Saturday Star Wars: Chaos Rising (Thrawn Ascendancy #1) by Timothy Zahn — Book Review and Lingering Questions

Hullo everyone, and welcome back to Saturday Star Wars!

It has been a while, hasn’t it? Rest assured, I’m riding high on a Star Wars wave which’ll keep me pumping out regular editions of this column for a few weeks, at least!

Today, I’ll share with you an excerpt of my Chaos Rising review, which you can read in full over at the Fantasy Hive:

I hold Thrawn in such esteem because few characters signify the sci-fi elements of the Star Wars DNA better than he does. The best Thrawn stories, I have always held, are strong enough that they would thrive in a setting different from the Star Wars one. If you were to crop all the important plot points and characters, and only have to do some fine-tuning to make of a franchise novel something unique and original, could you do it? When it comes to most Thrawn books, the answer is a resounding yes. (With the exception of Thrawn: Alliances, that is, which incidentally is the weakest of Zahn’s Chiss-centred works.) These novels are enhanced by being in the Star Wars universe, not dependent on it.

Chaos Rising is a return to form for Zahn. The first in three novels which chronicle Thrawn’s ascendance in his native Chiss Ascendancy (you didn’t think I would resist, did you?), this does exactly what you want a Star Wars novel to do after the horrible dog’s breakfast** that was the sequel trilogy. It expands the fricking universe in ways that are beyond engaging, while offering a whole new look at our title character. One character I was crazy about in the Thrawn: Treason novel makes her return here – Admiral Ar’alani, whose personal history with Senior Captain Thrawn goes far deeper than I dared hope. She’s one of the main PoV characters in this one, and the novel is all the better for every sentence spent through her perspective; Ar’alani is almost a foil to Thrawn in some ways. Though incapable of seeing what he sees (Thrawn is a tactical genius, capable of understanding both the strategy and tactics of other species by studying their art and philosophy), Ar’alani excels at seeing through the minefield that is Ascendancy politics, and her own insights into military matters are no small thing. Through an unlikely friendship with the more junior officer, Ar’Alani proves an invaluable ally in the political machinations taking place against Thrawn.

One of the consistent points of Thrawn’s characterization across thirty years of books, comics and even animation has been his inability to process the world of political intrigue. In Chaos Rising, there’s no end to the Chiss’ blunders. Add to that the complex hierarchical order of the Ascendancy, with its nine ruling families plotting and conniving against each other for greater power, and you will begin to see how great a blind spot Thrawn’s political ineptitude is.

To read the full piece, click on the link above!

Right, with all this wonderful praise in mind, I’ve a mind to ask several questions. Some spoilers below, read at your own peril! Here’s what I want to learn in the next book:

  • Who guided Yiv the Benevolent? The very last scene at the end of Chaos Rising offers us a name, but what’s behind that name? Is this an agent of the power that has the Chiss Ascendancy desperate enough to fake Thrawn’s exile?
  • Is that exile faked? Timothy Zahn confirmed as much in 2017’s Thrawn, but could it be that this might be retconned, or that it was a lie told by Thrawn to close the gap between him and his foe in that piece, Nightswan? With the political clime against the senior captain the way it is within the Ascendancy, that is a distinct possibility.
  • How far is Thalias going to enter into the politics of the Mitth family, to keep the politically inept Thrawn safe? One of the finest scenes in the book showcased her conversing with the ailing Patriarch of the Mitth, and his revelations about Thrawn will doubtless place her in the thick of family politics. This leads me to my next question…
  • What will be the repercussions for Thrawn? Though he has succeeded with flying colours, the Chiss are staunch isolationists, loath to strike against someone without provocation. Yes, Thrawn managed to skirt through the lines and succeeded in what was necessary — but he was told there would be consequences, and I don’t doubt they will cost him.
  • And my last but most important question: Did Ar’alani and Thrawn bone? When she made commodore, a rather suggestive few lines hinted towards the possibility.

Those are the leading questions — when I return to them a year from now, I do hope I’ll have answers to all of these. Until then…

Join me over the next three weekends as I review Volumes 5, 6, and 7 of the Doctor Aphra graphic novel! That sounds exciting – it’s exciting, isn’t it?

The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler – Book Review

This is my penultimate Philip Marlowe novel and I am so happy with it, you guys.

