Archive for fantasy

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!

the witchwood crown [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures with tags , , , , , , on December 1, 2018 by xi'an

As Memory Sorrow and Thorn is a favourite fantasy series of mine, despite its imperfections, I pre-ordered the first volume in the new trilogy of Tad Williams, The witchwood crown, which takes place about fifty years after the events recounted in Memory Sorrow and Thorn. With some of the former characters, obviously [for the humans] getting old. Or ending up dead. This new story is thus very much articulated with respect to the original trilogy and could not be read independently. (I was surprised to see I remember so much of Memory Sorrow and Thorn given that I only read it once!) Overall, the first volume mostly sets the scene, brings in new villains and threats on this Osten Ard universe created by Williams, but does not see too much action, except for the constant traveling of most characters, crisscrossing the land so much that one would deem setting an Osten Ard travel agency as an urgent requirement for the next volume! The most annoying part of this articulation is that, while it avoids sketching these old characters from scratch, they keep running in circles about their live, old times, their position in the society, &tc. In particular, the latent antagonism between the three royal generations is poorly done, the future (?) king being turned into an idiot who does not know anything about the running of the kingdom and the specifics of its northern and southern enemies. The continuing low key bickering between the older royals is equally annoying, not to mention the princess stuck in between, whose role remains unclear till the end! While the overall plot unfolding remains captivating and meeting a few new characters worth reading The witchwood crown, I am still disappointed at the lack of depth of most characters and at the poor editing of the story in this heavy volume. Many threads are now open and it remains to be seen how skillfully Williams manages to spin them into the next book!

sharp ends [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on September 2, 2018 by xi'an

A chance encounter with an itinerant bookstore at the market of Tofino, Van Isle, BC, led me to buy this collection of short stories by Joe Abercrombie, called Sharp Ends. All set in the same universe as the great series of novels he wrote in the past ten years, involving second, third and fourth rate characters, with a few major ones popping in on the side. Including my favourite, Ninefinger. These short stories have appeared here and there across the years, but reading them together (for the first time) within a few days (of vacation) was utterly pleasant, with some threads running through most and some enjoyable recurrent characters. I remembered enough of the original First Law books to settle back in their universe, ten years later! And short stories are quite suited to Abercrombie’s style of stories, the dark and grim ending occurring always too quickly for the main character! Now this set me wondering as to why there was no recent book by this author, except for the disappointing young adult Half something trilogy. Which  read I did not complete. Reading his blog for the first time in many years, I learned that a new trilogy is in the making, set in the same universe (and avoiding mixing dark fantasy with western!). Looking forward this new series!!!

Assassin’s fate [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , , , , on February 3, 2018 by xi'an

I am afraid it is impossible to report on Assassin’s Fate without introducing spoilers, so would-be readers, be warned! The end of a long if enjoyable journey with FitzChivalry, the royal Assassin created by Robin Hobb two decades ago, in a book that brings together almost all characters she introduced in the five trilogies linking the Six Duchies, the Rain Wild, and beyond. Beyond the imperfections of some slow-pace sections and of the infuriating stubbornness of Fitz along with his righteousness at times, the conclusion of the book is stunning and perfectly closes the series, leaving the reader who has followed these characters for years and enjoyed the carefully constructed universe behind them, as well as the psychological depth of most of them, with a peaceful and bittersweet sadness. Never have so many owed so much to so few, some would add about Fitz, The Fool and Bee, given the upheaval they bring to this whole universe, impacting first and foremost the Liveship traders… In my opinion, the saga of FitzChivalry that concludes with this book stands among the most realised and elaborated ones in fantasy, primarily for its highly attaching (and far from heroic) characters. Who definitely belong to a pantheon of fantasy characters that one remembers along the years, even with long interruptions.