Review: The Shards of Heaven

The Shards of Heaven (The Shards of Heaven #1)Every now and then Tor Books sends me something I did not request. Every time this happens, I open the envelope with equal parts excitement and trepidation. Who doesn’t like getting books in the mail? I do worry it might be a book I’m not interested in reading, let alone reviewing, but to date these random books have been something I’d like to read. I’ve actually squealed a little opening some envelopes. It’s as if Tor has a file on me or something.

The last envelope contained a lovely hardcover copy of The Shards of Heaven by Michael Livingston. Being a reviewer does have its perks. I was immediately intrigued by the cover illustration and the synopsis on the inside flap. I then sat down to read and pretty much didn’t stop until I got to the end, my only complaint being that the book did have an end. Oh and that there is no sequel published yet.

Anyway, I’m sure you’d all like to know what the book is about. Julius Caesar is dead and the future of his legacy is uncertain. When he comes of age, Caesarion – son of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra – stands to inherit ‘the world’. He is heir to Rome and Egypt. Another of Caesar’s adopted sons, Octavian, intends to claim it all for himself, however. Add to this mix a third son, the Numidian prince Juba, also adopted. Juba isn’t after a throne. His quest is vengeance, to be delivered through the Shards of Heaven, a series of fabled artefacts that will give the wielder power over Heaven and Earth. He is already in possession of one shard, Poseidon’s trident, through which he gains control of the sea. He believes it might have once been Moses’ staff. Juba’s search for the other shards allies him with Octavian as they both look toward Egypt: Octavian with an eye toward conquest and murder of his rival, Caesarion, and Juba for the Great Library of Alexandria.

The Shards Of Heaven combines history with fantasy. I adore books that do this. There are so many ways to interpret history, which is one of the reasons I enjoy reading historical fiction. The other is that who is to say there aren’t fantastic elements in our past? So much of what we count as myth and legend actually makes sense if we add in a sorcerer or a witch. A magic set of armour or a very special sword. Okay, maybe not, but such embellishments do make for very good stories.

The story of Juba’s quest is interwoven with real events: Actium and the naval battle incited to cover Antony’s retreat. Octavian’s victory and subsequent path to Alexandria. The timeline of the novel is constrained by this history and, while I might have liked to have seen a little more magic (more fantasy), I appreciated Livingston had to work with what he had and that is the story of Caesar’s children. The novel covers the events at Actium and Octavian’s arrival in Alexandria with all the gore one might expect from an epic historical tome. There is battle and strategy, betrayal and defeat.

The more important events, however, are the risks taken by Juba, Caesarion, his half-sister Selene, the librarian responsible for their education, and centurions, Titus Pullo and Lucius Vorenus. Their inclusion is a definite nod to this being a story about the bit players of history and how a small action can elicit a rather large reaction. Tying everything together, we have Livingston’s interpretation of the Ark of the Covenant, here called the Shards of Heaven.

While history falls as it must, the younger cadre, with the help of their allies, seeks the Ark. Securing it as Alexandria falls is an adventure in itself and also where the plot takes several interesting side steps. The novel ends decisively, but there is plenty of story left to tell. With the number of Shards unknown and the actual history of Caesarion vague, Livingston has all he needs to tie the next chapter of Juba’s quest into events as they move forward.

Obviously, I’m hoping for another random package in the mail but, failing that, I’m invested enough in this story to pick up the next book myself.

Reviewed for SFCrowsnest.

Review: Son of the Black Sword

Son of the Black Sword

I have been looking forward to Son of the Black Sword ever since I read “The Keeper Of Names” in Baen’s Shattered Shields anthology (reviewed November last year). “The Keeper Of Names” is not only an engaging and more than competent short story, it serves as an introduction to a new venture for Larry Correia: the Saga Of The Forgotten Warrior.

Son Of The Black Sword opens with Ashok Vadal, Protector of the Law, battling demons risen from the sea. Where one was reported, two appear. Ashok is gravely injured and unable to fight both. One of the demons is distracted by another man with a spear, allowing Ashok to gain the upper hand and win the fight. Both demons are killed. It is then Ashok’s duty to kill his rescuer. The man is casteless, a non-person, and the Law prohibits non-people to touch weapons. Because the casteless’ intervention surely saved Ashok’s life, he is prepared to be merciful. If the man will put down his spear and walk away, Ashok will let him live. While they argue, the casteless man’s fate is decided by one of the warrior caste.

