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.
Hello and welcome! I’m Filip Magnus and I’m an English Studies major, currently doing a Theory of Literature class. I find it utterly fascinating and quite complex — so what better to do in order to learn more about Forms than to write about it on my blog?!
In this short series of blog posts, I’ll endeavour to break down Caroline Levine’s Forms to their very core without taking away too much of their hard meaning. I’ll be quoting directly from the book for the most part but I’ll also be splicing in a bit of my own commentary, as well as impressions and experience from Theory of Literature lectures and seminars. I won’t be giving many examples from the book — that’s no fun, and way too much in the way of copying. Instead, I’ll be making up some of my own later down the line! Besides, the book is not one of your absurdly expensive textbooks — you can grab it for a couple of dollars for the Kindle right now! Exciting, isn’t it?
The reason behind this entire exercise is two-fold; on one hand, both explaining something to others and writing down the ‘highlights’ has a positive didactive effect on assimilating complex ideas…and on the other, I would like to analyse some of my favourite SFF novels using these methods. So in the future, rather than referring to the book, I will be referring to these next few blog posts. Oh, there’s one more reason, in fact — I’ve been having this blog rust for too long now. No more! Time to go back to serious, regular content updates once again, folks. If you’re new here, that’s something we haven’t had since 2017.
But without further ado, let’s jump into it!
Caroline Levine opens the first chapter of Forms with an inquiry: Is the literary critic right to distinguish between the realm of the formal (i.e. aesthetics) and the social? Indeed, Levine’s proposed methodology is built on the notion of “expanding our usual definition of form in literary studies to include patterns of sociopolitical experience”. (1) The form of a literary text and its content need not be separated by a gap. Nor is there a need to limit our analyses only to literature — equipped with these types of forms Levine presents, we can analyse and understand sociopolitical institutions, as well. Forms are at work everywhere. *gasp*
But just what meaning should we place in this rather abstract term, what does Levine mean when she says “form”? In just about every science, natural or not, we can find a different meaning of the term so it’s only natural that some confusion — a lot of confusion — may arise. Levine admits that freely: “Even within literary studies, the vocabulary of formalism has always been a surprising kind of hodge-podge…”(2)
Rather than crumble underneath the weight of all these various meanings, Levine finds their existence refreshing, and even works it neatly into her argument — “Form has never belonged only to the discourse of aesthetics.” (2) Better yet, these different uses throughout history allow her to extrapolate a common definition: “‘form’ always indicates an arrangement of elements-an ordering, a patterning, or shaping. Any sort of structure, social or otherwise–all shapes, ordering principles, patterns of repettition and difference, all of these are forms.
To Levine, who defines politics as a matter of distributions and arrangements, this is obviously going to be a potent lens through which to view the sociopolitical state of the world. Political power is defined by the enforcement of boundaries, the organization of time and the imposition of hierarchies on experience. By Levine’s definition, these are all forms.
It’s this book’s task, then, to bring together the field’s dispersed insights into social and aesthetic forms to produce a new formalist method. To this end, five influential ideas are articulated(3-5):
Forms constrain: form is disturbing because it imposes powerful controls and containments. Critics, especially Marxists, have often read literary forms as attempts to contain social clashes and contradictions.
Forms differ: theorists of narrative have developed a rigid language when talking about formal differences among stories — such terms as frequency, duration, focalization, description, suspense, narrative voice, narrative distance, and so many more.
Various forms overlap and intersect: “Intersectional analysis emerged in the social sciences and cultural studies in the 1980s and focused our attention on how different social hierarchies overlap, sometimes powerfully reinforcing one another.
Forms travel. For one, certain literary forms like the epic, survive across cultures and time periods, enduring through vast spatial and temporal distances. Second, the structuralist school of thought made the case that human communities were organised by certain universal structures, binary oppositions such as masculine and feminine, light and dark, which impose a recognizable order across social and aesthetic experiences, from domestic spaces to tragic dramas. We’ll get to speaking about those when we talk about Antigone; plenty of binary opposites there.
Forms do political work in particular historical contexts.
