The Shattered Realms Of Ardor Benn — Adventure Awaits

Alright, so I might have made a miscalculation. Back in (and I had to check my calendar to verify this because time has become meaningless) the distant year of 2018, I read a book called The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn, by Tyler Whitesides. I thought it was decent and showed promise, but I was not overwhelmingly enthused. As a result, I slept on the sequel, The Shattered Realms Of Ardor Benn, for months despite having a lovely ARC from Orbit, thinking to myself it will be there when I get to it. Now having actually read the second installment I am confronted with the fact that I really liked book two and might have done a disservice to the first book. Now, before you get your pitchforks, I want to caveat that this isn’t entirely my fault. After some reflection, I have isolated that a large portion of my dissatisfaction comes from the fact that despite being marketed as a heist story, the series isn’t a very good one. However, what it is, is a very good adventure hiding behind a heist story. Let me explain.

So why do the Kingdom of Grit books not work as heist novels? For two key reasons. The first is that the world, plot, and magic of the story are way too complicated for what usually works for a heist novel. There are too many moving pieces, too much information the reader needs to ingest, and too much leg work that needs to be done to make the twists feel gripping. There is just so much going on in these novels that any time there was a major reveal my reaction was less “gasp, that’s amazing” and more “okay, I am confused, please explain to me how that worked.” Not all heist stories need to be simple, but often the best ones revolve around clear foreshadowing, high reader buy-in, and a protagonist that always feels one step ahead. This brings me to reason number two: I don’t buy Ardor Benn as a genius crew master.

Now don’t get me wrong, I like Benn as a character plenty. I just have a hard time seeing him as the incredible mastermind. Whitesides does not show me enough evidence that Benn has his act together. Most of the justification of Benn’s brilliance is through his arguably unearned reputation and Whitesides just telling the reader ‘he is really clever.’ Every person in the world talks about how they’ve heard of Benn’s incredible exploits, and Whitesides constantly tells us how clever Benn was in a situation without actually showing us. All of this made the series as a heist a hard sell for me, but, when we flip the paradigm upside down and look at the series as an adventure story, I would argue it works fabulously.

Here is a list of things I really like about this series that didn’t fit into my original expectations of what the story was:

  • It feels like an epic fantasy. The stakes are world ending, the cast is enormous, the world is well-realized, and the action is extremely exciting.
  • The world is super interesting. All the different factions, races, and historical events weave a veritable tapestry that you can use like a warm, heavy blanket. This is particularly true in the second book, The Shattered Realms Of Ardor Benn, where the pacing was much improved and I found myself gliding through a panoply of interesting developments.
  • I constantly hungered to learn more about the magic. A huge portion of the second book revolves around a team of scientists developing new magical spells to change the world and investigating the implications. It was awesome.
  • The expanded cast is fantastic, and it is great to take the emphasis away from Benn for the aforementioned reasons.
  • I am extremely invested in the greater plot, and so are the characters. What is interesting about my points and book two is a major portion of the story is about Benn realizing there is more to the world than cons and starting to try to change the world for the better. This theme resonated with me enormously, as you can hopefully see mirrored in this review.

All of this goodness splashes together to form a really enjoyable book with minor heist elements. When I came out of The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn I gave the book a decent score, said it was a promising debut, and went on my way. When I came out of The Shattered Realms Of Ardor Benn I sat down to brainstorm how to write a review that is a thinly veiled request to Orbit publishing to forgive me and send me a copy of book three, which is already out because Whitesides apparently writes an 800-page book every few months. It’s very rare I am this excited about the second book in a trilogy; this is worth your time.

Rating: The Shattered Realms Of Ardor Benn – 8.5/10
-Andrew

P.S. A slight aside. Orbit also seems to have updated the cover art from the version I have for my ARC, and I am a huge fan of the new art of the series.

Legacy Of Steel – Sharper With Practice

legacy-of-steel-large-1Matthew Ward needs to calm down, because this is the second enormous fantasy book of his that I have reviewed this year, and it is becoming a lot. I am going to assume that he had multiple books already written when Orbit acquired this trilogy because otherwise, he is churning out 1000 page epics every 6 months and might be a robot. Legacy of Steel is the second book in Ward’s aptly named Legacy Trilogy, you can find my review of the first book, Legacy of Ash, here.

