Both of these short stories, set in Michael J. Sullivan’s fantasy series “The Riyria Chronicles,” are available separately and are currently free on Audible UK.
They are both gems, and they compelled me after listening to buy the first volume of the Riyria Chronicles.
‘The Thief’ is a fantasy archetype used in fantasy literature and gaming. Their skill-set usually includes stealth and lock-picking, usually framed in a rouge’s exterior but (sometimes) grounded nevertheless with a moral sense.
Here all of the above would be true, but from these two short stories I felt I got to know the characters very well, as they are so well drawn. It helps that there is a lot of humour, fresh, funny, character driven and enriching to the story, but not the familiar satire you would expect from Terry Pratchett (God rest his soul) and his imitators.
The protagonists are Royce Melborn and Hadrian Blackwater, a team of two thieves for hire in a world of traps, dungeons, treachery, and feuding lords and kingdoms. In “The Jester” we are introduced to our heroes and other protagonists in mid plummet as they find themselves on the wrong end of a trap. It’s a wonderful opening. With a cowardly pig farmer and the determined candle maker who hired them, they must solve the mystery of missing map pieces that may or may not lead to treasure, the quest having been set by the titular Jester. They find themselves in a sealed flooded room, with an angry monster on the other side of one door, and possible traps leading from a lever, another door, and a treasure chest. They must activate or go through one of these to get out of the chamber. Only one will lead to freedom (a previous wrong choice led them to the opening plummet) but which?
The story is told rapidly in flashback, or rather the key bits of it we need to know. It’s a good way of quickly filling in the backdrop for this short story. The humour is in the bickering and interplay between these very different characters.
A 40 minute listen that got me hooked to the characters, their world and the narrative style, this is testament to the writers skill.
I followed this up with “Professional Integrity.” This is an ingenious mystery of the “locked box in a room” variety. Hired by a naive young woman to arrange her own kidnapping to attract the attentions of a suitor who she presumes will come to the rescue, Royce and Hadrian are intrigued, especially when the girl explains that she is locked in a box by a father when this beau comes to visit. Things soon, of course, escalate and unravel in highly entertaining and unexpected directions.
Lovely stuff, and looking forward to exploring this world more.
Good, clear, characterful narration from Tim Gerard Reynolds.
“The Kings Justice” is a fantasy novella of sorcerers, elemental forces, and good versus evil.
It begins with the enigmatic, cloaked figure who calls himself “Black” arriving at a small town settlement called “Settler’s Crossways.” He’s driven by a burning purpose that draws him on, a need to ensure that a terrible war between elemental forces is not repeated. He can smell evil, and Settler’s Crossway’s reeks of it. He gradually learns of the brutal murder of a small boy that has left the community stunned and reeling. What has this to do with his wider mission? Is someone or something attempting to conjure monstrous new elemental forces? What is the nature of “The King’s Justice” that the townsfolk have called for and how can Black deliver it?
This book is a rock hard diamond of compact storytelling. Not one word is superfluous, each syllable drives the story forward with a terrible urgency. In 119 pages it’s a masterclass in concentrated world-building. Donaldson’s Kingdom of elemental wars, Sorcerers, “Shapers” and “Shaped men” focused on a small community visited by a terrible evil has complete narrative integrity. Black is a familiar genre figure, the driven, cloaked and armed loner as an agent of justice. But the difference here is that he is a “shaped man,” covered with glyphs and sigils that can summon the elemental magic he strives to keep in balance in his world.
The tale’s examination of wider themes of good and evil does not stop at cliche. They are powerful and transcendent. The evil here is not just a fuming Dark Lord, but crimes of the most appalling violence that unfortunately we are all to familiar with in our own world. Donaldson writes compellingly of the effect of these crimes on those most closely affected, such as a grieving father. The powers of goodness are described are not twee or completely overshadowed by the evil as in some current popular fantasy series, but compelling and redemptive. Donaldson starts by having a his hero describe a reductive worldview where the world and all its elemental forces are all there is,(substitute these forces for science and our world and you’ll get the idea), and then transcends it as Black and those around him experience much more.
“Horatio: O day and night but this is wondrous strange!
Hamlet: Then as a Stranger give it welcome. There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
These lines of Shakespeare’s from Act 1 scene 5 of ‘Hamlet,’ came to mind on finishing the extremely strange science fiction/fantasy novel that is ‘Lagoon.’
The story tells of an invasion of shape shifting aliens on Lagos, Nigeria, and of the change they bring. Off the coast of Bar Beach an alien ship plunges into the sea, changing the sea life around it, making this life truly itself and more, awakening it to its full potentiality. This involves some of it growing to monstrous proportions, so we get giant Swordfish and Squids. 3 disparate people are also drawn to the beach at the time of impact. A soldier (Agu) who has rescued a woman from rape from colleagues, a woman, a marine biologist, Adora, fleeing domestic violence, and a hugely successful rap artist, Anthony ‘Dey Craze.’ They are pulled into the sea by the alien life for a first contact experience that will change them forever. Meanwhile an alien ambassador in the form of a tall Nigerian woman arises from the sea as an ambassador. Taking the name Ayodele she comes in peace but inadvertently starts a riot, as tensions already evident reach boiling point. Lagos descends into anarchy and more aliens arise from the sea. Agu, Adora and Anthony were, it seems, chosen by the aliens because they all already have latent super powers like the ability to manipulate sound (Anthony), super strength (Agu) and teh ability to bind to use force fields (Adora). And various creatures from Nigerian folklore become real and come to the surface, drawn it would seem by this accelerating change, including a huge story weaving spider. Levels of meta meaning build a collide as we realise the spider is spinning the story we are reading. The aliens want to live in some kind of symbiotic relationship. But will humanity destroy them first?
