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The Scarlet Tides by David Hair

November 27, 2014 2 comments

The Scarlet Tides

As a metaphor, you could see war as a form of scarlet tide as waves of blood push across the shore towards the land, overwhelming the people. Or if you were already on the sand, you might see an army of soldiers dressed in red as matching the description. The Scarlet Tides by David Hair (Jo Fletcher/Quercus, 2014) is the second book in The Moontide Quartet. This is another of these books that was published in England in 2013, but did not make it to America until 2014. I’m therefore reading this one year after it first appeared and publishing this review almost one year after my review of the first in the tetralogy. Although my memory is very good about some things, I confess considerable haziness when I picked up this latest installment. Although I remembered the first book as very good, I could not remember very much of the detail. That meant the failure of the publisher to include a brief summary of the first book weighed heavily on me. There was not even a hint let alone a brief note explaining who everyone was and how they were related to each other. Yes, there are odd explanatory references as you read the text, but it did take me quite a while to build up any confidence I had worked out who was who, and which side everyone was on — not that people stay on the same side, of course. This memory problem was exacerbated by the sheer number of people referred to and the number of different locations to try fitting into the development of the plot.

However, with that reservation out of the way, I’m able to report this as the best fantasy book of 2014 so far. I was somewhat concerned that the world-building in the first book left quite a lot of the physics of the moon and its effect on the tides somewhat obscure. This does occasionally seek to rectify this omission. Other than that, there’s only one major innovation in this book. We’d already seen that the mages had the power to construct different types of animals. This has included beasts of burden and flying animals with the lifting capacity to carry a human. We now meet a new type which, in effect, draws on the mythology of this alternate Earth for its form. As a result, the primary focus of this book the development of the characters as they struggle to survive and/or advance their agendas. The only time the plot slows down is when it becomes necessary for a new person or group to begin to understand how the system of magic works. So instead of having the “Hogwarts” style of formal academic training we saw in the first book, we have more one-to-one teaching. This is saved from becoming boringly repetitious because, in each instance, the practical teaching is actually a mechanism for creating mutual trust and the possibility of affection, if not love.

David Hair

David Hair

So we advance into the more everyday world of the Crusade as the army makes progress across the desert. As we readers already know, the locals are rather better prepared this time around and it’s interesting to watch exactly how far the army gets before it realises there’s real opposition. To give us an insight into the life for the boots on the ground, we’re allowed Ramon as the point of view and his Ponzi scheme to ramp up the value of his spurious letters of credit by stockpiling the year’s opium crop is a delight. In terms of its breadth and daring, I was reminded of Catch-22 and Milo’s Syndicate which even accepted commissions for American planes to bomb American bases. In one of the geographically significant states, we watch the ebb and flow of Gurvon Gyle’s efforts to deal with the Dorobon family and advance his own plans for power. As for the other groups, the search for the McGuffin accelerates with more people becoming aware of its existence. How it’s lost and then comes back into the possession of one of the good guys is another very pleasing sequence. At some point, later in the series, they will work out what it does and how to persuade it to do it. At this point, no-one has a clue how it might work.

Taking the overview, the pace and quality of the writing makes this one of the best epic fantasies for a long time. It should go without saying that you should not attempt to read this unless you have also read the first in the series, Mage’s Blood. The experience is so much better when you’ve got the whole story straight in your head. If you do not read any other fantasy book this year, ensure you read The Scarlet Tides.

For a review of the first in the series, see Mage’s Blood.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Leopard by K V Johansen

April 27, 2014 2 comments

The Leopard-1

Another day and another epic fantasy in which the author is obviously determined to break the mould and write the ultimate bait and switch book. So let’s remind ourselves of the basic rules. The book must be titled by featuring the lead character. Since this will usually be a wizard or someone with a useful skill like a thief, the names will usually reflect this, e.g. Hoho the Great, Axelrod the Unwashed or Weasel the Lightfingered. This protagonist will usually have a sidekick and, after sinking a few mugs of the local brew, they set off on a quest that will involve fighting three-lettered creatures like orcs (except when there’s more than one of them, of course). If the fan boys are lucky, a barbarian princess with optional fighting skills may be added to the mix. And so on.

