The Drenai Saga – Part 1/4

Gigantic fantasy series are amazing experiences, but tend to also be gigantic time sinks. As such, each year I pick one large and famous fantasy series to work though for the sake of reading diversity. This year I decided to read David Gemmell’s pivotal Drenai Saga. While reading through this 11 book series, I am going to break down my experience reading it into four parts so that I can hopefully track how my feelings and thoughts evolve as I progress through the series.

For those of you who don’t know, The Drenai Saga is a collection of books set in a classical fantasy landscape that detail different stories about heroes standing against impossible odds, written by David Gemmell. Gemmell is often regarded as one of the greatest fantasy authors of all time, and after reading one of his other trilogies, Troy, I can see why. The books are strange in that they are published not even slightly in chronological order (seen here), something I expect to bother me a lot. However, before I start judging the series I am going to dive in and read some.

618177Book 1 – Legend Legend is Gemmell’s first, and likely most famous, novel about a Drenai fortress of a few thousand soldiers holding out against an invading Nadir horde of over a million troops. Gemmell apparently wrote the book after he had been diagnosed with cancer, using the hordes as a metaphor for the disease. The hordes must pass through the fortress of Dros Delnock, a choke point, in order to invade the Drenai land and the story follows several heroes as they make their stand at the fortress knowing they will eventually die. The heroes exemplify a mix of classic fantasy tropes, but the story sticks to one in particular; Druss, the legend, a retired hero and all around badass who returns to battle and for whom the book is named.

The book is very simple in premise: a small group of good guys hold out against bad guys and impossible odds. I was, however, honestly astounded how much Gemmell was able to accomplish with such a simple and short story. The prose is simple but elegant, accomplishing in a few pages what takes other authors half a book. The prologue of Legend is four pages long (and can be previewed here on Amazon.com) but it’s tight and exciting writing pulled me into the story immediately. The characters were deep and interesting, despite many falling within classic tropes. I found the dialogue gripping while also having deep emotional impact. However, one negative aspect of the book for me was that the world building felt fairly unclear. I did not have a good sense of the nations or lands in the Drenai Saga, yet I also got the feeling they are extremely important to the story at large. Despite this, I ended up really enjoying Legend as it reads like a very polished tale of some of the most classic hero fantasy out there. I was super excited to continue the series, especially because the second book is chronologically subsequent to Legend.

Rating: Legend – 8.5/10

5235089623_1caa427a7b_zBook 2 – The King Beyond the Gate The King Beyond the Gate was an interesting experience. When I started the book I grew concerned that the Drenai Saga was going to be a bit too repetitive to read all the way through. Once again we found ourselves with an unlikely cast of heroes standing against impossible odds and I started to have deja vu. However, I quickly learned that while the books follow a similar skeleton structure, they are most definitely not the same. The King Beyond the Gate picks up decades after Legend, and almost no characters carry over. Instead, we are introduced to a completely fresh cast of heroes who have a new problem: the Drenai nation that was the defender in book one is now the aggressor and run by a corrupt tyrant. In order to stop the tyrant’s reign of terror, the remnants of an elite fighting force established in the wake of the events in Legend make a stand.

One of the most interesting things about The King Beyond the Gate is that it drives home a philosophical idea that started to surface at the end of Legend: heroes of today can be the villains of tomorrow. For the first time in any book series I have read, The Drenai Saga manages to mix the idea of unambiguous evil that must be fought with the idea that all people are shades of grey. It does this by showing that individuals can be unambiguously terrible, but that nations are slaves to who is in charge. A nation might be ruled by a benevolent saint in one period and a satanic bastard in the next. It was here that I started to understand that Gemmell didn’t simply mean to tell a story about a group of people accomplishing something. Instead, Gemmell’s story takes clips of conflicts across the history of the world to show you how it changed and evolved, while also venerating the people across all cultures that took a stand for what was right. It is an extremely powerful storytelling technique and one that only grows stronger as the series continues.

