Heartwood by Freya Robertson

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I was looking forward to Heartwood since I heard about it months ago. It’s a book about knights, war and magic. Excited to get an ARC of this from Angry Robot, I was eager to finally read it. Sadly, I was disappointed. I don’t know exactly what style of book I expected, but the one I got just unfortunately did not work for me.

The world building in the beginning of the book is …. extensive. It is not built bit by bit as it is relevant in the story, but rather listed out and explained. I wasn’t sure if I would keep it all straight, but went with it and kept reading. Well, that turned out to not be an issue. I haven’t gone back to verify, but I suspect that much of the information about the world that bogs down the beginning of the book turns out to be extraneous information and not necessarily relevant to the story. It was like Robertson had planned out so many details of her world before writing and just had to share them with the reader. I don’t mind world building when there is a purpose and it is relevant or maybe a couple of little extra cool facts here or there. In this book, I think I would have preferred if it were spread out. I’m left feeling like at least some if it was never referenced again. Since I am not verifying that, I could be wrong. The fact that I am left with that impression whether it is accurate or not still speaks to the way the information was presented. I don’t remember feeling like that with other epic fantasy that had a good deal of world building.

The world is made up of several countries, each with their own culture. It features handy ways for the reader to generalize an entire population. For example, Wulfians are the evil ones. In Wulfengar, they solve everything with war, they don’t believe in marriage, the men just take women whenever they want and try to get as many children from as many women as possible. Women are seen as lesser citizens, there only to cook, clean and bear children. I do know that generalizations and stereotypes can be useful in a book to illustrate a point (against generalizing and stereotyping), but I just felt like these were done to such an extreme that they seemed more caricatures than anything else. Personally, I would have preferred a bit more subtlety.

That said, there was some interesting and relevant world building as well. I did enjoy the concept of the elemental magic that exists. The knights are bound to protect a holy tree that helps keep the world in order. When the tree is threatened and the knights are attacked by a previously unknown enemy that actually rises out of the water, very cool, the story felt like it could be quite good. But, I just could not get into it. And unfortunately, the magic also became a deus a machine that gets to work in conjunction with some convenient coincidences to help speed resolutions.

There was one trait that was common in her writing, whether it was world building or the meat of the story: Over explaining. Some readers don’t mind this and will not label it as “over explaining”. Robertson is certainly not the only author I have seen do this, I had the same issue with Trudi Canavan’s books (which are quite successful). It is a trait that is quite common among YA books and I think it serves a purpose there. But for me, I feel like the author tried to hold the reader’s hand and spoon feed them all the details of character motivations and emotions and inner turmoils. Pretty much, this book is full of telling rather than showing. I also think it could serve as a good example of why showing is better than telling. There may be room to infer meaning in the larger story, but within the details and actions, it is spelled out for the reader.

Now comes time for my final comment about the book: the characters. I just had no emotional attachment to any of them. There were several that I felt like I could be interested in their storylines, but even they still fell short for me. Once again, I think some of this comes down to the writing style. I often felt like I was reading a sterile description of events and reactions. Everything was broken down for me to the point where I just could not bring myself to care. Resolutions came easily and there was little suspense. Also, the way her characters would behave at times left me feeling like I was reading about a group of overly emotional pubescent teenagers. Maybe overly emotional is not the correct description. I don’t mind emotional reactions, characters should be human. What I do mind is characters breaking down and losing what I would consider their sense of self in pursuit of or reaction to a relationship. Especially when the relationship develops almost instantaneously. In this book, I did find myself annoyed at characters for having absurd concerns due to some overnight infatuation/love or whatever you would like to label it. It actually greatly detracted from the story quite a bit for me.

Anyway, I do think there are some very cool and interesting concepts in this book. I’m a huge fan of epic fantasy and appreciate the world and the number of characters. I always enjoy stories that are told through the lives of a number of different people. But it just came down to the style of writing that just did not match what I look for in a book. Maybe there is audience for Heartwood somewhere but it doesn’t include me.

Review by: Lisa Taylor

Thanks to Angry Robot for the ARC of Heartwood.

