For The Killing Of Kings – For The Having Of A Good Time

91fi4au2qflI apparently have a thing for military orders. Or, I guess not military, but organized groups of fantasy heroes. Maybe all of us who read the genre do, as most fantasy books have them. There always seems to be some group of warriors with a cliche name like “the Night Fighters” in every fantasy book. However, every once in a while you get a series like Malazan, or Bloodsong, or even Harry Potter that does these groups of heroes justice and tell you about a club that you would give your left arm to be a part of. This is one of those times. For the Killing of Kings, by Howard Andrew Jones, is the first book in his new The Ring-Sworn Trilogy. It is a phenomenal new story, whose greatest shortcoming is that there is not more of it, and it will likely be one of my top books of 2019.

For the Killing of Kings (FtKoK) tells the story of a post-war Darassus. Through the use of the Altenari, a prestigious military order, and its army, Darassus won a major conflict again its hostile neighboring nations. However, instead of pressing their victory, the royalty sued for peace – electing instead to focus their time upon studying mysterious magical artifacts they found over the course of the conflict instead of hunting down their enemies. This choice fractured the Altenari, with some losing faith in their leaders, and others holding fast to the nation’s new direction. Although the Altenari are somewhat reduced from their former glory, it is still a highly sought after order with many aspirants pledging to try and rise to the high rank of Alten. Our story follows two individuals, Elenai – a high ranking squire in the Altenari order, and Rylin – one of the newest individuals to reach the high rank of Alten after the war. Although both of these individuals are supremely talented, they find themselves in the shadow of the “old guard” of the Altenari (those who helped win the previous war). However, in the course of their duties both of our protagonists stumble over a mystery/conspiracy that threatens Darassus and find themselves working with the old guard to save the nation.

FtKoK has all the hallmarks of a fantasy great. It has an engrossing world, a top tier cast of characters, a fast-paced plot, and smart well-written prose that explores complicated themes through a fun medium. The world has your typical fantasy backstory – six gods each sat down and made a nation and became their patron. One went crazy and tried to murder the others, and got curbed stomped. While the gods fashioning the various nations isn’t too original, there are a number of details, like that the goods seemed to have built the word in some sort of giant unstable magical dimension, that gives FtKoK a distinguishing flare. While the land of the nations is solid and fairly “normal”, the borders and space between the various realms is this shifting morass of reality that essentially looks like a kaleidoscope that was tossed into a dryer. These shifting lands are extremely unstable, and magic users have learned to essentially build a reality around them as they travel through the lands. This leads to some super cool magic and magical fights in the story and really gives the world of FtKoK a lot of character.

Although the world is cool, it doesn’t hold a candle to the characters. The entire cast is fantastic and was really the high point of the series. Starting with our protagonists, both are intelligent, relatable, kind, warm, and show growth throughout the book. While they have a ton of differences, Elenai and Rylin are similar in they are both in roles where they feel they have been promoted above their station. Although they technically share ranks (or a rank below) with the rest of the Alten, they are new additions to this prestigious order and feel they still have a lot to do to live up to their ranks. They both have a level of self-awareness that is refreshing and speaks a lot to the virtues of responsibility and sacrifice. And speaking of the old guard, the most established Alten are all brilliantly written characters. Each of them is distinct, engrossing to read about, and improve the enjoyment of the book by their very presence. I love these characters and I want to read more about them.

The plot is also no slouch, and I found myself throwing out my regimented free time schedule in order to spend more time with this book. The mysteries in the story are well presented, and Jones has a real talent for teasing out clues and leads to build a larger picture. However, while I have a boatload of positive things to say about FtKoK, there were some places that could be improved. First, the book is too short and ends on an outrageously suspenseful cliffhanger. I feel like Jones couldn’t decide where to break up books one and two and just picked a place at random. I only finished the book last night and I am already dying for the sequel. Along a similar line, the pacing sometimes felt too quick. There were fights, dialogues, and expositions that felt a little rushed and I wish Jones took a little more time fleshing out and exploring. I really, really, liked this book and I didn’t like that I sometimes felt that I was being “rushed out the door”. At only 350 pages, I felt that FtKoK could have easily been 600 (a lot happens) and told the same story at a more luxurious pace.

At the end of the day, if the worst thing you can say about a book is that you wish it was twice as long it means you obviously loved it. For the Killing of Kings has raised the Altenari to one of my favorite fantasy orders in a single book, a feat that is no small accomplishment. With its brilliant cast of characters, smart explorations of the burdens of responsibility, and nebulous world and plot – For the Killing of Kings is sure to be one of the best books of 2019 and I recommend you check it out as soon as possible.

