Category Archives: Fantasy

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

I have to be brutally honest here: I quit reading genre fiction for about ten years and have just recently begun indulging in the genre again. I’ve found that I still very much love reading genre fiction and there was a lot that I’ve missed during my little sabbatical.

While reintroducing myself to the genre, I bumped around online to see what new faces and words were being published, and I came across this article by Leo Grin, who talked about an author named Joe Abercrombie. Grin described Abercrombie’s novels like this: 

“Think of a Lord of the Rings where, after stringing you along for thousands of pages, all of the hobbits end up dying of cancer contracted by their proximity to the Ring, Aragorn is revealed to be a buffoonish puppet-king of no honor and false might, and Gandalf no sooner celebrates the defeat of Sauron than he executes a long-held plot to become the new Dark Lord of Middle-earth, and you have some idea of what to expect should you descend into Abercrombie’s jaded literary sewer.”

Well, I thought. I would certainly read that.

It was almost a year before I acquired a copy of Abercrombie’s first novel The Blade Itself, but I did and I read it and here we are, wallowing together in a jaded literary sewer, which I, for one, found quite appealing.

The Blade Itself is an epic fantasy, which plays out in an almost recognizable world with place names that don’t hurt my eyes. Angland could very well be England, Adua has an almost French feel to the court, and Gurkhul sounds foreign and exotic while purling up nicely in a throaty growl should I feel the need to pronounce it.

The essence of the story is this: Logen Ninefingers, a barbarian with a conscience, is tired of killing. Unfortunately, he can’t leave his murderous past behind, because Bethod King of the Northmen has his sights on conquering the southern lands. Logen goes south to find the Magus Bayaz, and from there Abercrombie spins a tale of old allegiances, betrayals, and coming war. This seemingly simple premise becomes wonderfully entangled with several threads of intrigue spiraling out to carry the reader into the lives of the people most affected by Bethod’s actions.

Usually when reading an epic fantasy, I find myself floating and feeling a bit lost during the first chapters, but I never experienced that with Abercrombie’s story. He holds the tale together by limiting himself to six points of view: Logen, Jezal dan Luthar, Inquisitor Glokta, the Dogman, Collem West, and Ferro Maljinn. The beauty of these characters is that Abercrombie knows them so well he conveys their diverse personalities immediately with his prose. The reader is firmly situated in the character’s mind at the beginning of each chapter, and there is never any doubt as to who is telling which part of the story.

That’s important for a story with this many plotlines. Abercrombie holds it all together brilliantly, building the story slowly and giving the reader ample time to become entrenched in one plot before he spins out another with sharp prose and black humor. I couldn’t help but think that if Joseph Wambaugh decided to write fantasy, The Blade Itself is what it would look like.

This complex plot is cast through the eyes of Abercrombie’s characters, and these characters are what make The Blade Itself so invigorating. I didn’t like all of them but none bored me. Logen and the Dogman were colorfully rendered; they simply were not my favorites. Collem West is portrayed as a good man, who succumbs to the unremitting stress of his career and must acknowledge his own dark nature. West’s part is handled exceptionally well along with that of his sister, Ardee, who is the quintessential alcoholic, right down to her manipulation of everyone around her.

Then there is Ferro, who I would describe as the classic kick-ass heroine. I am going to make a total leap of faith and hope that she will become more interesting as the story develops in subsequent books. In The Blade Itself, she exhibits all of the impulse control of a hyperactive three-year-old on a sugar high. However, I can honestly say that I have encountered women (and men if we are to include the fairer sex) like this, so I’m going to roll with it. She is the only the character that seemed to lack the nuance that Abercrombie gives to the rest of the crew, but that interpretation could simply be based on the fact that I’m rather jaded about the whole wonder-woman-warrior-thing.

My favorite characters were Jezal dan Luthar and Inquisitor Glokta.