Drakenfeld by Mark Charan Newton

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Lucan Drakenfeld is an Officer of the Sun Chamber; a vast network that oversees the peaceful unity of the kingdoms it polices. Called back to his home city of Tryum after the death of his father, Drakenfeld is quickly given his father’s old post of Officer based directly in the city. He is quickly drawn into his first case – to investigate the mysterious death of the king’s sister. Conspiracies, murder and treason are just a few of the things he comes up against in his search for the truth about what happened. I don’t want to delve much deeper into the events of Drakenfeld for fear of spoiling the intricate plot that Mark Charan Newton has created here. Be assured, though, that this is a satisfying blend of crime, fantasy and historical fantasy that never short changes and lives up to the mysteries promised at the beginning.

I’ve never read anything by Mark Charan Newton before (although he has been hovering around my pile for quite some time) but Drakenfeld is the perfect place to start. Heavily influenced by the classical world – immediately giving it an edge of originality – Newton pulls from epic fantasy and crime fiction to give something truly different. Written in 1st person from the POV of Lucan Drakenfeld himself, it still manages to feel like epic fantasy – despite the crime thriller plot and historically influenced setting. Beyond the main narrative, we learn about Drakenfeld’s past and the wider world, lending the book a much bigger scope than might be expected. 1st Person Detective Fantasy, to me, is immediately associated with Urban Fantasy, like the Dresden Files or the Iron Druid Chronicles – but here, Newton has managed to create a crime narrative that feels every bit as seedy and sinister as the best crime thrillers, and yet every bit as involved and complex as some of the best epic fantasy. It’s a testament to his skill that the worldbuilding never felt superfluous, but rather something I was eager to read about.

The plot is always going to be absolutely core to any crime novel, and in this Newton does not disappoint. Centred around a locked-room mystery, the central case around the death of the king’s sister will have you constantly second-guessing yourself as layers are peeled away from the mystery and new ones are piled on top. Drakenfeld’s own sub-narrative is weaved in beautifully, giving depth to his character as we learn about what really happened. The resolution is satisfying and well-constructed whilst also leaving an element of mystery going forward. There are no cliff-hangers here, but elements are certainly in place for the continuation of Drakenfeld’s story.

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The main setting is Tryum, a city that loosely grabs elements from Ancient Rome and the social, political and cultural make-up of the classical world, whilst also maintaining more progressive elements of the modern world. The city itself is a fantastic creation – one that feels as deep in its creation as Camorr and as pivotal as King’s Landing. The setting allows for much of Newton’s originality, feeling genuinely different to anything else I’ve really read in fantasy and showing a thoughtful writer, not afraid to take risks in exploring a progressive culture within a fantasy world, when it may have been much easier to simply use the medieval framework seen in so many other epic fantasies.

But central to my enjoyment of Drakenfeld were its characters. In Lucan Drakenfeld himself, Newton has created a man with a history. He is not the chosen one, nor a warrior. A man of mental tenacity, but who has seen a lot in his life already. He has flaws, both historically, mentally and physically. He feels real, and being inside his head for the entire novel feels right. Alongside Drakenfeld is his…assistant, Leana. A black foreign woman in a city that sneers at those different to themselves, she doesn’t have the easiest prospects in Tryum. But Leana IS a warrior, and she could take on fifty of the city’s best and still be home in time for dinner. Leana, quite easily, is my favourite character in fiction this year. A progressive, intelligent take on a character who, in the hands of a lesser writer, could have been hackneyed and cliché, Leana is wonderful. I defy anyone not to smile every time she has a line of dialogue. The host of senators, generals and royalty round out a colourful cast that fill out a novel where no one is as simple as they may seem.

Drakenfeld is a progressive, intelligent fantasy that provides a thrilling story alongside its more thoughtful elements that serve to create something truly unique. In a market saturated with books about thieves, assassins and grit, Mark Charan Newton has written a novel that takes the elements of crime thrillers and epic fantasy and created something that transcends the boundaries normally set by either of those genres. Regardless of the fact that it must adhere to the expectations of its narrative in solving the central mystery, Drakenfeld remains a forward-looking and genuine read from an author determined to do something original and progressive. He’s succeeded.

It is quite easily one of the best novels of 2013.

Reviewed by: Doug Smith

Interview with Mark Charan Newton

In celebration of the release of Mark’s new novel, Drakenfeld, I thought I’d get in touch with him for a little interview. Expect my review of Drakenfeld tomorrow when you can all go out and buy yourselves a copy.