The Little Sister is as self-reflective, exhausted and close to broken that I’ve seen Raymond Chandler’s PI get. He’s not having an easy time with what promised to be a simple enough missing person case, full of deceptive femme fatales, drugs, corpses and very angry cops. For once, Marlowe doesn’t get his teeth kicked in by the fellas at the local precinct, but it’s not for lack of desire on the part of certain of his new copper friends; makes for a nice change of pace, though, dunnit?

There’s an air to cynicism to The Little Sister which will stay on with you longer than you might be comfortable with; but it’s easy to relate to Chandler for underlining it. The almighty dollar is powerful indeed, folks. That’s a little something the cast of characters, no matter the societal class they belong to, no matter all else that might bind them together, are conscious of; worse than conscious, they’re ready to trod on any joint human relation if it means lining their pockets.

Philip Marlowe is the antithesis of that, a man who, despite his disillusionment with the world at large, has a strong moral backbone, a man unwilling to look the other way when injustice is being carried out. It’s his defining trait, and in the hardboiled world of the old-school crime thriller, it’s as good as you can hope for.

You have to admire Chandler, you have to. What he does with language, the force of his metaphors and flourishes is as much the reason behind the continued popularity of these novels as his plots and characters, perhaps more so. Reading him is like catching a whiff of asphalt fumes in a candy store; sweet as the prose is, it’ll always shock you, the things he comes up with:

Wonderful what Hollywood will do to a nobody. It will make a radiant glamour queen out of a drab little wench who ought to be ironing a truck driver’s shirts, a he-man hero with shining eyes and brilliant smile reeking of sexual charm out of some overgrown kid who was meant to go to work with a lunch-box. Out of a Texas car hop with the literacy of a character in a comic strip it will make an international courtesan, married six times to six millionaires and so blasé and decadent at the end of it that her idea of a thrill is to seduce a furniture-mover in a sweaty undershirt.

And on occasion, when he writes a line like this one: “She jerked away from me like a startled fawn might, if I had a startled fawn and it jerked away from me,” you know Chandler was a man who could take the piss out of himself, someone who knew how to keep the balance between serious and soul-crushing.

Ray Porter’s narration is, as ever, an easy 5/5. He is my Philip Marlowe, it’s as simple as that.

Few other paragraphs could beat this one for my favourite quote in the novel:

Philip Marlowe, 38, a private licence operator of shady reputation, was apprehended by police last night while crawling through the Ballona Storm Drain with a grand piano on his back. Questioned at the University Heights Police Station, Marlowe declared he was taking the piano to the Maharajah of Coot-Berar. Asked why he was wearing spurs, Marlowe declared that a client’s confidence was sacred. Marlowe is being held for investigation. Chief Hornside said police were not yet ready to say more. Asked if the piano was in tune, Chief Hornside declared that he had played the Minute Waltz on it in thirty-five seconds and so far as he could tell there were no strings in the piano. He intimated that someting else was. A complete statement to the press will be made within twelve hours, Chief Hornside said abruptly. Speculation is rife that Marlowe was attempting to dispose of a body.

Thanks for reading! Have a song to get you in the proper mood for a Marlowe story.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller—Book Review

I finished Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 many months ago — I’ve kept pushing the review further and further off because this is one of the classics, it’s loved by many, disliked by some, downright hated by a chosen few. I find myself decidedly in the camp of the first, as this novel illustrated the absurdism of war through examples that will have you either grasping at your sides with laughter or blinking slowly, trying to comprehend what the hell just happened.

It is a difficult book to penetrate, at first. Heller thinks little of chronology, the structure of his chapters a mess that is at once brilliant and confounding; the opening begins in media res, with Yossarian pretending to be both sick and crazy for who-knows-which time. Unafraid to hop from one character’s circumstances to another, Heller uses an omniscient narrator to sketch out the daily life of the soldiers of the U.S. Air Army. He does so in a way that extends to far more than just these characters, encompassing the entirety of the army, of any army, even of every army. The objections to war, after all, should not be examined in a case-by-case basis.

Once you become acquainted with the military and its maddening mechanisms, Heller’s thesis statement begins to fall into place:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.

“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.

Ironic, isn’t it? This circularity is the bread and butter of so much of Heller’s seminal work, and though other examples of this never failed to garner a laugh, chortle or chuckle from me, these became ever more histeric as I continued my sixteen-hour journey across a text that is increasingly pessimistic about the nature of modern society in all its paradoxic, violent and capitalistic glory.

