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Monday, 13 June 2016

Bonehunters by Steven Erikson

Let me start by reiterating that this is probably hands down the most intricate ambitious and engaging fantasy series I've ever read. Erikson has pushed the boundaries of the genre with this work in terms of world building, characters and intelligence of writing without sacrificing pace and engagement. It's so refreshing not to be patronised by a book, and for this the reader forgives the sometimes confusing mountain of sub-plots and characters, moreso than when George RR Martin throws in random POV characters in his series (especially in that fourth book!).

After the prequel theme of Midnight Tides, Bonehunters drags us back to the current day. Picking up the story threads from House of Chains (an astonishing book, and perhaps one of the strongest) we rejoin the Fourteenth Army suppressing the 7 cities rebellion. The 14th, with Kalam and Quick Ben, pursue Leoman of the Flails north to a city famed for its grim history to the Malazans. Elsewhere we catch up with Icarium and Mappo; with Cutter and Heboric; and with Trull Sengar, and Onos. Throw in Ganoes Paran taking a more active role, and Apsalar totally kicking arse, and the sub-plots begin to swell. Everyone's favourite barbarian Karsa (witness!) gets plenty of attention, and it's fun working out how all their paths will cross and un-cross, and how we pick up threads from Midnight Tides to form one ongoing narrative (rather than the three plot arcs of the first half of the series).
So what's good about this book, in the context of the series. We get some significant plot advancement with regards the Empire, the various imperial armies, some of the key characters (such as Icarium, Karsa, Ganoes). The Edur really emerge as utter bastards, their ethics tainted by Rhulad and his master, the Crippled God. It's quite a stark jump from how we left them in Midnight Tides, and I hope it'll be expanded further in Reaper's Gale.

The big feature of this book is the gods becoming far more involved in the scrap. Erikson has had gods butting in all the way along: thus far Shadowthrone, Cotillion, K'rul, Crippled God, Oponn, and the ascendants. This book, however, we get a much more definite feel of their personal involvement. Poliel, and Soliel, are newcomers and key to the book, we get loads of Shadowthrone and a much more sympathetic version of Cotillion. A bunch of others pop in, and the primordial spirit, Eres' Al, whose relationship to Bottle (a superb character) is fundamental to the book.

I'd previously rallied against the Grecian-style hidden gods in Erikson's work, especially in Midnight Tides where it felt that Erikson pulled a god out of the bag to resolve several plot crises. I've no huge problem with it, as long as it's not used too casually to diminish the very real drama and tension the mortals undergo. Erikson needs to tread carefully with it.

There are some genuine stand out scenes in here: Y'Gbatan, and the escape; Ganoes 's trip across the Jhagut underworld; Icarium unleashed; and the astonishing scene with Kalam, Tavore and T'Amber in Malaz City. Superb pace and writing, and absolute page turners, which in a series as complicated and convoluted as this is admirable. I think what I'm trying to say is that despite the mounds of info here that Erikson can still crank up the pace and action pretty much unlike any other current fantasy writer.

Any down sides? Although there was a central story (the resolution of Seven Cities, the return to Malaz City, and the binding of the 14th), the numerous other side-plots (Edur, first throne, gods warring, Icarium's past, etc etc) made the book feel, perhaps for the first time, like a filler. I suppose that was inevitable, when you are into the second half of the series. And unlike book four in GRRM's Song of Ice and Fire series it's 'filler' that never drags: I continually wanted to know what was going on with the huge cast of characters.
So, top marks again, with the aforementioned caveats.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Redemption and resolution

Six years ago, whilst Amanda was pregnant with Henry, I began writing a fantasy book. At the time I had an idea in my brain of a heroine who would find mysterious powers of magic and use these powers to flee her slavery and join two wily thieves on a quest for some magic crystals.

 The concept evolved, far broader than I'd planned as these things often do, and what was once a two book series expanded into three and then after splitting the first meaty tome in twain, into a six book series (despite the 'trilogy' title on the FB page... LOL).

And, six years after I put digit to keyboard, bringing to life scribbles in notepads, and over half a million words later, book six is almost here. In the last throes of proof-reading, I have the distinct pleasure to reveal the incredible new cover for the book.

