Age Of Assassins – A Blade With A Little Too Much Edge

33296298As per usual, I often spend a good chunk of the start of a year catching up on books I missed from the year before (which causes me to miss more books this year, it’s a vicious cycle). Up next in my 2017 cleanup is Age of Assassins, by R. J. Barker. Assassins are a tricky subject to tackle in fantasy. In the past I have gone into assassin novels expecting constant action and murder, but assassination has typically been more of a waiting game than anything else – which can leave me disappointed. So when I realized that this book had all the soul of other classic assassin novels, with great pacing, I was quite excited to dig in. But first, let’s talk plot.

Girton Club-foot, apprentice assassin, still has much to learn from his master (Merela) before he can strike out on his own. However, thanks to a past she can’t outrun, Merela strikes a bargain with a queen to hire Girton as an assassin/bodyguard to kill the other assassins after her son, Aydor. So a sheltered Girton is thrust into knight training and must navigate the perils of friendship, mystery, and political intrigue. If you haven’t guessed it already, this is a coming of age story about Girton. The book primarily follows the first person POV of Girton and follows him as he essentially shifts from assassin homeschool, to knight public school. On top of this, there is the mystery of who is trying to murder prince Aydor, and a lot of political intrigue around the noble families of the world. The three elements of storytelling (coming of age, mystery, and political intrigue) pair with a fast pace for a thrilling read, but there are also some issues.

First let’s talk about Girton. Right off the bat, let me say that I think Girton is an incredibly well written character that does a very good job placing you in his shoes. The problem is sometimes his shoes are terrible and I don’t want to wear them. I would describe Girton as that socially awkward friend that every person has, where nine times out of ten they are wonderful to be around, and one time out of ten they are a cataclysm of awkwardness. I honestly think this is a realistic portrait of a boy who basically never had a friend until the age of 14 and spends most of his time learning the most efficient way to murder people. However, that doesn’t make his extremely awkward or edgy passages fun to read. Generally Girton is a fun and endearing boy to read about as he awkwardly makes his first social steps. However, his secret assassin background enables some internal power fantasy monologues that shattered my empathy for him like throwing a mark through a window. The appeal of the characters in general was very varied. My favorite group of characters was the “suspects”, or the various individuals around the castle that Girton investigated to see if they were behind the attempts on Aylor’s life. This group were varied, well fleshed out, and had a lot of personality that really brought the mystery to life and made you wonder who was behind the assassination attempts. On the other hand, Girton, his master, Aylor, and a few others fell flat for me. Aylor in particular, clearly trying to embody the “jackass prince who will become a spoiled terrible king” trope under delivered. I was initially worried that he would be an over the top asshole, but I instead found I was generally apathetic about him and not invested in him getting his comeuppance.

Along a similar line, the plot also felt like it varied in quality. The pacing was very fast, which was both good and bad. In some chapters I found myself on the edge of my seat, dying to know what would happen next. In others, I found myself metaphorically shot from a cannon through world and character development, so that the payoff of story arcs was smaller than it could have been. For example, there were a few small passages that talked about the origin and structure of Girton’s assassin organization, but they are so few and far between that they left me wanting. In addition, it was almost halfway through the book before I realized that the “horses” of Age of Assassins were a cross between elk, tigers, and boars and I am super disappointed the book did not spend more time talking about these rideable death machines. The mystery and political intrigue elements were much more solid, remaining strong almost throughout the book. There were a couple of small twists that a blind man could have seen coming from the horizon, but as a whole the core mystery was extremely well done and I found myself deathly (get it? Because assassins) curious about the identity of the culprit until the final pages. Finally, Barker has a real talent for action writing. The action sequences in Age of Assassins were definitely a highlight, and they satisfied my desire to see a well-trained assassin murder large groups of people.

