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:

Willy by Robert Dunbar

Willy begins with the arrival of an unnamed adolescent at his next stop in the institutional cycle, a school for boys with emotional problems. His last doctor has suggested that he keep a diary, and so begins the story of a withdrawn child shuttled to a school that is so decrepit it barely functions. There he meets his new roommate, a boy named Willy, whose charisma draws the other young men to him.

Within the first few pages, Robert Dunbar thoroughly places you in the young diarist’s head, and it is heartbreaking to read the thoughts of a child with such low self-esteem. No one encourages him or attempts to draw him from his shell, except for the principal of the school and eventually Willy.

With the arrival of Willy, the diarist begins a subtle transformation that Dunbar communicates with eloquent prose. I was reminded of Flowers for Algernon as I read the diarist’s words grow from those of an isolated child to become the thoughts of a young man. Yet Dunbar doesn’t overreach by creating an adult clothed in an adolescent’s body; he stays true to the diarist’s character and he shows us how love can transform and damn a soul.

This is the kind of novel that makes me yearn for a book club that discussed superior dark fiction. With Willy, the reader gets the best of both worlds–an excellent story for the casual reader, but if you’re like me and like to look a little closer, Willy is a tale of depth both in terms of story and characterization.

This is Robert Dunbar’s finest novel to date and certainly my favorite.

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:

Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear

A spaceship hurdles through space, seeking the perfect planet, and within the ship sleeps the planet’s future population: men, women, and creatures designed to help populate and settle the world to which they fly. Until something goes wrong, and ship goes to war with itself.

Teacher is jerked from dreams of this new world and brought into the harsh reality of ship. He can remember only bits and pieces of his life before awakening. Cold, he runs toward warmth and the mysteries of ship.

This is the best science fiction I have read in years. Bear’s command of Teacher’s story grips the reader from page one and does not let go. The story is dark and haunting, and I loved every page of it.

Science fiction writers sometimes make their tales more about the science and less about the characters. Not Bear. He carefully intertwines all the qualities of science, which makes science fiction fun, yet he never loses Teacher or his bleak story.

Nuanced with lovely prose, Bear reminds us that science without a conscience can be deadly.

My rating:

Shadows: Supernatural Tales by Masters of Modern Literature [ed. by Robert Dunbar]

Robert Dunbar, an author of literary horror in his own right, has selected a group of chilling tales by some of the finest authors of dark fiction. Ten creepy tales by classic authors: Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Henry James, E.M. Forster, Willa Cather, M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, Oliver Onions, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and D.H. Lawrence are combined into one chilling volume.

I found two of my favorite stories “The Empty House” and “The Yellow Wallpaper” in this collection, and re-discovered “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.” Well chosen and arranged, the stories build to a wonderful climax at the end.

Prepare to be entertained, because Shadows is a lovely anthology for anyone who loves horror.

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 Dead Travel Fast by Eric Nuzum

In his “Ridiculously Unnecessary Author’s Note,” Eric Nuzum makes sure the reader understands that although the events are real, some scenes are composite scenes; however, these composites do not change the basic facts. He also changes the names of real people and alters a few facts about these people so they won’t be embarrassed. Nuzum does make it perfectly clear that:

This is not a James Frey thing, I do not claim to have spent time in jail, saved drowning kittens, prevented a revolution, or whatever.

It is what it is.

The Dead Travel Fast simply is one of the most refreshing and hilarious books on vampires and vampire lore that I’ve read in some time. What began as a desire to write a history of the vampire soon turns into a quest to experience the vampire in all its cultural forms. Nuzum examines the vampire movement from top to bottom, juxtaposing fact with humor to look at why we are so fascinated by the vampire.

Nuzum informs the reader of the making of the novel Dracula and intersperses history with one of the most entertaining travelogues I’ve read in years. If you read nothing else, you must read the chapter entitled “I Don’t Believe in God: The Crucifix is to Keep Away Vampires” where the author travels to the land of the vampire and along the way deals with dog attacks, floods, possible amputation, and running out of hand sanitizer. Nuzum goes to Transylvania on a Dracula-themed tour with some unpredictable results.

It’s not all fun and games; Nuzum knows when to get serious as he chronicles vampire-themed murders across the globe. As the outsider looking in, he assesses the Goths who feel empowered by the vampire lifestyle they seek to emulate. Nuzum attends Goth clubs, Buffy the Vampire marathons, and haunted houses in his quest for what it means to be a vampire.

Check out the undead and the company they keep.

My rating: