Thursday, March 29, 2018

Book Review: MAGE'S BLOOD by David Hair

Title: Mage's Blood

Author: David Hair

Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books

Original Publishing Date: September 27,2012

My Rating: 🌟🌟🌟

Sometimes I read a book that everyone else seems to love and for some reason it just doesn’t resonate with me. Then I wonder, “Is it just me?” or “Did I miss something?” David Hair’s Moontide series is one that I kept hearing amazing things about. Hair is a New Zealand author, one of many up and coming talented writers who have been emerging on the fantasy scene recently from that island country. One particular review that I came across regarding this series even went so far as to say that it was a worthy substitute if you are eagerly awaiting the next George R.R. Martin Song of Ice and Fire book to be released. That is high praise indeed! So I felt like I wasn’t really taking a very big chance when I picked up the first volume, Mage’s Blood based primarily on all of the good publicity. After reading the summary it looked like Hair was attempting to construct a fantasy retelling of the whole Middle Eastern culture vs the western conflict that has evolved in our past and present “real life” history. I have never read a fantasy book that touched on this topic before and it intrigued me to say the least. Hair definitely has some guts to tread into that territory and I thought it was not only a brave move but also a fresh idea to try to tell the story of that history in a fantasy-like setting where magic is involved. I was very eager to get started and had high hopes that I would be deeply engrossed in this book and ultimately the rest of the series going forward. I prepared myself to be blown away, which is always a perilous move when you read something new. Alas, although I thought the book was entertaining and even somewhat captivating at times, there were a few things that stopped me from really liking it and in the end; it didn’t click on enough levels to make me want to give it anything more than a slightly above average rating.
The action of Mage’s Blood unfolds on two major continents: Yuros and Antiopia. Yuros is essentially Europe and Antiopia could be considered the Middle East. The continent of Yuros is populated with powerful mages who use their powers to subjugate the lesser populace on their own continent as well as the people of Antiopia. Long ago in the history of the two lands, a Leviathan Bridge connecting the two continents was erected across the ocean by a renegade mage named Antonin Meiros. The bridge would appear every 10 years with the Moontide and was initially designed to promote trade, communication, and understanding between the two vastly different cultures. However, the ruling mages of Yuros quickly became distrustful of the people of Antiopia and decided to launch a violent crusade to occupy it for the purpose of conquest. The last two crusades were devastatingly successful in Yuros’ favor and there is a growing fear in Antiopia that when the next Moontide raises the Leviathan Bridge again, the next crusade may spell the final end for Antiopia. A small band of transplanted Yuros citizens who emigrated to Antiopia for peaceful purposes during one of the crusades may be the only hope in turning away the third crusade. These citizens are led by Elena Anborn, former Yuros assassin turned guardian and chief councilor to the most influential royal family in Antiopia. Elena, a powerful mage in her own right, sees that Yuros is only concerned with conquering and exploiting Antiopia and is determined that the continent be ready for the attack when it eventually comes. Will the invaders be thrown back by Antiopia’s forces? Or will the mages in Yuros win out again and ultimately conquer the whole of that land, forever enslaving its people under their brutal rule.
This book had so many possibilities that could have made it great for me. The parallel to Islamic/Indian cultures clashing with western culture is something that I was interested in because of everything that is going on in the world today. I definitely thought it was an interesting avenue to pursue for a fantasy book/series. The Crusades mentioned in the first few chapters are obviously a reference to the Christian crusades of the 11th and 12th century in which many Muslims living in that part of the world were forced to either convert or die. So when that part of the story came up, I totally got it and understood what Hair was trying to do. It’s only as I read further into the story that I began to see that instead of simply telling the story of the historical conflict between the west and middle-east culture in a balanced way, just in a different setting, Hair’s personal commentary largely overpowered the narrative. Reading it, I was struck by how every single viewpoint character on the continent of Yuros was evil, selfish, conniving, a murderer etc. These people had no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Conversely, the majority of the characters living in Antiopia were just simple people looking to be left alone. They were portrayed as helpless victims of the maniacal mages of Yuros with no counterbalance at all. Let me speak plainly, I have no skin in the game when it comes to the real world conflict happening in our world today. I think that both sides have done some unspeakably horrible things over the years and that there is no good guy in this scenario. My main beef concerns how it was handled in this book. When reading a story where you have two sides, both of which are cookie-cutter portrayals of bad and good, it takes away from any enjoyment that I have regarding the plot. It truly is a shame because Hair is a skilled writer and there were times where I got immersed in the story, only to be put off by yet another vile act committed by the incredibly evil mages of Yuros on the helpless Antiopians. I was expecting more intricate plotting and less “black and white” so to speak. As a result of this, I found myself not enjoying the book for large chunks at a time. I’m not saying that this is a bad book; not by a long shot. I’m simply saying that personally, I need more complexity and less overtly-predictable character descriptions. Simply describing one side as always bad and the other as always good and then never deviating from that template doesn’t do it for me. I can only give Mage’s Blood average marks, but if you are into fantasies that are a classic good vs. evil plot with a lot of military action thrown in, then this one may be for you. Sadly, it just wasn’t for me.