So here we go with The Leopard by K V Johansen (Pyr, 2014) (first in a new Marakand duology) which is set in the same world as Blackdog and builds on the general mythology of that world. We start off with Deyandara. Now she’s a person with an interestingly opaque lineage. All we can say for sure is that she’s a bastard and because everyone else to whom she may be related has been killed off, she’s in line to take over the throne. Except, she’s not that keen on the idea having spent her youth not very seriously training to be a bard. However, all this is rendered somewhat moot because, within minutes of her being acclaimed queen by the few nobles who happen to be around, the local goddess, Catairanach, appears to her in a vision and, before you can say, “Rumpelstiltskin is my name,” she’s whisked off into the countryside on a minor quest. Sadly this goddess is strictly temperance, so our heroine is not allowed any of the local brew. She’s also denied the right for her name to title the book. This should give you a clue as to her importance.

K V Johansen

After a while, she finds Ahjvar. He’s an assassin with the nickname, The Leopard. “Ah ha!” you’re saying. “This is the guy who gives his name to the book (the spots help him hide in the shrubbery). Now we can get on with the story.” Better still, he’s got a sidekick called Ghu. Not surprisingly, because this is a fantasy with deities, demons and a practical system of magic in operation, Ahjvar has been cursed. The message from Catairanach is that he can be free of this inconvenience if he goes off on a quest to kill the mad prophet known as the Voice of Marakand. Actually it’s not much of a quest because the Voice is in the city of Marakand so it’s not that difficult to find her. He does get to drink, though, which is always a good sign. So after traipsing across the landscape doing their best to leave Deyandara behind, our team arrives in the city. Shortly thereafter, the assassin kills the current Voice, is captured, is converted into a soldier loyal to the reincarnated Voice and sent out of the city. Yes, that’s right. The titular assassin is not the long-running protagonist (he’s pushed out of the way so he can come back in book 2 and kick butt). Deyandara is also sent off to find whatever’s left of her kingdom. This leaves us to meet and greet a couple of characters from the first book who turn up in the city. They link up with a magician who’s been there for a while. They briefly link up with Ghu who hasn’t quite decided whether he should go off and try to rescue Ahjvar. And then there’s a lot of fighting with undead magicians being used to intimidate Marakand and its citizens. Obviously, they are quite difficult to kill, what with them being already dead. None of this zombie rubbish for them. They are pretty invincible unless they can be reminded they are already dead. That tends to break the spell animating them.

So the author is slightly playing a game with the readers, introducing new characters and then moving them into position for book 2, while characters we know something about reappear to carry us through to the evenly balanced ending where both sides need to regroup before launching off into book 2. I’m not prepared to say a great deal about the quality of the plot because it’s obviously one book divided into two parts for publication purposes. It could turn out very good. . . All I can say is that the prose is quite dense and full of reasonably interesting detail. Since we only have to wait until December to see how it all plays out, this may be worth picking up if you like epic fantasy.

For a review of the other book set in this world, see Blackdog.

The cover art from Raymond Swanland is rather pleasing.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

The Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

March 30, 2014 5 comments

Another magnificent piece of jacket artwork from Michael Whelan

Another magnificent piece of jacket artwork from Michael Whelan

The Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson (Tor, 2014) produces mixed emotions. This is the second of a projected ten volumes in a fantasy epic called The Stormlight Archive. There’s just one problem. At slightly under eleven-hundred pages in length, the author has already delivered enough material for five ordinary fantasy books and yet this is only book two. To call this excessive or sprawling would not be an exaggeration. We meet up with characters from the first volume as expected. They are spread around the environment and, in the first instance, not really interacting. Again, I suppose this is to be expected. If everyone got together for a meeting over beer and sandwiches, the series might be over before it has a chance to get epic. So everything that happens in this book is just edging us further forward in our understanding of the world and how the individuals from the different races relate to each other. With eight more books to go, we’re looking at a vista of fantasy unrolling across thousands of pages. It will take years to write and, from a reader’s point of view, endless patience. Indeed, without wishing to be unduly pessimistic about my life expectancy, I will probably die before the series is finished.