Forms have Affordances
‘Affordance’ is a term borrowed from design theory. It is used to describe the potential uses or actions latent in materials and designs. For example, steel affords strengths, smoothness, hardness and durability. So do items made of it; but given their different designs, they adopt new affordances as well. A steel fork affords stabbing and scooping. For an inventive user, it can afford even more — things that are not readily obvious to most, like prying open a lid.
So it is that different forms have different affordances. Rhyme affords repetition, anticipation and memorization. Networks afford connection and circulation, narratives afford the connection of events over time, or even between events happening simultaneously. What conclusion should these wildly differing examples lead us to?
Forms are limiting and containing but in crucially different ways. Each form can only do so much.
We should further ask ourselves: What potentialities lie latent, obvious or not, in aesthetic and social arrangements?
There is one affordance all forms DO share — they are, each and every one of them, portable. They can be picked up and moved from one context to another.
Literature is not made of the material world it describes or invokes but of language, which lays claims to its own forms–syntactical, narrative, rhythmic, rhetorical–and its own materiality–the spoken word, the printed page. And indeed, each of these forms and materials lays claim to its own affordances–its own range of capabilities.
Affordances, at the end of the day, show us not only what forms are capable of but make us aware of their limitations as well.
Forms can only do their work in contexts where other political and aesthetic forms are also operating. Forms overlap one another, imposing their order and constraining the world in a variety of contexts.
Plenty interesting in this section but I’ll cut it down to the bare essentials. (A discussion on New Historicists, New Critics, and Marxist formalists is just some of what you’re missing out on).
We’ve already spoken how forms can be moved from one context to another. Let’s extend this logic to suppose that forms outlive the specific conditions that give birth to them. They stick around, available for reuse despite the change in ages; waning and waxing again, waiting to be brought back into the spotlight. They don’t belong to certain times and places — recall that the hero’s quest, originally began in the epic is now a favourite tool of the contemporary novelist.
Further attention at the historical study of such ‘holdover’ forms can only benefit those of the “nerw formalist” school of critical thought.
Forms also allow us to recognise configurations and arrangements which organize materials in distinct and iterable ways no matter what their context or audience might be.
Where politically minded new formalists or Marxists would read the text as a response to the immediate social world around it, Levine’s formalism is dependent on tracking the many organising principles (forms) that encounter one another inside as well as outside of a literary text. This book asks two questions: what does each form afford, and what happens when forms meet? (16)
From Causation to Collision
Levine doesn’t like the concept of causation. Nope, not even a little bit. She phrases it differently, of course: “…no form, however seemingly powerful, causes dominates, or organizes all others.” I’ll grab this rather direct quote from her book next, since it seems to me a striklingly good point:
This means that literary forms can lay claim to an efficacy of their own. They do not simply reflect or contain prior political realities. As different forms struggle to impose their order on our experience, working at different scales of our experience, aesthetic and political forms emerge as comparable patterns that operate on a common plane. I will show in this book that aesthetic and political forms may be nested inside one another, and that each is capable of disturbing the other’s organizing power.
This book puts an emphasis on social disorganization, exploring the many ways in which multiple forms of order, sometimes the results of the same powerful ideological formation, may unsettle one another.
Caroline Levine, Forms, 16
The key to social, long-lasting change, Levine seems to argue later on in this section, is knowledge of the forms governing social life, as well as of those forms that have the power to recognize and dismantle unjust, entrenched arrangements and oppressive social structures.
Enter “collision” — that event in which two or more forms encounter one another, to results both foreseeable and deeply unexpected. One of the purposes of Levine’s accent on these collisions, which we’ll talk about over the next few chapters, is to unsettle the explanatory power and critical influence of dialectic materialism. Not because binary opposition doesn’t exist but because it is, Levine argues, just one of a number of powerfully organizing forms. Many outcomes follow from other forms, where they aren’t necessarily related, oppposed, or deeply expressive, but simply happen to cross paths at a particular place and/or time.
See? Told you she has it in for the good ol’ causality concept.
Narratives are useful, valuable and posit a shortcut that allows for the study of many different forms interacting. Whethery they cooperate, come into conflict or otherwise overlap, a narrative will track these differing forms without posting an ultimate cause behind their setting in motion.
For Levine, fictional narratives are productive thought experiments that allow us to imagine the subtle unfolding activity of multiple social forms.
