Last month, I was asked to contribute to Tor.com’s ‘Best of 2017 (So Far)‘ list! Here’s the list; you’ll find my picks a little way down the page.
Contributors were asked to limit our choices to just three. Which would you have chosen?
Last month, I was asked to contribute to Tor.com’s ‘Best of 2017 (So Far)‘ list! Here’s the list; you’ll find my picks a little way down the page.
Contributors were asked to limit our choices to just three. Which would you have chosen?
This review originally appeared on Tor.com on April 7, 2017.
Mark Lawrence’s latest novel, Red Sister, is a dramatic departure from the ‘grimdark’ trilogies for which he’s most widely known. The first in a brand-new series, Red Sister introduces us to a different world and whole new cast of characters. But before we discuss its merits, let’s get the inevitable comparisons with Lawrence’s existing work out of the way…
Without giving too much away, Red Sister weaves together three distinct timelines. The main part of the story follows protagonist Nona’s time at the Sweet Mercy convent, beginning with her arrival at the convent and focusing on her education, her developing relationships with her peers and mentors, and her martial training. Think Harry Potter meets Blood Song, but with an all-female cast. The second thread gradually reveals Nona’s past – from the unspoken incident in her childhood village, to the months spent in a slaver’s cage – and the third thread takes place a few years further on from the first, framing the rest of the story like a much more exciting version of Kote’s narrative in the Kingkiller Chronicles.
Readers familiar with Lawrence’s previous books (The Broken Empire, The Red Queen’s War) will likely either love or hate his use of alternating timelines; either way, Red Sister is a fine example of the trademark Lawrence non-linear narrative. The author wields flashbacks (and flash-forwards) with wicked skill, and I can say without hesitation that Nona’s tale surpasses even King of Thorns in the seamless inclusion of gasp-out-loud plot twists and edge-of-your-seat perspective shifts.
So: Red Sister shares obvious stylistic similarities with The Broken Empire and The Red Queen’s War. But that, my friends, is where the similarities end.
Nobody likes change. At least, not at first. I myself – a keen admirer of Mark Lawrence since 2013 – felt leery about this new world, these new characters. How, I asked myself, could Nona Grey’s tale possibly match up to those of her predecessors? Jorg Ancrath and Jalan Kendeth both leave behind big, bloody shoes to fill, after all.
Yes, fans of Lawrence’s writing will be accustomed to a very specific kind of protagonist: namely, a witty, self-centred young male. And when readers learned that the stars of Red Sister would be almost exclusively female, apprehension fluttered through a sizable portion of Lawrence’s fan base as they asked themselves: what if this decision to write an all-female cast was no more than a middle finger aimed directly at feminist critics of his other books? What if this new protagonist – this “Nona”– turned out to simply be a gender-flipped version of Jorg or Jalan – a pale imitation, rather than a unique individual?
“It is important, when killing a nun, to ensure that you bring an army of sufficient size.
For Sister Thorn of the Sweet Mercy convent Lano Tacsis brought two hundred men.”
I believe most of us were reassured, if not by Red Sister’s first line, then certainly by its second. I for one knew I HAD to read more about this woman – a bloody nun, no less – who is apparently so badass that it requires an entire army just to challenge her.
So who is Sister Thorn? Who is her aggressor, and what’s his beef? What kind of world is this, in which killing nuns is a) acceptable, and b) a military action? Well, to answer these questions would be spoiling it. What I can tell you is that Nona Grey is a compelling, sympathetic protagonist who eventually kicks arse in the most believable yet satisfying ways.
Arse-kicking aside, it’s Nona’s journey that is truly captivating. Lawrence beautifully captures the nuances of Nona’s personality, so that her character unfolds along with her gradually changing perspective – which is no mean feat considering that Red Sister is Lawrence’s first full-length foray into third person. And as she learns more about the world, so too is her narrative laced with a poignant series of brutal observations and uncomfortable truths.
