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!

Review: Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

half-a-king-uk-mmpbHalf a King
(Shattered Sea #1)
Joe Abercrombie

Publisher: Harper Voyager
Publishing year:
2014
Pages: 376
ISBN: 9780007550227
Language: English
Genre: Fantasy
Rating: 3/5
This review was originally written for ToTen Magazine.

In a kingdom that values physical strength and skill in battle, the crippled Prince Yarvi is the royal family’s embarrassment. His maimed hand doesn’t allow him to hold a shield properly, much less avoid another beating on the training ground.  He was more than ready to renounce his right to the throne and spend his life as a minister, but when his father and older brother are murdered, Yarvi has no choice but to take the crown. His reign proves short-lived when he is betrayed by his family and left for dead. He survives only to be sold as a slave, manning the oars on a merchant ship with only a single good hand. He swears vengeance on those who wronged him, but that road isn’t without its hardships and sacrifices.

Half a King is part of a trilogy, but this novel stands well on its own. Though the novel hints at an underlying concern that might appear in the trilogy’s subsequent books, most issues are wrapped up in a neat little bow. That said, this is very much the story of an underdog. Despite the character’s flaws and his initial cowardice, you can’t help but root for the disadvantaged prince Yarvi as he attempts to survive and even navigate an unkind world. It’s satisfying to find that Yarvi manages to utilize his training and his wit to reach his goals. He really comes into his own and grows as a character, which is the best part of the book.

Interestingly, Yarvi’s growth makes him cunning and pragmatic. He screws people over. He lives in a hard world, so he consequently grows into a harder person because of his experiences and the goals that he wants to achieve. Having sworn an oath, Yarvi comes to realize that fulfilling it means making sacrifices to do what needs to be done – and despite the doubts he has, he pulls through. This makes his growth realistic and interesting, and though his actions are sometimes deplorable, you can understand where he’s coming from. Yarvi’s persona is complimented by the cast of secondary characters that he meets and who join his cause. Though they help and support him – most of them selflessly, as a result from surviving hardships together – Yarvi also manages to alienate some of them with his decisions. At the same time, however, these secondary characters are the novel’s main flaw; though they seem interesting enough, they do not appear as complex and well-developed as Yarvi which feels like a missed opportunity. The exception, Nothing, was an enigma throughout the story. Still, these secondary characters were instrumental to Yarvi’s growth and their interaction was entertaining enough.

The narrative itself is fast paced, action-packed, and contains some twists. However, people who are used to something like George Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire would not find the back-stabbing and cunning manipulations in Half a King as complex. The world building is also fairly sparse for a fantasy novel, but what’s there is sufficient enough to get a sense of the world Yarvi lives in – just don’t expect anything overly extensive. There is some gritty subject material, but with the underlying sense of hope it never becomes bleak. The prose was also enjoyable to read; detailed, but not long-winded.

Half a King is a good book if you’re looking for a fast paced fantasy novel that does not become overly complicated, but still contains some grittiness and great character development. If you’d rather have something more complex, however, you might want to look elsewhere.  As enjoyable as Half a King is, Yarvi himself is pretty much the only complex element in the book.

Review: A Thousand Pieces of You by Claudia Gray

thousandpiecesofyougrayA Thousand Pieces of You
(Firebird #1)
Claudia Gray

Publisher: HarperCollins
Publishing year:
2014
Pages: 360
ISBN: 9780062278968
Language: English
Genre: Young Adult, science fiction, romance
Rating: 2/5
This review was originally written for ToTen Magazine.

Marguerite’s parents are brilliant. Their most recent invention, the Firebird, allows people to travel to  other universes. But her father is murdered and the culprit, her parents’ research assistant Paul, has fled to another universe. Marguerite and Theo, another of her parents’ research assistants, give chase and end up in the lives of different versions of themselves.  As she travels through these different universes and meets alternate versions of people she knows, she begins questioning Paul’s guilt. It seems that the truth behind her father’s death is far more complicated than she initially thought.

The premise seems interesting enough. Hopping to alternate universes? The ethical considerations of taking over the life of another you? These science-fiction elements are, unfortunately, not the focus of this novel.  But, to be fair, A Thousand Pieces of You briefly touches upon the ethical considerations near the ending. Marguerite finds herself considering the repercussions of taking certain decisions in another Marguerite’s stead. After all, this other Marguerite has been robbed of her agency and is now forced to live with the consequences of a decision she has never made. Unfortunately, these considerations are brief and superficial —  they are not the focus. As A Thousand Pieces of You progresses, this young adult novel turns out to be a romance novel in disguise.

