Book Review: Gauntlet by Holly Jennings

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

Gauntlet by Holly Jennings

Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

Genre: Science Fiction

Series: Book 2 of Arena

Publisher: Ace (April 4, 2017)

Length: 336 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Get ready, because it’s time to enter the arena again. Gauntlet is everything a reader dreams of in a sequel—bigger world, higher stakes, and even more dangerous and violent challenges. I had a really good time with the first book, but at the same time I was also curious to see how this follow-up would build on its potential and whether or not it would improve on a few of the weaknesses.

Quite a lot has happened since the end of Arena. With her RAGE tournament winnings and money she made from her new found fame, our protagonist Kali Ling has returned to buy out Defiance, becoming the captain and owner of her gaming team. When the story begins, Kali is troubled by a new development that has been sweeping the virtual gaming world—a house. Though in truth, this “house” is more of a colossal mansion. Nicknamed “The Wall”, it sits nestled on a sprawling estate sealed away from the public. For weeks, rumors have been flying around that the best gaming teams from around the world have been invited inside, but no one knows what goes on during these visits. Wild parties? Drugs? Not knowing is driving Kali crazy, and yet she can’t help but keep up with the coverage to see which gaming superstars will show up at the mansion next.

Little did she expect, however, that soon her own team would be getting their chance to visit The Wall. The elusive owner of the mansion turns out to be the CEO of Tamachi Industries, a tech giant which has developed a new kind of gaming pod which, if effective, could change the face of virtual gaming forever. Now the company is on the cusp of revealing their product to the world, and they’re planning to do it with style—by organizing a huge tournament where the best teams from around the globe will be competing for prestige and the grand prize in the form of a nine-figure check. Like all the others before them, Defiance has been asked to meet with Mr. Tamachi at his mansion so he can extend an invitation to join his tournament. Would Kali wish to accept? Well, I think we all know the answer to that.

To start, there were some nice improvements over the first book, and probably the biggest one is the characterization of Kali herself. She is noticeably more mature in Gauntlet, having taken over the responsibilities of being Defiance’s owner. In the aftermath of her recovery with drug addiction, she has also made it her personal mission to keep herself and the team clean, happy, and healthy—even if it means she has to play the mother hen once in a while. Still, on the whole I enjoyed seeing these changes to her personality because they made her a much more likeable protagonist. No longer is she the angry and impetuous teenager she was in Arena; now her thought processes have shifted towards being more level-headed and rational, as well as much less self-centered. As a bonus, for all the scenes we get to watch Defiance kicking ass in-game, we also get to spend plenty of time outside the virtual world watching them grow closer as a team and a family. These were all changes that pleased me.

That said, this book still has strong “Young Adult” vibes attached to it, which if you did not enjoy in Arena, chances are you will also find this sequel problematic. Again, the logic behind the premise is a little shaky and may require a bit of a stretch in imagination. There’s also a romantic side plot that takes up a lot of the focus, and I felt that many of the story’s conflicts are inflated when they are actually very trivial or easily solved. In addition, we did not see an expansion in the scope of storytelling; everything is still seen through the limited sphere of the gaming world behind Kali’s eyes, and as much as she has matured, this bubble is apparently still all she knows. Gaming is like the only thing that exists to her, i.e. in her mind, the only news worth following is gaming news, no one else in the world has any interests besides following virtual gaming tournaments and their players, gamers are the gods of the human race, etc. On a character level, it made her feel somewhat shallow, and on a world-building level, it also meant less of what I’d hoped to see in this sequel.

Still, the story was loads of fun. Just like Arena, the plot was a bit simplistic and predictable, but it also had a lot more action and grit. If you enjoyed the feverish, frenzied tone of the RAGE tournaments in the first book, then I guarantee you’ll love how Holly Jennings has stepped up her game (no pun intended) in Gauntlet. And if you’re gamer, you’ll probably get even more out of the book’s atmosphere and references to games and gamer culture.

Overall, I was very satisfied with this sequel. While a few of the stumbling blocks from the first book have carried over, in general I felt there were many more areas which have been improved. Gauntlet once again fits my perfect definition of pure entertainment—dynamic, fast-paced, and gripping. I sure hope we’ll be seeing more of Kali and Defiance, because it would be so cruel of Holly Jennings to leave us hanging with that ending! I can’t wait to catch up with the team again in the pages of the next book.

*** Originally reviewed at The Speculative Herald ***

More on The BiblioSanctum:
Review of Arena (Book 1)

Book Review: Avengers of the Moon by Allen Steele

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

Avengers of the Moon by Allen Steele

Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Genre: Science Fiction

Series: Stand Alone/Book 1

Audiobook Publisher: Tor (April 11, 2017)

Length: 304 pages

Author Information: Website

Whatever can be said about Avengers of the Moon, Allen Steele has accomplished something rare and remarkable here. In his afterword, he suggests that this novel can be viewed as a reboot of Captain Future—a character I was not initially familiar with, though pulp lovers will no doubt recognize this science fiction hero who appeared primarily in a series of adventure stories written by Edmond Hamilton in the 40s. Steele goes on to explain, however, that he did not mean for this book to be a homage or a parody; rather, his intent was to revive the character for modern times and introduce him to a new generation of readers. Avengers of the Moon is therefore the hero’s updated “origin story” following the journey of protagonist Curtis Newton to become Captain Future.

