‘Emperor of Thorns’ by Mark Lawrence


We’ve followed him for ten years of his life. We’ve lived his journey from the storm-struck thorns to the throne of Renar, and still Jorg Ancrath can surprise us – in good ways as well as bad.

Follow me, and I will break your heart.

Winner of the 2014 David Gemmell Legend Award for Best Fantasy Novel, Emperor of Thorns concludes the groundbreaking Broken Empire trilogy by Mark Lawrence. Jorg is now aged twenty; the Hundred have been summoned to a Congress to decide the matter of the next emperor. The throne has sat empty for over a hundred years, but Jorg plans to remedy that with his secret knowledge, stalwart companions and unique brand of tact and diplomacy.

“I’ve been to Congression before, Makin. I know what games they play there. This year we’re going to play a new game. Mine.”

In addition to the upcoming Congress, an even bigger challenge awaits. The Broken Empire must prepare itself for the biggest threat to humanity since the Day of a Thousand Suns: the invasion of the Dead King’s armies.

Emperor of Thorns follows the familiar ‘Lawrence’ structure. Flashbacks interposed with present-day events create suspense, builds tension and reveals key information at critical moments. However, there is also a new addition: a third-person account of the necromancer Chella (a character who was central to the storyline of the previous book but was only ever seen from Jorg’s point of view). Though I wasn’t particularly keen on this new POV, it certainly makes for some interesting insights into Chella’s character, and gives Emperor of Thorns (Broken Empire #3) by Mark Lawrenceus inside information about the Dead King and his legions.

Some of the most entertaining parts of the Broken Empire trilogy are the tales of the road, and we are treated to a fair few of them here. Typically grim yet delightful, these anecdotes about Jorg’s younger days among his road brothers reveal much more about Jorg’s tragic, twisted childhood. Secrets that have so far been only partially revealed or hinted at – such as Jorg’s burning hatred for the clergy – are now fully unveiled in harsh and uncomfortable ways. Lawrence continues to display a penchant for putting the ‘dark’ in ‘dark fantasy’, but somehow the horror and violence is never simply gratuitous. Instead, it’s used to deliberately manipulate the reader’s emotional response and force us to acknowledge that his protagonist has been brutally moulded and pushed to similar violence by these horrific external events, rather than just because of his “dena”.

On a slightly less grim note, one of my favourite aspects of this book is its scale. Lawrence shows us more of the Broken Empire than ever before. King of Thorns introduced us to the rocky highlands of Renar, Maladon in the icy north, and the fetid swamps of Cantanlona, and Emperor of Thorns takes us even further. From the lifeless wastelands of the Iberico to the desert city of the mathmagicians, from the silent horrors of flooded ghost towns to the affluent city of Vyene, Lawrence spoils the reader with haunting yet spectacular imagery.

Lawrence’s third novel is a joy to read, filled as it is with amusingly casual turns of phrase, poetic internal monologue, and brilliantly integrated reminders of past events – and hints about things to come. The  author also delights in leaving delicious clues for the reader regarding the true nature of Jorg’s broken world (my personal favourites being the hilariously sanctified “guardian” of the Gilden Gate, the martial teachings of “Lee”, and of course the ironic original function of the empire throne itself).

Emperor of Thorns is a spectacular finish to a brilliantly original fantasy series. Does Jorg find redemption? You’ll have to read it and find out. Think you’ve guessed how it’s all going to end? I can guarantee that you haven’t.

‘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

T. Frohock, ‘Los Nefilim’ (review)


RIGHT NOW is a phenomenal time to be a fan of speculative fiction. Seriously: there’s an insane amount of amazing SFF writers in today’s market, and the modern fantasy reader is spoilt for choice with a selection that would leave Mr. Norrell gobsmacked and which would – if it were all edible – satisfy even Dudley ‘Big D’ Dursley.
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But it’s sadly inevitable (inedible, too – sorry Dudders) that for every Mark Lawrence or Robin Hobb there are a thousand other writers striving to make a name for themselves – lots of whom are probably just as talented, and some perhaps even more so. In the struggle against obscurity, this means that many equally-deserving authors are overlooked by those caught in the gravitational field of the ‘big names.’ And while I’m in no way saying that those successful few are unfairly hogging the spotlight, I am suggesting that sampling the work of lesser-known writers may prove to be less of a gamble than you might think.

Frohock is by no means a newbie to the writing game: her debut novel, Miserere, was published by Night Shade back in 2011 and garnered a relatively small but loyal following. However, Miserere was (erroneously) marketed as religious and YA fiction, neither of which accurately reflect the novel’s content or target audience. Religion features heavily in the story, but it certainly isn’t a ‘religious’ novel: Frohock wasn’t writing from a religious perspective so much as borrowing imagery from lots of existing religions in order to create a vivid and fantastical setting for her dark (and sometimes brutal) tale.

