Review: Ashes of the Sun by Django Wexler



Ashes of the Sun

Book One of Burningblade & Silvereye

by Django Wexler

Fantasy | 592 Pages | Published by Head of Zeus on 21st July 2020


| Rating |


| TL;DR |

This vibrant, rich and detailed novel tells the tale of two siblings on either side of an ages old war. As Maya, agathios of the Twilight Order, attempts to clear her mentor’s name and Gyre, Maya’s brother, searches for a powerful artefact to help him bring about the the Order’s destruction, their two intertwining narratives dramatically converge in this exciting and action-packed epic.

With strong characters, a unique magic system and a beautifully rendered landscape, Ashes of the Sun straddles the line between good and bad, right and wrong, and paints this broken empire in exquisite shades of grey.

| Synopsis |

Long ago, a magical war destroyed an empire, and a new one was built in its ashes. But still the old grudges simmer, and two siblings will fight on opposite sides to save their world in the start of Django Wexler’s new epic fantasy trilogy.

Gyre hasn’t seen his beloved sister since their parents sold her to the mysterious Twilight Order. Now, twelve years after her disappearance, Gyre’s sole focus is revenge, and he’s willing to risk anything and anyone to claim enough power to destroy the Order.

Chasing rumors of a fabled city protecting a powerful artifact, Gyre comes face-to-face with his lost sister. But she isn’t who she once was. Trained to be a warrior, Maya wields magic for the Twilight Order’s cause. Standing on opposite sides of a looming civil war, the two siblings will learn that not even the ties of blood will keep them from splitting the world in two.

| Review |

The ages old war between the Chosen and the ghouls has obliterated the landscape and left it in ruins. Spearing from the earth and tunnelling under mountains, relics from the past are now home to the ever expanding towns and cities of man, and all that was left behind has either been salvaged, scavenged or stolen.

But more than one war continues in this shattered landscape. From the Forge, the Centarchs of the Twilight Order, powerful champions of the Chosen, are charged with keeping order and fight to eliminate dhakim – those who practice ghoul magic and use it to create the abominable plaguespawn. In the cities, the rebellion fight for freedom and against those who would suppress the tunnelborn, a subjugated people living on the outskirts of society, even if it means taking on the local militia, the Legions of the Dawn Republic, and the Twilight Order itself.

Born to one household but raised apart, Maya and Gyre find themselves on opposite sides of this insurmountable divide. Maya, an agathios – or novice – of the Twilight Order is gifted with a connection to the deiat, and wields the unimaginable power of Creation. Gyre, driven by this troubled past and his burning hatred for the Order, fights for the rebellion under the pseudonym Halfmask. As trouble brews across the realm, Maya and Gyre’s lives converge in an explosive and action packed tale where the line between good and evil are hopelessly blurred.

Told form two entirely different perspectives: one which champions discovery, order and the power of good and the other that champions vengeance, liberation and, ultimately, destruction; Ashes of the Sun pulls the reader into the midst of a conflict which questions the very nature of good and bad, right and wrong, for a non-stop, whirlwind of a tale. Narrated by two distinct voices and personalities, these two opposing viewpoints work together to paint a vivid picture of a world that, in reality, comprises shades of grey.

With ruined constructs, great metropolises and fallen skyships, this post-apocalyptic and fantastic vision unveils a colourful world with a unique and inventive magic system. The weight of history is woven into the landscape in the ages old struggle between the forces of chaos and order, and in the people and their struggle to survive under such deprivation. The divide between the rich and the poor, between the repressed and their suppressors, is depicted with a clear and direct vision which emphasises Maya’s naivety, her steadfast belief that the Order are solely good, and Gyre’s bitterness, that the world’s ills stem from the likes of the irredeemable Order.

From auxiliaries and legionaries to dogmatics and pragmatics, Wexler has created a strong foundation on which to build his series; the two tangled narratives threatening to derail plans, destroy hope and eliminate what little respect Maya and Gyre had for one another in the first place. This is a tale that thrives on its worldbuilding, that celebrates its diverse characters and that is all the better for its use of politics and intrigue throughout its plot.

Maya and Gyre are two siblings defined by their differing experiences and entirely disparate lives, with Maya’s comfort and innocence contrasting sharply with Gyre’s hardship, anger and resentment. With unique and memorable viewpoints, neither protagonist outdoes the other in either drama, suspense or action, with the endearing qualities of one complementing the bravado of the other.

Similarly, the supporting characters provide an interesting and diverse backdrop to the protagonists. Those of the Order – Bec, Tanax and Varo – show the complex hierarchy of the Order and their devotion to the Inheritance, and those of the rebellion – Yora, Lynnia and Harrow – show a driven and like-minded community who will fight for the rights of their people at almost any cost. Providing plenty of interest, intrigue and diversion throughout the narrative, these characters are only surpassed by the enigmatic and ultimately dangerous Kit Doomseeker who steals more than just the show.

