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

King of Ashes by Raymond E. Feist

So this is Feist’s first book outside Midkemia for an awfully long time. I was, and am, a huge fan of his even though the later books in the series had some serious issues.

It’s fairly obvious from the start that he is trying to be a little edgier here. There is proper cursing, lots of talk about sex, and the violence seems more visceral than his usual style. It’s like he’s trying to write darker while keeping the same sort of character tone from his Midkemia books. I’m not sure my description has come across well but not sure how else to frame it. I’m also not sure he pulled it off very well.

We have two primary POV’s; Hatu the last remaining heir to a betrayed and destroyed kingdom (this is not a spoiler, it’s on the cover blurb and in the prologue), and Declan a journeyman blacksmith. Hatu has been raised in a criminal fraternity, learning to fight, steal and spy. Declan is also an orphan, on the verge of his blacksmith mastery in a small town in what is a neutral zone between 4 (used to be 5) kingdoms. Events occur and our protagonists travel and learn things and end up in very different places than where they began.

So from that description above it seems very Feist does it not? He does love his orphans. And it is very like his other books, especially the earlier ones. Orphans with hints of something greater, mysterious powers and senses, little glimpses of something bigger going on out of sight.

I liked the Declan character, a fairly straightforward person with a few hints of ruthlessness that aren’t immediately apparent. His is the more ordinary story, fairly low key and almost slice of life. Hatu has the bigger picture storyline for obvious reasons but I did not enjoy all of his even though I should have. It’s because he spends pretty much the whole time thinking about one of his friends (Hava, who we also get a couple of POV’s). I was a teenage boy myself so I understand that it’s probably fairly realistic to think about sex and a girl all the time but it gets tiresome pretty quickly reading about it. Honestly I’d say it’s 40-50% of his POV’s are him brooding and moping about her and his feelings.

Also there are a lot of infodumps. I usually don’t notice these but these were pretty common and not much attempt was made to hide the fact that they are infodumps, it took you out of the flow somewhat.

Having said all that I did enjoy it. It’s no Riftwar or Serpentwar but it’s an interesting world with the bigger picture only seemingly touched upon so far. Some events near the end make me hopeful that Hatu won’t be so annoying in further books, and I am very curious as to where Declan is going. The style is very clunky and hopefully Feist will master the blend between the darker tone he’s striving for with his more traditional outlook in later books.

3.5 stars out of 5

Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

Hey this was a fun book. I used to love Enid Blyton when I was a kid so this book was perfectly targeted to me. Set in Blyton Hills (a town in the US)(very subtle!) there was a summer detective club where our gang of 5 (2 boys, 2 girls and a dog) used to solve crimes. Then after a successful last case they all split up and never went back to the town.

Their lives never quite played out the way they should have and 15(??) years on they get back together to look into that last case as things did not really work out as well as easy and simply as it first appeared. The tomboy has become an ex-marine with law issues. The nerdy pretty girl has become a college dropout working in a bar, the ‘leader’ is definitely not in the best place and the nerdy guy is in a mental institute. The dog (well his descendent) is fine. 

The characters here, while all deliberately a stereotype, are well drawn out with distinct personalities. I like the way the author explains how they got there and there’s a nice joke near the end that kind of skewers their justifications. There are nice moments of levity throughout the book but there are also some darker moments and the author blends the two together well.

While the book is an homage to those Blyton books, it also pays respect to the Lovecraftian books about vast beings from other dimensions and crazy sorcerers hiding in small towns. It’s a pretty cool combination that turned out to be much more enjoyable than I originally thought. The prose is fairly standard I think (I’m not too good at judging these things) but some scenes are well done with a movie script type character jump arounds that were pretty cool to read.

A better than expected novel that kept me up too late one night finishing it, which is always a good sign.

4 stars out of 5

Wrath by John Gwynne

As this is the final book in a four book series I’ll keep it short and sweet. This was a great series. It is not the most original thing I have ever read, but everything it does that you might have seen before it does extremely well. It has heroes, proper heroes, and villains.

For a series that started out slow the last book is basically non stop action. People die, lots and lots of people, people you’ve known from the first pages of the first book. I’ll be honest, I felt people cutting onions around me a few times at the end there. I think all the characters have been done so brilliantly, people are not the same as they were at the start, a natural progression done seamlessly.

Everything you want for an epic conclusion is here; battles, individual fights, revelations, twists, betrayals, character arcs and resolutions. I could not have asked for more. Honestly looking back at the first book now, I feel like the characters, wondering how it got to the end, things were so different.

I can’t wait to re-read this series in a few years time, looking at things knowing how they are going to end, taking more in that I may have missed. Even better, the author has a new series set in the same world and the first book is already out. I won’t be delving into that immediately but it’s already bought and I probably won’t be able to resist for long.

