Review: Thorn by Intisar Khanani

Thorn - coverReview:

Title: Thorn

Authors: Intisar Khanani

Publisher and Year:  Self published, 2014

Genre: fantasy, epic fantasy, romance

Blurb from Goodreads:

For Princess Alyrra, choice is a luxury she’s never had … until she’s betrayed.

Princess Alyrra has never enjoyed the security or power of her rank. Between her family’s cruelty and the court’s contempt, she has spent her life in the shadows. Forced to marry a powerful foreign prince, Alyrra embarks on a journey to meet her betrothed with little hope for a better future.

But powerful men have powerful enemies–and now, so does Alyrra. Betrayed during a magical attack, her identity is switched with another woman’s, giving Alyrra the first choice she’s ever had: to start a new life for herself or fight for a prince she’s never met. But Alyrra soon finds that Prince Kestrin is not at all what she expected. While walking away will cost Kestrin his life, returning to the court may cost Alyrra her own. As Alyrra is coming to realize, sometime the hardest choice means learning to trust herself.

 

My Review:

I fell into this book and devoured it pretty much in one sitting. I then bought all the other novels available by Intisar Khanani. This was excellent, the kind of fantasy story that is highly enjoyable, beautifully written and extremely rewarding to read. I’m not familiar with the fairytale that this retelling is based, but it definitely has a fairytale feel about the story that I appreciated.

I loved the way Alyrra navigated her circumstances and I absolutely love that there was no ‘instantaneous love connection’. Instead, Alyrra and Kestrin although they are intended to marry are divided by magic and their ability to even get to know one another is hampered. Where in other stories Alyrra’s inherent goodness might have seemed a little two dimensional, here her ability to cope with the changes in her circumstances are true to her character and growing up experiences. Although she has had an abusive upbringing, Alyrra herself is not broken, but does realistically demonstrate traits that show her mistrust and the effect her past has had on her.

Although Falada’s character is the most fanciful in the story, I love horses in fantasy stories and so I was wholeheartedly willing to go with it, and I am glad that Alyrra got to have a friend while she was finding her feet as a goose girl. I liked that Falada wasn’t omnipotent, or overpowered but merely another sentient race – magical to be sure, but bound by realities that meant Alyrra’s own future was in her hands. I loved that this was consistently reinforced to her. And more than that, I love the way that Alyrra was happy to consider giving up on being a Princess all together, and embracing her change in circumstance as a chance to start anew and have a life she though she would like better. I appreciated the emphasis of being royalty and the duty involved in that position – whether one wants it or not.

I also liked the way Khanani explored differing power relationships and consequences of privilege between Alyrra as the goose girl and Kestrin as the prince. It’s very obvious that he comes from the mindset that he doesn’t intend harm and wants to find the truth and so he is in the right, no matter what difficulty it may cause Alyrra. I also loved the exploration of conceptions of justice in the book – the King’s justice versus the Thieves justice – similar in that they have limited reach to a specific area of the population, but different in terms of flexibility and willingness to follow through on holding people to account.

For me the ending was a little rushed and I would have liked to see that fleshed out a little more, the encounter between Alyrra and the witch, their return and the consequences of that. However, I was also immediately sad that I couldn’t read on to see what happened next – I do hope there are more books in this universe at some stage. I loved that this story was about growing up, coming into one’s self, and exploring ideas of belonging, justice, and family. It was a delight to read, I highly recommend it for reading.

Review: Break the Chains (The Scorched Continent #2) by Megan O’Keefe

Break the Chains - coverARC Review:

Title: Break the Chains (The Scorched Continent #2)

Authors: Megan O’Keefe

Publisher and Year:  Angry Robot, 2016

Genre: fantasy, epic fantasy, steampunk

 

Blurb from Angry Robot:

(Not sure why it’s not up on Goodreads but anyway):

A year has passed since Detan set the skies above Aransa on fire, and the armies of Aransa’s new dictator Thratia are preparing to knock on the door of his aunt’s city, Hond Steading…

As the city that produces the most selium – that precious gas that elevates airships and powers strange magic – Hond Steading is a jewel worth stealing. To shore up the city’s defenses, Detan promises his aunt that he’ll recover Nouli, the infamous engineer who built the century gates that protect the imperial capital of Valathea. But Nouli is imprisoned on the Remnant Isles, an impervious island prison run by the empire, and it’s Detan’s fault.

Detan doesn’t dare approach Nouli himself, so his companions volunteer to get themselves locked up to make contact with Nouli and convince him to help. Now Detan has to break them all out of prison, and he’s going to need the help of a half-mad doppel to do it.

