Frivolous Waste of Time

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Archive for the tag “fantasy”

This Census-Taker by China Miéville

I haven’t read a China Miéville book in ages, so this slim little novella seemed as good a place as any to jump back in. It’s a strange, unsettling story, with a tighter focus than Miéville normally shows. This is still a political book, everything Miéville writes is, but it perhaps has a greater focus on the personal.

This Census-Taker has a strange setting, a sort of desolate fantasy dystopia. There are hints that this world is not our own, but Miéville isn’t interested in world building here, with the setting being used primarily to create mood and atmosphere. There are a couple of hints that it may take place in the Bas-Lag setting seen in Perdido Street Station, but if that is the case it isn’t particularly important to the story. The protagonist is an unnamed young boy, who runs into his village screaming that his mother has killed his father. Lacking evidence, he is forced to return home to his terrifying and homicidal parent, living in constant fear, with his only allies being a group of street urchins.

It’s a relatively straightforward story by Miéville standards, but thoroughly unsettling. Miéville has flirted with many different strands of horror, most effectively with Lovecraftian cosmic horror, but domestic horror may be some of the scariest, the fear of what lurks within your own home. Very few characters are named and they are generally thinly drawn, but this is more about creating an atmosphere than anything else. Hints to wider events are welcome and suggest that this is a world gone very wrong, expanding into the broader social commentary Miéville is so well regarded for. The titular census-taker doesn’t show up until close to the end, but he’s an intriguing figure with hints to complex motivations. Some have suggested that This Census-Taker could almost be a prologue to a larger work and I wouldn’t mind if that were the case. The novella asks some interesting questions I wouldn’t mind seeing answered.

This Census-Taker is a clever, unsettling slice of fiction I’d recommend to any Miéville fan. He hasn’t published a full novel since 2012s Railsea, so I hope there’s another one not too far away.

 

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Time of Contempt by Andrzej Sapkowski

I’m thoroughly enjoying my time ploughing through The Witcher saga, with Time of Contempt building on the successes of Blood of Elves and addressing some of its faults.

Time of Contempt picks up not too long after Blood of Elves. Ciri is now under the tutelage of Yennefer of Vengerberg. Yennefer is taking Ciri to the Island of Thanedd, a safe haven for mages and sorceresses where she plans to enrol Ciri in a school to hone her magical training. It is not long before Geralt is reunited with his surrogate family of Yennefer and Ciri, and the three arrive at Thanedd, for a gathering of the magical users of the Northern Kingdoms, known as the Chapter of Sorcerers. The politics of the North have become more unstable, with the Northern rulers desperate for a pretext to go back to war with Nilfgaard and regain Cintra.

Where Blood of Elves was a bit more unfocused, feeling like a series of connected novellas more than anything else, Time of Contempt is a bit more self-contained, dealing primarily with the internal affairs of the Chapter of Sorcerers and the role of the magical community. The sharper focus benefits the book massively and it moves the story forward in a range of interesting ways. A lengthy epilogue shifts focus for a while, but it leaves a lot of important character sin very interesting places for the next book.

The action scenes are good, but Time of Contempt may be the funniest book in the series so far. A wonderful scene where a proud Yennefer parades Geralt in front of a series of lustful sorceresses, each more ridiculously provocative than the last, is a lot of fun. I had thought that the games had over sexualised characters like Keira Metz and Phillipa Eilhart but…nope, they’re like that in the book too. Geralt struggling to keep composure is a joy to behold. When things get a bit darker it all works well too, particularly during a harrowing scene in a desert which ratchets up tension to almost unbearable levels.

A lot of my favourite characters from the games play large roles here, such as the brilliant Redanian spymaster Sigismund Djikstra and a range of sorceresses. Sapkowski does a brilliant job of making these characters feel distinct; we’re introduced to about 8 new sorceresses all at once, but they all feel distinct and memorable. Ciri seems to be taking over from Geralt in main protagonist duties, but this isn’t a problem because I love Ciri.

I always struggle to write about middle books in a series. It doesn’t shake things up, but Time of Contempt keeps the story ticking on at a nice pace and leaves me excited to get into the next one. What more could you ask?

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Caine Black Knife by Matthew Stover

The previous book in the Acts of Caine series was the ambitious, but frankly incoherent, Blade of Tyshalle. It drastically expanded in scope from the first book, but at the cost of what made Heroes Die so engaging to begin with. Caine Black Knife is a simpler, more straightforward return to form for the series. Where Blade of Tyshalle got bogged down in numerous sub plots and supporting characters, Caine Black Knife is all Caine, all the time. It is a shorter, leaner and more focused book and all the better for it.
Caine Black Knife follows two timelines; one takes place a couple of years after Blade of Tyshalle, with Caine heading to the Boedecken Wastes to save his Orgrillo friend Orbek, who has fallen into trouble. The other timeline tells the story of Caine’s most notable Adventure, and the one which propelled him to massive stardom; Retreat from the Boedecken. We’ve heard this story alluded to many times in the previous books, about how Caine destroyed the infamous Black Knife Orgrillo clan and earned his reputation for stunning competence and cruelty. Caine’s actions 25 years in the past are still influencing the present, as figures from his past come back to haunt him and the consequences of his actions finally catching up to him.

Where Blade of Tyshalle covered a significant geographic range and focused heavily on metaphysics and mysticism, Caine Black Knife takes place mostly in one location and drops (to an extent) many of the elements which bogged down the previous book. It’s an exciting and tense book, with the stunning violence the series is known for still in full effect. Just when you think this series couldn’t shock you any more, Stover manages to conjure up something truly horrible. The crucial difference is that it feels less gratuitous, but also more honest. This series has long had a history of slyly satirising the fantasy industry’s propensity for grimdark violence whilst also acknowledging the undeniable visceral thrill this violence provides. The first book got the balance right and the second got it wrong, but the fine balancing act is pulled off here. Caine wasn’t so brutal against the Black Knife clan in the Boedecken because it was the clever or tactical thing to do, he did it because the audience back on Earth loved it.

There’s a sense of fun to Caine Black Knife, even in its grimmest moments. Caine is a relentlessly enjoyable protagonist, utterly loathsome but impossible not to like. There are odd cracks of sentimentality, which are usually punctuated by something unforgiveable. Removing Caine from the core of Blade of Tyshalle was a mistake, because he truly is a brilliant protagonist and this book benefits massively from keeping him as the key PoV at all times. Most of the previous supporting cast is absent, a handful of cameos aside, but the new cast is filled with interesting figures for Caine to murder or generally infuriate, both in the present day and flashback storyline.

Caine Black Knife is a fun, horrifying and deeply satisfying book. We know that Caine murdering his way through swaths of Orgrillos shouldn’t be as fun as it is and Stover never stops winking at the reader. He keeps escalating things further and further, seeing how far our sympathies will stick with Caine, with the answer being worryingly far. The sense of satire, as well as being just a damn good fantasy novel, makes Caine Black Knife a return to what made Heroes Die great.

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The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

I found myself very wound up when this first book came out, because we got a lot of your obnoxious handwringing articles in the vein of ‘it’s fantasy but I like it so it’s not really fantasy’ that come about any time literary genre fiction gets published. The Guardian reviewer called this book ‘A Game of Thrones with a conscience’, literally one of the dumbest phrases I’ve ever seen in literary criticism. The Buried Giant is fantasy, but it wears the genre trappings loosely, creating a blurry dream of a mythic British past.

Axl and Beatrice are an elderly couple of an indistinct period of Britain’s past. King Arthur and Merlin are dead, but only recently, with their exploits beginning to blur from history into legend. The couple decide to visit their son in a nearby village after a lengthy estrangement and begin to make the perilous journey. A strange mist has cloaked the land, robbing the people of their memories. As Axl and Beatrice make their strange and fantastical journey, memories begin to reassert themselves with The Buried Giant asking one question; is it better to forget, rather than to pick at the scabs of the past?

The Buried Giant is a book which lends itself towards being read allegorically, rather than as a literal story. If properly broken down, the plot for The Buried Giant may seem thin, like a series of coincidences barely strung together, but that’s not really the point. Memory, and the odd mercy of forgetting, is the core theme of this book. The Buried Giant of the title refers both to a legendary figure referred to throughout, but also the hordes of painful memories lurking just beneath the surface, both as individuals and a society. Tory cabinet member Dr Liam Fox recently made the startling assertion that the UK has no reason to believe that it’s past is shameful. The brushing under the rug of British colonial atrocities, the wilful forgetting in the name of stability and comfort, is the unspoken metaphor which underlines much of The Buried Giant’s world of Saxons and Britons. Ishiguro is ambivalent and uncertain himself on memory; the book posits the thought that if peace can only be assured by forgetting the crimes of the past, surely it is better to forget, even if it leaves injustices unanswered. No easy answers are provided and an unsettling tone persists throughout.
The Britain Ishiguro conjures is itself indistinct and hazy; it never feels like a real place. Even the characters are vague and undefined. What are we if not a product of our memories? Without a clear past, there is nothing to define ourselves. As memories return, Axl and Beatrice don’t always like what they see; they fear that finding out what they were will alter who they are. This book works on a macro and micro level, both exploring societal forgetting but also the personal. Axl and Beatrice are uncommonly and utterly devoted to one another, but would such a pure love be possible if they could remember all the tiny hurts and grievances which build up over the course of any long relationship? However, is their love truly real if they cannot understand the foundations upon which it was built? Again, Ishiguro isn’t interested in answering the question, instead he simply presents the uneasy and uncomfortable thought to the reader.