At a more individual level, The King Beyond the Gate is a fantastic tale itself. The protagonist is the classic half-breed; part of two people, welcome to neither. While the cast is completely new, I think I liked them more than their counterparts in Legend. Some of the characters are descendants of the heroes and villains of book one, but they are all completely distinct with their own personalities and backgrounds. It is clear that a lot of work went into sculpting every aspect of this book and that Gemmell did not rely on Legend at all, despite their similarities. This effort keeps the book fresh, new, and unique; a fact which will be impressive if Gemmell can keep up through all 11 books. The King Beyond the Gate was a great read, placing just slightly higher than Legend in terms of my enjoyment.

Rating: The King Beyond the Gate – 9.0/10

waylandeBook 3 – WaylanderI was really worried about Waylander as it takes a huge chronological jump backwards and takes place as the first book in the series. The story also has a completely unestablished set of characters, which was alarming. With The King Beyond the Gate, we had a new cast, but at least many were descendants in some way from the heroes and villains of book one. Losing all the investment from the previous novels seemed off-putting before I started Waylander, but I should not have worried.

Waylander follows the story of an antihero, the assassin Waylander, as he tries to find redemption for a job he took and later regretted. After assassinating the Drenai King during a war that the Drenai are losing, Waylander sets out on a quest to retrieve a magical artifact that will turn the tide of said war. Again, the plot is something I have seen time and time again, but the devil is in the details. The prose, characters, and action continue to be fantastic, all while Gemmell demonstrated a new strength of his short 300 page books; novelty. Waylander uses almost exclusively projectile weapons in a world of swordsman, and it’s honestly one of the most badass things I have read. Whether it’s throwing knives, daggers, using a bow and arrow, or shooting his signature double-crossbow, Waylander weaves through combat doling out death at a distance. Due to the short and chaotic nature of these novels, you really never have enough time with any one personality, fighting style, story, or badass weapon, making each chapter exciting and novel. There is much less of the massive fatigue that happens with a series such as The Wheel of Time, where readers are always inching towards a far off goal on the horizon. Additionally, there isn’t the problem of characters growing stale or running out of room to grow. Waylander packs all the previously great things from the other books into a story with a kickass assassin turning his talents to good. The book continues to expand the character morality spectrum into even more shades of grey, but still anchors it with some truly reprehensible people. However, Waylander’s story shows that not everyone is so far gone down a dark path that they can’t come back and was the book I enjoyed most of the first three.

Rating: Waylander – 9.5/10

So it was right about here that I realized I had a problem. When you review things, books or otherwise, you should try to make sure that you don’t just give everything highmarks because it starts to make your ratings lose value. To this end, I try to make sure I think deeply about my ratings and temper them so they don’t suffer from inflation. That being said, I looked at my ratings of these books creeping higher and thought, “This is a problem, I can’t just give everything a high score.” However, after sitting and thinking about it I can’t find a single good reason to lower the scores of any of these books. They are fantastic reads that will delight any reader of fantasy and I look forward to seeing if the rest of the books are also this good.

The Greatcoats – An Interview With Sebastien de Castell

I had the privilege to trap one of fantasy’s most underrated authors, Sebastien de Castell, in a conversation the other day. In it he revealed some interesting tid bits on both his Greatcoats series as well as his new upcoming novel, Spellslinger. For those of you who have read the novels, hopefully this gives you some more insight into the series. For those of you that have not, I hope it inspires you to pick it up. My reviews for the first three books in the series can be found here and here.

You have talked about your inspiration here for The Greatcoats, but I have not seen you mention The Three Musketeers despite many parallels. Did this classic tale provide inspiration for the story?

I think you might just be the first reviewer to notice my avoidance of mentioning The Three Musketeers when asked about inspirations—well spotted!

While the Greatcoats books deal with some of the same themes as Dumas—about friendship and honour and daring—my own writing style is very different, and in fact much more influenced by Noir writers and some of the New Wave sci-fi and fantasy writers like Roger Zelazny than by Dumas or Cervantes.

More importantly, though the Greatcoats series is set in a late-Renaissance fantasy world, like most writers, my stories are ultimately about my time and the issues I see around me rather than about harkening back to some earlier era. I suspect that was just as true for Dumas, writing in the early nineteen hundreds.