Curt was just a baby when his mother and father were murdered in cold blood. The boy then fell into the care of a robot, an android, and the disembodied brain of Professor Simon Wright, a good scientist friend of the family. Together, this unlikely trio raised Curt in a secret underground bunker on the moon in order to hide his presence from Victor Corvo, the corrupt businessman who killed his parents.

Twenty years later though, Curt emerges from hiding, determined to bring Corvo to justice. In that time, the businessman has risen far on the ladder of power, becoming a Lunar senator. To take down his prominent quarry, Curt must adopt the persona of Captain Future and uncover the full extent of Corvo’s conspiracy, which even goes as far as to include a plot to assassinate the president of the Solar Coalition. Together with his three guardians Otho, Crag, and Simon, as well as the help of beautiful Inspector Joan Randall of the Interplanetary Police Force, our hero embarks on his first “troubleshooting” assignment.

The pulp influence is obvious; even with the updates to bring Captain Future more in line with the technology and culture of our times, the writing here feels like an attempt to imitate the style from the sci-fi and fantasy pulp magazines of the 40s. Naturally, coming from Steele’s last novel Arkwright, this was a considerable change for me. The writing in Avengers of the Moon feels less formal and “sophisticated” in comparison, with practically non-existent character development, playing instead on the pulp tradition to convey the idea of larger-than-life heroes, over-the-top villains, and voluptuous femme fatales. All this is of course by design, a nod to the source material which will no doubt delight Sci-fi Golden Age enthusiasts, but even as someone unfamiliar with the original Captain Future, I have to say I found this whole effort to recreate the retro atmosphere quite charming.

That said, this is clearly a novel written for fans, by a fan. I hadn’t expected to get as much out of Avengers of the Moon as someone already familiar with Captain Future, for example, and I was right. Does that mean I thought the book was bad? No, absolutely not. It’s just that I was not the ideal audience. In spite of this, the book is still pretty solid for what it’s meant to be, combining the modern with a bit of throwback nostalgia. Steele deserves a huge pat on the back for the ideas behind this ambitious project; I have a feeling he has just made a lot of his fellow Captain Future geeks very happy.

Bottom line, it’s probably safe to say that Avengers of the Moon should not, must not be missed by fans of Captain Future. As a reboot, I’m not sure how effective it is at winning new fans, but I also can’t deny I had a good time learning more about the character. This may be a book intended for a niche audience, but I would say if you enjoy the pulps or are even remotely interested in the style, it is worth a look. While it’s nothing too serious or deep, the story is a fun and snappy read.

Mogsy’s Bookshelf Roundup: Stacking the Shelves & Recent Reads

Bookshelf Roundup is a feature I do every other weekend which fills the role of several blog memes, like Stacking the Shelves where I talk about the new books I’ve added to my library or received for review, as well as It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? where I round up what I’ve read since the last update and what I’m planning to read soon. Mostly it also serves as a recap post, so sometimes I’ll throw in stuff like reading challenge progress reports, book lists, and other random bookish thoughts or announcements.

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Hard to believe April is upon us already, but while 2017 is zipping on by, I also can’t really find it in myself to complain too much. The thing is, I am just so beyond ready for spring right now. In fact, this week I’ll be away on a much needed break, traveling south in search of warmer climes, so apologies if I’m slower to reply to comments or visit your blogs in the coming days, but I’ve got a good excuse! 🙂

Anyway, as you can imagine things have been busy with all the preparations, but I’m looking forward to some rest and relaxation. I don’t actually expect I’ll get much reading done, but I’m packing a bunch of books regardless, including some of my new arrivals…

Received for Review

Thank you to the publishers and authors for the following review copies received. For more details and full descriptions of the books, be sure to click the links to their Goodreads pages!

Kicking things off, we have this trio of lovelies: The Best of Subterranean edited by William Schafer contains a selection of the finest pieces short fiction published between 2005 and 2014 during Subterranean magazine’s run. It features a whopping 30 stories and the author lineup reads like a dream team of modern SFF masters like Alastair Reynolds, Cherie Priest, Joe Hill, Catherynne M. Valente, Caitlín R. Kiernan, George R. R. Martin, John Scalzi, Kelley Armstrong, K.J. Parker and many, many more. Yes, it is a MASSIVE anthology. Next up, The Innkeeper Chronicles Vol. 1 by Ilona Andrews is the omnibus collection the first three books of the authors’ self-pubbed series. I’ve always wanted to check these out! And finally, we have The Process (Is A Process All Its Own) by Peter Straub. Long time readers of the author will probably be familiar with his “latter day Jack the Ripper” serial killer character Tillman Hayward, whom Straub will be bringing back in this upcoming novella. Personally I’ve never read Straub before, but this one has a chilling, disturbing vibe to it that’s really calling to me, so I’ll probably check it out. My thanks to Subterranean Press for the ARCs!

