Book Review: Age of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan

I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

Age of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan

Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Series: Book 2 of The Legends of the First Empire

Publisher: Del Rey (July 26, 2017)

Length: 512 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

With six books in total now planned for The Legends of the First Empire series and four more left on the docket, it’s understandable that we have to pace ourselves. That may explain why I found Age of Swords to be on the slower side in comparison to its predecessor Age of Myth, which still holds a slight edge for being the more enjoyable book. That said, this was still a solid sequel, and there were even a few areas which I felt were improvements over the previous book.

Set thousands of years before the events of Michael J. Sullivan’s beloved Riyria Revelations, Age of Swords is the second in a new sequence of books that takes us back to the dawn of this world, introducing us to the precursors of many of the races and locations you’ll find in the time of Royce and Hadrian. This would be a fine series to start with if you’ve never read the author before and would like to give his work a try, though beginning with Age of Myth is a must—Sullivan has a way of foreshadowing the big events at the end of his series by planting subtle seeds for them in the earlier books, and trust me when I say that you won’t want to miss a thing.

We pick up the tale here following the spark of rebellion lit by Raithe the God Killer, turning the bitter enmity that has always existed between the Rhune and the Fhrey into a full-blown war—one that the Rhune are sure to lose, if they cannot unify the tribes against their common foe. After all, what chance do they have, when the most powerful of the elf-like Fhrey are practically immortal and possess magic? Already they have retaliated against the humans for their attempt at defiance, by sending lightning storms and giant beings to destroy the settlement of Dahl Rhen.

Persephone, once the wife of a clan chieftain, now finds herself to be the new Rhen leader. After gathering her supporters, she leads them on a campaign to rally the other Rhune clans to their cause. Among those who follow her are Brin, the Dahl’s newly appointed Keeper of Ways; Suri, the only human known to possess the power of magic, along with her loyal wolf companion Minna; Roan, a traumatized girl with an uncanny talent for tinkering and creating new inventions; Gifford, a good friend of Roan who has a heart of gold but was also born with a congenital disability; Moya, a young woman who wishes to defy tradition by becoming a warrior; and Arion, the exiled Fhrey sorceress who now finds herself traveling with the humans and training Suri to become a mystic.

Eventually, Persephone’s journey leads her to the dwarves, a race that disdains both the Rhune and the Fhrey with equal measure. But with the need for well-crafted weapons to use in the coming war, our characters have no choice but to agree to the dwarves’ demands. In exchange for their help, Persephone and her team agree to descend into the dark depths of the ancient dwarven city to vanquish a demon that has taken residence there.

Needless to say, the women are the real winners here. This book revisits a lot of the characters we first met in Age of Myth, but as Sullivan promised, many of those who played smaller roles are now getting their chance to shine in Age of Swords. As a fan of stories about misfits and outsiders, I loved this new development—especially when our group of Dahl Rhen underdogs the ones providing the catalyst for important turning points. There’s no shortage of stories about the fighters in epic fantasy, but not as much attention is usually given to the inventors, scholars, and deep thinkers whose achievements keep the gears of the world well-oiled and moving. This is why I really enjoyed this book, as it shifts the focus from Raithe to those who fight the war in less apparent ways. The actions of those like Suri or Brin may never earn them cool nicknames like “God Killer”, but their deeds are no less heroic or deserving of recognition. This novel pays tribute to these characters, and I’m grateful to the author for it.

In terms of criticisms though, the one big downside to this story was the uneven pacing. Long stretches of subdued activity, like when the characters are discussing history or magic, were only punctuated by infrequent and brief periods of excitement, while huge technological or cultural advancements felt like they were accomplished in days. These pacing issues kept me from powering my way through this one like I did with Age of Myth, and though a lot seemed to have happened in this book, at the end of the day it didn’t actually feel like we moved the series that much more forward. In other words, in longer fantasy series like this it’s often natural to see the plot go through multiple peaks and dips, and this book felt very much like a “dip”.

Still, these minor flaws aside, there’s lots to like about Age of Swords and I found the book enjoyable overall. As I alluded to before, it’s not unusual to see a sequel take a step back to regroup and reorient itself while setting things up for more to come, which is what I think is going on here especially given the care and forethought Michael J. Sullivan likes to put into his foundation building for later novels. I’m looking forward to see how this series will unfold, and will be picking up the next book without hesitation.

