Review: Stranger of Tempest by Tom Lloyd



Stranger of Tempest

Book One of The God Fragments

by Tom Lloyd

Fantasy | 320 Pages | To be published by Gollancz on 16th June 2016


| Rating |


This book was received from Netgalley in return for an honest review

With a premise which promised action and grit by the spadeful, and a dramatic cover boasting an awesome Diablo-Balrog mash-up, it didn’t take me long to crack open Stranger of Tempest once I got my hands on it. Having already impressed with the first in his Twilight Reign series, a book which spent a leisurely nine years on my bookshelf before its eventual dusting off, Tom Lloyd has surpassed himself with this action-packed and enthralling tale of mercenary misadventure.

Stranger of Tempest is an intense thrill-ride across disreputable cities, sprawling plains, and the deepest dark; where conflicts of power, marauding bands and the deadly unknown reign supreme. With a cast of colourful characters, and a blisteringly bloody pace throughout, this novel is a thrilling and high-octane opener to what promises to be a spectacular new series.

Being an honest man in a lawless world is never easy…

Lynx is a mercenary with a sense of honour; a dying breed in the Riven Kingdom. Failed by the nation he served and weary of the skirmishes that plague the continent’s principalities, he walks the land in search of purpose. Bodyguard work keeps his belly full and his mage-gun loaded. It might never bring a man fame or wealth, but he’s not forced to rely on others or to kill without cause.

Little could compel Lynx to join a mercenary company, but he won’t turn his back on a kidnapped girl. At least the job seems simple enough; the mercenaries less stupid and vicious than most he’s met over the years.

So long as there are no surprises or hidden agendas along the way, it should work out fine.

An ex-soldier of So Han on the run from his past, Lynx is a mercenary who travels the Riven Kingdom taking contracts and drinking heavily – whilst accepting general contempt for the legacy of his people, of course. When his path crosses that of Anatin’s Mercenary Deck, a band of seemingly honourable mercenaries widely known as The Cards, he throws in his lot and embarks on a quest to free a kidnapped girl from the clutches of an unknown rogue.

But the intentions of mercenaries are seldom clear cut. When everything that could go wrong blows up in spectacular fashion, Lynx and his new found band of brothers – along with a stray and said damsel in distress – attempt to flee across the Riven Kingdom whilst hunted by the Knights-Charnel. But when this pursuit pushes them into the deepest dark, a band of militant zealots hot on their heels is likely to be the least of their problems.

In an explosion of burners, icers and sparkers, Stranger of Tempest is marked by its gorgeous descriptions, its witty dialogue and a driven storyline which beats a bloody path through the ensuing chaos. This is a land where cultures have been thrown together through war and conquest; a land where people do what they can to carve out an existence under the shadow of the militant orders. From underground ruins from long gone civilisations, to the vibrant and debauched cities of the Riven Kingdom, Tom Lloyd has created a wonderfully diverse world which is fleshed out with the solid weight of history and conflict.

The mysterious and much sought-after God Fragments, the rare powers of the mages, and the creatures of the deepest dark come together to make the first in The God Fragments series an incredibly inventive, infinitely mysterious and highly addictive concoction of fantasy delights. With a unique and well thought out magic system, Stranger of Tempest unleashes a whirlwind of innate elemental powers across the storyline which give rise to dangerous elemental monsters and fuel the weaponry whose inventiveness becomes the driving force behind much of the action in the novel.

And if the thought of beautiful – if bloody – descriptions, inventive weaponry and a unique magic system weren’t enough to whet your appetite then the Mercenary Deck might just push you over the edge. With a varied assortment of gamblers, drinkers and debauchers, The Cards live for the fight but maintain a vague sense of collective morality throughout. From the gigantic and terrifying Reft, to the infinitely likeable Himble and their calculating leader Anatin, Stranger of Tempest is driven forwards by its cast of colourful characters, where everyone has a past and nothing is ever as it seems.

