Voidhawk.com Book and film reviews

23Apr/140

“The Final Empire” by Brandon Sanderson

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It is often stated that the Epic Fantasy genre has gone through significant changes in the last decade or two compared to its previous existence. There is often a line drawn between the traditional fantasies of Tolkien or later followers like Feist or Eddings and the more modern fantasies of GRRM, Abercrombie or Morgan which tends to have adjectives like gritty, cynical or ‘grimdark’ applied to them. I think dividing the genre like that does tend to feel a bit simplistic and Sanderson’s Mistborn series is one example of why that is. This is a series set in a world far bleaker and nastier than most of those found in other modern fantasy series, but the style of writing and storytelling feels more reminiscent of the popular fantasy series of the 80s and 90s and as a result it is a much lighter read than might be expected given the plot.

I’ve seen the series praised for its worldbuilding, this praise often seems to focus on the inventive magic system Sanderson has designed, but I think the design of the world itself is more important to the book. The story is set millennia after a prophesied hero defeated an evil threatening the entire world and then promptly seized power himself. Since then the seemingly immortal Lord Ruler has come to dominate every part of the world, the only permitted religion being the one that portrays him as a divine ruler whose edicts are unquestionable. The world itself is covered in almost perpetual gloom due to the ever-present ash clouds and mists while most of the population have short and miserable lives of drudgery trying to eke a living out an unproductive land, the only luxuries being reserved for the small elite of noblemen who oppress the rest of the population on behalf of the Lord Ruler. Both ‘modern’ and ‘traditional’ epic fantasies have often defaulted to a setting more or less based on medieval Europe, I can’t think of many that have a setting like this series and it is an interesting idea to explore how a traditional fantasy world might end up if good didn’t triumph over evil. Although I generally like the world-building here, I think one criticism is that it perhaps lacks enough detail to be entirely convincing, in particular although the ‘Final Empire’ is supposedly vast we barely see more than a single city and it’s difficult to get much impression of what the rest of the Empire is like.

Sanderson does show repeatedly and at great length how miserable a world this would be to live in. It is here that the writing style does make a significant difference to the experience of reading the book. If it had been written in the same style as some recent fantasy series with explicit and detailed portrayals of the violent scenes then I think this might have ended up being a depressing and possibly gruelling book to read. Instead, Sanderson largely avoids getting too visceral in his descriptions of the frequent violence and atrocities, it may be set in a brutal and nasty world but it doesn’t need to show the details of the violent acts to portray that. Opinions may vary on how successful this is, but I think it makes the book easier to read and more entertaining than some of the alternatives even if the contrast between the nastiness of the world and the book’s squeamishness about sex scenes or swearing does feel slightly jarring.

The characterisation is generally good but not without its flaws. I think Vin and Kelsier make a couple of interesting main characters. Vin does fall into a few epic fantasy clichés (orphan, mysterious parentage, latent powers she needs to master to defeat the enemy) but she is a likeable protagonist and she does get the best character development of any character in the book as she gradually learns to reduce her paranoid suspicion of everyone else and start to trust in others. Kelsier does have some elements of the traditional ‘wise mentor’ role but his arrogance and sometimes excessive bloodlust do help make him a more interesting character. The supporting characters do have a tendency to be basically good or evil with perhaps a single character flaw to make the good characters slightly less good, their characterisation does sometimes feel a bit lacking in depth or nuance. I think the characterisation is another area where this feels more like an older fantasy series than some of the popular modern works, the idealistic (if sometimes cynical) band of rebels bantering among each other as they fight against seemingly insurmountable odds feels more like something from David Eddings rather than George R.R. Martin.

The book moves along at a good pace, although this is the first book in a trilogy as much seems to happen in the first volume as happens in some entire series. The plot has a few interesting mysteries and surprising twists and it all comes to a satisfying conclusion which means this could have worked as a standalone novel even if there is some set-up for the sequels. Sanderson’s prose isn’t particularly notable or memorable but it does a decent job of efficiently telling the story. The frequent action scenes are done well and the Allomancy magic system Sanderson has devised does help the action scenes feel fairly fresh and different to the traditional fantasy battle scenes, even if explaining the magic system does apparently require a lot of exposition.

