The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan – Book Review Repost

Series: The Black Iron Legacy # 1
Published by: Orbit
Genre: Dark Fantasy, Grimdark, High Fantasy
Pages: 544 (kindle edition)
Review Format: e-book
Purchased Copy.

I enjoy playing catch-up at year’s end – time is ever a limited resource and great books fall through the cracks more often than I’d like. One such prime example is The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, the first part in The Black Iron Legacy sequence, a wildly imaginative work. This is the author’s debut and it has put Hanrahan on just about every book blogger’s radar, at least in my tiny corner of the internet. Many have called it “the best debut of 2019” and now that I’ve read it, I can see why.

The Gutter Prayer is immensely imaginative, one of the first books I would hand over to someone who used to love fantasy but has gotten worn down by the conventions of the genre. It is an ambitious novel, unafraid to tackle the nature of gods and their relationship with their faithful, as well as economic inequality, the effects on deadly disease ravaging through the populace and more.

Guerdon is a fully realized city, every detail you could ask for mapped out and integrated into a heterogenous whole. I wouldn’t say it’s seamlessly done – no great city, no harbor port town in our own history could be described as seamless in that sense – but it is masterfully executed. This is a city of industry, with all that comes with that, from the shit-filled gutters and quarters dominated by crime and poverty and the stone plague to the homes of the middle-class and the boroughs of the rich, all the way to the city-within-a-city that is the Alchemist guild’s district. And that’s not even touching on the catacombs and tunnels down below, housing their own chthonic horrors…

So much is at play here, and it is slowly revealed through the eyes of an increasing cast of stellar characters, the first among which is a gutter rat of a thief called Cari, the lost daughter of a once-prominent Guerdon family. Cari is angry, brash and vengeful but above all else, she is as unlucky as they come, as before too long at all, she finds herself under the assault of strange, nightmarish visions whose appearance spells a great deal of trouble not only for Cari but for the city entire.

Her two friends, Spar and Rat – a Stone Man and a ghoul, respectively – further complicate matters. Spar is afflicted with a disease that slowly turns him to stone from the inside out. Before too long, he will be a prisoner of his own body, a living statue dependent on the mercy of others, until his lungs, his heart, his veins and blood also harden and calcify and he expires. The only stop-gap measure is an alchemical compound known as alkahest, expensive and difficult to get unless given directly by the Alchemist Guild; which is why so many Stone Men work as manual labourers for the Guild. But Spar doesn’t work for the alchemists– no, he’s part of the Brotherhood, a Thieves’ Guild, if you will, once under the control of Spar’s father Igde – an idealist who exemplified the romantic Robin Hood mentality of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor –  but now under new, far more cutthroat, less idealistic management. I didn’t necessarily like Spar for the first half of the novel; he’s hard-headed and obstinate, just like his decisions. But he grew on me, just like that crystalline formation keeps growing on him, taking away the physical boundaries of his humanity one inch at a time.

The ghoul, Rat, is a young member in a race of psychopomps, creatures that feed not only on dead flesh but on the souls of the dead, delivering them to the bosom of the Keeper gods, one would think. They’re a fun lot, ghouls are, and Rat most of all.

Ghouls love their eldritch mysterious stairwells descending infinitely into fucking shit-and-mushroom town.

Other characters also loan us readers their headspace – Jere, a thief-taker; an assistant at the university of Guerdon; a saint or two. These myriad viewpoints allow for a depth of experiences within the world, a mapping out of the different layers of society within this city. It’s downright Dickensian in how Guerdon is itself not only the battleground of so many different ways of life trying to assert themselves over the others, but a main character in its own right.

The city hasn’t slept. It staggers, drunktired, into the new day, uncertain of everything and looking for a fight.

Written in the present tense, it might take you a chapter or three of getting used to if you’re as used to reading in the past tense as I am – it’s certainly no hindrance to the enjoyment of The Gutter Prayer. I suspect Hanrahan chose it in order to further reinforce the feeling of immediacy in the action that often dominates the pages of the novel.