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Break the Chains is a fantastic follow up to Steal the Sky. This is what anticipating a new fantasy series should feel like! I really enjoyed the first book in this series Steal the Sky last year and so I was delighted to be invited to review the second book, and I’m definitely looking forward to the third!

I love the characters in this series, and what I love about Detan, Tibs, Ripka and the rest this time is that we’re seeing a progression in their stories and personality. I also appreciate that we get a hint into the way they’re forming connections between each other as well, including respect for each other bit by bit. Seeing Ripka challenged by her prison experience was really interesting, partly because she was the prisoner and partly because she can’t turn off her ‘Watch Captain’ view and she notices all the ways in which she would do things differently. She does use this to her advantage, but some of it is simply evaluation through the character’s eyes. I love the band of women she falls in with and the way she works with Enard (we met him as ‘New Chum’ in book 1) to find a key to dealing with the Empire’s influence is fantastic.

I love the way Detan and Tibs work together and let nothing stand in their way to go and rescue Ripka as per the plan they made. He is single-minded in his determination to be trustworthy and to succeed in this plan and it makes him endearing and lessens some of the egotism that was present in the first book. Actually, even though I don’t think Detan grew or changed too dramatically in this book, he was confronted with himself a lot, and subsequently the reader learns more of how he came to be such a person and how he and Tibs are so bound together. This story of friendship in all directions was very satisfying to read.

Actually overall I have to say one of the best qualities of this series and these stories is the emphasis on loyalty and the way that is explored – it’s not just friendship, and it’s not just duty. It’s both of those things and more, but it makes for a very satisfying story to read. The worldbuilding continues to be interesting and we see more of the surrounds beyond the city in which we first met our band of rogues. I love this slow unfolding – it adds to the character of the story, the Empire begins to take shape and the politics and ramifications unfold gently – they’re not a focus of this book so much, not really. Although I wonder if that will be a strong theme in the third (and I presume final) book in the series. There are elements that speak to diversity in this book and the series, but they’re soft and not overt – either in that lovely background but clearly signposted way, or as a plot point (which gets tiresome). I get the strong sense that not all the characters are white, but I am not sure and that could be wishful on my part. There are several female identifying characters, some younger and older characters, and there are characters from different class backgrounds. I didn’t note any queer identifying or disabled characters – which I will say is a shame because I think this world is a ripe setting for it – and if we can have airships, then surely queer and/or disabled characters is not a stretch?

This is a book that you cannot read as a standalone, it follows the events in ‘Steal the Sky’ and leads into the events of the book to come. But the series is excellent and I’d recommend it highly – especially with such a solid second book following a stand out first book.

Review: Tremontaine (Season 1) by Ellen Kushner et al.

Tremontaine - season one - coverARC Review:

Title: Tremontaine (The Complete Season 1) (The World of Riverside #0.5)

Authors: Ellen Kushner, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Malinda Lo, Joel Derfner, Racheline Maltese, Patty Bryant, Paul Witcover

Publisher and Year:  Serial Box, 2016

Genre: fantasy, epic fantasy, romance, serial fiction

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

Welcome to Tremontaine, the prequel to Ellen Kushner’s beloved Riverside series that began with Swordspoint! A Duchess whose beauty is matched only by her cunning; her husband’s dangerous affair with a handsome scholar; a foreigner in a playground of swordplay and secrets; and a mathematical genius on the brink of revolution—when long-buried lies threaten to come to light, betrayal and treachery know no bounds with stakes this high. Mind your manners and enjoy the chocolate in a dance of sparkling wit and political intrigue.

Tremontaine is an episodic serial presented by Serial Box Publishing. This collected omnibus edition gathers all 16 episodes from Season 1.

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

What isn’t to love about sword wielding women, politics, hot chocolate, frocks, parties, manners and physics? The serial format of Tremontaine works very well, it’s clear that the background world and universe of Ellen Kushner’s is beloved by all the authors that are invited to play in the world for this story. I’d fallen off the appeal of epic fantasy for a while, but between this and An Accident of Stars by Foz Meadows, I’m excited about this genre again!

In particular I love epic fantasy that involves complex political intrigue and lots of diplomacy, talking around things, layers, and consequences too far reaching to see clearly. I also love characters that are engaging and interesting, sometimes I love the because I identify with them, and sometimes because I’d love to fall in love with them, and other times because they seem so wonderfully wicked – there are all these kinds of characters in Tremontaine and more.