Levine’s insistence on narrative further thrusts her upon a reading of the plot that’s somewhat incongruous with other critical schools of thought. It’s a reading practice that does not fir any familiar formalism but draws from all of them.
What Follows Next
The last section in this introductory chapter Levine uses to preview the four major forms she’s decided to explore fully. She also introduces the questions she’ll use in order to look into each of these four forms: wholes, rhythms, hierarchies and networks.
One chief purpose of “this book is to propose a way to understand the relations among forms–forms aesthetic and social, spatial and temporal, ancient and modern, major an minor, like and unlike, punitive and narrative, material and metrical.” (23)
Well, this was somethin’. I hope you find it an interesting read, whether as an introduction to ideas that you’d like to explore more deeply using Levine’s novel or as something else entirely.
I’ve been meaning to explore the great Ursula Le Guin’s writing for a few years, now. I always thought I’d start with Earthsea if not for a serendipitous occasion in my new university library thanks to which I stumbled upon this, a short 280-page first part of a trilogy by the name of ‘Annals of the Western Shore.’
The pages ran out all too quickly, almost as if the ink itself flowed within me as I consumed this tiny tome in a single morning. It took me…four, maybe five hours to finish from start to end. Time well spent, I assure you.
Gifts tells the deeply personal story of a young boy called Orrec, and his coming to terms with the deadly gift that runs in his bloodline, as well as his’ and his family’s place in the Uplander society. The Uplanders are a tough lot — different gifts run in the different bloodlines, and some of them are thoroughly horrific, like Orrec’s own family gift of ‘unmaking,’ which allows the gifted in the family to unmake creatures with a look, a gesture, a whispered word.
What Le Guin does with our protagonist (the story is told in the first-person view) is, she goes really in-depth inside the mind of a boy–a young man–who possesses such a dark and final power, and what the ability to kill with such ease does to him.
Loss and grief also play a great part in the plot, and in writing about them, Ursula shows uncanny skill and her own deep understanding of these complex themes.
No surprise there.
This work also examines the relationships between parents and children, between cultural gaps, and more. All the character work is nothing short of excellent, truly, and I am beyond excited to read more for that reason alone.
What I did dislike was a climax that felt somewhat rushed. The ending was all too sudden, and the resolution wasn’t as satisfying as I hoped it would be.
My score? 3.75 out of 5.
I didn’t know this was the first book in a trilogy until well after the mid-point, so maybe it’s my expectation that has played a trick on me, but there was enough I did not enjoy the handling of that I feel certain of my 4 star score on Goodreads.
You should read this book. Just don’t come into it expecting too powerful a climax, and you’ll find a lot to love.
Small Gods was Terry Pratchett’s most intricate examination of organised religion and faith yet. Where do the gods come from? How many masks do they wear? Are they just a big lot of buggers sitting on their arses, pulling the limbs off mortals for the giggles?
That’s what the god Om used to be. Om is the sole deity of Omnia, a country that has it all — a state ran by the church, an (In)Quisition known for its efficiency, and the bloodthirsty appetite necessary to devour any small country Omnia neighbours on. The Omnians have some bizarre ideas — namely, that the world is round, and that it encircles the sun on a yearly basis. Nonsense, ladies and gentlemen, utter nonsense.
It surprises Om, when he takes to an earthly form, that of a majestic beast, only to end up in the form of a tortoise, his mind crippled and his vast power gone. What brought this on? Three years on, and it’s only when Om is gripped by an eagle, flying three hundred feet in the ground, that he recalls who he is, and what has befallen him.
Turns out, Om has only one true believer left, a boy called Brutha. Brutha is a bit slow on the uptake but makes up for it with an eidetic memory, and a good heart. This ‘great dumb ox,’ as Brutha’s fellow acolytes call him, is not dumb at all, however, as the latter half of Small Gods illustrates. Once exposed to knowledge and ideas other than the fanatic doctrines of Omnism, Brutha’s development does in fact sky-rocket.
It took me a hell of a lot of time to get into. Some of the Pratchett books I most appreciate start ever-so-slow, only to explode in a storm of brilliant humour, ideas worth contemplation, and so much more. Moving Pictures was one such book, and Small Gods is another. Regardless of the time it took me to get into it, once I did, I devoured it with reckless abandon.