Tremontaine created by Ellen Kushner – After my incredible experience with Bookburners, I told myself I would check out more serials from Serial Box. Thus, my attention immediately fell upon Tremontaine. This one is the complete first season collecting all thirteen episodes of this prequel series to Kushner’s Riverside and I can’t wait to binge read them all! Next up is The Berlin Project by Gregory Benford, a historical re-imagining of world where the atom bomb had been ready in time to stop Hitler from killing millions of people. Alternate history is my kinda thing, so of course I had to take a look. With thanks the amazing team at Wunderkind PR and Saga Press!

The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis is coming out in paperback soon! Thank you to Crown for this finished copy, sporting its gorgeously striking redesigned cover. In case you missed my review of the original hardback release, you can check it out here!

Brimstone by Cherie Priest – I’m really excited to read this one! And maybe just a little trepidatious as well. Early reviews appear to be all over the place, and considering how Priest has been hit or miss with me in the past, I really don’t know how I will do with this one! I did however really enjoy her last novel The Family Plot, so I am optimistic that she’ll have another horror hit on her hands. Thank you to Ace Books!

Luna: Wolf Moon by Ian McDonald – Ever since I read Luna: New Moon I have been champing at the bit for this sequel. I NEED to know what happens! Thank you to Tor Books for the finished copy!

The Last Iota by Robert Kroese – Last year I read The Big Sheep, a most excellent futuristic sci-fi mystery with shades of Sherlock Holmes and Philip K. Dick, mixed with a heavy dose of humor and bizarre twists. Huge thanks to the author and Thomas Dunne Books for this ARC of the sequel! I’m so pumped to read it.

  

The End of the Day by Claire North – I’ll never say no to a new Claire North novel. I can always rely on her stories to be completely innovative and unique. My thanks to Redhook!

The Five Daughters of the Moon by Leena Likitalo – Thanks Tor.com for sending this one along! I’m loving the sound of this historical fantasy “inspired by the 1917 Russian Revolution and the last months of the Romanov sisters.”

The Harbors of the Sun by Martha Wells – Martha Wells returns with a fifth novel in her Books of the Raksura sequence. The incredible world-building in this series never ceases to amaze me. With thanks to Night Shade Books and Edelweiss.

Last week I also received a couple of exclusive promo samplers for Tyrant’s Throne, the upcoming fourth novel of the Greatcoats series. Inside Secrets of the Greatcoats are some handy recaps of the first three books and an excerpt from book four, as well as a bunch of other cool extras like “secret” letters from the king. The reason I have two versions is because I got one each from both the UK and US publishers. Thanks so much Jo Fletcher Books and Quercus! I can’t wait to read Tyrant’s Throne!

Reviews

It’s review roundup time! It’s almost a wall of four stars…it was a good couple weeks, I guess!

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi (4 of 5 stars)
Red Sister by Mark Lawrence (4 of 5 stars)
The Path of Flames by Phil Tucker (4 of 5 stars)
Winter of the Gods by Jordanna Max Brodsky (4 of 5 stars)
The Dispatcher by John Scalzi (4 of 5 stars)
The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge (4 of 5 stars)
Nemesis by Brendan Reichs (3 of 5 stars)

Tough Traveling

In blog news, the big announcement this month is of course the return of Tough Traveling! To celebrate, a few of us got together to collaborate on the inaugural post over at Fantasy Faction, where our new host Laura has set up a place for everyone participating in this meme to link up. There you will also find more info on Tough Traveling if you want to join in the fun! The theme is appropriately BEGINNINGS, and you can feel free to post your lists throughout the month. You can also start preparing for the theme for May, which will be ASSASSINS!

What I’ve Read Since the Last Update

Here are the books I finished recently. Last week was pretty much a flurry of review writing as I pushed to schedule as many posts as possible ahead of time, so you should see regular blog activity proceed as normal. My presence online will probably be sporadic though, but I promise I will catch up with everything upon my return! Happy reading, everyone!

   

   

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Have you heard of or read any of the books featured this week? What caught your eye? Any new discoveries? I hope you found something interesting for a future read! Let me know what you plan on checking out. Until next time, see you next Roundup!:)

Friday Face-Off: Circus

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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:

“You can get the monkey off your back, but the circus never leaves town!”
~ a cover featuring the CIRCUS

Mogsy’s Pick:
Pantomime by Laura Lam

This week is another head-to-head contest. Coming up with covers featuring circuses was certainly not a problem, but I just couldn’t pass up this opportunity to talk about one of my favorite books! Yes, Pantomime is a story about a circus, the greatest circus in all of Ellada. But peel back the layers, and it is also a coming-of-age story dealing with matters of gender and sexuality. This fantasy YA novel follows an intersex teen named Micah Grey as he embarks on a journey to understand his non-binary identity and what that might mean to him physically and socially as he attempts to find his place in the world.

Let’s check out the covers:

2013 Strange Chemistry (left) vs. 2015 Pan Macmillan

 

And as a bonus, here are the covers to the sequels too, even though I haven’t read them yet:

Shadowplay by Laura Lam

2014 Strange Chemistry (Left) vs. 2016 Pan Macmillan (Right)

 

Masquerade by Laura Lam

2017 Pan Macmillan

Winner:

As much as I love the new designs, I’m going to have to go with the original covers. They’re more mysterious and enticing, and they just grab my attention right away. I also generally prefer covers with people on them, and seeing these covers also makes me feel nostalgic for Strange Chemistry.