I should point out that I haven’t actually read the other novels that this one is a prequel for, but given how much I enjoyed this book I will absolutely be looking forward to Swordspoint and The Privilege of the Sword!  This is a short review, mainly because I loved it without reservation, the story, worldbuilding, characters, blending of authorial styles were all fantastic and delivered to me an exceptional reading experience. More fantasy like this, with diverse characters who are queer, not all white, who come from different backgrounds and storylines with ‘villains’ who are complex and interesting characters too – you can’t just think of their wickedness, instead it’s tempered with compassion for them, sympathy and understanding for how they’ve gotten into the narrative dilemma they’re in. I really can’t wait for Season 2.

Snapshot 2016: Interview with Glenda Larke

Snaphot Logo 2016

Glenda Larke is the kind of author that readers like myself adore, there are books and plenty of them in nice reassuring series with epic overarching storylines. There’s sweeping world vistas with magnificent histories and characters you’ve plenty of time to fall in love with. I’m so pleased that I had the chance to interview Glenda for Snapshot 2016. This interview is reposted from the Australian SF Snapshot Project. #Snapshot2016.


Glenda Larke author photoGlenda was born in Western Australia, on a farm where bathwater was pumped up from the Canning River and the dunny was across the back lawn, in an age when the radio was so large it stood on the floor and the family car had running boards you could hitch a ride on. She now lives on the coast just south of Perth — in the years between, she has taught English to engineering students in Tunisia and adults in Vienna, and worked on avifaunal conservation everywhere from the heart of Borneo to islands in the South China Sea. She has also published four trilogies and a standalone fantasy and has won multiple Australia awards. Her most recently published book, The Fall of the Dagger, brings The Forsaken Lands trilogy to a close. 

 

Congratulations on your winning the inaugural Sara Douglass Series Award for your Watergivers trilogy! You are well known for the series you have written now, and as this award focuses specifically on series, what do you think makes a great series that is different from simply writing a great novel?

Thank you!

Winning was a tremendous thrill, unbelievable when I think of the calibre of much of the competition, and I take my hat off to the judges who had such an enormous volume of books to read. I wish could have been at the ceremony, but I was actually walking my newborn granddaughter up and down in New York at the time…

A trilogy, or even a long series like G.R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice, is actually just one very long book. That’s the basic difference: length. The Watergivers exceeded half a million words.

The length enables a writer to invent a world with a vast history and a panoramic landscape, colour it with magic and villainy, and then people it with a cast of characters of every hue, religious belief and social status. If it is well-written, it is wonderfully immersive for a reader in a way a shorter book cannot be. From a writer’s point of view, it’s maddeningly complex — like trying to weave cloth of a thousand hues without the aid of a loom.

A series can also be a number of short books with the same characters and a storyline that comes to a conclusion with the end of each book. Possibly that’s a tad easier, although I doubt it. Either way, those award judges had a tough task!

Watergivers Trilogy - covers

You were recently a guest for Supanova, what was your favourite part of the experience and did it give you insight into what Australian fans are reading and looking for?

Frankly, I love everything about Supanova. It’s such a circus of creative genius, a mix of writers, artists, film makers, actors and geeks and fans, a glorious hotch-potch of fantasy madness! The best part is simply sitting behind the writers’ desk, watching the costumed fantasy enthusiasts walk past and chatting to anyone who stops, whether they have ever heard of me or not. And if I have to describe Australian fans, it would be to say that they are a really varied lot and defy categorisation.

Now that you’ve concluded your ‘Forsaken Lands’ trilogy, are you able to give us a hint of any other project that we can look forward to?

 I’m working on a new book, at a snail’s pace, I fear. (I don’t have a contract at the moment.) It’s tentatively called Redweaver Dawning, and it uses (and subverts!) the trope of the changeling, the stolen baby who ends up being the heir to the throne. That’s always seemed a very unlikely scenario to me, and I am having great fun with it.
What Australian work have you loved recently?

I’ve been reading some urban fantasy for a change: Keri Arthur’s Chasing the Shadows (lots of mayhem in San Francisco) and Alison Goodman’s Lady Helen and The Dark Days Club (urban fantasy a la Jane Austen). Also Ben Peek’s fantasy epic The Godless, which is a worldbuilding tour de force.

Which author (living or dead) would you most like to sit next to on a long plane trip and why?

J.K. Rowling because that would mean I’d be travelling in first class comfort? 

(Oh, I must say, I don’t like the idea of sitting next to anyone, author or otherwise, who’s dead.)

Ok, seriously: Ursula le Guin. Because. I mean, who wouldn’t want to share a journey with a SF author of such legendary status and strong moral positions?

