5 Reasons to Read ‘The Faithful & the Fallen’


This article was originally published by Tor.com on 28th November 2016 as ‘The Faithful and the Fallen: An epic tale of Valour in the face of Malice, Wrath and Ruin‘.celtic-greeny-tree

Have you ever found yourself ambling around your local bookstore, mumbling as you search the shelves for something – anything – that will fulfil your need for fictional giants mounted on giant bears?

Search no longer, my darlings! I present to you: The Faithful and the Fallen by British fantasy author John Gwynne.

The Faithful and the Fallen quartet by John Gwynne

Beginning with Gemmell Award-winning Malice (Best Debut, 2013), Gwynne’s series is perfect for readers who prefer their fantasy with a touch of grit and darkness (a la the Drenai saga or the Warlord Chronicles) as opposed to the nihilism that the genre is finding particularly fashionable of late. This gorgeously-jacketed quartet – featuring Malice, Valour, Ruin and Wrath – is epic, but not in that sprawling, distant, ‘wait-where-the-hell-am-I-and-who’s-this-character-again?’ sort of way. It’s bloody but not bleak; traditional, but by no means tropey.

Still not convinced? Here’s five more reasons why you might just love it.


1.

The Banished Lands are Eerie, Atmospheric and Beautifulceltic-greeny-tree


I don’t know about you, but I often reflect on the fact that there just aren’t enough ‘wyrms’ (with a ‘y’) in fiction these days. And no, I’m not talking about bog-standard dragons who’ve changed their name by deed poll to make themselves sound more interesting. I mean Proper Wyrms, the kind that show up in Germanic myths without wings or even legs and looking like pants-shittingly gigantic– well, worms.

The Faithful and the Fallen respectfully eschews elements of ‘high’ fantasy in favour of more unusual, folklore-inspired creatures. Dragons, elves, wizards and dwarves are nowhere to be seen; nope, instead, the Banished Lands are populated with giants, draigs, fallen angels and – yes! –  wyrms. (And giants. Did I mention the giants? Riding bears?)

Malice, Faithful and Fallen book oneGodless, but green: Gwynne’s settings are, in many ways, unapologetically familiar. Appearing at first glance to be little more than another ‘Medieval Europe’, the Banished Lands are infused with nostalgia and a gentle Germanic ambience that enfolds the reader in a pastoral utopia.

But it’s not long before dark, haunting Celtic overtones start to bleed into the Tolkien-esque quaintness. Gwynne’s descriptions are subtly evocative, and carry a rich sense of history – in a similar vein to the works of Miles Cameron or Mary Stewart – which will appeal to folks who’ve visited the greener, untamed parts of Britain.

A significant part of book two, Valour, takes place in a Romanesque setting, while books three and four (Ruin and Wrath) introduce misty marshes and mighty forests; ancient fortresses and windswept mountain peaks. Such vivid variety is a welcome change from the gorgeous, but overly-comfortable starting location.

With its shifting scenery (cinematically comparable to Game of Thrones, Ironclad, Spartacus and Lord of the Rings) and mixed mythological influences (from talking birds to wolf companions to legendary weapons to GIANTS RIDING BEARS) Gwynne’s saga is much greater than the sum of its parts: and is no less than a brilliant blend of Arthurian motifs and Brythonic lore scaled to epic, Norse-like proportions.


2.

The Characters are Compelling (Because Most of Them Aren’t Bastards)celtic-greeny-tree


The Faithful and the Fallen is a geographically-sweeping epic full of wicked and wonderful beings. Nonetheless, it remains admirably character-centred.

The quartet begins with just a handful of PoVs – including the ‘main’ protagonist, Corban. But as the story expands, so too does its cast. Gwynne’s structuring of these PoVs is especially smart: he introduces, and shifts between, new voices in a way that ups the complexity and creates excitement rather than confusion.Malice by John Gwynne

Honestly, I found Malice to be a little slow, and perhaps a little bit laborious: there are times when excessive detail in the child PoVs becomes repetitive. Having read the entire series, however, I now appreciate the first book’s investment in character-building.

While nowhere near the ‘shades of grey’ you’ll find in books by Mark Lawrence or Rebecca Levene, many of Gwynne’s characters – particularly later in the series – show how easy it is to find oneself on the ‘wrong’ side of a conflict, and how ‘evil’ can be a matter of perspective. It’s particularly interesting to watch some of the protagonists develop and change because of careful manipulation by others.

Here are some of the major players in book one:

CORBAN – Just your average blacksmith’s son. Nothing special about him at all. Nope.

CYWEN – Corban’s fiery knife-throwing sister.

SHIELD – Corban’s badass horse.

STORM – Corban’s big-ass wolf.

CAMLIN – Skilled archer and former brigand; fan favourite.

KASTELL – Unwilling heir; gentle giant-hunter (by which I mean he’s a gentle guy who just happens to hunt giants… not a guy who actively hunts gentle giants).

MAQUIN – Kastell’s loyal retainer and BFF. Also, HE – IS – SPARTACUS!

NATHAIR – The Fresh Prince of Balara; a bit of a tit.

VERADIS – Nathair’s first sword and blood brother (4 lyf).

Valour by John GwynneMany of you may roll your eyes at seeing such a male-dominated character list. Rest assured, the gender imbalance is addressed in book two, Valour, with the introduction of more female point-of-view protagonists. And book three, Ruin, is notably populated with strong female characters of all ages, races and stations – as well as one or two non-humans.

Malice (and, to some extent, Valour) carefully builds the web of character relationships that is then brought beautifully to the fore in Ruin. No matter how grand the situation or how large the scale, Gwynne never lets us forget that this entire series is a sprawling net comprised of a thousand little strands of humanity – and it’s this that makes it such an engaging and emotional read.


3.

‘Well, that escalated slowly!’ – The Faithful and the Fallen gets gradually bigger, better, darkerceltic-greeny-tree


The characters who survive Malice – several of whom were first introduced to the reader as children – grow and develop in interesting (and unusual) ways throughout the series. Corban’s tale is almost a coming-of-age story; except that the ‘farm-boy-with-a-destiny’ (as seen in The Belgariad, The Inheritance Cycle, The Demon Cycle, etc.) generally becomes omni-talented within an insanely short amount of time, and their eventual success is never really in doubt.

Corban, on the other hand, is entirely fallible. Love and loyalty confuse his decisions, and he makes plenty of mistakes along his entire journey (not just at the beginning). Furthermore, the skills he does possess are a result of growing up within a hard-working warrior culture.

But it would be reductive to label The Faithful and the Fallen as ‘Corban’s story’ when Ruin boasts a cast of no less than fourteen point-of-view characters. Unlike A Song of Ice and Fire, however – where you have eighty-nine protagonists spread over a million miles and whom you can easily forget about for entire books at a time – Gwynne’s are surprisingly story-focused. Many PoVs are part of the same group, so that often a change in PoV doesn’t necessarily signify a change in time, or even in location. This works fantastically for making battle scenes tense and pacy, and just overall keeps the pages turning.Ruin by John Gwynne

(There’s one extended scene near the beginning of Wrath that utilises this technique perfectly. Short chapters that switch back and forth between two characters left me breathless and desperate to keep reading until the sequence reached its (very satisfying!) resolution.)

I’ve mentioned already that neither Malice nor Valour swept me off my feet. Ruin, however, totally blew me away. By the time you reach book three, you’re invested in the characters and the story, but you’re possibly also wondering if and when the shit is going to hit the fan.

And then you start reading Ruin.