5 stars out of 5

Ruin by John Gwynne

Another amazing book. I’m not going to go into too much detail as it’s the third book. If you’ve read this far you’ll continue, if not, it doesn’t matter.

I love all the characters. I love the story. I’m kind of trying to draw it out I’m liking it this much. The author has no qualms about killing anybody off, it makes it heart breaking and tense. It has moments of glory. I’m really not too sure where it is going from here.

Best new series I’ve read for quite a while.

5 stars out of 5

Valour by John Gwynne

Another great book, I’m really enjoying this series. We start off immediately after we left off on the previous book. I won’t go into too much details of the plot but after the end of the first book, things are not looking the best for our main protagonists.

The first book was a little slow getting going as the author was getting us acquainted with the characters and the world. There was an almost slice of life feel to it that I really enjoyed. Well that hard work has payed off and in this book there is no let up. From the first page to the last there is constant strife, battles, heartache and moments of grandeur. 

John Gwynne does not do our main characters any favours. There was a death at the end of the first book that I honestly didn’t think was a ‘real’ death but yeah it was. Very unexpected. And there are more in this book, some of whom I’d become very fond of.

There are more female POV’s in this book which is a good thing as the first book was very male dominated. Cywin was good in the first book but she really shone in this one, I think hers might have been my favourite one, a bit ahead of Corban and Maquin but not by too much. Corban does not get as much page time in this book but his is still probably the most common POV chapters and I really like where his character has gone. He’s growing into himself and I like that it’s taking time for him to adjust to what has happened and what is expected of him.

All the other characters have progressed, except for maybe one, and we have a few more POV’s than last time as I already mentioned. There are a few chapters from Nathair’s mother, these get pretty brutal, and also from Coralen, Halion’s half sister. There are also POV’s from another giant and another warrior who I won’t mention. My only small disappointment was Veralis. I loved his POV’s in the first book, and still did here, I just felt his character hasn’t progressed much and I’m still wondering when he is going to realise who’s side he’s actually on.

That’s it about these books. There are prophecies about this god-war but they are already mostly revealed, I like that it hasn’t been drawn out. The angels and demons are showing up more and the stakes really feel like they’ve escalated. There are a lot of battles in this book and use of the legionnaire type tactics by Nathair and Veralis compared to the Celtic warrior tactics are brutally shown and feels like the end of an era.

The close bond between all the characters is both heart warming and heart breaking precisely because of how close they are it is even worse when something happens to them. As in the first review I mentioned it is a dark book, though not grim dark. Our heroes are proper heroes through all the things that happen to them. This is particularly relevant to Maquin’s character, because he hits some lows before an almighty bittersweet high. You could see it coming but still, amazing. 

Anyway this is shaping up to be one of the best series I’ve read in years and can’t wait to start the third one.

5 stars out of 5

Malice by John Gwynne

This book was absolutely amazing, I didn’t know I had been wanting a book like this until I started it. It has an old school feel to it, it’s dark but not grim dark. Out main character is basically a good guy, weaknesses and flaws yes, but you root for him and he seems to want to do the right thing. John Gwynne has said he was a big David Gemmell fan and it shows. Not in the story mind, Gemmell was generally low key stories, this is Epic fantasy, and the capital E is deliberate. It is more in the characters, flawed but generally good.

The story is in an iron age world, and seems very Celtic in origin. Humankind shares the world with a race of giants and both are recovering after god nearly destroyed the whole world a thousand years before because of a ploy by the devil and his angels.

Ok they are not called god and the devil in this story but that’s what basically they are. And there are angels, on both sides. There are prophecies, nice and obscure so you have no idea who is supposed to be who. A champion for the light and the dark. Writing it down makes it seem a bit tropey but it is so well done that it works brilliantly, and honestly I have no problem with tropes if they are done well.

There are a lot of character POV’s in this book. We have Corban, a young sometimes blacksmith in the village, a few years from his coming of age ritual. He has by far the most chapters, usually every other one. I think his character growth was really well done, starts off a callow and frightened youth but by the end is a confident, even inspirational, young man and the change is so gradual that you don’t really see it happening until you get a few POV’s from people around him and realise.

We also have Veralis, a younger son sent to his king for experience and gets put in the Prince’s retinue. This is a very interesting arc, things are definitely not what they seem and the parallels to another young prince in history are strong. This storyline probably contains more of the broader picture on what’s going on, it has some info dumps but nothing major and does not affect the pacing as it also has the most battle scenes. We also have other POV’s from Corban’s sister, an advisor to Corban’s king, a nephew of another king, an outlaw living in a forest. I could be missing one or two. 

