Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Book Review: CITY OF LIES by Sam Hawke

Title: City of Lies

Author: Sam Hawke

Publisher: Tor Books

Publication Date: July 3, 2018

Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟1/2

Let me start first by thanking Tor Books for providing me an advanced reader copy of this book, as the official release date for CITY OF LIES is July 3, 2018.  I always appreciate receiving review copies before the actual publication date and I do not ever take that for granted.  I also have to admit to being somewhat ignorant with regard to this title until very recently.  However, once I read the synopsis of CITY OF LIES by Sam Hawke, I thought it sounded incredibly intriguing and immediately requested an advanced copy.  CITY OF LIES is Australian author Sam Hawke's first novel and the very first entry in her Poison Wars series.  The buzz is really beginning to grow for this book and for Sam Hawke to have landed with Tor so early in her career is just a testament to the talents that Tor feels she already possesses as an author.  Couple that with the fact that she and Robin Hobb are personal friends and I absolutely couldn't wait to read this, seeing as Ms. Hobb is definitely on my top three authors of all time list.  With all of that in mind, I quickly jumped into the story of Jovan and his sister Kalina.

CITY OF LIES begins with the line "I was seven years old the first time my uncle poisoned me".  Well, if that isn't an attention-grabber of a first line I don't know what is!  The story unfolds in the city of Silasta, also know as " The Bright City".  Silasta is by all accounts a cultured and wealthy city of the privileged but also rife with corruption and greedy capitalistic abuses.  The downtrodden who live in the surrounding areas of Silasta have been attempting an overthrow of the city for some time, fomenting riots and other public displays of defiance.  However, the Chancellor of the city is an incredibly powerful man who has been able to stave off every coup attempt and has managed to marginalize the less-fortunate masses living outside of the city and keep them relatively under control.  That is until the day that two highly influential members of the hierarchy are poisoned and the Chancellor is faced with the very real possibility that there is an undetected assassin afoot within the walls of Silasta itself.  Enter the two main characters of CITY OF LIES Jovan and Kalina.  They are both what are known as "proofers".  Essentially the job of a proofer is to guard against their leaders being poisoned either through their food of by various other means.  The way they are trained for this incredibly important job is to be gradually poisoned at a very early age and then throughout their lives so that they can develop a sort of immunity to poisons while also being able to detect hundreds of different forms and essences of those poisons before they ever reach the lips of the people who they are charged to guard.  Jovan is thrust into the role of guarding the privileged heir of the Chancellor Tain when his sister Kalina's health is too frail to carry out her duties.  When the two leaders of Silasta are poisoned (one of whom happens to be Jovan and Kalina's uncle, the still fairly inexperienced Jovan must learn quickly because the fate of Silasta and its stranglehold on the populace is very much in danger.  As word slowly leaks out of their deaths, the rebellion gains more confidence, seeing it as an opportunity and a chink in the armor of the otherwise impregnable city.  As a result Jovan, Kalina, and the heir Tain rush to solve the murders before any more occur and the ensuing instability causes an overthrow of Silasta and its noble ruling class.  It is in the process of attempting to solve the poisoning murders that the three begin to peel back the layers of the truth at the heart of the city of Silasta and start to question what they have always been taught about their upbringing and world.  For Silasta  is not the Utopian society it has always been portrayed as for these three friends, and when they are faced with the reality of the deceit and intolerance that is a matter of course in the city, their entire perspective is devastatingly altered.  How will that effect their future and the future of the city that they have always called home?  Will the heir to the Chencellorship Tain be open to the truth or will he reject it in an effort to guarantee and solidify his power and eventual ascension as the future Chancellor of Silasta?

