My Favourite Things: 2020

For the past few years, I have begun my annual favourite things post by talking about what a hard year it has been and how glad I am it’s over. You would not be wrong in expecting me to start this year’s post the same way. After all, it is 2020. But although it’s been a difficult year (perhaps the most difficult), I have found much for which I am grateful.

My small family has always been close. We’re separated from our relatives by continents and oceans, and so used to celebrating holidays alone. To being three of us against the world. We didn’t, therefore, find isolation all too hard. We had moments of friction, as all families do, but I’ve never been more grateful for my husband and daughter. We held each other up this year. We forgave more easily, learned to communicate more clearly, and have almost mastered the art of letting each other exist in their own space for a while. (Or I have. Sometimes.)

I’ve also been amazed and delighted by the joy others have found over the past year. The news has often been universally bad, and yet someone, somewhere, has always had something to share. The wonder of small things has never been more true. 

The other aspect of being home all year has been more time to devote to my hobbies. And what I read and watched and listened to is a reflection of that. 

As always, we’ll start with what I read.

Continue reading “My Favourite Things: 2020”

What I’ve Been Reading

The #WritersRead prompt for November was: a book debut author. Bryan Washington isn’t a debut author, but Memorial is his first novel, so I’ve decided it counts. Also, I really want to talk about it.

Memorial was my November Book of the Month Club selection, and I picked it because it reminded me of the beautiful movie, Lilting. I also really enjoy stories about people who wouldn’t choose to spend time together. This is that, twice over.

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Review: Half the World by Joe Abercrombie

Half the World (Shattered Sea, #2)

Thorn Bathu is touched by Mother War. She has dedicated her life to learning to fight so that she might avenge her father, who duelled the infamous Grom-gil-Gorm, Breaker of Swords, and lost. A terrible accident mars her last test, however, and she is branded murderer instead of warrior. Her sentence: death!

Brand is touched by Father Peace. He, too, has trained all his short life to become a warrior of Gettland. But the memory of his mother encourages him to do good, so he cannot stand by while an unjust sentence is passed. He speaks up on Thorn’s behalf. As a result, neither Thorn nor Brand may realise their dream of becoming a warrior of Gettland.

Father Yarvi has a plan for them. With the deep-cunning minister, Thorn and Brand will travel half the world in search of allies. Against them are the edicts of the High King and the machinations of his minister. The journey will serve as a better forge for the ambitions of both young warriors and a true test of Yarvi’s capabilities as minister.

Half the World is the second book in The Shattered Sea trilogy by Joe Abercrombie. In the first book, Half a King, Yarvi vowed to regain a throne he didn’t want, succeeded and then gave it over to the rightful heir (read the book for more on that). His story continues here, a few years on, a few years matured. The theme of thwarted ambitions continues as well, with Thorn and Brand picking up the thread. Several members of Yarvi’s original crew play important parts and we meet a few new solid characters.

This isn’t just another book in another trilogy, however. While there is a greater story arc, Half The World serves beautifully as the story of Thorn, the story of Thorn and Brand and even as the story of Brand, whose journey may seem less significant but is just as important. Being a warrior touched by peace is a lovely twist. I enjoyed Brand’s show of strength and fortitude and the manner in which he finally came into himself.

Thorn owns the novel, however. Her anger at everything is palpable, as is her need to prove herself, which drives her to not only pledge herself to Yarvi’s cause, but to learn all he and his companions have to teach. But she remains stolidly individual. Her own woman. This doesn’t always work in her favour, but it makes her so engaging to the reader. I laughed out loud at many of her observations. I cheered her successes and mourned her failures. I might have smacked her in several instances if she had obliged me my sticking her face out of the book.

The climactic scene toward the end, the fight that only she could fight, is one of the most riveting scenes I’ve ever read. Nothing could have torn the book from my hands from there to the end or most of the way through, for that matter. I eagerly await the final instalment in this trilogy, Half a War, due out July of this year.

‘The Shattered Sea’ novels are written for a young adult audience. The violence isn’t as violent and the sex isn’t as…sexy. But the tension is all there, as well as the gritty realism and careful and clever plotting. This is definitely an Abercrombie book and I found it as engrossing as others I have read. I would recommend this series to readers of all ages and especially for anyone who enjoys an epically absorbing fantasy experience.

Written for SFCrowsnest.