The incident serves as a brutal but compelling introduction to Correia’s world. It is also a hint of all that will follow. That one moment of compassion will change Ashok’s life.

Following the battle, Ashok is summoned to appear before the Lord Protector. Though he is humble enough not to want the title of Lord Protector for himself, it is assumed it will be offered to him. Ashok is not the most senior, but he is the most feared of all the Protectors. Over nearly twenty years, he has built a reputation for being the ultimate instrument of the Law. He is offered the title and a letter. After he’s read the letter, it will be his choice to either accept the appointment or retire from the Order.

When the contents of the letter expose the fallacy of his entire life, Ashok journeys to the only home he remembers and takes the Law into his own hands, setting in motion a series of events that are both unexpected and foretold. His actions put him on the wrong side of everything he believes in, but on the right side of a battle as old as time, that is between the downtrodden and their oppressors. He will become an unwitting and unwilling symbol for the casteless, for the non-persons, and a reason for them to rise up at last and take back what may rightfully be theirs.

It’s difficult to write something new when creating a world of fantasy. There is a sense every story has already been told, the mythos all pieces and parts, the magic borrowed. Son Of The Black Sword manages to entice the reader with enough familiarity – an embittered warrior, a magic sword, a prophecy – while telling a story that feels fresh. A part of this is Ashok’s character. His absolute adherence to the Law, even when it betrays him, is the fulcrum of this novel. Ironically, having such a stubborn man at the centre makes the rest of the story difficult to predict because you’re unable to guess what his tipping point will be until it happens. Until then, his action and non-action both will affect all other players and plotlines.

The lore here is fascinating and well told. I enjoyed learning the history of the world and the legend of Ramrowan. The politics are just complicated enough to feel real without being too difficult to follow. Where the book truly shines, however, is in the characters. All are well drawn and distinctively voiced. My favourite is Jagdish. He is the guy in the middle. A warrior of low rank and high aims. Unfortunately, every time his path crosses that of Ashok Vadal, his rank falls and his ambitions recede further into the distance. Jagdish is a good man, however, and one of the few who seem able to think outside of the caste box. I also got the feeling Correia enjoyed writing Jagdish as his chapters are full of the author’s trademark wit and humour.

Being a novel of the fantastically epic variety, Son Of The Black Sword serves as the beginning of the ‘Saga Of The Forgotten Warrior’. But it does deliver a complete and satisfying tale while setting up the larger story. I’m looking forward to reading on.

Reviewed for SFCrowsnest.

Review: Gold Throne in Shadow

Gold Throne in Shadow (World of Prime #2)

The continuing adventures of Christopher Sinclair, mechanical engineer turned priest of war.

The end of Sword of the Bright Lady(World Of Prime: Book 1) saw Christopher revived from a rather grisly episode. The beginning of Gold Throne in Shadow has him lamenting the lack of calluses on his shiny new body. All things considered, that may be the least weird thing that has happened to him since he woke up in a strange new world of might and magic.

Given command of the regiment he trained and outfitted, Christopher is sent south to collect tael for the king. Tael is the currency of magic and power. Absorbed, it bestows rank. The larger the amount of tael, the higher the rank. Rank equals power of the magical and political kind. Patrolling the southern border is considered a cushy assignment, which immediately begs the question: what’s wrong with this picture? The answer would be everything or, to be more specific: politicking lords and clergymen, a hostile warlock, charming young women tempting him to break his marriage vows, an assassin and hordes of ulvenmen (think orcs) and their dinosaur mounts.

As always, Christopher is his own worst enemy. Every time he opens his mouth, he unwittingly insults his enemies and allies alike. He is more comfortable with his ability to wield magic in this book, but just as uncomfortable with the power over others these abilities give him. With all the attempts on his life, however, he barely has the time to raise enough tael to keep his head, let alone learn all the rules of the quasi-feudalistic society. His friends tend to be very forgiving – probably because he has the habit of resurrecting them when they die. He’s also making a select few extremely wealthy as he continues to roll out plans for an industrial revolution that will eventually turn the politics of this world upside down. It’s no wonder the nobility don’t like him.