One of the great relationships I have enjoyed from the early bizarre days of FIBP and through the growth of the mighty Myrddin Publishing Group is the one I have with Ceri Clark. As well as her skills as an author, and writer of internet guides, Ceri has a real talent for book cover design. This has worked in synergy with ideas I have had regarding images, and she can take the raw substance and create some remarkable work. As you'll see below, Ceri's six book covers in my Darkness Rising series, form a great set.

The latest cover was a real challenge. Thus far we have had representations of Emelia (bk1-2), Hunor (bk3), Orla (bk4) and Kervin (bk5). For Book 6 I had always planned for Jem, who is perhaps the other key character in the series (along with Vildor and Aldred). Yet from an early stage I had such a strong image of Jem in my mind that nothing could replace it (if you are interested, I visualise him as David Thewlis as Professor Lupin).

So the image on book six is a representation of one of my series favorites, Ekris, the thespian assassin whose journey with Aldred was driven by his need for vengeance towards Hunor. Book five's finale saw the long awaited fight between the two master-swordsmen, and Book six takes Ekris into some strange uncharted territory in a way you simply won't believe. The hooded assassin, bearing a passing likeness to Ezio from Assassin's Creed, is stood in the ruins of a once great city--the finale location of the series, Erturia.

In a lot of ways, Ekris has changed the most as a character through the books. In the outset he was manipulative and murderous, throwing wit into his killing with panache and style. He borrows from Tarantino-esque hitmen, with a professional pride in the cleanliness of his kills. Yet it is the unabashed friendship from Aldred that chips away at his cold stone soul, and by book four he struggles to leave this one friend he has gained. Ekris wears many faces, and in that he has lost who he is, and so it is with a certain irony that he becomes the minion of the theatrical ghast, Tonrik, whose warped mind embellishes eternal life with drama and self-indulgence. Tonrik's hold on him becomes ever stronger, and we were left at the end of book five with no idea how Ekris would resolve this domination, and atone for the demons of his own past.

So... let's finish with the blurb, and the promise that the book is almost almost here.....

'There's no change without loss. No gain without sacrifice. Redemption is rarely painless.'

War has ripped apart Artoria as the dark forces of Vildor prepare for the final battle. Flying north to battle, Lady Orla forms an uneasy alliance with the Artorians. Yet her heart remains heavy with the guilt of recent betrayal.

In the wilderness of the Wastes, Emelia has succumbed to Vildor's black charm and watches
helplessly as his schemes come to their terrible conclusion. Separated from his partner, Hunor, the Wild-Mage Jem races across Artoria to save Emelia. But more than just Vildor stands in his way as the terrors of the past seek to steal the might of the crystals from his grasp, and with them all hope of salvation.

OOOHH... getting excited now :-D

* If you want to check Ceri Clark's website and work out, then click here

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Midnight Tides by Steven Erikson

Midnight Tides is the fifth book, and thus the half-way point, in the Malazan series of epic fantasy novels. It is also unusual in the series in that it is set before the first four novels, and focuses on a new continent and a new conflict. Given that Erikson’s first book, Gardens of the Moon, jumps in part of the way through the story of the Empire, I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised!

Midnight Tides gives us the back story to the Tiste Edur, one of the three Tiste races we have been gradually introduced to over the last four books. The Edur, unlike their more sophisticated Andii and Liosan cousins, live a more tribal life in the cold north of the continent of Lether. We’d met them previously as washed up bodies in Memories of Ice, and in more detail in House of Chains both through Trull Sengar and also during the attempt to reclaim the Throne of Shadow from the mobile island, Drift Avali.
Trull Sengar by Slaine69

At the start of House of Chains, Trull Sengar was ‘shorn’, exiled from his race in the fragment warren The Nascent, by his brothers. One of the key plot threads in Midnight Tides tells of Trull’s background and his relationship with his three brothers, all of which pop up live and dead in the rest of the series. Trull is a likable character, more pensive and ethical than most of his kin, and an uneasy participant in the escalation of war between the Edur and their capitalist neighbors, the Letheri. The Edur become ruled by Trull’s brother following a mission to retrieve a mystical sword forged by the Crippled God. Rhulad is a fabulous creation, an impetuous youth corrupted by sorcery and ultimately insanity—and the image of him with gold coins soldered to his flesh is one of the most evocative in the book.