There is something of a postmodernist precursor to this book, something that so well captures the pulse of a movement that was just beginning to arise in the sixties (Catch-22 was published in 1961) that you can’t help but applaud Heller for taking the measure of so much of the postmodernist essence:

It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.

This codifies so much of my experience with postmodernism!…And the distance from this to Angela Carter isn’t that much of a stretch, is it?

I listened to Catch-22 as narrated by Trevor White whose reading brought the characters to life and made the dialogue jump off the page. I recommend you give that particular audiobook a listen — it’s well-worth the Audible credit!

And, before I close this review off, may I say that Milo Minderbinder is one of the most brilliant characters used to satirize capitalism and the notion of free market, ever? The Mess Officer of the Air Force base that most of the book is set up at, is the beating heart of a pyramid scheme that puts all others to shame; Milo is a hell of a guy, and he’s almost as funny as he is scary.

I could write about Catch-22‘s insane cast for days, but alas, I’ve got plenty of other reviews to write. This is one I’ll be coming back to, reading and rereading, and something tells me no two reads will be the same. Just writing this review is enough to fill me with excitement over the possibility of experiencing the narrative Joseph Heller constructed with such impeccable care. If you’ve heard that this is one of the finest novels of the 20th century…well, you’ve heard right.

The Faith Machine by Tone Milazzo — Book Review (Storytellers On Tour)

The Faith Machine is one of the strangest, most bizarre books I’ve read in recent memory, and no less fun for it. With spies, psychic abilities, tons of action and betrayal, Milazzo’s novel channels Cold War thrillers mixed with almost Marvel-scale superpowers in a juggling act that was consistently entertaining throughout!

Where shall I begin? This novel follows a three-act structure, the first taking place in Africa, the second in America, and the third in North Korea; each one takes about a hundred-and-something pages of this 392-page novel, and each has enough going on to make for its own tiny novella, if the author had so chosen.

There are plenty of laughs to be had in The Faith Machine, based on all kinds of hilarious situations and exchanges between characters, as well as plenty of pop references. The novel is hilarious enough to make you forget all about the fact that this is an “ESPionage” story, unafraid to pull its punches, willing to go in some dark, disturbing places. Some of the imagery is downright shocking, and the trials some of the character

And the characters are a likable lot, all eight of the ensemble. There’s Dr. Park, the leader of the team, a Korean-American psychologist tasked wtih the enormous responsibility of keeping seven Cards (psychic spies), unstable one and all, together, as they . I won’t go over each and every one of the Cards, but I thought they made for wonderful characters. They’re bursting with personality from the very first time you come across them on the page:

A dusky young woman in an AC/DC belly shirt came running down the drive, swinging an ax after a man in a dirty T-shirt and boxers. “Jacob! I told you I didn’t wanna be on the internet!” Her unkempt brown hair bounced with her wild gait as she closed in.
Gabby stopped trying to kill Jacob whe she sawPark and Ainia. “Oh, hi, Park! What are you doin’ here?” She let the ax hit the ground.

Few things better than ax-wielding ladies in AC/DC shirts, I always say. I appreciate how divergant the cast is — these are folks from all walks of life, and the author does an admirable job of giving them unique, nuanced voices. For the most part — occasionally, a line read across as unpolished or as the author’s unbridled commentary, but that was a very, very rare occurance indeed! Further, I would’ve liked some more time spent with the leader of the ensemble, Dr. Park, whose last stretch of development I can’t help but feel didn’t conclude so much as stop in place.

The twists and turns are a delight — so many red herrings, very well executed. I did sense the last big twist coming, but a few of the smaller ones along the way blindsided me, which is something I am all for!

I admired the prose — it nails that pulpy feel of Cold War-era spy thrillers. The style is clear, exact, always directing the reader into any given scene with precision.

I will say, I’m glad I did not read the entire blurb on Goodreads before I picked this one up, because it spoils the first third of the novel. Bit of a strange choice, that.

My score for The Faith Machine is 4/5 stars! It had some elements I wasn’t sold on, but make no mistake, this is a solid sci-fi thriller, one well-worth your time.

Catalyst by Tracy Richardson – Book Review (Ultimate Blog Tour)

DNF’d at 45%.

Catalyst is one of those rare books that I just couldn’t continue on with — I found very little that worked for me in this piece of paranormal disaster fiction.