Legacy of Steel takes the strong foundation that Ash built and improves on it in a number of ways. Steel feels like an immediate and direct continuation of the plot of book one. Ash ends with a temporary ceasefire (of sorts) in a war that takes up a large portion of the story, and Steel picks up as we step out of this eye in the storm back into the dangerous winds of war. Ash primarily focused on the human and political machinations of Ward’s world and how they drive conflict. On the flip side, Steel has a much greater focus on the divine and how a series of gods have been slinking around in the background secretly pulling strings.

One of my biggest annoyances with Ash as a book was that it actually felt like three 300-page books huddled in a trenchcoat. There were a number of fairly distinct plot arcs in the first novel that each could have been their own story, and I didn’t like them all equally. Steel does a much better job at having a clear, unified, driving story that runs through the entirety of the book. This makes it a much quicker, and more compelling, read, so I had a harder time setting it down. Steel doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, though. The many interesting themes, such as character identity, the nature of free will, and the morality of choices, are carried through into book two and Steel very much feels like the continuation of a conversation started in book one.

Another thing that Steel really nails is drastically expanding the scope of the world. In book one, we really only get to know two regions of a single country in Ward’s world and only catch glimpses of his gods. Steel fully fleshes out multiple other regions in our protagonist’s country, introduces us to a number of bordering nations, and provides a much more comprehensive look at the gods and their active meddling with mortals.

Our character roster has also both expanded and improved. Josuri is back from book one, and Ward does an amazing job taking the identity crisis he was experiencing and taking it in fun new directions. Viktor, my favorite lead from Ash, is also still around, but he is mostly relegated to the supporting cast. Instead, Ward chose to take a number of support characters from Ash and make them primary POVs in this second book. This rotating cast style really works for me and does a great job getting the reader to key plot moments all around the world in a very natural and organic way. It also keeps you from getting too bored with any one character and manages to make the cast feel both familiar and refreshing at the same time.

Legacy Of Steel is an improvement and escalation of everything that was good about Legacy Of Ash, while also repairing the few issues I had with book one. The two books combined form one of 2020’s largest and most engrossing fantasy stories and they are definitely some of my favorite debuts this year. I know recommending 1800 pages of fantasy books seems like a lot, but if you like epic fantasy you will be doing yourself a disservice by missing these two books.

Rating: Legacy Of Steel – 9.0/10
-Andrew

The Bone Shard Daughter – Lacking Muscle

Andrea Stewart’s debut had all the telltale signs of a bonafide winner. The Bone Shard Daughter boasts a back cover full of big-name recommendations, including Sarah J. Maas, M.R. Carey, Tasha Suri, and many more. And as I read the first few chapters, I perked up at the exciting premise and unique magic system, hoping for a home run debut from my sixth and final 2020 Dark Horse pick. But in reality, I was relieved to turn the final page. The Bone Shard Daughter met my expectations in some areas, but the story as a whole failed to resonate with me. The good thing for anyone reading this review is that your experience may differ, especially given the book’s 4+ star average on Goodreads.  

The Bone Shard Daughter takes place in a failing empire comprising a network of drifting islands in a vast and unforgiving sea. The current emperor, Shiyen Sukai, rules the world using bone shard magic. Every citizen is required to give a small shard of bone from the base of their skull as a tithe to the empire at a young age, and those shards are used to power constructs that perform various tasks for the kingdom. If a person’s shard is used in a construct, the person gradually grows ill, and years of their life are shaved off as the magic drains their life force. 

We follow five points of view throughout the story:

  • Lin Sukai, the emperor’s daughter, who is forced by Shiyen into sick competition with her stepbrother, Bayan. They both attempt to recover lost memories, learn bone shard magic, and earn keys that unlock doors throughout the palace and the secrets behind them. 
  • Jovis, an imperial navigator turned smuggler whose wife was kidnapped and whisked away on a ship with blue sails seven years ago. Now, he searches for signs of the ship in the hopes of finding her. 
  • Phalue, heir to the governorship of Nephilanu, one of the Empire’s larger islands. 
  • Ranami, Phalue’s girlfriend and anti-classism advocate who hopes to free the common people from Phalue’s father’s iron grip and unrealistic taxes. 
  • Sand, a resident of Maila Island in the far reaches of the Empire. Sand spends her days collecting mangoes until she falls from a tree one day and begins to question how she arrived at the island at all. 

