A Flame Forged Lukewarm
This feels like a writing experiment gone wrong. The beginning scene, the opening concept of the novella (because at 100 pages this is not nearly a novel!) is compelling: a warrior woman appears, summoned by need, with no idea of who she is or what she is to do. But from there… she doesn’t go on to learn much about herself, or change in interesting ways, or get embroiled in an exciting plot, unravel a mystery, or even wander a fantasy world so unique and richly imagined we don’t really mind there’s not much story or character. Instead, the world remains sketchy, the character remains too indistinct to have much at stake, the plot feels unplanned and episodic, and rather than build to a big reveal or twist, the climax comes without much preparation or emotional punch, like a birthday cake delivered a week too soon.
It’s the first of a series, so perhaps the setting and plot will deepen, the character will flesh out, and the depth that feels lacking here will turn out to be necessary for what comes next. But we can’t help think of other stories with similar premises—Mary Robinette Kowal’s “The Bound Man” starts off with another woman summoned from need and not knowing herself well, and Neal Gaiman’s “Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains…” features characters on a strange quest to a stranger island and a cave there. Both of these accomplish more in less words, tying up tight tales with lots of depth to setting and character. So while the series may pan out better, and there’s no doubt Brennan has a devoted following for her full-length novels, it’s hard to recommend Cold-Forged Flame when there are so many other great stories to read.
Haunted Without Haunting
If you’re looking for a book with great ideas, lots of dramatic tension, and believable magic set in rich historical context, Ghost Talkers is your book. Though honestly, any of Mary Robinette Kowal’s novels fit that description—she is the queen of historical fantasy. But does the Hugo-Award winner deliver in her new standalone? Yes and no—let’s start with the yeses.
Yes on concept. As always, Kowal’s basic idea for the book is brilliant: spirit mediums are real, working on the front lines of the Allied army in World War One to gather intelligence from newly departed soldiers. It’s haunting work, but young American volunteer medium Ginger Stuyvesant is dedicated to giving the Allies an edge—plus staying close to her British fiancée. But when he shows up at work, a murdered spirit… then the drama begins. Unable to leave because of the danger Ginger is in (he’s murdered as part of a larger plot to discover the spirit mediums’s location) and his need to find a killer, Ginger must work with him to unravel the plot and find the killer—even as they deal with the impossibility of their relationship, and fiancée Ben’s spirit gradually loses coherence. Needless to say, that emotional backdrop plus the rich (and unfamiliar, and well-researched) setting of WWI France supporting a thriller-paced murder mystery with feminist underpinnings—it makes for a great read. Yes on drama, and yes on the fun/educational/surprise-factor only historical fiction can deliver.
And yes on magic! Based again on research into the time, MRK’s spirit mediumship fits the story and the historical context like a glove: reading auras, explaining death and dying, gaining her character insight into another world of emotional auras and wandering ghosts and a dear unraveling fiancée—it’s great.
So what didn’t work as well? Of course this is just one reader reaction, but the story itself felt mechanical. Once the dead body is in place, it becomes a pretty standard mystery, and though the emotion remains high with Ginger’s disintegrating lover, the piecing together of clues and revelation of the murderer lack much punch. Following the theory of the Writing Excuses podcast Kowal creates, it’s hard to say whether this is mainly a relationship or mystery story—both seem to take backstage for the other, and the middle half of the book isn’t as gripping as it might be if one or the other took center stage.
Still, it’s a great read, and the cleverness of the basic concept carried us through the stiffer parts of the plot. In interests of full disclosure, MRK’s very popular Glamourist History series didn't grip us as well as it did others, so it may just be reader preference. All the elements are there, but instead of being haunting, Ghost Talkers is just a pleasant read.
Fingers on Your Triggers
I have a confession to make: I am not a die-hard Gaiman fan. Though I read speculative fiction, though I love a well-turned phrase and a well-cast story as much as the next critic, my experience of Gaiman before reading Trigger Warning (consisting of his novel Anansi Boys and a lot of raving friends) hadn’t pushed me into the sort of adulation that leads Mary Robinette Kowal to call him ‘The Neil Gaiman.’
This book might have.