However, whilst The Cards and their associates may present an entertaining front, it is Lynx – our aforementioned protagonist – who steals the show throughout this novel. Past his prime but incredibly dangerous, he is a man whose anger and rage boils beneath the surface but are dampened by his sense of honour and his determination to do the right thing even if it costs him. A man with a complex past, one which slowly unravels over the course of the novel, Lynx is a memorable character who remains captivating throughout and retains enough mystery and intrigue to carry over to the next novel.

Told in alternating chapters from the recent past to the present, this novel builds a detailed picture of the world and its characters before crashing together in spectacular style in a richly imagined centre. And whilst at times the switch between character’s thoughts and the main body of the narrative may have been a little confusing, the narrative style is incredibly engaging and the quality of the writing is apparent throughout. From the incredible opening chapter to its tense conclusion, Stranger of Tempest is truly a non-stop thrill-ride from beginning to end.

With flawed characters, a fascinating world, and a veritable cornucopia of antagonists throughout, Stranger of Tempest is a powerful and impressive series opener. Tom Lloyd has crafted a captivating and well imagined world which promises great things to come in what is set to be a storming new series. Fantasy fans who have yet to discover Tom Lloyd: Now is the time!

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Review: Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan



Promise of Blood

Book One of the Powder Mage Trilogy

by Brian McClellan

Fantasy | 561 Pages | Published by Hatchette in 2013


| Rating |


Every once in a while a book – and its accompanying author – crosses your path and completely turns your world upside down. Addictive, absorbing and ridiculously thrilling, these are the books which grip you from their opening pages and refuse to let you go even after they’ve come to an end. My addiction is Promise of Blood – a book so good that it’s acquired its own rating.

Promise of Blood is a tour de force; an unyielding whirlwind of explosive action; an unflinching portrayal of a world, in some ways not unlike our own, where magic, chaos and blood threaten to choke the populace as it vies for freedom, equality and glorious revolution. The first novel in the Powder Mage Trilogy is, without a doubt, the best book I’ve read in a long time. Masterfully written. Persistently exhilarating. Bloody brilliant.

The Age of Kings is dead . . . and I have killed it.

It’s a bloody business overthrowing a king… Field Marshal Tamas’ coup against his king sent corrupt aristocrats to the guillotine and brought bread to the starving. But it also provoked war with the Nine Nations, internal attacks by royalist fanatics, and the greedy to scramble for money and power by Tamas’s supposed allies: the Church, workers unions, and mercenary forces.

Stretched to his limit, Tamas is relying heavily on his few remaining powder mages, including the embittered Taniel, a brilliant marksman who also happens to be his estranged son, and Adamat, a retired police inspector whose loyalty is being tested by blackmail.

But when gods are involved… Now, as attacks batter them from within and without, the credulous are whispering about omens of death and destruction. Just old peasant legends about the gods waking to walk the earth. No modern educated man believes that sort of thing. But they should…

In a rich, distinctive world that mixes magic with technology, who could stand against mages that control gunpowder and bullets? PROMISE OF BLOOD is the start of a new epic fantasy series from Brian McClellan.

Promise of Blood opens with a society on the brink of revolution; taxes are high, living standards are low, and the whole of Adro is about to be sold out to the Kez by their incompetent King and his royal cabal. With the palace in the throes of a military coup, the Kez threatening the borders, and the populace in the death grip of starvation and poverty, establishing a new government following the rebellion will be no small task.

But the rebellion controls the power of the powder mages, an elite force of soldiers who can use and magically manipulate gunpowder to their own ends, and one of their most renowned number is leading the revolution. Field Marshal Tamas, a skilled tactician and military leader, will stop at nothing to forge a new society out of the dregs of Adro and will wage bloody war on the streets of Adopest to do so.