My favourite part of the book has to be the bit in Ephebe, where thousands of toga-wearing, wine-drinking philosophers have a lark on each other’s expense, argue, even come to blows. I showed my uncle (a philosophy professor) a good few pages about the philosophers’ stance on gods, and we shared a good laugh, too!
I have to bow down to Sir Terry once again. His sharp skewering of organised religion was both thought-provoking and funny to no end. And Even as my smile fades, the ideas take root, and they flourish.
This a solid 5/5 on Goodreads!
Coming soon, a review of Lords and Ladies, which I loved from start to finish, and read in no time flat!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
Disclaimer: Spoilers for Promise of Blood’s ending and minor spoilers for The Crimson Campaign. Read the review for Promise of Blood here.
I read Promise of Blood within the span of three-four days. The Crimson Campaign, in contrast, I read over six adrenaline-fueled hours. For three-quarters of Campaign, my heart was in my throat, my eyes nearly skipping through the words because of how badly I wanted to know what would happen next. And a whole lot happens, let me tell you that.
The Plot and Characters:
Like Promise of Blood, this sequel continues following Adamat, Taniel and Tamas as the former two deal with the fall-out of Promise’s ending. Tamas, meanwhile, begins from a place of strength, quickly lost when the Field Marshall makes a grave tactical error against the Kez, leaving him trapped far behind the enemy lines and with no certain way back. So it is that Tamas’ section of Campaign is an adrenaline-fueled retreat through enemy lands with some unforgettable battles, a dash of subterfuge and a lot of great banter with his bodyguard and my favourite Knacked soldier, Olem. A bit more focus is placed on the relationship between Tamas and Vlora with some heavy, emotional scenes between father and surrogate daughter (that’s what they are, really), which I was all for!
Taniel’s story here, the beginning of it, was difficult to read. After the physical and emotional torture that was Promise’s finale, we find Two-Shot in a mala-den, drugging himself for everything he and his possessions are worth. It’s a sorry state to see him in but it makes the journey of him getting back to his feet all the more satisfying. I had a few issues with the way Taniel would occasionally get into the dumbest fights (for good reason, granted) with people who far outranked him. It does fit who he is as a character, hot-headed and brusque but my sense of him was, he’s also clever enough to know where the road he goes down on might lead but he goes down it, regardless.
Adamat meanwhile is keeping a low profile, trying to outsmart and outplay Lord Vetas, the mysterious, cold-blooded antagonist working against the interests of the new government. In his attempts to thwart the evil mastermind and free those Vetas holds hostage, Adamat makes an alliance with my favourite Priliveged, Bo, who is as scary as he is entertaining!
Nila’s in the novel, too! Again, her PoV is tiny compared to the others but I was pleasantly surprised by the route Brian decided to take this former laundress in! Her relationship with a certain spell-slinging character, in particular, is something I quite enjoyed..but on that point, I’ll return when I review the third book!
Solid writing where dialogue, action and general plot direction are concerned. I breezed through the novel in an evening. And a night. It set my imagination ablaze even more than Promise of Blood and for that, I am happy to praise it to high heaven.
This was an excellent second instalment to McCllelan’s Powder Mage trilogy. Not only does it develop previous storylines, it manages to throw in a few surprises while showing a piece of the greater world outside of Adro. A few accounts were settled, a new villain established and a veritable sea of blood was spilt! 5/5 stars!
This review took me a while. Nevermind that I wrote 3/4ths of it the day after I wrote the review for Promise of Blood. Blame it on my lazy ass, or on doing fifty things at once, all day, every day. I’m lame, I know! I’ll try to finish up the last book of the trilogy very, very soon and re-read Sins of Empire in order to FINALLY read Wrath of Empire.
Promise of Blood isn’t the first novel I’ve read by Brian McClellan. That honour goes to Sins of Empire, which holds a special place in my heart as both the first flintlock fantasy I’ve read, as well as the first title I purchased because of a recommendation read on r/fantasy! I seem to recall getting my hands on Sins either on its debut date or just a few short days later but it was fresh hot!
