The Ember Blade – A Modern Lotr In Many Ways

51asw0iub3lIn a very strange twist of events this week I ended up talking to my father, who doesn’t read much fantasy, for several hours about Lord of the Rings. He was interested in some of the characters and wanted to talk through their motivations for a project he was doing. Over the course of the conversation, I was reminded just how powerful and well written Lord of the Rings is, as well as just how high a bar it set for all the books that followed. This is why The Ember Blade, by Chris Wooding (a favorite author of Quill for his Ketty Jay series), is such an accomplished book. If you heard me mention this book before, it was probably from our “best of” list earlier this month (found here), where The Ember Blade slide into 19th place as the final book I read this year before making the list.

As I mentioned in my brief description, The Ember Blade is not a particularly innovative book. The book follows a group of adventurers, who fall into the range of classic fantasy classes (ranger, thief, warrior, druid, bard, etc.) as they embark on a quest to find a legendary sword. The book is told from a number of POV’s, but primarily follows Aren – a fairly typical “farm boy with a destiny”. The plot feels like a reimagining of The Fellowship of the Ring, where a group of unlikely companions come together to do something with a relic of power to save the world. However, despite its clear similarities to the grandfather of all fantasy, The Ember Blade never feels like an out-and-out copy. Instead, the book feels like a new epic fantasy that anyone can sink their teeth into, while paying tribute to the series that started the genre. Chris Wooding describes the book as “a return to classic fantasy adventures and values, from a modern perspective” and I think this description really hits the nail on the head.

The worldbuilding in this story is excellent. The conflict revolves around understandable tensions between two nations: The Krodan Empire and Ossia. Ossia was conquered and colonized by a martially superior Krodan Empire and currently is occupied and governed by the aforementioned nation. The Ember Blade, the namesake of the book, is a sword that essentially works like Excalibur (conveying kingship onto whoever holds it), and our group of characters set out to steal it and start a revolution. The relations between the two nations are interesting and nuanced and both Krodan and Ossia feel like they have a well-developed identity and culture. In addition, the magic in the book is often subtle (much like LotR), but when it is present it is both imaginative and exciting. It really is a world you can get lost in, which is good because there is a metric butt-load of time devoted to worldbuilding. Have I mentioned this book is absolutely massive at close to 900 pages? We will come back to that in a moment, but first, let’s talk about the cast.

I honestly expected Wooding to trope out on his cast. With such a large set of characters, it would have been both easy and understandable to leave them shallow. However, Wooding takes no shortcuts and each member of the cast has a memorable and enjoyable personality. In particular, all of the cast are flawed and complicated individuals who all undergo growth over the course of the book, and not all for the better. The Ember Blade does an amazing job of showing the reader how hard times and experiences shape people. Some grow stronger and more tenacious, and some wear down and succumb to weakness. The cast does an amazing job of speaking to humanity as a whole and I promise you will be engrossed by every single one of them. Which again, is good, because they would need to be engrossing to carry your attention through the 900 pages.

The only problem I really had with The Ember Blade was its (surprise, surprise) colossal length. It is really hard for me to objectively judge if the book was too long. Longer books often present difficulties for reviews as they eat away at the time that could have been spent reading shorter books to make additional content. That being said, I do think that the first 20% of the book is a bit drawn out due to slow pacing. The actual story of the book doesn’t start until page 200 – but those 200 pages are still perfectly enjoyable chapters that establish the cast. It is really that I just found myself much more engrossed in the book for the back 600 pages compared to the first 200. However, I firmly believe that this book is worth your time despite its huge size and slow start.

To reaffirm what Wooding himself said, The Ember Blade is a return to classic fantasy adventures and values, from a modern perspective. The book does an incredible job of melding everything that made Lord of the Rings incredible with all of the lessons the genre has learned since to create a modern classic. Mark my words, The Ember Blade will rise to a must-read on most fantasy lists in the next ten years so if you want to be ahead of the curve go check it out as soon as possible.