Well written and highly-enjoyable throughout, this series opener succeeds in setting a perfect scene from which to read the remainder of the series. While there may be a lot of new terminology to absorb throughout the novel, the steady pace and the intricacies of the narrative give plenty of time to fully absorb the different terms – in between bouts of plaguespawn, skirmishes and bar fights, of course.

Ashes of the Sun is a well-written, exciting read that I barely put down over its six hundred pages. While I could have lived without many of the romantic aspects of the storyline, these remained only secondary to the narrative and didn’t inhibit my enjoyment of the story as a whole. With more fights, skirmishes and powerful artefacts than you can shake a stick at, the first in Burningblade & Silvereye promises the start of something quite special.

Thank you to NetGalley and Head of Zeus for providing a copy of this book in return for an honest review.

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Review: A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers



A Closed and Common Orbit

Book Two of the Wayfarers Series

by Becky Chambers

Science Fiction | 385 Pages | Published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2016


| Rating |


| TL;DR |

The second in the Wayfarers series picks up the narrative of Lovelace and Pepper after the conclusion of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. Following the story of Pepper’s past and Lovelace’s present, A Closed and Common Orbit is a tale of love and hope, friendship and family, and the struggle for identity in a vast and sometimes unforgiving universe.

This is a sequel that not only surpasses its predecessor in its richness of setting and depth of character, but opens up a beautiful and terrifying world of possibilities for the ongoing series. Utterly captivating from beginning to end, raising thought-provoking questions throughout, this is a series that really shouldn’t be missed.

| Synopsis |

The stand-alone sequel to the award-winning The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.

Lovelace was once merely a ship’s artificial intelligence. When she wakes up in a new body, following a total system shut-down and reboot, she has to start over in a synthetic body, in a world where her kind are illegal. She’s never felt so alone.

But she’s not alone, not really. Pepper, one of the engineers who risked life and limb to reinstall Lovelace, is determined to help her adjust to her new world. Because Pepper knows a thing or two about starting over.

Together, Pepper and Lovey will discover that, huge as the galaxy may be, it’s anything but empty.

| Review |

Lovelace, once the AI of the Wayfarer, has a new body. She can move and speak and interact as other humans do, but she is not human and the vastness of the world around her is an intimidating prospect. Supported by Pepper, a human unlike any other she has seen, and armed with a new name – Sidra – she must learn to live a life that she is already railing against.

But Pepper’s past speaks just as loudly as Sidra’s present and there may be more similarities between them than Sidra initially thought. Through interwoven arcs of past and present, the mirrored narratives reveal moments of joy, pain, heartbreak and success and prove that, in this universe, just about anything may be possible.

Where The Long Way was a character-driven space opera full of excitement, discovery and intrigue, A Closed and Common Orbit is decidedly not. It is instead a study of character, or two characters to be precise, and how their lives, stories and motives intertwine – and it is all the better for it. This is a heart-warming and beautiful read which questions morality and humanity and takes the reader on a character-driven journey of identity, acceptance and freedom.

The transformative journey that Sidra embarks on runs in parallel with the often heart breaking story of Pepper’s – or Jane’s – past. These two timelines draw interesting and surprising parallels throughout the narrative and explore thought provoking questions about identity, family and belonging. It also demonstrates that even in an advanced, universal society that is accepting of a multitude of species, genders and cultures, that there are always those on the outside looking in; those who feel they do not belong or who cannot show their true selves to the universe.

While some readers may be disappointed that the original and familiar crew of the Wayfarer do not appear in this sequel, their absence does not detract from the richness of the story or depth of character portrayal. In fact, A Closed and Common Orbit explores character with a profound depth and focus that just wasn’t possible in the first novel.

Sidra’s arc readily demonstrates the confusion, fear and frustration of coming to terms with her new situation, combining her endearing qualities with a petulance that makes her appear ever more human as the narrative progresses. By contrast, Jane’s story shows the fear, determination and desperation of escaping a past that defined her entire perception of the world and how, through the kindness of unexpected strangers, she became the Pepper we see today.

The interweaving arcs of Jane’s past and Sidra’s present are cleverly written and striking in their reflection of one another, resulting in a beautiful and utterly compelling narrative that sweeps you along at a steady pace and fills you with outrage, joy, sadness and hope at the turn of each page.

Unexpected and surprising, A Closed and Common Orbit took a hold of my heart at the outset and brought tears to my eyes as it closed. This isn’t a book about action or conflict, or about a quest to save a dying world; it is a book about identity, our similarities and differences, and how we can work together to make a better future. But more than that, it is a book about family, friendship and, above all, hope.

