‘Assassin’s Apprentice’ by Robin Hobb


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

But first: an introduction!

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Prince of Thorns’ by Mark Lawrence


 Let a man play chess, and tell him that every pawn is his friend. Let him think both bishops holy. Let him remember happy days in the shadows of his castles. Let him love his queen. Watch him lose them all.

Consider yourself warned: Mark Lawrence’s debut novel is not for the faint of heart. Prince of Thorns kicks off the notoriously dark Broken Empire trilogy, and readers should embark on Jorg’s journey fully prepared for blood, death and macabre humour of the kind one might find in the novels of Joe Abercrombie.

Right off the bat Lawrence throws us in amongst Jorg’s band of unscrupulous ‘Brothers’, who are not only looting and burning a village but also raping and murdering its inhabitants. (It’s at this point which many a reader has reached the firm conclusion that this merry tale is not to their liking.)

Prince of Thorns by Mark LawrenceSome would say that such a controversial opening chapter risks alienating readers who are familiar with more traditional fantasy openings, and they’d be right. But although it’s risky, that single scene is more than justified by the fact that it cleverly conveys so much about Jorg and his companions more than justifies its casual brutality. Jorg Ancrath has witnessed (and perpetrated) all sorts of atrocities during his transformation from privileged prince to dangerous rogue. Now, he has to confront dark magic, the walking dead and childhood horrors if he’s to succeed in conquering the known world.

Personally, I enjoyed the way Prince of Thorns shattered my expectations, and left me full of questions about the Broken Empire (some of which I’m still waiting to be answered!). Though the opening events well and truly hooked me, it’s the prose that sustained my interest throughout the rest of the book’s early chapters; Lawrence’s narrative style is a wonder to read. The narrator’s voice is distinctive, captivating and intriguingly changeable in line with Jorg’s raging internal conflict.

Jorg appears to be inhumanly detached from emotions (his own, and others’) to the extent that he’s essentially incapable of empathising with anyone around him. Alternately cold, hard, sarcastic, deadpan, humorous – none of these facets of the character are particularly likeable. However, it becomes clear that this is (to an extent) more a persona than a personality; and, while Jorg is clearly ignorant of what is happening to him, we as readers are able to recognise and appreciate the gradual emergence of compunction and sympathy. It’s a subtle development, but one which proves that characters don’t always have to be sympathetic to be engaging.

One minor gripe about the book is that I wish it included more of the Brothers than just the occasional entertaining anecdote or one-liner between chapters. Jorg might not care much about his Brothers, but I wanted to know more about what makes them tick. (Thankfully, Lawrence’s aptly-titled Road Brothers anthology goes a long way towards addressing this… though to my shame I haven’t read it yet.)

In a nutshell, then: Prince of Thorns is a dark novel, but not as dark as others would have you believe. The characters are entertaining, the world is fascinating, and the imagery is vivid and staggering. Many readers find themselves alienated by the beginning, but many more have (like me) read right to the end (three times!) and still come back for more.

FYI: The original review was posted at halfstrungharp.com on 18th September 2013. It was the second review I ever wrote – and Mark was the first author I ever interacted with on Twitter!

‘Beyond Redemption’ by Michael R. Fletcher


Beyond Redemption is a classic Western adventure tale. Three cowboys, bound by a beautiful friendship, return home to their ranch after a hard day’s work only to find—

Wait! I’m kidding.

Heh. Got you.

Beyond Redemption is, in fact, a classic case of DON’T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER. Surreal and bloody, this first instalment in Michael R. Fletcher’s Manifest Delusions series is an uncomfortable and captivating exploration of imperfect characters in a broken world.Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher

If someone decided to make a crossover between Inception and Robin Hood set in the Broken Empire, it might look a little bit like Beyond Redemption. Granted, Fletcher’s heroes aren’t exactly the Merry Men:

“We work together. We’re a team. A shite team, but we get things done. We aren’t friends and we sure as shite aren’t lovers. Never forget: I’d kill either of you if there was money in it for me.”

In fact, they might be the least merry protagonists I’ve ever encountered. A fair few of them could easily blend in with Steven Erikson’s grittier creations, while others wouldn’t look out of place amongst Jorg Ancrath’s Road Brothers. And in true ‘grimdark’ fashion, these morally murky men and women are not the exception but the norm.