What do you think? Which one is your favorite?

Book Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

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

The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genre: Science Fiction

Series: Book 1 of The Interdependency

Publisher: Tor (March 21, 2017)

Length: 333 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Let me start by saying I’m a huge fan of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series. Years ago when I was still mostly reading fantasy and wanted to get into science fiction, I’d made the initial mistake of starting my journey with a couple of “classic” titles that nonetheless made me feel like I was in way over my head. It wasn’t until the moment I picked up the first Old Man’s War book that I realized the element I’d been missing: FUN. Turned out, Scalzi’s storytelling was exactly what I needed at the time—the riveting drama of interplanetary politics combined with the violent thrills and action in space, presented alongside a sense of casual, easy humor. His writing was completely accessible, yet there was still enough “hard science” in the story to make a newcomer like me feel like I was immersed in a bonafide space opera. I guess you could even say it was one of my gateway book into genre, since it helped open my eyes to many more possibilities and directly resulted in me trying more sci-fi.

So why am I telling you all this, you say? Well, it’s because Scalzi has done it again. The Collapsing Empire marks his strong return to space opera with a fresh start in this series opener, introducing readers to a new universe, new characters, and a whole new set of rules. At first, I was a little apprehensive about whether I would take to it as fondly as the books in the Old Man’s War sequence, but all my skepticism went out the window as soon as I finished the book and found myself once more filled with that familiar sense of marvel and excitement.

To understand what The Collapsing Empire is about, one must also have to understand one of the key concepts behind the book’s universe, that of The Flow. For almost as long as the space opera genre has existed, science fiction authors have been coming up with creative and practical ways for their characters to travel the vast distances between stars. In this book though, the catch is that the universe is still bound by the rules of physics, so no faster-than-light travel is possible. However, humanity has also discovered an extra-dimensional network of pathways that can be accessed at certain spatial-temporal points, drastically decreasing the travel time between star systems that are connected. This is what is known as The Flow. While its nature limits the options in terms of which systems can be colonized, humanity has nonetheless built a vast empire using this network called the Interdependency, so named because the first emperox decreed that all human settlements connected by The Flow need each other to flourish and survive.

But just like a river, The Flow is dynamic, always moving and changing course. It might happen over hundreds or thousands of years, but sooner or later The Flow is bound to shift, potentially cutting off worlds from the rest of humanity. It has already happened to Earth, a long time go in the past. More recently, a few hundred years ago, it also happened to a world belonging to the Interdependency. But now, the empire is about to discover that—again, like a river—The Flow also has the potential to dry up completely. Already, parts of The Flow are starting to destabilize, and Flow physicists are estimating that a complete collapse will happen within ten years, which would inevitably lead to the destruction of the entire Interdependency.

True to form, Scalzi knows how exactly how to hook the reader. By introducing the concept of The Flow and its impending collapse, he has killed two birds with one stone—first by setting up an extremely cool premise, and next establishing an intense and nail-bitingly riveting scenario. As you would imagine, this story has a love of moving parts. Like any empire, there are many dukedoms in the Interdependency, and among them the usual alliances and secret backstabbing. A certain House is seeing this instability as a power grab opportunity, while others are more concerned with preparing for the eventual collapse and saving lives. Because of the distance between the colonies, up-to-date information also takes a long time to communicate, resulting in widespread misinformation, rumors, and star systems only getting bits and pieces of the whole picture. And if that wasn’t enough, the old emperox has just died, passing on his rule to an untrained and inexperienced daughter. Yep, queue the utter chaos.

That said, it would be a mistake to sell the new emperox short. Cardenia Wu-Patrick is a wonderful new protagonist, and while she may lack the raw strength and power of a character like Jane Sagan from the Old Man’s War series, her admirable traits lie more in compassion for her people and her willingness to learn. As unprepared as she is to lead the Ascendency (especially in the confusion and mayhem of its final days), she still manages to handle the politics of it rather well. Certainly she stood out more to me than the rather undistinguished Marce or the brash Lady Kiva Lagos—the latter of whom was only remarkable for her talent to throw the word “fuck” into every other sentence, but otherwise I thought she was pretty bland. Admittedly, character development is not an area I would say the author is strongest, but it is my hope still that the main players will grow in depth as the series continues.

As I’ve alluded to before though, what I believe Scalzi excels in is the writing of massively entertaining and addictive stories—and The Collapsing Empire is no exception. There’s nothing elegant about the writing, but it is so easy to get into thanks to Scalzi’s minimalist and in-your-face style, which is often tinged with a healthy dose of snark. I also read his books for the cool ideas—and “cool” most definitely describes the concept of The Flow. Apart from that, I also really liked the idea of the Memory Room where an emperox can seek advice directly from their predecessors by accessing their stored memories and personality patterns.

All this simply drives home the fact that we’re now in brand new territory. And I’m loving what I see. I never really expect a series to knock me off my feet right out of the gate, and in truth, The Collapsing Empire does have the feel of a “book one” whose main job is to set the stage for bigger things to come in the sequel or beyond, but I am not displeased in any way. Far from it, in fact—I am practically ecstatic with the potential I’ve seen, and I can hardly wait to see what will happen next.

Waiting on Wednesday 04/05/17

“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

Blackwing by Ed McDonald (October 3, 2017 by Ace Books)

A debut dark fantasy set in a post-apocalyptic frontier with shades of horror? This sounds like it has some serious potential.

“Nothing in the Misery lasts…

Under a cracked and wailing sky, the Misery is a vast and blighted expanse, created when the Engine, the most powerful weapon in the world, was unleashed against the immortal Deep Kings. Across the wasteland, teeming with corrupted magic and malevolent wraiths, the Deep Kings and their armies are still watching—and still waiting.

Ryhalt Galharrow is no stranger to the Misery. The bounty hunter journeys to a remote outpost, armed for killing both men and monsters, and searching for a mysterious noblewoman. He finds himself in the middle of a shocking attack by the Deep Kings, one that should not be possible. Only a fearsome show of power from the very woman he is seeking saves him.

Once, long ago, he knew the woman well, and together they stumble onto a web of conspiracy that threatens to unmake everything they hold dear and end the fragile peace the Engine has provided. Galharrow is not ready for the truth about the blood he’s spilled and the gods he’s supposed to serve…”

Book Review: Red Sister by Mark Lawrence

A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

Red Sister by Mark Lawrence

Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Series: Book 1 of Book of the Ancestor

Publisher: Ace (April 4, 2016)

Length: 432 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

Readers coming from Mark Lawrence’s The Broken Empire and The Red Queen’s War will find that his new novel Red Sister is a wholly different beast—and not just because we are now venturing into an entirely new universe, completely unrelated to those trilogies. There are other differences as well, like the fact the story is told in the third person, follows a protagonist who is a young girl, and—at least to my eye—does not feel as dark as Lawrence’s previous works.

The book introduces us to the icebound world of Abeth, populated by people who descend from four main “tribes”: the Gerant, distinguished by their great size and strength; the Hunska, dark-eyed and dark haired, capable of great speed; the Marjal, who possess the ability to tap into the lesser magics; and finally the Quantal, who are gifted with the ability to work greater magics and enter a state known as “walking the Path”. Children who manifest even a single talent characterized by any of these four tribes are highly sought after by various institutions from churches to academies, and those who display two or three can even be worth more than their weight in gold. Across the land, children are given away or sold if they show potential, which is how protagonist Nona Grey ends up traveling in a cage along with a dozen other boys and girls her age, being carted off to a prospective buyer.

But things don’t exactly work out for Nona. At the age of eight, she finds herself facing the hangman’s noose for committing savage attack on a member of a noble family. However, just before her execution can take place, she is rescued by the abbess of Sweet Mercy, who whisks Nona away to her convent where young girls are trained to be fighters. There, Nona flourishes as a novice and learns the ways of the sisters, becoming especially adept in the arts of combat because of her Hunska blood. She also makes a lot of friends, though she still guards her secrets closely, unable to fully come clean to anyone about why she was sold away from her village—and why her mother allowed that to happen. Eventually though, Nona learns the hard way that the past always has a way of catching up with her, and unfortunately, her old enemies have not forgotten what she did to them either.

At first glance, Red Sister may seem to lack the complexity of Lawrence’s previous novels. I might even have felt an inkling of “Young Adult vibes” coming off at some points, and not just because of the age of our protagonist. After all, many of the genre’s tropes also hold true in the first half of the book, not the least of them being the beloved “magic school” motif, following Nona as goes through the motions of attending her various classes, making new friends and enemies along the way. Dare I say, at times these themes are almost Harry Potter-like in their style and treatment, despite the school here being a convent, Nona and her friends are all training to be killers, and the teachers are nuns who have a disturbing tendency to poison their students for fun or punish misdemeanors with a good old head-shaving. There’s even the trope of the “hated professor”, inevitably the sister Nona manages to piss off on the very first day, who then winds up holding a grudge against our protagonist for the next two years. To my bewilderment, the familiar concepts didn’t stop there either. Throw in the idea of prophecies and the foretold coming of a literal “Chosen One”, and I was starting to wonder how this could be written by the same author who never ceased to surprise me with his inventiveness and imagination from his previous trilogies.

Which just goes to show, I really should have reserved my judgment for until I reached the second half of this book. Not that I didn’t enjoy myself in the first half, mind you, namely because I actually have fondness for training school stories no matter how common they have become. I also adored Nona’s camaraderie with her fellow novices, despite or perhaps because of the long time those friendships took to build. This book places a huge emphasis on the bonds of trust, and I appreciated how much attention was spent on relationship-building in the first two hundred pages or so. Still—and I think most readers who have read the book will agree—the real fun doesn’t begin in Red Sister until Grey Class, after Nona has spent two years at the Sweet Mercy convent, or roughly around the halfway mark. This is where all the game changers are. The big threat is introduced. Secrets are revealed. Nona and her friends take action.