Overall, this is an entertaining read with some interesting features that make it stand out compared to other fantasy series although sometimes the world-building and characterisation may feel a bit lacking in depth.

Rating : 7.5 / 10

2Jan/140

“The Fall of Ventaris” by Neil McGarry and Daniel Ravipinto

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The sequel to the entertaining “Duchess of the Shallows” manages to retain the charm of the first novel while expanding its world and the complexity of the story. It starts a few months after the first book with an initially unexciting plot by Duchess to try to get her new business partner admitted to the local weaver’s guild but from this simple beginning she quickly finds herself trying to carry out multiple overlapping schemes that take her to the very top of Rodaasi society. Her efforts to keep all of those plates spinning is entertaining and means the book feels much more fast-paced than the first book (which largely concentrated on a single heist). It does sometimes seem a little bit implausible when she embarks on a new scheme without waiting for the conclusion of her previous plots and on a couple of occasions it’s not entirely clear why she’s so determined to do some of the things (such as freeing the imprisoned Castor). A couple of the solutions to plotlines do seem a little bit too easy (such as when trying to retrieve a ring held as a gambling debt) but on the other hand some of the novel’s best moments come from some of Duchess’ schemes having unintended consequences. The ending is particularly strong, with Duchess belatedly realising how much others have been using her schemes for their own ends.

For most of the first book Duchess only really had a single ally in the form of Lysander but the sequel does expand the cast with a number of interesting characters, some of whom are uncertain allies with ambiguous intentions towards Duchess. Her interactions with the amiable but devious head of the Keepers were particularly good, although her more straightforward friendship with Jana is a also a good contrast to the duplicity of most of her relationships.

The world-building had been good in the first book and it is expanded greatly in the second book. The highlights of the world-building in this book mostly centre on the city’s three religious cults and on the ongoing mystery of the sinister catacombs beneath the city. Duchess’ confusion at being caught in the middle of a carefully choreographed religious ceremony is a particularly striking scene, and the contrasting religious orders of the Keepers and the Facets are both intriguing. The three religion’s shadowy battle for prominence becomes increasingly prominent as the book goes on and the fallout is likely to play a key role in future sequels. Duchess’ encounters with mysterious forces beneath the city feel slightly disconnected from the main plot of this book, but are probably going to be very significant for the series as a whole. One of the criticisms I had of the first book was that for much of the book it felt like the characters weren’t in much peril, but this part of the plotline (particularly a scene set in an underground crypt that injects a bit of horror into the story) manages to make it feel like the stakes are becoming much greater.

Overall, this is an entertaining story with a set of interlocking and fast-moving plots, good characterisation and a few neat additions to typical fantasy world-building. The Grey City is definitely turning out to be a good fantasy series.

Rating : 8 / 10

29Dec/130

“Dust” by Hugh Howey

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I found the first two books in Hugh Howey’s Silo trilogy to be a bit mixed in terms of quality. “Wool” had started very strongly before developing a few flaws later on but still managed to be a compelling story in a fascinating setting. Unfortunately, Howey then decided that the second book in the trilogy should be a prequel which seemed obsessed with explaining things that were better left unexplained and featured a largely new cast of characters who were far less interesting than the characters in Wool. The concluding book tries to tie together the plotlines from the two earlier books into a coherent story, with some success although it still suffers from some of the second book’s weaknesses.

To begin with there is a welcome return to Jules’ story, which was at the heart of the first book. Unfortunately, it is interleaved with chapters following Donald (and his newly awakened sister), who I thought was a confused and frustrating character in the second book. This part of the storyline is arguably more important to the overall plot than Jules’ story so it’s unfortunate that it’s hard to care what happens to him except for how what he does would impact on the other characters. I don’t find his character development to be particularly convincing, since he seems to alternate between being passive and incurious until the plot demands that he has to do something when he suddenly becomes impulsive and fond of dramatic actions. I do think his chapters are a bit more bearable this time round due to the addition of a couple of saner characters, particularly his sister.