I must commend the author for the glossary of delightful monstrosities within these pages, from the alchemists’ insane servants, the Tallowmen with their wax bodies and sharp axes:

Before they can get to it, the door opens and out comes a Tallowman. Blazing eyes in a pale, waxy face. He’s an old one, worn so thin he’s translucent in places, and the fire inside him shines through holes in his chest. He’s got a huge axe, bigger than Cari could lift, but he swings it easily with one hand. He laughs when he sees her and Rat outlined against the fire.

all the way to the Gullheads; from the cursed Stone Men who become stronger the more their deadly disease progresses, to The Fever Knight, a creature of nightmare held together within its plate armour. Oh, and if these aren’t enough, there’s also worm-people, the arcane and utterly disgusting Crawling Ones:

Its voice is oddly musical and warm, but behind it she can hear the flapping and slithering of the worms, like hot fat on a frying pan. “What, may we ask, brings you walking in the places beneath?” It extends a cloth-wrapped “hand” to Aleena and helps her up. She feels worms pop and squish beneath the cloth as she pulls herself upright.

Ew. The descriptions of all these creatures lean almost towards the grotesque but they are all so very excellent. The cover, too, is a work of art, capturing the tone of the book perfectly – illustrated by Richard Anderson and designed by Steve Panton, it is nothing short of exquisite. If you take a look at it, you’ll get an idea, a feeling of what exactly awaits and this is witness to the makings of a great book cover.

Something that left a bit of a negative impression – I spied quite a few typos, an unusual number for an Orbit-published book. Something that could be cleaned up from the ebook and future reprints but at this point, I’m wondering whether to start offering my services as a copyreader.

Politics, magic, religion and alchemy all come to a head in The Gutter Prayer. Driven by a stellar cast of characters and an enviable imagination, this book is a must-read for fantasy lovers. My score for Hanrahan’s debut is 5/5 stars. 

Originally published over at booknest.eu — I’m archiving all my older reviews on this here blog, as it would be easier to categorize them all.

Darkest Dungeon: The Butcher’s Circus – A Free Mode Nobody Wanted

The Butcher’s Circus offers one thing I never thought to see in the Darkest Dungeon – a PvP mode! I could hardly believe it when I first saw the announcement. But curiosity won out in the end, and here I am, sharing with you my impressions – short as they are.

The narrator makes his return with a few blood-curdling lines, but I think voice actor Wayne June could’ve been commissioned to do some shoutcrafting along the lines of “The Vestal breathes her last under the eldritch horrors of the Occultist.” That would’ve shown some extra commitment to the mode.

It’s not a bad piece of free content to dabble in – but it is also absolutely not the kind of content I expected to ever see from this game. At the foundation of Darkest Dungeon has always been a test of endurance – for the characters, in their repeated attempts to map out the Estate of the Ancestor while surviving its untold horrors; and for the player, as he learns to cope with mechanics which often might leave him furious with the injustice of it all.

The aspect which makes this entire mode infuriating is the Death’s Door mechanic. Logic dictates, the folks at Red Hook Studios should’ve removed or heavily modified it. Death’s Door, for those not in the know-how, is a last chance for your characters to survive at zero hp – the name says it all. Your adventurer can die immediately on the first hit after they fall to zero hp, or they could take five or more hits and still, miraculously be alive. Can you see the problem such a mechanic imposes on the game in a PvP setting? Yup, it’s all about that sweet, sweet RNG – which causes plenty of people to play with specific builds in mind, builds which rely on a sure-fire way to win. These builds are all about increasing the stress of your characters to 200, at which point they get a heart attack and die. This is the kind of meta born out of necessity and not particularly enjoyable to engage in – and I picked up on it after but a few matches.

I’ve also heard about disconnect issues – and that whole menagerie of problems so common to many multiplayer modes of otherwise stellar singleplayer games. My advice? If you’re a committed Darkest Dungeon fan, skip this mode and keep your eye on news for the release of the sequel – and if you’re brand new, just play the bloody main game already. If I hear you complaining about having no games to play one more time, I’m gonna smack you!

Maybe there’s more to the Butcher’s Circus. Maybe it’s aimed at a different kind of player, the kind that enjoyed the combat of the game more than any other element, and that kind of player will find the testing of wits against living opponents a challenge worthy of sinking a dozen hours, or more. But with a meta game that forces you to play in one certain way over others, that seems to be very unlikely. That said, Red Hook studios has always listened to their players – I am curious to see if they will show the initiative to tackle the Death’s Door issue, at the very least.

