The Darkness That Comes After

Believe in me and I will give you eternal Salvation, said the Lord. “Can I have Might or Kings instead?” asked the tank.

Archive for the ‘reviews’ Category

Review – The Summoner by Gail Z. Martin

Posted by senseichow on April 13, 2007

The Summoner is the first book in the Chronicles of the Necromancer series. It tells the story of Prince Martris Drayke, whose world is ‘thrown into suddThe Summoneren chaos’ when his older brother, with the aid of an evil sorcerer, murders his family and seizes the throne.

Martris, or Tris, as he prefers to be called, is forced to flee for his life. Luckily, he’s the grandson of the last great Summoner (think necromancer) in his world, and has inherited that Summoner’s powers. He also has a small but loyal band of companions to help out.

And this is where things start to go downhill. There’s the tough, reluctant loner guy with a mysterious and tragic background, who initially is all tough and reluctant to help out (because of his mysterious and tragic background), but then is won over by the casual camaraderie of the group and the potential love of a good woman (aah, isn’t that sweet). There’s the bard, who’s a bit of a happy go lucky fellow, good with women and also handy in a fight. Then there’s two soldiers, one old and one young, who despite being good friends with Tris come across as a bit bland and generic. Towards the last part of the book I’d stopped caring which of them was which. There’s a healer, who plays the good woman role for the tough reluctant loner guy. At the start the two are constantly fighting with each other, but there’s a certain frisson of sexual tension each time they clash, so you just know they’re gonna hook up soon. Later on there’s also the obligatory love interest for the main hero, a fiery warrior princess who’s actually betrothed to Tris’ evil brother (ah, warrior princesses, when will they learn?).

Whilst initially fleeing towards a neighbouring kingdom, the intervention of the Lady (the goddess of that world) sends them towards a great library, once thought destroyed in some cataclysmic Mage War. There Tris will learn to master his powers, Kiara (the warrior princess) will find out how to help her father and her kingdom, and the rest of the merry band learn various things. But time is short – because if they don’t get their act together by the Hawthorn Moon then the evil sorcerer, (who’s actually a vampire), will unleash a terrible evil known as the Obsidian King upon the world.

By the way, having a bad guy who plots from behind the throne – that’s kinda annoying. Having a bad guy who plots and also happens to be a mage – that’s pretty evil.

But having a bad guy who plots, happens to be a mage, and is also a vampire – now that’s just plain awesome.

Now lets recap – young prince with destiny – check, the trusty band of companions – check, fiery love interest – check, evil wizard with plan to unleash evil – check. I know what you’re thinking; hey senseichow, this is just bog standard fantasy, lifted straight out of the 1980s. Am I right?

Well, great job you! You’re absolutely right. It is just bog standard fantasy, lifted straight out of the 1980s.

The hero being able to talk to, and summon, the dead, that’s something new (kind of). Pretty much everything else though, is old. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in itself – both Brian Ruckley and Joe Abercrombie have written books recently that have taken fantasy stereotypes and turned them on their head by the strength of their writing, but unfortunately you won’t find much of that strength here. The dialogue feels stilted and awkward; near the end one character actually says, “on the morrow, we will talk,” and the combat scenes lack any real sense of danger – in one particularly absurd fight against slavers in the forest, the characters were swapping witty quips whilst being gradually outnumbered and outfought.

To make matters worse, near the beginning of the book we see the Lady intervening on Tris’ behalf to heal a potentially fatal wound. She then tells him that for the duration of the crisis, she would make him effectively unkillable (!) thus casually neutering the threat from any of Tris’ subsequent fight scenes. Its a far cry from the likes of A Song Of Ice And Fire, where half the time you’re not even sure if a character is going to live to the end of the sentence, let alone the entire novel.

The deus ex machina pops up several more times through the book – the Lady sends her vampire servants to help Tris when he’s in trouble, sends her sorcerers to teach him once he reaches the Library, and even sends a mage to help out Kiara (remember, the fiery warrior princess, stay with me now) when she runs into a spot of bother. You have to wonder, for a goddess who likes to play such an active part in things, why she doesn’t just strike down the evil sorcerer herself.