Book Review: GILDED CAGE by Vic James

Title: Gilded Cage 

Author: Vic James

Publisher: Del Ray

Original Publishing Date: February 14, 2017

My Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟1/2

England is no longer the England that we are all familiar with. In this alternate England, everyone is by no means equal and all are not citizens with full rights. It is an England now ruled by a select few aristocratic families or “Equals” touched with a special magic called the skill. This magic can burn entire buildings to the ground, influence people’s thought and actions, and in some cases even kill. Those who wish to become citizens with full rights must serve the Equals as indentured servants or even worse, be shipped to a factory slave town called Millmoor. There they will serve as slaves for a full decade of their lives under horrendous living conditions and harsh supervision. The most prominent of these Equals are the Jardines. Their family was the first to impose the Slavedays Compact upon the citizenry hundreds of years prior. Consequently, they now hold a place of great prominence, prestige, and influence in the council government. Yet there are secrets buried within the musty library inside the Jardine estate which if uncovered, could change the course of England’s future and may potentially reveal the secrets behind what led to the heinous compact that now keeps all commoners under the boot of tyranny and oppression. There are those; however, who want the Slavedays to end and are working behind the scenes to force a vote within the council eliminating the barbaric compact forever. They, along with a small rebellious faction who have risen up within the factory slave town of Millmoor to fight for their freedom, may ultimately be the key to ending the scourge of the Equals once and for all.
Vic James is a new writer who has emerged on the scene with great fanfare. Ms. James completed her doctorate in the Vatican Secret Archives, which I found incredibly interesting. Gilded Cage is her first book, which makes what she has accomplished here all the more impressive. I have wanted to read and review Gilded Cage for quite some time as I kept hearing the comparisons to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. I’m a huge fan of the Victorian-era magic theme and so I went on a quest to track down a copy so that I could see for myself what the buzz was about. After reading Gilded Cage, I will say that the comparisons to Clarke are only valid when it comes to the splendid quality of the writing. For when I actually immersed myself in the story, it bore little resemblance to that 19th century time period and plot. The crux of the story of Gilded Cage takes place in a modern day England, albeit a significantly alternate modern day England. Yes, the feel of the writing and specific settings do strike one as Victorian in nature, but that is part of the brilliance of the book. You can’t really pin down a specific time, and so the reader is left to appreciate the story instead of focusing on when in history this is occurring. It lends a uniqueness and freshness to the story as well as a very good mystery. The aspect that really made this book work for me was that I was constantly kept guessing and wondering what was truly going on throughout the entire book. I knew there was something that the author wasn’t revealing and Ms. James would give a snippet here, and a clue there, which I thought worked beautifully. The archaic practice of the Slavedays is a brutal but intriguing premise and ultimately I wanted to find out how that came about and to what ends was this practice initiated. Ms. James writes with the skill of someone who has been an author for decades. I was blown away by how beautiful the prose was and that just lent more effectiveness to the story for me. I haven’t read a book like Gilded Cage in a long time. It disturbed me at times, moved me to moments of joy, made me angry, and also created a sense of wonder in my mind that only a skilled author can deliver. 
In the end I was left emotionally spent and wanting another book to read immediately so that I can find out more about this amazing world that Vic James has envisioned. Extremely impressed is all I can really say. I recommend this to everyone regardless of what genre is your favorite. Even though it would be classified as Dystopian, the story is so well-written and compelling that any reader can appreciate and enjoy it. The good news is that Gilded Cage is just the first book of a planned multi-book series called The Dark Gifts. So there’s a lot more coming and I for one am happy to hear that. I really can’t wait to see where Vic James takes this series next. She’s an incredibly gifted author who should be making huge literary waves for years to come.

