‘The Copper Promise’ by Jen Williams

The Copper Promise is a classic fantasy romp; a sword and sorcery tale of epic quests, fallen heroes, plucky sellswords and fearsome dragons.

The Copper Promise by Jen Williams (UK Cover)After unwittingly unleashing an ancient horror from a buried citadel (oops!), three unlikely heroes – noble Lord Frith (whose family were murdered and who himself was tortured after being overthrown by rivals); Sir Sebastien (an exiled knight with a troubled soul); and Wydrin (a sassy mercenary also known as the Copper Cat) – must seek out long-lost magic in order to atone for their bloody daft mistake and save the world.

Jen Williams’ story is a lot of fun. The Copper Promise is full of action and magic and just the right amount of grit and gore . . . and it’s entertaining enough to make you overlook certain instances of deus ex machina (need to travel somewhere in a hurry? Take these magical flying griffins!). Although several threads of the story are so contrived as to be reminiscent of quests in a Dungeons & Dragons game, the flighty pace and likeable characters (particularly Wydrin) make the reader more than happy to turn a blind eye.

The pacing of The Copper Promise does suffer a little bit from its uneven structure. As I understand it, the story was originally written as a series of four novellas; this version of the book is similarly split into four distinct sections. While this means for quite fast pacing and lots of exciting moments and mini-climaxes, it does make the final events of the book seem a little anti-climactic. (The wild chase through the skies, though very exciting, felt a little rushed.)

Most of all, though, it’s nice to read the first book in a series that can actually be read as a standalone. Far too many fantasy authors recently have cut me up with sudden and dramatic cliffhangers at the end of their books (I’m looking at you, Brian McClellan). The Copper Promise is refreshing in that it’s self-contained, and ends with a sense of resolution while at the same time inviting (rather than demanding) a sequel.

I’m currently reading Jen Williams’ latest novel, The Ninth Rain, and am massively impressed by the increase in quality. While I did enjoy The Copper Promise, I think I’d find it hard to return to the Copper Cat and co. now that I’ve sampled the Winnowing Flame trilogy… but who knows? The Iron Ghost has been sitting on my shelf for two years now, and perhaps its patience will be rewarded one day. Either way, a review of The Ninth Rain (released on 23 February 2017) will be appearing on this site very soon!lauramhughes-sig

Review originally published on halfstrungharp.com on 15 August 2014.

‘A Darker Shade of Magic’ by V.E. Schwab

I’m a little bit embarrassed to admit that I bought this book solely because of its cover.

Actually, no. I’m not embarrassed at all. That’s what covers are for, isn’t it? And this is one seriously gorgeous cover! I mean, look at that bad boy:A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

Luckily, there’s an equally gorgeous story lying behind it. A Darker Shade of Magic is filled with beautiful settings and bloody magic, cross-dressing thieves and nefarious villains, magical utopias and fearsome dystopias – not to mention fun adventures and several heroic attempts to save the world. Or I should say worlds, of which there are four. Each of the four worlds – closed off from one another after terrible past events – are completely different, yet all have a single common point: the city of London. Each of these Londons (not all of which are actually called London) is vastly different from the others: Red London is a magic-infused paradise, Grey London is akin to early 19th century England, White London is dangerous and filled with half-starved cannibals, and the less said about Black London the better.

A Darker Shade of Magic focuses on two incredibly likeable characters: Kell, a powerful magician and adopted member of the Red London royal family; and Lila, a dirt-poor thief from Grey London who dreams of adventure. An unlikely pairing, but one which works together well, travelling between Londons to thwart the villains trying to bring doom upon both their worlds.

The relationship between Kell and Lila is an integral part of the story; much of the novel’s humour arises from their interactions and the dry way in which they antagonise one another. However, their relationship is not the sole focus of the story – much to the author’s credit. A romance storyline between the two could easily have taken centre stage, and yet this particular element is remarkably downplayed and subtle. Instead, A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwabit’s more about how Kell and Lila gradually come to trust one another, and how their initially antagonistic relationship develops into something stronger through their mutual desire to put things right and save the world(s). There’s just a hint or two that there may be more than just friendship on the horizon, which is both realistic and lovely at the same time.