Overall, Age of Assassins was slightly disappointing. The book felt like a long prologue that could have been a lot better with a little more depth. However, the bones of something excellent are here and I am going to stick with the series and give the second book a shot. If you are in the market for a coming of age story about assassins, and are willing to forgive a little awkwardness, you should give Age of Assassins a shot.

Rating: Age of Assassins – 6.0/10


Dawn of Wonder – Dusk Of My Interest

51ffxlj4tvlHello everyone. I apologize for the missed day this week, but I am changing to a new job (as a researcher for the New York Public Library, which is super exciting) and I found myself a little short on time. Accordingly, I wanted to talk about something I rarely mention in my reviews: a book I did not finish. It is uncommon for me to drop a book, as I usually vet my reading material enough that books I won’t enjoy don’t often slip through. However, every so often I find myself reading a book and dragging my feet so much that I realize I should put it down and read something else. Dawn of Wonder, by Jonathan Renshaw, was one such book.

I actually have a lot of good things to say about Dawn of Wonder. The story tells a coming of age fantasy centring around the young Aedan. Aedan and his friends live in a small farming town, making trouble and being generally boisterous. Their lives are turned around when slave traders try to take the town and upheave Aedan’s life. This event ultimately leads Aedan to start training at an academy for mercenaries, hellbent on revenge against the nation that let his homestead be attacked by slavers.

The story is a bit slow at the start, but picks up significantly once Aedan starts training at the academy. Aedan’s unique and defining personality quirk is an aptitude for strategy and tactics that sees him matching wits with seasoned generals in his ability to plan battles. Additionally, Aedan is struggling with some inner demons left from an abusive father that has emotionally crippled him. Watching Aedan attend the academy and pass various trials and tribulations, overcome his inner demons, and plan his revenge is a joy to watch. In fact, in abstract everything about this book is exciting, fun, and has the markings of a great read. However, there are a couple issues with it in practice.

For starters, the biggest issue I have with Dawn of Wonder is the exposition about Aedan. There are constant passages of written exposition about Aedan’s skill and greatness that are awkward, rip me out of the story, and make Aedan feel like an unrealistic ‘Gary Sue’. In one of the earliest chapters, two retired war vets comment aloud (with no context) that Aedan is one of the smartest, coolest, greatest, strategic minds in any book ever, and he’s only a teenager! (I am hyperbolising but this is what it felt like). These aggrandizements soured me on Aedan really, really quickly and made it hard to get attached to his character in any way. Additionally, the inner demons segments of the book are really heavy handed and handled in a melodramatic way that I thought was over the top, further distancing me from Aeden.

These writing problems dissociated me from Aedan as a character so much that I found myself having no interest in continuing to read a book that was otherwise a lot of fun, With a little more show, and a lot less tell, this could have been a favorite of mine. There was no reason that Renshaw couldn’t have just used the academy and the various trials to show Aedan’s brilliance in a much more natural setting. If you can move past the initial bragging, this book might be a home run for you, but I unfortunately got about 40% through before I put it down.

Rating: Dawn of Wonder – 4.0/10 (DNF)

Binti and Home – Why Isn’t This A Full Book

Whenever a series get explosively popular in fantasy and science fiction, it always inadvertently makes me feel like an old man. I always feel like I hear about new popular books weirdly late for someone who is literally a source of talking about new awesome books. I clearly need to read more of my competitors sites or do my job better. Anyway, speaking of new popular books, I managed to check out the wildly popular Binti, and sequel Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor recently. These books/short stories/(I don’t really know what to call these, maybe vignettes?) were sold to me as “the next Harry Potter”, which seemed like it might be a bit of an exaggeration, but then Nnedi Okorafor got an HBO show for one of her series and I figured I should probably check her out.


