The Wolf’s Call – Blood Song 2.0

51dr4slulel._sy445_ql70_So, many years ago when I was first starting out the site, I stumbled upon an absolutely incredible self-published book called Blood Song, by Anthony Ryan. The book was, and is, one of my favorite reads, and it rapidly gained a following before being picked up for publication. It became a massive success in the genre and everyone was clamoring for more. However, when Ryan released the second (Tower Lord) and third (Queen of Fire) books in the trilogy they were met with mixed reactions. I talk a lot about the controversy surrounding the books in this ancient (in relative terms) post here. Long story short, some felt the later books suffered because the story POV  moved from one to many and that Queen of Fire ended without a satisfying resolution. Well, I have good news for everyone. If you were a fan of Blood Song and didn’t like the later books, there is a new installment of the series that both returns to a Vaelin centric focus, and answers a ton of lingering questions from Queen of Fire. If you were a fan of all of the books like me, there is now another excellent installment of one of my favorite series by one of my favorite authors. It’s called The Wolf’s Call.

So what is the plot of The Wolf’s Call? Our story picks up several years after the end of the original trilogy and Vaelin has resettled into his role as the Tower Lord in the north of the realm. But, as we all know, conflict tends to follow Vaelin around like a baby duckling. Vaelin learns of trouble brewing to the West, on a new continent that we only hear mentions of in the first series. While initially reluctant to do anything other than sulk in his tower, Vaelin eventually finds the motivation to join the conflict and sails into a new land with only a few of his closest companions from the original trilogy. Vaelin must then use his lifetime of experience in war to stay alive, achieve an objective I won’t spoil, and turn the conflicts that find him in this new land.

The plot of The Wolf’s Call is exactly what I thought it would be, and I am very ok with that. Ryan essentially used a new far off conflict (which he seeded during the original trilogy) to move Vaelin to a new location, strip him of his entourage, and reset his story. It involves a new look at the powers of the Gifted and an antagonist that mirrors Vaelin’s military mind and physical prowess. While there was very little that surprised me about the plot, I still enjoyed it in its entirety. It is mostly just a series of events and situations that Vaelin must react and respond to, which are always fun to read. Vaelin is a weird character, and his unique qualities make him one of my favorites. He is this strange mix of exhaustion and responsibility that paints a picture of a man who is utterly bitter about how much he has given to the world, with a moral compass that refuses to allow him to stop. It creates the perfect personality that you can both deeply identify with (especially as I get older) but also idolize at the same time. I really like his quiet and contemplative personality in a world of charismatic heroes. He is also a complete badass.

You could argue that Vaelin is a Gary Sue, a protagonist that is overpowered and obnoxiously talented – but I would disagree. Even though Vaelin is definitely incredibly strong for a protagonist, his slow built to this point feels earned from his previous books and I feel no guilt reading about him kicking ass after all of the training and experiences he has gone through. Ryan also does a wonderful job of continuing to flesh out his Raven’s Shadow world (though the new series is called The Raven’s Blade) and I like the new setting. It is an interesting hybrid of merchant city-states and Asian culture, with an invigorating new cast. Although we spend 95% of the book in Vaelin’s POV, we do get a few interludes from the sister of the antagonist which do a great job of adding an undercurrent of tension and urgency throughout the book.

My only real issue with The Wolf’s Call is that it suffers from Ryan’s signature problem: if you have not read the previous novels recently, you are going to have a hard time remembering who everyone is. I just wish he added a few more context clues and minor flashbacks when reintroducing characters and names. This lack of context slows down the beginning of the book and it took me a little bit of time to get back up to speed. However, once I was about a fifth into the book I had a clear memory of who most of the cast were and it was fairly smooth sailing until the end.

The Wolf’s Call is a book that everyone will enjoy and is the closest spiritual successor of the original Blood Song. The book has a straightforward plot that explores doors left open at the end of Queen of Fire and sets the stage for an explosive new conflict for Vaelin to stumble his way through. I love Vaelin Al Sorna, and it feels so good to see him take the stage again in his glorious, broody, form. If you haven’t read The Raven’s Shadow trilogy yet, please do yourself a favor and check it out – and if you have, The Wolf’s Call should be at the top of your to-do list.