No, the true focus of the novel is on its plot rather than its characters; and while I would have liked to have been given more insight into each of the characters as individuals, the author nonetheless does a credible job of developing them both whilst remaining focused on the events. The plot itself is relatively straightforward, but with enough twists and turns thrown in to keep the reader guessing; and the writing is flowing and engaging. In fact, certain parts of the prose – not to mention the descriptions of setting, as well as the somewhat nebulous nature of the magic itself – put me in mind of Susanna Clarke’s excellent novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Schwab’s novel is not as accomplished nor as ambitious as Clarke’s behemoth – indeed, A Darker Shade of Magic’s strength is in its fast pacing and tightly-focused plot – but its spirit is much the same, as is its focus on magic’s darker, subtler side, and its potential to bring out both the best and the worst in people.

While many aspects of the novel are somewhat dark and sinister (as the title suggests), the story itself is a whole lot of fun. The strong pacing and short chapters – as well as the likeable characters and compelling plot – conspired to make me finish the book in just two sittings, and I’m really happy to have discovered a new author as a result of my shallow over-appreciation of fine cover art. Even better, I’m confident that the sequels will prove to be just as good (if not better!) than book one . . . and that they’ll look equally pretty on my shelf.lauramhughes-sig

‘They Mostly Come Out at Night’ by Benedict Patrick

This review originally appeared on Fantasy-Faction on 20 January 2017.

They Mostly Come Out at Night by Benedict Patrick

You may recognise this book. You should recognise this book. At least, you should if you’ve been following the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off and/or are part of Fantasy-Faction’s social media circles.

I myself have been desperately enamoured with Benedict Patrick’s debut novel since I first laid eyes on its cover last year. Jenny Zemanek did such a stellar job of its design that They Mostly Come Out at Night came joint-second in the SPFBO2 cover contest (ahead of 297 others!), tying with Timandra Whitecastle’s Touch of Iron and losing out by only two votes to Michael Miller’s The Dragon’s Blade.

To Patrick, it must seem as though he’s cursed to always be the ‘almost’ winner: They Mostly Come out at Night seriously impressed SPFBO judge Sarah Chorn of Bookworm Blues (who called it ‘delightfully weird’ and ‘completely unique’) in the first round, but once again missed out on becoming a finalist by a hair’s breadth. (In case you’re wondering, Sarah’s finalist was Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma by Brian O’Sullivan, which I also reviewed for Fantasy-Faction not too long ago).

But ‘not winning’ is by no means the same as ‘losing’. In an industry where a hundred thousand subjective tastes blend (and clash…) to determine the overall ‘quality’ of a piece of writing, success is not easily quantified. Is success at the Olympics defined only by who took home a gold medal? Of course not. There are all sorts of other considerations: age; level of experience; personal circumstances; even the conditions on the day of the event. Likewise, as patronising as it sounds, there are many, many authors who’ve entered the SPFBO and emerged as ‘winners’ regardless of where – or even if – they placed overall. And Benedict Patrick is one of them.spfbo-lauramhughes-small

I’ve said before that self-published novels are judged using different standards to others; that reviewers are much more likely to consider and comment on details such as cover art, copyediting, and even typesetting. Unfair as this seems, it does help the average potential reader to easily distinguish the naff from the good . . . and the good from the great.

Let me assure you that, in all respects, They Mostly Come out at Night is as professional a book as you’ll find in today’s market, regardless of platform or publisher. Layout, design, cover, editing – every technical aspect is stunningly sharp, from the precise detail of the chapter headings to the bold, striking cover art. I’m sure readers will agree that such accomplishment deserves to be not only acknowledged, but spotlighted too.

In fact, while we’re here, can we just take a moment to appreciate the gorgeousness of *that* cover?They Mostly Come Out at Night by Benedict Patrick

Impressive as it is, though, a great cover means very little without a great story to accompany it. Is Benedict Patrick’s sexy-looking debut actually all fur coat and no knickers?

The short answer is ‘hell, no!’ The long answer is that Patrick’s story is as superb as its cover is stunning; that such a fantastic debut deserves nothing less than to be as beautifully presented as this one has been.

At first glance, the conflicts within the story seem ridiculously simplistic; the protagonists, frustratingly obtuse. The author also quite often presents his story in a manner that is far more ‘tell’ than ‘show’, which some will doubtless find fault with. However, discerning readers will soon realise that all of the above are, in fact, very much deliberate. That the narrative is crafted to sound like a bedtime fable is a clear (and fitting) stylistic choice – and a skilfully executed one, too, hidden as it is behind the ‘actual’ fairy tales that appear as interludes between the main PoV chapters.