On a related note, what are some of your favorite fantasy novels?

The truth is, I don’t read that much fantasy anymore. For some reason it interferes with my writing process. One of my excuses for this is that I think that it’s good for fantasy authors to read outside the genre and bring some of that to fantasy fans to both keep things fresh and grow the field. But it’s equally true that I’m simply too analytical when reading fantasy these days and it interferes with my enjoyment.

That said, I could pretty much always pick up a Robin Hobb book and enjoy it, and the same is true of Steven Brust. For fans of Dumas, by the way, Brust’s Khaavren Romances (the first of which is The Phoenix Guards) are a very well-regarded and genuine tribute to Dumas’ Three Musketeers.

With your three protagonists, Falcio, Brasti, and Kest, it seems like it would have been tempting to go with multiple points of view as opposed to just the one following Falcio. Why did you decide to go with just the one?

I tend to write in first-person because, for me, it feels closest to the heart of the character, and with the Greatcoats, the drama comes not just from the swashbuckling but from knowing exactly what Falcio’s thinking and feeling at the time. I had originally thought of writing a trilogy in which each of the books was told from the perspective of one of the three characters, but I think that would have felt jarring for the reader. Falcio isn’t just the main character—he’s our eyes and ears into the world and his perspective is what gives continuity to the twisting, shifting events of the story.

One of my favorite things about The Greatcoat series is that the greatcoats are never really the strongest, smartest, fastest people in the room. Instead they focus on the law and doing what’s right and it gives them an angle that feels fresh at least to me. Was this intentional or just a side effect of making them traveling lawmen?

The Greatcoats is very much a swashbuckling adventure series—an expression of my own love of that style and sensibility. But the problem with “swashbuckling” (which I define as trying to solve a problem with daring and style) is that it tends to give us unbeatable characters. When those characters lose, the reason is usually pretty weak (I mean, why did character X suddenly lose that fight when we’ve seen him win twenty other ones against bigger odds?) This is why it’s so hard to keep a swashbuckling adventure series fresh. With the Greatcoats, I needed there to be weaknesses in the characters that even they tended not to see—but which the reader could—so that when they do lose, it’s for believable reasons.

The other reason for the way the characters behave is that, for me, anyway, heroism has to have some fundamental purpose. If it’s just about “beating the bad guy” then it’s not heroism at all—it’s just fighting enemies. So one of the issues that perennially troubles Falcio, Kest, and Brasti is why are they getting into this fight, and will it do any good even if they win? In fact, a good deal of Saint’s Blood involves Falcio being challenged on that very question.

I saw that you announced your plans for Spellslinger, a YA fantasy novel about an aspiring new mage. Do you have any plans for other adult fantasy series outside The Greatcoats universe?

That’s a great question—one I wish I could answer.

I have a file on my computer that currently contains 44 different novel and series concepts. Some of them have sample scenes, some are outlines, and some are just vague descriptions of an idea. Some of the ideas are fantasy series, some are mystery, a couple of sci-fi, horror, one historical romance (in my defence, I only came up with it because one of the early test covers for Traitor’s Blade looked like a romance novel), and a few straight literary.

Right now, my focus is on making the Greatcoats into the best possible series it can be—something I’ll want to re-read twenty years from now. I want the same for Spellslinger, which has the added challenge that it’s intended to reach both a YA and adult audience. There’s also discussions going on about what happens next in the world of the Greatcoats. So, when I think about all that, it’s hard for me to internally commit to a whole new fantasy series. I don’t want to write repeats of my previous work, so it might be important that I write a few things outside the genre in order to keep my own brain stretching.

Your writing is some of the best humor I have ever read. Does this have to do with your natural author’s voice, or is it something you pushed for in The Greatcoats? For example, will your new series Spellslinger have a similar humorous element and tone?

Part of it just comes from my family background where saying something clever and witty was akin to a competitive sport around the dinner table. But with the Greatcoats the humour is something integral to the main characters—it’s how they deal with the horror around them and the chance that this time one of them could die.

