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“The Ember Blade” by Chris Wooding

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This is the first book in Wooding’s “Darkwater Legacy” fantasy trilogy. It is set in the country of Ossia, a nation which has memories of its glory days as a powerful Empire, but which was conquered by its Krodan neighbours three decades before the start of the story. Many of the native Ossians have adjusted to their new life, but there are still some rebels who dream of Ossia being a nation again, resenting Krodan restrictions on their liberty and the dominance of Krodan culture and religion. The book’s protagonist, Aren, is a young Ossian man who is initially a loyal subject of the Krodan Empire, but soon finds that the Krodans don’t feel the same loyalty towards him after he is arrested on trumped-up charges and thrown into a prison camp along with his best friend Cade. As the story progresses he comes into contact with a small group who believe they may have a way to overthrow Krodan dominance, although Aren is uncertain about whether he should join in their quest.

Overall, I thought this was a good book, it was perhaps a bit slow to begin with but it picked up once they got to Skavenhald and the final section was the highlight of the book. The series has been described as Wooding's homage to the more traditional epic fantasy of the 80s and 90s, and early it on it does feel a lot like that but perhaps less so as the story goes on. I think the early 90s fantasy it most resembles might be Guy Gavriel Kay's "Tigana"" due to the plot following the group of freedom fighters trying to free a country where their countrymen aren't necessarily sure they want to be freed. The ambiguity over whether the characters are really trying to do the correct thing does add some extra depth to the story, particularly with regards to the character of Garrick where even his followers have some misgivings about some of his actions. While the early stages of the book are a bit predictable at times I thought Wooding did manage to throw in a few good twists and surprises at it goes along, and his willingness to abruptly kill off characters adds a bit of unpredictability to the story. In his previous books Wooding's characterisation has been one of the strongest elements, there is some good characterisation here again although I found the secondary characters to be more interesting than Aren and Cade, the initial protagonists of the story. The world-building is perhaps a bit bland, the portrayal of the country of Ossia itself is fine, but the description of the wider world is vague, we're told that there are a lot of races other than humans out there but never actually see any of them in the book, perhaps we'll get a better picture of the world in the later parts of the trilogy.

Compared to Wooding's previous books, I'd rank this similar to "The Braided Path", his previous attempt at epic fantasy, and maybe not quite as great as "The Tales of the Ketty Jay" or "The Fade".

Rating : 7 / 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


“The Fade” by Chris Wooding


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


“The Ascendancy Veil” by Chris Wooding


The final novel in the Braided Path trilogy manages to successfully build upon the previous two novels to produce a largely satisfying conclusion to the series. At the end of the previous book the Weavers seemed to have delivered a devastating blow to their opponents. As we pick up the story a few years later we find that the Weavers haven't had everything their own way, but now seem poised to achieve a final victory over their enemies.

The series was never particularly light-hearted reading but the final volume is particularly grim, starting off with a battle featuring a horrific and seemingly unstoppable new foe and then progressing through a series of battles and set-backs for Kaiku and her allies in the fight to save Saramyr. One disadvantage of this focus on conflict is that it means the last book is a bit lacking in the world-building that helped to distinguish Saramyr from the pseudo-medieval Europe setting of most epic fantasy series, but I suppose that might have been unavoidable given the plot. Throughout the series Wooding has shown he isn't afraid to kill off characters and this continues here, with several important characters getting killed, including a few memorable and fitting ends for some of them. If the first book in the series was maybe a bit too predictable at times, the ending of the story is a bit more original although I suspect I'd have been more impressed with one crucial plot twist if I hadn't anticipated it due to Guy Gavriel Kay using a very similar plot device in his Fionavar Tapestry series.

It does eventually come to a fairly satisfying conclusion with a good combination of action/battle scenes and character-focused scenes, although some aspects of the ending do seem a bit open-ended. The ending does have a bittersweet and somewhat cynical feel to it, which is appropriate given the rest of the series, a purely happy ending would have seemed a bit jarring.

Overall, this was a series that improved as it went on and although I've read better epic fantasy series in recent years and it was never quite as compelling as the exuberant adventure of Woodings' later Ketty Jay series, the Braided Path trilogy was an entertaining read.