Book Review: THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE by Katherine Arden

Title: The Bear and the Nightingale

Author: Katherine Arden

Publisher: Del Ray

Original Publishing Date: January 10, 2017

My Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟1/2

So many fantasy books these days follow the same formulaic themes, plot, and character tropes that it is easy to get cynical when a new book comes along claiming to be something totally different and fresh. I simply cannot count the number of times I have cracked open a book advertised as “not your typical fantasy” and then after 100 pages been disappointed yet again because typical is exactly what it was. So it was with more than a little dose of skepticism that I picked up a review copy of Katherine Arden’s debut novel The Bear and the Nightingale. I will say that I was encouraged to see that both Terry Brooks and Naomi Novik gave the book glowing praise, so with that in my back pocket, I dove into the story.
The Bear and the Nightingale is a fairy tale, which in and of itself is somewhat rare in a genre lately dominated by epic high fantasy, military fantasy, and gritty grimdark. The story takes place in a medieval Russian village at the edge of a cold, snowy, and unforgiving wilderness. Pyotr Vladimirovich lives in this isolated village with his five children. His last-born daughter Vasya; however, is very different from her other siblings. Even before her birth, Pyotr’s first wife Marina knew that there was a specific role destined for Vasya and that even though it might end with her own death, she must go through with the pregnancy to bring her baby into the world. Marina does in fact pass away not too long after delivering Vasya but before dying, she forces her husband to promise that he will always look after precious Vasya and keep her safe. There is definitely a sense during this conversation that Marina is certain that Vasya will be special and needed for some unknown reason. Some months after his wife’s death, Pyotr travels on a long journey to Moscow with the goal of finding a new wife to help him raise his children. While there, a mysterious blue-eyed stranger approaches and hands him a necklace with a beautiful gem and implores him to give the priceless jewel to his newborn daughter as a gift. The stranger also insists that Pyotr make a promise to him that Vasya will keep it with her at all times and never part with it for any reason. Pyotr, not wishing to offend the man, accepts the gift and presents it to his daughter when he returns home some months later. He also returns with a new wife who sees demons everywhere she looks. Are they real or are they the delusions of a woman with mental illness? Even more peculiar is that ever since Vasya received the strange necklace, she has begun seeing mythical creatures of her own and can also speak with them. First there’s the gnome-like creature living in her father’s horse stables, then there’s the frog-like fairy creature who makes its home at the bottom of the bog not too far from their cabin. As Vasya becomes more adept at conversing with these mythical creatures, we begin to wonder for what purpose is this happening? Is there an evil lurking inside the wooded village that must be fought at all costs? Are the demons that her new stepmother is seeing in every corner of their cabin truly demons? And what part does Vasya and her new mythical friends have to play in keeping the evil contained and potentially vanquishing it altogether?
When I finished the last page of The Bear and the Nightingale, I was exhausted. Not in a bad way, but it really is an emotionally draining novel. So much of the story is very personal and Ms. Arden does an excellent job of making you emotionally invested in the characters. I really genuinely liked Vasya and I routed for her throughout the story. I felt sad for Pyotr and wanted to see him conquer the sadness of losing his wife and become the father he wished to be for his children. I felt angry when Pyotr’s new wife fell completely under the spell of the overly-devout priest who came to stay with their family. All of these emotions were elicited because a talented author brought them out of me. If I didn’t care about any of the characters, none of it would have mattered. But it did! Therein lies the brilliance of this novel, because yes, it is a fairy tale and a great story. But what makes it even better is the way the characters become attached to you and you can’t shake them. You think about them on your drive to work. You agonize over their plight while lying in bed before you fall asleep. It is truly a testament to Ms. Arden’s skill in her craft that she can create such a wonderful reading experience. In the end, I have to say that The Bear and the Nightingale deserves all of the praise it has gotten up to this point. If you are looking for a phenomenal fairy tale fantasy read, you can’t go wrong with this book. The history and mythology that is also intermingled into the story gives it an added dimension that will please readers who enjoy those elements in their stories. Highly recommended.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Book Review: THE HIDDEN FACE by S.C. Flynn