I think Jules’ story arc is the best part of the book, although even that isn’t without a few problems. Her romance with Lucas is still painfully unconvincing and he still fails to be an interesting character, but since they don’t spend too much time together in the book it isn’t a huge problem. Some of the supporting characters can be a bit two-dimensional but there are also some good bits of characterisation, Solo especially gets some good character development. The book gets off to a relatively slow start as Jules tries to rally the people of the Silo behind her latest schemes, but the pace then abruptly picks up as a disaster puts the survival of the Silo under threat. This is the most compelling part of the story; Howey’s storytelling does seem to be at its most effective when his characters are under extreme pressure. The flow of the story is interrupted a bit by a distracting and seemingly unnecessary subplot involving a religious cult who thinks Jules’ actions are blasphemous. The inclusion of this does seem a bit odd when the first two books had ignored the Silo’s Priests except for brief mentions.

I thought the conclusion of the story was a fitting ending to the series’ storylines and one that builds on some of the themes going back to the first short story in Wool. It is also an emotionally satisfying conclusion, hopeful but with an undercurrent of tragedy given how much death and destruction has occurred during the series. Given Howey’s tendency to over-explain the history of the Silo it is gratifying that he leaves the ending being relatively open-ended and leaves many questions remaining about how things would develop in the future.

Overall, I’d say the ending and the better parts of the final book largely manage to make up for some of the stumbles the series has had along the way. It’s a pity the series couldn’t maintain the quality of the early stories in the Wool omnibus, but I think it’s still good enough to be worth reading despite the flaws.

Rating : 7 / 10

27Dec/130

“Siege and Storm” by Leigh Bardugo

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I thought “Shadow and Bone” was a good first novel in the Grisha trilogy, it both worked well as a story on its own and set up some interesting plotlines for the later books. The first sequel does deliver on some of that potential, although I think it does have a few weaknesses.

I think possibly the biggest issue with the book was the inconsistent pacing. The beginning wastes little time before throwing Alina and Mal back into a dangerous situation and with some new characters and concepts introduced this is a strong start to the book but it also feels a bit rushed, I think more time could have spent on some of the plot points such as the hunting of the Sea Whip.

The book seems impatient to return Alina to the centre of Ravkan politics, unfortunately once she gets there the pace slows dramatically with the majority of the book consisting of Alina trying to adjust to her new role and responsibilities as well as trying to come up with a way to fight against the Darkling’s forces. I did think this part of the book allowed some good character development for Alina, as she becomes more confident in her abilities and as she has to provide leadership for her allies. She does become less likeable while starting to show more ambition and occasional ruthlessness, making her a more interesting character. Some of the supporting characterisation is also good, I liked that some of Alina’s strongest allies are fairly unsympathetic characters who were initially antagonistic towards her while some of the more sympathetic characters become her enemies. Sturmhond is an entertaining addition to the character list, although he’s got such a wide range of things he is brilliant at that he could have been the protagonist in a Guy Gavriel Kay book. Unfortunately, there were also a few characters that felt lacking in depth (particularly Sturmhond’s elder brother). The weakest scenes tend to involve Alina and Mal repeatedly failing to talk to each other and spending half the time sulking about the other being inconsiderate. It’s perhaps not an implausible depiction of a teenage relationship but it’s not very interesting to read about and Mal’s increasing insecurity makes him an irritating character. It does seem to spend about as much on the breakdown in their relationship as on the upcoming war against the Darkling’s forces.