I’ll be honest it was a little confusing at the start with all the POV’s and them all being in different countries but once you started to get to know them it was no problem. I didn’t mind any of the POV’s and usually in books like this there is at least one I don’t like. Some people may say that the pacing is a little slow but I thought it was perfect. This is a four book series, all of them big, so I don’t mind spending time building up the characters and the world, and there were enough events, both major and minor to keep the interest strong.

The world feels real and has a weight of history behind it which I always enjoy. There is enough ambiguity going around to keep you wondering and I love that we are getting POV’s from both the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ guys, and even the worst of the bad guys (so far) is sympathetic in some ways.

Anyway I can’t help but gush a little over this book, it simply blew me away and I don’t get that too often anymore. I was excited reading it and kept thinking about it during the day when I wasn’t reading it, can you ask for anymore? 100% recommended and I hope he keeps it up for the next few books.

5 stars out of 5

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

About half way through this book I wasn’t sure I was liking it much. It started ok but there still didn’t seem like much was happening and considering this is such a short book that is not a good thing. However things started picking up and I really enjoyed the rest of it.

We only have the one POV, Eleanor, a fairly young woman who has not had much interaction in the world due to taking care of her mother for years. Then we have Dr Montague, a paranormal researcher who pulled the group together, Theodora a young bohemian type character and finally Luke, the rakish heir to the house. Dr Montague pulled the group together deliberately to do some active research in a haunted house and as soon as they arrive things get pretty weird almost instantly.

It all sounds fairly stereotypical doesn’t it? Well I am not well versed in the horror genre both in the written and visual mediums but even I thought it all seemed rather generic. But since this was written in the 50’s I think it is not surprising in that a lot of these ideas have been used again and again and so to me they seem tropey but at the time I am sure they were quite original.

The writing style was strange, in a good way. Seemed to drift from an almost scientific style to quite abstract, maybe to show how the mind of our protagonist was changing? I’m still not quite sure what happened at the end, it got quite strange and I wasn’t sure what was ‘real’ and what wasn’t, again I’m sure that was the point. I actually got a little creeped out in places which was pretty cool, very rare that that happens.

I loved the character of Eleanor, she started out so naive (and really stayed that way) but I was hoping her plan to become a new person would work out. The interactions between the different people was great and it’s only as the book got going that you realise that things aren’t probably exactly as Eleanor sees them, she’s not being honest with herself or with you the reader. Really well done.

I’ve only a few criticisms which stopped it being a 5 stars. As I mentioned it takes a bit to get going which I usually don’t mind but in such a short book it was a bit of an issue. I also didn’t like when Mrs Montague and Arthur arrived. Both provided an almost comic relief which I don’t think was necessary but I suppose their purpose was to show how strange our four main characters had become. So overall a pretty good book, with some genuinely creepy moments and great character development.

4 stars out of 5

The Autumn Republic by Brian McClellan

I still have some quibbles with this series but I really enjoyed this concluding volume. I think this whole series only takes place over something like six months, so the pace has been pretty relentless and this book is no exception.

I’m not going to go into too much plot details for fear of spoilers but all our characters are in the thick of the action and the country of Adro is in serious danger from multiple enemies on multiple fronts. Tamas has returned to take control of the armies and in this book we really see why he has such a fearsome reputation as a general.

The battles are very cool and I really enjoyed one of them as we saw it from a few different POV’s: Adamat, Nila and Tamas. I liked the chaotic feel of it as Adamat and Nila are civilians so unlike Tamas and Taniel who we’ve experienced most of the battles so far, they have no idea what’s going on and they are both so confused.

Nila is the stand out character in this book and I am very pleased about that. Her growth and her interactions with Bo were my favourite parts though I was a little disappointed that some explanations for her talents were lacking. Perhaps this is being saved for further volumes.

Taniel took a little bit of a step back in this book from the action and his arc was more internal than external which was a nice touch from all the action elsewhere. Tamas was as cool as ever and though this story line was a little predictive I really enjoyed it, a bit more of the man rather than the general was shown.

Adamat has been my least favourite character from the start and unfortunately it’s no different here. I just think the author didn’t nail him as well as he did the other characters. He feels like somebody who is there to flesh out the plot as his POV’s constantly provide new information so they are still interesting to read but his stated desires, ie protecting his family, don’t match his actions and the events that do happen don’t seem to affect him enough.

I do have issues with one character and some of the plot points (honestly the whole concept of powdermages still doesn’t make sense to me), however I had such fun reading this (I even had a couple of goosebump type moments) that I will definitely be checking out the author’s new books (I already bought Sins of Empire). There’s nothing too deep or genre defining here but it is a great read with some great characters, epic battles with guns, cannons, magic and Gods, that all concludes pretty well with a few loose ends for the author and reader to pursue down the line. Recommended.

4.5 stars out of 5

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