That’s the point of being a bastard, after all. Yet in war, payment in blood is more likely than payment in coin.
Staegrim knows coins better than he knows people, and he isn’t giving his life away for free. Not to the rebels, not for the lords, and not for all of the bloody coins in Rengas.
But then… Everyone has a price.
I went into this prequel novella with zero idea of what Michaels written universe contained or of the characters in it, but Ive heard a massive amount about Michael’s first book Ringlander: The Path and The Way and was super excited to read this.
After I finished I wish I had gone with the full novel first as I feel I would have had a much stronger grasp of the Ringlander world, but without a doubt I can say with ease that TBTWL was an exemplary show of Michaels talent as a writer. The worldbuilding and character depth was fantastic and was really something I didn’t expect from so short a book, the main story coming in at only 57 pages! Michael used multiple POVs to weave a gritty and gripping view of the battlefield which kept it exciting from the first page to the last and left me wanting more. If all of the set pieces in The Path and The Way are written with the same detail and intensity I will be a very happy man.
This was a super entertaining novella, something incredibly easy to pick up and something that gave a real nice little burst of serotonin, if you feel a reading slump coming along this would be a beautiful little palette cleanser. But if anything, what you get from this book is the knowledge you will move on to TPATW and will see some incredibly in-depth worldbuilding and an intricate and intense plotline.
I really cant wait to get into the real meat of the Ringlander universe and luckily I only have a few books to clear on my TBR before I can move on, so expect to see a follow up review for that soon.
Also, quick side note to the quality of this arc, it was a stunning small black hardcover that gave it this prestigious look and came with some lovely bookmarks and art that really just made it a wonderful experience, as cheesy as that sounds, so a massive thank you for that.
Tl;dr – It’s a pretty book with pretty words. Read it.
Mulan meets The Song of Achilles in Shelley Parker-Chan’s She Who Became the Sun, a bold, queer, and lyrical reimagining of the rise of the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty from an amazing new voice in literary fantasy.
To possess the Mandate of Heaven, the female monk Zhu will do anything
“I refuse to be nothing…”
In a famine-stricken village on a dusty yellow plain, two children are given two fates. A boy, greatness. A girl, nothingness…
In 1345, China lies under harsh Mongol rule. For the starving peasants of the Central Plains, greatness is something found only in stories. When the Zhu family’s eighth-born son, Zhu Chongba, is given a fate of greatness, everyone is mystified as to how it will come to pass. The fate of nothingness received by the family’s clever and capable second daughter, on the other hand, is only as expected.
When a bandit attack orphans the two children, though, it is Zhu Chongba who succumbs to despair and dies. Desperate to escape her own fated death, the girl uses her brother’s identity to enter a monastery as a young male novice. There, propelled by her burning desire to survive, Zhu learns she is capable of doing whatever it takes, no matter how callous, to stay hidden from her fate.
After her sanctuary is destroyed for supporting the rebellion against Mongol rule, Zhu takes the chance to claim another future altogether: her brother’s abandoned greatness.
As a new year begins the Fantasy book community quickly build their lists and start their shouting on whatever platforms they use to hype up their most anticipated books to come out over the next year, the excitement ripples out through the community as we hear about books we might not have existed, we are reminded of releases we weren’t expecting and series we had forgotten about from years before that are finally getting their long-awaited continuation. 2021 is an exceptional year for Fantasy and has a lot of books the community and myself, are really excited for. However, a few books really stood out and I’ve been lucky enough to read them already and get the opportunity to write my own jumbled viewpoints down for you to read. Todays book is She Who Became the Sun, easily one of the top 5 books of 2021 and one that appeared on nearly every list I saw, and having been spun as Mulan meets the Song of Achilles, why wouldn’t it?
Was the hype all it lived up to be?
She Who Became the Sun is a reimagining of the Rise of the Ming Dynasty which took place during the 14th century, the Ming Dynasty followed the collapse of the Mongol led Yuan Dynasty which in turn followed the collapse of the great Mongol Empire roughly 100 years before that. I would like to quickly point out that even though I’ve seen people describe this as “epic fantasy” this is very much historical fiction, Parker-Chan even taking the time to write an article (you can find on her website) showing the historical figures she based her own characters on. The year is 1345, the land and its people struggle daily under famine, drought, and illness. In a small village named Zhongli, two children are given their fates, the first son of this small family, Zhu Chongba is named for great things, the second, a second daughter of zero worth is destined for nothing. However, when bandits strike and the children are suddenly orphaned, Zho Chongba doesn’t survive the following days and succumbs to a different fate, to become nothing. The girl, grasping to life with every little bit of strength decides his fate will be hers, she will be Zhu Chongba and take his greatness for himself, the story we follow is Zhu Chongba on the path to taking that greatness.
She Who Became the Sun has all the classic needs of a good fantasy book, a beautiful and interesting world, a well thought out and written plot, but this is 100% a character driven book and the reason you can’t stop turning pages is all down to Parker-Chan’s incredible writing of Zhu. In Zhu we have a deeply complex character that you as a reader, can’t help but be completely enthralled in, and not even in the way you expect. Zhu is a survivor through and through, she clings to life with a passion that burns like the sun and will do anything to achieve her goals, everything she is sings to the reader and I would find it hard to believe that every person that reads this book doesn’t in some way relate to Zhu. You understand her because nearly every one of us has at some point felt that need to cling to life, has fought to keep going in some way, however small or large that may be. Parker-Chan’s writing of Zhu is absolutely stunning because she feels so incredibly realistically human. She is smart, cunning and her need to survive makes her fall in this very morally grey area allowing for a believable story with much more interesting plotlines than if we just had this classic black and white character, I fully believe this to be one of the best Female protagonists I’ve had the joy of reading when it comes to Fantasy.
“Becoming nothing was the most terrifying thing she could think of—worse even than the fear of hunger, or pain, or any other suffering that could possibly arise from life.”
The story starts of as a single POV plot where we follow just Zhu, however, after the first part of the book we move into a multi-POV story, allowing glimpses of the characters that surround Zhu’s life. This is normally something I would hate in a story, I’ve made it clear in the past I love single POV books, especially when you have a character as beautifully written as Zhu, and to be honest the change in story telling can be jarring in other experiences I’ve had. However, Parker-Chan does a phenomenal job of transferring her skills into what is the perfect supporting cast for Zhu’s story. Each of the three other characters we see perfectly balances Zhu’s story, Ma adding the much-needed realism and metaphorical and literal slap to the face Zhu sometimes needs to help draw proper clarity, Ouyang is a rival that really drives Zhu to heights that maybe she would never achieve without his intervention and Esen shows us the other side of this beautifully crafted world we don’t learn about under Zhu’s POV. All books need some kind of supporting cast to help drive it along but sometimes those characters don’t always feel fully part of the story or like they are needed to help achieve the main protagonists goals, She Who Became the Sun wouldn’t be the book it is without these essential additions, written any differently and it wouldn’t be the beautiful book we have.
“Desire is the cause of all suffering. The greater the desire, the greater the suffering, and now she desired greatness itself. With all her will, she directed the thought to Heaven and the watching statues: Whatever suffering it takes, I can bear it.”
I can’t believe I’m going to write this sentence, for me this is blasphemy and if you’ve read any other post of mine, you will understand why this is so, but I loved the lack of action in this book. I loved that we didn’t spend pages going over the battles of the Red Turban Rebellion, this book wasn’t meant to be an action oriented epic and I’m glad Parker-Chan didn’t try to make it that way, instead spending that extras space expanding on what was important to her story which is Zhu and her story. But that doesn’t mean she wasn’t able to write action, we got small glimpses later on in the book, Zhu’s desperate retreat and a wonderfully written duel that showcased the authors ability to portray tense and gripping action scenes and I think the path the book takes means we might get to see some of those big set pieces later in the story.
If I haven’t made it clear already, Shelly Parker-Chan is an exceptionally good writer, and in case you didn’t realise that, the final thing I would like to discuss is just how much of an exceptionally good writer Shelly Parker-Chan is. While writing this review the worst thing is that because I was so bloody captivated by this book, I barely took notes, I didn’t highlight passages, I hurried to turn each page so I could be witness to another gorgeous prose, every page being enthralling and truly captivating. There wasn’t a chapter of this book that felt drawn out, a conversation that felt cold or unhuman, a sentence that didn’t have the exact number of words needed.
“Learn to want something for yourself, Ma Xiuying. Not what someone says you should want. Not what you think you should want. Don’t go through life thinking only of duty. When all we have are these brief spans between our non-existences, why not make the most of the life you’re living now? The price is worth it”.
These beautiful sentences pop out in Zhu’s moments of seriousness, her humour and sarcasm deflecting from her inner feelings at time, but sometimes disappearing long enough to let us see these breath-taking moments. The fact this is a debut novel is just insanity, it happens more than I realise but brand-new authors releasing books this good will forever amaze me, with so many authors you can feel their talents progress as they write more and more books, Mark Lawrence being a prime example of this for me, his writing continues to get better and better and it excites me to think what Shelly Parker Chan will be writing in five, ten years from now, if she follows the trend.
She Who Became the Sun is as radiant as its namesake, Shelly Parker-Chan has written a book that sings with the grace and beauty that is so often attached to the culture she has written about, this book will leave you aching for more and lucky for us all, this is a duology. Zhu Chongba will return to seize the rest of her fate in book two of The Radiant Emperor.
A new grimdark fantasy for fans of Anna Smith-Spark, GRR Martin and Mark Lawrence.
The Emperor is dead. Long live the Empire.
General Bordan has a lifetime of duty and sacrifice behind him in the service of the Empire. But with rebellion brewing in the countryside, and assassins, thieves and politicians vying for power in the city, it is all Bordan can do to protect the heir to the throne.
Apprentice Magician Kyron is assigned to the late Emperor’s honour guard escorting his body on the long road back to the capital. Mistrusted and feared by his own people, even a magician’s power may fail when enemies emerge from the forests, for whoever is in control of the Emperor’s body, controls the succession.
Seven lives and seven deaths to seal the fate of the Empire.
It doesn’t happen too often but every now and then you get a book come along that just makes it hard to begin anything else. For me books like A Memory of Light, The Sword of Kaigen, The Burning White and Ruin have left me not reading for weeks or months even. Now days I don’t feel like I have that particular luxury anymore, I want to review books and that means I need to read books which means slumps aren’t allowed to exist. From now on these mental blocks will be laid siege too. Today’s review is on Seven Deaths of an Empire by G.R Matthews and it’s the book that beat that slump, it’s the trebuchet that flattened my mental block. This won’t be my prettiest review and I apologise off the bat because I think the story that GR Matthews wrote deserved a better reader. I struggled to get going with this, and that isn’t down to the book, purely my own mental incompetence.
Thank you to Rosie over at Rebellion Publishing for sending me an ARC of this incredibly beautiful book. I wish all paperbacks looked this good.
Seven Deaths of an Empire is a new epic fantasy series following the stories of Bordan, a general of the Empire and the man ultimately in control of its military, and Kyron, a young apprentice whose job it is to guard the body of the dead Emperor as he’s escorted home after campaigning in the North. Seven Deaths of an Empire is set in a world heavily inspired by our own historical period of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, we are brought into a world were the unstoppable might of the Empire continues to roll out from its capital, swallowing everything as it goes and bringing its own version of civilisation to the Tribes and peoples of the Forests. The Empire is heavily based on the Romans as we knew them, we have its Gladiators and Colosseums, its soldiers carry the same weapons, their armies building the same roads and following the same military strategies on the battlefield, and the Empire following the same tactics that made the Romans one of the most powerful empires in history. Even a lot of the lore we are given seems to mirror our own historical events quite well, the book having a considerable focus on religion that a lot of people theorise is a large part of why the Roman Empire eventually crumbled. The Tribes are a little less of an exact copy but share a lot of similarities with the Gaul and Germanic Tribes that the Romans fought and eventually conquered around 50bc. Even though Matthews has heavily sourced his story and ideas from our own history he has done incredibly well to make this world his own and I found myself loving the setting and changes that were made.
One of my only real criticisms of the book and not even a very large one is I felt we had barely scratched the surface this world that Matthews built. I really enjoyed the magic system that Matthews has built, it reminded me in part between a mixture of life magic similar to what we see in Paolini’s Inheritance Series and the channelling we all know from The Wheel of Time but yet felt new and original in a way. Magic is seen as “motes”, particles that are found in all living things are drawn from around the Magician and then are weaved into complex and fragile webs, Magicians having talents in different areas of magic and stronger Magician’s being able to form more numerous and stronger webs. We saw quite a few uses for this in some inventive ways, webs being built that could detect lies, battle magic and even wards that help preserve a body from rotting. This I felt was a soft magic system, there was no real limitation on what could be done as it seemed to be scaled more from the users own imagination and quick thinking. It definitely also seems like the Empires power starts to decline its knowledge is slipping away with it, I do not believe we’ve fully seen the extent of what can be done, and I can’t wait to see what we might get in the next book.
“Only the minute specks of magic remained, passing through and bouncing off all that surrounded him. They were everywhere, in everything, a million tiny flies buzzing past his ears, a billion minuscule stars wheeling around the sky. They called to him and he to them, commanding, cajoling, explaining, demanding, and controlling.
This was magic. This was where he existed.“
The Tribes themselves seemed such a massively unspoken part of the story and it led to a lot of frustration, I want to learn so much more about them and the broader world outside of the Empire itself. We do get a little look into one of the villages part way through the book and all it did was flare up my curiosities further. I feel I understood why Matthews decided to leave out so much lore, it seems to mirror the characters ignorance to the world and cultures around them, it means we have to be a part of Kyron’s lack of understanding and learn alongside him as he has the world and truth start to open up to him. So even though I consider it a criticism, I believe it is there for a purpose and will give us a much more exciting book two as we find out a ton of new info. So instead of a criticism, it should be more of a frustration?
Seven Deaths of an Empire is a two person POV story which was right up my alley, alternating chapters between Bordan and Kyron which I loved because it never meant we had long to wait when we had those little end of chapter cliff-hangers that authors love so much. It took me a while to really fall in love with either of these two, this was in part because of the mental blocks Ive previously mentioned, but I also didn’t feel that these two characters were really fleshed out till we really got into the book. Once Matthews got going we ended up getting a lot of depth and complex motivations behind both, Bordan and Kyron both being incredibly well written towards the end with a lot of focus on what drove them to make the choices they make, plenty of situations that left them questioning their beliefs and a lot of tough choices to be made. I ended up invested enormously in both of these characters particularly loved the progression that we saw with Kyron as the book went on, Matthews doing a wonderful job of writing a youngsters naivety to the real world and a realistic look at what happens when you are introduced to things that questions those lifelong beliefs that you’ve held.
“Bordan almost took a step back in surprise. There was a heat rising from the young woman’s skill, almost too hot to touch and Bordan could feel the heavy pulse of blood running through her arms. Grief tore at your mind, he knew that, and gave free rein to base emotions. Some raged and spat at the world. They would shout and fight, attack with words those closest to the. Eventually, they would calm, and relation would come crashing down with a hot wave of crushing sadness. Later, they would raise their heads, emotions spent, and carry on, the hole in their heart scarring over but never truly free of the pain.“
I may have struggled to be drawn into the two main characters, but I quickly fell in love with Matthews supporting cast, both Bordan and Kyron were surrounded by characters I enjoyed reading about and spent much of the book wishing to see more of them. Emlyn was my favourite character of the entire story and definitely the first character I actually found myself loving, brimming with attitude, and making me laugh out loud at moments, I thought she was incredibly well written, and I feel she will have a much larger role to play in coming books which is a very exciting prospect. I also had some genuine anger and frustrations towards the Royal Family and people such as Livillia, Matthews wrote characters I would struggle not to slap if I stood in the same room as them, and Ive always believed that if an author can make me feel some rage or anger, they’ve done an incredible job.
One thing that really stunned me as the book went on was how beautifully Matthews did with writing the fight scenes, even though battle and bloodshed wasn’t at the forefront of this book the bits we got were thrilling, Matthews has a natural ability to write fights that many authors struggle with. The Roman setting isn’t something new in fantasy and most will have some knowledge on how they fought, but I grew up watching shows like Time Commanders and playing games such as Rome Total War, I love the way ancient civilisations fought and the Romans were geniuses on the battlefield, Matthews managed to transport me into that shield wall, he made me hear the call for heavy Pila’s as they were thrown from the back lines to find purchase in the bodies of my foes, and he set the rhythm to the fight that found us taking that one step forward, grinding away at our enemies bit by bit . I could read Matthews battle scenes every day and be a happy man.
“An axe rising into the air, the suns light scattering from its chipped edge. A whisper of air and a cry of effort as a shield met the blow and shattered. Splinters pinwheeling through the air and sudden lack of weight on his arm. Gladius stabbing forward, driven by training and instinct. A gap opening in the line ahead. A soldier falling and stumbling over the injured man, desperate to keep his shield high and sword in tight. Moving into the gap and slamming the shield forward to create room, peering over the top, wary of an attack. Heavy armour and biting pain at the base of your neck where the helmets rim met flesh. Sweat pouring down your face, under your cheek guards, and hot breath burning lungs as each precious gasp powered you forward.“
A quick final shoutout to Matthews on his writing, I was a big fan of his prose and writing style in general. His writing was unpretentious and never felt unnecessary, but out of nowhere he would smack you with this beautifully written sentence that struck to your core. I find this sort of writing so much more impactful sometimes because when you get to that incredible prose they are really elevated and give pause. His chapter structure was also something I loved and something I’m always grateful for. I always love a wonderfully short chapter that doesn’t waste any time, they break up the story so well, every page giving you what was needed, when it was needed without that horrible pain you are normally left with at the end of an exciting chapter.
Seven Deaths of an Empire isn’t outrageously different, it isn’t a new take on the fantasy genre, and it isn’t leading the pack in diversity, but it is a superbly written grimdark story and a classic feeling epic fantasy that reminded me of reading authors like Raymond E Feist and David Farland, its exciting at every turn with a wonderfully spun plot that keeps you guessing the entire time and Matthews has written a book that I really hope and believe has opened up a much vaster and even more exciting series to come. I can’t wait for book two, Silencing of the North.
Set in a brand-new, Norse-inspired world, and packed with myth, magic and bloody vengeance, The Shadow of the Gods begins an epic new fantasy saga from bestselling author John Gwynne.
After the gods warred and drove themselves to extinction, the cataclysm of their fall shattered the land of Vigrið.
Now a new world is rising, where power-hungry jarls feud and monsters stalk the woods and mountains. A world where the bones of the dead gods still hold great power for those brave – or desperate – enough to seek them out.
Now, as whispers of war echo across the mountains and fjords, fate follows in the footsteps of three people: a huntress on a dangerous quest, a noblewoman who has rejected privilege in pursuit of battle fame, and a thrall who seeks vengeance among the famed mercenaries known as the Bloodsworn.
All three will shape the fate of the world as it once more falls under the shadow of the gods . . .
A Massive thank you to NetGalley and Little Brown Book Group for a copy of The Shadow of the Gods in return for an honest review.
This is a spoiler free review; I’m going to leave out a lot of what I want to write in hopes I leave as much magic in this book as possible.
You know the sort of book that when you read that final sentence it leaves you feeling like you’ve been stabbed in the gut? That lingering feeling of confusion, “what am I supposed to do with my life now?” you say to yourself, before you start trying to figure out how many days you will roughly have to wait till the next book is released? John Gwynne writes those sorts of books, and this is that kind of book.
John Gwynne’s first book, Malice, came out in 2012, and even with the fact that Gwynne is a writer that manages to bring out a book almost yearly, I’ve still had to spend a lot of time with this crippling feeling of loss every time one of his books ends and I’m left waiting for the next. The Faithful and the Fallen’s final entry left me in a book depression that took me weeks to bounce back from, and now he’s plunged me back into the pit of despair as we start that cycle all over again. Whether you’ve just started your first ever visit to the Banished Lands or you are a seasoned veteran you will know why Gwynne’s readers love his books. In my opinion Gwynne is possibly the best epic fantasy author we have right now, his writing is incredible, and manages to stay consistently incredible across all of the areas that are needed for a true epic fantasy.
Even if you haven’t read any of my posts yet, you have probably realised that I’m a little bit of a John Gwynne fan, and it should be no surprise that I absolutely adored this book. The Shadow of the Gods was my most anticipated book of the 2021 and honestly it was a painful couple of months watching twitter receive their ARCs. I wasn’t lucky enough to get a physical copy, and even trying to trade the Gwynne family my future first-born wasn’t enough to achieve that apparently, but luckily, I did get an eBook and thank God I did. However, regardless of my fanboying, there is no need to be concerned of my bias showing during this review, because this book didn’t need it. It was a truly spectacular debut to Gwynne’s new world and probably the easiest five-star review I’ve ever given, The Shadow of the Gods was superb.
Our setting is the shattered lands of Vigrið, the battle plains, the graveyard of the Gods. The people of Vigrið spend their lives fighting over the scraps of these long dead Gods, trying to forge their own homes and kingdoms, even building their homes in the bodies of these fallen behemoths. Gwynne has done an amazing job of forming this world, and it was probably his best effort at world building so far. Vigrið is a lot smaller than The Banished Lands we saw previously, and this really allowed Gwynne to flesh out this world with so much more detail. You can really see that this was a passion project for Gwynne, the immense amount of research that was undertaken and the love for history really shines through in his writing. Vigrið truly feeling like something taken straight out of the Norse history and Mythology, filled with vibrant and terrifying monsters, dripping in things we recognise from the stories, even getting to see the famed Blood Eagle at a point. There’s so much I want to go into about the intricacies of Vigrið, and the people and beasts that live there, but I want to leave that for you to find out.
Now almost any avid reader of Gwynne will tell you that his greatest talent is his ability to write incredible characters and it seems that he is really trying to outdo himself. The reason I believe Shadow of the Gods sets itself above Gwynne’s previous offerings is because we have the greatest set of characters he has written so far, and that is really hard to say because I feel like I’m betraying the Brightstar and I’m a little ashamed of myself. TFatF had over the course of its four books, fourteen characters getting their own POV chapters, and this has its upsides. Gwynne’s character writing is so good that each one of those characters is someone you’re invested in, someone that you are emotionally attached to and each person that Gwynne writes about is interesting to read. But on the flipside, it also sucks spending so much time away from those characters you care about the most, especially when most authors enjoy ending their chapters with mini cliff-hangers. Instead, The Shadow of the Gods is split between just three POV characters and I couldn’t be happier about Gwynne streamlining his story and focusing his writing into less characters this time round. This is in part due to the difference in scope between Gwynne’s two worlds, we have a smaller world with a more condensed storyline, because of that Gwynne has been able to focus all of his energies into these three stunning characters.
Orka, Orka, Orka, a name I have heard whispered through the community over and over as I sat by and watched people devour this story. A legend building as I hear this name, and the reason I need to read this book more and more. Orka turned out to be everything I hoped for, the hype was true, and I honestly believe that Gwynne has written one of the best characters that we will ever see in Fantasy. Not only this, but some of the most beautiful and daunting prose Gwynne has ever written were in Orka’s chapters and the level of writing he produced was stunning. A woman that I can imagine going toe to toe with God of Wars Kratos, or Abercrombie’s The Bloody Nine, it is those moments of rage and blood intertwined with the interactions and developments between her and her family that make Orka so perfect. I could quote her hundred times over and I could sit here and write about how incredible every chapter was, but I want you to read that magic for the first time and not have it ruined by myself.
“Orka shook her head. “You are like rune magic to me, Thorkel Ulfsson. How is it we have faced the same horrors, fought the same battles? The Terrible things we have done. And yet…” She sighed. “I do not feel like a young horse before green meadows. How are you so strong, where I am so weak?”
“Weak, are you moon touched, woman? I would not challenge you to an arm-wrestle, let alone a holmganga duel”.
Varg is next, this poor man is trying to fulfil the oath he has made to find out what happened to his sister in her final moments, so he is able to avenge her. Varg’s story is one of pain, sadness, and ultimately, revenge. His path finds itself intertwined with the legendary Bloodsworn, a famous group of warriors and monster hunters after whom this series was named after. Using my keen detective skills, I have deduced that Varg and the Bloodsworn might be fairly important to the story. Varg’s story is wonderful to read, a Thrall for all his life, the moments of comradeship and happiness he finds during his time with Bloodsworn leaves your heart aching, all of those moments being tinged with guilt as he struggles to believe he should be allowed these slivers of joy. Gwynne has written such a wonderfully complex character that you cannot help but become emotionally attached. The Bloodsworn also make for a wonderfully entertaining bunch of characters which really add to the enjoyment when you get to his chapters, Einar and Svik add these little sparks of fun into the story and are wonderful additions, I hope Gwynne decides to keep them around, but you can never really tell with him.
Elvar is the final member of our cast, and probably the character I was least attached to, her story took a little while to really suck you in but when it finally did it added a distinct weight to the story and she certainly carved her way into your chest. Elvar is part of the Battle Grim, another of Vigrið’s mercenary groups, not quite the heroic band that Varg finds himself with but fearsome all the same. Elvar’s story may be a slow burn and you don’t get a lot from her at the beginning, but she becomes a much more complicated character as the book goes on and you cannot help but love her. Grend is Elvar’s shadow and is both a quiet mountain and someone who manages to bring a chuckle to almost every chapter, I really loved his addons in Elvar’s story and I need more Grend content. For me, her final few pages were some of the most exciting in the book and I really see her exploding to the forefront in book two of the Bloodsworn saga and knowing what Gwynne can do with characterizations I would not be surprised to see her competing with Orka for that number one spot in our hearts.
“Men die, Women die, all creatures of flesh and blood die, but battle-fame survives. To become a song, a saga-tale told from generation to generation. That way we will live forever. That is what I want, what all of us want.”
I’ve said it before and I will say it again, I’m a sucker for a decent fight. I want a few axes and a good shield wall; I want to see death and destruction and the necessary grandiose battles that come with most fantasy and that’s all you need to have me hooked. So, on the plus side for me this may be Gwynne’s most violent book to date (which is real hard considering all his previous books ended in pretty epic levels of bloodshed). On top of everything else Gwynne can do, the man can write action and there are very few equals when it comes to writing scenes filled with groups of people hitting each other with big pointy weapons. Gwynne writes in a way that makes you feel like you are there in the shield wall yourself, he makes you understand and feel the danger of that spear flying past your face or the power behind the axe that just split the man next to you in half. Gwynne writes like he himself stood in that shield wall and felt the spear fly past his face, and honestly learning about the Gwynne family, I wouldn’t be surprised if it were many of the things they’ve re-enacted. We had some beautiful fights in this book and I’m sure the scale will only ramp up. I’m excited.
The Shadow of the Gods is grim, brutal, intense, epic fantasy at its best and absolute joy to read, Gwynne never wasted a page, every word fitting together like a perfectly made jigsaw. this was some of the best writing we’ve seen from Gwynne and it will only continue to get better. I can’t wait to read more of these spectacular characters and find out more from this incredible world Gwynne has built.
In my humble opinion John Gwynne continues to secure his position as the best Fantasy author around right now.
When I found Net galley was a thing, I did the thing that I expect most bloggers do; I requested a bunch of books, my thought process being “I’m a brand-new blogger with a 0% feedback rating, I’m barely going to get approval”. Instead, what happened is I got approved for eleven in 3 days and now I’m metaphorically drowning in a TBR list that I keep adding to with physical books because Broken Binding is a store that everyday assaults me from their twitter page, feeding my addiction. So that’s how my March is going.
My first big ARC review, how exciting. Thankyou to NetGalley and Little Brown Book Group for the copy of “The Unbroken” in return for an honest review.
“Touraine is a soldier. Stolen as a child and raised to kill and die for the empire, her only loyalty is to her fellow conscripts. But now, her company has been sent back to her homeland to stop a rebellion, and the ties of blood may be stronger than she thought.
Luca needs a turncoat. Someone desperate enough to tiptoe the bayonet’s edge between treason and orders. Someone who can sway the rebels toward peace, while Luca focuses on what really matters: getting her uncle off her throne.
Through assassinations and massacres, in bedrooms and war rooms, Touraine and Luca will haggle over the price of a nation. But some things aren’t for sale.”
I’m just going to say straight off the mark, that this was a fantastic book. The Unbroken has been on my radar for a while and I was super hyped to get approval for this. C.L Clark wasn’t an author I was familiar with and after reading this I was massively impressed with the amount of dedication she’s put into this book and the incredible amount of research really shines through, giving this book a real weight behind it.
2021 is really turning out to be an interesting year for books with release line-ups looking incredible all year round, but not only do these books look and sound remarkable, we have a year that in my opinion has some true diversity in the books that are being discussed. We aren’t getting piles of similar books all written by older white men about loosely based westernised fantasy, instead we have books like Shelley Parker-Chan’s ‘She Who Became the Sun’, Suyi Davies Okungbowa’s ‘Son of the Storm’ (I was just approved for the ARC for this and that’s super exciting), Tasha Suri’s ‘The Jasmine Throne’ and C.L Clarks ‘The Unbroken’. I’m not someone that focuses on who the author of the book is, but instead the merits of the writing itself. It is undeniable that POC need a stronger representation in the publishing world and I’m glad that’s something that’s finally happening, because of this incredible diversity finally pouring through we are getting some breath-taking worlds, and some beautiful stories coming to the forefront of the genre and I couldn’t be happier about that
The Unbroken seems to be inspired by the French occupation of Algeria and Morocco in the 1800s, the Quaz-li and the desert tribes being based on north African countries and cultures. As well as the Balladairans mirroring the efforts of the French to pacify its people through fear and subjugation, attempting to eradicate their religion and kill off their culture. This story really focuses on the appalling racism and effects of colonization of a people, something that feels way too prevalent and is still seen too often today. Not only in our own western countries but places like China with the genocide of the Uighur people. But the world Clark has crafted isn’t all grimdark, we do get a wonderful queernorm setting, we have a story filled with LQBTQ characters and relationships that are so open and natural instead of the classic light suggestions or whispered words behind closed doors, plus a world with a lot less misogyny. It was fantastic to read a story with so many strong female characters in positions of power, something that would never have been done in our world, The Unbroken’s people definitely seem to be doing better than us at quite a few things.
This book is described as a military fantasy, but not in the way I normally would expect. When I think of the term, I think of something more along the lines of the Power Mage Trilogy or Joe Abercrombie’s ‘The Heroes’. That’s probably my own misunderstanding of the genre but instead of an action-packed story, The Unbroken was much more about the politics and people, and weirdly enough the lack of action really didn’t affect me much. Clark excelled with her story telling and character development so much that this book was entertaining the entire way through.
Clark’s book focuses on Touraine and Luca, two characters from vastly different walks of life. Touraine, kidnapped as a child and indoctrinated to fight and honour the Empire of Balladaire, ripping away her culture and people. Luca, the Princess of said Empire, struggling to take control of her birth right from her Uncle. Clark’s character writing for me really was the shining light of this book, Touraine, and Luca both frustrating me to the point that I wanted to shout at the pages multiple times. I was angry at the decisions these two characters made, angry at the story for the way it was going, and at times caught myself being frustrated by the direction of the author. But honestly, this was all my own fault, it took me a while, but I realised that these choices I was frustrated at, the ones I believed shouldn’t have happened were actual realistic human decisions. They messed up in big ways but always while trying to do what they thought best at the time. They did these things because Clark wrote genuine human characters and had them act like the imperfect beings that humans are instead of the heroes that we are used to in Fantasy. These choices being the product of their upbrings and experiences they had faced in life to this point, and it took me a while to see that. Clark really did an excellent job of intertwining these two characters in a wonderfully written relationship, again showing their imperfections hundred times over, a friendship blossoming even under the constraints of their stations and the issues each faced trying to do the right thing for their people. I loved watching the dance play out between the two of them because without their meeting they would never have become the people that they needed to be.
On top of these two we have an excellent support cast joining them, Djasha, Aranen and Jaghotai being exceptionally well written, all with very vivid and intricate personalities that added a ton to the story. I would really liked to have read parts of the story from their POVs, which is such a rarity for me, normally wanting to cut down on POVs so I’m not being deviated away from the characters I love the most, instead I found myself wanting to see more. Also, a special shoutout to Captain Rogan and the Comte de Beau-Sang for being a truly disgusting human. I spent the entire book wanting to punch them in their stupid little faces, which is intended as a compliment to Clark’s writing, I haven’t disliked two fictional characters this much since maybe Joffrey in GOT…
“Beau-Sangs smile widened. “I also see you’ve taken my advice. They’re a fine investment, aren’t they?” He nodded behind her. This time, Luca allowed herself to look. Those think dark brows. The cold glare into the middle distance. That square, clenched jaw.
“That’s one of Cantic’s, is that right? The Lieutenant.” As if Touraine were a prize hound she’d purchased to race against his Richard.”
I need to say quickly as well how I really loved the prevalence of religion in the story as well, the idea of strength of faith or belief literally manifesting physical objects or magic has been explored a few times and I always love when it does. The complexities of magic in the story becoming more and more vivid as the book goes on, and really making you understand the need for the Balladairans need to pacify the Quaz-li people for more than just control, they are trying to eliminate the power of these peoples. I can’t wait to see how this continues to unfold in further books.
I loved the ending that we were given, and I will continue to make this point but I’m a big lover of wrapping up a story instead of a massive painful cliff-hanger, so a big thank you to Clark for that. But even without some massive book one cliff-hanger Clark left The Unbroken in a spot where this story can go so many ways and I can’t really guess anything, but I swear to god they better go visit that big library or I’m going to be angry. I’m so excited for the prospect of what can happen next in The Magic of the Lost #2.
An excellent book by and excellent writer.
If you want to buy a copy of The Unbroken you can get a lovely signed copy from https://www.thebrokenbinding.co.uk – use my code DFREVIEW221 for 5% off your entire order.
Now before I start this I want to give a little disclaimer, my knowledge of the 40k universe barely scrapes the surface, and even though everyone Ive ever chatted to from the 40k community has been awesome there’s always someone who wants to gatekeep. Gatekeeping sucks, you can be a fan and really enjoy something without needing to dedicate your life to the subject.
