Tag Archives: Fantasy

UPROOTED – Naomi Novik (2015)

Uprooted 2Uprooted caused quite a stir when it was published: it was nominated for 6 awards, and it won 4. I’m aware that awards have less and less to do with artistic quality and more and more with the industry of publishing, but still, I was intrigued, especially after I realized fairytales still have lots of potential: C.S.E. Cooney’s powerful short story collection was one of my best reads last year.

Novik apparently was inspired by Polish fairytales – her mother is Polish, her father Lithuanian – but I’m not sure to what extent. Fairytales are fairly universal – there were versions of Sleeping Beauty in ancient China too. The Wikipedia entry on Uprooted seems knowledgeable, and if it’s more or less complete, it seems the Slavic influence is surface level only: names and the sounds of names. That seems enough for a crowd that craves authenticity and deep roots.

Anyhow, Polish or not, the subject matter is straightforward and recognizable: nondescript village girl turns out to be hero extraordinary with the help of an elder mentor. The apprentice quickly outclasses the teacher, and together they take on the evil forces – an evil forest. Continue reading

A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA – Ursula Le Guin (1968)

A Wizard Of Earthsea 1st editionWhen I was 14 or so, I tried to read a Dutch translation of A Wizard Of Earthsea, but stopped a few chapters in. It didn’t click – maybe because it was a bad translation, or maybe because this might not be a children’s book at all. Or maybe it was because at 14 I was too old to appreciate it as a child, and too young to appreciate it for what it really is: a humbling, brilliant piece of writing.

Le Guin’s first book in what would eventually become a cycle of six – The Tombs Of Atuan (1971), The Farthest Shore (1972), Tehanu (1990), The Other Wind (2001), and Tales from Earthsea (2001) – appeared a year before her other landmark work: The Left Hand Of Darkness.

TLHOD is a favorite of mine, but I think this surpasses it – easily. Why?

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First up: I want to express my gratitude to everyone who has read, liked, linked or commented. Thank you. My best wishes for the new year!

I’ve read 54 titles in 2016, and reviewed 52. Below are the ones I enjoyed most, in no particular order. Click on the covers for the review. After the books, music.

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GARDENS OF THE MOON – Steven Erikson (1999)

gardens-of-the-moonI don’t have a lot of analysis to offer to readers already familiar with Gardens Of The Moon. It’s a massive book (703 pages + an 8 page glossary) and yet I only took 4 notes while reading. In this case, that means there was nothing to complain about structurally or idea-wise: so no plot holes, or bad writing, or philosophically unsound ideas. It also means Erikson didn’t surprise me with particular insights in the human condition.

That last one is not necessarily a negative: I don’t want to imply Erikson writes derivative, superficial stuff – he doesn’t – but I have the feeling I can only start making valid points on his ideological foundations after I’ve read a lot more of this series.

So what do I have to offer to readers familiar with this debut? Nothing but the information I liked it a lot – which may or may not say something about how our tastes align. I was a bit bogged down at the halfway point, but that probably was more because of other things keeping me from reading than because of the book itself.

I do want to convince fantasy readers unfamiliar with Erikson to start this widely acclaimed book, so I’ll devote the rest of this review to doing just that.

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the-darkness-that-comes-beforeA couple of weeks ago I read this review of the recently published The Great Ordeal on Speculiction. It instantly triggered me to read the first book of The Prince Of Nothing trilogy, as The Great Ordeal is the third book of The Aspect Emperor series – a sequel to that first trilogy.

My previous review highlighted Friedrich Nietzsche’s influence on Theodore Sturgeon and his More Than Human. Coincidentally, R. Scott Bakker begins his book with a quote of Nietzsche from Beyond Good And Evil.

I shall never tire of underlining a concise little fact that which these superstitious people are loath to admit – namely, that a thought comes when “it” wants, not when “I” want …

It’s not just some fancy quote to set the mood, as in Before They Are Hanged. It spells out the theme of the novel. Kellhus, the main character, was bred and raised by the Dûnyain, an ancient monastic order that makes it its goal to achieve control over one’s impulses and desires. The title of the book refers to the same theme:

The thoughts of all men arise from the darkness. If you are the movement of your soul, and the cause of that movement precedes you, then how could you ever call your thoughts your own? How could you be anything other than a slave to the darkness that comes before?