Along the Razor’s Edge (The War Eternal #1) by Rob J. Hayes – Book Review

Review originally posted over at: Booknest.eu
Release Date: March 30, 2020
Published by: Self-Published
Genre: Fantasy, Grimdark
Pages: 281
Format: ebook
Review Copy: Provided by the author in return for an honest review.

What Rob J. Hayes has done in Along the Razor’s Edge cements his place as one of the masters of grimdark fantasy.

I’ve taken my time getting to the review of this book, the first of an ambitious new trilogy Rob has decided to release over the next few months of 2020, starting March 31, just a little over a month as of the time of writing of this review. There’s plenty I want to say, and I will begin with this: as soon as I was finished with Razor’s Edge, I was desperate for more. Perhaps this doesn’t sound like great praise to you but keep in mind, only a few fantasy authors in my adulthood have awoken in me the desire to dive into their fictional worlds without so much as a breath of something different in-between – Sanderson, Joe Abercrombie, Brian McClellan, Steven Erikson.

Eskara Helsene is a Sourcerer of great potential, capable of holding up to five Sourcery stones in her stomach at any one time, she is a deadly trump card for the Orean Empire and a fierce combatant against their Terrelan foe. Or she was, anyway, before the side she fought the war on lost. Now, Eskara is a captive, one of thousands of the foes of the victorious Terrelans stuck in The Pit, a hole in the ground in which the prisoners are forced into performing endless Sisyphean labour every day of their miserable existence. Digging rocks, dragging them out and then digging yet more rocks. “Maybe it was just punishment; never-ending, pointless toil down in the dark. The sure, unwavering knowledge that nothing we did or said meant a damned thing. A punishment worse than death. Irrelevance.” The Pit is made to break people, not just physically but psychologically shatter them as well.

But Eskara will not be broken. Despite betrayal by her closest friend and beatings at the hands of a sadistic foreman at the opening of Razor’s Edge, despite the lack of food and rest and even sunlight, this fifteen-year-old girl refuses to surrender. She draws strength from the daily cruelties perpetrated against her, turns it all into smouldering fury. All-consuming rage is perhaps one of the most sure-fire mechanisms of survival and it serves Eskara well but like the Source inside her belly, it too is poisonous the longer she carries it inside. Do not mistake this for flat characterization. Though Eskara is dominated by fury and pride, her emotions go further; it’s the inability to express them that speaks of a character deeply scarred and emotionally curbed from childhood. What she uses as a crutch is her power: “…I wouldn’t trade my magic for all the meals and sleep in the world. I love the power far too much.” Eskara defines herself through her Sourcery, even in the Pit.

The strongest element in Hayes’ work has to do with character voice; the narrator is none other than Eskara herself – but an older, world-weary Eskara, one for whom the Pit is in the far-off past, though it’s obvious through her narrative that it’s a gangrenous wound that this older Sourcerer has not wholly escaped from. Foreshadowing, done right, can add so much to a work of fiction. Rob does it right, as well as Gene Wolfe in the genre-defying Book of the New Sun. Though these are two very different stories, they share strands of DNA not in voice alone but also in the primal fear of deep, dark places far underneath the surface they both seize. They share, too, well-crafted prose, every word fitting into the greater whole like pieces of a puzzle. So often I come across self-published fantasy works whose occasional smattering of modern parlance comes across as staggering discrepancy, and indeed, I recall even the first of the author’s books I read, City of Kings had the occasional incongruity in this way; not so with Hayes’ latest.

Another strong element of this title is the magical system. A cool, imaginative twist on the schools of magic you might be familiar with, the magic in this world is internally consistent and what I’d call “hard” magic. It’s powered by Source stones the Sourcerer must swallow, each stone with a different magical affinity. There’s plenty more of it than that and suffice to say, I’m excited to see its further complexities reveal themselves.

I would be remiss not to mention the cast of characters. Though I don’t intend on calling each one out, I have to commend Rob for his handling of the dynamics between Eskara and her fellow Sourcerer, Josef. Few in the Pit are what you might call “nice people,” and Eskara is nowhere near as good at making friends as she is at making enemies, but a few allies are nonetheless in the cards for her and the intricacies of their relationships intertwined make for an additional layer of human drama.

The novel is an intelligent work about the costs of perseverance fuelled by the basest human emotions. As thrilling as this first chapter in Eskara’s tale is, it offers caution too. Though anger keeps her alive – that’s no great spoiler, I think, as the older Eskara’s narration is immediately evident – the urge to lash out at those around her costs our protagonist immeasurably much.  

