Pirates! Airships! Talking Cats!
When I pitched this (audio)book to my brother as a way to ease our 31 hour road trip, his reply was “Airship piracy? Yes please.” Though we both felt the book could use a few more airships and pirates, the addition of fun characters, snappy dialogue, and sentient cats made the miles fly by.
The book starts with a gripping airship battle, setting an appropriate tone for the book: fast-paced, funny, memorable characters and just the right blend of fantasy and steampunk awesome to pull you through the few moments that aren’t top-notch. Chief among these are some frustratingly air-headed magicians and a plodding plot—but before we complain! Let us sing Butcher’s praises like his airships sing, diving into battle.
The Cinder Spires world (this book is the first of the series) is awesome—humanity living in ten-mile high towers, believable (for once) reasons why airships work, inter-tower warfare and a nuanced environment make wandering the world and discovering its secrets a constant pleasure. Almost all Butcher’s characters are fun and likeable—from the laconic-humored Captain Grimm to the always-does-what-she-shouldn’t young Gwendolyn and the colorful cast of the airship crew, big personalities drive his story and punctuate the action with clever humor. Butcher has a talent for snappy dialogue, and it’s part of what pulls us through what may be one-too-many fight scenes and coincidental encounters between main characters.
But enough of that—the book has talking cats. Raul, sidekick (or, in his eyes, casual overseer) to main point-of-view character Bridget, is everything cat lovers (and haters) know cats to be: lazy, violent, arrogant, disdainful, food-obsessed—and explains it all in believable (if humorous) cat terms. Raul’s chapters are the highlight of the book, and the extra awesome that pushes The Aeronaut’s Windlass from a good to a great read.
Not all of his characters are ringers, though: the magician’s apprentice in particular, central to the story and infecting most of it, can talk only in third person, and both she and her master (though suitably excused for it bc of the toll their magic takes on them) are frustratingly eccentric and air-headed. For all Butcher’s sense of humor and character, their chapters (and even their appearances in other chapters) fell flat for both my brother and I. The story itself meanders some too: from an epic duel that never happen to fights that feel like filler and one too many just-barely-in-time moments, the plot isn’t always surprising or satisfying. Worldwise, the magic feels kind of slapdash, and the two religions, The Way and that of God In Heaven, feel shallow and inserted basically because people need religion. Perhaps Butcher is just leaving room for development in sequels.
Quibbles aside, The Aeronaut’s Windlass has enough gripping action, memorable characters, and laconic humor to make it well worth your time. If the characters don’t change much, nor many deep human truths come to light (well, there might be one or two), it’s still better than 90% of the fantasy out there. If you like pirates, adventure, high magic, steampunk and the lighter side of fantasy (did I mention talking cats?), this book is your next read.
Many of us know too well that a well-known publisher and well-marketed book do not guarantee a well-written or worthwhile read (thus, in part, the reason for this blog!). Neither does self-publishing always deserve its reputation for sloppy, unpolished and amateurish writing. Unfortunately, there is often a kernel of truth inside stereotypes, and that kernel sprouts in (best-selling self-published fantasy author) David Dalglish’s Night of the Wolves.
In brief, it’s a tale of two paladins of different faith (and magicks) battling to save a forgotten town from the unexpected invasion of wolf-men, hungry for revenge and better hunting. The plot offers few surprises: after an initial attack, and a raid in response, there’s a build-up of forces on both sides, then a final and protracted battle with odds desperately against the humans.
Nor are there many twists in the expected stereotypes of the fantasy roles: the good paladin is noble and fights with shining white shield, the dark paladin with a black burning sword; the wolf-men (and bird-men and orcs) are just as you might think, intelligent but feral and out for blood; the townspeople are impotent and needing saving; and the world is divided into the Wedge for magical creatures and the good lands for humans. Dalglish’s idea of the magical religious paladins is fun, and his series of neglected fortresses protecting humanity against the onslaught of evil promising (though see the Wall in Game of Thrones, et cetera)… but for the most part we’re left untickled by upturned expectations or clever reworkings of expected tropes.