Rating: For the Killing of Kings – 9.0/10
-Andrew

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The Empire Of Ashes – Come Get It While It’s Hot

a19o2yo0d2blI find myself sadly wrapping up a number of series this month, leaving me feeling like I am saying goodbye to a number of dear friends. Today’s book is the finale in the Draconis Memoria, Anthony Ryan’s newest trilogy. The final book is called The Empire of Ashes, and I will tell you right off the bat that it sticks the landing. If you liked The Waking Fire or The Legion of Flame, I have no doubt that the final book will give you everything you want. I am going to direct this review to those who have read the first, or first two, book(s), but if you are unfamiliar with the series you can find my sell on The Waking Fire here. It would be easy to say “it’s just as good as the others” and leave the review at that, but Empire does a great job distilling and promoting my favorite elements of The Draconis Memoria – and as we close out the series, this seems like a good time to talk about them.

The PlotEmpire brings it all together. The plot of Draconis has been steller from the start: ragtag group of individuals banding together in a industrial world to stop a dragon menace with guns and magic. As the series has progressed it has been one twist after another, with the plot pulling you along at a breakneck pace. While Empire still has the same level of engrossing story as the previous two books, where it improves the plot is how everything comes together. Anthony Ryan must have planned this story on a giant conspiracy board because every seemingly unrelated thing in the books come together in the end to form a huge picture. The level of detail and connection in the plot is astounding and I felt elated as I watched all the pieces from this series fall into place.

The World – Each book in Draconis has expanded the scope of the world. Waking started on a single island, Legion expanded to the major continents/empires, and Empire shows the you full world that Ryan has crafted. I was surprised at how well Empire managed to balance fleshing out its entire world and a focused engaging story. Ryan’s ability to paint a huge sweeping picture of a living world with tons of different governments and peoples, while also losing none of the pacing and immersiveness of his plot is a step up from his past work with his last series, The Raven’s Shadow. On top of all of this, the plot of Empire sees the birth of a technological arms race to combat the White’s power that is spectacular to witness. Ryan’s talent for fight scenes comes through in spades as you read spectacular show downs of magic, machines, and dragons.

The Characters – While there are many reasons I would tell you to read this series, the greatest is its characters. The cast of this book contains a number of my new favorite characters, including one that might be my #1 badass of all time. When I started The Waking Fire, I thought Clay was the coolest guy in town. While my love for Clay has in no way been diminished, I have realized that there is an even greater champion of amazingness in this series: Lizanne. I don’t normally focus so much attention on a single character, but Holy Christ do I love Lizanne. She effortlessly mixed uptight bureaucrat, fearless leader, and unstoppable badass into one incredible, and believable, person. She feels flawed enough to be real, but capable enough to be someone that would have entire history books written about her. Her reactions to everything are priceless, her fight scenes and stunts are legendary, and she is someone I really wish I could be friends with. While she eclipses the others, the entire cast of Empire has these qualities in some form, and I found I was not ready to leave this world when I was finishing the last pages.

The Empire of Ashes is a phenomenal conclusion to a series that has only gotten better in each book, and started off strong. My one and only criticism of it is that there is a pretty obvious Chekhov’s Gun that is left on the table, Ryan even makes a nod to it, and it left me pretty disappointed. However, other than that Empire is everything I could have wanted it to be and I cannot wait to find out what Ryan has in store for us next.

Rating:
The Empire of Ashes – 9.5/10
Draconis Memoria – 9.5/10
-Andrew

The Armored Saint – Big Power In A Small Package

armoredsaint_revI have been reading a number of short books this month, and it’s making it fairly easy to compare and contrast their strengths. Among the short novels I read, I found a dark horse that I want to draw some attention towards: The Armored Saint, by Myke Cole. Some of you might know Myke from his Control Point series, a story about soldiers with superpowers. I really enjoyed Control Point, and Myke’s writing in general, but the subject of the books was not my forte. So I was thrilled to see that he has gone in a new direction and written a story I would describe as part slice of life, part low fantasy, and part Warhammer 40K.

As mentioned, The Armored Saint is a bit of a genre mash up. The book follows the story of Heloise, a young woman trying to get by in a fairly messed up fantasy world. Like many fantasy landscapes, The Armored Saint’s has been ravaged by demons and sorcerers. Out of control magic has wasted away the landscape, and mages are targeted on sight by everyone to prevent additional damage to the surroundings. To deal with the possibility of rogue magic users, the world has an order of inquisitors who ride around and put down those accused of magic use. The plot revolves around Heloise and an interaction she has with one of these roving bands of inquisitors, and the fallout from this interaction. The plot isn’t the powerhouse of the book. In fact, once or twice the plot could be annoying – like when it drew out the power armor reveal that is both in the cover art and title of the book.