I told you it was strange. It also reminded me strongly of Shakespeare’s ‘the Tempest,’ that same mix of the sea, magic and strong human realities. The language and writing is rich and sensuous, whether it is describing the verdant sea life, human violence or love, creatures from folklore or science fiction tropes such as shape shifting aliens. On that note, another influence was possibly James Cameron’s ‘The Abyss,’ with it’s sub aquatic shape shifting alien invaders. The writer also adds to her heady brew Nigerian colloquial language which gives the novel a really distinctive flavour. The pacing is another strength, the novel is a real page turner, and the action barrels along as it communicates some pretty weighty themes. Short chapters and events drawing to multiple crisis points help with this. And that strangeness keeps thins unpredictable and suspenseful.
Problems for me included a caricature of Christianity that made me fear that the novel was going to go down a ‘science good, religion (specifically Christianity) baaaad’ road. Some would welcome that, but to me its unhelpful and untrue. However there are deepening ambiguities as the story goes on, which means things are not as simplistic as this. The books strangeness was also to me a problem as well as a strength. When characters from folklore start appearing and the lead characters reveal their super powers they have had since childhood, the story seemed to slip its moorings a bit. In other words, it was in danger at times of making so little sense as to leave the reader estranged. Nnedi Okorafor does manage to keep her riotous world bound by narrative integrity, but only just.
This is a novel about story telling as it is about all of the above, and I finished this feeling that I had been in thrall to a really good story that spoke truths about change and the human condition as much as it entertained. I do recommend it.
In a desolate, demon blasted landscape, a lone Seraph night, and his winged, eyed sword, treads the road. Behind him trails a goat, and hidden under the flaps of his coat nestles a small baby girl. He finds corrupt and corrupted humans, out and out monsters and demon Lords on his travels. He eschews companions but where the need greatly outweighs the harm, and where it will aid his quest, he does take on various companions. A petty criminal named Harm, a raging demon yearning for its lost innocence and humanity called The Hammer, and other more transient helpers, some more ambivalent than others, join the quest. Their quest is to return the winged and eyed sword to the Seven, the original Seraph rulers. But what this will mean is uncertain…
Peter Newman has accomplished an incredible feat of world building. My initial feeling on starting this work was disorientation. Was this Earth of the far future or a different reality / dimension? The archetypes are ours (people, Hell, Knights, Demons, Animals etc.), and yet the strangeness, the otherness, is bewildering. Twin suns in the sky. A demonic invasion through a huge breach (crack) in the ground that has remained dormant for centuries. A demonic essence that infects and mutates like radiation. An ancient order of Seraph Knights that has ruled before the Infernal invasion. A technology including sky-ships, Centipede tanks, laser lances, all framed in medieval and feudal archetypes. It is head-spinning stuff. Then there’s the adventure, the quest, which is more straightforward; lone hero, a man with no name, must deliver a powerful talisman to the high powers to rid the world of a massive evil. But that itself is spun by the wonderful tricks in the narrative. The titular, eponymous Vagrant does not speak. Instead his thoughts are reflected by his expressions, actions and interactions, including with the baby he protects, and with his companions. And his goat! How the Vagrant got to this position is told in intervals in a thrilling back-story that begins with the demonic invasion.
Characterisation of subsidiary characters is also very well done. The baby (Vesper) and the Goat are powerful characters in their own right. In the audio-book, wonderfully voiced by Jot Davies, Vesper’s infant gurgles and expressions are convincingly done. Also, the main companion, Harm, is a wonderful piece of character development, from jittery low-life to a redeemed man both grateful and anxious about the shelf life of his redemption. Again, Jot Davies’s audio-book narration imbues him with humanity. Other characters such as snarling demons and Knight Commanders are given a wonderful range of expression. The monsters are truly alien and frightening. Shape shifters that feed off souls and clothe themselves in corpses, or inhabit and posses and mutate live bodies, they are a cross between Anime/Manga monsters and HP Lovecraft. The chief baddies have wonderful names like “The Uncivil.”
The Vagrant himself is a true Knight in that, where he can, he will right wrongs and save lives. He won’t where it will mean the failure of his mission and where he does have to leave people to die, it is shocking and he is racked with anguish. He also redeems others and wins followers of the most broken in humanity in a very Christ like way. Harm vocalises this more than anyone, speaking about how he has been changed and his life give new meaning. This goodness is set against an evil that can only consume, corrupt and destroy, not build anything new. The book portrays good versus evil with a refreshing (take note Game of Thrones) lack of cynicism.
If there are weaknesses, it’s that sometimes the multiple strangeness’s combine to make the action confusing. Events seem to be heading for an epic conflagration that never quite happens. Yet. There is so much here the book could have been much longer. There seems so much to explore. I hope there is more from this strange, compelling and yet familiar world. Very recommended.