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Friday Reads: The Sharing Knife: Beguilement, by Lois McMaster Bujold

For some reason I’ve been very slow in getting into Lois McMaster Bujold’s work; despite reading and enjoying Ethan of Athos many years ago, and loving The Curse of Chalion, it wasn’t until this year that I went beyond that. I was in a mood to read some SF as a palate-cleanser after so much fantasy, so I started her Miles Vorkosigan series at the beginning (of which more another day). Then I discovered there was a one-day conference on her work being held here in Cambridge just after WorldCon (when I happen to be off work), so I decided I’d better read more of her books before going! I bought a couple more of the SF series in ebook form, then remembered that her entire four-book fantasy series The Sharing Knife was gathering dust on my bookshelves (I bought them several years ago, from a work colleague).

The Sharing Knife is very different from your typical European-inspired fantasy – like Peter V Brett’s Demon Cycle, it has a very rural American flavour, like The Little House on the Prairie with monsters. However, whereas Brett’s series is all about the fight against the monsters, The Sharing Knife is basically a romance with a bit of monster-bashing on the side. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; Bujold is such a good writer that she can hook you with charming characters and domestic squabbles as easily as with heart-pounding action.

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Friday Read: The Dragon’s Path, by Daniel Abraham

Way back in 2011 (gosh, was it really that long ago?) I read Abraham’s debut, A Shadow in Summer, and loved it for its beautiful writing and unusual Eastern-inspired setting, so when I heard he had written a more conventional epic fantasy series I was a little conflicted. I couldn’t blame him for wanting to write something more commercial than The Long Price Quartet, but I’m not a huge fan of bog-standard medieval EF so it didn’t exactly leap to the top of my TBR list. However I’m currently waiting on several much-anticipated books that aren’t out until spring, so I decided to bite the bullet and give The Dragon’s Path a go… Read more

Friday Reads: The Republic of Thieves, by Scott Lynch

Locke Lamora is dying…

The third instalment in the hugely popular Gentleman Bastards series, this novel has been the subject of so much fevered anticipation in the six years since Scott Lynch left us with the cliffhanger of Locke’s fatal poisoning that disappointment seems almost inevitable. Since I didn’t read Red Seas Under Red Skies until earlier this year, my wait was shorter than most; just enough to make me excited for Book 3. So was I disappointed? Yes, maybe a little, but mostly Hell No! I’m not saying The Republic of Thieves is flawless—no book ever is—but I enjoyed it enough to rip through it in a week, despite it being a fairly ponderous tome (almost 600 pages in hardback).

N.B. I’ll try and avoid major spoilers, but a few minor ones are inevitable if I’m going to be able to discuss what I liked and didn’t like. Read more

Friday Reads: The Tainted City, by Courtney Schafer

Dev is a desperate man. After narrowly surviving a smuggling job gone wrong, he’s now a prisoner of the Alathian Council, held hostage to ensure his friend Kiran — former apprentice to one of the most ruthless mages alive — does their bidding. But Kiran isn’t Dev’s only concern. Back in his home city of Ninavel, the child he once swore to protect faces a terrible fate if he can’t reach her in time, and the days are fast slipping away. So when the Council offers Dev freedom in exchange for his and Kiran’s assistance in a clandestine mission to Ninavel, he can’t refuse, no matter how much he distrusts their motives. Once in Ninavel the mission proves more treacherous than even Dev could have imagined. Betrayed by allies, forced to aid their enemies, he and Kiran must confront the darkest truths of their pasts if they hope to save those they love and survive their return to the Tainted City.

I read and reviewed the first book in this series, The Whitefire Crossing, just over a year ago, shortly after meeting Courtney Schafer at Chicon 7. I really enjoyed it and was looking forward to the sequel, and I’m glad to say that The Tainted City didn’t disappoint. Read more

Book Review: The Folding Knife, by K J Parker

Basso the Magnificent. Basso the Great. Basso the Wise. The First Citizen of the Vesani Republic is an extraordinary man.

He is ruthless, cunning, and above all, lucky. He brings wealth, power and prestige to his people. But with power comes unwanted attention, and Basso must defend his nation and himself from threats foreign and domestic. In a lifetime of crucial decisions, he’s only ever made one mistake.

One mistake, though, can be enough.

 

I first encountered K J Parker’s work last summer, when Sharps was released in paperback and ebook. I loved the combination of sardonic wit and understated worldbuilding, so when I discovered that Fantasy Faction had chosen another Parker standalone for their September book club choice, I couldn’t resist joining in.

At first I found it heavy going, even compared to Sharps. The protagonist, Basso, is a banker, and the early sections detail his rise to power as First Citizen of the Vesani Republic. Parker’s narrative style is very dry, often committing the cardinal sin of telling rather than showing, and yet the prose is so polished and Basso so compelling a character that the book drags you along in spite of yourself as you wonder what enormity he’s going to commit next. Both stylistically and plot-wise it reminded me a great deal of I, Claudius, with its cut-throat (sometimes literally!) politics in a world of senators and slaves.