'Bedeckt': art by Quint VonCanon

‘Bedeckt’: art by Quint VonCanon

Now, the prospect of villainous psychopaths roaming in heavily-armed bands is worrisome enough in any context. But in Fletcher’s world, it’s downright terrifying.

Why?

“The more people who believed something, the truer it became.”

That’s right: in the aptly-titled Manifest Delusions universe, belief defines reality. The more unstable the mind, the more powerful the belief.

I’ve adored this concept ever since I first read Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather: a brilliant tale in which an assassin attempts to murder Discworld’s version of Father Christmas by manipulating children so that they no longer believe in him.

Of course, Beyond Redemption executes this idea with less levity and a lot more dark abandon. Where Pratchett has ‘spare’ belief (leftover from the dwindling Hogfather) that spontaneously spawns quirky-yet-harmless anthropomorphic personifications (like the Oh-God of Hangovers, the Verruca Gnome, the Hair-Loss Fairy and the Eater of Socks), Fletcher instead gives us murderous embodiments of our own paranoias: reflections that become Doppels (identical copies); Doppels that then plot to steal our identity; and of course one man’s master plan to engineer the birth of an all-powerful god through the indoctrination of an entire city.

'The Slaver': art by Quint VonCanon

‘The Slaver’: art by Quint VonCanon

Nothing is as it seems in the world of Manifest Delusions. ‘Reality’ itself is a misnomer; neither trust nor truth exists, because everyone is out only for themselves.

“All communication is manipulation,” said Konig. “All interaction, social or otherwise, is a means of getting what you want. It’s the basis of society.”

Such oh-so-logical philosophising by characters like Konig is enough to boggle the mind and leave even the sanest reader questioning things they’ve always taken for granted – including the very definition of ‘sane’.

In fact, Beyond Redemption might be the first genre novel I’ve encountered that is brave enough to explore different perceptions and consequences of mental illness and psychological disorders in a fantastical context. It’s a difficult subject, to be sure, but anyone who’s concerned about serious issues being reduced to convenient plot vehicles may rest assured that Fletcher has clearly approached the material with gravity (and research).

Far from diminishing the seriousness and severity of such issues, Fletcher brings them to the forefront and makes them literal, tackling them head-on in a refreshingly direct approach. Much like visual depictions of widely-suffered conditions (such as depression, anxiety, anorexia, OCD and agoraphobia) the author gives us obsessions and fears made flesh to better illustrate the nuances of each ‘delusion’. Furthermore, he refuses to use language to obscure or euphemise any of his characters’ conditions, which is why it’s not too difficult for the reader to infer what (for example) a Doppel, a Dysmorphic, a Kleptic or a Therianthrope might be.

'Some men fall apart... some fall to scorpions': art by Quint VonCanon

‘Some men fall apart… some fall to scorpions’: art by Quint VonCanon

Beyond Redemption shows us a reality where none of this is hidden, and delusions are common knowledge. To some extent, Beyond Redemption normalises these disorders; and it does so without erasing their individual complexity – or undermining the suffering they cause.

Admittedly, this portrayal appears to be entirely negative at first. We meet a sociopath, a pyromaniac and a murderous kleptomaniac in quick succession, all of whom are incapable of empathy and prone to sadistic, violent impulses.

But by subtly unravelling their personalities (or should that be personas?) and revealing the psychological reasons behind their mania, the author hints that many – if not all – are themselves victims.

“She’d always assumed she could blame her parents, but what if she’d been born broken?”

Though initially it seems that the characters are defined by their disorders, the story focuses more on how the characters choose to define themselves. Their disorders have a part in shaping their personality, of course. But it’s the characters’ decisions – and whether they embrace, resist, pursue or exploit their own unique brand delusion – that ultimately define them. A subtle distinction, but an important one.

“She’d burn everything someday. Every ounce of hurt their fear caused her would be repaid in full. She’d burn the world.”