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Miserere is a surreal and enjoyable read that unfortunately still remains in the shadows of obscurity. Since its release Frohock has continued to weave dark fantasy into real-life religion and history. Her three most recent novellas – In Midnight’s Silence, Without Light or Guide, and The Second Death – have just been published together as Los Nefilim. This wonderful collection is a joy to read: each novella flows seamlessly into the next to form a well-rounded and well-plotted story in three beautifully-titled parts.

A superbly dark and atmospheric fantasy set in 1930s Barcelona, Los Nefilim is a captivating tale of eternal conflict between angels and demons. First off, let me clarify that even though it’s set in pre-WW2 Spain I hesitate in calling Los Nefilim ‘historical fantasy’. The reason for this is that although the historical context has some relevance to the events, and although the settings are consistently vivid and immersive, I feel as though the story itself transcends both time and place: Frohock weaves her tale with admirable finesse using the colourful and tightly-knit threads of her protagonists, who – despite being vividly drawn – are so sympathetic it’s possible to imagine their situation happening anywhere, any time, and to anyone.

t-frohock-midnights-silence-coverLos Nefilim is centred around the character Diago, a troubled but immensely likeable Nephilim of mixed angelic and daimonic descent. Diago and his partner, Miquel, have been devoted to one another for centuries, but both their loyalty and livelihood are threatened when the escalating supernatural war invades their personal lives. Diago and Miquel’s relationship defines – and is defined by – events, and is inseparable from the story itself. Frohock succeeds in pulling the reader deep into Diago’s world: a realm of harsh decisions, few of which can be made without endangering either his lover or his cause.

The best part is that the author doesn’t bash us over the head with the internal ‘true-love-vs.-greater-good’ conflict. Los Nefilim are the very embodiment of human nature in all its shades of grey; and nothing is ever so simple as ‘good vs. evil,’ even when angels are involved.

Especially when angels are involved.

Just as well, then, that the heroes of Los Nefilim are deep, fully-rounded characters who are far too complex to be defined simply by which master they serve; or, for that matter, by their sexuality. Issues of gender are neither downplayed nor dwelt on, and the fact that Diago and Miquel are both men is but a natural part of the story.

(In fact, the author’s egalitarian approach to gender holds up a mirror to our own lives in the least patronising way possible. Simply put, Frohock shows us a society where men are just as vulnerable as women, and often suffer in silence because of unequal and arbitrary gender expectations. She shows us a society in which men are just as likely as women to experience rape, and verbal abuse, and sexual harassment – a fact we all need to recognise and empathise with.)

Frohock - LN2

On the surface, Los Nefilim could also be regarded as a moral tale about overcoming intolerance: the Nephilim’s secret war does indeed serve as a clever analogy for how homosexuality was stifled beneath the stigma of a god-fearing society. But while this is without doubt a huge part of the story, in my opinion it’s actually far subtler than that. Great speechifiers and glorious martyrs our protagonists ain’t: they are heroes of necessity, not intent. And Frohock doesn’t idealise Diago and Miquel’s relationship so much as naturalise it. Their connection is shown through understated dialogue and non-verbal interactions, and by the gradual emergence of both men’s paternal instincts as they work hard to create a harmonious family unit for Diago’s son.

For me this was a huge relief. In the past I’ve pointed out more than a few female writers who draw on shallow stereotypes of sexual promiscuity and unequal partnerships in an attempt to portray same-sex male couples. Thankfully, Frohock avoids this entirely: she doesn’t ‘write gay characters’; she writes characters who happen to be gay. Contrary to stereotypical beliefs – and exactly like couples of any orientation – Miquel and Diago don’t hump like rabbits, nor are they joined at the hip. And their relationship might be the pivot on which the events of Los Nefilim turn . . . but no one can accuse the story of being ‘too romantic’.

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Frohock writes with precision and balance, and the result is a faultless blend of beauty and brutality, cruelty and love, action and reaction forming a story that is pleasantly complex and satisfying. She lets us hear colours and see music. Her prose is wonderfully lyrical, yet functional. Unlike yours truly, Frohock isn’t one to waffle: she uses the minimum amount of words to say what she needs to say in the most beautiful way possible.

Bear with me. I’m going to try and explain better using an overcomplicated and probably inappropriate metaphor.

Imagine that books are like . . . banquets. No, really: the table is the plot, the tablecloths the setting, the food the story and the centrepiece the characters. Or something.

We’ve all read good books. And we can all imagine a good banquet. Right? Good food, good company, good evening.

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Now imagine the most unique and exquisite banquet you can think of; one with impossibly rich and varied dishes, and with sentient centrepieces that predict the future but only sometimes tell the truth; a banquet where the wine tastes like hope and the sausage rolls smell like betrayal and the ambient hum of conversation sounds like an argument and a marriage proposal and a promise of violence and thunder, and where everything is made more real by the dark riveting rainbow-coloured music of Frohock’s prose.

Dammit. Now I’m hungry. And also a little bit confused.

Basically, what I’m trying to say is that T. Frohock is a damn fine writer who uses damn fine prose to tell a damn fine story.

