I've reviewed four of this year's #SPFBO finalists already - you can find those here, as well as my (slightly whiny) approach to scoring. The best way to keep up with all the reviews is through this page, where organiser-and-author Mark Lawrence keeps track of the scores and reviews.
This set includes assassins and demons and all sort of fantastic goodies, so let's get stuck in.
A throwback! Huzzah! Assassin's Charge is easily one of the most readable of the finalists - a zippy, accessible fantasy that's quick to pick up and easy to read. Rhisia Sen is one of the classic fantasy tropes: the badass assassin. We're introduced to her in all of her badass glory: she plots a job, does some remarkable gymnastics, flings awesome gear about and, steely-eyed, gets the job done. Then she returns home to her mansion, gets pampered, has sex with gritty boy-toys, and is generally, you know, badass.
Except even Rhisia's badassery has its limits. Her handler gives her the job of a lifetime - an incredible payout that will allow her to retire in total luxury. She travels out to a village in the middle of nowhere, ready to do her assassination thing, but... the job is a kid (child, not goat). Rhisia's heart might be badass, but it still beats. In an unprecedented act of unprofessional behaviour, she calls the job off.
Unfortunately, the job has other ideas. It turns out that Rhisia's handler - backed by the Emperor himself - has betrayed her. And Rhisia now has a price on her head. With her (still-breathing) victim in tow, and a sexy smuggler to help, Rhisia sets out to solve the mystery, turn the tables and, of course, save her skin.
One thing to note: Assassin's Charge is quick. Delightfully short, in fact - which is a breath of fresh air in this era of bloated doorstop fantasies.
This means, for better and for worse, two things worth noting:
- Stuff happens! And it happens at great pace. Rhisia scampers from one place to the next: job to ambush to heist to fight to ambush to escape to love scene to general derring-do. It is, as notable, an immensely readable book; a pulpy throwback that keeps you turning pages.
- Stuff doesn't happen! At about the halfway point, I started wondering if everything raised was going to be resolved. Spoiler: it isn't. This is where, I suspect, my proverbial mileage may very. I really liked that Assassin's Charge is a stand-alone: the feel of a single episode in what is, clearly, a rich and sprawling world. Moreover, the book benefits from its focus on Rhisia - it isn't about the Big Epic Story (which is introduced, but in no way fulfilled). It is about one woman and her desire to go home (and/or survive).
The structure of the entire 'Echoes of Imara' series seems to be based around this concept: individual quests in a world, possibly adding up to a great whole. It is a format that's more often found in other genres (Romance or Westerns, for example). Fantasy quests are both more singular and more, well, important. The traditions of Fantasy insist that one person - or, at best, a connected network of people - are the focal point of the story, with all the forces of Fate reliant upon their sequence of actions. A story like Assassin's Charge is therefore a bit unusual. The protagonist is certainly important - and her actions have significance - but, as far as she (and we) are concerned, this is an isolated incident, with little impact on the Great Tide of Destiny™.
Setting aside the greater genre-burning sensibilities, this is also a very fun book. There is, as you might expect from the description - if not the name itself - a lot of springing about and fighting and sneakery. There's special equipment laced in improbable poisons, boats powered by magic, lost kingdoms and supernatural runes, libraries full of mysteries, hitmen with metal arms,... you name it. Assassin's Charge also stays on the right side of infodumping. There's certainly a lot of conversation along the lines of "wait, why are we here again?", but, for the most part, the information about the world is imparted through showing, not telling. The reader is scared of the secret orders of the inquisition, for example, long before their role is actually spelled out to us. The Emperor's ominous presence is implied before it is explained. The balance is maintained well.
However - and there's always a 'however' - Assassin's Charge struggles to create much empathy with the main character, Rhisia. In fairness, Charge doesn't hesitate to pull out all the hoary ol' chestnuts of connection-crafting - and the shortcuts aren't a terrible approach, given the fast pace. We learn about her childhood. We learn about her scars. We learn about her self-doubt. We get glimmers of - then evidence of - her ennui. We follow her journey from assassin to reluctant not-assassin to redemption. But... it never rings true.
Part of it, of course, is the pure pulp campiness of the world. Assassin's Charge is an over-the-top high fantasy, with Rhisia carrying more ridiculously cinematic equipment than six video game protagonists. Her change of heart takes place as a sort of stutter-step, sign-posted by heavy-handed conversations around how "I'm a bad guy, but not that bad!". It is hard to toe a line that encompasses both kick-punching pulp adventure and heart-breaking redemption story. Charge definitely focuses more on the former. This is an action movie, after all, and not a squishy drama.
