Thursday, 28 April 2016

Book Review: The Emperor's Blades by Brian Stavely

Absolutely LOVE this cover art.

Gotta say it. I loved this one. An excellent epic fantasy opener to a series. I have just picked up the 2nd book, The Providence of Fire, and I can't wait to get started.

First off I'd have to say I 'read' this via audiobook. The narrator, Simon Vance, did an excellent job. He has a good range of voices and none of them sounded like he was stretching too far. He made most of the main players sound different enough that it was immediately obvious who's point of view we were in.

So the tale starts just after the death of the Emperor. It follows his 3 children. Kaden as he trains to be a monk, learning how to zen. Adare as she tries to uncover the truth behind her father's murder. And Valyn as he struggles to complete his training to become... what is essentially an assassin-y soldiery... kind of thing.

Most of the story centers around Valyn and that's a good thing because his is by far the most interesting. His portion has the most action and excitement. Kaden's part of the tale is largely exposition, setting the scene for the larger conflict that is to come. Adare's portion is... disjointed at best. It almost feels as though it didn't really need to be there at all, but she's being set up to have a much larger part to come.

There in lies my biggest criticism of the book as a whole. It feels very much like setting up a much grander story. The stakes for the finale were high, but the book did a good job of pointing out that they were soon going to be much higher.

Other criticism are the occasional bloating. At times it felt like chapters were bloated and could have been much shorter. It dragged the narrative down in places. I also feel that there were some large plot holes, but I'll talk about them later because of spoilers.

What I loved most about the book was the world building. The characters, especially Valyn and his Kettral, were very detailed and individual. Some of the interactions with bit players were a joy, and Valyn's side of the story was both riveting and gut-wrenching in places. Well-paced and well told.

The world building was fantastic. It's clear that Staveley has a good idea of the world he's created and how everyone and everything fits into it, both in the past and the present. He has an interesting depiction of magic, with defined boundaries and mysterious capabilities. He has created an interesting bestiary of creatures to populate the world. I don't usually say this, but I'd have liked a map to see where everything is located in relation to everything else. There might be a map in the book version, but they don't tend to come across too well in audio format.

Overall I give The Emperor's Blades about a 4 out of 5. A thoroughly enjoyable start to a fantasy epic and I can't wait to start the second book.
I'll be starting book 2 very soon.


SPOILERS. If you haven't read the book and intend to, stop looking. SPOILERS

I had 2 major problems with plot points and... I might be nitpicking. I probably am. But here goes.

The revelation at the end of Adare's final chapter that the Ketterang (not sure of spelling because of audiobook) was the one who killed her father makes her entire storyline in this book pretty much moot. She has very little to do in the book anyway and in the end it feels like there was no point to her doing any of it anyway. It almost feels as though her point in Emperor's Blades is to end up in the Ketterang's bed. It turned her one and only victory into a defeat. It just seemed off.

My other problem (and I'm certain this is nitpicking) is that Valyn's nemesis, Jarl (again not sure of spelling) should not have known that the big bad is a... Xestrine (seriously, spelling fantasy names after listening to audiobooks is impossible). 

The guy is a self-entitled, arrogant, pompous fopp with no part to play in the grander scheme of things. He points out during his brief interrogation that nobody knows the entire plot... well I'm pretty sure Jarl wouldn't know anything. He cracked under the barest hint of torture. There's no way the big bad would allow Jarl to know that he's some ancient creature everyone thinks has been dead for millenia.

If the bad guys plot to kill Kaden went ahead, there would be no need for Jarl or his wing to be there at all. So why did they fly there? IF they were part of the plot in order to kill Valyn... well they probably should have done a better job of it. Honestly, I keep rolling it around in my head and it just makes no sense that Jarl was part of the grander plot at all and even less sense that he'd know anything about the big bad.

Anyways. It's nitpicking. But it's a nit that is gnawing at me.

Rob J. Hayes is the author of the acclaimed The Ties that Bind trilogy and the upcoming Best Laid Plans duology. You can find out more on his website here.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Book Reviews!

So this year I made a sort of resolution type thing. I didn't read a lot in 2015. It was bad of me. I'm ashamed. Part of it was struggling through a few books I really didn't like, part of it was chronic headaches for roughly 6 months (not a lot of fun). In 2016, I decided I would read at least 1 book a month (yes, I'm a horribly slow reader). I also decided I would review them all... at least the ones I can.

So let's start in January.

Twelve Kings in Sharakhai - Bradley P. Beaulieu

I'm torn with this one. Partly because I REALLY wanted to like it, and partly because I did like it... but not as much as I wanted to.

