Swords of Good Men by Snorri Kristjansson

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To Ulfar Thormodsson, the Viking town of Stenvik is the penultimate stop on a long journey in this riveting adventure of clashing Viking powers. Tasked with looking after his cousin after disgracing his father, he has traveled the world and now only wants to go home.

Stenvik is different: it contains the beautiful and tragic Lilja, who immediately captures Ulfar’s heart-–but Stenvik is also home to some very deadly men, who could break Ulfar in an instant.

King Olav is marching on Stenvik from the East, determined to bring the White Christ to the masses at the point of his sword, and a host of bloodthirsty raiders led by a mysterious woman are sailing from the north.

But Ulfar is about to learn that his enemies are not all outside the walls.

 

Swords of Good Men is Snorri Kristjansson’s debut novel from Jo Fletcher Books. Very much in the vein of David Gemmell, it’s a Viking fantasy with a style not unlike Joe Abercrombie. Kristjansson has taken Norse myth and made a story where the Gods undoubtedly exist – Thor, Loki, Freya, Odin – they’re all here, and not just in passing mentions. The town of Stenvik stands at the absolute centre of this novel – every character and plot thread drawn towards it for different reasons.

Kristjansson’s biggest asset, for me, is his relentless writing style. The prose is quick, accomplished and action-packed. The actual action sequences here are literally breath-taking. As the novel is essentially the story of one fairly complex viking siege, it is essential that the action and the violence leaps off the page, and there is absolutely no doubt that Kristjannson has accomplished just that. It never feels stale, always feels shocking and remains the novels biggest strength.

Many of the characters too feel well-rounded and realistic. They have values which feel true to what I’d imagine Norsemen would have, but with a modern mindset and tone of voice which makes it easy to comprehend. On the other side of the same coin, the female characters here are worrying. In a cast of probably a dozen or more POVs – which is far too many for a book this short – there is one female POV, and I think she accounts for maybe two pages of actual text. Beyond that we have Freya, the Goddess of Love – who features only in the background, a borderline psychotic woman who felt terribly underused, and arguably the main villain who lacked clarity or reasoning which I think could have helped fill out her character and ultimately, would have given the book a denouement which may have made a little more sense if I could have empathised with her more.

The fragmented POV style of Swords of Good Men is its other main failing. The constant (and I do mean every few paragraphs) switching of POVs and locations is confusing at best and irritating at worst. Just as certain characters begin to develop, or the reader starts to understand what’s happening, we’re whisked off to another POV in another place and left confused all over again, before changing to someone else, and again, and again. It’s not that I completely dislike this style of storytelling, and I think that particularly in the latter third it works brilliantly, as we headhop in some exhilarating fight sequences – a lot like what Joe Abercrombie did with The Heroes – but to use this style of headhopping throughout the novel, from almost the beginning is very difficult to follow. The fact that this is not a simple tale of one side vs another, but rather one with three, four, five sides at play, makes for a confusing read; especially as it moves at such a pace.

Swords of Good Men would make a brilliant action film. It’s quick, violent and action-packed from the start. The fantastical elements are there, but not overpowering. It occasionally reads like a film script treatment with its fractured storytelling. For all the issues I had while reading it, I was completely engrossed by the end and read the entire thing in one afternoon. It’s a good debut and hopefully the start of something which could get a lot better. For now I’m looking forward to the sequel in the hope that we’ll get a bit more substance to accompany the style.

Reviewed by: Doug Smith

The Red Knight by Miles Cameron

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Twenty eight florins a month is a huge price to pay, for a man to stand between you and the Wild.

Twenty eight florins a month is nowhere near enough when a wyvern’s jaws snap shut on your helmet in the hot stink of battle, and the beast starts to rip the head from your shoulders. But if standing and fighting is hard, leading a company of men – or worse, a company of mercenaries – against the smart, deadly creatures of the Wild is even harder.

It takes all the advantages of birth, training, and the luck of the devil to do it.

The Red Knight has all three, he has youth on his side, and he’s determined to turn a profit. So when he hires his company out to protect an Abbess and her nunnery it’s just another job. The abbey is rich, the nuns are pretty and the monster preying on them is nothing he can’t deal with.

Only it’s not just a job. It’s going to be a war…

 

I’ll be honest – it took me a while to read The Red Knight by Miles Cameron. Before I say anything else, I have to mention that Cameron’s prose is just a joy to read and that I found this to be beautifully written. Some books or prose I read at a faster rate than others, and this one was definitely along the slower end of the scale. However, I need to keep in mind that reading a book is not a race. When I get a long book that is also a slower read, I need to remind myself that I am getting more enjoyment for my money. The whole point of a story is to experience the journey the words take you on, regardless of how much time it takes. And this is really quite a journey. The cast in this book is on an epic scale and the POVs switch often. In the beginning I sometimes felt they would switch before I could get a handle on who I was reading about. So I have to admit, it took me longer to get the characters straight than a typical epic fantasy, longer in fact than any other book I have read. But don’t worry, it does come together.

“The wild is often beautiful, daughter. But that beauty is Satan’s snare for the unwary.”

0316212288.01._SCLZZZZZZZ_SL300_The story could at first glance be seen as a classic good versus evil tale, men with their golden magic versus the Wild with their less savory green magic. But Cameron shows us both sides of the conflict, making the division less clear. The leader of the Wild, Thorn, is certainly a villain. But the armies he has raised are comprised not only of creatures of the Wild, but also men and women who have shunned their society, that have chosen for one reason or another to live as outcasts from the rest of civilization and live their life in the wild.

“Men love war because it is simple”

These men and creatures are fighting a war dictated by Thorn. We get to see these are not evil creatures or men, they are soldiers fighting at someone else’s command to reclaim lands that they believe to be rightfully theirs. So who is on the moral right side of this war? Is it the men who see the Wild as invading their home and land? Or is it the Wild who once called that same land home? It’s much harder to view something as simple black and white or good and evil when you start to understand both sides. It’s at that point everything becomes grey and it’s hard to point fingers and say one side is in the wrong or the other in the right.

“When Satan broke with God and led his legions to hell, then was magic broken into two powers, the Green and the Gold. Gold for the servants of God. Green for the servants of Satan.”

The cast in this book may have been quite large, but Cameron succeeded in differentiating them and giving them each unique qualities and making them real and likable. I particularly liked the Red Knight who is a natural leader, yet still fallible, which he knows. This gives him a more honest realistic or humanized feel. He also has a mysterious past that gives the reader more to wonder about as they are introduced to the world.

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If you feel you are going to need to rush through your next book, this is likely not for you. There is an investment of time involved to really let Cameron take you about the world and get acquainted with the characters and rising conflicts. But if you have the time, Cameron’s prose is superb and I promise, everything does fall into place, and trust me, there is certainly lots of action in the book. And bloodshed. Lots. Cameron’s amazing prose is paired with some horrific events. This is very much an epic book, and is really just the beginning of a much larger story. Sometimes I wished there were less characters or fewer POVs, but by the end, I was no longer so sure. I think the test of that will actually come in the next book as we see how these characters and their storylines progress past what we have seen so far. And with that, I certainly plan on reading the next one to find out.

Reviewed by: Lisa Taylor

The Horror in Modern Fantasy

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Some of you may already be aware of this, others may not, and most likely don’t care. But before becoming entrenched in the Fantasy genre, I read almost exclusively what is classified as Horror. To be honest, I have never been a fan of that title/name. I feel it sounds almost derogatory, and evokes images and stereotypes of horror movies. That is not why I read Horror, and that is not what I took from it.

160460-horror-knifeAfter recently “returning to my roots” and reading a couple of Joe Hill novels, I was reminded of exactly why I loved the genre (and still do). I don’t read to be scared, I don’t read for the horrific monsters; for the zombies, vampires, etc. I read for the emotional journey of a character. I want to read a book that will make me feel something. I want to feel a connection with the character. I also want unpredictability. I want a book where the unthinkable is possible because once you know the characters are safe from the unthinkable, you lose that connection, that emotional response. In Horror, characters are not safe, their path and obstacles along that path are not predictable. The characters are also often flawed, these flaws leading them along in their horrific journey.