As assassins, spies and traitors vie to stop the revolution in its tracks, and powder mages and Privileged, a group of powerful sorcerers loyal to the King, execute one another with deadly efficiency, the list of revolutionary allies begins to wear thin. The narrative follows Tamas, his son Taniel and Adamat, a retired police inspector, in converging storylines as they struggle to outmanoeuvre their enemies both on the battlefield and within their own camp. No easy feat when the gods become involved.

Brian McClellan has created a world caught in the throes of chaos and regime change, a world where bloody battles are fought on the streets, and one which resonates with a chord from our own history. Tense, exciting and exhilarating, Adro is effortlessly fleshed out as the action unfolds. With a diverse landscape and a multitude of warring nations at her borders, Promise of Blood creates a narrative which never isolates itself, which resounds with undeniable realism – even with its fantastic elements – and which promises a clash of destructive and supremely powerful forces in the books to come.

This is a world made up of those without power, and the incredible force of those with it: the powder mages; the Privileged; and those with a knack, a single ‘talent’ or power. With the introduction of the Wardens of Kez in the latter part of the novel,  and hints of power of entirely different kind, Promise of Blood introduces a unique and captivating magic system which drives the narrative and lends more than dose of explosive action to the storyline.

But McClellan’s creative genius doesn’t stop short of incredible worldbuilding and imaginative magic systems. His cast of characters are wonderfully conflicted and imperfect creations which retain a distinctive and real quality throughout the novel. This is a society hacked into bloody existence by grizzled war leaders, sly manipulators, devious negotiators and charming dead-shots; a society where an overwhelming cast of supporting characters slot seamlessly into the plot, shaping the narrative and upping its intrigue factor tenfold.

The protagonists of this novel surprise, amaze and intrigue in equal measure and drive the story forwards at a relentless pace. Tamas is a tactical genius with a singular determination, a man who above all else believes in the right of his actions despite the often grim consequences. He is an honest man, but a deadly one, an uncompromising general carved from his own experiences who is sure to remain at the top of my list of favourite characters for years to come.

His estranged son Taniel is similarly engaging. A charismatic marksman known throughout the land as Taniel Two-Shot, a nicknamed earned for his ability to take two enemies down with one bullet, his charming and often humorous personality remains captivating throughout the narrative despite living under his father’s considerable shadow. With Adamat, the investigator working for Tamas; Ka-Poel, a mysterious and strangely powerful savage; and a whole array of mercenaries, mages and potential traitors, it is the characters and their machinations which give drive to the vast majority of this novel.

McClellan has an effortlessly engaging writing style, putting as much depth into his characters as he does his world. The narrative is a none stop thrill ride from start to finish, and McClellan doesn’t flinch from inflicting pain on his characters. Promise of Blood is an intense, exciting and relentless conflict of blood, power and politics; a novel where death is dealt out with abandon and where even the good and honest struggle to keep their hands clean. A stark portrayal of a regime in its death throes and the subsequent struggle to establish cohesive rule, Promise of Blood is nothing short of genius.Promise of Blood is bloody and brutal novel with an imaginative premise and a wonderful magic system. Brian McClellan strides to the top of my favourite new authors list with this flintlock fantasy which rides a line between the epic and the grimdark in an explosion of guns, gunpowder and grit. For those of you who haven’t yet come across Brian McClellan, there are just three words: Read – This – Book. 


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Review: The Thief by Claire North



The Thief

The Gameshouse II

by Claire North

Fantasy | Novella | 100 Pages | Published by Orbit in 2015


| Rating |


The Serpent, the first novella in The Gameshouse series, impressed with its enchanting and opulent setting and its calculated narrative which resonated with political intrigue and decisive manoeuvres. The second novella, The Thief, follows on from The Serpent several hundred years later in an equally beautiful but entirely different tale which is utterly gripping from start to finish.

The Thief is a heady, exotic and thrilling tale which takes the reader on a journey – one of survival and victory – across Thailand and Asia. Through jungles and cities, on railroads and by foot, North weaves across the landscape as she spins her tale of The Gameshouse, where bets, debts and the game remain king. This is an exciting, intoxicating and incredibly beautiful tale and, much like The Gameshouse, once it has it hooks in you, it is impossible to let go.