At this level, the world building is spectacular in its detail and internal consistency. However you choose to place a value on the craft of writing, Sanderson continues to deliver a world of incredible complexity, both in the flora and fauna, and in the various races that inhabit it. Taking the physical environment which is constantly at risk from the storms, the idea of plants that can withdraw into the ground or surrounding rocks is but one of hundreds of similarly pleasing examples of Darwinism at work. It would be a natural adaptation for the survival of all the different species. Animals also come with shells that can protect them from the wind. There must also be gills because some areas experience flash floods of considerable force and an amphibious adaptation would help them survive. I could go on, but not only are the words themselves ingenious in delivering a picture in the mind’s eye, the publisher has also commissioned internal illustrations from Dan Dos Santos, Ben McSweeney and Isaac Stewart to illustrate the qualities of the different plants, animals, sword fighting stances, and so on. The whole book package is a work of some beauty including the jacket artwork by Michael Whelan which I have set out above so you can appreciate its quality. I only wish it was less heavy to hold.

Brandon Sanderson

Brandon Sanderson

The political situation also progresses with the human kingdom still riven by warring family disputes. Since the assassination of the old king, the replacement has been struggling. It’s not that he doesn’t have some of the right instincts. Rather that he’s petulant and easily led by the wrong people. This forces his son to assume a de facto position of power. His is a heavy burden. Not only does he have to compensate for his father the king, but also try to bring the families together again. Unfortunately, the politics is clouded by an anticipated change in the world. The history shows there have been previous civilisations which have fallen. So far, enough people have survived to rebuild. But this time it may be different. All of which brings us to the central fantasy which powers the narrative. There’s a form of magic available to some people. Essentially, this works when “spirits” called spren from an adjacent dimension bleed through and begin interacting with the humans that can see them. Over time, this produces a bonding and delivers significant powers to the individuals. They become the Radiants. However, this power depends on the continuing relationship between the Radiant and the spren. If the human does not keep his oath, the sprem will die and the radiance will be lost.

This book is largely taken up with two characters as their relationships with their spren begins to deepen. Both characters are broken. They have suffered extreme emotional pain. One finds it difficult not to give into anger, bitterness and nihilism. His is the more difficult journey because he has blinded himself to his potential and does not understand what form his oath must take and how it can be kept when difficult choices have to be made. The other has considerable insight into the practicality of some aspects of the magic, but doesn’t believe strongly enough in her ability to develop full powers. She’s content to approach the matter with the detached interest of an academic. Except, of course, she finds herself stripped of the opportunity to hide, becoming embroiled in an emerging subplot which introduces a group who first seem little more than a band of assassins, but are later shown to be something more important. So the enduring theme of the book is the process of personal transformation. Just as the other races, plants and wildlife have had to adapt, the rare humans with the potential for growth must also adapt to the opportunity to bond with their spren. Needless to say, a series of this length has a cast of hundreds and, to a greater or lesser extent, they are all given their few pages in the sun. So we meet with everyone from the lowest slaves to the king and high lords. All have their own problems to solve and a wish list for improvements in their quality of life. It proves to be a fascinating read and, because it’s an epic fantasy, it builds to a major climax in which there are some issues resolved, and other plot threads left dangling for future books.

I suppose you could read this as a standalone. It will take you longer to work out who everyone is and what their relationships are, but the narrative drive will keep you going. A lot of interesting things happen. The better route is to read The Way of Kings first. That will give you essential background, enable you to pick up the story more quickly, and enrich the reading experience as The Words of Radiance takes you deeper into this strange world.

 

Here are the other books by Brandon Sanderson I have reviewed:
Alcatraz versus The Scrivener’s Bones,
The Emperor’s Soul
The Hero of Ages
The Rithmatist
Warbreaker
The Way of Kings
Well of Ascension.

The Barrow by Mark Smylie

The_Barrow_press_final_s

The wizard, the warrior (she cross-dresses to get the part), the thief and the Rogue (sorry no barbarian this time round) go into an inn. “Drinks all round!” calls out the Rogue and so the game begins. Yes we’re in the land of RPGs, specifically Quests and, to prove the point, The Barrow by Mark Smylie (Pyr, 2014) (see the Artesia graphic novels) starts us off in full tomb-robbing mode. When the label “sword & sorcery” was being coined back in the 1960s, the general practice was to have the heroes gather, set off quietly, and build to a big set-piece at the end when mayhem, usually both violent and magical, was allowed full rein. This book rather breaks with convention by showing a team in action as they approach an underground temple. Within just a few pages, they have boldly gone below and are soon fighting for their lives as the worshippers don’t take too kindly to their temple being violated (again). While the acolytes go hand-to-hand with the intruders, the priestess gets into the business of an invocation and, as the light fades, something this way comes and it’s not going to stop with just pricking thumbs. Fortunately, the main protagonist, Stjepan, aka Black-Heart, has found what he was looking for and, together with Erim (she’s undetectably doing the man’s job of hacking away at all-comers) and Harvald, they escape with The Map! Yes, the thieves were preparing to carry away treasure, but the enigmatic Stjepan, cartographer and other things to Kings, was only interested in finding the route to the ultimate treasure. Not surprisingly, he’s on the track of the legendary sword Gladringer which was reputedly buried along with a wizard called Azharad — not to be confused with Abdul Alhazred, the Mad Arab from Lovecraftian Mythos.