The Banished Lands are at war. No longer charmingly rural, the Celtic settings have become wild and threatening: large parts of Ruin take place in uncharted forests, treacherous marshes and daunting ruins that create a tangible atmosphere of threat and tension. Furthermore, our heroes’ predicament becomes direr with each page you turn; and the author finally gives us a peek inside the minds of some of the series’ most hated characters.

The God-War is not good vs. evil: it’s well-meaning villains and tired refugees; messy skirmishes and small-scale ambushes; confusing conflicts with people on both sides getting lost and making mistakes; losses piling up as constant fighting takes its toll both physically and mentally. The last two books are suffused with a grit and intensity that in the first two books is (for the most part) lacking.

The action comes thick and fast, and it feels as though the reader is right there amongst the combatants: sweating and bleeding and dodging blades and arrows and fists from every quarter. Large-scale battles (which I found distant and impersonal in earlier books) are visceral and immediate, featuring character-driven narratives that make the fighting feel less glorious and more real.


4.

Feels and structure and prose – oh my!celtic-greeny-tree


As the books increase in length and complexity, so too do they become more engaging – a testament to the author’s continually improving skills. Each book is stronger than the last, growing in pace, intensity and sheer readability with every chapter.

Wrath by John GwynneI don’t just mean that there’s more action (although there is!). The author’s portrayal of certain characters’ motives and emotions becomes much more powerful, granting the reader intriguing insights into nearly every aspect of the overarching conflict. With so many disparate groups of characters to keep track of, each chapter is a keyhole through which we glean hints of what might happen, and through which we gain numerous perspectives on events.

With perspective comes understanding, and readers will no doubt find themselves surprised by their own changing attitudes towards certain characters. Viewing a battle – along with its associated victories, losses and deaths – from different sides of the conflict brings humanity to every character, no matter how despicable they may seem. And with humanity comes sympathy.

Ruin is one of the very few books that has ever managed to bring me to tears (a reaction previously provoked only by Robin Hobb and Steven Erikson) and I confess to feeling physically sick with nerves at several points during both Ruin and Wrath while I waited to see what became of a beloved character.

What’s truly special about Gwynne’s stories, however, is that they can be tragic without being ‘tragedy’. The Faithful and the Fallen embraces the underlying hope that traditionally characterises the fantasy genre, that sense of an ever-present light amongst the darkness; the hope that good will push back against evil, no matter how grim the situation may seem.


5.

The Author is a Kickass, Axe-Wielding Writing Machineceltic-greeny-tree


Clearly influenced by the likes of David Gemmell and Bernard Cornwell, Gwynne’s prose is as economic as it is brutally beautiful.

If my words have failed to convince you, however, then let’s look at the facts.

Gwynne has released four full-length novels within the last four years. His first quartet is now complete, so you don’t have to worry about cliffhanger endings and decades-long waits! And with a new series (also set in the Banished Lands) slated to begin next year, Gwynne is a solid bet for those who appreciate regular, reliable releases.

Lastly… who wouldn’t want to read books written by this guy? Really? LOOK AT HIM!

Author John Gwynne, accompanied by dogs and axes


Even the Brave will Fallceltic-greeny-tree


Fans of traditional fantasy will fall in love with The Faithful and the Fallen. Readers who like their fantasy more epic than a flame-breathing oliphaunt, however, should be aware that this series is something of a slow-burn. The weight of history and prophecy and the sheer lore of the world creeps up on the reader rather than smacking them in the face; but although the series takes a little while to get going, before you know it you’ll be hooked. And Wrath is a fitting finale to a worthy series: a spectacularly epic and ambitious tale that delivers everything it promises, and more. Trust me when I say it’s worth the wait.Wrath

So next time you’re in a bookshop and you hear somebody muttering “giants… where are all the giants?” you’ll be able to step in and give them exactly what they need.


celtic-greeny-tree

‘Wrath’ by John Gwynne


Wrath

Warning: this review contains spoilers for those who haven’t yet read Malice, Valour and Ruin!

Since 2012, John Gwynne has been promising us that ‘even the brave will fall’… and dear god, they have. Each successive instalment in the epic Faithful & Fallen quartet has seen greater numbers of beloved characters succumb to a rising tide of evil. Casualties of war, victims of treachery – with each novel the death toll has mounted, and so have the stakes.

“The time is upon us. The God-War is reaching its end, moving towards its last great battle, which will decide the fate of this land, and all who dwell within it.”

It feels like forever since Gwynne’s debut, Malice (winner of the Morningstar trophy at the 2013 Gemmell Awards) introduced us to Corban ben Thannon, the blacksmith’s son from humble Dun Carreg. In that time, rivalries have grown, alliances have shifted and battle lines have become muddled: moving, merging, melting and then melding again to form tentative but powerful friendships.

“This war has been decades in the making. But it will end soon.”

The battle lines are drawn, and the Bright Star and the Dark Sun begin their last preparations for the war that neither is likely to survive.

Yes: after four years of building tension and assembling armies (not to mention Ruin’s AGONISING cliff-hanger ending!) Wrath is finally here to show us how it all ends. The fight for the Banished Lands will leave none untouched, and everyone – men, women, giants, angels, demons, children – must choose a side.

“If you choose not to fight against Asroth, then you have already chosen him.”

Like all modern fantasy tales worth their salt, The Faithful and the Fallen features well-rounded characters on all sides of the conflict. The dreaded ‘Black Sun’ of prophecy is introduced to us at the very start of the series as just one of a handful of likeable protagonists. Nathair paves his own path towards the darkness using stones of doubt, fear and manipulation. Gwynne’s antagonists are not caricatures; nor are his gods and demons so clear-cut.

Fans of the series will recognise that each book has brought more darkness. Ruin was particularly gritty and bloody. Wrath is grittier and bloodier still.

“We’re going to need a bigger warband.”

But Gwynne’s writing is characterised by an enduring thread of hope, spun by those few genuinely ‘good’ characters who just want to make the world right again. Corban, Veradis, Haelan, Maquin, Camlin, Cywen, Coralen, Brina – all are protagonists that inspire the reader to root for them with every fibre of their being.

“One man, or woman… can make a difference. Can do something. It may not change anything, but we won’t know unless we try.”

 By this point, I wouldn’t say that it’s difficult to choose who to root for (since it’s obvious by now that the antagonists are fully aware of whom they’re fighting for), but that Gwynne never lets us forget that the enemy are human, too. Lykos is immoral and sarcastic; an entertaining voice, and a character all readers will love to hate. Rafe is conflicted, cruel and lonely; hateful, yet strangely sympathetic. Uthas is driven by ambition, as is Nathair – whose desperate need to vindicate himself by justifying his past actions is reminiscent of Geder Palliako in Daniel Abraham’s Dagger & Coin quintet.

“I wish I had been there,” Legion muttered. “I would have smashed their bodies and crushed their skulls, I would have broken their bones and fed from their flesh and danced on their dead and sucked out their souls and—“

“Shut up, Legion,” Calidus snapped.

 These darkly comedic exchanges – mostly involving Calidus, Legion and Lykos – are likely to draw reluctant laughs from the reader, again emphasising that there is humanity on all sides of the conflict. (This may seem bizarre, but Calidus and Legion reminded me of cartoon villains Dick Dastardly and Muttley!)

From Cywen’s anti-draig camouflage to Rhin’s unique and bloody Skype methods, there’s grimness on all sides for sure. But there are also plenty of reminders that the Banished Lands have their roots firmly fixed in Middle Earth (and not, say, the Broken Empire): Gwynne writes with a clear awareness of the fantasy tropes he draws on, and conveys a palpable desire to show the world why these familiar tropes remain relevant.

“Skald, the starstone spear, the axe and cauldron, the great tree. So much history, and yet this same war is being fought.”

