Archive for fantasy

les sentiers des astres [book review]

Posted in Books, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 18, 2019 by xi'an

It is quite rare that I read heroic fantasy or science fiction in French, presumably because I do not spend enough time in Parisian bookstores… Thanks to a visit to Librairie Compagnie, rue des Écoles, last July, storing enough travel books for Japan, (incidentally) all of which made it back home by post today!, I came across the books of Stefan Platteau as a suggestion from a bookseller there as a mix of Robin Hobb and Tad Williams, with connections to Celtic, Scandinavian, and Hindu myths. And styles. I actually see some inspiration from Hobb’s Chaman soldier, in the role of supernatural forces, less of Williams, as the series is shying away from heroic fantasy and military actions, even though a war is going on, but mostly fought by irregulars and partisans. The style is quite original, way better than Hobb’s Rain wilds chronicles, with a rich prose and tales within tales said (sang?) by several characters. And the story definitely compelling if sometimes slow—a consequence of the subplots being exposed as fireplace stories, with a larger role of god-like entities that roam this universe,  but in a pleasant and balanced way. The characters are all ambiguous enough to preserve a degree of surprise and of unexplained as the story unravels. It is unfortunate the books have not been translated into other languages, as these trails of the stars are remarkable enough to recommend! In particular, while there is a very small number of women involved in the stories, the Tale of the Courtesan is most central to both second and third volumes, with a very strong passage on her pregnancy in the most dire circumstances. A non-spoiler warning is that the end of the book is very abrupt and unconclusive, making it sound as if a new volume is in the making, not that I could find any trace of an hint about a sequel. Not that it proves detrimental to the pleasure of reading this unusual series.

ravencry [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , on November 2, 2019 by xi'an

After enjoying Ed McDonald’s Blackwing this summer, I ordered the second volume, Ravencry, which I read in a couple of days between Warwick and Edinburgh.

“Valya had marked all of the impact sites, then numbered them according to the night they had struck. The first night was more widely distributed, the second slightly more clustered. As the nights passed, the clusters drew together with fewer and fewer outliers.”

Since this is a sequel, the fantasy universe in which the story takes place has not changed much, but gains in consistence and depth. Especially the wastelands created by the wizard controlling the central character. The characters are mostly the same, with the same limited ethics for the surviving ones!, albeit with unexpected twists (no spoiler!), with the perils of a second volume, namely the sudden occurrence of a completely new and obviously deadly threat to the entire world, mostly avoided by connecting quite closely with the first volume. Even the arch-exploited theme of a new religious cult fits rather nicely the new plot. Despite of the urgency of the menace (as usual) to their world, the core characters do not do much in the first part of the book, engaged in a kind of detective work that is rather unusual for fantasy books, but the second part sees a lot of both action and explanation, which is why it became a page-turner for me. And while there are much less allusions to magical mathematics in this volume, a John Snow moment occurs near the above quote.

holy sister [book review]

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , on October 13, 2019 by xi'an

Third and last volume in Mark Lawrence’s series, this book did not disappoint me, as often conclusions do. Maybe because I was in a particularly serene mind after my month in Japan! The characters were the same, obviously, but had grown in depth and maturity, including the senior nuns that were before somewhat caricatures of themselves, the superposition of two time lines was helping with the story tension, as was the imminent destruction of the spatial apparatus keeping the planet from freezing, with some time spent under the Ice (although the notion of permanent tunnels there was rather unrealistic!) and the petty fantasy boarding school stories had all but vanished (or remained with a purpose). But also unpredictable twists and a whole new scale for the magical abilities of the characters, some sad deaths and happy survivals. While Lawrence somehow specializes in anti-heroes, the central character is very much redeemed of the blackness that could have been attached with her, especially when [no-spoiler!] occurs! The book is also so well-connected with the previous two volumes that this would almost make re-reading these compulsory. If anything, this last volume could have benefited from being thicker!

the grey bastards [book review]

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , , on July 21, 2019 by xi'an

Another almost random read, The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French is a light (if gritty) fantasy book that should appeal to Warhammer players. Including the use of hogs as mounts. In that the main characters are half-orcs, in a Universe where lots of species (also found in Warhammer) co-exist, if not peacefully. The idea of reverting the usual perspective on orcs as dumb killers was already found in Stan Nicholls’ Orcs, which I found better than the current Grey Bastards, especially because there is not much to distinguish these from humans, sentiments included, apart from their appearance, but this makes for an enjoyable travel read. Since the characters are rather well-drawn, the story is rather (too?) simple and one can see where it is heading. (Some reviews commented on the Tolkien-meets-Sons-of-Anarchy aspect of the book, but as I have not watched the series…) There is at least one central weakness to the plot that I will not reveal, which first comes as a great shocker but is then later explained by a rather lame arm bending blackmail, that makes the story not as strong as it could have been. Upon finishing the book I found out that (a) there was a second book in the series about to appear and (b) it has won the 2016 Self-published fantasy blog-off prize, a prize started by Mark Lawrence (author of Red Sister) to “shine a light on self-published fantasy” which sounds like a great idea, in that it helps the authors towards commercial publishing. The jury is made of 10  fantasy bloggers going through a rather time-consuming process.