Go and check out her stuff. Right now.


T. Frohock has turned a love of dark fantasy and horror into tales of deliciously creepy fiction. She lives in North Carolina, where she has long been accused of telling stories, which is a southern colloquialism for lying.

You’ll frequently find her lurking on Facebook and Twitter, as well as on her official website.


Blurb

Collected together for the first time, T. Frohock’s three novellas—In Midnight’s Silence, Without Light or Guide, and The Second Death—brings to life the world of Los Nefilim, Spanish Nephilim that possess the power to harness music and light in the supernatural war between the angels and daimons. In 1931, Los Nefilim’s existence is shaken by the preternatural forces commanding them … and a half-breed caught in-between.

Diago Alvarez, a singular being of daimonic and angelic descent, is pulled into the ranks of Los Nefilim in order to protect his newly-found son. As an angelic war brews in the numinous realms, and Spain marches closer to civil war, the destiny of two worlds hangs on Diago’s actions. Yet it is the combined fates of his lover, Miquel, and his young son, Rafael, that weighs most heavily on his soul.

Lyrical and magical, Los Nefilim explores whether moving towards the light is necessarily the right move, and what it means to live amongst the shadows.

Review: Jeff Salyards, ‘Veil of the Deserters’


You’ll be pleased to know that I’m not here to bore you with generalised, hyperbolic gushing about how much I’m loving the world of Jeff Salyards’ Bloodsounder’s Arc (I waffled on enough in my review of book one, ‘Scourge of the Betrayer’).

No, what I’m actually here to do is bore you with specific, hyperbolic gushing* about how much I’m bloody loving this series.

(*Disclaimer: fangirlish gushing is an inadvertent and unavoidable side effect of reading this author’s work.)
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Veil of the Deserters’ picks right up where ‘Scourge’ left off, whirling us off our feet and right back into the story with even less fucking around than a typical episode of 24. Injuries that were inflicted in the first book are still causing problems (broken ribs don’t heal overnight, y’know) as Arki’s tale continues to unfold in ‘real time’ using the same focused PoV and slow-build structure that had such a Marmite effect on many readers of book one. Personally, I think it’s brilliant . . . but there’s no accounting for taste.

Luckily for those who disliked the first book’s narrow approach to worldbuilding, the story’s scope begins to widen dramatically in ‘Veil’; and the writing becomes delightfully evocative to match it. Salyards’ hypnotic prose conjures some truly striking settings and imagery, with vivid and poetic descriptions woven seamlessly into the narrative. The scene that made the biggest impression on me was especially memorable because of its spectacular backdrop; I highlighted certain passages as I was reading, and when I went back to check the notes I’d made I’d annotated these parts with just the words: “fucking gorgeous.”

But since our narrator is accompanying a close-knit group of soldiers on their long, dangerous trek home, it makes sense that a much larger amount of the book is devoted to portraying their interactions with one another. Lucky, then, that Salyards also writes dialogue like a boss. Conversations are witty but natural; there’s biting rejoinders and clever repartee and laugh-out-loud snark and sarcasm a-plenty, but it’s recurring rather than constant and never once does it feel forced.

Dialogue is a vital part of any novel, and more so in one that uses first person. Bloodsounder’s Arc filters our understanding of everything that goes on by showing it to us through the narrow window of Arki’s narrative, which means that the only way we (and Arki) learn about the characters is by observing their interactions. I simply can’t stress enough how skilfully this is accomplished here. Furthermore, each of the more prominent characters speak in ways that are subtly different. Speech tags are a rarity because they are simply not necessary: Mulldoos, Vendurro, Braylar and the rest each have their own voice, and it’s easy to distinguish between them even during group conversations.

When I reviewed ‘Scourge’ I praised Salyards’ skill in creating characters who feel like real people, and he continues to demonstrate that skill throughout ‘Veil’. Familiar faces become both less and more so as the layers obscuring their lives are gradually peeled away; flaws and virtues are laid bare in equal measure as Arki slowly comes to find his own place in the company.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Arki’s relationship with Braylar, which develops in new and organic – and sometimes surprising – ways. A partnership born of expedience and founded on mutual tolerance begins to grow into something almost approaching friendship, or at the very least grudging respect. One of the more obvious signs of this is that Braylar becomes less vitriolic towards Arki, to the point where his sarcastic mockery sounds almost more affectionate than hostile. In response Arki sheds some of his fearful passivity, and begins to speak and act with initiative and increasing temerity.

Some would argue that dialogue and internal voice dominate the book at the expense of its plot. I would disagree wholeheartedly. Part of this series’ charm is the way it takes its time, draws you in, makes you care without realising, until something happens (preparing an ambush by sunset, perhaps?) and the pages leading up to that moment become unbearably tense, and the blow-by-blow fight scenes even more so.

