Review: Storm and Steel by Jon Sprunk

Storm and Steel

Poor Horace. In Blood and Iron (part one of The Book of the Black Earth) he escaped death only to be tossed in chains. He was freed only to be sucked into the politics and intrigue of the royal court. In saving the life of Queen Byleth, he painted a rather large target on his back, the results of which make up his journey through Storm and Steel. He has drawn the ire of not one, but four separate armies, mad cultists and a powerful sorcerer who must remain unnamed to preserve the surprise. All of this, and he has magical powers he cannot control. His frustration is clear as he becomes little more than flotsam, tossed about by competing tides as the Akeshian Empire is pulled apart.

Alyra fares little better. In seeking to make her life better, Horace has actually made everything more difficult. More than once she has to choose between love and loyalty, which is a theme throughout ‘Storm and Steel’.

Jirom is a stalwart member of one of the four armies – a rebel force made up of former slaves and hired swords. His faith in Horace is sorely tested in Storm and Steel, as is his relationship with Emanon.

It’s difficult to summarise the plot of a sequel without spoiling the first book, but I will try. As I mentioned before, Horace’s actions at the end of Blood and Iron drew just a little bit of attention. He saved the queen, but only so they might face the consequences. Nisus is assembling three armies to move against her, and the slaves want to be free. Imagine that. This fourth army, supplemented by mercenaries, is well placed to take advantage of her problems and distractions.

Horace, Jirom and Alyra continue to duck and weave through this landscape of conspiracy and betrayal, each looking for their own sort of freedom. But each is also the sort of person who feels responsibility for others. Hooray for heroes who are not self-serving! Though, honestly, I did have to wonder why Horace didn’t hoof it for the border when he had the chance. This is why I will never star in novel where anyone else but myself needs saving.

There are a thrilling number of chapters devoted to Jirom in Storm and Steel and I enjoyed his point of view as much as ever. His role in the rebel army is vitally important. Jon Sprunk puts a lot of detail on the page regarding the building of this force, and the many problems that plague any army. The battle scenes are exciting, both from Jirom and Horace’s point of view. I also enjoyed Jirom’s acceptance of his role in everything. Humble is difficult to write, but Sprunk captures it perfectly in Jirom’s not-so-perfect character.

Impending war is not the only problem Queen Byleth has. Her court has some new players, and some of the old ones seem to have switched sides. As if navigating the politics of this brutal empire weren’t hard enough, these shifting alliances play havoc with Horace’s attempts to do what’s right for everyone. At no point is the intrigue so convoluted the reader cannot follow it, however. Sprunk reveals his plot in a pleasing linear fashion that constantly entices forward motion – not so you can figure out what the heck is going on, but so you can find out what’s going to happen next!

Speaking of which, I really want to know what happens next.

The trajectory and conclusion of Storm and Steel is typical for a sequel, or any book in the middle of a series. You need to have read the first book and you’ll be left wanting afterward. It is an immensely satisfying read, however, because of the personal journeys of each of the three main characters. After being pulled this way and that throughout the novel, they each make a definite choice. Their victories are hard won. So, yeah, I really want to know where we go from here. Next title, as yet unnamed, is due out in the Fall of 2016.

Written for SFCrowsnest.

Review: Talon of the Hawk by Jeffe Kennedy

The Talon of the Hawk (The Twelve Kingdoms, #3)

The Twelve Kindgoms is a richly textured world. There are kings and queens, sword and sorcery, knights and princesses, and most importantly, history. Picked out against this colorful tapestry, we have the tale of Uorsin, the High King, and his three daughters – Andromeda, Amelia and Ursula. The Talon of the Hawk, the third and final book in ‘The Twelve Kingdoms’ trilogy, is Ursula’s story. It’s also the story of three women coming into their own, and the one woman who risked everything for her kingdom.

I’ll try not to spoil the previous two novels in this review by keeping the plot details vague, but though The Talon of the Hawk could be enjoyed separately, the full measure of the book can only be gained by starting at the beginning with the The Mark of the Tala.