Spellslinger has some of that humour but not in quite the same way. Kellen is sixteen, he’s not as experienced and he’s not as sure of himself. In some ways it’s more fun for me because the humour is more spontaneous and unexpected.

You announced that the 4th Greatcoat novel, Tyrant’s Throne, will be the final about these characters. Yet, as I have read through Saint’s Blood I can’t help but feel the story is getting bigger and more interesting with each book. Would you consider making more novels with these characters or is Tyrant’s Throne the definitive end?

There are discussions…stay tuned.

Falcio’s title is The King’s Heart, what would yours be?

Alas, my friend, that is a secret that goes with me to the grave.

Saint’s Blood – by de Castell-Who-Keeps-Getting-Better

23899193Saint’s Blood is the third book in The Greatcoats quartet by Sebastien de Castell. I have written about both of his previous two novels, Traitor’s Blade and Knight’s Shadow, and ranked them among some of my all-time favorites. They earned this distinction because they are  two of the funniest books I have ever read featuring a lovable cast, exciting plot, heart-touching writing and inventive world. De Castell’s books are written in the style of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, and to quote myself, “are a story about a group of magistrates called greatcoats who are tasked with traveling the land, hearing the pleas of the people (great and small) and making sure the law is upheld. They are sort of like duelist lawyers if you will.” This third novel in the series continues to build upon this world and takes previously unexplored ideas and characters from the first novel and paints us a brand new picture.

The plot of Saint’s Blood is hard to talk about without spoilers, but know it picks up a little time after the conclusion of Knight’s Shadow as our band of heroes do their best to hold together what is left of the government. As the greatcoats are trying to establish that they are still relevant in the world, a mysterious figure begins a religious crusade to murder the living saints of the world and throwing everything into chaos. With this, de Castell continues to impress me with his ability to expand on small aspects of his world established in previous novels. For example, previously, the only real thing we knew about the saints, or the religion of this world is that there are occasionally individual saints who function as living personifications of an abstract concept; such as the saint of mercy, Birgid-who-weeps-rivers. Much like he did in Knight’s Shadow, de Castell expands these seemingly minor details from previous books into an entire new background for his world that feels natural and well-planned. The religion in the story feels fresh and interesting, as well as being reminiscent of the Templar order that everyone knows. The addition of these details, and a focus on expanding the circle of characters in the story, makes Saint’s Blood feel like it increased the scope and complexity of The Greatcoats universe and gave the story more life.

While there is plenty of new content to sink your teeth into, Saint’s Blood still has at its core all the things that made the previous novels great. The writing is still unbelievably funny and playful, making it just fun to read. De Castell has an author’s voice that makes his prose fun, witty, and unique. On top of this, the story and characters really hit home. With the number of books I’ve read for this blog, I find myself a little jaded when it comes to scenes that are supposed to be emotionally moving. Saint’s Blood was having none of that, and broke through my cynical shell with some of its beautiful and poignant moments. Finally, one thing I really want to give de Castell credit for, both in Saint’s Blood and its predecessors, is his ability to make the mundane incredible. It is impressive to make a warrior cool, but it is even more so to make things like lawyers and craftsmen badass. De Castell treatment of the greatcoats, and their villains, makes the books feel innovative and helps them stand out among his other talented contemporaries.

However, the book was not perfect. There were times when the pacing suffered a little as action ebbed and flowed with little to no warning. Additionally, the writing at times was slightly unclear, and I found myself having to reread the occasional passage to make sure I understood what was happening in a scene. There was one passage in particular where an antagonist seemed to have just fallen out of the scene completely and I could not locate them no matter how hard I looked. Despite these complaints, their impact on my enjoyment of the book was minor and I really only noticed them in hindsight after I have finished the book and put it down.

When I read City of Blades a few weeks ago, I thought it would be unlikely that a book could compete with it for my top book spot for this year. It turns out that those thoughts were premature, and I am going to have to spend a long time considering what books were best when I make my top ten list this year. Saint’s Blood is a powerful addition to The Greatcoats series that made me lament that there is only one book left in the quartet. Do not hold off on picking up this sequel, and if you have not yet read Traitor’s Blade, I highly recommend checking it out.

Rating: 11/10

I was provided an ARC by Netgalley.com in exchange for an unbiased review.

A Crown For Cold Silver – Trying Too Hard

crown-for-cold-silverA Crown for Cold Silver, by Alex Marshell, was difficult to come to a final verdict on. While I was originally drawn in at the start of the book by the interesting characters, funny prose, and world building, I found myself bogged down with creeping problems as the story progressed. Everything that got me excited in the novel was counterbalanced with a problem that frustrated me to no end, making it hard to crystallize my feelings. In the end I had to make a list of pros and cons to determine if I liked it.

The book was immediately appealing to me based on its premise; an older, grizzed, badass woman comes out of retirement to assemble a super team and smack down some people ruining her country. The book follows a variety of characters in a land locked in a civil war between a queen and a pope. The primary POV is that of Zosia, the ex-queen of the now contested empire who decided that politics didn’t suit her and just walked away. She originally became queen after a stunning military campaign, in which she and her five lieutenants waged a brilliant war that eventually won her the throne; or so we are told. The book takes place after that first conquest, when a tragic event pulls Zosia out of retirement and convinces her to find her old compatriots and reconquer the land all over again. Super friends are usually my bread and butter. I love a story about a group of individuals with versatile skills and assets that bend together to accomplish something. Here Crown succeeds as the group of characters is well rounded and interesting, even though there character depth did not seem especially deep.

This is also where we see the first issue; it’s really hard to write a story about a character who is “the best”. The story cannot have them always succeeding for obvious reasons, but they are also supposed to be the greatest. As our novel progresses it is said multiple times that Zosia is the best person ever; which only makes it truly awkward and painful as we watch her fail to do things consistently. Despite having an interesting and well rounded cast, the characters are not really that likable, which can make immersion difficult. The story made it harder and harder to care about our “heroes” as we watch them categorically mess up across the novel, trying desperately to grasp the basic happenings around them and attempt to stop getting screwed over at every turn.

Back on the positive side, the prose and the dialogue were fairly good. I found myself laughing at multiple sections of the book and, while I cringed at a few pieces of dialogue, really enjoyed most of the character interactions. Several characters were stuck in interesting scenarios, including one who was playing babysitter to a group of nobles in powdered wigs that wanted to learn to fight that amused me to no end. I enjoyed a few of the cultural nuances, such as the importance of pipe carving, and enjoyed having some non-heterosexual characters for once.

That being said, the world building as a whole left a lot to be desired. The cultures were not really inventive, which feels like a strange critique for me as it is not something I generally ever notice. At times the novel felt like it was actually a historical fiction the veneer was so thin. In addition, the social dynamics were weirdly written. I would almost be willing to bet that Alex Marshall originally wrote this novel with a more male cast, and then went back and changed half the men to women and made everyone bisexual to make it work. I have absolutely no problem with female, or male, characters doing anything, or anyone, but in many places I had the weird sensation that I was reading typos when it came to assigning gender. Some of you might think that this has to do with my preconceived gender roles, but the passages I am talking about are more about things like one woman in the entire book being heavily mustached (not a cultural thing, just one woman in the entire world has basically a full mustache) and it is never commented on once. I saw instances of men and women wearing articles of clothing that sounded like the were designed for the other gender (for example men wearing shirts with extra room in the chest region). In addition, in a few instances it felt like the book was simply being lazy by saying characters were bisexual. There was no talk of societal norms for why this was so, or explanations of how this type of society would be different from our current real world one, it felt like it was written in to make gender swaps easier.

The book left me curious to see where the story was going, and the ending made me consider purchasing the second novel when it comes out later this year. However, I would only do so if some of the many small issues plaguing the book are addressed in the next chapter of the story. A Crown for Cold Silver feels like a book that is trying too hard to be edgy and different. If the author spent less time trying to think of inventive twists and weird character quirks, and more time on basic storytelling fundamentals, I think I would have liked the book a lot more. I feel that the problems outweigh the positives, and do not recommend A Crown for Cold Silver.