Rating : 8 / 10

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“The Skein of Lament” by Chris Wooding


The second novel in the Braided Path trilogy picks up the story a few years after the end of the Weavers of Saramyr. The initial action takes place on the distant continent of Okhamba as a group of explorers are pursued from the depths of the rainforest having discovered some crucial information about the background of the Weavers who dominate Saramyr society. The initial part of the story features some action scenes more memorable than anything in the first novel and overall the storytelling does feel more assured in the second book, the climactic battle also being more compelling than any of the conflict in the first book.

There is some decent character development here, and one of the new characters, Tsata, is one of the more likeable and interesting characters in the series. Although Tsata does provide an interesting outside perspective on Saramyr society through his conversations with Kaiku, he does feel a bit clichéd at times as well since his role seems to be the supposedly uncivilised forest dweller who could teach the more refined people of Saramyr a thing or two about how to live their lives using the ancient wisdom of his people. The Weavers continue to simultaneously be effective villains and unsubtle caricatures. More interesting is the Red Order which opposes them, their leader Cailin is a more complex and more interesting character than the Weavers, being nowhere near as unpleasant but still potentially as dangerous and ruthless as her opponents.

Whereas the first novel was often a bit predictable there are a couple of surprising plot developments here and the ending of the book did set things up for an intriguing finale in the last book of the trilogy.

The Skein of Lament is an improvement on the Weavers of Saramyr while still not quite being as compelling as the best of the modern epic fantasy series.

Rating : 7.5 / 10


“The Weavers of Saramyr” by Chris Wooding


In many ways the first novel in the Braided Path trilogy is a fairly standard epic fantasy novel but it does have a few distinctive touches. It isn't the first epic fantasy series to be set in a world largely inspired by feudal Japan, but it's still a nice change from the default medieval European setting. Saramyr is an interesting setting and the world-building is generally convincing, although occasionally some things are a bit under-explained, for example as the series goes on and the plot expands the different provinces of Saramyr become important but the differences between, say, the Southern Prefectures and the Newlands are never really described. The most memorable part of the world-building are the Weavers, officially the only people in the world able to use magic. They have insinuated themselves into every aspect of Saramyr society and stand beside every noble lord because their talents are indispensable. One of the main themes of the series is how much a society is prepared to overlook when there is something to gain, in this case the Weavers' abilities are considered so valuable that the people of Saramyr tolerate the fact that the True Masks they wear which allow them to do magic drive the Weavers insane and cause them to go on rampages of rape, torture and murder. In case we might forget how evil the Weavers are, there is generally a reminder every couple of chapters, it does a good job of building up the Weavers as dangerous and detestable villains but the frequency of their awful deeds does seem a bit unsubtle and gratuitous at times. Despite the lack of subtlety, the complicity of Saramyr society in the atrocities the Weavers commit is one of the more interesting thematic elements of the book.

The Weavers are entirely male (for reasons explained later in the book), on the other hand four of the five main characters in this are women. There is a good variety of characters, Kaiku is a naive young woman with magical abilities which are potentially very powerful but also dangerous to both herself and those around her, her noblewoman friend Mishani has no special powers but is adept at the manipulations and deceptions of Saramyr's nobility, Lucia is the otherworldly and almost angelic heir to the Empire whose abilities must be concealed from her Mother's subjects and Asara is 90-year old shapechanging assassin who is ruthlessly self-centred. The characterisation is generally good, Kaiku is a likeable protagonist despite being excessively foolhardy at times in her quest to avenge herself against the Weavers who killed her family, Mishani probably gets the most character development as she is forced to confront her assumptions and prejudices and Asara is an interesting antihero who finds herself on the 'good' side of the conflict for largely selfish reasons. The interaction between Kaiku and Asara is the most interesting relationship in the novel, they need to work together and they want to like each other but they also can't trust the other. Tane, the main male character in the story, is probably the weakest of the major characters since his motivations often seem to be a puzzle even to himself and the incipient romance between him and Kaiku never feels like more than just teenage infatuation.

Although the world-building is relatively original and some of the character motivations are varied and complex, the novel feels a bit too conventional when it comes to structure. From Kaiku's perspective it is fairly standard coming-of-age story as she deals with an early tragedy and starts to realise some of her potential power. Her attempt to make her way into a hidden Weaver monastery does have some elements of a conventional fantasy quest to it. However, there are enough original elements to avoid it feeling too clichéd as an epic fantasy story.

It is an entertaining read, although perhaps not quite compelling enough to really take its place among the great epic fantasy novels. There's nothing really particularly lacking about it, but there's also not much that really stands out about it and aside from the creepiness of the Weavers nothing is particularly memorable about it.

Rating : 7 / 10

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