The prose is servicable — neither complex nor beautiful, it does provide crisp, clear description of what is going on, of who is speaking to whom, and of any details that need the reader’s attention drawn. The main characters are teenagers and university students, all of whom have individual traits but all, except one, have the same ideological background and share in each other’s beliefs to such an extent that I often found myself unsure which character corresponded to which name tag. I cannot, for the life of me, picture how any of them look — which speaks to me of descriptions that lacked that extra something that makes characters memorable and easy to visualize. The dialogue was good — it wasn’t stilted, the conversations were written well and the back-and-forth was believable.

I didn’t like the protagonist — her point of view failed to suck me in, I found her inner monologue hard to believe and, frankly, obnoxious.

Now, about the environmental issue at hand here, and how it is discussed. I’ve been reading a lot of climate change/disaster fiction of late — just yesterday, I wrapped up a Disaster Studies course at uni, and I’ve realised there are two kinds of disaster fiction books. The first makes its points with eloquence and style, introduces not just one side of a given argument but both of them, and offers a weighed argument towards the dangers of climate change and humanity’s central part in causing it — one example that does admirable job at it is Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver.

The second beats you over the head with its messaging, without bothering to dig in real deep in what drives the everyday proponents of fracking in the USA. Yes, one of the characters talks non-stop about how fracking “will make America energy sufficient and get those Arab Muslims off our back” or something along those lines, but that’s surface-level reasoning; the author could’ve, should have, dug further into the other side’s argument. And hey, maybe she did — there’s over a hundred pages left of this book, but those are pages I won’t ever read. From what I did read, Catalyst leans more heavily towards this second kind of disaster fiction than towards the first.

There’s little of substance here — not the kind of substance that could make someone who does not believe in the environmental dangers of fracking to buy into them. A book like Catalyst seems to alienate precisely the people who most need to be convinced of the massive environmental dangers of fracking, and that is a shame.

Maybe you’ll like it — if you enjoy talk about the Fifth Dimension and living energy that can be created through meditation and communion with nature. Perhaps you’ll like the characters, or you won’t take the same issues I did with the environmental issues and how they were covered. For me, however, this just did not work. My score for Catalyst is 2 out of 5 stars.

The World Maker Parable by Luke Tarzian – Book Review

Self-Published
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 140
Format: ebook

This is an interesting short novel, whose strengths include worldbuilding, an all-encompassing sense of mystery and intrigue, plenty of misdirection and a hell of a clincher.

But first, lend me your ear. It’s okay, come ‘ere, come a wee bit closer. I’ve a secret to tell you — the only reason I wanted to read this book was the design. Shhh! Don’t tell anyone. It’s really good design, though – and it extends past the gorgeous cover. The two PoV characters each receive page-wide character pieces, at once minimalistic and very stylized. Wonderful work, truly.

The World Maker Parable is a game of misdirection. How things are is never certain, always in flux, ever in doubt. The characters of Rhona and Varésh are as unreliable a pair of narrators as you’re likely to find on short notice, and both of them are haunted hounded by past mistakes. There’s enough there to make you connect with them early on, both Rhona and Varésh have something to

The language is a draw…most of the time. This is highly stylized prose, both in speech and in description, and it is well-written. Often, it strikes deep. Sometimes, however, it feels a tad clichéd, a little too familiar. And once or twice, you can even hold the author suspect of trying too hard:

With utopia comes darkness. Every candle lit is another shadow cast. Perfection is a lie. Law requires chaos. It is a vicious circle; one I fear we have realized far too late.

“A little too thick on the universal truths there,” I thought as I read this particular paragraph. Despite that, I enjoyed this one. It was a quick, pleasant read that took me a little over an hour, and it was an hour filled with plenty of surprises, each of them more delightfully dark than the previous ones.

The World Maker Parable is a story of guilt and lost love, and the depths of depravity duty might lead you to. I think, if it were another thirty pages shorter, it would’ve been even stronger. It’s not that it isn’t – but the punch it packs by the closing pair of chapters could’ve been even stronger.

Some of the novel, I disliked. The accents to names and words — especially those I saw as unnecessary or as making little sense — really bothered me. That’s very When it comes down to it, I often find myself disliking the use of fictional words, and those found in the Parable weren’t used in a way that made me overcome this dislike. I also caught a number of typos, annoying little mistakes that they are, early on in the novel.