I love when I have absolutely zero expectations before I read a book.  That's by no means a knock, I just mean that I had read no reviews of this book nor had I seen any marketing material other than the cover and back-cover synopsis.  It really makes reading a book like this a freeing experience and you can just let the story unfold and wash over you with no preconceived notions as to what you are about to read.  There are so many things that I liked about this book.  The first one was the constant switching of viewpoint perspective with each chapter, alternating between both Jovan and Kalina.  At first I didn't think I was going to like it and I was a bit confused.  However, as the book went on I felt that it enhanced the story for me.  I enjoyed seeing the events taking place through the eyes of two different people in very different situations.  Once I got used to the fact that each chapter would be told through alternating perspectives, I loved it.  Another thing that I liked about the book was the exceptional world-building.  The city of Silasta is fascinating and the backstory of the disgruntled lower-class trying to overthrow their oppressive leaders was a deftly-handled one.  It's a timeless plot theme really and we as readers can easily relate to a story like this because we've seen it in the real history of our world on many occasions.  Lastly, I'd like to touch on the characters, most specifically the brother and sister duo of Jovan and Kalina.  It is here where Sam Hawke really shows her prowess as a writer.  The complex relationship between the two while also balancing that with the obvious love that they have for each other carries the story and lifts it from simply a good tale to a great one.  I highly recommend CITY OF LIES and the good news is that this is just the first book in hopefully a long series where we can enjoy this world and these characters for years and years to come.  

Friday, May 18, 2018

Book Review: A GATHERING OF RAVENS by Scott Oden

Title: A Gathering of Ravens

Author: Scott Oden

Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books

Publication Date: June 20, 2017

Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Let me first begin by saying that I absolutely love Norse mythology.  I have been obsessed with it since I was a boy and remember vividly walking to the public library on the corner of my street to check out any book that I could find on the subject.  I had heard smatterings about Scott Oden's A Gathering of Ravens from various social media outlets and I must admit that the cover of the book instantly caught my attention when I saw it.  I mean what's not to like about the image of a huge black raven swooping down in a menacing manner against the backdrop of a gray sky?  I really had no idea when I first heard about the book that it had a heavy Norse mythology influence, I just wanted to read it because the buzz was all positive and from people who I greatly respect.  That and it just seemed like a book that I would enjoy.  By sheer luck a representative from Transworld Books and Penguin saw me discussing the book on Twitter and asked me if I would like a review copy delivered to me.  I instantly jumped at the chance, since I had already made the decision to read it, and a week later the book was on my front step. Thanks go out to the publisher for providing that copy for me, I was extremely grateful to receive it.  So with book in hand I was more than ready to crack it open and begin reading it that evening and did so once the kids were fast asleep.

A Gathering of Ravens begins innocently enough in Scandinavia (Denmark to be exact).  Two travellers are seeking shelter from a storm for the night and stumble upon a secluded cave.  One is a Dane who has recently converted to Christianity named Njall.  The other is a Briton and also a Christian named Etain who serves as Njall's companion in Christ and friend who is also helping to guide him through his newly-discovered faith.  They begin gathering everything that they will need to hunker down for the night when they suddenly hear faint noises emitting from the back of the cave.  At first they believe it may just be an animal startled by their presence but the squatter soon reveals itself to be an orc who is angered that the two have trespassed upon its lair.  The orc's name is Grimnir and after a heated back and forth he grudgingly agrees to allow Njall and Etain to stay in the cave until morning but makes no promises that they will awaken alive with the sunrise.  Njall and Etain take the orc's threats somewhat seriously but assume that he will keep his word and allow them to shelter for the night in relative peace.  That being said, they do not sleep too soundly and when Etain awakens early she discovers that their horse has escaped its mooring and run away.  After tracking down the horse she returns to find Grimnir brutally beating Njall to within an inch of his life.  Grimnir takes Etain hostage and tells her that the only way that she will remain alive and not meet the same fate as Njall is if she promises to be his guide to England.  He reveals to her that he has an old score to settle with a Dane who slew his brother many years back.  Grimnir has been harboring an insatiable anger against the filthy Dane and wants nothing more than to exact his vengeance upon him.  What also becomes apparent is that Grimnir is the last of his kind, the last in a line of ancient monsters that once ravaged the land but are now all but extinct.  What is quite amazing about Grimnir is he insists that he has been alive for over a thousand years, telling Etain that he walked the land during the same time as Etain's "Nailed Christ" as he continually refers to the Christian God.  Grimnir's disdain of the religion is palpable and it is obvious that he has no time for it.  Etain is terrified of Grimnir but also puts her faith in her creator to help see her through the journey that Grimnir has forced her to embark on upon fear of death.  As they travel to England to carry out Grimnir's murderous plot, the relationship between Grimnir and Etain slowly changes.  Is Etain having an effect on the volatile orc as she continually references her faith in their conversations?  Will Grimnir reconsider his plan to slay the killer of his brother?  What travails will be encountered along their journey to England and most mysterious, what is the story of Grimnir's life and how he got to where he is now?  Was he always a belligerent wretch or did he live a life of happiness and peace at one time?  All of these questions can only be answered by reading A Gathering of Ravens.  And some of the answers are not ones that you might expect.