More on The BiblioSanctum:
Review of Age of Myth (Book 1)

Audiobook Review: The X-Files: Cold Cases by Joe Harris, Chris Carter, and Dirk Maggs

I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

The X-Files: Cold Cases by Joe Harris, Chris Carter, and Dirk Maggs (Adaptation)

Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 4 of 5 stars

Genre: Science Fiction, Audio Drama, Media Tie-In

Series: Book 1 of The X-Files (Audible Original)

Publisher: Audible Studios (July 18, 2017)

Length: 4 hrs and 5 mins

 

Narrators: David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Mitch Pileggi, Willliam B. Davis, Tom Braidwood, Dean Haglund, Bruce Harwood, Full Cast

While I have been listening to audiobooks for years, this is the first time I’ve actually tried one of these much-talked-about audio dramas from Audible Studios. Also known as audio plays or audio theater, these are very much like the old-school radio shows that were so popular in the 1920s-40s before the advent of television, though obviously their successors have come a long way since those days. Still, the idea is the same—with no visual aspect at all, the production relies completely on dialogue, music, and sound effects to tell the story.

As this was brand new territory for me, I was happy to take my first plunge with a franchise that has always been close to my heart. The X-Files dominated my TV time in the 90s and was a show that made a huge impression on my childhood, so despite the disastrous final seasons, the terrible movies, and the most recent lukewarm miniseries revival, I always still find myself returning again and again. The X-Files: Cold Cases caught my eye right away for several reasons, and not least because it features a full cast including David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, and several other actors from the original show returning to voice their respective characters. I was also intrigued because this audio drama is actually an adaption of the series of graphic novels by Joe Harris, and I’ve always been curious about those.

Set after the events of The X-Files: I Want to Believe, these stories provide a glimpse into those intervening years leading up to 2016’s television tenth season. When a cyber security breach at FBI headquarters compromises the information of unsolved investigations, former agents Mulder and Scully are pulled out of hiding by Deputy Director Skinner to resume their past work in the secret department known as the X-Files. For Scully, the timing of the database breach is of an even greater concern when she learns that some of the stolen information may involve the child she secretly put up for adoption, and now the boy may be in danger.

So, the nostalgia is there, but is it enough? The answer, I think, will depend on what you were expecting. I wouldn’t consider myself a super fan by any means, but I’ll admit my heart still gave an excited flutter to think about Mulder and Scully being on the case again, going back and forth with their cheeky banter. It’s less about the stories for me, but more about the full experience. Even audio dramas such as these are an opportunity for me to skip down memory lane in the hopes of recapturing and holding on to that old feeling, so yes—personally speaking, anyway—sometimes nostalgia is indeed enough. Even hearing that familiar Mark Snow theme song come through my headphones in the audiobook intro was enough to send a pleasant shiver down my spine.

That said though, not all the stories in here were created equal. Like the first volume of the graphic novel it was based on, this audio drama contains a handful of episodes over a period of about four hours. The first story, ostensibly reintroducing Mulder and Scully back into game while also attempting to link this series to the main body of the lore was, in a nutshell, awkward as hell. Just as well that I wasn’t really looking for story cogency, because there was some major plot gymnastics going down in this first episode in order to tie the X-Files mythology together with the goal of bringing back as many old characters as possible. Calling it messy would be an understatement, but thankfully, not all the episodes were like this. Subsequent stories, particularly the ones that moved away from “mytharc” themes to instead feature more “monster of the week” horror/thriller narratives were a lot more entertaining and easier to follow. I especially enjoyed the return to Flukeman as well as the episode that took our characters on a trip to investigate a case in Saudi Arabia.

As far as my first experience with an audio drama went, I loved it! The performances were amazing, with Duchovny and Anderson bringing their best even when the acting only involved voice work. The characters were true to themselves, and many times I caught myself smiling as I pictured Mulder’s deadpan deliveries or Scully’s epic eye-rolls. The music and sound effects were also mixed in so perfectly that if I closed my eyes I could almost imagine seeing everything play out like it was a TV episode.  That’s not to say everything was flawless, because whenever you deal with adaptations, especially from a visual medium to an aural one, it’s inevitable that you’ll encounter some hitches. You’ll get the odd scene where the actor has to talk clumsily to themselves to make up for the listener not being able to see what’s going on (“I’m wearing the same clothes, and here’s the same bullet hole in my jacket….but oh, my arm! There’s not a scratch!”) but on the whole, I think the creative team did a really good job adapting the comic in spite of the limitations.

In sum, I had a great time with this audio drama and would do this again in a heartbeat. While this wouldn’t be the best place to start your journey if you’re new to the X-Files franchise (mainly because there’s so much of the original show’s mythology involved), I definitely would not hesitate to recommend these audiobooks to fans like me who aren’t quite ready to let go of the magic just yet. I still want to believe! Needless to say, I’m already highly anticipating the next audio drama in this series, The X-Files: Stolen Lives.

