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“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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“The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern


In the late 19th Century a travelling circus like no other criss-crosses Europe and America. Arriving without fanfare it suddenly appears outside a town and then stays for a short time, only opening at night and at all times remaining enigmatic and mysterious. To its devoted fans it is the greatest show on Earth, but there is more to the circus than just a place of entertaining, it is also the setting for a battle of wills between two determined magicians and the circus itself is what they use to compete against each other.

This is a relatively unusual book, or at least it's not quite like anything else that I have read. The most obvious comparison is to another tale of rival 19th Century magicians, "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell", it shares that novel's languid pacing and carefully crafted prose although the actual writing style and plot progression is quite different.

The titular Le Cirque des Rêves is more than just the setting for the plot, arguably the book is more about the circus itself than it is about the rivalry and romance between Celia and Marco, and there are frequent interludes of second-person narration describing one of the circus' wondrous attractions. It is one thing to tell the reader that something is magical, enthralling, mystical and other-worldly and an altogether more difficult trick to actually show that it is, and the novel wouldn't work at all if the author didn't make the reader feel it is as fascinating as the characters think it is but I think Morgenstern does an excellent job of conveying why the circus is so special.

At the same time as showing how wonderful the circus is, there's also a (sometimes subtle) undertone of darkness and impending tragedy. The characters may largely be happy and proud of what they are doing but they also feel increasingly trapped as the story progresses and in the background lurk the two rival mentors of Celia and Marco who are sinister and intriguing in equal measure. As the novel goes on some of the circus' mysteries are revealed and the story becomes increasingly compelling in the later stages as Celia and Marco try to both save the circus and avoid their fate.

One area of the novel where I have slightly mixed feelings in the characterisation. There are interesting characters in it, the three main characters are all likeable and there are some memorable supporting characters (particularly the circus' eccentric patron), but at times the characterisation is maybe a bit too enigmatic. Given that Celia and Marco are meant to be trying to outwit each other and they're both magicians by trade who specialise in changing people's perceptions of reality it does make sense that some of their motivations may be concealed. This becomes a bit of a problem when the two of them falling in love is such a crucial part of the plot, but in this case it felt more that we were told they had fallen in love but we weren't really shown it convincingly. It also never really answers the question of why they don't try to rebel more against some of the harsh treatment they receive from their mentors.

Although it isn't perfect, this was an entertaining and fascinating book that was a magical read in more ways than one.

PS - they say that you should never judge a book by its cover, but the black-white-and-red colour scheme of the hardback edition including black-edged pages is very striking and fits in well with the novel's ambience. In this case I'm not sure reading the e-book edition would be quite the same experience.

Rating : 8.5 / 10