someone gave you that homework it would have remained undone.

But as I said I loved the writing.  Loved the wit, consistently funny  Though the characters often spoke like actors in a play they still felt like people, quite a feat.  I will join many others in praising this debut, and I cannot wait for the next in the series.

4 Stars

Copy for review was provided by the publisher.

One Year of Blogging: Reflections

One year.  What does that bring us?  Two hundred forty five books reviewed, several of them multiple times.  Not a bad start I would say, ya?

I can only give my perspective of this year; I don’t speak for the other two on the site.  Hell, I have never even met them (We live on three separate land masses in this great big world).  A strange little site we have here so I just wanted to lay down how we got here, how things have changed, and just generally ramble a bit.  So if you’re interested in how our joint review blog got started and what I have learned in the process, hang around.  There is nothing real unique about our story, but I wanted to get it down before the details get too lost in my mind.

The Beginning-

I started off just tracking books on Goodreads, occasionally writing short reviews.  I have no idea what possessed me to move into a blogger blog, but off I went, solo.  I lasted about three months.  For some reason I just couldn’t do it.  So I quit.  Short story huh?

Then around late October of last year I had the itch again.  I wanted to do this.  Lesson learned though, I knew I could never post enough content to keep it current on my own.  The idea of a joint blog came to my head (not a novel idea, I know) and I posted a request for someone to join me.  To my surprise it took two weeks.

It all started with Glenda Larke.  Specifically The Last Stormlord, a book I picked up on a whim at the used book store.  I wrote a rough review, posted it on Goodreads with a link to my old blog, and the only other person on my Goodreads friends list that had listed the book followed over.  I have no idea what possessed Pauline to offer to join me, she was already running her own blog, but there it was.  Nathan’s Fantasy Reviews was born.

Wait, what?  What the hell kind of name is that for a joint blog?  We got started quickly and that all important name was kind of ignored.  Took us all of a month to realize that mistake, so we fixed it.  Finally, Fantasy Review Barn was born… Well, not quite.  We had a name but were missing the final piece.

Originally I envisioned the blog having around four reviewers.  Not sure why.  We had a request up for more to join us, specifically someone who focused more in urban fantasy or sci-fi, genres at the time that neither Pauline nor I dabbled in much.  But when mid-December hit we got lucky.   Once again, I have no idea what I did to get such quality talent to surround me, but Anachronist responded to the call.  Again, a veteran with her own blog.   NOW we could call the site complete.  (And if you haven’t visited their sites, you should.  Pauline also reads mysteries that don’t get posted here, and we only get a hint of Anachronist’ great content).

Early Memories-

From here I am afraid the post is going to be a bit ME specific.  After all, I can’t really speak for my fellow bloggers.  I don’t know if they have specific memories of its growth, favorite reviews or milestones, or what they are particularly proud of.  But I wanted to get some of these down on paper before they leave my memory completely, so forgive the indulgence.

It’s funny how those early milestones stick with you.  I still remember several of my personal ‘firsts.’  I know the first author to retweet on of my reviews, Martin Millar on Thraxas.  As an added bonus he is on twitter so rarely that the ‘tweet feed’ on his site had my review up for weeks.  For almost a month that review was the most clicked review, it was top five for several more.

I still remember my first comment on a review, though I almost don’t know if it counts.  Anachronist, who then promptly offered her services to the site.  (And on a side note, probably because of her European e-mail address, her offer was promptly sent into my spam folder to be lost for about a week).  I remember my first digital ARC (Between Two Thorns by Emma Newman).  Shoot, I still remember when I discovered Linda Nagata had used a blurb of my review on her site for The Dread Hammer.  This is a Nebula winner!  Pure excitement for me I don’t mind saying.

But by far the best early memory comes from author Juliet McKenna.  After reading my little review she actually took the time to write a post about it.  Though my review was mostly complementary she was amused that I said it had a ‘generic fantasy feel,’ pointing out in turn that when it was first published reviewers called it (and specifically its heady female lead) a breath of fresh air in a stale genre.

Obviously I loved the spike in traffic like nothing we had seen at that point.  And I loved the comments; it was my first review to gather multiple comments.  But mostly I loved realizing that my heroes, the people writing the books I love, were actually willing to take the time to respond to a two bit reviewer with a new site.  It was the point when I really knew the blog was going to last this time, that it was worth the time and frustration that sometimes goes with it.

The Rest of the Story

From there I can’t really say much exciting happened.  I had found my legs (something that the two more experienced reviewers of the site already had) and we provided a lot of new content over the year.  At some point we even started adding book covers.  I have some reviews I am particularly proud of, a few that I hate, and a whole lot that have faded out of memory.