Dark as they are, these interludes are told in a manner that somehow manages to be wry, and eerie, and endearing – all at the same time. Though some are less sinister than others, these fairy tales have more in common with the Brothers Grimm than Walt Disney. The Magpie King and Artemis the trickster feature heavily in the stories, which are not only cunningly placed but also much more significant than they first appear.

Most importantly, They Mostly Come Out at Night managed to do something that, for me, very few other fantasy books ever have: it incites fear without being ‘scary’. If you were to ask me which other books left a similar impression on me throughout my reading life, I’d easily be able to give you just two: The Painted Man by Peter V. Brett, and Sabriel by Where the Waters Turn Black (Yarnsworld #2) by Benedict PatrickGarth Nix. For me, no other author has managed to truly capture that sense of danger in the night; of terror at sunset’s approach, and an atmosphere stained with that deep-rooted and pervasive fear of the dark. Reading Patrick’s tale of monsters and Magpie Kings marked the first time in years that I’ve experienced that primal dread, that familiar foreboding – all without ever feeling as though I’d crossed from the realms of fantasy into horror.

The very first entry in Patrick’s darkly fantastical Yarnsworld universe (which he expands further in his second book: Where the Waters Turn Black), TMCOAN is a standalone novel that wraps up in a surprisingly tidy fashion . . . though anyone seeking a typical fairy-tale ending should look elsewhere. Nonetheless, it’s a satisfying denouement and a strong conclusion to a debut that is as gripping as it is unique. Patrick writes with imagination, skill and confidence, and it’s clear that They Mostly Come out at Night is the beginning of something brilliant.lauramhughes-sig

‘Assassin’s Apprentice’ by Robin Hobb

My memories of Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy are muzzy. Having read it a solid decade ago the only thing I could remember about the trilogy was that it was Quite Good. Clearly, I never had the urge to revisit the characters or even to read any of Hobb’s other books. After re-reading Assassin’s Apprentice, however, I’d like to officially revise my initial opinion.

But first: an introduction!

Assassin's Apprentice by Robin HobbThe Farseer trilogy is so-called after the royal family of the Six Duchies. The Farseers have ruled for hundreds of years, and are unique amongst the kingdom in that they possess the Skill – a hereditary ability that allows them to initiate mind contact with (and potentially manipulate) other people. Used (for the most part) to defend the kingdom against pirate raiders, the Skill is feared and respected as the sole province of royalty.

But the Skill is only one side of a coin. On the other side – the darker side – is the Wit, aka. the ability to communicate with animals. The Wit is considered to be a perversion of the Skill; those who wield it are labelled ‘tainted’ and reviled. Anyone with the Wit foolish enough to make it publicly known is promptly lynched by neighbours who believe them no better than the animals with which they share their thoughts and feelings.

Six-year-old Fitz turns out to have both the Wit and the Skill. But as a bastard of the royal line, many consider him unworthy of both. Furthermore, he must keep his Wit hidden, or risk disgracing the house of Farseer – and seeing himself horrifically punished. Assassin’s Apprentice details Fitz’s life over the next ten years or so, where he’s trained as a – you guessed it! – assassin’s apprentice. He also learns the arts of swordplay, Skilling, and the mastery of horses and hounds; but in spite of his achievements, almost no one – including himself – can see beyond his ‘shameful’ illegitimacy.

The focus of Assassin’s Apprentice is on Fitz and the conflict that surrounds him. He’s training to be a loyal assassin, yet can’t ignore his own sense of morality. He desperately wants to learn the Skill, but despises the cruel man who is teaching him. And he struggles to understand how he should feel about his father’s eccentric but well-meaning widow, Patience, who was responsible for his father’s decision to abdicate his claim to the throne and retire from the castle after learning of Fitz’s existence. Perhaps the Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobbmost defining of all is his ongoing conflict with the stablemaster Burrich, who loves Fitz like a son and yet is repulsed by his use of the Wit to the point where he will no longer speak to Fitz at all. Hobb makes us genuinely care about Fitz’s relationships, both good and bad, so that his mind-contact with his new puppy is just as exciting to read about as his altercations with his enemies.

