Review: The Trees by Ali Shaw

Life was pretty busy, so apologies for the radio silence. I bring you a new review to make up for it.

thetrees_alishaw

The Trees
Ali Shaw

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Publishing year:
 2016
Pages: 487
ISBN: 9781408862308
Language: English
Genre: Magical realism, apocalyptic
Rating: 4/5

One downside of working in a bookshop is that cover buys are likely to happen, especially if you’re unpacking or shelving books. This was most certainly the case for The Trees. A face of a fox made of leaves certainly caught my eye. This, along with the blurb on the back, made me purchase it by the end of my shift.

The Trees takes place in England for the most part, where trees suddenly spout from the ground, destroying houses, streets, and human lives in the process. The people who didn’t get skewered on tree branches are faced with the instant collapse of society and have to survive in an unfamiliar world. Protagonist Adrien Thomas is one of the survivors, and he is quite overwhelmed by the sudden change. Luckily, he meets nature-loving Hannah and her son Seb. Together, they set out to find Adrian’s wife, who was in Ireland for work at the time. The forest seems to go on forever, though, and they not only have to face the cruelty of nature, but also their own demons.

To be fair, Adrian is not a protagonist I’d normally like. He is passive, prone to self-pity and tends to give up easily. He is well aware of his faults, which is an unending source of self-loathing for him. When the trees first arrive, he clings to the idea that help will arrive and would be content to wait it out in his comfortable armchair. He meets Hannah and Seb by chance, and it’s fear that eventually propels him to join them. Still, Adrian managed to be a sympathetic character that I was rooting for, which paid off in his character development. Though he doesn’t become some assertive, ambitious leader (that would have been weird), he does grow as a person and ends up doing things by the end of the novel that he wouldn’t have done at the beginning.

Hannah and Seb also grow throughout the book. Though Hannah is initially thrilled with the coming of the trees, she is eventually faced with how cruel nature can be which forces her to come to terms with her views on nature. Seb initially starts out as a somewhat sullen teenager who is robbed of a life that was primarily defined by technology, but he really comes into his own. Eventually, the trio also meet the Japanese schoolgirl Hiroko, who had been on a school trip at the time of the trees arriving and has some formidable survival skills. Finally, there is the fox kit Yasuo, who is adorable. The Trees also introduces some antagonists, but they all have a human quality to them.

Speaking of qualities, the endless forest is not simply a collection of trees providing a stage for the cruelty of nature. There is a certain mystical aspect to the forest as well. It tends to change paths or direct the people wandering among the trees. It has hallucinatory qualities that are never quite fully explained, allowing the woods to remain mysterious and sometimes even eerie. The woods also cause the Kirin appear, who act like some sort of guide, and the whisplike Whisperers, whose purpose remains unknown for a large part of the novel. Even though The Trees is mostly apocalyptic with significant character building, the woods and the new creatures give it also a fairytale-like quality, albeit a very dark one. Nature is not only cruel, but also beautiful, and the two go hand in hand.

This brings me to the one negative point. Though the purpose of the Whisperers is revealed, and their presence looms over the narrative and the characters (or, more signficantly, Adrien), I feel a bit more could have been done with them or the mysterious eeriness of the woods. Regardless, The Trees is a character-driven novel with a lot of atmosphere and some beautiful and heartwarming scenes. It’s not as creepy or action-driven as most apocalyptic fiction, but if you don’t mind this is definitely worth a shot.

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Horror: Scary Books for Halloween!

So, with Halloween around the corner, it’s time for some scary books! There are, of course, the classics such as Dracula or Frankenstein. You can’t go wrong with works by Edgar Allan Poe or H.P. Lovecraft, either. If you want something more modern, Stephen King has quite the list of scary books to choose from — I’m currently reading It myself. Still, there’s a lot more out there, and these horror novels certainly deserve a bit more time in the spotlight.

Without further ado: here’s a short list of scary books for Halloween!