The other problem is that - and, again, this falls into being a "matter of taste" - I struggle with assassin-as-hero stories. I still like the aesthetics of the ass-kicking ninja warrior, stealth and smarts, outside the law, etc. etc. But, ultimately, this is a book that features someone that's spent her adult life killing for money. Nor are they all 'bad people' - Rhisia's introductory kill is an up-and-coming politician that's condemned to death because of his outspoken desire for reform. That's a big moral hole to dig yourself out of. This is neither The Hunger Games (where the protagonist miraculously avoids getting her hands dirty) nor The Broken Empire (where the nature of murder is examined at length) - this is a Clive Owen action vehicle, where the Bad Guy Redeems Himself With a Little Girl and a Big Gun. The campiness of Assassin's Charge means that I don't need to connect with Rhisia's redemption arc to enjoy the book, and, well, that's good, as I didn't.
Overall? Assassin's Charge is a fun, fast adventure. It is cleverly structured and well-executed. There's not a lot of character depth, but it is easy to follow and fun to read. What you see is what you get: it might not be the next revolutionary epic, but it's a fun, pulpy adventure.
For fans of: Abaddon's Twilight of Kerberos, Brent Weeks, Modesty Blaise
I've been trying not to read the other bloggers' reviews. This isn't because I'm a snob - more the reverse. I know exactly how easily influenced I am. (Probably because someone else told me. #zing) But after finishing Larcout, I checked out what Elitist Book Reviews had to say, as I needed to be reassured on two fronts:
- Is this book as good as I thought it was?
- Is this book as BATSHIT CRAZY as I thought it was?
On both cases, EBR sez 'yes'.
Because, y'all - Larcout is good. And Larcout is also so unbelievably weird. So let's get stuck in.
Larcout kicks off with our best first line so far:
Blood-beings could be chattel or they could be char.
Rhythmic, brutal and slightly incomprehensible, this immediately chucks the reader into our protagonist's mind. Vadrigyn is a child of two different bloodlines. Her mother, we learn, is an exiled sorceress. Her father was a fiery hell-monster, mentally forced into sex and submission by her mother. Raised in the fiery hell-monster world - a series of blasted mountains - Vadrigyn longs for freedom. She's carved out a tiny lair (complete with slave 'chattel' from other lands) and manages to keep her kin satisfied by providing them with food. But thanks to the manipulations of her mother, Vadrigyn's tiny foothold is taken away, and, after a brutal battle, she's flung into the sea.
Vadrigyn wakes up in a very different world. She's surrounded by fragile 'blood-beings' from her mother's native land - ordinary humans, but all with innate magical talents. They're undergoing their annual Hunger Games equivalent, learning their skills and jockeying for position. As you can imagine, if you throw a feral half-demon into the mix, things get very dicey for everyone involved.
From there, Vadrigyn enters an even weirder world: politics. Her mother wasn't merely an outcast, she was one of the most loathed people in the land, exiled after murdering half the royal family. Moreover, her mom was important. Vadrigyn is the fanged, fire-blooded scion of a noble family.
This is not your typical 'fitting in' story, nor is Vadrigyn your typical prodigal. In Larcout, our irritable protagonist is tasked with understanding - and resolving - her own destiny, which, as you might imagine, could be impressive, destructive or, er, both. Vadrigyn is also caught up in a generation-old murder mystery, as she learns that her mother may not have been quite the villain she assumed... As she noses around in society, Vadrigyn discovers that her hide might not be tough enough - and her fangs sharp enough - to deal with the particular monsters of this new world.
Larcout is, as noted, totally nuts. In the first third (roughly summarised above), our unconventional protagonist flies through three wholly different settings - and tropes. The bulk of the book is the political drama, but, by the time that's established, we've seen exactly what Vadrigyn can do, and, equally importantly, where she came from. In Larcout, we're patrolling marble halls and sipping from jewelled cups: but Vadrigyn is never anything less than a literal monster. She eats rock and bleeds fire, her nails and claws tearing up the furniture as she goes. Her alienness is one of the most engaging aspects of this book: the scenes where stuffy nobles mansplain the role of women to her are particularly hilarious, as her encounters with some of the kingdom's more ludicrous customs of dress and etiquette.
Yet Vadrigyn - despite the fire and fury - is never unempathetic. She's bullied by gods, men and women, led astray, outwitted and outmaneuvered. And her vulnerability, despite her physical prowess, is deeply sympathetic. There's never any doubt about her competence, but, a bit like the Swords & Sorcery tales of yore, her nigh-invulnerability alone is not enough - and Vadrigyn's quests for freedom and agency will take more than superheroic attributes to attain.
However, when Larcout isn't about Vadrigyn - it not indulging in straight-up weirdness - it stalls. The "murder mystery", for lack of a better description, is tough to follow. The mystery doesn't follow Detection Club rules, with new motives and mechanics revealed seemingly at will. It is hard to get invested in a solving a crime that's a) old (Larcout never sells the reader on the mystery's immediate relevance to Vadrigyn's life), b) confusing, and c) not fair (from a Detection Club POV). The mystery is better read as a form of plot device: an excuse to keep Vadrigyn pushing at her 'peers' and on the outside of society. However, as a result, the book bogs down: Vadrigyn's day to day escapades, as this very, very strange protagonist tries to fit into an already-inventive fantasy culture, are a lot of fun. But when she goes galloping off in search of plot, things get substantially less interesting - all culminating in a dramatic climax that, although appropriately epic, doesn't have a great deal of emotional weight. It doesn't help that there's a vast cast in Larcout, and, with the exception of Vadrigyn, they're all largely interchangeable. She's fierce, rude, seriously grumpy and a great deal of fun.
