A review of Stephen Donaldson’s The Augur’s Gambit

This is a companion novella to Stephen Donaldson’s “The King’s Justice” reviewed on this blog here.
It’s a very different beast to that book.  Whereas that book had the pace and tone of a horror thriller, this has a more deliberate pace and is a tale of courtly intrigue in a fantasy realm, with the chief supernatural element being the predominance of alchemy and augury (the practice of ‘scrying’ through examining the entrails of freshly killed animals) in the land.
In an fortress island, Indemnie,  comprised of ruling Baronies and ruled over by a Monarchy (currently Queen Inimical Phlegathon deVry IV), her Chief Hieronymer (practitioner of Augury),Mayhew Gordian, is at his wit’s end.   A trusted confidant and often summoned to secretly observe his Queen’s audiences with her Barons, he is observing an apparently destructive and catastrophic course of action by his Queen.  As she promises to wed each Baron in turn, turning them against each other and against her, surely the only outcome can be war?  And Mayhew’s scrying has revealed a series of dooms for Indemnie with no scenarios of hope.  His Queen says he must look deeper, and this means sacrificing a child, something Mayhew refuses to do, risking his Monarch’s wrath.  In the meantime his deepening regard for Princess Excrucia, his confidant and friend, makes him more than ever determined that the key to his Monarch’s behaviour, and possible salvations for Indemnie, must be found.
This is a book that demands a bit of patience, even with its short length.  It’s a compact piece of world building, and for the most part this is what the narrative focuses on, that and the intrigue between barons and barons and Monarch.  However it builds in it’s last act to a gripping and dramatic siege by cannon armed pirate vessel.  Mayhew acts as Parley for each but he has a last desperate gamble to play, one that involves the hazard of all, and the deepest secrets of augury and alchemy.  This novella amply rewards your patience.
The characters are skilfully drawn, their dielemmas believable and compelling.  Those who knows Dnonaldson’s writing will be aware of his wordsmith talents, his Scrabble defeating vocabulary that sings from the page.

A review of Michael J Sullivan’s “Theft of Swords.”

Theft of Swords is a compilation volume of Michael J Sullivan’s first two novels in the “Ryria” series, ‘The Crown Tower,’ and ‘Avempartha.’
Our heroes belong to the “Rogue” class in the fantasy kingdom;’ they are Hadrian and Royce, two thieves for hire, mercenaries who use skills of stealth and combat to earn a buck and make their way in the world.  At the start of Book 1 that is life for them, they are on no heroic quest, they bear no allegiance, and whilst there is an underlining honour among thieves morality, they aren’t particularly interested in writing wrongs.  Book 1 sees them tricked into being the patsies in a Royal assassination   They unfold a huge conspiracy, involving the Church, and those pushing for a Republican Empire.  Along the way they will rescue a Wizard of dubious allegiance, who may yet hold the key to the whole adventure.  And they just might find that the need to do the right thing is not as disposable as they thought.
Book 2 begins an adventure of a different tone, but still continuing the tightly knit story arc.  The conspiracy continues, this time involving a mystical beast laying siege to a farming community.  Only a rare relic imprisoned in an Elvish tower can stop it, and our thieves are the men for the job.
What stands out in these books for me is the character development.  Hadrian and Royce are compelling characters you will grow to love.  Royce is the hooded, laconic stranger, a master of stealth who in a previous life was a top assasin.  Royce is a warrior, double sworded, tough as Hell and an excellent fighter.  He is talkative, affable, and quicker to take up a chivalrous quest, to recognise moral duty than his partner.   As they go through their adventure they witness and are part of horrors, they rescue the weak and vulnerable and find themselves unwitting champions of justice.  Sullivan’s skill is in writing these character arcs believably and subtly.  As with these other characters, the King, developing from a precocious young Prince to a care worn statesman is another journey that is satisfying and has integrity.  Minor characters, such as a grieving father / farmer in the second book also journey from bitterness to self realisation and hope in a nuanced and shaded way that is far from contrived.
Then there is the skill of the world building.  Whilst the narrative delivers well paced, action packed questing and adventuring, behind this is a believable, epic world, created with familiar archetypes,  but in a way that balances real-world politicking  with elves, wizards and monsters, but avoids the oppressive cynicism of Game of Thrones.  There’s an underlying humour, lightness of touch and cracking dialogue.  But it does not slip into by now overly familiar fantasy satire.  These are stories of real heft and dramatic consequence.
I listened to the audio-book version of this, read by Tim Gerard Reynolds.  He is well suited to these tales, and moves through an impressive dramatic range of voices, from Hadrian’s cheerful banter, Royce’s laconic and abrupt manner, and an array of hissing villains, elder wizards, feisty Princesses and more.

A review of Robert Jordan’s “Lord of Chaos: Book 6 of ‘The Wheel of Time’.”

My history with Robert Jordan’s huge 14 book saga started just over 20 years ago when I first cracked open  the “Wheel of Time. ”  Here I was introduced to Lews Therin and the madness through ‘channelling’ the ‘one power’ that would destroy him and kill his wife, and crumble his castle.  I remember key events in the book.  I remember working my way through the series, I think it was Book 5 that accompanied me to my honeymoon.  And it was Book 6, this one, Lord of Chaos, that finally defeated me a quarter of the way through.  Other than a few abortive attempts to pick up where I left off, I laid the series to rest for 20 years.  Then, I decided to download the audio-book and defeat it this way.
Why did I initially leave the series?  This was down to both what some variously describe as the series greatest strength, and also its greatest flaw; the detail, the sheer, remorseless detail, the piling of chapter upon chapter from a  multitude of locations and perspectives.  It’s a flaw because it is at times ill disciplined.  Each book will leave a number of plot strands dangling and I am sure they are picked up in later instalments, but it makes that particular novel more unsatisfying. Then there is the minutiae of the descriptive prose, a lot which a charitable editor would have moved their red pen swiftly through.   The good side of this is that, if you surrender yourself to it, a bit like the characters in the series surrender themselves to the Source or the Power, chances are you’ll be thoroughly immersed in this fantasy world, and it will haunt your thoughts and dreams.
The series describes of a band of young people who are “Taveren” i.e. focal points of destiny, and how they form around a farm-boy called Rand-Al-Thor who has mysterious parentage and is in fact a prophesied Messianic figure who will destroy the Dark Lord of the series called, unsurprisingly, the Dark One.  This is in fact an epic cycle that must link and repeat through the ages, the titular Wheel of Time.
The Dark One has an army of monstrous figures assisting him; the Forsaken, a bickering, competing group of figures who step in and out of history and cause chaos, Half men, like Tolkien’s Wraiths, Trollocs, human-animal hybrids reminiscent of Tolkien’s Ors, and more.  There are figures who surpass evil itself like the monstrous Padan Fain, a former Tinker who has gone beyond life and death.  There are also ‘dark-friends,’ human allies to the evil power.
There is a wizard caste in the series, Aes Sadai, but here it’s wholly female, because the one power, think ‘the Force’ in Star Wars, can be channelled safely only by women.The female half is called Saidar.  If a male channels the male half of the power, Saidan, it will drive them mad with spectacularly destructive results.  Hence the Aes Sadai see it as part of their mission to ‘gentle’ ie neuter from the one power any man who can channel.  This causes Rand a few difficulties.
Lord of Chaos, then, takes up the story with Rand consolidating his grip on a number of cities and provinces, whilst laying stratagems against the Forsaken, with the focus of his plans at this point being a dude called Sammael who is at that point marshalling his forces against Rand.   Meanwhile, the Aes Sedai have been fractured into two camps; an aggressive clan (the ‘official’ Aes Sedai) who want to gentle Rand and eliminate any male channelling the One Power (they seized power in a bloody coup in a previous book) and a renegade group, where most of our Aes Sedai heroines  (including heroines we have known from the first book) are, including Elayne (also ‘Daughter heir of Andor), Nynavae and Egwene. This group are more holistic in their approach.  Some of our heroines in this group get involved in hunting down powerful artefacts, ‘Ter’Angreal,’  that they have come across  whilst dream-walking in the Land of Dreams, ‘Tel Ar Anrihod’ (these spellings are from memory so please bear with me) whilst others work out how they may help Rand (not all the good Aes Sedai believe they should).
Meanwhile two of the other Taveren (see above), Matt and Perrin, move with their armies to assist Rand.  Matt is roguish gambler with a talent for luck, and Perrin has wolf like abilities, he can link with wolves to experience the world through them and call to them, and he can see and hear like a Wolf.  He’s your fantasy novel character with the big axe.
So a lot of these main themes are unresolved in the book, its greatest frustration.   The last few chapters pages or so instead deal with a threat to Rand that whilst not wholly unexpected, was not the one we expected to close the book.   I won’t spoil it further, but these last chapters do generate some threat and tension.
As mentioned above, there is a lot of detail in this book that will at time have you shaking your head either in befuddled resignation, or just sighing and going with it.  There are lots of descriptions of clothes.  The politicking of the Aes Sedai and the sheer profusion of characters is head spinning at times.  The bad guys aren’t in it enough, when they are it does get a lot more interesting.  The gender politics of the book (and of Jordan’s works as a whole) is straight off a heavy metal album covers of the 70’s, women hardly dressed in various submissive poses, whilst being towered over by aggressive muscle clad male figures (or monsters). There may be a chain collar on the woman (optional).  Yes there are elements in Jordan’s writings that seem to refute this (the Aes Sedai clan are the most powerful in this world and the dominant power, strong women are as prevalent if not more so than male counterparts) but it all seems a bit disingenuous when you have scenes such as in this book, where a key Aes Sedai ritual involves all women showing their breasts and stating “I am a woman.”
In the final analysis though, the books remain great fun and will keep you company for ages.  And when you look at Jordan’s CV (highly decorated Vietnam Vet, physics  arts and games enthusiast) you can see the life experience and intelligence that informs his writings.  Start from Book One, and if you can, keep going.
The audio-book is a good and clear presentation read by Michael Kramer whose reads with a good measured pace, just the right amount of gravitas and nuanced for the different roles, and Kate Reading, who also does a splendid job coping with wide range of female voices.

A review of Riyria Chronicles Tales “The Jester” and “Professional Integrity.”

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.

A review of Stephen Donaldson’s fantasy novella “The King’s Justice”

“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.

I listened to the audio-book version, narrated by the excellent Scott Brick.  His reading has a contained, driven passion that completely suits the tale.

A review of Nnedi Okorafor’s novel: “Lagoon”

“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.

A review of Peter Newman’s “The Vagrant.”

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.