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Half a King

half-a-king-uk-hbHalf a King is Joe Abercrombie’s first YA novel and the first part of the Shattered Sea trilogy.

The protagonist is Prince Yarvi, who is studying to become a healer/priest/diplomat. He has a twisted hand which means he can’t wield a weapon, somewhat of a disadvantage in a medieval setting where might is right. But that’s ok, he’s the second son of the king and is free to use his brain instead.

Then Yarvi’s father and older brother are killed in an ambush and Yarvi’s life changes. He must assume the throne. He wrestles with his feelings of inadequacy and is beginning to come to terms with his new role when his uncle betrays him, usurps the throne and leaves him for dead.

Yarvi rashly swears an oath to avenge his father and regain his throne, but he has been captured and sold as a slave, so first he has to get free and get home.

I’m a fan of Joe Abercrombie and Half a King certainly confirmed that. I’m not a young adult so I don’t read YA novels often. I loved this and am eagerly awaiting the second in the series.

Yarvi is not an entirely likeable character. Throughout the book he learns his own strength and discovers that he can be a leader. He also learns how to be ruthless. He has some hard choices to make and sometimes there’s no good outcome whatever you do. This is a lot to put on young shoulders. Watching Yarvi’s growth is fascinating.

There are layers and layers of plot full of twists and betrayals. I’m impressed by the way every twist makes perfect sense within the story yet I was surprised by each one. It’s no mean feat.

The supporting characters are great and have real presence. Nothing is a favourite of mine. It was clear from the beginning that he was not what he seemed, but I was still surprised by the reveal at the end of the book.

I was a little disappointed by the small proportion of female characters in the book. Even given a medieval setting more could have been made of the ones that were there and there could have been more of them. I did like the discovery at the end of the book that the real reason for all these layers of betrayal was an attempt to neutralise a powerful female character, so there is hope that there will be greater balance in the sequels.

Overall, I loved it and would highly recommend it for adults of all ages.

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Zoo City

zoocityZoo City by Lauren Beukes is set in a world where those who commit crimes gain animal companions and psychic powers. It’s not considered a good thing and those with animals sink to the bottom of the pile, making a living however they can.

Former music journalist, murderer and junkie, Zinzi December finds things that are lost, for a fee. After a job goes south, she’s offered an opportunity to make a lot of money finding a missing girl. It’s not what she normally does, but the money’s too good to pass up. Naturally, nothing is as simple as it seems, and when she finds the girl she uncovers a much bigger, nastier crime.

This is brilliant. It’s written in the first person present tense and Zinzi’s voice is compelling and funny. The plot is deep and tightly woven. It all makes sense at the end, and everything you need to know was always right there, masquerading as worldbuilding. I loved the concept of the animals and the powers and I loved the dystopian alternate world. I would highly recommend it.

Palimpsest

palimpsest A palimpsest is a manuscript page that has had the original text scraped off so it can be used again. Palimpsest by Cathrynne M. Valente is a gorgeous, sumptuous fantasy; reading it is like taking a luxurious, candle lit bubble bath.

Palimpsest is a fantasy city populated with weird and wonderful creatures that is entered through having sex with someone who’s been there. Those that have can be identified by the tattoos that appear on them after the first visit.

Visitors to the city come as a quartet. In order to stay permanently in the city the quartet has to find each other in the real world. The story of Palimpsest follows a quartet and the effect that going to Palimpsest has on them and their lives.

It is beautiful. And in the way of the truly fascinating it is both beautiful and horrifying. The story of how Palimpsest came to be is gradually revealed. Anyone who comes to Palimpsest wants to get back at all costs but they don’t know what was done to the people who have always lived there. They don’t know the horrors they’ve endured.

The language and style is ornate in the tradition of AS Byatt and Angela Carter. It’s indulgent like fancy chocolates and fine wine. I enjoyed this a great deal.

The Republic of Thieves

republic thieves_The Republic of Thieves is the third book in Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards cycle. To say I have been eagerly awaiting this book is quite the understatement. The Lies of Locke Lamora was one of the books that got me back into reading fantasy. I read almost entirely fantasy and science fiction when I was a teenager but I got turned off by a lack of originality and too much formula. Then when I turned thirty and started writing seriously I realised that what I wanted to write was fantasy and I wasn’t reading anything in that genre any more. So, I looked for something new and I discovered Scott Lynch, G.R.R Martin and Joe Abercrombie. Something new was afoot and I loved it.

In The Republic of Thieves, Locke Lamora is dying from being poisoned at the end of the last book. Jean Tannen is trying to find a cure and is at the end of his tether. At the very last moment, a bondsmage appears and offers them a deal. She will save Locke if he and Jean rig an election for her. The catch? Their opponent will be Sabetha, formerly a member of the Gentlemen Bastards and Locke’s lost love.

Interweaved with the present day caper is a story from when Locke, Jean and Sabetha were children together. Their mentor sends them off to work a long con all by themselves in a strange town and the Gentlemen Bastards form as a proper gang for the first time. It reveals the history between Locke and Sabetha and their painful vulnerability is beautifully rendered.