I list these as bullet points because the narratives are interconnected, but not so much as to yield an easy explanation as to how. The pieces come together by the end of The Bone Shard Daughter, but Stewart also leaves a helluva lot for the next two books in the trilogy. I don’t plan to move on in the series for a number of reasons I’ll cover below, but first, I want to highlight the novel’s overwhelming positives. 

The Bone Shard Daughter’s premise and magic system are inextricably intertwined. The Empire forces its citizens to contribute bone shards as a sinister tax, and Emperor Sukai uses them to power constructs of all sorts to run his operations. He has four primary constructs that each require dozens if not hundreds of shards, each with a complex network of commands that dictate how the construct behaves and who it obeys. Simpler constructs, such as customs agents that work on the docks, only require a few shards engraved with rudimentary commands. There’s much more here to sink your teeth into, and fans of cool magic systems will be rewarded with some neat tidbits. It’s a novel idea, and Stewart does a great job of putting the magic to work in the world she’s built. 

The book’s world, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to its premise. The characters take the reader to multiple islands throughout the book, but none of them feel distinct. I imagine a world of islands would birth numerous different subcultures and idiosyncrasies, even if they all report to the same ruler. But they’re all homogeneous and indistinguishable from one another. In addition, scene transitions can be so violent and fast you sometimes don’t even realize you have hopped islands. Every chapter starts with a header telling the reader which island the character is on, and that’s a red flag itself. I’d rather be shown through descriptive prose and narrative hints where a character is instead of simply reading it at the top of each segment. Two islands on the book’s map are never visited and rarely mentioned, leading me to believe they’ll be important in the sequel despite having little purpose in this installment. 

The characters are my biggest sticking point with The Bone Shard Daughter. I struggled to connect with any of them because their most relatable traits were difficult to reconcile with what the book told me. For example, Jovis searches for his wife, who’s been lost for seven years. I know nothing about her (other than that she’s lost), and the precious few memories he shares aren’t vivid enough to bring her to life. Jovis also befriends a cat-like sea creature named Mephi early on. They form a close bond and have a playful back and forth. It’s cute and fun, but to me, treating animals with kindness is a baseline barometer for human decency and does very little to tell me about Jovis, who already shows those traits by smuggling kids away from the tithing festival. He saves those kids, mind you, as he complains to himself about getting distracted from searching for his wife. 

Jovis raised another issue, and it’s the action sequences. There are multiple fights in the book, but they do little to impact the reader. In one scene, Jovis throws his quarterstaff about 60 feet, completely knocking out his opponent. Seconds later, he throws it again and accomplishes the same exact thing. This is a common occurrence; fight scenes breeze by with a lot of telling and remarkably little showing. 

Lin has arguably the best storyline, and I genuinely enjoyed following her journey to please her distant father and discover the castle’s secrets. But because she has lost her memories, there’s not much to latch onto, character-wise. Instead, Lin becomes a vehicle through which the reader can explore the world and how it functions, learning things as Lin does. 

Phalue and Ranami’s storyline has to do with anti-classism and reworking your worldview to skew toward altruism instead of self-serving capitalism. It’s a great message, but their story in a vacuum doesn’t do much to advance the larger plot. They are also completely unmemorable with almost no character or development whatsoever. Their joint role in the story feels truncated, and once again I’m inclined to believe their relationship will be fodder for the sequel. 

Sand appears in so few chapters that I debated even dedicating a paragraph to her. Her story is a mystery, and by the novel’s conclusion, her purpose is apparent. The mystery at her story’s core is the most intriguing of the book’s many secrets. However, it’s near impossible to care for Sand and her comrades with so few pages covering their story.

The novel actually ends from Sand’s point of view, and the conclusion in general left me disappointed. I turned the final page ready to leave The Bone Shard Daughter behind. Some readers, I’m sure, will eagerly devour the next two installments of the series, and I wish them all the best. There are still some things to like here; Stewart’s magic system has heaps of potential, and the story could bloom into a gripping fantasy epic. For me, personally, The Bone Shard Daughter’s flat characters and bland world just didn’t strike a chord. 