I’m not just mentioning Sins of Empire out of melancholy for by-gone times; rather, I mean to venture into a small comparison. If you came to me, asking which of these two books to get, I would point you to Sins of Empire. The writing is better, the twists and the action more memorable. The beginning of McClellan’s second trilogy is an established writer’s fourth novel, where Promise of Blood is Brian’s debut. I like to think that most writers, as they continue working on the craft, grow in skill, find more and more distinct voices and Brian is an excellent example of that.
…Which is not to say Promise of Blood is by any stretch anything less than an excellent first act to what has proven to be an exciting trilogy, filled with some of what I love most about fantasy. What makes it so?
Revolution, bloody revolution! That’s how Promise of Blood begins — with our trilogy’s main protagonist, Field Marshall Tamas slaughtering the Privileged Royal Cabal in their sleep with the help of his Powder mages, dethroning the rightful king Manhouch, rounding up the nobility and cutting that lot’s heads off while a million men, women and children watch the executions in Adopest, the capital of Adom’s public squares. Enough blood is spilt that the executioner could drown on it several times over.
And that’s just the start of Promise of Blood, one of the flagship titles of everything flintlock fantasy is supposed to be. Fast-paced, action-packed and ridiculously easy to read, this book was a blast.
Promise of Blood follows three main storylines:
Field Marshal Tamas’ attempt to build a working government with his co-conspirators while securing peace with the Kez.
Inspector Adamat’s search for answers — when the Privileged were dying, each and every one of them cried a certain phrase in death, ‘You can’t break Kresimir’s Promise.’ Adamat has his hands full in what turns out to be a more dangerous investigation than he imagined.
Taniel, the Field Marshal’s son, nurses his broken heart by going after his dad’s enemies along with a savage red-headed girl whose magic is entirely different and way scarier than anything else you’ll see in the trilogy. Taniel and Ka-Poel’s shenanigans set up some of the most entertaining fights in the novel.
An additional plotline follows Nila, the laundress of a noble family, trying to save a young boy from his parents’ fate. It’s interesting but a lot less detailed than the rest of the plot; unfortunately it’s also the only female perspective, which is a pity since Vlora, who is one of Tamas’ gunpowder mage cabal, was the stand-out PoV in Sins of Empire.
Regardless, I loved these characters during their trials and tribulations. Tamas now shares in Dalinar Kholin’s title of “most likely older general to inspire me into fictional military service”. But Tamas is far from perfect — his past grievances with the Kez force his hand at a critical time.
The same can be said about Taniel. While a legendary powder mage, Taniel ‘Two-Shot’ is in a pretty bad place, psychologically, after two years of bloody war, only to return home to find his fiance bedding another man; the relationship between father and son is strained at best, especially considering some of Tamas’ orders later on in the book. Taniel’s addiction to gunpowder also grows worse as the book progresses.
As for Adamat, his storyline is a great way to get a bit of distance, a little break from all the Army and politics and it reads like an atypical Victorian detective story in all the best ways.
So many memorable side-characters — Olem, Lady Winceslav, Borbadeur; I could spend a good few minutes listing character names which’ll mean nothing to you since I ain’t spoiling any more than Ihave already.
The Magic System
The Privileged are this setting’s elemental sorcerers, men and women capable of touching the Else with their hands, each finger connecting to one of the four elements and the thumb for the aether (which, I’m told, some of the Ancient Greeks were crazy about!).
Gunpowder mages, while nowhere near as potent as the Privileged, gain enhanced senses when they snort or taste gunpowder charges. Where they lack in power, they make up for in reach and alacrity and the added benefit of being able to deflect bullets, force gunpowder to explode from a certain distance with their minds and all that.
There’s also lesser magic manifested in individuals called Knacked, who possess certain talents (or Knacks), like Olem, for example, who doesn’t need to sleep, or Adamat, who remembers everything he’s ever seen. And neither of them are insane because of these magical abilities!
Sanderson himself has praised it as a good magical system and I thought it read great. There’s plenty of depth as well, as the novel progresses — and the next two books in the trilogy add a lot to make the magic systems feel even more distinct.
‘The Age of Kings is dead…and I have killed it.’
This is an excellent novel, which begins with a promise of blood and delivers through and through. Whether you’re following Tamas’ decisive dealings against internal and external threats alike, Taniel’s chasing around of dangerous targets or Adamat’s investigations, there’s plenty to be loved about this first part of the Powder Mage trilogy.