Mark Smylie

Mark Smylie

 

Having now demonstrated he can write exciting set-pieces in underground locations, our attention switches to the city and something rather sad happens. By way of introduction, I should confirm the story being told is actually quite interesting. The politics of this society and the subsequent travel across the landscape of this fantasy world are done well. Indeed, the problem comes from the attention to detail in the world-building. This is a six-hundred page book — intermediate in size since one or two books are now weighing in at more than one-thousand pages. Obviously, a lot happens in a book this long, but there’s also a vast amount of infodumping going on to introduce everyone, explain where they are, the history of the places, the religious significance of different practices, and so on. If you didn’t keep having to slow down to read it all, this would no doubt be considered an excellent adventure book. But it can’t seem to make up its mind what it wants to be. The opening section suggests it wanted to be rip-roaring, non-stop action, but once we get back above ground, it’s like the author wanted to show all us Doubting Thomases just how much effort he had invested in making up all this stuff. Shame really. If someone on the editorial staff had taken an axe to the book as submitted, there was a wonderful 400 page epic fantasy waiting to be told in crisp, elegant prose.

 

Instead, it gets rather boring. You can tell the author was also finding it heavy going because, from time to time, he tries to divert attention from the plodding nature of the prose by introducing some sex scenes. In a way, this book reminded me of the Gor novels by John Norman. When our professor got tired of expounding on the merits of the social Darwinism underpinning his fictional societies and their cultures, he would allow the dominant men to show their women a good time (remember Lange also wrote a more academic book — only joking — arguing that sexual fantasies, often of a BDSM variety, would help couples improve their sex lives). Well some of the sex in this book is slightly more graphic than even our good professor would have fantasised about on paper (or perhaps elsewhere for that matter).

 

Anyway, once back in town, Harvald assigns himself the task of decursing The Map, but things don’t go quite as planned and the physical document is destroyed. Depending on your point of view, this is not the end of matters. The Map does not go quietly up in smoke, but elects to reappear in another location — tickets to view are soon on private sale. With the security situation deteriorating, Stjepan and Erin join with Gilgwyr the brothel impresario and Leigh, the unreliable wizard, to find the Barrow where the sword is believed buried. About two-thirds of the way through the book, the team enter said barrow and discover there are difficulties to overcome — not a total surprise.

 

So The Barrow suffers from many of the problems common to first novels which set off down fairly well-travelled plot roads. Mark Smylie has attempted to compensate for the underlying lack of originality by adding in detail. This leaves me blaming the publisher whose editorial staff should have taken control of the book, cut out all the dead wood, and distilled the remainder of the plot down to a manageable length.

 

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

 

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

January 12, 2011 2 comments

Jacket artwork by Michael Whelan

Rather in the same style as one of those old ads for miracle products to rid us of acne or baldness, I think it best to have a before and after picture.

 

Before

 

I suppose the question ought to be what most people feel when they pick up a 1,000 page book. But in these reviews, we never mind the “oughts”. Being a selfish and cantankerous old man, I am only thinking of myself at times like this. I feel intimidated. I know it is not fashionable to admit to physical frailty, but I am not joking when I complain about the weight of books. After holding the damn things for any length of time, wrists do grow tired. In this case, I have decided to cheat, raising my legs on a low stool to take the weight and, with knees carefully adjusted, balancing the tome without stressing the spine in all senses of the word. Now I only have to worry about the other thing. Will a book this length hold my interest? Born and raised on novels clocking in somewhere around the 40,000 to 50,000 word mark, I could easily read one, if not two, in a day. The local library loved me for my fast turnaround. There’s little time to grow bored when you’ve already finished it. But when a book staggers in at three-hundred thousand plus words, it gives you pause. What on earth is this author going to rabbit on about at this length to keep it interesting? Perhaps more importantly, will I still remember who everyone is as I get nearer the end?

