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Fire and Blood

Fire and Blood by G. R. R. Martin is the first of a two-part history of the Targaryen rulers of Westeros before the events of A Song of Ice and Fire. It starts with the conquest of Westeros by the first DragonLord and ends with the war between members of the Targaryen family which results in the deaths of most of their dragons. Written in the style of a non-fiction historical account, the book provides context and depth to the stories hinted at in A Song of Ice and Fire.

It is 700 pages and I have it in hardback which is why it has taken me so long to get around to reading it. With the opportunity to take some time off work and needing to rest to recover from a series of crappy colds and viruses, I read it in nearly a single sitting. It is engaging and well-written and it was quite hard to put down. Having said that, I think this is very much one for the fans. If you’re not already familiar with the books of A Song of Ice and Fire or the tv series Game of Thrones then I’m not sure you’d get much out of this. If you are a fan, then I would definitely recommend this. The only downside is there is a part two and it is unlikely to be published for some years so I finished Fire and Blood wanting more and not able to get it.  I am seriously considering re-reading all the books now.

Redemption’s Blade and Salvation’s Fire

Redemption’s Blade by Adrian Tchaikovsky and Salvation’s Fire by Justina Robson is a duology written by two different authors. It works way better than you might think.

Redemption’s Blade is about what people do in the aftermath of war. Particularly, it’s about what heroes do when the world no longer needs them. The main character is Celestaine the Slayer, who killed the evil demigod trying to destroy the world, but feels guilty about how far he got before she stopped him. I especially enjoyed the treatment of her magic sword which has a blade that can cut through anything and that’s actually really inconvenient. Scabbards don’t last, she had to learn how to fight completely differently, if she accidentally grazes someone they lose a limb. A sword that can carve through basalt makes mincemeat of people.

Celestaine believes if she can find a magical object of sufficient power she can restore one of the peoples who were broken by the evil demigod. Mostly it feels like she won’t, and Celestaine grapples with whether she’s doing it because it’s the right thing to do, or because she thinks it will make her feel better. Complicating things, the evil demigod was one of several demigods who were supposed to protect the world until he went rogue, and the rest of them are acting strangely now. In the end, though, she finds the magical macguffin, kills another demigod to get it, and her magic sword gets broken. Then there’s nothing for it but to go home and face the boredom.

Salvation’s Fire picks up a few weeks later just as Celestaine is finding home life constricting. One of the demigods pitches up to ask her and her companions to come on another quest. The evil demigod severed the world’s connection with the gods and one of the others has an idea about how to restore it. Meanwhile, loose in the world is a magical creature who was made by necromancers to be the bride of the evil demigod, and the person she’s bonded with is small girl whose entire people were slaughtered in the war. When Celestaine finds these two, it somehow seems that they have a role in what is to come, but what that role will be remains unclear. This journey takes them to the far north and then into other dimensions to find the gods, by way of some soul searching and some facing up to what was done in the war.

Adrian Tchaikovsky is quite prolific so there was a lot to choose from when I wanted something to follow the amazing Shadows of the Apt series. Redemption’s Blade is the first I picked up and it doesn’t disappoint. I loved it, couldn’t put it down, and was left wanting more. I was a bit apprehensive about how Salvation’s Fire would match up. Justina Robson’s Living Next Door to the God of Love was incredible and is one of my favourite books. Then I read a couple of her Quantum Gravity series, which are sci-fi/fantasy/spy/cyberpunk mash-ups. They’re good, but not my cup of tea. But there was nothing to worry about. Salvation’s Fire was just as good as Redemption’s Blade. It took the story and made it deeper and more complex. I highly recommend them. I wish there were more.

Shadows of the Apt

Last autumn I binge-read a ten book series, Shadows of the Apt, by Adrian Tchaikovsky. This is highly unusual for me. I tend to prefer to read something different in between titles in the same series because otherwise I get fed up. In fact, the only other time I read books in a series consecutively is re-reads of A Song of Ice and Fire.

What I’m trying to say is, these books are good. Really, really good. To start with I loved the concept of the world. Humans are evolved from insects and retain characteristics of their parent insect. Some of these species are Apt, which means proficient with technology but insensitive to magic, and others are Inapt, not able to mentally grasp technology but possessed of magical power. A few species have a little of both. Each has an ability from their insect ancestor, perhaps flight, night-vision or a weapon. Within each species individuals are different. Some societies are more monolithic than others, but all have internal tensions.

Beyond that, it is a war story. A great sweeping tale encompassing many nations and peoples. It starts with Stenwold Maker, a college professor beetle in a Lowland city trying to convince his complacent compatriots that the Wasp Empire is not the profitable trading partner it appears but rather is bent on military conquest. He uses his student as a spy network, and it is through those characters that the story unfolds. Naturally, the wasps are evil. I was never sure if it was based on Nazi Germany, the Roman Empire, or the British Empire, and I expect elements of all three were present.

I enjoyed the exploration of the arms race in the books. The war swings back and forth. At first the wasps seem irresistible, then the clever beetles develop weapons that put the wasps on the back foot, but then the wasps come back with something even worse. The wasps are apt, but not especially mechanically-minded, but they have colonised peoples within their empire who are and they use those talents ruthlessly. In the later books, there is a thread of rebellion from within the empire and, rather realistically, some of the conquered people side with the oppressor. There are characters who develop weapons purely for the creative joy of it and sell them to all sides. I liked how there were many moments in the books when it felt impossible for the beetle cities of the Lowlands to survive, yet somehow they did.

