Romancing the Fantasy
There are a few reasons we read fantasy: to escape to another world, to live an adventure only possible with magic, to ponder our own situation through the lens of one far off and sorcerous, or just because we like it. Susan Dennard’s Truthwitch is for those of us in the final camp. If worldbuilding so detailed and engrossing is your entry into the genre (a la Sanderson or Jordan), Truthwitch’s YA pacing and vaguely European/Mediterranean setting may not be rich or otherworldly enough to hold you. If it’s the story that keeps you coming back, this book may fare better, but it doesn’t feel like a single quest with an epic finale (a la Brent Weeks or Pierce Brown) so much as two or three episodes strung together with a showdown tacked on at the end. If the metaphorical implications of magic for human nature are what tickle your fancy (see Beagle or Pratchett), Truthwitch is likely to come off a little thin, both in the elegance of the magic system and the ways it’s used to reveal human nature. But if what you like is witty dialogue, fast-paced action, and magical battles in far-off lands (see Robert E. Howard or Anthony Ryan), plus perhaps a smattering of romance, you’re likely to love this book.
Because this is not so much fantasy as fantastical romance: for all the elements of fantasy Dennard leaves thin in the book, the relationship between its two best-friend female protagonists and its dreamy-but-edgy male protags is much thicker than in most fantasy novels, and that’s a breath of change. Not the supernatural-here-and-now of shifter romance or the just-barely-not-this-world romance of Madison Faye, Dennard manages a true blend here. Meaning if you generally like fantasy, you will generally like this—and ditto for romance.
If you happen to like both, Truthwitch is some serious paydirt. You might also go in thinking you like fantasy, only to find out you love romance.
In full disclosure, we fall on the fantasy side of things (no surprise, since this is posting on TopNewFantasy dot com and not a romance review site!). That said, the entire book has a rushed feeling, and the romance is no different. The magic system felt like, with a little more development, it could all link together and make sense as another set of natural laws. The world and polities, too, felt developed a step beyond stereotype but not quite to the historical specificity we love from the worldbuilders mentioned above. The romance is at least not the well-worn triangle, but rather a foursome more reminiscent of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (to mention another talented author who blends magic and romance well). The opportunities for swapped and mistaken affections abound but… still it felt clear from early on who would end up with whom. Likewise, a few too many of the battles serendipitously involved these affectionates ending in close and compromising quarters to easily suspend disbelief.
Still, a solid read for those of us who are happy with any fantastical romp, and I’d assume the same for those who like romantic relationships to be the focus. And if you have a foot in both camps, Truthwitch may just sorcel its way into your heart.
A Must-Read from One of Epic's Modern Masters
I was a fan of Brian Staveley’s Unhewn Throne series: epic in setting, plot, and character, it was everything good about epic fantasy.
Skullsworn is better.
Better setting—the strange, swampy no-man’s land and forgotten heretic city the book is set in is so vivid I remember the details of the red-scale fish lanterns they hang, months after reading the book. One of those settings so strong it becomes a character in itself, a reality all the other characters must deal with.
Better plot--The Unhewn Throne was epic, and often surprising, but Skullsworn twists and turns its way through a mystery that starts political and ends supernatural, a main character good at everything but the one thing she must do to win (love), multiple characters with motives hidden from each other in important ways, ancient bayou cults… every detail about the story feels carefully crafted and polished, in a way only someone with a series as epic as The Unhewn Throne could manage.
Better characters—Staveley could rightly be accused at times of not doing female characters justice in his main series. Not so here—the main POV, beloved side character and death priestess Pyrre, is a badass in her own right, who must learn to do the one thing she never has, in twelve days’ time, as part of a larger and more difficult trial to finally become a full priestess. She starts a revolution to do it—but the real story is her internal revolutions, trying to get past a lifetime of neither loving nor being loved, and questioning the religion that has become the core of her being, in why it would demand this of her.
Because of course she has to kill the one she loves once she’s managed to love them—another part of the book’s brilliant design.