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Review: How to Rule An Empire and Get Away With It by K.J. Parker



How to Rule An Empire and Get Away With It

by K.J. Parker

Fantasy | 384 Pages | To be published by Orbit on 18th August 2020


| Rating |


| TL;DR |

How to Rule An Empire and Get Away With It picks up seven years after the events of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City. Told from the perspective of Notker – thespian, playwright, and son of a late Theme boss – this witty and over-dramatised tale tells the story of his coercion into a seat of power as tensions begin to fray both within The City and beyond its battered walls.

Funny, action-packed, and almost always surprising, How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It is a sequel worthy of its predecessor. Whether just one in a series, or the final chapter, this book is sure to shock, amuse and entertain in equal measure.

| Synopsis |

This is the story of how the City was saved, by Notker the professional liar, written down because eventually the truth always seeps through.

The City may be under siege, but everyone still has to make a living. Take Notker, the acclaimed playwright, actor and impresario. Nobody works harder, even when he’s not working. Thankfully, it turns out that people appreciate an evening at the theatre even when there are large rocks falling out of the sky.

But Notker is a man of many talents, and all the world is, apparently, a stage. It seems that the Empire needs him – or someone who looks a lot like him – for a role that will call for the performance of a lifetime. At least it will guarantee fame, fortune and immortality. If it doesn’t kill him first.

This is the story of Notker, an occasionally good man and a terrible liar. With razor-sharp prose and ferocious wit, K.J. Parker has created one of fantasy’s greatest heroes, and he might even get away with it.

| Review |

How to Rule An Empire and Get Away With It tells the story of Notker, one part thespian, one part crook and two parts in over his head. Seven years have passed since the commencement of the siege. Seven years of enemy bombardments, seven years of death, blood and mayhem, and seven years staring at an enemy encampment turned temporary metropolis. Tensions within The City are frayed and, if the enemy doesn’t get there first, The City’s destruction might just come at its own hand.

With a speciality for impersonating the great and the good on stage, Notker finds himself in the unlikely position of having to impersonate hero and darling of The City, Lysimachus. But this time the world is his stage and life isn’t so easy at the top – pride most definitely comes before a very, hard fall. Notker, along with his grudging partner Hodda, and a whole host of crazed, bureaucratic and megalomaniac puppet masters, must save both The City and his own neck – well, mostly his own neck – before the ruin of all.

Through the Acts of a play, K.J. Parker has woven comedy, tragedy and fantasy tropes aplenty into an engaging and well-paced narrative. This stand-alone novel set in the same world as Sixteen, is often humorous and always charming, yet has an undercurrent of darkness that gives the story both depth and purpose. Told entirely from Notker’s perspective, this is a clever and surprising novel which revels in shocking and surprising its reader.

Throughout the tale Notker, in the true character of a performer, relishes in expounding humorous descriptions of books and plays which tie directly back to his own narrative. These amusing and anecdotal recitals help to develop both Notker’s character and flesh out the world around him, which despite his best intentions, remains a mere backdrop to The City’s leading lady. His own history and engagement with The City, through his familial connections, his work and his somewhat questionable lifestyle, allows The City to grow in tandem with Notker and become the true supporting character to his tale.

The style of narrative, however, lends itself to the caricature-esque development of ‘extras’ to Notker’s narrative; his reluctant partner, his crone-like mother and the rival parties vying for his control. Painted through Notker’s witty observations and unconscious bias, these supporting actors often miss out on the depth of character employed in other works of fiction, but retain their own unique and theatrical charm as a result of it.

In essence, this novel, and Sixteen before it, are books about ordinary folk who find themselves in a city on the brink of destruction, and who find that they have been coerced, tricked, or pulled into positions of power by friend and foe alike. The events may result in shock, laughter, surprise or an eye roll, but these are their stories; imperfect realism of an imagined history.

While the shock conclusion to Sixteen left a little to be desired, How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It does not suffer from the same limitations. The climax is clever, surprising and ties the threads of the narrative together with a verve and panache one can only expect from a true tragicomedy. This is a book which reflects Notker – which is Notker – and the style that the author has chosen to employ can only be applauded.

Whether in The City or another land entirely, I can only hope to return to Notker, or Lysimachus, or whomever may be impersonating now, once again.

Thank you to NetGalley and Orbit for providing a copy of this book in return for an honest review.

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Review: Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City by K.J. Parker



Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City

by K.J. Parker

Fantasy | 384 Pages | Published by Orbit in 2019


| Rating |


Having never read a novel by K.J. Parker, it came as something of a surprise to discover I had no less than five of his books loitering on my bookshelf. In a bid to eliminate dust and finally discover what all the fuss was about, Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City became the next book to be cleared from the decks.

With a cover as eye-catching as its eccentric title, the first in this unnamed series had me hooked from the moment of its dusty extraction. A tale of sieges, battles and bloody escapades and falling, almost always, on your feet, Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is a clever, action-packed and page-turning read that ended far too abruptly and far too soon.