Equal parts poetic, horrific, and fantastic, Gaiman’s latest collection of speculative short stories is a knockout. Though there are soft moments (for me, the poetry, though the author warns in the introduction they are ‘free,’ only for those who appreciate such things), and some stories too imaginative (see most months in A Calendar of Tales) to count as stories, exactly, for the most part these tales nail that enchanting blend of horror, mystery, and mundane postmodernity that I suspect has earned Gaiman his notoriety.
That, and the man can turn a phrase. No words wasted, none unconsidered, he has the knack of writing beautifully without detracting from the story (even with such experimental forms as “Orange,” told as a series of answers to an unseen questionnaire), and somehow casting a spell of Tale and Atmosphere that sets his writing apart. Apologies to all other writers rated here to date—Gaiman takes the cake for wordsmithery.
He also makes a good grab at best storyteller—though it’s hard to compare these (mainly) brief tales to the longer and deeper novels I generally review, his stories draw you naturally on, surprise you with in-hindsight-inevitable twists, and reveal character in a delightfully tight way. Sometimes, there are even conclusions to be drawn, though usually we are left more with a taste of human nature, refined and distilled by Gaiman’s remarkable gray matter.
If there is a bone to be picked with Trigger Warning, it’s that some stories are too experimental to have much impact, or make much sense, or even really adhere to the beginning-middle-endness that usually marks a story. The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury is among these, like Ulysses for someone with early-onset Alzheimers; and An Invocation of Incuriosity, or A Calendar of Tales, contain beautiful images and haunting snatches of story, but don’t quite add up to a tale told or an emotion evoked.
Thus, perhaps, the title—the snippets and snatches mixed in with the beefier tales are more like stabs at our triggers—pokes at a keyboard of Big Red Buttons that may, occasionally, connect to our tender, darker places. Perhaps we should count ourselves lucky when they fail—but rest (un)assured that the longer tales have enough loveable character, mundane evil, and dark twists to pull the big triggers every time. Best among these are “A Case of Death and Honey,” mixing Sherlock Holmes with Chinese apiculture; “Nothing O’Clock,” a quirky tale from the Dr. Who universe, and (especially) “Black Dog,” original to the collection, starring Shadow from Gaiman’s American Gods and previously seen in another novella, “The Monarch of the Glen.”
So let me revise my earlier statement: I was not a die-hard Gaiman fan before reading this book. But now… something may have been triggered.
An Epic of Vignettes
When I heard Ken Liu was finally doing a novel, and epic fantasy no less, I could hardly contain myself. Imaginative as he is, and with his feet in two cultures and narrative voices, there was no doubt the celebrated short story writer would find a fresh take on the genre.
And he does—and not just in plot or setting. For better or worse, The Grace of Kings upends epic fantasy expectations with pacing and tone too—the book reads more like a collection of fables, or a (recorded) oral history, than a typical novel. Light-hearted, spanning many years, featuring characters a little too extreme to be believed, one almost feels the tale comes with the mythological veneer of a second-or third-hand telling, something passed down rather than spun fresh from the author’s brain.
The pacing and scope stand out most in this book. Where we usually expect just one beginning, middle and end, and the deep insight into character that only fiction offers, Liu gives us many characters in light detail, and a story that spans many years and climaxes of action. Economy of words shouldn’t be surprising from an author of so many (wonderful) short stories—it’s second nature to such authors (see Mary Robinette Kowal). But Liu declines the opportunity of a longer word count to get deeper into his character’s heads, opting instead for a sort of saga of sketches, an epic of vignettes that together form a broader tale than we expect from a single novel (really, the characters and plots would be fodder for a trilogy from most authors).
That’s not to say Liu’s debut novel is without depth. Though the characters are sketched rather than illustrated in great detail, still we care for them and are curious for their fates. The book also explores issues of ethics, politics and violence, but with its decades-long scope I began to feel that the same points were being made again and again, a pattern that made the ending unsurprising (if still satisfying). Less satisfying were the moments of pathos—with Liu’s lighthearted tone and the sketchy quality of his characters, it was hard to get very emotionally invested in what would happen.