The author embraces many traditional (some might even say ‘clichéd’) features of fantasy – most notably the ‘Chosen One’ and his Quest for the Magical Gewgaw(s) – but turns them on their head, tweaking and embellishing without ever twisting them too much.

Wrath by John GwynneOh! And on the topic of writing conventions, I couldn’t help but observe throughout that Wrath also exemplifies the rule of ‘Chekhov’s gun’.

(For those not familiar with the term, ‘Chekhov’s gun’ is the principle that every memorable feature in a story should be relevant to the plot. If the writer says in chapter one that there’s a gun hanging on the wall, then that gun must be utilised in one of the following chapters. Looking at it this way, it’s as if every aspect of the story is a promise to the reader, and the author should only make promises he or she intends to keep.)

Say one thing about John Gwynne: say he’s an oath keeper! Wrath is a spectacular culmination of every hint of foreshadowing, all seamlessly woven to ensure the story goes out with all metaphorical guns blazing. 

“This will be the day we avenge ourselves for those we’ve lost, the day we right the wrongs done to us, or die in the trying. It will be a dark day, a bloody day, a proud day, for this is the day of our wrath.”

Dark, bloody, proud: Wrath reinforces every value that The Faithful and the Fallen – and the fantasy genre as a whole – stands for. It’s about challenging prejudice and breaking expectations. It’s about putting aside grudges and racial enmity to unite against evil. And it’s about standing up for what’s right – even if that means taking up arms against friends and family who’ve chosen differently.

Most of all, it’s about accepting that it’s everyone’s duty to protect the greater good; that if you don’t do it, perhaps nobody will; that even the smallest person can make a difference.

“Who else is there but us?”

 Believe me when I say that Gwynne has crafted a breathtakingly perfect finale to a series that has grown from strength to wonderful strength. Poignant, pulse-pounding and phenomenally paced, Wrath is a satisfying – and heart-breaking – climax that Tolkien himself would be proud to have penned.

Gach fir bàs.

All men die.

The Faithful and the Fallen quartet continues

This review originally appeared on Fantasy-Faction on November 20th 2016.

Steven Kelliher, ‘Valley of Embers’ (review)


Review originally posted on Fantasy-Faction on 11th September 2016.


“Tough to be young or old in this Valley of ours.”

The night is dark and full of terrors, especially for the besieged inhabitants of the Valley of Embers. In Steven Kelliher’s secondary world only a handful of walled towns remain as the last bastions against the night, and the dwindling population of Emberfolk struggle to defend their secluded homes from the Dark Kind.

Fellow Factioners may have noticed that we’re currently participating in a little thing called the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. Here’s an important thing I’ve learned from judging: there are a LOT of self-published fantasy authors clamouring for attention. So many, in fact, that it’s hard to distinguish between those that deserve further notice and those who don’t. With this in mind, even the smallest flaws can turn out to be deal breakers in our decisions about which ones to continue reading; and we’ve found ourselves taking into consideration elements that we probably wouldn’t glance twice at in a traditionally-published work.

Is it unfair that indie authors have to work harder than others to earn our regard? Certainly. After all, there are a huge number of self-published individuals who take their craft very seriously, investing time and money to produce a professional final product. But the truth is that for every one of these, there are a hundred others who’ve cut corners. Many first-time authors rush into things, publishing an early draft without bothering with beta reads or edits. Others forego the services of a decent cover designer or even a less-decent one. And then there are those who splash out with amazing cover art in the hope that it will compensate for a shoddily-formatted, poorly-written or uninspired story.

Looking at Valley of Embers, you’ll forgive me for initially suspecting the latter. I mean,Valley of Embers by Steven Kelliher just look at that cover. Look! Can you blame me for being a bit wary? Looks too good to be true, right?

Wrong! In addition to its impressive and lovingly-commissioned artwork, Valley of Embers boasts an attractive and professional design both inside and out. Appearances really do matter, and in terms of superficial features Kelliher has really knocked it out of the park. The story itself is slightly less spectacular, but is engaging and original nonetheless.

The underlying threat of dark creatures that only attack at night is strongly reminiscent of Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle. However, unlike Brett’s post-apocalyptic world, Kelliher’s Dark Kind are a relatively new phenomenon; and there are some townsfolk who remember the times before the monsters showed up.

An exciting premise, for sure. Kelliher makes the most of it by giving us a taste of combat on the walls right at the beginning, introducing us to protagonists Kole and Linn through their skill and familiarity with night-time battle. This straight-to-the-point introduction works well on the whole. But the quickly-escalating battle and the cryptic-but-hurried discussions that follow seemed (to me, at least) kind of stop-start. This may be entirely down to personal preference. In fact, I expect that plenty of readers will be enamoured with such a whirlwind opening. And why not? Kelliher’s action scenes are great (if occasionally confusing), his settings vivid and varied and his characters likeable.

True, the action is well-described. But for me the combatants are a little too blasé about the nature of the enemy: perhaps it’s the coward in me speaking, but I would expect to see a certain amount of terror in the defenders regardless of how accustomed they are to their daily nightmare.

Furthermore, what begins as a fast-paced and intriguing story gradually becomes somewhat uneven, and overall the pacing is a little ‘off’. Key events lack impetus due to too much or too little build-up. One or two major battles outstay their welcome; and more than a few exposition-heavy scenes could probably have been cut without detriment to the story. (In fact, some of the dialogue actually obscures rather than explains: the swapping out of noun phrases – Dark Kind, Eastern Dark, Sage, Sentinels, Night Lord, White Crest – is often confusing, and the characters’ conversations about the Valley’s history tend to involve as much repetition as they do clarification.)

If that seems like a whole lot of negative – well, welcome to the brutal world of self-publishing, where little gripes become big gripes precisely because traditionally-published novels have taught us to take their absence for granted. Don’t get me wrong: not once did I feel less than compelled to keep reading. But in many instances I was keen to read on because of my interest in the story rather than the specific scene in front of me. Most of the pacing issues would likely be fixed if exposed to an editor’s stern attention, as would the occasional homophonic typo, odd description or anachronistic simile.

If there’s anything the SPFBO has taught us it is that the more successful indie authors are those who have taken their reviewers’ criticism on board and used it to improve their craft. Standards are high. The writers who constantly strive to meet – and to exceed – those standards are the writers who eventually get noticed one way or another; while those who settle for second best will inevitably linger in perpetual obscurity. Having read Valley of Embers, Kelliher strikes me as one of the few with the potential to rise to the top; and while it’s evident that there is still room for improvement, so too is the fact that we have a talented new fantasy writer on the scene.

In spite of my whining I am very much invested in the story Kelliher has begun. Though not without flaws, Valley of Embers is a solid debut and a promising start to a new series.

Marc Turner, ‘Red Tide’ (review)


Marc Turner is without doubt one of the most talented fantasy authors to have debuted in recent years. His latest offering, Red Tide, is the thrilling third chapter in the six-book Chronicles of the Exile, and is guaranteed to leave fans of this series absolutely blown away.

Red Tide (UK cover) by Marc TurnerRed Tide begins just days after the events of book two (Dragon Hunters). The Sabian Sea is too dangerous to sail, and the Storm Isles are floundering in the chaotic aftermath of Dragon Day. But one city’s misfortune can easily become another’s gain, and it’s clear that the opportunistic rulers on both sides of the Dragon Gate intend to take advantage of the situation . . . if only to fight each other for the scraps.