Night of the Wolves is not all bad: the dark paladin does struggle between his faith and his conscience, and the fight scenes are occasionally rousing. In fact, there is plenty of fighting and gore, and for those interested in a battle-packed story, Night of the Wolves is not such a bad option. My lukewarm reaction may be in part to a confusion of genre: though this has a lot of elements of fantasy (middle age technology, knights, magic), the wolf-men have a touches of the horror genre to them, and the amount of battle scenes recall a kung-fu movie more than the plot- or character-driven stories that (IMHO) often make the best fantasy reads.
It should also be noted this is a re-release of an earlier Dalglish work, and his works may have gotten better over time (see authors like Stephen Erikson). He is a wildly prolific author (google his upcoming releases!), and his great sales may be from sheer volume of works available. Either way, the staid plot, unsurprising worldbuilding, and shallow human element of Night of the Wolves mean we can’t give it much of a recommendation, but if you’re looking for a quick and battle-packed (and cheap!) read, you could do worse.
Have Our Cake But Not Sure We Want To Eat It Too
The story of an evil Empire is not particularly new—nor is the plot to overthrow it, spearheaded by an unlikely young heroine from a native village. But a heroine whose powers are economic? That’s new.
There are plenty of strong points to The Traitor Baru Cormorant—Seth Dickinson’s polished and imaginative prose, a richly-detailed historical and philosophical setting, a number of surprising plot twists (maybe one too many), and highlighting sexual equality in a fantasy setting. But what really shines are the economics: the evil Empire conquers with paper money and superior trade practices, the heroine puts down and starts rebellions through the power of coin, and even the characters caught in feudal ways of thinking are forced to bow to the believeable dynamics of wealth Dickinson works into his book.
Economics, arguably what drives most wars and cultural shifts, is often the weakest link in fantasy: impossibly rich castles are built on the backs of bronze-age serfs, gold is minted from hills without thought to how that would deflate prices, and we typically get a frustrated meeting or two between the King and his Treasurer to add a little secondary tension to the main plot. Not so in The Traitor Baru Cormorant: economics take front seat, making and breaking Empires, and it’s awesome. Would that as many authors had a better sense for this in their work.
Unfortunately, the rest of Dickinson’s worldbuilding and character development doesn’t live up to his financial nuance. For most of the book we are in a familiar landscape of feudal-Europelike duchies, and the egos and goals of his characters offer few surprises, nor do they change much in the course of the book, beyond perhaps shifting loyalties. The book’s namesake main Baru Cormorant starts off quite likeable, a conquered young girl with a secret (desire for woman in an Empire where it’s seen as deviant) or two (a hidden agenda to destroy the Empire from the inside). She doesn’t change in the course of the book so much as is forced to give up more and more in her quest for political revenge—and (not to reveal too much) ends up giving up so much it gets hard to identify with her and her goals. A quote on the jacket describes the book as harrowing, and it is that—but harrowing is not always fulfilling: we end not with a transformed character so much as a broken (and thoroughly traitorous) one. Maybe I’m just a sucker for a happy ending, but Baru’s final moves destroy most of what I liked about her, and come with a plot twist that is hard to buy (a feint within a feint within a feint).
This is the problem with fantasy: many of us read it because we love the tropes, while at the same time wanting something new. Dickinson delivers on new twists—maybe one too many, in terms of plot and character. Rather than having our cake and eating it too, we end up full of something we aren’t sure, in the last bites, we wanted so much of. If harrowing is your kind of cake, though, or you’re a fan of richly metaphorical writing, or just want to see economics done right, you could do much worse than picking up The Traitor Baru Cormorant
Lots of stories start with a corpse--Shadows of Self starts with a room full. Readers familiar with Brandon Sanderson’s colorful magic, fun characters, and exciting action won’t be let down by the latest in his Mistborn world—it is all that and more. Though his characters read a touch flat, and the society he creates is not as nuanced as real life, the book has some top-notch plot twists, and a little more philosophical meat than your average fantasy tale.
Shadows of Self is essentially CSI with magic—the hunt for a mad(wo)man intent on destroying the city through a series of calculated murders, dividing the city apart along old lines of class, religion and nobility. The tension ratchets up when clues left by the murderer (a shapeshifter) reveal intimate knowledge of double-magicked vigilante main Waxillium, pushing him to question his convictions even as those convictions pull him farther into revelation and danger. Readable alone, the book has fun nods to its four predecessors and introduces important new twists to the world.
The best part of Shadows of Self is the final revelation sequence—totally unexpected, answering long-nagging questions and raising more, there are moments on a level with Fight Club, changing your understanding of everything that's happened. It’s also emotionally punchy—in a book where I can’t quite take any of the characters seriously, it still hit me in the gut, and left me (and the main character) in just the kind of cathartic wreck we love with good writing.
That’s not to say it’s perfect. Aside from that moment of pathos, the characters read more like comic book heroes than real people—a touch too noble, too humorous, or too flat to strike at the heart of human nature. The book’s events transform none of them save for Waxillium, and even his arc feels incomplete at novel’s end—which may be why Sanderson wrote the sequel immediately after (to be released January 2016). Knowing him, this was all likely necessary to set us up for even bigger pay-offs in the coming books.
The plot also depends on a working-class uprising that feels a little too easy. Whether Sanderson didn’t want to get into messy bourgeous/proletariat issues, or didn’t have time in an uncharacteristically-snappy 130,000 word novel, or just failed to pull it off, the plot depends on us buying that the threat is real. I didn’t. It also fell into the madman-mastermind trap you might recognize from The Dark Knight, in which a mentally unstable villain somehow coordinates a large and well-trained group of henchmen behind the scenes while battling the hero onscreen.
Still, the world is imaginative enough and the characters fun enough to each get 2.5 out of 3 stars. The book also has some fun quirks, like self-deprecating in-world broadsheets and sexual innuendos shocking for normally-clean-rating Sanderson. Better yet, the magico-historical setup lets him explore theological issues that leave us with a little more value than just a fun story. In short, a well-written and recommended read—just what we expect from one of the best-selling authors in fantasy.
Magic has left the world, save for a few dusty scrolls and the traditions of bards who were once magicians. Now an ancient evil has come to threaten the land, unless an unlikely heroine can revive the old ways…
Sound familiar? It is—Ilana C. Myer’s Last Song Before Night is a solid read, but not for its unique magic (see Brandon Sanderson), its intricate politics (see George RR Martin) or its fantastic world setting (see Daniel Abraham).
What shines in the book is the characters. Starting in all states of suffering and glory, falling in and out of love, betraying best friends and revealing dark pasts, Myer’s characters get drug through hell and back (or left there), and we love them the whole way. Though they are saved from death once too often to believe they are actually in danger, Myer’s touch for poignant observation and the ungraceful reality of humankind are the saving grace of the book. She’s also a top-notch wordsmith, with an attention to sensory details, an easy rhythm, and a clarity of prose that draws you through the book.
It isn’t, however, enough to make this a top-notch novel. Her world feels undetailed, a bland sort of Europe with an undeveloped-but-dangerous Orient to the east, and the promise of a magic system based on music and wielded by bards isn’t paid off in the prose. Instead, though the plot depends on magical elements, we never really understand how it works, and so important conflicts in the book (and teleportation and character revelations) lose their punch. In place of sudden but inevitable plot twists, the magic just… sort of happens as needed, and in the last quarter of the book it’s hard to understand where the characters are, whether they’re really in danger, and what’s at stake, because we don’t know the rules they are playing by.
That’s not to say the story isn’t fun—with lots of witty banter, some heartfelt pathos, and a Shakespearean knot of characters that end up in strange company and stranger loves, we at no point wanted to walk away from the book. It just didn’t have the deep worldbuilding or tight plotting of a first-rate novel, nor any of those moments that made us want to stand up and shout.
That’s why, though Myer’s prose is rich and her characters wonderful, we’re giving Last Song Before Night six and a half stars out of ten—because the plot felt forced and it lacked the originality of setting and magic that we crave in fantasy. Still, for those seeking a lighter read with witty and loveable characters, a nice companion on a long flight or a holiday weekend, Last Song Before Night won’t let you down.