But there are plenty of harsh challenges for Fitz, with many sad moments and passages that are genuinely moving. I found these parts of the story to be both emotionally draining and satisfyingly cathartic (in a good way), and am not ashamed to say I was actually reduced to tears on more than one occasion. Then there’s the assorted cast of truly reprehensible antagonists, in particular Galen and Regal, at whom my mind would boo and hiss whenever they appeared on the page. Seriously, they both made me furious. And that’s not even mentioning the true baddies of the story, who are currently operating in the background: the Red Ship Raiders are a constant threat to the coastal villages of the Six Duchies, and the ‘Forged ones’ – vicious zombie-like beings who are all that remain of the Raiders’ victims – are a chilling adversary.

Both the plot and the characters are well-rounded and captivating, as is the setting and worldbuilding. But the novel’s main strength is its narrative voice. Hobb writes with a consistently pleasant, engaging tone that makes Assassin’s Apprentice a joy to read from beginning to end. Her flowing, almost poetic prose makes the story light and effortless to read, and brings to the fore a likeable and sympathetic main character who is in many ways the opposite of Rothfuss’s Kvothe. Like Kvothe, Fitz is conscious of telling his own story; unlike Kvothe, Fitz is brutally honest, and his self-deprecating narrative includes all the damning facts about himself and his own actions. I can’t believe I’ve let him sit and gather dust for so many years without knowing how his story ends!lauramhughes-sig

‘The Black Company’ by Glen Cook

The Black Company is narrated through a single PoV: Croaker, a physician and annalist working for a mercenary force called – you guessed it! – the Black Company. The Company have been hired by The Lady (an ancient tyrant) who along with her monstrous generals (twisted supernatural beings known as the Ten Who Were Taken) is intent on defeating the Rebel armies and ruling all the known lands (obvs).

The Black Company by Glen CookCook’s writing style is not exactly immersive. While I would call it refreshingly blunt, others might (and often do) dismiss it as jarring and curt. The Black Company‘s brusque prose and terse descriptions – not to mention the author’s casual tendency to skip over major events in the spaces between paragraphs! – lend even major scenes a “blink and you’ll miss it” kind of urgency. This is a somewhat disorientating stylistic choice, but it’s one to which I quickly became accustomed.

I think The Black Company is the first example of ‘GRIMDARK’ fiction I ever read (closely followed by Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself). In fact, I still recall the thrill of reading it for the first time and getting to grips with the fact that this Cook feller had written an actual book about actual mercenaries who are actually fighting on the side of the bad guys. Nowadays, of course, grimdark tales are a dime a dozen. But back then, I’d never encountered anything of the kind. In my experience, fantasy protagonists were heroes. Young wizards. Daring hobbits. Chosen ones. Protectors. Guardians of humanity. Good guys. In stark contrast, Croaker and the rest of the Black Company are entirely motivated by greed and selfishness – at least to start off with. This, I soon discovered, made them just as entertaining as Harry, Ron and Hermione; as Eragon and Murtagh, and the Fellowship of the Ring.

And the characters aren’t the only selling point. Cook has also created a grim, eerie and satisfyingly dark world, which he establishes primarily by dropping carefully offhand hints about the Taken. With evocative (if slightly unimaginative) names like Nightcrawler, Soulcatcher, Moonbiter, Bonegnasher, The Howler, and The Hanged Man, the Taken lurk threateningly on the periphery where, shrouded in mystery, these monstrous creatures add an extra thrill of horror to the already ominous atmosphere.

The Black Company is also packed full of action. However, and most of it happens to be tersely described from a distance. While this befits the premise of Croaker as annalist (think Duiker in Deadhouse Gates), unfortunately it does at times feel like little more than a dull, dry listing of distant events. Furthermore, much of the action is disappointingly hampered by apparent numerical inconsistencies. For instance, although Cook informs us that the Black Company has hundreds of members he only ever lets the reader meet a handful. This wouldn’t be a problem… except that the others are barely even mentioned except when Croaker infrequently refers to the Company as a whole. It’s difficult, therefore, to reconcile that initial image of a small group of mercenaries with the massive force we’re suddenly shown later in the book.

And even the climax fell a bit flat, with Cook repeatedly telling us that the battle involves over 250,000 combatants – yet never quite succeeding in conveying the true scale of the conflict.

One final issue. Every writer knows that the biggest challenge with first-person narration is finding pretexts for the protagonist to witness and (ideally) participate in key events. Cook’s pretexts for getting Croaker in the thick of things – which essentially boil down to ‘get sent on special missions by the Lady again and again, despite not being one of the most skilled fighters in the company’ – are a bit flimsy to say the least.

