Darkspell by Katharine Kerr

This is shaping up to be an excellent series. It follows the format of the previous book, the present day timeline and then a series of flashbacks to the reincarnations of our main characters from a previous timeline.

I enjoyed the flashbacks in this book quite a lot. Our main characters, apart from Nevyn, actually didn’t get a lot of screen time but focused on the raging civil war and the birth of a certain prominent family. Gweniver (Jill) was the only other ‘main’ character to feature prominantly, and her story was suitably tragic and tied up their wyrd’s perhaps even more.

Back in the present Rhodry is dealing with the aftermath of the previous book and adapting to life on the road whereas Jill is again finding herself involved in workings of dweomer and facing her affinity to it. Interestingly enough we also have a lot of POV’s from a dark dweomer practitioner and those are good to read if quite dark and disturbing in places. They were a quite mysterious presence in the first book but are shown in much more detail here and it has been done very well. Sometimes knowing the motivations of the bad guys can be disappointing but not in this case, quite the opposite in fact. 

The prose again works well, there is a definite feel of legend to these books and I’m still loving the Celtic world she has created. There are more definite hints that these people fled our world somehow as there are references to Romans and Cicero, though they are spelled differently which would make sense. A great book and very much looking forward to the third.

5 stars out of 5

The War in the Dark by Nick Setchfield

Think James Bond meets The Da Vinci Code meets Urban Fantasy and then you have this book.

It actually sounds pretty cool but I did not find the execution matched the ideas. I had no sympathy for the character, perhaps that was intentional as he’s a British secret services assassin with a complicated background as we learn, but honestly characterisation was mild at best.

We meet Christopher Winter as he’s about to kill somebody, the person being assassinated turns out not what he expected and then he finds himself surrounded by magic, angels and demons. He picks up a partner, a woman of course, who despite having no emotional attachment of any sort through her whole life somehow lets him tag along and explains things piecemeal. 

As an avid SFF reader I’m used to fantastical plots and major co-incidences but this took everything too far. It was an enjoyable enough read, probably would make a better movie than a book, and it seems to have been written with a cinematographer in mind. Winter (he’s always referred to as Winter or Christopher Winter) is bland to the point of boring as are pretty much everybody else. The story moves well and there are puzzles and clues that take us through cold war era Europe and some of the action scenes are alright.

I had high expectations for this book, I thought it was going to be dark and deep for some reason but it just turned out to be Bond/Bourne with demons. Now this could be what you’re looking for but it was not really for me.

2.5 stars out of 5

Black Powder War by Naomi Novik

So we start off pretty much where we left off in the previous book, with Lawrence and Temeraire ready to depart back to England. A very convenient fire followed by a letter sets the scene with our protagonists having to travel back overland through China, the Middle East, Turkey and then Austria and Germany (Prussia) where they are again swept up in the fighting against Napoleon. Like the previous book the first half seems more like a travelogue until we arrive back in Europe and we get caught up in the Prussian campaigns where we are back to battles and armies. 

I think that if I hadn’t read this straight after book two I would have enjoyed it more. Everything that I enjoyed in the first two books is still here but I found it a bit harder to get involved. From now on I think I’m going to space these out more as though there is an ongoing story, each book can work as a standalone, at least so far. I found the travelogue part not as interesting this time around though it definitely picked up once we got back to Europe.

I’m still liking the dichotomy of people and dragons in our world and the series is shaping up to show how the world will change if dragons are afforded equal rights with humans. Anyway still enjoying this series though I’ll probably take a breather before moving on to the next one.

4 stars out of 5

Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik

This was definitely a slower burn of a book than the first but still a very enjoyable read. It starts and ends with a bang but then is basically a travelogue as Lawrence and Temeraire are forced to journey to China by the British government to placate the Chinese due to the revelations at the end of the first book.

There is some tension as they are unsure if any of the Chinese are on their side or are actively against them, and this becomes more pronounced when they finally arrive. There are some great battle scenes again, particularly a kind of defensive encounter near the end that is really well written, but other than that most of the drama is of the milder sort. 

What this book is really about is the relationship between Lawrence and Temeraire and how it is evolving. It gets really good once in China when Temeraire sees how dragons are treated there compared to England/Europe where they are seen as beasts, intelligent beasts, but beasts nevertheless.

It is a good area to explore, to see how ‘our’ world would cope with another species that is as intelligent as our own. In China they are seen as equals if not superiors, and both species have learned to co-exist with each other, dragons can be almost autonomous. I’ve never really seen this explored before in a real world fantasy setting and it is very interesting. The typical bond between a person and a dragon is here of course, fairly standard, but these dragon’s have a mind of their own and question the status quo of what they see, particularly in this rigid Elizabethan society. I really hope this is explored further in the later volumes.