His guns and cannons prove invaluable against the ulvenmen, allowing him to hold the southern border and mine enough tael to make the king very happy. But there is another power out there that reduces the petty politicking amongst the lords and clergy into meaningless babble and this is going to complicate Christopher’s ultimate quest, which is to return home to his own world and his beloved wife.

In my review of Sword Of The Bright Lady, I commented enthusiastically on the fact this world operates somewhat like a table-top role-playing game. Tael is XP (experience points). Defeat enough MOBS (mobile or monster) and you’ll gain enough tael to elevate your rank. You can also loot the corpses of your foes for equipment, some of which will be imbued with magical properties. I love this aspect of these novels. In essence, I often feel as if I’m reading a role-playing adventure. The urge to pick up my dice is grows stronger with every chapter.

But M.C. Planck hasn’t just written a dungeon crawl. Christopher is an unlikely hero – the best sort, in my opinion – and is just as liable to spend his experience on others as himself. He’s not interested in elevating himself to the highest rank in the land. He does not want to sit on any thrones. He just wants to go home. He’s not prepared to leave this world how he found it, however, and therein lays the true conflict of this story. The plight of the unranked in this world offends him. So, the first half of Gold Throne In Shadow sees him continuing to raise the hopes of ordinary men. His efforts to revolutionise this society – the factories and ranks that have nothing to do with tael and power – continue to make him enemies. He’s arming peasants, paying them gold and putting wizards out of business by instructing people how to make ordinary things like paper without resorting to magical recipes.

He’s disrupting the order of things and, while we saw a hint of reprisal toward the end of the first book, the true cost of his actions becomes more clear in this second book, Gold Throne In Shadow, leaving the reader eager for the next chapter in this story.

Reviewed for SFCrowsnest.

Review: Archmage by R.A. Salvatore

Archmage (Homecoming #1, The Legend of Drizzt #28)

Archmage numbers twenty-eighth in ‘The Legend of Drizzt’. As always, I’ll preface my review with the caveat that you will get more out of these later books if you’ve read those that came before. At this point in the saga, a lot of foreknowledge of the world and the characters has to assumed, or R.A. Salvatore would spend half the novel catching everyone up.

The war for the Silver Marches is over, a tentative truce declared between the orcs and the combined forces of the dwarves, elves and humans. The Darkening – a drow dweomer that darkened same region – has been dispelled. With the orcs banished to the Spine of the World and the stronghold of Many Arrows disassembled, efforts to rebuild Nesmé and refortify the rest of the Silver Marches are underway. Old alliances are reformed and strengthened. Peace is restored (for now), and Bruenor Battlehammer has turned his eye back to legendary dwarven city of Gauntlgrym.

For the drow, this should be a time of consolidation. Their plans were thrown into disarray with the orcs’ defeat. The dark elves are among Salvatore’s most inscrutable races, however. The only predictable thing about them is the fact they will do the unexpected. They thrive on chaos. So the many divisions in drow society feed beautifully in this, making their losses akin to a bad day on the stock market. Investors immediately alter their strategy, and key characters begin padding their retirement plans.

All of Menzoberranzan (the drow city, and Drizzt’s birthplace) will be affected by the dwarves’ resolve to reclaim their own slice of the underdark. Gauntlgrym is currently operating as a satellite to Menzoberranzan. For Archmage Gromph and Jarlaxle’s band of mercenaries, however, the dwarf intrusion presents the perfect opportunity to meddle with the status quo. When would Jarlaxle not take advantage of that?

Far below the Prime Material Plane, we have the true seeds of chaos. Lolth, Demon Queen of Spiders, has plans of her own concerning…well, everyone and everything.

There isn’t a lot of Drizzt in this book. If I had a complaint about the last trilogy (The Companion Codex), it would have been that. The story has been growing wider for a while now, however, and many of the bit players have become important enough to have their own agendas which in turn affect the plot of the world – and every book. This latest trilogy, while perhaps a part of the Legend of Drizzt, feels less a part of his legend than part of the entire history of Toril. Drizzt is an important component of this story; we just don’t get a lot of time with him. I suspect that will change as this story arc continues, however.