“A man driving a wagonload of children in a cage doesn’t have to state his business. A farmer whose flesh lies sunken around his bones, and whose eyes are the colour of hunger, doesn’t have to explain himself if he walks up to such a man. Hunger lies beneath all of our ugliest transactions.”
Above all, Nona’s perspective is jaded, yet wryly positive. This is a young woman who tries desperately to see the best in people – in her friends, especially – even when the worst is staring her right in the face; a young woman who remains hopeful, despite having been thoroughly kicked around by the frozen world she inhabits.
To begin with, Red Sister is disorienting. Readers old and new are confronted at the start by an entirely new perspective, a whole bunch of unfamiliar characters, and a somewhat confusing double-prologue. Furthermore, this is Lawrence’s first full-length work of spec fic that is not set within the Broken Empire.
The main thing you need to know about Nona’s world is that it’s bloody cold, and bloody brutal. On a planet where every habitable area is gradually succumbing to encroaching ice from both poles, the warring kingdoms are confined to the Corridor: a narrowing strip of land between the ice, where peasants scratch a living from the frozen soil and nuns live in isolated cloisters, guarding their own mysterious and much-coveted sources of heat.
In contrast with the travelogue-style adventures of Jorg and Jalan, much of Nona’s tale takes place within the Sweet Mercy convent. Here, she learns the subtle arts of poisoning, self-defence, and – most importantly – trusting her own instincts. Nona’s band of sisters are also developed in a nicely understated way, and they all play off one another in entertaining ways.
Add to all this Red Sister’s eminent quotability, and you’ll easily see why I had such a whale of a time posting Goodreads updates whilst reading it. Quips and bits of canny wisdom arise far more naturally here than they did from the nihilistic observations of Jorg, or the chuckle-provoking but occasionally forced witticisms of Jalan—yet another way in which Lawrence has evolved as a writer.
“Words are steps along a path: the important thing is to get where you’re going. You can play by all manner of rules, step-on-a-crack-break-your-back, but you’ll get there quicker if you pick the most certain route.”
While the princes of both Thorns and Fools did indeed break all manner of literary rules, you could argue that they took the longest route to get to where they were going—that Jorg’s philosophising and Jalan’s repartee were obstacles in the journey. Red Sister has a much subtler, “grown-up” tone; one which I’ve only ever seen Lawrence exhibit in The Wheel of Osheim (the concluding volume of his most recent completed trilogy). This bodes well indeed for his future work.
“A book is as dangerous as any journey you might take. The person who closes the back cover may not be the same one that opened the front one.”
Sister Kettle’s words are apt indeed. Like I said: nobody likes change. At least, not at first. But in this case, the switch in style, setting and substance from the Broken Empire to the Book of the Ancestor is perhaps the best thing Mark Lawrence has ever done.
Back in 2011, Liz Bourke declared Mark Lawrence’s writing to be problematic in her review of Prince of Thorns, not least because his debut novel was what you might call a “sausage fest.”
Despite these not inaccurate criticisms (which, believe me, Ms. Bourke is far from the only reader to have voiced), I – and many others – have spent the last few years eagerly devouring the regular instalments (one per year!) of fresh, sausage-y goodness.
But for those who remain unenamoured (or unfamiliar) with Lawrence’s work to date, Red Sister is the perfect point at which to become (re)acquainted . . . and this time, there isn’t a sausage in sight.
I suspect it’s going to be impossible for Lawrence to escape the notoriety that’s surrounded him since the release of Prince of Thorns. I’m also fairly certain that he wouldn’t want to; the bloke’s sold more than a million(!) books, after all. (No such thing as bad publicity, and all that.)
But with Red Sister being such a different project, you can understand why Harper Voyager have elected to make it look strikingly dissimilar from his previous books. In order to make Lawrence’s departure from the Broken Empire world abundantly clear, the publishers have switched from using the services of artist Jason Chan (with whom Lawrence has won double at the David Gemmell Legend Awards – twice!!) and instead chosen Heike Schuessler as the series’ new UK cover designer.