Twelve Kings is the start of a series of books that follows our main protagonist Ceda, as she struggles to uncover the truth behind her mother's past, her own lineage, and attempts to fulfill an impossible vow to kill the twelve immortal kings of Sharakhai.

So the reason I wanted to like this book so much was the setting and the world building that surrounds it. I love the desert feel to the book and the feel that Sharakhai gives off. Bradley really makes it feel like the city is a shining oasis in the middle of a vast ocean of sand, and that it is also hard fought over.

I loved the idea that the gods were real and walked the earth and made pacts with humans, and the same with demons. Also that they weren't the first gods. It's a complex and deep world that draws you in and makes you want to learn more and Bradley does an excellent job of drip feeding the info, always giving you just enough to wet your appetite.

He also does an excellent job with the antagonists. The kings really do feel powerful, immortal, and dangerous. It's clear they have more going on than Ceda ever learns of in the first book and that's another big draw. Plots within plots within plots.

Ceda herself is a rich and interesting character. She's clearly an excellent swords-woman, but Bradley makes a point of not portraying her as invincible. As good as she might be, she's not infallible, she makes mistakes, gets knocked down, but always gets back up again. He also makes the relationship between Ceda and her best friend Emre, to feel very natural and believable. Ceda drives the story onwards well, like a dog with a bone unable to stop pulling on threads and seeing what unravels.

So onto the problems. First off the book occasionally feels quite long-winded. There are bits where it drags and drags hard. It's not that the plot isn't moving along nicely, but more that Bradley has a habit of treading the same ground a few times, telling us things we've already learned.

There's also the problem with the timeline. There are flashbacks, zipping us back to Ceda's childhood, but that's not my issue. From time to time, more so towards the finale, the book gives us a chapter leading up to a shocking reveal... and then the next chapter explains how a different character got to the same shocking reveal. It almost feels like the editor moved chapters around to make said reveals more shocking, but that leaves chapters feeling very out of place. It also drags the pace down and bumps you out of the narrative. It feels heavy handed, as though things could have (and should have) been cut, but were left in and moved around instead.

Lastly is this. The book doesn't feel complete. It feels very much like the first in a series. And it is. And that's OK. But I felt the finale wasn't big enough and there were far too many threads left loose at the end. Maybe it's just greed, I wanted more, but the open-ended ending felt more like a second in a trilogy and less like a first.

Twelve Kings in Sharakhai earns itself a solid 3.5 (I always round up). It was a good book, with excellent characters, and intriguing plot, and wonderful world building. I really like it. Just not as much as I wanted to like it.

Wraith Knight - Charles Phipps

So I can't really talk about this one because it's not released yet. Suffice to say I have described it as Lord of the Rings meets World of Warcraft.

Crowley: Episode One The Ravensblack Affair - Eddie Skelson

One Line Review: Dream boats and drugs, open robes, peril, more peril, death, blood, potatoes, fire, madness.

So I'll start by saying that I really enjoyed this one. Eddie Skelson does an excellent of making his main protagonist, Crowley, a thoroughly likable, yet intensely unlikable character. And that's where the strength of the novel lay for me. The interactions between the characters were a lot of fun with the witty dialogue coming at the right times to relieve some (not all) of the tension at the right times.

The plot zips along at a quick pace and does a good job of explaining the Lovecraft-ian mythos and jargon to a complete noobie like myself. I never felt out of depth due to not having ever read any Cthulu-based literature.

The only real issues I had with the book were to do with the PoV switchings often being un-signposted. Sometimes we'd have a paragraph of Crowley's thoughts, followed by a paragraph of the monster's thoughts, without any indication that we were changing. This is fine, but I struggled probably because my brain isn't wired that way.

And the actions scenes tended to use a lot of past tense instead of present tense which dragged me out of the action a bit and interrupted the flow.

All in all episode one of Eddie Skelson's Crowley is a thoroughly enjoyable read with some real gems when it comes to dialogue and a story that leaves you wanting more... which there is in episode 2.

I give Crowley a solid 3.5 stars, but as always I round up so 4 it is.

The Crown Tower - Michael J. Sullivan

OK, honestly I was bored most of the way through this one.

I should start by saying I've not read Sullivan's first trilogy, only a short story of his (featuring Hadrian and Royce) in the Blackguards anthology. I liked it, thought I'd give his larger works a try. I have not read the original trilogy, The Riyria Revelations because I thought I'd start with the prequels. I will also say I 'read' this by way of audiobook.

