The Black Song – Waving Through A Window

91hy43v3cmlI continue to be very happy that Anthony Ryan has decided to return to the world of Blood Song. The Black Song is the conclusion to Raven’s Blade, a duology that starts with The Wolf’s Call set five years after the original trilogy. The Black Song is a strong and enjoyable conclusion to this duology that sets up additional books by the end. However, it suffers from a couple of strange issues that are definitely worth talking about. So let’s dig into the pros and cons of this new book by one of our favorite writers. Please note, this review has spoilers for the original Blood Song trilogy, and should not be read by anyone who wants to avoid reveals for the original three books. You have been warned!

To get a better sense of what the overall story of the duology is, please check out my review of The Wolf’s Call. For those who want a short summary, Vaelin has traveled West to rescue the love of his life, Sherin, that he shipped off to a different continent against her will to keep her safe in the original trilogy. When he arrives at this new Asian-inspired land he finds Sherin perfectly fine and well established. However, he also finds a Ghengis Khan style warlord in possession of a blood song threatening to destroy all of the known world. Thus, Vaelin gets embroiled in a conflict where he is the clear outsider trying to bring down a man who possesses the unique tool that made Vaelin a god of war many books ago. In The Black Song, Vaelin’s attempts to regain his lost blood song in order to fight the coming hordes and it doesn’t take a genius to guess from the title of the book that this attempt goes poorly. Vaelin’s efforts leave him with a corrupted song with a thirst for blood, and he must find a way to fix it before he becomes just as bad as the villain he is trying to defeat.

A lot of The Black Song is just continuing the plot threads of The Wolf’s Call with an added layer now that Vaelin has this corrupted song to manage. The world and characters are enjoyable, there is a clear objective that we build towards with a number of awesome set-pieces along the way. In my Wolf’s Call review, I talked about how exciting and enjoyable it is to be back in the shoes of one of my favorite protagonists, and this still rings true in Black Song. But it hits a snag when Vaelin’s “outsider looking in” treatment is amplified from The Wolf’s Call and Vaelin ends up feeling a little too adjacent to the plot. While I adore Vaelin, my favorite passages in The Black Song ended up being the ones told from the sister and the second in command of the villain – as they were much closer to the conflict and emotionally invested in its outcome. Vaelin has this sort of pale detachment to the whole affair as he is much more focused on his new corruption. This would be fine… except that Vaelin doesn’t actually reach a complete conclusion to his personal story in The Black Song. It is quite clear that some of Vaelin’s internal conflicts will be addressed in whatever book Ryan writes next. The result of all of this is some confusion as to whether Vaelin was the best protagonist for The Black Song. On one hand, I absolutely loved getting more time with him – but on the other, this didn’t feel like it was truly his story to tell.

But, don’t think that I didn’t enjoy The Black Song. The escalating conflict between the ragtag group of good guys and the ever-growing antagonist was gripping and exciting. It is very clear that Ryan has grown a lot since his first trilogy, and his ability to write a climactic conclusion to a conflict has only improved. There were a number of set pieces, like the part of the story set in the temple of spears, that were enchanting. Initially, I was going to complain that Sherin and Vaelin’s relationship didn’t change enough over the course of the book, but in the last 25% there is a lot of growth that feels appropriate and I ended up really liking where the characters netted out.

All in all, The Black Song is a solid book and another enjoyable chapter in the saga of Vaelin. I don’t think it was as strong as the duology’s opener, The Wolf’s Call, but it is still definitely worth your time. I am very excited to step through the door that the end of this book leaves open and look forward to whatever story that Ryan decides to tell us next. The Raven’s Blade duology has jump started my investment in the next series and I am ready for more.

Rating: The Black Song – 8.0/10
-Andrew

The Empress Of Salt And Fortune – A Scrumptious Political Snack

91xjptkuklI have been beginning to feel like a metaphorical Goldilocks lately when it comes to Asian inspired political period pieces. The last two I tried were The Throne of the Five Winds and The Wolf of Oren-Yaro – neither of which quite did it for me. But, apparently, I have a thing for these kinds of books because I picked up my third in a few months in the form of a novella called The Empress Of Salt And Fortune by Nghi Vo. Turns out that if you keep reading books, you often can find the one that feels juuuuust right.

There are a lot of strange things about this novella; the first being that it is a novella, not a novel. Political dramas, on average, have some of the highest page counts I run into, and cramming one into a novella seems like a tall order. Yet, somehow Empress does the job and tells an engrossing story of a foreign princess carving a place for herself in a hostile court. The drama is stripped down to the bare essentials here, providing you with the perfect amount of information to be invested in the story and excited by the politics. For better or worse, the novella lacks the usual chapters of intricate detail and facts that bring the world to life – focusing more on how the evolving court drama plays out. That isn’t to say that there is no worldbuilding. There is plenty and it is excellent. It just focuses more on broad strokes than small details, which will delight some and turn others away.

The other very interesting thing Empress has going for it is its narrative style. The novella is told from the POV of an archivist/cleric named Chih. Their job is to travel the world collecting stories for their magical talking bird who has a perfect memory so they may be recorded. As such, the entirety of the drama is told in the past tense through conversations with a servant who lived in the palace at the time it was going on. It’s an original way to tell a political drama. The advantage is that it makes the story easy to chop up and streamline without feeling like you are missing chunks of the story. The disadvantage is it makes the events feel more distant, less personal, and less engrossing than if the reader was experiencing the drama as it happened in real-time. Or so I thought at the start of the novella. Through clever writing and beautiful prose, Vo pulls the reader in. The entire story is also dripping with emotion so that it easily pulls you in and keeps you invested.

While writing this review I realized that The Empress Of Salt And Fortune is only the first in what seems to be a series of novellas about Chih traveling the world and collecting tales. Count me in. Empress is an impressively tight package that does more with its short page count than most political dramas do in 500 pages. It is exciting, beautifully written, and overall a good time. I highly recommend you check out this novella and I eagerly await the next one in the series.

Rating: The Empress Of Salt And Fortune – 9.0/10
-Andrew

Steel Crow Saga – Everybody’s Got Problems

51re9unfc2blWell let’s get this out of the way early: Steel Crow Saga, by Paul Krueger, feels like someone sat down and tried to combine the best parts of Pokemon and Avatar: The Last Airbender, and did an admirable job. A lot of how you will feel about this book is how you react to the last sentence. If this concept fills you with excited glee, you are probably going to love it to pieces. If this concept fills you with trepidation, you will likely find the book to be a bit lukewarm. To be fair, distilling this impressive book down to a single sentence is an injustice, so let’s dig more into the meat of this interesting story and see what it has to offer.

Steel Crow Saga is the first book in a series of the same name and follows four different POVs in political intrigue seasoned with a lot of action. Our leads are Lee, Jimuro, Xiulan, and Tala, and everybody has issues they need to resolve. Each of them comes from a different nation that represents a different piece of the world – each with a different real-world Asian allegory. Tala is a soldier from Sanbu (Phillippines), Jimuro is a prince from Tomoda (Japanese), Xiulan is a detective from Shang (China), and Lee is a thief from Jeongson (Korea). I found the inspirations from the countries tasteful and interesting, but as a Caucasian American I am absolutely not the right person to weigh in on that and I recommend seeking other sources if this is a concern for you. The book takes place right after an all-out war between the nations. Tomoda launched a campaign of dominance that successfully subjugated all the other countries, however, after a harsh occupation they were eventually beaten back and conquered themselves by Shang and Sanbu. The story focuses on transporting the last living royal of Tomoda back to his country to assume the throne in the hopes that all the countries might be able to put their conflicts to bed and begin moving forward. Unfortunately, peace is not what everyone wants and this relatively simple task quickly becomes complicated and potentially deadly.