Right from the outset Turner presents us with greed, murder and betrayal . . . in other words, everything you’d expect from a civilisation founded on greed, murder and betrayal. We catch our first glorious glimpse of the Rubyholt Isles: a notorious conglomeration of pirate communities, tenuously led by a greedy, murderous and treacherous Warlord. Within just a few pages Turner manages to introduce not only a brand-new, Viking-like culture, but also two compelling new PoV characters – both of whom are on opposite sides of a tense and unprecedented political conflict. Needless to say the conflict soon escalates, whisking us away to the city of Gilgamar and the schemes of Emperor Avallon and Emira Mazana Creed. Readers should expect to see some familiar faces from Dragon Hunters, as well as other (possibly half-forgotten!) ones from When the Heavens Fall (book one).

Perhaps the most notable thing about Turner’s writing is his versatility. The Chronicles of the Exile boasts a wonderful variety of styles, scopes, characters and tones, which makes each successive instalment feel strikingly different from the last. This gives it quite an experimental feel – particularly since the first two books not only feature entirely different characters and settings but also seemingly-unrelated plots – which is refreshing rather than disorienting. The complex, sweeping epic of When the Heavens Fall is vastly different from its sequel, Dragon Hunters, which is set entirely on and around the island city of Olaire and is written with a much lighter tone.Red Tide (US cover) by Marc Turner

Red Tide has more in common with the latter than the former, continuing the nautical theme and returning once more to the southern coast of the Sabian sea. Most importantly (particularly for those who were bewildered by their seeming lack of connection) Red Tide draws together some of the disparate elements of the first two books. He does this gradually and subtly, which I guarantee will lead to more than one ‘ah-ha!’ moment (or, if you’re anything like me, a flickering lightbulb moment of slow-dawning realisation).

Turner pulls each separate character steadily and irrevocably into the central conflict, then flings obstacles at them whilst also pushing them irresistibly towards one another. In contrast to the masterful slow-build of When the Heavens Fall, Red Tide is far more fast-paced: the tone is lively, and the action is consistently gripping. Best of all, Turner doesn’t exploit every single potential combination of characters. Instead, he teases us with near-meets, creating ‘what if?’ scenarios and then holding them tantalisingly out of reach.

Personally, one of my favourite aspects of Red Tide – and of the entire series – is the way the author conveys the sheer scope of his world without ever going overboard (see what I did there?) with the details. He uses brief conversations, cryptic naming traditions, local legends and stunning scenery to hint at a vast backdrop of unknown elements. In Red Tide, the focus lies on what lurks under the sea: readers can look forward to terrifying glances of The Rent (a vertigo-inducing black hole beneath the waves), the Dragons’ Boneyard (along with its chthonic web-spinning denizen) and of course the deadly coming-of-age trial known only as the Shark Run. Turner gives us the impression that a vast amount of history and lore is straining to just burst into the story and cause untold chaos. Most impressive is his ability to do this without deviating from the main plot whilst also (conversely) raising more questions than he answers.

Why should you pick up this series? Well, if I haven’t managed to convince you how effing fantastic the latest release is, just take a look at the reviews for books one and two. You’ll find a lot of favourable comparisons to other authors in the genre – and it’s easy to see why.

For a start, When the Heavens Fall is threatened by the presence of immortal, crazy-powerful supernatural beings. Turner’s descriptions of these – understated, yet chilling – strongly bring to mind the Taken in Glen Cook’s Black Company. Then in Dragon Hunters the author entertains us with the sort of quirky, rock-hard, dark-humoured characters you’d expect to find dwelling in Steven Erikson’s Malazan series.

Red Tide brings the best of both. Furthermore, the Abercrombie-esque diversity of the characters – be it Amerel’s unforgiving pragmatism or Romany’s sardonic humour; Senar’s wry indecision or Galantas’s arrogant charm – ensures that every PoV has its own way of entertaining the reader (incidentally making it very difficult for the reader to choose who to root for!).

“What was she thinking? This couldn’t be murder; this was war. Killing wasn’t murder if you stole the victim’s country while you were at it.”

So, if you enjoy the novels of Glen Cook, Joe Abercrombie and Steven Erikson, chances are you’ll love Marc Turner’s stuff. But though the series does have plenty in common with First Law, Malazan, Black Company and others, the world Turner has created in The Chronicles of the Exile is deep, unique and entirely his own. Turner’s star is on the rise: Red Tide is his strongest outing to date, and one of the finest fantasy novels of 2016.

A Motherfuckin' DRAGON


If you’re still undecided about starting the series, you can read a Chronicles of the Exile short story for FREE over on Tor.com.

This review was originally published at Fantasy-Faction.com on 19th September 2016.

Daniel Abraham, ‘The Dagger & the Coin’ (series review)


The Dagger & the Coin Quintet by Daniel Abraham

 
Reviewing an entire series in one fell swoop can be tricky. Luckily, I’ve got the perfect metaphor to carry us through this one . . . but more on that in a moment. First, here’s a quick introduction for those who’re not familiar with the series.

The Dagger and the Coin is a fantasy quintet that blends myth, violence and political intrigue to create an entertaining and thought-provoking tale about what can happen when absolute power is placed in the hands of one man. Daniel Abraham shows us how quickly and unexpectedly a kingdom can dissolve into chaos and war, and how easy it is for an entire civilisation to succumb to fear and prejudice.

What I like most about Daniel Abraham’s writing is his clean, engaging style. He doesn’t dazzle us with descriptions or confuse us with cleverness. Instead, he patiently draws us in with easy prose and a conversational tone that eases the reader into a familiar, close relationship with each character.

And now on to the metaphor (which, by the way, I intend to mangle extend past recognition by dragging weaving it through this entire ramble review). Here it comes.

Sometimes spectacular, often laugh-out-loud funny and always engaging: Daniel Abraham has crafted a character-driven series that becomes stronger and more complex with each instalment . . . kind of like a river. No, really.The Dragon's Path by Daniel Abraham

Let’s start at the beginning (or should I say ‘source’?): The Dragon’s Path, in which various characters’ lives first begin to trickle downhill and mingle together. Abraham does a creditable job of introducing the protagonists – including Cithrin (a banker’s apprentice), Marcus (a jaded mercenary) and Geder (a quixotic nobleman) – using alternating PoV chapters. Most of these the reader will continue to follow throughout the series . . . and through both sides of the conflict.

Right from the get-go, Cithrin and Geder are established as the ‘major’ characters. Already embarked on radically divergent paths, events soon begin to shape their thoughts and personalities in very different ways that nonetheless force both to shed their innocent naïveté. That Abraham juxtaposes Cithrin (representing trade, or ‘coin’) and Geder (symbolising war, or the ‘dagger’/‘dragon’s path’) isn’t immediately obvious in The Dragon’s Path; but it soon becomes a pivotal part of the saga.

Some readers dislike being thrown into a secondary world and bombarded with unfamiliar names and races and cities. I’ll admit that I found The Dragon’s Path a bit confusing at first! But while it takes roughly the first half of the book for the characters to fully begin to form, the other aspects of the world soon fall into place. Abraham sacrifices clarity at the beginning in order to convey the diversity of his world in a more organic way, and I guarantee it won’t be long before you’re familiar with all thirteen races: pale, slender Cinnae and black, chitinous Timzinae; sharp-toothed Tralgu and tusked Yemmu; otter-pelted Kurtadam and the elusive Drowned. (For those who are interested, Abraham actually has a handy guide on his website – creatively presented as a historical record!)

Aside from his agreeable prose, another distinguishing feature of Abraham’s writing is his depiction of female characters – something that he also carries over into The Expanse, his co-written SF series published under the pen name James S.A. Corey.

Both female leads in The Dagger and the Coin are strong in different ways (none of which, thankfully, involve clichéd and improbable skill with sex or weapons) and are equally as well-drawn and likeable as Naomi, Bobbie, Avasarala and co in The Expanse. Cithrin, although very young, is well-versed in her knowledge of banking and finance, and skilfully uses this knowledge to turn many poor situations to her advantage; while the much older Clara exploits her gender’s inferior position within society to acquire items and information that her husband and sons aren’t able to access.