This is the story of Orhan, son of Siyyah Doctus Felix Praeclarissimus, and his history of the Great Siege, written down so that the deeds and sufferings of great men may never be forgotten.

A siege is approaching, and the city has little time to prepare. The people have no food and no weapons, and the enemy has sworn to slaughter them all.

To save the city will take a miracle, but what it has is Orhan. A colonel of engineers, Orhan has far more experience with bridge-building than battles, is a cheat and a liar, and has a serious problem with authority. He is, in other words, perfect for the job.

Orhan is an engineer, a bridge builder by trade and a colonel in the Robur army. When tales of pirate raids, slaughtered allies and a seemingly unstoppable enemy become unavoidable, Orhan turns his regiment to The City, the last bastion of the Robur.

But all is not as it seems.

The Robur army is all but lost, the naval fleet have disappeared, and the ruling elite have vanished without a trace. The people of The City stand on the precipice of disaster.

But hope is not lost – not while there is a sarcastic, lying Milkface to blunder his way to the top. Intelligent, uncertain and with more than a little luck on his side, Orhan inadvertently assumes control of the final stronghold of the empire.

The City’s salvation or its doom lie entirely at his feet.

The Robur rule a vast and uncompromising empire which stretches across the globe, absorbing different lands, peoples, and cultures into its fold. Indentured and little more than slaves, those that find themselves bending the knee must claw their way through a society which places value in the colour of skin and not a person’s worth.

But Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is not a story of empire, it is a tale of The City; a metropolis dominated by classism, racism and petty thuggery, where the elite rule the people and the Themes rule the streets. Gang warfare, gladiatorial battles, and gold reign supreme and are captured by Parker through Orhan’s frank observations of the world around him.

Narrated entirely in first-person, Orhan is a witty, self-deprecating protagonist who fumbles and blunders his way up the chain of command. His sharp wit and self-doubt play a leading role throughout the novel, culminating in unexpected successes, hapless disasters, and extraordinary moments of accidental genius.

While supporting characters never quite receive the flesh they deserve and female characters are somewhat scarce, Lysimachus, Orhan’s unwanted bodyguard and Aichma, his friend’s daughter, hint at more well-rounded character portrayals under the author’s belt – at least when not scrawled down by a bridge builder with delusions of grandeur.

Nevertheless, Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is a skilfully written novel with an excellent premise and a host of amusing characters. Parker also has the enviable knack of teasing a brilliant, eminently quotable paragraph in almost every chapter, which continue to rattle around my head as though Orhan were a sage.

But then we come to the end.

Through feats of engineering, tense stand-offs, and explosive battles, and fighting three hundred pages worth of impossible odds, Parker balances the reader on the precipice of something great…

…and then it’s all over.

Just.

Like.

That.

Rudely torn from The City’s infernal bosom, the narrative concludes in a most unsatisfactory and abrupt way. Whether this was the intent of the author or whether he simply ran out of steam, the unexpected and hastily tied up ending was a sobering and somewhat disappointing experience. Though – it must be stated – I was not sorry to have been taken along for the ride.

Just shy of blundering excellence, this novel is a wonderful opening salvo into the works of an author with a flair for the anti-hero, and provides a fitting introduction to a series which promises the most motley crew of liars, cheats and thieves the empire has ever seen.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is a fast-paced novel full of interesting and imperfect characters whose somewhat lacklustre ending managed to knock Orhan’s five-star crown clean off.

Though, knowing Orhan, he probably would have preferred it this way. 

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Review: Spellslinger by Sebastien de Castell



Spellslinger

Book One of Spellslinger

by Sebastien de Castell

Fantasy | 416 Pages | Published by Hot Key Books in 2017


| Rating |


With powerful mages, card-throwing wanderers and an unseen enemy, Sebastien de Castell’s first foray into young adult fantasy is an undeniable success. In a world defined by magic and a person’s ability to wield it, Spellslinger takes the reader on an exciting journey which blurs the lines between those who would be friends, those who are family and those who may become enemies.

Witty and absorbing, this novel tells the tale of a boy whose steady loss of power culminates in a dangerous confrontation with his own people and, through a series of unpredictable twists and turns, exhibits an extraordinary flare for adventure from beginning to end.

There are three things that earn you a man’s name among the Jan’Tep. The first is to demonstrate the strength to defend your family. The second is to prove you can perform the high magic that defines our people. The third is simply to reach the age of sixteen. I was a few weeks shy of my birthday when I learned that I wouldn’t be doing any of those things.

MAGIC IS A CON GAME…

Kellen is moments away from facing his first mage’s duel and the start of four trials that will make him a spellcaster. There’s just one problem: his magic is gone.

As his sixteenth birthday approaches, Kellen falls back on his cunning in a bid to avoid total disgrace. But when a daring stranger arrives in town, she challenges Kellen to take a different path. 