The Buried Giant is a strange, wonderful book which leaves a lingering sense of unease in the reader. Ignore lazy comparisons to Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings by fantasy illiterate critics, The Buried Giant can’t really be compared to anything else I’ve ever read.

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Blade of Tyshalle by Matthew Stover

This is a weird, weird book. It is the sequel to the outstanding Heroes Die, the first in Matthew Stover’s Acts of Caine series. It abandons a lot of what worked well in the first book and doubles down on things that didn’t, but it’s sheer ambition is giddying. Stover goes all out here and it results in a book which is a structural mess and becomes borderline incoherent, but is an undeniably fascinating read. I don’t think I’ve ever read a fantasy novel like this.

Blade of Tyshalle takes place seven years after Heroes Die: Hari Michaelson, famed as the Actor for Caine, has been left crippled after the conclusion of the previous book and is now living his ‘happy ending’ as the Administrator for the Studio for which he used to work. Things are far from perfect, with a tense marriage to his wife Shanna and a dangerous nostalgia for his violent past as Caine. His purest joy is his adopted daughter Faith, child of Shanna and Lamorak. His closest companion is former nemesis Ma’elkoth, the former Emperor of Ankhana who was dragged along with Hari when he last left Overworld and unable to return, now known as Tan’elkoth. Hari’s quiet life is interrupted when he discovers an outbreak of HRPV in Overworld, a mutated and more deadly form of rabies which had swept the Earth decades prior. With no immunity or vaccination, the people of Overworld are defenceless from a hideous death and so Hari sets about to get to the bottom of the outbreak, dragging him back into the habits of the past and re-awakening the dormant Caine within him.

Heroes Die was a relatively focused novel, taking place over six days and primarily within one city. Blade of Tyshalle has no such structure, or seemingly any structure at all. The frustrating thing is just how frequently brilliant this book is; there are isolated chapters which are as good as anything else you’ll read in the genre, but there are a lot which descend into endless mythological and metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. I loved the opening, which shows us Hari’s early days training to be an Actor through the eyes of Kris Hansen, who wants nothing more than to live in Overworld as an elf-like Primal. The biggest issue is the emergence of the true villain, a figure whose presence doesn’t gel at all with the previous book and is too abstract to truly fear. The core of humanity which made the previous book so good is still there, but there’s an unbelievable amount of time spent on conflicts which involve one demi-God communicating with another demi-God in an incomprehensible manner. When Blade of Tyshalle brings itself back down to Earth the book soars, but much of the climax is robbed of impact. It seeks to be too epic, with a villain who is essentially a manifestation of the worst vices of human nature, but this is a story which works best when it is about scrapping in the streets.

From a prose standpoint though, Blade of Tyshalle is seriously great. The action scenes are still pretty much the best I’ve read. I may not have thought it possible to crank up the violence any further from Heroes Die but, well, here it is. This time though…I think he went a too far. The violence in Heroes Die felt like a winking allusion towards a shift in fantasy tastes at the time but Blade of Tyshalle doesn’t function as a commentary on the fantasy genre as well as Heroes Die. The violence, and some of it really is stomach churning, feels like shock for shocks sake. Rape, both physical but also mental, shows up time and again in the story. The victims are denied any real voice, both before or after and once again it feels like it was deployed for shock value. The world building and dialogue are top notch, but it feels like Stover descends into self-indulgence here and without the defence of being a satire that could be claimed by Heroes Die.

Caine/Hari continues to be so much more interesting than he sounds, with new character such as Hari’s academy friend Kris and the vengeance driven monastic warrior Raithe being well and fully drawn. As I said before, the main villain is the weakest link and never manages to match up to the brilliant trio of antagonists from Heroes Die: Ma’elkoth, Count Berne and Arturo Kollberg. One of the most interesting themes of this novel is that of friendship. Caine has a lot of odd friendships, forged in strange ways, which arise throughout the novel. One of the chief joys of Blade of Tyshalle is the bizarre love/hate relationship between Caine and Tan’elkoth, former nemeses who, by circumstance, have become best friends, but it’s far from the only relationship like this. Betrayal is the mirror theme of friendship and is also core to the narrative and it’s these complex, shifting relationships which kept me most engaged in the book.