Okay, now that you have a general gist of the plot, let’s talk about the pros and cons. First pro: the world-building. The reimagining of these Asian countries is a lot of fun. Each nation has a good mix of real-world culture and new spins that make the fantasy counterparts take a healthy step away from their inspirations. The book focuses heavily on two different magic styles native to different countries. The Tomodese can Steelpact, an ability gained through their perfect attenuation with nature, allowing them to put pieces of their souls into metal and breathe life into it. This allows them to be leaps and bounds ahead of their rivals in technological advancements, have swords that cut through anything like a lightsabre, and have the best marksmen around with their firearms. On the other hand, the Shang and the Sanbu have pokemon. They can pact with a single animal of almost any kind to turn them into giant energy versions of the creature that can be summoned and dismissed at will. Both magics are pretty awesome. In general, I liked the world-building a lot. However, I felt there were a few holes and gaps in the world Krueger showed us, even though I got the sense that he was saving them for later books, not that he hadn’t developed the missing areas.

Up next is the characters, who get mixed marks. On a personal introspective level, the cast is all fantastic. All four leads are all complex and interesting individuals that you will rapidly find yourself growing attached too. All of them have different issues they are dealing with and its very rewarding to watch how their very different personalities grapple with these difficult subjects. In addition, the supporting characters all have memorable quicks that did a great job sticking them into my memory so that most of them remain fresh in my mind weeks after finishing the book. Unfortunately, this is where my praise now must turn to criticism, as the chemistry between the characters is…. rough. While I really enjoyed the introspective parts, many character interactions often felt tonally inconsistent, a little too simple, and repetitive. The table stakes for characters in this book are that they have experienced the horrors of war. But, a good half of the dialogue between all the characters in this story feels like it can be boiled down to fingerpointing. You are shown very quickly that all sides of the war did some horrible things, but then you have to listen to the characters repeatedly say “no, your side was worse” over and over again for the majority of the book. It is exhausting and while I understand the desire to explore the topic of post-war devastation to culture and society, the wonderful delicate introspection the characters do inside their own head was massively overpowered by the back and forth accusations in the dialogue.

The plot was also a bit messy. While the book starts out strong with a clear goal and obstacles to overcome, it seems to rapidly descend into a series of disconnected set pieces where really cool magic and action happens. And I do want to emphasize, there are some really cool magic and action. However, I often found myself not understanding why, where, and how some things were happening. The antagonist is also frankly a bit of a disappointment. The set up for the villain is great, but the reveal and climax felt like they didn’t really match the scope of the rest of the story. There are some great twists though, and while I didn’t love the plot as a collective there were a number of pieces of it that I enjoyed immensely in isolation.

Steel Crow Saga is a book with a lot of things to offer and a fun concept that just falls short of being stellar. The world is a joy to explore, I love the characters, the action is exciting, and the magic is both original and nostalgic at the same time. It just needed a slightly more directed plot with some better character chemistry and it would have been one of my top books of 2019. Instead, I think it is a good book that has a lot of potential. I will definitely continue the series and look forward to seeing if Krueger can elevate it a bit in the next chapter.

Rating: Steel Crow Saga – 7.0/10
-Andrew

Jade City – An Interesting Place I Don’t Belong

jade-city-final-cover-e1495648519644Jade City, by Fonda Lee, was a book I originally was not going to pick up. Then, a serendipitous amazon sale happened and I managed to pick up a copy for a dollar. You have probably at least heard of this book by now, as it has been nominated for a number of awards and received a ton of positive reviews. So I decided to crack it open and decide for myself it if lived up to all the good press it was getting. My general consensus: yes it is a pretty good book, but not really my kind of read.

Jade City follows the story of a trio of siblings in the Kaul family; Lan, Hilo, and Shae. The family business, which is somewhere between being a feudal lord and a mobster, has recently passed from a well revered grandfather to the oldest grandson. The trio must take over a failing family business, navigate a complicated political landscape, work through their personal struggles, and answer some mysteries plaguing their clan. Recently, Lan has become the head of the clan, Hilo has become the warleader, and Shae has returned from a self-imposed exile to reconnect with the clan. Each has some unique issues that they are dealing with, as well as some overlapping problems that they work together to solve.