Still, The Black Company is the progenitor of some truly stellar military fantasy by the likes of Steven Erikson and Jeff Salyards. While it’s a bit iffy to begin with, it soon books its ideas up, and is perfect for fans of the grimdark genre.lauramhughes-sig

‘Dune’ by Frank Herbert

I know everyone raves about this book… but for me, Dune was a mixed bag. On one hand, I enjoyed the desert setting, the fantasy elements, and the entire premise of the thing. On the other hand, I didn’t really relate to any of the characters, and a large portion of the book felt like something of a chore to read… which, let’s face it, is never a good sign.

But first: the positives.

I actually loved the beginning of the book, and quite quickly found myself warming to the main characters Jessica, Paul and Leto. Furthermore, the mythos – the gom jabbar and the Bene Gesserit and the Kwisatz Hadderach – intrigued me. I liked how I was thrown in at the deep end, and that the author was clearly intending to reveal things gradually rather than just explain it all straight away.

Dune by Frank HerbertThen again, I did feel there was too much exposition at this point, and that dialogue was being used a little too much to try and convey some of the background; I felt like the characters were unnecessarily talking about things for the sake of the reader. And the mysterious things that started out so intriguing? They actually got quite annoying the more the book progressed. I got the sense that I was being excluded from something, and while this doesn’t always bother me (it’s pretty much one of the hallmarks of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, aka. my favourite fantasy series of all time) it really started the get on my nerves here, to the point where I’d grind my teeth any time the words ‘Bene Gesserit’ or ‘prescience’ were mentioned. And I no longer give even the smallest of flying fucks about the Kwisatz Hadderach.

Anyway. I enjoyed the beginning of the book for the sense of total upheaval it conveyed; how the protagonists were literally transported from one world to another within a matter of pages, and that this new world was totally alien and hostile. One of my favourite scenes in the whole book happens around this point: Leto, the ‘thopter, the sandworm, the spice factory, the daring rescue . . . I LOVED this epic scene.

But it all went downhill from there – beginning with the main character apparently undergoing some sort of off-page lobotomy. Alright, I (kind of) get why Paul doesn’t have much personality; but it still makes for an incredibly unsympathetic protagonist. And I think in some ways all of the characters suffered from this: I felt like I was watching them do things, but I was ignorant as to why they were doing them. This disconnect made me less invested in the story as a whole.

I was pretty interested in the Harkonnens. However, they could have been fleshed out a LOT more – particularly the Baron, who is a rather disappointing villain: two-dimensional and defined only by his greed and his homosexuality (which is presented very negatively in this instance, and is yet another aspect of the story to dislike with vehemence). I would’ve liked to learn more of the feud between the Atreides and the Harkonnens, and instead felt that the scenes with the Baron ad Feyd-Rautha were a little shallow and irrelevant.

Despite all my gripes, I did enjoy Dune; just not as much as I’d hoped. I kept waiting for it to turn into something spectacular, and for some reason I never felt it really delivered everything it could have done. The only aspect at which it excelled (or so I feel) is the setting. The author paints a very vivid picture of the desert planet (although I did sometimes feel like he didn’t stress enough about how hot and uncomfortable it must be!) and of a population who want to change the ecosystem and create a better world. The concept of having to wear ‘stillsuits’ in the desert also lent an air of realism, being a very practical rather than romantic view of the rebels. And the sandworms are a brilliant invention (although I preferred them at the beginning when they were scary, rather than later when they were just used as glorified donkeys).

To sum up, then: there were plenty of things I liked about Dune, and plenty more that I didn’t. While the characters lacked character and the action lacked action, the fantasy (rather than SF) elements – such as the knife-fights and the sandworms – were excellent. I just wish there had been more of these, and less of the Bene Gesserit bollocks.lauramhughes-sig

Note: the original version of this review was posted on halfstrungharp.com on 5th January 2015.

‘Sabriel’ by Garth Nix

I’ve always adored tales of the undead. Looking back, I believe Garth Nix’s Sabriel is the point at which this fascination began.