Much of Liu’s originality is a success—the unique technology*, the poetic imagery, the interesting backstories and clever ways his main characters solve their problems all feel unique and enjoyable. The philosophy and values of his people also feel fresh: where many fantasy authors, despite writing pre-industrial cultures, have their character’s basic values be capitalist, the people in Grace of Kings worry primarily about their reputation and legacy, ringing true to a medieval timocratic society in a way few authors match**.
Best of all, nestled inside much innovation is a familiar heart of Tolkienesque themes: the intoxicating quality of power, the surprising Frodo character able to resist its power, and humility as the saving grace of the world.
In all, Grace of Kings is a fun read and something different for those of us still in love with epic fantasy even as we dread its tropes. While Liu may not touch the deepest realms of the human heart, still he gives them a good tickle, and like a good fable leaves us feeling better for the process.
*Yes, this SPOILER is another pre-steampunk fantasy featuring airships—but Liu has perhaps the most plausible explanation for how his float (or tied with Megan O’Keefe’s Steal the Sky).
**Dedicated readers will know I’m a sucker for economic accuracy. See also The Traitor Baru Cormorant
Shadows of Shadows of Self
There’s a reason Brandon Sanderson is one of the biggest names in fantasy (epic and otherwise): clever magic, fast-paced action, startling reveals, and loveable (if sometimes exaggerated) characters. Bands of Mourning boasts all of these, and is a solid sequel in the ongoing series (book seven, now) that got his career off the ground. For all that, it doesn’t quite carry the impact its predecessor did.
This could be second-novel blues. Lacking the surprise of a first novel’s new setting and character, carrying on rather than beginning or ending the main character’s arcs, and trying to have a big finish while still setting things up for the bigger finale to come, second books often lack some oomph (see The Two Towers, or Sanderson’s own Well of Ascension, second in the original Mistborn trilogy).
Perhaps least oomphy are the characters here. While the relationship between hero Wax and his marriage-of-convenience partner Steris develops in interesting ways, for the most part the other characters stay fairly static (or their arc feels tacked on, as with sidekick Wayne’s chapter four). Wax’s troubled relationship to his god, so richly explored in the previous book, lacks the same depth here, despite a big chance to make it otherwise.
Neither are the settings, often what we love in fantasy, as rich or interesting as previous installments. Unlike books set in just one area, Bands of Mourning bounds from one place to the next, and one can’t help feeling an Indiana Jones-like quality to the booby-trapped mountain temple where the final action goes down.
Bands of Mourning does better with the other part of a fantasy’s setting, the magical element. For those of us who swore the three related magic systems of the Mistborn world couldn’t hold any more surprises, we are once again proven wrong, and Sanderson makes a bold (not to give spoilers) move in the book that hints of much more to come (see below and here).
If a criticism can be levelled at Sanderson, it’s that his books occasionally read like video (or D+D) games, with heroes and battles and settings on the border of being too exaggerated even within the genre’s wide bounds. The action sequences in Bands of Mourning can feel more like a (magical) action movie, with well-placed one-liners, and occasionally seem more than the plot calls for.
More surprising are occasional rough spots in Sanderson’s prose (especially the prologue). From a Hugo award-winning novelist whose self-described workmanly prose usually comes with a fair amount of polish, repeated words and clunky constructions, along with an almost mechanical scene-sequel plotting, give the book a rushed feel.
All this not to say the book is bad. It’s good—it’s just not Sanderson’s best, and its predecessor Shadows of Self set the bar quite high. It is still a must-read for Mistborn fans, and a fun read for those not as dedicated to Sanderson’s larger cosmere-ology. But start with the first one.
SPOILERIFIC SIDE NOTE—with Bands of Mourning we can pick out a trend in fantasy, born out in Butcher’s Aeronaut’s Windlass and Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings: the appearance of airships in settings that are more magical than steampunk. While Butcher’s new world does have some engines, and Sanderson creates a magical sort of engine for his (with the arguably deus ex machina addition of a new metal), still the ships seems to have drifted from the mechanical settings that gave them birth into decidedly more magical realms…
Nineteen Jabs to the Gut
It’s hard to give Mary Robinette Kowal’s Word Puppets just one extra star. Every story in the book sparkles, but none in the same way—plot, character, concept, pathos, she’s got it all. Plus, some (for lack of a better term) raw weirdness that deserves its own (weird) star. Short story collections often lack the wallop of a good novel, but the best of them (and Word Puppets is) hit you enough times in rapid succession to still leave a good bruise.