I think it was because these two men are mirror images of one another. Jezal is a reflection of what Glokta once was—a dashing officer out to seek advancement through winning the Contest, a major fencing competition. Jezal is the kind of man whose handsome form and fortunate birth have played a large part in his advancement. He sees himself as infallible, a brilliant officer, a man of the world, and he would be utterly obnoxious if it weren’t for the way in which Abercrombie handles Jezal’s dialogue.

Jezal is quite witty in his own mind, but when he speaks, he hardly ever gets past, “Erm,” or “Um,” before he’s interrupted someone with quicker wit or more confidence. Jezal’s rapid fire thoughts are rarely articulated. The longer I read, the more I admired the way Abercrombie handled Jezal’s scenes, because the self-image that Jezal has of himself is not what others see, especially Inquisitor Glokta, who thinks Jezal is something a buffoon.

Glokta is insightful enough to recognize in Jezal aspects of himself as a younger man, but two years in the Emperor’s prisons left Glokta physically broken. However, his determination and endurance had me absolutely rooting for him. He was, by far, the most astute and clear-eyed of all the characters. Glokta sees the world without pretension, sees it right down to its ugly core, and he has developed a black sense of humor with which to deal with his pain and the intrigues that surround him.

One of the novel’s most poignant scenes plays out between Glokta and Collem West. The character development leading up to this scene was extremely well done, and Abercrombie used his material to deftly reveal another layer of Glokta’s personality, one that was both surprising and intimate. The attitudes and interactions between Glokta and West fell together like clockwork, which fairly sums up The Blade Itself.

Some people are only most interested in what’s on the surface, but I enjoy digging a little deeper, even if it means descending into the messiness of real life. If The Blade Itself is a jaded literary sewer, it is one with interesting connections and conduits. At times I felt like I was meandering down a familiar road, then the story would take an unexpected turn or wander down an unforeseen channel, but the sights were familiar and all told, the trip was wholly worthwhile, especially if you, like me, have an affinity for sewers. However, it was the characters that carried the story, and since I believe that to be the hallmark of excellent storytelling, The Blade Itself worked quite well for me.

On the surface, The Blade Itself is an adventure, but if you look closely and you’ll find satisfying characters and a tightly rendered story. If Abercrombie accomplished this by design, I salute his attention to detail; if he didn’t plan a word and the story rolled forward from his imagination to the page effortlessly, I salute his talent. Either way, he has put together a diverse group of characters and linked them all quite devilishly while driving forward a plot that becomes more twisted as the pages turn. I became so entwined in these fictional lives that I forgot my own for a while, and I don’t know about you, but that’s one of reasons that I read.

My rating:

Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

Well, my darklings, I can see the Dragon has been too long gone from her lair. It’s been a dreadful summer and I, for one, am most glad to see it over. I’ve been busy though, reading, shifting the iron from the ore to tell you about the books that kept me up long through the night.

It was hard to pick the season opener, but I will tell you this: nothing, NOTHING piques the Dragon’s interest more than a novel that causes other reviewers to either love or condemn a story. When I see such vacillation, I know I have to read it so that I can decide for myself.

And so I did.

Mark Lawrence tells the story of Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath, a young man who was once a privileged royal child. At the age of nine, Jorg witnesses the brutal murder of his mother and younger brother. By the time Jorg turns thirteen, he leads a gang of outlaws with the sole objective to extract revenge against the Count of Renar, the man who ordered his mother’s death.

Jorg has nurtured his rage and tends it like a dark garden in his heart. He seeks vengence and his days with his outlaw brothers have taught him the brutality he needs to achieve his goal. There is only one thing that frightens Jorg and that is returning to his father’s castle where he must confront the horrors from his childhood and win his place as the true prince of Ancrath.

Lawrence gives us a broken empire in chaos where violence is rampant, but it is our world, easily recognizable. The novel is told entirely from Jorg’s point of view, and Lawrence handles Jorg’s character with the right amount of verve and pathos thrust in equal measure to keep the reader engaged.