So while the US cover retains that gritty yet epic focus on the central character, the UK cover is almost mind-bogglingly different. As you can imagine, the cover reveal has been met mixed reception, with long-time fans expressing disappointment over the drastic change in style.
But as Lawrence himself has pointed out,
“It’s a tricky business. They wanted to signal that this is a whole new offering, not just another instalment of the world and stories begun in The Broken Empire and The Red Queen’s War. They wanted to invite in new readers who were perhaps put off by the piles of corpses &/or forest of blades emblazoning the front of my previous work.”
Whether you love or hate this new look, I’m urging you to read what’s between the covers before you judge. Red Sister contains familiar and much-lauded stylistic features of Lawrence’s writing, while dealing with brand-new characters and themes in an entirely original setting.
Readers who’ve enjoyed Lawrence’s earlier novels will also love Red Sister.
Readers who have never encountered the Broken Empire series should set it aside for the time being and instead dive straight into Red Sister.
And as for readers who disliked either Jorg or Jalan, let me assure you: Nona Grey would kick both their arses, and turn Jorg’s Road Brothers into bacon for her breakfast.
Mark Lawrence has done it again. And by ‘it’, I mean kicked off another bollock-chillingly thrilling round of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, aka. SPFBO3 (Check out my updated SPFBO page for more details and a brief run-down of what the contest is all about, as well as links to other related articles.)
In the meantime, here’s some banners I cobbled together. Feel free to share, download, use, mock, lick, shit on, etc., however you see fit. And if you’re on Twitter, be sure to check out the #SPFBO hashtag!
(Click on each image for an enlarged version.)
Check it! I reviewed the incredible RED SISTER by Mark Lawrence over on Tor.com.
If you haven’t read the book yet, read it NOW!
We’ve followed him for ten years of his life. We’ve lived his journey from the storm-struck thorns to the throne of Renar, and still Jorg Ancrath can surprise us – in good ways as well as bad.
Follow me, and I will break your heart.
Winner of the 2014 David Gemmell Legend Award for Best Fantasy Novel, Emperor of Thorns concludes the groundbreaking Broken Empire trilogy by Mark Lawrence. Jorg is now aged twenty; the Hundred have been summoned to a Congress to decide the matter of the next emperor. The throne has sat empty for over a hundred years, but Jorg plans to remedy that with his secret knowledge, stalwart companions and unique brand of tact and diplomacy.
“I’ve been to Congression before, Makin. I know what games they play there. This year we’re going to play a new game. Mine.”
In addition to the upcoming Congress, an even bigger challenge awaits. The Broken Empire must prepare itself for the biggest threat to humanity since the Day of a Thousand Suns: the invasion of the Dead King’s armies.
Emperor of Thorns follows the familiar ‘Lawrence’ structure. Flashbacks interposed with present-day events create suspense, builds tension and reveals key information at critical moments. However, there is also a new addition: a third-person account of the necromancer Chella (a character who was central to the storyline of the previous book but was only ever seen from Jorg’s point of view). Though I wasn’t particularly keen on this new POV, it certainly makes for some interesting insights into Chella’s character, and gives us inside information about the Dead King and his legions.
Some of the most entertaining parts of the Broken Empire trilogy are the tales of the road, and we are treated to a fair few of them here. Typically grim yet delightful, these anecdotes about Jorg’s younger days among his road brothers reveal much more about Jorg’s tragic, twisted childhood. Secrets that have so far been only partially revealed or hinted at – such as Jorg’s burning hatred for the clergy – are now fully unveiled in harsh and uncomfortable ways. Lawrence continues to display a penchant for putting the ‘dark’ in ‘dark fantasy’, but somehow the horror and violence is never simply gratuitous. Instead, it’s used to deliberately manipulate the reader’s emotional response and force us to acknowledge that his protagonist has been brutally moulded and pushed to similar violence by these horrific external events, rather than just because of his “dena”.