 Rhulad by artist Puck

Running parallel to the Edur story line we have several others. Amongst the Letheri we have three brothers who provide the opposite viewpoint on both the war and the Letheri Empire. That at least two are seeking its ruin gives us an idea about its inevitable decline. I loved the detail that Erikson throws into the society, almost as a caricature of the materialist nature of the First World. The Letheri measure value by debt, and that debt may be inherited for generations creating strata within their greed dominated culture.  The most fascinating of the characters is Tehol, a business genius with deep running morality, and a very  amusing man-servant, Bugg.  The interplay between the pair provides the main comedy in a book deep in tragedy.

Naturally, as is Erikson’s style, the main plotline (of war between Edur and Letheri, creation of an Empire, the machinations of the Crippled God, and the effects on two sets of brothers) is underpinned by other racial sub-plots and more fleshing out of his intricate milieu. It can become distracting, not least during the often confused finales to his books but afterwards I often reflect upon the richness and complexity. So in Midnight Tides we have ascendants trapped from ancient days trying to get free, demons and tribal gods, another Forkrul Assail popping up (as one did in House of Chains), and the mention of Holds—a precursor version of Houses.

Art by Laurent Saint Onge

It all creates a very readable story with strong bold characterisation in places. The downside of Erikson is that the characters often feel diluted by their number, and although I loved the key characters of Trull, Rhulad, Tehol and Bugg, they came at the expense of a number of others. Some of the supporting characters were fun, notably the undead Shurq, Udinaas  the possessed slave, and both the Crimson Guard and the Ratchatchers’ Guild. But with such a vast selection the inevitable fatalities at the end of the novel don’t seem to carry the same weight.

Art by Laurent Saint Onge

Finally, and this is a minor quibble, Erikson has a bit of a habit of sneaking gods amongst men. In the earlier books, where the Ascendants were characters (like Anomander Rake, or Caladan Brood, Shadowthrone etc) it felt okay. But in this book we have a few gods sneaking around as humans and abruptly revealing powers at opportune moments. As funny as it seems, I do worry it is a little lazy and hope he doesn’t overuse the tool through the rest of the series.

Art by Laurent Saint Onge

So, all in all, a good book in an excellent series and I look forward to getting back to the main plot with book 6, the Bonehunters.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Ministry of Pandemonium

The Ministry of Pandemonium was written a few years ago now, and I found it by chance in the local library as I was randomly choosing YA books to get my head around the style and language of the genre.

It's a curious take on the rather saturated paranormal genre in the way that its main protagonist is a lad, there's no sexy vampires/Angels/demons/
fairies/witches. In fact the mentor role is filled by a face-changing 'agent' called Mr October (gave me a real Sapphire and Steel vibe oddly) who meets our troubled Teen, Ben, in a graveyard.

Gradually Ben is introduced to an unseen parallel world of spirits and demons. October teaches Ben about finding and guiding the recently deceased safely to the afterworld, in opposition to demons who seek to capture souls to feast on them. A pretty good premise, that feels a little clunky in places as Ben and colleagues from the Ministry (who work to organise said spiritual guidance) utilise special magical powers in their missions. Ben's abilities manifest through the book, and seem a little too much like superpowers. 

What's good? Well, Ben and his back story with his Mum is nicely handled. Their relationship is pivotal and poignant in many places. The supporting characters are good: Becky, the female lead, and Mr October are enjoyable. 

Less good, is the plot seems to meander in places despite the punchy writing style, and the book very much felt like a superhero origin story, jamming in as much info and subplot as possible, leaving a mountain of plot threads for sequels. That's not a bad thing, as there is a sequel, but I could see how being obliged to read it to resolve plot strands might irritate some. Specifically the repercussions of Ben's actions at the end feel utterly unresolved by the last chapter.
So worth a read, if you like slightly disturbing YA paranormal fiction, and the potential for a good series. I certainly got a televisual vibe out of it- perhaps like Supernatural or Grimm, or even a graphic novel would fit the narrative well.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Also Known As... Thoughts on Jessica Jones

Unlike many others I didn't binge-watch Netflix's latest Marvel offering, Jessica Jones, but savoured it like a fine wine (despite it being more ultra-strong Alcopop). Netflix had raised expectations with the phenomenal Daredevil, and in the interim I'd succumbed to watching Gotham- and loved that too.