Rating: The Bone Shard Daughter – 5.0/10

-Cole

The Nine Realms – Four Spines To Bind Them

Today we have a full series review of The Nine Realms by Sarah Kozloff. The series is a quartet of books and in a break with publishing traditions, they all released in the same year over the course of four months. The series contains the following four books: A Queen in Hiding, The Queen of Raiders, A Broken Queen, and The Cerulean Queen. This review will be a mix of talking about the series as a whole and diving into various pieces and highlights from the individual books. Spoilers for the fairly large review that follows: we recommend The Nine Realms. It’s an interesting take on some classic fantasy tropes and tells a well-contained epic fantasy story. However, there are some quirks that make it tricky to outright recommend.

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Here is a lightning-fast rundown of the plot of the entire series. The books tell the story of Cérulia, Princess of Weirandale, and her journey to take back her throne. A Queen in Hiding tells the story of how her mother’s country (Weirandale) is overthrown and how she barely escapes with her life into hiding. The Queen of Raiders covers her teen to early adult years where she starts waging a guerilla war against people who damaged her land. A Broken Queen tells the story of how Cérulia recovers from the trauma she received in the war and how she makes her way back to her homeland to reclaim her throne. Finally, The Cerulean Queen tells the story of how Cérulia recovers her throne and begins to change her kingdom for the better. I am massively skipping over a ton of important side characters, general plot elements, and subplots, but I just don’t have the space to list them all out here. Know that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Let’s start with one of the series major “problems” first before we get into all the positives. Initially, I was confused as to why all four books were published so close to one another – but the answer presented itself to me as I got near the end of book one. The Nine Realms is less a quartet of books and more a single 2000 page book that had to be drawn and quartered. I imagine there was a conversation at Tor HQ between Kozloff and her editor that went something like this:

Kozloff: “Well, here’s my amazing book!”
Editor: “Uhhhh, this is 2000 pages long.”
Kozloff: “And?”
Editor: “We can’t just publish a 2000 page book, it might fall off a shelf and kill someone.”
Kozloff: “Well we can’t really cut it up, so what are we going to do?”
Editor: “I guess we will just cut it into four pieces and hope no one notices.”

The illusion doesn’t work. It will be clear to anyone that these books are not four distinct stories. The narrative flows between the books without stop and I suspect I would have been frustrated were I to get to the end of A Queen in Hiding to find the story cut off mid-sentence. But, you may have noticed that when I said this was a “problem,” I put dramatic quotes around the word. Since all the books in the series are already out, this is more of a feature of the series more than an actual issue. The only actual problem here is if you are willing to commit to a fairly long time investment, at a higher price point than usual, for a good story. Personally, I think The Nine Realms is worth it for the following reasons:

  1. The Nine Realms has the depth of a good epic fantasy without the bloat – I really enjoy digging into a meaty epic fantasy with a ton of content I can sink my teeth into. One of the downsides of these huge sweeping series is they tend to have a lot of dilly-dallying. Thankfully, The Nine Realms has the depth of a large scale epic, without the filler content. While it isn’t a Wheel of Time and some parts are over simplistic, the series is well-paced, easy to read, and you get a lot of bang for your buck.
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  2. The magic system is both familiar and original – The magic system revolves around two core concepts. First, each country has a different patron spirit, based mostly on the elements. Each of these spirits imparts different kinds of gifts on their people based on the spirit’s nature. Second, our story mostly focuses on Cérulia, who was granted the ability to speak to animals by the water spirit. Now I have seen a lot of “can talk to animals” powers in fantasy and I was fully prepared to be bored out of my mind by this concept. However, Kozloff’s take on the power is much more strategic and innovative than I was expecting. It is less “talk to animal friends” and more “horse, dog, and wolf general leading her troops into battle.” Cérulia uses her connection to advance her march to her throne, and that leads to some grizzly scenes like when she has to eat a horse she is close with to survive starvation. It’s a new take on a classic fantasy power.
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  3. The story goes beyond the standard good vs. evil trope – Initially I thought this was going to be a black and white story about a princess reclaiming her throne from the bad guys. What this story is actually about is Cérulia slowly understanding why her mother was overthrown, connecting with the common people of the world, and getting a first-hand education of the plights of her country and what needs to be fixed. There is a lot more context to Cérulia’s battle than this type of story usually goes into, and it delights me.
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  4. The world is nicely fleshed out and fully explored over the course of the book – As I mentioned, each country in The Nine Realms has a patron spirit that imparts gifts and shapes their land. I was happy to see that over all four books we get to visit and explore all nine of the countries that give the story its title. While there were a couple that were forgettable, the majority of them have memorable differences and cultures that really bring the world of the series to life. It was a fun place to explore, even if a depressing amount of it involved watching poor people suffer.
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  5. The story is well-paced and easy to read…mostly – Once you get past some initial slow build-up I will talk more about below, the story moves at a nice and exciting pace. I originally planned on just reading book one, but I ended up getting pulled into the story and reading all four over the course of a weekend. There is a very nice flow between the different conflicts and the different characters that keeps everything moving at all times.