Setting. MRK is great at writing good stories into cool contexts—like the saga-era Iceland of “The Bound Man,” weather-controlled Indian wine country in “Waiting for Rain,” or the sodium-starved colony planet of “Salt of the Earth.” Her settings go deeper than just place or concept—in each she sketches a people and culture well-researched and well-imagined for the concept, adding power to already-punchy stories.
The stories themselves. You are never bored by this book. No tale is any longer than it needs to be (we often feel the opposite), and they either take unexpected twists or slam you straight into emotional walls you dread from the start. She knows how to put her characters thru the wringer, and we love coming along for the ride.
Best of all are the stories that explore the human side of emerging technologies. Though not fantasy (forgive us, dear reader, though there are enough fantasy stories in the book to qualify), the nuanced look stories like “For Solo Cello, op. 12,” “For Want of a Nail,” and “The Consciousness Problem” give to the ethics of biotechnology, and the pathos of those most affected, are both moving and thought-provoking. What happens when your husband’s clone loves you too? When you’re a physically handicapped artificial intelligence? When a new arm means giving up the blastocyst that would be your child? It’s hard, in a short story, to bring us up to speed with speculative aspects, tell an interesting story, and get us to care about characters we’ve just met, but MRK does it, jab after cathartic jab.
Well, a few of the punches are off. Though “We Interrupt This Broadcast” does a great job of nailing a big (global) scope onto a simple two-character interaction, “American Changeling” feels too big and fast (queens and faeries and centuries-old spells!) for its length. “Salt of the Earth,” though a sweet setting, doesn’t convince us the villain is evil enough to do what the main character suspects, and the revenge falls a little flat..
And then there are the weird stories. Chief among these is “The White Pheonix Feather: A Tale of Cuisine and Ninjas.” We shall say no more, but some feel as though they were written on a dare (or a joke: read “Chrysalis” thinking about social butterflies). “Evil Robot Monkey” should be one of these, and it was written on a dare, but instead it packs a big punch into a 900 word story about an uplifted primate.
Word Puppets throws a lot of punches, and if some of them are off, you still get a good bruising. Underneath the fun and the gee-whiz and the weird, that’s what the book does best: gives us the cathartic beating we look for in good fiction.
Kung Fu Chinatown Ghost Busters
Zombies. Chinatown. Kung Fu. Talking Eyeballs. Rope-darts. Black magic. Three-eyed gulls. Ever wished you could have all these things in one book? No? The Girl with Ghost Eyes will make you had.
Set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, 1898, the book is a delightful blend of fantasy, horror, mystery and suspense, with a heavy dose of Chinese mythology and a touch of Bruce Lee. We follow Li Lin, earnest and dutiful if impetuous daughter/acolyte of Chinatown’s best exorcist, as she runs up against problems and plots too big to handle and somehow fails her way through them, with a little help from magical creatures. She is a delight to follow, and the mythico-historical 1890s Chinatown adds some welcome punch to otherwise well-worn tropes the book calls on.
Perhaps the most fun thing about the book is the amount of Chinese mythology in it—from strange ghosts and complex incantations to arranged marriages for dead people and evil spirit dogs, it is hard to escape the suspicion Boroson is a wildly imaginative author, though in an afterward he claims the details are drawn from actual Chinese lore. But like Chinatown, The Girl with Ghost Eyes has enough concessions to American sensibilities—kung fu fights and gang rivalries and displaced people learning to adjust—that it never feels alienating. More like ordering takeout on Christmas Eve, or keeping that fortune cookie slip even if you don’t quite believe in it.
Alongside bloody exorcisms and kung fu battles, the book has a gentler side—a protagonist struggling to recognize a father’s love, a quirky cast of ghostly sidekicks, and a message about acceptance despite fear or cultural bias. One of the strengths of the book is its moral spectrum—from a villain bullied as a child and a gangster with good intentions going wrong, to killer tigers become Buddhist monks and insane mobsters with hearts of gold, Boroson leaves no character unsympathetic, and in a brief book still sketches his side characters with admirable detail.