As I mentioned above, I love Parker’s worldbuilding. There might not be any fantastical elements, but the history geek in me revels in all the real-world parallels. This book is clearly set in the same world as Sharps, but probably somewhat earlier; at any rate, it resembles an alternate history of the late Roman Empire, in that there is an Eastern Empire ranged against a motley collection of smaller states that resulted from the collapse of the Western Empire. The Vesani Republic itself resembles Venice: it relies almost entirely on trade, having little or no agricultural territory, and since the ruling class consists of merchants rather than knights, it hires mercenaries to fight on its behalf. It’s as if the Roman Empire dissolved gracefully instead of being overrun by barbarians, and thus went (politically) straight from the fourth century to the seventeenth without any pesky Middle Ages in-between!

My sole gripe with this book was the character of Basso’s sister. Admittedly he does something terrible to her and her family early on in the story, but her bitter hatred of him, and her resultant campaign to ruin his life in a myriad petty ways, started to grate eventually. On the other hand, Basso’s dogged love for her despite her enmity does serve to give him a touch of nobility to balance his other, less admirable qualities.

Back on Fantasy Faction, an issue that provoked much interesting debate was “what is Basso’s one mistake?” I won’t discuss that—or the metaphoric resonances of the title—here, for fear of spoilers. All I can say is that this book impressed the hell out of me, and will stay with me for a long time. Whether or not you consider it to be fantasy, The Folding Knife is a fine novel and well worth (re)reading. Though I fear that next time, knowing what is to come, the prologue may reduce me to tears…

Guest post: Michael J. Martinez

This week I’m very pleased to welcome Mike Martinez to my blog. His debut novel The Daedalus Incident is an intriguing blend of history, fantasy and science fiction, in which a near-future exploration of Mars is interrupted by the arrival of a seemingly impossible vessel: an 18th-century sailing ship with the ability to travel between planets…

On playing with, and occasionally breaking, history

As my gracious host well knows, historical fantasy is rich with storytelling possibilities. And to some, it may seem…easier, perhaps, than creating an entirely new fantasy world from whole cloth.

The British naval hero Horatio Nelson, for example, is the subject of several exhaustive biographies detailing his life and times. When I wrote The Gravity of the Affair, a novella in which he was the main character, I had much to draw from – even the other characters’ names are all taken from history itself.

But consider that my Nelson exists in a universe in which sailing ships ply the Void between planets, thanks to the mystic science of Alchemy. What sort of change might this bring to Nelson’s life? Would he find the views ‘round Jupiter humbling? Or would his already considerable pride wax even stronger? And in such an “alchemy-punk” setting, will he lose his arm at Santa Cruz de Tenerife? Or his life at Trafalgar? Read more

Book Review: Promise of Blood, by Brian McClellan

“The Age of Kings is dead…and I have killed it.”

This awesome tagline adorns the cover of Brian McClellan’s  debut novel Promise of Blood, the first volume of the Powder Mage Trilogy, and aptly sums up the political theme of the book: revolution.

After a few false starts with novels I struggled to get into, I’ve taken to downloading free samples from kobobooks.com with the intention of only buying the book if sufficiently hooked. Promise of Blood passed this test with flying colours and I quickly bought the ePub so that I could continue reading. Read more

Guest post: Django Wexler on point-of-view

This week I’m very pleased to welcome Django Wexler, whose epic gunpowder fantasy featuring a military commander hero and a cross-dressing heroine sounds right up my readers’ street!

Reconnaissance: Point of View as a Precious Resource

First, the Universal Caveat—this is, of course, only the opinion of one reader/writer, so please take it for what it’s worth.

I read a lot of books, as you might expect.  In fact, ever since getting involved with the writer/publisher/book reviewer blog-tweet-sphere-o-net, I have been deluged with more books than I can reasonably read.  There’s a pile of about fifty on the end of my desk right now, shaming me and threatening to collapse and knock over my lamp.

As a result, I’ve had to get a bit more ruthless about abandoning books in the middle if I’m not actually enjoying them.  I used to make a bit of a fetish about finishing books, out of a masochistic sense of duty, but the growth of the pile has made this impractical.  My new rule is that each book gets a hundred pages to hook me.  Recently, I found myself tossing several novels in a row, all for roughly the same reason—too many points of view.  So I thought I would talk a bit about what that means. Read more

Book review: The Painted Man, by Peter V Brett

Thus continues my summer of catching up on my reading, especially those (mostly epic) fantasies that came out a while ago…

*** Spoilers ahoy! ***

The Painted Man tells the stories of three exceptional young people—Arlen, Leesha and Rojer—growing up in a world where demons rise from the earth’s core every night and try to kill humans. The only things that can keep the demons back are wards: painted or carved symbols. Arlen has a talent for drawing wards and wants to become a Messenger (one of the couriers who defy the demons, travelling from town to town); Leesha is a skilled herbalist; and Rojer’s music has an Orpheus-like effect on the demons. Their stories run in parallel for most of the book until they meet up towards the end.

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