Even the worldbuilding consists of little more than your standard fantasy kingdoms, with generic cities and taverns a plenty.

So in summary – bland, formulaic fantasy that earns a thumbs down from me.

(For further information on Gail Z. Martin you can check out the official website here, and it also has a link to the first chapter of The Summoner online.)

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Review – I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

Posted by senseichow on April 12, 2007

(I know, I know, I’m supposed to be reading a bunch of other stuff right now, but I saw this baby going cheap on eBay and I couldn’t resist. I have to say, this book just gets better every time you read itI Am Legend.)

Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend is probably his best known work. First published in 1954, it tells the story of Robert Neville, the last man alive. A strange plague has turned every other person on Earth into a vampire and Neville must learn to survive in this strange new world.

Holed up in his heavily fortified house, Neville hunts the vampires by day, and by night the vampires hunt him. Or rather, they surround his house and watch and wait for him to make a mistake that would allow them access to the house. In the meantime Neville attempts to investigate the vampire plague and its origins in the hope of finding a cure.

The story is revealed in brief flashback segments. We learn how the dust storms helped spread the vampire plague, how Neville’s wife and child slowly became ill, and then died. We experience Neville’s slow, creeping sense of despair as his wife comes back from the dead and he has to kill her.

The writing is excellent throughout – Matheson does a superb job of conveying the horror of the world Neville lives in, as well as his isolation and the pressure that he’s under. Neville’s day time travels from the house (limited as he needs to be back inside before sunset) are always presented with a real sense of urgency. The clock is ticking, and if Neville is still outside when night comes, the vampires will have him. At one point in the story, while visiting the grave of his dead wife, Neville’s watch stops without him realising, and the feeling of terror and desperation he experiences comes across as very real, and very vivid. His subsequent struggle to get back to the house is easily one of the most gripping segments of the book.

Given his enforced loneliness, a central theme of the book is Neville’s mental state – for the first half of the book he comes across as dangerously unstable, almost snapping several times. He eventually learns to cope with his isolation, and channels his energies towards determining the source of the plague. Disdaining a supernatural explanation as the cause, Neville shows his resourcefulness by turning to science, reading Medical textbooks on Bacteriology and Haematology, and experimenting on the vampires he finds. He realizes the entire plague is bacterial in origin, and discovers logical (within reason, this is SF after all) reasons for a vampire’s aversion to sunlight and garlic, and their vulnerability to being staked. Their aversion to crosses is explained in a slightly tongue in cheek way, as this is put down to purely psychological conditioning amongst Christian vampires. The one Jewish vamp he get to experiment on is unaffected by the Cross, but does react to a copy of the Torah.

The title of the book, I Am Legend, refers to the fact that once, vampires themselves were legends, but no longer. Neville, the last surviving human, has become that legend. Many of the vampires have never seen Neville, and are only aware of him from the corpses of vampires executed by him every day. Despite hunting him, they live in constant terror of him.

In all, this is a superb book which, in its day, set the standards for vampires for a long time to come. It was the inspiration for a whole genre (George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead was initially based on this book) and thoroughly deserves its place in the SF Masterworks imprint.

And for you lazy bastards out there who can’t be bothered reading it, there’s a film adaptation (the third so far), I Am Legend, starring Will Smith, that’s due out later this year 🙂

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Review – Thief With No Shadow by Emily Gee

Posted by senseichow on April 1, 2007

The bottom line – strong, well written fantasy. Ignore the ‘romance’ part and tuck in.

The blurb on the back cover of Thief With No Shadow describes it as a ‘rich, romantic fantasy tale…’. Good thing I only read the blurb on the inside front cover before reading it, or I may not have started. The term romantic fantasy has unfortunate connotations with Mills and Boon, with smouldering bare chested heroes leaning over equally smouldering but just slightly less bThiefcover-1are chested heroines on the front cover.

Luckily for me, the romance takes a back seat to the fantasy in this book. Author Emily Gee’s debut novel tells the story of Melke, a woman able to become invisible at will. This gift runs in her family, and when her brother, Hantje is caught by the magical salamanders whilst using his power to steal from them, Melke has no choice but to do bargain for her brother’s life. The bargain involves stealing a necklace from a local farm, owned by the once proud sal Vere family.