Review: Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

Half a King (Shattered Sea, #1)

I was pretty sure I’d like Half A King. My only concern was that it might be bloated in the way of epic fantasy, presenting me with a lot of words that may or may not add up to a considerable story. Not that I suspected Joe Abercrombie might deliver anything like that, but I only have one brilliant example of his work to draw from. I named Best Served Cold my favourite book of 2013, so I suppose I didn’t want to be disappointed and I wasn’t.

Half A King in fact presents a delightful economy of words. There is a lot of story packed into compact yet nuanced paragraphs. The set-up is not ponderous and the action begins quickly and excitingly, plucking the reader from the middle ground of: okay, I’ve read this before, but I’m enjoying Abercrombie’s twist, to: right, this is getting really interesting.

Abercrombie is not reinventing the wheel with Half A King. He’s relying on some tried and true tropes. I recognized the mythos as vaguely Norse only because I’ve read a lot of derivative fantasy. But this version is not so much based upon as loosely calved from a lore that’s familiar. This is an important distinction. First of all, it takes skill to build a sensible world. Second, a world must be sensible to make sense. Yes, I’ve read that over twice and I’m leaving it as written.

Abercrombie also shows wonderful restraint. At several points, his plot presented opportunities for further angst and confusion. He ignored these in favour of gifting the reader with a story that rests well on a carefully constructed journey, populated by full-fleshed characters. The book was interesting enough without the main character losing an arm or an eye or all his merry band at once. But Abercrombie did not waste the opportunity to twist his tale, throwing in an admirable flex just toward the end.

What’s the book about? It’s about a prince named Yarvi who grows up in the shadow of his more impressive brother and demanding father. Rather than be relegated to scrubbing the kitchen, however, he is given to the church and trained to be a minister to the throne. Before he can take his vows, his father and brother are killed and Yarvi ascends to the throne. All the reasons he should not be there are immediately obvious. He does not have the respect of his people, nor the stature of a warrior. In fact, with one of his arms deformed, his hand left with only two fingers, he cannot even hold a shield. Yarvi’s diminutive stature does not hide a feint heart, however. He stands tall to his challengers…until those challengers conspire to steal his throne.

Cast adrift in enemy territory, Yarvi quickly falls afoul of the man rumoured to have murdered his father and brother. He’s in no condition to fight Grom-gil-Gorm, the king of the Vansterman. Yarvi is collared and sold into slavery. From there, he is forced to use both his strength of will and wits to win free and to keep his promise to not only avenge his father and brother’s death, but reclaim his throne, the Black Chair.

This is where the merry band of misfits falls together and the epic journey begins. No fantasy novel could be complete without either and Abercrombie presents a wonderful interpretation here. As I mentioned before, he resists temptation to overdo the angst and draw out the drama, delivering instead a tight and taut tale of adventure that still allows room for character variety and development. I liked Yarvi’s character, but he wasn’t without his faults. I liked those, too. They were appropriate to his age and station, a blindness to the conditions of those below him and a conviction he has to do things for himself. Prove himself! Ultimately, he’s a good man and learns his lessons well.

Having only one other experience of the author’s work before starting Half A King, I did wonder how he would handle a book apparently aimed at a younger audience. Would I miss the cut-throat, bloodthirsty characters and plots I revelled in while reading Best Served Cold? I did not. Half A King has its share of harsh moments, but they’re not drawn out like intestines along a crank. Likewise, the language and attitudes of the characters are also toned down. Not watered down, simply less grisly, gruesome and in your face while still appropriate to the period, genre and story. I found the balance perfect, to be honest, and this only encourages me to read more of Abercrombie’s work. In short, his stories work for me. His characters speak to me. I’m as eager to continue reading the ‘Shattered Sea’ trilogy as I am to dive into his other books.

Written for SFCrowsnest.

 

Review: Best Served Cold

PrintBest Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

Brilliant and bloody! Or brilliantly bloody.

I had been reading about this book for years. The cover grabbed my attention a few times and friends kept adding it to their bookshelf on Goodreads. I met Joe Abercrombie at a convention, had a nice chat with him (not about his book because I hadn’t read it) and took away a signed copy, vowing to actually read it. Two years later, it was still on my shelf, the wide, dark spine winking at me every time I reached for something to read.

What kept it from my hands? The size, mainly. It’s 880 pages long. It’s heavy, even in paperback. And it’s fantasy. I do like fantasy, but I have to be in the right mood to read it. Best Served Cold is dark fantasy. It’s swords without the sorcery. As the title suggests, it’s a tale of vengeance. It’s gruesomely descriptive, endlessly inventive and wickedly funny.

What convinced me to finally pick it up? It’s the October fantasy selection for my Goodreads book club. So I read it…and I’m very glad I did.

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