Book Review: Tomorrow’s Kin by Nancy Kress

I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

Tomorrow’s Kin by Nancy Kress

Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genre: Science Fiction

Series: Book 1 of Yesterday’s Kin

Publisher: Tor (July 11, 2017)

Length: 352 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

I’m always up for a good tale of alien first contact, and Tomorrow’s Kin definitely fit the bill. Expanding upon the author’s Nebula Award-winning novella Yesterday’s Kin, this book is told in multiple sections, first chronicling the arrival of the extra-terrestrials before exploring the far-reaching repercussions in the latter parts of the novel.

It is New York City, sometime in the near future. Humanity now knows for certain they are not alone in universe. When the “Debnebs” first arrived, people were scared—understandably. But as time passed and the aliens proved themselves to be peaceful, life on Earth returned to relative normalcy. The visitors even had their Embassy ship parked on a platform in the middle of New York Harbor, even though pretty much everything about them still remains a great mystery. At first, they would only speak to the United Nations, claiming that their physiologies were too different to withstand Earth’s atmosphere and thus they must stay on their ship. No one has any idea what they look like, or what they want. But suddenly, two months later, they are finally ready to talk.

For Dr. Marianne Jenner, the invitation to the Debneb Embassy comes as one of the biggest surprises of her life. After all, she’s just a human genome scientist, working on an esoteric project involving the mapping of mitochondrial DNA. For some reason though, the aliens want to talk to her about the latest research paper, in which she detailed her identification of a new mtDNA haplogroup. Marianne is baffled as to why the Debnebs would be interested in singling her out to discuss her work—that is, until she gets the chance to meet one of them for the very first time. Having seen a Debneb with her very own eyes, Marianne now knows why the aliens desperately need Earth’s help, but time is running out even with humanity’s most brilliant minds working together to tackle the problem.

Before I go further in review, I must warn that Tomorrow’s Kin is not like most first contact narratives. If you simply want your aliens and not much else, then I’m afraid this might not be the book for you, because the Debnebs really only play a major role in the first part of the story (which I believe was the originally novella). The themes involved are also not the ones you’d typically expect from a novel about aliens, focusing instead on topics that run the gamut from environmental issues to foreign policy, which gives rise to plenty of potential for debate. Then, of course, there’s the science, spanning multiple subjects across fields like human genetics, ecology studies, astrophysics, and more. Needless to say, it would be impossible to read this book and fail to appreciate the amount of research that was put into its ideas, and the even more impressive is the way Kress managed to juggle all this information without resorting to awkward info-dumping or worse, derailing her plot.

Still, if you ask me, the best thing about this book is the emphasis on the theme of family. As its title suggests, this novel explores the deeper meanings and roles of kinship, and how those ideas might be perceived by an alien race whose concept of family differs vastly from ours. Following this thread, the story also allows us to get to know Dr. Marianne Jenner and discover her own family ties, examining the web of complex relationships between three generations over a number of years. As well, it’s rare these days to read a book starring middle-aged characters, and rarer still when the main protagonist is a parent of adult children and is even a grandmother. Personally, I found Marianne fascinating. Her relationship with her three children—who hold very different ideological views—forms the very core of Tomorrow’s Kin, influencing the decisions of many of the characters.

I also must admit, this was a difficult review to write. So much of the story—and by extension, a lot of what I want to say about what I thought of it—is affected by a huge revelation near the beginning of the book. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ve been deliberately vague, trying to dance around that major plot development. Suffice to say though, Tomorrow’s Kin is tightly plotted and well-written, combining imaginative yet believable elements of science fiction with relevant and thought-provoking issues. The story remained engaging even as it constantly evolved, moving from one stage of the novel to the next, filling me with confidence that the next installment will bring us even more exciting and imaginative developments. I’m looking forward to continuing this series.

App Review: The City’s Thirst by Max Gladstone

Remember reading Choose Your Own Adventure books as a kid? I used to gobble those up and am excited that my daughters can now control the outcomes of their literary adventures as I did. Because your choices matter!

Choice of the Deathless: “Battle demons and undead attorneys, and win souls to pay back your student loans! At the elite demonic-law firm of Varkath Nebuchadnezzar Stone, you’ll depose a fallen god, find romance, and maybe even make partner, if you don’t lose your own soul first.”

I’ve moved on to define my adventures in games like BioWare’s Dragon Age and Mass Effect, but sometimes, I just want some good old fashioned reading entertainment. Turns out that, as an adult, I can have just that. I can still have a say in the stories I read because of course there are choose your own adventure-type reading experiences for adults. Thanks to a tweet from Max Gladstone, I was reminded that the Craft Sequence author has augmented his incredible world with two side stories based in this format: Choice of the Deathless and Deathless: The City’s Thirst.