While I think referring to Binti as the next Harry Potter might be a bit of a stretch, I do understand the comparisons. Binti follows the story, surprisingly, of Binti – a young mathematical genius from an African tribe who is the first of her people to get accepted into what is basically space Harvard, called Oozma Uni. I found some of Binti’s mannerisms a little grating at times (she tends to yell a lot), but generally liked her. In addition, the university is a place filled with all sorts of interesting space races and forms of study. Spending time exploring the university gave me the same sort of whimsical feeling as being exposed to Hogwarts. The primary function of the story (at least the first two installments) is to talk about Binti’s personal story and her relationships with her friends and family. Binti spends almost no time at the Uni and Home spends a brief stint there before jumping back to Earth to talk about Binti’s relationship with her family. I was pretty frustrated we didn’t get to spend more time in this giant place of learning, but at the same time Binti’s personal story and her interactions with her family were also interesting and fun.

This leads to my major issue with Binti, I feel like the series suffers a lot from not being a full book. There is a level of worldbuilding here on par with some of the biggest and most expensive science fiction I have read, but the series had a size and scope comparable to a short story. I felt like I was being forced to sprint down a hall of wonders and everything I saw for a second captivated my interest, but didn’t get to stop and explore any of it. That being said, everything I saw was awesome. I love the races, cultures, and technology of Binti. Nnedi Okorafor seems to really like bio-technology, with the stories containing tons of living tech – which I found super cool. Learning about African culture in a science fiction setting was also a blast and I wish someone would write a large full book with the full concept.

At the end of the day I found Binti both wonderful and frustrating. I had a great time reading it, but I couldn’t help but feel that it could be such a bigger and better experience if it had a full novel. It is definitely worth your time though, and at under 100 pages for each segment takes almost no time to read. If you are looking for a story of an intrepid young African mathematician finding her way in the world, well then this might be the book for you.

Rating: Binti – 7.5/10
Rating: Binti: Home – 8.0/10


With Blood Upon The Sand – Sandsational

with-blood-upon-the-sand-coverThe Song of the Shattered Sand, by Bradley P. Beaulieu, is a series I probably don’t talk about enough (maybe because every time I do I have to google the series name and Bradley’s name to make sure I get the spelling right). One of the primary issues with it is there is just so much to talk about that I never feel like I have enough time. The first book in the series was Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, a book I felt had a slow start but reached fantastic heights. Bradley just put out the second book in the series, With Blood Upon the Sand, and it’s even better than its predecessor. When I originally reviewed book one I was new to the review game, but with my added experience doing these for two years I can hopefully better give Bradley and his story the props they rightly deserve.

Avoiding spoilers for book one, The Song of the Shattered Sand follows the story of a land of desert. It is a harsh land with limited resources, home to tons of roaming nomads who brave the sands. Long ago, a group of these nomads banded together to build a city at the center of the desert hoping to create stability and wealth. This city was Sharakhai. Twelve tribes with twelve kings came together to make the city, and it was incredibly successful. However, the city started to drain the resources of the desert, and its surrounding countries, in its quest to build an opulent metropolis in the sands. The remaining nomads of the sands resented this, rose up and threatened to overrun and raze the city. In the cities direst hour, the gods of the land joined together, blessed the city and its twelve kings, and helped repel the hordes of nomads. Through these desert gods the kings have been granted the divine right to rule, and govern their paradise with a just and even hand… or so they would have you think. Our story follows the POV of Ceda, a gutter wren in the city of Sharakhai and one of many who chafe under the kings’ absolute rule. The first book in the series focuses on Ceda, and her quest to overthrow the kings from the outside. With Blood Upon the Sand sees Ceda entering the service of the kings to try and take them down from within.