The presence of a romance element is hardly anything new in the genre. In titles such as The Hunger Games or Divergent, however, the elements of their dystopian settings are still very much a part of their respective narratives. In A Thousand Pieces of You, the romance is its centre piece while its science fiction elements, world building, and even its plot are mostly sidelined. For a novel supposedly involving alternate universes, this lack of exploration is unforgivable. We only get to see a few worlds, one of which is a little ridiculous (in which Marguerite finds herself as the daughter of the Russian Tsar, which also happens to be the dimension in which they spend the most time). The main disappointment for this novel lies in the fact that the element of alternate universes is never utilized to its full potential. The same could be said about the Firebird. Marguerite is frequently described as an ‘artsy’ person, which feels as an excuse to avoid explaining the workings of the Firebird or the physics and relations between the alternate universes. Things work because they do, and they are not explained because the main character wouldn’t understand anyway.

Unfortunately, this novel also falls short in the romance department. Marguerite is a bland heroine who does not stand out as a character. Her actions are also extremely foolish, as she tends rush into things and believes people without wanting proof. She goes from hating a person to falling in love with that person nearly at the drop of a hat (or a facial expression, as it is), which makes her annoying and wishy-washy. The two love interests, Paul and Theo, are no compelling characters either. They’re flat and hardly seem to possess any flaws. There is a love triangle, but with uninteresting characters and no tension because it becomes obvious who will be the first choice quite soon, the romance falls flat. When the only good thing to mention about the romance is that, at least, the characters knew each other before the story began…something is quite wrong. The characters lack chemistry, which is a fatal flaw for a narrative focusing so heavily on romance.

A Thousand Pieces of You has an interesting concept and hints of interesting world building. It also briefly touches on the ethical considerations of taking over the body of an alternate you. Unfortunately, Gray never expands on these elements and instead allows them to be buried by an uninteresting romance plot with bland characters. If you like romance fiction, you might still want to give this a try, but if you’re looking for science fiction…you should look elsewhere. A Thousand Pieces of Missed Opportunities!

Review: The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide

guestcat_takashihiraideThe Guest Cat
Takashi Hiraide

Publisher: Picador
Publishing year:
2014
Pages: 140
ISBN: 9781447279402
Language: English
Translator: Eric Selland
Genre: contemporary literature
Rating: 4/5
This review was originally written for ToTen Magazine.

An unnamed childless couple in their thirties rents a cottage on a larger property in a quiet neighbourhood in Tokyo. They’re both freelance writers, but despite the fact that they work from home, they don’t have much to say to each other. One day, a stray cat wanders into their cottage. Though the cat, Chibi, is adopted by their neighbours, she keeps visiting the couple’s house. The couple aren’t even cat people, but Chibi brings them small pleasures and allows them to reconnect with each other. Ultimately, this book is about the way Chibi affects the couple’s lives; the joy and meaning she brings, as well as how fast these moments of joy can change.

With barely 140 pages, The Guest Cat is not a very long read. The prose of this originally Japanese novella is, despite its philosophical passages and literary references, quite simple and sparse. At the same time, however, the descriptions are beautiful and even lyrical – I wasn’t surprised to learn that Takashi Hiraide is a poet. This balance of simplicity and lyricality allows for vivid prose that is never bogged down by any unnecessary words and descriptions. Though some elements of the writing might have been lost in translation, Eric Selland has done a wonderful job conveying this in the English version.

Not much actually happens in this story. Most of the narrative takes place in the cottage or the garden it is situated on, and with the exception of the cat, none of the characters bear any names.

The prose focuses on people and places, not so much on events. Though there are descriptions of Chibi’s antics, the novel does not revolve around the cuteness of the cat (though Chibi is still very much at the centre of the narrative). Ultimately, this is a very quiet story in a quiet neighbourhood with quiet people. This, along with the prose, is why this novel appears so simple at the surface.

All this simplicity belies a depth in the narrative that is executed in a subtle way. The Guest Cat explores the small things that affect people’s lives and the way it connects them. The beauty and serenity of nature also takes a prominent place in the novel’s themes, which Chibi is very much a part of. At the same time, the story also conveys the fragility of nature as well as these small things and connections. Despite any attempts at preservation, life, and the people and moments that are part of that life, are transient. Nature itself is also subject to change. This sense of temporality is what makes this novel so moving.

However, the quiet and subtle nature of The Guest Cat might not be everyone’s cup of tea. If you want something more eventful, you might want to skip this. But if you’re looking for elegant prose, a short read that has a bit more depth, or even just a story about how a cat brings meaning to the lives of a Japanese couple, you should give this a try. You don’t even need to be a cat person to appreciate it.