Sabriel by Garth NixIn Nix’s world, a great Wall divides the Old Kingdom from the new. The modern world is dominated by technology; the Old, by magic. Sounds simplistic, and in a way it is. But actually, the protagonist’s underlying struggle to reconcile the two worlds – and her place in each of them – is far more than just ‘old vs new’, or even ‘good vs evil’.

(Besides: if it’s good enough for Neil Gaiman, it’s good enough for me.)

Sabriel herself embodies a mixture of the two. Raised in Ancelstierre (at what I can’t help but refer to as a ‘muggle’ college), Sabriel has an excellent command of Charter Magic, but her position as Abhorsen (banisher of the Dead) also means she has to use the reviled Free Magic of necromancy. Similarly, her companions Touchstone (a Charter mage) and Mogget (a Free Magic construct) both prove helpful in different ways.

I read and re-read (and re-re-read) Sabriel and the other Old Kingdom books a LOT during my younger years, last returning to it some time in my late teens (at least ten years ago). And, as with all nostalgic re-reads, I was apprehensive about potentially smashing my rose-tinted glasses and ruining all those fond memories of escaping from wet weekends in Wales into the world of Ancelstierre and the Old Kingdom.

As it turns out, I had very little to fear. I’d forgotten that the setting of ‘modern’ Ancelstierre actually has more of a historical feel. Based as it is on the early decades of the twentieth century (with ‘new’ technology encompassing telephones, electric lights and tanks) there’s far less risk of it feeling dated than if the author had mentioned, say, MP3 players, or Gameboys. Given that much of the story is set in the Old Kingdom – the realm of magic, not science – this becomes even less of an issue than it might otherwise have been.

I did have one small gripe. Annoyingly, the e-book edition I read features intrusive little comments at the end of each chapter, i.e. extracts from an interview with the author. These extracts – ‘Garth on the Wall, ‘Garth on magic’, ‘Garth on creating characters’ – are insightful and all, but unfortunately they also do a stellar job of killing momentum and ruining the reader’s immersion.

Overall, however, I’m left feeling pleasantly surprised by how well Sabriel has stood the test of time. The Dead are suitably creepy, the action is tense and exciting, and the romance subplot is sweet – doesn’t intrude on the main story. And really: the premise itself leaves no doubt that Sabriel is and always will be a truly kickass read. A teenaged girl who has prematurely inherited the responsibility of protecting her kingdom from the Dead? Yes, please!


‘Traitor’s Blade’ by Sebastien de Castell

Traitor's Blade (Greatcoats #1) by Sebastien de CastellTraitor’s Blade is the sort of novel that has undoubtedly been described by someone, somewhere, as either a ‘rollicking adventure’ or a ‘ripping yarn’. Possibly both, and deservedly so.

This flawed yet impressive debut from Sebastien de Castell introduces Falcio val Mond (formerly First Cantor of the esteemed Greatcoats) as he struggles to uphold justice in the corrupt land that killed his King and censured the Greatcoats. Falcio and his stalwart companions Kest and Brasti spend their days eking out an ignoble living as lowly caravan guards; at least, until until their client is brutally killed, on their watch no less. Framed for his murder, these three musketeers Greatcoats must first run for their lives before attempting to seek out and bring justice to those responsible. But Tristia’s corruption runs deep, and it seems that this time Falcio may be just a little bit out of his depth.

I had a lot of fun with Traitor’s Blade. The narrator is humorous and likeable, and the banter between Falcio and his companions is (for the most part) witty and gentle, seeming natural rather than forced. The plot is solid; the pacing, fast; and although the main story is peppered with flashbacks, these are (surprisingly) not annoying in the slightest. The flashbacks are always brief and relevant to the immediate events of the story, and in no way intrude upon or detract from the main events. Refreshingly, the tone is relatively light-hearted throughout, although Castell shows he’s not afraid to delve into murkier waters with a few dark scenes which, in addition to being (arguably) unnecessary, make for somewhat difficult reading.

The book is by no means perfect. Beneath its likeable heroes and shiny veneer, Traitor’s Blade is riddled with clichés: we have noble outcasts, scheming Dukes, and evil villains (with at least one scene featuring the latter somewhat ill-advisedly revealing their diabolical plans to the captured hero), not to mention an obligatory torture scene, tragically murdered wife and ongoing quest for vengeance. And although I know it’s ridiculous to cry ‘unbelievable’ at a work of fantasy, there are also a few ‘yeah, right!’ moments: for instance, what are the chances of our heroes just happening to arrive at their destination as the city’s equivalent of The Purge is about to take place? And, lastly, I was a bit disappointed that I managed to correctly figure out three of the four major plot twists relatively early on in the story.