So this got me to thinking. What is it that I enjoy about Fantasy so much? I read it almost exclusively now and rarely venture outside the genre. What made me leave the “safety” of horror and venture into this uncharted territory for me? This got me to comparing the two genres, and I realized that much of what I love about Horror is also defining of the modern trends in Fantasy. The dark/gritty/grimdark books of today’s Fantasy, by the likes of Martin and Abercrombie, are very much indicative of what I love about Horror. Even Hobb would meet my criteria for a great Horror book. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a more emotional, unpredictable journey than that of Fitz Chivalry. In all of these fantasy books, there is that sense that the unthinkable is possible, the connection with the characters that makes you feel their journey, the knowledge that these characters, as much as you love them, are not perfect and are certainly not safe – bad things likely will happen. You just have to read to figure out what bad things. This definitely helped hook me and made me read more in the genre.

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I have not read much of the classics in fantasy. And unfortunately, I have to confess, the ones I have tried, I just don’t connect with quite the same as I do with many of the current popular works. And I realized the elements that drew me in to the genre – the ones that are common to horror – seem to be less common among the classic books. I am not saying that there are not classics that would fit this, and I am not saying I don’t or can’t enjoy any of the classics. Among other things, I am by no means an expert in any of this, so my observations and claims here, are just personal reactions and theories based on my experience. And within older fantasy, I will admit, my exposure to the genre is quite limited. But from what I have seen and read, these horror elements seem to be more common in today’s fantasy. And I can’t help but speculate that this is part of the reason I have trouble connecting with some of the older fantasy books I have tried. Every reader will have their personal preferences and draws to the books they read. These are mine, so I will have different preferences within the genre than a reader that is enticed stronger by the world building and fantastical creatures.

So I think that in Fantasy, I found the horror I have always loved, but with slight twists/modifications that were new to me. Not every book that I love in Fantasy has joe-hill-horns-arthorror elements to it because I have found new things to enjoy in my reading, things defining of Fantasy that differentiate it from classic Horror. The elements that make fantasy Fantasy. I’ll admit to loving alternate worlds, especially ones with a full removal from modern day technology. The Kingkiller Chronicles would never be the same if Kvothe and Denna could just text one another, or use GPS tracking to find each other. I also love the journeys, the struggles, the political intrigue that are so in epic fantasy. Fantasy is also typically done as a series of books and because of this, the stories can achieve a level of complexity that is just not possible in a standalone novel (like most Horror books). So with this I have found there are books that I love for reasons other than what I loved in horror. Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations are an excellent example of this. His books are purely fantasy. They were an excellent break from my usual grim choices and displayed everything I love that is unique to fantasy. Excellent characters, journeys, oh… and magic.

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Looking at all of this, I suspect it was the horror in modern fantasy that drew me to the genre and ironically, luring me away from the horror section. These are some of the aspects of the current trends in fantasy that I think make the books so appealing to not just me, but other readers who may never have read a horror book outside of perhaps a required Edgar Allen Poe short story in school. Of course, I have found more to love within the Fantasy genre than just the elements I find familiar and reminiscent of horror. But I think many readers do not realize that Horror is more than just cheap thrills and scares. It’s characters and emotions, and is much more prevalent in modern fantasy than one might think. Really, I would say it lurks and invades and embeds itself in what we read, in ways that you might not suspect. So, the next time you pick up a modern fantasy novel, watch out – the horror within it may be waiting for you.

Written By: Lisa Taylor

The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett

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Vaudeville: mad, mercenary, dreamy, and absurd, a world of clashing cultures and ferocious showmanship and wickedly delightful deceptions.