The Dragon’s Path does an excellent job of setting future events in motion, and in hindsight gives the reader some intriguing hints about the bigger picture. It also successfully establishes characters and setting, and Abraham displays impressive originality in terms of worldbuilding. But he also isn’t ashamed to embrace the familiar, and so the perplexed reader will soon find themselves grounded by a comforting backdrop of classic fantasy elements that I like to think of as the author’s gentle homage to the genre.The King's Blood by Daniel Abraham

This is particularly evident in book two, The King’s Blood, in which mercenary Marcus and apostate Kit embark on a quest to find a magic sword and kill an evil goddess. Agreed, this sounds like the clichéd plot of an old role-playing game; yet seeing these two cool characters paired up on a wild adventure is actually a LOT of fun. The fact that Abraham acknowledges the cliché with a few dry remarks from Marcus is a perfect example of how he’s using The Dagger and the Coin not only to pay tribute to traditional fantasy elements but also to mess around with (and poke fun at!) our expectations.

If the events of The Dagger & the Coin are a river with The Dragon’s Path as their source, then The King’s Blood is the young river stage: downhill (obviously…), and increasing pace rapidly. Book two takes a somewhat darker turn and remains more or less focused within the city of Camnipol, where social and political discord is beginning to form cracks in this once-stable capital.

The King’s Blood unfolds the tale of Camnipol’s gradual descent into civil war, which we witness through two main PoVs – each on a different side of the conflict. These two characters (who shall remain unnamed because SPOILERS) are really well-written: in The Dragon’s Path both were likeable for different reasons, but now we’re presented with a new side of them. Both have their reasons for doing what they do, but it’s difficult to decide which is right and which is wrong. The ambiguity of the characters and the fallout from their decisions – not to mention the reader’s conflicted emotional response to certain characters’ story arcs – creates a darker tone than book one, seeping subtly into the narrative and setting the mood for the rest of the series.

On a lighter note I think most readers tend to be pleasantly surprised by how interesting Cithrin’s chapters are. Even for someone like me (i.e. someone who can barely look at a bank statement without getting cross-eyed) the details of her financial schemes actually become one of the most exciting plot points. But although Cithrin plays a crucial role in future events, she spends much of book two waiting in the wings.

The Tyrant's Law by Daniel Abraham

No matter, though, because there’s another character in The King’s Blood who may surprise you. Clara, the middle-aged wife of Baron Dawson Kalliam, receives a lot more page time here than in The Dragon’s Path. Mother to four children, Clara’s main purpose is maintaining the house and participating in social events with other wives of the rich and powerful. This might not sound like the makings of an interesting character, but in reality it’s a breath of fresh air from the morally-grey ‘grimdark’ antiheroes that populate (and dominate) so much of recent fantasy. Lady Kalliam has a unique perspective on events; she’s a very brave and sympathetic character, and the way she deals with her trials and tribulations while still remaining gracious is lovely to read about.

As you can tell by now, Abraham’s protagonists are the undisputed stars of the stage. But likeable characters alone are rarely enough to win over most readers. That might explain why the adjective I see most often used to describe the Dagger and Coin series is ‘good’ . . . which, while positive, is about as lukewarm as praise gets. I suspect that the relatively slow pace is the main reason many people aren’t blown away by the series early on, and it’s true that neither The Dragons Path nor The King’s Blood could ever be described as ‘rip-roaring’.

However, those who persevere will find that the series isn’t so much slow as it is slow-burn; and The Tyrant’s Law, the middle novel in the quintet, is like the first major set of waterfalls in our story-river’s (remember the river?) path. As in the first two books the story and the action begin slowly and build steadily. But there’s a turning point around the halfway mark when The Tyrant’s Law starts to thrum with a real sense of urgency, and the final quarter begins a brilliantly tense convergence between two of the characters.

The world of The Dagger and the Coin seems to exist in spite of the story, not because of it. It’s vivid but organic, which (for me, at least) is the most vital aspect of convincing, immersive worldbuilding. The Tyrant’s Law is the first book in the series where the diversity of the different races becomes a contentious issue, and the fact that we the reader have already spent two books peacefully co-existing with those who are now reviled makes us feel especially uncomfortable with the rising bigotry.

Geder’s chapters are particularly powerful here, and the tragic-comic story of his unwitting rise to power continues to be fantastically told. The transition of a clumsy, loveably inept minor noble into a hateful yet well-meaning tyrant has been so subtle and seamless that it remains hard not to feel sympathetic towards him . . . whilst also wanting to smack him ‘round the head with the flat of Marcus’ culling blade. Geder’s volatile, pliant nature (and the sinister figure who’s taking advantage of it, of course) tends to be the catalyst for most of the events from here on in.The Widow's House by Daniel Abraham

It really is compelling to see how Geder – blinded by good intentions and personal insecurity – drags an entire country along behind him as he stumbles over the edge of each waterfall. And if The Tyrant’s Law is the tumbling waterfall, then The Widow’s House is unquestionably the calmer, middle stage of the Dagger & Coin story-river. Languid and meandering, it is a marked change of pace from the excitement of book three. However, it continues steadily towards the end of its journey: calm on the surface, but shedding innocent corpses in its wake like silt deposits and leaving the ground behind it irrevocably altered.

Once again, the protagonists are the most engaging feature of The Widow’s House; and once again, Geder Palliako edges into the lead as my personal favourite. The Lord Regent is child-like and peevish, petulant and bitter . . . yet strangely sympathetic at the same time. He’s the nicest of people, and he’s the villain of the piece; a tyrant who simply does not realise he’s a tyrant. A social outcast for most of his early life, he’s so desperate to be liked that he’s blind to the fact that everyone is terrified of him. He’s ruled by his own insecurities, which are fuelled and manipulated by Geder’s most trusted ‘friend’: Basrahip, the spider-priest pulling Geder’s strings in an attempt to turn Camnipol into a platform for the chaotic cult of the spider goddess.

Meanwhile, the insidious currents of treachery finally start to draw the other PoVs together. Cithrin’s chapters are often the most interesting: I mentioned earlier that she is the ‘coin’ in The Dagger and the Coin, and she uses manipulation and money (rather than force) to undermine her enemies. This thread of the story focuses entirely on economics, and is well written and original. (I actually would have liked to see Cithrin’s manoeuvring play an even bigger part. Perhaps we might see a spinoff at some point in the future, Mr. A?)

So. Geder is intriguing, Cithrin is cunning . . . but the real darling of The Widow’s House is Clara. Brave, practical and loyal, her chapters always make for a pleasantly easy read – a trend which continues into book five, The Spider’s War.

The Widow’s House may have lulled us into believing that The Spider’s War will be a quick, smooth strait that takes us through to the end . . . but not so in our Dagger and Coin river. Just as you think you’re nearing the mouth you realise too late that there’s one more unseen waterfall. Only those who survive the drop will crawl from the wreckage to finally paddle down the delta and float off in their own separate directions.

From the very beginning of The Dagger and the Coin, Abraham uses Geder’s story arc to paint an increasingly horrifying scenario of a world where absolute power is held by one man alone. Nowhere is this more apparent than the final book. It’s hard to be specific without vomiting spoilers (or spiders) all over the page, so I’ll switch to vagueness for this last part.