Initially, I was pretty sold on Jade City. The plot is intriguing, the characters are likable, and the world is cool. Jade in particular is an interesting magic. Essentially, being in contact with the aforementioned stone can give you a number of powers: super strength, an iron body, and the ability to project energy like a weapon to name a few. However, handling the stone is difficult and requires rigorous training or it causes madness. It was a unique magic system I was excited to read more about.

My problems with Jade City started popping up about half-way through: the characters never felt like they were getting anywhere. While I was initially into the full cast of Jade City, the characters started to feel like they were just rehashing the same inner monologues over and over – never making any progress. It took characters that felt like they could be deep and nuanced and instead made them feel one dimensional. After about 50% of the book I don’t know what I could say more about Shae than she was smart and had mixed feelings about returning to her clan.

Jade City doesn’t do anything wrong, but I found it just wasn’t holding my attention as much as I would have liked in the back half of the book. I finished, and enjoyed, the first installment – but I don’t feel particularly driven to continue the series. However, if you are looking for some Asian inspired fantasy with a great premise, this might be right up your alley. I certainly seem to be in the minority with my issues with the series, so if it sounded cool you might want to give it a chance.

Rating: Jade City – 6.5/10
-Andrew

The Poppy War – The Makings Of Greatness

35068705For my older readers, you know how, when you turn on the Olympics and see these 18 year old athletes achieving tremendous success, you start to feel incredibly old? This month I got to experience that for the first time with a book. The Poppy War, by R. F. Kuang, is a Chinese inspired fantasy about a magical school. Kuang is in her early 20’s and I am astounded that an author this young created something of this quality. Before I start heaping on more praise, let’s talk about the plot of the book.

The Poppy War follows Rin, a war orphan raised by a pair of drug lords because they were legally obligated to take her in after the last conflict. To escape being sold as a bride, Rin tests into the most prestigious military academy in land where she will be trained alongside the children of aristocrats on how to be a general. Upon arriving at the school, Rin realizes that even though she tested in – her orphan background and peasant upbringing does not endear her to her teachers or classmates, and she has a lot of work to do to succeed at the school. The one advantage she has is she seems to have a connection to a mysterious teacher that no one else talks to and he may be able to teach her the art of shamanism.

There is a distinct Harry Potter vibe going on here: orphan with terrible step-family goes to magical school to escape terrible previous life. However, that is where the direct comparisons end for me, and I am happy that Kuang did a good job of making The Poppy War her own book. Rin is a likeable character with an interesting story. Watching her explore the world and master challenges thrown at her is very satisfying. I love all the time we spend in her classes learning about the world, and she is surrounded by a host of interesting side characters that made the book more fun to read. The school itself is awesome, feeling like a place I myself want to attend. The shamanism teacher is great, on par with a number of my other favorite teacher characters throughout fantasy. All of this creates an engrossing backdrop for an exciting and fun plot that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

The world itself is also fascinating. I love the history of the empire where Rin lives. As I mentioned, the school that Rin tests into is an extremely prestigious military academy to train generals. While famous schools in books are not new, Kuang’s angle for its importance was very original. The school is not prestigious for training the greatest military minds of all time or because it has a history of greatness. Instead, the school is elevated above its peers because it is seen by the governing leadership as a chance to finally stop losing wars. The empire does not have the best track record in its poppy wars (for which the book is named). They have been on the losing side twice, and are getting rather tired of it. To combat this, they established a premier school with the hopes of distilling the best and brightest to win the coming conflicts. All of this adds a deep feeling of genuine urgency to the classes and lessons. These are not kids taking abstract classes with no application or stakes, these are people trying to distinguish themselves to be the leaders in a war that is right around the corner. This was a fascinating change to the magical school formula and I loved it.