 

After

 

Well, this has been a remarkable experience. I am pleased to report that this is completely fascinating. I am reminded of Hal Clement (the pseudonym used by Harry Stubbs). He delighted in world-building to present his readers with puzzles. Probably the best of these is Cycle of Fire in which the local ecology has evolved to cope with major climatic shifts every 65 years. It is like a mystery or detective story in which you see the world through the eyes of the main protagonist and have the same chances of working out the solution. So Brandon Sanderson has developed a highly complex world for us to explore. There are multiple types of life-form, both physical and intangible. The real is described from the grass up, and is very specifically adapted to local climatic conditions. The other forms are hinted at and described. There also appears to be at least one alternate dimension in play.

 

This is a very postmodernist fantasy with a major part of the work devoted to describing the cultures, defining roles by gender and other physical attributes. In this, the most important academic skills are considered appropriate for women in general and certain sects or groups of individuals. Rather in the same way that Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco is built around the abbey’s library, so we are also invited to spend time in the planet’s major library with Shallan and Jasnah as they excavate the past and interrogate the written texts to determine the significance both of what is written directly and as glosses, and of what is not written. Although we are not quite in the same league as Eco in describing a full scholastic methodology as a part of semiotics, we do have a real opportunity to watch two scholars try to interpret the past, using different tools. This may be logic or philosophy as they try to tease out meaning from the content as written and as commented on. In this, they must often try to reconcile stories within stories, separating what may be facts from the fiction. In this note that the title of this novel, The Way of Kings, is a reference to the name of a largely anecdotal work on how to unify and run a kingdom extensively quoted and relied on by characters in the book.

 

The process of archaeology as proposed by Michel Foucault is complicated by the religious character of some of the information. Different sets of powerful people through time try to distort or conceal parts of the discourse. In the main, this is achieved by scapegoating or demonising some earlier or contemporary groups as evil or wrongdoers in both the literal and the religious senses of the words. Religion is often used by those in power to control access to information or to skew the interpretation of past events. This story is a classic example of the problem, signaling its intent by making one of the scholars a well-known atheist. More generally, the novel gives us a perfect opportunity to watch the different individuals access information as visions, and from their oral traditions and written texts. Their interpretations differ according to their cultural backgrounds.

 

That said, the main thematic concern of the novel is the question of honour and it poses the interesting question of whether it is a good in its own right. Altruism has always had a fuzzy feel to it because what is a selfless concern for the welfare of others in the minds of some, is loyalty to abstract concepts like government or a national state in others, or duties and obligation owed to leaders, or self-interest to those who are part of the group that will benefit from the planned activity. In this, we are primarily interested in Kaladin, whose story we work through in direct narrative and flashbacks. This is a man who constantly struggles with who he is and how he should relate to others. His early life training as a surgeon with his father taught him the notion of service to others but, in the real world, such service has not always been welcomed or valued. Similarly, Brightlord Dalinar Kholin struggles with himself as a warrior. What code of honour should he follow in his life and in combat? How much can or should he bend to achieve what he believes to be necessary improvements in the way his local kingdom is set up to run? It is all about ends and means, thinking through whether the journey is more important than the arrival at the intended outcome.

 

At the end, we have everything perfectly set up for the next thrilling installment. All the right people have been moved into position. Even the enigmatic “fool” is on the move as one of the key plotters emerges into the light.

 

I can well understand why it has taken so long to get this book into print. It is a major work of fiction, showing immense narrative skill in balancing “adventure” and “physical conflict” with the more cerebral elements. Although Elantris and Warbreaker are substantial and impressive works, this is has moved one step up the ladder of complexity and interest. If Brandon Sanderson keeps on improving, he could become the premier fantasy writer of the first part of this century. I unreservedly recommend The Way of Kings Book 1 of The Stormlight Archive, even though its use may not put hair on your head or remove unsightly zits.

 

Here are the other books by Brandon Sanderson I have reviewed:
Alcatraz versus The Scrivener’s Bones,
The Emperor’s Soul
The Hero of Ages
The Rithmatist
Warbreaker
Well of Ascension
The Words of Radiance.

For the record, The Way of Kings won the David Gemmell Award for Best Fantasy Novel of 2010.

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