Nevernight – Jay Kristoff

Grimdark Harry Potter.  It’s hard not to compare Jay Kristoff‘s Nevernight (review copy from Harper Voyager) to that iconic series of books about a boy at wizard school.  Except that Mia Corvere’s time at the Red Church training to be an assassin is tougher, bloodier, swearier and sexier.  And utterly glorious.

As a child, Mia was forced to watch her high-ranking father executed for treason and her mother and brother imprisoned.  She narrowly escapes being murdered by her father’s enemies, and hides on the streets before being taken in by an antiquarian and assassin.  Mia wants revenge, and chooses to train as an assassin herself.  Without that training she won’t have the skills to get close to the three men responsible for her father’s downfall.

Mia’s time at assassin school is no cakewalk.  Getting there requires a trip across a monster-infested desert rather than a sweet-fuelled train ride.  Lessons have a high mortality rate, with teachers actively trying to kill their students.  Instead of Potions, it’s Poisons, and students are taught the finer arts of charm and seduction as well as how to kill.  With only a tiny number of students from each cohort passing the course to become fully-fledged assassins, competition between students is fierce and often fatal.

Mia herself is a delightfully refreshing break from traditional female leads.  She is small, dark, angry and not particularly pretty.  She swears like a trooper, smokes and has a healthy sexual appetite.  She is also a darkin: with the ability to call and shape shadows, and a familiar in the shape of a shadow cat called Mr Kindly.  But her talent for shadow is not much use in a planet with three suns that only experiences true night every few years.  But her underpinning morality and sense of fairness, combined with her primary motivation of revenge may not make her the best candidate to be an assassin.  The training she is undergoing is designed to create those ruthless enough to carry out a contract, regardless of how unethical or immoral it may be.

Nevernight is glossy, high-concept fantasy, with a compelling plot of conspiracy and corruption.  It’s the perfect antidote to all those hooded rogues, Buffy clones and farmboys with secret destinies.  I look forward to its sequels.

Goodreads rating: 5*

Sharp Ends – Joe Abercrombie

When I first started reading The Blade Itself, the first novel in The First Law trilogy, I wasn’t sure whether Joe Abercrombie was a genius or the worst writer ever.  Then he introduced Sand dan Glokta, the bitter inquisitor who is a victim of torture himself, and I was an instant fan.

Along with Mark Lawrence, Abercrombie is probably one of the best known, and best-loved, writers of grimdark, that sub-genre of fantasy fiction that revels in mud, blood, violence and swearing.  Done badly, grimdark is horrible.  It becomes an exploitative excuse for extreme violence, including sexual violence depicted in a titillating way, and often comes with very poor characterisation.  (See my earlier review of Andy Remic’s The Dragon Engine for an example of how bad bad can get.)

But Abercrombie’s grimdark is different.  His characters feel like real people.  Albeit people who are often living in pretty horrible circumstances, and trying to make the best of a bad lot.  They are flawed but well-rounded characters that you cannot help but feel a bit of sympathy and empathy for.  Even the ones that should, on the face of it, be profoundly unlikeable, are compelling people you come to care about.  Most of all, these are people who find wit and humour in their lives, even if it is often a very black sort of humour.

And rather than glamourising war, Abercrombie shows it in all its uncompromising horror and does not seek to draw a veil over its consequences.  Yes, people can and do show heroism, but they are also cowards, the victims of accident and misadventure, and suffer injuries and psychological damage that persists through their lives.

Sharp Ends (published by Gollancz next week, review copy through NetGalley) is a collection of short fiction set in the same world as Abercrombie’s First Law books.  There are some treats for long-term fans – particularly the first story, which shows a young Sand dan Glokta at the height of his fame, talent and arrogance.  There are a lot of cameo appearances from major and minor characters from Abercrombie’s work.  But one doesn’t have to be an Abercrombie completist to read and enjoy this collection (even if it helps).  Each story in this highly enjoyable collection stands alone.  If you’re not sure Abercrombie’s writing is for you, this would be a fantastic introduction to his work.  If you’re a fan, you will love it.

Goodreads rating: 4*