For those curious about Drakenfeld, check out the synopsis below:

The monarchies of the Royal Vispasian Union have been bound together for two hundred years by laws maintained and enforced by the powerful Sun Chamber. As a result, nations have flourished but corruption, deprivation and murder will always find a way to thrive . . .

Receiving news of his father’s death Sun Chamber Officer Lucan Drakenfeld is recalled home to the ancient city of Tryum and rapidly embroiled in a mystifying case. The King’s sister has been found brutally murdered – her beaten and bloody body discovered in a locked temple. With rumours of dark spirits and political assassination, Drakenfeld has his work cut out for him trying to separate superstition from certainty. His determination to find the killer quickly makes him a target as the underworld gangs of Tryum focus on this new threat to their power. Embarking on the biggest and most complex investigation of his career, Drakenfeld soon realises the evidence is leading him towards a motive that could ultimately bring darkness to the whole continent. The fate of the nations is in his hands.

Enjoy the interview!

 

3aa08-drakenfeld-cover-artHi Mark, and welcome to Wilder’s Book Review!

Thanks, and hello!

So, first up, give us three words that best describe Drakenfeld.

Honest. Considered. Progressive.

Can you give us a little more detail on the book and how you came to writing it?

It was partially a response to gritty fantasy – well, more the angle of discussion that implied fantasy books were more mature if they had lots of violence and swearing in them. That’s quite simply rubbish, and I wanted to make a book that was mature without having to use those triggers. That combined with my recently discovered obsession with the ancient world and the need to try something different in my own writing.

Drakenfeld is quite unusual for fantasy in that it explores a setting more akin to a Roman or early Byzantine model. What made you decide to set the story around this world rather than, say, a more typical medieval-esque fantasy setting?

The classical world is more sophisticated in terms of culture than the so-called Dark Ages that followed, so there was more I could play with if I was using its structures and aesthetics. Also, while in some respects the classical world sharply resembles ours (we borrow so much from it) there were other aspects that were incredibly alien. There was a great toy box for me to play with, essentially.

The book is also written in first person, from the eyes of Lucan Drakenfeld himself. This is a The-Broken-Islesdifferent approach from your previous series, Legends of the Red Sun, which used a 3rd person POV structure. Was there a specific decision behind this choice of narrative style, or were we always destined to get into the head of Drakenfeld himself?

A little of both. Partially a challenge to myself, as I’d previously written multiple POVs, and because I wanted to focus solely on the one character, to make him as strong as I could. Also because there’s so much I can hide behind my unreliable narrator. Also, Drakenfeld is a very personal story – for him and, in less obvious ways, for me. Doing it from his point of view felt natural.

Presumably you pulled elements of the worldbuilding from different eras of European (and even African) history. Could you go into a little more detail on your areas of research?

Not explicitly – but that’s only because it was so wide-ranging and unstructured. I basically jumped into that period of history so whole-heartedly I couldn’t give any honest detail. I simply soaked up as much as I could, and built what I could out of so many interesting snippets of history. At the same time, though, it’s a crime novel – and I was studying the mechanics of that genre as well.

What were some of your main story and writerly influences for Drakenfeld?

Maybe the historical crime novels of CJ Sansom were the only conscious influence – but aside from that, it was very much a passive process. Historical writers such as Tom Holland or Edward Gibbon were great at creating vivid pictures of ancient narrative; but going straight to the source – Cicero, Plutarch, Pliny and so on ¬– that played a key role too.

Nights of Villjamur mmpbDrakenfeld puts the spotlight on characters who don’t necessarily conform to pre-conceived archetypes often found in classical, epic fantasy. This seems to be a theme in your fiction; would you say you are deliberately subverting the common character tropes of Fantasy, or is it just simply more important to have a character that feels ‘real’?

I think tropes can be good and bad, so I don’t really take on subverting tropes – because isn’t that a cliché in itself these days? I also honestly couldn’t tell you what makes a character seem real – because real-life people might make astonishingly bad, dull characters in novels. So far as characters are concerned, I’d simply consider myself a progressive writer – which is an extension of my own self. Hopefully some ‘realism’ – if that is what we seek in fantasy anyway – comes from that.

