Ravencry – Ed McDonald

One of my favourite debuts last year was Ed McDonald‘s Blackwing.  This dark and brooding tale of Ryhalt Galharrow, his lost lady love, and the horrible menace of the Deep Kings was fresh and compelling.  McDonald returns that world with the second book in his Raven’s Mark series, Ravencry (review copy from Gollancz).

In Ravencry, we pick up Galharrow’s story four years later.  The Deep Kings were driven back from Valengrad, but at huge cost.  Galharrow is now a hero, with his Blackwings well funded and resourced by a grateful city.  He uses his knowledge and skill to root out threats to the city, including spies and creatures of the Deep Kings.  The cult of the Bright Lady is taking root in the city, with people having visions of a beautiful woman they believe will save the city from its enemies, offering hope rather than the dark pragmatism of the city’s normal rulers.  One of Galharrow’s childhood friends has come to Valengrad, and he is thick with the leaders of the Bright Lady’s cult.

Second books are always tricky.  They need to advance the story, provide enough self-contained pay off in their own right without over-topping the series finale, and help to set up the final book.  McDonald pulls off that tricky second book in style.  We learn more about Galharrow and his world, with a trip to the Misery that shows us the measure of the Blackwing Captain.  The ending has real peril and high stakes.  We see how the hope offered by the Bright Lady’s cult is so attractive that it supplants all rational logic and sense.  And we see how the unscrupulous are willing to exploit situations for their own self-interest.

Fabulous.  I can’t wait for the series finale.

Goodreads rating: 3*

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The Book of M – Peng Shepherd

There are a lot of post-apocalyptic books out there.  You know the drill: a mysterious happening brings civilisation to its knees.  People living in the aftermath scrabble around living on tinned food.  Our protagonist is the one who gets to the heart of what happens and (in the more optimistic ones) is able to fix it. See The Feed, Station Eleven and The Space Between The Stars – all of which are really excellent examples of the genre.

Where Peng Shepherd‘s The Book of M (review copy from Harper Voyager) differs is that the cause of the apocalypse is not a mysterious virus or act of terrorism.  This is a fantasy take on the apocalypse, rather than a science fictional one.  Starting in India, people start losing their shadows.  And the shadowless start to gain the ability to change reality, but at the price of losing their memories.  As the problem begins to spread, society starts to break down.

Our protagonists are Max and Ory.  They were at the wedding of two friends in a remote location when the Forgetting starts to hit the USA.  Slowly the community at the wedding hotel starts to disperse, until only Max and Ory are left.  Max loses her shadow, and her husband Ory looks after her, in the knowledge that eventually she will forget even him.  Unable to bear it, Max eventually leaves, following mysterious graffiti and rumours that someone in the deep South may hold a cure for the Forgetting.

Unfortunately, The Book of M fails to add anything fresh to the post-apocalyptic genre beyond its new, fantastical premise.  The novel dwells on the importance of memories in how they shape and form the essence of a person.  But the Forgetting is never adequately explained and – although the story is competently told and Shepherd writes with a beautiful prose style – the novel lacks some of the deep insight into the human condition and how we cope with chaos and crisis that other sister books offer.

Goodreads rating: 2* 

The Blue Sword – Robin McKinley

Growing up as a child, I always wanted to be Harry.  Harimad-sol – laprun minta and damalur-sol.  With a chestnut warhorse, a pet leopard, a magic sword and the ability to make desert kings fall hopelessly in love with me while I saved the world.

Robin McKinley‘s The Blue Sword is one of my all-time favourite novels, and a comfort book  that I pull out for regular re-reading.  First published in 1982 it tells the story of Harry Crewe, an orphan sent to the farthest reaches of the British Empire, where her brother, Richard, is serving in the military.  The tomboyish Harry slowly falls in love with the wilds of Daria (as the Empire calls it) and learns that she is not the only Homelander who feels that way.  She is kidnapped by Corlath, king of the Hillfolk, after his magic Gift prompts him to do it, trains as a warrior and ultimately saves the day by defeating the Northern demon-king.

So far, so typical for a YA novel: heroic young woman comes of age and saves the day when none of the adults will listen to her.  But there is much to lift The Blue Sword above the pack, despite its flaws.

This is a novel about colonialism.  It falls prey to Orientalism in the way that it romanticises Daria.  And Harry is a bit of a White Saviour (we learn Harry has mixed race ancestry late in the book, but culturally she is wholly British).  We see very little from or about the viewpoints of those living under colonial rule – they are nameless, faceless servants and tradespeople.

But McKinley shows us the fragility of colonial rule at the edges of Empire.  Authority is notional at best, based on lines drawn on maps and the presence of a small number of Empire administrators, diplomats and military, who live in a self-contained immigrant bubble.  There is little investment or interest in the place beyond the amount of the map that can be coloured pink, and the availability of natural resources (profitable mines in the area).

Language and miscommunication are key themes in The Blue Sword.  The colonial habit of renaming things and places out of arrogance or the inability to pronounce indigenous words.  Corlath is king of Damar, not of the Hillfolk.  The main town has been renamed Istan by the Empire in place of its real name Ihistan, and the pass known as Ritger’s Gap by the colonisers is the Madamer Gate to the people of Damar.  Miscommunication extends to cultural concepts and rituals: “those funny patched sashes the Hillfolk wear”.  The few translators struggle, emphasising the separation between Damarian and Homelander.

Harry is the bridge between Damar and Empire – an uncomfortable place to be, caught between two worlds.  And McKinley’s message is one that success happens when these cultures work together in a spirit of shared endeavour and mutual respect for different perspectives and traditions.  Diplomacy rather than colonisation is the right approach – but it is one that requires mutual respect and the ability to listen.

Goodreads rating: 5*

Redemption’s Blade – Adrian Tchaikovsky

Adrian Tchaikovsky has knocked it out the park once again with Redemption’s Blade (review copy from Solaris).  This is the post-Dark Lord novel I have been waiting for all my life.

Celestaine is one of a group of heroes who managed to defeat the evil demigod known as the Kinslayer, at the end of a Lord of the Rings-style titanic conflict that managed to – briefly – unite humanity in common cause.  But with the war now over, Celestaine is struggling to find purpose and meaning.  Adventuring and demigod-killing skills aren’t really much in demand these days, and all the heroic ballads in the world won’t help someone who is feeling out of place in the world.  So she takes a commission to help undo some of the damage caused by the Kinslayer – to find a magic item that might be able to heal a race of winged people who literally had their wings pulled off by the Kinslayer.

Redemption’s Blade is the first in a series of novels set in a shared world.  As the first one released, Tchaikovsky gets to set much of the world-building, which he has clearly relished doing.  This is a world filled with races, places, gods and monsters – and an awful lot of magical relics about the place.  It’s a great set-up for other writers to explore, and Tchaikovsky uses Celestaine’s quest to help set the scene.

It’s a novel written with great wit, by someone with a deep knowledge of fantasy tropes.  For example, Celestaine owns a magic sword of infinite sharpness, that she was given by another demigod and used to kill the Kinslayer.  But it’s a pain to carry around, because of the risk you might accidentally cut your own leg off, wears through scabbards incredibly quickly (even ones made from dragon skin) and needs a whole different fighting style (parries don’t really work if your sword cuts through everything).

But it’s also refreshingly believable about what happens next after an epic fantasy conflict.  There are refugees, attempts to rebuild in the rubble, famine and shortages, polluted land and people seeking to profit from the misfortune of others.  The human races have fallen back into their usual suspicion and bickering.  And Tchaikovsky addresses the problem of what you do with the orcs after the Battle of the Black Gate.  Prejudice is rife, but even the Yorughan exploited by the Kinslayer deserve the chance to move on and find a way to live productive lives.