Title: The Hidden Face

Author: S.C. Flynn

Publisher: The Hive

Original Publishing Date: November 25, 2017

My Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟1/2

About two years ago I read a book called Children of the Different by an Australian-born author, now living in Ireland named S.C. Flynn.  It knocked my socks off quite frankly and was one of the best Young Adult fantasy books that I had read in a long time.  So when I was able to procure a review copy of his latest novel The Hidden Face, I was very excited indeed.  Just at first glance I could already tell that this was a book that would be quite different from his previous one.  The Hidden Face definitely seemed to have more of an adult fantasy bent.  So on a late Friday night last week I finally got to open up the first page and begin my journey with The Hidden Face.

The premise behind S.C. Flynn's The Hidden Face is a very unique one.  Once every few hundred years, the god Akhen takes on human form to coexist with the inhabitants of Earth.  His arrival and unmasking always signifies that a great change will occur, usually in the form of one empire falling and another great empire taking shape.  The main character in this book is named Dayraven.  I remember thinking how cool a fantasy name this was when I first saw it and I immediately took a liking to the character based on his name alone.  Then I became more familiar with him through Flynn's masterful way of revealing his temperament and sense of honor by way of his interactions with the other characters in the story.  Dayraven is the son of a great hero from the past and returns to his home city of Faustia after years of being a hostage in enemy lands.  He quickly becomes disillusioned with his old city when he realizes that the current emperor Calvo has lost touch with his people and has become nothing but an eccentric. He cares only about taking over lands for the riches that they can provide him and seems nonplussed about anything else that could potentially bring harm to the land he oversees.  The truth is that Calvo is really nothing but a puppet controlled by Dayraven's old nemesis Astolf, who seeks his own designs for the throne and also the future of Faustia.  The book soon becomes a bit of a quest fantasy as Dayraven is paired together with a warrior named Sunniva and they embark on a journey to discover a scroll that may hold the secret to The Face and what secrets lie behind him.  Will the empire fall and be forcibly thrust into a new age, or can Dayraven and Sunniva stave off disaster and safe their homeland.  You can only get that answer by reading The Hidden Face and exploring its unique blend of mythology and adventure story.

I have to say that this book surprised me in a very good way. It was such a departure from Flynn's last book that I wasn't sure whether or not I would like it.  That hesitancy was quickly dispelled as I read the prologue and eventually was quickly sucked in by the mysteries revealed through Dayraven and Sunniva's quest.  There were also a lot of elements of adventure fiction melded into the fantasy aspect.  I thought this gave it a level of originality that I haven't encountered much of in the fantasy genre.  This is also a very adult novel in content, particularly the action scenes which at times were pretty violent.  I never thought it was in excess though and it never became a distraction but rather a natural flow of the story. The conclusion of The Hidden Face was not only surprising but borderline shocking.  I love books that make you think you know how everything will turn out, only to broadside you with something you never expected.  S.C. Flynn has done it again and continues to impress me with his depth of writing and ability to step up to the plate and deliver in any subcategory of fantasy.  I can't wait to see what he has in store next!  Hopefully another installment in this amazing world.  