The long and slow middle section of the book is partially redeemed by the final section as things to start to go badly wrong when a disastrous sequence of events threatens everything Alina has been working for throughout the book. I think this is the most compelling part of the book and no character really feels safe with some being abruptly killed off. It is a great ending, and sets up the final book very well, but like the beginning of the book it feels a bit rushed. A bit more time spent on the beginning and ending of the book and perhaps a bit less on the middle section might have made it a stronger book.

Rating : 7 / 10

14Dec/130

“Ancillary Justice” by Anne Leckie

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I thought this was an impressive and original debut novel and it is nice to see a fresh take on the space opera genre. It does have a great premise, the idea of the avatar of a ship’s AI trying to survive and find revenge for the destruction of its ship is a fascinating idea and one I’ve not seen done before. Alternate chapters show the main character before and after the destruction of the Justice of Toren and it does provide a fascinating contrast between being one part of a great collective intelligence formed from the ship and its army of avatars and a single surviving avatar on its own. At the beginning of the novel it’s not entirely clear what is going on but both timeframes gradually provide revelations about what happened, this is effective in making the past timeframe more compelling as it is clear there is an impending disaster even when in the middle of what should be a straightforward peacekeeping mission.

One of the strengths of the writing is that while it is told from an alien viewpoint it still manages to make it possible to relate to the main character even if they’re not particularly sympathetic – they are working for a brutal interstellar regime that fights endless wars of conquest and use captured prisoners as hosts for their ship’s avatars. One of the main themes is the effects of a having a single intelligence split among many individual bodies and how small differences between those individuals can have significant effects. Another unusual feature of the viewpoint is that the lead character comes from a civilisation that doesn’t distinguish between different genders so throughout the book they refer to everyone as ‘she’ or ‘her’. This is a bit disorienting both for the lead character as they try not to offend anyone while in a civilisation where gender is significant and for the reader. I found that I was subconsciously deciding that different characters were either male or female even though the book didn’t seem to be stating which character was which. It could have easily felt like a gimmick, but I think it works due to showing things from the protagonist’s perspective and making it believable that from their perspective whether someone was male or female was irrelevant.

I think one drawback of the book being told from the perspective of a ship’s avatar is that they don’t necessarily have a good understanding of some of the other characters and so some of them also remain enigmatic to the reader. I think while there are several interesting characters it does perhaps suffer slightly from a lack of genuinely likeable characters since it can be hard to care about the fate of most of them, with the exception of Lieutenant Awn. In many ways the book is a bit reminiscent of Iain M. Banks’ writing, which is no bad thing although even in his darker stories I think Banks would still have managed to inject a bit more fun into it.

The book is fast-moving but it does feel a bit rushed towards the end and also incomplete as this is clearly only the first book of a series. While the ending does resolve some matters and it does unravel the central mystery of the book, I think it is too inconclusive for the book to really stand on its own.

This is a strong debut novel and the start of what should be a good series. There are a few flaws and the ending felt a bit weak compared to the rest of the book, but it’s still a good beginning.

Rating : 8 / 10

14Dec/130

“Ace of Skulls” by Chris Wooding

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The “Tales of the Ketty Jay” series has been one of the most enjoyable series I’ve read in the last few years. It’s an unpretentious series more focused on entertaining adventures than literary depth but it has featured some compelling characterisation and some fascinating pieces of world-building (particularly the Manes and the long-lost Azryx civilisation seen in the last book). I’m a bit sad that the fourth book is also the last one, but at least the series has gone out on a high.

Being the last book in the series it does sometimes feel a bit like a ‘Greatest Hits’ compilation as just about every significant character and plotline from previous books are all thrown together as Vardia plunges into civil war, culminating in an aerial battle over the capital with the crew of the Ketty Jay right at the centre of events. As if that wasn’t enough for a single book, each of the members of the crew (including, of course, the ship’s cat) all have their own plotline and get their own major pieces of character development. There’s so much being included in a book which isn’t particularly long that it is quite an achievement by Wooding to have it avoid feeling too rushed and for it not to feel like any of the characters or plotlines have been short-changed (although arguably I think Jez’s plotline could have done with a little bit more time spent on it). It also makes for a compelling and page-turning read, particularly as the story approaches its climax. Although I think it’s a bit of a pity that there aren’t going to be many more books, it is perhaps better to end this way than for the story to risk getting repetitive as it went on.