For all my praise, The Poppy War is not without faults. The two issues I had with the book were its prose and its pacing. At times the prose could feel rather rough. There were repeated phrases or responses in the same paragraph occasionally and the dialogue could feel wooden and awkward once in awhile. In addition, while the pacing was good for the majority of the time – there were clear sections where the book moved way too fast to fully grasp events and lost me as a reader. There were scenes I had to read multiple times to understand what was happening and scenes that felt like they had little to no emotional payoff because they moved too fast. However, both of these problems are things that authors tend to improve on as they write more, and with her powerful skills in tons of other areas I expect Kuang to only get better.

The Poppy War was a fun, engrossing, journey to a world I wish I could visit and a school I wish I could attend. With its strong characters, interesting world building, and intriguing plot it is a great read that I would recommend to anyone. I look forward to seeing what R. F. Kuang has in store for us next, as I expect her next book will be even better.

Rating: The Poppy War – 8.0/10
-Andrew

The Wall Of Storms – A Book So Large, You Could Use It In Liu Of A Weapon

wallofstormsJune of 2017 has been a crazy month of great book releases, and I have a ton of interesting reviews coming up for the many books that have come out. However, before I get to any of these hot potatoes, I need to take a moment to talk about a big release from the end of last year: The Wall of Storms, by Ken Liu. Ken Liu made a huge splash in the fantasy world with his incredible short stories, in particular his story Paper Menagerie that I guarantee will make you cry. He then followed that up by translating a world famous science fiction novel, The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin, from Chinese to English, before finally moving on to start publishing his own fantasy series. His series began with The Grace of Kings, a book that made a big splash for its original setting but has seemed to fade a bit from existence. I was a fan of the first book, and I was surprised more people didn’t seem pumped for the sequel because it is definitely worth checking out.

The Wall of Storms, much like its predecessor, is a very difficult book to review. I couldn’t really put my finger on it when I was reviewing Grace, but upon finishing Storms I have realized its because they are so damn large (almost 900 pages) that they are each really two books. Each half of the book tells a continuous story, but in two distinct arcs. The problem is I had very different feelings about the arcs making the book as a whole difficult to talk about as a collective piece. So, instead I am going to review them separately.

Arc I: When we left off with book one, the Dara empire had just be reunified and we had reentered a time of peace. The first part of the book is about infrastructure, and I never thought I would say this: I loved it. It felt like a really good look into Asian philosophies, allowed for some great character development of older characters, and introduced a fantastic new cast from the next generation in the story. It reminded me a lot of Game of Thrones, in the sense that we are now getting a look at what it takes to maintain a “happily ever after”. Seeing the small changes to the countries structure and government was thrilling, and watching people play political games in the peace that follows war was awesome. I have almost no negatives from the first half of the book and I feel like I would have given it a 9.5/10.

Arc II: Here is where we start running into some problems. In the second half of the story we go back to war, this time against an external threat. New villains have arisen from behind the impassable wall of storms that isolated the island of Dara from the rest of the world and it puts the new country to the test. While there was a lot of good in this second act, it did have some points I was not fond of. I thought that while some of the military engagements were awesome, a few felt lack luster. The Gods of Dara, which are part of the appeal of this series for me, are largely absent in the second arc. Finally, one of the things that Ken Liu does really well is impart a sense of impartiality in his books. The characters all feel like real people, and there is no plot armor to protect them from the ravishes of time and history. By doing this he makes his books feel like a blend of fantasy and historical fiction, which I really like. The problem with this is sometimes he WILL give a few characters plot armor, and it makes the events stand out negatively with how he treats the rest of the cast. It makes it hard to swallow when some favorite characters die “as that’s just the way the world is sometimes” compared to when some characters seem to walk-off having mountains dropped on them. However,I still found the second arc a great read, even with its flaws: 8.0/10.

This series continues to be one of the most original and interesting ones I have picked up. While I am sure some people are going to hate its style, I think it is worthwhile for all fantasy fans to try it out and see what they think for themselves. The story has some really great morals and philosophies that I love, and I really don’t know where Liu is taking the plot – which excites me. So considering all of that, it should be no surprise that The Quill to Live definitely recommends (a second time) you pick up The Grace of Kings or continue with The Wall of Storms.

Rating: The Wall of Storms – 8.5/10