Just when Jorg’s violence becomes extreme, Lawrence slows the pace and gives the reader a clear-eyed view into the heart of a child who has known nothing but grief. Only the coldest soul could not see the armor Jorg has placed around himself, caustic wit shields his fear and he buries his sorrow beneath rage. He is a young man who tries to scald love from his heart and he often succeeds. Yet no man is ever completely untouched by those around him, and Jorg is no different.

Jorg is a complex character in a world both familiar and strange, and though the Broken Empire is seen entirely through Jorg’s eyes, the other characters are just as intricate as Jorg himself. Lawrence’s pacing is exquisite and he exhibits a penchant for horror with several well crafted scenes. It is a dark tale well told, you’ll be up into the wee hours as you follow Jorg and his brothers down their bloodied path.

My rating:

Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht

It’s good to see something fresh brought to the fantasy genre and Stina Leicht does it with flair in her debut novel Of Blood and Honey. Set in the 1970s when the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the British Army (BA) clash, Leicht’s story opens with action that doesn’t stop until the last page is turned.

Ireland’s Fey are at war with the Fallen, and as that conflict escalates, so does the confrontations between the IRA and the BA. Caught up in the war zones from both sides is Liam, a young man who always assumed that his protestant father was dead. When Liam is wrongly accused of participating in a riot and is arrested, his mother turns to her old lover and Liam’s father, a member of the Fey, for help.

Told with the fierce voice of the Irish, Leicht takes the reader deep into Northern Ireland’s Troubles through Liam’s experiences. She pulls no punches and shows both the IRA and the BA in all their brutality while never losing sight of either the old Celtic religion or the new (Christianity). It’s rare to see such a masterful weaving of worlds, but Leicht keeps a tight grip on her story and propels the reader forward like a bullet from a gun.

All of Leicht’s characters are rich and complex, and she keeps the surprises coming. She masterfully intertwines fantasy with reality to create a world so gritty, you feel like you’re walking Belfast’s streets. Dark and feral in its imagery, this is a story you don’t want to miss.

My rating:

Nightshade City by Hilary Wagner

Animal tales are the best, and Hilary Wagner has created a delightfully creepy fantasy filled with adventure and great deeds in her debut novel Nightshade City.

Beneath the human city of Trillium lies another world called the Catacombs. Here there be rats, intelligent rats, who suffer under the hand of the evil High Minister Killdeer and his wicked henchman, Billycan, a former lab rat. Peace once reigned in the Catacombs until Killdeer and Billycan turned the democratic society into a dictatorship with the Bloody Coup.

Now a rebellion is in the works, and three young rats–Vincent and Victor Nightshade, and the clever young Clover–are drawn into the conflict to defeat the Catacomb’s oppressors. Led by Juniper Belancourt, an older one-eyed rat who remembers the days of peace, they seek to establish a new beginning with their own Nightshade City.

Kids who loved Redwall will really enjoy the world Wagner has created with her characters and story. Wagner does an excellent job keeping the younger reader engaged;  the story is tense, but not overwhelming for children. Wagner leads the younger reader through harrowing events with such grace, because she has a way of intertwining a line of hope with every wicked thing that happens.

Her characters are sharp, and so far, adults and kids alike love Billycan as one of the up and coming villian greats. Billycan is the perfect bad guy, yet at the same time, the reader can’t help but feel a little sad for him too.

All the characters of Nightshade City leap off the page and will engage the reader’s imagination. Yet beneath all the adventure, Nightshade City shines bright with hope. It’s a story of what can be achieved when everyone works together, but the tale never loses sight of Vicent’s love for his brother Victor. Together they learn about friendship and the courage they will need to one day lead in Nightshade City.

My rating:

The Girls with Games of Blood by Alex Bledsoe

It’s 1975 in Memphis, Tennessee, and Alex Bledsoe returns with his Memphis vampires for a novel filled with fast cars, rock and roll, and steamy southern nights. Baron Rudolfo Vladimir Zginski has his eye on a car, and not just any car. He outmaneuvers a good old boy, Byron Cocker, to buy the 1973 Mach 1 Mustang of his dreams. Cocker is a former sheriff of some renown, who doesn’t appreciate being cheated by anyone, especially foreigners.