There are still some additional road bumps, though. I am not really a fan of the time skips between chapters that keep track of how long has passed since Cérulia fled her home. The skips are meant to give you a sense of urgency because early on you are told that Cérulia has 10 years to reclaim her throne or all goes to hell. It feels like a completely arbitrary timeline that is never actually relevant to the progress of the story. When Cérulia decides to take back her throne it is because she believes she has grown enough in power and maturity to claim it – an element of her character I really liked. In addition, sometimes the books will tell you months will pass, but characters will still be in the same place/time/conversation they were in “three months prior” which disillusioned me to the skips.

Next, let’s talk a little bit about each book and rank them in terms of their quality:

51s938lhwgl1) A Queen in Hiding – Unfortunately, the first book is easily the worst. While there is a lot of fun worldbuilding and introduction to characters, the narrative can be painfully slow at times as the story begins to build up steam and momentum. The other awkward part of the book is it feels like the “prologue” section of the narrative goes on too long. There is a large portion of the book devoted to Cérulia’s mother, and how she lost the throne. Her mom launches a naval war against some pirates to try and rally her people back to her side and win back her throne. However, while it does set up some interesting themes and character development for Cérulia – it is very hard to be invested in the conflict since you know from the back of the book her mother will fail. This subplot lasts almost three fourths of the book, and I wish it was slightly less prominent.

51r04ry5zfl2) The Queen of Raiders Fortunately, the second book is the strongest of the series and helps get the reader back on track. Really, the story takes off in the last 20% of Hiding and Raiders just carries on the torch. Raiders is where we see the biggest character growth in both Cérulia and a lot of the supporting cast. It is also where a number of previously unconnected plot lines begin to come together. The world-building continues to expand and Cérulia’s use of magic starts to get a lot more inventive. All of this combined with a climactic finale that actually lines up with the end of the book makes this a great read.

91omg2eocl3) A Broken Queen – This installment Is third when ranking best to worst, but it is much better than Hiding. A Broken Queen focuses mostly on the damage the conflict has been inflicting on all sorts of characters in the series – and how they heal from it. In addition, book three is where the antagonists start getting a lot of page time in order to give them depth and complexity, getting the reader much more invested in a complicated situation. A Broken Queen was where a lot of the series themes and ideas came to the surface and the book had a nice thoughtful quality compared to the other three installments. Where Broken struggles is the fact that the entirety of the book feels like a slow build-up to a major climax…that happens 20% into book four. This leaves the book with a lot of slow thoughtful moments, but not many big set pieces to remember it by.

71ltzhdknrl4) The Cerulean Queen – The final book in the quartet is a winner, coming in at second best. Cerulean was a very interesting book because it feels like the majority of it is an epilogue but in a good way. Unsurprising spoilers: early on in the final book Cérulia reclaims her throne – and it’s awesome. But, instead of ending the story at this natural point, Kozloff spends the majority of the rest of the book showing how Cérulia implemented everything she learned in her time as a fugitive to become a great queen. It’s a really great example of satisfying character growth and execution of themes at the same time and it really helps the series stand out in the fantasy landscape.

The Nine Realms is a worthwhile mini-epic that has a nice mix of originality and classic flare. It has some issues, but they are easy to ignore with its fun ideas, flowing characters, and engrossing plot. If you are interested in reading this series, I highly recommend you carve out the time to tackle all four books at once. If you give it time, you will likely find that Cérulia’s story is a fun and worthwhile adventure.