La peste et la vigne [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on March 17, 2019 by xi'an

During my trip to Cambodia, I read the second volume of this fantasy cycle in French. Which I liked almost as much as the first volume since the author continues to explore the mystery of the central character Syffe and its relations with some magical forces at play in his universe. As in most stories uniquely centred on a single character point of view the recurring ponderings of Syffe about his role in life, the existence of supernatural forces, and his own sanity may tend to get annoying at time. But the escape from the mines and the subsequent stay in a mountain kingdom are well-paced, especially the description of the plague that allows such an escape. The last section is more connected with the first volume and sees more warfare, again with sudden reversals of fortune (no further spoiler!). The final chapters see a lot explained about many aspects of the story and the raison d’être of the character, even though the very last surprise is somewhat predictable. But opening new vistas for the future volumes. There are still many threads I could have pulled to point some potential influences of earlier cycles, from Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant chronicles, which I simply hated!, to Robin Hobb’s Soldier’s son. Since both stories convey the feeling of a magical force at the level of the whole land (or universe), with the unprepared and imperfect “hero” able to impact this land in dramatic ways. And again Elizabeth Moon’s Deeds of Paksenarion for the depiction of mercenary companies…

sorcerer to the Crown [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2019 by xi'an

Sorcerer to the Crown is an historical fantasy book by Zen Cho I got into buying by reading a review linking most positively the novel to the monumental Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Obviously I should have known better, given that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was several years in the making, with both a very convincing reconstitution of a 19th Century style and a fairly deep plot with fantastic historical connections that took me several reads (and the help of the BBC rendering) to completely understand. Nothing of the sort with this first book in the series, except for the acknowledged influence of Susanna Clarke’s novel. I started reading Sorcerer to the Crown wondering whether this was the young adult version of the other book, the parallel being almost obvious, from the decline of English magic to the Fairy Land accessible from a shrinking number of places, to the inhumanity (or rather a-humanity) of the King of the Fairies, to the old men ruling the magician society by being adverse to any sort of innovation. The attempts at differentiating the story from this illustrious predecessor are somewhat heavy-handed as the author tackles all at once race (the two main characters are African and Indian, respectively, and face discrimination, albeit far from the extent they would have been subjected to in the actual late 1700’s England), gender (magic is repressed in girls from the upper classes), class (see previous!), politics (the British Crown would like very much the help of magicians in fighting Napoléon), imperialism (as British links with India and Malaysia are shown to support local rulers towards gaining hold in these countries).  Once more, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell addresses these issues more subtly from Stephen Black‘s significant role in the story, to the equally major impact of Arabella Strange in the unraveling of her husband greatness, to the contributions of Jonathan Strange to the Napoleonic wars… This however made for a light travel read that I completed within a few days. Enjoying the dialogues more than the [rather uni-dimensional] characters and the low-intensity action scenes.

L’enfant de poussière [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 3, 2019 by xi'an

I read this book in French, as this was the language in which it was written and also because I was given a free copy for writing a review! This is a rather unusual book, the first volume of a series called the cycle of Syffe (where Syffe is both the main character and the name of a tribe), well-written by a young author, although the style is at time a wee bit heavy. As for instance in “Les mains sur les hanches, mes yeux balayèrent l’horizon qui semblait s’étaler de la pointe de mes bottes jusqu’au bout du monde.”

The story in itself borrows to some usual memes of the genre, from following a group of young people (very young in this case), forced into dramatic circumstances by the upheaval of their world, here the death of a king leading to a breakup of his kingdom, and meeting unexpected tutors who will turn them into heroes of sort, if they survive the training. The closest books I can think of are (my favourite) Elizabeth Moon’s Deed of Paksenarrion (without the über-religious aspects [so far!]) and Glen Cook’s Black Company, which both follow mercenary companies in a fragmented world at war. A little bit of Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorn as well, since in the later a young kid is driving a band of bandits. And not to forget Joe Abercrombie for the rather similar gritty style. (Gritty enough to make me decide after a few chapters that this was definitely not a young adult novel, as I had doubts about it first.)

The book, first of the cycle, thus follows the misadventures of a very young orphan, and I repeat “very young”, because this is an issue with the story, when 8 to 10 years old are shown in situations and with attitudes that do not sound likely. Even for orphans, even in a medieval world with short lifespans and plenty of economic reasons to turn kids into cheap labour. From spy, to stable boy, to child-soldier. Without turning to spoilers, there are also a bucketful of fortune reversals in the book, meaning that the surroundings and circumstances keep changing, sometimes really fast, sometimes quite slowly, as with the years when Syffe acquires fighting skills from an old mercenary from a tribe of free and deadly fighters. The pace is still good enough for the book to be a page-turner that I read in less than a week! And the few battle scenes are realistic in the Abercrombie referential, that is, with everyone scared and unclear why they are there. There is also some magic involved, which is always a risk in the plot, but apart from a lengthy passage on a malevolent Dream with much too real consequences (nothing to do with Tel’aran’rhiod in the Wheel of Time!), the author handles it quite well, maintaining an ambivalence in Syffe about his super-natural experiences, supported by one of his mentors’ freethinker ethics. As for the completeness of the background, i.e., the universe imagined by the author, it often feels too provincial, too local, with the incoming wars between the local lords sounding very much parochial, although the scope gets gradually wider, along with the maturation of Syffe and the darkening of the overall atmosphere. After finishing the book, I read that seven volumes in total are planned in the cycle!