On a slightly less grim note, one of my favourite aspects of this book is its scale. Lawrence shows us more of the Broken Empire than ever before. King of Thorns introduced us to the rocky highlands of Renar, Maladon in the icy north, and the fetid swamps of Cantanlona, and Emperor of Thorns takes us even further. From the lifeless wastelands of the Iberico to the desert city of the mathmagicians, from the silent horrors of flooded ghost towns to the affluent city of Vyene, Lawrence spoils the reader with haunting yet spectacular imagery.
Lawrence’s third novel is a joy to read, filled as it is with amusingly casual turns of phrase, poetic internal monologue, and brilliantly integrated reminders of past events – and hints about things to come. The author also delights in leaving delicious clues for the reader regarding the true nature of Jorg’s broken world (my personal favourites being the hilariously sanctified “guardian” of the Gilden Gate, the martial teachings of “Lee”, and of course the ironic original function of the empire throne itself).
Emperor of Thorns is a spectacular finish to a brilliantly original fantasy series. Does Jorg find redemption? You’ll have to read it and find out. Think you’ve guessed how it’s all going to end? I can guarantee that you haven’t.
Anyone will tell you that the middle part of any trilogy is usually the weakest; that it functions mostly as filler between books one and three, a tiresome interlude between the start and the big finish. Not so with King of Thorns: it’s fast-paced, tense, action-packed, and has several thrilling plotlines that make for a more exhilarating read than even the trilogy’s first instalment, Prince of Thorns. No wonder it was shortlisted for the 2013 David Gemmell Legend Award (losing out to Brent Weeks’ equally worthy The Blinding Knife).
“I made mock of the dying at Mabberton and now their ghosts watched me burn. Take the pain, I said, and I will be a good man. Or if not that, a better man. We all become weasels with enough hurt on us. But I think a small part of it was more than that. A small part was that terrible two-edged sword called experience, cutting away at the cruel child I was, carving out whatever man might be yet to come. I promised a better one. Though I have been known to lie.”
As you probably know, King of Thorns is the second instalment in Mark Lawrence’s post-apocalyptic, dark fantasy (aka. ‘grimdark’) Broken Empire trilogy. Picking up the story of Jorg Ancrath four years after the events of Prince, Jorg is now King of Renar, and must defend his position against popular Prince Orrin of Arrow. However, due to earlier events Jorg has had certain memories removed from his mind (convenient, I know). These memories are revealed through a series of flashbacks in a style similar to that of the novel’s predecessor, but much more cleverly and intricately crafted. The ‘present day’ plot of the novel is centred on Jorg’s plan to defeat the Prince of Arrow; a plan which is progressively revealed throughout the story and leads us with ever-increasing momentum towards the adrenaline-filled finish.
Prince Orrin is everything you’d expect to see in a traditional epic fantasy. He is handsome and moral, gracious and brave, and above all he wishes to secure peace and prosperity for the empire . . . and we spend the entire novel rooting against him (well, I did). I really like the fact that the author has managed to deconstruct traditional fantasy archetypes to such an extent that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ become merely a matter of perspective. Orrin is the golden fairy-tale prince, and yet somehow our Little Jorgy – severely flawed and of dubious morality – manages to emerge the hero.
I’ll be honest: the first time I read this book I had two major issues with it, the first being the flashbacks. There are four (I think) different time frames/points of view, and I initially felt these to be chaotic, distracting and occasionally repetitive. I felt that they detracted from my enjoyment of the main story by disrupting my sense of time and place. I got that they were being strategically placed to build towards the big reveal, but felt that there was too much back and forth within the narrative.