Cocker is determined to wrest the Mustang from Zginski, but Zginski has other worries. Life becomes more complicated when Patience Bolade, who poses as a folk singer, enters the scene. Zginski and the two young vampires he’s taken under his tutelage immediately recognize another vampire has entered their territory.

One of the infamous Bolade sisters, Patience has a history of her own in the form of a blood feud with her sister Prudence, also a vampire. Prudence has vowed to destroy Patience and anyone who stands in her way. Zginski, Leonardo, and Fauvette, soon find themselves drawn into the sisters’ feud with some surprising twists and disastrous results.

Bledsoe really hits his stride with his latest novel of love and betrayal amongst the undead. The pacing is superb and just when you’re sure you know how the plot will unfold, Bledsoe gives it a twist to keep you engaged.

Bledsoe’s characters are portrayed with layered personalities so that every scene reveals their inner struggles in more depth until you’re caught up in their lives and loves. Patience Bolade’s transition from dying woman to vampire evokes mystery beneath a full moon and remains the novel’s most poignant scene. Leonardo grapples with racism and his own motives as he seduces his latest victim while Fauvette tries to find her place in the world and Zginski’s life.

Zginski remains as repulsive as ever, unrepentant racist and misogynist — and those are his good qualities – but towards the end, Bledsoe gives you a clue that Zginski isn’t quite all that he seems, either. While the younger vampires seek to emulate their mentor’s stoic old world mentality, Zginski finds his humanity reawakening in ways that surprise even him.

Bledsoe ties it all together neatly and doesn’t miss a beat with either plot or prose. He serves up vampires for adult readers, so if you’re looking for horror with verve, check out The Girls with Games of Blood.

My rating:

The River Kings’ Road: A Novel of Ithelas by Liane Merciel

rkr_cover Epic fantasy requires a writer to juggle complex plots where characterization often gets lost beneath politics and world-building. It’s rare to find a writer who can deliver intrigue, an exciting world, and well-rounded characters, but Liane Merciel succeeds beautifully with The River Kings’ Road.

Odosse is a young woman with only one wish: to make a good life for her infant son Aubry. Unfortunately, Odosse has neither husband, nor money, nor beauty to ease her way in life. When an Oakharne lord’s son is orphaned, Odosse is thrust into a conflict between the warring kingdoms of Oakharne and Langmyr, all for the sake of an infant not her own.

Merciel skillfully draws the reader into a dark story full of treachery and builds her world of Ithelas with care. In Ithelas, evil walks in the form of maimed witches known as Thorns. The Thorns’ powers can be bought for a price, and one act of violence purchased by Leferic, an Oakharne lord’s youngest son, sets off a chain reaction that soon spins out of his control.

The beauty of The River Kings’ Road rests with Merciel’s skillful portrayal of her characters and their motivations. Each action leads to a reaction so that the characters become intertwined in one another’s survival. Merciel guides the reader through her plot twists with enough sword and sorcery to satisfy the most hardened fan, but she also uses a dark edge that I’m glad to see returning to fantasy.

Merciel doesn’t rely on shock value for her horror. The Thorns’ zombies are unique and well done, and I found the plight of one of Leferic’s henchmen, Albric, to be particularly disturbing. Merciel probes the psyche and shows the reader how easy it is to fall into death and dishonor with one wrong choice.

My rating:

The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart by Jesse Bullington

The Sad Tale The Dragon sits on the fence about this one, my good Wild Things. I simply do not know, so I will render the tale as impartially as I can and let you decide:

Set in 1364, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart follows the adventures of Manfried and Hegel Grossbart, two German grave robbers of dubious morals. They are as physically ugly as their dispositions and leave everyone worse for their passing. They have decided, these Grossbart Brothers, to journey to Gyptland where their grandfather allegedly disappeared while plundering the graves of Egypt’s kings.