Even those with the most exaggerated abilities are much more than their delusions. In the reader’s mind Gehirn is not merely, as the other characters call her, ‘the Hassebrand’; she is Gehirn. Stehlen is not ‘the Kleptic’, and even Erbrechen is not ‘the Slaver.’ (The ‘fat slug’, on the other hand…)

'Gehirn, the Hassebrand': art by Quint VonCanon

‘Gehirn, the Hassebrand’: art by Quint VonCanon

At first glance, Beyond Redemption features rock-hard characters in a rock-hard world:

“Failure may be a harsh teacher, but you tend not to forget its lessons.”

But the more time we spend in their heads, the more we come to recognise and appreciate the author’s laudable knack for making even the vilest, most repulsive characters sympathetic. He accomplishes this by cunningly combining tragedy and comedy:

“You never met your mother? That’s not all bad. Mine sent me away to live with my father. He sent me back after I sold his horse to buy a lute.”

In fact, there’s a continuous undercurrent of black humour that’s as surprising as it is entertaining. This manifests in the well-written dialogue and harsh character banter, but also in the novel’s careful structure. For me, some of the most humorous and effective moments arose from juxtaposed scenes in which one characters’ thoughts or predictions are immediately followed by another’s contradictory (or supporting!) actions – a juxtaposition further enhanced by witty epigraphs that are alternately hilarious and disturbing.

“I heard a knock, and when I answered the door, there I was. Luckily I think much faster on my feet than I do and soon had myself tied in the fruit cellar.”

These increasingly delusional epigraphs – most of which are attributed to fictional ‘Gefahrgeist’ (sociopaths) – foreshadow some of the characters’ fates, and hint at the dangers for those who wield the power of delusion. A delusionists’ powers become stronger in inverse proportion to his or her sanity. But cross too far into insanity . . . and he/she loses themselves entirely.

“His delusions were growing in strength. Soon they would drag him down.”

Like all compelling magic ‘systems’, delusion (ironically) has limitations. Paradoxically, the more powerful the manifestation, the more real (and thus restricted by reality’s laws) it becomes. And so, in a fluid world where anything is possible, Fletcher instead gives us nightmares and gritty realism; a realm of manifest delusions where nothing is clean and even the sacred is profane.

Even the most powerful (and badass) beings are subject to certain physical rules:

“She tried to scream at Gehirn but only a dry croak escaped. She’d forgotten to fill her lungs. It annoyed her. She tried to draw breath and failed. Fire had burned ragged holes in her papery lungs. This would make communication difficult in the future.”

Here, the Cotardist assassin Anomie (who will feature in Grimdark Magazine’s Evil is a Matter of Perspective anthology) is hampered by physical limitations, despite herself being a living (kind of), breathing (sort of), walking defiance of the laws of physics.

'The Mirrorist's Eye': art by Quint VonCanon

‘The Mirrorist’s Eye’: art by Quint VonCanon

Now, you’d think ‘far-fetched’ would be an adjective that could automatically be applied to Beyond Redemption. But Fletcher’s world is far from whimsical, and the small details and down-to-earth descriptions ground the reader utterly in this dangerous, dirty reality.

“Storm clouds spiraled in toward some central point like filthy water draining from a sink.”

Favouring grimy realism over purple prose, Fletcher writes with a brutal straightforwardness that fits the story perfectly. His characters are vivid and well-developed, often surprising us – for good or for bad – by behaving in ways that are at once unexpected and painfully believable. Their voices, too, are distinctive. Whether it’s Wichtig’s hyperbole, Gehirn’s self-loathing or Morgen’s gullibility, there’s little chance of forgetting whose PoV we’re currently inhabiting. Without exception, they’re all fascinating, compelling characters.

In fact, the entirety of Beyond Redemption is both fascinating and compelling. Michael R. Fletcher’s delusions are dark, bloody and shocking. If you haven’t met them already, I’d highly recommend you make their acquaintance. Just . . . don’t get too close to the mirror.

The Mirror's Truth by Michael R. Fletcher (FB header)

The second Manifest Delusions novel, ‘The Mirror’s Truth’, is releasing soon!


This review originally appeared on Fantasy-Faction on October 30th 2016.


(Reviewer’s note: The author uses German and Basque words for his characters and place names, apparently mangling both languages in the process. I don’t speak either one, so apart from a bit of head scratching at the very beginning I didn’t have a problem keeping track. I can see how it might be confusing, though, so here’s a link to the author’s Manifest Delusions Wiki for anyone who’s struggling!)