What a finale! The Spider’s War is a worthy – though somewhat bittersweet – ending to an original and (at times) unpredictable fantasy series. Abraham demonstrates how alternating PoVs *should* be used: switching back and forth with skill and cunning, heightening tension and uncertainty in the build-up to the big finish. Moreover, he also takes the time to thoroughly wrap up surviving characters’ story arcs in a variety of (mostly) satisfying ways, striking a fine balance between breathless action and patient closure.The Spider's War by Daniel Abraham

There isn’t much else I can say without repeating myself. The characters are developed consistently and intriguingly (although, amazingly, they can still surprise us . . . even after spending five books in their company, and even when their actions are in no way at odds with what we know about them as a character), and the writing style remains as engaging as ever. The Spider’s War is certainly one of the strongest Dagger and Coin instalments, and is pretty much everything you could ask for in a finale. And while there’s nothing remotely resembling a cliffhanger, there are plenty of plot threads that are tied off less tightly than others – welcoming (but not demanding) an eventual return to the Dagger & Coin universe.

But for now, that river has run its course. I highly recommend Daniel Abraham’s work to any and all readers of SFF, and I’ll certainly be taking a look at his Long Price Quartet in the near future. Some people say the best writers are the ones who, at the end of a series, leave you desperate for more. However, much rarer (and arguably more special) are the voices and the tales that we choose to revisit. And having finished The Spider’s War I know for a certainty that I’ll be returning to Cithrin, Clara, Geder and co. in the future. I miss them already.


Review originally published on Fantasy-Faction on 17th August 2016.

Steven Erikson, ‘The Bonehunters’ (review)


I’ve been accused – on many occasions – of harping on about the Malazan Book of the Fallen. I hear things like, “god, do you EVER shut up about it?” And, “if I promise to read the first one, will you please, PLEASE leave me alone?” And, “oh my god, you’re in my house WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN MY HOUSE YOU CRAZY BITCH PUT THE BOOKS DOWN I’M CALLING THE POLICE,” etc.

And really, no one needs that kind of negativity in their life. Just like I don’t need to spend the night in a prison cell, rocking back and forth as I draw on the Warren of Mockra to convince myself that missing out on the greatest epic fantasy series of all time is punishment enough for these nay-sayers.

But since that hasn’t really got me anywhere, I finally decided to take a stand. And so: what do I say to these nay-sayers? I say NAY! And—

Prison guard: “You know what I say?”

Me: Shh. Trying to do a thing here.

Prison guard: “Right. But what I was going to say is that you’ve only got two minutes left.”

Me: Eh? Two minutes? What the hell, woman?

Prison guard: “Well, you clearly have no idea how prisons actually work. And since you seem to be picturing it as some sort of internet café I’ve decided to impose a time limit. Of which you now have one-and-a-half minutes remaining.”

Me: That’s not fair–

Prison guard: *sigh* “Just get on with it.”

Right.

So. The Bonehunters is the sixth of ten books in the Malazan Book of the Fallen. And – surprise, surprise! – it’s amazing.

'The Bonehunters' by Steven EriksonWay back in book one we were introduced to the series via the Bridgeburners: a well-regarded military faction characterised by the colourful and familiar relationships between its veteran members. Fast-forward to book four and we had something totally different, namely a hefty focus on the struggles of a different, newly-formed army in imminent danger of imploding after being robbed of the opportunity to prove itself.

We return to this army in The Bonehunters. Lost and angry, we witness as it struggles through yet another disastrous conflict and endures yet more drawn-out and difficult assignments. Best of all, we get to watch as its core companies are transformed, forged in the fires of fighting and fear.

(And olive oil.)

As always, Erikson effortlessly instills his characters with realism, humour and pathos: nobody is perfect in Erikson’s world, especially the so-called heroes. Male, female, human, Jaghut, priest, soldier, god; all races and individuals have flaws that are just as unique and varied as any other feature of their personality. Some gods are burdened beneath guilt or self-doubt, while the arrogance and pride of others practically begs for a well-timed moment of hubris. An undead warrior from a civilisation that ended thousands and thousands of years earlier demonstrates more compassion for the living than the mortals against whom he fights. And it goes without saying that there are errors in judgement by all parties: Erikson knows better than anyone where good intentions sometimes lead even the best of us.

Much as I loved the brand new cast of characters in book five, The Bonehunters‘ return to the Malazan 14th Army was like being reunited with old friends. Moranth munitions, battlefield humour, bickering marines and unpredictable warrens – Hood’s breath, it felt good to be back. I’ve always felt that the Malazan marines are not only the backbone but the lifeblood of this series, and nowhere has that been more evident in my re-read so far as it is here.

That’s not to say I don’t love the rest of the (insanely enormous) cast: no matter who we’re reading about, you can guarantee that the prose, dialogue and descriptions will be beautifully understated and subtle (for the most part). Different groups – the marines, the Tiste Edur, the Imass – each have their own distinctive way of speaking. And it’s the same for individuals, such as Karsa Orlong and Samar Dev. With inspired pairings like these Erikson hardly ever needs to use speech tags, because the reader instantly recognises which character is talking. This even goes for certain minor characters – Iskaral Pust, for example, and Kruppe too – whose clever and humorous monologues ensure that they’re some of the most memorable and easily recognisable folks, not just in The Bonehunters but in the entire series.

Yep, as far as dialogue is concerned you’ll find no infodumps here. Far from it: Erikson’s characters don’t give a flying fuck about the reader. Sure, they’ll let us listen in on their conversations… but they’d rather crawl over a bed of cussers than make it easy for us to understand. We’re encouraged to piece things together by ourselves as we read, which makes for much more authentic-sounding conversations between characters.

In fact, it never ceases to amaze me that Erikson can convey so much through just a few lines of dialogue . . . even if you don’t necessarily catch it all on the first try. This refusal to spoon-feed the reader tends to alienate many people very early on in the series, which is a real shame. Yes, it does mean that we sometimes have to work hard to make connections between events and characters. So what? Using your noggin is good for you every once in a while. And even better, the sheer scale of the expanded (and expanding!) Malazan series – which I believe currently stands at eighteen novels and six novellas – means that no matter how many times you re-read it, you’re guaranteed to pick up on something new every single time.

The— what?

Prison guard: *taps watch*

Me: Wait. Wait! One more paragraph, then I’m done. I swear.

Prison guard: *raises eyebrow, then nods reluctantly and holds up one finger*

Me: *grins, nods back maniacally*

Right. Last bit, I promise. I can’t go without mentioning that The Bonehunters boasts not one but TWO of the most epic sequences in the entire series. I can’t even begin to express how spectacularly tense and claustrophobic are the scenes spent crawling through tunnels beneath a destroyed city; and never in a million years would I be able to put into words just how much the flight through Malaz City during the finale made my heart race. Just… everything about this book is masterful. The pacing, the scale, the converging events and perspectives, the relentless action… holy shit, it’s simply breathtaking. This is the third time I’ve finished reading The Bonehunters, and yet I have absolutely no doubt that it’ll blow my mind just as much (if not more) when I inevitably read it a fourth time.

Me: *finally takes a breath* Finished!

Prison guard: “Great. Come on now. Back to your cell. From which I recently confiscated a bag of mushrooms, a pair of scissors and a condom. *sigh* Seriously, does everything you think you know about prison come from watching ‘Bad Girls’ a decade ago?”

Me: Maybe. Have you ever read the Malazan Book of the Fallen?

Prison guard: *impatient growl*

Me: (quietly) Just saying…

Steven Erikson, ‘House of Chains’ (review)


Gardens of the Moon befuddled new readers. Deadhouse Gates made us cry. Memories of Ice left us questioning our own existence. That we’ve made it as far as House of Chains shows our commitment to this series – and WOW does it reward our persistence. 