In need of supplies for this great undertaking, Manfried and Hegel descend on the home of the turnip farmer Heinrich, who once injured both the Grossbarts when they were young. By page seven, the Brothers Grossbart have attacked Heinrich, murdered his wife and daughter with an ax, burned his two young children alive, and sliced the son’s throat.

This is but the beginning.

One quarter of the way through the novel, the I was hoping someone would come along and kill the Brothers, because I found them so vile. Eventually, I started giggling and glancing over my shoulder to make sure no one saw. Midway through the book, I realized that even should someone come along and kill the Brothers, the Grossbarts would be too stupid to comprehend the meaning of their deaths. Three quarters of the way through the tale, I felt as bludgeoned as one of the Grossbarts’ victims. At page 400, I rediscovered religion and started praying for the end.

That the Dragon didn’t stop reading is a testament to Bullington’s prose, which is as dark as a fairy tale and suits the overall grim mood of the Grossbart story. The journey through the mountains and the encounters with the witches and demons were excellent. Bullington’s characters were well rendered, but there is no humanity in this novel. The world Bullington shows us is so ugly, it’s practically a caricature.

Only in one scene does Bullington give us a brief glimpse into Hegel when the Grossbart kills a young girl, who is mourning another dead child in the street. In a barely perceptible flash, Hegel hesitates as if he regrets the action he must take. Yet he finishes his gruesome task and justifies it as the Virgin’s will.

Neither brother has the least difficulty justifying their acts of violence or hate in this amoral fable. Religion is mocked and manipulated by cardinal, serf, and noble; violence permeates every aspect of life; and no bodily fluids are sacred. The Brothers cruise through Europe wrecking havoc, yet they always emerge emotionally unscathed.

The Brothers’ ability to rationalize their every act to themselves is why I believe the ending wasn’t as satisfying to me as it could have been. There was no catharsis when I was done. However, when I evaluate Bullington’s tale, I’m hard put to find an alternative ending that would have been satisfying to me. Hence my ambivalence about the novel as a whole.

Bullington’s research is impeccable, and his pacing keeps the reader engaged. Be forewarned, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart lives up to the disclaimer on the back of the novel, which cautions that the book contains strong language and scenes of graphic violence. The fight scenes (and there are many) are extremely graphic, and the retching references become so numerous, they’re almost comical by the end.

So I will give my subjective rating; however, I would be most interested to hear what others may have to say about The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart.

My rating:

Godmother: The Secret Cinderella Story by Carolyn Turgeon

Lil lives a quiet life, working each day in a dusty used book shop in Manhatten,  then returning home to her lonely apartment each night.  We soon realize, godmotherhowever, that Lil is not just any old woman.  Home after a long day of work, she draws a warm bath, undresses and sinks into the welcoming warmth.  “I was alone, finally, completely free.  I leaned forward and unclenched my back.  A pure feeling of bliss moved through me.  My wings unfurled.  White feather by white feather, curving out and up toward the ceiling, spreading to their full span, like two halves to one heart, until they tapped the walls.”

You see Lil is a fairy.  A very famous fairy.  Imagine a Cinderella story where the fairy godmother botches the big night with tragic consequences.  Banished in disgrace  from the fairy world, Lil finds herself living amongst the humans in New York City, old and lonely and longing to return to her world.   One day in the book store she sees a book  with photos of the Cottingley fairies  and becomes convinced that the familiar fairy faces she sees in the photos are a sign that if she can just complete the assignment that she botched hundreds of years before, she can return to her world.  One day beautiful, quirky Veronica walks into the bookstore and soon Lil is on a mission to match her with the “prince” who owns the bookstore and send them to a  charity ball at the Pierre Hotel. 