Review: The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski

thelastwish_sapkowskiThe Last Wish
(The Witcher #1)
Andrzej Sapkowski

Publisher: Orion Books / Gollancz
Publishing year:
2012
Pages: 280
ISBN: 9780575082441
Language: English
Translator: Danusia Stok
Genre: Fantasy, short stories
Rating: 3.5/5

When looking at possible video games for my inevitable PlayStation 4, it was hard to miss The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. The open world looked really interesting and I liked how you would hunt supernatural creatures as Geralt of Rivia. It was a matter of time before I discovered that the video game series was actually based on a book! So what do you do as a bookworm? You read the book.

The Last Wish is the first of two collections of short stories that make up the first installments of Sapkowski’s The Witcher series (the other being Sword of Destiny). From what I’ve gathered, the overarching plot doesn’t begin before Blood of Elves, the first full-length novel in the series. I have yet to read Blood of Elves, however, so I’ll be reviewing The Last Wish on its own.

All of the short stories in The Last Wish involve Geralt of Rivia, who travels from place to place in a medieval fantasy world. He’s a Witcher; a monster hunter for hire with supernatural abilities. Because he requires payment for his services, people believe that Witchers only care about money rather than helping people; consequently, Witchers face resentment and suspicion. The stories in The Last Wish involve the creatures Geralt comes across, but the real interest lies in the accompanying backstories. The Last Wish is not so much about Geralt killing a monster, but about the people and creatures he meets; their stories that are unravelled as Geralt learns more of the situation. The supernatural beings are not as they seem and evil is not necessarily clear-cut. Though there are elves, dwarves, vampires, werewolves, and a multitude of other (mythological) creatures, they appear in a different way than what you would consider typical in a high fantasy setting. Geralt has to make some difficult decisions where”the lesser evil” is not always easy to see. There is also a certain fairy-tale-like quality to these stories despite the somewhat gritty setting. The cursed beast living alone in a mansion is an obvious link to Beauty and the Beast, but while the other stories are less explicit in their reference, they are reminiscent of such folk tales in some way. The stories are also quite varied in how they play out, which in combination with the twists, made for an entertaining read.

All of these short stories are placed in a framing narrative named “The Voice of Reason”, which unfortunately is not as interesting as the stories it frames. These chapters appear in-between and are sometimes connected with the story that’s about to be told, but often they’re not which makes their appearance a little random. The Last Wish could have benefited with more cohesion between “The Voice of Reason” and the other short stories, but as it is, there is no real link which makes the framing narrative fall short. Thankfully, these chapters are not long at all, and they get more interesting by the end. Moreover, as a collection of short stories there is no real overarching plot yet. Though I definitely have the feeling that key elements and characters (such as Yennefer) have been introduced and seem to set up context for the actual novels (which is also useful for playing the game, I’ve found now that I own a PS4), there is no real sense of urgency. In other words: there is a sense of an overarching plot under the surface, but it remains just there.

Still, with these short stories Sapkowski has managed to create an interesting fantasy world that is a little different from usual medieval fantasy and certainly piques my interest in the next installments. Moreover, the twists and backstories are what makes The Last Wish both an interesting read and a nice introduction to the world of The Witcher.

Review: Before the Feast by Saša Stanišić


before_the_feastBefore the Feast

Saša Stanišić

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Publishing year:
2015
Pages: 318
ISBN: 9781782271758
Language: English
Translator: Anthea Bell
Genre: Contemporary literature, magical realism
Rating: 2.5/5

Before the Feast was….quite unlike any book I’ve read so far. There wasn’t much of a main character or even an actual plot, which makes it a little difficult to review this book. Still, I would like to make an attempt — despite the rating I have given this book, I still feel that it’s interesting to talk about.

Perhaps I should correct myself: this book doesn’t have a main character in the traditional sense. Though there are several recurring characters in this book whose POV you see, they are not main characters. I think that the village about which the story revolves, Fürstenfelde, is the actual main character of this book. The chapters simply narrate the thoughts and events involving its inhabitants (and a vixen living in the nearby forest) on one specific evening. Mostly. Because the narrative also includes events that have happened in the past, not only of the character, but the village as a whole. The result is a portrayal of an East German village — albeit a very disjointed one.

The prose is actually one of this book’s highlights.  The voice tends to shift depending on which character a certain chapter features — if it features any character at all. One chapter solely consists of a menu. Another description of a certain character is mixed with instructions on how to build a chicken pen. The chicken pen is relevant for the character in question because this man actually keeps chickens (and also relevant for a chapter that takes place later on, involving the aforementioned vixen hunting eggs). Other than the shifting voice, there is also a lot of repetition and peculiar descriptions that convey the quirkiness of Fürstenfelde’s inhabitants and an underlying ‘strangeness’ that seemed part of the village. All this makes for a playful writing style, one that’s self-aware and a tiny bit ironic but never ‘edgy’.

