‘Herald of the Storm’ by Richard Ford


Comparisons to other authors can hurt a book rather than help it. Typically, readers draw parallels between Ford’s work and that of George R.R. Martin (though let’s face it, it seems rare nowadays for a fantasy novel to escape comparison to – or endorsement by! – ol’ GRRM). Richard Ford’s debut is no exception. However, aside from the structure (alternating chapters from differing points of view) and maybe a bit of the grittiness I wouldn’t personally make this comparison, partly because ASoIaF is something of a sweeping epic, while Herald of the Storm concerns itself entirely with the city of Steelhaven.

Stand together . . . or die alone.

The contained setting is, for me, the book’s strongest point. The plot is tight and pacy, and the ways in which several of the individual storylines were eventually interwoven was nicely done. There are two or three main plotlines occurring at the same time – an illegal slave-trading operation, a royal assassination attempt, and an act of dark magic – and it’s interesting to see how different characters are involved in each plot, and how each mini-plot becomes relevant to the bigger picture. In fact, the whole book does a nice job of laying the groundwork for the rest of the series.

I enjoyed the diversity of the characters: there’s Kaira Stormfall, morally upright Shieldmaiden of the goddess Vorena; Janessa Mastragall, innocent and headstrong heir to the throne; River, an assassin with a conflicted soul; Merrick Ryder, a former duellist and dandy who has fallen on hard times; Rag, a street urchin and pickpocket; Nobul Jacks, soldier-turned blacksmith-turned city guard; and Waylian Grimm, apprentice in the tower of magick (no, I’m not sure why it has to be spelt with a ‘k’ either). Although there are a fair amount of characters, the variety between them really makes it work.

Herald of the Storm by Richard FordThe author cleverly uses the novel’s form to keep certain things – e.g. the identity of certain characters – hidden until key moments. Ford uses alternating PoV chapters to gradually reveal surprising connections and illustrate the impact of characters’ decisions on others. I did feel that some storylines felt a little out of place: Rag’s story came to feel a bit irrelevant, and Waylian (and magick in general) also seemed somewhat shoe-horned into the story. However, the final chapters for these characters do seem to suggest that both will play a larger role in future novels.

A quick point about the language: I don’t have a problem with profanity in fiction, as long as the language fits with the character of the person who’s saying it. The author has created several less-than-golden characters here (many of whom swear frequently), and while they suit Herald’s grimdark tone the fucks and shits do become a bit tiresome!

Earlier, I mentioned the use of GRRM as a benchmark for modern fantasy novels. Fact is, I bought this book on the strength of its comparisons with Joe Abercrombie. While I can certainly see the similarities – character-driven storytelling, grimy characters, dirty deeds – Ford’s characters didn’t quite spring to life for me in the same way as Logen, Glokta, Monza et al., and I think this is another case of hurting a book by (unfairly) comparing it to another of a very high standard. One review raved that Herald of the Storm was actually much better than the First Law trilogy, and I couldn’t help being just a tiny bit disappointed.

However, unrealistic as my expectations were I still enjoyed the book a lot. The characters grew on me over time, and I look forward to reading Steelhaven #2: The Shattered Crown.


Review originally posted on halfstrungharp.com on 5th January 2017.

2016: Top Ten of Everything!


Everyone else is doing it… if that’s not a good enough reason for me to do it too, then I don’t know what is. No, YOU’RE too impressionable. And so’s your mum.

In 2016 a massive bunch of cool things happened. Here’s ten of them! (In no particular order.)

Top 10… GOOD THINGS

  1. I had the privilege of beta reading the finished first drafts of two immensely talented friends: Kareem, and Sadir. (Thanks for making my own efforts feel so inadequate in contrast, guys…)
  2. I joined Marc Aplin & Jennie Ivins and the rest of the Fantasy-Faction team as a contributor!
  3. I released Danse Macabre in paperback on Amazon and Barnes & Noble!
  4. I’ve had the absolute pleasure of participating in the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off as part of the Fantasy-Faction judging panel!
  5. I’ve made a fuckton of new friends via social media, including readers, writers, and all-round beautiful weirdos. (You know who you are…)Dyrk Ashton inspirational quote
  6. I contributed two articles to Tor.com – and got paid to do so!My First Article for Tor.com
  7. I joined Reddit, and had an epic time as Writer of the Day on r/Fantasy!
  8. Danse Macabre picked up a lot of momentum, and now has 30+ reviews on Goodreads – including write-ups from the likes of T.O. Munro, G.R. Matthews, T.L. Greylock, Booknest.eu, Hobgoblin Reviews, Observant Raven Reviews, Dyrk Ashton, Richard Ford, J.P. Ashman, and Grimdark Alliance!
  9. I finally met Marc Turner, one of my favourite modern fantasy authors, in person – as well as Joe Abercrombie, Tom Lloyd, Elizabeth Bear and Scott Lynch!Bear-Lloyd-Hughes Subliminal Selfie
  10. I finished writing two short stories and several poems, and am finally back on track with writing my novel thanks to the encouragement of friends (not to mention the liver-shaving daredevil antics of that fellah Benedict Patrick, aka. Ben Paddy, aka. the Rogue with the Brogue).