If you’re not philosophically inclined, don’t let that quote put you off – the book isn’t full of preachy stuff like this – on the contrary: it’s character-driven, and there’s plenty of action and awe.

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THE LADIES OF GRACE ADIEU – stories by Susanna Clarke (2006)

the-ladies-of-grace-adieuSusanna Clarke’s much lauded magnum opus Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is one of my favorite speculative books. So I didn’t hesitate to order The Ladies Of Grace Adieu And Other Stories after reading an excellent review on the Calmgrove blog.

It features 8 stories, plus a fictional introduction by “Professor James Sutherland, Director of Sidhe Studies, University of Aberdeen”. That introduction is only 3 pages and set my expectations even higher, as Clarke’s familiar ‘English’ narrative voice shone through instantly, promising more of the treat Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was. All the stories in this 235-page collection deal with Faerie in one way or the other, and were illustrated by WFA winning artist Charles Vess. A few are also explicitly linked with J.S. & Mr. N.

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THE GRACE OF KINGS – Ken Liu (2015)

the-grace-of-kingsThe Wall Of Storms, the sequel to this first book of The Dandelion Dynasty, will be published in a few weeks, early October 2016. I’d already ordered it, but after reading 200 pages of The Grace Of Kings, I cancelled my order. I also cancelled reading the rest of the 623 pages of Ken Liu’s full length debut.

What a bummer. I looked forward to this book. It won the Locus First Novel, and the short story collection Liu published earlier this year is top shelf, as is his translation of The Three-Body Problem

Imagine my surprise with this book’s main problem: clunky, crummy prose, and dialogue that’s bloated & unrealistic – fantasy world or not.

“Young man,” she mumbled after the retreating figure of Kuni Garu, “you may act lazy and foolish, but I have seen your heart. A bright and tenacious flower will not bloom in obscurity.”


But the evidence seemed to some of the ministers and generals flimsy.


Also, his double pupils always made others look away.

There’s so many words in this book. Words words words. Also, if the editors would have taken a marker and highlighted all the redundant words and phrases, the book would have looked like a syllabus from an undergrad who can’t distinguish between what’s important and what’s not.

This book might be the best illustration I’ve come across of why an author should show and not tell – a critic’s cliché that I don’t like repeating in reviews, but really, this book forces my hand. Liu does lots of telling, let me tell you. But if I’m more precise, the telling as such is not really the problem: it’s how it is being told, and that’s repetitive and slow paced. It’s boring telling. There are pages and pages of things explained that were already clear. Explained, repeated, and explained again. Because of all that, Liu’s tale failed to connect emotionally, as only saying something is “famous” or “skilled” doesn’t make me feel that. As a result, the action seemed stale and lifeless.

Liu’s short fiction proves he can write compelling, even horrifying scenes, using poetic, precise prose – yet his long form feels like amateur hour.

Saladin Ahmed, author of a pulp turd, calls this book “a much-needed breath of fresh air” for epic fantasy. Saga Press slapped it on the cover, but forgot The Grace Of Kings isn’t really fantasy. It’s a rehash of Chinese history. Ken Liu talked openly about this, and a quick glance at the Wikipedia page of the Chu-Han contention – the conflict 2 centuries BC that led to the birth of the Han dynasty – is revelatory. The two main characters, Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu, are more or less Liu Bang and Xiang Yu. Here’s two Wiki quotes, that will be very familiar to people who’ve read the book…

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THE PHYSIOGNOMY – Jeffrey Ford (1997)

the-physiognomyThe Physiognomy is the first book of The Well-Built City trilogy, and all three books supposedly make up one big novel. I won’t be reading book two and three, as The Physiognomy failed to connect with me. I am not saying this is a bad book, I am just saying it wasn’t my cup of tea. As it won the World Fantasy Award – not an award with a bad track record, with winners as diverse as Clarke, Le Guin, Miéville, Kay, Priest, Powers, Wolfe – I’m sure there’s an audience for it.

I’ve devised a quick litmus test to see if you’re part of that audience. Consider these two sentences:

I stared at some of the titles on the shelves and before long found four of my twenty or more published treatises. I was sure he hadn’t read Miscreants and Morons – A Philosophical Solution, since he had not yet committed suicide.

