Saturday, May 31, 2014

Review of Prince of Fools (The Red Queen's War #1) by Mark Lawrence

5/5 Stars

Writing 5/5
Imagination 4/5
Plot 4/5
Setting 4/5
Characters 5/5
Grimdark 3.5/5

My Overall Enjoyment 5/5

Humor 5/5

Goodreads book summary

The Red Queen is old but the kings of the Broken Empire dread her like no other. For all her reign, she has fought the long war, contested in secret, against the powers that stand behind nations, for higher stakes than land or gold. Her greatest weapon is The Silent Sister—unseen by most and unspoken of by all. 
The Red Queen’s grandson, Prince Jalan Kendeth—drinker, gambler, seducer of women—is one who can see The Silent Sister. Tenth in line for the throne and content with his role as a minor royal, he pretends that the hideous crone is not there. But war is coming. Witnesses claim an undead army is on the march, and the Red Queen has called on her family to defend the realm. Jal thinks it’s all a rumor—nothing that will affect him—but he is wrong. 
After escaping a death trap set by the Silent Sister, Jal finds his fate magically intertwined with a fierce Norse warrior. As the two undertake a journey across the Empire to undo the spell, encountering grave dangers, willing women, and an upstart prince named Jorg Ancrath along the way, Jalan gradually catches a glimmer of the truth: he and the Norseman are but pieces in a game, part of a series of moves in the long war—and the Red Queen controls the board.

After two months of looking at Prince of Fools (Mark Lawrence’s follow up to Emperor of Thorns and the final book in my favorite series of all time) in my ereader queue, it is finally gone. PoF was my number one anticipated novel of the year so I did not want to read it to soon and I like to savor my favorite authors books. Expectations are high; Mark Lawrence has many fanatical fans, myself included. Before PoF came out, I already thought him to be the best current writer in fantasy, or in any genre, and an amazing and provocative storyteller. Does PoF live up to his reputation and fans expectations? An emphatic and resounding YES! By all accounts PoF is an amazing, wonderful book. And there is a dog in the beginning named Pluto, my dogs name, and a great name for a dog!

First, who does not love vikings? I have been on a major viking reading theme and have probably read 30 or more books about them this year as well as following the excellent show, Vikings. In PoF, Jalen, also known as the Red Prince, ends up with a traveling companion who is a monster of a Viking named Snorri. Snorri is a total badass out for revenge for reasons revealed in the story. Jalan is of royalty and far down in the line of succession, and is very different than any main character I have come across, mainly he is a coward and a liar. The main characters, as well as the other minor characters, are brought brilliantly to life. Jalan could not be more different than Jorg (the "hero" of The Broken Empire series). As in the best books, the characters are believable and you want to see what happens to them. Often, I get halfway through a book and realize I just don’t care what happens to the characters or how the story ends up. This is definitely not a problem here. After each event or conversation, I anxiously want to see what happens next, not only in the story but to the characters. Neither Snorri or Jalan are particularly pleasant persons, yet there is a strong affinity with them. Having been so emotionally invested in the Broken Empire series, when Jalan and Snorri cross paths with some of the Brothers, as well as a certain young prince, I was astounded at what occurred.  I set the book down for several hours after that because it was so epic!

The Broken Empire was dark; very dark (some disagree). This is dark as well, but it is insanely humorous and definitely has a lighter feel. Jalan and Snorri’s witticisms and banter are hysterical. It had me laughing out loud multiple times and smiling untold times. Instead of the brutality featured in the Broken Empire, this book has humor. There is action, killing, and violence, done expertly and cleverly, but the humor is what jumps out for me.

The writing is expert. No other writer is as clever as Mark Lawrence. The dialogue and narration are both concise and succinct. There are aphorisms galore. I bookmarked more pages than I can count to go back and read (my free ereader doesn't allow highlighting so this is one book I need to get up a physical copy). I had the idea to insert them in this review but much of the pleasure of reading Mark Lawrence is coming across them in context so I will leave them for the reader to discover.

The plot is thoughtful and suspenseful and at times full of horror. There is magic of a mysterious type and it is very important to this story but not overpowering. We learn a lot about numerous new cities and towns as well as some lore and history of this post-apocalyptic world as Jalan and Snorri travel.  We also meet very interesting people throughout the journey and it is always fun to see what Mark dreams up next and what obstacles the characters will face.