BirdBox-JoshMalermanBird Box – Josh Malerman
This was definitely one of the most tense books I’ve read in my life. ‘Things’ that drive people mad and eventually lead them to commit suicide when they see them cause the world as we know it to end. People board up their houses and only dare to go outside blindfolded. This book follows two timelines: a pregnant woman immediately after the outbreak as she finds shelter, and the same woman trying to raise two kids as she prepares to leave their safe house. The scary part of this book is that the threat can’t be seen, which makes the characters nervous whenever they venture outside. Are the rustling leaves caused by the wind or something else? Do characters imagine a touch on their shoulder or did something really touch them? Bird Box has some very tense scenes that kept me on the edge of my seat.

HEX Thomas Olde HeuveltHEX – Thomas Olde Heuvelt
I’ve read the 2013 Dutch version of this novel (the ending was changed in the 2016 version when it was released in America), but it’s still a very well written horror book that is somewhat reminiscent of Stephen King’s work. You can read more about it in my review, but basically it’s about a witch haunting a small village. Her eyes and mouth have been sewn shut and she appears and disappears at will. When her eyes and mouth are opened, disaster is supposed to happen. No one can leave the village either way, though. The threat mainly stems from what the villagers perceive the witch to be, but having a lady with sewn eyes and mouth standing next to your bed, whispering words that drive you to suicide, is bound to be a scary experience.

LettheRightOneIn-johnajvidelindqvistLet the Right One In – John Ajvide Lindqvist
A vampire novel done right, taking place in Stockholm, Sweden. Twelve-year-old Oskar is bullied, but when a girl moves in the apartment next to his, he ends up befriending his strange new neighbour who only comes out at night. In the mean time, people are gruesomely murdered; their corpses are emptied of blood. This book is creepy, has some very unsettling and even disturbing scenes, but the evil and creepiness doesn’t stem from the novel’s resident vampire. No, humans are actually the source of disturbing creepiness. It’s also one of the better portrayed romances between a vampire and a human, just don’t expect the sparkly teenage love kind of romance. The main characters are very well written and the atmosphere is amazing.

sladehouse_davidmitchellSlade House – David Mitchell
The entrance to Slade House opens only once every nine years, and only under certain conditions. People who are lonely or different make for easy victims, so in several short stories the house’s residents ensnare their victims, playing off their desires, fears, and emotions. These short stories combine in an overarching plot that spans several decades, and it’s definitely interesting to learn more about the two residents of Slade House. The ending can be a little anticlimactic, but the excellent first few sections definitely make it worth checking out, especially because it’s a little different from the usual haunted house story. It’s bizarre, creepy, and a little different from ‘usual’ horror. The victims themselves are very well written as well. Apparently, it takes place in the same universe as The Bone Clock, but it’s definitely possible to read Slade House without having read Mitchell’s previous works.

Here we are, my recommendations for Halloween. What about you guys? Any horror novels that are definitely worth checking out? Feel free to leave their titles in the comments — I might check them out myself.

Bookish Villainy’s Guide to Arthurian Fiction

With all my mentions of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur in previous posts, you might have gathered that I have a thing for Arthuriana. I’m not a romantic type, but when reading bits and pieces of this text during my first year as an English major, the adventures of knights still struck a chord in me.

Ever since, I began reading more books about King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table, and there’s a lot of it out there. Some are great, some not so much, and there’s a ton in-between. So, where do you start? Well, you can start anywhere. I’ve started with Le Morte D’Arthur, but you can also start with something more modern. It’s up to you and whatever sparks your interest.

But what about the original text?
Well, here’s the thing with Arthurian fiction — and a lot of folk tales, legends, and mythology, for that matter — there is no original text. These tales used to be told orally, which meant that storytellers would change things depending on their audience or memory — or even their interpretation. It’s only later that these tales were written down and began taking a more ‘definitive’ shape, but even then there is a lot of variety between these sources. It’s a matter of interpretation.

