A Pilgrimage of Swords – A Guided Tour Of Nightmares

a_pilgrimage_of_swords_by_anthony_ryan_1Anthony Ryan is having a busy year – not only did he just release the much anticipated, The Wolf’s Call, but he also has an upcoming novella from Subterranean Press. The novella is called A Pilgrimage of Swords, and I was kindly sent an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review. As such, here is my honest one-line take – I have never wanted to lift a book plot into a Dungeons and Dragons campaign more. It felt like highway robbery that this story was only a novella, and not a full book, as I was dying to explore the world and learn more about its characters.

The premise of A Pilgrimage of Swords is simple but elegant: 200 years ago in the book’s world, a god named the Absolved went insane and imploded the country he presided over, turning it into a wasteland called The Execration. Originally his lands were filled with countless magical wonders and beauty, but all of it has been perverted to grotesque parodies of what they once were – and all of the lands are hostile to those who venture onto it. His subjects have turned into flesh-eating monsters, the trees have turned into flesh-eating monsters, the random assorted rocks that litter the landscape have turned into fles– you know what you get the idea. Everything inside the Absolved’s country is terrible, so why would anyone ever go there? Well, because rumor has it that if a pilgrim reaches the center of this cursed land, they can find the mad god himself still residing there. If you are crazy enough to brave his lands and make it to him, there is a chance that the Absolved will grant you a wish.

As I mentioned, the route to the Absolved is a hellscape taken from the nightmares of Lovecraft, so not exactly an exciting prospect. Yet, there are those desperate enough to make the journey, usually when life has cruelly left them no other options. These poor individuals gather at the church of the Absolved, whose priests sacrifice their lives to send as guides into the wastes in order to better know their god’s will. As such, the pilgrimage is made in groups in order to increase chances of survival. Our cast is a group of individuals on one such pilgrimage. The cast has no names, for names are left behind when an individual takes this journey. Instead, each member of the party takes a moniker to represent why they are going on this quest. Our protagonist takes the moniker “The Pilgrim,” which doesn’t win many points for originality, but he has a cool possessed sword so I gave him a pass.

Our story follows The Pilgrim and his co-questers as they cross a variety of horrible areas of Execration. The guide provides a really easy storytelling mechanism and feels very natural as he explains what each area of the Execration used to be, and what it has become. Ryan has a great imagination and the various areas that he takes the reader through are super cool. However, the real fun of the book comes from the cast of mysterious adventurers. A large part of the book is figuring out tiny bits of information about the seven individuals in the party making the pilgrimage. Their personalities, and reasons for going on the insane journey, are slowly revealed over the course of the novella and make for a very compelling read.

The novella is short and sweet and I don’t have a lot of critiques for it. As always, because the novella was a lot of fun, I was left wishing it had been a full novel. The ending was probably the weakest part of the story, though I still liked it. I just found the worldbuilding and mysterious atmosphere to be stronger than the reveal at the end. One exciting thing about the ending is it left the doorway open for a follow-up novel, something I really hope Ryan pursues.

A Pilgrimage of Swords is an engrossing adventure for anyone who likes a story with a great atmosphere and imagination. It is short, sweet, and will leave you wanting a lot more. Regardless, the novella will keep you on the edge of your seat from the first to the last page, and I really hope that Anthony Ryan does more in this world. If you are looking for a new novella to mix up your reading schedule look no further than A Pilgrimage of Swords.

Rating: A Pilgrimage of Swords – 8.5/10
-Andrew

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The Dragon Lords: Bad Faith – Trust Me On This One

51ifgjed8slHere we have the end of a trilogy with a lot of ups and down. Dragon Lords: Fool’s Gold, by Jon Hollins, was one of my bookclub books awhile back (reviewed here). It was a satirical take on quest fantasy that my club had a wide range of opinions on. Some thought it was incredibly bad, and some with better taste (like myself) thought it showed a lot of promise despite its flaws. I decided to continue on with the series and read book two, Dragon Lords: False Idols, which you can find the review of here. The short summary of that review is – book two showed a ton of improvement, and was a very solid read. Today, I am talking about the final book in the series, Dragon Lords: Bad Faith, and deciding if I think the entire thing is worth your time.

