Snakewood – Plot vs. Prose

25543925Thanks to the lovely folks over at Netgalley, I have yet another ARC (Advanced Reader’s Copy) to talk about this week. Snakewood, by Adrian Selby, is a fantastic vengeance story that takes a spin on the dark mercenaries trope. It follows the story of a mercenary company in retirement as they are slowly assassinated, while desperately trying to figure out who is killing them off and why. The book reminds me of one of my favorite series of all time, The Black Company, but unfortunately is not quite able to live up to the majesty of that series’ legacy. However, before we talk about its shortcomings, let’s talk about the book’s strength – the story.

As I mentioned, Snakewood is the story of a mercenary company in retirement. We follow the remnants of “The Twenty”, a small squad of soldiers who reportedly could win any battle and turn any tide. They were legendary fighters for hire in a land filled with mercenary armies, and were highly sought after in their day. However, their glory days passed and the remnants of the once great company split up and went on their way. This changes when the leader of The Twenty realizes that his old members are slowly being picked off by an assassin, and he tries to bring them back together from their various lives to figure out what is happening. The story is told from multiple POV’s in The Twenty, as we see them in their various lives trying to escape death. Meanwhile, we are also shown the perspective of the assassin in question as she hunts down The Twenty for a crime they committed against her at a place called Snakewood many years ago.

Initially I was highly skeptical when I was told I would be reading about a set of twenty men who were able to take on entire armies. Magic in the world is scarce, and most fights are won with a combination of martial skill and berserker potions that soldiers drink to grant them improved abilities on the battlefield. While The Twenty were supposed to have access to the best potions available, it seemed a little unreasonable to claim that they could beat thousands of men in combat alone. This is why I was so excited to learn that The Twenty’s power came not from their individual combat prowess, but from the fact that each of them was a master of a different aspect of warfare. One of them is a master of siegecraft, one of cavalry, one of politics, one of blade & armor, and so on. Using their mass knowledge of warcraft, they functioned as a “rent-a-general’ and joined conflicts. They used their knowledge to turn tides. This to me was the most appealing aspects of the book, as I really enjoyed learning about this specialised group and the tactics they employed to win conflicts. In addition, it was really interesting to see where each of them had gone after the break up. The Twenty landed in all walks of life after they broke up, and it leads to a really nice variety of interactions as the assassin tracks them down in farmsteads, courtrooms, armies, and other forms of retirement. The assassin herself is also handled well, revealing the mystery of her past as a slow burn instead of a grand reveal. The slow piecing together of her backstory kept me invested a long time.

However, that investment was damaged heavily by some issues with the quality and style of writing. To begin with, while the characters and world caught my interest, the world building and character growth are not good enough. A major part of the book revolves around “Brews”, alchemical potions that people take to improve their fighting ability. There is a lot of emphasis placed on how the different qualities of Brews would produce different results, however it was not until about 45% into the book that you are told a single difference between the Brews the mercenaries are taking. In addition, the book goes out of the way to be excessively dark. I am a fan of darker, gritty series, but authors should be careful with how they use trauma in stories in order to make scenes edgier. Characters were often introduced in horrible situations such as rape, torture, and slavery, which seemed over the top as I had zero attachment to these characters. As a result many of these scenes felt included for shock value and drew me out of the story. Finally, the character POVs change erratically and are often quite hard to follow for the first half of the book. It took me a longer time than I would like to feel comfortable reading the book or to feel like I had a grasp of what was going on.

Snakewood had a premise and plot I really liked, but ultimately suffered from too many problems with writing to fully enjoy. The grit and darkness of the book felt over the top and uncompelling and the world felt underdeveloped. If you really like grimdark or mercenary stories than this might be worth checking out, but for the majority of readers I would recommend a pass on Snakewood.

Rating: 5.5/10

The Dragon Round – Potential Murdered By Pacing

the-dragon-round-9781501133206_hrARCs (advanced reading copies) are the mystery boxes of my library. The number of books that are published, even just in fantasy and sci-fi, is astounding. In order to make choices about which of the many releases to actually read, I put a lot of work in before acquiring books.  When I purchase a book, it is usually only after I have read about the book, read reviews, seen the goodreads score, and talked to some friends. Due to this, it is usually only books I like that make it to my nightstand. ARCs are not like that. An ARC has little to no reviews when you receive them, none of your friends have even heard of the book, and you don’t get to decide which ARCs you read; publishers do. This results in ARCs being wild cards for me, which I actually like. Its nice to go into something completely unaware. Sometimes it results in me getting to read the next big thing, like Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, before anyone else. Other times it ends in reading books I dislike. Sometimes I don’t review these books because you are essentially murdering someone’s child; and if you don’t have constructive comments to make other than “it’s bad”, it’s better to say nothing. Other times I don’t enjoy the book, but can talk about what I did not like, leaving me with the unpleasant job of giving a book a bad review. The later was the unfortunate experience I with The Dragon Round, by Stephen S. Power.

To begin with, I did not finish The Dragon Round. I got almost 50 percent of the way through before having to put it down and walk away. The book has enough strengths that if you told me the 2nd half was amazing I could believe you; but the middle of the book made me quit, rending any potential greatness obsolete. The Dragon Round is a revenge story. The back of the book will inform you that it is the story of a ship captain, betrayed and marooned on an island, who finds a dragon and uses it to enact revenge. This is a very good plot summary of what seems to be the entire book (or at least what I read), but the problem comes with the telling of the story itself.