I believe, and I may be wrong, that Warhammer 40k still carries a lot of stigma with the general public, it’s pretty looked down on by a lot of people as one of the nerdiest of activities, but gives a damn what people think, honestly Games Workshop are a fantastic company (shoutout to my local store for being awesome people) and have done something truly great, the scope of this hobby is incredible, from the original tabletop game to video games, upcoming tv and film, board games and what we are here to talk about today, books. Now these books aren’t going to appeal to everyone, Warhammer 40k is war, it is ultimate grimdark, it is hardcore military action and its wonderful, if you’re a fan of military books, space operas and big sci-fi these are going to be a whole new untapped market of brilliance and you won’t be disappointed.
Listed on the Black Library website are 46 different authors, and that doesn’t count the contributors to the many short stories and anthologies, this isn’t just some simple world building, this is universe building, stories spanning across multiple races, millions of planets and light years of space, these authors working together to build off of each other’s work and filling out the story arc that game workshops tabletop game follows, giving it actual flesh and blood so instead of models on a table we have a universe rich with lore and adventure.
Now the size of 40k can be overly daunting, at this point we are on to the ninth edition of the tabletop and we are following the Indomitus Crusade as Gulliman the Avenging Son launches the greatest military campaign since his father, the Emperor of mankind 10000 years before. Do you need to know everything to dive in? No. Do you even need to know a lot about the current releases? No. 40k is pretty easy to get into and here’s a couple of YouTube videos I would recommend if you’re a complete beginner,
And honestly, the community have done a excellent job with their own Wikipedia, https://wh40k.lexicanum.com/ , I find myself referring to this multiple times during a read to find out more information about some battle from 1000 years before or the difference between an Imperial guard boltgun and the full sized cannons that Space Marines call a boltgun (honestly it’s scary).
So, were to begin? There isn’t a right answer, you can really start anywhere you like, so instead here’s my recommendations, and again I would like to reiterate my knowledge of 40k and Black Library as a whole barely scratches the surface, but I know books, and these books are a incredible read regardless of your desire to fully get stuck into the Universe fully.
Dan Abnett is the king of 40k literature. That’s all, no counter point. End of the post.
But seriously. Dan Abnett has not only written a few of Black Libraries best books but I think he has written some of the best books Ive ever read and really deserves to be higher ranking in the lists of authors outside of the hobbies bubble.
Gaunt’s Ghosts by Dan Abnett
Inspired by Bernard Cornwall’s Sharp Series, Gaunt’s Ghost’s follows Ibram Gaunt and the Tanith First and Only, a regiment of soldiers conscripted to fight in the Sabbat Crusade, barely escaping off planet before the forces of Chaos burn their planet, now fighting their way through the Sabbat worlds to reclaim the sector from Chaos and maybe one day find a new place to call home. The big reason this is such an astounding series is instead of following the Emperors main boys, we follow the very human Imperial Guard, regiments of men and women without the genetic modifications that turn them into walking tanks, instead they live like us and they die as easily as us and Abnett does an incredible job of writing real people, he does a great job of showing their suffering, and then the small moments of joy and comradeship that comes with being brothers in arms, Abnett claws his way into you, emotionally investing you into their stories and refusing to let go. Gaunt’s Ghosts is sixteen books long, but one of the major joys of Black Library means they like to bundle their stories into nice chunky omnibuses. Can’t recommend these books enough.
Eisenhorn by Dan Abnett
The Inquisition are the Emperor’s secret police, terrifying boys and girls with almost unlimited power to do whatever is needed to protect the Imperium from the threats of Xenos filth, Heretic Scum and Chaos Demons. These books are perfect for any beginner or veteran alike as they blend the perfect balance of action, intrigue, and character building as we follow Gregor Eisenhorn’s fight to protect humanity with whatever means necessary. These books are so popular that we are getting our first Warhammer 40k tv adaption, think Sherlock Holmes in space with Boltguns and demons. Also, if you love this, follow up with Ravenor also written by Abnett, another series following Eisenhorn’s protégé as he battles similar threats.
The Soul Drinkers Omnibus by Ben Counter
There are a lot of Space Marine books, they are the poster boys of Games Workshop and honestly they deserve the attention they get and the books that have come from that are brilliant, The Space Wolves and The Blood Angel series are both favourites of mine, however, The Soul Drinkers omnibus was one of the first Black Library books I read and spawned a love for the genre that hasn’t ceased today. It follows the Soul Drinkers chapter, space marines who have been classified as heretics by the Imperium, you read about their struggles as they continue to fight for a people that no longer want them and will kill them regardless of their attempts to redeem themselves. This series does a great job of showing the human side of Space Marines, that ever after the indoctrination and genetic modifications that make them something different from me and you, they still have those parts of them somewhere, and there’s a crazy amount of action.
Which brings me to my mini review.
The Gate of Bones by Andy Clark.
The Gate of Bones is the second book of Black Libraries newest major series “A Dawn of Fire”, this is being toted as the Indomitus Crusades version of the Horus Heresy series and I’m super excited to see what we get from a brand-new storyline that doesn’t contain as much pre-existing Lore. The first book, Avenging Son, was a fantastic entrance to the series, introducing us properly to Roberte Gulliman, which was a massive bonus for those that haven’t paid a massive amount of attention to Games Workshop newest story arc (such as myself), introducing the new Primaris Marines in all their glory, and setting the grandeur and scale for the task that was being taken by the Imperium. I would recommend reading up a little on the events that happened just before this however it isn’t fully necessary – https://warhammer40k.fandom.com/wiki/Era_Indomitus.
I always find it interesting reading these mega series from Black Library because you often get a different author each time, not only taking the resources of previous books, reintroducing old characters, and sharing story arcs as they become canon, but you also tend to get in some cases very different writing styles. Guy Haley and Andy Clark are both in my opinion very good at character development, both books did incredibly well at building the humanity behind the godlike figures that walk among us and delivering the absolute despair and grimdark nature of regular humans, both writing interesting POVs that don’t leave you bored when reading someone other than your favourite, and honestly that’s hard to do, especially when you look at the scope of these stories and the amount of time and space that they tend to cover. The Gate of Bones was my first story containing the Astarte Custodes, described as the children of the Emperor in the way the Space Marines are children of their Primarch’s, they share the Emperor’s blood line, they are in all ways more Impressive than the regular Astartes and Andy did a really impressive job of showing this. He managed to really show the difference between the Custodes and the Space Marines, up till this point there had been nothing in 40k that really made me see the Space Marines as anything but the almost invincible warriors they are. If the Space Marines are the Angels of Death, what are the Custodes? On top of these demi-gods Andy had to write characters from the side of Chaos which is always such a stark contrast from the Emperor loving Imperium forces, you get to see their hatred for the so-called Corpse God and what drives them towards their end goals. We also got a full Lance of Knights, the mini-Titans of the 40k universe, the fanatical Sisters of Battle and fantastic characters coming from the classic Imperial Guard that just bring the levelling needed so you remember the grimdark nature of 40k even with beautiful Golden Gods that stride across the fields of battle.
Andy’s writing style made this book a lot more of an interesting read for me over Avenging Son, the first book at times felt full of very unnecessary prose that just felt a little over the top, I understand it’s a hard balance because the world of 40k really does need the grandeur to properly explain it sometimes, Gulliman striding into a room demands the attention to detail that is warranted by a Primarch and Guy Haley did a fantastic job of writing Gulliman and the people surrounding him, but that isn’t maybe needed at every turn. Andy felt a lot more to the point, sparing no detail when needed but instead spending more time focusing on the plot and character development, this led to me feeling no inclination to skim over paragraphs like I did in the first book. He also did a great job of writing a tense and exciting plot, which I imagine is a struggle when your main character has full plot protection and a already summarised ending to the Era Indomitus supplied by Games Workshop codex’s, so to still write in a way that gives the reader concern’s about what might happen to Gulliman and to the crusade as a whole is something I find really impressive, and in general this is always something the Black Library authors have done so well, writing something that feels fresh and exciting when you already know the end game really shows the talents of these writers.
This book really had everything needed to meet the demand of the Black Library standard, tons of incredible action but also plenty of really strong character development that never felt boring or like you were being pulled away from the excitement. I can’t wait for the next story in this saga and will continue to follow the Dawn of Fire series eagerly.
Give Black Library a chance, regardless for your interest in the tabletop game the stories themselves are so good that they deserve the attention, and I can almost promise you will not be disappointed. Also, if it makes it helps, as far as I’m aware there are zero love triangles in any of the 40k books and if that isn’t a reason to read it I don’t know what is.