My score for The World Maker Parable is a 4 out 5 stars on Goodreads and Amazon.

This review was part of the World Maker Parable blog tour! Thanks to Timy and Justine for organising this, and for offering me a copy of the book for the review.

The Girl and the Stars by Mark Lawrence – Book Review

Release Date: 21 April 2020
Published by: ACE
Genre: Fucked if I know. Fantasy, sci-fi elements.
Pages: 369
Format: Hardback
Review Copy:  Courtesy of the author.

The Girl and the Stars is a spectacular opening act to what promises to be one of the finest trilogies of this new decade*.

So many of my fellow bloggers have spoken to the quality of Mark Lawrence’s writing, a fact I have only the barest hint of experience with, in the form of Prince of Thorns, Mark’s debut. I had high expectations but… It’s no stretch to say that they were overcome, with remarkable ease, by this latest release.

I hesitate to call The Girl and the Stars a fantasy novel – chock-full with sci-fi elements, it reminds me of the writing of Zelazny and Gene Wolfe more than anything else in how seamlessly it falls under the cap of speculative fiction; the world is, though its characters might not realize it, a post-apocalyptic one. That’s the speculative fiction trifecta right there! Don’t draw any conclusions yet, though – Lawrence might make use of many different genre conventions but in doing so, he makes of them a homogenous mass. Otherworldly is a term often used for fantasy novels, rarely so apt as it is for The Girl and the Stars.

It is a triumph of the imagination, and a wonder. The characters are relatable and deeply human, even those you’d least expect to be. Helming the series is lead character Yaz, a young woman of the Ichta tribe torn away from her family and the life on the ice she has always known:

She lived a life in the jaws of the wind, her eyes trained to find meaning within a hundred shades of white and grey. She lived as a singular mote of warmth upon a vast and lifeless wilderness.

Yaz is forced into the subterranean darkness** of a hole in which the broken children of the tribes – those too different to survive the cold of the ice – are thrown. Lawrence does an excellent job creating a world in the throes of ice, a cruel surface that holds an ever-present danger…only to throw Yaz into a world beyond the one she could’ve imagined, and one she is unprepared for. How could anyone be prepared? The world below the ice is alien – warmer, holding buried secrets and ancient threats. But also the promise of a life different to the one Yaz has spent her whole life living.

I adore the abilities Yaz and those other survivors in the hole have, what Yaz thinks of as magic but is hinted to be something different at one time or another. Mark does a wonderful job introducing how each gift works, and then exploits all of them in unexpected ways at just the right moment. The results are nothing less than a series of thrills.

I admire the way the author shapes a culture like that of the Ichta early on: “Even in their tents they wore mittens anytime that fine tasks were not required. It was easy to forget that people even had fingers.” Look at the way he makes of these people something unique. Through describing so small a thing, he’s already differentiated the Ichta in a memorable way, and has introduced a motif that has an effect on Yaz throughout – skin contact. The prose is brilliant at this throughout – introducing small details and not just calling back to them but using them to the best effect imaginable, creating the illusion in the reader that every detail has some hidden meaning.

Lawrence does an excellent job in exploring several themes throughout the 370-page count of this novel. The questioning of the nature of compromise is present throughout – does survival in the harshness excuse the sacrifice of those who are born different or broken? That’s a question Yaz is drawn to time and again. She is also drawn towards the need to know herself, in a way that mirrors the obsession one of the most fascinating antagonists in the novel, Theus. Something else that haunts the pages is the mention of “fire and glory,” or “Greatness, torment and fire.” Look out for that one.

As for the ending…I have three words for it***: Such sweet torment. Questions linger, a score of them at least. It’s going to be a long wait until the next one – lucky for me, I have plenty of Mark Lawrence’s books to catch up on in the meanwhile. My score for this masterpiece is 6/5, 11/10! 

P.S. If you, like me, enjoy listening to music while reading books, a couple of soundtracks work wonders as background – Austin Wintory’s soundtracks for Banner Saga 2 & 3, and Piotr Musiał’s Frostpunk score.

*If Mr. Lawrence disappoints us down the line, I say we lynch him! Or, if that’s not your thing, write a strongly worded letter.

** This is incidentally the second excellent fantasy book telling the story of a young woman surviving underground through what seems at times sheer force of will I’ve read this year, the first being Rob J. Hayes’ Along the Razor’s Edge.