Our audience remained very small but grew every month it seemed.  We recently moved to WordPress at which point it seems our reach grew instantly.  Certainly it helped that we got a few plugs from more established bloggers, either through Twitter or blogrolls.  I also learned that blogger itself turns off some people completely, and certainly keeps people from commenting (I recently had a blogger blog eat my comment twice, no wonder we seemed so slow!).

At first we stuck to pure reviews, and though I have stretched into a few lists and discussion type posts reviews will always be our focus (though I do like lists, and they seem very popular).  Someday I would like to get them all archived a bit better, but I doubt there are many that have a bigger variety of reviews in such a short time as us.  Pauline has pulled some great indie books out of the pile; someday she should see how many of them later got picked up by publishers (I know she was on the Sullivan train before Orbit found him; Blood Song and Dance of Cloaks was also reviewed on this site before getting deals).  Ana is the person first I would go to if I want a Urban Fantasy recommendation (and i have picked up a couple from her reviews).  And while I have started focusing more on new reviews, I still dig through bookstores and libraries constantly looking for that old hidden gem.

I could write a whole post on what I have learned, and what I wish I had known sooner.  But the most important thing I wish I had done early on was visit more blogs regularly.  The networking that I have done since blogging is really the best part; I have so many new friends, so many great conversations, and have just had a blast.  I even get to converse with authors regularly, and not always about books!

To everyone who takes the time to read our blog, thank you.  To everyone who has supported us I say the same.  Of course I have to say thank you to my wife for listening to me type every night when the kiddo goes to bed and allowing me more than my share of the computer time.  But most of all thanks to Pauline and Anachronist for helping me along and keeping this site wonderful.

I look forward to another year of this, and we will see how long this keeps going.

 

Fantasy Review: ‘Alphabet of Thorn’ by Patricia A. McKillip

Alphabet of ThornYoung orphan Nepenthe, adopted into the royal library as a child, works as a translator of ancient texts.  While working on commission that appears to be nothing more than a traders list a much more interesting text comes in.  Written in an alphabet built around thorns, Nepenthe quickly becomes obsessed, hiding the book from others and seeing things in it that no one else can.  Meanwhile the land around her has a newly coronated queen who is already facing a possible rebellion in one of her lands and a powerful magical user foresees an external threat to the land but is unable to pinpoint it.  Add in a young mage falling in love and learning he is more powerful than anyone thought and you have a whole lot going on in three hundred pages.

And for the most part the book pulls it off.  That is a lot of balls to keep in the air, but only a few were dropped by the author.  I’ll deal with those first so I can get back to the things the book does right.  There is a unnecessary love triangle, which thankfully didn’t get too ‘emo.’  The main love interest I found completely bland; anything he provided to the story could have been handled by a nameless extra just as well in my mind.  There are a few logic twisters; I wonder why every made up language is not only phonetic in nature but seems to have direct letter conversions.  And the leap of faith that causes Nepenthe to end up with the book in the first place was a bit hard to buy.

But all of this is so easily forgivable because the book was so good in so many ways.  Another example of a low action book can still have suspense and keep interest.  The highlight came from what is revealed in Nepenthe’s translations, and ancient story involving a couple of legendary figures.  I probably figured out the big reveal before I was supposed to but it didn’t upset me, it was a unique journey.  The love story that takes place in the past was everything the one in the present wasn’t.  Sweet isn’t the right word (in fact it is extremely one sided), but it is lyrical and exciting and passionate.

Did I say lyrical?  Something about McKillip’s writing just worked for me.  Not as lush in style as some of the masters of prose can be, but lyrical describes it fine.  Some simple poems show a writer who knows that she is good but doesn’t feel the need to show off.

A book that is short and sweet deserves a review that is the same.  Not for fans of action, and the short length doesn’t allow for the depth fantasy fans often expect.  But a well written book is a well written book, no matter the length, and I love a story that dares to try something different (even more so when it finds success in its originality).

4 stars.  My first time reading the author, but surely not my last.

Five Fantasy Tropes I Still Dig

Here is a silly list written in boredom, but I like lists and don’t think I am alone so I won’t apologize for making it.  Inspired by several quality lists I have seen on Twitter recently that talk about fantasy tropes that should be retired for one reason or other (overuse and insensitivity being major reasons).  I would link them, but it turns out I forgot to bookmark and Google is failing me.  They got me thinking though, what tropes do I hate?  Then I decided to go the other way instead, fountain of positivity that I am, and instead focused on tropes I still can’t get enough of.