Particular highlights of the book include Crake’s experiments with daemonism as he tries to counteract the Awakener’s Imperators, I think the daemonists have been one of the most interesting elements of the world-building, reminiscent of Victorian scientists attempt to use reason and technology to harness mystical forces. The final battle is also very good, although for a series so focused on aerial combat it is probably events on the ground as Silo and Malvery try to lead an attack on an Awakener stronghold that is the most compelling part of the battle. Unlike some of the previous plotline the crew are being forced into an unaccustomed role where they are the heroes of the story, I think Wooding manages to make this work without losing the moral ambiguity that made them interesting characters in the first place.

Overall, I think this might be the most entertaining book I’ve read all year and it’s a worthy conclusion to what has been a very good series.

Rating : 9 / 10

14Dec/130

“War Master’s Gate” by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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I’ve enjoyed the previous 8 books in the “Shadows of the Apt” series, but it has been a bit of an uneven series and some books have worked better than others. For example, the previous book “The Air War” seemed to spend too much time on the aerial battles and not enough time on characterisation. Fortunately, “War Master’s Gate” manages a better balance between the different elements.

The book is split between two main plotlines. The first is the Empire’s latest attempt to conquer Collegium with Stenwold Maker leading the city’s defence while the second focuses on his niece Che’s attempts to thwart an expedition into the heart of the Mantis forests by the Wasp Empress Seda to try to gain the power of an ancient magician. Previous books have sometimes had problems when splitting the plotlines with one being more interesting than the other, but I think both plotlines work well in this book. One of the main themes in the series is the contrast between the two ways of looking at the world, the practical technology-driven approach favoured by the Apt people, and the Inapt worldview where magic and mysticism play a central role. The two plotlines show two different ways of waging war, the latest technology being used to besiege and defend Collegium while for the first time we see how Inapt magicians would wage war. The balance between the two could have been tricky, but the book manages to both clearly describe the technology and tactics of the Collegium plotline and also portray a more otherworldly setting as Che and Seda make their way towards Argatos’ tomb. The Inapt world works on a different sort of logic, but it does still manage to make a strange sort of sense and although the steampunk elements of the world-building have been inventive throughout the series, the more fantastical elements are becoming increasingly interesting.

I think this is probably the first time in the series since the fourth book “Salute the Dark” where all the main characters in the series play a significant role in the same book and the series is clearly building towards its climax in the next book. Che probably gets the best plotline in the book and she has developed a lot as a character through the last few books with this book seeing her come to terms with her newfound abilities. The rivalry and conflict between Che and Seda does offer some of the book’s highlights, with Seda also getting some good characterisation – while she is one of the series’ main villains there are still glimpses of the more sympathetic character she was in the earliest books in the series. The Collegium plotline has another rivalry between Stenwold and General Tynan in command of their two armies, Stenwold is as reliable as ever in the series although it’s fortunate that the book doesn’t focus too much on him since he can be a bit too predictable to be entirely compelling as a character. Tynan is also an interesting character due to being intensely devoted to his duty to win the war while also being regretful about some of the things he has to do to win it. There are also plenty of good supporting characters with the ‘second generation’ of Collegium students being at the focus of some of the best scenes in the Collegium plotline. One of the few irritating bits of characterisation is Laszlo’s brainless infatuation with someone he knows is an enemy spy.