*** I have a lot more than three words, but the book hasn’t yet been released. I would, in fact, like to scream bloody murder – maybe in a couple of weeks? A deep dive? Do I hear an amen?!

I, Exile by David M. Samuels – Book Review

This book review was originally published over at booknest.eu.

Self-Published
Genre: Fantasy, Low Fantasy
Pages: 220
Format: Kindle e-book
Copy: Courtesy by the author through r/fantasy’s TBRindr list in return for an honest review;

The opportunity of coming across a gemstone of a book is why I am happy to read the works of indie fantasy authors whose titles haven’t yet gained wider recognition online. I’ve come across some brilliant works, and I’ve faced off against some reads that didn’t quite cut it – in the face of all those, David M. Samuels’ I, Exile measures up as an engaging and entertaining story of personal growth and adventure, with no small dose of sarcasm thanks to smartass protagonist Emelith. Oh, and a bloody lich makes this feel like a proper romp through pulpy fantasy goodness.

What this book reminded me of, as I read it, was the Forgotten Realms novels in the 90s, those Drizzt Do’Urden books every fantasy nerd and their father (i.e. me and my dad) read; not in the characters, necessarily, as there isn’t much in Emelith to remind you of Drizzt, but in the excitement and swift action, in the stakes that are never anything less than life-and-death, in the easy prose which allows you to glide through the pages, and in the unexpected allies found and forged along the way.

The setting for I, Exile is a post-apocalyptic desert in a world that has undergone a massive flood as recently as a few centuries back. All sorts of nasty buggers have made this desert their home, as is the way of these things but the nastiest, perhaps, is a lich seemingly no longer happy with staying with his skull buried in the sand. I’ll say no more about the lich, as that’d be giving away more than is strictly necessary, except for this – this is a fun villain, who strikes a balance between tropey and novel in all the right ways.

Emelith’s journey made I, Exile more appealing than it otherwise would’ve been. Prone to anger and snap judgements, the further our protagonist goes into this Mad Max-esque (to use the author’s own comparison) wasteland, the more she realises about herself. Quiet moments of contemplation abound in-between the excellent action sequences.

Samuels’ novel is technically adept – for its vast majority, I had a hard time finding any typos, grammatical errors or punctuation mistakes. Only the last few percent offered a slight increase in that type of issues, and that might be because I was sent an arc pre-publication date. The prose is expressive without coming across as bloated; if anything, it’s on the economic side as far as descriptions go. 

One piece of criticism I have is, the short blurb and the cover for the book did not work for me – the cover looks so very much like a bad 90s comic, I considered skipping it on this basis alone. That’s not the kind of feeling you want your cover to elicit. The blurb is too short and doesn’t arouse interest nearly as much as it should.

The cast of supporting characters includes plenty of interesting names, many of whom have their own motivations which conflict either with one another’s, or with Emelith’s, There’s a mysterious priestess, a few warriors.

I enjoyed I, Exile. My score for this one is 4/5 Stars on Goodreads, and I happily recommend you put it on your to-read list!

You’ll enjoy this one if:

  • You like less magic and more wit in your fantasy;
  • You’ve a love for desert settings, monsters, and a pleasing surplus of back-stabbing;
  • You’re looking for fun action and choppy dialogue, courtesy of a brash badass;
  • You want to take a deep breath of that action-adventure-y nostalgia of 90s fantasy – it’s pulpy, it’s fun, and it’s head and unlike many of the 90s Forgotten Realms book, it’s actually good!
  • And more! Prob’ly.

Ecstasy and Terror by Daniel Mendelsohn – Book Review

I don’t remember how I came across Ecstasy and Terror but I knew when I read its blurb that I would love it. Having read every one of the essays in this collection, I’ve found myself not only loving it but hungry for more of Mendelsohn’s writing. This anthology by Mendelsohn(who is Editor at Large over at the excellent New York Review of Books) has the apt subtitle From the Greeks to Game of Thrones, which might as well have added the following two words: And Beyond, and would still have been every bit as true.

Mendelsohn’s most interesting and illuminating essays draw connections to Ancient Greece and parallels to modern times; the first section, Ancients sees him exploring tragedies such as Euipides’ Bacchae and Sophocles’ Antigone, the role of the poet Sappho and her sexuality in Greek culture, the place of the Aeneid in modern society and the links between JFK’s assassination and Greek myth.

