Review: The King's Sword

King's Sword, Brightley

Imagine Worf with a smooth forehead and a bit less of a temper and you have Kemen Sendoa, a warrior committed to honour and his country, Erdem. He comes across the tracks of a city boy in the snow one day and follows them, thinking the boy obviously needs some help. He finds the young prince, fleeing a palace coup, inadequately prepared for winter weather and life in general. Sendoa finds himself the reluctant guardian of a spoiled, soft boy who needs to become both a man and a king before he can hope to win his throne back.

Brightley surprised me by writing a book that is both intensely masculine and deeply introspective. Sendoa is the consummate warrior and takes great physical delight in his own exercises, which Brightley describes so well you feel as if you are living in the man’s skin. He is also dark-skinned in a fair-skinned country and feels deeply the slights and suspicion that he is continuously subjected to. We discover that the war hero has his own issues, even as he helps the prince overcome his.

Brightley’s prose is unpretentious, direct and often understated, which lends it the power of simplicity and perfectly suits the temperament of the narrator. The plot is a little slow-moving, because of the introspection I mentioned earlier. Sendoa thinks deeply about everything he does and shares his reflections with us. While it does slow the action down, it also increases our respect for him. He has thoughts worth listening to.

And there is plenty to think about. Not only has there been a coup, but war is looming, and the country is badly frayed. Prince Hakan is not going to be given the luxury of growing up slowly.

Most of the book is taken up with the relationship between Sendoa and Hakan, so these are the characters drawn the most deeply. The others were never richly developed but this is due at least in part to the fact that we see relatively little of them. I must confess, I sometimes had trouble remembering who matched which name, because I didn’t have a clear enough picture of the character and because Brightley didn’t provide very many “memory hooks” to help us recall who she was talking about. I would perhaps quibble also that so many of the characters were good. It is a strange thing to complain about, but it seems to me that a little more darkness would have been appropriate, and Hakan’s path, while not easy, could have legitimately been more difficult.

I heard it said once that fantasy is the only genre where you can write nobility without irony, and this is precisely what Brightley has done. There is genuine nobility of character here, without pretension.

Still, this was an enjoyable book. I do enjoy having characters I can cheer for, and watching the relationship between warrior and princeling develop was enriching. I do hope we can see Sendoa confronting his own issues more directly in the sequels and that Hakan will have greater challenges thrown his way. I finished the book intensely fond of both of them.

C.J. Brightley's website

Cover reveal for A Time to Speak

I have recently poked my nose into Nadine Brandes' debut novel, A Time to Die, and I have been favourably impressed, even if I haven't finished reading it yet. I recommend that you check her out yourself. Her second novel, A Time to Speak, will be coming out soon and she's running a giveaway contest to celebrate. In the meanwhile, here is a look at the new cover.

Click over to Nadine's contest.

Review: An Ember in the Ashes

EmberInTheAshes

Ye gods! as they say in Coventree1. Burning, bleeding skies! as they say in the Martial Empire. I haven't read anything as good as An Ember in the Ashes in some time. I kept being struck by the quiet inventiveness of the language ("In the ensuing silence, you could hear a tear drop.") and the brilliant handling of tension and characterization. Don't most people take several books to get to that kind of skill level?

The story is told from the viewpoints of two young people: Laia, a young woman of the Scholar people who has lost all her family but one to the brutality of the Martial Empire, and Elias, a young Martial man about to graduate from a brutal military academy to become a Mask, sort of a cross between secret police and special forces. Their paths are fated to cross of course, and the results are explosive. The Martial Empire is at a critical junction and the choices they make (and they will have to make many) will have far-reaching consequences.

The Martial Empire itself bears some similarity to Ancient Rome, but elements of many other cultures are drawn in, with the fantasy elements being mostly Arabic in flavour: jinn, efrits, ghuls.