Furthermore, even while the plot employs a number of coming-of-age tropes, the overall story is compelling and the characters are irresistible, making it very easy to be swept up in the action and excitement. Mark Lawrence is a great writer, which is no secret to me of course, his skills on full display here as he experiments with new spins on old ideas, perhaps trying to push the boundaries of his own comfort zone. And yet, in spite of how different Red Sister feels compared to his previous books, fortunately a number of strengths remain the same. For one thing, you can be sure this novel will include a meticulously constructed world full of various intrigues, as well as Lawrence’s in-depth characterizations. Compared to the first person narrative used to his previous trilogies, the third person mode in Red Sister may feel a little less nuanced, but the genuine emotions and personalities involved are still right there.

Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if this book ends up being polarizing among the author’s fans, simply because he has indeed shaken things up quite a bit. That said, on the flip of the coin this could also mean that readers who couldn’t get into either The Broken Empire or The Red Queen’s War trilogies might find themselves taking to this novel instead. So if you found those books to be too grim (or Jorg from The Prince of Thorns too unpleasant), it may be worth a shot to revisit Mark Lawrence again, since Red Sister is a whole new ballgame. As someone who has enjoyed all his previous novels, I must say reading this new series opener was a little jarring at first, but by the end I was enjoying myself immensely and now I am looking forward to the next installment.

#SPFBO Review: The Path of Flames by Phil Tucker

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Phase 2 of The Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off 2016 is officially underway! For the six-month period from November 1, 2016 to the end of April 2017, we will be reviewing the ten finalists chosen by the blogger judges from the first phase of the competition. For full details and the list of books, see our SPFBO 2016 page.

The Path of Flames by Phil Tucker

Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Genre: Fantasy

Series: Book 1 of Chronicles of the Black Gate

Publisher: Phil Tucker (May 11, 2016)

Length: 501 pages

Author Information: Website | Twitter

If you’ve been following along with the progress of this year’s SPFBO competition, then I don’t have to tell you, 2016’s crop of finalists all look incredible, and of the top ten books remaining in this second phase, one of the ones I’ve looked forward to reading a lot is Phil Tucker’s The Path of Flames. From its description, I had a feeling this would be a novel right up my alley—epic fantasy with a bit of an old-school feel, featuring a standard secondary world wracked with war and dark sorcery while courageous heroes go head-to-head with dastardly villains. There’s a certain kind of comfort and pleasure I take from reading stories like these, mainly because I know that at the end of the day, I’ll enjoy myself no matter what happens. And sure enough, I had a blast with this book.

In typical fashion though, The Path of Flames opens with a battle scene. Still, what a battle! This first chapter also introduces us to one of our main characters, a young Bythian squire named Asho fighting on the side of Lord Kyferin and his famous Black Wolves. However, the enemy’s unexpected use of foul magic leads to tragedy, and Asho is knighted in a twist of fate, tasked to return home alone to tell his Lady Iskra Kyferin that her husband and all his men have all been slaughtered on the battlefield.

Upon receiving the news, Iskra reacts solemnly but is secretly pleased; her husband had not been a good man in life, having abused Iskra and Asho both. But Lord Kyferin’s daughter Kethe is heartbroken, having idolized her father, even going as far as to train secretly as a knight in order to follow in his footsteps. With Lord Kyferin now dead though, this does spell trouble for everyone. Almost all the Black Wolves have perished, leaving the castle defenseless and Iskra no choice but to shore up her remaining forces and seek out new allies. Unfortunately, news of her husband’s death has spread and the vultures are already circling. Despite Iskra’s efforts to protect her people, a sudden betrayal ends up destroying her carefully laid plans, plunging her and all those loyal to her into danger.

As you can see, the story encompasses many of the traditional elements and conventional tropes found in fantasy, though to leave it at that would also be simplifying things and not giving this book the credit it deserves. While I can see the influence of genre classics and fantasy role-playings games on the author’s writing, Phil Tucker does have a few surprises up his sleeve, putting some fresh spins on familiar ideas.

He’s done a phenomenal job on his characters, for instance, creating fully developed backstories for them. Take Asho, whose Bythian heritage makes him the target of scorn in this society that worships the Ascendancy, a religion that divides humanity into a caste system. Lord Kyferin may have plucked him from his homeland as a child, raising him in his own household and even making him a squire, but everyone can see these acts for the empty gestures that they are and still look upon Asho with distaste for being in the lowest “tier” of the Ascendancy. Then there’s Kethe, a young noblewoman who prefers sword fighting to needlework. Again, this is in no way a new idea in fantasy, but Kethe’s complicated history with her father and another character named Ser Tiron puts her decision to become a knight into a more compelling context. In this way, Tucker weaves characterization together with world-building, so that everything is presented to us as a full package. While information might be revealed in tiny chunks and pieces at first, the reader will soon realize that everything is connected. Even Tharok, the kragh whose storyline confounded me for much of the novel became a puzzle piece that fell into place by the end.

It also helped that I loved the writing. Tucker’s style is very descriptive without being weighed down by wordiness, which I think is why his battle scenes come across so well. A good thing too, because there’s a lot of action in this book, ranging from one-on-one duels to sweeping epic battles—and at one point, there’s even a gladiatorial style tournament thrown into the mix. The book’s plot might be your standard fantasy fare, but the story’s pacing never slows down simply because something interesting is always happening on the page. The author’s excellent prose and the novel’s unflagging momentum meant that I finished this sizeable book in a little more than two days—a clear sign of an addictive read.