Throughout the series Tchaikovsky hasn’t shied away from tragedy or from killing off characters and that continues here with probably the two biggest events in the entire series unfolding. The stakes are certainly high and with only one book to go none of the characters feel entirely safe, which does increase the tension. The book ends on a huge cliffhanger with the entire world seemingly in peril, while it doesn’t work as a standalone it is a perfect set-up for the tenth and final book in the series although I am a bit worried that there does seem to be a lot of plot to cover in that last book. Despite the more epic parts of the story there are also some powerful scenes on a smaller scale as various characters and peoples try to survive in a world at war, with the Mantis-kinden’s increasingly desperate attempts to find a place in a world that has left them behind being particularly tragic.

Overall, I’d say this is a contender for being the best books in the series, it’s a very entertaining read and I can’t find anything more than minor flaws in it.

Rating : 8.5 / 10

10Nov/130

“River of Stars” by Guy Gavriel Kay

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I had enjoyed Kay’s fantasy novel “Under Heaven”, set in a fantasy world heavily influenced by the history of Tang Dynasty China so I was looking forward to the semi-sequel which is set in the same setting several centuries later. In the time period between the two books several dynasties have risen and fallen in Kitai (Kay’s fantasy equivalent of China), the story in River of Stars corresponds to events during the Song Dynasty, although I only know by reading about it on the Internet since my knowledge of medieval Chinese history is very limited (I spent half the novel thinking that the troublesome Northern barbarians who go on a war of conquest were meant to be the Mongols, but apparently they’re an earlier group of invaders).

Although the intervening centuries mean that there are limited connections between the books there are some thematic links, the most obvious link is that the way Kitai is being run is in many ways a reaction to the trauma of the events occurring in Under Heaven, particularly the suspicion between the Imperial Court and the military. This suspicion is central to the plot because Ren Daiyan, one of the book’s main characters, believes that his destiny is to rebuild the reputation of the army of the Kitai so that it can regain the occupied lands lost in an earlier war. Much of the book follows Ren’s rise from humble beginnings as the son of a provincial clerk to a position of power via a career as a bandit. The other main character, Lin Shan, also has ambitions that she seems unlikely to achieve, although in her case the main problem is the misogyny of a society that refuses to let woman deviate from their assigned roles.

I thought “Under Heaven” had been compelling from the beginning, but had become a bit weaker towards the end as the scope expanded and Kitai descended into war with the book struggling to give a good overview of all that was happening. “River of Stars” is the opposite, while the characterisation and world-building is strong from the start the plot isn’t all that interesting at first but it becomes more involving as Kitai comes under threat from its warlike neighbours and it has a strong ending that manages to satisfyingly tie up the various plotlines. I think this is particularly true of Ren’s storyline, to begin with he does come across as arrogant in his certainty that he has a great destiny but he becomes a more interesting character in the latter part of the novel as he has to modify his ambitions to take account of the needs of his country and faces an increasing dilemma in terms of whether he should follow Imperial orders or do what he thinks is right.

In the first part of the book I thought Lin Shan was the strongest character, it could easily have been the case that she felt a bit anachronistic in terms of her opinions on a woman’s place in society but I think the book did a good job of making her feel like a product of her society even if she rebelled against many aspect of it. It’s perhaps a bit of a shame that the book focuses on her less towards the end of the story, although she does still get a few moments to shine.

The supporting characters are also good, the scheming elderly Prime Minister being a particularly memorable character and I also liked the portrayal of the Emperor as someone who was well-meaning but so divorced from the reality of the world beyond his palace that he doesn’t see how much damage his regime is doing to Kitai, despite being all-powerful he also feels in many ways like an unwitting prisoner.

Although this is supposedly a fantasy novel, like many of Kay’s books there is very little magic, but Ren’s encounter with an enigmatic fox spirit is one of the highlights of the book, although Kay rarely uses magic in his stories he is very good at portraying it and mixing myth into his stories.

I think the world-building is another one of Kay’s strengths and it is done very well here. The loose ties to Under Heaven are particularly effective at showing the effects of history on later events, and one of the main themes is suggesting that while forgetting history can lead to mistakes being repeated, trying too hard to learn from historical mistakes can be equally damaging.

I would probably rate this similar to Under Heaven, although it does suffer a bit from a slow start the ending of the book is very strong and although at first glance there are only loose connections between this and the earlier book I think they complement each other well.

Rating : 8/10

9Nov/130

“The Republic of Thieves” by Scott Lynch

RepublicOfThieves

It’s been about six years since I finished the previous book in Scott Lynch’s series and given how much I enjoyed the previous books I approached the third book with a mix of anticipation and nervousness that it wouldn’t live up to its predecessors, not helped by some fairly mixed reviews suggesting that many people were a bit disappointed in it. Overall I enjoyed reading and liked many of the things that happened in it but there were some things that I think didn't work and some things I'm still not quite sure how I feel about them.

The story alternates between a ‘present-day’ story as Locke and Jean are coerced into helping rig an election and flashbacks set before the beginning of the first novel showing some of their early adventures in Camorr, the two being linked by the character of Sabetha who was often mentioned in earlier books but hadn’t appeared in person until this book. The main purpose of the flashbacks is to show how Locke first met Sabetha and how over the years they developed into friends, rivals and ultimately lovers, while in the present day Locke is reunited with her after a long estrangement but finds that she is working for his opponents in the election.

I think the flashback part of the story worked well. I’ve seen some complaint in other reviews that not enough happened in it to justify the number of pages spent on it, and they may have a point but I enjoyed seeing the full complement of the Gentleman Bastards working together and it was a good introduction to Sabetha – I don’t think the present-day part of the story would have worked if we hadn’t seen some of Sabetha and Locke’s past relationship. There might sometimes be a lack of tension since we know that the characters are never in any real peril and will survive even when they’re in a very dangerous situation, but there’s still plenty of interest in seeing how they avoid getting killed or arrested.

Before reading the book I was a bit nervous that Sabetha might turn out to be a disappointment when she finally appeared after being repeatedly mentioned during the previous two books, but I think Lynch did a good job of making her the equal of Locke and Jean even if it might have been nice to see more of the story from her point-of-view. I wasn't too keen on the "romance" between Locke and her, while Locke's behaviour in the flashbacks may have been typical teenaged foolishness it's a bit irritating (although admittedly not implausible) when he was still behaving the same way towards her in the 'present day' part of the story. Having a potential romance as one of the central parts of a book can be a problem when it often seems that they would be better off apart, I'm not sure that I really wanted to see them ending up together. In the book's defence I think the awkwardness of this romance was part of the point of the story, and Locke does at least seem to be showing a bit more maturity regarding the relationship towards the end of the book.

I thought the first part of the present day story in Lashain was a bit dull. We're told repeatedly that Locke is fatally ill after the events of the previous book and on the verge of dying but since it seems unlikely that he will die there's little tension here, although at least it does provide a good explanation for why he ends up working for the Bondsmagi. The story picks up a bit when it gets to Karthain and Sabetha’s welcome for them amusing. I thought this part of the book did a decent job of portraying the Bondsmagi and explaining why they're not dominating the world in the way they should be able to given their power. We don’t see much of most of the Bondsmagi but Patience is one of the best characters in the book, managing to remain enigmatic throughout and switching effortlessly between being helpful and threatening.

However, I thought that plotline started to develop some flaws in the second half of the book. Locke and Jean's attempts to win the election don't seem as well described as some of their earlier heists, and some parts of the eventual outcome are explained it’s still unclear how the result unfolds. There's also a bit of a problem spending so much time on a contest where nobody really cares about the outcome and Locke and Jean don’t have a significant stake in them winning or losing, it’s not particularly compelling.