Being able to turn invisible makes Melke a pretty good thief, and she manages to steal the necklace, only to set off a chain of events with serious repercussions, not just for her brother, but also for Bastian sal Vere and his sister, Lianna. Turns out the necklace had been stolen from a psaaron (think mer-man) by a sal Vere long dead and gone, and because of his crime the entire family had been cursed. Bastian needs the necklace to break the curse and thus save his sister from the amorous attentions of the psaaron, while Melke needs the necklace to give to the salamanders to save her brother.

The story is mainly told from the viewpoints of Melke and Bastian, and although they come off as a little two dimensional at first, Gee builds them up to become interesting characters who you can actually cheer for. The supporting cast consists of Melke’s brother Hantje, Lianna, Bastian’s sister, and Endal, Bastian’s hound, as well as a host of minor characters. Again, the respective siblings aren’t really well fleshed out at first, but they do get a bit more page time later on in the book.

As a sidenote, Bastian’s magical gift is the ability to talk to dogs, and the conversations between him and Endal are actually quite funny. Endal quickly became my favourite character in the book.

You won’t find sprawling epic fantasy here with character numbers running into the hundreds – this is a well written, self contained tale focusing on the bonds between family. True, there is the undercurrent of sexual tension running between Melke and Bastian, and some slightly disturbing man-on-salamander and psaaron-on-man sex towards the second half of the book (I mean, what the hell?), but these scenes are mercifully brief.

(And hey, I’ve read through the S&M scenes in Wizard’s First Rule. Salamander sex? Dude, that’s nothing. Check out Goodkind’s stuff if you really want to be disturbed.)

Thief With No Shadow is due for release in the UK in May, and worldwide in April 2007. Fore more Emily Gee info you can check out her website at www.emilygee.com.

In the interests of full disclosure – this title was a review copy sent to me by Solaris Publishing.

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Review – Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett

Posted by senseichow on March 29, 2007

The bottom line – decent ‘young adult’ fantasy, but doesn’t quite reach the old glory days of the Discworld.

Tiffany Aching is not a lucky girl. She’s caught the eyes, and heart, of the Wintersmith, the spirit of Winter himself. And now, he gives her roses and icebergs, says it with avalanches and showers her with snowflakes, at least according to the blurb on the front cover of the book.

WintersmithA part of Tiffany thinks its kinda cool. Another part of Tiffany is horrified at all the people who are dying as a result of the Wintersmith’s attentions. And a third part is just plain struggling with her training to become a witch.

Whilst set in the Discworld, and featuring some well known favourites from Pratchett’s previous novels, the Tiffany Aching books are strictly supposed to be young adult fantasy. He’s done it before; there are two other books in the Tiffany Aching sequence, and he’s also written a stand-alone novel (nothing to do with Tiffany, but also set in the Discworld) called The Amazing Maurice And His Educated Rodents, which deservedly won the 2001 Carnegie Medal.

While the Tiffany books were a bit of a change for Pratchett after thirty odd full fledged Discworld novels, he seems to be running out of ideas with this last one. The plot meanders all over the place, before Tiffany finally deals with the Wintersmith in quite an annoying deus ex machina. It doesn’t help that Tiffany just comes across as a young Granny Weatherwax, and although she’s likeable enough its difficult to empathise with her.

As anyone who’s a fan of Pratchett will tell you, his writing style’s evolved over the years. Gone is the outright slapstick of The Colour Of Magic or The Light Fantastic. His later books have tended to become far more serious in tone, with the humor taking a back seat to the sometimes stealth social commentary and human insight. Wintersmith is no exception – there is the occasional bit of comic relief in the form of the Nac Mac Feegle, and Nanny Ogg’s always good for a laugh or two, but you get the overall feeling that this is serious stuff.

Its the same feeling that makes me doubt whether this book will have much of an appeal to young children. The setting is alien and the characters don’t quite build up the rapport of a Harry Potter or a Hermione Granger. On the other hand, if you’re a Pratchett fan its worth picking just to see a bit more of the Discworld in action.