Combat in Salyards’ world is brutal, exhausting and inglorious. I’ve said before, he writes fight scenes so realistically that they’re almost painful to read. One-handed weapons don’t shear through armour like a hot knife through butter; instead they’re frequently used to bash and pummel a heavily-armoured opponent into submission, which is less gory but far, far more brutal. Arrows are deflected by helms, crossbow bolts do very little damage to those wearing decent armour, and whether or not you manage to shoot your enemy in the face at range is much more dependent on luck than skill.

Most importantly, whenever there is fighting to be had the reader is fully aware that every single character is in danger, regardless of whether or not they’re actively participating. The narrator’s intimate focus on small groups and individual soldiers gives a real sense of immediacy: Salyards basically situates us right there beside Arki, in front-row seats where we can hear the grunts and clashes, feel the blood spray, smell the sweat of the armoured and exhausted combatants as they instinctively struggle to be the last man standing.

It’s not only during combat that we’re immersed in the story right alongside Arki. The first-person perspective ensures that ‘Veil’ remains grounded in realism even during its most fantastical moments; this, for me, is the most defining characteristic of the series. Salyards anchors the reader firmly within his narrator’s world, and in doing so persuades us to share his incredulity, his naivety, his limited experience of what may or may not be possible. And so it is that, when the fantastical does happen, it seems all the more remarkable and real.

It’s so deftly done that we scarcely even notice this subtle process. Right from the start of book one it’s as though our imagination has been slowly lowering its anchor into this world until it finally hit the bottom and lodged there. But it’s not until the events of ‘Veil’, when the narrator’s very definition of the impossible is called into question, that we feel our anchor unexpectedly pulled by these strange tides, and finally realise we’re about as thoroughly embedded in Arki’s world as it’s possible to be.

A fun little offshoot of this is that the author uses his narrator’s ignorance to poke fun at oft-overlooked aspects the genre. For example: at one point Arki reflects on how much maintenance horses require. “I suppose I always imagined you simply rode until you were done riding and then got off,” he muses; and whether or not Salyards intended it this way, there’s no denying that a vast amount of fantasy authors appear to make the same assumption as Arki. I know, I know: the genre’s called ‘fantasy’, it’s not meant to be realistic, etc., etc. Still, the best fantasies are written in such a way that we actually believe in them, even just for a moment. A thoroughly immersive reading experience relies on little touches of credibility, which is why Bloodsounder’s Arc is already one of the most engaging and (dare I say) believable speculative fiction series I’ve encountered.

Even the magic feels real. Wielded only by women, Salyards’ magic is mind-based, clever and unconventional: you’ll find no fireballs or magic missiles here. It’s not flashy in the slightest – which perhaps makes it even more frightening – but it’s still deadly, and it takes its toll on the caster as well as the target. Magic played a relatively small role in ‘Scourge’, and was largely mentioned only in dark muttering and cryptic references. But here we finally get to meet the dread Memoridons, or ‘memory witches’, two of whom accompany our favourite Syldoon and add an intriguing new dynamic to the group.

In fact, one of the Memoridons – Braylar’s sister Soffjian – has already become one of my favourite characters, despite the fact that she doesn’t actually take up a lot of page time. Using the angry, fearful reactions of Braylar and his men, the author makes Soffjian’s presence felt even before the reader meets her, and when she does join the Syldoon her presence in the group affects everything the soldiers say and do. Salyards lets us see just enough of her strength and skill – in interactions both verbal and physical – that we’re left in no doubt about her badass credentials. Salyards also does a rare thing: he manages to write a strong female character – who for the most part is clever and cunning, hostile and aloof, and frankly a bit of a bitch – and make her not only someone we sympathise with but also who we admire.

Well. I do, anyway. In fact, Soffjian is my new hero.

That said . . . fetch me my ranseur, and be quick about it. ‘Ranseur’, yes. You know, the big pointy—eugh, forget the ranseur. Just bring me the next book. ‘Chains of the Heretic’, that’s the one. I’ve heard it’s the best of the bunch!

Well, of course I have high expectations of it, fool. What? ‘What if it doesn’t live up to them?’ Of course it will! And if not, then it’s like Braylar himself says: “even if it proves less than gripping or convincing, it is better than a dead horse.”


Blurb

History, Family and Memory… these are the seeds of destruction.

Bloodsounder’s Arc continues as Captain Braylar Killcoin and his retinue continue to sow chaos amongst the political elite of Alespell. Braylar is still poisoned by the memories of those slain by his unholy flail Bloodsounder, and attempts to counter this sickness have proven ineffectual.

The Syldoonian Emperor Cynead has solidified his power base in unprecedented ways, and demands loyalty from all operatives. Braylar and company are recalled to the capital to swear fealty. Braylar must decide if he can trust his sister, Soffjian, with the secret that is killing him. She has powerful memory magics that might be able to save him from Bloodsounder’s effects, but she has political allegiances that are not his own. Arki and others in the company try to get Soffjian and Braylar to trust one another, but politics in the capital prove to be far more complicated and dangerous than even Killcoin could predict.

Deposed emperor Thumarr plots to remove the repressive Cynead, and Braylar and his sister Soffjian lie at the heart of his plans. The distance between “favored shadow agent of the emperor” and “exiled traitor” is an unsurprisingly short road. But it is a road filled with blind twists and unexpected turns. Before the journey is over, Arki will chronicle the true intentions of Emperor Cynead and Soffjian. And old enemies in Alespell may prove to be surprising allies in a conflict no one could have foreseen. 


You can connect with Jeff via Facebook and Twitter, or  check out jeffsalyards.com for more (his blog on there is ridiculously entertaining).


 

Review: Mark Lawrence, ‘The Liar’s Key’


In the run-up to the Gemmell Awards I thought it’d be fun to jump on the virtual bandwagon and re-post my own reviews of the titles I’ve read from the Legend longlist. (I’ve already reviewed Joe Abercrombie here.) Since I’m lucky enough to be currently reading The Wheel of Osheim, I thought it rather appropriate that I post about Mark Lawrence’s entry next.

Mark Lawrence is one of my favourite modern fantasy authors. First he blew me away with his Broken Empire trilogy (Prince of Thorns, King of Thorns and Emperor of Thorns). Then, just when I thought he couldn’t get any better, he unleashed a new trilogy titled The Red Queen’s War, set in the same dystopian universe as Broken Empire. The first book in this series, Prince of Fools, was simply awesome; happily, the series continues in the same vein with The Liar’s Key. Although its hefty length means it’s not quite the mile-a-minute thrill ride Prince of Fools was, The Liar’s Key does allow us more opportunities to catch our breath and spend more time learning about our favourite loveable rogue Jalan Kendeth.

lawrence-liars-key-coverHaving been dragged to the ends of the earth in the previous book, The Liar’s Key sees the spoilt prince of Red March dragged all the way back home again in a variety of dangerous and entertaining circumstances. We’re still following several of the same characters from earlier in the series, including Snorri, a Viking warrior on a quest to reclaim his lost family, and Tuttugu, Snorri’s most loyal follower (who actually prefers fishing to axe-fighting). A couple of new characters are also thrown into the mix: the witch Kara and the orphan child Hennan add a new dynamic to the not-so-happy gathering, and open up new and interesting possibilities plot-wise.

The Liar’s Key is essentially a fantastically insane travelogue, meaning that yet more of the wonderful broken empire setting is unveiled here than ever before. Not only are we shown new places that have thus far only been hinted at – such as the dreaded Wheel of Osheim – but we also bump into a couple of characters from the original Broken Empire trilogy, each instance of which feels like a cross between a celebrity cameo and a reunion with old friends. Jalan himself is an incredibly likeable character despite his somewhat despicable nature, and his seemingly ceaseless supply of sardonic retorts and self-deprecating witticisms makes almost everything that comes out of his mouth immensely quotable. Furthermore I really enjoyed the way in which Jal’s character develops subtly and consistently, and the use of flashbacks to reveal more about his family’s history is done in a really clever and interesting way.

Lawrence’s prose flows effortlessly as always, making every page delightfully easy and entertaining to read. While I didn’t enjoy The Liar’s Key quite as much as I did Prince of Fools, it’s not often I find myself reading a book for the first time knowing that I’ll re-read it at some point in the near future. Lawrence’s Broken Empire books have already proven themselves to be even more clever and entertaining upon re-reading, and I’m certain that The Red Queen’s War will be the same. The world of the broken empire is like a distorted jigsaw puzzle, the pieces of which are scattered throughout each book, and we can’t truly start to put it together properly until we have all the pieces.

Mark Lawrence is as creatively talented as Jalan Kendeth is outrageously likeable, and I continue to be thoroughly entertained by both of them.

(Review originally posted over at halfstrungharp.com on 21st July 2015.)


Blurb

The Red Queen has set her players on the board…

Winter is keeping Prince Jalan Kendeth far from the longed-for luxuries of his southern palace. And although the North may be home to his companion, the warrior Snorri ver Snagason, he is just as eager to leave. For the Viking is ready to challenge all of Hell to bring his wife and children back into the living world. He has Loki’s key – now all he needs is to find the door.

As all wait for the ice to unlock its jaws, the Dead King plots to claim what was so nearly his – the key into the world – so that the dead can rise and rule.


 

Review: ‘Prince of Fools’ by Mark Lawrence


Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy was one of my best discoveries of 2013, largely due to its dark tone and brilliantly captivating first person narrative, and I expected big things of Prince of Fools. Lawrence delivered all of them, bigger and better than even I’d been looking forward to. Prince of Fools is the first book of The Red Queen’s War and it follows the converging paths of two very different characters: Snorri ver Snagason, a Norse raider from Viking lands; and Jalan Kendeth, a bone-idle prince from Red March.