lemortedarthurmalory

There are a couple of famous old texts worth mentioning, however. I’ve already mentioned Le Morte D’Arthur, which is probably the most influential on what we know as Arthurian fiction today. It gives a very solid basis on the events, characters, and recurring themes of chivalry, courtly love, and morality. Unfortunately, it’s not a very easy read — I daresay that it’s even a bit tedious to get through simply because Malory doesn’t have a very nice and fluid writing style. There’s a lot of repetition and lists you’ll have to slodge through which can get quite long-winded. There is also Chrétien de Troyes’ Arthurian Romances, which is a bit easier to read, but it’s unfortunately unfinished. It does offer more detail about certain famous tales, such as ‘The Knight of the Cart’ (which, by the way, can be credited with the first appearance of Lancelot). The Vulgate Cycle is also a major source, but a bit tricky to acquire. Finally, there is The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth, but only the last couple of pages deal with Arthuriana. It’s still interesting to read because of the story of Merlin and Vortigern, and the text also serves as a starting point for a lot of the later texts. And it has giants.  Needless to say, you should take the ‘history’ part with a grain of salt…

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Anyway, because there is no real ‘original text’, there are a lot of different interpretations and sources. The texts discussed in the previous paragraph are very Christian, but the legend has its Welsh and Briton roots as well. These influences, as well as more historical angles, can be found in more modern adaptations. Even outside of religious, historical and cultural contexts, focus and genre tend to vary a lot as well. A story can be a traditional ‘knight saves damsels in distress’-stories or Arthur himself keeping the Saxons at bay. It can be a coming-of-age story of whatever character is the focus — each story different in their portrayal of famous characters and events. Mordred is or isn’t the villain, and the same goes for Morgan le Fay and Morgause. There are the traditional romances, incestuous romances, and even romances on the LGBT-spectrum. There are even gender swaps, such as a female Arthur and Mordred in the Japanese Fate-franchise. I’ve even heard of a high school romance, though that doesn’t pique my personal interest. The point is, however: as long as you can justify it, it probably qualifies as Arthurian fiction. I personally think that’s one of the fun things about Arthuriana: the different forms the characters and events will take, and there are a lot of creative interpretations out there.

The same seems to go for names, though.

With all that out of the way, here are some recommendations of Arthurian fiction. If you really want to start with an old and famous text, I’d say go with Le Morte D’Arthur for reasons I’ve already mentioned, but if you want something else? Keep reading, because below is a list of Arthurian fiction that I feel are excellent.

43545The Once and Future King by T.H. White
This is also quite a famous book (Disney’s Sword in the Stone has been based on its first story), but I do feel that it’s important to mention. It deals with familiar themes of chivalry and knighthood. To be fair, I almost gave this one up. I felt the first two stories were a bit too whimsical and even childish to my liking, but by the end of the second story its tone picks up a lot. It’s almost as if the story and its themes mature as the book progresses. The fourth and final story, ‘Candle in the Wind’, is actually amazing and has one of the best endings I’ve read in fiction. Ever. There’s a fifth story, ‘Book of Merlyn’, but it was published posthumously. It wasn’t included in my copy and I don’t even dare to read it because I fear it will ruin the book’s beautiful ending.

Gawain-and-the-Green-Knight-tolkienSir Gawain and the Green Knight
This is actually a medieval chivalric romance poem, but I love it. It’s about my favourite character, Sir Gawain, who embarks on a quest and finds himself conflicted between chivalry, honour, temptation, and his nature. The most famous modern translation is by J.R.R. Tolkien himself, but it is actually written by an anonymous medieval poet. There are a lot of different interpretations about this poem, ranging from Christian, Feminist, Postcolonial and even homoerotic views.  Its ambiguity is very interesting, but what I like so much about this text is that Gawain is portrayed in a human way without necessarily taking away from his knightly virtues.

fdaa13c5-f644-4036-8a49-4a1dc2cf03fdimg100The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell
The first installment of The Warlord Chronicles, this is actually a more gritty and historical take on the Arthurian legend. In this trilogy, Arthur is an idealistic warlord capable of keeping the invading Saxons at bay. Some characters such as Nimue play a bigger role in this rendition, while more famous characters are dramatically changed, placed in the background or even removed altogether. It’s a very compelling story told from the point of view of a soldier under Arthur’s command with interesting characters. This trilogy has my favourite portrayal of Guinevere ever.

