Marc Turner, ‘Dragon Hunters’ (review)


Dragon Hunters is the exciting second instalment in Marc Turner’s Chronicle of the Exile, which is rapidly becoming one of my favourite fantasy series of recent years.

Dragon Hunters by Marc Turner (UK cover)Dragon Hunters is thoughtful, hilarious, and even more entertaining even than its predecessor. Turner once again demonstrates a master’s grasp of the slow-build: he pulls each separate character’s story arc steadily and irrevocably into the central conflict, then flings obstacles at them whilst pushing them irresistibly towards one another in an epic, action-packed convergence.

The four main PoVs in Dragon Hunters are all compelling in their own ways. That said, it’s easy to pick a favourite (or two): Karmel, a naïve but feisty Chameleon priestess; and Kempis, a jaded Storm Guard with a healthy lack of respect for authority . . . and a somewhat laid-back approach to upholding the law. The secondary characters are no less intriguing, and I for one look forward to learning more about Mazana Creed, Caval, Mili and Tali in future books.

In my review of book one, When the Heavens Fall, I mentioned how skilfully Turner managed to  convey the sheer scope of his Lands of the Exile without going overboard with the details. He achieves the same thing in Dragon Hunters, painting a mysterious backdrop of unknown elements – titans, old ruins, dragons, water magic, stone-skins – without elaborating overmuch. In doing so, he creates the impression of a terrifyingly vast amount of history and unknown lore that’s just straining to burst into the story and cause untold chaos. (And he does all this without the use of info-dumps, and without straying from the main plot very much at all.)
Dragon Hunters by Marc Turner (US cover)
I can say for sure that Turner’s second book feels much more accomplished than his debut (which was nonetheless excellent). The entirety of Dragon Hunters feels much more cohesive than Heavens: right from the start I had the impression that all four main characters were going to converge at some point, and I enjoyed accompanying them on their various journeys. New readers may want to consider using this book as an entry point to Turner’s work: Dragon Hunters takes place in an entirely separate part of the Lands of the Exile than the first book, and can actually be read and enjoyed without any prior knowledge of the series. However, certain subtle hints and sly mentions add an extra layer of fun that only readers of the first book will be able to appreciate.

Regardless of whether or not you’ve read the first book, I’d highly recommend Dragon Hunters to any fantasy fan who enjoys irreverent protagonists, wry humour, epic worldbuilding and mercurial politics.

Oh! And dragons.

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).

Joe Abercrombie, ‘Best Served Cold’ (review)


Damn. I’d forgotten how good this book is. Darker, bloodier and even more entertaining than Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, Best Served Cold is the ultimate revenge story packed with pain, fury and absurdity from its spectacular opening sequence to its final poignant pages.
Joe Abercrombie, BEST SERVED COLD

The premise of Best Served Cold is simple: heroine is betrayed – heroine gets back up again – heroine sets out to get revenge. And at first it really is that simple. Monza Murcatto, the infamous Butcher of Caprile, sets her sights on seven enemies and vows to do anything she needs to in order to see them all dead. Recruiting a merry band of thugs – including a poisoner, a Northman and a torturer – she embarks on her glorious mission. But perhaps revenge isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Perhaps the people she trusts are the ones holding the knives . . . and perhaps Monza herself isn’t quite everything she appears to be.

Knives

The tale is, of course, set in the world of First Law (though several years after the events of the original trilogy). Here we are introduced to the ‘exotic’ land of Styria: a fractured continent hosting a decades-long civil war at a time commonly referred to as the Years of Blood. Although Best Served Cold is technically classed as a standalone, the sheer amount of references to the original trilogy – not to mention cameo appearances from several characters – means that those already familiar with the events of First Law will likely enjoy it considerably more than those new to Abercrombie’s world.

Blood & revenge

Best Served Cold is Abercrombie’s absurd and bloody take on the standard revenge trope: absurd because of its eclectic mix of characters, and bloody because of the chaos they cause. But it’s also an insanely fun and entertaining journey, with the plot taking something of a backseat to colourful characters who gradually reveal themselves to be so much more than the exaggerated caricatures they first appear to be.