That’s not to say it’s perfect. Like a 1980s Godzilla costume or hastily-erected Jackie Chan set, there are some loveable imperfections here. The larger plot is a fairly predicatable villainous scheme, and the protagonist’s motivations sometimes seem grafted on to it, as though in each chapter we need to be reminded why she still cares and is still fighting for this particular cause. Because of this the book can have an episodic feel, especially in the first half, easy to put down until the larger plot surfaces.
Still, it’s a quick read, and a real palate-cleanser if you’ve grown used to medieval fantasy and Christian-based horror and unspeculative historical fiction. Boroson spins a believable web of Chinese mythology around a fun setting and a quirky characters, and if the story lacks grace here and there, like its characters we are fooled into loving its imperfections.
An Epic Line in the Sand
Not all epic fantasies deserve the title: limited in character, shallowly worldbuilt, some so-called epics read more like a thriller or an action move than a saga. Kate Elliott’s Black Wolves is not one of these. Epic in length, epic in scope, epic in its cast of characters and threads of storyline, the book is, well, epic.
Better yet, it’s an epic saga—starting with one cast of characters, after 100 pages (of 800, note) Elliott boldly skips us forward two generations, killing some of the characters we were following and severely aging the rest. Royal (and bastard) bloodlines are central to the story, and in a world where there are eight types of sentient species, crossed blood takes on a whole new significance.
The book is epic in scope: set in “the hundred,” a vast land with well-written cultures, climates and economies, we soon learn it has enemies, ancestors and trading partners to all sides, not to mention an Empire that dwarfs it. Black Wolves is mysteriously (and frustratingly) without an opening map, as though to say the world wouldn’t fit, so why try?
The book is epic in character. They are old and young, male and female, from every culture and species important to the plotline. Elliot has a touch for creating loveable, unique characters, whether major or minor, and they a big part of the reason this 800-page book never feels long.
Okay, it’s epic. But is it worth a read? That depends on what you’re ready for. Though it never gets ponderous, the many plotlines don’t come together in an (ahem) epic finale so much as sort of crisscross as the plot thickens. Something like the end of Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, or some of the middle Wheel of Time novels, the ending lacks a big climax—it feels more like middle action for a climax that’s so epic we need another 800 page book to get there. So here’s where the line gets drawn in the fantasy sand: an epic reader will be okay with this. Many others, after 800 pages of reading, will not.
And some of us will have a foot in both camps. I’m a lover (and writer) of epic fantasy—but also a lover of solid beginnings middles and ends—which Elliott doesn’t really give us. A few well-timed surprises or plot twists might ameliorate this somewhat, but most of the twists and reveals that come are foreshadowed enough to carry little surprise when they hit.
This can be a strength, if you’re invested for the long haul. At book’s end we feel we’re just scratching the surface of the magic and plots afoot, and the cultures and people that inhabit Elliott’s world. That’s impressive for an 800-page book that never gets dull, but may be a stretch for those of us without Dostoyevskian amounts of time to sit and read by firelight.
There’s no doubt which side of the epic line Elliott’s new novel falls on. And if you’re not sure where you do, Black Wolves will sort you out.
Tales Spun Around a Hedge Knight’s Fire
There are two ways to go with this book. One is to take it on its own merits: three well-crafted novellas with memorable characters getting into memorable messes in a well-loved setting. The other is to take it in socioeconomic context: three previously-published stories rereleased with illustrations, either as a fix for starving fans, a reminder that a new book may eventually come, or a money grab at the new and less-zealous among Martin’s readership.
If you’re among the newer fans, the book is undoubtedly worth a read. Everything we love about Martin is here: the deep and credible worldbuilding, the unexpected (and oft fatal) plot twists, the crooked but loveable characters and, of course, Martin’s top notch prose. Set 100 years before the beginning of A Song of Ice and Fire, these novellas follow lumbering hedge knight Dunk (“Dunk the Lunk”) and his unusual squire Egg (secretly young Aegon of the still-in-power House Targaryen) through a series of tourneys and low-level political conflicts, with Egg’s secret identity and Dunk’s lumbering stature pulling them out of many a sticky situation. The stories are by turns dramatic, lackadaisical, humorous and insightful, spun in masterful prose.