Now, having read this book a second time, I find it difficult to reconcile my initial response with what I’ve just read. For a start, I realise that the sense of dislocation is deliberately evoked in order to create an empathic link with Jorg: we feel but a tiny fraction of what it must be like to be suddenly hit by a memory you have no recollection of having lived through. Secondly, the ordering of the flashbacks is anything but chaotic. The narrative is artfully constructed so as to reveal crucial plot points at strategic moments, as well as to both shock and tease the reader; and what I had at first thought to be random revealed itself instead to be a complex web of memories cunningly fashioned by the author in a way to make one gape with admiration.
My other initial problem with the book was that I didn’t enjoy the ‘Katherine’ chapters. I found the saga of her diary entries to be an unnecessarily dull counterpoint to Jorg’s narrative, and found myself wishing her journal pages had never been found. Of course, reading the novel again made me realise why her chapters are a vital part of the on-going Sageous plotline, and her sad words resonated far more poignantly because I was aware of how it was going to end. I’m more willing now to accept Katherine as a necessary part of Jorg’s story.
I’ll admit: there were parts of this book that I found difficult to read, and which I know have caused outrage amongst readers elsewhere on the web. A scene which I’ll refer to only as the Justice of King Olidan actually hurt me to read, even more so the second time because I knew it was coming and was powerless to stop it; and yet, I found myself elated that Jorg was able to re-live the memory and re-evaluate the lessons he thought he’d learned from the experience. The fact that the reader is made to experience such feelings is a testament to the author’s ability to feel, and to write in a way that makes others feel too.
On a similar note, King of Thorns feels a lot more personal than Prince, perhaps because scenes such as these allow the reader to connect more with the protagonist: Jorg has stabilised a little and matured emotionally, and we live through this transformation as much as he does. There is also a lot more focus on his internal struggle with the way he has lived so far – here’s a powerful example:
“I told Coddin that stubbornness led me to climb, and perhaps it did, but there’s more to it. Mountains have no memory, no judgments to offer. There’s a purity in the struggle to reach a peak. You leave your world behind and take only what you need. For a creature like me there is nothing closer to redemption.”
I don’t want to mislead anyone into thinking that this is some kind of sappy coming-of-age drama, by the way. I mentioned in my review of Prince of Thorns how the first book came under fire by those who were outraged by the immoral actions of the central character within the first few pages; if those same people have decided to read King of Thorns I’m guessing they’re currently rolling in their graves after choking on their own moral indignation. There’s some dark stuff here, darker than the first book, with enough creepy situations and haunting images to give you nightmares for a month. There’s action – lots of action! – and the flashbacks are written in the present tense, which really draws you into the moment and uses the “elephant of surprise” to keep you on the edge of your seat, right up to the eventual reveal of the final heart-breaking secret.
I’m hopeful that the final instalment in the trilogy, Emperor of Thorns, will prove to be as good as this one. What with the subtle transformation of Jorg’s character, the driving themes of memory and destiny, and the intriguing foreshadowing of the Dead King, I can’t wait to read it. According to Jorg,
“A time of terror comes. A dark time. The graves continue to open and the Dead King prepares to sail. But the world holds worse things than dead men. A dark time comes.
If it offends you.
I don’t think I’ve ever shivered with anticipation before; but after reading those closing lines, how could I not?
This review was originally published on halfstrungharp.com on 23rd September 2013.
The Grey Bastards is one of ten novels in the final round of Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) 2016. The review was originally posted on Fantasy-Faction on 31st December 2016; updates on the contest’s progress can be found here.
I have a bone to pick with you, Jonathan French, aka. author of The Grey Bastards. You, sir, owe me a great many hours of sleep; hours that were spent avidly following the grim adventures of Jackal and co.