So does it live up to expectations? Almost. For a start, I had lower expectations: my experience of the character was from her appearance as Luke Cage's missus in Bendis's New Avengers, rather than from Alias the distinctly mature series that preceded it. So I had a grasp of the character as a troubled, failed superhero who worked as a PI and had a thing with Cage.
And the essence of that character is here: Jess is a PI, with a rather jaded cynical outlook, who drinks hard and obsesses about Cage from afar. This is linked to actions she undertook whilst under the influence of Killgrave (the Purple Man), and this complex dynamic between her, Cage and Killgrave is the core of the series' story arc.

The acting is great: not everyone has taken to Krysten Ritter, but I really liked her portrayal (I liked her in Breaking Bad, before her ignoble end). She captured the anger, vulnerability and gallows humour well. Cage, played by Mike Colter, was a good contrast to Jones, and very well cast in the role. But it was David Tennant, as expected, who stole the show- grinning, joking, screaming and leering through the whole series in some demonic amalgamation of Dr Who and Barty Crouch Jr. He steals the scenes with such awesome menace that I weep for the Dr Who fans that can't dissociate David Tennant and his mockney accent from the Time Lord.

The plot is suitably adult: the sex scenes are a little heavier at the start, then back off a bit, but are distinctly 15+ and the violence escalates through the series from initial gun shot wounds, moderate gore, to rather more graphic by the end (head shot brain splat, as seems the vogue in TV at present; limbs being sawn off and fed into blender... Yes, really). It pushes the 15 certificate a little, moreso than Daredevil and Gotham, and indeed the sub-text is more adult: Killgrave is a psychopath with mind control and warped humour, so the theme of rape and abuse is key to the plot. In some ways I was disappointed that the attempts to take it down a legal route were doomed to failure, but I'm uncertain the Marvel Universe as depicted here would suit that.

Which brings me onto the Marvel Universe. Now the idea is that all the Marvel Franchise occur in the same world. At times you wouldn't know: the events seem to happen oblivious to the costume shenanigans of the high profile heroes in the Avengers. There are references to Avengers 1, references to big green Dude and Thor, yet nothing more. I presumed it happened prior to Avengers 2, but there was no TV background of superheroes (which would've been really easy to do). I'd forgive all of that if they tied it to Daredevil more- after all, it's in the same neighbourhood. There's a nice enough link in the last episode, but given the (i) finale of Daredevil and (ii) the Killgrave body count and crime, surely DD should be linked to this series more. I hope by either DD2, or Luke Cage, they'll get a grip on it as it would have made this series better if they did that well.

Overall, well worth a watch, and a bonus feature of Patsy Walker (Hellcat, miaow!!). Look forward to the next Netflix offering...

House Of Chains by Steven Erikson

House of Chains was the first of Erikson's series that I hadn't read previously, having previously lost momentum on the third book. So in many ways it was a good tester as to whether I've got into the series, and got on top of its intricate plot lines. And by and large I think I'm managing well, perhaps with occasional trips to Wikipedia. 

The story continues on from the rather misery laden finale of book two, with events also following book three (which ran in line with Bk2). You'll recall that Felisin, younger sister to Ganoes Paran (now master of the deck) and Tavore, adjunct successor to Lorn, has become the focus of the revolt of the 7 cities called the Whirlwind. She names herself Sha' ik, and is partly possessed by the Goddess of the  Whirlwind (which is a fragment of a shattered warren). With the ex-priest of Fenner, Heboric, she is part of a rather disparate pack of revolutionaries comprised of warlocks (two of whom are nasty pieces of work), a traitor Fist, and tribesmen. One of her bodyguards, Karsa Olong, becomes a key character and his somewhat grisly story occupies the first chapters of the book and throw some sense on prior events, not least in the Nascent. This fragment of warren also introduces us to the Tiste Edur, Trull Sengar, and latterly the Tiste Liosan. There's more with the undead warriors, the T'lan Imass, and some plot lines on how they've influenced various cultures.