Ursula returns to Ordnung under a dismal cloud of failure. Though she chose to return – in part to prove her loyalty – her father the High King is not pleased. While girding herself against his displeasure, Ursula’s reflects on the fact this is nothing new. Had she succeeded in any part of her mission, the king might have found fault in her methods. That her father appears to linger on the cusp of madness all but breaks Ursula’s heart. For all he is a bastard, she remembers him as the man who united the Twelve Kingdoms.

Confined to the castle as punishment for her failure, Ursula must watch as her father’s behavior dismantles all he built. It’s apparent, however, that the degradation of the Kingdom is not new – so much so, King Uorsin has retained a mercenary army to guard against invasion. Harlan, the captain of the mercenaries, immediately captures Ursula’s attention – mostly because he is unquantified. He appears to have her father’s confidence, but Ursula finds it difficult to trust a man who would sell his loyalty to the highest bidder. Ursula also gains Harlan’s attention, and though she makes it plain his advances are unwelcome, he is persistent. Then there is the other mysterious guest, the woman who seems to have beguiled King Uorsin.

Startling events have Ursula fleeing the castle under the protection of Harlan and her Hawks to continue her original mission, only this time, the price of failure will be more than her father’s displeasure. It could mean the High Throne and the fate of the Twelve Kingdoms.

The Talon of the Hawk deepens the story began in The Mark of the Tala before we get to the hoped for conclusion. Ursula has been at odds with her sisters throughout the trilogy, and though her actions have always been understandable in a way, here we truly begin to understand her character. Named for her father, Ursula has been raised as heir to the high throne. She lives, and would die, for her king and her country. All her actions and reactions are focused on this goal. She is a warrior, first and foremost. She leads the elite Hawks with confidence. She is not quite as comfortable at court, but will don a dress and play her part because it is her duty – and that is the essential Ursula: her sense of duty. Yet nothing she accomplishes seems to be quite enough to win her father’s approval, because she is not male. When it is revealed exactly how hard Ursula has tried to address Uorsin’s need for a son, your heart will break.

Luckily, Harlan is standing by to pick up the pieces, and he does, multiple times, as Ursula begins to fracture beneath the stress of doing what’s best for her kingdom. Their romance is the most rewarding in the series. But what I enjoyed most about this final volume in the trilogy was the collaboration between all three sisters. Their connection has been important throughout, and each has had a role to play in every adventure. Here, more than ever, their love for one another is obvious, as is the fact they must trust one another, even when they disapprove of certain actions and beliefs. Neither can save the High Throne alone. They must work together.

The conclusion of the book is extremely moving. There is an inevitability to it, but you can’t help hoping Ursula finds another way. I’d like to say more, but I don’t want to spoil the end of the ride. Regardless, it’s a satisfying end with further revelations that make the journey worthwhile.

Written for SFCrowsnest.

Review: The Sword of Destiny by Andrzej Sapkowski

 

SwordNot quite the epic journey of the first collection, but perhaps a little more heart.

The Sword Of Destiny is the second collection of stories by Andrzej Sapkowski following the adventures of the Witcher, Geralt of Rivia. The release of this volume has been highly anticipated, not just because there will never be enough stories about Geralt, but because this is the first time this particular collection has been translated into English. Now, English-speaking fans of the Witcher can celebrate the release of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, the third game in the successful Witcher franchise, forearmed with more backstory, more lore and more Geralt, Yennefer and Dandelion.

In this volume, Sapkowski once again dances around the question of what makes a monster. As a witcher, Geralt has been specially trained – mutated, in fact – to kill monsters. It’s his purpose. But as we discovered in The Last Wish, the first collection of stories, what makes a monster isn’t always clearly defined. A horrific appearance isn’t enough, neither is behaviour.

In the first story, ‘The Bounds Of Reason’, rumours of a golden dragon reunite Geralt with his friend, Dandelion. Together, witcher and bard connive their way into a party assembled to confront the beast apparently ravaging the land. They are accompanied the stranger, Borch, also known as Three Jackdaws, who seems to take great delight in questioning Geralt on the very point of what makes a monster. The three look on as knights errant, bands of dwarves, and professional dragon slayers fail to take the beast, and when the golden dragon is finally revealed, the question of its nature is no longer contested. This story showcases the quintessential Geralt, and Sapkowski’s easy story-telling style. It’s a great beginning to the collection.