Blade of Tyshalle is hugely ambitious book which falls short of the mark. It’s too long and self-indulgent and could have done with a pretty brutal editing. There’s so much potential in this book, so many interesting ideas and characters toyed with, which are abandoned in favour of a fuzzy and vague message about humans being better as individuals and more flawed as a collective…or something? I don’t really know what this book is trying to say. Heroes Die was a relatively straight forward satire of the fantasy market and the human lust for violence and it worked so much better than whatever this is. Blade of Tyshalle is a very interesting book and one which I think I’m going to think about for a while, but it’s too unfocused to be the genuine classic Heroes Die is.

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Arcanum Unbounded by Brandon Sanderson

This may be one of the most gloriously silly book titles I’ve read all year. It’s almost aggressively geeky and I love it. It’s also perfectly appropriate for this book; the Cosmere is Brandon Sanderson’s fictional universe which unifies almost all of his fantasy novels. Yes, Mistborn and The Stormlight Archive take place on different planets, but those planets are in the same galaxy and a central theology and source of power underpins them both. These connections are getting more and more explicit, but are still fairly minor and easy to miss, for the time being at least. Arcanum Unbounded is a collection of all of Sanderson’s Cosmere short fiction so far. Each section is collected by the planet on which they take place, with a tantalising description of each one, giving us Cosmere geeks some satisfying morsels about each’s larger place in the universe. I’ve already reviewed a fair few of them, so I’ll just link to those.
The Selish System

The planet of Sel is the setting for Sanderson’s debut novel Elantris, but is one we don’t know particularly well, but Sanderson has promised to return to in the future. The first story in the collection, The Hope of Elantris, is a deleted scene of sorts from the main novel, detailing events taking place in an Elantrian children’s home during the climax of the novel. It’s been so long since I read Elantris that this didn’t really do much for me, but it’s a nice enough read all the same.

I reviewed the next story, The Emperor’s Soul, a frankly horrifying four years ago in my first year with this blog. Here’s the review:

https://frivolouswastesoftime.wordpress.com/2012/12/11/the-emperors-soul-by-brandon-sanderson/

 

The Scadrian Systrem

Scadrial is the setting for the Mistborn series and still arguably Sanderson’s most coherently developed setting. The first story, The Eleventh Metal is a short one which provides a bit of Kelsier’s backstory, showing him fairly new to his Mistborn powers and still training, before he committed to taking down the Lord Ruler. As with The Hope of Elantris, it’s a fun little side story which doesn’t add a huge amount, but it’s always nice to see a little more of Kelsier. Following The Eleventh Metal is Allomancer Jak and the Pits of Eltania which brings the events into the Alloy of Law era. This one is a huge amount of fun and a bit of an experiment. It is presented as a collection of serialised story from the adventurer Allomancer Jak, with droll footnotes from his long suffering Terris footman. We’re told not to trust much of what Jak tells us in his enthusiastic first person prose, but it does give us some interesting hints about the role of the koloss in the current era of Sacdrial. This is a funny, breezy and light piece of writing. A whole novel of this would get old quickly, but you can just tell how much fun Sanderson was having here so it would be nice to see him give this style a go again sometime.

Now, looking back through my archives I appear to have forgotten to review Mistborn: Secret History back when I first read it. To be fair, that makes sense though as almost the entire thing is a massive spoiler. It’s almost impossible to talk about without giving too much away. Suffice it to say that Secret History bridges the gap between the original trilogy and the Wax and Wayne follow ups, as well as providing a significant amount of tantalising hints about the Cosmere and Scadrial’s role within. It’s not just fan wank though, telling a genuinely interesting and entertaining story. One of the things I love about Sanderson is that, even when neck deep in his own lore, he never forgets to keep the prose itself snappy and entertaining. Exposition rarely feels like exposition. It’s a bit amorphous at times and isn’t paced particularly snappily, but it’s nature as an ‘interquel’ of sorts makes that somewhat inevitable. This is one of the most meaty stories of the collection and an absolute must read for any fans of Mistborn or the wider Cosmere.

The Taldian System

Taldain is the setting for White Sand, an odd instalment in the Cosmere canon. Written as one of Sanderson’s earliest books, he was unhappy with it and it remained unpublished. Sanderson’s draft is currently being adapted as a graphic novel, the first instalment of which released this year. I have read it, but I didn’t review it because I don’t really know how to talk about graphic novels the way I do with books and games. Arcanum Unbounded contains the first few pages of the graphic novel (in black and white), as well as an extract from the original draft. The White Sand graphic novel is good and does promise to be important for the Cosmere; it includes the origin story for Khriss, the character who writes most of the Ars Arcanum entries for the Cosmere books, as well as the introduction for the different systems in Arcanum Unbounded. As it stands, this Taldain section is more of a teaser for better stuff to be found elsewhere. There is a worthwhile story being told on Taldain, but it’s worth picking up the first volume of the graphic novel to get it.