All told, The Path of Flames was a great series opener, establishing plenty of potential for the later books. It’s a solid gem of an indie epic fantasy novel, which I would highly recommend if you ever feel the hankering for something fascinating and fun, with that traditional yet timeless feel. I’ve already added the next book to my reading list.


Rating: 8/10

YA Weekend: The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury

“I’ve learned that being alone and being lonely are not the same thing. Once I was surrounded by people and lonely for it, but now I’m alone and I’ve never been so content.”

The Sin Eater’s Daughter by Melinda Salisbury

Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult

SeriesThe Sin Eater’s Daughter #1

Publisher: Scholastic Press (February 2015)

Author Info: www.melindasalisbury.com

Wendy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Sin Eater eats the sins of the dead. At a funeral, the loved ones set out a meal, with each dish representing the sins of the one that was lost. The Sin Eater, with painstaking grace and care, eats those sins that the dead may rest. It was Twylla’s fate to take her mother’s place in the future, but the queen stepped in to change all that. Instead she becomes the embodiment of a goddess and her very touch means death. She becomes a weapon that the queen wields with no mercy, and Twylla meekly fulfills her role, never once questioning it.

I’ve spoken before about seemingly weak characters and the animosity that is often thrown at them by readers. It is understandable to dislike a character that seems to refuse to take her fate into her own hands and instead lets her own fear and ignorance hold her down. Such characters aren’t easy to empathize with — either because we refuse to believe we could ever be so weak, or because we have such moments of vulnerability and dislike ourselves for it. But a “strong female character” does not mean one that always overcomes everything. Sometimes, a strong female character is the one that overcomes herself. By the end of this book, I can assure you that Twylla comes to realize where she has failed herself and how she can learn to take her fate into her own hands. And, to my pleasant surprise, finding herself does not come “complete” with the involvement of any of the two love interests.

A lot of time is spent in the confines of Twylla’s mind and her chambers. Her world is a small one, but the implication by the end of the book is that it will expand — and that the magic and stories that the people believe are indeed real.

I read this shortly after reading The Shadow Queen, which similarly featured an evil queen intent on power for the sake of power, who has no qualms about hurting anyone who crossed her in even the slightest way. But unlike The Shadow Queen, here, the queen is given no depth. As the story is only told through Twylla’s point of view, there is no opportunity to see the queen as anything more than a two dimensional villain. The prince does get some air time, but it’s always nice to see more of the supporting characters fleshed out in such stories, particularly the female ones.

To be honest, this did not truly grab me — until the end when Twylla showed what she was made of and what she could be, if given time. As such, I am curious to see what will become of her and her kingdom.

Tough Traveling: Beginnings

No, you’re not seeing things, it’s actually true — the Tough Traveling feature is back, with huge thanks to Laura from Fantasy Faction who is reviving this meme! Back in 2014, the idea first 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 by Diana Wynn Jones — a tongue-in-cheek parody of the fantasy genre. Tough Traveling was widely successful, with over fifty bloggers participating at one point before the feature went on hiatus.

Starting this month though, the Tough Traveling tradition is making a comeback – with some changes. It will now be a monthly feature instead of a weekly one, though the idea remains the same. If anyone is interested in participating, we invite you to come play along!

This month’s topic:

Beginnings

The Tough Guide states that you will begin in rather poor circumstances in an unimportant corner of the continent; a kitchen menial, perhaps, or a blacksmith’s apprentice. From there, the Guide advises that you will be contacted by your TOUR MENTOR (normally an elderly male MAGIC USER with much experience) who will tell you what to do, which is almost certainly to discover you are a MISSING HEIR.

What better way to kick things off (again!) with a topic that celebrates the memorable openings to the speculative fiction books and series we like best?

Dreamer’s Pool by Juliet Marillier

Not only is Dreamer’s Pool one of my favorite fantasy novels of all time, it also fits this week’s theme to a tee. When the book opens, we are introduced to the series protagonists Blackthorn and Grim, who are a pair of prisoners rotting in the dungeon of a wicked and corrupt lord. Poor circumstances? Check! A rather unimportant corner of the continent? Check! Hours before she is to be executed though, Blackthorn is visited by a fey named Conmael, who offers her chance to escape in exchange for her promise to set aside her desire for vengeance on the man who destroyed her life. Our Tour Mentor here might not be your conventional magic user, but I would that say a faerie who can get you out of prison with the snap of his fingers comes close enough. Reluctantly, Blackthorn agrees to Conmael’s deal and makes her way north to Dalriada to start her new life, followed by fellow escapee Grim who later on becomes her most steadfast and loyal companion.

Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson

I’ve only just caught up with this middle grade series by Brandon Sanderson, and I’m glad I did because it’s hilarious. It stars a young boy named Alcatraz Smedry, who lives with his ordinary foster parents in an ordinary house in an ordinary neighborhood. On the day of his thirteenth birthday though, he receives an old bag of sand in the mail – apparently the only inheritance left to him by his birth parents. But before you can even say “Gee, thanks mom and dad!” the bag is stolen by a member of an evil cult known as the Librarians. Fortunately though, a wise Tour Mentor in the form of our protagonist’s long lost elderly male Magic User grandpa show ups (late!) to save the day, revealing to Alcatraz the truth of his birthright – Alcatraz is, in fact, literally the lost heir to the Smedry line. Together, Alcatraz and his new allies must stop the Librarians by carrying out a daring mission into the heart of enemy territory – also known as the central downtown library.

The Facefaker’s Game by Chandler J. Birch

Talk about beginning in poor circumstances. The main character of The Facefaker’s Game is a fourteen-year-old boy with no past. One day, he simply became aware of himself, standing in the middle of the street with no memory of where he came from or even what his name is. Covered in soot, the boy decides to give himself the name of Ashes. By begging, stealing, and cheating at cards, he’s able to scrape together just enough money to get by, but then one day he gets on the wrong side of a crime lord. Instead of meeting his end though, Ashes is unexpectedly rescued by an Artificer named Candlestick Jack. Like any good Tour Mentor, Jack decides to take the boy on as an apprentice, teaching him the mysterious magical art of light manipulation and illusion.

Hope and Red by Jon Skovron

Instead of just one humble beginning, in this book we have two! Meet Hope, who at the age of eight became the lone survivor of a massacre on her small fishing village. Rescued by a merchant ship, she was then taken in by the ancient order of Vinchen warriors and taught their ways by their grand master Hurlo, who went against his order’s rules to train the girl in secret. Next meet Red, who was captured by slavers not long after he was orphaned and left alone to fend for himself in the slums. Lucky for him, the infamous rogue known as Sadie the Goat was captured alongside with him, and after the two of them made their daring escape, Sadie was so impressed with the boy’s talents that she made him her protege on the spot. Two tour beginnings, two Tour Mentors – all for the price of one.

Twelve Kings in Sharakhai by Bradley P. Beaulieu

Not every beginning I’m featuring today fits the description of the theme. After all, the overarching idea is really just to list the fantasy books or series we’ve read that have memorable intros, and in my opinion, few intros are more memorable than the one in Twelve Kings in Sharakhai. The novel’s main character is Çeda, who’s probably one of the best female protagonists I have encountered in years. We open the novel with a scene from the fighting pits, where she is a competitor in the tourney. Right after a phenomenal combat sequence which ends with Çeda serving her opponent his ass on a platter, she then goes on to engage in an intensely passionate tryst with the fighting pit’s owner. If all this was part of Beaulieu’s attempt to capture the reader’s attention right off the bat, well, it certainly worked on me!

In the beginning, there were… beginnings. There are some wonderful, memorable beginnings to many books, but I decided to narrow my list down a bit to my three very favourite series. Their beginnings led me on incredible journeys with characters I have grown to love and return to every few years. What  And what better way to start a memorable tale than the good old fashioned…

The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell

“Once upon a time, in a land that was called Britain, these things happened.”

I am not really a King Arthur fan. Oh sure I’ll watch a good King Arthur movie, and I’m quite fond of the 2004 film directed by Antoine Fuqua for reasons.

But I will always compare any Arthur story I watch or read to Bernard Cornwall’s Warlord Chronicles. They introduced me to Arthur through the eyes of a man who loved and served him beyond all measure. A greater friend, no being could ever have than Derfel. And seeing Arthur and his story told in this way forever changed my views on the once and future king.

“These are the tales of Arthur, the Warlord, the King that Never Was, the Enemy of God and, may the living Christ and Bishop Sansum forgive me, the best man I ever knew.”

Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey

“Lest anyone should suppose that I am a cuckoo’s child, got on the wrong side of the blanket by lusty peasant stock and sold into indenture in a short-fallen season, I may say I am House-born and reared in the Night Court proper, for all the good it did me.”

This was how I met Phèdre nó Delaunay, a child seemingly cursed with a mark of the gods. This was my first introduction to erotica. Or rather, erotica that was not part of my sister’s romance novels that I used to sneak around to read when I was younger. This was a book steeped in beautiful prose and beautiful people, and an entirely new and eye opening perspective on sexuality.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

“I am not as I once was. They have done this to me, broken me open and torn out my heart. I do not know who I am anymore. I must try to remember.”

And this was the series that broke me open and tore out my heart, so much so that it took me three years to get through this trilogy, simply because that’s how much time I needed between each book to settle my emotions. This was the first book I read by N.K. Jemisin, and like Octavia E. Butler before her, I am in awe of her imagination and her vision, and the opportunity to see characters like myself in the stories I read.

Join us, or better yet, come participate with us for Tough Traveling next month! The theme will be:

Assassins

Assassins are ubiquitous throughout fantasyland. Sharp-eyed readers (or even dull-eyed ones) will notice that their hooded forms often adorn book covers, and that they frequently appear – rather improbably – not to mind being the sole focus of our attention. Whether they’re spotlight hogs or camera-shy and brooding, most assassins will have trained for years and are very, VERY good at their job (i.e. killing people for money).