Lawrence - Prince of FoolsLawrence’s prose is poetic and flowing, easy to read and with the usual characteristic undercurrent of dry, occasionally dark humour. The tone is light even when the plot is gritty, which makes it very engaging and difficult to put down. The protagonist is witty, amusing and occasionally outrageous, and his insights and narrative voice are always entertaining (although sometimes he appears to get so caught up in his own witticisms that he forgets to tell the story). The fact that he has Snorri to bounce off (sometimes literally) helps to highlight his personality even further, and the juxtaposition of the two opposing characters works really well.

Those who found Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy too dark and its main character unsympathetic may have more luck here. Jalan Kendeth is certainly no Jorg Ancrath, despite the similar-sounding names. True, they’re both royal princes, they both leave their homelands to go on adventures, and neither of them care very much about anyone except themselves, at least at first. However, while Jorg is a somewhat sociopathic, homicidal teen with aspirations to rule an empire, Jalan is a self-professed coward, a twenty-something womaniser and gambler who just wants to spend his time enjoying the finer things in life. His internal monologue, in which he continually whinges and whines and ruminates on the wisdom of running away in every possible situation, is refreshingly different to Jorg’s no-nonsense goal-centred character, although I personally find both very entertaining in their own way.

One of my favourite aspects of the Broken Empire series were the references to the ‘Builders’ world, and the irony created by characters’ ignorant observations and assumptions about the things left behind from this world. I was pleased to see this continue in Prince of Fools with many more humorous comments, such as the legend of the train (which Jal thinks must have been a “fearsome beast” to have been able to plough through the side of a mountain), Skilfar’s “plasteek guardians”, and – my personal favourite – a Viking longship named Ikea.

Unlike the Broken Empire, there are no confusing time hops in Prince of Fools. Aside from the occasional memory, and Jalan’s gradual telling of Snorri’s tale, the entire story is focused solely on events occurring over several weeks, and from the perspective of one single character. This makes it easier to see how the main character develops during the course of the story, and demonstrates the author’s ability to subtly build character without resorting to flashbacks and time-jumps. I will say that I was a little disappointed with how the development seems to reverse again by the end of the novel, but hopefully more will be revealed in the second book.

If you didn’t enjoy the Broken Empire trilogy, I’d definitely recommend giving this a go instead. If you did enjoy the Broken Empire trilogy, then why haven’t you read this yet??

(Review originally posted over at halfstrungharp.com on 3rd July 2014.)


Blurb

The Red Queen is old but the kings of the Broken Empire dread her like no other. For all her reign, she has fought the long war, contested in secret, against the powers that stand behind nations, for higher stakes than land or gold. Her greatest weapon is The Silent Sister—unseen by most and unspoken of by all.

The Red Queen’s grandson, Prince Jalan Kendeth—drinker, gambler, seducer of women—is one who can see The Silent Sister. Tenth in line for the throne and content with his role as a minor royal, he pretends that the hideous crone is not there. But war is coming. Witnesses claim an undead army is on the march, and the Red Queen has called on her family to defend the realm. Jal thinks it’s all a rumor—nothing that will affect him—but he is wrong.

After escaping a death trap set by the Silent Sister, Jal finds his fate magically intertwined with a fierce Norse warrior. As the two undertake a journey across the Empire to undo the spell, encountering grave dangers, willing women, and an upstart prince named Jorg Ancrath along the way, Jalan gradually catches a glimmer of the truth: he and the Norseman are but pieces in a game, part of a series of moves in the long war—and the Red Queen controls the board.


 

Review: ‘Half a War’ by Joe Abercrombie


In the run-up to the Gemmell Awards I thought it’d be fun to jump on the virtual bandwagon and re-post my own reviews of the titles I’ve read from the Legend longlist. Starting with Abercrombie!

Up until Half a War I’d been kind of ambivalent towards the Shattered Sea trilogy. As a huge fan of Abercrombie’s six First Law novels I entered his latest series with humongous expectations . . . and ended up feeling a little underwhelmed by it. The characters in Half a King and the story in Half the World felt, to me, distinctly lukewarm: there never seemed to be any doubt as to whether the main characters would achieve their goal, and it never once felt as though they were in any real danger.

abercrombie-half-a-war

Not so in Half a War. Despite its title, this book doesn’t do things by half. Half a War is packed from cover to cover with full-on danger, full-on violence, and full-on excitement. The stakes are higher than they’ve ever been: the events of the first two books have finally come to a head, and the Shattered Sea is embroiled in outright war. The High King’s army are marching, and standing against them is the small but dogged alliance of Gettland, Vansterland and Throvenland. But it’s an alliance of necessity rather than friendship, and the leaders of each nation must learn to co-exist for the greater good of their people.

I simply can’t praise Half a War highly enough. This is the Abercrombie I know and love: the Abercrombie who writes killer action scenes and breathless, adrenaline-fuelled battles; the Abercrombie who loads his pages with dark humour and gritty violence; the Abercrombie who creates flawed yet likeable characters whose witty yet realistic dialogue dances off the page and whose fates we as readers become genuinely invested in. This Abercrombie is not afraid to place his characters in dangerous situations, and to force them to make decisions in which they must weigh their own needs against the needs of others. Neither is he afraid to hurt his characters – or, by extension, his readers – and I feel like this is the first time in this trilogy that the ‘true’ Abercrombie really shines through the YA veneer.