From there, Sapkowski puts his spin on such familiar tales as ‘The Snow Queen’ and ‘The Little Mermaid’. We are confronted with sorcerers, dryads, vexlings, monstrous humans and the odd-tentacled beast. In ‘A Shard Of Ice’, Geralt prepares to fight a duel with the wizard Istredd for Yennefer’s affections. In ‘The Eternal Flame’, Geralt is once again called to defend a creature that is more mischievous than monstrous. ‘A Little Sacrifice’ deals with how far one must be prepared to go for the sake of love. ‘The Sword Of Destiny’ introduces Ciri, who is Geralt’s destiny, whether he likes it or not. He chooses not, only to be reminded of the two edges of the sword of destiny in the last story, ‘Something More’.

The stories span a period of years up to Nilfgaardian invasion of Cintra, where Geralt is gravely wounded. While he battles fever dreams and his regard for destiny and fate, only to awaken and find that his place in the world is as necessary as it has always been.

In The Last Wish, Geralt and author Sapkowski question the nature of the beast. In The Sword Of Destiny, Geralt questions the nature of himself. What is his destiny and is he a monster? We are constantly reminded that he is not considered human. His witcher training has made him a mutant, with white hair and cat-like eyes. He is armed preternatural skills and potions that have stripped him of his humanity. He is unable to conceive a child. Among these changes is the perceived notion he is unable to express emotion. Yet, Yennefer is able to play him, as is Dandelion, to a degree. Ciri slips beneath his guard, calling into question what he’d like to believe are automatic responses, such as the urge to hug and comfort a child.

It is these questions that bind the stories of this volume together and make Sapkowski’s world so compelling. The stories are well-written and very entertaining. Geralt’s humour is fabulously dry, Yennefer’s suitably austere and Dandelion’s perfectly flamboyant. The lore is derivative enough to be familiar, yet doesn’t feel borrowed. Rather, the author pays homage to the stories that inspired his world and his characters while writing an epic tale of his own.

A quick note on the translation: For the most part, I found it flawless, with word choices that seemed to truly match Geralt’s voice, if not Sapkowski’s. There were a few odd turns of phrase, but that’s to be expected when reading something originally written in another language. I felt they gave the book a more distinct flavour.

As mentioned at the beginning of this review, The Sword Of Destiny is the second collection of stories about Geralt of Rivia. No foreknowledge of the world is required to read these stories, though fans will appreciate the history between Geralt and his companions. These stories run concurrent to the novels in the series, but don’t necessarily spoil them. What these stories will do, however, is introduce the world and showcase how beautifully the team at CD Projekt RED have translated Sapkowski’s characters and world into the video games.

Written for SFCrowsnest.

Review: Sword of the Bright Lady by M.C. Planck

Sword of the Bright Lady (World of Prime, #1)

Christopher Sinclair wakes from an interesting dream into a more interesting dilemma. He is in an alternate reality, a world eerily similar and yet markedly different to ours. The sleepy village he finds himself in appears to be stuck in the medieval age, but for certain marvels. This ‘magic’, apportioned by a substance known as ‘tael’, affects the very way society operates, marking the most startling differences. The higher the rank, the more magic a practitioner commands.

On his first day in this new world, not quite given over to the fact he has left his own world, rather, Christopher believes himself the displaced victim of a plane crash. Our hero manages to transgress several laws while coming to the defence of a young woman. He does not know that striking a nobleman, even to save a young woman’s virtue, is a serious crime punishable by death. He is summoned by church officials and interviewed. By the time his audience with Saint Krellyan is finished, two things are clear. Christopher is no longer in Arizona or anyone on his Earth and he’s in deep…er, trouble. Continue reading “Review: Sword of the Bright Lady by M.C. Planck”

Review: The Sentinel (The Sundering, Book V)

SentinelCoverSet during the Era of Upheaval, The Sundering is a multi-author event chronicling the adventures of Faerûn’s heroes, from those just Chosen to some of the Realms most enduring characters. Troy Denning’s novel, The Sentinel, is the penultimate entry in the series. As such, it is suitably thrilling from beginning to end.