Rating: The Wolf’s Call – 9.5/10
-Andrew

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The Neutronium Alchemist – A QTL Discussion

We are back with another audio discussion. This time we are doing book two, The Neutronium Alchemist, in The Night’s Dawn trilogy, by Peter Hamilton. You can find the spoiler-free written review here: Neutronium Alchemist review. The goal of this discussion is to dive a little deeper into the book to better explore what makes them good, bad, and unique. There are a lot of spoilers for the books in these discussions, so if you wish to remain ignorant I recommend you check out the written review. Otherwise, here is the discussion of book two:

And if you are looking for the discussion of book one, it can be found here: The Reality Dysfunction 

Gods Of Jade And Shadow – A Walk Through Old Maya

51gxorcir2lWhat an absolutely weird and charming book. Gods of Jade and Shadow, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, is equal parts Mayan epic fantasy, Mexican historical fiction, jazz love letter, quest fantasy, and Cinderella fairy tale. I am not sure who the target audience is, but it is such a unique and interesting book that it is sure to find at least a small niche following. The book is another of our dark horse candidates for 2019, so if you are looking for a new debut this might fit the bill. Or, if you ever thought about which Mayan gods would be best dressed as a flapper, then this book might be right up your alley.

Gods of Jade and Shadow tells the story of Caseopia, a classic Cinderella figure that is being abused by her extended family. One day while cleaning, Caseopia opens a strange chest her grandfather has lying around and discovers a god of death (Hun-Kamé) that her grandfather, and the god’s twin brother (Vucub-Kamé), had imprisoned. Hun-Kamé attaches himself to Caseopia and charges her with recovering a few missing pieces of his person so that he may retake the underworld, called Xibalba. If Caseopia does not recover them quickly, the god will drain her life force and she will die, providing ample motivation. Thus, Caseopia and Hun-Kamé set out on a quest to visit a number of colorful characters and locations across Central America, which culminates in a final showdown in Xibalba between the twins.

I have strong complicated feelings about this book. On the one hand, it felt like what people in the video game industry call “a walking simulator.” Caseopia and Hun-Kamé, or even the antagonist Vucub-Kamé, don’t really do anything until the last 30 pages of the book. The rest of the story is just them showing up at locations and things magically going their way. However, there is a large romance plotline between Caseopia and Hun-Kamé, which is well done despite neither character being individually interesting. In addition, while the book could be described as “characters go to places,” the places they go are incredible. Moreno-Garcia has a real talent for imaginative settings and interesting locations, so it is a shame that I didn’t like the way she described them.

The biggest problem I had with Gods of Jade and Shadow is I really didn’t like the style of the prose. It is told as if you are sitting around a campfire, hearing a story passed down from a beloved older family member who doesn’t really remember all the details but knows the general gist. Given the emphasis on oral history in this part of the world, I highly suspect that this prose style is thematically on point and well executed – I just personally really didn’t like it. It isn’t poorly done, it just really isn’t for me.

Despite this, I did still enjoy the book. The themes are well layered and well executed. The book heavily revolves around complicated relationships, and feelings, with family and redemption. It explores the idea of “can people really change” and I thought Morena-Garcia did a very good job demonstrating her view on these subjects through her characters. In the end, the book is very sweet and heartwarming, and it made for a pretty great beach read despite my issues with the stylistic choices.

Gods of Jade and Shadow is pretty different from a lot of its competitors in the fantasy genre, for better and worse. With wonderful themes and a fantastic setting, the book will pull you in and take you on a journey. However, readers will likely have strong feelings about the distinctive prose. I personally did not enjoy it, but have no trouble imagining that there will be many who find it enchanting. Gods of Jade and Shadow is an interesting experience and if you find yourself even a little bit curious I recommend you check it out.

Rating: Gods of Jade and Shadow 7.0/10
-Andrew

Crowfall – Misery Loves Company

51wz0ii4rhlIt has been a case study in character development for me to read The Raven’s Mark series, by Ed McDonald. Here we are at Crowfall, the final book in the trilogy, and we finally have a protagonist I can get behind. If you haven’t read any of my reviews on the first two books, Blackwing and Ravencry, you can find them in the links. However, to save you time the jist of my reviews is that I really wanted to love both these books, but a boring protagonist slowed me down. Our leading man, Ryhalt, was like a piece of coal sitting in the center of a beautiful crown in book one, dragging down the worldbuilding and plot noticeably. In book two, there were some signs that a beautiful gem might lay underneath if we just gave him a bath. In book three, Ryhalt finally feels like a shining diamond that improves, rather than detracts from, the beauty of Crowfall.

