Witchsign – Den Patrick

There are certain things you should expect from a Den Patrick book: principled, if hot-headed, young men taking up arms against tyranny and oppression, brilliantly written sibling relationships, and a load of brilliant adventurous fun.  Witchsign (Harper Voyager) has all of these in spades.  The elevator pitch for this book is simple: what if Harry Potter went to evil Hogwarts, but it turned out they’d made a mistake and he was a Muggle?

Steiner and his sister Kjellrunn are teenagers living in a small town called Cinderfell, which is pretty much at the end of the world.  Their father is a blacksmith, and their mother left many years before.  They aren’t well off, and spend a lot of their time scraping to make ends meet.  But their lives are disrupted when the mysterious masked Vigilants from the neighbouring and conquering Solmindre Empire arrive.  Each year Vigilants come to test young people for Witchsign.  Those with it are taken away on board ship and never heard of again.  Steiner is found to have Witchsign, and is taken away.  But it’s a mix up – he was protecting Kjellrunn, who it turns out has blossoming magical powers.  Steiner is taken away, but not to his death as he feared – instead he finds that children with Witchsign are taken by the Vigilants to a mysterious island housing a a magical school.  Kjellrunn and her father are left behind to cope with the fear and stigma of Witchsign having been discovered in their family.

One of the things I love about Den’s writing is that his protagonists aren’t your traditional royal heirs with magic powers/weapons/special destinies.  Steiner is an ordinary young man who sees that something is wrong and decides to do something about it.  He protects the weak and the vulnerable, stands up to bullies, and encourages people to work together to overcome obstacles.  Although hot-headed and rash at times, it’s because he cares about the wrongs he sees in the world around him, and wants to do something about it.  And his relationship with Kjellrunn is beautifully drawn.  He is a fiercely protective older brother, who nonetheless will bicker with his sister over trivia.

Above all, Witchsign is a thrilling adventure story full of escapades, heroics, adventure, magic and dragons.  It sets the scene perfectly for the second book in the series, as Steiner and his friends set out to overthrow the Solmindre Empire because of the suffering it has caused.  But it’s written with contemporary sensibilities about corrupt governments, the abuse of power and bigotry.

And Kjellrunn’s reaction to being told to smile once too often by a foreign soldier?  That had me punching the air in delight.

Goodreads rating: 4*

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Tempests and Slaughter – Tamora Pierce

Imagine if you will, a low-peril version of Harry Potter.  That is Tamora Pierce‘s Tempests and Slaughter (review copy from Harper Voyager).  This is a middle-grade story following three young friends at Carthak’s university for magicians.  Arram Draper is young and powerful, but lacks control over his magic.  He is fiercely intelligent, but naive and from a distant island.  Varice is a young woman with a bit more knowledge of how the world works.  Ozorne is a spare heir of the Emperor, being trained in war magic.  I understand that these are characters that play a significant part in the author’s other novels.  But as someone who hasn’t read any of the other books the beats here are predictable – Arram and Varice will end up together, and Ozorne will end up as Emperor.

The book follows the schooling of this trio.  There are lots of details of their lessons (Arram’s timetable for each term is set out in painstaking detail) and trips out, and some rivalries and fallings out with fellow students.  But it’s all pretty … bland.  All the teachers are sympathetic, including the grumpy ones.  There is little sense of peril or conflict in the book.  Even the ending was underwhelming, and I was left surprised that the book had finished.  Surely there was meant to be something more climactic.

Underwhelming, inoffensive fluff.

Goodreads rating: 2*

Foundryside – Robert Jackson Bennett

It’s always really exciting to see a fresh take on the fantasy genre that gets away from tired tropes and recycled plotlines.  Foundryside from Robert Jackson Bennett (review copy from Jo Fletcher books) does exactly that.  This is the story of Sancia, a talented thief with a very special set of skills, who is hired to steal a box.  She makes the mistake of looking inside, and what she finds inside – a sentient gold key that speaks to her telepathically – turns her life and world upside down, thrusting her into the midst of a conflict between the big artisan houses that control the city of Tevanne.

Each House jealously guards its intellectual property: a language that lets it build and sell magical artifacts.  But the Houses are desperate to track down ancient artifacts that might enable a step change in what they can design and build.  There are rumours of a secret language known by the ancients that would let them change the world, not just create localised effects that bend its rules.  An archaelogical dig on a remote island on the far side of the world has created rumours that ancient artifacts could be found, prompting a bidding war between the Houses desperate to lay their hands on any item that can be found.  Clef – the gold key that Sancia steals – is one of those items, with the ability to open any lock, however complicated.  Sancia finds herself pursued by people wanting to recover Clef, and Gregor, a police officer who wants to catch her for the original break in where she stole the box.

Sancia is a brilliantly written character.  A metal plate in her head has gifted with a talent that enables her to feel and understand the shape and size of anything she touches physically.  She can put her hand on the wall of a building and understand its full layout.  This makes breaking into buildings and stealing things remarkably easy for her.  But the talent comes with a price.  She can’t touch another human being and finds contact with people, clothes and objects overwhelming and painful.  She is saving up to have the plate removed, believing she has found a surgeon willing to do it.  The traumatic past that resulted in her acquiring the metal plate and living in the margins of Tevanne is slowly revealed as the book goes on.

The setting of Tevanne and its magic system is particularly fresh and interesting.  It imports concepts from computer programming into a fantasy magic system in a fascinating way.  The Houses control giant Lexicons defining detailed strings of magical instructions that can then be combined to make artifacts.  Each House has its own specialists responsible for maintaining and expanding the Lexicons and using the instructions to create new magical items.  Those specialists are fiercely intelligent and extremely protective of their work.  But each House’s language is also pirated by artisans living outside House walls, where there are no rules and no law to be enforced.  The divide between rich and poor is extreme, and the writer has a lot to say about the exploitation of people, and those who treat them as just one more asset.

This is a fun and pacy adventure with a rewarding reveal as the book progresses.  It sets up well for a sequel, which I will look forward to.

Goodreads rating: 4*

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*

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*