The-Crystal-CaveThe Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart
The first installment of a series, the first three starring Merlin. The Crystal Cave is a coming of age for Merlin as he deals with his powers and the politics surrounding Arthur’s ancestors. The books afterwards deal with Merlin orchestrating Arthur’s birth and ascension to the Throne. The setting is very detailed, and I like the roman and pagan influences. The only downside is that the portrayal of gender in this book series is…a bit of a product of its time, in a way. The fourth book in this series, The Last Enchantment, is also worth checking out, by the way, because it has a great and layered portrayal of Mordred. The fifth one was a bit disappointing, though.

692969The Road to Avalon by Joan Wolf
If you like romance, this is probably the most interesting book on this list for you. It’s about the forbidden romance between Arthur and his half-sister Morgan le Fay (incest happens a lot in Arthurian fiction, especially between these two). What I especially liked was the portrayal of Arthur himself, which far less perfect and idealistic than what he sometimes turns out to be. Morgan’s portrayal is a bit bland by comparison, however, but she definitely isn’t terrible. I also like how Mordred’s innocence in this book is in stark contrast to the usual interpretations of Arthur’s illegitimate son.

buriedgiant_ishiguroThe Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
Wait…what? This is probably the more loosely defined Arthurian book on this list, but I do count it as one (even though I hadn’t expected it when I began reading it). It’s actually a very calm story about an elderly couple looking for their son in a post-Arthurian setting, with some mythical/magical realism thrown in, such as mist that causes amnesia. Gawain makes an appearance, and Arthur himself is mentioned, but the Arthurian legend is not the focus in this story. Still, I wanted to include this because it’s a bit different from what you’d usually expect on a list of Arthurian books. That, and it’s a wonderful and interest story that’s a bit different. Just don’t expect a typical fantasy.

Any other great Arthurian books you feel I’ve missed? Do feel free to share them in the comments!

Review: Champions: At Fire’s End by Charlotte Jain

atfiresend_charlottejainChampions: At Fire’s End
(Champions #1)
Charlotte Jain

Publisher: N/A
Publishing year:
 2017
ISBN: 9780992586935
Language: English
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Rating: 1.5/5

Note: I’ve received a free e-copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. This did not influence my review in any way. 

The Titan and the Olympians are at war. To resolve this endless battle, four mortals are given the power to control the elements so they can fight amongst themselves. Teenagers April and Kyle are two of these Champions. Controlling fire and water respectively, they must uncover the identities of the other two Champions and fight them to the death. Unfortunately, with their powers taking a heavy toll on their bodies, time is running out.

This book begins with a note on the mythology in the Champion series, stating that the author has been inspired by Greek and Roman mythology, but that the mythology is freely adapted. The Immortals are named after various Greek gods. Athena embodies wisdom, Hades is Lord of the Underwold, and the twins Apollo and Athena wield bows. These similarities are superficial. Still, I believe it is necessary to point this out; it’s not so much a twist on modern mythology as the synopsis promises, but simply characters sharing names and some other superficial traits. I wish I was able to tell more about these characters, but unfortunately, they are just there. Three of them guide the main characters, but the others don’t leave a lasting impression other than being uncaring Immortals. This feels like a wasted opportunity.

Which brings me to the other problems of At Fire’s End: it was very unpolished. The plot gets right into the action, which on itself wouldn’t be a problem if there wasn’t so much confusion. The exposition doesn’t happen until halfway in the story, when Kyle and April finally inform the other two Champions of their predicament, which is way too late. Though the characters go to a normal modern school, the world isn’t fleshed out either. Considering the world represents the stakes, the lack of fleshing out eliminates the urgency. What are the effects of the war on the population? Are there other supernatural creatures than the Furies they fought? If so, why weren’t they mentioned until they appeared? Why weren’t the Furies mentioned until they appeared? Where did they come from? The story was scattered and there was barely any foreshadowing, which leads to terrible pacing and the feeling things happened just because.

Even the main characters aren’t fleshed out well, which makes it difficult to care about them or their struggle. Their interactions seem overly dramatic and forced, which is underlined by the big chunks of speeches the characters blurt out in the middle of supposedly intense situations. Disregarding the issue of ‘time and place’: character exposition happens almost solely in these speeches. Despite the drama, the characters still remain shallow. I never got a real sense of who they were, what they were like, and how they would develop or change throughout the story. There was a lot of telling, but no showing. Kyle was supposed to be cunning, but I never once saw a situation where this cunning quality was displayed. Instead, Kyle makes some very rash and illogical decisions, which even disproves what we’ve been told.