The book actually began strong, showing our protagonist at sea racing a clock to bring medicine home to his city. The initial world building is excellent, and I really enjoyed the description and interactions of the sailors as they ran the boat. The ship ends up in a fight with a dragon, barely pulling through, resulting in the stranding of the captain and his doctor on an island. Here is where the problems begin.

To begin with we have the captain and the doctor. The doctor is a woman from a different culture that apparently does not seem eye to eye with the captains. I say apparently, because this is not at all clear. The nations and peoples of the world were not established enough in my mind to understand half of the interactions between our two protagonists. In addition, although the reader knows before hand that the two depart the island to exact their revenge, it seems like the two protagonists also know it the entire time as well. There is not any real urgency to their actions, and they do not feel like two people stranded on an island awaiting their deaths. However, this might be due to another problem with the book, the island is not that threatening. Only a short while after landfall our protagonists reach self-sustainment, killing a lot of the excitement and momentum of the book. The island does not provide increasingly challenging dangers and made me think of an alternate storyline of The Martian where in the entire plot was him simply farming potatoes until rescue. And finally, we have the dragon.

Dragons have always been creatures of unparalleled power, beauty, and danger to me in fantasy. Yet, somehow The Dragon Round manages to make them boring. After finding and bonding with a dragon, the escape plan becomes “wait until it grows large enough to fly us”. A solid plan, but one that unfortunately does not seem to go much further. It is here that I quit the book, after several chapters of literally just watching the dragon grow. The training and interaction with the dragon felt thin, and the chapters were starting to equate in my mind to watching paint dry, so I decided to call it quits.

Despite all the negative, I think there is still some good here. The writing was strong at the start, showing me that Power is capable of good prose. I have heard from others that the pacing and plot pick up significantly after where I dropped out, and those of you who finish it might have a completely different perspective. In addition, while I found the interaction with the dragons boring, the culture that Power describes around them interested me greatly and kept me invested for a while. However, a while was not long enough, and I do not see myself going back to finish this one. Hopefully I will enjoy my next mystery box a little more.

Rating: 4.0/10

The Last Days of Magic – Blurring The Line Between Fact And Fiction

25734207Historical fiction is a fairly new genre for me. In an attempt to relieve reading fatigue and expand my horizons I have been looking to new types of books to slide into the fantasy and sci-fi mix. Historical fiction was an easy step, with its blending of the real and imaginary. However, one of the major disappointments I ran into as I was breaking into the genre was the seemingly intense focus on World War I and II. It makes complete sense as to why authors often pick this as the basis for their books as it is a major, exciting world event that most people are familiar with. Despite this, it can be tiring to read the same events over and over through different lens. Which is why a book about Celtic Ireland in the 1300’s was immediately appealing to me.

The Last Days of Magic, by Mark Tompkins, is the story of the gods and people of Ireland in the 1300’s and their attempt to resist the expansion of the Catholic church and the Kings and Queens of England and France. Ireland is the last bastion of wild fae magic in the world, and the Vatican is determined to gain complete spiritual dominance in Europe. Simultaneously, the nobility of England and France look to their Irish neighbors with lust for their resources and land. Some of the fae within Ireland resent the cohabitation of their land with humans and try to catalyse the downfall of the human Irish people. We follow this conflict through the eyes of many, but primarily those of a guardian deity of Ireland and an exorcist of the Catholic church’s exorcist. The plot is fairly straightforward, but very enjoyable and I found myself both entertained and more informed by the time I finished.

What makes this book great is the perfect blend of history and fantasy. The book feels like it could be read as a history of the Celts and a classical fantasy story simultaneously. For me this really drove my immersion while also raising my interest in the history of the Celts and I found myself googling Irish history at the book’s conclusion. I also really enjoyed Tompkins’s rendition of both the magic of the fae and the catholic church. His use of the lore and execution of magic felt fresh and interesting while adding some excitement to some of the slower parts of the book. I also really enjoyed the way Tompkins displayed all characters on the various sides of the conflict in shades of grey. It created a neutral historical narrative that painted Ireland as the protagonists and victims, but didn’t make England, France, and the Catholic church seem like baby eating monsters (with one or two exceptions).

However with all the great, there is some bad. The books starts out in the present and dives into the history of the Celts as a flashback. As this set up is only used for the first and last chapters of the book, I feel that the story would have been stronger without it as it feels like it really only serves to show what happened long after the story’s conclusion in present day. The story also suffers from some slight lack of clarity and anti climax near the conclusion of the book. I had to work a little to understand how the final events of the book played out, and while not a let down I felt as they could have been a little more decisive and exciting.

Despite the few problems, The Last Days of Magic has set a nice bar to judge 2016 releases by and is a very admirable debut for Mark Tompkins. I came out of the story more informed about Irish history and with a new found interest in the Celts, which for me is the highest praise I can give a historical fiction. If you are looking for a new part of history to explore, I recommend you check out The Last Days of Magic when it is released in early March.

Rating: 7.0/10