Rating: The Ember Blade – 9.0/10
-Andrew

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The King of Ashes – Feeling Feisty

18505747Goodness gracious, Raymond Feist is back. I hope all of you are somewhat familiar with Feist. He was a staple of my childhood and wrote a ton of fantasy that was a part of my gateway into the genre, and into reading in general. His classic Magician is fantastic and I was excited to hear that he was writing something new. His new release is called The King of Ashes, and is the first in a new series called The Firemane Saga. I dove into it full of nostalgia and the hope that it would be another classic – but did it live up to my expectations?

First, as always, let’s talk about the plot. The King of Ashes is the start of a “big” series that has plans on being a sweeping epic that tells the story of a large continent. Appropriately, the story starts with some backstory about the death of a kingdom. On the continent of Tembria there are five countries, all in an uneasy peace with each other. The King of Ashes begins with the death of one of these countries, Ithrace, at the hands of the other four. The kings of these four countries have gotten greedy, and came up with a backstabby plan to collectively take out a rival, kill all of his bloodline, and split his land. Not everyone in the four kingdoms supports this plan, and we open the book with the POV of a semi-independent duke who is trying to quietly avoid being involved with the pillaging of Ithrace. Due to the duke’s reluctance to be a part of the bloodbath, the sole remaining heir to Ithrace (a baby named Hatu) ends up in his care. The duke, in a moment of kindness, decides to hide the child and have him raised to one day take back his home. Declan is sent to a school of spies and assassins to learn their ways until he comes of age. Hatu is our first protagonist, but we also have a second lead named Declan on the other side of the world. Declan is a smith prodigy that is beginning to come up in the world and his rise to stardom slowly brings him to meet Hatu. Each of these boys is part of a puzzle that will change the land of Tembria forever, and this is their story.

I know that plot summary is vaguer than I usually give, but this story is massive and it is really hard to give you a spoiler-free sum in a paragraph. Our time is divided half between Hatu at his magical school (which seem to be big this year in fantasy books) and Declan mastering his forge. Both the leads are enjoyable POV’s to follow, but I tended to prefer Declan. Hatu is an angry and spontaneous orphan that can sometimes make his story frustrating to read about, but I came to enjoy him a great deal by the time I finished the book. The world of Tembria is vast, complicated, and has a ton going on. A significant part of the book is devoted to world building, with Hatu often going on spy missions to gather intel or Declan spending time at taverns learning what is going on in the world. The King of Ashes felt like it was laying a foundation of a sweeping epic with a huge scope, but it still manages to hold its own as a self-contained book.

The book is filled with magic, friends, twists and all the things that Feist’s older novels taught me to expect in the fantasy genre as a child. On the other hand, The King of Ashes is definitely aimed at an older reader compared to Feist’s earlier work, with a larger emphasis on graphic scenes (both sexual and violent) and more complex prose. It felt like the perfect novel for someone who grew up on his earlier work and was now looking for a more adult version.

However, despite my praise I did have one major problem with The King of Ashes that held it back from getting high marks. The book can feel noticeably repetitive sometimes. In particular when it came to internal monologues, several characters obsess over things and will bring them up multiple times per chapter. For example, Hatu is obsessed with his growing feelings for one of his classmates. While I enjoyed this the first time it was brought up, my appreciation for the budding love interest waned after it was brought up an additional 20 times without any indication of Hatu actually doing anything about his feelings. The King of Ashes is not a small book and I felt it could have been trimmed a little more to take out several of these repetitive moments for a better paced read.

Overall, I would say that Feist still has it and has created another book that people will be talking about for awhile. I did not enjoy it as much as some of his earlier works, but that was a high bar to meet and I still think The King of Ashes is worth picking up. I look forward to seeing if Hatu and Declan change the world as it is for the better or if they burn it down and rebuild it as kings of the ashes.