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THE BOOK OF PHOENIX – Nnedi Okorafor (2015)

The Book Of PhoenixThe Book Of Phoenix is a kind of prequel to Who Fears Death – a post-apocalyptic science fantasy book I haven’t read. It is my first exposure to Nnedi Okorafor’s writing, and a book that left me frustrated and unsatisfied – yet humbled and uncertain too. I think Okorafor has cleverly hidden her true intentions with this book, and that makes it both an artistic success and an artistic failure – depending on one’s perspective. Let me first write about what Okorafor didn’t manage to do.

While the first fourth of the book was gripping, the plot quickly lost all tension. The Book Of Phoenix is for the most part set in the 29th century and is – roughly – about a child born as an experiment in genetic engineering, done by a shady Big Evil cooperation. That cooperation, LifeGen, has several “towers” spread across the USA where it conducts experiments of all sorts, mainly on Africans that seem to have been enhanced X-Men style – presumably by some alien artifact. The experiments are generally unethical. Continue reading

BONE SWANS – stories by C.S.E. Cooney (2015)

Bone SwansA few months ago I wrote a couple of paragraphs on the splendidly fresh The Bone Swans Of Amandale, a 28.000 word novella by C.S.E. Cooney. I ended that review with the promise to pick up the entire collection, and I’ve done just that.

Bone Swans features 5 stories – most about 40 pages. All of the stories can by read for free online (check the links below), but I think it merits a physical purchase, very much so. Unique, bold authors as Claire Cooney need all the support they can get. It will also be a great collection to read to your 12 year old kids – and bedtime reading from a tablet simply doesn’t have the same charm. Not to mention screen light being bad for your loved ones’ sleep cycles.

Everything I wrote about The Bone Swans of Amandale is true for the other 4 stories: “poetic, humorous, original, daring, gruesome, outrageous, unsettling and even amoral.” Maybe that last adjective doesn’t go for every tale, but still: that’s quite a row of lauding words. I cannot praise the collection enough. I’m fairly sure it will end up in my favorite ten reads this year…

Below a few notes on each story. Whatever you do after the jump, please, do read those four, short quotes. Continue reading

THE DARKEST ROAD – Guy Gavriel Kay (1986)

The Darkest RoadThe Fionavar Tapestry trilogy declines in quality throughout. It’s not a big decline, but a decline it is. The Summer Tree is spectacular. The Wandering Fire is still top-notch, yet the first book remains the better. The Darkest Road however doesn’t merit 5 out of 5 stars anymore: let’s say a solid 3.5 instead.

Using a word like “decline” in the first paragraph doesn’t do these books justice, so let me be loud & clear: taken as a whole, The Fionavar Tapestry is highly recommended, and one of the classic series of the genre.

I’ll briefly formulate a few reasons that made reading the third book the lesser experience: there’s a structural issue, a prose problem, and one plot weakness. I’ll conclude with writing a bit about the main theme and Kay’s metaphysics.

Most of what I wrote in the reviews of the first and second book remains true. The Darkest Road doesn’t change style or substance. Since I loved what Kay wrote in the first two books, that’s mainly a strength, but maybe it’s a weakness too, as book three is more of the same. It doesn’t add a lot to the previous two books. While The Wandering Fire deepened the world and the characters, The Darkest Road simply follows the story to its expected conclusion: a big battle. Not that that battle plays out fully as expected, but still, The Darkest Road is very much a concluding volume, neatly tying every narrative thread.

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TWELVE KINGS IN SHARAKHAI – Bradley P. Beaulieu (2015)

Twelve Kings In SharakhaiI don’t really understand contemporary authors that latch their new world on to excisting stuff on Earth in an attempt to create a different world. Twelve Kings In Sharakhai is set in a desert city, including niqabs, turbans, face veils, crescent moons, henna tattoos, curved swords, the likes, yet all that just seems token exoticism. It’s not Earth, since the world has two moons and immortal kings, yet it is a lot like Earth, and I never really had the feeling I was reading a story about another world – a bit of a problem for secondary world fantasy.

A good early indication of said problem are spices: authors tend to show the otherness of their new world by piling on the abundance of tastes, smells and colors, preferably on crowded, buzzing markets. It has become such a cliché. And increasingly inefficient, since most of these species have become available in about any mainstream store where I live too. “The bright flavor of cardamom and caramelized onion and lemon zest” features on page 17. Cardamon really is the winner to indicate a Middle-Eastern vibe, and unsurprisingly the first tasty seed mentioned. A few pages further, “already the heavy breeze carried scents of rose and jasmine and sandalwood”. Beaulieu keeps on dropping these sets of three throughout the book: “a lush display of flowering herbs – valeria and veronica and Sweet Anna.” Enumerations like these are one of the hallmarks of supposedly “detailed, rich world building”.