Janny Wurts & Raymond E. Feist, ‘Daughter of the Empire’ (review)


At the beginning of last year I embarked on a re-read of Raymond E. Feist, beginning (obviously) with Magician and the rest of the Riftwar Saga. But all the while I kept urging myself to read faster. Why? Because I couldn’t wait to revisit one of my favourite series of all time: the Empire trilogy.

The Empire trilogy is a stunning collaboration between Feist and fellow epic fantasy writer Janny Wurts. A drastic departure from Feist’s Middle-Earth-ish Midkemia – with its forests and its mud and its grey skies – we now see the world on the ‘other side’ of the rift. Kelewan: hot and exotic and home to the Tsurani society, an intriguing race who place great emphasis on honour, political maneuvering and social standing. For a Tsurani, public displays of emotion are deemed shameful; treachery is shunned only if the perpetrators are clumsy enough to get caught; and slavery and ritual suicide are the norm.

Daughter of the Empire cover imageForeign, dangerous, exciting: Kelewan is bizarre and colourful, and its inhabitants even more so. The rich and powerful consider it a mark of wealth and status to dress extravagantly, even gaudily, to the point where even their soldiers wear coloured armour to announce their loyalty. Tsurani society is organised into strict hierarchical family units, with the more powerful of these families referred to as Houses. There are hundreds of these Ruling families, each with their own colours and allegiances, and the authors really  manage to convey an authentic sense of a sprawling, ancient hierarchical empire.

To survive in Tsurannuani, all Houses must embroil themselves in the endless political struggle known only as the Game of the Council. Daughter of the Empire introduces Mara, the new Ruling Lady of House Acoma, and follows this untested young woman through the first two years of her rule. Mara strives to protect her ancestral family name, and to gain enough strength and standing to enter the Game of the Council. Daughter of the Empire focuses solely on Mara’s social, emotional and political journey, from sheltered temple initiate to independent Ruling Lady.

Mara is a sympathetic and admirable protagonist. Beginning the Game from a frighteningly weak position, she must use her wits and resources to strengthen her House – making many sacrifices along the way. Worse, her enemies undermine (and underestimate) her since she is a member of the ‘weaker sex’, and she’s forced to compensate by exercising exceptional skill in all aspects of politics, business and high society.

Unlikely as it may sound, readers should expect to be fascinated by the social implications of (seemingly) trivial things: clothing, jewellery, eating, drinking, bowing, smiling, and other things besides. And as Mara becomes more accomplished at handling the various nuances of Tsurani life, so too does she take more risks in order to preserve the honour of her House . . . and often struggles to deal with the moral conflict that comes with orchestrating schemes that are necessary, but also ruthless.

Daughter of the Empire is immersive and flowing, and is thoroughly engaging for its setting and atmosphere as much as its plot. The Riftwar Saga is good, and there’s no denying that Feist has created a beautiful and deadly world here . . . but Janny Wurts really brings it to life. Each page bursts with the rich and vivid settings of Kelewan, evoking smells and sounds and colours. You can hear the calls of the bargemen and see the bustle of the markets when Mara travels to the city. You can smell the akasi blossoms in the evening and hear the needra being brought in from pasture when she returns to the peaceful Acoma estates.

It’s true that there’s little in the way of action (there are very few scenes in the book that can be described as fast-paced!), yet Daughter of the Empire is never plodding or arduous. Many scenes are fraught with a tension that’s just as exciting as outright conflict; and of course, after all the maneuvering comes the payoff. I can assure you it’s well worth the wait to see Mara’s plots finally coming to fruition after hundreds of pages of plotting and pain.

Re-reading Daughter of the Empire after so many years has reaffirmed this trilogy as one of my favourites of all time. Knowing how the rest of the series pans out only makes me more eager to continue with the series, and more enthusiastic in recommending it to others.

Seriously: it’s magnificent.

(Review originally posted over at halfstrungharp.com on 28 March 2015).

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.

