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.
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.
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.
I first encountered Nicholas Kaufmann’s fiction reading Chasing the Dragon a wonderful novella put out by the fine folks over at Chizine; it’s a wonderful little fantasy allegory about addiction that I highly highly recommend. When I spotted Kaufmann’s latest series of novels about a man who refuses to stay dead I pounced on them and devoured them wholesale back-to-back. Starting with Dying is My Business Kaufmann introduces readers to Trent. Trent works for Brooklyn crime boss doing odd jobs, particularly retrieving odd valuable objects. He has no memory of who he was beyond waking up in an alley several months ago. It turns out that Trent doesn’t stay dead. Every time Trent does die he wakes up minutes later healed of every wound and the person nearest to him sucked of all life. Dying is My Business lays out these details nicely opening with Trent waking up from one of these deaths. It’s a nice little in-media-res opening and Kaufmann does a great job of hooking you in the beginning then quickly outlining the, admittedly scant, details of Trent’s life.
Chris Evan received some buzz for his Iron Elves series and in 2013 released a nonfiction title Bloody Jungle: The War in Vietnam; a photographic history of the Vietnam War. It is this last title that leads most directly into Of Bone and Thunder a novel which reads as a sort of fantastical reimagining of the Vietnam War. There are many aspects of Of Bone and Thunder that work and when the novel is firing on all cylinders it is an entertaining and enthralling read that stands toe to toe with much of the military fiction (both fantastical and not) that came before it. However, it also a novel held back by the aspects that don’t quite work.
My primary concern of Of Bone and Thunder is its lack of focus. There are roughly three main threads of the narrative that of the patriotic Thaum Jawm Rathim, the soldier Carny and his squad, and the Thaum Breeze and the Rag driver Vorly. While the broad focus on these three narratives helps to increase the scope of the novel and provide a more complete picture of the different aspects of the war they also make it difficult to form an emotional connection with the characters. While Evans details the war effort from the ground, from the air, and through Jawm indicates the perception of war on the home front the focus remains on the experiences of the characters in the story and readers are only ever privy to what the characters know never more. So while Evans does hint at bigger currents running through the military and political landscape of the novel those hints never truly mature into anything. The weakest part of the story for me was the tale of Carny and his squad. It was perhaps the most familiar part of the story and the Vietnam analogues were perhaps a bit too on the nose. Evans’ attention to Jawm’s patriotic idealism and its slow degradation over the course of the novel felt a bit more solid and while not necessarily fresh ground still felt like more fertile ground for the story. This is doubly so for the Dragon (Rag) driver Vorly and his new sorceress (Thaum) co-rider Breeze. Evans hits it out of the park with the Dragons in this novel walking a thin line between the notion of dragons as beasts of burden and as so tough as to be sort of machine-like; their maintenance and upkeep not dissimilar to planes or helicopters. The relationship between Vorly and Breeze is also handled nicely as the use of magic as a communication method between Dragons is new. It provides an interesting complication and Vorly’s struggle to adapt to the presence of not just to a thaum but a female thaum make these chapters easy to engage with. Evans even manages to work into a bit of a relationship triangle once Jawm steps into the mix. The characterization of Jawm, Vorly, and Breeze just felt more original than the sort of stereotypical roles and personalities that were assigned to Carny and the squad.
Of Bone and Thunder is an interesting novel that stands well on its own. I’m not clear on whether it is the start of a series or not but I’d definitely be interesting in seeing more. Of Bone and Thunder is by no means a perfect novel but it succeeds far more often then it fails. By and large Evans tells a massive story that manages to transport the reader into a jungle hellhole and walk them back out again; though not unchanged. Of Bone and Thunder is a stand out novel that fantasy fans looking for something a bit different should definitely give a shot.
Malice, the first book in The Faitful and the Fallen series was an entertaining debut to a new series. Valor picks up mere moments after the last novel as Corban, Edana, and the handful who escaped the taking of Dun Carreg make their getaway. As in Malice, Gwynne walks a nice middle ground with his prose. There is a darkness to Valor, with the odds stacked against the heroes and with the people (at least some of them) firmly on the “villainous” side of things not necessary villains themselves. There is violence in the novel but nothing over-the-top though Valor delves a bit further into murky waters when it comes to sexuality; a fact I’ll touch on later. By and large this is an excellent continuation of the series managing a brisk pace while simultaneously deepening the lore of the world that Gwynne has created.
When Christopher Sinclair takes a walk one night in Arizona he suddenly finds himself waking up in a strange land gripped by a freezing winter. Sinclair is quickly quickly finds himself embroiled in the affairs of the titular Bright Lady as her consort, the God of War Marcius, offers an exchange: Christopher’s help in dealing with the the threat of war for Marcius’ help in returning to his wife and home. From its initial layout Sword of the Bright Lady there is a sense of familiarity to the tale that reminded me a bit of the Thomas Covenant or even A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court series but hearkens back even further to the old fairy stories of mortals wandering into strange in new lands full of magic and water.
Sword of the Bright Lady stretches credulity with Sinclair coming off a touch like a Mary Sue. He knows a bit too much to be able to survive in a pre-industrial society as he is able to bring techniques and technologies to bear in order to improve the quality of weapons and armor. Similar his prowess with a weapon, though below that of the native in the novel, is a bit too good for someone from our world. The world of Sword of the Bright Lady often feels familiar, particularly to anyone who has played a video game or enjoyed a session of Dungeons and Dragons. Magic-users are measured by rank and their power is increased by taking on the energy of expired lifeforms, particularly other ranked individuals. It comes off a little corny and a bit derivative but I none-the-less found myself enjoying the loosely explained narrative context for “levels” and “experience points.”
Sword of the Bright Lady isn’t a particularly great novel but it is an entertaining diversion. Planck leaves the mystery of the Sinclair’s journey between his world and the magical world largely in the dark. It’s something I’d like to have seen explained a little more. While the novel lacks depths it makes up for that lack with some excellent action scenes and the pure entertainment value of watching a headstrong, independent-minded American butt heads with a rigid feudal society. If you’re looking for a fun, goofy read Sword of the Bright Lady is worth a shot.
California Bones by Greg Van Eekhout is the first in a new urban fantasy series that takes place in California. In the world of California Bones osteomancy is the form magic takes as power if gained through distilling and consuming the bones of other creatures. Daniel Blackland, the son of a famous osteomancer was present when his father was killed by the powerful Hierarch of Southern California (I’ll leave to your imagination exactly how he was killed). Daniel escaped and was raised in the underworld of Los Angeles where he has survived through his wits and using just enough of the magic his father taught him so as to stay beneath the Heirarch’s radar. When his estranged criminal mentor contacts him for one last job Daniel assembles an Ocean’s 11 style magical team to rob the heart of the Hierarch’s magical kingdom, the La Brea Tar Pits.
I’m late to the party checking out Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon which given my love for the work of Howard Andrew Jones’ Chronicles of Sword and Sand is even more egregious an error than you might expect. However, unlike Jones’ work Adhmed takes several big steps away from the historical choosing instead to center his story a bit more loosely. The Crescent Moon Kingdoms of Ahmed’s novel are familiar but not explicitly defined as part of our world and borrowing just enough from history to lend the story an air of credibility and tangibility. The story of Throne of the Crescent Moon centers on ghul hunter Doctor Adoulla Makhslood and features a strong cast of supporting characters including the dervish Raseed, the shapeshifting Zamia, the mage Dawoud, and the alchemist Litaz. A series of seemingly unrelated events see the Doctor uncovering the fact that recent murders in the city of Dhamsawaat may be more than they appear and that something ancient, evil, and dark is stirring beneath the sands.