The story was told through the POV of both Kyle and April, but their voices were not distinct at all. The other two Champions, Kim and Noah, barely got any exposition or development; again, they were just there to be the other Champions. I couldn’t help but wonder: why should I care about these characters? This is, unfortunately, a fatal flaw.

That is not to say that there wasn’t some promise. I did like the aspect of the characters genuinely struggling with their powers; that these powers were taking a toll on their bodies and that the characters had to be trained. The idea itself is also interesting enough, but the execution makes for a tedious and confusing read. If the pacing would be fixed, the setting and characters fleshed out more, and the story overall be more polished, then Champions: At Fire’s End would be a lot more engaging.

The Charm of Battered Paperbacks

When working on my master thesis on Arthurian fiction last year, I read Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur for the second time. I had the Penguin classic edition, which consisted of two volumes. As I did the first time, I did most of my reading in the train while commuting to class or work. As it is, bags are not very book-friendly. My copies already looked battered after the first time I had read them, so you can probably imagine how they looked after I finished reading them. And then came the searching for citations, marking pages with colorful sticky notes, putting pages spread-eagled on the surface of my desk because I needed to do some typing…the spines had multiple cracks, pages came loose, the covers had multiple scuff marks because they took a tumble from my desk more than once…

Considering they were practically falling apart when I had finished my thesis, I replaced them with a very pretty Barnes & Noble leather-bound edition. Here’s a picture, as an alternative to the shabby paperbacks I no longer own:

lemortedarthurmalory.jpg

Though I’m very happy with this fancy hardback edition (it even has illustrations!), I did feel some regret replacing my battered copies. I’m not even the overly sentimental sort. They might have been nearly falling apart, but they were read twice, and they were loved, and it showed. This one? Hasn’t been actually read yet. And I probably won’t anytime soon; as much as I love Le Morte D’Arthur, it isn’t exactly easy reading material.

Whenever I hear people (customers, co-workers) at work about keeping books pristine, or see a blog post or video stating that people can’t stand cracked spines or ‘abused books’, I keep thinking about those battered paperbacks of Le Morte D’Arthur. Of all my other paperbacks that brave my bag and get put back on my shelf battered and bruised after I finish reading them. Of my copy of Great Expectations that has water damage because I dropped a glass of water on it by accident (imagine having to blow dry your book at 2AM; it generally makes for a funny story). Of all the paperbacks with cracked spines on my shelves, because they’ve been read as opposed to the paperbacks that haven’t been read yet. You can actually pick them out if you look at my bookshelves, and I love that you can see that they were read.

batteredbooks

So, most of my read paperbacks are not in pristine condition. I don’t willfully abuse my books, but they inevitably look ‘read’. Bigger books have cracked spines at the very least. Does this matter? Does this mean I don’t love my books? I think this notion not loving it is a bit silly. Of course I do! To each their own; nothing wrong with cherishing your pretty hardcovers (or paperbacks), and I’m not saying pristine books aren’t loved. But cracked spines and scuffed covers don’t mean books are ‘abused’.

I think battered copies have a certain charm. They look read. Loved. When I traveled, to work, to class, to another country, they went with me. And all the wear and tear, all of that reading and loving and accompanying me during travel, shows that I read and loved them.

Of course, there are ways to handle books to prevent the cracking of the spine, but where is the fun in that? I hold/read them the way I do because I prefer reading them that way. I could put them in a plastic bag to prevent damage by travel, but why bother? I see books as things to be used. To be enjoyed, yes, loved, but also to be used. To be read. For instance, A Storm of Swords is my favourite installment of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. It also looks the most battered of my copies of the series (all of these paperbacks are small bricks). It’s bound to get worse when I get around to reading it a second time. And that’s fine. If a book gets even more battered after reading it multiple times, it only shows that I loved it, right?

stormofswords

That’s not to say that I don’t have pretty, pristine books on my shelf. I used to get fancy hardcovers a few years ago, because they look good on my shelf. I sometimes still get them if I don’t feel like waiting for the (mass market) paperback. However, I’m more inclined to read those fancy hardcovers only at home, because I don’t want them to get damaged. But because I don’t have a lot of time these days, and my spare time has to be juggled with other hobbies and obligations, I do most of my reading in the train and during break times at work. This means that hardcovers tend to sit on my shelf for ages until I finally get to them (especially because borrowed books are also read at home; they’re not mine to batter, so I keep them as pristine as possible). I don’t have such reservations with paperbacks.

