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: 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: Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Red Rising

Book One of the Red Rising Trilogy

by Pierce Brown

Young Adult | Science Fiction | 382 Pages | Published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2014

| Rating |

Over the past few years I’ve managed to unintentionally avoid most of the popular young adult dystopian releases – something about hyped novels clearly deflects my attention. That was until Red Rising turned up as the September book of the month for Dragons and Jetpacks. Having, despite the hype, heard very little about it, I cracked Red Rising open with very few expectations and… wow! This novel seriously blew me away. In a debut novel full of repression and vengeance, Pierce Brown manages to surpass all expectations (if I had any at all!). Red Rising is beautifully written, imaginatively crafted and heart thumpingly brilliant.

The Earth is dying. Darrow is a Red, a miner in the interior of Mars. His mission is to extract enough precious elements to one day tame the surface of the planet and allow humans to live on it. The Reds are humanity’s last hope.

Or so it appears, until the day Darrow discovers it’s all a lie. That Mars has been habitable – and inhabited – for generations, by a class of people calling themselves the Golds. A class of people who look down on Darrow and his fellows as slave labour, to be exploited and worked to death without a second thought.

Until the day that Darrow, with the help of a mysterious group of rebels, disguises himself as a Gold and infiltrates their command school, intent on taking down his oppressors from the inside. But the command school is a battlefield – and Darrow isn’t the only student with an agenda.

Red Rising is a tale of division and repression. The Golds are the conquerors, the glorious leaders who have elected themselves the superior race of humanity. Those who lie elsewhere on the colour spectrum find themselves confined to their caste, unable to climb socially or politically and treated as subhuman by those above. The Reds have it worst of all. Toiling deep underground, they labour under the pretext that they’re making Mars habitable for humanity, a lie perpetuated by the Golds to ensure their continued servitude.

But Darrow and the Sons of Ares plan to bring down the system from within and will do almost anything to free their people. Brown has created a dark and unforgiving field on which to play his characters. This is a harsh land full of harsh people, where only the strongest survive and the most determined rise to power. Those in the way are disposed of dispassionately, both Reds and Golds alike.

This is a novel written with skill and excitement to create a fast paced and thrilling plot; Darrow’s rage and pain filtering throughout the narrative. And though the pages seemingly fly by, this isn’t a novel to rush; the detail Brown puts into his worldbuilding is well worth the time and attention. The characters may carry the novel  and drive the plot but this dangerous and alien planet is described with vibrancy and unobtrusive detail. Pierce Brown can almost do no wrong. Almost. Just one (repeated) phrase – ‘picking his butt’. No.

Darrow is a brilliant protagonist, full of fire and passion, anger and vengeance, sorrow and guilt. It’s incredibly easy to get swept along with his narrative, to empathise with his plight and feel his burning anger towards the Golds. The complete somersault of Darrow’s universe, the necessity for him to change and become someone, or something, else are all etched out in beautiful prose as his character grows and develops. All Brown’s characters feel real and, through friendships and allegiances, brutal tests and grim reality, Darrow’s preconceptions are repeatedly tested to create a complex and exciting novel which bristles with tension and leaves you wondering just where it all might lead.

This is one novel which certainly lives up to its hype; if you’re a fan of dystopian science fiction then Red Rising is sure to impress, and though the opening chapters are deceptively reminiscent of other well loved (and obscenely popular) novels, persevere! – This book stands in a league of its own. Goodbye Red Rising, hello Golden Son!

Bookish Beats Suggestion

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Review: The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

RoT - Gollancz

The Republic of Thieves

Book Three of The Gentleman Bastard Sequence

by Scott Lynch

Fantasy | 598 Pages | Published by Gollancz in 2013

| Rating |

The Republic of Thieves continues The Gentleman Bastard Sequence which began with The Lies of Locke Lamora and continued with Red Seas Under Red Skies.

The Lies of Locke Lamora blew me away, Red Seas Under Red Skies was swashbuckling excellence, and The Republic of Thieves lives up to all expectations as an intricately woven, incredibly entertaining and darn right brilliant romp. Having shuffled its way to the top of my floorshelf after an extended hibernation, I soon found myself immersed in a world of daring adventure, bloody theatrics and political intrigue with a multitude of Bastards for company. Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen – Enter, stage right.

Locke and Jean barely escaped with their lives from what should have been the greatest heist of their career, in the port city of Tal Verrar. Now they head north, looking for sanctuary and an alchemist who can cure the poison that is slowly killing Locke. They find neither, but with their luck, money and hope exhausted, they receive an offer from a power that never had their best interests at heart: The Bondsmagi of Karthain.

In exchange for the chance that Locke might be saved, the Bondsmagi expect the two Gentlemen Bastards to rig an election in their home city of Karthain. They will be opposed. The other side has already hired the services of Sabetha Belacoros, the one person in the world who might match Locke’s criminal skill, and the one person in the world who absolutely rules his heart.

Now it will be con artist against con artist in an election that couldn’t be more crooked, all for the benefit of the mysterious Bondsmagi, who have plans within plans and secrets they’re not telling…

The Republic of Thieves is a book of interweaving tales; past and the present competing for excellence as the life of Locke unfolds in alternating scenes. Lynch maintains the dramatic tension throughout both narratives, pulling it off with flair and skill and excitement throughout. The Bondsmagi hold sway over the present narrative, their once mysterious and strange presence develops to become more tangible and give clarity to their motivations. With Locke and Jean indebted to them, the narrative has all the scheming entertainment of the previous novels if lacking some of the threat.

The present is balanced perfectly with the past narrative, or the Interludes. The storyline which simultaneously unfolds links directly back to the present and gives the depth and history necessary for developing very real characters. And Scott Lynch’s characters are brilliant. The Republic of Thieves knits both tales together with humour – life with The Moncraine Company is a definite highlight – and though it isn’t poised on a knife’s edge like The Lies of Locke Lamora, it takes its time to explore the characters, balancing the fun, scheming capers of the present with the close scrapes of the past.

Lynch’s writing style is absolutely captivating; his dialogue is witty and flows effortlessly, his descriptions are wonderfully atmospheric – I can picture Karthain as easily as I ever did Camorr – and his storytelling is sublime. Having the opportunity to explore more of this beautiful and highly dangerous world, and discover the somewhat absurd customs of the Karthaini people, makes for an entertaining read. Lynch’s descriptions are rich and vibrant, his dialogue is full of humour and his worldbuilding, which slots in so naturally throughout the novel, should appeal to critics and enthusiasts both.

The Republic of Thieves is not without its themes either; relationships and love are key to the storyline. But fear not! This is anything but a lovey dovey tale. The introduction of Sabatha, highly intelligent and wholly unpredictable, is a definite highlight; her skill and personality suited to being both a lover and a nemesis.  Every bit Locke’s equal (if not better) in skill, their relationship is the driving force behind both the past and present narratives. Lynch’s truest love story, however, will always be the epic bromance of Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen.

The Republic of Thieves is a wonderfully fun tale which, though lacking some of the tension of previous novels, gives them a run for their money in terms of characterisation and world development. If you’re new to The Gentleman Bastard Sequence, go grab a copy of The Lies of Locke Lamora; if not then why haven’t you read this yet?! Keep them coming Mr. Lynch, I for one will always keep buying.

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