4 stars out of 5

Age of War by Michael J. Sullivan

That was one hell of a roller-coaster of a book. We start off pretty much where we finished in Age of Swords, and basically the whole book is set in Alon Rhist. Since it’s the third book I can’t really go into too many plot details as it would be spoilers for the previous but all the POV’s basically stay the same with an addition of one or two I think.

I’m still a big fan of Persephone as she feels very realistically written. She’s a bit older and definitely acts that way. Too often in fantasy books I think there is very little middle ground, characters are either quite young or quite old so it’s nice to read about somebody in the middle, who’s learned some of life’s lessons and acts accordingly, she’s not one to let sentiment get in the way of what needs to be done. The growth of Suri is also really well done, she has matured, even more so in this book, but man it’s not been easy on her and it doesn’t get better here. Raithe and Gifford both have great storylines in this book after not featuring so much in the previous and man are they emotional, both good and bad.

After quite a slow start to this book the pace builds from about half way through and doesn’t let up. There are so many moments in this book that got me quite a bit, I’m still thinking about them. This is the end of the first ‘arc’ I believe and it shows. There are revelations, some of which I didn’t expect at all and that end, wow. Epic feels.

The author has a way of always catching me by surprise. The books feel quite straight-forward, I think they’re going one place, and maybe they do get there but it’s the how that catches me. It happened in the first Riyria books and it’s happened again here, I really didn’t see that end coming. It’s not a twist or anything, just an unexpected end.

I’ve only minor quibbles with this book. It took a bit to get going and the rise in technological invention amongst the human contingent continues unabated, they’ve gone through what feels like 1000 years of progression in 2. There are mitigating factors but still bothers me a little. However these are only minor quibbles. What was a pretty solid, enjoyable book was turned into an amazing book by that last half. A brilliant series and still three more to come!

5 stars out of 5

The Swords of Night and Day by David Gemmell

Another great entry in the Drenai saga and the second and final part of Skilgannon’s story. Unfortunately we will never know if Gemmell had planned more stories for him due to his untimely death but what we have are some of his best.

This could be read as a standalone, it would give away some spoilers for the previous book but honestly not too much. It’s set 1000 years after the first one. How this is possible is explained in the book, ‘magic’ but not really. Skillgannon wakes in a world that he feels completely disconnected to and is told is vastly different to one he last knew. It is ruled by somebody called the ‘The Eternal’ who has battled and created her empire over the last 500 years. Soon however Skilgannon realises it’s not really that different after all and is soon swept up in the events of the day.

Like a lot of Gemmell books there are ruminations on the futility of war and whether it is worth making a stand, doing what’s right, as all things wither and fade. There is death, betrayal and moments of hope. Character’s die, even lots of POV’s and things never quite work out as you think. There are great fight scenes, battles and character interactions.

As I have mentioned before, I think Gemmell is the epitome of heroic fantasy (with a dark twist) and if you like that sort of thing and haven’t read him, rectify that immediately.

5 stars out of 5

Lost Boy by Christina Henry

This wasn’t a bad book but it just didn’t interest me too much. There seems to be a lot of this nowadays, re-imagining a classic story from the bad guys perspective. I guess you have a ready made market for your story already in place.

This story is all from Jamie’s (Captain Hook’s) POV, from the first stirring of changes in his attitude to Peter to the grown up we all know from the original story. Jamie was the first lost boy and we find he’s been there for a long time. Other boys are killed, die or just wander away but it’s always him and Peter as the constants. This starts to change as Jamie finds the constant death of the boys getting to him and he starts to question the motives of Peter and his uncaring attitude.

It’s supposed to be a dark book, almost horror-esqe but I didn’t find that at all. Yeah there is death and violence but it all felt very young adult to me, a fairly prosaic coming of age story. Maybe at another time it would have interested me more but I found myself reading it very quickly just to get it out of the way. Never really a good sign.

2.5 stars out of 5

Outcasts of Order by L.E. Modesitt Jr.

Update March 2021:

Not too much more to add here except that again I absolutely loved the mundaneness of it all. There’s basically zero action or conflict, apart from a very few minor incidences and a whole lot of fairly polite backstabbing and vindictiveness, it was great! Jessyla is also fairly rounded out considering we don’t get a POV from her. This is definitely shaping up to me one of my favourite Recluce series within the series.