Rating: The King of Ashes – 7.5/10
-Andrew

A Veil of Spears – Unbe-veil-ably Point-iant

veil-of-spears-front-cover-smSand. It’s coarse, irritating, hot, encumbering, and all around unpleasant. I have spent a lot of time in sand, both in reality and in fantasy books. However, despite sand’s difficulties, it often provides settings of profound beauty and wonder. When it comes to books set in the desert, I have been championing one series in particular for years now: A Song Of Shattered Sand, by Bradley P. Beaulieu (whose name I just now spelled correctly on my first try for the first time ever). Now, the good news and the bad news. The good news – Bradley just released the third of six books in the Shattered Sand Series, A Veil of Spears. The bad news – I lied, there is no bad news, everything about this news is good.

For those of you unfamiliar with the series, you can check out my earlier reviews from the first books here and here. These novels have not failed to place in my top books of the year whenever they come out, and I am happy to say that I am sure Veil will perform similarly. I am going to avoid talking about the plot of Veil, because I think many of you who read the site haven’t picked up this series yet (it is criminally underrated). If you need to know what happens, suffice to say that the story picks up immediately after With Blood Upon the Sand. Ceda’s war against the kings of Sharakhai has been making progress, but every time a threat is dealt with a new one seem to arise. Instead of talking about plot details let’s jump into why you should be reading this series.

I have talked in the past about how I love the setting, characters, story, magic, and other elements of the world – but as I was reading A Veil of Spears I found myself amazed with the complexity and depth of Bradley’s writing and thought this was the perfect time to talk about it. The Shattered Sand series starts with a simple quest: find the 12 poems of the 12 kings of Sharakhai – each poem detailing a king’s power and the way to kill them. Most epic fantasies would be satisfied with just this plot line, and if it was the only thing happening in the series I would likely still be reviewing it positively because it’s a blast. Ever since Harry Potter set out to find the horcruxes and Bilbo Baggins had to solve Gollum’s riddles I have had a love of collection quests and solving riddles. They tap into something primal for me from when I was first learning to read and discovering my love of fantasy, and the poems and riddles in Sharakhai are extremely well done.

However, reading A Veil of Spears you will see that the poems of the kings were just the tip of the iceberg for the Shattered Sands. The conflict has grown, new players have joined the board as both protagonists and antagonists, the scope and rules of the conflict have changed, and changed, and changed again. A Veil of Spears feels like some sort of bizzaro Matryoshka doll, where every time I open it up and look inside I find an even larger space and story. I frankly don’t understand how Bradley continues to continually expand the size of this story while keeping it so tight and well paced. His storytelling is some of the best I have read and his prose is top notch as well.

As usual, Bradley’s newest Shattered Sands novel has surpassed my high expectations and set the bar higher. A Veil of Spears has every strength of its predecessors but builds a bigger and better story than I could have imagined. This series is now halfway done, and I am giddy with excitement to see what the next three books have in store. Finally, I hope my annual “why aren’t you reading this” has continued to chisel at the resolve of the many holdouts I have met that have Twelve Kings in Sharakhai in their to read pile.

Rating: A Veil of Spears – 9.5/10
-Andrew

A Time Of Dread – Putting The Epic Back In Epic Fantasy

34392663I have a personal problem. My issue, is that I honestly am kinda tired of epic fantasy. There are of course outliers, such as series that change up the formula to the point where they are unrecognizable, but in general I have gotten bored following farm boys in a medieval Europe settings where they fight universal evils. I just feel like I have read this story 20 times in my life at this point and am hesitant to start new epic fantasy novels. As such, I have found myself going through the same emotional journey each time I pick up a John Gwynne novel. First, “why did I decide to do a high fantasy novel?” And then second, “oh right, because Gwynne is an incredible writer and I could read 10 of these”.

Gwynne broke into the fantasy scene not so long ago with his reimagined epic fantasy, The Faithful and the Fallen. It was a four book series that followed the classic farmboy with a destiny, but with a twist – there were several farm boys. The series did an incredible job blending the best of the old genre staples with a number of new ideas that made it feel fresh and exciting (review can be found here). Add to this the fact that Gwynne’s writing is fast, character driven, and exciting and you get the perfect formula for a memorable series. All in all, I enjoyed the quartet – though I thought the ending was the weakest part of the series. However, many of the things I didn’t like about the ending (its open nature and how it left a lot of loose ends) set the stage for Gwynne’s sequel series (Of Blood and Bone) that started this year with A Time of Dread. At first I was not thrilled that Gwynne was revisiting his world, but that didn’t stop me from requesting a review copy from the lovely people at Orbit because Gwynne is nothing if not consistently good. Sure enough, despite my initial misgivings A Time of Dread is a powerhouse of a book and I have fully bought in to Gwynne’s second journey through his world.

Many reviewers I have seen have mentioned that a reader can pick up A Time of Dread without reading the previous series and be able to follow along fine. While I think this is true, I also think this is a bad idea and highly encourage you to read The Faithful and the Fallen first. A Time of Dread takes place more than a hundred years later and the events from the first series have become the history of the second. It is a cool transition that made me feel immersed and connected with Gwynne’s new cast almost immediately and helped set the stage for the plot of Dread. Speaking of plot, Dread tells the story of a small and almost completely new cast of characters 100+ years after the ending of The Faithful and the Fallen. The big evil was vanquished, the land was saved, and everyone lived happily ever after… but not really. Similar to Game of Thrones, A Time of Dread tells the story of a not so happily ever after and the problems that face a group of people who put aside everything to stop a common enemy. The top baddy might have died, but his demon lieutenants (called Kadoshim, basically bat-angels) live on and carry on his work. The angelic beings who fought on the side of good (Ben-Elim) have set up shop in the human realms to pursue these demons, but rule everyone with an iron fist and destroy anyone not devoted to the cause.

The themes of the book surround change and adaptability. Both the Kadoshem and the Ben-Elim have been begun to adapt in the wake of their war – and the changes have deep ramifications for the humans who are just trying to coexist beside them. The story follows four characters (a significant step down in the number of POV’s from Gwynne’s previous novels), each with a different point of view of the Ben-Elim (everyone is pretty much on the same page with “screw the murder bat-demons”). One is a templar of the human division of the Ben-Elim army, devoted to their cause. A second is a hostage taken and trained under the Ben-Elim to ensure the good behavior of his people. A third is a warrior captain of a rival order to the Ben-Elim with a history of grievances against the angels. And the fourth and final is a man forced to the edge of the world to escape the persecution of the Ben-Elim for not living his life the way they desire. It creates an interesting tapestry of opinions that complement and conflict with one another to make the reader unsure who to believe or trust. This moral swamp is a nice change of scenery from the usual good vs. evil epic fantasy, and had me hooked early and kept me interested until the end.

Another vestige of the previous series that has been kicked to the curb is prophecy. Man am I tired of prophecy in fantasy novels. The first series revolved around prophecies and their interpretations, but A Time of Dread feels so much more open and free without the shackles of visions of the future. On the other hand, one great thing that did carry over from the previous books is Gwynne’s likable characters and intense action. The cast is wonderful, and I think I already like them as much as the characters from the first four books despite having only been with them a fourth as long. The action also remains top knotch and is takes a larger share of screen time than previous books. I also appreciated the mix up in different types of action/combat in A Time of Dread. Instead of battle after battle, you get things like a group of thugs walking through (and triggering) dangerous traps set by a protagonist. I am glad Gwynne decided to branch out and it makes the book feel fresh.

I don’t really have any complaints for A Time of Dread. Nothing was wrong with it and it nailed all of the positives I mentioned above. If I had to pick something, I would say I am a little disappointed that Gwynne has avoided doing any real world building for awhile. The world of The Faithful and The Fallen isn’t boring, but Gwynne has some real world building skill and I am a little sad I am not getting to see a new world from him.

At the end of the day A Time of Dread does nothing wrong and plenty of things right. This book has rekindled the ashes of my passion for epic fantasy and I am excited to see where the story goes next. Gwynne’s modern epic fantasies are the best thing to come out in the subgenre in years, and Of Blood and Bone looks like it’s going to raise that bar even higher.

Rating: A Time of Dread – 9.0/10
-Andrew

Oathbringer – Oatherwordly Excellence

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I debated a lot as to whether or not I should do a review of Oathbringer, the third Stormlight Archive book by Brandon Sanderson, because I don’t think critic reviews are going to have an effect on whether or not people are going to read it. I like to spend my time providing people with recommendations they don’t already have, and the third book in one of the most popular fantasy series around isn’t going to have its momentum cut or boosted by what I say. That being said, as I finished up this 1200 page behemoth I found I had a lot (of hopefully interesting things) to say about the book that I did not expect so screw it, let’s talk about this year’s most popular release. This is going to be a bit different from my usual reviews, as I am not going to talk about the plot to try and get you to read it, think of this as a post discussion for a book that you should definitely check out.

Oathbringer is an impressive book on multiple levels. On the surface it is a huge novel that is extremely well paced, which takes a lot of skill. Though there are one or two slower areas, I never got bored as I was tearing through chapter after chapter. The book is filled with all the great things its two predecessors are known for: awesome characters, a cool world, interesting magic, and a captivating plot. However, taking a step deeper what is most impressive about Oathbringer to me is how it expanded the scale of The Stormlight Archive so fluently and naturally. See I had a problem going into Words of Radiance. Each book in the SA is centered around a different member of the cast, making them the focal point of the storytelling while still giving some time to all the other members. When I read Way of Kings, book one, I got really used to the book’s focal protagonist, Kaladin, being the center of attention. This became a problem when I moved to book two, Words of Radiance, where Shallan takes over as the focus as I came out of Way of Kings much more interested in Kaladin than anyone else. By the end of Words of Radiance I was completely on the Shallan train, but I spent a good portion of the start of the book resenting it a little for not giving me more content on my beloved Kaladin.

Going into Oathbringer I found myself thinking about two things: first, now that I was team Shallan was I going to have the same issue I had before as book three moved its focal character to Dalinar. Second, The Stormlight Archive has been built from the start as a series that was going to be about teams of people saving the world, but the first two books had felt like much more personal stories that focused on individuals. Was Stormlight going to be able to make the transition to a team series eventually or are we just doomed to have ten books where our protagonists are swapped out? Well funny thing …

The major theme of Oathbringer is unity, which is appropriate on many levels. Surpassing all my expectations, Oathbringer has this weirdly perfect balance where it elevates Dalinar to the center of attention for his book, but never puts down its expanding cast of other protagonists, essentially managing to have its cake and eat it too. At some point in reading Oathbringer, through brilliant characterization and pacing, I found I had changed how I thought of the protagonists of Stormlight from a group of individuals I loved to the Knights Radiant, all of whom were brilliant for their own reasons. The book makes everything feel like it’s coming together and, to me, it has elevated the story to a place of balance where every voice is heard constantly without anyone talking over one another. On top of all of this, not only does Sanderson find this beautiful balance between his Knights, he also breathes a huge amount of life into all of his side characters bringing the world to life. Oathbringer makes Roshar feel bigger and filled with peoples and places that I want to explore.

Oathbringer manages to expand the scope of the series massively, while also making the storytelling tighter and more fluid at the same time. It does this through brilliant pacing, an edge-of-your-seat plot, lovable deep characters, and a whole lot of emotional moments. Oathbringer surpassed all of my expectations and continues to show why Sanderson has earned his wild popularity. Go check it out if you haven’t already.

Rating: Oathbringer – 10/10

-Andrew

P.S. My editor actually just pointed out to me while writing this, that it is the “Knights Radiant”, not the “Knight Radiants”. Which is ridiculous. One implies a divine manifestation of morally good ideals with a code of honor, and one implies dudes in cans that glow. I am going to stick with Radiants.

An Echo Of Things To Come – Time To Shine

32498052I have an interesting review for you today about a book (and series) that I am particularly attached to. Back in the blog’s first year I was testing out ideas for thought pieces to complement my reviews. One of the first ones I did was this piece on perception.  At the bottom of that piece I tell a story about how a free self-published book I got through Amazon Prime, A Shadow of What Was Lost by James Islington, turned out to be one of the best books I read that year. I had initially dismissed the novel due to its cover and because I got it for free, but soon learned a lesson in the age old saying “don’t judge a book by its cover”. Since then, Islington has gotten picked up by Orbit and his novel has been reprinted with one of my favorite covers ever. In addition, last week the much anticipated sequel, An Echo of Things to Come, finally hit the shelves and I am excited to say that this story is shaping up to be one of the best ‘farm boy with a destiny’ stories I have ever read.

Echo is the second book in the Licanius series, an epic fantasy centered around time travel and time magic. This was a bit of a red flag to me at first, as I have never been one who enjoys time travel or prophecy in my stories, but I was surprised to see Islington take these elements in a different direction than usual and I ended up really enjoying them. The plot of this series is astoundingly complicated and I am not going to pretend I can do it justice in this short review, but I will give the elevator pitch a shot. Essentially the Licanius series takes place in a magical world where a good god and an evil god went at it. The good one lost (and presumably died), but not before locking the bad one behind a giant magical barrier in the north of the world. Since then, humanity has tried to survive to the south with the traditional set-up of multiple countries that hate one another. In addition, the world has three distinct groups of magic users that have fallen in and out of favor over the age. The first and most common are the gifted, mages with the ability to alter the world around them – usually with some form of telekinesis. When our story begins in book one they are an oppressed and feared people due to their powers, but allowed to live with a brand that makes them unable to use their magic to harm others. Next we have the augers; these much rarer mages have various abilities to manipulate time and occasionally see into the future. The augurs, after ruling the world poorly in the wake of the evil god’s containment, have been hunted and killed wherever they are found due to their dangerous abilities. Finally we have the venerate, a small group of super augers who have ascended to deity like power and are essentially immortal. The books follow a group of individuals from a mix of these magical (and other non-magical) groups as they help the reader piece together the history of what happened in this world and how to stop the release of the evil god stuck behind the barrier.

I know that what I just said sounds fairly generic and vague, but the story isn’t and I have to be because part of the magic is just piecing together what is going on. Book one spends the majority of its time worldbuilding and introducing the cast. Islington did an incredible job investing me in his characters and showing me that his world was worth exploring. Book two however, is where the plot starts to really become clear. The Licanius series is all about time in many senses. While the magic of the world surrounds manipulating time’s flow, the themes that are explored by the cast also revolve around time. Some characters have lost their past and are working hard to discover who they are and what happened to them. Some characters are trapped in a terrible present that they want to escape, and are searching for anyway to rewrite the past or find a future with hope. And some characters have seen an echo of things to come and must prepare and plan to deal with what they know is inevitable. It is a beautifully crafted series with both a kick ass world on the surface and a lot of deeper themes hidden below. As a side note, I also want to give Islington a huge hug because he put a detailed book one synopsis, glossary, and index in Echo that made keeping things straight possible as the series can get really confusing.

While it might be unfair to both series, I can’t help but think that Licanius is shaping up to be a better version of The Wheel of Time. It has all the things that made that classic great; a diverse cast, a sweeping epic world, an unambiguous evil to fight against, and a protagonist rising from nothing to greatness. But it also shores up a lot of the issues I have with Wheel (such as its pacing issues); however, no book is perfect. One of the POV’s in the story is a man recovering his memories. His segments are often used to give you insight into the backstory and history of the world as the character and reader discover his past together. This can unfortunately result in some confusing sections as following conversations with people he used to know can be difficult. On the other hand, if you can put up with being a little in the dark you will eventually have enough puzzle pieces to understand who everyone is and what is happening – and the payoff is definitely worth it.

An Echo Of Things To Come is a wonderful book in a great series that I already want to reread. It manages to both be fun, emotional, and deep at the same time. The book is gigantic and holds my current record for the longest time to read this year – but I do not regret a moment of my time with it. If you like epic fantasy like The Wheel of Time, if you like time travel and oppressed magic users, or if you just like good books The Quill to Live recommends you pick up A Shadow of What Was Lost and An Echo Of Things To Come if you haven’t already.

Rating: An Echo Of Things – 9.0/10