Shall we speak of the cover art? Felix Ortiz continues to outdo himself and if you don’t believe me, come back over at booknest.eu tomorrow, because I have a special treat for you – Rob has given me the absolute pleasure of revealing the cover for Along the Razor’s Edge’s sequel, The Lessons Never Learned!

In the end, I am excited – excited to see the world outside the Pit, excited to see Rob follow-up on what is the best example of foreshadowing I’ve come across since Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, excited for more of Eskara beyond all else. This is my Fantasy Read of the Month; I am happy to give it a full score of 10/10. I consider this a grimdark masterpiece, and an early contender for my favourite opening of a series for the year.

Synopsis:

No one escapes the Pit. At just fifteen Eskara Helsene fought in the greatest war mankind has ever known. Fought and lost. There is only one place her enemies would send a Sourcerer as powerful as her, the Pit, a prison sunk so deep into the earth the sun is a distant memory. Now she finds herself stripped of her magic; a young girl surrounded by thieves, murderers, and worse. In order to survive she will need to find new allies, play the inmates against each other, and find a way out. Her enemies will soon find Eskara is not so easily broken.

The Shadow Saint by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan – Book Review

Series: The Black Iron Legacy # 2
Published by: Orbit
Genre: Dark Fantasy, Grimdark, High Fantasy
Pages: 567
Format: e-book
Review Copy Courtesy of NetGalley

If you haven’t read The Gutter Prayer and don’t know if you want to, read my review of it here.

The Gutter Prayer was an exceptional debut – no matter how hard I thought about the story, I couldn’t find anything wrong with it! In The Shadow Saint, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan opens up Guerdon to all-new existential threats, which our cast of new and returning heroes are sorely lacking in preparation for; while some characters were dearly missed, their absence keenly felt at one time or another, the cast swells with memorable new names.

I spoke last time of how Guerdon was akin to a living being, a city of immense character equalled by Dickens’ London in Bleak House, for example; what I had not foreseen back when I first drew the comparison was that one of the major characters of the first novel would literally transform into a large part of the city. Following the Gutter Miracle which took place during the culmination of the first novel, Guerdon has undergone a transformation; the so-called New City is a triumph of one man’s will, an organism made of stone with a benevolent will of its own. But some things remain the same:

Feverish, pugnacious, the city is alive in a way she hasn’t seen since before the Crisis. She can almost forget that, less than a year ago, this square was besieged by monsters. When the gutters ran with blood, and the sky filled with vengeful gods.

Time and again, Hanrahan shows mastery over character voice. Eladora’s introspections are an academic’s curiosity through and through (I would know); the spy, meanwhile, thinks exactly as a spy would, studying every angle, observing every situation, looking always for an edge to gain on everyone else for his own purposes. His masks take on a life of their own, personas he puts on and then discards. Some stick, however, and this allows us to touch upon a topic of great interest to me – just when does pretense turn to reality? The spy’s point of view is masterful – not since Sins of Empire have I come across such a compelling shadow operative. And this one, with all due respect to Brian, would run circles around Michel. 

The Haithian, Terevant’s, way of viewing the world is that of a poet in a soldier’s uniform. I adored the story of this failed officer, a failed younger scion of the powerful Everesic family, as he sought to redeem himself in the eyes of kin and country, only to realize…but no, that would spoil something, wouldn’t it? “He dislikes feeling hollow. He wants to be on his way already, to fill himself with purpose.”  Terevant has a lot going for him, and his storyline is satisfying from beginning to end.

I took great pleasure in Eladora’s stolen moments of thaumaturgical studies, the magic system Hanrahan employs is interesting and costly to the caster:

She clenches her first, slowly, imagining the spell paralyzing a target, holding them in unseen chains of sorcery- but then she loses control, the magic slipping through her fingers. For a moment, her hand feels like she’s thrust it into an open fire, the unseen chains suddenly turned to molten metal, her skin blistering. A spell gone awry can discharge unpredictably – if she swallows the power she’s drawn down, she can ground it inside her body, risking internal damage. If she lets it go, she might ignite something, and this cramped backroom in the IndLib’s parliamentary office is crammed with papers and books.