Deathless: The City’s Thirst: “Negotiate water rights from scorpion gods in Max Gladstone’s necromantic legal thriller! Discredit your boss, solve murders, and reanimate your own corpse.”

The stories created by Choice of Games LLC and written by Max Gladstone are available for iOS, Amazon Kindle, Steam, and Google Play, or you can play in your web browser. The text-based games company has several stories available, though I have only checked out the Craft Sequence ones so far. The available stories allow you an introductory taste before you hit a pay wall of less than $5, which isn’t much to ask for a well-crafted story in an interesting format. Choice of Games also offers their proprietary software, ChoiceScript, to creators looking to script their own text-based game.

I have not explored Choice of Games’ other offerings, but I definitely jumped into the Craft Sequence adventures to become Avani Hawke and Calli Shepard (speaking of Dragon Age and  Mass Effect, I see what you did there, Mr. Gladstone! There really was no other choice in character surnames for me.)

In Choice of the Deathless, you are a lawyer clawing your way to the top with a major case. Who you befriend and betray along the way and whether or not you pay those pesky student loans all factors into your story. Do you play the cutthroat gaming of lawyeriness? Or are you a little more honest and fair. I opted for the latter.

In Deathless: The City’s Thirst, the fate of Dresediel Lex’s water supply is in your hands as you try to broker a deal with the Scorpionkind and farmers who need the water just as much as your city does.

Both games benefit from some passing knowledge of Gladstone’s unique world of gods, souls, undead, and legalities. By nature of the format, there is not really a lot of time given to descriptions and world building so there are a lot of blanks to fill in. I suspect the basics could still be handled by someone who has not fully immersed themselves in the Craft Sequence, but it certainly helps to be familiar with the major players of the various firms and their ultimate goals within each realm.

The game-play is fairly simple. Read a chunk of text, choose your subsequent response or action. The game tracks your statistics which apparently affects interactions and your general state of being. How badly does your PTSD affect you? Are you too poor to pay your rent? Does Dunestrider want to feast on your guts? You also can score achievements for various accomplishments such as dying (my first achievement. I am so proud). Out of a possible 900 points for these achievements, I barely scratched the surface, which obviously means I need to go back and try out other options.

Aside from the fact that you can’t cheat and skip to the end to find the best options like in the olden days, I found it slightly disconcerting that there didn’t seem to be a way to gauge how far along I was in the story. There were chapters and climactic moments that indicated some sort of passage of plot, but little indication that things were coming to any kind of conclusion until they did, at which point I was kind of jolted out of my escape world into the reality of the book being over. I wasn’t ready!

Still, the stories were engaging, if somewhat repetitive at times. I’m thrilled to have an opportunity to relive my childhood love of choose your own adventure stories again.

Friday Face-Off: Fire

Welcome to The Friday Face-Off, a weekly meme created by Books by Proxy! Each Friday, we will pit cover against cover while also taking the opportunity to showcase gorgeous artwork and feature some of our favorite book covers. If you want to join the fun, simply choose a book each Friday that fits that week’s predetermined theme, post and compare two or more different covers available for that book, then name your favorite. A list of future weeks’ themes are available at Lynn’s Book Blog.

This week’s theme is:

“From the ashes a fire shall be woken”
~ a cover featuring FIRE

Mogsy’s Pick:
Half A War by Joe Abercrombie

The stage is set for a war to end all wars in this final volume of the excellent Shattered Seas trilogy, Joe Abercrombie’s first YA series. It appears that most of the cover artists agree – a finale of this caliber should involve fire. And lots of it.

Now let’s take a look at some of the different covers:

From left to right, top to bottom: Del Rey (2015) – Harper Voyager (2016) – Subterranean Press (2016) – Spanish (2016) – French (2016) – Romanian (2016) – German (2016) – Russian (2016)

   

   

Winner:

There were two covers that leaped out at me right away: the Spanish edition with the bird on fire, and the French version with the burning ship. Both feature striking imagery and makes use of a good color palette. I really can’t decide which I like better, so since it’s my post, my rules, I’m just going to cheese out this week and call it a tie between the two.

What do you think? Perhaps you can help break the tie, or maybe you have a completely different favorite? Let me know your thoughts!

 

Podcast Review: Levar Burton Reads

I credit three people with my love of reading:

  1. My brother, who gave me a dinosaur book at two-years-old and proudly presented me to family as I recited the names of all the dinosaurs.
  2. My mom, who not only read to me every night, but also encouraged me to read to her.
  3. Levar Burton, who introduced me to butterflies in the sky.