I have to thank twitter again for putting me onto Dragon Mage by ML Spencer. Jealously was a big factor in why I had to buy this, this is probably one of the most beautiful books I’ve seen in years. Illustrated by the incredibly talented Sutthiwat Dechakamphu, and designed by the excellent STK Kreations, this is a must for any hardback lovers bookshelves. This was the first time I had heard of ML Spencer and that is a mistake I will be rectifying as soon as I can buy her other books. She has written two other series; The Rhenwar Saga being a Semi-finalist in Mark Lawrence’s SPFBO which in recent years seems to be one of the best untapped resources when it comes to Fantasy. I say untapped but I’m coming to think my knowledge of the Fantasy world is just lacking. Book twitter makes me feel like a novice.
“Aram Raythe has the power to challenge the gods. He just doesn’t know it yet.
Aram thinks he’s nothing but a misfit from a small fishing village in a dark corner of the world. As far as Aram knows, he has nothing, with hardly a possession to his name other than a desire to make friends and be accepted by those around him, which is something he’s never known.
But Aram is more. Much, much more.
Unknown to him, Aram bears within him a gift so old and rare that many people would kill him for it, and there are others who would twist him to use for their own sinister purposes. These magics are so potent that Aram earns a place at an academy for warrior mages training to earn for themselves the greatest place of honour among the armies of men: dragon riders.
Aram will have to fight for respect by becoming not just a dragon rider, but a Champion, the caliber of mage that hasn’t existed in the world for hundreds of years. And the land needs a Champion. Because when a dark god out of ancient myth arises to threaten the world of magic, it is Aram the world will turn to in its hour of need.”
Dragon Mage – ML Spencer
Our main character is a misfit boy named Aram; a boy who has spent his entire life shunned because of his differences. Aram sees the true colours of people and of the world, completely unaware of where this will lead him, tangling him in the schemes of others, the only one able to save the world from the disaster that awaits. I did worry slightly reading the blurb, it could come across that Spencer has created the classic fantasy character, a sort of Gary Stu, but there is no scene where he suddenly springs to his full potential, he isn’t a master warrior overnight. Aram’s story is filled with despair and struggle and those worries quickly slipped away. I genuinely haven’t felt such angst, pity, worry and every other emotion going towards a character since Fitz Chivalry in the Farseer Trilogy. Spencer fully went toe to toe with Robin Hobb in emotional torture and I think that’s partly the magic in this book, she quickly punches you in the gut, dancing over the lines of plot protection that leaves you afraid at times, but fully investing you to Aram’s story in a way that very few authors are able to do. Watching the boy grow, the many moments of misery and the few incredibly rewarding moments of joy, Spencer has written a truly relatable, very human character and it’s because of Spencer’s incredible writing of Aram that you latch on to this book more than anything.
“For now, I will abstain from plucking your wings. But take my advice: live each day as though it was your last, for every day from now forward is a gift from me. Yet also understand that every gift in this world comes with a price. Someday I will ask you to repay me for this mercy I have bestowed upon you”
Dragon Mage – ML Spencer
Now you could almost call this book a single POV story, almost completely focusing on Aram, but for brief moments over its 800+ pages we occasionally get first-hand snippets of Markus, Aram’s only friend and protector. Spencer did a wonderful job of writing the relationship between the two characters, , the snatches of his perspective that you get you can fully feel his emotions towards Aram, the same love and want to protect that mirrors the own readers. Aram and Markus are surrounded by the classic cast of fantasy characters that you expect to see, but Spencer’s skill to write realistic, fun to read characters is what turns this from a fairly classical fantasy story into something remarkable.
“After you hear something so many times, it starts to define you, and it eventually becomes a prison. He had been confined by that prison all his life, and now he feared the world outside its walls.”
Dragon Mage – ML Spencer
I’ve loved to read since I was young, as most of the book community have, but there is one series that really cemented my love for the fantasy genre. Christmas morning 2005, I’m fifteen years old, I unwrap a book shaped present, it is Eldest by Christopher Paolini, I didn’t own Eragon so on boxing day morning I ran down to WHSmiths and bought it. I devoured the books, eagerly waiting for the next two in the series and since then I’ve reread The Inheritance Cycle every year from when I was fifteen to about twenty-three and only stopped because I now have too many books in my TBR pile. It’s a flawed book, a lot of people have mixed feelings about it, and I can agree with those people on their points, but I have a deep love for it and always will.
Now first things first because my mum will be reading this and I don’t want a slap, I’m in no way slating my mother for her occasionally buying me the sequels of books. She picked the books I loved most over my young adult years and bestowed her excellent taste onto me, and I will be forever thankful to her. The reason I love to read, and read fantasy, is because of her.
Dragon Mage held a lot of similarities to Eragon for me in the sort of story it is, I’m not trying to say it’s a book heavily influenced by Eragon. Spencer has built a completely different world, a very new and unique magic system, completely different characters, even the Dragons are different in their ways and I can’t stress enough that Spencer wrote something new, something truly fun and addictive that had me reading from morning till night and meant I finished this monster in 3 days. What I mean is Spencer’s books gave me that same sort of feeling the Inheritance Cycle did, the same amazement, the same joy. I love a coming-of-age story and Spencer did this incredibly well, stories of children that find themselves tied into some great plan, books that go take us through the journey from child to hero, the classic magic school, training montages, a grizzled old teacher to show them the ways. These types of books bring out this incredible level of nostalgia reminding me of when I was a kid and hoped I would get a letter through the door telling me I was a wizard or to go find a dragon egg in the mountains and become the first dragon rider in years and go flying off to save the world. Spencer’s book hit me right in these memories, she returned to me a sense of childlike awe and reunited me with feelings that I haven’t had from a book in a very long time. This is why this book has become so important to me, it is why it’s a book I will make my children read when they become the little nerds I mould them to be and it’s a book I will reread many times over the course of my life.
I’ve also mentioned this before, but I really love books with dragons.
The only nit-pick I did have with the book is I did sometimes feel the pacing was slightly off in scenes I expected to be bigger and more in-depth. A prime example being Aram’s first time meeting the council upon arriving in the world below, a scene I would have normally expected to last a chapter was over in two or so pages, and it seemed to happen at a few points in the book. However, I didn’t realise that this book was intended to be a standalone till I had finished and upon finding out that piece of information you quickly realise why some scenes had to be made shorter, to fit the incredible scope of Spencer’s story in a single book. This issues never affected fight scenes or big set pieces, and it was something that actually didn’t bother me massively, however just something that felt odd when comparing it to past books.
I feel like a pretty poor reviewer lately because every review has had some sort of “This book has quickly become one of my favourites”, and really I can only blame the authors for this, not me, but in all honesty this book has gone straight to a top ten place. Spencer ended Dragon Mage incredibly well and left me feeling very fulfilled, however as mentioned this book was meant to be a standalone and since has been expanded into a series and I couldn’t be more ecstatic, I can’t wait to see what happens next. My main hope being that the next book brings us a more confident and happier Aram, Spence has plenty to expand on meaning we should get some amazing stories come out of this world. Buy this book, not only can I almost guarantee you will love it but also it looks so damn good on your bookshelf.
Thank you ML Spencer for making me feel fifteen again.
I started this blog back in January and hand in hand with all this reviewing malarky is a necessity to grow some sort of social media presence, and even though I’ve never had any want to spend time on twitter before, mainly due to its fairly bad reputation, I’ve come to find that the fantasy book twitter community is pretty awesome and through them I’ve stumbled across some amazing books I might have missed otherwise. Mike Brook’s The Black Coast is one of the first books I came across as I started and was one that jumped to the top of my list. Not only has it got some truly stunning cover art, but read for yourself, it’s pretty self-explanatory…
“When the citizens of Black Keep see ships on the horizon, terror takes them, for they know who is coming: for generations, Black Keep has been raided by the fearsome clan’s people of Iwernia. Saddling their war dragons, the Naridan’s rush to defend their home only to discover that the clan’s people have not come to pillage at all. Driven from their own homeland by the rise of a daemonic despot who prophesies the end of the world, they have come in search of a new home. Meanwhile the wider continent of Narida is lurching toward war. Black Keep is about to be caught in the cross-fire of the coming war for the world – if only its new mismatched society can survive.”