The Crown Tower follows 2 story threads. One of Hadrian Blackwater as he struggles to find a place in the world after becoming tired of the soldiering way of life. And one of Gwen as she struggles against an abusive pimp.

The story starts off slow. VERY slow. And to be honest, I don't feel it ever really picks up. It's not just a lack of action, it's a lack of anything seemingly important going on at all. The first half of the book feels like Hadrian on a side-quest, and Gwen crossing the street (both literally and metaphorically).

By the second half of the book Hadrian has met his long time life partner, Royce, and the two are thrust together in the hope that they will one day learn to work with each other and teach each other. The problem is, while I can see that one day they will be a fun buddy-cop pair, they just annoyed the hell out of me. Both of them whine and moan... and then moan and whine. And they keep moaning about the same things over and over again. The plot struggles to move forwards. And when they finally do decide to trust each other, it seems rushed (at least on Royce's part). A lifetime of well-earned mistrust and skepticism and suspicion seems undone by one selfless act on Hadrian's part.

Gwen's entire story (while interesting) only actually intersects with Hadrian and Royce's on the penultimate chapter. It feels like two separate stories, not one. And there are too many threads left completely unfinished. We have a chapter from Gwen's nemesis' point of view at one point and then he's foiled once by her (fairly easily) and we never hear from him again. That particular plot line felt a lot like filler.

The problem is, I wanted to like the book. I loved the short story (Professional Integrity) in Blackguards and wanted to read more of Hadrian and Royce. Perhaps I should have started with Revelations because it feels like this book is written for fans of that series rather than potential new readers. If I already knew the characters well and loved them I'd probably be giggling with joy over every sarcastic interaction... but I don't. Maybe I'll give Revelations a try after the sour taste has faded.

Overall I give this one 2 stars because it's well-written and Gwen's story is very interesting.

That's it so far. This month I'm reading King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence and The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley. I will review them when I'm finished.

I will point out that the artwork to Brian Staveley's trilogy is some of the most beautiful ever to grace a book cover in my opinion.

Rob J. Hayes is the author of the acclaimed The Ties that Bind trilogy and the upcoming Best Laid Plans duology. You can find out more on his website here.

Monday, 18 April 2016

All the Best Ideas Come Out of the Toilet

So I was thinking about something the other day. I used to do a lot of story planning on the toilet. Plotting. Character building. World building. So much of it used to come to me as I was sitting on the porcelain throne. Some readers have already clicked away by now. Some writers are busy nodding along to the sentiment. You see, I know I'm not alone. Many of us come up with some of our best ideas while on the can. Why, I bet Conan is a product of particularly rowdy curry the night before. OK, that claim is completely baseless, but I hope it's true.

There's a reason for it. It probably has some sort of fancy scientific terminology. It's the same reason we often come up with awesome ideas in the shower.
  • It's to do with performing a task that's easy, that requires little to no real thought or concentration.
  • That prevents you from doing others things thus giving you the time to be creative.
  • It's a time when you're (typically) alone and therefore away from the distractions that others present.
  • It's a sort of ritual and those are good for helping people to focus their minds.

None of this is a new concept. The TV sitcom Scrubs even did a whole episode on it.
The epiphany toilet.

I'm not really sure the toilet being on the roof and open to the air would help with generating those awesome ideas, but maybe with the stench. Fresh air helps the creative mind... toilets help the creative mind... put them together and you have a criminal offence.

So where am I going with this? Well if all (yes, it's maybe more like some) of the best ideas come out of the toilet, then I have a problem. Because I've stopped using my toilet time to think of awesome creative ideas. These days I sit down on the bog and...
Never search Google for images of using the phone on the toilet... just don't... not worth it.

Sad but true. I sit down and whip out the phone. I then proceed to browse my Facebook feed, or check my email, or load up a little mobile game. The last one is particularly bad because I sometimes find myself sitting on the toilet for a while even after I've finished because I really really REALLY want to finish a level of * insert generic match 3 game name here *.

Yes, I realised the other day that I had willingly sacrificed one my best (and daily) creative times to the electronic deity we all worship: our phones. Now I'm not about to hate on smartphones. I love mine. It goes everywhere with me, even the toilet. Probably not very hygienic now I think about it, but BAH! you all do it too. What I am about to do is make a change to my lifestyle.

From now on, I'm reclaiming that time of my life dedicated to pooping out awesome ideas. I'm taking back the john from my electronic overseer. No more phones on the toilet!

Say it with me:


Or down it for that matter... even if it is the best place for an iPhone...

Rob J. Hayes is the author of the acclaimed The Ties that Bind trilogy and the upcoming Best Laid Plans duology. You can find out more on his website here.