The plot of the final book is slightly reminiscent of the previous two: our merry band of rejects repeatedly fails their way into saving the world by murdering beings severely outside their weight class. Will, Lette, Balur, and others spend most of their time wandering from place to place, trying to execute half-ass plans that backfire immediately. The book is funny, outrageous, and a generally good time with lots of memorable insane moments. I will say that the third installment has a much more somber tone than the first two (and it feels appropriate). The humor is still there in spades, but it moves from less of a focus on slapstick, and more towards a focus on bad puns in chapter titles and contextual humor. The book manages that rare quality of being both sad and funny, and it works well.

In addition, the key difference between the plot of Bad Faith and the other two books is that this time the crew is motivated from a desire to save the world instead of a desire to save themselves from poverty. When looking back at the series as a whole, it’s truly impressive how Hollins organically grew his team of sociopaths into better people. I found their (sometimes painfully) slow transition into admirable people believable and relatable. There is always a question when reading about flawed protagonists of: is it worth reading about absolute asshats now for emotional pay off when they become good people later on? In this case I would say yes, but only just. I think where the crew of characters ends is a great spot – but I also don’t think it’s the greatest character development of all time.

Where the book really shines is in the worldbuilding. I can tell that Hollins was sort of making up his world as he was going in the earlier books – but Bad Faith has a fully fleshed out, and interesting, world where the team spends a lot of time wandering around. Hollins also finally gets around to exploring the backstories of some of our more silent characters and I really enjoyed the depth they added to some of the previously shallow people.

The book ends on a really strong note, but getting there was occasionally a little slow. There are definitely some pacing issues that feel more apparent due the third book’s smaller amount of jokes. The focus on POV’s is fairly uneven, with some characters hogging the spotlight. I don’t think there was anything inherently wrong with this, but in Bad Faith’s instance it results in some characters over telling their stories a bit. I can only hear the inner monologue of a person so many times before I think “I get it”.

Overall, I would definitively say that Dragon Lords is worth your time. Humor in fantasy is hard, and while these books might not always be perfect – I think they bring enough originality and quality to the stage to be worth anyone’s time. If you are looking for a laugh, a lot of failure, and watching a boat load of people learn how to be slightly less garbage – I recommend you check out the Dragon Lords series by Jon Hollins.

Rating:
The Dragon Lords – 7.5/10
Bad Faith – 8.0/10

Bloody Rose – Isn’t She Lovely

eames_bloddy-rose_pbLast year Nicholas Eames had a breakout success with his book Kings of the Wyld. The story of an older fantasy party getting back together for one last tour, the book told a touching story of five characters finding the strength to set aside their differences and save the world. It was one of our top books of the year and you can read more about it here, here, and here. Not content to just write one amazing book, Eames is back with a sequel, Bloody Rose, that takes place in the aftermath of book one but follows an entirely new cast. It is a big task to write a sequel from the ground up, so the question is: did Eames mess up his encore?

No, no he did not. I am deeply impressed Bloody Rose is such a solid book, especially as it forgoes a lot of what made Kings amazing. Our new POV is Tam, the daughter of two famous mercenaries looking to strike out on her own. She quickly falls in as the new bard for the top band in the world, Fable. The five (if I include Tam) person band includes Brune (a shapeshifting druid), Cura (a summoner who uses ink and flesh for her creations), Lastleaf (a druid swordsman you might remember from book one), and the aforementioned Rose – daughter to one of our characters from book one, Golden Gabe. In the wake of vanquishing the horde of monsters in Kings of the Wyld, bands have begun to stick to touring arenas where they can slaughter monsters brought in from the Wylds in front of huge audiences. However, it doesn’t take long for the remnants of the monster army to regroup under a new leader for one last push into human lands. When this new horde starts making its invasion, most bands head towards it to put it down a second time. The notable outlier to this is Fable, who finds themselves heading in the opposite direction to fulfil a mysterious contract – much to the ire of the other bands around them.