But a little magic is far from the most interesting skill Eladora acquires. Her evolution through The Shadow Saint marks the best character arc Hanrahan has written yet and I look forward to seeing how it’ll resolve in the third book of the series. There’s a lot of her former teacher Ongent in Eladora – as much, perhaps, as the effects of the Thay blood she was so uncomfortable with, in The Gutter Prayer.

The spy – his endgame is such a good fucking mystery. I’m proud of calling his true identity about mid-way through. Still there was plenty to surprise me, and I wish, I really wish I could gush about how cool all of it is – but I dare not.

What I missed, more than anything else, was the active part the Alchemists’ guild previously took in the political and social life of Guerdon. The horrid Tallowmen are gone, and so are the other vat-grown monstrosities that so chilled and thrilled me and many others. A little something was teased out towards the end of the novel, to do with a certain alchemist who appeared  previously – which gives me hope that this most devious of players on Guerdon’s political board will make her return before all is said and done.

The Keeper Church, meanwhile, features prominently throughout. I, like Eladora, missed Aleena, the fuming, cursing, flame-wielding saint of the Church; the Keeper Gods have kept busy after her fall, and have made themselves a fair amount of crazy idiot saints. Fanatics, plenty of fanatics – and you’ll love to hate them, just as I did.

I appreciated what Hanrahan showed us of the world outside the city of Guerdon – the necromantic empire of Haith, a place in which the dead have long since outnumbered the living, once the greatest power in the world – now in retreat before an enemy that defies even their countless undead hordes; glimpses of Ishmere, with their mad gods, thirsty for ever greater expansion. Oh, and a cartel ran by dragons is a thing. Wicked, I know.

Supporting character, whether new or returning ones, left an impression. Politician and reformist Effro Kelkin makes a return after his miraculous survival, attempting to finagle his way back to power. I love the man, and this description encapsulates everything great about his character: “He manages to be simultaneously the wily old trickster who knows how to pull every lever and work every cheat in the system, and the firebrand who’s going to burn it all down and build something better…A better tomorrow, if only you’ll believe in him – and yourself. No guilds, no gods – just honest hard work, charity and integrity.” Great character, possibly born in the wrong world. Other supporting characters I cheered for include the Haithian war hero Olthic, brother to Terevant, who works to make an ally of Guerdon, no matter the results of the oncoming election; a career politician who switches affiliations faster than I switch hairstyles; Ramegos, a brilliant thaumaturgist whose knowledge is indispensable to the IndLibs and Eladora alike; and Emlyn, a child-saint whose story is intricately linked to that of the spy.

I continue to fall in love with this world and characters, the more I think about them. As I revisit the hundred passages I’ve highlighted for one reason or another, I am awed by the mastery Hanrahan shows – in quality of his prose, in the mastery of voice, in the deep worldbuilding he’s woven into this story of saints and mad gods. This is my book of January 2020, no doubt about it. My score for The Shadow Saint is 5/5 stars. The Black Iron Legacy series is worth every hour you’ll put into it, every minute. Every fucking second.

This review was originally published over at Booknest.eu.

Sharp Ends by Joe Abercrombie – Book Review Excerpt

This review is posted in full over at booknest.eu! It’s my longest ever review, and I’m wondering whether to publish each of the short stories as a separate blog post over here at the Reliquary. What do you think?

Anyway, here goes:

Abercrombie’s prose is exceptional. His First Law novels are as successful as they are not only because of the unforgettable characters and the breathtaking twists, or because of the brutal world he’s created, one of the sheerest bloody realistic depictions of a world I’ve ever encountered. He’s one of my favourite authors, and for good reason – I’m not pledging to be impartial, but I will do my best to contain my enthusiasm over the next few paragraphs! Okay, lots of paragraphs. Lots and lots of paragraphs.

I’ll say a few words about each of the short stories in the collection, starting off with whether it’s recommended or downright necessary to have read any of the First Law stand-alone novels to get what’s going on.

A Beautiful Bastard

Colonel Sand dan Glokta is a bastard. To anyone who’s read the First Law trilogy, that’ll come as no surprise. He’s a damn likable bastard too, owing to the fact that he tends to wax poetical about life and it’s many and terrible injustices, which Glokta goes on to perpetrate in the course of one of the finest fantasy trilogies. A Beautiful Bastard is before all that, before the Gurkish got their hands on the finest fencer of the Union and ruined his body. Hours, if not minutes before, to be exact – this story takes place on the day when Glokta’s self-aggrandizement leads him to lead a doomed defense on a bridge being overrun by the Gurkish.