The Gameshouse is an unusual institution.

Many know it as the place where fortunes can be made and lost though games of chess, backgammon – every game under the sun.

But a select few, who are picked to compete in the higher league, know that some games are played for higher stakes – those of politics and empires, of economics and kings . . .

In 1930s Bangkok, one higher league player has just been challenged to a game of hide and seek. The board is all of Thailand – and the seeker may use any means possible to hunt down his quarry – be it police, government, strangers or even spies . . .

The Gameshouse is preparing itself for The Great Game but, first, another pieces needs to be manoeuvred into place. Once more we take up the die and play the game which transcends all boundaries, the game which fells empires and topples kings and where the cost of victory leaves an indelible imprint on the world. Anonymous sentinels stand watch as they recount a tale of hide and seek, a game where whole countries are the board and governments, military and warbands are the pawns.

It’s the summer of 1938 and Remy Burke has made a bet with the notorious Abhik Lee; a bet he made whilst drunk and in no fit state to call terms. The wager: Twenty years of Abhik Lee’s life versus Remy Burke’s memory. The deck is stacked against him and his pieces, those people and forces that he holds in his power like pawns on a chessboard, cannot compare to the powerful hand that Lee holds.

Under such circumstances a game of hide and seek is no easy feat, not when you’re a near six-foot Anglo-Frenchman in the heart of Asia; not when your opponent has such powerful forces to call upon; and not when your opponent would never have made a bet unless he knew he could win. For Remy, victory and survival may just be one and the same thing.

Throughout The Thief, North stuns with her sumptuous and compulsive writing. She paints a picture of 1930’s Thailand, and Bangkok in particular, with such skill and ease that it’s hard not to feel you’ve suddenly been transported there. From the heart of the city, to the wilds of the jungle, to the cracked and dry deserts, North conjures up a world of politics and alliances, of cities and wilderness, and saturates her writing with a wealth of history in this fantastical and enchanting tale.

The Thief is almost reminiscent of those great chase stories, such as The Thirty-Nine Steps or twentieth century escape memoirs, which share a protagonist fleeing across expansive stretches of wilderness and jungle with unknown enemies hidden within the landscape. North delights in stacking the decks against her creation; everyone and anyone could be a piece in Lee’s hand. Trust the wrong person and Burke may lose more than just the game. But even an underdog may yet have a few tricks to play.

Once more the silent observers take the reigns of the tale and steer our course, recounting Burke’s tale in additively florid prose. Their identity remains a mystery and their allegiance remains unknown, but their desire for Burke’s unlikely victory lends them a friendly if other-worldly air. They seem both part of The Gameshouse and separate from it, transcending time and earthly boundaries to observe and record the unfolding of the game.

Remy Burke is an affable and likeable protagonist who, in his own terms, has become a little sloppy when it comes to the game. His fundamental flaws of character leave him with no time to assess and no time to think, his game becoming a chase from start to finish, and the pursued outwitted and outmatched at almost every turn. But friendship may be found by our beleaguered protagonist, even within The Gameshouse, as The Thief sees the return of the enigmatic Silver.

The Thief is an incredibly well written tale which rejoices in its own prose and is almost impossible to put down. This is a series of novellas which, although close to perfect in their own short format, consistently leaves me yearning for more. The writing is poetic, the premise is full of intrigue and excitement, the characters are both likeable and other-worldly, and the power and draw of The Gameshouse is almost tangible. Once it has you in its sights, The Gameshouse will not let go.

I wholeheartedly recommend The Thief, along with the other Gameshouse novellas, to anyone wishing for a beautiful, tense and exciting break from reality. Fantasy, history and intrigue are entwined throughout the narrative for something which, for me, bordered close on perfection. Claire North has once again left me with the distinct impression that I really do not have enough of her work in my life.