If you are unfamiliar with the plot of this grimdark epic, it roughly goes as follows. The Raven’s Mark tells the story of a land with two sets of gods: The Deep Kings and the Nameless. The Deep Kings want to consume everything around them and remake it in their image. The Nameless want to avoid death, so they consume everything around them in the name of murdering The Deep Kings – but aren’t as effective as they want to be. When faced with two sides of the same “die horribly” coin, the general populace of the world throws in with The Nameless as they stand a single step higher on a morality ladder that is descending straight into hell. Some of these people sign on as captains to The Nameless in order to better be able to fight. One of these individuals is Ryhalt, captain to The Nameless named Crowfoot (yes I see the irony). Our story follows Ryhalt as he tries to stop the world from ending repeatedly. Oh, and the series heavily features a magical wasteland called “The Misery” that is like a magical Chernobyl that is both sentient and malicious.

McDonald has a real talent for worldbuilding and plot. His universe is a horrible place to live, with most people living hard lives that often result in brutal deaths. However, there is a clear undercurrent of hope and struggle that runs through all three books that keep you coming back. His gods and villains are capital C ‘Cool’ and their machinations are weird, imaginative, horrifying, and engrossing to read about. As mentioned above, the real Achilles heel for me in the series has been Ryhalt. Despite being Crowfoot’s captain, Ryhalt always seemed out of his class when it came to the villains he struggled against. In the first book, it could definitely feel like the only element he was bringing to the table was ‘plot armor’ and it would pull me out of the story. This issue was partially alleviated in book two but is straight up destroyed in Crowfall.

Without giving too much away, Crowfall’s plot revolves around a bar-none-battle-royale for the world. The Deep Kings, the Nameless, and some independent agents have all spent the last of their power to compete for a magical McGuffin that will place one person at the top of the food chain. The action, subterfuge, and climaxes are edge-of-your-seat captivating, and Ryhalt finally feels like he is bringing the appropriate amount of thunder. I really enjoyed this book. It has all of the strengths of the previous two: epic plot, creative magic, love-to-hate villains, and a world dripping in atmosphere and lore that I didn’t feel ready to leave. But, it has also turned its principal weakness into another ace in the hole: Ryhalt is finally awesome.

Recommending grimdark series can be hard, as they are not to everyone’s taste. However, after reading Crowfall I can honestly say that I think almost all fantasy readers should enjoy The Raven’s Mark if they follow it through all the way. It has flaws, but the end result is a diamond that shines brightly in the fantasy landscape and Crowfall is one of the best series conclusions I have read in a while. Ed McDonald should be lauded for what he has created and I look forward to seeing where his creative imagination takes us next.

Rating: Crowfall – 9.5/10
-Andrew

Queenslayer – Captivating But Showing Wear

51kfgvjszblI am running out of inventive and original ways to say I really like almost anything that Sebastien de Castell puts out. This is something like the eighth book of his that I have reviewed and the worst thing I have had to say about any of his works is that you should go read it as soon as possible. However, let it be said that I do my due diligence and review everything of his that I come across. Queenslayer is one such book, the fifth and penultimate installment in de Castell’s YA Spellslinger series. Although I wouldn’t categorize these books as heavy intellectual reading, they have been a welcome romp every time I have read one and I was really looking forward to the fifth installment. Is this the book that finally breaks de Castell’s streak of excellence? No, but I do think that the Spellslinger series is starting to show some signs of strain.

For those of you not familiar with the series, you can find my review of book one here, and the other installments here and here. A gross oversimplification of the plot would be that Spellslinger follows the story of Kellen, a mage with a demonic curse that will eventually kill him and has restricted his ability to use magic. Thanks to his curse, he is exiled from his tribe and hunted like a criminal. Thus Kellen must make use of his wiles, tricks, and friends to survive in a harsh world where magic is worth everything. The books in the series all take a similar structure, and Queenslayer is no exception: Kellen travels to a new location and is confronted with a strange new magical threat and must use the skills and tools he has acquired thus far to figure out what is going on. In Queenslayer, Kellen finds himself in the court of one of the larger kingdoms in de Castell’s world. Through an unfortunate series of events, Kellen is forced into the role of tutor to a young, yet deceptively smart, monarch. Kellen must survive the machinations of the court, discover who is plotting the downfall of his new charge, and survive the usual amounts of death one encounters while being wanted in exile.