Original July 2018:

This is one of the best Modesitt books I’ve read in a while. It is actually lighter on the action than in The Mongrel Mage but for some reason it clicked more for me. Like the previous 20(!) books there is a lot of day to day minutiae taking up the space but as always I find in both interesting and relaxing in some way. There is tension but honestly you always know that the protagonist will find some way around it. 

I won’t go into to the plot really except that to say that Beltur (and others) basically become refugees so has a lot of relevance in today’s climate. It deals with their struggles trying to find a home when wherever they go somebody tries to make their life difficult as it will upset the status quo or their own personal satisfaction.

The relationship between Beltur and Jessyla is well done, I like the way that small mundane things can cause issues between people in a relationship and this is highlighted here. It’s probably a bit unrealistic for a couple so young to be in tune that much but it does kind of make sense in regard the rules of order/chaos in the Recluce world.

This is also the first trilogy in the Recluce series (they’re mostly standalones or duologys) and I am most eagerly waiting the final part (It’s actually four books). I’ll be honest I had no idea at the start of Beltur’s story that it was going to be about the the founding of Fairhaven!

5 stars out of 5

The Mongrel Mage by L.E. Modesitt Jr.

Update March 2021:

Beltur is actually pretty interesting for Modesitt as he is not quite as determined at the start as his other protagonists. The only one that comes close is Lerris, but Beltur isn’t even disaffected, he’s happy out generally in his life and if it wasn’t for events forcing him to change he probably wouldn’t have done much. I can relate to him pretty well.

Another aspect that struck me was that here I didn’t enjoy the campaigns at the start and end as much as I usually do, my favourite parts were the day to day experiences, especially when he’s trying to get set up in Elparta in the middle sections. It’s also a quadrilogy, a first in the Recluce series.

Original: July 2018

Another good solid entry in the world of Recluce. All the ingredients that usually make up a Modesitt novel are here. A young, determined, self-depreciating, naive protagonist slowly comes into his powers while overcoming hardships, a new life, and enemies trying to make him fail.

This novel is rather early in the Recluce timeline, after the fall of Cyador/founding of Westwind but before the founding of Recluce and is set in Candor. Beltur is our guy here, working for his uncle as a white mage but not having much power and just doing what he’s told until realising that he is maybe not that white after all and has an affinity for order. Things fairly quickly (for Modesitt) deteriorate and Beltur has to learn and work and overcome the obstacles in his path.

Like I said there’s nothing really new here. The love interest is identified early on, and a long courtship occurs with a lot of politeness and silences of things left unsaid. Beltur does things nobody has done before, or for a very long time but thinks he is useless. A lot of the book is basically slice of life, trying to earn money and survive. This sounds like it is boring. It is not.

There is something about Modesitt’s book, on paper they sound boring and repetitive, if you’ve read one you know the general way the story is going to work, but I love reading them. I find them interesting and realistic. Just because you have great power doesn’t mean people are going to hand you money. You still need to eat and have somewhere to live and be able to afford clothes. The economic reasons for major political events are explored and every action has consequences, both globally and personally.

This is a start of a new duology (maybe trilogy?) and though it’s book 19 in the series you could probably start here without having read any of the earlier books.

4 stars out of 5

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

This was a book of contrasts. It started cold and distant but as the story got bleaker, the warmth increased. The story is unlike anything I had read before.

A single envoy of an alliance of planets, Genly, is on Gethen (an ice world that was informally called Winter), trying to sell the country, indeed the whole planet, on entering the alliance. He’s sent by himself as it is non-threatening, and must sell it without an obvious displays of technology to a sceptical populace. The story then follows his trials and tribulations in two different countries and his growing friendship with a native of the planet.

As I already stated this book starts out distant and almost text book style. I found it very hard to relate to our protagonist or anything that was happening in the story. This is primarily because what this book is is a study of gender and sex. The Gethen’s are gender neutral, only entering a sexual state once a month and can be either male or female. People can give birth during one cycle and father a child in another. Genly is just a ‘normal’ man and his struggles to understand a gender neutral person is one of the main points of the story. He theoretically understands it but struggles with it, even to himself, throughout the story. It is also a study of what society’s would be like where people are less emotionally/sexually involved for most of the time. It was fascinating but not the most riveting from a story point of view.

However this changed it the latter half of the book. After Genly was imprisoned I still hadn’t really connected but the journey he and Estraven take was beautiful and poignant and I was fully invested by the end. I think this book will benefit from re-reads as I always tend to miss things on a first read due to wanting to know what happens. I know there were levels and concepts that I missed, and there was a depth to the language that I know I will appreciate more when I don’t need to concentrate on the story. I can see why this is considered a classic and I was tempted with a 5 star rating but that slow start gives this a stout 4 stars.

4 stars out of 5

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