It’s no secret that I love Reading Rainbow, growing up with Levar Burton reading to me and introducing me to all sorts of new worlds and adventures. It means the world to me to know that Mr. Burton has continued to promote literacy long after the PBS television series left the air. I threw all the money I could at the Reading Rainbow Kickstarter and was in tears along with Mr. Burton at the response from others who shared my love of his passions and his goal of promoting literacy for every child.

But why should kids have all the fun?

Levar Burton Reads is a new podcast built on a simple concept: Levar Burton reads short stories. For grownups. Many of us grew up with the dulcet tones of his narrations but now, growing up doesn’t mean we have to move aside for the next generation.

As always, the stories are chosen by Mr. Burton himself, spotlighting a particular theme or style that has caught his attention. These particular stories are all of a science fiction lean, which is Mr. Burton’s preference.  These are all short stories, the writing of which he rightly identifies as a unique and challenging skill. The ability to encapsulate a whole story with fully developed plot, setting, and characters in so few words is in deed a talent worthy of praise.

I’ve listened to the first three stories so far and love the variation in the themes and styles. A woman who defies the conventions placed upon women to chase her dreams, a boy who hires an alien assassin to protect his sister, and a two-part adventure featuring rogues and wizardry. Each story has its own merit, but Mr. Burton’s narration takes them up several notches. My favourite thus far is the quiet introspection of the deadly alien and his relationship with the young boy in “Kin” by Bruce McAllister.

You can listen through the Apple Listens or Stitcher app, or through the website’s playlist. I did the latter and was initially frustrated because there is no option for speeding up the narration. I normally listen to my audiobooks at 1.5 to 2x speed, but my frustration soon fell away, lulled by Mr. Burton’s eloquent narration and sound effects.

This podcast is sponsored by Audible so you’ll have to endure Mr. Burton promoting the audiobook company before and after the story. Annoyingly, this also occurs halfway through the story. It’s a bit of a jolt, but forgivable. Advertising isn’t the only that that frames the reading. He also talks about the themes the particular story presents and what few him to it and how those themes and characters relate to him personally, adding further depth to the experience.

Waiting on Wednesday 08/02/17

“Waiting On Wednesday” is a weekly meme hosted by Breaking the Spine that lets us feature upcoming releases that we can’t wait to get our hands on!

Mogsy’s Pick

Star Wars: Phasma by Delilah S. Dawson (September 1, 2017 by Del Rey)

For me, Star Wars fever is a chronic disease so you’ll always find me looking forward to the next canon novel release. I’m especially excited about this one though, for a couple of reasons. Captain Phasma is a fascinating character but little is known about her, and her appearances in the new official canon so far have been very brief and few. Even the book’s description is frustratingly vague, so this should be very interesting indeed. Second, I’m a fan of Delilah S. Dawson, and this is her first full-length Star Wars novel. After the great fun I had with her short story Star Wars: The Perfect Weapon, I’m looking forward to reading more of her work in this universe.

“Discover Captain Phasma’s mysterious history in this Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi novel.

One of the most cunning and merciless officers of the First Order, Captain Phasma commands the favor of her superiors, the respect of her peers, and the terror of her enemies. But for all her renown, Phasma remains as virtually unknown as the impassive expression on her gleaming chrome helmet. Now, an adversary is bent on unearthing her mysterious origins—and exposing a secret she guards as zealously and ruthlessly as she serves her masters.”

 

 

 

Tough Traveling: Strongholds

Back in 2014, the idea for Tough Traveling started with Nathan of Fantasy Review Barn who came up with the excellent idea of making a new list each week based on the most common tropes in fantasy, as seen in (and inspired by) The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a tongue-in-cheek parody of the fantasy genre by Diana Wynn Jones. It was widely successful, with over fifty bloggers participating at one point before it went on hiatus. But now Tough Traveling is back, with huge thanks to Laura from Fantasy Faction for reviving the feature! Every first of the month we’ll be posting a list of books that fit a particular theme, with the next month’s theme also to be announced. Interested in participating? Well, grab your traveling packs and come along! You are welcome to post your Tough Traveling lists anytime during the month.

August’s topic is:

Strongholds

The Tough Guide offers information on various kinds of fantasy strongholds. For example, you might be looking for CASTLES, complete with ‘frowning battlements, slit windows and multiple defensible spiral stairways inside’ and which ‘occasionally adorn the heights for pictorial effect’. Or perhaps TOWERS, which ‘stand alone in WASTE AREAS and almost always belong to wizards.’ Towers are often ‘several storeys high, round, doorless, virtually windowless, and composed of smooth blocks of masonry that make them very hard to climb. The Rule is that there is also a strong no-entry SPELL, often backed up by a guardian DEMON.’