Once I settled on the list I wanted to write I went to tvtropes and found the ‘official” name of the tropes in question (because if anyone gets to set the name of these things, it may as well be tvtropes).  Some of my definitions may vary slightly from theirs though, because not everything fits so nicely in categories.  With that in mind, I hope you enjoy my list.  Warning, links to tvtropes.

The Eye of the World (Wheel of Time, #1)The Farm Boy – I know it is the most overused trope of all.  I know some people are ready for it to go away completely.  But I for one feel it still has a place.  It is the most timeless story of all (well, outside of forbidden love I guess).   I am still a sucker for a story of humble beginnings.  Who better to cheer for than the person who starts low and ends so high?  I doubt anyone out there doesn’t have at least one favorite story that uses this one.

I think it is all the caveats to the trope that drag it down.  The humble youngster of destiny is a bit over played.  The wizened mentor who only helps the chosen one is tired.  Really what kills the farm boy trope is that so many of them don’t actually work their way up in the world, everything is handed to them, the journey is too easy.  If they become the hero of the story through hard work instead I can’t imagine the story every really getting tired.  So please, continue to give me farm boys (and girls, of course) in my fantasy.  Just take the destiny junk out of it.

First Memory:  Lessa from ‘Dragonflight’ by Anne McCaffrey.  She wasn’t really from a farm, but remains an example of the trope used right in my mind.

Most recently read in: ‘The Lure of Fools’ by Jason King

The Five Man Band – This may be my favorite trope of all.  If I get a book with a small group of The Blade Itself (The First Law, #1)personalities, traveling the land and raising havoc I am in heaven.  Truly.  I can’t get enough.  It is an easy way for an author to keep a slightly larger cast of characters without needing to weave multiple plot lines because they usually are sharing the same story.

Sure, sometimes they may fall into all too convenient archetypes, but any trope can go bad if the author takes the easy path.  I know the five man band often falls victim to throwing in a token female there only to keep the peace among the men and that can get tiring as well.  Again, it is not a perfect set up on its own.

But when done right we get it all.  Built in camaraderie, witty banter among people who know everything about each other, chances for sacrifice, and all the good things in life.

First Memory:  ‘The Blade Itself’ by Joe Abercrombie.  I am sure I ran into it before I found this series, but this is honestly the first time I noticed it in literature.

Most Recent: ‘The Black Company’ by Glen Cook.  Way more than five people involved, but the principles are the same.

The Colour of Magic (Discworld, #1)Talking Weapons – I can’t explain why I like this one so much, but it is so versatile I have to include it.  It can be used for humor, with a sarcastic weapon making fun of the hero.    It can be done seriously, usually communicating with the wielder only.

It is an interesting take on the magic weapon because it gives them their own personality, turns them into a character in their own right (in the case the book with the most buzz around, ‘Ancillary Justice,’ the sentient weapon is the main character).

First Memory: ‘The Colour of Magic’ by my hero, Sir Terry Pratchett.  Also the funniest.

Most Recent: ‘The Lure of Kings,’ again.  Though it isn’t my favorite use of the trope.

Others of note: I can’t talk about this trope without mentioning the awesome sword in Rachael Aaron’s ‘Eli Monpress’ series.

The Berserker– There are two pretty common tropes when it comes to violent characters in Night Watch (Discworld, #29)fantasy, Stone Cold Assassin and Berserker.  And while I am just about sick of the Assassin thing, for some reason I can’t get enough of a battle rage fueled monster.  Sure it can be a bit cartoonish, but seeing as it usually shows up in GRIMDARK type books that are already cartoonish I can overlook it.

First Memory: Fitz from Robin Hobb’s ‘Farseer’ Series.  Had actually forgotten he went through a battle haze until I ended up on tropes recently.

Most Recent: Sam Vimes in ‘Night Watch.’ The Beast, as Vimes calls it.

Others of none:  Let’s face it, I added this trope out of my love for Logan Ninefingers from the ‘First Law’ trilogy.

Dragonflight (Pern, #1)Our Dragons are Different–  I LOVE DRAGONS.  Can’t get enough of them.  Not sure they will ever get old.  Don’t care what they are doing.  Don’t care if they are good or evil, intelligence or beasts of burden.  I have been in love with them since picking up the Pern series for the first time.  I do not think they can detract from a book, and if a book that has them happens to be bad it is in no way the dragons’ fault.  That is all I have to say about that subject.  They are so common I couldn’t even tell you what my first memory of them is in literature, yet I am still not sick of them.

That’s it, my whole list.  Thanks for reading.  Any tropes that still work for you?  Any of the tropes I listed pissing you off beyond belief (if I had to guess, I would bet Farm Boy isn’t loved as much by others).  All opinions welcome, love to hear ‘em!