Will I reread this? You bet!
The Verdict? Buy it, Read it, scream at your dad angrily until he caves in and reads it too. It’s what I did.
How about the score? It’s a five out of five on Goodreads and it bags the ‘Most Promising to Deliver Loadsa Blood’ trophy!
You’ll love this bloody, bloody book if you’re into:
violent revolutions eerily reminiscent of the French revolution;
Angry, angry mages doing loads of damage with their fingers and/or guns and sharp objects;
Fast-paced reads which suck you in all the way;
loads of blood, really;
Political intrigue, subterfuge, betrayal and more! Prob’ly.
To close this off, the reason behind me reading this first trilogy of Brian’s is to celebrate the release of Wrath of Empire, Sins of Empire’s follow-up and the second book of his sequel trilogy in the Powder Mage world. I’ll soon post the reviews of the second and third books since I read them both for two consecutive days (and what joy that brought me!) but the end goal is to review McClellan’s newest novel, and hopefully his best yet!
Disclaimer: This book has been kindly provided by Darrel Drake for free, in exchange for a review. No one said anything about being honest but I wasn’t told to lie either, so it evens out somewhere along the line, I reckon.
A Star-Reckoner’s Lot has been an interesting ride, one that left me some strong impressions. Some of those are bad but I’m happy to say, the good ones outweigh them by a…Lot! (Hah, I’m a comedian!) I’ll start with what bothered me and make my way down to all the good bits so bear with me.
The Narration: At times, too distant. I would find myself losing focus, especially early on before I got more comfortable with the style. Furthermore, some of the word choices slapped me right out of the story and back to reality, which is always a pain!
The Beginning: The Start of this novel was a bit of a slog. The prose is somewhat difficult to get used to and the first few chapters come across as fragmentary and disconnected due to frequent time-skips. I could make the argument that the first chapter, which reads like a prologue and is from Ashtadukht’s perspective, isn’t necessary. I’m not sure there’s a single thing I learned from that chapter that I wouldn’t have learned from the next few — and that’s where I would toss the chapter in question into the bin.
Ashtadukht: Of the three main characters the book introduces us to, our sickly star-reckoner is the one I’m least fond of . Due to changes towards the last fourth of the novel, she’s no longer on my ‘firmly disliked characters’ category but I still found her behaviour towards her companions too close to despicable on more counts than I can let pass.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the changes she went through and I’ll always treasure the time in her drunken company. Her wit playing against that of Waray and Tirdad made for some great dialogue (read under Dialogue for more on that).
Tirdad:From all the characters in the book, this one best fit the shoes your typical warrior wears; a man of honour and war who doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty both with blood and with run-of-the-mill manual labour. I disliked nothing about him, or close to nothing but he never surprised me. Having read the synopsis to the second book though, I suspect I’ll be surprised by him quite a whole lot.
(Before I continue, I would like to underline that these are my personal feelings towards the characters. If I spoke about the quality of characterization, that falls under the ‘Good’ section. I am however very partial and refuse to hide it lest the court of public opinion judges me an agent of the Lie!)
The Setting: What a unique, wondrous place choice of setting. I know shamefully little of the Sasanian Empire and after reading this I’m hungry to learn more. Of course, this being a fantasy novel, I don’t advise you to try and contest a history major’s knowledge with what you might glean from A Star-Reckoner’s Lot…but Darrell Drake’s love and respect for the period shows and resonates with ease.
Star- and Planet-Reckoning: I’m a stickler for interesting magic systems. Using the position of the stars to battle evil creatures of chaos (or the Lie, in this case) is a recipe for success, especially if you’re trying to get into my good graces! Planet-Reckoning I found even more interesting and I suspect it’s quite a bit stronger (certainly scarier)
The Cover: What a stunning cover this book has. Take a glimpse at it, if you haven’t already, come on! Truly a wonder; from what I understand, we have a Kickstarter campaign to thank for the stellar look–money well spent, Darrell.
Waray:This precious half-div egg-chewer is mad as bonkers, and I love her for it. She’s got it all — bloodthirst, a healthy craving for eggs and a deep-rooted need to belong and avoid being lonely. It’s like looking into a mirror. On a serious note, Waray was my favourite character and the one I’ll remember for a long time to come.