Like many during the Era of Upheaval, Kleef Kenric has spent his life worshipping a long-forgotten god. It is said that so long as one person carries a god in their heart, that god is not dead. Helm, The Watcher, god of guardians, could not save his father. While others accept bribes and trade favours for knighthood, Kleef stubbornly clings to the tenets of his faith – coming to the defense of those who ask, leaving his career with the city guard stalled at the rank of Topsword. Kleef’s unswerving faith has turned him bitter.

While battling to win free of Marsember, Kleef accepts payment from a merchant in order to clear the way. He uses the gold to motivate the guards beneath his command to do the job they are already sworn to do. His guilt over the act is not easily rationalised but with priests holding up the evacuation with their theatrics and Shadovar threatening the city, he has little choice but to rally his men the only way he can.

While tracking the Shadovar, he comes to the aid of a mysterious pair, Joelle Emmeline and her short and odiferous companion, Malik. Kleef fights back wave after wave of Shadovar and Joelle and Malik flee across a bridge toward the noble house of Seasilver. They are observed from the balcony by Lady Arietta Seasilver, a young noblewoman who believes she is the Chosen of Siamorphe. Taking up her bow, Arietta joins the fight. Thus fate combines four destinies of four people trying to serve their gods.

The Sundering refers to the separation of Abeir from Toril. While the living (and sort of living) denizens of the world deal with the fallout of the Era of Upheaval – from the Great Rain to falling earthmotes to the literal upheaving of earth – the gods are battling for supremcy. Often, they do so through their Chosen. Joelle and Malik are on a quest for Sune. They carry the Eye of Gruumsh as a gift from one god to another. As such a gift would foil Shar’s plans for the Ever After, the Shadovar are keen to get their hands on the Eye. So are the orcs. The Eye is one of their sacred relics.

Their journey to the Underchasm is frought with adventure. Arietta sacrifices her family and Kleef feels he is sacrificing his principles for a woman who will never return his ardent regard. Joelle uses her god-given charm to ensure everyone follows her plan and Malik is obstinate in his deviancy. By the time the four arrive at Grumbar’s Temple, alliances have shifted many times – as has each companion’s idea of what it means to be Chosen.

It’s this last that really captured my attention while reading The Sentinel. Kleef’s struggle to defend his faith, to himself and those around him is heart-wrenching. In order to succeed on this quest, he has to do away with his bitterness and regret. When he finally does, I reached for the tissue box. Arietta’s journey is equally compelling. She has only been told she is the Chosen of Siamorpeh and as such, has taken her role for granted. This revelation rocks her ideas and ideals, and ultimately brings her closer to what she really wants to be.

I really enjoyed this book and as has happened every time I pick up a new volume of ‘The Sundering’, I am inspired to look for other works by the author. Troy Denning’s writing is accessible and easy to digest. I read The Sentinel in two devoted sessions, breaking only for dinner. As mentioned above, what really makes this book stand out are the characters, particularly Kleef and Arietta. Their thoughts and actions were so appropriate to their situations. At no point did either feel unreal or overwrought. Malik was fascinating in his own grimace-worthy manner. Though he is not likeable, I did manage to muster empathy for him. I’m still trying to decide how I feel about Joelle. I think perhaps she is actually the most devious and unsympathetic of that pair.

The conclusion to The Sentinel was another tissue box moment and another step forward in the world event. Overall, this is an immensely satisfying book.

‘The Sundering’ is nearly done. Only one volume remains: The Herald: The Sundering, Book VI by Ed Greenwood. Through all six books are linked only tenuously, I have enjoyed the experience of reading several stories surrounding the same event. Each has advanced the world narrative and each has introduced me to another, smaller world of characters. My only complaint would be the steadily growing pile of books behind me as I discover new authors whose voices I must further explore.

Written for SFCrowsnest.