Mr. French, the pacing of your novel is truly brilliant. Starting with a ‘bang’ and then racing from conflicts and schemes to plot twists and battles, Bastards is what one might call a ‘rip-roaring adventure’: brutal, brave, and utterly fearless. The chapters are long, yet each end in a way that compels you to continue reading. Not since Dyrk Ashton’s Paternus (Fantasy-Faction’s very own chosen finalist) have I devoured a SPFBO book so
Electing to tell the entire story through Jackal’s PoV is another engaging piece of trickery. As you’re clearly well aware, Mr French, keeping the reader invested in one character not only raises the stakes whenever he is in danger but also makes the book a journey of discovery for both protagonist and reader. In a genre dominated by sprawling, multiple-pov sagas, Bastards’ singular focus on one part of the world (and your protagonist’s place within it) is refreshing and exciting. Bravo, sir!
However: in some ways The Grey Bastards is an uncomfortable read. Did you know, Mr. French, that the word ‘fuck’ appears in your novel a total of 230 times? And ‘shit’, 69 times? Why is she even mentioning this? you might be wondering; after all, Hughes is usually the last person to be offended over a bit of bad language! My fellow swear-brother T.O. Munro observed not too long ago that ‘cussing and expletives are a fact of real-life and fantasy reading and writing should reflect that’. I happen to whole-heartedly agree. But I suspect that in this case, Mr French, there will be many others who don’t. Here’s why.
The word ‘quim’ appears 19 times. The word ‘cunt’, 12, and ‘cunny’, 6. Those under the impression that misogyny is exclusively the domain of men will no doubt label this phenomenon simply as ‘testosterone’. But even considering that 80-90% of the characters are male (or swine…), this is a whopping amount of misogyny (and vulgarity) for one book. And yes, even I took exception to it at first.
However, as the story went on and I became inured to the language I realised with a jolt that perhaps this is what you were trying to do all along. By involving the reader so thoroughly in the half-orcs’ vernacular that it becomes natural to us you make us unwittingly complicit in their worldview. And the moment we realise this, the more we come to understand the ‘mongrels’ and to notice that some characters use these terms less broadly than others. While many wield the word ‘quim’ about as naturally as an elderly person uses casual racism (by which I mean as a harmful yet unconscious product of their upbringing), others use it much more aggressively, either as an insult or as a way of deliberately demeaning certain individuals. Either way, such ingrained chauvinism is shocking . . . but it also tells us a lot about the nature of certain characters. And the rare moments of its absence also happen to be an excellent way of highlighting honourable actions that would otherwise have gone unnoticed by us.
The fact is, Mr French, your half-orcs have entirely different values to your readers. In many cases, these differences will be irreconcilable, and no doubt many a reader will criticise the book for its rampant and unforgiveable misogyny. To these readers I would simply say: well, what on earth did you expect? But I’d also encourage them to read on; to read between the lines, and to reserve judgement until the story is done. Because while the bigger picture changes very little, the ways in which it has changed are crucial. Subtle, even.
I’ll admit that ‘subtle’ is the last word I’d expect to see used when referring to a book featuring a hog-riding half-orc on the cover and emblazoned with the title ‘The Grey Bastards’. A book that, even for me, felt like entering some exclusive boys’ club, one where I wasn’t forbidden but neither was I welcomed. A book that is saturated with derogatory terms for women, and with characters who view women as little more than ‘walking genitalia’ (as Adrian aptly pointed out in their review on Bibliotropic). However, the initial sense of being ostracised vanishes within just a few pages. I daresay that no reader can refuse Jackal’s honest charm, or that of his companions Oats and Fetching. And the Kiln wasn’t built in a day; likewise, reform – of any kind – takes time, and every step is a step in the right direction.
To sum up then, Mr. French: I envy and admire you for this story you’ve crafted. Bastards is brutal. Bastards is brave. Bastards is utterly fearless and unashamed of being what it is. I greedily await more from Jackal and co., and fully intend to hound you for news about the hoof – a truer set of bastards you’ll never meet. I notice that you have a couple of other books available for purchase (at a very reasonable price, I might add) and I look forward to sampling these while I wait impatiently for you to take me back to the Lots.
For now, though, I’d like to raise a floppy tankard to The Grey Bastards’ brilliance. It’s the least I can do after such a satisfying ride, and I’m confident I won’t be the only SPFBO judge who does so
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.)