Scott Oden has delivered a truly epic story with A Gathering of Ravens.  The fact that the book relies heavily on Norse and Celtic myths just served to ramp up my enjoyment factor.  Grimnir is a truly complex character who starts the book out as a murderous singularly focused creature who by the end of the book becomes so much more than that.  And therein lies the brilliance of this book, the characters evolve and become something other than what they ever thought they could be when we were first introduced to them.  I couldn't help but make the connection to real life where people who you never thought would ever change begin to look at things differently when exposed to different people and experiences.  It also shows how our stereotypes are incorrect in most cases and that often when we pigeonhole people into just being a specific way or thinking a certain way, we find ourselves having to reevaluate our preconceptions.  Scott Oden does a masterful job of using Grimnir as that vehicle and shining a light on how we can sometimes put people in a box.  In addition to the characters, the world-building is just fantastic, taking place in the desolate reaches of Scandinavia and then shifting to Medieval Europe and England.  And yet even with these real places as the backdrop, Oden injects a significant amount of mysticism and magic that works as a wonderful dichotomy and makes the setting of the book a real treat to experience.  This book was so good that I finished it in about four days.  I spent the last couple turning the pages feverishly well past my usual bedtime because I needed to know how everything would wrap up.  It has been a long time since a book has done that to me.  In the end, I found A gathering of Ravens to be one of my favorite reads of the year and a book that if you have not read it, you need to find a copy of soon and devour it like I did.  I can't recommend this highly enough to anyone who loves Norse and Celtic mythology but also just likes a page-turning fantasy that involves deep complex characters that seem to leap from the page.  Well done Scott Oden, I look forward to the next book in the series!

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Book Review: FOUNDRYSIDE by Robert Jackson Bennett

Title: Foundryside

Author: Robert Jackson Bennett

Publisher: Crown Publishing

Publication Date: August 21, 2018

Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Whenever anyone asks me to list some of my all-time favorite fantasy series, a series that I always include on that list is The Divine Cities by Robert Jackson Bennett.  I remember reading it a few years ago and being utterly blown away by how different and fresh the trilogy was.  What I liked most was the incredible world-building and the fact that Bennett took all of the standard themes of fantasy and turned them on their head.  It was one of the best dark fantasies that I had ever had the pleasure of reading.  So I was already a huge fan of Bennett's before I knew that he had another book coming out.  I was very lucky to have been granted an advanced reader copy of his brand new title Foundryside by Crown Publishing, even more so because the book doesn't officially drop for another three months.  So without further delay, let me expound a little bit on Foundryside, the first book in Robert Jackson Bennett's Founders series.

Foundryside takes place in an industrialized fantasy city called Tevanne where the upper class merchant society is segregated from the lesser common population.  Magic has also been industrialized and practiced through a revolutionary technology known as scriving.  Scriving is essentially changing the form or purpose of an inanimate object by simply writing certain commands on it and making that object believe it is something other than what it is.  For instance, if you would like a wooden ox cart to get to a certain marketplace a little earlier than scheduled, a practitioner of scriving would etch the words "fast" on the wheels.  If you would like a weapon to have an even deadlier effect on your enemies, the word "down" could be etched onto the weapon so that every time it is wielded it believes that it is falling straight down to the earth with the full force of gravity.  This ability to manipulate the properties of objects to suit an individual's needs is truly a powerful skill that can be used for both good and bad purposes.  Sancia Grado is a thief and street urchin who also has a unique magical ability that she doesn't understand and can't really control.  Unlike scriving, where words are etched onto inanimate objects, Sancia actually has the ability to speak to objects and make them do what she wants.  She also can understand everything about an object by simply touching it to find out its weak points, or in the case of cracking a lock on a safe, she can communicate with the lock to find the access points that will eventually make that lock open.  She has been employed by a local thieving gang and is enlisted to perform a very important job of stealing a certain artifact of great value.  Sancia doesn't know who the job is for or what the artifact is but she dutifully goes about carrying out her task.  It is only after she returns to her boss and finds him murdered that she begins to realize that someone wants what she has stolen and wants it badly enough to kill for it.  Now someone wants her dead as well and Sancia must flee for her life while also trying to find out who exactly it is that is after her and why they want the artifact in her possession.  That's not the least of her worries because Sancia has begun to communicate with the mysterious artifact that she has stolen.  What the artifact has to say will reveal more about the conspiracy that runs deep through the city of Tevanne and uncover long buried secrets that will shake Sancia's world forever.  Among other things, she will also discover disturbing things about herself and why she can't remember how she obtained her mysterious powers.  

Foundryside is about 180 degrees different in both theme and tone form Robert Jackson Bennett's first series The Divine Cities.  The first thing that I became  increasingly aware of was the injection of a bit of humor in this book.  For those who have read his earlier series The Divine Cities, you will know that it was about as dour and stark a setting as you can create.  And the characters were about as serious as serious can get.  While this book is by no means a Terry Pratchett novel, it did have considerably more lighter moments than its predecessors.  This just shows the flexibility and range of Bennett in that he can write just as compelling and entertaining of a book while going in a completely different direction in style from what he has written before.  I actually couldn't believe that I was reading the same author's work.  Foundryside was such an enjoyable book on so many different levels.  The magic system was one of the more original that I have ever encountered and I thought that it was extremely well done.  Another thing that made this book so good was the constant mystery of Sancia's powers and her trying to piece together why she can't remember how she acquired them, where she came from, etc.   That mystery really gave the book an added dimension to go along with the intrigue of her enemies pursuit of her and the artifact.  If you are looking for a different kind of fantasy novel that really can't be pigeonholed into any particular category, then Foundryside is a book that you should definitely read.  Unfortunately, many will have to wait until late August when it is officially released.  I consider myself extremely fortunate to have been able to read this early because it was so much fun from beginning to end and I was sad when it was over.  Robert Jackson Bennett just keeps getting better and better.  I sincerely hope that there are many more books to come in this series and that they are just as good as this one was.  Read Foundryside, I promise you won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Book Review: THE GREY BASTARDS by Jonathan French

Title: The Grey Bastards

Author: Jonathan French

Publisher: Crown Publishing

New Publishing Date: June 19, 2018

My Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟1/2

The journey of the book The Grey Bastards and its author Jonathan French has been an interesting one to say the least.  The book won the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off contest back in 2017 among some quality competition (one of which being Phil Tucker's Path of Flames, which I liked a great deal).  Soon after winning this award, a major publisher Crown Publishing came a calling for Mr. French.  The book was then pulled from the market and is now scheduled to be re-released by Crown next month complete with a beautiful new cover and marketing campaign.  Suffice it to say it has been a whirlwind couple of years for Jonathan French and all of the attention that The Grey Bastards has garnered lately has made me want to read it all the more.  I was extremely lucky when I procured an advanced reader copy of the Grey Bastards from Crown Publishing a couple of weeks ago and subsequently tore through it from front cover to last page in about 6 days or so.  I have to say up front that I usually don't enjoy books that lean on the Grimdark side of things, but this one has a lot more going for it than just the violence aspect and as a result, I did end up really liking The Grey Bastards.

The main setting for the Grey Bastards is the Lot Lands and its surrounding territories.  The Lot Lands is a strip of land that separates the human kingdom of Hispartha from the orc-dominated land filled with marauding bands who want nothing more than to pillage, kill and destroy all non-orcs.  Think of the Lot Lands as the only buffer that keeps orcs from totally overrunning the virtually helpless human lands.  The only protection the humans have from these murderous orcs are a company of half-orcs called The Grey Bastards.  The Bastards are kind of stuck in the middle, not really accepted by the humans but even more hated by their full-blooded orc brethren.  So the Bastards have settled into a tenuous alliance with the kingdom of Hispartha which enlists their protection in keeping the pillaging orcs off their backs in return for being tolerated and somewhat left alone to go about their uneasy existence.  There is also a side story that deals with the internal friction inside The Grey Bastards ranks, specifically between their current ineffectual leader The Claymaster and an upstart hoof Jackal who sees through his ineptitude and wants to overthrow him for leadership rights.  When Jackal kills a human nobleman in self-defense, the unsteady alliance between the Bastards and Hispartha is tested, and when a mysterious sorcerer shows up among the their ranks, Jackal must decide who is friend and who is foe very quickly.  For there appears to be a growing conspiracy against the crown that Jackal may be the only one who can get to the bottom of.  But the question is does he even want to?  Will it matter in the end when The Grey Bastards have always been looked at as nothing more than former slaves who need to simply be tolerated rather than embraced?  And what part does the sorcerer who just appeared one day play in all of these intrigues?

The Grey Bastards is not an easy book to read.  I don't mean that in any stylistic or storyline way because this is a very good book.  I mean there is a ton of language, violence, sexual situations etc.  Jackal likes his prostitutes and the Bastards use a copious amount of colorful language in their conversations with each other.  In saying that however, it never seemed to be misplaced with the type of story I was reading.  I mean, I was reading a book about some unsavory characters and some pretty heinous villains.  And the damn book is called The Grey Bastards, so you kind of know going in that you aren't reading Jane Austen.  The great thing about this book is that you really feel connected to the characters and quickly form a bond with them.  You get a picture of Jackal that is of someone who just wants to live his life but at every turn someone is screwing it up for him.  He's duty-bound to protect his Bastard brothers and so feels compelled to challenge The Claymaster when he feels their leader is doing them a disservice.  He also knows that the only reason why the humans who shun him at every turn even exist is through his protection.  It's an irony that is maddening since the humans show no respect to the half-orcs who protect their very lives and existence.  I couldn't help but think that French was making a statement about prejudice and discrimination the more I read.  With each interaction between the humans and half-orcs, the disdain with which the humans treat the Grey Bastards is palpable.  I could be wrong there and I don't want to speak for Jonathan, but I just got a really strong sense that there were more parallels to this story and the real world than not.  And the fact that I actually began to sympathize with the Bastards really shows you the type of writer that Jonathan French is.  I could see that they were in a position where they couldn't win and for the most part it wasn't of their choosing.  This is so easily relatable to the real world and I can't help but keep harping back to that.  I connected with this book on that level so much and it made my reading experience even deeper and more thought-provoking.  So what I thought was going to be a fun fantasy read about a bunch of hooligan orcs riding hogs, ended up being so much more than that and it is a testament to Jonathan French that he can make a social point while disguising it as a raunchy violent fantasy book.  Consider me a huge fan of Jackal and the gang.  But be forewarned, these ain't your grandfathers orcs.  Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys the works of Joe Abercrombie and Glen Cook.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Book Review: A TIME OF DREAD by John Gwynne