One such cultural influence is on the Teblor, and we find gradually about this sub-species of  thelomen toblakai that are essentially huge barbarians, like Bharghast, or Trell. Erikson's anthropology comes to the fore here, as it does when we get some strange almost time travel scenes later in the book.

Image from Deviant Art 

It'd be easy with all the background to stifle the book with history and legend. Erikson avoids this in the main part, although there are sections in which the info dump gets too heavy handed. His main virtue is writing down to earth falable characters, and interacting them with gods and epic heroes. I found greatest interest in former Bridgeburners, Kallam and Hedge, and to a lesser extent, Pearl and Cutter. Hedge definitely carries a good part of the book, and given Erikson's habit of doing a George RR Martin I did read his chapters with anxiety. Yet Erikson clearly likes writing his foot soldiers caught up in the epic struggles, and didn't start bumping off characters I like! 

As a book it reads well, with enough pace to keep the reader engaged. The resolution had the typically chaotic finale that Erikson likes, as he illustrated in book 3 especially. Plenty of floating plot threads and story arcs are ongoing, although I think book 5 is a sideline into the Tiste Edur. Looking forward to it fleshing out the world a bit more.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Of Ice and Air by Carlie Cullen: new release

My friend and fellow Myrddin author has followed the success of her paranormal trilogy Heart Search, by dipping her toes into the swirling waters of my favourite genre, fantasy.

I have my review copy of "Of Ice and Air" hot of the press, and am eager to get cracking on it once I've finished my latest Erikson book. In the interim, and pending the review I'll pen when I've read it, here's an excerpt:



“Please, listen to what I have to say. One person with sufficient magic at their disposal could sneak in and at least find out if mother is there. If so, she could be rescued and brought back before Gengaruk and his men even know she’s gone. There must be something in the magic you’ve set around the area which would prevent mother from freeing herself using her own gifts. This is where I have the advantage and the best of both worlds. Not only do I possess the magic of Idenvarlis, but Taivass-Maa also. So I would assume my air magic would not be affected by whatever you have in place to keep those animals trapped in that land.

“A battalion of your men would be seen and heard from a fair distance and unless you gave them bracelets to allow them immunity from the magic, they would get stuck there and besides, I’m guessing they don’t possess the full range of abilities we do, or am I wrong on that score?” Kailani’s voice was commanding and self-assured.

Silence so absolute you couldn’t even hear breathing suffused the throne room. Jaanis, Shivla, and Bellis looked thoughtful and Kailani breathed a sigh of relief. They were actually taking her seriously. Bellis was the first to break the silence. His voice sounded extraordinarily loud after the quiet, yet he was only speaking at his normal volume.

“You say you have all the magics from both worlds, how do you know this?”

Kailani unfastened the cape and pushed her hair to one side. Under her ear, indented into the skin, were three birthmarks: three wavy lines, a teardrop, and an icicle. Bellis bent closer to examine them and ran his finger over each one.

“Am I missing any?” she asked innocently.

“No, and they are genuine,” he replied, more for his parents’ benefit than Kailani’s, or so she felt. “What magics do you have from the air world?” She reached up and peeled back a little of her dress to reveal her left shoulder; goosebumps smothered her skin. Four raised birthmarks could clearly be seen: a star, moon, sun, and a flash of lightning. “What can you do with them?”

“I can teleport, I’m telepathic, I can shoot light rays from my eyes which have the burning power of the sun, and I can manifest blades of fire just by thought, to name but a few.” She covered her shoulder up quickly and pulled her cloak tighter around her.

Bellis turned to his parents. “Kailani must be the most powerful individual who ever came to Idenvarlis. As she said, she has the best of both worlds. I think she could stand a chance of finding Garalia if you could give her an immunity bracelet, Father.” Kailani gazed at Bellis in disbelief and was surprised to see something very different in his eyes to what came from his lips. A calculating look shone there and she knew something wasn’t right. Now wasn’t the time to find out more, although she vowed to herself that she would on her return. Her instincts were on full alert and they told her that Bellis wanted her gone. He didn’t want to share his parents’ attention with her, so would support any madcap scheme she came up with to rescue his sister in the hope she wouldn’t return.


If you can't wait for my review, you can read Carlie's book at: