Rise of Empire by Michael J. Sullivan

For my review of the first in this series, Theft of Swords, click here.
The birth of the Nyphron Empire has brought war to Melengar. To save her kingdom, Princess Arista runs a desperate gamble when she defies her brother and hires Royce and Hadrian to perform a dangerous mission behind the enemy’s lines. As the power of the Nyphron Empire grows, so does Royce’s suspicion that the wizard Esrahaddon is using the thieves as pawns in his own shadowy struggle for power. To find the truth, he must unravel the secret of Hadrian’s past. What he discovers leads the thieves to the ends of the world on a journey amid treachery and betrayals, forcing Hadrian to face a past he hoped never to see again.

Rise of Empiretakes the groundwork from Theft of Swordsand expands the world of Elan, and the story of Riyria to genuinely epic proportions. This time we have a story of rebels and outlaws, pirates and soldiers set in a world that’s rich with worldbuilding – something which Theft of Swords lacked on occasion. Where Theft of Swords was a gentle introduction to the world of Riyria, Rise of Empireis a forceful thrust into a land of religious divide, racial tension and political intrigue.

Again, like Theft of Swords, Rise of Empire is an omnibus containing books three and four of the Riyria Revelations, namely Nyphron Rising and The Emerald Storm. In the first, we see the foundations of the new Nyphron empire through a whole host of different characters. In The Emerald Storm we get a “side-quest” for Royce and Hadrian, involving pirates and epic sea battles. But not everything is as it seems…

Rise of Empirewas where I started to realise the sheer scale of Sullivan’s story. Particularly in the first book, Nyphron Rising, Royce and Hadrian take a side-seat for a lot of the action, in favour of developing the character of Arista and following the lives of the common people in Elan. Where before we saw the world of kings and lords through the eyes of a pair of thieves, we now see the world of the peasants through a princess – and it’s a really wonderful way of looking at everything as the story takes its shape and the world changes.

Once again the stars of the series, Royce and Hadrian, are the perfect double act and complement each other and the story perfectly. Arista also really grows into her character, particularly in Nyphron Rising, and some of the new side characters we meet are fantastic. The plots of each book are tight and well-constructed, again contributing to the main series arc, but never feeling either superfluous or like one endless story. The Emerald Storm did feel, as I said previously, like a “side-quest” for much of the book, but everything comes into focus the further through the book you progress. There are character revelations galore here, and as with Theft of Swords, Sullivan is not afraid to take the story in the direction he needs it to go. It never feels like you’re reading a novel where the author doesn’t know exactly what will happen next. The pawns are always in place – just never always clear to the reader, making it a surprising and satisfying read.

For what is essentially the middle of a much bigger story, Michael Sullivan has still managed to craft two individually entertaining books which add to the overall plot of the Riyria Revelations. You’ll want to read Theft of Swords first, but just because this is the middle of the series, doesn’t mean you will be asking the same questions over and over. Answers come thick and fast, but layer on new mysteries in their wake. By the end of The Emerald Storm everything is just beginning to move towards an endgame – something huge and catastrophic for the world of Elan. This may be only a part of the overall journey to the end, but it’s a fantastic read regardless. If you like your fantasy action-packed, funny, mysterious and on an epic scale, what are you waiting for?

The Black Lung Captain by Chris Wooding

For my review of the first in this series, Retribution Falls, click here.
The Black Lung Captain is the second in Chris Wooding’s Tales of the Ketty Jay, and the sequel to the excellent Retribution Falls. It follows Darian Frey and the crew of the Ketty Jay about a year after the events of Retribution Falls. They’re once again down on their luck, looking for work and doing anything they can to avoid another meeting with Trinica Dracken. And then, in comes Captain Grist, of the airship The Storm Dog. Again, Frey finds himself faced with an offer that is too good to be true, and has to enter an alliance with the mysterious and ferocious Captain Grist to do it. On the way he will have to contend with the religious sect known as the Awakeners, the infamous century knights and the terrifying Manes, whom we met briefly in Retribution Falls. The crew fight through a series of internal spats, contend with more than one of Frey’s exes and come face to face with that most terrifying of foes: Slag, the ship’s cat.
Black Lung Captain follows on from Retribution Falls in style. Wooding knows how to do pacing better than most authors out there right now. There’s something consistently exciting about reading a Ketty Jay novel, and it’s all down to the relentless pace of Wooding’s writing. Every character has something to do here – something which Retribution Falls didn’t always do quite right. There are still the fast and furious airship battles and hare-brained schemes we’ve come to know these characters for, but the story itself takes on a new level.

In Retribution Falls, Wooding started to lay the groundwork for some much bigger character arcs which were left to burn in the background. In Black Lung Captain, for most of the characters, he completely delivers and gives us some extremely satisfying resolutions to the many of their stories, and sets up further questions to be answered further down the line.
Along with Frey himself, Jez in many ways takes centre stage here – and it’s through her character that we’re introduced to a whole other side of this world that we barely knew existed in Retribution Falls.
The major sub-plots for the book involve Crake and his developing alcoholism, and his subsequent decision to do something about his life, and Pinn and his lady-love, and whether or not she’s really waiting for him to come home. But arguably the most satisfying sub-plot in the entire book, in hilarious and surprising ways, is that of the relationship between Harkins and the ship’s cat, Slag. In Retribution Falls, this was a minor sub-plot, which although funny, ultimately served only to give Harkins something to do in the book and to serve up some comic relief. In Black Lung Captain it serves the same purpose, but to a far greater extent. You’ll cheer every time these two appear on the page – I did.
The Black Lung Captaindelivers on so many of the promises set up in Retribution Falls. It has a tighter plot, more for the side characters to do, and yet still manages to move at a breakneck pace. It was hilarious, touching, action-packed and just a really entertaining read. It could be read as a standalone, but you will get a lot more out of it for having read Retribution Falls. I can’t wait to see where the crew of the Ketty Jay are going next – so expect a review of book three, The Iron Jackal, very soon.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd

This is a shorter review than I would normally write, but really that’s only because there are only so many ways I can say: READ THIS BOOK, without getting repetitive.

A Monster Calls is the story of Conor O’Malley – a thirteen year old boy with a recurring nightmare. He gets bullied at school, lives alone with his sick mother and gets regular visits from a monster in the night. The monster promises to help Conor in return for listening to three tales, and after the monster has told these tales, Conor must tell one back in return. And Conor has to tell the truth.

Even this briefest of synopsis for A Monster Calls is more than I want to write before saying “STOP” – just go and read it. It is a story of profound moral questions, belief at its purest and most importantly of all, the power and unpredictability of stories themselves.

The raw emotion of Conor’s life is harrowing to read, but never feels emotionally manipulative. Ness has created a story of absolute truth – whether you have experienced something like that of Conor in real life or not, it never feels anything other than true. That isn’t to say it’s not entertaining – the scenes involving the titular monster are electric and always satisfying, and Conor’s story outwith the monster is at times funny, shocking and filled with happiness and sadness in equal measure.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the illustrations throughout the book. Drawn by Jim Kay, this book is a stunning creation – if you can find a fully illustrated copy, rather than the text only edition, buy it. The art is haunting and absolutely perfect for the book.

Like I said earlier, this is a very short review – but really I think that just serves to show how I felt about the book. It’s more than deserving of the many awards it’s won, and although it is classed as a YA novel – everyone should read this book. Genre fan or not, A Monster Calls deserves to be experienced. It really wouldn’t be hyperbole to call this book a modern masterpiece, and I hope it’s seen as such in years to come.

Now, go read it.

Fade to Black by Francis Knight

From the depths of a valley rises the city of Mahala.

It’s a city built upwards, not across – where streets are built upon streets, buildings upon buildings. A city that the Ministry rules from the sunlit summit, and where the forsaken lurk in the darkness of the Under.

Rojan Dizon doesn’t mind staying in the shadows, because he’s got things to hide. Things like being a pain-mage, with the forbidden power to draw magic from pain. But when the fate of Mahala depends on him using his magic, he can’t hide forever.

When I first heard about Fade to Black, I was excited; the concept sounded brilliant, a city stacked upon itself, shut away in a valley, where those rich enough rule from on high, whilst everyone makes do with the environs below. Throw in the idea of a pain-mage, giving magic a real, tangible cost, and Francis’ exceptional dry wit, and I knew this was going to be a book to love.

The story follows Rojan Dizon, bounty hunter and pain-mage – though he likes to keep the latter quiet, and only uses his power as a last resort in his work. We first meet him tracking down a runaway teenager in the dark, grimy depths of the under, cursing his lot, and just keen to get out of the place. Dizon is one of those likable rogues; thinks he’s good with the ladies, doesn’t give a toss about much, but at the same time there is an incredibly human quality to him, one that you can’t help but fall in love with, which makes him perfect as a title character.

The story really kicks into high gear when Dizon receives a call from his brother, who is in hospital, asking for his help; his sister-in-law is dead and niece kidnapped, and Dizon is the only one his brother believes can help. This familial obligation takes Dizon on a crazy path to the truth, and into parts of the city even he didn’t know existed.

Mahala, the city in Francis’ tale, is incredible. You can almost smell the stench of the Under, and feel the sun on your face in the few moments Dizon is granted travel to the upper levels. It seems to live and breathe around the story, every bit as important as the human characters it is home to, and yet it doesn’t impede. It is a balance very cleverly done.

Once again, I would be remiss not to mention the cover – it’s stunning. Placed so the onlooker is in the Under looking up to the sky, it gives an amazing sense of the scale of Mahala, and of the world we’re about to be pitched into. That is one of Francis’ greatest achievements – giving one city the scale and depth of an entire nation.

Full of witty quips, strong emotion, broken yet charming characters, and jam packed with astonishing revelations and fantastic ideas, Fade to Black is a must-read for 2013. I am lucky enough to know Francis, and received a signed ARC from her back in October. It has been well-treasured and well-read ever since. Do yourself a favour, and get your hands on this book as soon as you can.

Fade to Black will be published by Orbit in February 2013, and the sequels, Before the Fall and Last to Risewill also be available in 2013.

Red Country by Joe Abercrombie


Out in the Red Country, the past never stays buried.
A couple of months before Red Country was released, I won a proof copy in a giveaway by Gollancz. Now, for anyone that knows me – this was a pretty big deal. Not only am I a huge Abercrombie fan, but I also got the opportunity to meet Joe (by pure coincidence) two weeks later. It was a surreal experience, speaking to one of your favourite authors for the first time, before his latest book even comes out and saying “Hey Joe, I’ve read Red Country. It might just be your best book yet.”

I devoured Red Country in a couple of days. The western imagery, the “Abercrombian” characters, thatdialogue. Everything about it was exactly as I had expected and then some. Before I read Red Country, my favourite novel in the “First Law” canon was Best Served Cold. But Red Country is a close second – and on some days, depending on my mood, its equal.

In Red Country, we follow the journey of Shy South and her cowardly old stepfather Lamb, as they hunt down the outlaws who burnt their farm and kidnapped Shy’s little brother and sister. In true western fashion we meet prospectors and duellists, journey by wagon train, meet the natives and have showdowns in saloons. All mixed with a dose of Abercrombie’s particular brand of cynical, shot-in-the-arm fantasy.

The one thing I took out of my experience with Red Country, more than anything else, was that this felt like an ending: an ending to the first “Arc” in the world of The First Law. Upon finishing Red Country, it felt like I’d come full circle, but that something new is just beginning.

But although it feels like an ending, it also feels like the start of something bigger.

I’ve been following these characters intensely, ever since the moment when Logen Ninefingers fell off that cliff in The Blade Itself. Ever since I first heard the cynical, sneering thoughts of Sand dan Glokta in my own head. And of course, the first time I met the scheming, alcoholic mercenary himself, Nicomo Cosca.

And now that I have read Red Country, it feels as though I am as ready to move on as so many of these characters have over the course of the series. Craw and his aching knees, accepting that he is at his best with blood on his sword; Glokta accepting his mutilations; Shivers and his new world view. The characters have moved on to the next phase of their stories, and I am ready to join them.

Abercrombie has done this in Red Country by focusing the majority of the novel on two completely new point of view characters. Normally, we are used to jumping into the heads of characters we know or have met in the past – and usually more than two main POVs – but not in Red Country. Abercrombie introduces an (almost) entirely new cast of characters. And by the end of the book, I loved them as much as those older ones we have followed ever since the beginning.

With every book in the series, Joe has extended the scope of his world, pulling back the curtain and revealing a little bit more each time. We had the North and the Union in The Blade Itself; the Old Empire in Before They Are Hanged; Styria in Best Served Cold, and even more of the North in The Heroes.

In Red Country, we are introduced to the Near Country and the Far Country. The desolate west of the world. It’s a world of prospectors, cowboys and despicable saloon owners.

In the journey that we go on as readers in Red Country, we meet friends new and old (and a few enemies, too). We’re dragged along at a rapid pace of discovery and violence; just like you would expect from Abercrombie. The world is vast and desperate, vicious and bloody. The characters are as well drawn as ever, the set pieces spectacular and the lines of dialogue as quotable as ever.

Sure, there are a few problems – sometimes this vision of the west feels a bit stereotypical. The “antagonists” aren’t drawn as well as may be expected from Abercrombie – their motives aren’t always clear.

But really, I feel like I have gone on the journey for the last six books along with these characters; felt their pain (Shivers!) their sadness (Gorst!) and their pain again (Glokta! Craw! Everyone!). 

It feels like the end of an era, and the beginning of something new. Something exciting. I for one can’t wait to see what Joe Abercrombie does next. And as the man himself would say…
“Never fear, gentlemen.” Cosca ginned as he scratched out the parting swirl of his signature. “We will seize the future together.”