With this book, Mark Lawrence shows he is one of the premier fantasy writers of this generation and of all time. I love the Broken Empire world and do not believe I would ever tire of it. No matter what Mark writes, I will be the first in line. But I do hope he continues in the Broken Empire with another series after this one. For now, I can not wait for book two. I recommend this without hesitation or qualification to everyone.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Review of Veil of the Deserters (Bloodsounders Arc #2) by Jeff Salyards

Veil of the Deserters
by Jeff Salyards
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Writing 4.5/5
Imagination 4/5
Plot 5/5
Setting 4.5/5
Characters 5/5

My Overall Enjoyment 5/5

Goodreads book summary
History, Family and Memory… these are the seeds of destruction.
 Bloodsounder's Arc continues as Captain Braylar Killcoin and his retinue continue to sow chaos amongst the political elite of Alespell. Braylar is still poisoned by the memories of those slain by his unholy flail Bloodsounder, and attempts to counter this sickness have proven ineffectual.
The Syldoonian Emperor Cynead has solidified his power base in unprecedented ways, and demands loyalty from all operatives. Braylar and company are recalled to the capital to swear fealty. Braylar must decide if he can trust his sister, Soffjian, with the secret that is killing him. She has powerful memory magics that might be able to save him from Bloodsounder’s effects, but she has political allegiances that are not his own. Arki and others in the company try to get Soffjian and Braylar to trust one another, but politics in the capital prove to be far more complicated and dangerous than even Killcoin could predict. 
Deposed emperor Thumarr plots to remove the repressive Cynead, and Braylar and his sister Soffjian lie at the heart of his plans. The distance between "favored shadow agent of the emperor" and "exiled traitor" is an unsurprisingly short road. But it is a road filled with blind twists and unexpected turns. Before the journey is over, Arki will chronicle the true intentions of Emperor Cynead and Soffjian. And old enemies in Alespell may prove to be surprising allies in a conflict no one could have foreseen.

This was an absolutely addicting journey, and some of the most fun reading I have had this year. This book surpasses the first Bloodsounder's Arc book, which was excellent and I gave 4.5 stars to, in terms of writing, depth, plot, and character and world building. Everything Jeff Salyard's did great in Scourge of the Betrayer, he does even better here.

I love Jeff Salyard's writing. It exudes atmosphere; I am able to enter into the world he has created and exist. The dialogue is among the best in fantasy. Each character has a unique voice and it was such a pleasure reading the different characters go back and forth. I usually prefer narration to dialogue when reading but this novel has really opened up a new world to me. I often skim dialogue and find it boring but the writer here really brought this group of soldiers to life. It was clever, funny, crass, and often over-the-top and there was always something interesting being said which kept me turning pages at stop lights, dinner, check-out lines, walking to my car, taking out the trash, etc.

These Syldoon soldiers are as tough and grim as any in fiction. The narrator, Arki, who is a scribe by trade, was less grim but had strong character development as well. I enjoyed every character in this book. There was never a time I wished a scene would end as is often the case for me and I will skim a particular character I don't really care about. Even in excellent books such as the ASoFaI series, there are numerous people I really don't care about. There is a decent amount of characters, perhaps 7 or 8, which play large parts. This strongly appeals to me as I do not like books with 30 or 50 or more minor characters as well as the 10 or 20 main characters and the book goes on for 1000 pages. Recently, I gave up on 2 very famous books because there were just hundreds of characters and I felt I needed to keep notes or constantly consult a Wiki. I do not like that and my patience wears thin with that. In no way am I implying this book does not have depth because it does. It is just very, very focused. In 450 or so pages, Jeff Salyards is able to create a world and characters as rich as any secondary fantasy world.

The first book, Scourge of the Betrayer, had some solid world building and I mentioned in my review the author dropped hints of a much larger world to explore. And I was right in a major way! This book is loaded with relevant history and journeys to numerous locations around the region. We learn some of the major characters backstories, giving an added layer of depth to already great character development. We learn more about the religion in this world through numerous plot devices (I say "plot devices" because I don't want to give spoilers). We learn some history of the Godveil, which we almost knew nothing about after the first book. We get more information about Bloodsounder, Captain Braylar's flail. Magic enters much stronger in this book, a unique system involving memory magic, which is I loved learning about.