Something I found intriguing whilst reading Drakenfeld was that this is a character (along with the brilliantly realised Leana) who has actually been through a lot in his life. There are frequent mentions of his adventures before the main narrative. Are you likely to explore some of these in the future?

As a matter of fact, yes. I’ve written at least one short story that comes a few years before the current narrative. But as for the format and venue, I’m still discussing it with my editor. I like the idea of writing more short fiction in that world though. It’s a great way of exploring certain ideas without committing to a full novel.

When did you decide you wanted to become an author, and can you tell us a little about your first attempts?

I read China Miéville’s The Scar and loved it. When I walked into a bookstore I couldn’t find anything else quite like it. So I gave it a go myself and, some years later, here we are! The first attempts were rubbish – I think I wrote about 300,000 rubbish words before I finally got published. I basically just got my head down and wrote – I ignored writing advice for the most part, and still do. I just learned from other writers.

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What kind of writer are you? Do you plot down to the last detail, or just start writing and see where the words take you? Do you have any particular writerly ticks, like specific places you work or colour of M&M?

It changes from novel to novel. I started out as much less of a planner than I am now. Because of the crime format for Drakenfeld – and particularly the locked-room mystery at the heart of the first novel – the planning needs to be incredibly in-depth for it to work. Aside from that, the world needs to be fairly rigorous beforehand. I might have certain story elements in mind and design the world around that, but the bones need to be there first. As for writerly ticks – as long as there’s a comfy chair and a decent cup of tea, I’m happy. I don’t think writers can afford to be too fussy where they write!

Next year you have a reissue of your first novel, The Reef, coming from Jurassic London – it’s not The Reefoften an author gets the opportunity to revisit an earlier novel for the purpose of ‘improving’ it. Could you tell us a little about the reasoning and process behind revising The Reef?

I’ve not made huge revisions to it so far – just eliminated some flaws and ironed out some terrible prose. It was my first novel and, being with the small press in the first instance, didn’t get a huge amount of editing treatment. The only reason I’ve not given it more of a rewrite so far is purely down to time – I don’t think writers will ever want to stop tinkering with their work.

What are you working on next, Mark? Are we likely to see a return to the world of Drakenfeld in the near future?

I’ve just finished and handed in the second Drakenfeld novel, and also polished off a short story. I’m currently sketching out a third novel in the series, and other stories, but I’m enjoying the rather laid-back part of having finished a book and not yet having to worry about the next!

What’s something the people reading this interview might be surprised to learn about Mark Charan Newton?

I make excellent jams and chutneys. There goes the last shred of credibility…

And, finally, what are you reading right now?

I’ve just finished a collection of novellas by Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell, called “The Pyramid”. Wallander is one of my favourite fictional detectives! I’m also digging into lots of old English nature writing by a chap called W.H. Hudson.

Thanks Mark!

You can find Mark Charan Newton online at his website, here, and on Twitter @MarkCN.

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The Deaths of Tao by Wesley Chu

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The Deaths of Tao is a continuation of everything that was done right in Lives of Tao. Action, suspense, humor, and yes, plot as well. It jumps in several years after Lives of Tao ended. Roen is no longer the overweight bumbling new host that entertained us in the first book. But that does not mean he is any less entertaining. Roen is now at a minimum competent, and actually excels in some areas.

Unfortunately family life is not an area he excels at. This book brings Roen’s emotional struggle as he copes with his failed marriage to Jill (In between the two books, they got married: yay! But they also separated: boo!). Roen has been a slave to Tao’s missions, torn away from his family, who he longs to rejoin.

Jill has not had it much easier. She has been coping with two full time jobs (her job on the Hill as well as her job with the Prophus) in addition to being a single parent since Roen has been absent (did I mention they also had a kid between the two books? Yay?)

Deaths of Tao puts Roen in the hot seat, forces him to put his family aside, so he can save the world as we know it from an evil (or is it dastardly?) Genjix plan uncovered from his time spent running on missions for Tao.

Speaking of Tao, we get plenty of great interplay between Tao and Roen again. While Roen may not be as inept as he was initially, Tao still manages to put him in his place and keep his ego in check. Roen is the type of character I just can’t help but love. He is really good at some things, but not perfect and certainly does not have an ego. And his devotion to his family, even if he has not been around, is yet another endearing quality. And I need to mention, Roen has some emotional struggles leaving his family behind, but with those struggles, comes, of course: Action! Suspense! And everything else that can get your adrenalin going.