I really like Queenslayer’s premise. Court intrigue has always been a favorite book subject of mine and it’s a space that de Castell naturally excels in with his powerful character writing and fun dialogue. The new characters are fun and memorable, and the developments at court captivated my curiosity and kept me invested to the point where I finished the book in a single sitting. In addition, de Castell’s worldbuilding continues the series trend of fleshing out his magical world and gives you a strong and consistent sense of the political landscape both within this new country, and other locations we have visited in the series before. The pace is unsurprisingly excellent, and while it is definitely aimed at a YA audience it is a book that almost any age can enjoy.

Unfortunately, while the positives of Queenslayer are massive, I had a negative thought that I couldn’t banish for a large section of my reading: I have seen a lot of this before. Although de Castell has done an admirable job of giving each book its own unique identity, there is a pattern of sameness that has started to become a little more apparent at book five. Some of the events in Queenslayer seem a little more unlikely than usual. When this is paired with some recurring villains and machinations showing up yet again for the fifth book in a row, Queenslayer started feeling like a weak installment that was showing signs of wear. The book was still a delight to read, but it didn’t stick with me the same way the first four installments did. I am surprised to say this, but it feels like this series is about ready to wrap up and I am excited for what will surely be an exciting conclusion in the sixth and final book.

If you are already reading the Spellslinger series, Queenslayer should be an obvious pickup. Sebastian de Castell’s work has a warmth and a joy that is contagious and ever present in everything he makes. Queenslayer has all the great things its four older siblings have, although it is starting to show a few signs of age. Queenslayer feels like an excellent set up for the final installment of the Spellslinger series and I look forward to closing out this saga with very positive memories.

Rating: Queenslayer – 8.0/10
-Andrew

The Story Of The Stone – Fool Me Once

220px-story_of_the_stoneThe Story of the Stone is the second book in the much-underappreciated Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox series by Barry Hughart. I read (and reviewed here) the first of the series, Bridge of Birds, as part of a book club last year and was very impressed with the novel. Bridge of Birds was a sneaky book, with a number of our members dismissing it early on only to have every single reader fall in love with its subtle humor and themes by the end of the story. However, a huge part of the joy of reading Bridge of Birds was the surprise of discovering how much lay beneath the surface of such an unassuming book. Going into The Story of the Stone a reader will be much more on-guard towards Hughart’s subtlety and does that make it harder to enjoy The Story of the Stone?

For me, the answer was both yes and no. Hughart is still a brilliant writer and his clever ideas, witty scenes, and humorous dialogue still shine through in this second installation. He is one of the few authors I have read that remind me of the great Terry Pratchett, as both of them display a talent for hiding profound messages in silly and fun stories. Unfortunately, the reveals and subtleties of The Story of the Stone didn’t quite have the mind-blowing effect that they did in the first book once you know what to look for. Yet, even though I was much more easily able to guess the direction of the second book’s plot it still didn’t keep me from loving the outcome.

The Story of the Stone picks up shortly after Bridge of Birds ends and shows us a Master Li and Ox who are bored with their daily routine. Everything in their lives is going swimmingly and they are going out of their minds at the plainness of it. So, when Master Li is asked to come investigate the mysterious resurrection of a mad prince, the pair fall over themselves to look into this supposed second coming. The prince was a scientist who performed gruesome medical experiments on his people in the pursuit of immortality. His machinations poisoned the beautiful land he rules, killed and deformed a number of his subjects, and drove their society into ruin. Upon his death, he promised to return – and now a century later there are signs that the promise is coming true. Things such as a mad disembodied voice with the prince’s cackle can be heard in the night. Deformed mummers with the prince’s regalia are appearing and disappearing without a trace. Parts of the kingdom’s wildlife is dying with no explanation. It is up to Li and Ox to determine how to stop the second coming of the prince.

Much like the first book, The Story of the Stone has a fairly linear structure. Li and Ox are showed a handful of seemingly supernatural occurrences and one by one look into, and debunk, how they were achieved. While doing this Hughart masterfully weaves pseudo-Chinese folklore into the worldbuilding and humor into the character interactions. Li and Ox are a memorable pain that remains delightful to follow, and the new support cast rivals them in eccentricities. It would be had to argue that Hughart’s characters are unoriginal. As I mentioned before, the mystery in The Story of the Stone was a lot easier to solve given my experiences with Bridge of Birds, but I still found it intriguing enough to read the book in a single sitting. All of my compliments to the prose, worldbuilding, and pacing in Bridge of Birds equally apply to The Story of the Stone.