The story draws you in quickly enough, and then it thrashes you around with one of the finest descriptions I’ve ever read:

But Glokta was an utter bastard. A beautiful, spiteful, masterful, horrible bastard, simultaneously the best and worst man in the Union. He was a tower of self-centred self-obsession. An impenetrable fortress of arrogance. His ability was exceeded only by his belief in his own ability… Glokta was a veritable tornado of bastardy, leaving a trail of flattened friendship, crushed careers and mangled reputations in his heedless wake. 
His ego was so powerful it shone from him like a strange light, distorting the personalities of everyone around him at least halfway into being bastards themselves. …most committed followers of the Gurkish religion were expected to make the pilgrimage to Sarkant. In the same way, the most committed bastards might be expected to make a pilgrimage to Glokta. …He had acquired a constantly shifting coteries of bastards streaming after him like the tail after a comet.  (5-6)

This is exactly the kind of Abercrombie prose that shines and glitters on the page. The ironic undertone, the sheer emotional charge of it; and at the end of the day, it encapsulates his character at this point in time so well.           

And of course, if the description wasn’t enough, Glokta finds a perfect way to show how much of a spiteful bastard he is to the only true friend he’s had, Goleem West, who just so happens to be one of the finest side characters Abercrombie wrote in the original First Law trilogy. Oh, and there’s Corporal Tunny who will be known to anyone and everyone familiar with The Heroes. He’s the best. And the worst.

This story was the perfect kick-off to an anthology filled with Abercrombie. My score for A Beautiful Bastard is 4.5/5 – because it’s the perfect comfort food of First Law stories, because the style and voice and prose are as sharp as the pointy end of Glokta’s steels but it doesn’t add any new, unknown dimensions to the tried-and-tested Glokta mix.

Small Kindnesses 

Do I need to read any of the standalone First Law novels to get what’s going on? Nope, this one is quite alright with First Law trilogy knowledge, or even without it!

“Small Kindnesses” introduces us to Shev, a thief of great skill and some renown, and to Javre, The Lioness of Hoskopp. A young Severard (one of Sand dan Glokta’s right-hand men) makes an appearance too, though it’s hardly something more than a cameo. Shev’ though barely entering her twenties, is already tired of the thieving life and is actively trying to get out of it when, of course, the local crime lord’s son has to drag her back into it. So Shev does a job – and she does it fairly well, top marks for the way the action scene is written and for Shev’s crabby luck – but some people just aren’t happy at all with what they get, and our thief ends up in a tight spot. There’s a lot going on in here, and Javre and Shev have incredible chemistry as soon as both are on the page together and conscious. 

What’s even more excellent is, the story of Shev and Javre doesn’t end here – no, this is just the beginning of some of the wackiest adventures in the First Law universe! We’ll get back to them when we get back to them. 4.5/5 – because I know how much more hilarious the pair’s adventuring is about to get.

Book Review: Melokai by Rosalyn Kelly: The Good, The Bad, The Meh

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I received Melokai for free as part of r/fantasy’s TBRindr initiative, meant to popularize and highlight the works of independently published authors.

Melokai’s opening held a great deal of promise, which could’ve propelled the story forward. Unfortunately, this novel didn’t ultimately deliver on the promises made, both by its opening and its cover. Before I get down to the Good, Bad and Meh, I would like to state that this review represents only my opinion of Melokai. Although my opinion leans to the negative, many have enjoyed this world and the last thing I want to do is belittle the author’s labour in putting together this novel. It is my hope to provide what amounts to constructive criticism below.

With that in mind, let’s jump into the specifics!