The Threnodite System

Threnody is a hugely interesting setting that I hope Sanderson returns to one day. For now, all we have is Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell, which I reviewed earlier this year here. It’s very good (the story, not my review):

https://frivolouswastesoftime.wordpress.com/2016/02/27/shadows-for-silence-in-the-forests-of-hell-by-brandon-sanderson/

The Drominad System

As with the last system, the only story set here is the enjoyable Sixth of Dusk, which I also reviewed earlier this year:

https://frivolouswastesoftime.wordpress.com/2016/02/28/sixth-of-dusk-by-brandon-sanderson/

The Roshar System

Roshar is the setting for The Stormlight Archive and Edgedancer is the only completely new story in the collection and was therefore the main selling point. One of my favourite things about the series are the Interludes, semi regular short stories interspersed throughout the main narrative giving hints of things to come and characters who will play a larger role in later books. The real victory of these is that several function independently as their own short stories, or even novellas. Managing to embed a functional novella into a separate novel without disrupting the flow is something which doesn’t seem possible, but Sanderson pulls it off. One of the most memorable Interludes in Words of Radiance followed Lift, a mysterious and eccentric young woman who has been awakening to her powers as a Radiant in the West of Roshar, an area little seen in the main narrative. Edgedancer is, essentially, a sequel to that Interlude and follows what Lift got up to after she broke into the palace of Azir and accidently rescued it’s Emperor from the mad Herald Nale, who Lift knows as ‘Darkness.’

The real victory of this story, which sees Lift travel to the city of Yeddaw, supposedly in a bid to taste the ten varieties of filled pancake for which the city is famous, is that it doesn’t feel inessential. Side stories and novellas often fall victim to the ‘so what’ problem. If this is so important, then why isn’t it part of the main series? The events of Edgedancer feel relevant to the wider story of The Stormlight Archive regarding the return of the Radiants, the role of the Herald Nale and how Szeth fits into his plans. It’s also, (and this is important) a lot of fun. Fantasy is filled with authors who seem to be tired of writing, or see it as a grand burden, people like Martin, Rothfuss and Lynch. I’m not criticising those authors, they’re all brilliant, but you get the sense that they may have fallen out of love with their own series and the act of writing. Sanderson isn’t like this; you can just tell he loves writing and loved writing this story. His enthusiasm is infectious and helps make up for the fact that his work is never quite as polished as the other authors mentioned above. Lift strikes me as character people will either find endearing or irritating, but for me she falls into the former camp. There’s a genuine sense of tragedy behind the flippant and silly exterior and I’m sure we’ll find out more about her by the time she comes into prominence in the main series. Edgedancer may not be quite worth the price of entry alone, but it is another strong piece in a very strong collection.

Conclusion

The core stories of the collection are The Emperor’s Soul, Mistborn: Secret History, Shadows for Silence in the Forests and Hell, Sixth of Dusk and Edgedancer. The collection is worth it just for these if you haven’t read them. The other stories feel a bit less essential. I wouldn’t recommend touching Secret History or Edgedancer if you’re not familiar with their respective series, but the other three can be read entirely stood alone. Taken together, this is a hell of a collection and a perfect demonstration of Sanderson’s range and talent. As something to hold me over until the third Stormlight book, Arcanum Unbounded will do just fine.

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Sword of Destiny by Andrzej Sapkowski

I enjoyed the first Witcher collection very much and found it’s loose, fairy tale focused approach quite charming. The Sword of Destiny is a much tighter collection and for the first time I really felt that this was the same world I was so familiar with from the games. Sword of Destiny is a wonderful collection of stories which both stand alone but also set up the following novel series.

The first story is The Bounds of Reason, which sees Geralt caught up in a dragon hunt alongside a range of other characters seeking its treasure. Dragons are sentient creatures who largely ignore humans, so Geralt does not view them as monsters in need of slaying. On the journey Geralt comes back into contact with Yennefer, with their tempestuous relationship currently at a low point. The Bounds of Reason takes a while to get going, with the exploration of Geralt and Yennefer’s relationship being the most appealing part of the story for me. The following story, A Shard of Ice is focused entirely on Geralt and Yennefer, with the two reunited and staying in the city of Aedd Gynvael. Yennefer has ongoing business in the city, but Geralt is anxious to leave causing the two to clash and it isn’t long before a rival for Yennefer’s affections complicate matters further. Where previous Yennefer stories focus on the magnetism and chemistry which inexorably draw her and Geralt together, A Shard of Ice concerns itself with the ways in which their lifestyles are incompatible. Yennefer is entirely selfish, but this is something almost inherent to someone as powerful as she, and entirely unwilling to meet Geralt’s needs. Geralt is restless, constantly needing to be on the move and an inability to articulate his emotions leading to simmering resentments. A Shard of Ice is a focused story with a smaller scale, but one which I really liked for what it revealed about a relationship which is increasingly seeming to be one of the core pillars of the series.

Eternal Flame isn’t one of the best stories in the collection, but it’s a generally lighter and funnier tale, with Dandelion playing a central role. It’s setting is one immediately familiar to players of The Witcher 3; Novigrad. I’ve spent a fair bit of time prowling those virtual streets so this setting was immediately appealing to me. It’s not the only element which eventually reappeared in The Witcher 3: Eternal Flame is about dopplers; shape shifting creatures who are hated and feared by most humans but are generally harmless. Dudu, the doppler at the centre of the story, played a role in the story of the game. Eternal Flame is a fun, but not particularly memorable story overall. The following story, A Little Sacrifice, wasn’t a favourite either. This story sees Geralt and Dandelion desperate and hungry, struggling for work. Geralt has wound up as the middle man in a love affair between a local noble and a mermaid, neither of which speak the same language. This whole element is a quite funny pastiche of The Little Mermaid, but the main plot interested me less. It involved a strange, love at first sight relationship between Geralt and a young bard mentee of Dandelion’s, Essi Daven. I found the whole thing a bit disconcerting, particularly in regarding the age gap. I mean, I’m definitely adjusted to seeing Geralt with younger looking women, but at least they’re normally sorceresses who are actually much older. Some people find this story very moving, but it really didn’t land for me. Still, the mermaid stuff was really fun so that made up for it.

The final two stories of the collection were definitely my favourites.  The title story of the collection, Sword of Destiny, sees Geralt heading into Brokilon, a forest home to the mysterious dryads. The local princeling seeks to take Brokilon for its lumber and real estate and this is fiercely resisted by the dryads, with whom Geralt has had previous encounters. It is not long into his journey that he encounters a young girl who claims to be a princess, hiding from her prospective marriage match. This young woman is named Ciri and anyone who has played The Witcher 3 will know how important she is. The bond between Geralt and Ciri is hugely touching in the game and it was wonderful to see the origin of this relationship here. The sword referred to in the title is metaphorical, with ‘destiny’ being the major theme of this story and the one following it. Issues of predestination and free will come to the surface of this story and the risks and virtues of flying in the face of destiny and forging your own path are core to Geralt’s character. The final story, Something More, is a rather strange one. The story opens with Geralt saving a merchant from an attack on his wagon but becoming badly wounded in the process. The merchant takes care of him and brings him towards his home in CIntra whilst Geralt heals, with the story frequently lurching into flashbacks whilst Geralt recovers in a feverish daze. This story follows the fall of Cinta to Nilfgaard and features plenty of returning faces in the flashbacks, such as Yennefer and Dandelion. Something More picks up plot threads from several previous stories, most notably the immediately previous Sword of Destiny but also from stories way back in The Last Wish. It feels like a transition story between the short story structure of these first two books and the novels which follow. It’s probably the most moving bit of writing I’ve read from Sapkowski so far and digs deeper into Geralt’s surprising emotional depth than we have previously.

Sword of Destiny is a fantastic collection, even stronger than The Last Wish. By this point I absolutely get why this franchise became so huge in its native Poland. As much as I love the games, I hope that the stories which started it all aren’t forgotten. These two collections really are great and if they’re anything to do by, the following novels will be too.

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Heroes Die by Matthew Stover

I’ve been wanting to read this series for a while and now I have a Kindle I finally can. The Acts of Caine series has been out of print for a very long time (and with cover art like the one seen below it’s hardly surprising) but has had a resurgence of attention of late. I’m shocked it wasn’t a bigger success because it really is very good, perhaps somewhat ahead of its time. As a wonderful example, and critique of, grimdark fantasy, the current fantasy market is a very sensible place for this series to do very well.

Acts of Caine takes place in two parallel worlds; one is the future Earth, which has become a rigidly caste based society controlled by the Social Police who keep the populace in line. The opiate of the masses are Adventures put out by a series of studios. Many years before the beginning of the book, an ability to travel between parallel universes was discovered. Most are too hostile and alien to support human life, but one, known as Overworld, resembles a world out of fantasy, complete with a form of magic known as flow. The studios send Actors from Earth to Overworld where they livestream their Adventures to a rapt audience. Overworld is a real place and the actions of the Actors on Earth have real consequences.

Hari Michaelson is the most popular actor in the world, known in Overworld as Caine. He is loved for his brutality and propensity for sudden, shocking violence. He has been in semi-retirement since his assassination of the ruler of Ankhara destabilised the Empire and plunged it into a bloody war of succession. When Hari is told that his estranged ex-wife Shanna, another actor known in Overworld as Pallas Ril, is in danger, he agrees to head back into Overworld to save her. The studio wants him to assassinate Mael’koth, the new ruler of Ankhara, a hugely powerful magician and charismatic leader. The studio wants to do so as he has launched a pogrom against Aktir, demons who invade from another world to disrupt theirs. Sound familiar? Caine’s motivations diverge further and further from the studio as he makes enemies in both worlds.

The whole science fiction/fantasy crossover thing is something I’m very fond of. A good example would be Anne McCaffery’s Dragonriders of Pern books, which gradually revealed that what looked like fantasy was actually science fiction. I also loved the old adventure game The Longest Journey, which saw its heroine travel between the sci-fi dystopia of Stark and the magical realm of Arcadia. Hell, Iain Banks played with this concept more than a few times! Heroes Die is possibly the best expression of this idea I’ve ever read. I was worried that the framing narrative of our Earth would make the Overworld adventures feel inconsequential, but Stover sidesteps this by making it very clear that there are real consequences for the residents of this world by giving us a handful of Overworld natives’ PoVs. Heroes Die is a fast paced, action packed story which takes place in a tight time frame, only six days, and pretty much entirely in one setting. This limited focus is a good idea; presenting us a sci-fi future and a whole new fantasy realm could have been overwhelming but this is, fundamentally, an intimate story with a relatively small cast of characters. The grudges are personal, not lofty. In fact, the more epic moments towards the conclusion are arguably far less engaging than the closer relationships within. It also has one of the most satisfying and breathtakingly exciting conclusions I’ve ever read.

Heroes Die is a violent, unpleasant book, but that’s sort of the point. Caine’s audience back on Earth are bloodthirsty; when he attempts to use non-violent means early on his bosses at the Studio are furious. Caine is the most popular Actor in the world because of his brutality. There’s a grim humour to much of the violence; it’s so ridiculously horrible sometimes you can’t help but laugh. Joe Abercrombie is good at the same trick. The book is mostly in the third person, with Caine/Hari as the lead but with several other PoVs as well. However, there are several 1st person passages which represent Caine’s ‘soliloquy’, his internal monologue which is beamed back to the audiences on Earth. Watching him get more and more subversive, much to the fury of the social police back on Earth, is a joy, as is his growing contempt for his bloodthirsty audience.

Hari/Caine is a brilliant protagonist, brutal and horrifying but hard not to like. The supporting cast in general is a lot of fun, such as Count Berne, an old enemy of Caine’s who is so utterly and irredeemably awful it’s hard not to kind of like him. The hatred between Berne and Caine is one of my favourite parts of the book. My favourite character was Mael’koth, the all-powerful Emperor of Ankhara, who despite a fair bit of brutality is actually a rather good Emperor with the best interests of his subjects at heart. We’ve seen egotistical sorcerers seeking to ascend to Godhood before, but seeing one actually doing a pretty good job is a nice twist. He’s an intimidating, frightening and bizarrely likeable figure. A good mirror to the impressive majesty of Mael’koth is the simpering and pathetic Administrator Kollberg over on Earth, Caine’s boss who has tired of his insubordination.

Heroes Die is a tremendously fun, witty and self-aware bit of genre fiction. It’s not self-aware in an irritating ‘winking at the audience’ sort of way, but explores the tropes of its genres whilst also exemplifying them. Even without the frame Earth narrative, Caine’s adventures in Overworld would still be pretty fun. I’m very much looking forward to continuing with the series.

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All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

This is a book I wanted to like a lot more than I actually did. I heard loads of good things and I’ve always really liked Anders’ writing on i09, but ultimately this was a book I found more irritating than anything else.

Patricia is a strange young woman with a sadistic older sister and workaholic parents who stumbles across a strange destiny as a witch, able to talk to animals and commune with ancient spirits. Meanwhile, Laurence is a technological genius who is ruthlessly bullied at school, desperate to escape the humdrum world within which he is trapped. Although both in very different ways, Patricia and Laurence are outsiders and find themselves drawn to each other. This story jumps from childhood to adulthood as the two explore through their relationship the contradictions, and perhaps symbiosis, of science and magic.

I’m a huge huge fan of stories which merge science fiction and magic but despite that it is very rarely done well. China Miéville’s Bas-Lag books would be an example of this done right. All the Birds in the Sky ends up making many of the same mistakes as other authors and in the end winds up mostly being an inferior take on Neil Gaiman. The premise is good, but the whole thing can just get insufferably twee. I know Anders used to run a leading science fiction and pop culture website, but some of the references are so annoying. There’s a Doctor Who ‘timey-wimey’ joke that made me want to tear out my own eyes with rage. I don’t mind pop culture references, but we end up with the classic problem of characters who are constantly busy and talented and always working but are somehow also pop culture literate enough to drop Firefly references at the drop of a hat.

By far the best chapters of the book are the earlier ones, where we first meet Patricia and Laurence as kids. There’s something hugely sweet and endearing about a future witch and future mad scientist awkwardly building a friendship, but the switch to an adult perspective shatters this. I wonder if keeping the protagonists as children would have made a better story because adult Patricia and Laurence are never anywhere near as engaging as angry teenager Patricia and Laurence. The pacing veers widely off track towards the end; the early chapters are a bit slower but give us time to appreciate the characters and little, charming moments which allow us to form a connection to the characters. Events move so ridiculously quickly in the final quarter of the book that it’s difficult to form a real connection to any of it. People complain, myself included, about bloated genre fiction, but there’s a reason that genre fiction tends to be longer than other novels and that is the time needed to give to good worldbuilding. All the Birds in the Sky essentially abandons world building in the pursuit of character and theme; that’s fine, lots of great genre writing does that, think of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, but the characters are not particularly interesting and the themes muddled.

The frustrating thing is that there are moments of greatness. Theodolphus Rose, a precognitive assassin sent to kill Patricia and Laurence as children, is incredibly funny and interesting too, but this promising storyline just sort of fizzles out as the novel progresses. There’s something almost Roald Dahl-esque about the awful childhoods of Patricia and Laurence, with a balance between genuine horror at what they’re going through and a dark comedy at just how nasty it gets.

All the Birds in the Sky is an ambitious novel with lots of great ideas which simply fails to coalesce into anything particularly special. As I said at the top I really wanted to like it, but I couldn’t force myself to. I’m still going to keep an eye on Anders though, there’s clearly potential here.

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The Spider’s War by Daniel Abraham

The Spider’s War is a very interesting end to a strong series which plays out its final conflicts in a manner I think little could expect. Not every character apotheosis is successful, but enough are to make this a satisfying conclusion.

The resistance against the Antean Empire and the cult of the spider priests is growing on multiple fronts as the forces of Geder Palliako begin to fold in upon themselves. The Antean forces are badly overstretched and an army is marching on Camnipol to take revenge. Meanwhile, pamphlets spread by Cithrin bel Sarcour are revealing the truth of the priests’ power and the people of the world are beginning to wake from the slumber of the spider goddess. Marcus, Cithrin and Clara turn their aims towards obliterating every spider priest from the face of the earth and maybe put an end to war itself, whilst Geder grows more and more unstable.

For those hoping for a big military clash between an army led by Marcus Wester (perhaps with the dragon Inys at his back) and Geder’s Antean forces, you’ll be disappointed. This novel contains a dearth of big battle scenes, with the most spectacular in the series remaining the Antean attack on Porte Olivia and the takedown of Inys from The Widow’s House. The Spider’s War is oddly pacifist, with characters avoiding fighting and conflict as much as possible, with a notable exception which slightly undermines the novel’s message. The themes of the series are finally tied together; this is a series about the movement from the violence of the dagger towards the violence of the coin. There are rumblings of a sequel series and I’m wondering that where this one is a critique of war the next will be a critique of capitalism. It would certainly be interesting to see a world move on from hurting each other with weapons to hurting each other with money and greed. This series has overall been extremely thematically successful in a way few sprawling fantasy epics can achieve.

Most characters continue in their interesting directions, particularly Cithrin who has changed utterly from the frightened little girl fleeing Vanai all the way back in The Dragon’s Path. Clara also has a very satisfying story; I’ve never been much of a fan of the gossiping court noblewoman intrigue plot which is so bizarrely prevalent in fantasy, but Abraham has done a good job of making it interesting through the wonderful character of Clara. Not every character is handled so well, with some moments and final twists which feel a bit unearned. There were some moments where it felt like Abraham was pulling back from pulling the trigger. I don’t think a finale should just be a series of cheap shocks, but I think Abraham could perhaps have thrown at least one mindbender our way. Once the path towards the end in clear, everything happens pretty much as you would expect.

The Spider’s War is a worthy finale to a really enjoyable series. There are massive threads left dangling for a follow up which I certainly hope happens. I may never have taken to the world building of this series, but I most certainly took to the characters and I’d love to see them again and any new ones Abraham creates for us.

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