Turgeon gives us a darker take on the familiar Cinderella fairy tale with some unexpected surprises.  Moving back and forth in time between the Cinderella story and the modern day story, we grow to love Lil and feel her sadness, loneliness and isolation.  We root for her to successfully accomplish her mission and find redemption and a way back to her world.  The story ends with a twist that may leave you feeling a bit disappointed, or maybe even a little bit cheated if you expected the typical “happily ever after” ending, but overall I found the whole story quite enchanting.

 

My Rating: 

 

Burn Me Deadly by Alex Bledsoe

Burn Me Deadly HC

The Dragon was so enthralled by The Sword-Edged Blonde, she couldn’t resist another trip to Neceda, and it was a journey well worth taking.

So come with me, my Wild Things, for here there be dragons.

Eddie LaCrosse is a sword jockey for hire. For a fee he investigates missing persons, domestic indiscretions, and murder most foul. A good thing, because the case Eddie takes on in Burn Me Deadly is personal.

Eddie is returning from a routine job late one night when a beautiful woman begs him to help her. Against his better judgment, he agrees to escort her safely to Neceda, but before they reach the city, they are waylaid by unknown assailants. Eddie is left for dead beside the girl’s mutilated body in a secluded ravine.

Of course, Eddie isn’t going to let this slide. With no other clue than the intricate dragon design on his assailant’s boots, Eddie is soon searching Neceda’s wild streets to find the girl’s killers. Legends are involved, tales of dragons that burned through the skies and were worshipped as gods, but this is Neceda where nothing is ever as it seems.

Alex Bledsoe treats us to another adventure where he blends hardboiled detective fiction with heroic fantasy and somehow makes it all come together. Here there be dragons and their worshippers, gangsters, and murder for hire, yet Bledsoe infuses his world with a sense of realism through Eddie’s pragmatic observations.

Bledsoe ups the ante by bringing much needed adult observations and maturity to the fantasy genre. Yet Burn Me Deadly is neither stodgy nor plodding; this novel is a breathless run through the violent streets of Neceda. Younger readers will enjoy the fast-paced action while enthusiasts such as the Dragon will pleasure in Bledsoe’s nuanced story-telling.

With a deserved starred review from Publishers Weekly, Burn Me Deadly will be released on November 10, 2009. While you’re waiting, Alex Bledsoe shares what he learned about dragons and dragon cults with his research At the Fiery Altar: The Dragon Cult of Burn Me Deadly.

Go on, my Wild Things, go back to Neceda. You can tell them the Dragon sent you.

My rating:

The Sword-Edged Blonde by Alex Bledsoe

Sword Edged Blonde Oh my dear, Wild Things, this novel made the old Dragon dance for joy. Yes indeedy, that was a sight. Long has she loved the mystery and fantasy genres, so she salutes Alex Bledsoe, who has combined two great genres and entertains us with a story that is simultaneously wicked funny and dark as a devil’s soul.

Gather close . . .

Eddie LaCrosse is a sword jockey, a sword for hire, who understands the need for discretion. A routine case becomes extraordinary when Eddie is summoned by the King of Arentia to solve the murder of the royal heir. Queen Rhiannon has been accused of an unspeakable crime, and King Philip wants Eddie to find the truth, but the truth follows a winding path into an underworld of gangsters and corruption.

This is Philip Marlowe meets Thieves World, and Alex Bledsoe mixes the mystery/fantasy genres with savage grace. Bledsoe segues from Eddie’s past to his present so two tales intertwine with style, and while the plot is labyrinthine, Bledsoe’s clear prose and dynamic pacing keeps the story moving.

The characters are real with heartbreaking betrayals, and the dialogue snaps. While there were light moments that made me laugh out loud, there is nothing frivolous about this dark tale. Eddie’s encounter with the goddess, Epona, was written with a nightmare quality worthy of any horror novel, and a macabre limerick that forms a clue never leaves your mind. Bledsoe ties his clues together neatly at the end without being trite, treating the reader to one ah-ha moment after another.

Finally, I am delighted to find a fantasy for adults who seek substance over fluff! I’ll be watching for more of Alex Bledsoe and so should you.

My rating: