I’m not one to typically read short story collections or anthologies but the theme behind the latest John Joseph Adams’ edited Operation Arcana was sufficiently intriguing to pique my interest. The focus of Operation Arcana is on military fantasy and includes a wonderful list of contributors. The stories in Operation Arcana run the gamut from high action, to more subtle medications of war and combat. By and large Operation Arcana is full of tight, entertaining fiction. I’m not going to go through every story in the anthology but there were really a handful of stories that absolutely blew me away.
The Emperor’s Blades was one of my favorite debut novels in recent years. A fast-paced narrative and fantastic characterization (for most of the characters) made the pages fly by. The novel had a few issues particularly that the world-building was a little bit light and the only female character felt like a secondary consideration. Thankfully those issues are resolved with the release of the second book in the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, The Providence of Fire. Picking up just after the conclusion of the first novel it follows Kaden as he is escorted by Valyn and his Kettral wing on a mission to hopefully get more information on the Csestriim threat that has suddenly rematerialized. Meanwhile, Adare comes to terms with the snake who engineered her father’s downfall and seeks new allies in a dangerous bid to secure her family’s imperial position.
I’ve had limited exposure to the writings of Asimov but my encounters with many older science fiction works have shown me that in many cases their strengths lay in ideas over characters. As a reader whose attention is drawn to vivid characters this often poses a problem. Niven and Porenelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye had similar problems and I’m not sure I can name a specific character from Rendezvous with Rama. Each of those novels were in one way or another a struggle for me typically since engaging with the novel leaned almost exclusively on the intellectual rather than the emotional. Foundation opens up with a fascinating concept: a psychohistorian, Hari Seldon, has used mathematics to determine that the current Galactic Empire will fall into ruin. Needless to say this sends the current leadership of the Galactic Empire into a bit of an uproar and sees Seldon and his compatriots exiled to the far end of the universe where they can continue their work without upset the current order. What follows is a march through time as Seldon’s work echoes through the ages as he and his descendants seek to limit the impact of the “dark age” that follows the empire’s fall.
Small press and self-published titles are continuing to increase not only in quantity but also in quality. A Crucible of Souls is an impressive debut from author Mitchell Hogan that shows an sure, deft hand at character and action. Caldan’s parents and sister were slain when he was a young child and he has been raised in a nearby monastery since their deaths. There he has studied arts both magical and martial alongside the children of the rich and noble. As a ward of the monks Caldan isn’t necessarily accepted by the privileged students of the monks and a terrible mistake soon sees Caldan put out of the monastery and sent out into the harsh truths of the real world. With an earnest attitude and keen mind Caldan finds himself apprenticed to the sorcerer’s guild for a short time before world-shattering events see Caldan on a mission of great importance.
While on the one hand Hogan’s story borrows familiar tropes, particularly when it comes to the protagonist, he manages to inject a number of original elements into the story that keep the familiar from being overwhelming. I was particularly impressed the Hogans light-hand when it comes to world building. Hogan sketches out some simple details: the world is a fallen place, unchecked magic from past seemingly have wreaked some great cataclysm that has seen much knowledge both lost and forbidden. The magic that does exist in A Crucible of Souls is primarily practical, magical inventions that are designed for a specific task (sorcerous globes of light, locks that can be magically sealed, etc.) all of which eventually lose their power and crumble to dust (or burst into flames). The crafting of permanent items has been lost to time though powerful magical trinkets from ages past do exist. The mysteries of the lost art of magic is an important aspect of the story. Somehow Hogan’s intricate world-building occurs stealthily in the background and I never really felt bombarded with information overload.
To some extent Caldan can come off as a bit too pefect. Particularly when it comes his magical abilities and his preternatural ability to play the chess-like game of Dominion Caldan seems to be a bit insufferably good. However, Hogan cleverly turns Caldan’s talents on their head with his seemingly amazing abilities being what constantly gets him in trouble. Caldan’s talents frequently overreach his experience in a way that rounds the character out nicely. In A Crucible of Souls Hogan introduces what is perhaps the most fascinating character of the series in Amardan (this could be spelled wrong since I listened to the audiobook). Introduced relatively early in the story Amardan is a shopkeeper who is also a serial-killer. I’m hard pressed to name many fantasy series that introduce a serial killer as a main character but Amardan is a wonderfully compelling character who, even when he is being outright terrible, is consistently entertaining to read. To me it felt like Amardan and Caldan are two sides of the same coin and their similarities are something I hope are explored in future.
The dialogue in A Crucible of Souls can be a bit clunky at times. In the audiobook this is mitigated by Oliver Wyman’s talented narration; his assured delivery of the dialogue distracts from its occasionally stilted tone. Hogan has offered up an entertaining debut in A Crucible of Souls. While not a perfect novel its creativity and winding plot make up for its short falls. A Crucible of Souls won the 2013 Aurealis Award (Australian Science Fiction) for Best Fantasy Novel. The second novel, Blood of Innocents is available now, and a third untitled volume is in the workd.
The Guard by Peter Terrin is translated from the dutch by David Colmer centerting on two security guards, Harry and Michel, who are stationed in a high security apartment building offering hotel-like services to the wealth and the elite. One day the residents, seemingly all but one, leave almost en masse leaving Harry and Michel to their lonely posts. I knew nothing about this novel going in but its jacket flap hinted at something a bit post-apocalyptic so I decided to give it a shot. The story unfolds across numerous short chapters, sometimes less than a couple of a paragraphs, as both Harry and Michel ruminate on their position, on the possibility of promotion, and very rarely on the residents of their strange charge.
Nostalgia is a funny thing. It can color our interpretation of things and is often difficult to divorce oneself from. Such is the case with Robin Hobb’s latest series opener Fool’s Assassin. Focusing on the retired life of FitzChivalry Farseer, now Tom Badgerlock, it shows him dealing with a primarily sedentary life. He watches his wife age past him, his own aging slowed by the magic healing that saved his life, and finds himself suddenly beset by unexpected child late in life. The story plays very much like a bildungsroman except instead of a youth maturing into adulthood it is an older man learning how to be a father.
Fans of D&D might find this article by Jon Peterson, that details the lifecycle of a 1980s D&D module, an interesting read.
Also, props to Mr. Peterson on the subtle allusion to the Nine Hells.