But sixteen-year-old pianist George Carole has joined vaudeville for one reason only: to find the man he suspects to be his father, the great Heironomo Silenus. Yet as he chases down his father’s troupe, he begins to understand that their performances are strange even for vaudeville: for wherever they happen to tour, the very nature of the world seems to change

Because there is a secret within Silenus’s show so ancient and dangerous that it has won him many powerful enemies. And it’s not until after he joins them that George realizes the troupe is not simply touring: they are running for their very lives.

And soon, George is as well.

 

The Troupe is epic fantasy at its finest.

I know what you’re thinking. It doesn’t sound like epic fantasy. I’ve seen it in the bookshop – it’s, like, 500 pages? That’s not epic fantasy! It’s a cerebral thriller; a gothic horror; a celebration in Americana; an urban fantasy; circuspunk. Whatever one of those labels makes you feel better, I can assure you – it’s epic fantasy aswell.

I first heard about The Troupe last year from a number of prominent bloggers, like Justin at Staffer’s Book Review, Jared at Pornokitsch and The Mad Hatter’s Booktionary, who all raved about this novel. It’s taken me the best part of a year to get round to reading The Troupe and I can honestly say my biggest regret is not reading it sooner and missing out on the potential to nominate it for every genre award going. It’s that good.

At its simplest, The Troupe can be boiled down to two major themes. Like the best epic fantasy it deals with the age old battle of Good vs Evil. And trust me when I say the scale of this battle is on a par with the chunkiest epic fantasies – and all in around 500 pages. The second theme, like all good literature, is something more personal and more particular to the story Bennett is telling: the relationship between father and son.

In George, Bennett has created a main character that feels real. The story revolves around him because George thinks the world revolves around him. George is the archetypal 16 year old boy: pig-headed, temperamental, a know-it-all little shit and pretty clever to boot. But not as clever as he thinks he is. George is socially introverted, but a streak of pure determination runs through him. In George’s Father, Heironomo Silenus, there is in many ways a polar opposite. Silenus is an extrovert and a showman. He functions in different ways to George, but it’s that sense of drive (in Silenus’ case, the drive to keep the secrets of the troupe) that connects them. Every time there’s friction between the two characters, Bennett manages to remind us that they share commonalities, and the ultimate denouement of the novel gives an entirely new perspective on events, making a reread almost a requirement.

The style (of writing, of setting, of tone and more) here is reminiscent of Gaiman, but ultimately it’s Bennett’s own. A style and flow which should make him a name to remember down the line. Hopefully, a name where in a future review I can compare the style to Bennett and everyone knows immediately who I’m talking about. The Vaudevillian setting is something entirely new (for me, at least) and the sheer sense of wonder and explorations of the bizarre, horrific and ethereal that Bennett explores are tantalising and perhaps the one element of the novel I’d love to have seen more of.

It’s epic fantasy, but with a genuinely original twist. Robert Jackson Bennett’s take on the time-spanning war of good and evil is framed by a quieter story about relationships which brings the fantastic into the 21st century with a genuinely new spin. There really is something here for everyone: a bridge between the new and the familiar, the mundane and the fantastic, father and son. The Troupe gets the highest recommendation I can give – read it now.

 

Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines

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Stealth. Gorgon. Regenerator. Cerberus. Zzzap. The Mighty Dragon. They were heroes. Vigilantes. Crusaders for justice, using their superhuman abilites to make Los Angeles a better place. Then the plague of living death spread around the globe. Despite the best efforts of the superheroes, the police, and the military, the hungry corpses rose up and overwhelmed the country. The population was decimated, heroes fell, and the city of angels was left a desolate zombie wasteland like so many others. Now, a year later, the Mighty Dragon and his companions must overcome their differences and recover from their own scars to protect the thousands of survivors sheltered in their film studio-turned-fortress, the Mount. The heroes lead teams out to scavenge supplies, keep the peace within the walls of their home, and try to be the symbols the survivors so desperately need. For while the ex-humans walk the streets night and day, they are not the only threat left in the world, and the people of the Mount are not the only survivors left in Los Angeles. Across the city, another group has grown and gained power. And they are not heroes.

  Continue reading Ex-Heroes by Peter Clines