Following up is the weakest of the three sections, Moderns, which is by no means dull reading; it’s that some of the essays here speak of novels whose themes and problems hardly ever interested me. And yet Mendelsohn’s exceptional skill as a critic offers plenty to enjoy in “The Women and the Thrones: George R. R. Martin’s Feminist Epic on TV” and in “The Robots are Winning!: Homer, Ex Machina and Her“. Equally captivating was a review of an epistolary novel looking at the first emperor of Rome, Augustus. The remaining essays, while interesting to read due to Daniel’s ready supply of wit, left less of an impression, perhaps because the works examined by him pose little intrest to me at this time.

The third and smallest of the sections, titled Personals, I found as fascinating as Mendelsohn’s takes on Classical culture. Whether he spoke of his correspondence with Mary Renault, a lesbian author of historical fiction through his childhood – how her novels affected him and made him fully accept his sexuality – and early adulthood in the 70s or about the role and responsibility of the critic in the excellent piece “A Critic’s Manifesto”, this last section is stellar. It gave me a glimpse into a man whose work I’ve come to admire over the 377 pages of this remarkable collection and for that, I am all too happy.

What is there left to say? Plenty – I could speak about each of the essays, and you know what? I think I’ll make a weekly column out of it. I won’t talk about each and every one of these since, as I said before, I don’t have nearly enough to say about all of them. I’d encourage you to read Ecstasy and Terror for yourself, but in case you need more convincing, I will share with you a few of my favourite essays – what they are about, why they left an impression and what they taught me; because if there’s one thing I cannot stress enough, it is this: You will learn a lot from Daniel Mendelsohn.

Rating this anthology is a task I’m woefully underqualified for, and yet – since I will be cross-posting this to Goodreads, this is an unequivocal 5 out of 5 Stars. I cannot recommend it enough.

A Little Hatred (The Age of Madness #1) by Joe Abercrombie – Book Review

Originally posted over at Booknest.eu.

Pictured here is my own copy. So pretty @_@

Published by: Gollancz.
Genre: (Dark) Fantasy
Pages: 486
Format: Hardback
Purchased the Exclusive Edition from Waterstones.

The world we readers knew from the First Law Trilogy has changed. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed Joe Abercrombie’s standalone novels in the world, Best Served ColdThe Heroes, and Red Country. As the world’s timeline has progressed, we find ourselves amidst an Industrial Revolution much like the one the UK went through in the 1800s, and with it, some of the worst excesses of early capitalist society. 14-hour working days, scant payment for dangerous, life-draining factory labour, child labour, air and water pollution. All this under one common denominator, that of Progress with a capital ‘P’, and see how it encloses all that suffering within itself?

But rest assured, there’s a lot more than this going on. Abercrombie skirted away from the Union after the excellent Last Argument of Kings. We caught glimpses, here and there, of changes, particularly in the excellent Red Country, but the streets of Adua were left closed to us for over a decade until September 2019 rolled along. To date, I think this is the only book I’ve ever pre-ordered from a UK-based bookstore; goes to show you my excitement for it.

Why the hell did it take me so long to get to it?!*

A Little Hatred makes the beginning of Abercrombie’s first trilogy seem sluggish by comparison; from the first, the personalities of each Point-of-View character shine through. No handholding here, no soft introduction to the world and characters. Tragedies, both personal and socio-political see a new generation of characters challenged from the get-go.

The theatres of operations, as it were, are centered around the latest external conflict with the North and the internal tension within the Union itself. In the North, Black Calder’s bloodthirsty son is on the offensive against the Union’s Protectorate ran by old favourite Dogman; his daughter, Rikke, is in a whole lot of shit for more than one reason – to start with, she’s got the magical Long Eye, which gives her glimpses of the future while suffering bouts of agonizing epilepsy. Matching wits with the Wolf of the North is Leo dan Brock, the soon-to-be Lord Governor of Angland, who is at once likable and a reckless idiot. Don’t worry, I spoil nothing, you pick that vibe up on the very first page he’s on.