Ferius Parfax is one of the mysterious Argosi – a traveller who lives by her wits and the three decks of cards she carries. She’s difficult and unpredictable, but she may be Kellen’s only hope… 

At the age of sixteen, all young Jan’Tep must face their greatest trial: the mage’s trial. The outcome of which will determine those that will assume ultimate power, wielding great magic and respected from afar, and those that will become Sha’Tep, the serving underclass of Jan’Tep society.

Kellen’s magic has dwindled over the years to next to nothing. He hasn’t broken any of his mage’s bands, he can barely perform a simple spell, and to make matters worse his little sister is likely to become one of the most powerful mages of all time.

Bullied by those who think him beneath them, abandoned by those he would have considered friends, Kellen is left with only his meagre powers, a dash of cunning, and sheer dumb luck to get him through his trials.

But when a strange frontierswoman turns up to help Kellen out of his trouble, he finds his path taking an altogether unexpected turn… for better or worse, only time will tell.

De Castell has created a vivid and ruthless society whose own sense of superiority has rendered them an isolated state. The world of the Jan’Tep is a world where a person’s magical ability defines their very place in the social order. A people who consider their own culture and society as the pinnacle of refinement and power, the Jan’Tep see those beyond their borders as outsiders, whose weakness is made apparent by their lack of power.

Those within Jan’Tep society who fail to display any magical prowess are doomed to become Sha’Tep. Sons and daughters, brothers and sisters; all are parted when the magic in one fails to appear in the other. Those who are lucky may take a serving position in what was once their home. Those who are not are forced to work in the mines.

As skilfully as Jan’Tep society is wrought; where the arrogance that permeates their culture, even amongst Kellen’s own family and friends, threatens to make them all appear as an unreasonable and tyrannical culture, the characterisation of the principle cast is where the novel and the overarching plot truly excels. De Castell has created a cast of true and varied characters whose humour and apparent deficiencies carry the story to its dramatic conclusion.

As both protagonist and narrator, Kellen is a witty and self-deprecating companion throughout the novel. What he lacks in magical proficiency he more than makes up for in cunning, wit and in his ability for getting the backs up of almost every person he comes across. And though he drives the other Jan’Tep mages to distraction, and perhaps even his friends half the time, he is an instantly likeable character which makes the injustice of his situation all the more potent.

His companions, Ferius Parfax, an Argosi wanderer whose proficiency in both playing cards and using them as a deadly weapon is more than a little disconcerting, and Reichis, a squirrel cat who has a penchant for thievery, violence and eating his enemies eyeballs, are arguably my two favourite characters, creating a strange and humorous sense of camaraderie which only becomes more interesting as the novel develops.

Spellslinger succeeds in combining this interesting cast of characters with an exciting and unpredictable plot-line, whose twists and turns never fail to turn up a surprise or two. Skilfully plotted and wonderfully executed, de Castell writes in a personable, almost conversational tone which creates a distinct connection with Kellen and emphasises the injustices which permeate Jan’Tep society.

The first in the Spellslinger series is a thoroughly enjoyable read which leaves me eager to join Kellen in future adventures. Brimming with magic, humour and more than a little danger, de Castell has created another novel which never fails to leave a lasting impression.

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Review: The Hit by Nadia Dalbuono



The Hit

Book Three of the Leone Scamarcio Series

by Nadia Dalbuono

Crime | 320 Pages | Published by Scribe UK in 2016


| Rating |


Under the heady lights of showbusiness, where money, sex and drugs fuel an atmosphere of disquiet, Nadia Dalbuono kicks off her return to the Leone Scamarcio series at a relentless pace. With media moguls, mafia dons and politicos battling to call the shots, The Hit is a gripping crime thriller which certainly equals its predecessors in atmosphere, tension and plot.

The investigation of an apparent hit-and-run unravels a tangled web in modern Rome.

When the family of Micky Proietti, a top television executive, goes missing, Leone Scamarcio is called to investigate. Everyone, it seems — from Premier League footballers to jilted starlets and cabinet ministers — has an axe to grind with Proietti. What starts out as an investigation into his countless affairs soon becomes an inquiry into how Proietti does business and the people he has discarded along the way. Finally, Proietti’s finances attract Scamarcio’s attention, and he discovers that the drama commissioner has been granting favours to some very shadowy sponsors.

Like a swimmer trying to escape a riptide, Scamarcio comes to realise that this new inquiry threatens to bring him head to head with his father’s old lieutenant, Piero Piocosta. If he’s to survive in the police force, Scamarcio knows that he must find a way to get Piocosta off his back, once and for all. And find it quickly.

Reluctantly, he travels home to Calabria in an attempt to understand how powerful Piocosta has really become and whether he might ever be silenced. It’s a perilous journey, but one Scamarcio has to make if he’s to finally banish the ghosts of his past.