House of Chains by Steven Erikson - cover imageHouse of Chains (the fourth chapter in Steven Erikson’s incredible Malazan Book of the Fallen) takes us back to the dangerous and rebellious desert continent of Seven Cities, which savvy readers will remember was the setting for Deadhouse Gates. There is a certain poetic symmetry in this, particularly as House of Chains’s main storyline has readers joining a new and untested Malazan army as they retrace the path of those tragic events. That they are quite literally walking in the footsteps of the legendary Coltaine is a perfect metaphor for their struggle to defy all expectations and complete the seemingly impossible task they have been assigned: to defeat the Whirlwind rebellion once and for all.

Thankfully, in spite of the return to familiar territory, House of Chains in no way feels repetitive. Lacking the second book’s undercurrent of tragic inevitability, the focus here is on taking back the control the Malazans lost during the Chain of Dogs. And though the plot is largely focused on the events of the Whirlwind, there are enough references to wider events to make House of Chains feel much more like an instalment of a sweeping epic (in contrast to Deadhouse Gates’s potential as a standalone).

Revelation after revelation increasingly creates the impression that everything within this universe is connected in some way, with Erikson delving deep into the Malazan mythology, plucking primal beings from the dawn of time – such as the Eres’al and the Deragoth – and flinging them headlong into the main events. The depth of worldbuilding shown here is astounding, as is the seamless way in which Erikson interlaces multiple storylines. And although events are not on quite as grand a scale as previous books, House of Chains still conveys an atmosphere of epic grandeur: through the setting, through embedded references to history and ancient mythology, and through the unique and captivating voice that wends its way through this entire series. 

Perhaps even more impressive than his staggeringly ambitious storytelling is the fact that Erikson never loses sight of what really brings this series to life: the enormous cast of diverse and unforgettable characters. In addition to revisiting a few old favourites – cynical Sergeant Strings, deadly assassin Kalam Mekhar, and of course that diabolical and insane High Priest of Shadow Iskaral Pust – House of Chains also introduces several staple characters of future books, such as Tavore’s Fourteenth Army, the exiled yet noble warrior Trull Sengar, and the undead outcast Onrack the Broken, not to mention one of the best characters of the entire series: the mighty Karsa Orlong.

Erikson’s characters are, as always, fantastically well-written, incredibly varied but also believable. I personally really enjoyed the developing relationship between Lostara Yil and Pearl: Erikson is adept at creating unconventional chemistry and realistic relationships within a relatively small amount of page time, and I felt personally invested in everything that was happening to these two characters in particular.

The structure of House of Chains is slightly unconventional. The first quarter or so of the book focuses entirely on one character, before reverting to the more familiar shifting POV narratives used in previous books. This particular tale – of Karsa Orlong’s rise and fall prior to the main events of the series – is so enjoyable that I feel it could easily have been extended to fill the entire 1,040-page novel by itself. Instead, we have a spectacularly condensed account of Karsa’s origins, spanning several months and numerous continents and concluding in a way that leads perfectly into the main events of the story.

The events that follow are rarely less than thrilling. While there are a few less-than-exciting sections (particularly those centred around Gamet, as well as a few repetitive exposition scenes regarding the nature of light, dark and shadow magic) readers will find that the occasional slowing of pace gives us chance to take a welcome step back from what is an otherwise exciting series of events. Erikson’s awe-inspiring talent for creating breathlessly climactic convergences continues to manifest in House of Chains; and the way he manipulates rapidly-shifting POVs to build tension and maximise momentum is, as always, nothing short of masterful.

Once again, I’m in awe of Erikson’s storytelling. The combination of clever pacing and intense narrative, along with a complex web of events and unique characters truly earns House of Chains the title of ‘epic’, and continues to reinforce The Malazan Book of the Fallen as the best and most ambitious epic fantasy series I’ve ever encountered.

(Review originally appeared on halfstrungharp.com on 15th February 2015.)

Marc Turner, ‘When the Heavens Fall’ (review)


It was obvious from the very first page that Marc Turner’s Chronicles of the Exile was yet another epic fantasy series I’d end up eagerly following. After seeing When the Heavens Fall reviewed by a number of bloggers I follow, I was completely pulled in by the overwhelmingly positive comments as well as numerous comparisons to Steven Erikson (my favourite author) and Glen Cook. And I can totally see where these comparisons are coming from.

'When the Heavens Fall' by Marc Turner (cover image)For a start, there’s a whole host of crazy-powerful supernatural beings, the understated yet chilling descriptions of which strongly reminded me of the Taken in Cook’s Black Company. Then there are the sort of quirky, rock-hard, darkly humorous characters you’d expect to find dwelling in Erikson’s Malazan series, not to mention long-lost ancient races and interfering gods using the world as their own personal chess board. And there’s also a dark, gritty undertone – the sort of ‘grimdark’ sensation that none of the characters are ever going to catch a break – that put me in mind of Joe Abercrombie’s excellent First Law trilogy.

But, as easy as it is to say “fans of Cook/Erikson/Abercrombie will love this book,” When the Heavens Fall is not as easily pigeonholed as that. Turner takes much-loved aspects of the above authors’ writing, but has used them to embellish rather than define his own work, a homage as opposed to a blueprint.

I’ll freely admit that it was these comparisons that first drew me in. But what actually kept me reading was Turner’s careful build-up to a final convergence which, while not quite as climactic as I’d hoped, was nonetheless well executed and satisfying. The climax itself and the form it takes is deliberately signposted right from the beginning, but the routes by which our characters arrive there are sufficiently twisted that, while we can guess what will happen, we’re entirely unable to predict how it will happen.

Having the entire plot of a novel building up to one single moment can be risky – especially with sequels on the horizon – but in this case I found it refreshing, a bold change from the many sprawling fantasy epics I usually read. The author uses the alternating viewpoints of a small handful of characters to great effect, switching between them at varying points within each chapter to build momentum and create tension. I personally found all four POV characters to be likable, but unpredictable; and while this meant that I didn’t quite connect with the characters as much as I would have liked, it did keep me constantly guessing what they would do next . . . with many pleasant (and nasty!) surprises as a result.

Yes, When the Heavens Fall is somewhat slow to begin with. But once it gets going there’s no stopping it; and it really gets going once it hits the halfway point. There’s a notable change of pace at around the two-fifty page mark, and the story shifts up several gears from the moment the characters’ stories first begin to overlap. The characters themselves are compelling if not always sympathetic: a particular favourite of mine is Romany, the self-indulgent-yet-badass high priestess whose witty and irreverent verbal exchanges are a constant source of entertainment. The big climax is enjoyable if slightly drawn out, and for every problem resolved there are another ten questions still needing answers. Marc Turner  is certainly one to watch, and he does an admirable job of making his readers clamour for the next book without leaving us on a cliffhanger.

With book three, Red Tide, due out next month (September 2016) I’d say that now would be a very good time for those unfamiliar with Turner’s series to start making its acquaintance . . .

(Note: review originally posted on 10th August 2015 on halfstrungharp.com).

Steven Erikson, ‘Memories of Ice’ (review)


Memories of Ice (the third book in Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen) returns us to the continent of Genabackis (where Gardens of the Moon took place). Many characters from the first book re-appear here, such as notable favourites Anomander Rake, Quick Ben, Kruppe, Tool, Toc the Younger, and Whiskeyjack and the rest of the Bridgeburners.

Mixed in with these are several new additions: there’s Hetan the randy Barghast, Gruntle the grumpy caravan guard captain, Kallor the immortal grudge-holding warrior, Itkovian the tragic servant of a lost god, the mysterious and unflappable Lady Envy, and of course the sinister pair of necromancers known as Bauchelain and Korbal Broach. All of these characters are thrown together as a result of a dubious alliance against a malign empire known as the Pannion Domin.Memories of Ice by Steven Erikson (cover image)

The characters, both new and old, are incredible, and many of the novel’s best moments are character-centred rather than action-driven. Quick Ben’s casual confrontation with the necromancers; Rake’s late-night conversations with Whiskeyjack; Lady Envy’s continual attempts to exact obedience from her companions; and just about anything involving Kruppe – all contribute to make Memories of Ice feel like a living, breathing part of the Malazan world, rather than just the next step of the story.