Though I was initially interested in Before the Feast was going, this quickly faded. Though the disjointed nature of the book was what made Before the Feast interesting at first, its lack of focus made it difficult to care about Fürstenfelde’s inhabitants as I kept on reading. Though the inclusion of myths and stories was nice, there were also plenty of chapters that were just boring to read simply due to their lack of cohesion with anything else (other than the village itself). I think it would have helped had these separate elements been more interwoven with one another, but as it is the novel is all over the place and doesn’t actually go anywhere. Though I understand that a plot wasn’t the point of Before the Feast, I feel that some sort of focus would have made this more engaging to read.

Though the prose is beautiful and there are some interesting elements, the disjointed nature of Before the Feast makes it a little tedious to get through. A real shame…

Review: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

 

leckie_ancillaryjustice_tp


Ancillary Justice

(Imperial Radch #1)
Ann Leckie

Publisher: Orbit
Publishing year:
2013
Pages: 386
ISBN: 9780356502403
Language: English
Genre: science fiction (space opera)
Rating: 5/5

Some books keep you occupied in moments you’re not actually reading. Sometimes it’s the compelling characters and the struggles these characters go through, and sometimes a book manages to make you think. Not only about the world the author has created, about certain mysteries and uncertainties going on in the narrative, but also about how much certain social constructs are ingrained in our daily lives. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, the first installment of the Imperial Radch trilogy, is one such novel. Though I like to consider myself generally aware of gender norms and expectations, it was striking to realize how much I would instinctively want to define a character as either male or female. Except, most of the time, I couldn’t.

In Ancillary Justice, we follow Breq. Years ago, Breq was the artificial intelligence of the starship Justice of Toren and its Ancillaries – human bodies controlled by the AI of a ship to not only manage said ship, but also work as a soldier in service of the Radch Empire. Certain events had led to the destruction of Justice of Toren and all but one of its Ancillaries. Years later, Breq comes closer and closer to taking revenge. At its core, this first installment is a revenge story. One part of the narrative takes place in the past and showcases the events that lead to Justice of Toren’s destruction, the other part follows Breq’s quest for revenge.

What makes this novel remarkable, however, is its portrayal of gender. The Radch are described as androgynous, and Breq’s native tongue does not have any gender markers. As a result, Breq is not able to easily distinguish one gender from another, which is not only conveyed through its concerns of misgendering the non-Radch people it meets, but also through its consistent use of the pronoun ‘she’. Due to the use of that simple pronoun, I unconsciously began to define most characters as female even though I knew that this was not necessarily the case. In the end, I think there is only one character whose gender I can argue to be confirmed as male. Yet, the urge to place gender labels on these characters was striking. I tend to consider Breq female, but objectively? I have no idea whether Breq is male or female. Justice of Toren could have had Ancillaries of both genders for all I know, but honestly? You might even question whether the concept of gender would be even relevant for an AI. Perhaps the whole point of this gender ambiguity is that gender is a social construct and it doesn’t matter — it’s one’s character and accomplishments that matter.

There are some other interesting things going on with Ancillary Justice. Due to the linked consciousness of the ship and its Ancillaries, the point of view tends to shift a lot, offering an almost omniscient view of certain events while still remaining first person POV. Moreover, there are multiple scenes that question where the consciousness of Toren ends and the consciousness of an Ancillary begins, whether there are any differences in the consciousness and intentions of the ship and of its Ancillaries. The antagonist faces a similar division — all of which suggest interesting questions about identity. When identity is fragmented and is divided from the whole, to what extend is it the same “person”? Can we even speak of a person? These sorts of questions are reminiscent of cyberpunk fiction, but perhaps, considering our main character is an AI, it is no surprise to also find them here.

Philosophical questions about gender and identity aside, Ancillary Justice is also an interesting space opera with a good sense of mystery. As the reader, you’re not entirely sure what Breq’s intentions are or how Justice of Toren has been destroyed until the narrative unfolds. There is, however, a downside: the novel is quite confusing at the beginning, and it takes a little while to get into it. Moreover, the ambiguous pronouns, the rapidly shifting POV, and the many different world-specific terms doesn’t make Ancillary Justice an easy read. I think it would actually benefit from a second reading. There are a few tense action scenes, but there are also plenty of politics and passages dedicated to explain the way the Radch empire operates, which might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Still, after the initial confusion you might find a space opera that asks some very interesting questions. Just don’t expect to find out Breq’s gender. You’re not going to, at least not in Justice. Though I have yet to read Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy, I think Breq’s gender is going to remain ambiguous — and I believe that’s the point.