So ultimately? I get a lot more use and love out of those battered paperbacks. Their shabby state shows that I’ve read them and loved them. To me, that’s the point of buying and reading books.  And replacing a battered copy with a pristine hardcover, like I did with Le Morte D’Arthur? I had to resort to using tape to keep the pages together, so there was little choice, but I probably won’t do that again…

Review: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Apologies for the radio silence; life caught up with me for the past few weeks. But this isn’t supposed to be a “sorry I haven’t posted much”-post, so here’s a new review to make up for it!

drsleep_stephenking

Doctor Sleep
(The Shining #2)
Stephen King

Publisher: Hodder
Publishing year:
 2013
Pages: 499
ISBN: 9781444783247
Language: English
Genre: Horror
Rating: 3/5

I always enjoy reading books by Stephen King. I love how he builds his stories and develops his characters; King does not do flat characters. They may not always be likable, but you usually get a sense of their motivations and why they do what they do, even if you sometimes see that train wreck that resulted from their actions coming from a mile a way. Yes, that tension. Stephen King is a master of building tension, of having a story go along with a threatening sense of foreboding looming in the background up to the point where everything goes to shit in the last 100 or so pages.

Yes, you could say I’m a fan of Stephen King.

Which brings me to Doctor Sleep, which is a sequel to The Shining.  Always wanted to see how Danny Torrance fared after the traumatic events at the Overlook Hotel? Well, you’re about to find out. Danny, now Dan, has been drifting for decades, following his father’s footsteps into alcoholism to drown out his gift. It’s certainly tragic to see how Dan deals with his demons, so it’s with relief we see that he eventually settles down at a nursing home where he helps people pass on. At one point, however, he meets Abra Stone. With the brightest ‘shining’ he has ever seen, she’s powerful, but she also attracts The True Knot. These supernatural people live off the ‘steam’ that kids like Abra produce when tortured and killed. Of course, at one point, Dan has to confront his own demons if he wants to save Abra.

As a story of Dan dealing with the aftermath of the events in The Shining, Doctor Sleep works well. Like his father, he became an alcoholic. A lot of the narrative is dedicated to Dan’s reflections; why he’s drinking, his mistakes during a life of drifting and his attempts to make things right again while fighting the temptation of the bottle. There are frequent references to The Shining, so you can’t really read this book without reading its predecessor.

As a horror story? Doctor Sleep falls flat. The premise is promising enough and the stakes are clear, except The True Knot is just not very threatening. Of course, they kidnap kids. They torture them. They are untouchable because they are rich bastards. They have set their sights on Abra and they aren’t necessarily incapable. Mostly. Okay, most of them die very quickly for supposed villains. I think the character known as The Crow came the closest to being a threat, however. The rest? Abra manages to outsmart them and she’s a teenager. A brilliant teenager, but a teenager nonetheless. Especially with the help of Dan, who does his fair share of outsmarting The True Knot as well. Helped by the supporting cast, Dan and Abra have comparatively little difficulty in overcoming their obstacles. Even the leader of The True Knot, Rose the Hat, falls flat. She becomes increasingly unhinged and vengeful, but she and her gang are pretty easily defeated. Their silly names could have been a contrast to the threat they should have been posing, but now they just seem difficult to take seriously.

And because there is no threat, no tension, and no real sense of foreboding, I wasn’t worried for the main characters. There weren’t even any scares. For a novel by Stephen King, I had expected a bit more, especially for a sequel to The Shining. As a story about Dan coming to terms with his past and his inner demons, Doctor Sleep was an interesting story and worth reading. As a horror story with unsettling moments and that sense of foreboding looming over you? Doctor Sleep unfortunately falls very short.