The world they live in is equally colourful, with vicious politics and treacherous leaders dangerously influencing critical events. The settings in particular are fantastically vivid and immersive: even now I can clearly visualise every bloody sunset, picture every pane of glass in the roof of the Banking House of Valint and Balk, startle at the canal boats looming out of the fog in gloomy Sipani and wonder at the majesty of impregnable Fontezarmo. Though Styria is certainly not a place anyone in their right mind would choose to live, I found I could picture its various regions just as vividly as if I’d actually been there.

Vicious and vivid

Although often dark and suffused with bleakness, Best Served Cold is also really, really bloody funny (particularly during Nicomo Cosca and Castor Morveer’s PoV chapters). Ironic observations, humorous dialogue, self-deprecating comments and hilariously inappropriate remarks are particular specialties of Abercrombie’s, and Best Served Cold abounds with all of them. Abercrombie cleverly blends brutality and gore with laughter and levity to create a perfectly dark, gritty tale of revenge and ruin. This is Abercrombie at his absolute best.

(Review originally posted over at halfstrungharp.com on 22nd October 2015.)


Blurb

Springtime in Styria. And that means war.

There have been nineteen years of blood. The ruthless Grand Duke Orso is locked in a vicious struggle with the squabbling League of Eight, and between them they have bled the land white. While armies march, heads roll and cities burn, behind the scenes bankers, priests and older, darker powers play a deadly game to choose who will be king.

War may be hell but for Monza Murcatto, the Snake of Talins, the most feared and famous mercenary in Duke Orso’s employ, it’s a damn good way of making money too. Her victories have made her popular – a shade too popular for her employer’s taste. Betrayed, thrown down a mountain and left for dead, Murcatto’s reward is a broken body and a burning hunger for vengeance. Whatever the cost, seven men must die.

Her allies include Styria’s least reliable drunkard, Styria’s most treacherous poisoner, a mass-murderer obsessed with numbers and a Northman who just wants to do the right thing. Her enemies number the better half of the nation. And that’s all before the most dangerous man in the world is dispatched to hunt her down and finish the job Duke Orso started…

Springtime in Styria. And that means revenge.

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.

Steven Erikson, ‘Gardens of the Moon’ (review)


Genre giant Steven Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon is the first in a ten-book series that you will inevitably love and worship. (Or hate and resent.) (Or maybe just give up on before reaching the end of book one.)

The first chapter in the truly epic Malazan Book of the Fallen introduces a hugely diverse and seemingly endless cast of characters: mages and soldiers; humans and not-quite-humans; demon lords and talking ravens; gods and nobodies; heroes and villains and others occupying the grey space in between. There are a great many overlapping storylines – huge-scale campaigns, deadly assassin wars, magical battles, political manoeuvring, covert missions – and not all of them appear to fit together very well (at least at first).steven-erikson-gardens-of-the-moon-cover

Yes, Gardens of the Moon gives us a LOT to take in, and the first three hundred pages or so are enough to leave any first-time readers as lost and helpless as a puppet with its strings cut. In the prologue to the newer editions Erikson himself states that he refuses to spoon-feed his readers, and finds it insulting and patronising when other writers do the same. His decision to withhold important backstory and omit dreary exposition is a conscious and tactical choice, and he is fully aware that Gardens of the Moon is likely to leave readers floundering.

However, Erikson assumes that those of us who choose to read his work don’t mind floundering a little; don’t mind having to work things out for ourselves, and don’t mind waiting many hours and thousands of pages before the pieces finally begin to fit together. As someone who has read all ten books in this series I can unequivocally state that finally reaching the moment(s) when everything starts to make sense . . . makes ploughing through the confusion at the beginning so worthwhile.

The Malazan series as a whole contains enough ‘ohhhh, so that’s what that was about!’ moments that the rewards of reading well outweigh the challenges. That said, it’s only upon re-reading Gardens of the Moon and the rest that you really begin to appreciate the amount of planning and detail that Erikson has put into this series. There are so many tiny nuances that take on a double meaning, so much of the dialogue that becomes multi-layered, and so many little things that you didn’t notice the first time but are steeped in pathos now that you’re fully aware of the events to follow.

As a debut novel, Gardens of the Moon is insanely dense and ambitious. It’s also incredibly clever and well-executed; and while I’m not claiming that Gardens of the Moon is the best book I’ve ever read, it is the first book in the best series I’ve ever read. In my opinion Gardens of the Moon is actually the weakest instalment of the entire Malazan Book of the Fallen, yet it’s still spectacular (and far superior to much of what’s on the shelves today).