A fuller rundown of my 2016 antics can be found here. But now…
Now, on to my top 10 reads of 2016! I briefly reviewed my reading year here, but here’s the Official Definitive Top Ten:
These were, according to WordPress, the ten most popular posts of the year:
And the most popular by far:
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…
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!
Larcout is one of ten novels in the final round of Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) 2016. Updates on the contest’s progress can be found here.
I’m not sure what I was expecting when I chose K.A. Krantz’s novel to be the first SPFBO finalist I read and reviewed… but it certainly wasn’t what I got! Even now, I’m not entirely sure that words can do justice to such a surreal reading experience… but here goes.
Larcout is… bizarre. It’s confusing. It’s uneven, and it’s disorientating, and it’s awesome. Above all, it’s most definitely unique.
Kasthu. Roborgu. Inarchma.
“Live. Learn. Burn.”
This maxim – held by Larcout’s protagonist and repeated throughout the novel – is just as relevant to the reader’s journey as it is to the story. Kasthu (live): just go with it. Roborgu (learn): all will eventually become clear. Inarchma (burn): be prepared to have your own preconceptions – of the book, the characters, and the genre itself – annihilated.
Blood-beings can be chattel or char.
The opening pages very nearly turned me into char. Frowning, squinting, grumbling – I read, re-read and re-re-read them, struggling to comprehend just what the hell was going on. Once I’d (sort of) figured it out, however, I was hooked. Chattel to the story, you might say.
I read the first chapter with increasing interest, savouring the details of this unique and fascinating new culture and its intriguing protagonist, Vadrigyn. A blighted land with six – six! – suns, a cruel and winged fire-blooded race known as the Morsam, a sentient sea that keeps them prisoner, and a half-breed outcast with both strength and intelligence – I loved it.
Each ridge in her vambraces was a piece of a Morsam who had challenged her right to live. The ones she currently wore were far from her only pair.
Yes: I absolutely loved the first chapter. But then…
… after a brief and violent scrap with her hated brethren Vadrigyn is magically transported to an arena, where she and others are expected to engage in combat before an audience of unseen spectators. After meeting a flurry of new characters and ‘passing’ the test, our protagonist is again uprooted and replanted somewhere new – this time to the insular Jewelled City, where she learns that she’s now ‘bonded’ with a mentor named le Zyrn. More, the bond can’t be severed until Vadrigyn passes her Trial of Identity… or until one – or both – die.
I’ll be honest and say that I read these chapters with increasing incredulity (and raised eyebrows). Having looked forward to an account of Vadrigyn’s survival techniques and anticipated her cunning escape from the cruel and unforgiving land of her birth, instead I got to watch as she was bundled on the deus ex machina express straight into the Hunger Games and then on into the Capitol – all in the space of a single chapter.
Thankfully, things stabilise somewhat from there on in… though I can’t say I’m a fan of the jewelled city itself, which is a bit too fanciful for my liking. Repetitive and simplistic descriptions oversaturated with the names of precious stones abound; yet I somehow struggled to envisage the layout of the city itself, despite continual references to its different tiers.
However, I did appreciate the ways in which the city’s political, economic and geographical circumstances resonated with today’s issues and tense global climate.
This is about opening the gate and re-engaging in trade with our neighbors. It makes dire predictions about famine and plague descending upon the dome, and urges civil war if the gate remains closed. It accuses the Order of Minds of deceiving the populace, of tricking our people into believing we are prosperous as an isolated nation.
For me, this aspect of Larcoutian culture also has echoes of the Ministry of Truth from 1984: after all, the Order of Minds can provoke conflict, influence emotions and even alter memories, effectively controlling the desires and behaviours of the entire populace. This facet of the story is, unfortunately, not used to its fullest potential, and is relegated instead to a convenient feature of the plot to be called on only when necessary.