Much like with Saga in book one, Fable is a band with a lot of issues. Each band member is dealing with their own personal crisis that is slowly pulling the band apart. The major theme this time around is parent relationships. Each band member has a problem with their parents that they are trying to work through throughout the course of the book to varying degrees of success. I won’t go into all of them to avoid spoilers, but I think I can touch on the more obvious two – Tam, our POV, and Rose. Tam’s mother was killed while touring with her band and her father has never gotten over her death. Tam essentially runs away from her father to join Fable after he expressly forbids it and spends the majority of the book trying to find her own identity and come to terms with who she is vs. who her father wanted her to be. Rose, on the other hand, is the daughter of one of the most famous mercenaries alive and has found herself unable to leave his shadow. Driven to take on increasingly more dangerous contracts, Rose is determined to eclipse her father or die trying.

Bloody Rose’s characters are fantastic. Tam is an absolute delight (and is a lesbian for those of you who are looking for lgbt protagonists). I think Eames made a really good choice in telling the story from Tam’s eyes. As we progress through the book, Tam’s opinion of Fable’s other members goes from ‘starstruck awe’ to ‘deep personal understanding of their strengths and flaws’, and riding along with her for that trip was wonderful. The cast as a whole is fantastic, including many of the smaller side characters like Tam’s uncle Bram and Fables bookie Rodrick. The only character that I honestly wasn’t in love with was the titular Rose. She felt a little shallow, only living to outshine her father, and the other characters were so interesting that, while I liked Rose, she never quite connected with me like the rest of Fable did.

Bloody Rose has a more somber and serious voice than its predecessor, though it still has a good sense of humor. Kings of the Wyld focused a lot on laughs and emotional connections, whereas Bloody Rose focuses more on its plot, worldbuilding, and narrative themes. In line with this, one of the biggest themes of Rose is evaluating people for their own merits, not the merits of their parents, and as such I think comparing the two books does both injustice. Bloody Rose’s plot is fantastic. Eames does a great job building out the world a lot more this time around and getting you much more invested in the bigger picture. The pacing for the first 60% of the book is phenomenal, but I think it does struggle a little bit around roughly the 80% mark. This was only a minor problem in an overall fantastic book though and I do not think anyone who is looking forward to Bloody Rose is going to be disappointed.

The success of Bloody Rose shows that Nicholas Eames is here to stay. It is a heartfelt read, with a beautiful world, and a cast I deeply connected with. Eames’ narrative voice is one of the best in this generation of fantasy authors, and I cannot wait to read everything else he puts out. Bloody Rose is one of the strongest fantasy books this year, and everyone should pick it up as soon as they can.

Rating: Bloody Rose – 9.0/10
-Andrew

Redemption’s Blade – Stuffed To Bursting With Imagination

redemptions-blade-9781781085790_hrOne of the best books I have read this year was Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky. It was an incredible take on the ideas of evolution and what makes someone human along with a interesting narrative style. I thought Children of Time was so good that it made me want to dive in to Adrian’s vast catalogue of books and read more. Solaris/Rebellion was kind enough to facilitate this desire and sent me an ARC of his newest book, Redemption’s Blade, in exchange for a honest review.

Redemption’s Blade has a plot that should appeal to most fantasy readers. The story takes place in the immediate wake of a gigantic war that touched almost the entire world. A demigod, named the Kinslayer, decided that he was no longer keen on his God given mission to protect the mortals of the world. Instead, he thought it would be a lot more fun to consume his brethren (which earned him his name), cast down the gods, and enslave all mortals. His war for domination was cut short when he was sliced in half by a group of heroes and some of his minions that turned traitor. One of these heroes was Celestaine, who goes by Celest, who is finding herself a bit lost in a world that regards her as one of its saviors. In order to find some meaning in her post-hero life she sets out on a journey with a group of the Kinslayer’s ex-minions to try and right some of the wrongs that the demigod committed in his war.

Redemption simultaneously evokes classical quest fantasies like Lord of the Rings, while also being a non-stop avalanche of original ideas and worldbuilding. We follow Celest as she travels across the world looking for an artifact of incredible power to heal the people the Kinslayer mutilated. On this journey she recruits a number of interesting characters to her cause and takes you on a tour of a number of horrors that the Kinslayer created. The plot is enjoyable, but slightly predictable (which was fine). Where the book really shined was its world, as Tchaikovsky really knows how to build atmosphere and story set pieces. I was filled with childlike wonder as I read about strange creatures, cool swords, weird races, and despicable crimes. So while the plot of the book can sometimes feel a little shallow, Celest’s journey is simply a lot of fun and honestly that is the most important quality for a book to have.