Brilliant fun.

Goodreads rating: 4*

On why Michelle West is the answer to most book recommendation questions

A while ago a friend suggested I should write a post about what I liked about particular books in order to help readers of this blog better understand my taste and therefore where my reviews come from.

The more I thought about it, the more I realised that the best example of pretty much every single thing I love about fantasy fiction is in Michelle West‘s Sun Sword series.

Yet, Michelle West (a Japanese-Canadian writer, who also writes as Michelle Sagara) is almost criminally unknown here in the UK because she’s never been published here.  I stumbled across her books almost 20 years ago, in one of the few shops in London that used to get imports of US-published fiction.  I was browsing and looking for long series by writers I hadn’t heard of, and found her work.  I was hooked straight away, and when I raved about her to friends in the States I found out she was relatively well-known across the Atlantic.

I was lucky enough to meet Michelle West during LonCon 4 in 2014.  When I saw she was coming over for WorldCon I was super-excited.  I skipped programme items to make sure I was at the front of the queue to sign up for her Kaffeeklatsch.  I can say without a doubt that she is one of the loveliest authors I have ever had the privilege to meet.  She gave me a hard copy of Battle as a gift because I confessed to loving these books so much.  It’s one of my most treasured signed copies.

The premise of the Sun Sword is that demons from the hells are seeking to take over the world.  They can only be defeated by a magic sword that can only be wielded by a son of one particular lineage (anyone else who tries to pick it up is likely to burst into flames).  So the demons engineer a coup to massacre the entire ruling family and then attempt to kill the other son who has been held as a hostage in a neighbouring country since he was a child.  Shenanigans ensure.

But rather than tell this very traditional fantasy narrative, West’s story follows the Serra Diora di Marano – an angry 16 year old girl who had been married into that ruling family and is now seeking revenge for the murder of her ‘sister wives’ in the coup.  What unfolds is a complex story of history, power, politics, gods, monsters and heroes that spans multiple countries.

This is a series that hits every single one of my buttons.  Every.  Single.  One.

Female protagonists who don’t fall into the “Strong Female Character” trope.  This is a set of books that are chock full of interesting and incredibly well-realised women of all ages that don’t fall into the usual fantasy fiction stereotypes.  Most importantly, all these women have agency and drive their stories forward themselves.  They are women of power in their own right – they are not reward or character motivation for a man.  There are no Sexy Lamps and the Bechdel and Mako Mori tests are passed very early on.  Some examples –

  • Serra Diora di Marano.  A 16-year old widow who turns herself into the pinnacle of femininity and a political symbol.  She is a masterclass in the use of soft power to achieve her goals.
  • Jewel ‘Jay’ Markess a’Terafin.  A mixed race woman who grew up as an orphan on the streets but is the only person born in her generation who can see the future.  Adopted into a powerful merchant house, she is being groomed for power.
  • Margret.  Matriarch of one of the travelling Voyani clans, and with absolute power over her clan, she is protecting an ancient secret.
  • Amarais Handernesse a’Terafin.  Ruler of the largest merchant house in the Essalieyan Empire, which gives it special rights and privileges.  And it is the rule of this wise, thoughtful Terafin in particular that has kept the House pre-eminent.

Deep worldbuilding.  Each of the societies covered is well-realised and different, with complex systems of governance and economies that are believable.  But there is a lot of layered history in these books too, with the boundaries between history and myth uncertain.  Hidden cities full of powerful relics are just under your feet, and ancient races and parallel worlds can be glimpsed out of the corner of your eye.  Gods, ghosts, magic and elder races abound, and the present reality is but a shadow of the power of the past..

A strong ensemble cast.  There are a lot of people in these books.  But every single one of them is a believable individual on their own life-journey.  Sometimes that crosses through these books as part of a larger story (Jay), but each person has their own motives, reasons and histories.  Some of those only become clear as the books progress (I’m looking at you, Meralonne a’Phaniel …) but every single character is rich and fully realised.

Realistic politics.  With that depth of world-building and characterisation – many of whom are people of power of all kinds – you get very realistic politics.  This is not a series where there is easy consensus about the need to take on the Dark Lord.  We share Jay’s frustration as the Empire debates and discusses the need for intervention.  And even the demons themselves are rife with rivalry as individuals seek to win favour, undermine rivals and advance their own private agendas.

Sexist settings without sexist writing.  The Dominion of Annagar, where the Serra Diora is from, is a hugely sexist (racist, and classist) society.  Aristocratic women live in seclusion, with beauty and skill at art, dance and music prized.  But Michelle West shows the significant soft power women wield in this society, within their households and as brokers of alliances between families.  And she doesn’t shy away from showing the negative impact of these patriarchal norms on men too.  Hyper-masculinity is the ideal for men, with skilled warriors given status and respect, and scholars and intellectuals looked down on.  Serra Diora’s father Sendari di Marano takes an alternate path as a wizard and scholar, but even then falls into a hyper-competitive organisation of wizards within the Dominion.  And there is no easy place for Serra Teresa, Diora’s aunt and Sendari’s sister.  A lesbian with a bard’s ability to compel with her voice, she is unmarriageable and has no role in Dominion society.

Redemption stories.  I love a bad boy.  It’s a secret shame of mine, as it‘s a very problematic trope – usually it’s a man who behaves abominably but is somehow redeemed by the love of a fairly ordinary girl next door type.  But I find myself making excuses for why Avandar Gallais is different.  Crucially, West places him with Jay, as her domicis (kind of a Private Secretary in UK civil service speak, but one who is clearly an experienced man of power in his own right, and a powerful battle mage to boot). Jay is no girl next door – she is a woman of power and consequence in her own right.  And West pulls no punches about just how messed up Avandar is.  Fiercely capable, very protective and frighteningly intelligent, yes, but also deeply flawed in a way that is shown with a level of unstinting brutalism that is unusual in fantasy fiction.

Have I convinced you yet?

Where should I start reading?

Michelle West’s Essalieyan Empire books span three series.

  • The Hunter’s Duology.  Two books (Hunter’s Oath and Hunter’s Death) that act as a taster and introduce Jay and the Essalieyan Empire.  But they focus on characters from Breodanir, a land to the West, and you can enjoy the other books without reading these – I jumped straight into Sun Sword without realising they were connected, and only read them afterwards.
  • The Sun Sword.  The six books I’ve focused on above (The Broken Crown, The Uncrowned King, The Shining Court, Sea of Sorrows, The Riven Shield, The Sun Sword).  They focus on the events of the coup, Serra Diora’s revenge and civil war in the Dominion of Annagar.
  • The House War.  Six books and counting.  This is Jay’s story, with the first three books (The Hidden City, City of Night and House Name) acting as a prequel to The Sun Sword, running partly in parallel to the events of the Hunter’s Duology.  The other books (Skirmish, Battle, Oracle and War (forthcoming)) pick up Jay’s story after Sun Sword finishes.

As always, publication order is best.

I would strongly recommend against reading the first three House War books before starting Sun Sword.  They contain significant spoilers for things that occur during Sun Sword, and definitely offer more reward to the reader if you’re familiar with the subsequent story.

And don’t even attempt to read House War without Sun Sword.  If you try, you’ll find a massive gap of story in the middle and wonder why Jay has acquired a talking stag called the Winter King, three winged cats, and an Elf, among others, as part of her den.  There is a summary of the events of Sun Sword on the author’s website, but you’d be missing a lot doing that.

You may struggle to find Sun Sword though.  The books are now – sadly – out of print, but ebooks are available.

UPDATE: A quick check of Michelle West’s website reveals that Sun Sword has been republished in trade paperback, so should now be available again.  Woohoo!

The Queens of Innis Lear – Tessa Gratton

The world needs more books like Tessa Gratton‘s The Queens of Innis Lear (review copy from Harper Voyager).  It’s a retelling of Shakespeare’s classic play, King Lear, but updated with a very 21st Century take on the story.

All the elements you would expect are here – the mad king (in this case, suffering from dementia as he grows older), three very different daughters competing to inherit the crown, treachery and true love.  You know the basic plot, right down to the test of which daughter loves the old king best.  But Tessa Gratton takes it in some very interesting directions.

The thing I loved most about this book was its treatment of the three daughters.  They are mixed-race.  It is heavily implied that one of them is actually a transgender man (Gaela styles herself ‘King’, dresses in a masculine fashion and suffers extreme gender dysphoria).  The book is sex-positive.  But crucially, the book places a strong emphasis on the agency of the daughters.  Elia (the youngest daughter) goes on a journey that is about becoming an independent woman of power in her own right.  She rejects the easy and safe options when they are presented to her.  Exiled from Innis Lear, she is offered marriage by the King of Aremoria, but turns him down because of the power imbalance between them and because she knows it would be used as an excuse to invade her homeland.

There is also a strong theme about the relationship between parents and children.  Whether it is the central relationship between Lear and his three daughters, or Ban the Fox’s feeling of rejection by his father for being illegitimate and the way he has found acceptance and a place overseas by his own deeds rather than his heredity.  The novel shows how easy it is for family relationships to be soured, and how the professions of love and affection can sometimes be only so much lip service.

And the novel also places great weight on the need for balance in all things.  Only in Elia does that come together, and only when she learns to balance the astronomy of her father with the Earth-magic of Innis Lear.  And Innis Lear will not thrive without both being in balance in their ruler – under Lear himself the land has been slowly fading.  Gaela rejects all forms of magic and prophecy, focusing only on the power that military prowess gives her.  Regan focuses on Earth-magic, but hers is a selfish focus, and she is in too  co-dependent a relationship with her husband to survive.

All of this is wrapped up in lush prose from Gratton that provides a strong sense of place, whether it is the wind-swept cliffs or deep forest of Innis Lear.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Bright Ruin – Vic James

It’s been a long time since the end of a book has had me so gripped I’ve nearly missed my stop on the train, and had to sit on a bench at the station to finish those last few climactic pages.  (Probably the last one was Steven Erikson’s The Crippled God, which had me walking into the office in floods of tears one morning.)  But Bright Ruin (review copy from Pan Macmillan), the triumphant finale to Vic James‘s Dark Gifts trilogy, did exactly that.

A writer friend of mine has the motto that Misery Builds Character.  And Bright Ruin, with its twisty-turny shocks and a body count George R R Martin would be proud of, delivers a thrilling finale to this series.  It has everything you would expect and hope for, with a hefty dose of comment about bread-and-circuses contemporary British politics to go along with the roller-coaster plot.

You can’t help but admire the ruthless Bouda Matravers as she plots her way to power and the destruction of her rivals.  You can’t help but root for Abi, shorn of the naive romaticism of the first book, as she seeks to topple the Equals.  And Luke, trying to unravel the mysteries of the Equals historic rule of Britain.  And Daisy, steadfast in her loyalty to Gavar Jardine.

And then there’s Silyen.  A mess of contradictions.  So amoral and self-interested, but oh, so interesting, intoxicating and compelling.  Oh, Silyen …

If you haven’t read the first two books in this series, then this review isn’t going to persuade you.  Not least as it’s impossible to write one without massively spoilering the earlier books.  Go and read my reviews of The Gilded Cage and Tarnished City, both available elsewhere on this site.  Then go and buy all three books, lock yourself away for the weekend and read them all in one sitting.  You can thank me later.

Goodreads rating: 5*