Review: The Waking Fire by Anthony Ryan

thewakingfirefinalThe Waking Fire
(The Draconis Memoria #1)
Anthony Ryan

Publisher: Orbit
Publishing year:
2016
Pages: 679
ISBN: 9780356506364
Language: English
Genre: Fantasy
Rating: 4.5/5

I’m always up for an interesting story involving dragons. Honestly, who doesn’t love these powerful fire-breathing lizards? Though the inclusion of dragons doesn’t necessarily guarantee a compelling fantasy novel, but with excellent world building Anthony Ryan thankfully succeeds in his next fantasy series.

Contrary to most high fantasy, or at least most fantasy involving dragons (there are exceptions, I know), Ryan’s world does not involve monarchies or knights in shining armour. Though there is a neighbouring empire and (of course) the threat of war, the country the protagonists hail from has done away with obsolete practices of kings and nobility, and is instead ruled by corporations. That doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is fine and dandy; there’s corruption, there are people living in slums, and the dragons (drakes) are exploited in breeding pens or are nearly hunted to extinction in the name of profit. Basically: capitalism.

What’s the point in exploiting these dragons? Well, their blood has magical properties that certain gifted people are able to use; they’re called blood-blessed. Depending on their affinity and which type of drake the utilized blood comes from, the abilities can range from powering ships to telepathy, to increasing muscle output. It’s an interesting magic system that comes with clear limitations and boundaries for the characters, something that I can always appreciate. The existence of these people and their abilities make Drake blood a valuable commodity, and the economy of this world thrives on harvesting these creatures for their blood. Moreover, the technology of this world is reminiscent of the late 19th century with steampunk elements, which also sets this fantasy epic apart from other works involving dragons. It’s a very unique combination.

The Waking Fire has three protagonists. The first is Clay, a thief from the slums who is secretly a blood-blessed and is forced to go on an expedition to find the mysterious White Drake. The second is Lizanne, a spy who has to infiltrate an enemy country to further the agenda of the Ironship Trading Syndicate she works for. Finally, there is Hilemore, the second lieutenant on a navy ship who finds himself having to work with a badass female pirate. Both Clay and Lizanne have ample character development. Clay goes from a largely self-serving thief trying to leave the mission he’s forced to undertake to wanting to save the world, and Lizanne begins to question her mission as well as her mentor. These characters also frequently interact with one another, which allows for their storylines to intertwine.

Unfortunately, Hilemore appears to be more of a loose end. Not only does he get fewer chapters compared to the other two characters, but his storyline does not feel as connected or even as important to the rest of the plot. His interaction with the female pirate Zenida is interesting and it sheds light on events taking place elsewhere, but it doesn’t have a whole lot of impact. Moreover, his lack of screen time does not showcase any character development other than an honourable navy officer being forced to work with a pirate. The significance of this character might change as I expect him to become more involved, but it’s still a pity his story felt a little underwhelming compared to the others. And while I’m nitpicking: I also felt a certain reveal by the end of Clay’s story involving a certain character and the White Drake was not as well-reasoned as I would have liked, but I can’t say much without spoiling anything.

Still, The Waking Fire is a compelling read. Though Ryan has done a great job with building his world and its magic system, I think the greatest element is the sense of mystery. The built-up is slow, but tension continues to rise as the novel progresses. This is especially evident in Clay’s storyline; though the other characters experience the consequences of all the strange events that are happening, it’s Clay who draws closer to the mystery behind the White Drake. The pacing is crucial to pulling this rising tension off and Ryan has done this perfectly. This mystery, along with the fluid writing style, made it impossible to put this book down.

However, I can’t help but wonder whether this element will hold up for the second installment of this series, The Legion of Flame. One of the draws of The Waking Fire was the mystery behind the White Drake and the strange occurrences happening everywhere. By the end of The Waking Fire, the mystery has been largely resolved, which seemingly ‘only’ leaves our main characters to find a way to save the world. I suppose I’ll have to read Ryan’s second installment to The Draconis Memoria to find out whether the series has more in store than initially expected. In the mean time, if you’re looking for an original take on a high fantasy novel involving dragons and a real sense of mystery, The Waking Fire is a recommended read!