I could go on, but let me just hit a few more things that set Skullsworn apart from your average epic fantasy. One is religion—main characters these days are usually atheists, but Pyrre is passionately faithful to her religion, even if it feels quite alien to us, and never really questions it, even as it demands the impossible of her. It’s hard to make a religious character sympathetic to modern readers, but Staveley manages it handily. Another is turning the trope of revolution on its head: most epic fantasies involve revolution that boils down to political conflict over magic (see Lightbringer series, Stormlight Archive, Wheel of Time, etc.). Skullsworn involves a revolution sparked by a character in a quest to find love, and one fueled at its base not by magic but religion. It’s a new take on an old trope, and works wonderfully. Finally, the side characters: there are no throw-away, average-Joe healer-monk warrior-dwarf kind of spear carriers here. Pyrre’s companions, her enemies, her would-be lover, even the marks she casually kills along the way, every one of them pops from the page, unique and memorable and crackling with the terse, witty dialogue Staveley is known for.
Normally around this time I mention the parts of the book I didn’t like, or that didn’t work well, or could have been better. Next paragraph.
This is the best of epic fantasy condensed into a single non-chihuahua-killing novel. It doesn’t require the buy-in of a longer series, but still delivers everything we epic lovers look for. So whether you’re a deep fan of the genre or are curious without wanting to commit, I recommend Skullsworn without reservation.
Gender Empowered, Powerless, and Powerful
What if women had power? Not political power, or cultural capital, but the real, raw physical power that arguably put men ahead in most societies at the dawn of civilization and has kept them there since? It would be a global revolution—an idea Naomi Alderman explores with grace, humor, and grit in The Power. Packed with lovable characters, surprising action, and an unnervingly believable depiction of how our social structures could fall apart with one simple change, this is one of the best books I’ve read in years.
Framed with letters written in a future where women have all the power (in an apologetic, self-debasing tone I found instantly familiar—and totally foreign coming from a man), and structured as a countdown year by year, The Power is told through four points of view (including one token male) at four centers of power: government, religion, underworld, and media. Alderman deftly imagines how women low in each system would rise as females worldwide found the ability to physically intimidate men, and does it so believably that horror and giddy revolutionary zeal took turns gripping me as I read. Its title is apt: the stories are entirely about struggles for power, about ego and traditional gender power structures clashing with the new reality of this physical power women develop.
One of the things I love about the book is that it is not an escapist take back the power! kind of story, but a nuanced look at how this new power could (and likely would) be abused, in what ways women could take over the oppressive roles men once filled (including some awful scenes of sexual violence), and ends up a sort of cautionary tale (to say the least—avoiding spoilers) for how power will corrupt anyone, pushing us to think deeper about how it should be distributed and used in our own society.
If the book has one fault, it’s that it meanders at times. Four points of view can be a lot to manage, plus secondary characters, and the frame of going year by year toward some unknown end (that we begin to dread well before it becomes clear what it is) lends itself to individual story lines that at times meander more than they should. The strength of Alderman’s characters more than carries us through this.
So an enthusiastic 9.5 rating for The Power. Normally at the end of reviews we qualify them by saying ‘if you’re looking for this’ or ‘if you’re interested in that,’ but no need with this book. If you live in a world were genders are unequal, you will find this interesting. Unless you are ideologically lodged in your current gender role and don’t want to question it--in which case you probably should read this book. The Power is thought-provoking entertainment at its finest.
Familiar Story in Android Skin
[Wait, something about androids and spaceships on a fantasy blog? Occasionally we need to nod to space opera—fantasy’s lovechild with scifi—and Defy the Stars is the YA version. Skip if you’re luddite-only.]
Claudia Gray’s Defy the Stars opens with a bang: Noemi Vidal, war orphan on a rebel planet, watches helpless as her half-sister and only friend dies in the middle of an epic battle. And just as she’s about to kill one of androids Earth used to do it, the thing mentions there might be a way to save her planet from ever fighting Earth again.
Cut to the android’s perspective: special project of the genius whose androids changed the worlds, he has been locked in a disabled spaceship for thirty years, and out of sheer loneliness (the first of many emotions he learns to feel) takes an enemy soldier to be his new master.
From there the two embark on a dangerous and fast-paced mission through all four of Earth’s colony worlds to try to collect the pieces needed for the android’s plan. Along the way, they learn a lot about themselves, and each other, and end up forging a relationship despite differences in politics and prejudice.
Sound familiar? It is--Defy the Stars is a great YA space-opera romantic thriller, hitting all the right notes at exactly the right time. The fact that those notes form a familiar melody can be something of a detriment (can you think of another YA about an oppressed girl fighting for the freedom of her people in a hierarchical society who gets caught between love and war?), but only if you’re going into it looking for novelty. If you’re looking for the next fix in your Hunger Games-Divergent-Red Queen reading list, this book will do nicely.
That’s not to say there’s nothing original about it: Noemi’s home world is religious, and Gray actually has her character take religion and matters of faith seriously. Their intersection with politics and prejudice around the humanity of androids makes an illuminating backdrop for the more interesting of the two character journeys, the android’s coming to realize he can experience emotions, disagree with his masters, and ultimately that he has as much right to be called human as anyone else. While Trekkies will decry ‘Data! Data!’ for the first half of the book (especially if you listen to the audio, in which the male narrator goes a little too hard on the robot accent), Gray’s android goes further than that, and while the eventual romantic tone feels familiar, there’s a reason we return to the same themes. Sometimes you just want a beloved story in new skin.
Defy the Stars isn’t a perfect rendition, though—the last third of the story starts to feel a little forced, with characters meeting a little too coincidentally, taking risks they don’t seem totally motivated to, on a quest that feels forced for the sake of the romantic subplot. If you’re a plausibility hound, or need your characters to always do the smartest thing, you might get annoyed a few times toward the end. And for epic fantasy lovers, the worldbuilding might feel a little shallow, but in a book this short, with this quick a pacing (YA, in other words), you can’t ask for much more.
And for all the rest of you, who might enjoy a familiar romantic and rebellious story dressed up in shiny android skin, Defy the Stars is well-worth a plane ride read.
A World of Severus Snapes
There is a line these days in fantasy, between unabashedly European settings (often with outdated racial and sexual politics) and those that try to get farther afield (for example, Django Wexler or Ken Liu). Ever since Robert Jordan codified the European setting Tolkien popularized, it’s been hard to write a Europeanesque setting without falling back on tired tropes—but Jeff Wheeler pulls it off in The Queen’s Poisoner. Historically based on the War of Roses (also Martin’s worldbuilding muse for Game of Thrones), the book boasts a deeper political history than you often see (especially with young protagonists), a unique (if nebulous) magic system, and a narrative focused enough on the internal life of the protagonist that the externally-familiar setting doesn’t steal too much from the story’s appeal.
So what's the story about, if not a gallant knight/farmboy/hobbit going to defeat a dragon/Forsaken/undead warlock? It’s about a rebel nobleman’s son getting sent as hostage to an upstart king, and learning to survive (and eventually, to vindicate his politically-imperiled family) in a hostile castle. The protagonist is young, and though he gets a lot of help from the book’s namesake poisoner, as well as a plucky female friend reminiscent of Scarlett from Steamboy, much of the delight in this story is his gradual coming to age and confidence in his difficult setting.
Wheeler has a delicate feel for character, and there are good-on-the-inside Snapes of various sizes in The Queen's Poisoner, from outwardly-evil to minorly-sinister to just-annoying, all of whom end up being trustworthy in one way or another. Of course, there are a couple actually-evil characters too—and the hero’s journey here is learning to decipher who is who, beneath the mask, an internal journey his friend the poisoner helps him with (and seems to be tied to his burgeoning magical skills). It’s a fairly unique character arc for a fantasy novel, and the drama that comes with him reacting to, then burrowing beneath, the skin of variously antagonistic characters to find their true colors makes for a fun read.
That said, TQP still falls flat in a few places. While Owen’s hijinks and coming of age around the castle is fun, the plot feels fairly episodic until the last quarter, which sort of forces a climax and resolution on an unwilling protagonist. That is the other weak link in the book—though young protagonists (see early Harry Potter) can’t be expected to get everything done under their own power, Owen spends the book quite withdrawn, shy, and reactive, relying almost entirely on friends to help him out of trouble, and to drive him to action. Coming-of-age stories often start this way, but to our tastes TQP stayed that way a little too long.
So, Queen’s Poisoner, worth a read? Yes—the pacing is quick, the characters fun, the worldbuilding deepish, and the story unusual among fantasy novels. Check it out especially if you are a fan of younger protagonists or coming of age stories; if heroic/active characters and tight plotting are more your wheelhouse, though, you might want to read the kindle sample first.
: Not to mention those that change the field so thoroughly it’s hard to place them as anywhere (see Brandon Sanderson or NK Jemisin)
: Or a fan of audiobooks--this one's 1.99!
Pleasant Spice to a Familiar Spirit
It’s been said that fantasy set in pseudo-European settings is dead, that George RR Martin killed what Tolkien spawned, and that to get a fresh take on fantasy (or more diverse voices represented) we need to get out of European-inspired settings, to places like the worlds of Ken Liu or N.K. Jemisin. I’m generally on board with this—which is why An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors was such a surprise.
Not the only reason, but I’ll get to that. First, see how debut author Curtis Craddock sets European influence aflight: by fast-forwarding from the iron age to a baroque period of elaborate costumes and blackpowder rifles. By making good use of existing languages for much-less-awkward-and-more-understandable in-world magical terms (see espejo instead of bloodmagic or some such). And most of all, for ripping European duchies off the face of the planet and sending them spinning high into the atmosphere, replete with airships to traverse them and a fully-imagined alternate science to explain them.
So his setting’s awesome. But what about the characters? The story? Yes and yes. Our main relationship here is not two lovers or brothers or even the father-son thing you often find in more staid fantasy, but instead a wandering musketeer who takes a protective air to a clever princess born without magic and therefore unwanted. Their relationship never strays to either familial or romantic, but keeps a sweet middle course between teacher and student, protector and protected, and best of friends. In the course of it, Craddock’s eye for human nature shines, both main characters acting out loveable quirks, areas of expertise and foolishness, and endearing moral dilemmas.
The story, too, is one more of politics and intrigue than violence and bloodshed, with a spot of religious destiny thrown in, distinguishing Alchemy from many of its fantastical contemporaries. While the twists and turns of secret identities and shifting political alliances at times require more concentration than the average reader might want to put forth, Craddock’s snappy dialogue and great cast of side characters keep the prose enjoyable.
The only thing we struggled with was pacing--Alchemy has long chapters, and the political twists and turns occasionally don’t feel worth the amount of space and dialogue they occupy. Still, these are more than made up for with the richness of Craddock’s world and characters—a whipping boy disguised as a prince, a religious necromancer in love with a dead goddess, ancient alchemical machineries, and a plucky girl with a wormfinger. If you every wondered what Captain Jack Sparrow would do with airships and a female consort he wasn’t wooing, and thought some clever magic would add a pleasant spice to that rum, An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors is for you.
Snapshot is everything we expect and love from Brandon Sanderson, just about 85% as good—and with a Hugo-award winning novella under his belt, we can’t blame this one on length.
Blame it instead on busyness? Sanderson’s last few novels (Calamity, Bands of Mourning) have felt rushed, perhaps because he’s fit them (and Snapshot) between working on the next volume of his opus The Stormlight Archive. For those of us deeply hooked on that one, it’s probably forgiveable. And regardless, Snapshot still hits all the high notes of Sanderson: unique setting, fun characters, and cool magic that leads to a twist-filled ending. It’s all here it’s just… sorta rushed.
The concept, at least, is awesome. A future police department, through unspecified means, is able to make an exact physical replica of a previous day, complete with autonomous people, deadly bullets, etc. Our main characters go into these Snapshots to gather evidence on crimes already committed, ‘before’ they’re committed, to convict criminals. So we spend the whole story inside a world that looks and feels—but isn’t—real, with the only two ‘real’ people in it shooting who they want, revealing the truth to others, and doing their best to track down criminals using real world clues. But in a world where most anything is possible, the duo’s darker past comes up, and ultimately comes between them as it only could inside a Snapshot…
So it’s a fun concept, and there are some twists, but it all feels unpolished. The characters are basically Wax and Wayne from the latest Mistborn series, a serious and talented lawman foiled by a goofy and carefree sidekick, only Snapshot’s lawman is haunted by a past failure. They uncover a hidden plot, and track down someone exploiting the system, but not in as quite a clever a way as we know Sanderson’s capable of—and the twist endings don’t feel quite as sudden-but-inevitable as they could, and as we know Sanderson’s capable from tighter murder-mystery plots like Shadows of Self.
So is it worth a read? Sure—it’s not expensive (especially given Sanderson’s stance on keeping his works DRM free), and it’s totally entertaining. Just not quite as entertaining as the author’s capable of, so it may not be the best work of his to read first (try The Emperor’s Soul), or the favorite of longtime fans (which, if you haven’t guessed by now, I am). But for everyone else, waiting impatiently for the next Stormlight book? This should tide you over—which, like Arcanum Unbounded, is likely why he put it out.
There’s a reason NK Jemisin won the 2016 Hugo for the first book in this series, The Fifth Season. A lot of reasons, actually. And they just get better in The Obelisk Gate.
Take the magic. A looked-down on (rather than the fantasy-trope of revered) class of gifted people can control the forces of the earth, drawing up heat and causing earthquakes in a setting already known for cataclysmic earthquakes every few thousand years. In The Obelisk Gate, Jemisin takes that magic deeper (boldly naming it ‘magic,’ a word fantasy authors have shied away from lately), and adds another layer onto it, building to some epic moments later in the book.
Take the characters. Jemisin’s background as a psychotherapist shines here. I don’t think I’ve read deeper, more complex, more real and loveable-while-hateable-or-vice-versa characters anywhere in fantasy. They are truly top-notch, and in The Obelisk Gate she pushes her characters deeper in quasi-redeeming the villains of the first book, while making her twin protagonists do some pretty terrible things in the name of what they believe in—and they are all written with such attention to the finer points of the human spirit that you walk away feeling more like you’ve read Dostoevsky than Heinlein.
Okay, not to sing only praises: this feels like a middle book. Which is to say, the plot is as much a recovery from book one and a build to book three as it is a story unto itself. Not to say it isn’t wonderful and engrossing, but it is those things kind of like The Two Towers is: wonderful and engrossing with a stress on middles rather than the tight beginning-middle-end we love from well-told tales.
People say N.K. Jemisin is on the literary end of speculative fiction, but despite unabashedly using second-person for much of the tale, it never comes off as experimentally opaque or different for the sake of being different. The story sucks you in, the plot moves, the magic’s cool—it really just feels like she added a literary depth of character and experimentation with prose to all the things we fantasy readers love about our genre. Not many authors can do that, but Jemisin nails it. At 120,000 words it’s a decent-length book, but I’m not sure it took me two nights to finish (though they were late nights).
Enough praises. This is well worth a read, for pretty much anyone except a Sad Puppy—and it would probably do them some good too. No wonder it’s nominated for a Nebula Award this year. I usually end with some kind of “for fans of this,” or “if you like that” kind of reading recommendation, but no need in this case. Read it.
Sudden or Inevitable, but not Both
There are some fantasy readers who just want swords and sorcery. And there are others who’ve read so much of that, and dwarves and elves and dragons and knights, that we appreciate attempts to do something new, to push the genre in different ways. Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities is good at this: deicide in an age of motorized vehicles, spies and military generals versus supernatural enemies, unmagical main characters, Kafka-esque bureaucracy and dry, modern humor all set his books apart from the run of the mill.
In City of Blades, the second of the series, he also tries to get us away from the hero’s journey trope we find so often in fantasy, telling what’s essential a political mystery story (think Hunt for Red October) in a fantasy setting—or post-fantasy, you might call this, as the gods are dead. Only they’re not, really, which would be a cool reveal—except we saw it in the last book, and the mystery in this book depends on kind of forgetting that.
Before we get into it, a few kudos: Bennett is a talented writer, and the prose and pacing draw you through the story regardless of whether the mystery really mystifies. He also has a knack for vibrant, unique characters, and for me they were the best part of the book.
They didn’t manage to overcome its main flaw, though, which is that the driving interest of the story is a whodunit (on a grand political and divine scale), but we’re fed too much information to ever be surprised by the revelations the characters make. Instead of Wash’s ‘sudden but inevitable betrayal,’ the reveals just feel inevitable, which doesn’t make for good mystery reading. Without the curiosity, the struggle to stay just one step ahead of the detective (in this case an unhappily-retired military general), the story loses its drive, and I ended up frustrated sometimes that the characters weren’t seeing what Bennett made so obvious.
On the other end of Wash’s spectrum, there are some sudden but far from inevitable moments that felt, well, deus ex machina—unexplained visions, gods rising from the seas, etc.—that could have been great with a little foreshadowing, but instead feel highly coincidental in terms of the main character gaining needed clues to solve the mystery.
All this to say City of Blades is not for everyone. For long-time fantasy readers looking to break out of the tropes, or lovers of City of Stairs wanting to return to the world with not that many changes, the book will work well. It’s also some great prose—but if you’re looking to be pulled into a surprising plot, an intriguing mystery, or an action-packed page turner, you may want to stick to your guns—er, swords.
I’m just going to say it: Anthony Ryan has upped Brandon Sanderson at his own game. Which is a lot to say, for a sworn Sanderson fan and avid follower of his books, podcasts, and lectures. But consider: in Sanderson’s latest (and of course wildly-good-selling) Mistborn series he takes on an 18th-century sort of steamship (not to say punk) era of technology, with burgeoning corporations and wild outlands and all that. Plus, the patented clever and surprise-laden Sandersonian magic system.
The Waking Fire does all these things better. Set in a similar time period, Ryan deepens the economic ties between rival corporations and slow-crumbling empires, ties the magic more believably to the economy, and creates a more interesting outland populated with subhumans and failed expeditions and magic-blooded drakes that justify the danger of going out there (rather than proving oneself or anathema for civilization, which are Sanderson’s outlanders).
Of course we cannot compare others to Sanderson without comparing magic systems, and Ryan’s is devilishly clever. A select few of the world can digest the drake’s blood that is corrosive to regular people, and depending on the color of dragon, use it to do different things. The blood is rare, the drakes dangerous, and their value in the global economy as the power for steamships, fuel for intercontinental communication, and sundry other things (let’s not forget spying, assassination, and war!) makes it an integral part of the world—rather than just a cool one. And though Sanderson may still go deeper into the inner workings of his magic, Ryan does hint in this first of a duology that there are types and uses of drake’s blood yet to be seen.
Both authors are top-notch at writing page-turners. The Waking Fire drew me in from page one with clever action scenes, intrigue that actually feels tense, and the kind of snappy dialogue only a Brit could write. Where Ryan suffers a little, and Sanderson too, is the way the characters end up secondary to plot—of Ryan’s three main characters, only one has any real awakening or change of heart, and this comes early in the book. The other two are fun and driven but don’t end up offering us any deeper perspectives on human life—a thing Sanderson often struggles to do (or does in heavy-handed God Is Talking fashion). Maybe that’s a sacrifice you make for fast-paced engaging action, but there those (see Pierce Brown) who pull off both.
All this to say The Waking Fire is a gem, worth all the attention fantasy’s best-selling books get, though it has yet to join that list. The time period is unique and well-imagined, the stories fun and twisting, the action intense and the magic system clever. Though the action can get heavy-handed for those who skim fight scenes, Ryan’s quest for the White Drake is a literary nod to Moby Dick, and the setting in a fantastical Australia is something we don’t see often (not since Sean McMullen). Anthony Ryan is one to watch, and The Waking Fire comes highly recommended—if you can bear waiting for the sequel.
A fantasy lover since Tolkien in third grade, Levi has been published in several magazines, including Lakeside Circus, Perihelion SF, and Spark: A Creative Anthology. He is currently at work on a novel--fantasy, of course.
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