On the other hand, the fact that every Larcoutian citizen eventually develops some sort of similar supernatural talent is almost awesome enough for us to overlook this slightly disappointing unevenness. In addition to the Order of Minds, Krantz also gives us the Order of Stone (who can manipulate the earth to extract precious materials, and who are trained to use their powers for combat as well as construction) and the Order of Body (healers, essentially). The subtleties of each order – not to mention the convoluted way in which families are intertwined by the unpredictable mentor-acolyte bonds – adds yet another layer of conflict to the story, which is confusing but fascinating.
And it isn’t just the Larcoutians who possess these talents; our heroine has some fantastically lethal gifts of her own, not least of which are the Dorgof. The Dorgof – deadly, venomous parasites fused to the bones and muscles within Vadrigyn’s forearms – burst forth from her palms whenever she feels threatened, and make it impossible for any other living creature to make physical contact with her hands.
Death by her touch was not instant, but it was assured.
As you can imagine, these living weapons make for plenty of vicious and bloody fights. Even when Vadrigyn refrains from calling on the Dorgof, her own Morsam strength and self-taught skill in battle make for some equally violent scenes – many of which I couldn’t help but picture in the slow-motion-blood-spray cinematic style of a Zack Snyder movie or an episode of Starz’ Spartacus.
Vadrigyn pivoted. Her fist connected squarely with the nose of the closest fool… and punched through the back of his skull. Blood and brain oozed down her wrist and stained her vambrace. The body reduced to sand, leaving her with a skull bracelet.
Vadrigyn is a brilliant heroine because she’s strong in other ways, too. Resourceful, pragmatic, adaptable – our protagonist is quick to learn (roborgu) and becomes increasingly open-minded as the story progresses. She’s also surprisingly loyal, as well as (unsurprisingly) honest; and best of all, she sticks to her principles whilst also demonstrating a rare willingness to listen to reason.
The biggest issue I have with Vadrigyn’s character is the fact that she adapts a little too quickly to her sudden transition from Agenwold to Larcout. Though she’s at a huge disadvantage in every situation, she rarely proves to be less than competent. She dons women’s clothing and learns to dance with minimal resistance; and her grasp of Larcoutian politics and history is somewhat inexplicable considering that her entire life has been spent in an uncivilised land filled with blood and battle. The reader never really has cause to doubt that Vadrigyn will survive, and this sense of invincibility can, at times, make her difficult to empathise with.
If she could not have freedom, she would have dominion.
However, it’s impossible not to admire such aggressive resolve, and such flat-out refusal to become a victim. This mindset is what really makes Vadrigyn an effective protagonist. I shared her frustration with the Larcoutian women’s complicity in their own weakness; the refusal of even the most forward-thinking of them to understand that power lies not only in the body but in the mind. Vadrigyn is a perfect antidote to the Jewelled City’s strict patriarchy; and watching her demolish expectations, traditions, prejudices and manipulations is immensely satisfying.
I do feel obliged to point out that there are occasions where the author’s over-excited prose makes things more confusing than they need to be:
Vadrigyn stood helpessly frozen as disbelief rode the cold pulsing with every rampant heartbeat, threatening to collapse her skull and explode her lungs from competing pressures.
At times like these I would either re-read the lines until my eyes glazed over, or simply allow myself to drift over such segments until I reached a part less saturated with hyperbole.
It’s this unevenness that made Larcout so difficult to rate. In my opinion, the prologue deserves at least an 8; the second chapter, a 5 at best; and so on. An uneven yet well-written tale, Larcout is bizarre and imaginative, with moments of brilliance that shine brightly enough to banish the shadows of confusion that obscure its early chapters. Though far from perfect, I still find myself thinking about it (despite finishing it days ago), and can say with certainty that the sequel will make its way onto my ‘to read’ list.
This review originally appeared on Fantasy-Faction on 30th November 2016.
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!)
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.
And of course, one of my favourite reads of the year: Los Nefilim, a 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?