As you might have guessed from the tone of the above, the first book of The Song Of The Shattered Sands series didn’t really do it for me. It’s not a bad book – it’s a lot better than Throne Of The Crescent Moon – but all things considered, it doesn’t get much more than a shrug of my shoulders. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what went wrong, but I think the book would benefit from these three fixes:

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The Paper MenagerieKen Liu is on quite a spree this year: in October Tor will publish his translation of Cixin Liu’s Death’s End, the concluding volume to The Three-Body trilogy, in November Saga will publish The Wall Of Storms, the sequel to Liu’s own The Grace Of Kings, and November will see the release of Invisible Planets, an anthology of Chinese SF stories & essays, all of which he translated.

March 2016 saw the publication of The Paper Menagerie And Other Stories. Yes, that’s a great title, and an even better cover! The 450 page collection features 15 short stories and novellas, almost all of them from around 2012. They have all been published elsewhere before, except one. The stories are short indeed: most are about 20 pages. Only four are significantly longer: 38, 55, 61 and 95 pages.

Liu is quite explicit about his philosophical framework and goals in the preface. The universe is accidental and senseless, and the stories in The Paper Menagerie have a clear objective: they are tools in a search for meaning and truth.

For me, all fiction is about prizing the logic of metaphors – which is the logic of narratives in general – over reality, which is irreducibly random and senseless.

We spend our entire lives trying to tell stories about ourselves – they’re the essence of memory. It is how we make living in this unfeeling, accidental universe tolerable. That we call such a tendency “the narrative fallacy” doesn’t mean it doesn’t also touch upon some aspect of truth.

A few of the stories are quite meta, almost all deal with aspects of cultural identity of some sort, and there’s a clear presence of Asian themes and settings. Liu writes both fantasy and science fiction, and as such it is a varied collection. Still, in all of these stories Liu manages to write with a fairly recognizable voice: most share a kind of magical realism feel. You won’t find epic high fantasy, nor epic space opera, or chilling hard SF, but instead will find a subtle, sometimes even poetic collection – not without blood and suffering though. Taken as a whole, I loved it.

I will refrain from giving a summary for each story, but try to use each of them to highlight some features of Liu’s writing.

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STELES OF THE SKY – Elizabeth Bear (2014)

Steles Of The SkyReviewing the final book of a series is always a strange affair. There’s the need to not repeat too much from the previous reviews, and the need to avoid spoiling anything for those who still haven’t read the earlier books. Plus the review should be interesting for both those who have and those who haven’t read what came before.

I’m taking the easy way out, and opt for a rather short write-up. Should you decide to just skim this review, no problemo, but please, don’t miss the quote near the end.

Steles Of The Sky is the sequel to Shattered Pillars – one of the best books I read in 2015 – and the last book of the Eternal Sky trilogy. Together they form one long story that needs to be read in order. It is set on something “resembling the steppes, deserts and mountain ranges of Eurasia after the death of Genghis Khan” I wrote in the review of Range Of Ghosts, but that needs a caveat: Steles features a riffle, and that adds a bit of 19th century flavor. This one riffle doesn’t appear out of place at all, and that fact that it’s even in the book shows Bear’s willingness to take a chance, and her restraint too. In the hands of a lesser writer, the riffle might have turned entire chapters of the book into something steampunkish, out of the fashionable need to explicitely blend genres.

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THE TRAITOR BARU CORMORANT – Seth Dickinson (2015)

The Traitor Baru CormorantFirst things first: I didn’t finish this book. I read 260 of its 399 pages, and then decided to give up. I did read the last 20 pages, to check the ending, mainly in function of this review.

It doesn’t happen a lot that I abandon a book, and surely there are much worse books that I did finish – I’m looking at you, Sandworms Of Dune. The debut of Seth Dickinson simply couldn’t hold my interest any longer, and reading it became a chore.

I had two main problems with The Traitor Baru Cormorant: I felt it tried too hard to be something it is not, and I couldn’t connect with any of the characters. There are multiple reasons for both issues.

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