The Union is a different story altogether, a den of intrigue, full of serpents, the biggest ones some of our main characters, Savine dan Glokta and Vick Teufel – everything’s changed, everything’s the same, and you can’t help but love it to death. Also in the Union but removed, at first, from the heart of intrigue and conflict either by drunken uselessness and privilege or by post-traumatic stress disorder are Prince Orso and former farmer-turned-soldier Broad, a family man excellent at violence and little else. Orso, despite being one of the most disliked men in the Union – and considered spineless by virtually everyone – is a decent human being, though it takes him a little while to realize it. Between you and me, I’m not sure it’ll last

Fan-favourites from days gone by come back, as well – His Eminence, Sand dan Glokta the most prominent among them, his iron grip over the Union seemingly slipping due to the pressure of internal and external forces alike. Finree dan Brock also plays the role of governor and general of Angland’s armies, as does a brittle, severely damaged Dogman.

More than one chapter makes for a masterclass in the writer’s craft. CHAPTER NAME puts two of the most cutthroat characters in the novel, Savine dan Glokta and Vick Teufel face to face; it’s a moment of reflection for both as they look in a mirror, each seeing the other as the opposite of what they are while unconscious of how similar they view the world. Here’s Savine reflecting on the woman in front of her:

It was not mockery, exactly. They simply both knew that Teufel had seen things, suffered things, overcome things that Savine would never have to. Would never dare to. She needed no wigs or powder to hide behind. She sat safe in the certainty that she was carved from fire-toughened wood, and could break Savine in half with those veined coal miner’s hands if she pleased.

A page and a half later, Vick observes, “It wasn’t mockery, exactly. They just both knew that savine had more manners, money and beauty in one quim hair than Vick could’ve dug from her whole acquaintance. She sat safe on invisible cushions of power and privilege, knowing she could buy and sell Vick on a whim.” Funny how two of the most ruthless characters Abercrombie has written have so much in common without either realizing it – the world I look forward to seeing them share the page again as by the end of A Little Hatred at least one of them has undergone a metamorphosis the kind you’ll have to read to believe. 

And of course, it wouldn’t be Abercrombie if he didn’t have a scene or two full of hopping into the heads of minor characters. I love this contrivance because it’s an excellent way to sketch out significant events from points of view other than those already established. Abercrombie does more in forcing me to care about a minor character with two pages than some authors do with entire books. If that isn’t proof of his skill, I don’t know wot is!

Beyond the glorious escapism, A Little Hatred examines themes relevant to the socio-political environment we all live in. The Gurkish Empire, the ‘bad guy’ of the First Law trilogy, has suffered through political collapse; as a result, the Union is struggling with wave after wave of refugees; late in the novel, one character tells another:

‘Lot of brown faces around,’ he said, frowning.
‘Troubles in the South. Refugees are pouring across the Circle Sea, seeking new lives.’
‘Fought a war against the Gurkish thirty years ago, didn’t we? You sure they can be trusted?’
‘Some can and some can’t, I would’ve thought. Just like Northmen. Just like anyone. And they’re not all from Gurkland…Dozens of languages. Dozens of cultures. And they’ve chosen to come here. Makes you proud, doesn’t it?’
‘If you say so.’ *Redacted* knew nothing about those places except that he didn’t want the Union to become one of them. He took no pride in the watering down of his homeland’s character. … ‘Just…hardly feels like the Union’s the Union anymore.’
‘Surely the great strength of the Union has always been its variety. That’s why they call it a Union. 

Bit of a scathing critique, that, if you think about it. And you will think about it, unlike the character whose name I’ve redacted. It’s this kind of social commentary that makes for an excellent argument on the merits of fantasy in exposing the faults of our own world. Escapism, but not just.

Examined also is the “nothing can stand before profit” mentality of the hyper-rich, most directly through the character of Savine dan Glokta, who suffers from the same condition of her father in the previous trilogy, in that she does have internal morals and can recognize her actions as wrong but does not allow them to stand in her way. That’s what made Sand the most memorable character in the First Law trilogy and it is what makes me so fascinated with Savine.

Abercrombie’s A Little Hatred is a revelation, and if you haven’t yet read it, it’s well past time that you do. This is a modern masterwork; my score for it is an unapologetic 10/10. I cannot wait to see the challenges and changes all these characters, and their supporting casts, will go through over the next two novels as The Age of Madness shambles onwards. The themes I illustrated are but a handful of the ones you can find in this opening act and I encourage you to read with care, conscious of this adult, intelligent novel. It has plenty to say, long as you are willing to listen.

*If you must know, I moved from one apartment to another, then bode my time until I had the chance to fully submerse myself in this work. I do not regret it, not even a little bit.

Only autographed book I own!