With countless enemies and numerous false friends, a leading figure in the television game, Micky Proietti, is caught in a terrible accident with his wife and child. But when his family fail to arrive at the hospital following the incident, kidnapping seems the only likely explanation – and one which Leone Scamarcio must solve quickly.

But Scamarcio has problems of his own. With his father’s old mafia connections vying to control him, Scamarcio is threatened with losing everything he’s worked so hard to build, and is in danger of falling back into a world he fought to leave behind.

If the scene setting and character development of the opening chapter starts a little slowly, the vast majority of the novel more than makes up for it as a wealth of hardened criminals and suspicious characters vie to to make themselves the most likely suspect in the unfolding drama. And with two interwoven storylines running side by side, the seamless transition between the overriding criminal investigation and Scamarcio’s own storyline of Calabrian mafiosos, familial struggle and his past escape to Rome, makes this a complex and engaging crime thriller.

Through an absorbing narrative and meticulous attention to detail, the dark underbelly of Rome and the toxic, sweltering atmosphere of Catanzaro spring into life as both criminals and politicians come to the fore. As in the preceding novels, the depiction of Rome appears both beautiful and unflinchingly realistic; Dalbuono never shies away from thrusting the grit and grime of locations into her novels yet her love of the country is at all times apparent. This is an almost photographic portrait of two very different locations.

But while both Rome and Catanzaro provide the perfect backdrop to the unfolding drama, it is the interplay of characters that truly weaves this tangled web of villainy. With intoxicating showgirls vying for attention, and actors, directors and errand boys seeking centre stage, Dalbuono manages to build the necessary depth and background to the crime through a series of fleeting interactions and intelligent distractions which work to make Scamarcio’s task an increasingly difficult one.

And these novels cannot be read without becoming thoroughly invested in Leone Scamarcio. The troubled, chain smoking son of a former mafioso has a storyline equally as tantalising as the overriding crime itself, and it is in The Hit that we truly get to grips with the impact of his past action and inaction. The thrill of the crime is, as always, tantamount to the novel, yet it is the ever-mired Scamarcio who provides the familiar backdrop in an ever-growing sea of troubles. This is a character who has you coming back for more.

Dalbuono offers more than just a fast paced thriller with this release. Her prose is descriptive and beautiful where necessary, her protagonist is complex and absorbing, and her plot is dynamic and unpredictable. From the heart of Rome, to the glare of the spotlight, Dalbuono paints a scene which could only have come from experience or the most thorough research; her attention to detail is capable of transporting the reader in an instant onto the busy streets of Rome, under the heavy sun of Catanzaro, or into the path of ever present danger.

Utterly absorbing and vivid in its detail, The Hit is the perfect action packed follow up to The Few and The American. And with the release of its sequel, The Extremist, this month, it won’t be long before Scamarcio makes a very welcome return to my bookshelf.

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Review: The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley



The Emperor’s Blades

Book One of the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne

by Brian Staveley

Fantasy | 569 Pages | Published by Tor in 2014


| Rating |


Conspiracy. Murder. Treachery. In this debut fantasy from Brian Staveley the intricacies of empire, the loyalty between family, friends and comrades, and the human spirit are pushed to breaking point in pursuit of truth, vengeance and the unknown. Staveley has crafted a compelling narrative which twists and turns through dangerous lands and treasonous plots. With incredible, fluid detail, The Emperor’s Blades is a stunningly addictive debut which captures both the heart and the imagination.

The circle is closing. The stakes are high. And old truths will live again…

The Emperor has been murdered, leaving the Annurian Empire in turmoil. Now his progeny must prepare to unmask a conspiracy. His son Valyn, training for the empire’s deadliest fighting force, hears the news an ocean away. And after several ‘accidents’ and a dying soldier’s warning, he realizes his life is also in danger. Yet before Valyn can act, he must survive the mercenaries’ brutal final initiation.

The Emperor’s daughter, Minister Adare, hunts her father’s murderer in the capital. Court politics can be fatal, but she needs justice. Lastly Kaden, heir to the empire, studies in a remote monastery. Here, the Blank God’s disciples teach their harsh ways, which Kaden must master to unlock ancient powers. But when an imperial delegation arrives, has he learnt enough to keep him alive, as long-hidden powers make their move?

With cover art worthy of the Old Gods themselves, the first in the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne opens up a rich world of sumptuous palaces, bleak mountains and treacherous islands. As Emperor Sanlitun hui’Malkeenian falls to an assassin’s blade, the fate of an empire rests on the heirs to the Malkeenian line – Kaden, heir apparent and acolyte to the Shin Monks; Valyn, cadet of the elite Kettral wing; and Adare, Royal Princess and Chief Minister of Finance of the Annurian Empire.