THE BAD

  • Melokai Ramya: A novel lives or dies by its lead and the eponymous Melokai is not a character whose headspace I enjoyed sharing. She is often cruel–and casually so, for no other purpose than cruelty’s sake, best displayed when she orders an ambassador castrated and his tongue cut for being too presumptuous.
    Cruelty alone makes for an unlikable character but it’s okay for the main character to be unlikable, especially at the start of a novel. Gully Foyle was unlikable for a good portion of “Tiger!Tiger!”, and Senlin of more recent “Books of Babbel” fame also started off as unlikable, only to grow to be one of my favourite protagonists in recent years. No, what makes Ramya a bad character is the fact that I didn’t buy into her believability.
    Very early on, the novel as much as tells us this is a woman among women, a skilled and wise leader who’s led her nation of female mountain warriors for twelve years. The moment she falls for a savage, all that goes out of the window, in a time of crisis when her country needs her most.  I suspect it was the author’s intent to write someone conflicted between love and duty; execution falls well short of that. Ramya comes off as the main architect of her own destruction (and of everything she holds dear), with virtually all problems that befall her a result of her inaction. I can see the potential of this idea–I love seeing characters come undone under the weight of their mistakes(take for example Roland of Gilead, the protagonist of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series)–but the decisions Ramya made didn’t engage me in any meaningful way. The fact that very little happens with this supposed legendary warrior until the last few chapters doesn’t help.
  • The Dialogue: Too many characters read similar, came off as bland, and the choice of words didn’t fit the world of the novel.
  • Most PoV characters suffer from the same issues the Melokai does — they’re self-absorbed, never change or grow in a real, convincing way.
  • Gratuitous sexual content: I appreciate sexual content in novels when it has a purpose. A well-placed scene of the sexual act can be used to the benefit of a story — Joe Abercrombie’s “Best Served Cold” has an excellent scene which furthers both the inter-character conflict and the entire plot of the novel. Melokai’s sex scenes are often brutal and shocking while offering the plot very little of significance. Explicit sex content may be a mainstay in grimdark fantasy but
  • The Writing Style: Simple and too lean by far for my tastes.
  • SPOILERS: The ending, in which the Melokai, while fighting to save her beloved and her newborn baby’s life, decides to toy with a particularly grating princeling instead of cutting him down with the ease she’s able to. This scene had me fuming since it was the first time since the beginning of the book during which I was actively engaged with what was happening; until, of course, what little of Ramya’s personality I bought into was overwritten by something I can’t ever buy in the mother of a newborn — the decision to play with an opponent when she could’ve cut him down. 

THE MEH

  • V: The only human character I was interested in, V did not share all the problems I had with other PoV characters.
  • The Swear Words: Despite years of Pavlovian-like training under Brandon Sanderson and Brian McClellan’s made-up swear words, I still don’t find them particularly endearing. “Zhaq” did nothing for me, nor did the other terms.
  • The Wolves: Interesting but difficult to visualize at times.

THE GOOD

  • A great many good ideas: Though the execution is sloppy as I’ve discussed above, I appreciate what Rosalyn Kelly was going for.
  • The Worldbuilding: A nation ruled by women, wolves walking on two legs, cats speaking, these elements make for only a small part of what Melokai has to offer. I was interested in these different cultures and enjoyed learning more about them. The matriarchal society, in particular, was quite interesting to learn about, what with placing men in the position of slaves and worse.
  • The Cover: It’s the kind of cover that draws you in and awakens your curiosity. Whether the book delivered on the image’s promise or not, I can’t deny its a strong image, this one.
  • Adaptive People: People adapt according to their habitat. I don’t recall any explanation on how that worked, but it’s a very interesting idea.

The Verdict

I had a hard time finishing this book. Despite my initial enthusiasm, this was not the sort of grimdark novel I enjoy. Too much felt pointless to me. I enjoy grimdark not for the cruel and vile actions that this subgenre often employs, but for the way characters are shaped by and overcome all manner of hardships (if only to fail miserably at the end). Melokai didn’t offer any characters I found compelling; I appreciate the work author Rosalyn Kelly has put into it but I got very little enjoyment in my time with this particular novel.

Many others did, though! I encourage you to read through several of the four- and five-star reviews on Melokai’s Goodreads page to receive perspectives different from my own. Perhaps what they enjoyed will resonate with you more than my own views. And of course, the best way to make up your own mind is to read it yourself!

 

 

Book Review: The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

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Once upon a time, I read Half a King by Joe Abercrombie and was quite fond of it.

Half a King was a wonderful entry into the unique brand of subversive storytelling Abercrombie is famed for. It was a thrill to go through but now that I’ve read four of the six First Law books (the First Law Trilogy and ‘Best Served Cold,’ which introduced me to one of my all-time favourite female protagonists)  I can safely say, the First Law is what  food is to the prisoners of a Siberian penal colony!