Deaths of Tao introduces us to a new player in the game as well. Enzo is on the Genjix side, a product of their Hatchery program designed to churn out genetically superior vessels for the Quasing. He is bringing a new level of fight to the game and pushing things forward faster and harder than previous Genjix. To say he is a bit of a power happy egotistical prick might be an understatement. But he certainly does keep things interesting.

We also get better backstories for some of the Quasings, which I really enjoyed. The way the Quasing history is tied together with history that we know is a fun aspect of these books.

So, all in all, this is another great book by Chu. It has plenty of action, it has plenty of humor, and plenty of plot. It’s all very well balanced. Also, I don’t think this very often, but these books seem like they would also make awesome movies. I’d love to see Roen on big screen.

AND THE ENDING!!!! I love the ending. That’s all I can say. Well, except read the book so you know what I’m talking about!

Reviewed by: Lisa Taylor

Thanks to Angry Robot for sending an e-ARC of The Deaths of Tao!

Orc War Fighting Manual by Den Patrick

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Den Patrick is an up and coming fantasy author from Gollancz; his debut novel out in March 2014 (The Boy with the Porcelain Blade). But first, Mr. Patrick has been able to publish something a little unorthodox: the War Manuals. A series of three fantasy, novella-length books, the War Manuals each follow the art of war in a classical fantasy world, one for each of the three main fantastical races: the Orcs, the Elves and the Dwarves. The first of these is the Orc War Fighting Manual, an account of the war methods of the most vicious (we think!) race, and often the villains in every fantasy tale. Each of the manuals is written in the style of a translation or dictation from a high ranking member of each race by a human scholar, charged with detailing each account so as to understand better the life and values of each race. Almost every page is peppered with footnotes from Venghaus – the scholar – and essentially give his personal opinions on each account, as well as offering a little insight into the human point of view.

First off – this is a hilarious read. Den Patrick’s sense of humour is somewhat Pratchett-esque; not only with the use of footnotes (which provide many of the best running-jokes) but also the tone of voice. There’s a dry, British wit at the heart of this that apes classical fantasy tropes in every area of the book. Taking the distinctly “Orc” point-of-view here, we get to see how the vicious, blood-thirsty, ever-fighting Orcs would actually function on a day-to-day basis, both from a personal view (this is the account of Kani Brakespeare, the Ur-Khagan of the Orcs – basically like a king, but with more likelihood of a bloody end) and at a societal level. Venghaus’ interjections offset each of the bizarre and horrific traits of the Orcs by giving us the human point-of-view, as well as making occasional references to the other fantasy races he has studied; the Elves and Dwarves.

Part of what makes the book such a success is that the majority of the voice – Kani Brakespeare – takes itself incredibly seriously. After all, Kani is accounting the ways of his people to an outsider. But despite his (mostly) lack of irony, the lives of the Orcs is so alien that even without Venghaus’ footnotes, it’s very funny. What exactly do Orcs thinks of the other races? Why do they tend to be associated with goblins and trolls? What is the actual structure of the seemingly chaotic Orc society? It’s all here and distinctly tongue-in-cheek.

I have no previous experience of things like Warhammer – which is obviously one of the core influences behind this concept. But even without that, this works independently. There is a surprisingly deep amount of worldbuilding going on here (indeed, I could argue that this is purely an exercise in worldbuilding) in that this isn’t simply a Warhammer manual, but instead it is a completely independent creation, with a history and back story for an intriguing world of its own. One I’d love to see explored further in actual full-length and short stories.

The War Manuals are an intriguing concept that, going purely on the Orc War Fighting Manual, works very well indeed. Den Patrick has created a surprisingly refreshing world here – despite its deliberate classic fantasy tropes. It lampoons itself with a dry sense of humour that never goes too far into the realm of slapstick. With references to the other manuals throughout, I suspect together they will make quite an impressive – if entirely unconventional – narrative. At only 120 pages with artwork, this is a quick read, but always an entertaining one. Well worth reading, and it only bodes well for the future of Mr. Patrick’s career when his first full novel debuts next year.

Reviewed by: Doug Smith

Thanks to Gollancz for sending me a copy of the book to review!