As suspicious accidents, cruel deaths and nightmarish creatures haunt the Malkeenian heirs; mind, body and spirit are pushed to breaking point through a series of gruelling punishments, impossible tasks and questionable loyalties. As treason spreads in the heart of Annur, Adare’s home has little distinction between palace and prison; and with only a matter of time before Kaden becomes the assassin’s next victim, Valyn must find the strength to survive Hull’s Trial and find a way off the Qirin Islands… before family and empire are all but lost.

Worlds apart, the lives of the three heirs to the Malkeenian line divides the novel into three perilous locations. The harsh and unforgiving Bone Mountains, home to the Shin monks of Ashk’lan, where acolytes seek to unlock long hidden powers through strength and stillness of body and mind; The dangerous Qirin Islands, a haven for the criminal underbelly and training grounds of the Kettral, an elite military wing famed for their stealth, deception, brute strength and speed; and the capital of the Empire, Annur, as sumptuous as it is treacherous, where the military, ministers and priests vie for power.

The Emperor’s Blades succeeds in detailing these locations through a wealth of history, back story and the intricacies of culture and religion, which all play a pivotal role in underpinning both the narrative and its character. But while the intrigues of court in the heart of Annur and the strange powers which reveal themselves amongst the Shin monks are an integral and exciting element of the story, the grit and spirit of the novel, for me, really comes across amongst the Kettral of the Qirin Islands. The hardship of training, the (sometimes grudging) camaraderie,  and the ever present danger build edge-of-the-seat tension and make for an exhilarating read.

Yet while the worldbuilding in The Emperor’s Blades truly makes for a rich and expansive novel, and the writing rapts all attention, the real strength throughout the narrative is the characterisation, in particular that of the protagonists. The children of Sanliitun hui’Malkeenian are as different as the locations they’ve grown up in, but each has a wilfulness and strength of character that endears the reader to them and had me championing all three throughout.

Adare, surrounded by those she cannot tell from friend or foe, is clever and calculating but as a princess and a woman must constantly prove her worth to ensure her position is not lost. Valyn, trained by the most elite warriors of the empire, must undergo gruelling physical tests while seeking out those who would betray him  from amongst his own sword-brothers. Kaden, who lives a secluded life under the tutelage – and frequent punishment – of the Shin monks, is innocent to much of the scheming and treachery which plagues his siblings but, as rightful Emperor, faces the most danger of all.

These three characters are the focal point from which loyalty and betrayal, and strength and weakness radiate; characters which, as a reader, I found utterly captivating. This richly detailed novel, which maintains a pace reminiscent of action novels and which consistently draws you back in, has become one of my favourite reads of the past few years. This is a blade wielding, heart pounding and tear jerking triumph, and my investment in Staveley’s creation remains wholeheartedly assured.

The Emperor’s Blades is a fast-paced, exhilarating read whose characters exhibit great depth and realism, whose world is dangerous, beautiful and delightfully complex, and whose writing is simply stunning. I, for one, cannot wait to get my hands on its sequel, The Providence of Fire.

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Review: Black City Saint by Richard A. Knaak



Black City Saint

by Richard A. Knaak

Fantasy | 390 Pages | Published by Pyr in 2016


| Rating |


This book was received from the publisher in return for an honest review

Despite an extensive back-catalogue of fiction, my introduction to Richard A. Knaak’s work begins with Black City Saint, an urban fantasy set in prohibition era Chicago. Eloquent and addictive, Black City Saint is an exciting foray into alternative history, a fantasy whose setting lends it incredible scope for Knaak’s imagination. In a world where dragons hitch-hike on the souls of saints, and long-dead emperors haunt the temples of God, Knaak has created a landscape blighted by darkness in this fast-paced adventure.

For more than sixteen hundred years, Nick Medea has followed and guarded the Gate that keeps the mortal realm and that of Feirie separate, seeking in vain absolution for the fatal errors he made when he slew the dragon. All that while, he has tried and failed to keep the woman he loves from dying over and over.

Yet in the fifty years since the Night the Dragon Breathed over the city of Chicago, the Gate has not only remained fixed, but open to the trespasses of the Wyld, the darkest of the Feiriefolk. Not only does that mean an evil resurrected from Nick’s own past, but the reincarnation of his lost Cleolinda, a reincarnation destined once more to die.

Nick must turn inward to that which he distrusts the most: the Dragon, the beast he slew when he was still only Saint George. He must turn to the monster residing in him, now a part of him…but ever seeking escape.

The gang war brewing between Prohibition bootleggers may be the least of his concerns. If Nick cannot prevent an old evil from opening the way between realms…then not only might Chicago face a fate worse than the Great Fire, but so will the rest of the mortal realm.

1920’s Chicago; a city of bootleggers and mobsters, where convention is defied, loyalty is bought and sleepless nights are a dime a dozen. But appearances can be deceptive. Behind the veil of guns, liquor and the roaring twenties lies a much darker world: Feirie.