I’ve been reading some urban fantasy for a change: Keri Arthur’s Chasing the Shadows (lots of mayhem in San Francisco) and Alison Goodman’s Lady Helen and The Dark Days Club (urban fantasy a la Jane Austen). Also Ben Peek’s fantasy epic The Godless, which is a worldbuilding tour de force.

Review: In the Blood by R.L. Martinez

In the Blood - coverARC Review:

Title: In the Blood

Author: R.L. Martinez

Publisher and Year: Lake Water Press, 2016

Genre: epic fantasy

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

The Warrior
The war between Dosalyn and Roanaan has ended, but a new battle begins for prisoner-of-war, Ottilde Dominax. Dreams of her witchbreed twin sister are visions of death and betrayal. Driven by their grim warning, she escapes her captors and races across nations to save her sister.

But she may arrive too late…

The Witch
Oriabel Dominax has kept her healing magic secret while she cares for her family’s struggling estate. But the arrival of a new lord with secrets of his own, the discovery of a dark and addictive magic, and threats from a cruel blackmailer push Oriabel closer to disaster.

Through it all, the Witch’s Tree calls…

 

My Review:

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Every so often you come across a book that reminds you why you love a genre, and Into the Blood really reminded me why I love reading epic fantasy. This story has two female protagonists who are so very different from one another, but united by sisterly love. Their story involves struggles that are generally outside of their control with real elements of sacrifice. I couldn’t put this down once I started and I cannot *wait* for the following book(s)! While reading this, I was reminded of Juliet Marillier’s writing and stories, the quality is lyrical, magical, mysterious and compelling.

I particularly identified with Oriabel, but I loved how forthright and determined Otthilde was! By contrast, Oriabel is optimistic and has a steadfastness that serves her well in service to her community – even though they don’t appreciate her. Hito seems almost too good to be true as a character, but his flaw in rushing to believe the worst of Oriabel balanced that somewhat, and also shows the relative immaturity of their relationship at the time. I am also keen to discover more about the villain and their grand plan to lead Otthilde and Oriabel astray – the end of this book was quite the conclusion and it is self contained, but in that ‘first step in a journey’ kind of way. I am eager to see  what happens next!

While this book has strong characters and an engaging plot, the worldbuilding is a little sparse and I didn’t really get a sense of the realm in which Oriabel and Otthilde lived, or the distance the latter travelled. I have some understanding  of the political context of the story, but not actually how the two realms are divided on a broad scale or on the scale of the local populace. Also, the war seems to be quite important but I don’t remember discovering what the point of the war at all was aside from a general urge toward conquest. I hope that over the next book(s) that the worldbuilding improves and becomes clearer – I can sense a potential for more that I don’t think was quite achieved in this book. I did get a much stronger sense of Oriabel’s community, it’s size and how it fit together.

This was a great start to a series and is a great addition to the epic fantasy genre.

 

Review: Dragonfriend by Marc Secchia

Dragonfriend - coverTitle: Dragonfriend (Dragonfriend #1)

Author: Mark Secchia

Publisher and Year: Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015

Genre: epic fantasy, YA

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

Stabbed. Burned by a dragon. Abandoned for the windrocs to pick over. The traitor Ra’aba tried to silence Hualiama forever. But he reckoned without the strength of a dragonet’s paw, and the courage of a girl who refused to die.

Only an extraordinary friendship will save Hualiama’s beloved kingdom of Fra’anior and restore the King to the Onyx Throne. Flicker, the valiant dragonet. Hualiama, a foundling, adopted into the royal family. The power of a friendship which paid the ultimate price.

This is the tale of Hualiama Dragonfriend, and a love which became legend.

 

My review: 

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book, but I was in the mood for a story involving dragons – and in particular where they were awesome and not the Enemy. Dragonfriend is a gorgeous book and story, the protagonist Hualiama – Lia – is fantastic! I really enjoyed this book from start to finish.

I loved the characters in this book and the way they interact with Lia – in particular the dragons Flicker and Grandion. I loved the depth of friendship and caring between these characters and the way that grows and changes over time. I love the way they learn to value each other and the background and culture they come from – all different! I love the way Lia gets to forge her own path on her own terms – and no one seems to think that’s unusual short of her family (and I expect there’s more to tell there).

The story is action filled and weaves between goals that are ‘the right thing’ with at least some sense of moral obligation and also heart goals that involve Lia being her own person and creating her preferred life for herself. I love that while this is a story of Lia discovering her origins, it’s not filled with self pity, I like the way she as a character emotionally engages with things as it’s both believable and moving for her character – neither too mature or too over-dramatic. Finally, I love the martial arts form she learns – and although it seems like her proficiency with it grows way too quickly, I appreciate that she’s been dancing a lot longer than she has been fighting, but that the style is based specifically on dancing. I love the strength in that idea and of course dancing martial arts is not a new thing, but I think it’s used particularly well here for Lia.