Mark Lawrence, ‘The Wheel of Osheim’ (review)


Have you ever wanted to applaud upon reaching the end of the last book in a series – and not because you were glad it was over? In recent years there have been two outstanding books that have made me want to do just that. The first was Emperor of Thorns. The second is The Wheel of Osheim.
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Yes: that jammy bastard Mark Lawrence has done it again; and by ‘it’ I mean casually rolled out another stunning conclusion to another fabulous trilogy.

I was lucky enough to win a (signed!) ARC of this book via one of Mark’s many and varied competitions. Incredibly lucky, in fact, since if I’d had to wait another two weeks until the release date I would probably have died.

Well. Maybe.

The Red Queen’s War is the second trilogy set within the sprawling dystopian Broken Empire, a setting I can’t get enough of. The first book, Prince of Fools, saw main character Jal dragged to the ends of the earth. Book two, The Liar’s Key, saw him dragged all the way back again and eventually through a doorway into Hell.

This grandest of finales follows a similar pattern, though the journey is much more rewarding. The Wheel of Osheim finally lets us see the slowly-growing fruits of all that travelling in the form of our protagonist’s subtle transformation. For me, this is the point where Jal finally becomes ‘real’: the things he’s experienced have stripped away much of his shallow persona to finally reveal the potential of the man inside. Everything about him feels more natural: as the story progresses his witticisms become a little wiser, his internal monologues a little less self-conscious, and his actions less self-interested. And as he finally begins to accept the burden of responsibility (however selfish or cowardly the reasoning behind it!) he becomes much, much more sympathetic . . . whilst never completely giving up his old roguish habits.

Jal may not be someone you’d describe as a typical fantasy hero. But at its heart The Wheel of Osheim is essentially an epic fantasy tale – complete with unlikely heroes, overwhelming odds and a quest to save the world – cunningly disguised as an insanely exciting travelogue. The pacing is absolutely spot on: there are so many potential ways this book could have spiralled out of control, but Lawrence keeps things cohesive even when the adrenaline is flowing. He treads the subtle line between fast-paced action and breakneck chaos with even more finesse than usual, making this his most well-balanced work to date.osheim-ARC-signed

Another area in which Lawrence consistently demonstrates finesse is in the structure of his novels, and The Wheel of Osheim is no exception. Here, the author cleverly alternates past and present timelines to fill in the gaps since the abrupt ending of The Liar’s Key. He uses the same technique to weave a surprising amount of backstory in amongst the action and intrigue, and in doing so creates a gradually rising tide of pathos and hope that beautifully underscores each individual’s struggle against both good and evil in search of what is right.

Though he seems far too incorrigible to be contained in one trilogy, The Wheel of Osheim is an admirable conclusion to Jal’s saga. Though not as shocking or as visceral as the end of Jorg’s tale, Osheim is somehow more satisfying, tying off each thread with gentle finality – including Snorri’s heartrending tale, woven in and around the main story since book one.

Our protagonists find closure, yes, and although they’ve had to wade through months or even years of sadness to get it not once does the going feel heavy for the reader. The tone remains mostly light and humorous throughout, even when the mood is tense or the subject matter dark. And it hardly even needs to be said that Lawrence’s writing makes every page a pleasure to read: his prose is poetic and flowing, frequently beautiful and never less than engaging. Lawrence is without doubt one of the finest voices in modern fantasy, and The Wheel of Osheim his most outstanding contribution to the genre . . .

. . . so far.


Blurb

All the horrors of Hell stand between Snorri Ver Snagason and the rescue of his family, if indeed the dead can be rescued. For Jalan Kendeth, getting back out alive and with Loki’s key is all that matters. Loki’s creation can open any lock, any door, and it may also be the key to Jalan’s fortune back in the living world.
 
Jalan plans to return to the three w’s that have been the core of his idle and debauched life: wine, women, and wagering. Fate however has other plans, larger plans. The Wheel of Osheim is turning ever faster, and it will crack the world unless it’s stopped. When the end of all things looms, and there’s nowhere to run, even the worst coward must find new answers. Jalan and Snorri face many dangers, from the corpse hordes of the Dead King to the many mirrors of the Lady Blue, but in the end, fast or slow, the Wheel of Osheim always pulls you back. In the end it’s win or die.

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.