The books also explore what people are willing to do in times of extremis. Some species use torture and others don’t, but all are confronted with the need to deal with traitors and spies and forced to face the consequences of their actions. Characters are complex and painted in shades of grey. No one is wholly noble and good, no one is one-dimensionally evil. Some people are swept along by their circumstances and others manage to steer their own courses at least a little.

There’s even room for a few love stories. You know, tragic ones where everyone dies. Well, almost everyone.

I couldn’t put them down while I was reading them. Compelling, thought-provoking stories. I highly recommend them. I fully intend to read everything Tchaikovsky writes which, given that he’s quite prolific, is already a substantial reading list.

Skin

Skin by Ilka Tamke is the first in a fantasy trilogy set in Britain in the early 1st century AD. Ailia is a child without skin, which means she doesn’t know her place in the world. Rome is poised to invade and the Britons are divided between those who would fight and those who would make peace. They are waiting for a spiritual leader. Ailia undergoes several trials and may be the one they are waiting for.

There’s quite a bit I liked about this book. The cover is beautiful and is a good representation of what the book is like. It’s in first person and set entirely in Ailia’s head, which means it’s not always clear what is going on because Ailia is young and doesn’t know who can be trusted. The worldbuilding is really great and the setting is brought to life with a mystical touch.

But, I wasn’t hugely engaged with the characters and the story. The ending sort of fizzled out. It is the first in a series, but even so, the ending felt as though the story just stopped, rather than coming to any resolution, and unfortunately didn’t set up any desire for me to find the next book.

The cover says it would suit fans of Game of Thrones which I think is a bit misleading. If you’re looking for hard-bitten political, dynastic fantasy, this is not it. Skin is an emotional, mystical story. It’s worth a read if that’s your cup of tea.

 

Devices and Desires

devices-and-desiresDevices and Desires by K. J. Parker
Published by Orbit in 2005

Sentenced to death for innovating in a country that tightly controls its industry, an engineer, Ziani Vaatzes, escapes prison and flees to an enemy nation. Outside the Republic the warring duchies are much less technologically advanced, a situation the Republic desires to continue, so Vaatzes offers one of them his knowledge to build war machines. As the Republic is prepared to go to war to recover its errant engineer, the Duchy is in no position to refuse. But Vaatzes motives are more complicated than that. As this is the first in a trilogy, exactly what Vaatzes is up to is not clear by the end of the book, but by this point there have been many switches and double crosses.

Devices and Desires is a huge book, both in length (700 pages) and scope. Aside from Vaatzes there are a number of point of view characters and subplots, including a love triangle between warring duchies. It takes a little while to get going as Parker establishes his world but once it does I found myself quite reluctant to put it down. One aspect that annoyed me was the virtually entirely male cast of characters. Parker chose to write about highly patriarchal societies and I am tired of reading about them. I’d really like to read some fantasy that conceives of society in a different way. Recommendations please!

That aside, I enjoyed it. Devices and Desires is complex and Parker manages to keep the intrigue up right to the end. There’s more going on than is revealed, and it still isn’t revealed by the end of the book. I may at some point pick up book 2 to find out.

Swords of Good Men

swords good menSwords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson
Published 2013, Jo Fletcher Books

Ulfar arrives in Stenvik with his cousin Geiri, thinking this is the last stop before returning home for exile. Instead, his life is irrevocably changed. Ulfar and Geiri make a mess of approaching the ruler of Stenvik, Sigurd, on behalf of his father and has to stick around until they can make it right. To the south, Olav, devotee of the White Christ, is gathering a huge army and forcibly repressing worship of the old gods. To the north, the most fearsome Viking captains are assembling under the direction of the witch Skuld in order to destroy Olav. The battle will centre on Stenvik.

I always enjoy Viking-based fiction and this is by an Icelandic author, which gives it an authentic feel. Probably entirely spurious, but there you go. Kristjansson has a stripped back, sparse style that carries the story forward at a cracking pace. Characters and setting are brought to life with deliberate, pointed description underpinning dialogue and action. It is enough but the setting, in particular, isn’t fully realised. Stenvik is the most completely evoked but it’s not clear where it sits in relation to anywhere else.

The big battle at the end is fantastic. It was exciting, thrilling and very gory. It’s fair to say I wasn’t really expecting the ending to go the way it did.

Diversity doesn’t come out brilliantly in this book. There is a character with a crippling illness and there are a couple of key female characters (in quite a large cast). They are quite stereotypical, but it’s fair to say that’s true of all the characters in the book. Most of the women are dead by the end and so are most of the men. Two thirds of the named characters are dead at the end. Very Shakespearean.

Overall, I enjoyed it. It was fun, fast-paced and surprising.

Tea with the Black Dragon

Tea with the Black DragonTea with the Black Dragon by R. A. MacAvoy
Published 1983, Bantam Books

Martha Macnamara comes to San Francisco to see her daughter, a genius computer programmer, only to discover she’s missing. At the hotel Martha meets Mayland Long, an ancient black dragon taking the form of a human in order to seek enlightenment. Mayland is enchanted by Martha and agrees to help her find her daughter, Elizabeth.

This is, on the whole, a charming book. The first half somewhat more so than the second half. The set up, Martha and Mayland’s developing relationship, is delightfully engaging. Once the chase for Elizabeth starts, however, the tone of the book shifts. After a few clues are followed, and it starts to become clear what the mystery is, Martha is relegated to damsel in distress. Her ending seems unworthy of her character and is a sour note in an otherwise sweet tale. I especially enjoyed the descriptions of how Mayland responds to sunlight.

This is one of the books given to me by my emigrating friend and I picked it out of a stack because of the cover. I like the picture of the dragon statue. Surprisingly, it matches the description inside the book. Tea with the Black Dragon is interesting and unusual and worth a read.