My copy of A Crown for Cold Silver was provided for me free by Orbit through Netgalley.com in exchange for an unbiased review.

Rating: 4.5/10

City of Blades – Talent, Not Luck

bennettrj-2-cityofbladesukI was really scared to read City of Blades, by Robert Jackson Bennett. For those of you who missed my review of the first book, City of Stairs, I had some strong feelings about how good it was. However, in many ways City of Stairs drew its story to a close, and while it provided a huge canvas for Bennett to work with, there was not a lot of indication where the series was heading. All of this, combined with the fact that City of Blades follows a different protagonist with a very different worldview, got me worried that lightning might not strike twice as City of Blades seemed  to be a very different book than City of Stairs. It turned out I was both right and wrong; City of Blades is a very different book but is just as good as its predecessor. Bennett both brings in a slew of new elements to mix things up while also retaining the key elements of his powerful writing style that made City of Stairs such an enjoyable read.

Our story picks up after City of Stairs, which if you haven’t read go do so right now, after the protagonists from book one have tried to make reforms in their various countries and bring the world together in one giant Kumbaya of love. It has gone poorly. People are, shockingly, unwilling to drop blood feuds and forget war crimes. While all this reform is going on, Mulaghesh, our older, bitter, military protagonist from book one, has been trying to find a peaceful retirement on a desolate beach. Shara, former protagonist and master of spycraft, knows she is having difficulty adjusting and asks Mulaghesh to go on a mission to the legendary City of Blades to investigate some mysterious happenings. While Mulaghesh is in the vicinity, she connects with a superior officer from her past who is having trouble controlling the populace and a relative of Sigrud who is rebuilding the city. Thus begins another mystery that is slowly pulled apart and solved by a daring and compelling protagonist over the course of a thrilling and exciting novel. The humor is still on point, and the characters are still deep and compelling. Bennett continues to impress with his immersive world building and impressive imagination as City of Blades really delivers, much like the first book, when it comes to a magnificent world to explore and a compelling mystery to solve. However, there are also a lot of key differences.

The focus of the second novel is on the military, and the difficulties of being a soldier. Mulaghesh folds in a completely new perspective to the story and tells the tale in a much more dry and straight manner. Where Shara was prone to skulk, observe, and spy, Mulaghesh lacks her training in spycraft. The soldier asks questions, talks to civilians, and lives up to her background as a military personal and a governor. Bennett’s ability to weave the character’s lives to their POV was masterfully done and results in Blades having a wildly different tone and feel than Stairs. While the other protagonists from Stairs are a part of Blades, the new cast of characters adds even more depth and only made the book better, in my opinion. Signe is a delight and I found that not only did she add a new personality to the dynamic, she created depth in others like Sigrud that I had not seen before.

City of Stairs began fairly innocuously but grew to be a tragic and touching tale of people fighting to improve their way of life. City of Blades starts right out of the gate with a much more tragic and quiet story. The pacing of the novel is back heavy, starting slowly and picking up speed every chapter until I read the back third of the novel without stopping to do anything. The story is about many things, but it is apparent quickly that Mulaghesh is running from her past and seeking atonement for something. Almost the entire new cast of Blades are recovering from some sort of tragedy, or dealing with a new one. The novel at its core is about finding the will to go one when terrible things happen, and at many points Bennett’s writing hit home as I lived through events in character’s past and present, and how it changed them deeply.

For once I really don’t have any critiques for a novel other than “why wasn’t it longer”. I was almost sure it was impossible for me to like City of Blades as much as I liked City of Stairs, but I was wrong. Being wrong only excites me, because at this point Robert Jackson Bennett has proved he didn’t get lucky with City of Stairs; he was just showcasing his talent. I could not be more excited for City of Miracles next year, and when you get a chance please take a moment to read this heart wrenching tale of a soldier seeking redemption.

Rating: City of Blades 10/10