Not my most structured review but there you go. A Star-Reckoner’s Lot is an interesting novel, one with a few hurdles that keep me from giving it an amazing five-star review on Goodreads but it well earns its 4/5 ‘Very good’ score. I’m also happy to award this my personal and very nebulous “Hottest cousin on cousin will they/won’t they action” award!
Would I re-read it? Not in its entirety. There are parts and strips of dialogue, which I would dearly love to revisit, however.
Would I read the next book in the series? Yes! Yes, I would. A few months from now, I’d love to reacquaint myself with this particular setting and follow along in the star-reckoning journey.
You’ll enjoy this book if you are:
looking for a different and unique setting;
into astronomy-based magic;
an Iranian from the seventh century A.D., wondering what’s happened with his beloved empire, trying to kick back and relive the old div-hunting glory days;
a div, probably. Your folks are represented a bit on the dark side but you’re evil monsters in service of the Lie, what did you expect?
There you have it! My mostly all too honest review of an exciting indie fantasy novel under the banner of the r/TBRindr, an initiative whose purpose is to highlight indie authors and their works.
I’ll find his daughter, I will. The question is…where do I begin?
I’ve been in a perpetual dream prison for years. The answer is obvious — I begin in a restaurant.
The former village of Woodstick is now known as ‘The Capital.’ I have no doubt as to who renamed it so, and much as I’d like to badmouth this city, I cannot. He has done well in creating a city of lights, sinister as they may be…or advisers have, despite my wily brother. What well his direct underlings tap into in order to survive that child-like whimsical nature, I fear imagining.
The restaurant I picked was a fine place. Colourful, filled with military types in shining white. Their faces turned pale as soon as they saw my face–but they weren’t really seeing mine, were they? I sat down, unperturbed by this misguided attention.
I ordered a steak and waited for the fun to begin.
What my brother never understood, despite all his infuriating successes is this: True acts of villainy are small things. They pile up and up, a great stack of nasty deeds which push men to madness. This cook, for example. I have now returned his steak seventeen times. The last waiter to ask me to leave left a trail of digestive fluids all the way out onto the boulevards of the Capital.
The cook will snap. He’ll start off with acts of spite. Spitting in the soup. Putting sugar in the sugarless desserts (as if there is such a thing as sugarless desserts, bah!), putting too much salt in the stew. Then, it’ll be allergens. Peanut paste to those allergic to peanuts, if precognition is anything to go by.
It will end with poison. He’ll sprinkle some on a wedding cake. But he is no poisoner, and so a single drop will fall on his index finger. He’ll rub his nose, or eye, or put the finger in his mouth for all I care, and it’ll do him in. I only see parts of the future and the last bit I see is him falling all over the six-foot tall poisoned cake.
A pity, that. It is my brother’s wedding. But oh well. I have illustrated my point well enough.
So much spite drawn out of a mere cook’s heart, and all of it — because of a bad night filled with steaks. This is the essence of evil. My niece was quick in learning this lesson. The question is, just where has she been practising it?
There will be a pattern. All I need do is discover and follow it.
I’ve had some trouble putting my thoughts in order where Senlin Ascends, the first book in Josiah Bancroft’s Books of Babel series of four, is concerned. This book is an excellent read, the kind whose characters live with you well after you’ve put it down for good. Perhaps Senlin Ascends is one of those rare novels which excel so completely at surprising and thrilling many of its readers that words all of a sudden elude you.
Then again, maybe it’s the sort of read you need a few days to process. And process I have. What did I come up with during those few days?
Senlin Ascends is an excellent novel that doesn’t fall into any one genre checkbox. We can spend all day discussing its Victorian influences and steampunk elements, but at its core, this is (the beginning of) a story of a husband doing everything in his power to find his wife.