And as for me, I’m gonna go reminisce about the times when Pratchett was churning out stuff like Small Gods and Reaper Man without even pausing to take a breath.

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Review – Blindsight by Peter Watts

Posted by senseichow on March 24, 2007

The bottom line – great high concept sci-fi with touches of horror thrown in. Highly recommended.

Although I’m equal parts sci-fi and fantasy geek (parts which combine to make one big super geek….. that’s right ladies….. oh yeah…..) my choice of reading material usually leans towards fantasy. No particular reason for it, its just always been that way. Having reviewed a bunch of fantasy books lately, I thought I’d better throw in a sci-fi review or too, and as luck would have it, along came Blindsight.

Now you may have realised that link above doesn’t take you to the usual Amazon page, but instead to the author’s website where you can download the novel for free (the rest of the site is also extremely cool and worth checking out). As I’ve said before on this blog, its available online under a Creative Commons license, and even if you don’t read another single word of this review, you should still go and download that book. It really is that good.

The plot takes place in the late 21st century. Human society, paradoxically stagnating in the midst of technological advancement, makes First Contact with an alien intelligence, the Fireflies. Desperate to find out more about this potential threat, they send a starship populated with the best and brightest crew Earth has to offer to the edges of the solar system.

And what a crew it is. A vampire who, under Watts’ writing, becomes far more terrifying than anything ever imagined by Bram Stoker; a biologist who, ironically enough, is more machine than human; a synthesist (think cross between empath and interpreter) with half his brain cut out; an augmented soldier; and a linguist suffering from the worst case of multiple personality disorder I’ve ever seen in print.

You may be forgiven for thinking that vampires sound a little out of place in high concept sci-fi but believe me, Watts explains their existence beautifully. The stuff about the Crucifix glitch (vampires have seizures when they see right angles – but this can be fixed by giving them ‘anti-Euclideans’) is a little tongue-in-cheek, but it doesn’t detract from the experience one bit.

Now, to give you honest readers out there fair warning- this book’s jam-packed with science, with a bit of stealth philosophy thrown in for good measure. If hard sci-fi’s not your thing, then stay away from this book. Head back to your Star Wars and Doctor Who novels.

If, on the other hand, you enjoy great reads that can amaze and scare you in turn, and leave you feeling just that little bit smarter for having read them, then dive right in.

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Review – Night of Knives by Ian Cameron Esslemont

Posted by senseichow on March 23, 2007

The story goes something like this. Back in 1982 some guy called Steven Erikson co-created a fantasy world with some other guy called Ian Cameron Esslemont. They agree to share the rights to the world. Steven Erikson then wrote a little book called Gardens Of The Moon – and that worked out pretty well for him.

In the meantime Esslemont’s been writing his own stuff too. Night of Knives is his first published work, a short story concerning one of the most pivotal moments in the history of the Malazan Empire; the death of the Emperor Kellanved and his partner in crime, the assassin Dancer.

The story takes place over the course of one single day and night on Malaz Island – as forces from within and without the Empire converge upon the Island for reasons of their own. Esslemont makes plenty of references to characters already mentioned in the Malazan Book of the Fallen, but the stars of the show are those of his own making.

The story is told mainly through the eyes of two of those stars. Temper, a grizzled veteran (as they all seem to be in the Empire) who once served in Dassem Ultor’s First Sword, and Kiska, a local would be spy/informant/assassin. We follow them as they investigate the events of the Shadow Moon, and try to survive various encounters with other characters both new and old. Kellanved and Dancer put in an appearance, as does Surly, or the Empress Laseen as she comes to be called. Tayschrenn, the Imperial High Mage, also plays a surprising role in things.

Throughout the novel there are tantalizing references to things that Steven Erikson has only hinted at in the Malazan Book of the Fallen. We learn a little more about the enigmatic Crimson Guard; we find out what really happened to Dassem Ultor; how the Emperor finally achieved his quest for power; and more details about the Empire’s original conquest of Seven Cities.