Despite its similarities to A Song of Ice and Fire, there are a few big differences here. One is the pacing: for short stories where not a lot goes on, they take their time doing it. Unlike many of today’s break-neck shorts, these tales meander through the Westeros of old, an enjoyable way to fill an afternoon but perhaps not appropriate if you’ve only got fifteen minutes at lunch. There’s also little of the continuing drama of character we love in Martin, the rise or disastrous fall of personality that makes the series shine. In fact, despite Dunk and Egg being a likeable and well-matched pair, they don’t learn much in the course of the stories, nor do the tales have real bearing on the main series. They are more like tales told around a hedge knight’s humble fire, spun (and perhaps embellished) more to pass a long evening than to recount anything of true note.
That is one way to view the book. The other would be for those of us who read the Dunk and Egg stories years ago, already hungry (and now starving) for any new Song of Ice and Fire material. For us, all this book adds are some pleasant but superfluous illustrations, and the convenience of one volume should we choose to read them again (which I did, rather than outright die of malnourishment). For those few of us also trying to make a living as a writer (ahem, me), the fact that these “never-before-collected” (i.e. previously published) stories debuted at numbers two and three on the US and British bestseller lists can rub the wrong way. Sort of the like the valedictorian who applied for all the scholarships though she knew she was going to Harvard, just to take them from her peers, the move can appear more about money or ego than good fiction. Beware, dear readers, lest my cynicism corrupt your ample good nature.
What to make of A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms then? These are worthy tales, no doubt. If it is your first time around the hedge knight’s fire, they’ll serve well to pass a dull evening. Those of us who’ve sat here before, however, may wonder if the teller doesn’t recount them here (never-before-collected—with illustrations!) more for coin or attention than the true love of the tale.
Character Escapism: Sure, but How?
No matter the genre, people want to read about people. Get me caring about characters and I will buy anything, from Stephen King to Cormack McCarthy to Futurama. There is a line in the sand however—consider James Bond. In 26 films he has never died, never not saved the day, rarely legitimately cared or changed much as a person. We don’t watch these films for human interest so much as technical curiosity: yes, he’s going to get out of each increasingly sticky situation, but how?
Larry Correia’s Son of the Black Sword falls solidly into this category. It is action-packed, with the odds stacked against the hero despite his (partially-earned, partially-magic) exceptional fighting ability and commitment to justice. Though he realizes something radical about his past, it changes the hero little, and he reads basically as an automaton for duty/justice (there is even a magical reason for this). In his journey from champion to outlaw and back his internal state changes little, and he is too powerful for us to really believe he’ll ever lose a battle—it is again only a question of how. Two demons at once? A roomful of enemies? A team of sorcerors? A whole army? Sure—but how?
Dear Readers, this is not my kind of fantasy, though in my youth I enjoyed my share of Conan comics. This is escapism more radical than fantasy’s usual alternate time and place. It’s escapism of character—Correia’s hero is the impossible person many people (not to say teenage males) wish they could be: strong, exceptional, undefeatable, always doing what’s right even when it’s wrong. You don’t read them to learn about human nature so much as for a good yarn/stress relief.
That’s not to say stories like this can’t have something for everyone--Shadows of Self features a hero we rarely believe will fail (though he does experience real emotions), but his world is interesting enough, his supporting characters human enough, and his plot surprising enough that even those readers who aren’t looking for ego escapism get drawn in. Not so with Son of the Black Sword—while a few of Correia’s side characters go through profound changes, we don’t stay with them long enough to care much about it. His plot has a few twists built in, but they’re undeveloped, and without investing in the characters, they lack impact. The world is not particularly unique (aside from demons imprisoned in the sea)—the political/economic setup is familiar, the magic not well explained, and the cultural differences between peoples slight. The hero’s magic black sword is cool, but sounds a lot like Brandon Sanderson’s Nightblood (intelligent weapon the hero talks to, that kills all but the noblest who touch it).
In short, this is neither my kind of fantasy, nor does it have the bells and whistles that might give it broader appeal. If you, however, are into a little character escapism, or a male-centered story of blood and battle, you might just enjoy Son of the Black Sword.