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Review: The Serpent by Claire North



The Serpent

The Gameshouse I

by Claire North

Fantasy | Novella | 100 Pages | Published by Orbit in 2015


| Rating |


Claire North has been on my radar ever since she was Catherine Webb and publishing novels at the grand old age of sixteen. However, despite this early success, it wasn’t until The Gameshouse series appeared on my feed that I picked up her any of her novels. With a sumptuous, seventeenth century Venetian setting and an enchanting premise, The Serpent is a novella which had me trapped in its web of intrigue and politics from the very start. This is The Gameshouse, where fortunes are made and empires are broken. Will you place a bet?

In 17th Century Venice exists a mysterious establishment known only as the Gameshouse.

There, fortunes are made and fortunes are broken over games of chess, backgammon and every other game under the sun.

But those whom fortune favours may be invited to compete in the higher league . . . a league where the games played are of politics and empires, of economics and kings. It is a league where Capture the Castle involves real castles, where hide and seek takes place on a scale as big as the British Isles.

Not everyone proves worthy of competing in the higher league. But one woman, who is about to play, may just exceed everyone’s expectations.

Though she must always remember: the higher the stakes, the more deadly the rules…

Trapped in a loveless marriage, Thene must stand by a husband who whiles away his days gambling and whoring, falling into debt and dishonour as he spends every last coin. Finding herself at The Gameshouse, in the company of gamblers and gamesters, fortune makers and fortune breakers, she watches as her husband sinks further into ruin. Unable and unwilling to change his fate, she takes up the dice.

She plays for gold and plays for coin and, when the scales tip in her favour, her actions capture the attention of the house. Called to the higher league, Thene finds that she is playing for far more than she could ever have imagined. This is a game which transcends all boundaries, where players control people like pieces on a board, and where the fate of empires and kings is decided by a roll of the dice. In this game of politics she must claim victory for her king or risk losing all.

The Serpent is a richly imagined tale, brimming with mystery and intrigue, and reminiscent of the old morality tales of centuries past. Venice is depicted in gloriously vivid detail, the architecture of the city and the spirit of its people captured in remarkably lyrical prose. North weaves the fantastical throughout a narrative which in all other ways could be real. This is a novella which lives and breaths its time and place, where it’s as easy to become lost in the pages as in the narrow calles and campos of Venice. North has captured the spirit of a city – the revelry, politics and intrigue – whilst basking in its grandeur.

The narrative is told from the perspective of unseen observers who watch as Thene plays her game of kings; silent sentinels who recount the unfolding of events whilst giving little away as to their form and purpose. Thene is an intelligent and thoughtful character who conjures up an instant rapport, the hardship she endures balanced by her power as a player. The other characters, or pieces – the Priestess, the Fool, the Queen of Cups, and the four kings eager to be crowned – are lent an air of mystery, creating an exciting and unpredictable read which keeps you guessing until the very end.

Claire North has proven herself to be a skilled author whose way with words is sure to impress. Her use of language and her beautiful, poetic prose conveys the excitement and thrill of the game whilst carving out a city and a compelling narrative in wonderful detail. This is a novella centred around politics and power – instantly captivating and utterly absorbing; North is the Gamesmaster and the readers are puppets on her strings.

The Serpent surprised and impressed me in equal measure, and I would recommend  it to fans of fantasy and historical fiction alike. With two more novellas in The Gameshouse series awaiting my attention, along with numerous feature length novels, I’m sure 2016 will be a year in which Claire North features heavily on my reading list – I seriously can’t wait!