I think the most contentious part of the book and the bit which I’m most unsure about how I feel about it is some unexpected revelations we are given about Locke’s background. There were some hints going back to the first book that there mysteries in his past, but the answers given here are unexpected and the lack of apparent foreshadowing in previous books makes the revelations seem a bit abrupt. There is also a lot of ambiguity here, most of the information comes from Patience and although it seems some of it is true it’s not clear whether she’s really telling the whole truth and she herself suggests that she might be deceiving Locke. It’s also unclear what all the implications of these revelations are, perhaps if future books reveal more information I will be a bit more confident how I feel about it. The story also seems to be expanding and involving events that might shape the entire world, which in some ways feel like a bit of a departure from the previous books since it was part of the charm of “The Lies of Locke Lamora” that it was a fantasy book that wasn’t about trying to save the world.

In summary, while I think The Lies of Locke Lamora is one of the best fantasy novels of the past decade I don’t think either of the sequels has managed to live up to it and while there are plenty of good bits in Republic of Thieves I think there are also an unfortunate number of flaws.

Rating : 7/10

19Oct/130

“The Fade” by Chris Wooding

thefade

I’ve enjoyed two of Chris Wooding’s series, the Firely-goes-Steampunk adventures in the Tales of the Ketty Jay series and the Japanese-themed epic fantasy series “The Braided Path”. In between those two series he also wrote a standalone fantasy novel set in a world of underground caverns where civilisations are engaged in a long war from supremacy far beneath a surface that is so hostile life can barely survive there.

The novel starts literally in the middle of the story as Orna, a highly skilled assassin and warrior who is a ‘Cadre’, an indentured servant working for a wealthy merchant family, is caught up in a disastrous battle that leaves her husband and fellow Cadre dead and her captured by the enemy. The rest of the books moves both forward and backwards from this first chapter, alternate chapters either moving forward in time or moving back through a series of flashbacks showing key moments in Orna’s past life. In the first plotline Orna first has to survive (which presents both physical and mental challenges) and then escape from prison inside an enemy fortress, knowing that even if she does she would then face a long and arduous journey home through dangerous territory. Despite the problems and dangers she is determined to return, both to see her son, who joined the army against her wishes, and to investigate whether someone on her side has betrayed her nation to the enemy. The second plotline covers her entire life from an idyllic childhood through slavery, war and her career as a professional killer. Along the way incidents from her past turn out to have relevance for things happening in the present day and the flashbacks do a good job of gradually revealing Orna’s character with mysteries introduced early in the book eventually being explained.

Although I think the flashbacks do a good job of providing characterisation and allowing for more detailed world-building, I think they do suffer slightly from often not being quite as compelling as the present-day story. Orna’s escape from the prison is particularly tense, she can’t escape alone so is forced to ally with some of the other prisoners and events show both sides of her character as she is alternately compassionate and ruthless. I think this part of the book also has the best supporting characters since Orna’s fellow inmates are more interesting than her late husband or her son who feature heavily in the flashbacks. The story is narrated by her, which I think works well and it does allow for some subtle misdirection as Orna’s misreading of some of the other characters becomes significant in the plot. The book does a good job of making her likeable despite some of the horrible she has done and ends up doing since it does a good job of showing how she became the person she is.

The world-building is fascinating, it is perhaps arguable whether the plot really needed to be set in an underground world but it does make for a dramatic and memorable backdrop for the events in the story. Particularly good is the characters’ instinctive fear of the surface, justified by one tense sequence as Orna is forced to travel through the unforgiving landscape where being out in full sunlight would be a fatal mistake. Although there is a fair amount of detail in the world-building it also does a good job of suggesting that there is a lot that we haven’t seen, one example is the mentions of various non-human races who mostly play little role in the story. While the story itself is adequately concluded in one book without any obvious need for a sequel, it would be interesting to read another book further exploring the world even if it wasn’t directly connected to The Fade.

In terms of writing it is perhaps closer in tone to Wooding’s Braided Path series rather than the more escapist Ketty Jay series. While the writing in the Braided Path books could be a bit uneven at times I think The Fade is generally better-written than Wooding’s earlier series.

It isn’t the modern fashion for fantasy novels to introduce a complex and intriguing world and tell an entire story in a standalone novel of only 300-odd pages, but I think The Fade does it very well.

Rating : 8 / 10