We also lose touch with a couple of other key characters here. My guess is that with such a huge cast, Salvatore obviously had to send some folks off on their own quests in order to stay focused. I’ve always appreciated the fact these books rarely stray over the 400 page mark. Longer books can be intimidating.

Now that I’ve covered my quibbles, I’ll move on to what I liked about Archmage. Honestly – and I’ve said this before – I don’t think Salvatore could write a story I didn’t like. I’ve been reading his books for seventeen years with good reason. So the short answer is: I liked this one. I really liked it. Archmage is an emotional book, which shouldn’t have surprised me. There are a couple of touchpoints here that will tug the heartstrings of devoted fans. Usually books that delve deep into Menzoberranzan and drow politics lose me a little, but I found myself quite invested this time ‘round and that would be because of Gromph’s weightier story arc. The Archmage has always been an interesting and conflicted character, if harder to like than Jarlaxle. Probably because he has no sense of humour. Very few drow do.

The rest of the book is concerned with the effort to reclaim Gauntlgrym. One of my favourite aspects of Vengeance of the Iron Dwarf was the coming together of the dwarven armies under one banner, for one purpose. This continued alliance in the name of retaking the Delzoun birthright makes a great story. As expected, they will not be able to walk in and set up camp. There will be blood, from skirmishes to epic battles, and the cost of Gauntlgrym may be more than any of us suspect.

Written for SFCrowsnest.

 

Review: Where Light Meets Shadow

Where Light Meets Shadow

Where Light Meets Shadow by Shawna Reppert is an engaging mix of fantasy and romance. War nearly destroyed the culture of the Scathlan elves, and left their queen in a comatose state. Kieran has been traveling the mortal lands in search of new songs and scraps of legend. There are tales of powerful bards who could heal with song. If he could find these songs, learn them, he may be able to save his queen.

Caught in a blizzard near the border of his enemies, the Leas elves, Kieran is discovered by a Leas hunting party. He falls from his horse and is badly injured. Convinced he is to be captured and/or killed, he draws his sword on the hunting party, but cannot stand to defend himself. The Leas carry him back to their stronghold in the mountains.

The differences between the Scathlan and Leas are marked. Dwelling in sun-splashed places, the Leas are as fair and bright as the Scathlan—who build underground—are dark. But they are both elves, and were once brothers and sisters. War between their peoples has destroyed this bond.

Convinced he is a captive, Kieran spurns the friendly overtures from the Leas ruler and his son, Alban. But after father and son work together to heal his injuries, then continue to treat him as a guest, he slowly begins to trust them. A friendship blooms between Kieran and Alban, and when they discover they have a mental bond, friendship develops into something more.

Together, during his convalescence, Kieran and Alban continue his bardic quest, looking for evidence of this magic, only to discover their bond could be the clue both of them have been missing. Healer and bard together, weaving their magic, can perform miracles. Together, Kieran and Alban may be able to wake the Scathlan queen. But while their bond proves the two peoples can work together, not everyone has forgotten the war the separated them.

I really enjoyed this story. The back story and world building are carefully layered throughout, creating a nice degree of immersion without overwhelming the reader. The plot is intriguing, and Kieran’s dedication to his people is both admirable and ultimately heartbreaking. He is a stand out character—well written, and utterly believable in his motivations. Kieran’s friendship with Alban grows so slowly and sweetly that when they chose to become lovers, the moment is incredibly special, which is absolutely fitting to the story and the plot. It makes what happens next all the more difficult to read. I was emotionally invested in these two and wanted to see them have at least a chance at a happy ever after. Their special names for each other—every time they used them, I smiled. One of the sweetest romances I’ve read in a while.

I found the pacing of the climax just a little choppy—but that could have been me madly flipping pages to see what happened next. I also would have liked a little more ‘road time’. I’m a fan of ‘the journey’ in fantasy novels, or adventures on the road. It’s easy to understand why Reppert didn’t dwell in the multiple journeys of her characters, however, as there is a lot of ground to cover and a couple of secrets to be kept from the reader.

Overall, Where Light Meets Shadow is an entertaining read. I’ve never read Shawna Reppert before, but I’m encouraged to check out her other books and would definitely be interested in reading more tales from this world.