If I had to pick a flaw to talk about, it would be Celest herself. The characters of the story are, on a whole, fantastic. The party members, side characters, and antagonists all succeeded in getting me emotionally invested and caring about them as people. However, Celest felt like she struggled as the central POV as her character began to feel a little one note as the book ran on. Her inner monologues get a little bit repetitive, and she tended to harp on the same ideas (such as “are these ex-evil minions my friends or tools that I am using?”) a little too often. This is a shame because her various party members were a buffet of deep personalities.

Overall, I enjoyed Redemption’s Blade a lot. It is a very fun book with a lot of astoundingly cool ideas that I think almost any fan of the fantasy genre would enjoy. It loses a little bit of steam towards the end, and Celest could use an injection of personality, but I would still recommend it to anyone who asks. In the meantime, my second foray into Tchaikovsky’s work has only cemented my belief that he is an unique and imaginative author that I need to read more from, and I can’t wait to get my hands on his next book.

Rating: Redemption’s Blade – 8.0/10
-Andrew

Six of Crows – Finding Out What Everyone Is Cawing About

six_of_crowsSix of Crows, by Leigh Bardugo, has been sitting on my to-do list for a very long time. The book is a wildly successful YA heist novel that is a spin off of another wildly successful YA series, the Grisha Verse. I have had a ton of people I know tell me they loved the series and recommend it to me because I love the Lies of Locke Lamora, but there have always been a few personal red flags that led me to suspect I might not enjoy it as much as friends thought I would. However, the book has been on my list long enough that I decided to say screw it and just read it and see what I thought.

I went into Six of Crows not having read its parent series, and I was happy to find out that I definitely didn’t need to have read the Grisha Verse to understand what was going on and get invested. The story is fairly standard for a heist novel: a crew of six charismatic people with their own issues sets out to make a big score. The initial plan fails miserably, and then the team must use each individual’s unique skills to compensate and succeed. The heist in question is essentially about rescuing a prisoner from a military installation that is heavily fortified.

Our main protagonist, and heist gang leader, is Kaz Brekker – a mastermind who is on a secret quest of vengeance that is furthered by the heist. It’s not the most original backstory, but I grew to enjoy Kaz and his blunt mannerisms. The crew consists of (and I’m paraphrasing here a little) the mastermind, an inside man, a thief, a marksman, a courtesan, and a demolitions expert). When I initially started the book I found three of the characters (Kaz, the inside man, and the courtesan) a bit grating on the nerves, but instantly loved the other three. In addition, I came around on every one of them by the end of the book. Each character has their own reasons for being on the heist and their own objectives, and I feel that Leigh does a wonderful job intertwining the personal stories of the characters with the heist story of the group. The character dialogue is fun and easy, and the personalities of the group are varied enough that there is something for every reader.

The plot actually felt a little lackluster for a heist novel, but the book made up for it in its worldbuilding. I assume that the Grisha Verse has a lot of this as well, but the world that the characters inhabit is extremely well fleshed out and deep. My favorite part of the book was the analysis of the culture of the country that the prison was in as part of the heist planning. It all felt like I was learning about real places, which is rare for any book – let alone a YA novel.

My one major criticism of Six of Crows is that it feels like the novel was “dumbed down” to fit the YA label. It feels like it has the structure for a much larger and extensive heist novel in place, but then it was redone to make it more appealing to a younger audience. This is most apparent in the character backstories, with each character having a story and skill set that had me placing them in their late 20’s to mid 30’s. So when I realized that the cast were all supposed to be teenagers, I had a serious break from immersion. I have a really hard time believing that some of the cast had enough years of experience to have some of the skills they proclaimed to have (which is a weird nitpick I know, but it really pulled me out of the book).

At the end of the day, I don’t think Six of Crows is quite as good as many other reviewers feel – but I also think it would be hard for anyone to not enjoy it a least a little. Leigh Bardugo clearly has a serious talent for worldbuilding and characters, and I hope she does some more adult fantasy in her future. If you are looking for a fun heist novel that’s an easy read with a memorable cast and forgettable plot, this might be for you.

Rating: Six of Crows – 7.5/10

-Andrew

(P.S. Whoever designed that cover art deserves some sort of award. It is probably in my top 10 best designed covers ever.)