Throughout, a bigger picture is emerging. The Gentlemen Bastards are caught up in someone else’s game and we begin to see how.

The two stories are equally balanced. They are both gripping and entertaining, full of twists and turns, and I was equally interested in the outcome of both. I loved it. Couldn’t put it down. Couldn’t wait to pick it up again. The characters are vividly realised. Sabetha is wonderful. In the two previous books, she was a mysterious, mythical presence. In The Republic of Thieves she has the chance to come alive and she takes centre stage. Lynch writes women really well, in that he writes them as human beings first and then also shows an understanding of the experience of the world that only women will have. The dialogue is great and the way Lynch reveals character and story through dialogue and action is brilliant. This is a masterclass in showing, not telling. If you like fantasy and haven’t read these books, then you must. They are so good.

 

Kushiel’s Dart

I was reading articles about worldbuilding on Fantasy Faction and one of them mentioned Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey. It was an example of how changing something in your fantasy world has ramifications that ripple through the whole society. In this case, a religion that sees sex as a sacred act, as a way to worship, and commune with your god.

0949_KushielsDart_D Kushiel’s Dart is the story of Phedre told in first person memoir-style. It’s not my favourite style but for at least the first half of the book it is done very well. Phedre is telling the story of her childhood; how she was born into the service of god and how she learned what she was. She is an anguisette, a woman who finds her sexual satisfaction in experiencing pain. This is something in great demand as it is something beyond the ordinary sexual submissive.

But rather than be dedicated to a house of service, Phedre is bought by a court noble, Delauney, and trained by him to be a spy. He knows what she is but does not allow her to lose her virginity until she is eighteen, much later than it would have been in a house.

Delauney is killed and Phedre finds herself thrust into the contest for the throne of Terre d’Ange. She is betrayed, sold into slavery in a barbarian country, discovers a treacherous plot, escapes, and returns to the Queen. She becomes the Queen’s emissary and then is central to forming the alliance that saves the Queen and foils the plot to overthrow her.

For the first half of the book the language is rich and extravagant and suits the story very well. It’s engaging. Phedre is a little annoying; she’s arrogant and self-satisfied. But I’m happy to be interested in unlikeable characters. Once the story gets past Phedre’s childhood and her training with Delauney, I found I was enjoying it much less. The language and style wasn’t consistent throughout the book. About halfway through the language became more plain and I felt the book lost something.

Mostly, the reason I was frustrated was that there was a lack of conflict. Everything comes a little too easily to Phedre. I didn’t find the psychology of the characters believable and felt that the courtly intrigue was shallow. There was no real depth, no real danger. And then, I was a little disappointed in the depiction of Phedre as an anguisette. It was built up extremely well in the first half of the book. I couldn’t wait to get to the good stuff. Unfortunately, it didn’t deliver.

I also didn’t think it really stood up as the example of worldbuilding it was supposed to be, but that’s hardly Carey’s fault. It’s more of an alternate history than a fantasy. I didn’t actually finish it. According to my kindle I got 95% of the way through but I couldn’t bring myself to read the last few pages.

The Quest

The Quest by Wilbur Smith is apparently the fourth book in a series (that once again I haven’t read the rest of), but I didn’t know that until I read the jacket blurb to write this post.

According to the blurb, Egypt is beset by plagues and the Pharaoh has summoned a warlock to save the country.
I didn’t get very far at all  with this. On the train I found I’d rather stare out the window than read this. I couldn’t connect at all with the characters. I think it is trying to take a mythic tone, but doesn’t quite pull it off which gives it a very insubstantial feel.
I remember reading a couple of Wilbur Smith’s novels when I was younger and quite enjoying them. This wasn’t the same at all and I’d give it a miss, unless you’re already a fan.

The Cold Commands

I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while. It turns out that The Steel Remains was the first in a trilogy after all. Richard Morgan’s The Cold Commands is the second in the series.

Ringil is busy exacting revenge on the slave traders who took his cousin. He slaughters a whole caravan and heads into the nearest city to hide out from those looking to hold him accountable. While there he has a number of experiences which seem to add up to the divine taking an interest in his activities and finds himself on a boat headed for Yelteth. Which happens to be where Archeth is, back at the court of the increasingly paranoid and violent Jhiral II, and planning an expedition to find a lost Kiriath city. Egar is also in Yelteth, ostensibly guarding Archeth but is bored with this and starts looking for trouble. He finds it and uncovers a dwenda incursion in the heart of the city. When Archeth realises Ringil is in town she signs him up for her expedition and they rescue Eg from the trouble he’s got himself into.

This was enormously good fun. It is not quite what the first book was and I think that is in part because this is a middle book. It is less grim, less violent and less sexual, although less is very much relative here – there’s still plenty of all those things. There is more about the incursions of alien races into this world and consequently less characterization. I don’t feel that I know any of the three protagonists any better than I did at the end of the first book. In many respects The Cold Commands is not as good as The Steel Remains, but it sets up the third book in an exciting way. I still enjoyed it immensely and am looking forward to the concluding part of the trilogy.