If you haven’t read Gardens of the Moon, my advice to you is ‘read it, but have patience, and be prepared to read more in the series in order to fully appreciate it’. If you have already read it, then go ahead and re-read it right now. 

Either way, you can thank me later.

(Review originally posted over at halfstrungharp.com on August 10th 2014)


Blurb

The vast Malazan Empire simmers with discontent, its subject states bled dry by interminable warfare and clashes with Anomander Rake, Lord of Moon’s Spawn, and the mysterious Tiste Andii. Even the imperial legions, long inured to the bloodshed, yearn for some respite. Yet the Empress’ rule remains absolute, enforced by her dread Claw assassins.

For Sergeant Whiskeyjack and his cynical squad of Bridgeburners, and for Tattersail, sole surviving sorceress of the Second Legion, the aftermath of the siege of Pale should have been a time to heal the still living and mourn the many dead. The Empress has other ideas.

However, it would appear the Empire is not the only player in this great game. A more sinister, shadowbound force is poised to make its first move . . .

Laura Hughes: Writer?


Shhh! I’ve snatched a moment at the keyboard while the cats aren’t looking. I’ll tell you a thing or three about myself as quickly as I can, before the mogs realise I’m attempting to do something productive and converge on me . . .

I’m a (former) book-blogger

I joined the online fantasy community in 2013 when I ventured into the world of book reviewing. My blog, The Half-Strung Harp, helped me meet some awesome new people – authors, agents, fellow bloggers, and just generally cool folks – through social media, as did participating in weekly features such as Tough Travels.

HSH Screenshot

Writing regular and detailed book reviews also honed my writing skills and developed my ideas about what makes a good book, since it encouraged me to look deeper into why I did or didn’t enjoy certain books.

(If you were wondering where the blog’s title came from, it’s lifted from a satiric poem by George Gordon Byron called ‘English Bards and Scotch Reviewers’ (1809). Byron uses the phrase ‘half-strung harps’ to refer to writers who publish sub-par novels and poems that are nonetheless praised by critics (whom he referred to as tasteless ‘tyrants’). I had no clue what I was doing when I first started blogging, and wanted the name of the blog to reflect that. To be fair, it’s still an appropriate image for what I’m doing, except that now I’m blundering through the process of writing fiction rather than reviews!)

Danse Macabre FINALI’m a (wannabe) writer

Technically I was nine when I wrote my first book. It was hand-written and illustrated, and featured a protagonist called Mitch who discovered a spectacular gem in an underwater cave (and who also happened to be an otter). Unfortunately this priceless work of fiction has been lost in the mists of time (or possibly the attic . . . OR my little sister ate it. She destroyed a lot of my books before she was old enough to actually read them).

Slightly more recently I’ve written and self-published a novelette, a horror-fantasy hybrid called ‘Danse Macabre’. In addition to my main work-in-progress (a fantasy trilogy that may or may not ever get finished) I’m currently playing about with various short stories, as well as a poem or two.

I write what I know and love, and so every word I type falls firmly within the fantasy genre. My main influences are Steven Erikson, Joe Abercrombie and Terry Pratchett: I really admire the way all three authors suffuse their writing with humour without sacrificing the integrity of their plots or characters. I have this insane dream of one day having my own books blurbed by Erikson . . . if only I can finish writing them.

That dream is also dependent on my ability to avoid being killed and eaten by the mogs . . .

I’m a (crazy) cat lady

A shamelessly crazy cat lady. Luckily I’m married to a crazy cat man, and we share a very small terraced house with four quirky felines. They’re called—wait, where are you going? Come back! STAND STILL WHILE I SHOW YOU PICTURES OF MY FURRY CHILDREN, GOD DAMN YOU.

4 cats

That wasn’t so bad, was it?

(Fun fact: I just found out from the doctor that I’ve developed an allergic reaction to cats. This explains the constant cold-like symptoms and wheeziness I’ve been experiencing over the last few weeks . . . but does not explain why the universe is so cruel.)

So there you have it. Me in a nutshell. Let’s just hope I’m not also allergic to nuts . . .