Feirie, however, is not a place of playful sprites and charming tricksters, its sinister inhabitants are twisted to the core, delighting in torture and forever seeking passage into the human realm.

The only thing containing the darkness is the Gate – the Gate which Nick Medea has guarded, alongside his unwilling and unwanted companion, for the past sixteen hundred years. But as tensions flare and evil awakens one thing becomes certain – only a Saint could prevent hell from breaching Chicago’s borders.

In a narrative populated by molls, mobsters, gents and dames, the spirit and atmosphere of 1920’s Chicago is brought to life through architectural description, societal evolution and a protagonist who has seen the changes wrought by time. With hauntings from long dead Roman Emperor Diocletian and the legends of Nick’s own past, Black City Saint has far more depth than its 390 pages would suggest.

Populated by a delightfully disturbing cast, Black City Saint never fails to put protagonist Nick through his paces. While love interest Claryce remains in a state of perpetual demise, and as a character possibly suffers for it, Diocletian’s desperate need for salvation; the unpredictability of the dragon Eye, both a help and a hindrance to Nick; and Fetch the witty shapeshifter are part of a motley group who lend a darkly humorous air to the novel.

Knaak impresses throughout this novel with his lively and engaging writing style, a style which hooks the reader  from the opening chapters and retains a relentless pace from start to finish. With rich detail and snapshot imagery of 20th Century life, Black City Saint is a wonderful example of how first person perspective needn’t be at the expense of detail and description.

In the first in what looks to be an incredibly promising new urban fantasy series, Richard A. Knaak has created an instantly compelling protagonist on a backdrop of dark magic and mob violence. Thoroughly deserved of a reputation as a successor of this sub-genre, Black City Saint is an absorbing, inventive and humorous read which already comes high on my list of urban fantasy favourites.

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Review: A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan



A Natural History of Dragons

Book One of The Memoirs of Lady Trent

by Marie Brennan

Fantasy | 334 Pages | Published by Titan Books in 2014


| Rating |


A Natural History of Dragons, the first volume in Marie Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent, is a fascinating expedition into lands unknown, where cultures clash, society is upturned and magnificent, dangerous beasts stalk the earth, seas and skies.

From lands firmly rooted in our own cultures, Marie Brennan has created a world which resonates with a sense of real world history and weaves a thread of draconic magic throughout in this beautifully crafted and subtly fantastic memoir.

Marie Brennan begins a thrilling new fantasy series in A Natural History of Dragons, combining adventure with the inquisitive spirit of the Victorian Age.

You, dear reader, continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart—no more so than the study of dragons itself. But such study offers rewards beyond compare: to stand in a dragon’s presence, even for the briefest of moments—even at the risk of one’s life—is a delight that, once experienced, can never be forgotten. . . .

All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.

Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.Isabella, Lady Trent of Scirland, has led a life of adventure, science and scholarly progress, a life which has swung between tremendous highs and painful lows. A noted and respected academic in the field of natural history, Isabella has travelled to the ends of the earth, battling societal pressure, gender repression and a distinct inability to conform in pursuit of her passion: dragons.

Now an elderly woman, Lady Trent, whose fame and success often eclipse her early struggles, puts pen to her early life. From adventurous child to budding explorer, Isabella sets out to overcome the restrictions placed on her as she ventures across the seas to Vystrana in search of the illusive Rock-Wyrm.

A tale of scholarly passions and societal acceptance, Marie Brennan has crafted a novel which, through its subtle charm, blossoms into life as the adventures of Lady Trent unfold. While sometimes lacking the depth and explosive excitement of epic fantasy, A Natural History of Dragons proves a pleasant and altogether human read where the course of life never runs smooth but its highs and lows never fail to make an impact.

Set in a world not unlike our own, where Lady Trent’s home country of Scirland could well be a Nineteenth Century England overrun with dragons; the first in this series captures real world history and culture and builds an enchanting fantasy from them. And while the storyline may have benefited from more of the fantastical and strange, the pockets of description and witty narrative style make for a fascinating mirror world.

Isabella proves an interesting narrator whose personality refuses to conform to the constraints in which society would shelter her. Speaking with the authority and openness granted to her in later life, she still retains the innocence and wonder which first led to her study of dragons throughout. And though the strength of her voice sometimes overwhelms those of other characters, there is enough interest and mystery surrounding them to leave the reader wanting more.

Marie Brennan has created a beautiful novel which captures the imagination and takes the reader on an expedition into the unknown. And while more detail and excitement may have been warranted where dragons are concerned, the pace and style of the narrative make this novel a joy to read.

A Natural History of Dragons is an imaginative and wonderfully pleasant foray into the life of Lady Trent, a woman whose own adventures promise to grow bolder and more thrilling with every tale, and a series which I for one am eager to continue.

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