As for the plot, it was full of mystery and had me anticipating and guessing what would happen next and most of the time I was very surprised. The action scenes were written expertly and there were many types of warfare including sieges, ambushes, and shieldwalls. It felt like the writer was a veteran soldier of numerous campaigns. The pace was perfect, heavy on action and advanced quickly, with brief pauses in which to learn some needed history of the world or characters. There were no pointless parts in this book which seemed like a waste of time or just something to take up pages.

I can't recommend this book enough. Even if you did not read the first book in this series, this book can stand on its own. And if you did read the first book, you should be able to get right back into this world. Within 20 pages, it felt like no time passed between this book and the last one even though I have probably read 50 books since then. And if you do start with this book, you will surely want to read the first one because you will crave more of Braylar's adventures. I sometimes find it lazy to compare a book to another book in a review but it is inevitable here. It had a very similar feel to Joe Abercrombie's First Law books well as Glen Cook's Black Company series. If you are looking for something in that style, this is a must read series!

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Review of Sworn in Steel (Tales of the Kin #2) by Douglas Hulick

Sworn in Steel by Douglas Hulick
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Writing 4/5
Imagination 4.5/5
Plot 3.5/5
Setting 4.5/5
Characters 4/5

My Overall Enjoyment 3.5/5

About the book from Goodreads

It’s been three months since Drothe killed a legend, burned down a portion of the imperial capital, and unexpectedly elevated himself into the ranks of the criminal elite. Now, as the newest Gray Prince in the underworld, he’s learning just how good he used to have it.
With barely the beginnings of an organization to his name, Drothe is already being called out by other Gray Princes. And to make matters worse, when one dies, all signs point to Drothe as wielding the knife. As members of the Kin begin choosing sides – mostly against him – for what looks to be another impending war, Drothe is approached by a man who not only has the solution to Drothe’s most pressing problem, but an offer of redemption. The only problem is the offer isn’t for him.
Now Drothe finds himself on the way to the Despotate of Djan, the empire’s long-standing enemy, with an offer to make and a price on his head. And the grains of sand in the hour glass are running out, fast...
A strong second book in the series Tales of the Kin, Sworn in Steel takes place shortly after the first book, Among Thieves. This book is on a lot of fantasy readers most anticipated 2014 lists as the first book was highly acclaimed by many, this writer included, and the ending of Among Thieves set up excellently for this book. We find our main character Drothe in a new area in this unique secondary world the author has created, and with that we meet many interesting underworld characters there while exploring this vast new area. I felt I got to know Drothe even more here, as well as Bronze Degan. We learn a great deal more about the Degans and their history, which was complex and compelling. This is really more of a story about that mysterious order than anything else although there were several layers to the plot. The nuances of the politics in this world are very detailed and put together with great precision. The narration is from the main characters POV and I learned I strongly prefer this style to the now very popular A Song of Ice and Fire's multiple POV's. I have read so many books in the past few years (and a LOT recently) with the multiple POV style that this was an excellent change of pace for me. The narration and dialogue are very well written, clever and funny.

This is a book with gritty characters who are bad guys. Thieves, assassins, crime bosses, murderers all abound. As in the first book, the details about the underworld and all its intricacies are expertly imagined. Reading this, you get the feeling that this is how the underworld actually works and it is easy to find yourself lost in all its violence and intrigue. Characters act in unexpected ways and the plot twisted and turned which kept me guessing what would happen next.

As far as books about thieves and underworlds go, this is clearly top of the line. There are a lot of books about thieves. The first series I recommend to people interested thieves is Tales of the Kin. I would recommend to readers considering this book, to read the first in the series, Among Thieves. I think the first book did a lot of setting up for this book and without having read that one, you will not get as much from this one. However if you read the first book, you will certainly enjoy this one. And the good news is that based on the ending, there will be another Tales of the Kin book and I can't wait!