Much like Bridge of Birds, The Story of the Stone is an intriguing and entertaining journey through pseudo-Chinese folklore with a lovable cast. Although I liked Bridge of Birds more, it is only because my expectations were so much higher for Hughart’s second book. Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox are one of the great underappreciated gems of the fantasy genre and I implore you to pick these books up when you can. You will not regret discovering what lays below the surface of these seemingly innocent books.

Rating: The Story of the Stone – 9.5/10
-Andrew

Titanshade – Familiar Yet Fantastical

91mbw2bkarelAlright, I am back from my wedding and honeymoon where I read nine books on the beach – so I have a ton of new stuff to talk about and am excited to get back into it. Let’s see if I still remember how to write a review. The first book I want to talk about this week is Titanshade, by Dan Stout. It is a fantasy buddy cop book and one of our dark horse selections for this year. I was eager to tear into it for a number of reasons, the simplest being “can it do a better job at a fantasy buddy cop story than the train wreck that was Netflix’s Bright from last year.” The short answer is yes, it is much better, but that bar was extremely low and there is a lot of space between “terrible” and “amazing.”

As mentioned, Titanshade is a fantasy buddy cop book. The plot is fairly straightforward: our lead cop protagonist, Carter, is an excellent but unconventional cop with a troubled past that has mired his career in the cases that no one else will touch. He lives and works in the city of Titanshade, a Siberian industrial city that holds high esteem in the world because it produces most of the known supply of oil. The city sits nestled in a northern icy wasteland next to a mountain that contains a chained god who is constantly being tortured by devils (we don’t really know why). The god’s agony produces a massive amount of heat, warming the area and allowing workers to live in the shade of the titan. Unfortunately, Titanshade is running out of oil. The wells are running dry and the city needs to find a new source of income and power to remain relevant in the world. So when Carter stumbles onto a murder case that threatens upcoming talks to transform the cities industries he is assigned a young plucky non-humanoid partner to work the case and keep the city from metaphorically dying.

The murder investigation is fun and interesting, but if you are familiar with a cop or detective dramas the story isn’t really something you haven’t seen a million times before. Carter is assigned a young partner named Ajax, an adorable yet effective cop who serves as a good foil to Carter. He is this strange bug humanoid creature, and while he and Carter have a ton of friction at first they unsurprisingly come to trust and like one another over the course of the book. Titanshade’s plot doesn’t really stand out and does nothing to reinvent genre clichés that I personally find extremely tired. If you are hoping that this would be the new frontier of cop stories then you might be disappointed. However, this book still has a ton to offer readers if they have the right expectations.

In my opinion, the target audience of Titanshade is people who like both cop shows and fantasy and are looking for something that bridges the gap. While the plot isn’t innovative, the characters are extremely enjoyable and the world-building is fantastic. Carter and Ajax are just fun to read about, and it’s hard not to find yourself enjoying their relationship even though you know where it is going from page one. Originally I was going to say that the world-building is simplistic, but a more accurate adjective would be to say that it is streamlined. Titanshade’s fantastical elements are fairly subdued. There are a ton of different fantasy races, all cool and original, but all of them are essentially humans with very different physiology. There aren’t tons of psychological or cultural differences between the species. Additionally, although there are magic and fantastical things – they are incorporated to accomplish things that we already have in the modern world through the use of technology. Dan Stout has essentially taken our existing world, and stripped a bunch of the tech, and then replaced it with things that are powered by magic. The result is a world that feels both extremely familiar, yet exciting and fun to explore. It is a really cathartic read, giving you a tried and true plot that you are sure to enjoy – in an original setting that enhances instead of distracting from the plot. My only complaint with the world-building is that there were still some pretty big questions left unanswered from book one, that I can only assume Stout will answer in later books.

If you like cop shows and fantasy books, you will almost certainly like Titanshade. Although it doesn’t break a lot of new ground, the book is a wonderful reskinning of popular cop tropes with a lovable cast. Thank you Dan Stout for giving me an absolutely perfect beach read, and I can’t wait to check out what is next for Carter and Ajax. Go check out this debut book when you get a chance.

Rating: Titanshade – 7.5/10
-Andrew