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“The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula Le Guin

Left Hand of Darkness

“The Left Hand of Darkness” is widely regarded as being a classic work of Science Fiction. I think a lot of the praise it gets is well-deserved but I also found it a bit disappointing because it is a book that I ended up admiring more than actually liking.

A large part of the book’s fame comes from the setting, a world named Winter which is entirely populated by genetically modified humans who are all androgynous and only take on male or female sexuality for a short period of time each year. Much of the story revolves around the main character Genly, an envoy from a distant space-faring civilisation on a First Contact mission, trying to understand the world he finds himself in and trying to adjust to a society without traditional gender roles. This premise would probably have felt more revolutionary when this book was published in the late sixties, the impact of it has been diluted a bit by later books using a similar premise (probably in many case inspired by Le Guin’s work), but I think the book still has plenty of interesting and thought-provoking things to say on the subject. I think this is the best bit of the world-building, but I was less impressed by some of the other aspects of it. A lot of time is spent describing the world of Winter and the two main civilisations on it but other than the inhabitants’ unusual gender I didn’t find the world to be all that interesting and at times it felt a bit lacking in depth, particularly when Genly moves to the excessively bureaucratic land of Orgoreyn whose society felt too simplistic to be entirely convincing. There are some interludes adding some historical and mythical information about the world, I thought these varied from interesting to slightly dull. One thing that does work well is showing how hostile and unforgiving a world the aptly-named Winter is and it’s probably no coincidence that the most compelling part of the book details an arduous journey across a glacier.

We don’t get to see much of the civilisation which sent Genly on his mission and I think we could have benefited from seeing a bit more of them. Genly’s attitudes and way of viewing the world made him feel more like a character from 20th Century Earth rather than advanced spacefaring civilisation and I was never entirely clear whether this was meant to be a commentary on that civilisation not being quite as liberal and open-minded as they probably thought they were. If we could have seen some other characters from the same civilisation this might have helped show whether Genly is typical of them or whether he was just a poor choice who wasn’t well-suited for the job he is asked to doo. The way Genly’s mission is structured also seems contrived and unlikely, while I can see the logic behind sending a single unthreatening envoy to make First Contact rather than a large party it does seem unbelievable that he spends most of the time out of contact with the ship that brought him and that they didn’t at least send one envoy to each civilisation on the planet (unsurprisingly the fact that he landed initially in one civilisation rather than the other leads to some tension).

The characterisation had some high points but was often a bit lacking. I thought there was one really fascinating character in the form of Estraven, the senior politician who is one of the few people on Winter to fully grasp how important Genly’s mission is. The interactions between Genly and Estraven are key to the book, both their initial misunderstanding as the differences between their cultures cause confusion and their eventual friendship as they are both forced to flee from those who see Genly’s mission as a threat. Unfortunately, while Genly and Estraven get plenty of character development we don’t seem to see enough of most of the supporting characters for them to really become interesting and as a result they end up feeling a bit bland by comparison.

The book is fairly slow-paced for the most part as Genly wanders around Winter (slightly aimlessly at times) and it feels like the story only really kicks in during the last third of the book. By the end the story has become compelling, but it’s a pity that the book took so long to get to that stage. Ultimately it does make for a satisfying and thought-provoking plot but it does feel like the book could have added a bit more in the way of plot and characterisation without losing any of the elements that made it interesting.

This is a book that I would recommend for its ideas and I think it does enough to deserve its status as a classic work of Science Fiction, but some other SF classics have done a better job of balancing ideas and plot.

Rating : 7 / 10


“The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer”, by Neal Stephenson


The Diamond Age is one of those frustrating novels which at its best tells a compelling story with fascinating ideas and memorable characters but fails to sustain that quality over an entire book and ends up being good but not as great as it could have been, a bit like the other Neal Stephenson novels I’ve read.

One of the things that works well here is the setting, which manages to both be futuristic and also feel surprisingly topical for a book that’s almost twenty years old. A lot of the book is spent examining the impact of two technologies – the effects of widespread 3D printing on the global economy and the use of tablet computers in education of children. While early versions of both these technologies did exist back in the mid-90s I think Stephenson has done a good job of extrapolating from them, many of the issues brought up in the book will also frequently appear in modern-day news stories about the future of those technologies. Other aspects of the world-building are slightly less convincing; I think the idea of a New Victorian Age with some groups revisiting a past society as a way of dealing with a changing world is a reasonable one in principle but I’m not sure it ever quite manages to be believable. Admittedly, I’m not sure it was even meant to be believable or if it is just meant to be a fusion of steampunk and cyberpunk elements. One thing that does feel a bit dated is the portrayal of China as being somewhere lagging behind the new manufacturing revolution rather than leading it, I wonder if this might have been written differently if Stephenson wrote it now rather than two decades ago.

The most memorable bit of technology in the book is the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, an intricately designed educational device in the form of a tablet computer which was destined for the young daughter of a senior Neo-Victorian lord but which ends up in the hands of Nell, a precocious young girl living a seemingly doomed existence in the Shanghai slums. Some of the highlights of the book come from the scenes where Nell is using the Primer and Stephenson shows some of his best writing in these scenes as he manages to somehow make compelling a storyline where a young girl plays an educational video game using a fairy tale world to educate her about technology. Nell is a likeable and fascinating protagonist and the book is at its best when focusing on her efforts to escape from her mother’s abusive boyfriends and her attempts to try to first fit in to Neo-Victorian society and later to find her own way in the world. There are also some good supporting characters, such as the Constable who acts as a mentor to Nell or the voice actress who records the Primer’s narration and sets off on a seemingly hopeless quest to try to find the girl she is helping the Primer to raise. Unfortunately, I found some of the other characters to be less interesting, and the novel often started to become less compelling when it moved away from Nell’s story and focused on other characters such as the Primer’s designer and his efforts to infiltrate a mysterious cult. I think some other characters could have benefited from a bit more time being spent on them, for example it might have been interesting to see more of the contrasts between Nell and the two other girls who get copies of the Primer.

I think the book’s biggest problem is that having established a compelling premise and some interesting characters and ideas the book seems increasingly unsure about what to do with them (which seems a bit of a common problem in Stephenson’s books). New plot elements are introduced, principally a mysterious religious/technological cult known as the Drummers and Chinese revolutionaries marching on Shanghai, but unfortunately neither of the plot lines manages to be as compelling as Nell’s story and some parts of the plot start to get increasingly weird. The ending felt very rushed since key plot points were dealt with in fewer pages than some of the games Nell plays in the Primer and although I can see some of the points Stephenson was trying to make with the Drummers I still can’t say I entirely understand that particular plot or its resolution. The characterisation also suffers due to some large time jumps and some odd and poorly-explained decisions by some of the characters and it’s a pity that Nell seems to become less important to the story as it goes along.

I thought there were some great bits in the book, and despite its flaws I’d definitely recommend it but with a caveat that ultimately the whole is somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

Rating : 8 / 10


“The Final Empire” by Brandon Sanderson


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


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


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


“Dust” by Hugh Howey


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


“Siege and Storm” by Leigh Bardugo


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


“Ancillary Justice” by Anne Leckie


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


“Ace of Skulls” by Chris Wooding


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


“War Master’s Gate” by Adrian Tchaikovsky


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


“River of Stars” by Guy Gavriel Kay


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