In the same vein as the second book, Half a War has characters who previously featured as main protagonists taking something of a back seat, allowing a new set of characters to come to the fore. So, while Father Yarvi and Thorn Bathu both have their fair share of page time, the real focus here is on two new protagonists: Skara, a deposed and recently orphaned princess; and Raith, bloodthirsty swordbearer to the legendary warrior Grom-gil-Gorm. Both characters are remarkably different to one another, yet both are extremely likeable, and I personally sympathised with both of them a lot more than I did either Thorn, Brand or Yarvi. Still, each and every character has a role to play, and when the full extent of certain characters’ involvement with the ongoing conflict is revealed it makes for a delightfully outrageous surprise.

The only aspect of the series I’m still not entirely convinced by is the notion of ‘elf magic’, which to me seems kind of shoehorned into Half a War given that it was only hinted at subtly in the previous two books (rather than made an integral part of the world as in Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire). However, it does allow for incredible plot opportunities; and although I feel that the storyline involving the ruins of Strokom could perhaps have been fleshed out a bit more, I can’t deny that it results in some madly incongruous and awesome imagery (one particular scene involving the elderly Mother Scaer is both hilarious and terrifying, and will likely stick in my mind for a very long time).

Half a War is fast-moving and highly entertaining. It’s a fairly intense read, full of action and twists, and is led by sympathetic yet unpredictable characters who constantly surprise us with their decisions, eventually leaving us with an optimistic yet by no means fairytale ending. All in all, a stunning finale to a really enjoyable fantasy series. I would absolutely love to see more of the Shattered Sea in the near future.

(Review originally posted at halfstrungharp.com on 25th July 2015.)


Blurb

Words are weapons.

Princess Skara has seen all she loved made blood and ashes. She is left with only words. But the right words can be as deadly as any blade. She must conquer her fears and sharpen her wits to a lethal edge if she is to reclaim her birthright.

Only half a war is fought with swords.

The deep-cunning Father Yarvi has walked a long road from crippled slave to king’s minister. He has made allies of old foes and stitched together an uneasy peace. But now the ruthless Grandmother Wexen has raised the greatest army since the elves made war on God, and put Bright Yilling at its head – a man who worships no god but Death.

Sometimes one must fight evil with evil.

Some – like Thorn Bathu and the sword-bearer Raith – are born to fight, perhaps to die. Others – like Brand the smith and Koll the wood-carver – would rather stand in the light. But when Mother War spreads her iron wings, she may cast the whole Shattered Sea into darkness.

Review: ‘Scourge of the Betrayer’ by Jeff Salyards


‘Scourge of the Betrayer’ is a book that’s been lurking amidst the dusty, long-forgotten recesses of my Amazon wishlist for over three years. Now that I’ve finally gotten around to finishing it I’m kicking myself for having waited so long.

It was social media that recently put the series back on my radar: after a few weeks of being regularly entertained by Salyards’ laugh-out-loud Facebook posts I decided it was high time I checked out his fiction.

Imagine my surprise and pleasure when I found myself immersed in a gritty, startlingly intimate fantasy; one that uses realism and detail to draw in the reader, and maintains the engaging and endearing first person voice of a rather inexperienced and anxious young man.

Our narrator is Arkamondos, an educated yet naïve small-town scribe. The main premise of ‘Scourge’ is that Arki has been hired to chronicle the day-to-day activities of a brutal warband. His new comrades hail from the shadowy Syldoon empire; led by Captain Braylar Killcoin, each man in the company comes across as hard-bitten and wholly at ease with violence and death.

What really sets Salyards’ writing apart is its charming and eloquent narrative voice, which captures perfectly the difficulties and doubts of an untested chronicler. Unlike other ‘grimdark’ protagonists, Arki is increasingly horrified by the violent deeds he comes to witness, and frequently questions his decision to join the Syldoon. We the reader get to experience his fear and shock – in complete contrast to the slurry of infallible, unshakeable antiheroes that the last few years have provided us with – and it’s refreshing to have a narrator that we can actually relate to.

Though Arki as a narrator is almost painfully naïve, he doesn’t shy away from observing and recording the brutal things he witnesses. He tries to do this as impassively and professionally as possible, but naturally his own morals and personality colour everything he writes. Arki is mostly left on the outside of the group, at least at first. This means that the reader is also left out, and we begin the story knowing next to nothing about what’s going on: just like Arki, the reader feels as though they’re stumbling around, completely out of their depth. And this is actually awesome – as long as you just sit back and accept the fact that everything will make sense eventually.