Griping aside, I found Traitor’s Blade to be a highly enjoyable and fast-paced read, with a focused plot and a protagonist I could really get behind. Although there were elements I disliked, there’s no denying that with Traitor’s Blade, de Castell has kicked off the Greatcoats quartet in style.

‘Three Parts Dead’ by Max Gladstone

I’m going to begin my review of Three Parts Dead by including the official blurb (which does a much better job of summarising this quirky, unique novel’s premise than I ever could):

A god has died, and it’s up to Tara, first-year associate in the international necromantic firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao, to bring Him back to life before His city falls apart.

Her client is Kos, recently deceased fire god of the city of Alt Coulumb. Without Him, the metropolis’s steam generators will shut down, its trains will cease running, and its four million citizens will riot.

Tara’s job: resurrect Kos before chaos sets in. Her only help: Abelard, a chain-smoking priest of the dead god, who’s having an understandable crisis of faith.

When Tara and Abelard discover that Kos was murdered, they have to make a case in Alt Coulumb’s courts—and their quest for the truth endangers their partnership, their lives, and Alt Coulumb’s slim hope of survival.

I was a bit unsure going into this one, as many reviews I’d read about Three Parts Dead contained phrases like “acquired taste” and “you’ll either love it or hate it”. I actually neither loved nor hated it, but found it to be a fun read full of interesting twists.

Three Parts Dead (Craft Sequence #1) by Max GladstoneGladstone’s world is fresh, original and dark; a steampunk-inspired blend of gods and magic and technology. The majority of this book is set in the city of Alt Coulumb, ruled by the fire god Kos Everburning and the former goddess of Justice. But the city’s equilibrium is threatened early on when Kos dies under mysterious circumstances. It’s further imperiled by the return of the reviled ‘Stone Men’ of legend, aka. gargoyles.  (A particularly striking concept conjured by Gladstone is of Justice’s servants: an army of peacekeepers who, when on duty, can call upon Her power and transform themselves into the indestructible  – and terrifyingly automaton-like – Blacksuits.)

Three Parts Dead follows Tara Abernathy (a newly-graduated Craftswoman) as she is recruited to a necromantic law firm by one of its partners; she then travels to Alt Coulumb, begins a series of dangerous investigations, is acquainted with new allies and old enemies, and finally reaches the unexpected climax of the bizarre ‘legal’ case. Believe it or not, the main part of the story takes place over the course of a single day and night, and the series of events is pretty thrilling, despite the heavy focus on law.

There are four main POV characters: Tara, of course; the ancient and mysterious Ms. Kevarian; Cat, a Blacksuit; and Abelard the novice priest. Each has their own agenda and their own perspective on the case, and the author uses the shifting POVs to good effect, alternately keeping us in suspense and building momentum. However, the pacing remains fairly slow and steady throughout. The good thing about this is that there’s hardly ever a dull moment; the less good thing is that there are no real ‘high’ points until the end, and even the climax doesn’t quite feel as, well, climactic as it perhaps should. I also felt that there were a couple of things that served simply as convenient plot points (such as Raz Pelham: dandy vampire) but I’m probably just nitpicking.

The world of Three Parts Dead is built really well, and we’re drip-fed bits of information relating to its history without ever being overwhelmed by it. Even better, there are tantalising mentions of other parts of the world which are never properly explained, and some of which we never actually see, such as the scorpionkind, the sea serpents, the Deathless Kings, the wastelands of Gleb, and the Hidden Schools. It makes the author’s fictional world seem bigger and more real, despite the fact that we only ever really see one city, and also gives the impression that further books in the series will (hopefully) finally allow us to see these things.

‘The Grey Bastards’ by Jonathan French

The Grey Bastards is one of ten novels in the final round of Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) 2016. The review was originally posted on Fantasy-Faction on 31st December 2016; updates on the contest’s progress can be found here.

spfbo-lauramhughes-smallI have a bone to pick with you, Jonathan French, aka. author of The Grey Bastards. You, sir, owe me a great many hours of sleep; hours that were spent avidly following the grim adventures of Jackal and co.