Rating:
A Queen in Hiding – 6.5/10
The Queen of Raiders – 8.5/10
A Broken Queen – 8.0/10
The Cerulean Queen – 8.0/10
-Andrew

When Jackals Storm The Walls – Beaulieu Let The Dogs Out

48754174Well, here we are. My annual “scream at the sky about Song of Shattered Sands” event. Each year, like clockwork, Bradley P. Beaulieu puts out an enormous, detailed, and dense epic fantasy about an original Arabian-inspired world. And each year, like clockwork, I tell people to go read it – but only a select few follow my advice. I get it, a six-book epic fantasy (five of which are now out thanks to the release of When Jackals Storm the Walls) plus supplemental novellas is a large project to take on. But, honestly, there are few series out there that will give you as much bang for your buck as the Song of Shattered Sands.

Reviews for Song of Shattered Sands novels:

  1. Twelve Kings in Sharakhai
  2. With Blood Upon the Sand
  3. A Veil of Spears
  4. Beneath the Twisted Trees
  5. When Jackals Storm The Walls (just kidding you are reading it right now)

Look, I don’t like reviewing sequels. I am here to help you understand whether a book is worth your time, and with sequels, you can often make that decision for yourself. As a review, you can’t really talk about a sequel’s plot, as you don’t want to spoil things for new readers to the series who stumbled onto this review (like the two people who edited this review for me). You are either selling something to someone who was already going to buy it, or going for the really hard sell and trying to get someone to commit to a huge number of books. Well, guess what reader, this is the latter, so strap in.

There are not many authors who seem to love writing their series as much as Bradley P. Beaulieu does. His passion for his books bleeds through every. Single. Page. I frankly don’t understand how he has the stamina to put out this many books so quickly. He has published one book per year(ish) and each one has absolutely no filler. These books have so much plot that Beaulieu had to write spinoff novellas just to fit all of the story in. Seriously, I am not kidding when I say these books are nothing but thousands of pages of plot and story. There is literally zero downtime. I don’t even know how he managed to track all of this when he was writing it. Thank Beaulieu for the book synopses he writes at the beginning of each book to help readers remember the 8000 things that happen in each book. The conflict has evolved into an entirely new story four times at this point.

With so much dense storytelling, the character growth has been enormous. My investment in each character is gigantic, and it makes following the meaty story all the more satisfying. Jackals, in particular, stands out because it finally fixed a minor problem that has been plaguing the story since book one. Twelve Kings (book one) begins as the story of Çeda, and while there are additional POVs, it’s very much her story. As the series expanded to have a much, much, larger scope, the burden on the larger cast became greater and greater. However, it always felt like the larger cast lacked agency when compared to Çeda, which watered down their segments. This issue has been improving since book three (A Veil of Spears), but Jackals is the first book to really feel like the entire cast all were as integral to the story as the original core protagonist.

If I had one criticism of Jackals, it would be that the extremely dense storytelling lacked a few major set pieces to break up the plot and stick in your memory. Most of the earlier books have key explosive moments that tug at the heartstrings and stick in the mind. Jackals is excellent all the way through, but it’s also a quieter and more uniform book without as much spectacle. Part of this has to do with the fact that we are in book five of six in a series that heavily leans into mystery. At this point, a lot of the reveals have already happened, and a good portion of the book is building up to the explosive finale that will undoubtedly be book six. Jackals is a great book, but it’s also a little meeker than its siblings. The book also felt a little light on major themes. Most of the ideas being bounced around are classic fantasy ideas with a new skin. While this is still enjoyable, it isn’t breaking new ground.

When Jackals Storm The Walls once again delivers a lovingly written epic story that never lets up and doesn’t let you down. With five out of six books sticking the landing so far, it is looking like a safe bet that this series will be one of the hidden gems of this era. I know I have leaned into the hyperbole and humor in my writing of this review, but I really do recommend you take the time and check out this series. It will not disappoint you.

Rating: When Jackals Storm The Walls – 8.5/10
-Andrew

The Book Rookie – The Hero of Ages

We’re back with another installment of The Book Rookie! This time, Alex and Andrew join cole to discuss The Hero of Ages, Brandon Sanderson’s thrilling conclusion to the original Mistborn trilogy!

Just catching up? Listen to our discussions about Mistborn and The Well of Ascension before you dive in.

And enjoy our shiny new musical intro!

The Book Rookie is a book club in which Cole (the eponymous rookie) reads flagship fantasy and sci-fi books, then discusses them with readers who have more experience with the genre.