However, while the plot might not be my favorite, the book scores unbelievably high marks in character and atmosphere. Let’s start with the characters. Myke Cole’s prose, and vivid writing, does an incredible job establishing the characters in a very short time and draws you straight into their struggles. Character emotions feel real and raw and create a very tense atmosphere where you are concerned for the fate of all of them. On top of this, the crown jewel of the book might be its atmosphere. Heloise is a fairly young, innocent, and naive girl (at least initially). She is thrust into several situations she does not understand, but is smart enough to sense that something about them is off and to be terrified of them. This emotion is mimicked by the book itself as you read it. As you progress through The Armored Saint, you will get the distinct feeling that something is off. Things seem like they are going ok, but you will have this sinking feeling in your stomach that something is about to go very badly. When these terrible moments reveal themselves they capitalize on the build up brilliantly and make for some truly memorable scenes.

The Armored Saint packs a lot of raw emotion and storytelling in a tiny package. While it falls slightly short on story, it is an experience I would recommend to anyone and is one of the best short books I have read this month. Myke Cole is an extremely talented writer and continues to prove he can knock it out of the park with whatever he sets his mind to write.

Rating: The Armored Saint – 7.5/10

-Andrew

Provenance – A Little Of Everything

unnamedI am trying to spend December cleaning up a couple big releases I missed this year, and the first on my to do list was Provenance, by Ann Leckie. Ann is famous for her Imperial Radch trilogy, a slightly controversial series that I recommend everyone at least check out. Now, coming off that serious and complicated story, Leckie seems to have wanted to do something more fun – so she wrote a fun and complicated story instead. Leckie has returned to the same universe for a spin off book about a group of people involved in a heist/political intrigue/murder mystery/rescue mission/art forgery/winning a family squabble/… so there may be a lot going on with Provenance.

The Imperial Radch trilogy was an innovative science fiction thriller about an AI on a quest for revenge. While I loved the series at the start, I eventually felt that love tarnish slightly because I felt the series had a hard time balancing the personal stories of the characters and the larger story of Leckie’s world, especially in the later books. However, Leckie’s new spin off Provenance brings in everything I liked about her worldbuilding and storytelling, with a greater focus on the personal stories that I gravitated towards in her original trilogy. I was originally going to say that Provenance is much more focused, but that’s not really true. I am not really sure how to explain what the book is about other than “people’s lives”. The book starts with our lead, Ingray, buying the freedom of a man in prison. Her mother is a high ranking aristocrat of society and is soon going to name her heir. Ingray has habitually trailed behind her older brother in the family standings and has decided to make a last ditch effort to embarrass her brother and win her mother’s esteem. This plan unravels in the first few pages and the book instead takes you on a wild chaotic trip through Lekie’s world.

The main “thing” Provenance is actually about is question the idea of one’s “home” and origin, as you might guess from the title. All of the characters are questioning what is their home and who made them who they are, and it is a story about connecting or disconnecting with your roots. It is also about how its ten seemingly unrelated subplots are actually connected. It has this element of mystery and randomness that I found refreshing and charming. All of the subplots are interesting, and do an impressive amount of subtle worldbuilding for the Imperial Radch universe. There are a number of new cultures and people to meet in Provenance, and I found each of them captivating. I was also a much bigger fan of Leckie’s cast in this new book than her original trilogy. Ingray can be a little bit of a wet towel occasionally, but in general I enjoyed my time with her and the support cast is memorable and charming.

As for Provenance’s flaws, though the randomness of the plot was fun and charming, it can make the storytelling feel a little disjointed occasionally. As I also mentioned before, Ingray was sometimes a little underwhelming. There were a ton of things happening around her constantly, and I sometimes felt like she was just being swept along to events with little personal agency while feeling sad. Other than that though, I thought Provenance was a much more well rounded book than Leckie’s Imperial Radch trilogy and likely will be much more widely appealing.

If you liked Leckie’s previous books I am almost sure you will like this one too. If you didn’t like her first trilogy, but found her ideas and world exciting, then you will also probably like this book. If you have no idea who Ann Leckie is, but want a fun sci-fi romp/mystery that defies classification – then you also should check it out. The Quill to Live recommends Provenance – it is a fun book that manages to have a little of everything.

Rating: Provenance – 7.5/10

-Andrew