Saana, The Black Coast – Mike Brooks
This is the story of two peoples, the Tjakorshi and the people of the Black Keep, part of the kingdom of Narida, at face value this is pure, classic fantasy, It sounds action packed, it sounds exciting, It sounds exactly what I want from a fantasy book. I was ready for big fight scenes and dragon battles, war, action, duels, magic are the foundations of most truly great fantasy books, but all of this is just the backdrop for the main story. This is a book about the amalgamation of two peoples, it’s a book about bringing together two different cultures, it’s about learning to live with people you don’t know, who look different to you, that have a different sexual orientation than yourself. It’s a story about understanding and it’s a book that we should learn from. I would be an idiot if I said that this was the first book I read that dealt with these sorts of ideas, and it’s not the first fantasy book to express these issues, but I’m not normally the sort of reader that focuses on the political ideologies behind the book but more so the sword swinging and epic dragon fights. I’ve said it before, I’m a simple man. Instead, Mike did a fantastic job of really laying out these people’s differences and cultures, somehow making a language that allowed a classical/historical look at gender neutrality, spending so much time on the importance of genders and identities. Everything Mike wrote felt so fleshed out, this wasn’t JK Rowling slipping in a gay dumbledore in a poor attempt to please fans, these things felt genuinely important to Mike. I love that as society changes and our authors get more diverse, our books change, becoming more varied and allowing for completely different characters and stories. You only have to look at Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir to see how incredibly different the books we are getting are, would something like that been written ten, twenty years ago? No, of course not, Fantasy and literature in general carry on improving because of that.
The Black Coast feels different, refreshing, it was genuinely nice to be more excited for the parts of the book that focused on the struggles between the clans and the issues they overcame rather than the battle and bloodshed. I think my favourite chapter in the entire book was the run up to a game of something that compared slightly to rugby, and that’s mental because this book had dragons. I love Dragons….
There are multiple POV characters over the course of the story however, it mostly revolves around two, Saana, who leads the Brown Eagle Clan and Daimon Blackcreek, the adopted son of the Lord of Black Keep. These two characters share most of the page time and are both incredibly well written and interesting, yet there lies my only issue in the book, these are the only characters I really cared about as the story went on. Mike spent large portions of this book setting up for the next books in the series, and these other POV characters did an excellent job at fleshing out the plot points we can expect to see in the next book, but because they didn’t have a massive impact on the main storyline of The Black Coast I felt myself waiting to get back to a chapter with Daimon or Saana. Although Mike did a pretty good job of combatting this though, the chapters away from our favourites tended to be short and to the point, allowing quick and well-done story progression before getting back to the main problems at hand, I didn’t feel any character fatigue at any point during the book. Mike’s writing in general was top notch, he had some wonderful prose, discussion between characters felt entirely natural, his pacing was great and even though this book was a slow burn for the first half, it picked up pace so quickly, giving me that urge to skip to the end just to see if how things go, which of course I would never dare.
“Saana watched them go for a few heartbeats, then heaved a breath and headed towards the nearest knot of her people. She felt a bit like one of the little shellfish in the rock pools were the water retreated – a soft mess inside thin, brittle armour, clamped tight shut against the air. She had a nasty feeling it would be some time until the tide next came in, and she could relax her shell again.”
Saana, The Black Coast – Mike Brooks
Now for one little spoiler, skip ahead if you wish.
I would just like to thank Mike for something so rare in books these days, especially the first book in the series, a happy ending. The end hundred pages of this book are intense, filled with exciting set pieces, big battles, dragon riders, the characters we’ve become attached to on the line facing life or death. Mike did so much work on setting up what will be an action-packed series, but he was kind with this one and gave us the ending we wanted, and I can’t really describe how happy that makes me. Golden Son by Pierce Brown made me vocally expel my anger at the ending, cliff-hangers are fun and all but sometimes it’s just really nice to have things just be ok sometimes. So, Thank you, Mike.
I hadn’t heard of Mike before reading this book, even though I occasionally dabble in the incredible world of 40k (shout out to my boy Ibram Gaunt), but upon finding out Mike’s catalyst for writing this book was his anger from the 2016 Brexit referendum my respect for him shot through the roof. He has done a fantastic job of creating an interesting world that you really want to invest your time in, I can’t wait to see where the story goes next, to see the world continue to be fleshed out, the sprinklings of myth and magic we’ve been given so far I expect to become so much more. This was a top tier debut into the world of Fantasy for Mike and I’m excited for the rest of The God King Chronicles.
I saw a tweet this morning about different types of reviewers, some being very liberal about their five-star reviews and the other being picky about how they rate those books. Now in my The Girl and the Stars review I said I don’t use five-star ratings, and apparently, I’m a liar. Devin Madson’s We Ride with the Storm gets another five-star review. You know what, I don’t care, and you know why? Because this book was fucking amazing. And if a book is really fucking amazing it gets a five star (If I don’t feel the need to use swear words then it just gets four stars).
Now I’m kind of ashamed of myself because I hadn’t heard of Devin till very recently and I didn’t realise until the interview at the end of WRtS that she had a series before this (The Vengeance Trilogy), a series that I would imagine might enhance certain parts of the book. However, if you’re like me and you’re in the same boat, do not fret, you can read WRtS without needing to read the prior series. However, Devin if you read this by some small chance, I will go back and read them, I promise.
The story tells of the struggles between the Kisian, Chiltaen and Levanti people, this world is based on what seems to be Feudal Japan, taking very strong cultural impressions from all over Asia. Devin has managed to write a world that feels rich with the history and traditions of those people, and she manages to write this world with little need of piling us with tons of unnecessary details. Instead, incorporating the information we need to know into the story and allowing us to feel like we know these people, characters and what drives them while keeping the story going at breakneck speeds. Devin’s writing style was incredible the entire way through the book and really felt unlike anything I’ve read in recent years. As I was scribbling down notes, I wrote it felt like every time I was turning a page, I was waiting for Devin to pop out from wherever she was hiding and slap me in the face, before running off and hiding somewhere new so I wouldn’t know where to expect the next one from. I felt scared and tense for the characters I came to know, I spent chapters holding in my breath without realising, clenching my jaw, I wrote angry sentences about how Devin didn’t want any of us to be happy as she twisted the plot once again. It’s not often a book stresses me as much as WRtS and it should be taken as a massive compliment. I never knew where this book was going to take me, whether that was the storyline Devin was so masterfully crafting. Scenes I couldn’t even try to pretend I could guess what was going to happen next, or just actual scenes that were stunning to read, whether that being for how beautiful the prose were or because of how shocking the scene was. I mean we basically open the book with Devin in detail describing how to cut off a head.
“It’s harder to sever a head than people think. Perhaps, if one were skilled with an axe, it could be done in a single blow – so long as the body was not trying to run away at the time – but out in the grasslands, decapitation is done with a knife. The first incision is easy. Then you drag your serrated blade through the flesh and think you’ll soon be done. I thought so my first time. I thought it would be quick and simple and not involve such thick globs of blob.”
Rah e’Toring, We Ride the Storm – Devin Madson
If it wasn’t for the fact it was incredibly illegal, I would think Devin’s been hacking off human heads herself, and to be honest I’m not sure if that stopped her, she knows vastly too much on the subject. On top of this incredible writing, we had then potentially some of the most wonderful chapter structure I’ve had the pleasure of reading in a long time. Epic fantasy that tells its story through the POV of multiple characters tends to do similar things, creating nice little cliff-hangers at the end of each chapter (series like the Wheel of Time or Game of Thrones are prime examples of this), leaving you with your favourite character bleeding out on a battlefield while then jumping halfway across the world to maybe two characters you don’t care about, talking politics. Leaving you with a knife in your gut as you try your best not to skim over those next hundred pages, till you finally return and find out what happened. Devin instead writes these beautiful chapters which each tend to have their own crescendo, each picking up quickly till it peaks with something jaw-droppingly exciting before then normally giving you some sort of resolution at the end. You get the knife thrust to the gut, swift battlefield surgery and sent on your merry way all in one chapter and I can’t tell you enough how much I loved that.
Now I mention my desire to skim over or just skip over chapters (Don’t shame me, I don’t do it. I’m just tempted). I’ve touched on this in previous reviews, when it does happen it can occasionally be because of the character, I’m now having to read about someone who I can’t get along with. Devin negates this issue of mine really easily by making sure all three main characters are insanely amazing. I would also like to make it clear that Devin wrote every character, no matter how minor to the story as someone important to the reader. Each one was written so you became invested, somehow even becoming emotionally attached to the characters you maybe thought were arseholes, Devin’s ability to write characters incredibly, no matter how big or small is something that truly makes this book great.
I thoroughly loved reading each character’s perspectives, no character felt more important than another, each falling into their parts of the story perfectly and each slowly being entwined together to get it to its ending masterfully. As much as I loved all three characters, I think Miko ended up as my favourite even though she probably started out as my least. Miko is a princess of Kisia, her and her brother, Tanaka, prince of Kisia and potential heir to the throne are stepchildren to the all mighty God Emperor of Kisia. However, both are Okato children, this information hidden away for years to stop any uprising from the troubled north, still fiercely loyal to the Okato’s. Miko even though quite clearly the more capable of the two siblings is looked over due to her being a female, classic historical misogyny. Although, Miko has very different plans for herself and I think quite early on you can guess the sort of storyline that she will follow, however what I wouldn’t have guessed is the gorydamn roller coaster of emotions that Devin would put us through. Her story starting out slowly ends up rampaging in excitement as the book carries on, the last hundred or so pages being a complete emotional maelstrom that truly makes you grit your teeth.