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Book Review: Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft

Title: Senlin Ascends 

Author: Josiah Bancroft

Publisher: Orbit

Original Publishing Date: February 18, 2013

My Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

It seems like everyone is catching on a little late to The Tower of Babel series, including me.  The first book was published over five years ago but hasn't really garnered a ton of notice until recently.  Much of that has to do with the usual trials and tribulations that many self-published authors face when putting their books out there in the market.  These authors have to work twice as hard just to get their books to stand out in the vast sea of published material.  Josiah Bancroft is one such author who has apparently gotten the word out, so much so that he has even landed a publishing deal with Orbit.  As a result, Senlin Ascends is now the talk of the fantasy world with many readers putting it at the top of their favorites list.  So to say that I was more than eager to crack this one open and get started would be an understatement.  And any book that Mark Lawrence practically begs people to read is enough for me to want to find out more.

Senlin Ascends takes place in a well-constructed world where airships and steam engines are normal modes of transport.  In the center of this amazing setting stands the famed Tower of Babel, a tower so incredibly tall that the top cannot be seen from its base.  It is also recorded in The Everyman's Guide to the Tower of Babel that the tower actually took over 1,000 years to construct.  Enter Thomas Senlin, a newly-married school headmaster who believes that climbing to the top of the tower would be the ideal honeymoon activity for he and his wife Marya.  The catch is the tower possesses a myriad of secrets, dangers, and seedy layers, or ringdoms, that make the journey more than just a little treacherous for a mild-mannered bookish type such as Thomas.  Things then go very wrong when almost immediately Thomas loses Marya in the cacophony and chaos of the immense crowd of humanity fighting to push through the tower.  It is now incumbent on Thomas to search for his wife amidst the throngs, even if it means being thrust into extreme peril, for the tower isn't for the faint of heart.  Thomas thought he knew what he was signing up for, but the truth of the matter is far scarier and complex than even he imagined as he struggles to discover what has become of Marya.  Thomas must overcome his built-in timidness if he has any hope of succeeding in his quest.  It is only when he begins to explore the inner-workings of the tower that he fully realizes just the sort of predicament he has gotten himself and his wife into.  Each ringdom is unpredictable and unique in its own right and Thomas on more than one occasion is put in a position to fight for his very survival.  The ultimate question soon becomes, can he find Marya before it is too late?  And if he does manage to find her and survive, will he ever be the same after what he has seen?

There are a number of things that I particularly enjoyed about Josiah Bancroft's debut novel Senlin Ascends.  First, the world-building is simply brilliant.  Bancroft does an amazing job of creating this world inside a world with the tower.  As the different layers of the tower are uncovered, the reader is treated to some fascinating characters who only serve to deepen the mystery of what the tower was intended for and why it was built.  Make no mistake, this is a novel of layers just like the tower.  The deeper you go, the more nuggets are revealed to you and I was blown away by just how engrossed I became with the story.  What impressed me the most though was the quality of the writing.  Usually a new author takes a few books to finally hit his stride, but Bancroft writes like a seasoned author who already has multiple Hugos under his belt.  So did Senlin Ascends live up to expectations?  I would have to say yes, without question it did and then some.  What we have here is an instant fantasy classic that belongs on everyone's shelf to be picked up and read over and over.  The good news is that there is more of this to devour as book 2 - The Arm of the Sphinx has just been released in paperback and book 3 is close on the horizon.  I recommend The Tower of Babel very highly.  If you are looking for something a little different but superb, this one will definitely scratch that itch.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Welcome to Out Of This World Reviews!

So after taking a long hiatus from my own blogging to contribute and write reviews for a number of different fantasy blogs/websites, I've decided that I'm going to start from scratch and launch a brand new personal book review blog.  It has been a while since I did this but I am a book reviewer, that's what I do.  I also enjoy sharing my opinion about books with the general reading public.  I feel like I'm performing a service to both the reader who wants to spend their money on quality books and also the author who may need a signal boost to help get the word out.  The impetus behind the decision to fly solo again is frankly, I wasn't happy with the timeliness (or lack thereof) of my reviews being posted on these other websites.  There were times when I would submit a review and wouldn't see it published for a month or longer.  Needless to say for someone who loves to pump out reviews as quickly as possible, it got a bit frustrating.  After a while I figured it would just be best to have control of the pace that I read and review and also be able to publish my reviews immediately after I write them.  So here goes.  Hope you enjoy the blog and see some value from the book reviews that I will be publishing here.  If you love fantasy and scifi books as much as I do, I think you will.