Weisshaupt, Dragon Age

Weisshaupt is the formidable fortress built in -305 Ancient to battle the First Blight. This is the Grey Warden stronghold that BioWare refuses to let players visit, save for in the Fade or in books like The Last Flight. This is where the griffons hung out. I know my Grey Warden from Dragon Age: Origins is all up in there researching how to stop the darkspawn once and for all, but for now, I must content myself with dealing with them damn mages and templars and their pesky dispute.

Indigo Cloud Court, Books of the Raksura

For Moon, home is where he won’t be mistaken for a Fell and chased away. He finally finds that when he learns that he is a Raksura and becomes consort to the sister queen of the Indigo Cloud Court. Unfortunately, the actual Fell are crafty creatures and they successfully infiltrate the Raksura’s home. Though the Raksura eventually defeat them, their home is destroyed and they must find a new stronghold to call home.

The Death Stars and Starkiller Base, Star Wars

I know it’s a pretty big galaxy, but you’d think someone would have noticed the Empire or the First Order gathering up a whole lotta supplies and building materials to construct not one, but three massive world destroying contraptions. Good thing someone keeps building them with exhaust ports, perfect for sneaking in and blowing up the whole thing, or the good guys keep making friends with janitors who know a thing or two.

1407 Graymalkin Lane, X-Men

The X-Men and their friends and foes have had several strongholds over the years. But nothing is stronger than the place you call home. Okay maybe it’s not that strong, since the Xavier Mansion is a constant target and has been destroyed several times. Maybe the X-Men should consider going Magneto’s route and taking up residence on an asteroid.

Everywhere in The Walking Dead

When the zombie apocalypse hits, you don’t really want to be wandering about in it. It’s important to find a strong base of operations to work with. Rick Grimes and his team are pretty good at finding such places. Unfortunately, there’s always someone around to mess things up. We’d like to blame them walkers, but the truth is, it’s you, Rick. You’re the one who keeps ruining everything. Let’s lead the zombie hord away, he says. Let’s go fight Negan, he says. Please just die and let everyone live in Alexandria in peace?

This week, I’m going to tackle this topic a little differently, focusing on a single type of stronghold — Towers. These tall structures can be places to keep your treasures safe, but they can also be prisons to keep the bad stuff locked up. Sometimes, fantasy characters badly want to get their hands on what’s inside, while other times, they’re desperately trying to break free from its walls. In any case, most towers in Fantasyland are usually considered good strongholds because of how tough it is to get in or out, as some of my examples will illustrate:

Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan

This omnibus collects the first two books of the Riyria Revelations series, the second of which is Avempartha, a story about our heroes Hadrian and Royce who are thieves hired to break into an ancient, inaccessible elven tower to steal a legendary relic — a sword that is said to be the only weapon capable of slaying a magical beast that has been terrorizing the nearby countryside.

Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

This second book of the Gentleman Bastard series also features a tower that our thieving protagonists have to try and break into, though this time the target in question is the Sinspire, the largest and most luxurious gambling house on the island city of Tal Verrar. Run by a ruthless man named Requin, the casino has a strict rule that anyone caught cheating would be killed, though this policy has never stopped Locke and Jean. Determined to get at the Sinspire’s riches, the two have hatched up an elaborate plan to con their way up all nine floors to the top of the tower where Requin’s vault is kept.

Tower of Thorns by Juliet Marillier

My last two examples feature towers holding priceless treasures and wealth that characters want to steal. Some towers though, you simply don’t want anything to do with. In Tower of Thorns, our protagonists Blackthorn nd Grim are approached by a noblewoman, who claims that a howling creature has taken up residence in an old tower on her land. Its mournful calls driving the surrounding populace to depression and madness, and as unpleasant as the idea might be, something must be done about it. However, the tower is inaccessible due to a hedge of thorns surrounding its base, and it soon becomes clear that any means to vanquish the monster would have to be magical.

The Emperor’s Knife by Mazarkis Williams

Like I said, some towers can also be used as prisons — tough to break in, even harder to break out — and you’ll find an example of one of these in The Emperor’s Knife. One would definitely not want to be a younger male child of the royal family in this book. Following tradition, the Emperor Beyon’s brothers were all killed the day their father died and he took the throne in order to prevent any challengers to his rule. That is, all except Prince Sarmin, who was kept locked up in a tower as a secret backup. You know, just in case.

Ink and Bone by Rachel Caine

You’ll find another example of a prison tower in Ink and Bone, a tale of alternate history where all books are the property of the Great Library of Alexandria, that powerful bastion of knowledge that never succumbed to destruction in this reality. The scholars of the Library strictly govern the distribution of books to the public, using a complex alchemical process to deliver content to an individual’s personal Codex. Few of their alchemists, called Obscurists, are born every generation, which is they are kept collared and locked up. When Jess’s friend Morgan is found to be an Obscurist, he must stop her from ending up in the Iron Tower, where she would be forced to live for the rest of her life, breeding future alchemists.

Book Review: The Clockwork Dynasty by Daniel H. Wilson

I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

The Clockwork Dynasty by Daniel H. Wilson

Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy

Series: Stand Alone

Publisher: Doubleday Books (August 1, 2017)

Length: 320 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

When I first heard about A Clockwork Dynasty, I confess I was intrigued. With its mix of steampunk and robotics and history and magic, it sounded like quite a departure from Daniel H. Wilson’s previous novels and I was curious to see how the author would tackle something different.

Well, I’m happy to report that it turned out great. Weaving together the past and present, this story actually works on two levels, alternating between the perspective of a young anthropologist in modern day Oregon and that of a mechanical avtomat resurrected by a Russian machinist the early 1700s. The book opens with a scene featuring young June Stefanov, listening at her beloved grandfather’s knee as he tells her the story of his encounter with a mechanical soldier in World War II. Upon his death a couple years later, he leaves her with a keepsake from that confrontation, a piece of relic that June wears close to her heart even as she grows to adulthood and becomes a leading expert in ancient technologies. The focus of her latest research project is the amazing discovery of a three-hundred-year-old mechanical writing doll, whose secrets June is anxious to unlock before the extraordinary machine can fall into wrong hands.

Meanwhile, between June’s chapters, an even more mysterious narrative is unfolding. Peter Alexeyvich remembers his life beginning in the court of Peter the Great for whom he was named, awakened by the Czar’s loyal mechanician Giacomo Favorini. But in fact, his origins might date back to even more ancient times. Together with his “sister” Elena Petrova, a clockwork girl that he meets in Favorini’s lab, the two mechanical beings spend the next hundred years fleeing their enemies and attempting to fit into society, all the while struggling with nagging existential questions and trying to find out more about themselves.

Unlike Amped or Robopocalypse which are the author’s other novels I have on my shelves, The Clockwork Dynasty is less involved with futuristic technologies and more concerned with history and magic. However, it is clear that his love for writing about intelligent machines is still as strong as ever. Wilson also brings the past to life with careful precision, allowing his readers to experience everything from early 18th century Russia to Victorian-era London. I was surprised to find myself actually favoring the chapters that transported us back in history, following Peter’s harrowing journey to escape the political turmoil that followed his czar’s death in 1725. His character has seen so much in all the centuries, with his chapters always containing something fascinating and new. However, that’s not to say June’s chapters were uninteresting or not as fun to read—good thing too, since the other half of the story is told from her point-of-view. This is where Wilson’s talent for writing action comes in. As June attempts to unravel the mysteries behind the writing doll, she unwittingly stumbles into a world of danger and deception. Before long, we’re being treated to plenty of exhilarating Terminator­-style scenes as she becomes the target of a relentless mechanical assassin.

Still, I won’t lie; the constant back-and-forth switching between the past and the present was somewhat distracting, though in all fairness I have never been that good with non-linear storytelling. The format took some getting used to, but thankfully the author made it easier with his excellent characterization and plot development.

My favorite aspect of the story was hands down the relationship between Peter and Elena. Forever trapped in a synthetic body looking like a 12-year-old girl, the character of Elena was very reminiscent of Claudia from Interview with the Vampire, and likewise Peter’s fierce protectiveness of her reminds me very strongly of Louis. Exiles in more ways than one, the two clockwork humans are forced to hide their true nature wherever they go, and Peter must also face the consequences of Elena’s choices as she grows more and more frustrated with the limitations imposed on her because of the outward appearance of her age and sex. Likewise, in the present, June has to overcome her terror and confusion to deal with the threat hunting her, and her eventual alliance with Peter is the impetus that drives the evolution of her character. It was definitely nice to discover more to this book than cheap action and thrills, and beneath the surface is a thread that actually explores deeper issues like the search for purpose and what it means to be human.

If you have enjoyed Daniel H. Wilson’s books in the past, I think it’s a safe bet that you’ll enjoy this one too. The Clockwork Dynasty is, on its surface, two stories in one, but the two narratives are woven so cleverly together that what we have here in the end is a saga worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster, packed with action, intrigue, and heartfelt moments.

Book Review: Where Loyalties Lie by Rob J. Hayes

I received a review copy from the author. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.

Where Loyalties Lie by Rob J. Hayes

Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Series: Book 1 of Best Laid Plans

Publisher: Rob J. Hayes (May 24, 2017)

Length: 372 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Grimdark on the high seas! Sweeter words have never been spoken. I’ve always had a taste for maritime fantasy, so when the chance arose to review Where Loyalties Lie, how could I say no? And the fact that it has pirates in it was simply the icing on the cake.

But while I’d never before had the pleasure of reading Rob J. Hayes, I’m familiar enough with his style to know that his pirates would be the real deal—not the watered down, unobjectionably mild sort you usually see catered to general audiences. His protagonist Captain Drake Morass is exemplary of this, being one of the most brutal and bloodthirsty bastards sailing in these fair isles. Needless to say, he’s also not a man who takes too kindly to being hunted. As Drake and his crew stand witness to a pirate town being slaughtered and burned to the ground by naval forces, he realizes that his way of life may be fast coming to an end…unless someone decides to rise up and fight back. Quickly, an idea begins to hatch in his mind. First, he will unite all the pirates. Next, they will form their own little pirate kingdom, where they will be able to govern and defend themselves. And naturally, Drake will be their glorious leader.

However, Drake’s plans are not without their obstacles. For one thing, his reputation as a dastardly pirate precedes him, and getting any of the other captains to sign on to his campaign will be difficult—unless, of course, he can find someone trustworthy to vouch for him. This is where Captain Keelin Stillwater enters the picture. A practical man, Stillwater is not your typical pirate, preferring more civilized resolutions to conflicts over bloody mayhem if at all possible. He is also one hell of a swordsman and holds a certain level of respect among his fellow pirates, so his word would go a long way to legitimizing Drake’s grand scheme. Together, the two of them will also have to come together to face another threat—Tanner Black. As leader of the most feared pirate fleet on the open seas, Black is setting his sights to dethrone Drake Morass even before he can establish his pirate utopia. To complicate matters is also Tanner’s daughter Elaina Black, who has a past with Stillwater. Torn between her feelings for Keelin and her loyalties to her father, she is something of a wild card who will play a significant role in determining the outcome of this epic ocean-faring saga.

Passion, pride, and fierce ambitions come together in this enthralling adventure full of violence and grit. After a slow-burning start, the surprises come at us fast and thick as the plot takes off in the second half, all set against a backdrop of tensions and hostilities. It’s interesting to note that the pirates of this world have their own politics, so with that also comes the mercurial alliances and betrayals, not to mention their own set of rules and piratical codes of conduct. Anything can happen at all, which makes one wonder if Drake Morass might be in way over his head trying to unite this rough bunch of thieves and miscreants, most of whom are only out for themselves.

After all, it’s not easy being a pirate, especially in the world of Hayes’ First Earth. As I mentioned before, Where Loyalties Lie was my first introduction to the author’s distinctive brand of dark fantasy—which I found to be as brutal and visceral as it was reputed to be. If you’ve come for the raging sea battles and bloody ship takeovers, then you’ll be in for a treat. However, be forewarned as well that depictions of murder, torture and rape are frequent, tossed out almost nonchalantly and often described in graphic detail—not in a way that’s intended to be flippant, mind you, but simply because this is the way of this novel’s world. It’s best, therefore, to avoid this one if you don’t think you can stomach these kinds of horrors, for the threat of violence is an everyday reality for the characters, and the story never lets you forget it. This book is grimdark in its purest form, and it is not ashamed to flaunt the fact.

For the genre, the characters are also as you would expect—most of them are capable of doing great evil, with a few who have some admirable qualities. Admittedly, as with a lot of grimdark novels I wish there had been more variety in the personalities, though there were still enough surprises to keep me guessing at their motives and actions. I also didn’t get a good feel for Drake Morass until later in the novel, largely because the slow build-up in the first half, though I’ve also heard that he is a character—albeit a minor one—from Hayes’ The Ties That Bind trilogy and I can’t help but wonder if not having read the previous series might have played into my initial disconnect with him. That said, the good news is that this is merely a minor issue; by the time the story got going, there is no doubt that I became fully engaged with every single one of these characters, especially once all their potential and intentions were revealed.

Bottom line, for fans of grimdark and pirates, Where Loyalties Lie will be like your dream come true, capable of satisfying the most ferocious appetites for gritty, brutal, and violent nautical fantasy. It is a solid first volume, doing a superb job of establishing the series’ colorful characters and themes, and I am looking forward to the next installment.