A fuller rundown of my 2016 antics can be found here. But now…

Top Ten… BOOKS READ

Now, on to my top 10 reads of 2016! I briefly reviewed my reading year here, but here’s the Official Definitive Top Ten:

Top Ten… ARTICLES & REVIEWS

These were, according to WordPress, the ten most popular posts of the year:

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

9 – Mark Lawrence, ‘The Wheel of Osheim’ (review)mark-lawrence-wheel-of-osheim-cover

8 – 2016: The Worst of Times, the Best of Tomes

A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers by Alyssa Wong

7 – Steven Erikson, ‘Gardens of the Moon’ (review)steven-erikson-gardens-of-the-moon-cover

6 – T. Frohock, ‘Los Nefilim’ (review)t-frohock-los-nefilim-cover

5 – Review: Jeff Salyards, ‘Veil of the Deserters’veil-salyards-bloodsounder

4 – Daniel Abraham, ‘The Dagger and the Coin’ (series review)The Dagger & the Coin Quintet by Daniel Abraham

3 – Self-published authors and the SPFBO: revitalising SFF
Ragnarok Covers: The Amra Thetys series by Michael McClung

2 – Steven Erikson, ‘The Bonehunters’ (review)

'The Bonehunters' by Steven Erikson

And the most popular by far:

1 – A Beginner’s Guide to Malazan Characters: ‘Gardens of the Moon’

'Silanah vs Raest': artwork by Shadaan

‘Silanah vs Raest’: artwork by Shadaan

For what it’s worth, my personal favourites are the Self-Publishing/SPFBO article, the Los Nefilim review, and of course my interview with epic fantasy author John Gwynne (as well as my article about why his books are awesome).

Now for the final Top 10 list…

Top Ten… WANT TO READ IN 2017

In addition to the gorgeous-looking titles on my backlist, here’s a few upcoming releases I’m looking forward to:

And there it is! 2016 has been miserable in many ways, but in terms of reading it’s been ace. Bring on more of the same in 2017!

Happy new year!

2016: The Worst of Times, the Best of Tomes


Ah, 2016. For various reasons, I’ve read nowhere near the amount of books I wanted to this year. But the ones I have read were pretty damn awesome. Here’s a few of the awesomest (note: not all of these were actually published in 2016!).

2016 shall henceforth become known as The Year in Which I Truly Discovered Self-Published Books. The abundance of awesomeness from the SPFBO (Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off) – as well as a few other gems – has left me seriously impressed with those who publish via this method.

(I spoke about self-publishing, and the many positive ways in which indie authors contribute to the genre, here.)

I’m pleased to say that I discovered – and read! – an entirely new trilogy in the form of Jeff Salyards’ Bloodsounder’s Arc. Here’s what I said about book three, Chains of the Heretic:

Bloodsounder’s Arc is a work of art, a dark and masterful tapestry of tension and momentum wherein each word weaves a more deftly spun strand than the last. The final triptych, Chains of the Heretic, is Salyards’ pièce de résistance, falling naturally but devastatingly into its place as the boldest and most brutal piece of the saga.

2016 has been a shite year for politics, pop-culture legends, and the general future of humanity. However, you can’t deny that it’s given us some excellent sequels.

2016 has seen the conclusions to several of my favourite series, including The Dagger and the Coin by Daniel Abraham, The Faithful and the Fallen by John Gwynne and The Red Queen’s War by Mark Lawrence.

We’ve also been gifted with the fun finale to Joe Abercrombie’s Shattered Sea trilogy, as well as two more instalments in Marc Turner’s spectacular six-book Chronicles of the Exile(Check out my post about meeting Marc here!)

I’ve also had the pleasure of starting one or two ongoing series by new (to me) authors Michael R. Fletcher, V.E. Schwab and Ruth Nestvold.