“They tried to kill me four times before I could walk. Seven before I held any memory of the world. Every time thereafter I knew fear, but it was anger that chipped sharp edges into my soul”.
Princess Miko, We Ride the Storm – Devin Madson
The second character is Rah e’Toring, Captain of the Second Swords of the Torin Tribe, part of the nomadic tribes of the Levanti. A people heavily steeped in an honour and code that was incredibly fun to read and potentially is based on the Mongolian people, Devin did a really incredible job of giving us a ton of information on how the Levanti lived without ever needing to sit down and explain it. Rah’s people are exiled from their lands and end up being captured and forced to fight by the Chiltaens, finding out as you go that this was all a lot more complicated than it seemed. Rah started off as my favourite character and held that spot till right at the end, his story is a constant source of gripping excitement, his struggles to return his people to some sort of freedom and a way back to the code that he has been forced to stray from. Devin does as incredible job of communicating this character’s emotions onto the paper and really makes us feel his pain and fear, his love for his people and his concern for the decisions he has taken. I’m glad I don’t have to wait to long to read the second book because Devin really upped her slapping game for the end of this one.
“We are the Swords that hunt so your hands may be clean. We are the Swords that kill so your soul may be light. We are the Swords that die so you may live.”
Rah e’Toring, We Ride the Storm – Devin Madson
Cassandra is the last of our characters, a Chiltaen full time assassin, part time prostitute, full time mental case, or so you think early on. You find out everything she does is to quiet the voices of ‘her’ -a voice in Cassandras head that she wants rid of. Cassandra is caught deeply in the web of Chiltaen politics as she finds herself being bounced between the different sides, all wanting her skills for their own devious ends. Cassandra quite quickly shocks as she’s introduced and is a character you eagerly wait to reappear in the story, but as we go on it turns out there’s so much more to her than the drug fuelled sex fiend that’s portrayed at the beginning. Devin doing a fantastic job of humanising her character and really drawing you in emotionally as you realise her story in fullness. Towards the end I did find her story overshadowed somewhat but only due to how incredible the other two were, Devin left Cassandra’s story in the perfect place and I can’t wait to find out what happens next.
Devin has achieved something magnificent with We Ride the Storm, I don’t think since Pierce Browns Golden Son have, I felt so much emotion from a book, that emotion being mainly stress, and again I can’t stress (haha) how much this is a compliment. A book that drives you to madness with how incredibly well done the story is, the sort of book you don’t want to put down at 2am, the sort of book you want to shout in frustration at. This book has quickly entered the list of my all-time favourites and if it wasn’t for the queue of books I currently have and the fact Mike Brooks told me on twitter I had to read his book next, I would have gone straight onto the sequel. I bet this series will feature in some sort of end of year post and I’m positive it will stay my favourite book of 2021 till May…
This book was my first requested review by an author, and I would just like to say to Rebecca a big thank you for sending me a copy.
As with all of my reviews we have a couple of small spoilers, but I’ve not gone into anything that will ruin the story.
Novellas aren’t something I normally read, short stories and even collections tend to be something I refuse to go near, I think it’s the fact I hate the idea of getting drawn into a book that is going to leave me in 100 pages in (a strong abandonment issue vibe coming from this sentence). I will buy them very occasionally and normally only for the collector’s aspect and I should probably be a little ashamed of myself, I call myself a Cosmere fan and haven’t read any of the in between…
Rebecca described this book as a straight up 120-page science fiction adventure with no romance, this piqued my interest straight away, no romance means no big attachment and a ton scifi always has a fair bit of action which I do love, this was just going to be adventure and Rebecca wasn’t wrong. This book focuses on our main character Ames, a grizzled old-time thief trying to find his brother who’s been arrested and disappeared away by the corrupt DPA, the government in charge of the empire of earth that now extends way past our own milky way.
“Unfortunately, not everything about the future is so advanced. The central planets, led by Earth, have risen high at the expense of cheap labour on distant worlds. Dissent is widespread and arrests are common. Sometimes prisoners are released; sometimes they disappear without a trace, sent to labour camps in other solar systems.When Ames Emerys receives a letter telling him that his brother Callum has died en route to the remote planet of Kilnin, he takes the first ship he can off Earth, desperate for answers. But the secrets Ames uncovers prove far more dangerous than he could have imagined.”
Dust and Lightning – Rebecca Crunden
I really liked the world building that we were introduced here and really hope Rebecca builds on this more with later books. We find ourselves on Earth in the 41st century, a capitalist empire that offers little in the way of workers rights, taking advantage of the little man and a truly corrupt society that benefits the rich before anyone else, sounds familiar? (The universe Rebecca has built, in my opinion, seems to be based on the great ole’ USA) I really liked the potical aspect of this book and how current those problems felt just added so much to the story, the ability to relate the books world against our own, and I think having a realistic look into the future is so important for scifi, when the story feels like it has the potential to be reality then that really grips you as a reader. I did find it funny, either it was my pessimism or the authors optimism, but the believe that we would still be around in another 2000 years if we continue on the current course we are taking is a crazy one, I hope by then its more of the peaceful utopia that we see in star trek maybe.
I found the first two thirds of the book very gripping, I thought as a newer author Rebecca did a great job of setting up her story, out of personal experience and my own writing that’s something to really struggle with, it was very easy to read and sucked you in straight away, the story was well told and made you want to turn the page and keep going. Ames was a fairly classic character, grizzled old timer doing his best to survive, I would love to know a bit more of his backstory and again hope this is something that’s maybe fleshed out in future books. I loved the snippets of his life we got, where the really hardcore love for his brother came from and his willingness to risk everything. Rebecca did an excellent job of making a character I wanted to read more about in very few words. Violet was brought in roughly a third into the book and her introduction was great, I loved the potential for a sidekick(?) of sorts, Ames needed some balancing factor and someone to bounce off, and the fact I already knew there was zero romance in this which meant I didn’t have to worry about any potential awkward kisses, but I do think the relationship built between them was a great set up for romance in future stories. However, as we get into the latter part of the story, Violet’s character is something that made this story unravel slightly for me. Violet was a lawyer, a fairly average, everyday woman who Ames helps when he stumbles across her leaving her arsehole husband after a domestic issue (nothing strange with that – men are pricks). Ames isn’t some hero, hes just trying to do the decent thing and I like that this led to Violet deciding to stay and help Ames with his investigation. However, as we go on it goes quickly from our fairly innocent just-left-earth-for-the-first-time-lawyer to having her jump into a secret underground base, finding all the information they needed on the government computers in said top secret base, picking locks and then the thing that really bothered me was Violet straight up shooting a man.
“An exit at the end led to a stairwell and they nearly at the door when it burst opened. A shot went off and bloody sprayed across the wall behind the wall as he dropped to his knees. Violet’s hand was shaking, her eyes round. ‘Lets go.’ Ames had to force his voice to remain calm, but he somehow managed it. He nodded her on. ‘Down the stairs’.
Dust and Lightning – Rebecca Crunden
For me this was just something I couldn’t get over, this man walked through a door, stumbling upon our group, no standoff with the guard, no conversation, no begging for his life, no hesitation, no nothing. Violet immediately shoots him, and I just can’t see that being what happens from a person who has never killed before, its not something I have personal experience in (thankfully) and I get in real life fear is a major driving force but I imagine till that point Violet has never killed a man. We then have a second of remorse and then they carry on, it felt at this point the end game had been decided upon and what was happening was the easiest way to get there, Violet didn’t fit into the story anymore, but she was just being used to keep it going.
The final few pages before the ending were where we really saw this Sci-fi world start to take off, the change in tone was unexpected and sudden, it really was fun to read, who doesnt love the potential for a little super power action. I feel the place the story left on was a really great opener for Rebecca to then expand on this world and story and was a very solid cliffhanger that left you wanting more, I can see a grand space opera of sorts kicking off, rebellion from the outer planets fighting the tyranny of the corrupt government, Callum and Ames being the spark to set the fire of rebellion going. It has been done before but it’s always an exciting potential and so much can be done with it.
Overall, this was an enjoyable read, even with a couple hiccups I can see a really bright potential for Rebecca’s writing and the story she’s started. I look forward to seeing what she comes out with in future and will definitely be adding it to my TBR pile when she does, and I wish her the best of luck with her dreams 😊.