Above all, Arki’s lack of worldly experience makes every page feel realistic. Armour, weapons and warcraft are described simply yet effectively; there is an undertone of quiet competence that conveys the sense that the author has done his research but chosen not to show off about it by blinding his readers with pedantic jargon and details. Better yet, Salyards doesn’t assume that every single character possesses the same amazing skillset just because it’s fantasy: not everyone knows how to load a crossbow, ride a horse, pick a lock or even load a wagon. He avoids stereotypes, and by doing so he gives us characters that actually feel like real people.

The author deals with every other aspect of the story in a similar way. Sex is exciting yet ultimately disappointing; combat is prolonged and painful; death is graceless and unexpected. Arrows miss as often as not; ambushes are more likely to fail than succeed; bloodstains actually stick around for a long time; and every fight leaves the combatants with injuries both large and small that aren’t just shaken off and forgotten about. And though Salyards avoids the more ‘traditional’ elements of fantasy – specifically with regards to the somewhat obscure weapons used by certain characters – his combat scenes are never anything less than brutal, realistic and vivid.

For instance, one of the main characters’ chosen weapons is a flail. And not just any old flail, either: this is Bloodsounder, powerful but dangerous, which grants its wielder mysterious knowledge and an advantage over his opponents. Despite this, Bloodsounder is not a whirling tornado of wanton destruction when wielded, nor is its use dramatic or over the top in any way; in fact, the first time we see the flail in extensive action it’s used to gradually bludgeon a soldier to death in a tense, protracted one-on-one fight scene lasting several pages.

I’ve seen plenty of reviews complaining that ‘Scourge’ is light on the action, and that the bulk of the story focuses heavily on the mundane either through word-for-word dialogue, or internal monologue. I’ll admit I agree with this, but only to an extent, since I feel like this is also one of the book’s main strengths. Yes, the pace is slow. Yes, there are extended monologues that could perhaps have been shorter. And yes, some segments can feel slightly repetitive. But all this does is successfully convey a sense of routine, of the daily grind of men who spend every hour of their lives in one another’s company.

The plot progresses incrementally, but steadily. The fact that events are being chronicled in ‘real time’ makes for a relatively slow pace, yes, but it also gives ‘Scourge’ a pervading sense of immediacy and danger. And just because ALL THE THINGZ aren’t happening doesn’t mean that *nothing* is happening. ‘Scourge’ represents the beginning of a journey – and a surprisingly subtle journey at that – of discovery, both for the reader discovering the story and characters, and for Arki discovering that maybe he can cope with whatever the hell he’s gotten into after all.

And besides: the prose is smooth and engaging enough that it’s ridiculously easy to forget that not much is actually happening. Salyards writes with an easy tone and a poetic flourish; in fact, his style reminds me (in different ways) of both Mark Lawrence and Pat Rothfuss. But Salyards’ voice feels more *natural*, somehow; less choreographed wittiness and more self-deprecating observation. That’s not to say it doesn’t contain its share of dark humour and gritty dialogue, though. In fact, at one point I described it to a friend as, “a bit like if ‘Prince of Thorns’ had been narrated by Father Gomst with a sense of humour”.

One last thing I appreciated about ‘Scourge of the Betrayer’ is the fact that the author doesn’t fall into the trap of having Arki explain every tiny detail of a world with which he is already familiar. The setting is mostly vague, simply because it doesn’t need to be anything else but. Enough detail is conveyed for us to vividly picture the scenes taking place, yet not enough so that the world building takes over the story. Salyards takes a similar approach to history and lore: you get the sense that there’s a huge amount of it lurking just beyond reach, but he’s going to make us wait before we earn it.

I’m not saying ‘Scourge’ is perfect. It’s not. There’s nothing major to criticise, but it is kind of rough around the edges in a few minor ways. There are bits and pieces – arguably entire scenes – that could perhaps have been cut without detriment to the story; and as I already mentioned, the pacing can occasionally be an issue. But it’s a very, very good book nonetheless. And as a debut novel? It’s seriously impressive.

So yes, bend me over and call me a fangirl: I’m officially sold on Salyards. Now bring me more Bloodsounder. Now.

Dammit you horsec*nts, I said NOW.


Blurb:

Many tales are told of the Syldoon Empire and its fearsome soldiers, who are known throughout the world for their treachery and atrocities. Some say that the Syldoon eat virgins and babies–or perhaps their own mothers. Arkamondos, a bookish young scribe, suspects that the Syldoon’s dire reputation may have grown in the retelling, but he’s about to find out for himself.

Hired to chronicle the exploits of a band of rugged Syldoon warriors, Arki finds himself both frightened and fascinated by the men’s enigmatic leader, Captain Braylar Killcoin. A secretive, mercurial figure haunted by the memories of those he’s killed with his deadly flail, Braylar has already disposed of at least one impertinent scribe . . . and Arki might be next.

 

A gripping military fantasy in the tradition of Glen Cook, Scourge of the Betrayer explores the brutal politics of Empire–and the searing impact of violence and dark magic on a man’s soul.

 


You can connect with Jeff via Facebook and Twitter, or  check out jeffsalyards.com for more (his blog on there is ridiculously entertaining).