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Review: The Scarab Path by Adrian Tchaikovsky


scarab


The Scarab Path

Book Five of the Shadows of the Apt

by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Fantasy | 688 Pages | Published by Tor in 2010


| Rating |


I love Adrian Tchaikovsky. The Shadows of the Apt series has taken my breath away with each successive book. Tchaikovsky has created a universe which is truly unique; a universe in which insectoid human races vie for supremacy over one another in a rich and vibrant world. Every time I read another addition to the series, I can’t help but berate myself for leaving it on my bookshelf for so long before picking it up. The Scarab Path is no exception. After two long years of waiting I opened it up, read the first page and was once again drawn into a world of magic and artifice, of war and peace and a clash of cultures. I can’t believe I left it this long.

The Scarab Path continues the story of Cheerwell Maker of Collegium (self-effacing bumbling Beetle) and Thalric of Capitas (Wasp and erstwhile officer of the Rekef) following the events in Salute the Dark.

After an explosive conclusion to the war with the Wasp Empire, Cheerwell finds herself lost; lost in a city she once called home, lost in her grief, and suffering from another loss too great for any Beetle-kinden to comprehend. Determined to draw his niece from her reverie, Stenwold encourages Che to join a Collegium expedition of academics to the mysterious Beetle city of Khanaphes. An expedition which might just hold the answers to those questions which have been unsettling her mind, and an expedition where she might just find more than she was looking for.

Meanwhile, the Empress Seda is consolidating power in what remains of the Wasp Empire. Thalric, now Regent, finds himself at the mercy of this powerful and dangerous woman; a woman whose secrets are far darker and more deadly than anyone could imagine. Under the threat of assassination, Thalric must throw his loyalties to the wind (yet again) and escape from more than just the assassin’s blade. Finding himself in company with a deputation of wasps bound for Khanaphes, events conspire to bring both Che and Thalric together.

But the world has turned its eyes to Khanaphes. There are rustlings in the Scorpion held deserts of Nem and the wheels of the war machine are turning once again. Surviving an encounter with even a small contingent of the Wasp Empire is never simple, and with the Many of Nem at their backs (and fronts, and sides) things are about to get a whole lot more complicated. But the heart of Khanaphes holds a secret; an ancient and powerful secret hidden throughout the ages… and one which might just fight back.

The Scarab Path, like the books which precede it, creates a world so rich and varied that with every addition it becomes more real and tangible. By the time Tchaikovsky finishes this series, I may start believing it is real. His worldbuilding is outstanding; every culture is unique yet distinctly human in their isolated motivations – as though one facet of human emotion has been magnified tenfold and applied to a whole race of people. These people are the extremes; warriors, manipulative game players, artificers, cut throats and peacekeepers. The detail in which Tchaikovsky describes these distinctive cultures and the conflicts surrounding their lives is almost like he’s lifted an entire history from an alien world. Perhaps this is the true benefit of having a lengthy fantasy series, but few do it so well as Tchaikovsky.

And if his worldbuilding wasn’t brilliant enough, his characters are incredible. I love them, I hate them, I can easily go through the full range of emotions during an encounter with a Tchaikovsky book. They are so well written, so unique and infinitely relatable that each book can pick up a new set without diminishing the ones left out. Even small, sideline characters are given a touch of the Tchaikovsky magic and become real. Cheerwell is an incredibly endearing and lovable character, bumbling and stumbling into trouble at every opportunity; I’ve loved her from the very first encounter in Empire in Black and Gold. Thalric has also been one of my favourite characters since his Rekef days, a calculating liar and a manipulative antihero – and boy do I love a good antihero. The Scarab Path develops both these characters in a highly satisfactory way and firmly secured them as two of my favourites.

After the climactic events of Salute the Dark, I wasn’t sure how this story would develop, or even if it could develop without become a shadow of the other books. But who was I kidding, of course it could! I am not exaggerating when I say that every single book gets better, every one makes the world a little richer, a little more believable, and makes me love the characters even more. Tchaikovsky is a master of storytelling. The Scarab Path is a great addition to the series; I honestly can’t commend the entire Shadows of the Apt enough. I for one never want to see it end.

Gushing over.

Reviews for Book Six – The Sea Watch and Book Seven – Heirs of the Blade will be coming shortly

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