An Ember in the Ashes is a fantasy book for teens, but that designation does make me grumble a bit. I haven't been a teenager in many, many years, and I never felt that this book was too juvenile for me. Yes, the central characters are young, but the themes are universal: conflicting loyalties, choosing between self-gratification and principles, love, betrayal... All the good stuff. And while the difference between good and evil is quite clear in this book, the mix can be complex. While the Scholars are very clearly the oppressed in this story, we find out that their past is not as virtuous as one might think, and their Resistance, while sometimes heroic, can also be venal and corrupt. And the Martial people, while clearly the oppressors, have individuals who aspire to be better and will sacrifice a great deal to do so.

The personal dynamics can also be complex. Sometimes there is no simple choice; someone will get hurt or feel betrayed. Some of the choices remain in the future, as this is clearly the first of a series, and we can't help but wonder how the dilemma will be resolved. The "good guys" blow it sometimes, and even the most evil of the evil show flashes of humanity, although admittedly very few.

The plot is fast-paced and suspenseful, which keeps us turning pages and perhaps from noticing an occasional plausibility issue (unless there is an underlying reason for those implausibilities which will be revealed in future episodes). I am particularly pleased to note that there is no foul language (unless you are so sensitive that "ten hells" sets off your alarms), no steamy sex, although desire is never far away (they're young, how could it be otherwise?) and the story does not suffer in the least because of it.

And for those following the We Read Diverse Books Challenge, this would answer nicely in a couple of categories, depending on your age and the colour of your skin.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy through a giveaway from SF Signal. No review was requested, but I wrote it anyway.

Sabaa Tahir's website

 

1The land at the heart of Disenchanted.

Knife by R J Anderson

R.J. Anderson is another of those writers I met online way back when, can't remember how. When I found out she was coming to Ottawa for the Writers' Festival, I jumped on the opportunity to meet her. We did lunch, and I went to her presentation to an enthusiastic crowd of schoolkids who mobbed her afterwards. I was the impromptu photographer, but the less we say about that the better.

The book she was talking to the children about was Knife, a fairy story with a difference. Knife is the name of the fairy. Don't go looking for glitter in that story...

It took me years but I read it some time back and was blown away. R.J. is a superb writer, and while this story may officially be for kids, but it is in no way juvenile.

Enclave Publishing is re-releasing Knife this summer. If you have any kids in your life (and boys will love this too. I mean, she has a KNIFE) or if you are wise enough to love good children's literature for yourself, buy it. And no, R.J. has no idea I'm doing this. That's what makes it fun. 

R.J. Anderson's website

Review: The Burning Land

When you pick up a work of fantasy, you expect many things. You expect to find some magic, some adventure, an interesting new world. And Victoria Strauss's The Burning Land certainly delivers all of that. But it goes well beyond. I have rarely read a novel that examines the nature of faith more deeply and more intimately than The Burning Land. Strauss has created a fully realized and realistic religious system that borrows elements from several of the world's religions, complete with hierarchies, dogmas, histories, and heresies. (My sociology of religion professor would have been so proud of her.) And she puts in the center of all of this Gyalo, a man of very deep faith who is sent on an unprecedented mission and will find himself tested in ways he could never imagine. Don't imagine that this is some dry philosophical thesis. It's all about what happens when the rubber meets the road, when the deepest beliefs are shaken and challenged and transformed in the heat of action.

It was a momentous time in Arsace. The iconoclastic Caryaxists (who bear more than a superficial resemblance to Communists) had finally been removed from power and the Church of Arata was rebuilding after the devastation. And then Dreamers revealed that there was a settlement of Shapers deep within the Burning Land, an immense and formidable desert to the south. Gyalo is sent to find them and bring them back. And throughout his journey and its aftermath, first his faith in the political leaders is shaken, then his faith in himself, his faith in his religious leaders, and his faith in his religious beliefs. He is not the only one being shaken either, and the clash of different cultures and different beliefs takes turns our own history will make all too familiar.

Strauss has pulled off a real tour de force here, combining an enthralling external journey with a profound inner one, and imbuing both of them with a deep understanding of the issues. It is all the more interesting because various characters come to entirely different conclusions as their faith is challenged, making it somewhat less clear which way she tilts herself. I suspect I know, and would not share her conclusions, but this in no way detracts from a very fine book. I highly recommend this one, because it has what I look for in the finest of fiction, sparkling prose, a fully realized world, a gripping story, and a deep look at the human soul. Lovers of literary fiction, fantasy, and psychological drama should all find it compelling.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic copy of this book from NetGalley for review purposes.