Mr. French, the pacing of your novel is truly brilliant. Starting with a ‘bang’ and then racing from conflicts and schemes to plot twists and battles, Bastards is what one might call a ‘rip-roaring adventure’: brutal, brave, and utterly fearless. The chapters are long, yet each end in a way that compels you to continue reading. Not since Dyrk Ashton’s Paternus (Fantasy-Faction’s very own chosen finalist) have I devoured a SPFBO book so

Electing to tell the entire story through Jackal’s PoV is another engaging piece of trickery. As you’re clearly well aware, Mr French, keeping the reader invested in one character not only raises the stakes whenever he is in danger but also makes the book a journey of discovery for both protagonist and reader. In a genre dominated by sprawling, multiple-pov sagas, Bastards’ singular focus on one part of the world (and your protagonist’s place within it) is refreshing and exciting. Bravo, sir!

However: in some ways The Grey Bastards is an uncomfortable read. Did you know, Mr. French, that the word ‘fuck’ appears in your novel a total of 230 times? And ‘shit’, 69 times? Why is she even mentioning this? you might be wondering; after all, Hughes is usually the last person to be offended over a bit of bad language! My fellow swear-brother T.O. Munro observed not too long ago that ‘cussing and expletives are a fact of real-life and fantasy reading and writing should reflect that’. I happen to whole-heartedly agree. But I suspect that in this case, Mr French, there will be many others who don’t. Here’s why.

The word ‘quim’ appears 19 times. The word ‘cunt’, 12, and ‘cunny’, 6. Those under the impression that misogyny is exclusively the domain of men will no doubt label this phenomenon simply as ‘testosterone’. But even considering that 80-90% of the characters are male (or swine…), this is a whopping amount of misogyny (and vulgarity) for one book. And yes, even I took exception to it at first.

However, as the story went on and I became inured to the language I realised with a jolt that perhaps this is what you were trying to do all along. By involving the reader so thoroughly in the half-orcs’ vernacular that it becomes natural to us you make us unwittingly complicit in their worldview. And the moment we realise this, the more we come to understand the ‘mongrels’ and to notice that some characters use these terms less broadly than others. While many wield the word ‘quim’ about as naturally as an elderly person uses casual racism (by which I mean as a harmful yet unconscious product of their upbringing), others use it much more aggressively, either as an insult or as a way of deliberately demeaning certain individuals. Either way, such ingrained chauvinism is shocking . . . but it also tells us a lot about the nature of certain characters. And the rare moments of its absence also happen to be an excellent way of highlighting honourable actions that would otherwise have gone unnoticed by us.

The fact is, Mr French, your half-orcs have entirely different values to your readers. In many cases, these differences will be irreconcilable, and no doubt many a reader will criticise the book for its rampant and unforgiveable misogyny. To these readers I would simply say: well, what on earth did you expect? But I’d also encourage them to read on; to read between the lines, and to reserve judgement until the story is done. Because while the bigger picture changes very little, the ways in which it has changed are crucial. Subtle, even.

I’ll admit that ‘subtle’ is the last word I’d expect to see used when referring to a book featuring a hog-riding half-orc on the cover and emblazoned with the title ‘The Grey Bastards’. A book that, even for me, felt like entering some exclusive boys’ club, one where I wasn’t forbidden but neither was I welcomed. A book that is saturated with derogatory terms for women, and with characters who view women as little more than ‘walking genitalia’ (as Adrian aptly pointed out in their review on Bibliotropic). However, the initial sense of being ostracised vanishes within just a few pages. I daresay that no reader can refuse Jackal’s honest charm, or that of his companions Oats and Fetching. And the Kiln wasn’t built in a day; likewise, reform – of any kind – takes time, and every step is a step in the right direction.laura-m-hughes-green-dragon-swirl-para-break-divider

To sum up then, Mr. French: I envy and admire you for this story you’ve crafted. Bastards is brutal. Bastards is brave. Bastards is utterly fearless and unashamed of being what it is. I greedily await more from Jackal and co., and fully intend to hound you for news about the hoof – a truer set of bastards you’ll never meet. I notice that you have a couple of other books available for purchase (at a very reasonable price, I might add) and I look forward to sampling these while I wait impatiently for you to take me back to the Lots.

For now, though, I’d like to raise a floppy tankard to The Grey Bastards’ brilliance. It’s the least I can do after such a satisfying ride, and I’m confident I won’t be the only SPFBO judge who does solauramhughes-sig