A few forays into the realm of shorter fiction have also yielded very pleasant results. Alyssa Wong’s very (very!) short but beautiful A Fist of Permutations in Lightning and Wildflowers left me keen to read more by this author; while the talent and variety on display in the Fantasy-Faction Anthology made me bubble with pride at being able to call myself a part of that community.Los Nefilim by T. Frohock... read by Kili-cat in 2016

And of course, one of my favourite reads of the year: Los Nefilima trilogy of novellas by the wonderful and talented Teresa Frohock, brought together for the first time in a single, brilliant collection.

Finally, the year wouldn’t be complete without revisiting at least one old favourite… or, in this case, two: The Bonehunters by Steven Erikson, and Terry Pratchett’s charming, witty and hilarious Hogfather.

What were your favourite books of 2016? And which ones are you most looking forward to next year?

Giggles & Gollancz: a subliminal evening (feat. cactigraphs)


Last week I went to my first ever (EVER!) author signing. In case you missed my over-excited social media posts on the subject, the event in question was a celebration of three awesome authors – specifically, the tenth anniversary of their debut novels from Gollancz.

In case you missed my overexcited social media posts...

Gillian Redfearn (who, by the way, is just lovely) shepherded Gollancz authors Tom Lloyd (The Stormcaller, Moon’s Artifice, Stranger of Tempest), Scott Lynch (The Lies of Locke Lamora) and Joe Abercrombie (First Law, Shattered Sea) into Waterstones in Manchester, where fellow SFF author Elizabeth Bear (Range of Ghosts, Karen Memory) chaired a discussion panel.

“My name’s Elizabeth Bear… and they gave me wine.”

The Bear set the tone for the entire evening: her questions brimmed with intelligence, articulacy and humour in a way that ensured every minute of the discussion was lively and engaging.

Scott Lynch and Elizabeth Bear

If I’m honest, I was surprised (and delighted) by how relaxed and entertaining the panel actually was. Not only was it interesting, but it also made me laugh (a lot): the camaraderie and gentle ribbing between the Bear and the boys was just perfect, as were the self-deprecating comments about the role of writers.

“We’re like batman, but  sad and immobile” – Scott Lynch

Now, in the past friends have assured me that Abercrombie is a cool guy. But there’s no way of properly appreciating the bloke’s natural charisma (or physical height!) until you’ve met him in person.

The Abercrombie-Hughes Special Edition Subliminal Selfie

The same goes for the others. While I’d enjoyed one or two brief Twitter conversations with Tom Lloyd in the past, it turns out that talking pendulous tangerine testicles is even more fun when accompanied by real-life sniggering.

Tom Lloyd

The panel taught me plenty of new things about the authors and their books. For instance, did you know that Tom Lloyd originally began writing a novel in order to prove that he could do it better than a friend? Or that Scott Lynch intended for Jean (Tannen, of the Gentleman Bastards series) to be pronounced the French-sounding way?

“Have a smile for breakfast, you’ll be shitting joy by lunch” – Joe Abercrombie

Once the panel was over, the queuing commenced. Tom’s queue was respectable, and Joe’s even more so, but Scott’s was just insane. After meeting Tom and Joe (and, of course, ensuring that they each drew their own version of a happy cactus whilst signing my books), I ventured to the booth behind them where the Bear was relaxing on her own (and heckling the others, naturally).

14344102_10154640916289497_34610650491058188_n

I’d worried that bringing one of Elizabeth’s books to sign was a bit presumptuous… but she was delighted I’d asked, and we immediately got chatting about all kinds of geeky stuff. (She even complimented me on my tattoo!) After a little while, Tom came over to join us too, and my latte-laden self was ridiculously excited that it had inadvertently found itself in a sort of  SFF VIP lounge.

Bear-Lloyd-Hughes Subliminal Selfie

Then Joe came over too, and the four of us talked idly while we waited for Scott to work his way through the slowly-dwindling autograph line. When he was done, the Bear summoned him over (with all the teasing authority and mutual affection of a soon-to-be wife) to sign and cactigraph my Locke Lamora, which I think he (and the others) did a stellar job of.

Signed and Cactigraphed Books by Tom Lloyd, Elizabeth Bear, Scott Lynch and Joe Abercrombie

Finally, we traipsed out into the night and waved goodbye, the experience having reinforced my pride at being part of the amazing SFF community.

The entire evening has inspired me in so many ways, and not least because everything I’ve seen of the Gollancz team is friendly and positive. These four authors in particular – Tom Lloyd, Elizabeth Bear, Scott Lynch and Joe Abercrombie – have given me a lot to aspire to, and I’m more determined than ever to work my arse off and become a professionally-published writer of their calibre.


Thanks a million to my wonderful sister, Rebecca, for accompanying me. I’d almost certainly have chickened out if I’d planned to go alone. Love you, Poops! <3

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.

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.