This new book is similar to a magical school story, with Ceda entering the elite personal army of the kings. As I have said before, I love magical schools and this is one of the best. In addition, while the first book focused primarily on Ceda, the second breaks out to a larger cast with more POVs. All the wonderful things about book one are still here in the sequel: the expansive and beautiful world, the deep characters, an exciting plot, the poetic prose, and the frankly beautiful physical book that is just fun to hold. However, the longer I spend with Bradley’s epic fantasy the more I am realizing he’s making something more impressive and complex than I initially realized. First there is Ceda. Ceda is one of the most complex and interesting characters I have read. I constantly change how i feel about her personality and her actions in the book, but that is not because Bradley is inconsistent in his writing. Ceda is just a character who I don’t know how I feel about. As mentioned before, Ceda wants to end the rule of the kings, a quest that her late mother left her. However, unlike most other fantasy quests out there, Ceda is in many ways completely on her own. Ceda doesn’t have a prophecy to work off of, she doesn’t have a kindly mentor standing behind her giving her guidance, she just has a goal and a general direction she wants to move in. It makes her mistakes feel more reasonable and forgivable than other protagonists because it is so easy to place yourself in her ignorant shoes. What this means is that unlike most other epic fantasies, The Song of the Shattered Sand is as much about figuring out what to do as how to do it. This adds a layer of mystery and unpredictability to the books that pervades every chapter.

Furthermore, I am captivated by the land of Sharakhai. Bradley builds in lore, settings, culture, and details of his setting so that I feel like I am learning something new on every page. The story doesn’t have a lot of setup (hence my original comment of a slow start) but as it pushes forward it builds this incredible momentum that makes reading it an experience. He intricately plans the lore, power, and mysteries of the kings and city, while also making it feel organic and random. One of the major pillars of the story is that the kings all have unique powers, and weaknesses, granted to them by the gods. However, unlike many other series the powers (or weaknesses) aren’t know to anyone but the kings. The only information outside their heads on the subject is a series of 12 poems that were lost to time. These poems each tell: the identity of the king, their power, and how to kill them – but they are all in riddle form and the riddles are hard. A lot of the time when you get poems and prophecies in fantasy, it is painfully obvious who they point to – but Bradley’s are both eloquent and maddening as they often feel like they refer to multiple kings and that their powers and weaknesses could be anything, It is a refreshing take on prophecy and every time Ceda identifies a poem to its owner you get this satisfying rush of “it all makes sense now”. The story and world are a mystery wrapped in an enigma and I love peeling back each layer.

On top of beginning wonderfully complex, the entire story is in a grey area. There are more sides of this story than a cube, and I have no idea whose I am on. The more you learn about the kings, the more you can see that “evil tyrants” is an oversimplification. In addition, the noble rebels seeking to overthrow them have multiple subgroups whose goals align a lot less than they initially think. The book has political intrigue oozing out of every pore and shifting through the various players and characters is very satisfying. Finally, the magic and culture of the book is just fun to read. I have never been huge on Middle Eastern fantasy, but Bradley’s adaptation of the setting feels original and like it doesn’t fetishize the culture to a western audience (at least to me). I would love to spend some time talking with Bradley about his inspiration for the work, and what ideas he adapted from existing mythology and what he built for himself.

Despite my glowing praise, the books are not without flaws. Bradley if you are reading this you need a damn appendix, I cannot keep all your characters straight on my own. The pacing of the series is much slower than I am used to, but I am not entirely sure it is a flaw. With Blood Upon the Sand rarely kept me on the edge of my seat, preferring to slip grand reveals unexpectedly into the middle of chapters with little build up. On the other hand, I was never bored. The book might not be the most exciting ever, but it is definitely captivating in a slow and methodical way. The books are incredibly long, and felt it, but I had a really hard time thinking of anything that I would cut. Every scene clearly had a reason, and while the book might have been slimmed slightly, I actually think it was fine the way it was.

The Song of the Shattered Sand is an incredible series running under the radar of most people I know. Despite its slow pacing and quiet personality, it has an enormous amount of substance. I hope this review has gotten you intrigued enough to take a look and brave the sands. If you are looking for a wonderful world, a complex cast, mystery around every corner, and an unforgettable trip into the desert, I recommend you check out Bradley P. Beaulieu’s latest work.

Rating: With Blood Upon the Sand – 9.0/10