The whole thing is well written, with likeable characters (although they all seem to have mysterious pasts better left uncovered) and plenty of good old fashioned action in the style of Erikson. In fact that might be a problem for some people, as Esslemont’s style so closely matches Erikson’s that anyone who read a proof copy without seeing the author’s name might think it was another novella from Erikson himself.

Its a minor point though, and anyone who’s already a big fan of the Malazan Empire isn’t likely to be deterred by the thought of more of the same. Anyone who’s not a fan might feel a little lost at all the references to characters and places far, far away – but again, this is nothing new. The Malazan books have a reputation for throwing the reader in at the deep end and letting them figure things out – and so far it seemed to have worked in their favour.

So in summary, a worthy addition to the series. Esslemont is currently working on another tale in the world of the Empire, called Return Of The Crimson Guard (no prizes for getting what its about). I’m not sure about release dates (Amazon doesn’t even seem to have a link for the book, so it must be a fair way off) but I’ll definitely be picking up a copy when its released.

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Review – Winterbirth by Brian Ruckley

Posted by senseichow on March 17, 2007

The Bottom Line – Nothing particularly to revolutionize the genre, but still a well written, enjoyable book.

Winterbirth is the debut effort from Scottish author Brian Ruckley, the first part of his The Godless World trilogy. Check out his pretty comprehensive website here, and read an excerpt of the book here.

He describes a world wWinterbirthhere the Gods, sickened by the conflict between their created races, left long ago. The North is now controlled by Thanes, overseen by a High Thane. Its very reminiscent of the Scottish Highland clan system, no doubt drawn from Ruckley’s own Scottish heritage.

The Thanes have to contend not only with political manoeuvring amongst their own ranks and a High Thane who wishes to become a King, but also a vaguely elf-like race called the Kyrinin, now long past their former glory. The Kyrinin wander the land as nomads, and while they’re not at outright war with the Huanin (humans), there’s no love lost between the two races either.

On the other hand, the Thanes were at outright war with the Black Road, a religious spin-off (for want of a better term), who claim that the Gods will return to the world once it has been united under the creed of the Black Road. For the last thirty years things have been relatively quiet between the Thanes of the North and the Black Road, but that’s all about to change as the festival of Winterbirth approaches.

In the midst of all this are the na’kyrim, half human, half Kyrinin outcasts, some of whom are the only characters in Ruckley’s world able to wield magic, or ‘The Shared’ as he calls it. Aeglyss, a particularly powerful na’kyrim, seeks to manipulate both the Black Road and one of the Kyrinin tribes for his own ends, even as he searches for a way to gain full control of his abilities.

The book does a good job of setting up the world and the plotlines. The main protagonist is a youth called Orisian, cousin to the heir of the Lannis-Haig Thane, although there are plenty of other characters of interest.

The action and the magic are well written. There are no massive feats of deus ex machina here, and there are no invincible swordsmen; the characters really do come across as ordinary (within reason) people struggling to do their best to stay alive.

Ruckley takes the route of most modern fantasy these days in blurring the distinctions between good and evil. Even Aeglyss, who looks to become the main bad guy of the series, is shown through most of the book as little more than child-like in some ways, pathetica lly eager to fit in and be accepted despite the frightening power he wields.

The politics are almost overdone in the book – each faction has its own share of infighting. It hasn’t quite gotten to Robert Jordan’s level of ridiculous intricacy (is he ever gonna be able to wrap up all/most/any of those outstanding plotlines in one single book?!!) but there is plenty here for those who like a hint of real world complexity in their fantasy novels.

Despite all the things it does well, there’s nothing really new here. We’ve seen all of this before, and complex multiple POV books seem to be becoming the standard for epic fantasy these days.

If you can get past that though, Winterbirth is a good solid debut, worth checking out for fans of epic fantasy. I know I’ll be picking up the second in the series.

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Review – Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie

Posted by senseichow on March 16, 2007

The bottom line – another well crafted fantasy adventure. Well worth the read.