Title: A Time of Dread

Author: John Gwynne

Publisher: Pan MacMillan

Original Publishing Date: January 11, 2018

My Rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

First off let me say that John Gwynne's Faithful and the Fallen series is one of my top 10 fantasy series of all time.  That series really restored my faith in fantasy as a whole and seemed to breathe life into a genre that was getting a bit stale.  Another trend that has been happening in fantasy lately is the emergence of grimdark as a dominant sub-genre.  To the point where it seems that every other fantasy book being released is filed under grimdark.  Due to this, epic fantasy and high fantasy have both taken a bit of a back seat.  Well after reading John Gwynne's previous series, I'm happy to say that there is now another author on the scene who is still writing tremendous epic fantasy.  I received a review copy of the first book in his new series A Time of Dread a while back and finally had some time to read it a few weeks ago.  I was very excited to dive back into the same world as his Faithful and Fallen books to see how things have changed since the events chronicled in that amazing series.  I am happy to say that not only did I think that A Time of Dread matched the intensity and great storytelling of its predecessor, but it may even be a shade better in my opinion.  That truly is difficult to do considering how great the earlier books were and how much I relished them.

As I said earlier, A Time of Dread takes place in the same world as the Faithful and Fallen series, only about 125 or so years after the events of that storyline.  The Ben-Elim, an angel-like race are rulers of the Banished Lands.  Locked in their eternal struggle with their hated enemy the demon-horde Kadoshim, it is a time still embroiled in the constant threat of war.  The Ben-Elim have spent the majority of their time after the cataclysmic war tracking down and eradicating the remnants of the Kadoshim who still hide in seclusion in small pockets to stave off a possible resurgence that could threaten the uneasy peace that has settled over the land.  We are slowly introduced to a number of new point of view characters that carry this timeline of the story and do it quite well.  Here is where I think Gwynne did himself a great service as there are only about four main POV characters to focus on this time around.  In the Faithful and Fallen series there was quite a large cast to keep track of and I believe that by tightening the scope of the characters in A Time of dread, the story really comes to the forefront and is told in a much more effective manner.  Asroth, the brutal Kadoshim leader is imprisoned in the Ben-Elim fortress  at Drassil and the remaining forces of the Kadoshim are plotting to free him.  This cannot be allowed, which makes the Ben-Elim campaign against the leftover Kadoshim even more urgent.  As a result, they are seen in this first book as a race that is becoming ever more ambitious in conquering older kingdoms while also rooting out dissent in their quest to completely wipe out the Kadoshim.  The problem is they do not have eyes everywhere and there is a faction of the Kadoshim that are gaining strength and amassing a force that has not been seen in over a century.  Can war be averted again, or will the Ben-Elim have to once again face their ancient enemy on the battlefield where the result could be very different this time around.  Deception and intrigue are the order of the day in the Banished Lands and just as in the earlier series, John Gwynne takes no prisoners and isn't afraid to put main characters in peril.  

I didn't think I could be more impressed with a John Gwynne series than I was with the Faithful in the Fallen.  I have to admit that I prepared myself to be mildly disappointed with A Time of Dread because I couldn't see how he could ramp things up after that emotional roller coaster of a series.  If this first book is any indication, then we are in for another real treat from the mind of Mr. Gwynne.  I especially liked the way John tied the first book of this series in with the previous one without it seeming like just a retelling of the Faithful and the Fallen.  This is a totally new storyline but definitely uses the history that is already laid out effectively to give the reader some important context for what is going on now.  The idea of a still-existent threat by the kadoshim really builds tension and it carries throughout the entire first book.  I felt more connected to the viewpoint characters this time around as well.  I'm not sure if that is a product of being more familiar with Gwynne's style but it was something that I definitely noticed.  Another thing that John Gwynne does very effectively is write battle scenes.  It's no secret that the guy loves viking history and takes part in a lot of battle recreations, so his attention to detail when it comes to that is impeccable.  You can almost feel the crushing of skulls and smell the copper scent of blood when you read a John Gwynne book.  This one is thankfully no different in that regard.  A Time of Dread takes the Faithful and the Fallen storyline and turns it up to 11 in A Time of Dread.  What a wonderful fantasy book that hits all the right chords and delivers a first book that makes your mouth water for the next in the series.  I just hope it isn't too long before we get to be thrust back into the Banished Lands to revel in this truly fantastic world that John Gwynne has created for us.  Highly, highly recommended.