Senlin is the headmaster of the only school in the small town of Isaugh, a man ‘at the edge of things,’ a man of reserved judgement who looks on his fellow residents as uneducated and treats them somewhat like children, to their mild disdain. He only recently married the beautiful, talented and lively Marya, described as:
Marya was a good match. She was good-tempered and well-read; thoughtful, though not brooding; and mannered without being aloof. She tolerated his long hours of study and his general quiet, which others often mistook for stoicism. He imagined she had married him because he was kind, even-tempered and securely employed. He made fifteen shekels a week, for an annual salary of thirteen minas; it wasn’t a fortune by any means, but it was sufficient for a comfortable life. She certainly hadn’t married him for his looks. While his features were separately handsome enough, taken altogether they seemed a little stretched and misplaced.
She played the piano beautifully but also brutally. She’d sing like a mad mermaid while banging out ballads and reels, leaving detuned pianos in her wake. And even still, her oddness inspired admiration in most. The townsfolk thought she was charming and her playing was often requested at the local public houses. Not even the bitter gray of Isaugh’s winters could temper her vivacity. Everyone was a little baffled by her marriage to the Sturgeon.
Not much time at all passes before Marya and Senlin lose track of one another, in the very foundation of the massive structure that is the Tower of Babbel, the setting — and, in a way, the prime antagonist — of this fantastic story. Senlin has had a deep fascination with the Tower for most of his life, having bought into all those books proclaiming the Tower of Babel the greatest accomplishment of humanity. Senlin’s trusted Everyman’s Guide to the Tower even describes it so:
The Tower of Babel is most famous for the silk fineries and marvelous airships it produces, but visitors will discover other intangible exports. Whimsy, adventure, and romance are the Tower’s real trade.
Ah, how wonderful it sounds, how exciting! If only reality were so…
Senlin’s obsession with the Tower will cost him, as its true guise is much different from what he’s imagined and read about throughout his life. His wife lost, Senlin is forced, after a period of dumbfounding shock, to begin his ascension of this great structure.
Along the way, questions will pile up. Who built the Tower, and just what is its purpose? These lay on the wayside, however. More central are the myriad questions, which shove and prod Senlin at every corner, forcing the well-meaning but cowardly teacher to grow and change in order to survive and follow Marya’s trail. Despite the trials and tribulations in his path, what Senlin retains is a core of decency, compassion and the belief that the Tower’s destructive influence doesn’t necessarily erode everything good and decent in people. It’s this belief in men and women that forces them to do better, to meet him half-way.
Senlin’s growth, in fact, is one of the main reasons this novel pulled me in so thoroughly. It’s no small feat, making a likeable person look completely unprepared and incapable of dealing with a situation, to have all his positives turn into flaws to disastrous effect, only to see him realize all this and, step by step, rebel against it, becoming something of a charming rogue by the end. (Bit long-winded, that sentence.)
Mysteries abound in the form of indebted slaves called ‘hods,’ a terrifying gentleman monster playing at Dr Jeckyll/Mr. Hyde called Red Hand, four ringdoms, levels of the Tower, each under different authorities, built for different purposes, and so on.
Plenty of side-characters are to be found, all of them excellent. My favourites have to be Edith and Tarrou, the latter’s description:
A two-pointed black beard accentuated his iron gray mane of hair. He seemed hale and athletic for a man his age. Senlin was a little intimidated by the width of his chest and shoulders, though his smile seemed amiable enough. “And that is the dazed look of a man fresh from the monkey pen.” He gave an exaggerated shudder. “The Parlor is an awful place.”
The prose is nothing short of exceptional. Bancroft’s sentences flow easily and present a clear view into another world, a world that is sometimes beautiful, sometimes unspeakably ugly and nearly always bizarre. It will set your imagination on fire, both with its adventurous streaks and with the darker undertones Senlin Ascends is rich in.
In short, Senlin Ascends is excellent and well worth your time and hard-earned cash. It’s even worth your tiny sum of pocket money, if you make no cash what-so-ever.
I can see why it has as much hype as it got; I’m almost sad to have found it only now that a big publisher has republished the first two books and will soon publish the third (in September). Now that I’ve started, I can’t wait for the last two books of the series to hit the shelves!
The simplest way to make the world mysterious and terrifying to a man is to chase him through it.
In this, Josiah Bancroft certainly succeeds…even if Senlin Ascends doesn’t always feel like a chase, it’s one hell of a ride. There I go, mixing my metaphors again.
Thank you for reading this review! I’ll be back with a review of the second book in the Tower of Babel series as soon as I finish reading it! Now I’m off to read it!