You’re impressed by my uncanny ability to make up weird and frighteningly specific similes, I know.

Just before I begin the review in earnest, allow me to say…I finally read it! I’ve had this trilogy for a shamefully long period of time, without ever touching it for reasons that elude me and defy reason! With this out of the way…

What’s the Blade Itself all about? Ask our old friend, Homer, and he’ll give you an excellent answer: ‘The blade itself incites to deeds of violence*.’ See? Even Homer read The First Law trilogy. It’s that good! It incites even the temporal laws of the universe to violate themselves!

The world of the First Law will, at first glance, seem no more or less alien than any other epic fantasy world you might’ve explored. A great and wise Magi is to be found, a bloodthirsty barbarian fights for his survival, a cruel Inquisitor tortures both the guilty and the innocent for his own advancement, and a young nobleman and soldier prepares for a test of skill, which can see him become champion of the Union.

Dig deeper, and you’ll discover few things are as they first appear — Inquisitor Sand dan Glokta is a man deliciously cynical but to whom there is more than is readily obvious; Logen Ninefingers, a blood-thirsty barbarian by reputation wants nothing more than to leave that reputation behind; our young, dashing officer Lothar is as cowardly as he is pleasant to look at–and oh, how handsome he is. Even our wizard hides within layer upon layer, every one stranger than the one before it. The only character who doesn’t seem to go against my first impression of her was Ferro, the fugitive slave from Gurkhul, the Union’s Southern neighbour and favourite country to go to war with due to reasons way too complex and spoiler-y to explain here; and I quite understand a former slave wanting nothing more than to murder her former slavers.

Dozens of other characters, both likeable ones and absolute bastards are to be found within the pages of The First Law.  None lack in character, none come off as anything less than real human beings with their own motivations and goals, and those come off starkly in conflict with what our protagonists are attempting to accomplish. The conflicts can be very clear-cut, with impressive battle and chase scenes; other times, they’re much more discrete, happening during spectacularly written pieces of dialogue which may leave goosebumps all over your body.

Abercrombie’s battles deserve mention, both for the excellent description and the cost they exact upon the characters who take part in them. War is not without cost, regardless whether you come out on top and the author makes a wonderful job of illustrating what a toil war bears.

Possible problems you might have with The Blade Itself:

  • The plot moves slowly. I never once had an issue with that, because it didn’t feel like pointless build-up to me; exciting and interesting events happened throughout, but we did spend a lot of time in a single city, setting things up; totally worth it in my opinion, but some people are less patient and might not find it as enjoyable as I did, or at all.
  • You might not like the characters. But then again, that’s the risk with every book ever, so why am I drawing this out?!

The Blade Itself is a book about a few different things, and those work really, really well. It’s a character-driven story, a tale about a monarchy besieged on all sides by enemies just as all those enemies move to attack it; it’s a book that sets up one of the most subversive and genre-flipping stories I’ve read in recent memories; and it’s a treat of excellent worldbuilding that never once threatened to overwhelm or bore me.

Perhaps I was wrong to review it only after reading the entire trilogy and appreciating, in retrospect, just how well a number of mind-blowing events are set-up. If that is so — that’s my cross to bear, innit?

One last mention — the city of Adua, where a large portion of this book takes place, makes for a really awesome set piece. It’s majestic and beautiful, but deeply corrupt–three things I want in any city worth visiting! #visitAduanow

PS Yes, the cover above is from the audiobook version. I haven’t listened to it, so I can’t speak to the level of narration; the image was the most high-quality one I could find on the Interwebz.  Feel free to check the audiobook out, if that’s your thing, or if you spend three hours a day in a car, public transport or by train. Go trains!

Thank you for reading! I’ll be back soon with reviews of Before They Were Hanged and The Last Argument of Kings. If you enjoyed this review, please click that ‘Like’ button, and don’t be afraid to Follow me! Have you read the Blade Itself? Let me know what you thought about it in the comments below!  Go grimdark fantasy! Whooo!

 


*Quote in the Odyssey is from the beginning of book XIX , and is, depending on the translation, either For iron by itself can draw a man to use it’ or ‘Iron has powers to draw a man to ruin,’ both of which aren’t too far off from the quote presented above andat the beginning of The Blade Itself. It’s likely that Abercrombie mixed and blended the two translations, adding a bit of his own magic, which I’m all for.