Author's website http://www.victoriastrauss.com/

Review: The Name of the Wind

Patrick Rothfuss broke onto the fantasy scene with a big splash several years ago with blurbs from some of the biggest names adorning the back cover of his debut novel The Name of the Wind. His latest, The Slow Regard of Silent Things, a sort of aside in the series, featuring one of the secondary characters as the protagonist, was released just a few weeks ago. In its honor, I am casting my eye back to the beginning of the series.

The Name of the Wind is a brick: my book club version weighs in at 662 pages. A seemingly innocuous innkeeper turns out to be much more and he begins telling his life story to a scribe who has seen through his alibi. "Begins" is an important word here. This is the first of a series, and we have a long way yet to go through the remarkable life of Kvothe. "Real-life" events do intrude on his narrative occasionally, so there are passages in the third person, but most of the book is in the first person.

Let me start by saying that Rothfuss can write. Sometimes poetic, sometimes just nice, clear narrative, his prose contains not a single awkward sentence. (OK, so there's one...) He obviously knows his craft and I'm willing to bet is a musician. Apart from the importance of music in the story, the kind of flow that he establishes with his language usually comes from someone with a fine ear and a keen sense of rhythm.

Rothfuss makes you feel like you know Kvothe, and while he may be the hero of the story and exceptionally intelligent, he is quite capable of showing an appalling lack of wisdom, at least in his teen years, which are the main focus of this book. Even exceptionally bright people are not necessarily gifted with wisdom, which usually has to be earned the hard way, and Kvothe has an abnormally difficult time with it.

World building is always an important element in a fantasy book. Finding out what is different, what is similar to the real world is always part of the fun. Rothfuss has blended science and magic seamlessly in this story, which I found very entertaining. He also doesn't burden the text with excessive description, but usually provides enough detail so you feel rooted in his world.

Having said all that, the book is too long. Seriously. I have absolutely nothing against long books, but this one lost momentum in the middle. Something is always happening, but there just wasn't enough forward movement. I'm the kind of person who gets lost in a book and have read all through the night more than once. This one became all too easy to put down. If you like reading a book in small pieces and really savoring the texture, this might not be a disadvantage for you, but I really wanted the pace to pick up more than once. It does, eventually, but you've got to be patient. Or find the gazillion ways a child prodigy can get himself into trouble entertaining in its own right.

The book gets a little dark occasionally. Kvothe spends several years living on the streets in a port city, for example, and it's not pretty. He learns to lie and steal with proficiency and some pretty nasty things go on. I didn't find it excessive even though I'm not a fan of grit for its own sake. The nasty bits are pretty much necessary and not described in overwrought detail, but if you're a very tender soul, you might want to look elsewhere.

A minor irritant for me was the fact that Kvothe has flame-red hair and green eyes that change color with his mood. Why Rothfuss would want to lift an overworked trope from pulp romance is beyond me. Granted, he handled it pretty well, but still...

This one doesn't quite qualify as Gourmet Reading, primarily because of the bloat around the midsection. But Rothfuss is still a fine writer, and those who enjoy a slow meander in an exotic world will find little to complain about.

Patrick Rothfuss's website


Review: City of Stairs

City of Stairs is one fine book and Robert Jackson Bennett is one fine author. But I suspect I would want to argue a lot with him if I met him in the flesh. Okay, so maybe I would be mature and discuss instead of arguing.

It is categorized as epic fantasy, but it reads to me more like a cross between steampunk and fantasy. There are cars and telegraphs, spies and political intrigue, gods and miracles. But more than all of these elements, it is a reflection on cultural exchanges, the nature of truth and reality, the place of religion in human society, the nature of morality... you get the idea. And here I would agree with some of Bennett's ideas and argue with quite a few others.