It may be noticed I rated this book a bit lower than the first one. While objectively this is an excellent book, I can say I liked this book but I loved the first one. This one seemed a bit long and a bit drawn out for me. I remember one conversation that went on for many pages, like 20+. While I learned a lot from it, it seemed overly long and a bit complicated. This book is about 100 pages longer than the first and that may appeal to many readers but less is more for me. While there was some great action in this book, I also felt there were a few long stretches where not a lot happened and I was hoping the pace would pick up. Having said that, I can be an impatient reader so I maintain that this is an excellent book which should definitely be picked up by fantasy readers who like a little bit edgier and darker styled fantasy in the style of Scott Lynch, whose books this series is reminiscent of.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Review of Son of the Morning by Mark Alder

Son of the Morning by Mark Alder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Writing 5/5
Imagination 5/5
Plot 5/5
Setting 5/5
Characters 4/5

My Overall Enjoyment 5/5

From Goodreads description

Edward the Third stands in the burnt ruin of an English church. He is beset on all sides. He needs a victory against the French to rescue his Kingship. Or he will die trying.
Philip of Valois can put 50,000 men in the field. He has sent his priests to summon the very Angels themselves to fight for France. Edward could call on God for aid but he is an usurper. What if God truly is on the side of the French?

But for a price, Edward could open the gates of Hell and take an unholy war to France . . .
Mark Alder has brought the epic fantasy of George R.R. Martin to the vivid historical adventure of Bernard Cornwell and has a created a fantasy that will sweep you to a new vision of the Hundred Years War.
Expertly written, highly detailed, and vividly imagined, this is an outstanding work of historical fiction/alternate history which pulled me in with its prose and story from page 1. Even at 700 pages, I did not feel it was too long, rather I was sad for it to end because I wanted more. For those that follow my reviews, you know I prefer books on the short side but this was so fun and so epic that I don't think it would have been the same shorter.

I did not plan on reviewing this however it was so good I want to say a few words about it. Being only very vaguely familiar with the time period in which the story takes place (The Hundred Years war from 1337-1453 between England and France), I wasn't overly interested in reading this. It was on my radar but until I saw Mark Lawrence mention how beautiful the prose was I still wasn't sold. Mark, my favorite author, has never let me down on a recommendation so I decided to move on this book sooner rather than later even though my TBR pile is insane right now. This is one of the best books this year, and probably in my top 10 of all time.

It takes the story of Christianity, of which I am a believer, and turns it on its head. I don't get the impression the author is malicious in his take on the history of Christianity but certainly there are some who would not be able to handle a work that so twists what they believe. For me, the story the author tells is incredibly thought provoking, causing me to think about religion, history, warfare, and philosophy in new ways.

Son of the Morning is overflowing with sorcerers and magicians, devils, demons, angels, fallen angels, imps as "familiars", saints, Watchers(Nephilim),and includes Satan, Lucifer, and God all interacting with a huge cast of priests, kings, queens, princes, mercenaries, generals and other characters from both France and England. Knights Templars and Hospitallers also make appearances and are very important to the story. Wildly imagined and often horrifying demons and devils are released from Hell as its doors are opened and closed using magic circles and relics from saints and angels. There are relics galore, all being fought over and searched for across the continents, and as I am a huge fan of relics this alone is a huge attraction to me. There is tons of political intrigue and warfare which includes a naval battle as well as sieges and ground warfare. The plot is complex and multi-layered and at times overwhelming to follow but well worth the effort.

I read this as more of a plot based book rather than a book focusing on getting to know the characters. The character building was very good and I enjoyed many of them. However, because of the constant action and introduction to new characters it just seemed like the plot and action was what fueled my obsession with this book (as well as the wonderful writing and imagination).

This is a dark book, set during a dark time. There are really no "good guys" and for me I did not know who to root for, which is a crazy feeling while reading. This is a time period of epic civil unrest and church dogma and its very fascinating to see how these elements play out on a large and small scale. Disease and violence are parts of everyday life and the writing brings us to that time. It was very atmospheric; I felt like I was there.

I have about 50 pages left in the book. I will be very sad when I finish and I don't know how another book will live up to the standard set here. But I felt that way before and I have some great looking books coming up. No matter how this ends, I can't wait to go back to this series and I pray that the next is released soon. This book comes with the highest possible recommendation. I just don't see how someone could not like this book. It's so unique and I have never read anything like it. If you are looking for a book to get lost in and unlike anything you have ever read, try this.