That’s not to say that the action falls flat, of course: Erikson gives us a plentiful share of the usual fast-paced battles, awesome warrens, explosive weaponry and bickering gods. He also introduces many new elements: some of these are simply brilliant, while others are downright terrifying (we now have K’Chain Che’Malle stalking the world, lightning-fast dinosaur-like undead beings with blades for arms. Yikes!).

But Memories of Ice isn’t all action and horror. Erikson’s capacity for beautiful tragedy, honed to a fine art in Deadhouse Gates, is also deftly applied here: he has a real knack for twisting the knife in your heart before you even realise you’ve been stabbed with it. There are so many small moments that left me blurry-eyed – even though I was expecting them. Then there’s the dark and irreverent humour, deftly placed and serving as a welcome complement to the pathos seeping through the whole tale. The segments following Lady Envy and her motley companions are a delight to read, as are Kruppe’s befuddling monologues and Picker’s interactions with her disparate squad of soldiers (particularly Antsy).

However, a lot of the book is spent following an army on the march, and as such many of the locations (campfires, command tents, hilltops) become quite repetitive. Erikson also seems to have suddenly acquired the desire to explain things in detail, and to recap or clarify things that have already happened. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; in fact, Gardens of the Moon would probably have benefited from this in places. But it does occasionally feel as though a huge chunk of the book is taken up with conversations between characters regarding something that we’ve just read, and it sometimes feels as though we’re having to experience some events several times before moving on. It’s as though, upon proof-reading the book, the author slotted in an “exposition inside a command tent” scene wherever he thought his characters’ motives weren’t 100% clear.

I think it’s this repetition that contributes to the relatively slow pace of the novel. Despite the fact that Memories of Ice contains two major – no, epic – battles, along with several exciting skirmishes and powerful displays of magic, I think it suffers from being just a little bit too long. Erikson takes almost 1200 pages to do what he could probably have accomplished in 900, and while I would usually disagree with the concept of “too much” Malazan, I have to say that this is the first time so far during my re-read of the series that I’ve felt a tiny bit disappointed. I always recalled Memories of Ice as being my favourite of the series, full of undead monsters, creepy necromancers, gritty warriors and epic conflict. What I didn’t remember was the sheer volume of command tents, hilltop parleys, and Paran’s stomach pain.

It really says something about Erikson’s writing that, in spite of my griping, Memories of Ice still remains one of the best books I’ve (re-)read this year. The last 200 pages or so more than make up for the slow patches scattered throughout, and I doubt anyone familiar with the series would be able to read them without blurry eyes and a wobbly bottom lip. Contrary to my own recollection, Memories of Ice is not quite as enthralling as Deadhouse Gates . . . but, as with the other books in the series, it touched me in a way no other story has ever quite managed.

(Review originally posted over at halfstrungharp.com on 13 October 2014).

Steven Erikson, ‘Deadhouse Gates’ (review)


Set on the fictional continent of Seven Cities, Deadhouse Gates – the second novel in Steven Erikson’s epic fantasy series The Malazan Book of the Fallen – introduces a plethora of new characters to join those returning from the events of book one. Everything taking place in Deadhouse Gates is influenced by the continent-wide rebellion that was heavily foreshadowed in Gardens of the Moon, and conflict and bloodshed feature on a thus far unprecedented scale.

Concentrated as it is on just a handful of major characters, the plot of Deadhouse Gates is much more tightly woven and focused than that of Gardens of the Moon; yet it’s also far more ambitious. Each storyline is worthy of its own novel, yet Erikson chooses instead to artfully weave them together, creating a cohesive pattern of events that lead gradually but inevitably towards a catastrophic conclusion. The grand scale of the main plotline – Deadhouse Gates by Steven Eriksonthe ‘Chain of Dogs’ – is the first true example of what Erikson is capable of, and the incredible storytelling is just a hint of what the rest of the series has in store.

Deadhouse Gates gives us our first real look at Seven Cities: a culturally diverse desert continent made up largely of warring tribes and religious cities; a continent in the midst of a violent rebellion against the control of the Malazan Empire. Led by a Seeress known as Sha’ik, this rebellion – the Whirlwind Apocalypse – threatens to return the land to its pre-Imperial state of ignorance and tradition, blood feuds and senseless violence, with the soldiers of the Apocalypse having driven their Malazan conquerors out of all but one of the Holy Cities. The Malazans’ panicked flight is the story that lies at the heart of Deadhouse Gates.

The Chain of Dogs, a.k.a. fifty thousand Malazan refugees, escorted across a hostile desert continent by what remains of the Malazan Seventh army and its commander, Coltaine. The Chain of Dogs, stumbling just ahead of a renegade army that vastly outnumbers them all. We witness their plight through the eyes of Duiker, who, as Imperial Historian, is obliged to record every detail of this fraught and seemingly impossible journey.

And what a journey! Not just for the characters, but for us as readers. For the first time in the series – but certainly not the last – Erikson throws us into an emotional blender, and then spends the better part of a thousand pages gradually cranking the setting higher and higher before finally letting us crawl our way back out again, shredded and shaken. As the characters experience shock, fear, determination, fury, pathos, hope, despair, and finally wordless outrage, so do we. I spent most of the last 150 pages of Deadhouse Gates on the brink of tears, partly because I knew what was coming and partly because Erikson has the rare and incredible talent of being able to stir his readers’ emotions with his words, even on a third re-read of the book.

Of course, the other storylines are also brilliant and worthy of mention. And though I don’t think anyone will deny that Coltaine’s Chain of Dogs takes centre stage, let’s not forget the tale of Felisin, yanked from the comforts of her rich lifestyle during the Cull of the Nobility and forced to extreme measures to survive the slave pits with the help of two unlikely companions; and Fiddler, former soldier of the Bridgeburners, seeking an ancient legend in the holy desert of Raraku and completely out of his depth. Then there’s Mappo, a Trell warrior endlessly trapped between his loyalty to a sacred vow and his friendship with the man whom he is sworn to destroy; and the assassin Kalam, returned to his home continent and bent on pursuing vengeance against the Empress who wronged him.

Furthermore, Erikson continues to reveal a limitless capacity for creating unique and memorable characters such as the devious High Priest of Shadow, Iskaral Pust. But no matter how minor the plot thread, each and every one is skilfully interwoven and sets the stage for the rest of the series.

Gardens of the Moon is brilliant, true. But Deadhouse Gates is simply astounding in its storytelling, and left me a gibbering, goosebump-laden wreck – even though I’d already read the thing three times before. I seriously envy those reading it for the first time, and can’t wait to get re-acquainted with the rest of this incredible series, myself.

(Review originally posted over at halfstrungharp.com on 31st August 2014)


Blurb

In the Holy Desert Raraku, the seer Sha’ik and her followers prepare for the long-prophesied uprising named the Whirlwind. Enslaved in the Otataral mines, Felisin, youngest scion of the disgraced House of Paran, dreams of freedom and vows revenge, while the outlawed Bridgeburners Fiddler and Kalam conspire to rid the world of Empress Laseen (although it seems the gods would, as always, have it otherwise). And as two ancient warriors – bearers of a devastating secret – enter this blighted land, so an untried commander of the Malaz 7th Army leads his war-weary troops in a last, valiant running battle to save the lives of thirty thousand refugees.