The names in this book are typical epic fantasy in style – not unexpected but made me roll my eyes a little. Still, everything was consistent and worked well with the overall worldbuilding in the book. I’m fascinated by the series of islands and I’m looking forward to reading more in the series not only to find out what happens in the story, but also to explore more of the world and its peoples.

For me, this book was a perfect fantasy story. It had all the elements I was looking for in the story, it was tightly written with a great plot, interesting protagonist and supporting characters with great relationship dynamics, and the world building was engaging. I’ve been deliberately reading a lot less books by male authors – in many cases because I haven’t been enjoying them as much, they haven’t been giving me the kind of stories I fall in love with. However, Secchia has done a superb job overcoming any resistance I might have had, this book was a genuine pleasure to read. There’s so much I enjoyed about this book and although it came as a surprise, it was a very welcome one. I’ll be looking forward to reading the next book most certainly!

Review: Grace of Kings by Ken Liu

Grace of Kings - coverTitle: Grace of Kings (Dandelion Dynasty #1)

Author: Ken Liu

Publisher and Year: Simon and Schuster, 2015

Genre: epic fantasy

 

Blurb from Goodreads:

Two men rebel together against tyranny—and then become rivals—in this first sweeping book of an epic fantasy series from Ken Liu, recipient of Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards.

Wily, charming Kuni Garu, a bandit, and stern, fearless Mata Zyndu, the son of a deposed duke, seem like polar opposites. Yet, in the uprising against the emperor, the two quickly become the best of friends after a series of adventures fighting against vast conscripted armies, silk-draped airships, and shapeshifting gods. Once the emperor has been overthrown, however, they each find themselves the leader of separate factions—two sides with very different ideas about how the world should be run and the meaning of justice.

Fans of intrigue, intimate plots, and action will find a new series to embrace in the Dandelion Dynasty.

 

My review: 

An eARC of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I’ve fallen out of the habit of reading epic fantasy, but it’s still a genre I really delight in. I delighted in this book an awful lot – Liu’s writing is something to truly behold. His prose is beautiful, careful and paints the story he tells vividly. I love the sweeping majesty of the story, love the long ranging story that unfolds over decades – it was magnificent! While I rolled my eyes at Mata’s character often, I really enjoyed reading Kuni’s point of view and his conflicts within himself as he is carried along by the story, much like the dandelion he identifies with. The plot and intrigue of this book are intricate and deadly – absolute power and the ambition for it, the having of it and the outcomes of all of it.

Because all of the characters are so deeply invested in their states, their people, their vision you as the reader become invested and attached to the fate of all of it. I was really drawn into the ruler-vision scale of things, and particularly from Kuni because he also always maintained understanding of how power impacts on the individual. Being afraid of the power you hold, what you can do with it and the responsibility – Kuni is an excellent example of someone wrestling with all of these things and wanting to the best he can.

I felt so let down by this book because there was such a lack where female characters are concerned. And the lack is not because Liu is unskilled in the way he writes them, just that they come across as an afterthought at best. Kuni appreciates the women in his life and in society generally – better than his various counterparts certainly and yet it makes my teeth hurt because it’s a bit heavy handed and comes across as though ‘cookies’ are being sought for having an insightful male character who ‘realises women are people too’ and this takes place throughout the book when there simply could have been female characters – any of the awesome ones we meet late in the book.

We followed Mata and Kuni’s life from childhood we didn’t do that for Jia, we don’t meet Soto until later, Gin Mazita also doesn’t enter until later.  Any of these point of views alongside the two male protagonists would have been amazing, because as characters they were amazing and so were their stories! It’s so heart rending. It’s worse in some ways than the complete lack of characters – it’s like salt in a very old wound that remains raw and open.  And Princess Kikomi? What a fucking raw deal she got! I was so excited when I first started to read about her, and then before we’d even gotten into her part in the story she’s fucking dead and forgotten.

Books like this are so hard to review because what disappoints is a deep hurt and it colours the entire experience of reading and the wonderful things you enjoyed are less memorable and shiny. So I’m left overall with an experience of ‘meh’ when in many ways this book was extraordinary, inspiring, and a deep abiding reading experience. Except for the way the female characters featured, it’s not a minor point but a major one that sours the whole performance. Which is also to say that while I really enjoyed reading this book overall, I was also content with where it ended, happy with that ending as a total resolution and I don’t think I’ll be picking up the next books in the series (not without some serious recommendations from those I trust anyway).