Larcout's plot is too complex, propped up by a lot of exposition from virtually interchangeable secondary characters. As a result, it is over-long and the actual climax of the book feels oddly unimportant. However, this book is also a work of terrifying creativity: a genuinely exciting and otherly world, complete with an unusual, compelling protagonist. The execution of the world-building is also pitch perfect: the world simply is, and the reader follows Vadrigyn on her steep learning curve of language and behaviour until acclimatised. Larcout is risky, difficult, imaginative, occasionally nonsensical, and very, very brave.
For fans of: The Goblin Emperor, Jacqueline Carey, Jeff VanderMeer
The last three caravans to the city of Kildonan have all gone missing. The fourth must go through. Not only for the sake of its desperate merchants, but also for a variety of political and religious reasons. It carries some of the most precious, important cargo in the world.
Fortunately, the caravan has some impressive protection. It is led by the Emperor's own niece, Setanna, one of the finest duelists in the realm. An ex-cavalry hero, Roc, realises that his time as a (polite) highwayman is running out, and joins as one of the outriders. Conner, a storied officer joins to protect his lord's son, it is his last mission before retirement. And Tasha, a legendary swordsman trained by a mysterious order of assassin-monks, is coerced into tagging along - a victim of circumstance.
Of course, not all of the troupe are so helpful. Followers of two different religious sects tag along, threatening a holy war on route. And, worse yet, Lord Myobi, notorious Warlord of the Ashai is joining, with his retinue of elite soldiers. Despite Setanna's leadership, the caravan may have more problems within its ranks than out on the road.
Except, of course, not really. Because what's out on the road is pretty freaking awful.
The Moonlight War is a blast. There's a strong set-up: in which we meet the protagonists, understand their motivations, and get to know their distinctive voices... and then an immensely satisfying pay-off, as the latter two thirds of the book are near-constant action. Like Assassin's Charge - The Moonlight War also conveys information naturally. There's very little infodumping, and a complex world comes to life through experience and natural dialogue, not 'telling'. Even the action sequences strike the right balance: tactically interesting without being pedantic or methodical.
Although "cinematic" is an over-used word when it comes to describing books, it fits The Moonlight War like a glove. Every scene advances the story at pace, and slots perfectly into the chain of events. It is packed with punch, and the characters are established - and developed - quickly. If anything, it is almost overly cinematic: there are a lot of very familiar set-piece scenes (the railroading, the celebration where things go wrong, the veterans discussing death, the religious chit-chat, the best friend's sacrifice, the floor-by-floor assault, etc). It isn't new, but it is delivered in a swift and satisfying way.
The Moonlight War was, however, a bit erratic in terms of quality. The descriptive language around The Horde, for example, is really impressive - the insectile monsters are a strikingly Weird and unique touch, in a book that is otherwise often a (talented) assembly of (enjoyable) tropes. However, The Moonlight War also defaults to borrowing real world cultural analogues, which is potentially problematic - and also unnecessary. Similarly, the rapid pace of the book means some of the interpersonal connections, both bromances and romances, are forced. The ending was clearly planned, but there are still dramatic reveals of secrets that could've been better seeded.
The overall result is a "commercial" fantasy, as they say - not redefining the field, but something that's approachable and crowd-pleasing. And I'd happily recommend as a lot of fun: it is a distraction of a fantasy, with good banter, solid characters and a ton of action.
For fans of: David Eddings, Gaie Sebold, Rachel Aaron
An additional note, and, for folks finding this in the future, this may no longer be relevant. My copy of The Moonlight War (purchased via Amazon, like the other finalists) had a lot of typos and formatting errors. Both punctuation and spelling were pretty erratic. The perspective changes, for example, didn't have breaks between them, which made POV shifts tough to follow.
It is the first finalist I've read in this condition. And, given the interests of the SPFBO's greater aims - to demonstrate the quality of independent fiction, probably worth noting. That said, none of this made a difference in my judging or my score. I do think that the presentation of a book is important to its quality - anything that takes the reader out of the story is a bad thing. But it also feels cruel to downgrade a book on something of this nature, that could be easily fixed and has nothing to do with the text itself.
Anyway, the actual reviewing ended two paragraphs ago. But, given the nature of the SPFBO, it seemed worth further discussion. Should we - as readers and/or reviewers - be holding independently published books to the same standards? Does presentation matter? How would you treat something like this?