The city of Bulikov is a shattered shell of what it once was, abandoned staircases leading to nowhere now its claim to fame. In this City of Stairs, once the seat of the gods, resentment runs deep against the Saypuris, the former subjects who three generations ago turned on their oppressors, slaughtered their gods, and became the conquerors. Already we get a hint of the delightful complexity of this book. Neither culture, the Continental or the Saypuri, is presented as the preferred one. Both have been oppressors, both have been oppressed. A murder has now been committed and Saypur's leading spy is sent to investigate. No one realizes that this unassuming woman is the great-granddaughter of the man who killed the gods, nor that she is the former lover of one of Bulikov's leading citizens. She immediately starts acting in unconventional ways, arriving with a huge barbarian as a secretary, taking charge of the embassy, and being uncharacteristically sympathetic to the sensibilities of the Continentals. Her investigation of the murder soon brings her to realize that it is not so certain that the gods are dead. Before it's over, she will be questioning almost everything she thought she knew.

Bennett's story reels out like a taut fishing line. If I've given you the impression that it is slow and introspective, the fault is with me. This is an action thriller and a detective story in addition to an examination of metaphysical questions. In brief, there is something for almost everyone here.

I can't say I agree with many of the conclusions Bennett seems to come to and, being me, I was not entirely happy with the overly abundant coarse language, but I can't help but admire the skill with which he combined so many disparate elements and made them work. Extra points for having a female protagonist who never engages in any martial arts but who manages to take control of a very volatile and dangerous situation. Without breaking her glasses.

Disclaimer: "I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review."

Author's website

Review: The Aurora Awards – Thirty Years of Canadian Science Fiction

I have a list of books I'm planning on reviewing. In order. But sometimes I can't help myself and I spontaneously reach for something else. This time it was a book that was part of my swag from Ottawa's Can-Con (The Conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Arts and Literature). The Aurora Awards – Thirty Years of Canadian Science Fiction is a 2010 anthology of short fiction that had won Canada's national award for speculative fiction in the short form category. (One year an epic poem won the award. It unfortunately was not part of the anthology.) When I let myself get sidetracked like that, it is always worth it. I enjoyed myself immensely.

Science fiction, when done well, is incredibly imaginative and tends to set my brain fizzing in sheer delight. And most of the stories in this collection were well done, by my lights. The title is a bit misleading, as the collection also included alternate history, horror, and even a werewolf story I actually enjoyed. This is exceptional, so hats off to Douglas Smith.

For sheer originality, it is hard to beat Julie Czerneda's “Left Foot on a Blind Man” which opens with the sentence: “For the record, I became self-aware as the left foot on a blind man.” The tone is cheeky and entertaining right up to the end, but we become increasingly and uncomfortably aware of an underlying darkness. A masterful piece of work.

Both of the first two stories “Three Hearings on the Existence of Snakes in the Human Blood Stream” by James Alan Gardner, and “When the Morning Stars Sing Together” by Isaac Szpindel, dealt with the relationship between science and religion, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that they both put a much more nuanced and complex spin on the idea than I am accustomed to finding in science fiction.

“Readers of the Lost Art, a Love Story” by Elisabeth Vonarburg, although beautifully written, was too brutal for me and was the only story I chose not to read through to the end.

“Hockey's Night in Canada” was a little piece of alternate history I found disappointing, holding little else than a cute idea. “The Toy Mill” also left me indifferent, partly because it was horror, which is a genre I am allergic to. It has to be exceptionally well written to overcome that prejudice, and this one didn't cut it there.

“Light Remembered” by Daniel Sernine, squeaks in as fantasy, although it seems to me to be more of a meditation on life and immortality. It is haunting, and even in translation, the writing shines.

Hayden Trenholm's “Like Water in the Desert” deals with a Depression-era hobo who is clearly much more than he first seems to be. We are given hints as to his identity, but never more than that. I think this one would make a fantastic Twilight Zone episode or something of the sort.

There were some strange type-setting issues with a couple of the older stories, presumably because the original texts were scanned in with text-recognition software that wasn't quite up to the job. Human eyes really should have taken a second look at these.

Still and all, I was left feeling satisfied, my brain buzzing with possibilities.

I have not been able to find the book for sale anywhere online, but Derek Künsken, the chair of Can-Con 2014, informs me that they still have some copies available. Contact http://can-con.org/ to request a copy. I didn't negotiate prices. ;o)