Its refreshing to see a writer actually putting out novels on a regular basis – instead of making us wait what seems like several decades between each one (cough… Robert Jordan… cough). Before They Are Hanged comes out about a year after the release of the first novel, which seems about right for epic fantasy. The third, and I think, final in the series, Last Argument of Kings, is roughly scheduled for this time next year. Let’s hope Abercrombie can keep to that schedule.

This book carries on from its prequel. Bayaz, the First of the Magi, is leading his party to the edge of the world, to hunt for the legendary Seed which will give him the power to destroy the Dark Prophet Khalul and his evil Eaters. Meanwhile, Inquisitor Glokta is down south in the city of Dagoska, trying to solve two problems; first, who killed the previous Superior of Dagoska, and second, how to defend a city divided from within against the Gurkish army? And to make matters worse, the Northmen are invading, from, where else, the North. Colonel West has the unenviable task of trying to repel the invasion whilst dealing with the world’s biggest jackass in the form of Crown Prince Ladisla.

You may be forgiven for thinking that summary sounds just like a thousand other fantasy cliches – but it’d be a mistake to pass this book by based on a summary alone. As with its predecessor the enjoyment comes from actually reading the work, and when you do, you begin to realize the subtle details that make these books stand out from the crowd. The same dry humor found in The Blade Itself is here too, and the same touches of darkness. The writing is solid, the world is well fleshed out without going into excessive detail, and the action sequences, while not on par with Gemmell or Richard Morgan, are well done.

Most intriguingly perhaps, are the hints that while a standard good vs bad conflict is going on in the foreground, there are wider conspiracies at work in the all important background. At times the book reads almost like a mystery/conspiracy novel. Who are the mysterious bankers who keep propping up in Glokta’s path? Just who, or what, is the Feared? How did Bethod arrange the alliance between his forces and an old enemy from the prequel? And who is the hidden killer inside the capital city of the Union?

It almost seems like there are too many plot threads left for just one book to clear up – but that particular judgment will have to wait till the release of Last Argument of Kings. In the meantime, Before They Are Hanged is an excellent sequel to an excellent first novel, and is well worth reading for any fantasy fan.

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Review – The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

Posted by senseichow on March 12, 2007

The good – Well written, multiple plots interweaving fantasy, in the vein of Martin, Erikson and Bakker. A few novel characters and good twists on the old archetypes.

The bad – …. in the vein of Erikson, Martin and Bakker. But doesn’t quite manage to reach their level.

I have to say I enjoyed this book a good deal more than I expected to. I read it together with Brian Ruckley’s Winterbirth, both in a single weekend, and while I thought Winterbirth was going to be the better of the two, turns out I was wrong.

Go figure.

The story starts out simple enough, a barbarian warrior and his loyal party are ambushed and the warrior left for dead. From there things quickly move on to the heart of The Union, the kingdom/empire where most of the action in this first novel takes place. We are introduced to Inquisitor Glokta, a man once destined for great things until two years in a torturer’s dungeon changed it all. Now he’s a torturer too, punishing treason and corruption in the name of his King.

The story continues at a brisk pace and we meet a host of other characters; Captain Jezal dan Luthar, the traditional young hero swordsman; Bayaz, First of the Magi, the typical wize wizard; Major West, the experienced military man.

Together these characters move to deal with various threats to the Union, from within and without. Its a well written story which uses the first volume to set the stage – but it avoids the, “first book to introduce everything, second book is where the action is,” cliche of most fantasy epics. There’s plenty of action in this book, and the combat scenes are well written and realistic. The heroes aren’t gonna be walking away without any scars from these fights.

And as far as the characters go, we’ve seen them all before (well, maybe not Glokta), in numerous different guises in numerous other fantasy works, but Joe Abercrombie infuses his characters with a certain cynicism and world weariness. You won’t find the darkness of Glen Cook’s heroes here, but you will find a moral ambiguity similar to Steven Erikson. You won’t find the outright comedy of Pratchett, but you will find the occasional touch of perfectly placed humor. You won’t find the worldbuilding of Martin or Jordan, but you will see plenty to suggest a rich, complex world whose surface has only just been scratched in this first volume.

In short, The Blade Itself is a good strong start to a series and one I’d recommend for fantasy fans everywhere.

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