This isn’t a book club for niche reads. We’re talking big series: The Gentlemen BastardsA Song of Ice and FireThe Broken EarthThe Stormlight ArchiveThe ExpanseThe Malazan Book of the Fallen, and countless other top-tier fantasy and sci-fi reads. We want to compare readings of the SFF world’s MVPs. A relative newcomer to adult fantasy will inevitably perceive a book differently than two readers who have travelled the many worlds available to SFF readers. We hope you enjoy the new series! If you have a book you want us to discuss, drop a comment below!

Legacy Of Ash – The Beginnings Of Something Good

81yarluoexlI have been looking for some new epic fantasy recently as a lot of the larger series I have historically turned to have been wrapping up the last two years. Luckily, it looks like this year is going to be big for epic fantasy, with a number of established authors like Lawrence and Wexler launching new series and many debut authors throwing their hats into the ring. Speaking of which, one of the new debut series I have managed to sink my teeth into this year is Legacy of Ash, by Matthew Ward. If this book is any sort of sign of the quality of epic fantasy coming down the pipeline, then we are in for a great year.

Legacy of Ash has all the staples of a good epic fantasy. It has a fascinating and expansive world, a large number of varied POVs, satisfying character journeys/growth, political intrigue, and a captivating plot. His debut story kicks off strong and fast. The book begins with the end of a war from the POV of the queen of the losing side. She dies almost immediately, and through her death, we are introduced to the three primary POVs of the story: her executioner, Viktor, and her two children, Josiri and Calenne. These are the characters the story focuses on, but the side cast is enormous, varied, and well fleshed out. The overall plot is too complicated to summarize in a paragraph, but it essentially revolves around post-war tensions a decade after the opening scene, political intrigue, a supernatural global threat, and our three protagonists coming to terms with who they are.

While everything in that last sentence, combined with brisk pacing and good prose, contributes to why Legacy of Ash is good – it is the ever-present theme of our protagonists wrestling with their identities that helps Legacy stand out among the crowd and leave a lasting impression compared to its contemporary competition. At the start of the book, each of the leads has a very clear sense of identity and direction. Ward then continuously throws obstacles and challenges at them to question their beliefs and positions. The protagonists take in the information and decide if it will alter their course. It is a very natural, surprising, and well-written series of growth arcs that does a lot to keep you invested in the story. The only problem is that the three arcs feel like they have different levels of polish.

Josiri’s arc is the best. It’s the most fleshed out and the most interwoven with the plot. As the crown prince of an oppressed people, Josiri lives his life with rigid discipline, sharp pride of his heritage, and fierce loyalty to his mother’s memory and his people. The challenge that Josiri faces is deciding when it’s worthwhile to let go of pride and culture to save his people. Ward strikes a well-argued balance for the pros and cons of preserving national identity vs. absorbing into an oppressor to change it from within, and Josiri’s story kept me turning pages until the last.

Next, we have Viktor, who I absolutely love as a character but feel his challenges fell a little flat. Viktor is champion of the realm and a massive hulking and brooding behemoth of a man. However, he cherishes friendship, and, while I would hesitate to call him a softy on the inside, he has a lot more empathy and emotional depth than I expected. My issue with Viktor is that his internal struggle revolves around whether or not to embrace the fact that he can use cursed magic. He has interesting powers, and Ward does a good job painting the pros and cons, but at the end of the day, his struggle just didn’t feel as interesting or original when you put it next to Josiri’s.

And then we have Calenne. I don’t really know what happened with Calenne, she feels like she suffered from an attempt to tie all the various plot threads up. Calenne, as the second child of the dead queen, doesn’t have the responsibilities to the throne of her older brother. She was too young to remember the mother who died and feels chained to her memory and shadow and unable to be her own person. She wants nothing to do with her people; she just wants to run away and live her own life. Calenne’s story starts very strongly. At the start of the book, she is very unlikeable, but Ward knows this and does a great job giving Calenne meaningful and satisfying moments of growth to find balance in helping her people and living for herself. Unfortunately, Calenne’s story starts to go a little off the rails in the second half of the book. She isn’t given nearly the same amount of page time as the two others and disappears entirely for about a fourth of the novel. In addition, her character choices begin to push against the natural organic growth that you see with Viktor and Josiri and feel a bit erratic. A lot of this appears to do with her choices moving certain elements of the plot along and simply being a victim of Ward needing to introduce various elements. However, the handling of her character in the back half of the book feels a little clumsy when compared to the boys and it was disappointing.

Legacy of Ash is a strong debut with a lot packed into its first novel. Its fast pace and exciting twists make it feel like Ward crammed three books worth of content into one condensed super novel. The characters are fun and likable, though there were some minor issues with polish in the back half of the story. Overall, I really enjoyed this first book and I will be on the lookout to pick up the sequel as soon as I can.

Rating: Legacy of Ash – 8.0/10
-Andrew

Kings of Paradise – An Epic Beach Read

51pj3ezfyylSelf-published books are a huge mixed bag of quality, but occasionally you can strike gold. Kings of Paradise, by Richard Nell, is one of those books. An epic fantasy novel about a tropical empire, this book has the makings of a modern classic. If you are involved in the self-published fantasy scene, you have probably already heard of this book. It has been gathering its own fan club for a little over a year now and I have been getting more and more recommendations from other reviewers I know. I may be a little late to the party, but let me be the next in what is sure to be a long chain of people to lend my voice to the fact that this book is worth your time. Kings of Paradise has some issues to be sure, but they do little to dampen the great time I had with this book.

Kings of Paradise has a number of POVs, but is focused primarily on the stories of two boys/men: Ruka and Kale. These two are both extremely interesting protagonists, though I favor Kale massively because I find Ruka to be a bit unsavory to read about. Ruka is born malformed and ugly into the southern snow-covered wasteland of the Ascom, where he grows up with only his mother for company. When the strange politics and machinations of the land strip him of his mother, Ruka is consumed with hate for those who’ve wronged him and sets out on a quest for vengeance. Although Ruka was born ugly, he quickly grows into a behemoth of a human with a keen mind. Across a vast sea to the north is the white-sand island paradise of Sri Kon, where Kale is the youngest son of the Sorcerer King. Kale is seen to a degree as the family disappointment and is forced into a series of magical schools to learn discipline. To avoid spoilers I will not reveal what the second two schools are, but Kale starts in the navy and goes to two very different institutions following his naval training.

Our story follows the progression of these two characters, Ruka on his quest for vengeance and Kale on his quest to make something of himself. I found Kale immensely easier to relate to, as Ruka is somewhere between an anti-hero or an antagonist. Although Ruka’s motivations feel relatable, his methods and actions can be brutal to the point of revulsion. A number of the additional POVs in the story are from the perspectives of individuals whose lives Ruka shatters in his quest. However, Ascom and Sri Kon are interesting foils of one another in the story. One is a land of brutal survivalism and the other opulence and wealth as far as the eye can see. The comparisons do a great job of humanizing Ruka and enhancing Kale’s sense of immaturity in the grander scheme of things. You will have scenes where Kale is whining about his crush while Ruka is trying his best not to starve to death as he hides in the woods because he is being hunted for his appearance.

The worldbuilding in the story is fascinating, but I found it a little uneven. Sri Kon is a fascinating land with a number of cool customs and a culture I wanted to immerse myself in. Ascom is a hellish wasteland that I thought had a few interesting ideas but failed to capture my interest or imagination in the same way as Sri Lon. There are only so many dimensions to “survival is king,” and I have seen a number of them in other books before. The magic systems were also a great time, with both Ruka and Kale discovering different talents. However, I do think that magic did not get enough exploration.

My major complaint against Kings of Paradise is that the pacing of the book felt a bit tumultuous. The start of the book, in particular when Ruka is a child, can feel slower than paint drying. You get entire chapters devoted to shattering the naivete of children and I felt the same themes could have been achieved in shorter pages in a punchier manner. On the other hand, the end of the book moves insanely fast. The last 50 pages see a ton of huge climactic events happening in mere paragraphs when I would have liked to see them strung out across entire chapters. The book also ends with a huge shift in tone as well, which leads me to worry that I will like book two less, but I won’t be able to tell until I actually read it. However, I am definitely going to read book two, Kings of Ash, as soon as my schedule frees up.

Kings of Paradise is an impressive debut with a ton of potential. The two protagonists and their mirrored stories add a ton of depth to an already engrossing story that I couldn’t put down. With an interesting setting and memorable cast, this was one of my top books I read this summer. If you are looking for a new epic fantasy, a new beach read, or an epic fantasy about beaches – this is the book for you. We wholeheartedly recommend Kings of Paradise by Richard Nell.

Rating: Kings of Paradise – 8.5/10
-Andrew

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

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